The Sacred Tetractys: Why do Freemasons connect the dots?

The Sacred Tetractys: Why do Freemasons connect the dots?

If Pythagoras found himself transported to the modern world, he would have much to learn about technology, science, and human thought. But is there something Pythagoras can still teach us today in his symbol of the tetractys? What do the dots reveal? How is it significant to Freemasonry?

To start with, tetractys refers to a symbol of the Pythagoreans which consists of four rows of dots containing one, two, three, and four dots respectively which form an equilateral triangle. Many have found the tetractys full of sublime meaning.

When did the tetractys first come about? To answer this question may be more difficult. Very little is known about the real Pythagoras, or rather too much is “known” about him, but most of it is surely mistaken. The biographical trail is scattered with contradictions. It combines the sublime, the absurd, the inconceivable, and the just plain weird.

The teachings are elusive because he never wrote anything down. His treatises are only known to us through other Greek researchers. Consequently, it is up to present-day scholars (and there are many) to sift through these works in order to find a common thread that can be genuinely ascribed to Pythagoras. Jean Leblond I - 1605-1666

We do know that Pythagoras was born in Samos in the sixth century B.C.E. Pythagoras was both a mystic and a scientist, although some scholars tend to praise his mathematical prowess while looking away with embarrassment at his perceived “mysticism.” For Pythagoreans, they were one and the same.

The Science of Number was the cornerstone of the Pythagoreans. It describes, if not yet everything, at least something very important about physical reality, namely the sizes and shapes of the objects that inhabit it.

The Pythagoreans influenced the world by the simple expression:

“All is number.” – Pythagoras

What Did Pythagoras mean by this famous motto “All is Number?”

Is it possible to listen to this message today afresh, with Pythagorean ears? What teaching does the tetractys offer a Freemason?

The Tetractys: A Masonic Lecture by William Preston (1772)

FINAL Tetractys PrestonFreemasons in earlier times thought highly of Pythagorean philosophy. Brother Manly Palmer Hall, a 33° Mason dedicated an entire chapter in his work “The Secret Teachings of all Ages” to the both mystical and philosophical qualities of Pythagorean numbers.

Hall wrote:

“The ten dots, or Tetractys of Pythagoras, was a symbol of the greatest importance, for to the discerning mind it revealed the mystery of universal nature.”

Hall states that if one examines the tetractys symbolically a wealth of otherwise hidden wisdom begins to reveal itself.

The Prestonian Lectures (1772) give us further insight into some of the possible masonic thinking on the tetractys in the 1800’s.  It was the subject in one of the series of lectures written by Brother William Preston for instruction and education of the Lodge members.

An excerpt of the Lecture (1772) goes as follows:

“The Pythagorean philosophers and their ancestors considered a Tetractys or No. 4:

  • 1st as containing the decad;
  • 2nd as completing an entire and perfect triangle;
  • 3rd as comprising the 4 great principles of arithmetic and geometry;
  • 4th as representing in its several points the 4 elements of Air, Fire, Water and Earth, and collectively the whole system of the universe;
  • Lastly as separately typifying the 4 external principles of existence, generation, emanation, creation and preservation, thence collectively denoting the Great Architect of the Universe Wherefore to swear by the Tetractys was their most sacred and inviolate oath.”

In other words, it is taught to Freemasons that a four-fold pattern permeates the natural world, examples of which are the point, line, surface and solid and the four elements earth, water, air and fire. Musically they represent the perfect consonants: the unison, the octave, the fifth and the fourth.

The Divine Creator in Freemasonry is sometimes referred to as The Great “Architect” or Grand “Geometrician” always building the universe through the creative tools of the geometer. Tetractys itself can be interpreted as a divine blueprint of creation. Grand Geometrician

Some say that Pythagoras and his successors had two ways of teaching, one for the profane, and one for the initiated. The first was clear and unveiled, the second was symbolic and enigmatic. In order to achieve mastery of this universe, a person has to discover the veiled meaning of numbers hidden in all things.

I have often wondered if we could hypothetically peer into the mind of the Grand Geometrician, and the veil was lifted, what design would we see?

The Grand Design

Perhaps we would see how the Master Builder has ordered all things by measure and number and weight. Throughout the structure of the universe the properties of number are manifested. Geometry is fundamental to the work of the masonic builders. It is engaged with the first configurations of the Plan upon which the form is erected and the idea materialized.

Examining numbers symbolically, they represent more than quantities; they also have qualities. Brother H. P. Blavatsky in the “Secret Doctrine” tells us the numbers are entities. They are mysterious. They are essential to all forms. They are to be found in the realm of essential consciousness. They are clues to our evolution.

Blavatsky emphasizes that the study of numbers is not only a way of understanding nature, but it is also a means of turning the mind away from the physical world which Pythagoras held to be transitory and unreal, leading to the contemplation of the “real.”

Personally, I find that the masonic teachings in all their many symbolic forms a good way to study numbers. The reason I continually come back to Pythagorean philosophy is the tradition of music theory. In music, the Divine patterns of the Grand Geometrician are expressed in musical ratios. Harmony through sound, therefore, can be applied to all phenomena of nature, even going so far as to demonstrate the harmonic relationship of the planets, constellations, elements and everything, really. The reason being that all life vibrates, like the string. Tetractys Portal

Why do Freemasons connect the dots? Like many symbols, the tetractys can lead a craftsman down a rabbit hole of self-discovery. By rabbit hole, I mean a portal into a mysterious and infinite wonderland of formulas filled with beauty, confusion and intrigue – a place to encounter all sorts of adventures with concepts beyond our wildest dreams that keeps us coming back for more.

