Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Origins and Imitations

FROM time immemorial Freemasonry has exercised the right to ask of each of its votaries whence he came and whither he was traveling. That right is reciprocal and the individual Mason is equally entitled to demand of the Fraternity in turn that it tell in what springs of human aspiration it had its origin and to what deeps of human need it bends its course.

The answer to neither part of the question can be conclusive. If memory could go back to Masonry's beginning, it would be a misuse of words to describe its past as immemorial. The best account of its remote history is that it had not one origin but many origins. The best augury to be spoken of its future is that since heretofore it has never failed to respond to the contemporaneous requirements of humanity there is no reason to suppose it ever will fail.

Many attempts have been made to answer the questions more explicitly. These have failed because of difficulty in perceiving the simple fact that Freemasonry is not a thing which was created at a given moment but is a growth. Of an ancient palace it is often possible to say that the foundations were laid in the reign of this monarch or of that one. But who shall say when the seed of the oldest Sequoia tree of California was planted, or. who, if he could say, might tell, also when the parent stem which fathered that seed flourished in its turn of grandeur?

It is apparent from the most casual study of the records of primitive peoples that their religions, philosophies, social systems, folk thoughts and folk ways had much in common, however widely they may have been separated from one another by time or clime. Comparisons between these and certain superficial phenomena of Freemasonry disclose resemblances which cannot but arrest the attention of reflective minds. Even if there had been no pretentious claims of antiquity for the Craft, intuition would at once be able to bridge the chasms of centuries and connect it with more than one of the ancient societies that have flourished in the past, and which, in all essentials save that of chronological continuity, form with it a part of the common human inheritance.

Numerous ponderous tomes gathering dust on library shelves prove only too well, however, that there has been no scarcity of optimistic brethren, eager to support with all the vigor scholarship or invention could command the most earnest arguments tending to show that precisely this missing element of chronological continuity can be supplied. Modern scientific criticism must reject most, if not all, of these extravagant assertions. It is content with unimpeachable evidence pointing to a respectable antiquity which the institution may fairly claim. But while it denies that continuity has been demonstrated for a period longer than has elapsed since the middle centuries of European history, it is prepared to show Freemasonry's spiritual unity with antecedent societies of remote ages and even with cognate societies existing in the obscurest corners of the earth of today. It finds unmistakable evidences of a spiritual kinship binding all such groups together and in this truth it discovers cause for wonder and satisfaction far greater than the most extravagant romances of Masonic mythology are able to evoke. It admits that the foundation stones of the Fraternity are almost unbelievably old, but it does so on different grounds from those in which the legend makers of other days reposed a native and childlike faith.

There have been many such legends, but they have been so varied in character and conflicting in conclusions that an investigator approaching them for the first time might well be dismayed by even a casual examination of their vast array. That each of them should find ready acceptance is not surprising when it is remembered that man is incurably romantic. Make a tale brave enough, uniform it with noble trappings, embroider it with glamour and utter it in the cadences of minstrelsy, and it is characteristic of human nature that willing believers will accept it without troubling to inquire too closely into the substance of their faith. Still, the faith which is to endure must not be founded on quicksand. There may come a time when insinuations of doubt are whispered into an overcredulous one's ear. Once he becomes persuaded he has been imposed upon, he is likely to find the transition from unquestioning belief to outright disbelief easily and speedily made.

Skepticism of that kind has become rather a commonplace within the brotherhood and has done incalculable harm. Freemasonry cannot expect to perpetuate itself without an appeal to the intelligence, nor can it expect to retain the allegiance of intelligent members by insisting they accept as factual narratives legends which on their surface bear indisputable relationship to the folk tales of many races and religions. This sort of thing has worked damage, to the Fraternity on the outside, but has probably caused even greater damage among its own initiates. Among the profane it has led to acceptance of Hallam's bitter jibe, "The curious history of Freemasonry has unfortunately been treated only by its panegyrists or calumniators, both equally mendacious." The charge of mendacity is unfair since the defects complained of were due not to a desire to I deceive but to an easy inclination to believe what one wished to believe. Those old, glib tales of Masonic beginnings back in the mists of primordial time have wrought additional mischief in giving rise to a suspicion that, since the Fraternity's antecedents were not all that has been claimed for them, they therefore must have been more recent than its eighteenth-century apologists were willing to admit.

