Orders and degrees

There is little point in spending pages repeating the initiation rituals for an Entered Apprentice, Fellow Craft and Master Mason. For any non-Mason who has seriously wanted to know them, they have not been a secret for the last two centuries. Today most public libraries will have a number of books setting out the rituals in great (and reasonably accurate) detail; if they are not available on the shelves, a request at the Enquiries desk will bring them out of store. Three which are likely still to be available are Walton Hannah's Darkness Visible and James Dewar's The Unlocked Secret, which are both by non-Masons, and A Ritual and Illustrations of Freemasonry which comes from a Masonic publisher.

A few words on the structure of Masonic degrees might, however, be useful. At its simplest, Freemasonry consists of the three degrees of the Craft: Entered Apprentice, Fellow Craft and Master Mason. These should not be confused with the many offices found within a Lodge, such as Worshipful Mastery Senior Deacon, Junior Deacon, Senior Warden, Junior Warden, Tyler, Inner Guard, and so on; these are positions - jobs - which Masons take on during their career. Most Masons will go on to become Master Masons, simply because the first two grades are introductory, apprenticeship levels; a normal 'full' Mason is a Master Mason.

For most Masons this is sufficient. Freemasonry takes time, and costs money; most are content to be full members, and aren't interested in the extra time, money and considerable effort of going further. A lot depends on how much of one's life one wants to devote to Freemasonry.

The Holy Royal Arch, for complex historical reasons, is not regarded officially as an additional degree, but as the completion or fulfilment of the 3rd degree. Roughly a third of Master Masons progress to the Holy Royal Arch. The entrance requirements are slightly different in England, Ireland and Scotland; most American Orders follow the Scottish rule, by which entrants to the Royal Arch must first be Mark Masons.

In the three degrees of the Craft, initiates are taught hand grips and signs of recognition, and are given secret words; for the Entered Apprentice this is 'Boaz'; the password between the first two degrees is 'Shibboleth'; for the Fellow Craft the word is 'Jachin'; the password to the Third Degree is 'Tubal Cain'; and the secret word of the Master Mason is 'Machaben', 'Machbinna' or 'Mahabone'.

Most of these words come from the Old Testament. Boaz and Jachin, for example, were inscribed on the two pillars of the porch of Solomon's Temple (I Kings 7:21); they are now sometimes found, as B and J, on the pillars on either side of the Papess or High Priestess in Tarot packs such as the popular Rider-Waite pack.

In the Holy Royal Arch, the password is 'Ammi Ruhamah', meaning 'My people have found mercy', and initiates were until recently given the words 'Jehovah' and 'Jahbulon'. This last word will be examined later.

Mark Masonry is based on the identifying marks that stonemasons would often use to 'sign' their work; it is also linked, as is much else in Freemasonry, to legends about the Temple of King Solomon. There are around 60,000 Mark Masons in Britain.

The 'higher degrees' - or, more correctly, side degrees - include the Ancient and Accepted Rite, often known as the Rose Croix, from the tide of the 18th degree, 'the Knight of the Pelican and Eagle and Sovereign Prince Rose Croix of Heredom'; candidates are admitted straight to that degree, being granted the 4th to 17th degrees automatically on the way (the 1st, 2nd and 3rd are the same as in the Craft). Similarly, the next step, to the 30th degree of 'Grand Elected Knight Kadosh, Knight of the Black and White Eagle', includes the 19th to 29th degrees.

Unlike that of the Craft, membership of the Ancient and Accepted Rite at any level is by invitation only. Despite that apparent restriction, the Rose Croix has around 35,000 members in some 860 Chapters, mostly in England and Wales; it is certainly an attainable and honourable goal for the ordinary Mason. The Knight Kadosh is more ambitious to aim for, and less easily attainable; a candidate must have been in the Rose Croix for at least three years, and have been installed as Most Wise Sovereign of his Chapter, the equivalent of being Worshipful Master of a Craft Lodge. After the 30th degree, numbers are strictly limited: in England there are 400 members of the 31st degree, 180 of the 32nd, and only 75 of the 33rd degree, the Grand Inspector General.

These, then, are the main Orders of Freemasonry: the Craft, with its three degrees; the Holy Royal Arch; Mark Masonry; and the Rose Croix, the Ancient and Accepted Rite. 

Besides these there are many, many other Orders, each containing numerous degrees. Most are independent Orders, technically quite independent of the United Grand Lodge; but as their membership is restricted to Master Masons (and often to Mark Masons and/or Royal Arch Masons), they can quite fairly be reckoned as part of Freemasonry. Membership in many of them, including the Ancient and Accepted Rite, is also restricted only to Christians, in contrast to membership in the Craft.45

The fact that many of the most advanced and most prestigious Orders are exclusively Christian, incidentally, makes all the allegations about Freemasonry being a front for polytheism, Deism or even Satanism look rather silly. The Rose Croix ceremony, for example, is 'consistent with the Christian faith. In a series of highly mystical experiences, it expresses the figurative passage of man through the darkest vale, accompanied and sustained by the three theological virtues.'46

One of the smallest of these additional Orders is the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia, commonly known as the Soc Ros, which will be looked at in more detail in the next chapter. Others include the Royal Order of Scotland, the 31 degrees of the Holy Royal Arch Knight Templar Priest, the Knights Templar and Knights of Malta, and the Red Cross of Constantine, the Holy Sepulchre and St John the Evangelist. There are around 16,000 Masonic Knights Templar in Britain.

