Symbols are not a recent innovation, but have been in use ever since the first hominids endeavored to communicate with their associates, even preceding articulate speech. Before speech, the only available means of communication was by gestures, with which it was sought to convey some physical need or personal desire. As a natural reaction, sounds were uttered in conjunction with particular gestures, in due course becoming recognisable as representing the gestures themselves. Words thus evolved, providing a simpler means of expressing needs and desires. From that time onwards the roles of sound and gesture were reversed in communication, gestures being used only to give emphasis when required. Variations of these basic words gradually came into use, differentiating between objects and actions as well as qualifying them. Thus a rudimentary grammar developed concurrently with the evolution of coherent speech, which immutably incorporated symbolism as an integral part of everyday life. Coherent speech soon fostered a desire to create visual records, leading in turn to the development of the written word.
In its original form, writing was a series of crude pictograms that represented individual words, again interchanging the roles of speech and symbols. Thus were developed the cuneiform writing of Sumeria, the hieroglyphs of Egypt, the conventionalised characters used in Chinese and Japanese writing and the very simple pictograms of the American Indians. As language became more sophisticated, pictographic and hieroglyphic methods of writing became inadequate, because the embellishments of oral expression could not be recorded. This gave rise to the development of the early scripts, such as the Sinaitic and Hebrew, which were based on an alphabet having characters representing physical objects. Alphabets developed over many centuries, from those of Assyria and later of Egypt, which used several hundred symbols to represent syllables. These were followed by the Sinaitic script and its Hebrew derivative, which used symbols to represent consonants, leaving the vowels to be understood. These symbols gradually became stylised in the final stage of writing, represented by both the Greek alphabet and its Roman derivative, which have symbols for consonants and vowels, allowing every nuance of oral expression to be recorded.
Language and writing are two of the greatest intellectual achievements of the human race, without which all other achievements would not have been possible. Language and writing transcend the realms of personal intercommunication and the maintenance of records, facilitating both logical thought and rational evaluation. This complex use of symbols enables the mortal mind to contemplate the wonders of the creation and the Divine promise of a life hereafter, as well as to explore and progressively to solve the mysteries of the universe. This clearly distinguishes humankind from all other life on earth.
There can be no doubt that speech and writing, in the process of their evolvement through the ages, have established themselves as the most pervasive of all symbols in the modern world. But writing was derived from previously acquired abilities to draft other symbols, utilising a variety of methods. For example, the cuneiform script of Sumeria was an adaptation of the wedge shaped imprints made by a stylus upon wet clay tablets, from about 3,200BC. The hieroglyphic writing of Egypt was painted on papyrus from 2,800BC or even earlier, using techniques similar to those first developed by the Magdalenians for their cave paintings from as early as 15,000BC. Texts, such as the Canaanite inscriptions on Ahiram’s sarcophagus unearthed at the ancient city of Gebal, now called Byblos, have been carved on stone from at least as early as 1,100BC, using metal chisels and gravers. These and other practical aspects of the arts and crafts have been interwoven with the technique of writing from its inception, thus greatly enhancing the evolution of the symbols.
In the early stages of the development of articulate speech, symbols referred almost entirely to those objects required for subsistence, augmented by a few symbols reflecting actions of practical importance in everyday life. As speech became more sophisticated and writing developed, additional symbols were introduced to reflect the abstract ideas beginning to formulate in the human mind. The earliest recording of abstract ideas relates to the concept of the transmigration of the human spirit to a life hereafter when the body dies, as is graphically illustrated by hieroglyphic inscriptions in the tombs of the Egyptian pharaohs. With the advent of cursive writing abstract ideas could be expressed even more vividly, as exemplified in Ecclesiasts, wherein the preacher portrays the transitory nature and consummate emptiness of earthly life and the certainty of death, counterbalanced only by the sure hope of the immortality of the soul.