Such reasoning is fallacious. Happily for the good fame of Freemasonry recent critical methods have thrown light upon the whole, replacing much that was mythical and improbable by much that is credible, and giving new and sound reasons for believing that an antiquity which the eighteenth century could not establish by fable the twentieth century has established by reason and philosophy and research. But while the twentieth century denies credence to the elaborate legends of Anderson, Desaguliers, Preston and others of their school, it is likewise constrained to reject - or at least to modify - the harsh dictum of the learned Dr. Mackey, that the scholar "must accept nothing as history that cannot be demonstrated with almost mathematical accuracy."

Masonic historical writing may be divided roughly into two major schools, one sanguine and credulous, the other skeptical and iconoclastic. To the one no suggestion is too remote or preposterous for consideration provided only it tends to substantiate some theory preconceived; to the other nothing is acceptable which cannot be authenticated beyond the semblance of a doubt. The one walks dreamily in a golden haze; the other gropes in stolid patience among rugged foothills of fact, never raising its eyes to the glorious summits just beyond.

The world has come to realize, however, that historical truth implies something vastly more important than mere chronology or a bleak compilation of irrefutable evidence. "The historian ought not to conclude," wrote Ernest Renan, "that a fact is false because he possesses several versions of it, or because credulity has mixed them with much that is fabulous." Because it was said that, at one period of the voyage, the sun was on their right-hand, or northward, side, Herodotus doubted the tale of certain Phoenician mariners that they had circumnavigated Africa. To the scientific knowledge which the learned Greek possessed that was an impossibility, yet it is the one circumstance which persuades modern science that the tale of the Phoenicians was true, since it is inconceivable that the Phoenicians could have imagined such a thing. They had simply passed south of the equator; Herodotus did not know about the equator. And so it often is: what seems today to be the truth may be proved error by tomorrow, a possibility to which the historian must remain perpetually alert. Legend may not be proof of a thing yet May strongly indicate the truth thereof. The story of George Washington and the cherry tree is legendary, but who shall deny that it reveals a more perfect insight into the character of the man than does the bald fact that he spoke profanely to one of his generals on the battlefield? The modern student of Freemasonry, fortunately, is not compelled to rely upon legendary lore on the one hand, or, on the other, the documentary researches of skeptics. The Fraternity's claim to ancient beginnings rests upon a surer foundation than either can supply. Its ascertainable age is great, but its probable age is greater. In substantially its present form, as a speculative society, it has existed for more than two centuries. In its earlier operative form it existed through many other centuries - at least through a great part of that long period when Gothic builders were dotting Europe with God's cathedrals. it is significant that at the earliest moment to which that form can be traced, it already had venerable legends boasting of beginnings far more remote.

The oldest known Masonic document is a manuscript poem found in the 1830's, in the King's Library of the British museum and published in 1840 by James O. Halliwell, who was not a member of the Fraternity. Different scholars have assigned various dates to it, but it is probably not much older than the year 1390 and not much younger than the year 1445. It is known as the Halliwell Manuscript and as the Regius Poem, the two names being interchangeable.

The poem consists of 794 lines of rhymed English verse. It bears the Latin title, Hic incipiunt constitutiones artis gemetrioe secundum Euclydum, which may be translated as "Here begin the constitutions of geometry according to Euclid." This title probably explains how a paper of such Masonic importance came to be so long overlooked since it was no doubt cast aside as a treatise in doggerel on the science of mathematics.

The first eighty-six lines tell a legend of the foundation of Masonry In Egypt by the mathematician, Euclid, and its introduction into England in the reign of King Athelstan, an Anglo-Saxon monarch who ascended the throne in A.D. 924. This is followed by an account of a great assembly of the Craft - other legends say this convention took place at York in the year 926 - under the patronage of Prince Edwin. Certain regulations for the governance of the society, divided into fifteen articles and fifteen points, are included in this division. Then follows an ordinance regarding further assemblies; after this come forty-eight lines recording a legend of the Four Crowned Martyrs. This is followed by another version of the origin of the Craft, which purports to trace its history from the Deluge and the Tower of Babel. The whole is finished off with rules for behavior at church and certain recommendations on etiquette.

