The Historical Origins of Freemasonry


Unlike the legend of Hermes, the story of the Tower of Babel appears in the Halliwell poem, which shows, if my theory of the origin of that poem be correct, that the Legend was not confined at an early period to the English Masons. In the second of the two poems, which I have heretofore said are united in one manuscript, the legend of Babel, or Babylon, is thus given: [i]

"Ye mow hen as y do rede, That many years after, for gret drede, That Noee's flod was alle y-ronne, [ii]The tower of Bebyloine was begonne, Also playne werk of lyme and ston, As any mon schulde toke uppon, Seven myle the heyghte shadweth the sonne. King Nabugodonosor let hyt make To gret strenthe for monus [iii] sake Thaygh such a flod agayne schulde come, Over the werke hyt schulde not nome,[iv] For they hadde so hye pride, with strange bost, Aile that werke therfore was y-lost; An angele smot hem so with dyvcres speechs, That never won wyste what other schuld reche.[v]"

The statements of this Halliwell Legend are very meagre, nor is it possible to say with any certainty whence the writer derived his details. From neither the Book of Genesis, nor Berosus, nor Josephus could he have derived the information which has given its peculiar form to the legend. The anachronism of making Nebuchadnezzar, who lived about sixteen centuries after the event, the builder of the tower is worthy of notice. It would appear that the writer of the poem had a general acquaintance with the well-known tradition of Babel, and that in loosely giving an account of it, he had confused the time and place of the erection and the supposed name of the builder.

At all events, the subsequent Masonic legendists did not accept the Halliwell writer as authority, or, more probably, were wholly unacquainted with his poem. It did not exert any influence over the subsequent manuscripts. The next time that the Babel legend appears is in the Cooke MS., written at least a century after the Halliwell. The legend, as there given, is in the following words:

"Hit is writen in the bibull Genesis, Cap. I mo wo [how] that Cam, Noe's sone, gate Nembrothe, and he wax a myghty man apon the erthe, and he wax a stronge man, like a Gyant, and he was a grete kyng, and the bygynyng of his kyngdom was [the] trew kyngdom of Babilon and Arach and Archad and Calan[vi] and the lond of Sennare. And this same Cam [vii] he gan the towre of babilon, and he taught to his werkemen the craft of mesurie, [viii] and he had with him mony masonys mo than 1 thousand, and he louyd and chereshed them well, and hit is wryten in Policronicon and in the master of stories and in other stories rno, and this a part wytnes [the] bybull in the same x. chapter where he seyth that asure [Assur] was nye kynne to Nembrothe [ix] gede [went] owt of the londe of Senare, and he bylded the City Nunyve and Plateas and other mo. Thus he seyeth, 'De terra illa et de Sennare egressus est Asure et edifiiavit Nunyven et Plateas civitates et Cale et Iesu quoque inter Nunyven et haec est Civitas Magna.'

"Reson wolde [requires] that we schold telle opunly how and in what manner that the charges of masoncraft was fyrst foundyd and ho gaf [who gave] fyrste the name to hit of masonri. And ye schyll knaw well that hit [is] told and writen in Policronicon and in Methodus episcopus and Martyrus that Asur that was a worthy lord of Sennare, sende to Nembroth the kyng to sende hym masons and workemen of crafte that myght helpe hym to make his Cite that he was in wyll to make. And Nembroth sende hym xxx C. (3,000) of masons. And whan they scholde go and [he] sende hem forth he callyd hem by for hym [before him] and seyd to hem, ye must go to my cosyn Asure to helpe hym to bilde a cyte, but loke that ye be well governyd, and I shall give you a charge profitable for you and me. . .

"And they resceyved the charge of him that was here [their] maister and here lordq, and went forth to Asure and bilde the cite of Nunyve in the country of Plateas and other cites mo, that men call Cale and lesen that is a gret cite bi twene Cale and Nunyve. And in this manner the craft of masonry was fyrst preferryd [brought forward] and chargyd for a sciens."

We next meet with the Legend in the later manuscripts, in a form differing but little from that of the Cooke MS. The Dowland, which is the earliest of these manuscript Constitutions, and the date of which is supposed to be about the year 1550, has already been printed in this work. But for the convenience of the reader, in comparing the three forms of the Legend, so much of it as refers to the Babel legend is again inserted. It is in these words, which, it may be remarked, are very closely followed by all the subsequent manuscipts up to the beginning of the 18th century:

"At the makinge of the Tower of Babylon, there was Masonrye first made much of. And the Kinge of Babylon that height Nemrothe was a mason himselfe, and loved well the science as it is said with masters of histories. And when the City of Ninyve and other citties of the East should be made, Nemrothe the Kinge of Babylon sent thither three score masons at the rogation of the Kinge of Nyneve, his cosen. And when he sent them forth he gave them a charge in this manner. . . . And this was the first tyme that ever Masons had any charge of his science."

In comparing the three forms of the Babylonish legend, which have here been cited, namely, as given in the Halliwell, the Cooke, and the Dowland MSS., we shall readily detect that there was a gradual growth of the details until the legend eventually took the shape which for a long time was accepted by the Craft.

In the Halliwell poem the legend is very brief, and by its abrupt termination would impress the opinion upon the reader that Masonry had no part in the building of the Tower of Babel, the only effect of which was to produce a confusion of languages and the dispersion of mankind. It was only "many years after" that the "craft of geometry," or Masonry, was taught by Euclid. In fact, the whole tendency of the Halliwell legend is to trace the origin of Masonry to Euclid and the Egyptians. In his account of the Tower of Babel, the writer of the Halliwell poem seems to have been indebted only to the Scriptural narrative, although he has confounded Nebuchadnezzar, the repairer of Babylon, with Nimrod, its original founder.

But the writer of the Cooke MS. took his details of the legend from another source. Only a few years before the composition of this manuscript, Caxton had published, and thus placed in the hands of the English Masons, Trevisa's translation of Ranulph Higden's Polychronicon, or Universal History. Of this book, rich in materials for legendary composition the writer of the Cooke MS. readily availed himself. This he honestly acknowledges in several places. And although he quotes as other authorities Herodotus, Josephus, and Methodius, it is very evident that he knows nothing of these historians except from the citations from them made by the monk Higden in the Polychronicon.

The English Masons were probably already acquainted with the legend in the imperfect form in which it is given in the Halliwell poem. But for the shape which it assumed from the time of the composition of the Cooke MS., and which was adopted in the Dowland and all the later manuscripts, the Craft were, I think, undoubtedly indebted to the Polychronicon of the Monk of Chester, through its translation by Trevisa and its publication by Caxton.

There are two other forms of the Babylonian legend, of later date, which must be read before we can thoroughly understand the growth of that legend.

In 1723 Anderson published, by authority of the Grand Lodge of England, the Constitutions of the Free-Masons. Dr. Anderson was, no doubt, in possession of, or had access to, many sources of information in the way of old manuscripts which have sincc been lost, and with these, assisted in some measure by his own inventive genius, he has extended the brief Legend of the Craft to 34 quarto pages. But as this work was of an official character, and was written and published under the sanction of the Grand Lodge, and freely distributed among the Lodges and Masons of the time, the form of the Legend adopted by him was accepted by the Fraternity for a very long period as authentic. The Andersonian legend of the Tower of Babel molded, therefore, the belief of the English Craft for at least the whole of the 18th century.

Before giving any citations from the Andersonian version of the legend, it will be necessary to refer to another copy of the Old Constitutions. Dr. Krause, the author of a learned Masonic work, entitled The Three Oldest Documents of the Brotherhood of Freemasons, published in that work in 1810 a German translation of a document which he calls the York Constitutions. [x]

Of this document Krause goves the following account. He says that Bro. Schneider, of Altenberg, had written communication from Bro. Bottger, who stated that in the year 1799 he had seen at London a copy of the York Constitutions in a very old manuscript, consisting of 107 leaves in large folio, almost one-third of which he had been unable to read, because it was written in the early English language, and hence he was forced to employ a learned Englishman as an interpreter. Schneider made diligent inquiries after this manuscript, and eventually received a certified Latin translation, made in 1806, from which, in 1808, he composed a German version.

This document Krause supposes to be a genuine exemplar of the Constitutions enacted at York in 926. The original manuscript has, however, never been found; it is not referred to in any of the records of the old Grand Lodge of York, and seems to have remained in mysterious obscurity until seen in 1799 by this Bro. Bottger while on a visit to London.

For these reasons, Findel deems it a spurious document. Bro. Woodford, than whom there is none more competent to judge of questions of this kind, does not assent to this opinion, but, having his doubts, thinks the matter should remain in abeyance for the present. Bro. Hughan, another accomplished critic, believes that it is probably a compilation of the early part of the last century.

When the reader shall have collated the extracts about to be given from Anderson's Constitutions and the Krause MS., he will, I think, concur with me, that either Anderson had seen the latter

manuscript, or that the author of it had been familiar with the work of Anderson. The general similarity of ideas, the collocation of certain words, and the use of particular phrases, must lead to the conclusion that one of the two writers was acquainted with the production of the other. Which was the earlier one is not easily determined, nor is it important, since they were almost contemporaneous documents, and, therefore, they both show what was the form assumed by the legend in the early part of the 18th century. [xi]

The Anderson version of the Babylon legend is as follows:

"About 101 years after the Flood we find a vast number of 'em [the offspring of the sons of Noah], if not the whole race of Noah, in the vale of Shinar, employed in building a city and large tower, in order to make themselves a name and to prevent their dispersion. And tho' they carried on the work to a monstrous height, and by their vanity provoked God to confound their devices, by confounding their speech, which occasioned their dispersion; yet their skill in Masonry is not the less to be celebrated, having spent above 53 years in that prodigious work, and upon their dispersion carried the mighty knowledge with them into distant parts, where they found the good use of it in the settlement of their kingdoms, commonwealths, and dynasties. And tho' afterwards it was lost in most parts of the earth it was especially preserved in Shinar and Assyria, where Nimrod, the founder of that monarchy, after the dispersion built many splendid cities, as Ereck, Accad and Calneh in Shinar, from whence afterwards he went forth into Assyria and built Nineveh, Rehoboth, Calch, and Rhesin.

"In these parts, upon the Tigris and the Euphrates, afterwards flourished many learned Priests and Mathematicians, known by the names of Chaldees and Magi, who preserved the good science, Geometry, as the kings and great men encouraged the Royal Art." [xii]

The Krause MS., or the reputed York Constitutions, gives the Babylonian legend as follows:

"Two generations after Noah, his descendants, proud of their knowledge, built on a plain, in the land of Shinar, a great city and a high tower of lime, stones, and wood, in order that they might dwell together, under the laws which their ancestor, Noah, had made known, and that the names of Noah's descendants might be preserved for all time. This arrogance, however, did not please the Lord in heaven, the lover of humility, therefore he caused a confusion of their speech before the tower was finished, and scattered them in many uninhabited lands, whither they brought with them their laws and arts, and then founded kingdoms and principalities, as the Holy Books often testify. Nimrod, in particular, built a town of considerable size; but Noah's son, Shem, remained in Ur, in the land of the Chaldeans, and propagated a knowledge of all the arts and sciences abroad, and taught also Peleg, Serug, Nahor, Terah, and Abraham, the last of whom knew all the sciences, and had knowledge, and continued to instruct the sons of free-born men, whence afterwards the numerous learned priests and mathematicians who have been known under the name of the wise Chaldeans."[xiii]

We have now five different documents presenting three different forms of the Legend of the Tower of Babel:

  1. The Halliwell poem. This Legend briefly recounts the facts of the building of the tower and the subsequent interruption of the work by the confusion of tongues and the dispersion of the builders. By an anachronism, Nebuchadnezzar is designated as the monarch who directed the construction. Not a word is said about the Institution of Masonry at that time. In fact, the theory of the Halliwell MS. seems rather to be that Masonry was, "many years after," taught for the first time in Egypt by Euclid.


