Monday, November 23, 2015

American Historical Society Conference Panel, Jan. 2016: Freemasonry: The World’s First Global Social Network

Atlanta, January 7-10, 2016
Global Migrations: Empires, Nations, and Neighbors

Panel: Freemasonry: The World’s First Global Social Network

AHA Session 86
Friday, January 8, 2016: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Room 311/312 (Hilton Atlanta)
Richard Berman, Oxford Brookes University
Navigating the “Republic of Masonry”: Print Culture in Masonic Communication and Connection in the 18th-Century Atlantic and Beyond
Hans Schwartz, Clark University
Ancients or Moderns? Reflections on the Genesis of American Freemasonry
Richard Berman, Oxford Brookes University
Caliban and the Widow’s Sons: Some Aspects of the Intersections and Interactions between Freemasonry and Afro-Caribbean Religious Praxis
Eoghan Craig Ballard, HistoryMiami Museum & Roosevelt Center for Civic Society and Freemasonry

Richard Berman, Oxford Brookes University

Session Abstract
In the 1700s, Masonic lodges and freemasons could be found from the East Indies to the West Indies to the Indian Country of the North American frontier, all across Europe, and throughout the farthest flung colonial possessions of the British, French, and Dutch empires. By the end of the century it had become an important organizing tool and intellectual force in the African Atlantic diaspora as well. Freemasonry was an emergent, self-created social movement of the 18th century Enlightenment which boasted its own faux history, republican ideology, international diplomacy, meta-economy, and extensive organizational structures. Within a few decades of the formation of the Grand Lodge of England in 1717 there were Masonic lodges and grand lodges throughout the Americas, the Caribbean, India and in some parts of Africa. Ideologically and socially, freemasonry connected men across political, ethnic, racial, religions and class borders. It served as a vital fraternal link in the lives of Atlantic seafarers, soldiers, planters and craftsmen and formed a vast network of overlapping networks which greatly impacted social and commercial relations both within and between far flung communities in every corner of the global in which European culture had penetrated.
This panel will seek to explore the role of freemasonry as an international phenomenon, elucidating the nature and implications of the overlapping social, commercial and intellectual networks created by freemasons, white and Black, on both sides of the Atlantic.

ஃ Navigating the “Republic of Masonry”: Print Culture in Masonic Communication and Connection in the 18th-Century Atlantic and Beyond
Hans Schwartz, Clark University

Within a few decades of the foundation of the Grand Lodge of England in 1717 the Masonic fraternity could be found from the East to the West Indies to American Indian country and was a major social movement of the Enlightenment throughout Europe and the European colonial world. In a speech before Paris' Lodge of Nine Muses, Benjamin Franklin referred to this international brotherhood as, "The REpublic of Masonry." One of the most fascinating and little understood elements of freemasonry's successful spread is the manner in which masons, often merchants or sea captains, were able to arrive in ports of call from Batavia to Boston and beyond and easily locate the meetings of this "secret" society. This investigation demonstrates how various types of print culture were created or adapted to the purposes of masonic. Specifically, this presentation will focus on Masonic almanacs and lists of lodges printed and distributed by Grand Lodges in Europe and reprinted in a wide variety of pamphlets and books; the use of colonial newspapers, particularly in Boston, the most prominent hub of British Masonry in the Americas to circulate Masonic news and contact information; and the highly detailed Tableaux of the French Caribbean Masonic network centered in Saint Domingue. This will include the use of print culture in the early republic to promote Black freemasonry emanating from Boston. All of these sources were circulated, exchanged, and reprinted in a manner which linked the widespread Masonic networks of Bostonian merchants, French creole planters, and European seafarers.

ஃ Ancients or Moderns? Reflections on the Genesis of American Freemasonry
Richard Berman, Oxford Brookes University

American freemasonry was created in the mould of the Grand Lodge of London & Westminster, later the Grand Lodge of England, and initially reflected the pro-establishment mores of its founders, providing its affluent upper middling members with an exclusive blend of ‘ancient’ ritual, fraternal association and drinking and dining. But from the late 1750s and 1760s, the organization split, a division not based more on social differences that political differences – loyalist against patriot.
Dr Berman’s paper traces the debt American fraternalism owes to the more egalitarian and inclusive Irish form of freemasonry, pushed not only by the Grand Lodge of Ireland but by the more aggressive Antients Grand Lodge, formed in London in 1751 and shaped by London’s Irish diaspora, especially Laurence Dermott, its pioneering and long-serving Grand Secretary and later Deputy Grand Master.
Antients freemasonry became a locus for the aspirational lower middling rather than the incumbent social and political elites, and developed a powerful social and economic function, providing mutual financial assistance and an accessible social infrastructure for those seeking self-betterment. It extended formal sociability beyond the elites to create one of the first modern friendly societies and, in an American context, took over the mantle of revolutionary Enlightenment politics in the upswing to the War of Independence.

