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B.10.1 Symbols and Letters

B.10: Symbols and Terms

Symbols and emblems, both words now have the same meaning, were largely used in antiquity. At that time religious instruction was given by symbols, and this is true for the early Christians, the Egyptians, Assyrians, Greek and others. Freemasonry is defined as a system of morality, veiled in allegory, and illustrated by symbols; moreover allegory is related to the parable and has both a literal and spiritual meaning. How and when did symbolism come to Masonry? The old MS. Charges covering the period from 1390 to 1700 show the traditions and customs of the medieval operative masons, but has nothing of a esotherical nature and little of allegory and symbolism. This is very strange as, during this period of time, Scriptures were interpreted in an allegorical and symbolical way and Freemasonry drew its ideas and methods from the religious and learned writers of that time. Symbolism came to Masonry in the late seventeenth and in all the eighteenth century. The Bible is the source of some Masonic symbolism but most of it came from classically educated alchemists, even if it would be a mistake to believe that alchemists invented speculative Masonry. It is true that “operative” alchemists were only interested in transmuting base metals into gold, but there were also many medieval spiritually oriented “speculative” alchemists who saw this art of transmutation as an allegory. They defined alchemy as “the philosophic and exact science of the regeneration of the human soul”.

Alchemy symbols express truths in allegorical pictures, beautifully conceived, and skilfully executed. The Philosophical Stone, said to be used by alchemists, was first mentioned in the early centuries of the Christian era and is linked to the concept of “regeneration of man”. The Stone means perfection, and many old alchemists thought that it came directly from God. The Stone is also known as the “Elixir of Life“, or the “Grand Elixir” capable of restoring youthfulness and prolonging life. Freemasons, in general, like its representation as a serpent eating its tail, a symbol of eternity and immortality, the serpent being regarded by the alchemists as symbolical of divine wisdom, of power and creative energy, of life, and regeneration.

In the same way the signs of the Zodiac are conventional symbols dating back to the tenth century and are designed on many ceilings of lodges and chapters. These symbols are much used in alchemy literature from which Freemasonry took them.

In Royal Arch Masonry the circle is the symbol of eternity, having no beginning or end, and said to be a kind of God without beginning of days or end of years. It was thought to protect everything inside from external evil. This would explain the long existing use of rings, bracelets, anklets, necklaces, … that were not only ornaments, but also protection against evil. The circle is the image of the sun, the symbol of pure gold, and it has a mystical relationship with the Tetragrammaton and the Ineffable name. The circle, symbolising eternity, is often represented by the serpent eating its own tail, the serpent being the symbol of life and also, long ago, the emblem of wisdom. The fastener of the belt of the Masonic apron has the shape of a serpent with all its symbolic meanings. Ancient philosophers were very much concerned with the problem of squaring the circle, that is to find the exact ratio of its circumference to its radius.

The circle is even more important when it includes a central point. This symbol was known to the Pagans thousand years ago and, initially, it had a phallic interpretation and represented the male and the female principle. With time it took other meanings such as the wheel symbol and the subject of religious rites. The Greeks, many centuries before Christ, represented God as a circle whose centre was everywhere and the circumference nowhere. The point within a circle was also used as a device in Christian churches before becoming a Masonic emblem. In Masonry the point has been seen as the Supreme Being and the circle as the circuit of the sun or eternity. The point represents also the initiate and the circle is the boundary line of his duty to God.

Letters as symbols

Tau or T, one of the two most important symbols in Royal Arch Masonry, is the nineteenth letter in the Greek alphabet. The ancients considered it as the symbol of life whereas “theta”, or ?, the eighth letter of the Greek alphabet, was the symbol of death. The triple tau, three letter tau together, was used since the 1820’s. The tau is an early form of the cross, also known as St Anthony’s cross, because the saint was crucified on a cross of this shape. Before, it had been the anticipatory cross, or type-cross of the pre-Christian Scriptures. It is not known as a simple cross in Craft, Arch, or Mark Masonry, but it is known like this is some of the additional degrees. The cross has been adored as a sacred symbol since the early Pagan times; it has assumed different shapes, possibly more than three hundred, including the swastika which was the ancient symbol of the Deity. In Pagan days a warrior honourably surviving a battle could add tau on his name, and this practice has been taken over by the Royal Arch with the same meaning.

Variations of the Cross

Variations of the Cross

The triple tau (three letters “T” together) initially was formed of a “T” over a “H” meaning “Templum Hierosolimae”, the Temple of Jerusalem. It had also other meanings like “Thesaurus”, a treasure, or the key to a treasure; “res ipsa pretiosa”, the precious thing itself that could mean the Sacred name; “theca ubi res pretiosa deponitur”, the depository in which the sacred thing is deposited or hidden that again is linked to the Sacred name.

