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part II - Symbolism and the Teachings of Freemasonry

W. M. Don Falconer PM, PDGDC

The scriptures abound with references to structural pillars, monumental pillars

The concept of symbolic pillars

From earliest recorded history, the structural element that is called a pillar has also been used in a figurative sense to describe an imaginary prop or support on which rests the heavens or the earth, as well as to define a person who is a staunch supporter of a principle or an institution. The word is derived directly from the Latin pila, meaning a pillar or pier. The origin of the Latin word is obscure, but it is believed to have descended from the ancient Hittite pirwa, meaning a rock, through the Greek pilar in which the “r” and “l” are interchangeable. The Hebrew word for a column or pillar is ‘mwr, which is a derivative of the root word ‘mr meaning to stand, which is applied to both animate and inanimate things. When pillar is used in a figurative sense, it also implies strength.

Symbolic pillars in religion

The scriptures abound with references to structural pillars, monumental pillars and symbolic pillars. Some of them, like the two called Jachin and Boaz that stood at the entrance to King Solomon’s temple, were of architectural significance as well as being important religious symbols to the Israelites. As we are primarily concerned with symbolic pillars, a few examples of their figurative use will be given. It is said in I Samuel 2:8, that “the poor and the beggars will be raised up to inherit the throne of glory and become pillars of the earth”. In Job 9:4-6, we are told that God is “mighty in strength, able to shake the earth out of her place and cause the pillars thereof to tremble”. Paul the Apostle said in Galatians 2:9 that James, Cephas and John, who were held in high esteem as “pillars of society”, accepted him and Barnabas as partners and “gave them their right hands of fellowship”. In I Timothy 3:15, the church of the living God is described as “the pillar and bulwark of the truth”. Then in Revelation 3:12, in a message from the Messiah to the churches, we are told that “He that is victorious - I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God”. From the foregoing it is clear that both Judaism and Christianity have assigned important symbolic attributes to pillars, which prompts us to enquire whether pillars have an equally important standing in the traditions of other faiths.

Islam owes its origin to revelations that the Prophet Muhammad received in his visions of the angel Gabriel, which began in about 610 when Muhammad was about forty years old. A Christian monk, Bahira, had trained Muhammad in Syria from the age of twelve and in addition he had become well versed in the beliefs of Judaism. Muhammad became disillusioned by the polytheism and superstition that prevailed in his native Mecca, when he sought the seclusion of caves for meditation, soon becoming convinced of the existence and transcendence of one true God. Because of his religious disposition, Muhammad was receptive to the revelations that he received in his visions of Gabriel. Muhammad’s visions were transcribed into the book that is holy to all Muslims, the Koran, which signifies the reading or the recitation. The religious observances of Islam are based on “Five Pillars” or “Foundations”, which are the recital of the creed, prayer, fasting, almsgiving and the pilgrimage. In many mosques these five symbolic pillars are represented by structural pillars or towers, which are incorporated into or surround the building.

The origins of Hinduism in India are shrouded in the mists of time. It did not have a founder, but developed gradually over almost five thousand years, absorbing and assimilating all of the diverse religious and cultural movements that came and went in India during that period. Hinduism acknowledges five “Facts of Existence”, or self-evident “Truths”, which are the pillars of its faith. These Five Truths are first, that Brahman is the Supreme Being. Second, that all living things are a part of Brahman and are sparks of Atman, or divine life, that transmute from one body to another as a result of Brahman’s creative strength. Third, that Karma, which is Sanskrit for fate and also signifies action or doing, is the sum of a human being’s actions carried forward from one life to the next. Fourth, that Samsara is an endless cycle of birth, life and death, which is known as the “wheel of rebirth” or the transmigration of the soul. Fifth and finally, that Moksha or Mukti is the breaking of the “Karmic chain”, which initiates the ultimate deliverance of a human being from the body-soul bondage of Samsara and Karma itself, when the Atman is liberated from the universe of time and space and is free to return to Brahman.

Buddhism is a philosophical religion that is an offspring of Hinduism, which came into existence in about 600 BCE. Buddha is not a name, but a title that was given especially to Siddharta Gautama and signifies the “Enlightened One” or the “Awakened One”. Gautama was born about 563 BCE on the borders of Nepal north of Benares. He renounced the mundane world when twenty-nine years old and sought instruction from Brahmin hermits. After devoting himself to extreme asceticism for several years he decided that such a path was a delusion that would not lead to self-realisation. Thereafter Gautama devoted himself to a simple life of intense mental activity, which culminated in his enlightenment while sitting in meditation under a fig tree at Uruvela, which henceforth became known as Bo or the “Wisdom Tree”. Buddhism has four principles or dogmas called the “Four Truths” that are both its Foundation and its Pillars. These Four Truths are first, that mental and physical suffering is omnipresent. Second, that the cause of suffering is a desire for possession and selfish enjoyment. Third, that suffering ceases when desire ceases. Fourth and finally, that the cessation of suffering can only be achieved by the “eightfold path” that comprises right views, right aspirations, right speech, right conduct, right mode of livelihood, right effort, right awareness and right concentration. Of all major faiths, Buddhism was the first by several centuries to become international, but with its main area of influence in Asia.

