How an old pals' act got DIY religion

Roy Porter squares up to the secretive creed that claims to link King Solomon's builder with plumbers and policemen today: Who's Afraid of Freemasons? The phenomenon of Freemasonry by Alexander Piatigorsky

Who's Afraid of Freemasons? The phenomenon of Freemasonry by Alexander Piatigorsky, Harvill Press, pounds 25

Forget the catchy title: the subtitle gives a true guide to this book's agenda. This is not yet another expose of middle-class middle-aged males with their trouser legs rolled up, doing schoolboyish things at rowdy dinners. Nor is it an investigation into the secret cliques of Masons who, rumour has it, clinch insider business deals, pay off the police and receive favours from the bench thanks to a genteel version of the Mafia principle of looking after your own. Rather, this is a serious philosophical inquiry conducted by someone with all the credentials for such an investigation. A self-confessed non-Mason, Piatigorsky is a professor of comparative religion at the University of London, with books on Buddhism and mythology under his belt. His mission is to probe the much mocked but little explained "secrets" of the "craft". All those weird symbols - the compasses and aprons, the squares and gavels - all those rituals of initiation, all those hierarchies of office and uniforms (the brethren of the first, second and third degree): what do they mean?

To grasp what Freemasonry purports to stand for, it is essential, Piatigorsky maintains, to go back to its very roots. For it was then that its enduring rites and rules were established (set in stone, one might say). Freemasonry as we know it emerged around the dawn of the 18th century, a distant descendant of the congregations of practical stone-masons who had flourished since the Middle Ages.

"Speculative" masons - that is, those more genteel brethren who did not actually hew stones - were a mix of nobles and tradesmen who formed lodges for fellowship. As part of the process historians now call "the invention of tradition", they forged for themselves a legendary ancestry which related how an elite of masons had banded together ever since King Solomon had ordained the building of the Temple in Old Testament times. Thereafter, masons had been involved with every great feat of royal or national construction, all the way up to Inigo Jones and Sir Christopher Wren.

Why the symbolic attraction of building, rather than any other trade or livery company, for these gentlemen's clubs? It was partly because of the values associated (ideally, at least) with the building trade. Buildings were symbols of civilisation, strength, solidity, endurance; the builder's art was fair and square, the geometry which formed its foundations also underpinned the hidden harmony of the cosmos. Not least, Freemasons liked to depict the Deity Himself as the Great Architect of the Universe.

From the beginning, rules of conduct were drawn up for the lodges and rites of passage fixed with great precision. Crucial to these were certain mysterious names and terms, and esoteric symbols and gestures, purportedly going back to Hiram, Solomon's builder. This mumbo-jumbo was not intended to spell out a whole way of life, a new morality of right and wrong, a road to salvation, but rather was meant to cement the solidarity of the brotherhood.

It is because rituals have been so central, Piatigorsky argues, that, as movements go, Freemasonry has undergone less change and suffered fewer schisms over the last three centuries than almost any other sect or creed. The secret of Freemasonry lies in being a corpus of ceremonies designed not to save souls or change the world, but to uphold solidarity within.

What this means, Piatigorsky boldly claims, is something Masons themselves generally deny: Freemasonry is a religion - or, at least, a religious phenomenon. And so it was meant to be from the very start - a syncretist faith which would be perfectly compatible with various Christian confessions, with Judaism or other faiths, something which would approximate to a "natural religion", open to all men. This ideal embodied the fervent desire of its codifiers to create a faith which would unite peoples in brotherhood rather than (as with traditional Christianity) slaughtering them in the name of the Church; hence the appeal of Freemasonry to Enlightenment figures such as Mozart.

Interpreting musty Masonic documents and interviewing prominent Masons, Piatigorsky affords rich insight into a body of practices which has continued to grow in appeal (it is said there are 700,000 Freemasons in Britain, 3.5 million in the USA) despite a general decline of religious faith and secularisation at large. Maybe this success stems from meeting a thirst for ritual which liberalising faiths such as Anglicanism no longer satisfy. That would also explain the abiding hostility of Roman Catholicism towards the craft.

Piatigorsky raises more questions than he answers. Why, one would like to know, given Freemasonry's sincere commitment to a "universalism" transcending creed, colour and nationality, has the movement been so bigoted in its exclusion of women?

That misogyny is particularly interesting in the light of a brief episode of Masonic history which Piatigorsky never addresses: the early lodges of the Netherlands, which did occasionally admit women. Then, can we really accept his view that Freemasonry has typically been "apolitical"? On his own admission, Continental Freemasonry in the 18th century was openly antagonistic to the old regime; more recently in Britain, lodges have sometimes looked like the Tory Party at supper.

Above all, one would have liked his judgement as to how much of the esoteric creed laid bare here is actually known to, let alone believed in by, your average plumber, publican or policeman Mason in Manchester or Milwaukee. But for making the secrets of the craft less sinister, if no less bizarre, Professor Piatigorsky deserves our handshake.

Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May


Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama


Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living