Vincent St. Clare
The motto of Odd Fellowship, “Friendship, Love, and Truth,” adorned by various symbols of Odd Fellowship.
WHAT IS ODD FELLOWSHIP? WHAT IS THE I.O.OF.?
In 2018 I was initiated into the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (I.O.O.F.) at an Odd Fellows lodge in my town, under the 0°, White, or Initiatory degree. It was me and two other candidates being initiated that night in the lodge room, if I remember correctly.
The month leading up to my initiation I had been scoping out the Order, getting a feel for its history and customs, its tenets and traditions, the members of this particular lodge, and what participation in the organization actually meant.
The I.O.O.F. has a long history, and is one of America’s oldest fraternities. In fact, its history stretches back even further than the founding of America itself. One of the oldest secret societies in the world, the early history of the organization is bathed in obscurity, with some even claiming that there were Odd Fellows as far back as the time of Roman emperors’ reigns. (This claim is quite dubious, however.)
Others say that Odd Fellowship evolved out of the European medieval guild system, and that during the 12th through 14th centuries guilds for those who practiced “odd” or irregular trades began popping up, thus leading to the existence of Odd Fellowship, albeit informally. (Freemasonry is similarly tied to the medieval guild system, which supported stone masons during the Middle Ages.) Various lodges and halls for Odd Fellows are documented as having existed from 1650 onward, a number with their own charters and oaths and some with particular rituals and traditions.
Regardless of when, exactly, Odd Fellowship was established, there were numerous Odd Fellow societies in England by the 1700s. These eventually made their way to the United States, where in 1819 Thomas Wildey founded the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (I.O.O.F.) in Baltimore, Maryland. The I.O.O.F. was an American breakaway from the British Independent Order of Odd Fellows–Manchester Unity, founded in the Manchester, England area in 1810.
Several different Odd Fellows lodges existed in New York City around the time of the founding of the American I.O.O.F., but the I.O.O.F. has since become the largest organization of Odd Fellowship in the world, with two other major branches today existing alongside it: the aforementioned Independent Order of Odd Fellows–Manchester Unity, and the largely African-American Grand United Order of Oddfellows Friendly Society (G.U.O.O.F.S.).
The oath of the Odd Fellow has long been one of aid to society: its historic command is, “Visit the sick, relieve the distressed, bury the dead and educate the orphan.” It should be known that Odd Fellows societies essentially functioned as life insurance agencies before such a service came to exist in society. However, this is not to diminish the fact that Odd Fellowship teaches aid and relief of the distressed as virtuous traits, that by loving kindness and compassion the world is made better.
In 1851 a degree system for women, known as a the International Association of Rebekah Assemblies (or simply the Rebekahs) was instated within the I.O.O.F., and while many women joined, the regular lodge system of the Odd Fellows, once reserved only for men, and the Rebekahs, once reserved only for women, have since become co-ed.
It is quite true that the I.O.O.F. acts as a consistent form of aid or insurance for its members, and so the perks of joining are valuable, however, it offers subtler, deeper benefits as well, in the form of moral growth. (Which, to me, means psycho-spiritual growth.) Ritual drama in the form of initiation raises members to better versions of themselves, ingraining in themselves moral and philosophical tenets that can be brought to aid society at large.
The I.O.O.F. and, indeed, all Odd Fellow organizations are by and large service organizations and to a substantial extent charities: some of their primary objectives are to help others, alleviate suffering, and otherwise benefit the downtrodden. Typically, efforts are made to improve the local community wherever an Odd Fellows lodge is located.
From an outside perspective, those with an eye for fraternalism might see the I.O.O.F. as standing somewhere between a benefit society and a spiritual or ethical empowerment organization. In recent years certain sects of the Odd Fellows have morphed into organizations that look more or less like Rotary Clubs rather than guardians of any sort of arcane wisdom. However, I don’t believe that can be said of all of Odd Fellowship, and in my experience certain aspects of Odd Fellowship are spiritually, socially, and psychologically beneficial.
It was with a spiritual undertaking and a curiosity in whatever wisdom the Odd Fellows were preserving that I decided to join them.
Initiation and initiatory ritual is important in nearly every secret society and Western esoteric or fraternal order, and is a process whereby one is bestowed a kind of status not had before the rite. From a Thelemic perspective it is “the journey inward” (as per Crowley), and ideally affects a change in consciousness, a raising of the perspective to a new height by the revelation of some discreet truth or wisdom by means of the language of symbol and ritual drama.
