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part II - Symbolism and the Teachings of Freemasonry

W. M. Don Falconer PM, PDGDC

A freemason's lodge represents the universe, which is the temple of the Deity whom we serve.


The model


The founders of modern speculative craft freemasonry embraced the underlying symbolism of their predecessors in operative freemasonry, who based their rituals on the construction of King Solomon's temple at Jerusalem. The temple was a focal point in Israel and helped to consolidate the many cults of the disparate and often warring tribes, which was politically and spiritually advantageous to King Solomon in his establishment of stability among the Israelites. The temple and its construction was an appropriate model on which to base the symbolic instruction given in lodges of operative freemasons, from which speculative freemasonry was derived. The Rev Dr George Oliver DD was one of the most learned and distinguished of the early speculative craft freemasons. His father, the Rev Samuel Oliver, initiated him in 1801 in the St Peter's Lodge of the city of Peterborough, in Scotland. Dr Oliver studied and wrote extensively on ecclesiastical antiquities and most aspects of speculative freemasonry. In his renowned treatise, Revelations of the Square, Dr Oliver gave one of the most succinct yet comprehensive explanations ever given in respect of the foundation, purpose and symbolism of freemasonry when he said:


"The Society adopted the Temple of Solomon for its symbol, because it was the most stable and the most magnificent structure that ever existed, whether we consider its foundation or superstructure; so that of all the societies men have invented, no one was ever more firmly united, or better planned, than the Masons . . . The edifices which Freemasons build are nothing more than virtues or vices to be erected or destroyed; and in this case heaven only occupies their minds, which soar above the corrupted world. The Temple of Solomon denotes reason and intelligence."


From the earliest days of operative freemasonry in Europe and Britain, Egypt was believed to have provided the prototype for the design of the temple in Jerusalem, notwithstanding the Biblical record of the participation and influence of the Phoenicians. The fact that King Solomon had obtained the Phoenicianís expertise, because he thought it essential for the design and construction of his temple, appears to have been overlooked. This belief that there was an Egyptian prototype persisted right through the Middle Ages and the entire period of intensive cathedral building. When the lodges of operative masons became defunct, the belief was perpetuated in the lore of the speculative freemasonry that emerged in Britain as the successor of operative freemasonry. However, archaeological investigations in Palestine and Syria since the 1930s have unearthed a series of temples that have similar characteristics, design and orientation to the temple at Jerusalem, usually with two pillars at the entrance. Their construction predated the construction of King Solomon's temple by periods ranging from 200 to 800 years. All of those temples were elongated about 3:1 in plan and were subdivided into compartments, permitting worshippers to make a logical progression from the profane outside world to the sacred inner sanctum. As there were no similar temples in Egypt, it is clear that King Solomon's temple did not have an Egyptian prototype, but was of the same general type as the Phoenician temples discovered in Palestine and Syria.


The precursor of King Solomon's temple was the "tent of congregation", called the tabernacle, which was a portable sanctuary for the Ark of the Covenant that was first erected by the Israelites at Mount Sinai under the leadership of Moses, about 500 years before King Solomon's temple was built. In plan the tabernacle was in the proportions 3:1, being 30 cubits long and 10 cubits wide. It was oriented east to west and had a single entrance in the east. The tabernacle proper was the mishkan, the ten linen curtains woven in blue, purple and scarlet and hung inside the northern, western and southern walls of the structure, which was covered by the ohel or tent. Towards the western end similar curtains subdivided the mishkan to form two compartments. The hekhal or Holy Place at the eastern end was a double cube 20 cubits long, 10 cubits wide and 10 cubits high. The debir or Holy of Holies at the western end was a perfect cube of 10 cubits sides.


The arrangement of the tabernacle was replicated in King Solomon's temple, but its dimensions in plan were doubled to provide a building 60 cubits long and 20 cubits wide. The Holy Place at the eastern end of the temple differed from the tabernacle in which it was a double cube. The Holy Place in the temple was a double square in plan, being 40 cubits long and 20 cubits wide, but it had a height of 30 cubits. The Holy of Holies at the western end was a perfect cube with sides of 20 cubits length, which was set on a podium 10 cubits high to maintain a uniform ceiling height. The Holy of Holies was screened from the Holy Place by curtains. Construction of the temple commenced during the fourth year of King Solomon's reign and completed a little more than seven years later, probably about 950 BCE. The only entrance to the temple was at the eastern end of the Holy Place, to which access was gained through the ulam, an unroofed porch 20 cubits wide and 10 cubits along the axis of the main building. The ulam was flanked by a pillar on each side, which could be seen from inside the temple when looking through the entrance towards the east. The left pillar was Boaz at the northeast corner of the temple and the right pillar was Jachin at the southeast corner. The temple was enclosed by small chambers three stories high on the northern, western and southern sides. The chambers had two external entrances from the surrounding courtyard, each with a winding staircase for access to the upper floors. One entrance was near the southwest corner, where the middle chamber was located and the other was near the northeast corner.


