Freemasonry: Symbolism and Features

From the Lecture Series: The Real History of Secret Societies

By Richard B. Spence Ph.D., University of Idaho

Freemasonry is the most successful secret society in history. It has spread globally to many different parts of the world and has influenced and inspired many other secret societies. As it announces its presence, it cannot be categorized as a secret society, especially for many of its members.

An image showing 'all seeing eye' and a pyramid on USA dollar banknote.
The internal activities of Freemasonry are always to be kept a secret by its members.
(Image: DedMityay/Shutterstock)

The term Freemasons prefer to use for their society is a ‘society with secrets’. But there is another definition for secret societies that exactly applies to Freemasonry: selective recruitment, the promise of exclusive knowledge or status, and oaths of secrecy and loyalty.

So, it is not the presence of the society that is a secret; instead, it is the internal activities of the society that has to be kept as a secret. It is the secrecy that the initiates take an oath of and are repeatedly required to keep.

Learn more about Masonic revolutions in America and France.

Freemasonry: a House of Many Rooms

The process of initiation and its rituals are varied. There is no unified ceremony to be observed by all freemasons around the world. The reason is pretty clear: there is not just one Freemasonry. The society has many variations, and each has its own set of rules and rituals. For example, women are not allowed in most Masonic lodges, but some lodges admit them. The usual age for admission is 21, but 25 or 18 can also be acceptable.

A curious example regards the Masonic lodges in the US. These lodges are divided into two grand lodges, or jurisdictions: the Ancient Free and Accepted Masons (AF&AM), and the Free and Accepted Masons (F&AM). The AF&AM controls the grand lodges in 24 states and the F&AM in 25 states. There are two exceptions: South Carolina, which is under its own Ancient Free Masons (AFM), and the District of Columbia, which has the Free and Accepted Masons (FAAM). Although they differ in detail, they mutually recognize each other as ‘regular’. More importantly, they all claim to have originated from the Grand Lodge of England. That is the point: four different jurisdictions originate from one grand lodge!

This is a transcript from the video series The Real History of Secret Societies. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Symbolism in Freemasonry

An important property of Freemasonry is that its origins are lost in time, which serves as a perfect catalyst for speculation. There is no solid rule on what lodge is regular and what is irregular. It is just a matter of opinion, and one lodge may regard itself as regular but another as irregular. The common answer to the question of ‘what is the lodge about’? is ‘fellowship’. Freemasonry is ‘a system of morality veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols’.

 A painting showing Masonic initiation, Paris, 1745.
The initiation ritual in Freemasonry has many symbols incorporated into it.
(Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

The symbols are best portrayed in the initiation ritual. The candidate enters the lodge through the western door, going toward the worshipful master, who is on the eastern side. It is based on the Masonic myth that light, the symbol of wisdom, comes from the east. So, if you are searching for wisdom, you travel from west to east. To symbolize the ignorance of the candidate, he is blindfolded and taken to the worshipful master. His breasts are exposed to prove that he is not a woman. To prove that he is healthy and strong, his left pant-leg is rolled up. This is just for the sake of symbolism since a single leg cannot be a good indicator of good health. Although no member of the lodge is a mason, they use actual stonemason gear in the initiation: a gavel, square, and apron. They only act like they are masons.

In Freemasonry, there are specific terms that have taken on new meanings over time. For example, the terms ‘free’ and ‘accepted’. ‘Free’ was used to refer to a man who was not a slave or a bondservant. But, over time, it came to signify someone unaffected by any obligations contradictory with Masonic ones. A real mason or someone who knows the trade and works in it is called an ‘operative’ mason. An ‘accepted’ or ‘speculative’ mason is one without intending to lay bricks or stones. So, these masons are not real but symbolic ones. There is an overall agreement that at some point, the stonemason guilds started to admit non-working members, but the reason is not clear. Then, after a while, these non-working members, who were mostly aristocrats or tradesmen, dominated the lodges and dropped out the real masons. But no one knows the details of this process. Why would aristocrats like to be members of a society of ordinary workers? This is one of the many facets of Freemasonry that are unclear, and people have tried to answer them with inventing stories and explanations.

Learn more about Secret societies: the underworld of history.

Common questions about Freemasonry: Symbolism and Features

Q: What is the Freemason initiation ritual?

The Freemason initiation ritual involves the candidate entering the lodge blindfolded. His left breast is exposed to show that he is not a woman. His left pant-leg is rolled up to prove he is not disabled. He enters from the west side and moves toward the east side, where the worshipful master is sitting.

Q: Who are ‘Operative’ Masons?

In the Masonic terms, ‘Operative’ Masons are those members of the lodge who are real stonemasons, know the trade, and works in it.

Q: Who are ‘Speculative’ Masons?

In the Masonic terms, a ‘Speculative’ Mason is one who is not involved in actually laying bricks and stones. Also known as ‘accepted’, they are symbolic members.

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