Light is an important word in the Masonic system. It conveys a far more recondite meaning than it is believed to possess by the generality of readers. It is in fact the first of all the symbols presented to the neophyte, and continues to be presented to him in various modifications throughout all his future progress in his Masonic career. It does not simply mean, as might be supposed, truth or Sodom, but it contains within itself a far more abstruse allusion to the very essence of Speculative Freemasonry, and embraces within its capacious signification all the other symbols of the Order. Freemasons are emphatically called the Sons of Light, because they are, or at least are entitled to be, in possession of the true meaning of the symbol; while the profane or uninitiated who have not received this knowledge are, by a parity of expression, said to be in darkness.
The connection of material light with this emblematic and mental illumination, was prominently exhibited in all the ancient systems of religion and esoteric mysteries. Among the Egyptians, the hare was the hieroglyphic of eyes that are open, because that animal was supposed to have his eyes always open.
The priests afterward adopted the hare as the symbol of the moral illumination revealed to the neophytes in the contemplation of the Divine Truth, and hence, according to Champollion, it was also the symbol of Osiris, their principal divinity, and the chief object of their mystic rites thus showing the intimate connection that they maintained in their symbolic language between the process of initiation and the contemplation of divinity. On this subject a remarkable coincidence has been pointed out by Baron Portal (Les Symboles des Egyptiens, 69) in the Hebrew language. There the word for hare is arnebet, which seems to be compounded of aur, tight, and nabat, to see; so that the word which among the Egyptians was used to designate an initiation, among the Hebrews meant to see the light.
If we proceed to an examination of the other systems of religion which were practiced by the nations of antiquity, we shall find that light always constituted a principal object of adoration, as the primordial source of knowledge and goodness, and that darkness was with them synonymous with ignorance and evil. Doctor Beard (Encyclopedia of Biblical Literature), attributes this view of the Divine origin of light among the Eastern nations, to the fact that:
Light in the East has a clearness and brilliancy, is accompanied by an intensity of heat, and is followed in its influence by a largeness of good, of which the inhabitants of less genial climates have no conception.
Light easily and naturally became, in consequence, with Orientals, a representative of the highest human good. All the more joyous emotions of the mind, all the pleasing sensations of the frame all the happy hours of domestic intercourse, were described under imagery derived from light. The transition was natural from earthly to heavenly, from corporeal to spiritual things; and so light came to typify true religion and the felicity which it imparts. But as light not only came from God but also makes man's way clear before him, so it w as employed to signify moral truth and preeminently that divine system of truth which is set forth in the Bible, from its earliest gleamings onward to the perfect day of the Great Sun of Righteousness.
As light was thus adored as the source of goodness, darkness, which is the negation of light, was abhorred as the cause of evil, and hence arose that doctrine which prevailed among the ancients, that there were two antagonistic principles continually contending for the government of the world. Duncan (Religion of Profane Antiquity, page 187) says:
Light is a source of positive happiness: without it man could barely exist. And since all religious opinion is based on the ideas of pleasure and pain, and the corresponding sensations of hope and fear, it is not to be wondered if the heathen reverenced light. Darkness, on the contrary, by re-plunging nature, as it were, into a state of nothingness, and depriving man of the pleasurable emotions conveyed through the organ of sight, was ever held in abhorrence, as a source of misery and fear. The two opposite conditions in which man thus found himself placed, occasioned by the enjoyment or the banishment of light, induced him to imagine the existence of two antagonistic principles in nature, to whose dominion he was alternately subjected.
Such was the dogma of Zoroaster, the great Persian philosopher, who, under the names of Ormuzd and Ahriman, symbolized these two principles of light and darkness. Such was also the doctrine, though somewhat modified, of Manes, the founder of the sect of Manichees, who describes God the Father as ruling over the kingdom of light and contending with the powers of darkness. Pythagoras also maintained his doctrine of two antagonistic principles. He called the one, unity, light, the right hand, equality, stability, and a straight line; the other he named binary, darkness, the left hand, inequality, instability, and a curved line. Of the colors, he attributed white to the good principle, and black to the evil one.
The Jewish Cabalists believed that, before the creation of the world, all space was filled with the Infinite Intellectual Light, which afterward withdrew itself to an equal distance from a central point in space, and afterward by its emanation produced future worlds. The first emanation of this surrounding light into the abyss of darkness produced what they called the Adam Kadmon, the first man, or the first production of the Divine energy.
In the Bhagavad-Gita the Book of Devotion, a work purporting to be a dialogue between Krishna, Lord of Devotion, and Arjuna, Prince of India, and one of the religious books of the Brahmans, it is said:
Light and darkness are esteemed the world's eternal ways; he who wralketh in the former path returneth not that is, he goeth immediately to bliss; whilst he who walketh in the latter cometh back again upon the earth.
In fact, in all the ancient systems, this reverence for light, as an emblematic representation of the Eternal Principle of Good, is predominant. In the Mysteries, the candidate passed, during his initiation, through scenes of utter darkness, and at length terminated his trials by an admission to the splendidly illuminated sacellurn, the Holy of Holies, where he was said to have attained pure and perfect light, and where he received the necessary instructions which were to invest him with that knowledge of the Divine Truth which had been the object of all his labors.