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Chapters of Masonic History

The Builder Magazine, April 1923 - Volume IX - Number 4


Chapters of Masonic History | Index:

PART V - THE OLD CHARGES OF FREEMASONRY and What They Mean to Us oldcharg.html


EVER SINCE Heinrich Schurtz published his Altersklassen und Maennerbunde in 1902, anthropologists have become more and more interested in the part played by secret societies among primitive peoples. Herr Schurtz discovered that secret societies were not by any means a private thing, of little interest and less consequence, as former anthropologists had believed them to be, but that they were of equal importance in primitive life with other social institutions. He found that "in intimate connection with the age-classes, and more particularly with the dominant role played by the organized bachelors, there develops the men's house. It is characteristic as a structure in which the adult but single men cook their meals, work, play and sleep, while the married men dwell apart with their families. Women and children are usually barred from the premises, while the mature young girls may freely consort with the inmates."

Prof. Hutton Webster, of the University of Nebraska, working independently and without knowledge of the findings of Schurtz, arrived at the same conclusion, and wrote a treatise on the subject that has proved of the utmost importance to students of secret societies. This was published in 1908 under the title of Primitive Secret Societies: A Study in Early Politics and Religion. The central conception of this book is that of the men's house. Prof. Webster describes this at some length on the first page of this book as follows:

"The separation of the sexes which exists in civilized societies is the outcome, in part, of natural distinctions of sex and economic function; in part it finds an explanation in those feelings of sexual solidarity to which we owe the existence of our clubs and unions. Sexual solidarity itself is only another expression for the working of that universal law of human sympathy, or in more modern phrase, of consciousness of kind, which lies at the foundation of all social relations. But in primitive societies, to these forces bringing about sexual separation, there is added a force even more potent, which originates in widespread beliefs as to the transmissibility of sexual characteristics from one individual to another. Out of these beliefs have arisen many curious and interesting taboos designed to prevent the real or imagined dangers incident to the contact of the sexes. Sexual separation is further secured and perpetuated by the institution known as the men's house, of which examples are to be found among primitive peoples throughout the world.

"The men's house is usually the largest building in a tribal settlement. It belongs in common to the villagers; it serves as council-chamber and town hall, as a guest-house for strangers, and as the sleeping resort of the men. Frequently, seats in the house are assigned to elders and other leading individuals according to their dignity and importance. Here the precious belongings of the community, such as trophies taken in war or in the chase, and religious emblems of various sorts are preserved. Within its precincts, women and children, and men not fully initiated members of the tribe, seldom or never enter. When marriage and the exclusive possession of a woman do not follow immediately upon initiation into the tribe, the institution of the men's house becomes an effective restraint upon the sexual proclivities of the unmarried youth. It then serves as a clubhouse for the bachelors whose residence within it may be regarded as a perpetuation of that formal seclusion of the lads from the women, which it is the purpose of the initiation ceremonies in the first place to accomplish. Such communal living on the part of the young men is a visible token of their separation from the narrow circle of the family, and of their introduction to the duties and responsibilities of tribal life. The existence of such an institution emphasizes the fact that a settled family life with a private abode is the privilege of the older men, who alone have marital rights over the women of the tribe. For promiscuity, either before or after marriage, is the exception among primitive peoples, who attempt not only to regulate by complicated and rigorous marriage systems the sexual desires of those who are competent to marry, but actually to prevent any intercourse at all of those who are not fully initiated members of the community.

