Earliest Masonic Rituals
Except from the “Cracking the Freemasons Code” by Robert L.D. Cooper. Robert Cooper is the Curator of the Scottish Masonic Museum and Library at Freemason’s Hall in Edinburgh.
A.&A.S.R. – A brief history in ritual and traditional freemasonry.
Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite
The Earliest Masonic Rituals
The earliest known ritual in manuscript form is the Edinburgh Register House MS, which is dated 1696. Two more handwritten rituals date from soon after the Edinburgh Register House, the Airlie MS (1705) and the Chetwode Crawley MS (ca. 1710). It is significant that these transcribed Masonic rituals began to appear in the 1690s. That they exist at all is a clear reflection of the changes that occurred during that century. The first ceremonies performed by the stonemasons in their lodges were never intended to be written down. Even in the sixteenth century Schaw required that they be memorized. In any event, there would have been little point in committing the ceremonies to paper, given that the majority of the stonemasons of the period were illiterate. Knoop, Jones and Hamer believe that they “possibly represent an operative working which existed some decades before the date at which the documents were written.”
All three manuscripts contain two sections: a series of questions and answers, and a description of the actions required to give and to receive the “mason word.” The first section consists of a catechism, a series of sixteen questions and answers, which, once written down, became an aide-memoire. The second section describes the ceremonies of being made an apprentice and a fellowcraft. Unlike the modern system of the three degrees, it is clear that originally there were only these two ceremonies. There is no mention of a master mason’s degree. The catechism format implies that it was intended to prompt certain physical responses as well as verbal ones.
The document is written in a language known as middle Scots. At the time the document was created, the anglicization of the language was well under way, but strong Scottish elements were still evident in it. The passage of time is also the reason why the catechism shown below has changed almost beyond recognition into its present form in modern Freemasonry. But the core elements remain.
Q1: Are you a mason.
A1: Yes, if the answer is no, then there was no need to ask the next fifteen questions.
Q2: How shall I know it?
A2: By signer tokens and other points of my entrie. A sequence of signs, tokens and other matters is exchanged. If there is company present who are not masons, you should answer, you shall know it in time and place convenient.
Q3: What is the first point?
A3: Tell me the first point ile tell you the second. The first is to heill and conceal, second, under no less pain, which is then cutting of your throat, for you most make the sign, when you say that.
Here the questioner is being tested in the sense that he must offer some information that serves to prove that he too is a Freemason. There are two points, the first is to “heill and conceal”, and here we find the use of an old Scottish word “heill,” which means “to keep secret.” It is immediately followed by the words “and conceal,” which means the same thing, and this tells us something very important. Here the catechism has been committed to writing and has therefore been recorded by and for someone literate. By the time the manuscript came to be created , the spoken word “heill” has become sufficiently obscure that the writer feels obliged to clarify its meaning by adding “and conceal.” In this way he has not changed the catechism but added to it. When these rituals or their descendants reached the United States of America the word “heill” was considered to be an error and was changed to “hail.” The logic was understandable, but it shows that the Scottish origins has been lost or forgotten. The second point in this exchange involves the use of sign, that of cutting one’s throat. That sign has been to hound Freemasons almost since the ritual first became known to others outside the Craft. It is sufficient here to note that the use of a word also required a sign to be given and that two elements were needed to identify the candidate as a Freemason.
Q4: Where wes you entered?
A4: At the honourable lodge.
Q5: What makes a true and perfect lodge?
A5: seven masters, five entered apprentices, a dayes journey from a burroughs town without bark of dog or crow of cock.
Here, we are beginning to see the educational purpose of the catechism. Only a Freemason regularly initiated in an “honourable lodge” would know what constituted a regular (honourable) lodge. The answer also reminds all present of the rules for holding a Lodge meeting. Twelve men were required: seven masters and five entered apprentices. This number was probably to ensure that there were sufficient knowledgeable Freemasons present to conduct the ceremony correctly, to form a true and perfect lodge. The second part of the answer reveals that the lodge meetings were private affairs: a day’s journey away from any town and out of earshot of any farm. As this would have been rather difficult to achieve in a country that was still largely rural, it is ulikely that this requirement was intended literally and is more likely to have been to emphasize the private nature of Lodge meetings.
Q6: Does no less make a true and perfect lodge.
A6: Yes, five masons and three entered apprentices.
The question asks what happens if the numbers to form a true and perfect lodge are unavailable. The answer is, rather reluctantly, that a lodge meeting can be held if there are five master masons (fellows of craft) and three entered apprentices present.
Q7: Does no less.
A7: The more the merrier the fewer the better chear.
The question asks what happens if even five masters and three entered apprentices cannot be found for a meeting. The answer is that no meeting can be held but instead some socializing is OK.
Q8: what is the name of your lodge.
Being asked the name of the Lodge would almost certainly catch someone out who had not been initiated regularly, for he would be highly unlikely to give the correct response even if he knew the name of a Lodge at all. Kilwinning is one of the oldest lodges in the world. The fact that it is this Lodge and no other that is consistently mentioned in these rituals indicates that it was widely accepted that Kilwinning was the most important and lodgest Lodge, regardless of weather or not this was accurate. It also confirms the Scottish origin of these early rituals.
Q9: How stands your lodge?
A9: East and west as the temple of Jerusalem.
The question “How stands your Lodge?” is intended to elicit one reply only and this is the direct comparison of a Masonic Lodge to King Solomon’s Temple – the Temple of Jerusalem. Notice, however, that there is no suggestion that a Masonic lodge is the same as King Solomon’s Temple. Only the orientation, east and west, i s the same for both.
