Bejwelled: Badges, Brotherhood and Identity
Freemasons Hall in London has recently put on a show exploring the badges of their lodges over the 300 year history of freemasonry.
Freemason badges are called Jewels. By the 18th century they became mass produced. Factories began standardising the badges and their component parts of pin, ribbon and medallion. Factories also produced catalogues showing the various jewells and offering some customisation of items.
Jewels have various meanings. Crossed quills denote secretaries and crossed keys symbolise treasures. The meanings behind these symbols are still understood today, but when freemasonry began such items were not symbols – secretaries literally wrote minutes with quills.
Although some symbols are slightly arcane, the exhibition does not go into detail.
The jewels are human objects. They were touched, treasured, valued, desired, gave away, worn by people. A roughly scratched badge from an internment camp at Changhi, Singapore shows the importance of jewels even in difficult circumstances. Another jewel from the Netherlands commermorates a Grand Master who was murdered in a Nazi concentration camp. They are a unique historical resource, and at times, a deeply moving one.
Greek and Roman Egypt in Freemasonry
Egyptian themes are important but do not predominate. Most jewels were made from metal, but masons used items such as stones from King Solomon’s mines (where worked the first masons). One jewel on display even contains a chip from Cleopatra’s Needle.
The Past Master Jewel of the Authors’ lodge is replete with Egyptian iconography. On the ribbon, two figures kneel either side of a Djed pillar which is topped by an Ankh. Above them a winged son. The medallion shows an ancient Egyptian death mask.
Ancient Egyptian symbolism came into freemasonry through Hermetica. Hermes Trismegistus was a powerful magician linked to the two figures of Thoth and Hermes (himself linked with Anubis). Books written by Hermes Trismegistus continued to be read throughout the medieval period and into the Renaissance and beyond. They offered an occult insight into the world. Even before Egypt was “discovered” by Napoleon, freemasons were using Egyptian iconography.
The most famous example of this is in The Magic Flute by Mozart, a keen freemason. The second act, begins with a process of priests to Isis and Osiris.
At the time, visual iconography used in freemasonry came from the Egyptian things found in Europe and especially at Rome- the obelisks and pyramids, small items and classical authors. Heiroglyphs were known in Europe even at this stage and several attempts at decipherment. The closest to date was that by Athanasius Kircher who argued that the signs could denote sounds rather than ideas or words. He even learnt Coptic as he believed that the language would be basically the same. Kircher “translated” some texts and restored others. His translations are now completely discredited, but he was onto something with his intuition that Coptic was a later stage of (what is now now called) Middle Egyptian. However, like most would be Egyptologists Kircher thought that the hieroglyphs denoted secret teachings.
Egypt outside Egypt
Egyptian freemasons have a less enthusiastic take on their history. The first badges reflect Ottoman rule supported by British. Later the Jewel of Egypt and Arab Countries used a combination of Arabic and hieroglyphs.
This mirrors the situation in other countries. The Grand Lodge of Iran used Zoroastrian symbols. Zoroaster was both a religion but also symbolised the ancient history of the country. The lodge was closed after the Revolution of 1979.
There is something of the exotic in the Western image of Egypt as a land or wisdom.
Overall, an excellent exhibition. Make sure you see it whilst you can.