“Like any true craftsman, he was able to mold raw material into a magical synthesis, creating a marvellous working system, at once instinctively true and intrinsically beautiful.” – Shani Oates on Robert Cochrane, Founder of the Clan of Tubal Cain
Who tells your story? Is it the fallen leaves that line your door speaking of your past travels, the lines etched by experience on skin and bone, or do you stand ready to relate the world through words that you alone craft with care?
While digging in to Judika Illes‘ Field Guide to Witches, the latest in Weiser’s Field Guide series*, I ran across a familiar name that’s intrigued me since I first encountered him while researching contemporary Pagan traditions years ago.
Robert Cochrane (born Roy Bowers) is an enigmatic figure in the world of emergent beliefs. While claiming a hereditary lineage to the “Old Religion” as the impetus for his Clan of Tubal Cain traditions, he worked studiously to support, develop and literally create his beliefs whole cloth through research, ritual and practice. His teachings were built on fragments of myth, religion and suppositions based on archaeological evidence, all filtered through an active ritual practice that shaped the interpretations put on the underlying ideas.
As with many spiritual explorers and would be leaders, Cochrane’s life was not void of controversies, however, he is one of those rare few whose ability to weave stories, traditions and innovations that connect to the deeper truths, move him beyond charges of fraudulent intention and into the realm of true storytellers capable of bringing their “lies” to life.
All That’s Old is New Again
Critics have often questioned the legitimacy of Cochrane’s (and really all Neo-Pagan) claims to tradition. The historian Ronald Hutton’s research seems to discredit the idea that any vestiges of pre-Christian belief were able to maintain an organized foothold in the Western world through 2000 years of dedicated persecution by Roman, Christian and secular authorities.
This is a legitimate question for historians, but I would argue it is not necessarily important to the value of these practices and beliefs. In the Judaic traditions this process of invention is clearly detailed in the Torah and Tannak during the many “rediscoveries” of G-d’s word throughout the history of the Hebrew people. In Christianity this process formed the basis for the religion itself, with the early Christians utilizing Jewish, Greek, African and Eastern sources to formulate their basic understanding of the events that provide the basis for their beliefs.
Islam, Buddhism, Taoism, all have their basis in this process of reworking older traditions. Hinduism is perhaps the most stark example of this with it’s foundation resting in British Colonial experiments to unify a diverse system of local beliefs with overarching religious systems developed by the upper castes of Indian society.
One of Cochrane’s sources for the development of his ideas was the poet Robert Graves. The White Goddess – A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth, which Graves published in 1948, claimed to explore the true nature of poetry as a devotional practice to a Neolithic Goddess. Exploring these ideas through Celtic mythology and the interpretation of archaeological clues Graves created a vision of a long hidden tradition rediscovered during a time of crisis and change.
Published shortly after the end of World War II, The White Goddess provided the public with a reassessment of the very same quest for tradition and archaic continuance that had been the basis for much of the Fascist propaganda in Italy, Japan and Germany during the war years. Academic historians, however, were quick to point out the inaccuracies, speculations and quite bluntly, lies, used to prove Graves’ thesis.
To judge the work in such a harsh light misses one of the key elements that Graves was working with, poetry. While academics handle facts with some amount of precision, poetry and practicality are not areas that they move through as easily. Graves work, while being factually inaccurate, was practically relevant and in turn actionable in a way that historical facts are not.
Action at a Distance
The same questions can be raised today for groups working with the ideas of alchemy, myth and storytelling to guide society towards sustainable solutions. Did Medieval alchemists concern themselves with the triple bottom line? Would they recognize contemporary concepts that are labeled alchemical? Probably not in the way we would hope, but they might recognize within our contemporary understanding the seeds that can give birth to true transmutation if properly cared for and watered.
In a text attributed to Edward Kelly, the conman and seer who assisted Dr. John Dee, there is a personal reflection that fits well the path of Cochrane, Graves and all those who seek to renew the body of truth through fragments of the past:
“My mind, remaining unbound, has all this time exercised itself in the study of that philosophy which is despised only by the wicked and foolish, but is praised and admired by the wise. Nay, the saying that none but fools and lawyers hate and despise Alchemy has passed into a proverb.”
So who tells your story? Is it hedged in by historical facts? Lost in the lingering legalism of shortsighted lawyers? Have you taken it upon yourself to craft your own tale?
Or, is it built on conversations, letters from friends, tale tellers and poets?
“Dear Robert Graves,
I have read and re-read your book, ‘The White Goddess,’ with admiration, utter amazement and a taint of horror. I can see your point when you write of inspirational work, and realise that it must have resulted from quite an internal ‘pressure,’ since from my own experience, that is the way she works…” from Robert Cochran’s Letters to Robert Graves
*Note: The folks at Red Wheel/Weiser were kind enough to provide us with copies of their Field Guide Series to spur our creativity and give us some meat for the Mythic fires.