Q10: Where wes the first lodge?
A10: In the porch of Solomon’s Temple.
The answer’s in the “porch (entrance) of Solomon’s Temple” shows that having been of paramount important to stonemasons, Solomon’s Temple was equally important to non-stonemasons (Freemasons) who subsequently joined their lodges. It was located in the porch or entrance. This is probably the origin of calling Masonic Lodges temples, as it is easier to say “temple” than “the entrance to the temple.”
Q11: Are they any lights in your lodge?
A11: Yes, three. The northeast, sw, and eastern passage. The one denotes the master mason, the other the warden, the third the setter craft (fellowcraft).
Here we see that lights in a Lodge were two things. First, they were passages in the northeast, southwest and east. These are, therefore, positions within the Lodge. Second, they were officials of the Lodge (known as “office-bearers” in Scothland and “officers” in England). In Modern Freemasonry, the lights, for example, are no longer passages or these three particular officials. The Lights have in fact been developed into three Great Lights and three Lesser Lights, of which more later.
Q12: Are there any jewels in your Lodge?
A12: Yes, three. Perpend Esler, a Square pavement and a broad wall.
Like the lights of a lodge, the jewels now have a different meaning wihtin modern freemasonry. However, in this original context, they refer to three objects associated with stonemasons, two of which are still in use. A perpend esler is a perpendicular ashalar, a dressed (that is, prepared by a stonemason) upright stone. A square pavement is a square stone slabs dressed and laid by stonemason. The broad oval has long been something of a puzzle to Masonic historians, but given the two previous items’ direct relevance to the work of stonemasons, it seems likely that this a stonemasons’s maul or mell, which was used to strike a chisel. an alternative is that “broad ovall” is a corruption of “broached ornal,” a facing stone that has been worked with a chisel to carry diagonal or horizontal furrows. If the latter is accepted, then the three elements, all of stone, could be interpreted as representing the interior of a Lodge. Its floor and walls. More likely they refer to rough and smooth ashlars placed on a square checkered carpet, as is till common in ceremonies performed in the majority of Lodges outside the United States.
Q13: Where shall I find the key of your Lodge?
A13: Yes. Three foot and an half from the lodge door under a perpend esler, and a green divot. But under the lap of my liver where all my secrets of my heart lie.
The answer given to that question is obscure and open to some interesting interpretation. The first part of the answer, “Thrre foot and an half from the lodge door,” shows that the key to your Lodge’s secret lies outside the Lodge – to be precise, three feet six inches from the Lodge door. As we have seen, “under a perpend esler” must refer to a dressed perpendicular stone. Next we are told, “and a green divot.” So the key of Solomon as understood by these stoemasons and Freemasons is located outside the Masonic Lodge under an upright dressed stone and under green grass – in other words, in the grave. Meaning he takes his key of the Lodge with him to the grave. This is important point and worth further thought. The question asked is “Where are the keys to your lodge?” not “where are the keys to the Lodge?” (that is, Freemasonry). This is a personal question asking for a personal response.
The second part of the question is equally fascinating. “But under the lap (lobe) of my liver where all my secrets of my heart lie.” This too has had Masonic historians wondering. At a simple level the answer may be taken to mean that all secrets, especially Masonic ones, are to be carefully guarded from the outside world. However, I believe this part of the answer provides us with some insight into the possible influence of Hermeticism on early Freemasonry.
Q14: Which is the key of your lodge?
A14: A weel hung tongue. Where lies the key. In the bone box.
This question refers once more to a key and again suggest the existence of something locked away from others. The respondent is asked which key, implying that there is more than one. As the question is asked of an individual, could it be that each member of the lodge has his own key? The first part of the answer might well be taken to support that view. A “weel hung,” or well-held, tongue is that of someone who does not talk out of turn, who does not indulge in loose talk. A second question is asked in the Edinburgh Register Hose and an answer is provided. The question returns to where the key might be found and again indicates that there is a search taking place. The answer is intriguing. “In the bone bx.” The previous answer revealed that a tongue was the key to your lodge, and so there appears to be a strong possibility that the bone box refers to the skull, wherein lies the tongue. The stonemasons may be indulging in a little wordplay here. We have noted that there has been an earlier reference to a grave. What kind of box into a grave? A coffin. Perhaps the stonemasons are emphasizing that the key, the secret, Solomon’s secret key lies in the grave.
This tells us that all the previous questions relate to the entered apprentice ceremony (the first degree) and shows to what lengths Freemasons would go to identify impostors. The fact that they took the opportunity to include educational material shows that some considerable thought, then as now, went into this process.
Q15: Are you a fellow craft?
Q16: How many points of the fellowship are there?
A16: Fyve viz foot to foot, knee to knee, heart to heart, hand to hand, and ear to ear. Then make the sign of fellowship and shake hand and you will be acknowledged a true mason. The words are in the I of the Kings Ch 7, v21 , and in 2 chr: ch 3 verse last.
The stonemasons and increasingly the non-stonemasons who joined them – used this ritual at the end of the seventeenth century and into the eighteenth. It is not know whether this form of ceremonial was used before William Schaw became involved. In any event, it is highly probable that he would have made some changes to whatever existed, if only to formalize the proceedings. Schaw’s instruction to memorize the ritual, with the imposition of fines, may have inadvertently ensured that it was written down, even though the ritual itself includes the injunction never to write it in any shape of form. Except from the “Cracking the Freemasons Code” by Robert L.D. Cooper. Robert Cooper is the Curator of the Scottish Masonic Museum and Library at Freemason’s Hall in Edinburgh.