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.

Why Must a Freemason Ever Have Hope?

Why Must a Freemason Ever Have Hope?

Freemasons are taught that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Recently, I was faced with the unexpected death of a dear brother in my Lodge which left me feeling hopeless for a time. And so, the virtue of hope became an object of philosophical inquiry for me. How does hope fit in to cultivating a virtuous life? Is it really the best medicine for crushing grief and despair? If so, how does it work? Why are Freemasons encouraged to have hope?

Once I started observing what people would say about hope, when they experienced it, and when they reared back from it, I began to think there was a healthy amount of confusion about it.

Defined in a modern sense, hope is a belief in a positive outcome relating to events and circumstances in life. It is the desire that something will turn out for the best. In Freemasonry, hope is considered a virtue, often associated with the verities of immortality. The craft advocates two different types of virtues. The first are called the “Cardinal Virtues” of Temperance, Fortitude, Prudence, and Justice. The second are called the “Theological Virtues,” of Faith, Hope and Charity (love).

In his theological discussions about hope, philosopher Thomas Aquinas notes that he considers hope to be a virtue because it provides the possibility for attaining difficult things. In the Western world, in general, there is an overwhelming sense of hope being something good and desirable. For some, it may even be an uncontroversial good. But is it?

Is it possible that hope could be something, well… not so good?

Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a situation in which acquiring hope would not be desirable – until we look at the myth of Pandora’s Box.

The Mythology of Hope – Pandora’s Box

The ancient Greeks were not inspired at all with the concept of hope. Hope was not even considered a virtue. It was belittled as a trait defined as not being realistic about life orStory-Pandora-Opening-Box-Greek-Mythology burying your head in the sand. The cardinal virtues, such as justice or fortitude were the ones that the Greeks contemplated and strove to achieve. Hope was even in some myths possibly considered evil.

For example, the Greek myth of Pandora raises many philosophical questions about hope. As the story goes, when she married Epimetheus, she was given many seductive gifts. The God Zeus, being full of mischief, gives Pandora a large jar instructing her to keep it forever closed. But regardless of the warning from Zeus, her curiosity prevailed and she opened the box.

The list of items released from Pandora’s box are a handful: illness, disease, poverty, sadness… basically any horrible thing you could think of. They flew out of the box like tiny buzzing moths, and Pandora tried to shut it back up as quickly as she could. She did, according to some of the versions of her myth, manage to trap one important thing inside… hope.

It is disputed and there is much speculation as to why Zeus would even put hope in a vessel of evils. Regardless of why it was there, the myth of Pandora raises a really good question. Does hope deserve a different reputation?

It’s not optimism. It’s definitely not pessimism. And if it has a realism, what is it ultimately? Where does it come from? How does a Freemason reconcile these seeming paradoxes?

The Freemason’s Ladder – The Hope of Immortality

In the symbols of masonry, the virtue of hope is said to be located on the middle rung of 35584597545_8b99784836_bthe theological ladder of Jacob from the Book of Genesis. A Freemason ascends, climbing the steps of faith and hope which in turn lead to the summit of charity (love). These virtues are often portrayed on the ladder by the cross, anchor and heart, respectively.

Brother Albert Mackey gives us a clue in his Encyclopedia to Freemasonry:

“Having attained the first rung of the ladder, or faith in God, we are led by a belief in His wisdom and goodness to the hope of immortality. This is but a reasonable expectation; without it, virtue would lose its necessary stimulus and vice its salutary fear; life would be devoid of joy, and the grave but a scene of desolation.”

Mackey speaks of a “hope of immortality.” He explains that the cultivation of the virtues of faith and hope is not necessarily based on things going well for us. Freemasonry and its teachings face you with many challenges to explore to knock off the rough edges of imperfection. The craft, for example, is thoroughly rooted in the earth or the service and labor that the mason can offer. It is also entirely bent on moving toward the Heavenly Divine. Managing the two extremes (earth and heaven) is a dynamic balance.

In our climb, all of us have an important, even crucial, task to aid the world. We are prepared in so many ways, yet, still often fail at hope. Why?

In his book, “Art as a Factor in the Soul’s Evolution,” the Freemason Brother C. Jinarajadasa gives us further insight:

“At the very base of your nature, you will find faith, hope, and love. He that chooses evil refuses to look within himself, shuts his ears to the melody of his heart, as he blinds his eyes to the light of his soul. He does this because he finds it easier to live in desires. But underneath all life is the strong current that cannot be checked.”

Cutting straight through the many reasons for failing at hope that may be built upon individual traits, I would say that our hopelessness, when it occurs, is based upon the lack of true courage.

RainbowEnd2All this is to say that the only true and worthy source of absolute courage is the belief in the Immortality of the Self, the One that is Infinite, Changeless and Eternal. The virtue of hope leaps far beyond all the many valuable things, places, family and friends which we have come to rely upon…or may be grieving for.

Brother H.P. Blavatsky stressed there were two kinds of people – those who simply live their lives by the standards of the world, and those who become neophytes and students of the eternal wisdom.  Perhaps the virtue of hope is what is required for those who follow the path of the second group. Yes?

“There is a road, steep and thorny, beset with perils of every kind, but yet a road, and it leads to the very heart of the Universe: I can tell you how to find those who will show you the secret gateway that opens inward only, and closes fast behind the neophyte for evermore.”  – Brother Helena Blavatsky