Saturday, October 17, 2009

Questions for the Week of October 18, 2009

Please feel free to leave your questions about Freemasonry as a comment on this blog. Anonymous questions are welcome, as are signed questions.

The Significance of the Number “Three” in Freemasonry

One of our readers, Dem, has written the following:

Thanks for setting up this blog for questions! I hope it will become a forum for serious answers on questions about Freemasonry.

Now my question is: What is the meaning of the "magical" number 3 for Freemasonry? Why [is the] number 3 is so central in Masonic symbolism?

First of all, you are very welcome, Dem, and I thank you for posting your question.

It certainly is the case that the number three has a special significance for Freemasonry:

  • There are, in the basic Lodge of Freemasonry, three degrees.

  • There are three major officers in the basic Lodge: The Worshipful (that is, ‘Respected’) Master, the Senior Warden, and the Junior Warden. (These are the three officers with the gavels.)

  • The initiation ritual discusses both Three Greater Lights of Masonry and Three Lesser Lights of Masonry.

  • There are three “burning tapers” arranged around the Altar that is at the center of every American Lodge room. (These may be actual tapers, but more commonly they are artfully formed stands with electric lights on top.)

  • The ritual mentions three “tenets” (principles) of Freemasonry.

  • There are three symbolic moral pillars mentioned in the ritual.

  • Traditionally, in older Masonic documents, the period of abbreviation is replaced by the “tripod,” that is, three dots arranged in an equilateral triangle. (An enlarged example is the illustration for this post.) In fact, that’s how my name appears on the cover of my new book, co-authored with Denise Sutherland (and out in early November), Cracking Codes and Cryptograms for Dummies (Wiley); when you go to the book page here, click on “Larger Image” to see how my name is printed on the cover, with tripods in the abbreviation for "Master Mason."

There are other instances of the number three that appear in the ritual of the Lodge, but to discuss those would be to give too much detail. A famous 19th century Masonic author wrote, “There are … indeed so many instances of the consecration of the number that it would exceed the limits of this volume to record them” (Albert Mackey, Lexicon of Freemasonry, entry for “Three.”)

So, what is up with three? As it happens, there are a couple of different ways to answer this question, depending on where one happens to trace the origins of Freemasonry.

Medieval Stonemasons

The received wisdom is that modern-day Freemasonry traces its origins to the customs and rituals of the medieval stonemasons who built the cathedrals of Europe. (This much is hardly disputed by anyone; the big and exceedingly controversial question is, does Masonry go back farther?)

These medieval stonemasons were of the Christian faith, and as such, the number of the Holy Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—would have been sacred to them. To this way of thinking, the incorporation of the number three into the stonemason’s ceremonies would have been an expression of their Christian faith; the symbolism was passed on to the Freemason’s lodge, even though Freemasonry is not restricted to Christians at all. (Candidates for Freemasonry must declare belief in a Supreme Being, but no further specification of that Supreme Being, and no specific religious affiliation, is required.)

There are, of course, those who have claimed that the Freemasons are connected to the medieval Knights Templar. The Knights, of course, were Christian as well.

The Ancient Mysteries

There have long been those who have connected the customs and rituals of Freemasonry to the ancient “mysteries” (ceremonies of initiation), to spiritual groups and philosophical brotherhoods of the ancient world. One of the more prominent of these was the aforementioned Albert Mackey, who wrote the following:

Three was considered among all the Pagan nations as the chief of the mystical numbers, because, as Aristotle remarks, it contains within itself a beginning, a middle, and an end. Hence we find it designating some of the attributes of almost all the gods. The thunder-bold of Jove was three-forked; the sceptre of Neptune was a trident; Cerberus, the dog of Pluto, was three-headed, there were three Fates and three Furies ….

The Druids paid no less respect to this sacred number. Throughout their whole system, a reference is constantly made to its influence; and so far did their veneration for it extend, that even their sacred poetry was composed in triads.

In all the mysteries, from Egypt to Scandinavia, we find a sacred regard for the number three. In the rites of Mithras, the Empyrean was said to be supported by three intelligences, Ormuzd, Mithra, and Mithras. In the rites of Hindostan [that is, within Hinduism], there was the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva [that is, Shiva]. It was, in short, a general character of the mysteries to have three principal officers and three grades of initiation.
[Albert G. Mackey. (1845). Lexicon of Freemasonry, from the entry for “Three.”]

So that is another possibility: the number three is considered sacred in a number of ancient spiritual and initiatory traditions. Whether these traditions actually had some input into Freemasonry—mmm, hard to say.

