Cowans, eavesdroppers and profane.

Well I’m back after a long break and look forward to getting back into the swing of the blog, and as such I’m starting with a topic that can cause some confusion for non-members, and even some members. That is the terms used to refer to non-masons.

Some non-masons feel these terms to be derogatory and so naturally object to their use and some masons use the wrong terms for the wrong people, hopefully after reading this post both will be a little more comfortable about what the terms mean and when they should be used. The first one we’ll touch on is the Cowan, this is an odd term not found outside of masonry, at least not anymore. It’s a Scottish term, and first seen in the Schaw statues of 1598. A cowan was a dry stone wall maker, or a rough mason and seen as less skilled than a trained stonemason. It seems that this didn’t suit cowans and various laws were made to prevent them from being given work that required the skills of a trained stonemason to complete. In modern masonic terms a cowan is someone who gives himself the appearance of a mason or claims to be one, but has not been through the ceremonies, in essence a fake mason as mentioned in a previous post.

Then we have eavesdroppers, most people know what eavesdropping is in modern terms, someone listening in to private conversation, but this curious word comes from a literal activity. Buildings in the medieval time had overhanging eaves, when the roof went past the walls of the house so that rain would run straight off rather than down the walls, which were often wattle a daub, so rain would begin to wash them away. Sometimes there would be a gap between the top of the wall and the roof, but sheltered by the eaves from rain and most of the wind, helping to keep the house less smoky and with fresh air circulating. An eavesdropper would stand underneath the eaves of the house and listen in at that gap. Guild lodges would be constructed in a similar manner, so an eavesdropper hoping to lean the secrets of masonry without having to be a member of the guild was a concern. For this reason lodges had a Tyler, an individual with a sword who would guard the door and patrol the outside of the building to prevent this. The Tyler is still present in modern masonry, armed with a drawn sword at the door of the lodge to keep away eavesdroppers, although in reality mostly his job is to help the candidate prepare for his degrees. Therefore only those who are attempting to discover the secrets of masonry by stealth are referred to as eavesdroppers.

Finally we come to the Profane, that is anyone who is not a mason. At first glance I can see why people might feel a little insulted at being referred to as profane, after all it means something like heathen doesn’t it? Well, not exactly, as with so much when Freemasonry and language get together we have to go back to the origin of the word, in this case back to Latin. The Latin root words for profane are Pro (before) and Fanum (temple), which created the word profanus which meant outside the temple, or not sacred. This word, via French became profane and was used to refer to anything that wasn’t sacred, for example music which wasn’t specifically for church. As the lodge is an allegorical representation of King Solomon’s Temple anyone who isn’t a mason is therefore outside the temple, literally profanus. It’s not meant to be insulting but with modern understandings of the word it can come out that way, so tends not to be used. But hopefully now if it does come up you’ll be equipped to understand why it’s used.



Fake Masonry

So often when people talk about Freemasonry in a negative way they’ll talk about people like Aleister Crowley, using him as an example of an evil mason, if they’re not just plucking him out of the air they might even include a picture of him in regalia. Quite apart from the fact that using one individual as evidence that all masons are evil is a logical fallacy there’s a major problem, he was never a mason, in fact he was a fake, so much so that on attempting to gain entrance to the United Grand Lodge of England with his qualifications he was laughed out of the building. So today we will be looking at fake masonry, how to spot it and how it affects actual masons. Just to clarify, I’m not going to include formerly regular masonic groups who have through philosophical differences have become irregular.

Mainstream regular masonry is highly varied with different customs present in nearly every single Grand Lodge, but sometimes you’ll come across a group who are so wildly different from the norm that there’s no way they could be truly masons, so why would they claim to be? Well part of the reason would probably be the cachet associated with masonry, an ancient fraternity that seeks to help people in need, has had numerous famous members and has an air of mystery about it, who wouldn’t be intrigued? That intrigue then leads to be people wanting to join, and this is where the fakes come in, after all if joining real masonry costs money, then a fake masonic organisation will also cost money, the main difference being that these shams will take the money and run, or you’ll find yourself in a lodge where there are few other members and no chance of visiting any other lodge.

