Q. What is the meaning of the masonic legend of the "lost word"?
A. This legend, as briefly stated by Dr. Mackey, in his "Symbolism of Freemasonry" (page 300), is as follows: "The mystical history of Freemasonry informs us that there once existed a WORD of surpassing value, and claiming a profound veneration; that this word was known to the few, and that it was at length lost, and that a temporary substitute for it was adopted."
This idea of a mystic, all-powerful "word" was an ancient and widely diffused superstition. Just how this notion originated has not been handed down to us, either by tradition or otherwise. It, however, probably came to be entertained in the following manner: It was generally known to the profane—i. e., the uninitiated—that those who were admitted to the "Mysteries" were intrusted with a certain sacred word, under a most solemn pledge not to reveal it to the world; and as the scientific knowledge, also secretly imparted to those who were initiated, gave those who took the higher degrees the power to work apparent miracles, the ignorant and superstitious multitude naturally thought, and were perhaps taught to believe, that it was by the use of this "word," so sacredly concealed, that the priests were able to perform all their wonderful works. This word was, however, nothing but the " pass-word" which went with the "sign," by which the initiated could make themselves known to one another. This idea of an all-powerful word was very prevalent among the Jews, no doubt derived from their long stay in Egypt. The notion was that this "word" consisted of the true name of God, together with a knowledge of its proper pronunciation, and that the fortunate possessor of this knowledge became thereby clothed with supernatural power—that by the speaking of this word he could perform all sorts of miracles, and even raise the dead. According to the Cabalists, "the very heavens shook, and the angels themselves were filled with terror and astonishment when this tremendous word was pronounced."
Jewish tradition states that God himself taught Moses his true name and its correct pronunciation at the "burning bush." And they believed that Moses, being thus possessed of the "WORD," used it to perform all his miracles, and to confound and overthrow Pharaoh and his hosts. The Jews of a later date, seeking to account for the wonderful works of Christ, asserted blasphemously that he unlawfully entered the "holy of holies," and clandestinely obtained the word used by Moses, which was engraved upon the stone upon which the ark rested. The superstition in relation to a wonder-working word also prevailed among the Arabians, who say that King Solomon was in possession of this "grand omnific word," and by its use subdued the genii who rebelled against God, many of whom Solomon imprisoned by the use of his magical seal, upon which the word, contained in a pentacle, was engraved. (See the "Story of the Fisherman," and other tales of the "Arabian Nights," where this legend is alluded to.)
It was from these, and other similar legends thus widely diffused among the ancient Oriental nations, that the veneration for a particular word arose, together with an earnest desire to obtain it, and a laborious search for it, by ambitious believers in its power. All the magicians, enchanters, and wonder-workers of the East, and the adepts of the West, were supposed to have, in some mysterious way, become possessed of this "word," and were known to the aspirants and students of the occult sciences (not yet so fortunate) by the name of "masters," and the "word" was called by them the "master's word." This ancient superstition seems to have left its impress on our ritual, for the "word," of which we hear so often therein, is assumed to be something more than a mere "pass-word," although we, as masons, now use the phrase "master's word" in a very different sense from that of the adepts of former times.
In former and less enlightened times the possession of the true name of God and its proper pronunciation, or some substitute for it, authorized by divine command, were even supposed requisite in order to worship him aright; for it was ignorantly thought that, if God was not addressed by his own proper name, he would not attend to the call, nor even know that the prayers of his worship were really addressed to him, and not to Baal, Osiris, or Jupiter; or, if knowing, would indignantly reject them. In the East, to address even an earthly potentate by any other than his own proper, high, and ceremonious title, was considered both irreverent and insulting. Among the Jews, however, the pronunciation of the true name was supposed to be followed by such tremendous effects that a substitute, for which they believed they had the divine sanction, was enjoined. Accordingly, we find in the Old Testament that, whenever the name of God occurs, the substitute is used instead of the true name. The word substituted is generally "Adonai," or Lord, unless the name follows that word, and then "Elohim" is used; as, "Adonai Elohim," meaning, Lord God. From this long-continued use of a substitute for the real word, the latter, or at least its correct pronunciation, was thought to be lost. A trace of all this is found in our ritual, and, perhaps, furnishes the true reason why a substitute (as Dr. Mackey informs us in the extract we have quoted above from his "Symbolism") was adopted.
It will be of no use to trace any further the
numerous superstitions and legends in relation to
this fabled "grand omnific word." Dr. Mackey
very justly says, in the work before mentioned,
that it is "no matter what this word was, or how
it was lost," for we now know that no word can
be at present of any use to a mason, except to
serve as a "pass-word," to prove his right to the
honors and benefits of some particular masons
body or degree; and for that purpose (apart from
considerations of a purely archœological and historical
nature) one word is just as good as another,
so long as it is appropriate to the time and
place, and has been established for that purpose,
either by ancient usages or some competent authority.
Much learning, however, as might be
expected, together with persistent search, laborious study,
and even the practice of magical arts,
have been employed in past ages, and even down
to within a few years, to discover the ancient
wonder-working word by those who believed in
its fabled power, or from a motive of historical
curiosity desired to obtain it. According to some,
the sacred Tetragrammaton, or four-lettered name
of God in Hebrew, incorrectly pronounced Jehovah,
was the true word. Others thought that the
Hebrew word Jah, the Chaldaic Bul or Bell, or
the Egyptian On or Om, the Hindoo Aum, together
with various combinations of them all, constituted
the "grand omnific word." But as the
possession of no one of them, nor any possible
combination of them, seems to confer any miraculous
powers on the possessor, neither of them
can be the correct one according to ancient traditions.
If there ever was actually any such thing
as a "grand omnific word" (that is, all-powerful
word, from omnificus all-creating), it certainly
remains lost to this day, and "I fear it is for ever
lost," for certainly none of the words disclosed,
with so much solemn ceremony, in certain masonic
degrees, confer any supernatural powers on
those to whom they are communicated.
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