Freemasons roots on the British Isles

There are many theories about how Freemasonry came into existence. The most well known is probably the theory that follows a line from the Knights Templar of the Crusades to today’s Freemasons. Another is that Freemasonry arose in the so-called “masonic lodges” in the middle Ages. The stoneworkers, who worked on the great cathedrals in England, lived here. That Freemasonry can be a cultural borrowing into England and Scotland from the Viking Era will probably surprise many.

Modern Freemasonry can be said to have originated in England and Scotland – but that concerns a continuation of the Old Norse religion that Norwegian and Danish Vikings and settlers brought with them to The British Isles during their days of glory. Outwardly, the Freemasons were “Christianized”, but the Norse rituals were always underlying. Knowledge about this can explain a number of features of the masonic rituals that are otherwise completely incomprehensible.

Central to the Vikings’ religion was the worshipping of ancestors and initiations to the gods. The origins of the first three degrees in Freemasonry are the remains of such ancient initiation rituals to Freya, Odin and Thor. Many of Freemasonry’s peculiarities seem a lot less strange in light of this theory.

The initiation rites are ancient, going back thousands of years, probably to the Bronze Age and to the Stone Age, performed outdoors by the water and in the forests.

This set of rites went through its first large change during the Migration Period (370-550 AD) when new rulers in Scandinavia (the Huns, probably) contributed to a new architectural practice, with building high and large halls. The rites were moved indoors and were probably reserved for the new elite in the country. The art of building now became central in the Rite of Odin. This has probably contributed to the fact that the symbols from the construction of the great hall are the hand tools, which the main officiants in Freemasonry today wear as “Jewels” on a necklace around their necks.

An even greater transformation of the rites took place in Britain during king Athelstan’s reign (900’s). Odin in Asgard flew out, in came King Solomon in Jerusalem. The rites’ external character was changed and altered its expression, even though in its deepest essence was still the same thing, of Norse origin.

I’m most concerned with the concrete traces of the Norse rites in today’s Freemasonry. Are the pillars that we think of as Solomon’s pillars really a continuation of the Norse high seat pillars? Are the three or four ceremony pillars in the Freemason’s hall a continuation of “Frey and Freya’s house” that we find traces of as post holes under our oldest stave churches? Is the slipper the Freemason gets on his right foot a continuation of the Norse ættleiðing-ritual when the young man got a shoe made from an ox-foot on his right foot? Is the coffin on the Freemason’s tracing board a tradition that harkens all the way back to the rituals our ancestors performed around the stone coffins in which the ancestors’ burned remains lay? Are the Masonic duegards and signs a continuation of the magical signs to the wind god that our ancestors used in the hopes of calming a storm or conjuring a fair sailing wind?

The Norse settlers brought their traditions, legal system and religion with them. They also had considerable linguistic influence in Britain. They introduced Norse justice and social order that rested on a religious basis. The gods watched over legal and social order, made sure that law and order were respected and implemented. The social community among the Scandinavians was also a cultic community.[1]

The Viking society in Scotland

Norwegian farmers began their migration to the Orkneys and Shetlands in the 600’s AD. In the centuries that followed, a large number of Norwegian Vikings and farmers settled here and in the conquered areas. The Vikings formed their own kingdoms and many of the original, often Celtic people, had to flee or were made slaves. The Norwegians also settled in Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands.

