The modern incarnation of Freemasonry dates to around 1717, but, was that truly the beginning of the “ancient” and honorable fraternity?
The history of modern Freemasonry is fairly understood, going back to roughly the 1700’s. Beyond that point in time, information starts to become less available. Their are some documents and notable figures prior to that point in time, such as the Regius/Halliwell poem, and notables like Elias Ashmole, but no certifiable records exist to demonstrate organized activity as we have today.
One of the virtues of Freemasonry is that its study and practice allow members to explore this topic, and at times travel outside the bounds of connections typically explored in mainstream history. Some Masonic historians have attempted to draw connections to the Knights Templar, the Rosicrucian’s, Jewish Kabbalah traditions, Hermetica, Alchemy, Christian Mysticism, and to much further back to the precursor Essenes at the time of Jesus. These explorations have been considered in both the past and present Masonic scholarship to varying degrees of acceptance, but many points of contention remain.
In present day, Freemasonry has little changed in the preced-ing 200 years since the founding of the United Grand Lodge of England, and is modeled in a system that was likely little changed for the 150 years prior to that. It is believed that the working aspects of Freemasonry, the form and function of the lodge, comes from the stone working guilds of the European Renaissance and middle ages which, over time as that trade profession became less specialized, attracted new members of non practicing “speculative masons.”
From that shift, the present day fraternity moved from an “operative” guild to a “speculative” one in that the function of the lodge turned to the allegorical and symbolic meanings of the stone masons and less about the physical operation. These changes have evolved to shape the look and feel of modern lodge operation today.
Once, when thought came to me of the things that are and my thinking soared high and my bodily senses were restrained, like someone heavy with sleep from to much eating or toil of the body, an enormous being completely unbound in size seemed to appear to me and call my name and say to me: “What do you want to hear and see; what do you want to learn and know from your understanding?”
You whom we address in silence, the unspeakable, the unsayable, accept pure speech offerings from a heart and soul that reaches up to you.
Synopsis –This first section of Hermetica is, in essence, a creation mythology to provide an explanation on the creation of the physical world and its link to the philosophy of this teaching. The lesson comes through a discourse of meditations between Hermes Trismegistus and the creative force calling itself the mind of sovereignty, the one and only authority, represented by Poimandres, a force said to be with us everywhere. This emanation of sovereignty is described as a divine being unbound in size and said to be “an endless light, clear and joyful…a vision to be loved.”
In this vision of light, the story of creation unfolds within which it says darkness takes form to become in opposition to the all encompassing light. The darkness resembles the roiling of a snake becoming “something of a watery nature” producing a wailing roar as it coalesces. Out of this light and darkness, a fire breaks forth from the waters becoming suspended in the air between the dark water below and the endless light above, as a spirit from word so that only earth and water remained below. The fire was “stirred to hear by the spiritual word” of its creation which moved between them.
Poimandres explains that he, this endless aspect of light, is god which existed before the water and says that the word (fire) which separated the light from water was its emanation as a son (sun) as the light giving word from mind. This process, it says, occurs in man in that “what you see and hear is the ‘word of God’ but that our mind (thought) is the highest aspect of God; that together they are a union of life undivided and indivisible from one another, that they are one and the same aspect which is the principle of existence of beginning without end.
From this light were created craftsmen who were to be the creators of life which where made in the aspect of god in fire and spirit. These aspects of creation were “crafted in seven governors” who would make the “…sensible world in seven circles” governed by fate, which is to suppose an invisible force which governs their interactions.
The light, as Gods word, “made union with the seven craftsmen” creating life “‘bereft of reason’ so as to be mere nature,” wild and uncontrollable without mandate as they were the emanations of the mechanisms of fate by which they operate.
Another creation of the Mind of God was the son, its own child, who wished to make craftworks in the manner of the seven craftsmen but given all authority over the other craftworks. Nature would come to be the son of god’s bride together governing creation.
Poimandres explains that, because of this, mankind is two-fold – mortal in body but immortal in spirit (or essence the text using essential man), but still mortal and a subject of fate.
From the union of son and nature, nature gave birth to seven men who themselves were craftsmen representing the aspects of earth, water, fire, soul, mind, light, and life. This creation sundered the counsel of god rendering them into two twin aspects – one male and one female, who were charged with the task of propagating and create further giving them will to choose immortality or death through recognition of all that exists. From this choice man was given the ability to transcend his creation in light to be created again the text saying “Life and light are god and father…so if you learn that you are from light and life… you shall advance to life once again.”
It is in this recognition of creation that a resurrection, or reincarnation of sorts, takes place which is a process unseen and hidden to those who embrace the chaotic watery nature of envy, greed, violence, and irreverence. Enlightenment comes in the release of the “material body” which allows our “alteration” (transformation) to occur where our past manifestation “vanishes” to rise up and flow back to its source (light) eventually reaching out to a place that Poimandres calls the ‘ogdoad’ which is a nirvana like state of Heaven in union with the creating light. This ogdoad is the “final good for those who have received knowledge to be made God” achieved by enlightenment which comes from the leaving of “corruption” so as to “take a share in immortality.”
