Freemasonry is an organization originating sometime in the late 16th to early 17th century. Though records of lodges seem to indicate that lodges have existed since 1599 at least, the first Grand Lodge, The Grand Lodge of England, was founded in 1717 after a meeting of four separate lodges at the Goose and Gridiron. Grand Lodges were subsequently formed in Ireland and Scotland in 1725 and 1736 respectively, and Freemasonry had spread to North America by the mid-1730s.
Masons are governed by Grand Lodges and Grand Orients, which have power over a single jurisdiction. There is no single, overarching Freemason governing body. Grand Lodges or Orients may mutually recognize, and interact with, one another, and if they do so they are said to be "in amity". There is no requisite for a lodge to be in amity for them to be a lodge, however they will be unrecognized by other lodges. Freemasons are well known for their rituals and symbology, however like the leadership there is no absolute set of rituals common to all Freemasons, and Grand Lodges are free to determine the rituals they wish to use and not use. Various signs, grips and words are used to identify fellow Masons and, like many other Masonic traditions, can vary wildly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Symbols are less subject to change; the most commonly recognized Masonic symbol is the Square and Compasses, which can be represented with or without a "G" in the centre which is representative of God or the Great Architect of the Universe, a Supreme Being. The reasoning for this symbology is, like so much else, inconsistent between jurisdictions.
As one of the basic requirements, the belief in some type of Supreme Being is central to Freemasonry. The definition of this Supreme Being is flexible and subject to the choices and beliefs of the particular Mason. Thus, a member of faiths as varied as Christianity, Buddhism, Islam or Sikhism, among other, may become a Mason so long as they evince a belief in the vaguely defined "Supreme Being". Such a being may also be interpreted in a more philosophical, less rigidly defined sense. In Masonic ritual this being is referred to as the Great Architect of the Universe. Like the Supreme Being, there is no one sacred text used by Masons. Instead a text, referred to as the Volume of Sacred Law, is usually be displayed in the lodge. In English-speaking countries this is usually a Bible, though it does not have to be and candidates may request different texts for their initiation into the Freemasons. In lodges with memberships drawn from diverse backgrounds there may be more than one text, and the text does not have to be religious in nature. Freemasonry is, by its own description, neither a religion nor a replacement for religion.
A fraternal organization, some of the most powerful and famous men in history have been Masons, running the gamut from politicians to business magnates to royalty. Masonry is not invitation-only, and some jurisdictions do not allow solicitation of new members at all. There are requirements to become a member: one must be applying of one's own free will, must believe in a Supreme Being (the nature of which is left open to the preferences of the Mason), be of the appropriate age (18-25 depending on jurisdiction), good morals and reputation, have a sound mind and body, as well as be able to offer character references. There are three degrees through which a Mason passes: Entered Apprentice, the initiate stage; Fellow Craft, the intermediate stage; and finally Master Mason, the stage in which one is involved in most Mason activity. There is no higher stage than Master, although some Grand Lodges confer supplementary degrees that are not actually promotions above Master Mason.
Members have to undertake certain obligations, most of which centre around behaving in a manner deemed civilized, obeying the laws of the sovereign nation in which they reside, obeying the laws of their Supreme Being, and loyalty and aid to fellow Masons and other people so long as it does not present an undue burden to the Mason or their dependents. Freemasons are encouraged to involve themselves in charitable works, and at Grand Lodge level Masons support thousands of philanthropic groups, some of which were created by Masons themselves.
Women may not become members of the regular Freemasons and may not take part in regular Freemason activity. There are female orders that have separate rituals and symbology and which are based on the Mason model, but they do not fall within the actual definition of Freemasonry.
Membership currently stands at about six million members spread all over the globe.
In Other Media
Freemasonry has become a fall-back group when a writer needs a shadowy conspiracy upon which to pin blame for any variety of historical or fictional schemes. Usually they are lumped in with the Illuminati or the New World Order and less frequently with Zionist movements. Often they are ascribed either a desire to take over the world or are believed to already be directing the course of world events. Freemasonry is still viewed with a great deal of distrust in many countries, and often the default view is of a shadowy organization with untrustworthy intentions. Freemasons have been persecuted both by Communist regimes and by Nazi Germany, among others.
Freemasonry has become a favourite of conspiracy theorists focusing on anything from the JFK assassination to the Jack the Ripper murders. They have been used as the impetus for a number of fictional plots.