The following appears as Chapter XXXI on pp. 300-311 of the 1869 edition of “The Symbolism of Freemasonry” by Albert G. Mackey.
The last of the symbols, depending for its existence on its connection with a myth to which I shall invite attention, is the Lost Word, and the search for it. Very appropriately may this symbol terminate our investigations, since it includes within its comprehensive scope all the others, being itself the very essence of the science of masonic symbolism. The other symbols require for their just appreciation a knowledge of the origin of the order, because they owe their birth to its relationship with kindred and anterior institutions. But the symbolism of the Lost Word has reference exclusively to the design and the objects of the institution.
First, let us define the symbol, and then investigate its interpretation.
The mythical history of Freemasonry informs us that there once existed a WORD of surpassing value, and claiming a profound veneration; that this Word was known to but few; that it was at length lost; and that a temporary substitute for it was adopted. But as the very philosophy of Masonry teaches us that there can be no death without a resurrection,–no decay without a subsequent restoration,–on the same principle it follows that the loss of the Word must suppose its eventual recovery.
Now, this it is, precisely, that constitutes the myth of the Lost Word and the search for it. No matter what was the word, no matter how it was lost, nor why a substitute was provided, nor when nor where it was recovered. These are all points of subsidiary importance, necessary, it is true, for knowing the legendary history, but not necessary for understanding the symbolism. The only term of the myth that is to be regarded in the study of its interpretation, is the abstract idea of a word lost and afterwards recovered.
This, then, points us to the goal to which we must direct our steps in the pursuit of the investigation.
But the symbolism, referring in this case, as I have already said, solely to the great design of Freemasonry, the nature of that design at once suggests itself as a preliminary subject of inquiry in the investigation.
What, then, is the design of Freemasonry? A very large majority of its disciples, looking only to its practical results, as seen in the every-day business of life,–to the noble charities which it dispenses, to the tears of widows which it has dried, to the cries of orphans which it has hushed, to the wants of the destitute which it has supplied,–arrive with too much rapidity at the conclusion that Charity, and that, too, in its least exalted sense of eleemosynary aid, is the great design of the institution.
Others, with a still more contracted view, remembering the pleasant reunions at their lodge banquets, the unreserved communications which are thus encouraged, and the solemn obligations of mutual trust and confidence that are continually inculcated, believe that it was intended solely to promote the social sentiments and cement the bonds of friendship.
But, although the modern lectures inform us that Brotherly Love and Relief are two of “the principal tenets of a Mason’s profession,” yet, from the same authority, we learn that Truth is a third and not less important one; and Truth, too, not in its old Anglo-Saxon meaning of fidelity to engagements, but in that more strictly philosophical one in which it is opposed to intellectual and religious error or falsehood.
But I have shown that the Primitive Freemasonry of the ancients was instituted for the purpose of preserving that truth which had been originally communicated to the patriarchs, in all its integrity, and that the Spurious Masonry, or the Mysteries, originated in the earnest need of the sages, and philosophers, and priests, to find again the same truth which had been lost by the surrounding multitudes. I have shown, also, that this same truth continued to be the object of the Temple Masonry, which was formed by a union of the Primitive, or Pure, and the Spurious systems. Lastly, I have endeavored to demonstrate that this truth related to the nature of God and the human soul.
The search, then, after this truth, I suppose to constitute the end and design of Speculative Masonry. From the very commencement of his career, the aspirant is by significant symbols and expressive instructions directed to the acquisition of this divine truth; and the whole lesson, if not completed in its full extent, is at least well developed in the myths and legends of the Master’s degree. God and the soul–the unity of the one and the immortality of the other–are the great truths, the search for which is to constitute the constant occupation of every Mason, and which, when found, are to become the chief corner-stone, or the stone of foundation, of the spiritual temple–“the house not made with hands”–which he is engaged in erecting.
Now, this idea of a search after truth forms so prominent a part of the whole science of Freemasonry, that I conceive no better or more comprehensive answer could be given to the question, What is Freemasonry? than to say that it is a science which is engaged in the search after divine truth.
But Freemasonry is eminently a system of symbolism, and all its instructions are conveyed in symbols. It is, therefore, to be supposed that so prominent and so prevailing an idea as this,–one that constitutes, as I have said, the whole design of the institution, and which may appropriately be adopted as the very definition of its science,–could not with any consistency be left without its particular symbol.
The WORD, therefore, I conceive to be the symbol of Divine Truth; and all its modifications–the loss, the substitution, and the recovery–are but component parts of the mythical symbol which represents a search after truth.
How, then, is this symbolism preserved? How is the whole history of this Word to be interpreted, so as to bear, in all its accidents of time, and place, and circumstance, a patent reference to the substantive idea that has been symbolized?
The answers to these questions embrace what is, perhaps, the most intricate as well as most ingenious and interesting portion of the science of masonic symbolism.
This symbolism may be interpreted, either in an application to a general or to a special sense.
