Vol. XXVII No. 10 — October 1949

Covering of a Lodge

. . . no less than the clouded canopy, or starry decked heaven, where all good Masons hope at last to arrive by the aid of that theological ladder which Jacob, in his vision, saw extending from earth to heaven, the three principal rounds of which are denominated Faith, Hope and Charity and admonish us to have faith in God, hope in immortality and charity towards all mankind.”

Thus the exoteric ritual, and some have believed that these few words encompassed the Alpha and Omega of these symbols in the Entered Apprentice Degree.

But much more may be said of the clouded canopy, the starry decked heavens, Jacob’s ladder, the Blazing Star (which while mentioned in the ritual of the “ornaments of a lodge,” certainly is a part of the “starry decked heaven.”)

Much of Freemasonry’s ritual is centered around activities which occurred in the open; the building of the Temple, the passage through the Red Sea, the battle at the ford of the Jordan, the beginnings of architecture, the meetings on hills and vales, are instances.

The three scripture readings from the 133rd Psalm, the seventh chapter of Amos, the twelve chapter of Ecclesiastes, tell of outdoor matters.

Quarry from whence comes the ashlars, tabernacle in the wilderness, chalk, charcoal, and clay, the casting of the brazen pillars, much of the description of geometry, the bee hive, sword and naked heart, anchor and ark, scythe, grave, acacia, the Hiramic Legend, are all interwoven with life in the open.

Was this by chance?

Freemasonry takes her symbols, her teachings, her doctrine and her forms of worship from all over the world, and from times beginning with ancient Egypt, the older Babylonians, if not from periods further back in history. It is only in recent years that Masons met in Temples. Building the great Cathedrals also was an outdoor job.

It is, therefore, not only good doctrine and better symbolism, but natural and easy to understand that a lodge Masonically is representative of the world. It can, therefore, obviously have no other covering than that which covers the world; the sky, blue vault, clouded canopy, starry-decked heaven.

Most of Freemasonry’s symbols are far older than Freemasonry as we know it. Much of our ritual is suggested by Old Testament passages. These, in turn, cover vestiges of more ancient philosophies and religions.

Early religious worship was of the fire and of the sun. Fire was built in the open long before it was brought inside a shelter. Early sun worshippers built their rude temples without roofs, since no man-made temple could contain the sun god.

The famous German Masonic philosopher Krause says: “The primitive lodge is confined within no shut-up building, but is universal, reaches to heaven, especially teaching that in every clime under heaven Freemasonry has its seat.”

Our ancient brethren, we are told, held their meetings on high hills or in low vales, and it is interesting to note that mountain tops and hills were early esteemed as holier ground than lower places; “This is the law of the house; Upon the top of the mountain the whole limit thereof round about shall be most holy” (Ezekiel 43:12). “For they also built themselves high places, and images, and groves on every high hill, and under every green tree” (1 Kings 14:23). There are many similar verses in both Old and New Testaments.

In Continental lodges of an older day, grand masters and masters walked beneath silken canopies, representing the celestial or clouded canopy.

In the early eighteenth century the representations of the pillars in the porch of Solomon’s Temple were also emblematic of the pillar of cloud which guided the Israelites by day and the pillar of fire which led them at night; obviously these were not within any hall or temple, but beneath the covering of the earth — the clouded canopy.

Ritual refers to the “theological ladder, which Jacob, in his vision, saw extending from earth to heaven.” The Biblical reference is Genesis 28:12, “And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.”

This one reference is the only place in the Bible in which the word ladder appears.

The Old Testament is but one of many sacred books, however, in which a “theological ladder,” usually of seven steps, occurs. The ladder is widely dispersed among ancient religions. In the mysteries of Mithras, in Persia, seven stages of initiation were concerned with a ladder of seven steps, each dedicated to one of the planets, the topmost step representing the sun. In the mysteries of Brahma, it is the same seven-stepped ladder, but with the steps having different names, of which the last was the Sphere of Truth, where dwelt Brahma the god, a representative of the sun.

The ladder is even more ancient than these. It goes back probably to its invention; at least, vestiges of ladders in theology are still found in the most primitive of primitive religions. Frazier’s Golden Bough tells of the Tomori, a tribe of the Celebes, who worship spirits in trees. Before felling a tree, the spirit is invited out of the tree by a bribe of betel nut and descends by means of a little ladder set against the tree for its convenience!

In islands between New Guiana and Australia the natives worship Upulera (translated Mr. Sun). Once a year he is supposed to descend from the holy fig tree he inhabits. To aid his descent a ladder with seven steps is considerately placed at his disposal!

In most of the old charts, Jacob’s ladder is shown with only three rounds, or steps, and, as of course all familiar with the Entered Apprentice’s degree know, these represent faith, hope and charity. Apparently the ladder, extremely ancient as a symbol, is not so as a Masonic symbol; it appears to have been introduced by Dunckerly in the latter part of the eighteenth century. Its earliest appearance on a tracing board or chart is in 1776, and here it has but the three familiar rounds. Preston corrected this; he kept the three steps as “the three principal rounds,” not the only rounds, and “three principal rounds” the ladder now has in almost all American rituals.

