Vol. XXVII No. 9 — September 1949

Veiled in Allegory

Freemasonry, a beautiful system of morality veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols.”

While accepted by many for years, this definition leaves something to be desired in its completeness and in its clarity.

With completing it this Bulletin is not concerned. But perhaps some discussion of allegory, and its correlatives — myth, fable, legend and tradition — may serve to make the definition more inclusive of truth.

The word allegory is a descendant of two Greek syllables: alios (other) and agoria (story). An allegory is, then, an “other story” — one story within a second; a legitimate double-talk. It has been denominated an extended simile, in which the real subject of the discourse is not stated, only inferred. It is a tale figurative in character; it is at times a verbal symbolism. It is closely related to the parable and the fable, in that it tells a fanciful story the true meaning of which, while plain to average intelligence, the hearer must discover for himself. Lemierre said: “Allegory dwells in a transparent palace.”

An allegory may be a symbol; a symbol is never an allegory. The symbol is not understandable except by arbitrary instruction. Show a sprig of acacia to a non-Mason and he will not understand that you exhibit something which to you means immortality. To one not a Mason an apron is a piece of cloth with strings; to the Mason it is a symbol of purity; of rectitude of life; of the whole Craft. Symbols may be words or things; an allegory is never a thing. The allegory tells one story while saying another; the symbol tells any story the beholder chooses to read in it. To the farmer a sheaf of wheat or ears of corn suspended from a tree may be only for a cow or horse to eat. To the Ephraimites and the men of Gilead it was a sign post. To a Mason it is a symbol of plenty. To the literal minded the allegory of the Master’s Degree is not a symbol, but a story. To the understanding heart it is a symbol of immortality.

A parable is really a short allegory; by common usage the word usually means only those told by the Man of Galilee.

Fables are usually children’s stories; at least they are told in forms which childish minds can understand. Most fables are stories with animal or vegetable characters; the Uncle Remus tales of Bre’r Rabbit are fables, as are the famous fanciful stories attributed to Aesop, supposedly a slave of the sixth century B.C. Originally satirical, his fables in more modern times have become little more than lessons for small minds.

The myth is a story the origin of which is lost, and which, while perhaps conceived to explain a fact, has no basis in fact. An ancient Greek watched lightning strike a tree and in the fact saw an unseen god hurling a flaming arrow at the earth! The lightning and the tree were fact; the explanation became a myth and “Jove hurls thunderbolts” passed into Grecian mythology.

The legend is a tale which may, or may not, but probably did, have some factual beginning. Paul Bunyan of the North is a legend; the fanciful tales told of his prowess are of course mythical. But doubtless the beginning of the legend was based on the strength and endurance of the first hardy pioneers who conquered the northern wilderness.

The stories, poems and dramas centering around King Arthur are legends. There may have been, doubtless there was, a character in the early centuries in England, whose prowess in battle, leadership of his knights, and whose ability were so great that the stories about him gradually crowned him king.

A tradition is remembrance, recollection, told from generation to generation. Whittier said: “Tradition wears a snowy beard.” In general an oral tradition is not easily, if at all, to be substantiated by facts. It is a tradition that George Washington cut down a cherry tree and said “I did it with my little hatchet.”

Give it a thousand years and it may become a legend! It is a tradition that Washington threw a silver dollar across the Potomac, although the river was the Rappahannock, and he couldn’t have thrown a silver dollar because there were none in that day!

Unlike myth, legend, fable or allegory, tradition may be an act or a custom as well as a written or oral story. Traditionally the retiring President of the United States rides with the incoming President at an inauguration. It is a tradition in this country that fireworks be used to assist in the celebration of the fourth of July, and that turkeys be eaten on Thanksgiving Day. The decorated Christmas Tree; the throwing out of the first ball in the new baseball season by some noted personage; the fixed-form cheers of Universities at games, are all traditional acts. Such, long enough continued, become in time sufficiently fixed to be considered rites.

To discover the origin of the myth we must delve into the recesses of the human mind. Different as men are in one age; differ as men have in different ages; different as are men by education, training, environment, history; all races, all men, in all times have had one quest — the necessity in some way to explain to themselves why they are themselves and not someone else, whence they came, why they are upon earth, whither they may go after death.

These are the questions which philosophy, science, and religion all try to answer. These are the questions which, answered in a thousand ways, have produced the religions, the forms of worship, the gods and goddesses, the myths, of antiquity.

Many modern men are not concerned with these questions. The church into which they were born offers an answer satisfactory to most; the God they worship is a sufficient First Cause for the universe.

But in the beginnings of civilization there was neither church nor religion, Bible nor priest, and man had to answer his inquiries as best he might. Hence the myths, the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece and Rome, to mention two among thousands.

Freemasonry has one great allegory and two distinct legends interwoven into her degrees, her story, directed towards the one common purpose of a development of the theme of immortality in a form in which all men, no matter of what religion, all worshippers, ofno matter what God, can accept, understand, believe, and find in it comfort and mental as well as emotional satisfaction.

