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Article # 181
Esotericism and Freemasonry

Author: R.W.Bro.Leon Zeldis    Posted on: Saturday, January 7, 2006
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[ The learned Author has in his own inimitable style traced the development of Esotericism in Freemasonry, besides the principles of Hermetism found in Masonic teachings. This is an illuminating article and requires a patient study with some concentration. Please read on ...]

Esotericism and  Freemasonry   

by R.W.Bro.Leon Zeldis. A.G.M.

 It happens more than once, that a man joins our Order attracted by the esoteric doctrines of spiritual philosophy, Theosophy, oriental mysticism or any one of the multiple schools of esoteric knowledge. This man, looking for spiritual enlightenment, enters our Lodges hoping to find in them the Masters, who will guide him in the path of spiritual revelation. Unfortunately, disappointment in those cases happens very soon. We don’t have Gurus in Freemasonry; however, whoever perseveres in the study of Masonic knowledge, often finds, if not what he was looking for originally, something even more valuable, the reality of personal and social betterment as a result of Masonic work.

This does not mean that our ancient Institution does not have esoteric aspects, particularly in those Continental traditions (French and German) that today are preserved mostly in the “Higher Degrees” of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite and the York Rite. These esoteric teachings are, in part, open to everyone, but are often hidden in obscure corners of our rituals and legends, to the point, that almost nobody remembers or understands their origin and true meaning or intention. Let me give one example to make this point clear. In most Masonic Initiation rituals, at a certain stage of the ceremony the candidate is placed in a specific point of the lodge and then he is instructed, that he represents the cornerstone of the spiritual Temple, we are building. Stone has many profound symbolic connections . Why a stone?

The “Lapis” or “Philosopher’s Stone” is one of the fundamental symbols of alchemy, involving both the various stages of alchemical work and the final product of transmutation. For those, who have not witnessed an Initiation ceremony in the Scottish Rite ritual, I can explain, that the consecutive stages of the ceremony represent a symbolic transmutation of the candidate, who is successively purified by earth (The “Chamber of Reflection”), air, water and fire, the four “elements” of ancient philosophy, which the candidate experiences, while conducted through three “symbolic voyages”.

 Since I have mentioned the Chamber of Reflection, which is a preparatory room, where the candidate meditates alone before being introduced into the lodge, one of the symbols the candidate sees is a legend on the wall: V.I.T.R.I.O.L. These are the initials of a Latin sentence: Visita Interiora Terrae Rectificando Invenies Ocultum Lapidem. That is to say: Visit the Interior of the Earth, and Rectifying (i.e. purifying), you will find the Hidden Stone. Not everyone knows that this is a common alchemical saying. This is what Benedictus Fםgulus wrote in 1609 (five years before the publication of the first Rosicrucian Manifest, the Fama Fraternitatis):  “Visit the center of the earth, there you will find the global fire that rectifies all impurity. Drive it away with love and anger...”.

I have no intention of writing a treatise on alchemy, but those interested can profitably read Carl Jung’s book Alchemical Studies, where they fill find references and explanations for many of our symbols.

Let us also remember Hiram’s legend, which without doubt, follows the initiatory tradition of the mystery religions of antiquity. Freemasonry, through the Initiation ceremony, pretends to cause radical charges in the personality of the individual, who joins our lodges. This is, symbolically, a new birth. Therefore, it must not surprise us if we find that Masonic philosophy contains elements of the mystic and esoteric doctrines of past ages. In my opinion, Freemasonry received a decisive influence from the Rosicrucian movement of the 17th century and, through them, Alchemy, Kabbala and Hermetism.

In this paper, however, I shall focus on the last one, the most widely-known esoteric doctrine, Hermetism, attributed to the legendary Hermes Trismegistus (“the thrice powerful”), also known as Thoth by the ancient Egyptians.

The metaphysics of Hermetic esotericism, that is, the doctrines attributed to Hermes, can be summarized in seven fundamental principles, which are: 1) Reality is immaterial.  2) The principle of correspondence. 3) The principle of oscillation or vibration. 4) The principle of polarity.  5) The principle of rhythm.  6)  The principle of cause and effect and  7) The principle of generation.

As we shall see very soon, all these principles find expression in our rituals and their knowledge will assist in better understanding of Masonic ceremonies and symbols.

