Forever Faithful and Forthright, We Pledge Ourselves to Guard The Light. (The Magic Flute, Mozart)
All men are equal; it is not their birth, but virtue itself that makes the difference. (Voltaire)
It is a fine thing to be honest, but it is also very important to be right. (Winston Churchill)
Hiram Abiff & the ever-dying gods
This paper was delivered at the Discovery Lodge of Research, Sydney, on January 27, 2010.
In the third degree ritual the central feature is the death and upraising of Hiram Abiff. It brings solemnity and drama into the occasion, though our version lacks the theatricality of some other rites which use costumes and elaborate dialogue. All versions believe it is a true story that happened at the time when Solomon constructed the Temple in Jerusalem, but those who look for Biblical backing are bound to be disappointed.
In an article I wrote for the “NSW Freemason” in 1978 I examined the view of W. Bro. Rev. Morris Rosenbaum concerning the Biblical account as found – with intriguing differences – in the First Books of Kings and the Second Book of Chronicles. The relevant chapters are I Kings 5, where Solomon asks his friend Hiram king of Tyre for building materials; and II Chronicles 2, where he asks him also for an expert artisan. Both passages feature a – non-royal – Hiram, who in one account appears to be an architect-craftsman and in the other an artisan skilled in working with brass. Both are called Hiram in tribute to the king: it is possible that Hiram was a generic name for a king of Tyre, like the title Pharaoh for a king of Egypt.
Rosenbaum thought there were two separate Hirams. The Hiram of the Book of Kings is the son of “a widow of the tribe of Naphtali”: the one in Chronicles is the son of “a woman of the daughters of Dan”. If there are two Hirams the mother of one is from Naphtali and the mother of the second from Dan; if there is only one, which I will argue in a moment, his father is from Naphtali and his mother from Dan. The connection with Tyre is more than geographic co-incidence, since there was a Tyrian school of craftsmanship and Solomon wanted to use Tyrian expertise.
Next problem: if Hiram (or at least one of them) is the son of a widow, his father is dead. II Chronicles mentions Hiram aviv, “Hiram his father”. Maybe Hiram the father started the work and Hiram the son completed it. This is the view of the 19th century commentator Malbim, who quotes I Kings 7:40 and II Chron. 4:11, though Malbim may have been influenced by the Masonic legend that Hiram was murdered; when I Kings 7:13 says that Solomon “sent and fetched Hiram out of Tyre” it may mean that an escort was sent to bring the younger Hiram to Jerusalem to finish his father’s work.
This in outline is Rosenbaum’s theory, but I believe he has read too much into the scriptural account. The Books of Chronicles are not always objective history and it is possible that we have not two Hirams but two versions of the one narrative with slight differences between them.
If then there was only one Hiram, how are we to handle the reference to “Hiram his father”, with its implication that father and son were both involved in the work? The answer is that av, a father, does not necessarily mean a parent. It can also be an originator or master. Hence the title “Hiram Abif(f)” tells us of Hiram’s professional status as a master craftsman, not about his parentage. Even so, there is no objective evidence that one Hiram dropped out and another replaced him. It is more likely that there was only one Hiram and the Bible does not record his eventual fate.
For that we have to go to legend. In a moment we will examine the Masonic version, but first we need to know whether Jewish Midrash knows of a murder during the building works and whether the victim could have been Hiram. There are Midrashim (e.g. Pesikta Rabbati, Friedmann ed., 1880, p. 25a) which hold that some of the builders met an unusual death, but Freemasonry compresses the tragedy into the death of one builder, the foreman, and though the midrashic material speaks of the dead men entering the afterlife, Freemasonry thinks the foreman was restored to earthly existence, though it is silent as to his subsequent life.
The Midrash asserts that whilst the Temple was being built none of the workmen died or even became ill, enabling the project to proceed apace – presumably illustrating the principle that God protects those who are engaged on a sacred mission (Talmud Pesachim 8a). However, once the project was completed, they all died, for God wished to prevent heathens using the Temple builders to erect idolatrous shrines, illustrating the rule that one must ascend in sanctity and not descend (Talmud B’rachot 28a). The builders were assured of a rich heavenly reward, and as for Hiram the master craftsman himself, he went straight to Paradise and never tasted real death (Louis Ginzberg, “Legends of the Jews”, vol. 4, page 155 and notes).
