Operative and Ancient


By W. Bro. Hon. Sir JOHN A. COCKBURN, K.C.M.G., M.D.,

P.G.D., P.Dep.G.M., South Australia

1st M.M. Westminster Division


The statement in the ritual that Masonry has subsisted from time immemorial is not intended to imply that in the long lapse of ages has undergone no change. Mutability is inseparable from human affairs. But while Religions, Philosophies and Empires have fallen under the destroying hand of time, the essential principles and practice of Masonry have remained unshaken. Nevertheless, a progressive disclosure of the nature of the Deity and the change from the worship of a hidden, incomprehensible, unknowable Godhead to the revealed glory of the Fountain of Light, could not fall to make an indelible impression on the outward observances of the Craft. The successive steps of this great change may still be traced in Operative Masonry. To the Chaldeans the Pole Star, that fixed point in the darkest region of the sky, round which the whole heavenly host appeared to revolve, was regarded as the most fitting symbol of an unchangeable God who made darkness his dwelling place, and clouds his pavilion. In the beginning, before the first Creative Word was spoken, darkness was upon the face of the deep. The Druids, according to Caesar, computed the nights, not by days. The mountain of the Holiness of the Lord was in the uttermost parts of the North. The Celestial North was the birthplace of the Goddess of the Great Bear and the Seven Stars, and the dead were buried with their faces in that direction. But by degrees, as enlightenment dawned on the human race, the great luminary of nature took the place of the Pole Star as the symbol of the Deity. Not yet, however, was the revelation of the Sun of Righteousness, as the Glory of Lord that cometh from the East, fully recognised. The change was gradual and subject to many vicissitudes. The Solar Cult apparently took its rise in Egypt at that great epoch, about 6ooo years ago, which was until recently supposed to be date of the Creation of the World. The Sun was then in Zodiacal sign of Taurus, and the Bull was therefore regarded as the symbol of the Deity. Yet the association of the Godhead with the darkness was long in disappearing. The colour of Mnevis, the sacred Bull, was black ; and Plutarch, in de Iside et Osiride, says that the complexion of Osiries, the Sun God, was black at his birth. He also remarks that the Egyptians believed the face of the World to be in the East and the North its right hand. The body of a man, therefore, placed in coincidence with this view would face, not the North, but the West. The Greeks regarded the West as the Abode of the Gods. There, and not in the East, was the garden of the Hesperides, where the tree bearing golden apples was guarded by the Dragon. The Sanctun Santorum of Solomon’s Temple was in the West, Thither, therefore, the Jews turned in prayer. According to Ezekiel viii. 16, the fury of the Lord was denounced against those who, with their backs toward the Temple and their faces toward the East, worshipped the Sun toward the East. Many thousands of years elapsed before the Solar Cult of the East achieved its final victory over that of the Pole Star and the West. The Sun is the type of energy and strength, the Pole Star is the symbol of fixity, and the West was regarded as the region of repose. The contest seems to coincide with the never ending dispute of philosophers between Being and Becoming, between the forces that make for Agreement and Difference under whose influence evolution progresses. Amid the manifold changes of life the soul craves for rest, and the longing for the West may have been a reaction from a previous period of disquietude ; just as today after centuries of struggle there are many who sigh for a time when beyond the present turmoil there is peace. These successive changes in worship naturally exercised a profound influence on Masonry. Dr. Anderson is credited or accused with reversing the previous orientation and assimilating it to that of Christian Churches, where the Altar is in the East. The Operative Masons, however, clung to the ancient usage. In their Lodges the thrones of the Master Mason, of whom there are three, are still in the West, as they were in the days of Solomon. The entrance to an Operative Lodge remains in the East, after the pattern of the Temple of Jerusalem ; so that the place of the E. A., in the N. E., is at the entrance of the Lodge, and not, as it is in Speculative Masonry, at the right of the Chair. Traces of the Cult of the Pole Star are also still retained in operative Masonry. A Plumb Line, supposed to depend from the Polar Star, hangs in the centre of the Lodge over the Volume of the Sacred Law, upon whose open page the Swastica, consisting of four right angles, is formed when the Lodge is opened. One of the angles always remains with the Holy Book, the others are deposited successively by each of the three Master Masons, as they march in procession round the Lodge. The Square in Operative Masonry, as in Euclid, has four right angles, not merely an angle of 90º. A Fellow of the Craft is proved by the complete four-sided figure. Four right angles may be grouped together either as a Square, or a cross, or as a Swastica. All these are emblems of Earth corresponding to the fact that the cults in which they are used lay stress on the right relationship between a man and his fellows here on Earth. The Swastica was in ancient times was depicted on the figures of Earth Goddesses. Plutarch says that “the quadrangle is the power of Rhea, Venus, Ceres, Vesta and Juno,” who are Feminine Deities. In the minds of the Ancients, the cult of the Goddess appears to have preceded that of the God. Operative Masonry still retains this relative order; for the Great Architect of Heaven and Earth is adored under the name of El Shaddai, the breasted Deity, who appeared as the Almighty to Abram, and in remembrance of that visit inserted in his name and in that of Sara, the letter Heh, which, in the Hebrew Alphabet, is the essentially feminine letter; for the Rabbis say that all things came out of Heh. The Swastica, being the mark of a Goddess, therefore appropriately became the sacred symbol of Operative Masonry. The extreme antiquity of the Operative Ritual is also denoted by the pass words of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Master Masons. These are the names of the first Sephiroth. It is remarkable that, although two of these accord with the usual nomenclature, one of them is an ancient form which is to be found in the Kabala. The first and second Masons are appointed for life, or for a prolonged period of years, but the third Master has a tenure of only one year. Toward its close he is symbolically slain. This tragedy is represented, not by a brief recital of traditional history, but by a drama acted in the Month of October. The death scene opens with the 3rd Master kneeling at the altar repeating the prayer:



