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.
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.
From the day I was raised 26 years ago I have always heard that Freemasonry was an outgrowth of the Medieval Stone Masons Guilds that gradually took on speculative members as church building waned. Then along came historian John J. Robinson who wrote in Born in Blood: The Lost Secrets of Freemasonry,
There remained no reasonable doubt in my mind that the original concept of the secret society that came to call itself Freemasonry had been born as a society of mutual protection among fugitive Templars and their associates in Britain, men who had gone underground to escape the imprisonment and torture that had been ordered for them by Pope Clement V.
And #13 is Nagy’s Unmasking of the Craft, his answer as to the origin of Freemasonry. And what is that answer? Oh no, that you are going to have to find out by reading the book. Besides you wouldn’t believe him without all the corroborating evidence that is in the book to back up his claim. If I printed all of that in this review I might as well have just scanned the whole book and posted that. Of course that would be cheating Brother Nagy out of just compensation. If this was a murder mystery review you wouldn’t want me to tell you who did it now would you?
Nagy warns that the book could be upsetting to some Freemasons and that, “Revealing anything in this book to others who have yet to read it, shall both ruin the intended experience of the book for them and prevent you from having a rich discussion about it with an informed person.” So take due notice and govern yourselves accordingly.
Nagy tells us, “It should be abundantly clear that stonemasonry and Freemasonry are nowhere near the same.” He goes on to say, “At one point in time in the Middle Ages, it took seven years to earn the right to be a Journeyman, otherwise known as a Fellow in the Craft. For an Apprentice to become a Fellow Craft within the Freemasonic Order, no skill development or servitude under a Mentor is required. Memorization of words, signs and grips are almost universally required. Some Apprentices are required to know the Obligations they learned during their first Degree.”
Next comes a lament you will find throughout Nagy’s book, “Candidates Entering the Society usually have high hopes of being surrounded by men who have actually developed Life Masteries. What they find is a wide assortment of males who have yet to master themselves, much less the principles of the Craft. They also find men obsessed with memorizing things that they have no desire to understand, much less apply.”
“With no true leadership or examples of what the Society can actually do to develop good men into Better men, some members soon realize that the organization is not what they expected. Couple this with meetings that provide little to no nourishment for those who attend, it becomes very clear to any man who was initially excited about joining the Society, that if offers little more than activities that maintain the process of Initiating men three times over.”
He goes on to say this about candidates:
“They are provided an Instruction Set in the form of ritual as to what they should do to become Better men but they are provided no support to assure that they learn how to become Better men. They are only required to memorize that Instruction Set, not Execute it. It is clear that this activity and their limits do not support Freemasonic Craft in being a Progressive Science, only a stagnant script to follow that very few members understand.”
And why do few members understand Freemasonry?
Nagy claims, “Without a foundation in classical literature, scripture and related materials, there is little likelihood of any man truly appreciating anything other than superficial aspects of what the Society offers him. What’s more, when they don’t appreciate what is offered, they do not stick around much.”
Nagy is a big critic of Freemasonry’s claim to actually helping its members yet he sees in it a grand design that can change lives.
“Wouldn’t it make sense to teach men the significance of Ritual in general,” Nagy writes. “What is it supposed to activate within them? What is the significance of certain symbols, words, and gestures to as man, to what they refer within specific moments in history, and how they have been viewed in the past? Wouldn’t proper preparation include educating the man, not in what he shall experience, but in the significance of the words, phrases, gestures, symbols and allusions that he shall encounter on his journey?”
“The cultures surrounding the society today are not ones to provide unsophisticated Candidates. Not many new Candidates will willingly engage in such activities. Today’s Candidates want continuity between the act and the reality it is supposed to improve.”
“It’s most unfortunate that the society never developed itself beyond the roles it asks its members to act out. Had it taken what its scripts espouse to the next level, and provided authentic and functional support to its members in achieving what its Rituals have pointed its members toward, its membership and surrounding structure would indeed be far grander than what is currently presented.”
“Once again, it is not ever emphasized that any member understands anything that he memorizes and repeats. It is never emphasized that he must do any of the work which any of what he is memorizing points toward. He need not understand the lessons. He need not understand what the Symbols mean toward what work they direct his attention. He is not even required to discuss how he can use what he is told to memorize to Better himself. It is only important that he be able to memorize and recite back what is asked of him by his Jurisdiction.”
But as we noted before this does not lessen the potential of Freemasonry in Nagy’s eyes one bit:
“The central power of the Freemasonic Society is the mutual agreement of all its members to play the part inside and outside the Lodge. This means that the entire world is their theater and members are expected to play the part for the rest of their lives.”
“Perhaps the greatest service Freemasonic society can ever offer a man is the ability to release himself from the everyday world and immerse himself in a reality that offers him fellowship that’s not contingent upon anything other than wanting to be together for all the right reasons. In this way, Ritual does indeed Bring Order to Chaos.”
“Moreover, Freemasonry is perhaps the single most inclusive way for any man to freely and willingly immerse himself within a nurturing environment of Moral instruction that excludes the varying degrees of politically corrupting influences of any one religion.”
“Furthermore, there are some deeply spiritual men who shall never ever step foot in any religion based facility who desire to commune with other Seekers of like Mind and Spirit. For them there is and shall always be Freemasonry”
“And all members reap the benefit of their presence and wisdom as a result.”
“The Freemasonic Organization places a spotlight on every single Candidate going through each of the first three Degrees. Like a limelight in a spectacular production, the Candidate is both highlighted and at the same time shown what role he must play in life to better himself. At each Step along the way he is shown what he must focus upon to Build himself into a Better man.”
