Vol. XXXIII No. 3 — March 1955

Materials in the Ritual

Speak to the earth and it shall teach thee.” (Job 12:8). Everything man uses, all his materials, come either directly from the earth, or are made of earth’s products.

In this sense everything in and under the earth is a material that can be connected with Masonic ritual, since the latter is concerned with men, their building, and their passions.

But in the narrow sense, the materials mentioned in the ritual or otherwise connected with the words of Masonic work are so familiar that it may appear that no description is needed. Yet exact interpretation of ritual materials discloses some facts not without interest.

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Brass: The Brazen Pillars — The Holy Vessels: The brass of the Bible was probably bronze, an alloy of copper and tin. True brass is an alloy of copper and zinc. It seems likely that its discovery was accidentally made while copper ore was smelted, there being impurities — tin or perhaps zinc — mixed with the ore.

It was perhaps the most important metal of Biblical times, since of it were made helmets, coats of mail, greaves for the legs, shields, pots, cups, pans, ladles, knives, spear tips, bows, chains, mirrors.

Great quantities of brass were used in building Solomon’s Temple; altar, basins, the sea that rested on the brazen oxen, the two brazen pillars that are so important in the Fellowcraft Degree. That Solomon used Hiram Abif to cast so much brass “in the clay ground between Succoth and Zeredetha” would indicate that the early Israelites did not understand metalworking.

Chalk is a loosely coherent limestone rock composed primarily of the calcified remains of minute marine organisms. In nearly pure form chalk consists almost wholly of calcium carbonate. Chalk is used not only for writing and drawing but in the manufacture of quick lime, mortar, portland cement, plaster, as a fertilizer. Masonry refers to it as a substance that leaves a trace at the least touch.

The principal sources of chalk are in England, especially Kent; the discovery of chalk beds in this country came long after Masonry’s adoption of its freedom of composition as a symbol.

Charcoal is carbonized vegetable or animal matter. Both anciently and today, charcoal from wood is most used.

It was early learned that partially charred wood burned with a hotter flame than unburned wood. The earliest smelters of ore soon discovered that if wood was heated and carbonized to a black and porous mass, it produced much greater heat than the original wood. Gases driven off from heated but not ignited wood are not all inflammable; water is driven out by heat; the more nearly the charcoal becomes pure carbon, the more quickly will it combine with oxygen.

That “to its heat the most obdurate metals yield” was once a true statement; no longer so, since these are metals (platinum and the familiar tungsten in ordinary electric lights) with melting points too high for even the greatest heat from the purest charcoal. However the statement was true of all the metals smelted by fuel and bellows prior to the invention of the electric furnace and the forced draft of steam and/or turbine.

Clay: The geologist makes a distinction between clay and earth. Masonically, clay is “our Mother Earth” the term being used for all the substance of our globe that grows crops, grasses, trees, flowers and in which graves are dug. As in the rest of the symbolism “clay” is here a figurative word, but it is also a poetic one; charcoal and chalk in the symbolism mean chalk and charcoal; clay does not refer to that portion of earth used in molding statues and bricks, but to the whole of what the poet means when he describes anything as being “of earth, earthy.”

As noted under the paragraphs about brass, the “clay ground” was used for the casting of brass objects; presumably that “clay ground” was of such a consistency that it was easily made into molds and tenacious of the forms pressed into it before the liquid brass was poured.

Cabletow — Cord — Plumbline: The cabletow is now, and doubtless always was a rope — the distinction between cord and rope being not only diameter but number of twists.

Neither the level nor the plumb can be constructed without some variety of cord to support the weight.

Cord, rope, and cable making are among the earliest known arts; crude in the beginning and still in many places its products are made in the old clumsy ways. The twisting together of fibers, or the plaiting together of skin strips, provided flexible pulls and ties for man long before he had invented a thousand uses for them that are familiar today.

