Swear to hele all.
This is the mystery.
Mind is the traitor.
Let the corpse of mind lie unburied on the edge of the Great Sea!
This is the mystery.
Commentary: This chapter will be readily intelligible to E.A. Freemasons, and it cannot be explained to others.
–Lambskin, Book of Lies, Aleister Crowley
I had a surface exposure to freemasonry at a young age when my older brother brought home a book from the library which expounded upon the symbols and rites associated with the orders and their degrees. At that point I could not read and so absorbed only a picture book recognition. By the time I was in highschool I developed an interest in esotericism and religious philosophy- tangential subject matters which would eventually lead me to research what freemasonry was beyond an exclusive men’s club. As many who approach the lodge as an outsider, I harbored many suspicions, but I was not afflicted with any religiously moralistic perceptual bias which would have me prone to viewing freemasonry as inherently evil or “satanic”. My sentiment of being against freemasonry sprung from a place of feeling against society at large, as it seemed to be plagued with calculated and false order which favored of corruption, and the notion of an elite hierarchy which served as the purveyor and cornerstone of society as a scam on natural order (which I felt was inherently good). Needless to say, I was, and still am, rather cynical of power in terms of world stage leverage (but somehow hopelessly idealistic in terms of faith for the good to arise from the common when allowed to take a natural course). I could psychoanalyze my predilections all day, but for sake of simply illuminating my basic mindset in approaching these matters- I tend to opt towards chaotic-good (cleric) and am very aware of the need for a spectrum in disposition. Any subversive intent I have harbored towards forms of establishment has been primarily motivated to subvert what I perceived of as institutional subversion (though we are all human and no hard feelings in any of it).
Browsing used book stores with no intent often leads to fortuitous finds- to paraphrase a line from a book (whose title I do not remember) which was found in such a manner.
“The tyler stands outside the entrance to guard the lodge from cowans.”
My birth given surname is Cowan and so I found it a bit intriguing to be reading the word in such a context. Up to that point I had never heard of the word being used outside of a last name. I wondered if it was a typo, a figment of my imagination, or perhaps even some elaborate masonic prank. I had been told that the master mason was endowed with second sight. Could they have read my thoughts and orchestrated this scenario in order to spook me? Many whimsical thoughts of altered perception and absurd paranoia swept through my mind before I decided to just go home and google it.
1. (Crafts) a person who makes dry-stone walls
2. freemasonry censorious a person who has not been initiated in the secrets of the Freemasons
“This is a purely Masonic term, and signifies in its technical meaning an intruder, whence it is always coupled with the word eavesdropper… It occurs in the Schaw Manuscript, a Scotch record which bears the date of 1598, in the following passage: “That no Master or Fellow of Craft receive any cowans to work in his society or company, nor send none of his servants to work with cowans.” In the second edition of Anderson’s Constitutions, published in 1738 (page 146), we find the word in use among the English Freemasons, thus : ”But Free and Accepted Masons shall not allow cowans to work with them ; nor shall they be employed by cowans without an urgent necessity; and even in that case they must not reach cowans, but must have a separate communication.” There can be but little doubt that the word, as a Masonic term, comes to us from Scotland, and it is therefore in the Scotch language that we must look for its signification.”
I knew that the Cowan branch of my family emigrated from Scotland and wondered how the word would come to be used both as a surname and pejorative trade term within the same dialect. At this point I didn’t know the origin of the surname and so was left to explore all options in tracing etymology. The first websource I found offered only scant conjecture.
“There is no word that has given Masonic scholars more trouble than this in tracing its derivation. By some it has been considered to come from the Greek (kuón, κύων) meaning a dog; and referred to the fact that in the early ages of the Church, when the mysteries of the new religion were communicated only to initiates under the veil of secrecy, infidels were called dogs… Other derivations are from the old Swedish kujon, kuzhjohn, meaning a silly fellow, and the French coion, coyon, signifying a coward, a base fellow. No matter how we get the word, it seems always to convey an idea of contempt… “
Further freemasonic references elaborated a cowan as “a mason without the word”. I initially inferred that “the word” was reference to John 1:1 (“In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God.”), and thought this could be the barring of a person for lack of faith, but then was later told by a defector that “the word” is simply a passcode given after initiation into the third degree (mahabone, which is explained as a substitute for “the lost word”, which is revealed in the seventh degree as “the recovered word” jahbulon which records date as a more recent invention, with no credibility in terms of being of ancient origin). Other freemasonic sources made poetic analogy of the operative use of the term, as a builder of dry-stone walls, to reveal that mortar, in an esoteric sense, represented the bond of brotherly love- which a cowan was without. All of this seemed only to dance around the word and toy with its implications without actually approaching its origins. It began to seem obvious that freemasons didn’t actually know why they called a cowan a cowan, but I became determined to see just how much of a cowan a Cowan could be.
