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part I - the heritage of freemasonry

W. M. Don Falconer PM, PDGDC

Signs and symbols have been in use ever since the first hominids tried to communicate with their associates, even preceding articulate speech.


Symbols in antiquity


Symbolism is not a modern innovation. Signs and symbols have been in use ever since the first hominids tried to communicate with their associates, even preceding articulate speech. Before speech, the only available means of communication was by signs or gestures, by the use of which it was sought to convey some physical need or personal desire. Those making or observing particular gestures gradually developed, as a natural reaction, the uttering of sounds as the gestures were made. With the lapse of time, particular sounds came to be associated with particular gestures, so that they became recognisable as being representative of the gestures themselves. These sounds eventually evolved as words, which provided a simpler means of expressing needs and desires. From that time onwards the roles of sound and gesture were reversed in communication, so that gestures were primarily used to give emphasis when required. Variations of these basic words gradually developed, being used to differentiate between objects and actions as well as to characterise shades of meaning. A rudimentary grammar naturally evolved as coherent speech matured, while symbolism also developed to become an immutable component inherent in everyday life and language.


Coherent speech soon fostered a desire to create visual records, which in turn led to the development of the written word. Writing in its original form was a series of crude pictograms that represented individual objects or actions that became words, which again interchanged the roles of speech and symbols. The use of pictograms led to the development of cuneiform writing by the Sumerians in Mesopotamia and pictograms were the basis of the conventionalised characters used in Chinese and Japanese writing. By comparison, the very simple pictograms of the American Indians were never developed into an alphabetical form of writing. Elaborate pictograms also were the basis of the Egyptian hieroglyphs. Until very recently it was thought that the pictographic script of the Sumerians was the earliest, but excavations commenced in 1988 at Abydos in Egypt confirm that hieroglyphs had been in use before the time of King Narmer, who united his kingdom of Upper Egypt with the delta kingdom of Lower Egypt in about 3200 BCE. King Narmer is thought to be the same person as the legendary King Menes, the first pharaoh of Egypt.


These latest excavations and discoveries at Abydos are described in a book entitled Egypt by Vivian Davies and Renée Friedman, who were assisted by an extensive panel of experts. Their findings indicate that the Egyptian hieroglyphs did not evolve in stages like cuneiform writing, as was previously believed, but that they seem to have been established from the outset as a comprehensive means of communication. Thus, although many of the characters were used to represent complete words, most of them also signified sounds or combinations of sounds and were used in a similar manner to modern alphabets. Hieratic, which is a cursive form of the Egyptian hieroglyphs, seems to have evolved for everyday use by about 3000 BCE, when it usually was written in ink on papyrus. A much later derivative of Hieratic was the Demotic script, which was developed in about 700 BCE. The Demotic script was popular throughout the Greco-Roman period and was used by literate Egyptians for their literary pursuits, as well as for business and private correspondence.


As language became more sophisticated, the pictographic form of writing soon became inadequate, because the embellishments of oral expression were difficult to record. As a result of this deficiency, early scripts such as the Canaanite from around 2000 BCE and the Sinaitic from around 1500 BCE, had developed over many centuries using an alphabet in which the characters were based on Egyptian hieroglyphs that originally represented physical objects and actions. These scripts were followed by the Phoenician around 1000 BCE and its early Hebrew derivatives around 700 BCE, which used symbols to represent consonants, but left the vowels to be understood. Symbols gradually became standardized and were stylised in the final stage of writing, as represented by the Greek alphabet and its Roman derivative, both of which have symbols for consonants and vowels, allowing every nuance of oral expression to be recorded.


 Language and writing are two of the greatest intellectual achievements of the human race, without which all other achievements would not have been possible. Language and writing transcend personal intercommunication and the maintenance of records, because it facilitates both logical thought and rational evaluation. This complex use of symbols enables the mortal mind to contemplate the wonders of the creation and the promise of a spiritual life hereafter, as well as to explore and progressively solve the mysteries of the universe, clearly distinguishing humans from all other life on earth.


