Symbols of Freemasonry
By Right Worshipful Brother Brian Rossouw
Published in the 2016 GLSA Southern Division Spring Ball Magazine
A symbol is an object, design or other material that stands in for something abstract or even invisible. For a symbol to be truly universal it has to be accepted by everyone and also its meaning accepted. It becomes very evident that Masonic symbolism is everywhere. Items such as tools, hourglasses, eyes, skulls, columns, stairs, hearts, swords, letters, and numbers can be observed everywhere. Every one of these has a meaning and use in Freemasonry. Symbols are used in Freemasonry as a memory device and to illustrate the lessons of the Craft. The Coil’s Masonic Encyclopedia claims that there are over 90 different symbols in the three lodge degrees. The following are but a few to assist in gaining a perspective of the Freemason’s symbols.
It is a term used to describe a lodge of Freemasons that confers the three degrees, namely, Apprentice, Fellowcraft and the Master Mason. It also is called a Regular Lodge. It practices what is described as Ancient Craft Masonry. Its meaning is not clear but it may refer to the blue sky in the Lodge of King Solomon’s Temple. It is also the sacred colour of ancient Israel.
There are three degrees, three principle officers, three candles, three knocks on the door, three steps leading to the Worshipful Masters chair, three stages of life, the symbol of the Great Architect of the Universe is an equivalent triangle and so on. Plato and Aristotle believed that the number three was a symbol of the Supreme Being because 1 + 2 = 3. This implies the beginning, middle and the end. It has been a sacred number for thousands of years. The number three became a symbol of the ongoing search for perfection.
In the days when the Masons met in the taverns the symbols would be drawn in chalk on a board to illustrate the lecture of the evening. After the evenings lecture the Apprentice would clean off the board with a mop to hide all trace thereof. This became tedious and then the symbols were painted on a cloth for each degree and set out for the appropriate occasion. It helps the lecturer to remember and illustrate the number and sequence of the symbols. It also assists the candidate to visualize these symbols. The Tracing Board is inlaid with black and white squares which illustrates the diverse nature of our society. The border symbolizes the interwoven nature of our society. On the Tracing Board would be placed various instruments and items which allude to the teachings of Freemasonry. These would vary from Degree to Degree.
Square & Compass
This symbol has become the fraternity of Freemasonry. These are the tools of the Operative Mason, in other words his tools of trade.
The square represents the tool to square the Masons work. It is the instrument by which the Freemason regulates his labours and represents honesty, fairness and virtue. It is also used as the badge of office of a Worshipful Master.
The compass has a slightly more obscure ritualistic explanation. Think of the two points of a compass spread apart, about to draw a circle. The principle tenets of Freemasonry are said to be contained between the two points of the compass, which are friendship, morality and brotherly love. When you draw a circle one point remains at the centre of the circle. That point represents the individual Freemason. The circle represents the boundaries of his world and the people he comes in contact with. He must always live by its principles in all his dealings with mankind and especially his fellow Freemasons. It is expected that he must always keep his impure thoughts and actions within the confines of the points of the compact and not expose them to the outside world.
Lamb and Lambskin Apron
The symbol of the white leather apron is the universal badge of Freemasonry. Aprons, girdles or sashes have appeared throughout history as the symbols of honour, piety and achievement. They appear in ancient Egyptian images and were symbols of priesthood in India, Persia and many other countries. The lamb has for many centuries been considered a symbol of innocence, the apron has traditionally been made of lambskin. Its pure spotless surface is intended as a constant reminder to the Freemason of the purity of life, conduct and conscience. It is the ever-present symbol of the endless striving for higher thoughts, nobler deeds and greater achievements.
The aprons are decorated in many ways. Lodge officers will have their symbols of office embroidered on them. Past Masters may have their own symbols included. Early aprons were often embellished with lavish scenes.
In the book of Genesis 28, Jacob dreamed that he saw a ladder stretching from the Earth to heaven and that angels were climbing up and down it. In Masonry the ladder is described as having three main rungs, representing faith, hope and charity. Other rungs include temperance, fortitude, prudence and justice. Taken together they represent the guiding virtues of Freemasonry. This ladder is associated with the Apprentice and is found in many Masonic buildings and places of religion.
Sun, Eye, Moon and Stars
These images are combined to describe God, whom the sun, the moon and the stars obey. God can see the innermost recesses of the heart which in some Masonic drawings are shown beneath the eye, star and the letter G. All symbols of God.
