Jack Ross & Karl Chitham, ed.: Fallen Empire (2012)
Late in 2010, a cache of old papers, costumes and religious paraphernalia came to light in the back of an abandoned storehouse in Raetihi, in the Central North Island.
On examination, this material turned out to be all that was left behind by the members of a once-flourishing sect (or secret society, if you prefer) called the "Society of Inner Light."
Rather like Annie Besant and Madam Blavatsky's Theosophists, the Inner Lighters appear to have been interested in esoteric philosophy, magical rituals, and Astral instructions conveyed to them in a number of ways by a set of spiritual advisers located somewhere on the high plateau of the Andes.
There's a lot about Atlantis and Lemuria/Mu in their surviving writings. They held some very revisionist ideas about the accepted chronology of world history. Among other things, they were convinced that Earth had been colonised by aliens from a distant star many thousands of millennia ago, and that the descendants of these star aliens were still to be encountered here and there (though probably not in the original flesh). Séances were a common component of the rites which apparently took place behind that shabby shop-front in Raetihi.
Their delight in ritual and religious ceremony seems to have shaded off at times into something which can only be described as musical theatre. One of their number had been associated with New York's Yiddish theatre, and wrote a number of rather ponderous operettas designed to convey the Society's doctrines to the children and young people of the Order (given their esoteric and eccentric nature, it seems difficult to believe that any of these pieces were ever meant for the general public).
Like Mozart's Magic Flute, the three plays which have survived (albeit in fragments) have a surface meaning and a hidden significance apparent only to initiates. Ostensibly, they set out to dramatise a series of classical myths: the stories (respectively) of Odysseus, Osiris and Gilgamesh, paralleling each with a Maori myth which they apparently believed had inspired it:
- The story of Odysseus is paired with Maui's various adventures and escapades.
- Gilgamesh's quest for eternal life is retold as the story of Kupe and his quest for the Fountain of Youth.
- Osiris's death, dismemberment, and resurrection is (rather strangely) associated with the Legend of Hatupatu and the Bird-woman.
Unlike contemporary believers in the so-called "Celtic New Zealand" hypothesis, the Society of Inner Light seems to have reversed the conventional order of transmission of these stories. Polynesian culture was, to them, primary and almost inconceivably ancient.
The emissaries of civilization (for them) emanated originally from the Pacific – specifically from the lost continent of Mu / Lemuria, which now survives only in the form of the scattered islands of the Oceanic archipelago – to teach the arts of agriculture and architecture to the primitive peoples of Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas. The Sphinx was originally carved by them, for instance, and reflects the society's emphasis on ritual cat-worship.
The surviving remnants of these three curious plays: "Maui in the Underworld," "Kupe and the Fountain of Youth" and "Hatupatu and the Nile-monster," written in a curious amalgam of contemporary slang and Shakespearean English (possibly on the analogy of Yiddish, though it's doubtful how fluent the author, who has now been identified as a certain Bertolt Wegener, was in English), have now been edited to accompany an exhibition of the model theatres which must have been used by the dramatist to plan the action of his mini-dramas.
The main body of members came to NZ after WW1. The Society flourished in the 20s and 30s. Despite the internment of all the principal adults for their pacifist views in the early to mid 40s, it survived into the 1960s, with two or three survivors still performing the rituals to an empty congregation. The last one left standing turned out the lights, leaving everything in situ, sometime around 1973, at the time of the global oil crisis.
Note on the Text
A good deal of deduction and silent reconstruction has had to go on behind the scenes in order to put together even so fragmentary a presentation of these few, fugitive dramatic materials as this.
The opening and final choruses for the plays have survived in full simply because they were transcribed onto sheet music and kept in a separate folder from the rest of the script. However, only a few pages of the original dialogue for each play could be pieced together – enough, though, to enable me to compile the cast lists and character descriptions from them.
The list of scenes has been worked out principally from the prop-lists for each play. Writing the synopses, on the other hand, would not have been possible if it had not been for the chance survival of a notebook with stage directions (presumably intended for the lighting crew).
Working with sheets of paper which disintegrate almost at a touch has necessitated a fairly liberal approach to the question of “reconstruction.” I do not believe there to be anything here which goes beyond the existing remains, but it has seemed impractical to me to explain all the evidence which has led to each conjecture.
As for the larger meaning of these works, I leave that for the reader to conjecture. One notes at once the presence of certain common themes: the futility (and simultaneous fascination) of quests for immortality; the impracticability of schemes of revenge (however justified); and the overarching power of the Queen of the Dead (whether named Ereshkigal, Hine-Nui-te-Po, or Persephone).
One wonders, in fact, if the original purpose of these plays wasn’t to illustrate certain larger points of theological conjecture to a already baffled congregation. Certainly this editor has found it hard at times to understand just why all these strands of Greek, Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Polynesian mythology have been woven together in quite this way.
Fallen Empire: Maui in the Underworld, Kupe & the Fountain of Youth, Hatupatu & the Nile-monster: Three Play-Fragments from the Literary Remains of The Society of Inner Light. Attributed to Bertolt Wegener. Edited with an introduction by Jack Ross. Museum of True History in Collaboration with Karl Chitham and Jack Ross (20 June – 21 July 2012). 46 pp (Dunedin: Blue Oyster Art Project Space, 2012): 3-5.
Fallen Empire (2012)