The third lecture of the Master Mason degree rapid-fires a lot of symbolism at a candidate, and while all of it is useful, to me some of it comes across as a bit generic. And, in fact, much of the symbolism of this lecture is found across multiple religions and philosophies, and isn’t Freemason-specific in the least.
Two of these symbols are Noah’s Ark and the Anchor. In our lecture it states:
The Anchor and Ark are emblems of a well-grounded hope and a well spent life. They are emblematical of that divine ark which safely wafts us over this tempestuous sea of troubles, and that anchor which shall safely moor us in a peaceful harbor, where the wicked cease from troubling, and the weary shall find rest.
When the voice in your head tells you to build a big damn boat, you are someone who counts on hope. When the worst realization of those voice begins to manifest, and your boat is the only thing keeping you and your family alive, the hope doesn’t stop there. It triple downs. The Ark is a symbol of trust in the Divine and in a divine plan. Trust that leading a good life will lead to great reward.
I have never seen a depiction of Noah’s ark that included a sail. I have never seen the ark depicted with oars. In no description of Noah’s Ark is there any indication of a way to steer the thing, nor any way to speed it up. Presumably God would steer it, through wind and current, to dry land.
But what it did seem to have, according to our symbolism, was an anchor. Why?
An anchor can be used to slow a boat down. It can even be used to turn a boat around 180 degrees in a pinch, but if we’re going through all the trouble to let the Lord take the wheel, can’t we trust God to not let our boat float away while we’re unloading the animals?
While the Ark represents one’s faith in the Great Architect’s Designs and plan, the Anchor is a symbol for faith in oneself, and God’s trust in us. He can point us in the direction we need to go, and He can get us to where we need to be, but what keeps us grounded when we get there? What keeps us from floating away again?
It is, I think, great advice to let go of our need for control, and let the Universe take us to where we need to be. But when we get there we must ask what do we need to keep us here? What support, or physical or emotional maintenance do we need to drop anchor and keep us in our promised land?
It’s Springtime in the Northern Hemisphere of the third rock from the Sun and my car is covered in buds from the slowly emerging leaves from the trees. Soon enough I’ll get those little maroon caterpillar-looking things all over my car, followed by the little helicopter seedlings all over my car, followed by the fluffy seedlings from the cottonwood trees all over my car.
It’s not a great time for cars, really…
It’s not just my car, of course. They get all over my driveway, my roof, my front yard, and in my gutters. And oddly enough, this all reminds me of leadership and a growing lodge, because there’s not a single seedling that has taken root and sprouted on my car. Nor has a single tree sprouted from my roof.
My yard is a hard-soiled mess of a thing where only grass, clover, and dandelions are hardy enough to survive. While the occasional baby elm makes an attempt to be born, it is quickly pulled or mowed over, but for the most part the seedlings bounce off the ground and blow away or rot.
But those gutters… After collecting an entire Autumn’s worth of leaves and Spring’s worth of decaying buds and rain water, my house’s gutters are more fertile than ancient Mesopotamia and as Summer arrives, a forest of greenery has sprung up. Hundreds, if not thousands of little baby trees ready to crush my house if I let them.
How does this relate to lodge leadership? Because it’s a reminder that growth doesn’t depend very much on the seeds that fall, but the soil and dirt they fall into. In lodge ideas can be a dime a dozen. Ideas for fundraisers, for get-togethers, for lodge initiatives, etc. can be pretty common if you’ve got a creative or dedicated group of brothers. But like the helicopter seeds that fall from my trees every year, if these ideas are met with an unyielding resistance or constant opposition, then like seeds bouncing off the hard ground or carried away by strong winds, those ideas are worthless, no matter how many of them there may be.
So, what are you doing to ensure that your lodge is a fertile, healthy soil in which good ideas can take root?
Take a look at our past post on The G-Men and pay particular attention to the four personality types you don’t want in lodge. People who never lift a finger to help, or those who cool any new ideas because they’re resistant to change or have some past beef with Freemasonry, all harden the soil of a lodge. Those who nitpick, or argue just for the sake of arguing and the constantly blowing crosswind. Together they will ensure nothing new takes root and grows in your lodge until there comes a time where the only think left of your once-thriving lodge will be an empty dirt lot.
Like what you’re reading?