I can certainly say that there was some element of all of this present in taking my White degree. And, while I am bound by oath and secrecy not to divulge a number of the particularities of my initiation, I can give a general idea of some of the symbols employed and lessons imparted, at least insofar as what they meant to me.
This initiation also had a certain character to it given that I am a confirmed Minerval (0°) in Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.), another secret society and fraternal order, and a baptized Thelemite and member of its eclessiastical arm Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica, the Gnostic Catholic Church. The fact that I assent to many of the ideas put forth by the receiver or writer of The Book of the Law, Aleister Crowley, and the novel ideas inherent to Thelema and the New Aeon, both meshed and clashed in interesting ways with what I discovered about Odd Fellowship.
As an aside: for those Odd Fellows and others reading who are unfamiliar with Thelema, Thelema is a system of spiritual progress, philosophy, or mystical new religious movement initiated by the writer Aleister Crowley in 1904 which declares that every human being has an inherent nature, will, purpose, and plan in life known as the true will, and that by methods of spiritual development known as magick and mysticism, one can bring this true will to light from the depths of the unconscious. Thelema also holds that each person is intimately connected with a personal higher self or “genius” known as the Holy Guardian Angel, a guide to the true will, and that union with, knowledge of, and communication with this entity or nature may be necessary for discovering the true will. Ordo Templi Orentis and its ecclesiastical arm, Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica, base their conduct around the foundational text of Thelema, Liber AL vel Legis or The Book of the Law.
In the I.O.O.F. system, there are four basic degrees, several higher degrees, and various side or “fun” degrees. There are also auxiliary degrees traditionally meant for women, as well as the aforementioned organization traditionally meant for women (known by one name as the Daughters of Rebekah, or simply the Rebekahs), as well as youth lodges, organizations, and the degrees that come with them. The four standard or lodge degrees are the Initiatory or White degree (0°), the Friendship or Pink degree (1°), the [Brotherly] Love or Blue degree (2°), and the Truth or Scarlet degree (3°).
Anyway, leading up to my initiation I was taught first, if I remember correctly, about the three links, or the three-linked chain, the primary symbol of Odd Fellowship or the I.O.OF.. This image includes three chain links, often each of a different color, each signifying one of the primary principles of Odd Fellowship: friendship, [brotherly] love, and truth. (Amicitia Amor et Veritas.) These links are joined together, essentially to show their inseparability. This is as if to ask: how can they exist apart?
The three links of Odd Fellowship.
These ideas being established as the basis of the Order, I was told that the only requirement to join was belief in a supreme being.
Now my view of deity has always been complicated, and I sometimes find myself coming around to the agnostic view, but a lot of the time I’d say I hold something like Spinoza’s view of God, or of panendeism, of a transcendent yet interpenetrative force that gave rise to and is yet one with the established cosmos.
Would you call a force, such as that which may have produced the Big Bang, the same as a being? What separates the two? Consciousness? Well, I have no way of knowing whether the thing that is the basis of our reality is conscious or not, so I choose to be silent about it. That explanation seemed good enough for the Odd Fellows at my local lodge, and soon they allowed me to initiate.
So, not to go too much into detail of the initiatory ritual itself, but the White degree seemed relatively brief, included some rhyme schemes, and much of it I spent hoodwinked—that is, blinded by a spectacles-like device known as a hoodwink—as well as bound to some degree, if I remember correctly. (It was several years ago, and I may be confusing this bondage with that of another rite I underwent. Forgive me if I’m misrepresenting anything here.)
I recall several symbols which, now that I know, are particularly important within the context of the White degree: these include the eye of God, the scythe, the skull and cross-bones, and the triple-chain, mentioned above.
An initiatory banner depicting the symbols important to the White, initiatory, or 0 degree of the I.O.O.F. These symbols are likewise important to Odd Fellowship in general.
The chain we’ve briefly covered, and I’ll do so in more depth below as I discuss the issues of being at once an anarchist, Odd Fellow, and Thelemite; so next let’s look at the scythe:
A great blog on the topic of Odd Fellowship known as Heart in Hand makes some interesting remarks about the symbol of the scythe to the initiate Odd Fellow. In an article on the symbol, author theconductor1819 writes, “One of Odd Fellowship’s most recognizable symbols is the scythe. As you saw above [the article includes a video of a man utilizing a scythe in a video above this text], it can cut grass, but its most important job is to harvest tall crops like wheat. To understand the rural imagery of the scythe it is important to understand its job in field work as well as the notions of sowing, growth, and reaping.”
