The Mists of Antiquity
Bro. W. J. (Jack) Collett, P.G.M.
When we talk about the origins of Freemasonry we frequently say that they are buried in the "mists of antiquity." This means that the beginnings of the Craft are not easily definable. For some students of Masonic history the "mists of antiquity" lie in the history of Freemasonry previous to the origin of the four Speculative Lodges that operated in London, England, and ultimately came together to form the Grand Lodge of England in 1717. This means a study of the great manuscripts that record the "Charges of Freemasonry", such as the "Halliwell Manuscript", also known as the "Regius Poem", which dates at approximately 1380 A.D., and the "Cooke Manuscript" which comes from about 1450.
For others it means an attempt to trace the origins of the Craft back to the building of King Solomon's Temple at about 975 B.C. This is because our ritual and the Hiramic Legend are so closely connected with the events of the reign of King Solomon. It is doubtful that the moral teachings or, indeed, any of our ritual came from that period. Bailey and Kent, the authors of a standard textbook called The History of the Hebrew Commonwealth, make the startling comment that "If there was anything done in Solomon's reign to strengthen the people in material or intellectual ways, if there was any endeavour to purify religion or elevate morals, we do not know of it. No heroic or noble act is recorded of anyone while Solomon was on the throne." Of Solomon the scholars say, "The empire was his slave, and the sole end of its toil was his pleasure. No country can long stand such a strain." These words are true historically. After the reign of King Solomon the empire that King David had built disintegrated, and the years that followed were filled with chaos.
Masons, quite naturally, recoil from the verdict of such scholarship. The words strike at the very roots of some teachings that we hold dear. Did not the Legend of Hiram Abif come out of King Solomon's reign? Did not Solomon mourn for the loss of his architect and order that he be decently interred? liere not the villains in the Legend given their just deserts? Of all these things we have no real evidence in the Old Testament. It is true that in the First Book of Kings, Chapter VII, and in the Second Book of Chronicles, Chapter II there are very brief references to Hiram. However, there are no real details. The legend that grew up around him dates from the early 1700's. The first real evidence that any Lodge used a dramatized version of the Hiramic Legend puts the date as late as 1722. Thus it is that some of the Masonic traditions that are dearest to the hearts of Masons are "buried in the mists of antiquity."
From whence then came the moral and spiritual teachings of Freemasonry? From whence came many of the mystic rites that we now perform?
In order to understand some of these difficult questions we must first of all remind ourselves that Christianity and Freemasonry were from the earliest times-closely bound together. Our forebears, the operative masons, were men who built the majestic cathedrals of Europe to honour Jesus of Nazareth, who was of humble origin and who, most certainly, would not feel at home in some of the beautiful edifices erected in his honour. Indeed, many of the intricate ceremonies conducted in those cathedrals would be completely foreign to him. Let us remember that his public ministry lasted but three short years, and all he left behind him were eleven followers who had to meet in secret, because they feared the wrath of both the people and the governments. Later came an elaborate system called the Christian Church, complete with numerous ceremonies and mystic rites. With that development Freemasonry was closely linked in spite of the fact that today we claim it to be a Universal Science with no special religious ties. The latter claim is quite true, for Freemasonry as well as Christianity attracted to itself many practices other than those of the Hebrew Religion.
There existed both in the Greek and Roman cultures certain practices known as the Mystery Religions. These were not confined to Greece and Rome. Evidence of them may be found in the early cultures of China, India, Egypt, and other ancient civilizations. They were secret religious assemblies with special initiation rites, and most certainly were present in the time of Jesus. Undoubtedly they had an influence on the growth of the ceremonies of early Christianity. In fact, the Apostle Paul in some of his letters found it necessary to protest against the intrusion of pagan practices into the Christian Church. In one instance he warned the new Christian converts that they must not drink to excess at the Lord's Supper. At another point he emphasized that he did not participate in the growing practice of baptism. Despite the warnings some of the customs of the Mystery Religions became an integral part of Christian Ritual. One only needs to examine some of the mysticism surrounding the festivals of Christmas and Easter to understand the syncretism that occurred and has been Lost as the centuries have passed. We should remind ourselves again that the Roman Catholic Church, with its elaborate ceremonies, was once the main support of Freemasonry and the ceremonies connected with that order. All of the ceremonies of the Christian Church and of Freemasonry contain overtones of the ancient Mystery Religions.
