The Sun, Moon, and Stars

The Sun, Moon, and Stars

WE have more right to be astonished that the astronomical references are so few, rather than to be surprised that there are so many!  We are taught that geometry and Masonry were originally synonymous terms and geometry, fifth of the Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences, is given more prominence in our Fellowcraft degree than the seventh, Astronomy. Yet, the beginnings of astronomy far antedate the earliest geometrician. Indeed, geometry came into existence to answer the ceaseless questionings of man as to the “why” of celestial phenomena. 

In these modern days, it is difficult to visualize the vital importance of the heavens generally, to early man. We can hardly conceive of their terror of the eclipse and the comet or sense their veneration for the Sun and his bride, the Moon. We are too well educated. We know too much about “the proportions which connect this vast machine.”  

ANCIENT IMPORT OF THE HEAVENS

THE astronomer has pushed back the frontiers of his science beyond the inquiries of most of us; the questions which occur as a result of unaided visual observations have all been answered.  We have substituted facts for fancies regarding the sun, the moon, the solar system, the comet, and the eclipse.  

Albert Pike, the great Masonic student “who found Masonry in a hovel and left her in a palace” says:

WE cannot, even in the remotest degree, feel, though we may partially and imperfectly imagine, how those great, primitive, simple-hearted children of Nature, felt in regard to the Starry Hosts, thereupon the slopes of the Himalayas, on the Chaldean plains, in the Persian and Median deserts, and upon the banks of the great, strange River, the Nile. To them the universe was alive – instinct with forces and powers, mysterious and beyond their comprehension. To them it was no machine, no great system of clockwork; but a great live creature, in sympathy with or inimical to man. To them, all was a mystery and a miracle, and the stars flashing overhead spoke to their hearts almost in an audible language. Jupiter, with its kingly splendors, was the Emperor of the starry legions. Venus looked lovingly on the earth and blessed it; Mars with his crimson fires threatened war and misfortune; and Saturn, cold and grave, chilled and repelled them. The ever-changing moon, faithful companion of the sun, was a constant miracle and wonder; the Sun himself the visible emblem of the creative and generative power. To them, the earth was a great plain, over which the sun, the moon, and the planets revolved, its servants, framed to give it light.

Of the stars, some were beneficent existences that brought with them Spring-time and fruits and flowers – some, faithful, sentinels, advising them of coming inundations, of the season of storm and of deadly winds some heralds of evil, which, steadily foretelling. they seemed to cause. To them, the eclipses were portents of evil, and their causes hidden in mystery, and supernatural.  The regular returns of the stars, the comings of Arcturus, Orion, Sirius, the Pleides, and Aldebaran; and the journeyings of the Sun, were voluntary and not mechanical to them. What wonder that astronomy became to them the most important of sciences; that those who learned it became rulers; and that vast edifices, the pyramids, the tower or Temple of Bel, and other like erections elsewhere in the East, were builded for astronomical purposes? – and what wonder that, in their great childlike simplicity, they worshipped the Light, the Sun, the Planets, and the stars; and personified them, and eagerly believed in the histories invented for them; in that age when the capacity for belief was infinite; as indeed, if we but reflect, it still is and ever will be?

– Bro. Albert Pike

Anglo-Saxons usually consider history as their history; science as their science; religion as their religion. This somewhat naive viewpoint is hardly substantiated by a less egoistic survey of knowledge. Columbus’s sailors believed they would “fall off the edge” of a flat world, yet Pythagoras knew the earth to be a ball.  The ecliptic was known before Solomon’s Temple was built.  The Chinese predicted eclipses long, long before the Europeans of the middle age quit regarding them as portents of doom!

FREEMASONRY’S ANCIENT ASTRONOMICAL LORE

THE Astronomical lore of Freemasonry is very old. The foundations of our degrees are far more ancient than we can prove by documentary evidence. It is surely not stretching credulity to believe that the study which antedates “Geometry, the first and noblest of sciences,” must have been impressed on our Order, its ceremonies and its symbols, long before Preston and Webb worked their ingenious revolutions in our rituals and gave us the system of degrees we use – in one form or another – today.

The astronomical references in our degrees begin with the points of the compass; East, West, and South; and the place of darkness, the North.  We are taught the reason why the North is a place of darkness by the position of Solomon’s Temple with reference to the ecliptic, a most important astronomical conception.  The Sun is the Past Master’s own symbol; our Masters rule their lodges – or are supposed to! – with the same regularity with the Sun rules the day and the Moon governs the night.  Our explanation of our Lesser Lights is obviously an adaption of a concept which dates back to the earliest of religions; specifically, to the Egyptian Isis, Osiris, and Horus; represented by the Sun, Moon, and Venus.