In considering the definition of Freemasonry with which these pages start, it is essential to have clearly in mind the distinction between allegory and legend, myth, fable and tradition, because while Freemasonry is “veiled in allegory” she has also borrowed myths, legends and traditions and made them her own.

Most important is it to distinguish myth and legend. Myth creates a fact out of an idea (that only a god could throw lightning) while legend creates an idea out of fact (an ideal King Arthur out of the fact of some unknown warrior’s prowess, or a giant of superhuman strength called Paul Bunyan out of the strength and courage of the pioneers).

Freemasonry's Master Mason Degree is an allegory. It contains some factual history (taken from the Old Testament), some legend, some myths, and some tradition.

Freemasonry’s history is bound up in the Legend of the Craft as is told in several of the old manuscript constitutions.

These are discourses which contain some facts, which to some extent are based on history, yet are so mixed, jumbled, garbled, changed, and chronologically impossible that the whole becomes legendary.

The Legend of the Third Degree, likewise, contains some facts and historical aspects, but its heart and center is legendary, if not wholly mythical.

If we accept Kings and Chronicles as fact, a Temple was built by Solomon, with the aid of Hiram, sent by King Hiram, who became Solomon’s architect and builder.

Then we have a story of what happened to Hiram Abif, of which there is not one vestige of fact to be discovered in any history contemporary with the building of the Temple. This part of the story is legend; it might have been true, from what we do know of the character and abilities of Hiram.

Within and permeating the story are myths; for instance, that during the seven years of the building of the temple it did not rain in the day time, lest the workmen be prevented from laboring.

Anyone, of course, may take an account of anything and say “This is Masonic tradition.” That does not make it so. The “Masonic traditions”: in this case pure myth, is a statement by Josephus regarding the building of the temple of Herod, and the whole is a quite naive thought that God would stretch forth his hand and prevent the rain so the temple a man was erecting to him would the sooner be completed!

Few emblems or symbols in Masonry include in their explanations so much of myth, legend and allegory as the Broken Column. This is not the time or place to go at length into the friendly disputes which Masonic scholars have had over its inclusion in the Masonic system. Whether Jeremy Cross invented it after seeing the monument erected to Commodore Lawrence in Trinity Churchyard; whether in another form it was in the Barney ritual, contemporary with Cross; whether it was an English design, described by Thomas Johnson, tiler of the Grand Lodge of England in 1782; whether it is an embodiment of the idea of the Egyptian monuments which delineate Isis weeping over the broken column denoting the death of Osiris is not here to be decided.

What is here germane is that the whole is symbol, allegory, myth and tradition. Symbol, in that it denotes reverence for the dead, sadness for incompletion and hope in the ability of time, patience and perseverance to accomplish all things; allegory, in that the explanation of the symbol is one story (that Masons erected the monument to the Builder) while the concealed truth is that time will resurrect his virtues and give him immortality; myth, in that Isis and Osiris are myths; tradition, in that without factual foundation it has been believed by craftsmen to be a part of ancient Freemasonry, although by the longest count the Broken Column cannot be more than one hundred sixty-five years old in Freemasonry.

The curious may hunt down other myths and traditions in Masonic ritual; it is neither a hard nor a far quest, and not without its interest.

The reader must not infer that because allegories, parables, fables, myths, legends and traditions are not factual, therefore they are not true. “What is truth?” asked Pilate. Here the same inquiry must be made; what do we understand by true? If the definition is factual an allegory cannot be true. But if true means containing truth, then an allegory may be true.

No flesh and blood Santa Claus descends any brick chimney to bring toys of wood and tin to living children. But the myth of Santa Claus tells a great truth to small minds; of generosity and happiness and joy on a day Christians celebrate as that of the birth of the Babe in the Manger in Bethlehem.

The allegory of the Master’s Degree is certainly not true in any factual sense, except the historical background from the Biblical account of the Temple. There is no evidence that Solomon and the two Hirams were grand masters; that the workmen on the building were Entered Apprentices, Fellowcrafts and Master Masons; that they met in various apartments of the Temple, with different numbers required for various quorums; that the tragedy occurred; the events delineated in the ceremony subsequent to the tragedy actually happened.

And yet the allegory is true in the finest and best sense of the word. For the story of Hiram is the story of the dearest hope of mankind. It is a tale told in every religion since there have been religions. It is affirmation, by picture, drama, story, of man’s rugged faith that Job’s immortal question, “If a man die, shall he live again?” must be answered in the affirmative. It is a Mason’s observation that truth, slain by error, will be born again; it is the story of Isis and Osiris; it is the crucifixion and the resurrection of the Carpenter who died between two thieves. The Legend of the Third Degree is true in the deepest sense of truth.

Because of this, it is beautiful with a loveliness not of the earth, earthy.

Aye, Freemasonry is a beautiful system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols.

But only those who have that imagination, which no important than knowledge, see truly beneath the veil, which no less a scientific authority than Einstein said was more important than knowledge, see truly beneath the veil.

The Masonic Service Association of North America