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A Basic Historico-Chronological Model of the
Western Hermetic Tradition

Masonic Initiation of Today Viewed as a Process


If masonic Initiation is examined, not as a matter of textual analysis but rather as a lived-through experience, it becomes clear fairly quickly that it is a process in which there are some Hermetic features. For the individual candidate his Initiation is a process that begins even before he makes his application for admission to membership. The Master and the rest of the Brethren must be assured that he is ‘properly prepared’. A clue as to the two-fold nature of this preparation is given in one of the answers which a newly made freemason is required to give to the Master during a short interrogation before he can be passed to the Second Degree:

Where were you first prepared to me made a mason?
In my heart.

Where next?
In a convenient room adjoining the Lodge.

His preparation is, therefore

  • spiritual and then
  • physical.

The physical preparation of a Candidate for Initiation is made dramatic so that he will always remember it, but few English-speaking freemasons seem to have given much thought to the nature of the previous spiritual preparation which it is assumed the Candidate will have effected in the secrecy of his own heart. That is not surprising because nowhere in any English Craft ritual are Brethren told in so many words what might be the nature of this prior, inner preparation. Nevertheless, there are six clues about it in the interrogation which a Candidate is put through by the Master just after he has managed to cross the threshold.

  • He declares himself to be a free man and to be of the full age of 21 years (these are, of course, simple matters of fact that are easily verified).
  • He professes a belief in God and declares that he puts his whole trust in Him in ‘all cases of difficulty and danger’.
  • He asserts that he has presented himself for Initiation of his ‘own free will and accord’.
  • He assures those present that he has not been influenced by ‘any mercenary or other unworthy motive’ (i.e., that he not come expecting to gain some kind of mundane advantage from membership of the Order).
  • He states that his real reasons for coming forward are that he has
  1. a sincere desire for knowledge and
  2. an equally sincere wish to make himself ‘more extensively serviceable’ to others.
  • He claims that he has already acquired ‘a favourable opinion preconceived of the Order’ and believes that the order will help him to acquire this deeper knowledge and an ability to render himself ‘more extensively serviceable’ to other people.

These are the declarations which all freemasons have to give in open Lodge. If they reflect that genuine preparation which was wrought in their hearts even before they came forward to the Master’s pedestal, then they were indeed ‘properly prepared’ to take full advantage of the ceremonials which were only the beginning of the process of their true Initiation.

The idea of masonic Initiation being a process can be illustrated in three ways.

  • Consider the fact that the implements which the newly-made freemason is presented are working tools. Now forget, for a moment, that each of them can be interpreted symbolically and ethically. As symbols they all have meanings that are deeper than those which are communicated in explicit terms. The crucial fact is that they are instruments of labour. Hence, they are a collective reminder that
  1. hard work is the lot of Man on Earth and
  2. sustained and patient effort are the defining characteristics of a true and conscientious craftsman in the daily use of his working implements, whatever they might be.

As a freemason, however, the new member has left the multitude of workers in the ordinary, profane world. Willingly, he has put his hands to a task that demands not only sustained effort but efforts that are not usually demanded of those still left in that profane realm.

  • Next consider the idea of process and struggle referred to in that injunction to the Candidate to ‘make a daily advancement in masonic knowledge’. Naturally, the first feeble steps in this are becoming familiar with the content of the rituals and committing whole passages of it to memory. This is an ancient method of mental self-improvement (i.e., a form of mental training used to train orators and lawyers ) and has been very ably described by Frances Yates in her books The Art of Memory (1966) and The Theatre of the World (1969).
  • However, mere intellectual assent to the principles inculcated in the rituals is not enough. To fulfil the purposes for which a Candidate is initiated, he must assimilate these instructions and the symbols and allegories into his daily life. And that is not always easy, of course! It is sometimes very difficult to act according to masonic principles in a world in which he may have to deal with other folk who are not actuated by the same principles. Nevertheless, he does have a real responsibility to adhere as faithfully as he can to those principles – no matter that may cost. Fortunately, not many are called upon to face the supreme test but in their everyday lives they do come up against many small matters that test. These are the ‘repeated trials and approbations’ to which the First Degree ritual refers and they do not always come from outside. Sometimes, indeed often, the tests originate internally.

