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.

The Four Elements: What Do They Mean in Freemasonry? [Part 1]

The Four Elements: What Do They Mean in Freemasonry? [Part 1]

Part of the journey of a Mason is to familiarize yourself with the concepts presented in lodge, and to discover their meaning for oneself. While there are, of course, interpretations shared and passed down through the generations between masons, part of what makes Masonry so unique among teachings and spiritual practices of the world is that the kernel of what is preserved is fundamentally symbolic, and ultimately each brother’s understanding of the symbols are his or her own. There is no explicit, concrete orthodox doctrine regarding the meaning of any particular symbols, and thus the craft is free to evolve and learn as a collective, while also preserving something ancient and unspoken, but embodied and felt.

Among the symbols of the lodge and masonic rituals are the elements, being the four classical elements of Earth, Water, Air, and Fire. Various Orders, Jurisdictions, and Lodges place more or less emphasis on the elements and discuss them in different ways. Without revealing any aspects of the rituals themselves, we can say that in spite of not being universally emphasized throughout all of Freemasonry, the elements are nevertheless important to any thorough study of esotericism and the mysteries. In fact, the more esoteric a particular branch of Freemasonry is, the more emphasis it is likely to place on them, which can perhaps explain why in Universal Co-Masonry, they are significant from the very beginning of one’s masonic journey.  So, how can we view the elements with a Masonic eye, and understand their significance for our lives and our Craft?

Elements as Symbols

four elements symbolsWhile the literal or scientific aspects of elements are a part of the puzzle, alone they are insufficient to understand why the elements are so important to Freemasonry. The significance of the elements in masonry are as symbols, and symbolism is a language of its own. This is also the language with which we interpret dreams or literature, it is the language of direct experience, the forms of experience, and how they represent to the unfolding of consciousness. 

What is the purpose of looking at the elements symbolically? The first clue we may find here is that the elements are, by definition, what make up the World, and also us. This is traditionally why the elements are regarded as significant, in the first place. Therefore, we can look at the elements as essential components of the World, and since World and Self are ultimately one, essential components of the human experience, as well. Just as we can also think of the elements as corresponding to different states of matter, in chemistry/physics the states of solid (Earth), liquid (Water), gas (Air), and energy (Fire), we can also think of them as representing states of experience, mind, or consciousness.

Earth

four elements earthThe element Earth is the most solid and stable of the four, with the least dynamic or changeable qualities. Rather than being a source of energy, or particularly subject to energetic changes, it tends to absorb energy, and diffuse it without much actual change to the element itself. A great example is the grounding of a lightning rod; although an enormous amount of energy is going into the Earth, the energy is quickly diffused, without much change to the Earth itself. Fire is another example, because while water is often the most effective method of extinguishing a fire, due to its other qualities which make it easy to blast from a hose, technically pouring Earth on Fire would always be the most effective method of extinguishing the Fire’s dynamic energetic consumption. Unlike the water, the Earth is also not evaporated by the Fire.  

In terms of form and change, Earth has the highest degree of inertia, it is the least susceptible or slowest to change. It also has the greatest structural integrity, as buildings constructed from stones, a type of Earth, can last for centuries or even millenia. It also literally forms the ground upon which we stand, and upon which all structures are built, so in that sense Earth is also the archetypal essence of basis, foundation, stability. As such, we may see the corresponding aspects of consciousness, mind, and experience to be those which share these qualities: survival, stability, being grounded in physical reality, in bodily experience; also any state of mind which involves a high degree of inertia, whether that is viewed as a positive, as in mental and emotional stability, or a negative, as in stubbornness.

Water

four elements waterThe element Water is a bit less solid and stable than Earth, but still less dynamic and changing than Air or Fire. Unlike Air, it is more obviously bound by gravity, and unlike Fire, it does not emit energy. Water is an element which flows, always finds the path of least resistance, and takes on the form of whatever container or environment it comes into. Because it is more susceptible to the changing influence of energy than Earth, it is able to be evaporated, from the lowest and warmest places, and then to be placed down again, especially in the highest or coolest places. Because of this dynamic, as we all know, it creates a cycle which flows over and nourishes the Earth, and makes Life possible. If Water were a bit more inert, it would simply stay in the ocean and be a giant pool; if it were a bit less inert, it would stay above the Earth in the form of clouds, and never come back down. As such, water holds a special place among the elements, as it touches and travels between all of them, as is in alignment with its essential quality of flow.

