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the number five in symbolism


part II - Symbolism and the Teachings of Freemasonry

W. M. Don Falconer PM, PDGDC

From ancient times the five physical elements have represented the five active planes of life.


Eastern precedents


Most nations in antiquity considered five to be a mystical number. This belief seems to have been prevalent long before the advent of writing, so that the original reasons for its existence are not known. One of the earliest written references to five appears in the ancient Hindu scriptures, which were written in Sanskrit from the Vedas onwards. Sanskrit is the oldest known branch of the Indo-European family of languages and is the sacred language of India. Hindu is a Persian word derived from the Sanskrit sindhu meaning a river, especially the Indus River. A fundamental aspect of Hinduism is known as sanatana dharma, Sanskrit words respectively meaning eternal and law, which refer to the absolute and eternal nature of God. The Upanishads are the divisions of Vedic literature that set out the philosophical and metaphysical treatises of Hinduism. In the Svetasvatara Upanishad, VI. 2, is a fundamental declaration that God created the universe from the Ultimate Reality of Himself, given in the following words:

“It is God’s command that this work (that is the creation) unfolds itself, which is called earth, water, fire, air and ether”.

From ancient times five planes of activity have been recognised in our present cycle of life, from the outermost or physical plane to the innermost or spiritual plane. When the two higher planes of our future existence are added, called the latent planes, the material nature of the universe is represented by seven planes. The five planes of activity in our present cycle of life are represented by five physical elements, which are earth, water, fire, air and ether. We can discern these five physical elements with our five senses, which are sight, sound, touch, taste and smell. Of these five elements earth represents the physical plane, which is basic to our present cycle of life. Water represents the subconscious plane that is between the physical and mental planes, reacting with each of them. Fire represents the emotional plane, which is the seat of desire and passion and energises the subconscious plane. Air represents the mental plane and ether represents the plane of light, or heaven. The two latent planes of our future spiritual existence relate to the human soul and its spirit. The reaction of the latent planes to the Voice of God and the immanence of the Divine Reality is reflected in Revelations 3:20-21 of the New English Bible:

“Here I stand knocking at the door; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and sit down to supper with him and he with me. To him who is victorious I will grant a place on my throne . . . .”

Buddhism is an offspring of Hinduism that originated in India about 600 years before the birth of Christ. Buddha is not a name, but a title that was especially applied to Siddhartha Gautama, who founded the religion after he had achieved enlightenment for himself. Buddha signifies the “Enlightened One”, or the “Awakened One”. In Buddhist scriptures the words that traditionally were spoken by Buddha are called Sutras, the Sanskrit word sutra meaning a thread, which in the course of time also came to mean a rule. The Hindu beliefs that relate to the five elements are also important tenets of Buddhism, in relation to which one of the Sutras says:

“Know that when in the beginning all was perfect void and the five elements were not, then Adi-Buddha, the stainless, was revealed in the form of Flame and Light”.

Sikhism is another offspring of Hinduism, which was founded in northern India by the Guru Nanak (1469-1539). Nanak taught a strict and unambiguous form of monotheism and he endeavoured to harmonise the Sufi traditions of Islam with the Bhakti traditions of Hinduism. Both of these traditions are based on a close, direct and personal experience of God, which is very similar in nature to the ideology of protestant Christianity. The five elements of the Hindus and the Buddhists are also referred to in the Adi-Granth, the sacred book of the Sikhs, in which it is written that:

“God pervadeth the five elements, the three worlds, the nine regions and the four quarters of the universe. The Almighty supporteth the earth and the heavens”.

In this context the three worlds relate to the body, the mind and the spirit, whilst the nine regions relate to the emotional, subconscious and mental planes that play an active role in each of those worlds.