The author explains that the scythe is associated with the Roman deity Saturn, who himself is associated with time and its passage, and therefore the insubstantiality of events. Note that the hourglass, as a symbol for impermanence and the passage of time and fleeting nature of things, is also an important symbol to Odd Fellows.
The author also notes the most important aspect and use of the scythe, for harvesting or reaping, and it is in this sense that the implement is associated with the grim reaper, the personification of death who comes to reap the living. Yet the scythe not only reaps life. In a sense, it is the reaper of thought, action, and everything else that comes to fruition as a result of causation.
As the author writes:
“The scythe with its rustic simplicity is bound to the statement “As you sow, so shall you reap,” a notion found throughout world civilizations. For humans to live, we must produce. We must produce food so we may eat. We must produce thought so we may evaluate and bring ideas to fruition and then begin again. Universal law is very specific: if you plant wheat you will harvest wheat—not beans. Our whole life is a farm with sowing, growth, and reaping.
“It is important to see the scythe as more than an implement. Its shape and the job it performs in the context of farming has lessons for all Odd Fellows. It is used not merely to reap golden grain for the sheaf, but, in the field of mind, heart, and soul, to gather every precious stalk, every opening flower, every desirable fruit. We must encourage an affluent and exuberant harvest for body, mind, and the communities we serve.
According to the Davis Odd Fellows Handbook (or Pledge Book) of Davis Lodge #169 (updated June 2010), “The Scythe reminds us that as the grass falls before the mower’s scythe, so we all fall before the touch of time.”
What of the skull and cross-bones? This symbol seems fairly straight-forward enough, in that it symbolizes death, but let’s look at what the American Folk Art Museum has to say about it.
There, a placard next to a plaque depicting an Odd Fellows skull and cross-bones symbol reads,
“The skull and crossed femurs, or thighbones, is an image that dates to antiquity and functioned as a memento mori, a reminder that everything that lives must die. The symbol was used by several fraternal groups as a sober reminder of the importance of leading a moral life. It was also part of the Odd Fellows ritual of rebirth. As one Odd Fellows monitor noted, it was the symbol “perhaps…used most frequently, in both sacred and profane mysteries, as a means of impressing the mind with a realizing sense of the seriousness of the end of life.” One regalia catalog listed plaques similar to this one as “emblems to hang in lodge room” that were sold as one piece in a set of sixteen or eighteen emblems.
“The skull and crossbones appears frequently in Masonic contexts as well. It serves as a focal point in a “chamber of reflection,” an anteroom outfitted with arcane symbols intended to encourage deep self-contemplation before a candidate begins his degree.”
The Davis Handbook has this to say of the skull and cross-bones: “The Skull and Crossbones remind us of mortality and warn us to so conduct ourselves on earth that Heaven may be our reward hereafter.” (I personally wasn’t happy with the necessary inclusion of an Abrahamic afterlife, being a Thelemite, but I chalked this up to a particularity of this lodge and its specific handbook, not necessarily the I.O.O.F. or Odd Fellowship as a whole.)
Lastly we have the open and watchful eye of God. Now, as I said before, it was only stated to me that to be an Odd Fellow one needed to be a supreme being. One did not need to assent to the idea that that being was necessarily conscious: however, the eye being open may suggest a kind of consciousness, albeit not necessarily.
The Davis Handbook puts it this way:
“The All-Seeing Eye represents the eternal presence of the eye of God upon all of us, night and day.”
This sounds quite a bit like the Abrahamic God, the deity of Yahweh/Jehovah who judges sin. (And, of course, sin simply does not exist in the Thelemic view, nor is there a being who judges it.)
Writing in Heart in Hand, Odd Fellow Scott Moye goes into the particulars behind the symbolism of the open eye of God in Odd Fellowship:
“In older various forms of ancient symbolism, we often see a symbol showing one eye open and one eye closed. The closed eye of course refers to the subjective internal world of our mind. The open eye refers to the objective external world our mind is engaging. Odd Fellows uses (sic) only the open eye, which in ancient symbolism refers to the objective world.
“So, the open eye does not only represent the All Seeing Eye of the Great Architect. It also shows us that our work–the work of “being Odd” is in the objective world. The world where, with open eyes, we see the impoverished, the helpless, the distressed. The open eye encourages us to look out upon the objective world and provide the help that we can provide.”
Anyway, these were the mainstay symbols that I noticed and recall from my initiation, my taking of the White degree. What this imparted to me was this: God watches us all; all actions, thoughts, feelings, and phenomena have consequences; all life ends and all things are impermanent (very similar to the Buddhist mark of anicca); and in the midst of all this we ought to embrace a life of friendship, love, and truth, bound as one.
