In Freemasonry, the Master's Word was originally a MB word, i.e. a word in two parts, the first of which begins with M and the second with B. These initials were used to refer to different forms of the MB word, which can vary according to the rites and constitutions. In its present form, whatever the words that make it up, the word MB in Freemasonry always refers to the legend of Hiram. But was that the case from the beginning ? It is precisely the origin of the word MB in Freemasonry that we shall attempt to uncover here.

The first enigmatic occurrence of the MB Word

The first mention of a Master's Word is found in the ‘Sloane’ MS no. 3329, which dates from around 1700, but which some authors (such as Rev. Woodford, who published the manuscript in 1872) consider to be a copy of a much older document, dating back to 1640 at the latest.

The origin of this document is uncertain. It refers to operative ‘Freemasons’, indicating an English origin. However, many elements attest to the influence of Scottish Masonry: for example, the J and B words and the titles of ‘Interprintices’ and ‘Fellow Crafts’ given to Entered Apprentices and Fellows are clearly of Scottish origin. This manuscript is undoubtedly a privileged witness to the first English speculative Freemasonry, which borrowed the forms of Scottish Masonry.

What interests us today in this document is the assertion that in addition to the J and B Words, there is another word for Masters, which is exchanged during a touching that strongly resembles the current Five Points of Mastery. This word is MAHABYN, of which no meaning is given. Note that neither MAHA nor BYN can be explained in Early Modern English, which is the English spoken between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. BYN, on the other hand, is well attested in Scots English (a form of English spoken in the Scottish Lowlands and Ulster) under various spellings (ban, bane , bin, byn, bean, been...) with the meaning of bone. A Scottish origin for MAHABYN is therefore more than likely, but does not explain the word MAHA. And which bone are we talking about ? Let's wait and see...

The word MB between 1710 and 1730

Various forms of the word MB can be found in manuscripts and disclosures from 1710 to 1730, which may help us to understand the word MAHABYN better.

The ‘Trinity College’ MS (1711) gives us MATCHPIN; ‘A Mason's Examination’ (1723) bears MAUGHBIN; ‘The Whole Institutions of Free-masons opened’ (1725) mentions MAGBOE; Pritchard's ‘Masonry Dissected’ (1730) presents us with the Word MB of the Modern Tradition, i.e. MACHBENAH, which would mean ‘He is stricken, the Architect’ and clearly refers to the legend of Hiram. But the most significant clue must be sought in the "Graham" MS (1726), which does not give the word itself, but justifies it with the locution MARROW IN THIS BONE.

A bone to pick…

So we may have found the key to MAHABYN in the "Graham" MS of 1726. There is indeed mention of a bone (BYN in Scots English), which seems to be confirmed by the form that MAHABYN will eventually take in English: MAHABONE, which will become MOABON in the Ancient Accepted Scottish Rite.

But what about MAHA, which exists neither in English nor in Scots English? Does it refer to the MARROW mentioned in 'Graham'? To clarify matters, let's go back to the contents of ‘Graham’. The word MARROW IN THIS BONE is linked to a legend that foreshadows that of Hiram, but concerns Noah.  

Noah died without having had time to reveal his secret to his three sons. There's no question of murder here, just a death deemed premature. So the three brothers go to their father's grave in the hope of finding some clue. On the way, they agree that if they can't find the real secret, the first thing they discover will be their secret.

Having found their father's body decomposing, they tried to grasp him by the finger, wrist and elbow, but the knuckles came loose. They then tried to raise him up, placing themselves with him "foot to ffoot knee to knee Breast to breast Cheeck to cheeck and hand to back". But not knowing what to do,  they laid the dead body again. The first of the brothers then said "Here is yet marrow in this bone", the second "But a dry bone" and the third "It stinketh". And "Graham" MS concludes: "so they agreed for to give it a name as is known to free masonry to this day".

According to "Graham" MS, the word MB is a condensed version of this discovery. BYN is the bone, but what does MAHA mean? "A Mason's Examination" of 1723 then comes to the rescue with its MAUGHBIN.

Our hypothesis is that the first part of the word (MAHA or MAUGH) is not English or Scots English, but just an attempt to pronounce the Hebrew word for marrow : MOaCH (the CH is guttural, like the Spanish jota). The MAUGHBIN form adopted by "A Mason's Examination" seems to confirm this : pronouncing MOaCH in Scots English is more or less equivalent to saying MAUGH, which can also be spelt Moach or Moch. And maugh/moach/moch means wet, rotting. 

