Some masonic symbols and their probable origin
Frank G. Belton
Synopsis:- The ancient mysteries. Their relation to magic. Origin of sacred numbers. Pythagoras and his science of numbers. The Pentagram: its construction, symbolical meanings and uses in various cults. Crosses: their various forms and meanings. The 47th Prop., Book I, of Euclid, its proposition in Egyptian mysteries. The point within a circle. Symbolical colours: their origin, probably derived from nature. Various other symbols common to Masonry and other secret societies. The discovery of Masonic symbols at the base of Cleopatra’s needle. Conclusion.
Freemasonry, although it retains in its doctrines none of the barbarism and fanatical beliefs of the ancient mysteries, has in its symbols abundant proofs of their influence. An antiquarian, entering a Masonic Lodge and viewing the symbols therein, sees scattered around him many objects made familiar to him in his research into the dim ages of the past. On studying the old nations of the world, we find that when they have advanced far enough in civilization to have an organized religion, they also have their mysteries. The mysteries of the ancients appear to be a kind of religion within a religion, inseparable yet distinct. Their object was, in almost every case, to gain a higher knowledge of the deity, and to lead the initiates to a better and a holier life. The ceremonies were often weird n the extreme, and were all invented for the same purpose, viz., to produce a vivid impression on the mind of the candidate, and to so work upon his feelings, as to produce the strong religious ardour necessary to bind him closely to the fraternity. The most solemn oath of secrecy had to be taken, and exposure of any of the rites led to instant death. It follows therefore that the information we have of these ancient secret societies must at the best be very scanty, and often not quite trustworthy. Dr. Oliver in his “History of Initiation,” has collected much valuable information, but a great deal of this has been found in recent years to be quite without foundation, and for the purpose of drawing definite conclusions from not to be relied upon. Thus although we can find our very little about the actual ceremonies practised by these nations, we are able to gather from their monuments, &c., many of the symbols used in their rites, and also in many cases to learn their symbolical significance.
The Masonic use of the symbol is very different from its ancient and original use. Masons are accustomed to look upon it merely as a suggestion of a certain object to the mind; not so the ancient mystic, it was to him a special and a holy design, part and parcel of the deity or quality it was meant to represent. By invoking this symbol the deity himself answered the summons, and was near at hand to guard or help the person invoking his aid. To quote an example – the acacia to the Mason simply recalls the ad death of the Master, Hiram Abif, and its evergreen nature suggests the idea of a future life; but to the Greek mystic it was the emblem of innocence; by carrying a sprig of acacia upon his person, or invoking the aid of the symbol, he himself was protected against temptation, and his innocence guarded. It is only natural that the ancients should use their symbols to represent an abstract idea, such as innocence, for by their aid they were better able to understand these ideas; we ourselves can see how hard it is for modern philosophers to define abstract ideas without such convenient aid.
From the mysteries to magic is an easy transition, in fact we always find the two more or less associated together. In its purest form, magic is found amongst the lower savage tribes such as the Zulus or Bushmen of Africa. We find there that symbols have not advanced to such a state of perfection as in the higher developed mysteries. The symbol is always a close copy of the idea it is meant to represent, and its power is very great for working good or evil, according to the use the magician may put it to. For instance, by making a wax image or symbol of a person, and slowly melting it before a fire with the proper incantations and spells, the person himself becomes sick and dies. Again, a god whose special power is boldness, is represented by the symbol of a lion or some such animal. But in the mysteries the symbols are by no means simple, and their origin therefore is not so evident; and many symbols bear absolutely no relation to the thing they are meant to represent. How the acacia came to represent the quality of innocence amongst the Greeks is hard to tell. A magician, moreover, had not to go through a regular initiation ceremony like a candidate to the mysteries had. His initiation generally consisted of retiring to the mountains or the desert, where he had to fast and expose himself to all kinds of hardships, until he reduced himself to such an unnatural state of mind that he began to see visions, and through them received special messages from his gods. He then considered himself properly qualified to proceed in his profession.