The Mystery Religions were very selective in their membership. No uninitiated person was permitted to take part in the ceremonies. Note the relationship here with the Christian Holy Communion, and also with the practices of Freemasonry. The Mystery Religions appear to have had a double purpose. First, they wished to hand down, from generation to generation, the traditions associated with the gods in whose honour they were organized. Secondly, they taught very carefully how certain rituals were to be performed, and then trained their initiates to carry out those rituals exactly. Under no circumstances were there to be variations from the ancient traditions, even in the words of the rituals. The prime purpose of the Mystery Religions was not to teach dogmatic religious beliefs; it was to strive for the moral improvement of their membership. The rituals were designed not only to improve the morals of the adherents, but also to implant in their membership a hope for the life that would go on after death.
The first remarkable resemblance between the Mysteries and Freemasonry is that membership rested on the voluntary choice of the individual. No one was ever invited to belong to a mystery religion. The individual had to volunteer to become a member. If the individual indicated his desire and if he were accepted, then he had to submit himself to the Initiation Rites. These rites were designed to provide for the candidate an emotional experience that would tie him forever to his religion. When that was done he was accepted into a fellowship, designed to give him support as he became more and more absorbed into a community of regenerated individuals.
The ultimate goal of the Mystery Religions was to establish a relationship between the individual and the gods. It was supposed to be an intimate and personal type of communication, that would bring to the individual the particular help he needed to live the type of life expected of him as a member of the religion. For the Mysteries the initiation rites sought to bring the individual, no matter what his age, a sense of being born again and, as he grew in knowledge, to admit him to a sense of maturity that he did not possess before. After he was initiated and as he was transformed from childhood to maturity, he was expected to share in the social duties of the religion. The social and moral issues that faced the particular nation became his responsibility.
One of the most important aspects of the Mystery Religions was the program of instruction for the Initiates. Each new member was required to take time to go through a course of instruction. He was taught how he should act in the ceremonies of the group, and what he should do in his relationships with his fellow members and his community. He was encouraged to think in terms of the philosophy of the religion and the means of transfering the thought into action.
There are many things about the Mystery Religions that are not known. The reason is that the religions had an inviolable rule that all Initiation Rites and instruction were transmitted by word of mouth. It was forbidden that anything be written. Thus the customs and traditions were handed on orally from individual to individual and from group to group. We have never been able to discover, for instance, what exactly happened in the Ceremony of Initiation. On the other hand it is known that the total effect of a Mystery Religion was to weld a chain of continuity that lasted through the ages. The system disappeared with the growth of the Christian Religion, and the collapse of the Roman culture in the early years of this era. When Rome was overrun by the barbarians of Europe in the First Century A.D., the Mystery Religions, as such, disappeared, although remnants of heir practices survived.
The Mystery Religions were always connected with a god. The ancient peoples generally worshipped many gods, but from that variety of divinities a Mystery Religion adopted one that it worshipped and to which it paid special loyalty. They customarily selected a god that had something to do with fertility and growth. Hence, some of them became associated with fertility rites, and out of that some practices grew up that put some of the religions into disrepute. There were cults that developed systems of male prostitution and homosexual acts. From such things arose an aura of suspicion over the secret meetings of the mysteries, and questions were raised constantly about what actually went on in the initiation rites. It is safe to assume that the majority of the mysteries sincerely sought to raise the moral life of their membership, and the abuses of secrecy were minor.
