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Freemason
Photo courtesy of College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, University of Florida
George Washington in traditional Masonic dress. See more pictures of presidents.

George Washington was one. So were Benjamin Franklin, Paul Revere and Henry Ford. All of these illustrious and influential men were Freemasons (or Masons) -- privileged members of the world’s oldest and largest fraternity.

Though it boasts 5 million members worldwide, the Freemasons are an enigmatic society. Freemasons say they are nothing more than a brotherhood of like-minded individuals who meet regularly for spiritual and intellectual enlightenment. Conspiracy theorists see them as a secretive underground movement bent on world domination.

In this article, we’ll take a look inside the world of the Freemasons. We’ll discover where they originated, separate the truth from the conspiracy theories and find out what really goes on during their rituals.

Legends of Knights and Kings
Ask five different people for the origins of the Freemasons and you may get five different explanations. Some say they descended from the ancient Druids. Others link them to the Isis-Osiris cult in ancient Egypt. Still others claim they were an order of Jewish monks called the Essenes, who formed in the 2nd century B.C.

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According to some Masonic scholars, the Freemasons trace their roots to the building of King Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem in 967 B.C., an event which was described in the biblical Book of Kings. In the story, the builders of the temple were the original stonemasons, and the forefathers of today’s Freemasons. The legend centers on the master builder—a man named Hiram Abiff—who claimed to know the secret of the temple. One day, three men kidnapped Abiff and threatened to kill him if he didn’t reveal that secret. When he refused to talk, Abiff was murdered. After learning of the killing, King Solomon ordered a group of Masons to search for Abiff’s body and bring back the secret of the temple. The men were unsuccessful, so the King established a new Masonic secret. His secret is believed to be the word “Mahabone,” meaning “the Grand Lodge door opened,” which is now the password used to enter the third degree of Masonry.

We'll look at the relationship between the Freemasons and the Knights Templar in the next section.