Guide to understanding

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A short guide to understanding Freemasonry and some of its implications within the media.

By Sabin Iliev

Table of Contents:

  • Introduction

  • From Operative to Speculative

  • Modern Freemasonry

  • Rites and Rituals

  • Understanding Masonic Symbols:

  • Chamber of Reflection

  • The Temple of Solomon

  • The Mosaic Pavement

  • Light

a) Masonic Light

b) The Three Lesser Lights

c) The Three Greater Lights

d) The Lights of the Workshop

  • The Volume of the Sacred Law

  • The Square and Compasses

  • The Two Pillars: Jachin and Boaz

  • The Three Columns

  • The Rough Ashlar, Cubical Stone and the Pointed Cubical Stone

  • Other Tools of the Freemason

  • The Blazing Star

  • The Mason`s Clothing

  • The Letter G

  • The Seven Liberal Arts

  • Geometry

  • Grammar

  • Rhetoric

  • Logic

  • Arithmetic

  • Music

  • Astronomy/Astrology

  • Hermes Trismegistus

  • Pythagoras

  • Important Masons Throughout History

  • Freemasons and The Media

  • Conclusion

  • Bibliography


When asked the question : “What are the freemasons?” most people tend to answer: Well..Winston Churchill was one..and I think Bush is one aswell.” Unless you are a mason or have been familiarized with the topic, it is quite difficult to form a definition.

According to W. Kirk MacNulty Freemasonry is a secular fraternal organization, traditionally open only to men. It promulgates the principles of morality and seeks the practice of brotherly love and charitable action among all persons-not simply masons. It is not a religion, but it isa a society of religious men in the sense that It requires its members to believe in the existence of a Supreme Being. The name of that Being, the scripture which it is revealed and the form in which it is to be worshipped is entirely the business of the individual Mason. When entering the Order, Masons take obligations on the Volume of the Sacred Law and each mason takes his obligation on that particular volume of writings which HE holds to be sacred. While encouraging each Brother to follow the teachings of his own religion, Freemasonry is not concerned with the detail of those religions and sectarian religious discussion aswell as politics is forbidden at Masonic gatherings. While not a religion, the Order might be considered to be a “philosophical companion to religion”. Freemasons portray the idea of a society based around the idea of diversity, opposite of a union of conformity

Freemasonry`s mode of operation is unusual. It communicates its teachings through a series of dramas called Degrees and by the use of an elaborate structure of symbols derived largely from the tools and practices of the stonemasons craft.

The Masonic viewpoint can be defined by two ideas which are repeated again and againd during all the Masonic rites: “to reach further” and “to gather what is scaterred”. It is by responding to these exhortations that progress is made towards objective knowledge. Symbolism emphasise subjective knowledge. The use of symbolism encourages a form of introspection through free association, linking individual and collective history, as well as the laws governing all things. (W. MacNulty,2006 Symbols, Signs and Significance)

To start understanding Freemasonry, one must look at the history of the Order and in particular, at the various philosophies and traditions from which it was derived. For one reason or another, there is very little reliable information available. Some of the earliest Masonic histories date from 18th and 19th centuries and were quite fanciful and uncritical in their approach. Most of these writings associate the start of Freemasonry with the biblical and classical periods and they imply a secret Order that operated through the medieval period and the Renaissance before finally becoming public in the early 18th century (W MacNaulty,2006 Freemasonry:Symbols, Signs, Significance.)

One of the earliest legends associated with Freemasonry is the construction of the Temple of Solomon. It was said to contain the Ark of the Covennant within its sanctuary( Holy of Holies). The “Temple of Solomon” or “The Jerusalem Temple” , central symbol of Freemasonry, was built by King Solomon who appointed Hiram Abif (Master Hiram) as main architect. He gathered materials of high quality and hired 80 000 workers in order to complete the Temple. (Gilbert Garibal,2005, ABC de la Francmaconnerie).

The legend says only Hiram Abif and King Solomon knew what was inside the Holy of Holies and this led to other stonemasons being jealous of Hiram Abif. It is said that one day, three buiders followed and killed Hiram Abif with their tools because he refused to reveal the “royal secrets”.

The sacrifice that Hiram made in order to keep a secret was adopted by Freemasons and transformed into a super-symbol which later generated other symbols and teachings.


In order to deepen the understanding of masonic history, one must understand the differences between Operative and Speculative Freemasonry and how the latter became what we now call Modern Freemasonry.

Many Masonic historians claim that Masonry originated in the East-probably Egypt or China and mate its way gradually through Asia Minor, Constantinopole, Greece and Cyprus to Rome. It is interesting to note that a Chinese philosopher called Mencius wrote these words three centuries before Christ- “ A man should abstain from doing unto others, what he woud not want done on himself; this is called the principle of acting on the square” .

