William Butler Yeats who is known to have employed occultism in the creation of his national and literary work was introduced to the study and practice of the occult while in art college in Dublin.
In March 1890, still seeking deeper answers, he joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in London, a secret and rather shady society that practiced ritual magic. Other members included his great love Maud Gonne, the actress Florence Farr, Welsh author Arthur Machen and English authors Evelyn Underhill and Aleister Crowley.
Occultism furthermore flourished in the cultural setting of W.B. Yeats and others around him, as a method of ordering community, personal experience, and artistic expression. Yeats describes in his essay, "Magic" (1901), the primary occult practice during this period was sharing visions in small groups of interested seekers. Yeats describes such experience in London during the late 1880s or early 1890s: I sat with my acquaintance in the middle of the room, and the evoker of spirits on the dais. and his wife between us and him. He held a wooden mace in his hand, and turning to a tablet of many-colored squares, with a number on each of the squares, that stood near him on a chair. Almost at once my imagination began to move of itself and to bring before me vivid images that, though never too vivid to be imagination, as I had always understood it, had yet a motion of their own, a life I could not change or shape.1
Called ‘pathworking’ in the Golden Dawn, the visions that participants experienced in these settings were protracted and vivid journeys that sometimes lasted for hours.2
Rosalind Krauss furthermore pointed out that like George W. E. Russell who wrote with the pseudonym (AE) and Yeats, also Mondrian studied Theosophy. He incorporated its doctrines and those of a related movement called Anthroposophy (begun by Rudolf Steiner) into the pamphlets and manifestoes that he published in order to provide explanatory glosses for his increasingly abstract artwork. In fact Mondrian and other artists used these grid-like forms to depict "a staircase to the Universal" they could traverse (much like Yeats's evoker of spirits) with their audiences.
Oscar Wilde in contrast to Yeats combined Masonic and Catholic symbolism on the title page of his 1881 collection, Poems. His instructions for the design stipulated a papal tiara represented above a Rose-Croix Masonic rose (and that may have been used in the rituals of Wilde's new lodge). The tiara and the rose also invoke two dispensations, Catholic and pagan, as well as their possible reconciliation in Freemasonry.
Yeats's co-member in the Golden Dawn, Aleister Crowley, in his autobiography a 1922 article written by a Past Grand Master also upholds English Masonry's Catholic mimicry:
“To anyone who understands the rudiments of symbolism, the Master's degree is identical with the Mass. This is in fact the real reason for the papal anathema, for freemasonry asserts that every man is himself the living, slain and re-arisen Christ in his own person.
It is true that not one mason in ten thousand in England is aware of this fact; but he has only to remember his -raising' [to that degree] to realize the fundamental truth of the statement.
Well may Catholic and freemason alike stand appalled at the stupendous blasphemy which is implied, as they ignorantly think, not knowing themselves of the stuff and substance of the Supreme Self each for himself alike no less than Very God of Very God!”
Although Catholicism and paganism are more readily reconciled in the mind than most commentators would allow-Frazer's Golden Rough popular at the time, often remarks the connection between ancient religions and European peasants' traditional observances of saints' feasts.
Perhaps inexplicably, given his unmatched esoteric religious curiosity (not to mention his own extreme capacity for negative capability), Yeats never attempted Masonic membership-, yet he was aware of Masonic rituals and dogma to the extent that he could be, and enough of them apparently paralleled those of the Theosophical Society and, particularly. Yeats was so aware of Masonic social pervasiveness that he used Freemasonry as an organizing principle when he attempted to create a new unique form of Irish national worship beginning in 1896.
As Yeats wrote in the first draft of his autobiography he grandly expected this new creed to -unite the radical truths of Christianity to those of a more ancient world.
MacGregor Mathers, founder of the Isis-Urania Temple of the Golden Dawn and his wife Moina Berason Mathers-planned to use Masonic methods against the Masons like the revolutionary organization Clan-na-Gael had done.
Founded in Philadelphia in the late 1860s, the American secret society Clan-na-Gael replaced the sharply divided Fenian Brotherhood, an organization of Irish Republican agitators. In the U.S. Clan-na-Gael sought total Irish independence from England to be accomplished by armed revolt.
