If, as is stated categorically by the United Grand Lodge of England, Freemasonry “is not a Secret Society” and is “not a religion or a substitute for religion,” then what is it? And why should students of the occult be concerned with the history, symbolism and rituals of this “peculiar system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols,” which is defined officially as, “one of the world’s oldest secular fraternal societies . . . a society of men concerned with spiritual values. Its members are taught its precepts by a series of ritual dramas, which follow ancient forms and use stonemasons’ customs and tools as allegorical guides. The essential qualification for admission and continuing membership is a belief in a Supreme Being. Membership is open to men of any race or religion who can fulfill this essential qualification and are of good repute”?Perhaps the occultist, who sees in freemasonry the survival of ancient, pagan mystery religions, sees something that, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, for what he sees is clearly invisible both to the governing body of the Craft and to the bulk of its members.
Freemasonry does have a traditional history (around which its rituals are constructed) that places its origin at the time of the building of King Solomon’s Temple, but in the material world we can trace its history from 1717 A.D. when the first Grand Lodge in the world – the Grand Lodge of England – was founded at London. From that time on Freemasonry has expanded, undergoing many vicissitudes along the way – schisms, reconciliations, quarrels over jurisdiction and quarrels over essential beliefs until today it is firmly established in most countries of the world (the exceptions being countries of the Communist bloc, and those countries that suffer under Islamic fundamentalism).
Regular Freemasonry – which, among other things demands from its members a belief in God, forbids the discussion of religion and politics in its lodges, and forbids also the admission of women to membership – is strongest in the English-speaking world, and it is a curious paradox that England, where the Craft is most conservative, should have produced not only the foremost masonic historians, but also the most adventurous (and most widely read) speculative interpreters of masonic symbolism and philosophy.
These latter have been invariably influenced by the masonic traditions of continental Europe, where “higher” degrees and exotic Rites have proliferated since the middle of the eighteenth century. (At this point it would be well to emphasise that all “higher” or “additional” degrees and grades are later inventions than the three Craft degrees of Entered Apprentice, Fellowcraft, and Master Mason, including “the Supreme Order of the Holy Royal Arch” – declared in 1813 by the United Grand Lodge of England to be the oniy degrees of “pure Antient Masonry”; and further, that the governing bodies of the “higher” degrees have no control whatsoever over the Craft degrees.)
The complex phenomenon of European Freemasonry was significantly different from its counterpart in eighteenth century England. The essential masonic tenets of tolerance and benevolence were overlain from an early date with layers of metaphysical speculation, while the simple Craft rituals were extended into elaborate ceremonies for a multiplicity of degrees, grades and Orders, all of which involved extravagant traditional histories and hierarchical ruling bodies that became increasingly divorced from reality. To some extent such Rites represented a way of escape from the political oppression of illiberal regimes and the spiritual oppression of the Roman Catholic Church, which had been implacably hostile to Freemasonry from the beginning, but they inevitably drifted away from “pure Antient Masonry” to become either politicised or steered into overtly esoteric channels.
Given their nature, it is scarcely surprising that it has been from these esoteric Rites within and around Masonry – The Elus Cohens, the Strict Observance, the Illuminati, Cagliostro’s Egyptian Masonry, and the thousand-and-one self-styled Templar Orders and Chivalric degrees – rather than from Craft Masonry, that occultists and esoterically inclined freemasons alike have drawn, and continue to draw, their inspiration for Orders of their own, and their plethora of false notions about the Craft and its origins.
It is unfortunate that there can be no authoritative, official refutation of these false notions, but there can be no definitive pronouncement about the origins of Freemasonry for the simple reason that there is no certainty as to what those origins are. It is undeniable that masonic ritual, in its essentials, is based upon the presumed customs and the working tools of medieval stonemasons, but there is little a no evidence to support the popular theory of a regular progression from operative masonry to the speculative Craft via a hypothetical “transitional” period during the seventeenth century, in which non-working members were gradually accepted into masonic Iodges until they constituted a majority.
