By ANDREW GOUGH
In the Shadow of the Serpent
London has been inhabited for thousands of years and the diversity of its settlements has resulted in a rich, if not peculiar, collection of occult traditions. The earliest humans hunted here over four hundred thousand years ago. While a rich abundance of wildlife and a strategic riverside base would have attracted many different colonies of people, one wonders how the ancients truly saw their landscape, and how many were drawn here due to the distinctive snake-like curvature of the River Thames. The serpent is one of the oldest occult symbols, representing many esoteric concepts, including duality, good and evil, and harmony with the earth. Thanks to the wonders of technology, an image of the serpent in the form of the winding Thames has been broadcast daily to millions of viewers across the globe for nearly three decades, courtesy of the television programme, Eastenders, whose opening credits feature the unique landscape from the air.
Like other ancient settlements in Europe, London was inhabited by megalithic societies who constructed stone circles and burial mounds. The Iron Age introduced more sophisticated settlements and hill forts which, sadly, can only really be appreciated today by aerial photography. These include settlements at Wimbledon Common, Heathrow and the present-day Houses of Parliament, to name a few. Urbanisation has all but erased the megalithic footprint of London, but some remnants, such as Primrose Hill, with its curious burial mound and breathtaking views of London, remain. In fact, Primrose Hill would become a haunt of occultists William Blake and Dion Fortune, amongst others, and plans, albeit later aborted, would be made to construct a colossal pyramid burial complex on top of the hill, complete with over five million honeycomb-shaped tombs.
There is considerable evidence for occult practices having occurred in London in ancient times: beeswax effigies, thought to be five thousand years old, have been found in the Thames, representing man’s attempt at harnessing occult powers via shamanism and many stylised Bronze Age swords have also been discovered in the Thames, suggestive of votive offerings to Celtic deities. Similarly, albeit over a thousand years later, a golden-horned, apparently ceremonial Viking helmet was discovered in the Thames, near Waterloo. The amazing artefact is unique in Europe and appears to reinforce the occult tradition of London’s ancestors and their reverence for the serpentine river.
The Trojan leader, Brutus, established a city here in 1100 BCE and named it Troia Nova, or Trinovantum. Later, the 1st-century BCE King Lud renamed it Caer Lud, which evolved into Caerlundein, Londinium and finally London. It is said that giants lived in London in Brutus’s day and that he captured two, Gog and Magog, and employed them as porters at the gate of his palace. Brutus is also associated with another legend, the London Stone, a curious rock of which little is known for certain. Some say it came from Troy, others believe it was a druid stone or even the stone from which Arthur extracted Excalibur.
A medieval proverb states, “So long as the stone of Brutus is safe, so long shall London flourish”. William Shakespeare wrote about the stone and, intriguingly, many believe that his plays were actually written by Francis Bacon or Christopher Marlowe, both of whom were esoterically connected. Another London occultist, William Blake, wrote of the London Stone in his poem, Jerusalem (1820): “At length he sat on London Stone and heard Jerusalem’s voice”. Clearly, the relic once cast a magical spell on the city. Sadly, it is now embedded in an abandoned building across from Cannon Street Tube Station, its former glory but a distant memory.
Hail the Romans: As Above So Below
The arrival of the Romans marked a significant milestone in the evolution of London’s occult tradition and in 54 BCE Julius Caesar and his men crossed the Thames in West London, signalling the new era.
The Romans were especially threatened by the Druids, who, according to Caesar, were involved in divine worship and human sacrifice, including the burning of prisoners, or even innocents, in ‘wicker men’. Sure enough, London’s native tribes appear to have paid homage to their gods for protection from the Romans, as indicated by a decorative bronze shield with inlaid coloured glass found in the Thames near Battersea that dates to this time. The original inhabitants of London were incredibly resilient and fought bravely to maintain their cultural identity. One hundred years later Queen Boudica sacked the city and soundly, if not brutally, defeated the Romans in retaliation for the rape of her daughters and the killing of the Druids; but the Romans would soon avenge this attack and all but extinguish the Druids and their oral occult traditions.