Circumambulation about the Altar is in imitation of the course of the Sun.  We traverse our lodges from East to West by way of the South, as did the Sun Worshipers who thus imitated the daily passage of their deity through the heavens. Measures of time are wholly a matter of astronomy. Days and nights were before man, and consequently before astronomy, but hours and minutes, high twelve and low twelve, are inventions of the mind, depending upon the astronomical observation of the Sun at Meridian to determine noon, and consequently all other periods of time.  Indeed, we are taught this in the Middle Chamber work, in which we give to Geometry the premier place as a means by which the astronomer may “fix the duration of time and seasons, years and cycles.”

PILLARS AND GLOBES OF THE LODGE

Porch of King Solomon’s Temple

ATOP the Pillars, representing those in the porch of King Solomon’s Temple, appear the terrestrial and celestial globes. In the Fellowcraft degree, we are told in beautiful and poetic language that “numberless worlds are around us, all framed by the same Divine Artist, which roll through the vast expanse and are all conducted by the same unerring law of nature.”

Our Ancient Brethren, observing that the sun rose and set, easily determining East and West in a general way. As the rises and sets through a variation of 47 degrees north and south during a six-month period the determination were not exact. The earliest Chaldean stargazers, progenitors of the astronomers of later ages, saw that the apparently revolving heavens pivoted on a point nearly coincident with a certain star.  We know that the true north diverges about from the North Star one and one-half degrees, but their observations were sufficiently accurate to determine a North – and consequently East, West, and South. The reference to the ecliptic in the Sublime Degree has puzzled many a brother who has not studied the elements of astronomy. The earliest astronomers defined the ecliptic as the hypothetical “circular” plane of the earth’s path about the sun, with the sun in the “center.”

As a matter of fact, the sun is not in the center and the earth’s path about the sun is not circular. The earth travels once about the sun in three hundred and sixty-five days, and a fraction, on an “elliptic” path; the sun is at one of the foci of that ellipse. The axis of the earth, about which it turns once in twenty-four hours, thus making a night and a day, is inclined to this hypothetical plane by 23 and one-half degrees.  At one point in its yearly path, the north pole of the earth is inclined towards the sun by this amount. Halfway further around in its path the north pole is inclined away from the sun by this angle. The longest day in the northern hemisphere – June 21st – occurs when the north pole is most inclined toward the sun.

Ant building situated between latitudes 23 and one-half north and 23 and one-half south of the equator, will receive the rays of the sun at meridian (high twelve, or noon) from the north at some time during the year.  King Solomon’s Temple at Jerusalem, being in latitude 31 degrees 47 seconds north, lay beyond this limit.  At no time in the year, therefore, did the sun or moon at meridian “darts its rays into the northerly portion thereof.”

As astronomy in Europe is comparatively modern, some have argued that this reason for considering the North, Masonically, as a place of darkness, must also be comparatively modern. This is wholly mistaken – Pythagoras (to go further back) recognized the obliquity of the world’s axis to the ecliptic, as well as that the earth was a sphere suspended in space.  While Pythagoras (510 B.C.) is much younger than Solomon’s Temple, he is almost two thousand years older than the beginnings of astronomy in Europe.

UNIVERSALITY AND SYMBOLISM

THE “world celestial and terrestrial” on the brazen pillars were added by modern ritual makers.  Solomon knew them not, but contemporaries of Solomon believed the heavens to be a sphere revolving around the earth.  To them the earth stood still; a hollow sphere with its inner surface dotted with stars.  The slowly turning “celestial sphere” is as old as mankind’s observations of the “starry decked heavens.”

It is to be noted that terrestrial and celestial spheres are both used as emblems of universality.  They are not mere duplications for emphasis; they teach their own individual part of “universality.”  What is “universal” on the earth – as for instance, the necessity of mankind to breathe, drink water, and eat in order to live – is not necessarily “universal” in all the universe.  We have no knowledge that any other planet in our solar system is inhabited – what evidence there is, is rather to the contrary.  

We have no knowledge that any other sun has any inhabited planets in its system.  Neither have we any knowledge that they have not.  If life does exist in some other, to us unknown world, it may be entirely different from life on this planet. Hence, a symbol of universality, which applied only to earth would be a self-contradiction.

