The Great Work of Speculative Freemasonry - Part I

Masonic Articles and Essays

The Great Work of Speculative Freemasonry - Part I

Dr. George Oliver

Date Published: 12/13/2022                        

Our Brothers, the Alchemists, have as their philosophy the Great Work, a task that is carried on by Initiates from age to age. In the first part of the reknowned Dr. George Oliver's essay we examine Freemasonry's role in this "Magnum Opus".

Throughout the ages the spiritual doctrine which is concealed within the architectural phraseology of our modern Craft system has undergone the influence of many different traditions of the Ancient Wisdom. The student, therefore, who seeks to analyse Freemasonry as it stands to-day often finds himself lost in a bewildering maze of various tributaries of knowledge, and is apt to pore indefinitely over a mass of fragmentary facts without perceiving their inter-relation, or being able to coordinate them into one comprehensive scheme.

In this Paper the attempt will be made to present, for the guidance of Masonic students, an interpretation of the Egyptian metaphysical tradition in harmony with the teachings set forth in what are called the Mysteries; the Egyptian tradition will then be briefly discussed in the light of its transmission and ultimate incorporation in Speculative Freemasonry; finally, reasons will be given in support of the theory, which we hold to be valid, that the Great Work ("Magnum Opus") of the Rosicrucians and Spiritual Alchemists is the same as that which is symbolised in our Masonic legend of H.A. Thoughtful students may find in the references to the Old Wisdom and the Mystery tradition an introduction to a great subject; nor should the Mysteries be thought of only as institutions long vanished into the night of time; rather their re-establishment is to be accepted as inevitable. In years to come a wiser generation will restore the sacred rites which are indispensable to the spiritual, intellectual and social security of the race. Meanwhile, preserving the witness, Freemasonry keeps burning the light of the perpetual Mysteries in a dark age. If, in comparison with former witnesses, Freemasonry is but a "glimmering ray" rather than a powerful beam of light, it is none the less a true ray; a kindly light lit from the world's central altar-flame, and sufficient at least to lead some aspirants on amid the encircling gloom until the existing "state of darkness" is dispelled by the dawn of a new era.

It is now generally acknowledged by those competent to judge, that of all the ancient peoples the Egyptians were the most learned in the wisdom of the Secret Doctrine; indeed, there are some who would have it that Egypt was the Mother of the Mysteries, and that it was on the banks of the Nile that the Royal Art was born. We can affirm, without entering into any controversy on the matter, that the wisest of philosophers from other nations visited Egypt to be initiated in the sacred Mysteries; Thales, Solon, Pythagoras and Plato are all related to have journeyed from Greece to the delta of the Nile in quest of knowledge; and upon returning to their own country these illumined men each declared the Egyptians to be the wisest of mortals, and the Egyptian temples to be the repositories of sublime doctrines concerning the history of the Gods and the regeneration of men. To the earliest period of Egyptian metaphysical speculation belongs the fable of Isis and Osiris, and we find that the myth of the Dying God recurs in many of the great World Religions; also it is an established fact that the life, death and resurrection of the immortal-mortal have become the prototype for numerous other doctrines of human regeneration.

The fable, as it has descended to us in the account given by Plutarch, the celebrated Greek biographer, has not been much amplified by modern research; nor has any new key been found to unlock this sublime drama, which may well be termed the "Passion Play" of Egypt. Plutarch himself, however, says that "the mystic symbols are well known to us who belong to the Brotherhood," and this intimation suggests that the interpretation of the myth as it is given by him in his "Isis and Osiris" will reveal its hidden meaning to students who are already familiar with the principles of the doctrine. Moreover, a perusal of the introductory remarks made by Plutarch discloses that these are of special significance, for if he, by any word or symbol, reveals even a small part of the sacred Mystery to the uninitiated, we may fairly claim that such revelation is to be found in the following excerpt from the text of his work :-

"Isis, according to the Greek interpretation of the word, signifies knowledge; as does the name of her professed adversary Typhon; (signify) insolence and pride, a name therefore extremely well adapted to one, who, full of ignorance and error, tears in pieces and conceals that holy doctrine, which the Goddess collects, compiles and delivers to those who aspire after the most perfect participation of the divine nature."

