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The Hiramic Legend
by Leon Zeldis
The central theme of the Master Mason’s “raising” ceremony is the symbolic representation of the death and burial of Hiram Abif, the legendary architect of King Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. This paper attempts to examine the various symbolic explanations of the ceremony, and to place them within the wider context of death-and-rebirth myths in general.
The Hiramic legend is quite extensive, and only a small part is exemplified in the Master Mason’s degree. In the degrees of the Lodge of Perfection in the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite (degrees 4-14), various aspects of the legend are developed more extensively. Here, however, we’ll concentrate on the MM’s ceremony alone.
A brief bibliography at the end will lead the reader to further sources of information, if he wishes to pursue the subject.
There is no certainty about the exact date when the third degree began to be worked but, as far back as 1711, the Trinity College (Dublin) manuscript mentions three separate classes of masons: Entered Apprentices, Fellow Craftsmen and Masters, each with its own secrets (1).
By 1730, when Prichard’s Masonry Dissected was published, the three-degree system had become firmly established. The introduction of the Hiramic legend in Freemasonry dates from the same period, as proven by the advertisement for sale in 1726 of a publication entitled The Whole History of the Widow’s Son Killed by the Blow of a Beetle (2).
The name Hiram appeared in masonic manuscripts much earlier, even centuries before, but we have no indication that the medieval mason was familiar with any tragic legend associated with that name, which appears in different spellings and variations, such as Anyone, Aman, Amon, Aymon and Hyman. We note here a certain confusion between the name Hiram, belonging to the King of Tyre as well as the chief architect, and the Hebrew word Aman or Ooman, meaning chief of the works or artificer.
All readers are presumably familiar with the Hiramic legend as exemplified in the third-degree ceremony. We should keep in mind, however, that like most myths, the legend is larger than any one specific recounting. This or that feature of Hiram Abif’s story has been eliminated
from some masonic rituals, but appear in others, in the allied masonic bodies, or in ceremonies belonging to other masonic rites.
When we study a mythical tale, we should not expect to find logic or coherence. Each and every detail of the myth has a symbolic explanation, or several; in the course of time the story becomes embroidered and additions are made which not always tally with the rest. To give an example, we are told that the death of Hiram Abif caused the loss of the true secrets of the Master Mason, but at the same time we are told that King Solomon and King Hiram of Tyre shared those secrets. Thus, they could have recruited another man to fill the place of Hiram Abif (HA). This is an obvious contradiction, yet this is the nature of myth.
The hours high-twelve (noon) and midnight figure prominently in the legendary recounting of HA’s murder. Not surprisingly, these are the symbolic hours to start and close the work (the meeting) in the first three or Craft degrees in the AASR.
The murderers, or ruffians, are three evil workers driven by ambition, envy and ignorance. Unable to gain the secrets of a Master Mason by diligent work, the attempt to exact them by violent means.
The names of the three appear in different versions. These are some of the variations:
The frequent alliterations should be noted. The same phenomenon can be observed in other, non-masonic legends, as we shall see below.
The Number Five
Raising Hiram’s body (or his surrogate) from the grave is connected with the five PP. of F. The number five has a rich lore of symbolism attached to it. It was highly esteemed by the Pythagoreans, who called it ‘Hygeia’, that is Health. It was regarded as the conjunction of the first ‘female’ number (two) and the first ‘male’ one (three), thus being associated with marriage. The unit, one, was not considered to be a number at all.
Five is related to the pentagram or pentalpha, the magic five-pointed star associated everywhere with the occult. One of its strange properties is that every straight line in the pentagram is divided by the others in the golden section. The number five also appears in the legend as the number of Fellow-Crafts sent to look for the missing Hiram: three groups of five craftsmen each.
Jones (see the bibliography at the end) mentions that in the 16th and 17th centuries there was much public discussion on the five points, but these referred not to fellowship but to the five points of doctrine to which Calvinism had been reduced.
Five is the hypotenuse of the smallest Pythagorean triangle, that is, a right-angled triangle with integral sides, where the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. The Pythagoreans also associated this triangle with marriage, and Pythagoras’ Theorem was also known as the Theorem of the Bride (3).
Five is also the fifth Fibonacci number. The Fibonacci series or sequence of numbers is an amazing series that appears everywhere in nature, connected with processes of growth and spirals, among others (4). Many flowers have five petals, and fruits often have five compartments. Five is also automorphic, that is, all powers of 5 end with the digit 5. Five, then, is connected with life, growth, renewal and eternity.
