The Four Elements: What Do They Mean in Freemasonry? [Part 1]

The Four Elements: What Do They Mean in Freemasonry? [Part 1]

Part of the journey of a Mason is to familiarize yourself with the concepts presented in lodge, and to discover their meaning for oneself. While there are, of course, interpretations shared and passed down through the generations between masons, part of what makes Masonry so unique among teachings and spiritual practices of the world is that the kernel of what is preserved is fundamentally symbolic, and ultimately each brother’s understanding of the symbols are his or her own. There is no explicit, concrete orthodox doctrine regarding the meaning of any particular symbols, and thus the craft is free to evolve and learn as a collective, while also preserving something ancient and unspoken, but embodied and felt.

Among the symbols of the lodge and masonic rituals are the elements, being the four classical elements of Earth, Water, Air, and Fire. Various Orders, Jurisdictions, and Lodges place more or less emphasis on the elements and discuss them in different ways. Without revealing any aspects of the rituals themselves, we can say that in spite of not being universally emphasized throughout all of Freemasonry, the elements are nevertheless important to any thorough study of esotericism and the mysteries. In fact, the more esoteric a particular branch of Freemasonry is, the more emphasis it is likely to place on them, which can perhaps explain why in Universal Co-Masonry, they are significant from the very beginning of one’s masonic journey.  So, how can we view the elements with a Masonic eye, and understand their significance for our lives and our Craft?

Elements as Symbols

four elements symbolsWhile the literal or scientific aspects of elements are a part of the puzzle, alone they are insufficient to understand why the elements are so important to Freemasonry. The significance of the elements in masonry are as symbols, and symbolism is a language of its own. This is also the language with which we interpret dreams or literature, it is the language of direct experience, the forms of experience, and how they represent to the unfolding of consciousness. 

What is the purpose of looking at the elements symbolically? The first clue we may find here is that the elements are, by definition, what make up the World, and also us. This is traditionally why the elements are regarded as significant, in the first place. Therefore, we can look at the elements as essential components of the World, and since World and Self are ultimately one, essential components of the human experience, as well. Just as we can also think of the elements as corresponding to different states of matter, in chemistry/physics the states of solid (Earth), liquid (Water), gas (Air), and energy (Fire), we can also think of them as representing states of experience, mind, or consciousness.

Earth

four elements earthThe element Earth is the most solid and stable of the four, with the least dynamic or changeable qualities. Rather than being a source of energy, or particularly subject to energetic changes, it tends to absorb energy, and diffuse it without much actual change to the element itself. A great example is the grounding of a lightning rod; although an enormous amount of energy is going into the Earth, the energy is quickly diffused, without much change to the Earth itself. Fire is another example, because while water is often the most effective method of extinguishing a fire, due to its other qualities which make it easy to blast from a hose, technically pouring Earth on Fire would always be the most effective method of extinguishing the Fire’s dynamic energetic consumption. Unlike the water, the Earth is also not evaporated by the Fire.  

In terms of form and change, Earth has the highest degree of inertia, it is the least susceptible or slowest to change. It also has the greatest structural integrity, as buildings constructed from stones, a type of Earth, can last for centuries or even millenia. It also literally forms the ground upon which we stand, and upon which all structures are built, so in that sense Earth is also the archetypal essence of basis, foundation, stability. As such, we may see the corresponding aspects of consciousness, mind, and experience to be those which share these qualities: survival, stability, being grounded in physical reality, in bodily experience; also any state of mind which involves a high degree of inertia, whether that is viewed as a positive, as in mental and emotional stability, or a negative, as in stubbornness.

Water

four elements waterThe element Water is a bit less solid and stable than Earth, but still less dynamic and changing than Air or Fire. Unlike Air, it is more obviously bound by gravity, and unlike Fire, it does not emit energy. Water is an element which flows, always finds the path of least resistance, and takes on the form of whatever container or environment it comes into. Because it is more susceptible to the changing influence of energy than Earth, it is able to be evaporated, from the lowest and warmest places, and then to be placed down again, especially in the highest or coolest places. Because of this dynamic, as we all know, it creates a cycle which flows over and nourishes the Earth, and makes Life possible. If Water were a bit more inert, it would simply stay in the ocean and be a giant pool; if it were a bit less inert, it would stay above the Earth in the form of clouds, and never come back down. As such, water holds a special place among the elements, as it touches and travels between all of them, as is in alignment with its essential quality of flow.

In terms of symbolism, we typically view Water as representing emotion, but why? Again, as with Earth, its mostly because of the experiential similarity of water’s essential qualities to those of our emotions. Like Water, our emotions simply flow through us, based on whatever occurs in our experience, in relation to the relative energetic dynamism of change. For instance, an excess of Fire or energetic change in our lives will heat our Water, which we usually experience as anger or passion. In such cases, we may say that things are getting “steamy,” or we were “piping hot” with anger. On the other hand, if there is a relative lack of dynamic, energetic change, our emotions may become totally solid, like ice, and people in such a state we refer to as cold, or frigid, because their emotion/Water has stopped flowing, has become like Earth. When our emotions are in their normal liquid state of flow, we experience them as simply coming of their own accord, not particularly within our control, and they “wash over” us, or hit us “like waves.” Hence, Water generally represents emotion.