We have in this passage a clear indication that Osiris is to be regarded as the personification of an Order of learning, because Plutarch identifies him beyond question with the "holy doctrine," or, in other words, the Mystery tradition. Hence, we may further deduce that since, in the Egyptian system, THOTH personifies the whole sphere of knowledge (and it was through THOTH that OSIRIS came into being), so Osiris embodies the secret and sacred wisdom reserved for those who were proficients in the ancient rites. To the Elect, therefore, Osiris represented "primordial knowledge," and He signified not only divine "at-one-ment" with the Absolute (which is the end of all illumination), but by his life, death and resurrection, He also revealed the means by which mortal consciousness could attain that end. Stated alternatively, the personality of Osiris typifies the Institution erected by the ancients in order to perpetuate the deathless truths of the soul.

We will next examine the Egyptian historical tradition. According to this, Osiris is the first of the five children of the Goddess NUT ; He therefore corresponds with the first of the five divine kings of China and the five exoterically known Dhyana-Buddhas of Lamaism. The five children of NUT are otherwise the five traditional root races which have populated the five continents which have appeared upon the earth. Isis is represented as being born on the fourth day, and is connected with the fourth race (populating Atlantis-see Plato "Timaeus" and "Critias"), the tradition of Osiris (the primitive revelation of the first race) coming into Egypt through the Atlantean Mystery School, of which Isis is the symbol. From the Egyptian account of the reign of Osiris as King we glean the following philosophical history; there was a time, the Golden Age, when truth and wisdom ruled the earth, and this aristocracy of wisdom was a benevolent despotism in which men were led to a nobler state of being by the firm kindly hand of the enlighted sage. This was the dynasty of the mythological Priest-Kings, who were qualified to govern humanity by reason not only of temporal, but of divine attributes; through his priests, Osiris, representative of the hidden tradition, ruled the entire world by virtue of the perfection resident in that tradition. If, then, we may concede that Osiris is the positive pole of the universal life agent, Isis becomes the receptive pole of that activity ; He is the doctrine, She is the Church; and as in Christianity it is customary to refer to the Church as the Bride of Christ, so in ancient Egypt the institution of the Mysteries was the Great Mother, the consort of heaven itself. From this interpretation we gain a deeper insight into the symbolism of the whole Osirian cycle.

Isis signifies the temporal order of the priesthood, the cumulative body of Initiates; She is personified as the Temple; She is the Mother of all good, the protectress of right, the patron of all improvement; She ensures nobility, inspires virtue, and awakens the nobler passions of the soul; like the Moon as reflector, She shines only with the light of Her sovereign Sun, even as the Temple can only be illumined by its indwelling truth.
In the Egyptian metaphysical system, TYPHON, the conspirer against OSIRIS, is the embodiment of every perversity; He is the negative creation (the AHRIMAN of Zoroaster); He is black magic and sorcery, the Black Brotherhood and his wife, NEPHTHYS, is the institution through which He manifests. The traditional history relates that TYPHON lured OSIRIS into the ark of destruction, stated to be it chest or coffin (the symbol of material organisation-the imprisonment of the soul in a physical body), at the time when the Sun entered the house of Scorpio, i.e., the 17th day of the second month of the Egyptian year (corresponding to the month of November in our calendar); hence we know him to be the type of the eternal negative, the betrayer of the Lord, namely JUDAS. In the initiation rites Typhon is also the "tester" or "tryer" ("the Lord who is against us"), personifying ambition the patron of ruin. Typhon was assisted in his "impious design" to usurp the throne of Osiris by ASO (the Queen of Ethiopia) and seventy-two other conspirators. These conspirators represent the three destructive powers, "the three ruffians," which are preserved to modern Freemasonry as the murderers of the Master Builder; they are ignorance, superstition and fear. Thus the advent of greed and perversion marked the end of the Golden Age, and with the death of Osiris, Typhon forthwith ascended the throne as regent of the world. It is further narrated that in consequence of the material organisation of the social sphere which followed upon the exile of Truth to the invisible world, Isis, the Mother of the Mysteries, was so defiled and desecrated by the profane, that her sages and prophets were forced to flee into the wilderness to escape the machinations of the evil one. At this stage, Isis, now represented by the scattered but still consecrated body of Initiates, began the great search for the secret that was lost; and in all parts of the world the virtuous in "grief and distress" raised their hands to the heavens, pleading for the restoration of the reign of Truth. Continuing their search in all parts of the earth and throughout innumerable ages, the congregation of the just at last re-discovered the lost arcana and brought it back with rejoicing to the world over which it once ruled. In this manner, we learn, Isis by magic (the initiated priests were magicians), resurrected the dead God, and through union with him brought forth an order of priests under the collective title of HORUS. These were the HERJ SESHTA (the Brothers of Horus), the chief of whom wore the dog-headed mask of ANUBIS. Anubis was the son of Osiris by NEPHTHYS (the material world) and represents the divine man, or the mortal being who rose to enlightenment.

