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Saturday, 21 January 2012

Caves of Hellfire.

I haven't said anything up until now about being abducted, or rather, my experience of what it's like to attend a BDSM workshop before now, perhaps because it seemed so ordinary, not unlike the meditation evenings I used to attend; a room full of people, tea and coffee, food to share.

On the other hand it was unusual to be in a place where it was taken for granted that one person had the right to tie up another and I was indeed tied up: a limb, then a limb or two and finally a whole lot of us were hog-tied in a room that was almost too small and had a carpet that needed a good clean.

We did leave early though, due to fog and ice and the need to get home, did we miss the sacrifice of the goat and the moment when the devil appeared?

I can't tell what I really think!

But mostly people were cracking jokes and generally everyone was really nice and basically it not only felt safe, sane and consensual, it was all of those things.

Disappointingly though, I didn't feel abducted at any time as it was safe and consensual; despite my terror of entering the building- a crumbling industrial building in a crumbling industrial town -I wasn't doing anything against my will.

But perhaps I'm missing the point.

There was a dungeon upstairs, and the room was black and there was a cage and equipment and it got me thinking of how the devilish cave as a place of parties with well-to-do upper class men with too much time and too much money getting their thrills by dressing in monks and ravishing women pretending to be nuns was probably a lot of fun..but probably not my cup of tea.

Two hundred and sixty years ago The Hell Fire Club, with it's motto of 'Do what thou wilt' was in High Wickham; now only the caves remain.

People seem more fascinated by ghosts for reasons that elude me.



It is quite hard to imagine two hundred and sixty years ago, but post Reformation there was a desire to recreate a better church; to go back- if possible -to the original and pure religion taught by Christ. The Puritan version was one way, the re-creation of Druidry was another.

So we get a rebuilding of 'The Temple' around that time: be it the temple of Solomon or of Babylon.

The Hellfire Club (Babylon) was just one of many private clubs whose members enjoyed wine, women and subverting sacred images.

Freemasons in particular are inclined to believe that their institution goes back to Pythagoras, or more reasonably to the Knights Templar (12th century) but there is little evidence for this. I regard Freemasonry, along with Druidry and the Hellfire club as a product of the eighteenth century.

The first Hellfire Club was most likely born from the fear and tension caused by economic disaster- The south Sea Bubble- and given shape by the press.

An antecedent were the Calves-Head clubs, meetings celebrating the beheading of Charles 1. Religious insurrection was linked, as far as the press (and the monarchy) was concerned, with anti-monarchy.

In response to a royal (the king at that time: George, Elector of Hanover- George 1) proclamation on 28th April 1721 stating:
His Majesty have received Information, which gives great Reason to suspect that there have lately been and still are, in and about the Cities of London and Westminster, certain scandalous Clubs or Societies of young Persons who meet together, and in the most impious and blasphemous Manner, insult the most sacred Principles of Holy Religion, affront Almighty God himself, and corrupt the Minds and Morals of one another 
Papers circulated:
Identifying participants in the groups that the [Royal] proclamation mentions as ‘Hell-Fire Club men’, the authors explained that a number of London clubs were meeting in support of heterodoxy and atheism. The periodicals accused them of challenging fundamental beliefs, especially the Thirty-Nine Articles. Most importantly, these groups were nurseries for Arianism. In effect, the ‘birth’ of Hell-Fire Clubs was an invention of the press as a way to defame organizations that tended towards latitudinarianism. In the wake of the South Sea Bubble debacle, which Lord describes, the Hell-Fire scare of 1721 also became a way to challenge Whig politicians. Linking the Whigs with nonconformity and atheism was a way to show their threat to the state – a counter-narrative of sorts to a rhetoric linking Tories with Jacobitism.-Reference..
A club had been formed by Philip Wharton, first Duke of Wharton in 1719. About which all we know for sure is that it performed parodies of religious rites for fun and giggles, this became the first Hellfire club.

From Babylon to Solomon, Philip Wharton latter became a Master in the Freemasons in 1722.

The man famous for The Hell Fire Club as portrayed in films and books was Francis Dashwood, 15th Baron le Despencer. He  had been too young to have been a member of the very first Hellfire, but was alleged to have been a member of a Hellfire Club that met at the George and Vulture Inn throughout the 1730s.

Hellfire denotes a type of club....