The T-over-H and the Triple Tau

Tau Cross

These figures show the evolution of the T-over-H towards the Triple Tau


How the plain cross-developed into the Swastika

The letter T above the letter H was also a Christian symbol meaning, perhaps “Holiness supporting Trinity”. The following figure from a church in Rome means “Jesus Hominium Salvator” or, “in hac salus” that means “safety in the cross”.

The T-over-H sign was, of course, known before the Charter of compact of 1766.The earliest Grand Chapter Regulations say that aprons should bear on their bibs a T and H of gold. The same Grand Chapter in 1803 required that the curved bib, or flap, of the apron should have the T over H sign embroidered in “spangles on a piece of purple satin” and, in 1817, these letters appear to be on their way to the triple Tau. This was officialised between 1822 and 1835.

Triangles as symbols

Triangle, especially the equilateral triangle, is one of the oldest symbols in the world. To the Christians it symbolises Trinity, all its sides being equal. The three lines in conjunction represent the Sacred Word, the essence of the deity. Triangles were present in early Craft lodges with the letters V.S.L. inside. The triangle containing the Yod, the first letter of the Sacred Name, represents the power and efficiency of the Almighty. The point within a triangle or a circle represents the Supreme Being. The old alchemists used similar emblems; for example a triangle with a human head or skull inside also symbolises the Supreme Being. A “all-seeing eye” within a triangle includes the idea of the omnipresent God.

Symbolic triangles

Triangle — Point within Triangle — Yod within Triangle — Tetragrammaton Within Triangle — Triple trine

The Chaplain of a Craft lodge has the triangle in his jewels. The Grand Master’s jewel, the open compass, includes a gold plate in which there is the “all-seeing eye” within the triangle. The circle within the triangle, or trine compass, is one of the most venerable symbols that carry with it the meaning of the coequality and the co-eternity of the Three Persons in the Trinity. The triangle is also known as the Delta from the island at the two mouths of the Nile; it also means the luminous triangle, or delta, that encloses the Tetragrammaton. In medieval architecture the circle, square, and equilateral triangle represented wisdom, strength, and beauty.

To the alchemists the triangle has many meanings. Standing on its points it meant water; standing on its base it meant fire; standing on its point and divided horizontally it meant earth; standing on its base and divided horizontally it meant air. Many alchemists thought that the Philosopher’s Stone was “triangular in essence” and, in some old Masonic ritual, the Stone is shown as triangular. The English Masonry is interested in two forms of interlaced triangle: the hexalpha (a six-pointed star used in Royal Arch Masonry) and the pentalpha (five pointed star used in the eighteenth century). The “Antients” preferred the pentalpha and the “Moderns” the hexalpha. Masonry took the interlaced triangles from alchemy, which took them from old religions, magic, and old mystery schools that all thought triangles, especially interlaced, had magical properties. They were symbols of the everlasting truth of the deity, and the Christians used them as emblems of Christ.

The six-pointed star hexalpha, the Shield of David, also known as Solomon’s Seal, has many meanings. It is called hexalpha because it includes six triangles against the five of the pentalpha. It is widely used by the Royal Arch Masonry that also calls it hexagram. It has also been associated with the Jewish religion at least since the eighth, or even the tenth century BC. For the Jews it was a talisman against fire and disease. To day it is accepted worldwide as the symbol of Judaism and can be seen on most synagogues, and even on some orthodox Jewish restaurants. In this case it has national and racial connotations rather than religious’.

We do not really know why the hexalpha came to be adopted by the Royal Arch in the eighteenth century, except that it was part of alchemical symbolism that has been largely used by Masonry. It can also have come from the Jewish faith through adoption by Christianity.

The pentalpha, as we have seen, was the “Antients” Royal Arch emblem. It is very often confused with the hexalpha and is also known as Seal of Solomon and Shield of David. It is also known as “pentagram”, “pentageron”, “pentacle”, “pentaculum”, and “pentagrammaton”. It is often used as ornament even in churches and cathedrals. The pentalpha has been a Christian emblem for the Trinity, it was used to remind the believers of the five wounds of Christ and, to the Pythagoreans, it was the symbol of health and salutation.