Take the first principle, the one that states that reality is not material. It is not difficult to prove the truth of this proposition. Matter, in effect, as has been shown by modern scientists, is simply a form of energy. Over 99 percent of the space occupied by an atom is empty. Even the sub-atomic particles, that we might consider as having material existence, such as electrons and protons, are now regarded as no more than mathematical formulations, focuses of energy, whose location is vague, the result more of probability than of certainty. Moreover, modern physics has discovered subatomic particles that have no mass.  In other words, they have no matter in the normal meaning of the word. Other particles behave as if time for them runs backward. All this had been foreseen by the learned men of antiquity, but they did not possess the rich scientific language of our time, and for this reason they used common words, such as fire, water, air, the attraction of love, the evolution of the egg, the tail of the peacock, to describe substances and processes that today, with our physical and verbal instruments, we can specify with incomparable greater clarity.

Since Einstein demonstrated, that the same mathematical-physical laws are applicable to matter and energy, space and time, speaking of a fourth dimension is common. But precisely one of the paradoxes of ancient alchemy is the insistence that three is four and one. Doubtless, the three dimensions of space plus the dimension of time constitute the unity of the universe. We can also think of physical space having three dimensions, but we recognize four cardinal points. Three is four. This is well represented in the tracing board of the First Degree, which depicts the three Theological Virtues, on Jacob’s ladder, and the four Cardinal Virtues, represented by the four tassels in the corners. Three  and four.

Now, if matter is only an illusion of our senses, resulting from our physiological and mental structure, what is its real nature? Hermetism says: the nature of the universe is mental. Let us think for a moment of an artist, a poet or a sculptor. He is thinking about a work he intends to execute. Is the work in existence already? There can be no doubt, that before the work is materialized, it must exist before in the mind of the creator. Following this line of thought, the universe is simply the image existing in the cosmic mind, product of the movement of evolution and involution of the WHOLE. 

We should not be led to error on this point. We are dealing with metaphysical concepts, things as they are beyond the appearance of the senses and not the matter, that we know in everyday life. If we stumble and hit the ground, we will get convincing proof, that matter is quite hard, even if made mostly of empty space. This is the advantage of Freemasonry over other philosophical doctrines, because we are firmly rooted in the reality of daily life. The fact, that we always investigate these questions in the company of others (to meet in lodge, at least seven brethren must work together) by itself avoids the danger of solipsism and going over the edge on metaphysics. 

Let me add another thought on this point. When we study the texts of philosophers, we must always take into account our own mental horizon, that is, our capacity to understand. In the final account, this is what will determine whatever benefit we may derive from the reading. It is natural that a person who has studied music will derive pleasure and knowledge from a score, which will remain hidden from the eyes from the uninstructed. The same goes for any reading more serious than a newspaper.

Therefore, I shall restrict myself to briefly outlining the subjects behind the Hermetic principles I just described, and whoever is interested in further study is advised to search the vast literature on these matters. This is not to diminish the worth of a Brother, who is not interested in Esotericism. Freemasonry offers a series of doors, and each Mason is given the opportunity to open them, or not. It’s up to each one, and there is no disgrace in choosing one path to self-improvement or another one. Each Mason polishes his individual stone at his own pace. If we look at a wall of masonry, we observe that not all stones are equal, some are large and others are small, but they all fit together and jointly contribute to the strength of the building. We build a spiritual, not a material Temple, and in this work we follow the Hermetic principle. Each Mason is a living stone, and the Temple we are building will find its material expression in the society in which we live.

Let us move on to the second principle: “As above is as below”. The ancients represented this principle of correspondence in graphic form with two interlaced triangles, one  pointing up and the other down. The first represents the volatile elements, air and fire, or the spirit, while the downward pointing triangle represents matter: water and earth. What do we see over the Volume of the Sacred Law in the Masonic Temple?  The interlaced s. and c., which together symbolize the sides of these two triangles, and their relative position  signify the supremacy of either spirit or matter.

Another allusion to the principle of correspondence is God’s answer to Moses, when he asks His name: Eheieh Asher Eheieh, that is, “I am what I am.” I am (spirit, high) what I am (matter, below). In Gematria (the numerical value of the Hebrew letters composing the words), Eheieh (aleph-heh-yod-heh) has a value of 21. Repeated, then, we have a total of 42. The value of the letters M and B is also 42 (mem-beth). This is a highly significant number. In  Egyptian mythology, the dead had to face 42 judges.

Now for the principle of correspondence. This simply means that the same universal laws apply to the subtle and the coarse, the great and the small. There is harmony in things and in the course of events.  The same feeling of beauty can be induced admiring the wings of a butterfly on the stained windows of Notre Dame. The world globe on top of column B is in correspondence with the armillary sphere on top of column J…   Again, modern physics came to confirm the validity of the principle of correspondence in the physical world, since the various forces existing in the universe have been gradually unified, and the time is not far when all known forces will be integrated into one unitary force.

