FREEMASONRY AND MASONIC SYMBOLISM
In Freemasonry, there always seems to be a rhythm or correlation with any number of things. It seems to nearly never fail for the Craft to line up with all things Hermetic, Kabalistic, mystical or beyond. Whether or not ‘modern’ Ancient Craft Masonry came from the ancient knowledge found prior to antiquity is a subject of debate. However, it does typically fall right into place with it and is unquestionably related.
As we were passed through the degrees of Masonry, we were introduced to esoteric, numerical studies and were explained some of their meanings. As we travel through the (B) and (J) pillars, we begin to ascend the flight of winding stairs. We first come upon three steps of which have an infinite amount of explanation based on the number three. However, we are taught they primarily represent the three main officers of the lodge: JW, SW and WM.
As we continue along, we come upon a set of five steps. Along with the five orders of architecture, each one represents one of our five primary senses. They are labeled hearing, seeing, feeling, smelling and tasting. We are taught in one particular degree to primarily focus on the first three senses but as searchers of further light, there is usually a way to correlate similarities with numbers in Masonry and beyond. These five senses are what we utilize to study the seven liberal arts we are later introduced to in the lesson.
In some of the more esoteric Masonic and non-Masonic groups, we are introduced to the four primary elements of the Hermetic and Kabalistic sciences. They are earth, water, air and fire. While many other teachings, such as eastern religions, utilize the same and different elements, I will stick with what our Masonic related groups teach.
Based upon my initiatory experiences and with some research, I found that there is a less known fifth element or Quintessence. According to Dr. Israel Regardie, the fifth element of spirit crowns and connects the other four. [i] This is a culmination of all the elements. One primary difference with this element is that it cannot stand alone as the others do. It is essential that the other four elements are ‘present’ and in alignment have an understanding of the fifth element.
As receivers of light often found in the blue lodge (but more often overlooked) and beyond, we are encouraged to learn and become familiar with numerology. In some of the first lessons taught, we are informed of the many meanings of different numbers but specifically here the number five. In one of our degrees as mentioned above, the number five is alluded to in regards to the five senses (and five pillars) and we are taught that when we are fully in sync with ourselves and surroundings, we can get by without any of our senses, spiritually speaking. In Masonry, the five senses are much needed. Touch whereby one mason may know another in the dark as well as in the light. Sight utilized whereby we see certain signs of recognition given to us or symbols as well. Hearing to hear the word of a brother mason, to also hear music as a part of some lodges ritual. Taste to rejoice among brethren in fellowship with fine food and drink. Smell when we have our ceremonial incense burning in lodge to help center our minds and bodies.
AIR & HEARING
In some Masonic traditions, the element of air is represented as intelligence and/or spiritual growth as well. During the creation days, it was God that breathed into a man’s nostrils and made us in his likeness. With air travels sound. From our time in the womb to our last moments on earth, we primarily hear sound through the air. Also through the air is played one liberal art that is perhaps the most recognizable and it is that of music.
Hearing in Masonry and other ritualistic orders is perhaps the primary means of communication. Whether whispering good counsel or carefully scripted, deeply esoteric lines of a ritual, the sound traveling in the air to our ears to be heard is everywhere. Air being represented by the east, it is from the east we receive most of our Masonic lessons. We are given our obligation from the east and admonished as well as other communications. The sense of hearing and air go hand in hand with gaining knowledge and spiritual growth.
It is not so much to simply say certain words, but to forcefully vibrate them out as to really push the sound waves through the air. As with our sense of smell, we often never see any of the day to day things we hear. From car horns and ambulances to other people’s conversations, the air is filled with constant sounds.
Perhaps no phenomenon in nature is as common and powerful as air. It is a driving force and a symbol of determination. In nature, wind storms, tornadoes, and hurricanes have no rivals accept themselves in destructive power. These forces of air carry with them thunder, howling winds and crashing noises of destruction. Air can also be gentle, cooling and bring in clouds of life supporting rain. It can tenderly blow a wind chime or be pushed through a musical horn or wood wind to produce beautiful sound. If harnessed correctly and brought under control, it can carefully steer a sailboat, generate energy or lift a 700,000 pound 747 jet airliner. Air can blow out fires, dry up water, and shift the earth. As Masons or students of the Hermetic sciences, when we hear the winds coming, it is necessary to be able harness and control these opportunities of learning something new or growing spiritually.
