Vol. XXXV No. 9 — September 1957

The Masonic Rod

The first caveman who picked up a crooked stick and used it to help him walk or climb had his hands upon the original ancestor of the Masonic rod, carried by deacons and stewards.

The rod or staff became a spear, a weapon, a club; it evolved into the mace, the caduceus, the sceptre and the baton; it was the forerunner of the truncheon. George Oliver — not too great in reputation now as a Masonic historian — quotes from an inventory of a lodge at Chester, England, dated 1761, which includes “two truncheons for the Wardens.” Some symbolists have from this tried to trace the wardens’ columns back to the rod or staff as a symbol of authority, but the general weight of opinion is against the theory.

Past Master Albert L. Woody, a grand lecturer in Illinois, wrote an extraordinarily fine treatise on “Masonic Rods,” published by the committee on Masonic information of the grand lodge of that state. In it he states:

There is no evidence of the use of Masonic rods by the operative masons. Neither is there any mention of rods used in the early table lodges, and it is doubtful if space would have permitted their use there. The first mention of Masonic rods is in a procession of grand lodge in 1724 in which the grand stewards carried white rods, symbolizing purity and innocence. As late as 1812, in Pennsylvania, the deacons in procession carried columns — the same columns that now rest on the wardens’ pedestals. Deacons first carried blue rods tipped with gold, symbolizing friendship and benevolence; later these were tipped with a pine cone in imitation of the Caduceus of Mercury, the messenger of the gods.

Rod and staff each occur more than a hundred times in the Great Light; different meanings attach to the words according to the context. A Biblical staff is a branch, a part of a bough, an arrow or spear, a handle, a bar, a stay, a support, a scepter. Perhaps best known of all verses in the Bible in which both rod and staff appear is Psalm 23 in which the ending of verse 4 is “thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”

The beginning of this song compares the Lord to a shepherd, who leads his sheep “to green pastures” and “beside the still waters.”

Biblical commentators make here the rod in the shepherd’s hands as an iron studded club, suitable for defense against either robbers or wild animals, and the staff, a lighter instrument with which the shepherd beats down fallen leaves to make a bed for sheep or beats trees to make dead leaves fall.

The British Government has an officer called “The Lord Steward,” an important official of the King’s household, a member of the government, a peer, a privy councilor. Up to 1782 the office was one of considerable political importance and carried cabinet rank. The lord steward receives his appointment from the sovereign in person, and bears a white staff. He is the first dignitary of the court. In the Statutes of Eltham he is called “the lord great master,” but in the Household Book of Queen Elizabeth “the Lord Steward.” He presides at the Board of Green Cloth, a committee of the King’s household, charged with the audit of its accounts. The Board also had power to punish all offenders within the jurisdiction of the palace. The name is derived from the green-covered table at which the transactions of the Board were originally conducted. Under the Lord Steward are the treasurer and comptroller of the household, usually peers or the sons of peers and privy councilors, who sit at the Board of Green Cloth, carry white staves, and belong to the Ministry. But the duties that in theory belong to the lord steward, treasurer and comptroller of the household are in practice performed by the master of the household, who is a permanent officer and resides in the palace. He is a white-staff officer and a member of the Board of Green Cloth but not of the Ministry, and among other things he presides at the daily dinners in the suite in waiting on the Sovereign.

In the first formal account of a procession in the Book of Constitutions on June 24, 1724, as noted by Woody, the stewards are described as walking “two and two abreast with white rods.” This use of a white rod comes from the political customs of England, where the steward of the King’s household was appointed by the delivery of a staff, the breaking of which dissolved the office. Thus an old book quoted by Thynne says that in the reign of Edward IV, the creation of the steward of the household “only consisteth by the King’s delivering to him the household staff,” with these words, “Steward, hold the staff of mine house.” When the Lord High Steward presides over the House of Lords in London at the trial of a peer, at the conclusion of the trial he breaks the white staff that thus terminates his office.

Just when the rod, staff or spear became symbolic of authority no one knows; the practice is older than history and is worldwide.

A bundle of rods enclosing a protruding ax was carried by Roman lictors before the magistrates as a symbol of office, and authority to punish by flogging with the rods and beheading with the ax. A similar symbol, the mace, is used by the sergeant-at-arms of the United States House of Representatives to restore order, an idea borrowed from the British House of Commons.