How about buying the book! Practical Freemasonry: Accessible Philosophy for Working-Class Schlubs takes the reader on a tour of the working tools of blue lodge Freemasonry, teaches you their uses in exciting new ways and gives actionable instructions on how to use these tools to make your life better.
Comparing the Gauge to the Trinity of Mercury, Sulphur, and Salt, or Mind, Body, and Soul.
It is said that good things come in threes.
Also, celebrity deaths come in threes…
Basically, three is a weird number that portends good and bad things, but it comes up a lot in Freemasonry. Drizzled throughout our degrees (all three!) and our rituals, things tend to come in a convenient triple set. Three times three! Vivat! Vivat! Vivat!
This shows up in alchemy as well, most notably in the three principle substances of Mercury, Sulphur, and Salt. In alchemy they represent the concepts of mind, body, and soul (not in that order).
The Salt is the body, representing the material plane and Earth.
The Mercury is the mind or spirit, that quick, flowing emotionality and reason of thought.
Sulphur is the soul, representing that transformative fire that creates and destroys and creates again.
Off the top of my head there are at least two places where this symbolism comes into blue lodge Freemasonry. The first is our speculative wages.
Sulphur is also representative of oil, which makes sense as both are associated with flame. Mercury, associated with the spirit, unsurprisingly represents spirits, or wine. And Salt, representing all things Earthly can be linked to corn. So your wages of corn, wine, and oil are, in a sense, wages of salt, mercury, and sulphur, or the body, mind, and spirit.
But that’s weird. How are my wages as a Fellowcraft my own mind, body, and soul? That’s like saying “you’ll get paid in exposure” by doing work for free. Well, first your employer isn’t the lodge or the foreman of your operative worksite. Your employer is your Creator, and He has paid you in these three tools of mind, body, and soul.
Second, just like your physical wages at your IRL job, they’re not a gift to enjoy but a tool to use to improve your life, and the lives of your loved ones. So how do we use these tools to improve those things? For that I turn to the other place where “three” takes a prominent role: The 24-inch Gauge.
As I detail in my book, Practical Freemasonry, the 24-inch Gauge represents not just a division of our time, but an equitable division of our attention to the three principle areas of life: the Self, the Tribe, and Society.
So you’re probably asking can I shoehorn one into the other? Absolutely.
The body is the most obvious physical representation of the Self, as taking care of oneself is, in great part, a physical act. Sleeping well and eating well are physical. Mental and emotional health have a large physical component in brain chemistry, and are as well affected by good food and sleep. Even spiritual health is partly a bodily act.
The mind, being the home to our thoughts, memories, and experiences, fits snugly into our tribe which includes our family, friends, and lodge, which are those with whom we share those thoughts, memories, and experiences.
The soul is our representation into a much larger existence on a much higher plane, and this can be likened to our own presence in society, where though we may not interact with or touch every other living soul, but we are an interwoven part of the fabric of society, contributing to the zeitgeist of the world.
So what do we do with all these conspiratorial connections?
I believe we acknowledge that, as in the principle of “as above, so below” we can find a correspondence not only in the symbolism of these sets, but in their application as well. As discussed in Practical Freemasonry, the meaning of the 24-inch Gauge is a life balance between Self, Tribe, and Society, so that we may live in accordance with our best gifts and values.
Thus when considering our wages, we internalize that these areas of life which we must balance are, in fact, a gift from our Creator. Our Selves, Family and Friends, and Society are payments for the services rendered of playing our role in His Grand Designs.
And when we consider the sacred elements of Salt, Mercury, and Sulphur, we know that to be truly actualized as a divine entity, we cannot solely live in the world of the Soul, giving only thought to our spiritual being, nor can we get lost in the minutia of the intellectual pursuits of Freemasonry or science, and most certainly cannot be totally absorbed in bodily pleasures or sensations, either from vices of hedonism or even the virtues of clean living.
Truth does not live in the body, the mind, or the soul. It lay in the center of a perfect, equilateral triangle of all three in balance.
Like what you’re reading?
How about buying the book! Practical Freemasonry: Accessible Philosophy for Working-Class Schlubs takes the reader on a tour of the working tools of blue lodge Freemasonry, teaches you their uses in exciting new ways and gives actionable instructions on how to use these tools to make your life better.
