AN ESOTERIC VIEW OF THE ROSE-CROIX DEGREE
“Know thyself” is a symbolic aspect of Freemasonry that in the Scottish Rite Initiation ceremony (in the First Degree) is announced already in the candidate’s first contact with our Order, in the Chamber of Reflection, where he finds inscriptions such as Know Thyself and, most important, V.I.T.R.I.O.L. (which in Latin means: “Visit the interior of the earth and rectifying will find the hidden stone”). The stone that the neophyte is invited to find is, without doubt, his own pure soul.
Purifying his spirit (rectifying, as in rectified alcohol, or correcting by removing errors), the Mason will find the symbolic stone, that is, the moral perfection he seeks.
Although these and other intimations are introduced in the first three degrees of Freemasonry, they are tangential to the introspective nature of Masonic work, especially evident in the Hiramic legend, but without exploring more deeply the esoteric aspects of inner development. It is only when the Mason reaches the 18th degree of the Scottish Rite, the mystical degree par excellence, that he faces inescapably the mystic experience and is induced to apply this experience to his own spiritual development.
The preceding degrees, until the 14th inclusive, deal with various aspects of the Hiramic legend, examining aspects such as duty, faithfulness, the knowledge and virtues that characterize a Mason.
A leitmotiv throughout these degrees is the lost word, which is finally recovered at some point during the 18th degree.
The first two of the “Chapter” degrees, which serve as a transition between the Lodge of Perfection and the Rose-Croix Chapter, deal with the Second Temple of Jerusalem, built by the Jews returning from the Babylonian captivity, and who brought with them a rich cultural baggage (including the names of the months in Hebrew) and also certain features of oriental mysticism, such as the belief in the after-life, which did not exist earlier in Hebrew traditions.
The third capitular degree, that of Knights of the East and the West, marks a turning point in its content, no longer referring to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, ravaged by the Roman legions, but to the celestial Jerusalem, linking heaven and earth.
As Naudon remarks in his commentary on the higher degrees, there can be little doubt that this degree was designed to create a preamble to the Rose-Croix degree and was introduced after it.
The 17th degree has some interesting characteristics, such as the use of black gloves, as in the “elu” or “vengeance” degrees. Black, as we know, represents the nigredo, the first stage of the alchemical work.
Let us now examine the 18th degree itself. It is not my intention to describe the ritual or the “secrets” of this degree. All this has been frequently published and the interested reader can easily find this information in one of the books in the bibliography at the end of this paper. What we would like to do is to show that the Christian aspects of the ceremony, and there are many, can and must be understood in their symbolic meaning, as esoteric language.
Any literal interpretation would lead to absurd conclusions. To give an example, a literal interpretation of the Third-degree legend would produce the grotesque image of a rotten corpse somehow rising from its grave and becoming incarnate in the candidate.
Furthermore, at least for this writer, a literal interpretation of the 18th degree ritual would be close to sacrilege. A simulacrum of one of the key events in Holy Scripture is in danger of becoming a parody.
Only if we understand the ritual as allegorical can we avoid this danger.
In truth, all Masonic rituals are based on allegory which, according to one dictionary is a fiction that presents an object to the mind, so as to evoke the thought of another object (Larousse). Notice the word fiction.
Albert Pike, the great reformer of Scottish Rite rituals, refers to this problem in his explanations to the candidate before the ceremony of elevation to the 18th degree: “all the emblems, forms and ceremonies of Masonry are symbolical of great primitive truths, which each one is at liberty to interpret in accordance with his own faith” (Magnum Opus, XVIII.5).
Taking into account these considerations, the study of the 18th degree, or any other Masonic degree, must start from the premise that we must approach the text as allegory, as representing something else.
This is not the place to enter into a discussion on the fine distinction between allegory and symbol. The two are intimately related but, as clearly demonstrated by Alleau, allegory is a rhetorical process, related to language and interpretation, i.e. reason, while the symbol leads directly from the significant and the signification to the Signifier.
According to the exegete Origenes, sacred texts must be studied on three levels: the literal texts, the soul of the text and the spirit of the text (Alleau, p. 120). Not by chance the cover of his book is illustrated by a seven-petal rose, taken from the Summum Bonum of Robert Fludd, a defense of the Rosicrucian fraternity.
A similar attitude must be adopted when analyzing Masonic rituals. They must be studied ont three levels: literal, symbolic and esoteric.
The school of thought that maintains that the Rose-Croix ritual must be understood as a Masonic version of the Passion of Christ finds support in the many obvious parallels between elements of the ceremony and passages of the Gospels, such as the darkness enveloping the earth, the number 33, the mystical supper, and others that it is unnecessary to detail.