The doctrines of the new faith-to be centralized on an Irish Lough Key island named Castle Rock, the eponymous castle of which Yeats wishfully called the Castle of Heroes-essentially were to be rooted in the wide-ranging esoteric ecumenism of Theosophy and the Golden Dawn but translated through specific connections with Irish mythic heroes and historical locales and the Ancient Irish gods. The ultimate goal rested in the founders belief that contacting the ancient spiritual forces of Ireland, believed to be hidden from modem man and certainly from most of the Protestant Ascendancy, would endow the Irish with the strength to free themselves from English hegemony. The worshippers, Yeats hoped, would concentrate supernatural powers at the castle and then instruct the Irish people to be "living links between the supernal and terrestrial natures."3
Yeats envisioned Castle Rock as -,an Irish Eleusis or Samothrace, filled with the mystical rites that were his continual obsession: '-a ritual system of evocation and mediation-to reunite the perception of the spirit of the divine, with natural beauty. Should not religion hide within the work of art as God is within His world.4 Yeats in the Castle of Heroes project neatly joins his esoteric religious interests to his nationalist ones.
Although Yeats sympathized with Blavatsky's beliefs, the skeptic in him was affected by the Spiritualist-investigating Society for Psychical Research's 1885 report that exposed Theosophy as a fraud and debunked both Blavatsky's claims of constant contact with various extradimensional Hindu spiritual masters and. through them, her ability to communicate with the dead.
Yeats moved to London with his family in May 1887, two weeks after Blavatsky, in a recurring conflict with the leadership of the London Theosophical lodge, opened the rival Blavatsky Lodge under her personal aegis. Yeats visited Blavatsky, who evidently, through the sheer magnetic force of her personality and the immense persuasive power she exhibited over those receptive to belief, managed to relieve immediately whatever doubts the poet bore about the groups claims and philosophies. Yeats became a member of her new lodge, even though he declared himself still doubtful of Blavatsky's own reputed powers as a medium. They diverged over the concrete practice of magic, however, a very Important point for Yeats.
And when Blavatsky established an Esoteric Section of the Blavatsky Lodge, a group formed specifically to practice and to study the occult, Yeats signed on immediately and eagerly set out to prove the existence of a supersensory world. Through his Esoteric Section researches Yeats performed his now-famous experiments in raising the ghost of a burnt flower and in attempting to conjure specific dreams by sleeping with various symbols under his pillow.
The Golden Dawn initially compelled Yeats so strongly because he was very much impressed with Mathers’s magical powers.
Golden Dawn ranks, or grades, believers were encouraged to conceive of the organization primarily as a Rosicrucian one, at higher levels, as Yeats learned when he attained the Inner Order in 1893, the group turned increasingly toward Christ, at the fifth and sixth degrees of the Inner Order, for example. -for the first time you rind the Calvary cross, but with a rose on it instead of the figure of Christ. According to some Golden Dawn texts, the purpose of the organization was as Christian as it was magical: To establish closer and more personal relations with the Lord Jesus, the Master of Masters, is and ever must be the ultimate object of all the teachings of our Order.
For one initiation Yeats participated in (called the -Path of the Portal), he was made to lie in a tomb, thus dying a symbolic death. he was then to arise. magically reborn in spirit ‘Christified’. The transformations were interpreted as more exalted versions of the legendary alchemical transformation of base metals into Gold, which could be brought about only if the alchemist had first transformed and sanctified his inner nature.
Yeats, as Blavatsky had taught him, believed all religions share the same well of symbols. Yeats also, of course, more famously noted that the Irish peasantry saw symbols in everything. Symbols were alive to these rural people in ways that escaped the more urbane, and one main difference separating the two groups is notably their religious faith. The peasants whose tales Yeats collected were overwhelmingly superstitious, yet were devout Catholics, while he thought their Irish Literary Revival promoters largely were Protestant intellectuals.
Yeats explained in “A General Introduction to My Work”; when St. Patrick came to Ireland in the fourth century, the umbilical cord which united Christianity to the ancient world had not yet been cut Christ was still the half-brother of Dionysus. A man just tonsured by the Druids could learn from the nearest Christian neighbor to sign himself with the Cross without sense of incongruity, nor would his children acquire that sense. But ultimately the two religions are entwined inextricably in ‘what it means to be Irish’ Yeats writes as, “behind all Irish history hangs a great tapestry, even Christianity had to accept it and be itself pictured there. Nobody looking at its dim folds can say where Christianity begins and Druidism ends."
Occult Nationalism in Practice
Early on a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and who served two terms as a Senator of the Irish Free State W. B. Yeats as we pointed out worked for Irish independence, but he conceived of it in terms that were primarily related to his occult studies. And Yeats hoped to gain intimate knowledge of a sacred or "hidden" Ireland through his occult practices. He saw the occult practice as a source of reliable information about the connections between what he used in his literary work and the wellsprings of national and occult knowledge. In order to claim this secret knowledge, he and several other students of the occult planned to revive the Druidic mysteries as mentioned, in a stone castle on Trinity Island. Here Irish republican revolutionary Maud Gonne, William Sharp (wrote under the name of Fiona Macleod) who took an interest in the La Jeune Belgique movement where he saw parallels with Scotland’s situation, the uncle of W.B. Yeats George Pollexfen (who like Yeats was initiated into the Golden Dawn, Annie Horniman (Yeats persuaded her to go to Dublin to back productions by the Irish National Theatre Society and later opened the Abbey Theatre), Dorothea Hunter, and Liberal politician George W. E. Russell, all worked closely with Yeats to design the Castle's rituals and symbolism.
