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On Symbols and Allegory
Richard h. sands
As we learned in Chapter I, symbolism and allegory pervade all of society. Freemasonry makes abundant use of symbols and allegory to teach its lessons, because in this way it speaks to each person according to his own individual experience. For this reason, the interpretations given to some of the symbols and allegories discussed here represent the author’s opinions – they may not agree with yours in every case, although for the purpose of this book they have been chosen to represent a common view held by the majority of Brothers. If this statement appears strange to you, let us remind you that the origins of Freemasonry are lost in antiquity, and we do not have a book that tells us “this symbol means this, and that allegorical story means that.” We are left to speculate about their meanings and to share our ideas with others of our Brothers.
One of the greatest books on Masonic Symbolism is that by Oliver Day Street entitled Symbolism of the Three Degrees, George H. Doran Company, New York 1924. It is long out of print; however, it can be found in many Masonic libraries including that of the Grand Lodge of Michigan in Grand Rapids. On p. 17 of that book, Brother Street states:
“Approaching that branch of symbolism which at present concerns us, Masonic Symbolism, it may be asserted in the broadest terms that the Mason who knows nothing of our symbolism knows little of Freemasonry. He may be able to repeat every line of the Ritual without an error, and yet, if he does not understand the meaning of the ceremonies, the signs, the words, the emblems and the figures, he is an ignoramus Masonically. It is distressing to witness how much time and labor is spent in memorizing “the work”; and how little in ascertaining what it all means.”
The great Mason and Scholar, Brother Albert Pike, said:
“The symbolism of Masonry is the soul of Masonry. Every symbol of a lodge is a religious teacher, the mute teacher also of morals and philosophy. It is in its ancient symbols and in the knowledge of their true meanings that the preeminence of Freemasonry over all other orders consists. In other respects, some of them may compete with it, rival it, perhaps even excel it; but by its symbols it will reign without a peer when it learns again what its symbols mean, and that each is the embodiment of some great, old, rare truth.”
In the pages that follow we will take three symbols, one from each of the three degrees, and explore its meaning in the hopes that this study will induce you to delve more deeply into other symbols and their meanings.
The Point Within the Circle
From the first degree comes one of the most complex and meaningful of all of the Masonic symbols, that of the point within the circle. This is presented in the Entered Apprentice lecture as follows:
“In ancient times Lodges were dedicated to King Solomon, because it is said that he was our first Most Excellent Grand Master or he was the founder of our present system, but in modern times they are dedicated to Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist, who were eminent patrons of Masonry, and since their time there is represented in every regular and well governed Lodge a certain point within a circle. The point representing an individual brother, the circle representing the boundary line of his duty to God and man, beyond which he is never to suffer his passions, prejudices or interests to betray him on any occasion. This circle is embordered by two perpendicular parallel lines, representing St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist, who were perfect parallels in Christianity as well as Masonry, and upon the vertex rests the Book of Holy Scriptures, which points out the whole duty of man. In going around this circle, we necessarily touch upon these two lines as well as upon the Holy Scriptures, and while a Mason keeps himself thus circumscribed, it is impossible that he should materially err.”
Let us begin our discussion of this symbol with a discussion of the two Saints John. Why were they singled out for this honor above all of the other great men, such as Kings and Presidents, who were members of our Craft? We do not even know if they were members of our Fraternity – most assuredly they were not! Why then were they chosen as Patrons of Freemasonry? Because Freemasonry recognizes the internal and not the external qualifications of a man!
“No worldly honors are recognized within our Lodge rooms. The King of England, the President of the United States, when he enters a lodge is simply “Brother.” He is there accorded no mark of distinction to which every other Master Mason is not entitled. Who enters a Masonic lodge leaves his titles, his wealth, his worldly honors, at the door.”
“How else can we explain how a man who wore a raiment of camel’s hair and whose food was locusts and wild honey, and this man who was noted for his excessive modesty and avoidance of all display, these men who never engaged in any of the pomp and glory of the world, have been honored by Masons above all others?”
