The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Mention the word “mason” and what automatically springs to mind for many is secret societies. “Mason” is indeed an abbreviation for Freemasonry, the controversial and mysterious fraternal organization. For the past few hundred years, the very notoriety of Masons (whom some still suspect of plotting world domination) has obscured what was so special and mysterious about masons in the first place. After all, Freemasonry’s name evokes the mysterious mystical reputation of the stonemason, not the other way around.
Although there may be Masons who are masons, masons are not necessarily Masons. In the context of these pages, “Mason” with a capital “M” refers to Freemasons; “mason” with a lower-case “m” refers to the professional artisanal craft.
The relationship between Masons and masons is no coincidence, however. As the historical witchcraze died down, hysteria over Freemasonry increased and has never entirely abated. Because Freemasons were initially identified as a small but elite and powerful group (some might also say because Freemasonry was originally exclusively male), the hysteria it engendered never reached witchcraze proportions, however at one time to be a Freemason was a crime punishable by death in many regions. The magus Alessandro Cagliostro, for instance, died in jail, sentenced to life imprisonment in particularly brutal solitary confinement, not for practicing alchemy, the magical arts or fraud (all of which he did indeed perform) but for promulgating Freemasonry.
Freemasons could have called themselves anything but chose the term Freemason because they claimed to be the spiritual descendants of ancient master masons who bore a potent reputation for possessing secret magical and spiritual traditions. The master mason wasn’t just associated with general magical arts but with crucial and significant magical secrets. Master masons were identified as powerful, elite, educated wizards.
For a moment, let’s forget Freemasons and focus on stonemasons. What exactly do masons do? They build architectural structures. Masons are builders but not just any builders. Once upon a time, masons rarely built common, everyday homes, for instance, although as house architecture became more sophisticated, this was no longer necessarily the case. Average people didn’t hire masons, who were fine craftsmen with expectations of proper compensation.
Royalty and nobility who lived in estates, palaces, and castles would hire (or commandeer) masons but, in general, the first professional masons were involved with building places of worship: the massive stone temple structures of Egypt, the Mediterranean, East Asia, and the Middle East. (Similar traditions also existed among the Aztec, Inca, and Maya.)
Like metalworkers and millers, the mason is also a master of transformation:
He transforms raw stone into buildings
He transforms mere edifices into sacred territory
These masons knew architectural secrets: they built arches and vaults. However masons knew spiritual and magical secrets too.
Beyond the required technical expertise, sacred buildings couldn’t just be thrown together like some rustic barn-raising. Simply building a beautiful building wasn’t sufficient to create sacred space. Shrines and temples were dwelling-places for deities; the shrine was intended as the deity’s home.
Centuries before the concept of “Commanding and Compelling” emerged, these supreme deities could not be commanded or compelled to live in homes so carefully built for them. (See MAGICAL ARTS: Commanding and Compelling.) “Inviting” them or summoning them wasn’t sufficient either. Instead the edifice had to be transformed into a dwelling place worthy of the deity. Construction of shrines and temples thus entailed spiritual and magical rituals. Careful attention must be paid to taboos: nothing could offend the deity.
Different deities required different rituals and different types of edifices. Usually some type of sacrifice was incorporated, quite often, once upon a time, blood sacrifice. If an animal was sacrificed, it had to be sacrificed according to specific ritual. Different deities expect different types of animals and different rituals. The wrong ritual or ritual done incorrectly can evoke rage, rather than favor. And, of course, sometimes, once upon a time, animals were considered insufficient: some deities apparently expected human sacrifice.
People were walled up within structures or their blood carefully and ritually spilled. The nature of sacrifice is very tenuous. What is intended to please may enrage instead, as demonstrated in the Greek myth of Tantalus and Pelops. Tantalus thought to please the Olympian gods by offering them his most precious possession, his son Pelops. Perhaps once this would have been acceptable but Tantalus was out of date and behind the times: the Olympian gods now considered human sacrifice passé and reprehensible and so punished Tantalus severely while returning Pelops to life. (It’s believed that the myth exists to remind people of the current unacceptability of human sacrifice and to describe the transition. Notably, one deity is shown accepting Tantalus’ sacrifice: the Corn Mother Demeter.)
Where human sacrifice were once permitted but later forbidden, rituals became especially complex. Substitutions had to be carefully and correctly made to avoid evoking the deity’s displeasure.
The mason needed to know exactly what type of sacrifice was expected and acceptable because as buildings became larger and more impressive they were both more expensive to build and could potentially cause more damage if they fell. The collapse of a thatched cottage does less damage than the collapse of a huge stone structure filled with people—a collapse understood as the displeasure or vengeance of the god.
The Code of Hammurabi decreed the death penalty for builders and masons whose building collapsed onto inhabitants. (Hammurabi himself had trained as a stonemason.) Moreover, important buildings weren’t believed to just collapse: among Merlin’s first feats was explaining to the Saxon overlord Vortigern why the watchtower Vortigern had commissioned would never stand but would continually topple, no matter how well it was rebuilt. (The tower was built over a nest of dragon’s eggs.)
Master masons were the spiritual craftsmen in charge of these rituals and sacrifices. Many practices were secret; master masons were the ones who knew.
These Pagan masons built the Parthenon, the Serapeum, the Pyramids of Egypt, the Temple of Isis at Philae, and so many other ancient, sacred structures. One brotherhood of skilled masons was reputedly initiates of a Dionysian Mystery tradition. Most significantly in terms of their later reputation and their association with witchcraft, ancient master masons built King Solomon’s Jerusalem Temple under the supervision of Solomon, himself a master magician; among his wives was a pharaoh’s daughter. Solomon had access to magical secrets from all over the ancient world and perhaps beyond.
