The Red Admiral

From our dear Dr. Dann…

Harris 1766 The Aurelian

The Whittlesey Red Admiral


“Oh! Miss Clarke ­– the butterfly!”

All the other girls had been quietly working at their desks on February 9, 1928, when the solitary Red Admiral had appeared in a corner of the classroom window, in the exact spot where both Miss Clarke and her pupil had seen it together the year before. This was the 17th year in a row that a Red Admiral butterfly had come to this corner of this window, of this particular Girls National School in Whittlesey, England – a modest Fenlands village about 90 miles north of London.

Three days later a letter came to Miss Clarke at her 95 Station Road home, from Mr. Charles Fort of 39A Marchmont Road, London, inquiring if the Red Admiral had yet appeared. Fort had first read about the faithful Whittlesey Red Admiral the previous spring; the London Daily Express reported on its March 2nd appearance that year, consistent with the previous 16 years, when it had typically arrived at the end of February or the first of March. He had written to Miss Clarke, who had verified the Express’s story – though she confessed she had not been present for every one of the 16 annual appearances. In reply to Fort’s second inquiry, she wrote:

As I am writing, the visitor is fluttering about the window, and seems quite lively. Last year’s visitor lived about a month after its appearance, and then we found it dead.

There is nothing else that I can tell you about our annual visitor, but really it does seem remarkable.

What made this perennial visitation of special note was not just the recurrence in such an exact and unlikely spot, but its unlikely timing, for in good years Red Admirals migrated north to the Fenlands in late April or May.

It seems equally worthy to note that Charles Fort, the indefatigable chronicler of all Prodigies and Wonders, wrote to Miss Clarke at all, much less on two occasions. He did not write to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to verify the report that their expedition in July 1927 had found copious quantities of manna draped upon the leaves of tamarisk trees. He neglected to investigate further the notice regarding the millions of mice that had manifested that summer in the fields of Kern County, California. These were but two mysteries among thousands that he had scribbled onto the one-and-a-half by two-and-a-half inch scraps of paper he used for notecards. From just such miniscule notes, he had already fledged The Book of the Damned (1919) and New Lands (1923), a pair of brilliantly witty critiques of contemporary natural science that doubled as invitations to muse on the possibilities of other worlds. These two tomes had been researched at the New York Public Library; for four years now he had been living in London, just a ten-minute walk from the British Museum, where he carried out his research in its library – the world’s largest.

Charles Fort was in 1927 the world’s premier diagnostician of Planet Earth’s infinite strangeness, gazing relentlessly into that “Super Sargasso Sea” he imagined hovering close at hand. He was interested in the extra-zoological fall from the sky of both vertebrates – fish, frogs, tadpoles, snakes – and invertebrates – periwinkles, worms, ants, aphids, bees, beetles, fireflies, hummingbird hawkmoths, ladybirds. Fort had catalogued and questioned them all, both the reports of their sudden and unprecedented appearances in particular places and their notable instances of scarcity. To date, however, his collection of insect enigmas had been strictly collective, plural, and populous, not singular, like the Whittlesey Red Admiral.

Singular, but multiple, since, like most of the world’s 28,000 species of butterfly the Red Admiral – Vanessa atalanta – lives out its entire life cycle in less than a year. The adult butterfly’s life span rarely goes beyond the month reported by Miss Clarke. Seventeen seasons would demand seventeen individual Red Admirals to have made the journey to Miss Clarke’s classroom window. How did they communicate – and then triangulate – this specific and altogether anonymous locale? Might they have, like the super-navigating hounds and felines of legend – sixth sense-scented their way to that window, to the delight of the girls and their teacher? Or was the expectation of delight the very signal that brought them, a pheromone of a very different color and taste than that imagined by orthodox science?

Gathering material in 1927 for his third manifesto, tentatively titled Skyward Ho!, Fort sought “the underlying oneness in all confusions,” by way of a simple polarity – continuity vs. discontinuity. The Red Admiral qualified as a conspicuous hybrid, “remarkable,” as Miss Clarke said, for both its continuity – its fidelity of appearance – and its “discontinuity” with all the world’s other Red Admirals, who, on February 9th (at least those at latitude 52 ½º North) were fast asleep, awaiting the warming Sun that would come after the spring equinox. In the vast profusion of preposterous, grotesque, and seemingly inexplicable incidents that made up Skyward Ho! (which, in keeping with the mercurial Mr. Fort, was also christened at various stages God and the Fishmonger, The Time Has Come!, and its eventual title – Lo!), the Whittlesey Red Admiral was easily overlooked by even the most careful reader.

A Barnumesque menagerie roamed through the 15 page-chapter in which Charles Fort had pinned the Whittlesey Red Admiral. Millions of African snails, Achatena fulica, suddenly appeared in a four-square-mile corner of Kalutara, Ceylon in 1910. For good measure, simultaneous with this unprecedented appearance (the snails had never been seen before in that area) there was an invasion of unusually large scale insects. In September 1929, a 31-inch-long alligator was killed in the Hackensack Meadows. A distinct biogeographical discontinuity, but matched with a chronological continuity, for the New York Sun had reported that 4 days later a 28-inch-long alligator was found in a small creek near Wolcott, New York – about 300 miles north of the meadowlands. Along with the Kern County mice explosion of 1927, Fort was aware that mice by the multitudes had also manifested in May 1832, in the fields of Inverness-shire, Scotland; according to the Magazine of Natural History the witness had compared the markings of these mice with ones pictured in books, but they did not match. The field guides contained no images of the speckled snakes that fell at Hawthorne, Massachusetts, and the venomous Egyptian adder that in 1920 was found in Gower Street, just a stone’s throw from the British Museum, was but one of three that showed up in as many days. Neither the butcher nor postman nor physician who dispatched them checked a field guide before killing the snakes. Over the next three weeks, continuity mixed promiscuously again with discontinuity, as adders appeared outside of the Roman Catholic Cathedral at Westminster, under a mat at Morpethmansions, and in a field in Willesden, North London.

