Vol. XXXI No. 10 — October 1953


What has become of the key as a symbol in symbolic Masonry? Where is the lost “Key to the lodge?”

No one knows just when, and certainly not why it disappeared from our symbolism. It remains in the Royal Arch system and in the Scottish Rite, but from trestleboard and ritual of the three degrees it has gone to join the perpend ashlar and the broached thurnel into the limbo of forgotten things. It remains in modern Masonry only as two crossed keys, symbol of a treasurer.

Doubtless the spirit behind the symbol remains; the symbol itself no longer comes into our Masonic ritual or lectures. In the Essex Manuscript, we find:

Have you a key to the lodge?
Yes, I have.
What is its virtue?
To open and shut, and shut and open.
Where do you keep it?
In an ivory box, between my tongue and my teeth, or within my heart where all my secrets are kept.

Further questions refer to a chain to this key, “as long as from my tongue to my heart.” Other variants speak of the key lying under a "green turf or a square ashlar,” or in “bound case under a three-cornered pavement a foot and a half from the lodge door.” The chain also appears as a “cable.”

The Sloane Manuscript (A.D. 1646) has:

What is the key of your lodge door made of?
It is not made of wood, stone, iron or steel, or any sort of metal, but a tongue of good report behind a brother’s back as well as before his face.

The Kilwinning Manuscript (A.D. 1665) explains:

My head is the box, my teeth is the bones, my hair is the map and my tongue the key.

Map is a dialect form of mop. Probably the turf or divot has the same meaning. Samuel Prichard's exposé (A.D. 1730) combines most of this, and makes something of a play on words — “Does it hang or lie?” by which apparently we are to determine that a tongue of good report will not lie about a brother, that its owner would rather hang first. The earlier conception may have been that the key was not the tongue, but the word.

In the ceremonies of the Master’s Degree in the Adonhiramite Rite (about A.D. 1750) is this catechism:

What do you conceal?
All the secrets which have been intrusted to me.
Where do you conceal them?
In the heart.
Have you a key to gain entrance there?
Yes, Right Worshipful.
Where do you keep it?
In a box of coral which opens and shuts only with ivory teeth.
Of what metal is it composed?
Of none. It is a tongue obedient to reason, which knows only how to speak well of those of whom it speaks in their absence as in their presence.”

Says Dr. Oliver, early (1782-1867) British Freemason,

The key is one of the most important symbols of Freemasonry. It bears the appearance of a common metal instrument, confined to the performance of one simple act. But the well-instructed brother beholds in it the symbol that teaches him to keep a tongue of good report, and to abstain from the debasing vices of slander and defamation.

Oliver refers to the “five equal lights of Masonry: the Bible, Square, Compasses, Key, and Triangle” in The Symbol of Glory.

The key was regarded as one of particular importance at least 250 years ago, is evidenced by its mention in so many old manuscripts and Catechisms, including the Edinburgh Register House Manuscript of 1696, and others of 1700, 1710, 1711, and 1723.

It appears on many illustrations of old lodge cloths and Masonic charts.

The “Key of the lodge” seems to have been associated with and placed beneath another emblem on the lodge floor; namely the green divot (which represented the hair of the head). Prichard’s Masonry Dissected (1730) has “kept in a Bone Box, that neither opens or shuts but with Ivory Keys, hanging by a Towline. N.B. The Key is the Tongue, the Bone Box the Teeth, the Tow-line the Roof of the Mouth.”

The disappearance of the key from Symbolic Masonry is the harder to understand when the place it won for itself in Bible, in literature and in the folk-lore and superstitions of ancient people is examined.

To mention only a few among thousands of references to it in a poetic sense are:

Yet some there be that by due steps aspire
To lay their just hands on that golden key
That opes the palace of Eternity.

As soon as man, expert from time, has found the key of life, it opes the gates of death. — Young

The Pilot of the Galilean lake,
Two massy keys he bore of metals twain,
(The golden opes, the iron shuts amain).

Simple as it seems, it was a great discovery that the key of knowledge could turn both ways, that it could open, as well as lock, the door of power to the many.

He that will enter into Paradise must come with the right key.

The Shadow cloak’d from head to foot,
Who keeps the keys of all the creeds.

To wind the mighty secrets of the past,
And turn the key of time.

