Brethren, Whence came you?
By W:.B:. Mike Priddy
Over the last few months my blogs have been pretty academic and serious in nature. This time I thought I would throw something lighter out for your consideration.
As young Masons we are told we will get an education in the symbols of Masonry, and to be certain we do get some instructions on some of our symbols during the degrees, but it is truly left to us to seek their deeper meaning. As you no doubt know there is something of a cottage industry around the ‘secret’ symbols of Freemasonry, but what most non-masons don’t know is that the symbols we use are so obscure many of us don’t know what they mean!
I have spoken with many of our brothers about our symbols and am always stumped by the lack of interest in personally investigating their meanings. To be clear I don’t mean reading what someone else has written about them but rather a personal quest for esoteric meaning. Each of us has our own story, with our own experiences and perspective. I encourage each of you to take a moment and look at our symbols, and explore the emotions, ideas and memories they elicit. Other men may know more about the traditional meaning of a symbol, but no one knows more about what it says to you than you!
About 10 years ago I was walking through our preparation room, as I had done many times but on this night I was drawn to the circle, point, and two parallel lines which is displayed in all regularly constituted Masonic Lodges. Now I am sure each of you have had the experience of something that has become routine in your life suddenly taking on special significance and meaning. That night this most common of masonic symbols jumped out at me in a completely new way, with meaning and clarity. I saw in that set of symbols a map! I did not know where it pointed, though I should have, but it was clear to me in that instant I was looking at a symbolic representation of the world.
I’ll explain what I saw later, but first I would like to explain something about symbols. We have language that we use every day, which is composed of, letters, words, sentences, paragraphs, syntax and grammar. This method of communication can be very precise and can relay ideas and thoughts between individuals separated by time and space with a clarity and depth that can be startling. Consider the power of the Bible, Koran or Torah. Volumes written centuries ago can still inspire men and women in today’s modern technological and complex world. But before there was the written word our species used another method to communicate, symbols. Much science has been dedicated to the power of symbols, and how in many cases the power of symbols to elicit meaning across not only time and space but also across cultures. Unlike the precise meaning of a word a symbol has layers of meanings and as we study them they can lead us on a journey toward not just the common truth but to universal Truth that only the soul can experience. Because of the depth and power of symbols we can see different meanings in symbols each time we look at them, and yet the sum of the symbol’s meanings over time can become itself a complex tapestry of enlightenment.
Some symbols are natural, ingrained in all people. Carl Jung, a 20th century psychologist called these symbols ‘archetypes’. In our common unconscious for example we all experience symbolic images of Mother, Father, and Shadow and many times they speak to us in dreams as characters representing fundamental human meaning. Other symbols are created, like the US Flag, the square and compass and a red octagon (Stop!).
So, the circle, point and parallel lines are in the rudimentary sense a symbol of moral compass. We all learn this early in our practice as Masons. Let’s say that is a surface meaning, and that there might be another meaning, in this case a map. So how can that be a map? That night when I looked at the parallel lines what jumped out at me was the images of the Holy Saints John standing next to the parallel lines. They were the first clue. You see each Saint in the Catholic tradition has a feast day. Many old churches in Europe face sun rise on the feast day of the Saint they are named after. The early churches like our Lodges are aligned toward the east and since the sun rises in a different place each morning, east was assigned at sunrise on the day of the Saint’s feast. The interesting thing about the two saints John is that their feast days fall very close to the two solstices, approximately June 21st and December 21st, the longest and shortest day of the year. The feast days of the Saints John are June 23rd and December 27th. On Solstices the sun is as far north or south as it travels in the sky, and the lines that represents that southern and northern most point are two parallel, horizontal, lines on maps and globes. These are called the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. The fact that the feast days of these two saints fell near the dates of the solstices, from which the tropics were derived, and that they were standing next to two parallel lines seemed to great a coincidence.
The obvious problem with this idea is that the lines, while parallel, are vertically aligned setting them 90 degrees off. In fact, in my research I discovered that someone had approached Albert Pike years ago with the same idea as mine and Pike had dismissed it for exactly that reason. So for a time I let it go, but I was not satisfied. You see there was another part of the symbol that caught my eye. The Bible at the top of the circle was key to decoding the symbol. As in our Lodges the east is considered, symbolically, to be the direction from which enlightenment comes. That Bible on top seemed to say, “look at me dummy, I’m the east!” If that was true the lines would be oriented correctly, but why would someone draw the symbol on its side? There was an answer and eventually I found it.
When you look at a map you usually turn the map until North is at the top. We call this “orienting” the map. BUT the word orient is Latin for EAST. Why would turning the map to a north alignment be called “easting” the map? Because in medieval times maps had east on top! That’s right, and on those maps the tropics would have been aligned vertically!
These maps were called O and T maps because a circle, the O, represented the earth, and the continents formed a rough T. Now it get’s really interesting. O and T maps sometimes have a dot in the center that represents a city. Do you care to guess what city? It seems the Holy Saints John are pointing us to Jerusalem!
So, while I have no proof that this ancient Masonic symbol is in fact intended to be a map to Jerusalem I think I have shown that it could be. Even if it never was intended to be a map to Jerusalem for me this symbol now is a reminder of our Masonic mythology as well as a reminder to live with in a certain moral and ethical compass. Like many symbols this one has depth for me, and I hope perhaps its does for you too.
Now Brethren I challenge you. Go to Lodge, pick a symbol that speaks to you and explore it, stare at it, research it, meditate on it and listen for that quiet voice in the still parts of your heart. Bring our symbols to life again and you will breathe new Light into your Lodge.