As an ancient religious text, it is very much a creation mythology which sets up a framework by which it puts the universe into operation striving to make sense of the life and creation going on around us. Tempered with the creation of life is its conduct which is relegated by Fate. The text begins with an emanation of light, balanced by darkness, represented in both the darkness appearing like the “roiling of a snake” into water separated physically (and spiritually) by the word (or breath) of god as represented in the boundary of fire. This layer of transformation gives us a glimpse of the alchemical process of transformation which is governed by fire and tempered for us to embrace or reject that which ultimately decides our outcome by fate. The acceptance of this outcome, which is not predicated on scripture or theological “beliefs”, is based on the principle of our acceptance of our origin and the necessity of our conduct to do, and be, good. This suggests a parallel in the teaching of the Golden Rule with the thought of its benefit to all who are bereft of “evil, wickedness, greed, and violence” which are the baser attributes evident in all men. From this practice, and an acknowledgement of origin, man walks in light and returns to it upon his calling from fate, a process Poimandres suggests governs as gate keeper at a distance, resorting to man’s demons as motivation to change lest they be, instead, trapped in the fire of transformation.
The outcome of this understanding comes from our desire to transcend the material universe and return to the source of light which is our metaphorical source of creation. To do this, man must evolve (learn) to transcend fate and slip into the “cosmic framework” which is, in essence, the good. To do this man must take on the nature of the eight craftsman (seven created by God, and one created as its son) and seek to emulate their desire and zeal to create, moving out of the roiling waters of chaos as he overcomes his lower nature breaking free of the seven circles of craftsman (and cycles of birth) so as to communicate to others this message to become a progeny of good. The goal of this process is to return back to the ogdoad which we must consider as the idea of a reunification with the Mind of god. This idea of the Mind of God as our source has existed for a time immemorial in that the ogdoad can be traced to the religious workings from the Old Kingdom in Egyptian antiquity where its religious practice was seen as the highest heaven within which Ra, Hathor, and Thoth were the pinnacle deities. We also find the idea of the ogdoad in Gnostic Christianity in the first century of the Common Era as proposed by the theologian Valentinus as the super celestial space above the 8 spheres of the heavens, literally as the heaven above heaven.
Interestingly, this first monograph of Hermetica gives us a link to the creation of the universe in seven spheres (the seed of life) and seven more in the craftsmen (the flower of life). In this symbolism, it gives us a link to the notions of creation in the seed, flower life that, if left to progress further it would be emblematic of the progression to the tree of life – from seed to fruit to tree. The seed and flower, said to construct a form of sacred geometry and give us the basis of forms from which we can create the platonic solids that are the building blocks of life it self.
Creation myths abound in the many world religions and this version in Hermetica is not unique within that patterning. One need but read the Biblical account of Genesis to see its striking similarities as attempting to establish some answer to the universal question of man – “why are we here” and “where did we come from?” Its essence is that mankind is created in both a form of good and evil represented in dark and light, a similar balance as found perhaps in the Chinese symbol of the yin and yang or even in the Masonic checkered flooring. Our responsibility is to transcend the baseness of that darkness as it is our inheritance from our watery origins, so as to seek and see the light as well as to teach others about its source to return to find our way back to our divine origins. The text speaks to our nature as being the sons (and daughters) of god, from his craftsman son. This, in turn, grants us the quality of being craftsman too; responsible for our own developing creation and the construction of the world around us so as to break away from the firm grip fate allowing us to slip into the cosmic framework within which we inhabit with the universe as creators. We need to seek to be craftsman and build a better firmament from which to find understanding.
All mankind has this capability, but perhaps not the means to see the being of Poimandres or to have the vision of Hermes of such a being without beginning or end, which is the raison d’être of this teaching so as to enable us learn and communicate these lessons to those we meet – which is the simple idea to be good and reverent which enables us to have the vision of a clear and joy filled light. To get there we must undergo the fire of transmutation, which is our quest as a craftsman for the knowledge of constructing for ourselves the space for understanding.
At the conclusion of this passage, the prayer is an important cleansing of the mind and an acknowledgement of our purpose. That prayer reads:
Holy is God, the father of all;
Holy is God, whose counsel is done by his own powers;
Holy is God, who wishes to be known and is known by his own people;
Holy are you, who by the word have constituted all things that are;
Holy are you, from whom all nature was born as image;
Holy are you, of whom nature has not made a like figure;
Holy are you, who are stronger than every power;
Holy are you, who surpass every excellence;
Holy are you, mightier than praises.
It is a good start to begin our path of crafting our journey to light and our quest for enlightenment.
So Mote It Be.
 The name Poimandres had an early understanding to mean “Man-Shepherd” (perhaps a shepherd of men). But, more recent understanding on its etymology suggests that the name is actually derived from the Egyptian phrase Peime-nte-rê meaning “Knowledge of Re” or “Understanding of Re” more commonly understood as the Egyptian creator deity of Ra.
Masonic tradition has had a rich application of the notion that it is imbued with a Hermetic philosophy with very little explanation of what that means. At no time, in the teachings of the fraternity, is a candidate or member handed a pamphlet, booklet or tract explaining what Hermetic has to do with masonry or how it pertains to the rituals of the degrees. Further, no philosophical or religious tradition is said to be the linchpin of Masonic teachings and the esoteric institution of which they have obligated themselves. The only glimpse of that teaching comes in the ritual use of the Bible as the Volume of the Sacred Law which can vary country to country, tradition to tradition, and initiate to initiate as the volume is suggested to be the book the candidate holds as holy.
The closest that this tradition of Masonry comes to teaching the meaning of the Hermetic art can be found in the teachings of the Scottish Rite, which for many years gave out to its members a large bound tome of Albert Pike’s Morals and Dogma instructing the candidate to read it, as able, so as to better understand the degrees. But, because of its complexity, Morals and Dogma more often served as a door stop than a doorway to greater wisdom.
More recently, Pike’s 900 page manuscript of the occult sciences has been replaced with Rex Hutchens’s A Bridge to Light, which is a good and useful tool for the literal understanding of the degrees, yet still lacking in much greater depth than to suggest you, the reader, to go and research the greater meaning of the obtuse symbolism.
