Original Freemasons - The Dionysiac Architects/Artificers?
by Midnight Freemason Contributor
WB Darin A. Lahners
The first references to the Dionysiac Architects appear in the writings of Strabo, a Greek geographer who lived ca. 64 BC - 24 AD, and the Roman Historian Eusebius who lived ca 260 - 340 AD. Both referenced a guild of architects/builders who were called Dionysian Artificers. Strabo stated: "Lebedos was the seat and assembly of the Dionysian Artificers who inhabit Ionia to the Hellespont; there they had annually their solemn meetings and festivals in honor of Bacchus." Strabo traces their presence to Syria, Persia, and India as well. Eusebius wrote of them being a secret society with their own signs, tokens, and means of recognition as well as having symbolism largely derived from the arts of building. He claims they first appeared in Phoenicia as well as Asia Minor about 50 years prior to the building of King Solomon's Temple.
Manly Palmer Hall in his seminal work, The Secret Teachings of All Ages, states: "The Dionysiac Architects constituted an ancient secret society, in principles and doctrines much like the modern Freemasonic Order. They were an organization of builders bound together by their secret knowledge of the relationship between the earthly and the divine sciences of architectonics. They were supposedly employed by King Solomon in the building of his Temple, although they were not Jews, nor did they worship the God of the Jews, being followers of Bacchus and Dionysos. The Dionysiac Architects erected many of the great monuments of antiquity. They possessed a secret language and a system of marking their stones. They had annual convocations and sacred feasts. The exact nature of their doctrines is unknown. It is believed that CHiram Abiff was an initiate of this society." Robert Macoy in his work, Illustrated History and Cyclopedia of Freemasonry, wrote they were: "Priests of Bacchus, who is also named Dionysus. Becoming skilled in the science of architecture they founded the order of Sidonian Builders, a considerable period before the time of David, King of Israel. From this society - which build the Temple of Solomon - sprung the Roman Colleges of Architects, and these, in their turn, gave birth to the building corporations of the middle ages, from which the present order of Freemasonry is derived. Thus the society of Dionysian Builders is the connecting link between Modern Masonry and the Ancient Mysteries."
What evidence remains of their influence upon Freemasonry? Hall states again in The Secret Teachings of All Ages, that "The checkerboard ﬂoor upon which the modern Freemasonic lodge stands is the old tracing board of the Dionysiac Architects, and while the modern organization is no longer limited to workmen’s guilds it still preserves in its symbols the metaphysical doctrines of the ancient society of which it is presumably the outgrowth." He continues stating: "Aside from the operative aspect of their order, the Dionysiac Architects had a speculative philosophic code. Human society they considered as a rough and untrued ashlar but lately chiseled from the quarry of elemental Nature. This crude block was the true object upon which these skilled craftsmen labored – polishing it, squaring it, and with the aid of ﬁne carvings transforming it into a miracle of beauty. While mystics released their souls from the bondage of matter by meditation and philoso-phers found their keenest joy in the profundities of thought, these master workmen achieved liberation from the Wheel of Life and Death by learning to swing their ham-mers with the same rhythm that moves the swirling forces of Cosmos. They vener-ated the Deity under the guise of a Great Architect and Master Craftsman who was ever gouging rough ashlars from the ﬁelds of space and truing them into universes. The Dionysians afﬁrmed constructiveness to be the supreme expression of the soul, and attuning themselves with the ever-visible constructive natural processes going on around them, believed immortality could be achieved by thus becoming a part of the creative agencies of Nature." There is also a belief, put forward by Joseph De Costa in his work, The Dionysiac Artificers, that: "This society was called the Dionysian Artificers, as Bacchus was supposed to be the inventor of building theaters; and they performed the Dionysian festivities. From this period, the Science of Astronomy which had given rise to the Dionysian rites became connected with types taken from the art of building. The Ionian societies..extend their moral views, in conjunction with the art of building, to many useful purposes, and to the practice of arts of benevolance. They had significant words to distinguish their members; and for the same purpose they used emblems taken from the art of building."
Even though there is little written evidence of the beliefs of the Dionysiac Artificers, what we do have does seem to point to the links laid out above of a direct correlation of some of the ideas, symbols, and beliefs of this group to the Mason Guilds of the Middle Ages whereby we inherited our symbols as those guilds moved from being operative to speculative. Of course, we will never truly know the extent of the influence, but I think that it is undeniable that it exists. It is interesting of course to have the idea of Hiram Abiff being a member of this group along with the workmen at the building of the temple of Solomon, but it does make sense that if this group were essentially the precursors to the Stone Masons guilds that they would be the ones employed in any major building projects of that time. That is of course if you believe that the Temple Of Solomon was a real edifice and not an allegory for the Temple within you.
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 email@example.com.