Freemasonry and the Ancient Mysteries?

Freemasonry and the Ancient Mysteries?

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:

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“Stop traveler and cast an eye,

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.

 

 

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“Memento Creatoris tui in diebus juventulis . . . “

 

 

2017 World Conference on Fraternalism, Freemasonry, and History (WCFFH)

2017 World Conference on Fraternalism, Freemasonry, and History (WCFFH)

More international Masonic conferences should start with a round table of the world’s best and brightest scholars of the craft talking. Just talking. Shop, mostly.

Which is how the World Conference on Fraternalism, Freemasonry, and History at the Bibliotheque Nationale de France kicked off in May, with what was billed as a “pre-conference workshop.” Several dozen scholars of the Craft met around a huge table in a meeting room in the Grand Orient de France headquarters in Rue Cadet in Paris with GOdF Library, Archives and Museum Director Pierre Mollier heading it all up.

It was an afternoon of something that doesn’t happen very much: scholars of Freemasonry talking across borders. In fact, this could well have been the first time it has happened with so many scholars representing so many parts of the world. More usually, scholars of the Craft concentrate on studies within their own language, often only within their own countries and their resulting work is narrow, as if other studies in other languages and countries don’t exist at all.

“We talk about Freemasonry,” said María Eugenia Vázquez Semadeni, who later in the conference participated in panels and chaired one. “We should be talking about Freemasonries.”

That nod toward the independent and yet concurrent evolution of Freemasonry on different continents and in different countries was in the background as the conference considered it’s topic, which was the influence of Andrew Michael Ramsay, commonly referred to as the “Chevalier Ramsay.” If you’re a Freemason and you don’t know who he is, chances are good you don’t live in France.

“He had a profound influence,” Paul Rich, who along with Mollier was one of he WCFFH conference chairs and is president of the Policy Studies Organization Westphalia Press, said during the round table discussion.

However, the influence Ramsey had was more deeply felt in France, where Ramsey’s work helped create a Freemasonry more romantic and less dogmatic than that which developed in English-speaking parts of the world, Rich conceded. “He has long been unreported upon in America,” Rich said.

However, few in those Freemasonries are schooled well enough about scholarship being done in other parts of the world to even notice that divergence. Which means English-speaking Masonic scholars especially are missing quite a lot, folks at the roundtable seemed to agree. “The finest research being done today is being done in France,” said UCLA’s Margaret Jacob, another Masonic scholar of great note who participated in the conference.

So far as that went, the message that came out of the round table discussion could have been a repeat of the call issued the previous weekend in Toulon from the International Meeting of Masonic Research Lodges, the ICOM: Let there be greater international cooperation in Freemasonic scholarship.

However, the round table discussion just couldn’t end with that conclusion. Instead, the conversation went off in an odd direction. Perhaps it was out of respect for our hosts or perhaps it was because, well, Paris. It was less about international cooperation between Masonic scholars and more about how French Masonic scholarship can save the Masonic scholarly world.

It was one of a number of examples that illustrates how disjointed parts of the rest of the conference became. While the better-organized ICOM was able take the message of dozens of scholars from across the world and develop one single call to action, the WCFFH really didn’t. Of course, there’s no reason why it had to.

Paul Rich and Susan Sommers

Paul Rich and Susan Sommers Photo Credit: Olimpia Sandoval

Some of the heavier hitters had not yet arrived the on the day of the round table. Susan Mitchell Sommers arrived the following day and delivered one of the highlights of the WCFFH, a version of the paper she developed with Andrew Prescott, “Searching for the Apple Tree: What Happened in 1716?” In that paper, Sommers and Prescott present their evidence that questions the traditional 1717 origin date for modern Freemasonry, making a good case that the real date probably was closer to 1721.

Another important panel during the conference examined the current state of women in Freemasonry in Europe and the United States, chaired by Drake University’s Natalie Bayer. This panel simply would not have happened, even in France, ten years ago.

While touching on topics such as comparing women and Freemasonry in 18th Century France, England, and Germany, the panel really lit up Cécile Révauger of Université Bordeaux Montaigne gave a very good break down of how the Grand Orient de France decided to allow its lodges to determine whether to accept women, now more than eight years ago.

That was quite a change for an Orient that once explicitly barred women from membership and may indicate how other male-only Masonic supreme bodies could relax its belligerence against other bodies that do accept women, Révauger said.

“It seems that more and more grand lodges are less willing to hold dogmatic views,” she said. “And more and more of them are willing to allow for inclusion and tolerance.”

I think that piece of hope is as good as any to take away from the WCFFH. If no unified call for action came out of the conference, it certainly was a good opportunity for many of the greatest Masonic scholars in the world to come together and pause long enough to review the history of the Freemasonry as they currently are researching it. “And 2017 is an appropriate time to review how that history has been received,” Jacob said near the conclusion of the round table discussion.

Another opportunity for such a pause is scheduled for May 17-18 in 2018 when a sort of mini-WCFFH is planned at the Historic Whittemore House in Washington D.C. The topic of that conference will be “Not Men Only: Sisters, Sororities, and Ritualistic Societies.” I will blog more about then when I know more about that.