Perhaps this is an intentional lesson in resourcefulness for the true student, but for a greater understanding of the esoteric teachings it served as to great a bridge over the wisdom than as a path for the aspirant through the teachings.
Having followed the many paths of the esoteric science, one idea that repeatedly comes to the fore is that it is of a Hermetic philosophy. Pike uses the term liberally in Morals and Dogma saying in the 28th degree
The Hermetic Art is, therefore, at the same time a religion, a philosophy, and a natural science. As a religion, it is that of the Ancient Magi and the Initiates of all ages; as a philosophy, we may find its principles in the school of Alexandria and the theories of Pythagoras; as a science, we must inquire for its processes of Paracelsus, Nicholas Flamel, and Raymond Lulle.
So what exactly does the Hermetic Art mean to being a Mason?
The great teacher of the Hermetic Art is said to be Hermes Trismegistus better known as the Thrice Great Hermes of whom Pike makes a parallel to Grand Master Hiram in his third degree monograph.
Who is Hermes, and why would his teachings be of any importance to a third degree Master Mason?
Through this series on the Hermetic Arts, I will explore those questions and try to create an association between the principal Hermetic text and the Hermetic principals which have wound their way into many esoteric teachings, but in particular those of Freemasonry. To facilitate this understanding, we need to examine the principal Hermetic text from which the teachings of Hermes Trismegistus originate – Hermetica: The Greek Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius.
While some may construe its teaching as religious, we need make our focus on it as the source materials from which much of the Western Esoteric Mystery traditions have drawn their teachings. Yet, because of what it teaches, it would be impossible to interpret its writing without acknowledging it as religious text, complete with a creation myth, commandments of adherents, and ceremonies of inclusion for those who choose to devote themselves to its teachings, a practice that would be difficult to separate Freemasonry from in its religious practice of ceremonial ritual. Masonry, like most other mystery schools, has adopted aspects of the work, such as it has from other esoteric workings including tarot, magick, Kabbalah and of and New Thought ideas of life mastery. In this undertaking of exploring Hermetica, our focus need be on its teachings so as to better improve the human condition towards those we come into contact with, which is at the heart of the Hermetic philosophy.
While the text of Hermetica contains what its authors suggest are certain truths, I leave to you their validation and weight, when taken in consideration of your own belief traditions. In some instances, they may give you a path to better understanding your own beliefs or give you another way to look at what was before now an assumption of truth. Over time, it has been said that Hermetica held aspects of religious mythology, early millennial Hellenistic religious ideals, Neo-Platonism, Sufism, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity but it is my belief that as the texts originated in an early period of the Common Era, their ideas stem from an older tradition that dates into late antiquity and perhaps the earliest of monotheistic Egyptian rituals of initiation and veneration. Evidence of origin is difficult at best except when you consider its origins by lineage which, as Free Masons, we can find some heraldry to them as its modern day companions in practice.
At various intervals, Freemasonry itself has been called a hermetic science with seldom a satisfying explanation of what that means. In part, the use of this type of language could be taken in scientific terms to imply a closed loop system of wisdom teachings – a self contained system, without influence or coloration to any other philosophical or religious tradition save what itself promulgates as the allegorical and symbolic lessons it teaches.
Yet, at various points in the Royal Art, of which Masonry has expounded itself as, includes moralistic teachings that, at their core, utilize Christian verse and meaning drawing upon Biblical allegories from the Great Book while introducing ideas from traditions that seem to spring from outside the age within which the Bible was conceived.
A few examples of this include the trans formative process in alchemy and the Jewish Mysticism of found in the Kabbalah which were later elaborated upon by writers of the great tradition of Free Masonry most notably in the works of Pike and Wilmshurst whom both injected their own ideas, by interpretation, into the tradition. So true is it with this undertaking that one must suspend the idea of what it is we believe the Great work of Freemasonry teaches to explore another possibility. From this exploration we can hopefully come to understand the later developments of the ancient idea of philosophical tradition not enclosed within itself – not as a hermetically sealed philosophy but a broader tradition of the philosophy (and perhaps religion) of Hermetica itself. It is through a close reading of the Hermetic texts and an analysis by which we can produce an exegesis through a juxtaposition of the philosophy that comes from Hermetica and the lessons taught in the degrees to find, if it exists, a harmony between the two and reach a firmer understanding of what being a Mason means and how it, perhaps, colors our underlying ideas of morality, truth and faith. Is the link between Hermetica and Freemasonry an accident that occurred in the attempt to mythologize a simple tradition of initiation and mystery play theatrics that has been carried forward religiously for centuries? Upon closer interpretation of Hermetica, this does not seem to be wholly the case.
Sadly, there is no direct evidence of its association or of any such intention other than to compare the rituals of masonry and some of the possible conclusions that may be drawn from them in parallel to the Hermetic writings, in particular in the three craft degrees. But, this is a speculative science, so then we must speculate and attempt to find parallels where we can. In the mean time, while we ponder the deep questions, of origin, source and meaning it is my hope that hope that we will discover a richness of tradition and possibly a new means to understand our own faith in a system of morality taught by symbolism and allegory. That discovery, I believe, comes in understanding the ancient text of Hermetica.
But, before we begin to examine the text of Hermetica, our first stop must need be with the well known Emerald Tablet, a codex of sorts said to codify the teachings of Hermes into a singular distillation of the main points of Hermetica itself.
As we progress ahead, you can be the judge of the Emerald Tablet’s points and their relevancy when compared to their supposed source material.
