The Historical Origins of Freemasonry


We now approach a very interesting topic in the legendary history of Masonry. The reader has already seen in the last chapter that the Masons of the kingdom of Tyre were invited to join with the Jewish builders in the construction of the Temple. Who these Tyrian Masons were, what was their character, whence they came, and what was the influence exerted by them on the Jewish workmen with whom they were united in a common labor, are questions which can only be solved by a reference to what may be called the Legend of the Dionysiac Artificers.

This Legend was entirely unknown to the old Masons of the Middle Ages. There is no reference to it in any of the manuscripts. The brief allusion to the Dionysiacs of Asia Minor in Robison's anti-Masonic work does not necessarily connect them with the Masons of King Solomon. [i]

The first writer who appears to have started the theory that the Masons sent by King Hiram to the King of Israel were members of the Dionysiac fraternity, is Sir David Brewster, who presented the Legend under the guise of an historic statement in the History of Freemasonry, published in the beginning of this century, and the authorship of which, although it was actually written by him, has been falsely attributed to Alexander Lawrie, the bookseller of Edinburgh and at the time the Grand Secretary of the Grand Lodge of Scotland. Brewster may therefore, I think, be fairly considered as the original framer of the Legend.

The origin of the mystical and architectural society which Brewster closely connects with the Masons of the Temple may be given in almost his own words. [ii]

Between 1055 and 1044 years before Christ, or something more than half a century anterior to the building of the Temple, the inhabitants of Attica, complaining of the narrowness of their territory and the unfruitfulness of the soil, went in quest of more extensive and fertile settlements. Being joined by a number of the inhabitants of the surrounding provinces of Greece, they sailed to Asia Minor and drove out the inhabitants of that portion of the western coast from Phoccea in the north to Miletus in the south. To this narrow strip of land they gave the name of Ionia, because the greatest number of the adventurers were natives of that Grecian state. After partly subduing and partly expelling the original inhabitants, they built several towns, of which one of the principal was Teos.

Prior to this emigration the Greeks had made considerable progress in the arts and sciences, which the adventurers carried with them into their new territory, and they introduced into Ionia the Mysteries of Pallas and Dionysus, before they had become corrupted by the licentiousness of the Athenians.

Especially popular, not only in Ioca but throughout Asia Minor, were the Mysteries of Dionysus, the Roman Bacchus. In these, as in all the religious Mysteries of antiquity, there was a funereal legend.

In the Dionysiac Mysteries the legend of initiation recounted or represented the death of the demigod Dionysus, the search for and discovery of his body, and his subsequent restoration to life.

In the initiations the candidate was made to represent in his own person, the events connected with the slaying of the hero-god. After a variety of preparatory ceremonies, intended to call forth all his fortitude and courage, the aphanism or mystical death of Dionysus - torn to pieces by the Titans - was presented in a dramatic form and followed by the confinement or burial of the candidate, as the representative of Dionysus in the pastos, couch, or coffin, all of which constituted the first part of the ceremony of initiation.

Then began the search for the remains of Dionysus, which was continued amid scenes of the greatest confusion and tumult, until at last, the search having been successful, the morning was turned to joy, light succeeded to darkness, and the candidate was invested with the knowledge of the secret doctrine of the Mysteries - the belief in the existence of one God and a future and immortal state. [iii]

Now these Mysteries of Dionysus were very intimately connected with a society of architects. As this association, according to the Legend which we are now considering, had much to do with the organization of Masonry at the Solomonic Temple, it is necessary to take a brief notice of its origin and character.

It is an historical fact that at the time of the building of the Temple at Jerusalem, there existed at Tyre as well as in other peas of Asia Minor an association known as the Dionysian Architects, because they joined to the practice of operative architecture the observance of the religious rites of the Dionysiac Mysteries.

It has been already stated that the priests of Dionysus had devoted themselves to the study and the practice of architecture, and about one thousand years before the Christian era, or at the time that King Solomon began the construction of the Temple at Jerusalem, had emigrated from Greece and established themselves as a society or fraternity of builders in Asia Minor, and devoted themselves to the construction of temples and other public edifices. [iv]

Hiram, who then reigned over the kingdom of Tyre, and who from his cultivation of the sciences has been styled the Augustus of his age, is said to have patronized these religious builders, and to have employed them in the magnificent works by which he adorned and strengthened his capital.

The internal government and the usages of this association were very similar to those exhibited by the Masonic society in the present day, and which the legendary theory supposes to have prevailed among the builders of the Solomonic Temple.