Other “Ways” in religion

Each of the faiths so far considered has a belief in a Supreme Being as its central pillar, coupled with a belief in the existence of a soul in man, which ultimately will be delivered from this earthly abode. In their original forms Taoism, Confucianism and Shintoism did not share these basic concepts, but believed in what is usually referred to as a “Supreme State of Being”. Those three faiths followed philosophical “ways” or “schools” that have since been influenced directly or indirectly by Buddhism, which has modified their beliefs to a greater or lesser extent.

Taoism is a quest for immortality. Chinese legends say that Huang Ti, the Yellow Emperor, discovered the secrets of immortality and passed them on to his followers during the Golden Age, from 2852 BCE to 2255 BCE. Taoist tradition ascribes the Scripture of the Way and its Virtue, the Tao-te Ching, to Lao Tzû who was known as the “Ancient Sage”. Taoists believe that everything in existence consists of spirit, seldom differentiating between spiritual and material things. The Tao or way is believed to be the hidden principle of the universe, kept in balance by the opposing forces of yin and yang, which respectively are the female and male elements, whose interaction shapes all life and ensures the unity and harmony of the universe, or “oneness with the Tao”. The forces of yin and yang are supported by the doctrine of wu hsing, which are the five activities or interrelationships that have an allegorical affinity with the natural interactions of wood, fire, earth, metal and water. Taoists do not believe in the transmigration of souls, reincarnation or resurrection. The transcendent immortality they seek must therefore be achieved during mortal life, as a precedent to entering the sublime state of mystic immortality. This is expressed in an ancient Taoist maxim that says: “Entering the Hsüan Men, the Shadowy Portal, they pass beyond the world of dust into a realm of immortals”.

Confucianism evolved in China under the teachings of K’ung Fu Tzû, who was known as the philosopher Confucius, born in 551 BCE. His beliefs and opinions are established in what are referred to as the “Four Books”, which respectively are called The Analects, The Great Learning, The Doctrine of the Mean and lastly The Works of Mencius. These are complemented by the “Five Classics”, which include most of the earlier authoritative writings. Confucianism in essence is an ethical system commonly known as “the School” or “the Teaching”. Confucius was a pragmatic moralist who defined his “princely man” as having five principal characteristics of kindness, sincerity, graciousness, loyalty and self-denial. Whilst Confucius acknowledged the then current belief in heaven and spirits, he stayed aloof from spiritual beings and referred to the deity in impersonal terms, although he recognised the deity as a motive for moral conduct. In Confucianism the origin of all things is seen in the union of Yin as the passive principle and Yang as the active principle. Confucian pragmatism strongly contrasts with the quietist philosophy and exalted mysticism of Taoists. Reverence for and the remembrance of ancestors has always been and still is a regular practice in Confucianism.

Shintoism is the indigenous religion of Japan and has neither a founder nor a written canon. Its origins are shrouded in the mists of time and it has never developed a systematic doctrine, although mythological writings of the eighth century now provide a central theme. In Japan, the literal meaning of Shinto is the Way of the Kami, which was derived from the Chinese shin tao, meaning the way of the gods, itself a transliteration of the Japanese Kami-no-Michi. In ancient times anything that was awe-inspiring was called Kami, including natural phenomena and things either living or inanimate. Over the centuries a myriad of phenomena and things were accorded supernatural powers. Shinto ceremonies appeal to the mysterious forces of the Kami and focus on purity, devotion and sincerity. In modern times Shinto worship comprises four basic elements, which are purification, offering, prayer and a sacred meal, although the latter is often omitted on less formal occasions. These rites usually are looked upon simply as traditional ceremonial observances, with little if any thought of a deeper significance, although some of the more religiously inclined may perceive an inner spiritual meaning.

The pillars in freemasonry

The foregoing discussion compares the importance of symbolic pillars in the world’s most widespread religions, ethical systems and ways of life. It is evident that all those who have a belief in a Supreme Being as their central tenet, use symbolic pillars to express the status of man in the universe and his relationship with the Supreme Being. As a belief in a Supreme Being is the foundation of freemasonry, a logical and natural corollary is that stones, foundations and pillars should be used symbolically to illustrate some of freemasonry’s most important lessons. The symbolism used in modern speculative craft freemasonry derives naturally from the practical symbolism established by the operative freemasons who preceded them. In this context, it is interesting to note that a similar form of symbolism was also used in Biblical times, a typical illustration of which is to be found in Isaiah 28:16-17, where the coming of the Messiah is foretold in the following words:

“Look, I am laying a stone in Zion, a block of granite, a precious corner-stone or a firm foundation . . . I will use justice as a plumb-line and righteousness as a plummet”.