The Saints John possessed few of the external qualifications which attract the thoughtless crowd. They possessed all those internal elements that make for the true man. Beyond all others, the principles of our Fraternity shone forth in their characters and daily lives, and for it Masonry has honored them above all others.
In discussing the point within the circle, let us begin by pointing out its importance to the operative mason. He needs the point which is the very center of the circle in order to test his square. He does this by first drawing a diameter of the circle and then connecting the ends of that diameter to any point on the circumference as shown below:
In this manner, the angle between these last two lines is a perfect right angle from which he can test his square. One cannot imagine a more important element for an operative mason than the ability to test his square. For that he needed the point in the center of the circle in order to draw a diameter, so we see the importance of one point within the circle.
We know from our ritual that the compasses as a symbol reminds us that there are certain bounds in our relationships with our fellowman that we should not cross – you are the point within the circle, and the circle represents those bounds. When those bounds are determined by the characteristics of the two parallels in Freemasonry and the guidance received from the Holy Scriptures, they will be particularly appropriate.
It is interesting to trace the historical evolution of this figure. The point within the circle is found in the early exposures of Masonry, but it is not until late in the eighteenth century that the full symbol is found. The two parallel lines represented the times before the Union, the two Great Parallels of Masonry, the two Saints John, the Baptist and the Evangelist. These were the Patron Saints or protectors of Masons and the half-yearly festivals were held on their two commemoration days, 24 June and 27 December, conveniently six months apart and at which period the installation meetings were traditionally held. William Preston picks up this point in his lectures and says:
“These two parallels in modern time were applied to exemplify the two St. Johns as Patrons of the Order, whose festivities are celebrated near the solstices or the time when the sun in its zodiacal career touches these two parallels.”
This is further amplified in one of the syllabus books of William Preston’s lectures belonging to Rev. L.D.H. Cockburne who was Grand Chaplain in 1817 to 1826 and a member of the Lodge of Antiquity, Preston’s Lodge from 1819 to 1822. Inscribed in the book is a short draft of a section of a lecture dealing with the dedication of the Temple, and part of it reads:
“How is this designated in Lodges?
By a point within a circle with two parallel pillars described as tangents to that circle.”
As representing the Centre of the Universe, the Divine Architect, whose goodness we represent in the sun and for the benefits we derive from this great luminary.”
“What does the circle represent?The Zodiac is here represented as the prescribed motion of the Sun’s system to mark the limited nature of the most wonderful creatures we behold.”
“What do the parallels represent?The tropics, to remind us of the Superior being who has set bounds to all creatures and prescribed the limits of planetary systems.”
Webb, the American who introduced many of Preston’s ideas to Masons in the 1790s and after, saw the point as an individual brother and the circle as representing the boundary line of his duty to God and man. John Fellows, who quotes Webb in his The Mysteries of Freemasonry (1871), speaking for himself says:
“The point in the centre represents the Supreme Being; the circle indicates the annual circuit of the sun; and the parallel lines mark out the solstices within which that circuit is limited. The mason, by subjecting himself to due bounds, in imitation of that glorious luminary, will not wander from the path of duty.”
Notice that all seem to agree on the important lesson of constraint which is found in this symbol; however, they differ in the detailed interpretations. It is useful to go to John Browne’s Master Key of 1802, because in 1816 when Freemasonry was made non-denominational, the Grand Master of the day, the Duke of Sussex, decreed that the lectures should be based upon the old lecture system such as that found in Browne’s Master Key. In this Key there is a series of questions and answers leading up to the point within a circle:
“Our Lodge being ornamented, furnished and jeweled, to whom do we generally dedicate it?
To King Solomon.”
“Why to King Solomon?Because he was the first Grand Master who brought Masonry into due form and under whose royal patronage many of our mysteries received their first sanction.”
“As King Solomon was a Hebrew long before the Christian era, to whom do we now dedicate our Lodge?
To Saint John the Baptist.”
“Why to Saint John the Baptist?He was the harbinger or forerunner of our Savior, who preached repentance in the wilderness and drew the first line of the Gospel through Christ.”
