Obelisks and Egypt
Inside the Brotherhood, by Martin Short
Today Freemasons may deny that any part of their cult hearkens back to the pagan gods of the Nile. Yet in Freemasons Hall, Dublin, home of the world's second oldest Grand Lodge, the Holy Royal Arch Room contains two large sphinxes and other sculptures aping Ancient Egypt. In Philadelphia, USA, the Masonic Temple boasts 'the finest specimen of Egyptian decoration outside Egypt'.[1.] Even London's Great Eastern Hotel at Liverpool Street station has a magnificent Egyptian Temple for lodges to rent for their ritual nights out.
The most blatant symbols of Freemasonry's obsession with Egypt are not hidden in its temples. They stand on public view in the centre of London, Paris, New York, and Washington. How they came to be erected shows both the immense power of Freemasons in the nineteenth century and their love affair with the most evocative symbol of all egyptian religion: the obelisk.[2.]
Why the obelisk? To early Egyptians it was the shape sacred to the Sun God Re or Ra; the creator of humanity, the source of all heat and light, the being on whom man was totally dependent. By the fifth dynasty Re had become so popular he was elevated to the role of state deity. His main centre of worship was On-Heliopolis where the first kings erected primitive obelisks, rough-hewn and truncated, but tipped off by the pyramidion shape which distinguishes obelisks from other monumental columns. These prototype obelisks were known as 'benben' stone.
The spirit of the Sun-God was supposed to enter the stones at certain periods, and on these occasions human sacrifices were offered to it. The victims were probably prisoners of war who had been captured alive, and foreigners, and when these failed, the priests must have drawn upon the native population.[3.]
At On-Heliopolis king after king erected benbens in Re's honour, so that by 1300 B.C. the city was full of obelisks; some decorated with gold to resemble the sun's rays, others with inscriptions glorifying Re's daily passage through the skies, or hailing earthly occasions such as victories, feasts and jubilees.
The pharoahs of later dynasties switched their obelisk erecting affections to Osiris; God of the earth, vegetation and the Nile flood that gave life to all Egypt; God of rebirth; God also of the Underworld, the Last Judgement and Life and Death. As this cult became ever more popular, the priests at Heliopolis shrewdly grafted it on to Re-worshiping by claiming Osirus was Re's grandson.[4.] This ensured that Heliopolis remained the greatest religious centre in Egypt and the entire Mediterranean region. Even the Roman author Pliny knew of this city where kings 'entered into a kind of rivalry in forming elongated blocks of stone, known as obelisks, and consecrated them to the divinity of the Sun.[5.]
The Egyptians found
Osirus particularly attractive because of the bittersweet myth of
his life, death and reincarnation. This has been told many times
in many ways, but Masonic historians have tended to agree on a
version that satifies their ritual needs.[6.]
Osirus was a King of Egypt who married his sister Isis. His brother, Set, wished to usurp the throne and so plotted his death. He tricked Osirus into climbing in a golden chest. As soon as he was inside, Set nailed down the lid and flung the chest into the Nile. It was carried off to Byblos in Syria where it came to rest against a small tamarisk or acacia tree, with the dead Osirus still inside.
Isis found out what Set had done to Osiris, so she set off to find her husband. A vision led her to Byblos, where she recovered his body and took it back to Egypt. Alas! Set stole it and tore it into fourteen pieces, which he scattered through Egypt to prevent Osiris coming to life again.
Isis recovered all but
one of the pieces and gaver Osiris a fit burial. Their son,
Horus, avenged him by slaying Set. Another sone, Anubis,
resurrected Osiris with the lion grip. Having triumphed over the
grave, Osiris now reigns as King and Judge of the so-called
The piece of Osiris which Isis never recovered was the penis, which Set had cruelly thrown into the Nile, where it was eaten by fish. Ever-resourceful, Isis 'manufactured an artificial organ around which the Egyptians established a cult and festival'.[7.] From this it is a small step to the conclusion that the benben or obelisk was itself a phallic symbol. Where of Osiris, Re or of fertility in general, it was a symbol of fatherhood: 'the rock that begot'.[8.]