Ancient papirus texts have been discovered, that mention secret gatherings of guildes of architechts and temple(pyramid) builders 2000 years b C. The guildes offered charity to widows, orphans and other people in need; the meetings were held in secret and the members wore an apron.

In ancient Egypt aswell as other ancient civilisations the building of temples and graves had a divine character. All the crafts were said to be created by gods, and the individual was a simple tool for the divine forces. Whitout being considered heretics, the buiders of great religious monuments circulated codes and teachings of their own and met in organised associations in order to reveal the secret of their art through simple initiation practices.(Jack Chabaud, 2006,Decouverte de la Francmaconnerie p 17-20)

In Europe, the 5th century marked the beginning of the “Age of the Cathedrals”. Saint Benedict (480-587) created the Benedictine Order which consisted of monks with great knowledge in architecture and construction. This led to the construction of around 40 monasteries at the end of the 5th century which grew to around 250 at the end of the 6th century.

As Roger Dachez mentions, the history of Freemasonry is actually the history of a craft. The initial lodge of the Operative Freemasonry was a hut or a barrack which was tied to the building site. In an age where life expectancy was short and work conditions were extremely difficult, people often spent their entire lifes working on a cathedral and the lodge was their only place of rest and juman interaction( Roger Dachez,2009,Histoire de la Franc-Maconnerie francaise).

The guildes of workers later became state organisations and gradually adapted to the different types of government. Alain Queruel notes that the Lodge becomes a place where the workers rest, eat, arrange their tools and most of all, exercise their craft. The Lodge is overseen by a Master, helped by a Fellowcraft whom together teach the Apprentices the secrets of the craft. The lodge gradually becomes an important place, a “center of life” (Alain Queruel, 2008 Decouvrir la Francmaconnerie.).

History notes that during the 14th century, the construction of cathedrals stopped and many sources give the destruction of the Knights Templar Order as the main reason. In the 15th and 16th centuries, more and more non builders start to join the lodges. Public figures of the time, intellectuals, scientists, rich, noble and influential people became the majority in the lodges that were now located within every important city. Christian Jacq observes that in an age of intolerance from the church, the people that were dedicated to spiritual and philosophical searches find in Freemasonry an environment where they safely share and discuss their beliefs.

It is vital that we mention the opinion the the Benhamou-Hodapp couple which states that these new masons-philosophers, scholars, etc saw in Freemasonry a new original method which, through the symbolism reffering to buildings-could allow people to perfect and construct their life in a harmonious way.

In the same way as stoneworkers were building Cathedrals in order to glorify God, freemasons had to build, inside their interior space, the ideal Temple of Solomon. The analogy between the construction of Cathedrals-as both material and spiritual temples marks the beginning of Speculative Freemasonry.(Benhamou-Hodapp, 2006, La Francmaconnerie).

Harry Carr explains the historical and traditional unity of the craft from the mid 14th century to the present day. “During the past 600 years, under the influence of several industrial, economic and socia factors, the Craft suffered notable changes which form the history of the transition from Operative to Speculative Freemasonry”.

In Lex textes fondateurs de la Franc-Maconnerie, Patrick Negrier states that “Operative Freemasonry is as old as the art of construction and if Christian Freemasonry saw a progress with the construction of Cathedrals it is only because of Operative Freemasonry”.


Frances A Yates examined the history of though during the Renaissance-the revival of classical thinking- that took root in Italy in the 14th century. Through her studies, she determined that the essence of Renaissance philosophy was a body of thought which she called “Hermetic/Cabbalistic tradition” (wich we shall examine more further on). Her historical research demonstrated that, as well as the important developments made in art and architecture (which included the rediscovery of Vitruvius), the Rennaisance also saw a profound shift in European intellectual activity.

The Hermetic tradition was influence by the Hermetica, a work of egyptian philosophy with a heavy Hellenistic and Christian influence. It was written in Alexandria in the 2nd century A.D. and attributed to Hermes Trismegistus. The second was Caballa-the mystical tradition of Judaism.

Combined, they gave rise to a philosophy in which, in addition to seeking the salvation of one`s soul after death, one can also ascend in consciousness from the physical world through the levels of the psyche/soul and experience the Divine Presence while one is incarnate. That was also the intent of the practicioner of the Ancient Mysteries. This theme was followed by many of the serious thinkers of the Rennaisance. The writings of Francesco Giorgi-a franciscan monk in Venice, Johannes Reuchlin and Cornelius Agrippa, both German philosophers, and John Dee and Elias Ashmole, both British scholars, provide examples that cover the period from about 1500 to 1650 and a geographical area from Northern Italy, through Central Europe to Britain. (W MacNaulty,2006 Symbols, Signs, Significance.).

