For ancient peoples, the activities of the tribe — hunting, farming, warfare, writing, weaving, cooking, eating together, making and consuming alcohol, etc. — were the same activities as those of the gods and goddesses. The tribe had not developed or inherited these through historical accidents, encounters, or forces, but because the gods had given these to humanity — not always willingly.
From warfare to farming, the vocations had their own rites, sometimes to do with invoking certain powers (as in the “Berserker” warriors, who, perhaps partly through the use of psychedelics, became ferocious as wolves and bears, and impervious to pain), and sometimes to do with harmonizing with the forces of nature (e.g., planting seeds for crops). Metallurgists appear sometimes to have an initiatory function, and to have served in a similar capacity to the shaman (“wizard priest”).
Yet, even well into the modern era, trade guilds still had their own mythologies, symbols, and secret rituals of initiation. The fraternity (or fraternal movement) of Freemasonry — sometimes described as the world’s largest “secret society” (Freemasons dispute that label) — emerged from the stonemason’s trade guild of the British Isles in London in 1717 (when four Lodges associated with the builders’ guild of the day, declared themselves to be a Grand Lodge). Nevertheless, the fraternity (or fraternal movement) has roots stretching back (through the stonemasons’ guild of Britain) to the Middle Ages. From that time, it handed down a peculiar mythology that invokes Hermes, and purports to show how geometry was taken from Egypt and Greece (Pythagoras) to the British Isles.
Romantic and often rather dubious scholarship by Freemasons has linked the fraternity to everything from the ancient Egyptians to the Vikings, the Essenes to the Rosicrucians, and from Shakespeare to Hermeticism. There seems to be no doubt, however, that the prehistory of the fraternity can be traced through the stonemasons and its mythology (which was represented in the seminal Masonic text James Anderson’s Constitutions of the Free-Masons in 1723), though this is generally either not known to the more romantic theorists or ignored by them.
To be clear I don’t want to add to the confusion, by making some sort of historical claim that Freemasonry’s development can be back to tribal rituals. I’m not making such a claim.
What is of interest to me here is that Freemasonry continues to represent the archaic or, we might say, the primordial. To me, the essential elements are as follows:
The Mythic and Metaphysical:
Freemasonry places its initiates squarely in the realm of the mythic and metaphysical. Time has become, in a sense, cyclical. The Freemason understands that he is heading toward his own death, but not linearly as such (as in the personal and individual history of birth, life, and death, but rather in a more collective sense). He is an actor in a myth that has played out repeatedly since the beginning and that will play out perhaps for all eternity.
Through the Ritual, he acts and speaks in a manner identical to Freemasons that a century or more ago. In this sense, he is among the dead, who live through those actions. Everything around him is connected to Deity in some way or another.
Initiation into Craft:
As mentioned, initiation into a craft or traditional vocation was to become connected to a certain deity, myth, symbolism, and so on. Freemasonry’s “working tools,” like the tools of the ancient vocations, are seen to represent, and perhaps to a certain degree, to embody, divine principles that unveil the Nature of God, or Deity.
When the ancient blacksmith held his hammer or melted metals he resembled the blacksmith god, whose very body would become rad and hot, and would begin to spark, whenever angered. Likewise, the spinner of thread, and the weaver of fabric, must have seen herself as intimately connected to the powers of the Fates, the Norns, etc., who would spin the fates of men. (Tantra, incidentally, means “warp,” and refers to the thread that runs vertically in weaving).
Likewise, when the Freemason touches, or is touched by, a Compasses (a draftsman’s “compass,” in modern terminology), for example, he is touching or being touched by an instrument that represents or embodies the manner of the thought of Deity (the Great Architect or Grand Geometrician), who creates the world architecturally or geometrically.
We should add here that Freemasonry does in fact encourage its members to study the seven liberal arts (astronomy, music, geometry, etc.), and, moreover, a loose understanding of geometry and building is, I think, passed on to the initiate — not in a professional sense — but at least in the sense of his being aware of the tools and methods traditionally used in stonemasonry.
Of course, the initiate should learn at least one art — preferably several, ranging from painting and writing to the martial arts. But, in Freemasonry, still one can get a sense of the archaic relationship between a craft, ritual, and the spiritual.
Initiation into Manhood:
Whether legitimate or not, today, “initiation” into an esoteric Order or occult group is not difficult to obtain. Problematically, though, entering such an occult Order is rarely preceded by any formal — or even informal — initiation into manhood or womanhood, e.g., into the general responsibilities of life, and the morals of society.
Occult Orders often emphasize alleged secret “techniques” or complex correspondences, e.g., in relation to the Qabalah, but cannot, and do not, act to initiate their members into the foundational qualities of a healthy ethical or physical life, or into society as such.
In contrast, despite its esoteric symbolism influenced by Hermeticism (the Rose Croix degree, for example), Platonism (the Royal Arch degree in Britain), etc., at a foundational level, and in keeping with ancient tradition, Freemasonry emphasizes brotherhood, civic duty, responsibility to family, and developing and retaining a good ethical and moral standard.
Contemplation of one’s own mortality has been an essential part of every major spiritual tradition, from the Zen meditations of the Samurai to Christian mysticism. The gnosis of such traditions comes at least partly from viewing the world from the moment of death. What will be important to me then? we can ask, to know what is valuable, and what is not, in life and in how to live.
The Higher Man:
In occultism it is common to hear of the “higher Self.” The concept is generally associated with attaining revelation or abstract mystical knowledge from a supernatural being, such as an angel. The English magus Aleister Crowley’s Book of the Law represents probably the most famous example of a work given, allegedly, by a supernatural entity in the relatively recent past — in this case named Aiwass.
In contrast, the higher man acts in the world. He does not bring the supernatural to it, in terms of revelation, but acts in accordance with the nature of “heaven and earth” — to use an Eastern phrase — that is already there and always present.
Of course, we founded Phalanx for those who are striving to embody the higher man — the Confucian ideal of the Chun-tzu, the martial artist, and, we can include here, the Master Mason or those striving to something similar — and, moreover, to share what we have discovered in our our journeys toward that end.
However, we can say, here, that the above points from Freemasonry provide a profound orientation for anyone setting out: Immersion in the cyclical and mythic; remembering our mortality; responsibility to our society, family, friends, and comrades or Brothers, and so on; and the learning of a real craft or skill.