Vol. XXX No. 2 — February 1952

Tool Symbolism

The essence of a symbol is its representation of something else than what it is. A stick is not a symbol of a stick - it is but a stick. But three sticks properly arranged become a triangle and the triangle may be a symbol of a god or spirit which has no beginning or ending.

The symbol cannot exist as a symbol without the thing symbolized; that which is symbolized has an existence not at all dependent upon the symbol. Geometry as a science of measurement is not dependent upon the & for its existence; the &, signifying the moral significance of geometry, could have not come into existence without the science from which it was taken.

A few symbols and their origin may be so connected that neither can exist without the other; it is difficult to conceive of the American flag as existing without an America, and unthinkable that America should have any other flag than the Stars and Stripes. The King of England is a symbol of the monarchy of his country but he has an independent existence as a man. As a king, he would not exist without Great Britain and Great Britain could, but doubtless never will, have any but a king or queen both as sovereign and symbol of that sovereignty.

All men depend upon symbols for much that they do, think, plan, are. The dollar bill is a symbol of a silver dollar which is itself a symbol of a certain part of a day’s work. A postage stamp is a symbol of a fee paid for a service. A check on a bank is a symbol of money in an account. The hands of a watch point to numbers which are symbols of the position of the sun with reference to the zenith. The red light at a crossing is a symbol of a police order to stop. The lifted hat is a symbol of faith that no blow will be struck where a helmet once protected, etc., etc.

Freemasonry attaches a symbolic meaning to many tools, including some objects not usually so denominated.

Generally speaking, a tool is an implement or device which either informs its user of facts which his five senses would not otherwise easily, or at all, disclose, or which alter the shape, form, substance or position of materials.

The microscope and the telescope, for instance, are information-giving tools; they do not, of themselves, perform work. They enlarge and increase the power of sight.

The twenty-four inch gauge of the Freemason does not perform any work; it substitutes facts as to length, breadth and thickness for what otherwise would be but guess or judgment. The square, the level and the plumb perform no work upon materials; they but inform their users of the position of materials and their orientation with the plane of the horizon. The hour glass of Freemasonry measures intervals more accurately than man’s sense of time may do, but performs no labors. The globes which are on top of the pillars are providers of information.

The setting maul and common gavel are performers of work; their function is to multiply the power of the muscular arm and deliver a more powerful blow - which will move material - than the unaided arm can do. The mattock moves earth more quickly than can a man with hands not so equipped. The scythe reaps more rapidly and more accurately than man can pull the grain apart with his hands; the chisel cuts rock which unaided flesh cannot do. The sword provides its wielder with power to injure and kill an enemy or a wild beast in ways which the untooled man cannot accomplish.

The trestleboard and the compasses record information for the use of others; the compasses are both a measuring tool and a maker of circles, which the unaided hand cannot draw.

Philosophies and religions have always developed symbolism from appliances, tools and implements, whether these be informing or performing aids to human senses and bodies.

The principal symbol of the Christian church is a cross, which was originally a tool for punishment and the infliction of pain. The lighted lamp - which is a tool aiding sight - has long been both philosophy’s and religions symbol of increase of knowledge, and from it Freemasonry has borrowed light, further light, more light as symbols to signify a greater learning and a larger wisdom.

The use of tools is as old as mankind; the earliest were probably the eoliths by which primitive man increased his powers; stones which he found, rather than shaped, and by which he fought - by throwing - and also by which he slew animals and pounded wild grains and nuts for their succulent contents.

Came next the Stone Age, in which early man learned to shape his stones; spear heads, arrow heads, hollowed stones as mortars and longer rounded ones as pestles. Larger stones which became stone axes - both weapons and providers of firewood - were soon to follow.

We think of primitive men as superstitious; they believed in signs, portents, found spirits both evil and good in everything that surrounded them, and by a process as easy as it was inevitable, attached magical powers to their own implements as well as to trees, mountains, fire, the sun, water; storms, thunder and lightning, etc.

Of the thousands of instances of personification of implements and the beginnings of tool symbolism, a few instances here will suffice. The Bible is full of them, for instance: “How is the hammer of the whole earth cut asunder and broken!” Jeremiah 50:23 in which the hammer is used as a symbol.

There is a curious contradiction between Isaiah 11:4 "And be shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” and Joel 3:10 “Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruninghooks into spears; let the weak say, I am strong.” Both use the tools of war and peace as symbols.

Freemasonry comments on the non-use of iron in the building of the Temple. The Old Testament is our authority:

And Solomon sent to Hiram, saying . . . I purpose to build a house unto the name of the Lord my God. . . . Now therefore command thou that they hew me cedar trees out of Lebanon. . . . And the house which King Solomon built for the Lord, the length thereof was three-score cubits, and the breadth thereof twenty cubits, and the height thereof thirty cubits. . . . And the house, when it was in building, was built of stone made ready before it was brought thither: so that there was neither hammer nor axe nor any tool of iron heard in the house, while it was in building. . . . So he built the house, and finished it; and covered the house with beams and boards of cedar. . . . And the cedar of the house within was carved with knops and open flowers: all was cedar; there was no stone seen. (1 Kings 5:2, 5, 6 & 6:2, 7, 9, 18) (A “cubit” was about eighteen inches. A “knop” was an egg-shaped ornament.)

