In this edition of Symbols and Symbolism, we look at a reading on the Ouroboros, that serpent devouring its tail as a representation of eternity and the passage of time. This symbol, while existing in a mainstream context, is little known outside of most esoteric and occult circles. Its use triggers very specific meanings for those utilizing it as part of their overall allegorical narrative.
This symbol appears principally among the Gnostics and is depicted as a dragon, snake or serpent biting its own tail. In the broadest sense, it is symbolic of time and of the continuity of life. It sometimes bears the caption Hen to pan—’The One, the All’, as in the Codex Marcianus, for instance, of the 2nd century A.D. It has also been explained as the union between the chthonian principle as represented by the serpent and the celestial principle as signified by the bird (a synthesis which can also be applied to the dragon). Ruland contends that this proves that it is a variant of the symbol for Mercury—the duplex god. In some versions of the Ouroboros, the body is half light and half dark, alluding in this way to the successive counterbalancing of opposing principles as illustrated in the Chinese Yang-Yin symbol for instance. Evola asserts that it represents the dissolution of the body, or the universal serpent which (to quote the Gnostic saying) ‘passes through all things’. Poison, the viper and the universal solvent are all symbols of the undifferentiated—of the ‘unchanging law’ which moves through all things, linking them by a common bond. Both the dragon and the bull are symbolic antagonists of the solar hero. The ouroboros biting its own tail is symbolic of self-fecundation, or the primitive idea of a self-sufficient Nature—a Nature, that is, which, à la Nietzsche, continually returns, within a cyclic pattern, to its own beginning. There is a Venetian manuscript on alchemy which depicts the Ouroboros with its body half-black (symbolizing earth and night) and half-white (denoting heaven and light).
Recently I attended a Festive Board of Jewel P. Lightfoot Lodge No 1283, Grand Lodge of Texas AF & AM. The guest speaker DDGM John Tolbert made a passionate presentation on Hermeticism and Freemasonry using slides as illustrations. That made his presentation peppered with pictures which is what this article will look like. Jewel P. Lightfoot, the founder of this Lodge, had a marked interest in Hermeticism as you will see. This made the Presentation all the more personal to the members of this Lodge assembled. Tolbert was kind enough to allow me to reprint his presentation with his pictures which you will find below.
HERMETIC PHILOSOPHY AND FREEMASONRY by Brother John Tolbert
Have you ever wondered why all of the words and passwords that we use in our degrees are in Hebrew and that every prayer we use in our degrees are from the Old Testament?
Have you noticed that a Masonic Lodge room is full of diametrically opposed objects and symbols which represent polar concepts or ideas? Examples of these opposites are:
Square and Compasses
Rough and Perfect Ashlars
Jachin and Boaz / Wisdom and Strength
Terrestrial and Celestial Globes
Darkness to Light
Checkered Pavement / Black and White pavers
East and West…North and South
Death and Rebirth
Sun and Moon
Stepping off upon the right and left feet
Cowans and Eavesdroppers Ascending and Descending
Isn’t it interesting that Masons are encouraged from the very beginning to control their passions and to pursue a virtuous and pure life? It’s interesting, because the Greeks demanded the very same thing from their candidates before they were admitted into the Ancient Mystery Schools, and the School of Pythagoras (you can see a map of the school here).
After reading thousands of pages written by Masonic scholars, I am convinced that Freemasonry was not “invented” by the English (nor the Scots) in the seventeenth or eighteenth century. Yes, in the early eighteenth century, Freemasonry was developed into a regulated institution and rituals were developed from existing initiatory rites of operative Lodges, but something else was going on beneath the surface and intellectuals of the time could sense that there was more.
In the most recent issue of Heredom, the annual publication of the Scottish Rite Research Society, on page 61 (a paper about the 1738 anti-Masonic Papal Bull by Marsha Keith Schuchard) it reads:
“In January 1721, when the antiquarian William Stukeley (close friend of Newton and Desaguliers) determined to join the fraternity, “suspecting it to be the remains of the mysteries of the ancients…”
This illustrates that even from the first years of organized Freemasonry, educated men were recognizing something about Freemasonry that led them to believe that it was rooted in ancient philosophy and concepts.
The namesake of this Lodge, Jewel P. Lightfoot, speaks candidly to the Texas Mason concerning the mystical and spiritual aspects of the Craft. Please listen carefully to the following quote from the INTRODUCTORY in our current monitor, written by Lightfoot many decades ago.
