One of the great things about the internet is how people with seemingly nothing in common can exchange ideas without ever actually meeting in person. Such is the case when I recently began exchanging emails with an amateur historian, an epidemiologist, and a professor of sociology. At first, it seemed that our only common bond was that we all share an interest in Freemasonry; however over time it developed that we all had some questions about our gentle Craft that have never been satisfactorily answered. As we began discussing the dilemma, we also found that we were able to integrate our various fields of knowledge in order to work through the problem. In doing so, we believe that we have managed to solve one of the most puzzling issues in the early history of the fraternity.
We now have some serious evidence pointing to the origins of what is commonly known as The Hiramic Legend in the Master Mason degree.
Some brief background: Early Freemasonry had only two degrees, the Entered Apprentice, and Fellowcraft (i.e., Fellow of the Craft). This situation was extant before the 1717 formation of the Grand Lodge of England, and continued for some years afterward. Yet, sometime in the mid-1700s, records show that various lodges seemed to have begun performing some variation of this legend. The origins of the drama are unknown, but is often attributed to being some kind of morality play. The drawback of this theory is that the legend draws on the Biblical story of Hiram Abiff; in the Old Testament, Hiram is a relatively minor character. More confusing is the rather obvious paradox in which the Masonic legend deviates so drastically from the actual Old Testament story: in the OT, Hiram Abiff comes to help King Solomon build his famed Temple, and when finished, goes home to his family with some considerable payment. In the Masonic drama, however, Hiram is shown to be struck down before the completion of the Temple by three Fellowcrafts, who then attempt to hide his body in a makeshift grave out in the dessert. This is the most extreme departure from Biblical scripture recorded in any of the dozens of Masonic ceremonies, and it stands to reason that there is a purpose for this. By taking what we know about Masonic history from that era, and placing it within the context of the social and cultural aspects of the time, we believe that we have discovered that purpose.
To understand the social context, we need to consider that the early 1700s was the beginning of the Industrial Revolution; prior to this period, most people lived an agrarian-based lifestyle. However, as more factories were built in and around the cities, larger populations were drawn into the urban areas, and by the mid-1700s, larger numbers of people left the farming communities to see work in the factories. Not surprisingly, the population explosion led to issues of public hygiene: the spread of disease, the disposal of wastes, and the proper internment of the growing number of the deceased.
Although we can trace Freemasonry back to the late 1400s and early 1500s, it wasn’t until the early to mid 1700s that we see the rise of organized networks of Masons, via the formation of Grand Lodges. There are no records as to why several London lodges decided to formalize their arrangement, but it wasn’t long before other lodges joined the network — and it was a network, as the lodges we more able to freely exchange information, including the variations of their rituals and ceremonies. It is significant to note that during this period, There were still only the two degrees in Masonry; “Master” Masons were those who were literally Masters of their lodges. Likewise, the degree ceremonies were relatively simple and the basic ceremonies were essentially the same in each lodge, although many lodges had their own particular set of “lectures” for the candidates.
At some point in the early to mid 1700s, we see records of lodges adding a type of morality play to the degree ceremonies. The main character varies in some of the earliest versions, but by the third quarter of the 1700s, that character was solidified as Hiram Abiff, and the stories became more consistent. Interestingly, they all contain similar elements: A character is beset by three assailants, and is then murdered; each assailant using a different weapon and attacking a different part of the character’s body. In many variations, the Hiramic legend specifies that Hiram is struck across the throat, in the chest, and in the head. The assailants (often referred to as the “Ruffians” in North America) strike with tools commonly associated with Masons: A square, a rule (sometimes called the 24 inch gauge), and a mallet or setting maul.
While Masons often assume that the assailants use those particular tools as a way to tie in to the tradition working tools in the various degrees, as we unearthed more information about the underlying social context, it became obvious that this line of reasoning has it backwards; that is, the legend itself is an instructional play that uses these tools as a way to reinforce knowledge to which only a few were at one time privy. And while we can not yet account for the reasoning behind using the character Hiram Abiff (except that he is a relatively minor character in the OT, and the change of storyline would be easily forgotten), we believe that the traditional lessons taught by this drama — about his integrity and bravery in the face of death — intentionally overshadow the real lessons that needed to be passed down to the new generations of Masons living in the crowded cities and urban areas. In this light, it is the Ruffians themselves who are the teachers and exemplars.
Watching an old movie the other day reminded me of a discussion I had a while back with someone who intimated that I did not take my duties – or Masonry, for that matter – seriously. Predictably, he went on to mention some of the things that he, himself would do if he were me; including, not unsurprisingly, making sure that people who didn’t abide by the rules would be “dealt with.”