Mackey states that

a writer of one of the Midrashes or Commentaries, finding that the Hebrew words for Ladder and Sinai have each the same numerical value of letters, expounds the ladder as typifying the giving of the law on that mount. Aben Ezra throught that it was symbol of the human mind, and that the angels represented the sublime mediations of man. Maimonides supposed the ladder to symbolize nature in its operations; and, citing the authority of a Midrash which gives to it four steps, says that they represent the four elements; the two heavier, earth and water, descending by their specific gravity, and the two lighter, fire and air, ascending from the same cause. Abarbanel, assuming the Talmudic theory that Luz, where Jacob slept, was Mount Moriah, supposes that the ladder, resting on the spot which afterward became the Holy of Holies, was prophetic symbol of the building of the Temple. And, lastly, Raphael interprets the ladder, and the ascent and the descent of the angels, as the prayers of man and the answering inspiration of God. Fludd, the Hermetic philosopher, in his Philosophia Mosaica of 1638, calls the ladder the symbol of the triple world, moral, physical, and intellectual; and Nicolai says that the ladder with three steps was, among the Rosicrucian Freemasons in the seventeenth century, a symbol of the knowledge of nature.

“Then stars arise and the night is holy” (Longfellow).

Starry-decked, or star-decked? Grammarians contend that the first is wrong, the second correct; that the heavens are decked with stars, not with “starry”; that if starry-decked is correct for the heavens, then flowery-decked would be correct for a bride.

But ancient ritual prints the words starry-decked. While some grand lodges have capitulated to the grammarians, more have kept the ancient form, incorrect though it undoubtedly is by modern English standards.

The word deck comes from the Dutch dekken, meaning to cover; this is derived from an earlier Teutonic stem, thek, and old English thaec, modern English, thatch. To deck is to cover, clothe, adorn. The starry-decked heavens, then, are the heavens covered with, or adorned by, stars.

Aster is Latin (borrowed from Greek) for star; the flower which bears the name aster is star-shaped; so is the asterisk. What are the stars of the starry-decked heaven? How many are they?

To science the stars are globes of burning gas. There are less than three thousand visible to the naked eye, the number depending upon altitude, time of year, time of night, clarity of atmosphere.

The Bible has many quotations showing how numerous the ancients thought the stars to be. “I will multiply thy seed as the stars” — “ye were as the stars of heaven for multitude” — “multiplied thy merchants above the stars” are instances.

The actual number of the stars is not known; perhaps never can be known. Each new increase in the power of the telescope discovers fainter and fainter stars; the Milky way, which appears to be but a faintly luminous cloud, is composed of millions of stars. If space be infinite (and it is impossible to think of it as having boundaries) and all space is filled with stars as is the space we can penetrate with our telescopes, then the number of the stars must be infinite.

But these are not the stars of Freemasonry’s “starry-decked heaven.” The scientific stars, countable or uncountable, have no place in symbolism or the poetry which Freemasonry makes her own by the inclusion of those

Lamps numberless,
Mystical jewels of God
The luminous, wonderful
Beautiful lights of the veil!
— Robert Buchanan

The stars of Freemasonry’s clouded canopy are those which have become interwoven with our lives through popular saying, living poetry, the aspirations of mens hearts. Emerson’s “hitch your wagon to a star” is in many copybooks. “Too low they build who build beneath the stars” is perhaps the most famous quotation from Youngs “Night Thoughts.” We do not count our stars in Masonry — we think of them as did the poet Bailey as stars “which stand as thick as dewdrops on the fields of heaven.” To no Freemason is a star a burning globe of gas; rather does he think of Longfellow’s:

Silently, one by one, in the infinite meadows of heaven
Blossom the lovely stars, the forget-me-nots of the angels.

And, if “Evangeline” is too classical, then Kilmer:

God be thanked for the Milk Way that runs across the sky,
That’s the path my feet would tread whenever I have to die;
Some folks call it a silver sword and some a pearly crown
But the only thing I think it is, is Main Street, Heaventown!”

In rites of Masonry other than the Symbolic lodge is the North Star, also the seven stars of the Pleaides, Orion and a few others. It is interesting to note that in Jeremy Cross’s True Masonic Chart the illustrations, by Amos Doolittle of Connecticut, show Jacob’s ladder ascending into a cloud through which seven stars are to be seen.

The principal star of Symbolic Masonry, of course, is the Blazing Star, in the center of the tessellated pavement, which we are taught is the emblem of Divine Providence. It was not always so, however. The Blazing Star apparently came into Speculative Masonry about 1735, and since then has had many different meanings; Divine Providence, the Star of Bethlehem, Prudence, Beauty, the Sun. In spite of the non-sectarian character of Freemasonry as determined both by the Old Charges and the articles of Union of the Ancients and Moderns in London, 1813, Webb persisted in teaching that the Blazing Star represented the Star of Bethlehem which guided the wise men to the infant Jesus. But this was removed from the ritual in the Baltimore Convention in 1843, and practically all rituals now use the Blazing Star as a symbol of the Divine Providence which a Mason of any faith may interpret for himself.

The Blazing Star probably represents either a planet, or Sirius, the dog star, brightest in the skies. The ancients knew the difference between the planets — wanderers — and the “fixed stars” which moved only in slow revolution about the Pole Star. As Venus is alternately an evening and a morning star and the brightest object in the heavens except the sun and moon, it doubtless was the origin of the Blazing Star, symbol representative of the Star of Bethlehem, which was to become, in Masonic ritual, symbol of Divine Providence.

The Masonic Service Association of North America