The Symbolism of Freemasonry/Chapter XXV

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The compound character of a speculative science and an operative art, which the masonic institution assumed at the building of King Solomon's temple, in consequence of the union, at that era, of the Pure Freemasonry of the Noachidae[1] with the Spurious Freemasonry of the Tyrian workmen, has supplied it with two distinct kinds of symbols--the mythical, or legendary, and the material; but these are so thoroughly united in object and design, that it is impossible to appreciate the one without an investigation of the other.

Thus, by way of illustration, it may be observed, that the temple itself has been adopted as a material symbol of the world (as I have already shown in former articles), while the legendary history of the fate of its builder is a mythical symbol of man's destiny in the world. Whatever is visible or tangible to the senses in our types and emblems--such as the implements of operative masonry, the furniture and ornaments of a lodge, or the ladder of seven steps--is a material symbol; while whatever derives its existence from tradition, and presents itself in the form of an allegory or legend, is a mythical symbol. Hiram the Builder, therefore, and all that refers to the legend of his connection with the temple, and his fate,--such as the sprig of acacia, the hill near Mount Moriah, and the lost word,--are to be considered as belonging to the class of mythical or legendary symbols.

And this division is not arbitrary, but depends on the nature of the types and the aspect in which they present themselves to our view.

Thus the sprig of acacia, although it is material, visible, and tangible, is, nevertheless, not to be treated as a material symbol; for, as it derives all its significance from its intimate connection with the legend of Hiram Abif, which is a mythical symbol, it cannot, without a violent and inexpedient disruption, be separated from the same class. For the same reason, the small hill near Mount Moriah, the search of the twelve Fellow Crafts, and the whole train of circumstances connected with the lost word, are to be viewed simply as mythical or legendary, and not as material symbols.

These legends of Freemasonry constitute a considerable and a very important part of its ritual. Without them, the most valuable portions of the masonic as a scientific system would cease to exist. It is, in fact, in the traditions and legends of Freemasonry, more, even, than in its material symbols, that we are to find the deep religious instruction which the institution is intended to inculcate. It must be remembered that Freemasonry has been defined to be "a system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols." Symbols, then, alone, do not constitute the whole of the system: allegory comes in for its share; and this allegory, which veils the divine truths of masonry, is presented to the neophyte in the various legends which have been traditionally preserved in the order.

The close connection, at least in design and method of execution, between the institution of Freemasonry and the ancient Mysteries, which were largely imbued with the mythical character of the ancient religions, led, undoubtedly, to the introduction of the same mythical character into the masonic system.

So general, indeed, was the diffusion of the myth or legend among the philosophical, historical, and religious systems of antiquity, that Heyne remarks, on this subject, that all the history and philosophy of the ancients proceeded from myths.[2]

The word myth, from the Greek [Greek: my~thos], a story, in its original acceptation, signified simply a statement or narrative of an event, without any necessary implication of truth or falsehood; but, as the word is now used, it conveys the idea of a personal narrative of remote date, which, although not necessarily untrue, is certified only by the internal evidence of the tradition itself.[3]

Creuzer, in his "Symbolik," says that myths and symbols were derived, on the one hand, from the helpless condition and the poor and scanty beginnings of religious knowledge among the ancient peoples, and on the other, from the benevolent designs of the priests educated in the East, or of Eastern origin, to form them to a purer and higher knowledge.

But the observations of that profoundly philosophical historian, Mr. Grote, give so correct a view of the probable origin of this universality of the mythical element in all the ancient religions, and are, withal, so appropriate to the subject of masonic legends which I am now about to discuss, that I cannot justly refrain from a liberal quotation of his remarks.

