If, as is stated categorically by the United Grand Lodge of England, Freemasonry "is not a Secret Society" and is "not a religion or a substitute for religion," then what is it? And why should students of the occult be concerned with the history, symbolism and rituals of this "peculiar system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols," which is defined officially as, "one of the world's oldest secular fraternal societies . . . a society of men concerned with spiritual values. Its members are taught its precepts by a series of ritual dramas, which follow ancient forms and use stonemasons' customs and tools as allegorical guides. The essential qualification for admission and continuing membership is a belief in a Supreme Being. Membership is open to men of any race or religion who can fulfill this essential qualification and are of good repute"? Perhaps the occultist, who sees in freemasonry the survival of ancient, pagan mystery religions, sees something that, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, for what he sees is clearly invisible both to the governing body of the Craft and to the bulk of its members.
Freemasonry does have a traditional history (around which its rituals are constructed) that places its origin at the time of the building of King Solomon's Temple, but in the material world we can trace its history from 1717 A.D. when the first Grand Lodge in the world - the Grand Lodge of England - was founded at London. From that time on Freemasonry has expanded, undergoing many vicissitudes along the way - schisms, reconciliations, quarrels over jurisdiction and quarrels over essential beliefs until today it is firmly established in most countries of the world (the exceptions being countries of the Communist bloc, and those countries that suffer under Islamic fundamentalism).
Regular Freemasonry - which, among other things demands from its members a belief in God, forbids the discussion of religion and politics in its lodges, and forbids also the admission of women to membership - is strongest in the English-speaking world, and it is a curious paradox that England, where the Craft is most conservative, should have produced not only the foremost masonic historians, but also the most adventurous (and most widely read) speculative interpreters of masonic symbolism and philosophy.
These latter have been invariably influenced by the masonic traditions of continental Europe, where "higher" degrees and exotic Rites have proliferated since the middle of the eighteenth century. (At this point it would be well to emphasise that all "higher" or "additional" degrees and grades are later inventions than the three Craft degrees of Entered Apprentice, Fellowcraft, and Master Mason, including "the Supreme Order of the Holy Royal Arch" - declared in 1813 by the United Grand Lodge of England to be the oniy degrees of "pure Antient Masonry"; and further, that the governing bodies of the "higher" degrees have no control whatsoever over the Craft degrees.)
The complex phenomenon of European Freemasonry was significantly different from its counterpart in eighteenth century England. The essential masonic tenets of tolerance and benevolence were overlain from an early date with layers of metaphysical speculation, while the simple Craft rituals were extended into elaborate ceremonies for a multiplicity of degrees, grades and Orders, all of which involved extravagant traditional histories and hierarchical ruling bodies that became increasingly divorced from reality. To some extent such Rites represented a way of escape from the political oppression of illiberal regimes and the spiritual oppression of the Roman Catholic Church, which had been implacably hostile to Freemasonry from the beginning, but they inevitably drifted away from "pure Antient Masonry" to become either politicised or steered into overtly esoteric channels....