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The Concise History of Freemasonry
By Robert Freke Gould
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2007 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
What signifies it, for instance, that we attribute letters to Cadmus, or trace oracles to Zoroaster, or the Cabbala to Moses, the Eleusinian Mysteries to Orpheus, or Freemasonry to Noah; whilst we are profoundly ignorant of the nature and true beginning of any one of these things?—ANON.
WHO the early Freemasons really were, and whence they came, may afford a tempting theme for inquiry to the speculative antiquary. But it is enveloped in obscurity, and lies far outside the domain of authentic history. In proceeding retrogressively, and attempting to trace the origin of the Society, when we reach the fourteenth century the genealogical proofs are exhausted. Still, from the documentary evidence which has carried us thus far, we shall at least be justified in assuming that the Masonry practised in the Lodges of that period was of no recent institution. Beyond this conclusion, nothing further can be confidently laid down with regard to the more remote past of the sodality. Certain possibilities are, indeed, suggested by the evidence, and to these attention will again be directed; but as my own inferences may be found to differ in some material respects from those of other writers, it will be best if a short summary is first proceeded with of the leading theories of Masonic origin that have seemed tenable to our literati.
A few explanatory words may, however, place the method of treatment I am about to adopt in a clearer light before the reader.
Freemasonry has exercised a remarkable influence over all other oath-bound societies for a long period. What that period is cannot be absolutely, though it may be approximately, determined. The second quarter of the eighteenth century constitutes a sort of zone that will illustrate my meaning. About the year 1725 Freemasonry was beginning to be widely known, and about the year 1750 it had become thoroughly so. If, therefore, we can trace the customs of any oath-bound societies as they existed, let us say before 1725, there is strong probability, amounting almost to certainty, that such were in no way influenced or affected by Freemasonry. But directly that line is passed, and we are introduced to usages which prevailed at any later date, the suspicion will arise that the influence of our own Craft may have made itself felt, and it will resolve itself into a mere question of degree, becoming extensive or the reverse, according to the evidence dating earlier or later in that century. As we pass, moreover, from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century, what was previously suspicion will merge into strong probability or more. Evidence of customs now existing by no means proves that they are of very old standing. If the ceremonial of the Craft to a certain extent finds a parallel in the present observances of the Druses and the Ansariyeh —that is to say, if the writers, by whom we are so informed, have not been misled by resemblances more or less fanciful and imaginary—then I believe that these sectaries of Mount Lebanon adopted some of the practices of the Freemasons. The same may be said with respect to the rites of many other secret societies of current date—for example, the Begtaschi of Turkey, and the Yesidis of Armenia and Asia Minor. Though I must not pass over in silence an alternative supposition, namely, what has been called "the doctrine of chance coincidences," which may possibly be held to apply in some of the cases I have already cited, and certainly appears to myself to fully account for the great bulk of stories that are related of so-called "Masonic signs" having been exchanged by travellers with Arabs, Abyssinians, Dervishes, North American Indians, Australian natives, and the various tribes of Africa.
Examples of older types of such associations may be found in the Soofees of Persia; in the Komosô of Japan (now extinct), who challenged one another by signs; and very possibly in the leading secret societies of China, which claim to have existed for several centuries, and admit their members with ceremonies approximating more or less closely to our own.
The late Sir Chaloner Alabaster, who was not only one of our most respected sinologues, but also an indefatigable student of Freemasonry, tells us:—"Going then to the records we possess of the earliest historic times in China, I find clear evidence of the existence of a mystic faith expressed in allegorical form, and illustrated, as with us, by symbols. The secrets of this faith were orally transmitted, the chiefs alone pretending to have full knowledge of them. I find, moreover, that in these earliest ages this faith took a Masonic form, the secrets being recorded in symbol buildings like the Tabernacle Moses put up in the desert, and the Temple his successor, Solomon, built in Jerusalem; that the various offices in the hierarchy of this religion were distinguished by the symbolic jewels held by them during their term of office, and that, as with us, at the rites of their religion they wore leather aprons, such as have come down to us, marked with the insignia of their rank. I find in the earliest works that have come down to us ... the compasses and the square used as the symbol of right conduct. The man who had the compasses and square, and regulated his life thereby, being then, as now, considered to possess the secrets and to carry out the principles of true propriety. Finally, I find one of the most ancient names by which the Deity is spoken of in China is that of the First Builder, or, as Masons say, "the Great Architect of the Universe."
According to the same authority, "the Mysteries of this ancient Faith have now become lost, or at best obscured, though attempts at a revival may be traced in the proceedings of existing brotherhoods, whose various rituals and signs are supposed to be in some measure founded on ancient rites and symbols which have been handed down from the earliest ages."