Ambition, however, personified by Typhon, knowing that temporal power must die if divine power, in the form of Truth, became re-established in the world, put forth all its might to again scatter the doctrine, and this time so thoroughly that it should never again be re-discovered. If, as Plutarch has suggested, Typhon in one of his manifestations represents the sea, then it would appear that the second destruction of Osiris may refer to the Atlantean deluge (alluded to in the dialogues of Plato) by which the doctrine was swallowed up or lost, and its fragments scattered among all the existing civilizations of that time. According to the narrative, the body of Osiris (the Secret Doctrine) was now divided into fourteen parts and distributed among the parts of the world; that is, it was scattered through the seven divine and seven infernal spheres (the "lokas" and "talas" of the Indian tradition), or by a different symbolism, through the seven worlds which are without and the seven worlds which are within. The parts of Osiris were now scattered so hopelessly that Typhon felt his authority to be secure at last, but wisdom is not so easily to be cheated, and in due time, we are informed, Isis succeeded in recovering all the parts except one, the phallus, which had been thrown into the river and devoured by three fishes. Failing to recover the phallus, Isis is said to have substituted a golden replica for the missing organ. In our interpretation of this symbolism we must infer that mankind itself is represented by the fish, the phallus being the symbol of the " vital and immortal principle," and so used in Egyptian hieroglyphics. The phallus, therefore, denotes the Lost Word (the three-fold generative power), and the golden replica of Egypt, which was rendered alive by magic, is the equivalent of the three-lettered word of our modern Freemasonry, concealed (in the Royal Arch Degree) under the letters A-U-M. It should here be noted that in the Egyptian rites, Isis, by modelling and reproducing the missing member of Osiris, gives the body the appearance of completeness, but the life power is not there; recourse is therefore had to magic and the golden phallus is brought to life by means of the secret processes rescued from the lost "Book of Thoth." The allusion is to the restoration of divine power through the regeneration of man himself and the Initiation processes.

Isis was the patroness of the magical arts among the Egyptians, but the use to which magic should be put is clearly shown in the Osirian cycle where Isis applies the most potent of her charms and invocations to accomplish the resurrection of Osiris. In other words, the magical power is used solely for the purpose of the redemption of the human soul. Masonic students are recommended to study carefully such magical practices as evidenced in the various types of dramatic initiatory ritual. To quote the eminent psychologist, Dr. Jung, from his commentary to "The Secret of the Golden Flower":-
"Magical practices are the projections of psychic events which, in cases like these, exert a counter influence on the soul and act like a kind of enchantment of one's own personality. That is to say, by means of these concrete performances the attention, or, better said, the interest, is brought back to an inner sacred domain which is the source and goal of the soul. The inner domain contains the unity of life and consciousness which, though once possessed, has been lost and must now be found again."