I recently took the opportunity to binge watch Lodge 49 (currently available on Hulu). I was a fan of the show when it premiered up until it’s untimely cancellation after two seasons, with only half the story told, but this is the first chance I’ve had to watch it straight through, from beginning to end, and the experience was a mixed bag of emotion. Happiness because the show was so good, and a certain sadness because my lodge is not quite as cool as Lodge 49.
If you’re not familiar, the show follows the exploits of a character named Dud who, after a series of family misfortunes, finds himself penniless, homeless, and scrounging the beech with an old metal detector when he suddenly finds a strange ring in the sand, which his loan shark identifies as belonging to the Ancient and Benevolent Order of the Lynx. Believing that the local chapter, Lynx Lodge 49, can give him some direction in life, he and a cavalcade of unusual side characters embark on a surreal adventure into the world of esoterica, alchemy, intrigue, and pancake breakfasts.
Get a few episodes into this masterpiece of a show and you’ll see how eerily accurate it is at portraying an adult fraternal order, from the weirdos, to the drinking, to the guy who wants to put TVs everywhere in the lounge. What Lodge 49 probably gets most accurate is portraying a lodge trying to maintain a building that is unsustainable to save a fraternity that is dying in order to preserve principles that they’ve all more or less forgotten about.
But as familiar as that is, Lodge 49 portrays a fraternal order that actually works exactly like it’s supposed to, and there are a lot of lessons Freemasonry can draw from the show. Here are ten things Freemasonry can learn from Lodge 49.
Earlier this week I clicked the publish button on my most important, and long-awaited book, Practical Freemasonry. This book is the embodiment of my entire being regarding the Craft, wherein I put my superpowers of philosophical conspiracy theorizing and panoramic thinking to paper and create what I think is possibly the most useful book on Freemasonry that exists today, and one that I think, if used, can improve both the lives of its readers, but the life of the fraternity itself.
Honestly. I really do think it’s that good.
And now that it’s available for purchase I kind of thought I was done. I do’t mean I’m done with Freemasonry. I’ll still go to lodge and participate enthusiastically. And I’m not done with writing. I’ve still got a lot of books left in me. What I mean is I kind of thought I was done finding my niche in the Craft, and that what I’m doing now is what I’ll be doing for the rest of my Masonic career; teaching Masons practical freemasonry. Because I remember when I joined Freemasonry and learned all about it’s philosophy and I thought “…this is cool.” And it was! And I was so surprised whenever I found a brother who didn’t think it was cool that I wanted to teach them why it was so cool.
This weekend I attended a Masonic retreat. Half-symposium, half scotch and cigars, all fun. I brought a print proof copy of my book to get my brothers from around the state to sign, but I was not a featured speaker or anything like that. In fact, the theme of this year’s retreat was alchemy.
I won’t go as far as to say alchemy, or other esoteric education, is my bane, but it’s definitely the opposite of what I do. Whereas I look for ways to understand and parse out our philosophies to give relevant direction to modern men, esoteric education is, in my view, more about giving a man a deeper sense of meaning, if he can consume it in a way he understands. Still though, I had read about half of Alchemy for Complete Idiots and found some psychological value in it, so I wasn’t uninitiated in the concepts.
The main speaker for this retreat was Tim Hogan, a well-known authority on Freemasonry and it’s relationship to alchemy, and as I sat there, half-listening, and half-looking up info on my own pet theory regarding the relationship between Freemasonry and Dante’s Divine Comedy, I heard something out of the corner of my ear Tim was saying about a stage of the alchemical process involving what is referred to as feces, in a flask referred to as the bowels, and suddenly I looked up. Things started flashing in my brain like that in that show Chuck. I raised my hand and asked “So, are you saying the ancient penalties describe an alchemical process?”
See, I describe myself as a philosophical conspiracy theorist. It’s a tongue-in-cheek label I use to describe my particular penchant for connecting seemingly unrelated dots, ignoring information that doesn’t support my conclusion, and assigning meaning to what’s left. It’s what makes my work appealing and even useful, but it’s hardly fact-based. And I’m not sure how fact-based Tim is, but in that moment alchemy and it’s relationship to Freemasonry suddenly made sense. And I thought “…this is cool.”
And then another speaker said something that I could tell triggered something in my brain. I forget the name of the speaker and I forget who he was quoting, but he said:
“Alchemy is the science of causes. Chemistry is the science of effects.”