From ancient times the Chinese sages also maintained that there are five original elements. Arranged in the sequence in which the sages said that they came into existence, which is in their descending order of importance, those elements are water, fire, wood, metal and earth. Although there is no simple definition of the meanings and interactions of these five elements, they may be explained by saying that water represents the spiritual plane, fire represents the emotional plane, wood represents the intellectual plane, metal represents the mental plane and earth represents the physical plane. Earth was envisaged as being at the centre of a circle formed by the other four elements, which was intended to indicate that the physical existence is only a temporary centre for the soul on its journey towards the eternal light of heaven.

An interesting corollary to this perception of the five elements is the belief that the Yang and the Yin, which are the male and female components of spirit and matter, contain the five elements in embryonic form. Also that, from the time when the Yang and the Yin were united and the five elements were intermingled in the centre of the universe, moisture and heat operated on each other and produced an intelligent being. Another corollary to the interaction of the five elements is an ancient Taoist philosophy, which seeks to explain the eternal cycle of creation, destruction and resurrection. It teaches that earth generates metal and overcomes water; that metal generates water and overcomes wood; that water generates wood and overcomes fire; and that wood generates fire and overcomes earth.


Egyptian precedents


Although the images associated with the iconography of Egypt’s ancient religion are often grotesque or demoniac and seem to have been used to represent countless gods and goddesses, nevertheless the fundamental beliefs were monotheistic. In fact the ancient religion was one of profound hope, coupled with a belief in the resurrection of the soul to an eternal life. The cosmogony of ancient Egypt and the beliefs concerning death and resurrection are closely interwoven in processes that involve five distinct elements. The first element concerned the beginning of creation and was a belief that, before time began, Ra was the Absolute Spirit or Light and Conscience of the universe diffused in the primordial Chaos. It was believed that the second element came into existence at the beginning of time, when Ra became aware of himself in the Great Silence and called up his own image, Amon, to be the spirit of the universe. This call was the Word or creative power that activated the third element and resulted in the materialisation of Shu and Tefnut, which respectively were space-air and movement-fire. They in turn generated and separated the earth Geb from the sky Nut, thus ending Chaos and establishing equilibrium in the universe. The fourth element was the introduction of the fertilising force of Osiris and the procreative power of Isis as a life bearing couple, which established and nourished terrestrial and celestial life. The fifth and final element of creation was the introduction of the forces of evil in the form of Seth and Nephthys, who were a destroying couple. Nevertheless, the destroying couple were destined forever to succumb to the life bearing couple, thereby inducing eternal rebirth.

The various passages and chambers in the Great Pyramid of Khufu illustrate the five elements in the ancient Egyptian beliefs concerning death and resurrection. As there are no hieroglyphic inscriptions in this pyramid that are equivalent to the Pyramid Texts of Unas, we cannot be sure that its passages and chambers were intended only to be used during the burial of a pharaoh, or if they were also used in ceremonial rites similar to those of the Eleusinian Mysteries. It seems most likely that their intended use was for both of those rites of passage. The materials and colours used in constructing the passages and chambers of the Great Pyramid of Khufu are of special significance. The first element of the rite of passage would have taken place in the subterranean compartment called the Chamber of Ordeal, which could be regarded as a counterpart of the dark pit of nothingness that is the Jewish Sheol, or the Roman Catholic Purgatory where it is believed that souls after death are purified from unforgiven venial sins. The Chamber of Ordeal is excavated some 25 metres deep in the bedrock under the pyramid and is accessed by a narrow, steeply descending passage.

The second element of the rite takes place in a Grotto, which also is excavated in the bedrock just under the base of the pyramid. It represents the Well of Life and is accessed by ascending a very steep shaft. All of these passages, shafts and chambers were left rough and unadorned in the same state as they were excavated, symbolising the original and final states of human existence, which calls to mind the preacher’s words in Ecclesiastes 12:7, which say:

“Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.”

The third element of the rite takes place in a chamber of glistening white limestone, emblematic of truth and regeneration, which has been described as the Queen’s Chamber, but in reality it is the Chamber of Regeneration and Rebirth. The fourth element takes place in the Hall of Truth in Darkness, through which a soul reborn must pass in humility before its resurrection. This hall is called the Grand Gallery and is constructed of polished black granite, symbolic of the Inscrutable Source of all things. To the Egyptians darkness was the mystery of all mysteries. The setting of the fifth and final element of the rite is the highest chamber in the pyramid, constructed of polished red granite, emblematic of fire and purification. It is the Chamber of Resurrection, called the King’s Chamber.

