SYMBOLS IN MASONRY
Symbols and Symbolism are fundamental to an Order.
The United Grand Lodge of England in its 1929 public
statement of Basic Principles refers to the Craft Degrees as the Symbolic
Albert Pike, a distinguished American Mason of the last
Century, said, "Symbolism is the soul of Masonry with every symbol the
mute teacher of morality".
Symbolism has had a long history. It has existed for
maybe 5000 years while Masonry has had a history of six Centuries. Yet
Symbolism has been a prominent feature of Freemasonry for only about 200
The Regius Poem of about 1390 and the Cook Manuscript of
about 1410 are the oldest existing Masonic documents, which mark the beginning
of our Craft history. They were written specifically for the instruction of
Masons, and while they enjoin many moral precepts, they contain no symbolism
at all. Historic evidence indicates that Symbolism was introduced into
Freemasonry in the 18th Century. Knoop & Jones in the Genesis of
Freemasonry state, "It was almost certainly not until the second half of
the 18th Century that Freemasonry had been so modified in character that it
could justly be considered a peculiar system of morality, veiled in allegory
and illustrated by symbols".
The first suggestion of the symbolic use of Working
Tools is contained in the instructions for constituting a new Lodge in
Anderson's Constitutions of 1723. There it is told that there shall be
presented to the new Master "the Instruments of his office, not all
together, but one after another and, after each of them, the Grand Master, on
his Deputy, shall rehearse the short and pithy charge that is suitable for the
The early Masonic Catechisms, which had their vogue in
the first half of the 18th Century when there was a growing public interest in
Freemasonry, contain symbolic questions and answers concerning the height of a
Lodge, the number of pillars in a Lodge etc, - but no moralizing on, for
example, the Working Tools, as these were then merely ornaments of the Lodge.
Indeed, it was not until Lodges had progressed from
being mainly convivial societies for discussing architecture and geometry to
becoming interested in the inculcating of morality that there was any scope
William Calcott - 1769 - was probably the first writer
to explain the symbols of the Craft, though William Hutchinson more fully and
enthusiastically discussed the subject in his book "The Spirit of
Masonry" in 1775. Undoubtedly, his work did much to elevate Freemasonry
and to extend the use of symbolism in its workings. Indeed, a prominent
Masonic authority said, "Calcott opened the mine of Freemasonry, and
Hutchinson worked it". William Preston in the second half of the 18th
Century likewise did much to establish the use of symbolism as part of the
system of Masonic moral instruction.
Over the latter part of the 18th Century the number of
symbols adopted by the Craft was very high. So numerous were they that when
the two rival Grand Lodges of England came together in 1813 many symbols were
dropped from English Freemasonry on the grounds that they were unnecessary or
that their significance was not fully understood. Included among these were
the Beehive, representing industry and cooperation, Book of Constitution
guarded by the Tyler's Sword (silence and circumspection); broken column
(untimely death); chalk, charcoal and clay (freedom, fervency and zeal); high
hills and low vales (requirement of secrecy); key (tongue, and hence
discretion in speech); hour-glass and scythe (life and time); lion's paw
(strength); pot of incense (pure heart); trowel (generous heart, which alone
can spread the cement of Brotherly Love); broached thurnel (possibly the
predecessor of the perfect ashlar); bone box or worry box (mouth and teeth
that holds the tongue that could be loose in utterance); pyramid
(immortality); clasped hands (fidelity and trust).
As Masonry had not come to Australia by that time, these
discarded symbols have never had a place in Australian Masonic practice,
although some of them are currently used in America.
The purpose of Masonic symbols was, and essentially is,
to teach simple and pure truths. Not only are they used to convey moral
instruction but also to assist comprehension of the abstract, for example, a
perpendicular line teaches moral rectitude, a circle drawn by compasses that
we should keep our desires within due bounds, the gavel the need for removing
excrescences, ie., correcting irregularities in conduct.
Some excellent Freemasons seek to know the Order by
searching for and finding what they believe to be lost or hidden meanings of
its tenets and symbols. Often they travel into fields irrelevant to
Freemasonry. Although no Masonic irregularity is incurred in such
interpretations it would be well to listen to the advice of Bro. Harry Cart of
Quatuor Coronati Lodge, London (the world's premier Lodge of Research) who
wrote, "To find your own interpretation of our symbols is the very best
kind of Masonic exercise. The only danger is that it may lead you too far from
the simple explanations that were intended. Many of us have seen extraordinary
and far-fetched examples that have no relationship to Freemasonry, and which
could never have been in the minds of those who compiled or approved the
actual words and procedures that are in use today".
Symbols Transactions of the Research Lodge of
New South Wales - L.M. Sherwood
Copyright © 1872 -
2003, Eureka Lodge A.F. & A.M., No 283, G.R.C. Belleville, Ontario.
Copyright © 1872 - 2003, Eureka Lodge A.F. & A.M., No 283, G.R.C. Belleville, Ontario.