The sacred writings of all religions include allegories, or long and elaborate stories, which illustrate moral principals that frequently are not stated specifically, being left for the recipient to discover. Briefer parables also are used, typically showing the application of a moral precept in a familiar situation, so that abstract principles are represented in a concrete and vibrant form. The relevant attributes of implements and other well known objects are used in a similar fashion, to demonstrate the requirements for proper moral conduct. This use of symbols to convey important religious messages reached its culmination in the century preceding the Christian era, with the introduction of the pesher technique. Pesher is a Hebrew word that signifies an interpretation or explanation, being derived from peshitta, another Hebrew word which means simple, or plain. Peshitta and its adjectival form, peshito, also are Syrian words. They are used to designate the principal version of the Old and New Testaments translated from the ancient Syriac and sometimes called the Syriac Vulgate. Pesher in the Old Testament signifies “interpretation of dreams”, but in scrolls of the Christian era it is used to explain that a section of text has a second or special hidden meaning. Many Old Testament texts are used with the pesher technique to convey special messages, some having been established by tradition over hundreds of years.
The domain of freemasonry has included the design and construction of ecclesiastical buildings throughout their history. This has demanded an intimate and detailed knowledge of religious doctrines and tenets, which must be reflected in the structure and especially in the detail of its ornamentation. King Solomon’s Temple, completed about 950BC after seven years and more under construction, is a pre-eminent example of the vision and inspiration required in the conception and erection of such a building.
Every feature of that magnificent edifice was of religious and symbolic importance. The details provided in the first books of Kings and Chronicles preclude any doubt of the comprehensive knowledge that the masons and their associated artificers had of the symbolism embodied in the structure and its lavish furnishings, both inside and outside. The renowned Jewish historian, Josephus, records that when Herod the Great restored the second, or Zerubbabel’s Temple, around the beginning of the Christian era, not only did he carry out the work piecemeal to avoid interrupting the usual ritual observances, but also trained 1,000 priests as masons to build the shrine.
The restoration was completed in 64AD, but the temple was completely destroyed by the Romans in 70AD. Operative masons were then engaged continually in the massive construction projects of the Roman Empire, until the fall of Rome, which was captured by the Visigoths in 410AD. This was followed by the invasion of northern Italy by Attila the Hun in 452AD, then the sacking of Rome by the Vandals in 455AD. However, Constantinople had become the Christian capital of the Roman Empire in 330AD, in direct opposition to heathen Rome. As the Byzantium Empire it established Christianity in the East, carrying out the first great wave of Christian ecclesiastic building. These great works surpassed even the efforts of the Persian renaissance, continuing unabated until Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453AD. As the Dark Ages from the fifth to at least the ninth century drew to a close in western Europe, an incredible era of cathedral building was ushered in, spanning the late Middle Ages through the Renaissance. Even in Britain, seriously hampered by the Reformation in the mid-1500’s, work on ecclesiastical buildings continued into the 1700’s. Hundreds of churches, castles and civic buildings were constructed. Chartres Cathedral in France, the first in the “Gothic” style, is a renowned example. York Minster in England is another prime example; frequently called “poetry in stone”, it was some two and a half centuries in building.
These events spanned almost 3,000 years, usually under ecclesiastical influence or control, whence the underlying principles of speculative freemasonry and its symbolism largely derived, developing in parallel with the operative art. All extant records of the ceremonials in operative lodges confirm that symbols played a vital part in the teachings of operative free masons, which stimulated the development speculative contemplation. The incorporation of symbols into the rituals of purely speculative lodges was a natural extension of this long established practice. Indeed, having regard to the principles actuating those who formed the first purely speculative lodges, this was an inevitable outcome which prompted them to describe freemasonry as “a peculiar system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols”, aptly defining one of its central tenets.
Freemasonry encompasses all of the symbolism deriving from the ancient mysteries and the great religions of the world. This does not suggest that every such symbol is used, or that the usages are identical, but that all important aspects of symbolism have been incorporated in the teachings and rituals of freemasonry. In particular, preparation in a personal sense is used to establish an appropriate receptiveness for moral instruction; masonic implements and other appropriate subjects are used as symbols to illustrate and teach specific moral principles; parables provide ethical instruction in some of the shorter rituals; the exoteric stories in some of the more expansive rituals are woven round elaborate allegories, establishing a basis for the communication of fundamental precepts; and the esoteric interpretations of several of these allegories are concealed in a manner analogous to the pesher technique used in sacred writings of the early Christian era.