"The allegorical interpretation of the myths," he says, "has been, by several learned investigators, especially by Creuzer, connected with the hypothesis of an ancient and highly-instructed body of priests, having their origin either in Egypt or the East, and communicating to the rude and barbarous Greeks religious, physical, and historical knowledge, under the veil of symbols. At a time (we are told) when language was yet in its infancy, visible symbols were the most vivid means of acting upon the minds of ignorant hearers. The next step was to pass to symbolical language and expressions; for a plain and literal exposition, even if understood at all, would at least have been listened to with indifference, as not corresponding with any mental demand. In such allegorizing way, then, the early priests set forth their doctrines respecting God, nature, and humanity,--a refined monotheism and theological philosophy,--and to this purpose the earliest myths were turned. But another class of myths, more popular and more captivating, grew up under the hands of the poets--myths purely epical, and descriptive of real or supposed past events. The allegorical myths, being taken up by the poets, insensibly became confounded in the same category with the purely narrative myths; the matter symbolized was no longer thought of, while the symbolizing words came to be construed in their own literal meaning, and the basis of the early allegory, thus lost among the general public, was only preserved as a secret among various religious fraternities, composed of members allied together by initiation in certain mystical ceremonies, and administered by hereditary families of presiding priests.

"In the Orphic and Bacchic sects, in the Eleusinian and Samothracian Mysteries, was thus treasured up the secret doctrine of the old theological and philosophical myths, which had once constituted the primitive legendary stock of Greece in the hands of the original priesthood and in the ages anterior to Homer. Persons who had gone through the preliminary ceremonies of initiation were permitted at length to hear, though under strict obligation of secrecy, this ancient religion and cosmogonic doctrine, revealing the destination of man and the certainty of posthumous rewards and punishments, all disengaged from the corruptions of poets, as well as from the symbols and allegories under which they still remained buried in the eyes of the vulgar. The Mysteries of Greece were thus traced up to the earliest ages, and represented as the only faithful depositaries of that purer theology and physics which had been originally communicated, though under the unavoidable inconvenience of a symbolical expression, by an enlightened priesthood, coming from abroad, to the then rude barbarians of the country."[4]

In this long but interesting extract we find not only a philosophical account of the origin and design of the ancient myths, but a fair synopsis of all that can be taught in relation to the symbolical construction of Freemasonry, as one of the depositaries of a mythical theology.

The myths of Masonry, at first perhaps nothing more than the simple traditions of the Pure Freemasonry of the antediluvian system, having been corrupted and misunderstood in the separation of the races, were again purified, and adapted to the inculcation of truth, at first by the disciples of the Spurious Freemasonry, and then, more fully and perfectly, in the development of that system which we now practise. And if there be any leaven of error still remaining in the interpretation of our masonic myths, we must seek to disengage them from the corruptions with which they have been invested by ignorance and by misinterpretation. We must give to them their true significance, and trace them back to those ancient doctrines and faith whence the ideas which they are intended to embody were derived.

The myths or legends which present themselves to our attention in the course of a complete study of the symbolic system of Freemasonry may be considered as divided into three classes:--

1. The historical myth.
2. The philosophical myth.
3. The mythical history.

And these three classes may be defined as follows:--

1. The myth may be engaged in the transmission of a narrative of early deeds and events, having a foundation in truth, which truth, however, has been greatly distorted and perverted by the omission or introduction of circumstances and personages, and then it constitutes the historical myth.

2. Or it may have been invented and adopted as the medium of enunciating a particular thought, or of inculcating a certain doctrine, when it becomes a philosophical myth.

3. Or, lastly, the truthful elements of actual history may greatly predominate over the fictitious and invented materials of the myth, and the narrative may be, in the main, made up of facts, with a slight coloring of imagination, when it forms a mythical history.[5]

These form the three divisions of the legend or myth (for I am not disposed, on the present occasion, like some of the German mythological writers, to make a distinction between the two words[6] ); and to one of these three divisions we must appropriate every legend which belongs to the mythical symbolism of Freemasonry.

