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part I - the heritage of freemasonry

W. M. Don Falconer PM, PDGDC

Modern freemasonry has many branches and a multitude of complementary degrees that are progressive along a variety of paths.


The medieval freemasons


The origins of the traditional degrees in freemasonry are to be found in the work of the operative freemasons in medieval England. The earliest known recorded use of the word “freemason” dates from 1376, when it implied an operative freemason of a superior class, apparently the Master Mason in charge of a building operation, or the master builder. Many early masonic writers did not believe medieval Master Masons possessed superior knowledge and skill, being as well versed in religious matters, the graphic arts, sculpture and geometry as they were in the manual aspects of their craft. One eminent writer, A.E.Waite, could not imagine how “horny handed labourers” could develop the symbolism and philosophy that is an essential element of speculative craft freemasonry. Another eminent writer, R.F.Gould, proposed as a possible explanation that these “operatives” accepted “gentlemen” into their ranks, who transformed the operative craft into a speculative art, but he did not offer any logical reason or substantiation. Those writers seemed unaware that freemasonry was not confined to the quarrying, shaping and setting of stones.


Master Masons were required to understand the geometry and carry out the structural design of the buildings, as well as having a comprehensive knowledge of the many other constituents such as sculpture, stained glass windows and symbolic decorative work. The medieval freemasons inherited the ideas, teachings and organisation that had crystallised as a Fraternity, which they developed continually. From the beginnings of primitive freemasonry during the Stone Age, the speculative art developed concurrently with the practical skills and became an integral part of operative freemasonry, which reached its zenith during the great cathedral building era of medieval times in England and Europe. The freemasons used a multiplicity of emblems and had an elaborate system of symbolism with many rites and ceremonies, which they continued to use long after the decline of cathedral building. Manual dexterity was achieved by practical “hands on” training, while the accompanying theory was imparted by demonstration and catechism, which included participation in appropriate dramatic presentations to illustrate the use of the more sophisticated implements in setting out and controlling the work. With respect to overall control of the work for which a Master Mason was responsible when constructing a cathedral or other ecclesiastical building, the Council of Nicea issued an edict in 797 saying “the arrangement belongs to the clergy and the execution to the artist”.


Should there be any doubt about the intelligence, technical capacity and practical capabilities of the medieval Master Masons, it would be instantly dispelled by a study of the design and construction of the Chartres Cathedral in France, which is considered to be the most authentic surviving example of the spirit of the most spiritual of all periods in European history. In 1020 a cathedral, almost as large as the present one, replaced a smaller church on the site.  In the 1130s it was extended at the western end by adding two bays, a vestibule and two towers that framed the Royal Portal and its renowned sculptures. In 1194 a dreadful fire razed most of the town and all the cathedral except the crypt and the western end. Reconstruction of the cathedral was commenced almost immediately and continued unabated until 1230, when it was virtually complete. At the same time more than a dozen other cathedrals were also under construction in the vicinity. In accordance with the edict of the Council of Nicea, the clergy would have stated their requirements as to the form of the cathedral, the size of the choir and the preferred arrangement of the chapels, transepts and other features, but the Master Masons would have had the entire responsibility for the design and construction. During more than thirty years while construction was in progress, the clergy almost certainly would have requested some innovations, but the involvement of the church and the clergy in the detailing would have been minimal. As no architect was engaged to carry out the design or to supervise the work, all structural problems had to be solved by the Master Mason.


The church provided clergy to check that the requirements of the church were being met. It also was the province of the church to obtain and disburse the funds necessary to carry out the work. Nine different Master Masons were engaged on the work cyclically throughout the construction period, each being entirely responsible for the geometry, design and construction of his sections of the work. In all more than thirty successive contracts or “campaigns” were required to complete the cathedral. The first Master Mason prepared the original design, set out the building and constructed the foundations. He was on site for less than a year. Each of the nine contractors was engaged more than once, but the first and some others were engaged several times. Each successive builder implemented some modifications to the design, but without making any substantial alterations to the work already completed. The successful completion of such a complicated and beautiful structure, especially one for which the design and construction was carried out in a piecemeal fashion under the control of a diverse group of master masons, proves beyond all doubt that the intelligence, integrity and capabilities of the medieval freemasons were of the highest order.

Medieval lodges


The remarkable feats of building carried out by the medieval freemasons can be seen and appreciated, but their work within their lodges and the ceremonials they used are not immediately evident. To achieve his objectives on successive sites year after year, the Master Mason not only had to be talented himself, but also required a talented, loyal and dedicated team that could be relied upon to follow him in the search for and prosecution of the work. In fact his team worked as a family, intensely proud of its skills and traditions, but jealous of its operating methods and trade secrets. Skill, morality and fidelity were essential ingredients for success, but constant training also was necessary to achieve the desired outcomes. The Master Mason was responsible for all of this training, which was a vital activity in his lodge. His apprentices were effectively his sons for seven years and upwards, but usually for a lifetime. All members of the Fraternity were brothers in the truest sense.


In the early 1600s in England, it was customary to require anyone seeking an apprenticeship in an operative lodge to stand at the entrance to the stone yard or the construction site for two weeks, while the men were going to and coming from work, so that the members of the lodge could appraise the suitability of the applicant and raise any valid objection to his indentureship. If no objection was raised, the lodge’s physician examined the applicant to ascertain his wholeness and soundness of body and limb, to ensure that he was physically capable of carrying out the arduous work that would be required of him. If acceptable, the applicant was balloted for by a show of hands in open lodge. To impress upon the candidate that purity of body and mind were essential components of his life within the Fraternity, he was required to bathe seven times immediately before his initiation. After bathing he was made “neither naked nor clad” by putting on a white cloak, then blindfolded and restrained by cabletows held by four of the members who conducted him into the lodge. He was then required to kneel with both knees bare on a rough ashlar stone and to take an obligation of fidelity, after which he entered into a bond of indentureship for at least seven years.


