1024px House sign freemasonry Heinickegasse 8 Vienna

The Sons of Hermes, Rosslyn Chapel, and Freemasonry

There is a strong relationship between Freemasonry and the Jewish esoteric tradition of Kabbalah. But there is maybe a much stronger connection between Freemasonry and the ancient spiritual tradition of Hermeticism.

Esoteric Scots and Jews – an alliance in the 17th and 18th centuries between social underdogs – stood at the cradle of Freemasonry. An ambitious building program by the Scottish Court was a catalyst in this.

For its ambitious building program, the Scottish Court needed both the Jewish knowledge of building large structures as well as financial loans. Political interests and esotericism went hand in hand. After the conquest by the English, Scottish or Kabbalistic Freemasonry was then exported to England.

Sons of Hermes 

During the 17th and 18th centuries, European esotericists and Jewish kabbalists were busy debating whether Hermes was the disciple of Moses, or whether Moses was the disciple of Hermes.

608px Hermes mercurius trismegistus siena cathedral
Moses is Taught by Hermes 

Anyone who has been to Sienna Cathedral knows the answer of the Italian esotericists: The great Moses was the disciple of the even greater and wiser Hermes. We also see this fascination with Hermeticism in the Scottish roots of Freemasonry. 

One theory that has become increasingly popular is that the roots of Freemasonry lie, to a large extent, in Scotland. Many Freemasons travel to Scotland every year to visit Rosslyn Chapel or the “Mother Lodge” Kilwinning Lodge No. 0.

Before the official establishment of the Grand Lodge of England in 1717, Freemasons were already active in Scotland. Many of these Freemasons had a great interest in esoteric subjects such as mysticism, Gnosticism, alchemy, and Hermeticism. So much so that leading Scottish Freemasons were members of a study circle with the name “Sonnes of Hermes” (Sons of Hermes).

A well-known member of these Sons of Hermes was Sir George Erskine of Innerteil, the grandfather of George Mackenzie, Earl of Cromartie. He was not your average Freemason, being that George Mackenzie was the second Grand Master of the Scottish Grand Lodge, after William St. Clair of Roslin.

Rosslyn Chapel 

A prominent Scottish member of these “Sons of Hermes” was the successor of an ancestor of the Sinclairs. A familiar name to many Freemasons because the Sinclairs were – or still are – the patrons of Rosslyn Chapel. 

Someone who also resided in the Hermetic network of the Earl of Cromartie was Sir Robert Moray – a well-known name for all students of Masonic history. He was not only the founder and first president of the Royal Society, but also a Freemason. He was ordained in Newcastle in 1641 under the auspices of a Scottish lodge in Edinburgh.

Hermes in the Mythical History of Freemasonry 

The existence of a study circle of proto-Freemasons called the “Sons of Hermes” is not strange when we know that one of the earliest Masonic manuscripts is the Cooke Manuscript. In this medieval document on Freemasonry (ca. 1400 AD), the author tells the mythical history of Freemasonry. 

The author draws on earlier traditions that were known to the guilds of stonemasons in Italy, Spain, France, England, and Scotland as inspiration for his historical description. This manuscript was very important to the first Freemasons because it gave an age-old authority and legitimacy to the wisdom and skill they claimed to pass on in their masonic lodges.

According to the manuscript, when Freemasons learned the methods and rules of their trade, they also received instructions of its secret history. Based on a mix of sources (the Bible, Josephus, Philo, Hebrew apocryphal texts, Sepher Yetzirah, the Hermetica, neo-Platonic and classical texts) the writer claims that the science of geometry and Freemasonry predates the Great Flood. 

The Two Pillars 

Important here is the myth that the author tells about the prophecy that Eve hears from an angel. This angel informs Eve that God is going to punish mankind by fire or by water. The angel did not know which of the two punishments God was going to choose.

To preserve the wisdom of Seth (the third child of Adam and Eve) two pillars were made. One of marble and one of baked brick. In this way, at least one pillar would survive the catastrophe. The two pillars were made by the sons of Lamech. 

They engraved on one pillar the Seven Liberal Arts and on the other pillar their knowledge about metaphysics. One pillar contained all the knowledge about the physical sphere and the other pillar all the knowledge about the spiritual sphere. The pillar with knowledge about the material sphere was found after the flood by Hermes Trismegistus.

[1723] “.. upon which he erected his two large Pillars (tho’ some ascribe them to Seth)…
[1738] “… some call them Seth’s Pillars, but the old Masons allways call’d them Enoch’s Pillars and firmly believ’d this Tradition.

Cooke Manuscript 

Seth and Enoch 

Seth was called Enoch by the early Freemasons. Enoch was associated with a Hermes before the Flood, namely the Egyptian god Thoth. “Enoch” in Hebrew (Hanokh) means both “training” or “devotion”/“initiation.” An appropriate pseudonym for Thoth-Hermes, the god of initiation. 

Vondel39 LR photo Simon van Boxtel 0752
The Pillars J and B, known to all Freemasons

King David was able to begin building his temple when Jewish workers returned from Egypt where they had been taught the wisdom and skill of bricklaying. 