The Inert Half of the Elemental Spectrum

elements earth and water

As we examine the first two elements, it becomes obvious that they represent different points along a spectrum. What is the nature of that spectrum, what is the primary variable? The spectrum seems to range from the most inert elements, which is also to say those most bound by the force of gravity or inertia, and least susceptible to the force of energetic change and motion, or perhaps freedom of motion. In astrology, these would correspond to the qualities of being mutable or fixed. Just as we view the elements as representing aspects of one’s self, they are also seen to be parts or states of mind and experience which are more or less susceptible to inertia and change, stillness and dynamism, and perhaps, Order and Chaos

Within these two elements alone, we can see this spectrum begin to emerge, as Earth is most bound and least susceptible to energetic change, and Water a bit less so, with its ability to change, become like solid Earth or gaseous Air temporarily, while its most essential quality is to flow between them. Herein lie many clues to the mystery of the elements, and as we continue our journey in the next post, we will see even more meaning, and gain a greater understanding of what the elements are within ourselves.

To Be Continued…

What is the Role of Gender in Esotericism and Freemasonry?

What is the Role of Gender in Esotericism and Freemasonry?

Gender is in everything; everything has its Masculine and Feminine Principles; Gender manifests on all planes. ~ The Kybalion

It seems that gender is a matter of some controversy, these days. Many people wish to do away with the idea of gender altogether, or at least eliminate any concrete definition of it, as it applies to people, because they recognize a right of each person to flow back and forth between genders, choose whatever ratio of one gender identity to another that they see fit, at any given moment, or throw the whole idea away altogether. Meanwhile, others remain more traditional, as is always the case, and there is some contention over the matter.

Gender has also long been a matter of great significance in the occult traditions, as alluded to briefly in the seventh Hermetic Principle, quoted above. Many teachings in Western esotericism and the East alike teach about the gendered principles, and how they play out in our cosmos.

Freemasonry has traditionally been, and to a large extent is still an exclusively masculine or male organization, with the “appendant body” for women, reminiscent of Adam’s rib, known as the Eastern Star. In this appendant body, women are not given the full knowledge of the craft, and are overseen by a man. The exception, of course, is the more recent Universal Co-Masonry, which allows women as equals, and which we believe to be the next step in Masonry’s evolution.

So, what is gender, what is its role in esoteric traditions, and what should its role be in Freemasonry?

Gender from Archetypes to Biology

gender in scienceThe principle of gender, as described in The Kybalion, is something which goes beyond human gender identities, although they are one manifestation of it. We can see this idea at play in such commonly recognized dualities as yin and yang, the chalice and the wand, water and fire, or mother earth and father sky. Gender, thought of in this way, is a much more abstract quality or dichotomy which, being abstract, can be universally applied to everything in reality, according to the Kybalion, and other congruent teachings.

In this way, we can view the Principle of Gender as being very similar to the Principle of Polarity, which is that all manifest phenomena have polarities, and each of these apparent polarities are actually the same phenomenon in different degrees along a spectrum. Hot and cold are just different degrees of vibratory motion we call thermal energy, light and dark are just different degrees of photonic saturation of space, etc.

So, what should be gender’s place in our thinking about life, the universe, and everything? If we take the Principle of Gender to be true, then it must be helpful to recognize the abstract principle of gender, as each Hermetic Principle is thought to be a core pattern or design of reality. We see gender and polarity in the masonic lodge in many forms, and its symbolism plays a key role in the masonic rituals and teachings. Generally speaking, in most spiritual traditions, there is some acknowledgement of the masculine/feminine, active/passive dynamic.

We also see it in some scientific understandings of reality, such as in chemistry, which is essentially the interplay of masculine-positive and feminine-negative particles in chemical reactions. Since our bodies and all biological life are essentially chemical in nature, this means that we are all made up of some complex combination of this interplay, on the chemical level. Another example is electromagnetism and the magnetic poles, or sexual reproduction in biology, of course.

The False Equivalence Controversy

ddThe principle of gender in psychology is where things get a bit more enigmatic. Many of the aspects of our psycho-emotional being that have typically been gendered have been called into question, in recent times. For instance, rationality has traditionally been associated with masculinity, and emotionality with femininity, but over the past century that has changed to a large extent, with both genders proving they are perfectly capable of both, when freed from the expectations of their limiting cultural roles.

Simultaneously, there does seem to be an element of polarity to many of the dynamics at play within the human psyche. If we ignore these, we run the risk of missing a key part of understanding ourselves. However, if we embrace them too concretely, we run the risk of boxing ourselves and others into categories of identity, which can be traps.

