Vol. XXXV No. 7 — July 1957

The Nature of Symbols

“A beautiful system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols” has become so much a part of imaginative and the so-called “inspirational speaking” of Freemasonry that it is largely unquestioned.

“A” system of morality, seems to connote that there are many such systems; all admissible. Actually, each of the world’s great religions has only one system of morality and “illustrates” it by its own symbols. The most familiar in our word is Christianity. Its decalog, its cross, its ecclesiastical architecture, all express but one system of morality.

But what does “illustrated by symbols” really mean?

In daily life, symbols are so familiar to us all that we seldom or never think of them as such. Still less do we think of them as matters which can be classified.

Yet in Masonry, classification should be accepted by any man who would find in his Ancient Craft anything beyond a mere society to which he can belong with pride because the other fellow thinks well of it.

Symbols may mean one thing, and only one thing; they may mean two things and only two things; or they mean many things: thus a symbol may stand for an idea, some particular thing or a generality.

As you read this you sit in a chair. It is a particular chair, your chair. Does the word “chair” mean to you any chair at all (a generality); does it mean the one chair in which you sit (the particular chair) or does it mean just the idea of a chair — that is, something on which to sit which may be stone, bench, the ground, curbstone, fallen tree or whatever?

The most familiar symbol of everyday life may be a dollar bill. We think of it as something we can exchange for some loaves of bread, a pound of butter, a pair of socks, four packs of cigarettes, three or four gallons of gas. Actually it is a symbol that in the Treasury of the United States is deposited a silver dollar. The green engraved piece of paper is of no value in itself, only for what it represents — which is true of most symbols.

The uncancelled postage stamp is a symbol that three cents have been paid to the government, the government agreeing, for that payment, to transmit one ounce of letter from hither to yon. Except for collectors, the stamp has no other value (omitted from consideration here that stamps are occasionally used in place of pennies for small commercial transactions.)

No one thinks of a dollar bill as a symbol of a religion, a philosophy, a system of morality. Dollar bills and postage stamps are symbols which mean only one thing each, and they mean that one thing each no matter where they are; in your pocket, in a bank, in an office stamp box.

A few Masonic symbols are in that class; meaning only one thing, no matter where they are. Most Masonic symbols require a place, an association, a particular application, to speak their Masonic language.

The Bible on the Altar of a Masonic lodge is a symbol of the Volume of the Sacred Law; to a well-informed Mason it means any book of any religion which is revealed in printed characters on a page. In lodges in the Far East, the book on the Altar may be a Koran, the Vedas, the Talmud, the Analects of Confucius; perhaps even Egypt’s Book of the Dead, if that is desired by an initiate. The Bible on the Altar means the books or any of them only on a Masonic Altar — never elsewhere.

The Square and Compasses, however, mean Freemasonry wherever they may be found together; on the Altar, on a ring on your finger, painted as a sign on the side of a Temple in any town.

Letters are symbols of sounds. The letter X is a symbol of the sound EKS. It is also the Roman numeral signifying ten; in mathematics it signifies any unknown quantity. Thus it means different things in different places. The school boy struggling with algebra does not think of X as meaning ten or a part of the word extra, or example; to him it means a number he must find. If on the title page of a book you read “Published MCMX” you understand the book was printed in 1910; the X here is not EKS, nor is it a number to be found by algebraic calculation. The meaning depends here on the location, and the use.

The letter G in Masonry depends on its place and use in a lodge for its Masonic meaning. It has two sounds; hard, as in “great” — soft, as in “gesture.” The pronunciation of the letter, as a letter is always soft — we speak the letter “Jee.” In a Masonic lodge the “letter G” is not a letter, but a symbol for two conceptions; one is geometry, the other God.

Geometry is man-made, can be understood by any intelligent high school student, is concerned with measurement, angles, lines and problems. It has no mystery for the initiated. In Masonry geometry is a symbol of all mathematical learning; G as a symbol of that subject is of a comprehensible matter.

When G is used as a symbol of God, however, it becomes fraught with a different meaning. The human mind can neither conceive nor understand infinity; that which is unlimited except as an abstraction. The figures 1,000,000,000,000 and 10,000,000,000,000 mean nothing different to the mind, except that one is larger than the other. Ten raised to the tenth power (1010) or the eleventh power (1011), looks the same, means the same, to any mind. We can look at a square or a hexagon and see the difference, but not the difference between a figure with one thousand, and one of one thousand and one sides. X in algebra may stand for any number of any size; G in Masonry, considered as meaning God, stands for an idea of such size and extent as to be inconceivable. Thus used, the letter G means an idea too great for the human mind to comprehend.

