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Archive for April 8, 2008

Hiram Abif, The Widow’s Son

HIRAM OR HURAM, in Hebrew, means “noble-born.” The more correct pronunciation, according to the true value of the Hebrew letters, is “Khuram” or “Khurum,” but universal Masonic usage renders it now impossible, or, at least, inexpedient, to make the change.

The name of the King of Tyre is spelled “Hiram” everywhere in Scripture except in 1 Chronicles 14: 1, where it occurs as “Huram.” In 1 Chronicles 14: 1, the original Hebrew text has Hiram, but the Masorites in the margin direct it to be read Huram. In our authorized version, the name is spelled Hiram, which is also the form used in the Vulgate and in the Targums.

There is no character in the annals of Freemasonry whose life is so dependent on Tradition as the celebrated architect of King Solomon’s Temple. Profane history is entirely silent in respect to his career, and the sacred records supply us with only very unimportant items.

To fill up the space between his life and his death, we are necessarily compelled to resort to those oral legends which have been handed down  from the ancient Masons to their successors. Yet, looking to their character, I should be unwilling to vouch for the authenticity of all; most of them were probably at first symbolical in their character; the symbol in the lapse of time having been converted into a myth, and the myth, by constant repetition, having assumed the formal appearance of a truthful narrative.

Such has been the case in the history of all nations. But whatever may have been their true character, to the Mason, at least, they are interesting, and cannot be altogether void of instruction.

When King Solomon was about to build a temple of Jehovah, the difficulty of obtaining skillful workmen to superintend and to execute the architectural part of the undertaking was such, that he found it necessary to request of his friend and ally, Hiram, King of Tyre, the use of some of his most able builders; for the Tyrians and Sidonians were celebrated artists, and at that time were admitted to be the best mechanics in the world.

Hiram willingly complied with his request, and dispatched to his assistance an abundance of men and materials, to be employed in the construction of the Temple, and among the former, a distinguished artist, to whom was given the superintendence of all the workmen, both Jews and Tyrians, and who was in possession of all the skill and learning that were required to carry out, in the most efficient manner, all the plans and designs of the King of Israel.

Of this artist, whom Freemasons recognize sometimes as Hiram the Builder, sometimes as the Widow’s Son, but more commonly as Hiram Abif, the earliest account is found in the 1st Book of Kings 7: 13, 14, where the passage reads as follows:

“And King Solomon sent and fetched Hiram out of Tyre. He was a Widow’s son of the tribe of Naphtali, and his father was a man of Tyre, a worker in brass, and he was filled with wisdom and understanding, and cunning to work all works in brass. And he came to King Solomon and wrought all his work.”

He is next mentioned in the 2nd Book of Chronicles 2: 13, 14 in the following letter from Hiram of Tyre to King Solomon:

“And now I have sent a cunning man, endued  with understanding,  of Huram my father’s. The son of a woman of the daughters of Dan, and his father was a man of Tyre, skillful to work in gold and in silver, in brass, in iron, in stone, and in timber, in purple, in blue and in fine linen and in crimson; also to grave any manner of graving, and to find out every device which shall put to him, with thy cunning men, and with the cunning men of my lord David, thy father.”

In reading these two descriptions, everyone will be at once struck with an apparent contradiction in them in relation to the parentage of their subject. There is no doubt — for in this both passages agree — that his father was a man of Tyre; but the discrepancy is in reference to the birthplace of his mother, who in one passge is said to have been “of the tribe of Naphtali,” and in the other, “of the daughters of Dan.”

Commentators have, however, met with no difficulty in reconciling the contradiction, and the suggestion of Bishop Patrick is now generally adopted on this subject. He supposes that she herself was of the tribe of Dan, but that her first husband was of the tribe of Naphtali, by whom she had this son; and that when shewas a widow, she married a man of Tyre, who is called Hiram’s father because he bred him up and was the husband of his mother.

Hiram Abif undoubtedly derived much of his knowledge in mechanical arts from that man of Tyre who had married his mother, and we may justly conclude that he increased that knowledge by assiduous study and constant intercourse with the artisans of Tyre, who were greatly distinguished for their attainments in architecture. Tyre was one of the principal seats of the Dionysiac fraternity of artificers, a society engaged exclusively in the construction of edifices, and living under a secret organization which was subsequently imitated by the Operative Freemasons.

