In the first centuries of Freemasonry the history was traced back too all kinds of ancient mysteries. Were there any authors who looked at the Nortern European past?
I picked a few titles from my personal library, looked up a few others on the internet and found out that for some reason, the few books that have something to say about the subject are mostly in English. Actually, they are mostly the famous Masonic encyclopedias of the late 19th century. I will have a look at these titles and quote them extensively, so be warned.
Robert Macoy (1815-1895) was an Irishman who moved to the USA. He was initiated in New York in 1848 and would become one of the most prominent Freemasons. I have no idea when exactly, but at one point I brought home a second hand copy of his A Dictionary Of Freemasonry. The book that I bought cheaply actually contains three titles, General History of Freemasonry, Cyclopedia of Freemasonry and A Dictionary of Symbolical Masonry. The second part has a lemet about “Odinic Mysteries”.
The book seems to have not all that much to do with Freemasonry all over the line. It is more a compilation of all kinds of esotericisms without saying how the subjects connect to Freemasonry. Similarly, in his “Odinic Mysteries”, Macoy retells some Northern myths, follows the Heimkringsla as the historical account in which the Aesir are Asians and how Odin founded a priesthood of twelve Drottars (“Druids?”). He uses the story of Gangleri (without mentioning the name) to show how initiates were “instructed in regard to creation of the heavens and earth, of man and woman, by three Drottars”. The ritual supposedly ended by portraying the Yggdrasil. Of Yggdrasil Macoy also says a thing or two and then he retells some more myths. Unfortunately he fails to say what all this has to do with Freemasonry.
This will prove typical for the books that I found. Germanic myths are just added to a large amount of myths, legends and stories without giving any sort of ‘Masonic perspective’.
Daniel Sickels (1819-1914) published his General Ahiman Rezon in 1868. On page 62 he speaks about secrecy and there we find the Yggdrasil again:
In the grand mythology of ancient Scandinavia, there is a remarkable myth, called the Yggdrasil-Tree, or Ever-blooming Ash, whose top rose to the highest heavens, and whose roots struck down through the regions of everlasting gloom and night. From age to age, its branches, loaded with benedictions, spread out over all worlds, the delight of gods and men, diffusing life and beauty and fragrance through the universe. And all this glory, and these capabilities to bless, were the fruit of the mysterious and secret labors of the sacred Nornas, who perpetually watered its roots from the deep-hidden wells, and thus preserved its vigor and vitality.
The Yggdrasil-Tree is a beautiful symbolical representation of Freemasonry, and illustrates well the character of Masonic secrecy. Like that tree, in the youth of Humanity, the Mystic Order arose among the nations of the earth, and its ever-green branches spread over the world; and, by the vital power of its secret ministry, it diffused order, and beauty, and virtue, and civilization over all lands.
Not exactly an influence an outlook on rituals, but an approach that reminds of perhaps the most famous Freemason that compiled an encyclopdia:
Albert Pike (1809-1891) also mentions Scandinavian Gods in his book Morals and Dogma of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry (1871). As a matter of fact, he mentions them on quite a few occasions.
Our northern ancestors worshipped this tri-une Deity; ODIN, the Almighty FATHER; FREA, his wife, emblem of universal matter; and THOR, his son, the mediator. But above all these was the Supreme God, “the author of everything that existeth, the Eternal, the Ancient, the Living and Awful Being, the Searcher into concealed things, the Being that never changeth.”
I found Pike’s quote in the 1893 book Legends of the Saxon Saints by Aubrey de Vere. In the preface she says:
Such, according to Tacitus, was the supreme God of the Germans. The ancient Icelandic mythology calls him “the Author of everything that existeth; the eternal, the ancient, the living and awful Being, the searcher into concealed things, the Being that never changeth.”
I have not found the Icelandic text stating this and De Vere does not mention Odin either.
Continuing with Pike then.