"An institution so firmly established and so widely spread may be expected to survive by devotion to other uses, as the earlier ideas which led to its foundation fade away. As guard posts where the young men are confined on military duty and are exercised in the arts of war, these houses often become a serviceable means of defence. The religious worship of the community frequently centers in them. Often they form the theatre of dramatic representations. In rare instances these institutions seem to have lost their original purpose and to have facilitated sexual communism rather than sexual separation. Among some tribes men's house is used as the centre of the puberty initiation ceremonies. With the development of secret societies, replacing the earlier tribal puberty institutions, the mens house frequently becomes the seat of these organizations and forms the secret 'lodge.' The presence then in a primitive community of the men's house in any form of its numerous forms points strongly to the existence, now, or in the past, of secret initiation ceremonies." (Primitive Secret Societies, pages 1, 2, 3)

One may doubt the accuracy of Prof. Webster when he says that "examples are to be found among primitive people throughout the world." There are not many examples to be found in Asia and it may very well be that in certain parts of that continent the primitive secret society has never been known: some authorities are of that opinion, Schurtz for example, who was not able to discover traces of men's secret societies over large portions of the continent. In his chapter on "Diffusion of Ancient Ceremonies," Webster has himself furnished no Asiatic examples but has confined himself to Australia, Tasmania, Melanesia, Polynesia, South America, Central America and North America.

It is impossible in the present limitations of space to set down very many examples of the primitive secret cult: a few specimens will suffice. Among the Andaman Islanders there are three kinds of huts, for bachelors, spinsters and married couples, respectively. In their eleventh year boys and girts are subjected to various ordeals and in every case must participate in elaborate ceremonies upon passing from one age grade to another. Women participate in these mysteries as well as men. Most Australian tribes have initiation ceremonies at or near the time of puberty. In most cases these ceremonies are very severe; men only are admitted; and the rite appears usually to be a form of preparation for matrimony. The Masai divide their male members into three grades of boys, warriors, and elders; their ceremony is accompanied by circumcision. Among the Banks Islanders the males constitute a kind of triple secret society but this group is entered not by initiation but by paying a fee. Men live in the village club house, which is a lounging place and eating place by day and dormitory by night: they are divided into grades with power and prestige accordingly, and only men of wealth can reach the higher positions. This same people have "Ghost Societies" which are very secret in their nature and have headquarters in the most secluded places. Among the Pueblo Indians the Zunis had a "Mask Dancer" society, in which there were degrees, initiations, and much primitive mummery: each society had its own lodge building in which were apartments representing the four quarters of the compass, the zenith, and the nadir. The Hopi Indians had similar secret fraternities and so also the Crows, who had a "Tobacco Society" with initiation ceremonies, degrees, etc. The Hidatsas had many social clubs, entrance to which was gained through purchase: their women had similar organizations. On the other hand the Shoshoneans of the Great Basin have apparently never had anything that may be properly classed as a secret society. These cases are but typical of the countless instances in which primitive people - or savages as we call them - have made use of secret organizations.


In most cases the initiation ceremonies are in the nature of ordeals and many times are so severe that death or permanent crippling is not unknown. "The diversity of the ordeals is most interesting. Thus, depilation, head biting, evulsion of teeth, sprinkling with human blood, emersion in dust or filth, heavy flogging, scarification, smoking and burning, circumcision and subincision, are some of the forms in which the ordeals appear, among the Australians alone.... Of all these ordeals circumcision has the greatest prominence..... Almost universally initiation rites include a mimic representation of the death and resurrection of the novice. The new life to which he awakes from initiation is one utterly forgetful of the old; a new name, a new language, and new principles are its natural accompaniment......... A new language is closely associated with the new name. The possession of an esoteric speech known only to initiated members is highly useful as lending an additional mystery to the proceedings......... The various ceremonies which take place on the arrival of girls at puberty are distinctly less impressive than those of the boys. As a rule there is no admittance at a formal initiation possessing tribal aspects and secret rites......... No doubt various beliefs arising from many different sources have united to establish the necessity of secluding boys and girls at puberty.

"Isolation from the things of flesh and sense has been a device not infrequently employed by people of advanced culture for the furtherance of spiritual life, and we need not be surprised to find uncivilized man resorting to similar devices for more practical purposes. The long fasts, the deprivation of sleep, the constant excitement of the new and unexpected, the nervous reaction under long-continued torments, result in a condition of extreme sensitiveness - hyper - aesthesia- which is certainly favourable to the reception of impressions that will be indelible. The lessons learned in such a tribal school as the puberty institution constitutes, abide through life.