Another reason would be ego. That is to say that the creator of the fake group seeks firstly personal aggrandisement by tying their name to a senior position within an organisation, and that they believe that they can do better than the original, surely if this were the case they would have joined a regular lodge and be one of its high fliers. In most cases the reality is that these are people who were refused membership or expelled and so have decided to gain either kudos or cash by creating something out of thin air.

Probably the most common form of fake masonry would be the internet Grand Lodge, that is a website is set up claiming to be a Grand Lodge, often with something close to the name of a real one, which solicits donations, or is simply a vehicle for the creator to strut around as a Grand Master. These should be fairly easy to spot, they’ll often be long of rhetoric, short of detail, particularly about where they meet and who the other officers beside the Grand Master are. You’ll also tend to find that the supposed Grand Master, usually accompanied by various sock puppets will be posting on masonic forums trying to drum up some kind of recognition. From the outset this is frankly rather sad, and if money is being solicited fraudulent too and from various accounts of these kinds of scams the creators can become extremely vicious when confronted about their activities.

Beyond the simple internet Grand Lodge you’ll find some have gone a step further and have actually created a real lodge that actually meets (I use real in this case to mean physical rather than a purely internet creation). The first example that comes to mind is the Grand Orient of US, a now defunct group which did indeed have a lodge. But within seven years it had all fallen apart and now all their websites are down and out, guess no one could be bothered to spend $15 to keep the domain name. Their claim to masonic status was mostly based on being given permission by the Grand Orient of France (an irregular body which started out as regular, but hasn’t had recognition since about 1877) to use their rituals. But the GOOUS was a self created body with no historical link to any of masonic group, and even the Grand Orient of France found their behaviour intolerable and removed anything hinting at acceptance from their website.

Then we come to the out and out frauds, this is the heading that Mr. Crowley’s masonry comes under. Just as you find people selling fake degrees, or “life experience degrees” which are worth less than the paper they are printed on, you’ll find masonic degree mills, you pay a fee and you’ll get a fancy certificate saying that you’re x,y or z and that you can wear the regalia of that rank (available from the place that sold you the degree at a reasonable price I’m sure). Thus it was with Aleister Crowley, he bought himself a 33rd degree and the regalia, attempted to gain entrance to the United Grand Lodge of England and was sent packing, interestingly enough the person who sold him the degrees was the first person in the USA to be found guilty of mail fraud. Quite simply to claim you have a masonic degree you will need to have gone through the ceremony, with few exceptions where someone is given a degree at sight (usually this is for more honorary members and not widely practised) and even then they need to have gone to a meeting for it to happen.

So there we are, disgruntled former members, conmen and chancers, these are the make up of fake masonic groups. It’s an unfortunate truth that anyone can stick an apron on and make claims of masonic status, but with the application of some common sense you can avoid being drawn into their schemes. If you’re not sure about a group’s masonic status I recommend checking out the United Grand Lodge of England’s list of regular Grand Lodges at


A good day in Texas

It’s not often I do a current events post on this blog, but three days ago on the 6th of December something rather important happened. For the past seven years or so the Grand Lodge of Texas and the Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Texas have recognised each other as being regular, in essence recognising each other’s members as being masons. This has however had one caveat, there was no inter-visitation between the two bodies, that is to say a mason from the Grand Lodge of Texas could not attend a Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Texas’ member’s meeting and vice versa. In November of this year at it’s Grand Lodge meeting the Prince Hall Grand Lodge voted to allow visits from the other Grand Lodge. On the 6th the Grand Lodge of Texas voted to allow inter-visitation meaning that from now on masons from both groups can attend each other’s meetings.

Given the turbulent history of the relations between Prince Hall Grand Lodge and mainstream Grand Lodges, particularly in the Southern USA this is a very heartening move and I can only hope that those few Grand Lodges where such bars, or even outright refusal to recognise Prince Hall masons will soon recall that fraternal spirit which is supposed to be central to masonry.

