Cambridge Centre for the study of Western Esotericism

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“The philosopher, as conceived by Plato is an ardent Lover. He lives all his earthly life in a trembling hope, and, out of his hope, sees visions, and prophesies.”
(J.A. Stewart, The Myths of Plato.)

As I began to philosophically recontextualize Carroll, the man behind the myths began to emerge. It became obvious that myth, in its most primary sense, was as essential to Carroll as it was to Plato. As I began to see the structure of the myth that Carroll was making, the myths that had surrounded him fell away quite naturally. Rather than merely being the subject of the myths, Carroll became a myth-maker. The myth he crafted, however, was neither social nor sexual…it was spiritual. Many of the myths that surrounded Carroll sprung up, in fact, out of a failure to understand Victorian esoteric trends. What has been referred to as the nineteenth century universality of a fad for child prodigies was not actually a fad at all. The Victorian Cult of the Child was, more accurately, a reappearance of the Orphic theogony for the belief in a divine child. In Orphism, the belief was illustrated by the existence of an actual cult that took the Child for the center of its worship and caused his/her adorers to give to him/her as offerings the sort of gifts that may most naturally be supposed to please him/her, namely children’s playthings. (WKC Guthrie, Orpheus and Greek Religion) In order for the divine child to mature into his/her full potential, initiation was required. The concept of initiation was central to both ancient and nineteenth century mystery schools. The thrust of the initiatory process was for the candidate, through a series of trials, to obtain a direct experience of, as opposed to doctrinal instruction about, divinity. Alice, Carroll’s symbol of the divine child, visited the underworld, as an initiatory candidate, as a part of the process of achieving gnosis.

Carroll had been cultivated toward the priesthood from infancy and was expected, as a condition of his residency at Christ Church, to proceed to holy orders within four years of obtaining a master’s degree. He, however, demonstrated reluctance to do this. After delaying the process for some time, he eventually took deacon’s orders in 1861. When the time came, however, for Carroll to proceed to full orders, he appealed to the dean for permission not to proceed. This violated college rules and he was advised that it was probable that he would have to leave his job if he refused to take orders. Carroll never proceeded to full orders and Dean Liddell, for reasons unknown, permitted him to remain at the college. Although there is no conclusive evidence as to why Carroll declined the priesthood, it is quite likely that he was entertaining serious doubts about the Anglican church. It is most conceivable that his interest and involvement in the nineteenth century Platonic revival, as well as in the subsequent theosophical movement, substantially changed his spiritual direction. The exoteric structure, for him, of the Anglican church may well have been supplanted by esoteric insight. Rather than knowing about (episteme) truth, Carroll chose a path through which he could know (gnosis) Truth. This being so, Carroll chose to sing a new song. Instead of dogmatic liturgy, he sang the theosophist’s intellectual hymn to Love and preached from carefully crafted allegory instead of from a pulpit.

The mystical consciousness considers unity as both an internal and external focus as it seeks the truth about reality. The mystic goes beyond specific religious dogmas, espousing an inclusive and universal perspective that rises above doctrinal differences. Generally approached through a purification process, the mystic seeks to transcend his internal duality that constrains his direct experience of the divine. The potential of a transcendent heroic self was traditionally psychologically detailed in powerful myths such as, for example, Theseus and Odysseus. In his own particular way, Carroll turns Alice into Odysseus journeying home to Ithaca. The hero’s journey always involves
the departure, an initiation and the return. The process of becoming conscious requires forming unity out of a pre-existent state of fragmentation. This is achieved through an integration of the ego with the more authentic self, forming a transcendent wholeness. This struggle to achieve a transcendent wholeness, the act of self-recollection, is the heroic struggle. Similar to the Platonic doctrine of anamnesis, the hero is required to gather together what is scattered, of all the things in him/her that have never been properly related, and to come to terms with him/herself with a view toward achieving full consciousness. Alice, as an alter-ego for Carroll’s transcendent heroic self, underwent a gentle initiation in Wonderland so that Carroll could share, discretely, his secret of gnosis. Heeding the advice, written centuries earlier by Roger Bacon, Carroll concealed his secret carefully, leaving it so that it could be understood only by the efforts of the studious and wise.