"Another obvious motive dictating a period of seclusion is found in the wisdom of entirely separating the youth at puberty from the women until lessons of sexual restraint have been learned. New Guinea natives, for instance, say that 'when boys reach the age of puberty, they ought not to be exposed to the rays of the sun, lest they suffer thereby; they must not do heavy manual work, or their physical development will be stopped, all possibility of mixing with females must be avoided, lest they become immoral, or illegitimacy become common in the tribe.' Where the men's house is found in a tribal community, this institution frequently serves to prolong the seclusion of the younger initiated men for many years after puberty is reached." (Primitive Secret Societies, pages 36, 37, 38, 41, 45, 47.)

"Puberty institutions for the initiation of young men into manhood are among the most widespread and characteristic features of primitive life. They are found among peoples considered the lowest of mankind: among Andamanese, Hottentots, Fuegians, and Australians; and they exist in various stages of development among peoples emerging from savagery to barbarism. Their foundation goes back to an unknown antiquity; their mysteries, jealously guarded from the eye of all save the initiated, preserve the religion and morality of the tribe. Though varying endlessly in detail, their leading characteristics reproduce themselves with substantial uniformity among many different peoples and in widely separated areas of the world. The initiation by the tribal elders of the young men of the tribe, their rigid seclusion, sometimes for a lengthy period, from the women and children; their subjection to certain ordeals and to rites designed to change their entire natures; the utilization of this period of confinement to convey to the novices a knowledge of the tribal traditions and customs, and finally, the inculcation by most practical methods of habits of respect and obedience to the older men - all these features are well described in the quaint and vigorous account by an old writer of the ceremonies once practised by the Tuscarora Indians of North Carolina." (Ibid, page 32.)

These initiations differ strikingly among themselves, nevertheless they one and all have certain fundamental features in common. In one paragraph of a brilliant treatise on Initiation, in Hasting's Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics (Vol. VII, p. 317), Count Goblet d'Alvielia, who stands so high among European Masonic scholars, furnishes a list of these features:

"The formalities of initiation, whether its dominant function is magical or religious, present striking resemblances. Andrew Lang notes the following general characteristics: (a) mystic dances; (b) the use of the turndun, or bull-roarer; (c) daubing with clay and washing this off; (d) performance with serpents and other 'mad doings.' To these we might add: (e) a simulation of death and resurrection; (f) the granting of a new name to the initiated; (g) the use of masks or other disguises. In any case, we may say that initiation ceremonies include: (1) a series of formalities which loosen the ties binding the neophyte to his former environment; (2) another series of formalities admitting him to the superhuman world; (3) an exhibition of sacred objects and instruction on subjects relating to them; (4) re-entry or reintegration rites, facilitating the return of the neophyte into the ordinary world. These rites, especially those of the first three divisions, are found fulfilling a more or less important function in all initiation ceremonies, both savages and among the civilized."

Whence came these secret clubs? Did they all originate from one center? N.W. Thomas, writing in Volume XI of Hasting's Encyclopedia, page 297, offers a reply with which most authorities would agree: 

"We may perhaps sum up the position by saying that to trace all secret societies to a single origin, is probably as mistaken as to trace all forms of religion to a single source or to seek to unlock all the mythologies by a single key. It seems clear that age grades, burial clubs, initiation schools, religious confraternities, occupation groups, and magical societies have all contributed to the mass of diverse elements grouped under secret societies; it cannot be definitely laid down that any one of these took an earlier type as a model; as we find all in their rudimentary stages in various parts of Africa, we must, unless we suppose that these rudiments are derived from the fully developed societies of other tribes, suppose that they are the seed from which, in other areas, secret societies have been evolved and that all are equally primitive, though not necessarily equally old."


When secret societies appear among barbarian and half civilized peoples they retain many of the fundamental features described in the above pages, but at the same time become strikingly different and often are used for entirely different purposes. All readers of Masonic literature are familiar with the story of the Druids, the Druses, the Culdees, the Assassins, etc. etc.: also the numberless secret societies of China, which, it appears in the majority of cases, are political in character rather than moral or religious. These barbarian, or semi-civilized organizations, have their grades, signs, secrets, pass-words and initiation ceremonies, as have all the others, and there is no need in this connection that we particularize among them or pay them any further attention.

