Back to Our Basic Symbols

By: J. Alan Gatlin
Delivered: 3/27/2017 – 381 & Novus Veteris Joint Education Night

It has been said in some Masonic circles that symbolism can be carried too far and can be divisive among the Brethren. This may be a valid point when taken outside of historic contexts and the universe around us. We are fortunate in Freemasonry as we possess a body of ritualistic work which defines many of our symbols in at least one way. This allows us to look at our symbols in two distinct perspectives, the first being in the way our teachings say and secondly using the historic perspective of past societies and ancient groups who used the same symbol in a more universal context, universal symbolism. The similarity between these perspectives is often very close but the range of meanings in the outside world is frequently much broader and can add to the depth of our Masonic experience.

When a new Mason asks the question about our symbols, “what is that?” or “what does that mean?” how can we answer clearly? Are these ‘old’ symbols that really have no meaning in our modern world? If this is the case, then I believe we are in very serious trouble within our Lodges. A review of the Charge in our installations very clearly states that “…it inculcates principles of the purest morality, though veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols.” We are also told in the same Charge that to penetrate through the veil of the allegories and symbols is to understand the mysteries. While there is a far deeper meaning in the overall pattern of the Craft, it is of great value to find deeper meanings of the individual symbols and to attempt to recall that understanding on each occasion that we see them. This reinforces the ‘repetition’ form of learning that begins to modify our life experience to become that “better man” we all strive for.

One of the problems with the human mind is that it tends to ignore both visual and audio cues/items which it experiences frequently. We are often the last ones to see our children grow and need a visitor to bring this to our attention. So it is, with the jewels worn by the officers of our Lodges. How many of you have looked at your officers jewels – really looked. Firstly they are quite detailed, secondly they frequently are further adorned with items that you may be totally unaware of.

There are different companies producing Masonic jewels and each may embellish the jewels differently, but you can be sure that there is meaning behind every identifiable whirl and loop. In addition to the symbols on the jewel, each are suspended from a collar which may also have symbols upon it. The Officers also have an apron which has details on it. What My goal in this short talk is to look at some of the jewel, collar, and apron symbols and consider a few of the meanings both from our ritual and a universal context. Time does not allow for a detailed examination of all the elements, and hope that you will consider the Lodge jewels a little differently in the future.

A final point before starting is that all Masonic symbols are all a positive statement, none are aimed at anything that is not for the good of the Mason as an individual, and through him, for the world at large. We degrade no symbol and none can ever be considered to be contrary to the high principles we extol. Remember that there is no right or wrong interpretations to symbolism – it is what you accept as meaningful to you as a Craftsman with “due consideration”.

The Master carries the great symbol of The Square, the symbol of a regulated life and actions. It is the Masonic rule for correcting and harmonizing conduct on principles, morality, and virtue. As a symbol, it is also dedicated to the Master. We can also identify ourselves with this symbol, as we are taught that squares, levels, and perpendiculars are the proper signs to know a Mason.

We are surrounded by squares in our Lodge for every Mason often wears at least one. It stands, as one of the Great Lights, in the center of all our activities and its legs constantly embrace the Worshipful Master. It is repeated in our salute, our feet positions, our way of moving around the Lodge and our legs when at the Altar in our initiation. History tells us that the square, which is an upright with a right top arm, is the Greek letter gamma or he English letter “G” which carries other significant meanings. In the construction trade, the square is used for “truing” stones and “proving” them correct. We can see how easily, the association with truth and virtue could arise. There was the historical belief that the shape of the ancient world was an oblong square and this is represented in our “squared Lodge.” There have been references to the square’s meaning as a symbol long before the start of Masonry, as we know it. The Egyptians believed that truth and justice were ‘on the square’, Confucius in about 500 BC referred to the “squareness” of actions. Mencius, the Chinese philosopher of about 372 BCE refers to square actions. Simonides of Ceos, the Greek lyrical poet of about 600 BCE and Aristotle in about 350 BCE refer to ‘square actions’ and associate this with honest dealings, high morality and virtue. The symbol is not original to modern Masons, it is certainly far from new, but it seems to have a remarkable consistency of meaning. We should know that the properties of this triangular arrangement were first thought to be magical in the relationship they demonstrated.