Now, let us look briefly at some of those concealed secrets. It is interesting that Alice noticed that “a large rose-tree stood near the entrance to the garden: the roses growing on it were white, but there were gardeners at it, busily painting them red.” The theosophical trend that was the most fashionable during Carroll’s time was heavily influenced by the “meritorious order of the Rosy Cross.” Primarily Rosicrucian symbols, as suggested by the name, were the red rose and the cross, or tree, upon which the Old Testament had prophesied the savior would be nailed. Carroll very definitively calls the plant a rose-tree rather than a rose-bush, “‘Would you tell me, please,’ said Alice a little timidly, ‘why you are painting those roses?’” The gardeners answered, “Why, the fact is, you see, Miss, this here ought to have been a Red rose-tree, and we put a white one in by mistake; and, if the Queen was to find it out, we should all have our heads cut off, you know.” In Greek, the noun for cross is stauros and, in gematria, its number is the same number as that of he gnosis (the wisdom). This would be particularly significant in connection with the fact that the Greek word for Rose is rhodon, and its number is also that of the ekklesia (Church). Rose Cross, therefore, would mean, to the initiated, the “Church of the Gnosis.”

Throughout arcane theosophical literature, various intoxicating substances have been used to symbolize a power that can take one out of the limitations of one’s ordinary consciousness and lift oneself into a higher order of knowing and being. Alice was repeatedly instructed to “Eat me!” or “Drink me!” in order to participate in physical transformations that allowed her to access new experiences. In attempting to enter the garden, Alice “found a little bottle….with the words ‘Drink me’ beautifully printed on it in large letters.” Ingesting the substance reduced her physical size to the point that she was afraid that “it might end…in her going out altogether, like a candle.” In order to eliminate this risk, she seized the opportunity to increase her physical size when she “found a very small cake, on which the words ‘Eat me’ were beautifully marked in currants….”

Carroll here uses same words eat and drink as in the symbolic eucharistic rites of the pagan mystery schools. This being so, it seems probable that eat and drink are used here as symbols for spiritual transformation.

Ancient historic Greece had two religions, one a public expression which eventually became associated with the Olympian deities; the other, a private expression connected with the Mystery schools such as those of Eleusis. In the Lesser Mysteries, the rites and ceremonies presented a dramatic form of wisdom-teaching which explored the nature and destiny of man. In the Greater Mysteries, after more direct instruction, a confrontation was presented between the candidate and his innermost being, revealing a self higher than the daily persona or mask. Comparison of the rituals of the Lesser Mysteries, as practiced in the ancient world with slight variations of detail, all reveal a universal story of the descent into the underworld. The candidate, egoistically, “dies” in the regions of the underworld, the lower spheres, where he meets and conquers a myriad of difficulties. Shedding his impermanent self, he dies in giving birth to mastery. In the Greater Mysteries, the passage into the underworld ceases to be a mere ritual. The candidate must now approach “the confines of death” with full knowledge, and in the garment of soul-consciousness pass beyond the veil of order into the theater of chaos. “It is one of the fundamental teachings of occultism that nothing can be truly known which is not experienced, lived through.” The mystic death consists not only in one’s ability to receive spiritual light, but likewise in one’s power to face with equanimity the ravages of entropic chaos. To weld one’s consciousness with beings in spheres lower than the human is a significant test of the spiritual stamina of the individual. It is, in fact, Persephone’s quest. There is substantial evidence that before experiencing the final soul shattering vision of the Greater Mysteries, initiates drank kykeon, an entheogenic potion made from the Claviceps purpurea (ergot) of wheat or barley cultivated on the famous Rarian plain adjacent to Eleusis. The Eleusian initiates, after drinking the kykeon, then spent the night in a darkened hall, where they beheld a great vision, which was new, astonishing, and inaccessible to rational cognition.

Intoxicating substances, throughout arcane literature constituted a symbol for one being liberated from the limitations of their ordinary consciousness and being lifted into a higher order of knowing and being. Alice’s being repeatedly instructed to eat or drink various intoxicating substances, after having descended into the underworld, was reminiscent of the function of kykeon in the Eleusian mystery schools. The Wonderland mushroom, suggestive of the Amanita muscaria, takes a central position in this context, as the caterpillar instructs Alice to eat it in order to change sizes. Interestingly, the caterpillar is a principal symbol for transformation…the foreshadow of the chrysalis. Thus, the symbol for transformation sits atop the transformational agent, the psychoactive mushroom. After ingesting a Wonderland version of the kykeon, Alice’s subsequent adventures illustrate the mystic’s death, as she summons the power to face, with relative equanimity, every manner of unusual being that the underworld has to offer.