The main website of the grand lodge of the I.O.O.F. in Texas states this about the importance and meaning of the initiatory (White/0°) degree:
“The initiatory degree is required in order to attend an Odd Fellows meeting. With the initiatory degree you are a full fledged voting member of the lodge and able to participate in business meetings. In the initiatory degree you will witness a representation of our mortal existence, which begs the question; “How will I spend my life?” In our modern fast paced society there are many things that compete for our attention. As Odd Fellows we are bound by sacred obligations to extend the hand of fellowship as we are commanded to: visit the sick, relieve the distressed, bury the dead and educate the orphan. In short you will commit, as an enlightened member of our order, to do your part to build a better world.”
How will I spend my life? I ask myself this, or something akin to it all the time, as a Thelemite. “What is my true will?” is similar enough, and that is the imperative question for every Thelemite. Either way, one is asking, essentially, what one is really to do, now that one is here, alive, on this planet.
And surely death, those skull and cross-bones, make the greatest impression when addressing this question during the initiatory degree ritual. Because not only do you encounter the symbol on a banner, you encounter that “symbol,” after another manner, in much more visceral and real way, right in front of your face.
I won’t go into further details. (For the sake of secrecy, of course.)
Taking my White degree did make an impression on me. It didn’t exactly reveal anything to me I had never considered before, but it reminded me of things I felt were important, though a few (such as the consciousness and watchfulness of God) I either disagree with or at times question.
I was happy with my decision for a few weeks. However, I soon became a bit conflicted.
I quickly began considering my inclusion in the Odd Fellows from the standpoint of both my Thelema and my anarchism (if you’d like to know, I happen to not have a lot of love for the state or capitalism), and I generally found that, for myself—that is, from the point of view of my personal interpretation of Thelema and anarchism—both made me question Odd Fellowship, at least as presented to me on the various Odd Fellows websites and from other sources on the topic.
The way Odd Fellowship had been presented to me at my local lodge, as simply a society centered around friendship, love, and truth, whose members professed the existence of a supreme being (though without qualification) and nothing beyond that simply didn’t hold up to the research I was doing into Odd Fellowship elsewhere. It was becoming more and more nuanced as I was reading more and more about it, and particularly more dogmatic and Christian in its views, to my understanding.
So, I respectfully left my lodge in search of other things.
Below I’ll explain why I feel like Thelema (and to another extent anarchism) may clash with Odd Fellowship in certain ways:
First of all, let’s look at where the very basics of Odd Fellowship—friendship, love, and truth—come in the way of Thelema as I interpret it. In principle they don’t, but by elaboration from various sources they certainly may.
Now the principle of friendship is one that is natural to me. I won’t appeal to any doctrine of spiritual principle for why it is important. It just is. I’ve always tried to be a friendly person, as much of a hermit as I may be these days. As the courts in this country (I’m American) are ideally supposed to treat people as innocent until proven guilty, I try, on days I’m feeling less cynical at the very least, to treat people as friends until proven otherwise. Wouldn’t the world generally be better if we all approached one another in such a manner?
The page What’s an Odd Fellow on the official I.O.O.F. website has this to say about Odd Fellows and friendship:
“An Odd Fellow is an advocate of FRIENDSHIP and never looks at people with prejudiced eyes or bases his judgment on outward appearances. He supports the idea that all people irrespective of creed, race, color, nationality, social status, sex, rank and station are brothers and sisters. He does not take an undue advantage of his power or the weaknesses of those around him. He is gentle in behavior and never inflicts pain. He avoids impurity in thoughts and unchaste conduct. He also knows that he should respect himself by following temperance in his desires and fighting against vice of every form, chastity of person, and purity in heart and mind.”
Some comments on this paragraph:
A Thelemite generally regards all human beings as co-supreme Gods like he is, or perceives himself to be, and so brothers and sisters upon earth partaking in the same divinity which is manifestly one with nature. However, to assume that it is never necessary to inflict pain or come into conflict with someone else ignores the plain fact that the Thelemite is also called to defy (or in extreme cases even destroy) those who would thwart his liberty and the liberties of others, as per Liber OZ. (Or Liber LXXVII.) In my view, the confident Thelemite believes firmly sic semper tyrannis. He is not a pacifist, as Ra-Hoor-Khuit, to whom he pledges his allegiance, is a force of war and vengeance against all that which thwarts the (true) will. That is not to say, however, that violence is the immediate answer to a given conflict, but that it may sometimes certainly be so.
