Vol. XXVII No. 6 — June 1949

Anchor and Ark

The Anchor and Ark, as a symbol in the Master Mason Degree, is very old. It is found on the earliest charts in this country and in the first Webb Monitors in practically the exact language now used in most rituals. In England it is, of course, much older.

Its symbolism is too obvious to need much comment. The ark is a means by which the soul is transported from one life to another; by which man is saved from the storms of life by a faith. The anchor supplies something to which to cling, some point of safety to which to hold in the stormiest of life's days; a real hope for a better life to come.

Hunt says nothing about it in his fine book on Symbolism; Street is factual and dull; Haywood, in his fine Symbolical Masonry gives more facts and inspiration, but only for two-and-a-half pages; Mackey is very short and practical on the subject; the late, great Dr. Frederick W. Hamilton, one time President of Tufts (Massachusetts) and for many years grand secretary in Massachusetts, wrote of the symbol only this:

The anchor, as a symbol does not appear before the Christian era. The ark appears to have been substituted by Masonry for the ship, an ancient symbol of life and more particularly of its close. In early Christian symbolism the church is represented as a ship which carries the faithful safely over the sea of life. The comparison of life with the sea, or the metaphor describing the course of a human life to a voyage, are obvious and doubtless of great antiquity. It is reasonable to suppose that Masonry, while accepting in a general way the ancient symbols, substituted the ark for the ship as being more inclusive. The ship bears a select company to their destined port. The ark reminds us of Noahs ark which saved all living things from destruction by preserving a pair of each kind from the common doom.

And yet there is much of interest beyond the mere symbolism of an emblem which is but one of many in the Master Mason’s degree, and a little hunting through many books gives some curious and interesting side lights, of which the following pages are but hints of what may be had by him who will spend the time.

The ark of the Anchor and Ark is of course the ark of Noah, and not the Ark of the Covenant, which was within the Sanctum Sanctorum of Holy of Holies of the Tabernacle and later Solomon’s Temple.

In the time of Moses (1250 B.C. approx.), ark was a common name for a structure which concealed and which also floated. Readers of the Great Light will not overlook the story of the mother of Moses concealing him until he was three months old, and then making "an ark of bulrushes which she daubed with slime and with pitch and put the child therein; and she laid it in the flags by the rivers brink.” Exodus 2:3 (slime is probably bitumen).

This ark was made of the long stems of the Nile rush, or papyrus, either woven or bound together and plastered with bitumen and pitch to make it watertight; in plain English, the mother of Moses made a small boat. Similar light boats are mentioned in Job 9:26 and Isaiah 18:2; “vessels of bulrushes upon the waters.”

Curiously enough, Sargon I, ancient Babylonian king, who lived 2800 B.C., was also born in secret, committed to the river by his mother in a basket of rushes and found and reared by one who used the river to irrigate his fields! The Greeks have a similar story of a man named Belitaras.

In ritual the symbol is dual, but in many charts, illustrations, lantern slides — and, very oddly — in the jewel of a Royal Ark Mariner — it is triple, having the rainbow as a most important part. Of course the rainbow is an important part of the Biblical story of the Deluge (although rainbow does not occur in the story in Genesis — it is simply “my bow” and “the bow”). It is as rainbow, however, that the bow appears in a number of the other deluge stories in which a boat, chest or ark is also important.

The symbol of a boat as the means of passage from this life to the life beyond is ancient. In Egypt the soul of the departed passed over to Amenti, the Hall of Judgment. Fabled Charon was the ferryman who conveyed the spirits of the dead across the rivers Acheron and Styx to the Elysian Fields — provided the deceaseds relatives or friends had put a coin within his hand or mouth to pay “Charons toll.”

Lovers of the sonnet will recall Eugene Lee Hamilton’s beautiful “Idle Charon”:

The shores of Styx are lone forevermore,
And not one shadowy form upon the steep
Looms through the dusk, as far as eye can sweep,
To call the ferry over as of yore:
But tintless rushes all about the shore
Have hemmed the old boat in, where, locked in sleep
Hoar-bearded Charon lies; while pale weeds creep
With tightened grasp all round the unused oar.
For in the world of life strange rumors run
That now the soul departs not with the breath,
But that the Body and the Soul are one;
And in the loved one’s mouth now, after death,
The widow puts no obel,[1] nor the son,
To pay the ferry in the world beneath.

The story of the deluge and the ark is not only Biblical; it is worldwide in extent and hoary with antiquity in the history of hundreds of primitive societies. Eskimoes, Mandans, Minnetarrees, Delawares, Fiji Islanders, aborigines of Australia, to mention but a few, all have traditions and myths of a great deluge at some early time. The story of Atlantis, the lost continent, is but an inversion of the tale; whether the waters rise and cover the earth or the earth sinks beneath the waters, the result is the same. And written history covers more than one instance in which an island has sunk beneath the sea — doubtless the descendants of any survivors will also tell the tale of a flood which engulfed their world and their ancestors!

Abington Bible Commentary speaks of the tale of the flood and ark as common to many peoples, clearly as not originating in Palestine but somewhere — perhaps Mesopotamia — where are wide level plains on which a flood might indeed come from rains, just as Oregon and Washington in 1948 had devastating floods from too great a mountain runoff of water into valleys.