The first symbol encountered in freemasonry is preparation, as in the ancient mysteries. It combines mental disposition, meditation and symbolic purification, coupled with the wearing of appropriate apparel and accoutrements. Darkness is an essential precursor of light, which light is attained by trial through a symbolic journey. All of these aspects are involved when initiating an apprentice into a lodge of operative free masons, but the traditional degrees of speculative freemasonry do not include any symbolic ablution except in one of the installation ceremonies in the Royal Arch. Baptism by immersion was the final step in admission to the early Christian church, as it still is in some sects. But in most modern Christian sects, babies clothed in white are baptised by sprinkling with water, under the guardianship of an adult, their symbolic journey being completed later when they are taught the seven bitter agonies of Christ, learn the creed and are admitted into communion. Muslims perform a ritual ablution before entering their mosque for prayer, as well as completing their symbolic journey perambulating round the Kaaba when performing their pilgrimage to Mecca. All other important religions also include some form of symbolic preparation, journey and acquisition of light, this procedure having been regarded from time immemorial as a spiritual rebirth.
The various modes of recognition entrusted to candidates are symbols of importance, most being of ancient origin when trade secrets were “mysteries” and the knowledge of them had to be guarded jealously. A wide range of the mason’s working tools, materials, gauges and methods are used symbolically to provide moral instruction, often, though not necessarily referring to work on King Solomon’s temple. The temple is a pre-eminent symbol in freemasonry. It is an emblem of a glorious futurity, as was Ezekiel’s mystical temple for the Jews held captive in Babylon. Many aspects of the temple’s construction and dedication about 950BC, its final destruction by Nebuchadnezzar in 587BC and the construction of the second temple by Zerubbabel between 537BC and 515BC after the return from captivity in Babylon, are incorporated in dramatic detail in parables in the traditional degrees. Features of the temple, such as the two great pillars at the entrance, also are used as symbols. Many of the symbolic interpretations are so well known as to have become a part of everyday usage, some early enough to have been recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures.
An important mystical theme is hidden beneath the superficial moral theme of the more important allegories, which are in the nature of the “Passion Plays” of the Middle Ages. The first allegory relates to a late stage in the construction of King Solomon’s Temple, when several of the workers feared that they would not be given the modes of recognition and therefore would not be able to obtain work after the completion of the temple. When the principal architect was accosted he remained true to his vows and was slain, so that substitute modes of recognition had to be used thereafter.
The superficial story is that death is preferable to dishonour and that we must perform our allotted tasks whilst we can, believing that we will be a rewarded appropriately in a life hereafter. The esoteric message is that mortal death is only a gateway for the resurrection of the spirit, which can be achieved by steadfast faith in the Most High. The theme continues in a dramatic allegory in the cryptic degree of Royal Master, with the promise that the “True Word” will be preserved in a place of safety, esoterically signifying that the “True Word” transcends all mortal delinquency and can always be found through faith.
The second allegory connects the foregoing allegories, also relating to the construction of the first temple. In its various forms it relates to either the great cornerstone or to the keystone required to complete the arch of the secret vault. In the superficial story a diligent and faithful mason prepares a beautiful piece of stonework, essential to complete the structure. Because it can not be found on the plans it is rejected and work comes to a standstill. When the missing stone is recovered and work continues, the skilful craftsman receives his just reward. The esoteric meaning is that the acceptance or rejection of this life’s work is not within the province of mortal man, the gates of victory being opened only through the grace of that living Stone which the builders rejected, but which became the chief cornerstone, as foretold in Psalm 118 and confirmed in I Peter 2.
A subsequent allegory relates to the period after the destruction of the first temple, when the captives in Babylon are released by the Decree of Cyrus and are instructed to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. The ceremony called “passing the veils” concerns three sojourners who journey to Jerusalem and present their credentials to the Sanhedrin, asking to be given work on the new temple. However, the veils allude to the Tabernacle erected by Moses and the Scripture readings refer to the Exodus story, replicating a ceremonial carried out every seven weeks by the Therapeutae Essenes of Qumran in the first centuries BC and AD, exhorting obedience to the Covenant until the second coming of the Lord. The moral is revealed in the allegory of the Royal Arch, when the sojourners are put to work to clear away the rubbish in preparation for the second temple. Through their diligence the “Lost Word” is recovered, teaching that all men are equal in the sight of God and that the lowest work will receive full and just reward if properly carried out. The esoteric lesson is that salvation can be found only through a complete faith in the “True Word”, representing the present, future and eternal “I Am”.