“Had he any equal?
He had; Saint John the Evangelist.”
“Wherein was he his equal?He, coming after the former, finished by his zeal what the other began by his learning and drew a line parallel.”
“What is the first point in Masonry?
Left knee bare and bent.”
“Wherein is that the first point?In a kneeling posture I was first taught to adore my Creator and on my left knee bare and bent I was initiated into Masonry.”
“There is a chief point.
To make each other happy and to communicate that happiness to others.”
“There is a principal point.A point within a circle, in going round which it is said the Master and Brethren cannot materially err.
“Explain that point within a circle.
In all regular, well-formed Free-masons’ Lodges, there is a point within a circle, in going round which, it is said the Master and Brethren cannot materially err. The circle is bounded on the North and South by two perpendicular parallel lines, that on the North is said to represent Saint John the Baptist, and that on the South, Saint John the Evangelist. On the upper points of these lines and on the periphery of the circle, rests the Holy Bible, supporting Jacob’s Ladder, which it is said reaches to the watery clouds of Heaven. It also contains the dictates of an Unerring, Omnipotent and All-wise Being, so that while we are as conversant therein, and obedient thereto, as either of the Saint Johns were, it will bring us to Him that will neither deceive nor be deceived by us. Therefore by keeping ourselves so circumscribed, it is impossible we can materially err.”
This latter work presumably is a fair statement of much on which our masonry was founded many years ago. Arising as it did in a Christian country, its religious basis, which come through so strongly in this extract, was in the Christian faith. When, about 1816, Freemasonry was made non-denominational, an attempt was made to alter all the specifically Christian references and this particular passage was considerably altered. The two Grand Parallels became Moses and King Solomon and the whole passage was shortened as a result. If you journey to Canada or Great Britain, you will hear that their Lodges are dedicated to Moses and King Solomon. This is just one example of how their ritual was changed from the original. When our Lodges go to Canada or England to portray our ritual, the Lodge members are delighted because they then see their ritual as it was in the beginning before the changes.
Corn, Wine and Oil
From the lecture in the Fellowcraft degree we find the following:
“You have now arrived at a place representing the Middle Chamber where you are received and recorded as a Fellowcraft and are now entitled to your wages as such, which are the corn of nourishment, the wine of refreshment and the oil of joy, which denote plenty, happiness and peace.”
The wages of a Fellowcraft were Corn, Wine and Oil. This is literally true for our ancient operative brethren, as our old documents abundantly prove. This is not surprising when you stop to think that these items could be kept for long periods of time without deterioration, and if you had them, you and your family would not starve and could even barter these for other needs. It is interesting to note that corn, wine and oil were sent by King Solomon to Hiram, King of Tyre, in payment for the supplies sent for the building of the Temple at Jerusalem. (See II Chronicles, Chapter 2).
Corn was used to mean any of the grains including salt. (That is how “corned beef” got its name – it is cured in salt). From the Bible we learn that the term “ears of corn” in the Book of Ruth refers to barley; when Ruth gleaned “ears of Corn”(Ruth 2:2) and the result of her day’s gleaning was about an ephah (eight gallons) of barley (Ruth 2:17); again in John 12:24, “Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.” Thus corn was used to refer to wheat. In Genesis 27:28 we read, “Therefore God give thee of the dew of heaven and the fatness of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine.” Deuteronomy 12:17 “…The tithe of thy corn, of thy wine and of thine oil.” II Chronicles 32:28 “…Storehouses for corn, wine, and oil.”
In ancient times, the juice of the grape was placed in jars and left to ferment, in the process of which the sediment sank to the bottom. If this sediment were left in the wine its gases, liberated in the process of decay, would rise through the wine and spoil its flavor. Therefore, it was necessary to pour the wine into another vessel to separate it from the sediment. This process was repeated from time to time until the wine was pure and had no more sediment to be precipitated. The process, however, was a delicate one, requiring great skill to prevent stirring up the sediment and sending its foul gases into the wine. Therefore, professional pourers used to go from house to house to do this work. If the wine was not poured off it was said “to settle on its lees.” The wine that was poured off and made thus pure, kept for a long time.
