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Freemasonry and the Undiscovered Country

by Jeffery E. Marshall

To be or not to be, that is the question.  Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take up arms against a sea of troubles.”

Many of us recognize these lines from Hamlet.  Perhaps some of us have pondered them quite often or at least wondered at the depth of emotion that would bring a man to the brink of suicide.  But they may also have a Masonic significance.  For one thing, they are part of a longer soliloquy that is the source for the ‘undiscovered country’ reference in the Fellowcraft lecture on the level.  Also, in these lines, Hamlet raises two important issues, which I think are at the core of Masonry: 

·         What is the relationship between life and death? 

·         How should we live our lives?

Masonry is often defined as a system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated with symbols.  Let’s take a look at this definition for a moment.  I think at its core, a system of morality means a code by which to live life.  That is, it is a way to govern one’s actions and relationships with the external environment.  The allegory referred to is the life and death of Hiram Abiff in the Master Mason degree and the building of King Solomon’s Temple referred to in all three degrees.  This allegory is illustrated, perhaps even unveiled somewhat, by the symbols used in all three degrees.

Now if the analysis above is correct, then Hamlet’s soliloquy is very much relevant to Freemasonry.  In it, Hamlet struggles with the fundamental questions of life and death, which are highly significant to Masonry.  In our rituals, Hiram very quickly decides his fate by refusing the ruffians’ demands for the secrets of a Master Mason.  Hiram answers the ruffians’ demand, “my life, but not my secrets”.  He clearly makes a choice.  Perhaps the internal dynamics of this choice are not dramatized the way Hamlet’s are, but it is a vital choice nonetheless.  It is a choice that is made as much by the way Hiram lived, as it was by the way that he died. 

The reference to the ‘undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns’ may be a pointer back to the entire passage from Hamlet for us to consider.  Both Hamlet’s speech and the definition of Freemasonry tell us that how we live our lives is directly influenced by how we view death.  Are we afraid to die and does this fear constrain our actions so that we refuse to take any risk or action lest it hasten the day of our demise?  Do we leave undone things that we should do out of fear of death?

Let us review for a moment, Hamlet’s entire soliloquy.

To be, or not to be,—that is the question:—

Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And by opposing end them?—To die to sleep—

No more; and by a sleep to say we end

The heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to? —‘tis a consummation

Devoutly to be wish’d.  To die, to sleep; —

To sleep, perchance, to dream; —ay, there’s the rub;

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,

Must give us pause : there’s the respect

That makes calamity of so long life;

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,

The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,

The pangs of dispriz’d love, the law’s delay,

The insolence of office, and the spurns

That patient merit of the unworthy takes,

When he himself might his quietus make

With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,

To grunt and sweat under a weary life,

But that the dread of something after death, —

The undiscover’d country from whose bourn

No traveler returns, —puzzles the will,

And makes rather bear those ills we have,

Than fly to others that we know not of?

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;

And thus the native hue of resolution

Is sicklied o’er the pale cast of thought;

And enterprises of great pith and moment,

With this regard, their currents turn awry,

And lose the name of action. —Soft you now!

The fair Ophelia! —Nymph, in thy orisons

Be all my sins remembered.

Hamlet, it seems, is caught upon a three-pronged dilemma:

·         Should he simply accept the inequities of life?

·         Should fight against these inequities?

·         Should he kill himself?

The contemplation of this undiscovered country stays his hand and puzzles him.  Perhaps one of the more telling lines above is “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all.”  What does this mean, especially in regard to Hamlet’s fear of death?  As we contemplate this question, perhaps we may also want to keep two other things in mind:

1.      Hamlet was a Widow’s Son. 

2.      Is there a relationship between Hamlet’s three-pronged dilemma and the three ruffians in the Master Mason degree?

So how or why does conscience make cowards of us all?  Is it the fear of death or what happens after death that paralyzes our actions here in life?  That is what the author of Hamlet seems to hint at.  But what is conscience?  The Oxford English Dictionary has several definitions.  The following may be the most pertinent to our discussion, since the line in question from Hamlet is used as an example to illustrate the definition.

