Theosophist

Bibracte: Last Center of Celtic Occultism

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The other day I visited David Reigle’s excellent web site of the Eastern Tradition Research Institute and found again his paper on “The Centennial Cycle.” In this paper he discusses the origin of the policy by the Brotherhood of Mahatmas of enlightening the “western barbarians” on a centennial basis. Here I read that the very last of the Druid mystery schools in Europe was according to H.P.B. at Bibracte in Burgundy, France.

Drawing of Bibracte as it might have looked like 100 B.C.E.

Bibracte was the capital of the Celtic tribe the Aedui and around 50 B.C.E. Caesar conquered this important Celtic settlement during his Gallic campaigns. During the reign of Augustus its inhabitants left the place for the newly founded Augustodonum (Augustus-city, now Autun) 14 miles east and nobody else replaced them, leaving the site pristine for archeologists to uncover 1900 years later.

Digging out Bibracte

Apparently after this loss the Brotherhood instituted its policy of sending every last quarter of a century somebody to instruct the West in the Wisdom-Religion, with H.P.B. being the one for the 19th century cycle.

Helena Petrovna Blavatsky

H.P.B., in her article “The Last of the Mysteries in Europe,” quotes J.M. Ragon, a 19th century author on Masonic lore, with apparent approval from his Orthodoxie Maçonnique:

… Bibractis, the mother of sciences, the soul of the early nations [in Europe], a town equally famous for its sacred college of Druids, its civilisation, its schools, in which 40,000 students were taught philosophy, literature, grammar, jurisprudence, medicine, astrology, occult sciences, architecture, etc. Rival of Thebes, of Memphis, of Athens and of Rome, it possessed an amphitheatre for gladiators, surrounded with colossal statues and accommodating 100,000 spectators, a capitol, temples of Janus, Pluto, Proserpine, Jupiter, Apollo, Minerva, Cybele, Venus and Anubis, and in the midst of these sumptuous edifices the Naumachy, with its vast basin, an incredible construction, a gigantic work wherein floated boats and galleys devoted to naval games; then a Champ de Mars, an aqueduct, fountains, public baths; finally fortifications and walls, the construction of which dated from the heroic ages.

She then stated:

Such was the last city in Gaul wherein died for Europe the secrets of the Initiations of the Great Mysteries, the Mysteries of Nature, and of her forgotten Occult truths.

I did this search because in a class at Olcott, the headquarters of The Theosophical Society in America (Adyar), we were looking into possible candidates of the 1975-2000 cycle and we discussed criteria for evaluating the candidates. Reigle in his paper develops a position in favor of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Buddhist diaspora as the 20th century effort of the Mahatmas.

Peculiar coincidence is that I visited Bibracte many times in my life as my aunt bought in the 1970s an old farmhouse in the hamlet Les Jours at the foot of Mont Beuvray on which top Bibracte used to be and the farm is the closest inhabited structure to the site!

My aunt's farmhouse at Les Jours

I knew that the leader of the Gauls, Vercingetorix, had camped there and that Caesar had stayed there as well for a winter after defeating the Gauls and, while there, wrote his book on the Gallic campaigns, Commentarii de Bello Gallico.

View from Mont Beuvray

But I had no idea that this place on top of the hill, now known as Mont Beuvray, next to my aunt’s farmhouse, also was  a Celtic center of occult learning–the last one of its kind in Europe—and that its loss lead many centuries later to the founding of the Theosophical Society. At least according to H.P.B. It is now a prime archeological site with a very nice museum displaying their finds and reconstructions of Celtic life.

Reconstruction of the area of Mount Beuvray (1st century B.C.E)

One memorable summer in the 1980s I spend in Les Jours with my aunt and grandfather, who was a Mason, while reading and discussing Yates’ academic study The Rosicrucian Enlightenment and Michael Baigent’s pseudo-historical Holy Blood, Holy Grail and through these books getting a feel for the “hidden tradition” of western esotericism.

I will be going to Les Jours again and join my family this August (2009) to celebrate my own half-centennial. I intend to do some research there and see what claims by H.P.B. and Ragon can be verified against the archeological record.

From what I read so far Ragon’s claims made about Bibracte are quite erroneous or, in H.P.B.’s words, “utterly incorrect”, as she qualified an other of his claims. Bibracte was a fortified hill-town and none of the grand structures, which Ragon writes about, were ever erected there. It looks like, and he is not the only one, that he confused Bibracte with the nearby town of Autun, which does have a big Roman amphitheatre, though it ‘only’ seats 17.000, and a temple dedicated to Janus.

Roman Amphitheater at Autun

The problem here is that Autun did not exist before Caesar’s time as it was founded in Augustus’ reign replacing Bibracte as the capital of the Aedui. The other problem is that Ragon ascribes to the Celts feats of architecture and pastimes which are distinctly Roman and were quite out of reach for the more simple Celts.

View of Autun

It looks like H.P.B. was a little careless in taking over wholesale these claims by Ragon about Bibracte, even while she was aware of Ragon’s shortcomings as a historian as she warned her readers that “[h]owever learned and erudite, some of the chronological mistakes of that author are very great.”

When I’m back I’ll try to sort out in more detail all the claims and think through the possible implications of the findings, especially addressing the question whether H.P.B. was unto something, but was incorrect in certain details, or if she was constructing her own mythic historiography by selectively appropriating Ragon’s Masonic (mis-)construals of history. One way or another the gap of cognitive dissonance between the emic, esoteric perception of history and the etic, scientific perception of history has to be bridged.

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