ஃ Caliban and the Widow’s Sons: Some Aspects of the Intersections and Interactions between Freemasonry and Afro-Caribbean Religious Praxis
Eoghan Craig Ballard, HistoryMiami Museum & Roosevelt Center for Civic Society and Freemasonry

After Freemasonry spread across Europe in the 18th century, it was inevitable that its influence should reach the Caribbean. Masonic lodges were founded in France's colony of Saint Domingue as early as 1738. It was not long before men of African descent entered the fraternity. Some of these men went on to hold leadership positions in the Haitian Revolution. It was inevitable, given the wide distribution of African inspired religious practice in the Caribbean, that Freemasonry would interact with African religions. Elements of Masonic symbolism reflect back from the graphic systems employed in Haitian Vodou and Afro-Cuban Palo, a religion of Congo origin. Hand gestures and ritual movements in the Asson tradition of Haitian Vodou have been credited with Masonic influence, and significant elements clearly identifiable as being of Masonic origin, comprise parts of the intiation rituals of Quimbisa, a religion of Central African origin in Cuba. Such exchanges do not reflect a single direction. Recently a Grand Commander General was appointed to the Scottish Rite for Cuba, who is a practicing member of the Abakuá, a tradition originating in the Cross River area of Nigeria, and also one of the founding Babalawo's of Cuba's internationally recognized Yoruba annual divination committee, which is viewed as religious guidance on three continents. In Haiti, a Masonic Rite was founded which invokes certain Lwa or spirits of Haitian Vodou, which are recognized throughout the international community of Vodou religious praxis as Masonic spirits. One of Vodou's most iconographic spirits, Baron Samedi, the Lord over the dead, unmistakably combines Masonic regalia with the iconic skull used in the initiatic Chamber of Reflection. Even in Brazil, the temples of Umbanda, a modern Afro-Brazilian faith, are replete with Masonic elements, and it is not uncommon for freemasons in Brazil to also be initiates in Umbanda.

Panel: Freemasonry: The World’s First Global Social Network

Sunday, November 15, 2015

November 15th: The National Day of Umbanda in Brazil

Many blessings to all my brothers and sisters, and the friends of Umbanda, a religion that despite prejudice responds with joy and love ... A Brazilian religion, a religion that unites three religious cultures found in Brazil: The culture of Africa, the culture of Native Americans,  as well as European spiritualism and Catholicism.

Saravá Umbanda

A New Afro-Diasporic Inspired Divination System - The Vudu Tarot

While I am not a Tarot reader, and am not heavily invested in Tarot as a form a divination, as someone who has lived his entire life in the United States and Western Europe, someone who has been profoundly interested in divination since he was quite young, I have rubbed shoulders so to speak, with Tarot as a system of divination, Tarot literature, and Tarot decks, both as art and as cards, for roughly 50 years. I've played with Tarot off and on, and studied it in earnest at one point. It, as with cards in general, my first divination deck was a version of the Lenormand cards rather than Tarot, was not to become my method of divination, but I none the less find Tarot and cards in general to be a fascinating study.

Tarot has a fascinating history, part of which relates to divination and magical study, beginning in the 19th century, despite the myths that have built up around tarot during that period claiming it as an ancient system of divination. However, I am not writing to discuss that history, fabricated or otherwise today, nor the fact that Tarot as a modern tool of divination is intimately tied to the esoteric studies of 18th and 19th century Freemasons, most notably A.E. Waite, who gave his name to perhaps the most famous Tarot Deck of modern times.

One of my fascinations with the transportation of Afro-Caribbean religious traditions to North America has been the ways that North Americans translate and alter those traditions when they encounter them. Those ways are sometimes logical, and perhaps more often less so, and even sometimes violent in terms of their impact upon tradition. One alteration, which may in all good reason, be seen as a benign change, has been the adaptation of Tarot cards within the Haitian Vodou religion. Although in Haiti, several other traditional methods of divination have been documented during the 20th century, and by all accounts continue in Haiti, and among Haitians in the North American and European diaspora, by the mid 20th century, some Haitians had adopted the use of  regular playing cards for the purpose of divination. Doubtlessly, they would have been to a greater or lesser degree influenced by French traditions of card reading, and it might have come from interactions with the economic and cultural “elites” within Haiti, who have a history of interest in esoteric practices which parallel those favored among the French.