Classical precedents

Not long after Cyrus the Great had founded the Persian Empire, he defeated the King of Lydia in 545 BCE and annexed his extensive territories. As a result the neighbouring Greeks, living in the Ionian colonies of the eastern Aegean, came into contact with the Persians for the first time. From that time onwards the early Greek philosophers travelled widely throughout Egypt and the countries of the Near East. They studied, absorbed and disseminated the knowledge accumulated by the ancient civilisations of these regions, which profoundly influenced the development of modern concepts. The Persian influence dominated the political development of Greece and Asia Minor for more than two hundred years, until 331 BCE when Alexander the Great of Macedonia inflicted his third and final defeat of the Persian king, Darius III surnamed Codomannus, at Gaugamela also known as Arbela. During his flight Darius was treacherously slain by Artaterxes, one of his satraps. Alexander then occupied Persepolis, the capital of Persia. It was during this tumultuous period that the earliest of the Greek philosophers were born in Ionia. They learnt to make abstract generalisations and developed conceptual thinking into a practical and useful art.


Pythagoras was one of the most celebrated of those philosophers. He was born at Samos in about 582 BCE, more than a century before Socrates became eminent. Pythagoras was educated as an athlete, but he abandoned it as a profession and devoted himself to the study of philosophy, travelling widely throughout Egypt, Chaldea and Asia Minor. During his travels, Pythagoras is reputed to have undergone several initiations in his search for knowledge. In about 529 BCE Pythagoras settled in Crotona, a Greek colony in southern Italy, where he established a religious community. His celebrated institution was often referred to as the Italic School, which soon acquired so good a reputation that adherents flocked there from all parts of Greece and Italy. As the early Greek philosophers were living in the eastern Mediterranean, they had ready access to all the knowledge accumulated over many centuries by the Babylonian and Egyptian mathematicians and astronomers. Some of them even studied under Egyptian teachers. Thus the early Greek philosophers were able to take full advantage of the considerable achievements of their counterparts in nearby countries.


Pythagoras and the other philosophers who preceded Socrates (c.460-399 BCE) were not as concerned as he was with the usual subjects of epistemology, ethics and morality, but concentrated their efforts on formulating rational laws for mathematics, the physical sciences and astronomy. Pythagoras’s system had a profound influence on the work of Plato and the later philosophers, astronomers and mathematicians. The originality of the philosophers who preceded Socrates is reflected in their attempts to arrange all the knowledge they had accumulated from Babylon and Egypt into universal theories, whilst at the same time formulating principles to integrate and explain all the facts on which their theories were based. Thales (c.624-545 BCE), who was born in Miletus, was the traditional founder of Greek philosophy, but he left no writings of his own. Several centuries later Plutarch (c.46-120 CE), the renowned Greek historian, biographer and philosopher who was born in Chaeroneia, said in his Biographies that it was a profound desire to formulate general principles which had led Thales to ask: “What is the basic substance of the universe?”.

Many theories were advanced concerning the nature of matter or being, but water, fire, air, earth and ether usually were named as the main elements. Some of the early philosophers declared that matter is always changing, whilst others maintained that it is static. Nevertheless it was Homer, the Greek epic poet who probably lived in the second half of the eighth century BCE and is renowned for writing the Iliad and the Odyssey, who is reputed to have been the first to divide the world into five portions. He said that Earth and Olympus are the two extremes, which respectively represent the physical and heavenly attributes of nature. Homer assigned three gods to the intervening portions, of which Hera signified fire and represented perception, Hermes signified air and represented the mind and Hades signified water and represented desire. In another of Plutarch’s well-known works, Morals, it is recorded that when addressing an assembly at Delphi he had referred to the five elements in the following terms:


The world may in a certain sense be considered as composed and compacted out of five other worlds; for example, the one is of earth, the other of water, the third of fire, the fourth of air; the fifth element some call heaven, some light, others æther”.

