Death and the Maiden

Death and the Maiden

I’ve long been fascinated by this picture, statue, or representation of “Death and the Maiden” as it relates to Freemasonry. I first saw the picture when I became a Freemason, in one of the many books that I was able to pour through. Masonic art in general has fascinated me because it is, generally, not only beautiful but also weird; it was weird in a way that made you ask “why does that bird sit on the oddly-shaped stone” or “why is that man holding the woman’s hair while carrying a scythe?” It spoke to me, begging me to figure out what it was trying to tell me. Still, today, I can sit for hours and look at paintings, engravings, and statues and wonder what their creators meant to impart.

Death and the Maiden isn’t a new concept. Artists as far back as Duerer, Baldung, and Beham in the Middle Ages were showing that “all human beauty is ended in death (Beham.)” Shubert and Dorothea Tanning created at least two pieces of their art around the concept of Death and The Maiden. Yet, the pictures attributed to the Freemason’s ideas of Death and the Maiden seem to be very specific and rich in symbolism.

The Freemason’s “Death and the Maiden” seems to be attributed to a 19th Century Freemason named Jeremy Cross. A student of Webb and follower of Preston, he taught and lectured on Freemasonry extensively at the beginning of the 19th Century. General knowledge about him seems to be all we can find, according to Phoenix Masonry scholars and articles, but it seems the idea of the entire composition is attributed to his genius.

The composition has been recreated by others, but the basic design is as you see it above. Some have the maiden holding specific tools with an evergreen and others have her holding a piece of Acacia and an urn. The latter is a modern invention as cremation is a relatively modern invention. However, for my purposes for this post, we will still talk about it. It’s important to reflect on how symbols may change but meaning remains the same – and in this case, the emphasis is to see death on one hand, and everlasting life on the other.

Ostensibly, the winged figure behind the Maiden is Death. Shown as an old man, long-bearded, with wings and a scythe, he seems to be, as one author put it, removing the tangles from her hair. When one looks at this picture, it appears that he is about to cut her hair; taking a purely Judaeo-Christian point of view, from the inventor, the inference is that this is about the moment before death, before life is cut short. Tearing of hair and cutting hair were signs of grief and distress to the Israelites, and even implied the whole destruction of a people. Women’s hair was grown long to distinguish them from men but hair overall was a sign of health, virility, and life. That Death’s scythe is not raised implies that death of the physical world is not imminent but it is on the horizon. Death prepares the youth for what may come at any time, as implied by the hourglass sitting beside the figures. As one is born and grows, Death is always behind them, preparing.

The broken column seems to be the main figure of the composition, and implies that it is a symbol of the Freemason who is viewing the piece. Why not “every man?” Because columns are, symbolically, the individual Freemason. Freemasons are columns to uphold that “temple not made with hands.” Freemasons are there to hold up the ideals for others to emulate and must be strong and sturdy enough to do so. As we age, we start to crumble, become weak, and eventually our “bent backs” signify the end of our contributions to Humanity. Again, the broken column sitting beside its foundation shows that while Death is not ready to strike, we must prepare for it by the time our moment draws near. Hence, what appears to be a book of sacred knowledge, of whatever kind speaks to us, sits beneath the Maiden’s hands. She is studying intently, in quiet contemplation and thoughtfulness. She is not distraught or upset. Both figures are somber and still and accepting.

Then what is the Maiden? The Maiden seems to represent the essence of Life, the Will, Wisdom, and Beauty that we all can tap into to do whatever work calls us. This work is not fixing plumbing or diagnosing code or mopping floors; this work is the Work that is remembered when our time is done, in the Service of Humanity. Someone may remember that we always cleaned up the dishes or swept floors, and in that memory they see the love and dedication we had to a principle. That principle might be as material as “cleanliness” or it might be more virtuous, such as loyalty or dedication, sacrifice and service. The floor will get dirty again but the memory of the work we put into keeping it clean is what we bring to the world. The memory of Service to Humanity. The Maiden represents the potential we all bring with us at birth.