The reader will already have noted a certain similarity between some of these associations and our own. In some cases these similarities are so striking that they almost amount to identity, as when one of our Masonic signs is found in the possession of some savage cult. Tales of how Masons have saved their lives or gained other advantages among savage peoples through use of one of the Masonic signs, have been among the stock stories of our literature for many years.

A sensational use of these facts has been recently made by Brother J.S.M. Ward in his Freemasonry and the Ancient Gods, published in 1921. Brother Ward boldly takes the position that the primitive secret societies such as those described above are to be considered an integral part of Freemasonry, or vice versa. He makes this position plain in the following words: "Boldly this is my contention, that our present system is derived originally from the primitive initiatory rites of our prehistoric ancestors. I base this contention on the fact that many of our most venerated signs and symbols, grips and tokens, are used today by savage races with precisely the same meaning as with us. I cannot agree with those who would contend that it is either a matter of coincidence or else that they are purely natural signs which express simple elementary sentiments." This statement appears on page 119 of his book. On 123 he repeats it in other words: "My contention, then, is that Freemasonry derives originally from those primitive rites which first taught a boy whence he came, then prepared him to be a useful member of society, and finally taught him how to die and that death did not end all. On these primitive rites, I consider, man built up the mysteries and the various religious faiths of the ancient world some of which have survived to the present day, while others have developed into other religions, Christianity included." The thesis is developed in still other words on page viii of his Preface where he says: "Briefly, the theory I venture to propound is that Freemasonry originated in the primitive initiatory rites of prehistoric man, and from those rites have been built up all the ancient mysteries, and thence all the modern religious systems. It is for this reason that men of all religious beliefs can enter Freemasonry; and, further, the reason we admit no women is that these rites were originally initiatory rites of men; the women had their own. These, for sociological reasons perished, while those of the men survived, and developed into the mysteries."

If Brother Ward could make good his thesis, he would bring about a complete revolution in anthropology. A secret society that has existed in all parts of the world through all the many centuries of history, would be the most stupendous facts known to sociology and would necessitate a complete revision of our social theories. The thing is too stupendous to have happened. In order to make out that Freemasonry as we now know it is in solidarity with all these other secret fraternities, it is necessary to stretch the facts at almost every point; to fill in the gaps with guesses and hypotheses; and to read into the ceremonies of the primitive tribes many meanings and purposes that they have never been capable of entertaining.

It was made abundantly plain in the quotations given above from various authorities that all secret societies have a culture in common and in the nature of the case inevitably make use of signs, symbols, ceremonies, degrees, lodges, initiations, etc., so that if a new secret society comes into existence, created ab initio by its own members, it will necessarily have many features in common with other similar organizations, so that always a little imagination will make it easy for men to believe that what has been recently created has existed elsewhere for many centuries. Nothing is easier than to create traditions and ancient history for a secret cult; and that because it is furnished with the many usages that other secret cults have employed in past times. Freemasonry is no exception to this rule. Almost everything in it can be paralleled in the possessions of similar societies that existed hundreds of years ago and always there is the temptation to borrow the authority and prestige of antiquity. Oftentimes one finds attributed to a very ancient day symbols that were created, according to our positive knowledge in recent times. "The Virgin Weeping Over A Broken Column is a case in point here. It was devised by American Mason about one hundred years ago, but only recently I read a learned article which sought to show that this symbol had been borrowed by Freemasonry from the Ancient Mysteries.

Brother Ward tries to prove that the Higher Grades are as ancient as the Craft Degrees. To an American reader, familiar with the history of the Scottish Rite, his case is not fortunate. We know that Albert Pike himself, alone and unaided created a great deal of the lofty and beautiful structure of the Scottish Rite ritual, so that it has been said of him that he found the Scottish Rite a log cabin and left it a marble palace. But there are many things in the Scottish Rite ceremonies older than history, someone may argue. Truly enough, but we know how they came there: Albert Pike took them from his own great learning of the ancient books. Much of the material is very old but the structure into which it is built and the use to which it is put, date from the labours of Albert Pike, or else from his immediate predecessors.

