THE MYSTERY OF THE ANCIENTS
The author of the following paper is not a Freemason; he is a graduate student in the Centre for Religious Studies at the University of Toronto, and submitted the paper as part of his course requirements. In it he discusses four early non-operative Masons who joined the Craft between 1641 and 1730, and attempts to understand why they joined. Mr. Cameron wishes to express his gratitude to the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library of the University of Toronto, the Library of the Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies of Victoria University, Toronto, and the Library of the Grand Lodge of Canada in the Province of Ontario, Hamilton, as well as to the Interlibrary Loan Service of the John P. Robarts Research Library of the University of Toronto.
One of the many mysteries scattered throughout history is that of the origin of speculative Masonry. The subject has frequently received attention, and such interest is not at all unfounded. When some of the leading members of England's intelligentsia begin to participate in the initiation ceremonies of what had originally been a labouring class worker's guild, it is certainly a curious matter. One noted author on such arcane matters has commented, "Despite much research by Masonic historians we still know virtually nothing concrete about the change, thought to have taken place in the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century, from operative to speculative Masonry and why it occurred."' This paper will make some suggestion as to the intentions which may have motivated four of the most celebrated of the early speculative Masons to accept membership in the order, and attempt to demonstrate a common denominator of interest in these four men. They are, by name, William Stukeley, Elias Ashmole, Robert Moray, and the Chevalier Ramsay.
William Stukeley (1687-1765) was kind enough to explicitly state his purposes in seeking membership in the Lodge. In his autobiography of 1753 an oft-quoted notation for May, 1720 remarks that Stukeley's "curiosity led him to be initiated into the mysteries of Masonry, suspecting it to be the remains of the mysteries of the antients." Stukeley had been fascinated with British antiquities almost all his life, especially the great circles at Stonehenge and Avebury, at which sites he completed field notes which would be unparalleled for the next century . In time, he came to believe that these structures had been the work of the ancient Druids. Initially, Stukeley believed that the Druids received their instruction in architecture from the "Aegyptians," speculating that their teacher had been none other than the shadowy Egyptian sage Hermes "the Thrice-Greatest," explaining,~
tis probable hermes trismegistus made his first temples of stones and obiliscs like ours before arts in the settled kingdom of Egypt rose to a considerable height and particularly that of architecture, so our druids followed still the most simple manner learnt from their master.
But Stukeley's thought took a more remarkable turn in later years. In 1729 Stukeley was ordained a Deacon by William Wake, who had assumed the position of Primate of all England four years earlier. In a letter of June 10, 1729, the Archbishop remarks to Stukeley,
Never was there a time in which we wanted all the assistance we can get against the prevailing infidelity of the present wicked age; and as our adversaries are men pretending to reason superior to others, so nothing can more abate their pride, and stop their prevalence, than to see Christianity defended by those who are in all respects as eminent in naturall knowledge, and philosophical enquiries, as they can pretend to be.
As Stukeley came to believe the "Druids to be the inheritors of the true patriarchal religion, with which 'the christian, is but one and the same,'" Stukeley's field notes from Stonehenge and Avebury could become just the apologetic material the Bishop had requested. In the preface to his monumental work Stonehenge, a Temple restor'd to the British Druids, as it was first published in 1740, Stukeley commented that his purpose was to promote "the knowledge and practice of ancient and true Religion," which worship "is no where upon earth done, in my judgement, better than in the Church of England." Interestingly, Stukeley significantly altered the information from his original field notes so that the ceremonies of the Druids could be made to appear as little more than a curious alteration of the rites of Jews and Christians, a penchant which apparently becomes even more pronounced with the following publication of Abury, a Temple of the Britzsh Druids in 1743. Stukeley's fascination with the Druids as the stepchildren of "the practice of ancient and true Religion" did not diminish, but rather came to eclipse all his other work.