The most interesting of the symbols is the acacia plant. There are many, many theories regarding the use of Acacia as regards Freemasonry. I choose to take a more practical approach, beyond the poor or convoluted translations of the word and speculation as to Acaciaits use as a sacred symbol to the mystery school of Freemasonry. It is, generally, a low shrub or tree that grows in all parts of the world but appears to have originated in Africa and the Middle East. It is evergreen with watering, and is still cultivated mainly in the Middle East, Africa, and Australia for its gum. Besides being an evergreen plant and symbolizing ever lasting life, its qualities as a gum make it far more interesting in relation to Freemasonry.

Since ancient times, the gum or sap of the tree has been used as a fixative. Powdered, the sap is a powerful glue that can be ingested by humans. It is used to combine, fix together, and generally adhere human consumables; this includes things like beverages, soaps, and icings and sweets. It is also used to combine and emulsify paints, slips for ceramics, printing inks, and photography. Thus, it is used to bring together individual components into a sooth solution, able to create works of art as well as feed the human body. Weird as that may be, these attributes show it is directly related to our Work as Freemasons – to bring together, to combine into a well-oiled “machine” to nourish the body, mind, and emotions of the Human Being.

Lastly, there is the myth of Osiris’ death at the hands of his brother, Typhon, and his body being placed into a coffin, and the coffin being thrown into a river. Presumably, Osiris dies and the coffin is captured by low hanging Acacia plants by the river. Over time, the Acacia tree is cut down to create a column for a new temple, and in the cutting of the column, the body of Osiris is found by Isis and she uses her wings to breathe new life into her fallen husband. Many myths of Osiris’ death and resurrection are found, in parts or in whole, throughout literature and this is only one of those (Plutarch). What I find this particular myth explaining to me is that the physical form can be had once again, if the aspirant is understanding the nature of everlasting life and perhaps of the lessons that nature and Freemasonry have to teach us. In this, the column and the acacia seem to go hand in hand.

Thus, in one hand we have the energy of our lives holding onto the evergreen which brings us all together, and the ultimate symbol of our physical passing – the urn. In ancient cultures where the belief in the physical body’s transference to the Underworld was prevalent burning of bodies was not performed, namely China and Egypt. In general, however, bodies were burned using many methods, and the remains were sometimes kept in a funerary urn. Additionally, the remains of skeletons and internal body organs were also kept in urns as a sign of respect and reverence. The practice of cremation became even more prevalent in Western cultures after the creation of the first cremation chamber in 1873. For some, the urn is one of those symbols that is still a little vague as regards a deeper meaning. Maybe there isn’t one. Maybe it is simply the reminder of our physical passing, and the fact that we keep the ash-filled urns of our loved ones near us is a constant reminder of the transient nature of this mortal life.

Death and the Maiden is better for its whole than its individual parts. It is a story of humans who strive for better, only to be still chained and linked to the eventual death we all face. That the Maiden is not facing her Death but still working to better the world is hope to me. It is the hope we all bear that in our work as Builders and Creators, we have left Humanity a little better for our having been part of it. We leave behind our passions, our principles, and our virtues to be passed on to further generations of humans. Our ripples effect the ocean of Mankind. While I live, I can carry on the Work of those who have passed before me, and I hope I leave a good enough legacy that others may find their burdens lighter.

For Joy Cornell, who will always remind me to be Authentic, Passionate, Joyous, Lively, and Loyal to home and hearth. Thank you for your Light. And May Light Perpetual shine upon you, my dearest brother and friend.

Is Death Necessary? Or Inevitable?

Is Death Necessary? Or Inevitable?

Death. A foregone conclusion to this life. Maybe. What does science say?

“Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me, Albert Einstein wrote in a condolence letter, upon the death of his close friend Michele Besso in 1955, “that signifies nothing. For those of us who believe in physics, the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” Einstein was on to something, according to a contemporary scientist.

