The Masonic Fraternity and Modern Pagan Religions
The question was put to me not long ago whether the practice of or belief in spiritual principles of neo-Pagan religions are "compatible" with being a member of the ancient and honorable order of Free & Accepted Masons. This becomes an increasingly important question as the number of neo-Pagans rises from three to four million worldwide. There are about as many self-identified neo-Pagans on the earth today as there are American Freemasons. Paganism is a vital and growing assortment of faiths. To illustrate, a simple search, using any of the major web engines, turns up scores of Pagan religion and ethical culture sites on the Internet.
Simply put, I was asked, can a good Pagan make a good Mason? It seems a newsletter that I had published had reached the hands of the good brothers of my Lodge, after someone in town put it there and tried to make it an issue. I was called before a committee of my peers, on May 28, 1995, to explain how my Pagan spiritual beliefs fit into the grand scheme of Freemasonry, of which a necessary prerequisite is a belief in God.
Not only did I answer all questions put to me questions orally, but I voluntarily distributed copies of brochures and newspaper articles which I had previously written describing some of the basic tenets of Wicca and other branches of neo-Pagan religions.
I came away feeling that, not only had I been treated fairly and listened to by the committee, who told me it was their finding that it my beliefs were in no way inconsistent with membership in the Craft; but also feeling that, though the brothers who interviewed me said they had never heard of the neo-Pagan movement, they listened respectfully and seemed to give careful thought to my explanation.
Freemasons take very seriously obligations to their Deity (whomever that may be) and are cautious to ensure that no "irreligious libertine" or "infidel" receives the three Masonic degrees. Masonry welcomes honest men of all faiths, as millions the world around can attest. Recent past Masters of my own Lodge, for example, have been Jewish, Protestant and Catholic. Likewise, there are also Moslems, pagan Hindus, and others who are Freemasons.
In conference with my brethren, I pointed to the section of the Masonic Law of New York, which states in part:
[§1109] c. Religious, Political or Secular Disputes. Masonic discipline is not intended for the determination private disputes, whether religious, political or secular.
Having joined the Fraternity out of honorable motives, I felt that the integrity of my religious beliefs were being questioned by an anonymous accuser. In retrospect, I still feel somewhat uncomfortable about the brief inquisition which I underwent. I told the Lodge officers questioning me that whoever raised the issue, in my mind, seemed guilty of un-Masonic conduct, since it seemed the validity of my religious beliefs were being called into question. Later, I was told that a non-Mason in the community (allegedly, a man whom I knew through local political associations) had brought the matter to their attention, and that he had raised the question of whether Paganism was "compatible with Freemasonry." Why this man would legitimately care I can not imagine.
Being a faithful Pagan, an officer of my Blue Lodge, and a 32° Mason or Sublime Prince of the Royal Secret in the Scottish Rite, the question of compatibility between the Craft and my religion is of no small personal import to me. (Permit me to insert at this point that the views expressed in this article are solely my own, and do not represent any branch of the modern neo-Pagan movement, the Masonic fraternity, any of its concordant bodies, or the Lodge to which I belong.)
The experience of being raised to the degree of Master Mason was spiritually moving for me. I was impressed not only with the Fraternity and the genuine brotherly love apparent in the Lodge that night, but by the ritual itself. From my prior studies of the indiginous religions of my Indo-European (primarily Celtic) ancestors, I recognized some elements in the Masonic ritual as possibly being of similar origin. For example, there were references to the great Pagan mathematicians Pythagoras and Euclid. Pythagoras himself, who is is remembered today as the "ancient friend and brother" of Freemasonry, is said to have studied among Druids. Ritual circumambulations, as are done in the Lodge, were also a familiar experience for me, as was the concept of being lifted from a symbolic death. During the degree, I recalled a Beltane circle in which I participated several years earlier, in which I was lifted up by the right hand from under a pile of leaves beneath an oak and called "green man." Many mystic traditions include similar symbolic elements of ritual death and rebirth. I felt tears in my eyes as I played the role of a widow's son murdered by his fellows, and as I heard for the first time the dramatic and impressive words of the Masonic third degree.
The Hiramic legend strikes a chord for many, I believe, because of its archetypal resonance and congruence with many ancient legends of a Dying God. Epic examples include Adonis of the Greeks, Horus of the Egyptians, portions of what can be reconstructed of the Eleusinian Mystery drama, and from comparatively modern times, stories of the activities and earthly demise of Jesus of Nazareth. Books have been written on this, and there is not space to review them in depth in this brief article. An excellent Masonic reference, first published 1925, is Who Was Hiram Abiff? by J.S.M. Ward (republished by Lewis Masonic Books, ISBN 0-8318-148-9). Another is the classic study of magic and religion, The Golden Bough by Sir J.G. Frazer, a fellow of Trinity College (MacMillan, 1939), which is also still in print.
Freemasonry is described in official literature as: "the oldest and largest fraternal organization in the world, a universal society of friends who seek to become better men through their association with one another and their families. It is a 600-year-old Fraternity with a 3,000-year tradition, the prototype of most modern fraternal societies and service organizations."
