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Article # 93
Freemasonry and the Hermetic Tradition

Author: R.A.Gilbert    Posted on: Tuesday, April 13, 2004
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Freemasonry and the Hermetic Tradition

If, as is stated categorically by the United Grand Lodge of England[1],
Freemasonry "is not a Secret Society" and is "not a religion or a substitute
for religion," then what is it? And why should students of the occult be
concerned with the history, symbolism and rituals of this "peculiar system
of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols," which is
defined officially as, "one of the world's oldest secular fraternal
societies . . . a society of men concerned with spiritual values. Its
members are taught its precepts by a series of ritual dramas, which follow
ancient forms and use stonemasons' customs and tools as allegorical guides.
The essential qualification for admission and continuing membership is a
belief in a Supreme Being. Membership is open to men of any race or religion
who can fulfill this essential qualification and are of good repute"?[2]
Perhaps the occultist, who sees in freemasonry the survival of ancient,
pagan mystery religions, sees something that, like beauty, is in the eye of
the beholder, for what he sees is clearly invisible both to the governing
body of the Craft and to the bulk of its members.


Freemasonry does have a traditional history (around which its rituals are
constructed) that places its origin at the time of the building of King
Solomon's
Temple, but in the material world we can trace its history from
1717 A.D. when the first Grand Lodge in the world - the Grand Lodge of
England - was founded at London. From that time on Freemasonry has expanded,
undergoing many vicissitudes along the way - schisms, reconciliations,
quarrels over jurisdiction and quarrels over essential beliefs until today
it is firmly established in most countries of the world (the exceptions
being countries of the Communist bloc, and those countries that suffer under
Islamic fundamentalism).


Regular Freemasonry - which, among other things demands from its members a
belief in God, forbids the discussion of religion and politics in its
lodges, and forbids also the admission of women to membership - is strongest
in the English-speaking world, and it is a curious paradox that England,
where the Craft is most conservative, should have produced not only the
foremost masonic historians, but also the most adventurous (and most widely
read) speculative interpreters of masonic symbolism and philosophy.
These latter have been invariably influenced by the masonic traditions of
continental Europe, where "higher" degrees and exotic Rites have
proliferated since the middle of the eighteenth century. (At this point it
would be well to emphasise that all "higher" or "additional" degrees and
grades are later inventions than the three Craft degrees of Entered
Apprentice, Fellowcraft, and Master Mason, including "the Supreme Order of
the Holy Royal Arch" - declared in 1813 by the United Grand Lodge of England
to be the only degrees of "pure Ancient Masonry"; and further, that the
governing bodies of the "higher" degrees have no control whatsoever over the
Craft degrees.)


The complex phenomenon of European Freemasonry was significantly different
from its counterpart in eighteenth century England. The essential masonic
tenets of tolerance and benevolence were overlain from an early date with
layers of metaphysical speculation, while the simple Craft rituals were
extended into elaborate ceremonies for a multiplicity of degrees, grades and
Orders, all of which involved extravagant traditional histories and
hierarchical ruling bodies that became increasingly divorced from reality.
To some extent such Rites represented a way of escape from the political
oppression of illiberal regimes and the spiritual oppression of the Roman
Catholic Church, which had been implacably hostile to Freemasonry from the
beginning[3], but they inevitably drifted away from "pure Ancient Masonry"
to become either politicised or steered into overtly esoteric channels.
Given their nature, it is scarcely surprising that it has been from these
esoteric Rites within and around Masonry - The Elus Cohens, the Strict
Observance, the Illuminati, Cagliostro's Egyptian Masonry, and the
thousand-and-one self-styled Templar Orders and Chivalric degrees - rather
than from Craft Masonry, that occultists and esoterically inclined
freemasons alike have drawn, and continue to draw, their inspiration for
Orders of their own, and their plethora of false notions about the Craft and
its origins.


It is unfortunate that there can be no authoritative, official refutation of
these false notions, but there can be no definitive pronouncement about the
origins of Freemasonry for the simple reason that there is no certainty as
to what those origins are. It is undeniable that masonic ritual, in its
essentials, is based upon the presumed customs and the working tools of
medieval stonemasons, but there is little or no evidence to support the
popular theory of a regular progression from operative masonry to the
speculative Craft via a hypothetical "transitional" period during the
seventeenth century, in which non-working members were gradually accepted
into masonic Lodges until they constituted a majority.


