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The secret lesson of Hiram and the Ruffians

March 19, 2010 6 comments

 

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.

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Four Fellowcrafts and an EA

March 28, 2009 Leave a comment

Sounds like the start of a standup joke, doesn’t it?

Four Fellowcrafts and an Entered Apprentice walk into a bar…

…and so the bartender replied “You know, the jokes were a hell of a lot funnier back in my year.”

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve gone to a couple of degree rehearsals, have seen three Fellowcraft degrees in my district, filled in for my counterpart (who came down with something the night he was supposed to recite the Letter G lecture) down south in the 4th District , and finished up by going to a nicely done Entered Apprentice degree in one of my other lodges, the one that’s not quite up in Massachusetts.

Whew!

Don’t get me wrong – I really enjoy degree work. I enjoy watching it, and even more, I enjoy doing it.

But why do we shmush them all into the same time period?

Oh, yeah, I remember; because most lodges in Connecticut start their year in January, so they schedule an EA for February, and then follow up a month later with an FC. Then they give themselves a bit of a breather, and sometime in May, the Master Mason degree season will be upon us. Guaranteed there will be one scheduled on my wife’s birthday, too, so not only will my gas bill and dry cleaning bill be up, I’ll need to put aside something for the florist bill.

Anyway, one of the neat things about seeing so many degrees so close together is that I can really compare little details that I might otherwise have forgotten. Most notable among these is the floorwork of the ceremonies; the positions, the walking paths, the stances, and all those other little things that aren’t found in our ritual book.

Yes, it’s true: As I’ve mentioned before, Connecticut does have an “official” ritual manual, which is occasionally even  used by some of our own lodges. Unfortunately, the ritual is, in places, somewhat unclear (some would say “ambiguous”) in the matter of floorwork. Without boring anybody with the details, we take it for granted that at certain times different people will walk from place to place in the lodge in order to do certain things. How they manage to get there, though, is sometimes open to  interpretation. And that is what makes for the interesting differences from lodge to lodge.

It would be easy to suggest that we simply write a floorwork manual, as they use in some other states. That would, of course, necessitate that we rewrite our actual ritual monitor, which would correct the mistakes in our current monitor, which had already been rewritten to correct that mistakes that the previous rewrite was supposed to have done.

Did you get all of that?

I’ve heard this suggested for several years now, and at one time I agreed with the idea. Now, however, I’m of a different mind. There is an old expression that what passes for a lodge tradition is really  a mistake that somebody made, and then the people behind him continued. I admit to finding that amusing, but when you give it some thought, it’s a very cynical way of looking at the variety of fascinating idiosyncrasies displayed by the various lodges around the state. Yes, no doubt that some lodges have a tradition that actually did originate as a result of a mistake or a careless interpretation of a section. But of those lodges that insist that they do things “because that’s the way we’ve always done them,” I’m sure that you can go back in time – in some cases, less than a decade – to discover when it actually did happen. More likely, when somebody in a lodge claims that “we’ve always done it that way,” what he means is that “that’s the way I always remember it being done,” which is really something quite different.

But as to the idea of traditions or customs always arising from  a mistake in the workings, not only is it cynical, it’s also wrong. Lodges perform the workings differently from  each other simply because our own interpretations of the workings are always going to vary over time and distance, especially when those workings leave room for interpretation.But that doesn’t mean – and some of you may be surprised that I’m writing this – that I’m in favor of codifying our floorwork, or even making our ritual so ironclad that it leaves no room for interpretation. To the contrary, I think that the evolution of ritual is a natural and even necessary process.

I’m aware that some jurisdictions are very strict about passing down their workings “from mouth to ear” and that officers are watched very closely for even the smallest transgressions. While I applaud their determination, I often wonder what’s the point? What are they preserving? Our own ritual in Connecticut is one of the many variations of the Preston-Webb workings that were developed and spread thought out the US after the Civil War in the mid-1800s. Those workings are a compilation of ritual that was performed  in England, where there are several other workings which don’t even resemble what is typically done in the US. Even Canada, our neighbor to the north, has a variation of the Preston workings, plus their version of the Emulation workings (which is seen in other parts of the UK) and at least one other set that isn’t quite either one.

I have a copy of the workings from a jurisdiction in Australia, which is a variation on the Emulation workings. I’m calling it a variation because it’s almost, but not quite like the version of Emulation used in parts of Canada, and again, not quite like what is used in parts of England. But it’s defintiely recognizable as Emulation, just as despite the variations from state to state, anyone from the US will recognize workings in any other state.

My point is that ritual – our workings – have evolved  over time and space. At what point did some committee of ritualists decide to pick and choose which version would be the “official” workings? And after that, when and why was it changed? Because there has to be a reason that while we are all Freemasons, we use so many small and fascinating variations on workings that, in actuality, aren’t even all that old?

Now, there’s no question that I like some of those variations better than others. In fact, after watching one of the degrees last week, I was discussing the small differences between that lodge and my own, and I had to ask myself if I was biased in my preference simply because Friendship does something differently. That question, in fact, is something that I ask myself just about every time I help out a lodge at a rehearsal; I want a lodge to do their own variation in the best way possible, but sometimes I have to stop myself from suggesting that they do something differently, simply because it’s what I learned, and not because it’s inherently better.

In the last few years I’ve been to about twenty  different lodges around the state, and no two of them do things alike. I know that this makes some of the purists absolutely crazy, but lately I’ve begun to appreciate the little differences. And I’ll really try to keep that in mind when I do the next round of degrees in another month.



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