Don Quixote begins with a presentation of the main character as being engrossed in antiquarian interest in books of knight errantry. As Cervantes describes it:
so odd and foolish, indeed, did he grow on this subject that he sold many acres of cornland to buy these books of chivalry to read, and in this way brought home everyone he could get. And of them all he considered none so good as the works of the famous Feliciano de Silva. For his brilliant style and those complicated sentences seemed to him very pearls, especially when he came upon those love-passages and challenges frequently written in the manner of: “The reason for the unreason with which you treat my reason, so weakens my reason that with reason I complain of your beauty”’.
The story is one of increasing engagement into what appears to be a madman’s vain pursuits of anachronistic enchantment.
An excursion into looking at Egyptian connections appears to have the same quixotic elements of antiquarian interest and of losing oneself into adventures of delusion and madness, and yet, I claim, to deny connections between Egypt and Freemasonry is to deny the history of Freemasonry!
There are many instances in which, for better or worse, Freemasonry flirts with Egypt. We need look no further than the design of some of our own Temples to find these flirtations
At this point, however, I also wish to state clearly and unequivocally that I do not propose that Freemasonry has its origin in Ancient Egypt. I was, when initially preparing for this paper, going to address in some detail various references to such claims, but as this has been recently done, simply refer you to Bro. John Boardman’s paper in our Transactions: Studies in Masonry entitled ‘Masonry from Egypt?’.
What we need to do here is question in the first place what is Egypt, and what is its significance in relation to Freemasonry.
Obviously (or perhaps not obviously), ‘Egypt’ refers not to the country as political state in northern Africa. Although physically located there, its attraction is from another time, another dimension in thought, another mythic space. Yet this very mythic element has foundations in historical - or even pre-historical - reality.
This ‘Egypt’ is the Egypt - and Egypt as already symbolic - we are lead to when Plato references this for him already mythic (but also real) land as a land of initiation. It is the same Egypt that the Graeco-Roman world at the turn of our era also considered as a land of mystery and lore. It is the land where the desert fathers of nascent Christian Church developed out of the fecund syncretism which saw neo-platonism and Jewish mysticism develop within the then 400 y.o. city of Alexandria.
In fact, if one thinks and reflects on the basis of our European soul, it seems to strike back for its foundations in four currents or roots: firstly, for its political unity, to the high points of the Roman Empire especially in its post-Constantinean phase, but even here one is lead to ponder at the three-thousand (or thereabouts) year achievement of Ancient Egypt, in contrast to which the Roman Empire appears as but a drop in the ocean of time. Please note that I am aware of the vicissitudes of the Egyptian period - this is not the point: rather, longevity of apparent political stability, especially to the understanding of those in the Renaissance times right through to our modern period, have considered the Egyptian reign as covering an incredible span - a span immemorial, in so many senses of that word!
The second current at work in the European soul is that of its philosophical and scientific development, with its roots in Ancient Greece. But here again we are lead to Egypt by its two greatest lights: Plato and Aristotle. Plato, as mentioned earlier, referencing Egypt as the land of Knowledge, of Initiation, and of Savant-Priests. In the other direction, we are lead directly to Egypt by Aristotle’s extraordinary student, Alexander the Great, who of course establishes Alexandria on Egyptian soil, that famed metropolis that was to later give rise to neo-platonist thought, to the impetus for the development of Alchemy, and for some important quasi-magical tractates such as those by or influenced by Iamblichus and seen again of some importance some centuries later in late mediaeval Europe.
So… so far we have the political realm harkening back to a mythical unity of the Roman Empire, itself being viewed as but a pale reflection of the golden age of the longevity of Egypt; and we also have the philosophical, scientific and liberal arts harkening back to Ancient Greece, themselves pointing in various ways to Egypt.
The third influx into the European soul reflects its spiritual striving, harkening strongly at its Jewish foundation for the arrival of the Messiah, and the later development of Christianity in European lands. Even here, however, we are repeatedly lead, if oft not as a positive incursion, into Egypt: firstly, into the darkness of the Egyptian bondage - Gregory of Nyssa, as an example, in his text Life of Moses moves from Egypt to Jerusalem as metaphor for moves from bondage to freedom; also, into the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt to escape Herod - of which pseudo-infancy gospels speak of the fall of idols as the Jesus infant passed by them, and such images were to be later carved as petroglyphs on Lumiere Cathedrals and other religious buildings between the 11th and 13th centuries; and thirdly, into the important development of early Christianity in the desert fathers, in which the ‘desert’ was required for a development with that kind of depth of reflection to fructify.