The tablet, as a translated work, can be found in its oldest documented source from the Kitab Sirr al-Asrar, The Book of the Secret of Secrets, which is a 12th century translation of a 10th century Arabic text which included subjects on many areas of interest to the contemporary mystery school student including ethics, astronomy, magic, and alchemy. Elements of the text are believed to have circulated well before their compilation into the Kitab by several hundred years.
This portion of the greater text is a compendium of advice for rulers, believed to be a letter from Aristotle to Alexander the Great. The work has had many translators over the centuries ultimately producing the work we read below.
The Emerald Tablet of Hermes – Contemporary Rendering of Latin text
[It is] true, without a lie, certain and most true,
That which is below is as that which is above, and that which is above is as that which is below, to perform the miracles of the one thing.
And as all things were from the one, by means of the meditation of the one, thus all things were born from the one, by means of adaptation.
Its father is the Sun, its mother is the Moon, the Wind carried it in its belly, its nurse is the earth.
The father of the whole world [or “of all of the initiates”?] is here.
Its power is whole if it has been turned into earth.
You will separate the earth from the fire, the subtle from the dense, sweetly, with great skill.
It ascends from earth into heaven and again it descends to the earth, and receives the power of higher and of lower things.
Thus you will have the Glory of the whole world.
Therefore will all obscurity flee from you.
Of all strength this is true strength, because it will conquer all that is subtle, and penetrate all that is solid.
Thus was the world created.
From this were wonderful adaptations, of which this is the means. Therefore am I named Thrice-Great Hermes, having the three parts of the philosophy of the whole world.
It is finished, what I have said about the working[s] of the Sun.
Image: Thrice Great Hermes Trismegistus, pen and ink rendering, from original source material with adaptation.
By Timothy W. Hogan PM, KT, 32* KCCH, S.I.I., District Lecturer for the GL of Colorado
Freemasonry is a system of initiation that draws its Masonic symbolism from a variety of sources and traditions.
Masonic historians are quick point out some of the connections between Freemasonry and the cathedral builders, the Knights Templar, the Royal Society, Hermetic tradition, alchemists and Qabalaists, however the connection between Freemasonry and the Gnostic schools is often overlooked- even though it is perhaps the most prevalent.
Gnosticism is a school of thought originally developed in the ancient pagan world and championed by philosophers like Pythagoras, and later instrumental in the development of early Christianity, in which an initiate can attain a Gnosis – or direct knowledge of the divine. In fact, the word “Gnosis” means “knowledge” in Greek, and it was a divine knowledge that could be achieved through the study of nature, personal initiation, and divine revelation. As a result, schools of initiation were set up by the Gnostics in order to engage in study and initiation, and to attain connection with the path of Sophia- the Greek word for “wisdom”. In fact, this is where the word “philosophy” comes from- as it is from the Greek words “Philo”- meaning “to love”, and “Sophia”, being the goddess of wisdom. The term philosophy is believed to have been coined by Pythagoras, and some have associated Pythagoras’ school with a form of Pagan Gnosticism. Gnosticism therefore showed the connection between God and Nature, and contributed to the esoteric sciences of alchemy and sacred geometry. The “G” emphasized in Freemasonry may therefore have other implications! It has also been argued by many researchers that Gnosticism was a new label for the pagan philosophies and doctrines found in Hermeticism, which had just been rewrapped in new packaging. Indeed, Hermeticism and Gnosticism share many fundamental details, and the influence of Hermetic thought and Hermes in particular could be a whole separate article. Therefore we will just explore Gnostic connections in this article.
Gnosticism and Gnostic thought are mentioned several times in the Scottish Rite degrees, and we can see it as a general theme in Freemasonry, though it is rarely mentioned specifically by name outside of the Scottish Rite. This is partially due to the fact that the Gnostics generally considered themselves their own form of religion, and as Freemasonry accepts brothers of all faiths, it is important not to make the mistake of portraying Freemasonry itself as a Gnostic religion. That being said, the idea associated with Gnosticism can be found in almost all religions, and as such, it can be viewed as more of an esoteric philosophy that unites people across various religions- though some people today claim to be Gnostics as a religion. For example, the ideas associated with a Gnostic Christian are fundamentally almost identical to a Buddha or Boddisatva in the Buddhist religion, Gnanis in Hinduism, an Arif in the Islamic tradition, and a “knower” in the Taoist tradition, and it is for this reason that it is believed that Gnosticsm had an influence on all of these religious philosophies as it spread between Egypt and Tibet, and likewise these other schools contributed to Gnostic doctrine. Though Gnostic philosophies vary somewhat depending on the school, in their essential details and philosophy they are mostly the same. The Gnostic philosopher Mani alluded to this universality when he said, “But my hope will go to the West and to the East. And they will hear the voice of its teaching in all languages and they will teach it in all cities. Gnosticism surpasses in this first point all earlier religions, for the earlier religions were founded in individual places and in individual cities. Gnosticism goes out to all cities and its message reaches every land.”1 Therefore it is important to explore some of these ideas and see how they relate to Freemasonry.
