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A Basic Historico-Chronological Model of the
Western Hermetic Tradition

Masonic Initiation in the English-speaking World


If you were to ask English-speaking freemasons what they think is meant by Masonic Initiation most of them would reply without much hesitation: ‘Oh, that’s the First Degree!’ However, I want to disabuse you of that mistaken view. It is too limited and too limiting. I want to establish my own position immediately by claiming that Masonic Initiation within the English-speaking tradition, when fully conceptualised as a ‘lived-through’ experience – one that may be Hermetic - is much more than merely going through the First Degree ceremony and I would like to make three basic points which I think are important to grasp before going any further. These points are inter-related and help to set out the claim that speculative Freemasonry does have some Hermetic features. They may not be very obvious, even to the experienced freemasons, for they are hidden quite discretely. On their basis, however, even though they are largely neglected now in the English-speaking Lodges, it may be possible to say that speculative Freemasonry does have a place in the western Hermetic tradition. My three initial points are as follows.

  • Masonic Initiation involves all of the participants (including the Candidates) in ceremonial, ritualistic, highly stylised behaviour that can hardly be called normal by the standards everyday life and that requires them to perform certain movements, enunciate certain words, perform and listen to long speeches that are couched in language which must seem poetic and/or heightened and even curiously dated – all of which is hardly the behaviour that they meet and use in the world outside of the Lodge rooms.
  • Masonic Initiation is designed to have a quickening, vitalising and regenerative effect on initiates.
  • Perhaps more importantly that either of these points, Masonic Initiation is a process, one that is prolonged and possibly unending; a ‘lived-through’ evolution towards eventual enlightenment that requires sustained effort and commitment on the part of all of its members.

The significance of these three basic points become clearer if we consider one of the crucial responses which a newly-made freemason has to give in response to his Master’s question as a test before he can be passed to the Second Degree. Interestingly and significantly, it was one of the first pieces of Craft ritual that freemasons are required to commit to memory. Yet it is one that most Brethren do not take the trouble to understand fully because no one takes the trouble to explain it when they make their first moves into speculative Freemasonry. It is packed with meaning and I want to deconstruct some of that meaning now.

The Master enquires of the Candidate for the Second Degree: ‘What is Freemasonry?’ and the reply he is expected to give is: ‘A peculiar system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols’. Each of the component words was intended to have important resonances but what are we to make of them?


This word immediately gives a potent clue that Freemasonry is something special and, therefore, not of this world. The Candidate is being exposed in the ceremony to something hitherto unknown to him in his ordinary life in the profane world outside of the Lodge room; something which, if he practises it fully and faithfully, will help to separate him (at least partly) from that life, making him peculiar by taking him beyond ordinary concerns and beginning something entirely new for him.


This word should focus attention immediately on ‘the grand intent’ of Freemasonry – the inculcation of ethical principles. I suspect that the original founders in the latter part of the 17th century and the early part of the 18th were aiming at a general reformation of humanity by beginning with the moral reformation/regeneration of individuals who became voluntarily members of the Order. This is why there are scattered throughout the basic Craft rituals a good deal of utopian optimism, universal harmony being seen as something attainable though consistent ‘square conduct, strict morals and upright intentions’ of individuals.

  • Freemasons are taught that in order for a man to be received into membership of a Masonic Lodge, he must be ‘a fit and proper person’ to be even considered for reception.
  • They are taught also that in order for be ‘a fit and proper person’, a man must be ‘of mature age, sound judgement and strict morals’.

Therefore, since a Candidate for admission must have manifested a high ethical standard already, it follows that the further instruction which he receives at our hands within our Lodges after his admission must be something above and beyond mere ordinary ethical standard which he had acquired already in the profane world.


This word hints at another important idea. The truths contained within speculative Freemasonry are not obvious. It may be that they are obscured deliberately and that Candidates must make strenuous and continuous effort to try to come to a level of understanding that satisfies them. They become involved in a metaphorical pilgrimage through such obscurities in a struggle that educates and, therefore, improves them spiritually. This theme of veiling is brought home dramatically, of course, during the Excellent Master’s Degree, the so-called ‘Passing of the Veils’. This ceremony is known under various names:

  • Excellent Master (as now in Scotland, Ireland, Bristol, throughout the USA, parts of Canada and in parts of Australia);
  • Super Excellent Master and
  • High Excellent Master Mason.

In spite of its strong emphasis on the interpretation of Old Testament readings, the ritual was probably of Christian origins and formed an integral part of the Royal Arch Masonic ceremonies from the late 18th century onwards throughout England. After 1817, with the founding of the present Supreme Grand Chapter, the subsequent de-Christianization of that ritual and a drastic revision of it in 1835, this quaint ceremony disappeared. Finally, the ‘Veils ceremony’ became extinct in England by the end of the 19th century. Even in Bristol, where it is still practised, it is as a recent revival rather than as an idiosyncratic survival.

