Vol. XXXIII No. 6 — June 1955

Astronomy and Freemasonry

With the many references to astronomical matters that are to be found in Masonic ritual, it is odd that so little attention has been given them by students and writers about the Ancient Craft.

In practically all Symbolic Lodge rituals are references to East, West, North, South; light, sun, moon, stars, the starry-decked canopy; the ecliptic and north as a place of darkness; time, seasons, day, night, high twelve, low twelve; the globes celestial and terrestrial; the cornucopia (symbol of plenty, which has a concealed astronomical reference), comets; planets and their different orbits; the Blazing Star.

In his Illustrations of Masonry — which middle-eighteenth century book was source material for much of our present day ritual — William Preston devoted some space to astronomy. These references have been lost to many rituals in favor of a greater brevity in the Fellowcraft Degree. They are here to be quoted in full, both for their interest and to show that Preston, great educator that he was, and almost a fanatic in his desire to make the Freemasonry of his day an educational force, knew more resounding periods than he did astronomy. He wrote:

Of Astronomy

Astronomy is that art by which we are taught to read the wonderful works of the Almighty Creator in those sacred pages the celestial hemisphere. Assisted by astronomy, we can observe the motions, measure and distances, comprehend the magnitudes, and calculate the periods and eclipses, of the heavenly bodies. By it, we learn the use of the globes, the system of the world, and the primary law of nature. While we are employed in the study of this science, we must perceive unparalled instances of wisdom and goodness, and through the whole of creation, trace the glorious Author by His works.

On The Doctrine of the Spheres

The doctrine of the Spheres is included in the science of Astronomy, and is particularly considered in this section.

The globes are two artificial bodies, on the convex surface of which are represented the countries, seas, and various parts of the earth; the face of the heavens, the planetary revolutions, and other important particulars. The sphere with the parts of the earth delineated on its surface is called the terrestrial globe; and that with the constellations, and other heavenly bodies, the celestial globe. Their principal use, besides serving as maps to distinguish the outward parts of the earth, and the situation of the fixed stars, is to illustrate and explain the phenomena arising from the annual revolution, and the diurnal rotation, of the earth round its own axis. They are the noblest instruments for giving the most distinct idea of any problem or proposition, as well as for enabling us to solve it. Contemplating these bodies, Masons are inspired with a due reverence for the Deity and His works, and we are induced to apply with diligence and attention to astronomy, geography, navigation, and all the arts dependent on them, by which society has been so much benefited.

It might be interesting to investigate how much elementary astronomy is understood by the average Freemason. Whatever the result, it is obvious to all who know anything of the two main divisions of astronomy — those that deal respectively with the solar and understanding of the main truths of astronomy the ritual of Masonry is lacking in meaning.

Solar System

The solar system comprises the sun, nine planets, or “wandering stars,” their satellites (including of course our own moon), the occasional visitors from celestial space, the conception of light and what it is, the points of the compass, the return of seasons, the diurnal phenomena of day and night, the measurement of time, and, only incidentally, the asteroids, zodiacal light, the auroras and, as a covering over all, the “starry decked heavens.”


Most prominent of all the heavenly bodies to us upon the earth is the sun.

The sun is 866,000 miles in diameter (nearly one hundred ten times that of the earth). It is distant ninety-three millions of miles. It is interesting to make a comparison which is within easy mental comprehension; if the sun is represented by a globe two feet in diameter, the earth on the same scale will be 0.22 inches in diameter at a distance of 220 feet; the nearest star would be eight thousand miles away!

The sun is composed of various elements, such as are found upon and in the earth, but all in a gaseous form (as far as we can see or learn) and at an enormously high temperature, on the sun’s surface probably at least 12,000 degrees F.


Unlike the sun, the moon, satellite of the earth, has no light of its own, but shines — as do the planets — from light reflected from the sun. The moon, diameter 2162 miles, is 240,000 miles distant from the earth. It is a sphere of which we see only one side; it is airless, waterless, wholly dead. It revolves about the earth in a twenty-eight day period (approximately); its phases (new moon, half full moon, gibbous moon, full moon) being caused by the angle between sun, moon, and earth at different periods of the lunar month.

The moon is the earth’s only satellite and Neptune has only one moon. Other planets are better provided; Mars has two moons, Jupiter five, Saturn nine, and Uranus four.


