a Sojourner’s article by Tom Accousti
author of The Tao of Masonry
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 traditional 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.
Consider: the three blows to Hiram are the neck, chest, and head. Why? Ignoring the symbolism behind this, those are the traditional and time-tested points of attack in order to dispatch revenants; those re-animated corpses that wander the countryside in search of living flesh.
It appears that the Three Ruffians are exemplifying the secret art of what the popular media now might call zombie hunting.
It’s easy to dismiss this as nonsense because in our modern era, revenants are portrayed as either sexy, sparkly, quasi-supernatural creatures, or as shambling, brain-devouring bogeymen. But before modern medicine and proper burial techniques, folks in the rural areas and countryside knew that periodically some unknown force would re-animate the newly buried, who then roamed the area terrorizing the denizens with their mindless taste for flesh until they were put down. In fact, until Bram Stoker’s fictional account in the late 1800s, there really were few distinctions between what we now call vampires and zombies; they were simply the re-animated, walking dead.
The question now presents itself: how do the Freemasons figure into this?
Consider that before the late years of the Industrial Revolution, firearms were rare, and most people themselves could not afford metal tools and implements, let alone weaponry (and at some points in history, metal weapons were forbidden to those not of the noble class).This is one of the reasons that a wooden stake through the heart became part of vampire lore: no rural farmers had swords, but skewers, posts, and spindles were easy to come by. Although superstitions attached more importance to the idea of using wood, obviously the important part was destroying the heart.
As the need for Masons grew during the period from the 1300s on up, Masons became a well-traveled, and therefore, more educated, class of worker. Small groups of Masons were almost always carrying various tools and implements, often made of metal. Our research suggests that when traveling through sparsely populated areas, some Masons, being less superstitious than the local population, developed a means of eliminating these revenants in such a way as to expose themselves to as little harm as
possible. This information they eventually passed on to other traveling brothers, after making sure that those brothers would not reveal such secrets to the superstitious; the Catholic Church was still strong in Europe, and since most Masons were employed at cathedrals and monasteries, they would not want to be perceived to be trafficking with the undead.
This brings us to the methods that the early Masons used to eradicate the revenants. Since Masons often traveled in small groups, each would step in for a short, quick attack, then step aside to allow the next attack. While it is suggestive that this two or three pronged approach may have been passed along from the Knights Templar, this is mere conjecture on our part, as the evidence for the link between the early Freemasons and the Templars are unsubstantiated, and beyond the scope of our research. Perhaps at some future time we will be able to explore Templar history to determine how much exposure they would have had to revenants in the Middle East, but for now, we are only concerned with the suppression of the living dead within England and western Europe.
The Masonic method itself is ruthlessly simple. Upon being confronted with an approaching revenant, the first Mason steps in to strike a blow across the throat with an edged implement, such as a rule or stick. If the implement is an edged weapon, such as a sword (a Tyler’s sword?), full or partial decapitation would be the hoped-for outcome. However, even wooden measuring sticks will serve to damage the airway of the creature.
That Mason steps out of the way, and the second traveler will strike a blow across the chest or midsection. This serves to momentarily stun and confuse the creature for the (quite literally) coup d’etat, in which the last, and presumably strongest Mason smashes a hammer, mallet, setting maul, or some other heavy, blunt instrument into the head of the stunned revenant. Minimal risk, maximum damage.
It should be pointed out that blows to these three areas correspond to killing points in more conventional zombie and vampire lore: midsection (heart), neck, and head (brains). Again, understanding that folktales from the middle ages made little distinction between what we now think of as vampires or zombies, it’s easy to see why this method was adopted.
As notions about public health, medicine, disease, microbes, sewage, control, etc., became more widespread, the cases of revenants declined. Soon, entire lodges of Masons might form without any of the members ever having seen, or indeed, having heard of one. Freemasons became one more of the dozens, nay, hundreds of social clubs in metropolitan Europe. As this happened, the secrets of revenant killing were being lost. We believe that it is safe to assume that some inner group kept these secrets alive by codifying them into a ritual in which new generations of Masons could be taught, without making it obvious, and therefore, more more public. Thus, the legend of Hiram being killed by the Ruffians was developed.
When our researches led us to these conclusions, we spent some time in wondering if there were something that we were missing; given our assumptions, wouldn’t that make Hiram Abiff a zombie or vampire of sorts? Possible signs in the drama we noticed in context were the disagreeable effluvia and the mangled condition of his body (both zombie and vampire lore make references to the unbearable stench of death from the creatures), and certainly one could make conjectures about “raising” him from the grave. But eventually we decided this line of reasoning was inane, and stuck to the more reasonable explanations. In fact, this could well explain why the early dramas featuring other Biblical characters, notably Noah and his three (note the number!) sons eventually morphed into the lesser known Hiram: the lessons about how to defend against the revenants was a lesson hidden inside another lesson, i.e., the morality play about Hiram’s integrity and honor.
Indeed, when you look at the dramatic enactment of Hiram and the Ruffians in the Temple of Solomon, it becomes clear that the Masons actually have been passing down a secret; only, it’s not the esoteric knowledge that we tend to associate with Freemasons, but practical, operative knowledge. Indeed, in some areas Masonic ritual explains that “tools and implements are carefully chosen by our Fraternity to imprint upon the memory [certain] wise and serious truths.” In other words, to the true initiates, the ceremony was to reinforce the time-tested method of eradication. If it weren’t making light of so serious a situation, I’d suggest that this parallels the “wax on, wax off” education shown in the old “Karate Kid” movies.
Why teach in this manner? Because in sparsely populated agricultural regions, infestations of revenants were probably rare occurrences, and few Masons had to opportunity to experience such circumstances in person. However, as more people moved to the cities in the early 1700s, public hygiene and proper burial techniques did not keep up with the population boom. As the infection which causes “zombieism”, i.e., re-animation became more wide-spread, Masons, with their tools of the trade and penchant for secrecy, were particularly well-suited to deal with the threats. We believe that the Freemasons of London (and later, those in other cities and countries) entered into an agreement — a conspiracy of sorts — with the local and national governments: Masons would continue to practice their strange rituals without interference as long as they continued to watch for and exterminate the reanimated creatures — quietly, of course, so as not to cause a wide-scale panic. From this, it’s not hard to see how rumors of secret Masonic / government conspiracies could have grown into the outlandish idea that the anti-Masons now have.
Now that we have come close to establishing the origins of the Hiramic legend, where do we go from here?
We suspect that there is still a core group, an inner cadre of Freemasons who are knowledgeable about the existence of the revenants, and who still maintain the agreements with world governments so as not to cause wide-spread panic. While we still believe that such cases are rare because of modern technology and medicine, there is some evidence that whatever causes zombieism has not been eradicated. Occasional news reports of unusual animal maulings, unexplained violent attacks, or mysterious disappearances of people hiking in wilderness or areas of low population seem to indicate that the dangers of zombie infestation are still a small, but extant threat.
Having made these discoveries, we are trying to convince the Grand Lodges of various jurisdictions to open their archives on this matter in order that we might better educate the public — both to make them aware of the potential dangers, and to teach them how to cope if faced with such a situation. Unfortunately, the several Grand Lodges that we have contacted about this issue have either denied any knowledge, or have completely ignored our communications.
We further believe that Freemasons of every jurisdiction have a duty to be alert, aware, and educated in these lost arts, should the situation arise in which — Grand Architect forbid! — the number of revenants overwhelm that small inner cadre. Remember, brothers: it’s quite possible that you and your lodge may be the only source of protection in your community.