Aslak Rostad – Contemporary Fraternalism in Norway as Moral Elitism

(Please note: This is a paper presented at the 1st intl. conference on Contemporary Esotericism, Stockholm University, August 27-29, 2012. Copyright belongs to the author. Do not quote or distribute without the author’s explicit permission.)

Contemporary fraternalism in Norway as moral elitism

By Aslak Rostad

In this paper I will present an analysis of the internal discourse, self-image and ideology of Norwegian fraternal organizations or ‘secret societies’ as it is expressed in membership journals publish on the websites of the Order of Odd Fellows and The Norwegian Order of Druids, an ideology I would describe as moral elitism. The analysis takes its sources from the Odd Fellow journal De tre kjedeledd (The Three Chain Links), previously called Odd Fellow Bladet (The Odd Fellow Journal), and the Druidic journal Barden (The Bard). For those who know fraternalism in other countries better than I do, I suspect that much of what I have to say will be familiar and even obvious, but as research on Norwegian fraternalism until now has been virtually non-existing, it is necessary to establish some basic facts and I am therefore very interested in knowing to what degree Norwegian fraternalism ideologically resembles or differs from fraternalism elsewhere in the world.

First, a few words about fraternalism in Norway: As far as I know there exist in Norway today fourteen organizations whose membership involves some form of secret initiation. The fraternal landscape of Norway is dominated by two large organizations, namely The Order of Odd Fellows with approximately 23.000 members and The Norwegian Order of Freemasons with 19.000 members. The remaining fraternities are rather small with a number of members ranging from a handful to somewhere in the vicinity of 5000. The Norwegian Order of Druids, which is the fourth largest fraternal organization in Norway, has for instance about 2700 members. Most of them admit exclusively male or female members, while The Order of Odd Fellows is an exception as it admits both male and female members, however not in the same lodges. I estimate the number of Norwegians who are members of fraternal organizations to be approximately 50.000. In most cases, members of a fraternity are obliged to endorse some form of religious belief, either through a specific Christian confession or a more general belief in a supreme being. Many of these organizations were introduced in Norway from the United States between the last decades of the 19th century and approximately 1930, either by returning immigrants or through sister organizations in Sweden or Denmark. In the last decades a few new fraternal organizations have been founded; as far as I know all of them female branches of already existing male fraternities. With the exception of The Norwegian Order of Freemasons, most fraternities or ‘closed orders’ as they usually call themselves (the Norwegian term is “lukkede ordner”), are either unknown to the general public or surrounded by myths, vague ideas and misconceptions. In general they hold a very low public profile. Norwegian fraternal organizations are engaged charity and occasionally provide financial support to their members, but unlike in their British and American counterparts this is a rather limited aspect of Norwegian fraternalism as the well-fare state and general high standard of living in Norway makes it superfluous.

When I say that Norwegian fraternities hold a moral elitist ideology, I mean that they claim to possess a special insight into what they regard as true moral values and consider themselves to be guardians of these values in the Norwegian society. In my opinion this ideology is expressed through three closely related discursive positions: First, a counter-cultural position, second a non-sectarian position and finally a moral elitist position.

By a counter-cultural position I mean that the fraternities have a clear tendency to depict the society and the lodge as two distinctive spheres, one negative and one positive. In their membership journals the society is therefore repeatedly described as morally decaying. What this implies is often unclear and rarely concretized, but rather expressed in broad terms by claiming that today’s society is marked by vices such as materialism, conflict, egoism, loss of traditions and community and so forth. This statement from journal of the Order of Odd Fellows illustrates this clearly:

We live in a society that hardly ever has been better materially. But today’s material wealth has not contributed to the happiness and joy we thought it would bring. […] We know, unfortunately […] that material wealth has led to an ethical degeneration. […] Material prosperity has created fertile ground for much of what any society least of all desire: indifference, triviality, egocentricity, dissatisfaction, disintegration, drug abuse, human abuse and crime. (Odd Fellow Bladet 3/01, p. 10)

(Original Norwegian textVi lever i et samfunn som neppe noen sinne har hatt det bedre rent materielt. Men vår tids materielle overflod har ikke skapt den lykke og glede som vi trodde den skulle gi. […] Vi vet dessverre […] at materiell velstand har skapt etisk forsøpling. […] Den materielle velstand har skapt grobunn for mye av det ethvert samfunn minst av alt ønsker seg; likegyldighet, forflatning, egosentrisitet, misnøye, oppløsning, rusmisbruk, menneskemisbruk og kriminalitet.)

