A Western Tradition?

“…We think that if a Western tradition could be rebuilt it would be bound to take on a religious form in the strictest sense of this word, and that this form could only be Christian; for on the one hand the other possible forms have been too long foreign to the Western mentality, and on the other it is only in Christianity – and we an say still more definately in Catholicism – that such remnants of a traditional spirit as still exist in the West are to be found. Every ‘traditionalist’ venture that ignores this fact is without foundation and therefore inevitably
doomed to failure; it is self-evident that one can build only upon something that has a real existence, and that where there is lack of continuity, any reconstruction must be artificial and cannot endure.”

Thus says the primal “Traditionalist” René Guénon on pages 26 and 27 of the English translation of his most important book La Crise du Monde Moderne (1927). An idea that many Northern European Traditionalists may not be too happy with!

In the pages before Guénon writes about the artificial “Eastern Tradition” of the Theosophists and the just as bogus “Western Tradition” of some occultists of his time. He continues with the example of ‘neo-Celts’ who are of the (in Guénon’s opinion) faulty idea that there is an unbroken link between the Druids and our present time. Guénon was a Frenchman, ‘traditionally’ a Gaulic/Celtic country, but this quote seems to imply that he is of the same opinion about Germanic traditions (btw, France is “the empire of the Franks”, a Germanic tribe, but I have never read anything of Guénon about the Germanic past in general). Did Guénon miss something? Are Northern European Traditionalists mistaken or subject to ‘wishfull thinking’? Definately we have learned much more about the Germanic forefathers since Guénon’s time and there are some interesting contemporary theories that Guénon may or (more likely) may not have agreed with, but here you get a short article that may put things for the Northern European tradition in another perspective.

Catholicism

Let me first turn Guénon’s only option in the quote that I started with: Catholicism. The Christian faith came to the Northern part of Europe in a time that there was no “Catholicism” as opposed to “Protestantism”, just the Christian faith. Being pretty far from Rome, the source and point of power for the Church, christianisation was not always too easy in these parts. It is said that around 500 the Franks (!) massively turned over to the Christian faith. It were also the Franks that caused a big part of christianisation in the more Northern parts, also being Germanic tribes, but then with the Christian faith. Missionaries from the present Great Brittain also came here to convert the people. Like I said, this not always went very easily, Bonifatius -for example- was killed by the Frisians in 754. Still, not too long after this ‘incident’ the Christian faith took root here too.

It was very hard for the Church to get rid off all ‘folk beliefs’, ‘superstitions’ and habbits from the “savage times”, so in many occasions temples were no longer destroyed, but turned into chapels and superstitions and even entire festivities were poored over with a Christian sauce. Just think about Christmas, which is not much more than a Christianisation of the Southern feast of the Sol Invictus combined with elements of the Northern “Yule” feasts. Guilds (about which more later) put on a Christian cloth, but proceeded on the same foot.

Folklore

I already touched upon this subject. Many pre-Christian habbits remained and Christianity incorporated them in their own system. This was partly done to (slowly) eradicate the habbits, but many things remained either or not under a Christian veil. Frans Eduard Farwerck (1889-1977) found many pre-Christian symbols and habbits in Dutch and Belgian (and other) folklore. Fertility feasts, May-poles, trees of life above doors, tales and songs, ‘superstitions’. Much remained until about 50 years ago and with the diversion from Christianity (ironically enough) many of such things get lost. But for those who know and look for such things, much has survived time. Just read my article about Old Symbolism In A Modern City as an example. But to name a few things from Farwerck’s great work too:
1- The ‘wild hunt’ has lived on in folklore for a very long time and it may even be the source of the Dutch Sinterklaas (St. Nicolas) and his ‘black Peters’). Many other things are ascribed to the ‘wild hunt’ until the present day (commemoration of the dead, Helloween, Carnaval, etc.);
2- All kinds of Yul habbits are still present, such as burning the Yul-log, setting up a tree and decorating it, giving presents;
3- Many fertility and thanking-habbits have only recently (seemingly) died out, such as a last sheaf of corn for the gods, harvesting feasts, etc.;
4- The tree of life can still be found on many farms and houses (see my article);
5- Until about 50 years ago the smaller communities had male ‘youth societies’ (“jonckheit”) consisting of unmarried men. These groups had particular ‘functions’ and privileges which Farwerck compares with those of similar groups in times past;
6- Easter fires are still lit in Germany and some parts of the Netherlands;
7- This one could also be in the next chapter, but the collective drinkings that usually happen after lodge-meetings of the Freemasons, were of course very present in the ancient North, but for example a ‘coffee-table’ after a funeral is still a habbit in the Southern Netherlands;
8- Processions, this one goes for the past, folklore, Christianity and in some countries for Freemasonry;
9- Farwerck is very fond of names referring to the past, names of mountains referring to Wodan/Odin or names that imply that something special used to happen there, such as Things (justice/conference assemblies) or maybe even inititiations (‘murder pits’, ‘wolfpits’, etc.).