A Lodge of Excellent Masters represents a body of the old stonemasons assembled at Babylon who were the descendants of the exiled Israelites. The rite is referred to throughout as ‘the Degree of Cryus’ in allusion to the King of Babylon who relented and allowed the captives to return to their native country to rebuild the destroyed Temple of king Solomon. The Lodge is presided over by three principal officers and by three Captains of the Veils. The room is divided into separate ‘compartments’ by four coloured ‘veils’ suspended across the room’s breadth and ranged in the following sequence from the west: blue, purple, scarlet and white. The ritual informs the Candidate later that the blue veil is emblematic of friendship; the purple one represents union and the scarlet one is the emblem of fervency and zeal. The white veil, nearest to the eastern end of the room, is emblematic of purity and it conceals the ‘Grand Sanhedrin’, who are seated there in silence. Those qualities (friendship, union, fervency and purity) are presumably all qualities which are to be desired by freemasons. There is a parallelism (unspoken) between those colours of the veils and those of the robes worn by the three presiding officers.

In some of the early versions of this ceremony (mostly English ones) there were only three veils but in at least one ancient Jewish source (Josephus’ Antiquities), the veil of the Temple was composed of four colours: fine white linen (to signify the earth, from which grew the flax that produced it); purple (to signify water because that precious colour was derived from the blood of a rare shellfish); blue (which signified air) and scarlet (which signified fire). The ritual of the Excellent Master Degree, however, gives other interpretations to the Candidate at a later stage.

Rather than pursue any such alchemical interpretations, over which a considerable amount of time has been expended by Masonic ‘scholars’ in the past, I can offer a series of collective interpretations. Viewed together, as an integrated part of the whole ceremony, the passage of the Candidate through the veils can be taken to represent his own gradual enlightenment as he progresses through Freemasonry. Some many even see these veils as metaphors for the veil in the Temple that was ‘torn asunder’ at the moment of Christ’s death – itself the supreme moment of Man’s enlightenment. Others can see the veils as an emblem of Christ Himself as He hung of the ‘Altar of the Cross’. Whichever interpretation is preferred, the crucial thing about the veils in this Masonic ceremony is that they are intended to have a profound spiritual meaning for the Candidate as he progresses forward to the sanctuary of enlightenment.

Each of the first three veils is guarded by a Captain who carried a standard that is coloured like ‘his’ veil. Symbolically, these Captains prevent any unqualified person from passing through towards the final white veil and what it conceals. The Captains each reveal a different Sign, Grip or Token and Word in succession. These are entrustings and are preceded by appropriate readings from the Old Testament. After each Scripture reading the respective Captain provides his explanatory’ gloss’ which educates the Candidate with the significance of the Sign, Grip and Word of ‘his’ veil. The Candidate has to remember each set of instructions for when he comes to the next veil, he has to prove himself to that Captain in the competence and knowledge that he has achieved so far. So there are nine items to be remembered in the correct sequence before he can be entrusted by the presiding officer with the final Sign, Grip or Token and Word that will enable him to gain admission into the final part of the ceremony. In a short ‘Lecture’ that follows he is informed of the following interpretations:

  • the veils allude to those veils in the Mosaic Tabernacle erected in the desert;
  • his passage through them is emblematic of the Israelites’ wanderings towards their ‘Promised Land’;
  • his passage through the veils is also meant to represent the pilgrimage of a captive Hebrew who eagerly avails himself of the opportunity presented by Cyrus to return to his ancestral homeland in order to complete a sacred task of reconstruction.

Anyway, it is without question that one of the basic features of all Hermetic traditions is this theme of ‘veiling’; that secrets are carefully hidden – hidden from those who are not initiates and even from those who are members but who, as yet, are not properly qualified to share in them. All Hermetic traditions that I know of are multi-gradal in this sense with their occult insights being revealed slowly to zealous initiates as they progress ‘upwards’ through a series of structured ceremonies towards full enlightenment. This theme of ‘veiling’ is mirrored also in the blindfolding of initiates which occurs, of course, in Freemasonry too though then it may also refer to the Candidate’s own ignorance being subject to darkness (i.e., absence of light) and the removal of the blindfold is meant to represent to him the emergence into the ‘light’ of membership, of belonging.