Symbols in the sacred writings


There can be no doubt that, in the process of their evolvement through the ages, speech and writing have established themselves as the most pervasive of all symbols in the modern world. Writing was derived from previously acquired abilities to draft other symbols, utilising a variety of methods. For example, the hieroglyphic writing of Egypt was painted on papyrus at least from 3250 BCE, using techniques similar to those first developed by the Magdalenians for their cave paintings made in about 15000 BCE. Recent excavations at Abydos, in tombs of a previously unknown dynasty now referred to as Dynasty 0, have unearthed bone and ivory labels that date from around 3250 BCE and are engraved with hieroglyphics that use signs for sounds and are the same as those used in later dynasties. The slate palette of King Narmer found in 1898 among a collection of temple offerings buried in the ancient capital of the Kingdom of Upper Egypt, Hierakonpolis, meaning City of the Falcon in Greek, has now been dated to 3100 BCE. Engraved on both sides, it graphically illustrates the uniting of the Upper and Lower Kingdoms. The hieroglyphs proclaim Narmer as King and say that “Horus, the patron god of kingship, now controls the delta”. An even earlier palette from Hierakonpolis dates from around 3200 BCE.


The cuneiform script of Sumeria was an adaptation of the wedge shaped imprints made by a stylus upon wet clay tablets, from about 3100 BCE or possibly earlier. A characteristic of the cuneiform script is that it is composed almost exclusively of straight lines, because it is difficult to make regular curves with a stylus. The original cuneiform script was used to prepare lists of commodities and taxation details, from which the language texts gradually evolved using around five hundred different symbols. One of the earliest known clay tablets inscribed with Mesopotamian writing dates from about 3000 BCE. Texts, such as the Canaanite inscriptions on Ahiram’s sarcophagus unearthed at the ancient city of Gebal, now called Byblos, have been carved on stone from as early as 1100 BCE, using metal chisels and gravers. From the inception of writing, these and other practical aspects of the arts and crafts have been interwoven with the techniques of communication, which has greatly enhanced the evolution of the symbols.


In the early stages of the development of articulate speech, symbols referred almost entirely to those things that were required for subsistence, augmented by a few symbols reflecting actions of practical importance in everyday life. As speech became more sophisticated and writing developed, additional symbols were introduced to reflect the abstract ideas beginning to formulate in the human mind. The earliest known recordings of abstract ideas relate to the concept that, when a human being dies, its spirit will be transmigrated from the mortal body to a life hereafter. A belief in the immortality of the human spirit and that it will continue to live in eternity is illustrated graphically by hieroglyphic inscriptions in early tombs of the Egyptian pharaohs. With the advent of cursive writing abstract ideas could be expressed even more vividly, as exemplified in Ecclesiastes, wherein the preacher portrays the transitory nature and consummate emptiness of earthly life and the certainty of death, which is counterbalanced by the hope that the soul will live on in immortality. The sacred writings of all religions include allegories, or long and elaborate stories, which illustrate moral principals that frequently are not stated specifically, but are left for the recipient to discover. Briefer parables also are used, typically showing the application of a moral precept in a familiar situation, so that abstract principles are represented in a concrete and vibrant form.


Egyptian hieroglyphs confirm that the attributes of implements, tools and other well known objects were used in ancient times as symbols to demonstrate the requirements for proper moral conduct. This graphic use of symbols to convey important religious messages continued through Biblical times and culminated in the century preceding the Christian era, when the pesher technique was introduced into the Hebrew scriptures. Pesher is a Hebrew word signifying an interpretation or explanation, derived from peshitta, another Hebrew word meaning simple, or plain. The Syrian word peshitta and its adjectival form, peshito, are used to designate the versions of the Old and New Testaments that were translated from the ancient Syriac and are sometimes called the principal versions or the Syriac Vulgate. In the Old Testament pesher signifies interpretation of dreams, but in the scrolls of the Christian era it is used to indicate that a section of text has a second or special hidden meaning. Many of the Old Testament texts are used with the pesher technique to convey special messages, some having been established by tradition over hundreds of years.


The origin of masonic symbols


We know that operative freemasonry has included the design and construction of ecclesiastical buildings in historical times, but archaeological investigations prove that freemasonry was already being influenced by religion when the Egyptian stonemasons began to construct tombs at Helwan, the necropolis of their ancient capitals of Saqqara and Memphis. The tombs at Helwan are at least 350 years older than the Pharaoh Zoser’s stepped pyramid built at Saqqara in about 2650 BCE. King Solomon’s temple at Jerusalem is the oldest for which we have detailed records. Completed about 950 BCE after more than seven years under construction, it is a pre-eminent example of the vision and inspiration required in the conception and erection of such buildings. Every feature of that magnificent edifice was of religious and symbolic importance. The Biblical record leaves no doubt of the comprehensive knowledge that the masons and their associated artificers must have had of the symbolism embodied in the structure and its lavish furnishings and also in the facilities in the surrounding court. Flavius Josephus (c.37-c.100), the renowned Jewish soldier and historian, was the governor of Galilee and displayed great valour against the advance of Vespasian. In his treatise Antiquity of the Jews, Josephus recorded that when King Herod the Great restored the second temple erected by Zerubbabel,  he not only carried out the work piecemeal to avoid interrupting the usual ritual observances, but also trained 1,000 priests to work as masons when building the shrine. The restoration of the temple was begun in 19 BCE and completed in 64 CE, but the temple was completely destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE.