With this as an explanation we can understand the symbolism spoken by the prophet Jeremiah in Jeremiah 48:11-13: “Moab hath been at ease from his youth, and he hath settled on his lees, and hath not been emptied from vessel to vessel, neither hath he gone into captivity; therefore his taste remaineth in him, and his scent is not changed. Therefore, behold, the days come, saith Jehovah, that I will send unto him them that pour off and they shall pour him off and they shall empty his vessels and break their bottles in pieces. And Moab shall be ashamed of Chemosh as the house of Israel was ashamed of Bethel, their confidence.”
To understand the latter figure of speech we must remember that Bethel was the place where Jacob had his vision of a ladder ascending from earth to heaven. It was in this place that he had his first personal contact with Jehovah and accepted him as his own God. But it was a poor acceptance and he had as yet received very little spiritual light; however, as time went on, more light and even further light were in store for Jacob until his name was changed from Jacob, the supplanter, to Israel, the one who had strength with God. He became ashamed of the poor religious faith of Bethel as he passed on to richer experiences.
Let us now return to the words of the prophet. The same spiritual germ was in both Moab and Israel, but while the religious life of Israel had developed from Bethel to Mount Zion, Moab had never outgrown the form of worship which Chemosh inspired. It had in fact become more debased. Moab was far behind Israel in character development and in spiritual life. Thus in the development of character, men who did not cast off their evil tendencies were said to have “settled on their lees.”
Wine came to symbolize not only refreshment, but also restoration of spiritual vigor and liveliness.
Finally, oil was refined in much the same way as wine – often in the same vats. It was pressed from the olives, and poured off from the sediments. Oil was used for many purposes; for example, as a cosmetic, a medicine, a light-giver, a food, etc. All of these uses have a general significance which may be summarized as pleasure, joy and gladness.
The Bible again gives us the symbolism of oil as a symbol of joy; for example, Psalms 23:5, “Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.” Or Psalms 45:7, “Thou lovest righteousness and hateth wickedness, therefore God, thy God, hath anointed thee with the oil of joy above thy fellows.”
Primitive people made a fine distinction in comparing the symbolism of corn and wine with that of oil. In eating the corn and drinking the wine they were apt to confound the symbol with the essence and think they had partaken of the very body and blood of their God; but oil was usually applied externally and was considered as the vehicle used by the divine spirit or as the bridge over which he passed into the person or thing anointed.
From the remotest of time when the memory of man runneth not to the contrary, the spica, or ear of corn, has symbolized plenty; wine has symbolized health; and oil has symbolized peace.
The faithful Fellowcraft was then and is now, therefore, assured that his wages, his reward, shall be plenty, not mere sufficiency but plentitude to supply all his physical, moral and spiritual wants; health of body, mind and soul; peace in this life, in the hour of death and in the life to come.
The 47th Problem of Euclid
From the lecture in our third degree we find the following:
“The 47th Problem of Euclid was an invention of our ancient friend and brother, the great Pythagoras, who in his travels through Asia, Africa, and Europe, was initiated into several orders of priesthood, and raised to the sublime degree of a Master Mason.’
“This wise philosopher enriched his mind abundantly in a general knowledge of things, and more especially in geometry or Masonry. On this subject he drew out many problems and theorems, and among the most distinguished he erected this, which in the joy of his heart he called Eureka, signifying in the Greek language, I have found it, and upon the discovery of which he is said to have sacrificed a hecatomb, which was a hundred head of oxen. It teaches Masons to be general lovers of the arts and sciences.”