It’s as if, when one looks at the European soul, that again and again it is lead to that famed land - a famed land only equaled, it would seem, by some of the legendary stories of the far east, or of India, or even of Meso-America, none of which, however, touch Europe in the same intrinsic (and proximal) manner.
I have left out, however, an important fourth element or stream - and one, I would suggest, that has had and continues to have, tumultuous times in most societies in general: that of the initiatic stream. And here, again, if for no other reason than because ‘Plato says so’, we are lead to a quasi-Egyptian current.
Each of these - the birth of the politically unified state; the birth of philosophy and science; and the birth of the religious life - have an impact on a striving towards wanting to improve ourselves, our fellow human beings, and our society, and that any European-founded society or fraternity that in any manner wishes to strive towards high ideals will stumble inevitably across in some form or another mythic Egypt.
These three mentioned, incidently - namely Rome, Greece and Judeah - also have alphabets that formed the backbone of the educated European, with the Egyptian hieroglyphs - note the word? ‘hiero-’ meaning ‘sacred’; and ‘glyph’ - as indecipherable sacred language… undecipherable unless, of course, initiated into its mysteries. Of the known three alphabets - Roman, Greek and Hebrew - which gave us via mediaeval compilations such made-up words as ‘AZΩTh’, itself having multiple layers of meaning, but basically showing the encompassing of all that can be known, material, mental and spiritual, reaching the philosopher’s stone and the transformation - or transmutation - of one’s own self.
The mention of this word brings us forward in time to various aspects of the Renaissance, a time of incredible vibrancy in various parts of Europe, but principally in what is now northern Italy. Yet, I would also not wish to neglect possibly an important source of our own Masonic gestation a few centuries earlier, in the design, construction and dedication of those incredible Romanesque and not much later Lumière or ‘Gothic’ cathedrals and religious buildings of especially the 11th through to the 13th centuries.
Perhaps by coincidence, or perhaps by influence, aspects of the designs appear to have connections with some of the work that was also developing in Spain and northern Africa in the lands controlled by the Mamluks, with their see of origin in Egypt. Irrespective of the possible connections, I do not want to deny its specific and more northerly European Christian development. Yet here are the times when also flowed not only much of note between Africa and Europe, but also where the Hermetica (or the works attributed to Hermes Trismegistus) made their round in translations and various editions. Of noteworthiness for our consideration is that Hermes, for example, is mentioned in the Wood manuscript of circa 1610. Such mention would lead the inquiring Mason to the Hermetica, and henceforth to Egyptian excursions (in similar reference to Egypt is the 1607 ‘Inigo’ Antient Constitution of the Free and Accepted Masons, in which is made mention of Egypt in the context of ‘historical’ accounts, and in which Euclid is referred to as an Egyptian ‘worthy-schollar’).
I would suggest, in any case, that this very text, ie, the Hermetica, has as much influence on the development of thought in late mediæval times amongst its literati as the Bible also had and, from a different perspective, the works of the church fathers via the establishment of various hermitages or monastic communes and other ecclesiastical brotherhoods and nunneries - and recall that these, in their basis, either stem or harken in some manner, and consciously so, to Egypt.
For the sake of appropriate mention, Paul Nardon, in his The Secret History of Freemasonry, traces possible influences on the later development of the craft from the artisanal Roman Collegia and monastic ‘associations’. I do not here wish to labour the points as his argument seems to me to be both open yet solid, and merely here point to his book as an important reference and point of departure for further careful studies.
These deeper inquiries into architecture, into text such as the Hermetica, into volumes rescued by Constantinople’s fleeing citizens following its invasion by the Ottomans, and from the migration of learned Jews after their expulsion from Spain all, in my view, were fundamentally instrumental in the development of the Renaissance.
Some of the works that developed at the time focused more specifically on what would later be deemed too close to heresy. This was particularly the case with various aspects of the art of memory. These developments, however, gave rise to numerous new freedoms as well, and questions arose as to what the ancients possibly knew. Of these ancients, not only was Plato and Aristotle more broadly ‘re-discovered’ (contrary to popular views, they had never been totally lost from the West), but also various works sought (unsuccessfully) to explain and account for Egypt.