FIRE & SMELL
In the Masonic tradition, the element of fire is a symbol of life and destruction. In the Winter Solstice Ceremony for Masonry, it is symbolic of creation and energy; a new beginning and life. In tarot and other studies, fire is represented as passion and change, whether good or bad. In alchemy, fire is often associated with sulfur, one of the most potent and distinct smelling chemicals on planet Earth. Fire is represented in the south; the opposite of the cold, dark north.
In Masonry, as mentioned previously, one of the senses less talked about is that of smell. Smell is often one of our first senses to be activated during certain situations. It is also one that could be considered quite subconscious yet if something triggers your sense of smell enough, it can be one of the most difficult to ignore.
When fire is created, we usually smell it far before we see, hear or feel it. Whether literally or figuratively, we often sense the smell of smoke, that all too recognizable smell of sulfur or worse yet, the ‘smell of death.’ On the other hand, fire and smell can have positive meanings as well. The culinary arts, we often smell what we are going to be eating before we ever see or taste it. As with fire, our sense of smell senses a sign of new beginnings, love and passion, physical attraction towards (pheromones) another, or the very familiar smell of a newborn baby.
Our sense of smell often allows us to sense what is beyond our other senses, even hearing. It can also be right in front of us as we ‘stop and smell the flowers’ as to live in the moment. As mentioned above, you can smell fire miles away and know that there is likely danger and destruction. But you can be rest assured, it is also a new beginning in the making as well.
WATER & TASTE
In the Masonic tradition, the element of water is represented as emotion and intuition and according to Cicero [ii], it has creative, subconscious or mysterious qualities. As for taste, having ‘good taste’ is perhaps all of these things. It is that natural ability to make good choices, react accordingly, without thinking. It is also the ability to see beauty and everyone else in the room would likely agree. It is a subconscious ability to have a positive awareness of what everyone else likely should see or does see in something. Having those water qualities means you are fluidic in that not only do you have good decision making abilities, but that you also can adapt and see the hidden beauty in most everything.
As Masons, we should have the ability to be fluid in most scenarios. If we are demanding to be free and accepted ourselves, we must also be accepting of others as well. As Masons, we are curious about the ancient mysteries, both esoteric and exoteric. From the west is water and fittingly so as it slows the fires our minds for rest. The west is where the sun sets every day. The search for more light from the east is then allowed to be pondered and meditated over. As water is passive and feminine, it is utilized best as a time to contemplate those fiery desires for knowledge.
One tradition that has been long forgotten in our day to day lives of traffic, work and fast food is the slow consumption of our foods. As a whole, we eat more than ever in the history of mankind yet we enjoy our food less than we ever have. We often miss the taste of every nuance in a fine dish we are eating and therefore that likely reflects on our lives for the most part. We tend to not let our minds wander into its subconscious due to busy schedules. If we are missing those moments, it’s likely due to bad taste.
EARTH & TOUCH
In the Masonic tradition, the element of earth is represented as grounding, stabilization or material. This is the element often looked at as the element that really houses all of the aforementioned elements. The earth element is the basis of knowledge, things learned, which allow for further spontaneous/passionate (fire), logical (air), or emotional (water) abilities in our mind and spirit. It is our day to day life. It is what we can see, smell, hear, taste and most importantly touch. Being earthbound in a philosophical way is a less than desirable way to grow spiritually. However, it is the earth element and our physical beings that essentially make us up. While water can be touched and even held, it is more fluid and will change immediately. As for earth qualities, it is malleable, but not as much as air and water and is nowhere near as inspired as fire. The earth is under our feet and is all we can touch.
Earth is represented from the cold north. It is also represented with the color black and therefore represents our lack of ‘light’. We are too concerned about gadgets, money, and other items we must have in our possessions to be anywhere other than in complete darkness. While it is the earth element that houses the others, and is the basis for our growth, it is a virtue to have the stability underneath us. It is the basis for all Masons to be physically born in darkness and to have to put away our possessions we hold closely to us. We are even asked at one point to deposit a physical, metal item for archival reasons into our lodges. This helps us be able to give something up of a physical nature.
