The Symbolism of the Cube: Why is it both Qabalistic and Masonic?

The Symbolism of the Cube: Why is it both Qabalistic and Masonic?

Symbols can often have double or multiple interpretations, ranging from the obvious exoteric meanings to the more esoteric ideas understood by a few. Somewhere in the middle of these two extremes can be found the hidden knowledge.  Symbols conceal as much, or more, than they reveal.

Where does the masonic cube fall on this continuum? How did the hidden knowledge of the mystical qabalah influence its use in Freemasonry?

To start with, what is Qabalah? It’s difficult to define with a phrase. Even after a few decades of study I don’t think I can come up with a definition. How can you describe the indescribable?

Perhaps one could say the Qabalah is a mystical symbolic system of looking at the microcosm and macrocosm from the standpoint of the Creator. For a qabalist, there is nothing in life that is not interesting; the speck of dust on the ground, the glowing nebulas in the heavens, and the tiny living cell — all these have their message and tell a story of the Creator.

Can masons relate to this? Of course. That is why most of the early 18th century English ritualists were acquainted with the qabalistic teachings. Since many of them studied the qabalah while the masonic rituals were being written, it was likely a source for many of the signs, symbols and allegories of Freemasonry. Brother Albert Pike 33° indexed over seventy entries to the subject of qabalah in his book Morals and Dogmacabala21

The book indicates that the more you study the hidden meanings (or occult), it becomes clearer and clearer that everywhere in the universe, at every conceivable point in space, there is a Consciousness, which expresses through what is visible and invisible.

Pike tells us that:

“Qabalah is the key of the occult sciences.”

The qabalists used models such as the Tree of Life, The 32 Paths of Wisdom and the Cube of Space to describe the plan and processes of creation. The cube is especially significant to the themes of freemasonry. How, so?

The Qabalist’s Cube of Formation

Perhaps a good place to start is the Book of Formation or Sefer Yetzirah. It is one of the oldest treatises on qabalistic philosophy that concerns itself with the Divine creative process. It describes how the Creator literally thought and spoke everything into existence, and continues to do so. The type of creation that it shows proceeds through manipulation of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

I am always in awe of the Sefer Yetzirah whose short verses can easily conceal its depth and complexity. The seeming simplicity is only a taste of its mystery. The premise is that everything in the universe is directed by intelligence. The scheme of life and activity that we call evolution is in accordance with a Plan made by a Master Mind or Great Architect. Final Cube Sepher Yetzirah

Everything is considered to be constructed of the Hebrew letters, or at least the forces they represent. The three Hebrew Mother letters (Aleph, Mem, Shin) corresponded to the three simple letters to form the name Jah (IHV).

From Verse II of The Sepher Yetzirah:

He looked above, and sealed the Height with (IHV)
He looked below and sealed the Depth with (IVH)
He looked forward, and sealed the east with (HIV)
He looked backward, and sealed the west with (HVI)
He looked to the right, and sealed the south with (VIH)
He looked to the left and sealed the north with (VHI)

Brother Paul Foster Case, scholar and Freemason, popularized the Sepher Yetzirah through his concept of the Cube of Space using the verses in Chapters IV and V to add the tarot keys and astrological correspondences. It alludes to defining the boundaries of our perceptions. Quite a remarkable diagram, indeed!

The Divine Mind conceives the archetypal form, and then it exists in the world of ideas. A long process of human evolution has to take place before the ideal can be manifested in form, and the soul in full consciousness can achieve the archetypal form.

Some might look at the diagram and say, “so what!” Why does it matter for a Freemasonblack-background-1468370534d5s_1 (1) work with these archetypal ideas, specifically the cube?

The Freemason’s Perfect Stone 

One possible reason is that archetypal themes underlie many of the masonic rituals. It is no coincidence that the form of a masonic lodge is a symbolic cube.

Freemason Albert G. Mackey writes:

“The lodge or collected assemblage of masons, is adopted as a symbol of the world. The solid contents of the earth below and the expanse of the heavens above give the outlines of the cube, and the whole created universe will be included within the symbolic limits of a mason’s lodge.”

In Revelation Chapter 21, the new Jerusalem is described as a perfect cube: “The plan of the city is perfectly square, its length the same as its breadth.” Also, the room known as the Holy of Holies in the Temple of Jerusalem was constructed in the shape of a cube. In the center of the room was the Ark of the Covenant that contained the Scroll of the Law.