“ The presence in the modern Masonic system, of many of the emblems, symbols and allegories of the ancient Temples of Initiation, as well as certain rites performed therein, has persuaded the most learned among Masonic scholars to conclude that Masonry is of very ancient origin, and is, in some aspects, the modern successor of, and heir to, the sublime Mysteries of the Temple of Solomon, and the Temples of India, Chaldea, Egypt, Greece, and Rome [I am certain that he was referring to the cult of Mithras], as well as the basic doctrine of the Essenes, Gnostics and other Mystic Orders“
With this single quote, Brother Lightfoot clearly asserts that Masonry contains remnants of the symbols and rites of the Ancient Mysteries and Masonry also contains the basic doctrines of known esoteric groups, which he terms, Mystic Orders.
This is precisely what the antiquarian William Stukeley had noticed in 1721; there were aspects of Freemasonry that seemed to have similarities to known rites and cults of the ancient world.
This presentation is specifically written to explore one well known stream of thought from the ancient world, broadly called Hermetic Philosophy, and its potential influence on the early progenitors of our Craft. Remember that Stukeley was a close friend of Newton and Desaguliers. John Theophilus Desaguliers is generally credited with the early development of our three degree system, he was the secretary / research assistant for Newton for twenty years, and he was also the third Grand Master of English Lodges.
NOTE – The association of Desaguliers with Isaac Newton is well worth researching; Newton was a practicing alchemist, obsessed with King Solomon’s Temple, and concealed his heretical religious views in enciphered writings, which were supposed to be burned at his death but were retained and translated in the twentieth century.
Hermetic Philosophy focuses around an entity called Hermes; this entity has also been named Thoth (Egyptians), Mercury (Romans), and Hermes Trismegistus or Hermes Thrice Great.
Thoth, Hermes, Hermes Trismegistus, may or may not have been just a single person, but the name and legend could have been inspired by some incredibly intelligent human (like Plato, Pythagoras, or Hypatia) who had such a capacity for knowledge, that their writings evolved into myth and legend, and sometimes converted into God forms. Plato is a perfect example of how one very intelligent person can have profound influence on entire civilizations, and the effects can last for centuries.
Most esoterically minded Masons are already aware of the great intellect of “Hermes” and his contributions of science and knowledge to mankind, but let’s examine how Hermetic Philosophy was evident in 15th-18th century literature, art, and direct Masonic connections. It is important to recall at this point that the typical European citizen had been enduring centuries of civil unrest, violent revolutions, constant wars, disease epidemics, cruel oppression from monarchs and religious authorities, public torture spectacles, and the raw uncertainty of life itself. In light of these long term social stresses, it is no wonder that a new, mysterious, and apparently ancient spirituality would capture the fascinations of intellectuals and develop into obsessions of looking for a better world, a pure un-corrupt religious experience, and a closer relationship to God. These are the allures of so-called Hermetic Philosophy.
The term Hermeticism, doesn’t really have a dogmatic or well defined definition, but in general, it includes the study of alchemy, gnostic spirituality, Kabbalah, theurgy, astrology, and other mystical approaches to relating the physical reality to the spiritual realm. Almost any occult science could be included under the Hermetic umbrella.
The following is a brief and certainly incomplete list of known references to the interest in Hermeticism in 15-18th century Europe.
1.Marsilio Ficino’s translation of what is now called the Corpus Hermeticum brought Hermes and the mysterious writings into the focus of philosophers and the ecclesiastic authorities. The Hermetic writings were interpreted as having predicted the coming of Christ and therefor acceptable; a beautiful marble floor panel in Siena Cathedral (1480s) in Italy depicts Hermes Trismegistus as being a contemporary of Moses.
2. Hermes was a central character in the Sloane (1646) manuscript Constitutions. Hermes discovers the two pillars, one of brick and one of marble, which contain the preserved wisdom and knowledge of the ancient masters.
3. Alchemy, being within the scope of Hermetic Philosophy is everywhere in Europe during this period. The Medici funded translations of ancient scrolls rescued from Byzantium revealed to the Western mind the concepts of alchemy. The Rosicrucian manifestos of the early 1600’s, likely written by Johanne Valentine Andreae and his associates, set off what is called a furor of interest in alchemy as well.
4. Giordano Bruno is travelling around Europe (the late 1500s) promoting controversial mathematical and astronomic theories; he is also promoting the Hermetic Art of Memory, which is not just a mnemonic strategy of memory, but a mystical technique. Bruno was burned at the stake in early 1600 for his heretical scientific and spiritual views.
5. William Shaw, the Master of Werks for James VI, declares in the Second Shaw Statutes (1599) that all craft fellows and prentices shall “Tak tryall of the art of memory”. William Fowler, a colleague of Shaw, had met with Bruno in London in the 1580s and it is feasible that this is how Shaw became exposed to the Hermetic Art of Memory.
6.Robert Cooper, the Grand archivist of the Grand Lodge of Scotland, makes many references to Hermeticism in his book Cracking the Freemasons Code. Brother Cooper asserts Hermeticism as being a component of Scottish Freemasonry in the 1500-1600s.
