[Square & Compasses]    

Freemasonry and the Western Mystery Tradition

Darren Lorente
St Mary Islington No. 5451, UGLE
05/01/2009

In his excellent book, The Craft: History of English Freemasonry, John Hamill (Curator and Librarian of the Library and Museum of the United Grand Lodge of England) gives us an outline of the different approaches taken by scholars, academics and Masonic writers regarding the theories of origin of the Craft.

There are two main groups of theorists: those who take a strict academic approach and will refer to 1717 as the date that is closest to the origins of Freemasonry and those who have a more mystical take on the subject and relate Freemasonry to the Ancient Mysteries, Egypt, Alchemy, Gnosticism etc. Some even placing the Craft within the context of a syncretistic, New age mysticism.

Officially, it appears that the view taken by most current historicists of the Craft like Quatour Coronati Lodge of research and the Grand Lodge of British Columbia and Yukon is historically sound and factual and this view argues that speculative Freemasonry might have derived from operative lodges of freemasons, Box clubs and suchlike organizations. These assertions are laid out with the full weight of historical evidence behind them and must be taken seriously.

This is a reaction, a more than justified reaction one could argue, to the fanciful and at times almost fantastic theories expounded by many XIX and XX Century writers like Waite, Pike, Ward, Palmer Hall etc.

Perhaps this is also due to a willingness by the current Grand Lodge administrations to discard the links with the occult tradition that freemasonry has always had. For many masons and non-masons alike words like occult have a pejorative ring to them.

Writers like Manly Palmer Hall make a direct connection between Freemasonry, the Mysteries and Druidism. Albert G. Mackey links the Craft with the Mysteries of Osiris and Eleusis and the Dionysian artificers. Whereas a great part of these theories is based on historic evidence and is the product of extensive research, to state that Freemasonry is the heir of the Ancient Mysteries and in some cases to link it with Eastern philosophy and religion is simply farfetched and lacks truth at least in a literal sense.

Modern writers like Christopher Knight and Robert Lomas argue that there is a direct connection between Freemasonry, the Knight Templars and the ancient Egyptian mysteries and go as far as to describe Jesus and his Apostles as early Freemasons. This sounds preposterous in itself with the added problem that it conflicts directly with one of Freemasonry's most basic tenets, namely that freemasonry isn't a religion and isn't a form of esoteric Christianity nor has a Christian bias in spite of the fact that it relies on Biblical based myths.

Men from all religious backgrounds can be initiated so long as they believe in a Supreme Being of their choice and I feel that this is one of Freemasonry's most important and biggest appeals. Authors like Knight and Lomas (and Waite before them) jeopardize this important aspect of the Craft.

Some contemporary authors, like Tobias Churton are able to link Freemasonry (or some of its ideals and components) with Gnosticism and Alchemy, placing Freemasonry within the context of the Western esoteric tradition without losing an iota of academic respectability and coherence. Churton shares some of the romanticism of earlier Masonic writers with a scholarly approach that works very well in providing a "middle way".

It isn't the purpose of this essay to provide a theory of origin but merely to point out that Freemasonry is many things to many different people and that in order to adhere to the "Ancient Landmarks of the order" we must also adhere to historical fact. If we let our imagination run wild, we risk damaging the reputation of Freemasonry as a whole, which has already been maligned by Para-Masonic groups that have made inappropriate use of the Masonic degree framework and aesthetics for their own purposes and thus hindered the reputation of Freemasonry in the process.

Having said that, I personally do believe that Freemasonry belongs to the Western Mystery Tradition and I use the word Mystery rather than occult or esoteric in order to avoid any sinister connotations although the meaning of the three terms, in this context, is almost interchangeable.

There isn't and can't, be a direct continuum between the Ancient mysteries and Freemasonry, at least not in a historical, factual and successive way as any mason will realize once he has been initiated.

There are no ancient secrets passed down from Egyptian Magi at Masonic initiation or rituals. What is imparted during these rituals is a method of self-discovery and self-improvement.

In a nutshell, the Western Mystery tradition is a body of societies, fraternities and associations of men that have been functioning since the dawn of civilization and in very different circumstances but that make use of allegory and ritual to impart their particular teachings, which are usually of a moral and spiritual nature. In this general sense, I believe Freemasonry to be part of this Mystery-esoteric-Occult tradition.

And there is an implicit intention in the ritual and the symbols employed to link freemasonry with the ancient past. Let's remember the opening line of the First degree tracing board or the analogies of the East and the Sun amongst many other references of the kind that can be found in Masonic ritual. That these mustn't be taken literally is obvious but it does show a certain willingness on behalf of the brothers who wrote the ritual to place our order in the context of a very particular tradition.

The Ancient Mysteries concerned themselves with self-improvement and self-knowledge and the Gnostics held the belief that we all share a Divine spark that is within us and that we can and must attain via the use of "inner knowledge". Alchemy, as Freemasonry, is a speculative Art and makes use of symbols to illustrate its ideas and tenets.

There isn't a direct successive line between all the different schools that form part of the Western Mystery tradition, but there are links amongst them which mustn't be taken too seriously but that, by the same token, shouldn't be disregarded either.


Up to A Page About Freemasonry main page.


A Page About Freemasonry is http://web.mit.edu/dryfoo/Masonry/