Vol. XX No. 5 — May 1942

“Windlass and Rope”

The sages say Dame Truth delights to dwell
(Strange mansion!) in the bottom of a well.
Questions are then the windlass and the rope
That pull the grave old gentlewoman up!

— Peter Pinder (John Wolcot)

Civilizations come into being, exist, die and are buried; literally the ruins of one become the grave of the next. In many lands are the remains of ancient cities, one atop another. Dig, and the last to die comes to light; dig further, and an older city is found.; use shovel and pickax again and still a third yields its mute treasures of an older age to tell the story of a forgotten time.

Like the strata of earth, symbols may contain many truths; that which is evident is not the only meaning to be read. The world around, white is a symbol of purity, doubtless because of snow; also because any extraneous matter shows dark upon white at once. But in the laboratory can be found other meanings. White is not a color, but a mixture of all colors. Watch a scientist whirl a disc in which are seven holes, each covered with glass of a different color; whirl the disc fast enough and the light which comes through the seven holes is white light, not green or red or blue or yellow. White, therefore, may become a symbol of completeness, or of truth, since it is the result of a perfect combination of diverging elements.

All the symbols of Freemasonry are subject to many interpretations. The less obvious meaning is often the most interesting. Hence this short paper, setting forth some of the "buried cities” of symbolism, attempting to show that symbols, like things, are not always what they seem!

The use of a quotation from Ruth 4:7 in the lecture of the Entered Apprentice is almost universal in our Ancient Craft. “For to confirm all things, a man plucked off his shoe and gave it to his neighbor and this was testimony in Israel.”

Why should the removal of a shoe and the gift of it to another testify to truth? Why not remove the garment or the head covering and pass it over “to confirm all things?”

Any one interested may find the answer by attempting to run half shod over rough grounds. Feet which have no shoes will not stand the pain. The man without shoes cannot run on rocks. He must stay to face whatever comes. Hence in transferring property the Israelites bound the covenant by removing the shoe, in token that they told the truth and were not afraid to stay and see it through. The buyer need not fear that a shoeless seller would run away to parts unknown leaving the buyer to discover that the seller did not really own the property. The primitive methods of primitive times gave to Masonry a symbol of truth, not always understood when the preparation of a candidate is observed.

As was set forth at some length in The Short Talk Bulletin for May 1941, under the title of “The Third Great Light” the compasses and the “certain point within a circle” are intimately related to Freemasonry’s greatest symbol, the square. The “point within a circle” has now two parallel lines and a connection with the Saints John. The point represents an individual brother, the circle, the boundary line of his passions and prejudices. This monitorial explanation is simple and obvious.

The hidden symbolism is more interesting. When we think of a circle drawn by the compasses as the means by which the master workman verified the squares of the craftsmen, we see a real and intimate connection between the compasses, the circle, the square, and the Craft. The two lines across were anciently the one necessary to use with the circle to “erect” the square. Anciently tire circle was the boundary line to the correctness of the square and while a workman circumscribed his tools within it, it was impossible for them to be incorrect; that is “to materially err.”

Newly-made Entered Apprentices stand in the northeast corner of the lodge, the place in which cornerstones of public buildings are laid. Why are cornerstones laid, and Entered Apprentices stood at this one point of the compass and not another?

Here the searcher must go back into the very early days of light and sun worship. Primitive man came to regard the east as the source of light because the sun there rose. In the ordinary latitudes of nomadic living the north side of all structures was always in shade (just as Solomon’s Temple was situated so far north of the ecliptic that the sun never shone on its north side). So the north soon came to be as symbolic of darkness as the east was of fight.

Half way between the two points — source of light, place of darkness — is, obviously, neither darkness nor light. It is the place at which a traveler passes from darkness toward light. It thus becomes symbolic of a place of beginning, a location of commencement. Hence, the building is there begun, the new structure which will fulfill its purpose when finished is commenced where commences everything — light being itself symbolic of life.

Stood in the northeast corner the young Mason is at a point where he leaves the darkness of profane life and sees the dawn of Masonic light which will in the future illuminate his existence.

The symbolism of the grips is sufficiently explained in the ritual; the fact that Freemasonry uses grips for a reason not explained may have escaped the attention of many.

In the “brave days of old” when men at arms wore steel to protect themselves from sword, lance and dagger — in those days the only weapons — to remove the steel gauntlet and offer the bare hand was an assurance of friendship. It testified that he who offered his bare hand concealed no dagger, and feared no disabling blow. To clasp hands has always been a symbol of friendship but to clasp bare hands in a society which regards gloves as a part of its formal clothing is a vestigial remains of a custom which antedates Freemasonry as we moderns know it.

In the majority of American grand jurisdictions the past master’s jewel is formed of compasses open sixty degrees on the arc of a circle.

Sixty degrees is the angle subtended by the lines, each to each, which form an equilateral triangle. Any two equilateral triangles of the same size, placed to form a lozenge shaped figure, or rhomb, provide the easiest method of erecting a square, since connecting the north and south, and east and west points of the rhomb forms right angles where the lines cross.

The past master is supposed to have learned the secret of the square; with the compasses at an angle of sixty degrees he may most readily produce a perfect square. Hence the use of this angle for this working tool is the past master’s symbol.

In Pennsylvania as in England the past master’s jewel is the Forty-Seventh Problem of Euclid, but the symbolism is the same, since by the Forty-Seventh Problem, also, may a square be erected.

A symbol not explained nor usually commented upon in the second degree is the winding of the stairs.

