Masonic Ritual: Living Myth, Ritual Magic, or Both?

Masonic Ritual: Living Myth, Ritual Magic, or Both?

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.

A Veil Within a Veil

masonic ritualMasonic 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.”

masonic mythWhat 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.”

Oh, Oh, Oh, It’s Magic?

freemasonry magicUndoubtedly, 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.masonic egregor

A Magical Myth Which Lives

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.

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.