And similar from the journal of the Norwegian Order of Druids:

We live in the age of materialism. But despite the external development and increasing prosperity, we experience national hatred, struggle between interest groups, unrest. (Barden 4/06, p. 15)

(Original Norwegian text Vi lever i materialismens tidsalder. Men på tross av den ytre utvikling og stigende velstand, oppleves nasjonalt hat, kamp mellom interessegrupper, uro.)

There is clearly a certain element of anti-modern attitudes here, but it is important to point out that despite this rather negative depiction of society, the fraternities never criticize specific groups or individuals. The alleged negative trends are never attributed to one particular cause such as a political party or an ideology, a religion or particular economical interests; it is depicted as a result of a general moral decline involving the entire society and all its members individually. The responsibility for the moral decline is always placed with the individual and it is ultimately the individual’s task to oppose it.

In contrast to the alleged decaying society, the fraternity and its lodges are depicted as a parallel sphere representing a counterweight to these negative trends, something which this quote from the Odd Fellows’ journal illustrates:

In many ways it is as if time stands still here in the halls of our Order. For a short moment, time-squeezes and time thieves are forgotten, yes, we have even locked out the very Zeitgeist itself. (De Tre Kjedeledd 3/07, s. 38)

(Original Norwegian text På mange måter er det som om tiden står stille her inne i våre Ordenslokaler. Glemt, for en stakket stund, er tidsklemmer og tidstyver, ja, til og med selve tidsånden, har vi stengt ute […].)

In the lodge, the fraternal organizations claim, true values and traditions are preserved, and members are given opportunity for contemplation and personal development. “Tranquillity”, “peace of mind”, and “stability” are terms often used to describe the atmosphere found at a lodge meeting in contrast to the turmoil and confusion outside. This example is taken from the druids’ journal:

We who are members of The Norwegian Order of Druids have our own place where we can thaw body and soul; even if it is damp and cold outside our own Grove (i.e. the druids’ ritual room), we may together in the warmth, where brotherly love kindles and spreads the crackling flame, here in the Grove, have a place that gives us peace of mind and good experiences. (Barden 5/05, p. 2)

(Original Norwegian text: Vi i Den norske Druidorden har vårt eget sted hvor vi kan tine opp kropp og sjel, selv om det er rått og kulde utenfor vår egen Lund, så kan vi sammen i varmen, hvor broderkjærligheten nører og sprer flammerislet, her i Lunden har vi et sted som gir oss sjelefred og gode opplevelser.)

It is also stressed that the lodge is a place where trivial conflicts are excluded; discussions of religious or political issues are therefore prohibited and the members are allegedly recruited from all classes of society.

The second position of Norwegian fraternal discursion, the non-sectarian position, implies that despite the division drawn between the lodge and the society, and the seclusion surrounding these organizations, the fraternities strongly emphasise that their members are not exempt from their obligations to the same society they claim to be decaying. This in contrast to what I in lack of any better term would refer to as sects, i.e. religious organizations which to a greater or lesser degree seek to distance themselves from society and reject dominating beliefs and practises. The idea that members of a fraternity also are obliged to remain members of society may be illustrated by the following quote from the Odd Fellow Journal:

We must all be part of society. We must all be part of the chain which will develop a future international community where compassion actually becomes more and more important. (Odd Fellow Bladet 1/06, p. 2)

(Original Norwegian text: Vi skal alle være en del av samfunnet. Vi skal alle være et ledd i kjeden som skal utvikle et fremtidig verdenssamfunn hvor med-menneskelighet faktisk blir viktigere og viktigere.)