The required instruction of an Apprentice was provided in three ways. The important manual instruction was carried out either in the stone yard or on the construction site, according to the type of his work. The theoretical instruction was usually provided within the lodge, as was all moral instruction, for which purpose lodges were convened each Saturday at midday. When his training was complete, an Indentured Apprentice was formally released from his bond and regarded as a qualified craftsman. He was then required to take an obligation as a Fellow of the Craft and was entrusted with the modes of recognition appropriate to his status. These initial stages in the life of an operative mason are the basis of the work in the first two degrees in modern speculative craft lodges, although there are differences in detail. Although a Fellow of the Craft in operative masonry was a qualified tradesman, he was required to gain further diversified experience over many years of work while learning the specialised aspects of the trade. At each new level of responsibility the craftsman was tested and if accepted was required to take an obligation before being entrusted with modes of recognition appropriate to his new station, to enable him to prove his level of competence should this be required. A tradesman of unusual skill and ability, who had commenced his apprenticeship as a very young teenager or perhaps even earlier, sometimes achieved the status of Master Mason by the time he was thirty years old, but usually it took longer.


Progress in the Fraternity usually proceeded along the following lines. After many years an experienced craftsman who had served his time as a Foreman and later as an Intendent, might become a Superintendent of Work responsible for all of the work in a stone yard or on a construction site. When obligated and appointed, the Superintendent was reminded that he must have and maintain a sound knowledge of the work of the other Guilds engaged on the project with the masons, especially the carpenters, iron workers, bronze founders, white smiths and gold smiths. He was also required to know all of the materials used in the work, the required standards of workmanship, the quality of the work done, the time required and the cost. Eventually an experienced Superintendent of Work might assemble a gang of freemasons and become a Master Mason in his own right, often commencing as a subcontractor to his previous Master Mason. In this way membership of the craft of operative freemasonry expanded to meet the requirements of the times. Some of the progressive steps that have been outlined are reflected in the degrees of modern speculative craft freemasonry.


The ceremonials in medieval lodges


The medieval lodges operated during the centuries of intense religious fervour, nearly always working closely with or under the surveillance of a religious establishment. It was an era of great pageantry, when church rituals became fully developed and Passion Plays were a feature of religious life. During this period, each branch of knowledge was considered to be a secret, which its possessors must not communicate to anyone outside their own class or fraternity. Every art, science and trade was called a “mystery” and was treated accordingly. Indeed, concealment was often practised as a matter of course. It was inevitable that freemasonry would enhance its long established methods of symbolic instruction by incorporating into its ceremonials some of the drama and ritual used by the churches for which the building work was being carrying out. These ritualistic dramas developed along three distinct lines. The oldest theme probably is the one referring to early events recorded in the Book of Genesis. However the theme that is most widely known, because it is the basis of most modern symbolic degrees, relates to the construction, destruction and rebuilding of the temples at Jerusalem. They are commonly called the Solomonic degrees. The third theme is different in character, beginning with the Solomonic degrees or their equivalents and connecting them with events that occurred during the Christian era.

The Genesis theme begins with Noah and the flood and continues with Lamech and his four children, who are credited with the origin of civilised society. It then introduces Nimrod, the first great builder recorded in the Bible, who constructed the tower of Babel and is the traditional founder of operative masonry. The Genesis theme is the basis of the first part of the “traditional history” of the operative freemasons, leading into the more widely known theme that relates to the construction of King Solomon’s temple at Jerusalem. The moral presented in the Genesis theme is that divine judgment is inevitable, but that reconciliation is always available to those who repent, with whom a new covenant will be entered into and as a consequence will be preserved. Probably the Royal Ark Mariner is the modern symbolic degree known best in relation to the Genesis theme, but several aspects of the theme also have a place in some of the degrees of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite.


The theme based on the construction of temple at Jerusalem by King Solomon, which was completed in about 950 BCE, played an important role in the rituals of operative freemasonry and it is the foundation of modern speculative craft freemasonry. The legend continues on from the construction of King Solomon’s temple to its destruction by Nebuchadnezzar in 587 BCE, when the Jews were taken captive and exiled to Babylon. The final part begins with the release of the Jews from captivity in 538 BCE under the Decree of Cyrus, the Elamite king who captured Babylon in 539 BCE and established the Persian Empire. The Decree of Cyrus enabled the Jews to rebuild the temple at Jerusalem under the leadership of Zerubbabel, completing it by about 515 BCE, which completes the theme. Although several of the degrees in this theme are related to events that occurred after the death of King Solomon, they are commonly included as Solomonic degrees. The instructive historical content of the degrees in this theme, as well as the symbolism portrayed by the working tools of an operative freemason and the work they performed during the construction of the temples, provides an ideal avenue for the “search within”, including the search for and recovery of the “Lost Word”. The Solomonic degrees are the basis of speculative craft freemasonry, mark masonry, the cryptic rite and royal arch masonry. There also are Solomonic degrees in the Order of the Allied Masonic Degrees and in the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite. The Allied Masonic Degrees will be mentioned when appropriate in this chapter, but the degrees of the Scottish Rite are so diverse and wide-ranging that they will be discussed in a separate chapter.