“For some time now I have described Freemasonic ritual as ‘Roadmaps for Personal Transformation.’”
When you come right down to it Nagy believes that ,“Simple in its deliverance and Masterful in its design the Craft does indeed do what it set out to do and in Grand Fashion.”
”Simply Masterful it is in every way and in ways that the majority have not recognized and understood until now.”
The meat of the book is the unmasking of the Craft and the discovery of its true origins, which you will have to read and digest yourself by buying the book. There is also Nagy’s critique of how the Craft could be better than it already is while paying due homage to its greatness at the same time. These are the points you don’t want to miss and that will provide hours of contemplation and discussion.
But there are other parts of the book that also spread Light. We won’t mention them all but one that Nagy finds important is definitions. He seems to feel that too many misunderstandings take place because we are misdefining (that’s a new word I just made up) the words we use in Freemasonry. The biggest offense comes in the use of the words “Masonry (and Mason) versus Freemasonry (and Freemason). According to Nagy:
Freemasonry – The Organizational Structures, Rules, Laws, Traditions, Lore and Rituals that support the Practices of the Freemasonic Society.
Freemason – A Member of the Society of Free & Accepted Masons; an Accepted Mason.
Masonry – The Art and Science of Building.
Mason – A Builder
While we are at we will include one other definition.
The Craft – 1. The Whole of Freemasonic Practice. 2. Those who collectively Practice Freemasonry
Nagy comments that confusion reigns when both Freemasonry and Masonry are used interchangeably and also when some assign the word Freemason to those in the Craft who practice the principles of Freemasonry and Mason to those in the Craft who do not practice the principles of Freemasonry.
Nagy further explains, “By taking the issue of practice outside the Society and assigning it strictly to practice versus non-practice, these Brothers have assigned a distinction that removes membership from the equation defining Masons. They have opted to define Freemasons as mere members of the society of Free & Accepted Masons while in the same effort defining Masons as individuals who Practiced Principles that transform males toward maturity and wisdom regardless of affiliation.”
“In the eyes of some, Freemasons were members of a Society whereas Masons were Builders.”
“None of these definitions denoted that there was mutual exclusivity between the two. They didn’t mean that members could not be Builders too or that Builders could not be members. It merely communicated a base understanding that one was not necessarily the other and one didn’t have to be one to be the other.”
Another chapter you don’t want to miss is the one on the Word.
Nagy tells us, “From the Perspective of Freemasonic Practice, the Master’s Word is Played out every time a Member Portrays Masonry Authentically.”
“The Word is not something you can hold, say or write. You cannot possess it in any way. If anything, It must be something that possesses you and does so legitimately and authentically.”
The Word is a Metaphor. It is intended to represent something other than an actual word. To understand this metaphor, one must seek not what is communicated in its normal sense but to seek the character of what is communicated beyond the words used. Hence, to seek and actual word would be foolish, but to seek the character of The Word would be wise.”
“This is why it is so crucial to understand that The Word cannot be given to anyone. It is something that a person Becomes as a result of diligently applying Wisdom, Strength and Beauty in agreement to all he does. One does not possess The Word, One Becomes The Word; and does so through dedication and commitment of specific Work.”
“The Word is Excellence from oneself to the Degree that one does all these things Masterfully. The Word is a metaphor for Masterful Achievement.”
I also call the Nagy the question man. On Facebook or in his books he is always asking questions. I bet that if I met him in person one of the first things he would do is ask me a question. At the end of The Craft Unmasked are some questions for you to answer, or at least think about. Questions like:
“Do you know exactly what Society Ritual points toward that if pursued would continue to help transform you toward the Better?”
“If you were to step upon sacred ground, would it mean more to you knowing this fact before you stepped upon it or long after you left that soil?”
John “Coach” Nagy
There is no doubt that what Nagy, affectionately referred to as the Coach, has written a book of much controversy. It will burst the bubble of many a Masonic scholar and researcher, and the Coach knows this. And I think he is ready for the flak that will come his way, as they used to say in Vietnam “INCOMING!” It does not seem to be in his nature to be confrontational, however, but rather to be an educator and he goes where his research has taken him.
It is so important that we understand our roots and where that leads us, where we began and where we are now going.
Nagy reminds us, “Yet, even though the Craft is hidden in plain sight, the Mystery of Masonry escapes the understanding of far too many of its members and non-Craft members. This doesn’t prevent individuals from practicing it and benefiting from its practice. Such benefits are a direct result of its application and it doesn’t require an awareness or understanding of the Craft, just a Mastering of it. The Craft is that empowering.”
“Many have come to its quarry. Many have Mastered its ways. Many have profited from its Practice. But, few actually Understand what they are truly doing. Somehow, along the way, the Craftsmen have forgotten what their Craft actually is and for what Purpose it is Practiced.”
But the Coach wants to put this all out for discussion not controversy. It is only through the meeting of minds that we shall discover ourselves as Freemasons and who we really are and where we are going. It is only through greater understanding of where we have been that we can figure where we must go in the future.
“When you remain even loosely active in Craft activities and have taken the time to discuss it at length and in depth with others, you shall soon become acutely aware that there are many aspects of the Craft that appear to be confusing at best, and deeply disconcerting at worst. These aspects shall continue to plague the Craft until such time that all members find themselves harmoniously discussing differences.”
Let’s hope that by adding this book to your library that you will be having those harmonious discussions and delving evermore deeper into the roots of Freemasonry in order to be able to shape its future for the better.