Next there were eels and crayfish, drained ponds that filled with tench, and ditches into which spontaneously generated perch. Science in 1902 reported on a pair of squid caught in Lake Onondaga in western New York state; Fort failed to find convincing the Princeton University invertebrate paleontologist Prof. Arnold Ortman’s explanation that fishermen used squid for bait. Fort coined scientific-sounding neologisms for them all – “localized repetitions,” “persisting translator currents,” and simply “teleportations.” Stepwise in the direction of the Whittlesey Red Admiral, Fort persisted, offering as further evidence of discontinuity the periodic appearances and disappearances of Barbary apes at Gibraltar; a parakeet in a Scotland farm yard; and a shower of flesh and blood in Los Nietos Township, California. This last disgusting datum seems calculated for literary effect, set as it was cheek-to-jowl with the uniformed schoolgirls of Whittlesey and the dainty recurring Red Admiral.

Poltergeist-producing girls had long been a preoccupation of Fort’s, so it is not surprising that he sandwiched the Red Admiral between that long list of zoological oddities and an anthropological one, from France in 1842. On the last day of that year, two girls had been out picking up leaves near Clavaux when they saw stones falling around them with “uncanny slowness.” Returning with their parents, the two girls were suddenly seized and dragged “as if into a vortex.” Fortunately, the parents pulled them back. Struck by the odd calculus of this New Year’s Eve occurrence of the “taking” of girls for the “giving” of stones, Fort dubbed the phenomenon a “reciprocating current.” No such reciprocation had the world known when Manhattan socialite Dorothy Arnold disappeared while walking through Central Park on December 12th in 1910 – until Fort noticed the New York Sun report on December 13th that a swan had appeared upon the lake near the 79th Street entrance, Miss Arnold’s destination. Duly noted, this “now you see it!” prestidigitation took its place as the final word – for the moment – on 20th century teleportations of butterflies and girls.


* * *


Remembered as the decade of jazz and flappers and flivvers, the 1920s were also marked by episodes of spectral hauntings and cultural clashes that suggested that despite the best efforts of modern science – which Fort called “Exclusionism” or “Taboo” – numerous ghosts dwelled restlessly in the Rationalist machine of 20th century Western civilization. The most noticeable ghost went by the irresistible moniker of “Relativity,” and was the darling of newspaper reporters and novelists, who made much more hay of its supposedly world-shattering revelations than the physicists who created it could. Darwinism’s promise of putting an end to the age of miracles was at the moment seriously shaken by the ghost of neo-Lamarckism, as theories of the inheritance of acquired characteristics (attractive even to Darwin himself) proliferated. More unsettling were the ghosts that floated about outside the scientific realm. In the wake of World War I’s carnage, millions of grieving men and women found comfort in the chimeras of Spiritualist séances and automatic writing sessions. Cambridge and Columbia and Clark and dozens of other well-respected universities saw their boldest thinkers investigate mediums and magic; at just about the same moment as Fort was puzzling over the Red Admiral, J. B. Rhine invented parapsychology at Duke University. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published photographs of supposed fairies from Cottingley, and received front-page coverage. In 1926, in the wake of scores of reports of strange lights and alien visitations, Fort wrote to the New York Times from London to ask why the Martians have “not landed, say in Central Park, and had a big time of it – monstrous parade down Broadway, historic turn-out, eruptions of confetti from skyscrapers?” Instead of ridicule, Fort received a deluge of further reports.

At first glance, the Whittlesey Red Admiral would hardly seem such a ghost, and yet, there it is, an interruption in the fabric of normality that Fort felt as worthy of consideration as Percival Lowell’s peevishly migrating “planet” or the deaths coincident with the opening of the Tomb of Tut-Ankh-Amen, or the Halloween productions of modern Spiritualism. Set against such sensational spectres, the modest Red Admiral loses its lustre, and all who hear the tale can be excused for being incurious. Fort’s gift, in an age of home economics, Taylorism, and behaviorism was, like Barnum, to make the familiar strange. In the 1920s, this task would largely fall to the pop culture realm of horror and science fiction, to H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, Weird Tales and Amazing Stories. Fort never needed to make anything up; thousands of eyewitnesses the world over merely matter-of-factly spoke about what they had seen. As a pioneering phenomenologist, Fort singlehandedly tackled a century-plus (he drew the limit for his studies at 1800) reportage of weird and amazing factual un-natural history, and wrestled mightily with its implications, rather than sweeping it into the “cold case” dustbin of the inexplicable, or explain it away in the manner of the dogmatic scientists. The world is infinitely richer for his bold bricolage of the bizarre.


* * *


It is not insignificant that that London Express item named the butterfly, and that Fort repeated it. Elsewhere in his encyclopedia of animal anomalies, there are episodes of “moths” and “butterflies,” but no specific names are given. Whether this is an artifact of the witnesses’ or the journalists’ uncertainty remains an open question. One of the charming discoveries one makes when encountering Fort’s oeuvre is just how well acquainted people outside London and New York were with the natural world. In 1927, most people still lived largely outside, where they had unfettered opportunity to observe and ponder the world’s daily revelations underfoot and in the open sky. But this was changing, and increasingly the metropolitans regarded the reports from the far-flung field as light entertainment rather than serious science. Editors immediately dispatched reporters to interview Einstein and Eddington; farmers and fishermen who saw stuff falling from the sky would have to wait.

