The Historical Origins of Freemasonry


The universal sentiment of the Masons of the present day is to confer upon Solomon, King of Israel, the honor of being their "first Grand Master." But the Legend of the Craft had long before, though there was a tradition of the temple extant, bestowed, at least by implication, that title upon Nimrod, the King of Babylonia and Assyria. It had attributed the first organization of a fraternity of craftsmen to him, in saying that he gave a charge to the workmen whom he sent to asist the King of Nineveh in building his cities.

That is to say, he framed for them a Constitution, and, in the words of the Legend, "this was the first tyme that ever Masons had any charge of his science." It was the first time that the Craft were organized into a fraternity working under a Constitution or body of laws; and as Nimrod was the autocratic maker of these laws, it results as a necessary consequence, that their first legislator, legislating with dictatorial and unrestricted sovereign power, was also their first Grand Master.

This view of the early history of Masonry, presented to us by the Legend of the Craft, which differs so much from the modern opinion, although it has almost become obsolete, is worthy of at least a passing consideration.

Who was this Nimrod, who held so exalted a position in the eyes of the old legendists, and why had they assigned to him a rank and power which modern Craftsmen have thought to belong more justly to the King of Israel?

The answers to these questions will be an appropriate commentary on that part of the Legend of the Craft which contains the story of this old Assyrian monarch. The estimation of the character of Nimrod which has been almost universally entertained by the ancients as well as the moderns, obtains no support from the brief account of him contained in the Book of Genesis.

Josephus portrays him as a tyrant in his government of his people, vainglorious of his great power, a despiser and hater of God, and instigated by this feeling, the builder of a tower through which he would avenge himself on God for having destroyed the world.

For this view of the character of Nimrod, Josephus was in an probability indebted to the legends of the orientalists, which had clustered around the name of Nimrod, just as in ancient times legends always did cluster around great and mighty men.

Thus in the ancient chronicles he was represented as of gigantic stature, ten or twelve cubits in height. To him was attributed the invention of idolatry, and he is said to have returned to Chaldea after the destruction of the Tower of Babel, and to have persuaded the inhabitants to become fire-worshippers.

He built a large furnace and commanded that all who refused the idolatrous worship should be cast into it. Among his victims were Abraham or Abram, the patriarch, and his father Terah. The latter was consumed, but the former by the interposition of a miracle came out unhurt. It is hardly necessary to say that such legends are altogether mythical and of no historical value.

The Scriptural account of Nimrod is a very brief and unsatisfactory one. It is merely that:

"Cush begat Nimrod; he began to be a mighty one in the earth. He was a mighty hunter before the Lord; wherefore it is said, Even as Nimrod the mighty hunter before the Lord. And the beginning of his kingdom was Babel, and Erech, and Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar. Out of that land went forth Ashur and builded Nineveh, and the city Rehoboth, and Calah, and Resen between Nineveh and Calah: the same is a great city." [i]

The most learned commentators have differed as regards the translation of the 11th verse. The Septuagint, the Vulgate, Luther's and our own recognized version say "Out of that land went forth Ashur, and builded Nineveh." Higden, in the Polychronicon, which I have already said was the source of the Masonic Legend, adopts the same version.

And the Cooke and the later manuscripts assign the building of Nineveh and the other cities of Assyria to Ashur, the son of Shem, and the kinsman of Nimrod, who assisted him with workmen. Such was the legend until the beginning of the 18th century.

But the best modern Hebrew scholars, such as Borhart, Le Clerc, Gesenius, and a great many others, insist that Ashur is not the name of a person, but of a country, and that the passage should be rendered: "Out of that land he (Nimrod) went forth to Assyria and builded Nineveh, and the city Rehoboth, and Calah, and Resen, between Nineveh and Calah." This is the form of the legend that was adopted by Dr. Anderson and by the author of the Krause document, and after the publication of Anderson's work it took the place of the older form.

