Freemasonry Of Antiquity
the symbolism of freemasonry
albert gallatin mackey
In the vast but barren desert of polytheism—dark and dreary as were its
gloomy domains—there were still, however, to be found some few oases of
truth. The philosophers and sages of antiquity had, in the course of their
learned researches, aided by the light of nature, discovered something of
those inestimable truths in relation to God and a future state which their
patriarchal contemporaries had received as a revelation made to their
common ancestry before the flood, and which had been retained and
promulgated after that event by Noah.
They were, with these dim but still purifying perceptions, unwilling to
degrade the majesty of the First Great Cause by sharing his attributes
with a Zeus and a Hera in Greece, a Jupiter and a Juno in Rome, an Osiris
and an Isis in Egypt; and they did not believe that the thinking, feeling,
reasoning soul, the guest and companion of the body, would, at the hour of
that body's dissolution, be consigned, with it, to total annihilation.
Hence, in the earliest ages after the era of the dispersion, there were
some among the heathen who believed in the unity of God and the
immortality of the soul. But these doctrines they durst not publicly
teach. The minds of the people, grovelling in superstition, and devoted,
as St. Paul testifies of the Athenians, to the worship of unknown gods,
were not prepared for the philosophic teachings of a pure theology. It
was, indeed, an axiom unhesitatingly enunciated and frequently repeated by
their writers, that "there are many truths with which it is useless for
the people to be made acquainted, and many fables which it is not
expedient that they should know to be false."
Such is the language of Varro, as preserved by St. Augustine; and Strabo,
another of their writers, exclaims, "It is not possible for a philosopher
to conduct a multitude of women and ignorant people by a method of
reasoning, and thus to invite them to piety, holiness, and faith; but the
philosopher must also make use of superstition, and not omit the invention
of fables and the performance of wonders."
While, therefore, in those early ages of the world, we find the masses
grovelling in the intellectual debasement of a polytheistic and idolatrous
religion, with no support for the present, no hope for the future,—living
without the knowledge of a supreme and superintending Providence, and
dying without the expectation of a blissful immortality,—we shall at the
same time find ample testimony that these consoling doctrines were
secretly believed by the philosophers and their disciples.
But though believed, they were not publicly taught. They were heresies
which it would have been impolitic and dangerous to have broached to the
public ear; they were truths which might have led to a contempt of the
established system and to the overthrow of the popular superstition.
Socrates, the Athenian sage, is an illustrious instance of the punishment
that was meted out to the bold innovator who attempted to insult the gods
and to poison the minds of youth with the heresies of a philosophic
religion. "They permitted, therefore," says a learned writer on this
"the multitude to remain plunged as they were in the depth of a gross and
complicated idolatry; but for those philosophic few who could bear the
light of truth without being confounded by the blaze, they removed the
mysterious veil, and displayed to them the Deity in the radiant glory of
his unity. From the vulgar eye, however, these doctrines were kept
inviolably sacred, and wrapped in the veil of impenetrable mystery."
The consequence of all this was, that no one was permitted to be
invested with the knowledge of these sublime truths, until by a course of
severe and arduous trials, by a long and painful initiation, and by a
formal series of gradual preparations, he had proved himself worthy and
capable of receiving the full light of wisdom. For this purpose,
therefore, those peculiar religious institutions were organized which the
ancients designated as the MYSTERIES, and which, from the resemblance of
their organization, their objects, and their doctrines, have by masonic
writers been called the "Spurious Freemasonry of Antiquity."
in giving a definition of what these Mysteries were, says, "Each of the
pagan gods had (besides the public and open) a secret worship paid unto
him, to which none were admitted but those who had been selected by
preparatory ceremonies, called initiation. This secret worship was termed
the Mysteries." I shall now endeavor briefly to trace the connection
between these Mysteries and the institution of Freemasonry; and to do so,
it will be necessary to enter upon some details of the constitution of
those mystic assemblies.
Almost every country of the ancient world had its peculiar Mysteries,
dedicated to the occult worship of some especial and favorite god, and to
the inculcation of a secret doctrine, very different from that which was
taught in the public ceremonial of devotion. Thus in Persia the Mysteries
were dedicated to Mithras, or the Sun; in Egypt, to Isis and Osiris; in
Greece, to Demeter; in Samothracia, to the gods Cabiri, the Mighty Ones;
in Syria, to Dionysus; while in the more northern nations of Europe, such
as Gaul and Britain, the initiations were dedicated to their peculiar
deities, and were celebrated under the general name of the Druidical
rites. But no matter where or how instituted, whether ostensibly in honor
of the effeminate Adonis, the favorite of Venus, or of the implacable
Odin, the Scandinavian god of war and carnage; whether dedicated to
Demeter, the type of the earth, or to Mithras, the symbol of all that
fructifies that earth,—the great object and design of the secret
instruction were identical in all places, and the Mysteries constituted a
school of religion in which the errors and absurdities of polytheism were
revealed to the initiated. The candidate was taught that the multitudinous
deities of the popular theology were but hidden symbols of the various
attributes of the supreme god,—a spirit invisible and indivisible,—and
that the soul, as an emanation from his essence, could "never see
corruption," but must, after the death of the body, be raised to an
That this was the doctrine and the object of the Mysteries is evident
from the concurrent testimony both of those ancient writers who flourished
contemporaneously with the practice of them, and of those modern scholars
who have devoted themselves to their investigation.