It became apparent that my well-meaning brother was under the a mistaken assumption in which he was confusing the tools that I use in my duties (“levity” and “a relaxed approach”) with my underlying attitude and approach toward them. Obviously, this brother and I hold fundamentally different philosophies as to how the structure of our fraternity works: he seemed to think that just telling people what to do is sufficient, and considered what I do as a District Grand Lecturer something akin to a traveling minstrel show.
See, as the District Grand Lecturer, my duties as assigned are actually pretty light: I just have to administer a test to make sure that the incoming Master is prepared, ritual-wise. However, several lodges have asked me to help them polish their ritual proficiency and floorwork, and so I spend most of my time at rehearsals, giving tips, making suggestions, and (hopefully) inspiring new officers to be better by coaching them along. Not surprisingly, this is exactly how I was taught in my own lodge by some experienced Past Masters. In theory, I could simply read the book to them and say “Okay, that’s what you’re supposed to know. I’ll be back next week to grade you.” In practice, I tend to be light-hearted and jokey (where have I heard that before ?), simply because that was the kind of style that inspired me. I figure that if I’m going to join a half-dozen guys walking around a cold lodge room on a rainy evening, then I want to at least make it enjoyable for myself. If the other people get something out of it, then so much the better.
In the aforementioned discussion, I found myself rather surprised to hear the suggestion that lodge officers should be given the ritual book, and have it explained to them that the rules of our Grand Lodge say that they need to follow the instructions. Their testing, as it were, could then be done by some other officer, thereby obviating the need for District Lecturers. I was surprised because, indeed, this is exactly the case as it has been for the past fifty or more years. Connecticut has a published ritual monitor, and it’s relatively clear what the Master and officers should be doing. The problem is, some people haven’t been doing it. In fact, by my estimation, a hell of a lot of people haven’t been doing it properly for quite some years, and many lodges have had several generations of officers pass without seeing proper ritual work modeled for the younger officers, who would then model it for the officers after them.
This is where I come in. I see that there is a disconnect between what the officers should be doing and what they are doing. So, in my light-hearted and jokey way, I’ve been giving ritual coaching. While I agree that the officers should be doing things a certain way, I don’t believe that throwing a rule book at them will make them change their behavior. My counterpart believes that it doesn’t matter – they knew what the expectations were when they signed up; or at least, they should have done so, because they agreed to it.
So, which one of us is correct?
Actually, he is.
This is a common situation for people in organizations because of the nature of the various types of people who are in – indeed, who are needed – to run an organization.
Freemasonry, like every other organization, is comprised of people who take on various roles. Most organizations have people who have a command of every rule and regulation, down to the sub-articles and clauses. It needs to be stressed that these people are very important to the organization because without rules, you have no organization! During any discussion in which group members want to “hurry up and do something”, it’s easy to dismiss the comments of the rule-keeper when what the members are proposing run a little out of bounds. “Oh, you’re just being fussy” or “Rules were made to be broken” are typical responses to those who strive to keep order. In our rush to be post-modern action heroes, we often fail to think our actions through to the possible consequences. Organizations in which the members do not follow rules soon devolve into anarchy. Those who keep track of the rules help to keep the structure of the organization intact.
Large organizations typically also have members who understand that the underlying purpose of those rules is to have a better organization, one that is more effective, more enjoyable, or more satisfying to the members. They also understand, however, that sometimes the rules – or the imposition of new rules – have unintended consequences which affect the performance of the organization. To these people fall the unenviable task of trying to achieve long-term goals while working within the scope – if possible – of the existing structure. If they are successful, the rules are usually modified in order to accommodate the new strategies. Masons – indeed, members of any organization – need to realize that both types of people are essential to the health and longevity of the organization, and neither is more important than the other. As Entered Apprentices, we are taught the importance of a proper, true and square foundation to our temples. Those rules and regulations are the foundation of our organization, and it is essential that we understand their importance. Yet, we also understand that we are all human beings, and as such are all different in terms of abilities, skills, and talents with the tools at our disposal.
Friendly competition between the left-brain and right-brain people is necessary for the continued health of the Fraternity; indeed, this is the root of that “noble contention of who best can work and best agree;” but I think that many of us are prone to forget this when we get caught up in overseeing our own very small piece of work that we contribute.