To begin with, there is a lot of confusion when it comes to ancient Gnostic thought, with most scholars explaining Gnosticism as a form dualism in which there is a god of darkness and a god of light who are battling for the souls of humanity. In my opinion, this is kind of a way over simplified version of Gnosticism, and one that is potentially more tied with modern Christian ideas, though there certainly were different types of Gnostic schools and some likely had a more dualistic way of interpreting Gnostic philosophy, and we particularly find this in some later Gnostic movements like the Cathars of southern France. We must remember that much of what had been written about the Gnostics prior to the wide spread translation of Gnostic texts, consisted of harsh critiques by the Roman Catholic Church, which view Gnostcism as a rival movement. Therefore we would also expect a harsh and biased interpretation of Gnostic doctrine. A more correct and widespread view of general Gnosticism, in my mind, would be to suggest that there is a single God, which manifests itself into two forces. These forces have been labeled as Spirit and matter, light and darkness, yin and yang. Gnostics believed that the world of spirit is always subtly directing the world of matter, in order that we, as conscious beings, may grow and become more in line with our spiritual potential. Understanding God’s laws of spirit in matter could enable one to come to a better comprehension of God. This moment of “ah-ha”, or awareness of God’s work, is the Gnosis. It was believed by Gnostic schools that this divine knowledge was necessary for humanities salvation- as it was a personal knowledge of God, and to the Gnostics it was represented by Light. “Gnosis” then, in many ways is similar to ideas associated with “revelation”, “enlightenment” and “nirvana” from different traditions.
From a Gnostic standpoint, then, it was ridiculous to worship anything matter based, as it is just a shadow of a very real spiritual phenomenon from the realm of light. The quest for salvation was believed by most Gnostics to take place over several incarnations on the earth plane, and therefore the battle between two gods over the soul of man was a symbolic metaphor of the battle within oneself over the focus and perceptions in life. Mastering the Gnostic process was considered to be true living, as opposed to being asleep and non-living, which was usually associated with “evil”. Ultimately, the Gnostic must free himself from the illusions of attachment to matter and, leaving the darkness of the mundane world, unite with the Divine Light of God, the first Principle Creator. Metaphors associated with raising the dead, or giving the blind sight were said to be symbolically associated with this awakening. Biblical scholars, for example, usually translate the early Greek word “anastasis” as “resurrection”, but the word more correctly means “awakening”. Therefore most Christian Gnostics considered Jesus’ resurrection as a metaphor for an awakening to Gnosis. The Gnostics did not require the intervention of a Priest to know God, as they became their own conduit for God’s revelation. They did set up a series of initiations to help in the development of consciousness and to lead to Gnosis. These initiations were also sometimes associated with stages of consciousness development after the transition from this life at death, and prior to new incarnation.
The initiations of the Gnostics were primarily centered around the classical elements and the seven planets recognized in antiquity, and they usually involved various baptismal rites and the conferral of passwords at each stage of initiation. It was believed that the four classical elements of antiquity, earth, water, air, and fire represented stages of consciousness illumination, with earth representing the consciousness obsessed with the passions and enslaved by matter on one extreme, and fire representing the consciousness free to shine with the light of God on the other extreme. The initiate therefore learned to master their emotions with the initiation associated with baptism by water, the intellect with the initiation associated with air, and the spiritual understanding with the baptism associated with fire. There was usually also a symbolic death of the old lower self and a resurrection of the new spiritual self that was illustrated in these later degree initiations. The lower false self, called the Eidelon or the Twin, symbolically died, and the higher self- called the Daemon, was free to express itself in Mastery as a reflection of God. God was therefore represented as the supreme light, and in fact, the Gnostics were often called the “Sons of Light”, or sometimes the “Religion of Light”- especially in the case of the Manichean Gnostics. They were also referred to as the “Sons of the Widow”, as found in the Manichean, Valentinian and Mandean traditions. There is even some speculation that the Ming Dynasty got its name from the abundance of Manichean Gnostics at the Chinese court, as “Ming” means “light”. The Chinese believed the Gnostic teacher Manni to be the reincarnation of the Taoist sage Lao Tzu, and even referred to him as the “Buddha of Light”2. Obviously this terminology is something we are very familiar with in Freemasonry.
With each Gnostic degree, the aspirant attained new metaphors for how consciousness was connected in the world, and they attained new passwords which were deemed to be a valuable aid when either their transition came, or they went through the symbolic death, so that they could ascend the higher spheres of consciousness. Along these lines, it was believed that souls incarnated down to earth from the highest heavens, passing through all the planetary spheres with their influences, and cloaking the soul with the tools of consciousness needed for incarnation. After death or during certain breakthroughs of consciousness the souls went back by the same path to the higher realms of consciousness, abandoning at each stage of their ascent what they had taken while incarnating, and this purified them for pure Gnosis. To pass out of the sphere of one planet and into the next above it, they had to go through gateways guarded by Archons, who were like Tilers or Inner Guards, and would give way only to those who had the passwords conferred in the Gnostic initiation ceremonies3. Some schools even taught that the soul could not ascend after death until it was “drawn up by the rays of the sun and, after passing the moon, where it was purified, it went on to lose itself in the shining star of the day” 4. In some Gnostic traditions, like the Mandeans, they even attained secret hand grips and were given special signs of the hands and feet associated with each stage of the initiation process. Ultimately the realization of spiritual awakening and Mastery overcoming the slavery of material senses is hoped to be achieved in these initiations.
In Freemasonry, we may recognize this similar symbolism emphasized with the compasses and the square- as the square represented things material and the compasses represented things spiritual and eternal. We can also recognize the same order of initiation from water to air to fire, as emphasized in the penalties associated with each degree, and the planetary influence may be recognized by the emphasis of the seven liberal arts and sciences- each of which was ruled by one of the classical planets. In Freemasonry, we are likewise given hand grips and signs associated with the hands and the feet in each degree. Ultimately each brother must likewise go through a symbolic death and raising into a new life- just like the Gnostics illustrated in their initiation rites and writings.