Magic again did not profess any altruistic object, in fact it was generally looked upon by the savages as a thing to be feared, and as an unpleasant necessity. It cannot however be denied, that the mysteries possess a certain affinity to magic; a member was specially protected from the demons whose object it was to work out his destruction, and by the aid of mystic ceremonies he was able to foretell future events. The mysteries of the ancients then have most probably been a natural outcome of magic. It seems to be a universal trait of the human mind to have a hankering after the mysterious, and this is never so forcibly represented as in the nations of the East. We find nearly all their scientific discoveries were wrapped up in mysticism, and often to such an extent as to become almost unintelligible,. The great Pythagoras founded his mystic school on his science of numbers, and as sacred numbers play no unimportant part in masonry, I propose to bring before you the principles on which his system was founded.
It is well-known that certain numbers seem universally to have a peculiar symbolical significance. Three, five and seven a re particularly sacred numbers, and their origin as such dates much further back that he time of Pythagoras. The reason why these numbers have obtained such a mysterious significance is probably and simply the work of chance. For the sake of illustration let us take the number seven. The ancient astronomers discovered only seven planets, and to these were given the names of the seven principal deities. Again in Chemistry seven metals only were known to the alchemists. From the seven deities of the Goths we get the seven days of our week, and from the twelve (3 x 4) signs of the Zodiac, we get the twelve months of the year. It can thus be seen, that, as the ancient philosophers, steeped as they were n religious mysticism, noticed how often the numbers three, five and seven occurred in nature, they began to think that the laws of the Universe were founded on a numerical order of things, and these numbers occurring so often had a sacred origin. Of course with the advance of science, these idea of the unity of number have been dispelled, more planets and more metals have been discovered, an it is now known that some seventy elementary substances exist in nature, when the Chinese thought there were only five. The number nine also has always had a particularly sacred significance; in the first place it is a multiple of the mystic three, and again any multiple of nine when added together gives nine, or a multiple of nine, thus 9 x 3 gives 27 and 2 + 7 gives 9; or again 9 x 11 gives 99 and 9 + 9 gives 18, which is 9 x 2.
Having seen in what a sacred light numbers were regarded by the ancients, it can hardly be wondered at that Pythagoras was tempted to shroud his mathematical knowledge and discoveries in the popular mysteries of the times he would also be further led to do this, on account of the knowledge he gained of the Egyptians and their mysteries during his sojourn in their country. The accounts we have of the life of this famous philosopher are many and varied, and they all speak volumes for the inventive genius of the biographer. Some accounts say he had a golden thigh, and others that he was the natural son of Apollo. The facts o his life are briefly as follows: Pythagoras was born at Samos between B.C. 586 and 569, probably B.C. 581. There is no reason to doubt that he travelled extensively, coming in contact with the Egyptians, Phoenicians, Jews and other nations. About year B.C. 529 Pythagoras settled at Crotona, in South Italy, and it was there he founded his famous school of philosophy and reached the zenith of his fame. If we can believe one account, the reaction against this philosophy set in during his life, about B.C. 510. On account of his unpopularity he retied to Metapontum, and it is almost unanimously agreed that he died there about the end of the sixth century before Christ.
The school of Pythagoras had undoubtedly great power. Little is known about the actual ceremonies used at initiation, although many version are given by various authors, still they differ to such a marked degree that no reliance can be placed on any one of them. Mackey says that Pythagoras had three degrees, Acousmatici, Mathematici and Pythagorean. As has been shown, he was by no means the firs to apply a symbolical and mysterious significance to numbers, and he was the first to make a perfect science of it, and turn it into an elaborate system of symbolism. To his mind, without number there would be no order in things, and the universe would be simple chaos. Aristotle speaking of the Pythagoreans says, “they suppose the elements of number not be the elements of existence, and pronounce the whole heaven to be harmony and number.”
