In this edition of Symbols and Symbolism, we look at a reading on the Ouroboros, that serpent devouring its tail as a representation of eternity and the passage of time. This symbol, while existing in a mainstream context, is little known outside of most esoteric and occult circles. Its use triggers very specific meanings for those utilizing it as part of their overall allegorical narrative.
This symbol appears principally among the Gnostics and is depicted as a dragon, snake or serpent biting its own tail. In the broadest sense, it is symbolic of time and of the continuity of life. It sometimes bears the caption Hen to pan—’The One, the All’, as in the Codex Marcianus, for instance, of the 2nd century A.D. It has also been explained as the union between the chthonian principle as represented by the serpent and the celestial principle as signified by the bird (a synthesis which can also be applied to the dragon). Ruland contends that this proves that it is a variant of the symbol for Mercury—the duplex god. In some versions of the Ouroboros, the body is half light and half dark, alluding in this way to the successive counterbalancing of opposing principles as illustrated in the Chinese Yang-Yin symbol for instance. Evola asserts that it represents the dissolution of the body, or the universal serpent which (to quote the Gnostic saying) ‘passes through all things’. Poison, the viper and the universal solvent are all symbols of the undifferentiated—of the ‘unchanging law’ which moves through all things, linking them by a common bond. Both the dragon and the bull are symbolic antagonists of the solar hero. The ouroboros biting its own tail is symbolic of self-fecundation, or the primitive idea of a self-sufficient Nature—a Nature, that is, which, à la Nietzsche, continually returns, within a cyclic pattern, to its own beginning. There is a Venetian manuscript on alchemy which depicts the Ouroboros with its body half-black (symbolizing earth and night) and half-white (denoting heaven and light).
A clouded horizon and starry field of shimmering twilight jewels are often the embelishments aloft above the altar of a masonic lodge. As beautiful and mysterious as this stage dressing is, it holds a special significance in the work at hand in the Masonic Lodge. In this episode, we examine the covering of the lodge, better known as the canopy of Heaven.
As the lectures tell us that our ancient brethren met on the highest hills and lowest vales, from this it is inferred that, as the meetings were thus in the open air, the only covering must have been the overarching vault of Heaven. Hence, in the symbolism of Masonry the covering of the Lodge is said to be “a clouded canopy or starry decked heaven.” The terrestrial Lodge of labor is thus intimately connected with the celestial Lodge of eternal refreshment.
The symbolism is still further extended to remind us that the whole world is a Mason’s Lodge, and heaven its sheltering cover.
Skulls, architectural tools, mallets, aprons… all of these things can we weird. So why does Freemasonry use so many odd symbols? This question is at the heart of many detractors who like to speculate on their nefarious meanings.
Freemasonry is a system of symbol and allegory. By using such symbols, it conveys specific meanings or lessons that each recipient can apply to his personal life and spiritual development.
The skull and bones, or specifically the skull (or death’s head) is actually a symbol to remind us of mortality, as it is the ultimate equalizer of men of all rank, as none can avoid its inevitability. This is more a means to remind us that no matter our station in life, rich or poor, we are all subject to the same fate, and that our goal should be to make this world better for everyone. All Masons should always strive for our noble endeavor of spreading brotherly love, relief, and truth. The hourglass similarly reminds us of the swift passage of time, so as not to delay. The Temple of Solomon has many meanings within Masonry; most significantly it represents the Temple built to hold the laws of God to man in the Judaic tradition. Though its use implied a religious connotation, its application is universal and serves as an allegory to a deeper meaning.
What makes something a “ritual?” Is it an evil connotation? Is it something sinister? Why then is Freemasonry considered a ritual practice? How could something so full of moral virtues practice something ritualistic?
The use of the word ritual is described as the regular practice of the same series of ceremonies at each meeting.
Often there is a connotation of something sinister or counter to popular practice by the use of the term ritual.