In the Egyptian rites HORUS is the saviour-avenger son of ISIS, conceived by magic (the ritual) after the brutal murder of OSIRIS; hence he is the posthumous redeemer. The destruction of TYPHON is to be accomplished by ISIS through her immaculately conceived son, HORUS, which is a term concealing the collective body of the perfected adepts who were "born again" out of the womb of the Mother-ISIS, the Mystery School. We can apply this analogy to our great modern system of Initiation, which has certainly perpetuated the outer form of the ancient rites. Freemasonry as an Institution is, in this sense, the modern ISIS, the Mother of the Mysteries, from whose dark womb the Initiates are born in the mystery of the second or philosophic birth. Similarly, all Masonic adepts (Master Masons) are, by virtue of their participation in the rites, figuratively speaking, "Sons of the Widow"; they are the offspring of the Institution widowed by the loss of the living Word, and theirs is the eternal quest-they discover by becoming.

The metaphysical significance of the death and resurrection of the Egyptian demi-god has for the most part been lost to the Craft, notwithstanding the undoubted fact that Masonic scholars of the calibre of Pike, Mackey and Oliver are in general agreement as to a definite association between the legend of Osiris and the drama enacted in the Third Degree. We may, however, attribute the failure of students to recognize the Egyptian origin of certain parts of Craft Lodge ritualism and symbolism to the transmission of the legend by way of the Hebrews who, naturally, superimposed their own terminology on the tradition they received from Egypt. In the Schools of Hebrew mysticism, the Mystery drama of the death and resurrection of Osiris became that of the slaying and raising of the Master Builder, and the Temple of Solomon took the place of the Egyptian " House of Light." With the Rabbinical mystics the erection and subsequent vicissitudes of Solomon's Temple provided a great glyph or mythos of the upbuilding of the human soul, and this secret lore also found partial, although cryptic, expression in the Hebrew public Scriptures in terms of building.

The next important influence affecting the ancient tradition was that of the Christian Mysteries, those rites of which Clement and Origen spoke so highly; and as the course of Hebrew history advanced and the stream of mystical doctrine widened into its Christian development, the same symbolic terminology continued to be used. We find, therefore, that the Gospels, the Epistles, and the Apocalypse teem with Masonic imagery and allusions to spiritual building. Indeed, it is in these that the human soul is expressly declared to be the real Temple which was prefigured by the earlier historic or quasi-historic structure, while a spiritual Chief-Cornerstone, rejected of certain builders, is mentioned. St. Ignatius, one of the known pupils of St. John, is to be found expounding the teaching of the Mysteries in the following purely Masonic terms:-

"Forasmuch as ye are stones of a Temple, which were prepared beforehand for a building of God, the Father, being hoisted up to the heights by the working-tool of Jesus Christ, which is the Cross, and using for a rope the Holy Spirit ; your faith being a windlass, and love the way leading up to God. So then ye are all Companions in the way, spiritual temples, carrying your Divine principle within you, your shrine, your Christ and your holy things, being arrayed from head to foot with the commandments of Christ." (Ignatius: "Epistle to the Ephesians")

The pronounced Masonic imagery used by St. lgnatius (who was martyred at Rome in A.D. 107) tends to corroborate the tradition that the Square, the Level and the Plumb-rule, now allocated to the Master and Wardens of a Lodge, were formerly associated with the Bishop, Priest and Deacon, when serving at the secret altars of the persecuted Christians. Put together, the three tools form obviously a Cross, which, on the worshippers being disturbed by the secular authorities, could be quickly knocked apart and appear as builder's implements.

