Museum of Freemasonry - Masonic Library

Article Index

The Initiation in the craft degrees of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite (AASR) is completely different from the ceremonies currently performed by most lodges in the English-speaking world. It draws its symbolism from various esoteric sources, from Alchemy and Cabbala, from Gnosis and Rose-Croix.

In my opinion, the AASR Initiation is a complex three-stage process, encompassing the entire sequence of all three ceremonies of Initiation, Increasing Wages (aka. Passing), and Exaltation (aka. Raising) which represent the Purification, Maturation and Sublimation of the candidate, respectively. However, when speaking of Initiation in this paper, the reference will be to the ceremony of the first degree only.

This paper intends to describe and explain the main elements composing the first stage of personal evolution, which in the AASR, as in all other Masonic Rites, is known as the Initiation of the candidate. This initiatory ceremony is the one which differs the most from the English tradition. Although the ceremonies of the second and third Degree are also different, their main symbolism and their structure are very similar and a comparative study would yield few new insights, as the Initiation ceremony does.             The terminology used in AASR lodges is somewhat different from that of lodges working in other Rites. There are Experts instead of Deacons, an Orator in the place of the Chaplain, and his duties are quite different, but there is no need to go into these matters in this paper.

The description and analysis of the ceremony presented here represent only one version. The AASR is not a monolithic institution. In the course of centuries, every Grand Lodge has elaborated its own version of the ceremonies which, although fundamentally similar, do differ in details. To give just two examples, in one Grand Lodge, the officers of the lodge include only one Expert. In most others, there are two. In some rituals the Candidate is asked at a certain point to allow some of his blood to be drawn. In others, he is told that a mark will be branded on his breast. In both instances, the threat is not carried out, of course, and an explanation is provided instead to the Candidate. This paper, then, must not be taken as representing a normative version of the ceremony, but simply one version among others.

The candidate for Initiation is met at the entrance of the lodge building by a member of the lodge, preferably one known to him. Once inside, he is blindfolded and conducted to the Chamber of Reflection (CHOR). Since the CHOR is usually located at a distance from the entrance, all the brethren that the conductor and his ward meet on their way are careful not to make any noise, speak, and of course, never touch the candidate.

Inside the CHOR, the conductor removes the blindfold, tells the candidate to take a seat, observe and reflect on all the signs and objects he finds around him, and then write his Philosophical Testament.             The CHOR, which represents a cavern, consists of a small room entirely painted black, or with black curtains all around. It contains numerous symbolic elements which will be described below.

The only furniture in the CHOR is a small table and a chair; on the table are placed a candlestick (1 or 3 candles), small dishes with sulfur and salt, sometimes a vial of mercury, a skull, sometimes a jug of water, glass, and a morsel of bread, the Philosophical Testament, pen or pencil.

On the walls hang signs such as: 'If curiosity brought you here, go away!', 'If you want to live well, think of death', 'If you want to hide something, you will be exposed!', 'Do not expect to gain material benefit from Freemasonry'. A separate sign, close to the skull, says 'I was what you are; I am what you will be'.

Also on the wall hangs the image of a cock, hourglass and scythe. The cock was sacred to the god Mercury (Hermes) and mercury, together with sulfur and salt, are the three alchemical principles. In Cabbala these are related to the three "mother letters": Alef (air-salt), Mem (water-mercury) and Shin (fire-sulfur). A separate sign displays a single word, or rather an acronym: V.I.T.R.I.O.L. Vitriol is an old name for metallic salts of sulfuric acid. In esoteric writings, however, it is the acronym of a Latin inscription often found in alchemical iconography: Visita Interiore Terrae Rectificando Invenies Occultum Lapidem; that is: 'Go inside the earth, by purification you will find the hidden stone'. This stone is understood to be the philosophers' stone, or it may represent the soul of the alchemist. The place of stone in Masonic philosophy and rituals cannot be overstated. [i]

All these elements are intended to put the candidate in the proper frame of mind for the following ceremony where he will play the central role.

