The origins of Freemasonry are shrouded by the mists of antiquity. Where it first started, who conceived it, and when it was born are all unknown. It seems‑certain however that today’s Speculative Freemasonry is the result of a gradual evolvement, of an ancient society of operative builders, and that in those olden times it was strictly concerned with the well being and training of its members.
The Golden Age of the operative masons was during the Middle Ages, when the Christian Church was erecting those marvelous Cathedrals, Churches and Monasteries all, over Europe to the Glory of God. Following the emergence of the Protestant Churches during the 16th century all buildings of a religious nature came gradually to a halt, and the Mason Societies fell upon hard times, as there was little work available for them. This was apparent all over Europe, especially in England. Some year’s later scattered records show that members of the English Gentry were being taken into the Masonic Companies, or Lodge, as accented members. This was probably an attempt to raise the numbers of the members and to improve their social standing.
The history of modern Speculative Freemasonry actually begins in 1717, when four Lodges, all situated in London, held a meeting and formed a Grand Lodge to govern the Craft. At this time conditions in London varied greatly. The Gentry and Nobility lived in great splendor in large luxurious homes. Architecture, English literature and the Arts reached their greatest flower at this time. There was much learning among the well‑to‑do, and the first glimmerings of a modern science and medicine were beginning to show.
The poor on the other hand lived a very hard life in poor overcrowded and unsanitary quarters. There was no entertainment in the homes, and little light or heat, so it was customary for those who could, to go out every night to drink at the neighborhood pub, listen to political speeches, story tellers, plays, or anything which they could afford. Drunkenness in all classes and sexes was rampant. There were clubs in existence for everything in those days and most people belonged to several, so the formation of another one caused a little stir. There were societies for literally every purpose, for music, literature, poetry, readings, philosophy, theatre, drinking, alchemy history, etc.
It must be remembered that Freemasonry came into being at a time when there were no schools in England outside the Churches and Monasteries, and a very few which were privately owned and operated for the wealthy classes. The common people were largely liberated and very few of them could either read or write. Printed books were still very scarce and, therefore very expensive, and most people had never even seen a book except for the Bible in their church. However the printed word was gradually becoming more common.
Teaching in those days was largely done by the use of symbols, emblems, legends and allegories, and , classical example of this is, of course, the Old and New Testaments of the Holy Bible. It was natural for the early speculative Masons to copy this mode of instruction, with which its members would be familiar. This type of teaching is still in use in our Fraternity today, and in the Christian Church. Our rituals and ceremonies are full of symbols, emblems, legends and allegories.
What do these four words mean?
A SYMBOL is defined to be a visible sign with which a spiritual feeling, emotion or idea is connected. It is also the expression of an idea, which is derived from the comparison, or contrast, of some object with a moral conception or attribute. The objective character of a symbol, which presents something to the touch and sight, as explanatory of an internal idea, is best calculated to be grasped by an immature mind. Hence in the early stages of the world all propositions; theological, political or scientific, were expressed in terms of symbols.
An EMBLEM is a secret representation of something unknown, or concealed, by a sign or thing that is known. Thus a square is in Freemasonry an emblem of morality; a plumb line of rectitude of conduct; and a level of the equality of human conditions. The term emblem is very generally used as synonymous with symbol, although the two words do not express exactly the same meaning. An emblem is properly a representation of an idea by a visible object, as in the examples quoted above; but a symbol is more extensive in its application, in whether that image is presented immediately to the senses as a visible and tangible substance, or only brought before the mind by words. While all emblems are symbols, all symbols are not emblems.
A LEGEND is a story which has been committed to writing, whether true or false, and that has been traditionally preserved from its first communication. A symbol is a material, and a legend is a mental, representation of a truth. Legends can be divided into three classes (1) Mythical, (2) Philosophical, (3) Historical.
- Mythical: The myth may be telling a story of the early deeds and events having a foundation in truth, which truth has been greatly distorted and perverted by the leaving out, or the putting in, of circumstances or personages, and then it becomes a mythical legend.
- Philosophical: It may have been adopted or invented as a means of stressing a particular thought or doctrine, then it becomes a philosophical legend.
- Historical: The truthfulness of actual history may greatly dominate the fictitious and invented parts of the myth; and the story may be on the whole, made up of facts, with a slight addition of imagination. It then forms a historical legend.
- Legends do not have to be historically accurate; it is the story that they tell that is important.
An ALLEGORY is a story or narrative in which there is a true and a figurative sense; an actual and connected meaning. The literal sense is intended by analogy, or comparison, to indicate the concealed one. It has been said that there is little difference between an allegory and a symbol. An allegory can be explained without any previous agreement, but a symbol cannot.
These‑then are the means by which Freemasonry instructs its members. Our rituals and ceremonies had their birth in a time and place where all teaching was by means of symbols, emb1ems, legends and allegories and the ritualists made full use of these teaching aids. Over the years as the rituals were extended and refined the use of these principles was continued. This has kept our rituals and ceremonies from being an‑exact science. Most of our symbols may have different meanings to different people, and we are at liberty to take whatever meaning we may prefer for each symbol. This has led to the publication of thousands of books by Masonic scholars in which they explain their theories of what our rituals mean. You are free to write your own.
This is another reminder of the antiquity of our institutions, and of the way that many ancient customs are still carried out in our Lodges today.
Look To The Light – Paper #13,
Published by the Educational Committee,
Mount Elphinstone Lodge No. 139 B.C.R.
Roberts Creek, B.C. Canada