Vol. XXIV No. 11 — November 1946

Hands in Freemasonry

As the hands have always played an important part in men’s lives, it is not surprising that they are vital in Freemasonry. It is of much interest to compare the use, symbolism and figurative thought of hands in ancient times with their similar usages in modern life, and in the Ancient Craft.

A man’s hand is often a true tell-tale of its owner. The long tapering fingers of the artist and musician, the short stubby hands of the artisan and mechanic will at once occur to mind. The pseudo-science of palmistry, by which the past and future is assumed to be written in the “lines” — which are but the creases or folds of the skin of the palms — is of the hands, not the feet of the owner, although just why the lines of the hands reveal more of destiny than those of the feet is not immediately apparent!

To be legal a signature must be made by a man’s own hand; even if he cannot write, he must “make his mark.” Ancient peoples passed a coin from one hand to another to bind a bargain; the practice survives to this day in contracts which contain some such wording as “In consideration of one dollar in hand, receipt of which is hereby acknowledged” etc. In England “To take the King’s shilling” is to enlist - make a contract, in other words — in the armed forces.

In daily life we use such expressions as “delivered by hand,” “to learn at first hand,” “second hand.” Watches and clocks have “hands” in place of pointers. The first communication was a sign language in which all the talking was done with the hands; no one who has ever seen American Indians speaking to one another in the “sign language” will forget the grace of movement of the hands when so engaged. The lover seeks, the father grants his daughter’s “hand” in marriage. We “shake hands” as a sign of friendliness, welcome, salute in parting. “Laying on of hands” is a part of some Church ceremonies. The small boy avers the truth of his statement by an elevated fist and “By golly!” unknowing that to swear by gol or the hand, was anciently the promise of willingness to have the hand cut off if its owner spoke not the truth. It is with the hand that one gestures to another when neither knows the other’s language; hands out, palms open, is universally a sign of friendship; the uplifted hand may call down a curse or a blessing; both hands uplifted were in ancient times a symbol of covenant, agreement, consecration. A runner wins a race “handily” (not footily!) A race horse is “handicapped” because ancient wrestlers contested with a tied hand when one was much stronger or larger than another. We “bring up by hand” when a mother cannot nurse her baby; we “lend a hand” even when our help is but loaning some money and so on indefinitely.

It is, perhaps, not generally recognized that fear has been at the root of a great many matters of manners and etiquette.

The earliest men on earth lived only because their fears protected them. Unarmed by nature and unprotected, given neither tough skin like an elephant, a horn shield like a turtle, claws like a tiger nor teeth like a shark, man could live in the midst of stronger, swifter animals only by the exercise of speed and wit, brought into use by fear.

Much as he must have feared his surroundings, he feared his own kind even more. Early man was as solitary as a lion or a tiger; he was against all living things and all living things were against him. A fellow man with a club was either to be clubbed to death or the would-be clubber died. More modern man carried a sword, and still more modern gentlemen carried a cane — a means of defense was necessary if the male was to be comfortable in society!

Two primitives meeting might fight, or mutual fear might make them flee. But what happened when two armed with clubs met a tiger? Both turned on the common foe. United, they won a battle which often was lost. The two might easily decide to try this again; the beginnings of the tribe. But it was also the beginning of the signal of the empty hand. Next time our belligerent pair met they might drop their clubs as a gesture of friendship; if it were better to fight together against a common enemy, even a primitive brain might figure that the first step was not to fight each other!

Came a far later age, when men wore steel helmets, harness, gauntlets, To remove the gauntlet and extend the bare hand was to show that in spite of the rest of the armor, only peace was intended. Even today we remove the glove before offering our hand, though we may have forgotten the reason for this bit of etiquette.

Enough has been said to show that, practically speaking, it would have been impossible to bring into being any such complicated and far-flung system as Freemasonry without making much of the hands. Indeed, the original operative masons made their living “by hand”; making symbols of the tools, as the speculative Masons did, could hardly omit also making symbols of the hands and some of their motions.

Masons know “the right hand of fellowship.” “Hand to back” is a part of all modern systems which include the five points of fellowship and “hand to hand” survives yet in some rituals.

In all rituals the Entered Apprentice learns something of two men supporting each other by the right hand, or of two right hands joined. In some rituals this is explained with reference to Fides or Fidelity under which names some ancient worshipped Deity. We have the “sign of fidelity,” used in many jurisdictions, when addressing, or being addressed by, the Master. In some rituals all the brethren use this sign in opening and closing a lodge. The indispensable Mackey says:

“The goddess Fides, to whom Numa first erected temples, had priests covered by a white veil as a symbol of the purity which should characterize Fidelity. No victims were slain on her altars, and no offerings made to her except flowers, wine, and incense. Her statues were represented clothed in a white mantle, with a key in her hand and a dog at her feet. The virtue of Fidelity is, however, frequently symbolized in ancient medals by a heart in the open hand, but more usually by two right hands clasped. Horace calls her Incorrupta Fides, and makes her the sister of justice; while Cicero says that that which is religion toward God and piety toward our parents is fidelity toward our fellow-men. There was among the Romans another diety called Fidius, who presided over oaths and contracts, a very usual form of imprecation or oath being Medius fidius adjuvet, that is, so help me the God Fidius. Noel says that there was an ancient marble at Rome consecrated to the god Fidius, on which was depicted two figures clasping each other’s hands as the representatives of Honor and Truth, without which there can be no fidelity nor truth among men.”