A question comes to mind, why should the number five figure so prominently in the third degree, when the masonic age of the Master Mason (in the Scottish Rite) is seven ? It’s the fellow-craft who has the symbolic age of five, as well as the five orders or architecture, five senses, etc. in his instruction. Even the blazing star with the letter G, which is actually a pentagram, belongs to the second degree symbolism, no the third.
We can see in this confusion a hint of the fact that originally, masonic rituals comprised at most two degrees, and possibly only one, divided into several parts. Another vestige of this situation is the fact that, in England at least, the installation ceremony of a new Worshipful Master is conducted in the second degree. In Scotland we find another peculiarity: the Mark Master degree, although given only to Master Masons, is worked within the lodge open in the Second Degree. The present lodge structure of three degrees, therefore, is a relatively recent development (18th century), and the second and third degrees were split from a common source. This explains why some elements were included in the separate degrees without following a logical sequence.
The Substitute Words
Although undoubtedly of Hebrew origin, the Master’s words have become corrupted to the point that their exact meaning is obscure. The most plausible explanation, in this author’s view, is that both refer to Hiram’s death, one coming close to the Hebrew for ‘the builder is dead’ and the other for ‘your son is dead,’ as if addressing a woman (the ‘widow’).
Jones mentions that in a Christian Dictionary, printed in 1678, there are definitions of certain alternative Hebrew words which, we are told,, mean ‘the smiting of his son’, ‘the poverty of understanding’ or ‘the smiting of the builder (p. 305). We can safely dismiss the middle explanation as window-dressing, but the other two coincide rather closely with the explanation proposed above.
An interesting feature that must be noted is that both words now in use can be represented by the initials M and B, which leads to the thought that perhaps both words had a common origin, and they became distorted and separated in the course of time while being transmitted mouth to ear between men not proficient in the Hebrew language.
Mendoza has a different theory, suggesting a Christian origin to the words, but he appears to be in the minority. As to why two words are in use, and not one, as in the other degrees, it appears that one word was in use in England in those lodges holding under the Premier Grand Lodge, that of the Moderns, while the other word was used by the Ancients (5). At the time of the union, in 1813, when a unified ritual was compiled, no agreement could be reached about which of the words to choose, so they finally left the two in use.
Death and Rebirth
Let us now examine Hiram’s legend within the wider context of world mythology and religion. Some elements of the story are common to many mysteries in which a god or a hero suffers death in order to be reborn on a higher state of existence. Let us list some of the more or less common features of these legends:
It has been suggested that Hiram’s story may have been derived from ancient foundation sacrifices, in which a human being was immured in the foundation of the intended structure to provide it with a ‘guardian soul.’
What is certain is that the Hiramic legend belongs in the tradition of the classical initiation ceremonies, involving death and rebirth. Anthropologists have described such rites in all primitive cultures, and historians have transmitted to us similar practices in the ancient world, from Egypt to Persia, Greece and Rome. ‘To die is to be initiated,’ wrote Plutarch, making a play of words between teleutan and telesthai (6). We could reverse the saying: to be initiated is to die... in order to be born again.
Already the cuneiform texts of Mesopotamia, seven or eight thousand years old, relate that Dammouzi (Tamuz), the lover of the goddess Ishtar, has been swallowed by the underworld, the kingdom of the dead, the country from where there is no return, the abode of darkness. Ishtar, ‘widow of the Son of life’ (another widow!) undertakes to release him and bring him back to life, which she does by going through a graded series of trials.
Among the Phoenicians this myth became that of Adonis and Astarte. Adonis was the lover of Nature, that is, Astarte, who weeps his death and ends by resurrecting him. Every spring, funeral ceremonies were held in Byblos (a city with particular connotations for the Installed Master), when weeping women tore their clothing and wounded their breasts, running about desperately, as if looking for someone. An empty coffin was placed in the temple, ready to receive the body, represented by a wooden statue that was first hidden, then placed in the coffin. Towards the end of autumn the festival was repeated, with an important difference: grief and lamentations lasted for seven days, but on the eighth, mourning gave way to uninhibited joy. The god had been reborn and ascended to heaven.