Now this distinction between the objective world outside of ourselves and the subjective world within ourselves is crucial in order to deepen an appreciation of what is meant by ‘masonic Initiation’. The apparently simple act of leaving the outside world and entering a Lodge room can be regarded (as can be seen in the French ritual to which I shall refer below) as a symbolic action that represents

  • a withdrawing from the material realm - a profane world in which we acquire crude, unrefined experience only via our five physical senses – and
  • an entering into a subjective realm, an inner world, a world of which we have more immediate, direct and emotional experience.

Actually, in addition to the non-masonic realm of ordinary daily existence, there are three such inner, subjective worlds between which there can be some conflict occasionally.

  • A man inhabits the world of his emotions and instincts wherein he experiences pleasure, and sorrow, attraction and repulsion. Desire and aversion. This is the realm of passions, appetites and standards.
  • Simultaneously, a man inhabits a world of reason in which he exercises his intelligence and acquires and perfects those manifold skills that are essential for him to master his physical environment.
  • At the same time, however, there is a third realm – a spiritual dimension – beyond the limitations of the other two in which a man’s soul strives with more or less success towards eventual union with the Deity.

But there are four realms of a freemason’s existence through which he must pass:

  • the ordinary profane world;
  • the world of ethical standards or morality;
  • the intellectual world of arts and sciences and
  • the spiritual dimension in which he communicates with the Deity.

And all four are alluded to by a curious symbol that appears on some of the First Degree Tracing boards but which is only alluded to in a curious piece of dialogue in the opening moments of the Third Degree. The Master and the two Wardens engage in a short catechismical exchange with the Master asking the questions to which he presumably knows the answers.

Q. Brother Junior Warden, whence come you?

  1. From the East, Worshipful Master.
  2. Wither directing your course, Brother Senior Warden?
  3. Towards the west.
  4. Brother Junior Warden, what inducement have you to leave the east and go to the west?
  5. To seek for that which was lost which, by your instruction and our own endeavours, we

hope to find.

  1. Brother Senior Warden, what is that which was lost?
  2. The genuine secrets of a Master Mason….

Q. Brother Senior Warden, where do you hope to find them.

A. Upon the centre.

Q. Brother Junior Warden, what is a centre?

A. That point within a circle from which every part of the circumference is equally distant.

Q. Brother Senior Warden, why upon the centre?

A. Because that is the point from which a Master Mason cannot err.

You will see this encapsulated in an otherwise neglected symbol illustrated as Fig. 1. I propose to deconstruct this image which is crammed with meaning because most of that meaning is ignored in English-speaking Lodges today.

The symbol of a plain circle, with a central dot and two parallel tangents drawn vertically, appeared in the rituals first the middle of the 18th century when the Lodges had begun to furnish their own rooms to reflect developments in the doctrines of the Order much further. By then the Masters had acquired pedestals (sometimes referred to as the Altars) on which open copies of the Bible would be placed. On the front of these pedestals and in full view of the Brethren there would be large pieces of card fixed. On those cards would be drawn simple circles of such dimensions that the circumferences could touch the outer, perpendicular edges of the pedestals, the edges of the surfaces on which the Bibles rested and the floors which had been covered with cloths coloured with back and white squares. In the centre of these circles would be drawn a single dots or points. At a later stage, there were two parallel lines drawn as tangents to the circles to represent the two outer edges, perpendicular edges of the pedestals.

What can be made of this? It is an image that has provided almost endless fun for those who have become involved in interpreting masonic symbolism. Here are a few random examples.

  • Bro. Thomas Smith Webb (1771-1810), writing in his Freemason’s Monitor (1797), claimed that

the point represents the individual Brother and the circle the boundary lines of his duty to God and his fellow creatures.