So, the Odd Fellow avoids impurity in thoughts and unchaste conduct? (According to their official website it would appear to be so.) This is plainly incompatible with the fact that, as per Liber OZ, which is basically the foundation of Thelemic ethics, “man has the right to think what he will,” and to “love as he will,” so that one may “take your fill of love as ye will, when, where, and with whom ye will.”
The Thelemite also does not follow temperance unless it is his will to do so, though the cleverness and intelligence of a Thelemite may indicate to him when and how he is being ruled by his passions, rather than the other way around. If it is the case that his passions are ruling him rather than him ruling them, then it is natural that he is actively thwarting his own will, and thus necessarily must exercise temperance if the true will is to shine through. This, of course is an if, however, not a must, and the language exercised on the official I.O.O.F. page seemed to imply a certain degree of “thou shalt.” (The sole dogma of Thelema is “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.”)
Thelemites do not fight against vice, unless by vice we mean that which thwarts true will. Note what it states plainly in Liber AL (II:52):
“There is a veil: that veil is black. It is the veil of the modest woman; it is the veil of sorrow, & the pall of death: this is none of me. Tear down that lying spectre of the centuries: veil not your vices in virtuous words: these vices are my service; ye do well, & I will reward you here and hereafter.”
Vice, lust, carnal pleasure and joy are likewise the pleasures of Godhead in Thelema. It is God’s, or the universe’s, joy to see our joy and rapture upon the earth. As we are microcosms of the universe, which is the macrocosm, when we experience joy, so does the universe, and therefore God.
Let me be clear: I hadn’t read this extract from the I.O.O.F. website before taking my initiatory degree. If I had, I may have had second thoughts about joining the Odd Fellows. That being said, friendship as a quality is not in opposition to Thelema, and Thelema may even encourage it, so long as that friendship aligns with will.
Consider the second link the chain of the Odd Fellows. Love, like friendship, is important. Very important. Loves of all kind swells in my heart: and I’ve known romantic love, the love of friends, of parents, of acquaintances—even spiritual love.
O.T.O. is very much based upon love. In fact the order operates in the love of the spirit of universal brotherhood, but moreover “love under will,” which is part of the Law of Thelema. (Its paramount doctrine.) Will is essential in and to Thelema, of course, but so is love, particularly divine love (agape), which, it should be mentioned, is not mere sentimentality, but rather union, as implied by the term yoga. (According to Crowley.) This love is understood to be directed by the divine will, yet at the same time synonymous with will.
The I.O.O.F. website has this to say about the love of an Odd Fellow:
“An Odd Fellow is an enactor of LOVE in a way that he feels jointly responsible for his fellowmen and prepared to give attention and help wherever and whenever help is needed. He is a person who treats others, especially women and children, with dignity and respect. He knows the application of sympathy, sincerity, unselfishness, and generosity. He accepts the fact that nothing is perfect but believes that he has an obligation to contribute in making the world a better place to live.”
This is all well and good. There is nothing in Thelema that turns aside our compassion, but rather it is noted by Liber AL that “compassion is the vice of kings.” This can be interpreted in different ways—one way it is interpreted is that, vices being the “service” of Godhead, and “kings” being the enlightened of society, compassion is good and naturally flows from one who is pursuing or has accomplished their true will. Another, more cynical interpretation is that compassion is the last of the ugly virtues—the “good” of the good we are to be saved from, as per the Mass of the Phoenix—if we are to be delivered into true liberty. I chose to believe that compassion is a good thing.
I do not believe that women deserve more attention or help than men by dint of their sex. Woman is God just as man is, and to pity her is to look down upon her as lowlier than the God she is.
As Crowley wrote in his essay “Duty”: “Pity, sympathy and like emotions are fundamentally insults to the Godhead of the person exciting them, and therefore also to your own. The distress of another may be relieved; but always with the positive and noble idea of making manifest the perfection of the Universe. Pity is the source of every mean, ignoble, cowardly vice; and the essential blasphemy against Truth.”
There is nothing written in any Thelemic text which condemns dignity or respect, and, as far as I know, there is nothing in particular written about how one ought to treat children aside from Crowley’s recommendations to the O.T.O. as to how to care for families and kids, wherein it is stated that children should be fostered by the order to grow in freedom to explore their own natures and capacities.
Sympathy, like pity, is not actually empathy, which is the kind of feeling with which a supreme being regards another supremacy.
Sincerity can be addressed alongside truth, below.
Unselfishness is not inherently harmful, but one should never be unselfish at the expense of one’s true will. Of course, it may be one’s true will to be unselfish and helpful, as if, for instance, it is one’s true will (or part of it) to be an EMT or to feed the homeless.