The extracts from the oldest of the Chinese classics which refer to the symbolism of the mason's art might be greatly multiplied, but a sufficiency has been adduced to warrant the assumption that among a very ancient people, and long prior to the Christian era, there was a moralization of the implements of the mason's trade, together with a symbolical teaching which in course of time became lost or obscured.
THE ANCIENT MYSTERIES
There is nothing definite which points to the country wherein the Mysteries were first introduced. The most ancient, indeed, are generally supposed to have been those of Isis and Osiris, in Egypt and the most widely diffused the Orphic, the Bacchic or Dionysiac, the Eleusinian, the Samothracian, the Cabiric, and the Mithraic. The Eleusinian, which enjoyed a pre-eminence in Greece, were celebrated annually at the festival of Ceres at Eleusis. Initiates were first of all admitted into the lesser Eleusinia, after which they bore the title of Mystæ, and, having served a probation of twelve months, a second oath of secrecy was imposed upon them, and they were led into the innermost sanctuary of the temple, where they were allowed to see what it was not proper for any but the Epoptæ to behold.
Of the Mysteries, indeed, as existing in different countries, it may be said that they were distinguished by varying forms, while it is equally certain that there was a great similarity between them all. The ceremonies of initiation were invariably funereal in their character. They celebrated the death and the resurrection of some cherished being, either the object of esteem as a hero, or of devotion as a god.
The conformity between death and initiation is strikingly exemplified in a passage preserved by Stobæus from an ancient record, and runs thus:—"The mind is affected and agitated in death, just as it is in initiation into the Great Mysteries; the first stage is nothing but errors and uncertainties, labourings, wanderings, and darkness. And now, arrived on the verge of death and initiation, everything wears a dreadful aspect; it is all horror, trembling, and affrightment. But this scene once over, a miraculous and divine light displays itself ... perfect and initiated, they are free; and crowned and triumphant, they walk up and down in the regions of the blessed.
"The light exhibited in the Eleusinian Mysteries, i.e., in the true initiations, as is plainly to be gathered from the sense of the Ancients, was the Light of Life which these could kindle and fortify, and the total drama was divine."
... Thy piercing sight
Beholds in paths oblique a sacred light.
Whose plenteous rays in darkness most profound,
Thy steps directed and illumined round.
While from your eyes you shake the gloom of night,
The glorious prospect bursts upon your sight.
As recently summed up, the result of modern researches appears to be that the worship of the One God was the basis on which the vast amount of Pagan Mythology was ultimately formed, and that the splendour of the beams of the Sun rising in the East was idealized as the visible representation of the Deity; whilst the West, in which its glory disappeared, was considered as an emblem of the regions of death.
It is doubtless true that the later, or corrupted, Mysteries became greatly contaminated and debased, but this ought not to lessen our esteem for the original institution, to which the subsequent orgies were diametrically opposed. It is sufficiently clear that those initiated into the earlier or pure Mysteries were taught to believe not only in Providence, but in a future state.
There was undoubtedly a secret hanging about these celebrations, both Ethnic and Christian, which no record has entirely divulged. It would also seem that, as time went on, new elements were added to the Mysteries which were originally foreign to them. The development of philosophy, and more especially the intercourse with Egypt and the East, appear to have exercised a considerable influence on their character.
The Greeks borrowed extensively from the Egyptians and Persians, whose temples were visited by nearly every philosopher of note.
The Egyptian, or Hermetic Art, was by the Greeks called Theurgy, and it was practised to a great extent at Eleusis, and more or less in all the temples of their gods.
Philosophy, according to Strabo, was the object of the Eleusinian rites, and without the initiations of Bacchus and Ceres he considers the most important branch of human knowledge would never have been attained.
In all forms of the Ancient Mysteries signs of recognition were communicated to the initiated. Thus, in describing the action of one of the votaries of the Mysteries of Isis, Apuleius (Metamorph.) says: "He walked gently, with a hesitating step, the ankle of the left foot being a little bent, in order that he might afford me some sign by which I might recognize him." And in another work (Apologia) by the same writer, there is an almost identical allusion to the practice of initiates communicating with one another by means of signs—a custom of which a further illustration is given by Plautus in his Miles Gloriosus, where the words occur:—
"Give me the sign, if you are one of these votaries."
None of the Ancient Mysteries afford a more interesting subject for Masonic research than those of Mithras—the Sun-god or Persian Apollo—who is generally represented as a beautiful youth dressed in Phrygian attire, pressing with his knee upon an ox, into whose neck he plunges a knife.