7. The interest in Alchemy, astrology, magick, and the Kabbalah are very evident in the circles of Royal Society members, and well known Masonic persons. Elias Ashmole, Isaac Newton, Thomas Vaughn, and others were known alchemists and studied occult subject matter; their personal libraries are evidence of these interests. John Byrom maintained a group of intellectually inclined Brothers who convened in an occasional gathering called the Cabala Club, and Lodges in London have minutes showing that papers were presented in Lodges about John Dee, Rosicrucians, and Jacob Boehme. Boehme’s visionary spiritual writings as well as John Dee’s books of angel magic and alchemy were of extreme interest to many intellectuals and free thinkers during this time period.
8. Kabbalah teacher Rabbi Leone Yahudahdi Modena, in 1680, lectured in London about Solomon’s Temple, Lawrence Dermott, the Grand Secretary of the Antients refers to the Rabbi, as Architect, Hebraist, and Brother.
9. Acception – There existed in the 1600’s an elite organization, which was closely associated with the London Mason’s Company, the operative organization of stone Masons. This elite and secretive group was called The Acception and only “accepted” very few members (one being Elias Ashmole); the cost of membership was very high, and one had to be highly educated and well respected. The early 20th century Masonic scholar and writer Reverend Castells, asserts that the name “The Acception” is synonymous to Kabbalah, which in Hebrew means “to receive.” Reverend Castells is convinced that “The Acception” was a purely speculative Masonic organization.
10. Medieval Kabbalists held Hermes in great veneration, no wonder, since he is considered (in some legends) as having given the Kabbalah to Moses. The Zohar contains phrases which closely parallel the well known Hermetic motto, “As above so below.” “Come and see: the world above and the world below are perfectly balanced.” (Zohar 2:176b) Kabbalah and Hermeticism share the all important mystical understanding of the balanced interrelations of heaven and earth.
In this installment of Symbols & Symbolism, we look at a reading from Albert G. Mackey’s Encyclopedia of Freemasonry, on the infamously nefarious figure of Baphomet – the alleged false idol of the Knights Templar and one of the key instruments of their undoing by Pope Clement.
The imaginary idol, or, rather, symbol which the Knights Templars were accused of employing in their mystic rights. The forty-second of the charges preferred against them by Pope Clement is in these words:
Item quod ipsi per singulas provincias habeant idola: videlicet capita quorum aliqua habebant tres facies, et alia unum: et aliqua cranium humanum habebant.
Also, that in all of the provinces they have idols,namely, heads, of which some had three faces, some one, and some had a human skull.
Von Hammer, a bitter enemy of the Templars, in his book entitled The Mystery of Baphomet Revealed, revived this old accusation, and attached to the Baphomet an impious signification. He derived the name from the Greek words, Baph (βάπτισμα) – baptism, and μhtis (σοφία) – wisdom, and thence supposed that it represented the admission of the initiated into the secret mysteries of the Order. From this gratuitous assumption he deduces his theory, set forth even m the very title of his work, that the Templars were convicted, by their own monuments, of being guilty as Gnostics and Ophites of apostasy, idolatry, and impurity. Of this statement he offers no other historical testimony than the Articles of Accusation, themselves devoid of proof, but through which the Templars were made the victims of the jealousy of the Pope and the avarice of the King of France.
Others again have thought that they could find in Baphomet a corruption of Mahomet (Mohammed), and hence they have asserted that the Templars had been perverted from their religious faith by the Saracens, with whom they had so much intercourse, sometimes as foes and sometimes as friends. Nicolai, who wrote an Essay on the Accusations brought against the Templars, published at Berlin, in 1782, supposes, but doubtingly, that the figure of the Baphomet, figura Baffometi, which was depicted on a bust representing the Creator, was nothing else but the Pythagorean pentagon, the symbol of health and prosperity, borrowed by the Templars from the Gnostics, who in turn had obtained it from the School of Pythagoras.
King, in his learned work on the Gnostics, thinks that the Baphomet may have been a symbol of the Manicheans, with whose wide spreading heresy in the Middle Ages he does not doubt that a large portion of the inquiring spirits of the Temple had been intoxicated.
Amid these conflicting views, all merely speculative, it will not be uncharitable or unreasonable to suggest that the Baphomet, or skull of the ancient Templars, was, like the relic of their modern Masonic representatives, simply an impressive symbol teaching the lesson of mortality, and that the latter has really been derived from the former.