The candidate in a masonic lodge symbolically represents one of the stones used in the construction of King Solomon’s Temple. The ritual portrays the shaping, testing and laying of that stone. Ultimately, the moral and spiritual preparation that he must undergo is to become a “living stone” in the heavenly temple.

Brother Manly Hall says:

“The perfect cube represents the personality that has had all the unevenness, roughness, and inequality polished away by experience. Such a stone is ready to become a block in the Everlasting House not built by hands but eternal in the heavens.”

If left to our own devices, our evolution and progress would be infinitesimal. But fortunately, we have teachers and perfected individuals of past ages to guide us to be perfect stones. Instead of using the working tools to build a physical structure out of stone and mortar, a speculative mason uses these same tools symbolically for spiritual, moral and intellectual development. finaltumblr_inline_nxatcedBV71riiuei_500_1 (2)

In the end, what does the symbol of the cube offer? I believe it is archetypal concepts that help all of us connect with something larger. Are we not all just sculptors? Writing our own books of creation? “Becoming” perfect cubes?

“A block of marble, deep within the quarry lies. Hidden within it lies likewise a form of beauty rare. The sculptor works, patterning true to that which lies revealed unto the inner sight. He patterns true and beauty comes to life.”

– Brother Alice Bailey

Freemasonry and Geometry: What are the Symbolic Meanings of the Most Basic Geometric Forms?

Freemasonry and Geometry: What are the Symbolic Meanings of the Most Basic Geometric Forms?

The more abstract a concept is, the more meaning that we can find in it. Is this because the meaning is all projected from within our minds, or because there is something objectively real there to be found? Plato or Pythagoras certainly believed the latter, as did Jung with his archetypes, and certainly the abstraction of mathematics has enabled much of our modern scientific grasp of the workings of the world around us.

In Freemasonry, we deal in symbols constantly. The Temple itself is a symbol, as are all the rituals which take place within, and there are layers of meaning which are only revealed as one progresses through the degrees. Geometry, in particular, is very significant to Freemasonry. This stems not only from the practical geometrical knowledge that was required to build grand cathedrals and other structures by operative masonry, but also from the Western wisdom teachings stemming from Pythagoras, Plato, and others, often referred to as Sacred Geometry, which sees a greater symbolic significance in geometrical forms.

While its common to find interpretations of more complex forms like the Flower of Life, or Metatron’s Cube, some of the geometric forms I find most fascinating are the simplest. This is because the simpler a form is, the more universal it is. In the simplest forms, I see the very foundations of all creation. So, what is the symbolic significance of a few of these simple geometric forms?

What follows are not in any sense “official” masonic interpretations of these forms, but merely one mason’s reflections on them. Books can and have been written to interpret these and other geometric forms, so here we will just be sampling a few.

The Point

pointThe point is the beginning of all forms, and all finite things. In that sense, it is the most abstract representation of finity, of a finite form. It does not even have definitions, specific boundaries, size, or dimensions, and therefore is the most abstract finite thing that can emerge from the formless infinity. It is also the beginning of duality, because in the point, you have one thing which is separated from everything else, the thing and its surrounding context, self and world. Yet, without a clear boundary, it still contains an element of infinity within it. The point can be viewed as infinitely small, or infinitely large. Without boundaries and other objects to be compared to, it has no reference.

In the point, we can see the fundamental essence of all finite entities, including each person: the Self, consciousness, existence.

The Line

HorizThe line is the first movement of the point, the first dimension of form. As such, it represents the most basic possible expression of time and motion. In the line, we can see the progression from moment to moment of what was first seen in the point. While the point is motionless and still, the line implies a trajectory, and a continuity. It is also the first impression of a space in which motion and change can take place. Yet, the line is only the simplest, most primal of forms with a boundary, and does not yet demonstrate a space in which objects may exist, although it begins to imply them.

In the line, we can see the fundamental essence of all motion and change, linearity, past progressing into future, and memory.

The Cross

sacred geometryThe cross is where two lines meet at a perfect right angle, and the simplest indication of the second dimension. In the cross, we can see the implied 2-dimensional plane stretching out in four directions. Also within the cross, we can see both the singular point, and the line doubled. Like every new form, it is the expansion of what came before it. The cross is where two intersect to become one; two planes, two people, two forces, and the point at which they meet is also their origin.

In the cross, we can see the fundamental essence of all duality, multiplicity, and complexity. It is the simplest possible mandala, and also represents the multiple dimensions of self, whether masculine/feminine, thinking/feeling, or ordered/chaotic, intersecting at the central point of consciousness or spirit.