A new Chapter begins

Okay, firstly I’ll apologise for the terrible pun in the title, those of you who know a little bit about Freemasonry’s side orders may well have spotted it. As of this evening I am now a companion in the Holy Royal Arch degree, otherwise known as Chapter (okay, feel free to groan now). The ceremony itself is a beautiful piece of theatre dealing with the efforts of workmen clearing the rubble from the remains of the destroyed first Temple of Jerusalem, a jump of 500 years from the third degree of Craft masonry. They discover a vault with an arched roof, which on breaking through they make several exciting finds which are relayed to the king.

I won’t go into further detail on the finds nor their import save that they are a reminder to the companions of the degree that while the previous three focused their minds on their present existence that they should also be mindful of and show due reverence to the Almighty. It also has a much stronger Judeo-Christian flavour than the Craft degrees although it is open to masons of any faith, that flavour making it a suitable lead in to the very Christian degrees such as Knights Templar and Red Cross of Constantine.

The history of the Royal Arch degree is something of a mystery, certainly within guild masonry there was a division between wall masons and arch masons, even with regalia with defined colours which match those of craft blue and chapter red. But when it became part of operative masonry is uncertain, but was definitely prior to the formation of the Antients Grand Lodge as the fate of the Royal Arch degree was part of the reason for the schism. The Antients viewed the degree as an integral part of masonry, completing the Master Mason degree, the Premier Grand Lodge viewed as a side order that wasn’t necessary to understand Craft masonry.

In 1813 the act of union established a neat piece of doublethink which stated the pure and antient Freemasonry consisted of three degrees, namely those of Entered Apprentice, Fellowcraft and Master Mason, including the Holy Royal Arch. Now to most people that sounds like four degrees, especially as the last is given in a completely separate body (in my case in a completely different masonic centre). But as with most treaties compromise and absurdity had to be glossed over in the name of unity. So we got Chapter, to many masons the completion of the third degree, given in a separate body and restoring the genuine secrets…. kind of. They weren’t given to me at my exhaltation, but it was implied that they are given as one goes through the chairs of the three principals. I sense a theme, you’ll get the genuine secrets, just need to take a few more steps, and then a few more, and a few more. If I end up joining Knights Templar, go though chair, join Rose Croix and get the 33rd and still haven’t got those secrets I’ll be most annoyed.

Now on a more personal note the ceremony was somewhat bittersweet as it would be the last time my Chapter would meet in its current home. The building in which my Chapter has met up until now is suffering from damp and in recent months it’s become apparent that the damp is so entrenched that short of knocking large sections of the building down and rebuilding it isn’t feasible to fix. Plus with a supermarket wanting to buy the plot it’s been deemed too expensive and preferable that all the lodges, chapters and other bodies there move to other nearby centres. Of course we’re putting a brave face on it, the centre we’re going to is considered to have some of the best food in the area, typical masons, thinking with our stomachs.

But in all seriousness my entrance into Chapter was a highly enjoyable one and I look forward to many years in it.

Turning of the years

A bit of personal musing today.

Last night was my lodge’s Installation meeting, that is when the current master of the lodge hands over the chair to his successor and that successor appoints and invests his officers (with the exception of those offices which are elected, in which case he simply invests them). Now this Installation was a rather special one as the Installing master was installing his younger son into the Master’s chair, and in turn that son will install his older brother into the chair next year. Now at first I know this looks like nepotism, but it’s only being allowed because the lodge’s permanent committee agreed to it, both brothers have done the work, and the elder of the two has already been through the chair once.

But seeing the raw emotion and pride the Installing Master had in placing his son in the chair got me thinking about how masonic years go by and how we move through our offices heading towards the chair and where we go from there. I myself took a step closer, and spent much of the festive board being reminded that it will soon be my turn to be installed as master (2018 by my reckoning) and how quickly that time will come round. I begin to wonder how different the lodge will be by the time I take my place in that long line of masters up on the board. In the past year we’ve had new faces join us, old faces leave, some to visit again and others to the Grand Lodge above, we’ve celebrated extraordinary achievements both as a lodge (surpassing our festival target of raising £18,000 by raising over £20,000) and as individuals (a well liked brother celebrated his 60th year in masonry).