The cord of the level and the plumbline of the early Masonic builders was undoubtedly a true cord; fibers or hairs laid parallel and twisted into a yarn; two or more yarns twisted to form a strand, and three or more of these strands, laying the rope (in small sizes, the cord). Materials of cords and ropes are hemp, flax, Manila fibre, Henequen (sisal), jute, cotton; and of course in modern days wires of many material form wire ropes and cords.

Cement: The “cement which units a building into one common mass” is more properly mortar. Mortar is sand, crushed rock, stone chippings, crushed clinker, etc., mixed with lime or cement and water. Its purpose is to bind stones together, receive side thrust as well as weight, make joints between stones weatherproof. Cement dominates many materials. The ancient cements or mortars of the Bible were bitumen, adhesive clay, burnt gypsum, all used in Egypt.

Sand, which is a part of most mortars and cements, is water-worn rock. Except as it may be a part of cement, it is in the ritual only as the material that marks time in the hour glass.

Corn, Wine, and Oil: The wages that our ancient brethren received for their labors in the building of King Solomon’s Temple are used now only as symbols, save in the dedication, constitution and consecration of a new lodge and the laying of cornerstones.

Corn, wine, and oil have been associated together from the earliest times. In Deuteronomy 28:50-51, the “nation of fierce countenance,” which is to destroy the people “shall not leave them either corn, wine or oil.” In 2 Chronicles 31:5 we read “the children of Israel brought in abundance the first fruits of corn, wine and oil. . . .” Nehemiah 13:5, 12 tells of a “great chamber where aforetime they laid the meat offerings, the frankincense and the tithes of the corn, the new wine and the oil. . . .” and, “then brought all Judah the tithe of the corn and the new wine and the oil into the treasuries.”

The corn of the Bible is not the corn we know. In many, if not the majority of the uses of the word, a more understandable translation would be simply “grain.” The principal grains of the Old Testament days were barley and wheat, and “corn” represents not only both of these, but all the grains that the Jews cultivated.

Dew and Rain: The “dew of Hermon,” a measure of comparison in the 133rd Psalm, is used in the Entered Apprentice Degree. Dew is a condensation of moisture in the air by a cool surface; it is also a “sweating” of certain leaves that exude moisture in the plant that has been taken up from the earth by the roots.

The dew on Mt. Hermon is so heavy that at times it seems almost a light rain. Hence, from its plenty, it is used as a comparison to the “precious ointment,” meaning that unity among brethren is highly valuable.

“It rained not in the daytime, lest the workmen be hindered from their labors” is stated in many ritualistic explanations of the building of the Temple of Solomon. The statement is not Biblical — some old rituals ascribe it to Josephus. The story is doubtful. Palestine has an average rainfall of from twenty to twenty-four inches, and that none of this ever fell during daylight in the seven years that ritual ascribes as the time of the building of the Temple seems unreasonable.

The statement is evidently intended to stress the Old Testament statement that God approved the building of the Temple.

Golden Fleece: The “Order of the Golden Fleece” which is referred to in the Apron Charge in the Entered Apprentice Degree, was founded A.D. 1429 by Philip, Duke of Burgundy.

The name “Golden Fleece” comes from mythology. It was supposedly a ram’s hide, usually described as white in color, sometimes as purple and golden. The ram was given to Phryxus, who with his sister Helle, escaped upon it and fled to Colchis, where King Aetes entertained Phryxus.

Helle fell off the ram on the journey and was drowned; her name survives in the body of water called Hellespont. The ram was killed and its magical “Golden Fleece” was hung up in the grove of Mars. Later Jason and the forty-nine Argunauts fetched back the Golden Fleece.

Incense: This sacrificial offering was made (according to instructions in Exodus 30:34-38) of various spices, fragrant oils, resins, gums. Specifically mentioned are stacte, onycha and galbanum, which are to mixed with pure frankincense. The word frankincense means “pure incense” — it was a fragrant non-edible resin. Sometimes flour and oil and frankincense were burned upon an altar for incense. Frankincense was especially valuable when brought from Sheba in South Arabia, because of the cost of transportation.