Among the early Greek philosophers, two others also deserve special mention. The first was Leucippus, who was born at Miletus in about 490 BCE. He was the originator of atomic cosmology and the first to suggest that all matter is composed of atoms that are indivisible units. Democritus (c.460-370 BCE), who was born in Abdera, was the second. He adopted and developed Leucippus’s theory and proposed that all matter in the world consists of an infinite number of minute particles, the various combinations of which account for the different properties and qualities of matter.


Among the many other classical philosophers who established the foundations from which modern philosophy developed, three should be mentioned. Of them the first was Socrates (469-399 BCE), who was born in Athens and played a pivotal role in the development of Greek philosophy. Socrates was responsible for bringing about decisive changes in philosophical emphasis. His work ranged from speculation about the natural world and cosmology to a focus on ethics and conceptual analysis. The second was Plato (c.428-348 BCE), who probably was born in Athens. As a pupil of Socrates and later his close associate, Plato became one of the most important and influential philosophers of all time. The third was Aristotle (384-322 BCE), a Macedonian who was born in Stagira. He went to Athens as a pupil of Plato and later became a teacher at Plato’s academy. Aristotle wrote prodigiously and covered the whole field of knowledge at that time. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle are revered as three of the greatest figures in Greek philosophy. They established principles that shaped the development of progressive thought for centuries after their own time. Their methods exerted a powerful influence on the conduct of transactions in later learned societies and the founders of modern speculative freemasonry also adopted their systems.

The legacy of Pythagoras

The schools established by Pythagoras at Cretona and elsewhere have been cited by many masonic scholars as the models on which speculative lodges of freemasonry were established. Whilst there is no doubt that Pythagora’s schools provided a pattern that influenced the form of monastic institutions established during the first century of Christianity, no evidence has been found that proves a direct connection between the schools and freemasonry. Nevertheless, nearly all lodges of operative freemasons in Britain were intimately associated with monastic institutions, from when the first Christian church in England was established by Saint Joseph of Arimathea in 63 CE, reputedly at Glastonbury, then throughout the Middle Ages. It is to be expected, therefore, that lodges of operative freemasons would have assimilated by association the influence of the Pythagorean schools on the monastic institutions. Pythagoras adopted the mode of instruction practised by the Egyptian priests, also dividing his scholars into Exoterics and Esoterics as the Egyptians had done before him. The Exoteric scholars only attended public assemblies, where general ethical instruction was given, but the true school comprised only the Esoteric scholars, whom Pythagoras referred to as his “companions and friends”.

 A candidate’s life and character were investigated rigorously before admission to the privileges of a Pythagorean school as an Esoteric scholar. If accepted the candidate was sworn to secrecy during an initiation ceremony and was required to submit to the severest trials of fortitude and self-discipline. The conduct, clothing and meals within the school were regulated with frugality and with the severity prevailing in the strictest monastic institutions. Pythagoras instructed his Esoteric scholars in the usual arts and sciences, as well as on his interior or hidden doctrines, which he explained by means of symbols. Within his system of instruction there were three degrees. The first degree was Mathematici, which covered the study of the exact sciences. The second degree was Theoretici, which taught an understanding of God and theorised on the future state of man. The third or highest degree was only communicated to a select few who were intellectually capable of grasping the full meaning of the Pythagorean philosophy, which was based on the doctrine of numbers as symbols. Pythagoras had studied the doctrine of numbers in Egypt and the Near East, where numerical symbolism had prevailed from the earliest times in recorded history.