The manuscript reveals internal evidence of various periods and authorships. Notwithstanding its extravagances and improbabilities it is of importance as showing that at a date approximately 300 years before the founding of the first Grand Lodge English. Freemasonry made vast and bold pretensions to antiquity; that it had legends analogous to those with which modern Masonry is famillar; that already it had a definite literature and traditions of its own, and that, regardless of the evidence adduced it boasted that it had been in existence in England for more than 450 years.

The word "maszun" of French origin, as applied to an operative craftsman in stone, was established in popular usage in England before the thirteenth century and appeared in a glossary compiled about the year 1217. In the seventh century English working masons are said to have dedicated a church to the Four Crowned Martyrs. Certainly the remains of a church dedicated to these saints are yet in existence and are known to have stood since the ninth century' or before the Norman conquest. As recently as 481 the Masons Company of London attended Mass on the f east day of the Four Crowned Martyrs, in accordance with what appears to have been a custom Well established.

By 1292 English masons were accustomed to speak of their working place as a "lodge." The fabric roll of Exeter Cathedral, compiled in 1396, applied to the members of this operative guild the name "freemasons." They were designated as "freemasons" in a statute of 1495. An earlier statute of the year 1360 prohibited secret agreements among masons and carpenters and pronounced annulment for all oaths binding them to secrecy which may have been in existence. In 1425 English masons were forbidden to hold their usual assemblies, but in 145 a code of laws, said to have been approved by Henry VI, was drawn up for the government of the Fraternity, thus clearly establishing the fact that at that time some sort of common bond united the separate units or working lodges. In 1472 a coat of arms was formally granted to "the Hole Craft and Felawship of Masons."

At precisely what period operative lodges began admitting non- Masons to membership cannot now be ascertained, but the practice was known in 1646 when the society at Chester and Warrington was recorded as having admitted Elias Ashmole, the antiquary, and Colonel Henry Mainwaring. There was nothing in the circumstance to indicate that this was a new thing. On the contrary, Dr. Plot, in his Natural History of Staffordshire, written in 1686, speaks of Freemasonry as being of greater request there than anywhere else, "though I find the custom spread more or less all over the Nation."

The four old lodges out of which, in the years 1717 - 1721, the first Grand Lodge was formed were typical of others scattered about England, Scotland, and Ireland, although by that time, because of the decline of Gothic architecture, the Craft had long been languishing to decay. The formation of the Grand Lodge definitely changed the character of English Masonry from an operative to what is now called a speculative basis. This change was regarded at the time as so much of an innovation that secretaries of some of the operative lodges burned their records for fear they might fall into the hands of the reformers and the secrets of the Fraternity thereby revealed. Nevertheless the continuity from operative to speculative is unbroken, and of the subsequent history of Masonry there is adequate, uninterrupted record.

This is not the time or place to inquire into the authenticity of the assertions in the Halliwell Manuscript or to analyze the chronological data of the Craft in Great Britain. These subjects will be discussed elsewhere in the present work. They are mentioned here to attest the truth of often repeated statements that there are Masonic records running from shortly after the Norman Conquest to the present day; that there is at least one Masonic document which is more than 500 years old and which asserts that English Freemasonry has existed since the tenth century; that the Freemasonry of today has a defensible right to consider itself the lineal descendant and heir of the ancient operative societies. The antiquity thus established might be called considerable, without overtaxing the ordinary meaning of the word, if there were not reasons for believing it even more ancient.

There are such reasons. They are to be found in the simple fact that Freemasonry, in its present state, is the product of an evolutionary development which is part and parcel of the growth of civilization itself. Even if it could be determined that English Freemasonry came into existence as a particular social entity at any given date - whether in the year 926 or the year 1717, earlier or later - there would still be sufficient reason for thinking that it was not then a wholly fresh creation but was rather the product of forces resident within itself which had been in motion at a time long anterior to that specific time.