The Roman invasion changed the landscape, language, culture and thought process of native Britons forever. There are many museum exhibits in London that document these changes via artefacts and re-creations. From an occult perspective there was a less tangible, but no less fundamental, change in consciousness starting to take place: the introduction of Mithraism, and the theology of ‘as above, so below’.
Not much is known of this ancient mystery school, other than it involved Mithras, the Roman God of Light, but we do know that it also involved the ritualistic slaughter of bulls and included a seven-grade system of initiation. Like the Masonic rituals that would be conducted some fifteen hundred years later in London’s Grand Lodge, Mithraism included ritual meals and a secret handshake.
The Romans conducted their rituals in underground temples called mithraea, and several of these evocative temples have been discovered in London, including one remarkable 60-feet long, 26-feet wide temple beneath the, now underground, River Wallbrook.
The origins of Mithraism are uncertain, although it is known to have been popular amongst Roman soldiers, most likely because it provided a comforting framework for the afterlife, and understandably so. In their profession a premature death was almost inevitable. The cult is thought to be Roman or Persian in origin and the name ‘mi-it-ra‘ has been found inscribed in a 1400 BCE peace treaty between the Hittites and the kingdom of Mitanni in Northern Syria. This is interesting, for both regions have a rich tradition of bull veneration and each was contemporary with Dynastic Egypt, where I believe the tradition of Mithraism originated.
In Egypt, the slaughter of Apis (‘bee’ in Latin) bulls resulted in 1000 souls, represented as bees, being born out of the body of the dead bull. The occult tradition of bull slaughter, which is referenced in the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh and the Egyptian Opening of the Mouth ceremony, commemorates what the ancients observed in the constellation of Taurus: a hunter killing a bull with distinctive marks (3 stars) on its forehead, just as the Apis bull has distinctive marks on its forehead.
I believe London’s adoption of the occult tradition of ‘as above so below’ can also be found in the legend of King Arthur, whom every Celtic nation claims as their own, most notably England. In a documentary on King Arthur that I presented for the National Geographic Channel, I expressed my belief, much to the producer’s chagrin, that the ambiguity around Arthur’s origins is due to the fact that he never existed. Rather, he was an archetypical hero, who lived in the constellation of Ursa Major, known as the ‘Great Bear’, meaning Arthur. Man would have observed the Big Dipper, which resembles a platter (the object that was considered to be the Grail in the first complete account) rotating around the Pole Star, promising to return, like Arthur. The night sky also includes an outline of a man with a wounded thigh, which sounds very much like the Fisher King. And, of course, Arthur fought twelve battles and there were twelve knights of the ‘round’ table; one for each of the twelve constellations perhaps? Was the legend of King Arthur just another archetype, much like Mithraism?
The Arrival of the Knights Templar
The Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem was founded in 1099, shortly after the First Crusade. Less than fifty years later they established their headquarters at the Priory in Clerkenwell, the remains of which are now a museum. Across town, the Knights Templar established a base in High Holborn, in a Roman temple once revered by Hugues de Payens. The Knights Templar outgrew their headquarters and built Temple Church between Fleet Street and the River Thames, a round church based on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. In keeping with their power elsewhere in Europe, the Order installed the Master of Temple Church in Parliament, thus ensuring that their powerful occult views would become part of the nation’s legislature.
The land between Fleet Street and the Thames was owned by the Knights Templar and divided into Outer Temple and Middle Temple, with Temple Church serving as Inner Temple. Each existed above the covered-up River Fleet and, in the occult tradition, an underground stream provides divine augmentation to rituals and spiritual attainment.
Come the middle of the 19th century the tale of Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street, began to emerge. The gory urban myth appears to be without historical merit, causing some to speculate that the legend of a serial killer in the vicinity of the Templar precinct may be a memory of former ritual sacrifices. Today a dragon guards the entrance to Temple Bar and reminds one of the esoteric traditions once practiced there.
Despite the Hollywood movie starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, the legend of Sweeny Todd has largely been superseded by one that took place half a century later, in 1888, when a serial killer by the name of Jack the Ripper murdered five women, forming a 5-sided pentagram in the process and removing their organs along the way, including, in some instances, their hearts.