"Remove from me vanity and Lies,

Give me neither Poverty nor Riches,

Feed me with food convenient for me,

Lest I be full and deny Thee and say Who is the Lord

Or lest I be poor and steal and take the name

of my God in vain."




The whole drama is very impressive. The earnestness of the Brethren who take part in it invests them with a histrionic talent similar to that which inspires the non-professional actors in the Passion Play at Oberammergan.  Just before receiving the final and fatal blow the Master breaks his rod in four and throws the pieces to the cardinal points of the compass, so that no part of the work of a Master might be divulged. In pre-Euclid days the art of forming a square was the great secret of a Master Mason. This throws a light on the tradition that the co-operation of all three Masters was necessary for the performance of that important duty, and that the genuine secret was lost with the disappearance of Hiram. In operative Masonry each of the three Master Masons bears a rod with the respective proportions of 3, 4 & 5. The conjunction of these forms a triangle of which one of the angles is a right angle. In the work of construction a square is laid down in the centre of the building to ensure accuracy. Hence may be derived the statement that the Sacred Symbol was discovered in the centre of the building, and that guided by this a Master Mason cannot err. From the central square diagonal lines were stretched to the corners. The remains of these still persist in the four tassels at the corners of the tessellated pavement of a Speculative Lodge. The rudiments of   the other degrees besides those of the Craft may be found in operative Masonry. An apprentice has to produce a specimen of his work before he is passed to the 2º.  A craftsman has a mark allotted to him in order that he may be able to claim wages for the stones he has wrought. The three Masters remind us the R.A. There are also operative Lodges of round or arch Masons, whose clothing is bordered with red. There are seven degrees in operative Masonry. The apprentices form the 1º. The 2º to the 4º inclusive are composed of Fellows of the Craft. The 5º are Foremen, the 6º and 7º are called Harodim. The Master Masons constitute the 7º. The apprentices work in the first Stone yard. They dress the rough ashlar to dimensions somewhat larger than its finished shape. The Craftsmen are employed in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th yards. The 4th yard is the centre of the Seven locations. In it the building is erected. This is probably more than a mere coincidence, because four has always been held to be the number of realisation. It is moreover, the Arithmetical equivalent of the Square. In modern times the ranks of operative Masonry have suffered an ever-increasing depletion. At one time the number of Speculative Masons was almost negligible as compared with that of operative Masons. Of the four Lodges which joined together to form Grand Lodge in 1717, one was speculative, the other two were of mixed membership; but undoubtedly the operative element preponderated.  The spoliation of the Monasteries and the cessation of Cathedral Church building deprived the Freemasons of their noblest function. To keep the Lodges in being they were obliged to amalgamate with kindred societies; so that those operative Lodges which still exist are known under the designation of The Worshipful Society of Freemasons, rough Masons, Wallers, Slaters, Paviors, Plasterers and Bricklayers. The growth or modern Trades Unions and Friendly by affording the relief formerly given by Masons Lodges, has still further restricted their sphere of usefulness. Nevertheless, according to Dr. Thomas Carr, the chief exponent operative Masonry, there were in Leicestershire alone 2,300 members of operative Lodges in 1867. There are also Lodges in many parts of England and in Dublin. The three Master who preside in an operative Lodge wear gowns, cocked hats and gold chains, like the Master and Wardens of Livery Companies. But, though this custom establishes a relationship with Guild Masonry, there are many links with a far more distant past. The recognition of the Pole Star and the Swastica, the seven degrees, the salute, which is given by seven signs, and the adoration of El Shaddai carry us back to the earliest ages. Although operative Masonry may be said to be a wasting asset features which are interesting as relics of the past. Indeed some obscure points in speculative Masonry find their explanation in the ritual and traditions of the operative. The Lodge in London under the title of  “Westminster Division, Channel Row Assemblage," is supposed to extend its jurisdiction to several of the Counties North of Middlesex. It devotes much of its attention to Masonic research, and has been reinforced by the accession of a large number of earnest Students of the Mysteries, including several Grand Lodge Officers. From the labours of the various Lodges throughout the country there appears a reasonable prospect that the records of operative Masonry will afford much valuable material for the further investigation of the sources from which modern Freemasonry derives its origin..

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