A theory… a philosophy, really, called “Biocentrism,” explores this question and many other fundamental reality-based questions. Introduced in 2010 by Robert Lanza, a scientist, doctor, and “influential thinker” who felt that consciousness is a problem for not only biologists, but physicists as well. Nothing, according to Lanza, can explain the “molecules of consciousness bouncing around in our brain.”

Biocentrism is sometimes the view or belief that the rights and needs of humans are not more important than those of other living things. This is not that theory of philosophy; it is something entirely different.

The theory postulated by Lanza is that nothing exists outside of consciousness and life. Biology is the great creator. In Lanza’s view, we humans have become very good at understanding the mechanics of our universe. We look at the rotations of planets, and we know chemical properties and can explain how apples fall from trees.

What we can’t explain is why. Why does the universe work as it does? Why can we not explain yet why we have consciousness, or what we should be doing with it? Biocentrism explains the why.

“I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness.” Said Max Planck, Nobel Prize-winning physicist, “We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness.”

Lanza, with biocentrism, seeks to explain the difference between what we all perceive to be an objective reality versus a life-centric reality.

“If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound?”

Objective reality says, why yes, of course it does. Biocentrism reality says, not unless brainthere is an ear nearby. The science is lengthy but makes a point – without the ear to hear, the sound does not really exist. The tree falling creates puffs of air which stimulate aneardrum that translates the shift of air into a sort of sound. The sound is entirely held within our brains. The sound requires life and consciousness to comprehend it. The human must remove themselves from the equation to see the validity of the argument, and put themselves back in to understand the human place in creating the universe.

  • The First Principle of Biocentrism is that “what we perceive as reality is a process that requires our consciousness.” Or, said slightly differently, requires “any” consciousness. If I ask you, where is the universe, most might answer, “out there.” What many struggle with is that we are part of the same universe; what is out there is what is in here.                                                                                                                                                                     
  • The Second Principle of Biocentrism is that “internal and external perceptions are intertwined; they are different sides of the same coin and cannot be separated.”

In a complex explanation, Lanza says the general idea is that our brains create the reality we see. In this book, “Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe,” Lanza explains all of this in an answer to the question: “Where is the Universe?”

In total, there are seven principles to Biocentrism, according to Lanza.

  • The most interesting one, in relation to death, is the Fourth Principle of Biocentrismwithout consciousness, “matter” dwells in an undetermined state of probability.

Any universe that could have preceded consciousness only existed in a probability state. This seems to state that we, as are in that undetermined state of probability, and that our matter never really “goes away” but is folded into and part of the ongoing reality of the universe. Our consciousness separates from matter but doesn’t cease to exist because it’s all part of the same consciousness. This reminds me of Neil Gaiman’s story, “American Gods.” Gods exist and thrive because of our consciousness of them.

Life creates the Universe. The Universe (Darwinism, the Big Bang, etc) did not create life. We’ve got it backwards.

Mind. Blown.

It seems like such a simple turn of phrase, one which everyone can identify with. Lanza brings to bear all the science and experiential anecdotes to back it up. He picks us up, biocentrism-turning-the-universe-outside-inkicking and screaming, from seeing the universe one way and to standing on our heads, viewing it another. These theories harken back to the ideals of Eastern Philosophies and Freemasonry.

Freemasons, Buddhists, and Taoists seek balance and unification, we see an understanding of nature and science, and a middle path. For the Buddhist, our consciousness allows us to connect with the One – the whole. For the Taoist, the focus is a seamless flow of life – where there are no individuals but a single existence. For the Freemason, we seek unity and harmony, and the idea that as a unit, we are also creators. None of this is incompatible with Lanza’s scientific and philosophical approach to how the universe, physics, works.

So, to the original questions: “Do we die?” and Is it inevitable?” 

According to Lanza, we are already dead, alive, past, future, and creators right now. The limitations are in our own perceptions and ideas of reality. All of it is right now because we, and all matter, are conscious. Lanza himself addressed this question in a Psychology Today article, located here.

