Lightning Strike, or How Symbols Play Tricks on Us - Part 3 of a series

by Midnight Freemason Contributor
Patrick Dey

Very often in esoteric Masonic research papers and books, we will find instances of Masons relating Freemasonry back to some ancient mystery cult or another. They will take the few artifacts and written accounts if there are any, of these cults and spin them into something that resembles Freemasonry. Such writings were barely acceptable in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but this really is no longer acceptable, at least academically. Their agenda appears to be that they want Freemasonry to be the inheritors of an ancient lineage of initiation rites. Albert Pike does this. Albert Mackey does this. Manly P. Hall does this. It would be nauseating to survey every Masonic author who is guilty of such parallelomania — the phenomenon of someone seeing similarities between two or more religions or cultures, in which they begin to force more similarities than are really there, sometimes completely fabricating information to push their agenda of making these things appear similar.

In many instances, they suggest that all the ancient mystery cults were the same thing, with only minor variations from region to region. Such was presumed before World War I and II, and during the time of the Great Wars, universities were largely concerned with the sciences to support the war effort. However, after World War II, many academics and funding was opened back up for research into these ancient cults. What we now understand about these cults is less certain than previously presented, and that they are all very different from each other. We call them “mystery cults” because it is a mystery what went on in their rites. It is a mystery, hence, a “mystery cult.” That is why we call them that, and there is nothing deeper than that. We know a great deal more about these groups today than we did a century ago, and what we know from archaeology has yielded many things that do appear to resemble something like Freemasonry, but just as much is totally different.

I think of Nietzsche’s example of a “lightning strike” (On the Genealogy of Morals, §13). It is two words, but one thing. Nietzsche uses this to illustrate how language plays tricks on us. We take the two words of “lightning strike” to presume that the “doer” does the “doing,” but really a lightning strike is simply one thing: an action, a doing, and we let our language trick us into viewing this term otherwise.

This sort of trick that language plays on us, I think, is being played on us when we use the term “religion.” Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, Christianity, Roman paganism, indigenous American religions, Satanism, et al, are all examples of what we call “religion.” But are they? They are very different things, and there is no solid definition of “religion” that totally encapsulates these “religions.” Satanists do not believe in God. Daoism does not necessarily believe in the personification of Deity, but more of an all-pervading energy or animus that endows the nature of all things. Is belief in a god or gods necessary to be a religion? Buddhists do not necessarily believe this world is real, but an illusion we have created for ourselves and that we must escape by extinguishing our being (nirvana). What even is religion? It is complicated, and the more we truly survey the different examples of religion, the more we may begin to ask ourselves: are these all examples of “religion”? or are they all different things that we only have one word to describe them?

This is what Nietzsche is saying with “lightning strike.” Do not let language play tricks on you. “Our who science is still, in spite of all its coldness, of all its freedom from passion, a dupe of the tricks of language…” thus spake Nietzsche.

Mystery cults, their artifacts, symbols, and the vague descriptions that survive of their rites, et al, makes this problem so much worse, because herein we have entered the same problem of language tricking us, but the language is not a simple signified-signifier relationship, but something much more vague and open to interpretation: symbols, allegory, myth, and legend. “Lightning” is a signifier for a very specific idea (the signified idea of lightning), and “strike” is another signifier for another very specific idea (that of striking). But introduce a symbol like a point within a circle, and we open up a world of complex and interrelating and differing ideas represented in an image that acknowledges that these ideas cannot be fully expressed in a single sign.

Let us quickly recap the conceptions of symbols as being used here and previously explored in the first post of this series, “What Even are Symbols?” published on this blog on December 20, 2023. I believe Jean Baudrillard best understood the use and conception of symbols, namely that they are a system of signs and signifiers, but that they deny that the complete totality of all it expresses can be represented in an image. This is unlike a simulacrum, a copy of something, such as a portrait of a person. We know it is not that person, but a good representation of their likeness. A symbol, on the other hand, essentially denies that the entire reality of something can be fully represented, and thus denies reality and creates a sign to stand in for a reality that cannot be represented.

If that seems vague, you are on the right page, because symbols are vague and multifaceted. They are not as simple as a nice portrait of a famous person. You do not look at a portrait of George Washington and say to yourself, “Well, the complexity of his life and beliefs are so grand and magnanimous that this cannot be a portrait of George Washington.” But if you show the image of a point within a circle, and someone says, “That is the symbol for the sun!” they will be immediately met by numerous voices declaring other things, like the duad, the image of unity, the first principle of Euclidean geometry, et al. Symbols tend to be so vague and multifaceted that they become much more open to interpretation and speculation than, say, what the words “lightning strike” mean.

There is the notion of “omnism” or “religious pluralism,” or that all religions are essentially true and can be respected. Yet, we know that Hinduism and Daoism and Christianity and Islam et al are not the same thing. Personally, I believe that God speaks more than one language, and therefore speaks more than one religion. Yet, these “religions” are not inherently the same thing, and they differ greatly, sometimes not resembling each other in any way whatsoever. In fact, some religions are so different, it is hard to comprehend how they can essentially be the same thing.

Thus, why would we expect anything different in the ancient world? The Cult of Isis was a Greco-Roman cult that appropriated an Egyptian goddess into a Roman cult via Greece. The Cult at Samothrace is a Chthonic religious cult, similar to the Cult at Lemnos, but essentially different, and probably both rooted in some neo-Hittite cult. These differ from the numerous cults of Mithras, a vast number of different civic associations of Roman soldiers that worshipped the Romanization of a minor Persian god, Mithras. These differ still from the various cults of Jesus Christ. When talking about the different forms of Christianity in the early centuries, we will call unorthodox cults as being “heresy,” coming from the Latin haeresis, literally meaning “choice [of belief].” These Christian cults can be very wild, such as the various “gnostic” sects, which were not a singular Christian movement, but rather a catch-all category of Christian heretics.

