The world's best-known secret society
The Freemasons by Jasper Ridley (Constable, £20)
25 November 1999
WARNING. IF you are reading this with one trouser-leg rolled up, a symbolic apron round your waist and a noose round your neck, then stop. Reading, that is. Freemasons are not noted for their sense of humour or, to judge by the dagger pressed to their bare breasts during the initiation ceremony, their good sense.
The most sensible Mason I have met was a now long-dead relative who one evening asked his wife for clean underwear and set off to be initiated into the local Lodge. He never uttered a word about what had taken place; but he came home with flaming cheeks (of his face) and never went back again.
Exactly what got up his nose cannot be known for sure, since the rituals are supposed to be a secret. Revealing them was until recently threatened with a penalty clause that specified the extraction of the tongue and the slitting of the throat. This means I had better not mention my favourite ritual, the "Living Arch", in which a trainee freemason crawls around the floor at a speed encouraged by a sharp object jabbed into his soft parts. This secrecy must be qualified by the fact that at least 60,000 books have been written on the forbidden subject - an awful lot of snipped tongues and sliced throats.
Make that 60,001. A couple of years ago many of the rituals were quoted at length in Who's Afraid of Freemasons?, by Alexander Piatigorsky. The book was extraordinarily delayed in its publication and bizarrely obscure in its language. My own theory is that Professor Piatigorsky's manuscript was sabotaged by members of the rolled-trouser brigade creeping into his publisher's office by night.
Make that 60,002. Here comes The Freemasons, by Jasper Ridley. Once again, our only charitable conclusion must be that the apron-wearing fraternity have tampered with the typescript. Around Ridley's intriguing historical survey are wrapped a few clumsily written pages justifying the Masonic lifestyle today. The last sentence of the book seriously compares criticism of the Freemasons with the slaughtering of six million Jews.
The other serious flaw in Ridley's edifice is the absence of rituals. Again, we have to assume that the Grand Polisher of the Sacred Trowel (I'm guessing) snipped out of his manuscript the mumbo-jumbo that was originally intended to have pride of place in it.
Otherwise, surely the author would have mentioned the Ceremony of the Opening of the Lodge in the First Degree, in which the Worshipful Master says to the Apprentice: "Kneel on your left knee, place your right foot in the form of a square, give me your right hand and I will place it on this Volume of the Sacred Law, whilst your left hand will be employed in supporting a pair of compasses, one point extended to your naked breast," adding kindly, "but not so as to hurt yourself."
Could be nasty. The origins of Freemasonry are indeed nasty - and fascinating. The Masonic myth began with poor Hiram, the Master Mason of Solomon's Temple, who was murdered for not giving away its password. The Masonic truth seems to have started with craftsmen who formed (illegal) trade unions. Ridley explains that these workers who carved the softer or "freestone" materials were a cut above the hewers of hard stone. The term "freestone masons" was shortened to "freemasons" and the lodge, or hut, where they kept their specialist tools became the sacrosanct "Lodge" where today they slip into their ritual aprons.
Originally, these craftsmen built cathedrals and in other ways made themselves useful. But by 1700 there had occurred a switch from "operative" to "admitted" masons. That is, instead of being skilled stone craftsmen, they became the forerunners of today's self-serving grocers, surveyors, politicians, police officers - and the Duke of Edinburgh.
Hundreds of thousands of males in this country meet regularly to engage in laughable rituals without laughing. They belong to a secret society based on the flimsiest of intellectual foundations. If Freemasonry were a building, it would be declared a dangerous structure suitable for demolition. On the plus side, they give to charity and are, allegedly, kind to the wives they exclude from the serious business of the Lodge. Furthermore, in 1738 Pope Clement XII issued a Papal Bull against Freemasons: so freemasonry can't be all bad.