The Castle was never built, but Yeats and his collaborators hoped to establish it as the spiritual center of Irish culture. For six years, they worked tirelessly designing its rituals, symbols, ornamentation, and teachings. They read scholarship about Irish myths and borrowed from Golden Dawn teachings, but their primary research methods were the visionary explorations they recorded in their private notebooks. Yeats, Maud Gonne, George Pollexfen, Annie Horniman, and other members of the Castle described "astral" journeys in which they penetrated the recesses of a "bidden" Ireland and extracted its sacred power. As a rite of passage, the labyrinth gave shape to the Castle's underlying political fantasy: that a devoted cabal of ‘initiates’ could work secretly to shape Irish imaginative culture using the symbols they drew from Celtic myths and occult experience. For Yeats, the labyrinth reflected the imperfect conditions of human knowledge and the lengthy process by which self awareness is achieved. As he wrote in Per Amico Silentia Lunae, the fate of human knowledge is to follow the winding "path of the serpent" and hope for "sudden lightning" flashes of illumination.5
Yeats's claim to inhabit a sacred nationalist tradition required him to engage in constant struggle with his fellow students of the occult. This struggle and the knowledge born of it were what distinguished Yeats and his collaborators from an ‘uninitiated Irish public’. To further distinguish themselves, they implicitly compared their struggles to Oisin's battle with the demon, the lives of saints, and the convention of the "long night of the soul."
For Madame Blavatsky, cosmic cycles such as the Iron Age or Kali Yuga contained smaller sub-cycles that in turn contained even smaller ‘rounds’. Sub-cycles and "rounds" were kernels of other cosmic ages (past, present, and future) that held transformative potentials waiting to be used in the present. Yeats and also his fellow activists came to believe that their own historical moment held this same transformative potential. They awaited the arrival of a Celtic Avatar who was supposed to nurture an Irish sub-cycle that would form the kernel of a cosmic cycle of future spiritual growth. In time, they believed that this spiritual cycle would supersede the "Iron Age" of Britain's global dominance.
Similarly, their readings of yoga manuals helped them to re-map the world as a network of vital points (or "chakras") that corresponded to actual cities and sacred places on the earth. In ''The Legends of Ancient Eire," AE described how this power "develops spirally in the ascetic, mounting from centre to centre, from the navel to the heart; from thence it rises to the head."6 And the network of seven vital points in the human body became a map for establishing new relationships between various parts of the world. Just as energy flowed in precise directions between specific points for yoga practitioners, and when some Irish members of the Theosophical Society (of whom next to Yeats also AE was a member), emigrated to America and spoke of developments there as harbingers of what might take place later in Ireland. Thus in a 1896 letter to Yeats AE wrote, describing his vision of a coming Celtic Avatar, "America is on fire with psychics abound. Their light reflects in Ireland and the path of connection has been seen."7
In "The Legends of Ancient Eire," AE claimed that what distinguished the Irish gods and heroes from other divinities was that "they were men who had mode themselves Gods by magical or Druidical power."8 And in the Preface to “Homeward, Songs by the Way”, AE claims he is a spirit who travels restlessly between human life and divinity. Because they pause at the vital moments when thoughts take shape to allow him passage between these two spheres of experience, his poems represent key turning points in his journey. Unlike Yeats, AE never considered the possibility that his repetitive language was a fictive medium. Instead, he believed that elements of speech (or color and form) were portions of the human mind that had not been severed from "the Oversoul”.9
AE and others in the Irish cooperative movement claimed that spiritual life was much more closely linked to economic reforms-and butter-than it was to an Irish Free State. They argued that economic reforms could dramatically change the everyday working lives of Irish people in ways that Irish statehood could not. Further, AE claimed that an Irish state erected on the framework of the British state would only preserve the inequities and colonial complexes of dependency under English rule. While nationalists saw rural issues as a distraction from Home Rule, AE used them to reform Irish nationalism and chart an alternate Irish future.10
In the end, both Yeats and AE, used ghosts, spiritual ideas, visions. and myths to think their way towards the transforming possibilities of revolution. Plus both Yeats's and AE's interest in alternative spiritual traditions built on the Celtic Revival's original effort to heal divisions between Catholics and Protestants by reviving the pre-Christian Irish history in folklore and "ancient" myths.