The real crux in all this discussion may be thrown into the form of the question, How old is Masonry? This question never loses its vitality and seems to hold an inexhaustible fascination for Masons. The answer depends upon the meaning we attribute to the word Masonry. If by Masonry we mean any kind of secret organization, then it is as old as the world. If it is used of any secret society that employs some of our signs or symbols, then it may be traced here and there into many lands and through many centuries. If it is used in the strictest sense to indicate a man that has been initiated into a regular lodge of symbolical Freemasonry working under the authority of a regular Grand Lodge, then Freemasonry is only two hundred years old. If it is to be used of organizations with which this modern speculative Freemasonry can trace an undeniable historical continuity, then it may be dated from the twelfth or thirteenth centuries. Of one thing we can be sure, the men's house, a lodge in which brethren meet behind tiled doors, is not a modern, artificial thing but springs out of human nature itself, to satisfy the needs that have been felt ever since man began to be.


Vol. I (1915) - Ancient Evidences, p. 18; The Golden Bough, p.22; The Men's House, p. 308.
Vol. 11 (1916) - Masonic Tradition, p. 189; Indian Masonry, p. 190; The Meaning of Initiation, p. 205; Masonic Signs, p. 253; Indian Freemasonry, p. 371.
Vol. III (1917) - A Central African Mystery, p. 15; The Origin of Druidism, p. 22; The Initiatory Rites of Druidism, p. 35; Masonry Among Primitive Peoples, p. 38; Secret Societies of Islam, p. 84; Aboriginal Races and Freemasonry, p. 96; Chinese Signs, p. 156; The Men's House, p. 209.
Vol. IV (1918) - Definitions of Masonry, p. 125; The Voice of the Sign, October, C.C.B., p. 4; The Divine Mystery, p. 334; The Mysteries of the Art of the Caverns and Early Builders, p. 366.
Vol. V (1919) - Legendary Origin of Freemasonry, p. 297,
Vol. VI (1920) - A Bird's-Eye View of Masonic History, p. 236; The Purposes of Legends and Myths, p. 258; Freemasonry Among the American Indians, p. 295.
Vol. VII (1921) - Whence Came Freemasonry, p. 90; Little Wolf Joins the Metawin, p. 281.
Vol. VIII (1922) - American Indians and Freemasonry, P. 71; Freemasonry and the Ancient Gods, pp. 88, 151, 152, 153; Masonry Among the Chippewa Indians, p. 126; A Mediating Theory, p. 318; Traces of Masonry Among Indians and Worth Americans, p. 354.

Mackey's Encyclopedia - (Revised Edition):
Albert Pike, p. 563; Assassins, p. 82; China, p. 147; Chinese Secret Societies, p. 148; Civilization and Freemasonry, p.153; Culdees, p. 191; Degrees, p. 203; Druidical Mysteries, p. 220; Druses, p. 221; Initiation, p. 353; Man, p. 461; Primitive Freemasonry, p. 584; Scottish Rite, p. 671; Secret Societies, p. 677; Woman, p. 855.


Lowie, Primitive Society. J.S.M. Ward, Freemasonry and the Ancient Gods. Webster, Primitive Secret Societies. Frazer, Golden Bough. Hasting's Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, Vol. VII, p. 314; XI, p. 287. Smith, Religion of the Semites. Heckethorn, Secret Societies. Lang, Myth, Ritual, and Religion. Thomas, Source Book For Social Origins. Rivers, The Todas. Tyler, Primitive Culture. Wallace, The Malay Archipelago. Coote, The Western Pacific. Upward, The Divine Mystery. Capart, Primitive Art. Evans, Tree and Pillar Cult. Harrison, Ancient Art and Ritual. Maspero, Dawn of Civilization. Wright, Indian Masonry. Giles, Freemasonry in China.

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