|by Richard Smoley|
Masonry. To some, the word connotes sinister conspiracies, an
underground cabal that, through means unknown and scarcely imaginable to
ordinary mortals, topple governments and manipulate currencies.
To others, more adept at observation than imagination, it evokes images of small-town America, of solid citizens in cheap suits congregating at the lodge on the second story of a shabby Main Street commercial building.
In either case, today's seekers may wonder why Masonry should interest them. While some grain of esoteric knowledge may be buried in those peculiar rituals, how powerful could it be? The Masons we know -- a father or an uncle, perhaps -- so far from being mystic masters, usually blend unobtrusively into the background of middle-class life.
Personally I am not a Mason. I know no more of this tradition than can be found in books. Yet from the small amount of reading I've done, I'm convinced that every spiritual seeker today owes an incalculable debt to Freemasonry. You could even say that ours is fundamentally a Masonic civilization. (Freemasonry and Masonry, by the way, are more or less interchangeable terms; "the Craft" is a common nickname for it.)
To understand why Masonry is so important, it's helpful to look at its origins -- at least as far as we can glimpse them. The oldest known Masonic text, the "Old Charges," which dates at least as far back as1400, sets out a legendary heritage that begins with the antediluvian patriarch Jabal, who discovered geometry ("the which Science is called Massonrie") and wrote down his findings on pillars of stone. After Noah's Flood destroyed all human civilization, the Egyptian sage Hermes Trismegistus rediscovered this knowledge and passed it on in a lineage that includes Nimrod, Abraham, Euclid, and the 80,000 masons who were said to have worked on Solomon's Temple.1
Like many branches of the Western inner traditions, Masonry thus claims to go back to ancient Egypt and Israel. But most scholars today -- including many Masons -- would say there is no evidence of any such link. Hence most opt for one of two theories of Masonic origins. You will encounter both of them in this issue.
The first one holds that Masonry evolved from the medieval stonemasons' guilds. The medieval guild, a combination of trade union and regulated monopoly, had the responsibility of inducting trainees and preserving trade secrets; this was the origin of the famous Masonic passwords and secret handgrips. And because medieval civilization was steeped in religion, spiritual and ethical instruction was included in the apprentices' training, giving rise to the lessons imparted in the Masonic degrees.
In the early modern period, the guild system began to break down; as it did, the associations of practicing stoneworkers -- what is known as "operative Masonry" -- began to evolve into the "speculative Masonry" of today's lodges. Here the old symbolism of plumb and square, compass and gauge, for moral and ethical virtues was retained, but now purely symbolically. Eventually the "operative" side was lost altogether and Masons were drawn chiefly from them nobility and bourgeoisie.
Such is the first theory. It is semiofficially promulgated by many Masonic organizations and books, and is the more or less standard account. It does have some major problems, however. As Christopher Knight (interviewed in this issue) notes, it doesn't explain why Freemasonry seems to have originated in Scotland, where there were few if any stonemason's guilds, rather than on the Continent, where there were many. It also fails to explain why, in an age where nothing was more of a blot on one's social standing than any kind of connection with work that soiled one's hands, the gentry and intelligentsia suddenly became interested in the knowledge embodied in a craft guild. It is as if a socialite today went to the union local in search of esoteric knowledge. Finally, the religious sentiments in the surviving guild texts are strongly Christian. Yet explicitly Christian motifs are almost completely absent from Masonry.
The second theory is far more romantic (which can be a disadvantage if it is being judged by historians who pride themselves on caution and sobriety). It says that Freemasonry is a reformulation of the knowledge possessed by that mysterious medieval order known as the Knights Templars. Some scholars, notably the amateur historian John J. Robinson, argue convincingly for this view. I tend to agree with them. Here's why.
The Templars (as noted in Dale Boudreau's article in this issue) reached the zenith of their might in the thirteenth century, when they wielded great power not only in the Holy Land but in Europe. But when Palestine fell back into Muslim hands in 1291, the Templars lost their apparent reason for existence, and various powers, including the pope, made plans to consolidate them with their rival order, the Knights Hospitallers. The Templars, perhaps overconfident of their prestige, did not maneuver very capably in this situation. Many were rounded up, tortured, and executed.
