Hermeticism in early Freemasonry

Discussion in 'History and Research' started by hanzosbm, Mar 11, 2020.

  1. hanzosbm

    hanzosbm Premium Member

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    There's something that has been rubbing me wrong for a long time, and I kept planning to do more research on it independently, but it gets put off, so I figured I'd open it up to the Brethren.

    Supposedly, Hermeticism in the form of the Corpus Hermeticum came to Europe for the first time in 1471 via Marsilio Ficino. However, the Matthew Cooke Manuscript (dated 1450) talks about Hermes the philosopher finding one of the antediluvian pillars in its discussions on the history of Freemasonry.

    Now, whether or not Freemasonry can be traced directly back to Hermes is irrelevant for this conversation. What is important, is how a group of supposedly purely operative Masons knew about Hermes 21 years before the rest of Europe, and to such a degree that they included him in their writings in a very matter of fact way.

    There are 3 possibilities I've come up with:
    1) The Cooke Manuscript is dated incorrectly
    2) The details of Hermeticism were not known prior to 1471, but the knowledge of a philosopher named Hermes was common throughout Europe (I recently purchased a book that argues that Hermeticism was more widely known in Europe during the middle ages, but I haven't yet had time to read it)
    3) Somehow, this group of men held deep philosophic knowledge that ran counter to established church doctrine that was unknown to the rest of Europe

    Either way, the argument that Freemasonry as a philosophy only came about in the 17th century with the introduction of speculative Masons seems to pretty much go out the window. Operative Masons had knowledge of and held some level of respect for an esoteric and heretical philosopher.

    Thoughts?
     
  2. JamestheJust

    JamestheJust Registered User

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    A more fundamental issue is whether the standard Scaligerian chronology is correct. Scaliger cut and pasted all he (thought he) knew about ancient civilizations into a single chronology and that has been the basis used by historians ever since.

    https://ajendu.blogspot.com/2014/11/scaligerian-chronology.html

    Thus there is another option in dealing with your problem: the chronology is incorrect.
    http://chronologia.org/en/

    https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLwryfIqJC5R9GDRMt6iMzCf_-KQKpoeXg
     
  3. Luigi Visentin

    Luigi Visentin Registered User

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    Hermeticism was known in Europe since Roman's time and likely before. Later it seemed to be lost in western but survived in the Byzantine empire. In any case the presence of the name "Hermes" in the York's legend does not referr necessarily to the mytical philosopher.
     
  4. hanzosbm

    hanzosbm Premium Member

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    "And after this flood many years, as the chronicle telleth, these 2 pillars were found, and as the Pilicronicon saith, that a great clerk that [was] called Pythagoras found that one, and Hermes, the philosopher, found that other, and they taught forth the sciences that they found therein written."

    It's definitely refering to him as a philosopher. Regarding knowledge of Hermes prior to Ficino, that's something I've been trying to ascertain. I'd love to know more about how much knowledge their was in England in the mid 15th century.

    Regardless, I personally think that the more important take away is that these operative Masons had some level of interest in esoteric, heretical philosophies
     
  5. Elexir

    Elexir Registered User

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    The thing is that there might not have been any knowledge exept for amongst the freemasons. The thing is that freemasons was just that, free masons that traveld to where there where work. Considering that corpus hermeticum was written in the second century and was known by amongst other Augustine of Hippo. Wich meant that there is a strong probabilitt that it could have tricled down into certain ideas regarding how something in a church was to be designed wich would mean that atleast a short explanation was needed. This could then later have been passed on between free masons.
     
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  6. hanzosbm

    hanzosbm Premium Member

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    I hadn't considered that the free movement of Masons could have been behind the spreading of these philosophies. Thank you very much for that.
    So, assuming we were to follow this premise, could the exposure and/or teaching of different philosophies in private/secret have birthed the Freemasonic organization?
     
    Bloke likes this.
  7. Roy_

    Roy_ Registered User

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    What a strange idea that Hermeticism was unknown before the Corpus Hermeticum was translated by Ficino! Actually, Hermes has been known all long (partly because of Islamic texts) and Cosimo de Medici has had men looking for the Corpus Hermeticum for many years. They knew the text used to exist, but the 'book' just hadn't been found yet. Other texts had.
     
  8. hanzosbm

    hanzosbm Premium Member

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    That's very interesting to hear. Thank you for that. Do you have any sources for that? I'm trying to get a better understanding what the depth of knowledge was at that time.
     
  9. Elexir

    Elexir Registered User

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    No. The guilds had ranks and stages of the education. I think we are looking at a combination of diffrent things.
     
  10. hanzosbm

    hanzosbm Premium Member

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    Sorry, I should have phrased my post differently. I'm wondering if the travel and secrecy already in place in the guilds essentially incubated these "heretical" philosophies and allowed them to grow to become the allegorical morality and philosophical lessons that we now see in our rituals.