~ Can’t remember. I suck.
I thought it was very serendipitous that as I literally closed the cover on my magnum opus, that suddenly something else piqued my interest and I have an exciting new world to explore and moreso, one that I think I can contribute to as I learn more about it.
And that’s why I love Freemasonry, and why I don’t rush things and barrel through the various appendant bodies. Because for everything there is a season and when it’s time, it’s time.
This question gets a variety of answers, but most commonly candidates say “I want to be part of something bigger than myself.” That “something bigger” is a brotherhood with the will and the resources to get things done. But it’s not a static thing that either exists or doesn’t; it’s a process of participation and role fulfilment.
Fulfilling roles in group dynamics is not like casting brothers in a degree. People are who they are and taking an inventory of who you have will give you a great idea of the health of your lodge and who, if anyone is missing, you need to find.
Every successful lodge has four types of brothers: a Gambler, a Governor, a Go-Getter, and a Grunt. Some lodges have a lot of some and only a few (or one) of others. Some brothers are more than one type (keep those!), but the presence of all four personalities is how you get things done.
Gamblers are the guys who like rolling the dice on a new idea. A Gambler is a creative who typically has his pulse on what contemporary men want. He’s the one who brings the ideas that give the lodge and its ritual flavor, enriching the brotherly experience. Never content to flip pancakes or fry fish, he wants to try new events and fundraisers. Corn roasts? Nope. Comedic roasts? Yup! Murder mystery dinners and burlesque shows are the preferred events over the regular stuff that never gets anyone through the door. Lapel pin merit badges, and branded club scarves are where they want to go.
Maybe an idea will work and maybe it won’t; either is fine. They just want to try something, pluck out the gems and discard the rest.
Getting the best out of a Gambler
If there are downsides to being a Gambler, it’s that they don’t sweat the details, and forget that their ideas require the efforts of other brothers to work. Give them the space to create, and provide them awareness of what resources and assets are available. When they’re suggesting an idea, they may have just thought of it. Now isn’t the time for No’s. They need the opportunity to develop an idea, and sometimes this is done in full view of everyone. Ask them questions, and phrase problems you have with an idea as a challenge to overcome and not a criticism.
Archenemy: The Grumbler
A Grumbler has never heard an idea he hasn’t found a way to dislike. They fear change and new paradigms because they can’t envision them or the possible end results. A Grumbler will immediately poke holes in a Gambler’s ideas. He won’t necessarily say it’s a bad idea, as they don’t want to be viewed as an obstacle to the lodge, but they act as a cooler, lowering the excitement for any new concept, and opposing it by planting doubts in the brethren’s minds. Grumblers make particularly deadly secretaries, as they will usually find a way to kill any idea they don’t like, behind the scenes.
A Governor can usually, but not always, be found behind the secretary’s desk. He’s an organizer, not just of records and paperwork, but of people. He knows names and faces, and has learned, through necessity, who to call to get what job done. He’s a rules guy, and typically keeps the lodge safely tethered to the ground, but on the flip side he also knows how to successfully navigate the rules and regs to get something done where others might be immediately dejected.
A Governor doesn’t let obstacles stop forward momentum. If the new lodge website requires a program no one knows how to use, he’ll figure it out. If the repairman cancels, he knows a guy. A Governor digs into how systems function so they can work the systems.
Getting the best out of a Governor
It may sound like Governors make ideal lodge leaders, and in a sense, they do, especially when they have a streak of creativity, and have learned to listen. However, they thrive in a supporting role, acting as a cannon Gamblers can aim to get their projects realized. To get the most out of a Governor, they need a great working relationship with a Gambler, and the freedom from the master of the lodge to flip any switches they need to get something done. As they’re rules guys, they’re not going to cheat, but asking them how to get something done quickly will usually get a productive answer. In fact, the best way to relate to them is to ask questions, but only the ones you can’t answer for yourself. Governors hate doing the same job twice without good reason.
Archenemy: The Gadfly
Gadflies love challenging authority or the status quo, and this means they are sometimes mistaken for Gamblers, but that’s a superficial similarity. Unlike Gamblers, Gadflies have no ideas or solutions of their own. They chip away at lodge projects not because they fear change, but because they want to be seen as smart or useful. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to have someone who can show all the ways a project can fail, but that is where their utility ends.