Real Universality means what it says. It appertains to the whole universe. While a Mason’s Charity, considered as giving relief to the poor and distressed, must obviously be confined to this particular planet, his charity of thought may, so we are taught, extend “through the boundless realms of eternity.” Hence “the world terrestrial” and “the world celestial” on our representations of the pillars, in denoting universality means that the principles of our Order are not founded upon mere earthly conditions and transient truths, but rest upon Divine and limitless foundations, coexistent with the whole cosmos and its creator.

We are taught of the “All-Seeing Eye whom the Sun, Moon, and Stars obey and under whose watchful care even comets perform their stupendous revolutions.” In this astronomical reference is, oddly enough, a potent argument, both for the extreme care in the transmission of ritual unchanged from mouth to ear, and the urgent necessity of curbing well-intentioned brethren who wish to “improve” the ritual.

The word “revolution” in this paragraph (it is so printed in the earliest Webb monitors) fixes it as a comparatively modern conception.  Tycho Brahe, progenitor of the modern maker and user of fine instruments among astronomers, whose discoveries have left an indelible impression on astronomy, made no attempt to consider comets as orbital bodies.  Galileo thought them “emanations of the atmosphere.”  Not until the seventeenth century was well underway did a few daring spirits suggest that these celestial portents of evil, these terribly heavenly demons which had inspired terror in the hearts of men for uncounted generations, were actually parts of the solar system and that many if not most of them were periodic, actually returning again and again; in other words, that they revolved about the sun.

Obviously, then, this passage of our ritual cannot have come down to us by a “word of mouth” transmission from an epoch earlier than that in which men first commenced to believe that a comet was not an augury of evil but a part of the solar system.  The so-called “lunar lodges” have far more a practical than an astronomical basis.  

The Milky Way Credit: 9NewsDenver

In the early days of Masonry, both in England and in this country, many if not most lodges, met on dates fixed in advance, but according to the time when the moon was full; not because the moon “Governed” the night, but because it illuminated the traveler’s path! In days when roads were but muddy paths between town and hamlet, when any journey was hazardous and on black nights dangerous in the extreme, the natural illumination of the moon, making the road easy to find and the depredations of highwaymen the more difficult, was a matter of some moment!  One final curious derivation of a Masonic symbol from the heavens and we are through.  The symbol universally associated with the Stewards of a Masonic lodge is the cornucopia.

According to the mythology of the Greeks, which goes back to the very dawn of civilization, the God Zeus was nourished in infancy from the milk of a goat, Amalthea. In gratitude, the God placed Amalthea forever in the heavens as a constellation, but first gave one of Amalthea’s horns to his nurses with the assurance that it would forever pour for them whatever they desired!  The “horn of plenty,” or the cornucopia, is thus a symbol of abundance.  The goat from which it came may be found by the curious among the constellations under the name of Capricorn.  The “Tropic of Capricorn” of our school days is the southern limit of the swing of the sun on the path which marks the ecliptic, on which it inclines first its north and then its south pole towards our luminary.  Hence there is a connection, not the less direct for being tenuous, between out Stewards, their symbol, the lights in the lodge, the “place of darkness” and Solomon’s Temple.

Of such curious links and interesting bypaths is the study of astronomy and its connection with Freemasonry, the more beautiful when we see eye to eye with the Psalmist in the Great Light:

“The Heavens Declare the Glory of God and the Firmament Sheweth His Handiwork.”


* Originally Published: SHORT TALK BULLETIN – Vol.VIII, March 1930, No.3.

Is Freemasonry a Time Capsule?

Is Freemasonry a Time Capsule?

Freemasonry can be and is many things to many people. Some see it as a conspiracy to take over the world; others, an ancient method to guide and improve humanity; yet others still, an old boys club with funny rituals and charitable activities. Following on the perspective theme of last week’s blog Is Freemasonry Dying or Evolving?, I’m going to explore yet another lens on Masonry: the possibility that it may be a kind of time capsule.

This may seem an odd take on our proud tradition at first glance, but bear with me. Without a doubt, Freemasonry is an institution passing down rituals often believed to be ancient in origin, with layers of meaning which are revealed as one progresses through the degrees. Great emphasis is placed on the idea that Masonic Ritual is passed on with regularity, with major changes typically requiring approval through the hierarchy.

This is not to say that Masonry never changes, nor that there are never outliers in terms of individual Lodges deviating from the norm, but rather that the ratio of tradition preservation to novel permutation is relatively high. So, if Freemasonry can be seen as a time capsule, what is it preserving?

As always, this post is not representative of the official views of Universal Co-Masonry, but is simply the reflections of one Co-Mason.