The gap opening up between rural acumen and urban ignorance of natural history did not go unnoticed by professional natural scientists. The initial decades of the 20th century saw the enthusiastic embrace of “nature study” – a curriculum dedicated to acquainting street urchins and middle-class suburban kids alike to the wonders of the natural world. As handy and ubiquitous miniatures suited to the small worlds of children, insects were the ideal subjects of study, and these were the decades that turned Luna moths and Monarchs and tent caterpillars into Lilliputian pop stars.

The nature study industry was a distinctly northern hemisphere enterprise, centered in London, New York, Boston, and Chicago – all places where the Red Admiral was a familiar harbinger of spring, denizen of summer, and disappearing act in fall. The principal questions about Red Admiral natural history centered on its fluctuating population biology, and whether it was principally a long-distance migrant like the Monarch or a hibernator, like a few other familiar northern Nymphalid butterflies – the Comma, Peacock, Large and Small Tortoiseshell, and Painted Lady – since both patterns occurred in the species.

The Red Admiral was circumpolar, as ubiquitous as the stinging nettle plants upon which its caterpillars fed. It was cosmopolitan, not just in the technical biogeographic sense of widespread distribution, but its habits guaranteed that it showed up in a variety of habitats – including urban ones. It was conspicuous, its scarlet bands arcing across black backgrounds making it instantly recognizable, even at a distance. It was relatively large and long-lived as temperate region butterflies go, and its populations fluctuated dramatically enough that people noticed their abundance in good years and scarcity in bad ones. Most important of all, the Red Admiral was “friendly,” frequently alighting on shirtsleeves and skin. Sometimes they seemed to seek humans out in preference to nectar-laden blossoms.

As early as 1833, pioneer naturalist and polymath Frederick Corbin Lukis, of the Isle of Guernsey, struck by the “familiar disposition” of Vanessa atalanta, had noticed this trait, even suggesting that this singularly amiable butterfly might some day be tamed. Lukis described how, coming upon a horde of Red Admirals feasting on the juice of ripe green gage plums in an orchard, he coaxed one onto his finger:

I next applied a feather in the same way, smoothed its soft plumes, and continued this operation for some time, without alarm or fear being manifested. The next day I visited the tree again, and felt much pleased to find the same individuals at work. A greater intimacy now ensued between us; and I was enabled to exhibit these familiar feats before several friends, who smiled at hearing I had tame butterflies in my garden.

 On one “calm sultry day, at noon, the best time for this amusement,” Lukis took a familiar Red Admiral off a flower, placed it on his face, and it walked over to his mouth and inserted its tongue between his lips. Though he then flew off, he kept returning to Lukis’s face or clothes. He made a study of the other common butterflies – Painted Ladies, Large and Small Tortoiseshells, but Vanessa atalanta easily proved the most “docile.” The great British Aurelian Edward Newman was clearly partial to Vanessa atalanta; the introduction to his Illustrated History of British Butterflies (1871) was headed by drawings of the four stages of the Red Admiral’s life history. He noted that atalanta “occasionally departs so far from the ordinary habits of butterflies as to have been detected wandering about by night.”

Newman placed Vanessa atalanta squarely in the group of ten British butterflies that hibernated “in the perfect state,” that is, as imagos – winged adults. “Some hide in barns, stables, churches, or outhouses, always crawling up among the beams or rafters; they especially delight in pig styes,” he reported. Newman complained of the observant “country gentlemen” with “ready pen” who every year would write to their local paper of their great discovery of a mid-winter butterfly, since all these hibernating butterflies could regularly be found to crawl out of their hiding places on warm winter days. The so-called “January thaw” of New England, wrote artist-naturalist William Hamilton Gibson, come as it might in December or February, could always be counted upon to produce members of the familiar “angle-wing” group – the Comma, Tortoiseshells, Painted Lady, and the Red Admiral. Hundreds might be found hanging in a crevice between the boards of a shed; they fell to the earth like bark scales or old shingles when dislodged. Gibson even commented that “any one of these angle-wing butterflies may be kept in domestication through the winter months, becoming very tame and familiar.” American lepidopterist Samuel H. Scudder in 1881 declared that the Red Admiral “hibernates in both countries alike” in the imago state.

Charles Fort’s natural history knowledge in 1927 was rather thin. Growing up in Albany in the 1880s, he had caught the typical schoolboy collecting bug, and kept a small cabinet of minerals, stuffed birds and eggs, even small formaldehyde-filled bottles containing the sort of critters that he would later chronicle as falling from the sky. Moving to Brooklyn at age 18 in 1892 to take a job at the Brooklyn World, he left his naturalist days behind. In confronting the mystery of the Whittlesey Red Admiral, he lacked even the most rudimentary life history and behavior knowledge of this admittedly common creature. When, in the winter of 1929, Charles Fort wrote his third letter to Miss Clarke, he had not studied up on Red Admiral natural history. He assumed each of the animals which came to that window in the Whittlesey school to be sharp “discontinuities,” who by some mysterious process communicated across the generations to find that spot.

Possessed, ourselves, of just the barest bit of natural historical knowledge of Vanessa atalanta, we may find we are unsympathetically disposed towards Charles Fort’s choice of the Whittlesey Red Admiral as in any way remarkable. This species of butterfly above all others is widely known to seek human company, and in its imago state, even at northerly locations, it is regularly reported to awake in winter and fly about. Where, then, is the mystery?


* * *


A couple of days after coming upon Fort’s account of the Whittlesey Red Admiral, I stumbled upon an article by Glastonbury wizard Stanley Messenger, entitled “Butterflies: Their Unrecognized Paranormality.” An amateur lepidopterist for most of his then (in 2000) 83 years, Messenger offered some unsolved mysteries from a lifetime of observations. He was convinced that many species of butterfly had such an intense presence that it suggested intention – even a desire to communicate. It almost seemed to him that different species represented different aspects of human temperament. His reflections were neither anthropomorphic nor sentimental, but real imaginative pictures that felt worthy of the magnificent picturing that characterizes the butterfly’s wings.