The Mysteries came to an end as public institutions in the sixth century, when from political considerations they and the teaching of the Secret Doctrine and philosophy became prohibited by the Roman Government, at the instigation of Justinian, who aimed at inaugurating an official uniform State-religion throughout the Empire. Since the suppression of the Mysteries, however, their tradition and teaching have been continued under various concealments, and to that continuation our modern Masonic system is due. To the early Middle Ages the inner Christian tradition appeared again in the Knight Templars and the Mysteries of the Holy Grail, and it is significant that these henceforth become associated with Speculative Freemasonry. But, the most profound influence which went to make Freemasonry what it is today was that of the mysterious Order of the Rosy Cross. The memory of this Rosicrucian influence is preserved, not only in the Eighteenth Degree of the Ancient and Accepted Rite, but also (and perhaps as much) in the Craft Degrees, especially in the Third Degree.
The exoteric history of the Rosicrucian Society commences with the year 1614. In that year there was published at Cassel in Germany a pamphlet entitled: "The Discovery of the Fraternity of the Meritorious Order of the Rosy Cross, addressed to the Learned in General and the Governors of Europe." After a discussion of the momentous questions of the general reformation of the world, which was to be accomplished through the medium of a secret confederacy of the wisest and most philanthropic men, the pamphlet proceeds to inform its readers that such an association is already in existence, having been founded over one hundred years earlier by the famous C.R.C., grand initiate in the mysteries of Alchemy, whose history (which is clearly of a fabulous or symbolical nature) is given. The following year a further pamphlet: "The Confession of the Rosicrucian Fraternity, addressed to the Learned in Europe" appeared, and in 1616, "The Chymical Nuptials of Christian Rosencreutz." This latter book is a remarkable allegorical romance, describing how an old man, a lifelong student of the Alchemistic Art, was present at the accomplishment of the "Magnum Opus" (Great Work) in the year 1459. From the Masonic point of view, it was obviously not without adequate reason that Michael Maier, one of the greatest of the reputed Rosicrucians (born 1568), exhibited on the title page of his book " Septimana Philosophica (et Arabias Regina Saba nec non Hyramo Tyri Principe)," King Solomon imparting his riddles to the Queen of Sheba on his right hand, and Hiram on his left. And as early as 1638 we find Adamson declaring in his " Muses' Threnodie":-

"For we are Brethren of the Rosie Cross,
We have the Mason Word and second sight."

showing how intimately the two Orders were identified. We also have the later testimony of Dr. Sigismund Bacstrom, who claims to have been initiated into the Society of the Rosicrucians on the Isle of Maritius on 12th September, 1794, by the mysterious Comte de Chazal, and who has left extensive manuscripts setting forth his findings and opinions on matters of importance to Masonic students. The learned Doctor describes the transition through which the Ancient Brotherhood passed in the process of externalising certain parts of itself in the system we know as Speculative Freemasonry. His conclusions agree with the available evidence, all of which points to the fact that one definite group was behind the movement which projected the Craft system. To trace the genesis of this movement, which came into activity some two hundred and fifty years ago (our rituals and ceremonies having been compiled round about the year 1700), is beyond the scope of our present subject. It should, however, be stated here that the movement itself incorporated the slender ritual and the elementary symbolism which, for centuries previously, had been employed in connection with the mediaeval Building Guilds, but it gave to them a far fuller meaning and a far wider range. We may regard it as certain that the Craft received from this source much that the old Operative Lodges had never possessed, such as the Third Degree (with its highly mystical Opening and Closing); the Craft Legend or Traditional History; the central part of the Installation Rite (now observed in the Conclave or Board of Installed Masters); and many other allusions to occult science, mysticism, and even magic.

We must emphasize at this stage that our present Masonic system is not one coming from remote antiquity. There is no direct continuity between us and the Egyptians, or those ancient Hebrews, of whom we have already spoken. What is extremely ancient in Freemasonry is the spiritual doctrine which is concealed within the architectural phraseology of the Ritual; for this is an elementary form of the doctrine taught in all ages, I no Matter in what garb it has been expressed. To put it another way: Freemasonry offers, in dramatic ceremonial, a philosophy of the spiritual life of man and a diagram of the process known as regeneration. This philosophy is not only consistent with the doctrine of every religious system taught outside the ranks of our Order, but it explains, elucidates and more sharply defines, the fundamental doctrines common to all religions of the world, whether past or present. Allied with no external religion itself, Freemasonry is yet a synthesis, a concordat, for men of every race, of every creed, of every sect, and its foundation principles being common to them all, admit of no variation. The function of every phase of Masonic routine, the avowed intention of its principal rituals, and the implication of its teaching, is to assist the genuine candidate by his aspiration to find that unity of being which is variously described as the Centre, the Kingdom of Heaven, the pure essence of Mind, the Buddha-nature, the Inner Self, and the Christ within.

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