  • Bro. Rev. Dr. George Oliver DD (1782-1867), writing in his Antiquities of Freemasonry (1823) was of the opinion that

the circle is a primordial symbol, dating from the Paradise of Eden, the Point being that emblem of Divine omnipresence – the centre everywhere and the circumference nowhere! The perpendicular parallel lines represent the two trees in the Garden of Eden – the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge.


  • Later that same century, Bro. John Fellows, in his Mysteries of Freemasonry (1871), concluded that

the Point in the Circle represents the Supreme Being: the Circle indicates the annual circuit of the Sun; and the parallel lines mark out the solstices within which that circuit is limited. The freemason, by subjecting himself to ‘due bounds’, in imitation of ‘that glorious luminary’, will not wander from the path of duty.

  • Bro. J M S Ward, in his Freemasonry and the Ancient Gods (1921), thought that the parallel lines represent the solstices, or day and night, or good and evil, or male and female etc., etc. He seemed to be introducing some extremes into his interpretation but he did make the point which may be significant:

when travelling round the circle, we are compelled to touch both these poles and thereby gain through bitter experience that education of the soul is the chief reason for our birth into this material world.

He went on:

If we were simply being whirled for ever around the circle of Fate, our outlook would be hopeless but we are ourselves the compasses and the point which rests on the centre is that Divine Spirit with in each of us and is, therefore, that centre from which we cannot err.

  • According to some of the early versions of William Preston’s Lectures the two lines were taken to represent the two Saint Johns: that on the left symbolised St John the Baptist and that on the right symbolised St John the Evangelist – the two Patrons of the medieval mason craft. Preston pointed out that, so far as he was concerned:

the two parallels in modern times are applied to exemplify the two St Johns as Patrons of the Order whose festivities are celebrated near the solstices of those times when the Sun, in its zodiacal career, touches these two parallels.

These two saints protected the medieval stonemasons’ Craft and half-yearly Festivals were held to commemorate their Feast Days – 24 June and 27 December respectively – which were conveniently six months apart. In the early decades of speculative Freemasonry these festivals were retained as occasions on which the Masters of the Lodges could be ‘chaired’. In an era when English speculative Freemasonry was still Christian in outlook, these figures of the two saints represented the beginning and the end of the Christian dispensation as boundaries of freemasons’ experience: the Baptist was the representative of the start of Christ’s ministry, while the Evangelist, then believed to have been the author of the apocalyptic Revelation at the end of the New Testament, was the representative of the conclusion of Christ’s work on the final Day of Judgement. Thus the two parallel lines, as minimalist symbols of the two Saint Johns, were representative of the entire Christian dispensation from its beginning in the River Jordan to its conclusion on the glassy plain before the Great White Throne.

The neatness with which the zodiac, the sun, the two solstices, the two saints and the half-yearly ‘chairings’ of Masters of Lodges are all made to inter-lock is typical of the early 18th century mentality.

  • Later, when the ritual became de-Christianised, this Christian interpretation of the two lines was replaced by others. For example, in some detailed MS notes of the Lectures which were being used the mid-18th century, there are the following catechismical exchanges mentioning the dedication of King Solomon’s Temple:
  1. How is this dedication designated in Lodges?
  2. By a point within a circle within two parallel lines described as tangents to that circle.
  3. Why?
  4. As representing the centre of the Universe, the Divine Architect, Whose goodness we represent by the sun and for the benefits we derive from that great luminary.
  5. What does the circle represent?
  6. The zodiac is here represented as the prescribed path of the sun’s system to mark the limited nature of the most wonderful creatures we behold.
  7. What do the parallels represent?
  8. The tropics, to remind us of the Supreme Being Who has set bounds to all creatures and prescribed the

limits of planetary systems.

