The Freemason’s Words: Can the Secrets be Googled?

The Freemason’s Words: Can the Secrets be Googled?

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 of1Modes of Recognition 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 An_encyclopaedia_of_freemasonry_and_its_kindred_sciences_-_comprising_the_whole_range_of_arts,_sciences_and_literature_as_connected_with_the_institution_(1887)_(14762810774)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 – 

  1. Recognition Word: Identifies one brother to another as a means of recognition.
  2. Lost Word: Relates to the mythical history of a venerated lost word in which a temporary word was substituted.
  3. Sacred Word: Applies to the unique word of each degree, to indicate its peculiarly sacred character.
  4. Significant Word: Used as a word that is equivalent to a sign in each degree of the craft.
  5. 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?8097861684_b0d6213661_z

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 330px-Da_Vinci_Vitruve_Luc_Viatourknow 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.

Rare Manuscript in Jeopardy: The Future of The York Manuscript No. 4

Rare Manuscript in Jeopardy: The Future of The York Manuscript No. 4

A painfully rare and important treasure of Freemasonry is in trouble.

The York Manuscript (MS) No. 4, long in the care of York Lodge 236, itself well within sight of the York Minister, is deteriorating.

There are breaks and cracks along the edges of this precious document, and it can no longer bear close inspection. Very good copies of York MS No. 4 exist, but the original itself is in real danger of passing away. The Brothers of York Lodge 236 are actively looking for advice about how best to conserve the roll.

York MS No. 4 is important to Freemasonry because it is a rare document that describes the ritual and history of operative masonry, to which Freemasonry can claim at least some connection. The roll, however, is also of great importance for the history of women in Freemasonry because this document contains a very critical word that has for generations caused discomfort for a large number of male-only Freemasons.

That word is “shee.”

The manuscript itself, a copy taken from a far older document, dates to 1693 and tells the story of how Edwin, King of Northumbria, was made a Mason at York. While doing that, the document also described how it was done in that assembly.

A crucial portion of those instructions reads (with my italics; please see copy above):

“The one of the elders takeing the Booke and that hee or shee that is to be made mason shall lay their hands thereon, and the charge shall be given.”

The journey to see this document with my own eyes began in March of 2008 when I viewed a very good copy at the Provincial Grand Lodge of East Lancashire in Manchester.

That copy, an image of which is reproduced here, was so good that I mistook it for the original and so described it in my first book

I was alerted to my error earlier this year and soon had an invitation to come to York and see the York MS No. 4 for myself.

Senior Warden Joe Postill, along with Junior Warden and Acting Librarian Graham Kaye, BEM, were my hosts that beautiful spring day in May. York Lodge 236 has been in possession of the roll since it was donated to the Lodge in 1736 by Francis Drake, York’s first historian and author of his own “History and Antiquities of Yorkshire.”

York Roll unrolled a little

York Roll No. 4 is not the only treasure preserved by York Lodge 236. The Lodge also holds portions of York Rolls No. 1 and No. 2, which together provide the earliest references to nonoperative masons in the guild at York. The Lodge also preserves splendid old tracing boards, other artifacts, and even has beautiful editions – with hand illuminated frontispieces – of Robert Gould’s “History of Freemasonry”.

Of course, I was there to see York Roll No. 4, and my hosts did remove it for me from its container and unrolled it a little ways. However, it soon was clear the roll simply cannot bear too much handling, and it was safely returned to its container. I didn’t get to see that critical sentence, detailed above, for myself but I’ve no doubt it’s there. Perhaps, one day, after it is somehow conserved, I will have a chance to do so.

York MS No. 4’s importance to the history of women in operative and speculative masonry in particular, and modern Freemasonry in general, cannot be overestimated.

This crucial roll, along with other very rare old documents, points up a fact that some male-only Masons would prefer be otherwise: that there was no bar to women’s membership in the old operative guilds.

In fact, the exclusion of women was an innovation introduced by male-only Masons eager that there be no women not only in male-only lodges but also none in their own female-only lodges or in mixed lodges elsewhere. While there is no period in modern Freemasonry in which there is not at least one woman Freemason documented somewhere in the world, the Craft was well into its second century before the lodge doors became more generally open to women. It remains a difficult struggle in many parts of the world even to the present day.

For this reason, York MS No. 4’s deteriorating condition amounts to an emergency that needs to be addressed by those who know how. I most certainly hope that happens.