In 1732 Francis Dashwood formed a dining club called the Society of Dilettanti with around 40 members. This was perhaps a precursor for the most famous Hellfire club. Horace Walpole described the selection process for prospective members:
 "The nominal qualification [for membership of the society] is having been in Italy, and the real one, being drunk." 
The club funded archaeological expeditions to the lands of the Classics, and had a lasting effect on English architecture and interpretations of myth. It still exist,  though the worship of Eros may have faded somewhat, Dionysos is still in favour:
'at the society's formal dinners, held four times a year, the centrepiece of the table is still the mid-18th-century carved chest called the Tomb of Bacchus'.
Sir Francis Dashwood's Hell Fire club began sometime around 1749 at Medmenham Abbey. The members were The Brotherhood of St. Francis of Wycombe (Francis Dashwood, not Assisi) or The Order of Knights of West Wycombe, sometimes they were The Order of the Friars of St Francis of Wycombe or The Monks or Friars of Medmenham. It is said that the club members held mock religious ceremonies and wore extravagant costumes and masks to hide their identities.

Many of the Hell Fire members were wealthy enough to be involved in politics and the membership allegedly included William Hogarth, John Montague the Earl of Sandwich, the Earl of Bute and the Prince of Wales.

Benjamin Franklin, a friend of Francis Dashwood may also have taken part in some of the sessions.

Not surprisingly the club soon attracted rumours about Satanic cults- Black Masses and pornographic activity happening there.

Illuminati myths anyone?

Virtual realms of 'freedom'.
Picture from Q3A.
Putting it mildly, the club had a reputation for drunkenness and debauchery. The words  "FAY CE QUE VOUDRAS" (do what you want)  had been placed over the Eastern entrance to Medmenham Abbey, this gives us a clue as to what this new temple or abbey was all about.

Rabelais wrote about the Abbey of Theleme in the first book of five The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel; the Abbey of Theleme was a place where people could follow their own inclinations about what time to eat or sleep, to stay or to leave; it was an argument for autonomy and libertarian values.
"Nor can there be any greater dotage in the world than for one to guide and direct his courses by the sound of a bell, and not by his own judgment and discretion". Rabelais.
Photo by Lonpicman.

The first Abbey of Theleme as created by Francis Dashwood may have torpedoed the argument for liberty with the behaviour of its members. John Wilkes- member of Parliament, member of the Hellfire was described as responsible for hastening the demise of the club. A story tells of how he once brought a baboon dressed in a cape and horns into the rituals performed at the club, producing considerable mayhem among the inebriated initiates.

Pretty scary stuff there...mayhem among the inebriated initiates.

John Wilkes described the Hell Fire Club as:
"A set of worthy, jolly fellows, happy disciples of Venus and Bacchus, got together to celebrate women in wine and to give more zest to the festive meeting, they plucked every luxurious idea from the ancients and enriched their own modern pleasures with the tradition of ancient luxury."
So one would need to know what version of Greek they were reading, but it is fairly reasonable to assume that male homosexuality and prostitutes were on the menu.

The second Abbey of Theleme as created by Crowley (1920) was probably a lot less fun.



Ultimately Hellfire clubs once were the private pleasure of the rich. Crowley and the various Lords who went to play in the caverns had money enough, to grant them the freedom to enjoy dark spaces, lots of people, music, and sex.

It helped to have an education augmented by Homer and Hesiod and The Grand Tour to draw upon for these experiences provided a rich set of images and ideals, and they had the money to make their fantasies reality.

Crowley had more than Greek myth, he had texts that had been unavailable to Dashwood, explaining in English, Hindu and Buddhist Tantra. He also had the works of John Dee, Agrippa and Kirchner; these books were available to Dashwood and his friends but why should they bother reading them! Magic is a religious calling, not really about fun or breaking taboos simply for the sake of it...

Much of what is called demonic- especially to those steeped in Christianity - is created directly from myths and fears of Dionysos: the caves, abduction, darkness, spirits....even the goat.

The curious thing is that fear is no longer located in the libertine, and satanic. Feral youth and ranting puritans are considered far more threatening to civilization than the devil.

Nevertheless Hellfire clubs continue, but stripped of any fantasy Greek myth or ritual.
The Hellfire Club meets every week for 'tongue in cheek' fun. If you are not used to dressing up and masks, you will soon get in the habit! We are conveniently located in Sunbury-On-Thames, just 10 miles west of Central London with excellent travel links and secure free parking. The nearest Station is Upper Haliford; just 250m from the Club. We are 10 min from Terminal 4 and the Heathrow Expess (15mins from Central London).