Generosity is not required of the Thelemite, but it is certainly a boon to one who participates in O.T.O. A brother or sister of the order may show their love for their brethren through generosity, of course.
It may be wise to remember what we read in Crowley’s Liber Librae:
“Do good unto others for its own sake, not for reward, not for gratitude from them, not for sympathy. If thou art generous, thou wilt not long for thine ears to be tickled by expressions of gratitude.”
Truth is trickier. It is clear that Odd Fellowship values truth and honesty above most things, but for the Thelemite, while truth and integrity is generally valuable, it is not always necessary, at least I would say. (Granted, there are about a thousand interpretations of Thelema for every hundred Thelemites, so don’t let me opinion on this matter (or really any matter) be the final word.)
The only sin is restriction, according to Liber AL, and beyond this Crowley once stated (In his Book 4) that, “The sin which is unpardonable is knowingly and willfully to reject truth, to fear knowledge lest that knowledge pander not to thy prejudices.”
Yet it is also the case that certain high adepts have the ability, and perhaps sometimes even the responsibility, to utilize falsehood to their advantage or for the “greater good”.
Crowley wrote in The Book of Lies: “The Master (in technical language, the Magus) does not concern himself with facts; he does not care whether a thing is true or not: he uses truth and falsehood indiscriminately, to serve his ends.”
The official I.O.O.F. website has this to state of the Odd Fellow and truth:
“An Odd Fellow is a pursuer of TRUTH and adheres to equality, justice and righteousness. He sees searching for truth as searching for clarity in the sense of his life. Every time a small piece of truth is found, he will try to use it only in ways where he will be able to be true to himself and his fellowmen. Oftentimes, he thinks before he acts and speaks. He knows that, as a human being, it is a fact that he can think. He gives account to himself and knows that before he starts doing something, he can make the choice what to do and can think it over and consider whether the choice was the right one. He believes that making good and well-considered choices is called “behaving in a responsible way”.”
This account seems to fit best with the Thelemic view, albeit for the fact that as Thelemites we do not necessarily discount lying as a necessity at times and a simple indulgence (remember that we do not believe in sin) at others. This is also not to discount the fact that exaggeration can be beneficial in a number of instances.
MY THELEMA AND OTHER I.O.O.F. TENETS AND PRACTICES
The Official I.O.O.F. page states that the following are additional teachings Odd Fellowship provides its members:
- Wise and serious truths and opens up before its members opportunities for useful service.
- Belief in a Supreme Being, the Creator and Preserver of the Universe.
- The lesson of fraternity, that all are of one family and therefore brethren.
- The importance of the principle of Friendship, Love and Truth.
- The privilege and duty of individual sympathy, mutual assistance and every-day service to ones (sic) fellows.
- That humanity was intended to be one harmonious structure.
- That each individual is a unit in that God-made temple.
- Its members how to stand on their own feet, yet walk in step with their neighbors.
- The difference between right and wrong.
- That it is more blessed to give than to receive.
Personally, not all of this agrees with my interpretation of Thelema. I do not believe that right and wrong can be delineated aside from the notion of true will—whether one is to pursue one’s own or allow others to pursue theirs’, one the one hand, or restrict that freedom, on the other. I do not believe that it is always more blessed to give than to receive, at there are certainly those who don’t deserve a dime (or anything else) from me. The other tenets I either agree, disagree, or half-agree with.
In my few times in the lodge room of my local lodge, we recited the Lord’s Prayer, which I found curious given that I.O.O.F. states that it is “non-political and non-sectarian” and that people regardless of race, religion, creed, etc. can join. The Bible was also present and used during our lodge meeting, and I discovered these were regular practices throughout I.O.O.F. lodges.
Nevertheless, it is often well-understood that 10 Thelemites can give you 100 different interpretations of Thelema, as I essentially stated before, and so it would be presumptuous to say that a Thelemite could never be an Odd Fellow, or at least a member of the I.O.O.F. as it exists today.
ODD FELLOWSHIP AND MY ANARCHISM
I consider myself an anarchist. I feel the state, and therefore the government and the structures it begets, are illegitimate; that hierarchies are largely unjustified; and that capitalism is an unjustified hierarchy. My anarchism is also bolstered by my Thelema: capitalism and the state come in the way of my expression of my true will.
On the official I.O.O.F. website’s How to Join page, it states that “Any person of good character, of any race, gender, nationality and social status, who is loyal to their country and believes in a Supreme Being, is eligible for membership.”