The Christian Gnostics were principally concerned with the Christian drama however, and the symbolism associated with it, and as Freemasons we can see how it also relates to the symbolism found in the Masonic degrees themselves, and to the meanings behind the experiences associated with Hiram. Therefore we will examine the path to Gnosis from this early Gnostic Christian vantage point. Keep in mind that this same general myth can be found in different forms all over the ancient world- including with Mithras, Krishna, Odin, Buddha, Jupiter, Apollo, Dionysus, Indra, Pythagoras, Semiramis, Prometheus, and even Quetzalcoatl- mainly because most of these traditions had a root in some Gnostic thought. This being the case, even though we are looking at the Christian myth, keep in mind that the initiation aspects of this myth are actually universal and were incorporated into the Gnostic initiations.
As mentioned, within the Gnostic tradition, there were four states of consciousness with three initiatory steps between them in most schools- particularly the Valentinian. The first type of personality was represented by earth and involved people whose consciousness were totally obsessed with the physical world, the physical senses and by extension their own ego. These personalities were referred to as “Hylics”, and the early Gnostics taught that they identified with a false physical body- called the “eidolon”- or double. Biblical terminology referred to these people as “blind” or “dead” or “asleep”, since they couldn’t perceive the spiritual root of things and didn’t understand that their true body was spiritual and not physical. In Freemasonry we would refer to them as a profane- or uninitiated. Since these people were consumed with their ego, this ego was sometimes represented symbolically by a donkey- since the animal can be so stubborn. Overcoming this stage was usually represented by the person riding the donkey- symbolizing control over the lower nature- and represented by Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, or other Avatars like Mithras and Osiris also riding the donkey in their traditions. In the story of Pinocchio (written by Freemason Carlo Collodi), he almost turns into a donkey when he is obsessed with his own ego, but later turns into a real boy when he overcomes this stage of development. Restoring Hylics to the spiritual path was therefore alluded to as “giving the blind sight” and later “raising the dead”. Throughout the Bible, places of slavery or bondage usually represented this hylic state- for example the earth before the flood, the slavery of Egypt, the Babylonian captivity, or the control of Rome being a few examples. In some Masonic degrees we may clearly see it represented by the Babylonian captivity. Again, this stage was associated with the “earth bound” personality of the elements.
Once a person had an experience of the divine nature of the world however, they underwent a change of heart, so to speak, and had achieved the witnessing of some light. Most English translations of the Bible refer to this change of heart as “repentance”- though the Greek word associated with it is “metanoia.” “Metanoia” didn’t mean that you need to confess to a Priest or join a church, or apologize to God for “missing the mark”- as it is so often interpreted, but rather that you simply changed your heart and your focus towards attempting to understand your connection with God, and you were therefore free in the truest sense. It is the first step in spiritual awakening, and in Freemasonry it is symbolized by the sharp implement being pressed against the heart at the EA degree. This stage of initial awakening symbolically was represented as the realization that you live in a prison of your mind or in a tomb and the first initiation in the Gnostic rites involved baptism by water- sometimes referred to as a “catharmos” or purification in early texts. Some Masonic traditions to this day still begin the first degree with the candidate starting out in a small dark room (a Chamber of Reflection) which has bread and water- like a prison, as well as symbols pointing to the way out of that prison. The initiation then proceeds with the candidate’s first initiation out of the symbolic prison- which makes the brother a free-Mason, and thereby freeborn, and of their own free will and accord. The first stage of Gnostic initiation was generally concerned with subduing the passions and ethics. It was called the “psychic” stage by early Gnostics, and it was a stage in which the initiate discovered they were not merely a physical body. The emphasis on water in the Bible and the overcoming of this stage can be found in such metaphors as the flood of Noah and Jesus walking on water. In our EA degree today in Freemasonry, we likewise find a system which is primarily concerned with ethics, and this is where the first light is received, after having been introduced to a penalty associated with water. The candidate becomes a brother, and in so doing, is no longer blind. The essential details are identical to the Gnostic rites.
The next Gnostic initiation was usually done with air or breath and was called “pneumatic”. A pneumatic initiate came to understand their nature in impersonal terms and God not as a person on a cloud somewhere, but rather as the One. Duality begins to become understood and then transcended and all relationships with God begin to be brought into Oneness. God and the initiate become the mystery of God in love with itself. All is perfectly One. In the ancient Gnostic mystery theatres of Egypt, the various parts of the body of the slain Osiris represented different aspects of reality that all had their roots in this One source. The parts of Osiris are recollected and put back together through the love of Isis. If God was One with creation, then the Pneumatic initiate in the Gnostic schools began the study of the arts and sciences in order to understand God and glorify Him. In fact, it was during the Pneumatic stage that most Gnostic schools had represented steps associated with the seven planets, which by extension ruled the seven noble metals, the seven days of the week, and the seven liberal arts and sciences. The Pythagoreans extended it further and suggested that the notes of the octave and the seven Greek vowels were also under this influence. Therefore we should likewise not be surprised to find this emphasis in the second degree of Freemasonry, in which the penalty is related to air- just like the second initiation in the Gnostic schools. In this degree the world of duality is likewise brought into focus with the pillars.
The pneumatic initiate also came to understand that if God was a point within a circle, and the outer circumference of the circle represented the physical form, then lines of radius emanating from the point in the center of the circle represented various stages of consciousness and various personas of the One. In the outer circumference of the circle each radius appeared as unique and distinct, but at the source of all was God- the mystery of mysteries5. The point within the circle therefore not only represents the brother kept in due bounds, but in ancient symbolism it symbolized gold and the sun, and it was a symbol found in part of the Gnostic initiation process. Getting to the center of the circle was the path of Gnosis, which is why Christ said that those who came before him were baptized with water and air, but he came to baptize with fire. Fire represented the initiation into Gnosis, and in Freemasonry it is related to our third degree.
