Strictly speaking, a legend, from the Latin, legendus, meaning to be read, should be restricted to a story that has been committed to writing; but by good usage the word has been applied more extensively, and now properly means a narrative, whether true or false, that has been traditionally preserved from the time of its first oral communication. Such is the definition of a Masonic legend. The authors of the Conversatiorus-Lericon, referring to the monkish lives of the saints which originated in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, say that the title legend was given to all fictions which made pretensions to truth. Such a remark, however correct it may be in reference to these monkish narratives, which were often invented as ecclesiastical exercises, is by no means applicable to the legends of Freemasonry. These are not necessarily fictitious, but are either based on actual and historical facts which have been but slightly modified, or they are the offspring and expansion of some symbolic idea; in which latter respect they differ entirely from the monastic legends, which often have only the fertile imagination of some studious monk for the basis of their construction. The instructions of Freemasonry are given to us in two modes; by the symbol and by the legend. The symbol is a material, and the legend a mental, representation of a truth. The sources of neither can be in every case authentically traced. Many of them come to us, undoubtedly, from the old Operative Freemasons of the Medieval Gilds. But whence they got them is a question that naturally arises, and which stills remains unanswered. Others have sprung from a far earlier source; perhaps, as Creuzer has suggested in his Sywibolik, from an effort to engraft higher and purer knowledge on an imperfect religious idea. If so, then the myths of the Ancient Mysteries, and the legends or traditions of Freemasonry, would have the same remote and the same final cause. They would differ in construction, but they would agree in design. For instance, the myth of Adonis in the Syrian Mysteries, and the legend of Hiram Abif in the Third Degree, would differ very widely in their details; but the object of each would be the same, namely, to teach the doctrine of the restoration from death to eternal life.
The legends of Freemasonry constitute a considerable and a very important part of its ritual. Without them, its most valuable portions as a scientific system would cease to exist. It is, in fact, in the traditions and legends of Freemasonry, more, even, than in its material symbols, that we are to find the deep religious instructions which the Institution is intended to inculcate. It must be remembered that Freemasonry has been defined to be "a system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols." Symbols, then, alone, do not constitute the whole of the system: allegory comes in for its share; and this allegory, which veils the Divine truths of Freemasonry, is presented to the neophyte in the various legends which have been traditionally preserved in the Order.
They may be divided into three classes:
- The Mythical Legend.
- The Philosophical Legend.
- The historical Legend.
These three classes may be defined as follows:
1. The myth may be engaged in the transmission of a narrative of early deeds and events having a foundation in truth, which truth, however, has been greatly distorted and perverted by the omission or introduction of circumstances and personages, and then it constitutes the mythzeal legend.
2. Or it may have been invented and adopted as the medium of enunciating a particular thought, or of inculcating a certain doctrine, when it becomes a philosophical legend.
3. Or, lastly, the truthful elements of actual history may greatly predominate over the fictitious and invented materials of the myth- and the narrative may be, in the main, made up of facts, with a slight coloring of imagination, when it forms a historical legend.
Thus far Doctor Mackey, but we can add further comments to advantage here. The very phrase, Historical Legends, may seem to some a contradiction in terms. Let us look further into the matter. Speaking generally, legend and tradition are any knowledge handed down from one generation to another by word of mouth. Much of what we know of Freemasonry, and especially that which pertains directly to our ceremonies, comes down through the centuries exactly in that way. Arriving as it does, we may naturally expect that in its progress something may have been lost a change here or there may have been made in the story that reaches our hands but, as we know, the old Lectures of the Craft have a flavor of the past and it is not at all unlikely that many of the circumstances that we frankly deal with as legends may have nevertheless sound historical foundation for their existence. It is interesting, of course, to note in this connection how a legend may continue even in our own day and generation.
There is available an example of the difficulty of preserving truth and discarding error, popular belief being so easily apt to retain something of both in the same statement. We do not always have as good an example as the one which is here submitted and which illustrates how in the course of time the description of a circumstance has been subjected to alteration and yet has preserved to a very large extent the original facts. An inquiry came to us from a Brother in Michigan which in part read as follows: I have on file an article relative to a Masonic event in the history of the City of Paris in the year 1871, when France was at war with Germany. It is to the effect that the City of Paris was surrounded by German cannon ready for bombardment. The Germans sent an ultimatum to the Parisian Officials which required action within twelve hours, otherwise the city would be bombarded.
Somehow or other the proper officials did not take the necessary and immediate steps; the consequences were that the Masonic Lodges of Paris met, prepared an answer to the ultimatum, went to the outskirts of the city, raised certain Masonic ensigns which the Germans recognized, with the result that there was no bombardment.