But members of fraternities are not only to keep their place in society; they are also thought to be even better suited as citizens:

[Through membership in the Order] we are constantly made aware that we have obligations toward the Brethren, toward the rituals of the Order and its laws, toward our conduct in the external world, toward family and society. (Barden 5/07, p. 15)

(Original Norwegian text: [Gjennom ordensmedlemskapet blir vi] hele tiden bevisste på at vi har forpliktelser overfor brødre, Ordenens ritualer, lovverk, opptreden utad i den ytre verden, overfor familie og samfunn.)

Consequently, Norwegian fraternities never show any form of opposition to the civil order or promote demands of changes in economical or social structures. An important point in this context is that they frequently and strongly stress that despite their demand that members should hold religious beliefs, they are no substitute for or in conflict with participation in traditional mainstream religion. On the contrary, they state that they deepen and strengthen the religious beliefs their members had before they were initiated; in most cases Lutheran Christianity.

The last discursive position, moral elitism, represents what Norwegian fraternities claim to be offering their members: namely an ability to go back to society and act as moral examples for those who do not have the privilege of being initiated and thereby improve the general moral standards of the society. What this implies is usually also expressed rather vaguely and in broad terms. This quote from The Three Chain Links illustrates this:

[A]s members of our Order we have a duty to contribute to a better life for individuals through our conduct in society. We also have a duty to contribute to a future-oriented society where respect and understanding, modesty and tolerance, devotion and compassion become a bigger part of everyday life. (De Tre Kjedeledd 4/09, p. 2)

(Original Norwegian text: [S]om medlemmer i vår Orden har vi, gjennom vår opptreden i samfunnet plikt til å bidra til en bedre hverdag for enkeltmennesker. Vi har også plikt til å bidra til et fremtidsrettet samfunn hvor respekt og forståelse, ydmykhet og toleranse, oppofrelse og medmenneskelighet blir en større del av hverdagen.)

However, the fraternities never proclaim any specific maxims their members are supposed to follow, but through participation in the rituals they are thought to develop the necessary moral abilities, as shown in this quote from The Bard:

As individuals and Brethren we can develop our own self-knowledge […] and work against negative tendencies in society. […] If someone asks about our method it may be that we Druid Brethren have our regular rituals, do the same things, hear the same words of wisdom, and gradually, slowly but surely, shape the sense for the basic values ​​in life: stability, unity, clarity, purity, tolerance, compassion, order and system. (Barden 4/06, p. 15)

(Original Norwegian text: Som enkeltindivider og brødre kan vi utvikle vår egen selverkjennelse, og […] motarbeide negative tendenser i samfunnet. […] Spør noen om metode må det kanskje være at vi druidbrødre har våre faste ritualer, gjør de samme ting, hører de samme visdomsord, og gradvis, sakte, men sikkert, formes sansen for grunnverdiene i livet: stabilitet, samhold, klarhet, renhet, toleranse, medmenneskelighet, orden og system.)

As I said initially, there exists various myths about the nature and purpose of Norwegian fraternal organizations; one of these is the idea that they possess some form of secret knowledge. This is not a claim made explicitly by the fraternities, but it would not be unfair to say that they give the impression that they do endorse secret doctrines by referring to themselves as esoteric (as they in fact do), by using symbols often associated with magic (such as the pentagram) and by giving very few indications to the general public about their activities. However, ideas and topics associated with Western esotericism (e.g. gnosis, magic, or kabbalah) are hardly ever mentioned in their membership journals. There is nothing here indicating that they are offering their members secret doctrines originating in esoteric traditions.(*) What these organizations are imparting through their initiations seems rather to be a deeper insight into and a ritualized idolization of what we a bit simplistic may call ‘bourgeois moral values’; values which the fraternities regard as pillars, if not the very foundations of Norwegian society. Would it therefore be fair to say that Norwegian fraternal organizations are esoteric only in the sense secretive and excluding? I have to tread carefully here as I am not an expert on esotericism, but my hypothesis is that apart from an selective use of symbols and the idea that it is possible to gain some form of deeper knowledge and alter ones personality through ritual practises, the esotericism practiced by Norwegian fraternities seems to have been re-interpreted and adapted to a middle-class ideology.

(*) Note: Organizations such as OTO and AMORC, which are also found in Norway, differ of course from this general impression as they explicitly link themselves to esoteric traditions.


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