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PRIMITIVE RITES AND SYMBOLS
NO more fascinating task is set for the Masonic student than that of tracing survivals of primitive cult influence which to this very day remain in our legends and rituals. It is an employment not without its risks. Like Ulysses, the inquirer needs to be bound securely to the mast of his ship of exploration, for he must voyage upon seas populated by sirens pleading in dulcet voices that he jump overboard and lose himself in uncharted currents of speculation. All around the hardy mariner lie inviting isles. Their names are legion - the isle of the Ancient Mysteries, the isle of the Essenes, the isle of the Druses, the isle of the Comacini, the isle of the Roman Collegia. Perched upon each is a seductive temptation urging the voyager to step ashore and there end his quest. If he is a skilled geographer who knows an island from a continent it will pay him to pause here and there for rest and refreshment, but he must be continually on guard not to mistake some San Salvador for the mainland.
Almost every important ancient cult has been suggested as the progenitor of Freemasonry, Most of these early societies are looked upon as having, at least in some sense, paved the way for our Fraternity or, as Dr. Joseph Fort Newton aptly phrased it in The Builders, as having been prophecies of Masonry. Consideration of these organizations belongs rather to the realm of philosophical reconstruction than to that of Masonic history. Yet they possess high value for the historian because they enable him to gain insight into the nature of secret societies in general, regardless of special objectives and of their likeness to the Fraternity. When regarded as analogues rather than as ancestors they occupy a legitimate place in Masonic literature.
They contributed much to the general stream of Western culture upon which Freemasonry has made large draughts. It is reasonably certain that vestiges of their ideals, symbols and rites have found their way, by avenues often impossible to discover, into the sum total of ideals, symbols and rites which now constitutes Freemasonry. The study of them is therefore as important to the Masonic historian as the study of comparative religion is to the theologian. Once the mind is divested of the notion that because all these societies are alike in many respects they are therefore one, they mutually support and explain one another. Few things are more clearly established than that certain rites and symbols now employed by Masons were practiced and used in times long anterior to the Christian era. Whether they always had the same significance they now have is of relatively small importance.
The rite of circumambulation, as a certain mystical journey about the Lodge room is technically described, may be mentioned as a conspicuous example. Circumambulation is very old and well-nigh universal. The Egyptians used it in their cult practices, carrying images of Isis or Osiris around their temples and altars. The Jews had similar solemn ceremonies, as when the priests marched in a circle about the sacrifices. The Israelites under Joshua performed an elaborate ceremonial of circumambulation when they paraded, according to the story in the sixth chapter of the Book of Joshua, around the walls of Jericho. The Arabs practiced circumambulation almost as frequently as did the Jews. To this day it is used by many sects of Brahmanism. The priest must drive around a sacred tree or pool during his initiation. On arising he must face the rising sun and then walk about in a circle, keeping the center to his right. The laws of Manu prescribe that in the marriage ceremony the bride must circumambulate the domestic hearth. Ancient Buddhists built stone galleries about shrines to accommodate pilgrims who came to pay homage by circling an image of their divinity.
Homer describes how Achilles led the weeping hosts of Greece thrice about the body of Patroclus, in this fashion, it is to be supposed, paying divine honors to the dead hero. In Greek sacred dances circumambulation was often reversed: the movement from right to left was called the strophe and that from left to right the antistrophe. The Romans considered this leftwise movement as black magic, certain to bring ill fortune; their word sinister, meaning left, retains disturbing connotations even when brought over into English. Certain Roman marriage ceremonies included circumambulation.
Among Celts of all regions the rite was practically universal. Celtic physicians made circuits around the sick to invoke the healing power; mourners followed a body in solemn procession about the graveyard before laying it in the tomb. In religious exercises there were processions by priests and people around the church, that practice being retained in Roman Catholic ritual when a bishop is to be enthroned. J. G. Frazer in Balder the Beautiful describes a Scottish custom of circumambulation as observed in the Highlands as recently as 1850.
It is probable that in Freemasonry the rite has been used from the earliest times. In one of the very old York rituals the Entered Apprentice, when demonstrating his right to be made a Fellow, passed from station to station, where Master and Wardens each put his master's piece to a different test. North American Indians had a somewhat similar custom, as in the Pawnee ceremony of "Hako," and similar practices have been observed among native tribes of Central America and South America.
