As a symbol, the Secret Vault does not present itself in the first Degrees of Freemasonry. It is found only in the advanced Degrees, Such as the Royal Arch of all the Rites, where it plays an important part. Doctor Oliver, in his Historical Landmarks (volume ii, page 434), gives, while referring to the building of the second Temple, the following general detail of the Masonic legend of this vault:
The foundations of the Temple were opened, and cleared from the accumulation of rubbish, that a level might be procured for the commencement of the building. While engaged in excavations for this purpose, three fortunate Sojourners are said to have discovered our ancient Stone of Foundation, which had been deposited in the secret crypt by Wisdom, Strength, and Beauty, to prevent the communication of ineffable secrets to profane or unworthy persons.
The discovery having been communicated to the Prince, Prophet, and Priest of the Jews, the stone was adopted as the chief corner-stone of the re-edified building, and thus became in a new and more expressive sense, the type of a more excellent Dispensation. An avenue was also accidentally discovered, supported by seven pairs of pillars, perfect and entire, which, from their situation, had escaped the fury of the flames that had consumed the Temple, and the desolation of war that had destroyed the city.
The Secret Vault, which had been built by Solomon as a secure depository for certain secrets that would inevitably have been lost without some such expedient for their preservation, communicated by a subterranean avenue with the king's palace; but at the destruction of Jerusalem the entrance having been closed by the rubbish of falling buildings, it had been discovered by the appearance of a keystone amongst the foundations of the Sanctum Sanctorum. A careful inspection was then made, and the invaluable secrets were placed in safe custody.
To support this legend, there is no historical evidence and no authority except that of the Talmudic writers. It is clearly a mythical symbol, and as such we must accept it. We cannot altogether reject it, because it is so ultimately and so extensively connected with the symbolism of the Lost and the Recovered Word, that if we reject the theory of the Secret Vault, we must abandon all of that Symbolism and with it the whole of the science of Masonic symbolism. Fortunately, there is ample evidence in the present appearance of Jerusalem and its subterranean topography, to remove from any tacit and, as it were, conventional assent to the theory, features of absurdity or impossibility.
Considered simply an historical question, there can be no doubt of the existence of immense vaults beneath the superstructure of the original Temple of Solomon. Prime, Robinson, and other writers who in recent times have described the topography of Jerusalem, speak of the existence of these structures, which they visited and, in some instances, carefully examined. After the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus, the Roman Emperor Hadrian erected on the site of the House of the Lord a Temple of Venus, which in its turn was destroyed, and the place subsequently became a depository of all manner of filth. But the Calif Omar, after his conquest of Jerusalem, sought out the ancient site, and, having caused it to be cleansed of its impurities, he directed a Mosque to be erected on the rock which rises in the center of the mountain.
Fifty years afterward the Sultan Abd-el-Meluk displaced the edifice of Omar, and erected that splendid building which remains to this day, and is still incorrectly called by Christians the Mosque of Omar, but known to Mussulmans as Elkubbet-es-Sukrah, or the Dome of the Rock. This is supposed to occupy the exact site of the original Solomonic Temple, and is viewed with equal reverence by Jews and Mohammedans, the former of whom, says Prime, (Tent Life in the holy Land, page 183), "have a faith that the ark is within its bosom now."
Bartlett (Walks about Jerusalem, page 170), in describing a vault beneath this Mosque of Omar, says: "Beneath the dome, at the southeast angle of the Temple wall, conspicuous from all points a small subterraneous place of prayer, forming the entrance to the extensive vaults which support the level platform of the mosque above." Doctor Barclay (City of the Great Ring) describes in many places of his interesting topography of Jerusalem, the vaults and subterranean chambers which are to be found beneath the site of the old Temple.
Conformable with this historical amount is the Talmudical legend, in which the Jewish Rabbis state that, in preparing the foundations of the Temple, the workmen discovered a subterranean vault sustained by seven arches, rising from as many pairs of pillars. This vault escaped notice at the destruction of Jerusalem, in consequence of its being filled with rubbish. The legend adds that Josiah, foreseeing the destruction of the Temple, commanded the Levites to deposit the Ark of the Covenant in this vault, where it was found by some of the workmen of Zerubbabel at the building of the second Temple. In the earliest ages, the cave or vault was deemed sacred. The first worship was in cave temples, which were either natural or formed by art to resemble the excavations of nature.
Of such great extent was this practice of subterranean worship by the nations of antiquity, that many of the forms of heathen temples, as well as the naves, aisles, and chancels of churches subsequently built for Christian worship, are said to owe their origin to the religious use of caves.
From this, too, arose the fact, that the initiation into the ancient mysteries was almost always performed in subterranean edifices; and when the place of initiation, as in some of the Egyptian temples, was really above ground, it was so constructed as to give to the neophyte the appearance, in its approaches and its internal structure, of a vault. As the great doctrine taught in the mysteries was the resurrection from the dead--as to die and to be initiated were synonymous terms--it was deemed proper that there should be some formal resemblance between a descent into the grave and a descent into the place of initiation.
Happy is the man," says the Greek poet Pindar, "who descends beneath the hollow earth having beheld these Mysteries for he knows the end as well as the divine origin of life"; and in a like spirit Sophocles exclaims, "Thrice happy are they who descend to the shades below after having beheld the sacred Rites for they alone have life in Hades, while all others suffer there every kind of evil."
The vault was, therefore, in the ancient Mysteries, symbolic of the grave; for initiation was Symbolic of death, where alone Divine Truth is to be found. The Freemasons have adopted the same idea. They teach that death is but the beginning of life; that if the first or evanescent Temple of our transitory life be on the surface, we must descend into the secret vault of death before we can find that sacred deposit of truth which is to adorn our Second Temple of eternal life. It is in this sense of an entrance through the grave into eternal life that we are to view the symbolism of the secret vault. Like every other myth and allegory of Freemasonry, the historical relation may be true or it may be false; it may be founded on fact or be the invention of imagination; the lesson is still there, and the symbolism teaches it exclusive of the history.
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