The internal acknowledgement or recognition of the moral quality of one's motives and actions; the sense of right and wrong as regards things for which one is responsible; the faculty or principle which pronounces upon the moral quality of one's actions or motives, approving the right and condemning the wrong.

Perhaps the two key words in this definition are ‘internal’ and ‘moral’.

First, let us look at the word ‘internal’.  This descriptor tells us that conscience springs from within us.  It is not found in external sources, although they may help us to shape and understand our internal dialog.  It is representative of our own internal plumbline by which we measure our own conduct for its rectitude.  The Hebrew word for ‘plumbline’ is ;na—ankh.  Symbolically, we can relate this word to the Egyptian Ankh, the symbol of life.  We can then develop the symbol further by adding the letter y as a suffix to obtain ykna.[1]  When used as a suffix, the letter y is a possessive indicator meaning “my”.  In Hebrew, the word ykna means ‘I’.  Thus, ‘I’ can symbolically mean “my lifeline”.  This is very interesting symbolism, given the meaning of the plumbline in masonry.  The plumbline is the tool by which we measure the rectitude of our conduct.  Our lifeline—something that is our concept of self—measures our conduct.  Recognition of self is one of the three parts of consciousness.  The other two are the recognition of the Cosmos and intentional acts that relate self to the Cosmos. That is, consciousness is the recognition of self and how we live.  It is a matter of deliberate choices rather than a random walk.  Perhaps one of the most critical signs in the emergence of consciousness is the awareness that sooner or later we will die.  Death is perhaps both the ultimate mystery and an important symbol.  Symbolically, death is often used to indicate profound change.

Now, let us look at the word ‘moral’.  Is there an absolute standard of morality or is it relative?  From whence does morality spring?  In the Entered Apprentice degree, we are taught that the square teaches morality.  So, let’s consider the square for a moment.  It has a horizontal leg and a vertical leg.  Perhaps, this can be seen as the blending of the plumb and the level.  In the Fellowcraft degree, we are taught that the level is a measure of equality reminding us that death is the great equalizer, at least as we view it on this side of the door.  But, as Hamlet notes, we really don’t know what happens on the other side of the door.  The plumbline is our own conscience.  Thus, perhaps morality springs from within our own conscience and what we think that will mean when we enter through the door or death.

Thus, conscience and consciousness are intertwined like the serpents winding up a staff to form the caduceus.  Our conscious allows us to better understand what the quiet voice of our conscience tells us and to remain in constant awareness of the cause and the effects of our actions so that our conscience can truly be our guide.  The central staff is our life and the wings are our spirit.   The caduceus was the heraldic emblem of Hermes, who is most often seen as the messenger god of the Greeks.  But Hermes had another role as well.  He was also a psychopomp[2], the guide of the soul to its place after death.

Zoroastrian thought illustrates this process poetically.  The soul must pass Chinvato Peretu, the sword bridge, which connects the earth to heaven.[3]  After death, the soul crosses on the sword bridge and is met by a female figure named Daena.  If the soul has led a good life, the woman is fair maiden and the soul is allowed to pass.  If the soul led less than a moral life, it is met by an aged crone and falls off the narrow Sword Bridge into the Abyss.  Daena means conscience.  The individual is ultimately the judge of his or her own conduct. 

Thus is our conduct our key to the door of what lies beyond in this undiscovered country?  Does conscience make cowards of us because we are unsure of what our conduct might bring when we open that door and experience what dreams might become?  Will this fear turn awry all our great enterprises and cast a sickly hue over our thought?  Or does our conduct in life even matter?  

If we look at another scene in Hamlet, we can gain some insight into this matter.  Later in the play, Hamlet contemplates Yorick’s skull and then notes that the mortal remains of fool and king are the same.  One conclusion that can be drawn is that what we do here while connected to the mortal coil does not matter—we all end up the same and what we do turns to dust.  In this sense, we begin to wonder whether anything we do matters because we all turn to dust.