Here, I think, is where much of the trouble we have in seeing and accepting the coexistence of opposites within each person can be found. To me, it seems that we have historically taken something that is abstract, gender, and conflated it with something concrete: the biological sex of a person. This is a major part of what the movement for gender transcendence is about, separating the concept of gender from it’s biological manifestation. While there is some biological basis for some of the gendered traits, there are also many people who do not neatly fit into the simple black and white, male and female, masculine and feminine dichotomy. 

In order to address this, some people want to throw out the idea of gender altogether, as a “socially constructed” fiction, an idea sometimes found in postmodernism. The danger, it seems to me, is that in attempting to remove this conflation, we also delegitimize the abstract principle, which is a key to understanding how reality regenerates itself. Must we throw out the baby with the proverbial bathwater, in order to achieve this personal freedom from culturally sanctioned gender norms? Must we also refuse to acknowledge that this principle of gender does manifest itself concretely in biology, even if we also have the choice to alter or transcend that biological manifestation?

A Most Engendered Paradox

masculine and feminine
Part of the teachings on the Principle of Gender is that it is a paradox which is necessary to manifest or
generate (coming from the same root word) reality itself. Taoism teaches a similar idea with perhaps the most well-known symbol of gender and polarity, the Yin and Yang. Ingeniously, they built into the very symbol itself a hint at the paradoxically unitive nature of these opposites, which represents a unity in all polarities.

Polarity, and by extension Gender, can then be seen as an essential and paradoxical quality of all manifest reality. Just as all diverse phenomena of the universe are an illusory manifestation of one fundamental unitive reality, these polarities are the structure of the illusion itself. Remember here that illusion doesn’t mean “not real,” it actually means, “not what it seems to be,” just as a magician pulling a rabbit from his hat is very real, but simultaneously an illusion. If you peaked beneath the table, you would see through to the reality. Perhaps it may behoove us to look at Gender somewhat the same way.

Bringing this cosmic abstraction back into the realm of gender politics, what does it say about the legitimacy or illegitimacy of the concept of gender, as applied to people? It seems to me that, quite appropriately, this too is a paradox. Gender is simultaneously essential, and illusory; like all polarity, it is the essence of the illusion, and therefore of life itself, hence its place among the seven Hermetic Principles. We cannot escape it, so long as we dwell within manifest reality, but we can transcend it to some degree, and choose of our own free will what gender balance we wish to have in each of us.

Gender, Psyche, & Freemasonry

esoteric genderEsoteric traditions have long taught that both masculine and feminine exist in every person, regardless of biological sex, and that uniting these opposites within the self is one of the keys to transcendence. My favorite manifestation of this idea is in the psychology of Dr. Carl Jung, who was certainly influenced by esoteric teachings in his theories on the human mind, and integrated them in a way that is compatible with modern thought.

Jung theorized that we all contain all polarities within us when we are born; as we develop and adapt to our social milieu, whatever we identify with becomes part of a complex of ideas in our waking consciousness called our ego, or sense of self, and whatever we do not identify with become unconscious complexes, which then come to affect us in our daily life as the people we interact with reflect them.

Therefore, every person who has identified with their gender, whatever that might entail given their personality and culture, has within them an aspect which represents all that is the opposite to them, called their anima or animus. The anima is a man’s internal unconscious woman, and animus is the internal unconscious man in a woman. Every relationship we have is some interaction with this opposite-gender complex, and the uniting of the conscious ego with this other-gender part of ourselves is a major step towards individuation, or what we might call self-actualization, the process of becoming whole and fully human.

If we look at the history of Freemasonry, much like the history of humanity in general, it has been highly masculine-dominated, to the point of only allowing men to have the true knowledge. Yet, simultaneously, it has carried within it the keys of a higher understanding woven throughout the masonic symbolism that there can be a balance of the genders, and that our sisters in humanity may join us as brothers of the craft. In so doing, not only does the other half of humanity get to share in the divine knowledge, but they also bring a greater degree of the more abstract universal principle of femininity, which they are (often) inherently more connected to, to balance the craft.

self actualizationPerhaps we can see the Freemasonry of old as being like the man with an unconscious feminine aspect. From this view, the Eastern Star is his psychological anima, dwelling in the darkness, literally not allowed to partake of the symbolic light of the teachings. When a man does not have a connection to his anima, he also does not have as much of a connection to the mystical side of life, the magic and spirit of human existence, which is typically manifested more in the feminine. The result is that he will be dry, intellectual, and lacking in the vital essence of soul connection.

Brothers and friends, I believe it is time for Freemasonry to evolve, and step further into its own individuation, to embrace both people of the female biological sex, and in a more archetypal sense, the feminine aspect of spirit and mystical union, rather than mere intellectualism and charity work, noble though those may be. If the goal of Freemasonry is to make us better and more complete humans, then surely this is a necessary step toward that great and noble ideal.