In Pythagorean symbolism the number one was set aside to represent the unity of the godhead, which was the most important secret imparted in the ancient mysteries. The number five was considered to be a mystical number, because it is the sum of the first even and first odd numbers except the one representing the godhead. The number five was regarded as a symbol of the opposites represented by the mixed conditions of order and disorder, happiness and misfortune, life and death. This combination of odd and even numbers also represented the union of the male and female elements and symbolised marriage. Among the Greeks the number five was a symbol of the world, said to represent the elements of earth, water, fire, air and ether. Pythagoras used the pentagram to illustrate the symbolism of the number five, for which reason it is also called the Pentalpha of Pythagoras. In the classical era the pentagram was so revered that it also became known as the Sacred Pentagram.


The pentagram


The pentagram is an open five pointed star formed by drawing a continuous series of interlaced straight lines. Commencing from any one of five points equally spaced on the circumference of a circle, the line proceeds in a clockwise direction to every second point on the circle until returning to the first point. The interlaced legs of the pentagram thus also form a pentagon in the centre of the star. Pentalpha is derived from the Greek words pente and alpha meaning five and the letter A. This is because the figure has the appearance of five letters A interlaced cyclically, so that the two legs of an A with its apex at one point on the circumscribing circle are coincident with one leg from each of two As that have their apexes at two points on the opposite side of the circle. Pentagram and pentagon are also derived from the Greek using the words gramma and gonia, respectively meaning letter and angle. Pentacle comes from the Latin word pentaculum, which means to hang. The Latin word is descended from the Greek pentakt, a compound word derived from pente and aktis, respectively meaning five and rays. The Pythagoreans called the sacred symbol a pentacle, by which name it frequently appears in Hermetic formulae. The sacred symbol in the form of a pentagram is also called the Pentacle of Solomon, which differs from and must not be confused with the Seal of Solomon. The Seal of Solomon comprises two open equilateral triangles interlaced to produce an open six-pointed star, which is also called the Shield of David.

From the dawn of history the pentagram has been used throughout the East as a talisman or amulet to charm away evil spirits. It is also said to have been the star of the Magians, the ancient Persian priests referred to in the scriptures as the “Wise Men of the East” who followed the star to Bethlehem. The Druids, or holy men of the Celts, are reputed to have worn the pentagram on their sandals as a symbol of the Deity. In German the symbol is called a druttenfuss, which originally meant Druid’s foot, but has become corrupted to mean witch’s foot. In the Middle Ages the symbol was used as a door mark to keep out witches. In medieval times the operative freemasons regarded the pentagram as a symbol of deep wisdom, in deference to Pythagoras their “ancient friend and brother”. The pentagram was used as an ornament in the decoration of most ecclesiastical buildings erected during the Middle Ages. The pentagram was also used in early lodges of speculative freemasons as a Talisman representing the Morning Star, suspended from the ceiling in the centre of the building, directly over a point within a circle marked on the floor. In those days the name of the one true God in Hebrew, the Tetragrammaton, was depicted in the centre of the Talisman.

Nowadays, in lodges of speculative freemasonry held under most constitutions, the letter G has replaced the Talisman and is called the Sacred Symbol, which in many rituals is referred to during the closing of the Second Degree. It is also mentioned in most lectures on the tracing board of the Second Degree, which say that it was drawn to the attention of every Fellowcraft when entering the middle chamber to receive his wages. The pentagram also alludes to the trials and tribulations that must be overcome, with the help of God, when ascending the winding staircase of this earthly life. Finally, the pentagram should remind us of the five points of fellowship derived from the customs of operative freemasons, which every Master Mason should practise throughout his mortal life.

In ancient times, when the centre of a sacred building had been established on the site, the orientation of the building was determined, the diagonals were laid out and the corners were fixed on the ground. After a sacrificial offering had been made at the centre of the building site, a centre stone was bedded down to signify the foundation of the building and then the centre point was struck. Sacrificial offerings were then made in succession at the four corners of the building, commencing at the northeast, after each of which a corner stone was bedded down. In operative lodges and in modern lodges of speculative craft freemasons working under the Scottish and many other constitutions, the candidate is obligated in the centre of the mosaic pavement, representing the foundation stone of the spiritual structure he is beginning to erect. He is then at the centre of the five points of fellowship, the other four points being the four corner stones which, in modern lodges of speculative freemasons, are usually represented by squares or tassels at the four corners of the mosaic pavement.


