The Golden Fleece, the Roman Eagle, the Order of the Garter
The distinguishing badge of a Freemason is the lambskin apron. After the candidate is initiated into Brotherhood, the SW, while investing him with the badge, explains to the candidate that our Brotherhood is more ancient than the Golden Fleece or the Roman Eagle, and more honourable than the Garter or any other Order in existence.
The ritual does not elaborate further on these orders. Rather, it goes on to explain and demonstrate that noble Masonic virtue: charity. Even in the Charge After Initiation, which would seem an appropriate place for some elaboration on these orders, there is no further reference. The progression of the rituals on these lines is quite right: the objective is to keep the focus on explaining the Masonic virtues of charity and benevolence rather than a discourse on various Orders. The inquisitive mind can always separately study these Orders. In this paper, I briefly explain these orders and contrast them with our own brotherhood.
The Order of Golden Fleece was founded in 1429 by Philips III (“Philips the Good”), Duke of Burgundy, which consisted of wealthy regions stretching from Flanders to Switzerland. The order was originally instituted for the protection of the Catholic Church, and initially consisted of 24 knights, later expanded to 33 in 1433, all of them being knights by birth.
One reason for naming the order the Golden Fleece is that Philips made enormous wealth from the wool trade in the Flanders region. Another reason is that, in his youth, Philips was inspired by the story of Jason and his Argonauts in the Greek mythology , and wanted to do a Jason by conquest of the golden east.
In 1477, the daughter of the last Duke of Burgundy married to the Archduke of Austria, and the sovereignty of the Order passed to the Austrian House of Habsburgs. Another marriage in the next generation saw the control of the Order passing to the Spanish House of Habsburgs. Over the next two centuries and a half, there were wars of succession, palace intrigues, and reshaping of political boundaries in the Europe. In the mélange of these events, the Order was split in 1712 into two, Austrian and Spanish Orders, each contesting the legitimacy of the other. The Austrian Order of Golden Fleece preserved the original practices: ritual admission, solemn oath and the Sovereign from the Habsburg controlling the Order, which was conferred on only those, who were Catholics and knights by birth (and hence wealthy). The Spanish Order of Golden Fleece was more liberal. It conferred the order on non-Catholics and non-Nobles, who were wealthy, of course.
|The insignia of both orders was the golden ram, but there were some minor differences. In the Spanish Order (figure on the right), only one horn and one eye of the ram could be seen, but the fleece was in full profile. In the Austrian Order (figure on the left), the ram’s head was twisted to the front, showing both horns and eyes, with the fleece in profile and swinging loose in its strap.|
Both Orders are controlled by the sovereign with no elections, and admission into it based on religion, wealth or birth.
Eagle was highly esteemed in ancient Rome. It was the emblem of Jupiter, the Roman God of sky. Gaius Marius, a Consul, decreed it the symbol of imperial Rome in 102 BC. Depicted with outstretched wings, it was carried at the head of a staff in the same manner as a banner.
As a symbol, eagle is the most ancient, and more ancient than our Brotherhood. Both Coil’s Masonic Encyclopaedia and Mackey’s Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry state that eagle symbolism appeared circa 3,000 BC in the ancient Sumerian city of Lagash Much later, Persians depicted vulture atop a spear on their flags during wars, and Romans borrowed this symbol from Persians. Prophet Mohammad adopted Roman Eagle on the flag for his troops.
Why was eagle so distinct a symbol and what was its symbolism? Eagle symbolizes power. More than its keen sight and alert mind, it is its flight down - sudden, swift and silent - to hunt its prey that conveys the idea of power. This bird of prey symbolized power, ruthless domination and victory - three attributes of most interest to the Romans. It is in this sense the phrase “Roman Eagle” is used, as illustrated by the following excerpt : “Slavery hastened the fall of the commonwealth of Rome. The power … of the creditor to sell his insolvent debtor, of the warrior to sell his captive, carried it into the bosom of every family, into the conditions of every contract, into the heart of every unhappy land that was invaded by the Roman Eagle.” (italics added).
Many subsequent kingdoms, republics and brotherhoods adopted Roman eagle in one form or another and with many changes in form and symbolism. Kings of France, Germany, Austria, Albania, Serbia and the Tsars of Russia used eagle in their royal coat-of-arms. The medieval crusading Templar Knights used eagle in their banners. In 1701, Frederick I of Prussia founded the Order of Black Eagle. In the modern times, the United States of America, the current superpower, has bald eagle in its state insignia.
The eagle used by Romans was the simplest. The eagle used by later kingdoms and empires were double-headed. Charlemagne, when he was made the Kaiser of Holy Roman Empire, employed in 802 AD the double-headed eagle to symbolize the amalgamation of eastern and western empires: Roman and German.
Curiously, the jewel for the Thirty-third Degree (or the Sovereign Grand Inspector-General) of Scottish rite in freemasonry is also a double-headed eagle (figure on the right above), bearing the crown on both heads, the talons grasping a wavy sword, with one talon holding the hilt. From the sword is draped a scroll bearing the motto Deus meumque jus (“In God is my hope”). This symbols seems to have been adopted in 1758, when a body calling itself the Council of Emperors of East and West was established in Paris.
Garter, or more properly, The Most Noble Order of the Garter, was instituted in England by King Edward III in 1348, as a noble fraternity consisting of the King, the Prince of Wales and twenty-four Knights Companion.
There is a curious story as to how the order was named. The Fair Maid of Kent, while dancing in the King’s Court, dropped her garter on the floor. To cover her embarrassment and to prevent the people laughing at the incident, the King picked up the garter and bound it on his leg, pronouncing Honi Soit qui Mal y Pense (French for “Shame to him who thinks ill of it”). This explanation seems to have been originated in France, and possibly meant to discredit the Order.
According to Elias Ashmole, the historian of the Order, the Order commemorated the occasion when King Edward III had given forth his own garter as the signal for the battle of Crecy. It was intended as the revival of the Round Table from the Arthurian legend. It is possible that the formation of the Order was a move to gain support for his claim to the French throne. It was significant that the colours of the garter¾blue embroidered with gold¾correspond to those of the French Royal Arms. It seems highly likely that the Garter was an assembly of chivalrous men to aid King Edward of England to become King Edward of France.
How does Freemasonry compare with the Golden Fleece, Roman Eagle and Garter? It is unnecessary to argue whether our Brotherhood is more ancient or more honourable than them. We may or may not be, but that is missing the woods for trees.
Golden Fleece, Roman Eagle and Garter are either marginalized or withered in time, as did the Empires that created them. The Order symbolized by Square & Compasses has survived and even flourished. This is the substance.
Golden Fleece symbolized wealth, and proved that even the wealthy cannot maintain brotherhood among them and that they could and would quarrel like thieves in sharing their spoils. The difference between the two denominations of Golden Fleece was not one of morals, but of inheritance and sharing the amassed wealth.
Rome represented the finest ideas of Greek civilization. It had democracy, rule of law, chivalrous and brave men, finest orators, public baths, and organized government. It also had slavery, power-hungry politicians and demagogues, and conquests and ruthless domination. Gladiators coexisted with slaves. Scholars mesmerized crowds with oration, and practiced fornication and pederasty. The republic degenerated and became empire again. The famous historian, Arnold Toynbee, commented that Rome had its own seed of destruction: its ruthless domination and power ruined itself at the end. Garter was no doubt an order of chivalrous men, but its motive was conquest for personal enlargement, not public good. It does not recognize that all men are at the same level. It considered that some are higher, not because of their merit and talent, but because of their birth, ranking or wealth. How can an order be noble if its motto is “Woe be to him that thinks ill of us”?