Corey Bryson who was forced into resigning from the Grand Lodge of Florida because of his Pagan/Deist religious beliefs has written some follow up information in the new blog he has started, Musings Of A Pagan Mason (the page has since been taken down). This sheds further light on how radical fundamentalist the Grand Master of Florida really is. Here are some excerpts from Bryson’s blog:
Concerning Fighting the Charges:
“Not one Officer of the Lodge reached out to me and said this, either before or after my resignation. I spoke with the Jr. Warden who delivered the Ruling. He made it emphatically clear to me that if I fought the Ruling, I would be expelled from Masonry for life. There was no other option. The Lodge WOULD NOT come to my defense. I spoke to several Past Master, who told me that I should resign, leaving myself with the opportunity to come back at a later date.”
“Personally, I spent about 24 hours determined to go down swinging, fighting this atrocity with my last breath. Then I remembered my Obligation, which indicates that I am obliged to obey the laws and edicts of the Grand Lodge. I’m a pretty straight-forward kind of guy. Those who know me well will tell you: if faced with a decision to do the easy thing or do the right thing, I’ll do the right thing. I’m not trying to claim perfection, because I surely am not that. I make mistakes, and have been known to screw things up royally, like anyone else. I just have a personal sense of honor and integrity that prompts me to do the right thing even when no one is looking.”
“I didn’t have the option of hiding behind my lodges “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. I was already “out.” I was “out” with the officers of my lodge before I was accepted for the 3 Degrees of Masonry. I also know that the Grand Master was aware of me before his visit to our lodge on 10/25. Now, don’t make the mistake of assuming that I disagree with the choices of other Brothers indicated under this Ruling. I hope they stay hidden during this (literal) witch hunt and until the nastiness ends.”
“I took my friend Brother Odinist out to dinner last night. It seems strange referring to him like that, because a man is much more than his religion or creed. It was his request to address him as such, though. In the end, that title is why he was required to leave FL Masonry. My Brother was quite upset, borderline depressed with the current injustice. You see, his class was scheduled to be raised last night, and as far as I know the remaining Fellow Crafts were. Along with the Ruling about Proscribed religions, the Grand Master of Florida Jorge L Aladro also ordered that Bro. Odinist’s progression be halted immediately. He was not allowed to wait a week, be raised, and then resign. Even the acceptance of his petition was deemed invalid.”
“While talking over things, we discussed a conversation that we had with a Lodge Officer. This officer stated that during a meeting, the Grand Master made the statement that there are approx. 45,000 masons in the State of Florida. He went on to say that there should only be 25,000, because they were the only REAL Masons. It was said that there are 200 individuals suspected of being of the proscribed religions. Doing the easy math, if the Grand Master can root out all of the Pagans, Wiccans, Odinists, Agnostics, and Gnostics, he still has 19,800 slots to fill.”
“This all begs the question, who is next? We can only guess at that. Will the next statement proscribe Hermeticists, Rosicrucians, Kabbalists, Unitarian Universalists, Deists, Hindus, Jainists, Sikh, Sufi, Buddhist, New Age, New Thought, Esotericists, or Thelemics? Or maybe there will be a list of Denominational churches that a prospective or current Mason will be required to be a member of. It seems a slippery slope once a tolerant and enlightened society, as Masonry is supposed to be, starts to limit their degree of religious tolerance.”
“Will it be the Gay Masons? After all, one could assume that homosexuality is a moral abomination to the Grand Master. Thus any Gay Mason would automatically be unable to uphold the Grand Masters idea of the Moral standards of Masonry.”
“Since we are on the subject of “Sexual Immorality”, what about those who are having relations with someone whom they are not married to? Will they be the next Masons on the chopping block? By any standards of fundamentalist or mainstream Christianity, fornication is immoral. Would that preclude a man from becoming or remaining a Mason? Maybe there should be a “no shacking up” clause in the digest.”
“What about those with criminal convictions? I know that they would normally preclude a man from becoming a Mason, at least until his civil rights are restored. But what about the plethora of ignored offences. The most common seems to be DUI. Will that get you kicked to the curb?”
“What is the new standard of tolerance to be? How picky does the Grand Lodge of Florida have to get in order to reduce their numbers by nearly half? Even trying to make myself think like a bigoted, intolerant fundamentalist I can’t come up with much more than this list. I’m sure there are other population groups targeted, but only time will tell who they are. Maybe the next Ruling will shed some “light” on that subject.”
“As for myself and Bro. Odinist, we will keep on keeping on, fighting the Good fight for the True Masonry we love. We are both hoping to find a home after this time of adversity. We both believe in the ideals of Masonry as we know them, and as shown throughout history.”
Florida has a tradition of being a favorite Native American Indian area. I am wondering if the Grand Master of Florida would accept a Native American Indian who practices traditional Indian spiritual worship? One thing is for sure, Florida Masons aren’t smoking any peace pipes yet.