Freemasonry is, by its own traditional definition, “a peculiar system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols.” The somewhat archaic diction of that phrase might be expressed today as “a particular code of living, both expressed and concealed in myth and symbols.” Freemasonry is, in part, a modern recreation of the ancient mysteries.
Aristotle said of the ancient mysteries that they were not a matter of learning, but of experiencing and of being changed by the experience. The same is true of Freemasonry: it contains no cognitive teachings, no information, but instead provides its initiates with an experience and the possibility of transformation. Like the ancient mysteries, Freemasonry also works through three modalities: a myth, a ritual based on that myth, and various symbols expressing the myth.
The Masonic myth has three aspects. It concerns the building of King Solomon’s Temple, the death and resurrection of the principal builder of that Temple, and the search for a secret that was lost because of the builder’s death. The basic ritual is an enactment of aspects of the myth, and the symbols are largely derived from the builder’s trade. Because its basic symbolism is derived from the stonemason’s craft, Freemasonry is often referred to simply as the Craft.
The most familiar of all Masonic symbols are the superimposed square and compasses. The square tool, used to draw square shapes, represents the world, matter, and time. The compasses, used to draw circles, represent the infinite, spirit, and eternity. Their superimposition represents the interlinking of those two aspects of reality, just as the interlaced triangles (or Solomon’s Seal) in the Theosophical Society seal does. Indeed, the Masonic square and compasses can be converted into the interlaced triangles by drawing a line across the top of the square connecting its two ends and so making it into the downward-pointing triangle of matter, and by drawing another line across the bottom of the compasses connecting their two points and so making them into the upward-pointing triangle of spirit.
Freemasonry is not a secret organization; indeed, it is one of the most widely known of human associations. But it is an organization with secrets. The latter consist particularly of signs, handgrips, and words of recognition. However, the Masonic secrets have in general been published in exposés of the Craft, although various branches of Freemasonry have their own special variations of those secrets, not all of which are publicly available. However, the importance of the secrets of Freemasonry is as part of the symbolism of the Craft. Trivial in themselves, they represent the truth that the greatest mysteries of life can be experienced but cannot be communicated because, like all mystical experiences, they are nonverbal and noncognitive.
The real history of Freemasonry is unknown. Its recorded history begins in 1717 with the formation of a Grand Lodge (a body that governs and charters Lodges, or local branches of Freemasonry) by four existing bodies in London. The fact that independent Lodges came together to form a Grand Lodge at that time shows that the practice of Freemasonry was already well established in Britain.
There is evidence that modern Freemasonry may have begun in Scotland in the late 1500s, when operative (or practicing) stonemasons were organized into a national system, admitted gentlemen amateur architects, and incorporated into their existing practices Renaissance esoteric lore from several sources (Stevenson). The stonemason’s craft was the most intellectually demanding of the Medieval and Renaissance trades because it required a practical knowledge of arithmetic and geometry, two of the more advanced Liberal Arts, whose knowledge marked a scholar.
Freemasonry itself has legends about its origins that are part of the Masonic myth. They trace the Craft back, through the medieval cathedral builders to the masons of King Solomon’s Temple, and further to the constructors of the pyramids, as well as to Euclid and Pythagoras. Modern efforts to trace the history of the Craft have derived it from Anglo-Saxon and earlier Roman building traditions. More recent and largely imaginative and romantic reconstructions of history have sought to link Freemasonry with the suppressed Knights Templar. Esoteric traditions derive it, in symbolic practice if not by lineal descent, from ancient mystery practices ultimately stemming from fabled lost continents like Atlantis (Leadbeater, Ancient Mystic Rites).
The basis of Freemasonry is the three-degree system of Craft or Blue Lodge Masonry: Entered Apprentice, Fellowcraft, and Master Mason. These degrees, which parallel the categories of some modern labor unions (apprentice, journeyman, master), developed gradually during the early years of English Masonry. In addition to them, however, a large number of additional degrees and degree systems or “rites” were developed, especially in the nineteenth century. The two most significant of these additional systems are the Scottish Rite, consisting of thirty-three degrees (including the three Craft degrees), many of which are seldom actually worked, and the York Rite, with degrees such as Mark Master, Royal Ark Mariner, Holy Royal Arch, and Knights Templar (names that vary somewhat from one jurisdiction to another).