Of this association, it is not unreasonable to suppose that Hiram Abif was a member, and that on arriving at Jerusalem he introduced among the Jewish workmen the same exact system of discipline which he had found of so much advantage in the Dionysiac associations at home, and thus gave, under the sanction of King Solomon, a peculiar organization to the Masons who were engaged in building the Temple. 

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UPON THE ARRIVAL of this celebrated artist at Jerusalem, which was in the year B.C. 1012, he was at once received into the intimate confidence of Solomon, and entrusted with the superintendence of all workmen, both Tyrians and Jews, who were engaged in the construction of the building. He received the title of “Principal Conductor of the Works,” an office which, previous to his arrival, had been filled by Adoniram, and, according to Masonic tradition, formed with Solomon and King Hiram of Tyre, his ancient patron, the Supreme Council of Grand Masters, in which everything was determined in relation to the construction of the edifice and the government of the workmen.

The Book of Constitutions, as it was edited  by Entick (ed. 1756, p. 19) speaks of him in the following language: “This inspired master was, without question, the most cunning, skillful, and curious workman that ever lived; whose abilities were not confined to building only, but extended to all kinds of work; whether in gold, silver, brass or iron; whether considered as architect, statuary, founder or designer, separately or together, he equally excelled. From his designs and under his direction, all the rich and splendid furniture of the Temple and its several appendages were begun, carried on, and finished. Solomon appointed him, in his absence, to fill the Chairas Deputy Grand Master, and in his presence, Senior Grand Warden, Master of Work, and general overseer of all artists, as well those whom David had formerly procured from Tyre and Sidon, as those Hiram should now send.”

This statement requires some correction. According to the most consistent systems and the general course of traditions, there were three Grand Masters at the building of the Temple, of whom Hiram Abif was one, and hence in our Lodges he always receives the title of a Grand Master. We may, however, reconcile the assertion of Anderson, that he was sometimes a Deputy Grand Master, and sometimes a Senior Grand Warden, by supposing that the three Grand Masters were, among the Craft, possessed of equal authority, and held in equal reverence, while among themselves there was an acknowledged subordination of station of power.

But in no way can the assertion be explained that he was at any time a Senior Grand Warden, which would by wholly irreconcilable with the symbolism of the Temple. In the mythical Master’s Lodge, supposed to have been held in the Temple, and the only one ever held before its completion, at which the three Grand Masters alone were present, the office of Junior Warden is assigned to Hiram Abif.

According to Masonic tradition, which is in part supported by Scriptural authority, Hiram was charged with all the architectural decorations and interior embellishments of the building. He cast the various vessels and implements that were to be used in the religious service of the Temple, as well as the pillars that adorned the porch, selecting as the most convenient and appropriate place for the scene of his operations, the clay grounds which extend between Succoth and Zaredatha; and the old lectures state that the whole interior of the house, its posts and doors, its very floors and ceilings, which were made of the most expensive timber, and overlaid with plates of burnished gold, were, by his exquisite taste, enchased with magnificent designs and adorned with the most precious gems.

Even the abundance of these precious jewels, in the decorations of the Temple, is attributed to the foresight and prudence of Hiram Abif; since a Masonic tradition, quoted by Dr. Oliver, informs us, that about four years before the Temple was begun, he, as the agent of the Tyrian King, purchased some curious stones from an Arabian merchant, who told him, upon inquiry, that they had been found by accident on an island in the Red Sea.

By the permission of King Hiram, he investigated the truth of this report, and had the good fortune to discover many precious gems, and among the rest an abundance of Topaz. They were subsequently imported by the ships of Tyre for the service of King Solomon.

In allusion to these labors of taste and skill displayed by the widow’s son, our lectures say, that while the “wisdom” of Solomon contrived the fabric, and the “strength” of King Hiram’s wealth and power supported the undertaking, it was adorned by the “beauty” of Hiram Abif’s curious and cunning workmanship. 

