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the winding stairs
by Bro. William Russell
The "Law of the House" (Ezekiel) The "Religion of the Mountain" (Dante)
So did both Prophet and Poet term the Eternal Ascent, the symbolism of which is incorporated in the Winding Stair.
The subject is one which, on the surface, is interesting only because of its Masonic symbolism and significance. Yet underneath the surface to the patient seeker for the Truth lies symbolism, which was old when the world was young.
As Masons and as Christians we tend to imagine that before the Israelites became worshippers of the One God - JHVH - Yes, and even after - all religions were idolatrous; that the Egyptians, the Sumerians (later the Babylonians), the Semitic races generally with their multitudinous gods and goddesses, were heathens, sunworshippers, moonworshippers, worshippers of the Elemental Forces of Nature with no understanding of the One Great Power. Nevertheless such was not entirely correct.
The world was young and mankind in his infancy. He thought and acted as a child. His conception of religion was within the limited capacity of his mind. His conception of the Supreme Power was therefore limited. He dimly recognised that there existed the One-Being - the Omniscient - the Omnipotent, who veiled Himself in the vast complexity of the Universe. What was His Name? He was everything and everywhere. They saw Him in the Sun as the Giver of Life and as the Moon giving Light in the midst of darkness. They heard His voice in the thunder; they felt His breath in the winds of Heaven, sometimes caressing, sometimes destroying. The sweet perfumes of the world were as His Breath in their nostrils and they tasted His Goodness in the foods which he provided for them. Was He not the Producer of All Things? Everywhere He was present and everywhere different.
They saw Him in many and varied guises. They called Him by many and varied names, describing the many aspects of the Supreme Power, which presented themselves to the five senses of man - the many facets of the God-head. And yet was He not the "One in All" - the "All in One".
While He was everywhere, nevertheless His Home - His Dwelling Place - was in the Heavens. if only they could approach nearer to God, their pleadings would have a better chance of success. On the heights of this world - on the High Places - would they build their altars. Far above the paltry things of this earthly existence would they approach their God.
Have we not heard of the building of the Tower of Babel? Hebrew tradition gives us the story of its building and how God punished His people
because of their presumption in attempting to build so vast and high a structure that - to quote the ancients - "they could hear the angels singing before the Throne of God". Yet on reflection does not a deeper meaning lie behind the surface? "Bab-ilu" means "Gate of God". While the ancient builders were undoubtedly seeking access to God's Dwelling Place, perhaps only their motives were in doubt.
This story of the Tower of Babel is founded on fact, the legend having been attached to the magnificent Step-Temple of Babylon. This particular Zikkurat or Step-Temple was one of many built on the plains of Shinar but was more elaborate, more grandiose in conception, more vast than the others, although all were built according to a plan or pattern in existence more than 2,000 years previous to the building of the famous Tower of Babel.
This Tower was the site of the famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, the steps of the Tower being covered with soil and therein were growing trees, shrubs, etc., giving the Zikkurat truly the appearance of a mountain and such it was called "The Mountain of God".
The theory of origin of such a type of building is that the Sumerians who preceded the Akkadians and Babylonians in the Tigris/Euphrates valley originally came from the hilly and mountainous country to the North - somewhere around the sources of the two rivers mentioned above, a part of the world which traditions offers as the site of the Garden of Eden. The new lands which they conquered - the plains of Shinar - were uniquely level, being without hills of any description and were also subject to periodic inundation from the waters of the two rivers. (The Babylonians, from whom the Hebrews may have taken the story, have a legend of the Deluge. It may be a racial memory of exceptional flooding.) Because of this regular flooding the Sumerians had to build on platforms and the Temple areas were a succession of platforms. They were also conscious of the lack of High Places - their Hill Shrines - and, as their worship demanded an elevated altar or shrine, they set about constructmg in the new land artificial High Places or Mountains, the nearest being the Zikkurat or Step-Temple.
All Zikkurats were similar in construction, consisting of a series of platforms, decreasing in size and placed one on top of the other until on the top- most platform sufficient area existed whereon a small temple or shrine was built. This shrine was the Holy of Holies and contained the symbol of their god, be it ark or statue.
An ascent or series of stairways was constructed to give access to the different platform levels. Along this winding way on solenm feast days - days of celebration - would move the procession of priests and servants bearing the Ark of their god in full view of the thousands of worshippers and carrying the offerings of the multitude to be dedicated to the service of the All-Mighty One who dwelt in the darkness of the shrine on the peak of the artificial mountain.
I shall return to the details of construction of a Zikkurat later, only so far as these have a bearing on our subject.
