A few years ago I came across the founders of several Germanic-type neo-pagan and esoteric Orders. While I’m not prepared to name them publicly (since they would not want their spiritual activities to be widely known), I can say that all three were Freemasons, though only one of these had been a member of the Masonic Craft at the time of founding his rune-based esoteric society.
One of these groups was focused on a reformed and more contemporary take on the Armanen runes, created or “discovered” by the Austrian mystic Guido von List. The other two were seriously studying the older runes, medieval texts, and so on, somewhat in the mold of Asatru.
The best-known and most controversial contemporary figure of the “rune magic” scene is, of course, Edred Thorsson, author of such books as Runelore, Futhark, and Lords of the Left-Hand Path. Far from his specialty, Thorsson has also published a short book on Freemasonry, partly recounting his own — highly disappointing — short membership of a Craft Masonic Lodge in Texas (which, apparently, wasn’t thrilled by his talk of occultism), and partly theorizing that Freemasonry was derived from the ancient, pre-Christian and medieval guilds of northern Europe (though not Britain or Scotland).
Thorsson’s thesis is not original. It was articulated by von List a century ago, as Thorsson, of course, knows. However, though the most well-known thesis connecting runes and Freemasonry, at the beginning of the twentieth century a number of American Freemasons, especially around the Masonic Societas Rosicruciana in Civitatibus Foederatis — the contemporary Masonic Rosicrucian society — also became interested in pre-Christian Norse mythology.
Curiously, for a society that has been described as “Christian, but perhaps not of an orthodox type”, at least one lecture was given at a meeting of an American Soc. Ros. college on Thor’s hammer and its relation to the Masonic gavel. More interesting perhaps, the younger Futhark of sixteen runes was also presented, as a cypher, to initiates of one Memphis and Mizraim Degree, which I discuss in my recent book Freemasonry: Foundation of the Western Esoteric Tradition.
The interest in Norse and Germanic mythology and the runes was, we should have no doubt, influenced by the opera’s of Richard Wagner. But it also emerged as part of the long Masonic tradition of exploring non-Christian spirituality, and relating it to the Masonic Ritual.
Such expressions of Germanic paganism, within a contemporary ritual framework or spiritual group, pre-dated the emergence of Wicca by some decades. And as the Wiccan religion has become more popular over the last decade or so, so more hardcore contemporary pagans have turned to more Germanic and Anglo-Saxon forms, ranging from Odinism and Asatru to Heathenism and Seax Wicca.
Historically, then, we find a crisscrossing of pagan and Masonic traditions, and the emerging of one within or through the other.
Besides actual pagan mythology, the Wiccan Ritual itself not only draws from the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and the work of irregular Freemason and occultist Aleister Crowley — as is well known — it also borrows phrases directly from the Masonic Ritual, such as “working tools” and “five points of fellowship.” And, both, of course, describe themselves as “the Craft.”
Founding father of Wicca, Gerald Gardner, had not only studied the religion of Ceylon, where he spent much of his life, but was also a member of the Rosicrucian Order Crotona Fellowship, so it is unsurprising that he had a broad knowledge of the Western esoteric tradition, regardless of his initiation into witchcraft.
Seen from the perspective of pagan tradition, Wicca is sometimes criticized for being syncretic and impure — a kind of New Age hodgepodge with a pagan flavor. Nevertheless, the “Craft of the wise” perhaps makes more sense viewed in light of the Masonic — and broader Western esoteric — tradition of creating new Rites, based on, or partly inspired by, the Masonic Craft Ritual, but intended to express some other Mystery, such as Hermeticism, Egyptian esotericism, Norse paganism, etc.
Wicca is not Masonic per se, but — like the Golden Dawn, the Ordo Templi Orientis, the Golden Rosicrucians, and even AMORC and neo-Druidry, to some degree — it has presented its Mystery through the skeletal structure of Freemasonry — its language, three Degrees of initiation, and so on.
Druids and Freemasons:
Although the mythology of the British stonemasons’ guild — taken over into Freemasonry — goes back to at least circa 1400, the year 1717 is meaningful to every Freemason. This was the year in which the premier Grand Lodge was founded, in London, by four existing Lodges.
But another Order was founded in the same year, and in the Apple Tree Tavern in Covent Garden, where one of the Masonic Lodges met. This other Order was the Ancient Druid Order, and with its founding the tradition of Druidry was reborn and neo-paganism — in some sense — had emerged. William Stukeley, one of the more significant members of the Druid Order, who wrote about the ancient religion, was also a Freemason.
At times, a serious interest in paganism has existed within Freemasonry, and has been expressed, as noted above, through at least one of the more obscure Masonic Degrees.
At other times, neo-pagans have used the Masonic ritual structure to express the Mystery of various pre-Christian religions.
As noted, Freemasonry’s mythology extends, through British history, through various manuscripts, back to circa 1400 A.D., and had most likely been taught within the stonemasons’ guild of Britain for some time even before that. Although a very primitive ritual can be found in the medieval period, the Masonic Ritual developed during the 17th, and, was more consciously composed from variations of the existing initiation rituals, during the early 18th century.
There is, as such, no reason to look to Germany or elsewhere for links that are known to exist in Britain. Nor can Freemasonry be said to be pagan, at least no more than Roman Catholicism — which adopted certain structures and holidays from the pre-Christian peoples of Europe — can be claimed as pagan. The stonemasons were patronized by the Church, although some runes were probably adopted as masons’ marks, and undoubtedly considered themselves Christian.
But, despite its emergence through the Christian tradition (which dominated the West for the last thousand years), Freemasonry in the English-speaking world not only came to accept men of other faiths, even early on, its more serious members took a very significant in non-Christian religions and Mysteries, expressing them at times through new rituals and societies. Some of these are considered Masonic (such as those of the York and Scottish Rites) and some, as was intended, are outside of Freemasonry proper, such as the Golden Dawn.
But this dynamism gave birth to both a tradition of creating societies and rituals and a framework and language for them. Early neo-paganism adopted much from Freemasonry, and should be seen as existing broadly within that Masonic and broader Western esoteric tradition. But neo-paganism has since grown and developed, with many of its members seeking to discover and practice a more ancient and authentic form of pre-Christian faith.