“There is nothing so indestructible as a symbol, but nothing is capable of so many interpretations.” – Count Goblet d’Alviella
What does a symbol have to do with you or me? Well, it’s possible that it doesn’t have anything to do with us. On the other hand, the meaning behind a symbol just might be pretty significant. To know what a symbol means (or at least what we think they means) is one of the important speculative studies in Freemasonry. The teachings of the craft are said to be “illustrated by symbols.”
What are symbols? The definition of a symbol is something that represents something else through resemblance or association. As the well-known saying goes, a picture tells a thousand words! There are everyday symbols and then there are the more universal and esoteric symbols which we are mainly concerned with as Freemasons.
Esoteric symbols are those with a hidden meaning. They have been used throughout time in the great spiritual traditions to guide seekers after truth. Esoteric symbols both conceal and reveal the truth.
For example, I consider myself to be a seeker of truth. The other day, I chanced upon the following passage about the esoteric symbol of the sun. It set me thinking on a number of different levels:
“The blazing star, or glory in the center, refers us to the sun, which enlightens the earth with its refulgent rays, dispensing its blessings to mankind at large and giving light and life to all things here below.” – Masonic Lectures
What are we to make of this statement? Why would the blazing star, usually depicted as a five-pointed star, be a symbol of a sun, too? And if it is, what is different about this sun?
While the answers to these questions remain a mystery, some of us may know that the blazing star makes its appearance in several of the masonic degrees, and the pieces to the puzzle reveal more of the secrets at each stage.
How, then, do you study a symbol? How do you know if what you are interpreting is truth?
A Symbol: Exoteric, Conceptual, and Esoteric
I have found with symbols, it’s possible to go overboard with analysis. Especially as Freemasons, we love to “speculate.” We open the whole thing for scrutiny and dissect every little piece to see where it leads. We use lots of words while trying to nail things down: “This means this” and “that means that.”
Unfortunately, in my opinion, when we over-analyze, especially early on, we may unintentionally rob the symbol of its power. In the end, we may have analyzed it to death.
The good news.
The process of symbolic analysis, while wrought with paradox, is actually doing something beneficial to the mind. The best summary of this idea I found in a theosophical article of the Beacon Magazine (1939) written by Alice Bailey. The article details how the mind is actually being trained when we study symbolism.
Bailey gives three ways that a mind can analyze any symbol.
- Exoterically: This concerns the concrete or objective appearance, its form and structure.
- Conceptually: This concerns the concept or idea which the sign or symbol embodies.
- Esoterically: This concerns the energy or feeling that you register from the symbol.
Studying a symbol in three ways, she says, is activating the mental mechanism on all three levels: concrete mind (exoteric), higher mind or reasoning (conceptual) and the intuitional mind (esoteric). The goal is to arrive at a synthetic concept.
Why does the process matter? Bailey says that practical work with symbols over time serves to bring a student closer to truth. It lifts an individual out of their emotions; it develops clarity of perception; it energizes the mental life; it shifts the focus and attention and consciousness out of the world of illusion into the world of ideas. How then could Freemasons apply this technique?
Let’s take an example.
Freemasonry: The Point within a Circle
The sun is often symbolized by a symbol called the circumpunct. For those of you who’ve read the novel by Dan Brown called The Lost Symbol, you probably are familiar with what a circumpunct is. For those who aren’t familiar, it’s simply a point within a circle.
There are hundreds of things the circumpunct can represent, anywhere from the “Eye of God” to the “Google Chrome” icon that I use to launch my search engine. Using the Bailey technique, the circumpunct could be studied and reflected upon by an inquiring student and hopefully, after a little while, reveal a synthetic understanding of what it means.
Freemasons for centuries have taken a stab at analyzing the circumpunct.
W.L. Wilmshurst, for example, says this:
“As the sun is the centre and life-giver of our solar system and controls and feeds with life the planets circling round it, so at the secret centre of individual human life exists a vital, immortal principle, the spirit and the spiritual will of man. This is the faculty, by using which (when we have found it) we can never err.”
In other words, Wilmshurst (and many other masonic scholars) see the point within a circle to be where we, as Freemasons, stand. It is the point from which we cannot err. The point is timeless, eternal, subjective, immeasurable, invisible, absolute. For these reasons, it is often attributed to Deity and the Sun.
As Freemasons, the study of symbols helps us to make sense of ourselves in relation to the universe. Planetary symbols such as the sun, moon, stars, and blazing stars inspire the contemplative mind to soar aloft and read the wisdom, strength and beauty of the Great Creator in the heavens. They challenge us to dig deeper on matters of eternal significance.
Sun or blazing star? I’ve learned there seems to be a certain humility in recognizing that we may never fully understand a symbol in a complete way, one that allows us to cross it off the list and totally explain its meaning.
How do you know if what you interpret in symbols is true? Perhaps the better question might be:
Where is it true?
If I may,
“Truth is within ourselves. It takes no rise
From outward things, whate’er you may believe.
There is an inmost centre in ourselves,
Where truth abides in fullness…
– Robert Browning
Note: The last image is an engraving by Alexander Slade dated 1754, titled “A Free Mason Form’d Out of the Material of his Lodge.” For further study, see the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library.