In the angle of the square is the sun, radiant with its beams and with a clear face on it. Was this doodling the work of a metal worker with time on his hands? Of course not, for the historical significance of the sun as a symbol is an integral part of all our Lodge work. We refer to the sun in many places and also copy it is many actions. At the opening and closing of the Lodge, all the officers relate their actions to the sun. We walk around our Lodge in the same direction as the sun appears to move across our earth. We travel towards the East, the place of light, after being informed that the Master rules his Lodge as the sun does the day. If you think and possibly are aware, that culture seemed to develop in the East, there was always the suggestion that the source of the sun had inspired this knowledge and culture. Proof is readily available of the frequency of sun-worship as the first form of contemplation of a deity. Man has always looked upward for a “source” and the sun met the early criteria of “supporter” of the life of the world. It is fairly natural that this early gods would be personified by the addition of a face so that the gods could be given more of the human attributes. Even with our own concept of God, we find the degree of personification relates to the stage of understanding of the race or individual.

Perhaps we should remember the sun as being the symbol of brightness, the “opposer” of evil. We know that we say in Lodge that the rays spread their benign influence and we also must have a constant search for light. In fact the degrees seek ‘light’, ‘more light’ and ‘further light’, and this is given by our three lesser lights, one of which represents the sun as well as the Master. We are told also that the sun is the glory of the day and of the Great Architect. There is another link in our Lodge with the sun and that is a symbol designated as meaning something else, but the astrological sign for the sun is a point within a circle.

While the sun is one clear symbol, we also find the moon with a face on the jewel. This symbol appears elsewhere in our Lodge as one of the Lesser Lights and is represented by the Senior Warden. The moon and sun have many opposite characteristics in symbolism. The sun represents the masculine and the moon the feminine. When joined together make a “whole” such as the joining of the Deacon’s rods. These principles are desirable in life both in and out of Lodge, as our Warden states in opening and closing. It is natural that in the absence of the Master (the sun), the moon should rule in his place. The symbol in the profane world has always indicated measurable states, regularity and is strongly associated with the death-rebirth mysteries that are continued as the principal theme and lesson in Masonry.
Yet another symbol is found on the jewel in the form of a cluster of seven stars. These are specifically referred to in the Canadian Masonic teachings
and are an important symbol in that they represent the ethereal mansion, veiled from human eyes. The significance of these stars which adorn the ceiling of many Lodge rooms is very complex, in that the stars and the number seven are almost constantly in symbolism. The stars themselves, in clusters tend to be associated with order and destiny and so to some degree reinforce the symbolism contained in that of the moon symbolism.

When we come to the seven we are almost overwhelmed with the many facts associated with it. The number seven was said to be ‘perfect’ because it contained the numbers 3 and 4 and was itself indivisible and could not be created by multiplication. This gave it the name of the virgin number. There were seven years to an apprenticeship, there were seven planets known to man of the middle ages, and there are seven days in a week of which the
7th was held sacred. The days of the week are named after the seven gods of the Goths, a seventh son has special powers, the Jews swore by the number seven, there was a need for seven witnesses to agreements, and
Solomon’s temple was said to have been built in seven years. Jericho was encircled seven times by seven priests, and these were the seven liberal arts and sciences known as the trivium and quadrivium which were thought to contain the total sum of human knowledge. Seven represents symbolically the combination of the Trinity and four cardinal virtues, it is the number of the basic musical notes, of colors and of the spheres. Seven is related to perfection, to religious truth and also with knowledge. It is hard to find a more astounding mass of facts associated with a number until we observe that three and five are similar.

We are reminded that it needs seven officers to open the Lodge of EA and of seven steps. Jacob’s ladder is usually shown with seven rungs of which 3 are considered most exemplary for Masons. While then these seven small stars on the jewel are insignificant they are repeated as a symbol at least three times within our Lodges and give us much to think about.

The Senior Warden’s jewel is that of the Level. We meet upon this sign, and we have all been raised from the “dead level” to the living perpendicular. The symbol, we are taught, shows the principle of equality and reminds us that we are all descended from one stock and possess one nature and it thus justifies our organization as a Fraternity of equals.
The Junior Warden’s Jewel is of course the plumb referred to in our lectures as the symbol of rectitude and uprightness, a fairly simple relationship to be sure. There is a link with this jewel and Jacob’s ladder stretching between heaven and earth and stressing a morality which should be practiced. We are instructed in our steps to stand erect and charged to act upon this symbol as we leave the Lodge. This association is identical both within and without the Lodge.

We now move to a few of the other symbols worn as jewels by our officers, and while some simply indicate their role they have often have a deeper meaning to consider. The dove has long had two symbolic meanings, that of a messenger and that of peace and in some jurisdictions is shown on the Deacon’s jewel. The dove we see in Lodge has the sprig of olive in its beak and is clearly a representative of Noah who used it as a messenger of good tidings. The deacon’s jewel was, in an earlier period, a representation of the God Hermes or Mercury who was again the messenger of the ancient gods.

