Is the Third Degree a teletē?
by Midnight Freemason Contributor
WB Darin A. Lahners
In Orphic cosmology, the universe was conceived of in a cosmic egg. The idea is that the cosmos was initially a self-contained embryo, which at a certain point hatched, the upper half of the egg formed the Heavens, the lower half formed the Earth. After that ensuing Chaos, the three realms consisting of Heaven, Earth, and Sea, were bound by Aether. This substance which was described as the fifth element by Aristotle, held the three realms together, creating the universe. The Orphics believed in an omnipotent creator, a demiurge, named Phanes. Phanes was the god of all gods until he was devoured by Zeus. This creation story parallels those of other ancient civilizations.
Orphism was named after Orpheus, a mythical hero, who tried to retrieve his wife from the Underworld under the condition that he not look at her. He failed and was killed by mænads, who were followers of Dionysus. The religious foundations derive from the myth of Dionysus. Born to Zeus and Persephone, Dionysus was dismembered and eaten by the Titans. An angered Zeus struck the Titans with his thunderbolt, disintegrating them, and reviving from their ashes a reincarnated Dionysus, along with mankind.
Man had a dual nature, a soul from Dionysus which contained the pure divine spark, and body from the Titans which was impure. For this reason, the Orphics thought the body (soma) was a tomb (sema). To the Orphics, the body reminded man of his corporeal nature, as opposed to his spiritual one. In his dialogue, , Gorgias, Plato states: “I have heard a philosopher [Pythagoras] say that at this moment we are actually dead and that the body is our tomb…” In order to achieve salvation from the tomb of our material existence, one had to be initiated into the Dionysian mysteries and undergo teletē. Teletē is a ritual purification which consisted of reliving the suffering and death of the god. Orphics believed that they would, after death, spend eternity alongside Orpheus. The uninitiated (amúētos), they believed, would be reincarnated indefinitely. This idea is similar to the Buddhist idea of Samsara, the wheel of rebirth. If, when we die, we have not balanced our Karma, we are condemned to live another life. This process would continue ad infinitum until we do so.
By this point, you might be wondering, What does this have to do with Freemasonry? Pythagoreanism, the philosophical brotherhood started by Pythagoras, took many of the orphic doctrines and incorporated them into his teachings. In the third Degree lecture, we are taught that Pythagoras was the inventor of the forty-seventh problem of Euclid. We are told that in his travels through Asia, Africa, and Europe he was initiated into several orders of Priesthood, and is said to have been raised to the sublime degree of Master Mason. Historians accredit Pythagoras with being the first to call himself a philosopher; as he considered it a way of life. He believed that philosophy was a life that was lived in discussion and in experimentation. He is said to have “intellectualized” Orphism by applying scientific thinking and reasoning to its beliefs. In doing so, he made it a viable way of life, rather than a mystery. In Gorgias, Plato states: “[T]hey say that the soul of man is immortal, and at one time has an end, which is termed dying, and at another time is born again, but never destroyed. And the moral is, that man ought to live always in perfect holiness.”
Plato describes the ethical system of Orphism, explaining the idea of purification, which is required if one wants to reach the afterlife. This system heavily influences the idea of the immortality of the soul advocated by Pythagoras. It is believed that this is an idea that Socrates taught him and that would play a crucial role in his philosophy. Pythagoras believes that the soul exists eternally and can never be destroyed; if it is impure at the end of its body’s life, it would be reincarnated into the body of a new person, this cycle continuing until at death, the soul was pure, at which point it would go onto be one with divinity. For Pythagoreans, a virtuous life was one that would lead to this purification. This life consisted of dutiful moral responsibility and severe self-discipline and abstention from all forms of indulgence. Although our bodies were a tomb, the Pythagorean believed that the soul was holy and needed to be pure if it wanted to return to divinity. The life of the Pythagorean was dedicated to caring for and tending to the soul. They were cautious not to commit any vices. In the afterlife, the soul would be judged by its scars, not the physical ones, but the spiritual ones. These spiritual scars are symbolic of the vices of which the body was guilty. Because of this belief, the soul was of absolute importance and it took precedence over the well-being of the body.