In the North American diaspora, most Haitian servitors (those who follow the Vodou religion) continue to use traditional methods, most commonly today the regular deck of cards. However, among North Americans who have adopted the religion we most often identify as Haitian Vodou, the tendency over the past dozen years or so has been to use the Tarot instead of regular playing cards. This is no doubt the result of the popularity of Tarot over regular cards for divination in the United States, which was established in the 1960s, and which has grown since that time. The other factor which is not unrelated, was probably the creation of the New Orleans Vodou Tarot deck and book created by Louis Martinié and Sallie Ann Glassman, in 1992.

Since that time, this particular deck became the defacto preferred deck in use by North Americans who had adopted Vodou as their religious practice. Whatever ideological arguments one might make regarding possible weaknesses in the deck, it was found to be visually appealing by most and it emphasized both the Lwa, the spirits of Vodou, and probably because it was popular among such communities, it also referenced the Orichas who are spirits of popular religion in Cuba, Brazil, and Nigeria, which is where their African origins are to be found.

Since the early 1990s, no new deck has come to really challenge the popularity of the New Orleans deck. But things are about to change, or at least that is a distinct possibility! Over the past year, a talented young artist, and follower of several Afro-Caribbean religious traditions named Monroe Rodriguez Singh has designed a new deck of Vodou Tarot. What follows is a description based upon my own observation of Monroe's deck and informed by discussions with him and questions asked of him over the period of time he has been working on designing these cards.

Monroe Rodriguez Singh is an artist, designer, developer, and professional tarot reader. He has formal art education and has had his work exhibited in various locations across the continent. Over more than a half decade, he has read tarot professionally and is a member of the American Tarot Association and Tarosophy Tarot Association. About 5 years ago he began to explore Afro-Caribbean spiritual traditions personally, and at some point came to realize that he wanted to create a tarot  deck that reflected these traditions is a new way, one which more dynamically expressed his connections and experiences with African inspired spirituality. In approaching this goal his efforts naturally reflect his own multicultural background and utilize the knowledge he has gained concerning Afro-Caribbean culture. As a result, this new deck is inspired by Afro-caribbean spirituality in a way that is much less informed by European mediation than perhaps previous decks have been.

In part, his decision to take on this task reflected his frustrations with what was available. There are few decks directly geared toward readers of color, and the foundation of other decks did not reflect his own experiences of these traditions as closely as he would have wished. He decided to create a tarot that would incorporate a better and more complete reflection of the mythology of the African diaspora and which, as also reflects his experience, includes both West Indian and East Indian cultural forms, which is also found in parts of the Caribbean.

Monroe indicated that he first acquired a set of Tarot cards as a child, and he has not stopped. Today he owns over 50 different Tarot decks and shows no signs of slowing down. He brings extensive reading on comparitive religions, mythology, metaphysics, and psychology to his reading practice, and has drawn upon this background in creating his new deck.

Interestingly, he notes that his first attraction to the tarot was due to their artistic aspects more than their functional purpose, although that soon became important to him, and he discovered a natural talent for reading.

Like many of his generation, he grew up within a traditional Protestant family, but also like many, that experience also provided him with exposure to Southern African-American, Latino, and Native spiritual influences. This influence was strongest coming from his grandmother, and was augmented by reading, the result of his own curiosity. When he went to college, he continued this exploration both in formal academic and informal settings.

After college, he began to read the tarot professionally and has read in New Orleans, on the West Coast, and on Internet radio as well.

He notes that Tarot cards today span a wide range of stylistic approaches and this makes chosing a deck which one can be comfortable with challenging, especially if you are trying to bridge popular cultural forms and practices such as Tarot and traditional spiritual practices. He feels that the art, especially an art that is both modern but also respectful of traditional cultural elements is important. He has found aspects of other decks offensive, and also sees some of the artwork as being out of touch with someone of his own age.
His deck is a Vudu deck, and that is an important distinction. He draws on the traditional aspects of Haitian religion, but he also works side by side with the Dominican Vudu traditions of the Spanish speaking side of Hispaniola, the Caribbean island on which the Republic of Haiti was born.

This deck is grounded in the Spirits of the  African Diasporic traditions and their own stories and Monroe argues thoughtfully that they complement the archetypes of the modern Tarot. In his deck, the  death card is Baron Del Cementerio, the Baron of the Cementery who is the guide for the Guede - the Dead. His image with a skull wearing a top hat and cane with Haitian veves is reminiscent of Death on the pale horse in the Rider Waite card.