Ritual killings continue in London, and the river Thames continues to be the depository for the ritual remains of victims. In recent years the analysis of limbless torsos discovered in the Thames has prompted authorities to suspect occult ritual and superstition as the reason for the murders. This is not a new tradition in London. The nursery rhyme, ‘London Bridge is falling down’, is said by English Myths and Legends author, Henry Bett, to be the folk memory of the ancient practice of human sacrifice at the building of a bridge.
Summoning the Spirit World
A belief in the occult appears to have helped London achieve prosperity during periods of pending adversity. Dr John Dee (1527 – 1608), who used a crystal ball and scrying mirror to guide Queen Elizabeth through one of the most challenging eras in British history, is perhaps the most renowned example. But there are many other examples of occult traditions in the court of the king and queen. Take, for example, the peculiar tale of King Charles II (1630 – 1685), who presented his mistress, a resident of West London, with a griffin. The dog-like figure with wings fell into a local river, survived and ended up in the Thames, near the point at which Caesar had crossed. It was later paired with a second griffin that Joseph Banks, a scientist who accompanied Captain Cook on his voyages, had brought back from an exotic island in the Pacific Ocean. The account leads us to believe that the griffin may have been a real animal, which multiplied before fading from history, only to be seen once more in the 1980s, and on multiple occasions by various upstanding citizens of West London.
Charles II also domesticated the ravens at the Tower of London, a tradition summed up as follows: “If the Tower of London ravens are lost or fly away, the Crown will fall and Britain with it.” The belief appears to stem from the legend of the Celtic god, Brân the Blessed, whose name means ’Blessed Raven’ in Welsh and who was killed in an otherwise successful battle against an adversary, the Irish King, Matholwch. Brân’s head was buried beneath the spot where the Tower now stands, facing France as a talisman against further foreign invaders. Could the legend of the griffin and the raven somehow be related?
Henry VIII (1491 -1547) created a religious revolt with great consequence when he severed ties from Rome in an act known as the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Given the many cathedrals and orders that were subsequently transformed into ruins, any number of different sects could have been culpable of the act of desecration that awaited the king after his death. On his way from London to Windsor, where he would be buried, the King’s funeral procession rested overnight at Syon Abbey in West London. In the morning it was discovered that wild dogs had ripped open his casket and ravaged his body, leading some to speculate that the attack was a deliberate act of occult revenge enacted by a member or group of individuals from one of the aggrieved monastic orders he had defied.
The Great Fire of 1666 devastated London, destroying over 13,000 buildings. What is less widely known, however, is that occult beliefs prevented an otherwise manageable outbreak from being extinguished. This is confirmed by first-hand accounts of Londoners whose belief in the prophecies of Mother Shipton and Nostradamus, each of whom was thought to have predicted the catastrophic fire, led them to feel disempowered and unworthy of extinguishing the fire and thus saving the city from its destiny.
Out of the ashes came a vision of a New Jerusalem, masterminded by the Freemason and architect, Christopher Wren, who drew on the occult traditions of the Cabala, and the tree of life in particular, in addition to the sacred geometry of the Old Testament. Wren reintroduced the hallowed number of 2000 cubits, or roughly 2/3 of a mile, which represented the distance from the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem (the furthest a Jew was allowed to walk during the Sabbath), and proposed that many of London’s newly-constructed buildings be set 2000 cubits apart. Foremost amongst Wren’s impressive, occult inspired designs is Saint Paul’s Cathedral, which not surprisingly is aligned 2,000 cubits from Temple Bar to the West and 2,000 cubits from St Dunstan’s in the East. Miraculously, the stunning edifice survived the bombings of a world war, and it is no wonder that Prime Minister Winston Churchill addressed his staff each morning with the pensive question; “Is Saint Paul’s still standing?” Poignantly, Saint Paul’s is where Wren is buried. Fortunately for all, the fabulous monument still stands like the esoteric beacon it is was always intended to be.