It has been suggested that the Christian elements of the theme might have arisen during the 1700s as a means of distinguishing the operative freemasons from the then “new fangled” speculative freemasons. There is no doubt that the modes of recognition communicated in some of the degrees in this theme were of great importance to operative freemasons when travelling in search of work. However, the content of the degrees suggests that they had a much earlier origin and also that recognition was not their primary purpose. In particular, the morals that are presented teach fortitude, humility and universal equality. There are Christian elements in two degrees of the Order of the Allied Masonic Degrees. The first of these is called St Lawrence the Martyr, which commemorates the martyrdom of Saint Lawrence in Rome during the third century, when he displayed humility and extreme fortitude. The Knights of Constantinople is the other, referring to the emperor Constantine the Great who curbed the pride and arrogance of the nobility in the fourth century and rewarded the common people who were his loyal artisans and labourers. The virtues portrayed in these two degrees are fundamental to the precepts of freemasonry.  The theme of the eighteenth degree of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite also has a Christian basis, as do the degrees that comprise the Order of Rome and the Red Cross of Constantine and the appendant Orders of the Holy Sepulchre and St John the Evangelist. There also are the degrees of the Knights Templar that are of an historical nature and extend the theme of service, another fundamental precept of freemasonry.


The foundations


The traditional degrees of speculative craft freemasonry include all those derived from earlier operative practice and several others from the transitional period in the 1600s and 1700s, thus including all of the Solomonic degrees that have been mentioned. The first two are based on the induction of Indentured Apprentices and the making of Fellows of the Craft in medieval operative lodges. They are the foundation of modern speculative craft freemasonry, which is also called symbolic masonry. It will be evident from earlier comments that the ceremonials of these two symbolic degrees closely resemble those of their operative precedents. There are many similarities between operative and speculative usage in relation to the working tools and modes of recognition, but there also are some significant differences. Some signs used by the operative masons have been omitted and some words have been changed, but the ancient penalties are substantially the same. It is interesting to note that the new words in speculative freemasonry, which were not used in the operative modes of recognition, reflect the old emblematical signs that are not used in symbolic masonry, suggesting that their choice was not a mere coincidence.


Some masonic authors have advanced the opinion that the third degree of symbolic masonry was “manufactured” in order to fill an apparent gap, that of the Master Mason. As we have already seen, the fully qualified and experienced craftsmen, or Fellows of the Craft, were masters of the craft in the true sense, while the status of Master Mason usually reflected his capacity as the manager or proprietor of a workforce operating as a lodge within the Fraternity. Frequently the Master Mason was a contractor, who engaged and paid the craftsmen and labourers he required to carry out the work under the terms of his contract with the client. In its present form the degree of Master Mason includes a significant part of the old craftsman’s instruction, known as the “five points of fellowship” that formed a discrete and important component the Fellow of the Craft’s ritual, but different from the “five points of fellowship” of a Master Mason. With some constructive imagination the old Fellow of the Craft’s “five points of fellowship” were grafted onto an ancient operative drama enacted during annual festivals of the craft. The ancient drama highlighted the fortitude and fidelity of the master builder who had been slain and culminated with the investment of a qualified craftsmen to replace him as one of the three Grand Master Masons. All members of the Fraternity could attend the ancient drama, because none of the secrets of the craft was revealed. Nowadays the symbolic degree of Master Mason is generally regarded as an “ancient landmark”.


Of the other traditional degrees, that of Mark Master Mason is very significant because the principles it embodies were of great importance to the operative freemasons. This degree not only emphasises the skill and precision required of a craftsman, but it also highlights the care that must be exercised by overseers when inspecting the work as the responsibility for its acceptance or rejection is entirely theirs and they alone must bear the blame for any error. In the operative context the principles enunciated in the Mark degree are ancient indeed, although the modern “keystone” ceremony was not the only form of ritual used to impart them. Speculative freemasons in the early 1700s were working at least seven degrees that included the word Mark, of which some were intimately associated with the degree of Royal Ark Mariner mentioned earlier. In the original form in which it was used in speculative craft freemasonry, the Mark degree comprised two distinct sections, the Mark Man for a Fellowcraft and the Mark Master for a Master Mason. In the course of time they were consolidated into the present ceremony based on the “keystone”. The relevant instructions given to operative freemasons were related to both the preparation and testing of the stones and to their erection in the building. These instructions were incorporated in the ceremonials of two degrees. Again there are some close similarities that clearly reflect the operative antecedents of the symbolic degree, but there also are some significant differences.


The four symbolic degrees of Entered Apprentice, Fellowcraft, Master Mason and Mark Master Mason complete the “work oriented” components of the old operative ceremonials that have found their way into speculative craft freemasonry. They lay the foundation for the esoteric theme, which is the ultimate reason for all masonic ritual. This is the search for light and knowledge and the allegorical discovery of the “Lost Word”, which leads to the ultimate truth. The esoteric theme is comprised in several degrees under the various masonic orders previously mentioned, although there is no single order that includes all of the degrees. In any particular masonic order, the sequence in which the degrees are worked is not always in chronological order, nor is there any coherent arrangement between the orders. There also are differences in detail between some of the equivalent degrees worked in the various masonic orders, although their themes usually are substantially the same. Having in mind the difficulties of communication in earlier times, the similarities of the degrees are more remarkable than the differences.