After that time the operative freemasons were engaged continually in massive construction projects for the Roman Empire, until the fall of Rome in 410, when captured by the Visigoths. In the meantime Constantine the Great, who was then Emperor of Byzantium, had prevailed over the heathen Romans in 330, when Constantinople became the capital of the Roman Empire. Constantine established Christianity in the East and carried out the first great wave of Christian ecclesiastical building, surpassing even the efforts of the Persian renaissance. This work continued unabated until Constantinople was captured by the Turks in 1453. In western Europe, when the Dark Ages that lasted from the fifth to at least the ninth century drew to a close, an incredible era of cathedral building was ushered in and continued unbroken from the late Middle Ages through the Renaissance. Even in Britain, which was seriously hampered by the Reformation in the mid-1500s, work on ecclesiastical buildings continued into the 1700s. During this period many hundreds of churches, cathedrals, castles and civic buildings were constructed. The Chartres Cathedral in France is a renowned example of ecclesiastical structures. It was the first in the Gothic style, built over a period of some forty years and completed during the 1230s. The York Minster probably is the best known example in England and is frequently and lovingly called “poetry in stone”. It was completed in 1474 after several distinct stages of work over a period of two and a half centuries.


Operative freemasons worked on religious structures and were immersed in religious activities for a period of more than five thousand years. This necessitated the freemasons having an intimate and detailed knowledge of the doctrines and tenets of the religions in respect of which they were carrying out the work, so that the religious beliefs could be reflected in the structures and especially in the details of their ornamentation. For example, the hieroglyphs that adorn the chambers of ancient Egyptian pyramids and tombs are replete with symbols that depict the search for and the conceived journey to a life hereafter. It was inevitable that the fundamental principles of speculative freemasonry should be moulded by such a long and close association with religion, with the result that the symbolism of freemasonry developed in parallel with the operative art. All extant records of the ceremonials in operative lodges confirm that symbols played a vital part in their teachings, providing a stimulus for the development of speculative contemplation. The incorporation of symbols into the rituals of purely speculative lodges was a natural extension of this long established practice. Indeed, the principles actuating those who formed the first purely speculative lodges made it an inescapable outcome, prompting them to describe freemasonry as “a peculiar system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols”, which aptly defines one of its central tenets.


The scope of masonic symbolism


With such a close and continuing association with all aspects of religious thought and practice down through the ages, it is inevitable that freemasonry should have encompassed all of the symbolism that derives from the ancient mysteries and the great religions of the world. This does not imply that every such symbol is used, nor that the usages are identical, but all important aspects of symbolism have been incorporated in the teachings and rituals of freemasonry. Specific aspects adopted and adapted from the ancient mysteries and religion include preparation in a personal sense, to establish an appropriate receptiveness for moral instruction. Parables are included in the rituals to provide ethical instruction. Exoteric stories are the foundation of the work in many of the rituals, often being woven around elaborate allegories as a basis for the communication of fundamental precepts. The esoteric interpretations of several of these allegories are concealed in a manner analogous to the pesher technique used in sacred writings of the early Christian era.


The first symbol encountered in freemasonry is preparation, as it was in the ancient mysteries. It combines mental disposition, meditation and symbolic purification, coupled with the wearing of appropriate apparel and accoutrements. Darkness is an essential precursor of light, which light is attained by trial through a symbolic journey. All of these aspects, including bathing in water, were involved when initiating an apprentice into a lodge of operative freemasons. However, in the traditional degrees of speculative freemasonry a purely symbolic form of ablution is used in only a few of the ceremonies. In operative freemasonry, bathing was the equivalent of baptism by immersion which was the final step in admission to the early Christian church, as it still is in some sects. Nowadays ablution in speculative freemasonry is akin to the modern form of baptism of sprinkling with water when clothed in white. A form of ritual ablution is carried out by Muslims before they enter a mosque for prayer and during their pilgrimage to Mecca they are clothed in white when perambulating round the Kaaba, the holy building into which the Black Stone is built. All important religions include some form of symbolic preparation, journey and acquisition of light, which is a procedure that has been regarded from time immemorial as a spiritual rebirth.