Thus Isocrates, speaking of them in his Panegyric, says, "Those who
have been initiated in the Mysteries of Ceres entertain better hopes both
as to the end of life and the whole of futurity."
declares that everything in these Mysteries was instituted by the ancients
for the instruction and amendment of life.
says that the design of initiation was to restore the soul to that state
of perfection from which it had originally fallen.
Thomas Taylor, the celebrated Platonist, who possessed an unusual
acquaintance with the character of these ancient rites, asserts that they
"obscurely intimated, by mystic and splendid visions, the felicity of the
soul, both here and hereafter, when purified from the defilements of a
material nature, and constantly elevated to the realities of intellectual
a distinguished German writer, who has examined the subject of the ancient
Mysteries with great judgment and elaboration, gives a theory on their
nature and design which is well worth consideration.
This theory is, that when there had been placed under the eyes of the
initiated symbolical representations of the creation of the universe, and
the origin of things, the migrations and purifications of the soul, the
beginning and progress of civilization and agriculture, there was drawn
from these symbols and these scenes in the Mysteries an instruction
destined only for the more perfect, or the epopts, to whom were
communicated the doctrines of the existence of a single and eternal God,
and the destination of the universe and of man.
Creuzer here, however, refers rather to the general object of the
instructions, than to the character of the rites and ceremonies by which
they were impressed upon the mind; for in the Mysteries, as in
Freemasonry, the Hierophant, whom we would now call the Master of the
Lodge, often, as Lobeck observes, delivered a mystical lecture, or
discourse, on some moral subject.
Faber, who, notwithstanding the predominance in his mind of a theory
which referred every rite and symbol of the ancient world to the
traditions of Noah, the ark, and the deluge, has given a generally correct
view of the systems of ancient religion, describes the initiation into the
Mysteries as a scenic representation of the mythic descent into Hades, or
the grave, and the return from thence to the light of day.
In a few words, then, the object of instruction in all these Mysteries
was the unity of God, and the intention of the ceremonies of initiation
into them was, by a scenic representation of death, and subsequent
restoration to life,16
to impress the great truths of the resurrection of the dead and the
immortality of the soul.
I need scarcely here advert to the great similarity in design and
conformation which existed between these ancient rites and the third or
Master's degree of Masonry. Like it they were all funereal in their
character: they began in sorrow and lamentation, they ended in joy; there
was an aphanism, or burial; a pastos, or grave; an euresis, or discovery
of what had been lost; and a legend, or mythical relation,—all of which
were entirely and profoundly symbolical in their character.
And hence, looking to this strange identity of design and form, between
the initiations of the ancients and those of the modern Masons, writers
have been disposed to designate these mysteries as the SPURIOUS
FREEMASONRY OF ANTIQUITY.
6. "Varro de religionibus loquens, evidenter dicit, multa esse vera,
quae vulgo scire non sit utile; multaque, quae tametsi falsa sint, aliter
existimare populum expediat."—St. AUGUSTINE, De Civil. Dei.—We must
regret, with the learned Valloisin, that the sixteen books of Varro, on
the religious antiquities of the ancients, have been lost; and the regret
is enhanced by the reflection that they existed until the beginning of the
fourteenth century, and disappeared only when their preservation for less
than two centuries more would, by the discovery of printing, have secured
7. Strabo, Geog., lib. i.
8. Maurice, Indian Antiquities, vol. ii. p. 297.
9. Div. Leg., vol. i. b. ii. § iv. p. 193, 10th Lond. edit.
10. The hidden doctrines of the unity of the Deity and the immortality
of the soul were taught originally in all the Mysteries, even those of
Cupid and Bacchus.—WARBURTON, apud Spence's Anecdotes, p.
12. Apud Arrian. Dissert., lib. iii. c. xxi.
14. Dissert. on the Eleusinian and Bacchic Mysteries, in the
Pamphleteer, vol. viii. p. 53.
15. Symbol. und Mythol. der Alt. Völk.
16. In these Mysteries, after the people had for a long time bewailed
the loss of a particular person, he was at last supposed to be restored to
life.—BRYANT, Anal. of Anc. Mythology, vol. iii. p. 176.
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