Ancient Origins?

masonic ritualSome debate goes on both within and outside of Masonic circles over the true age and origins of Masonic Ritual. More conservative and scholarly historians have settled on the Middle Ages as the coming together of operative masonry (builder’s guild) with it’s Speculative components (philosophy and esotericism), and the Renaissance founding of the Grand Lodge in England in 1717 demarcates the official culmination point of modern Freemasonry into what it is today. However, it’s possible that this is merely when Freemasonry came into its modern form, and began leaving a neat paper trail.

On the other hand, more speculative Brothers have traced its origins to the ancient mystery traditions of old, supposing it to trace back as far as ancient Israel, Egypt, even Atlantis. Certainly the Speculative Masonic elements which joined and transformed Masonry from an architectural guild into the modern spiritual tradition it is today were inspired by, if not actually directly descended from, those ancient mystical traditions.

In a way, the question we’re asking is two-fold, because it depends on what we’re referring to when we say “Freemasonry.” If, by that term, we mean the unified Fraternity we know today, under the auspices of Grand Lodges, combining the symbolism of Masonic Builders with the teachings of the ancient Mysteries, then the conservative historians are probably correct. On the other hand, if we are referring to the origin of the Mysteries it preserves, which are the Speculative elements that have made it significant enough to be preserved when all other such organizations from medieval times faded away, then we must look much further back into the past.

A Mystery Within a Secret Hidden in Plain Sight

masonic traditionWhat is a time capsule? It is a container in which is placed one or more items of significance which one wishes to preserve through the process of time. If those same items had not been placed in the capsule, they would likely have succumb to the inevitable forces of entropy and change. They would have been thrown away, fallen apart, or given away and forgotten about. The central intention of creating a time capsule is to preserve something so that it may be rediscovered at a later time.

You might be thinking that the comparison of Freemasonry to a time capsule seems a bit of a stretch, and in some ways, I’m inclined to agree. It is not merely a time capsule; but can we think of that as one of the purposes it serves?

Freemasonry in its modern form comes to us from a time when certain freedoms such as democratic government, open philosophical discourse, and personal spirituality had all but been eradicated from the Western world by means of despotism, mass psychological manipulation, torture, and genocide. Is it any wonder that those passing along these ancient virtues converged and found an adequate container in which to place them? Operative masonry, with its democratic hierarchical structure, secret terminology and tokens, and international nomadic mode of existence particularly lent itself to being an ideal container for these timeless Truths, to preserve them against decay and tyranny.

That being said, Freemasonry is also different from a time capsule in many ways. It does not simply sit there, buried somewhere, to be found at a later time; it lives on and raises men and women to higher stages of their own evolution, contributes to the world charitably, and attempts to steer humanity towards freedom and enlightenment. Yet, it would not be capable of doing so if it weren’t maintaining the ancient Mysteries within the container of symbolism and fraternal organization.

What do you think? Do you find this to be a useful perspective of the Craft?

The Mystery: Why Does It Matter?

The Mystery: Why Does It Matter?

“Why do you care whether there is a God, or extraterrestrials, reincarnation, or any of that? What relevance does it have to your life?”

This is a question which I have often heard, in one form or another, when bringing up topics related to the mysteries of life, from those who are not typically inclined to ponder them. Personally, I have always found the mysteries irresistible, so this common refrain has always been somewhat baffling to me. How could you really not care whether there is a God, or extra-terrestrial life? Such apathy toward the ultimate questions of life seems unfathomable, to me.

Indeed, those who find themselves involved in Freemasonry are generally those who are inclined to explore these questions, and this is part of what draws us to the craft, esotericism in general, and what is often referred to literally as The Mysteries. This is also why the fellowship of a brotherhood of truth seekers is so precious to those who find it, because our kind so often feel alone in a world full of those who care more about their bank balance, newest electronic gadget, or mundane interpersonal dramas than the quest for ultimate reality.

So, like a fish trying to describe the ocean, for a long time it was difficult for me to articulate why these things matter to me so much when this question arose. However, I eventually did manage to create some semblance of an explanation, which I would like to share with you now. Perhaps by reading this, you will have a new answer in your repertoire the next time someone asks why you seek truth.

The short version is: I care about the mystery because the mystery is the ultimate context of my existence, and context is absolutely everything; the context of a thing defines that thing and gives it meaning. Allow me to explicate.

The Universal Existential Constant

VitruvianManThe human condition is defined by a finite or limited conscious existence, and a mystery beyond it. In fact, I believe that this is probably the condition of not just humans, but any entity, since any finite consciousness is always limited, by definition. If it had no limits, it would not be an “entity,” it would be infinite.

