Highlighting The Mythological Motifs In Freemasonry

By Guest Contributor Jaime Paul Lamb

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When one examines Masonic ritual & symbolism through the interpretive lens of Classical Mythology, the correspondences immediately begin to present themselves and become, at times, strikingly obvious. These inferences and allusions are present to such a degree within the Craft – in the Officer’s Jewels, the Furniture of the Lodge Room, the Deacon’s Rods, even in the rituals themselves – that almost everywhere one cares to look can be found some vestige of the great mythological systems of the world. Considering the fact that it would be nearly impossible to exhaustively catalog every instance of possible mythological import within Freemasonry, the following will be limited to a few of the more glaring examples.

The Orders of Architecture, as described in Vitruvius’ On Architecture, are present in the Masonic Fellowcraft Degree lecture. Several allusions to these orders are also found in the Lodge room and furniture therein.

The Doric order is said to denote strength and was held sacred to Ares, the god of war. In ancient building practices, the Doric order was used in the construction of structures which served a martial purpose, such as those devoted to warfare or defense. This style is especially notable for its relative simplicity. It is the least ornamental of the original Greek orders of architecture, thereby evoking a martial atmosphere through its clean, unembellished lines. The Three Principal Supports of the Masonic Lodge are Wisdom, Strength and Beauty. In Freemasonry, the Doric column is associated with Strength – the Senior Warden’s station.

The Ionian order of architecture denotes wisdom and was held sacred to Athena. Being between the Doric and Corinthian in overall complexity, it is moderate and tempered in appearance. This style was most frequently employed in houses of learning, such as academies and libraries. In the Masonic Lodge, the Ionian column is attributed to Principal Support of Wisdom, which is further associated with the Worshipful Master’s station.

The Corinthian order of architecture was employed when a structure was to be designated for an artistic or aesthetic purpose, such as a museum. This order was considered sacred to Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty. The Corinthian style was the most ornate of the three original, ancient Greek orders of architecture. In Freemasonry, this Corinthian column is fittingly associated with Beauty and the office of Junior Warden, which is in the South.

The Senior and Junior Stewards’ rods are ornately capped with a cornucopia within a square and compasses. The cornucopia comes to us directly from Classical Mythology, where it is considered to be the horn of Amalthea, the she-goat that suckled Zeus in his infancy. The cornucopia also appears as a symbol of Demeter, the grain mother. The Roman counterpart of Demeter is Ceres, the etymological namesake of our word “cereal”.

The crossed keys of the Treasurer’s jewel is also a notable mythological motif, as they have been associated with the Greek goddess Hecate, and also with the Leontocephaline, a lesser figure present in the iconography of Roman Mithraism. Hecate, a lunar crone-goddess, was associated with crossroads, silver and currency – which is pertinent to the office of Treasurer. The Leontocephaline, or “lion-headed”, is sometimes depicted with crossed keys held over the chest and a set of hammer and tongs, the working tools of Hephaestus, at his feet. This gains significance, Masonically, when we consider that Tubal-cain inhabits the same archetypal role in the Abrahamic canon (i.e. metallurgical artificer) as Hephaestus does in the Hellenic.

The jewel of the Lodge Organist is the lyre and, therefore, has some of the most developed mythological significance. The lyre is most commonly associated with Orpheus, to whom it was given by Phoebus-Apollo (Apollo in his most solar aspect). Orpheus is said to have charmed man and beast with the instrument and to have used it to gain access to Hades in order to fetch Eurydice, his ill-fated bride. This he accomplished by enchanting both Charon, the Stygian boatman, and Cerberus, the three-headed dog, with his music. The myth of his chthonic descent/ascent is conjectured to have formed the basis of the Orphic Mysteries. One may readily find depictions of the lyre in statuary and/or bas-relief adorning the many Orpheums and Lyric Halls across the Western World – these are, of course, in reference to Orpheus and his lyre, respectively.

The Blazing Star, a five-pointed star within a circle, is often depicted in the center of the Checkered Pavement. This symbol is alternately said to represent the Sun, Sirius (A & B combined, as seen by the naked eye) and Venus. The Solar interpretation is obvious, in terms of the Sun’s Masonic significance as being the “glory and beauty of the day”, etcetera, but the theory of the Blazing Star as a representation of Sirius provides us with much more symbolic substance for our contemplation.

