Vol. LII No. 12 — November 1974


This Short Talk is a portion of Chapter I of Beyond the Pillars, a manual of Masonic instruction published in 1973 by the Grand Lodge of Canada in the Province of Ontario and ed by Masonic Holdings of Hamilton, Ontario, with whose permission this useful instruction is reproduced in this form.

In the examination before Passing, Masonry is said to be "a beautiful system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols." While allegory and symbol play a prominent role in the Craft they are by no means restricted to it. Brethren who have a clear idea of how these devices work will find a deeper understanding of how Masonry operates and what it means.


A symbol is "something that stands for, represents, or denotes something else (not by exact resemblance, but by vague suggestion, or by some accidental or conventional relation)" (Shorter Oxford English Dictionary). Some symbols occur so frequently in daily life that we have stopped thinking of them as symbols. Most familiar are the letters of the alphabet. There is no clear reason why the shape S should stand for a hissing sound, but we all accept it as such. Other symbols in common use include the numerals, mathematical and monetary signs, musical notation, and scientific formulas. Such symbols are indispensable for almost any sort of communication. Without them the marvels of modern science could never have been achieved.

Another type of symbol is found in the arts, both graphic and verbal. It represents something which is abstract, or hard to visualize, in terms of something which can be perceived by our sense, above all by sight. In this way purity is symbolized by the colour white, peace by the dove and olive-branch, poison by the skull and crossbones, Canada by the beaver or the maple leaf, Christianity by the cross, Judaism by the star of David. Sometimes in the world of advertising, symbols are registered as "trademarks." The ancient messenger god Mercury, speeding through the air with winged hat and winged sandals, represents "Floral Telegraph Delivery."

In literature the symbol often occurs in combination with one of the traditional "figures of speech," simile, metaphor, or metonymy. In a little poem by W. S. Landor, life is compared to and symbolized by a warm fire.

I strove with none, for none was worth my strife;
Nature I loved, and after Nature, Art.
I warmed both hands before the fire of life.
It sinks, and I am ready to depart.

Certain symbols might conceivably stand for a number of different things, and their precise application is derived from the immediate context. Thus, warmth, light, fire, and day regularly stand for "life." But at one point in Paradise Lost Milton calls upon Light to help him. This is appropriate in a literal sense, because his story is moving from the gloomy realm of Satan to the ethereal brightness of Heaven. We are also reminded that Milton, because of his blindness, could not see the light like other men. But finally we learn that here the light is symbolic, and that it represents poetic insight.

Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers
Irradiate; there plant eyes; all mist from thence
Purge and disperse, that I may see and tell
Of things invisible to mortal sight.

Our own Canadian poem In Flanders Fields also makes use of the symbol of light.

Take up our quarrel with the foe
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith \with us who die
We shall not sleep . . .

Here presumably the torch represents not just the continuity of life, but the struggle for survival and victory.

A symbol's associations go far beyond its simple pictorial meaning. It can sometimes be used, not merely to facilitate thought, but even to shape it. Who can be afraid of death if it is symbolized by putting out to sea, or falling to sleep?

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar
When I put out to sea. . . .
(Tennyson, Crossing the Bar)

So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.
(Bryant, Thanatopsis)

For the Freemason, an ear of corn near a stream of water denotes plenty, the chisel represents perseverance, the Doric order of architecture is strength, the sprig of acacia reminds us of immortality. The symbols need not always be consistent, but can stand for different things. The twenty-four-inch gauge can represent the twenty-four-hour day, and also accuracy. The square stands for morality, but also for the Worshipful Master. In the First Degree the darkness is the darkness of ignorance; in the Third, it is the darkness of death. Nor are all the symbols explained for us. If you have a flair for recognizing them, there is ample scope to indulge your talents. Every character, figure, and emblem has a moral tendency, and serves to inculcate the practice of virtue in all its genuine professors.


An allegory is a "narrative description of a subject under guise of another suggestively similar" (Concise Oxford Dictionary). That is, it is a story in which the characters are symbols. An allegory may be sustained for quite a while. At first an unwary reader may believe that he is beginning a novel. As he proceeds, it gradually dawns on him that he is reading about something quite different from what he thought, that he is being "preached at" or somehow "i got at" in an indirect way.

The best known allegory in English is Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. Ostensibly it is a series of random adventures met with by a hero named Christian on his journey to the Celestial City. On another level it portrays the tribulations endured by the soul of a believer in the course of his life. Even today the allegory is far from dead. The reader of the C. S. Lewis series of Narnia stories gradually comes to the realization that the compassionate, just, and awesome lion Aslan is none other than God. J. R. R.

Tolkien's magnificent trilogy The Lord of the Rings is in some sense a portrayal of the struggle between good and evil. Not infrequently allegory is combined with satire. In George Orwell's Animal Farm, the beasts take over, and proceed to behave like various recognizable breeds of politician.

Allegory always strives to combine entertainment with instruction. As a teaching method, it is sanctioned by long usage. The older and briefer specimens are known by other names. Aesop's fables, with their moral lessons, are nothing but allegories. The greatest teacher of all time taught by allegories, but he called them parables; everyone will recall, for example, the Prodigal Son.

In Masonry, the sequence of the three degrees is itself allegorical, and represents the course of human existence. In like manner, the building of the Temple prefigures the erection of our moral edifice. Of cardinal importance is the Traditional History of the Third Degree. Because it is an allegory its truth does not reside in its factual narrative. The literal minded can always find flaws in it. For example, how came "those secrets" to be lost at the death of our Grand Master? There were, after all, two other Grand Masters who presumably knew them. The truth of the story is rather to be sought in the moral lesson it intends to teach.

The words "veiled in allegory" imply that some of the truths of Masonry are concealed from the uninitiated, but that they can be discovered by one who is privileged to join. It takes practice to learn how to recognize and appreciate symbol and allegory. Only through sincere, intelligent, and sustained effort, reinforced by imaginative and emotional sensitivity, can the reward be reaped.

The Masonic Service Association of North America