An Introduction to Symbolism

masonic eyeBROTHER MACKEY put into his study of Symbolism the ripened researches of many years. No other book of his more clearly shows the depth of his reading and reflection. His was the wisdom that never lacked words of simplest worth to make it known and understood. None so clearly as he could fit lucid language to the exposition of what he knew of Freemasonry. And none packed into his sentences more meaty food for reflection.

The story of Freemasonry like other records told by the tongue would become stale by repetition and fall upon the ear less vigorously with every iteration were it not that the facts historical and the philosophies social and individual are linked to words by pictures, an orderly system of spoken sounds and symbols illustrating and impressing the eye and the ear simultaneously.

By these symbols the ideas of the institution are represented. By this happy union of the speech and the things seen the initiate is doubly reminded. Seldom may he hear the tale Masonic yet his frequent contact with the symbols used by the Craft will reiterate the facts and their meaning.

For this reason Freemasonry uses the simplest of symbols, the tools and the materials of the Stone mason’s trade are sufficient for this purpose and are found everywhere.

Freemasons employ symbols to conceal the rich fullness of their moral teaching. They use symbols as memoranda, simply noting as on a tablet by a scratch of the pen the key to a store of symbolical information. Symbolism is indeed the shorthand method of Masonic instruction.

A complicated system of symbolism is not easily retained by the mind. Lapses would soon be occasioned by mere fault of the memory and of the differences in human understanding and reason. From time to time the complex symbol would receive attack from those failing to comprehend or from those discouraged by its difficulty of explanation or of accurately memorizing.

This book by Brother Mackey on Symbolism has been written around the most familiar of Masonic objects. They are spread before us with all their scope as fully expressed as the printed page may communicate. Here are truly the quarried treasures of the fraternity set forth to apply by each of us in the upbuilding of his character.

For after all that is Freemasonry. To morally square perfectly every contributing element that makes us what we are; to take each of these and apply them one to another uprightly to the formation of a praiseworthy life, and to build our personal structure so that we may stand upon our record securely before men with an integrity perpendicularly like unto the plumb, with a purpose absolutely level, as is the implement of that name, and withal as positively square as ever the most accurate of such tools would verify. That is the purpose of our Craft.

These aspirations are substantially aided by the symbolic lessons of the Masonic fraternity and in the explanation of these Dr. Mackey has a field peculiarly his own. None have been better qualified as a teacher of symbolism than he. Simplicity and sufficiency was his and the treatise is now as always a gem among the literary jewels of Freemasonry.

What a Freemason should be, what he should know, and what he should do, is the purpose of Masonic teaching. Freemasonry is a system of knowledge and of morals.

Freemasonry is rehearsed to the candidate by the rendition of ritual, imparted to his mind by story, and impressed upon the memory by symbols. By drama, story and symbol, the eye, the ear and the recollection continually enrich the mind and quicken the conscience of the thinking members of the Craft.

Reflect for a moment how much the Lodge, the Church, yes, and the Theater, owe their power when properly exercised to the use of a profuse symbolism, freely artistic ritual, devoted profession of faith and the lesson or sermon of instructive speech.

Even upon the less active of the brethren, there is a constant spur in every symbol, for this is the readiest means of conveying information. Let any thrust out his open hand in greeting to a stranger and immediately the other responds smilingly because the outstretched palm is universally a friendly token, a symbol of self-sacrifice and frank friendship. But let the same hand be clenched into a fist and the opposite is the prevailing effect upon the observer. The first suggests the gracious welcome and the latter a fight, symbolical of hospitality or hatred.

Symbol is somewhat different from emblem. Dr. Mackey favored the use of the word symbol to be more inclusive than emblem, the latter to be contained within the former. Thus an emblem as a crest or other insignia could be the material indication of some quality, the symbol might include both the thing and whatever it represented. While symbol and emblem usually refer to tangible things, the word type may allude to an act as the lifting up of the brazen symbol of wisdom in the wilderness. Numbers XXI, 8-9. Here the brazen serpent can be a symbol of the Redeemer and its elevation a type of the crucifixion.

