[Photo by Nina Aldin Thune.]
In The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown repeatedly brings up pyramid symbolism in connection with Freemasonry. This would seem to be a mistake, because the pyramid is not a Masonic symbol -- right?
Well -- it's not quite so clear cut.
Oh, I can hear the groans from here. Yes, I know: the various authors in our day who connect Freemasonry with pyramids are considered more than a little out on the fringe, especially by the more responsible Masonic historians of the so-called realistic school of Masonic history. It certainly is the case that, in the year 2009, Masonic ritual, symbolism, and mythic stories all have nothing to do with pyramids.
However, what is true of the early 21st century was not true of earlier days of Masonry, centuries ago.
The fact of the matter is that, at least as early as the 14th century, Masonic literature explicitly connected the Fraternity with Egypt, and (no later than the 18th century) even with the pyramids themselves. Controversial offshoots of Freemasonry in the 19th century associated Masonry with Egyptian initiatory practices.
Finally, the literature of the wilder regions of the conspiracy theory community connects Freemasonry with a very famous pyramid, a reproduction of which exists in virtually every home in America, and this connection should also be addressed when discussing pyramids and Freemasonry.
So, let's have at it.
Freemasonry and Egypt in
the Regius Manuscript
The Grand Lodge style of Freemasonry was established in London in 1717, with the founding of the premier Grand Lodge of England. However, Freemasonry existed before that time, in individual lodges scattered across Scotland, England, and Ireland, at the least -- perhaps for centuries. One of the earliest Masonic manuscripts in existence, the Regius (or Halliwell) Manuscript, dates from about 1390, and specifically draws a connection between Masonry and Egypt when describing the mythic history of Masonry -- in verse, no less. Beginning at line 55, the manuscript states:
The Clerk [i.e., cleric] Euclid in this wise founded
This Craft of geometry in Egyptian land,
In Egypt he taught it full wide,
In diverse lands on every side.
(This excerpt is taken from p. 293 of Coil's Masonic Encyclopedia, rev. ed., 1995. The entire poem is available in a modern translation in Christopher Hodapp's excellent book, Freemasons for Dummies, Appendix A.)
So, Masons of over 600 years ago thought that the Greek mathematician Euclid was an ancient member of their fraternity, and taught geometry in Egypt. Being a Mason, of course, Euclid would have been busy building things. I don't think these would have been shopping malls or amusement parks, either. Thus, at least by implication, the Regius Manuscript leaves open the possibility of Freemasons being involved with pyramids.
Freemasonry and Pyramids in
The Grand Lodge era of Freemasonry begins in 1717. The most authoritative document we have of that era is James Anderson's The Constitutions of the Free-Masons (original London edition 1723, republished in the United States by Benjamin Franklin himself in 1734). Anderson's Constitutions include a traditional history of Freemasonry, stretching back to Adam, the first man, as described in the Bible. In this traditional history, Anderson mentions the following, referring to biblical events after the Flood of Noah and the confusion of languages at the Tower of Babel (Ben Franklin's edition, pages 10-11, modernizing the text a bit, omitting a footnote):
And, no doubt, the Royal Art [i.e., Freemasonry] was brought down to Egypt by Mitzraim, the second son of Ham [i.e., Ham being Noah's second son], about six years after the Confusion at Babel, and after the Flood 160 years, when he led thither his colony (for "Egypt" is Mitzraim in Hebrew); because we find the River Nile's overflowing of its banks soon caused an improvement in geometry, which consequently brought Masonry to be much in demand. For the ancient noble cities, with the other magnificent edifices of that country, and particularly the famous pyramids, demonstrate the early taste and genius of that ancient kingdom. Nay, one of those ancient Egyptian pyramids is reckoned the first of the Seven Wonders of the World, the account of which, by historians and travellers, is almost incredible.
Anderson, of course, was drawing on other source material concerning the mythic background of Freemasonry -- the legendary and hypothetical "Anderson Manuscript" -- of unknown age, and that is now lost to us. All we can tell for sure is that at least as far back as nearly 300 years ago, and possibly much earlier, Freemasons mentioned Freemasonry and the ancient Egyptian pyramids in the same breath.
(Incidentally, what did Anderson mean when he said that "we find the River Nile's overflowing of its banks soon caused an improvement in geometry"? The annual flood of the Nile washed away landmarks, and the land on both sides of the banks, for many miles, had to be resurveyed -- through the use of geometry, of course.)
Freemasonry and Egypt in
the Forbidden Rite of Memphis
The basic form of Freemasonry is a system of three degrees, or rituals of initiation. However, over the last three centuries or so, several systems of 'high degrees' have emerged, which offer additional sequences of degrees. In Masonic parlance, a system of degrees is called a Rite (as opposed to the common meaning of a "rite" as a specific ceremony). There are several such Rites in existence today.
