The Symbolism of Pillars in Freemasonry

The symbol of the Pillars in Freemasonry, three in total, have a special place in the rituals and symbolism of Freemasonry. Many an author, including myself, have attempted to capture their meaning and give resonance to their understanding. Writing in a preamble to the second degree, I defined the pillars in their three representations or mercy, severity and mildness, writing:

Wisdom, the left-hand pillar of mercy, is an active pillar and representative of alchemical fire, which is the principal of spirituality, often called the pillar of Jachin. It is a masculine pillar, and relates to our mental energy, our loving kindness, and our creative inspiration as we traverse it up the Kabbalaistic tree through the Sephirot.

Strength is the right-hand pillar and takes the form of severity, shaped into the alchemical symbol of water.  It can represent darkness, but it is a passive symbol that is feminine in nature and called the pillar of Boaz. Upon it we find the points of our thoughts and ideas, our feelings and emotions, and the physicality of our physical experience, our sensations, each an aspect of its Cabalistic progression.

The mix of the symbols of fire and water.

Beauty, then, takes on the role of synthesis of the two, the pillar of mildness; it is upon this pillar that the novitiate is transformed through his progressive states as he progresses. The central pillar of Beauty is representative of Jehovah, the Tetragrammaton which represents deity itself upon which our crown of being resides balanced through feeling and emotion from our foundation of justice and mercy, which springs from our link to the everyday world.

H. A. Kingsbury, writing in The Three Supporting Pillars Of A Lodge, from The Builder Magazine in October 1917, writes of the pillars saying, The Mason is informed that the Three Supporting Pillars of the Lodge are Wisdom, Strength, and Beauty “because it is necessary that there should be wisdom to contrive, strength to support, and beauty to adorn all great and important undertakings”: he cannot but gather from the lectures and the work, particularly of the First Degree, that the Lodge is the symbol of the World: therefore, when he combines these two conceptions and draws the necessarily resulting conclusion, he arrives at the same understanding of the ultimate symbolic significance of the Three Pillars as did the ancient Hindus–the Three Supporting Pillars of the Lodge are, considered as a group, the symbol of Him Whose Wisdom contrived the World, Whose Strength supports the World, Whose Beauty adorns the World-Deity. 

Orders of architecture in Freemasonry.
Masonic Orders of Architecture: Doric, Tuscan, Ionic, Corinthian and Composite.

Wisdom, Strength and Beauty

From the first degree lecture, it reads,“The Worshipful Master represents the pillar of Wisdom, because he should have wisdom to open his Lodge, set the craft at work, and give them proper instructions. The Senior Warden represents the pillar of Strength, it being his duty to assist the Worshipful Master in opening and closing his Lodge, to pay the craft their wages, if any be due, and see that none go away dissatisfied, harmony being the strength of all institutions, more especially of ours. The Junior Warden represents the pillar of Beauty, it being his duty at all times to observe the sun at high meridian, which is the glory and beauty of the day.”

The masonic pillars as an ancient symbol

Encyclopedia of Freemasonry

Albert G. Mackey, in his Encyclopedia of Freemasonry, writes of the pillars, saying:

In the earliest times it was customary to perpetuate remarkable events, or exhibit gratitude for providential favors, by the erection of pillars, which by the idolatrous races were dedicated to their spurious gods. Thus Sanchoniathon the Berytian tells us that Hypsourianos (Hypsuranius) and Ousous (Memrumus?), who lived before the Flood, dedicated two pillars to the elements, fire and air. Among the Egyptians the pillars were, in general, in the form of obelisks from fifty to one hundred feet high, and exceedingly slender in proportion. Upon their four sides hieroglyphics were often engraved. According to Herodotus, they were first raised in honor of the sun, and their pointed form was intended to represent his rays. Many of these monuments still remain.

In the antediluvian or before the Flood, ages, the posterity of Seth erected pillars; “for,” says the Jewish historian, “that their inventions might not be lost before they were sufficiently known, upon Adam’s prediction, that the world was to be destroyed at one time by the force of fire, and at another time by the violence of water, they made two pillars, the one of brick, the other of stone; they inscribed their discoveries on them both, that in case the pillar of brick should be destroyed by the flood, the pillar of stone might remain, and exhibit those discoveries to mankind, and would also inform them that there was another pillar of brick erected by them.” Jacob erected such a pillar at Bethel, to commemorate his remarkable vision of the ladder, and afterward another one at Galeed as a memorial of his alliance with Laban. Joshua erected one at Gilgal to perpetuate the remembrance of his miraculous crossing of the Jordan. Samuel set up a pillar between Mizpeh and Shen, on account of a defeat of the Philistines, and Absalom erected another in honor of himself. The reader will readily see the comparison between these memorials mentioned in the Bible and the modern erection of tablets, gravestones, etc., to the honor of the dead as well as to a notable deed or event. Compare also the use of an altar.

The doctrine of gravitation was unknown to the people of the primitive ages, and they were unable to refer the support of the earth in its place to this principle. Hence, they looked to some other cause, and none appeared to their simple and unphilosophic minds more plausible than that it was sustained by pillars. The Old Testament abounds with reference to this idea. Hannah, in her song of thanksgiving, exclaims: “The pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and he hath set the world upon them” (First Samuel 2, 8). The Psalmist signifies the same doctrine in the following text: “The earth and all the inhabitants thereof are dissolved; I bear up the pillars of it” (Psalm 75:3). Job 26:7 says: “He shaketh the earth out of her places, and the pillars thereof tremble.” All the old religions taught the same doctrine; and hence pillars being regarded as the supporters of the earth, they were adopted as the symbol of strength and firmness. To this, John Dudley (Naology: Or, a Treatise On the Origin, Progress, and Symbolical Import of the Sacred Structures of the Most Eminent Nations and Ages of the World, page 123) attributes the origin of pillar worship, which prevailed so extensively among the idolatrous nations of antiquity. “The reverence,” says he, “shown to columns, as symbols of the power of the Deity, was readily converted into worship paid to them as idols of the real presence.” But here he seems to have fallen into a mistake. The double pillars or columns, acting as an architectural support, were, it is true, symbols derived from a natural cause of strength and permanent firmness. But there was another more prevailing symbology. The monolith, or circular pillar, standing alone, was, to the ancient mind, a representation of the Phallus, the symbol of the creative and generative energy of Deity, and it is in these Phallic Pillars that we are to find the true origin of pillar worship, which was only one form of Phallic Worship, the most predominant of all the cults to which the ancients were addicted. 

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A devoted student of the Western Mystery Traditions, Greg is a firm believer in the Masonic connections to the Hermetic traditions of antiquity, its evolution through the ages and into its present configuration as the antecedent to all contemporary esoteric and occult traditions. He is a self-called searcher for that which was lost, a Hermetic Hermit and a believer in “that which is above is so too below.” Read more about Greg Stewart.