At some point in the Gnostic pneumatic process, attachment to the false self- or eidolon had to symbolically die so that the new higher spiritual body- sometimes called the “daemon” could awaken. (Notice that I wrote daemon and not demon!!!) The word usually translated as “resurrection” in the Bible is the Greek word “anastasis”, which as discussed actually means “awakening”. This awakening was the Gnosis and to the Christian Gnostics it was represented by Christ. The Christ was the point within the circle that Gnostics were trying to reach, and it is symbolically why that point lies between the two Saint John’s in Masonic EA instruction. This is why “doubting Thomas” questions Christ’s awakening. “Thomas” means “twin” in Greek- and represented the eidolon- or false physical self. This is also how it came to be in Islam that the Koran suggests that someone other than Jesus died on the cross for Jesus. The Koran says, “They did not kill him. They did not crucify him. They were taken in by an appearance.” Islamic Gnostics, such as Ishmaili Shiites and Sufi Sunnis teach that they represent the true Islamic tradition of which Mohammed and the original Muslims were initiated into6. It was these same initiation groups that the Knights Templar had come in contact with and learned alchemy and other ideas from. This tradition came from the Gnostic teachings and Apocryphal texts which suggested that the false twin- or eidolon symbolically died on the cross and Jesus (in the Gnostic Christian traditions) awakened to the Christos of Gnosis (representative of the daemon), and therefore united with God (the Universal Daemon). Mystery school tradition maintains that the tying of an initiate to a cross at this stage, or a symbolic death of some kind, goes all the way back to ancient Egypt. Like the original Christians, Islamic Gnostics treat Christ as an image of the consciousness of God, our shared essential identity. This was all symbolic, of course, to the initiatory and psychological path that we all take, and to the early Gnostic Christians it was irrelevant if a man named Jesus actually went through this crucifixion or if he actually had a twin brother named Thomas. What mattered is that each Christian symbolically went through the symbolic death in order to realize Christ, and by extension a reintegration with God and an understanding of the spiritual Kingdom all around them. Initiation provided the symbolic roadmap to achieve this realization in the Gnostic schools.
This same symbolic death obviously occurs in the Master Mason degree, as the brother represents Hiram Abiff. Even more so, there are two Hirams (or twins) in the degree – Hiram Abiff and Hiram King of Tyre. Some have seen the symbolic death of Hiram Abiff as representing the death of the Gnostic Twin- or Eidolon, who is then attempted to be raised by the Kingly Daemon self (represented by Hiram King of Tyre), but he can’t be raised without the help of King Solomon (representing the Universal Daemon). Some have seen this same twin motif as suggested in the seal of the Knights Templar, which had two knights riding on one horse. It has been debated a great deal if the Templars had any type of secret Gnostic doctrine reserved for the few of the inner circle, however in support of the idea, it is known that they also used a seal of the Gnostic figure of Abraxas7. Abraxas was a rooster headed figure that represented time, among other things, and it was a rooster because a rooster heralds in the new light of the new day with its cry. This was a perfect Gnostic metaphor, and some have suggested that this is the origin of the rooster image found in the Chamber of Reflection in some Masonic traditions, particularly the Traditional Observance. Going back to the twin idea, this same symbol was reflected in the astrological symbol of Gemini (the twins)- whose symbol is two pillars together. We have seen this same two pillar symbol in Freemasonry.
The symbolic death for a “third degree” can be found going all the way back to ancient Egypt. In fact, some researchers suggest that the raising of Lazarus from the dead by Jesus was just such a reenactment of this ancient mystery school drama. The name “Lazarus” in Hebrew is “El Ausor”. “El” was a Hebrew name for God, and “Ausor” was the Egyptian name for the God Osiris- who symbolically dies and was raised from the dead. In fact, in the Mandean Gnostic tradition of the Middle East, one of the names for God continues to be “Aursor”. The story of Lazarus takes place in Bethany, which in Hebrew is “Bethanu”. “Beth” in Hebrew means “house” and “anu” in ancient Egyptian was the abode of the dead. Therefore “Bethany” or “Bethanu” means “house of the dead”. Interestingly, if we change the Hebrew name for Lazarus around so that “El” is last and “ausor” is first, we get the name “Ausorel” or “Azrael”- which is the angel of death. In any event, it is widely believed by researchers that the raising of Lazarus was illustrating an initiatory rite, which is why Jesus took so long to go get him out of the cave he was symbolically buried in.