Nine planets revolve in ellipses about the sun; in the order of nearness to that parent body, they are Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto.

The planets revolve about the sun in varying periods; their “years” are of different length than those of the earth, varying from a year of eighty-eight days for Mercury to almost one hundred sixty-five of earths years for Neptune.

So far as is known to us, of all the planets only the earth is so situated as to distance from the sun, protective atmosphere, solidity, temperature, water, as to be habitable by any form of life we know.

Seasons, Years, and Cycles

The earth revolves about the sun in 365 and a fraction days, in a path known as the ecliptic. It revolves about itself, like an orange revolving on a knitting needle, once in twenty-four hours. The axis of the earth, its “knitting needle,” is inclined to the plane of the ecliptic by twenty-three and one half degrees. The result is that at one period (which we call December), the northern end of the “knitting needle” (north pole) is inclined away from the sun, and at another period (which we call June), it is inclined towards the sun. The result is less sunshine, and that sunshine at a greater angle on the northern hemisphere in winter, and on the southern hemisphere in summer; cold winters for one half the earth while the other half has hot summers.


Time is measured by (1) revolution of the earth around its path, or ecliptic (one year), and the revolution of the earth about its own axis (one day), a period arbitrarily divided by human beings into twenty-four hours, each of sixty minutes, each of sixty seconds.

Time varies on the earth because the sun, which is overhead at noon for one spot on the earth, is rising, for places to the west, and setting, for places to the east of this point. To avoid utter confusion of a different noon for every city, town, village and farm in a country, the land is arbitrarily divided into “time zones” one hour apart. In the United States are to be found Eastern Standard Time, Central Standard Time, Mountain Standard Time and Pacific Standard Time. When it is noon (high twelve) by Eastern Standard Time, it is eleven A.M. by Central Standard Time, ten A.M. by Mountain Standard Time and nine A.M. by Pacific Standard Time. For the same reasons, it is midnight (low twelve) on a point on the earth half way round it when it is noon (high twelve) at the other half way point.


Preston refers to eclipses; these are the phenomena that result when the moon passes through the shadow of the earth (eclipse of the moon) or the moon passes directly on a line between some place on the earth and the sun (eclipse of the sun).


Heavenly bodies about which astronomers speculate largely and know not too much. Apparently gaseous, with perhaps some small material that is solid in the head or nucleus, these strange visitors from outer space either visit the solar system once and never return (if their paths are either hyperbolas or parabolas) or return at fixed intervals, if their paths, like those of the planets, are elliptical about the sun.

Before they were understood, comets were to people of the Middle Ages and before, harbingers of evil, and their visits created terror.


The cloudless heaven, in the absence of the moon is filled with points of fight man calls stars. The sun is a star; a blazing ball of gas. Stars have no “sensible diameter” as has the sun, because of their distance. The nearest “fixed star” (so called because the stars do not seem to us to move about in the heavens as do the planets) is known as Alpha Centauri. Its distance in miles from the earth is a figure so large as to be meaningless. Astronomers measure stellar distance in “light years.” A “light year” is the speed of light (186,000 miles per second) multiplied by the number of seconds in a year (31,536,000) which results (approximately) in the figure 58 plus followed by eleven ciphers, which, in miles, is beyond human comprehension. The sun, 93 millions of miles away, sends its light to the earth in eight minutes. Compare with the familiar North Star, which is forty-four light-years distant from the earth!

Blazing Star

Originally, it was the Star of Bethlehem, but as that became too much of a sectarian reference, the meaning was gradually dropped and it now appears in the American Masonic system merely as meaning Divine Providence.

All stars are “blazing” stars, in the sense that they shine, because of their high temperature, with their own light, emitted by the gas of which stars are composed. Stars “twinkle” (which is not a “blazing”) because of refraction of their light through the earth’s atmosphere. Planets do not “twinkle” because they have a “sensible diameter” (that is, one that can be measured) and reflect too much light from the sun to be affected by this refraction.


Freemasonry’s greatest symbol, light, is an astronomical fact, since the greatest light of the earth is that of the sun; the moon’s light, like that of the planets, is but reflected sunlight.