If the lodge was a business, the Go-Getter would be the salesman. He’s a hype-man, generating excitement among other brothers. He’s often a natural traveler, visiting lodges frequently, and while he’s there, he’s happy to push his own lodge’s projects.
Go-Getters are optimistic, extroverted networkers. They can sometimes be off-putting and come across as egotistical attention-seekers. Some are. These negative traits don’t dampen the effectiveness of a Go-Getter; it makes them better at what they do. But most of the time what the quieter brethren are seeing is a guy who likes his energy reflected back at him. Nothing is more contagious than a good story, well told.
Getting the best out of a Go-Getter
Like Gamblers and Governors, Go-Getter need the space to do what they do best: bullshit. This isn’t a bad thing. Bullshitters can be extremely effective, because when they hype a person or idea, they’re not selling you on the person or idea, they’re selling you the feeling those generate in you. It’s certainly not unusual for a Go-Getter to write checks with his mouth that a Governor can’t cash, but that’s not important, because when the product is delivered, it will be exactly what the customer wanted, and the Go-Getter make sure the audience is convinced of that. A word of warning though: do not outshine a Go-Getter! They like being the center of attention and that’s where they thrive. Stealing their spotlight will only get you a pouting brother.
Archenemy: The Grouse
Some brothers, due to some actual or perceived trauma they’ve experienced in their masonic career, will never pass up an opportunity to badmouth their lodge, their grand-lodge, or freemasonry in general. Often the only time they can be found complimenting something is when they’re using it as contrast to explain how something else (something you like) is actually bad. Grouses don’t care if a lodge project succeeds or fails. All they want is validation that they were unjustly victimized, and they will never move on.
Don’t let the name fool you into thinking these guys are the remainder when all the other roles are filled. Most masons don’t fit any of these categories. No, the Grunt is the master of git-er-done. If the Gambler is the marksman, and the Governor is the gun, the Grunt is the ammo. The Grunt doesn’t generate ideas or excitement; he reflects it back, feeding the Gamblers and Go-Getters. They’re the muscle that move the furniture and clean out the basement to make room for a new gym set. They’re the ones who sell the tickets or at least bring their family to the fundraiser. They man the booths. When someone says “I just met a guy from that masonic lodge. He seemed like a really good guy,” they’ve probably just met a Grunt.
Grunts can be verbal and expressive, but this is no requirement of their position. They express their enthusiasm through a certain stoic dedication to showing up. They don’t need to be strong, or otherwise physically fit, nor particularly skilled. They truly come to be a part of something bigger.
Getting the best out of a Grunt
Grunts are fueled by feelings. They may or may not know what a Gambler is talking about, but they like his energy. They respect the heck out of Governors for being the paperwork-versions of themselves, and they’re the ones to totally buy into the feelings that the Go-Getters are selling. Most of all, though, they are the ones who clearly see the point of a lodge and brotherhood. In some ways that makes them the best of any of the above, because they put service over self. The best way to get great effort out of a Grunt is to make sure they see that their efforts are an essential part of a functioning machine, not through praise, but through results. And never take advantage of their good natures! There are plenty of other organizations they could be helping and are probably members of quite a few of ‘em!
Arch-Enemy: The Goof-Off
Goof-Offs aren’t bad brothers to have around. They’re not just needed. They tend to be jovial and funny. They like entertaining others, like a Go-Getter, but all they’re selling is good times. And that’s perfectly fine at the right fellowship setting, but when they volunteer to help with a project, watch out. They’re not there to work, they’re there to distract. They’re the ones who will suggest knocking off after an hour and hitting the bar. They talk a supportive game, by saying that you’ve got a lot of good work done or cite some small hurdle that they’re convinced means you need to stop for the day. They’re just looking for friends. And that’s fine! But during a project is not a good time. There’s no beer that doesn’t taste like ambrosia after an actual hard day’s work, and that’s just not the Goof-Off’s thing.
Note: This article was originally posted on Braden Lodge‘s website, but has been moved here by its author. It is presented here in its original form. An updated version has been incorporated into Welcome to the Brickyard.
Freemasonry is shrouded in a pop-culture mystique of danger and intrigue. Now I won’t comment on if any of those intrigues are true (hint), but one thing is for sure, Freemasonry has gotten a reputation as an organization in decline. This is very much not true.