What gave rise to this rite in the first place? A clew is furnished in a saying attributed to the priests of Apollo at Delos, as preserved in one of the hymns of Callimachus: "We imitate the example of the sun." In the northern hemisphere the sun rises in the east and appears to move to the west by way of the south. Almost all ancient peoples and almost all peoples living today in a state of primitive culture - although there are exceptions among the Eskimos - look upon the sun as one of the principal sources of life and power and therefore worship it. Circumambulation is thus a product of sun worship.
Why did ancient peoples believe that imitating the sun)s journey through the skies was an act of worship? It was because of their simple faith in what anthropologists have come to call "sympathetic magic." They believed they could gain power over natural forces and propitiate demons by imitating them. The modern red man will beat his drum and scatter dust in the air to compel rain to come, the drum rattle representing thunder, the dust the falling rain. The man who thus prays for rain, according to magician's logic, compels the rain. But if he reverses his formula, thereby practicing black magic, in contradistinction to favorable or white magic, he might drive the thunder back into the sky and the rain back into the cloud.
Circumambulation originally was just such an imitative magical rite. In their higher forms some of the Ancient Mysteries employed a central ceremonial in which there was a drama in imitation of the experiences and perhaps the tragic death and resurrection of the sun god. The tenacity with which such customs persist, once they are thoroughly established, is among the marvels of human history. They may, and often do, change their significance as time goes on.
A striking example of this is described by Miss Margaret Murray in The Witch-Cult in Central Europe, one of the most fascinating books in the whole literature of anthropology. The learned author shows that witchcraft was not a temporary or local delusion, peculiar to a few individuals, but was a well-established religion, "organized," as Cotton Mather grimly observed, "like Congregational churches." This religion, which appears to have originated before the Christian era, managed to survive the most savage opposition until almost the present time. Indeed there is no assurance it does not still exist in some of the backwashes of civilization, just as voodooism has persisted among superstitious Negroes in parts of our own South, and has reasserted itself in parts of Haiti.
Frequently some popular custom is retained long after its earlier significance has been forgotten. Christmas and Easter observances in various parts of the world still retain evidences of pagan origin. It is not at all difficult to believe that some portions of the Masonic ritual - seemingly so alien to modern ways of thought - have descended by some such process from ancient societies, the very names of which have been forgotten. Curious old emblems and rites have become embedded in the rituals like shards in a geologic composite, washed there from ancient shores. Circumambulation is one; another is that custom, observed in another ceremonial, which has reference to something of a metallic kind.
To primitive peoples the discovery and subsequent use of metals must have given cause for constant wonder, and may have proved as subversive of long-accepted notions as was the elucidation of the Copernican theory of astronomy to the philosophy of medieval Europe. Men had been accustomed to implements of wood, bone and stone and, believing in their inherent magic, built them into their religious practices. Then appeared new and strange substances, endowed with more potent magic. It is reasonable to suppose that there was long and bitter contention between orthodox practitioners of stone magic and heretical practitioners of metal magic.
Something of the kind still exists among savage races. Among the Bangala of the Upper Congo the smith is supposed to employ witchcraft in the exercise of his calling. In Manipur iron ore is deemed to be under the protection of a god, and a magical ritual is practiced in connection with mining. The Malays believe that gold, so long as it lies in the ground, possesses a soul, but that the soul takes flight after mining, so they employ magical rites when working with this precious metal. Instances of the kind might be multiplied almost indefinitely.
Ancient astrologers were acting in accordance with such accepted notions when they sought to establish associations between the heavenly bodies and metals. They worked out a scheme in which each planet had its metallic symbol, allying lead with Saturn, tin with Venus, bronze with Jupiter, iron with Mercury, alloy with Mars, silver with the moon and gold with the sun. The planet was supposed to have magical power over its metal, the metal magical power over its planet. It is far from improbable that in the old Masonic rites this doctrine was vaguely reflected in the significance attached at a given moment to something of a metallic kind.