In terms of symbolism, we typically view Water as representing emotion, but why? Again, as with Earth, its mostly because of the experiential similarity of water’s essential qualities to those of our emotions. Like Water, our emotions simply flow through us, based on whatever occurs in our experience, in relation to the relative energetic dynamism of change. For instance, an excess of Fire or energetic change in our lives will heat our Water, which we usually experience as anger or passion. In such cases, we may say that things are getting “steamy,” or we were “piping hot” with anger. On the other hand, if there is a relative lack of dynamic, energetic change, our emotions may become totally solid, like ice, and people in such a state we refer to as cold, or frigid, because their emotion/Water has stopped flowing, has become like Earth. When our emotions are in their normal liquid state of flow, we experience them as simply coming of their own accord, not particularly within our control, and they “wash over” us, or hit us “like waves.” Hence, Water generally represents emotion.

The Inert Half of the Elemental Spectrum

elements earth and water

As we examine the first two elements, it becomes obvious that they represent different points along a spectrum. What is the nature of that spectrum, what is the primary variable? The spectrum seems to range from the most inert elements, which is also to say those most bound by the force of gravity or inertia, and least susceptible to the force of energetic change and motion, or perhaps freedom of motion. In astrology, these would correspond to the qualities of being mutable or fixed. Just as we view the elements as representing aspects of one’s self, they are also seen to be parts or states of mind and experience which are more or less susceptible to inertia and change, stillness and dynamism, and perhaps, Order and Chaos

Within these two elements alone, we can see this spectrum begin to emerge, as Earth is most bound and least susceptible to energetic change, and Water a bit less so, with its ability to change, become like solid Earth or gaseous Air temporarily, while its most essential quality is to flow between them. Herein lie many clues to the mystery of the elements, and as we continue our journey in the next post, we will see even more meaning, and gain a greater understanding of what the elements are within ourselves.

To Be Continued…

The Symbolism of the Cube: Why is it both Qabalistic and Masonic?

The Symbolism of the Cube: Why is it both Qabalistic and Masonic?

Symbols can often have double or multiple interpretations, ranging from the obvious exoteric meanings to the more esoteric ideas understood by a few. Somewhere in the middle of these two extremes can be found the hidden knowledge.  Symbols conceal as much, or more, than they reveal.

Where does the masonic cube fall on this continuum? How did the hidden knowledge of the mystical qabalah influence its use in Freemasonry?

To start with, what is Qabalah? It’s difficult to define with a phrase. Even after a few decades of study I don’t think I can come up with a definition. How can you describe the indescribable?

Perhaps one could say the Qabalah is a mystical symbolic system of looking at the microcosm and macrocosm from the standpoint of the Creator. For a qabalist, there is nothing in life that is not interesting; the speck of dust on the ground, the glowing nebulas in the heavens, and the tiny living cell — all these have their message and tell a story of the Creator.

Can masons relate to this? Of course. That is why most of the early 18th century English ritualists were acquainted with the qabalistic teachings. Since many of them studied the qabalah while the masonic rituals were being written, it was likely a source for many of the signs, symbols and allegories of Freemasonry. Brother Albert Pike 33° indexed over seventy entries to the subject of qabalah in his book Morals and Dogmacabala21

The book indicates that the more you study the hidden meanings (or occult), it becomes clearer and clearer that everywhere in the universe, at every conceivable point in space, there is a Consciousness, which expresses through what is visible and invisible.

Pike tells us that:

“Qabalah is the key of the occult sciences.”

The qabalists used models such as the Tree of Life, The 32 Paths of Wisdom and the Cube of Space to describe the plan and processes of creation. The cube is especially significant to the themes of freemasonry. How, so?