Picture: The Fairly Odd Parents
I’ve known my Canadian brother Justa Mason for a few years, and I’ve learned that you can always depend upon him to present a responsible opposing viewpoint to virtually any situation. Actually, what I’ve learned is that you simply can’t stop him from presenting an opposing viewpoint. On a recent post about our Past Masters MM Degree in which I described the dramatic additions to our Connecticut version of the Hiramic Legend that some lodges have been known to perform, he asked a particularly pertinent question:
I understand; the MM degree is long, and Friendship Lodge adds another dramatic section to the Connecticut version of the Hiramic Legend, which adds to the memory work. In our state, some lodges choose to add sections to the degree that give more background, which helps the candidates to better appreciate the lessons of the story. A number of them add the same section that we do, and one of my lodges, Frederick-Franklin 14, adds yet another section which serves to give even more insight into the character of Hiram Abiff.
Tom, I will opine here all this additional stuff does wonders for the member who can show off his memory skills.. and very little for the candidate.
What value is all this extra ritual if he can’t absorb any of it? His mind’s on overload to begin with. Shouldn’t stuff like this be done on a separate night where he can let it sink in?
What is the reason behind subjecting him to all kinds of optional ritual on a degree night?
That’s an excellent point. Most of us assume that if some ritual is good, then more is better, and lots more should be great.
Admittedly, I, myself, have pointed out that our candidates sometimes have a difficult time processing the information presented. I’ve even made light of it by writing, in a post about ritual:
The lectures and speeches are filled with symbolism and instruction, and those of us who have put the time into learning them know just how difficult it can be to deliver them with meaning.
All this just for the candidates?
You mean those new guys standing there in the front of the room with the deer-caught-in-the-headlights look? Those guys?
Yeah, those guys. Those guys can barely remember what to do with their hands and feet, and we’re expecting them to absorb some esoteric lesson, which has often been delivered by people who would have not been allowed speaking parts in the local amateur theater group. On the surface, it does sound like a waste of effort. Why go through the trouble to present such material – done well or not – if the candidates aren’t grasping the meaning?
RW Paul (the latest Nutmeg State Mason to start blogging) has another perspective, one which I’ve heard a number of times:
I am on the side that the extra lectures add value, of course I enjoy ritual and often perform some of the extra parts so my opinion is bias.
I have heard this argument in my district as well. But based on the comments by Grand Lodge that there is a lot lousy ritual being done, I think the lodges that still can perform these eleborate degrees should be proud.
I would much rather sit through extra long well performed degree than a short poorly performed degree.
Connecticut, like most US states, uses some variation of the Preston-Webb lectures in which there is a catechismal section (a Q&A section) and two other sections that elaborate on the symbols and allegories of the respective degrees. Each section can be ten to twenty minutes long, and in my experience generally seem to have been memorized by ol’ Brother Joe who retired to Florida a few years ago, so nobody does them anymore. I’ve seen these sections presented on non-degree nights a few times, but as degree nights typically get a larger turnout, it seems like the energy is better spent having them done when the largest number of people can potentially benefit.
Often, arguments – i.e., debatable points – are presented as a matter of extremes. Paul’s last sentence is an example of this, and Justa’s entire message does the same thing, albeit more subtly. I believe that there is a position between those extremes, however.
First of all, I firmly believe that lodges can deliver extra ritual that is good and well-performed. I know it’s true: I’ve seen it done. That said, one could argue that if they can do a good long degree, then they should be able to do a good short degree, too. Yup, I’ve seen that as well. But there are several advantages to a degree ceremony that pulls out all the stops, for both the candidates and for the other lodge members.
As to the candidates, I could point to the importance of total immersion in the initiative experience to create the most overwhelming feelings of awe which may inspire intense thoughts or associations on a deeper level. I suppose that I could also claim that – like the ‘shotgun’ approach – it’s important to throw as much as possible at the candidates in hopes that something will stick. Personally, I think that it’s rare for most lodges to get motivated enough to perform sections of a degree ceremony on off-nights, especially sections that require a certain amount of dramatic talent. It’s easier to present the material when all of the candidates happen to be in the room. Just the preparation for a degree ceremony tends to inspire the lodge members who are actually rehearsing the parts; I think that it would be difficult for some of them to “get psyched” enough to do inspiring work as a program after a regular stated communication.
But there’s something else that we miss: Yes, the candidates will miss some things with a longer degree. Hell, they’re going to miss things with a short degree. But later on they are going to be watching that same degree performed on someone else, and then they’ll have the opportunity to catch a few things that they’d missed.
And why do we assumed that the ritual ceremony is all for the new guys? What about the regular brothers? I’ve noticed that degree nights have a much larger turnout than regular business meetings. Wouldn’t it be nice if the older members had the opportunity to hear that rarely-done piece of ritual? Most of them might miss it if it were done as a “program” in a regular business meeting.
Let me repeat something that I wrote over a year ago in the post referenced above:
Our fraternity has some of the most morally instructive and spiritually inspiring ceremonies, all of which are delivered from memory at no small personal effort. When did we lose the motivation, the initiative to do it for ourselves?