Q. Why did the Cowan break open the thermometer?
A. To discover the secrets of the degrees.
–Masonic Riddles, Wor. Bro. R. Raymond
Though freemasons were at a loss to trace the etymology of this word which had become established within their lexicon of jargon for hundreds of years, wiccans and neo-pagans of more modern history have occasioned to follow suit in the use of this pejorative. There is a generalized ignorance within these new age communities in regards to the source of their own “traditions”. I use traditions in quotes as there is hardly anything traditional about the anachronistic make-believe which constitutes wicca or neo-paganism. The claims of freemasonry to hail back to Solomon’s temple or the ancient mystery schools of Egypt are laughable but at least established by a long history of pseudo-history. The reality of wicca and neo-paganism is that these play-pretends are merely spin offs designed as early as the late Victorian era and created mostly by men of aristocratic pampering. There is no lineage; no continuum of legacy. It is a cul-de-sac in the piecemeal suburban sprawl of the occidental mind where the middle class go to fritter away their imaginations and power of intent. This is not to imply that all practices need heritage to be of value. Of course novelty and innovation have their place when transparent to source and reflective of epistemology, but these systems are neither novel nor innovative; certainly not transparent or reflective. But what do I know? I don’t know.
In researching Cowan as a derivation of scotch-gaelic I found sources which claimed it was from gobhainn which translates to black-smith. Could the masonic use of the term have originated as a backhanded way to insult those of another professional trade? Probably not. I had come to a halt in terms of what understanding I could glean from books and websources. About all I could gather with any amount of certainty was that the word is probably Scottish in origin. I decided that I would eventually travel to Scotland and attempt to uncover more at the source. In my early 20’s that seemed like a pipe dream, but slowly, over the years, I traveled further, and further, untill I found myself, in California. Wrong direction!
I entered a used bookstore in Eureka, California, and walked without thinking to a shelf. The Temple and the Lodge immediately stood out- probably because of the catchy eye in the pyramid motif on the spine. Upon opening the book I found a receipt of paid membership dues addressed to the local freemasonic lodge and a playing card (the joker riding a bee). I was planning on going to the beach afterwards to play trip sitter for some friends and figured it might be an entertaining read. Spoiler: the book is largely a work of speculation passed off as historical research (not quite as ridiculous as the author’s other famous work Holy Blood, Holy Grail), but I managed to learn something from it.
The basic premise of the book is that many of the Knights Templar fled to Scotland after being excommunicated from the church of Rome; in return for their refuge aided Robert the Bruce in defeating the English at the pivotal Battle of Bannockburn and left their legacy in Jacobite freemasonry. That much is popular to the lore of freemasonry, in any case, and can be inferred by many of the symbols and rites of its degrees. What struck me was the central role which the House of Stewart (later changing to Stuart to signal their diplomatic alliance with the French) played in all of it. I had been told at a young age that my mother’s side of the family believed to descend from Mary Queen of Scots through the Stuart bloodline, but never actually looked deeper into the history of it until learning of the families relevance to freemasonry.
Rumors of conspiracy have long been propagated, by both masons and anti-masons, which suggest the Stuarts, by aid of Jesuit priests, designed many of the higher degrees of freemasonry as a tool for indoctrination, in order to regain power over the British Isles after being deported to France. Some have even suggested that, after losing the Jacobian Revolution, the cause continued on, to ferment the American Revolution, which ,when won, provided an opportunity to continue the families rule, under the guise of democracy. As ludicrous as this sounds, it only gets weirder. The family is originally from Flanders and purportedly of Jewish descent
with the supposed claim to being of Davidic lineage. A fringe minority are of the belief that the Jewish messiah is to be born out of the Stuart bloodline, leading another fringe minority to believe that this figure will be the anti-christ. So, when my brother asked me as a child, “Would I be evil if I knew you were the anti-christ and I let you live?” maybe he was on to something… Kidding! No, really, he did ask me that, but it’s all just a silly story. Anyways.