Not all the Templars fell into their enemies' hands. Many of the knights were never caught, and a large Templar fleet consisting of eighteen ships at the French harbor of La Rochelle vanished before they could be seized. No one knows what happened to them.2
After this many Templars seem to have taken refuge in Scotland, whose king, Robert the Bruce, was at that time under excommunication by Rome and was also fighting to keep his country free from English rule. The Scottish cause was not faring well; the English had set up strongholds throughout much of Scotland, and it seemed only a matter of time before the nation fell under England's sway.
But in 1314 the tide turned decisively. At the celebrated Battle of Bannockburn, Robert the Bruce routed English forces two and a half times the size of his own, guaranteeing Scotland's independence for the next 300 years. Oddly enough, even here the battle seemed to be going against the Scots when at the last moment a mysterious force came to their aid. Accounts of this event are garbled; the best-known version says the camp followers of the Scottish army entered the fray, blowing horns and waving homemade flags. Mistaking them for real reinforcements, the English panicked and fled.3
You don't have to read many accounts of battles to understand how the tide can be turned by such flukes. Even so, it's strange to think that the proud English knights could have been routed by a seedy brigade of whores and scullery lads.
Another explanation, favored by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, those tireless champions of alternative history, says that the mysterious force was a detachment of Templar knights, and that the legend of the camp followers' attack was a story cooked up to boost Scottish national pride while disguising the real source of Robert's help.4 At any rate, by the time the ban of excommunication was lifted from Scotland in 1328, the Templars would have had plenty of occasion to find cover.
There is some evidence for Templar survivals in the British Isles after their suppression. Robinson argues that the Peasants' Revolt in England in 1381 was not a spontaneous uprising but an event carefully orchestrated by heirs to the Templar lineage. He notes, for example, that the rioting mobs often went far out of their way to sack properties belonging to the Knights Hospitallers, who had taken over the Templar holdings in England. Robinson also notes that the leader of the revolt was one Wat Tyler -- and every good Mason knows that the "Tyler" is a lodge function: he is the one who stands guard outside the meeting.5
Robinson also points to a curious allusion in the initiation rite of the third degree, that of the Master Mason. Here the candidate is told that the initiation "will make you brother to pirates and corsairs."6 Is this a recollection of the vanished Templar ships that (we may speculate) turned to piracy to avenge themselves on the perfidious European powers? The connection becomes more plausible if you remember that one of the symbols associated with the Master Mason's degree is the skull and crossbones on a black background -- the Jolly Roger familiar to every schoolboy.
Finally, there is the matter of the "blood oaths." The Masonic rituals contain a number of blood- curdling punishments that the initiate invokes upon himself if ever he violates the secret. In the second, Fellowcraft degree, for example, the candidate binds himself to his oath "under no less penalty than to have my left breast torn open and my heart and vitals taken from thence and thrown over my left shoulder and carried into the valley of Jehosaphat."7
As Robinson points out, such oaths are mystifying if it is a matter of stonecutters' trade secrets -- but quite understandable for Templars on the run, who, if they were handed over to the Inquisition, would have suffered torments far more excruciating than these.
The evidence for a Templar connection is more compendious and more intricate than I can really do justice to here, but if we accept this hypothesis, we might ask how the Templars turned into the Freemasons. To have a sense of this, we must look at a small and quirky chapel a few miles south of Edinburgh, known as Rosslyn. It is on the estate of the St. Clair or Sinclair family, and was built between 1441 and 1486. Though ostensibly the private chapel of an aristocratic family, it has never served as such; the St. Clairs' chapel is in their house.
Moreover Rosslyn seems to possess an enormous number of non-Christian motifs. "The figure that occurs most frequently," write Baigent and Leigh "is the 'Green Man' -- a human head with vines issuing from its mouth and sometimes its ears, then spreading wildly, in tangled proliferation, over the walls."8 Is this "Green Man" connected with "Baphomet," the bearded head that the Templars' enemies accused them of worshiping?
Knight and his coauthor Robert Lomas suggest in their book The Hiram Key that Rosslyn was built as a replica of Herod's Temple, on which the Templars had conducted excavations during their time in the Holy Land. Rosslyn even has two pillars, "the apprentice's pillar" and "the Mason's pillar," which, according to Knight and Lomas, correspond to the two pillars, Jachin and Boaz, of the Jerusalem Temple -- and of the Masonic lodge.
