Friday, March 5, 2010

‘At Atlas-Pythagoras’

‘The Lessons of Atlas,
and the Teachings of Pythagoras’

Having visited Atlas-Pythagoras Lodge No. 10 numerous times over the years and always enjoying myself there, it was a great pleasure to be the guest speaker this evening. The name itself interests me; this lodge is an amalgamation of a number of other lodges – some near, some not so near – so I’ve always been impressed that the names Atlas and Pythagoras were the last ones standing after the repeated acts of combustion inherent in lodge mergers and consolidations. So two names vital to Greek culture comprise this lodge’s hyphenated handle. It could have gone very differently, and in a variety of permutations and combinations. The lodge could have become Atlas-Franklin, or Century-Pythagoras, or Vailsburg-Century, or Atlas-Century-Franklin-Pythagoras-Vailsburg-Merrill-Lynch-Sacco-Vanzetti Lodge. You get the idea.

Actually it was several years ago that Bro. Mohamad first asked me to come to the lodge to speak. He was planning ahead for his term as Worshipful Master. “Sure, I’d love to!” I told him, figuring he’d forget by now and I’d still get to be a good guy for agreeing to do it. But he didn’t forget, and while I absolutely dread public speaking – the Magpie Mason is more of a writer than a lecturer – things went pretty well tonight. Lots of friendly faces out there too: Franklin, John L., Don M., Josè, Don S., Greg, Henry, David D! and others in addition to the actual lodge brothers, like Thurman, Vincent (on his 90th birthday!), Moises, Pete, and the many young Masons who know “A-P 10” is the place to be.

Tonight’s topic? Ah, yes. Getting back to my appreciation for the name, and the incalculable, statistical unlikelihood that two Greek mytho-historical figures would jointly become namesakes of a Masonic lodge in central Jersey, I spoke on “The Lessons of Atlas, and the Teachings of Pythagoras.” (I was very much hoping to add a humorous third segment titled “The Legend of Atmas-Pymagoras,” but the brother who could best tell this amazing true story was not in attendance.)

I find it interesting that a lodge would choose the name Atlas for itself. Unlike Pythagoras, the Atlas of Greek mythology plays no direct role in Craft ritual or symbol. I found nothing in either traditional or contemporary AASR degrees. Didn’t see anything in any of the many Egyptian-oriented rites documented in the past decade by the Grand College of Rites. I mean it’s not unthinkable that a lodge would want to be named Atlas. New Jersey has had Apollo Lodge No. 156, Orpheus 137, Orion 56, and Diogenes 22. But the choice of Atlas (No. 125, chartered in 1872) for a lodge is interesting. But then it may have been named for some guy named Jimmy Atlas. I’ll defer to the lodge historian!

So my goal, as I saw it, was to explain the mythology of Atlas, and direct the brethren’s attention to whatever commonality there may be with Masonic thought.

It’s easiest to just list the items:

His name: Means “very enduring” or “one who endures” or “one who suffers.” A fitting name for most Worshipful Masters, and probably all secretaries.

His family:
  • He is a son of Iapetus, who is the same character as Japhet, a son of Noah in the Book of Genesis, who is known to Royal Arch Masons.
  • He is the father of the Pleiades, seven daughters placed in the heavens as a constellation, which is the cluster of seven stars seen in Master Mason Degree tracing boards, slides, aprons, and other illustrations.
  • Atlas also is the brother of Prometheus (who deserves a lodge of his own). He also is the father of Calypso, the Hyades, and the Hesperides.

Above: In traditional illustrations of Masonic symbols, the seven-star cluster called Pleiades often is seen in the vicinity of the All Seeing Eye and/or the Sun and Moon, as this close-up shot of this classic 19th century print shows. Below: Close-up shot of the Moon and Pleiades.

Atlas was one of the Titans, the generation of proto-gods who ruled earth before being overthrown by Zeus. In his victory, Zeus banished Atlas to an existence of servitude in which he, depending on the story you hear, used his great strength to uphold the earth, or uphold the heavens, or uphold the two pillars that support heaven and earth. From the first version, we get our name for a book of maps. From the second comes the name of the Atlas Mountains in North Africa. And the third? If you will cast your eyes to the West, you will behold two pillars, one supporting the earth, and one supporting the heavens. (Again, I’m not alleging causality, but simply noting some commonality.)

He also is the namesake of Atlantis, the legendary island defined by Plato as a wonderland, but that went missing in the Atlantic, the ocean named for it.

So where is the Lesson of Atlas?

Atlas is also frequently associated with Heracles (Hercules), and in the Heraclean legends the hero is given 12 labors to execute as punishment for murdering his family. Labor No. 11 is a mission to seize the Golden Apples of the Hesperides, which were wedding gifts given by Mother Earth to Hera that were guarded by Atlas’ daughters. I will let Bro. Robert Graves, the renowned scholar and author, conclude the story:

Nereus had advised Heracles not to pluck the apples himself, but to employ Atlas as his agent, meanwhile relieving him of his fantastic burden; therefore, on arriving at the garden of the Hesperides, he asked Atlas to do him this favor. Atlas would have undertaken almost any task for the sake of an hour’s respite, but he feared Ladon, whom Heracles thereupon killed with an arrow shot over the garden wall. Heracles now bent his back to receive the weight of the celestial globe, and Atlas walked away, returning presently with three apples plucked by his daughters. He found the sense of freedom delicious. ‘I will take these apples to Eurystheus myself without fail,’ he said, ‘if you hold up the heavens for a few months longer.’ Heracles pretended to agree, but having been warned by Nereus not to accept any such offer, begged Atlas to support the globe for only one moment more, while he put a pad on his head. Atlas, easily deceived, laid the apples on the ground and resumed his burden, whereupon Heracles picked them up and went away with an ironical farewell. (Source: The Greek Myths.)