The fraternity was divided into communities called synoeciae, [v] having houses or dwellings in common, which might well be compared to the Masonic Lodges of the present day. Their plans of meeting were also called in Greek koina, which signifies communities, and each received a distinctive name, just as our Lodges do. Thus Chishull speaks in his account of the prechristian antiquities of Asia of a koinon ton Attaliston, or a "community of the Attalistae," so called, most probably in honor of King Attalus, who was their patron.[vi]

There was an annual festival, like the General Assembly or Grand Lodge of the Masons, which was held with great pomp and ceremony. Chandler says (but he speaks of a later period, when they were settled at Teos) that it was the custom of their synod to bold yearly a General Assembly, at which they sacrificed to the gods and poured out libations to their deceased benefactors. They likewise celebrated games in honor of Bacchus, when the crowns which had been bestowed by any of the communities as rewards of merit were announced by heralds, and the wearers of them were applauded by the other members. These meetings, he adds, were solemnized with great pomp and festivity. [vii]

The same traveler mentions a long decree made by one of the communities in honor of its magistrates, which he found inscribed on a slab in a Turkish burying-ground. The thanks of the community with a crown of olives are given as a recompense to these officers for their great liberality and trouble while in office; and to perpetuate their memory and to excite an emulation of their merit, it is besides enacted that the decrees be engraved, but at their expense, "so desirable," says Chandler, "was the testimony to the individuals and so frugal the usage in bestowing it." [viii]

Of course as an architectural association the Dionysiacs used many of the implements employed by Operative Masons, and as a secret brotherhood they had a system of signs and tokens by which any one of the members could make himself known to the others. Professor Robison, who may be accepted on this point as authority, admits that they were "distinguished from the uninitiated or profane inhabitants by the science which they possessed and by many private signs and tokens by which they recognized each other. [ix]

Each of the koina or separate communities into which they were divided was under the direction of officers corresponding to a Master and Wardens. [x]

The Masonic principle of charity was practiced among them and the opulent members were bound to provide for the wants and necessities of their poorer brethren.

The Legend which connects these architects with the building of the Temple at Jerusalem, assumes that Hiram Abif was a member of this secret association. Although the Scriptural narrative is adverse to this theory, since it states that he was simply a worker in metals and precious stones, yet we may reconcile it with possibility by supposing that such craftsmen were admitted into the association of the Dionysiacs because their decorative art was necessary for the completion and perfection of the temples and public buildings which they constructed.

This is, however, merely conjectural.

The Legend, now connecting itself in part with history, proceeds to state that when Solomon was about to build a temple to Jehovah, he made his intention known to his friend and ally, Hiram, King of Tyre, and because he was well aware of the architectural skill of the Tyrian Dionysiacs, he besought that monarch's assistance to enable him to carry his pious design into execution. Hiram complied with his request and sent him the necessary workmen, who by their skill and expeience might supply the mechanical deficiencies and ignorance of the Israelites.

With the body of builders he sent this Hiram Abif, who as "a curious and cunning workman," highly recommended by his patron, was entrusted by King Solomon with the superintendence of the construction and placed at the head of both the Tyrian and Jewish craftsmen as the chief builder and principal conductor of the work.

To this distinguished artist, on account of the large influence which his position gave him and the exalted personal virtues which are traditionally supposed to have characterized him, is to be attributed, according to the Legend, the intimate union of two peoples so dissimilar in manners and so antagonized in religion as the Jews and the Tyrians, which resulted in the organization of the Institution of Freemasonry.

Supposing Hiram Abif, as the Legend does, to have been connected with the Dionysiac fraternity, we may also suppose that he could not have been a very humble or inconspicuous member, if we may judge of his rank in the society, from the amount of talent which he is said to have possessed, and from the elevated position that he held in the alleabns and at the court of the King of Tyre.

He must therefore have been very familiar with all the ceremonial usages of the Dionysiac artificers and must have enjoyed a long expeience of the advantages derived from the government and discipline which they practiced in the erection of the many sacred edifices which they had constructed. A portion of these ceremonial usages and of this discipline he would naturally be inclined to introduce among the workmen at Jerusalem.

He therefore united them in a society, similar in many respects to that of the Dionysiac artificers. He inculcated lessons of charity and brotherly love; he established a ceremony of initiation to test experimentally the worth and fortitude of the candidate; adopted secret methods of recognition; and impressed the obligations of duty and the principles of morality by means of symbols and allegories. Just at this point a difficulty must have arisen in reconciling the pagan symbolic instruction of the Tyrians with the religious notions of the Jews, which, however, the Legend ingeniously overcomes.

The most prominent symbol of Speculative Masonry, that, indeed, on which the whole of the ethical instructions is founded, is contained in the lesson of resurrection to a future life as developed in the allegorical Legend of the Master's Degree.

In the Pagan Mysteries, of which the Dionysia were a part, this doctrine was also illustrated by an allegorical legend. In the Mysteries of Dionysus which were practiced by the Tyrian architects the legend related to the death and subsequent resuscitation of Bacchus or Dionysus.

But it would have been utterly impossible to have introduced such a legend as the basis of any instructions to be communicated to Jewish initiates. Any allusion to the mythological fables of their Gentile neighbors would have been equally offensive to the taste and repugnant to the religious prejudices of a nation educated from generation to generation in the worship of a Divine Being, who, they had been taught, was jealous of his prerogatives, and who had made himself known to their ancestors as the JEHOVAH, the only God of time present, past, and future.