Beyond how the lodge will look by the time I reach the chair I also wonder what kind of master I’ll be. From comments I regularly receive about the quality of my ritual I know people are expecting me to carry on the lodge’s tradition of excellence in that department, but I hope that I’ll be more than that, important as good ritual is to masonry. My hope is that if the lodge has not already begun doing so now the Grand Charity festival drive and the three years of focused fund-raising for it are over we can reach out to charities closer to home and build stronger links with the local community. I feel that to be vital for what Freemasonry is meant to be, it’s not just about making the individual mason a better man, but to help improve the lot of society, indeed it is specifically mentioned in the address to the newly installed master that part of masonry’s aim is to promote the social virtues and reduce the aggregate of human misery.

Beyond reaching out to communities and local charities what I’d truly love to see happen is my lodge welcoming the community in. An open day, or days, advertised socials where people can come in, meet masons and see just how wrong people can be about us. It might bring in new members, but more importantly it will help people understand what masonry is about and why three hundred years on from its founding men still meet in locked rooms wearing funny aprons to act out century old dramatic scenes.

These are just some personal thoughts so take them as you will, although I would be interested in people’s opinions as to whether my idea of a more open and involved lodge sounds like something they could get behind.

A revolutionary brotherhood?

Spend little to any time reading about Freemasonry are you’ll almost certainly come across someone claiming that Freemasonry has been behind pretty much every revolution from the French revolution to the American revolution and plenty more besides. These claims usually come from one of two camps, anti-masons wanting to paint masonry as some subversive secret society bent on pulling the world’s strings or proud masons wanting to show how the fraternity has been behind the cause of liberty throughout history. It has to be acknowledged that many leading revolutionaries have been masons, but to say that the revolutions they took part in were inspired by their masonry is pushing credulity past breaking point.

First let’s look at the American Revolution, George Washington, commander in chief of the revolution’s military and first President of the new nation was definitely a mason as were other leading members such as Paul Revere and Benjamin Franklin. But the majority of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and crafters of the Constitution of the USA were not masons. Another myth is that the Boston Tea Party was organised by a masonic lodge, this is not the case, the most likely group would be the Sons of Liberty who met in the same tavern as the lodge did and had several members in common with the lodge (hence the possible confusion), indeed the lodge minutes of that night report that the lodge’s meeting did not take place due to a lack of members.

If masons get the credit for the American Revolution, it could probably be said that masons got the blame in the French one. While American masons are known to have participated in their revolution, French masons don’t appear with anything like as much regularity in being involved with the French Revolution. In fact the only reliable account of a mason being involved with the revolution is that of the Duke of Orleans who stopped using his titles and referred to himself as Philippe Égalité (or Phil Equality in English, I kid you not) but still ended up losing his head. Part of the confusion about masons being involved could come down to language, you see some of the leading and most vociferous revolutionaries in France were a group called the Jacobins, which is rather similar in sound to the Jacobites, British revolutionaries in exile for supporting the ousted Stewart royal family who had been instrumental in bringing masonry to France.

It didn’t help that both the revolution and masonry had the same motto, “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.” Which, after the revolution turned into the Terror made it all the easier for those left picking themselves up after the madness was over to hang the whole thing on the masons. Add to that the accusations made about masonry colluding with the Illuminati to create the revolution and you have a nice target for a scapegoat.

Those are just two examples of how revolutions which might at first appear to have masonic roots actually were more products of their time and place, and so naturally people who were in those times and places would be involved, including masons. Similar stories could be told of the unification of Italy under Garibaldi and Mazzini, the first a mason, the other most definitely not, or Simon Bolivar in Latin America, a mason, but while his ethics may have been informed by masonry it was certainly not Freemasonry that led to his fight for liberation. And Benito Juárez who first campaigned for a liberal democracy and then led a successful expulsion of a French installed Hapsburg regime in Mexico.

While none of these efforts were started by Freemasonry as a body the one thing that can be noted is that they were all actions against autocratic or oppressive regimes. That at least might be something that was influenced by the masonry of those revolutionary brothers.



Cults, and is Freemasonry one?

