the symbolism of freemasonry
albert gallatin mackey
After this general view of the religious Mysteries of the ancient
world, let us now proceed to a closer examination of those which are more
intimately connected with the history of Freemasonry, and whose influence
is, to this day, most evidently felt in its organization.
Of all the pagan Mysteries instituted by the ancients none were more
extensively diffused than those of the Grecian god Dionysus. They were
established in Greece, Rome, Syria, and all Asia Minor. Among the Greeks,
and still more among the Romans, the rites celebrated on the Dionysiac
festival were, it must be confessed, of a dissolute and licentious
But in Asia they assumed a different form. There, as
elsewhere, the legend (for it has already been said that each Mystery had
its legend) recounted, and the ceremonies represented, the murder of
Dionysus by the Titans. The secret doctrine, too, among the Asiatics, was
not different from that among the western nations, but there was something
peculiar in the organization of the system. The Mysteries of Dionysus in
Syria, more especially, were not simply of a theological character. There
the disciples joined to the indulgence in their speculative and secret
opinions as to the unity of God and the immortality of the soul, which
were common to all the Mysteries, the practice of an operative and
architectural art, and occupied themselves as well in the construction of
temples and public buildings as in the pursuit of divine truth.
I can account for the greater purity of these Syrian rites only by
adopting the ingenious theory of Thirwall,27
that all the Mysteries "were the remains of a worship
which preceded the rise of the Hellenic mythology, and its attendant
rites, grounded on a view of nature less fanciful, more earnest, and
better fitted to awaken both philosophical thought and religious feeling,"
and by supposing that the Asiatics, not being, from their geographical
position, so early imbued with the errors of Hellenism, had been better
able to preserve the purity and philosophy of the old Pelasgic faith,
which, itself, was undoubtedly a direct emanation from the patriarchal
religion, or, as it has been called, the Pure Freemasonry of the
Be this, however, as it may, we know that "the Dionysiacs of Asia Minor
were undoubtedly an association of architects and engineers, who had the
exclusive privilege of building temples, stadia, and theatres, under the
mysterious tutelage of Bacchus, and were distinguished from the
uninitiated or profane inhabitants by the science which they possessed,
and by many private signs and tokens by which they recognized each other."
This speculative and operative society29—speculative
in the esoteric, theologic lessons which were taught in its initiations,
and operative in the labors of its members as architects—was distinguished
by many peculiarities that closely assimilate it to the institution of
Freemasonry. In the practice of charity, the more opulent were bound to
relieve the wants and contribute to the support of the poorer brethren.
They were divided, for the conveniences of labor and the advantages of
government, into smaller bodies, which, like our lodges, were directed by
superintending officers. They employed, in their ceremonial observances,
many of the implements of operative Masonry, and used, like the Masons, a
universal language; and conventional modes of recognition, by which one
brother might know another in the dark as well as the light, and which
served to unite the whole body, wheresoever they might be dispersed, in
one common brotherhood.30
I have said that in the mysteries of Dionysus the legend recounted the
death of that hero-god, and the subsequent discovery of his body. Some
further details of the nature of the Dionysiac ritual are, therefore,
necessary for a thorough appreciation of the points to which I propose
directly to invite attention.
In these mystic rites, the aspirant was made to represent, symbolically
and in a dramatic form, the events connected with the slaying of the god
from whom the Mysteries derived their name. After a variety of preparatory
ceremonies, intended to call forth all his courage and fortitude, the
aphanism or mystical death of Dionysus was figured out in the ceremonies,
and the shrieks and lamentations of the initiates, with the confinement or
burial of the candidate on the pastos, couch, or coffin, constituted the
first part of the ceremony of initiation. Then began the search of Rhea
for the remains of Dionysus, which was continued amid scenes of the
greatest confusion and tumult, until, at last, the search having been
successful, the mourning was turned into joy, light succeeded to darkness,
and the candidate was invested with the knowledge of the secret doctrine
of the Mysteries—the belief in the existence of one God, and a future
state of rewards and punishments.31
Such were the mysteries that were practised by the architect,—the
Freemasons, so to speak—of Asia Minor. At Tyre, the richest and most
important city of that region, a city memorable for the splendor and
magnificence of the buildings with which it was decorated, there were
colonies or lodges of these mystic architects; and this fact I request
that you will bear in mind, as it forms an important link in the chain
that connects the Dionysiacs with the Freemasons.
But to make every link in this chain of connection complete, it is
necessary that the mystic artists of Tyre should be proved to be at least
contemporaneous with the building of King Solomon's temple; and the
evidence of that fact I shall now attempt to produce.