Vibration, polarity and rhythm are three concepts that are closely related. In our lodge, the white and black squares of the checkerboard floor represent them. The polarity of the universe is expressed in the innumerable antinomies offered by the sensible world: light and darkness, heat and cold, sound and silence, high and low. However, if we examine them closely, we realize that they are actually one single quality that moved between two extremes. Nobody knows when cold becomes hot, or when love turns into hate. Where is the dividing line between small and large? Practically all the qualities can be ordered in this way, as couples of properties that are apparently contrary, expressing different graduations of the same quality. In many of his graphic works, the Dutch painter Escher offers a representation of this principle, night gradually turning into day, fish turning into birds. 

In the Initiation ceremony in the Scottish Rite, the candidate is given a sweet drink that a moment later turns bitter. This is the Masonic representation of this principle, the same as the checkered floor.

Reality fluctuates and oscillates between opposite poles, first in one direction, then the opposite, like a pendulum. From  high tide to low tide. From  totalitarian  rule  to democracy and back to dictatorship. From the incapacity of childhood to the plenitude of adulthood  and back to the incapacity of old age. Everything in life follows a rhythm. The Hindus speak of the Great Cosmic Dance. Masons, too, follow a different rhythm according to each one’s advancement, symbolized by the various batteries (the claps) and signs of the progressive degrees.

Cause and effect and Generation are also closely related. Hermetism underlines what may appear to be a truism, that  nothing  exists without a cause. Chance, or luck  are simply the result of our ignorance. If we knew all the facts, chance would not exist. If we could compute the mass of the dice, the distribution of their weight, the impulse and direction of the throw, the possible influence of the air, the friction of the ground or table, we could predict the resulting numbers. The chain of causality, however, does not exclude the reality of our free will.

 The principle of generation finally is an expression of  the fact that positive and negative are needed, joined together, to create unity. This is sometimes shown as Yin and Yang, the joining of masculine and feminine, one (masculine) and two (feminine) to make the perfect number three. Alchemists represented this principle by the sexual act of king and queen.

 I have described these Hermetic principles very sketchily, trying to show how they form part of Masonic symbology. The reader who wants to follow this study will find ample literature, and frequent representation of these teachings in our “Higher Degrees”. The door is open, come in.

Suggested Reading :

1.      The Kybalion by Three Initiates, a small book that contains an excellent introduction to Hermetism.

2.       Mystic Initiations by Mircea Eliade, that contains a wealth of information on initiation ceremonies in various times and places.