Of the several references to the key in the Great Light both symbolic and poetic — a few are:

And they tarried till they were ashamed: and, behold, he opened not the doors of the parlour; therefore they took a key, and opened them: and, behold, their lord was fallen down dead on the earth.
— Judges 3:25

"And the key of the house of David will I lay upon his shoulder; so he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.
— Isaiah 22:22

And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
— Matthew 16:19

Woe unto you, lawyers! for ye have taken away the key of knowledge: ye entered not in yourselves, and them that were entering in ye hindred.
— Luke 11:52

I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death.
— Revelation 1:18

And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write; These things saith he that is holy, he that is true, he that hath the key of David, he that openeth, and no man shutteth; and shutteth, and no man openeth.
— Revelation 3:7

The idea of St. Peter being dowered with the keys of the kingdom of heaven is sufficiently obvious. The picture is still that of a state or town with gates that Peter can open to those worthy of the kingdom and its rewards, or keep the door locked against the unworthy.

As a symbol the key occurs in heraldry. It is found in the arms of the pope, of various bishoprics, of cities, of private families. It also occurs in the names and signs of shops and inns, and is here of ecclesiastical derivation — the Cross-keys, the Golden Key, etc. Keys, and especially that of the forbidden chamber, are prominent in folk-tales of the Bluebeard group.

Locks and keys are very ancient; it is curiously intriguing to know that the cylinder lock of today, with its small pins raised by a serrated-edge key, was antedated in Egypt many thousands of years ago, although then without the revolving barrel of the modern lock.

The instrument used for the opening and closing of a lock was usually bronze until the 14th century. The terminals of the stem of the ancients keys were frequently decorated, the “bow” or loop taking the form sometimes of a trefoil, with figures inscribed within it; this decoration increased in the 16th century, the terminals being made in the shape of animals and other figures. More elaborate ceremonial keys were used by court officials; a series of chamberlains’ keys used during the 18th and 19th centuries in several courts in Europe is in the British museum. The terminals are decorated with crowns, royal monograms and ciphers.

The word key is by analogy applied to things regarded as means for the opening or closing of anything, for the making clear of that which is hidden. Thus it is used of an interpretation as to the arrangement of the letters or words of a cipher, which is one of its two uses in modern Masonry; certain grand lodges permit, others forbid, the use of a key or cipher to the ritual. In all grand lodges and lodges the crossed keys are the treasurer’s badge and symbol, but here keys are symbols of an office, not a principle.

In ancient times the wife bears the household keys symbolically, as keybearer for her husband, as well as actually. Among the Romans the newly-married wife received the keys of the store rooms. The divorced wife surrendered the keys; "Claves ademit, exegit." The wife who separated from her husband sent him back the keys — claves remisit. Anciently among the Teutons and Scandinavians the bride was decked with keys at her girdle, and “taking away” or “giving up the keys” became a formula of divorce. Among the Gauls a widow placed keys and girdle on the corpse of the dead husband as a sign of renunciation. Ancient slaves carried keys of various parts of the house, and the janitor bore the house-key. In the Christian Church the church treasurer who carried the keys of the treasury was known as claviger. In Isaiah 22:22, “laying the key of the house of David upon his shoulder” signifies transference of the supremacy of the kingdom, and the imagery is taken from the large keys opening tumbler locks carried on the shoulder in the East.

Since many mythical divinities were key-bearers, their priestesses also bore keys symbolically, signifying that the divine powers were theirs, or that they were guardians of the sanctuary of the gods. Priestesses are often represented carrying on their shoulder a large key of the rectangular type. A key represented on a gravestone signifies the burial-place of a priestess.

In many cases the key itself was used as an amulet or had magical virtues among the ancient Greeks and Etruscans. In Italy small keys blessed by the priest are called “keys of the Holy Spirit,” and are worn by infants as a preservative against convulsions. In Portugal, Greece and Germany, the key is a frequent amulet against the evil eye. In Jerusalem necklaces from which charms depend are worn, and among the latter are a lock and key. In China a common amulet given to an only son in order “to lock him to life” is a silver lock. The father collects cash from a hundred heads of families and exchanges it for silver; of this a native padlock is made, and it is used to fasten a silver chain or ring round the boy’s neck. In Korea the neck ring lock is also a charm.

The key, then, has been an important symbol to many, in many ages, in many ways.

In Masonry it was once important, and taught its own truth in such manner as brethren could find it in their hearts to receive it.

Freemasonry seeks a Lost Word. In fancy, perhaps the lost key must first be found to open the gate that leads to the Golden Age, the Never-Never Land, the heights of Mt. Olympus, where all the unrecovered secrets of mankind may be rediscovered.

The Masonic Service Association of North America