One of the problems we often bump into in today's Freemasonry is the lack of familiarity with myth and comparative religious thought, two important subjects that were very much on the mind of those that created what we call modern Freemasonry.
Many of these myths were stories told with a purpose, a way of explaining the world in which we live and the outcomes of certain actions we take if we continue on a certain path..
Take for instance the myth of Sisyphus, who is condemned to repeat forever the same meaningless task of pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to see it roll down again. We all see this myth repeated daily by those individuals that repeat the same actions day after day expecting different results only to find themselves stuck in the '*Groundhog Day' of there own making.
Or how about the myth of Narcissus, a gentleman so enamored with his own beauty that when he sees it reflected in water he stares so long he eventually falls in the water and drowns himself (the ultimate story of the dangers of the inflated ego).
So important are these myths we find them in every culture on the planet, with some often boring myths from others.
Associated with my Lodge here in New Hampshire we have a chapter of the Eastern Star named Pleiades. According to the ancient Greek myth, the Pleiades were seven sisters. In Greek, the word "pleiades" means "doves." Their parents were Pleione and Atlas who was condemned by Zeus to support the Heavens on his shoulders. One day, the Pleiades were traveling with their mother and met the hunter Orion.
Orion fell in love with Pleione and her charming daughters. He spent a great deal of time chasing after them, trying to win their affection. After several years, Zeus intervened and transformed the women into doves to help them escape. They flew into the sky to become the cluster of stars that today has their name.
However, only six stars are visible in the sky without a telescope. The ancient Greeks explained the absence of a seventh star with several different stories. According to one story, one of the Pleiades, Merope deserted her sisters because she was ashamed of having a mortal husband, who also happened to be known as know other than Sisyphus.
Those esoteric minded brothers can have a field day exploring Pleiades, which is pictured above the ladder in the Entered Apprentice ritual, and it's esoteric connection to Freemasonry. Here's a little example (from the 25th degree of the Scottish Rite) as for what it means, I'll leave it to you figure it out, why take away all the fun:
"The Sun, marching victorious toward the Lion of the Summer Solstice, will tomorrow meet the new Moon, and Earth will thrill with joy through all her veins, at the new life which the fortunate conjunction promises. Then, also, with him will rise the Pleiades, and the rainy Hyades, in whose front marches Aldebaran, Leader of all the Heavenly Armies."...Brother Albert Pike, Sovereign Grand Commander of the Scottish Rite's Southern Jurisdiction
People have always tried to figure out common questions like who made the universe or simple questions like what causes the weather. Religion, gods, and myths were all created to help make sense out of these questions. For early people myths were like science because they attempted to explain how things work.
Sadly today many individuals have never had contact with these beautiful myths and there symbolic thought, collateral damage of an education system that streamlined education to point where students are only exposed to those subjects that can get them employed at Walmart, myth not being part of the curriculum,
and today many of these individuals are entering Freemasonry where much of its underlying philosophy contains a boatload of myth.
“Myths are clues to the spiritual potentialities of the human life”...Joseph Campbell, American prolific Author, Editor, Philosopher and Teacher
Allow me to introduce the seeking brother to a mythical god that may help him on his journey, Mercury, the messenger of the gods, also known as Hermes, son of Zeus, and child of **Maia (one of the seven sisters).
Mercury is frequently depicted as the winged "messenger god" who shuttled between heaven and earth, delivering messages from the gods to the humans. For this reason, astrologers saw the planet Mercury as symbolic of the transmission of knowledge and ideas.
Now you may be asking what has this got to do with Freemasonry, the not so simple answer is you just may be symbolic Mercury (hypothetically). You have the ability to shift your consciousness between what we call call heaven, the spiritual, and earth, the material. When the candidate in Freemasonry stands before the altar he stands between Matter (earth) and Spirit (heaven). If you look at the staffs of the Junior and Senior Deacons you'll see one topped with the sun (spirit) the other the moon (matter), and you are usually in between them during ritual. As I have alluded to in the previous blog entrees when we stand at the sacred altar of Freemasonry facing east we have the northeast corner on our left, symbolic of St. John the Baptist, symbolic of water (matter) and the southeast corner on our right, symbolic of St. John the Evangelist, symbolic of fire (spirit), and here we stand mercury in the middle. What beautiful symbolism!
Hermes (mercury) was very much on the mind of early modern Freemasonry (early seventeen hundreds), as we have learned he was the mythical messenger to whom Egypt gave the name of Thoth, to whom Greece later gave that of Hermes, and Rome that of Mercury, three different names, symbolic of the same person (a common practice where the Romans, Greeks, and Egyptian preferred to give the gods their own names and often exchanged myths).
He was said to cloth his message in the symbology of 'Light', the very substance all masons seek.
He taught that the higher self is one, "the Person in the Sun", and that all selves are rays of that "***Sun behind the Sun".
