The Feminine of Freemasonry

The Feminine of Freemasonry

There are many, many Freemasons who would note that there is nothing about Freemasonry that is feminine. It is a masculine fraternity in their eyes, where men get together to make “good men better,” and the term “fraternity” itself indicates, to them, a wholly male organization.* While that might be true for some Masonic Orders, it is certainly not true for all.

As we’ve previously discussed, Freemasons are men and women, of all races, creeds, and religious backgrounds. As we’ve also noted in the earlier article on Gender and Freemasonry, gender has far more to do with the essence of “things” than it does with sexual aspects of humanity. Let’s lift the idea of Freemasonry as being purely masculine, and look the world of Hermetic principles and gender. Where does the Feminine find itself within Freemasonry?

We are speaking here beyond titles. Masonic titles are in most languages gendered. There is “Brother” and “Sister” both of which have a gendered connotation. However, they are titles, and while there may be the open division between physical gender in some Masonic Orders, in at least one order, all members are designated “Brother.” Why? First, we have to remember that a title is nothing more than an honorific designation – in this case, it designates a member of a Freemasonic order. It is not a designation of gender any more than “Doctor” is a designation of gender. There is baggage we all have around titles that have gender associations; there is a reason most people never refer to stewardesses any longer on flights. Actors are actors, not actors and actresses, as waiters are waiters, not waiters and waitresses. We have begun tearing down the divisions of gender and working toward the idea of unity. We designate each other with the best word we can for Freemasons – Brother.

However, as I noted, this discovery goes beyond title. If we view the Lodge Room, the Temple, as a receptive place, it is a container and vessel for creation. Ergo, the Temple is feminine. It is receiving humanity, the Brothers (masculine energy), to build something. Masculine is outgoing and active. It requires a balance to hold its nature to form. It requires a Temple that can handle that energy and transform it. Is there any doubt why the Masonic Temple and its accoutrement should not be in its best upkeep and fitness? We want a healthy mother to be able to birth a healthy child. Is this not the same?

As the Lodge is feminine, so to I believe, is the ritual. The ritual form, written and memorized, requires action to give it life. It requires an active, outward principal to give it life. Here to again, the Brothers of the Lodge are the masculine principle, taking thoughtforms and words and creating intended action in three dimensional space. Ritual requires proper and strong expression (masculine) of imagination (feminine); both are necessary to enact a whole ceremony.

At many times during different rituals, an officer changes polarity from masculine to feminine. There is a shifting flow to Masonic ritual that encourages its adherents to explore the energies of both active and passive principles. There is also a neutrality in the Lodge that is carried by significant officers; the balance is required to ensure one gender does not dominate. There is always, like the Sefirot of the Kabbalah, a middle path, a neutral state in Freemasonry that guides the poles and the swing of the spiritual, mental, emotional and physical pendulum. That is, for every pair of floor officers, there is a neutral body to perhaps bring balance to the erratic nature of the human embodying the office. Let me explain.

The officer that receives a candidate, a guide if you will, is always in the masculine aspect of their office. They need to care for and have regard for their charge. They are the voice of the neophyte when they cannot speak. The candidate is feminine – they are receiving the gift of the ritual, and incorporating it into their person. They must use imagination to connect to the offering. Here, again, it is of no consequence what the physical gender of a person may be; we all must learn to tap into our receptive nature to be a vessel for creation of any kind. After the candidate has completed their ritual, the officer in question will fall back to their intended place in the structure of the Lodge. That may be a receptive principle, feminine, to their counterpart’s masculine, directive role. The moon with its rays of reflected sunlight guides the night but eventually, the sun, the primary assertive principle, returns to assume its directive place in the heavens.

It is important to note here that the Sun has not always assumed the mantle of masculine and the Moon has not always been feminine. In order, pre-Sanskrit-based language, the denomination was reversed; we find this in Babylonian, early Egyptian, and earlier mythologies where the Sun was represented by feminine avatars. This subject is far too dense to dive into here; suffice to say that in the most recent times, the gender of these celestial bodies has changed and it might be worth noting that the attributes of feminine are found in the Sun, while attributes of the masculine may be found in the Moon.

Returning to the officers, we find the masculine, feminine, and neutral manifested in the three main officers of a Lodge. The W.J.W. is indicative of mid-day, when the sun is at its highest. This speaks of the dominant and assertive nature of that office; whereas, the W.S.W. is the sun as it recedes into darkness, It is the coolness of the moon, of night, of dreams and reception. One might dismiss their attribute, will or strength, as being a purely masculine trait but this is not the case. The feminine here is about transparency and about seeing the Other; the W.S.W. sees the entirety of the Lodge and is responsible for its voice. There is a calm confidence in their presentations to the Lodge – here is what has been made and it is of us.

