The Lost Symbols of Freemasonry: Introduction
The quest for the lost symbols of Freemasonry is about more than just forgotten relics from the Masonic past, it’s about uncovering the true meaning and purpose of the Craft. Over the centuries the symbolic system of Freemasonry has been modified by Grand Lodges and well-meaning Masons to the point where it’s impossible for the modern Mason to uncover the peculiar system of morality concealed within it. Many symbols were discarded altogether, while others were modified to suit various political agendas. Other, entirely new, symbols were added to either clarify or obscure certain secrets. What exists today is so far removed from what the founders intended that it would be almost unrecognizable to them.
The philosophical system envisioned by Freemasonry is hidden within allegories (sometimes allegories within allegories), and revealed through symbolism. Having the right symbols and the correct understanding of them is essential to understanding Masonic moral, political, and metaphysical philosophy.
For a long time academic historians have known more about Freemasonry than they have been willing to publish. The reasons for their reluctance are many and varied, but the demand for answers continues to grow in both Masonic circles and popular culture. Perhaps one of the greatest concerns has been retribution from one or more of the plethora of Masonic appendant bodies. To put it bluntly, they are not a part of true Freemasonry. They’re nothing more than fantastic schemes created by Freemasons in the past to serve purposes that no longer exist. Today these organizations search for meaning in a world that perceives them as bizarre anachronisms. True Freemasonry, however, is timeless. It encompasses the entire human condition: the quest for meaning and purpose in the cosmos.
Throughout the ages Freemasons have proven to be deeply spiritual while remaining religiously agnostic. Religions come and go, but Freemasonry remains because it is like a mirror reflecting back to us our true nature. This is evidenced more especially in England where there existed two distinct forms of Freemasonry prior to 1813: ‘Antients’ and ‘Moderns’. The union of 1813 saw the removal of Christian symbolism contained in the rituals of the ‘Antients’.
It has been pointed-out that Freemasonry is chameleon-like. It veils itself in a religion and culture until it can safely reveal its mysteries, and restore order out of the chaos that blinded men to the truth. The veiling in Judeo-Christian allegories (the building of Solomon’s Temple and Noah) during the early period is an example of this behavior.
‘Freemasonry’ is a relatively modern term in the grand scheme of things. The mysteries hidden within its symbols date back to the beginning of civilization. It has been known by many names, but its meaning and purpose have remained consistent throughout the ages. Many of its symbols can be found on ancient buildings dating back over 2000 years. This Roman mosaic discovered at Pompeii is an excellent example of the antiquity of the symbols. (It now resides in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, Italy.)
“Constituting the emblema of the flooring in a triclinium, this mosaic, with its naturalistic depiction of a skull and the tools of a mason, expresses allegorically the transience of life and the impending nature of death. It is the libella (the level), from which hangs the plumb-line -the instrument that serves to control the leveling of a construction that symbolizes all equality: from its ends hang in perfect equilibrium the symbols of power (the scepter and the royal purple) and on the right, the sack and the stick, symbols of poverty. The skull -with a line of darker tesserae outlining the sutures of the cranium- and the level -an instrument that we know only through depictions from the Roman period….” – Institute and Museum of the History of Science
In addition to this, the skull is precariously balanced on Fortuna’s Wheel (Wheel of Fortune) which can turn at any moment in favor of either wealth or poverty.
These same symbols appear in the Emulation Ritual used by the United Grand Lodge of England.
“I now present to you the working tools of a Fellowcraft Freemason. They are the Square, Level and Plumb-rule…”
“The Level demonstrates that we are all sprung from the same stock, partakers of the same nature and sharers in the same hope; and although distinctions among men are necessary to preserve subordination, yet ought no eminence of situation make us forget that we are Brothers, for he who is placed on the lowest spoke of Fortune’s Wheel is equally entitled to our regard, as a time will come – and the wisest of us knows not how soon – when all distinctions, save those of goodness and virtue shall cease and death, the Grand Leveller of all human greatness, reduce us to the same state.“
The present three degree system, created by John Theophilus Desaugliers during the 1720s, was an attempt at putting together pieces from various ancient symbolic systems to form a greater whole.
As we begin our quest for the lost symbols it’s important to realize that not all of the symbols we will be covering are lost to all Masons. Some of these symbols are still in use in different parts of the world. What may be a lost symbol to one form of Freemasonry is still in use elsewhere. Other symbols are entirely lost to the modern Craft, and their relevance obscured. Knowledge of them will aid in your understanding of Freemasonry.
Dr David Harrison