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the symbolism of ladders


part II - Symbolism and the Teachings of Freemasonry

W. M. Don Falconer PM, PDGDC

In most of the Ancient Mysteries the ladder was a symbol of progressive advancement.  


Jacob’s ladder


Jacob’s ladder is an important symbol in freemasonry. Jacob, the younger of the twin sons of Isaac and Rebekah, was called “the father of the chosen people”. His lifespan is not known with certainty, because the biblical account cannot be correlated directly with the surviving secular records, but the available evidence indicates that he probably lived in about the eighteenth century BCE. The scriptures say that Jacob was born clutching his elder twin brother Esau’s heel (Ayin Qoph Beth in Hebrew). Hence popular etymology suggests that this is the derivation of Jacob’s name, which is said to signify heel catcher or he clutches. Another possible interpretation is “he whom God protects”, which is derived from a southern Arabic and Ethiopian word ‘akaba meaning to guard or to keep. The cuneiform and Egyptian documents of that period contain personal names from the same root and the Amorites also used a parallel form of the name. Yet another meaning of Jacob is the supplanter, which refers to the fact that Jacob deceived his aged father into giving him the birthright or blessing, which by custom should have been inherited by the firstborn son, Esau. By this deception Jacob became the recipient of God’s promise and inherited Canaan, while Esau received only the less fertile region that became known as Edom. Jacob’s mother Rebekah also used a subterfuge and obtained Isaac’s permission for Jacob to flee from Esau’s anger. This was when Jacob fled from his home in Beersheba and went to his mother’s home in the field or plain of Aram, called Padanaram, near Harran in the far north of Mesopotamia, where Isaac’s father, Abraham, had lived before he emigrated to Canaan. Later in his life Jacob and his sons went to Goshen, the territory in the Nile Delta assigned to the Israelites during their Egyptian sojourn, not far from the Egyptian court. Jacob died in Egypt, but Joseph and his brothers took their father’s embalmed body to Canaan for burial.


The central event of Jacob’s life occurred at the beginning of his flight from Beersheba, perhaps at the end of his first day’s journey by camel. He was then almost 100 kilometres north of Beersheba in the hill country near Bethel, about 20 kilometres north of Jerusalem. Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham, had camped there during his journey southwards and had erected an altar to Yahweh, to which he returned after his visit to Egypt. The scriptures tell us that Jacob slept with the bare earth as his couch and a stone for his pillow, when he had a vision of a ladder (the Hebrew word used is Samech Lamedh Mem, which is usually translated as a stairway). The ladder connected earth with heaven and had angels continually ascending and descending upon it. It was this occasion when Jacob’s realisation of God began and God promised Jacob divine protection. This promised confirmed the one given to Abraham when he was at Padanaram, that the chosen people would possess the whole of the land from the Euphrates River to the southwest. Jacob commemorated his dream by setting up the stone on which he had rested his head as a monument. Jacob poured a libation of oil over the monument, marking the place where he knew that God was present. This event, recorded in the twenty-eighth chapter of the book of Genesis, is the basis of the story of Jacob’s Ladder in the symbolism of speculative freemasonry.


The Symbolism of Jacob’s Ladder


Although it is usual in modern speculative freemasonry to name only the three upper staves or rounds of Jacob’s mystical ladder, in fact it has always had seven rungs. Nowadays the ladder is described as having “many staves or rounds, which point out as many moral virtues, but the three principal ones are Faith, Hope and Charity”, usually described as the Theological Virtues. Originally four Social Virtues preceded them, nowadays called the four Cardinal Virtues, which in ascending order were Temperance, Fortitude, Prudence and Justice. The four Cardinal Virtues are usually represented by four tassels pendant to the four corners of the lodge. It seems that the early artists, who prepared the first of the permanent tracing boards used in lodges, had some difficulty in representing all seven virtues in the available space and in consequence reduced them to three. The three Theological Virtues are depicted in various ways, but usually a Latin cross is used to represent Faith, an anchor is used to represent Hope and a hand holding a chalice is used to represent Charity. The three Intellectual Virtues are Wisdom, Strength and Beauty, but they are seldom depicted on Jacob’s Ladder because they have always been referred to as the “three great pillars” that symbolically support a freemason’s lodge.


On some tracing boards a key also is depicted on or near Jacob’s ladder. The key is a very old symbol in speculative freemasonry, which is mentioned in some of the earliest rituals and catechisms of which copies are still in existence, for example the Edinburgh Register House MS of 1696. The old catechisms usually included the question: “What is the key of your lodge?” the reply to which was “A weel hung tongue”. This response was expanded in some rituals, as for example in the Sloane MS of about 1700, which includes the answer:


“It is not made of Wood Stone Iron or Steel or any sort of metal, but the tongue of good report behind a brother’s back as well as before his face.”