The Gnostic likewise revered John the Baptist as a supreme Gnostic, and some Gnostic traditions even went so far as to name each of their leaders “John”- as a title, and they believed that John the Evangelist was a Gnostic of the same lineage. They thereby became “holy Saints John”, and the Gnostic leaders likewise named John fell into this same category. Other Gnostic schools, like the Mandeans in Iraq, have even been referred to as “John Christians” throughout most their history, due to their revearing of John the Baptist and emphasis on baptismal rites. The same emphasis is found in the Grail legends, like Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach, and it may be related to the Prester John myths. Some have speculated that the emphasis on John in Gnostic traditions is tied to the earlier Babylonian myths of Oannis, whose feast day was June 24th– like John the Baptist, and who was known in myth to anoint Priest Kings, have them don aprons, and teach them the arts and sciences needed for building civilization. According to this theory, Oannis became the Greek Ionanis, which became the Latin Johannis, which finally got abbreviated to John. For the Gnostics this name of John was important however because of the vowels in the name- composed of IOA. Many Gnostics referred to the name of God as IOA or IAO. These vowels were also emphasized in Hebrew words like Adonai- meaning “lord”. The Latin letters IOA were significant from a Gnostic and sacred geometry standpoint, as “I” represented a point extending itself, and therefore the “word” of creation. “O” represented the word extended through space to the point that it comes back in contact with itself, and it therefore represented the extension of the word in creation, or the Christos. “A” represented a triangle that forms as two dualities come in contact with themselves and therefore form a third point of manifestation, and it symbolized the Sophia, or reflection of the word in matter. In the Gnostic text known as the Pistis Sophia, Jesus explains the mystery of the vowels IAO to his disciples thus: “This is its interpretation: Iota, the Universe came out; Alpha, they will turn them; Omega, will become the completion of all completions.”8
As late as the 1803 there was a Gnostic Church started for French Templars called the Johannite Church of Primitive Christians, by Bernard-Raymond Fabre-Palaprat. This church later had close ties with Martinist movements, and developed into l’Englise Catholique Gnostique under the influence of Gerard Encause. This Gnostic lineage has continued to exist in various strains to today, some of which only allow Master Masons or Martinists to become members of the church. The Gnostic Johannite Church tradition itself was often mentioned by Eliphas Levi in his writings of the 1800’s, and it is from here that we likewise find mention of it a number of times in Albert Pike’s Morals and Dogma9. The early Knights Templar likewise revered John the Baptist, as along with the Abraxas seal mentioned before, there have been numerous other seals found of theirs which depicted the head of John the Baptist, and some have even suggested that they venerated it as a talisman. Obviously the emphasis on both John the Baptist and John the Evangelist features predominantly in most forms of Freemasonry around the world today.
Another interesting similarity that we find in both early Manichean Gnostic rituals and in some degrees in Freemasonry consisted of the placing of an empty chair on a platform in the east which symbolized the “unseen Master” or “unknown Master” of their sect. The Manichean members who had purified themselves for the special annual ritual were permitted to kneel before this empty chair10. The empty chair is reminiscent of the vacant throne of Osiris in Egyptian initiation rituals, though a similar chair is found reflected in the York Rite degrees of Freemasonry in many jurisdictions, and in the Royal Order of Scotland.
We certainly see the ideas found in both Gnosticism and Freemasonry in other traditions as well, which has led some to believe these ideas in Freemasonry came from other sources. For example, the same progression in initiations from earth to water, water to air, and air to fire, is found in other traditions than just the Gnostics, as it is also emphasized in alchemy and in qabbalah11. However it has been argued that the mystics of these different traditions shared similar doctrines, and some have even gone so far as to suggest the Knights Templar secured the doctrines of Gnosticism of the early Christians, Qabbalah of the Jews, and alchemy of the Islamic societies while in the Holy Land- all of whom had been sharing doctrines and similar initiations as the Templars themselves. By extension, the myth is that Templarism grew into early Freemasonry. Such ideas can also be found in many of the early Rosicrucian manifestos. Ultimately the goal of both the Gnostic tradition and Freemasonry was a level of Mastery- which both systems represent by Light. Gnosticism, on the one hand, teaches that Mastery comes from understanding the spiritual forces behind creation and matter. Freemasonry, on the other hand, emphasizes the same idea- particularly in relation to the compasses that have overtaken the square. Compasses are an instrument used to draw the arcs which define the points behind geometric forms, whereas squares can be used to define those physical forms. The Master Mason is therefore likewise one who understands and utilizes the knowledge of the hidden spiritual and eternal forces behind creation. This is not to get rid of the square, but rather to use it is a tool for the expression of the compasses. Though Gnosticism is a philosophy to some, a religion to others, and a heresy to a few, I hope I have shown that in the essential details we cannot ignore that it shares much in common with the rituals of Freemasonry. This is not written to suggest that Freemasonry itself is a Gnostic religion, but rather to show that much of the symbolism within Freemasonry can best be understood by also understanding some of the symbolism found in the Gnostic philosophy, schools, and initiations.
Rudolph, Kurt, Gnosis: The Nature & History of Gnosticism, Harper & Row, San Fransisco, 1987, pg. 332.
Doresse, Jean, The Secret Books of the Egyptian Gnostics, MJF Books, New York, 1986, pg 267.
Abid, pg 267.
Freke, Timothy & Peter Gandy, Jesus and the Lost Goddess, Three Rivers Press, New York, 2001, pg 60-64.
Freke, Timothy & Peter Gandy, Jesus and the Lost Goddess, Three Rivers Press, New York, 2001, pg 205.
Olsen, Oddvar (editor), The Templar Papers, New Page Books, Franklin Lakes, NJ, 2006, pg 122.
Horner, G. (translation), Pistis Sophia, Macmillan, London, 1924, pg. 180.
Pike, Albert, Morals and Dogma, The Supreme Temple of the AASR SJ, Charleston, 1950, pg 817
Hall, Manly P, Orders of the Quest: The Holy Grail, The Philosophical Research Society, Los Angeles, CA, 1949, pg. 14. Also on this page is a reference to Manicheans calling themselves “sons of the widow”.
For more on these associations see my books The Alchemical Keys to Masonic Ritual and The 32 Secret Paths of Solomon: A New Examination of the Qabbalah in Freemasonry.
Sources of general reference:
Barry, Kieren, The Greek Qabalah, Samuel Weiser, Maine, 1999.
This was one of those fun and fascinating conversations that explores Masonic history and pseudo history, high crimes and high magic, at least as far as the count is concerned. Was he a charlatan, criminal or a genius?
This episode was a special one for us as our guest joined us from across the Atlantic to dig into this unique character out of the mists of the masonic past.
Some of areas we touch on in the show include:
The Egyptian Rites
The Hermetic Rites in Freemasonry
Crossing the Catholic Church
This episode was a special one for us as our guest joined us from across the Atlantic to dig into this unique character from out of the mists of the masonic past.