One very common accusation I’ve seen about Freemasonry is that it’s a cult, or acts in a cult-like manner. Now I can see where that idea may have originated, a bunch of guys wearing unusual regalia performing rituals which outsiders aren’t meant to know about. Sounds a little suspicious to the outside observer I can grant you. But let’s look a little closer at the subject, going beyond the surface into what actually constitutes a cult and whether Freemasonry matches that description (hint: it doesn’t).

One of the most pervasive aspects of cults is isolation, especially from non-members, including family, the internet, phone and the outside world in general. Now as you can tell, I have access to the internet, which also suggests a phone line. Indeed outside of a lodge meeting, where you’re expected to have your phone off as a courtesy to the lodge, there are absolutely no restrictions in what you can do, who you can see and speak to or anything else. Pretty much as soon as you leave the lodge room Freemasonry has no call on you besides what moral lessons you carry with you.

In a cult in general leaving is very difficult, they’ll throw every obstacle in your way if not resort to outright violence. Freemasonry on the other hand is very easy to leave, just don’t turn up to meetings and don’t pay your dues and you’ll be kicked out at the end of the season. If you choose to leave on good terms, you make sure you’re paid up to date, write a letter to your lodge secretary saying you wish to demit (that’s the masonic term for quitting) and hand back your Grand Lodge Certificate or dues card. You’ll get a letter or certificate saying that you left on good terms which means if you change your mind you can rejoin, and that’s it. There might be an exit interview to find out why you’re leaving and if changes can be made that would allow you to continue your membership, but if not then that’s the end of that.

Cults are almost always led by a charismatic individual who is the leader for life, cannot be removed from office and can dictate policy and ‘justice’ on a whim. Freemasonry has no one leader, each Grand Lodge is a sovereign entity in its own right, the Grand Master is elected and with the exception the United Grand Lodge of England, where the Grand Master HRH Prince Edward, Duke of Kent is for the most part a figurehead with the Pro-Grand Master performing most of the day to day running of the Grand Lodge, have a fixed term and afterwards step down from the post. Even the Grand Master can be removed from office (including the UGLE) in case of malfeasance if the Grand Lodge votes to do so. Nor does the Grand Master have the power to decide policy or matters of justice on a whim, anything he enacts can be overturned by the Grand Lodge. So for the most part the Grand Master, or Pro-Grand Master acts as an interim manager to keep the Grand Lodge going in between Grand Lodge meetings. Nor does masonic justice exclude outside bodies such as the police and courts, masonic justice in purely for masonic matters, criminal matters are the province of those outside bodies.

Members of cults regularly have to turn over all their assets, house, monies, goods etc. to the leadership of the cult and any money the cult receives is kept by the cult for its own use. Freemasons keep all their assets besides a membership fee, which is usually quite affordable, even to someone like me on a relatively low income. You don’t have to give up your home, your wages or any goods, although the charity steward will probably fleece you with a raffle or two at each meeting. The money raised however if not for the most part spent on Freemasonry, yes some money from subscriptions/dues goes towards the running of Freemasonry, you simply can’t have an organisation of 250,000 members (that’s the approximate size of my jurisdiction) without incurring expenses, such as wages for permanent employees (as opposed to volunteers), buildings and utilities, administration etc. But once those costs are dealt with the rest of the money goes towards charitable causes, some inward looking for masons in difficulties, some outwards looking as described in the previous post.

Finally and, in some ways most importantly, cults require a strict adherence to the leader’s doctrine and dogma, no deviation is allowed and independent, rational thought is discouraged. Freemasonry has no orthodoxy, you can believe whatever you like, both in religious terms and by and large in terms of interpreting ritual. Some like to point at masonic writers like Albert Pike or Manly P. Hall and say that their interpretation is the one true interpretation (especially if it makes Freemasonry look bad) but nothing could be further from the truth. Each mason is free to interpret the symbolism used in the lodge in his own way, yes there are meanings the majority ascribe to, but they’re welcome to deviate from that at any time. Given modern Freemasonry’s genesis in the age of Enlightenment,  rational thought is highly prized, because it’s needed for good governance of a lodge and simple because it encourages members to act in a sensible, sober fashion.

So from all this it’s plain to see that as soon as you look past the regalia and ritual Freemasonry bears about as much resemblance to a cult as to a platypus.