The difficulty of obtaining a legend on which the dogma of the Third Degree might be founded was obviated by substituting Hiram Abif, after his death (at which time only the system could have been perfected), in the place of Dionysus. The lesson taught in the Mysteries practiced by the Dionysiac artificers was thus translated into the Masonic initiation, the form of the symbolism remaining the same, but the circumstances of the legend necessarily varying.

By this union of the Dionysiacs with the Jewish workmen and the introduction of their mystical organization, the Masonic Order assumed at the building of the Temple that purely speculative form connected with the operative which it has ever since retained.

From its Jewish element it derived its religious character as a pure theism. From its Tyrian element it borrowed its peculiar mystical character and its system of symbolism, which so much assimilated it to the ancient Pagan Mysteries, that a Legend has been framed (to be hereafter considered) which traces its origin directly to those secret associations of antiquity.

Upon the completion of the Temple, the workmen, invested with all the secrets which had been promised in their initiation, and thus becoming Master Masons, dispersed, that they might be enabled to extend their knowledge and to renew their labors in other lands.

Such is the Legend which seeks to attribute the present form of Freemasonry to the connection of the Dionysiac artisans of Tyre with the Jewish workmen at the building of the Temple. So much of the Legend as relates to the existence of a building sodality at Tyre (leaving out the question whether they were or were not Dionysiacs), some of whose members went to Jerusalem to assist in the construction of the Solomonic Temple, may, I think, be accepted as indisputably historic.

What were the real influences exerted by them on the Jewish people, is a question whose answer finds no place in the realm of history, but must be relegated to the doubtful domain of conjecture. Brewster has descibed the Dionyiacs as they existed in about the 3d century before Christ, and after their incorporation by King Attalus, as if they maintained the same condition in the reign of Hiram of Tyre seven hundred years before. For this statement there is no warrant in any historical record.

The supposition that the Dionysiacs of Tyre and those of Teos were identical in organization, is simply a theory based on a mere assumption. It is, however, certain that they who adopt the legendary theory that Freemasonry was fast organized at the Temple of Solomon, will find much to sustain their theory in the Legend of the Dionysiac Artificers.

It is equally certain that those who deny the Temple theory will have to reject the Dionysic, for the two are too closely connected to be arbitrarily dissevered. But laying the subject of Freemasonry altogether aside, and considering the connection of the Tyrians and the Jews at the Temple as a mere historical question, it would present a very interesting study of history to determine what were the results of that connection, if there were any way of solving it except by mere conjecture.

The subsequent history of the association of Dionysiac Architects forms no part of the Legend which has just been recited; but it may be interesting to trace their progress. About seven hundred years after the building of the Temple at Jerusalem, they are said to have been incorporated by the King of Pergamum, an ancient province of Mysia, as a society exclusively engaged in the erection of public buildings such as theaters and temples. They settled at Teos, an Ionian city, on the coast of Asia Minor, where, notwithstanding its intestine troubles, they remained for several centuries. Among the works accomplished by them were a magnificent theater and a splendid temple of Dionysus, some ruins of which still remain.

But proving turbulent and seditious they were at length expelled from Teos and removed to the city of Ephesus. Thence they were transferred by King Attalus to the town of Myonessus. The Teians having sent an embassy to Rome to request that the Myonessians should not be permitted to fortify their city, the Dionysiacs removed to Lebedos, about fifteen miles from Teos, where they were joyfully welcomed.

In the 5th century of the Christian era the Emperor Theodosius abolished all mystical associations, but the Dionysiacs are said to have continued their existence until the time of the Crusades, when they passed over into Europe and were merged in the association of builders known as the Travelling Freemasons of the Middle Ages. This latter part of the narrative is, I think, merely legendary or traditional, and will find no support in authentic history. It is however, an historical study to be examined hereafter.

[i] "Proofs of a Conspiracy," P. 20.

[ii] Lawrie's "History of Freemasonry," 1st edit., P. 27.

[iii] Le meurtre de Bacchus mis a mort et dechire en pieces par les Titans, et son retour a la vie, ont ete le sujet d'explications allegoriques tout-a-fait analogues a celles que l'on a donnees de l'enlevement de Proserpine et du meurtre d'Osiris. - Sylvestre de Tracy in Sainte-Croix's "Recherches sur les Mysteres du Paganisme" T. ii., p. 86.

[iv] Chandler says "the Dionysiasts were artificers or contractors for the Asiatic theaters, and were incorporated and settled at Teos, under the Kings of Pergamum." - "Travels in Asia Minor," vol. i., ch. xxviii., p. 123. [This was at a later period than the era of the Temple] 

[v] "Antiquitates Asiaticae Christianam Acram Antecedentes," p. 139.

[vi] Rollin's "Universal History" places Attalus in the rank of those princes who loved and patronized letters and the arts.

[vii] Chandler, "Travels in Asia Minor," vol. i., ch. xxx., P. 126.

[viii] Ibid., vol. i., ch. xxviii., p. 124.

[ix] "Proofs of a Conspiracy," p. 20.

[x]Brewster in Lawrie's "History," P. 29.

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