To Freemasons groping for mystic enlightenment in the 1800s the obelisk was the only architectural symbol of Osiris still in existence. And if, as some Masonic historians claim, Hiram Abiff is really Osiris reborn,, there could be no greater proof of Masonic ascendency in the modern world than Egyptian obelisks thrust by Masons into the heart of the West's greatest cities. These would also symbolize Boaz and Jachin, the twin pillars which Masons claim were built in front of Soloman's Temple, in 'imitation of two obelisks at the entrance of Egyptian temples'.[9.] These are mentioned even in the Book of the Dead, the texts which every well-heeled Ancient Egyptian had placed in his tomb to make sure he was resurrected in the Kingdom of Osiris: 'Two pillars at the gateway to his house were Set and Horus.'[10.]
Obelisk mania had already engulfed Freemasonry by the time Napoleon Bonaparte set sail for Egypt in 1798. Whether Napoleon was a Mason is fiercly disputed but his four brothers certainly were. He was also encircled by Masonic advisors who convinced him Egypt held original secrets of history, philosophy and (of course) Freemasonry. Masons figured among the 150 scholars who joined the Emperor on his triumphant Nile progress, pillaging pyramids, temples and tombs all in the name of learning. They instantly realized that the Rosetta Stone (unearthed by French soldiers) might unlock the lost language of Egypt. To decipher its hieroglpyhs took many years and the genius of Champollion, yet even he needed the help of an obelisk bearing Cleopatra's cartouche, which was removed for shipment to England in 1818 by a Masonic adventurer: Giovanni Batista Belzoni.[11.]
Belzoni was a mountebank archaeologist who opened up the temple of Abu Simbel and the second pyramid at Giza. He began his Masonic career in Cairo, appropriately, in the Lodge of the Pyramids and then joined lodges in Cambridge and Norwich. He died in 1825, searching for Timbuctoo or the source of the Niger, but not before doing Freemasonry an inestimable service by claiming to have discovered an ancient Masonic temple in Thebes. He claimed its wall paintings showed Osiris being initiated into Freemasonry, pursuing its 'sublime mysteries', and - clad in a distinctive Masonic apron - awarding another Masons a higher degree.[12.]
After Belzoni died his wife Sarah transcribed his notes, including this declaration: 'Let the Masonic brethren search, and they will find, that the Egyptian Masonic Key will unlock the hitherto unrevealed mysteries of Egyptian wisdom.'
Sarah had been left destitute by her husband's death, but the United Grand Lodge of England gave here the substantial sum of fifty pounds to help bear the 'irreparable loss which she, as well as the lovers of science and literature' had sustained.[13.]. No matter that his 'Masonic temple proved to be the tomb of Pharaoh Seti I and that all he (or Sarah) had written was bunkum, Masons felt they owed much to Belzoni. His Masonic 'discoveries' sent packs of them off to Egypt in search of any obelisk they cold plunder.
Paris was the first major city to groan under the weight of this Masonic fad. In 1830 the Viceroy of Egypt, Mohamed Ali, gave Frances's King Charles X a magnificent obelisk, but the French themselves had to remove it from Luxor where it had stood for 3.500 years. As the 92-ft prize weighed 246 tons this was no easy task.. Before it could be achieved, a Masonic conspiracy had deposed Charles and replaced him with King Louis-Philippe. Among the conspirators was Louis Thiers who was Mniister of Public Works by the time the obelisk had been floated down the Nile and up the Seine. When it was erected five years later in the Place de la Concorde, [Orignally called Place de la Revolution where Priests and Christian Nobles were guillotined - FW] Thiers was Prime Minister. Thirty-five years later in 1871 he became France's first President.
At this time an obelisk which Mohammed Ali had awarded England back in 1819 was still prostrate in Alexandria, where it had fallen centuries before. It was not until 1875 that an eminent Mason, General Sir James Alexander, resolved to ship 'Cleopatra's Needle' to London. This now occured, but only because another Mason, Dr. Erasmus Wilson, agreed to put up 20,000 Pounds to ship and erect it. The two engineers who planned its transportation, Dixon and Stphenson, were also Masons. In 1877 the obelisk was encased in an iron cylinder, christened Cleopatra, and towed out from Alexandria. The voyage was a catastrophe. During a storm in the Bay of Biscay the Cleopatra broke loose. Six men drowned. The obelisk did not sink but was recovered and eventually towed to England. At last on 13 September 1878 it was erected alongside the Thames on Victoria Embankment - a less glorious site than Parliament Square, which some worthies had suggested but which the oblelisk's 186 tons might do to underground gas and sewer pipes. For his massive expenditure Erasmus Wilson received a knighthood.