The two most famous divisions of the Heavens, by seven, which is that of the planets, and by twelve, which is that of the signs, are found on the religious monuments of all the people of the ancient world. The twelve Great Gods of Egypt are met with everywhere. They were adopted by the Greeks and Romans; and the latter assigned one of them to each sign of the Zodiac. Their images were seen at Athens, where an altar was erected to each; and they were painted on the porticos. The People of the North had their twelve Azes, or Senate of twelve great gods, of whom Odin was chief. The Japanese had the same number, and like the Egyptians divided them into classes, seven, who were the most ancient, and five, afterward added: both of which numbers are well known and consecrated in Masonry
For these Asiatic symbols of the contest of the Sun-God with the Dragon of darkness and Winter were imported not only into the Zodiac, but into the more homely circle of European legend; and both Thor and Odin fight with dragons, as Apollo did with Python, the great scaly snake, Achilles with the Scamander, and Bellerophon with the Chimæra.
Again I am in doubt about Pike’s sources, but even more so about what this has to do with Freemasonry.
The Hindus called the Sun SURYA; the Persians, MITHRAS; the Egyptians, OSIRIS; the Assyrians and Chaldæans, BEL; the Scythians and Etruscans and the ancient Pelasgi, ARKALEUS or HERCULES; the Phœnicians, ADONAI or ADON; and the Scandinavians, ODIN.
Quite a statement! Of course Odin with his one eye and high seat from which he can see the whole world could be seen as a reference to the sun, but he also frequently inquires about the origins of the sun. Moreover, I doubt comparitive mythologists nowadays would equate all the mentioned names with the sun.
ODIN is said to have borne twelve names among the old Germans, and to have had 114 names besides. He was the Apollo of the Scandinavians, and is represented in the Voluspa as destined to slay the monstrous snake. Then the Sun will be extinguished, the earth be dissolved in the ocean, the stars lose their brightness, and all Nature be destroyed in order that it may be renewed again. From the bosom of the waters a new world will emerge clad in verdure; harvests will be seen to ripen where no seed was sown, and evil will disappear.
Actually it is Thor who slays the Midgard serpent during Ragnarok. Odin fights the Fenrir wolf after it ate the sun. That pretty much kills Pike’s argument of this paragraph.
For ever, in all the nations, ascending to the remotest antiquity to which the light of History or the glimmerings of tradition reach, we find, seated above all the gods which represent the luminaries and the elements, and those which personify the innate Powers of universal nature, a still higher Deity, silent, undefined, incomprehensible, the Supreme, one God, from Whom all the rest flow or emanate, or by Him are created. Above the Time-God Horus, the Moon-Goddess or Earth-Goddess Isis, and the Sun-God Osiris, of the Egyptians, was Amun, the Nature-God; and above him, again, the Infinite, Incomprehensible Deity, ATHOM. BREHM, the silent, self-contemplative, one original God, was the Source, to the Hindus, of Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva. Above Zeus, or before him, were Kronos and Ouranos. Over the Alohayim was the great Nature-God AL, and still beyond him, Abstract Existence, IHUH–He that IS, WAS, and SHALL BE. Above all the Persian Deities was the Unlimited Time, ZERUANE-AKHERENE; and over Odin and Thor was the Great Scandinavian Deity ALFADIR.
But Odin is the “Allfather”…
The Gothic Mysteries were carried Northward from the East, by Odin; who, being a great warrior, modelled and varied them to suit his purposes and the genius of his people. He placed over their celebration twelve Hierophants, who were alike Priests, Counsellors of State, and Judges from whose decision there was no appeal.
He held the numbers three and nine in peculiar veneration, and was probably himself the Indian Buddha. Every thrice-three months, thrice-three victims were sacrificed to the tri-une God.
The Goths had three great festivals; the most magnificent of which commenced at the winter solstice, and was celebrated in honor of Thor, the Prince of the Power of the Air. That being the longest night in the year, and the one after which the Sun comes Northward, it was commemorative of the Creation; and they termed it mother-night, as the one in which the creation of the world and light from the primitive darkness took place. This was the Yule, Juul, or Yeol feast, which afterward became Christmas. At this feast the initiations were celebrated. Thor was the Sun, the Egyptian Osiris and Kneph, the Phœnician Bel or Baal. The initiations were had in huge intricate caverns, terminating, as all the Mithriac caverns did, in a spacious vault, where the candidate was brought to light
The first paragraph is obviously found in the Heimskringla which has an euhemeristic version of Northern myths. The statement of Odin being the Buddha does not come from the Heimskringla, but it seems that long before Pike some people already drew that conclusion.