Sirius, which is actually a binary system composed of the stars Sirius A and Sirius B, is the brightest star in the sky, apart from the Sun. This star resides in the constellation of Canis Major, hence the name “the Dog Star” (a name from whence we get the phrase, “the dog days of summer”, or the Latin dies caniculares, denoting the heliacal rising and setting of Sirius during the summer months in that region). Sirius was later personified as the Egyptian Iachen, the Minoan I Wa Ko and thereby the Greek Iakchos, the torch-bearing son of Persephone.

The Blazing Star’s relationship to Venus (also anciently known as the Morning and/or Evening Star) may best be illustrated by the fact that it is represented in the form of a pentagram. This significance comes primarily from the fact that Venus traces a five-petalled rosette at the completion of its synodic period, which is 583.9211 days – the amount of time it takes for the planet to return its originally observed position, relative to that of the Sun, as seen from the perspective of Earth – thus itself alluding to the pentagram. The pentagram is commonly found in Freemasonry, likely due to its prevalence in Pythagoreanism.

The Weeping Virgin of the Third Degree is a statue made reference to in the Master Mason Lecture in Blue Lodge Freemasonry. The work consists of the figure of a virgin, her hands folded as in prayer, leaning over a broken column as an old man, holding a scythe, undoes the braids in her hair. The old, male figure bears a likeness to Cronus, the Titanic father of Zeus, present here in his popular personification as Father Time. The weeping virgin, in this context, could be construed as a representation of Persephone, the Kore.

In this interpretation, we are reminded of an incident in Greek Mythology known as the Rape of Persephone. There are both astrological and agricultural keys to the allegory of this event and these, when used in conjunction, provide us with an interesting narrative. If we consider the figure of Father Time as representing Saturn then, through common and established astrological correspondences, we arrive at the Winter Solstice via the zodiacal house of Capricornus, which is ruled by Cronus. In the myth, Persephone was abducted by Hades while she was collecting wild flowers – an obvious sign of Spring or the Vernal Equinox. He then carried her to his kingdom in the Underworld, which is also symbolic of the Winter Solstice – a place almost universally regarded as the abode of death. The whole scene can easily be read as a wonderful symbolic depiction of certain known aspects of the Eleusinian Mysteries.

In Classical Mythology, we find yet another lens through which to view and interpret the symbolism of Freemasonry. Though, it seems that no matter which lens we apply, Freemasonry stands up to the most intense scrutiny as being more than just, “a peculiar system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols.”

- Bro. Jaime Paul Lamb is a Master Mason in Phoenix AZ, who has published articles in the Connecticut Freemason and Indiana Freemason magazines. Bro. Lamb is currently finishing a new book titled, "Myth, Magick, and Masonry", which should be released in Summer 2018.

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Truth, Relief, and Brotherly Love in the Mirror of Self-Reflection

The image of a mirror can be very helpful in understanding contemplative experience, because it is the nature of our consciousness, of our minds, to reflect.   The term ‘reflect’ not only refers to the act of pondering upon something, but refers even more directly to the way the mind works.  All the images we see in our minds  –  whether images of things in the world around us, of memories, fantasies, or inspired visions – are representations of things and not the things themselves.  This process is also true for all our other senses, but nothing represents the reflective nature of the mind better than the way a mirror works for the sense of sight.  Even when a person attempts to think of his or her own mind, the thought is only an image of the mind, and thus is an action or a part of the mind, but not the mind itself.

Those last statements indicate how thinking about something might actually interfere with our ability to be as authentically present in the moment as possible, and thus to more completely observe and perceive the greater reality or truth of the moment.   As an example, consider the well-known phenomenon that thinking too much about doing something, like dancing, while actually trying to do it, gets in the way of dancing as well as we might.  Another example can be found in the obsessive shutterbug, one who can’t stop taking pictures of something long enough to simply be present in the more direct experience of it.  The more we think about something, the less we actually experience it, whether it is something we regard as external to self or something as internal as our most secret thoughts and feelings.