The Circle

infinity circleThe circle is the perfect return of the trajectory of the point traveling in a line back to its origin. Simultaneously, it is an enlarged and expanded representation of the point, being equidistant in all directions from the center point. In the circle, the completeness and perfection of the process of the formless point expanding into form can be seen. Within the circle, we can fit any number of mandalic or sacred forms, such as the pantagram, the hexagram, the cross, or the equilateral triangle. It contains all of these in essence, and yet is beyond all of them.

In the circle, we can see the totality of form, the Ouroboros, the nearest form to infinity.

The Circumpunct

circumpunct freemasonryThe circumpunct is the completion of the journey from finite point to infinite circle. In the circumpunct, all of the dimensions of self which have progressed outward into form are in complete and total balance and alignment with their formless origin. In the mind, it is the personality in complete harmony with its essence and origin. It also represents the essential boundary of the self. While the point had a finite existence, it still had a certain infinite quality, in it’s lack of defined boundaries. In the circumpunct, we have both the boundary-less point of origin, and the boundary, with self on the inside, and world on the outside.

In the circumpunct, we can see the completion of all existence, the simultaneity of infinity and finite form, the perfection of self, world, and the relationship between the two.

Further Reflections

expanding dimensionsThe truth is that neither you nor I have ever really seen a point or a line, only things that are shaped like them, usually drawings on paper. But the truest sense in which a point and a line exist is in the abstract realm of ideas, yet they are clearly significant. We could not build anything without them, and this is true of mathematical abstractions, in general: they are ephemeral, yet essential. But can they be regarded as the true foundations of all creation, of reality itself?

What I am struck most by these simple forms is how each dimension, and the basic geometric form it represents, implies and transcends the next. The moment you create a point, it imples that that point could transcend the 0 dimension, and be a line, if only it moved beyond that 0 dimension. The moment you create a line, it implies that that line could move in a different direction, transcending that 1st dimensional existence, creating a plane. The moment you create a plane, it implies that that plane could be bent or folded, and that therefore a third dimension must exist. The moment you have a 3-dimensional object, it implies that that object can shift and change across time, thus implying a fourth dimension, transcendent from 3-dimensional space.

This seems to me to imply that the world in which we find ourselves is in fact a manifestation from the infinite 0 dimension, into the four dimensions where we currently find ourselves. Its almost as if a divine infinite mind, in similar manner to an architect, charted out and traced the fundamental principles of reality by which a creation could manifest.

But is that really where it ends? For us, the 4 dimensions are the extent of dimensionality we can see and understand, with even the 4th being somewhat mysterious to us. But what if this is merely because of our position along the spectrum of dimensions, and in actuality, this process of one dimension implying the next goes on infinitely, with the 4th implying and creating the 5th, the 5th the 6th, ad infinitum?

String theorists and various other kinds of physicists currently posit some number of dimensions, often 11 or higher, but what if there is no ceiling to the dimensional hierarchy extending into the unseen, unknown realms of possibility? In that case, we truly could be said to be dwelling in an infinite creation.

infinite dimensions

The Sun as a Symbol in Freemasonry: What is it trying to tell us?

The Sun as a Symbol in Freemasonry: What is it trying to tell us?

“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

little23915567_706115002931639_2286788907160304511_nWhat 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.

resizedimages (1)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.

  1. Exoterically: This concerns the concrete or objective appearance, its form and structure.
  2. Conceptually: This concerns the concept or idea which the sign or symbol embodies.
  3. 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 

bigcircumpunct-symbolThe 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.

big Slades masonic manAs 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.

 

The Tracing Boards of John Harris: A Masonic Legacy

The Tracing Boards of John Harris: A Masonic Legacy

When I joined Freemasonry, I realized the ceremonies were full of symbols meant to allude to greater meanings. One of the items that caught my attention during my initiation was the tracing board or picture in the Lodge room which displays the symbols for the degree. Later I learned that artist John Harris (1791- 1873) was responsible for creating the design that I saw displayed. My curiosity was forever peaked to better understand John Harris and his symbolic art.  Although John Harris was well-respected during his life, I soon discovered that in recent times he has been labeled “a forgotten artist.” As an advocate for the arts, I immediately felt a resonance with this hard-working Freemason who seemingly never got his due.

What can we learn from his life story?  Is he really a forgotten artist?

Harris joined Freemasonry in 1818 during a time of exciting cultural developments. As part of the new organization of the United Grand Lodge of England (U.G.L.E.) in 1813, British Freemasons were moving away from tavern culture. The masons, now owners of beautiful massive buildings, were able to contemplate adorning them with permanent furnishings such as antique art or elaborate pipe organs.