Pythagoras divided numbers into two divisions, odd and even, and these represented the limited and the unlimited. From this he produced his idea of harmony, which is the union of two opposites, as odd and even. He also introduced the idea of sex into numbers, equal numbers being female and unequal male. As a result of this we get the number five signifying marriage, it being the union of the first male number three with the first female number two, 3 + 2 + 5. Taking the various numbers in their proper sequence we have one representing “reason,” because it is unchangeable and stands alone; according to Mackey it represents “identify, equality, existence, and universal preservation and harmony.” Two is the first female number, and represents, perhaps not without some justification considering the sex, “opinion.” Three is the number of perfect harmony, and represents the world resulting from the connection of the nomad principle or the deity, with the dual or female principle. The number four represents
”justice,” because it is the product of equals (2 + 2). Four is also the potential of the decade (1 + 2+ 3+ 4= 10). In his geometrical principle, one represents the point, two the line, three the surface, and four the cube. It would be superfluous to continue detailing the symbolical significance of all the other numbers in the decade. Five, seven and nine have previously been explained. It was on these lines then that Pythagoras built up his elaborate system of numbers.
It is hard to understand his object in inventing all these complications, unless, as previously suggested, because of a strong leaning to the mysticism in vogue at the time. Some of the combinations of numbers have a most high-flown and fantastic explanation, and it is difficult to see how the various meanings have been assigned to them. To quote the following words of Prof. Seth, writing in the Encyclopaedia Britannica on “Pythagorean Philosophy”: “The further speculations of the Pythagoreans on the subject of numbers rest mainly on analogies, which often become capricious and tend to lose themselves in a barren symbolism.” Still although Pythagoras wrapped up his work in mystery and symbolism, when it came to be laid bare, it contained much good work. He placed arithmetic on a firm footing and deeply investigated the science of geometry. We find his geometry, as well as in his science of numbers, a great deal of symbolism, and perhaps the most interesting is the wonderful Pythagorean Triangle. This figure is a familiar to every schoolboy in the fifth form, from the 11th Prop. Of the 4th Book of Euclid, where he is required “to inscribe a regular pentagon in a given circle.” By taking this construction and joining the two lines that bisect the angles at the base of the isosceles triangle, we get enclosed in the circle the pentagonal triangle. This construction was very interesting to the ancients, as the equilateral triangle, the square, and the regular pentagon were the only figures they knew to be inscribable within a circle. May I suggest that probably on account of this interest, a certain predominance was given to these figures, and hence their adoption as symbols in their mysteries?
No symbol seems to have been so universally adopted as the pentagram. When visiting the British Museum some little time ago, I noticed this symbol very prominent on an Egyptian slab depicting Nekht-Hern-Heb adoring the goddess Bast, date B.C. 378, and much to my surprise found it also carved upon a bamboo tobacco pipe of the Mowatta tribe. It is only fair to add that its presence in the latter case was probably due to its having been introduced to this tribe by a more highly cultured race. Anyone who has seen Goethe’s “Faust” will remember how this symbol is used to bar the passage of Mephistopheles, in which it succeeds so well. In magic this symbol and the circle went hand in hand, and were invaluable for attaining the ends of the wizards and witches. To the Pythagoreans it was a symbol of health. The Cabalists used it with the name of God written on the five points and in the centre. In general it was used as a symbol for averting evil. How it came to be adopted into Masonry can only be guessed, perhaps the figure so well adapted itself as a symbolical representation of the five points of fellowship, and moreover had a very remove origin, that it was used on that account. Some Masonic writers say that King Solomon used it as his seal, and inscribed it on his masonic works, but they do not quote any authority to support this view.
