Knights of Light Education Series
THE MASONIC AND ALCHEMICAL CONNECTION;
ROUGH AND SMOOTH ASHLARS
Most Masons in today’s day and age will rarely think about alchemy when sitting in ones own Masonic Lodge or another. However, unbeknownst to them, the two symbols are taught to them upon first entering the ever so gracious calling on becoming a Freemason. Such is the Rough and Smooth Ashlars that are situated due East and in front of the Worshipful Master.
Through the two stones we are taught that man was born of that rough and crude stone, in its most natural form when entering into this world as a child. We have no control over those forces. But what we do have control over is what we choose to do with the time we have in between this life and the next, that will truly determine if we do truly ever make it to the Smooth Ashlar. Through the symbols and ever so structured philosophies of Alchemy, Masonry teaches how we may obtain the Soul defining illumination, which is Spiritual Perfection.
The relationship between alchemy, the pre-medieval philosophy, and the ancient pursuit of transforming base metals such as lead into pure gold, and Freemasonry are much more related than most might think. Much of the symbolism used in the craft, historically and accurately reflects the theme of transmutation. For example, the phrase “ to make good men better” and the endearing journey from an Entered Apprentice to a Master builder all being a pathway to perfection and moral and spiritual excellence.
Alchemy is mentioned in certain rites from the 18th century. Such examples are said to be Count Cagliostros’s Egyptian Masonic Rite, and Melissino’s Rite, which both refer to alchemy and chemistry as a major component in the early masonic degrees. Just like its practical use, this process is said to transform substances into a higher, more perfected state. In this case, the soul of the initiate is transformed. Remember your obligations my Brothers.
In this particular situation alchemy is used as a metaphor describing the journey of the Freemason as he advances through the higher degrees, transmuting oneself to perfection through the exploration and discovery of the lost knowledge of the ancients. Symbolically, as Freemasons, we work the stone to perfect it, “ the better to fit them for the builders use” Those natural stones that originally come from the earth. Now, “ the spiritual building for that house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens is built with the stones that we are taught to perfect. An di believe such stones are our very own hearts and souls.
In Melissino’s Rite, it mentions “ chemistry is art, and wisdom is nature, and the most learned chemist cannot be even a pupil amongst us.” Those Masons today that strive for perfection in ritual as well as in life itself, are much like their ancient brethren, and the ancient alchemists seeking the lost knowledge to turn the base metals ( Heart, soul, and mind) into pure gold ( Spiritual Enlightenment) . Where as those who use the craft as their own personal way of obtaining what they desire with selfish intentions, working against the craft as opposed to working with it. To those who use the platform of Masonry to exploit authority over others, or rule with a Dictatorship like mindset, not of pure heart will fall at the wayside eventually being weeded out by the craft itself.
Some other notable points to explore are symbols such as the Ouroboros, Mercury with Caduceus and the importance of the Sun and the Moon. Not only do they remind us of the alchemical themes shared with Freemasonry, but also of the rites of the 18th century as previously mentioned. These rites and old Masonic rituals connect the distinct line between Alchemy and Freemasonry.
We shall now delve more into Freemasonry and the Alchemy, by taking a loser look at its scientific connection as well as its notable scientist. The 17th century was a time of significant political upheaval and social changes. Bitter wars raged against the British Continent for 30 years. and although the people saw hardships such as war and famine, Freemasonry grew large, closely linked to the emergence of a new generation of scientist, thinkers, and savants who became associated with the movement as it expanded.
As the century progressed, “ Acceptance Members” ( the collective term for non-operative Masons) soon became the majority in many Masonic Lodges. Scientist such as Robert Boyle, Christopher Wren, and Isaac Newton were all early members of the “ Royal Society”, which had begun life as a quasi-Masonic institution called “ The invisible College.” Their meetings were held in the Compton Room at Canonbury Tower in North London. This particular room was heavily decorated with Alchemical and Masonic carvings and paintings. Which were awe inspiring and interesting for any Brother to see. Especially those who were and are scientifically gifted like for someone such as Brother Sir Francis Bacon. Francis Bacon was not only a lawyer, or a philosopher, nor not only a scientist, but the Alchemical and Masonic carvings and paintings were commissioned by him as well as one of the Founders of the Invisible College. For those who do not know Brother Sit Francis Bacon is often described as “The Father of Modern Science.”
In it’s early days, the meetings of the Invisible College were cloaked in secrecy, as during these times ere plagued by great fear, state control, and relative tolerance. Galileo, one of the other founding members of The Invisible College, was condemned by the Catholic Church for daring to suggest that the earth revolved around the sun. Which we know now that those who dared to even speak indifferent of the Church gambled so with their life. Personal safety probably demanded that discussion of anything esoteric, moral or scientific nature took place underground.
It surely seems more than probable that those men who are seeking an outlet and vehicle in which they can discuss what the outside world might define as dangerous ideas such as the alchemist sitting in his laboratory, in pursuit for the Philosopher’s stone and the Elixir of life. These were part of a quest for knowledge that fitted in well with the most important of Masonic Principles. To finally, all of these beliefs would turn to Freemasonry.
As a result, what emerged was a new and enlightening speculative form of the Craft as a whole, which held on allegorical likeness to its earlier operative traditions.
Elias Ashmole was the first noted recorded inductees into the English Freemasonry in 1646. He was a ground of the Royal Society and stands a good example of how old arcane beliefs and the new science could co-exist.
In 1652 he published his “Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum” a compilation of all the writings on alchemy that had been produced by English authors, including those of Dr. John Dee, the great Elizabethan savant and reputed magician.
It should not be forgotten that at this time, men of science still believed in the possibility of transmutation of a possible Elixir of Life, and other great arcane beliefs. Brother Isaac Newton himself spent a great deal of time practicing this science and many others. Making the obvious connection between our ancient craft and the applied sciences.
The alchemists weren’t just a group of mystics who were the forerunners of modern chemistry. They were also philosophers who used symbols and drawings extensively in their teachings. But much of graphic symbolism in Masonry, such as the Plumb, Square, Level, Rough, and Perfect Ashlar, owe their existence to earlier alchemical texts and writings.
For Freemasonry, the branch of science of our greatest interest was and is undoubtedly geometry. The knowledge of geometry with the knowledge of alchemy (spiritual) combined is an essential part of our Masonic tradition. Masons now come to believe that such knowledge would make it possible to recognize the principles upon which nature and society were built.