Various items were encased in the obelisk's new pedestal: a box of hairpins, a portrait of Queen Victoria, a shilling razor and chapter 3 verse 16 of the Gospel of St John in 215 languages: 'For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotton Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting live.' As this was buried out of sight, posterity might find the inscription on the obelisk more eloquent. These spoke of the Sun God Ra, of Horus and Osirus: another God's son whose death gave believers everlasting life.
The news that English Masons had succeeded in erecting Cleopatra's Needle encouraged American Masons to ship its twin across the Atlantic. Both had stood at Helipolis until the Roman Emperor Augustus moved them to Alexandria around 22 B.C. to adorn a new palace, but whereas England's needle had toppled centuries ago, the 'American' obelisk was still standing. It had been given to America in 1877, but two years passed before a benefactor was found to pay for its shipment and erection, and a sailor-cum-engineer volunteered to attempt the taks. The prime mover was a New York editor named William Hulbert, the benefactor (to the tune of $75,000) was William J. Vanderbilt, and the sailor was a Lt-Cmdr Henry Gorringe. All were Freemasons.
Gorringe needed even greater spunk than his British counterparts. The obelisk's removal provoked bitter local objections. Lowering, then loading its 220 tons on board ship were delicate and dangerous tasks. Then the ship had to survive a near mutiny and severe storms before sailing into New York in July 1880. A site was finally agreed - in Central Park near the Metropolitan Museum - and a ceremony to fit the occasion was arranged for 9 October.
This was a brazenly Masonic affair. Nine thousand Freemasons marched with bands through the streets to Greywacke Knoll where Jesse Anthony, the Grand Master of New York Masons, laid the 7-ton cornerstone. After extolling Egypt as the birthplace of science, astronomy, literature, and art, he told his enthralled audience that Masons needed to revise their thinking on the origins of their order: 'There can be no question but that in the secret societies of Egypt are to be found some elements ow embraced in the principals or symbolism of Masonry.
It took another four months to drag the obelisk from its landing stage to its 50-ton pedestal, also shipped from Alexandria. When it was finally erected in January 1881, the tune of Martin Luther's hymn 'Ein' Feste Burg' was sung with specially written words, whose significance no Mason could miss:
Great God, to Whom since time began,For some Masonic enterprises, an original Egyptian benben was not good enough. Since 1848 an obelisk had been going up in Washington, DC, to honour America's founding President, George Wasington, who had been a Freemason. His funeral in 1799 had been conducted according to Masonic rites. The coffin had been draped with a Masonic apron given by a brother revolutionary and Mason, the Marquis de Lafayette, and the many Masons present each cast a sprig of acacia, to symbolize both Osiris's resurrection and Washington's own imminent resurrection in the realm where Osiris presides.[14.]
The world has prayed and striven;
Maker of stars, and earth, and man -
To thee our praise is given!
Here by this ancient Sign
Of Thine own Light Divine,
We lift to Thee our eyes,
Thou Dweller of the skies -
Hear us, O God in Heaven!
The cornerstone for the Washington monument was a 10-ton slab of marble given by a Freemason. Unlike its Egyptian forebears this obelisk would be made not from a single stone but from marble blocks weighing 81,000 tons. The Civil War halted construction, so it was not until 1884 that the obelisk reached its full 555 fett and was topped off with an aluminium capstone with due Masonic pomp. On 21 February 1885 - Washington's birthday - the monument was dedicated in another dose of fraternal self-congratulations. One prominent brother spoke of Masons now as builders of human society. Their stones were living men, 'their minds enlightened with divine love, their hearts radiant with discovering the joy of pure love, their souls cherishing - like the ancient Egyptian worshippers of Osiris - the hope of immortality.'
