What is Freemasonry?

A peculiar system of morality veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols.

This question and answer will be familiar to all Brethren as one of the questions put to a candidate seeking to be passed to the Second Degree, as proof of his proficiency in the tenets of the First Degree.

The answer to this question confirms that the use of allegory and symbols are fundamental to the process of delivering the key messages of our ceremonies.

Joseph Fort Newton in his book entitled “The Builders” states that “It is the soul of symbolism that every emblem expresses a reality too great for words. Masonry is mystical just as music is mystical, like  poetry, and love and faith and prayer, and all else that makes it worth our time to live: but its mysticism is sweet, sane and natural; far from fantastic, and in no wise eerie, unreal or unbalanced.” Thus Joseph Fort Newton clearly recognised that in order to deliver the full power of the messages and underlying meaning of our ceremonies, it is necessary to harness the power of symbols.

By way of analogy, we are all familiar with the idea that symbols used in mathematics succinctly convey what words could only ever hope to do inadequately.

Indeed, Albert Einstein described mathematics as “a spiritual tool to transform mankind; mathematical symbols enable an adept to understand and share deep truths which often cannot be put clearly in to words.” Brethren, just reflect for a moment on the universal significance of the seemingly innocuous equation “E = mc2

The development of Speculative Freemasonry, from its operative stonemason’s origins, provided a ready-made wealth of symbolism. Our ancient brethren lived in times when illiteracy was widespread. This is not to imply that they were stupid, but the reality was, that simple working people, taking care of their families, had no time for education, because they had to work from an early age, usually from dawn to dusk, six days a week. This, coupled with a lack of books, meant that the most effective way of passing on knowledge was via symbols and word of mouth.

The widespread use of stained glass in the medieval churches which our forbears attended is another manifestation of the power of symbolism to deliver religious and worldlier messages to the common people.

The stories contained in our ceremonies are full of symbolism that we refer to as allegories. These are stories or fables in which the characters are themselves symbols. Thus an allegory can be regarded as a narrative description of a subject, under the guise of another, which is suggestively similar, or even more interestingly, a narrative picture intended to be understood symbolically. A prime example of the use of allegory is contained in our Third Degree Ceremony of Raising, where the key character is Hiram Abif, whose unshaken fidelity to the sacred trust reposed in him, is a symbol or metaphor for the merits of staying true to that which you have promised to do. However, the character, Hiram Abif is nowhere mentioned in the Bible, and cannot therefore be regarded as a factual entity.  Perhaps the most famous allegorical text is John Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress, in which the adventures of Christian on his journey to the Celestial City are an allegory of the trials and tribulations of a believer throughout the course of his life.

In Freemasonry, the three Craft Degree Ceremonies are allegorical, in that they can be seen as representing the course of human existence.

The First Degree Ceremony deals with a Mason’s birth and his awakening to knowledge and experience of life.

The Second Degree deals with a Mason’s emerging maturity and the application of his knowledge and experience of life to the hidden mysteries of nature and science.

In addition to the merits of staying true to one’s promises, the Third Degree Ceremony deals with training the spirit to overcome death and the Traditional History, in this Degree, deals with the triumph of good over evil.

By encapsulating our ceremonies in an allegorical form, a Brother’s interest is held and he is encouraged to study and learn for himself. Thus, while we are told that our ceremonies are veiled in allegory, this veiling is not to provide a cloak of secrecy which keeps a candidate in the dark, but is intended to stimulate him to seek Masonic light for himself. When we find the truth for ourselves, such findings remain as a cherished and permanent possession.

Bro. Ray Hollins, in his paper entitled “Veiled in Allegory and Illustrated by Symbols”, notes that symbols are capable of having more than one meaning. For example, the Square stands for morality, and is also the key symbol associated with the Master of a lodge. Similarly, in the First Degree Ceremony, darkness symbolises ignorance, whereas in the Third Degree, darkness is associated with death.

Bro. Harry Carr of Quator Coronati Lodge, suggests that every Mason is entitled to work out his own meanings for the symbolism which he encounters and, when he has done this to his own satisfaction, that interpretation is valid for him personally.

Bro. Carr also notes that it takes practice to learn how to recognise and appreciate the full power of symbols and allegory, and only through sincere, intelligent and sustained effort, can the full rewards be reaped, thus such advancement in Masonic knowledge is to be treasured.

Bro. Ray Hollins describes man as having a triple nature which consists of the Body which is used to sense the physical world around him. Secondly, the mind, by which man reasons and understands, and thirdly, the soul or spirit, or, in more prosaic terms ,the imagination, which man can use to comprehend language which the brain does not fully understand in the  context of everyday life.

Thus a symbol can be regarded as representing a word of that language that the brain does not readily understand in conventional terms, and that to translate its meaning in to words would detract from its meaning. Such symbols appeal to the spirit, and the pursuit of such concepts can be regarded as a pursuit of the more spiritual aspects of our Masonic art.

The Masonic philosopher, Bro W L Wilmshurst, suggests that a Masonic Lodge is, itself, a symbol, in that a Lodge Meeting represents the soul within, and the awareness of this meaning reinforces the concept of the development of a group consciousness within the lodge room, which results from the general desire of the Brethren to understand and enhance the practice of our Masonic art and philosophy, to the utmost of their abilities.

Bro. Wilmshurst goes on to describe a Masonic Lodge as a model of that intermediate psychological field of the Soul, which lies between the spirit above and the material world below us.