To the contrary, it is instead meant to imply that the degree rituals are an established or prescribed practice to convey the knowledge and symbolism of the Fraternity in a repetition to impart their teachings.
What this means is that the same ritual ceremony is practiced with each candidate to induct him into the fraternity so that each man undergoes the same experience creating a unifying shared experience. That practice imparts the three principal tenets of the fraternity which are Brotherly Love, Relief, and Truth.
Freemasonry is grounded in three specific virtues which are at the core of Masonic teachings. Are these virtues really at the core of the Masonic connection to faith, religion and the divine?
These three virtues are the foundations upon which Freemasonry is built.
Brotherly Love as directed towards all mankind and especially to other Masons. Relief, in that every Mason is obligated to relieve the suffering of any Master Mason they encounter who is in dire need, and if in their power to do so, to the best of their ability, Also to act charitably towards society, giving of themselves to better the common good. And Truth, which is represented by the Divine in its multiplicity and diversity, as understood by all men.
These three ideas represent the core upon which Freemasonry focuses in its ultimate distillation, in that Freemasonry does not hold one faith above another, rather seeing faith itself as the common denominator between all of faiths.
A common connection with Freemasonry is that it is a patriotic organization. While it suggests certain attributes of patriotism, the multi-national spread of the fraternity would suggest something other than a direct form of nationalistic adherence.
So then, is Freemasonry a patriotic body?
The answer is a challenging one. Simply put, it is and it isn’t.
The aims of Freemasonry are not specifically to embolden specific patriotism. It does, however, promote a strong affinity towards, and a passionate adherence to the nation in which the Freemason resides. It encourages more than a passive interest in the development of civil society and our roles as citizens in it.
The patriotism that is displayed is the result of that interest in the well-being of society itself. The fraternity does strongly encourage the adherence to and following of the principles and laws of the country in which the member resides.
In this episode we look at a reading of Frank C. Higgins from The Beginning of Masonry. In this piece, Higgins explores the philosophical relationship of God and Freemasonry.
There is no place in Masonry for dogmatic controversy affecting the current convictions of brethren of the craft. In its highest contemplation, Freemasonry solely regards and addresses itself to the “Great Architect of the Universe,” respecting the Names under which this Unique Identity is apostrophized in every clime, by every race, and by every school of thought.
There are no religious differences attached to the adoption of the Supreme Being. Men differ alone with respect to some of His manifestations of love and solicitude for humanity, making claims to an exclusiveness in one respect or another, which are too often the outgrowth of fast-vanishing racial isolation and the diverse trends of thought consequent upon differences of origin, climate, and environment.
In quibbling over these differences, so frequently the result of misunderstandings of identical premises, viewed from diverging angles, men are too prone to forget that the goodness and providence of Almighty God is forever pouring in a mighty deluge upon us, manifesting itself unceasingly and impartially in everything that either experience or can be experienced. From the selfish standpoint of the unintelligent ego, each individual is alternately blessed with satisfactions and cursed with deprivations or distresses, the extremes predominating in many instances without apparent reason. Many of the ancient philosophers, therefore, taught that man could attain supreme contentment only by realizing his identity with the All. Sensing this, he perceived the resistless operation of the great laws of Being, in perfect poise, harmony, and impartiality, requiring only to be heeded for man to escape the evils and enjoy the benefits thereof during his allotted term, the accidents and mishaps befalling him not being subject to the caprices of an unpropitious Ruler, but consequent upon his own unguarded collisions with unchangeable law.
There are no religious differences attached to the adoption of the Supreme Being.
Therefore, the whole problem of human life became the attainment of greater and ever greater knowledge of the natural law, upon which all progress and all security to life and happiness depended in so eminent a degree, and the divine gift of the reasoning faculties, which rendered the possible, was appreciated as God’s most precious blessing to man. Thousands of years of experiment and ceaseless vigilance on the part of eager watchers have never resulted in the detection of a single principle so unrelated to the rest of the universal machine as to have no dependence upon it. Even where the wonders of science have disclosed marvels so intricate as to baffle explanation or analysis, they have at least proved so entirely subject to certain conditions of known factors as to be easily provoked into manifestation or suppressed from view, at the will of man.
