Key to the Sacred Pattern

19 December 2007

A Guide to Masonic Symbolism for the Non-Mason

With this week’s release of National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets and the buzz about Dan Brown’s new book The Solomon Key, discussions on the web will invariably turn their attention to Masonic symbolism. The number of queries relating to: “What does this Masonic symbol mean?” or “What do you think about my theory on where this Masonic symbol derives from?” are already floating my way in an increasing rate.
The topic will stimulate some to do good hard core research into the topic. Others will take flights of fancy and ascribe any number of attributes to the symbols of the Craft. I thought I might head off some of the wild speculations at the pass with a guide to what symbols used in Masonry mean to this Mason. This should help those who have an interest in the topic pick their way around a rather complex subject.

I understand that all of you out there that are detractors of Masonry will rail against what I have to say here. That’s your right.  Please don’t fill my inbox with the usual litany I get when I write an article on my experiences in Masonry. I keep an open mind, but please don’t begin your rail with accusations of being in league with the Devil or tales of goats…

Before we start, what does the Conch Shell have to do with Freemasonry?
A conch shell has absolutely nothing to do with Freemasonry. I thought it would be instructive to use a non-Masonic symbol as a reference point to describe how different aspects of symbolism are used. That gives me an easy way out for being able to talk about Masonic symbols without breaking any of my vows. Confused? Read on and hopefully you won’t be.

Conch Shell Basics
The conch shell has long been associated as the symbol for Key West, Florida. It is unclear when the conch shell was adopted for this purpose, but the conch symbolism is firmly engrained in Key West society. A native might refer to themselves as conchs and the conch even used on the “Key West flag”. It is thought that the legend of the Conch was the background for this symbol of the island, but the exact.  Now back to our regularly scheduled article.

Why Does Freemasonry Use Symbols?
The answer to this question is the same for any group that utilizes visual symbols. Virtually every business, government, organized religion, and social group employs some type of visual symbols. The examples are too numerous to list, but a simple look to the conch for a proof of this point.

All of the aforementioned groups employ visual symbols for one reason; to easily convey a set of complex ideas within a pictogram. The basis for utilizing pictograms reaches back to early written language and art. Pictures were employed to convey ideas. A single symbol became associated with a specific idea or object, and viola; a written language is born.  Chinese and Sumerian are perfect examples of languages that employ pictograms as a written linguistic device. Modern symbolism has developed from these humble pictogram beginnings.

Freemasonry is no different than these pictogram languages. The symbols of the Craft are designed to impart a moral or esoteric meaning. Visual representations of symbols in the first three degrees of Masonry are generally objects that someone, of years gone by, would commonly see. A beehive, an hourglass, a rough cut stone (or ashlar) would be real world anchors that would remind the Mason of their symbolic lesson.

Take our conch shell as an example. A native of Key West is walking on the beach and sees a conch shell lying on the beach. His first thoughts of themselves as a "conch" might very well come to mind first. Their thoughts might then range to their neighbor conchs and the warm fuzzy feeling it gives them to be part of that group. The natural extension of the thought goes to he should be a good neighbor to his fellow conchs.

The same holds true for a Mason when he views any of the symbols he has been exposed to. The symbol reminds a Mason that he should be industrious or kind or benevolent. In this way we are reminded of the many moral obligations we have when living a very real-world life.

So what are you told that symbols mean when you’re a Mason?
Most Masonic symbols are of moral lessons in nature. Specific symbols can range in meaning from time management to everyday mortality. Within a Degree, a Mason is told what each symbol means in the context of that Degree. Some symbols have secondary meanings that show up in other Degree work.  What is missing from the explanations is a historical context for the use of that symbol. There’s plenty of legend and lore surrounding the stories told in degree work, but it is nearly impossible to pin down historically. This would leave plenty of speculation and detective work left to those who seek the meaning in the symbols and lore. The loose ends also make it very attractive to assign meaning where meaning might not exist.

With this in mind, it’s rather hard to think of Masonic symbols being used in any type of “coded” way by Masonry as a whole. I tend to be suspect of anyone who starts out their theories with this mind set. Let’s take a building that has incorporated Masonic symbols into its architecture. An author is making a case that “the Masons” incorporated these symbols into the architecture of the building for an esoteric purpose. I would suggest in cases like this, look at the individual that was responsible for the building’s architecture first. More than likely it was this individual’s motives and esoteric thought that created the building, not the entire fraternity of Masons.

Now, our Key Westerner who is feeling warm and fuzzy after the previous section.  He now considering how best to explain what it means to be a conch to his son. After thinking about all the different aspects of the conch, he can’t come up with a simple explanation. Our Key Westerner is now stymied at how to explain how the conch became to mean all of these things to his 6 year old. The best explanation he can muster is that, “The conch’s meaning been passed along for generations and now I’m telling you what it means.” 