To assume that this development has followed a direct line which can be retraced step by step is of course impossible. That cannot be done with whole races, much less with small and often casual groups of individuals. Englishmen and many Americans are fond, for instance, of describing themselves as of Anglo-Saxon stock, and, in a broad, general sense, the designation may be accepted as descriptively correct. But in both Great Britain and the United States infusions of other bloods have been so numerous and frequent that it may be doubted that a single living person can trace his ancestral blood stream as a pure and undiluted current running straight from some follower of Horsa and Hengist. The English language has a far greater number of words of Greek or Latin origin than of Anglo-Saxon. Yet this does not alter the basic truth that a town meeting in New England, a coroner's inquest in Texas, a legislative session in Queensland or Vancouver, a Parliament in London and a Congress in Washington are all lineal descendants of those meetings of the wise men, when elders of a North German village gathered in the shadows of their forest 1,500 and more years ago.

With equal certainty it may be said that the great brotherhood we call the Ancient and Honorable Fraternity of Free and Accepted Masons is descendant of and heir to many primitive forms of human association which may have held their assemblies on high hills or in deep vales back in the days when the earth was young. That direct and unbroken connection cannot be established between them is of minor consequence. Whatever else it may be, Freemasonry bears within itself certain peculiarities which belong to the general cult history of the world. It is a manifestation in modern times of a tendency as old as humanity and as universal as mankind's instinct for religion. It is well that this is so, for were it otherwise, the Fraternity would conform to the usual trend of occultism and would insulate its members from their fellow men in the common task of making the best of life and of the world which actually is.

In the earliest communities of which there is record, a few men almost invariably set themselves apart to study the mysterious and the occult or to preserve some precious and secret bit of knowledge or magic. Such societies, when they attained to a real or fancied revelation of truth, sought to perpetuate the lore and to secure to themselves exclusive enjoyment of the power or dignity it might confer. Nor were they wholly selfish. Most of their secrets had to do with magic, in the power of which they placed complete confidence. That power would be extremely dangerous to a man who did not know how to employ it - a high explosive like the nitroglycerin or TNT of modern times which might blast the rash intruder. It was to his advantage as well as to that of the society that he be kept at a distance from this perilous truth.

That their jealously safeguarded truth might be transmitted to a worthy posterity it was their practice to find some concrete object which would represent it or express it and which could be depended on to remain constant, regardless of mutations in tribal speech. Chosen because of a real or fancied resemblance to the conception for which it was intended to stand, it was described by whatever happened to be the local equivalent of the Greek word "symbol," meaning "to compare." By natural development, the symbol soon came to be regarded as having taken on the attributes of that which it represented and thus, in time, to become in itself an object worthy of veneration.

In a slightly more advanced state of development, these societies began clothing their discoveries in allegorical language and legends. In still more sophisticated stages, they employed symbolical dramas. Thus, in the ancient Egyptian mysteries into which Moses is said to have been initiated, the sun god, Osiris, was represented as being set upon and slain by the powers of darkness and afterwards, his dismembered body having been sought out and found by Isis, as being restored to life. A somewhat similar idea appeared in the Persian Mysteries of Mithra, and the notion of a restoration to life after death was dramatized in some forms of the Dionysian and Bacchic Mysteries of ancient Greece, although the Greeks undoubtedly borrowed the idea from older Oriental races.

To protect themselves from intrusion, these early cults veiled their ritualistic activities in impenetrable mystery, binding their members by oaths solemn and awe-inspiring. To insure the propagation of their work by competent successors, they invented terrifying and painful ordeals by submission to which candidates for admission might prove their fortitude and zeal. That long and faithful apprenticeships might be served and the qualities of the members further tested, initiatory ceremonies were graduated into successive phases and dragged out over periods which sometimes ran into many years.

Finally, and in their highest moral and intellectual development, the cults invested their symbols and ceremonials with dual meanings, an exoteric or outer significance suitable to the understanding of less alert brethren, and an esoteric, or inner significance comprehended only by the most astute. This arrangement effected the additional service of opening illimitable scope to the speculative mind, so that in contemplation of the profounder mysteries of his cult, the mystic might immerse himself utterly in ecstasy and exaltation.

Amongst such highly civilized peoples as the Egyptians and Greeks of twenty or thirty centuries ago, this natural process reached its fruition in societies such as that of which Pythagoras was founder and prophet. Amongst primitive races, as those of modern New Guinea, it reaches its highest form in the men's tribal house, ornamented with the skulls of enemies slain in battle. Essential kinship between the ancient Pythagoreans and the savages of New Guinea is obvious, even if it be but little more tangible than the kinship which unites all sons of Adam. To deny it exists because no continuity between the two can be established is manifestly absurd.