A more probable theory of origin – but still, it must be stressed, only a theory – is that which suggests that Freemasonry arose during the seventeenth century from the efforts of a group of enthusiasts who sought to establish tolerance in religion and the general improvement of society in an era in which intolerance prevailed. They protected themselves by adopting the myth of the building of King Solomon’s Temple as an allegory of their aims and by utilising the wholly appropriate structure of extant building guilds. An eminently sensible theory, but for occultists wholly inadequate.
There must be, for their purposes, both a strictly esoteric content in masonry and an ultimately Gnostic source: tolerance is too prosaic, and the medieval building guilds unsatisfactory by virtue of their uncomfortably orthodox profession of Christian faith. Either the Knights Templar or the Rosicrucians, or both, offer a more satisfying explanation of the emergence of Freemasonry in its speculative form. That there is no shred of historical evidence linking the Templars with Masonry, nor any certainty that the Rosicrucians as an organised body ever existed, does not matter, since for occultists – and for esoteric freemasons – Freemasonry exists primarily to perpetuate the teachings of the ancient Mystery Schools, and there is thus necessarily a definite, if hidden, connection between Freemasonry and its supposed forerunners.
To the conclusive demonstration of such links masonic writers of esoteric inclination have devoted their literary careers, only to have their work rejected as unsound by more prosaic masonic scholars. “Esoteric” masons, however, have been, and still are, mightily impressed by the apparent scholarship of authors such as the Rev. F. de P. Castells, who considered that he had proved beyond doubt the link with the Rosicrucians, and maintained that “Freemasonry originated with certain Hebrew mystics associated with the Temple of Jerusalem, and that they are represented by the Kabbalists of historic times.” (Our Ancient Brethren the Originators of Freemasonry, 1932, p. 24)
Castells wrote during the 1920s and ’30s, and although he was far from being the first masonic “historian” on whom occultists had drawn, he was among the most impressive, for he united his historical studies with a critical analysis of masonic rituals and their symbolism. And it is masonic symbolism that has proven always more irresistible to the occultist even than masonic history.
The rituals of the Craft degrees represent the progress of the apprentice towards the mastery of the Craft, illustrated by the building of the Temple, and accompanied by the inculcation of moral precepts, culminating in the symbolic reenactment of the death of the architect Hiram Abiff, who perferred to die rather than betray the secrets of his Order.
In the First Degree the three “Great Lights” (the Volume of the Sacred Law, the Square and Compasses) and the three “Lesser Lights” (the Sun, the Moon and the Master of the Lodge) of Masonry are explained to the candidate in symbolic form, while in each of the three degrees the appropriate “Working Tools” are similarly explained (the gavel, plumb-rule, level, etc.). There is also an elaborate emblematic diagram, or Tracing Board, for each degree, the symbolism of which – variously architectrual, biblical and numerical, – is explained in detail.
While such a wealth of symbolism has a very specific meaning within Freemasonry, its very richness has left it vulnerable to the most wild and extravagant interpretations on the part of occultists and of “esoteric” masons who ought to know better. Nor is the unreason of such interpretions lessened by the invariable insistence of the interpreters on seeing the Third Degree as a rite of death and resurrection – which it is not. It may suit the purposes of the occultist to see it in this light, but it is simply and solely a representation of the death of Hiram and his subsequent exhumation for decent reburial.
Speculation on the meaning of Masonic symbols began in the eighteenth century, but serious attempts to relate those symbols to ancient resurrection myths and to the mainstream of the Western Hermetic Tradition did not begin until the Occult Revival of the late nineteenth century. At the same time, amateur historians of occultism began to seek esoteric origins for Freemasonry itself. When these two paths of research merged, the results were curious indeed.
H. P. Blavatsky, who was effectively the principal architect of the Occult Revival, had little interest in Freemasonry, but she utilised – and believed – much of the information amassed by Kenneth Mackenzie in his Royal Masonic Cyclopaedia (1877), and thus through her own writing acted as a channel for its dissemination throughout the Theosophical world and far beyond the confines of Masonry itself. To what extent Mackenzie (who, surprisingly, did not accept that Freemasonry had its roots in Rosicrucianism) believed his own statements is unclear, but he and his colleagues (F.G. Irwin, John Yarker, Dr. Woodman et al) consciously attempted to emulate the eighteenth century proliferation of grandiose masonic degrees and esoteric Orders with considerable success, for it was from this background of exotic Rites that William Wynn Westcott gained the inspiration for his immortal brain-child, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. That amazing creation, which came into being in 1888, owed its success in part to the increasing familiarity with masonic symbolism (via the works of Madame Blavatsky) on the part of both male and female occultists. It is surprising enough that English Freemasonry should have given rise, however indirectly, to an androgynous Order; that it should have provided the administrative structure, the framework of its rituals and no small part of its eclectic symbolism is even more surprising, given that the proportion of English Freemasons interested in and informed about occultism was (and is) minute.