The CHOR, as stated above, represents a cave, a place inside the earth, with all that it symbolizes: entry into the earth, the subterranean kingdom of the dead, and the cave is also a symbol of the uterus, so that coming out of the cave and returning to the world is a symbolic birth. [ii] Coming out of the CHOR, the Candidate is regarded as having been purified by earth, one of the four elements of antiquity (earth, air, water and fire). The CHOR is also likened to the athanor, the alchemical furnace, hermetically closed, where the dross is removed from the candidate to allow him to receive the light. [iii]

The Philosophical Testament is mainly intended to strengthen the feeling of expectation of the candidate, making him intensely aware that the step he is going to take will mark a radical transformation in his life. The testament is a sheet of paper with a large triangle drawn on it; within the triangle are four questions, leaving a few lines for each answer:

What are man's duties towards God?
What are man's duties towards his fellow men?
What are man's duties towards himself?
What memory would you like of leave of your life on this earth? [iv]

At the bottom of the page there is place for the date, and a dotted line for the signature. The candidate is instructed to write very brief answers, and to be perfectly honest in his replies.

While the candidate spends about half an hour in the CHOR, the lodge is opened in regular form, and all the usual preliminaries are completed: reading and approving the minutes of the last meeting, correspondence, welcoming visitors.

At the proper time, the Director of Ceremonies, brandishing a sword, is sent to the CHOR to pick up the Testament. He pierces it with his sword, returns to the lodge and presents it to the Orator to be read. No comments are made. The Orator keeps the paper, for at the conclusion of the ceremony he will turn over it to the Director of Ceremonies who proceeds to burn it, while the Orator explains to the neophyte that his words will be kept in the safe repository of his brethren's memory.

Now, the Second Expert, who replaces the Junior Deacon in other Rites, is sent to the CHOR. He divests the candidate from his 'metals', that is, all coins and bills, and all detachable metallic objects, such as rings, watch, pen, etc. He also arranges the clothing of the candidate as indicated in the ritual, which on this point is similar in all rituals. The candidate is blindfolded again, and is led to the door of the lodge, where he is instructed to give several irregular blows (and not "three knocks") on the door.

This is called an 'alarm', and after a short exchange, the WM gives the proper instructions to allow the candidate to enter the lodge. A few steps inside, he feels a sharp instrument touching his naked breast, and he is told that this represents the remorse he will feel if he ever breaks the promises he will make during the ceremony.

Following a long dialog of questions and answers between WM and Candidate, mainly dealing with principles of morality, he is taken out of the lodge room and made to walk aimlessly for a while before returning. This is a symbolic journey representing his life in the profane world where, lacking the Masonic light, he has no spiritual direction, but now he will enter a new stage in his life where his steps will be straight and directed to the Orient, the source of light and life.

When returning to the lodge, he is made to bend down, as if entering through a small opening. In ancient times, initiations took place in caverns, and this procedure reflects that tradition. [v] At a certain point, the candidate is made to drink a sweet liquid, which after a moment turns into a bitter one, the lesson from this episode being that he should always remember that sorrow in life often follows happiness, so he should never lose sight of the fickleness of fortune, never being too exuberant in good times, nor falling into depression in the hard ones. This is also the Cabbalist's view, that opposites involve one another, or in the words of the Cabbalist: the world is revealed in its opposite. This concept also finds expression in the checkered pavement of the lodge, where one cannot decide whether there is a white pavement with black squares, or a black pavement with white squares. The same idea is also evident in the depiction of Yang-Yin in Oriental philosophy.

The candidate is also requested to make a donation to charity. A brother, generally, the Almoner, approaches the candidate holding the charity bag, and asks him confidentially to contribute something for the assistance of widows and orphans. Of course, if the preparation was well done, the Candidate has no valuables left. The Almoner then proclaims in a loud voice: 'He says he has nothing'. This is significant, because the candidate still has much to give, his love, his time, his care, all part of the Masonic concept of charity, but since he is blind, not having yet received the light, he doesn't know it. Should the candidate spring some money from a hidden pocket, the ceremony must be started again from the beginning. This is also a tradition from Alchemy, because the metals could interfere with the alchemical process of transmutation that the candidate must go through. [vi]

After a brief prayer the candidate is specifically asked on whom would he place his trust when facing the most difficult trials of his life, and the answer should be God (and should the answer be negative, the ceremony is suspended and the candidate is turned away!). Having this confidence, the WM assures him, he should have no fear of what will come next. He is led to a chair and left sitting for a few moments, while the lodge maintains complete silence. The candidate is warned again that he is going to pass through severe tests, and that he is free to retire now, should he wish to do so. Having received his consent, the Candidate is now led by the Second Expert (Junior Deacon) in three clockwise ("dextrorsum") circumambulations around the lodge. These are symbolic journeys, in some rituals called "mysterious journeys".

Travel, exploration and discovery are a key element of fable and legend. Whether for Jason, Ulysses, Abraham or Jacob, their journeys are an indispensable factor in their individual development. The Hebrew people, collectively, had to travel for forty years before they could enter the Promised Land. Pilgrimage, the travel to a specific shrine, is an important component of most religions. The pilgrimage to Jerusalem, three times a year, was an indispensable part of Judaism when the Temple was in existence. The labyrinth existing in many medieval churches allowed the faithful to make a symbolic journey to Jerusalem by following the winding course of the labyrinth to its center. Coming out was also a symbolic rebirth. In Islam, too, the pilgrimage to Mecca, the Haj, is an obligation to be fulfilled at least once in a lifetime.

The candidate is at the same time the symbolic Hero who must travel in order to fulfill his mission. "Heroes are almost always travelers (Gilgamesh, Dionysus, Hercules, Mithra, etc.). Traveling is an image of aspiration, desire never satisfied which nowhere finds its object" (Jung, Symbole der Wandlung). The symbolic journey is also a reminder of our passing through life, a transit between birth and death. The candidate must "travel" in all three ceremonies of the craft degrees. In the first (the Initiation) he makes three circumambulations, which will be described below, at the start facing the terrors and obstacles in his path, being blind and powerless. Then he hears the clash of swords and fears for his life, being unarmed. This is the preparatory stage, to teach him humility and at the same time to purify him for his next stages of development. His third transit in this first degree, in total silence, represents the travel inside himself, the VITRIOL experience. During the journeys in the second degree he holds various building tools. He must build "dungeons" for the vices and also temples for the virtues. The last journey, of course, that of the third degree ceremony ends at the grave, from which he emerges a new man, a Master Mason.

Returning to the journeys in the first-degree ceremony, at this point the conductor assumes a new name: 'Brother Fearsome'. During the first circumambulation, the candidate stumbles over obstacles while the brethren make a wild cacophony stomping their feet, striking the floor with their swords, etc. The candidate, however, must never be touched, except for the conducting 'fearsome' brother who is holding his arm. The noises and obstacles represent the profane world, the clash of interests, war, hatred, the constant struggles of the world. This journey represents purification by air.

Symbolically, air and fire are the "subtle" elements, active and masculine, while water and earth are feminine and passive. Air is associated with breath, with life, creation. After spending the first moments of his initiation being purified by the earth, the candidate receives the vital breath of air to be reborn.

During the second journey, the only noise heard is the clashing of swords. The candidate finds no obstacles in his path, but he may fear for his life, being unarmed. At the end of the journey, his hands are washed and he is purified by water. Although his travel is now easier, the candidate is still blind. The water that washes his hands is the source of life. In Genesis, the spirit of God hovers over the water before creating the earth. Scientific theories claim that life on earth began in the primeval ocean. The salinity of blood is similar to that of sea-water. The symbolic rebirth, then, must be connected with water. [vii]

I'll conclude this part with a phrase communicated by Brother Hector Villafuerte de Miguel, who wrote: "Water in a glass is transparent, but in the ocean it is dark. Small truths have clear words, but great truth has a great silence". [viii]

Finally, the third symbolic journey is conducted in absolute silence. No obstacles stand on the way of the candidate. This is the experience of traveling inside himself, the VITRIOL, the process of recovering the archetypical memory. At the end of his journey, the Candidate's hands are purified with fire.

The control over fire is the oldest, most primitive step of man in his long journey to civilization. Fire is the indispensable tool of the potter and the smith, the cook and the alchemist. For Paracelsus, fire is the same as life, both, to survive must consume other lives.

Appropriate explanations are given to the candidate after each journey, making clear its symbolic meaning.

Now that his gross matter has been purified by the four elements, the Candidate is ready to embark on his journey of personal discovery and development, in accordance with the precepts of Freemasonry. A question could be asked, why not have four symbolic journeys instead of three? After all, the Candidate is purified by the four elements, but only air, water and fire are the subject of the three journeys and the first purification is static, inside the earth. The explanation, again, is Cabbalistic. For the Cabbalist, the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet hold great symbolic and mystical significance and power. Three letters are held in special reverence and are called the "mother" letters: aleph, mem and shin. These also represent air, water and fire, respectively; the same sequence of the "symbolic journeys" of purification. [ix]

The Candidate pronounces his oath never to reveal the secrets of Freemasonry, and his blindfold is withdrawn. This is a most dramatic moment in the Initiation ceremony. Receiving the light is a symbolic rebirth. In Spanish, in fact, giving birth is called "alumbrar", giving light.

In some rituals, at this point the candidate is surrounded by brethren holding swords which are pointed to him, and the WM explains that this means that Freemasonry will punish him if he violates his promise, but also will protect him in all circumstances, whenever he tries to fulfill his duties.

At the end of the Initiation ceremony, the new brother receives two pairs of white gloves, one for himself and the other for his wife or 'the woman he most respects'. This is a very old Masonic tradition, dating from the beginning of Speculative Freemasonry, and probably much earlier. [x] The symbolism is simple: never let your hands, purified by the Initiation to be soiled by vice – where the word "vice" embodies all sins and crimes that degrade humanity.

After investing the Candidate with his white apron, he is instructed in the "secrets" of the degree, which in the AASR consist not only of words, signs and tokens, but also the "march" (the steps when entering the lodge, different in each degree), the "battery" (hand clapping,, also different according to the degree), and the "age" (the symbolic age of the Apprentice, Fellow-Craft or Master Mason).

The "march" in the three symbolic degrees is the steps which must be executed by the Mason who enters the lodge after it has been opened. In the first degree it consists of three steps, the second longer than the first, and the third longer still, directly pointing to the East. This represents the Mason's urgent desire to approach the source of light. Three, the number associated with the Apprentice, has innumerable symbolisms, but perhaps the most important one is that it combines male and female (1 and 2) being a synthesis of both. This is also represented in the CHOR, where salt is the combination of sulfur (the masculine, active principle) and mercury (the feminine, passive principle). In Cabbala these principles are fire and water, and the link between them is air. [xi] The neophyte (literally: newborn) is conducted to take a seat in the East, to the right of the W. M., the place where the cornerstone of a building is laid at the beginning of a construction. The neophyte symbolizes the stone, and this conflation of man and stone is found in all mythologies.

A brief lecture given by the Orator underlines the main teachings of the Order, and provides some explanations of the ceremony. The Neophyte receives back his "metals" and also a spray of roses. This is not only a nice gesture towards his wife, but also a reminder about the secrecy he must preserve about the ceremony he went through. The rose is symbolic of secrecy and silence. According to legend, the expression sub-rosa (confidentially, in secret) derives from an ancient custom of hanging a rose over the council table to indicate that the debate should be kept secret. A parallel Masonic expression is "under the mallet".

In some rituals the neophyte also receives his working tools and performs his first Masonic work, striking the rough stone with hammer and chisel.

One final observation: The explanations I have given are mine, personal, and do not reflect any official or authorized interpretation of the ritual. I invite you to continue exploring these symbols and you will probably find or work out other interpretations. This is the beauty of Masonic symbolism.