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Gird up thy loins like a man For I will demand of thee, and answer thou me: Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare, if thou hast understanding. Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? Or who hath stretched the line upon it? Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? Or who laid the corner-stone thereof When the morning stars sang together, And all the sons of God shouted for joy?
This magnificent poetry from Job (38:3-7) sets forth the challenge of the Great Architect to his suffering son, and seems definitely to tie up the idea of a corner-stone, a foundation, a beginning, with man's littleness and unimportance.
Some such inchoate thought in the dim beginnings of civilization must have led early man, conscious of his weakness, to think his buildings required supernatural protection. Men built long before Job, and confessed their fears that the spirit of the earth, the air, of nature, would destroy what they erected, unless a spiritual defender haunted the structure to defend it. As the gods were far stronger than men, that sacrificed to them must be of the best. Hence arose that incredibly awful rite of "foundation sacrifice" in which human victims were walled up in the corner-stones, thrown hound into the hollowed foundation to die a miserable death of suffocation, or, more mercifully, be crushed to death by the stone laid on top of their trembling bodies.
Two schools of thought profess to give the actual origin of foundation sacrifice; that it was necessary to protect a building from enemies, the angry ghost haunting the structure to drive away those who would injure it; that it would propitiate the gods, especially Mother Earth because of the load thus to be placed upon her.
Legendary accounts of human sacrifices in connection with buildings are found in all lands and times, from that which has St. Columbia burying St. Oran alive in the foundations of a monastery, to the walling in of a child in the building of the castle of Liebenstein. In Italy the bridge at Arta, so legend tells, fell down as fast as built, until they walled in the masterbuilder's wife, when it stood, but in response to her dying curse, trembled always in use. The familiar child's game "London Bridge is falling down" has been traced by ethnologists to a legend that a human sacrifice was consummated when it was first built.
In Africa, Borneo, Polynesia, foundations have been laid on human victims, and even today animal or fowl sacrifices are made in connection with the setting of center poles in some savage tribes.
L. D. Burdick (Foundation Rites and Kindred Ceremonies) says:
"In building a house in Alaska, until it came into possession of the United States in 1867, human sacrifices were common in making the foundations. It is said at the present time the same ceremonies are enacted. with the exception of the sacrifices. The earlier ceremony is described by one familiar with it. A spot is designated for the fireplace, and four holes dug for the corner posts. A slave that has been captured in war, or is a descendant of such a slave, is blindfolded and compelled to lie face uppermost in the place selected for the fireplace. A sapling is cut and laid across the throat of the slave. At a given signal the two nearest relatives of the host sit upon the respective ends of the sapling and thereby choke the slave to death. Four more slaves are crushed in the post-holes with a club ornamented with the host's coat of arms."
Sir Walter Scott has preserved some of the horror of the ancient practice in verse:
"Yet well the It chess wretch might shriek, Well might her paleness terror speak! For there were seen in that dark wall Two niches, narrow, deep and tall Who enters at such grisly door Shall never, I weed find exit more,"
"And now that blind old Abbot rose, To speak the Chapter's doom On those the wall was to enclose. Alive, within the tomb."
Charles C. Hunt, noted Masonic authority and Librarian, gives the following instances of human sacrifices in connection with the laying of corner-stones and the foundations of the buildings:
"In Polynesia, the center pillar of the Temple of Maerva was planted in the body of a human victim.
"In Siam, the gates of the cities were erected on posts under which four or eight persons were buried alive, their spirits being supposed to act as guardian angels.
"In Burma, we read that the city gates of Mandalay were swung on posts erected on a living child.
"Four persons were buried alive in the foundations of the walls of Sandel, and one at Granderkesse.
"A babe was buried in the foundation of the Church of Blex, in Oldenburg, and under the corner-stone of the old Church of Brounsover, near Rugby, England, two skeletons were found.
"When Hiel. the Bethelite, built Jerico, we are told, 'He laid the foundations thereof in Abiram, his first born, and set up the gates thereof in his youngest son, Segub.' I Kings, xvi :34.
"This custom is alluded to by Shakespeare in Henry VI: 'Look here, I throw my infamy at thee; I will not ruinate my father's house, Who gave his blood to lince the stones together, And set up Lancaster.'
"Also in King John iv:2: 'There is no sure foundations set on blood, no certain life achieved by other's death.'
"Later in King John iv :3 the King's nephew as he leaps from the castle walls exclaims: 'O me ! my uncle's spirit is in these stones.'
"Customs remain - the reasons for them change." We throw rice after a bridal couple ,how many know it is a symbol of fertility? A man doffs his hat to a woman, survival of a day when a knight removed his helmet to show he knew he was in the presence of one who would not harm him. The small boy says "By golly," totally unaware that he repeats a corrupted ancient oath when men swore "by Goll." the hand, to tell the truth, and offered the right hand as a sacrifice if they lied !
Freemasons lay corner-stones with corn and wine and oil, and in the hollowed center put the book, the picture, the coin, the newspaper of the day many all unknowing that these are the remains of the ancient superstition that without a human sacrifice to provide a protective ghost to haunt the building it will fall. The familiar practice of dedicating, constituting and consecrating a new Lodge with corm wine and oil also has its roots in the ancient foundation sacrifice.