First of all, the notion of what constitutes “good character” is fairly subjective, and secondly (and most importantly here), being loyal to one’s country is not something anarchists are exactly known for.
Now, I am loyal to the people who live in my country. In that sense I am loyal to my country: I am loyal, or rather give the benefit of the doubt, i.e. loyalty until I’m eventually stabbed in the back (if that so happens), to the people who live in my country, albeit also worldwide.
I am not loyal to the state, or the government, and I do not agree with its laws, which I find arbitrary and imposed against the liberty of free people everywhere.
Surprisingly, the issue of loyalty to my country did not come up when I joined Good Shepherd Lodge. I feel they may have missed a few questions here or there.
Additionally, an image macro on the aforementioned website states that the Odd Fellow is “faithful” to his country. This signals nothing little more than to me, as nations themselves are arbitrarily carved up geopolitical power-grabs by people far richer and more powerful than you or I will ever be. (Certainly the issue of culture comes up when considering borders, but why must the fact that one culture is endemic to one place mean that it can never exist in another?)
I discovered recently that Odd Fellows conduct an annual “pilgrimage” to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington, D.C., presumably to pay their respects to a military which has largely fought to further the interests of bourgeois institutions and killed countless people in the process.
Lastly, during lodge meetings American I.O.O.F. members (myself included during the brief time I was involved) recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the United States flag, which is wholly anathema to the fact that that flag is, to me, a symbol of authoritarianism.
Despite all this, I will give I.O.O.F. a bit of a pass in that there must be some understanding of the context in which its patriotism operates: the need for declared allegiance to one’s country is essentially a safeguard that was put in place to ensure that members of the order would not use their power, prestige, or status within the I.O.O.F. to break laws or harm the government, which of course would have landed the order in serious trouble.
As reddit user jthanson (a past grand master of an I.O.O.F. grand lodge) explained in response to me on an I.O.O.F. subreddit thread I started asking about how I could be an anarchist and at the same time and Odd Fellow, given the order’s patriotism:
“It’s great that you’re thinking about this. It means you take your obligations as an Odd Fellow seriously and that the Order is meaningful to you. I think having some context for what we do in our ritual will help you to understand your relationship to Odd Fellowship better.
“The reason for requiring members to be loyal to their country comes from the 1950s. There was a lot of fear around Communism and specifically around using the secrecy of lodge meetings and activities for seditious activities. To counter that, the organization changed the “Secret Work” to the “Unwritten Work.” We also adopted the requirement that members be loyal to their country. What that means is that no member would ever use the secrecy of Odd Fellowship to do anything against the government. One of the reasons the Odd Fellows still exist in Cuba is because our lodges were apolitical and didn’t threaten the progress of the revolution.
“In the context of Odd Fellowship, being “loyal to one’s country” doesn’t mean that you’re going to necessarily support this government. It just means you’re not going to do anything under cover of lodge secrecy to attack or destabilize the government. In fact, I think that Odd Fellowship fits well with a libertarian philosophy because the idea of Odd Fellowship is that members take care of each other and the wider community at large without need for government. Odd Fellowship grew from the tradition of workers providing mutual aid during the time when governments did not provide any services to citizens.
“Ultimately you’ll have to decide what’s going to be best for you. Based on the fact that you’ve thought very hard about the meaning of what you’re doing in Odd Fellowship, I think you will be a great member. I encourage you to continue your membership and learn more and more about Odd Fellowship. Take the Three Degrees; join an Encampment and take the Encampment Degrees. Continue your journey in Odd Fellowship and work hard in your lodge.”
To clarify, in the I.O.O.F. an Encampment is a higher organization than a base lodge (but not with the greater privileges, jurisdiction, and responsibilities that a grand lodge holds) in that it confers several higher degrees than a regular lodge, which can only confer the four primary degrees.
I have no problems with the I.O.O.F. or Odd Fellowship in and of themselves. In fact, today I find much of their work admirable. On the whole, if people find Odd Fellowship and the I.O.O.F. paths to bettering themselves and the lives of those around them, that’s great. However, for a certain amount of time, maybe some several years, I found the doctrines of Odd Fellowship—namely the nationalism, moralism, and Abrahamism—kept it from working for me as an anarchist and a Thelemite.
Yet, somehow, as much cognitive dissonance as I suffered, and to some degree continue to suffer from, I came back to my local lodge recently and began working with them again. I re-joined, and actually received my official I.O.O.F. membership card. In fact, I’m looking to take the other three lodge degrees.
How do I justify this, after everything I explained about myself, above?