Let us clear something up before proceeding. When I say “cult,” I do not mean it in its current derogatory conception, but rather the sociological conception of a religious group that is very new, in which the vast majority of its members were not born into this religious group. The group is usually formed in protest of a particular institutional religion, and then as more members join it, it becomes a cult, and as more people are born into this cult, it becomes a denomination of an institutional religion. (See the work of Howard P. Becker).

Understanding how cults arise, how different religions can be, and questioning whether or not these are all religions or if we have no other word to describe all these different spiritual movements, we return to how Masons can presume all these different cults can be the same thing, of which Freemasonry is an inheritor thereof.

When dealing with the complex and vague language of symbols, which do not establish a particular reality, but rather deny reality, we can read whatever we want into them. This is why we can find anything from any mystery cult of the ancient world and point to it, saying, “That’s Masonic!” But is it?

I believe the cults of Mithras are the best case study for this phenomenon. The reason is that the Mithraic cults are the mystery cults of the ancient world that we know the most about. St. Jerome, Porphyry, Origen, and others write about this cult. We have graffiti and sculptural representations of their rites and myth cycle. Of all the ancient mystery cults, the cults of Mithras are the ones that we know the most about. Contrast this to the Cult at Eleusis, in which the best we can describe their rites is that there were “things done,” “things shown,” and “things said.” That is, like, super duper clear. Thanks, archaeologists!

The great central image of the Mithraic cults, the Tauroctony, is probably one of the best examples. This image depicts Mithras slaying the bull. Here Mithras represents the sun conquering the dark (the bull’s crescent horns being associated with the moon). Flanking each side of this scene are two figures, Cautes and Cautopates, the former with a raised torch and the other with a lower torch, representing the winter and summer solstices, respectively. They represent the extremes of the sun, being low and cold, and being high and hot. But Mithras is in the middle, representing a balance between the extremes (for more on the astrological interpretation of this image, I recommend the works of the Mithraic scholar Roger Beck). If an interpretation of that image sounds familiar to something in Masonry, you are on the right page: this is the interpretation of the circumpunct bounded by two perpendicular parallel lines. The point within the circle is the classic symbol of the sun, while the parallel lines represent the Holy Saints John, who represent the extremes of the summer and winter solstices, and that we should seek a balance between.

So, do we presume the Mithraic cults are a precursor to Freemasonry? I do not see how we could. The cults of Mithras were stomped out by Theodosius I in the 4th century. The European economy would not become sophisticated enough to support the guild system until the 9th and 10th centuries, and even then, we do not see the earliest stonemason guilds until the 11th century. How could there be a connection over a seven-hundred-year gap? Esoteric speculations of these groups hiding out in secret are more on brand for conspiracy theorists than anything academically tenable. But the similarity of the symbols of the Tauroctony and the circumpunct is quite strong — and I will admit that they are strikingly similar, if not astoundingly similar in conception and interpretation. However, we are letting the language of symbols cloud our judgment when we presume that just because two different groups thought up the same thing, then they must be linked, when in fact there is no solid (or even flimsy) evidence to support such.

Years ago I gave a lecture at a Masonic symposium on the subject of the similarities between the cults of Mithras and Freemasonry, and I prefaced the talk with the firm assertion that there is no link between the two. They have a lot of similarities, but just as many differences. To illustrate my point of how two cultures can have something very similar and be so remote in time and geography that there is no way to connect the two, I used the example of Yggdrasil and the contemporary Navajo sandpainting “The Healing Way,” both of which have striking similarities. They have three roots, three levels, three branches or ears of corn, a rainbow bridge, and a bird on top. However, the Norse could not have had any contact with the Navajo. That is preposterous. Yet several Masons in the room started speculating how Vikings could have come across the Atlantic and transmitted across indigenous American tribes to eventually get to the American Southwest. And I just put my face in my hands. I was just trying to illustrate how crazy it would be to presume that there could be a link between the two groups, and here you all are trying to connect them!

If even simple language can deceive us, then symbols are like a trickster god. Symbols as a language are the chief deceivers of esoteric exploration. When we find two or more similar symbols, we are compelled to find links, even making up links, to try and force a connection that is not there. It is fun to explore such things, and even enjoyable to speculate, but at the end of the day, we need to reel ourselves back in and consider the reality of a reasonable connection or just wishful thinking.

Seeker beware.


Patrick M. Dey is a Past Master of Nevada Lodge No. 4 in the ghost town of Nevadaville, Colorado, and currently serves as their Secretary, and is also a Past Master of Research Lodge of Colorado. He is a Past High Priest of Keystone Chapter No. 8, Past Illustrious Master of Hiram Council No. 7, Past Commander of Flatirons Commandery No. 7. He currently serves as the Exponent (Suffragan) of Colorado College, SRICF of which he is VIII Grade (Magister). He is the Editor of the Rocky Mountain Mason magazine, serves on the Board of Directors of the Grand Lodge of Colorado’s Library and Museum Association, and is the Deputy Grand Bartender of the Grand Lodge of Colorado (an ad hoc, joke position he is very proud to hold). He holds a Masters of Architecture degree from the University of Colorado, Denver, and works in the field of architecture in Denver, where he resides with wife and son.

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