The Adonis of Phrigia was called Attis or Papas, the divine shepherd, husband of Cybele or Maa, goddess of the earth. The mysteries of Cybele were brought to Rome after the end of the Punic wars, and were celebrated in Rome with increasing enthusiasm during six hundred years.
In Egypt we find the myth of Isis and Osiris, too well known to repeat here.
The Greek had no one, but several versions of these legends. One, the mysteries of Cabires, in Samothrace, included the dramatic representation of the history of three brothers: Axieros, Axiokersos and Axiokersa (note the alliteration). According to the version reported by Firmicus Maternus, two of the Cabires killed the third and buried him at the foot of Mount Olympus. He was then brought back to life by Hermes, the god of the occult. Some Etruscan mirrors show engraved scenes of this drama. In one, we see Axieros seized by his two brothers, before two columns with Corinthian capitals. In another, Hermes, accompanied by two satyrs serving as his helpers, approaches the corpse and tries to raise it with the help of his magic wand. The Cabires like Hiram, are of Phoenician origin.
In the Mysteries of Mithras, as well, the initiate was killed symbolically. Once, the emperor Commodus who was officiating as mystagogue - conductor of the dead - got carried away by the drama and actually murdered the unfortunate candidate. Fortunately, no such mishap has ever happened in a masonic ceremony!
The Dionysian mysteries, also very popular in Rome, as in the Eastern provinces of the Empire, featured the dismemberment of Dionysus, later reassembled and resurrected by Zeus.
Some of these rites continued for many centuries after the spread of Christianity, sometimes disguised under a Christian cloak. D’Alviella (p. 77) mentions, for example, a ceremony held in the island of Malta in the 16th century, as recounted by an Arab writer. At the time of the feast of St. John, which coincided with the flowering of beans, the priests hid a statue of the saint under branches of flowering beans. The saint was then mourned as if dead. After three days, his return was celebrated, the statue was uncovered and carried in procession to the church. It is not difficult to perceive that the saint here was a surrogate for Dionysus.
The role of initiation in human society can best be summarized by quoting Mircea Eliade (p. 220): ‘Initiation appears in all authentic human existence, for two reasons: on the one hand, because all authentic human life implies deep crises, trials, anguish, loss and recovery of the self, “death and resurrection”; on the other, because no matter how full , all existence appears, at a certain moment, as an unfulfilled promise.
This is not a moral judgement about the past, but a vague feeling of having missed the vocation, of having betrayed the best within oneself. In such moments of total crisis, one hope only seems capable of providing salvation: the hope of being able to start life again, That is, in short, that we dream of a new existence, renewed, plentiful and meaningful... The nostalgia of an initiative renovation which arises sporadically in the heart of hearts of modern irreligious man seems to us therefore as most significant: it would be, in the final analysis, the modern expression of man’s eternal longing to find a positive meaning to death, to accept death as a rite of passage to a superior state of being.
If initiation can be said to be a distinctive dimension of human existence, this is due, above all, to the fact that only initiation assigns a positive task to death: to prepare the new birth, purely spiritual, access to a mode of being secure from the ravages of Time.’
Freemasonry is the only social framework that today maintains alive this esoteric tradition, and enables its members to experience the unforgettable trial of symbolic death and rebirth.
(1) Jones, p. 242.
(2) Jones, p. 318.
(3) Wells, p. 58.
(4) The Fibonnaci series is one in which member, from the third onward, is the sum of the previous two: 1,2,3,5,8,13,21...
(5) This explanation appears in the 1762 exposure Jachin and Boaz, quoted by Mendoza.
(6) D’Alviella, p. 65.
Beresniak, Daniel, La Legende D’Hiram et les Initiations Traditionelles, Detrad, Paris, 1987.
D’Alviella, Goblet, Des Origines du Grade de Maitre dans la Franc-Maconnerie, Guy Tredaniel, Paris, 1983.
Eliade, Mircea, Birth and Rebirth, Harper & Row, New Yorl, 1958.
Jones, Bernard E., Freemason’s Guide and Compendium, Harrap, London, 1950.
Mendoza, Harry, “The Words of a Master Mason”, Ars Quatuor Coronatorum, Vol. 102, 1989, p. 164.
Well, David, The Penguin Dictionary of Curious and Interesting Numbers, Penguin Books, London, 1986 (reprint 1988).
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Last modified: March 22, 2014