Ionic Column Vol.1 No.2


By Bro. G.J. Partington

7 September, 2011


BUILT by the ancients to be indestructible, the antediluvian pillars are the stuff of legends. In addition, they were also the first pair of pillars described in the early histories of the craft.[1] To find the early histories, recourse must be had to those ‘…ancient documents handed down from the operative masons in Great Britain…’,[2] which are best known as the old charges and less commonly known as ‘… “Ancient Manuscripts”, “Ancient Constitutions”, “Legend[s] of the Craft”, “Gothic Manuscripts”, “Old Records"… etc.’.[3] Those documents date from the fourteenth century and onwards and ‘…establish the continuity of the masonic institution through a period of five centuries, and by fair implication much longer…’.[4] In almost all of the early histories there is a story about biblical characters hastily inscribing the seven sciences on pillars, to leave a record designed to survive a catastrophic force, they feared would strike the earth and wipe out their civilization. The disaster they feared turned out to be Noah’s flood. This paper tells the story of those pillars, starting with their first appearance in the old charges. The enquiry then goes back to the beginnings of recorded history and examines the Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets, on which perhaps the first flood myths were taken down by scribes. Next the biblical account will be commented upon. Thereafter, the paper moves forward into the classical period beginning with Plato, who recounts a flood story going back to an even remoter time than in the cuneiform accounts! About half a century or more later two contemporaries, one a Babylonian priest and the other an Egyptian priest, found different versions of the story of protecting knowledge from flood waters on inscriptions in ancient temples in their respective lands, and included them in histories they were writing. Their accounts served as conduits that conveyed the pillar story from their two different traditions into the future. In early Christian times accounts from a distinct Hebraic tradition and the historian Josephus emerged. Later in the Middle Ages other accounts were circulated which influenced the masonic version of the story. After having been familiarized with the earlier versions of the story the reader will reach an elevation where the mists dissipate, allowing him to see the story of the pillars from the old charges in a clearer light. It is in this light that an analysis of the materials presented will be undertaken. Then a brief detour will be taken into the Renaissance where the story appeared in a long French poem and Cornish mystery play. Next the story will be followed into the Enlightenment where the antediluvian pillars were mentioned in Anderson’s Constitutions. Lastly, the whole of which has been presented herein, will be reflected upon and conclusions drawn therefrom.


The Cooke Manuscript, hereinafter frequently referred to as the manuscript, was written towards the end of the Middle Ages. It is the second oldest of the old charges and the one in which the antediluvian pillars were first mentioned. According to Reverend R.A.F. Woodford: ‘This copy seems… to be written by an ecclesiastic [in Middle English] or rather transcribed by some learned member of the order from an older MS’.[5] Another eminent Masonic scholar, Dr. Bergermann, thought the document to have been ‘…written [either] in… Glouchestershire… Oxfordshire,…southeast Worchestershire or southwest Warwickshire [in England]’.[6] The manuscript, according to a preface from a published edition, ‘… is written on vellum, … [and still has] its original binding of two oak covers, … [which were once] secured by a clasp, the ends of which only remain. Its height is 4 ¾ inches, by 3 3/8 inches in width.’[7] The original manuscript is stored in the British Museum.[8] It was first ‘… published… [in] 1861 and edited by Mr. Matthew Cooke, hence the title’.[9]

The manuscript has two parts. The first part contains a long history of masonry with the story about the pillars. The second part contains a short history of masonry, without a story about pillars and then lists numerous articles and points, dealing with the day to day regulation of the operative lodges. The occurrence of two different histories of masonry, presented one after the other in the manuscript, concerning overlapping time periods is anomalous. Because of this anomaly and other factors scholars have concluded that the manuscript has all the earmarks of two different manuscripts, written at different times by different authors, being joined together. Furthermore, it is clear that they were joined together in the reverse order from which they were written because the short history, which is considered older than the long history, was placed towards the end of the manuscript in the second part and vice versa. The two manuscripts were likely joined together between 1410 and 1450 by either the writer of the long history or a third unknown compiler.