One of the traditions that Mackey did not mention here is the Jewish mystical tradition, known widely as Kabbalah. The central diagram of Kabbalah, the Tree of Life, is usually drawn in such a way that it has three ‘pillars,’ or lines of divine qualities known as the sephirot: the Pillar of Mercy, the Pillar of Severity, and the Pillar of Balance or Beauty. Several authors have speculated that, given the interest in Kabbalah that some early Freemasons of the 17th and 18th centuries seemed to have, perhaps kabbalistic symbolism has been incorporated into Freemasonry here and there.

Certainly the idea of two extremes coming into some kind of balance through a third point has a certain appeal on a philosophical level. Thus may the symbolism of three have entered the Lodge, where notions of balance and beauty show up repeatedly.

Anything I have written above connecting Freemasonry to anything beyond the association to medieval stonemasons should be considered highly speculative.

But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

Readers are welcome to comment on the answers I give, and to submit questions of their own.

Shameless Plug

I discuss the basics of Freemasonry in my book, Freemasonry: An Introduction, which will shortly be available again through Amazon; interested readers may ask to be notified of this availability through sending me an e-mail at  .

[The image was obtained by enlarging a typographical figure that can be produced by Microsoft Word through the Insert/Symbol command.]

(Copyright 2009 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.)

Monday, October 5, 2009

Questions for the Week of October 4, 2009

Please feel free to leave your questions about Freemasonry as a comment on this blog. Anonymous questions are welcome, as are signed questions.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Questions for the Week of 8 August, 2009

Guest Blog Author: Kathleen Schmid Koltko-Rivera

Where may I post my questions?
A space will be created each week in this blog for people to ask questions regarding Freemasonry. Each week, we will create a post where you may post your questions regarding Freemasonry in the comments section.
My husband and I, (Mark Koltko-Rivera is that handsome guy in the picture to the right..., yes, the one with the beguiling smile), will do our best to provide you with solid answers that are fact-based and documented with references that you can review. (Please give us a window of 10 days to respond - often we'll respond with an answer the same day. However, like everyone else, we have a lot on our plates. Mark is an author, and has several projects that keep him busy; and I'm working on my doctorate in psychology. We appreciate your patience.)
On being a good citizen...
We ask that everyone be professional and respectful in their interaction with others. Profanity, name calling, attacks, using the blog to promote your personal metaphysical worldviews, or abusing the site or its members in any way will not be tolerated.
Our vision is that this blog will be a place to learn. We are not interested in engaging with conspiracy theorists or anti-Masons whose minds are made up, regardless of the documentation that can be provided, before the discussion begins. Our interest is in sharing light, not heat.
Will some questions be off-limits?
All questions will be answered..., within the bounds of the oaths and obligations that Mark has made to keep certain information confidential. However, there is much that can be shared about Freemasonry within these limits. If you have a question, feel free to ask it. However, occasionally, the answer may be that Mark has made an obligation, which he will honor, not to reveal certain information.
So, what is a WOMAN doing as guest author of a Masonic blog???
Some of you may be wondering why a woman is a guest author on the Freemasonry 101 blog. Aren't women excluded from becoming Masons, or members of the Scottish Rite, or York Rite?

Good question! And, yes, you are correct. There are several Masonic organizations whose membership is limited to men. There are also Masonic organizations for women (e.g., Rainbow Girls, Job's Daughters, and the Order of the Eastern Star.)

As such, I possess no Masonic credentials. However, I come from a long line of men and women who were life-long members and leaders of Masonic organizations. The way that these individuals have lived their lives has taught me a great deal about Freemasonry. I'm also married to a 32nd degree Mason and Knight Templar, who is a Masonic author. Mark calls me "his first and best reader," so I've picked up a thing or two about Masonry, simply by paying attention. Some information regarding Freemasonry remains secret to all but members of the organization, who have received degrees (i.e., initatory ceremonies, which include teachings and symbols). However, there is a great deal regarding Freemasonry that is known and which one is able to discuss. Plus, living our home is a lot like living in a library. We have walls and walls of books, including a substantial Freemasonry collection--so, I've read a bit on the topic.
Basic Masonic Resources: Books and an exceptional website
I'd like to begin by suggesting a few resources that you might find helpful in finding answer to your questions. We're glad to answer questions, but it is nice to know you have a resource where you can get a solid answer to a question on your own, immediately.

The website of the Grand Lodge of British Columbia and Yukon is masterful. Check it out. You'll see that hours and hours have been put into creating this quality website. You may trust the information that you find here. You will find many, many links to original sources:

Anti-Masonry Resources
Anti-Masonry Section of the website of the Grand Lodge of British Columbia and the Yukon may be particularly helpful. Almost since Masonry began, some people have attacked, maligned, or misunderstood it. A lot of this misunderstanding has been due to outright lies that people told about Masonry -- lies that have been perpetuated for centuries.

