The Masonic Trowel

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by  C. Bruce Hunter
From an English publication, The Square - March 1998

The beehive, though a significant symbol of the Craft, lies outside the mainstream of Masonic icons. The beehive is a rather curious symbol, and it has always posed a problem for the Craft. The problem does not lie in what the beehive symbolizes, industry and cooperation, two perfectly good Masonic virtues. The thing setting the beehive apart is its variance with the main categories of Craft symbology. The first of these categories is a group of architectural objects: the square, compasses, level, etc. They come from the age of Gothic cathedrals and illustrate manís place in the universe by the working tools of operative masons. The other is a group of Biblical symbols: Jacobís Ladder, King Solomonís Temple, etc. They tap more directly into the worldís spiritual heritage and bring the fruits of ancient wisdom to the Craft.

Curiously, the beehive does not fit either category. Although it promotes cooperative labor, it is not really an architectural symbol; and while the Bible occasionally mentions milk and honey, that scarcely qualifies the beehive as a Biblical symbol. This places it among a small group of Masonic icons that lie outside the mainstream. So where did this peculiar item originate, and what does it have to do with Freemasonry? The answer may lie in an obscure piece of church symbology: the beehive has long been associated with St. Bernard of Clairvaux, representing the sweet eloquence for which he was justly famous.

At first glance, St. Bernard seems far removed from the modern Masonic Lodge, but they are connected, albeit by a tenuous thread, and that thread extends all the way back to the early years of the Crusades.

Shortly after the start of the twelfth century, a French knight named Hugh de Payens approached Bernard, then serving as Abbot of Clairvaux, France, for help in promoting an order of knights he had just organized. The project grew from de Payensís grand vision of leading an armed force to patrol the road from Joppa to Jerusalem.

In those days, many pilgrims made a heroic effort traveling to the Holy Land, only to die of thirst or fall prey to bandits on the last 50 kilometers of the journey. Hugh de Payens saw the need for protection on that final, short leg of the pilgrimage, but he had only a handful of followers and no financial resources. To make his plan work, he needed official recognition from the church, money for munitions and supplies, and new recruits. To secure all these, he needed help from high places.

Thatís where Abbot Bernard came in. When the issue was presented to him, he welcomed its challenge. He had always longed to be a crusading knight and might have been, had it not been for his chronically poor health. While that aspiration still eluded him, as one of the most influential men in the church, he could now have the vicarious pleasure of sponsoring a band of knights. So he gave de Payens his complete support, using his eloquence to its fullest in arguing the knightís case to the church hierarchy. They naturally gave weight to Bernardís words. The cause that he brought to their attention was certainly a righteous one, and his eloquent presentation spurred them to act quickly.

The new Order, now universally known as the Knights Templar, became one of the most famous organizations in the world. It held sway in both church and military circles for nearly 200 years. Even now, centuries after its demise, it remains a centerpiece in the romance of the Crusades.

The details of the Templarsí story, their heroism, and piety, later tainted by pride and corruption; their glorious rise and tragic fall; and the epic struggles that spanned their careeródramatically combine the best and worst of the human condition. Vignettes of Templar history depict virtues to which everyone can aspire and lessons everyone should heed.

The Templar heritage has been claimed by more than one fraternity. However, none of that would have happened if they had not got off to a good start. Surely it is no coincidence that the beehive, the emblem of Bernardís eloquence, the very key to the Templarsí initial success, entered the symbology of the Masonic Fraternity that, centuries later, would claim descent from the Order.

Of course this is far from proof that Freemasonry descended from the Templars. At most it shows that some long-forgotten Mason introduced the symbol to commemorate a legendary connection, which he himself might not have thought historically sound. But as the beehive is neither architectural nor Biblical, we must look elsewhere for the basis of its association with the Craft. In that regard, its subtle connection with St. Bernard provides a satisfying answer. It explains why the beehive belongs among the Fraternityís symbols. And his connection with the Templars shows what this curious symbol has to do with virtues that Masons have always held dear.

Illustrious Ralph A. Herbold, 33į, member of the Valley of Long Beach, California, and Editor of the Southern California Research Lodge F.&A.M., appended the following note to Brother Hunterís essay: In an interesting addition to the above article, there is a Degree within the Holy Royal Arch Knight Templar Priests known as the Master of the Blue or Knight of Solomon. The main symbol of this Degree is the beehive, and it contains a legend woven around the Queen of Sheba, King Solomon, and a beehive. The fact that it is a chivalric Degree is, in my opinion, significant.

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