Despite all the negative publicity the freemason has gained ranging from the secret handshakes and rolled-up trouser legs to accusations of nepotism, bullying and the repression of reform, it is obvious that the Freemasons’ reputation has not always been positive.
Yet these and many more has not deterred people’s desire to join, especially judging by the more than 200,000 members in the UK, the 6 million members all over the world and the existence of the female freemason fraternity.
“At first I thought it was a bit odd, but then you start to understand what it’s all about,” says Anna, (not her real name) a senior Freemason from one of England’s two women-only masonic societies. “It can be quite addictive.”
For 200 years, freemasonry in England was initially open to men alone until the 20th Century. The first ever female lodge opened in 1908 with a male Grand Master, and his successors thereafter have all been female, and men are no longer allowed to join the lodge.
Anna, who has been a member for 21 years and has also completed all three Freemasonry degrees, making her one of England’s most senior female members said, “We do the same rituals, we do the same ceremonies but we are completely separate to [the men],” she says.
Anna neither looks nor sounds like someone who would want to join an organisation often thought of as a stuffy, elitist boys’ club. She is a confident, intelligent woman, one can’t help but wonder why she joined in the first place?
“My husband’s a mason and he said ‘I think you’d like it, why don’t you join?’ I think partly so I wouldn’t moan at him going off to meetings!” She said.
Michael, a man in his late forties who has been a member for six years, said he joined on the recommendation of somebody close to him, just like Anna. His words; “It was an invite from a friend, I didn’t know anything about it.
“I like to trust people, I’m very loyal, that kind of thing [being part of a community] appealed to me. That’s what it is all about.”
It is not surprising that many Freemasons are vague when discussing the fraternity’s purpose, but two things crop up repeatedly when asked why they enjoy being members, which is charity and social network.
Female Freemasons have been meeting for more than 100 years now, performing initiations, ceremonies and rituals like their male counterparts, and the content of these meetings have always been a closely-guarded secret.
Freemason, according to Dialazaza Nkela is “a peculiar system of morality veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols.”
“It’s all based on King Solomon’s Temple, an allegory, slightly grounded in religion.” says Anna.
“The best way to explain it is that it’s like a play, which everyone has a part in,” she continues.
“The Worshipful Master is like the lead actor, who has the most to say in it. When you go through your three ceremonies there are things you have to learn, you have questions you have to learn answers to.”
The ceremonies are in three stages, the “first degree” marks the initiation, which involves baring of ones “right arm, left breast and knee” while a noose was placed around the neck.
After the “first degree” comes the “second and third degrees” and the “third degree” is “where you experience death to be reborn,” which typically represents “the end of one life and the beginning of another.”
There is also the ‘Equilibrium Grasp,’ a handshake where those involved subtly shift the pressure between their thumbs and forefingers. This symbolises the delicate balance they maintain between their covert influence and the legal system.
During ceremonies, the women are adorned in white robes, with a regalia worn around their necks to show their position in the hierarchy.
The ceremony begins with a procession down the center aisle. Members bow as they approach the front, where grand master Zuzanka Penn is sited on a grand chair that is similar to a throne. Prayers are then said during ceremonies. Although Ms Penn is keen to stress this is not a religious group, sometimes the ceremonies give off a religious group feeling.
“In order to be a Freemason, you have to believe in a supreme being,” but it can be of “any faith at all. We will have people who are very religious, and people who are not as observant, but of any race, any faith,” says Ms Penn.
These elements and practices have symbolic meanings which is kept away from the general public, but this, without a doubt is a glimpse into the workings of a secretive society.