Most people today have not been educated to think allegorically. In the late 17th century and through the 18th century, when the foundations of the ritual that we have inherited were being laid down, young people were schooled then to make them familiar with many of the conventional classical myths and with the imagery, of various levels of complexity, contained therein. The subtleties of this conceptual framework are seen most easily and comprehensively in the visual arts of the period. In the early 18th century the following examples were still in common currency:

  • the image of a laurel bush would be have been interpreted readily as a reference to the god Apollo or Helios;
  • vines leaves would have been seen as an allusion to the god Bacchus or Dionysius;
  • a lion skin would have meant Hercules or Heracles;
  • the image of a caduceus would have been taken as a reference to the god Mercury or Hermes;
  • porcelain figurines carrying a bunch of flowers, a sheaf of corn, a bunch of grapes or a flaming brazier would have been seen as references to the four seasons respectively Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter.

Now the chief allegory with which speculative Freemasonry is concerned is that of temple-building and, although many images of actual building operations are borrowed in the rituals, speculative freemasons are really concerned with a life-long task of erecting a spiritual temple ‘not made with hands, eternal in the heavens’. Moreover, from an individual member’s point of view, each is involved and committed to the careful preparation of just one stone for its particular place in that ‘temple’ and that stone is his personality. Thus the unperfected personality of the new member (when he first enters our Lodge rooms) is represented by the Rough Ashlar taken unworked from the quarry. It has all of the obvious qualities of a rough stone: durability, dependability, permanence, strength etc., but is of little use to be fitted together with the other stones destined for the temple. The individual craftsman has to work, during his Masonic career, in polishing that Rough stone by knocking off the ‘superfluities’, very much as an apprentice stonemason would knock off the roughnesses of the ashlars using his primitive working tools on the building site. The resulting smooth ashlar is the same stone, but without all of the obvious defects that would have prevented it being placed exactly against or along side the other stones thus to form the temple wall. From something with mere potential he has become rendered by his own efforts into something that is actually useful. Thus, the initiate is not really a passive recipient of ‘mysteries’ but is an active agent who is required to interact with the principles and to make something else from them in the secret recesses of his own heart.


Symbols were attractive to the ritual compilers of the early 18th century because of their sheer carrying power. Furthermore, they can operate simultaneously at many levels and are capable of multiple interpretations. This may be a quasi-ambiguity and, if so, certainly is one that would accord with Hermetic traditions where inherent ambiguity smacks of deliberate obfuscation for, traditionally, Truth must remain hidden to all who are, as yet, not ‘insightful’. The universality of symbols must have proved very attractive to the founding fathers of speculative Freemasonry because of the then prevailing aim at pan-humanity amelioration and ethical improvement. It was manifested for them then also in the wide-ranging popular schemes for universal languages at that time. Moreover, there were plenty of symbols which were readily available and which provided them with a ready-made framework of reference. They had no need to re-invent the wheel. Besides, symbols also encrypt meanings and this would certainly have appealed to the prevailing fashion for codes and secrecy which was one of the literary bi-products of the political and religious turmoil of the Carolingian era.

Certainly the founders of speculative Freemasonry developed a whole range of symbols and did not hesitate to extrapolate on their possible practical applications in ethics. Most of these symbols have pre-eminently practical applications and that fact is significant in view of the prevailing pragmatism and experimentation of the age. There are several groups of such symbols which they found ideally suited to of their purposes.

  • They made a great deal of use of mathematical symbols (e.g., circles and numbers) which are, of course, universal and hence present no barriers linguistically. They deal with concepts of quantification, exactitude and measurement, which were then conceived as being applicable to ethics. They hint at a kind of mathematical ‘harmony’ in the universe and hence to the myth of a ‘Pythagorean’ origin for speculative Freemasonry. They are also very much in accord with the then prevailing Newtonianism.

One interesting side-light on this structural importance accorded to numbers, with their Kaballistic meanings, is the re-structuring of the Lectures associated with each of the basic Degrees which took place after 1813 under the 30-year rule of HRH The Duke of Sussex (1773-1843) as Grand Master. Sussex was known to have a sustained interest in the Kaballah and owned several books on the subject. Prior to this revision the Lectures had been printed without any subdivisions. It may be significant that in the new versions the Lecture on the First Degree was to have seven sections; that for the Second Degree was to have five and that for the Third Degree had to have three sections. But such refinements pale into insignificance when the general character of English Freemasonry during Sussex’s rule became progressively anti-intellectualist and even anti-Hermetic. This was not due wholly to Sussex’s influence because there were demographic factors that militated against any development or even continuation of any initial Heremetic tendencies. One of these demographic factors was, of course, that the members came almost totally from the expanding middle and professional classes with their inherent bourgeois mentality and a suspicion of anything that smacked of a philosophical approach to life and particularly to spare time activities.