This is the first known recorded use of “the tongue of good report”, which is a significant expression that has survived in speculative rituals to the present day. The Reverend Adolphus F.A.Woodford was one of the nine eminent founders of the world’s premier lodge of research, Quatuor Coronati Lodge No 2076, which was warranted in London in 1884. In Kenning’s Masonic Cyclopaedia of 1878, the Reverend Woodford said that:


“Jacob’s Ladder in freemasonry seems to point to the connection between earth and heaven; between man and God; and to represent faith in God, charity towards all men and hope in immortality.”


Many masonic historians believe that a substantial Jacobite influence was brought to bear on speculative craft freemasonry when it was developing rapidly during the eighteenth century. They say that Jacob’s Ladder was introduced into English freemasonry as a symbol from Continental freemasonry, with the object of keeping the Jacobite cause to the forefront, but this suggestion seems unlikely.


Other masonic ladders


Jacob’s Ladder is not the only ladder that features in the rituals of freemasonry. Ladders of seven steps are important symbols in several of the additional degrees in freemasonry, each having its own interpretation. One such ladder, which symbolises the trials and agonies suffered by the Messiah, is ascended in the search for the Lost Word. Another mysterious ladder refers to our moral duties to God and man. When ascending that ladder we are warned to be just and upright; to be equitable in our dealings with others; to be kind and amiable; to be of good faith; to labour diligently; to have patience and always to act with intelligence and discretion. Coupled with that ladder is another ladder, which prescribes the seven liberal arts and sciences that we should pursue in order properly to fulfil our moral duties, namely grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. By yet another ladder we are taught that our lives should be characterised by justice and charity; by innocence; by sweetness; by faith; by firmness and truth; by a great work; and by responsibility.


As a final example of masonic ladders, there is another that embraces all of the symbolism of the ladders already mentioned. It is a ladder of seven steps, resting upon a globe that represents the earth and is surmounted with a Bible with the square and compasses open thereon. On each successive step, commencing from the lowest, are the letters I.N.R.I.F.S.C. These are the initial letters of the seven Latin words Iesus, Nazarenus, Rex, Iudaeorum, Fides, Spes, Caritas, which signify Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews; Faith, Hope and Charity. In this regard it should be remembered that during the Middle Ages, on the continent of Europe and also in England, the operative freemasons were primarily engaged in the construction of Christian cathedrals and associated ecclesiastical structures. This is the reason why many of the old rituals were substantially Christian in character, notwithstanding the extensive references to the Hebrew texts that are especially appropriate to the symbolism of freemasonry. It therefore was inevitable that the early speculative rituals, which were adapted from those of their operative predecessors, should be similar in character.

When the Premier Grand Lodge of speculative freemasonry was established in London in 1717 the Reverend Dr James Anderson D.D. (1684-1739), a graduate of Marischal College in Aberdeen, produced the original Book of Constitutions that was issued in 1723. This Book of Constitutions was a true lineal descendant of the old MS Charges of the fourteenth century or earlier, although much of the inherent Christian character had been removed, to which the Antients objected strongly. However, when the Antients sought reconciliation with the Moderns and their two Grand Lodges were unified under the United Grand Lodge of England in December 1813, all specifically Christian elements were omitted from the rituals. The primary requirement for admission into freemasonry was then and still is a belief in a Supreme Being, irrespective of the applicant’s religion or creed.

The “Ancient Mysteries”


Walter M. Wilmshurst was a renowned English historian and masonic writer. In his book entitled The Meaning of Masonry, first published early in the 1900s, Wilmshurst discusses freemasonry in relation to the Ancient Mysteries. In this context the following excerpt from his book deserves serious contemplation:


“Now one of the first things to strike any student of masonic literature and comparative religion is the remarkable presence of common factors, common beliefs, doctrines, practices and symbols, in the religions of all races alike, whether ancient or modern, eastern or western, civilised or barbarian, Christian or pagan. However separated from others by time or distance, however intellectualised or primitive, however elaborated or simple their religion or morals and however wide their differences in important respects, each people is found to have employed and still to be employing certain ideas, symbols and practices in common with every other; perhaps with or without some slight modification of form.  . . .  If research or reflection be pushed far enough it becomes clear that the universality and uniformity referred to are due to the fact that at one time, long back in the world’s past, there existed or was implanted in the minds of the whole human family - which was doubtless much smaller and more concentrated then than now - a Proto-Evangelium or Root-Doctrine in regard to the nature and destiny of the soul of man and its relation to the Deity.  . . .  All the evidence . . . indicates that primitive man, however childish and intellectually undeveloped according to modern standards, was spiritually conscious and physically perceptive to a degree undreamed of by the modern mind.”