It is in this ongoing and developing environment that freemasonry slowly developed into the watershed it was to become in 1717.
If I look at Freemasonry in general, what I see is something that encompasses far more than what is its officially stated domain of three degrees (or five or six, if considering Mark and Royal Arch). What I see is a loose association of three types of orders, inter-related and connected in what is often a transitive or hierarchically progressive relation.
In the first instance what appears is a group of degrees that principally harken back to also something that is no more - as Egypt likewise is no more: namely Solomon’s Temple and the tools of the mediæval building trades - inclusive of architecture.
In the second, also to something that is no more, namely the knightly orders of chivalry. In both Solomon’s Temple and the Knights Templars, we also not only have the historical destruction of each, but also their symbolic connection - for the sake of explicitness even if stating what is undoubtedly obvious to all present, the Knights of the Temple of Jerusalem were so named after the Temple enclave’s ‘liberation’ from its islamic hold - but allow me to take a step back a paragraph, for I am getting ahead of myself.
In the first group we find builders, artisans, workers in the social fabric, effectively transforming by building. In the second group we have knightly honour, referencing not only a higher supposed nobility, but also developing a different kind of relation between self and fellow men.
There is, however, also a third group of ‘Masonic’ orders, focussed more explicitly on the directly spiritual. and learning in general.
When I was investigating the various ‘Egyptian’ Masonic rites, of course the main ones that kept recurring were the Memphis-Misraïm set of rituals. Interestingly, in continental Europe where it continues to flourish, advocates of the these rites divide their own 90+ degrees or grades into three sets: the Blue or builders degrees; the Knightly Orders; and the mystical grades often having references (and, at that, direct references) to both Kabalah and Alchemy (amongst other learned disciplines, of course).
I was particularly struck by some perambulations around four elements and a lecture on numbers and colours in one of their higher degrees. Those amongst us here in the S.R.I.A. will undoubtedly prick their ears all the more at this. Further, however, I also wondered if it were not possible that the SRIA itself may have ‘evolved’ (for want of a better term) and grown out of adaptations of some of the higher Memphis-Misraïm grades.
It should be remembered that in the late 19th century, to have as part and parcel of English Freemasonry the Memphis-Misraïm rite would have been regarded as not only controversial, but would have been seen as too much in direct competition with such orders as the Red Cross of Constantine and the Ancient and Accepted ‘Scottish’ Rite of 33 degrees. Adopting and adapting some of its ‘higher’ and more ‘hermetic’ grades would, however, have circumvented both problems and allowed for an independent development into this third field of Freemasonry - the Hermetic-Spiritual sphere.
Again, however, a heritage harkening to, in this case and if correct, an ‘Egyptian’ connection by even name.
‘Egypt’ is not Egypt. The roots of Freemasonry are not in Egypt. This, however, should not lead us to neglect or deny the various connections not to the (physical) land of Egypt, but rather to the (deeper and mythically true) ‘land of Egypt’.
Of tarot, which has a similarly obfuscated history and connections to fields beyond itself as Freemasonry does, Valentin Tomberg writes in a manner that could as easily apply to Freemasonry in general:
The authors who saw in the Tarot the “Sacred Book of Thoth” (Thoth = Hermes Trismegistus) were both right and wrong at the same time. They were right in so far as they traced back the history of the essence of the Tarot to antiquity, notably to Ancient Egypt. And they were wrong in so far as they believed that it had been inherited from Ancient Egypt, i.e., that it had been transmitted from generation to generation.
Perhaps I should finish on a more modern note, paraphrasing the philosopher Gaston Bachelard:
when occasion arises to mention the relation of poetry to an archetype lying dormant in the depths of the unconscious, it must be understood that this relation is not, properly speaking, a causal one. The image is not subject to an inner thrust. It is not an echo of the past. On the contrary: through the brilliance of the image, the distant past resounds with echoes, and it is hard to know at what depth these echoes will reverberate and die away.
... and so, nearing death, Don Quixote was able to usefully reflect on his apparent Quixotic meanderings, having obtained a deeper understanding of human nature, and of himself: it is not so much any derived historical connection that has importance between Egypt and Freemasonry, but rather its allegorical and symbolic mythic dimension.