Therefore it seems reasonable to state that the source of Modern Freemasons` interest in classical philosophy was their study of the Renaissance philosophers.

24 June 1717 marks a fundamental moment in the history of Universal Freemasonry when 4 lodges come together and form the United Grand Lodge of England.choosing Anthony Sayer(gentleman) as Master Mason. The second Master Mason is George Payne(gentleman); the third is Jean Theophile Desaguliers(anglican bishop and physicist); the fourth is again George Payne. The fifth Master Mason is Duke John of Montagu which empowers Anderson the task to write famous Constitutions.

Anderson`s Constitution (17 january 1723) features a section that regards history, followed by a section containing 39 rules and finally a section dedicated to masonic songs.”A Mason is obligated, by his Tenure to obey the moral Law and if he rightly understands the Art, he will never be a stupid Atheist nor an irreligious Libertine”.

With the founding of the premier Grand Lodge in 1717 Freemasonry saw a huge growt. By 1730 the number of Private Lodges had grown from four to over seventy and the area governed by the Grand Lodge had expanded to include provinces throughout England (W MacNaulty,2006 Symbols, Signs, Significance.)

Although Freemasonry was generally popular and grew rapidly, there were periods in France and the Netherlands when Masonic activity was prohibited by law. Exclusive meetings, a large body of secret material and serious oaths taken on the scriptures were considered to be a threat to the authority of the Church and government. Eventually, as members of the nobility became Masons and as the governments came to understand the nature of Freemasonry, these prohibitons were lifted and the Order continued to grow. In Germany, which at the time was a group of Principalities, the philosophical teachings of Freemasonry were apparently attractive to many of the princes and freemasonry prospered there.( W MacNaulty,2006 Symbols, Signs, Significance.)

The expansion covered a very large geographical area. In the eastern hemisphere Freemasonry was introduced to all the English, French and Dutch colonies in Africa, India, Burma, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand and South East Asia and eventually into Japan.

This raised the question regarding travelling masons: How was a lodge to know that the visiting brother was a proper mason? This led to the implementation of several general principles:

  • A new Grand Lodge must have been established by a regular Grand Lodge

  • The belief in a Supreme Being is required. The name of that being is an individual matter

  • All initiates take the Obligations on, or in the full view of, the open Volume of Sacred Law which the initiate considers to be sacred.(Bible, Coran, Tao te Ching, etc)

  • The membership shall consist exclusively of men.

  • The Grand Lodge shall have sovereign juristiction over its subordinate lodges.

  • The Three Great Lights of Freemasonry (Volume of Sacred Law, the Square and the Compasses) shall be displayed when a Grand lodge or subordinate lodge is at work.

  • The discussion of religion and politics within a lodge is prohibited.

  • The antient landmarks, customs and usages of the craft are to be strictly observed.

  • If a Grand Lodge adheres to these principles it is considered to be regular.


A rite is a formal act, and a ritual is a set order for the carrying out of rites. They are actually techniques for increasing the efficiency of communication (or signalling) and serve to create a network of ties between different members of a group. In animals, ritualisation is seen to decrease the use of violence. It exists before language. As for human beings, it enables us to look at ourselves from the outside and view ourselves as objects of study.

Freemasons are interested in rites because they want to understand how human beings and society operates, with a view to “preparing the coming of a better and more enlightened society.” (extract from Masonic ritual). Masons explore how rites function and how traditional and religious rites are observed in every nation, according to specific social codes and lifestyles.(Daniel Beresniak,1997,Symbols of Freemasonry)

The purpose of a Masonic Lodge is to confer the Three Degrees of Freemasonry. The rituals relate to practices and events that were said to have occurred at the building of King`s Solomon Temple. By taking part in those rituals, the initiate is taught many things but most importantly the fundamental moral principles of Brotherly Love, Relief and Truth. These principles are universal throghout all masonic teachings. Using elaborate rituals and lectures, they provide the Mason with the tools and knowledge necessary to work on his interior development, while the fraternal atmoshphere of the Lodge provides a supportive environment. Once initiated, passed and raised, the brother is a Master Mason and as with all the Master Masons, is eligible to occupy the offices in the lodge.( W MacNaulty,2006 Symbols, Signs, Significance.).


Before entering the complex world of Masonic Symbolism, it must be stated that most of the information presented comes from authors which are generally known Masons. This has the purpose to confer the reader an understanding from a masonic point of view. On the other hand, the wide range of symbols and the secrecy surrounding them, consequently means a wide range of interpretations and the reader is allowed and even encouraged to try and interpret the symbols in a way that he considers appropriate and suitable for himself.