Incense as an offering, a sacrifice, a devotional giving, is emphasized many times in the Old Testament and is, of course, the foundation of the “pot of incense which is an emblem of a pure heart” in the ritual.

Metals: Swords are normally of steel. The “sword pointing to a naked heart” and the tiler’s sword, guarding the Book of Constitutions, are in actual practice always of steel. But it is doubtful if the few references in the Old Testament to steel meant the refined and alloyed iron we know by that name; probably the steel of the Old Testament was bronze. So, also, were scythes although the Scythe of Time of the ritual, like the mattock and the spade, is wholly symbolic: these do not, like the tiler’s sword, have objective existence.

“There was not heard the sound of ax, hammer, nor any tool of iron” in the building of the Temple, according to the ritual, which takes its authority from 1 Kings 6:7.

The fear of iron is old, and has been so wide spread that it apparently had no common root or focus, but came into being for similar reasons in many localities at many times. As a general rule, there was no such fear of the metal among the Twelve Tribes; iron is of less importance than brass or bronze in Old Testament times, but was used to make such implements as axes, hatchets, sickles, knives, swords, spears, chains, nails, hoes, and even pens.

It is possible that the absence of iron in the Temple and its use by the people is accounted for by a later learning of the value of the metal than existed in Solomon’s time.

Other metals are the sharp instrument, square and compasses, the trowel, the jewel of the architect of the Temple, the “minerals and metals,” presumably silver coins, which the Entered Apprentice does not possess. None of these is of Biblical times. Doubtless the jewel would be of silver or gold. American coins today are all silver except the one and five cent pieces.

The “silver cord” of the twelfth chapter of Ecclesiastes is a poetic expression meaning what modern physicians know as the spinal cord that is neither a cord nor made of silver.

Lambskin or Leather: The “lambskin or white leather apron” is a focal point of a brother’s apprenticeship.

The skin of an animal can be dried, as a means of getting rid of the putrefying elements the skin contains. It is then usually stiff, sometimes brittle and is soluble in hot water.

If the fresh skin is properly treated, it will dry to flexibility and then is not affected by hot water.

The earliest makers of leather produced it by rubbing salt into skins. Primitives chew out the fatty contents of skins and produce a variety of soft leather. Tannic acid is a common treatment for skins — indeed, the word “tanned” as applied to skins comes from this substance.

Early Masons who were actual builders of houses, castles and temples wore the roughly tanned skins of domestic animals as a protection of both body and clothing. Gradually the aprons of stone masons became stylized and shaped; in Speculative Masonry, the apron remains only as a symbol, and is more commonly of cloth than of skin, although practically all lodges do present the initiate with an actual “white leather apron.”

The skin of the lamb makes particularly soft leather; the white color of the lamb and the treatment of the leather that keeps it white, both enter into the symbolism of white as an emblem of purity and innocence.

Mosaic Pavement: There is no reference to be found in Kings and Chronicles to the Mosaic pavement of Solomon’s Temple. Ezekiel in his vision of the rebuilt Temple refers to a pavement that may have been Mosaic in character.

But mosaic work is old; explorations demonstrate that the art extends to at least 3500 years B.C.

It is sometimes difficult to distinguish between inlaying and mosaic. Inlaying is that process that cuts a recess in material and then “lays in” another material.

When the “laid in” pieces become greater in surface than the material cut away to receive them, the process approaches the mosaic, in which pieces of tile, glass, metals, bone, etc., are assembled into a pattern and glued or cemented to the surface beneath.

Mosaic pavement is made of tile, stone or other hard material, and all the “pavement” is composed of what is laid on top of the foundation material.

Inasmuch as the process may produce beautiful results, probably Solomon’s Temple did possess some mosaic floors, especially in view of the fact that “Huram, my father” (the Hiram Abif of Masonry) was (2 Chronicles 2:14) “skilled to work in gold, in silver, in brass, in iron, in stone, and in timber, in purple, in blue and in fine linen, and in crimson; also, to grave any manner of graving, and to find out every device that shall be put to him....