Then, we must consider the three theological virtues: Faith, Hope and Charity (which also appear on the Tracing Board of the First Degree), the extinction of the lights and other particulars.
Some reflection, however, will make it clear that each of these points in the 18th decree ceremony admits other explanations, of a symbolic and esoteric nature.
The broken tools, for instance, and the darkness of the chamber in the first part of the ceremony, do they not represent the confusion and impotence of man, wandering through a world full of evil, insecure about his way, looking for an exit to light? Is this not a frequent human experience? Is this not a lesson that the candidate should learn, that appealing to his own inner spiritual resources, it is possible to move from darkness to light?
Tearing one’s clothes is a well-known signal of bereavement. To this day, Jews make a symbolic tear of their garment as part of the burial ceremony for a relative. The renting of the Temple’s veil is akin to this category of ideas. It is not necessarily identified with the crucifixion, but it represents the sorrow that every man should feel when witnessing the triumph of the forces of evil.
Another impressive image is the cubic stone distilling blood and water. This is an alchemical symbol. The red blood and the white water are two alchemical elements, representing sulfur and mercury, respectively. This appears explicitly in an illustration of an alchemical manuscript of the 18th century (reproduced on plate 18 of the book Alchemy by Klossowsky de Rola). The knight, in that illustration, wields a sword and is dressed in the alchemical colors. He holds a shield with a motto meaning “make one water from two, etc.”
Bayard (pp. 103-120) has made a detailed analysis of each of the elements of the ritual of our degree, explaining its historical development and its allegorical and spiritual meanings. The reader can refer to Bayard’s book, since within the framework of this paper we cannot examine too many of the symbols involved.
Let us examine now one of the most conspicuous symbols of the Rosicrucian degree, the four letters I.N.R.I.
First, a remarkable parallel links this acronym with the ineffable name of the Deity in the Bible, the Tetragammaton. Both are composed of four letters, one of which is repeated. In Hebrew, the letters are Yod-Heh-Vav-Heh.
Of course, the first reaction of a reader with an elementary acquaintance with the Bible is to give a Christian interpretation to the acronym: Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudeorum, the inscription on the cross.
However, an examination of various rituals of the 18th degree in different places and times, reveals a wide range of Masonic interpretations, such as:
(Nature is completely renewed by fire)
(Fire completely renews nature)
(By regeneration, nature maintains the integrity of fire)
(Jehovah (or Jesus) reigns among noble men)
(Ascending Jesus renews the branch)
(Dew meets niter and fire)
(Reason illuminates the nature’s symbols)
(Among us reigns goodness)
(The Kingdom of God is within us)
(It is just to kill impious kings)
(Justice now reigns empires)
(In death one is reborn intact and pure)
Still another explanation is given by Albert Pike in his Magnum Opus: the four letters are initials of the words Infinity, Nature, Reason and Immortality.
As if all this were not sufficient, the acronym has also been attributed to four Hebrew words: Iam, Nur, Ruakh and Ieveshah, which represent the four elements: water, fire, air and earth. This requires some latitude in the interpretations, because Iam actually means sea, and only by synecdoche can it be taken to represent water.
The existence of so many and diverse explanations, formulated by different Masonic writers in the course of time, demonstrates that the literal or Biblical explanation is certainly insufficient and probably erroneous within the Masonic context.
We should examine, even superficially, the central symbolism of the degree: the cross and the rose. Sometimes, the cross is represented with four roses at the extremities of the two posts, but more often the cross is at the center, at the intersection of the vertical and horizontal lines.
The cross, as been frequently noted, did not become a Christian symbol until the 6th century. It has a long history before that, in many civilizations, from India to Egypt. Among the ancient Egyptians, the cross crowned by a ring, the ankh, represented both life and death. Sahir Erman remarks that the horizontal line of the cross also represents death, while the vertical one symbolizes life.
Its main symbolism appears to be the conjunction of two worlds, human and celestial. In general, the cross represents the integration of opposites, vertical and horizontal, spiritual and material, feminine and masculine, yin and yang.
Jos? Catellani mentions that in the Indian city of Benares, in the ruins of an old temple can be found a cross with a mystic rose in the center, inscribed within an equilateral triangle. This, as Castellani himself underlines, does not prove the existence of Masons or Rosicrucians thousands of years ago, but rather that the symbolic use of these images dates from ancient times.
The cross, like the triangle and the circle, is one of the primary symbols of our consciousness. No complete explanation of their meaning can be given, because they are embedded in the deepest levels of our mind.
