• Michael Martin

The Lord of Misrule

I spent much of the Holy Nights revisiting a brace of books I haven’t read for decades, Jessie L. Weston’s anthropological excavation of the Grail literature, From Ritual to Romance, and the book that inspired it, James G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. Toward the end of Advent I watched (most of) director David Lowery’s The Green Knight (it stinks), and I write about the Grail in my most recent book, Sophia in Exile. In addition, I’ve taught college courses on Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur and on the Holy Grail as a cultural icon (Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, The Pre-Raphaelite preoccupation with the Grail, John Boorman’s Excalibur, Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King, Monty Python and the Holy Grail—none of which stink—and so forth), so I have considerable personal experience and investment in this mythos and its intertwining with folklore, folk magic, literature, and religion. But why did it come back to haunt me now, like a literary Jacob Marley shaking its bookish chains at me in The Age of the Crown known as Corona?

Then it dawned on me: the last (first) time I read these works was during my first Saturn return (when Saturn finds its way back to the place where it was at one’s birth—about 29 years or so). Well, here I am at my second Saturn return (do the math). As any astrologer would tell you, a Saturn return is, in general, NOT FUN, and Covid aside, it still has not been a fun year. But it hasn’t been all bad. On the other hand, this all occurred to me during what used to be the ancient Roman time of the Saturnalia. I love coincidence.

I first started reading Frazer and Weston after my initial encounter with T.S. Eliot’s masterpiece The Wasteland. Eliot (who, incidentally died 27 years ago today—darned close to a Saturn cycle)drew on both works for his poem. He published the poem in 1922, having recently undergone both his first Saturn return (he was born in 1888) and lived through the horrors of World War I. We have also been moving through a sort of Wasteland, a time when, as Eliot describes in the poem:

He who was living is now dead We who were living are now dying With a little patience

At this time of the year, at least where I live, death is everywhere. Nothing grows. We exist between in-breath and out-breath at the still point. We require regeneration.

Regeneration, among other things, is precisely what happens at the celebration of Twelfth Night. My family celebrates it every year, complete with poetry and song, wassail and cake, the election of the King of the Bean, and chalking the door in anticipation of the arrival of the Three Kings (who arrive on Epiphany, the Twelfth Day of Christmas, of course). William Shakespeare, at the request of Elizabeth I, wrote his play Twelfth Night, or What You Will, to be performed at the royal Twelfth Night festivities in 1601/02. The play is a subtle representation of figures and notions of the celebration of the festival—a veritable feast of fools, it features a cadre of motley fools, a butler who assumes himself elevated to royalty, and a brother who (seemingly) returns from the dead, not to mention a wealth of extraordinary (though often melancholy) songs Shakespeare wrote for his clown Robert Armin to sing (trivia: when I was a Waldorf teacher and directed the play, I wrote tunes for Shakespeare’s words—so I can officially say the two of us were collaborators. One example from my treatment, recorded with Corktown Popes, can be found below).

According to both Frazer and Weston, such rituals as the election of the King of the Bean, are remnants of earlier agricultural rituals which tied the vitality of a god or king (or god-king) to the fertility of plants, animals, and humans. As Frazer, connecting Twelfth Night to the Roman Saturnalia, writes,

We have seen that in Italy, Spain, and France, that is, in the countries where the influence of Rome has been deepest and most lasting, a conspicuous feature of the Carnival is a burlesque figure personifying the festive season, which after a short career of glory and dissipation is publicly shot, burnt, or otherwise destroyed, to the feigned grief or genuine delight of the populace. If the view here suggested of the Carnival is correct, this grotesque personage is no other than a direct successor of the old King of the Saturnalia, the master of the revels, the real man who personated Saturn and, when the revels were over, suffered a real death in his assumed character. The King of the Bean on Twelfth Night and the medieval Bishop of Fools, Abbott of Unreason, or Lord of Misrule are figures of the same sort and may have had a similar origin.” [1]

Rene Girard’s theory of the scapegoat was deeply influenced by his reading of Frazer. I’m not exactly sure the symbolic sacrifice was really grounded in ritual murder—I think the ancients could handle metaphor—nevertheless, it makes for some fascinating speculation and forays into theory. This sacrifice motif is treated in the camp classic of British B-horror, 1973’s The Wicker Man, which ends with the immolation of a nosy and Puritanical police officer. But the film is an otherwise wonderful treasure chest of British folklore and folk-magic custom. My middle child (the middle of nine, poor boy) saw the film a while ago. When I asked him what he thought, he said, “It’s basically our house...but without the human sacrifice.” Progress!