It has been said that same idea was carried by Hermes to Egypt, but the symbology was that of 'Light'. For he said that the 'Light' dwells in Heaven, and yet finds its home in every heart of man, that 'Light' in the heaven above us is identical with 'Light' in the heart within us (as above, so below), and that when once men have seen the 'Light' in their own hearts, then they can look abroad and see it everywhere in Heaven and Earth. The message was still the ancient teaching, but in the new form the message spoke of 'Light', where in the earlier time it had spoken of the 'Sun'.
During the inception of modern Freemasonry (early 1700's) many of the brothers arrived on the scene with a background in philosophy, an interest in myth, and especially the mystical writings attributed to ****Hermes Trismegistus, a writer that even captured the attention of Sir Isaac Newton himself (who I personally believe to be instrumental in the creation of Freemasonry, but we'll leave that for another time).
Look at what Brother George Oliver, from his Antiquities of Free-masonry, has to say about this mysterious Trismegistus, you just might find a perfect description of Freemasonry and its purpose:
"Trismegistus concealed the mysteries of religion under hieroglyphics and allegories, and exposed nothing to the eyes of the vulgar, but the beauties of his morality. This has been the method of the sages in all times, and of the great legislators in all countries; these divine men were sensible that corrupted minds could have no relish for heavenly truths, till the heart was purified from its passions; for which reason they spread over religion a secret veil, which opens and vanishes when the eyes of the understanding are able to support its brightness." (I love that paragraph!)
"We are told that Alchemy (a favorite metaphoric science practiced by many early brothers), otherwise styled the Hermetic Philosophy, because it is supposed to have been first taught in Egypt by Hermes Trismegistus, comprehended three distinct pursuits, the discovery of the Philosopher's Stone, of the Universal Medicine, and of the Elixir of Life. The Alchemistical or Hermetical philosophers, it is further asserted, communicated their thoughts to each other in a language and in symbols understood only by themselves. It has also been assumed from the traditionary lore which has gathered round the names of these philosophers that all the sages of antiquity, such as Zoroaster, Plato, Socrates, and Pythagoras, were initiated into the secrets of their science; and that the hieroglyphics of Egypt, together with all the fables of a collective mythology, were invented for the purpose of veiling in allegory and symbolism the teachings of the Hermetic Philosophy."...Brother Robert Freke Gould, On the Traditions of the Craft
The following is Isaac Newton's translation of the Emerald Tablet attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, look closely at the symbolism you'll find many of the same symbolism contained within a well governed lodge, you just have to know where to look.
"Tis true without lying, certain & most true. That which is below is like that which is above & that which is above is like that which is below to do the miracles of one only thing.
And as all things have been & arose from one by the mediation of one: so all things have their birth from this one thing by adaptation. The Sun is its father, the moon its mother, the wind hath carried it in its belly, the earth is its nurse.
The father of all perfection in the whole world is here. lts force or power is entire if it be converted into earth.
Separate thou the earth from the fire, the subtle from the gross sweetly with great industry.
It ascends from the earth to the heaven & again it descends to the earth & receives the force of things superior & inferior.
By this means you shall have the glory of the whole world & thereby all obscurity shall fly from you.
Its force is above all force. For it vanquishes every subtle thing & penetrates every solid thing. So was the world created. From this are & do come admirable adaptations whereof the means is here in this.
Hence I am called Hermes Trismegistus, having the three parts of the philosophy of the whole world. That which I have said of the operation of the Sun is accomplished & ended."
How important is the writings of Hermes to the tradition of Freemasonry, I think the answer can be found in Brother Piles Morals and Dogma of Freemasonry: "He who desires to attain the understanding of the Grand Word and the possession of the Great Secret, ought carefully to read the Hermetic philosophers, and will undoubtedly attain initiation, as others have done; but he must take, for the key of their allegories, the single dogma of Hermes, contained in his Table of Emerald."
So my brother Mercury, where shall we go, up or down?
*If you aren't familiar with this classic film, the premise is simple: Bill Murray, somehow, gets stuck reliving the same day over and over.
**Maia is the goddess of the fields in Greek mythology. She is the oldest of the Pleiades. She is also the most beautiful and the shyest.
***Sirius, the blazing star often times symbolized in Masonic Lodge Rooms, was of a great importance in astronomy and mythology. Mystery schools, which Freemasonry is one of, consider it to be “sun behind the sun” and, therefore, the true source of our sun’s potency. If our sun’s warmth keeps the physical world alive, Sirius is considered to keep the spiritual world alive. It is the “real light” shining in the East, the spiritual light, where as the sun illuminates the physical world, which is considered to be a grand illusion.
****It was during this time, the late 1600's & early 1700's, that the Hermetic writings, also called Hermetica, a collection of writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, the Greek name for the Egyptian Thoth, resurfaced and attracted the attention of those that sought to make sense out of centuries of inquisitions, suppression, and church control. Even in England during the inception of modern Freemasonry the church and state walked hand and hand, something our American Freemason Founding Fathers would make sure didn't happen again.
Hermeticism itself is an ancient philosophical tradition that emphasizes the importance of inner enlightenment or gnosis, rather than that of pure rationalism or doctrinal faith.