The hourglass is the emblem of morality. Like a clock the sands of time slowly slip away and can not be put back. It teaches a Mason not to waste his limited time on Earth.
The scythe is an ancient sharp tool used for cutting grass or harvesting wheat. Mythologically, it is the tool of Father Time, or the Grim Reaper, to cut the fragile thread of life. It is to warn Masons of the ever present danger of death that awaits us all.
The Masonic explanation comes from the Hebrew custom of removing a shoe and giving it to a neighbour to seal an agreement, as a promise of honour and sincerity. When both shoes are removed it is to symbolically to enter the Sanctum Sanctorum of King Solomon’s Temple, a place to be considered to be holy ground by the Hebrews. This also is the manner of many other religions.The word slipshod is to describe the way a candidate is prepared. It is taken in the context of its ancient meaning, namely, wearing a slipper or a loose shoe.
The Operative Masons used the gavel to break off the rough corners of the rough Ashlar, to make the stone ready for use in the building. In Speculative Freemasonry the gavel stands as a reminder of the necessity of divesting heart and conscience of what is termed the vices and superfluities of life. The gavel used by the Master of the lodge is also called a Hiram, because, like the architect, it governs the Craft and keeps order in the lodge as Hiram did in King Solomon’s Temple.
The plumb is a device with a string and a weight at its bottom to assist the workmen to determine that a wall is truly vertical. Speculative Masons use the plumb to remind them to behave in an upright manner in their duty to God and their dealings with their fellow man. The plumb line points to both the centre of the Earth and to the heavens. It is a symbol of justice, rectitude, equality and truth. In many ways it is similar to the scales of justice, because it is kept in balance. It is the badge of the Senior Warden.
The level is a building tool to measure the level of a horizontal surface. Its symbol to the Speculative Mason is equality. It teaches the Masons to meet upon the same level, regardless of their rank, social or economic status in the World. It also reminds us to conduct our lives on the level of time, traveling to the Eternal East, from which we will never return. The level is the badge of the Junior Warden.
The letter G has two meanings. The first is the initial of God or the Grand Architect of the Universe. It represents the brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God. God represents the greatest symbol of all. All our creation comes from God. The letter G is used specifically as a representation of a diety so that all Masons, regardless of their religion may remain reverential to the Grand Architect of the Universe. Men of different faiths have different names and different symbols for God but within the lodge the letter G is used to unity and not divide them. In most lodges the letter G is lit up when the lodge is officially opened.
Secondly G represents geometry which is the basis of the Freemason’s origins. Through the use of geometry the earliest Masons could translate small drawings into massive structures. Geometry was used to plot the return of the seasons, determine the orbit of the planets and otherwise explain the mysteries of the universe. Uniting the concept of God with geometry is a way of connecting the spiritual world to the physical world.
The trowel is the instrument by which the cement or mortar is spread. That cement makes an individual brick or stone stick together and when it hardens those individual bricks or stones bind together to interconnect into a united wall. In Speculative Freemasonry the trowel is representative of the spreading of the “ cement “ of brotherly love and affection, to unite the individual members of a lodge into one unified Brotherhood. The individuals will work together to assist each other and society as a whole.
This is a symbol of two hands shaking in a grip, or a token, of a Freemason. In this way the members of the Order will recognize each other.
The pillars are the most distinctive symbols of Freemasonry. The two pillars represent the columns that support the entrance to King Solomon’s Temple entrance. They are made of bronze and named B… and J…, and are described in 2 Chronicles 3:15-17. They are made before the house thirty and five cubits high and the chapiter that is at the top of each is five cubits. He made chains, as in an oricle, and put them on the heads of the pillars and made a hundred pomegranates and put them inside. In 1 Kings 7 they are described as the Pillars of the Porch. Many Freemasons refer to them as columns. Sometimes there are globes on them representing the Earth and the heavens. The real pillars of Solomon do not have globes and the invention was probably due to an illustration in the Geneva Bible published in 1560.
The pillars represent strength and establishment. The Apprentice receives his wages at the column B… and the Fellowcraft his at the column J….
The above symbols are but a few of many used in the various Craft lodges. It is intended through this paper to highlight the complexity and the use of the various Masonic symbols. Most of the symbols used are based on the working tools of the Operative Masons. They were expanded by the Speculative Masons as guides for teaching and to remind us of our duty to God and to our fellow man. The essence of the use of teaching tools is to teach a good man to become a better person in his dealing with his fellow Brethern and the profane world.