A symbol is known by many, the emblem by few. Symbols are recognized, emblems are chosen. The symbol tells its own meaning, an emblem is explained by others. A flower is the universal symbol of sentiment; the Lily of purity, the Violet of modesty, the Pansy of thought, the Rose of beauty, and so on. Of old the laurel has been the symbol of glory, the oak of patriotism, the evergreen of immortality. Emblems of States are selected by vote, the goldenrod for Alabama and the carnation for Indiana.

Symbol is sometimes the word applied to an emblem commonly accepted as having a definite standard meaning. The conventional signs of mathematics are therefore called symbols. Where the symbol is arbitrarily fixed by not more than a few individuals the word is perhaps more properly emblem but this usage is not universal and sometimes the latter word is found restricted to moral and religious matters. Dr. Mackey’s use of symbol as having the larger significance, emblem being restricted to tangible devices, is systematic and in accord with our Masonic customs, the emblem being ever the visible sign or representative of an elementary idea.

Symbolism is really the equivalent of the written or printed word or of many words. Symbols picture thoughts. They are ideas seen as realities, symbols; mind action made manifest to the eye; memories crystallized. What every eye sees as telling the same message becomes by that very universal acceptance a symbol. If the eye sees it as a really substantial object then we have an emblem, as a ring, a dove, a cross, a flag—the ring being unending as the loyalty it expresses between husband and wife, the dove as the symbol of peace, the cross as emblematical of all that pertains to Christianity, the flag as patriotically significant of all the glorious history and potency of a nation. The device of motto and figure emblazoned upon a shield, or the crest that now heads a leaf of stationery or once on helmet was with the nodding plume a story set forth in artistic substance proudly borne by the armor-clad Knight of old are emblems as is the monogram inscribed on carriage door or elsewhere. Just as the Freemason chooses an emblem for his Mark, so formerly it was not uncommon to find Knights Templar selecting an individual design for their shields suspended in the armory or asylum. These survivals slowly subside and disappear in this prosaic era when a visiting card supplants the good old symbol and emblem worn for recognition and warning by the audacious warriors of chivalrous days.

Symbolic qualities have tokens and signs and even signals. He that betrayed Him had given them a sign, saying, “Whomsoever I shall kiss, that same is he,” Mark XIV, 44. To this day the kiss of Judas is the symbol of treachery most vile.

Again, uncovering the head, a bow or bending of the body, are tokens of respect, reverent signs that all may read. A symbol of truce is the white flag. A confession of cowardice is known as showing the white feather. To lower the flag is a surrender of sovereign rights. And to allow the flag to remain at “half mast* has the meaning of mourning for the dead.

Tattooing the body is symbolic and similar to the markings of heraldry but of more permanent type and quite often associated with the idea of decoration among some peoples and among others having sometimes a religious allusion as in the totemism or animalistic or animistic idealism of certain tribes. The lion is symbolical of courage, the lamb of meekness and innocence, the olive branch of peace, the laurel wreath of victory as once worn by the returning Roman conquerors, the scepter of supreme sovereignty, the eye of sight and of knowledge, the apron of service undefiled.

Note what Thomas Carlyle says in Sartor Resartus of the Symbolism of the Apron:

