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The Many Meanings of The Word "Mystery"

by H. L. Haywood

VERY FAR BACK IN TIME our remote forefathers used in one form or another the short word mu. It meant "keep your lips closed," "say nothing about it"; and either in the beginning of its use, or not long afterwards, it also meant "keep your eyes closed," "don't be inquisitive about the affairs of others," etc. We ourselves in our own language continue to employ that same ancient word in our "mum," "mumble," "mutter," "mummer" (it is not the root of "mummy," which derived from a Persian word mum, meaning wax, and was applied to bodies preserved in wax and oil).  

From this same root the ancient Greeks formed their word- phrase ta musteria, which denoted secret rites, secret teachings, secret initiations; when confronted by such rites an outsider (a "profane") was expected to keep his eyes shut, and an insider, an initiate, was expected to keep his lips closed. From that phrase (it was plural in form) the same Greeks formed their word musterion. From that use in turn, as was true of so many other Greek terms, the word passed over into the Latin language, where it was mysterium, and it there continued to have the general meaning of something not pried into, or spied upon, or talked about. From the Latin, Old French derived its mistere, and modern French has its mystere. From such sources it passed into Middle English as mistere, or mystereye, and from that it came into modern English as "mystery." The .word's own long, unbroken history defines it: a mystery is something private, something secret kept by certain persons for good reasons of their own which an outsider must not be inquisitive about and which insiders must not talk about - they must keep the lips closed.  

In the meantime, and also long ago, another word began its history, starting with the ancient Latin word ministerium, formed from minister, which denoted a servant.  

As civilization slowly developed in both Greece and Rome the callings, or forms of work, which required skilled hands and trained minds were more and more placed in the care of organized crafts which the Greeks called hetarai, and the Romans called collegia. Later on they were called gilds. The purpose of such gilds was to serve the people by producing things necessary to everybody.  

The Dark Ages were so called because during a long and ghastly period of nearly four centuries barbarians invaded Rome and Greece from all directions (except from the south),and in so doing destroyed almost every vestige of the knowledge and skill which had been employed in the old organized crafts.  

After Charlemagne, who lived in the ninth century, Europe began very slowly to recover the old arts, and when this occurred the skilled workmen once again became organized, and their organizations had a gild-form. But these new gilds were called "mysteries," and it is easy to see why; the skilled craftsmen in them made things needed for use, and since the few literate men in Europe in the period used the Latin language in speaking and writing, these men adopted the Latin word ministerium. In Old French it became mestier, in Modern French, metier, and when introduced into English, during the period of Middle English it became, first, mistere, and later, mistery.  

Since the Operative Freemasons were skilled craftsmen, organized in the form of a gild-fraternity, their craft, like every other skilled craft, was called a "mystery," and in almost all of the oldest charters, fabric rolls, and borough records that word is used of it. That usage denoted nothing secret or occult, but denoted nothing more than the fact that Freemasons were trained workmen, and it is in that sense that the word is used in the old phrase, "arts, parts, and mysteries of Freemasonry." Freemasonry is an art, and any young man with normal intelligence can learn it, if he is willing to put himself through an apprenticeship, in which case he is not called upon to become an adept in some secret science, or be made privy to some occult secret.  

Why is it that for a century or so the general public has made the word "Freemasonry'' almost synonymous with the word "mysterious"? Why have so many Masonic writers themselves argued that since Freemasonry is a mystery there must be something very mysterious within it? And why did the Anti-Masons of America, in the quarter of a century in which they endeavored to destroy it, attack it for being the custodian of some strange, occult, and possibly dangerous secret? They all confused two words, each of which is wholly different from the other, though both are spelled and pronounced alike: they jumped to the conclusion that because in modern times a mystery is a puzzle, a thing hidden, something occult, it had always been used in that sense; they were too ignorant of history to know that through the many centuries of the Middle Ages a "mystery" was a skilled craft, and that Freemasonry was always a mystery in that sense of the word.  

Among the ancient Greeks and Romans there were two kinds of religions. On the one side were those which may be called public religions, because they were maintained and directed by the state, carried on their observances as publicly as possible, and used temples which had so little secrecy in them that the buildings consisted of little more than a roof supported by columns, with no walls. On the other side were those which may be described as private, not in the sense that they were private to an individual or to an individual's family, but in the sense that they were private to their own members. These latter are called either The Ancient Mysteries, or The Mystery Cults.  

A Mystery Cult admitted members by initiation, divided its members into grades, employed ceremonies, sometimes of an astoundingly costly and elaborate kind, used emblems and symbols, and had grips, passwords, tokens, etc. The probability is that they developed, at least the larger number of them, out of those organized skilled crafts which were described above, and which always carried on within themselves a number of ceremonious and symbolic practices.  

Many of the earlier Masonic historians believed that Freemasonry must have originated in some one or more of The Ancient Mysteries, such historians as Hutchinson, Oliver, Greenleaf, Franklin Fort, and Albert G. Mackey among them - it is probable that Mackey, who wrote a history of the Fraternity in seven volumes, believed in that theory as long as he lived. And in so doing they furnished yet another reason for attaching the word "mystery" to Freemasonry - their doing so was not altogether an act of good fortune, because there is no so reason for believing that our Craft ever had a connection with any one of the Mysteries.  

In the present day and age the word "mystery" is entering yet another chapter of its long history. There is developing in plain view that new use of it which is represented by the phrase "the mysteries of science," and the development of such recondite subjects as the quantum theory, the publicity given to Einstein's Theory of Relativity, and the invention of the atomic bomb, have been among the more prominent forces and events which have crowded that new meaning into an already over-crowded word.  

What is a scientific mystery? It is a subject, or a set of facts, discoveries, and inventions so difficult to know and understand that to do so a man must go through a long and laborious preparation in higher mathematics and difficult technologies before he is even prepared to undertake his investigations. In a somewhat different sense, though cognate with it, a "scientific mystery" means that many of the oldest and most familiar things have turned out, under scientific analysis, to be extraordinarily complex and hard to understand; light is such a mystery, so is time, so is space, so is gravitation, and so are many other things which all men have known about from the beginning.  

There are scientific mysteries in Freemasonry. Architecture is one of them. If a reader believes it to be an exaggeration to describe architecture as a scientific mystery, he must ask himself why it is that among the thousands of engineers who are erecting the boxlike office buildings in American cities there are so few architects, and why it is that there are probably less than a dozen men in the whole world who, without outside aid, could design and construct a genuinely Gothic cathedral, for architects, the garden or common variety of them, find Gothic as difficult to comprehend as the Theory of Relativity. Another scientific mystery in the Craft is mathematics, which there passes by the name of geometry. Nothing is more certain than the statement that since the discovery of the first system of Non-Euclidean geometry until now mathematics has been more and more becoming a scientific mystery. There also are others in the Ritual.  

There are these uses of "mystery" as applied to Freemasonry. There remains yet another one, and it may ultimately prove to be the most important of any. Freemasonry is itself a mystery. Why? Because nobody has ever satisfactorily explained it. Why did it alone, out of all the mysteries of the Middle Ages, survive? Why did it, after some seven or eight centuries had passed, so suddenly wax into a world fraternity, more powerful than ever before? What is there in it which holds so many otherwise busy men to its services, and more especially when it does not pay them for those services, and oftentimes does not even reward them? What is the secret of its endless, its inexhaustible, fascination for men of many races and tongues across the earth?

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Last modified: March 22, 2014