In a discussion with a few masonic friends recently, someone asked the question: Why are oral traditions fading away? One could dispute the premise. Still, I think the brother was onto something. Are oral traditions still relevant? Are they slowly being replaced with technology?
In its plainest form, an oral tradition is information passed down through the generations by word of mouth that is not written. Examples might be legends, stories, proverbs, riddles and so on. Certain modes of recognition, including masonic words and passwords are considered part of the oral tradition in Freemasonry.
Where did masonic customs originate? The tradition becomes more understandable if we look back before the 1600’s. At that time, masonic lodges were stonemasons’ guilds of builders whose “secrets” concerned how to construct buildings. The hidden modes of recognition, whether they were certain passwords or handshakes, were a way to identify an impostor passing himself off as the real thing. The “operative” masons were artisans that were the best at their craft.
For reasons that are still not entirely clear, lodges evolved from “operative” to “speculative” builders. The “speculative” masons were different in that they became more interested in arcane studies. Their secrets were no longer building trade secrets but based on moral and philosophical concepts. When Masonry identified itself as a speculative craft, it placed the meanings of its allegories and symbols within a realm that is more esoteric.
Some say that these more esoteric secrets were inspired from ancient traditions – such as Rosicrucianism, Gnosticism, or Hermeticism – however the theory is hotly debated. An opposite view is that the passwords in freemasonry are not meaningful at all. They are not particularly earth-shattering, nor are they exactly secret. I have heard many times recently – “just google them.”
This current debate begs the question. When it comes to a mason’s words, are they a meaningless carry-over from former times? Or to the contrary, do they have some deeper significance for masons today?
Definitions by Albert G. Mackey
Usually when I have a question or questions that I have been wondering about, I must confess I use any resource available, including the internet to research that topic and related topics. At the same time, I am very careful. There are many things that I will read “everyone knows” that are simply untrue. It is amazing how many things fit this category.
Often when confronted with some sort of puzzle in masonic research I go to Mackey’s Encyclopedia of Freemasonry. In this case, he lays out some very interesting distinctions between the various kinds of masonic words.
Mackey gives several different definitions –
- Recognition Word: Identifies one brother to another as a means of recognition.
- Lost Word: Relates to the mythical history of a venerated lost word in which a temporary word was substituted.
- Sacred Word: Applies to the unique word of each degree, to indicate its peculiarly sacred character.
- Significant Word: Used as a word that is equivalent to a sign in each degree of the craft.
- True Word: Indicates a symbol of Divine Truth.
As you can easily see, he illustrates a hierarchy of words. Some words, like recognition words, are more matter of fact, the ones that can be transmitted mouth to ear. But other words, like the True Word are more mysterious. The True Word, he says, is the most philosophic and sublime.
The Word becomes the symbol of Divine Truth, the loss of which and the search for it constitute the whole system of Speculative Freemasonry. ~ Bro. Albert Mackey
Is it possible, then, that the real secrets of Masonry cannot be heard by the ear or uttered in words? If this is true, where are the secrets hidden?
When faced with deep philosophical questions it’s sometimes nice to look at old allegories for wisdom. Here’s one of my favorites.
Man’s Divinity: Where to Hide the Stolen Jewel?
There was a time in the history of the race when the gods stole from man his divinity, and meeting in a high conclave, sought to decide where to hide that which they had stolen.
One god suggested that they hide it on another planet, for there man could not find it, but another god arose and said that man was innately a great traveler and they had no guarantee that, eventually, he might not find his way there.
“Let us,” he said, “hide it in the depths of the sea, at the bottom of the ocean for there it will be safe.”
But again, a dissenting voice was heart, and it was pointed out that man was great natural investigator, and that he might someday succeed in penetrating to the deepest depths, as well, as the greatest heights.
(As you might suspect, the problematic discussion ends with one member of the conclave suggesting as the final hiding place the following location…)
“Let us hide the stolen jewel of man’s divinity within himself, for there he will never look for it.”*
The Secrets of True Masonry
Sometimes when we think of The Craft, we only think of meetings, dues, minutes, and rituals, etc. True Masonry, however, is a system of enlightenment. It is a quest for the hidden within us, the precious jewel. The Lodge is a bastion of virtue. Add to this the desire to live the high principles of Brotherly Love, Relief, and Truth. Then add the passion for creativity to make the “builder’s art” truly artistic through the Arts and Sciences.
BEHOLD! You have found the true secrets of Masonry.
Like all the things most worth knowing, no one can know it for another, and no one can know it alone. It is known only in fellowship – by the touch of life upon life, hand to hand, breast to breast, spirit upon spirit.
The secrets are a way for Masons to bond with another. It’s something we all share together. Each person knows “The Word” according to his own quest and capacity.
Humanity has always been filled with curiosity about things unknown or unseen. I like to think that oral traditions have not disappeared. Their settings may change, but their power and use remain.
Can the secrets be Googled? Sure, you may find some interesting facts about the Craft. In the end, however, the best hiding places for the mason’s mysteries are where we least expect them.
The attentive ear receives the sound from the instructive tongue, and the mysteries of Freemasonry are safely lodged in the repository of faithful breasts. ~ Masonic Monitor
*Note: The ancient allegory can be referenced in Foster Bailey’s Spirit of Masonry.