At the end of this article, Stanley Messenger makes an astonishing statement: The Red Admirable recognizes and settles on the awakened human heart chakra.

Fort never heard back from Miss Clarke in 1929. “Maybe a third letter was considered too much of a correspondence with somebody who had not been properly introduced,” he wrote. “Anyway, people do not like to go upon record, in such matters.”

The Whittlesey Girls National School was demolished in the 1950s. Stanley Messenger died in 2012, leaving behind no trace of field notes or further reflections on the relationship of the Red Admiral to the chakra of the human heart.

It is time to go on record.


 1: The Whittlesey Red Admiral

In early February of 1928, in the corner of a classroom of a school in Whittlesey, in the English Fenlands north of London, for the 17th year in a row, a Red Admiral butterfly appears, conspicuously out of season. The event draws the attention of Charles Fort, chronicler extraordinaire of all things anomalous, and becomes a small footnote in his four-volume savage critique of contemporary natural science. The Whittlesey Red Admiral is but one of many 1920s “ghosts in the machine” – phenomena which refuse to surrender to the explanations of materialist science – as modernity sets in.

Though Fort was no lepidopterist, and had not the skills nor the inclination to inquire further into the natural history of Vanessa atalanta, there is in Great Britain a long and august history of observation of the Red Admiral. In 1833, pioneer naturalist and polymath Frederick Corbin Lukis, of the Isle of Guernsey, struck by the “familiar disposition” of Vanessa atalanta, suggests that this singularly friendly butterfly might someday be tamed. In the 1920s, despite a century of field observation, there are other mysteries about the Red Admiral’s habits and behavior, including whether it is a long-distance migrant, like the Monarch, or perhaps an occasional hibernator.

In the midst of a fruitless search for information about Miss Clarke, the Whittlesey Girls School, and any extant local lore of the Whittlesey Red Admiral, the author stumbles on Glastonbury wizard Stanley Messenger’s declaration that Vanessa atalanta “alights upon the awakened heart chakra.” Can there truly be some as yet undescribed invisible relationship between the Red Admiral and the human heart?


2: The Mneme: “Universal, Plasmatic Memory”

In 1927, despite the death blow dealt to the theory of the inheritance of acquired characteristics by the suicide in the wake of accusations of scientific fraud of Austrian experimental zoologist (and composer) Paul Kammerer, the nature, action, and extent of some elusive “universal, plasmatic memory” is an enormous question for biologists and laymen alike. Kammerer’s lectures, both in Europe and in the United States, excited widespread notice and excitement, since they seemed to point both to the limits of natural selection as an explanation for evolutionary change, and to the possibilities of a program of positive eugenics, where social progress could be encouraged through ameliorating the environment rather than limiting reproduction of the unfit.

Though renowned for his experiments with the spadefoot toad and various salamanders, Kammerer, a gifted and sensitive keeper of animals as well as pioneer experimentalist, began his research at the Prater Vivarium on the inheritance of biological characteristics with the Small Tortoiseshell, Vanessa urticae, the Red Admiral’s closest relation. Applying British biologist Richard Semon’s Bergsonian concept of the “mneme” – hereditary memory – in new and daring ways, Kammerer seemed at the forefront of an entirely new biology.

Long forgotten, due to Kammerer’s dramatic and tragic suicide (and the seizure by his critics – mostly dogmatic proponents of natural selection – upon this event as the certain death knell of neo-Lamarckism), is Das Gesetz der Serie (1919), his work on the “law of the series.” Given to a kind of borderline mania in his attention to daily events, Kammerer had for decades kept detailed notes about coincidences of events, names, numbers, people, and other phenomena. Antedating Carl Jung’s theory of “synchronicity,” Kammerer’s law of the series delved into the very sorts of spectral, liminal events that so fascinated Charles Fort, and reveal much about the nature of his speculations about the function and mechanisms of biological memory – in butterflies, salamanders, spadefoot toads – and, by extension, man.


3: Speak, Memory

“Out of nowhere came a Red Admiral butterfly. . .” wrote Vladimir Nabokov, in his novel King, Queen, Knave, which he was composing in Berlin in 1927. Though a gifted amateur lepidopterist and close observer of butterflies who had published his first paper in The Entomologist at age 21, while studying at Cambridge University, Nabokov upon graduation dedicated himself to a literary career, and both butterflies (including his favorite the Red Admiral) and memory play a conspicuous role in his third novel.

Through his passion for and intense empirical examination of butterflies, Nabokov had become a trenchant critic of natural selection, invoked at large by scientists to explain mimicry, which was so spectacularly displayed in the Lepidoptera. Running throughout both Nabokov’s biological studies and his novels are the twin threads of mimicry and memory, presenting an insoluble mystery. Nabokov cannily disguised within his work a mystery about his gifts of visual memory and literary creativity that point toward another dimension of the Red Admiral mystery – the limits of vision for penetrating beyond the physical world. Nabokov’s synaesthetic and eidetic perception suggested to Nabokov that he might use his sensory gifts to penetrate beyond the physical to the spiritual world.


4: The Paranormality of the Butterfly

Taking up the challenge of Stanley Messenger’s declaration that the Red Admiral “alights upon the awakened heart chakra,” the author ponders whether this creature has some special affinity for human beings, particularly their hearts. Employing phenomenological methods, he investigates the ecology and biogeography of the Red Admiral, focusing on the host plant for the caterpillar – Urtica dioicae, Stinging Nettle, whose medicinal properties, leaf shape, and overall form strongly suggest that it is a “heart” organism. He also “discovers” that there is partially traced upon the wings of the Red Admiral the figure of the heart.