The rose, on its part, is a symbol of perfection and mystery. Erman points out that the rose is also a symbol of love, in Latin “Amor”, which can be interpreted as “A-Mor”, that is, the negation of death. The rose embracing the cross thus represents immortality, and the way to achieve it, which is love.
The rose is also an important alchemical symbol. The number of petals is meaningful as well as their color, which may be red, white or black, the three principal alchemical colors.
As mentioned above, Albert Pike stated clearly the principles of Freemasonry as an universal philosophy, allowing the faithful of various religions to sit together and work in harmony for the progress of Humanity as a whole.
Pike summarized the teachings of this degree in these words: “The unity, immutability and goodness of God ; the immortality of the Soul ; and the ultimate defeat and extinction of evil and wrong and sorrow, by a Redeemer or Messiah, yet to come, if he has not already appeared... It replaces the three pillars of the old Temple, with three that have been already explained to you - Faith [in God, mankind and man’s self]; Hope [in the victory over evil, the advancement of Humanity, and in a hereafter] and Charity [relieving the wants, and tolerant of the errors and faults of others]. To be trustful, to be hopeful, to be indulgent; these, in an age of selfishness, of ill opinion of human nature, of harsh and bitter judgment, are the most important Masonic Virtues, and the true supports of every Masonic Temple. And they are the old pillars of the Temple under different names. For he only is wise who judges others charitably; he only is strong who is hopeful; and there is no beauty like a firm faith in God, our fellows and ourselves” (XVIII.19).
This is a moving and correct statement of the fundamental tenets of Freemasonry, not only the 18th degree. The “old pillars” to which Pike refers are Strength, Beauty and Wisdom (or Love), which in the Lodge are represented by the three principal officers. Pike carefully chooses his words so as to make them acceptable to believers of all faiths.
And yet, Pike’s statement does not go far enough. It does not explain the question, why wrap these principles in the alchemical clothing of the Rosicrucians. What is the relation between Freemasonry and the Rose-Croix Fraternity?
The first mention we have, connecting Freemasonry with Rosicrucianism dates from 1638, only 24 years after the publication of the first Rosicrucian manifesto, the Fama Fraternitatis in 1614. This mention appears in Henry Adamson’s Muses Threnodie, an account in verse of Perth, published in Edinburgh, and it also contains the first written reference to the Mason Word:
For what we do presage is not in grosse,The fact that a connection is made between Freemasonry and Rose-Croix at such an early stage is most significant. Furthermore, a ‘divertisement’ published in Poor Robin’s Intelligence for 10 October 1676 mentions both “the Ancient Brother-hood of the Rosy-Cross” and the “Company of accepted Masons” as dining together.
More important still, in a letter of ‘A.Z.’ printed in the Daily Journal of 5 September 1730, the writer states:
there is a Society abroad, from whom the English Free Masons... have copied a few Ceremonies, and take great Pains to persuade the World that they are derived from them, and are the same with them. They are called Rosicrucians... On this Society have our Moderns, as we have said, endeavored to ingraft themselves, tho’ they know nothing of their more material Constitutions, and are acquainted only with some of their Signs of Probation and Entrance... (Knoop, Jones and Hamer, p. 27).
Although Knoop, Jones & Hamer dispute the suggestion that the English Freemasons would attempt to trace their origins from the Rosicrucians, these references prove that from its very beginnings, Freemasonry included a spiritual and esoteric component, very different from its labor or operative aspects.
It is beyond the scope of this paper to examine the history, ideology and symbolism of the Rosicrucian Fraternity. Numerous, better qualified researchers, have already done so. We recommend particularly the books of McIntosh and Yates (see the Bibliography at the end).
What is interesting is the question, why our brethren of the 18th century included this degree in the Scottish Rite system (and before that, in its antecedent Rites).
Perhaps the best explanation is that proposed by Colin Wilson in his preface to the book on Rosicrucians by Christopher McIntosh:
“This [human desire to turn inward to a world of truth that he feels resides in his own depths], I believe, explains why Rosicrucianism has continued to exert its grip on the Western mind. It is not because we are hopelessly gullible, or because we would like to believe in absurd fantasies. In a legend like that of Christian Rosenkreuz , we seem to catch a glimpse of what we ought to be, and what we could be”.
The same Christopher, explaining to Wilson how he came to write his book, relates that “When I began... I intended to examine Rosicrucianism simply as a rather curious historical phenomenon without really expecting to find that it contained a teaching of any real depth or coherence. Since then not only has my attitude changed - I have become much more pro-occult - but also found during my researches that Rosicrucianism goes deeper than I had realized, and does contain something valuable and coherent. So you could say that this book has been an important experience in my life. It has taught be that sooner or later anyone studying these subjects from an academic point of view has to make the decision whether they are going to take a personal stance for or against.”