If Stukeley indeed believed that the arts of the Druids could be traced to the ancient Egyptians and Hebrews, this conviction alone might have led him to join the Masons in the hopes of learning the "mysterys of the antients." In the "Old Charges," those histories kept by the Lodges which detailed the mythical origins of Freemasonry and were featured prominently in the ritual installation of new members, both the ancient Egyptians and patriarchs of the Old Testament figure prominently as the fathers of the Masonic arts and sciences. But there were at this time even more specific connections made between the Druids and the Freemasons. In 1766, the philologist and novelist John Cleland (who was also the author of the scandalous Fanny Hill in 1750) published a tract entitled, The Way To Things by Words, and To Words by Things; Being A Sketch Of An Attempt at the Retrieval Of The Antient Celtic, Or, Primitive language of Europe. Cleland thought little of those Masons who would trace the origin of their art to the foundation of the "Temple of Jerusalem," but rather saw the precursors of the Masons to be none other than the Druids. Cleland asked his reader to consider, "Considering too, that the May (May-pole) was eminently the great sign of Druidism, as the Cross was of Christianity, is there any thing forced or far fetched in the conjecture that the adherents to Druidism should take the name of Men of the May, or May'sons?" From this followed an explanation for origin of the name of Hiram Abiff, depicted in many of the "Old Charges" as the mythical founder of Masonry; Hiram "signifies precisely the high pole, or holy bough." In Cleland's mind, to demonstrate a Druidic origin to Freemasonry did much to explain the nature of the phenomenon, since on the last page of his pamphlet he remarks that it "also appears clearly the reason why the society of the May s-ons, or adherents to the Religion of the Grove, should be more peculiarly national to Britain than to any other part of the world."
Whatever his reasons for accepting membership in the Masonic Lodge, Stukeley's interest in the order diminished considerably later in his life. Many reasons for this change might be suggested, but one of the most reasonable may be the "possibility...that he did not find in Masonry the historical knowledge or 'hidden mysteries' that he had anticipated." Curiously, Stukeley's conviction that the Druids had been the ancient priests of Britain, and that their temples had been the works of Stonehenge and Avebury, has been indelibly impressed upon the popular imagination concerning Druidism to this day, much to the consternation of members of the Celtic academic community.
Elias Ashmole (1617-1692) is often noted as one of the earliest of the brethren admitted to the Lodge who was not by trade an operative Mason. A frequently cited entry from his journal is that for October 16, 1646, which states simply, "I was made a Free Mason at Warrington in Lancashire, with Col. Henry Mainwaring of Karincham in Cheshire.: The event has found a deeply chiselled niche in Masonic history; interestingly, it seems evident that an edition of the "Old Charges," is now known as Sloane MS 3848, was prepared especially for this occasion.
It has been suggested that Ashmole's intentions for becoming a Freemason may have been essentially the same as those of Stukeley, that is, to gain access to the "mysteries of the ancients." Ashmole was well steeped in the study of astrology and alchemy, and like many of his contemporaries, believed that the greatest knowledge that these sciences had to offer had already been realized by the ancients, and either deliberately concealed or simply mislaid over the subsequent centuries. This belief was espoused by no less a luminary than Isaac Newton, who attempted to demonstrate that many of his own hypotheses were merely reclamations of earlier discoveries by Biblical and classical authorities:
The ancient Egyptians, he believed, had taught the Copernican system; the ancients had had a knowledge of the atomic structure of matter and its moving by gravity through space...[and] Pythagoras had discovered experimentally an inverse-square relation in the vibration of strings and had extended it to weights and the distances of the planets from the sun.
Ashmole's own words in the "Prolegomena" to his 1652 alchemical compendium Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum strike a similar chord. In an address to "All Ingeniously Elaborate Students," Ashmole alluded to the past discoveries of "Experienc'd Antiquity," and commented that.
Past Ages have like Rivers conveied downe to us, (upon the floate,) the more light, and Sopisticall pieces of Learning, but what were Profound and Misterious, the weight and solidity thereof, sunke to the Bottome; Whence every one who attempts to dive, cannot easily fetch them up...