Lawrie, whose elaborate researches into this subject leave us nothing
further to discover, places the arrival of the Dionysiacs in Asia Minor at
the time of the Ionic migration, when "the inhabitants of Attica,
complaining of the narrowness of their territory and the unfruitfulness of
its soil, went in quest of more extensive and fertile settlements. Being
joined by a number of the inhabitants of surrounding provinces, they
sailed to Asia Minor, drove out the original inhabitants, and seized upon
the most eligible situations, and united them under the name of Ionia,
because the greatest number of the refugees were natives of that Grecian
32 With their knowledge of the arts of
sculpture and architecture, in which the Greeks had already made some
progress, the emigrants brought over to their new settlements their
religious customs also, and introduced into Asia the mysteries of Athene
and Dionysus long before they had been corrupted by the licentiousness of
the mother country.
Now, Playfair places the Ionic migration in the year 1044 B.C., Gillies
in 1055, and the Abbé Barthelemy in 1076. But the latest of these periods
will extend as far back as forty-four years before the commencement of the
temple of Solomon at Jerusalem, and will give ample time for the
establishment of the Dionysiac fraternity at the city of Tyre, and the
initiation of "Hiram the Builder" into its mysteries.
Let us now pursue the chain of historical events which finally united
this purest branch of the Spurious Freemasonry of the pagan nations with
the Primitive Freemasonry of the Jews at Jerusalem.
When Solomon, king of Israel, was about to build, in accordance with
the purposes of his father, David, "a house unto the name of Jehovah, his
God," he made his intention known to Hiram, king of Tyre, his friend and
ally; and because he was well aware of the architectural skill of the
Tyrian Dionysiacs, he besought that monarch's assistance to enable him to
carry his pious design into execution. Scripture informs us that Hiram
complied with the request of Solomon, and sent him the necessary workmen
to assist him in the glorious undertaking. Among others, he sent an
architect, who is briefly described, in the First Book of Kings, as "a
widow's son, of the tribe of Naphtali, and his father a man of Tyre, a
worker in brass, a man filled with wisdom and understanding and cunning to
work all works in brass;" and more fully, in the Second Book of
Chronicles, as "a cunning man, endued with understanding of Hiram my
father's, the son of a woman of the daughters of Dan, and his father, a
man of Tyre, skilful to work in gold, and in silver, in brass, in iron, in
stone, and in timber, in purple, in blue, and in fine linen and in
crimson, also to grave any manner of graving, and to find out any device
which shall be put to him."
To this man—this widow's son (as Scripture history, as well as masonic
tradition informs us)—was intrusted by King Solomon an important position
among the workmen at the sacred edifice, which was constructed on Mount
Moriah. His knowledge and experience as an artificer, and his eminent
skill in every kind of "curious and cunning workmanship," readily placed
him at the head of both the Jewish and Tyrian craftsmen, as the chief
builder and principal conductor of the works; and it is to him, by means
of the large authority which this position gave him, that we attribute the
union of two people, so antagonistical in race, so dissimilar in manners,
and so opposed in religion, as the Jews and Tyrians, in one common
brotherhood, which resulted in the organization of the institution of
Freemasonry. This Hiram, as a Tyrian and an artificer, must have been
connected with the Dionysiac fraternity; nor could he have been a very
humble or inconspicuous member, if we may judge of his rank in the
society, from the amount of talent which he is said to have possessed, and
from the elevated position that he held in the affections, and at the
court, of the king of Tyre. He must, therefore, have been well acquainted
with all the ceremonial usages of the Dionysiac artificers, and must have
enjoyed a long experience of the advantages of the government and
discipline which they practised in the erection of the many sacred
edifices in which they were engaged. A portion of these ceremonial usages
and of this discipline he would naturally be inclined to introduce among
the workmen at Jerusalem. He therefore united them in a society, similar
in many respects to that of the Dionysiac artificers. He inculcated
lessons of charity and brotherly love; he established a ceremony of
initiation, to test experimentally the fortitude and worth of the
candidate; adopted modes of recognition; and impressed the obligations of
duty and principles of morality by means of symbols and allegories.