These masonic myths partake, in their general character, of the nature of the myths which constituted the foundation of the ancient religions, as they have just been described in the language of Mr. Grote. Of these latter myths, Müller[7] says that "their source is to be found, for the most part, in oral tradition," and that the real and the ideal--that is to say, the facts of history and the inventions of imagination--concurred, by their union and reciprocal fusion, in producing the myth.

Those are the very principles that govern the construction of the masonic myths or legends. These, too, owe their existence entirely to oral tradition, and are made up, as I have just observed, of a due admixture of the real and the ideal--the true and the false--the facts of history and the inventions of allegory.

Dr. Oliver remarks that "the first series of historical facts, after the fall of man, must necessarily have been traditional, and transmitted from father to son by oral communication."[8] The same system, adopted in all the Mysteries, has been continued in the masonic institution; and all the esoteric instructions contained in the legends of Freemasonry are forbidden to be written, and can be communicated only in the oral intercourse of Freemasons with each other.[9]

De Wette, in his Criticism on the Mosaic History, lays down the test by which a myth is to be distinguished from a strictly historical narrative, as follows, namely: that the myth must owe its origin to the intention of the inventor not to satisfy the natural thirst for historical truth by a simple narration of facts, but rather to delight or touch the feelings, or to illustrate some philosophical or religious truth.

This definition precisely fits the character of the myths of Masonry. Take, for instance, the legend of the master's degree, or the myth of Hiram Abif. As "a simple narration of facts," it is of no great value--certainly not of value commensurate with the labor that has been engaged in its transmission. Its invention--by which is meant, not the invention or imagination of all the incidents of which it is composed, for there are abundant materials of the true and real in its details, but its invention or composition in the form of a myth by the addition of some features, the suppression of others, and the general arrangement of the whole--was not intended to add a single item to the great mass of history, but altogether, as De Wette says, "to illustrate a philosophical or religious truth," which truth, it is hardly necessary for me to say, is the doctrine of the immortality of the soul.

It must be evident, from all that has been said respecting the analogy in origin and design between the masonic and the ancient religious myths, that no one acquainted with the true science of this subject can, for a moment, contend that all the legends and traditions of the order are, to the very letter, historical facts. All that can be claimed for them is, that in some there is simply a substratum of history, the edifice constructed on this foundation being purely inventive, to serve us a medium for inculcating some religious truth; in others, nothing more than an idea to which the legend or myth is indebted for its existence, and of which it is, as a symbol, the exponent; and in others, again, a great deal of truthful narrative, more or less intermixed with fiction, but the historical always predominating.

Thus there is a legend, contained in some of our old records, which states that Euclid was a distinguished Mason, and that he introduced Masonry among the Egyptians.[10] Now, it is not at all necessary to the orthodoxy of a Mason's creed that he should literally believe that Euclid, the great geometrician, was really a Freemason, and that the ancient Egyptians were indebted to him for the establishment of the institution among them. Indeed, the palpable anachronism in the legend which makes Euclid the contemporary of Abraham necessarily prohibits any such belief, and shows that the whole story is a sheer invention. The intelligent Mason, however, will not wholly reject the legend, as ridiculous or absurd; but, with a due sense of the nature and design of our system of symbolism, will rather accept it as what, in the classification laid down on a preceding page, would be called "a philosophical myth"--an ingenious method of conveying, symbolically, a masonic truth.

Euclid is here very appropriately used as a type of geometry, that science of which he was so eminent a teacher, and the myth or legend then symbolizes the fact that there was in Egypt a close connection between that science and the great moral and religious system, which was among the Egyptians, as well as other ancient nations, what Freemasonry is in the present day--a secret institution, established for the inculcation of the same principles, and inculcating them in the same symbolic manner. So interpreted, this legend corresponds to all the developments of Egyptian history, which teach us how close a connection existed in that country between the religious and scientific systems. Thus Kenrick tells us, that "when we read of foreigners [in Egypt] being obliged to submit to painful and tedious ceremonies of initiation, it was not that they might learn the secret meaning of the rites of Osiris or Isis, but that they might partake of the knowledge of astronomy, physic, geometry, and theology."[11]

