Ancient Free and Accepted Masons

Ancient Free and Accepted Masons

THE word “Mason” has been defined in many fanciful ways, as when one writer derives it from a Greek word meaning “in the midst of heaven,” and another finds in it an ancient Egyptian expression meaning “children of the sun”; but it is almost certain that the term came into existence during the Middle Ages to signify a man engaged in the occupation of building. Originally it had merely this trade significance; it was only after Masonry became a secret society that it took on a wider significance. Of course, there were builders long before the Middle Ages, but they went by other names, just as today we often speak of them as “architects,” a term that came into use in the time of Queen Elizabeth.

Builders of the Middle Ages, like all other workmen, were organized into societies, somewhat similar to, but by no means to be identified with, our trade unions, known as guilds. These guilds were permitted to make their own rules, and they were given a monopoly of the work done inside their own territory. The builder guilds were usually more important than others because their work was more difficult and required a high degree of skill and intelligence; such of them as had in hand the erection of the great cathedrals possessed among their membership the outstanding geniuses of the times and wrought such works as to this day remain our wonder and despair.

The art of building was, according to the customs of the time, held as a trade secret. Therefore the young men entering a guild of builders were solemnly obligated to divulge no secrets of the craft. Inasmuch as the work was difficult, these young men were given a long course of education under the direction of a Master Mason, in which, so it is believed. The tools and processes of Building were used symbolically and to impress certain truths on the mind of the member. In this way, and because the builders were in close touch with the church, which employed systems of symbolism as today we use books (the people could not read, but they could understand pictures), the builder guilds came in time to accumulate a great wealth of symbolic teaching and an elaborate ritual. In the eighteenth century, this symbolical element completely displaced the original craft of actual building, and Masonry became “speculative,” as we know it now, so that we are Masons only in a symbolical sense.

We are called Masons therefore because we are members of an organization that harks back to the time when builders and architects were bound together in closely guarded guilds. But why are we called “Free” Masons? This is a more difficult question to answer, as all our Masonic scholars have discovered, for in spite of a great amount of careful research, they have never vet agreed among themselves as to how the question should be answered. We have records of the word as having been used six hundred years ago, but it is evident that even then, “freemason” was a term of long-standing, so that its origin fades away into the dimness of a very remote past.

One of the commonest theories is that the freemason was originally the mason who worked in “free-stone,” that is, stone ready to be hewn and shaped for the building in contrast to the stone lying unmined. Such a mason was superior in skill to the quarrymen who dug the stone from the quarry, and this is in harmony with the fact that in early days freemasons were deemed a superior kind of workmen and received higher wages than “the rough masons”; but it does not explain why carpenters, tailors, and other workmen were also called “free.”

Another common theory has it that the early Masons came to be called “free” because they were exempted from many of the tiresome duties that hemmed in the laborer of the Middle Ages and enjoyed liberties such as the right to travel about (forbidden to most workmen of that period) and exemption from military service, etc. It is held by some writers that the early Popes granted bulls to Masons that freed them from church restrictions, but no amount of search in all the libraries of Europe, or in the records of the Roman Church (that church did not issue bulls against Freemasonry until 1738 and afterward). Has ever succeeded in unearthing a single such bull or any record thereof.

There are other theories. One has it that a Mason was free when out of the bonds of apprenticeship and ready to enjoy the full privileges of membership in his guild. Another, that there were grades of workmen inside building guilds and only the highest type were permitted all such privileges, and that these were called “free” in contrast to their less advanced brethren.

One of the most acceptable of all these theories is that so brilliantly advanced by G. W. Speth in the past century, in which that learned brother held that in the Middle Ages, there were two types of builders’ guilds, those that were stationary in each town and those that were employed in the cathedrals and were therefore permitted to move about from place to place, or wherever cathedrals might be in course of construction. Inasmuch as cathedrals represented the highwater mark of skill and learning in that day, such workmen were very superior to those that were employed on the humbler structures in the community, such as dwellings, warehouses, docks, roads, etc. so that Freemasonry descended from the aristocracy of medieval labor.

I have never been able to make up my mind between these various theories, except that it appears to me that Speth’s is the most plausible. It may be that several of them are true at one and the same time; such a thing would not be impossible because Freemasonry developed over a large stretch of territory and through a long period of time.