Well, for one, despite what I believe, I really do want to just sweep the extraneous ideals peddled by the I.O.O.F. aside and get to work helping people: I want to have an outlet to do good for others, and the I.O.O.F. seems like the perfect place for that kind of work.
Secondly, I admittedly, and unashamedly, cherry-pick: just as I do not assent to every single “doctrine” of Thelema—not everything Crowley said or wrote is written in stone, and much of what he said I simply disagree with or find unbelievable—I also understand that surely I do not need to assent to every single doctrine promulgated by the I.O.O.F. in its published material or on its websites in order to do good work for others and express the ideals of friendship, love, and truth. I do not need to believe that God is actually watching me in order to be loving, and I do not need to be loyal to the state to be a friend to others.
Perhaps this makes me a renegade Odd Fellow. Yes, I go through the motions in the lodge: I say the pledge, I declare my beliefs, but in my heart I know what it is I assent to and I know that the real prize of Odd Fellowship has, so far, been the work of making the world a better place despite the tid bit doctrines of the order which I do not wholeheartedly agree with.
And as for the ritual: all in all, I found my initiatory experience meaningful and beautiful in its own way, and a great reminder of the ever salient facts of death, impermanence, and focusing on what is valuable in our fleeting lives. Those reminders impressed upon my mind greater facts than the need to prop up the state, or convince myself that somehow God has an Abrahamic flavor. Those reminders convince me to do good for others simply because it pleases me to do so, to embody friendship, truth, and love while not being a pedant on what I feel to be the divisive and sectarian topics of God and country.
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9 thoughts on “Anarchist, Thelemite, Odd Fellow: A Conflicted Initiate (and an Account of the Initiatory Degree) -by Vincent St. Clare”
Great article! I also am a Thelemite and an Oddfellow . I too struggled with how you can be both but once you figure out that they work together you create something almost new and stronger. I hope to see more Thelemites in the future join in the ranks of Oddfellowship. I always refer to Liber Librae as well to do good unto others for the sake of doing good , not for reward . Oddfellowship is all about helping out your fellow man . Even if that means building up your own character to help out others . It can definitely be someones True Will , why not? Remember that in Thelema Love is the union of opposites so to me that is more reason to reconcile the so called differences I see in the beliefs. FLT and Do what thou Wilt shall be the whole of the Law. Love is the Law . Love under Will.
Liber Librae is a good point to bring up and, now that you mention it, I probably should have brought it up in the essay, since it’s one of the documents in the Thelemic canon stressing kindness and compassion. I’d also like to point out Liber Aleph’s chapter DE STULTIS MALIGNIS, which notes that it can be good to help others, but that it’s best to do so only if they’ve asked for help explicitly so as to not interfere with their will. All in all there seems to be (apparent) conflict or contradiction regarding compassion in Thelema. Granted our highest doctrine includes the principle of love, and that being the case, I generally approach others in the spirit of love when I can. I don’t, however, think that most Thelemites would give you the same or even similar answers to this quandry.
Nevermind, I just remembered I did quote Liber Librae!
Thank you for contributing this. I must admit that I previously knew nothing about Thelemism but now I feel like I have a decent overview of it. Your writing was insightful, even-toned, and well-researched. A very deep read!
I can tell you that you’re not alone in having some reservations about the religious and patriotic aspects of our rituals. Most members who I know who admit to such thoughts have come to the conclusion that it’s worth it in the end to make peace with whatever philosophical objections they have. I’m glad they do because as the Order evolves (even if very slowly), other perspectives should be welcomed.
Thanks again for the time and effort you put into this. I hope you continue your journey in Odd Fellowship and enjoy what it offers.
Thanks. Yes, I can see that Odd Fellowship is a system in flux and that it’s more accommodating than not. Ultimately I find it has worked for me so far, and Thelema, while in some ways contrary to the very specific letter of Odd Fellowship, in other ways fits nicely with it. I think it ultimately depends on what you understand to be meant by terms like “love” and “God”.
My lodges are definitely filled with people from all thoughts and religions. We often just say “higher power” as opposed to “supreme being” as we have had serious conflicts from members who range from Buddhist and Hindu, to Humanists and other Nontheistics. It brings us many issues as they already feel forced to work within the very Judeo-Christian rituals.
I thank you for your in-depth insight on this perspective. FLT!
I’m slowly reading Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid. He talks a lot about guilds, and a little about secret societies. These kinds of voluntary, non-state organizations are critically important to his vision of Anarchism.
There’s so many flavors and traditions in Anarchist thought, but the stuff I’ve read from Bakunin, Kropotkin, and Graeber fits very well into Odd Fellowship.