In the period when the Masonic ritual was evolving into its eighteenth-century form, such ideas were widely accepted even among the educated classes and were taken for granted among the trade craftsmen. What more natural than that survivals from primitive culture should find place in the rites, some of them no doubt being remainders of magical practices of ancient builders? The ritual as now employed is but an amplified form of others in use before the Grand Lodge era of 1717. It is therefore in just such vestiges that relics of genuine antiquity are to be found, immeasurably more reliable than verbal tradition and the extravagant fancies of those who have tried to trace direct descent from any particular ancient society.
The mere fact that an early association was organized in a manner roughly resembling that of modern Freemasonry, having lodges, perhaps with tyled doors, governed by officials similar to the Master and Wardens, or even calling them by those names, and practicing ceremonies of initiation, proves nothing with regard to the institution of Masonry, since such methods of organization are natural and inevitable. Thousands of these societies might have come and gone without having brought this Fraternity into being. No doubt thousands did come and go, obeying a tendency as universal as any other form of social activity.
The importance of this tendency in the history of social development was given deserved emphasis by Professor Hutton Webster in his Primitive Secret Societies,, a book now out of print and almost impossible to obtain. In this work the author collated a vast amount of material gathered from original sources. The headings of his eleven chapters deserve repetition, since they give in epitome an outline of the evolutionary process through which secret societies have apparently gone: I. The Men's House; II. The Puberty Institution; III. The Secret Rites; IV. The Training of the Novice; V. The Power of the Elders; VI. Development of Tribal Societies; VII. Functions of Tribal Societies; VIII. Decline of Tribal Societies; IX. The Clan Ceremonies; X. Magical Fraternities; XI. Diffusion of Initiation Ceremonies.
Professor Webster holds that whereas in modern civilization sexual solidarity and consciousness of kind help to explain the various clubs and societies of men and women with which we are so familiar, in primitive societies there is added to these forces one even more potent, namely, widespread belief that sexual characteristics can be transmitted from one individual to another. For this reason primitive folk make a point of keeping the sexes as separate as possible. The institution known as the Men's House is an admirable agency for that purpose and is to be found wherever there are primitive peoples.
The Men's House is usually the largest structure in the settlement. It is community property, serving as council chamber and town hall, as guest house for strangers and as sleeping quarters for the men. Elders and other eminent persons receive assignments of seats in keeping with their dignity. Tribal treasures and the trophies of war and the chase are placed here for safety.
Women and children, and men not fully initiated, are rarely or never permitted to enter. The house serves as a club for bachelors whose residence there until they are married is a continuation of that seclusion from the society of women which the initiatory period is intended to secure. Indeed, it is a constant reminder to younger men that settled family life with a private abode is the privilege of the older men, who alone have marital rights over the women of the tribe. It is an important factor in the restraints savage races deem of the utmost importance to prevent promiscuity between the sexes.
"In Mexico and Central America," says Professor Webster, "the Men's House is found among tribes living in primitive conditions. The Hulchol Indians of the Mexican state of Jalisco have the Tokipa, the 'house of all.' The Tejas, an old Mexican tribe, had special houses used solely for tribal meetings. With many of the interior tribes of Honduras, the village consists merely of one large building like the long houses of the Borneo aborigines. The back part of such a structure is partitioned off into small bedrooms for married couples and unmarried women. A platform immediately under the roof serves for the boys. Among the Isthmian tribes 'each village has a public, town, or council house' and these are also found among the Guatemala Indians.
"The secret councils and assemblies of the Nicaragua Indians were held in a house called Grepon. In every city and town of ancient Mexico there were large houses situated near the temples where the young men were taught by the priests. These Telpuchcali, as they were called, appear to have been used also as the sleeping resorts of the young men. Very similar were the Calpules found in the provinces now a part of Guatemala."
Admittance to the Men's House must be preceded in most cases by an initiatory rite during which the candidate, usually in early adolescence, is required to undergo many ordeals. The formalities include such ceremonies as painting the body or daubing it with clay; use of noise-making instruments; dances; imitation of death and resurrection; bestowal of a new name; circumcision or some other form of ceremonial mutilation; recitation of tribal traditions; exhibition of sacred or magical objects.