There is no doubt that, in some cases, this word has its face meaning and serves to remind us that our Craft is very old. The first Grand Lodge of Speculative Masons was established in London in 1717, but Masonry, even of the Speculative variety, was very old by that date. Boswell was accepted into the Craft in 1600, Moray in 1641, and Ashmole in 1646. Our oldest manuscript, usually dated at about 1390, looks backward to times long anterior to itself. There is no telling how old Masonry is; perhaps they are not so far wrong after all who date it in antiquity. In any event, it is “ancient” and has every right to the use of that word.

But in the majority of cases, this word doubtless refers to the Grand Lodge that came to be organized in England shortly after 1750. When the first Grand Lodge (that of 1717) was formed, it was planned that it should have jurisdiction only over a few lodges in London; but as these lodges increased in number, it extended its territory to include the county, and later on to include the whole country. A large number of lodges remained independent – they were often called St. John’s lodges – many in the north of England, and others in Scotland and Ireland. As time went on there grew up a feeling among the brethren of several of these independent lodges that the new Grand Lodge was becoming guilty of making innovations in the body of Masonry; therefore, after a deal of agitation had been made, a rival Grand Lodge was formed, and because its older sister Grand Lodge had made changes they dubbed it “Modern,” and because they themselves claimed to preserve the work according to its original form, they called themselves “Ancient.” This Ancient Grand Lodge was fortunate in securing as its Grand Secretary Laurence Dermott, who had such a genius for organizing that in the course of time, this newer lodge began to overshadow the older. The rivalry, often bitter enough to be described as a feud, lasted until 1813 when the first step toward a union was effected; out of this effort at reconciliation, there came at last “The United Grand Lodge of England.”

Meanwhile, the Ancients had chartered a great many lodges in the colonies of America. These, a large number of them, carried on the name long after American lodges had severed all relations with the Grand Lodges across the sea. In this wise, the word “Ancient” came into general use and remains today imbedded in the official titles of about half the Grand Lodges in this land.

Much mystery still hangs about the word “Accepted,” but in a general way, we may feel pretty safe in thinking that it refers to the fact that after the ancient builders’ guilds began to break up and to lose their monopoly of the trade, they began to “accept” into their membership men who had no intention of engaging in the actual building, but who sought membership for social purposes, or in order to have the advantage of the rich symbolism, the ritual and the philosophy of the Order. Thus, the first man admitted of whom we have a record is Boswell, who was made a Mason in 1600, as already noted, but it is fairly certain that others had been similarly accepted long before. Indeed, there is good reason to believe that non-operatives had been taken into membership from the earliest times. It is possible that the word was also applied to those members who devoted themselves to superintending and planning, but not to physical work. Throughout the seventeenth century, the number of accepted increased until the beginning of the eighteenth century. Many lodges were almost wholly made up of such members, and in 1717 the whole Craft was transformed into. A speculative science, though it is true that many operative lodges remained in existence, and some are still functioning and claiming for themselves the ancient lineage.

We shall have to wait with patience until all problems concerning these various words are cleared up, but meanwhile, we can use them with a satisfactory degree of certainty as connecting us historically with a process of growth and development that began far back in the Middle Ages, or earlier, and has continued until now. Verily it has been a history filled with wonders, and even now, there are few who have a full appreciation of the height and depth and length and breadth and exceeding riches of Freemasonry.

* Originally published, “What means Free and Accepted Masons? in THE BUILDER, 1923.

The Secret Life of the Masonic Beehive

The Secret Life of the Masonic Beehive

“Most people don’t have any idea about all the complicated life going on inside a hive. Bees have a secret life we don’t know anything about.” ~ (Secret Life of Bees)

We don’t have to look far from this quote to find an analogy in Freemasonry. The beehive has been said to be a metaphor for the working lodge with seven bees flying around the hive, making a perfect lodge.  Bees are thought to be exceptionally auspicious throughout the world. They have played an important part in symbolism since ancient times. Turns out, a valuable teacher in mother nature has been with us all along.

Is there anything that can be learned from our buzzing friends? What do they symbolize in Freemasonry?

In ages past, people believed that bees were prophetic – that their actions were messages not to be ignored. Bees were regarded by some as an example of a divine intellect woven through nature.  In medieval times, one could find many farms that kept beehives and collected honey. In a wonderful text called the Geoponika, the beekeepers would praise the creatures, even read to them.