After learning of this dubious family history I called my mom to ask her if anyone in her family had ever mentioned anything about freemasonry. As it turns out, her grandfather (my great-grandfather, incase you’re bad at math), George Mantel Stuart, was a master mason (3rd degree or higher). I asked if he had ever told the family anything about his position in the lodge. “He never talked about it” she said, “but I was given one of his rings and a pendant when he died. I always thought the “G” stood for George.”
Funny that this had never come up before in conversation, but I suppose freemasonry isn’t exactly a pertinent topic of conversation to have with your mom. “What do you remember about him?” I asked. “I remember him being very nice, but he died when I was young so I didn’t get much time to know him well.” I asked how he died and was told that he was run over by a train broad day light near his home. “He often went down the road to collect hickory nuts from a field where they grew. One day I came home from school and was told he had died on the tracks. He always warned us about crossing the tracks, to stop the vehicle and make sure no trains were coming.”
I don’t know about you, but I often associate death by train with suicide or murder (besides cases of severe inebriation). I asked questions with this in mind and my mom told me that it was unexplainable. She didn’t know and to her knowledge nobody in the family had any theory. He was a successful business man involved in the dairy, auto, and tobacco industries who had retired and was surrounded by family. Just before the incident he had stopped in to visit my mother’s house. She said the smell of his cigar still lingered in the air when she arrived. It was hard to imagine that he would have reason to just off himself. It was a freak accident. I suspected murder.
I was curious if there was a history of the families involvement with freemasonry going further back. I had never delved very far into my families history and knew very little beyond my grandparents. My mom told me, “His father died before he was born. He was raised by his mother, Mary, who worked as seamstress.” A widow’s son, I thought, and remembered Hiram Abiff, the builder of Solomon’s temple and symbolic originator of freemasonry. I thought of the ritual of the 3rd degree in which Hiram is murdered at the hands of fellow masons after refusing to give up “the word”. Of course this is all wild speculation, but I couldn’t help but make the imaginative leap that his death mirrored the ritual.
In 2012 I met someone who’s father worked for British Airways and could get me round trip open ended flight to the UK for $400. I left the day before my birthday and landed on British soil the first day of my 27th year on earth. Most of my time was spent in Edinburgh, Scotland, which was a bit of a psychedelic blur, though I did manage to meet a Tyler face to face while doing recon on a lodge (a pretty friendly guy). A few chance encounters delivered insights which I hold as valuable, but in terms of researching my family history (which I seemed to have forgotten to do once I got there), there was only one clue (okay, there were actually a few, but I don’t want to make this article any longer than it is becoming). On my way to Isle of Skye, the bus I was on stopped over at Inverness for a few hours, during which I went to the library to check my email. I had to show my passport to get on the computer. “Ahh, a Cowan, I see!” the librarian said, “My husband is also a Cowan.” I smiled and nodded. She continued, “You know it’s from Colquhoun?”
I didn’t know that, and it took me till several months later and back in California before I figured out how to spell Colquhoun close enough to search it on the internet. Of course google already knew that the surname Cowan was an anglicized version of Colquhoun (Shortened to Kahoon and then pronounced Cowan by the English), but for some reason I had to travel to Scotland before I could type in the right search engine keywords to get google to spit that out. I found two primary explanations for the etymology of Colquhoun in gaelic- that it was derived from colg (sword) and chuoin (genetive of cu, dog) to describe a dog of war, and that it was derived from coill (wood) and cumhann (narrow) to describe a wooded narrow. I was intrigued to find, once again, a dog association with Colquhoun as had been the case in freemasonic speculation of cowan (though attributing it to Greek). It all still seemed rather ambiguous but at the least I discovered through this added bit of information Ithell Colquhoun
, a 20th century artist who I found to be inspirational, and a woman after my own heart.
Perhaps the most interesting source I found was an ATS reposting
of segments from an article titled “The Word Cowan (Part 2)” from a site called boaz.over-blog. Unfortunately, boaz.over has since been wiped of any content and the author of the blog is difficult to track down (though I did find several incidents of people making an attempt, as she seemed to have created quite a stir on the internet with that article). The brief excerpt on ATS demonstrates an attempt at tying together multiple etymological roots in a manner which distills the essence from all of them.