The general features of the initiations among the Goths were the same as in all the Mysteries. A long probation, of fasting and mortification, circular processions, representing the march of the celestial bodies, many fearful tests and trials, a descent into the infernal regions, the killing of the God Balder by the Evil Principle, Lok, the placing of his body in a boat and sending it abroad upon the waters; and, in short, the Eastern Legend, under different names, and with some variations.
The Egyptian Anubis appeared there, as the dog guarding the gates of death. The candidate was immured in the representation of a tomb; and when released, goes in search of the body of Balder, and finds him, at length, restored to life, and seated upon a throne. He was obligated upon a naked sword (as is still the custom in the Rit Moderne), and sealed his obligation by drinking mead out of a human skull.
Then all the ancient primitive truths were made known to him, so far as they had survived the assaults of time: and he was informed as to the generation of the Gods, the creation of the world, the deluge, and the resurrection, of which that of Balder was a type.
He was marked with the sign of the cross, and a ring was given to him as a symbol of the Divine Protection; and also as an emblem of Perfection; from which comes the custom of giving a ring to the Aspirant in the 14th Degree.
The point within a Circle, and the Cube, emblem of Odin, were explained to him; and lastly, the nature of the Supreme God, “the author of everything that existeth, the Eternal, the Ancient, the Living and Awful Being, the Searcher into concealed things, the Being that never changeth;” with whom Odin the Conqueror was by the vulgar confounded: and the Triune God of the Indians was reproduced, as ODIN, the Almighty FATHER, FREA, (Rhea or Phre), his wife (emblem of universal matter), and Thor his son (the Mediator). Here we recognize Osiris, Isis, and Hor or Horus. Around the head of Thor, as if to show his eastern origin, twelve stars were arranged in a circle.
He was also taught the ultimate destruction of the world, and the rising of a new one, in which the brave and virtuous shall enjoy everlasting happiness and delight: as the means of securing which happy fortune, he was taught to practise the strictest morality and virtue.
In this lengthy quote, Pike makes quite a few blunt statements. He seems to make references to initiatic rituals that I have not encountered in such detail, so I am very curious about his sources. The mark “with the sign of the cross” is unlikely. Also the details in the last line are largely new to me, but here we finally find a reference to Masonic Rite: “from which comes the custom of giving a ring to the Aspirant in the 14th Degree” (emphasis mine).
For our current investigation it is interesting that Pike here says that there is a link between Norse myth and Masonic Rite. The reference to the “Balder type” is also interesting. Lateron we will see a Masonic connection there as well. Balder returns in the quotes below.
The Scythians lamented the death of Acmon, the Persians that of Zohak conquered by Pheridoun, the Hindus that of Soura-Parama slain by Soupra-Muni, as the Scandinavians did that of Balder, torn to pieces by the blind Hother.
The belief was general, that He was to be born of a Virgin, and suffer a painful death. The Indians called him Chrishna; the Chinese, Kioun-tse; the Persians, Sosiosch; the Chaldeans, Dhouvanai; the Egyptians, Har-Oeri; Plato, Love; and the Scandinavians, Balder.
The pavement, alternately black and white, symbolizes, whether so intended or not, the Good and Evil Principles of the Egyptian and Persian creed. It is the warfare of Michael and Satan, of the Gods and Titans, of Balder and Lok; between light and shadow, which is darkness; Day and Night; Freedom and Despotism; Religious Liberty and the Arbitrary Dogmas of a Church that thinks for its votaries, and whose Pontiff claims to be infallible, and the decretals of its Councils to constitute a gospel.
Here we have an uncommon link between Balder and Masonic myth, while the more obvious seems to have eluded Pike. The next author I am going to quote for you, did see that link.