Männerbunde and Freemasonry

Farwerck is of the opinion that in the ancient North the (what are now in German called) “Männerbunde” were the esoteric schools. We think of the famous “Berserkr” and “Ulfhednar”, groups of ‘warrior monks’ to who all kinds of qualities are ascribed, especially involving ‘becoming animals’ in the battle, either or not in the meaning of an ‘animal spirit’ leaving the human body to fight. This is not the place to go into details, but Frans Eduard Farwerck (1889-?) spent his entire book Noord-Europese Mysteriën En Hun Sporen Tot Heden (1970) (Northern-European Mysteries And Their Traces To The Present which is reviewed) on symbols, thoughts, habbits, rites, etc. of the mentioned groups have survived for example in the earlier mentioned folklore, but more in particular in Freemasonry and it happens to be Freemasonry in which Guénon sees one of the only two (together with the Compagnonnage) genuine esoteric groups of the West.

Much is being written about the “Männerbunde” (‘unions of men’) recently. The idea of some is that these groups were warrior elites, possibly with an initiatic touch. This could serve as starting point for a Northern European initiatic tradition.

The “Männerbunde” became the guilds (“gildi”) of later times. These guilds live on in nowadays (mostly very Christian) shooting-guilds (crossbows or air-guns). That there were many of such gilds in the time of christianisation proves that the “pagans” had to swear off “all offers to the gilds and their gods”. This is the reason that many gilds continued in a ‘Christian’ fashion. Their patrons were exchanged for Christian saints (for example Thor (who slew the Midgard-snake) became St. George or St. Michael (who slew the dragon) and both St. Johns became popular too (see below)).

Better known are of course the workers-guilds of the Medieval period. It is supposedly the guild of the stonemasons that formed the cradle of nowadays Freemasonry. The stonemasons started to initiate also ‘not operative’ people, became a ‘speculative’ order and eventually “Freemasonry”.

However this is not very well-known, not even under Freemasons, many symbols, rites, regulations and actions in Freemasonry are apparently derived from the Germanic “Männerbunde” and the Northern cults.

The Masonic temple -for example- is built in a fashion that reminds more of ‘Northern habbits’ than Biblical examples (the temple of Solomon). The “oblong square” reminds of remains of temples of Iceland, the three windows of the description of the temple of Freyr that can be found in the Heimskringla and the proportions are derived from the path of the sun. In Freemasonry the number 3 has a very significant place. There are three large and three small lights, three pillars (remember the description of the temple of Uppsala by Adam of Bremen), etc. This reminds much more of Indo-European symbolism than of Biblical symbolism. Some of the Masonic oaths, rites, etc. are very reminiscent of Nordic laws, as the does opening and closing of the lodge remind of the Thing. One of the reasons that Farwerck’s book is a classic in certain circles are his many pictures of strange statues (often in churches). Many poses (of the hands, fingers, etc.) remind of the recognition marks of the Freemasons. The three attributes of Thor/Donar can be found back in Freemasonry, for example his hammer Mjölnir became the chairman’s hammer, Thor’s iron glove became the white gloves and his power-girdle the Masonic girdle. That girdle holds the apron, which is traditionally of lamb’s leather, just as the Berzerkr and Ulfhednar wore animal skins. The all-seeing-eye may be a reference to Odin/Wodan’s one eye with which he can see everything from his throne. The earlier mentioned St. Johns (the Baptist and the Evangelist) have a significant place in nowadays Freemasonry (and a little in Christianity). Their feasts are celebrated with the equinoxes.

Just a few (out of many, many more) of hardly founded points, I know, but Farwerck dedicated an entire book to it.