Weston connects the death of the King to the death and resurrection of St. George in the Mummer’s Play, often performed at Twelfth Night—a theme also found in the medieval tale of Gawain and the Green Knight. I like the connection of the flourishing of the land to the vitality of the king, especially as a literary device, and I love the way this is illustrated through the Grail romances in the image of the Fisher King and in Boorman’s Excalibur (more profoundly influenced by Weston than even his alleged source, Malory), but I think Frazer and Weston both miss the significance of resurrection in this mythos. Coming back from the dead—and not a replacement by a substitute (rather a Robin, the Hooded Man or Doctor Who approach to things), as if contract negotiations didn’t work out—is the key that unlocks the magical door here. And this is what makes these stories so profoundly Christian and fit to be connected with the feast of Twelfth Night.

I love the combination of the holy, the mythic, the folkloric, and the atmosphere of conviviality and carnival that colors the Christmas season—but why twelve days? I’m not sure anybody really knows, lost as these traditions are in the mists of time and observation. Nevertheless, one would not need to dig too deeply to see the correlations between the Twelve Days, the months of the year, the Twelve Tribes of Israel, and the twelve Apostles—not to mention the twelve signs of the zodiac (and don’t even get me started on the mysterious connection between Jairus’s twelve-year-old daughter and the woman who had an issue of blood for twelve years). Number symbolism is very important in the Christian tradition.

So raise a glass this Twelfth Night; have a slice of cake. Maybe you’ll get the bean. Maybe the Green Knight will pay a visit. Enjoy your resurrection.

And so, in conclusion, I can think of no better envoi than that of Robert Herrick, my patron saint and Lord of Misrule Emeritus:


NOW, now the mirth comes

With the cake full of plums,

Where bean's the king of the sport here;

Beside we must know,

The pea also

Must revel, as queen, in the court here.

Begin then to choose,

This night as ye use,

Who shall for the present delight here,

Be a king by the lot,

And who shall not

Be Twelfth-day queen for the night here.

Which known, let us make

Joy-sops with the cake;

And let not a man then be seen here,

Who unurg'd will not drink

To the base from the brink

A health to the king and queen here.

Next crown a bowl full

With gentle lamb's wool:

Add sugar, nutmeg, and ginger,

With store of ale too;

And thus ye must do

To make the wassail a swinger.

Give then to the king

And queen wassailing:

And though with ale ye be whet here,

Yet part from hence

As free from offence

As when ye innocent met here.

An episode from great BBC documentary series Tudor Monastery Farm

Michael’s latest book is Sophia in Exile. He can be reached at director@thecenterforsophiologicalstudies.com See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses. Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: The Divine Feminine.

1. James G. Frazer, The Golden Bough, abridged edition (New York, 1927), 586.

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  • Michael Martin

I have a lot of books. Though I’ve never taken an inventory, my library probably totals in the low thousands, everything from farming to mead making and distilling, literature and literary criticism, arts and crafts, science, biography, theology, philosophy, psychology, history, not to mention many obscure works on magic, alchemy, astrology, and other esoteric subjects. I wrote my dissertation on a number of poets, mystics, and alchemists—John Donne, Henry Vaughan and his alchemist identical twin Thomas, Jane Lead, Sir Kenelm Digby, and John Dee—so there’s my excuse.

Recently, I was interviewed by the very generous Piers Kaniuka for his Youtube channel, Resistance Recovery. We were scheduled to discuss my latest book, Sophia in Exile, but we also spent a good chunk of our conversation talking about the various manifestations of Romanticism—in the 18th century and with the hippies in the 20th, for example—and the Occult Revival and the Celtic Twilight movements of the 19th century came up as an example of resistance to the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, the technocracies of its time.