Scottish sources tell: “The Norse Gaels” were people derived from the original Scandinavian settlers in Scotland. They married local Picts and later Gaels, both Celtic peoples. These people eventually dominated the Orkneys, Hebrides, west Scotland, much of Ireland and northern England. They called themselves Gaddgeðlar in Old Norse, in Gaelic the Gall Gael, elsewhere Gaels. Galloway in southwest Scotland was named after them. Another name was Vikingar-Skotar. On mainland Scotland, the Vikings and the Norse settlers had a substantial influence in the counties of Argyll, Galloway and elsewhere on the west coast.[2]

The Norse Gaels combined Scandinavian and Pictish/Gaelic culture and developed a vibrant society of warriors and farmers. They spoke both Norse and Gaelic dialects. They were key players in western Viking history, and controlled kingdoms like the Earldom of the Orkneys and Caitness, the kingdoms in Dublin and Jorvik (York) and the Norse kingdoms in the Isle of Man and surrounding islands. A considerable number of Norse Gaels were present for the colonization of Iceland, together with their Irish slaves.[3]

The Norse Gaels in part followed their earlier Norse religion and in part Christianity. The Norse religion was the same everywhere in Scandinavia during the Viking Era. They worshipped gods like Thor, Odin, Freya and Frey. But they lived in a multicultural society with many different languages, and we must believe that Celtic religions may have influenced the Norse religious practices.

England: The Dane Law

Christianity had gotten a kind of upper hand amongst the population when the Vikings from Denmark and Norway started to stream into England in the 800s. In the year 851, a fleet of 350 Viking ships sailed up the Thames to attack London and Canterbury. The Vikings set up camp this time and spent the winter in England. This was no longer strictly about raids, but rather the conquering of large areas of land. After 15 years of conquest, the Vikings had control over the kingdoms of Northumberland, Wessex, Mercia and East Anglia, which comprises the greater part of East England. The Viking Ivar Beinlause took the city of York (Jorvik) in November 866 AD.

The area of England that was subject to the Vikings’ laws was called Danelagen. The Danish King Gorm and the Anglo-Saxon King Alfred the Great entered into a treaty in 878 that stated that the border for Danelagen would follow the old Roman road that went from London to the river Mersey.

The Old Norse language was called the “Danish tongue” in England. The Scandinavians could understand each other well – even better than today; the languages were considered dialects. The Vikings could, to some extent, also make themselves understood by the Angles and Saxons who had immigrated to England from northern Germany and Jutland in the 400s and early 500s.

In all the areas where the Vikings settled down, they were rapidly involved in local politics and contributed actively in political development.

Jorvik and Northumberland

The Viking city of Jorvik (York) was the most important city in Northumberland, which for a long time was its own kingdom between northern England and Scotland. The city’s trade relations reached as far as Byzantium and even further to Samarkand, as evidenced by coin findings. An excavation uncovered an axe head made of amber from the Baltics. A hat made of silk was also found. Cowry shells prove contact with the Red Sea or the Persian Gulf. From Scandinavia, crucibles, soapstones and sharpening stones were imported. Around Jorvik, Christian and pagan themes have survived next to each other, a sign that Christianity was only one of many religions during this time.[4] In the middle of the 11th century, Jorvik was the second largest city in England with around 10,000-15,000 citizens – only London had a higher population.[5]

Seven kings of Norwegian ancestry ruled in Jorvik between the years 883 and 954. Here, we also find King Sigtrygg. He was king in Dublin between 917 and 921 and in Jorvik from 921 to 927. King Sigtrygg married the English king Athelstan’s sister the year before he died. Let’s look more closely at this English king, who could have gotten many important ideas from the Scandinavians. In Norway he is best known for having raised Harald Fairhairs’s son Håkon, who became king of Norway in 933-961. Håkon’s more famous brother Eric Bloodaxe became later king in Jorvik.

From Viking religion to Freemasonry

The Halliwell Manuscript is an English poem from the year 1390. The poem is written in Middle English, and lines 61-87 describe how King Athelstan summoned a gathering in the city of York, “revived” the Craft and gave it new laws.[6] King Sigtrygg was dead and Athelstan had taken over Northumberland, and became “king of all of England” between 926 and 939.