Leaving the pentagram we come to another symbol, which in its various modifications, is hardly less universal, namely the Cross. Although the Cross is not used in the “blue” degrees of Masonry, we find it in the higher degrees of Knights Templary, and also in the Royal Arch in the shape of the Triple Tau. From the various forms of this symbol which have been handed down to us in architectural sand other work, we are able to describe its gradual evolution. The simplest for m of the Cross is obtained by bisecting a square vertically and horizontally. The Maltese Cross is formed from this by pulling out the four lines fan shape; this design naturally lends itself to the idea of enclosing the Cross within a ring. This modification was a favourite one with the mediaeval operative masons in their church work, and was probably used as a symbol of the great Saviour of mankind, enclosed in and ruling infinity or the universe. The Tau Cross is sometimes called the Cross of Saint Anthony, as that Saint is popularly supposed to have been crucified on a Cross of that shape; the design is however of much earlier origin. It was used by the ancient Egyptians to measure the height of the inundations of the Nile, and a modification of it, the “crux ansata,” is to be found on almost every Egyptian monument and temple, either, held in the hand of a figure or hung around its neck; it was a symbol of eternal life. The Tau Cross was used by the Greeks, and its design is the same as their letter “theta” (ז). We find its survival in some designs of modern heraldry. In its triple form it has been adopted as the sacred symbol of the Royal Arch Degree. Another interesting cruciform device is the “Flylot” or “Gammadion,” which is most probably the oldest form of Cross. It is found in the Greek, Roman, and Scandinavian mysteries, and in the latter it symbolizes the awful hammer of the thunder-god Thor. It was used frequently in the Middle Ages, particularly upon bells. There is a monument in Exeter Cathedral whereon the Flylot is inscribed, and the limbs are coloured alternately red and yellow. I cannot offer any explanation as to its origin, and its symbolical meaning is rather obscure. In the Greek mysteries it is supposed that its originated by combining four “gammas” (γ), and its connection with the god Thor in Scandinavian mythology has already been noted. It is a strange thing that the cruciform device, so common in Christian countries where its relation is obvious, is also found in countries which had absolutely no connection with Christianity, and in some cases existed long before the event, which caused the Cross to be revered, took place.
The forty-seventh proposition of the 1st Book of Euclid is a very interesting figure form a symbolical point of view. The solution of this proposition is attributed to Pythagoras who, according to Mackey, learned it from the Egyptians. It does indeed seem that the ancient Egyptians knew the proof of this proposition, for most of their great architectural works are based upon it. The great pyramid at Memphis, Ptolemy’s Stadium, and other works agree in measurement to the principle of this proposition. As a symbol the right-angled triangle represented the universe; the base represented Osiris, the male deity, the perpendicular Isis, the female deity, and the hypotenuse Horus their son. In Masonry it has, of course, been adopted as the I.P.M.’s jewel.
Dr. Oliver, in his “Signs and Symbols,” attributes the origin of “The point within a circle” to the phallus worship of the ancient Egyptians. The legend on which this idea is founded is briefly as follows:- Osiris was the great culture-god of the Egyptians, and he went forth on a journey to transmit learning and culture to the whole world. On his return the god Typhon, his brother, or son, as some say, who was a very wicked and jealous deity, laid a plot for him; he had a box made which exactly fitted Osiris, and he offered to give it to anyone who could lie down in it. Osiris came forward and got into the box comfortably, and as soon as he was well in, Typhon nailed down the lid and threw it into the Nile. Isis, in a very mournful condition, wandered about looking for the body of Osiris, and at last she fund it, but in her temporary absence Typhon appeared again and horribly mutilated the body, casting the members to the four winds. Isis, however, resumed her search and every time she found a part of the body she buried it. She succeeded in finding all the remains of Osiris except the regenerative organ, which had entirely disappeared. A wooden figure was made and called the “phallus” and ever afterwards it was worshipped as a sacred emblem in the Egyptian mysteries. It was afterwards adopted by the Greeks in their religious mysteries. The
”phallus” then, says Oliver, represents the point within a circle, the circle representing the female element, the whole symbolical of fecundity. It has been pointed out by some Masonic writers, how, in many of the older regions, such as that of the Druids, Scandinavians and Hindus, the circle is a favourite form for building the temples, with a throne in the centre for the deity, thus giving the symbol of the point within a circle. I can hardly however, see that this fact alone warrants the acceptance of a theory that “phallus” worship was so universal. The circle has always been an emblem of eternity, it being a line without end, and the centre would naturally be the most likely place for the altar to be situated, as it is equidistant from every part of the circumference. The modern Masonic idea of this emblem has nothing to do directly with “phallus” worship, it being the point from which a Master Mason cannot err. I can hardly think either that it was ever chosen from any association with “phallus” worship.