Anonymous Meditations on the Tarot, Element Books, 1993
Ars Quatuor Coronatorum vol 88 (1976)
Bachelard, G. Poetics of Space, Beacon Press, 1994
Burt, CC Egyptian Masonic History, 1879 (Kessinger Pub. reprint: isbn 1-56459-341-X)
Castelli, J. La vérité sur l’Ordre et the désordre du Rite Ancien et Primitif de Memphis-Misraïm, Ed. Maçonnique, 2005
Cervantes, Don Quixote, Penguin Classics
Greensill, T.M. History of the SRIA, 2nd ed
Gregory of Nyssa Life of Moses, Paulist Press, 1978
Hermetica Cambridge U.P., 1992
Iamblichus On the Egyptian Mysteries
Mullins, E. Cluny: In Search of God’s Lost Empire, BlueBridge, 2006
Yates, F. A. The Art of Memory, Uni. Chicago Press, (orig. 1866)
being an extract from Calvin C. Burt, 96° Egyptian Masonic History of the original an unabridged Ancient and Ninety-six (96°) Degree Rite of Memphis, pp 177-182, 1879, reprinted by Kessinger Pub., isbn 1-56459-341-X
Q. What is the power of numbers?
A. Unity is the symbol of identity, existence and general harmony; binary is the symbol of diversity and separation; the Ternary, the image of Supreme Being, uniting in itself the properties of the first two numbers.
To the Pythagoreans it represented not only the surface , but the principle of the formation of bodies.
It applies to the three chemical principles, which give animation to the whole world, Salt, Sulphur and Mercury, belonging to the three kingdoms of Nature. Life, Soul and Body, Birth, existence and Death, Dryness, Humidity and Putrefaction; from all times, the ancients held the Ternary in great respect.
The number Four is found in time and space: there are four Cardinal Points and four Seasons.
The number Five was considered as a mystic number, composed of the Binary and Ternary. As a Pentalpha, it is the emblem of fellowship.
The number Six was in the ancient mysteries a striking emblem of Nature, North, East, South, West, the Zenith, and Nadir.
The Double Triangle is the emblem of the Sentence of Hermes, who said: “That which is below is like that which is above.” This figure is emblematic of Deity.
The number Seven, according to the Sages, governed the Universe.
The number Eight is a symbol of perfection, and its figure indicates the perpetual and regular course of the Universe.
The number Nine was regarded by the Sages with veneration, for reasons already given.
The Hermetic Cross. The Cross mystically corresponds with the secret teachings of the high mysteries, and contains all the sacred numbers; it is the base of Geometry. [... I here omit most of page 178]
The horizontal line represents the Equator, and the vertical, the Meridian; we have thus four extremities of the Equator, and the two solstices of Summer and Winter at those of the Meridian; consequently, the four seasons. By analogy, they unite to Spring, youth and morning; to Summer, ripe age and noon; to Autumn, age and evening; and to Winter, death and night.
The Alchemists added to those four points, which they called the four generative elements, Fire, Air, Earth and Water, which they expressed by conventional signs.
The Red Cross is the symbol of the life to come; the origin of this Cross is of the highest antiquity.
To form this Cross, commence by tracing a circle of three hundred and sixty degrees, in which design a Cross of twelve equal squares. which represent the twelve signs of the Zodiac, or the twelve months of the solar year. [... here I omit the rest of page 179 and 180, and resume on page 181]
In the centre of the Cross is found the Flaming Star, with a Delta in the middle, bearing in its centre [nice to see this spelling in a North American document!] the simple, but great character of ONE GOD! - the point signifying the Universe, which is governed by invariable rules.
The laws are indicated by twelve squares, which bear the names of the months, composing the Solar Year. Outside of this Cross there is another, announcing the lunar months [...]. The Lunar Cross is called the Hammer Cross. The Alchemists of the middle ages wore a ring with the initials I.A.A.T. - Ignus, Aqua, Aer, Terra,- Fire, Water, Air, Earth.
The Hebrew words for the four elements, were - Iammin, Water; Nour, Fire; Rouaah, Air; Iabescheh, Earth. Of these four letters were the following aphorisms: “Igne Natura Renovatar Integra.” Nature is entirely renewed by fire. “Igne Nitrium Roris Invenitur.” Repel we ignorance by indefatigable efforts.