There was an alternative interpretation of the two parallel tangents that began to emerge at about the same time (see Fig. 2). The line on the left was now taken to represent Moses, the giver of the moral law, or the realm of morality; that on the right was taken to represent King Solomon, who was not only the presiding Builder of the Holy Temple (itself a metaphor for the freemason’s true enterprise) but also a personification of wisdom. Thus the two simple parallel lines came to stand for Moses who represented the realm of ethical conduct and for Solomon who represented the world of intellectual endeavour. The Bible, touched by the circumference of the circle, came to represent the third of those inner worlds inhabited by a freemason referred to above: the realm of the spirit, or man’s highest spiritual aspirations and communication with the Word of God. However, the circumference of the circle also touched the black and white squares of the carpet on the floor of the Lodge room. These black and white checks have always been taken, ever since their first appearance in Lodge rooms, to represent the vagaries of the mundane or profane world with its light and dark, its joys and sorrows, its good and bad, its disappointments and triumphs, its certainties and uncertainties.

A favourite interpretation in an important, pioneering study of masonic symbology from the later part of the 18th century by Bro. William Hutchinson FSA (1732-1814) is as follows:

As the steps of Man are trod in the various and uncertain incidents of Life, as our days are chequered with a strange contrariety of events, as our passage through this existence (though sometimes attended with prosperous circumstances) is often beset by a multitude of evils – hence are our Lodges furnished with mosaic work to remind us of the precariousness of our mortal state on this earth – Today our feet may stride in prosperity; tomorrow we trotter on the uneven paths of weakness, temptation and adversity. Whilst this emblem is before us, we are instructed to boast of nothing, to have compassion and to give aid to those who are in Adversity … Such is this existence that there is no station in which Pride can be stably founded …

The circle, a traditional symbol for eternity, can be interpreted as that track described by freemasons as they pursue their self-appointed task and pilgrimage while inhabiting the four realms described. It is bounded, like this circle, on four sides: on the left by the line that represents the realm of morality (Moses); on the right by the line that represents the realm of the intellect or wisdom (Solomon); at the top by the Bible representing the world of the spirit and at the bottom by the squared pavement representing the profane, precarious and ordinary world.

Clearly the point within the centre of the circle was put there to remind Brethren that a proper, undistorted circle could be drawn to touch equally each of the symbolic representations of the four inhabited worlds but only if the centre was used. Imagine, therefore, that the individual freemason is a pair of compasses. One of his legs is extended on the point and the other is used to describe the circumference of the circle that will just touch each of those four realms in turn. If the freemason deviates from that point (i.e., if he steps away from the designated centre) then the circle which he can describe cannot touch those four realms equally. There will be an inevitable distortion such that one or more of them will be favoured to the exclusion or detriment of the others. In other words, if he does not move away from the central point, the circle which he can describe will touch them all equally.

The point from which a freemason cannot err is that in the centre of the circle because the track which he can describe (by living his life truly and constantly in complete accordance with the principles he is taught in his Lodge) will proceed touching all of those four inhabited realms with equanimity and harmony. If he leaves that point, then his track through though four realms will become unbalanced, characterised by excessive attention to one or other of those realms to the neglect of the others. Thus, this simple symbol serves to remind a freemason that excessive mundane activity, excessive dedication to ethical conduct, excessive intellectualism or even excessive concentration of things of the world of the spirit will distort his total existence. A freemason’s inhabiting of the four realms should ideally receive due care and cultivation, keeping each realm in true perspective and recognising the proper limits and proportions of each. In this way his life, taken as a whole, will become balanced and symmetrical. In this way he may become a Perfect Ashlar, one that is fitted for its proper place in the spiritual temple.