Another illustration will be found in the myth or legend of the Winding Stairs, by which the Fellow Crafts are said to have ascended to the middle chamber to receive their wages. Now, this myth, taken in its literal sense, is, in all its parts, opposed to history and probability. As a myth, it finds its origin in the fact that there was a place in the temple called the "Middle Chamber," and that there were "winding stairs" by which it was reached; for we read, in the First Book of Kings, that "they went up with winding stairs into the middle chamber."[12] But we have no historical evidence that the stairs were of the construction, or that the chamber was used for the purpose, indicated in the mythical narrative, as it is set forth in the ritual of the second degree. The whole legend is, in fact, an historical myth, in which the mystic number of the steps, the process of passing to the chamber, and the wages there received, are inventions added to or ingrafted on the fundamental history contained in the sixth chapter of Kings, to inculcate important symbolic instruction relative to the principles of the order. These lessons might, it is true, have been inculcated in a dry, didactic form; but the allegorical and mythical method adopted tends to make a stronger and deeper impression on the mind, and at the same time serves more closely to connect the institution of Masonry with the ancient temple.

Again: the myth which traces the origin of the institution of Freemasonry to the beginning of the world, making its commencement coeval with the creation,--a myth which is, even at this day, ignorantly interpreted, by some, as an historical fact, and the reference to which is still preserved in the date of "anno lucis," which is affixed to all masonic documents,--is but a philosophical myth, symbolizing the idea which analogically connects the creation of physical light in the universe with the birth of masonic or spiritual and intellectual light in the candidate. The one is the type of the other. When, therefore, Preston says that "from the commencement of the world we may trace the foundation of Masonry," and when he goes on to assert that "ever since symmetry began, and harmony displayed her charms, our order has had a being," we are not to suppose that Preston intended to teach that a masonic lodge was held in the Garden of Eden. Such a supposition would justly subject us to the ridicule of every intelligent person. The only idea intended to be conveyed is this: that the principles of Freemasonry, which, indeed, are entirely independent of any special organization which it may have as a society, are coeval with the existence of the world; that when God said, "Let there be light," the material light thus produced was an antitype of that spiritual light that must burst upon the mind of every candidate when his intellectual world, theretofore "without form and void," becomes adorned and peopled with the living thoughts and divine principles which constitute the great system of Speculative Masonry, and when the spirit of the institution, brooding over the vast deep of his mental chaos, shall, from intellectual darkness, bring forth intellectual light.[13]

In the legends of the Master's degree and of the Royal Arch there is a commingling of the historical myth and the mythical history, so that profound judgment is often required to discriminate these differing elements. As, for example, the legend of the third degree is, in some of its details, undoubtedly mythical--in others, just as undoubtedly historical. The difficulty, however, of separating the one from the other, and of distinguishing the fact from the fiction, has necessarily produced a difference of opinion on the subject among masonic writers. Hutchinson, and, after him, Oliver, think the whole legend an allegory or philosophical myth. I am inclined, with Anderson and the earlier writers, to suppose it a mythical history. In the Royal Arch degree, the legend of the rebuilding of the temple is clearly historical; but there are so many accompanying circumstances, which are uncertified, except by oral tradition, as to give to the entire narrative the appearance of a mythical history. The particular legend of the three weary sojourners is undoubtedly a myth, and perhaps merely a philosophical one, or the enunciation of an idea--namely, the reward of successful perseverance, through all dangers, in the search for divine truth.

