Builder Gilds, Ancient
Some thirty miles southwest of Cairo, west of the Nile, and on the Libyan desert, is an oasis in a sunken depression of many hundreds of square miles, in which from 300 B.C. to 300 A.D. circa existed a number of cities and a rich civilization. This region was sustained by an irrigation system comparable in size and as an engineering achievement with our TVA; when that irrigation system was destroyed the Fayum, as its name was, reverted to desert, and its towns were covered by sand. In 1888 Dr. W. M. Flinders Petrie exeavated a tomb at Hawara and made the astounding discovery that mummy cases there were built up of and stuffed with written papyri. Later on he had among his assistants B. P. Grenfell and Arthur S. Hunt. These two young men began in 1896 to excavate the whole Fayum, and with such success that in 1897 in the ruins of the town of Oxyrhynchus they came upon the greatest find of written manuscripts ever made in the whole history of archeology, and sent back to England tons of documents.
These had been written, most of them, in the Koine, a form of Greek in use throughout the Eastern Mediterranean during the general period of the first three centuries of our era.
These documents were not of scholarly writings but were such as could be recovered from the wastebaskets of any modern city: letters, business ledgers, wills, recipes, poems, and songs, daily papers, sermons, pamphlets, financial reports, tax receipts, etc., etc.
For the first time they gave historians a detailed, day by-day picture of men and their affairs in Egypt, Palestine, Greece, and Rome as things were in the first centuries of the Christian era. The students and historians of Freemasonry will henceforth have to examine the Fayum papyri in their studies of ancient builder gilds and of that once favorite subject of Masonic writers, the Ancient Mysteries, because among these tens of thousands of documents are many which for the first time furnish written records of gilds of that period and of the Ancient Mystery cults. In the volumes of the papyri published in 1907 and in 1910 by the British Museum are a number of documents relating to the mason crafts. Legal forms used by the ironworkers, the carpenters, and the gild of masons show that such gilds (or collegia) of the years 100 A.D. to 200 A.D. were very like the gilds of masons in the Middle Ages.
It is only now beginning to be realized that the Mason gilds of the Middle Ages from which our Fraternity is descended were of dual nature, a fact made especially evident in the body of Medieval law ; on the one side a Mason gild was a trade association for the purpose of controlling hours, wages, the rules of daily work, etc. ; on the other side it was a fraternity, with a Patron Saint, a chapel to attend, with feasts at set times, with relief for widows, orphans, etc., and for Masons in distress. The Oxyrynchus manuscripts make it clear that the builder gilds of 2000 years ago also were dual organizations of the same kind ; they met in their own rooms, had the equivalent of masters and wardens, gave relief, had feasts, also acted as burial clubs, and also were trade, or craft, organizations.
The Egypt Exploration Fund (Graeeo-Roman Branch) published Part I of the documents found by Hunt and Grenfell as The Oxyrhynchus Papyri,' by Grenfell and Hunt; London; 1898; 37 Great Russell St., W.C., and 59 Temple Street, Boston, Mass. The latest volume at hand is Greek Shorthand Manuals, edited by H. J. M. Milne (from a family famous in Freemasonry for three centuries) ; London ; 1934. For non-archeologists one of the best introductions is the fascinatingly-written The New Archaeological Discoveries, and Their Bearing Upon the New Testalnent, etc., by Camden M. Cobem; Fttnk & Wagnalls Co. ; New York; 1917. The Twentieth Century New Testament was based on the Fayum discoveries ; some authorities believe that the books of the New Testament were written in the Koine, others that it was written first in Aramaic and then translated into the Koine,' in either event New Testarnent Greek was the Koine instead of the Greek of Plato and Euripides.
(The shiploads of documents unearthed since 1885 in Egypt, Palestine, and Greece have swept away once and forever mountains of nonsense about the pyramid builders and the Egyptian Mysteries. Scores of Masonic writers, exercising their rights to guess, wrote pseudo- learned volumes to prove that Freemasonry began with the pyramids [a very common type of structure] or the Book of the Dead, etc. ; their theories are now rendered forever impossible. It is not an exaggeration to say that when the last of the tons of mss. are translated, edited, and published scholars can write a day-by-day history of the eastern Mediterranean countries from 300 B.C. to 300 A.D. It is an astonishing fact that less is known about the Twelfth Century in England and Europe than about that much more ancient period.)
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