David gave these masons not only rules and guidelines but also a letter of constitution. All other later letters of constitution of Masonic lodges derive their authority from this mythical letter of constitution.

King Solomon employed thousands of Freemasons led by their grandmaster Hiram to complete his holy temple.

Freemasonry thus originated in Egypt according to this early Masonic myth. Her wisdom and knowledge were preserved after the flood by Hermes Trismegistus. 

The well know Masonic Pillars J and B refer to this important myth. In Freemasonry, these pillars are also called the Pillars of Enoch, but might be better called the Pillars of Thoth-Hermes. 

The Caduceus of Hermes

We also see Hermes playing an important role in Freemasonry in another way. In 18th-century continental Freemasonry, the Master (or Director) of Ceremonies was seen as the messenger between the Worshipful Master and the other lodge officers. As such, he carried a staff, specifically a caduceus, in his left hand.

The Master of Ceremonies carrying the caduceus can be seen as taking on the role of Hermes. He is allowed to move freely closest to the sun (the Worshipful Master) in the East. He is the messenger between the sun and the other planets. In the ritual, the sun is interpreted as being the Worshipful Master, the planets are represented by the other lodge officers. 

The Master of Ceremonies, carrying the caduceus, moves freely between the upper and lower worlds; through light and through darkness. For this reason, his symbol is the caduceus, or staff, of Hermes. 

Freemasonry and Hermeticism

Hermes and Hermeticism are thus at the roots of Freemasonry. Both its mythical history and its ritual activities.

The Staff of Hermes can also be found in Freemasonry 

By studying Hermeticism, a Freemason opens the gate to the deepest essence and secrets of Freemasonry. A gate that remains hermetically closed without this knowledge. 

However, these secrets do confront Freemasons with some inconvenient truths. Hermes does not reveal his secrets easily. There is a hefty price tag attached to it. Namely, the transformation of who you always thought you were. 

Becoming sober

Hermes urges people to become sober, to wake up. People who are still stuck in the darkness (the Masonic West) are called by Hermes “drunk people.” They are ignorant of their true potential. 

Stop that, get sober. Look up with the eyes of the heart,” says Hermes. He warns man: “The evil of ignorance engulfs the whole earth and completely destroys the soul limited to the body.” 

Corpus Hermeticum VII

As in Freemasonry, in Hermeticism the spirit must be freed from the chains and lure of matter. Someone can’t do that alone. They will need help. From brothers and sisters who have gone before them.

In the Corpus Hermeticum there is an interesting description of the Great Architect of the Universe that can be found behind the gate :

Hermes: “Find someone who will take you by the hand and lead you to the gates of the knowledge of your heart. There is the pure light, free from darkness, where no one gets drunk, but all are sober, looking with the heart to Him who wants to be seen. He cannot be heard, He cannot be described, nor seen by the eyes, but by the mind and the heart.

Corpus Hermeticum Book VII

The concepts of two gates (West and East), the heart and the pure light of the Sun, are also well-known concepts in Freemasonry. In the rituals of Freemasonry, the candidate is literally taken by the hand to become “sober” by turning away from the West/material world.

Removing the Veil of Ignorance

Hermes shares his wisdom on what we need to do to become sober and start our journey to the East. The first step is to remove the veil of ignorance. This is the same thing that Freemasons aim for with their initiations. In the initiation to become an Entered Apprentice, the blindfold symbolizes the candidate who is still in darkness but who is looking for the light. 

During the initiation the blindfold is removed indicating that the veil of ignorance is gone and the person is no longer a profane but, from then on, an initiate. It is a rite of passage from the world of phenomena to the world of ideas: from that of sensory matter to that of spirit. 

Ignorance and matter bind man to the sensory world which prevents him or her from looking up and experiencing the beauty of truth and the Supreme Good (Summum Bonum).

As long as we are ignorant, we are caught up in the apparent senses that only experience the physical. Because of this, “we don’t hear what we should be hearing, and we don’t see what we should see.

Such is the hateful garment you wear, which binds you down in itself lest, when you look up and see the beauty of truth and the Supreme Good which lies within, you should hate the evil of this garment and realise its treachery. This has ensnared you, making the seeming senses, which are not acknowledged, insensible; for it has blocked them up with much gross matter and filled them with loathsome pleasure, so that you do not hear what you should hear and do not see what you should see.

Corpus Hermeticum VII.3

Hermes can make us hear and see again. Something the first (Scottish) Freemasons already knew. 

1. Restoring the Temple of Vision: Cabalistic Freemasonry and Stuart Culture, Marsha Keith Schuchard
2. A Scottish Alchemist of the Seventeenth Century: David, Lord Balcarres, By the Venerable J. B. Craven, D.D., Archdeacon of Orkney. Journal of the Alchemical Society 
3. The Way of Hermes: "The One is the All, and the All comes from the One", Jan den Ouden, Thoth 1, 2014 
4. Study of Symbols and Rituals: The Staff – article by Brother J. Snijders, AMT 3 from 1959 Hermetic Writings, Van den Broek, Quispel, In the Pelican

Image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:House_sign_freemasonry_Heinickegasse_8,_Vienna.jpg

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