Each of these Orders or Rites has its own rituals, and its own symbolism within the rituals. Each also has its own robes and regalia, which can be quite expensive, but the membership dues per year usually work out to less than those in the Craft, as most of them only meet two or three times a year.

It's tempting for an outsider to suppose that, as these Orders are self-selecting in their membership, they would be more exclusive in social terms. A butcher, a baker or a candlestick-maker can easily become a Master Mason; but one might think that small businessmen, and the lower ranks of the civil service, local government, the police, armed forces and clergy are unlikely ever to become a Knight of this or an Eminent Preceptor of that. Not so, says John Hamill: 

The social mix is the same as in the Craft -I know that from experience having been a member of all the various side degrees at one time.'47 

However, conspiracy theorists looking for the 'Secret Masters of the Universe' mentioned in the Introduction might be tempted by, for example, the Supreme Magus of the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia; or by the one person who holds the positions of Provincial Prior of the Knights of St John and Knights Templar, Grand Inspector General of the Knights of the Rose Croix, and Grand Superintendent of the Rite of Baldwyn; or even by the Most Reverend Great Prior (a lifetime appointment) of the Holy Order of Knights Beneficent of the Holy City (usually known as les Chevaliers Bienfaisants de la Cite Sainte), the direct descendant today of Baron von Hund's Strict Observance Rite.

True conspiracy theorists would say that these people are most likely 'fronts' for the real Secret Masters. Cynics would say that they are a handful of late-middle-aged, upper-middle-class men who like dressing up in gloriously patterned costumes.

There is much more to it than that, of course. The side degrees may abound in complex and colourful ritual, but several of them are also serious academic study groups. Members of the Soc Ros are expected to present papers on Philosophy, science and theosophy. Candidates for the August Order of Light, which specializes in 'the old world religions and notable mythologies of India, with sidelights from the cults of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome', have to present a paper before their application for membership can even be considered. The ceremonies of the Order of Eri 'are couched in Bardic Verse and include much ancient Irish lore'.48


John Hamill distinguishes between the Craft and the side degrees thus: 'In general terms, they take a principle or a precept which you would find in basic Freemasonry anyway, and concentrate on that, and expand on it in a dramatic way.' He gives a few examples: the basic message of the Mark degree is 'not rejecting something simply because it's unknown'; the basic ideal of the Order of the Secret Monitor is the value and the responsibilities of friendship; in the Christian degrees there is a specifically Christian slant on the message or ideal.

Shortly the esoteric depths of Freemasonry will be discussed. On the question on whether an esoteric or liberal theology has passed into Freemasonry, Hamill responds:

I think it is different for different people. Taking basic Freemasonry, Craft Freemasonry, the three ceremonies that are worked in Lodge - no. But a lot of the additional degrees which grew up in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, I think have overlaid ideas from other traditions onto Masonic ceremonies. If we take the Masonic Knights Templar, I think that grew out of an enormous interest in the idea of chivalry, which was going around Europe in the 1740s and 1750s, and I think initially it was, if you like, a harking back to the ideals of the Templars, the ideals of a pilgrim and of protecting the holy places; and then in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century they got overlaid with other slightly more esoteric ideas ... The attraction of Egypt, Egypt as the cradle of knowledge and civilization, allied with the cradle of religion and mysticism, and esoteric ideas, certainly had a very strong impact, particularly in Europe from about the 1760s onwards ... There were a number of people, like Cagliostro, in the eighteenth century, who built up a system which didn't proliferate very far, of what he called Egyptian Masonry. You then get in the nineteenth century the Ancient and Primitive Rite, the Rite of Memphis and Misraim, again harking back to this idea of Egypt being the cradle of everything … I think in terms of mainstream Freemasonry, other than as an archaeological exercise, it didn't have a very great impact; in some of the additional degrees, yes, you get the influence - but it was more in what I would call the fringe Masonic areas that there was a very heavy interest and an attempt to build something on it.

The side degrees, then, do tend to cater more for those Freemasons who wish to explore the esoteric side of Freemasonry in more depth. But they cater for other needs and interests too. Hamill, again:

For some there is the idea of belonging to something which is slightly more exclusive than the Craft; for a lot there is a very deep love of ritual and ceremonial; right through the full gamut to those who think they're going to find the answers to all questions - which they may find for themselves. I would argue that that's not why they're there; it's a way of extending your Masonic acquaintance, of extending your like of ritual and ceremonial and pageantry. Some people may see it as a part of their personal search - and some people just like to belong to things. 



Keith Hunt