As you may see, Pike is pretty inaccurate and jumps conclusions. Yet it is nice to see how a 19th century Freemason interpreted the Germanic past. Inspite of a few references to the symbols and Rites of Freemasonry, Pike’s book does not really say if these interests had any influence on these symbols and Rites, safe one hint and this:
[…] a system which opened a pathway for the introduction of Christianity, but rendered the complete extirpation of heathenism impossible. To these circumstances, no doubt, can be attributed the perpetuation of Pagan formularies used in the Gothic courts, and the continuation of mythological rites and ceremonies in mediaeval guilds, which conjointly furnished to Freemasonry the skeleton of Norse customs, upon which Judaistic ritualism was strung.
George F. Fort (1809-1872)
Stephen Flowers wrote a little booklet called Freemasonry and the Germanic Tradition. He describes how he thought heathen elements would be found in Freemasonry so he joined a lodge. He soon left disappointed though.
In his book Flowers frequently refers to Fort, a work which has as full title Early History and Antiquities of Freemasonry, as connected with ancient Norse guilds, and the oriental and Medieval building fraternities. Now we are talking! The book was published in 1884 and has a modest size in comparison to the previously mentioned titles, but 500 pages is not bad.
Chapter I is about Rome. Chapter II about Italian guilds. Chapter III about Charlemagne. Chapter IV about monasteries and architecture in the 10th century. Chapter V moves forward to the Middle Ages. Chapter VI speaks of Guilds and VII about stonemasons. Wait a minute! Where are them Norsemen? As the book is chronological, we only get closer to out own age. Fortunately Fort soon exchanges history for a more subject-centered approach, so we have another chance. Still there is not too much about our subject. Let me again fire some quotes at you.
Although the ancient Germans appear to have been ignorant of the secrets of letters for practical purposes, they were thoroughly conversant with them for magical uses. In this respect, the same virtues were accredited by the Norsemen to runes as were ascribed by Eastern people to their combinations of letters.
The Grimms, with wonderful accuracy and with conclusive arguments, have traced the original Runic characters to a remote Asiatic source. The name itself involved the notion of mysticism, and the famous mandragora, or rather the demon conjured out of it, is accurately expressed in old German by alraun. It is possible that this word is the root of the runes. Talismanic potency is inherent in alraun, which is applied in the sense of a good or evil substance.
It would seem that the irresistible powers of the name, Jehovah of the Jews, or the sacred and ineffable word of the other Semitic races, were so deeply impressed upon those nationalities that the talismanic and magical influence of alphabetic collocation became a radical part of their religious culture. Therefore, in this sense, the Mosaic word, as an emanation of deity, may be regarded as the historical prototype of Odinic runes. A specific supernatural power was supposed to be inherent in Runic characters, and consequently they were used for a diversity of purposes by the ancient Germans.
The Norse sodalities were evidently deeply interested in incantations and soothsaying. A Scandinavian sorceress went from guild to guild telling fortunes and performing magic for the benefit of guildic members. Such conceptions of talismanic influence inherent in the runes, existing among the Germanic fraternities, afforded a ready admission to Judaic or Gnostic notions, touching the mystical power of combined letters contributed by Byzantine building corporations to the early mediaeval associations, at a time when Teutonic legislation struggled to suppress magic rites, and welcomed Eastern artificers.
Fort certainly sees something in the runes, but does not say why… He does have some better comparisons in store though.
On page 286, Fort says that the three symbolic columns are fashioned after the three pillars from the temple of Uppsala. He also adds:
Next the symbolism of a Master’s gavel, perhaps, no lodge appliance is so plainly derived from a Northern source as these columns, severally designated as Wisdom, Strength and Beauty.
The word Odin, according to Grimm, signifies the wise or wisdom, and in this view Thorpe, the learned philologist, entirely concurs. The latter traces the derivation to the Brahmin god Budha, which also means the wise. Consequently, the pillar consecrated to Odin became the column of Wisdom.
So far as relates to Thor, one of the three deities mentioned, we have elaborated at length that he was the type of power, and the column to him stands as the column of Strength.
The derivation of Frey is equally satisfactory. Grimm traces this word through the ancient Teutonic dialects, and explains it to signify plenty and beauty.
Fort certainly sees a direct link here. The chapter continues with other similarities, such as the “Three Emblematic Lights”, the orientation of the lodge and the stars on the ceiling.