The Solomonic degrees


Although at first sight this group of degrees appears to represent a random collection of unrelated incidents, a coherent narrative is achieved by arranging them in their correct historical sequence. The following tabulation provides a summary of the complete series of Solomonic degrees and the relevant associated degrees that relate to the first and second temples at Jerusalem. They comprise what may be regarded as the Traditional Degrees in Freemasonry as they are currently worked under the various masonic orders and jurisdictions. The degrees have not been tabulated in the same sequence as they are usually taken by candidates, but have been arranged in their chronological order. They have been given the modern titles most commonly used. With the exception of the Entered Apprentice and the Fellowcraft, which symbolically relate to the preliminary stages in the construction of the temple, the dates shown are approximately those of key events referred to in the narratives of the degrees.


1 Entered Apprentice 964 BCE Apprenticeship begins
2 Fellowcraft 957 BCE Site prepared for building
3 Mark Master Mason 957 BCE Stones shaped for secret vault
4 Select Master  956 BCE Start constructing secret vault
5 Royal Master  955 BCE Word deposited in secret vault
6 Master Mason 951 BCE Master builder slain
7 Most Excellent Master 950 BCE Dedication of the temple
8 Super Excellent Master 587 BCE Destruction of the temple
9* Knight of the Sword 538 BCE Release from captivity
10 Excellent Master 536 BCE Return to temple site
11 Royal Arch Mason 535 BCE Word found and work stopped
12* Knight of the East 520 BCE Zerubbabel visits Darius
13* Kt. of the East & West 515 BCE Rebuilding completed


The three degrees marked with an asterisk constitute the Red Cross of Babylon, also called the Babylonish Pass in the Scottish and some other workings. In the Order of the Allied Masonic Degrees there is an equivalent of these degrees, but the work is not identical. In addition there are ceremonies of installation in the Craft, the Mark, the Royal and Select Masters, the Red Cross of Babylon and also the Royal Arch, which enhance and amplify the narrative and helps to bind it into a cohesive whole. Although the Ark Mariner is not a Solomonic degree, but is the foundation of the Genesis theme mentioned earlier, it is usually attached to and works in conjunction with a Mark or Red Cross lodge. It also has a separate installation ceremony that contributes to the overall theme.


From the above summary it is evident that the narrative is woven round a series of events recorded in the Old Testament and that the secret vault is an essential ingredient. Jewish tradition relates that a secret vault was constructed beneath the temple, in which confidential meetings could be held and all sacred treasures and secret documents could be stored. The construction of such a vault under ecclesiastical and other buildings of importance was not unusual in ancient times and the custom was continued into medieval times when crypts were provided under most cathedrals, monasteries and castles. Underground excavations carried out by the Knights Templar between 1118 and 1125 and by the Royal Engineers of Britain in 1895, as well as modern seismological and archaeological surveys carried out by the Israelis, all confirm the existence of passages and vaulted chambers beneath the mosque now erected on the original temple site.


The first temple


The circumstances and history of the construction of the temple at Jerusalem is well documented in the Bible. The establishment of the work force is relevant to the masonic theme and is recorded in 1 Kings 5:13-16 of the New English Bible in the following words:


“King Solomon raised a forced levy from the whole of Israel amounting to thirty thousand men. He sent them to Lebanon in monthly relays of ten thousand, so that the men spent one month in Lebanon and two at home; Adoniram was superintendent over the whole levy. Solomon had also seventy thousand hauliers and eighty thousand quarrymen, apart from the three thousand three hundred foremen in charge of the work who superintended the labourers.”


The provision of an experienced craftsman to carry out the required designs is also referred to in a letter from Huram King of Tyre to King Solomon, which is recorded in 2 Chronicles 2:13-14 of the New English Bible and says:


“I now send you a skilful and experienced craftsman, master Huram. He is the son of a Danite woman, his father a Tyrian; he is an experienced worker in gold and silver, copper and iron, stone and wood, as well as  . . . . .  who will be able to work with your own skilled craftsmen  . . . . .  to any design submitted to him.”


The scene of the degree of Mark Master Mason is the stone yard, where the stones for the temple are being prepared. The degree has two distinct parts. In the first part the candidate represents one of the craftsmen preparing the stones. In the second part he represents one of the 3,300 foremen who are responsible for ensuring that all the stones are properly prepared in accordance with the working plans and that they are correctly fitted, marked and numbered ready for erection at the site. The ritual is very dramatic. The degree teaches that every diligent workman has a chance to distinguish himself by preparing some special and superior piece of work that will strengthen and adorn the structure, for which he will be appropriately rewarded provided that he has carried out the work strictly in accordance with the Divine Plan. It would be appropriate at this point to emphasise a significant difference between the symbolisms used in operative and speculative rituals. In the operative rituals it is impressed upon the candidate that in each degree he represents a particular stone in the building, which will become part of the spiritual temple above, until ultimately the candidate represents the plan of the building itself. This important symbolism has been omitted from the speculative rituals.


When the temple site was ready and the building stones were being prepared, twenty-seven experienced and trustworthy craftsmen were chosen and appointed as Select Masters to construct a secret underground vault below where the future Holy of Holies would be located. This underground vault had a hidden access from King Solomon’s most retired apartment. In the degree of Select Master the candidate represents Zabud, a particular friend of King Solomon who had some important business to communicate to him, but Zabud inadvertently entered the apartment without King Solomon’s authority. The unworthy guard whose laxity allowed Zabud to enter without warning was condemned to death, but he was pardoned and obligated as a Select Master. This degree warns of the great danger of carelessness and teaches the need for constant care, uprightness and integrity in the fulfilment of one’s allotted duties, coupled with justice and mercy. In the Allied Masonic Degrees, the Grand Tilers of Solomon has a similar legend with interesting variations. The degree of Intimate Secretary or Master by Curiosity in the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite also has an equivalent degree.