Ointment of the 133rd Psalm “which ran down upon the beard, even Aaron’s beard” had a base of olive oil, in which were mixed (or dissolved) myrrh, fragrant cinnamon, fragrant calamus, and cassia.

An especially costly ointment was made of nard oil and spikenard, a grass grown in India, from which a fragrant oil was made. Ointment was especially used at feasts and times of joy. The use of heavy perfumes by both men and women on such occasions may have originated in lack of bathing facilities, but the probabilities are against it. The Israelites were a clean people and bathing was constant. Rather was the use of ointment in times of joy and ceremony akin to modern “dressing the part” when going into formal assemblages.

Stone: Ritualistic stone is that of the ashlars, the marble monument, the Parian marble of the Temple. Sandstone, limestone, possibly some granite, schist were common in Biblical stones, and reference to stones in the Bible are numerous. “Hewn stones” (rough and perfect ashlars) are specifically mentioned.

The marble of the marble monument is purely imaginary; the symbol is a modernism. So is the “Parian marble” of the Temple. Parian marble comes from the island of Paros near Italy; it is a peculiarly fine-grained and semi-translucent variety, expensive and beautiful. There is no Old Testament authority for the ritualistic conception that it was used in the building of the Temple.

No one has determined just where the “quarries of Zeredetha” might have been; if there were quarries actually near that place, their location is lost in the mists of time.

The “clefts in the rocks” refer to caves, openings between large stones; much of the Holy Land is rocky and there are many places not too far from the sea coast where such places might be found.

Wood and Trees: “There is hope of a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again” — this is a reference to the acacia, or shittah tree, which is so tenacious of life that beams made from it will sometimes sprout. The “almond tree shall flourish” is a poetical expression for the whitening hair of an old man, the blossom of the almond tree being white. The cedars of Lebanon were a favorite building material because of the usefulness of cedar, its ease of cutting and working, and its beauty.

"Our ancient brethren who first planted trees on end” might have used any one of half a hundred trees that grew in the Holy Land.

“The anchor and the ark” of the ritual are symbolic. The “ark” usually pictured in exoteric ritual is apparently designed to be like Noahs Ark, which was made of gopher wood.

If this short survey of the materials mentioned in, or used in connection with Masonic ritual, make them more real to readers, these pages will have served their purpose.

Question Box

The column will attempt to answer questions about Freemasonry.

Freemasonry is said to be a beautiful system of morality, veiled in allegory, and illustrated by symbols. What is an allegory?

Allegory is from two Greek words and means “story withn a story”. The Masonic story is told as a fact, but it presents the doctrine of immortality. Allegory, parable, fable, myth, legend, tradition, are correlative terms. The myth may be founded on fact, the legend and traditions more probably are founded on fact, but the allegory, parable, fable, are not. Yet they may be “true” if “true” is not taken to mean factual. “In the night of death hope sees a star and love can hear the rustle of a wing” is beautifully true allegory, but not factual. All allegories may contain truth, without being fact.

The allegory of the Master’s Degree is not true in any formal sense, except in the historical background from the Biblical account of the building of the Temple. That the Hirams were Grand Masters, that the workmen on the building were Entered Apprentices, Fellowcrafts and Master Masons, that they met in various apartments of the Temple with different numbers required for various quorums; that the events delineated in the ceremony actually happened are not factual statements.

Yet the allegory is true in the best sense of the word. For the story of Hiram is the story of the dearest hope of mankind. It is a tale told in every religion. It is affirmation by picture, drama, story, of man’s rugged faith that Job’s immmortal question, “If a man die, shall he live again?” must be answered in the affirmative. It is a Mason’s observation that truth, slain by error, will be born again; it is the cruxifixion and the resurrection of the Carpenter who died between two thieves. The Masonic allegory is true in the deepest sense of truth.

The Masonic Service Association of North America