In those days it was customary for temples also to serve as state treasuries. The temple at Jerusalem was no exception and it had a peaceful existence until during the reign of King Solomon's son Rehoboam, when Sheshonq raided it in about 920 BCE. Sheshonq was a prince of Libyan descent, known in the Bible as Shishak. He founded Egypt's XXIInd Dynasty in about 945 BCE and reigned as the Pharaoh Sheshonk I. After Sheshonq had plundered the temple it had a very chequered history until about 720 BCE, when Hezekiah refurbished, adorned and re-established it as the centre of worship. Hezekiah was one of the most outstanding kings of Judah, renowned for his piety and vigorous political activities. However, all of the subsequent kings were idolatrous and desecrated the temple, which fell into decay. By the time of King Josiah, some 300 years after its construction, the temple needed extensive repairs that had to be financed by contributions from the worshippers. Finally in 587 BCE, during the reign of King Jehoiakim of Judah, the temple was looted and sacked by Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylon who took the remaining Israelites into captivity.




The east-west orientation of the tabernacle and the temple, with the only entrance in the east, reflects the fact that from time immemorial human beings have associated the east with the source of life and the light of knowledge. This veneration of the east originated in primitive society, probably because of the mystery then associated with the daily rising of the sun after the darkness of the night. Even in ancient times the sun was known to germinate plant life and to ripen the seed and fruits of nature. Hence the sun came to be regarded as a symbol of the commencement of a new cycle of life. This is reflected in the reverence held for the east in the Egyptian rites and other Ancient Mysteries, in which the sun was regarded as a manifestation of God. In those Mysteries the place where the sun rose was esteemed as the birthplace of God. Many of the earliest Christian churches, especially those in the eastern countries, were oriented east west and had the entrance in the east like King Solomonís temple. It also was the custom of the early Christians, when praying in public, to turn towards the east because, as Saint Augustine said:


"The east is the most honourable part of the world, being the region of light whence the glorious sun rises."


In operative freemasonry the symbolic lodge was oriented on an east west axis. The entrance to the lodge was at the eastern end and the master was seated in the west. This arrangement was in allusion to King Solomon's temple at Jerusalem, which had a single entrance in the east, flanked by two columns. In his lectures on Signs and Symbols, the Rev Dr George Oliver supported the customs adopted in operative lodges when he said:


"The principal entrance to the lodge room ought to face the east, because the east is a place of light both physical and moral; and therefore the Brethren have access to the lodge by that entrance, as a symbol of mental illumination."


Notwithstanding the historical precedents, the orientation of Christian churches was reversed from about the end of the first century of Christianity. Throughout the great period of cathedral building in Europe and Britain, pains were taken to orient Christian churches and cathedrals on an east-west axis, with the entrance at the western end and the sanctuary and main altar at the eastern end. With this arrangement worshippers facing the altar during prayer were facing the east. This was in accordance with an injunction in the Apostolic Constitutions that required the designers to "let the church be of an oblong form, directed to the East". In cruciform buildings the transept also was placed towards the eastern end, thus forming a Latin cross. Although the Apostolic Constitutions are usually attributed to Saint Clement, who died in about 101, this assumption probably is incorrect. Nevertheless Saint Clement was the first of the Apostolic Fathers and the second or third successor of Saint Peter in the See of Rome.


Although speculative craft freemasonry closely follows most of the symbolic precedents established by the ancient Israelites and adopted in lodges of operative freemasons, the orientation of speculative lodges is the reverse of their operative counterparts, so that the entrance is in the west and the master is seated in the east. It is not known when this reversal took place, but it probably was in deference to established religious practices in Europe and Britain during the formative days of modern speculative craft freemasonry. It is probable that the early speculative ritualists in England adopted ecclesiastical practice in the orientation of their lodges, because they had not been operative freemasons and were not familiar with the orientation of operative lodges. Most of the early English ritualists were acquainted with the Cabalists and their teachings, which also might have influenced them with regard to orientation. An essential doctrine of one school of the Cabalists ignores the orientation of the tabernacle and the temple and says that:


"His Majesty . . . . sits on a throne in the east, as the actual representative of God."


