The Theosophical Society in America

Ceremony, Freemasonry, and the Mysteries

by John Algeo

Originally printed in the JULY-AUGUST 2008 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Algeo, John. "Ceremony, Freemasonry, and the Mysteries." Quest  96.4 (JULY-AUGUST 2008):127-129, 147.

John AlgeoCEREMONY IS A MYSTERY—in several senses. First, we do not know the ultimate origin of the word. English ceremony comes through French from Latin caeremonia, but that Latin word is of unknown origin. It may be from Etruscan, a language spoken near Rome but unrelated to Latin. And it may originally have referred to sacred rites performed by the Etruscan priests at a site called Caere, but that is just speculation. The ultimate origin of the word is a mystery.

Second, although ceremony is basically just a form of customary action, including etiquette, protocol, and ritual of all sorts, some ceremonies have the potential of great power—of affecting their participants in deep and lasting ways. Yet that power is mysterious because we do not know how it works. William Butler Yeats, the Irish poet and Theosophist—who was himself a great ceremonialist—described the power of ceremony in a poem entitled "A Prayer for My Daughter," which ends with these lines:

How but in custom and in ceremony
Are innocence and beauty born?
Ceremony's a name for the rich horn,
And custom for the spreading laurel tree.

The "rich horn" is the cornucopia—the curved horn from a goat whose milk fed the infant Zeus. In gratitude for being thus fed, the god made that horn overflow with fruit, grain, and other good things, so it became a symbol of abundance. Laurel leaves were formed into wreaths with which to crown athletes, prophets, and poets, so the laurel is a symbol of victory, wisdom, and art. How ceremony gives rise to innocence and beauty, how it confers abundance and victory, and how it can affect the lives of those who engage in it are mysteries. 

Third, ceremony is the basis—the heart and soul—of the Ancient Mysteries, of which modern Freemasonry is a reincarnation. Aristotle said that initiation into the Mysteries was not a matter of learning something, but rather of experiencing something and of being changed by that experience. The Ancient Mysteries were ceremonies. A ceremony does not impart cognitive information, telling us something we otherwise might not know about; rather, a ceremony is a pattern of action, something we experience by doing it. The ceremonies of the Mysteries and of modern Freemasonry were and are experiences with the potential of transforming their participants. So ceremonies are Mystery actions.

Ancient Mysteries and Modern Freemasonry

The Mysteries of Eleusis were the most famous of those in ancient Greece, although there were many others in the Mediterranean world, for example, the Mysteries of Cybele, Bacchus, Orpheus, Isis, and Mithra. The Eleusinian Mysteries lasted for more than a thousand years, initiating countless numbers of nobles and commoners, women and men, free persons and slaves. After the Mysteries of Eleusis and others had been closed down by a Christian government that regarded them as subversive, the Mystery tradition did not die out, but was transformed. It continued, as Joscelyn Godwin shows in the Quest Book The Golden Thread: The Ageless Wisdom of the Western Mystery Tradition, in a number of forms: Hermeticism, Gnosticism, Neo-Platonism, Alchemy, Kabbalah, and Freemasonry, among others.

Godwin's metaphor of the thread echoes recent use of that term for a train of thought or a series of messages on a single topic (for example, a thread in the messages of a Web chat group). It is a good metaphor because it suggests a process of uniting by tying together, and uniting was and is the aim of both the Ancient Mysteries and their later descendant ceremonies. The post-Classical history of the Mysteries could also be likened to an underground stream that emerges here and there, now and again, in the landscape of history, as various springs of living water. Freemasonry is one of those springs.

The history of modern Freemasonry is reasonably well documented after the 1717 foundation of the Grand Lodge of England, but the Craft (as Freema-sons refer to their form of the Mysteries) is certainly much older than that. Elias Ashmole, the seventeenth-century English antiquary, esotericist, and founder of the Royal Society, was made a Freemason in 1646. And there is evidence that modern Freemasonry may have begun in the 1590s in Scotland.

The cathedral architects and stonemasons of the Middle Ages were part of the "Golden Thread" that Joscelyn Godwin writes about. Of all workmen in that time, they were doubtless the best informed about historical matters and the liberal arts—especially the quadrivium of mathematical arts: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music—but also about art, history, theology, and spiritual symbolism. Constructing and adorning the great cathedrals of Europe required mastery of all those fields. The stonemasons consequently formed a brotherhood with trade secrets and great pride in their special knowledge and status within European society. They formed lodges of workmen that strictly excluded cowans, a Scottish term for someone who works as a mason but has not been properly apprenticed or entered into the craft and therefore who lacks the necessary knowledge and skill to do the job well.