The ancient people lived continually on the edge of starvation. They were not knowledgeable enough of the world to understand the inevitable change of seasons, and were often surprised when the long period of winter arrived and nothing grew. Of course, they frequently did not have the expertise to store food for the time when the land did not produce. Even greater than their distress over the winter season was their awe and surprise when spring arrived, and the world appeared to be born again, with new growth and an abundance of food. In their minds, however, there was no certainty that spring would follow winter and that harvest would follow the spring. This routine always, in their minds, was subject to the whim of the gods. If the gods were pleased, then growth would follow. If the gods were angry, then famine would occur. It was essential for them to find ways of keeping the gods in good humour, and thus to assure the return of the spring. Many of the rituals connected with the Ancient Religions were directed towards the pleasing of the gods. Even in the Old Testament we read that the smoke from the sacrifices in the temple was pleasing to God and he rewarded his people.
Because the ancient peoples were so concerned about survival and the assuring of the regular succession of seasons, their great legends had to do with their great concerns. It came about, too, that the contents of the Mystery Religions were mainly communicated by means of legends. In the legends the Earth is usually thought of as the great Goddess of Fertility, This goddess grew old and feeble as the autumn season approached and was continually in danger of death. If the Goddess of Fertility died, that would mean that the primitive man would suffer from hunger and, perhaps, starvation. The idea of the Goddess of Fertility dying filled the early peoples with terror. Therefore, it was essential that a magical rite be performed that would assist the Goddess of Fertility to survive the dangerous period of winter. Through this magical rite the goddess, in danger of dying and making the earth barren, would be brought to life again and once more possess a young and vigorous body. The result would be that fertility would be restored to the earth and people would be able to eat once more.
The Adonis Myth very likely originated in Babylon but it is best known in its Greek version. Adonis was the vigorous and youthful lover of the great Mother Goddess. Her name was Ishtar and she embodied all the reproductive possibilities and energies of nature. If Adonis died, Ishtar was without a lover, and she would not be fertilized and consequently would fail to reproduce. Each year Adonis, the vigorous lover, would die and pass into the world of the shadows. Each year after his death Ishtar desired to be fertilized and she would seek unceasingly to find her lost lover, for without Adonis the period of reproduction would cease. The situation was so desperate that messengers would be sent to the Queen of the Underworld, pleading for the return of Adonis to the bed of Ishtar. In the meantime Ishtar herself, barren and cold, would go to the underworld to seek for her lover. She passed through the seven gates of the underworld and each time she had to pay a fee, which was one of her garments. Finally, naked and alone, the Great Mother Goddess would appear before the Queen of the Underworld. The Queen would refuse to release Adonis until the messengers of the gods arrived, to sprinkle the Water of Life on both Adonis and Ishtar. When this was done they were raised from the tomb of death to the upper world. When the raising was complete the wonderful world of nature was revived and hope reborn for the fertility of the world.
This legend is significant because it embodies several facets of the Christian Religion. The sprinkling of water, the descent of the hope of the world into the realms of darkness, the revival of life and hope for the world. It also has within it elements of the legend of Hiram Abif. The lost hero, the search for the lost heroine, and the raising from darkness into the newness of life.
Another legend has in it Adonis, a beautiful child, whom Aphrodite deeply loves. In order not to be deprived of the love of Adonis, Aphrodite conceals Adonis in a chest, and leaves the chest in charge of Persephone, the Queen of the Underworld. Persephone looks in the chest and sees the beautiful youngster. She immediately falls in love with him and refuses to return the chest to Aphrodite. To recover the lost love Aphrodite herself descends into the realms of darkness in a desperate effort to recover the lost child. The dispute between Aphrodite and Persephone rages, so that the whole of the underworld is in disarray. At length the god Zeus is forced to intervene. He rules that the child must remain for half of the year with Aphrodite, and with Persephone the other half. During the part of the year that Adonis is with Aphrodite the world is warm and it is a period of reproduction, growth, and plenty. When Adonis is with Persephone the world is cold, lacking in growth, and unproductive. When the time comes for Adonis to live with the Queen of the Underworld he is lowered into her presence with great sorrow and lamentations. When the vital words are spoken and the time has come to restore Adonis to Aphrodite, the child is raised very carefully from the darkness into the light. This is a time of great joy, feasting and rejoicing.