An act may be a symbol; removing the hat on the street when greeting a friend, for instance, is a symbol of friendship. Knights of old removed their helmets in the presence of friends to show they feared no blow. The clasping of hands on meeting or parting is a symbol of friendship; bare hands were extended by ancient warriors to show they held no daggers. In Masonry the clasped hands represent fidelity, but the hands clasped in the special way known only to Masons signify mutual knowledge, mutual obligation, mutual brotherhood. Here, again, the place and the purpose of the act determine the meaning of the symbol.

You drop your collar button, which rolls under your dressing table. You get upon your knees to hunt for it. There is nothing symbolic in the act. You may kneel to weed your garden; it is not a symbolic act. When, however, in the privacy of your bedroom you kneel to make petition to Deity, the act is symbolic of reverence and belief. As any one may kneel for prayer anywhere — bedside, living room, church, lodge, the public street if he will — it is the purpose, not the place, which makes the kneeling posture a symbol.

A symbol is meaningful only to those to whom it carries a message. Your child may find the Masonic apron you wore home from lodge in forgetfulness and tie it about his waist. It is not to him a symbol. The carpenter who wears an apron does so, as did the original stone Masons, to protect his clothing and his body, to carry his tools. The carpenter of today wears an apron as part of his job. The Mason puts on an apron before entering lodge as a symbol of many conceptions; his duties as a Mason, his membership in a fraternity, his badge of acceptance as such by his fellows. The janitor of a Masonic temple, not a Mason, might put on an apron and sit in a lodge room; the apron to him could only be a piece of play-acting, not a symbol.

To every American citizen, the stars and stripes are a symbol of home, liberty, government, freedom, opportunity, “my land.” Anywhere, any time, in any place, the flag has the same meanings for all citizens. A flag is made of blue bunting, and white bunting, and red bunting. The red and the white are in long strips, the blue is an oblong. The white is also in forty-eight five- pointed stars.

To the seamstress putting these parts together, cloth becomes only a finished job, not a symbol, when the last stitch is in. At what time does the cloth of a flag become a symbol? Obviously, not until it is used. A store room may hold a thousand flags, all wrapped in paper and ready for removal to other places. No one entering a store room with a thousand wrapped flags would think of standing at the sign of fidelity, remove his hat, repeat the pledge of allegiance, have a cold chill of pride and joy and patriotism crawl up and down his spine. In the warehouse, the flags are just sewed up pieces of cloth in bundles. They become symbols when used as symbols and not before; when on staffs, waved in parades, flown from windows or flag staffs, carried in battle, in the east of a Masonic hall or lodge.

Five men erected a flag staff and flag on Iwo Jima. A photographer made a marvelous picture. Now a great and beautiful statue has been made and erected near Washington, showing the men, the pose, the flag. Men stand before it and remove their hats. Women look at it and wipe tears from their eyes. It stands for bravery, and right, and courage, and the beauty of self-sacrifice. It is history in bronze which makes the statue a symbol; it is ritual in metal, and the ritual is the ritual of the flag; the ritual of belief in the American ideal, the American way of life.

The first “flag” was probably a stick or pole raised aloft that members of one tribe of warriors might know where their fellows were. Sticks developed into flags and flags into heraldry and designs upon shields but all meant the same in intent — this is my tribe, my race, my regiment, my country, my people.” Here it is the “my” which is important, the possession which makes the symbol have meaning.

Symbols, Masonic or secular, are sometimes abused: by misreading and by confusing the symbol with the thing symbolized.

To most people dollars are representatives of work done, of power to purchase, of food, clothing, daily living, savings, security. The miser likes dollars as dollars. His hidden hoard, in teapot or trunk, to be taken out after dark and behind locked doors and gloated over, confuses the thing with the thing symbolized. Dollars not spent but saved in a bank may spell security; invested, may bring in income. Dollars hoarded as dollars are of no value except to the hoarder and only to him because they are misread.

In Freemasonry, the most commonly misread and therefore most abused symbol is ritual. There are ritualists to whom ritual is the be-all and end-all of Masonry. To these, to know ritual is to know Masonry; to make a mistake in ritual is to commit a Masonic offense. The same error is made by those to whom the literal Bible is religion. To think of the story of Jonah and the whale as anything but literal fact is a sin. To consider the story of the flood or the Garden of Eden as an allegory is wicked. Take it as literal fact or your are blasphemous! Here these symbols are misread.