Analogies which seem to establish this affinity would relate them with equal intimacy to Freemasonry. But this kind of reasoning can easily be carried too far. Indeed, it is often pressed to such ridiculous lengths that uncritical and fanciful authors have professed to find in every sign and symbol, every ritual and ceremonial, some sort of proof that all are descendants of a primitive form of Freemasonry which spread over the whole world before the dawn of history.

The probable truth of the matter is less than that. It is conceivable that if human life exists on other planets beside ours, and has persisted through many ages, its social institutions in the main may have developed in pretty much the same way as have ours. Their peoples will have experimented with various forms of government, conducted investigations into the nature and origin of life, sought in planets, the animal world and in the growing trees, to read the will and purpose of the Creator, will have aspired to profounder knowledge, developed arts and sciences and industries.

If this is so, it is inevitable that these sensible beings will have formed their own cults, in which they employ allegorical teachings and symbolism. If it could be ascertained that such cults actually exist, it would merely mean that under given social environments, humankind might always be expected to react to stimulation in certain well defined ways. Nor, for all practical purposes, is the chasm which separates this planet from its nearest neighbor wider than is that which separates the Pythagorean philosophers from the head hunters of the River Fly.

It is manifest that Freemasonry has retained heirlooms which in one way or another have come to it out of the abundance of the past. Traces of the earliest form of sun worship are to be found in some of the ceremonials of the Lodge room. Its point within a circle and its five-rayed star were symbols of religious significance in many ancient faiths. Its two symbolical pillars are reminiscent of those held in esteem by the most ancient of peoples. Its mystic numbers, 3, 5 and 7, were regarded as potent charms fully 500 years before the Christian Era and for how much longer nobody knows. The orientation of the Lodge room may or may not go back to the first tabernacle erected in the wilderness by the Children of Israel, but certain it is that the crudest places of worship of our rudest ancestors were built to face the rising sun. The Legend of the Third Degree is curiously like other dramatic tales which enlivened the initiatory rites of pagan societies. The similarities could be enumerated extensively.

How the Fraternity came by any one of these, to say nothing of them all, no man knows. Some of them undoubtedly were handed down from generation to generation during the operative era, but there is no way of learning how the operatives acquired them. For their preservation it was by no means necessary that the medieval workman should understand their philosophical meanings. The mistletoe at Christmas continues to perform its part in the decorative scheme of things in many a household which never even heard of its ancient mystical significance as a memorial of that fatal arrow which slew the beautiful Balder, sun god of our Northern forefathers.

Such evidences of Masonry's share in the common stock of the world's cult phenomena, if rightly understood, make plain many things which have been obscure. It is true they do not prove the continuous existence of the Fraternity from before the Flood to the institution of the first Grand Lodge. They do not establish connection between it and any particular band, society, group or cult in existence before the Dark Ages. But they do reveal the essential kinship of Freemasonry with the religious and philosophical societies of previous ages; nor is there today any other similar society in the world which can deny Masonry's prescriptive right to claim these relics as its own or dispute with it the palm for honorable age.

Modern Freemasonry is in the truest sense a reservoir into which the cult lore and social experiences of countless eons of human experience have poured their treasures. Into this mighty lake streams have trickled from the remotest mountain tops; it is fed from innumerable founts. It signifies little how the life-giving waters have found their way into its bosom, by what channels they have come, across what continents they have flowed.

Fortunately for the peace of mind of the modern initiate there are no arbitrary tests of faith in these matters, so there can be no trials for heresy or danger of sorcerer burning. There are certain ancient doctrines known as the Landmarks which every duly obligated Freemason is bound to respect; there are prescriptions of Masonic conduct which he is bound to obey. But if he chooses to believe that the Fraternity descended by some mysterious process from the planet Neptune he is as free to do so as he would be to believe that Neptune itself is the ghost of a previous planetary incarnation of the world. Conversely, if he prefers to regard some of the ancient legends as pure allegories, there is none with authority to deny him that privilege. In either case, the great symbolical teachings of the Craft will remain unaffected.

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