The Qabalist’s Cube of Formation

Perhaps a good place to start is the Book of Formation or Sefer Yetzirah. It is one of the oldest treatises on qabalistic philosophy that concerns itself with the Divine creative process. It describes how the Creator literally thought and spoke everything into existence, and continues to do so. The type of creation that it shows proceeds through manipulation of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

I am always in awe of the Sefer Yetzirah whose short verses can easily conceal its depth and complexity. The seeming simplicity is only a taste of its mystery. The premise is that everything in the universe is directed by intelligence. The scheme of life and activity that we call evolution is in accordance with a Plan made by a Master Mind or Great Architect. Final Cube Sepher Yetzirah

Everything is considered to be constructed of the Hebrew letters, or at least the forces they represent. The three Hebrew Mother letters (Aleph, Mem, Shin) corresponded to the three simple letters to form the name Jah (IHV).

From Verse II of The Sepher Yetzirah:

He looked above, and sealed the Height with (IHV)
He looked below and sealed the Depth with (IVH)
He looked forward, and sealed the east with (HIV)
He looked backward, and sealed the west with (HVI)
He looked to the right, and sealed the south with (VIH)
He looked to the left and sealed the north with (VHI)

Brother Paul Foster Case, scholar and Freemason, popularized the Sepher Yetzirah through his concept of the Cube of Space using the verses in Chapters IV and V to add the tarot keys and astrological correspondences. It alludes to defining the boundaries of our perceptions. Quite a remarkable diagram, indeed!

The Divine Mind conceives the archetypal form, and then it exists in the world of ideas. A long process of human evolution has to take place before the ideal can be manifested in form, and the soul in full consciousness can achieve the archetypal form.

Some might look at the diagram and say, “so what!” Why does it matter for a Freemasonblack-background-1468370534d5s_1 (1) work with these archetypal ideas, specifically the cube?

The Freemason’s Perfect Stone 

One possible reason is that archetypal themes underlie many of the masonic rituals. It is no coincidence that the form of a masonic lodge is a symbolic cube.

Freemason Albert G. Mackey writes:

“The lodge or collected assemblage of masons, is adopted as a symbol of the world. The solid contents of the earth below and the expanse of the heavens above give the outlines of the cube, and the whole created universe will be included within the symbolic limits of a mason’s lodge.”

In Revelation Chapter 21, the new Jerusalem is described as a perfect cube: “The plan of the city is perfectly square, its length the same as its breadth.” Also, the room known as the Holy of Holies in the Temple of Jerusalem was constructed in the shape of a cube. In the center of the room was the Ark of the Covenant that contained the Scroll of the Law.

The candidate in a masonic lodge symbolically represents one of the stones used in the construction of King Solomon’s Temple. The ritual portrays the shaping, testing and laying of that stone. Ultimately, the moral and spiritual preparation that he must undergo is to become a “living stone” in the heavenly temple.

Brother Manly Hall says:

“The perfect cube represents the personality that has had all the unevenness, roughness, and inequality polished away by experience. Such a stone is ready to become a block in the Everlasting House not built by hands but eternal in the heavens.”

If left to our own devices, our evolution and progress would be infinitesimal. But fortunately, we have teachers and perfected individuals of past ages to guide us to be perfect stones. Instead of using the working tools to build a physical structure out of stone and mortar, a speculative mason uses these same tools symbolically for spiritual, moral and intellectual development. finaltumblr_inline_nxatcedBV71riiuei_500_1 (2)

In the end, what does the symbol of the cube offer? I believe it is archetypal concepts that help all of us connect with something larger. Are we not all just sculptors? Writing our own books of creation? “Becoming” perfect cubes?

“A block of marble, deep within the quarry lies. Hidden within it lies likewise a form of beauty rare. The sculptor works, patterning true to that which lies revealed unto the inner sight. He patterns true and beauty comes to life.”

– Brother Alice Bailey

The Masonic Letter G stands for…?

The Masonic Letter G stands for…?

To what does the symbol allude? Doubtless there are many answers to this question. Depending on what country, what masonic group, or what Lodge you’ll get different answers. All are interesting, and some are actually a bit astonishing. It has been said to represent ideas such as God, Geometry, Generation, Gnosis, Great Architect, Gamma, Goodness, Gimel, Goat, and more.