I’m at the age where I attend almost as many funerals as I do weddings; but for each occasion I have lately discovered that during the ceremony I suddenly “hear” something new. Yes, I may have seen the ceremony and heard the same words a dozen times, but each time I hear something that I never noticed before. Why? Maybe a minister or rabbi delivers a line with more or less emphasis, or maybe because of where I am in my own life’s journey some passage that I’ve heard countless times before will strike me with a new insight. Who hasn’t been sitting at a wedding and suddenly turned to their partner upon hearing a line that reminds you of your love? Who hasn’t been to a funeral and been suddenly reminded of your own mortality? That is the purpose of ritual and ceremony – not only to instruct the new members, but to remind us - the old members – of our previous instruction.
Give this some thought: When did our ritual become less inspiring? When did our degrees become merely a pastime between dinner and desserts? When did you stop noticing something “new” in a lecture?
How many of us have substituted listening for hearing?
If the “extra” instruction is presented well – and not just once every several years – then it benefits everyone, new brothers and experienced members alike.
Few modern Masonic authors can generate the kind interest that follows Dr. Robert Lomas. Beginning with “The Hiram Key” and followed up by another half dozen books on the history and symbolism of the Craft, Dr. Lomas has offered up some interesting – and controversial – theories and ideas about the evolution of symbology and the meaning of the symbolic language underlying Masonic rituals and ceremonies.
On Sunday, March 9th, he called us from his home in England and joined Bro. Heath Armbruster of Saskatchewan, Canada for the second The Working Tools podcast. Masonic Media Mogul Cory Sigler (of The Working Tools magazine and social networking site), Justin Budreau (Masonic web designer) and I had a fascinating two hour conversation with Dr. Lomas on topics ranging from the Kirkwall Scroll, to Masonic symbols, to the evolution of symbolism, to Sir Robert Moray, to the inconveniences of tele-presentations. Chris Hodapp joined us partway into the program, asking his usual insightful questions.
Bros. Lomas and Armbruster worked together to create an interesting DVD on the history of Masonic symbolism which they are selling in order to raise money for several Masonic charities. Dr. Lomas gave several lectures which were compiled into a presentation for The DVD, which is selling for $15 Canadian. Anyone interested can contact Bro. Heath at email@example.com for more details. If the 2 hours Dr. Lomas spent with us is any indication, it will be an excellent addition to any Masonic library.
We should point out that Dr. Lomas, himself, has just published a new book called “Turning the Templar Key“ in which he discusses the meaning of the rituals and ceremonies of the Knights Templar and relates them to modern Freemasonry.
The Talkshoe format worked flawlessly, allowing five or six of us to talk to each other by telephone from various countries and time zones. We were joined by about a hundred real-time listeners, a dozen or so of whom registered in order to use the IM feature. Many of them had excellent comments and questions, some of which were addressed by Dr. Lomas himself.
I never got around to mentioning that back in January, I did a podcast with Cory Sigler of The Working Tools magazine and Masonic social networking site. It was one of those ideas that just sort of took root and
spiraled out of control grew into something unforseen.
Cory had wondered if I would like to be a guest, and then we’d spend a half hour or so
dishing discussing topics that were appearing on other blogs. As the agreed-upon date crept nearer, I was concerned that I hadn’t heard from him. After a series of calls and emails, it turned out that instead of discussing other blogs, that we were going to interview the guys that wrote “Morals and Dogma for the 21st Century,” a revised version of Albert Pike’s classic that had been written in more modern English in order to make it more accessible to newer Masons. In the end, we were joined by Chris Hodapp, which was a good thing because he was the only one of us who had actually *ahem* read that book. We had a 7-way conversation that lasted 90 minutes.
For those of you who are gluttons for punishment, we have managed to put together yet another episode for your listening pleasure. This time we are going to be speaking with author Dr. Robert Lomas – yes, that Lomas, of the Hiram Key series, Uriel’s Machine, The Second Messiah, etc.
We will also be joined by Bro. Heath Armbruster, who is involved with an amazing study on the Kirkwall Scroll, one of the oldest known Masonic artifacts; it is a scroll which appears to have been made in the 1400’s and is possibly a tracing board for several degree ceremonies.
The Talkshoe format is similar to a live radio broadcast. Listeners can hear this in “real time” as we record. Additionally, you can also register (it’s free, natch) and log in to the recording area, where you can IM questions and comments for us, and if we’re in a tight spot, we will probably even respond to them. The show format even allows us to talk calls from listeners.
The date for this next podcast is Sunday, March 9th at 3:00 pm Eastern time. Hope to
see you have you join us!