As I stated, One of the key beliefs of the Pythagoreans was the transmigration of the soul borrowed from the Orphics and expanded upon. In fact, one story about Pythagoras was recanted by Xenophanes. He recalled: “Once they said that he [Pythagoras] was passing by when a puppy was being whipped, and he took pity and said: Stop, do not beat it; for it is the soul of a friend that I recognized when I heard it giving tongue.” In this story, Pythagoras remembered the voice of a friend of his and reasoned that his soul must have been reincarnated as a dog. Pythagoras was famously a vegetarian and anyone who joined the Pythagoreans would become a vegetarian. This was not for ethical reasons, it was based upon the basis that animals could be the host of either a friend’s or an ancestor’s soul. Beans were also to be refrained from, for Pythagoras said they were the seeds from which humans were birthed. To the Pythagoreans, to eat a bean was to eat a fellow human. Ironically, according to legend, Pythagoras died because he was chased to a bean field by an angry mob, and in not wanting to trample the beans, decided to surrender himself to the mob instead.
The eating of meat or beans was called Adikia, and it was one of the greatest vices. Plato stated in his work, Laws, that “[M]en are said to have lived a sort of Orphic life, having the use of all lifeless things, but abstaining from all living things.” Orphism was practically synonymous with vegetarianism as a result. The Pythagoreans believed all life was interconnected like a web which was connected to the Divine, of which all living things were a part. A story in Pythagorean teaching tells of a man named Æthalides. He was bestowed by Hermes the gift of being able to remember his past lives. Upon passing, he was reincarnated as Euphorbus, who was slain by Menelaus in the Trojan War. His soul then went to inhabit Hermotimus, who went to a temple and allegedly pointed out the shield used by Menelaus. In doing so, proving he was Euphorbus in his previous life. Then, Hermotimus died and became Pyrrhus; and finally, the soul went on to inhabit Pythagoras. Because of this, Pythagoras taught his followers to every night to go through their previous day in their memory. In recalling as much detail as possible, as a way of strengthening their memory, they would be able to eventually remember as far back as their own previous lives.
Prior to the second section of the third degree in Illinois, we read code 365A, which strictly forbids "any levity, horseplay or roughness and insists that there be no such actions and no audible laughter or other noise in the Lodge room which might distract the attention of the candidate. Failure to comply with this Code, and any action by any officer or member in violation of or inconsistent with the language of this order shall constitute grounds for disciplinary action." But what I find really interesting is what is written right before that statement in the code. I have bolded the sentence that stands out. "The second section of the Third Degree constitutes a most solemn and impressive portion of our ritualistic work. In it we are taught the ultimate lessons of Masonic philosophy--victory over death and the immortality of the soul. Nothing must be allowed to impair the deep impression which should be made upon the mind of the candidate." This makes me wonder if Pythagoras and his teachings still resonate within the second section of the third degree?
In the first degree lecture, we are taught the ornaments of the lodge, one of which is the mosaic pavement. A mosaic pavement consists of several stones of mixed colors joined together in a pattern to imitate a painting. In Freemasonry, the pavement is depicted as alternating black and white tiles like that of a chessboard. We are told that it is emblematical of human life, checkered with good and evil. Does this dualistic philosophy not remind you of the Orphic/Pythagorean belief? The belief that man has both the divine spark which is pure (good), and the body which is impure (evil).
If this is the case we can think of the third degree as a teletē. If the ultimate lessons of Masonic philosophy are - victory over death and the immortality of the soul, then does it not stand to reason that what happens during the second section of the third degree is a ritual purification which consists of reliving the suffering and death of our Grandmaster Hiram Abiff. I want to be very clear, while the Orphics did this for a god, Dionysus; Freemasons do not worship or deify Hiram Abiff. That being said, in undergoing this ritual and in following the teachings of Freemasonry, are we not purifying ourselves? Is the idea of becoming a perfect ashlar not an idea of becoming pure? By undergoing this ritual in the second section of the third degree, we are taking a necessary final step in the purification of ourselves.
I believe that while it is not implied nor can it be proven, that the ancient mysteries have heavily influenced our rituals and practices. Pythagoras is specifically mentioned as our ancient friend and brother in our third-degree lecture for his invention of the forty-seventh problem of Euclid. Does it not stand to reason that some of his other teachings would have influenced our ritual? There are other connections to the Egyptian mysteries and others that I will not go into today, but if you look hard enough you will be able to make the connections yourself. Just don't think too much about whether or not to eat those green beans at the next dinner you are able to have with your brethren after this pandemic is over.
WB Darin A. Lahners is our co-managing Editor. He is a Past Master of and Worshipful Master of St. Joseph Lodge No.970 in St. Joseph. He is also a plural member of Homer Lodge No. 199 (IL), where he is also a Past Master. He’s a member of the Scottish Rite Valley of Danville, a charter member of Illinois Royal Arch Chapter, Admiration Chapter No. 282 and is the current Secretary of the Illini High Twelve Club No. 768 in Champaign – Urbana (IL). You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org