At the Newfoundland Insectarium, founder and director Lloyd Hollett recounts his “threshold” experiences with the Red Admiral, and the many other tales that he heard from others, of both the Red Admiral and other butterflies’ sudden and mysterious appearance at moments of bereavement for lost loved ones.  Thousands of individuals have told such tales in online forums, once again suggesting some continuity with the mystery of the Whittlesey Red Admiral.


5: The Cosmic Embodiment of Memory

In Dornach, Switzerland, in the autumn of 1923, Rudolf Steiner gave a series of six lectures on the nature of the butterfly that open with a novel observation about the symmetry of plant and butterfly metamorphosis, and then unfold a dazzling panorama of cosmic evolution, in which the butterfly is intimately involved with the destiny of the earth and humanity. Steiner asserts that the butterfly’s egg is a picture of human thinking and that the caterpillar, cocoon, and imago stages of the metamorphic series are pictures of the process of memory arising from perceptions. He then says that the butterfly wing is the most spiritualized substance upon the earth, and that butterflies continually restore spiritualized matter to the Earth’s cosmic environment, such that it forms an actual corona around the planet that, when carried into cosmic space by “fire-spirits” (or “salamanders,” the elemental beings of the Fire element), are able to provide a picture of Earth to Archangels. Even more provocatively, Rudolf Steiner – who always claimed that he would not utter a single fact that he had not verified repeatedly through his spiritual research – stated that the “butterfly corona” around the earth is what calls the disincarnate human soul back into earthly existence after its sojourn in the spiritual world.

This heterodox understanding is largely dependent upon Steiner’s unparalleled clairvoyance; his statements are discussed in light of the evidence that is offered by the physical senses.


6: The Heart is Not a Pump

Though this suite of lectures on the butterfly was given in Dornach, the opening lectures of the series were presented in Vienna, just a couple of weeks earlier, over the course of the Michaelmas season. Steiner gave two lectures that were open to the general public, the first on Michaelmas eve, September 28th. Without naming the Prater Vivarium or the Vienna Circle, the lecture was a powerful indictment of the radical abstractness of contemporary science, and called for a new way of studying nature, through the heart. In his private lectures to members of the Anthroposophical Society, Steiner elaborated upon this “new nature study.” Without explicitly drawing the link to his butterfly lectures, Steiner was laying down a potential research program for the future, to explore how the future fifth chamber of the heart will become an organ of perception that can solve such mysteries as the Red Admiral’s affinity for the human being.


7: Conclusion: The New Nature Study

In his 1923 Vienna lectures, Rudolf Steiner predicted that if a new heart-centered relationship with Nature did not develop in the 20th century, the elemental beings standing behind all natural phenomena would fall prey to “the Dragon.” Even the most cursory survey of contemporary natural scientific practice and pedagogy – in which nanotechnology, genetic engineering, and artificial intelligence are all considered “cutting edge,” and where most practicing natural scientists lack the most elementary natural history knowledge – reveals that Steiner was absolutely correct.

The recognition and elaboration of the cosmic commensalism between the butterfly and the human heart is the first lesson of a New Nature Study, offering a renewed spiritual cognition of the natural world.

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Principalities and Powers

A work in progress from Dr. Dann…

Prelude: He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands: January 2009

He’s got a-you and me sister in His hands

He’s got the whole world in His hands

Most everyone standing to sing “Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!” in the Washington National Cathedral on January 21, 2009 knew a line or two of the hymn. As the newly inaugurated President and his wife processed down to the front row before the altar to join former President Bill Clinton and his wife, though, a considerable number of people were still tapping their feet and inwardly swaying to the last number — “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” — sung by the Cathedral Children’s Gospel Choir. But the number from the Gospel Choir’s set that echoed throughout the entire Inaugural Prayer Service was “The Wiz Song.” Whether or not they could see in their mind’s eye Diana Ross and Michael Jackson dancing to celebrate the “Brand New Day” brought on by Dorothy’s killing of the Wicked Witch, each and every member of the congregation knew the meaning of the refrain “Everybody Rejoice!”: Everybody rejoice that the nation survived eight years of George W. Bush as President.

The Very Reverend Samuel T. Lloyd III welcomed everyone to “YOUR Cathedral,” reminding those assembled that the Cathedral was built to be “a spiritual home for the nation.” “It is no small thing,” Rev. Lloyd declared, “to welcome to this Cathedral not only our distinguished and gifted new president, but our first African American president.” Looking from President Obama back over his shoulder to the massive limestone Canterbury Pulpit, Rev. Lloyd reminded the congregation that it had been 40 years since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached his last Sunday sermon from that pulpit, before going to Memphis, where he was assassinated. President Obama, having been too young and too far away from Memphis to have shared in that memory, did not wince at this image, but there were many in the Cathedral who did. A handful of those present had attended the prayer service held by the Cathedral for Dr. King the week after his assassination in 1968. Still others recalled with bitter pain the Cathedral service honoring another young King — President John F. Kennedy — brutally murdered on November 23, 1963.

When Disciples of Christ Rev. Sharon Watkins gave the sermon some 35 minutes later, she opened with a story “attributed to Cherokee wisdom.” A grandfather, teaching his grandson about the conduct of life, told a story about two wolves struggling inside each person:

“One wolf is vengefulness, anger, resentment, self-pity, fear . . .

“The other wolf is compassion, faithfulness, hope, truth, love . . .”

The grandson sat, thinking, then asked: “Which wolf wins, Grandfather?”

His grandfather replied, “The one you feed.”


Anonymously invoking the words of Abraham Lincoln about “the better angels of our nature,” Rev. Watkins called on President Obama to hold off the wolf of vengefulness and fear, to stay centered on the sacred and foundational American values of hope, truth, and love.