  • In connection with the use which they made of mathematical symbols it is worthwhile mentioning the adoption of one geometrical symbol in particular – the so-called ‘Pythagoras Theorem’ which was incorporated into the design of the English PM’s jewel. The background to its inclusion is rather involved. The frontispieces in the 1723 and the 1738 editions of the Constitutions both depict a classical arcade. In the foreground stand two noble Grand Masters each accompanied with servants. On the ground between the two principle figures is shown a diagram of the 47th proposition with the Greek word ‘Eureka’. Anderson thought at the time that this was a exclamation by Pythagoras when he discovered the Proposition and declared it to be ‘the Foundation of all Masonry, sacred, civil and military’. Actually, of course, Anderson was wrong on two counts. The Proposition is more correctly Euclid’s and ‘Eureka’ was Archimedes’ exclamation in connection with quite a different scientific discovery. Nevertheless, he reinforced the claim about this Proposition by adding the following passage in the greatly augmented 1738 edition:

Pythagoras … became not only the Head of a new religion of Patch Work but likewise of an Academy or Lodge of good Geoemetricians to whom he communicated a secret, viz. That amazing Proposition which is the Foundation of all Masonry, of whatever Materials or Dimensions, called by Masons his HEUREKA; because They think it was his own Invention.

This was an assumption which he was to propose quite explicitly in his Defence of Masonry (1730) when he wrote:

I am fully convinced that Freemasonry is very nearly allied to the old Pythagorean Discipline from whence, I am persuaded, it may in some circumstances very justly claim a descent.

It is difficult to establish now where Anderson got this curious idea from because, apart from a single reference to Pythagoras in the Cooke MS (one of the oldest surviving ‘Old Charges’ dating from c. 1490), there are no other references to him in any of the other Old Charges. One can only assume that because ancient Greece was the home of geometry and geometry was obviously the basis of all architecture and freemasons were traditionally assumed then to be the inheritors of the skills and traditions of the medieval operative stonemasons, that speculative Freemasonry was taken to be based on teachings derived from classical mathematicians such as Pythagoras. This was not a very widely held assumption, however. For example, Dr Francis Drake MD, FRS (1695-1770), in his speech to the Grand Lodge of York (1726) only refers to Pythagoras in connection with Euclid and Archimedes as great proficients in geometry and not as a founder of Freemasonry. Martin Clare (d. 1751) does not even mention Pythagoras’ name in his lecture The Advantages Enjoyed by the Fraternity (1735). The Discourse Upon Masonry (1742) contains no such reference either. Rev. Charles Brockwell published his Lecture on the Connection between Freemasonry and Religion (1747) and that makes no such reference.

It was only in the early 1750's that references to Pythagoras as a major figure in the history of Freemasonry began to appear in the various MS editions of the Lectures associated with the three Degrees. The idea of him being a founder gained significance with the publication of the now infamous forgery, the Locke-Lelande MS, in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1753. That spurious ‘medieval’ document claimed that

Peter Gower [i.e., Pythagoras] a Grecian journeyedde ffor kunnynge yn Egypt and in Syria and in everyche Londe wherat the Venetians [i.e., Phoenicians] hadde planntedde Maconrye and wynnynge Entraunce yn al Lodges of Maconnes, he lerned muche, and retournedde and woned [i.e., lived] yn Grecia Magna wachsynge [i.e., growing] and becommyne a myghtye wyseacre [i.e., philosopher] and gratelyche renouned and he framed a grate Lodge at Groton [i.e., Crotona in southern Italy] and maked many Maconnes, some whereoffe dyd journeye yn Fraunce, and maked manye Maconnes wherefromme, yn processe of Tyme, the Arte passed yn Englelonde.

The story was accepted unquestioningly by most major Masonic writers thereafter but has since been shown to be an 18th century forgery, the purpose of which may have been to lend some historical respectability (via Pythagoras) and academic respectability (via the John Locke association) to the Masonic phenomenon. Such general acceptance of the Pythagoras connection within Lodges’ working practices is shown, for example, by the inclusion of the 47th Proposition design within some of the early 19th century Tracing Boards. It was also a measure of its general acceptance that it was incorporated into the design of the title pages of semi-official publications like Smith’s Pocket Companion (from 1735 onwards) and the anonymous Multa Paucis for Lovers of Secrets (c. 1764).

As far as Past Masters’ jewels in the 18th century were concerned, there was no official rule for the design. Indeed, the English ‘exposures’ of the 1760's specify other designs. Moreover, there are many portraits of famous freemasons then who were Past Masters of Lodges which show them wearing jewels of quite different designs although they did not have any official approval by the Premier Grand Lodge. Even within the newly created UGLE there does not appear to have been any opinion in favour of the use of the symbol. For instance, the Minutes of the Quarterly Communication held on 2 May 1814 laid down

that the following Masonic clothing and insignia be worn by the Craft and that no other be permitted in the Grand Lodge or any subordinate Lodge … Jewels … Past Masters … The Square within a Quadrant.

