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The Masons are still at it after all these years!
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Rudyard Kipling wrote the story a hundred years ago and Sean Connery and Michael Caine starred in the swashbuckler, The Man Who Would Be King (1975).

Two wandering English scoundrels set forth to seek their fortune in the remote, icy mountains of Kafiristan, among famously bloodthirsty tribes. Kipling, being a brother Mason, helps them on their way, as a brother must.

In the movie version, as the high priest prepares to poke a spear into the Connery character, he sees a Masonic medallion on the bared chest, cries out, and the whole population falls down in awe.

They recognize the medallion as the sign of Alexander the Great, who came to these mountains and left a king's ransom in jewels, promising to send his son to claim it one day. 

For 2000 years they've been guarding the treasure and waiting; now here at last is the son. For a brief, giddy time, a couple million people in mountains as remote as the moon revere the English rascal as god, king, and Alexander II.

Powerful stuff, Freemasonry.

The Ancient Order of Free and Accepted Masons is the world's most successful secret society and object of more furious papal bulls and encyclicals than any other. Until 1717, when four Lodges in London banded together and met openly as a Grand Lodge, it was secret indeed. 

So secret that its history has been lost to even its most inmost authorities. In 1986 John Hamill, librarian and curator of the United Grand Lodge Library and Museum in London, in his book, The Craft: A History of English Freemasonry, asks when, why, and where Freemasonry was born, and answers himself, "We do not know... Whether we shall ever discover the true origins of Freemasonry is open to question."

Most modern Masons and standard reference books subscribe to the current theory that it grew from a medieval craft guild of stonemasons, but on closer inspection this seems unlikely. 

Earlier Masonic historians included Adam, Abraham, Noah, Moses, Ptolemy, Julius Caesar, and the mythical Achilles as members. The murder of Hiram, master builder of the Temple of Solomon, is central to its highest rites, and King Solomon, is held to have been one of the three original Grand Masters. 

Speculation has also linked it to every heretical sect; with the Holy Grail, the KGB, devil worship, Wat Tyler's bloody Peasant's Revolt in 1381, the Protestant Reformation, ancient Egyptian priests, the Crusades, the Rosicrucians, the Jacobites, and the Druids.

Odd as it would seem for a craft guild of dusty stonecutters, the order has traditionally contained kings and dukes, scientists, writers, and other notables. The Royal Society in London, still one of the world's most prestigious gatherings, was founded around 1645 by England's foremost scientists and philosophers; virtually all of them were Masons. 

The Stuart kings were heavily involved, and Prince Charles is the first male British heir in 200 years to opt out. Voltaire and Goethe, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, the Marquis de Lafayette, Sir Walter Scott, and Mark Twain were Masons.

The reference books explain this distinguished roster with the theory that, as the number of working stonemasons dwindled, outsiders were allowed to join. This is like saying that the dockworkers' union, finding itself shorthanded, let the king of England sign up.

In America, where the order is almost three million strong, 15 presidents, from George Washington to Ronald Reagan, have been Masons. John Quincy Adams, however, raged wildly against the society, and President Fillmore got his start in politics on the third party Anti-Masonic ticket.

Secrets-and the implications of a worldwide underground of influential people pledged to help and protect each other-inspire paranoia in outsiders. We consider uneasily the Masonic mark on the US dollar bill, the All-Seeing Eye and the unfinished pyramid symbolizing the Temple of Solomon that Masons swear to complete. What voodoo lurks behind the buck? A popular book of 1976, Stephen Knight's Jack the Ripper-The Final Solution, accused prominent Freemasons of Jack's gory mutilations.

As with all mysteries, theories have multiplied like rabbits. One particularly tireless researcher, John J. Robinson, has worked out a plausible link between Freemasonry and the Knights Templar, who were outlawed in the 14th century. In his book, Born in Blood-The Lost Secrets of Freemasonry, he makes short work of the stonemason idea. For starters, he can't find any mention of medieval mason's guilds at all, even in towns like Oxford and Lincoln, with mountains of stonework and exhaustive records. 

And most precious to the Masonic rites is the apron, originally lambskin, supposedly the working uniform of a stonecutter, yet no contemporary drawing or woodcut shows builders wearing aprons. The accepted origin of Masonic "Lodges" as temporary worksite quarters looks doubtful, too, considering that a medieval castle or cathedral could take from 20 to 100 years to build, a long time to be camped out away from the wife an kiddies.

The hair-raising oaths, the blindfolds, the guard at the Lodge door with his sword drawn seem extreme for a craft guild. What secrets were such desperate matters-a new way to hold a chisel or swing a maul? 

Until 1717 even membership was a close-held secret, not to be revealed to any except an identified brother, but secrecy would have made a guild worker helpless to apply for a job or travel to one from town to town, since medieval movements were fiercely restricted and the penalty for vagrancy could be death. A stonemason on his way to work would need to explain himself at every checkpoint.

In the old order of Masonry there are three degrees. Entered Apprentice, Fellow Craft, and Master Mason, each with its separate initiation, oath, and separately revealed secrets. A Master Mason asks that his body be cut in two and his bowels burned to ashes if he breaks his oath of secrecy.

Strong words for a labor union. At all levels secret grips, passwords, and interrogations are doled out, and all swear to lodge a traveling brother for two weeks before giving him money to continue his journey.

Robinson makes a good case for a group of fugitives in danger of death, possibly by official torture, being passed from one safe house to safe house by strangers in whom the outlaw must trust absolutely, by reason of their oaths. He believes that at least the original core members were the Knights Templar. 

Perhaps they used stonework and its symbols as a cover, the way outlawed early Christia ns called themselves fishermen and used the sign of the fish.

Founded after the First Crusade in 1118 as a standing army in the Holy Land, the Templars were a religious body of warrior monks who wore lambskin underpants as a reminder of their vows of chastity and identified themselves with the Temple of Solomon. There were three ranks. They convened in secret, and a knight guarded the door with drawn sword.

They belonged to the knightly, not the artisan, social class and had lands and connections all over Europe. Their ranks swelled to 15,000 and, as they got richer, they took up banking, developed a secret intelligence system, and lent money to Philip IV of France. As others have discovered, it's risky to let powerful people get deep in your debt; they hope to get rid of the debt by getting rid of you.

Pope Clement V was a tool of Philip's, and between them they developed a classic frame-up. One "prisoner" confessed to another that he was a Templar and that Templars were devoted to heresy, blasphemy, sodomy, and cat worship. Both prisoners were plants. 

The Pope, directed by Philip, ordered all French Templars arrested on Friday the 13th, 1307, and tortured by having their feet burned off and their leg-bones slowly crushed until they confessed.

Mysteriously, many vanished into the woodwork, taking along sacks of money and 18 ships that were never seen again-unless, perhaps, flying the skull and crossbones, an ancient Masonic symbol.

In Britain, Pope Clement had less clout; Scotland simply ignored his order, and Edward II in England procrastinated until Clement personally sent 10 of his best torturers. Great numbers of Templars remained unfound.

Like many in England at the time, the Templars spoke French, and as outlaws among English-speakers they would need hand-signals and grips to communicate. Robinson has traced many of the unaccountable Masonic words to medieval French, corrupted by English speakers. Maybe the "due-guard," for instance, the sign by which a Mason identifies himself comes from geste du garde, or protective gesture.

Or then again, maybe not. And maybe, like the common cold, Freemasonry has many sources. None of what Robinson offers is documentary evidence, but where there's no evidence for anyone's theories, anyone can join in. The history of Freemasonry, like the Kennedy assassination, provides an endless playground for buffs who love a good mystery. 

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