A more probable theory of origin - but still, it must be stressed, only a
theory - is that which suggests that Freemasonry arose during the
seventeenth century from the efforts of a group of enthusiasts who sought to
establish tolerance in religion and the general improvement of society in an
era in which intolerance prevailed. They protected themselves by adopting
the myth of the building of King Solomon's Temple as an allegory of their
aims and by utilising the wholly appropriate structure of extant building
guilds. An eminently sensible theory, but for occultists wholly inadequate.
There must be, for their purposes, both a strictly esoteric content in
masonry and an ultimately Gnostic source: tolerance is too prosaic, and the
medieval building guilds unsatisfactory by virtue of their uncomfortably
orthodox profession of Christian faith. Either the Knights Templar or the
Rosicrucians, or both, offer a more satisfying explanation of the emergence
of Freemasonry in its speculative form. That there is no shred of historical
evidence linking the Templars with Masonry, nor any certainty that the
Rosicrucians as an organised body ever existed, does not matter, since for
occultists - and for esoteric freemasons - Freemasonry exists primarily to
perpetuate the teachings of the ancient Mystery Schools, and there is thus
necessarily a definite, if hidden, connection between Freemasonry and its
supposed forerunners.


To the conclusive demonstration of such links masonic writers of esoteric
inclination have devoted their literary careers, only to have their work
rejected as unsound by more prosaic masonic scholars. "Esoteric" masons,
however, have been, and still are, mightily impressed by the apparent
scholarship of authors such as the Rev. F. de P. Castells, who considered
that he had proved beyond doubt the link with the Rosicrucians, and
maintained that "Freemasonry originated with certain Hebrew mystics
associated with the Temple of Jerusalem, and that they are represented by
the Kabbalists of historic times." (Our Ancient Brethren the Originators of
Freemasonry, 1932, p. 24)


Castells wrote during the 1920s and '30s, and although he was far from being
the first masonic "historian" on whom occultists had drawn, he was among the
most impressive, for he united his historical studies with a critical
analysis of masonic rituals and their symbolism. And it is masonic symbolism
that has proven always more irresistible to the occultist even than masonic
history.


The rituals of the Craft degrees represent the progress of the apprentice
towards the mastery of the Craft, illustrated by the building of the Temple,
and accompanied by the inculcation of moral precepts, culminating in the
symbolic reenactment of the death of the architect Hiram Abiff, who
perferred to die rather than betray the secrets of his Order.
In the First Degree the three "Great Lights" (the Volume of the Sacred Law,
the Square and Compasses) and the three "Lesser Lights" (the Sun, the Moon
and the Master of the Lodge) of Masonry are explained to the candidate in
symbolic form, while in each of the three degrees the appropriate "Working
Tools" are similarly explained (the gavel, plumb-rule, level, etc.). There
is also an elaborate emblematic diagram, or Tracing Board, for each degree,
the symbolism of which - variously architectural, biblical and numerical, -
is explained in detail.


While such a wealth of symbolism has a very specific meaning within
Freemasonry, its very richness has left it vulnerable to the most wild and
extravagant interpretations on the part of occultists and of "esoteric"
masons who ought to know better. Nor is the unreason of such interpretations
lessened by the invariable insistence of the interpreters on seeing the
Third Degree as a rite of death and resurrection - which it is not. It may
suit the purposes of the occultist to see it in this light, but it is simply
and solely a representation of the death of Hiram and his subsequent
exhumation for decent reburial.

 

Speculation on the meaning of masonic symbols began in the eighteenth
century, but serious attempts to relate those symbols to ancient
resurrection myths and to the mainstream of the Western Hermetic Tradition
did not begin until the Occult Revival of the late nineteenth century. At
the same time, amateur historians of occultism began to seek esoteric
origins for Freemasonry itself. When these two paths of research merged, the
results were curious indeed.


