Presented to Meridian Royal Alexandra Lodge no. 125 (G.R.Q.), A.F. & A.M. March 1st, 6006 (A.L.)
Worshipful Master, Distinguished Guests, Brethren all,
I would like to speak today about the Origin and Meaning of the Masonic Signs.
It is quite an open question whether the Sign or the Word was first in evidence, although the probabilities are greatly in favour of the former. The tongue cannot become really intelligible without a grammar and organisation; the sign is a complete paragraph in itself – a narrative, a warning, or a sentiment. More than this, there are occasions when, as a great statesman once said, the principal use of words is to disguise thought. A sign must either expound thought or be a lie – deliberate and brazen.
And there is a significant proof of the essential human necessity for the sign in the extent to which the races that are more susceptible to overmastering passions use gesture as an exponent of language today. How much there is in some of the common Gallic gestures! Or the affected rage of a bargainer from the Orient! The ancient language of humanity was probably much more in sign than it is today. Look at the most characteristic lexicons of Antiquity, and what do you find? The common language words are extremely limited in number, and so barren in that which permits inflexion that repetition is its only possible comparison mark. Not this alone, but ancient literature deals only with common and formal things; there is a hiatus between the purely spiritual and the common practical life which no literature fills up. There are indications in abundance which almost necessitate the conclusion that (1) there was a wisdom specially reserved for secret transmission, and (2) that this was transmitted orally, or by sign; or conveyed orally, and memorised in signs – and never put into writing that was within the comprehension of the profane.
But more evidence is needed before we dare to dogmatise, and the question arises as to the most likely and reliable source of this information. I think it is a perfectly sound policy to reject the older sources of civilisation, on the ground that the friction and stress of Old World development tended to delete ancient factors of speech, and to set up an alphabet and a literature that were based upon an expedient compromise. We may find what we want in Egypt, or Assyria, or Greece – but the problem is too involved. Could we find a stream of simple growth and development we might be on safer and surer ground. Let us take, then, the two great Eastern and Western streams of population – the Chinese and the Indians of America.
Among the Red Indians the sign language is so well understood that tribes who have no common verbal medium of communication invariably and effectively use it; while the Chinese alphabet is a series of pictures, and their ancient mysteries were guarded by a curious sign test, closely assimilating in certain of its features to those of modern Freemasonry. And, as by a common human impulse, certain gestures express among all nations the same sentiment, and pledge those who make them as firmly as verbal treaties can. Here, and in nations contemporary with the birth of patriarchal kingdoms, are the sources of Freemasonry and the inspiration of her sign language. Right through the Old World mysteries, the Mongolian rites, and the institutions of the Zuni and other Red Indian Orders, we have the gradual persistence, sometimes in partial substitution for word language, at others distinct but parallel, and at others as its picture memoriser, of the language of the sign. The emblems of Freemasonry, as emblems of the great universal obedience, were the cherished jewels of all mankind, and these were secreted in the signs of all degrees in all mysteries.
But modern Freemasonry has signs which differ from those of other secret societies, as the Masonic aim transcends all that is of merely local or of apparently vested interest. This is not the means by which we may deal particularly with these signs; indeed, could we do this, the pearls are cast to the unillumined, and the sacred things of humanity to the ignorant.
There are, however, several qualities of the signs which all Freemasons should observe, that the lesson of their making may never be lost. As Masons in all degrees are aware, some of the signs refer to the days of persecution, when the proper symbol must test each loyal Mason’s fidelity and fortitude and judgment. There was here a constant reminder that the way of the transgressor is hard, and that the square alone can regulate a man’s life and morals; and in each step the sign indicates the gathering odium of falsehood and betrayal. The degree signs are a demonstration of the absolute standard of Divine Law and the assertion of. the right of the Builder to regulate the form of the perfect ashlar. There are certain other significances in connection with these signs which are dealt with in the proper place which this is not – but this general meaning covers the principle of all. The Grips, you will have observed, also form a series, but here the significance is different in its emphasis. The signs are a recognition of the Brother’s attitude of obedience to superior authority; the grips are the measure of intercommunal relations existing between the Lodge and each Mason, and between every member of the Order and every one of his fellows. They are the pledge of help, of restraint, and of brotherly love. They are also the joining touch which makes all the Craft one and gives to every member, wherever he may need it, that assistance the true work-fellow deserves and claims as his Masonic right.
The Masonic sign is not only generally an emphatic reminder of the significance of certain jewels. It has a far wider and more inspiring significance than this. Every sign suggests a legend, and every legend is the allegorical embodiment of Masonic truth and the insistent reminder which impresses upon all true Masons the lessons of Freemasonry. Some of the signs carry us back to ancient days and to the experiences of heroic men who solved for us mysteries and built for society the temples for habitation and for worship. One of the Master Mason’s signs, for instance, brings back to him the significance of those ancient masters, of those noble architects and founders, who by their fidelity vindicated the absolute authority of the Grand Architect of all. And similarly the sign in an early stage impresses upon the newly-made Mason the value of those virtues which in a disciple lay the foundation of Masonic efficiency and of human excellence. It is in symbolic degrees that the essentially Masonic lesson is most inseparably and doctrinally associated with the particular signs of the degree.
The jewels, the tools, the furniture in so far as it has peculiar Masonic significance, and the lights of the Lodge – even the clothing of the Brethren – are signs of Freemasonry. Most of them, as the tools and jewels, are signs connected with the active part of a Freemason’s life. Others are emblems of authority and of blessing. Others, again, are intended to remind us that all our lives are finite, and that the Sovereign Creator has determined the area and place on which each man may build.
In the public press a very superficial view is given of Masonic secret signology; and even this is much of it fictional and imaginary. Properly, Freemasons who are journalists respect the Grand Lodge veto; and some truly remarkable and amazing results follow. This we can afford. But we cannot afford to drift into ignorant formalism in our Lodges. There are to be found Brothers who would not be averse from taking much of our rich and doctrinal ritual as read, who whisper of monotony and formalism in repetition. There is no formalism in our splendid ritual to those who are instructed in the meaning of the sign. The very impatient Masons who grumble at the loyalty of the officers are really the formalists. They have not mastered the sign-significance, and therefore are naturally uninterested when the ceremony recalls to the real Freemason the origins of the Craft and of all craft and handiwork.
Could we go forward and go more deeply into this matter, the pleasure and profit of association, in travel years and at home, would be enormously increased. Nor this alone on purely Masonic grounds; for we should always be on the look out for parallelisms in ancient cults, in ancient customs, and especially in ancient societies which seem to resemble, more or less, that Order by which we were trained to seek and to find the Light of the Universe.
I hope that these reflections will stimulate your intellect, and will strenghten your involvment into the best thing that men ever thought: Freemasonry.
I thank you for your attention.
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