The various modes of recognition entrusted to candidates are symbols of importance, most of which are of origin from when trade secrets were “mysteries” and the knowledge of them had to be guarded jealously. A wide range of the freemason’s working tools, materials, gauges and methods are used symbolically to provide moral instruction which often, though not necessarily, refers to work on King Solomon’s temple. The temple is a pre-eminent symbol in freemasonry, signifying that house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. It is an emblem of a glorious futurity, as Ezekiel’s mystical temple was for the Israelites during their period of captivity in Babylon. Many aspects of the construction of the temple by King Solomon, its dedication about 950 BCE, its final destruction by Nebuchadnezzar in 587 BCE and the construction of the second temple by Zerubbabel between 537 BCE and 515 BCE after the return of the Israelites from their captivity, are incorporated in dramatic detail in parables that are the basis of the traditional degrees in freemasonry. Features of the temple, such as the two great pillars at the entrance, are also used as symbols. Many of the symbolic interpretations are sufficiently well known to have become a part of everyday usage, some early enough to have been recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures.


The mystical theme


Important mystical themes are hidden beneath the superficial moral themes of the more important allegories in freemasonry, which are in the nature of the medieval Passion Plays. One of the important allegories relates to a late stage in the construction of King Solomon’s Temple, when several of the workers feared that they would not be given the modes of recognition and therefore would not be able to obtain work after the completion of the temple. When the principal architect was accosted he remained true to his vows and was slain, so that substitute modes of recognition had to be used thereafter. The superficial story is that death is preferable to dishonour and that we must perform our allotted tasks whilst we can, believing that we will be a justly rewarded at the appropriate time. The esoteric message is that mortal death is only a gateway for the resurrection of the spirit to a life hereafter, which can be achieved by a steadfast faith in the Most High. The theme is continued in a dramatic allegory in another degree, when we are assured that the “Word” has been preserved from vandalism in a place of safety, which signifies esoterically that the “True Word” transcends mortal delinquency and can always be found through faith.


The foregoing allegories are connected by another allegory relating to a vital stage in the construction of King Solomon’s temple. In its various forms it relates either to the great cornerstone or to the keystone required to complete the arch of the secret vault. In the superficial story, a diligent and faithful craftsman prepares the beautiful piece of stonework required to complete the structure, but as it cannot be found on the plans it is rejected and the work comes to a standstill. When the missing stone is recovered, work continues and the skilful craftsman receives his just reward. The esoteric interpretation is that the acceptance or rejection of this life’s work is not within the province of mortal beings, because the gates of victory are only opened through the grace of that “Living Stone” which the builders rejected, but which became the chief cornerstone, as foretold in Isaiah 28:16 and confirmed in I Peter 2:6.


Another allegory relates to the period after the destruction of King Solomon’s temple, when the captives in Babylon are released by the Decree of Cyrus and return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple. In the ceremony of passing the veils three sojourners travel to Jerusalem and present their credentials to the Sanhedrin, seeking work on the new temple, but in most rituals the scripture readings refer to the Exodus from Egypt under Moses and the erection of the Tabernacle. The passing of the veils replicates a ceremonial carried out every seven weeks by the Therapeutae Essenes at Qumran, which exhorted obedience to the Covenant until the second coming of the Lord. The moral is revealed in a continuing allegory, when the sojourners are put to work to clear away the rubbish in preparation for the second temple. By their diligence the “Lost Word” is recovered, which teaches that everyone is equal in the sight of God and that even the lowest work will receive full and just reward if properly carried out. The esoteric lesson is that salvation can be found only through a complete faith in the “True Word”, which represents the present, future and eternal “I Am”.


Further Reading


There are several books of special value to those wishing to acquire a deeper understanding of the symbols and symbolism of speculative craft freemasonry. They include three esoteric but very readable books by George H. Steinmetz, Freemasonry - Its Hidden Meaning,also The Royal Arch - Its Hidden meaning and The Lost Word - Its Hidden Meaning. Two other very informative books about symbolism and its essential role in freemasonry are one by Colin Dyer entitled Symbolism in Craft Freemasonry and another by Harry Carr entitled The Freemason at Work. Finally, A New Encyclopædia of Freemasonry by Arthur Edward Waite deals extensively with the comparable instituted mysteries and their rites, literature and history.

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