"To form symbols and to interpret symbols," says the learned Creuzer, "were the main occupation of the ancient priesthood." Upon the studious Mason the same task of interpretation devolves. He who desires properly to appreciate the profound wisdom of the institution of which he is the disciple, must not be content, with uninquiring credulity, to accept all the traditions that are imparted to him as veritable histories; nor yet, with unphilosophic incredulity, to reject them in a mass, as fabulous inventions. In these extremes there is equal error. "The myth," says Hermann, "is the representation of an idea." It is for that idea that the student must search in the myths of Masonry. Beneath every one of them there is something richer and more spiritual than the mere narrative.[14] This spiritual essence he must learn to extract from the ore in which, like a precious metal, it lies imbedded. It is this that constitutes the true value of Freemasonry. Without its symbols, and its myths or legends, and the ideas and conceptions which lie at the bottom of them, the time, the labor, and the expense incurred in perpetuating the institution, would be thrown away. Without them, it would be a "vain and empty show." Its grips and signs are worth nothing, except for social purposes, as mere means of recognition. So, too, would be its words, were it not that they are, for the most part, symbolic. Its social habits and its charities are but incidental points in its constitution--of themselves good, it is true, but capable of being attained in a simpler way. Its true value, as a science, consists in its symbolism--in the great lessons of divine truth which it teaches, and in the admirable manner in which it accomplishes that teaching. Every one, therefore, who desires to be a skilful Mason, must not suppose that the task is accomplished by a perfect knowledge of the mere phraseology of the ritual, by a readiness in opening and closing a lodge, nor by an off-hand capacity to confer degrees. All these are good in their places, but without the internal meaning they are but mere child's play. He must study the myths, the traditions, and the symbols of the order, and learn their true interpretation; for this alone constitutes the science and the philosophy--the end, aim, and design of Speculative Masonry.

Footnotes[edit]

  1. Noachidae, or Noachites, the descendants of Noah. This patriarch having alone preserved the true name and worship of God amid a race of impious idolaters, the Freemasons claim to be his descendants, because they preserve that pure religion which distinguished this second father of the human race from the rest of the world. (See the author's Lexicon of Freemasonry.) The Tyrian workmen at the temple of Solomon were the descendants of that other division of the race who fell off, at Shinar, from the true worship, and repudiated the principles of Noah. The Tyrians, however, like many other ancient mystics, had recovered some portion of the lost light, and the complete repossession was finally achieved by their union with the Jewish masons, who were Noachidae.
  2. "A mythis omnis priscorum hominum tum historia tum philosophia procedit."--Ad Apollod. Athen. Biblioth. not. f. p. 3.--And Faber says, "Allegory and personification were peculiarly agreeable to the genius of antiquity; and the simplicity of truth was continually sacrificed at the shrine of poetical decoration."--On the Cabiri.
  3. See Grote, History of Greece, vol. i. ch. xvi. p. 479, whence this definition has been substantially derived. The definitions of Creuzer, Hermann, Buttmann, Heyne, Welcker, Voss, and Müller are none of them Better, and some of them not as good.
  4. Hist. of Greece, vol. i. ch. xvi. p. 579. The idea of the existence of an enlightened people, who lived at a remote era, and came from the East, was a very prevalent notion among the ancient traditions. It is corroborative of this that the Hebrew word kedem, signifies, in respect to place, the east, and, in respect to time, olden time, ancient days. The phrase in Isaiah xix. 11, which reads, "I am the son of the wise, the son of ancient kings," might just as well have been translated "the son of kings of the East." In a note to the passage Ezek. xliii. 2, "the glory of the God of Israel came from the way of the East," Adam Clarke says, "All knowledge, all religion, and all arts and sciences, have travelled, according to the course of the sun, FROM EAST TO WEST!" Bazot tells us (in his Manuel du Franc-maçon, p. 154) that "the veneration which masons entertain for the east confirms an opinion previously announced, that the religious system of Masonry came from the east, and has reference to the primitive religion, whose first corruption was the worship of the sun." And lastly, the masonic reader will recollect the answer given in the Leland MS. to the question respecting the origin of Masonry, namely, "It did begin" (I modernize the orthography) "with the first men in the east, which were before the first men of the west; and coming westerly, it hath brought herewith all comforts to the wild and comfortless." Locke's commentary on this answer may conclude this note: "It should seem, by this, that masons believe there were men in the east before Adam, who is called the 'first man of the west,' and that arts and sciences began in the east. Some authors, of great note for learning, have been of the same opinion; and it is certain that Europe and Africa (which, in respect to Asia, may be called western countries) were wild and savage long after arts and politeness of manners were in great perfection in China and the Indies." The Talmudists make the same allusions to the superiority of the east. Thus, Rabbi Bechai says, "Adam was created with his face towards the east that he might behold the light and the rising sun, whence the east was to him the anterior part of the world."
  5. Strauss makes a division of myths into historical, philosophical, and poetical.--Leben Jesu.--His poetical myth agrees with my first division, his philosophical with my second, and his historical with my third. But I object to the word poetical, as a distinctive term, because all myths have their foundation in the poetic idea.
  6. Ulmann, for instance, distinguishes between a myth and a legend--the former containing, to a great degree, fiction combined with history, and the latter having but a few faint echoes of mythical history.
  7. In his "Prolegomena zu einer wissenshaftlichen Mythologie," cap. iv. This valuable work was translated in 1844, by Mr. John Leitch.
  8. Historical Landmarks, i. 53.
  9. See an article, by the author, on "The Unwritten Landmarks of Freemasonry," in the first volume of the Masonic Miscellany, in which this subject is treated at considerable length.
  10. As a matter of some interest to the curious reader, I insert the legend as published in the Gentleman's Magazine of June, 1815, from, it is said, a parchment roll supposed to have been written early in the seventeenth century, and which, if so, was in all probability copied from one of an older date:--

