Freemasonry is a fraternal organisation that arose from obscure origins in the late 16th to early 17th century. Freemasonry now exists in various forms all over the world, with a membership estimated at around six million, including approximately 150,000 under the jurisdictions of the Grand Lodge of Scotland and Grand Lodge of Ireland, over a quarter of a million under the jurisdiction of the United Grand Lodge of England and just under two million in the United States.
The fraternity is administratively organised into independent Grand Lodges or sometimes Orients, each of which governs its own jurisdiction, which consists of subordinate (or constituent) Lodges. The various Grand Lodges recognise each other, or not, based upon adherence to landmarks (a Grand Lodge will usually deem other Grand Lodges who share common landmarks to be regular, and those that do not to be “irregular” or “clandestine”).
There are also appendant bodies, which are organisations related to the main branch of Freemasonry, but with their own independent administration.
Principles and activities
While Freemasonry has often been called a “secret society,” Freemasons themselves argue that it is more correct to say that it is an esoteric society, in that certain aspects are private. The most common phrasing is that Freemasonry has, in the 21st century, become less a secret society and more of a “society with secrets.” The private aspects of modern Freemasonry are the modes of recognition amongst members and particular elements within the ritual. Despite the organisation’s great diversity, Freemasonry’s central preoccupations remain charitable work within a local or wider community, moral uprightness (in most cases requiring a belief in a supreme being) as well as the development and maintenance of fraternal friendship, as James Anderson’s Constitutions originally urged amongst brethren.
Ritual, symbolism, and morality
Masons conduct their meetings using a ritualised format. There is no single Masonic ritual, and each jurisdiction is free to set (or not set) its own ritual. However, there are similarities that exist among jurisdictions. For example, all Masonic ritual makes use of the architectural symbolism of the tools of the medieval operative stonemason. Freemasons, as speculative masons (meaning philosophical building rather than actual building), use this symbolism to teach moral and ethical lessons of the principles of “Brotherly Love, Relief, and Truth;” or as related in France, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.”
Two of the principal symbolic tools always found in a Lodge are the square and compasses. Some Lodges and rituals explain these tools as lessons in conduct: for example, that Masons should “square their actions by the square of virtue” and to learn to “circumscribe their desires and keep their passions within due bounds toward all mankind.” However, as Freemasonry is non-dogmatic, there is no general interpretation for these tools (or any Masonic emblem) that is used by Freemasonry as a whole.
These moral lessons are communicated in performance of allegorical ritual. A candidate progresses through degrees gaining knowledge and understanding of himself, his relationship with others and his relationship with the Supreme Being (per his own interpretation). While the philosophical aspects of Freemasonry tend to be discussed in Lodges of Instruction or Research, and sometimes informal groups, Freemasons, and others, frequently publish, with varying degrees of competence, studies that are available to the public. Any mason may speculate on the symbols and purpose of Freemasonry, and indeed all masons are required to some extent to speculate on masonic meaning as a condition of advancing through the degrees. There is no one accepted meaning, and no one person “speaks” for the whole of Freemasonry.
Some lodges make use of tracing boards. These are painted or printed illustrations depicting the various symbolic emblems of Freemasonry. They can be used as teaching aids during the lectures that follow each of the three Degrees, when an experienced member explains the various concepts of Freemasonry to new members. They can also be used by experienced members as self-reminders of the concepts they learned as they went through their initiations.
Freemasonry uses the metaphors of operative stonemasons’ tools and implements, against the allegorical backdrop of the building of King Solomon’s Temple, to convey what has been described by both Masons and critics as “a system of morality veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols.”
The Supreme Being and the Volume of Sacred Law
Candidates for regular Freemasonry are required to declare a belief in a Supreme Being. However, the candidate is not asked to expand on, or explain, his interpretation of Supreme Being. The discussion of politics and religion is forbidden within a Masonic Lodge, in part so a Mason will not be placed in the situation of having to justify his personal interpretation. Thus, reference to the Supreme Being can mean the Christian Trinity to a Christian Mason, Allah to a Muslim Mason, Para Brahman to a Hindu Mason, etc. While most Freemasons would take the view that the term Supreme Being equates to God, others may hold a more complex or philosophical interpretation of the term.
In the ritual, the Supreme Being is referred to as the Great Architect of the Universe, which alludes to the use of architectural symbolism within Freemasonry.
A Volume of the Sacred Law is always displayed in an open Lodge in those jurisdictions which require a belief in the Supreme Being. In English-speaking countries, this is frequently the King James Version of the Bible or another standard translation; there is no such thing as an exclusive “Masonic Bible.” Furthermore, a candidate is given his choice of religious text for his Obligation, according to his beliefs. UGLE alludes to similarities to legal practice in the UK, and to a common source with other oath taking processes. In Lodges with a membership of mixed religions it is common to find more than one sacred text displayed. In lodges that follow the Continental tradition other texts may be used, including texts that are non-religious in nature.
The three degrees of Craft or Blue Lodge Freemasonry are those of:
- Entered Apprentice – the degree of an Initiate, which makes one a Freemason;
- Fellow Craft – an intermediate degree, involved with learning; and
- Master Mason – the “third degree”, a necessity for participation in most aspects of Masonry.
