May 19, 2014
Symbolism in Masonry
Symbolism in Masonry
By Eugene Goldman, past Master
Masonry is a beautiful system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols. Have you heard that before?
What is a symbol?
From the dictionary:
Main Entry: 1sym·bol
Etymology: in sense 1, from Late Latin symbolum, from Late Greek symbolon, from Greek, token, sign; in other senses from Latin symbolum token, sign, symbol, from Greek symbolon, literally, token of identity verified by comparing its other half, from symballein to throw together, compare, from syn- + ballein to throw.
Date: 15th century
1: an authoritative summary of faith or doctrine: CREED
2: something that stands for or suggests something else by reason of relationship, association, convention, or accidental resemblance; especially: a visible sign of something invisible <the lion is a symbol of courage>
3: an arbitrary or conventional sign used in writing or printing relating to a particular field to represent operations, quantities, elements, relations, or qualities
4: an object or act representing something in the unconscious mind that has been repressed <phallic symbols>
5: an act, sound, or object having cultural significance and the capacity to excite or objectify a response
Within the context of Masonry, definitions 2 and 5 are most applicable. A symbol is something that we can all see, hear, feel or otherwise sense that serves to remind us of something more personal within ourselves, and about which we may have stronger feelings.
The symbols in Masonry represent the morality, the ethics, and the values we (as Masons and as individuals) hold dear. They remind us to observe and practice them. They remind us to keep them important in our lives. More than that, the symbols inspire us to reach new heights, strike out in new directions and set new goals. All in a Masonic – that is MORAL – context.
There are many ways to consider an object. Two of the most used in Masonry are literally and symbolically.
Let me take the Letter “G” as an example. In one of our lectures, we pay respects to the letter in the East. A literal consideration would be that we are respecting the letter, or the physical object mounted on the wall. This, of course, is nonsense. The seventh letter of the English alphabet is not deserving of our particular notice, as a letter.
However, a *symbolic* consideration (and the one that actually describes what happens in the Masonry that exists in the real world) is that we are paying respect to what that letter *represents* – Our Divine Creator. This respect, we pay *through* the symbol. Everyone is able to agree that the letter *represents* Him, even (particularly?) when we do not agree on what He looks like, what Name He is best known by, or how best to worship Him. Because we use a symbol, instead of a literal, we do not have to agree on the details.
Similarly, when considering the many references to His Holy Word in our ritual, we use them symbolically (in most cases), not literally. Yes, there are some *historical* references, and those, I submit, are literal. The ones about King Solomon’s Temple, in particular. However, the rest are strictly symbolic. Equally applicable to Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Wiccan, Buddhist and anyone I have inadvertently omitted. For example, those references to the individual’s own Holy Writings. In that same manner, references to anything in our laws, rules and regulations are necessarily literal,, uniform and specific.
There is a sharp and noticeable distinction, an obvious point of demarcation, between what is fact and what is fiction in our ritual. Throughout our Degrees, certain terms are used. When someone says, “Sacred History teaches us”, or “The great Jewish Historian Josephus informs us” or a similar term, the lecturer is about to refer to an item of historical or religious fact. What he is about to describe is the way it was, or what happened.
But whenever he says “Masonic Tradition informs us”, you can bet that what you are about to hear is an allegory, a fable, completely fictional. It is a symbolic teaching and not a historical lesson.
An illustration of this would be that it would make no difference in what we teach if the letter “G” was replaced with “A” for Architect, “D” for Deity (as done in some jurisdictions), or (as is most common outside the USA) there were no letter within the Square and Compass at all, and we simply symbolized our devotion to The Most High by the representation of His Holy Word atop the altar. The lesson would not change. However, our law is very clear. The letter “G” cannot be replaced with an “A”, nor with a “D”, an “H”, a “J” nor a “K”. It cannot be removed. It cannot be lower case.
Fortunately, because ritual does not affect law, and law does not affect ritual, the possible contradictions that might arise from this do not occur. Our ritual is what it is, and exists to instruct our minds and inspire our spirits. Our law is what it is, and exists to bind our behavior and regulate our actions.
It would make no difference to the fabric of our nation if it turned out that George Washington’s dad never owned a Cheery Tree. The allegory would hold, even if it were based in fiction.
Similarly, it would make no difference to Masonry if Hyram Abiff were not in fact slain, but lived to complete the Temple, got a performance bonus from Solomon, retired on a nice pension and spent his twilight years touring the world in his motor home. The lessons taught would be no less valid. We would be no less Masonic.
In fact, it is most likely that the legend of the Third Degree is fiction. Scripture does not record a murder during the building of the Temple. Such an act would almost have to have been recorded, particularly the murder of one in so important a position as “Architect of the Work”. Even if a murder had been committed and somehow gone unrecorded, the body would not – COULD not – have been reduced to ashes. Cremation did not exist, and Jewish law specifically forbids it anyway. Nor could the body have been buried “near the Sanctum Sanctorum”. Jewish law required that cadavers be buried without the gates of the city, and the Temple was Hallowed Ground.
The point here is that it doesn’t matter if the Legend is based on fact or fiction. It is allegory. It’s basis doesn’t affect it’s validity in our Craft.