Ritual is no more Freemasonry than the bones of the body are a human being. Ritual is a skeleton on which the flesh and spirit of Freemasonry are imposed. The Bible is no more religion than is a grove of trees a church. The grove of trees may become a church, if in its shade devout men and women kneel to pray; the Bible becomes a part of religion when it is so read, but neither words nor trees make worship, which is from the spirit. All the ritual in all Masonic degrees will not make a man a Mason, and a man may be an excellent Mason and know no word of ritual. Ritual becomes Masonry, the Bible becomes religion, only when it is clothed with the spirit.

A common abuse of symbolism is to a right meaning into the wrong thing.

Masonry admits the “symbol of the symbol”; electric lights for candles, for instance, which do NOT consume themselves as they give light; a handkerchief has played the part of a Masonic apron more than once when there were not enough aprons to go around. But the intelligent Freemason does not admit a symbolic interpretation of that which was intended otherwise; for instance, those who try to read symbols of abstract meaning into the squares and triangles of the familiar cloth apron with triangular flap, are but stretching their imaginations. Ancient aprons were skins, shapeless. Then they became hand- worked; long, with rounded edges. Finally, convention provided the familiar apron of today, which is a manufacturer’s answer to the most apron for the least cloth and the least manufacturing expense. Its size, shape, angles, flap are not symbols, merely facts.

The greatest possession any American has is completely intangible: his citizenship. We who proudly say “I am an American citizen” have no papers to prove it; it is not a thing to be held in the hand and seen by the eye. It has no weight, size or shape; it cannot be bought or sold or given away, although it can be forfeited. American citizenship is an idea, an ideal as ethereal as a sunbeam, yet so valuable it is invaluable (like a Gutenberg Bible or the Crown jewels)!

Freemasonry’s greatest symbol is in the same class; completely intangible. It is the search for that which was lost; the Lost Word; the Royal Secret of the Scottish Rite; the true word; the ultimate truth of the unseen reality of which the world we know is but the shadow.

Few who possess it think often of their citizenship; it is so much a part of us all that we forget it, like the air we breathe, the gravity which holds us to the earth, the sunlight which gives us life. Only when we risk it, and perhaps, forfeit it, do we think of it.

Doubtless a majority of Masons think of the search but seldom, yet none may witness a Master Mason Degree and not be conscious of it. When all Masons value it and understand it, as all citizens should value and understand their citizenship, the millenium will have come to the Ancient Craft.

These few pages will have value only as those who read them may apply the principles here outlined to such reading of Masonic symbols as they may attempt. All Freemasons, presumably, can read. Some men “read” only comic strips and sporting news; others read learned books.

All Freemasons have symbolism before them in any lodge. Some see an Altar as a table on which is a book; others, as a focus of brotherly love and a sanctum sanctorum before which to worship.

He who studies books, learns.

He who considers his symbolism intelligently, becomes the happier Mason.

Question Box

This column will attempt to answer questions about Freemasonry

Why do we walk around the altar so much in the degrees?

Circumambulation is walking around a central point. In Masonic initiations it is always clockwise from East to West by way of South. Like so many symbols, the ritualistic explanation does not explain, except with the most elementary reasons. During this part of a degree, members of a lodge observe that a candidate is properly prepared, but circumambulation is far older than initiations. To early primitives, the sun was God. The sun traveled from East to West byway of the South. Hence, early man circled his stone altar on which was his imitation of the sun — fire — from East to West by way of the South, in humble imitation of the god in the sky.

Circumambulation is one of many concealed symbols of a Great Architect.

In those rituals in which in a certain part of the Master’s Degree — the circumambulation — is in the reverse direction, Freemasonry imitates the ancient ceremony signifying death.

Why are Square and Compasses more important than other working tools?

Without compasses no accurate square can be made: without a square no building can be erected. Square and compasses are universally the symbol of a Master Mason; of Freemasonry. Symbolists have read many meanings into both these tools of a Mason. Both symbols are much older than Freemasonry; Chinese manuscripts give them a Masonic significance (although there was no Freemasonry in that country) two thousand years ago. No symbols in Freemasonry offer so many possible interpretations. But many symbols mean different things to different men; each interprets according to his best light.

In modern Masonic rituals, the compasses are “dedicated to the Craft” and are emblematic of the restraint of violent passions. Here “passions” refers to any over- emotional lack of control. It is passions in the larger sense; intemperance, temper, unjust judgment, intolerance, selfishness, that the spiritual compasses circumscribe. The positions of the square and compasses in the three degrees are universally symbols of light, further light, more fight. (Compasses becomes compass in six United States grand lodges.)

The Masonic Service Association of North America