Freemasonry is growing almost everywhere in exciting ways. Lodges are bringing in young, vibrant members, eager to learn traditions and add their own modern perspective. What is true, however, is that Freemasonry, along with every other fraternal club, saw huge booms in the twentieth century, and those boom times are gone. Frankly, those boom times were probably not that great for Freemasonry. They drew the focus away from self-improvement and brotherhood, and into more publicly-focused areas. Rather than helping each other grow better, many used their brotherhood to help each other grow richer. Charity became an industry, rather than a personal offer of relief, and to the receiver an acceptance of responsibility.
When membership declined from these lofty heights, some Masonic lodges moved toward an any-and-all-comers view of membership. But Freemasonry is not for everyone. Sadly, it’s not even for most people. And joining a Masonic lodge when you shouldn’t isn’t good for you, or your lodge. Here’s why you shouldn’t join Freemasonry.
I’ve done my fair amount of shouting in my life. Yelling at the kids, snapping at the wife, shouting to the sky and cursing the gods. You know, the regular stuff. Everyone does it. Some people, usually guys, do it more than normal.
Psychologists tell us that men often process depression through anger, and that’s probably true, but why is that? And what can we do about it?
Well…I’m not sure. If I knew, I’d be doing it, right? But I had a weird thought to share. You’ve heard of the phrase “spectrum of emotion,” and that got be to think about light and color.
Why is a blue object blue?
Physics tells us that it’s not blue. In fact, blue is the one trait in the whole universe we know it doesn’t possess. Anything we see in our world is nothing more than light bouncing off the object and into our eyes. Light is composed of a spectrum of stuff, and one of those is color. When white light hits an object, it’s bombarded by red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet wavelengths. Objects either absorb or reflect these wavelengths. When they’re all reflected back to our eyes, the object appears white. When they’re all absorbed, the object appears black. And when, for instance, they’re all absorbed except for blue, and blue is reflected back at us, we see the object as blue.
But it’s not blue. It doesn’t absorb blue. It absorbed all the other colors within it. Those other color wavelengths are, in a sense, a part of the object. Except blue. Blue was rejected and expelled.
Does emotion work the same way?
What if, rather than color, we’re bombarded with emotional wavelengths? Happy, Sad, Angry, Envy, Disgust, etc. And most of us can absorb most of these wavelengths most of the time. We can absorb them, and process them. But some emotions we can’t all absorb. Some emotions we bounce back.
Is an angry person angry? Do they generate and radiate anger? Or can they just not absorb anger, so they end up rejecting it, and bouncing it back. Like the blue object, others would view them as an angry person. But in reality, angry might be the one thing they’re not, on the inside. They’re not built to process anger. It’s a foreign body and they reject it.
This could be a dumb idea. I’ve had a lot of those. But consider it. What if the person you think is an angry person isn’t angry. And the happy person isn’t happy. And the sad person isn’t sad. They just reflect instead of absorb. Maybe we should approach these people differently. And we can send them wavelengths they can absorb and process, rather than playing a game of Pong between you.
There are very few records of our beginnings. Freemasonry either started in ancient Egypt, the Crusades, Middle Age Europe, or the exact date of the founding of the United Grand Lodge of England, depending on how tight or loose you play with the facts.
If we just go by authenticated records, it seems like it started in the Middle Ages when the operative masonry guilds, the ones who actually built the cathedrals, castles, and shithouses of Europe, let non-masons sit in on their meetings, and then eventually let them (or at least didn’t stop them) from branching off into their own speculative form.
And to this I say bullshit.
Whenever I think of any old timey people doing weird things, like freemasonry, or alchemy, or religion, I do my best to try to put myself in their shoes and remember three inviolable truths:
Different people are different
Different times were different
People are all essentially the same
People are a unique product of their genetics and experiences, which are necessarily different than mine. Also, people adapt to the zeitgeist of their times. But, we all have the same deeply-rooted motivations.
The fact is that up until very recently, probably 99% of humanity spent probably 99% of their time trying to not die. Even the rich and the powerful had their own, more expensive problems in this regard. As this occupation left very little time for extracurricular activities, that means that anyone spending any of their time doing something weird had to have a very important, very convincing reason to do it.
So when we ask “Was alchemy about self-improvement or was it about making magic rocks and gold?” We have to apply a dose of realism, and say that it was a mix. Probably people thought it could make them rich, and the ones who stumbled upon useful medicines and chemicals probably did get rich, and the ones who didn’t could at least claim they got something out of the process.