Of those Freemasons who were inclined towards occultism at the close of the last century, the majority were deeply involved in the Theosophical Society, or at least in the teachings that it propagated; they absorbed from it the notion of the great antiquity of Eastern religions and the superiority of Eastern philosophy over Western thought. From their subsequent mental confusion arose most of the books that have propagated original and bizarre ideas about the history and meaning of Freemasonry But however reliable their “histories” may be, and however unsound their conclusions, their influence among fellow occultists has been so widespread and so pervasive that the student of the Hermetic Tradition and its history cannot ignore them if he wishes to separate fact from fantasy and to understand how the present syncretistic structure of occultism has come about.
During his lifetime the most influential of these “alternative” masonic historians was John Yarker, whose monumental work on the Arcane Schools (1909) is really a prehistory of Freemasonry, which he saw progressing from the Egyptian and Greek Mysteries via Mithraism, Gnosticism and Alchemy, with a brief conclusion on its history in modern times. Yarker controlled or influenced numerous quasimasonic Rites and through these he effectively directed the thinking of many of his esoteric contemporaries not least those who were members of the Co-Masonic Order, whose activities he supported while wisely refraining from joining.
Univeral Co-Freemasonry (which admits both men and women) was founded in France in 1893 and spread to England in 1902 by way of the Theosophical Society, collecting Annie Besant and her coterie en route. Once Mrs. Besant was established, in 1907, as President of the T. S., her support, coupled with that of C. W. Leadbeater, led to a rapid expansion of Co-Masonry among theosophists, taking in even those who had previously been bitter opponents of Freemasonry.The Order was, however, susceptible to the wider teachings of Theosophy, as Leadbeater made clear in his utterly uncritical Glimpses of Masonic History (1926): “With the advent of Dr. Annie Besant to the leadership of the Order in the British Empire, the direct link between Masonry and the Great White Lodge which has ever stood behind it (though all unknown to the majority of the Brethren) was once again reopened” (p.328).
Other occultists saw Freemasonry as deriving from sources not quite so far East. For Max Heindel (who was not a freemason) it was “rooted in hoary antiquity”, its very name was Egyptian (Phree messen = Children of Light), and the progress of “Mystic Masonry” would ultimately hasten “the Second Advent of Christ” (Freemasonry and Catholicism, 1931, pp. 86 & 98). This was admittedly an extreme interpretation: esoteric masons were generally more cautious in their imaginings – although Manly Palmer Hall could claim that “Masonry came to Northern Africa and Asia Minor from the lost continent of Atlantis, not under its present name but rather under the general designation Sun and Fire Worship” (The Secret Teachings of All Ages, 1936, p. 176). He further maintained that “within the Freemasonic Mysteries lie hidden the long-lost arcana sought by all peoples since the genesis of human reason” (ibid p. 176), and while this is strictly a personal opinion, Hall’s arguments are presented as authoritative, and the influence of his books (which have remained continuously in print) has been so widespread among American occultists over the last sixty years that those who read nothing else on Masonry have tended to treat his opinions as facts.