The pillars referred to in freemasonry may be purely symbolic, or they may be actual pillars like the two great pillars that stood at the porch or entrance at the eastern end of King Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem. In freemasonry actual pillars usually have a symbolic meaning, as well as serving some practical purpose. In this regard the pillars of King Solomon’s temple provide a good example. Although they did not support a roof for the porch, they supported two giant incense burners at the entrance to the temple, to remind the worshippers of the pillars of fire and cloud that led Israel of old through the wilderness. When the oracles named the pillars, they sought to bestow power on the line of David, as well as expressing Solomon’s gratitude to the Almighty for his bountiful blessings. The pillars at the porch of King Solomon’s temple have always been important symbols in freemasonry.

Probably the best known of the purely symbolic pillars referred to in freemasonry are the “three great pillars” called Wisdom, Strength and Beauty. It is of interest to note that Wisdom, Strength and Beauty were not the pillars originally referred to in the Traditional History narrated in lodges of operative freemasons, nor were the two pillars at the porch of King Solomon’s temple. The Cooke MS of about 1410 includes the earliest known pillar legend, which refers to the four children of Lamech mentioned in Genesis 4:19-22, who are prominent in Hebrew tradition. Lamech’s first child was Jabal, reputedly the originator of animal husbandry and traditionally the first man to build walls and houses of stone. Lamech’s second child was Jubal, who reputedly established the art of music. Jabal and Jubal were born to Lamech’s first wife, Adah. Lamech’s third child was Tubal Cain, who reputedly invented the forge and was the first artificer of metals. Lamech’s fourth child was Naamah, reputedly the inventor of the craft of weaving. Tubal Cain and Naamah were born to Lamech’s second wife Zillah. The legend says that as the four children of Lamech feared the world would be destroyed by fire or by flood, they took counsel together and decided to inscribe details of all the crafts and sciences they had founded upon two pillars, one of marble that would not be destroyed by fire and one of laternes or clay brick that would not be destroyed by water.

As this ancient tradition is also the oldest known masonic tradition concerning pillars, it is deserves further discussion. The account recorded in the old masonic documents was compiled from a number of different sources, especially the Polychronicon, a world history written by Ranulf Higden, a monk of Chester who died in about 1364. The monk’s version was derived from the Antiquities written by the Jewish historian Josephus, who in turn had copied them from the Greek historian Berosus or Berossus, a priest of Babylon, who wrote in about 300 BCE. Berosus is believed to have copied the legend from a Sumerian account, thought to be the original and dating from about 1500 BCE. The various translations reveal some discrepancies in the materials said to have been used for the pillars, but it seems that of the several alternatives the two best suited for the intended purpose were brick to resist fire and brass or bronze to resist flood. The legend concludes with the assertion that Hermes of Greece, who was known as the “father of wise men”, found the brass pillar in a cave whereby the knowledge of mankind was saved from destruction during the flood that occurred in Noah’s time. This legend was included in the historical portion of the MS Constitutions or Old Charges of the operative freemasons, but was omitted from Dr James Anderson’s Book of Constitutions that was published in 1723 for the first speculative Grand Lodge of England. However the tradition has not been lost to freemasonry, because it has been preserved in the work of the Royal Ark Mariner. In the English version one pillar is brass and the other is marble, whereas in the Scottish version one pillar is brass and the other is brick. These two pillars, with a segment of the rainbow that heralded God’s new covenant with mankind, are incorporated in the Worshipful Commander’s jewel.

Wisdom, strength and beauty

The old lodges of operative freemasons had a catechism for the instruction of supervisors concerning wisdom, strength and beauty. Supervisors were enjoined to exercise wisdom when examining the work, so as to distinguish good work from bad work; to have the strength to reject anything that was not in accordance with the plans and the designs; and to have the capacity to appreciate beauty in the adornment of the structure. This theme was carried into the early speculative rituals by drawing the attention of members to “three great pillars” that symbolically support a freemason’s lodge. The “three great pillars” are emblematic of wisdom, strength and beauty and are represented in lodges by pillars of the Ionic, Doric and Corinthian orders of architecture. These three pillars also represent the three Grand Masters at the building of the temple. They were Solomon King of Israel, Hiram King of Tyre and Hiram Abif the Tyrian artificer in charge of the work, because King Solomon was wise to construct the temple, Hiram King of Tyre gave strong support with men and materials and Hiram Abif adorned the temple with great beauty. In freemasonry the Master, the Senior Warden and the Junior Warden respectively represent those three Grand Masters. In many speculative lodges during the 1700s a representation of an Ionic, Doric or Corinthian pillar, as appropriate, stood before the Master and each of the Wardens, although the practice was not universal. Often a pillar was also placed on each side of the Master’s chair or on each side of the entrance door, representing the two pillars at the porch of the temple in Jerusalem.