This fear of iron is very old. Authorities believe it came into being when iron was new, as primitive minds usually fear what is new. Frazer in his The Golden Bough gives some instances: The ancients slew an ox as a representative of the spirit of vegetation. This they appear to have done in the Athenian sacrifice known as “the murder of the ox.” The sacrifice was instituted to procure a cessation of drought and dearth which had afflicted the land.

Barley mixed with wheat was laid upon the bronze altar of Zeus Polieus on the Acropolis. Oxen were driven round the altar, and the ox which went up to the altar and ate the offering on it was sacrificed.

The axe and knife with which the beast was slain had been previously wetted with water brought by maidens called “water-carriers.” The weapons were then sharpened and handed to the butchers, one of whom felled the ox with the axe and another cut its throat with the knife. As soon as he had felled the ox, the former threw the axe from him and fled; and the man who cut the beasts’s throat imitated his example.

Meantime the ox was skinned and all present partook of its flesh. Then the hide was stuffed with straw and sewed up; next the stuffed animal was set on its feet and yoked to a plough as if it were ploughing. A trial then took place in an ancient law-court presided over by the King (as he was called) to determine who had murdered the ox. The maidens who had brought the water accused the men who had sharpened the axe and knife; the men who had sharpened the axe and knife blamed the men who had handed these implements to the butchers; the men who had handed the implements to the butchers blamed the butchers; and the butchers laid the blame on the axe and knife, which were accordingly found guilty, condemned, and cast into the sea.

Roman and Sabine priests might not be shaved with iron but only with bronze razors or shears; and whenever an iron graving-tool was brought into the sacred grove at Rome for the purpose of cutting an inscription in stone, an atoning sacrifice of a lamb and a pig must be offered, which was repeated when the graving-tool was removed from the grove.

As a general rule iron might not be brought into Greek sanctuaries. In Crete, sacrifices were offered to Menedemus without the use of iron because the legend ran that Menedemus had been killed by an iron weapon in the Trojan War. The Archon of Plataea might not touch iron; but once a year, at the annual commemoration of the men who fell at the battle of Plataea, he was allowed to carry a sword wherewith to sacrifice a bull.

To this day a Khoi priest of southwest Africa never uses an iron knife, but always a sharp splinter of quartz, in sacrificing an animal or circumcising a lad. Among the Ovambo of southwest Africa custom requires that lads should be circumcised with a sharp flint; if none is to hand, the operation may be performed with iron, but the iron must afterwards be buried.

Amongst the Hopi of Arizona stone knives and hatchets have passed out of common use, but are retained in religious ceremonies. After the Pawnees had ceased to use stone arrow-heads for ordinary purposes, they still employed them to slay the sacrifices, whether human captives or buffalo and deer.

The old wooden bridge (Pons Sublints) at Rome, which was considered sacred, was made and had to be kept in repair without the use of iron or bronze. It was expressly provided by law that the temple of Jupiter Liber at Furfo might be repaired with iron tools. The council chamber at Cyzicus was constructed of wood without any iron nails, the beams being so arranged that they could be taken out and replaced.

In Biblical times potters were numerous because every household needed clay vessels - and clay is breakable. The demand was constant. There must have been a ceramic quarter in Jerusalem as well as guilds or families of potters in other places. Potters were of necessity high-grade men, for the art calls for creative skill.

Some details of their craft have come down to us. Clay was kneaded at the pit by being trodden under foot; probably there was additional kneading by hand at the pottery to keep it in workable condition. Jars and other utensils were made on a potter’s wheel, worked by the feet so that the hands would be free for manipulation. When shaped, the vessel would be glazed though watercoolers were left unglazed; and then came firing to fix both form and color. What impressed both Isaiah and Jeremiah is the absolute dominance of the will of the potter over his clay, and the mystery of creative skill. In other words, pots and patterns were symbols, as well as vessels and art, in those days as well as when Omar Khayyam (twelfth century) wrote:

With earth’s first clay they did the last man knead;
And there of the last harvest sowed the seed!
 And the first morning of creation wrote
What the last dawn of reckoning shall read.

And again:

After a momentary silence spake
Some vessel of a more ungainly make!
 They sneer at me for leaning all awry;
“What! Did the hand then of the Potter shake?”

Wherat someone of the loquacious lot
I think a Sufi pipkin, waxing hot,
 “All this of Pot and Potter - tell me, then
“Who is the Potter, pray, and who the Pot?”

Instances might be multiplied without end. In no land, time, clime have tools not been used as symbols, personified, worshipped, made to represent other things than what they are.

Freemasonry’s tool symbolism, then, follows a similar word pattern; behind our reading of virtues in square, level, and plumb, brotherly love into trowel and God in geometry, is an age-old habit of mankind, a turn of mind common to primitive and modern, unlettered and learned, high and low, since the beginning of recorded time and history.

If this Bulletin serves no other purpose than to impress upon all who may read it the venerable antiquity of the personification of tools and the making them into symbols of something greater than they are, it will not have been written in vain.

The Masonic Service Association of North America