Alchemical Symbols in the Lodge of Perfection of the Ancient Accepted Scottish Rite
Many of you may have familiarity with the term “Alchemist”. For most this term conjures images of early experimenters attempting to chemically convert lead or base metals into gold, and the search for the chemical elixir of life. These experimenters did indeed exist, their work being the forerunner of modern chemistry. As there were “operative” alchemists, so there were also “speculative” alchemists. Speculative alchemists are often associated with Hermetic philosophy, and employ symbols of metals, elements, the planets, and chemical processes to describe and understand the spiritual process of personal improvement. The founder of Hermetic philosophy was an Egyptian sage Hermes Trismegisus. To the Egyptians he was credited as the author of all the arts and sciences. Deified by different cultures, he was known as Thoth by the Egyptians, Mercury by the Romans and Hermes to the Greeks. While in all probability there actually existed a great sage by the name of Hermes, it is impossible to extricate the historical man from the mass of legendary accounts of him. One of the famous writings of Hermes was the Emerald Table, which contains thirteen sentences summarizing Hermetic thought.
In the Sixteenth through Eighteenth century, Hermeticism became connected with Alchemy; and by what seemed mere chemical jargon and meaningless symbols, their true explanations were concealed from the masses and from the church, who would have likely pronounced many Alchemists as heretics.
Unbeknownst to most Masons, many of the symbols found in symbolic, or “Blue Lodge” Masonry came to us from Alchemy. In his book, “Symbolism of the Blue Degrees of Freemasonry” , Albert Pike describes these relationships and states that “By this and many other proofs we know that the symbols of Freemasonry were introduced into it by the Hermetic philosophers of England. Manly P. Hall in his work, The Secret Teachings of All Ages, states, “…he [Hermes] was the author of the Masonic initiatory rituals…Nearly all of the Masonic symbols are Hermetic in character”. In spite of this, I was surprised to find a dearth of research regarding the relationship between Alchemy and Masonry.
Since Albert Pike informs us of the strong connection in Blue Lodge Masonry with that of Alchemy, I wondered if that connection continued into the Scottish Rite Lodge of Perfection, which in many ways is a continuation and completion of the Blue Lodge degrees. In this paper we will survey the symbols of the Scottish Rite degrees from the 4th through the 14th to see if we can find any connection with the symbols of Alchemy. My goal is twofold in doing this: first, to expose the reader to the connection between Alchemy and Freemasonry, and second to encourage other Masonic researchers to explore this very interesting and largely untapped area of study. It should be noted that I am a Masonic researcher and not an Alchemist. This paper is written from the viewpoint of that of a Masonic researcher. Let us know explore the Lodge of Perfection in a hunt for Scottish Chemistry!
In the 4th degree we are introduced to the Kabbalah and the tree of life. Most students of the Kabbalah would recognize it as deriving from Jewish mysticism. However, there is also a Hermetic Kabbalah which is strongly connected to alchemy. Manley P. Hall states that the theories of the Kabbalah are inextricably interwoven with the tenets of alchemy, Hermeticism, Rosicruciansim and Freemasonry. During the period of the open minded Renaissance Hermeticism and the Kabbalah became increasingly intertwined. However, much of today’s Hermitic Kabbalah was made popular during the late 19th and early 20th century by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.
The many aspects of Hermetic Kabbalah are too detailed for the scope of this paper, so a short outline will be given. In Judaic Kabbalah, the 10 Sephiroth are understood to describe the 10 attributes of the Deity. In Hermetic Kabbalah the 10 Sephiroth also pertain to the attributes of Deity, but they utilize different symbols to describe them. The Hermetic system relates the 22 paths between the sephira to the 22 Hebrew letters, a color, a musical note (vibration), an odor and a Tarot card. The Golden Dawn Hermetic system assigns astrological signs in the form of planets and specific meanings to each of the Sephiroth on the “body”. The concept of the Tree of Life is long rooted in Alchemy; an early Alchemistical tree of life is shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1: Early Hermetic Tree, from the Musaeum Hermeticum, Frankfurt edition, 1749
It is believed that the early Kabbalists would often embed their secret teachings in the symbols and rituals of various esoteric schools of thought, such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and the Scottish Rite, for safe keeping. We are still able to find clues in the symbols and ritual of our Scottish Rite degrees that point to esoteric Kabalistic meanings left to us from earlier times.
To this researcher, the description of the Tree of Life contained in the 4th degree appears to be Judaic based. Never the less, the Kabbalah is so interwoven into Hermetic thought that we must consider this to be a potential alchemistical symbol.
The theme of the 5th degree is that of death, in this case the memorial of the death of Hiram Abif. Death has a specific meaning within Alchemy. According to Alchemists, unless the elements first die, the Great Work of self transformation cannot take place. Amongst the symbolic chemical processes in Alchemy we find the state of putrefaction, the symbolic color of which is black. Can we connect the colors of the preparation room which is hung with black drapes, symbolizing the death of putrefaction to prepare us for the spiritual transformation?
This concept of having to die and be transformed into another state is common in other religions. Notable is the Christian concept of being born again, and teaching of the death of the physical body to be transformed into the spiritual body. This connection may be seen in the words of the funeral hymn in the degree, “The buried wheat must seem to die, long rotting in the earth must lie,…the new stalk can the new grain bear…Before the moth new-born, can be the type of immortality. This portion of the ritual supports the Alchemistical concept of rebirth from death, through the state of putrefaction.
The jewel of the degree is a triple delta upon a triangular plate of gold (see Figure 2). In the center of each delta are found the symbols of the sun on the right, the moon on the left, and mercury above and between the other two. At first glance this symbol appears to represent the traditional sun, moon and master of the lodge of blue lodge masonry. Mercury, as know to the Romans and as Thoth by the Egyptians, the god Hermes, is considered by Pike to represent the Master of the Lodge. Mercury was the messenger of the good news and the good Shepard that leads his flock form earthy to heavenly pastures. These may be compared to the functions the Worshipful Master performs to keep his lodge in harmony. However, to those knowledgeable in the art of Hermeticism, this symbol just screams of alchemy.
Figure 2: Jewel of the 6th Degree
In Albert Pike’s “Book of the Words as well in “Symbolism of the Blue Degrees of Freemasonry” he describes the drawing of a double headed figure taken from a Latin book on Hermetics. However, we will find a closer connection to the jewel of the 6th degree by using the drawing in the latter book on page 213, which we have reproduced here (see Figure 3). This is obvious to the adept in Alchemy a symbolic representation of the Emerald Tablet of Hermes. On the top you will see the planetary symbols of the sun on the left with the moon on the right, pouring liquid into a cup supported by the symbol for the planet Mercury. This corresponds with the symbols used for the 6th degree jewel.