Perhaps if more people could look at the universe from this new paradigm, we would become the creators we already are; we create and destroy together, whether we believe it or not.

  1. For a really good read, try out Lanza’s book on Biocentrism and his follow-on book, “Beyond Biocentrism.”
  2. For an interesting Buddhist view of Biocentrism, look to “The Endless Further,” a Buddhist’s blog.

A Little Light Reading: The Arts and Freemasonry

A Little Light Reading: The Arts and Freemasonry

I have been asked often: “what are good books for people who are interested in Freemasonry?” Personally, I feel that any reading is good reading: it strengthens the mind, opens you up to diverse ideas, enhances your vocabulary, and makes you a far more interesting person for conversation. Regardless, there are a myriad of paths the aspirant’s reading may take, and still find they add substance and interest to the philosophies that make up your life. Nearly every genre has something to add, and I’ve personally found Masonic meaning in many non-“serious” readings. Masonry is everywhere, and for the ardent Freemason, it can be found in movies, science fiction writings, and even children’s books.

For those interested in Freemasonry, titles at The Masonic Publishing Company are robust places to start the journey. I’d highly recommend The Brother of the Third image-masonic-publishing-companyDegree, the Kybalion, and The Law. For those interested in Co-Masonry in general, On Holy Ground is a particularly engaging book on one organization’s foundation and history within the United States. There are really two aspects of reading in Freemasonry – about Freemasonry and about symbolismIf you’re interested in the symbolic nature of Freemasonry, The Secret Teaching of All Ages, by Manly P. Hall, is a fascinating romp through all kinds of studies and is a good foundation into alternative ways of looking at life, the universe, and everything.

Most late 19th century and early 20th century Masonic authors, like Leadbeater, J.F. Newton, Powell, and Wilmshurst, are also very good authors to explore some of the specifics of Freemasonry, without giving anything away. That is my caveat with anyone interested in becoming a Freemason: don’t read ahead. In fact, don’t read any ritual or about any degree you don’t have. Sure, you can find anything on the Internet; Freemasonry, however, is an experiential process and to truly find it work in yourself, it’s really a good idea to go in without expectations or knowledge. You might find you get in your own way. Books like The Science of the Sacraments, by Leadbeater, give one an idea of ritual work without speaking strictly to Freemasonic ritual.  The Golden Bough and The Magic of Freemasonry provide deeper insight into ritual and its importance in human life. Georges_de_La_Tour_-_Magdalen_of_Night_Light_-_WGA12337

As a Freemason, I see Freemasonry everywhere and find the concepts housed within almost every genre – fine arts (drama, oil paintings, etc.), science fiction, philosophy, fantasy writings, and many movies. Walking through an art museum, one may find the aspect of a ritual here, or a teaching there. Many Renaissance and Baroque painters styled their subjects in familiar Masonic situations. In writing, I find Freemasonry in Asimov, Le Guin,  Pullman, L’Engle, and Zelazny, as well as in various philosophies like Pythagoras, Plutarch, and Seneca. Reading autobiographies of people like the Founding Fathers (United States), provides some clarity in the type of “enlightened mind” that feeds a Freemasonic soul.

Movies are always fascinating to watch through a Masonic lens. Movies such as “The Adjustment Bureau,” “Inception,” The-Matrix“The Matrix,” and “I, Robot” capture the challenging questions of reality and what is the perfection of humanity.  In music, one can explore Mozart’s “Magic Flute” and Holst’s “The Planets” to find how music can be influenced by a Masonic mind. Any artistic medium that addresses the larger questions of life, why are we here, and how can we find meaning, speak to the Freemason who is seeking to add more to their Masonic work.

Beware of those authors who sensationalize Freemasonry. If it sounds too good to be true, it generally is. That is equally true of Freemasonry writings founded in speculation and falsehoods. There is much speculation without much fact, and while Freemasons are speculative, they are also rooted in truth, nature, and science.