The Craft have in both forms of the legend recognized Nimrod as a great Mason, nor have the vituperations of Josephus and the scandalous legends of the orientalists had the slightest effect on their apparent estimation of that mighty monarch, the founder of nations and the builder of cities.

And now, in the latter part of the 19th century, comes a learned scholar, [ii] well acquainted with the language of the ancient Babylonians and Assyrians, and with the complicated cuneiform alphabet in which it is clothed, and visiting the remains of the ruined cities which Nimrod had built, finds the fragments of twelve tablets which contain the history of a Babylonian monarch to whom he gave the provisional name of Izdubar and whom he identified with Nimrod.

If this identification be correct, and there is certainly strong internal evidence in favor of it, we have in these tablets a somewhat connected narrative of the exploits of the proto-monarch of Babylon, which places his character in a more favorable light than that which had hitherto been received as the popular belief founded on the statement of Josephus and the oriental traditions.

The Izdubar legends, as Mr. Smith has called the inscriptions on these tablets, represent Nimrod as a mighty leader, a man of great prowess in war and in hunting, and who by his ability and valor had united many of the petty kingdoms into which the whole of the valley of the Euphrates was at that time divided, and thus established the first empire in Asia. [iii] He was, in fact, the hero of the ancient Babylonians, and therefore it was only natural that they should consecrate the memory of him who as a powerful and beneficent king had first given them that unity which secured their prosperity as a nation. [iv]

If we now refer to the Legend of the Craft, we shall find that the old Masonic legendist, although of course he had never seen nor heard of the discoveries contained in the cuneiform inscriptions, had rejected the traditional estimate of Nimrod's character, as well as the supposed results of the destruction of the Tower of Babel, and had wisely selected Babylon as the first seat and Nimrod (whoever may have been meant by that name) as the founder of the sciences, and especially of architecture.

In this there is a conformity of the legendary account with the facts of history, not usual with legendists.

"We must give," says Canon Rawlinson,

"the Babylonians credit for a genius and a grandeur of conception rarely surpassed, which led them to employ the labor whereof they had the command, in works of so imposing a character. With only 'brick for stone,' and at first only 'slime for mortar,' they constructed edifices of so vast a size that they still remain, at the present day, among the most enormous ruins in the world, impressing the beholder at once with awe and admiration."

The Legend of the Craft continually confounds Masonry, Geometry, and Architecture, or rather uses them as synonymous and convertible terms. It is not, therefore, surprising that it should have selected Babylon as the birth-place, and Nimrod as the founder of what they called "the science." The introduction of his name into the Legend, may be attributed, says the Rev. Bro. Woodford, [v] "to an old assumption that rulers were patrons of the building sodalities." I rather imagine that the idea may be traced to the fact that Nimrod was supposed to be a patron of architecture and the buider of a great number of cities. The mediaeval Operative Masons were always ready to accept any distinguished architect or builder as a patron and member of the Craft. Thus the history of Masonry compiled by Dr. Anderson, out of the Old Records, is nothing but a history of architecture, and almost every king, prelate, or nobleman who had erected a palace, a church, or a castle, is called a distinguished Freemason and a patron of the Institution.


[i] Genesis x. 8-12.

[ii] The late George Smith, of the British Museum, the author of "Assyrian Discoveries," of the "Chaldean Account of Genesis," and many other writings in which he has eNen the learned result of his investigations of the cuneiform inscriptions. 

[iii] Smith, "Chaldean Account of Genesis," p. 174.

[iv] Smith, ib., p. 294.

[v] Kenning's " Encyclopaedia," in voce Nimrod.

"If I have seen further than
others, it is by standing
upon the shoulders of giants."


Comasonic Logo

Co-Masonry, Co-Freemasonry, Women's Freemasonry, Men and Women, Mixed Masonry

Copyright © 1975-2024 Universal Co-Masonry, The American Federation of Human Rights, Inc. All Rights Reserved.