What seems to have happened in late sixteenth-century Scotland is that some of the nobility and gentry who patronized the stonemasons were admitted into Masonic trade lodges as an honor to both the gentry and the lodges. Some of those gentlemen would have been Renaissance men of learning, familiar with various forms of the "Golden Thread" that were continuing the Mystery tradition, as Elias Ashmole certainly was at his somewhat later time. Consequently, those gentlemen became Speculative Masons rather than operative masons. That is, they used the craft of stonemasonry as a mirror (Latin speculum) in which to reflect upon the mysteries of life. Thus they cooperated with those who operated as working stonemasons and thereby transformed Freemasonry into a reincarnation of the Ancient Mysteries.

Thus modern Freemasonry was born: mothered by the craft of stonemasonry and fathered by Renaissance esotericists. To some extent, this history is itself speculative, but it rests on the work of such scholars as Joscelyn Godwin and David Stevenson.

Similarities and Differences

The Ancient Mysteries and modern Freemasonry are thematically, if not lineally, connected. But what are the ceremonial links between the two esoteric practices? They are significant.

First, as Aristotle said, the Ancient Mysteries had no cognitive content, nor does Freemasonry. Neither ceremonial practice involves learning information; both involve doing something, namely experiencing a ceremony, which is intended to be and can actually be transformative. Indeed, Freemasonry defines itself, not as a body of ideas, but instead as "a peculiar system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols." In that definition, "peculiar" does not mean "odd, strange" (though some may think such an interpretation justified), but rather "particular, characterizing, distinctive," which is the oldest sense of that word. Masonic language is conservative, often archaic. And "morality" is not just "ethical behavior" but more generally reflects the Latin etymon of the word: mos, whose plural is mores, meaning "custom(s)." So Freemasonry is a way of acting, a customary ceremony (remember Yeats's poem about custom and ceremony).

Second, Aristotle also said that, in the Ancient Mysteries, something was told, something was shown, and something was done. The thing told was a story or myth; in the Eleusinian Mysteries, it was the myth of Demeter and Persephone, including the rescue of the latter from the underworld. The things shown included various symbols associated with the myth: a basket, a cup with a drink, a pomegranate, an ear of wheat, etc. The thing done was a ceremony acting out the myth. In that ceremony, the initiands of the Eleusinian Mysteries learned what death really is and how they too might rise from the after-death world of Hades into the bright heaven of Olympus.

Freemasonry also has those same three elements. What is told is a legend about the building of King Solomon's Temple and the fate of its principal architect, which is the veiling allegory of Freemasonry. What are shown are various tools related to the building trade, such as compasses, squares, levels, and plumb rules, which are the illustrating symbols. What is done is a dramatic ceremony reenacting aspects of the building of the Temple, especially the history of its principal architect, in which an initiand plays the central role. Like that at Eleusis, the ceremony of Freemasonry is about death and resurrection, which are the subject of all the Mysteries.

Despite the close parallels between modern Freemasonry and the Ancient Mysteries, there are also some differences. Mainstream modern Freemasonry differs in two main respects from the Mystery practices of old. One of those is that mainstream Freemasonry admits only men, not women to its mysteries. That is a result of the fact that modern Freemasonry began among stonemasons, all of whom were men, and speculative gentlemen. The social accident of early unisex masculine Freemasonic Lodges was mistaken as an essential of the Craft. That mistake was corrected in the late nineteenth century when a French Lodge of male Freemasons, some of whom were also active supporters of women's rights, initiated a woman, Marie Deraismes, as a Mason. As a result, a new order of Co-Freemasonry came into existence, dedicated to the equality of all peoples, regardless of sex.

The other main difference between much contemporary mainstream Masonry and the Ancient Mysteries is that the latter were focused centrally and sharply on spiritual transformation. Modern mainstream Freemasonry tends to focus on fraternal fellowship and social service. Those are good things, and the charitable work done by many Masonic bodies is highly commendable. But the fundamental message of both the Mysteries and Masonry is one of spiritual transformation. That message was reiterated among Co-Freemasons when Annie Besant was initiated into the Craft at the beginning of the twentieth century. She restored the spiritual focus and especially the esoteric emphasis to Freemasonry.

To be sure, many masculine Masons are well aware of the esoteric side of Freemasonry, for example, to name only two, W. L. Wilmshurst, from the turn of the twentieth century, and W. Kirk MacNulty, who is still publishing new works on symbolic and spiritual Masonry. But Co-Masons like Geoffrey Hodson and C. W. Leadbeater have been especially prominent in describing the inner side of Freemasonry. Today several independent Masonic organizations practice the sexual equality of the Ancient Mysteries, but one that also dedicates itself most particularly and centrally to the esoteric, spiritual side of the Craft is the Eastern Order of International Co-Freemasonry.