In the United States, the main such systems are the Scottish Rite (which offers a system of numbered degrees up to the 33rd) and the York Rite (which offers about 10 degrees in a specific but unnumbered sequence). The York and Scottish Rites and a few other invitational organizations are each accepted by the Grand Lodge authorities in almost all of the 52 sovereign Masonic jurisdictions in the United States (comprising one Grand Lodge in each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico).
But there are other Rites in Masonry -- literally forbidden Rites.
(Cue the creepy trumpet or organ music: DAA-DA-Da-dahhhhhhhhh.)
Over the last three centuries, many different systems of degrees have been put forth to Freemasons, some for the sake of propounding some esoteric knowledge, some for the sake of gathering initiation fees from gullible Masons. At present, in the United States, many Rites have been banned by the various Grand Lodges, although several such Rites have continued to exist on the fringes of Freemasonry for centuries. One such is the Rite of Memphis, originally established in Paris in 1814, a system of up to 100 degrees that has undergone many changes of name and administration and many incarnations over the last two centuries. Although condemned by American Grand Lodges, the Rite of Memphis is active in several parts of the United States today. (No, I am not a member.)
Even the name, "Rite of Memphis," shows some affinity for Egypt. Beyond that, the literature of the Rite of Memphis explicitly connects Freemasonry to Egypt and its wisdom. For example, in a lecture for one incarnation of the Rite, known as the "Antient and Primitive Rite," we find the following in the instruction for members between the 27th and 30th degrees, as published in London in 1882:
Q. What relation does Masonry hold to Egypt?
A. Masonry, considered as a secret society with peculiar ceremonies, having for its aim the conservation of knowledge, truth, and their laws, was received and perpetuated in Egypt by the Sages, who concealed attainments from the vulgar by clothing them in ingenious emblems; from the banks of the Nile the system was carried to the Greeks, Romans, and other ancient nations, where it more or less lost its character and primitive [i.e., original] aim. All the old operative constitutions of the Freemasons trace their origin to Egypt .... The wisdom of Egypt became the proverb of all nations. (Collectanea, 2000, vol. 17, part 2, pp. 85-86; published by the Grand College of Rites of the United States of America.)
A different group derived from the Rite of Memphis, Calvin C. Burt's Egyptian Masonic Rite of Memphis, similarly celebrated the connection between ancient Freemasonry and Egyptian wisdom. This is shown in a handbook published in Chicago in 1867, a portion of which focused in detail on supposed ceremonies of initiation in ancient Egypt, which the author considered Masonic in origin; the author then claimed that his own Rite was founded in France in 1694. (See pp. ix-xiii in Collectanea, 2001, vol. 17, part 3.)
The point here is that traditions on the outskirts or fringes of Freemasonry have connected Masonic initiation with the wisdom of Egypt.
in Your Pocket
Things are so much simpler for the wild-eyed, undisciplined sector of the conspiracy theory community.* There is no need to consult ancient manuscripts, or the handbooks of off-ramp, qwinky forms of Freemasonry: one just needs to look at the paper money in one's wallet or purse, and that settles the matter. In the Anything Goes region of the conspiracy theory community, it is an article of faith that the pyramid shown on the back of the $1 bill, one side of the Grand Seal of the United States, is a Masonic symbol.
The fact of the matter is that this is simply untrue; I state the facts in my comments regarding Clue #35. However, the fact that the conspiracy community believes that the pyramid is a Masonic symbol may simply be enough for Dan Brown.
It is not entirely off-base for Dan Brown to connect Freemasonry with pyramids. In the 21st century, Masonry is not connected with pyramids. However, most of the association between Masonry and pyramids that is portrayed in The Lost Symbol is associated with events supposedly occuring during the days of the American Founding Fathers, roughly the 1770s to the 1790s or so. This was an era only about 60 years separated from the days of Anderson's Constitutions, the original publication of which was still (barely) in living memory. In that era, a connection between Freemasonry and pyramids seemed a bit more plausible.
Of course, it is entirely possible that Dan Brown is merely following the lead of the wilder regions of the conspiracy theory community, in attributing a connection between Freemasonry and pyramids.
I shall have more to say about Freemasonry and its symbolism, as well as the whole issue of pyramids, in my forthcoming book, Discovering The Lost Symbol: The Mind of Dan Brown, the Truth About the Freemasons, and the Idea that We Can Become Gods. (Agents' and publishers' inquiries are welcome. Please contact me through the e-mail portal on my Web Page: see my Blogger profile.)
I remind you that comments are welcome. Feel free to become a Follower of this blog, to forward posts by e-mail, and to subscribe to the RSS feed.
My thanks to an Anonymous commentor on an earlier post, who raised this question.
[The image of the Great Pyramid is Copyright 2005 Nina Aldin Thune. The image was obtained from the Wikimedia Commons through Wikipedia, and appears under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.]
*I recognize that there are rational, responsible, careful conspiracy theory researchers. I admire them greatly. However, I find it necessary to take their wild-eyed relatives to task at every turn.
(Copyright 2009 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.)