    Personally, I don't believe it was a one time injection of philosophy, but rather repeated infusings over the centuries. Here is one theory on how it may have played out (I'm not claiming that this is what happened, just one theory):

    Early operative masons are exposed to new ideas through their travels. Knowing that they would not be accepted "back home", they kept them secret. This started the early philosophical links within the guilds. As time went on, these freethinkers were more open to new ideas, so as members came across other philosophies, or even came up with new ideas on their own, they were discussed or possibly incorporated into the degrees or teachings, in whatever form that may have been at the time. As time went on, a benevolent infiltration began to take place. Other freethinkers and philosophers began to recognize these existing teaching within the masonic guilds, and in an attempt to learn from them and find a home where they could discuss these things, sought to join; hence the introduction of the speculatives. As the speculatives grew in number, they brought with them more esoteric philosophies. Gnosticism, Alchemy, Rosicrusianism, etc. Eventually, it grew into what we know today.
    In short, the early travels planted a seed. The secrecy allowed it to stay alive and brought it back to Europe. It attracted likeminded individuals, and it grew into what we see today. This is also why it is such a mash up of different traditions.

    Thoughts?
     
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  11. JamestheJust

    JamestheJust Registered User

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    >Early operative masons are exposed to new ideas through their travels.

    Another option is that esoteric groups concealed themselves within Freemasonry - hence some of the higher degrees.
     
  12. Roy_

    Roy_ Registered User

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    Sorry for the slow reply. I don't log in too often... Well, I have to rephrase my reply a little. Cosismo de Medici had men looking all over the world for ancient wisdom. The word is that he owned about 10.000 volumes when he died! Of course he didn't have people looking for the Corpus Hermeticum because that name was given to a bunch of manuscripts that Cosimo got in 1460. The manuscripts that he got were translations of "Hermetica" by Michael Psellos from the early 11th century. So the texts at least had been known in Greece in that time. In the same time there was a Latin translation of the Tabula Smaragdina.

    Cosimo probably knew parts of such texts from compilations. In The Elixer And The Stone (Bro) Michael Baigent en Richard Leigh suggest that Plethon (Gemistus Pletho c. 1355/1360 – 1452/1454) may have been aware of Hermetic texts (p. 118). According to Joost Ritman (founder of the Bibliotheca Philsophica Hermetica in Amsterdam) Basilios Bessarion (1403-1472) had managed to lay his hands on a Greek translation of 'the Corpus Hermeticum' a few years before Cosimo did and Bessarion's copy was more complete.

    As for your questions about guilds and the like. You may be interested in two books (the third is forthcoming) by Chris Earnshaw published by Lewis Masonic. Earnshaw sees an 'operative' tradition that in the 16th and 17th century started to mingle with esoteric currents (Alchemy, Rosicrucianity) which eventually would become "Revival" Freemasonry (a term he borrowed from Pike). In this story there are of course the guilds, but a less common subject: Medieval mystery plays, in which he seems to see the origin for the third degree.
    The same publisher also has interesting books by Fabio Venzi (Freemasonry, the esoteric tradition and Traditional Freemasonry) who follows the esoteric tradition of Freemasonry back to the Cambridge Platonists. Guilds are less prominent in his books.
     
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  13. hanzosbm

    hanzosbm Premium Member

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    WOW!!
    Thank you so much for your response. So much information and new material for me to look into. I really appreciate it!
    I'm about halfway through The Secret History of Hermes Tresmigitis (sp? I'm on my phone at the moment) and it is well written and very informative. Once I finish it, I'll move onto the books you've mentioned.
    Once again, thank you so much.
     
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  14. Luigi Visentin

    Luigi Visentin Registered User

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    I have two remarks about the previous interventions:

    First:

    The fact that the author wrote that Hermes was defined as "philosopher" does not means that this personage was really a philosopher. It could also be a sort of compliment. "Philosopher" was also a common compliment, more or less like the modern "you are a genius". This does not means, however, that the praised personage was really a genius or a philosopher. Also "Trimegistus" was a very common compliment to Lords, Kings or Emperors. Charlemagne, for example, was called "Trismegistus" or "Thrice Great" which exact meaning is simply: "Very great".

    In our case it is necessary to consider that our Masonic Hermes is also called "Nimrod", who was a giant, king, a warrior and a conqueror but these "qualities" are not of a philosopher (if we make the exception of emperor Marcus Aurelius who, however, cannot be defined as a "giant" as it was not a particularly big man).

    Second:

    The theory that modern Freemasonry derives from ancient guilds of Stonemasons has never been proved. This theory is very romantic but I'm sure that it is wrong (I have written a book about). Merchants, for example, had their own guilds, were more literate (practically almost all stonemasons were unable to write and read and, basically, had no time and no money to learn), travelled more and in more different places, having contacts with more cultures. Some of them become more powerful that kings and their sons crowded the first universities. Don't you think that merchants would be a better candidate? They aren't, but consider that, according to the Legend of York, Masons were son of Lords and their "guilds" perhaps were not exactly "guilds" but a sort of association. England, for example, had associations composed by wealthy people, nobles and not, generally called "Societies", even in sixteenth century and likely before (in Italy we have had in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries too). The Codex Copiale tells that some Masonic Societies were destroyed by Queen Elizabeth I:

    Some societies have risen in England already under Queen Elizabeth and subsequently under Charles, whose members called themselves *bigx* [freemason] and maintained even rigorous *star* [secret]. But because they practiced more evil than good, they have been destroyed.
     