When Marygrove College, where I used to work as a professor of English, philosophy, and religious studies, announced it would close at the end of the semester, the library started selling off its collection at 10 cents a piece. Tempt me not, Satan! I did my best to clear the joint. I loaded up on all kinds of books in my various disciplines. Among books by the great Continental philosophers and medieval mystics and theologians, I scored C.G. Jung’s Collected Works (though one volume is in absentia) and the 10-volume set of Donne’s Sermons—that was a good thing, too, because all of my notes from my dissertation research on the sermons were still inscribed in the margins. Don’t judge me: it was obviously all part of God’s plan. I meant to grab the collected works of Sigmund Freud, but the last day of the semester was a snow day and school was closed. I still have nightmares about it.

I have a number of collector’s items, though I used to have more. In my twenties I collected rare books. Let’s call it an investment strategy. Times were hard financially early in my marriage, however, so I ended up selling a lot of the books so we could buy stuff like, you know, food. But I still have a few treasures. I have first editions of Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism and W.B. Yeats’s A Vision and I have a collection of The Spectator from 1714 that I picked up twenty years ago in a junk shop in, I think, Niagara Falls, Ontario or someplace thereabouts.

But one of the more curious books I own is one I picked up at Marygrove for a dime. The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse was almost an afterthought. I write about poetry and mysticism, so I grabbed it as one might grab a candy bar at the grocery store checkout line. Impulse item. It sat on the shelf for a couple of years. Then I read it. Wow.

The book starts out, surprisingly, not with Cædmon, but with an incantation:


I am the wind which breathes upon the sea,

I am the wave of the ocean,

I am the murmur of the billows,

I am the ox of the seven combats,

I am the vulture upon the rocks,

I am the beam of the sun,

I am the fairest of plants,

I am the wild boar in valour,

I am the salmon in the water,

I am a lake in the plain,

I am a word of science,

I am the point of a lance in battle,

I am the God who creates in the head the fire.

Who is it who throws light into the meeting on the mountain?

Who announces the ages of the moon?

Who teaches the place where couches the sun?


Actually, Cædmon never appears. Which is odd.

The book, which was published in 1921, features many of the poets one would expect: Southwell, the Metaphysicals, Blake, Wordsworth, and Shelley (no Keats), Cardinal Newman, the Brownings, Tennyson, Whitman, George MacDonald, both Dante and Christina Rossetti, Hopkins, Francis Thompson, G.K. Chesterton, and John Masefield. It also includes some lesser known poets, such as the Roman Catholic nun Augusta Theodosia Drane, the Pre-Raphaelite Arthur W. E. O’Shaughnessy, Yeats’s one-time love interest Katherine Tynan, and the great Canadian poet Bliss Carman. But then it gets really weird.

The big surprise (for me, anyway) was to find so many poets of the Occult Revival and the Celtic Twilight included. I expected Yeats of course—though he only gets two poems! This was, to be sure, before his late flowering and some of his strongest poems, such as “The Second Coming,” “Lapis Lazuli,” and “Sailing to Byzantium.” Here he is represented by “The Rose of Battle” and “To the Secret Rose.” Also included are Yeats’s countryman, the visionary, poet, and social reformer Æ (George Russell) and Yeats’s co-editor of Blake, Edmond Ellis. Alongside these more conventional poets, however, were some real eye-openers.

The collection includes three poems by the (almost entirely unknown today) mystical Freemason W. L. Wilmshurst and work by esoteric historian A.E. Waite, not to mention offerings from William Sharp (also known under the nom de plume Fiona Macleod), the spiritualist Elsa Barker, the Irish pantheist Edmond Holmes, the aforementioned Evelyn Underhill, as well as—wait for it—the magician and all-round naughty person Aleister Crowley—who gets more space than Yeats!

This all kind of blew me away—this was the Oxford University Press, after all. So I checked into the editors, D.H.S. Nicholson and A.H.F. Lee. Both, it turns out, were members of The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn—which kind of shatters Oxford’s reputation for propriety and decorum. But this explains many of the others included in the collection—Yeats, Sharp, Underhill, Waite, Wilmshurst, and (I think Barker)—were also members of the Golden Dawn. And in the same lodge! Not much else is known about Nicholson, he seems to have been independently wealthy, but Lee was an Anglican priest.

