The Cable Tow
Bro John Alexander
I have been taught that, if you want to examine any subject in detail, it's always best to start with a definition. In the case of the Cabletow, that's a bit difficult. The Oxford English Dictionary cites a number of 'special combinations' with the word "cable," for example: "cable-rope;" "cable-stock;" "cable-range;" and several others, but it doesn't mention "cable-tow." In fact, the term is not known outside of Freemasonry. So, what, actually, is a Cabletow?
The Ashley Encyclopaedia of Knots describes a cable as "three plain or hawser laid ropes, laid up together left-handed." When you look at a piece of rope, the individual strands spiral to the right. This kind of rope is called a "hawser" and a cable is three of them twisted so that they spiral to the left. A rope like this is rarely less than 10 inches in circumference and, usually, is more. It's most often used for moving heavy objects, for example, a ship. From such uses, it became a "towing rope" which became shortened, colloquially, to a "tow."
Moving the massive blocks used in the construction of ancient buildings and monuments would have called for ropes as big as a tow and there can be no doubt that our ancient operative brethren were familiar with them. However, the rope which we know as a Cabletow is not nearly as heavy. Further, the earliest allusion to a rope as a piece of equipment used in the preparation of a Masonic candidate is in a document dated to about 1710 — well within the "speculative" era. Even then, it was not described as a "Cabletow" for another fifty years, or so.
All this suggests to me that the expression was introduced to Freemasonry's vocabulary by the Speculative Masons as they gradually but steadily clothed the Speculative Science with the symbols and terminology of the stone-cutters. This is not to say that the Speculatives invented the idea. On the contrary, the halter, in the preparation of initiatives, AND as a token of submission, has a history that goes back almost as far as records have been kept.
ANCIENT USE IN THE PREPARATION OF INITIATIVES
A vase found in Chama, in Mexico, shows a group of candidates going through a ceremony not unlike a Masonic degree. One candidate is being taught a sign. The others all have halters with a running noose around their necks. On the other side of the ancient world, the Druids, the Greeks and the Brahmins all put a halter round an initiate's neck in their religious ceremonies. In the Brahminical ceremonies, it was the emblem of Yama, the god of death. He used it to snare men's souls and drag them out of their bodies. Shiva, the second aspect of the Hindu trinity, carries it to symbolise his power to destroy human life.
Thirty centuries ago, the votaries of Zoroaster believed that everyone has a noose around his neck. At death, it fell from the righteous but dragged the wicked down to Hell. Part of the preparation in the Ancient Mysteries of Egypt was placing of a chain or rope around the candidate's neck. This was said to signify his belief in God's service. That he was also blindfolded made of the halter a symbol that he was being led from darkness (the "darkness" of ignorance) to light (the "light" of knowledge of the One True and Living God).
A TOKEN OF SUBMISSION
Bro. Bernard Shillman points out that it was customary among the ancient Semitic races for captives, bondmen and other menials to wear a halter as a token of submission to their masters. In 1 Kings chap. 20, verses 31–32, we read that after Ben-hadad, King of Syria was defeated by the army of Ahab, King of Israel, his servants came, dressed in sack-cloth and with "ropes on their heads" to plead with Ahab for their master's life. Ahab spared Ben-hadad because of their voluntary action and their pleas for mercy.
This symbol of submission is so powerful that it lasted for more than 2000 years — right up to medieval times. The burgheses — the city council — of Calais, dressed in their shirts, with halters about their necks, presented the keys of their conquered city to Edward III, who, influenced by the pleading of his queen, Philippa, spared their lives.
On May 1st, 1517 ("Evil May Day") there was a riot in London. The ringleaders were arrested and tried, in Parliament, before King Henry VIII and his chief justice, Cardinal Wolsey. They appeared in their shirts with ropes about their necks and "set up such a piteous cry for mercy that the King pronounced them pardoned."
A diarist in the middle of the seventeenth century, records that the city magistrates of Ghent (in modern Belgium) paraded annually to the statue of the Emperor Charles V, in the market-place, with ropes about their necks as a token of submission and penance for an old rebellion.
THE CABLETOW IN FREEMASONRY
The halter's first appearance in Freemasonry is in a document known as the DUMFRIES No. 4 MANUSCRIPT which dates to about 1710. The reference is in two questions in the catechism:
Q: Hou were you brought in
A: Shamefully wt a rope about my neck
Q: Whay a rop about your neck
A: To hang me if I should Betry my trust
We may note, in passing, that the penalty for improper disclosure at the dawn of the Grand Lodge era was quite different from ours. But, in terms of our subject of interest, if the Fraternity could assume the right to hang a man for improper disclosure, if it were able to take a member's life, it could only do so — then, as now — if the member gave that right! And so, the Cabletow still retained its symbolism as a token of submission.
As far as I am aware, the Cabletow is part of the preparation of every Freemason in the world and in every ritual it carries a connotation of submission, of humility, of servitude. In the first degree of the Ancient York Rite, it is the means of removing from the lodge, an initiate who, by refusing to conform to our customs and ceremonies, has rendered himself "untouchable." (c.f. the "menial" of the ancient Semites). In the Canadian Rite, however, it speaks of restraint (? captivity) and even threatens life.
