Let's ponder the meaning of Masonic symbolism. We approach the topic with diffidence, because a few years ago Allen Roberts wrote a superb book called The Craft and its Symbols, that should be in the hands of every Mason. So I shall steal some ideas from him, and borrow a few words from myself, and see where it takes us.
Freemasonry is said to be "a beautiful system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols." Allegory and symbol certainly play a large role in it, but they are not restricted to it. If you have a clear notion of how they work, you may find a deeper understanding of Masonry and its meaning.
A symbol, according to the dictionary, is "something that stands for, represents, or denotes something else (not by exact resemblance, but by vague suggestion, or by some accidental or conventional relation)." Some symbols occur so frequently in daily life that we have stopped thinking of them as symbols. The most familiar ones are the letters of the alphabet. There is no reason why one kind of curling line should stand for a hissing noise, or why something that looks like a couple of bee-hives side by side should make a humming sound; but we all accept them without thinking. Other symbols in common use include the numerals (1, 2, 3), mathematical and monetary signs (plus, square root, dollar), and musical notation (treble clef, flat, semiquaver). Such symbols are indispensable for almost any kind of communication.
Another type of symbol is found in the arts, both graphic and verbal. It represents something abstract by something that we can perceive with our senses, above all by sight. So white stands for purity, the dove and olive-branch for peace, the skull and crossbones for poison, and the eagle for the United States.
In literature the symbol often occurs in combination with one of the
traditional figures of speech, simile, or metaphor. Robbie Burns tells
us that his sweetheart is beautiful to see and to hear, and he tells us
this by comparing her to other things.
Shakespeare tells us that the problems of life are like the missiles
hurled by an attacking enemy, and that difficulties roll in upon us like
the waves of the ocean. That's the imagery behind the familiar words,
In a little poem by Walter Savage Landor, life is compared to and
symbolized by a warm fire.
A symbol's associations go far beyond its simple pictorial meaning.
It can be used, not merely to facilitate thought, but even to shape it.
Who can be afraid of death if it is symbolized by putting out to sea, as
in Tennyson's familiar words?
Who can be afraid of death if it is symbolized by falling asleep, as
in Bryant's Thanatopsis?
For the Freemason, every character, figure, and emblem has a moral tendency, and serves to inculcate the practice of virtue in all its genuine professors. The principal rounds of Jacob's ladder are faith, hope, and charity. Chalk, charcoal, and clay stand for freedom, fervency, and zeal. The square represents morality, the level equality, and the plumb rule justness and uprightness of life and conduct. The three pillars are wisdom, strength, and beauty. An ear of corn near a stream of water is plenty. The four tassels are temperance, fortitude, prudence, and justice. The five steps are the five noble orders of architecture, and also the five senses. The seven steps represent the seven liberal arts and sciences. All these symbols are explicitly defined in the ritual, and I suppose we are obliged to accept these definitions, and are not at liberty to disagree.
But the symbols are not always explained for us. If you have a flair for interpreting them, there is ample scope to indulge your talents. There's no harm in that. It may help you in your personal development. But how far can we go? Let's look at a few examples of how the symbols have been read by others. There's a book by Foster Bailey, called The Spirit of Masonry. He tells us that the three degrees can foretell the future: having passed through the Entered Apprentice or physical age, and the Fellow Craft or intellectual age, we now stand at the threshold of the Master Mason or spiritual age; a new revelation will soon restore to us the true lost word. Moreover, we learn, the two great pillars represent the constellation Gemini; so the Craft began in the Age of Gemini, more than 6500 years ago.
Or there's another book, by Arthur Ward, entitled Masonic Symbolism and the Mystic Way. There we learn about the Working Tools of the Entered Apprentice: the chisel stands for intellect, the common gavel for will, and the twenty-four inch gauge for vital feeling. This is not what the English ritual says; it says that they stand for accuracy, labor, and perseverance. When we push on to the Second Degree, Ward tells us that the Working Tools "are essentially the same powers, but in the intense and spiritual form possessed by the higher Self within; they are reached and shared by the personal man in the practice of meditation." So the plumb rule turns out to be spiritual insight, the square is spiritual intuition, and the level is spiritual inspiration. Again, that's not what the ritual says.
A few years ago W. Kirk MacNulty wrote Freemasonry: A Journey through Ritual and Symbol. He says that the three Craft degrees recapitulate the development of the individual person, and encourage further development. The Entered Apprentice Degree (or the Ground Floor of the Temple) represents the physical or material being, Jung's "individual consciousness." The Fellow Craft (or Middle Chamber) represents the soul or psyche, Jung's "personal unsconscious." The Master Mason (or Holy of Holies) is the spiritual being, Jung's "collective unsconscious," one step closer to the Divine.
