Ritual and Symbols

Freemasons rely heavily upon the architectural symbolism of their medieval namesakes who actually worked in stone. One of their principal symbols is the “square and compasses”, so arranged as to form a quadrilateral. The square is sometimes said to represent matter, and the compasses spirit or mind. Alternatively, the square might be said to represent the world of the concrete, or the measure of objective reality, while the compasses represent abstraction, or subjective judgment, and so forth. Freemasonry being non-dogmatic, there is no written-in-stone interpretation for any of these symbols. The compasses straddle the square, representing the interdependence between the two. In the space between the two, there is optionally placed a symbol of metaphysical significance. Sometimes, this is a blazing star or other symbol of Light, representing Truth or knowledge. Alternatively, there is often a letter “G” placed there, usually said to represent “the Grand Architect of the Universe and/or Geometry”.

The square and compasses are displayed at all Masonic meetings, along with the open “Volume of the Sacred Law or Lore” (VSL). In English-speaking countries, this is usually a Bible, but it can be whatever book of inspiration or scripture that the members of a particular Lodge or jurisdiction feel they draw on–whether the Bible, the Koran or a book of philosophy. In a few cases, a blank book has been used, where the religious makeup of a Lodge was too diverse to permit an easy choice of VSL. In addition to its role as a symbol of written wisdom and inspiration, the VSL symbol is what Masonic obligations are sworn on.

All Lodges under the Most Worshipful Grand Lodge of Free & Accepted Masons of Utah, use the King James Bible as the VSL during their Regular Business, and in Opening and Closing a Lodge. However, if a Candidate for a Degree is not Christian, they may use their VSL upon which to take their Obligation.

Much of Masonic symbolism is mathematical/geometrical in nature. Freemasons thus have a tendency to view the metaphysics of the universe as heavily tied into geometrical principles.

In keeping with the geometrical and architectural theme of Freemasonry, the Supreme Being or God, or Creative Principle is sometimes also referred to in Masonic ritual as “the Great Geometrician”, or the “Great (or Grand) Architect (or Artificer) of the Universe”. Freemasons use a variety of labels for this concept, often abbreviated “G.A.O.T.U.”, in order to avoid the idea that they are talking about any one religion’s particular God or God-like concept.

There are three “degrees” of Freemasonry: (1) Entered Apprentice, (2) Fellowcraft and (3) Master Mason. One works through each degree by taking part in a ritual, essentially a Medieval Morality Play, in which one plays a role, along with members of the Lodge. The setting is the building of the Temple of Solomon. The Temple as alluded to in Masonic Ritual can be taken to represent the “temple” of the individual human being, the human community, or of the entire universe.

As one works through the degrees, one studies the lessons and interprets them for oneself. There are as many ways to interpret the rituals as there are Masons, and no Mason may dictate to any other Mason how he is to interpret them. The symbols, and the lessons they teach, aids each Mason in coming to his own conclusions to life’s important questions.

Mozart was a Freemason, and his opera, The Magic Flute, makes extensive use of Masonic symbolism. Two books that give a general feel for the symbolism and its interpretation are:

  • “Freemasonry: A Journey Through Ritual and Symbol” by W.K. MacNulty, Thames & Hudson, London, 1991.
  • “Symbols of Freemasonry” by D. Beresniak and L. Hamani, Assouline, Paris, 2000.

An expression often used in Masonic circles is “to be on the square”; meaning to be a reliable sort of person, another phrase from Freemasonry in common usage is “on the level”, or more commonly leveling with someone.