In Freemasonry, we find two references that may lend credence to this conclusion.  In the Fellowcraft degree, we are told that ‘the lapse of time, the ruthless hand of ignorance and the devastations of war have laid waste many valuable monuments of antiquity’ and that even the temple of King Solomon was unable to escape the ravages of barbarous force.  On possible implication of this is that nothing that mortal man does will last.  The second reference is in the Master Mason degree.  In the second part of the ritual, the Junior Warden recites a passage from Ecclesiastes about death.  The passage is the first seven verses of chapter twelve, which speak of death.  The eight verse, which is left out is “Vanity[4] of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity.”

But if we reflect upon these two references, we may reach an altogether different conclusion.  The passage recited from Ecclesiastes leaves out the eighth verse.  It does not state at what we do in life is vanity or meaningless.  As well, the passage in the Fellowcraft degree counters the destroyed monuments with the notion that Freemasonry has still survived.  Perhaps, what we do matters.  If it does not, why would Hiram Abiff then risk losing his life to guard the secrets?  I think Masonry tells us what we do does matter.  Hamlet implicitly acknowledges this as well, when he asks about the material state of Alexander and Caesar.  Granted, their material remains have turned to dust, but their memory remains strong.  It has affected the world and clearly affected Hamlet.

What was it that Hiram died to protect?  Was it a simple word?  A word of recognition can be changed.  No, the secrets may be represented by a word, but the word itself is only a symbol.  I think the answer lies in the role of the Master Mason in the work.  While the Entered Apprentices are bearers of burden and the Fellowcraft hew and shape the stone, the Master Mason designs the plans and places the shaped stones.  These are creative acts.  The Greek word Logos, which is often translated as ‘word’ also means ratio.  A ratio is an active process that relates one thing to another.  That is truly the purpose of a temple, to help relate heaven to earth, humanity to Deity.  As used by John in the Gospel of John, it may well mean the creative process.  As used by Hereclitus, a Greek philosopher who perhaps first used the term, it is the logic or order that keeps the Cosmos together.  In this light, Logos may be similar to the mortar that holds the stones of the building together.  The Master Mason uses the trowel, which is the special tool of a Master Mason, to spread this cement.  Thus, on one symbolic level, the word that Hiram took so much care to preserve is the creative process and glue, which creates and preserves.  He was willing to suffer destruction to preserve the secrets relating to this process.[5]  On another level, Hiram died for a principle, that people should earn the right to these secrets. Hiram, in both life and death was a man of action.

The tenets of Freemasonry, Brotherly Love, Relief and Truth charge the Mason to action.  This is especially true of Relief.  We are told:

To relieve the distressed is a duty incumbent upon all men, but particularly on Masons, who are linked together by an indissoluble chain of sincere affection.  To soothe the unhappy, to sympathize with their misfortunes, to compassionate their miseries, and to restore peace to their troubled minds is the great aim we have in view.  On this basis we form our friendships and establish our connections.

If we understand the caduceus of spirit, conduct, consciousness and conscience, this fear that makes cowards of us all can be removed and replaced with serenity that allows us to act.  But linked with this idea is the corollary that we must abandon of a set of fixed laws that dictate conduct and accept the whisperings of our internal guide to conduct.  This is a frightening step on a razor thin bridge.  It also means complete acceptance of the responsibility for ones actions.  That is the conscience is the ultimate judge of one’s fate after the door of death is opened.

This is why, I think, the presence of death is so important in Freemasonry.  In virtually all lodges the Mason comes face-to-face with death at least once.  In some lodges, the Mason contemplates death at least twice.

In some grand lodges, to include all that work the AASR, the candidate must answer a series of questions that forces him to contemplate the meaning of his life while sitting in a Chamber of Reflection.  As the candidate does this, he may well reflect upon a human skull and a slowly burning candle.  Both the candle and the skull are symbols of mortality.  He sees the skull that represents death by the flickering light of the candle, which burns slowly down.  There is only a finite amount of time allotted to this mortal coil.  The candle is also a symbol of Light, that thing that he most desires.  As the candle burns down, it may symbolically tell the candidate that he must act now to gain the light he desires.  On the wall, the candidate may see the letters, V.I.T.R.I.O.L., which may puzzle him.  These letters, as the candidate will ultimately learn, are an acronym for the phrase “Visita Interiora Tarrae, Rectificandoque, Invenies Occultam Lapidem”, which means “Visit the Inside of the Earth, and, through Rectifying, you will find the Hidden Stone”.  This stone is internal to the candidate.  It is the consciousness, represented by the Greek phase Gnothi seauton—know thyself.  In this action, the candidate comes close, perhaps to meeting Daena upon the bridge. 