Part of the standardization occurring in the furnishings of new buildings was that each of the Lodges were to own a set of tracing boards. Upon entering the Lodge, Harris very quickly became fascinated with the concept of the tracing boards and started drawing designs almost immediately. His talents, as a painter, facsimilist, and architectural draughtsman, fitted him perfectly for the task.

1809 Microcosm_of_London_Plate_038_-_Freemasons'_Hall

1809 London Freemason’s Hall

In 1823, Harris dedicated a set to Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex, the first Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of England.  The Grand Master immediately recognized Harris as a very talented young man. It is assumed that he commissioned Harris to make a standard official model for each degree.

These developments helped to standardize the designs. Until that point, there had been no consistency in the way the boards were painted.  It was not unusual for individual Lodges to have a variety of symbols and designs and employ their own artists.

 Why are symbols on the tracing boards important to the Freemason?

Albert Mackey, in his book on the Symbolism of Freemasonry, suggests that the symbols that are illustrated for each degree are a key to its mystery.

He writes:

To study the symbolism of Masonry is the only way to investigate its philosophy.

In the masonic teaching, symbols are a way to investigate the deeper meanings because they speak to the whole human being, not only the limited waking intelligence. It is said that a symbol will communicate its “message” even if the conscious mind remains unaware of the fact. The power of the symbol does not depend on it being understood.

Harris spent his whole life painting and studying the symbols of the Craft. As he furthered his masonic career, his designs evolved accordingly.  His life was his art.

Studying the boards of Harris really made me think about the question:

Can you separate the artist from the art? 

1825_tb_harris_fc_500_860 (1)

1825 Second Degree

Some say art and an artist’s biography are not so easily separated.  What I found striking about the Harris boards is how much his art did reflect his life. The first designs he created in 1820, just two years after he joined, were very simple.  I imagine he was still unraveling all the deep teachings of Freemasonry.

The 1825 designs convey more depth of experience. His life at that time truly reflected a fruitful craftsman. He was forging his fraternal ties with the Grand Master, a relationship which seemed to blossom and mature over time. The Grand Master loved the “Harris Boards,” and every Lodge wanted a set of the “approved” designs. Harris could hardly keep up with the orders from the Lodges and also kept very busy as a facsimilist at the British Museum.  His client list consisted of some of the major collectors in rare books in England, many often royalty.

A 1846 advertisement praises the skill of Harris:

The Craft Tracing Boards have been of essential service in promoting instruction among the Society at large; they are eagerly sought after every place where Freemasonry is cherished.

Relentless demands and grueling labor ensued for the next couple of decades.

John_Harris_3rd_1850

1850  “Open Grave” Third Degree

In those days, there were no photocopy machines so each one of the boards for each of the lodges had to be hand painted.  It was not unusual for a lodge to wait longer than a year once they ordered a set from Harris.

The last board he designed was in 1850 for the third degree, referred to as the “open grave” design.  This was a period in his life he found himself reduced to the lowest state of poverty and distress due to partial blindness. In 1856, he went completely blind and was paralyzed from a stroke the same year. The darkness of the 1850 painting gives a feeling of emotional starkness not experienced in any of his earlier designs.  Although seemingly dismal, the sheer intensity of the painting does suggest something exceptional.

One of his friends comments:

At the age of sixty-six, he is deprived of the only means he possessed of supporting himself and an invalid wife.

In 1860, Harris moved with his wife to a masonic home in East Croyton for aged Freemasons and their widows. In earlier times it was named “The Asylum for Worthy, Aged, and Decayed Freemasons” but known today as “The Royal Masonic Benevolent Institution (R.M.B.I.).” Harris found an outlet for his art in the East Croyton home and used his remaining years there to write poetry to raise money for the R.M.B.I. He answered his summons to the Grand Lodge Eternal on December 28, 1873.

From my research, I believe that Harris in the truest sense embodied the teachings of Freemasonry. His strength sustained him to endure in spite of overwhelming circumstances of unforeseen misfortune. He persevered until the end, laboring ceaselessly in the tasks that the Master had confided to his care. In my opinion, he is far from being a “forgotten artist.” His light continues to shine in one of the most treasured of all lodge furnishings.

In the words of Beethoven:

Art demands of us that we shall not stand still.


Note: Images for Harris Tracing Boards were retrieved on the website of Harmonie Lodge No. 66.