The nineteenth century saw a forest of obelisks sprout in cities all over the Masonic world. Even a small town like Comber in Ireland acquired one, unveiled in 1844 before the banners of thirty-five lodges in Irish Freemasonry's largest public gathering. Yet not all obelisks are Masonic symbols. Rome has eleven, mostly brought from Egypt by ancient emperors with delusions of grandeur. After erecting Caligula's obelisk in St Peter's Square in 1586 Pope Sixtus V exorcised it, consecrated it and surmounted it with a Holy Cross. Many British war memorials built after World War I are obelisk-shaped, but they are usually adorned with a saying from the New Testament or a sculpture of Christ on the Cross. There is a clear difference in meaning and intent between these Christianized forms and the pagan monuments which Masons erected in London, New York and Washington 100 years ago.
Christians may be offended by Masonry's obsession with things Egyptian, although agnostics may feel the afterlife offered by Osiris is more attractive than the Christian prospectus of Purgatory, Heaven or Hell. Either way, 'profane' students suspect that today's Masonic spokesmen are denying the brotherhood's past embrace with the gods of the Nile just to keep present-day Christians at bay. In Australia they are not so coy. In 1978 a new Masonic Royal Arch Temple was built in Petersham, New South Wales. The Mayor and other town dignitaries came to the opening, and admired the painstaking care with which an Egyptian room had been transferred from the old temple. Around the walls was a mural of paintings taken from the Book of the Dead, including images of Osiris 'the god of light and the god of the quick and the dead'.[15.]
One Royal Arch Masons
told me his fraternity's love affair with obelisks was nothing
more than a 'bunch of pricks in search of needles', but can
dabbling in ancient cults be so easily dismissed? Despite the
bluster, might any part of Freemasonry go beyond sun-worship or
the commemoration of ancient gods into the realms of devil
1. Quoted in McCormick, Christ the Christian and Freemasonry, W.J. McCormick, Great Joy Publications, Belfast.
2. On obelisks see Tomkins, op. cit.; Erk Iverseen, Obelisks in Exile (two vols.) Copenhagen, 1968, 1971. John A. Weisse, The Obelisk and Freemasonry, Bouton, New York 1880.
3. From E.A. Wallis-Budge's notes on Ra/Re, included in Medici Society reprint of The Book of the Dead, University Books, Secaucus, New Jersey 1960.
4. On Osiris, Ra/Re and other Egyptian gods see Wallis-Budge, op. cit.; Hart, op.cit.
5. Pliny in Natural History
6. See Mackey, op. cit.; J.S.M. Ward, Freemasonry and the Ancient Gods and Who Was Hiram Abiff?, Lewis Masonic.
7. Hart, op.cit.
8. See Tomkins, op.cit., especialy chapters 17 and 18 with quotations from Hargrave Jennings, Phallicism and Obelisks
9. Weisse, op. cit.
10. The Book of the Dead, op. cit.; also Tomkins, op. cit.; chapter 16
11. William Bankes, the obelisk's buyer who also paid for its transportation, may not have been a Mason.
12. Weisse, op.cit.
13. Preston, Illusrations of Freemasonry
14. The acacia also symbolizes Masonic rebirth in general - see Mackey, op. cit. and others.
15. Masonic Square, March 1978
Martin Short wrote, produced and narrated the prize-winning ITV documentary series on the Mafia in America, Crime Incorporated. To accompany the series, he wrote Crime Inc.: A History of Organized Crime in America. In addition to writing feature articles for The Times, The Spectator, New Statesman, Time Out and Special Forces, he co-authored (in 1977) The Fall of Scotland Yard, about police corruption in London. He is also the author of Lundy: The Destruction of Scotland Yard's Finest Detective (1991).
After reading history at Cambridge University, he worked - from 1969 to 1984 - on major current affairs programmes for the ITV companies Thames, Granada and London Weekend (on the Lebanon) and for Channel 4's Dispatches series (on the international arms trade). In 1988 he presented Charlie Richardson and the British Mafia for Longshot Productions and Channel 4. His series based on Inside the Brothehood appeared on ITV in 1989, and in 1994 he produced and presented the ITV series Gangbusters.
Masonry still retains among its emblems one of a woman weeping over a broken column, holding in her hand a branch of acacia, myrtle, or tamarisk, while Time, we are told, stands behind her combing out the ringlets of her hair. We need not repeat the vapid and trivial explanation... given, of this representation of Isis, weeping at Byblos, over the column torn from the palace of the King, that contained the body of Osiris, while Horus, the God of Time, pours ambrosia on her hair.
Illustrious Albert Pike 33°
Morals and Dogma, page 379