Some believe that Yeats got into the magical occult group the Golden Dawn because of his obsessive love for a woman. It happens, sometimes. Sometimes we take up hiking because our lovers appear to be half mountain goat, or we find ourselves suddenly fascinated by the work of Fritz Lang or have a burning new desire to see the Azores after a lifetime of not. Love opens up new avenues — or a new portal, as it may be. What else was Yeats to do when he suddenly fell in love with Maud Gonne, a woman who happened to sell her soul to the devil as a girl?
Yeats relays her story in his Memoirs:
She had sat one night over the fire thinking over her future life, and chance discovery of some book on magic among her father’s books had made her believe that the devil, if she prayed to him, might help her. She asked the Devil to give her control of her own life and offered in return her soul. At that moment the clock struck 12, and she felt of a sudden that the prayer had been heard and answered. Within a fortnight her father died suddenly, and she was stricken with remorse.
I was having a conversation about Yeats and Gonne and their black magic dabbling. I was always more interested in Gonne. She was an Irish revolutionary and a writer, an occultist and a mother. She wore hats with birds’ wings on them. Of the couple, she had most of the charisma, and her letters and memoirs have become a favorite topic of conversation for me. And yet, a man piped up during one of my rambles — the kind of man who makes sure you know he’s an atheist within the first 30 seconds of meeting him — “I always get sad for Yeats for his occult beliefs.”
- Blood and Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain by Ronald Hutton. 492 pages. Yale University Press.
- Stealing Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Modern Western Magic by Nevill Drury. 375 pages. Oxford University Press. $99.
Well, I had to bite my tongue from exclaiming “The arrogance on you,” and cock my head and leave the room. Had I been able to speak and still keep my temper (unlikely), I could have spent hours dissecting and refuting that one sentence. As if a man’s belief system could be so easily plucked out of his life and his creative output would remain the equal. As if anyone has the right to be sad about the belief system that bolsters someone and feeds him. This would not be an argument about dogma. It’s not about the evils religion justifies, from war to genital mutilation to telling followers they might as well leave their jobs and rack up some debt since the world is about to end anyway. The atheist versus faithful debate has become whether it is “sad” or weak or immoral for someone to believe in anything unprovable.
My anger wasn’t born just from his attack on Yeats the person. Poets are poets. They’re allowed a lot of leeway in the realms of wife-beating, drinking, sex, black magic, madness, poor political alliances, drug use, and violent behavior so long as they keep producing that work. It’s just part of the poetic process, hanging out with fascists or whatnot. It’s art, baby. You gotta do what you gotta do to keep the muses singing.
But the atheist’s statement was not simply about the Nobel-winning poet. Had I retorted with the information that I have a wonderful relationship with my tarot card reader, with whom I have sessions every three months or so, or that I know the house placement and sign of Mars in my horoscope and that I have had entire conversations complaining about that placement and sign, or that I am a lapsed atheist who has strayed back into belief and my belief is actually very important to me, his sadness would have spread to all of humanity and our silly, superstitious ways.
Wasn’t the Enlightenment supposed to wash the world of its sins of superstition and religion? And yet humanity keeps clinging to its belief systems, its religious leaders, and its prayer. More than that, we’re dipping back into the magical realms — one would think that if superstition were to be eradicated through the power of reason and rationality, magic would be the first to go. It turns out our hunger for the irrational and the intuitive is more insatiable than previously assumed. We have our Kabbalah, our Chaos Magick, our Druids. We have our mystics and tarot card readers and our astrologers on morning news shows explaining why Kate and William are a match made by the gods. Wicca is a fast growing religion in the United States, and my German health insurance covers homeopathy and Reiki massage, both of which have always felt more like magic than science to me.
And yet the atheists keep on, telling us that we don’t have to believe in God. It maybe never occurred to them that perhaps we want to. After all, when the 19th-century Spiritualism craze was revealed to be a bunch of hooey — a ragtag team of unusually flexible young girls and women rapping on tables and calling them messages from the spirit world, bending themselves into boxes to release “ectoplasm,” setting off sound effects with their feet while still clutching the hands of others in the séance circle — we did not stop believing in ghosts and psychic phenomena. Even the great skeptic William James, who spent years of his career debunking these deceitful girls, put a proviso in his will asking his brother Henry to visit trusted mediums after his death, just in case he was able to get a message through.
Magical belief, whether that entails an omnipotent God who watches over us or the conviction that we can communicate with “the other side,” fills a need in us. Some of us, I should say, as atheists would be quick to counter. How seriously we take that belief, and what we do with it varies from person to person. As the debates between the godless and the faithful continue — and these are so prevalent in our culture now, the religious figure versus the atheist, sponsored by every university and cultural center, that I read such a debate in a novel I had picked up — that perhaps these two kinds of people simply have a different set of needs. It’s like a new mother arguing with a woman who has never felt maternal a day in her life. Neither side will ever truly understand the longings of the other, and the fact that they can’t stop arguing and trying to convince is proof of that.
So magical thinking seems completely inappropriate for our rational, post-Enlightenment world, and yet it’s also completely in tune with our self-obsessed worldview. Because we can happily disregard millennia of Jewish teachings and just go for the wacky Kabbalah, because we like thinking we can transform the world and reality through will alone. We are in an age of the will, as Nevill Drury explains in Stealing Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Modern Western Magic:
Part of this thinking has to do with the core concept in spiritual humanism that each individual has deep within their being a divine potential, a sacred source of vitality. Nevertheless, there is only a single shift of emphasis between acknowledging that each human being has a sacred link with the spiritual universe as a whole, and identifying with that divinity from an egoic perspective by asserting: I have become the god.
