SHORT TALK BULLETIN - Vol.IV March, 1926 No.3
The Cable-Tow, we are told, is purely Masonic in its meaning and use.
It is so defined in the dictionary, but not always accurately, which
shows that we ought not depend upon the ordinary dictionary for the
truth about Masonic terms. Masonry has its own vocabulary and uses
it in its own ways. Nor can our words always be defined for the
benefit of the profane.
Even in Masonic lore the word cable-tow varies in form and use. In
an early pamphlet by Pritard, issued in 1730, and meant to be an
exposure of Masonry, the cable-tow is a called a "Cable-Rope," and in
another edition a "Tow-Line." The same word "Tow-Line" is used in a
pamphlet called "A Defense of Masonry," written, it is believed, by
Anderson as a reply to Pritchard about the same time. In neither
pamphlet is the word used in exactly the form and sense in which it
is used today; and in a note Pritchard, wishing to make everything
Masonic absurd, explains it as meaning "The Roof of the Mouth!"
In English lodges, the Cable-Tow, like the hoodwink, is used only in
the first degree, and has no symbolical meaning at all, apparently.
In American lodges it is used in all three degrees, and has almost
too many meanings. Some of our American teachers - Pike among them -
see no meaning in the cable-tow beyond its obvious use in leading an
initiate into the lodge, and the possible use of withdrawing him from
it should he be unwilling or unworthy to advance.
To some of us this non-symbolical idea and use of the cable-tow is
very strange, in view of what Masonry is in general, and particularly
in its ceremonies of initiation. For Masonry is a chamber of
imagery. The whole Lodge is a symbol. Every object, every act is
symbolical. The whole fits together into a system of symbolism by
which Masonry veils, and yet reveals, the truth it seeks to teach to
such as have eyes to see and are ready to receive it.
As far back as we can go in the history of initiation, we find the
cable-two, or something like it, used very much as it is used in a
Masonic Lodge today. No matter what the origin and form of the word
as we employ it may be - whether from the Hebrew "Khabel," or the
Dutch "cabel," both meaning a rope - the fact is the same. In India,
in Egypt and in most of the ancient Mysteries, a cord or cable was
used in the same way and for the same purpose.
In the meaning, so far as we can make it out, seems to have been some
kind of pledge - a vow in which a man pledged his life. Even outside
initiatory rites we find it employed, as, for example, in a striking
scene recorded in the Bible (I Kings 20:31,32), the description of
which is almost Masonic. The King of Syria, Ben-hada, had been
defeated in battle by the King of Israel and his servants are making
a plea for his life. They approach the King of Israel "with ropes
upon their heads," and speak of his "Brother, Ben-hadad."
Why did they wear ropes, or nouses, on their heads?
Evidently to symbolize a pledge of some sort, given in a Lodge or
otherwise, between the two Kings, of which they wished to remind the
King of Israel. The King of Israel asked: "Is he yet alive? He is
my brother." Then we read that the servants of the Syrian King
watched to see if the King of Israel made any sign, and, catching his
sign, they brought the captive King of Syria before him. Not only
was the life of the King of Syria spared, but a new pledge was made
between the two men.
The cable-tow, then, is the outward and visible symbol of a vow in
which a man has pledged his life, or has pledged himself to save
another life at the risk of his own. Its length and strength are
measured by the ability of the man to fulfill his obligation and his
sense of the moral sanctity of his obligation - a test, that is, both
of his capacity and of his character.
If a lodge is a symbol of the world, and initiation is our birth into
the world of Masonry, the cable-tow is not unlike the cord which
unites a child to its mother at birth; and so it is usually
interpreted. Just as the physical cord, when cut, is replaced by a
tie of love and obligation between mother and child, so, in one of
the most impressive moments of initiation, the cable-tow is removed,
because the brother, by his oath at the Altar of Obligation, is bound
by a tie stronger than any physical cable. What before was an
outward physical restraint has become a inward moral constraint.
That is to say, force is replaced by love - outer authority by inner
obligation - and that is the secret of security and the only basis of
The cable-tow is the sign of the pledge of the life of a man. As in
his oath he agrees to forfeit his life if his vow is violated, so,
positively, he pledges his life to the service of the Craft. He
agrees to go to the aid of a Brother, using all his power in his
behalf, "if within the length of his cable-tow," which means, if
within the reach of his power. How strange that any one should fail
to see symbolical meaning in the cable-tow. It is, indeed, the great
symbol of the mystic tie which Masonry spins and weaves between men,
making them Brothers and helpers one of another.
But, let us remember that a cable-tow has two ends. If it binds a
Mason to the Fraternity, by the same fact it binds the Fraternity to
each man in it. The one obligation needs to be emphasized as much as
the other. Happily, in our day we are beginning to see the other
side of the obligation - that the Fraternity is under vows to its
members to guide, instruct and train them for the effective service
of the Craft and of humanity. Control, obedience, direction or
guidance - these are the three meanings of the cable-tow, as it is
interpreted by the best insight of the Craft.
Of course, by Control we do not mean that Masonry commands us in the
same sense that it uses force. Not at all. Masonry rules men as
beauty rules an artist, as love rules a lover. It does not drive; it
draws. It controls us, shapes us through its human touch and its
moral nobility. By the same method, by the same power it wins
obedience and gives guidance and direction to our lives. At the
Altar we take vows to follow and obey its high principles and ideals;
and Masonic vows are not empty obligations - they are vows in which a
man pledges his life and his sacred honor.
The old writers define the length of a cable-tow, which they
sometimes call a "cables length," variously. Some say it is seven
hundred and twenty feet, or twice the measure of a circle. Others
say that the length of the cable-tow is three miles. But such
figures are merely symbolical, since in one man it may be three miles
and in another it may easily be three thousand miles - or to the end
of the earth. For each Mason the cable-tow reaches as far as his
moral principles go and his material conditions will allow. Of that
distance each must be his own judge, and indeed each does pass
judgment upon himself accordingly, by his own acts in aid of others.