One of the core elements in secret society ritual, symbolism, and literature is allegory, the creation or use of a story with a hidden meaning concealed beneath the obvious one. Allegory was one of the most popular literary devices in the Middle Ages and Renaissance; few works of literature from those times failed to have at least one allegorical meaning, and Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scholars all treated their respective scriptures as allegorical books in which many levels of hidden meaning could be found beneath the literal interpretation. While allegory was driven out of philosophy and science around the time of the scientific revolution, it remained a common feature in popular literature until the beginning of the twentieth century.

Secret societies picked up the habit of allegory early on. Freemasonry drew from its roots in operative masonry the habit of thinking of its tools as the emblems of moral ideas; for example, the level, used by operative masons to check the set of stones, became a symbol of equality – the idea that all “are on the same level.” Similar connections link other working tools and objects in a Masonic lodge to moral concepts, and this led the designers of Masonic degrees to weave allegorical stories early on. In many Masonic degrees, events from history or legend have been turned into moral allegories.

Complexities enter the picture because the same story can have more than one allegorical meaning, and such meanings can change without any alteration to the ritual itself. Nor is it easy to tell what any particular allegory is intended to mean. The Masonic legend of Hiram Abiff, the master builder of King Solomon’s Temple, is a case in point. Most modern Masons interpret it as an allegory of faithfulness in the face of death, but Jacobite Freemasons in France used it as an allegory for the execution of King Charles I of England in 1649, which they hoped to avenge; revolutionaries of many nations in the nineteenth century saw it as an allegory of their countrymen’s sufferings under the rule of foreign overlords; Theosophist mystics in Co-Masonry in the early twentieth century understood it as an account of the fall of the spirit into matter; while certain modern writers on the origins of Freemasonry insist that it refers to events in the distant past, ranging from the assassination of an obscure Egyptian pharaoh to the destruction of the planet Mars by asteroids.

The unpopularity of allegory in modern philosophy and literature has much to do with the spread of speculative theories about secret societies. In nineteenth-century Britain and America, when allegory was still popular, people handled it with some degree of sophistication and rarely fell into the trap of thinking that because an allegory seems to make sense, it must have been intended by the author. Too many people nowadays lack this awareness. Much of the wilder modern literature on secret societies assumes that if a story can be interpreted allegorically, the hidden meaning must not only be intentional, but true. This has added to the entertainment value of today’s alternative reality literature, but does little to make it accurate or even reasonable.



The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies : the ultimate a-z of ancient mysteries, lost civilizations and forgotten wisdom written by John Michael Greer – © John Michael Greer 2006