It is clear that one cannot speak of the aspects of gender in a vacuum. We must reference one or the other to illustrate the differences and provide opportunities to think about principles which are not easily familiar to us in our common lives. In the next part, we’ll discuss the Masculine aspects of Freemasonry in more detail, in balance with the neutral lines that demark the place of balance, the center point were perhaps a greater vision of unity may be achieved.


* However, this commonly held belief, ie. that fraternities are wholly male organizations is erroneous. Though many people use their term “fraternity” to refer exclusively to men’s groups, many women’s groups officially call themselves fraternities. For example, the earliest chartered collegiate female fraternal organizations:

1. Kappa Alpha Theta 2. Kappa Kappa Gamma [Both Fraternities were founded in 1870], 3. Alpha Phi Fraternity [1872], 4. Delta Gamma [1873], 5. Gamma Phi Beta and 6. Sigma Kappa [Both founded in 1874], etc., as well as other mixed Fraternities, which admit both men and women at such colleges as Wesleyan and UMASS.

Gamma Phi Beta was the first collegiate women’s organization to be called a “sorority,” a term coined by Latin professor Dr. Frank Smalley at Syracuse University. The terms “sorority” and women’s “fraternity” have since been used interchangeably.

The Two-Headed Eagle of The Ancient and Accepted Rite

The Two-Headed Eagle of The Ancient and Accepted Rite

By Bro... W. J. Chetwode Crawley

The most ornamental, not to say the most ostentatious feature of the Insignia of the Supreme Council, 33° of the Ancient and Accepted [Scottish] Rite, is the double-headed eagle, surmounted by an Imperial Crown. This device seems to have been adopted sometime after 1758 by the grade known as the Emperors of the East and West: a sufficiently pretentious title. This seems to have been its first appearance in connection with Freemasonry, but the history of the High Grades has been subjected such distortion that it is difficult to accept unreservedly any assertion put forward regarding them. From this Imperial grade, or with this Imperial grade, the Two-headed Eagle came to the “Sovereign Prince Masons” of the Rite of Perfection. This Rite of Perfection with its Twenty-five Degrees was amplified in 1801, at Charleston, U.S.A., into the Ancient and Accepted Rite of Thirty-three Degrees, with the Double-headed Eagle for its most distinctive emblem.

When this emblem was first adopted by the High Degrees, it had been in use as a symbol of power for five thousand years, or so. No heraldic bearing, no emblematic device in wear to-day, can boast such antiquity. It was in use a thousand years before the Exodus from Egypt, and more than two thousand years before the Building of King Solomon’s Temple.

The story of our Eagle bas been told by the eminent Assyriologist, M. Thureau Dangin, in the volume of Zeitschriftfür Assyrliologie, 1904. Among the most important discoveries for which we are indebted to the late M. de Sarzec, were two large terra-cotta cylinders, covered with many hundred lines of archaic cuneiform characters. These cylinders were found in the brick mounds of Tello, which has been identified, with certainty, as the City of Lagash, the dominant center of Southern Babylonia, ere Babylon had imposed its name and rule on the country. The cylinders are now in the Louvre, and have been deciphered by M. Thureau-Dangin, who displays to our wondering eyes an emblem of power that was already centuries old when Babylon gave its name to Babylonia.1

 The cylinder in question is a Foundation Record, deposited by one Gudea, Ruler of the City of Lagash, to mark the building of a Temple, about the year 3000 B.C., as nearly as the date can be fixed. The Foundation Record was deposited just as our medals, coins, and metallic plates are deposited to-day, when a Corner-stone is laid with Masonic Honors. It must be borne in mind that in this case, the word Corner-stone can be employed only in a conventional sense, for, in Babylonia, all edifices, Temples, Palaces, and Towers alike, were built of brick. But the custom of laying Foundation Deposits was general, whatever the building material might be, and we shall presently see what functions are attributed, by another eminent scholar, to the Foundation Chamber of King Solomon’s Temple.

The contents of the inscription are of the utmost value to the Oriental scholar, but may be briefly dismissed for our present purpose.