When the secret vault was complete, the three Grand Masters deposited true copies of the holy vessels therein, also an exact copy of the Book of the Law. It was agreed that if any one of the three Grand Masters should die, the other two would also deposit the Word in the secret vault so that it could be preserved and restored if the temple were destroyed. In the degree of Royal Master the candidate represents Adoniram who, we are told in I Kings 4:16 I Kings 5:14, was the official in charge of the forced labour under King Solomon. Adoniram is anxious to know when he might receive the master’s word, to which the third Grand Master responds with an elegant and striking discourse, during which he inadvertently reveals the place where the Word would be preserved. Adoniram is told that he must continually strive in his search for truth, but that only after the temple of this life has been destroyed by death can the temple of the life hereafter be built on its foundations.


The temple was completed soon after the death of the third Grand Master, who was the principal architect, as portrayed in the degree of Master Mason. When the death of the third Grand Master had been mourned, the Ark of the Covenant was placed in the Holy of Holies under the outspread wings of the cherubim and the other holy relics from the tabernacle were also moved into the Holy Place. The temple was then consecrated and dedicated in all its glory and beauty, which is portrayed in the degree of Most Excellent Master. King Solomon then resolved to reward the most skilful of his workmen, which he did by acknowledging them as Most Excellent Masters, thus creating a new tie with his faithful craftsmen. This degree teaches that faithful service will be justly rewarded and that the tenets of freemasonry should bind us together in one fraternal union. This union is symbolised by the wavy cord depicted on some early English tracing boards. It was knotted at the four corners and terminated in a lovers knot with the two ends of the tassel hanging down, which should not to be confused with the four tassels. The wavy cord is an important symbol in European lodges. Nowadays in some lodges the wavy cord and the tassels are shown in the tessellated pavement.


The temple retained its original splendour for thirty-three years, but soon after the death of King Solomon ten of the tribes revolted and formed the nation of Israel, leaving the temple in the possession of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, known as the Kingdom of Judah. About 921 BCE Shishak, King of Egypt, raided the temple and carried away the treasures. Thereafter idolatrous rulers desecrated the temple and allowed it to fall into decay, although it was partially restored by Josiah around 635 BCE. The ten tribes were captured and progressively deported into captivity in Assyria, beginning in about 722 BCE. The temple was destroyed in 587 BCE when Nebuchadnezzar plundered Jerusalem and took the people of Judah captive to Babylon. In the degree of Super Excellent Master, Zedekiah the last King of Judah had already fled, leaving his people to their fate. The biblical record tell us that he was captured by the Chaldean army on the plains of Jericho, when his eyes were put out and he was carried into captivity bound in chains of brass. Before their capture the loyal craftsmen, including Gedaliah who was appointed and became the wise and gentle governor of Judea, pledged themselves to continue faithful to their trust, to be true to their obligations and to be honourable on all occasions. The objective of the degree is to inculcate true devotion to God, whilst at the same time we strive to enlighten our minds and purify our hearts. The narrative is resumed towards the end of the sixty years that the Hebrews were captive in Babylon.


The second temple


In 539 BCE Cyrus, King of Persia, captured Babylon. He was a great and humane ruler who gave permission to the Hebrew captives to return to their homeland and rebuild their temple. He issued the Decree recorded in Ezra 1:2-3 of the New English Bible which says:


“This is the word of Cyrus, King of Persia: ‘The Lord the God of heaven has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he himself has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem in Judah. To every man of his people now among you I say, God be with him and let him go up to Jerusalem in Judah and rebuild the house of the Lord  . . . . . And every remaining Jew, wherever he may be living, may claim aid from his neighbours in that place’  . . . . .”


The Decree of Cyrus is the foundation of the degree of Knight of the Sword, which takes place in the palace at Babylon. The candidate represents Zerubbabel who was born in Babylon, his name meaning the Exile. Zerubbabel obtained an audience with Cyrus and requested permission to return to Judea to rebuild the temple, which was granted. Cyrus set Zerubbabel free, appointed him chief among his brethren and exacting a tribute as evidence to the neighbours that the returning captives were still under the protection of the King of Persia. Cyrus issued his decree and created Zerubbabel a Knight of the Sword, investing him with a sash and sword as the emblems of his office. It has been suggested that Zerubbabel was the same person as Sheshbazzar, the Prince of Judah under whose leadership the rebuilding of the temple was commenced, but the evidence suggests that Sheshbazzar almost certainly would have been Zerubbabel’s uncle. The concluding episode of degree relates to Zerubbabel’s hazardous return to Jerusalem, and includes the ancient drama of “crossing the bridge”.


