The thoughtful pupil of Freemasonry cannot help but be pleasantly astounded by the various correspondences, both designed and serendipitous, which permeate our Craft. These corollaries irrevocably link the philosophy of the Craft with the whole of the human experience, if one only deems to pull the thread.
Consider the origin and formation of the first Grand Lodge. There is hardly a Mason who has not read or been told the anecdote: four early 18th Century Lodges in London, England decided that in the interest of unity they ought form a “Grand Lodge” or central regulatory body. On Saint John the Baptist’s day in June of 1717, the very first Grand Master (one Anthony Sayer) was duly installed at the Goose and Gridiron Ale House in Saint Paul’s Church Yard.
For many, the story ends here, relocated to little more than a piece of trivia or a few sentences within a handbook. In truth, there is not a great deal on the written record about this event, save for some accounts both before and after the formation, and a few paragraphs in Anderson’s Constitutions. Besides additional research that can be done upon the climate of early Freemasonry, geography, and some of the men present, there appears to be little more to consider about the event.
Let us momentarily take a step back from this topic, and instead turn our attention to a figure of classical Greek Mythology. Orpheus, son of the musical muse Calliope and Oeagrus, King of Thrace, is particularly noted as a musician of exceptional skill. The music he plays on his lyre (an ancient stringed instrument somewhat akin to a small harp, and a thread which itself leads to fascinating occult musical and mathematical correspondences with Pythagoras) has supernatural abilities to charm humans and nature itself, even overpowering the spell of the Siren’s song.
As the myth goes, Orpheus marries the beautiful Eurydice, who not long after their marriage is bitten by a snake and perishes. Overcome with grief, Orpheus journeys into the underworld where he is met with numerous challenges and obstacles in his attempt to bring back his love. So great is his resolve and skill that he uses his music to persuade Hades to allow him to retrieve Eurydice. However, Hades sets one stipulation: Eurydice may follow Orpheus out of the Underworld, but Orpheus is not to look back or Eurydice will remain in the Underworld forever. Orpheus and Eurydice journey out of the Underworld, but as they are on the brink of escape, Orpheus is overcome with a terrible fear that his wife may not be following him. He turns to see if she is still behind him, and in doing so, both sees her faithfully there and loses her forever.
After Orpheus returns to the world of the living alone, he spends the rest of his days in quiet worship of the Sun (Apollo). There are multiple versions of how Orpheus died, but one widely recounted version expounds that he is murdered, playing his music until the very end. He is then transformed into a swan (a possible corollary to the concept of a “swan song”), and the muses place him and his lyre amongst the stars in the heavens.
Interestingly, in classical Astronomy, the 2nd Century AD astronomer Claudius Ptolemaeus (Ptolemy) included the constellation Cygnus, the swan, amongst his 48 recognized constellations. Ptolemy also lists the constellation Lyra, the lyre, which closely neighbors Cygnus. These constellations both in name and proximity can be viewed as an astronomical representation of the Orpheus myth, and are still visible and recognized today in modern Astronomy.
Further tracing the Liberal Arts, as Western Art Music and specifically opera developed, the Orpheus myth was a favorite of early narratives. It is not difficult to see the appeal: the protagonist is a musician who uses music to supernatural effect during the story, and essentially “dies” and returns from death (the underworld) during the story. In fact the earliest surviving opera, written by Italian composer Jacopo Peri (1561 – 1633) and premiered in 1600, was titled Euridice and is essentially a telling of the Orpheus myth.
Whether fans of the form or not, most of us are already very familiar with a part of an Orpheus-inspired opera: the theme “Galop Infernal” from 19th Century French composer Jacques Offenbach’s Orpheus opera Orphée aux Enfers, which is more lovingly known as a tune and dance craze by the name of the “Can-Can”.
The mythical, astrological, and musical associations with Orpheus have made him a popular figurehead for performing arts troupes over the centuries. Indeed there have been numerous societies and guilds which have taken up the moniker over the centuries, including the Swan & Lyre Musical Society, which has been active for over 500 years in England.
What does any of this have to do with Freemasonry, or the founding of the first Grand Lodge? As many a philosopher and Mason have asserted over the centuries: the answer lies in the pub. The Goose and Gridiron Ale House, a seemingly nonsensical name, is in actuality a parody of Swan and Lyre, the name of a musician’s guild which also met at the public house. Upon examination, the parody name makes perfect sense: a goose is a bird similar in build to a swan, and a lyre with its many strings, when turned sideways does indeed resemble an iron cooking grate (gridiron). While it is unclear if the pub was named Goose and Gridiron from the start, or if it was actually first named Swan and Lyre and became lovingly referred to as the Goose and Gridiron (in a similar way as one may acknowledge a certain global hamburger proprietor as “the golden arches”), by 1717 the pub was widely known as the Goose and Gridiron, and had a prominent sign hung above its facade with the image of a long necked bird and many slatted rectangular shape.
What becomes additionally interesting is the parallel between the myth of Orpheus and the Craft Lodge Masonic legend of Hiram Abiff. While specifics of each story vary, both tell of an extraordinary individual who leaves the realm of the living and rises back up from the realm of the dead to an ultimately higher realm. This transformation and transmutation through death can also be found in the doctrines of many religions and philosophies, including as Christianity and Alchemy.
Whether our early Brethern made a conscious choice based on symbolic correspondences when they chose the Goose and Gridiron Ale House as the birthplace for the first Grand Lodge is a matter of speculation: there has been no known documentation to surface with any evidence to confirm such a claim. However there need not to have been a deliberate and philosophical decision made to bring this together satisfactorily: even coincidences, by definition, are remarkable events, and whether wrought by the hearts and minds of men or drawn on a far greater trestleboard than they can comprehend, the universe is found to be a remarkable place when one only deems to pull the thread.