And yet within 19 months, on the publication of the 1815 edition of the Book of Constitutions (the first to be issued by the UGLE) things had changed: the ‘Square and Quadrant’ design had been abandoned and the present 47th Proposition design had been adopted. No reasons were given and Masonic historians have been unable to find any. It is possible, however, that when the ‘Square and Quadrant’ design became part of the new jewel for the Grand Master and Past Grand Masters (a distinction which has since been extended to other high officers) then something else had to be found to distinguish less important Brethren.

Yet why was this geometric ‘Pythagorean’ symbol adopted by the UGLE for the Past Master’s jewel rather than any other? Possibly Anderson’s assumption was by then almost 100 years old and had acquired sufficient respectability as not to be questioned. But if the old operative stonemasons had used it they did so no more than purely as a pragmatic solution formulated over generations by similar craftsmen who need some quick method of checking the existing angles of their stone buildings rather than as a practical method of setting out right angles on the sites to start the construction of those buildings. There was probably nothing esoteric in their use of the 47th Proposition on the building sites.

  • Builders’ tools – squares, levels, plumb-rules, compasses – were also adopted by the founders of speculative Freemasonry. All of these hint at the other potent myth of the possible origin of Freemasonry in the medieval operative stonemasons’ yards and hence, for 18th century minds, at its probable antiquity and hence at its respectability. Moreover, the builders’ tools allude to the manipulation of matter (a traditional alchemical process surely) and, by extension, to ethics - to the structuring of morality on a grand scale.
  • Two kinds of perambulatory symbols were incorporated subtly and the 18th century progressed and the Lodges acquired their own rooms. There are circular movements and movements forward in straight lines.

The movements around the chambers were devised to represent the peregrination motif, or the quest. These circular movements are usually, but not always, made in a clockwise direction. They betoken a Candidate’s wandering in search of enlightenment. Some of the obvious examples of these circular movements would be those taken in

  1. the Royal Arch Exaltation;
  2. the final ‘pilgrimage’ alone carrying the skull and lighted candle during the Knights Templar Installation;
  3. the August Order of Light ceremonies;
  4. the opening part of the Admission into Royal Order of Scotland (done, interestingly, ‘widdershins’ = anti-clockwise) and
  5. the Royal Master Degree around the symbolic Ark of the Covenant in the cave below the Temple.

The other movements, or steps forward in straight lines in various guises, were adopted to indicate direct or undeviating progress towards of enlightenment. Some of the obvious examples of these are:

  1. the steps the steps taken forward towards the Altar by the Candidate in each of the three basic

    Craft Degrees (as he is taught how to approach the east = source of enlightenment) immediately before taking his Obligations;

  2. the steps taken in the Zelator Grade of the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia up the line of ‘Ancients’ who are seated in a straight line facing east and each represents one of the four primary elements - earth, water, air and fire - (the Candidate ascending therefore symbolically through from the basic (earth) to the highest (fire).
  • One clearly Hermetic symbol is associated with the circular perambulations in the English Royal Arch ceremony which began to feature in the early decades of the 18th century in England. That is the zodiac, an image of remarkable potency. Of course, the zodiac still forms a key component in the Scottish Royal Arch ceremonial (for example around the architraves of the subterranean vaults of which there are at least 12 full-sized ones in use even today; in the design of the two Great Crimson and Green Banners and in the design of the members’ jewels. Zodiacs are also used in in the ceiling designs in at least 13 English masonic halls. This is very much in accordance with the well-documented European tradition of ceiling decoration in large public and private buildings dating from classical times. Perhaps its widespread use in masonic premises indicates a continuing pre-occupation with the concept of a well-established, harmonious cosmic order and the cyclic movement of time. There was also a tendency in the decoration of large public buildings from the Renaissance onwards towards systematic illustration of a compendious order manifested between a persistent inter-relationship between ceilings and floor decorations. Thus, there are many 19th century examples of the zodiacs projected on to the floors of Masonic temples using the design in specially woven carpets.

We can see this transfer from ceiling to floor in the spectacular decoration of the Grand Lodge Hall itself. The first hall was opened in 1776 roughly near the present site in Great Queen Street in London. A contemporary freemason, Capt. George Smith, described it in the following enthusiastic terms:

The roof of this magnificent Hall is in all probability the highest finished piece of workmanship in Europe, having gained universal applause from all beholders, and has raised the character of the architect (Richard Cox) beyond expression. In the center (sic) of this roof a most splendid sun is represented in burnished gold, surrounded by the twelve signs of the Zodiac with their respective characters … The emblematic meaning of the sun is well known to the enlightened and inquisitive Freemason … the scientific free-mason only knows the reason why the sun is thus placed in the center of this beautiful Hall.