The Pentalpha and the Hexalpha

The early Craft lodges introduced the central altar to Masonry and, as a consequence, to Royal Arch that was considered a religious ceremony at that time. The Jews have used altars since the time of Noah, the sacrificial one was installed outside in front of the Temple, and the memorial one inside. First they were built of earth, or of unhewn stones, following the instructions received on Mount Sinai, but later on they were made of wood and covered with precious metals, and incense was burned on them. They had a horn on each corner. The early Christians used wood initially, and stones later on. After the Reformation the English churches used “the Holy Table”.

Since the eighteenth century the Craft lodges have a pedestal that is a combination of an altar and a table. The early chapters were held in lodges and, if only for this reason, the Royal Arch was influenced to a large degree by the Craft’s ritual and ceremony, but also by the furniture used in the lodges. Naturally they saw the pedestal as an altar, and it is still the case to day in the chapters. The altar in a chapter has generally the shape of a double cube (two cubes joined together) that has a ceremonial significance, although its historic basis is unknown.

The ceremony associated with the altar makes much use of the numbers 3, 5 and 7. Each of these numbers has been credited with mystical properties and many biblical references mention them: the three branches of the candlestick; the altar was three cubits high; the three of the Trinity; five years; five curtains; five rams; five goats; five loafs; seven kine; seven Sabbaths; seven pillars; seven candlesticks; seven times; seven years; and so on. Three was a “perfect number”, the symbol of the Deity. There are said to be five wits or senses; five books form the Torah. There are seven sacred planets; creation was completed in seven days; there are seven stages in the life of man. And so on.

On a chapter, the altar has twelve small banners, or ensigns, around it. In the East there are four principal banners carrying ancient emblems with, sometime, a fifth one centrally placed and displaying the Royal Arch device, the triple tau within a triangle within a circle. Sometime there are also three banners in the West beyond the Sojourners. Freemasonry adopted the banners from ecclesiastical and high civic custom. Banners have been in use since the creation of the Grand Chapter in 1766. Initially there was only four banners carrying the “Antients” symbols of the ox, man, lion, and eagle. The lion (strength and power) represents the tribe of Judah, the man (intelligence and understanding) that of Reuben, the ox (patience and assiduity) Ephraim, and the eagle (promptness and celerity) Dan. These tribes were encamped respectively east, south, west, and north of the tabernacle. These four sacred symbols, which are mentioned in the Jewish Talmud, were ascribed by St Irenaeus in the second century AD to the four evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The eagle has also become a prominent church symbol and in many old churches there is an eagle desk where the Gospel was sung on special occasions. The Old Masonic Charges recognised the eagle symbol, and many lodges have a carved eagle that means that these lodges were dedicated to St John, or it is an evidence of their association with the Royal Arch. Christianity represents the incarnation of Christ with a winged man; His passion as a winged ox; His resurrection as a winged lion: His ascension as an eagle; and they are associated respectively with Matthew, Luke, Mark, and John. The arms of the Grand Lodge of England consist of two cherubim, one on each sides of a shield with above it the Ark of the Covenant, with the following Hebrew writing: “Kodes la Adonai” that means “Holiness to the Lord”.

The ensigns around the altar commemorate the Children of Israel during their forty years’ travel in the wilderness. Each ensign carries an emblematic device, the choice of emblem being governed by Jacob’s prophecy relating to the posterity of the different tribes that had been scattered along the length of Palestine. Only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin remained faithful to the government of the line of David while the others revolted and cut for ever their links with Israel. Nebuchadnezzar took the tribes of Judah and Benjamin into exile and it is with this part of the Jewish history that the English Royal Arch is concerned with. Originally these ensigns were arranged in a square but now they are generally presented in two rows of six.

The three banners that are sometime behind the Sojourners’ chairs had often originally a lion, a sceptre, and a crown as emblems. Initially they were behind the chairs of the Three Principals but they were moved behind the Sojourners’ after the 1835 revision of ceremonial and ritual. The crown emblem has been removed. In the early nineteenth century some chapters used banners with the signs of the zodiac.

Some old chapters had, and possibly still have, tracing boards like those used by the Craft with symbols of the Royal Arch and, sometime, of the Craft too, and of a number of additional degrees. On old Craft tracing-boards, banners, jewels, … a hand holding a plumb line is a symbol indicating Royal Arch connection. It comes from the “Antients” ceremony of Installation, and dates from the time when the Past Master’s Degree was a requisite for the Royal Arch. This could be linked to Galileo Galilei’s investigation of the properties of the pendulum, but there is no proof of it. The anchor that appeared on old tracing-boards and jewels was, and is still, a Christian emblem for eternal life, especially if combined with the cross. The group of seven stars appearing on the same devises is inspired by the Book of Revelations (i,16;ii,I; iii,I) where the seven stars in the hand of Christ are mentioned.