A symbol, when properly used, has greater value when it’s exact definition is personal, individually-determined, and most meaningful to the one considering it. Like words (which are in themselves symbols), symbols mean different things to different individuals, in different contexts. Where there is general agreement, there is also communication. Ideas, particularly moral and ethical ones, can be communicated much more effectively, in my experience, when they are symbolically represented.
Masonry uses symbols – of that there is no question.
What do we *DO* with them? Besides “illustrate moral and ethical principles”, I mean.
I am coming to understand that Masonry does define the symbols it uses (most of them, anyway). But the definitions are only in the most general terms. The Plumb signifies that we should ever remember to walk uprightly. The VoSL that we should always look to our Divine Creator, and His Teachings (as given to us in His Holy Word) for guidance and support in all our undertakings. The beehive that we should be industrious, and so on.
Nowhere that I can find, in any of the symbols or teachings in Masonry, is there more than the most general definition. What does it mean to “walk uprightly”? Which Holy Book should we use to learn about, what Name should we use to refer to The Great Architect? What form should our industry take?
All these, and other, questions are left for the individual to determine for himself, in the context of his life, as he finds best.
There are no instructions and no judgments.
Does patriotism mean voting for or against this issue? Is it my duty as a neighbor to advise the folks next door that their back-yard target practice is bothering the neighbors, or is it my duty to call the cops and have them restore the peace and good order of the neighborhood? Does Brotherly Love mean that I should loan my friend the money, or is it better to help him find a job? Should I draw a card or stand pat?
Masonry stands mute on all these, and similar issues. All Masonry does, really, is remind us that we are to find ways of causing true friendships to exist among those who might otherwise have remained at a perpetual distance. Masonry encourages us to practice Brotherly Love, Relief, Truth, Faith, Hope, Charity, Respect, Temperance, Fortitude, Prudence and Justice. It does this, largely, by presenting us with symbols, inspirational reminders, of these ideas.
However, HOW we are to do those things are left up to us. How we will interpret the symbols is our decision. What actions we will undertake, or not, is left to our own election.
Consider the rainbow.
Everyone sees something different when looking at a rainbow
- A physicist sees a practical demonstration of the refraction of light across the visible spectrum.
- An Old Testament scholar sees a reminder of the covenant G-d made with Noah.
- A New Testament scholar sees a reminder of the fulfillment of the promise of a Deliverer.
- A child sees pretty colors.
- A storyteller sees a leprechaun protecting his pot of gold.
- An artist sees brilliant hues and gorgeous transitions.
- A meteorologist sees the end of a long rain.
All of them are looking at the same rainbow. It is objectively measurable. Everyone sees the same thing. We all agree what we are seeing, hearing, etc. We agree on the shape, color, size, location and so on. The rainbow as an object does not vary. The interpretations men make of it, when seeing it as a symbol, however, will.
Masonry shows us rainbows, and asks us to consider what they mean, what we see in them. Different people will see different things in the same rainbow.
A red light will mean different things in different contexts to different people.
- A photographer see it as a signal that a developments process is under way.
- An actor sees it as an indication which camera is currently on.
- A cop sees it as a means of traffic control.
- A machine operator sees it as a signal that power is on.
- A vice cop sees it as an indication that prostitution is happening.
- A kid sees it as a sign that a holiday is approaching.
It would be kind of silly for a traffic cop to write a ticket for someone who drives past a brothel without stopping. But that is exactly what happens when someone tries to impose *their* interpretations on
Having said that, it IS important to remember that the *law* (as distinct from the meanings of the symbols) is clear that when someone operates a motor vehicle, he agrees to abide by the rules. Among those rules is one about stopping at intersections where a red light is displayed. Failure to stop may mean being cited for an offense, or even that physical harm may come to someone. These would not be good things – so we drivers enter into a social contract to abide by the rule, or suffer the penalties.
But abiding by a rule, and agreeing with an interpretation of a symbol are COMPLETELY separate matters. No contradictions, no interaction.
A red light means whatever it means to the individual. The law requires that we stop under certain conditions. Neither has any effect on the other. Neither subordinates it’s importance to the
other. Separate and distinct.
THE NUMBER THREE
The number Three is one of the most important numbers in Masonic symbolism.
I would like to address just one (for now) aspect of it’s meaning.
In the lecture of the Second Degree, we say that Masonry is divided into Two sections – Operative and Speculative. I would submit that in adopting a symbolic approach to teaching, and the inclusion of so many symbols into our Craft, it is really Three parts (like the 24” gauge). Operative, Speculative and Applied.
The Operative Masonry provides us with our history (real or symbolic), the Speculative gives us the impetus to discover and develop our own interpretations of the symbols, and the Applied pushes us forward, out into the real world, to make our contributions to it. We make those contributions not only out of our G-d given talents, but out of the added value of our Masonry – Veiled in Allegory and Illustrated by Symbols.
The Blind Men and the Elephant
A fable that owes much to the Jataka tale “The RedBud Tree,” this is a nineteenth-century verse that presents the same moral. [From John Godfrey Saxe, “Poems” (Boston, 1852).]
It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.
The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”
The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, “Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!
The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a snake!”
The Fourth reached out his eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” quoth he;
“Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!”
The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear
Said, “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!
The sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Than, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong.
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong.