An ancient Hermetic tradition from the land of the Nile
The myths and legends of Freemasonry point to an ancient origin of the Craft. Whether in the annals of Masonic history or the stories perpetuated by the rituals themselves one cannot find a distinct beginning to the practice of the symbolic rituals preserved in Freemasonry. While the modern institution began in 18th century Europe, Freemasonry undoubtedly contains the remnants of bygone eras and forgotten cultures. The Roman mysteries of Mithras, the cult of Dionysus and the ancient art of Alchemy are all referenced and represented by the cryptic narrative passed down by Masonic Ritual. Some of these traditions insist that the collection of rites and rituals now known to the world as Freemasonry have their source in the mystery traditions of ancient Egypt. The enigmatic culture that built the Pyramids, the Sphinx and the Great Hall of Karnak has long been a source of fascination for scholars, both Masonic and profane. That we still have the remnants of these megalithic monuments is a testament to the spiritual power of the civilization that created them.
The connection between the mysteries of this long vanished society and the relatively modern practice of Freemasonry, was however, established by Count Alessandro di Cagliostro, a contentious figure among Masonic researchers, who has been regarded as a charlatan, a wonder worker, and a devout mystic and profoundly spiritual man. Born the 2nd of June 1743, Giuseppe Balsalmo (Cagliostro being the name he would take later in life) grew up in Albergheria, the Jewish Quarter of Sicily. He was educated by his grandfather and uncles, and briefly by the Catholic Order of St. John of God, where he learned chemistry and Catholic ritual. In 1765 Cagliostro arrived on the island of Malta and became an auxiliary of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. The island of Malta had served for centuries as a staging point for military expeditions to and from the Middle East and had served as a waystation for the Knights Templar and similar Orders. Thus, the halls and libraries of the Knights of Malta had long been rumored to be repositories of Alchemical, Kabbalistic and Magical works, works which Cagliostro certainly had access to during his tenure on the island when he became a close associate of the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta, Manuel Pinto de Fonseca.
Initiated into Freemasonry in 1777, Cagliostro had previously received the Arcana Arcanorum - a series of Hermetic degrees – from Sir Luigi d’Aquino at some point between 1765 and 1775. During his travels across Europe Cagliostro was rumored to have carried with him a copy of The Most Holy Trinosophia, an esoteric and exceedingly rare book of Hermetic philosophy that some believe he was the author of. Hermetic philosophy was scarcely known to anyone in Europe and it is likely that Cagliostro inherited the knowledge either from some family tradition of from his Brother Knights on the island of Malta. Wherever he gained this knowledge, it would serve as the foundation for the Rite of high Egyptian Masonry that he would establish in 1784 and which would later become known as the Rite of Misraim - “Misraim” being the Hebrew and Arabic word for Egypt and another indication as to the source of Cagliostro’s immense arcane knowledge.
The Rite of Misraim was an openly magical rite, a variation of Freemasonry that incorporated alchemical legend and Egyptian theology with Hermetic principles at its base. While some see it as an attempt to obfuscate the true origins and purpose of Freemasonry others believe that Cagliostro was in possession of true secrets, hidden knowledge that had been lost to the ages by the shifting sands of time. It was unique for its time in that it admitted women on equal footing with men and upon the completion of its initiation ceremony the female initiates were told that from then on they had the “pleasure of being henceforth, and forever, a Freemason”. The Rite of Memphis, the other overtly Egyptian interpretation of Freemasonry, was constituted 50 years later in 1838 by Jacques Etienne Marconis de Nègre as a variant of the Rite of Misraim that incorporated the traditional exhortations of chivalric practices and the legend of the Knights Templar. Ruled over by a Grand Hierophant, its name was a reference to the ancient Egyptian capital city that served as a mystical center of the Mediterranean world and the home of the grand Temple of Ptah – patron god and protector of craftsmen.
These two rites were synthesized by Giuseppe Garibaldi, with work on the fusion of the two symbolic systems beginning in 1881 and being completed by 1889. The great Italian general who was essential in the accomplishment of the unification of Italy was also a highly decorated Freemason who was an ardent member of Cagliostro’s secret Egyptian ritual. The rite of Memphis-Misraim was popularized by the German Freemason, author and scholar, Theodor Reuss. Reuss, an influential German Mason was himself an agent and confidant of John Yarker – an English occultist and Freemason who had ties to Helena Blavatsky and the emerging movement of Theosophy. Numerous famous occultists of the twentieth century, including Papus, Rudolf Steiner, Rudolf von Sebottendorf and the infamous Aleister Crowley were member of Memphis-Misraim, as was Harvey Spencer Lewis, the founder of the Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis. The Rite is still practiced today, though no one has claimed international leadership of the Order since the death of its last Grand hierophant, Theodor Reuss.
The Rite of Memphis-Misraim and Egyptian Freemasonry in general has been derided by Malecraft Masonry as clandestine and irregular since its conception but its deeply magical roots in the ancient and universal Hermetic teachings point a real antiquity to the ideas and practices of the Egyptian rite. Whether you believe Cagliostro to be history’s greatest conman or a true and genuine Master of the esoteric Egyptian Rite, it is undeniable that Freemasonry itself points back to an origin beyond the operative guild of Medieval Europe. The teachings and ritual symbolism of Freemasonry denies such a recent beginning and its precepts can be found expressed in some of the most ancient human traditions. The authenticity of Egyptian Freemasonry will always be questioned by those with a limited grasp of esoteric history and an even more limited imagination and sense of wonder but its impact on the Craft will continue to be felt for centuries.
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