The stewards wear and carry the cornucopia which is a representation of the horn of the goat which, in legend, suckled the infant Jupiter. The horn symbolizes strength and abundance and suggests the supply of food as it is usually displayed full of fruits. In our Lodges this is associated with those responsible for satisfying the “inner man” after regular meetings are concluded. As in the case of Amalthea the goat with the “visiting Jupiter,” the supply is supposed to be particularly abundant in the presence of visitors.

The organist wears the lyre, a six-stringed instrument associated with Terpsichore, the Goddess of music and is the symbol of musical accomplishment. It should constantly remind us of the contribution that music can make to not only our Lodge but our total lives.

The chaplain wears what is perhaps the most important symbol within our Lodge, for his jewel portrays the open volume of Sacred Law, without which no Lodge can operate. This symbol expresses our dedication to the God in whom we have a personal belief. It guides us in the erection of our spiritual building and points out our whole duty. It is the rule and Guide to our faith and is kept in our hearts between our meetings. The Bible on the jewel is open upon a triangle which has additional symbolism for the Christian Mason in that it represents the trinity. For all Masons the triangle can remind us of the three moral virtues, the principle tenets of our profession, the knocks, the ruffians, the Great Lights, the lesser lights, the three degrees, the three Grand Masters, God and the Holy St.’s John and the steps, both our individual ones and those upon which the Master presides. There are so many references to the number three that it rivals the number seven for sheer volume. Suffice it to say that the symbolism of this particular jewel is particularly meaningful to Masons, and each should have his own particular interpretation without any suggestion that this should be imposed on others.

Again at this point you should observe the positive nature of the symbols and the major influence they should have upon our thoughts. The historian has a simple scroll about his neck which signifies the historical record of events. This is a reminder to each one of us that our actions make an impression on the great record of existence and we should strive to keep our book in correct balance.

The secretary wears the crossed quills which is the international symbol of a secretary. The saltire pattern, the bows and the trailing ends have no recorded significance, but, we all know this jewel indicates an onerous task performed by many sound Brethren.

The treasurer has crossed keys, sometime represented by one gold and the other silver, and reference the money chest of the Lodge. This is not only a role indicator but these keys should remind us of “that excellent key – a Freemason’s tongue which should speak well of a Brother present or absent. When this cannot be done, adopt the excellent virtue of the Craft – SILENCE.

The jewel of the Director of Ceremonies or Marshall is the crossed batons.
These are symbols of the batons of command which were presented on the field of battle to an outstanding survivor. Possibly this is why this office is often held by Past Masters and is a role that should not be diminished.

The Tyler’s emblem is of a sword, which has been the symbol of a protector and in particular has been associated with the defense of faith. The sword has the reputation of warding off evil because in the inverted position it forms a cross. In addition, within the Lodge, we know that the Tyler’s sword guards the Constitution along with entrance into the Lodge and is a constant reminder to guard our thoughts, words, and deeds, remembering the Masonic virtues of silence and circumspection.

Having looked at the jewels we should also observe the collars from which they are suspended, because these in some cases have symbols. The principal symbols are the blazing star, the entwined snakes, and knots. The blazing star pattern used is usually that of the “pentalpha,” or five pointed star with intermediate flames. This star is primarily the symbol of divine providence and can be found in our mosaic pavement. The five points should remind us also of other Masonic “fives.” Those being the five orders of architecture, the five points of fellowship, the five senses and the five who must be present in order for a Lodge to be held. The star is also said to represent the Morning Star which is yet another symbol of rebirth which is so significant to each of us.

There is a six pointed star or hexalpha often seen which is also known as the “Glory.” This six pointed star is the Seal of Solomon and also the Star of David. This star is also represented on the carpet at times and there is distinct confusion in the texts over which star is THE star to use. The primary symbolic meaning of the six pointed star is the universe as an entity.
Also to be found on the collar is this complex looping which shows
a serpent swallowing its tail, a common symbol of eternity and in many cases associated with wisdom. The double entwined never ending loops are similarly symbols of eternity but have the additional meanings ascribed to them of vibrant energy and active life. These symbols are worthy of our contemplation in relation to the stability and teachings of the Craft.

These are then the jewels of the Lodge, the collar and aprons worn by our officers and perhaps they have shown a little more than you have normally noticed. If you would look at the Jewels in the next few Lodges you attend, you will find similarities and differences. These will take on a new meaning because you have looked, and possibly you may find more meaning in various aspects of your personal Masonry by contemplation of the new symbols you find or the old ones that you know.

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