  15. Roy_

    Roy_ Registered User

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    That depends on a few things. When someone says that there were operative stone Mason guilds who started to initiate alchemists and then started to call themselves Freemasons, that may indeed a bit too simple, but there's of course more to the theory. When you read 'the' Old Charges from old to new, there's certainly a development from operative groups that start to incorporate 'speculative' elements some of which have found their way to the Constitutions of Andersson. So were Andersson or people around him members of operative lodges? Some say so, but only if the men who were active in the three lodges that formed the premier Grand Lodge even only took inspiration from the books that they gathered, there's an answer to how such elements came into modern Freemasonry. More on topic, the same can be said about Hermetism.
    Georges Fort wrote a very interesting book in 1884 called Early History And Antiquities Of Freemasonry, As Connected With Ancient Norse Guilds, And The Oriental And Medieval Building Fraternities. Better works have been written later (usually not in English), but it's an excellent start for this particular subject.
     
  16. Luigi Visentin

    Luigi Visentin Registered User

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    Thank you for the suggested readings. However I'm of the idea (supported by the studies that I have done) that Freemasonry has nothing to do with ancient Stonemason guilds. In the various versions of the Legend of York (which includes the Old Charges) that I have examined, more than the progressive incorporation of speculative elements, I have noticed a progressive loss of ancient traditions, likely due to oral retransmission.
    With Anderson (or better with the committee who has prepared the whole Constitutions) there has been a dramatic change. Using an Italian expression, this committee has "changed the cards on the table", that is has tried to cancel the old Masonry replacing it with a new version and, even if not immediately, they have been successful in this change even if the basics elements have been mantained.

    One peculiar version of what happened can be found in the Copiale Cipher, composed before 1750 from some German Masons that have decided to continue their meetings even if expressly forbidden by the civil and religious authorities. It has been deciphered only in 2011 and is very interesting as reports some information that are missing in other documents. The code tells a curious story about the origin of modern Freemasonry, which I think is real as it explains some strange characteristics of the first modern Masonic writings. I suggest to read this document as, coming back to the presumed origin of the Craft among ancient guilds of Stonemasons, the same Code gives a clear example about how it easy to invent a whole new system to hide an existing one. In fact, as it was forbidden to be Freemasons, they decided to call themselves "Oculists" and have translated all rituals symbols and expressions from the "Masonic version" to an "Oculist version", showing how it easy to cancel and replace symbols and rituals. Obviously they did not originated from a "Middle Age guild of Oculists"...
     
  17. JamestheJust

    JamestheJust Registered User

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    Were there esoteric ritual groups concealed within (restricted to) particular clans and bloodlines including Jewish? I suspect that as the clans and bloodlines came under threat from social change that undermined group cohesion and authority their esoteric groups found it useful to conceal themselves in exoteric groups including guilds, societies and religious organizations.

    The concealed groups, to propagate their agenda might form "higher degrees" governed by an existing central body, thus appearing fully formed quite unlike the self-governing lodges of the older traditions.
     
  18. Roy_

    Roy_ Registered User

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    Luigi. I'm not trying to say that Freemasonry came solely from operative stone mason guilds. As I said earlier: "When someone says that there were operative stone Mason guilds who started to initiate alchemists and then started to call themselves Freemasons, that may indeed a bit too simple".

    In my view the whole guilds theory goes even 'further', back to men-bonds of the ancient Northmen and no I don't think that there were "Männerbunde" who only changed their name to guilds who changed their name to Freemasons. There's indeed some 'current' that changes form, picking up elements, leaving other, etc. Freemasonry is an interesting field of study, because one person can make a pretty strong case that Mithraism is the basis for Masonic symbolism, while another sees alchemy (or back on-topic Hermetism) and the next "Northern European Mysteries". They may all be right. Did, as Chris Earnshaw suggests, three WM's (later GM's of the premier Grand Lodge) 'invent' a new tradition based on their interests or did they step into a developing tradition? I think the latter and when and how exactly certain element found their ways into their systems remains a fascinating field of investigation.
     
  19. JamestheJust

    JamestheJust Registered User

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    >one person can make a pretty strong case that Mithraism is the basis for Masonic symbolism

    Much of the form of Blue Masonry comes from Mithraic ritual, but the raising is of Osiris from where we get the crossed leg bones and skull.

    Red Masonry has much from Sumer. Abraham was from Sumer.
     
  20. Luigi Visentin

    Luigi Visentin Registered User

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    More or less the first one. They have taken the old tradition and "reshaped" it, even if the roots basically remained the same.
     

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