In other words, there are things you directly experience, and there are things beyond that, with a gradient boundary between them. Regardless of how far your awareness may expand, there is, a priori, always a boundary to it and always something beyond that boundary, which to you is a mystery.

The only possible exception to this would be if our awareness became infinite, perhaps, but we cannot really imagine that. Barring the hypothetical exception of infinity, there is always a boundary to conscious existence, and therefore, a mystery beyond it.

This would presumably also be true for any self-aware finite entity, from the lowliest worm to the most vast super-intelligent species, or even advanced spiritual beings. If they are not infinite, then it seems to me that their existence must have this structure: the known, the unknown, and the boundary between.

The Existential Island in an Ocean of Mind

9d5f825306d964f0b1fe99d921e05627One helpful metaphor is to think of our existence as a sphere, like a planet. That planet has its basic substance or ground, which for us is our direct sensory awareness. These are the things we are most certain of, because we directly experience them, and in this metaphor, they are our ground or earth, which also relates to our colloquial sayings about being “grounded” in reality. This is the reality to which we refer, our most certain, sensory reality, the bedrock of our experience.

Then, there is another layer which is beyond the ground of sensory experience, but which is near enough to be relatively certain; you can liken this to the atmosphere of our metaphorical “planet” of existence. For us, these would be facts outside of our senses, but nevertheless trustworthy, thanks to evidence and logic (to put it briefly).

For instance, I can be relatively certain that oxygen exists, a faraway country like Russia is really there, and that I have a liver, even though I’ve never truly seen or experienced any of those things. Thus, there are things I have not directly experienced, yet of which I am relatively certain. Here is where the boundary begins.

Finally, beyond that of which we are relatively certain, there is the larger Mystery, about which we ponder, and upon which we weave the fabric of our beliefs, by combining reason with imagination. To continue our planet metaphor, this would be the vast starry expanse in which our planet is suspended. Just as the cosmos is the context of a planet, whatever is beyond the boundaries of the ground and atmosphere of our existence forms the context of it.

Thus, the mystery is the context of our existence, and is experienced purely in the realm of imagination, hopefully tempered by reason. Regardless of what is actually “out there” beyond what we know with varying degrees of certainty, our experiential existence floats in a cosmos of mind and imagination because we can only imagine and reason about what is beyond the boundary of our experience and certainty.

Not only that, but no matter how far we expand our knowledge and experience, it always will float in an ocean of imagination and mystery, because that seems to be the inherent structure of any finite, experiential entity. How else could it be?

Context is Everything

a52f2b4eede4932789bf0d916be16850So, “Fine,” you might say, “the mystery is the context; why should the context matter to me?” My answer to this is that the meaning of anything essentially is derived from its context. Let’s take a very concrete example: a bar fight.

Let’s say that you witness a fight break out between two men in a bar. If you know absolutely nothing about the context of this fight, it will mean very little to you; perhaps you may have some thoughts about the volatility of alcohol and testosterone when combined in too great a quantity. In other words, to you, it is a relatively meaningless occurrence.

Let’s say that you now expand your knowledge, when someone tells you that the reason they fought is that one man was sleeping with the other’s wife. Now, to you, this is a very different bar fight, is it not? Yet, it is the same bar fight; it is the context of it in your own mind and imagination that has changed. Let’s say that you hear from yet another person that the reason the affair occurred in the first place is that the husband was abusing her; yet again, another vastly different bar fight.

Let’s say, hypothetically, that your spiritual “third eye” suddenly opened, and you were able to see that this was an unfolding of karmic patterns through time that had been in motion for thousands of years between these two souls, as they weave a pattern of flesh-bound experiences in and out of various bodies and lifetimes, trying to find a balance and transcend the illusory nature of this physical reality, for their ultimate mutual enlightenment. Yet again, a totally new bar fight, with a totally different meaning.

Why? Because with every expansion of your knowledge of the context of the fight, your experience of the fight transforms. The same is true of your entire experiential existence, the same principle is in operation every time you learn, and explore the mysteries.

That, my friends, is my answer to the question of why the mystery matters. To me, this is like something I had always subtly known but for the longest time had difficulty articulating. Perhaps it may strike you the same way, as almost obvious, yet novel in it’s explanation; or, perhaps you somehow disagree, in which case I would love to hear your perspective.

Either way, I hope that you have enjoyed it. Thanks for reading!

Universal Freemasonry

TO THE GLORY OF GOD

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