While the organisation has prided itself of a code of silence and discretion for hundreds of years, the BBC was given unprecedented access to several Scottish lodges (the freemason term for chapters or branches) to create a new documentary, Secrets of the Masons, that’s set to banish some of the biggest misconceptions about the club.
According to the United Grand Lodge of England, freemasonry is the world’s oldest and largest non-religious, non-political fraternal and charitable organisations, and “has always been about making good men better”.
Before freemasons there were stonemasons — skilled craftsmen employed to work on Scotland’s landmark buildings. The men-only club was originally based on guilds created by stonemasons in the 14th century.
The Grand Lodge of Scotland’s curator, Bob Cooper, spoke with the BBC and explained the meaning behind the organisation’s secret handshake.
“The handshake is a way of identifying one to another, especially when they had to move around Scotland looking for work,” Cooper said.
He explained, that as ancient stonemasons travelled from job to job, handshakes were created to recognise a man’s experience, with each level of mason using a different handshake.
He also addressed one of the group’s strangest traditions that sees members rolling up one leg of their trousers. He said the symbolic gesture is a way for members to emphasise their promise to the society.
“What it means is that your skin touches the lodge so there is physical contact between you and the lodge,” he said. “It’s just a very old and peculiar way of emphasising the fact that you have entered an organisation that you are never going to renege on.”
Another question surrounding the group is what goes on at initiation ceremonies, which has never been filmed even to this day.
Brother Ewan Rutherford, of the Sir Robert Moray Lodge No. 1641 in Edinburgh told BBC, “It was one of the most frightening experiences I have ever had and I have no idea why. Most men would probably say the same, anxious about the unknown”.
While current members are sworn to secrecy, several ex-members have posted details of the ceremony online. According to the BBC, the ceremony is based on the Old Testament story featuring Hiram Abiff, the builder of the Biblical temple of Solomon, who is attacked by thugs wanting to know the secrets of the building. Hiram refuses to tell them and is murdered.
It is believed the biblical story is somehow re-enacted during the initiation ceremony, with the new member pledging to never reveal the organisation’s secrets.
The documentary also addresses one of the most controversial beliefs about the group — that members, including judges, politicians and businessmen, help each other to get ahead in life.
“I’ve heard it said that people only become freemasons in order to get a leg up the greasy pole,” Cooper said. “That’s not what freemasonry intends to do.”
Secrets of the Masons will air in the UK on Monday.
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