Wilmshurst defined freemasonry as a science designed to teach self-knowledge:


“a noble science that can provide a spiritual awakening into an order and quality of life previously unexperienced”.

In most of the Ancient Mysteries, if not all, the ladder was a symbol of progressive advancement, which it is in freemasonry. In Signs and Symbols, which the Reverend Dr George Oliver DD wrote in the early 1800s, he compared masonic symbolism with the symbolism of the Ancient Mysteries practised in various parts of the world. He drew particular attention to the widespread importance of the ladder as a symbol and highlighted the close similarity in the interpretation of the ladder in all ages and in all rites. He summarising the masonic symbolism of ladders in the following words:


“Thus the dark clouds of divine wrath are dissipated, the heavens are opened; and we enjoy a ray of His glory in the celestial covering of the Lodge. And more than this; the same Divine Being has taught us how to attain the summit of the same, by means which are emblematically depicted by a ladder consisting of three principal ROUNDS or STAVES, which point to the three Theological Virtues, FAITH, HOPE and CHARITY.”


The Persian “Mysteries of Mithras”


In the Mysteries of Mithras a ladder of seven rounds, called gates, was the symbolical passage of the soul’s approach to perfection. The candidate was required to pass through seven dark and winding caverns, representing the ascent of the Ladder of Perfection, in which each cavern symbolised a world, or state of existence. A planet was believed to protect each of these seven worlds and a metal of increasing purity typified each successive step when ascending the ladder. During its progress to perfection, the soul was supposed to pass successively from the First World to the seventh, called Truth. Numbered in succession from the base of the ladder to the summit, the passage through the worlds, together with their respective planets and metals, was as follows:


7 Truth  Sun       Gold
6 Mansion of the Blessed    Moon Silver
5 World of Births    Mars Iron
4 Middle World   Jupiter    Tin 
3 Heaven Venus  Copper
2 World of Pre-Existence Mercury   Quicksilver
1 First World    Saturn  Lead


The Indian “Mysteries of Brahma”


In the Mysteries of Brahma we also find a ladder of seven steps that symbolises the universe. Each step represents one of the seven worlds that constitute the Brahminic cosmos, which are similar to the worlds in the Mysteries of Mithras. The seven worlds of the Mysteries of Brahma, named in succession from the lowest to the highest, are: first the Earth; second the World of Pre-Existence; third Heaven; fourth the Intermediate Region, which is between the lower and upper worlds and therefore is usually called the Middle World; the fifth is the World of Births, where souls are reborn; the sixth or Mansion of the Blessed is a place where souls rest in eternal peace; and the seventh is the Sphere of Truth, which is the abode of Brahma.

The Cabalistic “Tree of Life”


The Cabala or Kabbala is the mystical philosophy or theosophy of the Jews. The name comes from the Hebrew word kibbel, spelled Kaph Beth Lamedh meaning to receive or to accept, because it is the doctrine received from the elders. There are two divisions of the Cabala, of which the Practical is concerned with the construction of talismans and amulets and the Theoretical is concerned with all other aspects. The theoretical division is subdivided into two parts, the Dogmatic and the Literal. The Dogmatic part sets out the rabbinical philosophy and theosophy and the Literal part gives mystical explanations of sacred things. The Cabalists also have a ladder of ten steps, which they call the Tree of Life. The Tree of Life is usually represented in the following form:




The Crown





















































The Kingdom



The Cabalistic Tree of Life represents several concepts, of which the four worlds of the natural order of things are foremost. Four is an ancient symbol of the world and nature and of human beings within nature. Four also refers to the four seasons that relate the microcosm of humanity to the macrocosm of the universe. They are spring, summer, autumn and winter, which refer to the supernal, mental, astral and physical planes by which human evolution is accomplished. It also has various interpretations relating to Alchemy that are explained in terms of metals. The Cabalistic Tree of Life differs from the other ladders because the steps or sephiroth are not arranged in a single ascending line, but form a lattice of three triads that interconnect to form three pillars or columns supported on a base. Unlike most ladders, the sephiroth must be interpreted reading from the top down to the base. Each sephira represents a fundamental attribute or emanation of the Divine Essence, called a “Splendour”, through which the En Soph or Infinite One is able to enter into a relationship with the Finite. A fundamental concept is that the En Soph is an absolute and inscrutable unity that has nothing without himself and everything within himself.