Ashmole's mentor in many alchemical matters was William Backhouse, from the manor of Swallowfield; it is evident that Backhouse contributed to the Theatrum. Backhouse had encouraged Ashmole to call him "Father," apparently as a gesture of alchemical apprenticeship, as on June 10, 1651, Ashmole noted that "Mr. Backhouse told me I must now needes be his Son, because he had comnicated soe many Secrets to me." On May 13, 1653, Backhouse believed himself to be near death, and Ashmole recorded in his journal.
My father Backhouse Iying sick in Fleetestreete over against St. Dunstans Church, & not knowing whether he should live or dye, about eleven a clock, told me in Silables the true Matter of the Philosophers Stone: which he bequeathed to me as a Legacy.
The details of this exchange may never be entirely known, but certainly it is apparent that these were very weighty matters to Ashmole. As the Masonic Lodges also claimed to be custodians of knowledge gleaned from the ancients, it is not at all improbable that a man with such an intense interest in the Hemletic arts would seek out what ancient wisdom such an organization might have to offer.
Sir Robert Moray (also Murray or Murrey) (1608?-1673) was one of Ashmole's associates in the Royal Society of London; on his passing Ashmole described him in his diary as "The learned & ingenious Sir Rob Murrey." It would be quite the understatement to describe Moray's interests as eclectic; matters that he brought to the attention of the Royal Society during its fomlative years included his own invention of a hearing aid, echoes, the moons of Jupiter, the brewing of ale and beer, "a new method to heal cut nerves by sewing them together," fertilizer, and "a new use to be made of themlometers, viz., to know by their help the degrees of heat in a man's body in fevers, etc." Like Ashmole, Moray may have been attracted to Freemasonry by the claim that the Lodges possessed "secrets of ancient wisdom: "
when the search for the sesrets of the ancients was regarded as being of as much (or more) importance in the advancement of scientific knowledge as new discoveries, men with scientific interests might well be intrigued by the Masons' hints that they possessed "Egyptian" secrets.
Whatever his motivation, the "Right Honerabell Mr Robert Moray" was admitted to the Masonic Lodge on May 20, 1641.
Moray's enchantment with the ancients might be best illustrated by his use of a pentacle, which he grafted onto the last name of his signature in correspondence. Moray identified this device as a "Masonic" sign. The pentacle came to serve a practical service for Moray during his brief experience with espionage for the Earl of Lauderdale in 1667, as the sign was used as an indication of a message in invisible ink. In a letter for July 1 of that year, Moray discreetly reminds the Earl of the code and indicates that a clandestine communication is forthcoming, writing, "Wher you see my Mason mark you will remember what it meanes. . . I think will play the Mason in my next."
But in a letter to Alexander Bruce, the Earl of Kincardine, Moray makes use of the pentacle as an encapsulation of his own philosophy:
This character or Hyeroglyphick, which I call a starre, is famous amongst the Egyptians and Grecians...The Greekes accounted it the symbol of health and tranquility of body and mind, as being composed of capitall letters that make up the word [Hygieia], and I have applied five other letters to it that are the initials of 5 words that make up the summe of Christian Religion, aswell as stoick philosophy. . .