The second Hall was designed in 1869 and the zodiacal ceiling was replaced a huge black and white squared carpet with a central circular design depicting the Square and Compasses symbol surrounded by the zodiacal sigils in roundels. The third and present Hall was furbished in the late 1930s and once again the zodiac sigils were placed around the ceiling.

This transfer of the zodiacs from ceilings to floors may have been done not just because it was somewhat less expensive. The incorporation of the zodiacs into the carpet design may have helped intentionally to lend essential significance to the Royal Arch ceremony. The Altars are located centrally in that rite and therefore within the circular zodiacal design where those particular carpets are in use. The Candidates are led around the Altars several times throughout the ceremony thus tracing a circular route around the zodiac. If they are engaged symbolically on their quest towards enlightenment then their actual movements could be interpreted as their voyaging across the universe (represented by the zodiacal sigils) towards that light. Certainly, it was this that the mid-19th century devisers of the rituals of the obscure August Order of Light had in mind for the Candidates’ circular perambulations which form a distinctive part of those ceremonies.

The earliest English reference to the zodiacal sigils in relation to Freemasonry is to be found in the Minutes of the Quarterly Communication of the Premier Grand Lodge held on 26 November 1728. On that occasion the Grand Master pro tem proposed the revival of the custom of having Stewards to organise the Annual Festivals. The record states:

The Health of the twelve stewards was proposed and drunk with twelve alluding to the twelve Signes of the Zodiack as well to their Number …

While there is very little English evidence that the zodiacal signs were included specifically in masonic ceremonies, several widely-used publications, dating from the later half of the 18th century do contain direct references to them and the zodiac signs were used in De Lintot’s Rite of Seven Degrees (by the short-lived Lodge of Perfect Observance under William Preston’s schismatic Grand Lodge South of the River Trent in the late 1770's). The final Degree of that series - the Scottish Heredom - used the sigils in a circular configuration.

In some of the oldest Lodges in North Carolina take their origins from the Premier Grand Lodge. The zodiacal symbols still appear in their Third Degree ritual which has been preserved since the 1770's. At a certain point in the ceremony a long, broad strip of white canvas cloth is laid on the floor along the north, west and south sides of the room. These strips have the 12 signs painted on them and 12 ‘volunteer’ Brethren stand on them, one at each of the signs. Each makes learned responses in rotation in answer to catechismical questions addressed by the Master. If the 12 signs collectively represent the universe and each Brother responding to the interrogation represents ‘his’ zodiacal sign and the Master represents King Solomon, then this ritual could be interpreted as enacting the universe answering Solomon’s quest for wisdom.

A parallel tradition was preserved within the ‘Wooler’ ritual which was worked in parts of Northumberland even as late as the 1820's. It contains an extended Zodiacal Lecture in which each sigil is associated with a corresponding legend in classical mythology. Its continued use until the third decade of the 19th century suggests at least a residue of a former pre-occupation with the zodiac signs among northern speculative Freemasons.

In France, however, the signs of the zodiac were used in ritual preserved in a MS that forms part of a collection of 81 Degrees of ‘Hermetic Masonry’ amassed by Jean Eustache Peuvert (d. 1800), a member of the Grand Orient de France. Among the MSS contained in these six quarto volumes are the texts of 12 zodiacal Degrees that had been worked by the Metropolitan Chapter of France in Paris during the latter half of the 18th century before the Revolution.

  • The founding fathers of speculative Freemasonry used the ‘geometry’ of Lodge rooms in several symbolic ways. Originally Masonic Lodges met in the upper rooms of taverns and coffee houses. Even the Premier Grand Lodge itself did not own any permanent premises until 1767. It was only when the Lodges began to acquire their own premises in the latter part of the 18th century that they were able to set out their furniture and equipment more or less permanently. These private premises certainly helped to reinforce a key aspect of the Hermetic tradition: separatedness and exclusivity. Furthermore, the rooms became defining spaces in which the members were able to enact their espoused utopianism. In that sense they functioned as working ‘laboratories’ in which the very architectural layout became a constant symbol.