There are today in the United States thirty lodges called “Fidelity” or one of its derivatives; twenty-five “Fidelity,” two “Fidelis,” one “Fidelitas,” two “Fides.” There are also two “Faithful” lodges.

On many lodge seals will be found two clasped hands, perhaps the most prominent digital symbol in the Ancient Craft.

These two clasped hands are not highly developed in the ritual; they appear only as one among many symbols, Masonry leaving it to the individual to pursue it to its origin and find each for himself what its inner significance may be.

The late great J. Hugo Tatsch, Masonic scholar and researcher extraordinary, was so intrigued by the Latin name of the Deity symbolized that he thought that there might be something interesting found if he pursued the “clasped hands” into ancient Rome. Here, especially in coinage, he unearthed some interesting sidelights.

A book at Duesseldorf, Germany, in 1731, a period when the speculative Craft was developing its ritualistic forms as we know them today, depicts Roman coins bearing the symbols of the clasped hands. This volume entitled La Religion des Anciens Romains Tirée des Plus Pures Sources de L'Antiqué, was written by Monsieur Du Choul, counsellor to Henry II, king of France, and appeared in many editions, the first being a folio volume of 1556, printed in Italian. Many other illustrations of old coins are found in its pages.

The ancient Romans were an aggressive people, almost constantly at war in some far-flung borders of the known world. The Emperor Vespasian, following the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 erected a “Temple of Peace.” Even the novice in numismatics knows the Judaea Capta coins struck by Titus and Vespasian to commemorate the capture of Judaea. Peace was commemorated not only by the Temple which Vespasian erected, but also by coins bearing suitable symbols and the words Paci Orbis Turarum — which can be translated: “Peace throughout the world.” Titus, the son and successor of Vespasian, used the motto, Pax Aeterna (eternal peace) on his coinage.

In the reign of Emperor Augustus who reigned from 31 B.C. to A.D. 14, a coin was struck which symbolizes the benefits of peace following wars of his period. The coin bears the caduceus, two cornucopias, two clasped hands, and the word Pax. These symbols can be read thus: Peace and concord bring an abundance of good. The caduceus is that of Mercury, the messenger; the cornucopias are symbols of plenty; the clasped hands signify peace and concord. Another Roman coin shows clasped hands on which the word Fides is given. This coin was found in France, and was coined during the Roman occupation of ancient Gaul.

The symbols of fidelity have been cherished in all ages. Robert Baxter, whose name is familiar to collectors of seventeenth-century books, especially of Bibles, used a woodcut depicting Faith in his 1612 edition of the New Testament printed at London. Here the name Fides appears again, and to symbolize it further, the two clasped hands appear on the shield.

Fidelity was stressed early in Masonic history. The Regius Manuscript which dates from around A.D. 1390, and is our oldest set of Old Charges, advocates fidelity to lord, master, fellows and apprentices. “That no mon to hys craft be false” is emphatically urged. “He must be stedefast and true also to alle thys ordynance, wherever he go, and to hys Kynge.”

When, in later centuries, the Speculative Fraternity had spread over all Continental Europe, we find medals bearing the symbol of the clasped hands.

It will not here be necessary to go deeply in the use of the hand in the five points of fellowship. Originally, apparently, Freemasonry had “hand to hand” rather than the more modern “hand to back”; Mackey thinks that Webb must have taught “hand to hand” and that the more common version of today is an innovation, dating probably to the Baltimore Convention of 1842. However that may be, the symbolism of the hand in the third degree is plain enough; one writer has phrased it:

Do you stumble and fall, my brother? My hand is stretched out to prevent. Do you need aid? My hand is yours — use it. It is your hand, for the time being. My strength is united to yours. You are not alone in your struggle — I stand with you on the Fourth of the Five Points, and as your need by, so, Deo volente, will be my strength for you.

So must we speak when the need comes. It makes no difference in what way our brother stumbles; it may be mentally; it may be spiritually; it may be materially; it may be morally. No exceptions are noted in our teachings. We are not told to stretch forth the hand in aid if, and perhaps, and but! Not for us to judge, to condemn, to admonish . . . for us only to put forth our strength unto our falling brother at his need, without question and without stint.

For of such is the Kingdom of Brotherhood.

There is a very vigorous branch of symbolism in the gloves of which Masonry makes much. “Cleanliness is next to godliness” is known to all. “He that toucheth pitch shall be defiled therewith” says Ecclesiastes. The Koran has “God loveth the clean.” The Psalmist sings: “I will wash my hands in innocence.” Pilate washed his hands in token that he had no belief in the guilt of Jesus.

In the Ancient Mysteries the neophyte began by washing his hands. Even today "to come with clean hands” to any position or discussion is to arrive without any guilt on the conscience.

It is to emphasize these ideas that white gloves are worn in Masonic processions. In certain funeral services, the gloves symbolize Fidelity, as in Georgia; “The Glove is a symbol of Fidelity”: Oregon “The Glove is emblematic of the right hand which in all ages has been deemed the symbol of Fidelity.” But generally the gloves are a reminder of cleanliness of hand, which from very ancient times has been the outward and visible symbol of the pure heart within, and washing the hands, a symbol of purification.

No mention will here be made of the various ways the hands are used in Freemasonry in its most sacred signs, for they are familiar to all. What is here attempted is no more than to trace some of the ancient roots of modern symbolism of the hand through some of the curious bypaths of Masonic lore which provide so fascinating an excursion for him who will but follow the signpost pointing that way.

It will at once occur to the intelligent reader that the commonest of all directive signs on highways is a pointing hand!

The Masonic Service Association of North America