H. P. Blavatsky, who was effectively the principal architect of the Occult
Revival, had little interest in Freemasonry, but she utilised - and believed
- much of the information amassed by Kenneth Mackenzie in his Royal Masonic
Cyclopaedia (1877), and thus through her own writing acted as a channel for
its dissemination throughout the Theosophical world and far beyond the
confines of Masonry itself. To what extent Mackenzie (who, surprisingly, did
not accept that Freemasonry had its roots in Rosicrucianism) believed his
own statements is unclear, but he and his colleagues (F.G. Irwin, John
Yarker, Dr. Woodman et al) consciously attempted to emulate the eighteenth
century proliferation of grandiose masonic degrees and esoteric Orders with
considerable success, for it was from this background of exotic Rites that
William Wynn Westcott gained the inspiration for his immortal brain-child,
the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. That amazing creation, which came
into being in 1888, owed its success in part to the increasing familiarity
with masonic symbolism (via the works of Madame Blavatsky) on the part of
both male and female occultists. It is surprising enough that English
Freemasonry should have given rise, however indirectly, to an androgynous
Order; that it should have provided the administrative structure, the
framework of its rituals and no small part of its eclectic symbolism is even
more surprising, given that the proportion of English Freemasons interested
in and informed about occultism was (and is) minute.


Of those Freemasons who were inclined towards occultism at the close of the
last century, the majority were deeply involved in the Theosophical Society,
or at least in the teachings that it propagated; they absorbed from it the
notion of the great antiquity of Eastern religions and the superiority of
Eastern philosophy over Western thought. From their subsequent mental
confusion arose most of the books that have propagated original and bizarre
ideas about the history and meaning of freemasonry But however reliable
their "histories" may be, and however unsound their conclusions, their
influence among fellow occultists has been so widespread and so pervasive
that the student of the Hermetic Tradition and its history cannot ignore
them if he wishes to separate fact from fantasy and to understand how the
present syncretistic structure of occultism has come about.


During his lifetime the most influential of these "alternative" masonic
historians was John Yarker, whose monumental work on the Arcane Schools
(1909) is really a prehistory of Freemasonry, which he saw progressing from
the Egyptian and Greek Mysteries via Mithraism, Gnosticism and Alchemy, with
a brief conclusion on its history in modern times. Yarker controlled or
influenced numerous quasi masonic Rites and through these he effectively
directed the thinking of many of his esoteric contemporaries not least those
who were members of the Co-Masonic Order, whose activities he supported
while wisely refraining from joining.


Universal Co-Freemasonry (which admits both men and women) was founded in
France in 1893 and spread to England in 1902 by way of the Theosophical
Society, collecting Annie Besant and her coterie en route. Once Mrs. Besant
was established, in 1907, as President of the T. S., her support, coupled
with that of C. W. Leadbeater, led to a rapid expansion of Co-Masonry among
theosophists, taking in even those who had previously been bitter opponents
of Freemasonry[4]. The Order was, however, susceptible to the wider
teachings of Theosophy, as Leadbeater made clear in his utterly uncritical
Glimpses of Masonic History (1926): "With the advent of Dr. Annie Besant to
the leadership of the Order in the British Empire, the direct link between
Masonry and the Great White Lodge which has ever stood behind it (though all
unknown to the majority of the Brethren) was once again reopened" (p.328).
Other occultists saw Freemasonry as deriving from sources not quite so far
east. For Max Heindel (who was not a freemason) it was "rooted in hoary
antiquity", its very name was Egyptian (Phree messen = Children of Light),
and the progress of "Mystic Masonry" would ultimately hasten "the Second
Advent of Christ" (Freemasonry and Catholicism, 1931, pp. 86 & 98). This was
admittedly an extreme interpretation: esoteric masons were generally more
cautious in their imaginings - although Manly Palmer Hall could claim that
"Masonry came to Northern Africa and Asia Minor from the lost continent of
Atlantis, not under its present name but rather under the general

designation Sun and Fire Worship" (The Secret Teachings of All Ages, 1936,
p. 176)[5]. He further maintained that "within the Freemasonic Mysteries lie
hidden the long-lost arcana sought by all peoples since the genesis of human
reason" (ibid p. 176), and while this is strictly a personal opinion, Hall's
arguments are presented as authoritative, and the influence of his books
(which have remained continuously in print) has been so widespread among
American occultists over the last sixty years that those who read nothing
else on Masonry have tended to treat his opinions as facts.