The degrees represent stages of personal development. No Freemason is told that there is only one meaning to the allegories; as a Freemason works through the degrees and studies their lessons, he interprets them for himself, his personal interpretation being bounded only by the Constitution within which he works. A common symbolic structure and universal archetypes provide a means for each Freemason to come to his own answers to life’s important philosophical questions.
There is no degree of Craft Freemasonry higher than that of Master Mason. Although some Masonic bodies and orders have further degrees named with higher numbers, these degrees may be considered to be supplements to the Master Mason degree rather than promotions from it. An example is the Scottish Rite, conferring degrees numbered from 4° up to 33°. It is essential to be a Master Mason in order to qualify for these further degrees. They are administered on a parallel system to Craft or Blue Lodge Freemasonry; within each organisation there is a system of offices, which confer rank within that degree or order alone.
In some jurisdictions, especially those in continental Europe, Freemasons working through the degrees may be asked to prepare papers on related philosophical topics, and present these papers in open Lodge. There is an enormous bibliography of Masonic papers, magazines and publications ranging from fanciful abstractions which construct spiritual and moral lessons of varying value, through practical handbooks on organisation, management and ritual performance, to serious historical and philosophical papers entitled to academic respect.
Square and Compasses
The Square and Compasses(or, more correctly, a square and a set of compasses joined together) is the single most identifiable symbol of Freemasonry. Both the square and compasses are architect’s tools and are used in Masonic ritual as emblems to teach symbolic lessons. Some Lodges and rituals explain these symbols as lessons in conduct: for example, that Masons should “square their actions” and learn to “circumscribe and keep us within due bounds toward all mankind”. However, as Freemasonry is non-dogmatic, there is no general interpretation for these symbols (or any Masonic symbol) that is used by Freemasonry as a whole.
As measuring instruments, the tools represent judgment and discernment.
With a “G”
In English speaking jurisdictions the Square and Compasses are often depicted with the letter “G” in the center. The letter is interpreted to represent different words jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Among the most widely accepted interpretations are that: [G] stands for God, and is to remind Masons that God is at the center of Freemasonry. In this context it can also stand for Great Architect of the Universe (a reference to God). In a different context, the letter stands for Geometry, described as being the “noblest of sciences”, and “the basis upon which the superstructure of Freemasonry is erected.”
Masonic Mosaic Pavement
The black and white checkered floor has existed in temples since the times of ancient Egypt. More than simply decorative, the mosaic pavement bears a profound esoteric meaning. Today it is one of Freemasonry’s most recognizable symbols and is the ritualistic floor of all Masonic lodges. The pavement is the area on which initiations occur and is “emblematic of human life, checkered with good and evil.”
“The mosaic pavement in an old symbol of the Order. It is met with in the earliest rituals of the last century. It is classed among the ornaments of the lodge along with the indented tessel and the blazing star. Its party-colored stones of black and white have been readily and appropriately interpreted as symbols of the evil and good of human life.”
According to occult researchers, the checkered mosaic pavement has historically represented the House of the Mysteries and its origins can be traced back to ancient Egypt and the Dionysiac rites.
“The checkerboard floor upon which the modern Freemasonic lodge stands is the old tracing board of the Dionysiac Architects, and while the modern organization is no longer limited to workmen’s guilds it still preserves in its symbols the metaphysical doctrines of the ancient society of which it is presumably the outgrowth.”
In the Entered Apprentice Degree, the mosaic pavement represents the ground floor of King Solomon’s Temple. In the account of King Solomon’s Temple in the Bible, the ground floor is said to be made of pine or fir, depending on the Bible translation (1 Ki 6:15).
While the pavement of most lodges consist of a black and white checkered pattern, the colors might vary. Lozenges might also be used instead of squares.
The juxtaposition of opposing colors on the mosaic pavement is a visual representation an important principle of hermetism: duality.
“The pavement, alternately black and white, symbolizes, whether so intended or not, the Good and Evil Principles of the Egyptian and Persian creed. It is the warfare of Michael and Satan, of the Gods and Titans, of Balder and Lok; between light and shadow, which is darkness; Day and Night; Freedom and Despotism; Religious Liberty and the Arbitrary Dogmas of a Church that thinks for its votaries, and whose Pontiff claims to be infallible, and the decretals of its Councils to constitute a gospel.”
“The Floor, or groundwork of the Lodge, a chequer-work of black and white squares, denotes the dual quality of everything connected with terrestrial life and the physical groundwork of human nature – the mortal body and its appetites and affections. “The web of our life is a mingled yarn, good and ill together”, wrote Shakespeare. Everything material is characterized by inextricably interblended good and evil, light and shade, joy and sorrow, positive and negative. What is good for me may be evil for you; pleasure is generated from pain and ultimately degenerates into pain again; what it is right to do at one moment may be wrong the next; I am intellectually exalted to-day and to-morrow correspondingly depressed and benighted: The dualism of these opposites governs us in everything, and experience of it is prescribed for us until such time as, having learned and outgrown its lesson, we are ready for advancement to a condition where we outgrow the sense of this chequer-work existence and those opposites cease to be perceived as opposites, but are realized as a unity or synthesis. To find that unity or synthesis is to know the peace which passes understanding i.e. which surpasses our present experience, because in it the darkness and the light are both alike, and our present concepts of good and evil, joy and pain, are transcended and found sublimated in a condition combining both. And this lofty condition is represented by the indented or tesselated border skirting the black and white chequer-work, even as the Divine Presence and Providence surrounds and embraces our temporal organisms in which those opposites are inherent.”