The form of the Legend was never accepted by the Operative Masons of the Guild, certainly not after the end of the 15th century.

  1. The Cooke and later manuscripts. This form of the Legend ascribes the origin of Masonry to the era of the building of the tower. Nimrod is made the Grand Master and makes the first charge - that is, frames the first Constitution that the Masons ever had. Asshur, the son of Shem, is also represented as a great Mason, the builder of the city of Nineveh, and to whom Nimrod sent workmen to assist him. From Babylon, Masonry was carried next into Egypt.

This form of the Legend, first presented in the Cooke MS., and followed almost literally in the Dowland and all the succeeding manuscript Constitutions, seems to have embodied the prevailing belief of the Fraternity until about the end of the 17th or the beginning of the 18th century.

  1. The Andersonian and the York Constitutions. In these the form of the Legend is greatly improved. The idea that Masonry was first established with appropriate laws at the Tower of Babel under the supeintendence of Nimrod is still preserved. But Asshur no longer appears as a builder of cities, assisted by "his cosen," but is transformed, and correctly too, into the kingdom of Assyria, where Nimrod himself built Nineveh and other cities. And the next appearance of Masonry is said to be, not in Egypt, as in the preceding manuscripts, but is said to have been propagated after the dispersion by the Magi in the land of the Chaldeans.

This form of the Legend prevailed during perhaps the whole of the 18th century. It became the settled conviction of the Masons of that period that Masonry was instituted at the Tower of Babel by Nimrod and thence propagated to the Chaldeans.

Thus, in Smith's Use and Abuse of Freemasonry, [xiv] published in 1783, it is said that after the Flood the Masons were first called Noachidvae, and afterwords sages or wise men, Chaldeans, etc. And Northouck, who, in 1784, by order of the Grand Lodge, published an edition of the Constitutions far superior to that of Anderson, says [xv] that Nimrod founded the empire of Babylon, and that "under him flourished those learned mathematicians whose successors were styled Magi, or wise men."

But about the end of the last century, or, perhaps, still later, about the beginning of the present, this legendary account of the origin of Freemasonry began to be repudiated, and another one, in contradiction of the old manuscripts, was substituted for it.

Masonry was no longer believed to have originated at the Tower of Babel; the Temple of Jerusalem was considered as the place of its birth; and Solomon and not Nimrod was called the "first Grand Master."

Accepting this Legend, as we do the other Legends of Masonry, which, in the language of Oliver, [xvi] "are entitled to consideration, though their authenticity may be denied and their aid rejected," we say that at the present day the Babylonish legend has assumed the present form.

Before the Flood there was a system of religious instruction which, from the resemblance of its legendary and symbolic character to that of Freemasonry, has been called by some authors "antediluvian Masonry." This system was preserved by Noah, and after the deluge was communicated by him to his immediate descendants. This system was lost at the time of the dispersion of mankind, and corrupted by the pagans in their Mysteries. But subsequently it was purified, and Freemasonry, as we now have it, was organized by the King of Israel at the time of the building of the temple.

This idea is well exemplified in the American ritual, which was, we have every reason to believe, invented about the end of the last century. In this ritual, much of which is, however, being lost or becoming obsolete, from the necessary imperfections of oral transmission, the aspirant is supposed to represent one who is travelling from the intellectual blindness of the profane world into the brightness of Masonry, in whose arena he expects to find the light and truth, the search for which is represented by his initiation.