The main point of all above is that however Guénon suggests that the traditions of the North have been interrupted by many years of Christianity, that the Western mind has adopted itself to that very Christianity and that Christianity is the only hope to restore/refind our link with the Primordial Tradition, my idea is that there are so many ancient habbits, symbols, etc. left when you know where to look for them and -however mostly ignorant of the fact in the current itself- in at least one esoteric movement, can one still claim that there is no unbroken link in the Northern part of Europe? Does the West have no Tradition with a capital “T”? Was with the passing on of what we now call “folklore” no ‘transmission’ of something ‘higher’? Are the theories about the Northern Tradition that survived in Freemasonry correct? Of course it is hard to prove that all this is the case (but Farwerck at least makeds the theory likely), but I think it is also hard to prove that there isn’t and what is above, may at least raise the suggestion that there is. It would be great if more (and not only Dutch-speaking) investigators would pick up this trail and more Asatruar (or under whatever name they work) would dive into the ‘Traditional ocean’ and take one step further than the Indo-European hypothesis to discover whether or not they are part of a read Tradition with a capital “T”.

Closing thoughts

A few thought to close off:

1) I know that I keep taling about a “Western Tradition”, but there of course is no “Western Tradition” when the starting point is the Philosophia Perennis. When and where this primordial philosophy was given to mankind doesn’t really matter. A fact is that it has found its way to every culture of every time and of every place. In a distant past, it undoubtely landed on Northern European shores, being guarded by Celtic and Teutonic initiates and from then on, safeguarded until our own day and time, at least, that is what I suggest and hope;

2) I am of the humble opinion that both Guénon and Farwerck give a bit too much credit to Freemasonry. I am not a Mason myself (nor initiate in any other order), so I have no experience in what it really is, but I have read and seen and discussed my share leading only to my objection that “regular” and “irregular” do not necessarily mean that there is an ‘unbroken link’. What is regular or not has changed a few times in history due to inner quarrels. Moreover, what is ‘regular’ in one country may not be regarded ‘regular’ in the next. Just read my wrtings on Freemasonry to get an idea. My only point is, that I am not sure that ‘regular’ Freemasonry goes back to where it claims to go back to and also not that it is only in Freemasonry that the link has been kept unbroken. For example, a ‘regularly’ initiated Mason can start his own group and initiate people. Are they not ‘really initiated’ because it was no longer in a Masonic temple that they were initiated? Could not (either or not further away in the past, maybe even before there was Freemasonry) someone ‘started his/her own line’ not as open and in the public as Freemasonry? In short, I find the arguments of ‘exclusiving’ Freemasonry and the Compagnonnage as Western esoteric currents not entirely pursuasive;

3) Even if -as Guénon says- Christianity be our only possible saviour, is there any objection to hook into the unbroken link and bring it back to a pre-Christian faith? If an initiate from the Christian corner continued on the Asatru path, would this mean a break in the link?

4) All above may be just wishfull thinking. Everybody will have to walk the right path for him-/herself. Do we have to concider if we take membership of a ‘regular’ esoteric group, do we have to be member of an esoteric group in the first place, or do we just have to do what feels best without having to mind too much if initiation is a possibility in this life? Things come as they come and should come, fingerpoints can be helpfull, but don’t get carried away with what anyone says or writes (especially not me!), even if you agree with him/her on everything. Nobody holds the absolute Thruth but should you run into it, good for you!
-15/5/06-

3 comments

  1. Your post touching on how pagan practices and Christianity merged in the past (resulting in current traditions) is intriguing. I wasn’t very informed about this blend of paganism and Christianity until I had internet access and could research to my heart’s content.

  2. Western Tradition…I think the age old, timeless link is Farming, and with that, Hunting and Gathering. Farmers from thousands of years ago could go to a working farm today, in Europe or America, and feel right at home. Okay, okay the huge tractors would scare them, but you know what I mean. A farmer feels grateful when the crops get harvested before bad weather sets in, and when a calf is born healthy. These are traditions, and of course, connected to the seasons of the year. My father would always mark the seasons by watching the movement of the sun on the western horizon. He would sometimes wake us up in the middle of the night, in summer, to see the Northern Lights. He used to always say: I go to the Round Church, so the devil can’t get me in the corner. And his family was from Holland. I grew up surrounded by Nature, beautiful Nature, in Michigan USA.

    1. Loo, it’s a whole different kind of Tradition that I’m talking about, Tradition with a capital T. Read my articles about Traditionalism to get the idea.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

÷ 5 = 2