In time, human victims were replaced with animals, and these were gradually supplanted with the fruits of the earth. The Hindoos think that the spirit of a human sacrifice enters the body of an animal, the spirit of the animal when sacrificed, enters the earth in which it is buried, and grows and lives again in the plants. Thus, corn, wine, oil, grain, grape and olive, became in time symbols of the ancient, dreadful sacrificial rites. In days of long ago a slave's neck was broken across the bows of the newly launched vessel, that his spirit might forever protect it. We break a bottle of wine - fruit of the earth - but the symbolism is of sacrifice.
The practice of laying a corner-stone with ceremonies, making it a special occasion of rejoicing or solemn consecration is as old as the art of building. Ezra, Jewish Historian, describes the laying of the corner-stone of the second Temple, replacing that built by Solomon:
"And when the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, they set the priests in their apparel with trumpets and the Levites, the sons of Asaph with cymbals, to praise the Lord, after the ordinance of David, King of Israel. And they sang together by course in praising and giving thanks unto the Lord; because he is good, for his mercy endureth forever toward Israel. And all the people shouted with a great shout, when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid."
Corner-stone laying was so important in Biblical times that its symbolism is used by the sacred writers, and appears throughout both Old and New Testaments. Cases in point:
"Behold, I lay in Zion for a foundation a stone, a tried stone, a precious corner-stone, a sure foundation." Is. xxviii:16.
"Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ." I Peter ii :5.
"For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ." I Cor iii :11.
"Ye are . . . of the household of God; and are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner-stone; in whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord; in whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit." Eph. ii:19-22.
Delmar Duane Darrah (Evolution of Freemasonry) states:
"The first record of the laying of a cornerstone by any Masonic body is to be found in Mist's Weekly Journal of May 26, 1722. The affair took place in connection with the building of St. Martin's in the Field. After the first stone had been laid by the Bishop of Salisbury, the account states: 'The first stone of the foundation at the same corner above ground being twelve feet above the other, was laid with a great deal of ceremony by the society of Free Masons, who. on that occasion, were very generous to the workmen.' Anderson in his writings records: 'That it being a royal parish church, King George I sent his Lord Almoner and Surveyor General attended by brother Gih (the architect of that grand pile), with many Freemasons in solemn procession from the palace to level the footstone of the southeast corner by giving it three great knocks with a mallet in the King's name, and laying upon it a purse of one hundred guineas. When the trumpeters sounded all joined in joyful acclamations and the Craftsmen went to the Tavern to drink a toast to the King and the Craft."
Corner-stones are laid in the Northeast corner - Entered Apprentices stand in the Northeast corner of the Lodge. The point midway between the darkness of the North and the brilliance of the East was chosen by ancient builders as the point of beginning, a spot to mark a birth, a commencement of a new structure. Obviously he who stands in the darkness has no light; as obviously, on whom falls the whole light of the brilliant east and its rising sun is not in darkness. Half way between, then, is a symbol of a beginning - the traveler has left the darkness and moved towards the light. Those who build have left the "darkness" in which is no building, and progressed far enough towards "light" to lay a foundation stone, what better place than that which by its position symbolizes movement away from blackness into the day ?
The symbolism of the Northeast corner in the Entered Apprentices' degree is the same, and of course taken from this ancient practice of laying the corner-stone in the Northeast corner. He who stands there in the Lodge, "a just and upright Mason," is himself a corner-stone of the Lodge which will he. A Lodge is erected not only by, but upon her sons. The Entered Apprentice of today is the veteran of tomorrow. Even as all corner-stones laid with any ceremony, Masonic or otherwise, connect with the ancient idea of sacrifice, so the Entered Apprentice in the Northeast corner is a symbol of the sacrifice of his passions and prejudices, his ignorance and selfishness, to the doctrine of the brotherhood of man.
The history of all sacrifice, for whatever purpose, is one of a gradually winning away from blood, human life, suffering, first to animals, then to plants and grain, finally to symbols. German legends tell of the walling in of an empty coffin, in place of the human victim: other builders buried a burning lamp, which, extinguished by the stone, gave up its "ghost" to protect the building. Legend says that the city of Naples is built upon an egg - and an egg, though not itself living, contains the germ of life.
It will come as no surprise to the thoughtful Freemason to learn that many attempts have been made to connect the Legend of Hiram Abif with foundation and corner-stone sacrifices. Many legends tell of builders and architects who have erected some wonderful structures, only to be killed that no rival to their handiwork ever be erected.
But legend and folk lore are often parallel streams - they drain a period of history as thousand rivers may drain a continent. Sometimes they meet and form one, like the tributaries to the Mississippi. Other streams flow separately into the ocean. There seems to be no inescapable logic connecting the Legend of the Master Builder with foundation sacrifices.
Nor is there need. There is every evidence that our symbolism of corn and wine and oil our foundation deposits, perpetuate an old, old custom, once unhallowed, now sanctified with age. That our Entered Apprentices in the Northeast are symbols both of foundations for the future, and of sacrifice of human nature for brotherhoods is undoubted. Our legend of Hiram goes back to the old mystery religions still teaching as gloriously as of old the answer to Job's dispairing cry "if a man die shall he live again?"
It is for Freemasons to rejoice that in the very body of ritual, sublimated from a coarser age to customs beautiful and tender, are so many rivers of legend and of fancy, so many etherial and intangible remains of the birth of knowledge, the beginnings of religion. When we think of Freemasonry as a repository of traditions old when Rome fell, it becomes to us not merely "just another organization" but what it is - the oldest of all systems of philosophy and ethics "veiled in allegory and teaching by symbols" the highest and noblest aspirations of man.
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Last modified: March 22, 2014