Still, how did these guys swing the editing gig? The plot, as they say, here thickens. As I discovered, a young editor then at the Oxford University Press hired the editors for the job. His name: Charles Williams. That’s right: the Inkling—but the edgy Inkling. Williams, not surprisingly, also belonged to the Golden Dawn for a period, so The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse then becomes a kind of in-group project, the Esoteric Squad, so to speak.

Another interesting tidbit: Late in the book, which moves chronologically, in the section in which the Golden Dawn poets appear, two poems attributed to “Anonymous” appear. Usually in these kinds of collections, the anonymous poems appear in the beginning, derived as they are from “the dark backward and abysm of time” in which names often become lost to us. These two poems, “At the Feet of Isis” and “A Ballade of the Centre,” then are curiously placed and curiously attributed. I haven’t been able to find any scholarly evidence yet, but my money says they belong to none other than Charles Williams himself. Here’s the closing stanza of “At the Feet of Isis,” chock full of sophianicity:

Her feet are in the darkness, but Her face

Is in high Heav’n—all Truth inhabits there;

All Knowledge and all Peace, and perfect grace,

And in the wonder of Her joy they share

Who, blindly clinging to Her feet erstwhile,

Obtained the priceless gift—the vision of Her smile.

Tell me this isn’t by the same guy who wrote The Figure of Beatrice.

Amazing what a dime can purchase nowadays.

Not in the book: but it should be!

Michael’s latest book is Sophia in Exile. He can be reached at director@thecenterforsophiologicalstudies.com See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses. Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: The Divine Feminine.

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  • Michael Martin

All aboard!

Well, it’s about time.

I was very pleased recently when my spiritual soul-brother Paul Kingsnorth finally came out in a series of blogposts and interviews that he thinks the world is sinking precipitously toward totalitarianism through the advent of the v@ccine passports and mandates that become more alarming by the minute, especially in Germany, Austria, and the Great Ahriman, Australia, but also in Ireland (where the Brit Kingsnorth makes his home) and a bewildering array of other countries, states, and municipalities such as California and New York. Enough, argues Kingsnorth in his own inimitable way, is enough.

Even Rod Dreher has finally come around and seen fit to comment on this concerning development. He did it using Kingsnorth’s epiphany as a screen in a recent post, though I don’t think he’s entered this fray heretofore. At least not that I’ve found. Must be a slow news week in Hungary.

I honestly don’t understand why it’s taken them so long.

I saw this coming from the proverbial mile away, as early as spring of 2020. It was not hard to predict—and many I know, even good friends, told me I was being paranoid and that such things could never happen. They’re happening. My astounding insight (jk) was not the product of anything remotely resembling spiritual vision, but due to the fact that I’ve been an English professor teaching students the ABCs of rhetoric and its evil stepsister propaganda for twenty-some years. Using texts from Plato’s Gorgias to Huxley and Orwell to to the novels of Philip K. Dick to Adam Curtis’s eye-opening Century of the Self series (and so many things besides) throughout my academic career I’ve been asking students to examine the toxic environment of words within which we are constantly saturated and bombarded. But solid teaching, it seems, is no match for the technocracy. Technocracy is here, and its winning.

I suppose it is a poet’s curse. As a poet and songwriter, I am keenly attuned to language and meaning, to text, context, and subtext. I’m attentive to the hypnotic cadences of lines and the insidious ways messages insert themselves into our awareness—and into our subconscious. I am sure you, gentle reader, could rattle off any number of advertising jingles from your earliest childhood without making a mistake—I was born in the early 60s, and I’m sure I could drop dozens without coming up for air. Political speech operates in the same register: “Just say no,” “I believe in a place called Hope,” “Change has come to America,” “Believe women,” “Make America Great Again,” and let’s not forget the New World Anthem, “Build Back Better.” None of these slogans mean a damn thing, their only quality is how they inject a feel-good soporific into the body politic while the social engineers and technocrats proceed apace in toward their goal of total control, a goal nearing its realization, as governments everywhere, but especially in the “democratic West,” move ever closer to the digital promised land of a social credit system.