The first part of the manuscript is of greater relevance to this paper because it contains a long history of masonry. It begins with the biblical character Lamech, who was Adam’s great great great grandson, and states he took two wives who bore him four children.[10] Those four children are the most important figures in the history. For the details of their lives and what came before and after them, the author of the manuscript drew upon the Bible, Mediaval chronicles,[11] and other sources[12] including his own imagination. Dealing with the eldest son Jabal, the reader is told he was the discoverer of geometry and masonry, the father of those who dwelt in tents[13] and houses,[14] the first to partition land and divide flocks of sheep.[15] He is further credited as having been Cain’s master mason and governor of works, when Cain built Enoch, the first city. About Lamech’s second son Jubal, it’s said he was the inventor of music and song and of the organ and trumpet. The youngest son Tubal-cain, is said to have founded the smith’s trade and other handy crafts dealing with metals including iron, brass, gold and silver. Lastly, of the daughter Naamah, it’s said she was the inventor of weaving and might have even been Noah’s wife, but the manuscript’s author qualifies the latter claim by appending to it the words ‘… and as the Policronicon saith, that some men say that she was Noah’s wife: whether it be so, or no, we affirm it not’. [16]

As a result of hearing a prophecy, that because of mankind’s sinfulness the Lord planned to destroy the earth by causing either a conflagration or inundation; three of Lamech’s children met to decide how best to preserve their sciences for future generations, should some people be fortunate enough to survive the catastrophy. Since they didn’t know which of the two destructive forces the Lord would send, they deliberated upon what measures to take for either contingency. As a result of their meeting it was decided that two pillars would be made out of two different stones. The eldest son, Jabal, was given the task of manufacturing the pillars. Jabal set about making two pillars, one of marble which wouldn’t burn in fire and the other of lacerus (later translated to mean a type of brick) which would not drown or sink in flood waters.[17] On each of the two pillars they inscribed all their sciences.

Now when people in the Middle Ages, used the word sciences, they didn’t mean quite the same thing as people do when they use the word today. They would, as the manuscript writer did, call flock division, music and Lamech’s children’s other skills sciences; whereas people today would call them arts, crafts and trades and where the manuscript writer states that some men said the sciences inscribed on the pillars included the seven sciences; today people would refer to them as the seven liberal arts and sciences.[18] Moreover, the claim that the seven sciences were inscribed on the pillars has been disputed by commentators. Furthermore, out of the seven sciences, according to the manuscript writer, geometry was the most important from which not only the other six but also masonry, were derived. Although the writer of the manuscript ‘… knew by its etymology geometry was originally concerned with the measurement of land, … [he] thought of it chiefly as the science of masonry’.[19] Be that as it may, and regardless of how people would refer to Lamech’s children’s sciences today or whether they included all of the seven sciences, the manuscript states Lamech’s children carved what sciences they had on the two pillars for posterity. After that duty was discharged they are not mentioned again in the manuscript. Then, as was predicted, the Lord sent a flood and all the people of the earth were drowned except Noah, his wife, his three sons (Shem, Ham and Japheth) and their wives, from whom the entire population of the world is said to have descended.

Many years after the flood it’s stated both pillars were found, one of them by Hermes, the philosopher, and the other by Pythagoras, who taught the sciences they found inscribed upon the pillars to others.

The manuscript then switches back to Noah’s son Ham, who it says begat Nimrod.[20] The latter grew up to be a giant of a man and ‘…a great king. And the beginning of his kingdom was [that of the] true kingdom of Babylon; and Arach [Erech], and Archad [Accad], and Calan [Calneh], in the land of Sennare [Shinar]’. [21] He employed forty thousand masons[22] in the building of the Tower of Babel. He is said to have decreed the first charges to masons exhorting them to be loyal employees, labor honestly at their craft, take reasonable fees, practice brotherly love, remain united and let the most skilled teach his fellows. He also sent three thousand of them to help his kinsman, Azur, build the city of Nineveh.

Thereafter a story is told about Abraham stating that the Lord appeared to him while he was in Canaan and promised to give that land to his descendants, however because of a famine there, Abraham and wife left for Egypt.[23] When Abraham arrived in Egypt, he was fully conversant with the seven sciences, although it’s not stated how he acquired his knowledge. Abraham had with him his worthy clerk, who was none other than Euclid, to whom he taught geometry, which both of them together taught to the Egyptians. Euclid also taught the Egyptians to dig irrigation ditches to deal with the yearly flooding of the Nile, and how to make cities, towns and castles - thereby increasing food production and alleviating unemployment.

The history continues as follows: that while in Egypt the Israelites refined masonry; that they were driven out (presumably with Moses at their head); that they eventually made their way to Jerusalem; that King David loved Masons well and gave them charges; that after David’s death his son, Solomon, acceded to the throne; that the latter employed ten thousand masons to build the temple at Jerusalem; that the King of Tyre’s son was his master mason and that King Solomon reissued the charges that his father King David had given to the masons.