When did the letter G first appear in Freemasonry? It is hard to say for sure. One theory is that the symbol could have been brought in by Rosicrucians and Qabalists who became Masons the last part of the 17th century.

Another theory is that it was introduced some time subsequent to 1717 by the members of the Grand Lodge of England. We are told in the early masonic lectures that G signifies “Geometry, the Root and Foundation of all Sciences.” 

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the letter G, was said to have a symbolic meaning of God as synonymous with Geometry. It was sometimes displayed in the center of the Lodge and other times hung in the East. The G represented both “God” as the supreme being and “Geometry” which is imagined as a means of seeing the perfect ordering of the universe. Temple G

Over time, it became identified with many other things. Why? That is exactly the topic of a debate that has been raging for centuries. The Masonic letter G is one of those aspects of masonic history that seems to follow an unpredictable path.

Masonic Scholar Albert G. Mackey goes so far as to say he feels Masonic symbolism has been hurt rather than helped by the adoption of the letter G. He writes:

“It is to be regretted that the letter G. as a symbol, was ever admitted into the Masonic system. The use of it as an initial would necessarily confine it to the English language and to modern times. It wants therefore, as a symbol, the necessary characteristics of both universality and antiquity.”

Is Mackey correct? Does the letter G lack universality? Has it hurt Freemasonry? How Gimel or Camelshould it be dealt with?

G is for Gimel

An interesting justification for the symbol’s importance can be found in a ground- breaking book by Brother Paul Foster Case called the Masonic Letter G. I read this work years ago when I was studying qabalah. Using the Hebrew Gematria as a tool, he defends the G symbol as not only universal but honorable. One of the arguments he gives is that the letter G corresponds to the third letter in the Hebrew alphabet or Gimel. He gives two ways this Hebrew G could be acknowledged as universal:

  1. Hebrew letters are unique in that each one has a name that represents a familiar object. Objects are universally understood, unlike English letters.
  2. The Hebrew letter G or Gimel represents a camel. Camels, to ancient Hebrews, represented journeying to places far off, and the like. The camel symbolizes a mason’s travel in search of light and his quest to learn the hidden secrets of nature.

There is not enough space (or time) here to explain fully the argument which contains a load of Hebrew Gematria and interesting juggling with numbers but I recommend it if you like that sort of thing.

After his proof, Case remarks:

“Were nothing else to be said for it, it seems to us these facts would make the letter G a sufficiently universal, as well as sufficiently ancient, symbol of the Grand Architect.”

He explains in the various degree lessons of the craft that the idea of travel is significant.  By travel, the mason is able to trace nature through her various windings to her most final filosofia medievalconcealed recesses. Precisely the same thought is expressed in what many of the Masonic lectures tell us concerning God as He “Geometrizes.”

What does Geometry have to do with Freemasonry? How does God “Geometrize?”

God as the Geometrician

Geometry is taught to a Freemason, as he progresses in the science. As soon a one enters upon the world of geometry, symbolic and philosophical, the mind is opened to new influences that stimulate and refine it. 

From the standpoint of science, geometry and its offshoots are vital sciences of measurement. Often, nature conforms to simple patterns with symmetry and structure. For example, the pentagon lies behind a five-petaled rose, or a dandelion is a sphere. Honeybees build their hives in hexagons.

Today, the study of fractals can explain some other seemingly chaotic systems in nature. That is why the craft as it relates to geometry is called a progressive science in the broadest sense. In the search for knowledge, there is much that we do not know and discoveries constantly being yudrevealed.

Freemasonry is filled with practices that shift us to new perspectives. The contemplation of the vastness of time. The mysterious inevitability of death. The unlimited bounds of love. The power of symbols. 

For example, a Divine symbol that is both universal and ancient is the Yod, the 10th letter of the Hebrew alphabet. It symbolizes that all created things are modifications of the one primal Spirit. It is the masonic “G”, at least according to some authorities. W.L. Wilmshurst writes:

“The Yod is the emblem of the Divine Presence in the Lodge; it is also the emblem of that Presence at the spiritual centre of the individual Mason.”