From the Mithraic monuments in the collections at the Louvre and the British Museum, it may reasonably be concluded that the immortality of the soul was one of the doctrines taught by the worshippers of the Sun-god. The neophyte, at one part of the ceremony, was made to personate a corpse, whose restoration to life dramatically represented the resurrection.
Sir Charles Warren, in his review of my Military Lodges, wishing to point out that, in the Army, Masonry banishes class and even rank distinctions, without in the least endangering discipline, quotes instances where subalterns, and even non-commissioned officers, have controlled Lodges in which superior officers were sitting as ordinary members.
Is it not strange, says Count Goblet D'Alviella (after citing the above), that there are cases exactly parallel in the Mithraic Mysteries under the old Romans? It is a well-known fact that these Mysteries offer striking analogies with much that is found in Freemasonry: their celebration in grottoes or covered halls, which symbolized the Universe, and which in dimensions, disposition, and decoration, presented a strict counterpart to our Lodges; their division in seven degrees conferred by initiatory rites wonderfully like our own; their method of teaching, through the same astronomic symbolism, the highest truths then known in Philosophy and Morals; their mystic bond of secrecy, toleration, equality, and brotherly love.
Professor Franz Cumont, having devoted the last ten years to the study of this worship, has just published a most trustworthy and powerful book (Textes et Doc. rel. aux Mysteres de Mithra). Not only does he confirm the alleged similarities, but he also presents new ones. For instance, he shows that it was not uncommon for a non-commissioned officer, or even a simple soldier, to preside over ceremonies where legates and clarissimi played a subordinate part, in accordance with their respective degrees in the Mysteries.
Their discipline established not only a strict equality among their members, in spite of all outside social distinctions, but also a bond of real brotherhood and of mutual help. Their successive initiations favoured emulation, gave the neophytes something to look for, and also flattered the vanity of those who were fond of high-sounding titles. Finally, their prospect of revelations, deeper and deeper at every stage, fostered a hope to reach a supreme goal—the absolute wisdom whose secret was supposed to have been brought from the East.
How came it then to pass that this sudden rise was followed by a still more rapid fall? Our author explains that by excluding the women from their worship they parted with an element of propagandism which the Christian faith knew how to utilize. Thus the Mysteries of Mithras were doomed to disappear before the Mysteries of Christ. But their doctrine was not entirely lost; it survived among the Manichæans and other heretics who strove, until the close of the Middle Ages, to reconcile Zoroastrianism with Christianity.
The three chief Jewish sects appear to have been the Hellenists, the Maccabeans, and the Chassidim. The last-named were the Puritans among the post-Babylonian Jews, but in process of time, their principles becoming too narrow, they split up into two divisions, the Essenes, who strictly adhered to the old customs and devoted themselves to a retired life, while the less austere party (to which the Pharisees belonged) retained the title of Chassidim.
The references to the Essenes by ancient authors are brief and unsatisfactory. We learn, however, that before the acceptance of a candidate, a solemn obligation was entered into by him that he would suffer death rather than reveal the secrets of the brotherhood; that two members of this singular sect, on meeting for the first time, at once recognized each other by means of signs; and that it was the general practice of the fraternity to philosophize on most things in symbols.
The Essenes are first mentioned as a distinct sect in the time of Jonathan the Maccabean, about 160 years before Christ. Our Saviour has been supposed, by many writers, to have been an Essene, because, while repeatedly denouncing the errors of the other sects, He has nowhere uttered a word of censure against the Essenes. John the Baptist was described by our Lord as having attained the highest degree of Essene purity (Matt. xi, 14), and much of the Sermon on the Mount is expressed in the phraseology of the sect.
They had a common treasury, and from this the wants of the whole community were supplied, so that they had all things in common. There were no distinctions among them. The only gradation of rank that existed was derived from the degrees or orders into which the members were divided, and this depended on holiness alone. They got up before sunrise, and, before entering upon the business of the day, prayed together with their faces turned towards the East. At the fifth hour the morning labour terminated, and, in solemn silence, the brethren partook of a common meal.
As the majority lived in celibacy, the ranks of the brotherhood were only kept up by the admission of proselytes from the other sects. The candidate, or aspirant, was required to pass through a novitiate of two stages, the first of which lasted for a year. After this probation he passed into the second stage, and was called an approacher. Two years were then allowed to elapse, and the aspirant, if his conduct met with approval, became an associate (or full member of the brotherhood), and was allowed to partake of the common meal.
There was a third rank or degree, called disciple or companion, in which there was a still closer union. Those who were admitted into this highest grade received a threefold rule for the conduct of their life—Love of God, of Virtue, and of Mankind—and they were bound by a solemn oath to practise charity, maintain truth, and to conceal the secrets of the society.
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