Jun 04 2012

The Legend of the “Shamir”

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The legend of the “shamir”

“The general opinion of the rabbis,” says the Jewish Encyclopedia, in connection with the construction of the Temple, “is that Solomon cut the stones by means of the shamir, a worm whose mere contact split the stones.” This miraculous shamir was specially-created at the beginning of the world for this “operative” use, and ceased to exist after the Temple was destroyed. According to this legend, when Solomon asked the rabbis how to build the Temple without using any iron tool, so as to conform, of course, to the injunction of the Deuteronomist, they drew his attention to the shamir, by which Moses had engraved the name of the tribes upon the breastplate of the high priest…In Arab literature, one reads a similar legend about a stone which cut the stones without making a sound and which King Solomon used to build his Temple.

In the same way, Ranulf Higden (1300-1363) quotes the legend of the stone-splitting worm, which he names thamir, in his Polychronicon, but gives few details.

John Yarker reproduced this rabbinical legend of shamir at some length. One also finds other versions drawn from Jewish and Arab literature in Tales of King Solomon as presented by St. John D. Seymour. The “Old York Conference”, as the Rev. George Oliver calls it in almost all the volumes where he quotes the ritual. Yarker says that “the secret which was lost by the three Grand Masters was that of the ‘insect shermah‘” (which is obviously an alternative to shamir), which was employed to give a perfect polish to the stones. In his article on “The Old York Rite and Ancient Masonry in General”, Yarker again recalls the operative secret of the shermah as “that which was lost.”

Similarly, in the presentation of the so-named Wooler ritual, which resembles the text of Yarker, one reads in a catechism of the third degree: “After the construction of the Temple, the workmen of the highest degree, known as the ‘Most Excellent’, accepted the great secrets regarding the noble In___ Sh___, which was what constituted the secrets of the three Grand Masters and [for] which H.A.B.”, etc. In___ Sh___ is obviously put for “insect shermah (or shamir)”, and the use of abbreviations proves the formerly esoteric character, or supposed such, of the information.

But this catechism is so confused and includes such a profuscion of questionable details that its authenticity is doubtful.

Still, it may be that the ritualistic basis of this alleged work is real, whatever the details. In Miscellanae Latomorum, Dr. W.W. Westcott offers a passage from an “old ritual”, which precisely speaks about the “secret” of the shamir insect and about the three G.M. The extract that follows does not fail to heighten our curiosity:

Question: What was the true secret...?

Answer: Not S.A.M. of [...] like it was said in 
error [?], but those marvellous properties of that
noble insect, the s...a [sherma?], who cut and
fashioned all the sacred objects and holy vessels,
etc., in the Temple of King Solomon, etc. In truth,
they plotted illegally to extort from H.A.B.
[Hiram Abiff] this secret of the s...a, the 
astonishing creature which had the capacity to cut
the stones.

Whatever the case, the Masonic tradition of the shamir, or sherma, is generally ignored today. Its importance, within the history of ideas, lies in the fact that it shows that the Old Testament references of the Masonic tradition came down through rabbinical commentaries.

So, now, of course, I want to know what the hell this thing is. Not only from a possible cryptozoological standpoint, but possibly a metaphoric standpoint. Worms, serpents, dna, etc are all dancing in my mind. References on the ‘net are few and far between. I found the link above, and also one from here.

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