Moreover, the Grand Lodge of New York affirms: "Freemasonry welcomes men from every religious denomination or creed, requiring only that they affirm their belief in a Supreme Being, and that they are of high moral character and are good citizens. Masonic Lodges are non-denominational and non-political. Partisan and sectarian discussions are not permitted in Lodges. Masonry is not a substitute for church or religion. The Fraternity urges its members to practice their own particular religious beliefs in their daily lives."
But what precisely is Paganism? Is it the same as being "irreligious," an "infidel," or even agnostic. No! Like Masonic tradition itself, Pagan religions date back many millennia. In a copyrighted paper, presented by Dr. James Russell of the Harvard University Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, entitled "Mithraism and Freemasonry," given at the Livingston Masonic Library in New York on November 10, 1994, provides numerous liturgical and historical parallels in modern Freemasonry and that ancient cult of Pagan sun-worshippers.
Some modern-day Pagan traditions are polytheistic, worshipping a multiplicity of Deities. Others are monotheistic. Still others — like some Native American traditions — may be describe as animist, pantheist or universalist. The idea that all that is is God/dess is not intrinsically un-Masonic, but neither it is it distinctly such. Many Pagans revere the Earth, and all that is in Her, as a unified living, divine being. Nature, it may be said, is the Grand Architect of the Universe.
Historically, the word "Pagan" derives from the Latin pagani, meaning "one who dwells in the country, since rural people (including those residing "on the heath" (heathens) were among the last to be "converted" at sword-point by the conquering armies of Rome who marched under Christian banners.
Ancient Druidic orders, quintessentially Pagan, are thought by some to have worked in a style bearing some technical similarities to modern Masonic tradition. Russell A. Herner, 32°a past district deputy grand master of the 18th Masonic District, State of Ohio, presents an interesting thesis in his book Stonehenge: An ancient Masonic Temple (Macoy, 1979, ISBN 0-88053-077-4). He interprets archeological evidence to make a case that "Masonic ritual fits extraordinarily well into the character and arrangement of the stones at Stonehenge." While I remain skeptical of some ideas presented in this book, particularly since massive controversy swirls among the most accomplished scholars regarding the origins and interpretation of the circle of standing stones on England's Salisbury plain. Ancient Druids were not Freemasons, at least as know them today, by any stretch. But isn't it just possible that some ritual elements of modern Masonry survive or derive from the practices of this ancient Celtic priestly caste? After all, it was the Grand Lodge of England, in 1717, which first incorporated ancient traditions into modern speculative Freemasonry as we know it.
Albert G. Mackey, 33° observes in his Encyclopedia of Freemasonry:
The interpretation of the symbols of Freemasonry from a Christian point of view is a theory adopted by some of the most distinguished Masonic writers of England and this country [USA], but one which I think does not belong to the ancient system. Hutchinson and after him Oliver—profoundly philosophical as are the Masonic speculations of both—have, I am constrained to believe, fallen into a great error in calling the Master Mason's Degree a Christian institution. It is true that it embraces within its scheme the great truths of Christianity upon the subject of the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the body; but this was to be presumed, because Freemasonry is truth, and all truth must be identical. But the origin of each is different; their histories are dissimilar. The principles of Freemasonry preceded the advent of Christianity. Its symbols and its legends are derived from the Solomonic Temple and from the people een anterior to that. Its religion comes from the ancient priesthood... [Mackey (1924), Vol. 1, p. 148, s.v. "Christianization of Freemasonry"].
Mackey offers a lengthy commentary on "Druidical Mysteries," concluding with:
The doctrines of the Druids were the same as those entertained by [the Pagan] Pythagoras. They taught the existence of one Supreme Being; a future state of rewards and punishments; the immortality of the soul, and a metempyschosis; and the object of their mystic rites was to communicate these doctrines in symbolic language, an object and a method common alike to Druidism, to the Ancient Mysteries and to Modern Freemasonry.
A tongue-in-cheek and entertaining, yet thought-provoking article by Otter G'Zell, prelate and founder of the Church of All Worlds describes Pagans as "the other people." Otter recounts the story of the temptation of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, relying on the account in Genesis. When the story comes to the exile of Cain, son of the first parents, after the murder of his brother Abel, Genesis 4:16 is quoted: "Cain left the presence of Yahweh and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden." Otter interprets:
We can assume that the phrase "left the presence of Yahweh" implies that Yahweh is a local deity, and not omnipresent. Now Eden, according to Gen. 2:14-15, was situated at the source of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, apparently right where Lake Van is now, in Turkey. "East of Eden," therefore, would probably be along the shores of the Caspian Sea, right in the Indo-European heartland. Cain settled in there, among the people of Nod, and married one of the women of that country. Here, for the first time, is specifically mentioned the "other people" who are not of the lineage of Adam and Eve, i.e., the Pagans.