There is a symbolism in the fact that the stairway winds. A straight stairway is not so easy to climb as a winding one, which, because of the fact that it does wind, ascends by easier stages than one which rises as a ladder. Yet, a straight stairway has the goal constantly in sight; while it may be more difficult in the effort and strength required, it is easier in that one can see where one is going. There is no faith needed in climbing a ladder; we can visualize the top and have its inspiration constantly before us as we rise rung after rung.

But the winding stairway is one which tries a man’s soul. He must believe, or he cannot reach the top.

Nothing is clear before him but the next step. He must take it on faith that there is a top, that if he but climb long enough he will indeed reach a Middle Chamber, a goal, a place of light. In such a way are the Winding Stairs and the Middle Chamber symbols of life and manhood. No man knows what he will become; as a boy he may have a goal, but may reach another Middle Chamber than that he visualized as he started the ascent. No man knows whether he will ever climb all the stairs; the Angel of Death may stand but around the turn on the next step. Yet in spite of a lack of knowledge of what is at the top of the stairs, in spite of the fact that a Flaming Sword may bar his ascent, man climbs. He climbs in faith that there is a goal and that he will reach it; and no good Freemason doubts but that for those who never see the glory of the Middle Chamber in this life, a lamp is set that they may see still farther in another, better life.

A very beautiful symbolry is concealed within the seventh chapter of Amos, a quotation of which is used in the majority of Fellowcraft Degrees in the United States.

Thus he shewed me; and, behold, the Lord stood upon a wall made by a plumbline, with a plumbline in his hand. And the Lord said unto me, Amos, what seest thou? And I said, A plumbline. Then said the Lord, Behold, I will set a plumbline in the midst of my people Israel: I will not again pass by them any more. (Amos 7:7, 8).

Not for nothing was this particular passage selected. The vital and important part is that the Lord set a plumbline in the midst of his people Israel. He did not propose to judge them by a plumbline afar off, in another land, in high heaven, but here — “in the midst of them.”

Presumably plumblines hang alike. Presumably all plumbs, like all squares and all levels, are equally accurate. Yet a man may use a tool, thinking it accurate, which to another is not true. If the tools of building and the tools of judging be not alike, either judgment must be inaccurate, or the judge must take into consideration the tool by which the work was done.

By the touch system a blind man may learn to write upon a typewriter. If a loosened type drops from the type bar when the blind man strikes the letter e he will make but a little black smudge upon the paper. It is not reasonable to criticize the blind man for imperfect work as he has no means of knowing that his tool is faulty. If the smudges which stand for the letter e are all in the right places, it is obvious that in spite of his handicap the blind man perfectly has operated his machine. This is a judgment by a plumbline "in the midst” of the man and his work. If, however, the paper with the smudged letter e was examined by one who knew nothing of the workmans blindness, nothing of his typewriter, and who saw only the poor piece of typing, doubtless he would judge it as imperfect.

The concealed symbol of this quotation is the admonition to judge work and a worker by his own standards, his own tools and not another’s.

It is interesting to know that the watch on wrist or in pocket has an intimate connection with one of Freemasonry’s most used and little understood symbols.

Masonic processions in lodge move from East to West by way of the South, or clockwise. To “turn to the right” is common parlance for ethical conduct.

Ordinarily religious processions have always so moved that the right hand is toward the center about which the course is taken.

Clocks and watches are of comparatively recent invention. It would have been as easy to make the clock and watch hands move from twelve noon or midnight in a reverse direction, putting the figure I where now is the figure XI, the figure II where now is the figure X, etc. But the early watch and clock makers established the direction of watch and clock hand movements according to the movement of religious processions. In forming and developing its ritual and ceremony Freemasonry followed the same age old practice.

The circumambulation of candidates and officers in lodge, traveling about the altar, is an imitation of man’s worship of his first gods — sun and fire. The watch in one’s pocket, the clock on the lodge wall, are but imitations of circumambulation.

The placing of the Lesser Lights about the altar of Freemasonry differs in different jurisdictions; in some the Lesser Lights are a small triangle, supported on one standard; in others they are on separate standards, in different positions with relation to the altar.

In many jurisdictions in which it is possible to walk between the altar and the Lesser Lights, it is considered bad Masonic manners so to do, just as it is considered discourteous to cross the lodge between the East and the altar.

Brethren do not cross the lodge in front of the master on the theory that he should have the Three Great Lights always in view.

Brethren do not walk through the Lesser Lights for quite a different reason.

In the first two degrees of Freemasonry the altar is a place of obligation. But in the third degree the altar and the Lights become symbolic of the inner sanctuary, the Holy of Holies, the Sanctum Sanctorum. Into the original Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle, the High Priest went once a year to pronounce in secret the holy name — that which we know by the letters JHVH, to us, Jehovah.

There was but one way of entry; the High Priest went in, pronounced the name, observed the Ark of the Covenant by the light of the Shekinah which glowed about it, performed his devotions and returned the way he came. He could enter and leave, but he could not would not, use the Holy of Holies as a highway, a means of travel to another place.

Freemasons do not pass between the altar and Lights for the same reason; there is a way in and a way out, but there is no highway across the Sanctum Sanctorum.

Thus these paragraphs might run on for many pages, for there is no symbol in Freemasonry but has more than one meaning, and few of those which are concealed but are more interesting than the explanation in the ritual of a meaning easy to see and comprehend.

If these few words lead any Mason to study more deeply into the hidden meanings of common symbols, these hints will have been well-worthwhile.

The Masonic Service Association of North America