A somewhat vague similarity of some of theses rite to certain ceremonies practiced in Masonic lodges has encouraged not a few Masonic writers in the belief that the origin of Freemasonry is to be sought among these primitive customs. Perhaps the most influential of these is J.S.M. Ward, founder of what he has denominated the "anthropological school" of Masonic thought. In his widely circulated and somewhat sensational book, Freemasonry and the Ancient Gods, he says: "Our present system is derived originally from the primitive initiatory rites of our prehistoric ancestors. I base this contention on the fact that many of our most venerated signs and symbols, grips and tokens, are used today by savage races with precisely the same meaning as with us. I cannot agree with those who would contend that it is either a matter of coincidence or else that they are purely natural signs which express simple elementary sentiments."
Up to a certain point it is possible to accept this argument, but beyond that point a cautious investigator cannot conscientiously go. There can be little doubt that a few elements in the ritual are survivals from very old rites, but those survivals are a negligible part of our "present system." Nor is it obvious to a reader of Freemasonry and the Ancient Gods that the author has made out a clear case showing that such symbols, signs, grips and tokens as are used by savage races have "precisely the same meaning as with us," or that many of those same emblematic devices are not in fact purely natural gestures.
It is an elementary principle of evidence that where there are opposed interpretations of the same set of facts the presumption is in favor of that which is easiest, simplest and most in keeping with ordinary human experience. There is indeed an easy and simple explanation of the resemblances to be found between Freemasonry and the secret associations of barbarous tribes. It is that both institutions are the natural outcome of man's natural reaction to his social environments. There are analogies between the primitive secret society and the modern Fraternity, but the differences separating them are infinitely greater than are the resemblances uniting them. The prima-facie case is that there is little kinship between them, other than natural kinship of all mankind, and the burden of proof must rest upon those who would seek to maintain a contrary view. Analogy itself is not proof so long as its implications can be controverted by an opposed but equally probable hypothesis. Most if not all of the analogies suggested in Freemasonry and the Ancient Gods can be explained by reasonable hypotheses other than those which the author of that work so firmly defends.
For one thing, all authentic and indisputable testimony now extant is that our "present system" grew out of a more primitive system which developed slowly in the Middle Ages. It would be strange indeed if all the symbols, signs, grips and tokens used by savage races had "precisely the same meaning as with us," when there is reason to doubt that the symbolism of Speculative Freemasonry has "precisely the same meaning" as the symbolism of Operative Masonry had, say, in the fifteenth century.
Moreover, nothing can be more incredible than that primitive races, even if they employed rites identical in form with our own, should attach the same meanings to them. This must necessarily be so because of differences in cultural levels and in psychology. The evolutionary processes of social development are clearly defined. In his earlier stages man views with wonder the manifestations of nature and covets for himself the power to control and bend them to his own service. This ambition he seeks to make potent by taboos and magic. He might, for instance, draw a circle in the sand and let it stand for the moon, and he might even put a point in the center of that circle and let it stand for himself or anything else. In a brief course of time the symbol would come to take on the attributes of that which it was designed to represent and its creator would venerate it with superstitious awe.
It is not until he has reached a far higher stage of spiritual and intellectual development that man's wonder at the manifestations of nature results in more reasonable religious, philosophical and ethical convictions. If he then came upon his predecessor's circle in the sand, it is conceivable he might adopt it for a symbol but of different import. It might occur to him that the circle represented the all-enveloping mercy of God and that the point represented man at the center thereof. Thus two individuals standing at opposite poles of cultural progress might employ the same object, each to represent his highest conception of the natural or the supernatural. But to say the symbol has precisely the same meaning to them would be absurd.
Therefore if a member of an Indian cult should chance to employ a sign or token identical or even similar to a sign employed by a Freemason, the presumption must be that his understanding of it and the Freemason's are radically different. To overcome that presumption the strongest evidence is necessary; it cannot be done by mere analogy. It is possible that both have derived the symbol from a common social progenitor, but it is equally possible that either might have invented it for himself; or at any rate that lineal ancestors invented it each for his own use. So long as the possibility of coincidence is not eliminated, the problem cannot be looked upon as solved, and so the elaborate theories of Freemasonry and the Ancient Gods must be set down as ingenious and interesting rather than as convincing.
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Last modified: March 22, 2014