Furthermore, the checkered floor is representative of earth, the material world and contrasts the ceiling, which is made to represent the heavens and the spiritual realm.
“The Covering of the Lodge is shown in sharp contrast to its black and white flooring and is described as “a celestial canopy of divers colours, even the heavens.
If the flooring symbolizes man’s earthy sensuous nature, the ceiling typifies his ethereal nature, his “heavens” and the properties resident therein. The one is the reverse and the opposite pole of the other. His material body is visible and densely composed. His ethereal surround, or “aura”, is tenuous and invisible, (save to clairvoyant vision), and like the fragrance thrown off by a flower. Its existence will be doubted by those unprepared to accept what is not physically demonstrable, but the Masonic student, who will be called upon to accept many such truths provisionally until he knows them as certainties, should reflect (i) that he has entered the Craft with the professed object of receiving light upon the nature of his own being, (2) that the Order engages to assist him to that light in regard to matters of which he is admittedly ignorant, and that its teachings and symbols were devised by wise and competent instructors in such matters, and (3) that a humble, docile and receptive mental attitude towards those symbols and their meanings will better conduce. to his advancement than a critical or hostile one.”
The mosaic pavement is a esoterically-charged space on which stands the ceremonial altar, the center of most rituals. The ceremony for the Apprentice Degree symbolically takes place in that location. According to the Third Degree Ritual, the Square Pavement is for the High Priest to walk upon.
“Why is the chequer floor-work given such prominence in the Lodge-furniture? The answer is to be found in the statement in the Third Degree Ritual : “The square pavement is for the High Priest to walk upon”. Now it is not merely the Jewish High Priest of centuries ago that is here referred to, but the individual member of the Craft. For every Mason is intended to be the High Priest of his own personal temple and to make of it a place where he and Deity may meet. By the mere fact of being in this dualistic world every living being, whether a Mason or not, walks upon the square pavement of mingled good and evil in every action of his life, so that the floor-cloth is the symbol of an elementary philosophical truth common to us all. But, for us, the words “walk upon” imply much more than that. They mean that he who aspires to be master of his fate and captain of his soul must walk upon these opposites in the sense of transcending and dominating them, of trampling upon his lower sensual nature and keeping it beneath his feet in subjection and control. He must become able to rise above the motley of good and evil, to be superior and indifferent to the ups and downs of fortune, the attractions and fears governing ordinary men and swaying their thoughts and actions this way or that. His object is the development of his innate spiritual potencies, and it is impossible that these should develop so long as he is over-ruled by his material tendencies and the fluctuating emotions of pleasure and pain that they give birth to. It is by rising superior to these and attaining serenity and mental equilibrium under any circumstances in which for the moment he may be placed, that a Mason truly “walks upon” the chequered ground work of existence and the conflicting tendencies of his more material nature.”
Some claim that the mosaic pavement serves as a “magical circle” to be used in inter-dimensional travel and communication. The deeper meaning of the mosaic is therefore said to transcend the limits of the material realm.
The Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, also commonly known as Shriners and abbreviated A.A.O.N.M.S., established in 1870, is an appendant body to Freemasonry, based in the United States. In 2010, the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, as well as Shriners North America, changed its name to Shriners International, now covering nearly 200 temples (chapters) across North America, South America, Europe and Southeast Asia. The organization is best known for the Shriners Hospitals for Children it administers and the red fezzes that members wear. The organization is headquartered in Tampa, Florida. Shriners International describes itself as a fraternity based on fun, fellowship and the Masonic principles of brotherly love, relief and truth. There are approximately 340,000 members from 194 temples (chapters) in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the Republic of Panama, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Europe and Australia. On July 6, 2011, Shriners International commissioned Emirat Shriners of Heidelberg, Germany, as its 194th temple, and took the first steps toward forming a new temple in Mindanao, Philippines.
Despite its theme, the Shrine is not connected to Islam. It is a men’s fraternity rather than a religion or religious group. Its only religious requirement is indirect: all Shriners must be Masons, and petitioners to Freemasonry must profess a belief in a Supreme Being. To further minimize confusion with religion, the use of the word “Temple” to describe Shriners’ buildings has been replaced by “Shrine Center,” although individual local chapters are still called “Temples.”
Until 2000, before being eligible for membership in the Shrine, a person had to complete either the Scottish Rite or York Rite degrees of Masonry,but now any Master Mason can join.
Shriners count among their ranks presidents, senators, local business leaders, professional golfers, country music stars, astronauts and racecar drivers.