The sceptre is a form of rod or staff and its use as a symbol of kingly authority is lost in the mists of antiquity. Smaller than the verger’s rod, it is larger, generally, than the baton of a Masonic lodge when carried by the master of ceremonies or marshal. Kings, and therefore sceptres, have rather gone out of existence, but the Royal Family of England possesses five sceptres. These are (1) the King’s royal sceptre with the cross; (2) the King’s sceptre with the dove; (3) the Queen’s sceptre with the cross; (4) the Queen’s sceptre with the dove; (5) the Queen’s ivory rod. At the head of the King’s royal sceptre is the greatest diamond in the world, known as the principal Star of Africa. It weighs 516½ carats, more than four times the weight of any other known diamond. This sceptre dates from Charles II and is carried in the King’s right hand at the coronation. The Star of Africa diamond was introduced by Edward VII. The name of the fifth sceptre — “Queen's ivory rod” again shows the sceptre and rod to be close relatives, if not brothers!

The caduceus was a white wand carried by Roman heralds when they went to treat for peace. The wand in the hand of Mercury, the herald of the gods, was supposed to give sleep, wherefore Milton in Paradise Lost styles it, “his opiate rod.” It is generally pictured with two serpents twined about it (a symbol that originated in Egypt), and — with reference to the serpents of Aesculapius — it was adopted as the badge of the Royal Army Medical Corps.

So with his dread caduceus Hermes led
From the dark regions of the imprisoned dead;
Or drove in silent shoals the lingering train
To Night’s dull shore and Pluto’s dreary reign.
— Erasmus Darwin, Loves of the Plants

In Greek mythology such a rod was carried as a badge of his office by the messenger of the gods, who was Hermes to the Greeks and Mercury to the Romans. Since Mercury was the god of commerce his wand became the emblem of commerce, prosperity and peace. Among the Romans it was the badge of ambassadors. The messenger of the gods conducted the dead into the next world with the caduceus. Edmund Spenser mentioned the caduceus in 1591, and in Troilus and Cressida, written about 1606, Shakespeare has the deformed and scurrilous Thersites pray, “Mercury, lose all the serpentine craft of thy caduceus.”

The serpent was sacred to Asklepios, the Greek god of medicine, and a snake coiled around a rod was his most characteristic emblem. Asklepios was worshipped under the form of a serpent. Asklepios became Aesculapius to the Romans. In later mythology Hygeia, the goddess of health, who was a daughter of Aesculapius, is often represented as bearing a serpent wand. In Exodus the rod cast down before Pharaoh by Aaron “became a serpent.” Curiously the wise men, sorcerers and magicians of Egypt called in by Pharaoh were able to perform the same miracles. Exodus 7:11 says: “For they cast down everyman his rod, and they became serpents: but Aaron’s rod swallowed up their rods.”

The connection between the Masonic rod and the ancient rods connection with the serpent is tenuous, but curiously interesting. Moses, of course, is a character in the Masonic scene. What is so intriguing about this as far as Masonry is concerned is the fact that another important Masonic symbol — the point within a circle — is intimately connected with the idea of serpents.

The two parallel lines that modern Masonry states represent the two Holy Sts. John, are as ancient as the rest of the symbol, and originally had nothing to do with the “two eminent Christian patrons of Masonry.” It is a pretty conception, but of course without any foundation. The Holy Sts. John lived and taught many hundred years before any Masonry existed that can justly be called by that name. If this is distasteful to those who like to believe that King Solomon was grand master of a grand lodge, devised the system and wrote the ritual, one must refute them with their own chronology, for both the Holy Sts. John lived long after the wise king wrought his “famous fabric.”

The two perpendicular parallel lines are sometimes thought to have been added to the symbol of the point within a circle as a sort of diagram or typification of a lodge at its most solemn moment, the point being the brother at the altar, the circle the Holy of Holies, and the two lines the brethren waiting to help bring the initiate to light.

But this is obviously a mere play of fancy; the two lines against the circle with the point date back to an era before Solomon. On early Egyptian monuments maybe found the Alpha and Omega, or symbol of God, in the center of a circle embroidered by two upright, perpendicular, parallel serpents, representing the power and the wisdom of the Creator.