Year by year, day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute, the infinite details of this great cosmic-pervading law keep on unfolding to human perception, filling all space with their greatness and mocking pursuit in their ultra-microscopic perfections and yet nothing is discovered that had not existed ages before the human mind began to concern itself with its intricacies. The capacity of mind to see and understand has limitations and history-that of which it takes cognizance through the medium of the senses-is limitless and without historical beginning or end.
Every past age has attempted to place bounds upon that which it is legitimate for man to know or think he knows about the origin and constitution of the wonders about him. Each era has closed its book of human knowledge with a flaming “Finis” at the end of an ultimate chapter, and yet the dawn of every other day has ushered in new wonders, new visions, and new truths.
“Dogma” is the name given to all these futile finalities which do not finish, to the barbed wire entanglements and chevaux de frise set by each generation at the limit of its attainments, in the vain thought that the “End” had been achieved.
In most cases dogmas will be found to revolve round the privilege of classes to rule masses, irrespective of the fact that part of the cosmic law is as sure and continual an oxygenation of the sea of humanity by waves of upheaval as is manifest in seas of water, in which that which is the sluggish depth of today may be the foam-crested wave of tomorrow. Yet the mind of man, framed in the image of the Creator, even as the receiver of an acoustic instrument must be attuned to the vibrations of the transmitter, that the message may be received as it is sent, has discovered constant and unchanging elements in this stupendous order of varied manifestations, has discovered chaos-banishing laws which must be the same in an atom as in a sun, and so may be exhibited in symbols of dimensions convenient to the stature of contemplative man.
Such are the symbols of Freemasonry – evidences of the truth attributed to Triple-great Hermes, the mystic founder of our craft, that “that which is above may be discovered by examination of that which is below.”
The Masonic student may concern himself with every branch of research that is capable of throwing light upon the causes that have led men to crystallize their perceptions of immutable law in emblems and symbols. He may pursue each of the various paths of investigation indicated by the obscure phraseology of ritual until he emerges into the full blaze of Masonic light embracing its fundamental truth. He may unravel the intricacies of ancient philosophies and mythologies, in order to convince himself of their ultimate source in the fountain of revealed wisdom, and he may set his own value upon anthropomorphisms or the embodiment of attributes and principles in fleshly guise, so that what really are the play of natural forces, the sport of the elements, the cycles of worlds, are described in terms taken from the vocabulary of human life. Yet, with all this, he may not consciously offend his brother, by striking at the latter’s highest individual spiritual contemplation in a humor of disdain or ridicule. Each mind is a universe in little, a cell of the universe in great, one as eternal as the other, and subject to the same law of gradual unfoldment. Some day we shall all know the intricate and the complicated as we at present know that which is simple and few of parts; but of the infinite aggregate, the unfathomable indivisible total, our Masonry teaches us the value.
In this episode, we explore the significance of Geometry as it relates to Freemasonry. An old attribution, its scientific and philosophical connections hold greater resonance than its computational counterparts with paper and pen.
In the modern rituals, geometry is said to be the basis on which the superstructure of Masonry is erected; and in the Old Constitutions of the Medieval Freemasons of England the most prominent place of all the sciences is given to geometry, which is made synonymous with Masonry. Thus, in the Regius MS., which dates not later than the latter part of the fourteenth century, the Constitutions of Masonry are called “the Constitutions of the art of geometry according to Euclid,” the words geometry and Masonry being used indifferently throughout the document; and in the Harleian No . 2054 MS. it is said, “thus the craft Geometry was governed there, and that worthy Master (Euclid) gave it the name of Geometry, and it is called Masonrie in this land long after.” In another art of the same MS. it is thus defined: “The fifth science is called Geometry and it teaches a man to mete and measure of the earth and other things, which science is Masonrie.”