There are many legendary accounts of Pythagoras, but little is positively known. Most of the accounts we have were written centuries after his death and are not to be relied upon as historically accurate. He is said to have traveled extensively through Asia, Africa and Europe. He was a Greek, born in Samos about 575 B.C. and removed his residence to Crotona in southern Italy about 529 B.C., where there were several Greek colonies. He is said to have left home because of his opposition to the political party in power there at the time, of which the leader was the tyrant Polycrates. At his new residence he founded a school of philosophy in which he taught the principles of politics, religion, and ethics. His main purpose was to teach the principles of the ideal state, and he therefore emphasized the political virtues. He told his followers that they should always act for the good of the state, and that their own interests should be sacrificed for the good of the whole community. To accomplish this purpose they must learn to subdue their passions and improve themselves in the moral virtues. (Sound familiar?) The harmony of mathematics was to him a symbol of the harmony of the soul which they were to strive to attain. He taught respect for the authority of the state and his brotherhood was a training school for citizenship. His ideals were put to the test of practical living, for no theory was of value unless it bore fruit in action and enabled its adherents to become better men and citizens. His followers were to strive to build themselves into a perfect character and as a means to that end, they were to cultivate the virtues of friendship, morality and brotherly love. Thus we see from the close similarity between his society and Freemasonry why he is called “our ancient friend and brother.”
His followers formed themselves into a community in which they lived together as one family, eating at a common table and wearing the same kind of clothes. They studied the seven liberal arts and sciences, particularly mathematics, and applied themselves to the craft trades. The study of geometry led them to ponder upon the uniformity and regularity of the universe, which in turn led to the conception of a Great First Cause. Members of this society had to pass through a ceremony of initiation in which they were taught “first to hear, then to know.” It was probably a form of the great popular religious revival which took place in Greece at this time.
Pythagoras himself left no writings, and we know of his teachings only through the writings of his followers. The statement that he was the inventor of the 47th problem of Euclid has been denied by many students of the subject. It has been claimed that this proposition was known to the Egyptians long before the time of Pythagoras, and that he learned it from them and carried it to Europe and Asia. We have no proof either way. Vitruvius, a celebrated Roman architect of the time of Augustus Caesar, attributes the discovery of this proposition to Pythagoras. Plutarch quotes Apollodorus, a Greek painter of the fifth century B.C. as authority for the statement that Pythagorus sacrificed an ox on the discovery of this demonstration, but asserts that his proof was different from that given by Euclid. In fact, so many writers, both ancient and modern, have attributed this proposition to Pythagoras that it is commonly called by his name: “The Theorem of Pythagoras.
”On the other hand, the properties of the triangle whose sides are respectively 3, 4 and 5 were certainly known to the Egyptians and were made the basis of all their measurement standards. We find evidence for this in their important buildings, many erected before the time of Pythagoras. In an old Egyptian manuscript, recently discovered at Kahun and supposed to belong to the time of the Twelfth Dynasty, we find the following equations:
12 + (3/4)2 = (1 ¼)2 ; 82 + 62 = 102 ; 22 + ( 1 ½)2 = (2 ½)2 ;
162 + 122 = 202 ; all of which are forms of the 3-4-5 triangle. The ancient Babylonians and Chinese also knew the properties of this triangle. It is quite possible that this accounts for the discrepancy in the statement of Plutarch that Pythagoras discovered the demonstration of the general proposition, but that the particular case in which the lengths of the sides are 3,4 and 5 was known earlier to the Egyptians. Plutarch also thought that the case in which the base and perpendicular are equal (as in the sides of a square) was likewise known to the Egyptians. If both of these cases were known to the Egyptians, it would be natural for one to believe that the general case was known, but that is apparently not the case.
Pythagoras set himself the task of finding a general proof for all cases. We are told that he succeeded, but his method is not known to us. It is known that he understood the principle of proportional sides in similar triangles, and many students of the subject think he used this principle in his demonstration. If this was the case, it was applicable only to commensurate quantities since the validity of the proportional method as applied to incommensurable lines was not proven until long after his time.
It is of interest to note that Euclid could not use the method of proportional lines, because he needed to use the proposition before he developed the theory of proportion. Therefore, he invented the geometrical proof often shown in our slides and lectures:
The author of these pages will leave the geometrical proof to the reader to ponder (to see if you remember your high school geometry) and will now proceed to discuss what was probably Pythagoras’ proof based upon proportional triangles. If true, Pythagoras used only the lines AC, CB, AB, and CL, but Euclid used the entire figure, and proved that the square on AC equals the rectangle AK and that the square on BC equals the rectangle BK. Then in as much as the sum of the two rectangles equals the square on AB, he obtained the same result as Pythagoras.