The lesson? If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is! (Sorry. I promised the Worshipful Master I’d be serious tonight.)

For his part, Pythagoras has much more to say to Freemasons of course. Being not at all qualified to discuss Pythagorean mathematics and geometry, I instead read to the brethren The Golden Verses of Pythagoras. These 71 lines of philosophical monologue – none of that Socratic stuff here – are timeless pieces of advice conducive to mankind living in brotherhood, under the fatherhood of deity. (And again, I do not allege any connection between the Pythagorean mystery school and Freemasonry, but there are undeniable similarities between the universal truths in these verses and our Masonic teachings.) And I should point out that the 71 verses are not necessarily 71 distinct sayings, but they are numbered as are biblical verses, meaning one concept may be expressed in multiple lines.

The Golden Verses are understood in two denominations: the Practical Virtues, and the Divine Virtues. The former are 47 in number, and are intended to make a good man better. The latter complete the body of 71, and are intended to perfect good men, so as to render them worthy of the Grand Architect’s use.

It’s getting late, so I will list only a few good examples:

5. Of all the rest of mankind, make him a friend who distinguishes himself by his virtue.
6. Always give ear to his mild exhortations, and take example from his virtuous and useful actions.
7. Avoid as much as possible hating a friend for a slight fault.
8. (And understand that) power is a near neighbor to necessity.

In 5 and 6, we are reminded of some of the standards to maintain when considering a petitioner for initiation. Nos. 7 and 8 hint at the Closing Charge.

9. Know that all these things are as I have told you; and accustom yourself to overcome and vanquish these passions:
10. First gluttony, sloth, sensuality, and anger.

11. Do nothing evil, neither in the presence of others, nor privately.
12. But above all things respect thyself.

This quatrain recalls the first goal of the Apprentice: to learn to subdue the passions and improve oneself in Masonry.

13. In the next place, observe justice in your actions and in your words.
14. And accustom not yourself to behave in any thing without rule, and without reason.

These two verses neatly summarize the virtues of circumspection, right thinking, and right action.

24. Observe well, on every occasion, what I am going to tell you:
25. Let no man either by his words, or by his deeds, ever seduce you.
26. Nor entice you to say or to do what is not profitable for yourself.
27. Consult and deliberate before you act, that you may not commit foolish actions.
28. For it is the part of a miserable man to speak and to act without reflection.
29. But do that which will not afflict you afterwards, nor oblige you to repentance.
30. Never do anything which you do not understand.
31. But learn all you ought to know, and by that means you will lead a very pleasant life.

So mote it be.

48. But never begin to set the hand to any work, till you have first prayed to the gods to accomplish what you are going to begin.

Just as Masons never undertake any labor without first invoking the blessing of Deity.

54. You will likewise know that men draw upon themselves their own misfortunes voluntarily, and of their own free choice.
55. Unhappy that they are! They neither see nor understand that their good is near them.
56. Few know how to deliver themselves out of their misfortunes.
57. Such is the fate that blinds mankind, and takes away his senses.
58. Like huge cylinders they roll to and fro, and always oppressed with ills innumerable.
59. For fatal strife, innate, pursues them everywhere, tossing them up and down; nor do they perceive it.
60. Instead of provoking and stirring it up, they ought, by yielding, to avoid it.
61. Oh! Jupiter, our Father! if You would deliver men from all the evils that oppress them,
62. Show them of what dæmon they make use.
63. But take courage; the race of man is divine.
64. Sacred nature reveals to them the most hidden mysteries.
65. If she impart to you her secrets, you will easily perform all the things which I have ordained.
66. And by the healing of your soul, you will deliver it from all evils, from all afflictions.
69. Leaving yourself always to be guided and directed by the understanding that comes from above, and that ought to hold the reins.
70. And when, after having divested yourself of your mortal body, you arrive at the most pure Æther,
71. You shalt be a god, immortal, incorruptible, and death shall have no more dominion over you.

To which I can only add Ecclesiastes 12:

1. Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them;
2. While the sun, or the light, or the moon, or the stars, be not darkened, nor the clouds return after the rain:
3. In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men shall bow themselves, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those that look out of the windows be darkened,
4. And the doors shall be shut in the streets, when the sound of the grinding is low, and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird, and all the daughters of music shall be brought low;
5. Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets:
6. Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern.
7. Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.

Thanks for the hospitality brethren. I will see you soon.


Jim Dillman said...

Very good work, Jay. Not that I'd expect anything less from you.

Mark Koltko-Rivera said...

This was a great presentation. I was pleased to meet with the WM and several other fine members of Atlas-Pythagoras Lodge recently at St. John's Lodge No. 1 AYM in NYC; having met them, I can see why this lodge in particular was so interested in having a substantial Masonic Education session. You know some good Masons, my friend. Be well.