So let's look at this story from another viewpoint: There we were, around six thousand years ago, living in our little farming communities around the Caspian Sea, in the land of Nod, when this dude with a terrible scar comes stumbling in out of the sunset. He tells us this bizarre story, about how his mother and father had been created by some god named Jahweh, and put in charge of a beautiful garden somewhere out west, and how they had gotten thrown out for disobedience after eating some of the landlord's forbidden magic fruit of enlightenment. He tells us of murdering his brother, as the god of his parents would only accept blood sacrifice, and of receiving that scar as a mark so that all would know him as a fratricide. The poor guy is really a mess psychologically, obsessed with guilt. He is also obsessively modest, insisting on wearing clothes even in the hottest summer... He seems to believe that he is tainted by the "sin of his parent's disobedience; that it is in his blood, somehow, and will continue to contaminate his children and his children's children. One of our healing women takes pity on the poor sucker, and marries him...
Masonic principles include worship of a unified Deity is not inconsistent with a clause in the Principles and Purposes of the Unitarian Universalist Association which describes "the interdependent web of all living things." Some revere Mother Earth, Gaia, as a unified, living organism. In this sense, some believe, we are all connected to the Goodess. While Masonry per se may not be earth-centered, Masons are obligated to worship God as their faith and conscience dictates.
In the Scottish Rite, adepts ponder the gender of Deity. In Masonic classic Morals and Dogma, Albert Pike (1871) [1906 ed., p. 849] explains:
Reversing the Ineffable Name, and dividing it, it becomes bi-sexual, as the word, Yud-He or Jah is, and discloses the meaning of much of the obscure language of the Kabalah, and is The Highest of which the Columns Jachin and Boaz are the symbol. "In the image of Deity," we are told, "God created the Man; Male and Female created He them:" and the writer, symbolizing the Divine by the Human, then tells us that the woman, at first contained in the man, was taken from his side. So Minerva, Goddess of Wisdom, was born, a woman and in armor, of the brain of Jove; Isis was the sister before she was the wife of Osiris, and within Brahm the Source of all, the Very God, without sex or name, was developed Maya, the Mother of all that is. The Word is the First and Only-begotten of the Father; and the awe with which the Highest Mysteries were regarded has imposed silence in respect to the Nature of the Holy Spirit. The Word is Light, and the Life of Humanity.
It is for the Adepts to understand the meaning of the Symbols.
Pagan historian Doreen Valente tells us that some of the founders of the modern neo-Pagan movement were themselves Masons at one time or another. These were people, who like their ancient counterparts, revered the Divine in nature both as manifested by the Great Goddess and a God. In her web-page, Catharine Yronwode details the subject of Co-Masonry, an organization which modern mainline Masons would describe as a clandestine Masonic body made up of both genders. One organization which survives today is the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. While I have no direct experience with Ordo Templi Orientis, or other quasi-Masonic organizations, I have read on the subject and spoken some adepts therein, giving me something of an awareness of that group's broad influence on Pagans today and even broader culture of the modern world. Among early members of OTO were the acclaimed Irish poet-prophet William Butler Yeats, whose book The Secret Rose and companion work on alchemy could be construed as either Pagan or rooted in the higher orders of Masonry; the widely published occult scholar A.E. Waite; and numerous others.
In recent years, some Masonic authors and leaders have evidently felt compelled to defend the Craft against wild charges leveled by religious fanatics in Christian camps — mostly in America — such as that Freemasonry teaches "the heresy of Universalism." Not so, Masons counter correctly. But, by the same token, a Mason may be a Universalist, Unitarian or Pagan, just as he may be a Catholic, Baptist, Hindu, or Jew. Not a religion, Masonry helps to spread the light of knowledge, love, fraternity, justice and mercy among humanity, leading men to be better people by devoting themselves to their families, governments, religious organizations and spiritual workings.
A pamphlet entitled A Response to Critics of Freemasonry, published in 1994 by the Masonic Information Center, declares:
Some critics of Freemasonry claim the recommended readings for some of the degrees of Masonry are "pagan." Pagan, as they are using the term, simply means pre-Christian. The study of man's moral and intellectual history allows the achievement of Masonry's major purpose, the enhancement of an individual's moral and intellectual development. Such a study has to start with the concepts of man and God as held by early cultures and evidence in their mythologies. The Greeks and Romans, as well as earlier people, had much of importance to say on many topics, including religion. The idea that a physician must act in the best interests of his patient comes from the pagan Hippocrates, and the concept that the government cannot break into your house and take what it wants on a whim comes from the pagan Aristotle. None of us would want to live in an world without these ideas.
In almost every field — law, government, music, philosophy, mathematics, etc. — it is necessary to review the work of early writers and thinkers. Masonry is no exception. But to study the work of ancient cultures is not the same thing as to do what they did or believe what they believed. And no Mason is ever told what he should believe in matters of faith. That is not the task of a fraternity, nor a public library, nor the government. That is the duty of a person's revealed religion and is appropriately expressed through his or her church."
In response to the question posed at the outset, the answer is that for a son of the Goddess and God of the woods not to worship at Their altar would be would be equally as un-Masonic as a Catholic brother failing to attend mass, a Jewish Mason forgetting Pasach, or a Southern Baptist Freemason worshipping Isis. Let all who come before the sacred altar of Freemasonry worship as their heart directs.
So mote it be.