“The more deeply we study the processes of nature the greater in every direction becomes our admiration for the wonderful work of Him who made it all.”

– C.W. Leadbeader


Note: The full Prestonian Lecture on the Tetractys and Masonic Geometry can be referenced in Ars Quatuor Coronatorum, Volume 83.

Censing in Freemasonry: Practical or Symbolic?

Censing in Freemasonry: Practical or Symbolic?

The act of censing has been said to create a pleasing and purified ritual space.  There is nothing quite as inspiring as walking in to a sacred place and being hit by the smell of lovely incense, which immediately transports us into a more reverent state of mind.  What are the reasons censing is important, or is it?

The Rite of Censing came before, most, if not all, the current concepts of religion. It is said to have originated from a distant past when men worshiped the sun and other fiery forces of nature. Most researchers agree that there is a connecting link between the use of incense in the ancient mysteries of the past, and the speculative Freemasonry of the present day, for those lodges who use incense. From what I have read, this connection can be fairly well traced by archaeologists.  However, there is less agreement on why it is important.

Is censing and the use of incense in ritual more practical or symbolic today?

I recently read an interesting book called “A history of the use of incense in divine worship” (1909) by Cuthbert Atchley.   It contains a rather unique and objective history of censing within ritual, both pre-Christian and Christian. I especially enjoyed the section explaining various Egyptian ceremonials.  However, I was somewhat disappointed when I finally arrived at the end of the book to hear researcher Atchley’s conclusions:

“The ultimate basis of all use of incense in the Church is its pleasant odour; that is, it is fumigatory.  The more superficial reasons are what are called ceremonial.”

In other words, he is saying that the main use of censing and incense is for “deodorant” purposes, to mask awful smells and the stink of decaying bodies, and so on. He says that any connection to ceremonial purposes is “superficial.” While I might be somewhat forgiving because the book was written over a century ago, the thinking underlying still seems flawed, in my mind at least.

If something did have a practical origin at some point in time, does that mean that any symbolic value is of no account? Following from that, should it be done away withNeff_Angel accordingly?  It seems to me that this fails to think deeply enough about the nature and function of ritual and ceremony – no matter what century we are talking about.

Practical Origins

It is true that many of the early uses of incense were practical and operative. For example, the fragrance obscured odors, and was aesthetically pleasing. There existed a mystical healing art hidden surrounding the use of certain incenses. Ancient Egyptians (3000 BC) practiced medicine with aromatic plants and even went so far as to establish astrological relationships for them.  There are many pictures that can be seen where a Pharaoh is depicted with a censer casting the incense. Each civilization, throughout the ages have all added their own contribution to this handed down practical knowledge. 

Over time, the burning of incense formed a link to spirituality in a speculative sense when it was offered to the gods alongside sacrifices and prayer. Incense is mentioned frequently in the Hebrew Scriptures.

The psalmist expresses the symbolism of incense and prayer:

“Let my prayer rise like incense before you; the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.” (Psalm 141:1)

What the ancients knew intuitively, science has verified today.  Of all of the five senses, the sense of smell is most strongly connected to the areas of the brain that process memory.  Even the smallest hint of a fragrance that you had previously associated with a certain place can bring you back to there in moments.  Incense, then, is a way to tap the mind quickly and with a great deal of exactitude.  Certain combinations of aromas can quickly adjust not only the atmosphere of the room but the atmosphere of the emotions Temple Censingand mind. Knowing all this, how, then, is censing significant in Freemasonry?

A Symbolic Perspective from C.W. Leadbeater

Freemason Charles W. Leadbeater placed a great deal of importance on the ceremonial value of censing in his book “The Hidden Life in Freemasonry.” He said that the entire process of censing in a Masonic Lodge is meant to prepare and purify. It provides an atmosphere of solemnity and due introspection. He explains that the ceremony of censing, being a vortical movement, is connected with the way in which the Great Architect has constructed the universe.

Leadbeater writes:

“In the movements made and in the plan of the Lodge were enshrined some of the great principles on which that universe had been built.”

He thought the censing ritual to be significant giving four main reasons:

  1. Raises the vibration of the lodge.
  2. Unifies the lodge members in thought.
  3. Bridges the inner worlds with the outer.
  4. Lifts and aids the candidate.Buddha censing

Leadbeater’s premise is that the basis of any ritual is intent. The intentional thoughts of the members set the purpose and vision for the ritual. The lodge work concerns lifting and raising humanity from the human to the spiritual kingdom. The Craft performed is therefore applied to the mastery of the forces of one’s own nature, whereby “that which is below” may become truly and accurately aligned with “that which is above.”

He says:

“The time has come when men are beginning to see that life is full of invisible influences, whose value can be recognized by sensitive people. The effect of incense is an instance of this class of phenomena… each of which vibrates at its own rate and has its own value.”

Any of us who has experienced censing may have a different opinion of what it means. Practical or symbolic? Perhaps both?  For myself, censing kindles a wonderment at the eternal mystery of an all-knowing Deity, whom we have not seen and cannot yet see clearly. Our human vision is not suited to that. The smoke obscures the air briefly. It is salutary for us to be reminded every now and again that our concept of the Most High is always incomplete, inadequate; that he is other, transcendent, and holy.