So I ask myself what motivation would a medieval trade guild have for letting outsiders sit in on their meetings and giving them their secrets?
Operative masonry existed in a wholly different world than the one in which we live. Kids didn’t go to school. They were essentially pawned off as apprentices, and some at a very young age. If you’re the architect and foreman of a worksite, the last thing you need are a bunch of dumb kids, and rash adults starting fights, sleeping with each other’s wives, and cutting corners to make a buck, so it’s perfectly believable that in these operative lodges they would talk time not just to teach their trade, but to educate their apprentices, and to give their workers solid expectations and codes of conduct to live by, and if these things can be taught with a religious flavor and a touch of sacredness, then all the better. And it’s natural that they would use their own tools as analogies to teach obscure moral concepts.
This would be very interesting, and appealing, to any onlookers. But why would there be onlookers? Ask yourself, did operative trade guilds use secret passwords?
Probably, yeah. If you’re walking from Scotland to England, and hop over the Channel to France, then off to Germany and Italy, until you bump into the Ottoman Empire, you’re going to try making a living at every stop in between. How do you prove to the local builders that you know what you’re doing?
Sure, you could give them a demonstration. It probably wouldn’t take long for a master to figure out if you’re competent. But just because you can cut and carve, does that mean you can build an arch? Or raise a vaulted ceiling? Or design a cathedral? No one’s checking your medieval LinkedIn page. There’s no Castle H.R. checking on your references. But if you knew the pass, which you could only have gotten by demonstrating your proficiency before regular lodge of master masons, that’s as good as gold.
Could you have wrestled the password out of a mason you waylaid on the road? Possibly, but such a thing would be so connected to your personal and professional honor some would surely have died to protect it. And those who wouldn’t have were probably safe enough anyway, because it would only be of use to someone who was already a working mason, and I’d imagine (and it doesn’t take much imagination) that the punishment for anyone who got caught imitating a master mason, a cowan, for instance, would be dire indeed.
The last thing any trade guild would do is give away their literal trade secrets to the unskilled. It would defeat the entire point of them.
So where DID it come from?
I can think of exactly one likely scenario.
In a world before workers comp, a mason having his hand or his leg crushed by a stone was probably not a rare occurrence. Nor was probably a craftsman being conscripted and injured in a war he wanted nothing to do with. That probably left a lot of masons with a lot of time on their hands, and a lot of education in their brain. No doubt whatever passwords guilds used would be changed from time to time, and they’d have no way to get new ones, so that’s not a big concern anymore. In such a scenario I could easily see these retired masons sucked into tavern conversations with other local philosophers, religious-minded folk, students, and even alchemists, and finding they had something in common, would share information.
If you’re one of a few retired stonemasons in town, and your family has all died of the Black Death, it would be very appealing to “get the band back together” so to speak, and start a “lodge” of masons solely because you miss the camaraderie. You invite some of the guys from the pub, because you think they’d be into it, and maybe you even agree to take in some of the local kids who couldn’t secure apprenticeships for one reason or another. They could learn the basics of a trade, a little philosophy, a little practical education from the kooky alchemist. Maybe you give them some “secret passwords” so they feel a part of something bigger. You like it. It gives you something to do. It gives your post-employment life a little meaning. And it just sort of…catches on.
As people scatter, from town to town, the philosophers enjoy the brotherhood they could never get because they probably never went to war, and the masons get a purpose again.
Is any of this true? Did any of this happen? Almost certainly not. It’s all speculation. I have no idea how speculative freemasonry started.
And yet, it almost has to be true, doesn’t it? Because isn’t that how things happen? Little things, done for little reasons sometimes become contagious, and become big things done for big reasons. Freemasonry was, and is, a meme. A unit of culture, as Richard Dawkins put it, that caught on.
On September 1, 2019 we are launching The Practicing Freemason, a newsletter of lodge instruction, talking points, and other exercises of Self-Craft. For as little as $1 per month, you can be a hero at your lodge, and bring in a stack of printed copies for your brothers, or just enjoy it all for yourself!
Each issue comes with:
A Ready-to-Read lecture of relevant, practical freemasonry.
Discussion prompts for your own philosophical talks over coffee.