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Origins of Freemasonry

This article is not intended to be a definitive work on the origins of Freemasonry, as these are subject to much conjecture and debate. It is purely a thumbnail sketch of the topic, containing ideas I have gained from reading and reflection. -- Wor Bro Sean Morony

How old is Freemasonry and what are its origins? It has been written that it is more ancient than the Golden Fleece or the Roman Eagle, that it has existed since time immemorial and that the usages and customs of Freemasonry have ever borne a near affinity to those of the ancient Egyptians.

It must be stated that architecture and religion have, over time, been closely related. Virtually all the evidence of early architectural works which have withstood the ravages of time have been connected with some form of worship.

There is little tangible evidence existing, and it becomes more and more difficult to gather hard evidence the further one goes back in time. There is a point of view, however, that oral tradition may well be more trustworthy than written records, as early scribes were liable to make deliberate mistakes in order to favour their employers, (early spin doctors?).

It is highly likely that the first real Operative Masons were those of ancient Egypt. The evidence of their work stands for all to see, from the quarries to the finished buildings. There must also have existed some form of hierarchy amongst the builders and also some means of passing on the secrets of their craft. We know from the VOSL that the Hebrew slaves were in Egypt over much of the time of the work on the great buildings and it is inconceivable that there was not a transfer of knowledge from master to slave.

It is also reasonable to surmise that on the freeing of the Hebrews from bondage, this knowledge traveled with them to the Promised Land. (The First Book of Chronicles 4:14 speaks of a valley of craftsmen.) Craftsmen they may well have been, however they were not great builders, as it is known that King Solomon called on Hiram, the King of Tyre to send him Master Masons and the Master Hiram Abiff for help in building the Temple.

The Laws of building were secrets known only to initiates. Who were these men sent by the King Hiram? It is almost certain that they were the Dionystic Artificers, an order of builders who erected temples, stadia and theatres in Asia Minor. Dionystic buildings have been traced eastward into Syria, Persia (Iran) and even into India. They entered Europe and can be followed through Greece to Rome, where already several centuries before the birth of Christ we find them bound together into corporations known as Collegia. These Collegia flourished in all parts of the Roman Empire, including England. There were many different types of Collegia, and it would seem that they were somewhat similar to the medieval guilds. It is, however, the Collegia of Architects that are of interest to us.

Whilst in the Roman Empire the right of freedom of association was abolished, the College of Architects seemed to have had special privileges and exemptions owing to their value and service to the State. Whilst not called Freemasons they were such in fact and in law. Each college was presided over by a Magister or Master and two Decuriones or Wardens, and included amongst the symbols of the college are the simple tools of a builder. The Emperor Diocletian embarked on a quest to destroy Christianity but was strangely lenient and patient with the Collegia who had Christians amongst their members. Eventually, the College of Architects was broken up and expelled from Rome.

During the “dark ages” that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire, it is thought that the mysteries of the College of Architects were kept alive by the Comacines. They continued with practice of architecture and sculpture and carried these skills into France, Spain, Germany and England. The Comacine Guild was under the control of a Magistri and Discipuli who in turn were under a Gastaldo or Grand Master. Their meetings were held in Loggia and their members wore white aprons and gloves and made use of tokens, grips and passwords.

There are records of requests from Bishops asking the Pope to send craftsmen to England - men who were skilled in building in stone, to help in the construction of ecclesiastical buildings. These records are from before the year 900 AD.

A document exists which records that in the year 926 AD, a Masonic assembly was held in the City of York. Some scholars claim that there are documents from 840 AD that consist of early Lodge minutes, constitutions of the order and charges given in the making of a Mason. These dates clearly indicate that a form of Freemasonry existed before the middle ages, before the crusades and before the dissolution of or even the founding of the Templars - though the Templars may well have had an influence on the later development of Freemasonry.

The medieval period was arguably the hey-day of the Operative Masons. The building of abbeys, great cathedrals, monasteries and castles proliferated. The founding of Lodges was essential to these undertakings and records exist of Masonic Lodges in York Minster (1352), Canterbury (1429) and in other cathedral cities. These Lodges seem to have been quite independent of each other and those who lived and worked in them would only have the regularity of their initiation and proof of their advancement in common. Skilled craftsmen could move from one Lodge to another and could be received into any other Lodge provided he could show proof of his standing and proficiency. As most people in those times were illiterate, this was done by sign, grip and word. In feudal times ordinary people were not free to move from one area or from one place of employment to another. Masons did have this privilege, however, as they were not serfs or bonds men but were free men, or Free masons. It is interesting to note that members of town guilds were only free to practice their trades within the boundaries of their particular towns.

In 1376, Operative Masonry was recognised by the City of London as one of 47 official mysteries, the word mystery being derived from the French word mestier, now metier, meaning a trade.

The end of the Gothic era, the wars of succession the Reformation and civil wars had a disastrous effect on Operative Masonry and it has been said that it was the Great Fire of London in 1666 that sounded the death knell for the Operative Masons. The fire destroyed a great deal of the city and also destroyed the power of the Masons Guild. The demand for builders was so great that the trade was thrown open to all those to those who could help rebuild the city; thus destroying the privileged monopolistic position held by the Masons Guild. While skilled masons were still required to help replace many of the great buildings, the Guild itself had lost its power. Lodges went into decline and were faced with finding other ways to justify their existence. The philosophical basis of the craft was one of its great strengths and this attracted non masons. The Operative Lodges opened their membership to worthy men who were accepted into the lodges, thus the transition from operative to speculative masonry was made. There does exist the possibility, however, that certain worthy men were accepted into Lodges before this time.

Modern speculative Freemasonry did not suddenly arrive on the historical scene when 4 Lodges met at the Apple Tree Tavern in 1717. The Operative Masons had already contributed a wealth of philosophy, symbolism and tradition to what by then had become Speculative Masonry.

Private Lodges proliferated and it became clear that something had to be done to regularise the situation if it was to prevent the degeneration of Wardenry into mere secret societies or centres of political intrigue and to preserve the integrity of the craft. When the Lodges that met at The Goose and Gridiron, The Crown, The Rummer and Grapes and the Apple Tree Taverns met together, the result was the formation of The Grand Lodge of England. Other Lodges joined later, but a schism occurred and 2 groups of Lodges ensued - the Moderns and the Ancients. It was only in 1813, in fact, that these groups of Lodges combined to form The United Grand Lodge of England. Grand Lodges were formed in Scotland and Ireland as well as on the Continent of Europe and Freemasonry was established in the Cape in 1772 under the Grand East of the Netherlands.

How old is Freemasonry? There is sound evidence to suggest that it goes back to the ancient Egyptians. Perhaps not to time immemorial, but certainly a long time back. Indeed, if one accepts that the Dionysian Artificers were the forebears of the Collegia and ultimately of the Freemasons, the roots of Freemasonry are definitely older than the Golden Fleece and the Roman Eagle.

The truth is, that the origins of our Order go back to days when records were vague and secrets were many – and we are unlikely to ever know for certain what our origins are. Perhaps, however, this level of intrigue helps to make our Order even more appealing.