As a result, the form MAUGHBIN takes on its full meaning : it brings together two concepts present in the Noah legend of "Graham" MS : the marrow in the bone and the stench of putrefaction. Through a combination of Scots English and Hebrew, MAUGHBIN can thus be interpreted as "marrow in the bone" and "rotting bone". 

And even though "A Mason's Examination" is an English document, MAUGHBIN attests to the Scottish origin of the Master's Word. The play on words between Scots English and Hebrew also leads us to suppose that there were Hebraists among the ancient Scottish Masons, probably Protestant clergymen, as Catholic priests generally did not know Hebrew. This is hardly surprising, given the role played later by the pastors Désaguliers and Anderson in the creation of the Grand Lodge of London.

What about MATCHPIN and MAGBOE ?

These two variants, proposed by the 1711 'Trinity College' MS and the 1725 disclosure 'The Whole Institutions of Free-masons opened', do not contradict our hypothesis.

Let's start with the MATCHPIN found in "Trinity College" MS. Is it simply a distortion of MAUGHBIN ? If we knew the origin of this manuscript, it would be easier to decide. The Masonic terminology it uses is English, not Scottish, but the fact that the manuscript is located in Dublin does not necessarily mean that it is of Irish origin. Is it a clue to a word in MP/MB other than MAHABYN/MAUGHBIN that may have existed concurrently in Ireland or England ? MATCH could mean 'equal' and PIN could refer to a metal point... 

Nevertheless, the hypothesis of a distortion of MAUGHBIN seems the most likely. Let's start with the idea that, first and foremost, Masonic secrets are an oral tradition. A word spoken by a Scotsman in Scots English may be misheard and misunderstood by an Englishman or an Irishman, who will repeat it incorrectly. The guttural CH sound does not exist in Early Modern English (nor in contemporary English) and may have been incorrectly reproduced. 

On the other hand, if we assume written transmission, the same problem may arise. Maugh is not difficult for an Englishman to pronounce, but if he comes across the Scottish spelling Moach or Moch, will he know how to pronounce it ? Wouldn't CH tend to become TCH ? And why would -bin become -pin ? TCH is a deaf palatal-alveolar affricate consonant, which is more likely to be immediately followed by a deaf bilabial occlusive consonant (P) than by a voiced bilabial occlusive consonant (B). You can try this by yourself : pronounce Matchpin and Matchbin quickly and observe which form comes more naturally. We can't prove it, but we think it's highly likely that Matchpin is a deformation of MAUGHBIN.

As for the word MAGBOE in "The Whole Institutions of Free-masons opened" of 1725, it can also be seen as a deformation of MAHABYN/MAUGHBIN. We know that among the English, MAHABYN was preserved in the form MAHABONE. Boe could be a distortion of bone. And Mag could come from Maha directly or from a hypothetical intermediate form, Maughbone, which could have existed. In any case, MAHABONE pronounced quickly in English can be heard as MAGBOE, especially if the speaker's articulation is poor. 

It should also be remembered that "The Whole Institutions of Free-masons opened" is a printed disclosure and not a manuscript. The author is probably not a Freemason and may have misread the handwritten document he was reproducing. Or perhaps the printer made a typo and omitted the N in BONE.

The first form of the Word MB and the origin of the Master Degree

The first form of the word MB seems to have been MAHABYN/MAUGHBIN and to be of Scottish origin. It was later anglicised into MAHABONE. This word, which evokes bone and putrefaction, seems well suited to the legend of Noah, which is known to us from a single English manuscript, the 'Graham' MS of 1726, which obviously gives us the key.

Like "Sloane" MS no. 3329, which is the first manuscript to mention the word MAHABYN, "Graham" MS is an English document that bears traces of a Scottish influence. While the lodge is described as being made up of "Masters" and "Fellows" (which is the English terminology), there are two further references to the "Fellow Craft", a typically Scottish title.

Although it is generally accepted that the Master Degree was introduced by the Grand Lodge of London (the "Moderns") around 1730, it seems that an early form of the Degree, of Scottish origin and based on a Noahic legend, may have existed in Scotland from an undetermined date. This degree seems to have been known to certain English Freemasons around 1700, but probably for longer, if we accept the hypothesis that "Sloane" MS no. 3329 goes back to an original dating from 1640 at the latest.