The Egyptians were undoubtedly one of the first nations who cultivated geometry as a science. “It was not less useful and necessary to them,” as Goguet observes (Orig. des Lois., I., iv., 4), “in the affairs of life, than agreeable to their speculatively philosophical genus.” From Egypt, which was the parent both of the sciences and the mysteries of the Pagan world, it passed over into other countries; and geometry and Operative Masonry have ever been found together, the latter carrying into execution those designs which were first traced according to the principles of the former.
Speculative Masonry is, in like manner, intimately connected with geometry. In deference to our operative ancestors, and, in fact, as a necessary result of our close connection with them, Speculative Freemasonry derives its most important symbols from this parent science. Hence it is not strange that Euclid, the most famous of geometricians, should be spoken of in all the Old Records as a founder of Masonry in Egypt, and that a special legend should have been invented in honor of his memory.
In this episode we look at the definition of what the masonic apron represents. Of the many emblems of Freemasonry, none is more iconic that the lambskin apron.
Alien outside of the lodge, under the tiled lodge it represents the totality of what it means to be a Mason. It’s said to be more noble than the Roman Eagle or the Golden Fleece, the Masonic apron is literally, the badge of a mason carried with him into the next existence.
Albert Mackey, in his Encyclopedia of Freemasonry, says of the apron:
There is no one of the symbols of Speculative Masonry more important in its teachings, or more interesting in its history, than the lambskin, or white leather apron. Commencing its lessons at an early period in the Mason’s progress, it is impressed upon his memory as the first gift which he receives, the first symbol which is explained to him, and the first tangible evidence which he possesses of his admission. Whatever may be his future advancement in the “royal art,” into whatsoever deeper arcana his devotion to the mystic institution or his thirst for knowledge may subsequently lead him, with the lambskin apron — his first investiture — he never parts. Changing, perhaps, its form and its decorations, and conveying at each step some new but still beautiful allusion, its substance is still there, and it continues to claim the honored title by which it was first made known to him, on the night of his initiation, as “the badge of a Mason.”
In this episode of Symbols and Symbols we examine the Masonic symbol of the beehive, a symbol that Mackey, in his Encyclopedia of Freemasonry, calls a symbol of an obedient people. In masonic parlance, the symbol is more recognizable as an emblem industry. The Master Mason degree says of the beehive that it is an emblem of industry, and “recommends the practice of that virtue to all created beings, from the highest seraph in heaven to the lowest reptile of the dust.” Yet, as Mackey explains, the emblem is much, much, more.
A symbol that Albert Mackey, in his Encyclopedia of Freemasonry, says “was among the Egyptians the symbol of an obedient people”, because, as he quotes Horapollo, “…of all insects, the bee alone had a king,” what we know now to be a queen. Mackey continues “Hence looking at the regulated labor of these insects when congregated in their hive, it is not surprising that a beehive should have been deemed an appropriate emblem of systematized industry. Freemasonry has therefore adopted the beehive as a symbol of industry, a virtue taught in the instructions, which says that a Master Mason” works that he may receive wages, the better to support himself and family, and contribute to the relief of a worthy, distressed brother, his widows and orphans. In the Old Charges, which tell us that “…all Masons shall work honestly on working days, that they may live creditably on holidays.”
There seems, however, to be a more recondite meaning connected with this symbol. The ark has already been shown to have been an emblem common to Freemasonry and the Ancient Mysteries, as a symbol of regeneration—of the second birth from death to life. Now, in the Mysteries, a hive was a type of ark. “Hence,” says Faber (Origin of Pagan Idolatry, volume ii, page 133), “both the diluvian priestesses and the regenerated souls were called bees; hence, bees were feigned to be produced from the carcass of a cow, which also symbolized the ark; and hence, as the great father was esteemed an infernal god, honey was much used both in funeral rites and in the Mysteries.”