The Elements: What Are Their Significance for Freemasonry? [Part 2]

The Elements: What Are Their Significance for Freemasonry? [Part 2]

In our previous discussion in Part 1, we began an examination of the elements as symbols, and we will continue with that here.

We covered the first two elements, Earth and Water, and discussed their essential qualities, and symbolic correlates in mind or consciousness. As we continue with Air and Fire, the reader will do well to recall the importance of structure and fluidity, as well as inertia and change. 



The element Air is a step up in dynamic quality from Water, yet not quite like Fire. In many ways, Air is different and yet not so different from Water. Like Water, it rises when heated, and falls when cooled. Like Water, it flows around the globe, in the form of wind. Yet, unlike Water it has a quality of expansiveness, there is more outward pressure, and less downward pressure, as it doesn’t fall or flow in a liquid form. One critical aspect of Air in our own experience is that it is the most immediately necessary element to our biology, we can go much longer without food (Earth) or drink (Water), than we can without Air. Air is an essential ingredient of Fire, and without it, Fire will immediatelyelement air die. Air has a spacious quality to it, it offers very little resistance to movement, and anything light enough can actually float or fly, which is essentially like swimming in the ocean of Air.

So, what is Air within us? As with the previous elements, clues lay in our direct experience of it. When we are in the Air, we can see clearly the furthest, like the eagle flying high above, yet able to see the smallest mouse. We refer to the most intellectual human endeavors as the “Ivory Tower,” which is of course high above and far removed from the rest of human life, able to see it all through the Air. The same could be said of mountains, which are also where saints and great teachers are often said to be found, those who are wise and “see” the true perspective of life. Air also resonates with the concept of freedom, precisely because of the lack of obstruction, and freedom is often embodied symbolically as flying – like a bird. Therefore, Air is freer and less inert than the previous three elements, and corresponds to aspects of our mind and experience which are most free and clear. Part of what Air represents is pure mind, or intellect, it is the mental space within which clear images, thoughts, and conceptual models can be formed. 


In many ways, the element Fire seems to be separate from the other three elements. Rather than being a something, a substance, fire is more of a process, a change. Fire transforms one thing into another, and also separates one thing from another. The simplest example is the separation of the gases trapped within a log from the inert earth that is left over in the form of ashes, after the burning of that log. Additionally, it involves radiation, the freeing of not just gas, but also energy which was latent within the element firesubstance that burned, giving off both light and heat. Thus, in a way it can be viewed as a transformation of that which is bound into that which is free, of matter into energy.

We can say that the essential qualities of fire are dynamism, change, transformation, and purification. In a sense, although it appears separate, fire is also the source of all other elements, for it is only by the fire of the sun that all things have motion and existence. Without Fire, all would be motionless darkness.

For these reasons, it can also be difficult to pin down the exact symbolic meaning of Fire within us, although it clearly seems significant. Certainly, Fire dwells within us, in the form of energy produced by the slow chemical “fire” of the gut, and without the Fires of our various biochemical processes, including neural Firing, we would die even more quickly than we would without Air. In terms of our consciousness, represented by light, since Fire emits light, perhaps Fire represents that which creates or liberates consciousness from matter?

In myth, Fire is featured as the gift which Prometheus stole from the Gods to give to man, which allowed humanity to have knowledge and civilization. Certainly, the discovery of Fire and how to use it is often regarded as the beginning of true Human existence, and also technology. Even those Human cultures which we regard as most primitive still possess and utilize Fire. In terms of the gradient from inertia to dynamism, certainly Fire is at the farthest dynamic end of the spectrum; representing a release of energy, it is even more “free” than Air. Fire, in a way, represents pure change, pure dynamism.

The Elements in Perspective

What is this universe? One way to answer is to say that it consists of these elements, but what does that really tell us? Another compatible perspective is the one given in the perennial philosophy, the philosophy of the Vedas and the Idealists, that this reality is most fundamentally consciousness, or mind. This is a concept being re-visited by many modern philosophers as panpsychism, due to various shortcomings in our attempts to explain the universe purely in materialistic terms. This is also the perspective generallypanpsychism four elements accepted within the occult traditions, and in fact the wisdom traditions of most cultures, if you dig deeply enough. That all is ultimately mind is also described in the Principle of Mentalism, from the Kybalion.

If all of the universe contains elements of mind or consciousness, then perhaps the dichotomy between viewing the elements symbolically vs. literally is unnecessary. If all is mind, which is tantamount to saying that all is a dream, perhaps these are simply different iterations of the same essential dynamic or pattern, at different levels of the dream; as above, so below; as within, so without. If the different elements are different forms of the same fundamental mind-stuff, whatever that fundamental substance might be. It seems to me that these elements represent a process which begins being bound by inertia, of which Earth would be the extreme, being gradually subjected to change, until it eventually becomes more and more free, of which Fire is the extreme.

This whole process could be viewed as a transmutation from matter into energy or light, just as the Fire is matter being transformed, to light the darkness. Of course, as without, so within, and some version of this same process is going on within all of us. The most matter-bound aspects of us are gradually being acted upon and transformed by the forces of change, whether from within, or from without. Every experience is to some greater or lesser degree a catalyst within this process, and causes “movement upon the waters of the deep”. Eventually, this process culminates in the ignition of Fire within us, of the inner Light.

alchemy four elementsOur pains and our pleasures, our highs and our lows ultimately give birth to the dawn of true Awareness, what some might call Gnosis. Why? Because just as the light which is emitted by Fire was previously trapped within the matter of the fuel, that Divine Spark has always been latent within us, watching, waiting for its moment to arise. 

Now, we come full circle to Freemasonry, and the significance of the elements symbolically to the Craft. What are we doing as masons, if not kindling, stoking, and maintaining a light in the darkness – a Fire in the denseness and confusion of material existence? Every element plays its part, and exists within all of us; the culmination of the interplay of those elements, when utilized skillfully, is the igniting of that Promethean Light, within the self and within the world. What nobler endeavor could one set oneself to, than that of bringing light to the darkness within oneself, and within all of humanity?

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.