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IN THE CHARACTER of the chief architect of the Temple, one of the peculiarities which most strongly attract attention was the systematic manner in which he conducted all the extensive operations which were placed under his charge. In the classification of the workmen, such arrangements were made, by his advice, as to avoid any discord or confusion; and although about two hundred thousand craftsmen and laborers were employed, so complete were his arrangements, that the general harmony was never once disturbed.

In the payment of wages, such means were, at his suggestion, adopted, that every one’s labor was readily distinguished, and his defects ascertained, every attempt at imposition detected, and the particular amount of money due to each workman accurately determined and easily paid, so that, as Webb remarks, “the disorder and confusion that might otherwise have attended so immense an undertaking was completely prevented.”

It was his custom never to put off until tomorrow the work that might have been accomplished today, for he was as remarkable  for his punctuality in the discharge of the most triffling duties, as he was for his skill in performing the most important.

It was his constant habit to furnish the craftsmen every morning with a copy of the plans which he had, on the previous afternoon, designed for their labor in the course of the ensuing day. As new designs were thus furnished by him from day to day, any neglect to provide the workmen with them on each successive morning would necessarily have stopped the labors of the whole body of the workmen for that day; a circumstance that in so large a number must have produced the greatest disorder and confusion.

Hence the practice of punctuality was in him a duty of the highest obligation, and one whichcould never for a mnoment have been neglected without leading to immediate observation. Such is the character of this distinguished personage, whether mythical or not, that has been transmitted by the uninterrupted stream of Masonic tradition.

The trestleboard used by him in drawing his designs is said to have been made, as the ancient tablets were, of wood, and covered with a coating of war. On this coating he inscribed his plans with a pen or stylus of steel, which an old tradition, preserved by Oliver, says was found upon him when he was raised, and ordered by King Solomon to be deposited in the center of his monument. The same tradition informs us that the first time he used this stylus for any of the purposes of the Temple was on the morning that the foundation-stone of the building was laid, when he drew the celebrated diagram know as the forty-seventh problem of Euclid, and which gained a prize that Solomon had offered on that occasion. But this is so evidently a mere myth, invented by some myth-maker of the last century, without even the excuse of a symbolic meaning, that it has been rejected or, at least, forgotten by the Craft.

Another and more interesting legend has been preserved by Oliver, which may be received as a mythical symbol of the faithful performance of duty. It runs thus:

“It was the duty of Hiram Abif to superintened the workmen, and the reports of his officers were always examined with the most scrupulous exactness. At the opening of the day, when the sun was rising in the east, it was his constant custom, before the commencement of labor, to go into the Temple, and offer up his prayers to Jehovah for a blessing on the work; and in like manner when the sun was setting in the west. And after the labors of the day were closed, and the workmen had left the Temple, he returned hius thanks to the Great Architect of the Universe for the Harmonious protection of the day. Not content with this devout expression of his feelings, he always went into the Temple at the hour of high twelve, when the men were called off from labor to refreshment, to inspect the work to draw fresh designs upon the trestleboard, if such were necessary, and to perform other scientific labors — never forgetting to consecrate the duties by solemn prayer. These religious customs were faithfullyperformed for the first six years in the secret recxesses of his Lodge, and for the last year in the precincts of the most holyplace.”

While assiduously engaged in the discharge of these arduous duties, seven years passed rapidly away, and the magnificent Temple at Jerusalem was nearly completed. The Fraternity were about to celebrate the cope-stone with the greatest demonstrations of joy; but, in the language of the venerable Book of constitutions, “their joy was soon interrupted by the sudden death of their dear and worthy master, Hiram Abif.”

On the very day appointed for celebrating the cope-stone of the building, says one tradition, he repaired to his usual place of retirement at the meridian hour, and did not return alive. On this subject, we can say no more. This is neither the time nor the place to detail the particulars of his death.

It is enough to say that the circumstance filled rthe Craft with the most profound grief, which was deeply shared by his friend and patron, King Solomon, who, according to the Book of Constitutions, “after some time allowed to the Craft to vent their sorrow, ordered his obsequies to be performed with great solemnity and decency, and burried him in the Lodge near the Temple — according to the ancient usages among Masons — and long mourned his loss.”