Since the run-away success of Dan Brown's book The Da Vinci Code (and the subsequent movie), there has been a renewed interest in Freemasonry, both by the media and the population at large. In the last few years, dozens of documentaries have been produced that revolve around Freemasonry, as well as several feature films (including National Treasure and its sequel). While much of this interest has in past (and often continues to do so) focused around one or more so-called "Masonic conspiracy" theories (as fiction is usually more exciting than fact) the claims of unbiased documentary reporting are often little more than sensationalist crap designed to sell DVDs. There have been, however, some well-informed writings on Masonry cropping up. Among the most recent of these mainstream reports is a recent special issue of US News and World Report, entitled, "Mysteries of History—Secret Societies," and prominently pictures George Washington in Masonic dress, right hand on a Bible, with the compass and square visible.
While Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and several other Founding Fathers of the Republic are among the most famous of American members of the fraternity, Freemasonry has not limited its membership to simply those with political or financial importance. In truth, the majority of Freemasons (at least in the United States, Great Britain, Australia, and Canada) are very middle class. Most are solid citizens and members of their communities. They have careers, families, go to church, and raise money—a lot of money—for charities, and give it all away with out seeking any personal recognition. No less than two dozen hospitals in the United States provide care completely free of charge as a result of Masonic charitable work, along with numerous learning centers for the learning impaired. This just the tip of the iceberg.
The question then arises: How did all of this wild speculation about world domination and occult or even diabolical rites get started about a fraternal and charitable organization made up mainly of men who have no great claims to influencing much beyond the remote control to their television?
The answer, as you will see, is simple, and can be summed up in a single word: secrecy.
Everyone loves a mystery, a secret, to believe that they have the inside track on something that other people don't. In short, the desire to be superior (a veritable Unknown Superior, if you will) among the masses is what drives those who propagate conspiracy myths.
Yet, in fact, Masonry is all about secrets—secret rituals, initiations, handshakes, passwords, and obligations. Freemasonry has so many secrets that it can't even remember what they are, so Masons have always been among the foremost consumers of books and other publications reporting to divulge the secrets of Masonry (an irony there that is missed by many a conspiracy monger).
But if there is nothing more to these secrets than what is printed on a page, then why the big deal? Well, because where there is smoke, there is fire. With Masonry there is a great deal of smoke, even "smoke and mirrors" one might say, about its origins, history, and purpose. It is here that all of the fun starts.
Origins of the Craft
The historical origins of organized Freemasonry are placed in the year 1717, as that is when the first official Grand Lodge, or Mother Lodge, was established in London by several existing lodges. Now from this it is clear that Masonry preceded, for at least several generations (if not several centuries), this moment in time when a formal organizational structure was introduced. For many this period prior to the creation of the Grand Lodge of England is seen as when Masonry was firmly linked to the building trades of actual stone masons, or men who cut, worked, and placed stone in the erection of buildings—many of which were religious in nature or contained themes from classical mythology. These men are known as Operative Masons. The period after 1717 is seen as a time when philosophical speculations began to creep into Masonry, and the tools they worked with went from being literal to symbolic, and the stone materials from being actual substances to representing the life and character of each Mason. These men, mostly of middle and upper class origins and who had no interest in stonework, were known as Speculative Masons, as they speculated on the deeper meaning of Masonry beyond its obvious appearances.
But herein is the question: why at a time when class distinction was so strong, and social mobility so limited, would merchants and ruling class nobility stoop to sit in a room with common and skilled laborers? What is it that these men and their esteemed Master Masons knew that men of learning, wealth, and influence would risk their reputations—and as we will see, even their lives—to learn?
What is it that Freemasonry had to offer that was worth risking everything for?
Masonic Secrets—Sacred Geometry, Survival of the Goddess, and the Lost Word
Among the most apparent secrets that Masons (and Master Masons in particular) had that would have been important in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-centuries, when Freemasonry was being organized and experiencing its first great wave of expansion, was geometry. While this sounds simple, it must be remembered that geometry is the Queen of the Sciences, without which nothing can be done. Without knowledge of geometry, not a single building constructed will stand, precise tool or machine can be designed and built, or ocean be traveled with speed and knowledge of objective when destination lies far beyond the horizon.
Geometry also, according to the magical texts of the Renaissance (those of Agrippa being the most well-known and emphasizing this point strongly), was a means of understanding the interaction of the invisible and visible worlds. Talismans made of geometric forms were considered more potent than those using more iconographic and literal imagery, and buildings based on the notions of sacred geometry were considered as three-dimensional talismans, or living centers of spiritual initiation in the physical world. Through geometry matter could be shaped, directed, and controlled, and if the principles of sacred geometry were correct, through it, the invisible energies that it manifested could be directed as well. With this knowledge, life was no longer chaotic, dangerous, short, and brutal, but rather something that was controllable, and therefore could be a healthy, happy, and enlightening experience.
Survival of the Goddess
Hidden within the images of the temples, both religious and civic, that operative masons built and Speculative Freemasons sought to uncover was a hidden link to earlier mystery cults and religions. Among the most important of these were related to the Temple of Solomon and the survival of primitive goddess cults within it confines. Within Jewish belief is the notion of the Shekinah, or Divine Presence of God, imminent and very material in physical life. This presence is distinctly feminine in its nature or orientation, and is called the Bride of God, or that part of the Divine that is immaterial and abstract—more heavenly if you will. During the early Christian era the Shekinah was linked to the functions of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, as both the Mother of God Incarnate and Mary Magdalene, his hidden bride. Gnostics picked up on this theme relating it to Sophia or Wisdom and have speculated a great deal about it up to this day.