Freemasonry has no single international authority, each country (or in the United States, each state) having its own governing Grand Lodge. There is, however, a system of recognition among many Grand Lodges, with the Grand Lodge of England holding primacy of time and prestige among masculine Grand Lodges. In addition to that interlocking network of masculine Grand Lodges, there are several other parallel systems. They include the Grand Orient of France, from which recognition was withdrawn by bodies in the English tradition when its Lodges became purely secular, dispensing with the Bible (or other sacred book) and reference to God under any name.
Freemasonry has traditionally been a nonsectarian but religiously oriented body. In the English tradition, a book of sacred scripture is open during meetings (the Bible usually in the West, but elsewhere other books such as the Tanak, Koran, Bhagavad-Gitā, or Dhammapada). The work of Masonry is done to the glory of God, under any of various titles used in different Degrees. The concept of God is left free for the individual Mason to interpret and may be anything from conventional theism to an abstract metaphysical principle represented by metaphors. In France, however, that open-ended spiritual practice was replaced by a secular and anti-religious attitude, which led to the withdrawal of recognition of French Lodges by the English Grand Lodge and others in mutual recognition with the latter.
Other parallel systems include Prince Hall Masonry, originally organized by Africans in the New World, who were generally excluded from white Masonic Lodges, and CO-FREEMASONRY, organized in France at the end of the nineteenth century to admit women and men on equal footing. Prince Hall Masonry is being increasingly recognized by white masculine Grand Lodges, but Co-Freemasonry is still generally regarded as “clandestine,” that is, unauthorized by a recognized masculine Grand Lodge.
The origin of Co-Freemasonry was completely independent of Theosophy, having started in response to the French women’s rights movement of the 1890s. However, after Annie Besant was initiated and rapidly advanced to the highest degree in the Scottish Rite system of Co-Freemasonry, she spread the Order throughout the British Empire. In America, Co-Freemasonry had been introduced first among French-speaking Belgian coal miners in Pennsylvania, but it was soon assimilated to the Besant tradition of Anglophone Co-Freemasonry when many Theosophists were initiated. The Besant tradition was also spread throughout Latin America by C. JINARAJADASA.
Although Co-Freemasonry has a single international governing body in Paris, it has historically mirrored the philosophical division in masculine Freemasonry. Francophone Co-Freemasonry is secular, anti-mystical, and politically inclined. Anglophone Co-Freemasonry has traditionally been spiritually oriented, esoteric in approach, and apolitical (Leadbeater, The Hidden Side of Freemasonry; Bradley).
Helena P. Blavatsky is often misreported as having been initiated into Freemasonry. She herself explicitly denies that. The report is based on a misunderstanding of her “Masonic diploma,” which was given to her by John Yarker, the head of one of the additional degree systems, the Ancient and Primitive Rite of Masonry, which included a Rite of Adoption (that is, an associated body that initiated women). The diploma granted her the highest degree of that Rite, Crowned Princess 12º, but was in effect an honor without initiation.
Blavatsky was, however, well familiar with Masonic practices and secrets, which she alludes to plainly in her writings and demonstrated to her male Masonic friends. Her great-grandfather had been a prominent member of the Rite of Strict Observance in Russia and had collected a distinguished library of esoteric, doubtless including Masonic, books. Blavatsky’s attitude toward Freemasonry was ambivalent. She had great respect for what she called “ancient” or “Eastern” Freemasonry, but scorn for “modern, Western” practices. In that respect her attitude toward Freemasonry was much like her attitude toward religion, science, and culture generally. In the early years of the Theosophical Society, serious consideration was given to making it a Masonic-like organization with initiation ceremonies, passwords, and secret grips. That plan was abandoned only after the Founders moved to India and established the Society’s activities along different lines. Nevertheless, Theosophy and Freemasonry share a large number of ideals, practices, symbols, terms, and attitudes. When HPB established the Esoteric Section, its rules forbade members to belong to any other group devoted to “mystic study or occult training, except Masonry and the Odd Fellows.” That exception in an indication of the special status HPB accorded the Craft, even in its modern Western incarnation.
Algeo, John. Blavatsky, Freemasonry, and the Western Mystery Tradition. Blavatsky Lecture 1996. London: Theosophical Society in England, 1996.
Bradley, Don. Freemasonry in the Twenty-First Century. Burbank, CA: Native Planet, 1995.
Leadbeater, C. W. Ancient Mystic Rites. Wheaton: Theosophical Publishing House, 1986. Original title Glimpses of Masonic History.
——. The Hidden Side of Freemasonry. Adyar, Madras: Theosophical Publishing House, 1926.
Stevenson, David. The Origins of Freemasonry: Scotland’s Century, 1590-1710. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
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