Book Review: The Masonic Myth: Unlocking the Truth About the Symbols, the Secret Rites, and the History of Freemasonry

Jay Kinney
HarperOne, 2009
280 pages
trade paperback


I grew up with the notion--whether absorbed subconsciously or told outright I don't remember--that Masons were bad. They were sinister in some unspecific way; they were a cult. This is what I grew up believing (and somehow that translated in my juvenile brain as Ben Franklin being a bad, bad man--but that's another story), and as Kinney points out in his book, it's what a lot of people believe. Without knowing the facts.

It's important to point out here that Kinney is, himself, a Mason. Who has, on top of his own immediate experience as a Mason, done eight years of research in order to write this book. This is presumed to mean that he knows what he's talking about.

The book itself takes a look at the perceptions of Freemasonry, along with the Masons' own self-reflective history, and its place in the wider world from roots to modern day. Kinney addresses the most common ideas (many of them misinformed) about Freemasonry--where the ideas stem from and the truth, if any, behind them. He presents a balanced view in showing that even Masons can have misperceptions about their origins.

Kinney also takes a look at the somewhat convoluted hierarchy of Freemasonry, the degrees and the York Rite and Scottish Rite. He discusses the symbols associated with Freemasonry. And also asks the question of whether Freemasonry is doomed, seeing as the number of initiates is steadily dropping.

For someone like me, The Masonic Myth offers a practical and interesting look at the subject. The book is educational without the dryness of a textbook. Kinney writes in an engaging tone peppered with wry humor. His lack of stuffiness or self-righteousness makes his book and subject accessible to the un- or under-educated reader.

Alas, Kinney is not likely to convert those who are steadfastly against Freemasonry; that group would surely point out that Kinney, as a Mason, can only benefit from lying (or at least committing the sin of omission). People looking for Da Vinci Code stylings need not apply here, as they will come away unsatisfied. BUT: anyone looking for the truth about Freemasonry--and there is nothing in The Masonic Myth to make this reader believe Kinney is hiding anything; his forthright tone takes each bull of contention (to mix metaphors) by the horns--would do well to peruse this book. An excerpt follows. (With permission from FSB Associates and the author.)

by Jay Kinney,
Author of The Masonic Myth: Unlocking the Truth About the Symbols, the Secret Rites, and the History of Freemasonry

In 2001, just a month after I had received my first-degree initiation into Freemasonry, my wife and I took a trip to England. Our hotel in London, as it turned out, was within walking distance of Freemasons' Hall, the imposing stone headquarters of the United Grand Lodge of England, the administrative body overseeing English Masonry.

Normally, public tours of Freemasons' Hall are provided daily, but by happenstance the tours were not available on the day we first visited there. It was the day of the Grand Lodge's quarterly communication, when representatives from lodges and provincial bodies around England meet to take care of business. Do come again another day, we were told, and you'll be able to take a tour.

And then a most curious sight unfolded before our eyes as we turned to leave and stood at the top of the steps leading down to the street from the side entrance. A series of black taxicabs pulled up to the curb in front of Freemasons' Hall and proceeded to emit nearly identical passengers: the proverbial Men in Black -- men dressed in black suits with black neckties, all carrying black briefcases. The men -- all Masons -- ran up the steps and through the doors of Freemasons' Hall as more taxis arrived, emitting more Men in Black.

Was this real life, or had we somehow stumbled into a scene from a Monty Python movie? To our American eyes, it was an almost comical sight, but I also felt a tiny shiver go up my spine. Masonry has been accused by some of being a cult, and the scene before us didn't exactly disprove the accusation. What had I gotten myself into, exactly?

It didn't take long for me to deconstruct the strangeness of the Men in Black episode. The quarterly meeting was about to begin. The arriving Masons had likely taken trains into London and caught cabs to take them to Freemasons' Hall. Most London taxis of that era were black, for reasons having nothing to do with Masonry. Unlike much of American Masonry, English Masonry has had a simple but narrow dress code for its meetings: white shirt, black suit and tie. (In a culture still given to subtle class distinctions such as old school ties, the requirement of a simple black tie for all can enhance the feeling of brotherhood.) And the black briefcases? Those were actually apron cases, in which brethren keep the ceremonial aprons that are worn during Masonic meetings. (The aprons commemorate the workmen's aprons used by the stonemasons, the supposed ancestors of modern Freemasonry.)

However, it would be a matter of years before I was able to answer the deeper question of what I had gotten myself into.

There are any number of legitimate questions that arise when one tries to grasp what Masonry is. Is it really a secret society -- and if so, why all the secrecy? Where did it really come from? What's with all the ritual and regalia? Why the grandiose titles and honorifics? What's with the proliferation of degrees and orders and interrelated Masonic side organizations? And, when all is said and done, what's the point of all this rigmarole? Is there some secret payoff that justifies the enormous amount of time and effort that has been spent over centuries in maintaining this enigmatic institution?

Because the answers to these questions are not self-evident -- even to some Masons, and especially to non-Masons -- a barrage of pseudo-answers has too often rushed in to fill the void. Some of these, such as the imaginative speculations of "alternative historians," are harmless enough, at least if they aren't mistaken for historical facts. But other explanations, especially those of hostile anti-Masons, are dangerous, not merely to Masons but to society at large. The Nazis rose to power in Germany in part by scapegoating Jews and Masons, while in the present era Masonic lodges have been the target of Islamist terrorists. Dark accusations about Freemasonry as a satanic cult or a tool of a hidden power elite may be bestsellers for many publishers, but such pseudo-answers poison the well of public knowledge with delusional claims and paranoid misinterpretations.

Of course, everyone loves a good yarn, which is partly why Dan Brown's books have been so popular. Secretive brotherhoods can be excellent devices in suspense thrillers, but novels are, by their very nature, fiction. A novelist can make those links that raise the hair on one's neck, and a good writer can make you believe them. But once the novel is over, it is good to do a reality check. They say that truth is stranger than fiction. Let's see if that's true.

The above is an excerpt from the book The Masonic Myth: Unlocking the Truth About the Symbols, the Secret Rites, and the History of Freemasonry by Jay Kinney. The above excerpt is a digitally scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book for accuracy.

Copyright © 2009 Jay Kinney, author of The Masonic Myth: Unlocking the Truth About the Symbols, the Secret Rites, and the History of Freemasonry

Author Bio
Jay Kinney, author of The Masonic Myth: Unlocking the Truth About the Symbols, the Secret Rites, and the History of Freemasonry, is coauthor of Hidden Wisdom: A Guide to the Western Inner Traditions. For fifteen years, he was publisher and editor-in-chief of Gnosis, the premier journal covering esoteric traditions and spiritual paths. In addition, Kinney is a member of Mill Valley Lodge #356 and Mission Lodge #169, F&AM, in California; a member of the York Rite; and a 32° KCCH in the Scottish Rite. He has twice been a speaker at the California Masonic Symposium, and is a recipient of the Albert G. Mackey Award for Excellence in Masonic Research. He has extensive contacts within Freemasonry and, as librarian and director of research for the San Francisco Scottish Rite, has access to many resources and Masonic records that have eluded most popular writers on this topic.

For more information please visit www.harpercollins.com and www.jaykinney.com.