Let us take a look at what the poem says in more detail:

“This craft came into England, as I tell you, in time of good King Athelstane’s reign. He made them both hall and also chamber, and lofty churches of great honour, to recreate him in both day and night and to worship his God with all his strength. This good lord loved this craft full well, and purposed to strengthen it in every part, on account of several defects which he discovered in the craft. He sent about into the land after all the masons of the craft to come straight to him, to amend all these defects by good counsel, if it could be done. Then he permitted an assembly to be made of various lords according to their rank, dukes, earls, and barons too, knights, squires, and many more, and the great burgesses of that city, they were all there in their degree; these were there, each one in every way to make laws for the society of these masons. There they sought by their wisdom how they might govern it. There they invented fifteen articles, and there they made fifteen points”.[7]

The Craft is used today synonymously with Freemasonry or the Freemasons in the English language. The word craft, Old Norse kraptr, is Proto-Germanic, but I argue that Freemasonry’s use of the word is connected with the production of handicraft goods, weaving, arts and craft, carpentry etc. performed in the sacred room at daytime in the halls of Scandinavia.

We see here that Athelstan built three sacred ritual rooms, a hall, a chamber and a high grand temple for the rites[8]. In Asgard, the home of the gods, there was an assembly room or a hørgr (for Freya), a chamber (for Thor) and “the highest and best built house on earth” (for Odin).

The Norse halls were used for receptions and official meetings during the day, and initiation rites in the evening and at night, “to recreate him in both day and night”, one might say.

It is also interesting to see the titles of all these high-ranking gentlemen who were obviously (free)masons and members of the lodge. It could appear as though Freemasonry was an elite phenomenon. When we know that noble titles at that time were connected to the administration of lands, we see that it must have been prominent men from many parts of Athelstan’s kingdom who attended the meeting.

I see what happened in York as an adaptation of old rites to a new time. King Athelstan kept the great Scandinavian society quite close, while at the same time now reigning over all of England, and thus also over the Anglo-Saxons who were mostly Christians. It is tempting to think that he wanted to create a community between these large groups, and thus strengthen his position of power. On the basis of what we know about King Solomon’s position among Christian Englishmen at this time, there is reason to believe that it was at precisely this meeting that King Solomon and his temple in Jerusalem ousted Odin and Asgard from Freemasonry. Solomon had a position in the early English Christian community through the Bible, and his wise judgments had already become a guideline in King Alfred the Great’s laws (around 890)[9]. But most of the Norse rites remained intact, as we shall see.

Some hundred years after the Halliwell Manuscript, the Cooke Manuscript came to be with a similar description of what happened under King Athelstan’s regime.

Around the year 1500, the Dowland Manuscript was available, which begins: «Right soone after the decease of Saint Albone there came divers warrs into the realme of England of divers Nations, soe that the good rule of Masonrye was destroyed unto the tyme of Kinge Athelstones days that was a worthy Kinge of England, and brought this land into good rest and peace.” It is further stated that King Athelstan himself held a meeting in York in which he gave Freemasons laws and taught them correct behavior, and commanded that this should be maintained forever. This should also be maintained by subsequent kings. He was even initiated into the lodge and was an avid brother. He ordered the brothers to hold annual meetings to correct errors that had entered into the rites.[10]

It’s strange that the other kings in Britain would submit to King Athelstan without a fight, as we saw they did with the ceremony in 927 in Eamont (Åmot) in Cumbria. There is a peculiarity in the description in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, which states that the kings “established peace by vows and oaths and renounced all idolatry and traveled from there in peace”. Today, renouncing idolatry means the renouncing of gods other than the Christian God. Were the kings who weren’t already Christian baptized during this ceremony? The Norwegian kings’ sagas say that, through the Christianization of Norway, letting the prominent men get baptized was a sign of submission. They were then at least able to avoid torture and death and the king taking their farms and property.

Like previous English kings, King Athelstan may have used religion, or, more concretely, ritual community, as an active agent in increasing his influence in the British Isles. The kings ruled with personal contacts and informal arrangements at that time.[11] Can Athelstan have initiated the other kings in Great Britain in the transformed Freemasonry with the submission ceremony in Eamont in 927, and thus have linked personal ties with strong loyal declarations to himself as high king?