    "Moreover, when Abraham and Sara his wife went into Egipt, there he taught the Seaven Scyences to the Egiptians; and he had a worthy Scoller that height Ewclyde, and he learned right well, and was a master of all the vij Sciences liberall. And in his dayes it befell that the lord and the estates of the realme had soe many sonns that they had gotten some by their wifes and some by other ladyes of the realme; for that land is a hott land and a plentious of generacion. And they had not competent livehode to find with their children; wherefor they made much care. And then the King of the land made a great counsell and a parliament, to witt, how they might find their children honestly as gentlemen. And they could find no manner of good way. And then they did crye through all the realme, if there were any man that could enforme them, that he should come to them, and he should be soe rewarded for his travail, that he should hold him pleased.

    "After that this cry was made, then came this worthy clarke Ewclyde, and said to the King and to all his great lords: 'If yee will, take me your children to governe, and to teach them one of the Seaven Scyences, wherewith they may live honestly as gentlemen should, under a condicion that yee will grant mee and them a commission that I may have power to rule them after the manner that the science ought to be ruled.' And that the Kinge and all his counsell granted to him anone, and sealed their commission. And then this worthy tooke to him these lords' sonns, and taught them the science of Geometric in practice, for to work in stones all manner of worthy worke that belongeth to buildinge churches, temples, castells, towres, and mannors, and all other manner of buildings."

  11. Ancient Egypt under the Pharaohs, vol. I p. 393.
  12. 1 Kings vi. 8.
  13. An allusion to this symbolism is retained in one of the well-known mottoes of the order--"Lux e tenebris."
  14. "An allegory is that in which, under borrowed characters and allusions, is shadowed some real action or moral instruction; or, to keep more strictly to its derivation ([Greek: a)/llos], alius, and [Greek: a)gorey/ô], dico), it is that in which one thing is related and another thing is understood. Hence it is apparent that an allegory must have two senses--the literal and mystical; and for that reason it must convey its instruction under borrowed characters and allusions throughout."--The Antiquity, Evidence, and Certainty of Christianity canvassed, or Dr. Middleton's Examination of the Bishop of London's Discourses on Prophecy. By Anselm Bayly, LL.B., Minor Canon of St. Paul's. Lond, 1751.