Here is another nice comparison that is less symbolic:
The custom of toasting the memory of departed members of the Masonic fraternity on festal occasions has come down from this semi-religious observance of the ancient Germans. At the feasts of the Northern people, a garland of flowers, with a rose prominently in the centre, was suspended from the ceiling above the table, as a symbol that everything which might be done or spoken by the participants in the banquet should be held strictly secret. This is the origin of the phrase “sub-rosa.” In the Gothic code the rose was an emblem of secrecy, and was thus considered by the mediaeval operative Masons. Among the Masonic symbols displayed on the chiselled walls and in the delicate tracery of European cathedrals, the sculptured rose frequently appears.
I do not believe I have heard that the ancient Germans toasted with a rose on the table, but the reference to eating and toasting is clear enough.
Fort’s book does not contain as much ‘Northern information’ as the title suggests, but besides the quote above, he speaks about Thor’s hammer, the comparison of the Hiram myth with that of Baldr (or “Baldur” in this book) (this is the link that I missed in Pike). To give a last quote from Fort:
The instrument which slew the Tyrian artificer [Hiram] was a mallet or setting maul. In addition to the typical powers with which it is invested in the Master’s hand, it is also, in a lodge ritual, a symbol of death and associated with funereal furniture. It has become emblematic of Hiram’s death. When the Scandinavian gods had borne the body of the assassinated Baldur to the funeral pyre on board his ship, lying beside the sea-shore, Thor arose and consecrated the burial pile with his hammer, the potent Miölner. […] The symbols, therefore, in both the Hiramic and Baldur traditions, are of an exact significance. As the weapon which ended the life of the master builder, the maul typifies death.
This is all 19th century material. It is the time in which new Rites and high grades were developped, but besides authors noting similarities, the quotes are perhaps interesting, but do not really answer my initial question. Let us have a look at an encyclopedic author somewhat closer to our own age:
Arthur Edward Waite (1857-1942).
His A New Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry was first published in 1921 and has been in print since. It has the size of Macoy’s book (some 900 pages). Waite certainly had interests outside Freemasonry, since he joined other esoterics organisations. Would Waite have more insight in our subject?
He has a short text about “Druidic mysteries”, but concludes “[t]hat there is no analogy with Emblematic Freemasonry” (p. 201). This seems all Waite has to say about Northern Europe. Too bad.
More than a few of the more exotic high degrees have been developped in Germany. In the period most of the above authors lived, Germany had a lively occult scene. It was the time of the Gold- und Rosenkreuzer (founded 1750) (which produced the magnificent Secret Symbols of the Rosicrucians), the Strikte Observanz and the Klerikales System.
I have consulted a few works such as the Allgemeines Handbuch der Freimaurerei (1863, ‘general handbook of Freemasonry’) by C. Lenning, Ursprung und Entwicklung der Freimaurerei (1923, ‘Origin and development of Freemasonry’) by A. Wolfstieg and Die Freimaurer (1934, ‘The Freemasons’) by E. Lennhoff, but without success.
Not too long ago I bought the impressive Die Erleuchteten (1973, ‘The Enlightened’) by K. Frick (just because it was very cheap) which deals extensively with the exotic outshoots of Freemasonry. Again, no success.
There must surely have been some Germans influenced by the Romantic Period living in this period? It is said that the colourfull Theodor Reuß (1855-1923) inspired Richard Wagner (1813–1883) to write his famous pagan operas such as Parsival and the Ring der Nibelungen. Reuß himself has been involved in the Theosophical Society, the order of the Illuminati of Adam Weishaupt (1748-1813), regular Freemasonry (initiated 1876, but his politics made him leave the lodge in 1881), founded some irregular Masonic orders and High Grade Systems himself, was involved in the Societas Rosicrucia in Anglia (also expelled), irregular Freemasonry such as Cerneau Scottish Rite and the Rite Memphis-Misraim. That is not all, he was also involved in the founding of the German branch of the Ordo Templi Orientis. None of this, save one, is of interest to our current story. The exeption will come back at the end of this essay.
