1. History and beginnings
Just because two things look similar, it doesn’t mean they are organically related.
While bricks from clay have been made already in the ancient Mesopotamia, probably in Babylon… today’s brick factories are not direct descendants of those artisans thousands of years ago. Yes, the basic idea is the same: dig up, mould and shape the clay as a parallelepipedon(!), let it dry and then burn or bake it in fire. We (I mean the modern archaeologists) have found traces of such bricks during archaeological discoveries. In the village of my grandparents in Transylvania, the Gypsies (known today as Rroma) were the traditional clay brick manufacturers. They even have a clan named after this trade! Does this make them the “descendants” of the Babylonian brick-makers? Did they inherit some kind of magic and secret knowledge from the ancient brick-manufacturers and through them has this knowledge of secret insight descended to the Clay Brick Association of Canada?
Anybody claiming such a connection would be laughed at and considered nuts.
2. Organizations of Masons?
Builders had organized themselves from the ancient times – goes the other “argument” wanting to give the pedigree of antiquity to our Craft. Therefore, and here comes the logical leap: we are descendants of all those organizations, like the Roman Collegia. Are we? There is no evidence, only speculation that elements of the collegia in the Roman Empire might have survived and constituted the base of the medieval guilds in Europe. (Recommended reading from the prestigious Masonic magazine Pietre-Stones)
We know there was Collegium Fabrorum (of builders) but also Collegium Lupanariorum… In case you missed the Latin class: it means brothel-keepers.
The Germanic Steinmetzen and the French Compagnonnage
Those were early systems of transmitting the knowledge and trade “secrets” of the German stone-cutters and of different trade skills in France. While the former is extinct, the latter is still in existence in France, providing a hands-on education and initiation for apprentices. These systems, however, never outgrew their homeland and did not become a worldwide system of fraternal organization. They are extremely interesting to study and to understand – but it would be difficult to accept them as the medieval precursors of the modern Freemasonry.
An example of non-Mason organization: carpenters.
All kind of guilds around the world and modern unions and “brotherhoods”
From the medieval times when a guild, like that of the tailors or shoemakers, was regulating that specific trade in the jurisdiction of a town or city, to the modern unions (sometimes misleadingly called brotherhoods) these all were professional organizations meant to protect their own self-interests. The guilds, as self-regulatory bodies, were establishing the path from the apprenticeship until one could become a ‘master’ – by making and presenting to those in charge their ‘masterpiece’, the proof of their skills. The requirements showed lots of similarities, regardless of the trade. After long years of apprenticeship, the young man went on a journey (hence: journeyman) sometimes just to other towns, sometimes even in foreign countries. After returning they could apply to become a master member, a kind of self-employed tradesman of the time. The guilds, just like unions and professional organizations today, tried to maintain their monopoly for production and their authority to decide who can profess in their territory.
Again, similarities don’t mean kinship. By definition, any initiatic order – from the ancient times till today – are going to show similarities: the structures and methods of such organizations are related. They have a ritual, they follow a ceremonial procedure during which they bring the novice “outsider” inside of the circle of members that were previously initiated. Of course, there will be steps and ways of doing things that would strike as ‘similar’. But those similarities come from the nature of things.
Every initiatory ceremony or ritual has one single purpose. To share with the newly admitted member (the initiated) the knowledge about the sacred. Those who do not belong to the inner circle are not initiated, they are profane – not knowing the sacred. From the shamanistic Central-Asian cultures to the Native Aboriginals of the Americas and to the various religious orders… all have a well-designed ceremony (a scenario, if you wish) to solemnly bring the profane candidate from the state of darkness (ignorance, lack of knowledge) to the elevated state of being initiated, where he or she receives the light of the secret – and sacred – knowledge.
Freemasons will recognize in the sentences above allusions to their rituals. However, there is almost no initiatic order that wouldn’t feel the same: that the references concern their own initiation rituals. And that’s exactly the point: all organizations that have such a character, will demonstrate similar traits because there is no other way to do initiation. To share the sacred knowledge of insiders one has to go through events and stages that will prepare and enable the person to receive the same insider information.[The fact that certain organizations degraded such processes as “hazing” should not be neglected here. Hazing is a misunderstanding or mocking the sacred rituals that were supposed to serve the newly initiated to acquire the sacred enlightenment.]
5. Everybody was a Mason…
Or so we like to think. From the ancient Egyptian pharaohs to astronauts and kings, to presidents and famous artists – anyone is suspicious to be a Mason, a Freemason in the eyes of the conspiracy believers. And of ignorant Masons.
