Ashlar Chippings

One of the most difficult and sometimes contentious aspects of Freemasonry is the subject of symbolism.

Possibly because much nonsense has been written and simply because there are people who will believe the written word without question.

Masonic Symbolism

What records there are of the first years of the eighteenth century, when Freemasonic ritual was beginning to find its feet, imply a simplicity of form that we seldom find since.

For instance, even though various operative tools are mentioned there are no moral lessons drawn from them as we do today.

We have to wait until the 1770s for elaboration to take hold not only in ritual matters but also in regalia embellishments, no doubt stemming from continental practice and the plethora of ‘higher degrees’ that came into fashion there.

So multifarious and ostentatious became masonic aprons, helped by newly-developed decorative skills, that at the 1813 union of our two Grand Lodges it was decided to standardise on the simpler styles we currently enjoy.

A Past Grand Master [1] of Belgium was moved in the early twentieth century to write: ‘There is nothing so indestructible as a symbol, but nothing so capable of so many interpretations’. 

An excellent book on the subject was written in 1976 by Colin Dyer – Symbolism in Craft Freemasonry.  Any student of masonic symbolism could do worse than obtain a copy.

There are still those who believe in a symbolism for details of regalia (such as the chain ‘tassels on an apron) which are no more than the inventions of masonic outfitters.

Because of this ever-present but misguided tendency and also because there are those who spend much time in pursuing such matters into the outer fringes of imagination, it is worth looking at John Ryland’s address after his installation in 1925 as master of Quatuor Coronati Lodge (AQC 66 pp. 4-5).

Of the ‘pseudo-mystical’ school’s ‘explanations’ he said (amongst other things):

With much parade of philosophical jargon we are told that Freemasonry is this and that, and we are invited to accept a host of deeper meanings and hidden symbolism.

We are expected to believe without questioning. Yet we, of all masons, know full well that most of this pseudo-mysticism is so much preposterous nonsense.[2]

So, although each of us is free to draw our own ideas of symbolic references, it is as well to stay clear of outlandish imaginings which would not have been in the minds of the compilers and developers of our system.


[1] Count Goblet d’Alviella, a member of Quatuor Coronati Lodge 1909-25.

[2] Freddie Smyth, A Reference Book for Freemasons, ‘Symbolism’ ISBN 0 90765541 6

Article by: Hugh O’Neill

Hugh O'Neill

Past Master of Craft lodges under the constitution of the United Grand Lodge of England. Member of Quatuor Coronati Lodge 2076, the world’s premier Masonic research lodge. Masonic historian and orator on Masonic topics.



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