Ceremony and Sacrament

The spiritual interpretation of Masonry is the essence of the Craft. For example, King Solomon's Temple is the core symbol in Freemasonry. The structure that the Hebrew king built in Jerusalem served as the house of the God of his people, but the Masonic structure is also the Temple of Humanity. The divine manifests through the world, and particularly through human beings. In a sense, every human being is a temple that enshrines a spark of divinity. But Solomon's Temple also represents humanity collectively; each of us is a stone in that building. We differ from one another in many ways, just as the stones in a cathedral or temple differ from one another. But just as every stone has its own unique purpose and is needed to complete the Temple of Solomon, so also every unique human being is needed to complete the Temple of Humanity. All human beings are integrally valuable.

The metaphor of humans as building stones has another aspect, as well. Building stones are quarried from a single mineral mass. They are rough hewn to be worked upon. Then they are smoothed and polished. And finally, they are incorporated into Solomon's Temple. So also we human beings are individualized from a group soul. At first, we are rough and unrefined. But then we are educated and evolved. And finally, when we become fully human (in what is Theosophically called the fifth initiation), we realize our fundamental unity with each other and with all life; that is, we are incorporated into the Temple of Humanity, which is also the dwelling place of the divine in this world.

The symbolic allegory of building King Solomon's Temple is what Craft Freemasonry is about. Craft Freemasonry consists of three Degrees, which parallel the three statuses of members of the building trade: Apprentice, Craftsman (or journeyman), and Master. The Apprentice is one who is learning the trade. The Craftsman is one who is practicing the trade. And the Master is one who can teach the trade to others and employ them in its practice. Freemasonry has, however, other Degrees beyond the three because, as Light on the Path tells us:

Within you is the light of the world—the only light that can be shed upon the Path. If you are unable to perceive it within you, it is useless to look for it elsewhere. It is beyond you, because when you reach it you have lost yourself. It is unattainable, because it forever recedes. You will enter the light, but you will never touch the Flame.

Ceremonial initiation is a kind of sacrament. The word sacrament is from a Latin word meaning "an oath of allegiance, an obligation, a consecration," i.e., a process of making sacred. In both Freemasonry and the Ancient Mysteries, the initiands take an oath, affirm an obligation, and consecrate themselves to a life of purposefulness. The Book of Common Prayer defines a sacrament as "an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace." The inward and spiritual grace of which ceremonial initiation is an outward and visible sign is an experience of the light within. That light is infinite, without end. We can enter it; but we can never touch the central flame that produces it. Consequently, there is no end to ceremonial initiations.

The Degrees beyond the three of Craft Masonry comprise two series: Scottish Rite and York Rite. The existence of all those Degrees and of one initiation after another is a symbol of the truths that the road winds ever onward and that we will enter the light but will never touch the Flame. They are called "additional" or "higher" Degrees, but really they are just elaborations of or commentaries on the three basic Craft Degrees, which are the fundamental sacrament of Freemasonry.

All Masonic sacramental ceremony is a search for more light and greater perfection. Freemasonry is a ceremonial quest for the only initiation that really matters—our initiation into full humanity, a ceremony of innocence and beauty, of power and wisdom. Such ceremony is the allegorical cornucopia of abundant blessings and the symbolic laurel crown of ultimate victory in evolution.


Eastern Order of International Co-Freemasonry. Website at
Godwin, Joscelyn. The Golden Thread: The Ageless Wisdom of the Western Mystery Tradition. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, Quest Books, 2007.
Hodson, Geoffrey. At the Sign of the Square and Compasses. Adyar: Eastern Federation, International Co-Freemasonry, 1976.
Leadbeater, C. W. Ancient Mystic Rites [new ed. of Glimpses of Masonic History]. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1986.
———. The Hidden Life in Freemasonry. Adyar: Theosophical Publishing House, 1926.
MacNulty, W. Kirk. The Way of the Craftsman: A Search for the Spiritual Essence of Craft Freemasonry. London: Arkana, 1988; reprint London: Central Regalia, 2002.
Stevenson, David. The Origins of Freemasonry: Scotland's Century, 1590-1710. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
Wilmshurst, W. L. The Meaning of Masonry. Facsimile of 1927 5th ed. New York: Bell, 1980.

John Algeo, PhD, served for nine years as president of the Theosophical Society in America and is now international vice president of the Theosophical Society. Author of the Quest Book Reincarnation Explored and most recently editor, with Adele Algeo, of The Letters of H. P. Blavatsky, 1861-1879 (vol.1), he is published widely in Theosophical magazines.