And non-Masons can shed light on our symbolism. A fascinating study by Katharine Thomson, called The Masonic Thread in Mozart, tells us that "the number three has a special significance in Freemasonry. Most of the songs are in three-part harmony.... Many songs are in triple time; threefold repetitions are frequent, and major triads are of particular importance.... In Mozart's music certain keys are specifically associated with Freemasonry, notably Eb major ... [with] the key signature of three flats."
Other Mozart specialists argue that The Magic Flute is clearly a Masonic opera. They note the three chords repeated three times, the three attendants of the Queen of the Night, the three boys, the three doors, the three trials, and so on.
Besides these familiar published sources, you will find that sometimes an older and respected Mason has his own interpretation of some of the symbols, arising out of his knowledge and experience. More than one mature brother has disclosed to me that, no matter what we say, Freemasonry is fundamentally Christian, because the equilateral triangle is an emblem of divinity, and it can refer only to the Christian Trinity.
It may well be so. These examples are all personal interpretations. Can we take them as correct? Arthur Ward says, "If you find a key which translates a cypher message into sense, you know for certain that you have the key of the cypher; similarly, if you find an explanation which makes sense of a series of symbols you have their true meaning." This is the problem. If we accept subjective interpretations by Masons, how can we exclude subjective interpretations by non-Masons?
In the Masonic ritual, God is called "the Great Architect of the Universe." For me, this is a simple metaphor; the universe is like an immense mansion or temple, and the Creator of the universe is compared to the builder. Nothing secret or disrespectful about that! But in 1986 a Canadian religious magazine called The Presbyterian Record published an attack on Freemasonry, saying that the Great Architect of the Universe was the name of the false god "that the Masons worship at their altar." And two years ago, Dr James Larry Holly, the man who orchestrated the Southern Baptist campaign against the Masons, said that to call God a Great Architect "is derogatory to the True God's creative omnipotence. An architect only puts together from the materials already at hand. God creates from nothing."
Actually a bit of research discloses that the term "Great Architect" was introduced into Freemasonry in 1723 by the Presbyterian minister, James Anderson, and that he got it from the works of John Calvin, one of the founders of Presbyterianism. The modern dogmatists are attacking an expression that was used by one of the great theologians of all time!
We all know that the square and compasses form a symbol that stands for Masonry. But there's more to it than that. The fundamentalist Pastor Ron Carlson, who has spoken about Freemasonry in evangelical churches in many parts of America, says that the square represents the earth, the compasses represent the sky, and the square and compasses when united represent the sky impregnating the earth with its showers; that is, they represent sexual intercourse.
But there is more to come. There's a man called Ed Decker, who has written a book called What you need to Know About ... Masons. And in it he tells us that the evil square and compasses are permanently enshrined in the plan of this city. I quote: "Take any good street map of downtown Washington D.C. and find the Capitol Building.... The left leg [of the compasses] is represented by Pennsylvania Avenue and the right leg by Maryland Avenue. The Square is found ... with the intersection of Canal Street and Louisiana Avenue. The left leg of the Compass stands on the White House and the right leg stands on the Jefferson Memorial.... On top of the White House is an inverted five-pointed star.... The point rests squarely on the White House.... The center of the pentagram is 16th Street where, 13 blocks due north of the very center of the White House, the Masonic House of the Temple sits at the top." This must show that the Masons have been running the country since the beginning!
The same writer tells us that, when the new Mason says he wants "Light," and it is given to him at the command of the Worshipful Master, this is wrong, because Light is salvation, and comes only through Jesus. See John 8:12: "I am the light of the world; he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life." And again, Dr Holly, whom we just mentioned, speaks about Masonic light: "This is blasphemous," he says. "Jesus Christ is the Light of the World. No other light is revealed in the Word of God." Pretty strong language!
Pat Robertson, in his book The New World Order, says that the Masonic All-Seeing Eye is found in the Great Seal of the United States on the back of the dollar bill. This, he tells us, is "the eye of an ancient Egyptian deity, Osiris, who is revered in ... the sacred rites of the Masonic Order." It follows that Masonry still preserves the pagan mysteries, and is incompatible with Christianity or Judaism, because the All-Seeing Eye belongs to an Egyptian god.
And you will be aware that a number of these people are convinced that the truncated pyramid, likewise found on the reverse of the dollar, in fact points to the International Masonic conspiracy to take over the world, because it corresponds to a symbol that was used by the Illuminati of Bavaria in the 1770s.
These interpretations are every bit as plausible as the others, but they are all contrary to the spirit of Masonry as it is reflected in the symbols that are explained in the ritual, and they are all anti-Masonic.
There is a real problem here. If a symbol in one part of the world resembles another in a different part of the world, does that mean they are related, or that they mean the same thing? If we look at an ancient Greek statue, and see that its pose resembles a modern Masonic gesture, does that mean that it portrays a Mason? If we find that the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamen was buried wearing an apron, does that mean he was a Mason? I could refer you to written texts that say he was. To me, this is obviously preposterous, and I decline to discuss it further.