One of the chapters says:

The bee is the wisest and cleverest of all animals and the closest to man in intelligence; its works is truly divine and of the greatest use to mankind. 

I loved reading this.  The writing portrayed a scene that I imagine has been played in countless bee farms, between untold numbers of masters and their hives. The work of the beekeeper seems so magical and yet so commonplace. It was all about the watching, the learning, the reverence, and the abiding trust. The desire of looking to nature as teacher seems to me to be one of the elements that is missing from our culture.Annotazioni...reading to the bees

Could it be the bees are trying to tell us something, but we’re just not listening?

It is said that Albert Einstein once calculated that if all bees disappeared off the earth, four years later all humans would also have disappeared. Pretty chilling to think about.

Why? Because there exists a global phenomenon today of bees disappearing. Many say that the mystery of the bees disappearing is a warning to all of us.  If something is wrong in beehives it means something is wrong everywhere.

Andrew Gough, an expert bee researcher says:

I’ve labelled the three eras of the Bee; Beedazzled, Beewildered and Beegotten for good reason. The question remains, will there be a fourth era, and if so will it be called Beegone?

Sadly, Gough states that modern humanity has become notorious spoilers of nature’s divine harmony. The concept of nature being something “out there” is largely what is amiss with our view of it.  Likewise, the bees also seem to be disappearing from masonic workings and in many places today is considered a lost symbol.

beehiveartIs a lost symbol in Freemasonry something to be concerned about?

Masonic Speculative Meanings

The early Freemasons incorporated bee symbolism heavily into its philosophy and regalia. It was especially pervasive in masonic drawings and documents of the 18th and 19th centuries. At the heart of its message even today are the concepts of industry and stability, harmony and cooperation, virtues that the craft values highly.  The masonic symbol of the bee does not stand alone.  It also includes the beehive and the honey.

The following is taken from the monitor of the lodge.

As Masons, we must imitate the bee, be industrious, work with others and for others, take pride in our vocations, obey the rules of our society, and strive to add to our body of knowledge and understanding. Otherwise we are useless members of society.

Other monitors and masonic books give the same type of explanation. Some longer and some shorter but all what I consider somewhat along the lines of virtue and morality.

I believe we are now in an era where it is vital that we take a deeper look at the secrets of the bee symbol.  What might those be?

History, Culture and Myth

In the myths and histories of ancient times is where I found some possible avenues for further inquiry. Looking back to various mythologies, bees revealed elements of the mysteries of initiation.  In Egyptian mythology, bees were considered tears of the sun-god RA. The sun has been thought by some to be a very mysterious concept in freemasonry related to the initiatory process.  For example, the sun’s daily “rising” in the East is the image of rebirth and new beginnings, just as its setting in the West is the image of decay and death leading to transformation. indian-bee-goddess goddess Bhramari Devi

One of the most interesting mythologies is the Egyptian Goddess of Neith who lived in the House of Bees. Neith was primarily an Egyptian goddess of wisdom, often given the title “Opener of the Ways.” Neith would say to the initiate, “Come look beneath my veil.” Her call was both a summons and a challenge.  By the blessing of the goddess, the veil would be lifted. Only then would the initiate perceive the secret workings and patterns of nature.  At that moment, when the veil is rent asunder, he can consciously participate in those mysteries, thus becoming a human administrator of the will of the God.

In fact, the initiate at this point fully sees his own inner divinity and the service duties to humanity that such recognition brings.  He has become something more than human. To be initiate, one must take nature as his master.

This every Freemason knows. Becoming an initiate is to investigate the hidden mysteries of nature and science.  This could mean ruling and governing the hidden forces of one’s own nature accordingly. It can be hard, sometimes embarrassing, to “look beyond the veil,” to admit we do not have all the answers.

I still ponder what aspect of the bee first inspired man to consider it as special and sacred, all those thousands of years ago. Where does the true secret lie?  Is it something as simple as a bee’s sting? Is it the honey?  Is it the buzzing sound? Is it the honeycomb? It’s impossible to know really, for any one of those traits could easily make it exalted.

“The bee has insights into the secrets of nature, the secrets of creation, and a special connection therefore to the Creator.” ~ (Koran)


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