Let us now look only at the triangle ACB above, wherein Pythagoras presumably drew the line CL, perpendicular to the hypotenuse AB:
The proportional method of Pythagorus suggests the steps that he used in his proof:
Triangles ACL, CLB and ACB are similar triangles as can be seen by redrawing the picture with the triangles superimposed as below:
Using the concept of proportions we can write (referring to the original triangle) that the ratios of the lengths AL/AC = CL/CB, AL/AC = CB/AB and CL/CB=AC/AB. Using these proportions, we can write
(AC)2 = AC x AC = (AL x CB/CL) x AC = AL x (CB/CL) x AC= AL x (AB/AC) x AC = AL x AB.
Likewise, using the ratios BL/BC = CL/AC = CB/AB, we can write
(CB)2 = CB x CB = BL x AB = LB x AB.
Combining these two equations,
(AC)2 + (CB)2 = AL x AB + LB x AB = (AL + LB) x AB = AB x AB = (AB)2
which proves the proposition.
While it is undoubtedly not true that Pythagoras was raised to the sublime degree of a Master Mason as stated in our Monitors, yet there is so much resemblance between his teachings and that of Freemasonry that we can understand how the error might have occurred.
The Monitor also states that Pythagoras celebrated his triumph in the discovery of this proposition by sacrificing a hecatomb (one hundred oxen). We can see how this may have been an outgrowth of the statement attributed to Apollodorus above. Ovid denies it and Hegel laughs at it, saying “It was a feast of spiritual cognition, at the expense of the oxen.” The strongest argument against it, however, is the fact that Pythagoras taught the doctrine of the transmigration of souls and forbade animal slaughter. However, when we consider that among many of the ancients the sacrifice of a number of oxen was their method of expressing their gratitude for a great triumph, we can understand how the tradition arose, and accept the fact of joy without caring for the truth of the sacrifice.
The importance of this proposition is that on this theorem almost all geometrical measurements depend, which cannot be directly obtained, including many in modern astronomy.
Allegory was defined on page I-9 in Chapter I and two examples given, one of which was Masonic. The latter will be expanded upon further in Chapters IX, X, XI, and XII. Let us here then choose just one more example from our Masonic Lectures.
To a thinking mind nearly everything in the Masonic Lectures invites an allegorical extension. This is one reason why the Brothers can watch and hear the lectures a multitude of times without being bored.
The Flight of Winding Stairs
As an example of the above, let us consider the Flight of Winding Stairs in the Fellowcraft Lecture. Each of us interprets the symbols of Freemasonry in terms of our own experiences. When I see the Flight of Winding Stairs I think back to my youth when as a boy of eighteen, I was touring Washington, D. C. with my brother and his family. We came to the Washington Monument and the waiting line to ascend by the elevators was three blocks long and not obviously moving. Being an impatient and impulsive young man, I shouldered my four-year old niece and decided to take the stairs. - a flight of winding stairs - to the observation deck. The first few stories were easy but, as we climbed higher and higher, walking became harder and harder. Gritting my teeth and forging upward, I wondered how many more stories I had to climb. “What was around the corner, another flight of stairs or the observation deck?” I didn’t know!
I was impressed by the comparison to life – we never know “what is around the corner.” And the “Flight of Winding Stairs” became an allegory of life as we experience it. I can never see these in the Fellowcraft Lecture without my mind wandering to this experience and the allegorical comparison to life. I suspect that many of you have had similar thoughts.
Dyer, Colin, Symbolism in Craft Freemasonry, Lewis Masonic, London 1983;
Hunt, Charles Clyde, Masonic Symbolism, Laurance Press Co., Cedar Rapids, IA 1939;
Street, Oliver Day, Symbolism of the Three Degrees, George H. Doran Co., New York, NY 1924;
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Last modified: March 22, 2014