Ancient Scientific Perspective
It has recently been suggested that Freemasonry ultimately evolved from Megalithic tribes who, having discovered science and astronomy, constructed numerous astounding astronomical observatories including Newgrange on the river Boyne, Bryn Celli Ddu and Stonehenge between 7100 bce and 2500 bce. It is believed that these sites enabled those tribes to chart the seasons and years by observing the rotations of the sun and the third brightest object in the sky, Venus.
These were essential skills as without such timekeeping, civilisation would be hopelessly unable to plan or progress beyond mere day to day subsistence.
Indeed, the Book of Enoch, discovered amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls from the Qumran and from which many higher Masonic Orders draw their inspiration, explains the scientific principles by which those earliest observatories operate. It is then argued that this knowledge was shared and taken to the East prior to a predicted and devastating comet impact and subsequent world flood in 3150 bce.
Many survivors maintained Enochian and Noachide customs and when the Enochian-Zadokite priests were expelled from Jerusalem in 70 ce by the Romans, having first hidden their scrolls and treasures deep under the ruins of Solomons Temple as recorded in the Qumran Copper Scroll, it seems possible that their alledged descendants, the founding Knights Templar families led by Hugues de Payens, would return in 1140 ce to dig them up and retrieve them. A great story, but it is doubtful whether this theory will take hold in serious academic circles.
The Ancient Stone Mason Perspective
Whilst Freemasonry draws much imagery from the history and construction of King Solomons Temple by masons from the Phoenician city of Tyre, it seems fanciful to claim direct Stone-Mason links from that era. Nevertheless, skills in the manipulation of stone had been well established by then and had been handed down through the ages and through the hands of many peoples including craftsmen from the Greek, Byzantine and Roman eras.
Certain present day Masonic words and meanings seem rooted from the time of the early Egyptians of this era: The virtues of truth and justice were said by them to be “on the square”. Confucius in 500 bce referred to the squareness of actions; even Aristotle in 350 bce associates square actions with honest dealings. The square and its symbolism is very old and has maintained a remarkable consistency of meaning over the centuries. However, it does not necessarily follow that Freemasonry began in those eras any more than trying to assert that Euclid was a Freemason because his 47th Proposition has relevance in modern Freemasonry!
Legend next informs us that Athelstan, having subjugated most of the minor kingdoms of England, gathered together many skilled masons and established York Rite Masonry in 926 ce by granting them a Royal Charter. The charter enabled the stonemasons to meet in general assembly once a year and seems to have been a catalyst for a host of construction projects including numerous abbeys, castles and fortresses. Athelsans importance to Stonemasons is mentioned in both the Regius and Cooke Manuscripts. The Scottish Rite, by contrast, was established many centuries later by Chevalier Andrew Ramsay (Ramsays Oration of 1737 ce) and other exiled Stuart Scots in France who were plotting the restoration of James II. This has led to a diversity of subsequent Orders following the three basic Craft Degrees.
The Medieval Operative Masonic Guilds
There is evidence that Operative Masonic guilds existed in Scotland as early as 1057 ce and possibly in England from 1220 ce. Those guilds or associations were conscripted to produce sufficient masons of all qualities to satisfy the aspirations of Kings and the Church in their respective building programmes.
In days where travel and communication for all but King and Church was highly restricted, the guilds are believed to have developed their own methods of introduction and secret modes of recognition when working on various programmes around the country. These were essential in order to distinguish a skilled master from the aspiring apprentice. This was important because they were no written credentials in those days because only top Master Masons could read, let alone write letters of introduction on expensive parchment. However, some historians argue it is difficult to prove English stone masons guilds (unlike Scottish guilds) existed at all given the relative lack of evidence available to corroborate them.
Box Club Charity Theory
A more recent theory suggests modern Freemasonry developed from charitable beginnings. In the 1600s ce many trades operated what have become known as box clubs where their members would set aside earnings for the group or individual members to fall back on if they suffered hard times. Those without such assistance usually starved through lack of other reliable welfare support. Evidence indicates these box clubs began to admit members outside their trade and had many of the characteristics of early masonic lodges. Perhaps Freemasonry arose from an early and successful box club framework which was later taken over by the leading intellectual lights that emerged in the seventeenth century?