The general application will embrace the whole history of Freemasonry, from its inception to its consummation. The search after the Word is an epitome of the intellectual and religious progress of the order, from the period when, by the dispersion at Babel, the multitudes were enshrouded in the profundity of a moral darkness where truth was apparently forever extinguished. The true name of God was lost; his true nature was not understood; the divine lessons imparted by our father Noah were no longer remembered; the ancient traditions were now corrupted; the ancient symbols were perverted. Truth was buried beneath the rubbish of Sabaism, and the idolatrous adoration of the sun and stars had taken the place of the olden worship of the true God. A moral darkness was now spread over the face of the earth, as a dense, impenetrable cloud, which obstructed the rays of the spiritual sun, and covered the people as with a gloomy pall of intellectual night.
But this night was not to last forever. A brighter dawn was to arise, and amidst all this gloom and darkness there were still to be found a few sages in whom the religious sentiment, working in them with powerful throes, sent forth manfully to seek after truth. There were, even in those days of intellectual and religious darkness, craftsmen who were willing to search for the Lost Word. And though they were unable to find it, their approximation to truth was so near that the result of their search may well be symbolized by the Substitute Word.
It was among the idolatrous multitudes that the Word had been lost. It was among them that the Builder had been smitten, and that the works of the spiritual temple had been suspended; and so, losing at each successive stage of their decline, more and more of the true knowledge of God and of the pure religion which had originally been imparted by Noah, they finally arrived at gross materialism and idolatry, losing all sight of the divine existence. Thus it was that the truth–the Word–was said to have been lost; or, to apply the language of Hutchinson, modified in its reference to the time, “in this situation, it might well be said that the guide to heaven was lost, and the master of the works of righteousness was smitten. The nations had given themselves up to the grossest idolatry, and the service of the true God was effaced from the memory of those who had yielded themselves to the dominion of sin.”
And now it was among the philosophers and priests in the ancient Mysteries, or the spurious Freemasonry, that an anxiety to discover the truth led to the search for the Lost Word. These were the craftsmen who saw the fatal-blow which had been given, who knew that the Word was now lost, but were willing to go forth, manfully and patiently, to seek its restoration. And there were the craftsmen who, failing to rescue it from the grave of oblivion into which it had fallen, by any efforts of their own incomplete knowledge, fell back upon the dim traditions which had been handed down from primeval times, and through their aid found a substitute for truth in their own philosophical religions.
And hence Schmidtz, speaking of these Mysteries of the pagan world, calls them the remains of the ancient Pelasgian religion, and says that “the associations of persons for the purpose of celebrating them must therefore have been formed at the time when the overwhelming influence of the Hellenic religion began to gain the upper hand in Greece, and when persons who still entertained a reverence for the worship of former times united together, with the intention of preserving and upholding among themselves as much as possible of the religion of their forefathers.”
Applying, then, our interpretation in a general sense, the Word itself being the symbol of Divine Truth, the narrative of its loss and the search for its recovery becomes a mythical symbol of the decay and loss of the true religion among the ancient nations, at and after the dispersion on the plains of Shinar, and of the attempts of the wise men, the philosophers, and priests, to find and retain it in their secret Mysteries and initiations, which have hence been designated as the Spurious Freemasonry of Antiquity.
But I have said that there is a special, or individual, as well as a general interpretation. This compound or double symbolism, if I may so call it, is by no means unusual in Freemasonry. I have already exhibited an illustration of it in the symbolism of Solomon’s temple, where, in a general sense, the temple is viewed as a symbol of that spiritual temple formed by the aggregation of the whole order, and in which each mason is considered as a stone; and, in an individual or special sense, the same temple is considered as a type of that spiritual temple which each mason is directed to erect in his heart.
Now, in this special or individual interpretation, the Word, with its accompanying myth of a loss, a substitute, and a recovery, becomes a symbol of the personal progress of a candidate from his first initiation to the completion of his course, when he receives a full development of the Mysteries.
The aspirant enters on this search after truth, as an Entered Apprentice, in darkness, seeking for light–the light of wisdom, the light of truth, the light symbolized by the Word. For this important task, upon which he starts forth gropingly, falteringly, doubtingly, in want and in weakness, he is prepared by a purification of the heart, and is invested with a first substitute for the true Word, which, like the pillar that went before the Israelites in the wilderness, is to guide him onwards in his weary journey. He is directed to take, as a staff and scrip for his journey, all those virtues which expand the heart and dignify the soul. Secrecy, obedience, humility, trust in God, purity of conscience, economy of time, are all inculcated by impressive types and symbols, which connect the first degree with the period of youth.
And then, next in the degree of Fellow Craft, he fairly enters upon his journey. Youth has now passed, and manhood has come on. New duties and increased obligations press upon the individual. The thinking and working stage of life is here symbolized. Science is to be cultivated; wisdom is to be acquired; the lost Word–divine truth–is still to be sought for. But even yet it is not to be found.