Entered Apprentices are always initiated after three symbolic journeys, during which they must confront the elements of earth, water, air and fire. Fellows undertake five journeys, at the end of wich they contemplate the Blazing Star. As for the Masters, they must relive the passion of Hiram, the murdered architect. In all the rituals observed throughout the world, Entered Apprentices, Fellows and Masters work in lodges, symbolic representation of Solomon`s Temple with its two pillars: Jachin and Boaz. The temple lies on the east-west axis.

In every lodge the vault of the ceiling is decorated with stars, to show that the temple acts as a mediator between human beings and the universe. Everyone enters wearing an apron and gloves, and works symbolically with the tools of a Mason :square, compasses, gauge, lever, plumb rule, plumb line and trowel

The temple is an image of the world and the beginning of the world establishes time. The masonic world is symbolically coeval with the universe and refers to the moment of creation as the Anno Lucis( Year of Light or Year of Masonry). English Masons took their dates from James Ussher, an Anglican priest born in Dublin in 1580, who published his Annals of the Old and the New Testaments in around 1650. According to Ussher`ss reading of the Bible, 4004 B.C. is the date of the Creation.

A psychological masonic interpretation of the Order sees the Three Degrees as three levels of consciousness within the psyche. The First Degree: The Entered Apprentice, represents the level of ordinary consciousness, that part of the psyche that interfaces with the physical world. The Second Degree: the Fellow Craft represents the level that one might call the individual unconscious and the Soul. The Third Degree: the Master Mason represents that level of consciousnss that interfaces with the Spirit.(Daniel Beresniak,1997,Symbols of Freemasonry )

  • Chamber of Reflection

The Chamber of Reflection is a small room in which the candidates are left on their own for a period before the initiation ceremony begins. Before being admitted to the Lodge to receive the First Degree the Candidate was asked to sit alone in the room, consider his understanding of the work he was about to undertake, and write the reasons for asking to become a Freemason. These were read to the Brethren in the Lodge for their approval before the Degree was conferred. The Chamber of Reflection is lit only by a candle and features a number of ornaments: a human skull, some bones, a loaf of bread, a flask of water, an hour-glass, a sacer containing salt and another containing sulphur.

On the wall, are murals painted in white on a black background: a cockerel, and the word VITRIOL or VITROLUM which is the ancient command to examine oneself. Visita Interiora Terrae, Rectificando Invenies Occultum Lapidem ( Visit the centre of the earth and by rectifying you shall find the hidden stone).

These symbols derive from alchemy. Salt, which is extracted from sea water by evaporation, is fire delivered from water. As for sulphur, alchemists believed that is to the body what the sun is to the earth. The coupling of salt and sulphur is an image of duality, of life and death, of ligh and darkness nourising one another.(Daniel Beresniak,1997, Symbols of Freemasonry)

  • The Temple of Solomon

References to the construction of King Solomon`s temple at Jerusalem have been included in the rituals of the Operative Freemasons since ancient times. In operative lodges the layout of the lodge room in each of the several degrees, the candidate progressively represents the various types of stone used in the building, until ultimately he represents the plan of the temple.

One of the most learned and distinguished of the early English Freemasons was the Rev Dr. George Oliver DD, who studied and wrote extensively on ecclesiastical antiquities and all aspects of speculative Freemasonry. In his renowned work, the Revelations of the Square, Dr Oliver states:

The Society adopted the Temple of Solomon for its symbol, because it was the most stable and the most magnificent structure that ever existed, wheter we consider its foundation or superstructure; so that of all the societies men have invented, no one was ever more firmly united, or better planned, than the Masons… The edifices which Freemasons build are nothing more than virtues or vices to be erected or destroyed; and in this case heaven only occupies their minds, which soare above the corrupted world. The Temple of Solomon denotes reason and intelligence”

Daniel Beresniak also mentions Solomon`s Temple as the place where the murder of Hiram the Architect took place. “A mystical tale has arisen around this incident. It speas of a Lost Word, the word of life, key to all secrets, which was substituted at that time, not as much because it was lost, but because such a word could not be spoken”.

As for the “wise King Solomon” it was he who inspired Francis Bacon`s New Atlantis which in turn influenced the founders of the Royal Society in 1662. This institution shares the Masons “faith” as expressed in two essential ideas:

  • All men are brothers and must be judged according to their good works, and not the religion they belong to

  • Ignorance is the cause of all vice of the evil men do to one another. The human species can be redeemed only throguh knowledge.

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