I would suggest that basically the service at King Solomon's Temple did not differ greatly. At Jerusalem the various courts, which we know to have been on different levels, served the same purpose and had the same basic symbolical meaning as the various platforms of the step-temple. The theme of the Temple ritual was always the same. Only by ascent from the world below could an approach be made to the Most High.
As an interesting point you will fmd some of the Hebrew Psalms marked as 'Songs of the Ascent". In all probability they were sung and chanted as the procession of priests and pilgrims climbed the route to the Temple.
But where, you may ask, does the Winding Stair come into the picture? Where is the connection between the three, five and seven steps and the step-temple or Hebrew Temple?
Let me make it quite clear to you at this point that the winding stair mentioned in the Bible in connection with King Solomon's Temple had no symbolical meaning whatever to the Israelites. It was of no religious significance. Otherwise the historian who has given to the world the details of the Temple construction would have devoted more space to it in his works. You will find only one mention of it, namely, that it served to connect the three levels of side chambers or rooms which were built around and attached to the Temple itself. These were probably storage rooms, etc., for Temple property.
A simple statement for a simple fact. Nor is there any indication of this stairway being divided into three sections of three, five and seven steps. Masonry, however, has adopted this winding stairway and grafted on to it the age-old symbolism of ascent and numbers and now to attempt to shed some light on these particular points - the Winding Stair of Three, Five and Seven Steps leading up to the Sanctuary of Truth.
Firstly, let us consider the significance of "Winding", keeping in mind the basic themes of ascent or climbing. The winding movement of ascent should take the form of a clockwise spiral, thus simulating the apparent movement of the sun from its winter solstice to the summer solstice, when in its daily travel it appears higher and higher in the heavens as each day passes and gives the impression of climbing up into the heavens in an ascending spiral. This apparent motion was termed by the ancient astronomers "The Great Spiral".
To turn or circle other than to the right would be contrary to the direc- tion of travel of the sun and was considered to be dangerous and evil. (Withershins - contrary movement - consider various superstitions attached thereto.)
Masonic Ritual with that age-old symbolism or superstition in mind demands that the Masonic course of the candidate be clockwise and ascend- ing (ascend Stair - ascend to East).
The importance of clockwise travel and the contrary movement "withershins" is vividly illustrated in the incident of Hiram Abriff. Recollect his meeting with the first ruffian at the S. Gate, then the second at the E. Gate, followed by the Final and Fatal Meeting at the N. Gate, the North at all times being the place of Darkness. His movement S - E - N was definitely contrary and had the inevitable evil result.
The second important matter in dealing with the Winding Stair is the number symbolism therein.
The Stair is made up of three Divisions, these being respectively made up of three, five and seven steps.
Taking a simple viewpoint, the importance to the ancient peoples of three, five and seven can readily be understood, when you consider that, excluding ONE, they are the first three odd numbers and are indivisible except by ONE.
Odd numbers had to the ancient peoples more significance than even numbers and three being the first of the odd numbers was especially important. Odd numbers were considered male, and even female, so that One, the single and indivisible except by itself, when the result would be itself, united with the female number two, yielded three, or the Trinity.
The implications of the number three were many and symbolised all the aspects of the Trinity with many variations and so down the countless ages the number THREE has meant many things to many men and nations.
Even in this so-called civilised age traces of the old number superstition regarding three are evident in all classes of society - in business, in law, etc., e.g. the third light, third and final notice, calling marriage banns three times, etc. With a little thought innumerable instances are available of the continued superstition regarding THREE all through the ages.
FIVE is composed of the first prime number three and the first even number two, and while not apparently having the same magical significance of the number three, nevertheless it had its symbolism. Being the result of the union of the male No.3 and the female No.2, it represented marriage according to the Pythagorean number philosophy. We also have the five known planets of that age and no doubt the existence of the five human senses gave it a greater significance.
An through the ages in mystical writings do we come across the number seven: seven golden candlesticks, seven deadly sins, seven cardinal virtues, seven days of the week, seven this, seven that, seventh Sabbatical Year, seven days of creation, and so on.
To return to the Three Division - Pythagoras in 500 B.C. saw in numbers the principle of all things. His philosophy developed and in speculating on the first three numbers - the Monad, the Duad and the Triad - he considered these to be:- (1)Male - Creative Principle (2)Female - Matter capable of form (3)Union of (1) and (2) signifying the world formed by creative principle out of matter. You are familiar with this in these words of MacBride Ritual:- Mind - the Power that works in and through all matter. Matter - through which and by which mind expresses itself. Form the expression of mind on matter.
The Pilgrim's ascent then finished in the Middle Chamber or Holy of Holies where was the Presence of God and at His Mercy Seat he received his wages or the reward for his labours.
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Last modified: March 22, 2014