On Sunday Cathie Bryan came to the Essex Egyptology Group to talk to us about the influence that Ancient Egypt had on Freemasonry. She started by telling us a bit about Freemasonry & its origins. The modern Freemason movement starts around the early 18th Century & is derived in part from the groups or guilds of stonemasons that existed in the middle ages. Freemasonry uses the paraphernalia of the stonemasons trade (in particular the compass and square) in a symbolic fashion. Part of their mythos comes from a 14th Century document that sets out the history of masonry & the appropriate behaviour for masons, and this traces the history of masonry from Euclid via him “teaching the Egyptians how to be masons”. Obviously, as Bryan pointed out, this is now known to be more than a little impossible given Euclid lived a few millennia after the Egyptians built things like the pyramids! But both at the time of the original document and at the time Freemasonry was starting up it was more plausible as not a lot was known about the Egyptians. Another source of pseudo-Egyptian underpinnings to Freemasonry is a novel from the 1730s by a French academic called Jean Terrason – “Sethos” was the story of an Egyptian priest’s initiation into the sacred rites of their religion. As you can tell from the date, this is long before anyone actually knew anything much about Ancient Egypt, and anyway it was a work of fiction. But the popularity of this novel helped to cement the idea of an Ancient Egyptian origin for the rituals of the Freemasons.
Bryan next went on to tell us about Freemason involvement in the early expeditions to Egypt. Some notable examples are members of Napoleon’s 1798 expedition to Egypt. Although there’s no evidence that Napoleon himself was initiated into the Freemasons two of his brothers were influential members, and some of the savants and military commanders of the expedition were too. The Italian former-strongman turned archaeologist-slash-tomb-robber, Belzoni, was also a Freemason. People obviously interpret what they see through their own biases, and this is particularly the case for Egyptology prior to the decipherment of hieroglyphs. Bryan gave us some examples of how the Freemasons interpreted Egyptian art – these included assuming that the tomb wall paintings show the Pharaoh being initiated into the Freemasons cult. The gods were interpreted as Grand Masters wearing masks. She read us a bit written by Belzoni’s wife which discussed the snakes on a Pharaoh’s kilt as being symbols of the Fall – i.e. the snake from the Garden of Eden which tempted Eve – and the kilt itself as the apron that a Freemason wears. There were several other examples, in both paintings and architecture. I thought it must’ve been awfully disappointing for the Freemasons as a group once hieroglyphs were deciphered enough to read the writing on the tomb paintings and so on!
The last part of Cathie Bryan’s talk was a selection of examples of Egyptianising themes in Freemason architecture and funerary art. I believe Egyptianising architecture is her particular subject, and so she had a lot of examples of this to show us. Many Freemason Lodges had Egyptian themed rooms as well as architectural details on the outside. I was particularly struck by the picture she showed us of a lodge in Philadelphia that was spectacularly ornate. And there was one that included a weighing of the heart scene on one of the walls! She also had a lot of examples of graves of (probable) Freemasons which had Egyptian themes. She pointed out that it’s not always obvious if the Egyptian stuff on a grave (like obelisks, or pyramids, or winged sundisks) is due to the deceased being a Freemason, or if it’s just because it was currently fashionable when the deceased died. She’s just recently completed a project in conjunction with the Freemasons to try & identify which graves in a particular London cemetery were Freemason ones.
An interesting talk, and a very different angle on Ancient Egypt.