Germany has produced a famous and controversial Freemason (though shortlived) and heathen, Guido von List (1848-1919). Von List is mostly known for his Armanen-Runen, his own version of the ancient Northern-European futhark, and his wild esoteric speculations surrounding them. Von List has been a Freemason for a few years after 1874. He resigned when he noticed the growing influence of Judaism in the order. He does touch upon the subject in his later works though. In Die Armanenschaft der Ario-Germanen, for example, he says (p. 65 my translation):
And there are two main offshoots of the degenerate Armanen-dom, and these are the Bauhütte and the ancient traditions of the orders of knights […]
From the Bauhütten the Freemasons came forth, while from the knightly orders the Rosicrucians derive their origin.
Nothing really new. A more original, but still little-saying similar remark I ran into in Charles Leadbeater’s Glimpses of Masonic History (1926) in which the author says that “the Culdees of Ireland, Scotland and York” preserved the prechristian tradition and passed it on to Freemasonry, more specifically “the Royal Order of Scotland and the 18º”. These monastic orders (“Culdees”) “of York blended Christian mysticism with these pre-Christian rites, and so linked to them with modern Freemasonry.” Thus it was possible for Druid mysteries and those of “Scandinavia, wherein the death and ressurection of Balder was the chief theme” can be found in the rites of Freemasonry.
So what about Scandinavia itself? The largest part of Sweden has a strictly Christian approach, but besides the mixed order of Le Droit Humain they also seem to a group offering the Scottish High Degrees and Memphis-Misraim. Norway apparently has the occultic ‘Strict Observance’ and the “Rectified Rite”. Of Finland and Iceland I cannot find all that much information.
And so I come to the author who inspired me to dig a little deeper. I have recently read the three books of Angel Millar. His general Freemasonry, a history is mostly about the USA. His Crescent and the Compass has one line which more or less sums up the conclusion of my own investigations:
Despite the serious interest in the world’s religions and esoteric traditions and their mysteries, the above mentioned theories of Masonic origins share one thing in common: their proponents have rarely, if ever, made a proper study of the early Masonic documents, exposés, fragment of rituals, etc., and of the development of the Masonic Ritual and its symbolism. Instead, advocates nearly always rely on superficial similarities in symbolism and elements of mythology. Hence, the three pillars represented in the Masonic Lodge have been regarded as deriving from sourses as divergent as the Jewish Cabalistic Tree of Life […] and the pre-Christian Norse temple, devoted to the deities Odin, Thor and Frey.
In his book Freemasonry, foundation of the Western Esoteric Tradition Millar found as much as I did myself in my little investigation. These finding do make a nice end to this story though.
However, Germanic mythology made relatively little impact on Freemasonry itself, undoubtely largely because Degrees were no longer being manufactured as they were during the preceding century
by the time interest in the Germanic past that is. Yet, Millar found a Degree called “Knight of Scandinavia” which supposedly is a “philosophical degree” within “the Ancient and Primitive Rite of Freemasonry”. That is to say, some of it…
As I understand it, Millar’s “Ancient and Primitive Rite” is another name for the current “Rite of Memphis-Misraim”. This on its turn, is a 1881 merge of the Rites of Misraïm (reaching back to the notorious Count Cagliostro (1743-1795)) and the Rite of Memphis (1838) of which the earlier mentioned adventurous Reuß has been head. You will not be surprised when I say that this is an irregular Rite. Do note that there are different versions of the Rite of Memphis-Misraim as well.
Wikipedia has 32 degrees for this rite, not including the Knight of Scandinavia. This website lists 99 degrees, the 34th of which is the degree we are looking for.
The degree (the text of which can of course be found online) looks interesting. It is fashioned after the story of King Gylfi (Gangleri) from the Prose Edda. The candidate (“Pilgrim”) approaches three “hierophants”, “The High”, “The Equal” and “The Very High” and a similar Q&A as in the Edda unfolds. Towards te end the heathen varnish is gone, but the Rite makes a nice read.
I have not been able to find out when this degree was written and by whom (the ‘exposé’ website that published it, says late 19th century in America, that would mean, after the fusion), but this is the only heathen influence on Freemasonry (though irregular) that I have been able to find. The inspiration seems to have come from Macoy’s and Pike’s books with their heathen initation rituals.
A nice walk through the vast landscape called Freemasonry, but without any groundbreaking discoveries.