In the Old Testament the serpent is often described. For instance the serpent is “more subtle than any beast of the field.” Jesus, in Matthew 10:16, said “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves" When the children of Israel wandered in the wilderness Numbers 21:5-9 says:

And the people spake against God, and against Moses, Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, neither is there any water; and our soul loatheth this fight bread. And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died. Therefore the people came to Moses and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord, and against thee; pray unto the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.

This serpent made by Moses was venerated by the Israelites. Later it received idolatrous worship. 2 Kings 18:4 says: “He removed the high places, and brake the images, and cut down the groves, and brake in pieces the brazen serpent that Moses had made.” John 3:14 says: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up.”

Rod and staff are almost, if not quite, interchangeable words; all staffs are rods, even if not all rods are staffs. Staff is particularly connected with the idea of support. The expression “bread is the staff of life” emphasizes this.

The phrase as quoted is not in the Bible, but many verses show its origin. Leviticus 26:26 says: “When I break your staff of bread, ten women shall bake your bread in one oven, and they shall deliver your bread again by weight; and ye shall eat, and not be satisfied. Psalms 105:16 reads: “Moreover he called for a famine upon the land: he brake the whole staff of bread. Ezekial 4:16 says: “Moreover he said unto me, Son of man, behold, I will break the staff of bread in Jerusalem: and they shall eat bread by weight, and with care; and they shall drink water by measure, and with astonishment.” In Ezekial 5:16 the Lord will increase “the famine upon you, and will break your staff of bread. And trespassing grievously, then will I stretch out mine hand upon it, and will break the staff of bread thereof, and will cut off man and beast from it.” Isaiah 3:1 states that the Lord "doth take away from Jerusalem and from Judah the stay and the staff, the whole stay of bread, and the whole stay ofwater." “Bread is the staff of life,” is in the Oxford dictionary of 1638. In 1624 Edward Winslow, in Good News From New England, referred to “Corn, which is the staff of life.”

It is curiously interesting that the name “rod” is one of the common land measures still persisting in use; it came to the United States from England, in which country it has the same length as here — sixteen and one half feet. It is at least a reasonable supposition that its origin was in some rod of authority, or is the multiple — twice or thrice — of some ancient “rod of authority” either religious or sectarian. The whole history of the adoption of various weights and measures by the different peoples of the world is scattered through thousands of years and is more or less fragmentary.

This Bulletin is not nearly large enough to tell the whole story of rod and staff. But enough has been set down to indicate that the Masonic rod, as a symbol of authority, is of great antiquity, has a most curiously interesting connection with the wisdom supposed to be in the serpent, and is not a mere piece of wood carried by Masonic officers as a decoration but a symbol worthy of attention and deep study.

(The compiler of these pages is indebted to George Stimson's fine volumes A Book About the Bible and A Book about a Thousand Things (Harper and Brothers, Publishers) from which a number of paragraphs have been abstracted here. Acknowledgment is also made to previous issues of The Short Talk Bulletin, the Britannica, and Past Master Albert L. Woody.)

Question Box

This column will attempt to answer questions about Freemasonry.

What is a lodge Charter, or Warrant?

The document given to brethren who are members of a “lodge under dispensation” — that is, permitted to meet as a lodge by a grand master — when such a group becomes an actual lodge. Charters, or Warrants of Constitution, are given only by grand lodge, and usually after a lodge under dispensation has demonstrated its fitness to receive that document. The charter sets forth the facts, names the first master and wardens, authorizes the group to be and to act as a regular lodge under the grand lodge granting the charter. Subsequently to the granting of the charter, and before going to work, the new lodge must be regularly constituted, dedicated and consecrated in a beautiful ceremony performed by Grand Lodge officers concerned in the formation of the new lodge.

Charters are now a necessity for any regular and recognized lodge. In an earlier day what are known as “time immemorial lodges” worked without charters; “The Lodge at Fredericksburgh” which initiated, passed, and raised George Washington had no charter until several years after these ceremonies.

What is an “occasional lodge”?

Any grand master may assemble the statutory number of brethren and declare an occasional lodge, at his pleasure, and then dissolve it at the close of the occasion. The occasional lodge is usually that convened for "making a Mason at sight” but not necessarily so; such a lodge may be, at the grand master’s pleasure, convened for any Masonic purpose.

The Masonic Service Association of North America