Aprons are Defenses;  against injury to cleanliness, to safety, to modesty, sometimes to roguery. From the thin slip of notched sill (as it were, the emblem and beautified ghost of an apron) which some highest-bred housewife, sitting at Nurnberg Workboxes and Toy boxes, has gracefully fastened on; to the thick tanned hide, girt round him with thongs, wherein the Builder builds, and at evening sticks his trowel; or to those jingling sheet-iron Aprons, wherein your otherwise half-naked Vulcan’s hammer and smelt in their smelt-furnace, – is there not range enough in the fashion and uses of this Vestment? How much has been concealed, how much has been defended in aprons? Nay, rightly con sidered, what is your whole Military and Police Establishment, charged at uncalculated millions, but a huge scarlet-colored, iron-fastened Apron, wherein Society works (uneasily enough) ; guarding itself from some soil and smithy-sparks in this Devil’s-smithy of a world? But of all aprons the most puzzling to me hitherto has been the Episcopal or Cassock. Wherein consists the usefulness of this Apron? The Overseer of Souls, I notice, has tucked-in the corner of it, as if his day’s work were done: what does he shadow forth thereby?

Very often we find combined two or more emblems as a single symbol. Such is frequently the case where one element is that of a human figure. The Statue of Liberty as represented by Bartholdi in the Harbor of New York is a stately female figure carrying a flaming torch. St. Gaudens showed Silence and Circumspection by a figure having the forefinger resting on her lips. In the same way the power of the sea is depicted by Neptune bearing a trident; pride by Juno with the peacock, and womanly beauty by Venus solaced with a mirror or charmed by the apple of beauty which Grecian mythology says was awarded by Zeus to Paris and by him bestowed upon Aphrodite.

Literature is full of symbolical allusions, as to the keys of St. Peter and the lamb of St. Agnes, or the noose of capital punishment, or the crown of reward. Jeremy Taylor tells us that the “Sacrament is a representation of Christ’s death by such symbolical actions as He Himself appointed.” Wordsworth in A Fact and an Imagination observes: “And Canute (fact more worthy to be known) from that time forth did for his brows disown the ostentatious symbols of a crown.”

One of the most glowing and expressive of all symbolic poesy is that by Joseph Rodman Drake, the tribute to the American flag. A verse of it is appended:

When freedom, from her mountain’s height,
Unfurled her standard to the air,
She tore the azure robe of night,
And set the stars of glory there!
She mingled with its gorgeous dyes
The milky baldric of the skies.
And striped its pure celestial white
With streakings of the morning light.
Then from his mansion in the sun,
She called her eagle bearer down,
And gave into his mighty hand
The symbol of her chosen land!

Again we may turn to Thomas Carlyle in Sartor Resartus for an expression of the agency of Symbols:

“Bees will not work except in Darkness. Thought will not work except in Silence; neither will Virtue work except in Secrecy. Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth. Of Kin to the so incalculable influences of Concealment and connected with still greater things, is the wondrous agency of Symbols. In a Symbol there is concealment and yet revelation: here therefore, by Silence and by Speech acting together, comes a double significance. And if both the speech be itself high, and the silence fit and noble, how expressive will their union be! Thus in many a painted Device, or simple Seal-emblem, the commonest Truth stands out to us proclaimed with quite new emphasis.

“For it is here that Fantasy with her mystic wonderland plays into the small prose domain of Sense, and becomes incorporated therewith. In the Symbol proper, what we can call a Symbol, there is ever more or less distinctly and directly, some embodiment and revelation of the Infinite; the Infinite is made to blend itself with the Finite, to stand visible, as it were, attainable there. By Symbols, accordingly, is man 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, nay, if thou wilt have it, what is man himself but a Symbol of God; is not all that he does symbolical; a revelation to Sense of the mystic God-given force that is in him; a ‘Gospel of Freedom’ which he, the ‘Messiahs of Nature’ preaches, as he can, by act and word? Not a Hut he builds but is the visible embodiment of a Thought; but bears visible record of invisible things, but is, in the transcendental sense, symbolical as well as real.

”It is in and through Symbols that man, consciously or unconsciously, lives, works, and has his being: those ages, moreover, are accounted the noblest which can the best recognize symbolical worth, and prize it the highest. For is not a Symbol ever, to him who has eyes for it, some dimmer or clearer revelation of the Godlike?”

Next – I – Preliminary – The Origin and Progress of Freemasonry

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