Other buildings erected after the fire, such as the Monument and Nelson’s Column, were either designed with occult-inspired dimensions or aligned to the solstices. Further, Wren’s student, Nicholas Hawksmoor, followed in the occult tradition by placing Egyptian obelisks on top of churches, forming, in the estimations of some, a pentagram on the ground across London. The tradition of creating buildings with occult dimensions had been re-born and continued in later periods of development, such as the nude, winged statue of Anteros, the Greek avenger God of requited love, erected in Piccadilly Circus in 1892, and which was originally orientated in the direction of Parliament, presumably to send ‘love’ and to produce greater synergies within government.
King George III (1738 – 1820) was a remarkable man and one of England’s many occult-minded kings. In 1769 George III anxiously awaited the completion of an alchemist observatory in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames. In commissioning the work, George III was creating his personal observatory and meridian, despite the fact that the official and Royal Observatory – and meridian, the naval of the country – had been established in Greenwich a hundred years earlier. The King was passionate about astronomy and had instructed his architect, the renowned occultist, Sir William Chambers, to complete the work in time to view the transit of Venus, which occurred that year on the 3rd June.
Meridians have existed since ancient times. While the placement of a meridian is arbitrary, its function is quite specific: to project an imaginary line across the earth’s surface, stretching from the North Pole to the South Pole, esoterically connecting all locations within a given longitude. In the case of George III, he projected his own meridian straight down the serpentine Thames, a stunning riverside landscape, rich in history and renowned for its visionary inhabitants, innovators such as J M W Turner, Alexander Pope, James Thompson, Horace Walpole, David Garrick and William Hogarth, to name a few. The Meridian was special, for it intersected sacred sites along the way, which were part of what George envisaged as a new Arcadia; a diamond in the rough – a paradise amidst the urban chaos of London.
Dawn of the Occultists
Arguably the greatest occult figure of the 18th century, Emanuel Swedenborg (1688 – 1722), hailed from Stockholm, but spent much of his time in London. He eventually moved to Wellclose Square, a former hotbed of esoteric notables, including Rabbi Falk, ‘The Ba’al Shem of London’. Also in the 18th century the London-born poet, painter and esotericist, William Blake (1757 – 1827) became one of a long tradition of writers, whose work may need to be reconsidered in the context of a recent discovery; not a temple, book or artefact, but a portal, supposedly concentrated in the garden of Saint Marylebone Church.
The portal is said by modern occultists to be a stargate to an alternative dimension and consciousness, accessible only by initiates. The so-called energy field/cosmic doorway is said to stretch all the way to Primrose Hill, which is precisely the expanse of land that Blake was writing about in his epic poem, Jerusalem. The occultist, Lord Byron, was born in the church; Francis Bacon was married there, as were Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett. Lord Nelson had his daughter christened at the church and Charles Dickens lived but a short distance away. May each have drawn on the occult energy of the portal to enhance their art?
As the 20th century neared, London became esoterically linked to ancient Egypt and other sacred cities, when an obelisk from the ancient capital of Heliopolis was installed on the south bank of the Thames. Like Rome and Paris before it, and New York shortly thereafter, London now possessed one of the most highly charged artefacts in the occult tradition, an ancient Egyptian obelisk; a powerful talisman to the sun god. Cleopatra’s Needle, as the London obelisk is known, is flanked by two replica sphinxes that appear to guard the ancient structure. In fact, sphinxes adorn the whole of London’s Embankment, including armrests on the benches along the Thames. In 1917, during World War I, a bomb from a German air raid landed near the obelisk, but, inexplicably, produced no real damage. Had the sphinx protected London from a disastrous fate?
Come the Second World War an urban myth arose in which British witches were said to have gathered to assist Winston Churchill in deterring Hitler from advancing on Britain. Given the occult traditions of London at this time, who is to say that the witches did not play their part in the war effort?
The Victorians were obsessive about all matters of the supernatural and the legend of Spring-Heeled Jack, the Bogeyman of London, persisted throughout the reign of Queen Victoria. It is said that the creature could walk through walls, had a pointed nose and ears and fiery eyes. Half a century or so later the creature would return, or so it would appear, this time as a 20th-century apparition of a vampire in Highgate Cemetery.
The legend of the Highgate vampire has its roots in tales of creatures that roamed the north London district of Dracula author, Bram Stoker. The practice of Satanism was not uncommon in London and some believe that the creature with the fiery eyes was manifested by satanic rituals and remained in this realm, only later becoming known as Spring-Heeled Jack and the Highgate Vampire. Speculation aside, one wonders if the legend of Dracula was inspired by London’s occult traditions.