The central trunk of the Tree of Life of the Cabala is called the Middle Column and is comprised of four sephiroth. Commencing from the apex they are the Crown, then Beauty in the midst of the foliage, followed by the Foundation where the lowest limbs branch out and lastly the Kingdom where the trunk meets the ground. The right column of the lattice is the male principal called the Pillar of Mercy. The left column of the lattice is the female principal called the Pillar of Justice. These two pillars allude to the qualities of God in pairs and show that his benevolence on the one hand refines his severity on the other. Each of these pillars is connected to the Crown and also to the Foundation, with Beauty situated between them. On the right in descending order the three sephiroth of the Pillar of Mercy are Wisdom, Mercy and Firmness. On the left, also in descending order, the three sephiroth of the Pillar of Justice are Intelligence, Justice and Splendour. It should be noted that each of these two pillars is named after its central sephira, whilst the pairs of adjacent sepiroth qualify the way in which human beings should apply their actions represented in each those pillars. Thus Wisdom must be exercised when showing Mercy, though Firmness also is required in its application. Likewise Intelligence is required in the exercise of Justice, so that the outcome will be Splendorous in the sight of God.

The derivation of Tree of Life is explained as follows. At the beginning of time the En Soph or Infinite One sent forth into space a spiritual emanation, which formed the first sephira, called Kether meaning the Crown. The Crown contained the other nine sephiroth that sprang forth from it in the following order. The first was the male sephira called Chokmah meaning Wisdom, which was followed by the female sephira called Binah meaning Intelligence. They combined with the Crown to form the first triad, from which the other seven sephiroth were derived. Wisdom and Intelligence then combined to produce a male potency called Chesed meaning Mercy, which produced a female potency called Geburah meaning Justice. Then Mercy and Justice combined to produce Tiphereth meaning Beauty, thus completing the second triad. A male potency called Netzach meaning Firmness, then came forth from Beauty and produced a female potency called Hod meaning Splendour. The third triad was completed when Firmness and Beauty combined to produce Yesod meaning the Foundation. Lastly, the tenth sephira came forth from the Foundation and was called Malkuth meaning Kingdom, which is at the foot of the tree of life.


The philosophy of the Tree of Life may be explained briefly in the following terms. The upper triad consists of the Crown, Wisdom and Understanding. It represents the world of Atziluth, which is the supernal world of the emanation of the deity. In some respects the Atziluth is similar to the Trimurti of the Hindus and the Holy Trinity of the Christians. The three sepiroth of the Atziluth are also referred to respectively as the White Head, the Father and the Mother. The upper triad points upwards in reference to the Deity from which it emanates. The other two triads point downwards in reference to humanity and the world that humanity occupies. The middle triad comprises Mercy, Severity and Beauty, which constitutes the world of Briah or of creation. In one sense this triad represents the divine mind and in another it is the realm of the highest created intelligence. The lowest triad comprises Victory, Glory and Foundation, which constitute the world of Yetzirah that is the foundation of all things, wherein it is said that the universe was formed, although it was not visible externally. The fourth world is Assiah, which comprises the tenth sephira or the Kingdom that is the manifest or material world.


Symbolic journeys


Although significant differences in substance are portrayed in the several ladders described above, nevertheless each represents an important symbolic journey. Such symbolic journeys have played a significant part communicating spiritual awareness from the most ancient times until the present. Hinduism is one of the oldest of the world’s great religions, which has evolved over more than five thousand years and is still growing. The Veda, Sanskrit meaning knowledge, is the body of sacred knowledge held to be the basis of true belief and practice among the Hindus. The hymns of the Veda portray the mystic fires, that inner sense of sacrifice burning forever on the “altar of the mind”, illuminating the symbolic journey of discovery in search of answers to what seemingly is the impenetrable human-divine mystery. The Veda refers to the kalahahamsa, or “swan of time”, that wings back to the sky and “nest of eternity”. Islam is the youngest of today’s great worldwide religions, which the prophet Muhammad established during the seventh century. Sufism is an important branch of Islam committed to maintaining its proper conduct as practised by the prophet, as distinct from the shari’a (Arabic for the path worn by camels to the water) or systematic organization of how Muslims should live and the fiqh (Arabic for intelligence, knowledge) or science of Islamic religious law. In the twelfth century a Persian Sufi, ‘Attar, said that quest, love, knowledge, detachment, unity, amazement and annihilation are the seven valleys that must be crossed on the symbolic journey to the king’s hidden palace. In this context annihilation is death as a necessary precursor to resurrection and life eternal. Sufi may be derived from the Arabic root suf meaning wool, alluding to their early garments.

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