King Solomon is renowned as the first “Commander and Compeller.” Among the many legends told about Solomon is that he harnessed the power of spirits (Djinn) to build the Jerusalem Temple. Asmodeus himself served as master mason and may have passed some professional secrets along to human masons, as well. (See HORNED ONE: Asmodeus.)
Alternative legends, based more closely on biblical accounts, suggest that Solomon hired master craftsmen from many lands. No comparable building had ever been built in the Jewish kingdom and thus Solomon hired experienced craftsmen from elsewhere. History indicates that the Jerusalem Temple was similar in architectural style to Semitic Pagan shrines.
According to legend, among those master craftsmen were those Dionysian initiates. These masons would eventually become associated with the Knights Templars, who set up base on the site of what was once Solomon’s Temple, hence their name.
Legend had it that the Knights Templars did some excavation and exploration. What they learned remained secret, privy only to the innermost circles of their fraternal order. No longer just monastic knights, the Knights Templars also transformed, at least according to this legend, into an elite, secret mystical society. (See HORNED ONE: Baphomet.
The Jerusalem Temple was eventually destroyed, subsequently rebuilt, and destroyed once again, as eventually were most Pagan temples and shrines. Christianity’s rise to political power was accompanied by a strenuous campaign to close and destroy Pagan shrines. (See DIVINE WITCH: Kybele.)
The professional masons who built those shrines and supervised their maintenance survived, however, as did their artisanal skills. Regardless of spiritual orientation or mystic secrets possessed, their professional builder’s secrets were invaluable and irreplaceable. Master masons were soon hard at work supervising the building of cathedrals. Perhaps because their professional expertise was so crucial, former Pagan affiliations were overlooked. From the beginning, masons, not average builders or stonecutters, but elite master masons, carried an aura of magical power and bore a spiritually subversive reputation that never entirely dissipated.
Although master masons were intrinsically associated with the rise and glory of Christianity, they never entirely shook that old reputation of being secret, subversive, magical adepts. Based on the inclusion of Pagan motifs like Sheela na Gigs, gargoyles, and horned deities (sacred or diabolical, take your pick) into sacred Christian architecture, that reputation may not have been undeserved.
Images that later appear on Tarot cards were carved onto church façades. Some believe this indicates that tarot cards are nothing more than a game, deriving from common, everyday medieval life; the cards thus were inspired by sacred architecture. Others interpret this appearance as indicating that some masons were privy to ancient Egyptian mysteries and that the cards and architectural motifs both derive from the same Pagan source.
Modern European stonemasons’ guilds first appeared in approximately 1000 CE. In order to work as a mason, one was required to join a guild. Other masons had to accept you. Upon acceptance, one went through levels of apprenticeship, after which one rose to the rank of journeyman. Finally, after many years and much training, one might earn the status of master. Although many professions had guilds, masons were unusual for their time: they did not sell products but instead sold their labor and expertise, their knowledge.
Many Christian cathedrals are built over the sites of ancient Pagan holy places. It was suspected that master masons were secret guardians of these Pagan sites who maintained authority by infiltrating Christianity. Master masons are also associated with the mysterious Black Madonnas who may or may not be Isis or Mary Magdalen in disguise, as well as with the Grail mysteries of the Priory of Sion, as described in Dan Brown’s bestselling novel The Da Vinci Code.
Various explanations for these rumors were offered, the most popular being that master masons, who pass on their secrets from one to another, generation after generation, were descended from survivors of Pagan Mystery Schools—Dionysian and others. Following the destruction of Paganism, these survivors eventually discreetly joined together in exile. They continued to ply their trade but secretly maintained and preserved Pagan traditions. Some suggested that these masons, like witches, were an insidious fifth column just waiting their opportunity to take over the world—a fear eventually transferred to Freemasons.
Another theory regarding the secret masonic Pagan traditions ties directly into the legendary origins of Freemasonry. When the victorious crusaders, the Knights Templars, settled into their Jerusalem headquarters, they unearthed old metaphysical secrets, many beyond their understanding. In their attempt to comprehend, according to this legend, they made contact with people who possessed ancient Pagan masons’ secrets or somehow became initiated into the secrets of this mystery tradition.
When the order of the Knights Templars was later suppressed, many knights were arrested and executed but some escaped and survived. Some of these surviving knights allegedly traveled to Scotland, where they hid incognito before emerging among Scottish stonemasons’ guilds. These Scottish craftsmen’s guilds, secretly infiltrated by Templars and others possessing ancient masons’ mystical and spiritual secrets, were the seed that sprouted the international fraternal organization known as the Freemasons.
Whether or not this is true, legends purported to stem from the building of the Jerusalem Temple are central to the mythic origins of Freemasonry.
Freemasonry derives its origins from the legendary mason Hiram Abiff, Son of the Widow, who was murdered during the building process, although some suggest this “murder” actually refers to human sacrifice. Freemasonry, like alchemy, has historically employed codes to transmit information and so it is unknown how literally this story should be taken. It is not the story as told in the Bible, which does discuss the building of Solomon’s Temple.
The first book of Kings (7:13-15) describes how Solomon sent for Hiram of Tyre, son of a widow of the tribe of Naphtali, although his father was a Tyrian. Some understand Hiram to be the name of an individual however others interpret the phrase as referring to “the Hiram of Tyre.” Tyre, now located in modern Lebanon, was then an important city-state; its rulers may have been known as “Hirams” just as Egyptian rulers were “pharaohs.” Whether Hiram was common man or king doesn’t preclude his being a magical adept. According to scriptures, however, Hiram did not die but lived to see the completion of the project. Furthermore he was not a stonemason but that most magical of artisans, a metalworker, a man who crafted bronze and brass (see below, Metalworkers).