In
England other speculative masons have been equally influential. J.S.M.
Ward saw masonic symbolism in the initiation rites of virtually every human
culture, past and present, and Freemasonry was for him "the survivor of the
ancient mysteries nay, we may go further, and call it the guardian of the
mysteries" (Freemasonry and the Ancient Gods, 1926, 2nd ed., p. 341). Ward's
symbolist approach to masonic history ought to have appealed to occultists,
but they are often unaware of him, for his work has been confined almost
exclusively to masonic circles - unlike that of Dr. Westcott for whom the
reverse was true. As befitted the Supreme Magus, or head, of the masonic
Rosicrucian Society, Westcott believed firmly in the development of
Freemasonry out of Rosicrucianism, and he argued forcefully that masonic
ritual was deeply tinged with Kabbalistic ideas. And yet for all the flaws
in his scholarship Westcott appreciated the value of historical research,
and he thus rejected as unfounded the claims of Yarker, Ward and others for
a descent of Freemasonry from Mithraism or from the Essenes (see Ars Quatuor
Coronatorum, Vols. 1 , 28, 29).


But while Westcott's purely occult works have remained popular, his masonic
writings are virtually unknown, and in attempting to bring Freemasonry to
the notice of the occult world he was less successful than his younger and
more mystical contemporaries, W. L. Wilmshurst and A. E. Waite, both of whom
wrote for a wider audience than a purely masonic one. They presented their
respective visions of Freemasonry as a part only of a more comprehensive and
continuing spiritual tradition: and more importantly, the works of both men
are still available - reaching and influencing an infinitely greater number
of readers than either the works of Westcott or those of their little-known
critics who wrote to protest against their errors of fact (Waite especially
was prone to treating historical data in a very cavalier manner).


And this is the paradox of the hermetic misunderstanding of Freemasonry. The
ideas of its motley crew of apologists are propagated in books that survive
when the lives of their authors (and their opponents) are long forgotten,
for there is a common thread that binds them all together. Credulous
oddities such as Heindel and Leadbeater; earnest, if unsound, scholars like
Ward and Westcott; and such luminous mystics as Wilmshurst and Waite, all
shared a passionate conviction that Freemasonry holds a key indeed, the key
- which will unlock the ancient mysteries, the Secret Tradition, or whatever
one chooses to call that subtle alternative to mundane history and orthodox
thought.


In the last analysis, that is what matters. It is of little consequence
whether or not Freemasonry is descended from the mystery religions of
antiquity..The important thing is that influential figures in the recent
history of the Hermetic Tradition believed that it did; and this belief
colored their perception of Hermeticism as a whole and determined the manner
in which they gave those perceptions practical expression. Without an
appreciation of their idea of Freemasonry, however distorted and inaccurate
it may have been, we cannot fully understand their role in the development
of the Hermetic Tradition in the modern era.


Nor is this all. We must also be aware of the true nature of Freemasonry
itself, of its relationship with esoteric systems of thought during the
period of its creation, and of the more esoteric theories of its origin. It
may be that none of these theories is correct, that the occultists were
right, after all, in assuming a vast antiquity for the Craft; but even if it
proves to have been nothing more than a curious social club, its presence,
however passive, lay behind almost all of the esoteric Orders of the last
two centuries - Orders whose creators believed in Freemasonry as the supreme
vehicle for the transmission of a superior traditional wisdom. Unless we
acknowledge the influence of the idea of Freemasonry and attempt to
understand its nature, both as it is and as it was believed to be, our
understanding of Hermeticism will be impoverished. We shall be like the
candidate for Masonic initiation: in a State of Darkness.

 



 

R.A. Gilbert is an antiquarian bookseller in Bristol, UK. He is the author of The Golden Dawn: Twilight of the Magicians, and A.E. Waite: Magician of Many Parts and is currently working with John Hamill, the librarian of the United Grand Lodge of England, on A World History of Freemasonry. We are thankful to Bro.Uwe for forwarding this fine article and for permitting us to post the same.


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Honorio wrote on Tuesday, March 1, 2005:

Subject: Congrats

vey good, clear to read, and understand Br Honorio Brazil



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