Concomitant with Carroll’s interest in theosophy was an interest in the Anglo-Saxon scholarship of his day. Carroll, of course, would have been aware of the existence, in Oxford’s nearby Bodleian Library, of the great Junian Codex, containing the so-called Caedmonian poems, adorned with line drawings illustrating the Biblical story. The drawings in the Caedmonian poems are entitled Anglo-Saxon Attitudes and depict characters skipping up and down, wriggling and having large hands spread wide apart. When Alice was looking down the road to help the King determine who was coming, she suddenly exclaimed, “’I see somebody now! But he’s coming very slowly—and
what curious attitudes he goes into!’ (For the Messenger kept skipping up
and down, and wriggling like an eel, as he came along, with his great hands spread out like fans on each side.)” The King assured Alice that his attitudes were not strange at all, since “He’s an Anglo-Saxon Messenger—and those are Anglo-Saxon attitudes.” Carroll’s Messengers appear to have behaviors similar to the “Anglo-Saxon Attitudes” in the Codex material. Further, Tenniel’s illustrations of the Messengers, Haigha and Hatta are extremely similar to the line drawings in the original manuscript. The Anglo-Saxon Messengers in Through the Looking Glass, Hatta and Haigha, are Mad Hatter and March Hare from the Tea Party in Wonderland. Tenniel lets us in on the secret by showing Hatta still with his cup of tea, sandwich and high hat.

Carroll’s curiosity in Anglo-Saxon scholarship may, in fact, have been an outgrowth of esoteric interests. It was the Angle, Saxon, and Jute tribes who invaded Britain in the 5th and 6th centuries and became known as the Anglo-Saxons. Having left their homelands in northern Germany, where Apollo was said to have dwelled during the winter, they were purportedly particularly intrigued by ancient mystery cults. Their ancestral lineage was that of the mythical northern Hyperboreans. The exact location of the Hyperborean homeland was much disputed. As early as 1824, F.G. Welcker had become interested in linking the ancient amber route from the Baltic, where archaeological evidence for Greek contact was beginning to emerge, with certain classical myths, among which he cited as a “Celtic” story related by Apollonius in which Apollo, while among the Hyperboreans, wept amber. In Greek mythology, the Hyperboreans were a mythical people who lived far to the north of Thrace. The land, called Hyperborea (“beyond the Boreas [north wind]”), was perfect, with the Sun shining twenty-four hours a day. According to Thule Society mythology, Thule was the capital of Hyperborea, supposedly a legendary island in the far Northern regions, originally mentioned by Herodotus from Egyptian sources. In 1679, Olaf Rudbeck equated the Hyperboreans with the survivors of Atlantis, who were first mentioned by Plato, again following Egyptian sources. Supposedly, Hyperborea split into two islands, Thule and Ultima Thule, which were considered to be the center of an advanced, lost civilization whose survivors lingered in subterranean caverns, or according to some legends, within the hollow earth.

It was said that surviving remnants of Hyperborea preserved ancient secrets, chief among which was the concept of the Vril, a latent source of magical energy which could be mastered by initiates via magical rituals. Although introduced by Louis Jacolliot, the concept of the Vril was then given new impetus by Baron Edward Bulwer-Lytton, in his work Vril: The Power of the Coming Race (1871). Through their mastery of Vril, the Hyperborians, known as the Vril-ya according to Bulwer-Lytton, would emerge from their subterranean sanctuaries and conquer the surface of the earth. [Interestingly enough, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) began his work Der Antichrist in 1895 with, “Let us see ourselves for what we are. We are Hyperboreans.”] With the work of Jacolliot, Bulwer-Lytton, and Nietzsche in the public arena, the mysticism of theosophy fell on fertile soil. The Thule Society, accordingly, founded in 1918, borrowed ideology from Madame Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine (1888), maintaining a history of close contact with Blavatsky’s Theosophical Association and followers.

Carl A.P. Ruck, more recently, identified the Hyperboreans as Aryans,and proposed that the Vril was none other than the miraculous soma, the entheogenic mushroom from which the kykeon of the ancient mystery schools had been made. So, again, the possibility arises that Carroll, through utilizing the symbolism of the mushroom and Alice’s descent into the underworld, was mirroring the lineage of the ancient mysteries. The symbolism of the key and keyhole in Alice may, as well, be a reference to ancient mystery practices. Pythagoras, for example, was one of the “veiled” philosophers who revealed his instruction from within a locked chamber behind a curtain. Hence, an esoteric tradition developed that the “keyhole” philosophers or hierophants were the doorkeepers of the Arcanum arcanorum. The privilege was only given to a few to take the gold or silver key and open the bolts that held securely the portals of the domus sancti spiritus. When Alice first arrived in Wonderland she “came upon a little three-legged table, all made of solid glass: there was nothing on it but a tiny golden key, and Alice’s first idea was that this might belong to one of the doors of the hall; but, alas! Either the locks were too large, or the key was too small, but at any rate it would not open any of them. However, on the second time round, she came upon a low curtain she had not noticed before, and behind it was a little door about fifteen inches high: she tried the little golden key in the lock, and to her great delight it fitted!”


The Blind Girl: John Everett Millais




October 18, 2008 at 1:29 pm

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