Freemasonry and the 'Art of Memory'

Freemasonry and the 'Art of Memory'

“For what we do presage is not in grosse, For we be brethren of the Rosie Crosse, We have the Mason Word and second sight, Things for to come we can foretell aright” George Adamson, The Muses

  One of the most amazing things about the Masonic path is those moments of breakthrough. They are hard to express to others and you can never get across how important they are in words. Sometimes I go for months with something musing in the back of my consciousness until there is suddenly a moment of realisation. One recent example started while walking up a mountain in Fuerteventura. Walking up the mountain I noticed broken bones lying on the rocks, the inside of the bones had a honeycomb structure and it reminded me of the Masonic symbol of the beehive, which represents an inner building.

This whole idea of building something inside made me think of the ‘art of memory’. When I talk about the art of memory I don’t just mean normal memorization, although a lot of this does go on in Freemasonry in the form of learning the Masonic ritual.

No, I mean the “The Art of Memory” or Ars Memorativa which was a far more esoteric art popular in the Renaissance.

More than just a set of mnemonic principles to improve recall the art of memory was said to able to assist in the combination and invention of new ideas. The technique tended to use an Architectural Mnemonic; that is to say, the practitioner would start by memorizing a place, which was done by imagining oneself walking through about the building in a set order. Then after you had practised this so many times that you were able to effortlessly walk in your imaginary building you would then have a framework and ordering structure for future things.  You could place images or signs within it to record things you wish to memorise or to build inspirational ideas.

So, for example, to use this method for a speech one might walk through a building several times visiting distinct places within it, in a set order. After a few repetitions of this process, one could break up the content of your planned speech into a list and choose signs, objects or symbols placed in each room or place to memorize its parts.

The art of memory, however, was said to have some more amazing powers. Some believed that using this method you could learn to travel into the other world/manipulate spiritual forces or go back in time to a period when the building first existed. So for example once could build a temple of the body and fill it with symbols of blessing and regeneration to bring about good health or build the original temple of Solomon and travel back in time to learn from the great master.

For a long time, I have been convinced that Masonic ritual evolved from the art of memory. The whole masonic ritual is based on circumambulation around the temple on a set route. Each degree has the same structure as the previous one but with different symbols on the pedestals and small variations in steps etc.

The question is what were the rituals originally designed to do. Were the original rituals intended to create a temple of the soul and impregnate them with symbols of morality. Were the masons building a spiritual temple of Solomon to learn from the architectural lessons? Did they believe they could travel back to get knowledge from the past?

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