The Taxil Hoax -- a lie about Masonry that has been perpetuated for over a century
For a good example of a real life conspiracy and lies about Freemasonry that have been perpetuated for over 100 years, read about "The Taxil Hoax" here , and here, and here. The short version of this story, filled with lies and deceit regarding Freemasonry, has lived on since 1882. Taxil provided the foundation for a lot of anti-Masonic literature, and the belief that Freemasonry and Satanism are somehow connected.

Leo Taxil was a pornographic writer from France who somehow managed to become a member of a Masonic Lodge. Shortly after he earned his first degree, Taxil "wore out his welcome" (deHoyos and Morris, 2004) and his affiliation with the Lodge was terminated. (One does not become a Master Mason until he completes the third degree of initiation -- Taxil was terminated after the first degree.) Leo had an axe to grind with the Masons after he was kicked out of the organization; and independently of his Masonic membership, he had a score he wished to settle with the Catholic church. Taxil devised a hoax intended to manipulate and embarrass the church, and cause big problems for the Masons by spreading lies about them -- which the Catholics of his day believed; and many Catholics, conspiracy theorists, and people from all other walks of life in our day still believe.

The Taxil hoax was perpetuated for 12 years, until 1897, when Leo called a public meeting, and confessed his lies and all that he had done to manipulate the Catholic church and malign the Masons. In the book Is it True What they Say About Freemasonry, it says that people at this meeting were so outraged that a riot nearly broke out in the room.
You will find 54 links alone in response to anti-Masonry claims on the website of the Grand Lodge of British Columbia and the Yukon -- many of them with links to original documents and sources. There are also pages and pages of educational information.

If your budget allows, there are also some very good basic books regarding Freemasonry that I might recommend:

Is it True What they Say About Freemasonry, (2004, M. Evans), by Arturo de Hoyos and S. Brent Morris
  • Brother Arturo de Hoyos is the Grand Archivist and Grand Historian of the Supreme Council of the Scottish Rite, 33rd Degree, Southern Jurisdiction; and Brother S. Brent Morris, is affiliated with the Supreme Council, 33, Southern Jurisdiction, and is editor of the Scottish Rite Journal.

Freemasonry for Dummies, (Wiley, 2005), by Christopher Hodapp.

  • Brother Christopher Hodapp is the author of the Freemasonry for Dummies blog, as well as other excellent books on Freemasonry. He has also written the book, Conspiracy Theories and Secret Societies for Dummies.
The Complete Idiot's Guide to Freemasonry (Penguin Group, 2006), S. Brent Morris, PhD.
  • Brother S. Brent Morris currently is the "managing editor of the Scottish Rite Journal, the largest-circulation Masonic magazine in the world, and he is the only American member, and Past Master, of Quatuor Coronati Lodge No 2076, London, the premier Masonic research lodge. He has also taught at Duke, Johns Hopkins Universities. He retired after 25 years as a mathematician with the U.S. Federal Government."
Freemasonry: A Journey through Ritual and Symbol, (Thames & Hudson, 1991), by W. Kirk MacNulty.
  • Brother "W. Kirk MacNulty was Initiated, Passed, and Raised in Carson Valley Lodge #33, Gardnerville, Nevada in 1961. He retains current membership in three Lodges in England and the United State and has written several books on Freemasonry."
Freemasonry: Symbols, Secrets, Significance, (Thames & Hudson, 2006), by W. Kirk MacNulty.
  • See bio regarding Brother MacNulty's above.
And, now, a bit of shameless self-promotion:

Freemasonry: An Introduction, (2008), by Mark Koltko-Rivera
  • Mark's book is currently out-of-print, but we anticipate it will become available again in September 2009.

  • Book Review, by Arturo de Hoyos: This easy-to-read introduction is one of the few books that delivers what it promises. It explains what Freemasonry is, where it came from, and what Masons do today. The author does not bog down the reader with insignificant trivia or bland facts, rather, he provides the basic "who, what, when, where, how and why" of the world's oldest and largest Fraternity. I was happy to read that he doesn't skirt controversial issues, but rather speaks plainly about the conspiracies surrounding the Masons. The book is short, sweet, and to the point. If you need a single, accessible introduction, for people who don't know anything about Freemasonry, or don't need or want something as large as a "Dummies" guide, this book should serve you well.
So, with that, please feel free to use this blog as a place to ask questions that you may have, and learn about the basics of Freemasonry. We look forward to being helpful in any way possible.

Kathleen Schmid Koltko-Rivera

Introduction to Freemasonry

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Welcome to the Freemasonry 101 Blog

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