Veiled in secrecy and steeped in ancient ritual, the Freemasons have been the subject of wild speculation since the brotherhood’s official founding in 1717. Members maintain they’re simply a fraternal order focused on socializing, self-improvement and promoting the public good, but this hasn’t stopped many observers from suspecting Masons of everything from devil worship to conspiracies of world domination. This map, an introduction to Freemasonry’s history and cultural alliances, pulls back the curtain.
Freemasons number perhaps 6 million members internationally, leading some commentators, concerned about Masonic secrecy, to view them as a large, shadowy network that shuttles clandestine knowledge around the globe. The actual structure of Freemasonry—much more fragmented than skeptical observers may presume—encompasses hundreds of completely autonomous Grand Lodges, or regional chapters. These in turn oversee a variety of smaller local groups, simply called lodges, of Masons who meet on a regular basis. To make things slightly more complicated, the term lodge denotes two things: a group of Masons and the building they use for their meetings (sometimes also referred to as a Masonic hall or, upping the cultish factor, a Masonic temple).
Freemasonry unofficially originated in the Middle Ages, when its lodges consisted of actual stonemasons and functioned like labor unions. For reasons not entirely clear, these guilds began to admit not only laborers but well-to-do gentlemen sometime in the 17th or 18th century, when the guilds slowly transformed into the fraternal orders we know today. The first Grand Lodge was established in 1717, founded in a London pub when four smaller lodges agreed to unite, presumably after a few solid rounds of ale.
Freemasonry’s central myth centers on Hiram Abiff, the architect Masons credit with building King Solomon’s legendary temple in Jerusalem in the 10th century B.C. The Bible names Hiram only passingly, as a “widow’s son.” According to the Masons, however, when Hiram was completing his temple masterpiece, three of his workers, greedy roughnecks, accosted him and demanded the valuable secrets of architecture that would earn them higher wages and that Hiram, a master mason, knew well. But Hiram refused to divulge them. Enraged, each attacker bashed him with a tool—perhaps a hammer, chisel or mason’s square (details differ between lodges)—the last blow taking his life.
Über-Mason Hiram represents a core value of the modern brotherhood: secrecy, or at least the importance of protecting knowledge from those who would misuse it. As a tribute to him, Masons pattern the “lodge room,” where their ceremonies are held, after the temple he is said to have designed. The room runs east to west, as biblical temples did, and it features two pillars topped with globes, references to the two bronze columns the Bible describes as dominating the entrance to Solomon’s grand edifice.
Medieval European stonemasons were honored for their ability to transform piles of rock into ornate, majestic cathedrals, a skill that associated them with holiness. Despite using relatively primitive technology, these craftsmen could create such complex structures because they had a firm grasp of geometric principles, the ideas systematized 1,000 years earlier by Greek mathematician Euclid, father of geometry. Thus, Freemasons revere Euclidian geometry.
The 47th proposition of Euclid’s mathematical text Elements is vitally important to Masons. Better known as the Pythagorean theorem, it’s important to middle school students as well, as the key to many a word problem. It tells us the square of a right triangle’s longest side equals the sum of the squares of the other two sides. Or, as you may remember it in its formulaic expression, a2 + b2 = c2. In the eyes of Freemasons, these ratios are sacred, and Masonic accoutrements such as lapel pins, tie clips and pendants are often decorated with an illustration of this equation: three squares set at angles so the space between them forms a right triangle. Some observers speculate that the theorem holds secret insight into the universe. If there’s any truth to this, the Masons aren’t telling.
If you’ve ever noticed a building whose stonework is engraved with a mason’s square and a compass (the kind for drawing circles, not navigating), you’ve seen a Masonic lodge. The most recognizable symbol of Freemasonry, the square-and-compass combo was adopted because medieval stonemasons commonly used those tools. Modern Masons endow the instruments with philosophical meaning. The square reminds them to behave fairly (as in “fair and square”); the compass suggests they circumscribe their passions and behave morally. In English-speaking countries, the letter G often appears nestled between them. Depending on whom you ask, the G may stand for geometry, God or the Grand Architect of the Universe—a Masonic term for the Creator.
Freemasonry has an elaborate language of symbols, most meant to describe correct behavior. Another symbol, the mason’s level, suggests all members should be treated as equals within the lodge, regardless of differences in social position. Another is the Jacob’s ladder, representing a route to heaven. Each rung recalls a Masonic virtue: faith, hope, charity, prudence, justice, etc. But this is just a partial glimpse of the brotherhood’s extensive allegorical vocabulary. Even Masons aren’t entirely clear or consistent about all their symbols and rituals. Or so they say.