Nelson’s Encyclopedia has this to say of the stories of the deluge:

Deluge legends are of common occurrence in folklore and early literature, the classical story of Deucalion and Pyrrha being typical of similar myths in India, Persia, Babylonia, Syria, and Asia Minor. The Babylonian (or Akkadian) tradition presents a striking correspondence with the Biblical story. It relates how Parnapishtim or Xisuthros was forewarned by Ea, the god of wisdom, of the coming catastrophe, and commanded to construct a huge vessel. Accordingly, he builds a ship 600 cubits long, 60 broad, and 60 in height, smears it with bitumen, brings in the members of his family and the animals, and shuts the door. A storm of six days ensues. When the waters begin to abate, Xisuthros steers for Mount Nizir, and sends forth in turn a dove and a swallow, which return; then a raven, which does not. Xisuthros then comes out, offers a sacrifice to the gods, who are well pleased with it, the rainbow appears in the sky, and a covenant is struck between Xisuthros and Bel, the former, together with his wife, being now exalted to the godhead.

It is now widely held that, as the Babylonian account is the older, the narrative in Genesis must have been borrowed from it, though some authorities believe that they are both derived independently from a common Semitic source. Both are connected with moral and religious ends, in both man’s sin is the cause of the catastrophe, both end with sacrifice and a covenant. The principal difference is in the virtual monotheism of the Hebrew as against the polytheism of the Babylonian story.

The reader must decide for himself whether so widely-dispersed a legend had its foundation in an actual occurrence; or if it is but one of thousands of myths which were the literature of primitive peoples.

No matter what theory is acceptable, the obvious connection of a boat, chest, ark, and safety is obvious.

The anchor is an ancient device; doubtless the first men who ventured in boats beyond rivers into harbors, tied ropes to stones, or baskets of stones, which, thrown overboard, held the vessel from the action of current, tide or wind.

Metal anchors, in the form we now know them, were in use in ancient Rome before Paul’s time. Then, as now, they had shanks, and stock (bar) near the top, crown (lower and curved arms) and flukes.

Epictitus, Stoic philosopher (60 B.C.) connected ship and anchor to hope; he said: “We ought, neither to fasten our ship to one small anchor nor our life to a single hope.”

The anchor does not appear in the Old Testament; nothing is said about anchoring the Ark when it had finished its voyage and come to rest in the Ararat Mountains. And even in the New Testament, it appears in but four places.

The first of these is in Acts 27, which tells of Paul’s journey to Rome. Readers will recall the storm, the vessel being buffeted and driven by the winds, the fear of all that death would come and Paul’s promise that

there shall be no loss of any man’s life among you, but of the ship. For there stood by me this night the angel of God, whose I am, and whom I serve, saying, fear not, Paul; thou must be brought before Caesar; and lo, God hath given thee all them that sail with thee. Wherefore, sirs, be of good cheer; for I believe God, that it shall be even as it was told me.

Finally the sailors could take soundings; first twenty fathoms and then fifteen, and then “fearing lest we should have fallen upon rocks, they cast four anchors out of the stem, and wished for the day.”

The word occurs twice more in this tale of shipwreck and saving.

In Hebrews 6, however, is the quotation which is generally accepted as having made the anchor a Christian symbol of hope. Verses 18 and 19 read:

That by two immutable things in which it was impossible for God to lie, we might have a strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us: which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and stedfast, and which entereth into that within the veil.

There are not many references to the sea in the symbolic Masonic ritual; the cedars of Lebanon were conveyed by sea; there is a seafaring man; Moses conducted the children of Israel through the Red Sea; etc. But both ark and anchor have been used in other than Symbolic lodge rituals to a considerable extent.

The widespread of the deluge legend and belief in it as a truthful tradition gave rise to many specialized forms of worship; generally called Arkite Worship. It is generally concerned with the sacredness of high mountains and is coupled with some reference to an ark, chest, basket, and coffer. It is not to be confused with the Arkite of the Old Testament. The Arkites of Genesis and Chronicles were inhabitants of Arka, a town and district of Phoenicia.

The Royal Ark Mariners is an English degree conferred on Mark Master Masons; it is little known in the United States. The supreme body is called a Grand Ark; lodges of Royal Ark Mariners are vessels; to organize one of these lodges is to launch a vessel; to open one is to float an ark; to close one is to moor. Apparently the degree dates from the end of the eighteenth century.

Female Masonry, probably first instituted about 1730, had for a time a nautical phraseology. In Ars Quatuor Coranotorum, E. L. Hawkins states:

In 1734 it [female Masonry] had some nautical emblems and vocabulary; the sisters used to make the fictitious voyage from the Isle of Felicity under the sail of the brothers and piloted by them. It was then the Order of the Happy Ones which comprised the degree of cabin boy, captain, commodore and vice admiral. The candidate was made to swear to keep secret concerning the ceremonial that accompanied the initiation. If it was a man he swore to take anchorage in any port where a vessel of the order was already found at anchor. If it was a woman she promised ‘not to receive a strange vessel in her port so long as a vessel of the order should there be at anchor.’ A split in this order gave birth in 1745 to the Order of the Knights and Ladies of the Anchor.

There is also extant a curious certificate of more than a hundred years ago, issued by the Knight Templar Encampment of Glasgow, Scotland, which attests the conferring of many degrees of odd names, including that of Ark Mason.

It is interesting to note that twenty lodges in the United States have the name Anchor; three more have Anchor as part of their name; there are ten lodges called Ark and one (Auburn, Illinois) Ark and Anchor. Four lodges are named Rainbow and there is one Dove lodge, but it was undoubtedly named for the great John Dove, grand secretary in Virginia.

In England are several Anchor and Hope lodges and the Anchor and Dolphin Society was once popular.

Anchor and ark both go far back; their roots are in many climes and times; their significance far more than appears upon the surface.

And this, true of many if not of all of its symbols, is one of the intriguing charms of the Ancient Craft!

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  1. Obol — a Greek silver coin.

The Masonic Service Association of North America