Suffice it to say, that the King begins by reciting that a great drought had fallen upon the land. “The waters of the Tigris,” he says, “fell low and the store of provender ran short in this my City,” so that he feared it was a visitation from the Gods, to whom he determined to submit his evil case and that of his people. The reader familiar with the Babylonian methods that pervade the Books of the Captivity, will not be surprised to learn that the King dreamed a dream, in which the will of the Gods was revealed by direct, personal intervention and interlocution. In the dream there came unto the King “a Divine Man, whose stature reached from earth to heaven, and whose head was crowned with the crown of a God surmounted by the Storm Bird that extended its wings over Lagash, and the land thereof.” This Storm Bird, no other than our Double-headed Eagle, was the Totem, as ethnologists and anthropologists are fain to call it, of the mighty Sumerian City of Lagash, and stood proudly forth the visible emblem of its power and dominion.

This Double-headed Eagle of Lagash is the oldest Royal Crest in the world. As time rolled on, it passed from the Sumerians to the men of Akhad, from the men of Akhad to the Hittites, from the denizens of Asia Minor to the Seljukian Sultans, from whom it was brought by Crusaders to the Emperors of the East and West, whose successors to-day are the Hapsburgs and the Romanoffs, as well as to the Masonic “Emperors of the East and West,” whose successors to-day are the Supreme Councils, 33°, that have inherited the insignia of the Rite of Perfection.

Such is the accredited account of the successive flights by which the Double-headed Eagle winged its way from the Tigris to the Danube and the Neva. But it is quite possible that when the Mediaeval Warriors brought home the Storm Bird, they brought it to that nest not for the first time. We have said above that Lagash was the center of a Sumerian people in the year 3000 B.C. It has been established that the Sumerians were an Iranian people, quite distinct from the warlike men of Akhad, who were of Semitic descent. Sometime after the year 2800 B.C., the fiery men of Akhad squeezed out the Iranians, and Babylonia became to all intents and purposes a Semitic Kingdom for the time. The Sumerians appear to have followed the Iranian line of migration westwards and, very likely, brought with them the remembrance of their guardian Bird of the olden time. Hence, the Storm Bird from Mesopotamia, with its double-head and outstretched wings, may not have seemed altogether strange to the Slavs, or the Teutons, or the Celts whose dim ancestry may have dwelt beside the Tigris. The emblem may have appealed to some vague sub-conscious inheritance of the kind that latter-day psychologists stigmatize as vestigial retro-reminiscence. Verily, the nomenclature is germane to “that blessed word Mesopotamia.”

Reverting to the text of the inscribed cylinder, we gather that the Master of the Storm Bird was appeased by the King undertaking to build him a Temple, and in response to the King’s petition inspired him and his builders with a Heaven-born plan. A ‘similar celestial origin is ascribed, commonly enough, to the more magnificent Temples of the Ancient East; for instance, to the great Temple of Horus at Edfu, built by the Pharaoh, under direct inspiration of the god Im-Hotep.2

But this particular revelation to Gudea is noteworthy, because the circumstances of the revelation bear a strong family resemblance to those of the disclosure of the dimensions of the Tabernacle to Moses on Mount Sinai, as described in Exodus xxv., et seq. The cuneiform text is opportunely illustrated on this point by the discovery of a fine basalt statue of Gudea, buried for ages in the same mounds of Lagash. He is represented in the sitting posture common to Oriental statues of Great Monarchs, and he holds on his knees what is now plainly seen to be a draughtsman’s tablet, with the design inscribed on it, while hard by are the graver’s tools and scale: for all the world like a Tracing-board, Gauge, Skirret and Pencil of to-day. The mise-en-scène has an indefinable resemblance to the Frontispieces with which the engravers of the eighteenth century were wont to decorate the Pocket Companion and similar books.

The cuneiform inscription goes on to describe the ceremony of laying the cornerstone, with a thousand details of inestimable value to the archaeologist, but in no way bearing on the story of the Double-headed Eagle.

These things came to pass, under the wings of the Storm Bird, in Lagash of the Sumerians, and were there written down, more than a thousand years before Abram, the Hebrew, dwelt in Ur of the Chaldees.


Notes

1 Zeitschriftfür Assyriology Strasburg…, 1904: vol.xviii, p. 119; Le Cylindre de Gu-de-a, par Fr. Thureau-Dangin.

The old temple at Edfu, built for the worship of Horus, son of Kneph and Athor, was explored by Mariette Bey, and is reputed to contain an inscribed tablet or slab, on which is delineated a geometrical approximation to the ratio of the diameter to the circumference. Scientific readers will understand the ages upon ages that must have intervened between the dawn of geometrical conceptions and the period at which such a constant could begin to appear practicable, or desirable, or even conceivable.

* Orginally published in Ars Quatuor Coronatorum. vol. xxiv (1911) Quatuor Coronati Lodge No. 2076. pp. 21-24.