The Master Mason degree brings the Mason even closer to death.  In the degree, the Mason represents Hiram Abiff and is ritually slain by three ruffians.  While the rest of the ritual unfolds, the Mason has plenty of time while in a ritual death to contemplate both life and what happens beyond the door of death.  If the conditions surrounding the ritual are carefully constructed, the Mason may be in a suitable frame of mind to perhaps knock upon the door of death itself and perhaps gain an insight as to what lies beyond in that undiscovered country.  In this insight, perhaps we again meet Daena and grow to know and trust her.  As we lie buried, we may journey to the center of the earth and find the hidden stone and develop the consciousness to hear the conscience always.  This then may free the Mason to act.

As the three ruffians slay Hiram Abiff, a widow’s son, another widow’s son, Hamlet, gains the insights required to escape from his three-pronged dilemma and make a decision about how to proceed with life.  And in this decision, perhaps conscience then makes the Mason a hero rather than a coward, a knight rather than a knave.

Throughout mythology, the hero must descend to the underworld to obtain the knowledge required to complete his quest.  In the Greek myths Hercules and Odysseus both had to descend to the underworld.  The Sumerians also linked the Abzu with Enki, their deity of knowledge.  The Abzu was a region below the earth that either separated the underworld from earth or contained the underworld.  In either case, the idea of a subterranean realm, linked with knowledge is clear.  In all of these stories the hero must taste death in order to clear his way to act.  Perhaps the Master Mason ritual represents this symbolic journey.  Once taken, the Master Mason gains the insight and the courage to put his principles into action.


[1] ; and k are both representations of the same letter.  There are six Hebrew letters that take a different form when used at the end of a word. 

[2] Psyche – soul, Pomp – guide.  The entry in the Jungian Lexicon [Daryl Sharp, ] for psychopomp is interesting: “Psychopomp. A psychic factor that mediates unconscious contents to consciousness, often personified in the image of a wise old man or woman, and sometimes as a helpful animal.”  With this idea, I think we reinforce the relationship between conscious thought and the conscience.  Until the mind is fully conscious, the conscience may “bubble up” from the subconscious part of the mind. 

[3] This concept is mirrored in several other mythic systems, for example the Rainbow Bridge in Norse mythology.  There is also a sword bridge in Chretien de Troyes Arthurian story, “The Knight of the Cart”.  This bridge had to be crossed by anyone seeking the Graal.  Notice the word Graal begins with the letter G.  For some additional thoughts on the Graal see “The Alchemical Process of Initiation”, by Jeffery E. Marshall or “The Hermetic and Alchemical Roots of Masonic Symbol and Allegory” by Jeffery E. Marshall in the 1998 proceedings of the Maryland Masonic Research Society.  In both papers, the Graal is compared to Gnosis (knowledge, the Greek word for the Hebrew tid).  Notice Gnosis also begins with the letter G.  This process of gaining Gnosis or the quest for the Graal may perhaps be the process of becoming fully conscious.  

[4] This is the King James version.  Some versions translate the Hebrew word lbh as meaningless.  This is also the way Abel’s name is spelled in Hebrew. 

[5] The Creator and the preserver are two parts of the Hindu Trimurti—Brahma and Vishnu.  Siva the Destroyer is the third part.  The Trimurti is represented by the Aum, which is pronounced A-O-Om.  If we look at the names of the three ruffians, they all have the common root Jubal, which is then modified by the ending, A, O and Om.  Symbolically, the candidate’s death while playing the role of Hiram may be seen as a test that he must pass.  The Mason is tempted by the ruffians and must make the right choice that sets up the drama of the raising. 

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Last modified: March 22, 2014