Being grounded to the earth to a fault can be a problem. As we can feel earthquakes underneath our feet if our Earth below us is toiling, so should we feel the earthquakes within ourselves if we are toiling inside. This toiling is often what pushes us towards any number of belief systems or to even begin our journey into Masonry. It is important to understand the positive and negatives of the earth element as it can keep us from ever growing but always allows our acacia to grow.
SPIRIT & SIGHT
In the Masonic tradition, the element of spirit is a symbol of purity and is, more or less, a culmination of all of the other four elements. It is typically less spoken about or even recognized by many students of the ancient mysteries. It is so invisible; it is less visible than air itself yet as Masons we are constantly looking for it. It is nowhere yet everywhere. It is made up of all four elements yet none of them are specifically it. Spirit can also be called Quintessence or aether as well.
It’s similarity to air is relevant since air is represented in the east, the place we are constantly traveling. As seekers of light, it is sight that we use most literally but figuratively as well. From the dawn of man until now, we have peered into the skies pondering questions of our existence. From worshiping the sun and moon or looking into the heavens for God’s answers, we are constantly looking for the light or spirit.
As humans with sight, we often have to ‘see it to believe it’. As seekers, we know we won’t see it with our physical eyes but with our wisdom and studies. Some believe the ‘third eye’ concept which allows for deeper meditation and understanding of things around us. As we bow our heads and pray, we usually close our eyes. This is most likely due to closing off our ability to actually see but utilize more of our inner sight. In Masonic lodges, we are ceremoniously given light, more light and further light by having our hoodwinked removed. Having a requirement to believe in a higher power, a GAOTU, this ritual alludes to the great light. To our ancestors it may have simply been the sun. To us it could be a multitude of belief systems.
If all things are of the aether element, then on an earthly level we see and detect signs from the universe such as numerology and things we often call coincidental. We use our sight to gain more knowledge that can be transferred into logic and wisdom.
My studies have led me to believe that in lodge, the spirit is represented in the middle of the room. The other elements are represented directionally, but not spirit. As indicated in specific grades of at least one appendant body of Masonry, our ‘spirits’ are positioned in a place of no direction but all directions, facing the east looking for light. Spirit is inside all of these elements and makes up the space each one of them lacks in.
It is often represented with a circle and this symbolizes the infinity of the spirit and how it is all things. It is also represented in the pentagram as the apex point of the star. In Masonry, we are caused to kneel at an altar and give a prayer. The VSL is also in the middle of the lodge as a rule and guide for us as Masons. This is fittingly so as it represents the place our spirit is. Our sight is taken away from us until a certain point and then as mentioned before, the hoodwink is removed for us to see the light.
The element of Quintessence has all of the features of the other elements. It is very logical and intelligent as with air yet as simple and grounded as the earth element. It is very emotional and soft as water yet powerful and scorching as fire. It is highly represented in Masonry but rarely, if ever, talked about. It is the ‘light’ we are constantly looking for.
The study of the aforementioned and our craft is not exclusive to blue lodge and can be explored via many avenues. Much literature has been written about the subjects and can be interpreted in an endless amount of ways. Also, much of what we learn is obtained from within through meditation and self-study. There are many Masonic appendant or concordant bodies that subscribe to these schools of thought as well as non-Masonic bodies that are considered more “fringe Masonry” but have just as much value as actual Masonic institutes. Incorporating the elements, senses and sciences into our daily lives can further shape our ashlars into that perfect stone we are striving to have.
[ii] Cicero, Chic (2003) The Essential Golden Dawn Ch. 4, pg 117
Brother J. Clint Lewey lives in the greater Rochester, NY area and is a fourth generation Freemason. On the 17th of March, 2015 he was raised to the Sublime Degree of Master Mason at Edmond Lodge #37 in Edmond, OK. Brother Clint is currently a member of Fairport-Flower City Lodge #476, Hiram Royal Arch Chapter #62 and SRICF New York College-Buffalo. He is allowed to divide his working hours serving Veterans in crisis at the Canandaigua, NY VAMC as well as serving his country in the military as a reservist. Bro. Lewey is happily married with two younger children.