Again, the unspoken understanding was that the nation had just emerged from a shameful episode when the raging wolf of vengeance had held full sway, not only within the heart of George Bush, but in all America. This handsome young black man standing tall in the Cathedral’s front pew surely would throw the hateful wolf from the temple, and restore the nation’s benevolent essential nature. Hadn’t America, by electing a black man as President, now redeemed itself from its original sin of slavery?

* * *

Oaths and Covenants

This is the source of our confidence — the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.

— President Barack H. Obama, First Inaugural Address, 20 January 2009


The Inaugural Prayer Service came at the end of an unprecedented pageant of Presidential celebration. Barack Obama’s inauguration as the 44th President of the United States on January 20, 2009, along with setting a record for attendance of any event held in the nation’s capitol, was also among the most-observed events in human history; nearly 40 million TV and Web viewers joined the 1 to 2 million assembled on the Capitol Mall to watch the historic occasion. President Obama’s inaugural committee had chosen “A New Birth of Freedom” — the famous phrase from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address — as the inaugural theme, in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. Indeed, the ghost of Abraham Lincoln seemed to be everywhere Barack Obama went as he took his final steps toward the presidency. Three days earlier, the President-elect had begun a whistle stop train tour from Philadelphia to DC, reenacting in a vintage railroad car the final part of Lincoln’s 1861 journey toward his inaugural. In each of his speeches, Obama underscored the “new birth of freedom” theme, using immortal Lincoln phrases such as “the better angels of our nature,” and “a new declaration of independence.”

The next day, January 18th, nearly half a million people turned out for the We Are One inaugural concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Following the US Army Band’s performance of Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man and The Star-Spangled Banner, actor Denzel Washington sought to unite Lincoln, Obama, and the entire nation with brief remarks punctuated by “three simple words that speak to who we are, and to our future; and they are. . .” Even before the honey-voiced actor could incant them, the massive crowd yelled out: WE! ARE! ONE!!!

Backed by a 125-member women’s choir, Bruce Springsteen kicked off the mega-event with his 2002 song The Rising:

Come on up for the rising,

            Come on up, lay your hands in mine

            Come on up for the rising

Come on up for the rising tonight

Barack and Michelle Obama — and most of the formally attired official guests with them — stood and swayed as Springsteen’s anthem crescendoed, even more gloriously here under the massive statue Abe’s watchful eye than it had on the night of November 4, 2008, in Chicago’s Grant Park, following Obama’s victorious presidential acceptance speech. Rolling Stone called Springsteen’s song a “national anthem for the 21st century.” Springsteen himself downplayed the linking of the song to the “New Birth of Freedom” that Obama — whom Springsteen had officially endorsed 6 months before the election — seemed to so many to embody: “If someone had told me in 2001 that ‘you’re going to sing this song at the inaugural concert for the first African-American president,’ I’d have said, ‘Huh?’ But eight years go by, and that’s where you find yourself. You’re in there, you’re swimming in the current of history and your music is doing the same thing.”

After dozens of performances by American rock and pop’s biggest stars, Springsteen was back a few hours later, to join nonagenarian Pete Seeger for Woody Guthrie’s folk anthem This Land is Your Land. For the occasion, Pete restored Woody’s most pugnacious lines — “But on the other side, it didn’t say nothing!”; “Nobody living can ever stop me!” — and the crowd happily joined in Pete’s characteristically righteous, but wholly polite, anger. Beyoncé and the entire ensemble then gathered in front of the Lincoln Statue for the concert’s final number — America the Beautiful — but the millions on the Mall went home singing “This land is made for you and me. . .” Woody Guthrie may have written these words, and Springsteen and Seeger had sung them, but Abe had with his deed of freeing the slaves truly enacted this anthem as a living reality for America.

When the moment finally arrived for the former attorney and Senator from Illinois to take the oath of office, another attorney and Congressman from Illinois was once again present. Obama’s left hand rested on the same Bible that had been used by Abraham Lincoln at his first inauguration in 1861. Television, newspapers, and magazines had been running stories about this thrilling fact for weeks, adding to the aura of historicity of this solemn occasion, when for the first time in United States history, an African-American would occupy the office of President.

Obama brought his inaugural address to a close with explicit reference to this stirring juxtaposition of destinies — exulting that “a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served in a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.” Then Obama in his address’s final sentence invoked God, and thus invoked Abraham Lincoln, for no American president ever called upon nor gave thanksgiving for the Lord as fervently and routinely as had Lincoln.

Most of the millions of people watching, although they could not see the Bible, knew it was Lincoln’s Bible, and for any person — especially African-Americans — anywhere upon Earth, who held the image of America as a land of Hope, as Obama’s campaign had explicitly promised, this was truly a shattering world-historical moment. At the sounding from this young, confident, beaming black man’s lips: “I, Barack Hussein Obama . . .” the whole world drew its breath, expectant, relieved, thrilled, if not a little anxious over what might come next.

What came next had actually already happened. Chief Justice John Roberts had quite carefully practiced for the ceremony, and had sent to Obama’s staff a script showing where he planned to pause in the recitation of the oath of office. The memo, it seems, never reached Obama, who interrupted Roberts with “I, Barack” just as Roberts was finishing “do solemnly swear.”

Obama backed up and repeated the entire phrase, but then, shaken by the broken cadence, Roberts made two errors in his rote recitation of the next line. Obama followed the mistaken version; Roberts attempted to correct the wording, but stumbled. Obama then repeated Roberts’ initial incorrect wording.

This all passed in less than 30 seconds, but it seemed much longer, since one could feel — the way one always does when in the presence of some verbal misstep, however slight — a collective holding of the breath among all the power brokers tightly gathered around the two men. Standing next to her mother, Malia, the Obamas’ older daughter, smiled anxiously, darting her head back and forth to see what might happen next.