To the laborers and men of burden, the Ish Sabal, and to the craftsmen,
corresponding with the first and second degrees of more modern Masonry,
but little secret knowledge was confided. Like the aspirants in the lesser
Mysteries of paganism, their instructions were simply to purify and
prepare them for a more solemn ordeal, and for the knowledge of the
sublimest truths. These were to be found only in the Master's degree,
which it was intended should be in imitation of the greater Mysteries; and
in it were to be unfolded, explained, and enforced the great doctrines of
the unity of God and the immortality of the soul. But here there must have
at once arisen an apparently insurmountable obstacle to the further
continuation of the resemblance of Masonry to the Mysteries of Dionysus.
In the pagan Mysteries, I have already said that these lessons were
allegorically taught by means of a legend. Now, in the Mysteries of
Dionysus, the legend was that of the death and subsequent resuscitation of
the god Dionysus. But it would have been utterly impossible to introduce
such a legend as the basis of any instructions to be communicated to
Jewish candidates. Any allusion to the mythological fables of their
Gentile neighbors, any celebration of the myths of pagan theology, would
have been equally offensive to the taste and repugnant to the religious
prejudices of a nation educated, from generation to generation, in the
worship of a divine being jealous of his prerogatives, and who had made
himself known to his people as the JEHOVAH, the God of time present, past,
and future. How this obstacle would have been surmounted by the
Israelitish founder of the order I am unable to say: a substitute would,
no doubt, have been invented, which would have met all the symbolic
requirements of the legend of the Mysteries, or Spurious Freemasonry,
without violating the religious principles of the Primitive Freemasonry of
the Jews; but the necessity for such invention never existed, and before
the completion of the temple a melancholy event is said to have occurred,
which served to cut the Gordian knot, and the death of its chief architect
has supplied Freemasonry with its appropriate legend—a legend which, like
the legends of all the Mysteries, is used to testify our faith in the
resurrection of the body and the immortality of the soul.
Before concluding this part of the subject, it is proper that something
should be said of the authenticity of the legend of the third degree. Some
distinguished Masons are disposed to give it full credence as an
historical fact, while others look upon it only as a beautiful allegory.
So far as the question has any bearing upon the symbolism of Freemasonry
it is not of importance; but those who contend for its historical
character assert that they do so on the following grounds:—
First. Because the character of the legend is such as to meet all the
requirements of the well-known axiom of Vincentius Lirinensis, as to what
we are to believe in traditionary matters.33
"Quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus traditum est."
That is, we are to believe whatever tradition has been at all times, in
all places, and by all persons handed down.
With this rule the legend of Hiram Abif, they say, agrees in every
respect. It has been universally received, and almost universally
credited, among Freemasons from the earliest times. We have no record of
any Masonry having ever existed since the time of the temple without it;
and, indeed, it is so closely interwoven into the whole system, forming
the most essential part of it, and giving it its most determinative
character, that it is evident that the institution could no more exist
without the legend, than the legend could have been retained without the
institution. This, therefore, the advocates of the historical character of
the legend think, gives probability at least to its truth.
Secondly. It is not contradicted by the scriptural history of the
transactions at the temple, and therefore, in the absence of the only
existing written authority on the subject, we are at liberty to depend on
traditional information, provided the tradition be, as it is contended
that in this instance it is, reasonable, probable, and supported by
Thirdly. It is contended that the very silence of Scripture in relation
to the death of Hiram, the Builder, is an argument in favor of the
mysterious nature of that death. A man so important in his position as to
have been called the favorite of two kings,—sent by one and received by
the other as a gift of surpassing value, and the donation thought worthy
of a special record, would hardly have passed into oblivion, when his
labor was finished, without the memento of a single line, unless his death
had taken place in such a way as to render a public account of it
improper. And this is supposed to have been the fact. It had become the
legend of the new Mysteries, and, like those of the old ones, was only to
be divulged when accompanied with the symbolic instructions which it was
intended to impress upon the minds of the aspirants.
But if, on the other hand, it be admitted that the legend of the third
degree is a fiction,—that the whole masonic and extra-scriptural account
of Hiram Abif is simply a myth,—it could not, in the slightest degree,
affect the theory which it is my object to establish. For since, in a
mythic relation, as the learned Müller34
has observed, fact and imagination, the real and the
ideal, are very closely united, and since the myth itself always arises,
according to the same author, out of a necessity and unconsciousness on
the part of its framers, and by impulses which act alike on all, we must
go back to the Spurious Freemasonry of the Dionysiacs for the principle
which led to the involuntary formation of this Hiramic myth; and then we
arrive at the same result, which has been already indicated, namely, that
the necessity of the religious sentiment in the Jewish mind, to which the
introduction of the legend of Dionysus would have been abhorrent, led to
the substitution for it of that of Hiram, in which the ideal parts of the
narrative have been intimately blended with real transactions. Thus, that
there was such a man as Hiram Abif; that he was the chief builder at the
temple of Jerusalem; that he was the confidential friend of the kings of
Israel and Tyre, which is indicated by his title of Ab, or father;
and that he is not heard of after the completion of the temple,—are all
historical facts. That he died by violence, and in the way described in
the masonic legend, may be also true, or may be merely mythical elements
incorporated into the historical narrative.
