Some 15 years ago I got involved in contemporary heathenry. Some 2½ years ago I was initiated into a Masonic lodge. Time for a comparison? Did Freemasonry bring what I hoped it would bring?
I’m involved in different heathen groups, in some more than in others. Of the two I’m most involved in, one used to have a fairly esoteric approach, the other is more historical (but no reenactment). Coming from years of studying all kinds of things esoteric, I enjoyed the esoteric angle of the first group. When that approach changed, I started to miss it after a while.
It took me many years to look at Freemasonry as a realistic option. Another line of thought that I pursue is critical towards Freemasonry and there were other things I read and heard about Freemasonry that did not make me overly enthusiastic, especially not about Freemasonry in my own country.
On the other hand, for many years I’d been reading the works of Franz Farwerck and the like, tracing parts of Masonic symbolism to the pre-Christian past and when the wish for a more esoteric approach grew I started to look at ‘the Masonic option’ more seriously. Eventually I decided to give it a try instead of keeping to try to see if the possible pros would outweigh the cons without getting any further.
Indeed, there are elements to Freemasonry, especially to the form of Freemasonry that I opted for, that would make it hardly a good choice within my own framework, but I have more things that are apparently incompatible in my ideas.
So, I joined a lodge.
You may have experienced the same, but in Freemasonry there are also celebrations around the solstices. Of course these are also planned in the weekend closest to the actual solstices, so there we have yet another addition to the agenda in the same weekends. Since membership comes with commitment, especially to a new group, I had to skip the pagan celebrations in favor of Saint John the last few years.
I must say, the Masonic way of celebrating the solstices also ‘meets my religious needs’ so to say. They even have a few things in favor of the other.
Different lodges have their celebrations, so it is relatively easy to attend two (or more) different celebrations with their own approach and atmosphere. This also means meeting more and different people. The heathen groups are usually gatherings of roughly the same people, but going to different lodges brings a wider variety of people and (especially in the first years) more new faces.
To be honest, I do not mind too much that in cold and/or wet weather, I can have an indoors gathering under an artificial open sky.
The heathen groups don’t meet as frequently as my lodge, but now that I have a higher meeting frequency, I sometimes think it is pretty often, especially when I also set out to help or visit other lodges. Also my lodge does not have many instructions or lectures, so the esotericism is still somewhat ‘thin’.
The heathen groups are very practical. One has lectures, for which we meet up to see who we can invite as speaker, somebody sees to it that we have the room to have the lecture and for the rest there is not too much administration. At the other group there are volunteers to organise walks and there is a relatively fixed group of people who make the necessary arrangements for the place for celebrations.
A Masonic lodge, however, is an association and there is a lot of administration. Every meeting opens with minutes, officers have to be elected and installed, there are votes about proposals around finances, dues, etc. etc. Of all the meetings of a lodge, there are quite a couple of practical / administrative ones and I personally do not find that very ‘elevating’.
Both heathen groups are ‘collections of individuals’. Everyone has his/her own peculiarities, interests and worldview, but -of course- some similar interests. They come together for a walk and a drink, or to celebrate the Summer or Winter Solstice. Some people set up a ritual, but it is not like that there is a common philosophy. Of course it can happen that a ritual has elements that not everybody is happy with. That can either be discussed or the person decides to no longer attend.
I prefer a group in which there is not a person or a group who say how things ‘are’, but somebody with strong ideas can be interesting. It does help if there is a ‘common working method’ though and this is exactly how Freemasonry works.
Freemasonry does not have a doctrine either. There is nobody telling you what to think. There even is nobody telling you what the symbolism and elements of the ritual mean. Somebody can give you an interpretation, but this is always the interpretation of one person. In this way Freemasonry gathers people from all walks of life, each with his (her) own worldview. Still there is a binding element: ritual and symbolism. When you visit another lodge, even one that works in another Rite, you will recognise the symbolism and understand the basics of the ritual. When you talk to another Freemason and an element of the symbolism or ritual turns up, both will know what you are talking about, even though this element can mean different things for each person.
Freemasonry has been around for over 300 years. In that time rituals have been written, translated, rewritten, revised, updated, polished and edited, but basically all rituals are the same. Whether a lodge-room is fashioned in Egyptian imaginary or an Art Nouveau style, Masonic ritual remains Masonic ritual. Different people come together for something mutual, but they remain different people. This is somewhat the same in the heathen groups and Freemasonry, but especially the ‘fixed ritual’ gives Freemasonry ‘more mutual’ elements.