It is no longer a common practice to stand pillars adjacent to the Master and Wardens, nor to stand a pillar on each side of the Master or the entrance door, although these customs have not been lost entirely. In some lodges the relevant pillars are stood one on each side of the Master and his Wardens to support canopies over them. In Scottish lodges especially, the miniature columns on the pedestals of the Master and Wardens are of the Ionic, Doric and Corinthian orders as appropriate. In speculative lodges the Master’s column stands erect at all times, the lodge always being under his overall control. The Senior Warden’s column stands erect when the lodge is at work, because the members are then under his immediate supervision. The Junior Warden’s column stands erect when the lodge is at refreshment, because the welfare of the members is then his responsibility. A speculative catechism used in the early 1700s says that these three columns respectively represent Wisdom to Contrive, Strength to Support and Beauty to Adorn. This description has been included in the modern lecture on the Tracing Board of the First Degree, on which representations of the three pillars are important elements. Nowadays many freemasons would not see these three important symbolic pillars except as pictorial representations depicted on the Tracing Board and on their Grand Lodge Certificates.

References in sacred writings

The qualities ascribed to Wisdom, Strength and Beauty as the three great pillars of freemasonry are reflected in the sacred writings of all major religions of the world. The dominant sense in which wisdom is portrayed as an attribute of God is as divine knowledge that is intensely practical in its application, manifesting itself in the selection of the proper means and ends for the accomplishment of God’s will. Wisdom is represented as the art of being successful, by forming the correct plans to gain the desired results. Strength also is typified in the sacred writings as a primary attribute of God, through which the will of God shall be implemented. Beauty is another very important attribute deriving from God to man. The qualities of Wisdom, Strength and Beauty are closely interwoven, which is illustrated in the following passages of scripture derived from a wide spectrum of the world’s major religions, from the most recent to the most ancient. These quotations from the scriptures reveal a remarkable uniformity of thought, which is entirely compatible with the explanations that are given in freemasonry. They clearly express the principles expounded in the lectures on the three great pillars of freemasonry and therefore provide a fitting conclusion to any discussion on the symbolism of pillars.

The wisdom, strength and beauty of the Creator are described poetically in the Koran, the holy book of Islam that symbolises the Word of God and is referred to as “that which is for mortals to read”. The following relevant passage from Sûrah LIX verse 24 of the Koran, was translated from Arabic into English by Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall in The Meaning of the Glorious Koran:

“He is Allah, the Creator, the Shaper out of naught, the Fashioner. His are the most beautiful names. All that is in the heavens and the earth glorifieth Him and He is the Mighty, the Wise.”

The following three passages taken from the Authorised Version of the Bible are equally relevant in Judaism and in Christianity:

Wisdom is the topic of Exodus 31:3, when Bezaleel was chosen as the chief artisan to construct the tabernacle and God spoke to Moses saying of Bezaleel:

“I have filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom and in understanding and in knowledge and in all manner of workmanship”.

Strength is the topic of Psalm 18:2, when David said to the chief musician:

“The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer; my God, my strength in whom I will trust; my buckler and the horn of my salvation and my high tower”.

Beauty is the topic of Psalm 19:1, when David speaks to the musician again:

“The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handiwork”.

A comprehensive example is provided in the following passage quoted from Chapter III of the Dhammapada or Words of the Doctrine of the Buddhist faith, translated by Professor Max Müller, in which Buddha says:

“As a fletcher makes straight his arrow, a wise man makes straight his trembling and unsteady thought . . . Knowing that this body is fragile like a jar and making his thoughts firm like a fortress, one should attack Mara, the tempter, with the weapon of knowledge, one should watch him when conquered and should never rest”.


These attributes of the Creator are also extolled in the Svetasvatara Upanishad, which is the Word of God of the Hindu faith, equivalent to the Bible of Judaism and Christianity and the Koran of Islam. The following is a relevant extract, also translated by Professor Max Müller:

“He makes all, He knows all, the self-caused, the knower, the destroyer of time, who assumes qualities and knows everything . . . the lord of the three qualities, the cause of the bondage, the existence and the liberation of the world”.

These three qualities or Gunas are the “three pillars” of the Hindu faith. They are the three mystical elements or principles, out of which Hindus believe that all things and beings in this world are made. They are firstly Sattva, which is light or illumination; secondly Rajas, which is activity or passion; and thirdly Tamas, which is heaviness or inertia.

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