There is a midrashic idea that nine people did not die in the usual way but entered Paradise alive. These included Enoch and Elijah… and Hiram king of Tyre (Derech Eretz Zuta 1:9; Yalkut, Gen. 42 and Ezek. 36:7).
The commentators debate whether Hiram really deserves a place in the list, but in any case the reference must be to Hiram the craftsman and not Hiram the king. The formulators of Masonic ritual possibly knew enough Hebrew to access rabbinic works, but they totally changed the Midrash to make Hiram die a very earthly death at the hands of the other workmen and then rise from the dead. They must have been influenced by Christian tradition about the death of Jesus, though they were careful not to turn the story into an antisemitic canard. However, we should not read too much theology into the Masonic story, which probably has contemporary political motives.
If the story as we have it has been deliberately crafted (I dislike the stronger term “fabricated”) with a basis in the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish Midrash, we must still investigate whether there are additional sources from other cultures. But first we have to add one more attempt, over and above those of countless historians, to posit a theory of Masonic beginnings.
There are three main historical theories about Masonry. One begins at the time of Creation with God as Great Architect, Grand Geometrician and Master Builder, Adam as the first Grand Master, and Masonry as a thread running through ancient history. The second does not make claims about Biblical times but posits a fellowship of builders working on the great edifices of the Middle Ages. The third sees Enlightenment man creating cultural-scientific societies to study ideas and ethics and giving them a pre-history, a well-known habit developed in the interests of credibility.
The third theory is bound up with 17th and 18th century events. The Stuarts ruled England from 1643-1688, except for 1649-1660 after Charles I had been executed by Parliament under Oliver Cromwell. The last Stuart, James II, had to abdicate in 1688. After the Hanoverian George I assumed the monarchy in 1714, the Stuarts mounted invasions in 1715 and 1745 via Scotland but failed to win back the throne. They lived in exile in France with support from some quarters in England. They were called “Jacobites”, from the Latin (and prior to that the Hebrew) for “James”. Some Jacobites were Masons, including Bonnie Prince Charlie, the grandson of James II; some French and Italian lodges were entirely comprised of Jacobites, who may have adopted or invented Hiram Abiff to represent the executed Charles I and to express their belief in the restoration of the Stuarts.
Plans for the return of the Stuarts were made in secret vaults which may have been Masonic lodges. HA’s refusal to divulge a secret bolstered the pledges of confidentiality which these Brothers made to each other. This theory implies that Jacobite influences were involved in the development of Masonic ritual, which was the combination of the ideas and efforts of a number of men, notably Anderson, Desaguliers and Preston, though they might have been kept in the dark about the hidden agenda of Jacobite lodges.
Hiram’s name was not new to the authors of the third degree since he is referred as the master artisan in the Regius Poem of c 1390. The first time we find the Hiram legend in a degree ritual is in the 1730 pamphlet, Freemasonry Dissected, by Samuel Prichard, though there was a rival attempt to give Freemasonry a death/resurrection story in the narrative of Noah and his sons (Graham MS, 1726; cf. Harry Carr, “Hebraic Aspects of the Ritual”, Ars Quatuor Coronatum, vol. 97, 1984, page 77).
Hiram Abiff conveyed the message better because the Noah story lacked betrayal, violence, martyrdom and revenge, even though there was a theory that his sons put his body together again after he died. Hence HA supplanted Noah and settled into the newly created third degree.
The idea of Hiram as Charles I might derive from Elias Ashmole (1617-92), the antiquarian, lawyer and alchemist who is the first (or second) known Speculative Freemason, initiated in 1646. Ashmole (like other early Speculatives, Robert Moray, Inigo Jones and Nicholas Stone) was a Royalist and a supporter of Charles II, and his lodge may have practised Masonic ritual with a Royalist meaning. However, we do not know enough about the ways of early Speculative lodges and can only conjecture.
C.S. Madhavan of the Grand Lodge of India notes that a drastic change entered Freemasonry between the first and second editions of Anderson’s Constitutions. In the first edition in 1723 we read only that “The king of Tyre sent (Solomon) his namesake Hiram Abif, ‘prince of architects’”. The second edition in 1738 speaks of the sudden death of Hiram Abiff who was interred “in the Lodge near the Temple”. The new wording shows that the displacement of Noah by HA had taken place between 1723 and 1738.
