(by Universal Freemasonry, 7 July 2018)
In a discussion with a few masonic friends recently, someone asked the question: Why are oral traditions fading away? One could dispute the premise. Still, I think the brother was onto something. Are oral traditions still relevant? Are they slowly being replaced with technology?
In its plainest form, an oral tradition is information passed down through the generations by word of mouth that is not written. Examples might be legends, stories, proverbs, riddles and so on. Certain modes of recognition, including masonic words and passwords are considered part of the oral tradition in Freemasonry.
Where did masonic customs originate? The tradition becomes more understandable if we look back before the 1600’s. At that time, masonic lodges were stonemasons’ guilds of builders whose “secrets” concerned how to construct buildings. The hidden modes of recognition, whether they were certain passwords or handshakes, were a way to identify an impostor passing himself off as the real thing. The “operative” masons were artisans that were the best at their craft.
For reasons that are still not entirely clear, lodges evolved from “operative” to “speculative” builders. The “speculative” masons were different in that they became more interested in arcane studies. Their secrets were no longer building trade secrets but based on moral and philosophical concepts. When Masonry identified itself as a speculative craft, it placed the meanings of its allegories and symbols within a realm that is more esoteric.
Some say that these more esoteric secrets were inspired from ancient traditions – such as Rosicrucianism, Gnosticism, or Hermeticism – however the theory is hotly debated. An opposite view is that the passwords in freemasonry are not meaningful at all. They are not particularly earth-shattering, nor are they exactly secret. I have heard many times recently – “just google them.”
This current debate begs the question. When it comes to a mason’s words, are they a meaningless carry-over from former times? Or to the contrary, do they have some deeper significance for masons today?