It is now proposed to deal with the subject of symbolical colours. It is a well-known law amongst anthropologists, that minds of equal development receiving the same external impressions, construe these impressions alike. Thus: a savage in Central Africa notes how powerful is the influence of the sun, and how by its aid vegetation and animal life flourish, and when the sun disappears, the earth is plunged into the sombre blackness of night. A native of Mexico, say, of equal mental development, notices the same thing. In both cases the sun in looked upon as a deity whose power is used for good. It is on this principle that anthropologists are able to explain how similar customs and beliefs have arisen among nations geographically inaccessible to each other. It is by the aid of this law that I hope to explain the origin of symbolical colours, in other words, the attributes given to various colours are in the first case derived from nature. Let us first consider white, which universally has a “good” significance; no evil is associated with white. It is the colour of light and day, as black is the colour of night and darkness. Deeds done in the daytime, when all can see them, must necessarily be more pure and innocent than those done under the cover of he blackness of night. Hence we find that white is the emblem of purity and innocence. It was used in all the pagan mysteries with that idea. The vestal virgins were clothed in a white habit. Ins meaning in Masonry is also that of purity and innocence. In the same way black is a symbol of evil and denotes also death. Darkness is awful and mysterious, and the blackness of night resembles the passage of the soul into dark unknown regions of death. We see its survival in funeral ceremonies at the present day. Blue (the true Masonic colour) is derived from the blue vault of heaven; it is suggestive of infinity and universality, and in Masonry denotes, says Mackey, “universal brotherhood and benevolence.” Amongst the Druids, blue signified “hope,” which may be construed as “the hope of ascending the heavenly mansions, beyond the blue canopy of the sky.” Red is the colour of blood, and is a very warlike colour; it is the special colour of Mars, the god of war, and the planet Mars was so named by the ancient astronomers on account of its red appearance. We find it adopted as the colour of many military orders; the Knights Templar had a red cross on a white ground as one of their emblems. Red also denotes “fervency and zeal.” Other colours, not strictly belonging to Masonry, may in the same way be traced to a natural origin. Thus yellow denoting wealth, from the colour of gold, and green the emblem of life, from the green colour of vegetation. These examples, it is hoped, will serve to bear out the argument that the symbolical meaning of various colours is derived from man’s interpretation of nature.
It may be well, perhaps, to note some of the general symbols and customs observed in the ancient mysteries and which are akin to Masonry. Many of the mysteries seem to have been divided into three degrees, each successive one being awarded to the candidate as a mark of merit, and a recognition of ability. This triple division no doubt originated in the belief in the sacred significance of the number “three.” In nearly all ancient secret societies the candidate was raised form a figurative death, to a new life, and often lustrations were used to purify him from the sins of his past life, so that he might start afresh, a new man, under the protection of the Order he had become a member of. We find most societies had a sacred plant, the Egyptians had the palm, the Grecians the myrtle, and the Druids the mistletoe. The All-seeing Eye was used amongst the Egyptians and represented Osiris. The serpent was also a sacred symbol both with the Egyptians and the ancient Mexicans; it was usually depicted with its tail in its mouth and was then an emblem of eternity.