Let’s make this logical fallacy (or failure) crystal clear: if there was no modern Freemasonry prior to the lodges that existed in the British Isles, then there were no Freemasons before that. Therefore no Biblical characters could be claimed as Masons. Also, Leonardo da Vinci wasn’t a Mason – no matter what you read in a fictional book. (Definition of fiction – literature in the form of prose[…] that describes imaginary events and people.) Nor was Pepin the Short or Charlemagne. The same for the Templar Knights.
Since my early childhood, I was an avid reader: during my elementary school years the greatest punishment my parents could come up was to ban me from reading for a few days or, horribile dictu, a week! I used to be an indiscriminate reader, which in turn resulted later in a very fine detector of recognizing the different genres and types of written texts.
As for living celebrities – the very first rule that I’ve learned as a Mason was this: I can tell publicly about myself that I am a Freemason but I can never ever say anything like that about a brother of mine. So, stop guessing and naming living personalities as Freemasons! Wait until they die.
6. Founding fathers
It is a well-known fact that the ideals taught in Masonic lodges, regarding equality of all men, a society where religious freedom is the norm, a utopian world (hat tip Sir Francis Bacon who also wasn’t a Freemason) of harmony, peace and freedom… have been implemented as the basic tenets of a few new countries created by those that left the old world to build a better one. In other places the model followed in the lodges, e.g. parlamentarism (a modern terminology) where everyone has an equal vote, with rules of law, democracy and equal rights — became the ideal to be imitated in the society.
You can learn about the relations between “politicks” and Freemasonry from this book: Living the Enlightenment: Freemasonry and Politics in Eighteenth-Century Europe by Margaret C. Jacob. (buy it on Amazon)
In short, many political institutions of the modern era were influenced by Freemasons and their ideals and practices. Which doesn’t mean that every adherent of those ideas was a Mason. Thomas Paine the influential “celebrity” of the era even wrote a history of Masonry and he was not a documented member of the Craft. Out of the 56 men that signed the (American) Declaration of Independence only 9 [nine] were Masons! Nine out of the fifty six.
In Canada, we also have a number of Masons at the birth of the Confederation. More interestingly, all three of the famous Canadian beer brewers were also Freemasons: John Labatt, Alexander Keith, John Molson. Should we say that these are (or were) Masonic beers?
7. Freemason in the Bible
Everybody knows, including non-Masons, that most of the symbols, characters, stories that we tell in our ceremonies (rituals) are based on Biblical texts. For some that’s a proof of Freemasonry being a “Christian” organization, for others they are just like any parables of the Old Testament: stories taken from a source and then shaped and morphed into a role-play to convey the moral teachings and to instil inspiration for the embetterment of our virtues. (Note: there are absolutely no references to the New Testament in the ritual!)
One of the central characters in our stories is King Solomon together with his temple. It is very interesting that in the light of the latest research the metaphor of the “temple”, especially that of the Temple of Jerusalem, as the temple of wisdom [templum sapientiae], the temple of the encyclopedical knowledge [templum encyclopediae] was a returning topos – a traditional topic formula in the decades just before the formation of the first known Grand Lodge in 1717. The symbolism of the temple and in a larger context, the symbolism of “New Jerusalem” is present in the English rhetorics since Sir Francis Bacon…
Freemasonry, or more exactly, the authors of the first books and rules and the mythology just adapted the existing literary themes for their purposes. It is worth noting that 300 years ago the Bible stories, the classic Greek and Roman mythology and literature was the basis of what we would call education. So the easiest way to convey a message – be it of morals or other spiritual content – was using the well-known stories, parables, metaphors and symbolism.
However, there are no Freemasons in the Bible.
- there was NO “freemasonry” in the antiquity or in the Biblical times;
- different builder/stonecutter trade organizations (unions?) might show similarities, however, similarities don’t mean lineage or descendant from the same ancestor;
- most initiatic orders have similar methods – per definitonem;
- many trade guilds protect their trade secrets with the same type of secrecy;
- the fact that builders existed ever since humankind started to erect architectural objects… doesn’t mean continuous line of Masons/Freemasons through the history;
- the Speculative Freemasonry as we know it today originated from the British Islands. PERIOD.
- consecutively, there were no Masons – as we use the word today – before that in other countries;
- Steinmetzen and compangnonnage are different – similar organizations that remained local and never evolved into a worldwide system;
- no, the biblical figures used in our ceremonies were not modern Freemasons;
- no, there were no Freemasons BC (before Christ);
- no, Leonardo da Vinci was NOT a Freemason;
- no, the majority of the USA founding fathers were not Masons: out of the 56 signatories only 9 were documented Masons;
- the 3 best-known Canadian beer brands were founded by Masons.
What is your favourite myth? Comment below!
Featured image in the article header: Vanitas vanitatum – original oil painting by Jens Rusch (http://www.jens-rusch.de)