In other words, the rich symbolic contents of this degree, the manner in which it penetrates to the roots of our spiritual being, bestows a unique opportunity to the Mason, making him face questions that he generally ignores in daily life. The problems of his own nature, of the possible transformation that he himself must undergo, the transmutation from coarse matter to luminous essence.
In the 18th degree, the Mason faces a potent symbolism. If he has received a Christian education, he will be moved by the emotional impact of the apparent parallelism between the Masonic ceremony and his religious beliefs. Even if his religious background is different, he cannot remain apathetic to the sharp contrasts between the various parts of the ceremony, the transition from darkness to light, from sorrow to hope to joy; from the deepest despond to the merry conviviality of the shared repast.
The message conveyed by the symbolism of this degree has multiple levels and constitutes a challenge to the candidate’s imagination. It stirs him and drives him to explore the inner processes illustrated by the circumstances described in the liturgy of the degree. Revealing in this connection is the commentary of McIntosh, searching for an explanation of the fact that the first edition of the Fama Fraternitatis included in the same volume another work entitled Allgemeine und General Reformation der gantzen weiten Welt (The Universal and General Reformation of the Whole Wide World - an extract from the Italian author Trajano Boccalini’s allegorical satire, Ragguali di Parnasso (News from Parnassus), McIntosh writes:
“Andreae may have reasoned that by issuing the Fama with the General Reformation he could make the point that an inner reformation within men’s minds and hearts must precede any external reformation and that the account given in the Fama had to be seen in this light” (p.49).
In other words, from their beginning, the author or authors of the Rosicrucian manifestos made clear that the first step for the reformation of the world must necessarily be the reformation of the spirit, and this is precisely the premise of the 18th degree of Freemasonry, properly understood.
This invitation to introspection and meditation appears specifically prescribed in some rituals of the 18th degree used even today (e.g. in Mexico and Spain).
Even if the ritual book for the ceremony does not explicitly call for a period of meditation, serious reflection on the esoterism of the degree will lead the Rose-Croix Knight to the road of spiritual exercise, inciting him to concentrate his thoughts and his will in order to discover and make conscious the light burning within himself, identifying with it until achieving the mystic experience.
The Scottish Rite, by offering the Rose-Croix degree to its members, is only opening a door. Not everybody will profit from the opportunity to go through it and delve into this field of study. What matters is that the opportunity exists. This, after all, is the Masonic method and the philosophy of our Orden in all its structures: we put the tools in the hands of the brother and let him labor according to his capacity and development. Without compulsion, without prize, except for the progress to a further degree, which will present new challenges.
To restrict the explanation of the 18th degree to a paraphrase of the Passion of Jesus is not only simplistic, and perhaps irreverent, but ignores the complex symbolism contained in the degree and the purpose of its inclusion in the ladder of spiritual ascent configured by the degrees of the Scottish Rite. A better understanding of its esoteric dimensions will enrich the brother as an individual and the Order as a whole.
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Bayard, Jean Pierre: Le symbolisme ma?onique des Hauts Grades, Editions Du Prisme, Paris 1975.
Bonvicini, Eugenio: La Storia dei Rosa+Croce e della loro Incidenza sulla Massoneria.
Castellani, Jose: A Orden Rosacruz e a Ma?onaria, A Ma?onaria no Estado de Sao Paulo.
Cirlot, J.L., Dictionary of Symbols, Dorset Press, NY 1991.
Erman, Sahir: Comentaires des Hauts Grades du R\E\A\A\, Supreme Council for Turkey, Istanbul 1990.
Garg?a Pelayo y Gross, Ram?n, Peque?o Larousse en color, Paris 1972.
Klein, Ernest: A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language for Readers of English, Carta, Jerusalem 1987.
Klossowski de Rola, Stanislas: Alchemy, Thames & Hudson, London 1973.
Knoop, Jones and Hamer: Early Masonic Pamphlets, QCCC, London 1978.
McIntosh, Christopher: The Rosicrucians, Crucible, UK 1980 (1987).
Naudon, Paul: Histoire, Rituels et Tuilleur des Hauts Grades Ma?oniques, Dervy-Livres, Paris 1984.
Peterson, Norman D.: “Mottos & Foreign Quotations in the Scottish Rite”, The Plumbline, Vol. 3, N÷2, June 1994.
Pike, Albert: The Magnum Opus or Great Work, 1857 (reprint by Kessinger, Kila, MT, USA 1992).
Yates, Frances, A., The Rosicrucian Enlightenment, Paladin, 1975.