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.

What Can The Egyptian Book of the Dead Teach Us About The Masonic Life?

What Can The Egyptian Book of the Dead Teach Us About The Masonic Life?

While Freemasonry is known for secrecy, it’s no secret that we trace the origins of our rituals and teachings to the ancient mystery schools of Egypt; many masonic writers, such as Manly P. Hall, have publicly stated this. While there is disagreement among academic historians about the true origins of the Order, Freemasons do tend to believe in this ancient source of the mystic teachings, and we can also be relatively certain that the esoteric wisdom traditions which are the antecedents to speculative masonry, such as Hermeticism and Alchemy, are connected to the ancient Egyptian mystery schools.

This means that, in  my opinion, anytime we look at something from Egypt, we should try to look at it masonically; that is, we should try to interpret the inner meaning of it, to see the truth behind the symbols.

One of the most fascinating writings we have from the ancient Egyptian traditions is known as the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Alternatively translated as The Book of Emerging Forth Into the Light, or The Book of Becoming Light, this book of “spells” is thought to have been written by many priests over a period of perhaps 1,000 years, as a guide for death, to be read aloud to the dying. There are different versions, with different combinations of spells, and 192 total spells are known, from all versions.

A Guide to the Initiation Beyond Death

Egyptian AfterlifeWhile having a guidebook to read to a dying person to lead them through the afterlife is an interesting concept in itself, what may be more profound is to examine the book and what it might tell us about life, and perhaps even the masonic life.

It may help here to have some context of the Egyptian conception of life, the universe, and magic. To the ancient Egyptians, magic permeated the world, and words in themselves were inherently magical. Consequently, to the Egyptians, there was little difference between written/spoken words and magic. All writings were essentially magical. Likewise, knowing the name of something was thought to give power over it. There was not such a stark line, in Egyptian thought, between the ordinary world we experience with our senses, and the invisible worlds of spirit. All the layers of existence were thought to overlap, and interweave.

The story of the Book of the Dead is that of a soul passing through death, into eternal life. To do so, he must pass through the underworld, or Duat, and overcome various supernatural creatures by charming them with magic incantations, in a sort of trial of initiation into the afterlife. At the end of the trial, if the soul hadn’t first been consumed by one of the creatures, or destroyed by Osiris’s minions, then he would be weighed by Osiris against the Goddess of Truth and Justice, Maat. In other words, the soul was a candidate and had to pass tests and trials in order to prove him/herself worthy to live among the immortals.

The Initiatory Model for Life, Death, and Beyond

Egyptian Book of the DeadMuch of this should sound familiar to any Freemason, and it seems clear that there is an element of this Egyptian ritual in those which are preserved in Freemasonry, at least in their essence. Clearly there is an allusion to death and immortality in both, but how does this “model” of initiation, so-to-speak, relate to what Masonry teaches us about life?

Essentially, life is a series of initiations, or one large initiation with phases, if you will. We are perpetually confronted with situations which challenge our integrity, our determination, our wisdom, and our compassion. Virtue is not magically granted from the sky, it is honed, it is earned, it is built from the ground up. Becoming the best man or woman that we can be is hard work, and requires sacrifice and difficulty. Particularly when we choose to follow the path of the initiate, life has a way of throwing even more trials our way, because karmically (many believe), we have chosen an accelerated path, by seeking initiation.

Throughout life, much like the soul entering the Egyptian underworld, we are faced with various situations, most of which are actually in our minds. Of course, the outer circumstances must serve as props, but the real monsters to be charmed and pacified are within us, they are the baser aspects of our own nature, and a large part of masonry is indeed overcoming these creatures within us. There may even be something to be said about the Egyptian concept of using the magic of words to charm these creatures, especially considering the insights of NLP, hypnosis, and similar methodologies, but that’s a subject for another post. More symbolically, we can view the magic of the spoken word as the creative and expressive capacity within us.

Initiation as Evolution

burialegyptianmsoul11Does this also pertain literally to the afterlife? As someone who takes an interests in Near Death Experiences (NDEs), in my opinion, it is reasonable to think so. Based on what we have learned from NDE research, it does indeed seem that we may sometimes have to pass through a realm of astral darkness, which depending on our own state of mind may contain monstrous beings or obstacles, before arriving at the Light. When people get to the light, they almost invariably go through their entire life in a flash of holographic memory, where they experience everything they ever did, and also how it affected other people. Essentially, this is a weighing of the scales, a measurement of our life’s actions against justice, or what was right. In this way, I believe that there is an element of literal truth in the Egyptian Book of Coming Forth Into the Light.

The subtler truth, however, is even more interesting to me. Because, in a way, it is grander. Even if this process is literally what we experience when we die (approximately), what about when we are born again? Is the goal of the reincarnation process that our soul will one day weigh perfectly against the scales of justice, to avoid rebirth into the physical, i.e. to have no karma? If we take a Vedantic perspective, the answer would be yes. In that context, even multiple lives, much like the many experiences we have in one life, are really just phases of a larger initiation, into something even greater. Is there any end to this initiatory process?

I suppose it’s possible, but for my money, I would say probably not. I think the process of creation/initiation goes on indefinitely, infinitely, forever. We are always becoming something more, whether slowly or quickly. Essentially, this is the process of evolution. By choosing Freemasonry, we’ve simply opted for the catalyzed reaction – the accelerated evolution. As such, we must face each catalyst that comes our way with steadfastness, equanimity, willpower, compassion, and the magic of creativity, intuition, and divine communion, if we wish to be worthy of being freed from, or perhaps more accurately, to complete the initiation of the life/death cycle. 


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