This theme of restraint and danger is echoed in the rituals of the British Lodges, for example:
- The ritual of Lodge St. Andrew No. 524 (Grand Lodge of Scotland) "B h d y'u stds a bro. o' this hldg the en' of a ct wh'ch i' arnd y'r nk 3 x (Note that for later) i 'n a rnng nse. H'd y'u attempted t'o retre fro'th ll w'o't th' prmssn o' th' Rt Wrshpfl Mstr, th' bro. wld hvl std frm t'o h's task an' y'u wld hv' met yr dth b'y strgltn."
- Ritual of Lodge Motherwell Caledonian No 1228 (Grand Lodge of Scotland) "Thr i' .... a r'pe y'r rnd nck...whc' w's a' an' mmnt rdy 2 t'k yr lf'."
- The Emulation Ritual (English Constitution). This wording is virtually identical with the Canadian Rite.
SYMBOLISM OF THE CABLETOW
The rituals of the modern lodges all show a practical use for the halter: to lead an "untouchable" failure out of the Lodge or to restrain an impetuous candidate — to kill him, even, if he resists. Even in the early ritual document cited earlier, it was the practical means of carrying out the penalty of the obligation. However, none of these uses resembles the purpose of the item of builders' equipment which gave its name to Freemasonry's halter. And this very disparity should lead us to suspect that Freemasonry's Cabletow has a symbolic, rather than a practical, meaning — that and our own knowledge that the Gentle Craft excels, as no other organization, in loading the most ordinary objects with esoteric meaning.
I asked you earlier to note a point — the number of times the Cabletow was wrapped around a certain part of the body. In the Fellowcraft and Master Mason's examinations of the Ancient York Rite, the answers to the Cabletow questions are definitely symbolic. The Cabletow and the number of times it is wrapped are said to indicate the increase in responsibility concomittment with Masonic progress. In the British Lodges, the progression is reversed beginning with the greatest number of turns and decreasing with each degree. The rationale for this is that with Masonic progress, the Mystic Tie becomes stronger and so, the need for physical restraint becomes less.
While we're in the higher degrees, it's here that the young mason learns that the Cabletow is more than a rope. At the same time it's also a measurement! A measurement??? Yes, exactly. ".....to answer and obey etc. ..... if within the length of my Cabletow.
What on earth is the length of a Cabletow? This concept is a modern survival of one of the oldest Operative regulations which obliged the stonecutters to attend the annual "Assemblies" except when sick or "in peril of death." No Cabletow was mentioned then, of course, but from this requirement grew the expectation that every brother would attend his lodge if he was within three miles of the meeting place. Presumable this was as far as he could be expected to walk, but the several copies of the Old Charges in existence differ wildly on this distance and variations between three and fifty miles are not uncommon! Nowadays it is accepted that this obligation is simply a promise to attend if within one's ability and no specific distance is involved.
But — here is a meaning within a meaning — the length of my Cabletow can be regarded as a symbol of the binding covenant I have made. And part of this covenant is a pledge to assist others.a In this respect, the length of my Cabletow depends on my ability — and willingness — to fulfill my obligations and I must decide that length for myself. Measurement of service can never be subject to any externally imposed limitation for who else can decide the length of my spiritual ties? How long is my Cabletow? It's as long as I want it to be!
All this notwithstanding, the Cabletow makes its greatest impact on the mind of an initiate - in the first degree, which we can regard as the degree of Masonic birth. And the idea of birth is appropriate to my last symbol, the most beautiful one I found in this study. In his "Introduction to Freemasonry." Carl H. Claudy likens the Cabletow to "the lifecord by which the embryo receives life from the mother." In the first degree the Cabletow is removed as soon as the obligation is assumed (Masonic birth) just as the physical cord is cut as soon as the baby is born. But just as the knife was never made which can sever the spiritual bond between a man and his mother, neither is there any known power which can sever the spiritual bond between a brother and the Gentle Craft. When the umbilical cord is cut, it is replaced by the love and care of mother and family. In the same way, the Cabletow is replaced by the Mystic Tie of Brotherly Love, the Mystic Tie which keeps Masonry a house undivided, that Mystic Tie which bonds the Craftsmen together. No power on earth can break that world-encircling bond of Brotherhood.
- The Ashley Encyclopaedia of Knots, Ashley, Clifford W., Doubleday & Co.
- The Craft and Its Symbols, Roberts, Allan E., Macoy Masonic Publishing & Supply Co.
- 3-5-7 Minute Talks an Freemasonry, Bede, Elbert, Macoy.
- Masonic Problems and Queries, Inman, H.F., A. Lewis.
- The E.A.s Handbook, Ward, J.S.M., A. Lewis.
- The Freemason at Work, Carr, Harry, A. Lewis.
- The Freemason's Guide and Compendium, Jones, Bernard E., Harrap.
- Symbolic Freemasonry — What Is It, Whence Its Origin and What of Its Purpose?, Hawes, F.G., British Masonic Miscellany, Vol. 3. .