These five words Moray lists as Agapa, Gnothi, Anecho, Pisteuei, and Apecho, which words he may have intended to signify to mean, "Love," "Know" (or, "Know Thyself'), "Endure," "Trust," and "Abstain." Moray had discovered the highest of principles in ancient writers, and apparently had hoped to instill these same principles in his own life. ~
Moray was also described as "a great patron of the Rosie-Crucians," and he had extended his support to the Rosicrucian apologist Thomas Vaughan. At Vaughan's death, his papers were bequeathed to Moray. Similarly, Ashmole is often associated with the Rosicrucians, as a letter among his papers had been thought to be his own application to the order, (though more recently it has been identified as only a copy and not a piece of correspondence composed by Ashmole himself). The Rosicrucians made their first appearance by means of a series of anonymously issued pamphlets, which told of a secret fraternity founded by one Christian Rosenkreuz. The first tract to appear was published in Germany in 1614 (though manuscript copies had been available earlier), entitled Fama Fraternitatzs, des Loblichen Ordens des Rosenkreutzes (The Declaration of the Worthy Order of the Rosy Cross). Thomas Vaughan translated the Fama into English in 1652, under the title The Fame and Confession of the Fraternity. Understandably, these works which described an invisible organization of wonder-workers aroused considerable The similarities between the Rosicrucians and Freemasons have often been commented upon, though attempts to demonstrate that Freemasonry originated with Rosicrucianism have been less than convincing. This is understandable, since it appears that many scholars now believe that there may not have been an actual organisation, and the pamphlets were initially nothing more than a "literary artifice." Even a contemporary such as Isaac Newton described the movement as an "imposture." But the impact of the pamphlets themselves must be appreciated as possibly encouraging interest in an ancient wisdom of which the Freemasons also claimed to be the custodians. The Fama asserted that the Rosicrucian philosophy was "not a new invention," but began with Father Adam. "And wherein Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras and others did hit the mark, and wherein Enoch, Abraham, Moses, [and] Solomon did excel...[a]ll that same concurreth together." Although it may have proved impossible to acquire membership among the Rosicrucians, individuals may have sought the experience of these same mysteries among the Masons.
The Chevalier Ramsay (1686-1743) represents one of the most colourful personalities in Masonic history. Born in Scotland under the name Andrew Ramsay, he spent the better part of his life in Paris. His title he received by petition, in order to insure tutorial positions among prominent families, just as he "added a middle name, Michael, as an added proof of gentility." In March of 1730, the Chevalier was received into the Masonic Lodge during a visit to England. His reasons for joining the Lodge may also have arisen from the Masons' claim that they were the inheritors of an ancient wisdom.
Ramsay was enchanted with the "ancient mysteries;" a fantastic novel he had first published in 1727, called the Travels of Cyrus, detailed the adventures of the Persian prince and his audiences with the great minds of history. The work was something of an apologetic for Ramsay, and by his own admission in an appendix he wrote that one of his purposes had been to demonstrate "that the most celebrated Philosophers of all ages, and all countries, have had the notion of a supreme Deity." Although he was criticized for a work which was perceived to be an irresponsible representation of classical scholarship, the Travels sold remarkably well, passing through over thirty editions in French and English.
In an address which he gave on several occasions, (the most celebrated setting being a gathering of the Grand Lodge at Paris in March, I737) Ramsay exercised a similar argument on authority by declaring that the ancient mysteries were the precursors of the Masonic rituals. He stated,
Yes, gentlemen, the famous festivals of Ceres at Eleusis of which Homer speaks, also those of Minerva at Athens and of Isis in Egypt, were nothing else but Lodges of our brethren in which were celebrated our mysteries...
But Ramsay went even further, and announced, "Our Science is as ancient as the human race," and that "Noah Abraham, the Patriarchs, Moses, Solomon and Cyrus were the early Grand Masters." In a history which was in part patterned after the "Old Charges," but which contained much of his own invention, Ramsay stated that after the death of Hiram, "Grand Master of Tyre," "King Solomon wrote in hieroglyphic characters, our statutes, our maxims and our mysteries." This record had been lost during the assault of the Emperor Titus, but a portion had been recovered by Crusaders serving in Jerusalem, and that consequently, "our ancient order was revived."
Although his interest appeared to be more in the ritual, than antiquarian or alchemical, Ramsay does seem to represent yet another personality who would have been attracted to Freemasonry by the claim that there would be imparted solely to initiates certain mysteries descended from ancient times. Ironically, this is a position denied in contemporary Masonic literature, which presents the Masonic Lodge as purely an early modern invention. But this historical model was intensely embraced several centuries ago, and is a mode of thought which may even have contributed to the formation of Freemasonry as it stands today. The emergence of speculative Masonry remains a mystery, to be sure, but perhaps there has been presented here one suggestion which has shed some light on the matter.