Colors In Freemasonry: Part II

Colors In Freemasonry: Part II

This is Part II of a two part series, “Colors in Freemasonry.” Part I can be found here.


Freemasonry is a system of age-old knowledge handed down primarily through the language of symbolism, and a part of the vocabulary of symbolism that is most significant is that of color. Color saturates our entire experience, and can be quite easy to take for granted, or simply see as a case of happenstance. This or that object simply “happens” to be this or that color, and while it certainly has aesthetic effects, this is more or less the scope of it’s significance. 

Yet anyone who has spent time learning the language of symbolism, whether in the context of Masonry, the interpretation of dreams, or analysis of art and fiction will know that color carries enormous symbolic significance. To dream of a blue boat can be quite different in meaning than to dream of a red boat, and the same principle applies to any dream symbol and it’s color. As a body of knowledge communicated in the same language of symbol as dreams, the arts, or religious mythology, color in the Masonic Lodge is likewise an essential layer of meaning for the Initiate

So, what do the various colors mean in the language of symbolism in general, and to Masons specifically?

Green

GreenThe color of grass, trees, moss, and the myriad forms of verdant plant life. It’s impossible not to associate green with peace, happiness, and the thriving of life, due to it’s association with plants, grasses, and forests.

Throughout our evolution, the green places have been those with food and other valuable resources, and where green was lacking was also desolate and harsh landscapes. In the chakra system, the green chakra represents unconditional love, growth, and balance, as it is the central chakra along the spine, corresponding to the spiritual heart.

In Masonry, because of its association with the evergreen trees of the North, green represents immortality, and thus all that is immortal, truth, divinity, and the soul. The emerald tablet of Thoth is also worth noting, as well as various Egyptian deities whose blood was said to be green, and finally, the sacred green acacia plant.

Blue

The color of sky, air, ocean, sapphire, and ice. Blue is the color which is in many ways the opposite of red, representing the calm of the ocean, the expansiveness of the clear sky, and that which transcends the physical. Depictions of ghosts, spirits, or other non-physical beings are often blue, perhaps because of the rarity of the color’s appearance in the actual physical world.20375805_658664157676724_3202398839325588042_n

Other than the ocean and sky, which are themselves transcendental, only certain flowers, feathers, and eyes display the color blue. The blue chakra is associated with connection to the divine, creativity, and inner tranquility, corresponding to the throat. 

Blue is perhaps the most significant color to Masonry, representing the first three degrees, known as the Blue Lodge, which at one point was the entirety of Freemasonry, and is shared by all Masons, regardless of further degrees they attained. Blue was regarded as special and sacred by many cultures from around the world, including the Egyptians, and Masonry likewise regards it. In various places it was associated with divine wisdom, perfection, purity, and immortality.    

Indigo/Violet

Color of spiritual vision and royalty. Even rarer in nature than blue, indigo only appears in certain feathers, flowers, or minerals, and so has an even greater mystique about it. Some shades of indigo seem almost not made for human eyes to see, and have a glow-like appearance. Indigo is said to be the color of the inner eye, spiritual vision, psychic capabilities, and royalty. In the chakra system, indigo and violet are separated, with indigo being the third eye, the center of spiritual intuition and extrasensory perception, Violet Flameand violet being the direct connection to God or the higher self

In Masonry, indigo/purple can be seen historically as a symbol of royalty and power, as at one point it was extremely valuable in trade, and worn by royalty in Europe. It has also been suggested that Indigo may have been the mysterious color of the ancient Hebrew priests’ robes, referred to as techelet. It can also be seen as representing the merger of the lower self, represented by red, with the higher spiritual self, represented by blue. Masons also use violet in particular to represent mourning, a tradition adopted from the ancient Chinese. 

White

White GlovesColor of light, purity, innocence, and the merging of all colors together. White is worn by brides, is the color of the blank canvas, and is the color of raw unfiltered light itself. White contains all colors in perfect balance, and gives whatever light it meets perfectly, absorbing none for itself. It’s also connected to cleanliness, as it shows any impurity clearly, thus giving a house the “white glove treatment.”

White calls to mind a sort of wholeness, the completion of all colors added together and balanced, or conversely, the wholeness from which colors may be created, by darkening the white canvas’s purity with some shading.

White is prevalent in the Masonic Lodge as a symbol of Light, as well as purity in some respects, and Masonic regalia, particularly in Universal Freemasonry, is largely white. Here, again, as with black, white’s role in the checkerboard floor pattern of the mosaic pavement is worthy of consideration. 


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 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.

 

 

 

Universal Freemasonry

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