Saturday, 18 February 2017

Masonry: Everything Is Illuminated (Sort Of)

We're into the weird and wonderful world of masonry this week. I was going to attempt a potted explanation of all things masonic - origins, intentions, even conspiracy theories, but initial research has revealed it to be such an extensive and esoteric subject that I'm only going to be able to scratch the surface, so to speak, rather than deliver an elegantly chiselled whole.

Masonry is self-evidently stone worked by stone masons. Stone was chosen for its durability. Life is short but stonework could provide a lasting memorial, whether as statue, temple or tomb, so great men saw it as a totem when all else turns to dust, as close an approximation to immortality as could be achieved with the materials to hand.

Of course, being a durable material, stone requires skill to fashion it. Therefore the role of mason acquired considerable prestige. In the ancient world (Middle East, Egypt, Greece, Rome) masonry became as much a science as an art and was on a par with the practices of astronomy, medicine and the priesthood.

After the Dark Ages, as Christianity gained prominence in Western Europe, there was a gradual move to legitimise the provenance of masonry, retrofitting back to Old Testament biblical times (the temple of Solomon) and the rise of Euclidean geometry. Stone masons, like many other guilds of skilled artisans, formed societies of brotherhood and mutual support.

The Regius Poem (some of which I have quoted below) is widely held to be the first extant masonic work in English, dating from the late 14th century. The manuscript is in the British Museum and sets out in 794 lines of rhymed verse the 'history' and fifteen principles of masonic life as devised allegedly some time in the late 10th century during the reign of King Athelstan.

Masonic organisations are fond of mottos and insignia, the former usually in Latin, for instance: morte ad ignoratam (death to ignorance) or lux e tenebris (light out of darkness). The intention is usually to advance the common good by education (and to benefit the masonic brotherhood in the process). Apprentice stone masons would receive a good education at a time when the majority of the population was still illiterate. Algebra, Geometry, Greek and Latin were acquired alongside the principles and skills of working stone. That is why the compass and set square are standard insignia of many masonic groups along with the all-seeing eye and the book (see the image below).

Carving above the entrance to the masonic lodge in Yeovil, Somerset
The symbolism of the all-seeing eye with its rays of enlightenment probably harks back to the worship of Ra in Egypt and gives a flavour of the quirkiness and multiple layers of this retrofitted tradition.

The Knights Templar from the period of the Crusades are so named for the link back to Solomon's Temple and the link between Templars and Freemasonry is well-documented. Increasingly diverse and divorced from a direct connection to stonemasonry, guilds or lodges became more symbolic than actual after the dissolution of the monasteries and many often assumed secret or subversive overtones as religious persecution became rife.

Those on the inside preserved the secrets of their brotherhood. Those on the outside speculated about corruption and influence in both secular and religious life and conspiracy theories about a New World Order of masons continue to this day. Maybe Putin and Trump have a special link! (only joking, folks).

There's so much more to unearth here. I consider it just a start and will continue to research as time allows.

The Regius Poem: a poem of moral duties

Excerpts from the Regius Poem
In that time, through good geometry,
This honest craft of good masonry
Was ordained and made in this manner,
Counterfeited of these clerks together;
At these lords' prayers they counterfeited geometry,
And gave it the name of masonry,
For the most honest craft of all...

He learned best, and was of honesty,
And he passed his fellows in curiosity,
If in that craft he did him pass,
He should have more worship than the less,
This great clerk's name was Euclid,
His name it spread full wonder wide.
Yet this great clerk ordained he
To him that was higher in this degree,
That he should teach the simplest of wit
In that honest craft to be perfect...

Furthermore yet ordained that he,
Master called so should he be;
So that he were most worshipped,
Then should he be so called;
But masons should never one another call,
Within the craft amongst them all,
Neither subject nor servant, my dear brother,
Though he be not so perfect as is another;
Each shall call others fellows by friendship,
Because they come of ladies' birth.
On this manner, through good wit of geometry,
Began the first craft of masonry;
The clerk Euclid on this wise it found,
This craft of geometry in Egypt land.

(This is a 'translation' from 14th century English. The full 794 lines can be read online if wished.)

Thanks for reading. Have a 'be good, do good' week, S;-)