In ancient days, Master masons were paid with not only coin, but also with corn, wine, and oil. These three kinds of wages have a long and meaningful history, and as the symbolic wages of Masonry, an examination of them can help to understand what we must give and what we receive from our membership in a Lodge.
Dionysus, the Greek god of the grape harvest and of ritual madness and ecstasy, is a nexus for mystery schools. Many Masonic ceremonies can be traced, along with those of other traditions, back to the Dionysian Mysteries. According to myth, three followers of Dionysus were so devoted to him that he granted them special powers, converting them into the Oenotropæ. The powers he gave these women were over the spontaneous creation of corn, wine, and oil. Spermo became the goddess of corn, Oeno, the goddess of wine, and Elais, the goddess of oil. These symbolic substances have been passed down to us unchanged through the millennia.
Corn, wine, and oil are the Masonic emblems of consecration, and according to David, they are among the greatest of God's blessings for his children: "Wine that maketh glad the heart of man, and oil to make his face shine, and bread which strengtheneth man's heart." (Psalms 104:15)
Corn is, of course, not maize. "Corn" is from an Old English word meaning "grain", and most often refers to wheat, and therefore may often be replaced by bread. This is the staff of life, and can represent nourishment of the body. It also is a symbol of the resurrection: The plant dies and rots in the ground, while the seed lies dormant through the Winter. In the Spring new life sprouts up from the seed. Corn reminds us of our duty to share our daily bread with those less fortunate than ourselves.
Wine symbolizes joy and refreshment. The fermentation process that creates wine from grapes may represent the inner alchemy that must be at work in the heart of a man to make a good man better. Our duty to spread joy and cheer to those that are downtrodden and sorrowful is also brought to mind.
Oil is used to anoint and consecrate men in the service of Deity. It is a symbol of joy and prosperity; the kind of joy and prosperity that comes through sacred service. Albert Mackey wrote of anointing with oil: "This mystic ceremony instruct[s] us to be nourished with
the hidden manna of righteousness, to be refreshed with the Word of the
Lord, and to rejoice with joy unspeakable in the riches of divine grace." Oil is also an element of healing in ancient medicine, and we are thus urged to bind up the wounds of those who suffer, weary of the world, and treat them with the healing balm of our consolation.
We are told that to collect their wages, Fellow Crafts ascended a winding staircase. This staircase, of course, represents the moral and intellectual virtues a Mason and a Man should aspire to. By becoming more commendable, walking uprightly before heaven and men, acting with justice and charity, we become worthy of our wages: We earn a shining countenance, a heart full of joy, fortitude of spirit and body, and the hope of a glorious resurrection.