So why is there so little trace of it, apart from these tiny clues ? Maybe because the Scottish Masons and English Freemasons of the seventeenth century really did respect their oaths of secrecy. The oldest known manuscript of a Scottish Masonic catechism (the "Edinburgh Register House" MS) only dates from 1696, whereas the Masonry of the Word of Mason appeared in Scotland around 1600. And we have no equivalent English manuscript before 1700. So there is a great deal of uncertainty surrounding seventeenth-century Masonic practice. 

We can also postulate that this degree was not known to all Lodges and that not all Masons had access to it, as is the case with the current higher and side degrees. The existence of this degree was perhaps a secret for the majority of Freemasons.

Thus, when we know that the ‘Ancients’, who created their own Grand Lodge in 1753, reproached the ‘Moderns’ for having altered the ancient rituals and for having introduced the Master degree, we can assume that they were not attacking the idea of a third degree per se. What they probably objected to was the fact that this degree was conferred indiscriminately on all Freemasons, using a ritual based on a new legend which they did not acknowledged, or which they considered to be a plagiarism of the true legend.

The MACHBENAH of the Moderns

Appearing for the first time in Samuel Pritchard's ‘Masonry Dissected’ in 1730, the word MACHBENAH (which will become MACBÉNAC in France) is the Master's Word of the ‘Moderns’, i.e. of the Grand Lodge of London of 1717 (or more probably 1721). It can mean ‘He is stricken, the Architect’ and corresponds perfectly to the drama of the Master's degree which, among the Moderns, concerns the murder of Hiram and the discovery of his body by nine Masters. 

The decision by the Masters to take as their secret the first word spoken when Hiram's body would be found, the breaking of the joints of his extremities in the first attempts to seize him, his raising by the Five Points of Fellowship and the presence of a Word in MB inevitably bring to mind the legend of Noah related by the 'Graham'. 

But the story is more dramatic, because there has been a murder. The Master degree thus takes on a more moral connotation : Hiram's assassins are stigmatised, symbolising human passions, and Hiram is praised for having kept his secret until death. 

However, this greatly reduces the universality of the secret, which becomes the secret of the Master Masons, whereas the story of Noah brought us face to face with the secret of the man whom the Great Architect of the Universe had chosen to be the Father of the new humanity regenerated after the Flood. Noah's secret is the primordial Tradition, or, as Judaism puts it, the first and universal religion, before the Covenant made with Abraham and then confirmed with Moses. This goes even further than the professional secrecy of the Masons ! Let's not forget that the words of the three degrees of Entered Apprentice, Fellowcraft and Master Mason served, according to the legend of Hiram itself, only to ensure that each received the salary corresponding to his degree. It takes a great deal of spiritualisation and symbolisation to get something higher out of them, whereas Noah's secret was essentially spiritual in nature.

So where did this legend of Hiram come from, requiring a new Word (which nevertheless remained in MB) ? As we know it today, this legend seems to have been invented by the 'Moderns', but it probably has its roots in ancient builders' legends according to which the Master builder was murdered, as is the case with Maître Jacques in the French Compagnonnage. Perhaps the mention of a stone trough in which the Master lays in the "Dumfries" MS no. 4 is an echo of such a legend, which may have been prevalent in certain English Lodges in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, along with the legend of Noah.

Reconciling the two MBs

Would Freemasonry remain divided over the third degree and the Word that characterises it ? Certainly not. We know that the ‘Ancients’ also ended up adopting the Master degree based on the Hiram's legend and that, generally speaking, the two rival Grand Lodges ended up uniting in 1813 to form the United Grand Lodge of England. But the word MACHBENAH of the ‘Moderns’ disappeared in favour of the MAHABONE of the ‘Ancients’, and survived only in France and continental Europe.

However, there was a certain porosity between the two systems long before reconciliation. The word MACHBENAH often means ‘The flesh leaves the bones’ in rituals (especially in France), suggesting that the idea of the bone contained in MAHABYN/MAUGHBIN was known to the ‘Moderns’. Above all, the second edition of Anderson's Constitutions (1738), more theistic than the 1723 edition, explicitly placed Freemasonry under the patronage of Noah, making Freemasons ‘true Noachides’.

Although the figure of Noah became a tutelary figure for Freemasonry as a whole, he nevertheless disappeared from the rituals of Craft Lodges, to be confined to higher or side degrees such as the Royal Ark Mariner or the Prussian Knight or Noachite (21st degree of the Ancient Accepted Scottish Rite).

May 07, 2024 — Ion Rajalescu