After the “modernization” in the York meeting the year before, Freemasonry was now considered “Christian”, with King Solomon as a key guarantor. The Norse rites made strong personal ties between the king and his subjects in Scandinavia. We saw the same in the prominent Masonic men who came to York; they had had strong loyalties to the king since they went along with the extensive changes in the rites.

After the subordination ceremony in Eamont, Athelstan could call himself king over the English and ruler of all of Britain.

Do we simultaneously find traces of Freemasonry during Athelstan’s reign? After all, the Halliwell Manuscript and the other manuscripts that refer to Athelstan were written several centuries after his time.

There is a document in the British Library called Royal I.B VII. This is a Gospel Book written in the first half of the 10th century. On a blank page, there is an Old English text describing a ceremony that British scholars have interpreted as Athelstan’s freeing of the slave Eadhelm. The ceremony included two “mass priests”, along with several secular nobles and his “household” (hired).

But this ceremony can also be interpreted in another way, as though Eadhelm were free – meaning that he was accepted as a Freemason.

In the text, the English word freols (frjals in Old Norse) isn’t used to mean the freeing of a slave, but freogan, which means “to love”. The Germanic, English and Old Norse word for “free” meant “to love” in the Viking Age. The word also had a broader meaning from the one we know today, namely “that which belongs to the family or the clan, and is also protected”.[12] It could be this word that has entered into the word frimurer, freemason, more on this later.

The word hired is translated by British scholars to mean “household or society”, or in particular “its religious part”.[13] The word is the same as hird, the old Norwegian and Danish kings’ bodyguards. The word is of Anglo-Saxon origin, later borrowed into Old Norse, and means “family, household or brotherhood”.[14] If we interpret the present hird as a brotherhood, we see that King Athelstan accepted Eadhelm as free(mason) in the presence of two mass priests, and several unnamed nobles. There is nothing in the manuscript that indicates that Eadhelm was a slave; this is considered in retrospect since the word free (freogan in Old English) was used.[15]

The two mass priests, who were present at the ceremony, are called Senior and Junior Deacon in today’s Freemasonry, in the York rite. Among those who were present at the initiation of Eadhelm, we find the current Worshipful Master and the Senior and Junior Warden and the current Tyler, which I believe the manuscript’s “the provost” can be translated to.[16] In Freemasonry, The Tyler is an older, respected man, often a former Worshipful Master.

A later document states that Athelstan “founded many very important guilds”; these may have been called the so-called “peace-guilds”, understood as an “association for mutual benefit and support.”[17] The English word guild is loaned from the word gildi in Old Norse. The word was originally used to mean “sacrifice to the gods”. The guilds had religious content – first pagan, later Christian. It was only after the Normans’ arrival in 1066 that the word got the meaning we know today – an association for traders, and later for craftsmen.[18] To the extent that there were guilds in England in the 900’s, this was most likely Freemasonry.

The English professor Paul Beekman Taylor, expert in Old Norse and Old English, confirms what we’ve seen earlier: that social and linguistic life on the British Isles from the 9th century until the Normans’ conquest was formed of both the English and Norse population. They spoke a language that was mutually intelligible and shared a common trove of legends and stories. A large part of the folk culture was written in Norse dialects on the British Isles. Norse myths and legends circulated far and wide, from the Orkney Islands to the Thames.[19]

Historian Sara Foot argues that the famous English heroic poem Beowolf may have been written down by King Athelstan’s court for an Anglo-Scandinavian assembly. The plot of the poem takes place in Denmark and Sweden several hundred years earlier.[20] The shape of the verse resembles several of the poems in the Old Norse Elder Edda. In a prominent place in the Danish king’s hall, we find the previously mentioned the þyle/Thyle. This is the only Old English discussion of this Norse cult leader[21].