As the Decree of Cyrus applied only to the descendents of the captives from the Kingdom of Judah, it was necessary to make sure that only they were returning to Jerusalem to work on the temple. So that the craftsmen working on the temple could be identified easily, Zerubbabel decided to institute a new degree, called Excellent Master, founded on the history and traditions of their ancestors. This was especially significant, because it related their new release to their previous release from Egyptian bondage, when the Lord called Moses from his exile to lead the Chosen People out of captivity, as well as to their travels in the years that followed. The portions of Scripture selected for this degree, as well as the modes of recognition adopted, relate to those visions in which God gave to Moses certain signs by which the people would know that he came with Divine authority. Relevant aspects of the symbolism of the Tabernacle, which God commanded Moses to institute during the wanderings of the Israelites after the Exodus from Egypt, also receive attention. However, they are neither the basis of the degree nor its principal component. Tradition says that the degree was conferred on the craftsmen before they left Babylon, when they pledged themselves to serve God, their brethren and their chosen leaders. They also were enjoined to journey through life with humility and to render to God that honour and praise which are most justly due to Him. The degree is commonly called Passing the Veils. There is no English equivalent of the Scottish form of this degree in regular use, but variations of Passing the Veils are incorporated in some workings the Royal Arch degree as an essential preamble. An equivalent of the degree is also worked in some Irish chapters of the Royal Arch.


The records show that about 42,360 of the remnant of the Jews in exile returned to Jerusalem progressively, the first contingent under the leadership of Zerubbabel in 535 BCE, followed by Ezra in 458 BCE and finally Nehemiah in 445 BCE. In the traditional Scottish degree three exiles from Babylon, having received the tokens of an Excellent Master and wishing to take advantage of the Decree of Cyrus and assist in rebuilding the temple, present themselves to the Sanhedrin on their arrival. They are engaged immediately and begin clearing away the rubbish from the first temple, which is the setting for the Royal Arch degree. The three workmen detect a hollow sound when digging at the site of the previous Holy of Holies. On further investigation, after removing the keystone, they discover the secret vault. Gaining access through the opening, they safely recover the items previously deposited. Thus the Word was restored and the degree of Royal Arch Mason was established. The candidate represents one of the workmen who made the discovery and was rewarded by exaltation as a Royal Arch Mason. The candidate receives several lectures on the historical, philosophical and mystical aspects of the degree, which are intended to impress upon him that freemasonry is that great and universal science which includes almost every other, but that more particularly freemasonry teaches us our duty to God and to our neighbour and a knowledge of ourselves.


Shortly after the work of reconstruction had commenced, the Samaritans in the surrounding areas sought to join in the work, but were told that they were not among those who had the right to build. Thereafter the Samaritans harassed the builders and also enlisted the support of Tattenai, the Persian governor of Samaria. Cyrus died in 530 BCE and Artaxerxes usurped the throne for a brief period. In the year 522 BCE, by which time the site had been surveyed, the foundations laid and the walls commenced for the second temple, Artaxerxes stopped the rebuilding of the temple at the instigation of the Samaritans. Tattenai and another Persian officer of rank, Shethar-boznai, went to Jerusalem and sent a fair report to Darius, the new King of Persia, suggesting that a search should be instituted to learn whether construction of the temple was being carried out in accordance with a royal decree. At the request of the Sanhedrin, Zerubbabel also went to Babylon in 522 BCE, where he attended the King’s court and made a personal plea to Darius while Tattenai’s report was being considered.


During his visit to Babylon, Zerubbabel was asked to participate in a debate in the Persian court on questions posed by Darius, who asked which was the strongest of wine, the king or women. Zerubbabel convinced Darius that women were the strongest of those three, but that truth was stronger than all things, which is the moral taught in this degree. The story of this debate in the Persian court and also its outcome are recorded in I Esdras 3-4. In summary, Darius accepted Zerubbabel as his Kinsman who would sit by him, then said that he would be happy to grant Zerubbabel’s requests, even beyond what was in writing. Zerubbabel’s statements concerning the rebuilding of the temple were verified by the discovery of the original decree, in the personal records of Cyrus that had been held in the castle at Ecbatana in the province of Media. Darius issued a written confirmation of the Decree of Cyrus and gave instructions that the rebuilding was to be given every support and that no taxes should be levied. Tattenai and his colleagues thenceforth applied themselves with vigour to execute the royal commands. All of these events are recorded in the Scriptures.


Because of his high regard for Zerubbabel, Darius constituted Zerubbabel as a Knight of the East before his return to Jerusalem. Darius also gave Zerubbabel all of the temple treasures not previously recovered. These events also feature in the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite, where they are the central theme of the degree of Prince of Jerusalem. The rebuilding of the temple was recommenced in 520 BCE and completed by Joshua in about 516 BCE, without any further problems from the Samaritans. As a reward for Zerubbabel’s services, including his successful approach to Darius that resulted in the recovery of the temple treasures and his work on the rebuilding of the temple, the Sanhedrin constituted Zerubbabel as a Knight of the East and West, the highest masonic honour the Sanhedrin could bestow. This degree teaches that integrity and fortitude, coupled with wisdom like that displayed by Zerubbabel when answering Darius’s questions, are all essential masonic attributes.


The Allied Masonic Degrees


Two the Allied Masonic Degrees have already been mentioned briefly in the context of their Christian connection, namely St Lawrence the Martyr and the Knights of Constantinople. These two degrees and the Grand Tilers of Solomon, mentioned earlier in relation to the degree of Select Master, typify the method of communicating moral instruction in medieval operative lodges. All are brief and to the point, so that the message can be understood easily by the youngest apprentice. In St Lawrence the Martyr the candidate is told that the degree was of great value to the operative masons, although the reason only becomes evident during the ceremonial of installing a master. Another important degree, in effect a Masonic Order of Knighthood, is the Red Cross of Babylon, which recounts the story of the Knight of the Sword and Knight of the East and West as outlined in the preceding section. The “crossing of the bridge” is an important episode in both variations of the story, when the candidate must cross the River Jordan. It is a symbolic journey of great significance in worldwide religions, derived from ancient folklore. Traditionally the soul must cross the “river of death” on its journey to rejoin its creator. In the Knight of the Sword the journey is made in the traditional direction from east to west during the return to Jerusalem, but in the Red Cross of Babylon it is made on the outward journey to Babylon. In both variations the characteristic colour is green, an emblem of immortality.


