Freemasonry and the Western Mystery Tradition
St Mary Islington No. 5451, UGLE
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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