‘You scattered the dark mist … and brought pure light’ – The Orphic Hymns [trans. from the Ancient Greek by A.N. Athanassakis]
Initiatory traditions run deep in my family. At least eight generations have chosen to undertake the arcane rites of freemasonry, ‘Orphism’, Mormonism, Theravada Buddhism or Shaivism.
One of these initiates was my maternal 3+great grandfather, Charles Thomas Pearce (1815-83). He was a fascinating character, an atheist Philosophical Instrument maker who belonged to the College of Surgeons, the Eclectic Masonic Lodge and the notorious Cannibal Club. He was also a pioneering homœopath, who spent his life campaigning against compulsory vaccination, animal cruelty and the mistreatment of the mentally ill.
Charles was an initiate of a secretive community that ‘claimed an affiliation with societies derived from the ancient mysteries of Egypt, Greece and Judaea’, whose ‘beliefs and practices had been concealed from the vulgar by cabalistic methods’ [Emma Hardinge Britten]. These initiates considered themselves ‘magians’, a term for Zoroastrian priests with ‘supernatural’ powers, though their methods were said to have been ‘inspired by far loftier aims and regulated by much more pious aspirations than those of most other English magicians’ [‘Louis de B’].
Charles’s fellow initiates were a remarkable collection of familiar names.
They included the homœopath, secret agent and custodian of ‘feral child’ Kasper Hauser, the Earl of Stanhope; astrologer and writer Richard ‘Zadkiel’ Morrison; author of ‘Art Magic‘, William Britten; writers Charles Dickens, Edward Bulwer-Lytton and Wilkie Collins; the infamous explorer, orientalist and president of the Cannibal Club, Richard Francis Burton; occultists Frederick Hockley and John Cavendish Dudley; poet and mesmerist Chauncy Hare Townshend; diplomat Sir Charles Wyke, Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli and Emperor Napoleon III.
As rumours of the group’s existence began to spread, outsiders took to calling them the Orphic Circle. This was in reference to the ancient cult of Orpheus, a prophet of Greek myth, who descended into the Underworld and returned with the secrets of life, death and the deeper universe to ‘civilise’ humankind. Members preferred to apply the term Mercurii to themselves in private, after the classical Messenger of the Gods and master of divination, seeing themselves as ‘Keepers of the Secret Doctrine of Orpheus’.
Unlike the Eleusian and Dionysian Mysteries, which were available to all, the Orphic cult (like that of Mithras) was only available to men. This may have arisen from the myth that Orpheus taught the men of Thrace the arts of sensual pleasure with one another. Orpheus is himself described as the lover of Musaeus, who healed the sick through music; the Argonaut Calais, winged son of the North Wind; and Apollo, god of Light, Music & Truth. It may be for this reason that intimacy with women was discouraged amongst initiates of the ancient Orphic rites. Their rule against the eating of beans is less easy to explain.
The classical world believed Orpheus to be the originator of the Orphic Mysteries, with its pantheon of esoteric deities. These included Phanes, hermaphrodite god of Sunshine and Goodness; Hecate, goddess of realms beyond the world of the living; Eros, the Thunderer, personifying the sexual force that perpetuates the process of creation; Demeter, the Earth Mother; and Persephone, Bringer of Spring. These beliefs and rites centred on the resurrection myth of Dionysus. They rejected the common practice of blood sacrifice and instead claimed to communicate the ‘secrets of the gods’ to humankind through initiations, conferring ‘blissful’ immortality upon each soul, ever united with its very own ‘fixed’ star.
In Victorian London, members of the Orphic Circle met regularly to study esoteric manuscripts. They undertook ‘metaphysical’ experiments, using electricity, magnetism, clairvoyance and even moonlight as ways to explore humankind’s true potential. They also explored possible ways to communicate with other secretive gatherings, such as the Berlin Brotherhood of ‘natural philosophers’, using drug-induced trances, ‘fumigations’ and ‘invocations’. These they combined with the ‘science’ of scrying, using mirrors, crystal balls and quartz obelisks for ‘prophecy, revelation, or inspiration’. (Charles’s own Mercurii scrying tool still survives.)
The founding Grand Master of the London circle was Sir Richard Rawlinson Vyvyan (1800-79). He employed Charles from the 1840s as his personal assistant and together they explored the ‘harmony’ between geological processes, abstract mathematics, spontaneous generation, transmutation of species and ‘self-developing powers’. The result was the publication of a two-volume, transcendental work, entitled ‘The Harmony of the Comprehensible World’. During these years, Sir Richard would seem to have paid for Charles’s medical training at University College. He also moved him into his London home, St. Dunstan’s Villa, in the grounds of Regent’s Park.
Charles’s son, my great-great grandfather, Alfred John Pearce (1840-1923), was also intimately connected with the Orphic Circle. It was onto his shoulders that one of Charles’s fellow initiates, Richard Morrison, passed the mystical mantle of ‘Zadkiel the Seer’ – cabalistic Hebrew name for the Angel of Jupiter, ‘harbinger of wisdom, peace, freedom and reform’. But that’s another story.