During the first half of the eighteenth-century the search for this hidden wisdom, both in terms of a science, such as geometry, and source of spiritual and material power and wisdom, created within Masonry an explosion of rites and degrees, some of which continue to this day. The majority of them focused around a single idea—the "Lost Word" and its discovery.
The Lost Word
Among the ancient Middle Eastern cults the power of the Word (or Name) was considered the most important part of magic. Isis obtained her magical power after getting the sun god Ra to divulge his secret name to her. The actual pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton, the four-lettered name of God in Hebrew, is considered to be so powerful that the world itself could become undone by its utterance. In the Gospel of John, we are told that "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." Later Jesus is identified as being The Word, and among Coptic and other Christian magicians the utterance of his name is said to give power over the visible and invisible worlds.
This notion of magical phrases, charms, incantations, and a name or word above all other utterances that would give supreme authority has always been the quest for magicians and mystics alike. Yet this quest must not be thought of as purely one of and for power (although that is a side effect of it) but rather as the search for the deepest secrets within creations—and therefore within one's very being. To know the Word is to know God, and to know God is to know the beginning and end—the Alpha and Omega—of all things, including and above all one's very essence.
Freemasonry and the Occult Revival
The religious and philosophical tolerance found within the walls of a Masonic lodge made it a magnet for free thinkers, the occasional revolutionary, and the occultist alike. Some even combined all three, giving rise to such movements as the Bavarian Illuminati, created by Adam Weishaupt (the famed whipping boy of conspiracy theory advocates).
However, it is in the occult domain that this environment had its most interesting and lasting effects. During the early years of Freemasonry, those Masons who belonged to what is called Scottish Rite created a host of Higher Degrees (giving us the 32nd- and 33rd-degree Masons of today), many of which were actively involved in magical, qabalistic, and alchemical practices. This provided a foundation for many of the Masonic, quasi-Masonic, and other magical and mystical orders with their roots in the nineteenth-century occult revivals—the most famous of these movements being the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn; the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO); the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia (SRIA), as well as its Canadian, American, and Australian offshoots; and the Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis, better known as the Rosicrucian Order (AMORC).
Freemasonry—Defender of Liberty
The effect of all of these secret rituals, signs, symbols, and means of recognition, coupled with Freemasonry existing in a Europe still recovering from the devastation of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) and a host of smaller religious conflicts between Catholics and Protestants (as well as between other Protestant sects) meant that Freemasonry was instantly suspect of being aligned with one or more forms of subterfuge against church or crown. Historically speaking, this was not always a false assumption. Masonry brought together in one place men of diverse philosophical and social backgrounds, who agreed to allow each to define and find God in their own way, elected their own leaders (Master of the Lodge), and agreed to disagree politely while defending their own with a stonewall of silence against all but the most serious of criminal or civil charges. This loyalty extended, and does to this day, beyond just those Freemasons who one knows, but also to all members of the fraternity whom they may come across and who are in need of assistance. During the American Civil War masons wore the square and compass on their uniforms in the hope that mercy would be shown to them in the event of the horrors of a melee or close combat. During the Second World War, numerous American and British soldiers were spared while their comrades were executed or sent to prison camps by German soldiers who, at risk of immediate execution themselves, aided and assisted in their survival or escape because they were recognized as Freemasons.
Freemasonry was outlawed in Nazi Germany, all areas of German occupation, in Axis states, and in all areas under Communist control both before and after the defeat of the Axis powers. The execution of Freemasons under Islamic rule in Iran was one of the first acts undertaken by the fundamentalist regime with it seizure of power in 1979. Numerous other Arabic and Islamic states have also outlawed Freemasonry at various times, and it continues to be an object of attack today. Turkey recently saw the bombing of two Masonic lodges, acts that were claimed by factions of Al Qaeda. If ancient statues of Buddha are not allowed to stand in a remote region of Afghanistan, then certainly such a movement cannot allow the free and open association of men under the aegis of the Grand Architect of the Universe (Masonic term for God) that Freemasonry stands for.
Yet, as we approach the three hundredth anniversary of the official formation of modern Freemasonry, Masonry itself stands at a crossroads. The fraternity has been, and always will be, a threat to totalitarianism in that it respects the rights of the individual to know and experience the divine in their own fashion and without obligation to any higher spiritual authority while still requiring members to be good members of the community. Yet despite this tolerance and philosophical liberalism, its numbers continue to dwindle as fewer people take interest in its arcane rites and mystic symbolism. Even so, there is an increased desire among many younger and newly-made Masons—both men and women—to see a greater emphasis on the esoteric aspects of the Craft. Lodges steeped in the tradition of learning and self-development are increasing and are known, not surprisingly, as "Traditional Observance Lodges." For many, these are seen as the hope and future of Masonry.
In the end, what we have seen is that Masonry is very diverse, and yet is always recognizable to its members. It has changed with the times and also changed the times by shaping history itself. While the world around us appears to be spinning increasingly out of control and relationships become more transient and superficial, organizations like Masonry are what remind us that we as individuals can actually make a difference in shaping our own lives and helping others to do the same for themselves, transforming one person and one community at a time. The impact is not made by loud public displays of displeasure or even by grand secret magical rites designed to influence the leaders of nations, but through quiet, focused, and anonymous work dedicated to the glory of God and the benefit of humanity. This is what Freemasonry represents.