Frankly, however, not much is made of this Hermetic image or any of the others which have been mentioned already in this paper. The general level of Hermetic exploration on a regular basis in English-speaking Lodges is now minimal. Their present state of philosophical impoverishment has accumulated for more than 150 years since the compromise formulation which defined Freemasonry in minimalist terms at the union of the two rival Grand Lodges in London in 1813. That Union created the present UGLE which has formally shunned making any clear recommendations regarding possible interpretations of symbols or even propounding any syllabus for systematic study. It does not even espouse an official ritual and, to this day, there are several popular rituals in circulation. Their textual differences are, of course, minimal largely because of the explicit ‘doctrinal’ injunction that it is not possible for any one to introduce any major innovation into the body of Freemasonry without properly seeking and obtaining the express permission from the UGLE. Much is made of avoiding such innovations, thereby preserving the so-called ‘Landmarks’ of the Order, but the UGLE has made no known effort to define what they might be. This is a policy of avoidance, of what not to do rather than a proactive one that might engender further spiritual growth among its adherents.

The UGLE has not propounded any agreed list of these defining ‘Landmarks’ of the fraternity. A document, adopted in 1949, printed thereafter as part of the ‘Introductory’ section in each successive edition of the Book of Constitutions and entitled ‘Aims and Relationships of the Craft’, might be assumed to set out the fundamental principles but, in summary form (as below) these are simplistic:

  • Belief in ‘the Supreme Being’ is a sine qua non to membership;
  • The Volume of the Sacred Law, whatever that might be, must be open when a Lodge is open for its meetings;
  • All candidates must take their Obligations by touching that particular sacred book;
  • All freemasons must be peaceful and law-abiding subjects who obey the laws of whichever country they happen to reside in but without denying their primal allegiance which they owe to their own sovereigns;
  • All freemasons, as ordinary citizens, are entitled to hold their own political opinions but, while in Lodge meetings (i.e., while acting as freemasons) they cannot discuss political or religious topics;
  • Freemasonry is totally impartial as to relations between governments and parties and towards political philosophies.

There is nothing much of Hermeticism here. Indeed, the UGLE expressly refuses to participate in any conferences that are designed to examine the principles and symbols of Freemasonry generally while Clause 11 of its declared ‘Aims’ states that ‘There is no secret with regard to any of the basic principles of Freemasonry’ but the UGLE will ‘in no circumstances … enter into a[ny] discussion with a view to any new or varied interpretation of them’ – especially when such gatherings are organised by, or which include, [irregular] freemasons who they claim do not adhere to these few basic principles. American freemasons have not been nearly so reticent but they have hardly revealed any thinking that might be called ‘Hermetic’. For instance, over 70 years ago Albert G. Mackey (in his Encylopaedia of Freemasonry, 1925 and in his Jurisprudence of Freemasonry, 1927) compiled an interesting analysis of the lists of ‘Landmarks’ that were being propounded by 24 Grand Lodges in the USA and an authoritative commentary on this compilation was published in The Philalethes Magazine (May, 1946). It is worthwhile quoting this listing in summary form if only to demonstrate the poverty of thinking.

  • Freemasons must believe in the existence of the Supreme Being, in the certain revelation of His will, the resurrection of the body and the soul’s immortality.
  • They take solemn Obligations and use traditional means of mutual recognition.
  • Symbols – derived from Solomon’s Temple, the legends of that king and his partners in the temple building, the observed habits and customs of the construction workers so employed and from the instruments and materials used therein - are used ritually to teach moral virtues, goodwill and the doctrines of natural religion.
  • Freemasons must obey the moral laws and the government of any country in which they reside.
  • The Grand Master is the sovereign of the Order, the Worshipful Master is the presiding officer of the subordinate Lodges and the Grand Lodge is the only governing body within its territorial jurisdiction.
  • Each Lodge is entitled to be represented by its three principle officers at meetings of the respective Grand Lodge.
  • Lodges alone have the power to initiate and are free to administer their own private business.
  • All candidates for initiation must be of majority age, free-born, strong and healthy. They must be voted for openly and in secret by all of the subscribing members of the Lodge and only after careful investigation as to their character and background.
  • All freemasons, as freemasons, are equal and all Lodges and Grand Lodges are equal in status.
  • No member of the Order may be installed as a Master of a Lodge unless he has served at least the office of a steward of that Lodge, unless he obtains a special (prior) dispensation from the Grand Master.
  • The content of the Obligations, the means of mutual recognition and the ceremonies used by the Lodges in the conferment of the Degrees are secret and must be kept as such by all members.
  • No innovation can be made in ‘the body of Freemasonry’ because the ‘Ancient Landmarks’ are the supreme law of Freemasonry and they cannot be changed or repealed.