When practicing silent meditation or contemplative prayer, one sits in greater openness to whatever arises in consciousness, whether a sensory perception in response to something external, or thoughts and feelings arising in other ways.  This kind of prayer is practiced in faithful acceptance of whatever actually is, filtering and distorting it as little as possible with expectations, rules, analyses, or judgments. It means opening our awareness more completely to the immediate facts of existence and the mysterious presence of the Divine.  We therefore see more clearly the truth of things just as they are in the present moment, and less as though in a dusty and warped mirror. 

One of the most common experiences in such practice is a greater awareness of the whole of one’s own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.  Furthermore, most of us aren’t pleased to observe how much of a crazy mess is going on within us.   We discover that we aren’t nearly as rational, centered, harmonious, practically competent, emotionally secure, intellectually certain, spiritually enlightened, or morally virtuous as we’d often like to pretend to others and ourselves.   In fact, anyone who practices like this for very long eventually comes to see in oneself the seeds, if not the seedlings, or even the buds, of every sin ever committed by anyone.

There are many ways we can react to looking in that mirror.  I have no doubt that an intuitive sense of these possibilities, if not some actual experience of them, leads some people to consider contemplative practice too dangerous, and even speak of it as risking demonic possession.   Those sorts of fears should be respected for the individuals gripped by them, because too much raw truth can be harmful when we’re unprepared to cope with it.   Yet for others, the initial shock and horror of their existential disillusionment is eventually relieved, giving way to deeper and more authentic reverence, humility, gratitude, compassion, kindness, and selflessness.  We become less burdened by all the frailty, confusion, fragmentation, dishonesty, and negativity of our own humanity and that of others, and we see that these things come and go within a greater context, the beautiful wholeness of our being and becoming.  Our own looking inward upon the mirror of the soul, releasing our illusions and accepting reality as it is, in turn leads us to see others more clearly, to love them and ourselves more freely. We are less prone to be narrowly and rigidly judgmental, and more inclined to offer the relief that comes through understanding, forgiveness, good counsel, encouragement, and support.  This is how contemplative practice serves our Masonic principles of Truth, Relief, Brotherly Love.

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Wielding the Contemplative Gavel

 (C) Patrick Slattery- 2012

(C) Patrick Slattery- 2012

We talk a lot about virtues in Masonry, and for good reason. As the school of positive psychology persuasively argues, human beings fulfill more of their potentials and dreams by focusing more of their attention and energy on their strengths and the good that they desire to do. Even so, there is folly in ignoring our weaknesses or our potentials for doing harm. It can also be true that we fool ourselves by hiding vices behind the masks of virtues, and that is often nowhere more tempting and troublesome than in those parts of our lives we label as “spiritual.” This article will chip away a little on such issues for those of us on a contemplative journey in Masonry.

These matters take us right back to the Entered Apprentice degree and the lesson about perfecting the rough ashlar, which requires that we be ready, willing, and able to identify our vices. Unfortunately, however, it isn’t always easy to discern our vices. As previously noted, sometimes we can convince ourselves that they are actually virtues. Compounding this potential for self-deception is the fact that we don’t always have conscious awareness of everything occurring in our psyches.

Furthermore, in one set of circumstances it may be virtuous to think and act in a particular way, while in another situation such thinking and behavior would be more an expression of our vices and superfluities. These are among the reasons why it may be useful to regard self-awareness as our first contemplative practice, the first virtue to employ and enhance. Scottish Rite Masons should recall that in the Fourth Degree, when we are told we are ascending “into the skies of spiritual knowledge,” we are given the Key to the Mysteries, which is further explained as the key of self-awareness (Know Thyself!).

Self-awareness and discernment demand, in part, that we ask ourselves, “Why? Why am I thinking what I’m thinking? Why am I doing what I’m doing?” In doing so, it’s helpful to not settle for the first answers that come up. We can probe more deeply and courageously by asking: “Why do I want what I want, which is to say, what are all my motives and my intentions? What could be the worst of them? What might I be most ashamed to admit?”

Examining, evaluating, and intentionally changing this inner tapestry — motives, intentions, vices, and virtues – is something we must do for ourselves, although others can be of assistance in different ways.  So I offer you some of the deceptive vices I and others have discovered in asking ourselves such questions, specifically with regard to our interests and efforts in contemplative practice. I’ll start with two basic ones, and then I’ll present several that involve those two in more complex ways. As you will no doubt see, all these vices can have countless intersections with each other.

