The teachings of Freemasonry are built upon symbols and ethical lessons derived from the medieval stonemasons, each intended to endow Brothers with the knowledge to help them become better men. With centuries of practicing Masonic tradition, it is perhaps unavoidable that certain facets of Masonic ritual have leaked into public awareness. Few elements of the Craft have captured the imagination of non-Masons as the Masonic handshake. Although Freemasonry is hardly the first institution to use secret handshakes, it is likely the most famous.
What are Secret Handshakes?
The purpose of a secret handshake is generally the same from group to group; it's an intimate, familiar, and, in some cases, helpful interaction between friends, colleagues, and family members. We regularly see players on our favorite sports teams completing special handshakes with their teammates. Secret handshakes mean different things to different people and groups, but all are comprised of signature, sometimes complex movements.
Secret Handshakes from History
Because there is no known origin of secret handshakes, it is generally considered they have existed for as long as any other type of greeting. One of the oldest known examples can be found in Mithraism. This Roman mystery religion was popular within the Imperial Roman army during the first several centuries of the common era. The religion included a complex system of seven grades of initiation and communal ritual meals. Members of Mithraism were initiated using a handshake and referred to themselves as syndexioi or those "united by the handshake."
Another example can be found in The Sons of Temperance, a secret society founded in 1842 in New York City focused on abstinence from consuming alcohol. Unlike other Temperance societies of the era, the Sons of Temperance was a genuine fraternal group and a mutual benefit society that incorporated passwords, handshakes, and rituals into its activities and provided life and funeral benefits to its members.
Secret Handshakes and Freemasonry
Blue Lodge Freemasonry is built upon practices and principles of the medieval stonemason guilds. Operative masons created guilds to protect their trade secrets and teach them to subsequent generations. As part of their practice, stonemasons relied on secret handshakes to identify one another. This greeting was especially useful for those traveling to new construction sites looking for work as it allowed fellow Masons to recognize them as craftsmen, with each handshake commensurate with one’s experience and, therefore, pay.
As speculative Masonry developed, Freemasons adopted its symbolism and ceremonial practices from the stonemasons, including the use of secret handshakes. Now centuries-old, Freemasonry is the largest and oldest fraternal organization in the world. Because of this, certain pieces of Masonic practice, vocabulary, and symbolism are well-known, while their significance is not.
Today, there are a dozen different secret handshakes within Freemasonry that are used depending on the level of the Mason. For example, a Worshipful Master uses a different handshake than an Entered Apprentice. Using these greetings, Brethren can identify a Mason's rank without ever uttering a word. Most importantly, these handshakes are a subtle way for Brothers to greet and recognize one another when socializing.
In recent years, we’ve seen elements of these Masonic handshakes
used in non-Masonic settings. A Mason may be taken aback by seeing a Masonic
handshake, or one similar, being used after a touchdown or other celebration.
It’s likely that in these instances, the individuals are unaware of this link
to Masonry, having come across a technique haphazardly or even by pure luck.
Any instance where Masonry may make it into the non-Masonic world is an
opportunity for education, enlightenment, and maybe even recruitment into the
ranks of our Brotherhoods.
The Importance of the Masonic Handshake
It is a privilege and responsibility not to be taken lightly for
candidates and Master Masons who have earned the right to use the Masonic
handshake. The handshake represents a commitment to upholding the core tenets
of Freemasonry: Brotherly Love, Relief, and Truth. Using this greeting requires
treating all people with respect and working every day on self-improvement.
Just as the ancient craftsmen honed their skills to raise
temples and churches, so must the Freemason work on himself, learning how to be
a good man, and follow the Supreme Architect's design.