The rooms were nearly always constructed in the dramatically simple form of a double cube in allusion to the altars that were in the Tabernacle and Temple. The principal officers, Master, Senior and Junior Wardens, were to be seated (as they are now) in the east, west and south respectively. If a straight line were to be drawn from the Master, to the Junior Warden and then extended to the Senior Warden, an exact right angle would be constructed. That figure represented conveniently a stonemason’s square, a working implement that was allude repeatedly in the ritual to the ethical dimensions of a freemason’s daily conduct (the emphasis being on his practising ‘square’ conduct in all of his dealings with other folk). The fact that it is the three principal officers of any Lodge which could construct this basic ethical geometrical figure by their actual locations in respect to each other within the Lodge rooms should not be without significance to the ordinary members while watching the performances of the ceremonies. If a line were to be drawn to represent the route of the Candidates’ circular perambulations around the rooms is added to the square and triangle figures, then the result is surely the traditional Vitruvian figure. Hence, the square Lodge room, the triangular location of the principal officers and the Candidates’ circular perambulations together compose that wonderful Vitruvian ‘glyph’ which represents so much of what Renaissance men conceived as Man’s place in the universe.

But most of this remains hidden to most English speculative freemasons because symbols and emblems are problematic for most modern minds. Most native English-speaking people tend now not to think or be educated in symbolic and emblematic thinking so most initiates find the requirement to conceptualise using abstract symbols somewhat daunting. But that was not the case when the foundations of speculative Freemasonry were being laid in the early years of the 18th century in London. Education people were used to thinking emblematically and symbolically. For instance, it was assumed that by beginning of the 18th century the Renaissance tradition of printing emblem books had begun to decline generally but more recent research has shown that the printing of them did not die out post-1700. There were about 150-250 editions and re-issues of emblem books with English texts printed from 1680 to 1750 and there were at least 20 different titles in the first two decades of the 18th century. The fact that there were only 30 or so original titles published in England in the previous 50 years would seem to suggest that there was a sustained public appetite for emblems and symbols and for the imaginative interpretation of them.

Modern minds may cope very adequately with hosts of symbols very day in the profane world (e.g., when travelling along a road, either as a driver, a passenger or a pedestrian) but in the present Masonic ceremonies there are many visual and verbal symbols which the Candidate will have to understand. He is given some brief instruction during the actual ceremony and since that instruction is quite properly withheld from those who are not members of the Lodge (i.e., from those who might be called ‘the profane’), then it might be called ‘esoteric’. However, interpretation of symbols is not so much a matter of intellectual study as a matter of life and applied experience. It is quite possible, therefore, that in any Lodge meeting during the enactment of one of the Craft ceremonies, one member has acquired such experience of life that has given him a better understanding of the particular symbols, while another sitting next to him lacks both that depth or intensity of experience and the resultant level of understanding. The former has acquired knowledge that is truly ‘esoteric’ – not that it is withheld from the latter but because it is, as yet, beyond his grasp until he has had comparable experience of life that will eventually bring a similar enlightenment to him. When an initiate is informed that ‘there are several Degrees in Freemasonry, with peculiar secrets restricted to each’, this is itself a symbol of a hidden truth: that even among Brethren who have acquired the same Degree, there may be some who have insightful knowledge while others lack it – not because it has been withheld from them but simply because it is as yet beyond their present potential to grasp and understand. They have not yet had those life experiences that are necessary to quicken their potential capacity and make it actual.


This word was chosen very carefully by the compilers of the ritual. It hints at the late 17th century origins of speculative Freemasonry, an era when the cultural and intellectual life of the nation was dominated by the all-pervading legacy of Newton.

Much has been made of Newtonism, in particular of the possible contribution which the Royal Society in London may have made to the emergence of the Masonic phenomenon. For example, attention has been drawn from time to time to the fact that at any one time during the first half of the 18th century at least 25% of the Fellows of the Royal Society were freemasons. According to the 1723 masonic membership List, 40 Fellows (i.e., 25% of the total membership of the Royal Society) belonged to London Lodges. Of these, 23 were Fellows before their Initiations and 16 were elected to their Fellowships after their Initiations. Of the former sub-group, 13 had been elected before the ‘re-founding’ of the Grand Lodge in June 1717. Examination of the 1723 List shows that 32 of these 40 Fellows still retained their membership of their Lodges and it also shows that a further 27 had been initiated before them. Of this latter ‘intake’, 16 had been elected to their Fellowships before their Initiations and 11 were elected after that. By 1725, 59 Fellows (i.e., still 25% of the Society’s total membership!) were freemasons. Examination of the Lists for 1723, 1725 and 1730 shows that nine Fellows continued their membership of their various Lodges throughout the decade. It has also been noted that these Fellows were members of at least 29 different Lodges that worked mostly in or around the central London area. Therefore, it has been assumed that this ‘elite’ membership was not concentrated in just a few Lodges; nor were they simply responding to the novelty of belonging to a new institution; nor to the social cachet of belonging (when it may have been perceived that some important noblemen had accepted the titular leadership of it in successive years). The assumption is that there must have been something more than the mere re-enactment of medieval builders’ ceremonies which attracted these distinguished men who contributed to the scientific literature of the nation.

