The Symbolism of the Degrees: EA

Part One — The Entered Apprentice

A. M. Mitchell, P.G.M.


Historical research has now practically proved that modern Freemasonry is a direct descendant of the Craft Guilds of the Continent and England and that the ceremonies of our degrees are extensions and elaborations of what was originally the private bond of an operative organization endeavouring at once to protect trade secrets and to control the qualifications of its membership.

So far as is known, the original ceremonies were somewhat bald and included little more than the taking of an oath of secrecy, the recitation of a legend and the communication of a "Mason's Word".

Lodges differed in their ceremonial and its presentation and there seemed little direct connection between them. IT is now agreed, however, that probably the ceremonies of the Irish Lodges were most complete.

In an Encyclopedia of Freemasonry edited by E. L. Hawkins there appears a summarization of the hints appearing in the ancient documents which presents a "picture" of an initiation in an old Craft Guild.

"The meeting was opened with prayer — the legendary history of the Craft was then read — then the candidate was led forward and instructed to place his hand on the Volume of the Sacred Law, which was held by one of the 'Seniors', while the articles binding on all Masons alike were read, at the conclusion of which a brief obligation was imposed upon the candidate, all present joining it; then followed the special charges for an apprentice, concluding with a longer obligation by which the candidate specially bound himself to secrecy with regard to what was about to be communicated to him; then the secrets, whatever they were (modes of recognition) were entrusted to him, and the proceedings terminated".

Before being received, the young man had to show he was well qualified, of lawful age, freeborn, of good habits and reputation and sound in mind and limb. The apprentice was a learner and had to serve seven years before he could become a Fellow entitled to begin his tour or journey as a skilled craftsman.

With the revival of 1717 and the formation of the first Grand Lodge of England, efforts at uniformity of ritual were begun andout of these efforts has grown the system of three degrees as we know them. The old ceremonies corresponding roughly to two degrees, our first and third, were remodelled, the first being divided into Apprentice and Fellowcraft and the Master Degree remaining the third. While the original significance remains to a large extent, the ceremonies have been greatly simplified at the hands of skilled craftsmen until they have come to us as a complete system.

Let us follow, now, a petitioner as he approaches the portal.

First, he must come "of his own free will and accord" and without "solicitation". His qualifications must be as they have always been, except that belief in a particular creed is no longer required so long as he admits faith in Deity. Neither need he be free of blemish in body or limb, for gradually it has been agreed, as one Grand Master has aptly put it, "it is better to have a candidate with a wooden leg that a wooden head". The tendency seems to be that so long as the candidate can comply with the ceremonial requirements, artificial or missing members are no bar.

There has been considerable controversy as to what constitutes "solicitation". The strict interpreters say that any attempt by hint or suggestion designed to induce a man to seek initiation, is "solicitation". In other words, any implication to a profane that he should be within the fold is "solicitation".

Others again declare that should a profane ask questions about the Order he should be answered as completely as possible with necessary discretion but no suggestion of "joining the lodge" should be offered.

The latter course seems to be better for unless a man has had considerable contact with Masons, known to him as such, he is unlikely to have formed "a preconceived favourable opinion of the Institution". The point is that he must not be asked to join. This must come of his own accord, so that at the proper time he may answer sincerely that he offers himself "of his own free will and accord".

The practice of having two sponsors is an ancient one, and in our day is essential, for in spite of our well known methods of investigating applicants, the average member must be a stranger to a vast number of his fellows, and must depend almost entirely on the knowledge and goodwill of sponsors known to him for information about most of the applicants who come to his lodge.

When the formalities of preparing and presenting the petition have been complied with there remains one of the most important safeguards of the Order — the Ballot.

Probably no single one of our forms and ceremonies has been discussed more than this. That it has been abused on occasion for petty reasons or personal spite and animosity there can be no doubt, but on the whole most men realize that in casting the ballot they are acting as the Lodge in judgement upon one who is to be accepted or rejected for all its privileges and the ballot is cast accordingly. It there is doubt of the petitioner's qualifications the Lodge should have the benefit of that doubt; if there is no doubt, then black or white should be cast without rancour or spite when "nay", and with the sense of welcome to a fellow sojourner, in the quest for light if "Aye" is the verdict.

"Aye" is the verdict, and so the pilgrimage begins.

To spin idle yarns to the candidate who comes to our doors for the first time is merely stupid. To require that he must first be prepared in his own heart implies that he should at least have a sense of peace of mind to listen to and absorb all he hears and sees, and to disturb this sense of peace by foolish suggestions of horse play is the part of one who has neither reverence in his own heart nor appreciation of its place in the heart of another.

First impressions are always most lasting, so the candidate should be impressed at once with the dignity and solemnity of the proceedings.

He is hoodwinked as "a symbol of secrecy, silence, darkness, in which the mysteries of our Art should be preserved from the unhallowed gaze of the profane".(Mackey)

The hoodwink may be a reminder of the caves and dark places used by ancient secret societies as places of initiation, but in Freemasonry it has a much deeper meaning. Truly it conceals by covering the eyes, but it also typifies the mental and spiritual darkness before the light of revelation. The real blindfold which Freemasonry professes to remove is that of ignorance and prejudice, selfishness and self-interest, false pride and anti-social habits.

In many of the Ancient Mysteries the candidate was led to initiation at the end of a rope. Of its origin in Freemasonry little more is known. Albert Pike suggests its derivation in the Hebrew work "Khabel", meaning "a rope attached to an anchor" or "to bind as with a pledge".

One writer has subtly suggested its symbolism to us as the negative restraint "Thou shalt not", removed when voluntary pledges replace it with the more positive philosophy of "I will".