What is more about Freemasonry, it is similar all over the globe. Heathen groups make their own traditions that can be similar or very different. In Freemasonry you experience something similar in any lodge and that without a central authority. Ever since the early days of Freemasonry (let’s say: the founding of the Grand Lodge of England in 1717), there have been split-offs and the founding of new orders. Surely there are (big) differences between the rituals of different lodges, but it is thanks to the traditional approach of Freemasonry at large that the basis remains the same. Maybe this is because in the end every lodge (whether “regular” or “irregular”) either stems from the first Grand Lodge or was at least inspired by the way it worked. Would the symbolism be changed or a ritual wholly different, it would cease to be Freemasonry.
Heathenry, on the other hand, has sprung up similarly on different places on the globe and they differed from the start.
Of course it is no problem that heathen groups differ more from each other than Masonic lodges do, but I must say that it is a plus for Freemasonry that you can simply go to another lodge (not just any, but that is another discussion) and experience something similar with different people.
In heathenry there may be contacts between different groups or organisations, but less ‘formal’ than in Freemasonry. This can be both an advantage and a disadvantage.
Freemasonry is also considerably bigger than heathenry which has some advantages as well. There are more lodges to visit, there is more literature, it is easier to find other people (online). Because there are more places to visit, you can enjoy the experience, but look up, or avoid, certain people.
About that last point (avoiding people) a little addition. Both heathens and Freemasons prove to be ‘but human’, all too human sometimes even. In all groups that I’m involved in (heathen or Masonic) there have been ego-clashes, slander and infighting. Even Freemasonry, which’ procedure of accession is very strict, is not free of this.
Within heathenry there is a lot of symbolism, but it is hardly a coherent whole. Sources are not ‘complete’ (perhaps they can’t be), they contradict each other and people use the parts that fit their needs. The same with symbols and symbolism.
In Freemasonry, however, you have a huge body of symbolism that is 300 years old. This body has got layers and is disclosed to members in phases. In spite of this, everyone can develop his (her) own views on this symbolism, whether smaller or larger parts or the totality. There is symbolism in the rituals, but there is also symbolism that shed light on elements of these rituals. In this way Masonic symbolism makes a subject for study which develops even as you pursue the Masonic path.
Of course in heathenry there are symbols to study, myths, history and what not, but I find that in that case you have to develop your own ‘structure’, while in Freemasonry you have to discover the structure and then interpret it. There are also cross-references and connections in Masonic symbolism that you only realise later on. Could the structure of Freemasonry be a structure for heathen symbolism?
Perhaps different from (some) other heathens, I have an ‘esoteric leaning’, a leaning that I miss in heathenry, or at least, the heathenry that I’m comfortable with and have access to. Masonic symbolism is esoteric in basis and can (partly) be explained along heathen lines, thus giving heathenry some esotericism.
While heathen symbolism (or esotericism) is a like a box of Lego, you have to make something yourself, Masonic symbolism is a building to be discovered. Maybe I’m simply better in the latter than in the former, but currently it seems that Freemasonry lives up to my hopes to a certain degree. The reason for that is more frequent meetings which have more often an exchange of views between members which I can ‘take home’ and think through. Also the fact that it is easier to meet other people doing the same, but differently is a merit of Freemasonry.
A larger number of people (more members) of Freemasonry gives a bigger chance to meet like-minded people, but also a bigger chance to run into people you would rather avoid or people who dislike each other so much that this has consequences for other members.
To close off, the large amount of administration within Freemasonry is something I’m not greatly fond of. I fear that this gets more as well. As a Master Mason you have to assist the lodge with meetings, votes, perhaps a function such as Secretary and after a while you may get a function in the Grand Lodge with even more administration.
Then again, the higher frequency of meetings makes that I experience a ritual more often, so I keep getting chances to see something new to think about or to do better next time. Also the chance for a good lecture is higher when these are held more often (some lodges have a lot of them). Generally speaking, more frequent ritual meetings to get out of everyday life is also a relieve I must say.
As for symbolism. Currently I think that the structured symbolism of Freemasonry makes an interesting study after many years of studying small parts of heathen symbolism. The former study may be prove helpful for the latter (that would be nice). Within Freemasonry I can experience ritual ‘as a heathen’ without anyone having to know. So far the two seem a fair combination. Hopefully the down sides of Freemasonry will not get the upper hand.