But whether this be so or not,—whether the legend be a fact or a
fiction, a history or a myth,—this, at least, is certain: that it was
adopted by the Solomonic Masons of the temple as a substitute for the
idolatrous legend of the death of Dionysus which belonged to the Dionysiac
Mysteries of the Tyrian workmen.
26. The satirical pen
of Aristophanes has not spared the Dionysiac festivals. But the raillery
and sarcasm of a comic writer must always be received with many grains of
allowance. He has, at least, been candid enough to confess that no one
could be initiated who had been guilty of any crime against his country or
the public security.—Ranae, v. 360-365.—Euripides makes the chorus
in his Bacchae proclaim that the Mysteries were practised only for
virtuous purposes. In Rome, however, there can be little doubt that the
initiations partook at length of a licentious character. "On ne peut
douter," says Ste. Croix, "que l'introduction des fêtes de Bacchus en
Italie n'ait accéleré les progrès du libertinage et de la débauche dans
cette contrée."—Myst. du Pag., tom. ii. p. 91.—St. Augustine (De
Civ. Dei, lib. vii. c. xxi.) inveighs against the impurity of the
ceremonies in Italy of the sacred rites of Bacchus. But even he does not
deny that the motive with which they were performed was of a religious, or
at least superstitious nature—"Sic videlicet Liber deus placandus fuerat."
The propitiation of a deity was certainly a religious act.
27. Hist. Greece, vol.
ii. p. 140.
28. This language is
quoted from Robison (Proofs of a Conspiracy, p. 20, Lond. edit.
1797), whom none will suspect or accuse of an undue veneration for the
antiquity or the morality of the masonic order.
29. We must not
confound these Asiatic builders with the play-actors, who were
subsequently called by the Greeks, as we learn from Aulus Gellius (lib.
xx. cap. 4), "artificers of Dionysus"—Διονυσιαϗοι τεχνιταὶ.
30. There is abundant
evidence, among ancient authors, of the existence of signs and passwords
in the Mysteries. Thus Apuleius, in his Apology, says, "Si qui forte adest
eorundem Solemnium mihi particeps, signum dato," etc.; that is, "If any
one happens to be present who has been initiated into the same rites as
myself, if he will give me the sign, he shall then be at liberty to hear
what it is that I keep with so much care." Plautus also alludes to this
usage, when, in his "Miles Gloriosus," act iv. sc. 2, he makes Milphidippa
say to Pyrgopolonices, "Cedo signum, si harunc Baccharum es;" i.e., "Give
the sign if you are one of these Bacchae," or initiates into the Mysteries
of Bacchus. Clemens Alexandrinus calls these modes of recognition σωθηματα,
as if means of safety. Apuleius elsewhere uses memoracula, I
think to denote passwords, when he says, "sanctissimè sacrorum signa et
memoracula custodire," which I am inclined to translate, "most
scrupulously to preserve the signs and passwords of the sacred rites."
31. The Baron de Sainte
Croix gives this brief view of the ceremonies: "Dans ces mystères on
employoit, pour remplir l'âme des assistans d'une sainte horreur, les
mêmes moyens qu'à Eleusis. L'apparition de fantômes et de divers objets
propres à effrayer, sembloit disposer les esprits à la crédulité. Ils en
avoient sans doute besoin, pour ajouter foi à toutes les explications des
mystagogues: elles rouloient sur le massacre de Bacchus par les Titans,"
&c.—Recherches sur les Mystères du Paganisme, tom. ii. sect. vii.
art. iii. p. 89.
32. Lawrie, Hist. of
Freemasonry, p. 27.
Lirinensis or Vincent of Lirens, who lived in the fifth century of the
Christian era, wrote a controversial treatise entitled "Commonitorium,"
remarkable for the blind veneration which it pays to the voice of
tradition. The rule which he there lays down, and which is cited in the
text, may be considered, in a modified application, as an axiom by which
we may test the probability, at least, of all sorts of traditions.
None out of the pale of Vincent's church will go so far as he did in
making it the criterion of positive truth.
34. Prolog. zu einer wissenshaftlich.
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