When Cleopatra’s Needle was removed from Egypt, the work was superintended by a Freemason, Lieut. Gorringe, and he made some very interesting discoveries, which were published in the New York Herald about that time. He found a square block of stone, and upon it three steps; these steps were considered by the writer of the article as representing the first three degrees of Masonry. He says: The step of the Apprentice is made of one stone, the two steps of Companion and Master were also formed of a single stone, which indicates the intimate union between those two degrees. The degree of Companion is, moreover, smaller than that of Apprentice, and much smaller than that of Master, for it anciently required less time to attain science, than to serve the apprenticeship and become companion, the friend and arm of the Master.” Near this block and on the Eat of it was discovered a perfectly smooth and true stone, the perfect ashlar; and on the West, a rough stone, meant to represent the rough ashlar. “The stones of the foundation,” continues the writer, “were with one solitary exception, laid with white mortar. The finely dressed smooth ashlar was laid with a beautiful yellow cement. This is the Masonic Pavement, emblem of variety here below, represented by different coloured stone, but joined together by cement indicative of unity of all the Masons.” One another stone was engraved the Greek letter “omega” (ω), which is stated to represent the pillars J. and B. The article goes on to state that, from this evidence, it is clearly proved that Masonry existed and was practised in Egypt at that time. “The version of Hiram, and the Temple of Solomon,” it continues, “must be doubted. Freemasonry is much older than the Jewish King. The Jews carried Masonry with them when they fled form Egypt. Cadmus, the civilizer of Greece, had been initiated in the mysteries of Isis.” The time at my disposal will not allow more than a brief recognition of this interesting discovery. The writer of the article, in drawing his conclusions, seems to have fallen into the very common mistake of people not versed in anthropology, that of confusing the similarity which exists between religions and secret rites of all nations, and making them identical with one another. He also seems to have based his conclusion on the fact, that the probable date of Cleopatra’s Needle was B.C.2. As it is the foundations we are concerned with, and not the Needle, it naturally follows that it is this late date on which our conclusions must be based, and not the older one. As this is the case, his inference of Masonry “being older than the Jewish King” naturally falls to the ground, and his one conclusions lose much of their weight. I am inclined to think that these symbols refer rather to the Roman or Greek mysteries; all of them are as equally applicable to these mysteries as they are to Masonry. Thus, the three steps need not represent the three degrees of Craft Masonry, they may just as well represent the three degrees of Pythagoras. Again, would it not be more plausible to explain the presence of the Greek letter “omega” (ω) as “the end,” it would here represent the end of the work of the foundation of this monument, and be in the nature of a seal. It is not at all surprising that these symbols were discovered, indeed the wonder is that more have not been found of a similar nature; for, as has already been stated, the Ancients carried this symbolism into everything. Considerably more might be said relative to this matter, but time will not allow it; it is, however, hoped that enough has been said to show that the probable explanation of these symbols is that they are connected with the Roman and Greek mysteries, and not with Masonry.
It has thus been attempted to show how many of the symbols of Masonry have originated. The facts used to support the arguments advanced in this Paper have, for the most part, been drawn form sources outside Masonic writers, and where any doubtful point has been advanced the authority has been quoted. For reference, in Egyptology, such books as Rawlinson’s Ancient Egypt and Petrie’s History of Egypt have been consulted, Lubbock; for Mythology, Andrew Lang’s article in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and also Prof. Ramsay’s article on “Mysteries” have been used. The information, therefore, it is hoped is in the main correct.
It seem to have always been the aim of man to get nearer his idea of the Deity by the aid of symbols. They have in a quiet imperceptible way, exercised a tremendous influence on the destiny of mankind. To what an extent we shall never known, but they are one of the silent forces at work, whose power, however indirect, ultimately produces great results. In the words of Carlyle, in his Sartor Resartus we may say: “By Symbols man is guided and commanded, made happy, made wretched. He everywhere finds himself encompassed with Symbols, recognized as such, or not recognized; the Universe is but one vast Symbol of God; may if thou wilt have it, what is man himself but a Symbol of God.
British Masonic Miscellany, compiled by George M. Martin. Vol. 3. Shore Terrace, Dundee : David Winter and Son, 1932. pp. 36-52.