When I turned that corner in the Paris Catacombs this past May, having already crossed the stone portal into the massive ossuary and read its famous warning, “ARRÊTE! C’EST İCİ L’EMPİRE DE LA MORT“ (“Stop! This is the Empire of the Dead”), I came into first contact with the remains of the estimated 6 and 7 million people stored there. My mind went entirely blank.
My next thought was recollection of a conversation I had with a California male-only Mason years ago when I still was a Fellowcraft. He was a member of a traditional observance lodge – still quite rare in the U.S. – that wanted to restore traditions removed by a grand lodge that no longer wanted to scare anybody. “Karen,” he said. “I want my skulls back.”
I come from a Masonic tradition that never lost its skulls and other emblems of mortality. So it was and has been difficult for me to more than pity his poverty. Masonically, I was like some folks who scribble out a donation to help starving children in far-off lands they themselves never expect to visit.
In the catacombs, I came to better understand that far-off land and to more fully grok what the skulls are for:
As you are now so once was I,
Prepare in time make no delay
For youth and time will pass away.”
Many of the more esoteric Masonic writers doubt little at all that Freemasonry is a direct descendant of the ancient mystery schools. It is the same class of writers who will tolerate no challenge, no questions, and no suggestions that they might be mistaken and will dismiss those who bring those challenges, questions, and suggestions as just not being open to the experience. I observe that the majority of their readers are quite satisfied with what light those unchallenged assertions provide.
There are, of course, other writers of sterner academic metal who doubt, with justification, Freemasonry’s direct connection to the ancient mystery schools. These prefer to recognize those ancient mystery schools as metaphysical traditions that were harmonious with other contemporary and so-called “mysteries” but no later than that. Auguste and Alphonse Mariette, wrote in their “Monuments of Upper Egypt“, published in 1890, that ancient Egyptian mystery schools hinted to neophytes their own hidden spark of the divine.
“To the initiated of the sanctuary, no doubt, was reserved the knowledge of the god in the abstract, the god concealed in the unfathomable depths of his own essence. But for the less refined adoration of the people were presented the endless images of deities sculptured on the walls of temples.”
However, even the Mariettes were not fully convinced about that. “Unfortunately, the more one studies the Egyptian religion, the greater becomes the doubt as to the character which must definitely be ascribed to it,” they wrote in the following paragraph on the same page.
Many a neophyte, in as many traditions, have mistaken the symbol for the thing. They as often mistake similarity for proof of connection. Apples and oranges have many points of comparison, being fruits that are roughly round, can be peeled and grow on trees, but they are not genetically connected. Apples and oranges do, however, remain what they are.
Fully understanding the lessons of any mystery school, regardless of its origin, means barriers must be passed. The official website of the Paris catacombs warns that folks with heart or respiratory problems, who suffer from a “nervous disposition” or who are young children, should not make the visit. Clearly, one must be a fit and proper person. Neither the rash nor fearful to apply.
Those who qualify too often face other barriers. Bringing the ancient mystery schools, such as those of Isis and at Eleusis, into full focus can be difficult for those who see everything through Judeo-Christian-Muslim lenses. The mystery school promises nothing about the divine and provides no universal absolutes or pathways to heaven or hell. They tell no one what to believe.
For those who make it past all those barriers, the mystery school does its best to quicken a personal evolution in each individual, to awaken in them a knowledge of themselves, and to prepare them for the more personal lessons will spring up in their everyday lives from places where those lessons had always been; but they’d never noticed before. The mystery school does that, in large part, through symbol and near-dream-imagery ritual to trigger in the neophyte a stark recognition of who they already are, will be and where they were headed.
That’s what the skulls are for.
The idea is that if you know where you’re headed, the end that awaits us all, then you’ll better appreciate and actually live the life you will have and will not be too terrified when it is over. You will have actually lived while you could and will not be plagued in the end by regrets.
The greatest students in those schools become wise through a series of shared experiences but they also recognize in other students a lack of full understanding. It doesn’t seem to matter. Even those who don’t quite get it can still work the same ritual and still pass on the same ideas. It’s quite possible to transmit on wisdom without understanding it.
I’m not convinced that Freemasonry has a direct connection to those ancient mystery schools. However, it is quite clear to me that traditional and orthodox Freemasonry is a mystery school. Among its lessons is the idea, which would have been familiar in those ancient mystery schools, that man is mortal and the more enlightened should, for their own sake, meditate upon their own personal mortality while they still possess the vigor to do so.
Freemasonry does not monolithically teach that. There are those in the Craft who would root out “any form of esotericism” and maintain that Freemasonry “certainly does not deal in spirituality.” And that’s OK, Freemasonry is large enough even for those who don’t want those lessons.
For those who do, the lessons remain, though there may be a struggle to even learn them. My male-only friend and the brothers in his traditional observance lodge did, eventually, get their skulls back after their grand lodge decided it was all part and parcel with “pre-ritual education.” And so it goes.
“Memento Creatoris tui in diebus juventulis . . . “