Several authors have tried to link the word [sic: cowan] to various linguistic roots, such as Greek kuon (dog) or cohanim, Hebrew for priest. One of them was historian George Oliver (1782 – 1867), a Freemason who believed the original word was cohen, meaning “devoted” or “servant” (or God), the name of the Jewish priest:
“From the affair of Jephtha, an Ephraimite was termed a Cowan or worthless fellow, In Egypt, a cohen was the title of a priest or prince and a term of honour. Bryant, speaking of the harpies, says they were priests of the sun; and as Cohen was the name of a dog, they were termed by Appollionius, ‘the dogs of Jove’. Now St. John cautions the Christian brethren that ‘without are dogs’ [kuves] cowans or listeners; and St.paul exhorts the Christians to ‘beware of dogs because they are evil workers’. Now kuon, a dog or evil worker is the Masonic cowan. The above priests or metaphorical dogs were also called circyonians or cer-cowans because they were lawless in their behaviour towards strangers.”
Whether the linguistic root of colquhoun is Old Norse (coill) or Irish (cuil, cul), we notice a common meaning: if coill refers to black wood or coal, the Scottish Gaelic roots cal, cul, or ceil implied something that protected, turned, or burned, often in association with fire, as in cuil-hil, turning wheel or cul-mhaire, wheelwright, cal, cail, ceill, to burn, also applied metaphorically in the Irish to the passions, ceili, ceill, cill, a round or fire tower, i.e. a place of devotion where the sacred fire always burned, cuilteach, a steeple, a fire house, ceil de, a preserver of the fires, i.e. a culdee, caileach, heat or passion of the mind; cal, lime, i.e. burnt stone( as in Calchou and Calchvynyd, the ancient names of Kelso), and calcam, to burn into lime; and culag, fuel, turf, peat. Thus we are inclined to think that Colquhoun originally designated a sacred narrow corner, which was guarded by black metaphorical “dogs”, perhaps priests who practiced the “black art”, making coal or working as blacksmiths.
The Jewish Cohen connection is something I looked further into and found several researchers who drew the same conclusion, even going so far as to present genomic evidence to support their claim that many Cowans from Scotland were of this lineage. In this regard, and relating back to the freemasonic idea of a cowan, I have considered the dichotomy which seems to exist between the priest (spiritual) and builder (material) castes. “Everyone is invited to join, except orthodox Jews.” I was once told. Considering the somewhat heretical nature of the freemasonic treatment of Jewish mysticism within their rituals, I would doubt that an orthodox Jew would care to join anyways. It is a very convoluted dynamic to approach, and I doubt there is any one answer which would sort it out. As they say- many jews; many views, and if there is a single misconception about freemasonry which I feel I have personally debunked, it is that they are all one. Those who hold to theories of a grand freemasonic conspiracy have obviously not delved very far into the matter.
I eventually tracked down which lodge my great-grandfather was most likely initiated into (a Scottish Rite Red Lodge of Perfection) and sent them an email asking if they could confirm his membership. I got a message back from the lodge secretary which stated he could not find record of him, but “that does not mean it is not there”. I have found freemasons tend to be very coy with information and getting a straight answer is near impossible. A week later I got a telephone call from my mom who said that she had been called by her cousin who asked her, “Is your son calling the lodge and asking about our grandfather?” Apparently I had to be vetted. Soon after that I received another message from the lodge secretary stating, “Yes, we found record of your great-grandfather. I have given your information to a lodge historian who may contact you about your family history.” I have the exact opposite communication style to the typical freemason, and in a whim of oversharing I wrote back to the secretary to tell him my theory that he had been murdered in “a jubilish betrayal”. I never heard from them again.
I hope, dear reader, that I have not disappointed you by bringing you this far into such an obscure topic and given you no real conclusion. I also hope that I have not offended anyone with my occasionally vitriolic and judgmental sentiment. I realize that everyone is an individual, and any broad sweeping observation I may make about a group is merely a caricature I have drawn for the sake of making commentary. I admit that I really do not know what is in the heart and mind of others which drives them to identify with groups which I may see as problematic. I have no place to judge the individual and no belief in collective identity as an absolute. No hard feelings here.
Then round and round me he did tie,
A noble ancient charm,
All future darkness to defy,
And ward off the Cowan’s harm.
– Excerpt from Masonic Songs, Oratorio, Odes, Anthems, Prologues, Epilogues, and Toasts: adapted to the different degrees of Masonry