When participating in Masonic Ritual, it’s clear that there is a mysterious significance to every aspect of the heavily structured procedure. Like clockwork, all is orderly, and layered with symbolic meaning. As we become more and more aware of the meanings of the various aspects of it, it becomes clear that the ritual is like a fractal representation of both the cosmos and the individual.
What exactly are we doing when we participate in masonic ritual? Are we living out a myth, reprogramming our own minds, conducting a magical ceremony, maintaining an ancient institution, or all of the above? What is the relationship of masonic ritual to concepts of myth and magic? Without revealing any particular aspect of the ritual, let us consider the import of masonic ritual, and reveal what we may.
As always, this writing is not representative of any official statement or position of Universal Co-Masonry, but is merely the reflections of one Co-Mason.
Masonic Ritual’s origins, of course, may be found in the confluence of medieval operative masonry, which, much as a builder’s guild, concerned itself primarily with the literal building of sacred and often monolithic structures and maintaining the arcane knowledge thereof, with the various occult and esoteric traditions of Hermeticism, Gnosticism, Kabbalah, Astrology, and others considered heretical by the church, and therefore persecuted and suppressed. The marriage of these two traditions resulted in a transformation from Operative (purely practical) to Speculative (philosophical) Freemasonry.
What seems most clear is that the temple itself and the rituals which take place within it contain enormous symbolism, which exist in layers which are continuously revealed in degrees as one progresses through the Masonic path and hierarchy. Freemasonry describes itself as a “Peculiar system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols.” To any practicing Freemason, it should become apparent that the symbols, movements, pronouncements, and elements of the temple itself can be understood on many symbolic levels.
In his book The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell wrote:
“It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth–penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words. It is beyond words. Beyond images, beyond that bounding rim of the Buddhist Wheel of Becoming. Mythology pitches the mind beyond that rim, to what can be known but not told.”
What lies between us and transcendent Truth? Joseph Campbell would likely say Myth or symbolism, and a knowledgeable Mason would likely agree. There is tremendous advantage in passing down timeless truths in the form of allegory, ritual, stories, and symbolic objects. An odd thing happens when we put Truth into words, particularly static doctrines: it becomes frozen, solidified, and thereby incapable of changing, evolving, and growing with those who read, speak, and understand it. Any change is perceived as a challenge to the old. On the other hand, embodying Truth in symbolism, even those which are locked into a certain form which is maintained down through many generations, can be continually renewed and understood in new ways, because its true meaning is inherently subjective, being unspoken.
As to what, specifically, the symbols of the Lodge and Rituals mean, this is something best preserved for the initiated, for the simple reason that coming into a Masonic understanding of these things can be tainted by being revealed prematurely. Also, they will mean different things to different Masons, and at different degrees. Suffice it to say, the many symbols of Freemasonry carry import ranging from the physical, to the metaphysical, to the cosmic, for “those who have eyes to see.”
Undoubtedly, for many it is a leap to go from passing down symbolic knowledge to practicing ritual magic. Yet some posit that at the foundations of every great religion and tradition, there is a magical thread. To bridge the philosophical materialism (or physicalism) so prevalent today, among the modern intelligentsia and conventional mainstream culture alike, with the magical worldview is a task for another writing, but certainly many of the traditions which transformed ancient operative masonry into modern Speculative Freemasonry shared some version of this worldview, whatever differences they may have had. What role, then, does magic play in Freemasonry’s Rituals? Is the average Freemason practicing magic, perhaps without even knowing it?
If we accept or entertain the idea that the world is magical, that the fundamental tenets of magic are real, then it becomes clear that any institution and ceremony which conjures and directs human belief, emotion, and intention must necessarily have an element of magic to it. If this be the case, then all religions are inherently magical, the chief difference from other forms of magical practice being perhaps merely the format, wherein the power and intent of the many is directed and conducted by the magical elite, in the form of priests or ministers, although most members and clergy alike would probably be incensed at the re-definition.
We can also reasonably suppose, then, that the Craft which is practiced in Freemasonry may have an equally magical significance and purpose, again supposing that the magical view of reality is true. However, (perhaps) unlike most religions, it seems far more likely that this more esoteric understanding of Masonry may be explicitly passed down or taught, at some point along one’s journey through the Masonic hierarchy, especially in a more mystically oriented body of Masonry. This is not by any means ubiquitous, with many Masonic Lodges, particularly in mainstream masculine Masonry, being focused primarily on simple fraternity and charity.
However, this aspect of masonry is both subjective, and subject to all sorts of misinterpretations and misunderstandings, particularly by the uninitiated. Indeed, the chief accusation of many anti-masonic conspiracy theories is that they are secretly practicing “black magic” and satanism. Perhaps this is one reason why the more magical side of Masonry is not often openly discussed, even among the initiated. After all, the reason that purveyors of the magical worldview sought refuge in operative masonry in the first place was because of such accusations and misunderstandings, which although less consequential today, still are with us.
My conclusion to the title question of this post is that Freemasonry seems to be both, or neither. In the end, Freemasonry is what you make of it. Yet, nevertheless, regardless of how various individuals may conceptualize it, Freemasonry itself does seem to have a certain presence, almost a consciousness of its own. I find that the occult concept of the Egregor is useful to me, in understanding what this might be. Whatever the explanation, it seems apparent to me at least that Freemasonry contains an element which goes beyond the physical and intellectual, into the realm of the magical, though not all Masons may recognize it as such.