But isn’t that just what they tell low-level Masons? The “higher-ups” really know what the symbols mean.
This statement is a common misconception most hold about the use of Masonic symbolism.  It is true that many of Masonry's symbols can have different applications.  However, all Masons are admonished to find additional meanings to symbols presented in the Degrees in their own way. The funny part is that after I achieved the 32nd Degree, I had more questions than answers about the symbols that had been presented to me.  Masonry follows in the vein of all esoteric educational systems. The onus of application and interpretation of anything that is presented in a Degree is one's own.  The symbols of Masonry become peculiar to each and every Mason.

The individual interpretation premise is the reason wildly varied and broad interpretations exist for Masonic symbols. One gets a true feel for this admonition when referencing 19th century Masonic authors. The speculations of Waite, Pike, and Gould are often taken as authoritative stances on symbolism and their  context within Masonry. Within the framework of each author’s research and beliefs, they assigned their own meanings to Masonic symbols.

The fallacy that many make is that Masonic authors, especially Pike, are a single authoritative representative of Freemasonry. These authors are no more a voice for all of Masonry than I am. Yes, there are men who take on leadership positions in Masonry who do speak for groups of us. These men in leadership positions speak for the group in the same way our elected government representatives speak for their constituents. Sometimes we agree with our representatives, and sometimes we don’t. At the end of the day the legislator is no more, or less, a citizen than fellow that elected him. That means that any Master Mason stands on equal footing with Albert Pike and speaks with equal authority.

This relates back to another common misconception about Masonry. The thought that someone who has done degree work in either the Scottish or York Rites is a “higher up”. I have obtained the 32nd Degree in the Scottish Rite. Does this mean that other Masons who have not gone through the Scottish Rite are somehow less in the eyes of the fraternity than I am?

The answer is no. Once a Mason has obtained the degree of Master Mason, or the 3rd Degree in the Blue Lodge, he is a full Brother. Anyone that chooses to become a part of the Scottish or York Rite has just decided they want to expand their experiences within Masonry. So this doesn’t mean that I can get a 14th Degree Scottish Rite Mason to do my laundry or wash my car.

Our conch takes his son to his grandfather for clarification of the mysteries of the conch. The grandfather looks at the young lad and says, “Son it’s always been that way. But I think the symbol must be linked to that book Lord of the Flies. They used a conch shell in that book. So someone must have read it, lived in Key West and started calling us Westies conchs.” Father and son then go back home thinking the grandfather is a crazy old coot.

So what’s the deal with the symbols on the rings and auto emblems?
Many of the symbols you might see on auto emblems, t-shirts, rings, and other Masonic swag are peculiar to a specific Degree. These symbols take elements a Degree’s story and place them in a Cliff’s Notes visual format. This is especially true in the Degree work of the Scottish and York Rites. Each of the Degrees has their own symbols that are unique to the Degree.

These symbols do incorporate symbols from various esoteric traditions depicted in the Degree. This is an extension of the application of using commonly items and attaching symbolic meaning to them. When a Mason sees a symbol for a specific Degree, it is designed to remind him of the lessons that were taught in that degree. No more, no less.

Getting in their car, our Westie and son decide to go back home. Our favorite conch remembers he has a bumper sticker he hasn’t placed on his car. The sticker is simply the flag of Key West. The father turns to the son and says,” I guess the biggest lesson of the conch is that we should be glad we live in Key West and not Cleveland.”

Wrapping up the longest article ever.
I hope this has given some of you a glimpse into Masonry and the reasons we employ the symbols we use. This is simply an overview of my perspective on Masonic symbolism. Masonry, in some respects, is like a primer for a multitude of esoteric traditions. Each Mason incorporates this banquet into their lives as they see fit. Just try to remember this when thinking that Nicholas Cage might be on to something by fitting the pieces of the puzzle together.

1 comment:

corbie41 said...

The Masonic connection at Rosslyn Chapel dates back to the 1860s when the Chapel was restored for Episcopalian worship by the Fourth Earl of Rosslyn. The architect, David Bryce, replaced most of the stone bosses in the Lady Chapel. These had become heavily decayed and damaged, so that he was unable to replace them with accurate copies. He had to create his own designs and these were submitted to the Foruth Earl (who was Grand Masetr Mason of Scotland). Bewteen them, they 'tweaked' the designs to resemble Masonic symbolism. The Archvist of the Grand Lodge of Scotland in Edinburgh has even written a book 'The Rosslyn Hoax' to repudiate any genuinely medieval Masonic connection at Rosslyn, as Freemasonry as we know it today did not begin until after the Scottish Reformation (1560). Before that masons were craftsmen who served a long apprenticeship of stone-carving. The matter is also fully discussed in the new book 'Rosslyn Chapel Revealed' and another book is due out in May 2008 (Rosslyn: An Icon through the Ages).