This symbolic journey is supposed to begin at the Tower of Babel, where, in the language of the ritual "language was confounded and Masonry lost," and to terminate at the Temple of Solomon, where "language was restored and Masonry found." Hence, according to this latest form of the Legend, the Tower of Babel is degraded from the prominent place which was given to it in the older forms as the birth-place of Masonry, and becomes simply the symbol of the darkness and ignorance of the profane world as contradistinguished from the light and knowledge to be derived from an initiation into the system of Speculative Masonry.

But the old Masons who framed the Legend of the Craft were conforming more than these modern ritualists to the truth of history when they assigned to Babylon the glory of being the original source of the sciences. So far from its being a place of intellectual darkness, we learn from the cuneiform inscriptions that the Ancient Babylonians and their copyists, the Assyrians, were in possession of a wonderful literature. From the ruins of Babylon, Nineveh, and other ancient cities of the plain of Shinar tablets of terra cotta have been excavated, inscribed with legends in cuneiform characters.

The interpretation of this once unknown alphabet and language has yielded to the genius and the labors of such scholars as Grotefend, Botta, Layard and Rawlinson. From the fragments found at Kouyunjik, the modern Arabic name for the site of Nineveh, the late Mr. George Smith conjectured that there were in the Royal Library at Nineveh over ten thousand inscribed tablets, including almost every subject in ancient literature, all of which literature was borrowed by the Assyrians from Babylonian sources. [xvii]

Speaking of this literature, Smith says that:

"at an early period in Babylonian history a great literary development took place, and numerous works were produced which embodied the prevailing myths, religion, and science of that day. Written, many of them, in a noble style of poetry, and appealing to the strongest feelings of the people on one side, or registering the highest efforts of their science on the other, these texts became the standards for Babylonian literature, and later generations were content to copy these writings instead of making new works for themselves." [xviii]

We see, therefore, that the Masons of the present day are wrong when they make Babel or Babylon the symbol of intellectual darkness, and suppose that there the light of Masonry was for a time extinguished, to be re-illumined only at the Temple of Solomon.

And, again, the Legend of the Craft vindicates its character, and correctly clothes an historical fact in symbolic language, when it portrays Babylonia, which was undoubtedly the fountain of all Semitic science and architecture, as also the birth-place of Operative Masonry.

[i] Lines 535-550.

[ii] Rain - Ang. -Sax. rinan, to rain - That Noah's flood would still rain.

[iii] Men's sake.

[iv] Get - should not get over the work - cover it.

[v] Say

[vi] The names of cities.

[vii] The word Nembroth had been first written in the manuscript, then erased, and the "Cam" (for Ham) inserted. But this correction is itself incorrect and incongruous with the rest of the legend.

[viii] Mesuri-measure. The author of the manuscript had previously maintained that measure and geometry were identical. So here "the craft of mesuri" means the craft of geometry, and geometry was always supposed to be the same as Masonry.

[ix] Cam originally written, then erased and Membrothe inserted.

[x] "Die drei altesten Kunsturkunden der Freimaurerbruderschaft," vol. iii., P. 5.

[xi] The oftener I read this document, and the more I reflect on its internal evidence, the more I become convinced that it was written after the first edition of Anderson's "Constitutions," and, perhaps, after the second. Indeed, I am almost prepared to assign any part of the 18th century for the date of its composition.

[xii] "Constitutions," 1st edition, p. 3.

[xiii] See it in Hughan's "Old Charges of the British Freemasons," p.80. It must be remembered that it is there an English version of the German which had been translated from a Latin translation of the original old English - ut dicitur. I have corrected a few errors in the translation in the "Old Charges" by a collation with the German of Krause.

[xiv] Op. Cit., P. 29.

[xv] Op. Cii., p. 11.

[xvi] "Historical Landmarks," vol. i., lect. i., p. 53.

[xvii] "Chaldean Account of Genesis," P. 21.

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


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