To conclude this summary of the Allied Masonic Degrees, it is important not to overlook the Holy Order of Grand High Priest. The country and year of origin of this degree are not known, but it might have descended from the “High Grades” worked on the Continent of Europe during the 1700s. It has much in common with various other Melchizedek degrees and orders, including the French version of the Holy Royal Arch Knight Templar Priest, which have been worked in the English-speaking world without interruption since the second half of the 1700s. The modern degree probably amalgamates two older degrees, because the story jumps four centuries from when Abram from Mesopotamia was blessed in Canaan by Melchizedek, the King of Salem and Priest of the Most High God, to when Aaron the Levite was anointed as the first Jewish High Priest. The name Melchizedek means “King of Righteousness” and Salem means “peace”. The colours are white and a fiery red, emblems of harmony, devotion and zeal.


The colours and symbolism of the regalia


Important aspects of the symbolism that is a fundamental element in all branches of freemasonry are discussed in some detail in the second part of this book, but some comments on the regalia and symbolism of the traditional degrees would be appropriate now. Although aprons are worn in speculative Craft Lodges, in Mark Lodges and in Royal Arch Chapters, they are not always worn in the other degrees. Sometimes only the jewel of the degree is worn, even though in earlier times there may have been an apron for the degree. In some jurisdictions, for example, the apron and sash of the Royal Arch Chapter are often worn when working in the Cryptic Council or Lodge and Council, together with a jewel appropriate to the degree. Although there are aprons for some of the degrees worked in the Order of the Allied Masonic Degrees, nowadays only the jewels of the degrees are worn. The following comments are not exhaustive, because although the fundamental concepts are similar in all jurisdictions there are many variations from one jurisdiction to another.


The pure white lambskin of an Entered Apprentice’s apron is a universal emblem. The addition of two blue rosettes for a Fellowcraft Freemason is well known, but the custom is not universal. Likewise the addition of a third blue rosette to signify a Master Mason will be familiar to most. White is the symbol of purity and innocence and blue denotes universal friendship and benevolence. In a Mark Lodge the customary jewel is the keystone of an arch and the colours are light blue coupled with red, which is as a symbol of fervency and zeal. Aprons and sashes in the Royal Arch usually incorporate an intermeshing design of red and deep blue triangles or lozenges, which have the same symbolism. In addition, the intermeshed triangles on the apron symbolise action and reaction combining to achieve the desired result, while the intermeshed triangles and lozenges on the sash symbolise the border of the temple and also the bonding of the companions in God’s service. In contrast, Royal Arch aprons and sashes in the Irish jurisdiction do not incorporate blue, while the sash is worn over the right shoulder instead of the left as in most jurisdictions. A jewel commonly used in the Royal Arch comprises two interlaced equilateral triangles, forming a star of six points, also called the Shield of David.


The work and symbolism portrayed in the degrees of the Cryptic Council are a synthesis of the fundamental teachings of pure ancient freemasonry. Black, red and purple are all significant colours, but purple is the characteristic colour as a symbol of royalty because Solomon King of Israel, Hiram King of Tyre and Hiram Abif, the chief builder during the construction of the temple at Jerusalem, are key figures in the narrative. The principal jewels are the equilateral triangle as an emblem of God, coupled with the trowel symbolising the spirit of devotion and self-sacrifice that should unite all freemasons in the bonds of brotherly love and affection. In the Scottish jurisdiction the working apron of a Royal Master is a black triangle with a red border. The black alludes to the grief of the craft for the loss of the chief builder and the red alludes to the blood he shed in defence of his integrity. In the Select Master nine white five-pointed stars are added to the apron, arranged as triangles in each of the three corners of the apron, together with the Hebrew characters Yod Samech in white in the centre. The black of the apron in this degree alludes to secrecy and silence and the red to fervency and zeal. The nine stars are important. On the physical plane they allude to the nine arches in the secret vault, but five-pointed stars also allude to the application of the mental faculties of man. Nine white stars signify perfection and completeness and when arranged in triangles pointing upwards they indicate that the faculties of man are being employed in God’s service. The Hebrew characters typify the degree because they signify “man of my choice”.


In the English jurisdiction a triangular white apron with crimson and gold borders is worn in all degrees of the Cryptic Council and the jewel is a hollow white equilateral triangle surmounted by a crown and suspended from a crimson ribbon. The important teachings of the Cryptic Council culminate in the work and symbolism of the degree of Super Excellent Master. The apron is black edged with red as in the Select Master, with similar symbolism, but there is a silver sword in the centre instead of the Hebrew characters and the nine stars. The silver sword is the Sword of Truth, emblematic of true devotion in spirit and in truth to the Great I AM, which is an important moral inculcated in this degree. It also reminds us of the Flaming Sword that God placed at the east of the Garden of Eden, which turned every way to uphold the way of the Tree of Life. The work of the degree is exemplified by the formation of various geometric figures by twelve members who represent the tribes of Israel. In this respect the Super Excellent Master is similar to the Sublime Prince of the Royal Secret in the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite. The principal tenets of freemasonry are exemplified in this part of the work in the Super Excellent Master, so a brief explanation of the ceremonial will be given.