The Aces of each suits are all Legba (gatekeeper) spirits for the nacions (nations) or divisions of spirits. The Suits reflect their elemental types while using the same names with the exception of pentacles which is called “Skulls” in the Vudu Tarot. The Skulls suit represent spirits from the Guede and Baron Division. The Wands reflect hot Petro and Kongo Spirits; the Cups, the cooler Rada and Agua Dulce (India) Divisions. And the Swords have the armored warriors of the Nago or Ogou Division who have Yoruba influences.

Among his offerings is a  limited edition expansion deck that is focused on other ATRS and Hinduism. I encourage you to support his Kickstarter campaign and get this very creative deck.

To Order a copy of this deck, go to the following link and make a pledge of $50 or more. Ships all over the world and comes with other goodies as listed for each pledge level:

Kickstarter Vudu Tarot Campaign

Saturday, November 7, 2015

A Scholar Who Makes Historical Facts Palatable: Tobias Churton

For some years, since the late 1980s when he released his book The Gnostics, I have repeatedly succumbed to the temptation to read the works of Tobias Churton. Being written for a popular audience, I have justified such self indulgence by asserting that it was to get a quick but relatively accurate overview of material that I wished to study at greater depth and at more leisure. Or else my excuse was that it was a less boring way to acquire a decent if generalized bibliography. Both excuses were true as far as they went, but they were excuses. Having studied at Oxford and being a lecturer at Exeter, his credentials more than pass the most critical academic muster. However, his writing style is eminently readable, which is a rarity among academics in this day and age, and that is what kept me coming back to his titles over the years. Put simply, the man is worth reading.

While not all of his books are specifically focused upon Freemasonry, half a dozen include Freemasonry in the title, and in a few more the subject of Freemasonry more than touched upon. One has to note that his books relating to Rosicrucianism are also by default related to the subject of the craft.

While none of the titles I will mention are new, and while I would hope that most who have read extensively on Freemasonry have at least read a few of his works, I've yet to see a Masonic blog deal with his works as a body. They are extensive enough that they deserve collective mention. They are also intelligent enough to deserve attention. In fact, that may well be why they haven't to date received the attention they deserve from Freemasons. Unlike writers who cater to members of the craft, Professor Churton does not mince words when it comes to the flaws of our institution. That's probably another reason I like his writing, and another reason why all Freemasons should read his works.

In The Mysteries of John the Baptist, he remarks that 'there are two principle groups of people for whom John the Baptist has significant spiritual meaning, though in the case of Freemasons, I should say a group for whom John ought to have spiritual meaning; Masons have mostly forgotten why they were once "St. John's men."' In Freemasonry: The Reality, he discusses what he views as the "real meanings in the now completely misinterpreted rituals and symbols of the craft."
But lest you decide that a scholarly critique should be ignored, keep in mind that as a Freemason and a scholar, he has license to offer that critique and the knowledge with which to back it up.

He also has the knowledge and vision to focus on the deeper truths and to describe them in remarkably clear ways, such as when in his work on Ashmole,  The Magus of Freemasonry: The Mysterious Life of Elias Ashmole--Scientist, Alchemist, and Founder of the Royal Society,  he cuts through the acquired ignorance of a few hundred years, and notes that "the adjective speculative generally referred to an occult activity, or one that involved mathematics or imaginative projection: that is, conjuring.  We have all at some time or another "conjured up an image." The earliest English masonic catechism, in answer to the question "How high is your lodge?" gives the answer "It reaches to the heavens." The lodge was an imaginative projection, "conjured up" by its members to embody a center of the universe."

In The Invisible History of the Rosicrucians, Churton digs deep beneath the surface and uncovers so much that came before the 18th Degree Rose Croix, Before Pernety, even before the Fama Fraternitatis to look at and connect the works of Arab scholars such as Abu Ma'shar al-Balki to the winding thread of history which led to modern Rosicrucianism. In the process of examining the connection between Rabelais and the Fama, he provides a warning which some in the fraternity today should take seriously to heart.  "Let us look to the gates of Rabelais's "Abbey of Thélème." They bear the words "Here enter not vile bigots."... No narrow-minded, pompous churl, no puffed-up hypocrite — especially of the corrupt church and universities — will ever enter the abbey of "Do what thou wilt." To them, the abbey will always be closed, or nonexistent."

His other works of interest to Freemasons include The Golden Builders, an essay entitled Aleister Crowley and the Yezidis which is included in the volume entitled Aleister Crowley and Western Esotericism, edited by Henrik Bogdan, and the book which first drew him popular attention, The Gnostics.

If you are serious about Masonic education, take my advice. Give Albert Mackey a pass and read Churton first.