No better means seemed available than to communicate with that well-informed Brother, Oswald Wirth, at Paris. The Editor of Le Symbolisme replied under date of March 20, 1925, thus: If you receive L'Acacia, a French Masonic journal, you will have found there, in the Februarv issue (page 30 an article which answers your question. The legend which is circulating in the United States ought to be corrected as follows:
On April 29, 1871, the Freemasons of Paris willingly attempted to stop the shedding on` brood between the French themselves. Paris was then bombarded, not by the Germans, but by the troops under orders from the Government which sat at Versailles.
Paris was insurgent against that Government on the eighteenth of March, 1871, but would have submitted forthwith if the authorities of Versailles had wished to show a little of the spirit of conciliation- There was a supreme offer of conciliation to which nearly ten thousand persons had publicly given themselves on that April 29, 1871. Numerous Lodges were represented by their banners, each accompanied by a delegation of Brethren In the lead was the white banner of the Lodge of Vineennes. The procession proceeded along the Faubourg St. Honoré and the Avenue of Friedland on to the Arch of Triumph, and descended thence to the Avenue of the Grand Army. From the Neuilly Bridge, occupied by the troops of Versailles these beheld the white banner, and ceased the firing which already had made several victims in the procession the latter being at this time reduced to delegations only of Lodges since it entered within the flaming zone of flying shells. The delegations halted at the ramparts of Paris. Forty Worshipful Masters detached themselves from the rest of their associates in the Neuilly Avenue. They thus arrived alone at the Bridge where a Colonel received them. At their request they were conducted to his chief, General Montandon, who was a Freemason and had taken the initiative of causing the firing to be stopped. But, not withstanding his good will, he was powerless to decide further, so at the outpost he caused a carriage to be put at the service of three of these Freemasons who thereby presented themselves at the Palace of Versailles for the purpose of negotiating with the Government. This unfortunately showed itself unbending. It demanded of Paris submission without conditions standing on the principle, they bargained not with rioters. Alienating these, they were heedless about sparing the blood of the French which Republican exigencies involved. The enterprise of the Freemasons had therefore none other result than to cause an interruption of the bombardment of Paris for a period of twenty-seven hours and forty-five minutes.
You see that the Germans had nothing to do in this incident of Civil War. The Freemasons exerted them selves to ward off the horrors of May, 1871, at the turmoil in the streets of Paris, in the political broils and during the shooting of insurgents who were made prisoners. At Versailles was a man, Theirs, who was bankrupt in heart and above all bereft of democratic sentiment. He was without consideration for the people and believed every thing was permitted in the name of a legality however debatable and disputed. I will not delay the opportunity of furnishing you this information, of which you will detach the moral for yourself. As historian, you will understand that a legend may partake of some exact fact, hut which can be ill transmitted, so much so that it ends by giving rein to fantastic accounts. It is regrettable that all legends do not permit of being traced so easily to their point of departure from reality.
There is, as Brother Wirth points out, just enough flavor of the fact to give this freely circulated story some foothold amongst us as it originally appeared. The whole truth seldom has so hearty and permanent a reception. Certainly the facts deserve publicity because the Germans were not at Paris in May, 1871. They had then evacuated the city and such bloodshed as is spoken of by Brother Wirth was caused by Frenchmen. However, the circumstances are easily misunderstood and an event which for a time delayed warfare in the streets of Paris so nearly took place after the departure of the German forces that, the facts must be carefully ascertained in order to avoid a confusion of two distinctly different events.
The Living Age, March 28, 1925, mentions an instance from the Nordisk Tidskrift of Stockholm where a Swedish writer, Wilhelm Cederschiold, relates an interesting story which seems to show that an isolated historical fact may be preserved in the popular memory for thousands of years. This is the tale:
Near Lohede, in Slesvig, there stands a great burial mound, which the country people call the Queen's Barrow. Here, according to the legend, lies a prince whom "Black Margaret," the Consort of Christian I, slew with her own hand. The country folk relate that she was at war with a foreign prince and this artful woman sent a message to her enemy inviting him to settle the difference between them in single combat. The prince agreed. They met and fought together for a time but without either receiving a wound. Then Black Margaret coiled out: "Wait a moment. I must fasten the strap of my helmet," and she made him stick his sword to the hilt in the ground! Immediately Black Margaret swung her Sword and cut off the Prince's head.
But did Queen Margaret murder the man who lies in the Queen's Barrow! There is no difficulty in clearing her memory on that score in as much as he lived three thousand years before she was born. Nevertheless the kernel of the story, that a man with head cut off lies in the (Queen's Barrow, is absolutely true. When the Barrow was opened, a skeleton with the head lying at its feet was found. It was a true story that had been retained in the memory of the country folk for almost four thousand years.
Arthur Machen in Dog and Duck has collected a number of similar instances where investigation has revealed the curious exactness of ancient legend and tradition. One such folk-story avers that the field where the battle of Naseby was fought was "down in oats at the time" but of this account there is usually proposed no way of checking its entire trustworthiness with any satisfaction.