Euclid’s forty-seventh proposition

When Pythagoras visited the valley of the Nile River, he learned that for thousands of years the Egyptians had utilised a triangle in the ratios 3:4:5 to produce a right angle, which they put to practical use when constructing the many pyramids, temples and other stately edifices for which they are famous. The Egyptians held the right-angled triangle, with sides in the proportions 3:4:5, in the highest regard and called it the “triangle of the Deity”. It was their symbol of eternal nature, wherein the female principal Isis was represented by the side of three units, the male principal Osiris was represented by the side of four units and their offspring Horus was represented by the hypotenuse of five units, which signified the Deity’s procreative attributes. This symbolism is very significant, because three, four and five are all regarded as sacred numbers. Among the ancients three was one of the most sacred numbers and frequently used in relation to the Deity. Four is the tetrad or quaternary of the Pythagoreans, who called it a perfect number. The name of the Deity frequently consists of four letters, like Adad of the Assyrians, Amon of the Egyptians, Oeos of the Greeks, Deus of the Romans and the Tetragrammaton of the Hebrews.

Pythagoras especially appreciated the Egyptian symbolism of universal nature, because it was his doctrine that all things proceeded from numbers. It was Pythagoras who first produced a mathematical proof that the sum of the squares of the base and the perpendicular of a right angled triangle equals the square of the hypotenuse, thus formulating the universal solution that later became the theorem proved by Euclid in his forty-seventh proposition. Pythagoras adopted the diagram of the forty-seventh proposition as a symbol of his school, in addition to the sacred pentagram, which he had used for that purpose from a very early date. Pythagoras taught the mystical power of numbers in conjunction with metempsychosis, or the transmigration of souls, which were principal doctrines of his philosophy.

Pythagoras also was proficient in music and he is said to have invented a number of musical instruments, as well as having demonstrated the mathematical relationships of musical intervals. When the Reverend Dr James Anderson wrote the Constitutions for the original Grand Lodge of England in 1723, he included in the frontispiece a diagram of Euclid’s forty-seventh proposition, with the Greek word Eureka below it. Eureka signifies “I have found it!” Dr Anderson mistakenly thought that Pythagoras had exclaimed Eureka when he solved the forty-seventh proposition, but reliable sources attribute it to Archimedes, another Greek mathematician born in Syracuse about 287 BCE, when he discovered how to test the amount of alloy in a gold crown.


Other mystical aspects


Another aspect of the masonic symbolism of five that receives little or no explanation, except in some of the Scottish tracing boards, relates to the middle section of the winding stair that represents the journey of life. The winding stair has fifteen steps in sections of three, five and seven steps. The five steps of the middle section relate to the physical aspects of life. In one sense they symbolise the five states of matter in our environment, which are earth, water, fire, air and ether or light. In a complementary sense they symbolise the five human senses whereby the environment can be comprehended and appreciated, which are touching, tasting, smelling hearing and seeing. The number ten was a mystical symbol in ancient times, which numerologists considered to be the source of all things, being twice the value of five and equal to the sum of the first two even and first two odd numbers. Ten and one were both used to signify the godhead.


The number ten was represented symbolically by the Tetractys of Pythagoras, an equilateral triangle composed of ten dots arranged in four rows, with one dot at the apex, then two, then three and then four dots forming the base. The Tetractys was the equivalent of another ancient symbol of the deity, the Yod in the centre of an equilateral triangle. The Talmudists considered the Yod to be extraordinarily sacred, because in Hebrew it has a numerical value of ten and also is the initial letter of the Tetragrammaton, the Ineffable Name that is spelt Yod He Waw He. The character Waw is also called Vau and may be pronounced either as a W or as a V, according to the structure of the word. These four Hebrew characters are variously transcribed in English as YHWH and JHVH, which respectively are translated as Yahweh and Jehovah.

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