In the world of Masonry, there are many symbols which represent various teachings in the Fraternity. One, however, is continually employed by many much to the chagrin of countless persons and sovereign Masonic bodies. We are, of course, referring to the skull & crossbones. In this short article, we’d like to bring to the attention of the reader and anyone else who may happen upon this article the tradition, antiquity and importance of this great symbol and to set the record straight for those who see it in a way that is outside the definitions and philosophical interpretations of Freemasonry.
Robert: In my years as a Mason, one symbol stands alone as the most powerful, and not just because of its imagery. The Skull & Crossbones is a stark symbol. It stops you in your tracks and makes you notice it. It dares you to peruse it, to understand it. It does what it is supposed to do. It reminds you of your own mortality. Countless times, I have worn a square and compass pin with a skull in the middle in place of the American standard "G"(only adopted around 1717, mind you). And when I have worn this or any other item emblazoned with this image of a skull, a skull & crossbones, or any variation thereof, I get the same response, "Rob, what's with the skull?"
My answer is usually, "It's one of the lessons of the first degree and of the third.” The brothers always seem to give me a half cocked frown and say something like, "I don't know about that.” It’s like a skipping record. It seems as though those who take issue with the skull & crossbones being used, largely in part, seem to replace the symbolism from what it is in Freemasonry to what it means in either pop culture or their religion. To be frank, I'm a little tired of it.
One of the larger areas in which brothers complain about the use of the skull and crossbones is in the Chamber of Reflection. These Chambers of Reflection are widely used in many lodges all around the world, and their effectiveness as a tool in preparing the candidate has been extremely well documented. In place of a “prep room” they use the CoR. Chambers of Reflection and Preparation Rooms are virtually the same thing, like it or not, Brothers. The only difference is that a Chamber of Reflection has a system of quality control, it being part of the ritual, that is. It isn't a dusty old broom closet you let your candidate get dressed in. (“Take these garments and get dressed, watch out for the paint cans.”)
Let's get real here for a moment, on the level. We have a problem with them because they may be offensive to our particular religious sensibilities or are afraid that it will offend someone else’s. If the latter is the case, then a root cause analysis would show poor education on the part of an individual lodge, and ergo is the basis for banning the practice or having an issue with the symbol. In the cases of sovereign Masonic bodies having a posture against the use of the symbol, it only solidifies our lack of confidence in the individual lodge to educate its candidates in the true symbolism we hold so dear. Either way, it’s a sad state of affairs.
And yet again, I will remind you, this isn't a “devil’s room” or a “witch’s room” or anything that your “religious eyes” are seeing. It's a Masonic room, with symbols designed to make you think.
Brothers, the skull and crossbones is not evil. I'm sorry some of us feel this way. It is taught to you in the first degree and overwhelmingly in the 3rd degree. If we've forgotten that, perhaps we need to reread the lectures. It is the symbol of your mortality,
According to some, displaying the Square & Compass with a skull “gives the wrong impression” because “that is not who we are”…
One of my closest Brothers had this to say: “Not understanding the Skull is like not understanding the Acacia.”
The Skull stands as a bastion in Masonry as a reminder that death is ever imminent and should incite ones reflection of their own life. The skull also relates to rebirth and as a reminder for spiritual reawakening. The crossed bones are added to signify the pillars of the portico where man stands as he labors in the quarry. To say that the skull is a misrepresentation of Masonry is akin to saying that the company Apple is “evil” because their logo happens to be an apple with a bite taken out of it. Somehow the jump from an innocuous corporate logo to Eve taking a bite from a forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden makes complete logical sense to some people.
I have to say, that every time I hear about some officer getting his “jewels” in a bind over the Square & Compass and a skull being displayed together, I get closer and closer to having it tattooed on the back of my hands. I already have them tattooed on my arms. I would have to assume that there are more people in the world that are allergic to bee stings than would be offended or get the wrong idea about Masonry by seeing a skull with the “lights”. Therefore, perhaps we should remove the beehive from the ritual if we are looking to not be “offensive” to anyone.
Another Brother, whom I have had several conversations with, some on this very subject had this to say: “They tell you to not disagree with those who do not think well of masonry, uttering the "pearls before swine" stuff..... then they ban skulls because someone who isn't a mason may not like it.”
Brothers, we cannot intend to make everyone happy. By attempting to do so, we begin to cut and destroy the very fabric that this Craft was built upon. We are what we are and our symbols are what they are (and have been for hundreds of years, if not thousands). I have no tolerance for opinionated ignorance, especially when it comes to Freemasonry. From the very onset of ones journey as an Entered Apprentice, we are told that what is imparted within the degrees is a scratch on the surface and we are charged to educate ourselves further. This is yet another prime example of why we should, as a fraternity, quit wasting time and dispense with the reading of the minutes. More time and effort needs to be put into Masonic Education and exploring the meaning of our symbols. Perhaps then, we will not make such decisions in haste and further degrade the things that make Masonry what I have known it to be since I was eight years old.
Conclusion: Mackey's Masonic Encyclopedia has three entries relating to the skull. The first being "The Skeleton", which is simply a symbol for death used by the ancient Egyptians, which reminded them of mortality. 3 The second being the "skull", which it says “The skull as a symbol is not used in Freemasonry except in Masonic Templarism, where it is a symbol of mortality.” 4 And the third mention is that of the "skull and crossbones" which it defines as the following:
They are a symbol of mortality and death, and are so used by heralds in funeral achievements. As the means of inciting the mind to the contemplation of the most solemn subjects, the skull and cross-bones are used in the Chamber of Reflection in the French and Scottish Rites, and in all those Degrees where that Chamber constitutes a part of the preliminary ceremonies of initiation. 5
References; 1; Symbol of the Skull and Crossbones by P.D. Newman -http://www.knightstemplar.org/KnightTemplar/articles/20130523.htm, 2; Labor to Refreshment Blog, One Minute Mason Blog, 3; Masonic Dictionary “Skeleton” entry; , 4; Mackey’s Masonic Encyclopedia - “Skull” entry, 5; Mackey’s Masonic Encyclopedia “Skull and Crossbones” entry.
Bro. Brian Schimian is Life of Member A.O. Fay #676 in Highland Park Illinois and the Medinah Shriners - Lake County Shrine Club. He was also the Past Master Counselor of DeMolay - Lakes Chapter in 1995. Most recently, Brian became a Companion of the York Rite, joining Waukegan Chapter #41 R.A.M. Brian is a father of two children. "Start Square, Finish Level"
Bro. Robert Johnson, 32° is the Managing Editor of the Midnight Freemasons blog. He is a Freemason out of the First North-East District of Illinois. He is the Master of Waukegan Lodge No. 78 and Education officer for the 1st N.E. District of Illinois. He is also a member of the York Rite bodies Royal Arch, Cryptic Council, Knights Templar, AMD, The Illinois Lodge of Research and a member of the Scottish Rite Valley of Chicago as well as a charter member of the Society of King Solomon, a charity organization run by the Grand Lodge of Illinois. Brother Johnson currently produces and hosts weekly Podcasts (internet radio programs) Whence Came You? & Masonic Radio Theatre which focus on topics relating to Freemasonry. In addition, he produces video shorts focusing on driving interest in the Fraternity and writes original Masonic papers from time to time. He is also a cohost of The Masonic Roundtable, a Masonic talk show. He is a husband and father of three. He works full time in the safety industry and is also a photographer on the side as well as an avid home brewer. He is currently working on a book of Masonic essays.