However, before too much weight is placed on this remarkable incidence of Fellows of the Royal Society as freemasons, the morphology of Royal Society membership itself. For instance, it is by no means certain what kind of sample the membership of the Society provides. While it may be accepted that the Society did form some kind of English elite in the field of ‘scientific investigation’, it remains unclear even to this date what precise relationship its membership bore to the contemporary English scientific community generally and no one has yet been able to answer the following crucial and related questions:

  • What prompted some scientific enthusiasts to join the Society while others did not accept membership?
  • To what extent could membership be due to motives that had nothing to do with an interest/skill in science?

It is beginning to emerge that less formal and even accidental factors limited recruitment to the Society and these produced thereby both positive and negative distortions in the membership. These distortions are important factors in assessing the relationship between the Society’s membership and the general phenomenon of scientific enthusiasm in late Stuart England. It is now clear that in its early days the Royal Society was never central to the scientific activities of those many investigators who were based elsewhere in the provinces. Furthermore, judging from the elaborate genealogical links delineated in the data collected assiduously by William Bullock in the late 1820s, there are many instances when the only apparent reason for someone joining the Royal Society seems to have been the candidates’ social and/or family connections with those who were already members. Many of its aristocratic recruits were valued as much for the social eminence as for their enthusiasm and the inclusion of those names in the published membership lists gave much-needed testimony to the Society’s espousal of the ‘new science’ as well as lending a certain social eclat. Indeed, there is every reason now to suspect that these printed sheets were used deliberately as proselytising propaganda by the Society and that there may well have been considerable truth in the common contemporary and repeated complaint that the Fellows came to the meetings ‘only as to a play to amuse themselves for an hour or so’. While analysis of the Society’s membership cannot illustrate fully the social, political or religious affiliations of science, nevertheless it may provide a partial illustration of the social, political or religious affiliations of the supporters of the Royal Society in London – which is something quite different. Moreover, the same sort of caveat can be made about not attributing too much significance to the involvement of 25% of the Fellows in Freemasonry. If a quarter of the Society’s members became freemasons because they judged that there was something worthwhile pursing in the Lodges’ activities, what does that say about the remaining 75% who did not become freemasons?

That said, the Royal Society did have a sustained interest in Hermeticism in its early decades. Prominent members then were as much exercised by the underlying mystical principles and harmonies of the perceived universe as they were about furthering practical experimentation. In 1667, for example, the Society issued several alchemical and ‘Hermetic’ questionnaires to foreign correspondents to solicit their views and accumulate records of their experiences. Lynn Thorndike’s analysis of the first 20 volumes of the Society’s Philosophical Transactions revealed that there was a persistent preoccupation in Hermeticism over several generations in common with members of other such Societies in Europe and Keith Hutchinson has shown that there were continuing underlying Hermetic qualities in the Scientific Revolution. In the Society’s library there are meticulous MSS copies of geometric drawings taken directly from Perspectiva Corporum Regulatium, a book published in 1568 by Wenzel Jamnitzer. He was a distinguished member of a secretive circle of scholars, the Rosenkreizern, which flourished in Nurnberg in the early decades of the 17th century. The same clandestine association had no less a personage than Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716), one of the most original ‘scientific’ thinkers of the age, as its secretary. Another of its prominent members, Johann Wulfer, emigrated to London in the latter part of the same century and became a close associate of four Fellows of the Royal Society: Boyle, Pell, Oldenberg and Haak. Another Rosicrucian group, called Aufrichtige Geselleschaft von der Tanne, flourished in Strasbourg from 1633. One of its leading proponents, Georg Rudolph Weckherlin (1584-1653), also came to live in London and after 1642 was employed in several key Chancery posts. He became a close friend of Hartlib and Pell. A third such group, the Collegium Philosophicum (or Societas Ereunetica) was founded in Rostock in 1619 by Joachim Junge (1587-1657). He was also a close associate of Hartlib. Likewise, Comenius, who was connected closely with Zesen, the founder of the Drei Rosen group in Hamburg, came to reside is London in 1641 at the express invitation of Hartlib and his Oxford circle. There were several other such sustained connections among English ‘scientific revolutionaries’ with Continental ‘Rosicrucianism’ at that time – particularly among those various English groups that were not centred on Oxford and London – and therefore, those Hermetic doctrines espoused by the Continental sources may have percolated into early speculative Freemasonry via the Royal Society.

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