The "length of one's Cable-tow" has been variously explained but the most acceptable seems to be "within the scope of a man's reasonable ability".

Here now we find him knocking at the door. His position can be no better described than it is in an essay published by one of Freemasonry's most charming students, Dr. J. D. Buck, in the New Age (Vol. VII, Page 161)).

"Reflect a moment on the condition of the candidate on first entering the lodge room. He is not only in darkness, going he knows not where, to meet, he knows not what, — but he bears the mark of abject slavery. He is spared the shame of nakedness and the pride of apparel, and his feet are neither shod nor bare. He is poor and penniless, no external thing to help or recommend him. The old life with all its accessories has dropped from him as completely as though he were dead. He is to enter on a new life in a new world. His intrinsic character alone is to determine his progress and his future status. If he is worthy and well qualified, and duly and truly prepared for this, and, if he understands and appreciated what follows in symbols, ceremonies and instructions, the old life in him will be dead for ever".

For every work preparation is essential, often long and arduous. The knocking at the door is a hint of that preparation for entrance to a system which points the steps in the quest for the Divine.

A sharp instrument, peculiarly applied, is an ancient survival. It appeared in the Mysteries of Mithras. To Freemasons it signifies the only real penalty of the Order. Remember the explanation accompanying its application.

To pray is the duty of every spiritual seeker. To learn to pray is the first symbol in the Lodge. The Apprentice prayer is probably the direct survival of the old custom of Invocation preceding the Ancient Charges. "So for as we know, man is the only being on our planet that pauses to pray, and the wonder of his worship is at once a revelation and a prophecy". (Haywood)

"He seems to hear a Heavenly Friend,
And through thick walls to apprehend
A labour working toward an end."

Circumambulation, the journey around, is probably one of our most ancient survivals. In most ancient religions we find the imitation of the passage of the sun god in his daily round. The Freemason's journey about the Lodge more than hints at the survival of the custom. Add to this the reference to orientation and Mackey's suggestion of the analogy between our reading from the scriptures during the journey in our Lodges and the practice of the Greeks in chanting a sacred chorus divided into three parts, and we must believe that here is an echo of our long, long, past.

The Form of the Lodge and the approach to the East are again ancient survivals.

In the East, the sun, source of all light, rises; in the South he is at his meridian; in the West he sets. Even in his summer journey he never passes north of 23 degrees 28 minutes and, as Mackey points out, would leave the northern side of a wall, built above this latitude, in complete shadow. The north is, therefore, "a place of darkness".

In the ancient religions, temples were dedicated to the rising sun. The temples were so situated that on a certain day of the year the light would pass through the entrance and fall upon the Altar at the sun's rising. This meant that the altar would be situated in the West. During the development of the Christian churches the setting was reversed, the altar being in the East, and from this it is likely that the Christian Operative Masons derived their practice of placing the Master's station in the East.

And now, after journeying, our candidate approaches the Altar, symbol of giving, of sanctuary, and of sacrifice. He gives himself, at the sanctuary of peace and sacrifices before the East all that is base.

Here he accepts his "binding to" the obligation of his rank and duties. Modern Freemasonry has been attacked for the ferocity of the penalties and the impossibility of carrying them out. They, too, are a survival of ancient days and may not be removed without loss. As is done in New York State, a brief explanatory clause might be added, but otherwise, it seems, they must remain until Freemasonry is ready to change other considerations depending upon them as part of the ceremonies.

Revelation discloses Three Great Lights. Here upon the Book, which is really a library of sixty books, the candidate pledges his now life. As Fort Newton says — "No other book is so honest with us, so mercilessly merciful, so austere and yet so tender, piercing the heart, yet healing the deep wounds of sin and sorrow".

We must not forget, however, that the Book is but a symbol of something greater, even "the will of God as man has learned it in the midst of years". And so Freemasonry permits the use of the Great Light, sacred to the land of its use; the Old Testament if the Jew; the Koran of the Mohammedan; the Zend-Avesta of the Parsoe; the Bhagavad-Gita and the Veda of the Brahmin and the Hindu.

The ancients believed the earth square or an oblong square, and the Chinese called a man of integrity a "square man". The ancients, too, observed the heavens as a dome, the sun and the moon as discs, and the planets moving in curves and circles. The circle therefore became associated with divinity. Coupled in the Great Lights the square and compassed in this degree seem to suggest earthly nature yet uppermost but with spiritual nature ready to come to the surface as education draws it upward and outward.

The lesser lights are probably an allusion to the Hermetic philosophy of the Sun representing the male principle, the Moon the female principle and the fruit of their union the Master, representation of the Complete man.

Signs and Tokens were the invariable complement of membership in a secret society. They cannot be lost so long as memory is retained, and speak a universal language. To us they are the infallible means of recognition and serve when even words fail.

Benjamin Franklin once wrote of our signs: — "The great effects which they have produced are established by the most incontestable facts of history. They have stayed the uplifted hands of the destroyer; they have softened the asperities of the tyrant; they have mitigated the horrors of captivity; they have subdued the rancour of malevolence; and broken down the banners of political animosity and sectarian alienation".

The Apron, as the emblem of Innocence and the Badge of a Mason, is a survival of the protective clothing of the Operative Mason. Naturally enough speculative instruction has been built upon it, but as full explanations of the Apron and of the Ceremony of the North-East Corner appear in special papers issued by your Association, they need not be enlarged upon here.

As a final incident in his instruction our Apprentice is presented with the tools of his trade and taught their speculative use.

And so he has passed the First Step, learned the first and perhaps the greatest of all lessons, is ready to ponder his adventure in the realm of the spirit and prepare for more Light that he may continue his journey.

(N.B. Most of the material for this paper has been taken from H.L. Haywood's splendid work Symbolical Masonry")