The Skull & Crossbones and Freemasonry--You're Doing it Wrong

by Midnight Freemason Contributors
Bro. Brian Schimian & Bro. Robert H. Johnson




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.
The skull’s imagery is quite antique. P.D. Newman writes of the ritual of years long past where it is referred to as “The Bone Box” which “holds the key or pass”, it describing the skull as a box of bones or teeth and which has the pass because it is represented by the human tongue. 1 Even in the oldest “Operative” Masonic lodge ever discovered in Pompeii, Italy which dates to circa 79 CE, was found a tile relief featuring…wait for it…a skull. You can read all about it here. 2

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,

Momento Mori
“Remember That You Have To Die”

Brian: Lately, the subject of the Square & Compass being associated with a skull has been going around Masonic circles, especially on social media. To my surprise and utter disbelief, some sovereign Masonic bodies have actually issued statements that forbid the skull to be displayed with the Square & Compass. Not to seem pompous or take myself off the level, but I would have to suggest that these Brothers go back and read up on some ritual, starting with the Entered Apprentice degree.

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

From this, we can say that it is indeed a fine symbol. A UNIVERSAL symbol which has transcended ages, cultures and languages. The symbol which reminds us that we can take nothing with us, that in death all men are equal. It represents that thing which is our transformation from this world to the next. The Grand Leveler. It is effective. Perhaps this is why some don't like it. It works so well, that it reminds us of our own mortality, our equality in relation to the rest of humanity and perhaps that hits just a little too close to home.

Virtus Junxit, Mores Non Separabit.
What Virtue Has United, Death Can Not Separate.



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.

15 comments:

  1. Excellent piece, Brothers! I personally like the Memento Mori symbols--I have several rings featuring the skull including the first one I ever owned. Being reminded that we will be dead much longer than the short span of years we are alive is a great motivator. Keeps us from procrastinating--if not now, then when?

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  2. Great article, posted to reddit for discussion.
    http://www.reddit.com/r/freemasonry/comments/2vb58n/the_skull_crossbones_and_freemasonryyoure_doing/

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  3. In Manitoba we recite Ecclesiastes 12 which as references to the skull and bones. And our M. M. candidates are shown a skull and bones in a box and are told "Let these emblems of mortality remind you...."

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  4. I disagree. The skull and crossbones are a symbol of our mortality. But by placing it within the Square and compasses the implied symbolism is that death is at the center of circumscription and virtue. This is not true, nor is it Masonic. The skull and crossbones within a square and compasses is a modern invention, used mostly by Widows Sons and other Masonic bikers. In the biker world, skulls are cool, so why not put it at the center of our identifying mark? We are a Fraternity of Light and Morality, of Knowledge and Wisdom. Yes, we remember death, as we are pursued by it, but we don't place it at the center of our identity. We are not a death cult. I will continue to keep light, and God and Geometry at the center of my Virtue and Circumscription.

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  5. They Skull and Crossbones are absolutely ancient symbols of the craft. I'd have to respectfully disagree with you bro. Eric. The skull and crossbones as we've cited has been a symbol used Vince the first century.

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  6. Well said! This encourages me not to be too wary about wearing what I think is some of our most moving and motivational symbolism.

    On a side note, I believe what Bro. Eric was saying was that the skull and crossbones within the square and compass was a modern invention, not the skull and crossbones themselves. In that sense, I can at least see what he's saying about the replacing of 'G' with the skull and crossbones.

    However, like Robert pointed out, the 'G' wasn't always there. So for me personally at least, it just feels more like combining different symbolism with each other, rather than "we've decided to replace God with the skull and crossbones because death is more important to us."

    Again though, well done and thanks!

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  7. Very well done Brothers! I too get tired of everyone watering everything down. If you don't have the mettle or patience to explain and stand up for the symbolism -- well, you can conclude the rest of what I am thinking.

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  8. There are many skull and crossbones adorning gravestones from centuries ago in scottish cemeteries. Perhaps the Presbyterian ministers turned a blind eye to the design, or maybe they did not worry about a symbol of mortality and took it as that

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  9. After reading the posts, I am compelled to share my avatar. A "younger" brother shared it with me several years ago and I've used it since. Not to be provocative, but rather to continually remind me of my own mortality and to not focus on the petty things of everyday life. To quote verse in a song; "...someday I hope you get the chance, to live like you were dyin'..."
    No, I'm not focusing on death, I'm focusing on living. Living each day as a blessing. Thank you for your consideration. Jeffrey M. Bayer, PM 1997. Palm Springs Lodge #693. Palm Springs, CA

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  10. As a prospected individual motivated skull and crossbones, member of the books I have read about the secretive "The Skulls" - Movie. Death has no life, and anybody's bearing, on whether we live eternally. The Resurrection and the life, is esoteric or christian, which- Unites! Virtue is earned! Death is Envisioned!

    "I am the way, the truth, and the life..." Or, another esoteric "Skull and Crossbones"- "Give me Liberty, Or give me death!" "I, know we all, must fight for deaths, even in troublesome times." - Skulls of AIC (Associated Individuals Clubs) - Brother Riley Miller - Started Oxford, England; Dallas, Texas; Santa Fe, NM.
    "The Standard Elite" - Author of "86 Skull and Crossbones Based Books!"

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  11. Thank you brothers for this post. I am an E.A. from East Denver 160. We are a T.O. lodge and we use the symbol of the skull and crossbones. Being an E.A., this article has helped me to understand the meaning and symbolism behind the skull & bones. Looking forward to more light.
    Thank you,
    Greg Carroll, East Denver Lodge #160, Denver Colorado.

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  12. Thank you for this post. I am a E.A., my lodge is a T.O. lodge and we use the Chamber of Reflection and the Skull and Crossbones. This article helped to shine some light on the meaning and symbolism of the skull and bones for me and I am grateful for that. Thanks for the education and I'm looking forward to more light.
    Thank you,
    Greg Carroll, East Denver Lodge #160, Denver CO.

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  13. being a brother mason from Seneca Lodge No: 55 i have never seen this used! the more information the better. "he opened his eyes for the 1st time and the light was good!" - Thanks for the share. i am going to do some more reading on this site. :)

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  14. Good discussion and fellowship.I have the Skull & Bones emblem displayed on the back of my car, next to the drivers side taillight, for all to see, whether it's dark or light out. After all, I have been traveling.

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