Whatever may have been the reason for the change, this reversal of the orientation causes confusion concerning the position of the pillars at the entrance to King Solomon's temple and also reverses the symbolic direction in which the winding stairs are ascended to reach the middle chamber. The middle chamber was one of the rooms that surrounded the temple, but was not within the temple as is usually depicted on the second tracing board. In the Prestonian system of speculative craft freemasonry, which had been practised widely for some fifty years before the formation of the United Grand Lodge of England in 1813, the "search for that which was lost" proceeded logically from west to east in a lodge that was oriented in the same way as the lodges in operative freemasonry.


The cube and the double cube


In ancient times stone altars commonly were cubical in the shape and a cubical stone often represented heathen deities. The Greek geographer and historian Pausanias of Magnesia, who was probably born in Lydia, is regarded as one of the founders of archaeology and the most important antiquarian of Roman times. In about 170 CE he wrote Periegesis, usually called the Itinerary of Greece, which provides invaluable information on the people of Greece and their beliefs, customs and history, compiled during his extensive travels and investigations. Pausanias records that the cube was the symbol of Mercury because he represented truth. He also says that Apollo, the god of music, poetry, archery, prophecy and the healing art, was often worshipped under the symbol of a square stone. Pausanius also recorded that when the great plague raged in the Roman Empire from 164 to 180, with fatal results at Delphi, the oracle at Delphi ordered that the cubical stone erected as an altar to Apollo should be doubled and that when it was doubled in height to form a double cube the pestilence ceased. It is interesting to note that the black stone built into the Kaaba, the holy building at Mecca, also is in the form of a double cube and all Muslims revere it. The prophet Muhammad declared that the black stone was given to Abraham by the archangel Gabriel and it is reputed to be possessed of many virtues.


 The Israelitish patriarchs built many altars, including Noah after the flood; Abraham at Shechem, Bethel, Hebron and Moriah; Isaac at Beersheba; Jacob at Shechem and Bethel; and Moses at Rephidim after the Amalakites were defeated. There is no information about their construction, but it is believed that they were in the form of a double cube, similar to the Altar of Incense which the Lord commanded Moses to make, as recorded in Exodus 30:1-3 and later prescribed in the Mosaic law:


"Make an altar on which to burn incense; make it of acacia wood. It shall be square, a cubit long by a cubit broad and two cubits high . . . Overlay it with pure gold, the top, the sides all round . . ."


The Altar of Incense used in the tabernacle and also in King Solomonís temple at Jerusalem was the form of a double cube. Many altars that have been discovered in Palestine, predating the occupation of the Israelites, also are in the form of a double cube. One of the oldest and best preserved is an altar of incense that dates from the fourteenth century BCE, from the Canaanite town of Hazor. It was constructed of basalt and features an emblem of the sun god, a wheel with four spokes and a central boss, all carved in relief. Another limestone altar of incense from Megiddo, that dates from the tenth century BCE, is embellished with an decorative horizontal band at mid height and four ornamental horns at the top corners.


The form of the lodge


The operative freemasons dedicated their lives to the construction of earthly or material temples, consecrated to the service and worship of God. In each of the degrees conferred in lodges of operative freemasons, the candidate represented one of the stones used in the construction of King Solomon's temple and the ritual exemplified the shaping, testing and laying of that stone. The candidate was told that he was a living stone and that the ceremonial typified his preparation as a stone for the earthly temple, symbolising the moral and spiritual preparation that he must undergo to become a living stone in the heavenly temple. Modern speculative freemasons are intended to exemplify the labours of their operative predecessors by engaging in the construction of spiritual temples in their hearts, pure and unsullied, fit to become the dwelling place of God the creator who is omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent, the author of truth and purity from whom all goodness emanates.


All freemasons are familiar with the rectangular shape of the modern lodge room. In earlier times a rectangle was called an oblong square, which could be any oblong with square or right-angled corners. In lodges of operative freemasons the symbolic lodge was an oblong square in the proportions of 3:1 in plan, called a temple square, in allusion to the temple at Jerusalem. The proportions of 3:1 in plan also were those most frequently used in cathedral building. However these proportions have not been retained in modern speculative freemasonry, in which the symbolic lodge is described as an oblong square in the proportions of 2:1 in plan and called a double square. This ratio may have been adopted because the double cube had been chosen as the symbolic form of speculative lodges.