No man is wise enough to say with certainty what light is; whether it is a wave motion in “something” or is made of particles (corpuscles) of “something,” science cannot decide. Even as light is still somewhat of a mystery to science, “Masonic Light” has yet to be completely defined and understood even by Masonry’s most thoughtful authorities.

Numberless Worlds Are Around Us

A Prestonian statement that may or may not be factual. The number of “fixed stars” which can be seen by the unaided eye is much smaller than most guesses; between three and four thousand are visible in a cloudless sky at night. But the actual number of fixed stars is greater than any calculations have even guessed. The Milky Way is a band of stars so far distant even telescopes do not resolve all of it into stars. The “island universes,” the nebulae and the “clouds” of the infinitely far distant heavens are made of stars; stars innumerable.

Whether any of them have planets or not, and whether or not those planets are habitable or inhabited is anyone’s guess. On the mere ground of probability it would seem reasonable to suppose that out of untold billions of “blazing stars” each a sun, some would have planets like the earth. But “numberless worlds are around us” is but a guess, unless by “worlds” Preston meant “stars.” The “starry decked canopy” is still one of man’s greatest mysteries.


Freemasonry is little concerned with the constellations — those artificial groups of the stars that were named by the first observers of the night sky, and given mythological characters — except that in some illustrations of Jacob’s Ladder and the “starry decked canopy” the seven stars of the Pleiades are drawn. But there is a constellation reference in Freemasonry that is found in the cornucopia, the symbol of the lodge stewards.

As told in The Short Talk Bulletin of March 1930:

According to the mythology of the Greeks, which go back to the very dawn of civilization, the god Zeus was nourished in infancy from the milk of the goat, Amalthea. In gratitude, the god placed Amalthea forever in the heavens as a constellation, but first he gave one of Amalthea’s horns to his nurses with the assurance that it would forever pour for them whatever they desired!

The horn of plenty, or the cornucopia, is thus a symbol of abundance. The goat from which it came may be found by the curious among the constellations under the name of Capricorn.

Place of Darkness

Solomon’s Temple was situated north of the ecliptic that is 23½ degrees north of the equator; Jerusalem is 31 degrees north of the equator. Hence, when the sun was at meridian height (noon, or high twelve) sunlight fell in the south, not the north side, of the Temple. Hence the north is, Masonically “a place of darkness.”

This most elementary survey of a small part of the great subject of astronomy as referred to in the Masonic ritual, will serve a real purpose if it intrigues any brother to get from library or book store any one of dozens of astronomies written with romance and excitement for those who want to know more of the universe in which they live.

For brethren such as these, the astronomical references found in Freemasonry will no longer constitute a “place of darkness.”

Question Box

This column will attempt to answer questions about Freemasonry

Why does parliamentary law not apply in a lodge?

Parliamentary law that governs the usual body of men assembled in any organization cannot govern a Masonic lodge. A master may put a motion that has not been proposed or seconded. He can close debate at his pleasure. He does not have to put a question even after debate if he does not desire to do so. He entertains no motion to “lay on the table” or to “postpone” or “to adjourn.” No one can “move the previous question” in a Masonic lodge, and so on.

The reason is found in the responsibility that is the masters. The grand lodge and the grand master hold him responsible for everything that happens in his lodge. There are certain things he cannot do without lodge action, such as spend lodge money. He cannot open before the time stated in the by-laws for a regular communication. But the lodge cannot dictate to him what can be discussed, and if, in his judgment, something should not be discussed or acted upon, it is for him and only for him to say that it should or should not. Were it otherwise, a lodge might “run away” with him, and in enthusiasm do that for which the grand lodge or grand master would censure or punish him. Therefore, the master has full control of debate, and work, and acts; ordinary parliamentary law, which might interfere with that control, does not apply.

What is “justly and legally (or lawfully) constituted”?

A lodge is “just” — meaning complete, properly organized, legally entitled to conduct Masonic business — when the statutory number of brethren is present, when it has the proper furniture (the Great Lights), when its Charter is present, and when it has been opened by the master, or, in his absence, by the proper warden. A lodge is “legally constituted” when it has been “constituted, consecrated and dedicated” by a recognized and Masonically legal grand lodge; also, when it has been opened after notice to the brethren, if a Special, and according to the by-laws, if a stated communication.

The Masonic Service Association of North America