Your first entry into a Masonic Lodge is a moment filled with mystery and questions. The Senior Deacon and Stewards have prepared you by dressing you in strange clothing and blindfolding you. You find yourself wearing, perhaps in some form of ominous symbolism, a rope around your neck. You enter the Lodge in darkness and from that very moment, though you are blind, some things immediately begin to come to light. The Senior Deacon explains why you are greeted in a certain way; then you begin a journey around the Lodge where more will be revealed. Some of what you hear will become immediately clear. You will hear some things you don't retain just because you are getting too much information all at once, and some things will take a lifetime to understand. But no one says anything about that rope. Why is it there? What is it for?
Finally, after your obligation, you hear the Worshipful Master order the deacons to remove the rope. He calls it a "cable-tow." It is the first time you have heard that terminology. Its function, you gather, has been to bind you symbolically to the Lodge, but you learn your obligation now performs that function. Likewise, in the second and third degrees, there is a rope… a cable-tow. First, around your arm, then around your waist, removed as you are bound to the Lodge and, in fact, as the Lodge Brothers are bound to you, by additional ties.
Much has been said about the symbolism of the cable-tow. Its functionality, or the fact it alludes to binding and leading the candidate, is fairly straightforward. Other aspects of its significance remain subject to opinion and speculation. Some have compared it to an infant's umbilical cord, especially in the First Degree before you become a Brother, inasmuch as it symbolizes a lifeline between the candidate – a Masonic infant – and the Lodge. Extending this analogy, although the physical cord is cut between the infant and his mother the spiritual bond between the two remains. In the same manner, when the cable-tow is removed, the spiritual bond between the Lodge and new Brother also remains.
It is likely its derivation comes from the German word of similar pronunciation, Kabeltau, which means "cable rope," and that's what it was called in many early versions of the ritual.
We hear much about the length of one's cable-tow and much symbolism is applied to that terminology. Those same old rituals often defined that length as three miles, possibly representing the distance from the Lodge within which a Brother was required to attend meetings. Other commentaries, I might add, set that length anywhere from 15 inches to 15 miles. Clearly, though, its symbolism alludes to being able to perform or accomplish our duties if within the length of our cable-tow – that is, the reasonable scope of our abilities.
It has been said to signify the initiate's belief in God and his devotion to him. In this context it represents the candidate being chained or tied to God, indicating his dependence upon the Deity, with the cable-tow itself providing a sort of leash leading the uninitiated, unknowing candidate from darkness to light – that is, from ignorance to knowledge of all powerful God Almighty.
I have been told some European lodges only use the cable-tow in the Entered Apprentice degree. That makes sense if we view the cable-tow's purpose as binding the candidate to the Lodge until he himself does so by taking his obligation. But here in the US we use it in all three degrees. The difference is that in the 1st degree, it has a physical purpose – to bind the candidate, to lead the candidate, almost in a forceful manner. In the second and third degrees it is, in Carl Claudy's words, a guide, "an aid,,, a strengthening for the Masonic life to come."
The cable-tow binds us, and leads us, and guides us; and think about this… along with the scope of our abilities, its length ever-increases as we continue through our Masonic journey.