The change must have had something to do with Prichard, whose work was published in 1730, but we need more than circumstantial evidence. English Masons would presumably have welcomed the general idea of a good man who died and rose again and would have been on familiar territory in linking royal history with poetic symbolism in view of the well-loved legends of King Arthur, the symbol of chivalry and idealism, about whom Tennyson later wrote, “He passes to be King among the dead/And after healing of his grievous wound/He comes again” (Idylls of the King, 1859).
The Hiram Abiff story was not concocted out of thin air. On the other hand no-one has found any proof that there really was a Hiram Abiff who was murdered on the Temple site and then brought back to life by his supporters. Nor has anyone proved that there was an Israelite custom to pray at “high twelve”, to bury a person in proximity to the Temple, or to place an acacia sprig on a grave. There is also no proof that the real Hiram (unless he was the king of Tyre) was on close terms with King Solomon.
HA is a cultural typology developed at and reflecting the mores of a later time. Its lineage appears to have travelled through two disparate lines:
• the well known concept of gods and messiahs that die and overcome their death (examples are Osiris, Isis, Horus and Tammuz), an idea that appealed to members of secret or other societies who saw true believers martyred but the cause survive;
• widespread accounts of disasters that occurred during the building of churches, palaces and other major edifices.
The first idea has a modern equivalent in Nietzsche’s Death of God theory, plus the religious insistence that God will make a comeback. In Jewish thinking the Death of God is inconceivable, since it is an article of faith that God was not born and cannot die (“I am the first and I am the last”: Isa. 44:6), though in a metaphorical sense it could possibly tolerate the Nietzschean notion that human beings had “killed” Him. Christianity might be thought of as receptive to a Hiram Abiff narrative as consonant with the history of Jesus. However, it is difficult to reconcile a pro-Christian interpretation with the Andersonian dechristianisation of Masonic ritual, though there is admittedly a more Christian element in the Royal Arch.
Whatever the case, it is likely that this is one more example of how Masonry utilised well-known strands of folklore to construct its narratives and rituals, often starting with sketchy Biblical material but adding so much from other sources that it almost completely changed the original story. Other examples are the stories about King Solomon and the dedication of his temple, which, though crucial to the craft, should not be taken literally but understood as an amalgam of folk ideas and literary imagination.
All Masonic writers attach symbolic significance to the HA story, regardless of its origins and political significance. A popular interpretation links it to the three stages of life; as the first degree symbolises birth, when one begins to glimpse light, the second stands for manhood, when one toils toward wisdom and experience, and the third represents old age, when human powers gradually wane but one yearns for a life after death.
Perhaps Anderson and Desaguliers, unaware of or unconvinced by Jacobite political theories, decided to incorporate HA into the third degree because the death/resurrection theme appealed to them as Christians. In 1775 William Hutchinson wrote in his Spirit of Masonry, “The Master Mason represents a man under the Christian doctrine, saved from the grave of iniquity, and raised to the faith of salvation”. The dechristianisation of the craft must inevitably have been difficult for some Masons.
However, with or without christological issues the narrative illustrates and justifies the doctrine that goodness must and will prevail over doubt and difficulty, and is evidence of the common phenomenon whereby a custom or story loses its original significance, undergoes reinterpretation and rationalisation, and gains a new message and mission.
Raymond Apple, “Who was Hiram Abiff?”, The NSW Freemason, Dec., 1978
Harry Carr, “Hebraic Aspects of the Ritual”, Ars Quatuor Coronatum, vol. 97, 1984
W.W. Covey-Crump, The Hiramic Tradition, 1934
Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, various eds., vol. 4
R.F. Gould, History of Freemasonry, 5 vols., 1905
W.B. Hextall, “The Hiramic Legend and the Ashmolean Theory”, Transactions of the Leicester Lodge of Research, 1903-04
Bernard E. Jones, Freemason’s Guide and Compendium, 1950
Jacob Katz, Out of the Ghetto, 1978
C.S. Madhavan, “The Hiramic Legend” (http://www.freemasons-freemasonry.com)
Alexander Piatigorsky, Who’s Afraid of Freemasons?, 1997
Morris Rosenbaum, “Hiram Abif: The Traditional History Illustrated by the Volume of the Sacred Law”, Transactions of the Leicester Lodge of Research, 1903-04
Gershom Scholem, Kabbalah, 1974
Copyright © 2010 Rabbi Dr. Raymond Apple & HIRAM7 REVIEW