When Chief Justice Roberts concluded the presidential oath with the phrase explicitly requested by Obama — “so help me God” — he instead pronounced: “so help you God,” and uttered it not as a statement, but as a question. His tone sounded almost disbelieving or even accusatory.

“So help me God,” Obama said, closing his eyes and nodding his head. The crowd erupted in applause as the Chief Justice — the first ever to administer the Presidential oath of office to a President-elect who had voted against his confirmation — congratulated now-President Obama.

The Lost Symbol


Washington National Cathedral, Langdon thought, feeling an unexpected anticipation at being back after all these years. Where better to ask about One True God.

“This Cathedral really has ten stone from Mount Sinai?” Katherine asked, gazing up at the twin bell towers.

Langdon nodded. “Near the main altar. They symbolize the Ten Commandments given to Moses on Mount Sinai.”

“And there’s lunar rock?”

A rock from heaven itself. “Yes. One of the stained-glass windows is called the Space Window and has a fragment of moon rock embedded in it.”

— Dan Brown, The Lost Symbol (2009)

As the President and Vice-President, Cabinet members, Congress people, and a train of distinguished and dapper dignitaries filed out the west entrance of the National Cathedral under the shimmering rose window depicting Genesis’s injunction “Let there be light!”, they passed between the two Presidential bays — George Washington on the South and Abraham Lincoln on the North. The three Freemasonic symbols — the Masonic square, compass, and gavel — carved into the Cathedral wall behind the Washington statue were a reminder of the Capital city’s origins as a modern mystery center, a site of political, civic, and spiritual power that bridged from world history’s long series of “Romes” to a Novus Ordo Seclorum — a New Order of the Ages. The “New Birth of Freedom” that was this upstart republic seemed once again to wear a Providential aura worthy of a great temple like the Cathedral.

Just 8 months after the prayer service, Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, which would see an initial print run of 6.5 million copies — the largest in Random House’s publishing history, would bring the Cathedral into view as the home of Rev. Colin Galloway, the Dean of Washington National Cathedral. Though Brown’s Galloway was old and blind, given his enlightened views on the relation between science and religion, Brown clearly had modeled the novel’s character on the Cathedral’s current young and handsome Dean — Rev. Samuel T. Lloyd III. In the novel, Dean Galloway is the close friend of fellow Freemason Peter Solomon, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, whose kidnapping sets the tale — and Brown’s dashing “symbologist” hero Robert Langdon — in motion.

Freemasons are as ubiquitous as politicians in Dan Brown’s Washington DC, and are portrayed not just as both the capital city’s and Constitution’s founding architects, but as enlightened contemporary aristocrats, guiding society towards the Good. Brown naturally integrated the Cathedral and Dean Lloyd/Galloway into The Lost Symbol because they so spectacularly embodied high Enlightenment aspirations, set in a genteel and privileged setting — a hallmark of all of Dan Brown’s novels, and expressive of his own prep school upbringing. The Cathedral provides a perfect backdrop for disclosing secret knowledge, Mystery knowledge of the sort that is widely believed to be the exclusive property of Freemasonry. Early on in the novel, while relaxing in a gazebo in the Cathedral’s Bishop’s Garden, Rev. Galloway gets word of an important phone call from fellow Freemason Warren Bellamy, architect of the Capitol Building. When the kidnapped Smithsonian Secretary’s sister Katherine Solomon and Robert Langdon come seeking insights from Dean Galloway, they climb up the grand stairway beneath the West entrance’s gloriously Gothic rose window. There, deep inside the silent medieval sanctuary, far from any prying adversarial eyes, Dean Galloway reveals that the 9-inch-tall polished granite pyramid given to Langdon by Bellamy is in fact a symbolic map.

“Caressing” the pyramid, Galloway tells Langdon: “This map, like the Ancient Mysteries themselves, has many layers of meaning. Its true secret remains veiled from you.” Galloway goes on to explain that the miniature Masonic pyramid is a modern version of the famed stone that released Excalibur into the hands of King Arthur, full of transformational magic. When the “Professor” Langdon protests against such crazy talk, Dean Galloway reassures the hopeful candidate for initiation by invoking the lesson of history, that human knowledge is always being superseded.

In one short chapter, Dan Brown mixes Albert Einstein, fractured Hermetic aphorisms, Psalm 82, and the CIA to seamlessly advance the most heretical — and most commonplace among his readership — of notions, that human beings are destined to become gods, replete with magical power. As he had done in The Da Vinci Code, Brown cleverly placed this recognition within his female protagonist, Katherine Solomon, who affirmed Dean Galloway’s — and Einstein’s — secret knowledge that the religion of the future would be a cosmic religion transcending a personal God, thus avoiding Christian dogma and theology.

Evidence that the promise of secret, magical knowledge holds contemporary Americans in total thralldom can be found everywhere. It is the bedrock premise of all contemporary “conspiracy theories,” whether right, left, or center, as surely as it is the looming leitmotif of all successful teen fantasy literature, from Harry Potter to Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson novels. That this adolescent fantasy has become the mainstay of adult literature, whether Dan Brown pseudo-esoteric tales or the X-Files, suggests either the further infantilization of American culture — which has always had the hallmark of adolescence about it — or that there really is some secret knowledge as yet to be discovered, that would unlock all the mysteries — scientific, religious, and even political — of the contemporary world.

“When you broke the seal on that box,” Dean Galloway tells Katherine Solomon, “you set in motion a series of events from which there will be no return. There are forces at work tonight that you do not yet comprehend. There is no turning back.” When Langdon respectfully objects that he can’t see how a stone pyramid could set anything in motion at all, the blind Cathedral Dean stares right through him: “Of course you can’t, Professor. You do not yet have eyes to see.”