That said, the arts are wonderful places to explore the concepts contained within Freemasonry and help broaden the minds of those seeking more of life. The secrets of Freemasonry are all around us and we have only to open our senses to find the way.


Know Thyself: The Ship of Thieves

Know Thyself: The Ship of Thieves

“I am not the person I was.” We hear that a lot, especially when it comes to growing older and, one hopes, wiser. Indeed, we’re not the same person we were. Over the course of time, our cells die, regenerate, add, delete, change, morph, and eventually we have all new cells. But we retain our name, our memories, our lives. Are we not the same person?

One would argue that of course we are. Or are we? Really?

We cling to our identities like dryer sheets to hot cotton shirts. In our minds, we are who we always have been. We are that twelve-year-old child who swam in the lake as well as that adult who had their first job in fast food. We remember events, creations, or possessions and claim them to be ours.

Conversely, we claim our “self” to exist because of those things. We do not change, or if we do, it is at a glacial pace. We affix our identity in time and space, and like an astronaut, place a flag on it and proclaim it to be ours, to be “true” identity: knowing who we are.Theseus_Helene_Staatliche_Antikensammlungen_2309_n2

In a recent conversation with a fellow Mason, I was discussing the Ship of Theseus. The paradox is quickly explained in this video: The Paradox of the Ship of Theseus. In essence, the question is this: at what point does the ship cease to become Theseus’ ship and become something else?

If we take one plank from the ship and replace it, we generally can agree that the ship is still Theseus’ ship. At what point, however, do you fix enough broken pieces that the ship becomes something else? My colleague was convinced that the ship remained and always remained Theseus’ ship. For him, the idea of identity stays with the generally recognized “thing” even if the sum of its parts is not original.

Conversely, the argument is this: if I am a thief, and I slowly steal the pieces of Theseus’ ship, replace them with identical parts,  take the original parts, and put them together in my backyard, who has the ship of Theseus? The original owner, or me?

My friend said that the original owner did. I disagree. If I take a painting from the Louvre, and replace it with an identical painting, and everyone recognizes it as the “painting,” who has the “real” painting? In my colleague’s eyes, then, have I really stolen anything?

identityI contend that I have, if nothing else, I have stolen the certainty of the Ship of Theseus. I have stolen, or potentially stolen, the idea of the ship. But these painful musings do have a purpose: they help us work out our identity – the answers to the question of: Who am I?

A brilliant article on this is found on Brainpickings. I would encourage you to watch the other short videos on this site: not only is the one on Who Am I thought-provoking, but there are links to life’s other huge questions. How do I know I exist? What is the Nature of Reality? But, I digress.

The question is, at what point is our self no longer “us?” Is it when all the cells in our body have replaced themselves? What about new neural pathways or brain cells? If we replace a leg or arm or heart, are we the same person? 

Freemasons live by an adage of “Know Thyself,” which also adorned the Oracle of Delphi  at the Temple of Apollo. We must first understand what it is that makes up our “self” and when does that “self” become something else. I think this is a life long exploration and, since the self is constantly undergoing change, are we always who we were? Perhaps not.

But then, where did “we” go? Does our identity persist? If it does so, how? What makes us, us?fingerprint

I asked my fellow Mason about clones, which sent us down an entirely different path, discussing identical twins, and the like. Does time make a difference? If a plank is rotten on Theseus’ ship, and it is replaced, does that make identity linger, as opposed to replacing a “new” plank? If I change my mind about how I feel about something, am I still the same person? What if I create new habits? What then?

We are ever seeking to understand our true natures; yet, our true nature is ever-changing. Freemasonry teaches us about the cycles of life, death, rebirth, nature. and science. It teaches us all of Life’s Mysteries. If stagnation is death and change is life, how can we ever be the same person moment to moment? Perhaps that is the mystery that we must ever follow: a constant, persistent discovery of who we are, and what we are doing.