And now the Master Mason comes, with all the symbolism around him of old age–trials, sufferings, death. And here, too, the aspirant, pressing onward, always onward, still cries aloud for “light, more light.” The search is almost over, but the lesson, humiliating to human nature, is to be taught, that in this life–gloomy and dark, earthly and carnal–pure truth has no abiding place; and contented with a substitute, and to that second temple of eternal life, for that true Word, that divine Truth, which will teach us all that we shall ever learn of God and his emanation, the human soul.
So, the Master Mason, receiving this substitute for the lost Word, waits with patience for the time when it shall be found, and perfect wisdom shall be attained.
But, work as we will, this symbolic Word–this knowledge of divine Truth–is never thoroughly attained in this life, or in its symbol, the Master Mason’s lodge. The corruptions of mortality, which encumber and cloud the human intellect, hide it, as with a thick veil, from mortal eyes. It is only, as I have just said, beyond the tomb, and when released from the earthly burden of life, that man is capable of fully receiving and appreciating the revelation. Hence, then, when we speak of the recovery of the Word, in that higher degree which is a supplement to Ancient Craft Masonry, we intimate that that sublime portion of the masonic system is a symbolic representation of the state after death. For it is only after the decay and fall of this temple of life, which, as masons, we have been building, that from its ruins, deep beneath its foundations, and in the profound abyss of the grave, we find that divine truth, in the search for which life was spent, if not in vain, at least without success, and the mystic key to which death only could supply.
And now we know by this symbolism what is meant by masonic labor, which, too, is itself but another form of the same symbol. The search for the Word–to find divine Truth–this, and this only, is a mason’s work, and the WORD is his reward.
Labor, said the old monks, is worship–laborare est orare; and thus in our lodges do we worship, working for the Word, working for the Truth, ever looking forward, casting no glance behind, but cheerily hoping for the consummation and the reward of our labor in the knowledge which is promised to him who plays no laggard’s part.
Goethe, himself a mason and a poet, knew and felt all this symbolism of a mason’s life and work, when he wrote that beautiful poem, which Carlyle has thus thrown into his own rough but impulsive language.
“The mason’s ways are
A type of existence,–
And to his persistence
Is as the days are
Of men in this world.
“The future hides in it
Gladness and sorrow;
We press still thorow,
Nought that abides in it
“And solemn before us
Veiled the dark portal,
Goal of all mortal;
Stars silent rest o’er us
Graves under us silent.
“While earnest thou gazest
Come boding of terror,
Comes phantasm and error,
Perplexing the bravest
With doubt and misgiving.
“But heard are the voices,
Heard are the sages,
The worlds and the ages;
‘Choose well; your choice is
Brief and yet endless.
“‘Here eyes do regard you,
In eternity’s stillness;
Here is all fullness,
Ye, brave to reward you;
Work and despair not.'”
And now, in concluding this work, so inadequate to the importance of the subjects that have been discussed, one deduction, at least, may be drawn from all that has been said.
In tracing the progress of Freemasonry, and in detailing its system of symbolism, it has been found to be so intimately connected with the history of philosophy, of religion, and of art, in all ages of the world, that the conviction at once forces itself upon the mind, that no mason can expect thoroughly to comprehend its nature, or to appreciate its character as a science, unless he shall devote himself, with some labor and assiduity, to this study of its system. That skill which consists in repeating, with fluency and precision, the ordinary lectures, in complying with all the ceremonial requisitions of the ritual, or the giving, with sufficient accuracy, the appointed modes of recognition, pertains only to the very rudiments of the masonic science.
But there is a far nobler series of doctrines with which Freemasonry is connected, and which it has been my object, in this work, to present in some imperfect way. It is these which constitute the science and the philosophy of Freemasonry, and it is these alone which will return the student who devotes himself to the task, a sevenfold reward for his labor.
Freemasonry, viewed no longer, as too long it has been, as a merely social institution, has now assumed its original and undoubted position as a speculative science. While the mere ritual is still carefully preserved, as the casket should be which contains so bright a jewel; while its charities are still dispensed as the necessary though incidental result of all its moral teachings; while its social tendencies are still cultivated as the tenacious cement which is to unite so fair a fabric in symmetry and strength, the masonic mind is everywhere beginning to look and ask for something, which, like the manna in the desert, shall feed us, in our pilgrimage, with intellectual food. The universal cry, throughout the masonic world, is for light; our lodges are henceforth to be schools; our labor is to be study; our wages are to be learning; the types and symbols, the myths and allegories, of the institution are beginning to be investigated with reference to their ultimate meaning; our history is now traced by zealous inquiries as to its connection with antiquity; and Freemasons now thoroughly understand that often quoted definition, that “Masonry is a science of morality veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols.”
Thus to learn Masonry is to know our work and to do it well. What true mason would shrink from the task?
The full text of the 1869 edition of Mackey’s “The Symbolism of Freemasonry” may be found at:Mackey’s Symbolism of Freemasonry