There’s always more to learn. Another veil to lift. 

Cosmology and all of the associated sciences have not been able to definitely know the source and ultimate purpose of life. This strongly suggests that there must be some hidden purpose in the geometry of creation that is beyond the present scope of human knowledge and comprehension.

In masonic lectures, we read:

“By contemplation of the Divine we may discover his power, wisdom, and goodness and view with amazing delight the beautiful proportions which connect and grace this vast machine.”

And so, it is.

The procession of divine events and patterns which happens in the Divine realms are in Universal Co-Masonrysome manner mysteriously reflected in our human world, if we have eyes to see.

What, finally, is the message of the Masonic letter G? 

Perhaps it is that each of us must ponder the Divine, to be a geometrician, working according to his ability. Beyond the obvious pleasure of contemplating the glorious works of nature – there is delight that comes when beholding the “true” Masonic letter G, whatever symbolic form it takes.

“When the Lodge is opened, the mind and heart of every Brother composing it should be deemed as also being opened to the “G” and all that it implies, to the intent that those implications may eventually become realized facts of experience. When the Lodge is closed, the memory of the “G” symbol and its implications should be the chief one to be retained and pondered over in the repository of the heart.”  

~ W.L. Wilmshurst

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.

The Tracing Boards of John Harris: A Masonic Legacy

The Tracing Boards of John Harris: A Masonic Legacy

When I joined Freemasonry, I realized the ceremonies were full of symbols meant to allude to greater meanings. One of the items that caught my attention during my initiation was the tracing board or picture in the Lodge room which displays the symbols for the degree. Later I learned that artist John Harris (1791- 1873) was responsible for creating the design that I saw displayed. My curiosity was forever peaked to better understand John Harris and his symbolic art.  Although John Harris was well-respected during his life, I soon discovered that in recent times he has been labeled “a forgotten artist.” As an advocate for the arts, I immediately felt a resonance with this hard-working Freemason who seemingly never got his due.

What can we learn from his life story?  Is he really a forgotten artist?

Harris joined Freemasonry in 1818 during a time of exciting cultural developments. As part of the new organization of the United Grand Lodge of England (U.G.L.E.) in 1813, British Freemasons were moving away from tavern culture. The masons, now owners of beautiful massive buildings, were able to contemplate adorning them with permanent furnishings such as antique art or elaborate pipe organs.

Part of the standardization occurring in the furnishings of new buildings was that each of the Lodges were to own a set of tracing boards. Upon entering the Lodge, Harris very quickly became fascinated with the concept of the tracing boards and started drawing designs almost immediately. His talents, as a painter, facsimilist, and architectural draughtsman, fitted him perfectly for the task.

1809 Microcosm_of_London_Plate_038_-_Freemasons'_Hall

1809 London Freemason’s Hall

In 1823, Harris dedicated a set to Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex, the first Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of England.  The Grand Master immediately recognized Harris as a very talented young man. It is assumed that he commissioned Harris to make a standard official model for each degree.

These developments helped to standardize the designs. Until that point, there had been no consistency in the way the boards were painted.  It was not unusual for individual Lodges to have a variety of symbols and designs and employ their own artists.

 Why are symbols on the tracing boards important to the Freemason?

Albert Mackey, in his book on the Symbolism of Freemasonry, suggests that the symbols that are illustrated for each degree are a key to its mystery.

He writes:

To study the symbolism of Masonry is the only way to investigate its philosophy.

In the masonic teaching, symbols are a way to investigate the deeper meanings because they speak to the whole human being, not only the limited waking intelligence. It is said that a symbol will communicate its “message” even if the conscious mind remains unaware of the fact. The power of the symbol does not depend on it being understood.

Harris spent his whole life painting and studying the symbols of the Craft. As he furthered his masonic career, his designs evolved accordingly.  His life was his art.

Studying the boards of Harris really made me think about the question:

Can you separate the artist from the art? 

1825_tb_harris_fc_500_860 (1)

1825 Second Degree

Some say art and an artist’s biography are not so easily separated.  What I found striking about the Harris boards is how much his art did reflect his life. The first designs he created in 1820, just two years after he joined, were very simple.  I imagine he was still unraveling all the deep teachings of Freemasonry.