I contend that we already have eyes to see the true mysteries that lie hidden in plain sight at both the Cathedral and throughout the landscape of Washington DC, and that, rather than promising ecumenical, secular, scientific mysteries with their secret roots in progressive, benevolent 18th century Freemasonry, these are black mysteries, spectacularly expressive of the Satanic “Principalities & Powers” spoken of so prophetically by St. Paul — with St. Peter, the patron saint and namesake of the Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, the true name of the National Cathedral.

* * *

That such silly palaver as Dan Brown dishes out actually passes in American pop culture for esotericism is symptomatic enough of a fallen mystery tradition, but the real “lesson of history” is that once a spiritual tradition loses its esoteric center, it does not just become prosaic and dull; it is inevitably invaded by dark spirits, hell bent on co-opting whatever remains, vampirizing the devotional intent of the faithful. Christ came into incarnation not because the ancient Mysteries — the Roman Empire, along with being a highly multicultural society, was also a multi-Mystery society, where intermingled African, Middle Eastern, Asian, and Northern European Mysteries — had become merely rote ritual supportive of the status quo; He came because Sadducees and Herodians and other black magical sects were actively working with the demonic world to detour humanity from its divinely planned path of evolution.

In our wholly secular contemporary world, it may seem outrageous to claim America, its capital city and Cathedral as centers of black magical spiritual power, or of any spiritual power at all. Washington is an altogether obvious, exoteric place, where on every block one encounters hordes of freshly minted, carefully coiffured young aspirants to political power. They all look more Mormon than Goth, and indeed, there are more than a few Mormons (and Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, and Jews) among them. They carry briefcases and Blackberries, not inverted pentagrams and candles.

The foolproof diagnostic for detecting fallen mystery centers is the stories they tell — and the ones they omit telling. Rev. Watkins’ “Cherokee” parable actually has its roots in a book published by Rev. Billy Graham in 1978, The Holy Spirit: Activating God’s Power in Your Life, where the tale was about an Eskimo fisherman with a pair of dogs, one black, one white. The story morphed through retelling in a 1997 collection of essays about life after death, and then a couple of movies where it was first “Apache” and then merely “Native American,” before emerging into the New Age mainstream, where Rev. Watkins caught wind of it to then lay it before the new President as an unthreateningly ecumenical invitation to the Good. It may seem mean-spirited to out this saccharine story as phony, and to suggest that its telling is symptomatic of a Satanic strain in the Cathedral’s theology. Surely it is no such thing. But the acute absence of the Gospels at the Inaugural Prayer Service, especially at its didactic and rhetorical heart — the sermon — shows a real retreat from the Gospels as seminal sacred texts that counted as common coin. Oprah, Marianne Williamson, James Redfield, and Deepak Chopra are now the prophets and priests, and their style of sentimentality more often than not wins the day over Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Dean Lloyd’s words are the ones that truly take one’s breath away, for in looking back toward the Canterbury Pulpit and invoking Martin Luther King’s memory, he must have been unaware that it was this capital city’s “machinery” that killed Dr. King, as surely as it killed Jack and Bobby Kennedy. The operators of that machinery came often to this Cathedral — especially to state functions like Presidential funerals and inaugural prayer services, where they rubbed elbows and exchanged pleasantries with high ecclesiastical authority. The good Rev. Samuel T. Lloyd III was unaware of this because of a pervasive conspiracy among the mainstream media to silence the results of the January 1999 civil trial that exonerated James Earl Ray and implicated high officials of the National Security State in Dr. King’s murder. For over half a century, the Cathedral had played host to the very individuals who both initiated and then covered up these high crimes of the State. One can go the Cathedral website today, and access the archive of live webcasts and scan through photo galleries of the prayer inaugurals and other services, all neatly laid out as part and parcel of the Cathedral’s proud history. It is often literally a rogue’s gallery.

To be able to make such a troubling allusion as Dean Lloyd did at President Obama’s prayer service can be seen as acute evidence of the corruption of the body politic. That Dean Lloyd made that naïve allusion to Dr. King’s murder is alarming because it shows that our leaders draw parables from ersatz histories, oblivious to the criminal collaborators in their midst, if not themselves willing collaborators. When the high authorities of a temple are no longer initiates — true initiates, capable of communication with benevolent spiritual beings — they are susceptible to malevolent powers and beings, and so too are their congregations. Some day perhaps, watching President Obama’s Inaugural Prayer Service will seem a bit like it does to us today to watch Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. We shudder in horror to see all those good German citizens thrill to every word and gesture of Der Führer, for even if it only unconsciously, we can see plainly that the Nuremberg rallies were spectacular rites of modern black magic.

* * *

Many of the guests at President Obama’s Inaugural Prayer Service craned their heads skyward as they entered the Cathedral, hoping for a glimpse of the great Gothic edifice’s most famous feature — the Darth Vader gargoyle on the North Tower. Running as it did not long after the debut of The Empire Strikes Back, it was no surprise that the winning entry for National Geographic World Magazine’s schoolchildren contest for a new Cathedral gargoyle should be the evil visage of Anakin Skywalker, the Jedi Knight who had turned toward the Dark Side. Three decades after the sculpture was set in place, it remains a fitting symbol of the Cathedral, and of the Empire that erected it. Darth Vader’s tragedy is America’s tragedy, a high and sublime aspiration toward the Good, mysteriously bent in the direction of Evil. Built ultimately more upon symbols and stories than upon stone, the Cathedral and the Republic-become-Empire are as fallen and corrupted as the villain Vader, and it is high time that Jedi Knights everywhere recovered the true story and the true symbol, at this time when we do indeed hold the whole World in our hands.

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