Sometime thereafter it’s stated that masonry was brought to France. The reigning monarch, Charles II cherished masons, having been one himself, before ascending to the throne. He saw fit to give them charges regarding their annual assembly and being ruled by their masters.

The story next speaks of St. Adhabell’s journey to England where he converted St. Alban. The latter gave masons English charges dealing with payment of fees etc. Later on its stated that King Athelstan of England[24] also gave masons charges relating to fees, frequency of assembly, manners, etc. and those charges were used in England thenceforth up until the writing of the manuscript. And there the long history of the first part ends.

At this stage there is a noticeable break in the text and another manuscript is joined on to the preceding one. The added-on manuscript, commonly referred to as the second part, starts by telling all good men that masonry began as outlined thereunder. A short history of masonry follows, which immediately launches into a tale about the ancient Egyptian lords who, because of a rise in unemployment at the time, wondered how their children would make a living. So they met and decided to send for masters of geometry to consult with. In due course the men they sent for arrived and among them was Euclid, the founder of geometry. Euclid taught their children geometry, which in the text is synonymous with masonry. For the more skilled craftsmen he created the rank of master mason and for the less skilled, fellow. In such a manner geometry was founded in Egypt by Euclid. From there masonry was passed from land to land until the establishment of the operative mason’s craft in England during the reign of King Athelstan. And there the short history of the second part ends at the same place the long history of the first part ended. To be continued.

[1] The antediluvian pillars should not be confused with the pair of postdiluvian pillars that stood at the entrance of King Solomon’s temple. The latter did not appear in Masonic literature until much later.

[2] R.F. Gould, The History of Freemasonry: It’s Antiquities, Symbols, Constitutions, Customs, etc., i (Edinburg: C.T. & E.C. Jack, Grange Publishing Works), p. 57.

[3] H.L. Haywood, ‘The Old Charges of Freemasonry’, Grand Lodge of British Columbia and Yukon [website] (updated 31 March, 2004) < >, accessed 24 February, 2010, p. 1.

[4] Haywood, op. cit., p. 2.

[5] Gould, op. cit. p. 83.

[6] Haywood, op. cit., p.5.

[7] ‘Quaturo Coronatorum Antigrapha’ vol. ii, 1890.

[8] British Museum, additional MS 23, 198.

[9] Gould, op. cit., p. 60.

[10] Genesis, 4:1, 17-22

[11] Apart from the Bible, the Polychronicon is the most frequently cited source in the MS and for a long time the prevailing opinion was that the MS writer used Higdon’s Polychronicon, the most comprehensive universal history of the day, but that view has been challenged by Knoop et al who have demonstrated by checking the references that the MS writer couldn’t have Higgons work but instead used another chronicle that was known by the name polychronicon in Middle Ages as will be discussed later in the paper.

[12] The master of stories (Peter Comestor), ‘the histories that is named Bede’ (line 142), Honorius Augustoduensis, De Imagine Mundi, Isidorus, Ethomolegiarum, Methodius Episcopus and Martiris are cited as authorities in the M.S.

[13] Genesis 4:20 corroborates the MS only insofar as confirming that Jabal was the father of those who dwelt in tents.

[14] The MS writer followed Bede who interpreted tents to mean dwelling houses.

[15] This is consistent with the Vulgate Bible which in Genesis 4:20 states: ‘Genuitque Ada Iabel qui fuit pater habitantium in tentoris atque pastorum.’, the writer is greatful to Bro. M. Macdonald for bringing this to his attention.

[16] The Matthew Cooke Manuscript with Translation, Grand Lodge of British Columbia and Yukon [website] (updated 6 March, 2006) <>, accessed 31 January, 2010, lines 236 -238.

[17] The MS reverses which substance would resist fire and water from what was in the Polychronicon.

[18] Grammer, rhetoric, dialectic (logic), arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy.

[19] D. Knoop and G. P. Jones, The Genesis of Freemasonry: An Account of the Rise and Development of Freemasonry in its Operative, Accepted and Early Speculative Phases (London: Q. C. Correspondence Circle Ltd., 1978) p. 65.

[20] According to Genesis 10:6-8 it was Ham’s son Cush who begat Nimrod but the MS skips over Cush.

[21] Mathew Cooke, op. cit., lines 334 to 343.

[22] It’s not stated whether the first pillar had been found before this or how the knowledge of geometry and masonry was passed on to Nimrod.

[23] Genesis 12: 4-11 wherein it is also stated that he took his nephew with him as well.

[24] The MS states that King Athelstan and his son, were both enthusiastic geometricians and at least one of them became a mason himself.