King Athelstan was known as a particularly avid collector of bones and bone fragments of saints, and gave these to monasteries and churches as relics. Such relics were considered to give supernatural contacts with the sacred, and oaths of the Christian kings were often given on relics.[22] Athelstan has therefore been considered to be a good Christian in posterity. Bone fragments have also been an extremely important element in the Norse, pre-Christian Freemasonry.

Athelstan, the first king of England and ruler over all of Britannia, can very well have been the one who gave Freemasonry legitimacy in posterity. Freemasonry can therefore be seen as an expression of the mixed religion that was practiced in Scotland and parts of England during the Viking Age.

Upon the transformation of the initiation rites, King Solomon entered into the foreground while the gods Freya, Odin and Thor were dismissed. These heathen names can’t have been acceptable for the new, Christian members of Freemasonry. So, even though the rites to the heathen gods lasted, most of the original meaning of the rites disappeared for the brothers.

After a while, the masonic rites were described as “degrees”: first degree (formerly Freya’s rite, and the degree today’s Freemasons say has to do with birth), second degree (formerly Odin’s rite, the degree Freemasons say has to do with life), and third degree (previously Thor’s rite, which Freemasons say has to do with death).

Let us now study the rites from Scandinavia more closely. We begin with the oldest rite, which is associated with fertility gods in the farming community in Old Europe. In Scandinavia, these myths and rites survived until Christian times, when the so-called ancestor worship was banned by the church and kings. The oldest worshipped gods were called vanir. They were the god Njörðr and his two children, Frey and Freya.

[1] Folke Ström, Nordic Paganism, 1967, p. 71.

[2] Crann Tara, Preserving the Culture, History, Heritage & Future of Scotland,

[3] Source

[4] Jorvik Viking Center, Guidebook and Wikipedia.

[5] Jorvik Viking Center, Guidebook.

[6] The Halliwell Manuscript says 926, but historians say Athelstan took York in 927.

[7] Albert Mackey, The History of Freemasonry, 1966, New York, p. 95, 96.

[8] The original text says temples, not churches. Albert Mackey, The History of Freemasonry, 1966, New York, p. 96.

[9] Many later English translations of this law omit the first part where Solomon is mentioned.

[10] Albert Mackey, The History of Freemasonry, 1996, p. 98

[11] Levi Roach, Kingship and Consent in Anglo-Saxon England, 871-978, 2013

[12] Bjorvand and Lindemann, Våre Arveord, 2007, p. 305, Jan de Vries, Altgermanishe Religionsgeschichte, I and II, 1970, paragraph 533, p. 305

[13] Simon Keyes, King Athelstan’s Books, 1985, p. 185, 188

[14] Falk & Torp, Etymologisk Ordbok, hird, p. 290

[15]  Bjorvand and Lindemann, Våre Arveord, 2007, frels, p. 305

[16] King Athelstan was Worshipful Master, Ælfric the Reeve (title of nobility) was Senior Warden, Wulfnoth White was Junior Warden and Eanstan was The Tyler. Here, I’ve translated Eanstan’s title “the provost” with the Tyler, which fits well; both had high functions in education and teaching.

[17] Elaine M. Treharne, The Historical King Atelstan, The Middle English Athelston, 1999, p. 5, 6

[18] Falk & Torp, Etymological Dictionary, gilde, p. 223, and Online Etymology Dictionary, guild

[19] Paul Beekman Taylor, Sharing Story: Medieval Norse- English Literary Relationships, 1998, p. 6-7

[20] Sara Foot, Æthelstan, The First King of England,  2011, p. 117

[21] Lawrence Marcellus Larson, The Kings Household in England before the Norman Conquest, 1904, p. 120

[22] D.W. Rollason, Relic-cults as an instrument of royal policy c. 900-c. 1050, Anglo-Saxon England, 1986,15