The Theosophical Society, inspired by Madame Blavatsky (1831 – 1891), introduced the notion that the evolution of mankind was governed by a chosen elect known as a ‘brotherhood’. The Ukraine-born spiritualist believed that the occult and science worked in tandem, and that the occult was simply accessing realms that science had yet to conquer. Not surprisingly, her arrival in London in 1887 created quite a stir and she promptly initiated W B Yeats, one of the foremost literary figures of the 20th century, as well as Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, and even Thomas Edison.
Despite its success at displacing Victorian spiritualism, the Theosophical Society had its own competition, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, whose first temple, Isis-Urania, was created by Samuel Liddell Mathers in 1888, and which conducted its first tomb-based rituals at Thavies Inn, off Holborn Circus. The ritual was said to have included the enactment of the death and rebirth of Christian Rosencreuz, the founder of the Rosicrucian Order. The Golden Dawn was alleged to have been based on rituals contained in a coded ‘cipher manuscript’. Others believed it was a ruse to compete with the Theosophical Society. Regardless, the Golden Dawn grew rapidly, converting 50 members in its first year and another 250 in its second, before starting to implode into more offshoots than Clapham Station has train tracks.
Aleister Crowley was initiated as the group began to fragment into various offshoots, such as the Alpha et Omega, which formed in around 1900. Crowley had a fierce reputation as an occultist and his own mother believed him to be the Anti-Christ of the Apocalypse and the ‘Great Beast’. Crowley studied at Cambridge before moving to a flat at 67 & 69 Chancery Lane in London, where his occult studies flourished with the help of a mentor by the name of Allan Bennett, who introduced him to Buddhism. Here the two men sought to perform the ‘Abramelin Operation’, an intense six-month ritual designed to conjure the Holy Guardian Angel. One account suggests that Crowley succeeded, for he is said to have returned home one night only to find his door open and ‘semi-materialized beings’ marching around his flat. Crowley had his hands in all sorts of occult traditions, and despite his Masonic involvement elsewhere in Europe, the United Grand Lodge of England denied him admission.
Another famous occultist of the 20th century was Dion Fortune, who left Alpha et Omega and joined another Golden Dawn derivative, the Stella Matutina (Morning Star), a group originally known as the Mystic Rose or Order of the M R in the Outer. Fortune left because she feared she was under psychic attack, and proceeded to write the definitive book on psychic and occult protection. In 1924 she formed her own cult, the Fraternity of the Inner Light, which met in Primrose Hill.
In 1960 the French poet and occultist, Jean Cocteau, an alleged Grand Master of the Priory of Sion, visited the Church of Notre Dame de France in Leicester Square. Here, he created a mural dedicated to the Virgin Mary, which features a Black Sun and references layer upon layer of veiled occult knowledge.
The year 2000 came and went, with the only homage to the millennium being the creation of a ‘dome’ (now called the ‘O2’), which was nestled in one of the curvatures of the serpent Thames. However, the previous year, 1999, had seen the creation of an even more esoterically potent edifice, the London Eye. This huge, slow-moving Ferris wheel amusement ride stands majestically on the banks of the Thames. The structure dominates the landscape, recalling many occult circular symbols, from the zen-like concepts of completeness and wholeness, to the brutal death of heretics upon the Catherine Wheel. It also includes a brazen Masonic compass in its centre, as well as being named after another ancient occult symbol, the all-seeing eye. The ‘Eye’ became a powerful part of the landscape in a very short period of time and one that is colourfully lit during special occasions, such as New Year’s Eve.
Fast forward to 2012 and the London Olympics, whose logo inexplicably resembled the word ‘Zion’ and whose stadium sits amidst symbolically named streets. One wonders how much invisible influence occult powers may have in Parliament.
The foundations of London’s occult traditions run wide and deep and represent a microcosm of the esoteric tradition the world over. If history is any indication, then it is unlikely that these traditions will fade any time soon, although they may move underground, much the same as London’s forgotten rivers, in order to survive.