The Hiram Key: Pharaohs, Freemasons and the Discovery of the Secret Scrolls of Jesus

The Hiram Key: Pharaohs, Freemasons and the Discovery of the Secret Scrolls of Jesus

by Christopher Knight and Robert Lomas
London: Century, 1996. Hardcover, xiii + 384 pages.

Folklorists tell us that many human societies invent an ancestor myth to explain their origins and to define their values. From Australian aborigines to contemporary philosophers, the invention of ancestral lines connecting the present with days of yore is both a pastime and an act of filial piety. In such myths the paternity of the modern offspring is often imaginary rather than historical, but that is irrelevant to the value of the myth.

No human group seems to have been more fruitful in the creation of ancestor myths than Freemasons. The Hiram Key brings together several older myths, adds some new ones, and seasons the mixture with the authors' prejudices for democracy and against the Roman Catholic Church. The ancestry of Freemasonry proposed in this volume is briefly as follows.

In ancient Egypt, a new king's right to rule was established by a secret ceremony based on the myth of the death of Osiris and the birth of Horus, with whom the old and new kings were identified respectively. During the period when Egypt was occupied by foreign invaders called Hyksos (who included the Hebrews), one of the Hyksos leaders unsuccessfully tried to extract the secrets of the king-making ceremony from a king of Thebes, Seqenenre Tao II, who in the process was killed by three blows to the head. The secret ceremony having been lost with the death of Seqenenre (on whom the figure of Hiram Abif was later to be based), his successor adopted a new secret ceremony based on Seqenenre's death (which became the basis of the later third-degree ritual).

Moses was a member of the Egyptian royal family who, knowing the new ceremony, made himself leader of the Hebrews in their exodus out of Egypt to establish a new state. The leaders of the new nation continued to use the Egyptian secrets, which came to mark the line of King David. During the Babylonian Captivity, however, the Prophet Ezekiel sought to purge Jewish ceremonies of foreign elements, so at that time the Egyptian myth of death and resurrection was rewritten with a Solomonic setting but continued as a secret ritual.

By the time of Jesus, the Qumran Essene community of Jews, who expected the imminent appearance of the Messiah to reestablish Jewish rule in Jerusalem, continued the practice of the resurrection ritual among their inner group. Their political and religious heads respectively were Jesus and John the Baptist. After the death of the latter, Jesus assumed both roles and scandalized some of his own followers by his radically democratic views and actions. After the execution of Jesus, leadership of the community passed to his brother James, later challenged by Paul, who Hellenized the teachings of the community and thereby invented Christianity. Anticipating the destruction of their community, the Qumran leaders hid their most precious scrolls in a vault under the foundations of the Temple at Jerusalem.

A millennium later, the Knights Templar, while searching under the ruins of the Jerusalem Temple for buried treasure, found the scrolls, which contained the resurrection ceremony and a true account of the events around Jesus. The Templars then began to use the resurrection ceremony for entrance into their highest group and developed other ceremonies to commemorate their finding of the scrolls (which were the basis of the later Holy Royal Arch ritual).

When in 1307 the Templars were put down by the Pope and the King of France, their head, Jacques de Molay, was tortured by the Inquisition, using a reenactment of Christ's crucifixion. Removed from the cross, he was wrapped in a winding sheet that the Templars had used in their rituals, on which his form and features were impressed, so that it became the Turin Shroud.

A large number of Templars escaped from the persecutions in two ships, one of which sailed to America, where the Templars arrived nearly two centuries before Columbus. The other ship sailed to Scotland, which was a Templar stronghold. There they took refuge especially around Rosslyn Castle, the estate of the St Clair (or Sinclair) family, who were Grand of the Scottish Templars.

During the following century, Rosslyn Chapel was built as a model of the Temple at Jerusalem, and the precious scrolls discovered by the Templars were deposited in an underground vault beneath the Chapel, where they still await discovery. To safeguard the secrets of the Chapel, William St. Clair invented the first degree ceremony and the Mark Mason degree (of which the second degree was a later development).

That's the skeleton of the tale told in The Hiram Key. Ancestor myths should not be judged as though they were history, even when, as in this case, they masquerade as history. This remarkable story ties together Egyptian, Judaic, Templar, and other links that have been proposed for Masonic history, with the addition of such lagniappes as the Turin Shroud. It is an interesting account, which the authors present as a sort of detective Story with one clue leading on to another and foreshadowings of revelations to come.

As historical fiction, it is a good read. As history, however, it is something else. The "evidence" offered for the baroquely complex thesis is a series of analogs, coincidences, and vague similarities connected by a thread of ah-hah's and exclamation points. By the rules of evidence here used, one improbability is a strong suggestion and two are proof positive.

The authors' learning is wide but correspondingly thin. For example, they say that Sumerian is "one of the few tongues completely unconnected with this root language" Proto-Indo-European (83). Indo-European is one of a large number of language families, all unrelated, as far as evidence goes. Most of humanity's tongues therefore share with Sumerian the distinction of being "completely unconnected" with Proto-Indo-European. This is a small matter, unrelated to the book's argument, but then the authors' whole exposition of Indo-European is unrelated to the thesis of the book. One of the rhetorical techniques of the volume is to toss in a bit of gratuitous information now and again, apparently to impress readers with the work's erudition.

An objection that is more serious, because it relates to the book's value as an ancestor myth, is that the authors do seem to believe they arc dealing with ordinary history. Under that belief, their history of Freemasonry becomes a succession of political acts of violence. If that were the actual case, one would of course accept the fact, but there is not the slightest real evidence for such a view.

The Hiram Key proposes an interpretation of Freemasonry that traces its chief symbols (however improbably) to historical personages and events. This sort of rationalizing of mythology (euhemerism) was rejected scornfully by H. P. Blavatsky, one of the most original and best informed of late nineteenth-century analysts of myths. It is seldom right and is always irrelevant. Myth is not history; it: is cosmology, psychology, poetry, and philosophy. What is important about Hiram Abif? Is it that he was King Solomon's chief builder, or that he was an Egyptian king slain by a rival, or that he was the literary invention of some Freemason in modern times? None of those questions are important Masonically.

What is important Masonically is that Hiram Abif embodies fidelity, beauty, and craftsmanship. He is the third member of a trinity representing Conscious Intention, Material Substance, and Intelligent Energy. The Hiram Key is a good read. But it is bad history, bad mythology, and bad Masonry.


June 1997