Vol. XXVIII No. 9 — September 1950

Cord, Rope, and Cabletow

Freemasonry uses but little in the way of cordage and refers to any form of it in but few words, except for the cabletow.

In Masonry, cords suspend jewels and tie aprons; reference is made to binding three Fellowcraft; there is a cord in the plumb and a plumbline in the Fellowcraft Degree; a silver cord appears in the third, doubtless the anchor of the Anchor and Ark symbol had a rope by which to secure the ship; there is a reference in the Past Masters Degree to the three fold cord; the cedars of Lebanon and stones from the quarries, “conveyed by sea on floats to Joppa” must have been towed by ropes; the sheaf of wheat suspended by the ford (or falls) of the Jordan was hung by a cord or rope.

But if the references are few, they are important, and there is an indirect reference in the construction of a square, as a rope was anciently used for that purpose.

There is a Masonic symbolism in the very making of a rope or cord which, while not taught in the ritual, is grasped by every brother who understands the “Mystic Tie,” and that is the process of twisting many weak fibers together to make an unbreakable cord. In Ecclesiastes 4:12 read “And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a three fold cord is not quickly broken.”

Edmund Burke spoke of “The king, and his faithful subjects, the Lords and Commons of this realm — the triple cord which no man can break.”

Mackey states that the American use of four fold in the Past Masters Degree is an adaptation of this verse to fit the symbolism of the degree.

However that may be, the weaving of many weak strands into a strong one is a symbol of the whole Ancient Craft in which the strength of the individual is multiplied by millions when brethren are banded together.

Before civilization began, man combated nature with tools and weapons. The few he had meant more to him than any tool can mean to us. Hence symbolical meaning was attached to many familiar things by primitive man. Fibre rope, used for countless purposes, came to have moral significance. In domesticating animals, the rope was the means whereby man was able to control them. Accordingly rope became the symbol of control of brute nature. Thus rope early came to have symbolic meanings.

Ropes and cords were used in ancient religions. In Asia, from which radiated so many of the religious forces, the center of the cult was a god, usually the sun, who was once a year hanged to a tree, there to die for the sake of his people; for that reason the hanging rope became sacred. A candidate initiated in several mysterious secret cults was led into the temple with a rope, and if he fainted from fright was dragged out by it. Druid priests wore a chain about the neck. Among some Brahmin cults, members wore a cord, either about the waist or the neck, to symbolize spiritual rebirth. In some of the medieval courts a rope was tied about the neck or middle of an accused person to show he was at the mercy of the court.

Even in modern times, cords and ropes have magical properties in some places. For instance, in the Japanese Shinto cult, the shime-nawa is a magic cord the use of which prevents the sun-goddess from returning to her cave once she has been enticed outside. Shime-nawa, or rice straw cords, can be seen outside Shinto Temples. In Siam, when the devils are driven from a city by guns in a ring about the town fired one after the other, a consecrated rope is stretched about the city walls to prevent the banished demons from returning.

Cord comes from the Greek, chordon, which means gut; hence a string, particularly a musical instrument string; also from the Latin coda, a harp string, perhaps also from the Latin cor, heart. Thus English cordial, concord, discord, accordion. Twine, a light cord is from Anglo Saxon twin whence we have twice and twain, words signifying both "more than one” and the idea of twist, as in entwine.

The “silver cord” of the twelfth chapter of Ecclesiastes is usually considered to mean the spinal marrow, which, “loosed” or broken, produces death.

Cords, ropes, thongs, must be tied to be secure. But that is the only reason for the use of a knot in either cabletow, apron string or the cord which suspends a jewel. Freemasonry has nothing descended from the ancient and primitive superstitious regarding knots. The Flamen Dialis of Rome (the human embodiment of the “sky spirit” or Jupiter) was not permitted to have a knot in any part of his garments; no girdle, tie, ribbon or lace might be knotted. Muslim pilgrims to Mecca may not wear knots. Many primitive tribes believe that knots in the clothing of a woman prevent child birth; hence a woman in labor unties all her knots. Other tribes believe that knots in the clothing of a bride prevent a true marriage, and still others that knotted clothing prevent the proper passage of the spirit of one in the throes of death. Freemasonry has preserved ancient symbolism in her cabletow but has none of knots, with the single exception of the tenuous relationship between the making of a square and the rope stretchers or rope squarers of ancient Egypt.

The Egyptian method of making a square was described in The Short Talk Bulletin on “The Ancient Square” (March 1935) from which the following is abbreviated:

In the Berlin museum is a deed, written on leather, dating back 2000 B.C. which speaks of the work of the rope stretchers.

Researches into the construction of pyramids, temples and monuments in Egypt reveal a strong feeling for the proper orientation of structures. To place the buildings so that points, corners or openings might face sun or star at a particular time, required exact measurements. Among these the laying down of the cross axis at a right angle to the main axis of the structure was important.