But one of the most intriguing pieces of evidence from Rosslyn is a carving reproduced on page 26 of this issue. Knight claims that it portrays the astonishing scene of a first-degree Masonic initiation -- conducted by a figure in Templar garb. Knight and Lomas conclude:
Many modern Freemasons believe that their organization is descended from the semi-literate working-class ritual practices of the medieval guilds of stonemasons. It is an origin theory that is riddled with problems, yet it did seem to explain the well-documented references to the early operative lodges of Scotland. The true reason is more the reverse: it was speculative masons (Templars) who adopted operative masons (stoneworkers) and introduced them to lower-level secrets concerning Solomon's Temple.9By the early seventeenth century, Masonry begins to enter the public scene, and we encounter records of lodge meeting in several Scottish towns. Depending on whom you believe, Masonry at this point began to be permeated by the esoteric currents that Frances Yates has dubbed "the Rosicrucian enlightenment," or, alternatively, these esoteric dimensions simply became better-known. By 1638 a Scottish poet named Henry Adamson could write:
For what we do presage is not in grosse, For we be brethren of the Rosie Crosse; We have the Mason word, and second sight; Things for to come we can foretell aright . . .10It might be overinterpreting to say that Adamson was specifically connecting the Masons with the Rosicrucians (the mysterious order that was the subject of several celebrated pamphlets written around 1614); he may simply have been playing with associated ideas, just as a satirist today might lump Shirley MacLaine together with crystals and Atlantis without believing they necessarily have anything to do with one another.11
But there is other evidence for a Masonic-Rosicrucian link. One of the most influential of the seventeenth-century speculative Masons was an Englishman named Elias Ashmole, who was initiated in 1646. Ashmole, a noted antiquarian (his collection forms the nucleus of Oxford's Ashmolean Museum), was also one of the founders of the Royal Society, the first modern organization for scientific investigation. Before its formal establishment in 1660, the group's members, meeting informally, called themselves "the Invisible College" -- a term taken from the Rosicrucian manifestoes. Nearly all of the Royal Society's first members were Masons.12
Henceforth Masonic history becomes more a matter of record and less of conjecture. After the United Grand Lodge of England was formed in 1717, Masonic history enters into the spotlight. Dale Boudreau's article discusses its influence on the American Revolution and on the boom in fraternal orders in nineteenth-century America, while Dana Lloyd Thomas shows how Freemasonry was at least as important in forming a unified modern Italy as it was in influencing our own Founding Fathers.
Thus, if the Templar theory holds true, then the betrayal of the Templars by king and pope was amply repaid, for Freemasonry has been one of the chief sponsors of republican government against monarchism and of rational, scientific investigation as opposed to ecclesiastical dogma. But is this all it comes to? Was the rise of modern science and democracy just a long, drawn-out act of revenge? And does this make the Masons the enemies of Catholicism, as many Catholics -- and not a few Masons -- seem to believe? I think not. It's worth trying to understand why.
Western civilization, for all its greatness, has never entirely succeeded in reconciling the sacred with the secular. Christianity, persecuted both by the Jewish and the Roman authorities, hardly had a healthy relationship with the worldly powers in its formative years. When it almost accidentally became the state religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century A.D., the Christian Church was more or less unprepared for the role. In later centuries Eastern Orthodoxy would turn into an arm of the Byzantine state, while Catholicism, stepping into the vacuum created by the collapse of the Western Empire, began to intrude into the realm of secular power.
By the thirteenth century, popes like Innocent IV were not only temporal lords (ruling most of central Italy) but were even claiming universal sovereignty; they regarded secular monarchs like the Holy Roman Emperor as mere henchmen. (The emperors themselves, of course, never quite saw things this way, leading to some of the greatest political struggles of the Middle Ages.)
It was in this atmosphere that the Templars were dissolved. The popes and bishops were alternately manipulating, and manipulated by, the kings and emperors of Europe, and corruption flourished on a scale that make our furors over Whitewater and Newt Gingrich's finances look puny. Whatever truth there may have been to the idea of Templar heresies, the chief motive for their dissolution was probably the authorities' greed for their wealth.