But in the very same way, the anti-Masons confuse similarity with identity, and accept only one interpretation for any symbol. We noted that Pat Robertson objects to the All-Seeing Eye, because it is pagan. I can't help wondering if his Bible includes the words, "The eyes of the Lord are in every place, beholding the evil and the good" (Proverbs 15:3), or "The eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth" (2 Chronicles 16:9). This sounds to me as if the God of the Bible also has an all-seeing eye!
We noted that several of these people object to the new Mason asking for "Light," because light can only be the salvation of Jesus Christ. But the Bible itself uses light in various senses. It can stand for life: "Wherefore is light given to him that is in misery, and life unto the bitter in soul?" (Job 3:20). It can represent joy and prosperity: "Light is sown for the righteous, and gladness for the upright in heart" (Psalm 97:11). It can mean moral excellence: "The path of the just is as the shining light.... The way of the wicked is as darkness" (Proverbs 4:18).
And of course in literature light means many things, and its precise
application is derived from the immediate context. In a poem by Arthur
Hugh Clough, light clearly means hope, in time of despair, that the
future will be brighter:
In general, warmth, light, fire, and day regularly stand for "life."
But at one point in Paradise Lost Milton calls upon Light to help him.
This is appropriate in a literal sense, because his story is moving from
the gloomy realm of Satan to the ethereal brightness of Heaven. We are
also reminded that Milton, because of his blindness, could not see the
light like other men. But finally we learn that here the light is
symbolic, and represents poetic insight.
In the educational world, the lamp of learning clearly represents knowledge. And so too in Masonry, in the First Degree the darkness is the darkness of ignorance and the light is the light of knowledge; in the Third, it is the darkness of death. It is stupid and dishonest of the Fundamentalists to say that "light," wherever it occurs, must be the salvation of Jesus Christ.
In Masonry, the symbols need not be consistent, but they can stand for different things. The twenty-four-inch gauge can represent the twenty-four-hour day, and also accuracy. The square stands for morality, but also for the Worshipful Master.
Should we go on and worry about numerical symbolism? Obviously the Masons are not the sole owners of certain numerals. Is the number three Masonic? Consider: Three Little Pigs, Three Blind Mice, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Three Men in a Boat, Three Musketeers, Three Stooges, Three Coins in a Fountain, Three-penny Opera, Three strikes and you're out. Are these all Masonic?
Or again, what about five? We hear of a Five-act play, the Five Books of Moses, Five Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, the Fifth Amendment, the five-sided building known as the Pentagon, the five athletic contests of the Pentathlon, five o'clock shadow, five Great Lakes. Are these all Masonic?
Or shall we worry about seven? Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Seven League Boots, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Dance of the Seven Veils, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Seven-Percent Solution, Seven Wonders of the World, Seven Hills of Rome, Seven Years War, and the Seven Seas. Are these all Masonic?
Or should we brood about music? We mentioned a few minutes ago that the key-signature of Eb was particularly Masonic, because it has three flats. So I looked through the hymn-book, and discovered that, not only "Abide with me," but also "Be Thou my vision," and "O happy is the man who hears" are Masonic. Or, when we turn to an old song book, so are "Believe me if all those endearing young charms," "Drink to me only with thine eyes," and "Shenandoah." Do we believe that?
I am prepared to say that every Mason may interpret the symbols as he wishes, provided that they are not explicitly explained in the ritual in some other fashion. It can help the individual Mason in his spiritual growth or moral evolution. But I do not believe that he should attempt to impose his own interpretations on other Masons as if they were gospel truth, and cannot be denied. In my more intolerant moments I apply the name "mystical nuts" to such people. And there are a lot of them. I think of Foster Bailey, and Albert Churchward, and Manly P. Hall, and A. E. Waite, and Arthur Ward. My advice would be to avoid them like the plague.
Do you see the nature of the problem? I'm prepared to agree with Foster Bailey that one of the functions of Freemasonry is "the erection of our spiritual temple." Indeed, we are told in one part of the ceremonies, "From the foundation laid this evening, may you raise a superstructure perfect in its parts and honorable to the builder." But the precise way in which this is to be done is not, in my opinion, specifically taught in Freemasonry. The brotherhood is explicitly intended to be a group of men of high ideals and moral purpose, who believe in the omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence of a Supreme Being, who have shared certain deeply moving experiences, and who are striving, each in his own way, to improve himself, and to make the world a better place in which to live. Because of these common beliefs and experiences, Freemasonry is in effect an affinity group, a group of men who enjoy each other's company.
Interpret the symbols how you wish, by all means. But, unless the
interpretation is confirmed in the ritual, be very careful about what
you tell others. And don't let the Anti-Masons shove a false
interpretation down your throat.