Magical belief can be abused just as easily as religious. We had Nazis running around trying to find magical portals to tap into energy that will make them all-powerful. It’s rumored that Putin has, as journalist Rachel Polonsky relays, “assigned money from the national budget to be spent on another search for the doorway to Shambhala in the Altai region of Siberia, a cosmic energy centre where he likes to pose for photographers, seated half-naked on a horse, like some latter-day Mongol kahn.” These were men who obviously confused the I with the divine.
This current fad for magic and mysticism is just our current adaptation of our belief systems. We take the Kabbalah without the Torah because the traditional, orthodox Jewish faith is full of very uncomfortable things, like women as property, homosexuality as a sin, slavery as a-OK. These things don’t mesh well with our current society, so we pick and choose because we still have this deep spiritual need. Likewise, in the day of the Golden Dawn, where Yeats and Gonne participated in a spiritual marriage that would never see a reality-based counterpart, men and women were finding a religious practice that allowed them to discard all the parts that didn’t mesh. The Golden Dawn allowed female members to hold high positions of power, corresponding with the rise of first-wave feminism in the early 20th century, and repressive ideas about sexuality held over from the Victorian era could be eradicated with the idea that sexual activity actually produced magical energy. Their will may or may not have been done, but the ideas behind Freemasonry, the Golden Dawn, the splinter group established by the devilish Aleister Crowley, and the several other magical orders of the day were highly influential in shifting cultural mores.
All this magical thinking does sometimes tip into the willfully delusional. We have magical thinking about our magical thinking. Take the Druids. It conjures up an image of earthy wisdom, of long gray beards and natural magic, of learned philosophy and sacred stone altars. And modern folk, perhaps feeling a little cut off from the outside world in our modern, techno-culture, have started emulating the Druidic path, forming their own circles and practicing natural magic. They’re the neo-Druids, and they dress in cloaks and put a cardboard horned moon on their head and learn which herb does what. Some of them call the gods and goddesses down into their bodies and then have mystical sex rituals, but from reading Stealing Fire from Heaven, I’ve determined that people are just always looking for excuses to do that, religious or no.
There are some problems with this. Besides the clothing choices. First, there is the fact that Druids maybe never existed. Calling the written record of the Druids’ existence scant is maybe being generous. The clearest mention of the Druids was from Pliny the Elder, who reported their connection with the moon, with mistletoe, with a golden scythe. From that, we’ve extrapolated a lot, but let’s just review Pliny the Elder’s other recorded facts. He told us of the Blemmyis, a race of people with “no heads and whose eyes and mouths were in the center of their chests.” Or the Cynamolgi, “who had dogs’ heads.” In India, there were men called the Astomi, “who lived only on perfume, inhaling nourishment through their nasal membranes.” I guess that the fact that Pliny did not have the Druids fighting Griffins for their gold treasure (that would be the Arimapsi of Russia) or possessing only one leg with a giant foot (the Monocoli), makes people think he may have been telling the truth.
From there, a long line of manipulators and liars and thieves produced this idea of the Druid. Ronald Hutton’s Blood & Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain is a remarkable correction to the mythical idea that lives in our heads. Even if they did exist, and known fabricators like Julius Caesar and Pliny the Elder actually did talk to some guys who were calling themselves the Druids, there is no evidence of how they functioned, what their role was, whether they were human-sacrificing heathens or peaceful, wise practitioners of a natural religion. Everything they’ve been associated with — from the ogham alphabet based on trees to their poetic tradition — has been disproved. We confuse them with the bards a lot, a group of people who did actually exist. We credit the Druids with Stonehenge, because the only other explanation we seem to have is “maybe it was the same aliens who built the pyramids.” And the men of the 19th century who claimed a direct lineage with the real Druids, their wisdom conveniently passed down only to Iolo Morganwg and other professional liars, had much to gain from people desperate for a religion that suited them better than the rigid Protestantism and Catholicism of the time.
Because they were such a blank, the idea of the Druid has warped and altered over the centuries. Hutton points out that they were as often used as a sort of bogey-man (that haunting last scene of The Wicker Man — the original version, at least — attests to that) as they were as a religious ideal.
They could be held up as exemplars of everything that a person happened to fear or hate in religion, whether paganism, rival forms of Christianity, or an over-powerful priesthood. They could be used as images of savagery, barbarism, ignorance and cruelty against which to celebrate the virtues of civilization and triumphs of progress.
That those negative images were as based in false information and wild imaginations shouldn’t be surprising. The discovery of an Iron Age body, well preserved in the peat, led to fanciful speculation amongst those rational thinkers among us — the scientists — about what society in the time of the Druids was really like. The body was widely believed to be a human sacrifice, despite little to no evidence supporting this. The body was also instantly linked to the Druids because of mistletoe pollen found in the stomach — going back to Pliny’s writings — despite the fact that the minuscule amount could have appeared from just breathing in on a high allergy alert day. And simply because much of this has been refuted and disproved and argued convincingly, that doesn’t mean it’s changed the minds of anyone who doesn’t want their mind changed.
Informing neo-Druids of their falsified lineage is probably not going to do much to sway them, anymore than an advertisement on a bus proclaiming, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life” — like the recent campaign that ran on London buses — is not going to do much to sway me. I’ll still be reading my Maud Gonne. In a time of great grief, having lost her son at the age of 1, right around the time Parnell died, she decided to use her will to fight against the current sad circumstances in her life. She began to research how she might reincarnate her dead son back onto the earthly plane. After a night of ritualistic sex on his grave (Yeats reports in his Memoirs, disapprovingly), a daughter was born nine months later. Maud was convinced that Iseult, as she named her daughter, contained the soul of her lost son. Those needs — for solace, for change, for order, for a little magic and irrationality — are not met with the ideals of the Enlightenment, and pretending those needs don’t even exist is not the way to win converts. • 24 May 2011