It was this which the rope stretchers accomplished with a long rope, which was first marked off in twelve equal portions, by knots. The rope was then laid upon the line on which a perpendicular was to be erected. The rope was pegged down at the third marker from one end, and another, four markers further on. This left two free ends, one three parts, one five parts long. With these were described two semi-circles. When the point where these two met was connected to the first peg a perfect right angle, or square, resulted. Use of a rope or cord as an article of dress with a symbolic meaning is very old. The curiously — and Masonically — interesting passage in 1 Kings 20:31-33 gives us an instance:

And his servants said unto him, Behold now, we have heard that the kings of the house of Israel are merciful kings; let us, I pray thee, put sackcloth on our loins and ropes upon our heads, and go out to the king of Israel; peradventure he will save thy life. So they girded sackcloth on their loins, and put ropes upon their heads, and came to the king of Israel, and said, Thy servant Ben-Hadad saith, I pray thee, let me live. And he said, Is he yet alive? He is my brother. Now the men did diligently observe whether anything would come from him and did hastily catch it; and they said, Thy brother Ben-Hadad. Then he said, Go ye, bring him. Then Ben-Hadad came forth to him; and he caused him to come up to the chariot.

The ancients of Syria were observers of the “Law of Dakheil” by which, if one ate of the bread and salt of another, the host was the protector of the guest. When two enemies met, not at first recognizing each other, one said to the other “Es selamu Aleikum” (peace be with you) the enemies had to become friends.

Ben-Hadad was king of Syria. So when Ahab king of Israel said “he is my brother” those who accompanied Ben-Hadad “did hastily catch it” and repeated it — the king of Israel could not then harm Ben-Hadad.

Note that the supplicants wore ropes about their heads. To wear a rope about the head in those days was to signify servitude. It was a manner of supplication; a way of saying "I am thy servant; I am within thy power; be thou merciful.”

It is also curiously interesting to know that the word pledge in Hebrew is Chabol or Khabol. Khabalta means “thou hast taken a pledge.” Khabal-ta — cabletow, or the German kabel tau from which the word may come, are no more dissimilar than the use of the Masonic cabletow as a token of pledge or promise or obligation. Truly Freemasonry in one form or another is very, very old and those who deny her age by insisting that her earliest document is no earlier than A.D. 1390 fail to grasp the indirect evidences of which Ben-Hadad and the ropes about the heads of his followers and our cabletow are but one of hundreds.

The late great Charles C. Hunt, for many years Librarian of the Grand Lodge Library at Cedar Rapids, Iowa, said “As the servants of Ben-Hadad placed a cabletow on their heads to denote their submission to the will of Ahab, so that on the candidate for the mysteries of Masonry denotes his submission to the laws of character building. As the cable furnished Ahab a means of punishing unworthy conduct on the part of Ben-Hadad’s servants, so does it symbolize the means by which an unworthy candidate could be excluded from the privileges of Masonry.”

The Standard Dictionary defines cabletow as “a rope or line for drawing or leading.” Mackey says the word is purely Masonic and that the German kabel tau is the probable derivation. Lawrence, in his Practical Masonic Lectures, says that cabel is a word from the Dutch, signifying a great rope, which, being fastened to the anchor, holds the ship fast when she rides; and that tow is a word from the Saxon, which means to draw, as to draw a barge or ship along the water. Albert Pike found the origin of the word in the Hebrew khabel, which meant rope, cord, cable attached to an anchor and that tu or to as a suffix, meant “his” — that is, “his anchor rope.” In Ezekiel and Job the same khabel meant binding or pledge, and “to bind as with a pledge.” The length of the cabletow, Pike held, is “the scope and intent and spirit of one’s pledge.”

Symbolically, according to Pike, the word cabletow has no significance: its use divesting it of every semblance of a symbol. Mackey agrees that it is merely a physical device for controlling the initiate. Lawrence held that the cabletow is a symbol of the obligation of a Mason, the Mystic Tie binding the initiate to God, to the order, and to righteousness; a tie which both binds and draws, and which holds a man fast, lest he drift like a ship at sea. Rowbottom, in his The Origin of Masonic Ritual, makes the cabletow a symbol which teaches the candidate that he is bound with a cord whose running noose of indigence and want, tightening with unrelenting severity, will bring no less disaster to the careless and indolent who try to evade the duties of their lives. Chalmers Paton, in his Freemasonry, Its Symbolism, Religious Nature, and Laws of Perfection, states that the cabletow is a symbol of the tie which unites the Fraternity, and its use may perhaps be referred to the figurative language in which the Lord speaks to the Prophet Hosea, “I drew thee with the cords of a man, with bonds of love.”

Street, in Symbolism of the Three Degrees says:

Its obvious literal meaning is the cable or cord by which something is toward or drawn. Hence with the greatest aptness it represents those forces and influences which have conducted not only the individual, but the human race out of a condition of ignorance and darkness into one of light and knowledge. With symbolical meanings of this kind the cord seems to have been employed in many, if not all, of the ancient systems of initiation. The explanation of this paraphernalia given in our lecture is its least important meaning.

How long is a cabletow? The answer to this question has in various times and by various writers been given as almost any length from 720 feet — twice the circumference of the degrees in a circle — to many miles. Early it was considered to be three miles — the distance a man can walk in an hour, — but the Baltimore Convention of 1843 made it the scope of a man’s reasonable ability, which seems more in keeping with its meaning as generally understood.

The “generally understood” meaning — which means that grasp of its symbolism possessed by the average Mason — is that the cabletow is first for a particular and physical purpose; later it becomes symbolical of the tie which unites a man to his Mother lodge (the "umbilical cord” of Masonry) and finally that it is emblematic of the Mystic Tie, which is the bond uniting hearts of Freemasons wheresoever dispersed.

The Masonic Service Association of North America