The ancient legends of the raising of an individual from darkness into life are many. The details of the event are varied. The main outline remains throughout them all. Involved are fertility and growth, the discovery of some secret means to do the raising, then the change from death to resurrection. Basically the legends all contain the same story. A god dies and the earth becomes unproductive. The god is restored to life and the earth becomes fertile and productive. Each Mystery Religion in every early culture had its legends, illustrated by accompanying rites and ceremonies. Only those who have been properly initiated know the particular legend. Those who are permitted to perform the rite of resurrection are the ones who have been taught carefully and are skilful in performing the required ceremonies, that will ensure the resurrection of the god. Connected with the ceremonies are certain signs and symbols. These are revealed to the new initiates when they have received sufficient instruction to appreciate the essential essence of the purpose of the religion into which they have been received after requesting membership.
Osiris was the son of the earth god Seb and of the sky goddess Nut. He had two brothers, Horus, the elder, and Set. There were also two sisters, Isis and Metphthys. Notice that the family comprised a total of seven, and that there are five children including three boys. Osiris taught the Egyptians how to grow corn. Set, the god of evil, was jealous of the popularity of Osiris. He conspired with 72 villains to murder him. They made a chest and persuaded Osiris to get into it. When Osiris got into the chest they nailed it down securely, and flung it into the River Nile. Osiris was discovered to be missing, and there was great concern over the fact that the great teacher had been lost. Isis, on hearing the news, was greatly distressed. She had her hair cut and put on clothes of mourning. Then she set out in search of the body. In the meantime the chest had floated down the Nile to the town of Byblos, in Syria, and there it became stranded on the sand. An Erica tree grew up over the chest and completely enclosed it in its trunk. The King of Syria decided that the tree should be cut down and that it would be used to form a great pillar in his palace. Isis arrived in Syria and went to the King's Palace. She begged for the pillar and her pleas were heard. She cut it open, found the chest and within it the body of Osiris. Isis threw herself on the body and brought it back to life. Osiris was raised from the chest in a great ceremony. The 72 villains were discovered and put to death. Osiris, having been raised from darkness to renewed his vows to serve his people. He returned to Egypt and continued to teach his people how to make their soil fertile, how to produce crops of corn and how to feed the people.
Space will not permit to relate more of the fascinating legends that have been preserved out of the "mists of antiquity," yet it is hoped that the Masonic reader recognizes the similarities between them and the Legend of Hiram Abif. Certainly the legend does not come from the Old Testament. The story in the Old Testament tells of Hiram, King of Tyre, sending another Hiram, the son of a widow, to help Solomon build a temple (II Chronicles 2:13 and I Kings 7:13). If the story is read carefully it can be seen that Hiram, the widow's son, was not so much the architect as he was a skilled worker in brass, stone and purple. Chronicles says that Hiram's mother was "of the daughters of Dan" while his father was a man of Tyre. Tyre, by the way, was one of the great centres of the cult of Adonis. Beyond these scanty facts the Old Testament tells us nothing. There is no record of the murder of Hiram, not even any indication that he died. It is evident that he had dropped out of the picture by the time that the temple was dedicated.
As stated at the beginning we do not know where the Legend of Hiram originated, but we do know that it did not become current until the eighteenth century. In this the legend does not differ very much from the lack of knowledge as to the origin of much of our ritual. It is feasible to speculate that it was written by some scholar who had steeped himself in the legends of the Mystery Religions. Certainly all the ingredients are there; the murder of a productive god, the disposal of the body by the powers of darkness, the discovery of the body by the powers of light, the raising of the body from darkness to light, and the return to productive living. In addition there are the accompanying signs and symbols, which are kept secret. There is also the dedicated journey of those who sought for the body and the ultimate discovery of it, and the punishment of those who sought for the hero's death and the honour bestowed upon the person who was raised.