The soul can direct its energies to either of these poles; becoming illuminated or darkened, spiritualised or sensualised, according to its dominant tendencies.

He goes on to suggest that the strength and worth of a lodge does not depend on the number of members and the size of the attendance at its popular functions, but upon the quality and intensity of the corporate [Masonic] life of its members, and upon their united and consistent cooperation towards a common ideal, and upon their ability to form a group mind, or group consciousness of the purpose and worth of their Masonic activities.

Brethren may recall that in my previous paper concerning our Daily Masonic Advancement, I suggested that one way to develop this group consciousness was to pause for thought, and allow time for reflection, prior to the beginning and after the end of our ceremonies. I owe this idea to the teachings of Bro. Wilmshurst and the traditions of the Lodge of the Living Stones.

In symbolic terms, Bro. Wilmshurst describes:

The Worshipful Master of a lodge as representing the Spirit

The Senior Warden as representing the Mind

The Junior Warden as representing the Outer Personality

The Senior Deacon as representing the link between the Spirit and the Mind

The Junior Deacon as representing the link between the Mind and the Outer Personality

The Inner Guard as representing and guarding the Inner Sense of the Lodge

And, finally, the Tyler or Outer Guard as representing and guarding the Outer Sense of the Lodge.

I mentioned in another recent paper, concerning the Second Degree Ceremony and Tracing Board, that the word “shibboleth” denoted “plenty”, and was depicted on the tracing board by an ear of corn near to a fall of water. You may recall, that I told you the symbolic meaning of this depiction was that the systematic farming of corn, assisted by well irrigated soil from the fall or flow of water, produced an economic surplus, which created sufficient wealth to enable part of the population to devote their attention to intellectual pursuits, and the creation of buildings and other infrastructure. I pointed out that these activities should not be taken for granted, because they relied on the efforts of others to produce the basic sustenance of life.

My reason for mentioning this is to emphasise the fact that each of our three Tracing Boards is packed with similarly significant symbolism, leading to a deeper understanding of the meaning of our ceremonies.

As noted in my recent paper on Daily Masonic Advancement, I would commend every Brother to study these Tracing Boards as part of their pursuit of a daily advancement in their Masonic knowledge.

By way of conclusion and as a further illustration of the use of symbolism, I would like to briefly explain the significance of two of the “props” which are used in our First Degree ceremony, namely the Hoodwink and the Slipper.

The Hoodwink

Contrary to the suggestion put forward by some Masonic commentators, the Hoodwink is not intended as a means of preventing the Initiate from seeing the Lodge room and the Brethren, prior to undertaking his Obligation. The interior of a Lodge room is seen by many non- Masons, including non-Masonic visitors, such as our Ladies, as part of a guided tour. Similarly, the Initiate will certainly have met the Past Masters of the Lodge at his formal interview, if not all the Brethren at a social function.

Historically, many rituals associated with sects such as the Druids, have required that the initiate’s eye does not see until his mind has begun to conceive the mysteries of the order.

It was therefore commonplace for initiates or aspirants to membership to be shrouded in darkness as a preparatory step to the reception of the full light of knowledge.

In some ancient religions and philosophies, darkness is associated with sin and wrong doing.

In Freemasonry, there is no thought in any of the degrees that the candidate is evil, or carries out evil deeds.

The requirement to be hoodwinked in the First Degree ceremony is to emphasise ignorance, now, as a prelude for knowledge to come.

This is particularly relevant to our First Degree Ceremony, where the Candidate is asked “What is the predominant wish of your heart?” The answer to which is “Light”.


Candidates are slipshod in our craft ceremonies, and the origin of this practice may be explained as follows:

The dictionary definition of the word slipshod concerns someone or something displaying carelessness, sloppy or slovenly behaviour. However there is no such intention in Freemasonry

From ancient times, it was customary in many countries to remove one’s shoes before stepping on to holy ground, as a sign of respect. Thus Muslims remove their shoes before entering a mosque.

In the Volume of the Sacred Law, when Moses saw the burning bush, the Angel of the Lord said “put off thy shoes from thy feet for the space whereon thou standest is Holy Ground.”

Secondly, the removal of a shoe is an ancient and accepted method of entering into a solemn and legal agreement.

The Right Worshipful Bro. James Kirk- White, in his address entitled “Ruth and the Entered Apprentice Degree”, notes that there is also a reference in the Volume of the Sacred Law in the Book of Ruth Chapter 4 Verse 7 “now this was the manner in former times in Israel concerning redeeming and concerning changing, for to confirm all things, a man plucked off his shoe and gave it to his neighbour, and that was a testimony in Israel.”

This could well be the origin of the custom in Operative Mason’s lodges of requiring a newly Indentured Apprentice to hand over his left shoe to confirm his Obligation.

Thus, when a candidate enters Freemasonry neither fully clothed nor shod, this can be seen as a confirmation of his willingness to take a solemn obligation, and is also a sign of fidelity.

A presentation by W Bro. Alastair Scales made to the Brethren of the Lodge of Happiness during their November 2012 Lodge meeting.

In the course of preparing this paper, I have utilised the following sources of information:

“Turning the Hiram Key” by Robert Lomas

The Web of Hiram Bradford University

“Veiled in Allegory and Illustrated by Symbols” a   Paper by Bro. Ray Hollins

The Builders by Joseph Fort Newton

“Ruth and the Entered Apprentice Degree” a paper by RW Bro. James Kirk- White