But devising new beliefs forced Yeats and AE to confront the problem of defining the future Irish nation in inclusive terms. Yeats and AE self-consciously confronted the problem of creating Ireland as an inclusive spiritual entity when they transformed Irish myths into "new" vocabularies of symbols and images (Yeats) or geometric forms (AE). Although Yeats was more conscious than AE that the Celtic Revival's work of invention was in fact invention, both transformed the visionary processes that were essential to reinventing Celtic myths.
Still, Astral spaces were invariably nested inside of one another and linked by symbolic images such as doors, windows, mirrors, wells, and bodies of water. In one of Yeats’s three "Celtic Visions" (which took place between December 1891 and January 1898) that Yeats describes in his notebooks, the group was "transported to a mountainous district' where ash trees dropped berries into a well. There they met a “venerable figure”, that turned out to be the Celtic god, Maranon. He hands Yeats an ash-wand before sending the group into a forest in search of "a bright being." The being reveals himself to be Aengus, the god of poetry and youth. In subsequent visits, he shows them heroes from the Red Branch stories: Cuchulain, Deirdre, Concubar, Oisin, Fergus, and a "lunar maiden."
Particularly Yeats, Horniman, Pollexfen, and Ganoe, alos wanted to ensure that Castle initiates would undergo the same trials that they themselves claimed to have experienced in the course of their visionary experiments. The rituals included antagonistic elements that characterized the occult labyrinth and conventional narratives of spiritual struggle. For example, initiates were supposed to struggle against the more senior adepts-sometimes literally wrestling with them. A later draft has the Candidate wrenching a spear from the Initiators and, after being instructed that, "He who trembles before the abyss has no part in the gods, and suggest that the initiation rites were designed to absorb the characteristic struggles of the spiritual life into the rituals and social hierarchy of the Castle of Heroes.11
In the end, Yeats's idea of the sacred had the same implications as Patrick Pearse's view of the romantic nationalist tradition as a secret inheritance shared by himself and his co-conspirators. They plotted the Easter-Rising by working covertly inside several Irish nationalist organizations, including the Irish Volunteers and the Gaelic League. Although there were rumors of an uprising months before Easter week. they kept the leaders of these organizations in the dark about the event and its purely theatrical, rather than immediate military or political intentions. The idea that a revolution should begin in secret was not remarkable.
Many pageants in Ireland, especially those designed by Patrick Pearse, were politically nationalist but several of the same myths of descent that Scottish pageant-masters pursued were disseminated in these pageants too. These comparisons are revealing as they demonstrate that cultural (and political) nationalists were particularly drawn to pageantry in this period, due to its ability to develop and cement cultural memory: Geddes, for instance, believed they were the most ambitious and comprehensive‘ activities he and the members of Outlook Tower were engaged in.12
The narrative of these pageants in Scotland was often pointedly designed to develop on and elaborate myths of descent: many traced a national history and one that was rooted in mythology.
By contrast, AE next enlisted the sacred in order to convince Irish people to begin the work of liberation by transforming themselves. By convincing them that they were emanations of divinity, AE believed they would be inspired to follow a process of political organization that would lead them inexorably from working in local cooperatives to forming a national liberation movement in solidarity with ‘international organizations.’ Like the Castle of Heroes, members held that a "sacred," "hidden," or "inner" Ireland could be recovered through spiritual work. But they believed that this sacred idea could only perform its transforming work when it had been made the property of all Irish people. They started a monthly magazine called The Irish Theosophist (1892-97) that like AE, although still hierarchical in nature (with various sub-races and ‘higher’ planes) placed more emphasis on the democratizing effects of ‘spiritual knowledge.’
1. W.B. Yeats, "Magic," Essays and Introductions, 1961, pg.29, 13, 28.
2. Rosalind Krauss, "Grids," in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, Cambridge, 1985, p.10.
3. Richard Ellmann, Yeats: The Man and the Masks, 2000.
4. qtd- in William H. O'Donnell, Responsibilities: Manuscript Materials, 2003.
5. W.B. Yeats, Per Amico Silentia Lunae, 1918, p. 9.
6. AE, "The Legends of Ancient Eire, p. 119-20.
7. Seamus Deane (Editor), Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, 1992, p. 541.
8. AE, "The Legends of Ancient Eire, p. 101.
9. Henry Summerfield, That Myriad-Minded Man, pgs. 72-76.
10. See AE, Letter to David Lloyd George, M.P., 5th February, 1918, in George William Russell, Letters From AE, 1962, pp. 138-40.
11. Virginia Moore, The unicorn: William Butler Yeats' search for reality, 1973, p. 68.
12. Patrick Geddes, Significance and Purpose of the Masques‘, pp. 7-8. Archives and Special Collections, University of Strathclyde: T-GED 12/1/395.