The double square is usually represented in modern lodges of speculative craft freemasons by a mosaic pavement of black and white square tiles laid out in the centre of the floor, with the length along the east west axis being twice the length along the north south axis. An indented border of black and white triangular tiles usually surrounds this rectangle. Although lodges usually assemble in buildings that are rectangular in shape, this has not invariably been the shape of all symbolic lodges. Some operative lodges, especially during the Middle Ages, were in the shape of a mason's square, or a mason's square gauge, or even a circle. Some speculative lodges, especially in Scotland and on the continent of Europe, sometimes have adopted a triangular form, which some still do. Some speculative lodges in the early 1700s had three symbolic steps in the west, on which the apprentice, the fellow of the craft and the master mason knelt in the appropriate way. Most modern speculative lodges have three symbolic steps in the east, separating the masterís dais from the floor of the lodge.

In the earliest days of speculative craft freemasonry, lodges usually occupied premises on a temporary basis, when it was the custom to indicate the symbolic shape of the lodge by marking it out with lines on the floor. Chalk, charcoal and clay were the materials most commonly used for this purpose, the markings being erased at the conclusion of the meeting. In 1766 it was recorded that the floor drawings were frequently made using a mixture of chalk, stone-blue and charcoal and that in some lodges a mixture of powdered resin and shining sand were strewn on the floor to produce an attractive appearance under bright illumination. These floor drawings and special effects later gave way to the use of removable floor cloths, which ultimately were replaced by the mosaic pavement and tracing boards when permanent accommodation was available for the sole use of lodges. Chalk, charcoal and clay naturally became the subjects of symbolism and their use for floor drawings gave rise to their inclusion in the old catechisms. In his lectures on Signs and Symbols, the Rev Dr George Oliver said that these three materials:


". . . have ever been esteemed symbolically as emblems of freedom, fervency and zeal. Nothing is more free for the use of man than chalk, which seldom touches but leaves its trace behind. Nothing is more fervent than charcoal, for when well lighted no metal is able to resist its force. Nothing is more zealous than clay, which will open up her arms to receive us when forsaken by all our friends."


The symbolism of the lodge


The speculative ritualists clearly intended a masonic lodge to represent the universe, which is the temple of the Deity whom we serve. This is confirmed in one of the passages included in the explanation of the first tracing board, which reflects the words of the Lord recorded in Isaiah 66:1 as follows:


"Heaven is my throne and the earth my footstool. Where will you build a house for me, where shall my resting-place be?"


A similar description of heaven as God's home and our ultimate resting-place is given in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which was recorded in hieroglyphs in the pyramid of the Pharaoh Pepi I at least fifteen centuries before Isaiah's time, in about 2300 BCE:


"Thou hast opened the gates of the sky, thou hast opened the doors of the celestial deep; thou has found Ra and he watcheth over thee, he hath taken thee by thy hand, he hath led thee into the two regions of heaven and he hath placed thee on the throne of Osiris."


The explanation of the first tracing board describes the form of the lodge as a double cube, in length from east to west, in breadth between north and south, in depth from the surface of the earth to its centre and as high even as the heavens. In reality this does not describe a double cube, but it is an apt description of a perfect cube of infinite dimensions, which is appropriate as the representative shape of the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle and the temple, symbolising truth and perfection, because the cube is one of the most ancient symbols of truth and perfection. The perfect cube is also the shape of the perfect ashlar test piece that a craftsman is required to create from the rough ashlar, by accurate squaring and polishing in his skilful hands, to prove his capabilities and demonstrate that he is worthy to be classed as a master mason. The production of the perfect ashlar symbolises the transformation of the ignorant and uncultivated mind that must be achieved by discipline and education, so as to render the living stone morally and spiritually fit for incorporation into the celestial temple. We can only speculate that when the early speculative ritualists described the masonic lodge as a double cube, either they intended that it should represent the Holy Place in the tabernacle, or they had in mind the shape of the Altar of Incense and were attracted to the combined symbolism of the cube and incense. Incense is a symbol of the purification of the soul and the cube is a symbol of perfection, which together suggests that state of purification and perfection that is necessary for admission into the Lord's temple.

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