How true are the myths about the Freemasons? One of the oldest and largest secular organisations in the world, tales and legends about the secretive life of Masons abound.
As the organisation celebrates its 300th anniversary, to help separate fact from fiction, we put our questions to Michael Baker, Director of Communications at The United Grand Lodge of England. Here are his myth-busting answers.
Is it true that Masons possess Knights Templar treasure?
‘No,’ Baker says, ‘sadly, not.’
But the Freemasons do possess a treasure of sorts, if only temporarily. They donate around £30m per year to charity, and getting involved in fundraising is why many join the organisation.
The trouser leg
Some say it’s to simulate the appearance of ragged clothing – a display of penury. Others say it’s to do with astrological symbolism. Being experts in menswear, unsurprisingly, we’re keen to know if it’s true that Freemasons roll up their left trouser leg. Are Freemasons required to display their hairy ankles? And if so, why? Baker says:
‘Symbolically, the raising of a trouser leg shows that the candidate is a fit man and free (not wearing a shackle).’
During the initiation ceremony, candidates are required to briefly flash an ankle, but Freemasons do not regularly meet to display the fine turn of their lower limbs.
But how about the elaborate costumes we’ve heard about? ‘They’re not really costumes,’ Baker says, ‘rather more aprons and collars, which derive from the clothing of stonemasons.’
What’s the deal with the noose? Is that part of the ritual too? ‘It’s actually a cable tow and represents the candidate’s bond to his guide,’ Baker explains.
Freemasons progress through the levels of the organisation only with the help of their mentor or guide. All begin their journey by being initiated, passed and raised into the three degrees of Craft (or Blue Lodge Masonry).
To attain each degree, a Freemason must learn about the relevant Lodge symbols and their meanings, and in return is equipped with the relevant handshake grips, and other special signs and words which he uses to communicate his status to other Masons.
We know Freemasons have the ability to communicate via covert handshakes and passwords, but do they in fact do so?
Baker says no: ‘Handshakes and passwords are modes of recognition only used in ceremonies.’
In an interview with the Telegraph in 2012, previous Grand Secretary of the United Grand Lodge of England, Nigel Brown said: ‘Number one, there is no Masonic handshake…It is one of the great myths.’
But how can we be sure that Freemasons don’t use their ritual handshake in everyday life? We can’t, and even if they do, not being Freemasons, how would we know?
Law and religion
Which brings us nicely on to our next question. Is it true that Freemasons swear an oath not to testify against each other in court? Baker’s answer is a resounding no. ‘Not true’, he says. We’re glad to hear it.
And what about claims of prejudice against women and Catholics? ‘Not true,’ Baker says. ‘There are two female Grand Lodges – Order of Women Freemasons (OWF) and the Honourable Fraternity of Ancient Freemasons (HFAF) as well as Le Droit Humain which is an order of co-masons.’
As for religious discrimination, Baker says: ‘Absolutely not. We welcome members from all religious groups.’ In fact, the only stipulation is that candidates believe in a higher power – which one, or which denomination is irrelevant.
So if Freemasonry isn’t a corrupt secret society of strange men who wear their trousers at half mast, what is it?
‘Freemasonry,’ Baker says ‘ …is based on integrity, tolerance, kindness, honesty and fairness…For some it’s about making new friends and acquaintances. For others it’s about being able to help deserving causes…And for them all, it is an enjoyable and fulfilling activity.’
Freemasonry is open to men over the age of 21 (18 for University Lodges), who believe in the existence of a supreme being, regardless of race, colour, religion, political views or social or economic standing. Apply online through the UGLE website – www.ugle.org.uk, via any of the Provincial and London websites, or at a local Lodge where you know someone who is a member.”
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