As Dale Boudreau notes, Friday the thirteenth of October, 1307, was the day the sacred and secular powers chose to descend upon the Templars, and for Western civilization it was a very unlucky day indeed. For the Templar dissolution seemed to be final proof that, despite the considerable spiritual power the Church possessed and continues to possess, it could not be trusted in matters secular.
Since that time, if you grant the Templar-Masonic link, the heirs to the Templar lineage in both Europe and America have fought to separate secular from sacred authority, culminating in achievements like the First Amendment of our own Constitution. This struggle was not won in a day or even a century; religious tolerance was a distant dream for many centuries after the Templars were jailed.
Masonry does not, as far as I can see, dispute the spiritual teachings of the Church; its requirement of a belief in a Supreme Being and a life after death are perfectly consistent with Catholicism. But by its insistence on respect for all religions, Freemasonry does challenge Catholic (and all other) claims to an exclusive monopoly on spiritual truth; only in the sense that it undercuts the doctrine extra ecclesiam nulla salus ("No salvation outside the Church") can it be called anti-Catholic. For similar reasons it frightens many Protestant fundamentalists.
Given that both modern science and modern democracy have Masonic origins, it's not entirely specious to contend that ours is a Masonic civilization. This is not to say that it is free from abuses of its own. Like the medieval Christian civilization that preceded it, the modern "Masonic" civilization presents its own problems: representative government is prone to abuses too, while scientism has turned into a new form of bigotry. These excesses, if they go unchecked, may call for a response from the "conscious circle of humanity" much like the one that turned the Templars into the Masons. Most likely, though, Masonic civilization is, like its predecessors, only one stage in an enormous program of constructing a grand Temple of human experience, whose nature and goal we today can barely guess at.
To address another question, is there a Masonic conspiracy juggling world events behind the scenes? I, of course, have no way of knowing, but to all appearances, Masonry is less influential than it was a century ago. I suspect that there are circles in which Masonic affiliation may help as a means to advancement -- but that's a far cry from saying it's a dark web of international evil. Connections in the "old boys'" network and what sociologist C. Wright Mills called the "power elite" are probably far more influential in personal advancement than Masonic rings or secret handshakes -- as they probably are in global political and business decisions.
But let's turn away from these grand perspectives and ask what Masonry offers in a spiritual sense. There are many interpretations of Masonic rites, symbols, and degrees; some are more plausible and authoritative than others, but none is taken as an absolute within Masonry itself. This suggests not only that Masonry has tried to avoid slavery to creeds and formulations, but that the ultimate meaning of its rituals lies in the rites themselves. That is to say, their import is not some kind of implicit verbal message, but rather the effect they have on the being of the candidate. Carried out properly, the rites should leave their own distinct mark on the individual on both conscious and unconscious levels. As Thomas Worrel's article in this issue suggests, the process may resemble C.G. Jung's picture of individuation.
For me, the most fascinating of the Masonic mysteries has to do with the Master Mason ritual, which recounts the story of the death of Hiram Abiff (sometimes Adoniram, "the lord Hiram").
In this legend, Hiram works as the chief architect of Solomon's Temple.13 Three "ruffians" conspire to extract the secret of the Master Mason from him. One day as Hiram tries to leave the site of the unfinished Temple through the south entrance, he is stopped by the first ruffian. Armed with a rule, the ruffian demands the secret. Hiram refuses, and the ruffian strikes him with the rule on his right temple. He sinks down onto his left knee.
Hiram then rushes to the west gate, where he is accosted by the second ruffian, who holds a level. Confronted with the same request, Hiram again refuses and is struck on the left temple with this tool. He falls onto his right knee.
Now Hiram, faint and bleeding, staggers to the east entrance, where the third ruffian is posted. Being refused as well, he hits Hiram on the forehead with a heavy stone maul, which finally kills him.
The ruffians bury Hiram in "the rubbish of the Temple," later exhuming him to give him a more permanent burial under an acacia tree to the west of the site. King Solomon and another Hiram, king of Tyre, dispatch a search for the lost master. A group of workmen find him, and Solomon gives Hiram Abiff his third and final burial near the Holy of Holies of the uncompleted Temple. Solomon raises a monument to him in the form of a virgin weeping over a broken column and holding a sprig of acacia; behind her is the figure of Time with a scythe; he holds a snake to her head. With Hiram dead, the Temple will remain unfinished until one who knows the "Master's Word" can complete it.14
What could this strange tale possibly mean? I will try to give one interpretation here. It is not meant to be definitive; indeed, as I've said, such a thing is probably impossible. What I'm about to say owes a great deal to an account in Harold W. Percival's fascinating and compendious 1946 work Thinking and Destiny.15 but it is not identical to Percival's account.