The 1825 designs convey more depth of experience. His life at that time truly reflected a fruitful craftsman. He was forging his fraternal ties with the Grand Master, a relationship which seemed to blossom and mature over time. The Grand Master loved the “Harris Boards,” and every Lodge wanted a set of the “approved” designs. Harris could hardly keep up with the orders from the Lodges and also kept very busy as a facsimilist at the British Museum.  His client list consisted of some of the major collectors in rare books in England, many often royalty.

A 1846 advertisement praises the skill of Harris:

The Craft Tracing Boards have been of essential service in promoting instruction among the Society at large; they are eagerly sought after every place where Freemasonry is cherished.

Relentless demands and grueling labor ensued for the next couple of decades.

John_Harris_3rd_1850

1850  “Open Grave” Third Degree

In those days, there were no photocopy machines so each one of the boards for each of the lodges had to be hand painted.  It was not unusual for a lodge to wait longer than a year once they ordered a set from Harris.

The last board he designed was in 1850 for the third degree, referred to as the “open grave” design.  This was a period in his life he found himself reduced to the lowest state of poverty and distress due to partial blindness. In 1856, he went completely blind and was paralyzed from a stroke the same year. The darkness of the 1850 painting gives a feeling of emotional starkness not experienced in any of his earlier designs.  Although seemingly dismal, the sheer intensity of the painting does suggest something exceptional.

One of his friends comments:

At the age of sixty-six, he is deprived of the only means he possessed of supporting himself and an invalid wife.

In 1860, Harris moved with his wife to a masonic home in East Croyton for aged Freemasons and their widows. In earlier times it was named “The Asylum for Worthy, Aged, and Decayed Freemasons” but known today as “The Royal Masonic Benevolent Institution (R.M.B.I.).” Harris found an outlet for his art in the East Croyton home and used his remaining years there to write poetry to raise money for the R.M.B.I. He answered his summons to the Grand Lodge Eternal on December 28, 1873.

From my research, I believe that Harris in the truest sense embodied the teachings of Freemasonry. His strength sustained him to endure in spite of overwhelming circumstances of unforeseen misfortune. He persevered until the end, laboring ceaselessly in the tasks that the Master had confided to his care. In my opinion, he is far from being a “forgotten artist.” His light continues to shine in one of the most treasured of all lodge furnishings.

In the words of Beethoven:

Art demands of us that we shall not stand still.


Note: Images for Harris Tracing Boards were retrieved on the website of Harmonie Lodge No. 66.

Crossing the Language Barrier to Make that Daily Progress in Freemasonry

Crossing the Language Barrier to Make that Daily Progress in Freemasonry

When I was a very new Freemason, I unintentionally allowed the language barrier to create errors in two of my early papers.

In one paper, I referred to the “broached thurnel” as “Freemasonry’s lost immovable jewel.” In the other paper, I referred to the “fulminate,” used to create a bright flash during a crucial point in an initiation, as “an old Freemasonic tradition,” strongly implying – because I believed it was – that it was no longer used in Freemasonry anywhere.

I was wrong on both counts. I’ve seen the broached thurnel is almost every French Lodge I’ve visited. While I’ve never seen a fulminate used in a French Lodge, I did see one in a store room there and was assured that some Lodges in Paris do still include it in their work.

It really doesn’t matter that other largely-English language scholars have made the same mistake about both of these items, that I could cite their works and still turn out quite a thorough paper. That I was wrong because I didn’t know I was wrong doesn’t explain it away.

Ignorance not only is no excuse; it’s dangerous. Freemasons are the shock troops in the war against ignorance. It is not a good thing for a Freemason to spread ignorance rather than fight it.

Neither paper ever was published. I doubt they ever will be, and with these errors born of ignorance, that’s a good thing.

I’m not aware of any Masonic tradition that does not direct Freemasons to make a daily progress in Masonry, which generally is reckoned as spending part of each day learning something about the Craft that the Freemason didn’t know before. In addition to the seven liberal arts, early 20th Century Masonic scholar Roscoe Pound, in the April 1915 edition of The Builder, identified five areas appropriate for Masonic Study: Ritual, History, Philosophy, Symbolism, and Jurisprudence.