We are attempting in this paper to discover origins, but we must also note that the Legend of Hiram has been carefully refined and adapted to the lessons that the science of Freemasonry teaches; to wit:
1. Hiram, in the Masonic Legend, is not restored to life as are the gods of the Mystery Religions. The Christian Religion follows the Mystery Religions to this conclusion. To have life restored in the Masonic Ritual would introduce a strange and jarring note. The writer of the Hiramic Legend appropriately ends it with having the remains properly interred. However, the signs and symbols remain. They are transferred to the candidate, who is urged to remember the noble example of a man who would rather suffer death than betray a sacred trust that had been vested in him at his initiation and throughout the instruction that he received after his voluntary entry into the order.
2. The raising of Hiram in the Legend symbolizes the entrance of the human soul into a new and better stage of experience. It points out that it is the duty of all men to prepare themselves for a new life, by following the glorious example of dedication and perfection. it should be noted that an element of resurrection remains. Although the bones are interred, the new life, the resurrected one, is transferred to the candidate. What more meaningful idea of the resurrection can there be than that the goodness of the person who has died lives on in those for whom he lived?
3. The Hiramic Legend in Freemasonry does not have the magical elements that are common to the legends of the Mystery Religions. In one of the versions of the Osiris Legend, Isis, a virgin, throws herself on the dead body of Osiris and immediately becomes pregnant, and later is the virgin mother of the god Horus. The reason for raising the body was so that it might be interred in consecrated ground. Certain signs are learned by those who raise the body, but they are not the genuine secrets. Those have yet to be discovered. The quest does not end with the raising of the body. The search must go on, for the purpose is the unending search for eternal truth. It is only by constant struggle to attain the elusive truth that we can live the life triumphant. This version comes as close as we can get in the ancient legends to the teaching of the Hiramic Legend, namely that the search for the missing word must go on into eternity.
4. The Hiramic Legend does not end in crass materialism as do most of the mysteries. The conclusions of the Legends of the Mysteries indicate that the ancient peoples, because of their exploits, assure themselves of material gain, such as the return of food after the winter barrenness. The lesson we learn in Freemasonry is that there is another way of living that is far higher than the material one. It is the world of brotherhood and service in this present life. After that, when this transient existence is ended, we may find a happier and more abundant life. Until the time of transition arrives from the present to the eternal future, we must be faithful to our obligations and to our duties. We must learn to live at peace within the mysteries that constantly surround us.
It is impossible to assert with any certainty exactly where the Legend of Hiram Abif originated, or to find any documented account of its direct relationship to the Mystery Religions of the ancient cultures. It is possible for us to say that the Hiramic Legend and all the ancient legends form a part of humanity's great quest for the meaning of life and death. That originated with man as he became a conscious and thinking being, and will not end until man vanishes from the face of this earth, either because of his own foolishness or because of his disappearance in the process of evolution. The legend is a part of the ongoing stream of human thought.
To take a speculative journey through the Mystery Religions, for this author, enhances the Legend of Hiram Abif and greatly enriches its meaning. No longer is Hiram only a man of honour who is willing to sacrifice his life rather than betray a sacred trust. He stood for something far greater. He became a part of humanity, reaching out to an unknown power seeking for some assurance of permanency and love. Man has frequently fallen into the error of thinking that if he could make corn grow, if he could amass corn, so that he had to pull down the small granaries and build larger ones, he would have attained something that could not be destroyed, namely wealth and power. The legends, especially the Hiramic one, say something more. They say there is more to life than material wealth and strength.
A long succession of prophets, priests and kings, including Hiram Abif, have been sacrificed on the altar of crass materialism. Even in death these men have not been silenced, but have lived on in the lives of those who seek the truth embedded within the legends. There is a life beyond and that is the life of the spirit. It is the life of the spirit that holds the true secrets, and they rest only in the thoughts of the Master Mason of all Mankind.
Hiram was not the first builder to be @lain nor was he the last. Today the eternal temple will not be built by men who seek for advantages of their own, but it will be built with devotion, sacrifice, death, and resurrection.
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