Hiram is consciousness. The Temple that he is building is the true Self, the complete and integrated human being. The three ruffians are the three ordinary functions that operate in man. frequently described as thinking, feeling, and doing. Now these functions, the three ruffians, work together at least well enough to plot against Hiram. But because they are unintegrated and unconscious themselves, they cannot attain their goal. In fact they only end up "killing" the consciousness, that is, making it descend into the oblivion of ordinary life.
There are also higher functions in man, symbolized by Solomon and Hiram of Tyre. They do not have the secret of consciousness either. But they can at least set up a memorial -- that is, is a reminder that something has been lost. Until it is found, man is subject to the forces of time and delusion (symbolized by the serpent).
Interestingly, the three ruffians are named Jubelo, Jubela, and Jubelum. The first part of the names is obviously akin to Jabal, discoverer of "the Science called Massonrie," while the suffixes resemble the Latin masculine, feminine, and neuter endings. But as Percival notes, there is another dimension to these endings. If you put them together, you have "Aoum," or the sacred syllable "Om," which Percival equates with the true Mason's word. That is to say, the three ruffians, the inferior functions of man, possess part of the secret of consciousness. But they do not have the secret of integrating them and bringing them to the higher level symbolized by the Temple.
If Masonry is a true initiatic tradition, it contains within its rites and teachings and symbols the means to restore this lost word and bring the Temple to perfection. (I am told that this is part of the Royal Arch ritual, one of the many higher degrees of Masonry.)
I personally do not have the experience to say whether Masonry, now or ever, has possessed the secret of restoring the "lost word" of consciousness. But the Masonic tradition has been a prime inspiration for many of the paths that we explore in GNOSIS. H.P. Blavatsky was greatly indebted to it; the founders of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn were all high-degree Masons; even Gardnerian Wicca, with its three degrees of initiation, is believed to have been inspired by the first three degrees of Freemasonry.
This leads us back, perhaps, to the notion of conspiracy; paranoids may shriek that here is more evidence of some grand plot to lure humankind toward the lairs of Satan. For my part I can see no such thing; indeed if there is a worldwide conspiracy to increase consciousness and promote tolerance, scientific inquiry, and representative government, I can only regret that it has not proved stronger.
1. David Stevenson, The Origins of Freemasonry (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp. 19-22.
2. John J. Robinson, Born in Blood: The Lost Secrets of Freemasonry (New York: M. Evans & Co., 1989), pp. 164-66.
3. Ibid., pp. 152-55.
4. Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, The Temple and the Lodge (London: Jonathan Cape, 1989), pp. 34-37.
5. Robinson, pp. 17-36.
6. Ibid., p. 166.
7. Ibid., p. 212.
8. Baigent & Leigh, p. 120.
9. Christopher Knight and Robert Lomas, The Hiram Key: Pharaohs, Freemasons, and the Lost Scrolls of Jesus (Rockport, Mass.: Element, 1996), p. 313.
10. Baigent & Leigh, p. 119. Cf. Frances A. Yates, The Rosicrucian Enlightenment (London: Ark, 1972), p. 211. Emphasis in the original.
11. Stevenson, p. 102.
12. Yates, pp. 171-92, 210-11.
13. A worker named Hiram is mentioned in the biblical account of the Temple's construction; cf. 1 Kings 7:13-45. But he is a worker in brass, not an architect; there is also no reference to his murder.
14. Knight and Lomas, pp. 9-17. In some versions, the first two blows fall on Hiram's shoulder and the nape of his neck. See Edmond Gloton, Instruction maconnique aux Maitres-Macons (Paris: V. Gloton, 1950), pp. 56-57.
15. Harold W. Percival, Thinking and Destiny (Dallas, Texas: Word Foundation, 1946), pp. 680-86. See also W. Kirk MacNulty, Freemasonry: A Journey through Ritual and Symbol (London: Thames & Hudson, 1991), pp. 28-30.
(c) copyright 1997 by Richard Smoley and GNOSIS Magazine
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