Certainly, for Freemasons in Anglo-centric countries, it’s no real problem to find Masonic works in English. However, making that daily progress only in one’s mother tongue, cuts a Freemason off from progress to be gained in other parts of the world, and necessarily, renders their efforts in isolation to become isolated, provincial even. That leaves the Freemason open to the sorts of errors that I made and, worse, stunts that progress.

I believe it is incumbent upon Freemasons to open their daily progress enough to include works from other languages.

My observation is that English-only Masonic readers seem to be OK with pictures sourced from other language cultures. Images based on engravings by Louis Travenol, better known as “Léonard Gabanon,” of French Blue Lodge Masonry long have been popular illustrations in English-language Masonic books and papers, particularly in general works about the first three degrees. Daniel Beresniak’s very popular Masonic picture book “Symbols of Freemasonry” was first published in 2000 but clearly uses delightful images sourced from French Freemasonry.

Images, it seems, don’t become trapped behind the language barriers but words do.

And yet, there’s plenty in French Masonic scholarship in particular to motivate an otherwise English-only reader to blow the dust off a French-to-English dictionary or keep a browser window open to Google Translator. When I realized my errors in those two papers were caused by my ignorance of French Masonry, it didn’t take me long to find the works of Swiss occultist Joseph Paul Oswald Wirth, who wrote extensively about the Blue Lodge. More recently, I’ve been studying Philippe Langlet’s 2009 “Les sources chrétiennes de la légende d’Hiram” (comes with a very cool CD) and Joseph Castelli’s 2006 “Le Nouveau Regulateur du Macon – Rite Français 1801.”

One of my personal favorite works in French Masonic scholarship is Maurice Bouchard and Philippe Michel’s “Le Rit Français d’origine 1785,” published this past July. That was a follow up to Michel’s “Genèse du Rite Écossais Ancien et Accepté,” the most recent edition of which was published in February and also resides on one of my shelves.

Michel’s most recent work details what also is known as the “Primordial of France” (Rit Primordial de France) or even “canonical” (canonique) French Rite so widely worked in France today. It isn’t often a Masonic reader can read which paragraphs of a rite are connected to what passage or receive an explanation of how any rite was reconstituted, complete with columns, tables, symbols. And if the English reader allows the French language of the work to be a barrier, then the reader won’t get any of that at all.

I’m not suggesting that no efforts have been made at cross-cultural/language research in Freemasonry, because there has been a limited – though notable – amount of that. Lilith Mahmud’s “The Brotherhood of Freemason Sisters,” about gender history in Italian Freemasonry, was published by University of Chicago Press in 2014.

A very good sequel to Margaret Jacob’s 1991 “Living the Enlightenment: Freemasonry and Politics in Eighteenth-Century Europe” and the UCLA History Department Professor’s 2006 “The Radical Enlightenment – Pantheists, Freemasons and Republicans” is her 2011 “Les Premières franc-maçonnes au siècle des Lumières.” That book, co-authored in French with Arizona State University’s Janet Burke, was published in French by the Presses Universitaires de Bordeaux, prefaced by noted French Masonic scholars Cécile Révauger, Jean-Pierre Bacot, and Laure Caille.

Masonic works in languages other than English certainly are readily available, especially online. Detrad offers the very best in French language Masonic work, I’ve had delightfully opportunities to drool over books in their brick-and-mortar location next door to the Grand Orient de France in Rue Cadet, Paris. An entire paper was written in 2008 about Spanish-language Masonic books printed in the U.S. The Spanish language Masonic research journal “Revista de Estudios Históricos de la Masonería” actively produces Masonic works in that language.

The tools are there to do this work, the individual Freemason just needs to do it.

Yes, overcoming the language barrier as part of one’s daily progress in Freemasonry is work, and it’s far from easy. However, no one who is work shy should become a Freemasonry – no more than anyone who becomes a Freemason should become lazy. The results are worth it but actually doing that work is its own reward. The work is, after all, the thing.