People may wonder what this has to do with Sophiology. Everything, actually. As anyone familiar with my work would know (minuscule though that coterie is), my claim is that technocracy is the anti-Sophia (Kingsnorth calls it “The Machine”). It is (as I’ve written) completely Ahrimanic (a term I do not use in a dogmatic anthroposophical sense—so spare me the complaints). Simply put, my vehemence on this subject is a direct outgrowth of my Sophiology—for I see an inverse relationship between the sophiological and the technocratic: the more technocratic the world grows, the less room is there for Sophia to appear.

I felt this technocratic specter rising long ago, far earlier than my earliest attempt at capturing this in writing when I wrote about Blade Runner and transhumanism almost twenty years ago. I’ve been watching it approach and wrote my sophiological works at least in part as a way to alter that trajectory. I’ve failed, obviously, though I take some strange comfort in knowing that the technocrats see my work as enough of a threat to quash traffic to my various internet platforms. Maybe this is why Kingsnorth and Dreher (among others, certainly) have been so reluctant until now to speak up. I hope others join them.

I suspect things may come to a head on or around the twenty-fourth of this month, when Saturn and Uranus form a hard square from Aquarius to Taurus. This square suggests a breaking down of power structures and a tension between authority and technology. I remember, as you might, when the internet was a much more democratic digital environment—and not the Thought Police of the World Archons it is now. Saturn and Uranus were conjunct in 1989—the year the Berlin Wall fell and Eastern Bloc Communism started to crumble. I remember how hopeful I was (my eldest son was born that year) that the world would be a better place. What a chump I was! Communism somehow became cool! When Saturn and Uranus were square in 2000, the world was in a financial crisis (remember Enron?) accompanied by the Y2K panic (computers). When the planets were in opposition—2008—finance and technocrats were in full-on “screw the proletariat” mode with the housing crisis and the tanking of the global economy. I fully expect a financial component to this one (Taurus), but there is also the possibility of something new coming into being (Aquarius). It could get ugly for a minute, but—and this depends on people of good will—that ugliness could turn to beauty.

If my life has taught me anything, it is that the Archons—at whatever level—may be clever, but they’re also entirely lacking in wisdom, which is to say stupid. This is nothing new, of course. Originating in Plato in the Republic, but very popular from the medieval through the early modern periods, the emblem of “The Ship of Fools” has born witness to the incredible folly of the human race, and especially of those assuming the reins of power. Here is Plato’s telling:

There’s the shipowner, larger and stronger than everyone in the ship, but somewhat deaf and rather short-sighted, with a knowledge of sailing to match his eyesight. The sailors are quarrelling among themselves over captaincy of the ship, each one thinking that he ought to be captain, though he has never learnt that skill, nor can he point to the person who taught him or a time when he was learning it. On top of which they say it can’t be taught. In fact they’re prepared to cut to pieces anyone who says it can. The shipowner himself is always surrounded by them. They beg him and do everything they can to make him hand over the tiller to them. Sometimes, if other people can persuade him and they can’t, they kill those others or throw them overboard. Then they immobilise their worthy shipowner with drugs or drink or by some other means, and take control of the ship, helping themselves to what it is carrying. Drinking and feasting, they sail in the way you’d expect people like that to sail. More than that, if someone is good at finding them ways of persuading or compelling the shipowner to let them take control, they call him a real seaman, a real captain, and say he really knows about ships. Anyone who can’t do this they treat with contempt, calling him useless. They don’t even begin to understand that if he is to be truly fit to take command of a ship a real ship’s captain must of necessity be thoroughly familiar with the seasons of the year, the stars in the sky, the winds, and everything to do with his art. As for how he is going to steer the ship—regardless of whether anyone wants him to or not—they do not regard this as an additional skill or study which can be acquired over and above the art of being a ship’s captain. If this is the situation on board, don’t you think the person who is genuinely equipped to be captain will be called a stargazer, a chatterer, of no use to them, by those who sail in ships with this kind of crew?” (Book VI)

The past twenty-some months clearly bear this out. People haven’t changed all that much.

Hopefully, those who survive the coming madness (not to mention the current madness) will be able to bring wisdom back into the center of human striving and flourishing. We’d be fools not to.

Michael’s latest book is Sophia in Exile. He can be reached at director@thecenterforsophiologicalstudies.com See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses. Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: The Divine Feminine.

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