The exemplification begins with a square, the first emblem in freemasonry, formed around the altar to represent an encampment of the Israelites protecting the Ark of the Covenant in the centre. The standard of the eastern division, led by the tribe of Judah, depicts a lion as a symbol of strength and power. The standard of the southern division, led by the tribe of Reuben, depicts a man as a symbol of reason and religion. The standard of the western division, led by the tribe of Ephraim, depicts and ox as a symbol of patience and labour. The standard of the northern division, led by the tribe of Dan, depicts an eagle as a symbol of wisdom and sublimity. This was the traditional order in which the tribes of Israel set forth during their journeys through the wilderness. The exemplification continues with a triangle, the second emblem in freemasonry, formed around the altar as an emblem of the Deity. The three sides typify the Divine attributes of Omnipotence, Omniscience and Omnipresence. The triangle is also a symbol of the three principal masonic supports of Wisdom, Strength and Beauty; the three masonic graces of Faith, Hope and Charity; and finally the triple duty that every freemason owes to God, to his neighbour and to himself. The exemplification concludes with a circle formed around the altar to represent the third emblem of freemasonry, the point within a circle from which a freemason must not err. The circle is an emblem of eternity, which inspires us to cherish the hope of immortality by having faith in the Divine providence of Him who is the Soul and Centre of the Universe.


The Operative Free Masons


The rituals used in the degrees of the ancient craft of operative free masonry and the dramas performed at their annual assemblages and on other special occasions are the basis of the rituals used in modern speculative craft freemasonry. In 1913 the old lodges of operative free masons still extant in England were becoming inactive, as a result of which the remaining members feared that their ancient rituals and ceremonials might be lost. Accordingly those lodges decided to amalgamate in the formation of The Worshipful Society of Free Masons, Rough Masons, Wallers, Slaters, Paviors, Plaisterers and Bricklayers, now commonly referred to as “The Operatives”. The minimum qualifications required for entry are those of Master Mason, Mark Master Mason and Royal Arch Mason, but only those who have been installed in the chairs of the Craft lodge and also the Mark lodge are permitted to advance beyond the fifth degree. There are seven degrees in the Society, the titles and relevant jewels of which are as follows:


                        Indentured Apprentice -

Blue neck cord.


            II°            Fellow of the Craft -

Square gauge with a blue neck cord.


            III°            Super-Fellow, Fitter & Marker -

Running stone gauge with a blue neck cord.


            IV°            Super-Fellow, Setter Erector -

Footing corner stone gauge with a blue neck cord.


                        Intendent, Overseer, Superintendent and Warden –

                                    Elbow square gauge with a blue collarette.


            VI°            Passed Master –

                                    Silver gallows square with a blue collarette.


            VII°            Master Mason and Grand Master Honoris Causa –

                                    Gold gallows square with a blue collarette.


The ancient drama accompanying the appointing a new Grand Master Mason is the core element of the modern degree of Master Mason. Traditionally the operative free masons annually re-enacted the dedication of King Solomon’s temple, which is still used in the Society as its dedication ceremony.


Other Orders


The degrees of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite reviewed in the next chapter, with those of this chapter, are only a few of the several hundred once worked, most of which disappeared during the 1800s. Several other unrelated Orders, like the Knight Templar Priests and the Societas Rosicruciana, have not been described. However the following summaries have been included because the Orders have something in common with the Solomonic degrees.


The ritual of the Royal Order of Scotland is in doggerel verse arranged in the old catechistic form that was customary in the ancient St John’s lodges in Scotland. It has a strong Christian element, but aspects of the Royal Arch and Cryptic degrees are present as well as elements of other degrees. Heredom of Kilwinning is the first degree, followed by the Knight of the Rosy Cross. The ritual interconnects the Old Testament with the New Testament and culminates with the doctrines inculcated by the life and death of Jesus. The characteristic colours are thistle green and crimson. In this Order green is an emblem of Scotland, but it also is a symbol of loyalty, wisdom, rebirth and immortality. Crimson alludes to sacrifice and the willingness to shed one’s own blood in a just and righteous cause, but it is also a symbol of devotion, fervency and zeal.


The Masonic and Military Order of Rome and the Red Cross of Constantine and appendant Orders of Knights of the Holy Sepulchre and of St John the Evangelist also connect the teachings of the Old and New Testaments. The narrative alludes to the founding of freemasonry by our ancient brethren, based on instructions received from Moses, Solomon and Zerubbabel. It continues in some detail from the rebuilding of the second temple to the death of Christ on the cross and the destruction of the temple by the Romans. The Knight of St John the Evangelist is the Christian element of the Palestine Order of St John. Ultimately the pillars of the New Law are discovered, which leads to the recovery of the True Word. The vision that the Emperor Constantine saw in the sky and his conversion, leading to the establishment of the Christian religion in Rome, also are recounted. Black, white and purple are the characteristic colours, with the usual symbolism.


The Religious, Military and Masonic Order of the Temple, including the Knights of Malta and of St John of Jerusalem, unites the teachings of two Orders that originally were militant rivals. The narrative recounts the establishment of the Knights of the Temple at Jerusalem under the leadership of Hugo de Payens and Godfrey de St Omer in 1118 and its history until their persecution by King Philip of France and Pope Clement V, when hundreds were tortured and burnt at the stake, including their Grand Master Jacques de Molay on 11th March 1314. The Order inculcates in freemasons the holy, charitable and honourable purposes of the original knights and hospitallers as Soldiers and Servants of the Cross. The rituals also have a mystical aspect in relation to resurrection. The characteristic colours are white, red and black, with the usual symbolic meanings.

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