3.       The Perennial Philosophy of Aldous Huxley, a panoramic view of Esotericism.

These three books are recommended to begin the study


R.W.Bro.Leon Zeldis was born on June 20 th in 1930 in Buenos Aires. He was the fifth child of his parents, who were Russian Immigrants. His family moved to Chile in 1931. He grew up and was educated in Valparaiso, Chile. He graduated as a Textile Engineer from Philadelphia University in 1952. He also graduated in Linguistics, History and Business Administration. He married Luisa Drapkin in 1956. They have four children and ten grandchildren. The family immigrated to Israel in 1962. He retired as Quality Control Engineer. As an Academician, he has been the Professor of Philosophic and Masonic Studies in La Republica University, Santiago in Chile from 1996, Visiting Professor Universidad Complutense, Madrid and Professor of Textile History and Technology, State Technical University, Santiago up to 1962. The Chilean Government has appointed him as Honorary Consul of Chile in Tel Aviv from 1963 and awarded the Order Bernardo O’Higgins.He was initiated into the mysteries and privileges of Freemasonry in America Lodge (No.86) Chile. He was a Founder member of "La Fraternidad, Lodge( No 62 )of Tel Aviv (1970),which was the first Spanish-speaking lodge in Israel, working in the AASR.and of which he became the W.M in 1971. He had held various offices in the Grand Lodge of Israel, of which he is the Honorary Assistant Grand Master from 1995. In Royal Arch, he was installed as the First Principal of Har Sinai Chapter in1985. He held various offices in R. A. Grand Chapter, including that of Grand Chaplain. He has taken the Degrees of Captivity, Royal Select and Super-Excellent Master Degrees and Royal Ark Mariner. . In Scottish Rite , he was elevated to 4th Degree AASR in 1969, Coroneted Active Sovereign Grand Inspector General 33° in 1991.He has served as Grand Secretary General in 1993-1995 and elected as Sovereign Grand Commander in1996-1998. He is an active member of various Masonic Research bodies as follows. Founder Member, Chair of Philosophical and Masonic Studies "Dr. René García Valenzuela", Universidad La República, Santiago, Chile., Fellow, Philalethes Society, Contributing Member, Scottish Rite Research Society (USA), Member, Society of Blue Friars and Correspondence member, Quatuor Coronati Lodge No. 2076, England. Honorary Member of "Rey Salomón" Lodge No 105, Lima, Perú (1982), Supreme Council for Italy (1996), Academia Maçónica de Letras de Pernambuco, Brazil (1997), "Salem" Lodge of Perfection N° 12, Haifa, Israel (1997),Supreme Council for France (1998) ,"King Solomon" Lodge of Perfection N° 13, Ra'anana, Israel (1998), "Montefiore" Lodge N° 753, Glasgow, Scotland (1999). "Hermes" Lodge N° 13, Madrid, (2000), "Max Polliack" Rose-Croix Chapter N° 4, Ra'anana, Israel (2002), and "Lázaro Cárdenas del Río" Lodge N° 57, México City (2002), "Mount Moriah" Rose-Croix Chapter N° 2, Jerusalem, Israel (1975), "Ramat Gan" N° 6 Lodge of Perfection, Ramat Gan, Israel (1978), "La Esperanza" N° 72 Lodge, Haifa, Israel (1978), "France" Lodge N° 77, Jerusalem, Israel (1993), "Jerusalem" Lodge N° 909, Paris, France (1995), "Jerusalem" Lodge N° 91, Roma, Italy (1996),"Igualdad" Rose-Croix Chapter N° 3, Tel Aviv, Israel (1998) and "Galilee" Lodge N° 31, Nazareth, Israel (2003) He was the Representative of the Grand Lodge of Chile near the Grand Lodge of Israel (1976-1993), Representative of Grand Chapter of South Carolina near the Grand Chapter of Israel (1983), Representative of the Supreme Council of Ecuador near the Supreme Council of Israel (1991). Representative of Grand Lodge of Spain near the Grand Lodge of Israel, He was awarded Tiradentes Medal, by the Supreme Council of the Federal Republic of Brazil (1992).Besides all those distinctions, he enjoys the unique reputation of an erudite Masonic scholar and a prolific writer and has presented many papers in the Research Lodges. Many of his articles have been posted in the premier Masonic website Pietre Stones Review of Freemasonry. He maintains the website in which his articles have been posted. Visits to that website is earnestly recommended for acquiring great Masonic knowledge.He has presented the following papers in International Conferences.1. “Spanish-speaking lodges in Israel” in International Symposium on the History of Spanish Masonry, Cבceres, Spain, June 1991.2. “Education as the Key to Tolerance” in European Conference of Sovereign Grand Commanders, Berlin, May 1994.3. “Freemasonry in the 21st Century”in First World Reunion of Grand Masters, Mexico City, March 1995.4. “Masonic Blue” in International Congress of Masonic History and Geography, Goiania, Brazil, June 1995.5. “Projection of the Values of Freemasonry in its Actions for the Benefit of Society”, Inaugural lecture at the foundation of the Chair of Philosophical and Masonic Studies “Dr. Rene Garcia Valenzuela, University La Repתblica, Santiago, Chile, September 1996.6. “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in International Seminary on Anti-Freemasonry, Santiago, Chile, October 1997.7. “The Scottish Rite Tradition and its Present Actuality”in European Conference of Sovereign Grand Commanders, Paris, May 1998.8. “Presence and Evolution of Freemasonry in the 21st Century”in International Seminar “Masonry: Myth and Reality”, University La Repתblica, Santiago, Chile, October 1999.9. “Antisemitism and Freemasonry”in International Conference on The Historiography and Methodology in the Study of Freemasonry, Canonbury Masonic Research Centre, London, November 1999.10. “Freemasonry and Society in the Middle East”in Summer Colloquium, Grand Lodge of Chile, Santiago, January 2000.11. “Looking back - Moving forward”in Philalethes Annual Conference, Washington, February 2000.12. “Facing the Future of Freemasonry”in Academy of Masonic Knowledge, Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania, October, 2000.13. “Anti-Masonry and Anti-Semitism”, 9th Symposium on the History of Spanish Masonry, Segovia, Spain, October 2000.14. “Iconography of the Tracing Boards” in The Visual Arts and Freemasonry, Third International Conference, Canonbury Masonic Research Centre, November 2001.15. “Freemasonry in the Middle East”in Grand Lodge Valle de Mיxico, Mexico City, February 2002.His illuminating articles have been posted in his website visit that site to peruse his articles.We are very thankful to this great Masonic Scholar for kindly permitting us to post this article in our website.

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