In England other speculative masons have been equally influential. J.S.M. Ward saw masonic symbolism in the initiation rites of virtually every human culture, past and present, and Freemasonry was for him “the survivor of the ancient mysteries nay, we may go further, and call it the guardian of the mysteries” (Freemasonry and the Ancient Gods, 1926, 2nd ed., p. 341). Ward’s symbolist approach to masonic history ought to have appealed to occultists, but they are often unaware of him, for his work has been confined almost exclusively to masonic circles – unlike that of Dr. Westcott for whom the reverse was true. As befitted the Supreme Magus, or head, of the masonic Rosicrucian Society, Westcott believed firmly in the development of Freemasonry out of Rosicrucianism, and he argued forcefully that masonic ritual was deeply tinged with Kabbalistic ideas. And yet for all the flaws in his scholarship Westcott appreciated the value of historical research, and he thus rejected as unfounded the claims of Yarker, Ward and others for a descent of Freemasonry from Mithraism or from the Essenes (see Ars Quatuor Coronatorum, Vols. 1 , 28, 29).
But while Westcott’s purely occult works have remained popular, his masonic writings are virtually unknown, and in attempting to bring Freemasonry to the notice of the occult world he was less successful than his younger and more mystical contemporaries, W. L. Wilmshurst and A. E. Waite, both of whom wrote for a wider audience than a purely masonic one. They presented their respective visions of Freemasonry as a part only of a more comprehensive and continuing spiritual tradition: and more importantly, the works of both men are still available – reaching and influencing an infinitely greater number of readers than either the works of Westcott or those of their little-known critics who wrote to protest against their errors of fact (Waite especially was prone to treating historical data in a very cavalier manner).
And this is the paradox of the hermetic misunderstanding of Freemasonry. The ideas of its motley crew of apologists are propagated in books that survive when the lives of their authors (and their opponents) are long forgotten, for there is a common thread that binds them all together. Credulous oddities such as Heindel and Leadbeater; earnest, if unsound, scholars like Ward and Westcott; and such luminous mystics as Wilmshurst and Waite, all shared a passionate conviction that Freemasonry holds a key indeed, the key – which will unlock the ancient mysteries, the Secret Tradition, or whatever one chooses to call that subtle alternative to mundane history and orthodox thought.
In the last analysis, that is what matters. It is of little consequence whether or not Freemasonry is descended from the mystery religions of antiquity: the important thing is that influential figures in the recent history of the Hermetic Tradition believed that it did; and this belief colored their perception of Hermeticism as a whole and determined the manner in which they gave those perceptions practical expression. Without an appreciation of their idea of Freemasonry, however distorted and inaccurate it may have been, we cannot fully understand their role in the development of the Hermetic Tradition in the modern era.
Nor is this all. We must also be aware of the true nature of Freemasonry itself, of its relationship with esoteric systems of thought during the period of its creation, and of the more esoteric theories of its origin. It may be that none of these theories is correct, that the occultists were right, after all, in assuming a vast antiquity for the Craft; but even if it proves to have been nothing more than a curious social club, its presence, however passive, lay behind almost all of the esoteric Orders of the last two centuries – Orders whose creators believed in Freemasonry as the supreme vehicle for the transmission of a superior traditional wisdom. Unless we acknowledge the influence of the idea of Freemasonry and attempt to understand its nature, both as it is and as it was believed to be, our understanding of Hermeticism will be impoverished. We shall be like the candidate for Masonic initiation: in a State of Darkness.
R.A. Gilbert is an antiquarian bookseller in Bristol, UK. He is the author of The Golden Dawn: Twilight of the Magicians, and A.E. Waite: Magician of Many Parts and is currently working with John Hamill, the librarian of the United Grand Lodge of England, on A World History of Freemasonry. 1. The U.G.L.E. is the governing body of English Freemasonry; the quotations are taken from a leaflet issued by their Board of General Purposes, entitled What is Freemasonry ? Although I refer throughout the text to English Freemasonry, the arguments hold for the Ancient & Accepted Scottish Rite in the U. S. A. and for Regular Freemasonry throughout the world. Quoted from What is Freemasonry?, as reproduced in John Hamill, The Craft: A History of English Freemasonry, Crucible Books (1986) p. 12. The first papal pronouncement against Freemasonry was the Encyclical, In eminente, issued in 1738.  e.g. F. D. Harrison of Bardford who became Grand Secretary of Universal Co-Freemasonry in England, although he had left the Horus Temple of the Golden Dawn because he disliked its masonic ethos.  This is the title by which it is commonly known. The correct title is An Encyclopedic Outline of Masonic, Hermertc, Qabalistic and Rosicrucian Symbolical Philosophy