The Symbolism of Freemasonry

Illustrating and Explaining its Science and Philosophy, its Legends, Myths and Symbols.

By Albert G. Mackey

“Ea enim quae scribuntur tria habere decent, utilitatem praesentem, certum finem, inexpugnabile fundamentum.”


Albert Mackey

Albert G. Mackey

Entered, according to Act of Congress, in the year 1869, by Albert G. Mackey, In the Clerk’s Office of the District Court of the District of South Carolina.

To General John C. Fremont.

My Dear Sir:

While any American might be proud of associating his name with that of one who has done so much to increase the renown of his country, and to enlarge the sum of human knowledge, this book is dedicated to you as a slight testimonial of regard for your personal character, and in grateful recollection of acts of friendship.

Yours very truly,

A. G. Mackey.

I – An Introduction to Symbolism
II – Preliminary
III – The Noachidae
IV – The Primitive Freemasonry of Antiquity
V – The Spurious Freemasonry of Antiquity
VI – The Ancient Mysteries
VII – The Dionysiac Artificers
VIII – The Union of Speculative and Operative Masonry at the Temple of Solomon
IX – The Travelling Freemasons of the Middle Ages
X – Disseverance of the Operative Element
XI – The System of Symbolic Instruction
XII – The Speculative Science and the Operative Art
XIII – The Symbolism of Solomon’s Temple
XIV – The Form of the Lodge
XV – The Officers of a Lodge
XVI – The Point within a Circle
XVII – The Covering of the Lodge
XVIII – Ritualistic Symbolism
XIX – The Rite of Discalceation
XX – The Rite of Investiture
XXI – The Symbolism of the Gloves
XXII – The Rite of Circumambulation
XXIII – The Rite of Intrusting, and the Symbolism of Light
XXVI – Symbolism of the Corner-stone
XXV – The Ineffable Name
XXVI – The Legends of Freemasonry
XXVII – The Legend of the Winding Stairs
XXVIII – The Legend of the Third Degree
XXIX – The Sprig of Acacia
XXX – The Symbolism of Labor
XXXI – The Stone of Foundation
XXXII – The Lost Word

Synoptical Index


Robert Ingham CleggOf the various modes of communicating instruction to the uninformed, the Masonic student is particularly interested in two: namely, the instruction by legends and that by symbols. It is to these two, almost exclusively, that he is indebted for all that he knows, and for all that he can know, of the philosophic system which is taught in the institution. All its mysteries and its dogmas, which constitute its philosophy, are entrusted for communication to the neophyte[1], sometimes to one, sometimes to the other of these two methods of instruction, and sometimes to both of them combined. The Freemason has no way of reaching any of the esoteric or innermost teachings of the Order except through the medium of a legend or a symbol.

A legend differs from a historical narrative only in this—that it is without documentary evidence of authenticity. It is the offspring solely of tradition. Its details may be true in part or in whole. There may be no internal evidence to the contrary, or there may be internal evidence that they are altogether false. But neither the possibility of truth in the one case, nor the certainty of falsehood in the other, can remove the traditional narrative from the class of legends. It is a legend simply because it rests on no written foundation. It is oral, from mouth to ear, and therefore legendary.

In grave problems of history, such as the establishment of empires, the discovery and settlement of countries, or the rise and fall of dynasties, the knowledge of the truth or falsity of the legendary narrative will be of importance, because the value of history is impaired by the imputation of doubt. But that is not so in Freemasonry. Here there need be no absolute question of the truth or falsity of the legend. The object of the Masonic legends is not to establish historical facts, but to convey philosophical doctrines. They form a method by which esoteric instruction is communicated, and the student accepts them with reference to nothing else except their positive use and meaning as developing Masonic dogmas.

Take, for instance, the Hiramic legend of the third degree. Of what importance is it to the disciple of Freemasonry whether it be true or false? All that he wants to know is its internal significance. When he learns that it is intended to illustrate the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, he is content with that interpretation. He does not deem it necessary, except as a matter of curious or antiquarian inquiry, to investigate its historical accuracy, or to reconcile any of its apparent contradictions. So of the lost keystone, so of the second temple, so of the hidden ark; these are to him legendary narratives, which, like the casket, would be of no value were it not for the precious jewel contained within. Each of these legends is the expression
of a philosophical idea.[2]

But there is another method of Masonic instruction, and that is by symbols. No science is more ancient than that of symbolism. At one time, nearly all the learning of the world was conveyed in symbols. Although modern philosophy now prefers to deal only in abstract propositions, Freemasonry still cleaves to the ancient method, and has preserved this valuable agency in all its primitive importance as a means of communicating knowledge.

According to the derivation of the word from the Greek, “to symbolize” signifies “to compare one thing with another.” Hence a symbol is the expression of an idea that has been derived from the comparison or contrast of some object with a moral conception or attribute. Thus we say that the plumb is a symbol of rectitude of conduct. The physical qualities of the plumb are here compared or contrasted with the moral conception of virtue, or rectitude. Then to the Speculative Freemason a plumb becomes, after he has been taught its symbolic meaning, the visible expression of the idea of moral uprightness.

But although there are these two modes of instruction in Freemasonry—by legends and by symbols, there really is no radical difference between the two methods. The symbol is a visible, and the legend an audible, representation of some contrasted idea—of some moral conception produced from a comparison. Both the legend and the symbol relate to dogmas of a deeply religious character; both of them convey moral sentiments in the same peculiar method, and both of them are designed by this method to illustrate the philosophy of Speculative Freemasonry.

To investigate the recondite meaning of these legends and symbols, and to elicit from them the moral and philosophical lessons which they were intended to teach, is to withdraw the veil with which ignorance and indifference seek to conceal the true philosophy of Freemasonry.

To study the symbolism of Freemasonry is the only way to investigate its philosophy. This is the portal of the Masonic temple, through which alone we can gain access to the sacellum[3] where its aporrheta[4] are concealed.

Masonic philosophy is engaged in the consideration of propositions relating to God and man, to the present and the future life. Its science is the symbolism by which these propositions are presented to the mind. The work now offered to the public is an effort to develop and explain this philosophy and science. It will show that there are in Freemasonry the germs of most profound speculation. If it does not interest the learned, it may instruct the ignorant. If so, we shall not regret the labor and research that have been bestowed upon its composition.

Thus far Bro. Mackey. Up to this point we have used the preface written by the great student and need now but explain the work of revision. Bro. Mackey’s examination of Masonic symbols is today as of yore admirable and stimulating. No Freemason at all worthy of the name can read it without pleasure and profit. All that was necessary for us to do was to make corrections of errors that crept into the book, and add here and there such comments as seemed to us to be most helpful to the reader in the light of our present-day knowledge of the institution.

The chapter on an Introduction to Symbolism is new and prepared by the reviser for this edition. Here as elsewhere the purpose has been to do as Bro. Mackey would no doubt have wished the work to be done; to correct the text with every respect for the lofty purpose of the original author, and to add such amendments as would in the same way better facilitate the reader’s progress.

Robert Ingham Clegg 33°


[1] A new convert, a beginner—Greek for “newly planted.”

[2] The student may also compare to advantage this explanation of legend with the use made in the New Testament of parables. Masonic legends are indeed in the same class as parables.

[3] A new convert, a beginner—Greek for “newly planted.”

[4]Secret things.

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