Basic Vices for Contemplatives

Hypocrisy: choosing to appear more virtuous, principled, or adherent to some belief, value, or practice than I actually am, such as self-righteously criticizing others for vices that I also have.

Spiritual Pride: attitudes of arrogance, conceit, self-righteousness, or vanity based on the conviction that my beliefs, values, or practices make me superior to others in one or more ways.

More Complex Vices for Contemplatives

False Humility: denying my own worth, strengths, or accomplishments, or otherwise assuming an inauthentic appearance of being meek, lowly, or servile; a pretense often motivated by the fear of seeming prideful and therefore being judged as hypocritical.
 

Spiritual Materialism: shoring up my spiritual pride by collecting things as evidence to myself and others of being more sophisticated, advanced, or praiseworthy; such things may include artworks, books, concepts, historical knowledge, jargon, degrees, titles, honors, positions, vows, practices, spiritual experiences, ‘gurus,’ students, disciples, etc.

False Asceticism: adopting forms of austerity, abstinence, and fasting, or appearing to do so, for the purposes of seeming more holy, enlightened, or pious to myself or others.

False Benevolence: a pretense of being kinder, more caring, more compassionate, or more charitable than I am genuinely motivated to behave, in the attempt to totally conceal my actual hostility, selfishness, or even disinterestedness.


False Equanimity: giving the appearance of rarely if ever having strong reactions to or feelings about things, rarely if ever being stressed, worried, angry, hurt, passionate or even delighted; this is a psychosocial strategy that requires minimizing and compartmentalizing the emotional aspects of being because they are regarded as too dangerous.

Acedia: an air of apathy, ennui, or boredom with ordinary matters, as if I am simply beyond the mundane silliness that disturbs other people, while in fact I am avoiding coping with realities that disturb me in some way.


Romantic Bliss: a euphoric affectation of extreme positivity, optimism, happiness, or contentment worn as a mask over my feelings of dissatisfaction, disappointment,  pessimism, frustration, and hopelessness. The term 'romantic' is used in the sense of "marked by the imaginative or emotional appeal of what is heroic, adventurous, remote, mysterious, or idealized." (see Merriam-Webster.com)
 

Romantic Despair: a dramatic affectation of hopelessness, pointlessness, pessimism, or defeatism, involving a disaffection with life for failing to be congruent with my ideas about the way it should be; similar to acedia in its avoidance of actually trying to cope more effectively with life.


Romantic Rage: a bitter affectation of loathing, hatred, and ill will toward various aspects of life, including other people, for failing to match my ideas about how they should be; another vice of avoidance.

This is far from a complete list, but is perhaps a worthwhile starting place for anyone interested in contemplatively wielding the gavel. As we do so, we may discover other vices that are very common, including a self-loathing that keeps us stuck in negativity and at war with ourselves. Such self-loathing is often rooted in the fear that we cannot satisfy our idealized notions of perfection or of being acceptable and admirable to others. We may even mistakenly consider such desires as detestable in themselves.

Of course, as we discover vices in ourselves, we naturally ask what we can do about them. One fundamental answer is that it’s helpful to simply be more honest and accepting about what it means to be human, which in turns enables us to exercise more self-compassion and genuine self-nurturance. These inner developments naturally facilitate us becoming more authentically virtuous people, reflecting our healthy self-love in the ways we become more loving with others.

Finally, I want to avoid giving the impression that these processes are merely a formula of personal development that’s entirely within our conscious control. As we earlier considered, we don’t have immediate conscious access to everything in our souls. We will miscalculate, misunderstand, and make mistakes because, to some extent, we are always mysteries to ourselves. To acknowledge that fact is an important part of accepting our humanity. Ultimately, contemplative practices such as this are about penetrating into the deepest mysteries of our being with a sense of adventure, experiencing the joys of spiritual discovery and creativity. Wielding the gavel may thus become more of an ongoing artistic experiment than a painfully arduous labor toward an unattainable completion.

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Chuck Dunning has authored: Contemplative Masonry: Basic Applications of Mindfulness, Meditation, and Imagery for the Craft

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