Leaving aside the various criticisms that might be levelled against these ‘fundamental principles’, it is clear that even these more elaborate listings do not contain much that could be called ‘Hermetic’. Indeed, the distinctly non-Hermetic feature is the explicit refusal to allow any exploration of the symbolism and legends by subjecting them to discussive analysis. That is not how the giants of the western Hermetic tradition behaved in the past!

It was perhaps to remedy this perceived doctrinal diffidence that various other institutions have emerged in the English-speaking masonic world. For instance, almost every Province in England has at least one ‘lecture’ Lodge to which Brethren may belong. These meet usually only three or four times each year when a lecture on some aspect of masonic history (or more rarely symbolism) is delivered by a guest speaker. This is a typical sharman-disciple relationship with the non-interactive bestowal of information, some historico-philosophical insight and interpretations. There are also a few genuine research Lodges. Full membership to these is limited though their annual transactions are published widely. Mostly these bodies are concerned with charting the ‘archaeology’ of Freemasonry. The most important, and oldest, of these is the famed ‘Quatuor Coronati’ Lodge. It is worthwhile pointing out in the present context, that one its earliest members was Bro. Dr Wynn Westcott (1848-1925) and he made several attempts to steer the representatives of the prevailing ‘authentic’ school of masonic historiography into considering the possibility of Freemasonry having more occult origins. That approach was ridiculed then and anyone who has tried to make similar suggestions since then has received a similar response generally from the members.

In contrast to this somewhat narrow orthodoxy the Masonic Study Society was founded in London in 1921 by Alvin L. Coburn, James S. Ward and Walter L. Wilmshurst et alia. Their aim was to encourage the study of masonic symbolism, to chart its origins and possible interpretations along anthropological lines. Avoiding the methodology espoused by the so-called ‘authentic’ school, this group is still active and studies Freemasonry in light of cultural phenomena that are broadly similar, in the past and present. They use approaches that have been adopted in the fields of comparative religion and folklore studies. They view Freemasonry as a living organism. Their published transactions are circulated world-wide and devote special attention to the symbolic and mystical interpretation of the various masonic Degrees. The Dormer Study circle, founded also in London in 1938, has almost exactly similar objectives though it meets more frequently. Their discussions tend to be rather more free ranging than those of the MSS. But these efforts (and there are many others throughout the English-speaking masonic world) to broaden the methodology of masonic research have never prevailed widely and the ‘authentic’ school, preoccupied with its self –appointed mission to chart only the archaeology of Freemasonry, still dominates scholastic efforts.

Of course, it could be claimed that this official diffidence in propounding an official line in doctrine or the interpretation of symbols is deliberate. It was adopted knowing that the Brethren would be facilitated thereby in formulating their own interpretations. If they were allowed the freedom to do that then they could grow more profoundly in spiritual insight. If that were the reason, then it has failed because, in the English-speaking masonic world, at the individual Lodge level, most Brethren have become preoccupied with rank within an ever-expanding organisational hierarchy, regalia and other externalities. They pay great attention to the correct, meticulous performance of the rituals but seldom are they given opportunities are examine or debate the detail or the underlying principles. Their so-called Lodges of Instruction have become Lodges of rehearsal when the ceremonial skills of serving officers are perfected. It has always been the mark of institutions in terminal decline that they become obsessed with the minutiae of organisation, with procedures, status and the things that they take to represent status. They generate masses of paper in the mistaken supposition that to document problems is to solve them.

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