It’s not surprising that the Freemasons have been suspected of secretly controlling the U.S. government. After all, some of the most notable men in American history have been Masons, including many of the founding fathers. Nine signers of the Declaration of Independence were Masons, as was the country’s first president, George Washington. When he took office, Washington swore upon a Bible provided by (and still housed at) St. John’s Masonic Lodge No. 1 in Manhattan.
In 2009 novelist Dan Brown made plenty of hay out of Washington’s Freemason roots with his book The Lost Symbol, which delves into a Masonic conspiracy unfolding throughout D.C. Far-fetched? Certainly. Still, scholars acknowledge that George Washington’s Masonic ties aren’t just coincidental. According to historian Steven Bullock, author of Revolutionary Brotherhood, educated men of the Enlightenment found Freemasonry attractive for its egalitarian worldview. For this breed of gentleman, who favored reason and democracy over church and monarchy, the masons’ guild was the perfect place to meet; by their nature, these guilds were closed to outsiders, and that exclusivity allowed members to safely discuss political ideas that might be unpopular with the authorities. Perhaps Freemason lodges even provided the perfect place to plot a revolution.
George Washington figures prominently in Masonic iconography. Paintings of Washington wearing a lambskin apron—the Freemason emblem of purity—are common, many inspired by William Joseph Williams’s 1794 portrait of Washington in Freemason regalia. There’s also an outsize Masonic memorial to Washington in Alexandria, Virginia, featuring a 17-foot bronze statue of the president wielding a mason’s hammer and sporting the apron.
For many people, the most prominent Masonic symbol connected with George Washington resides on the back of the dollar bill, which he fronts. It’s the somewhat creepy image of an unfinished pyramid surmounted by a floating triangle enclosing an eye. This so-called Eye of Providence represents God watching over the growth of the United States, in turn represented by the pyramid’s 13 layers (one for each original colony). Though the Eye now connotes Freemasonry’s involvement in the founding of the U.S., the symbol predates both the nation and the brotherhood. Versions of it appear in many Renaissance religious paintings. But that hasn’t stopped the entertainment industry from spinning a good yarn around it. Disney made repeated use of the Eye in 2004, in the Freemason-conspiracy-based popcorn flick National Treasure.
The Catholic Church condemned the Freemasons almost as soon as they were founded, a consequence of their focus on Enlightenment values that considered science and rationality more important than church teachings. Just 21 years after the first Grand Lodge was established, Pope Clement XII issued a decree against Freemasonry, prohibiting Catholics from joining the brotherhood or even receiving Masons in their homes.
The long-standing enmity between the church and the Freemasons inspired one of the most gigantic hoaxes in history, perpetrated by Frenchman Gabriel Jogand-Pagès. Under the pseudonym Léo Taxil, he made a living writing erotica and inflammatory anti-Catholic pamphlets. In need of a new project, Taxil claimed conversion to Catholicism in 1885 and soon began writing a series of fictional “exposés” of Freemasonry. He took up the subject with gleeful abandon, accusing Masons of ritual murder, conducting orgies and worshipping a demon called Baphomet. Already suspicious of Freemasonry, the Catholic Church was ready to believe these slanders, and Pope Leo XIII even rewarded Taxil’s “good work” with a private audience. The Frenchman’s joke didn’t last, though. In 1897 Taxil publicly confessed to fabricating all of it, making a fool of anyone who believed him.
First published in Russia in 1903, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is one of the most pervasive, damaging examples of anti-Semitic propaganda ever written. A several-hundred-page document, Protocols is a work of fiction masquerading as fact; it purports to be the transcription of a meeting between Jews plotting to control the world by infiltrating business, government and the press. Though no one knows who authored the text, it likely originated with the Russian secret police. Protocols was promptly reprinted, translated and circulated internationally. Sadly, it’s still propagated by hard-line conspiracy theorists today.
The imaginary Jewish conspiracy propounded by Protocols also links to Freemasonry. The introduction to a 1911 edition of the book, by Russian self-proclaimed mystic Sergei Aleksandrovich Nilus, raises the specter of a “secret Jewish Freemasonic conspiracy, which would bring this wicked world to its inevitable end.” Scholars have determined the Judeo-Masonic conspiracy theory is even older than Nilus, however. His accusation probably had its roots in the Napoleonic-era writings of French Jesuit Abbé Augustin Barruel, who had accused Freemasons and Jews of conspiring to foment the French Revolution.