Masonic Miscellanies – Symbolism of the Right Hand

The right hand is symbolic of authority, sovereignty, blessing, fidelity, and strength.

It is apparent that the use of the right hand as a token of sincerity and a pledge of fidelity, is as ancient as it is universal; a fact which will account for the important station which it occupies among the symbols of Freemasonry.



‘Emblematum liber’, Andrea Alciato, 1621.
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There are many examples of the use of the term ‘right hand’ in religious and spiritual scriptures from across the world. In the Bible the words are used around 166 times.

Jesus said:

“from now on the Son of Man shall be seated at the right hand of the power of God”

(Luke 22:69)

The right hand has in all ages been deemed an important symbol to represent the virtue of fidelity. Among the ancients, the right hand and fidelity to an obligation were almost deemed synonymous terms.

Thus, among the Romans, the expression “fallere dextram”, that is to betray the right hand, also signified to violate faith; and “jungere dextras”, meaning to join right hands, and thereby to give a mutual pledge.



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Among the Hebrews, יָמִין “yamin”, the right hand, was derived from אָמַן “aman”, to be faithful. The practise of the ancients was conformable to these peculiarities of idiom.

Among the Jews, to give the right hand was considered as a mark of friendship and fidelity.

Thus Saint Paul says (Galatians ii, 9);

“when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given unto me, they gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship, that we should go unto the heathen, and they unto the circumcision.”

The same expression, also, occurs in Maccabees. We meet, indeed, continually in the Scriptures with allusions to the right hand as an emblem of truth and fidelity.

Thus in Psalm cxliv, it is said, “their right hand is a right hand of falsehood,” that is to say, they lift up their right hand to swear to what is not true.

This lifting up of the right hand was in fact, the universal mode adopted among both Jews and Pagans in taking an oath.

The custom is certainly as old as the days of Abraham, who said to the King of Salem;

“I have lifted up my hand unto the Lord, the most high God, the possessor of heaven and earth, that I will not take anything that is thine.”



A hand with images of saints in the digits, as a mnemonic for good Christian conduct. Coloured engraving.
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Sometimes among the Gentile nations, the right hand, in taking an oath, was laid upon the horns of the altar, and sometimes upon the hand of the person administering the obligation.

But in all cases it was deemed necessary, to the validity and solemnity of the attestation, that the right hand should be employed.

Since the introduction of Christianity, the use of the right hand in contracting an oath has been continued, but instead of extending it to heaven, or seizing with it a horn of the altar, it is now directed to be placed upon the Holy Scriptures, which is the universal mode at this day in all Christian countries.

The antiquity of this usage may be learned from the fact, that in the code of the Emperor Theodosius, adopted about the year 438, the placing of the right hand on the Gospels is alluded to; and in the Code of Justinian (book ii, title 53, law i), whose date is the year 529, the ceremony is distinctly laid down as a necessary part of the formality of the oath, in the words “tactis sacrosanctis Evangeliis”, meaning the Holy Gospels being touched.

This constant use of the right hand in the most sacred attestations and solemn compacts, was either the cause or the consequence of its being deemed an emblem of fidelity.



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Doctor Potter (Greek Archeology, page 229) thinks it was the cause, and he supposes that the right hand was naturally used instead of the left, because it was more honorable, as being the instrument by which superiors give commands to those below them.

Be this as it may, it is well known that the custom existed universally, and that there are abundant allusions in the most ancient writers to the junction of right hands in making compacts.

The Romans had a goddess whose name was Fides, or Fidelity, whose temple was first consecrated by Numa.

Her symbol was two right hands joined, or sometimes two human figures holding each other by the right hands, whence, in all agreements among the Greeks and Romans, it was usual for the parties to take each other by the right hand, in token of their intention to adhere to the compact.

By a strange error for so learned a man, Doctor Oliver mistakes the name of this goddess, and calls her Faith. “The spurious Freemasonry,” he remarks, “had a goddess called Faith.”

No such thing. Fides, or as Horace calls her, “incorrupta Fides“, or incorruptible Fidelity, is very different from the theological virtue of Faith.

The joining of the right hands was esteemed among the Persians and Parthians as conveying a most inviolable obligation of fidelity.

Hence, when King Artabanus desired to hold a conference with his revolted subject, Asineus, who was in arms against him, he despatched a messenger to him with the request, who said to Asineus, “the king hath sent me to give you his right hand and security,” that is, a promise of safety in going and coming.

And when Asineus sent his brother Asileus to the proposed conference, the king met him and gave him his right hand, upon which Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews, book xviii, chapter ix) remarks:

“This is of the greatest force there with all these barbarians, and affords a firm security to those who hold intercourse with them; for none of them will deceive, when once they have given you their right hands, nor will any one doubt of their fidelity, when that is once given, when though they were before suspected of injustice.”

Stephens (Travels in Yucatan, volume ii, page 474) gives the following account of the use of the right hand as a symbol among the Indian tribes:

In the course of many spears’ residence on the frontiers including various journeyings among the tribes, I have had frequent occasion to remark the use of the right hand as a symbol, and it is frequently applied to the naked body after its preparation and decoration for sacred or festive dances.

And the fact deserves further consideration from these preparations being generally made in the arcanum of the secret Lodge, or some other Private place, and with all the skill of the adept’s art.

The mode of applying it in these cases is by smearing the hand of the operator with white or colored clay, and impressing it on the breast, the shoulder, or other part of the body.

The idea is thus conveyed that a secret influence, a charm, a mystical power is given, arising from his sanctity, or his proficiency in the occult arts.

The use of the hand is not confined to a single tribe or people.

I have noticed it alike among the Dacotahs, the Winnebagoes, and other Western tribes, as among the numerous branches of the red race still located east of the Mississippi River, above the latitude of 42 degrees, who speak dialects of the Algonquin language.

Extracted from pages 856-857, Mackey’s Revised Encyclopedia of Freemasonry, vol. 2, Mackey et al, Masonic History Company, Chicago, 1929.

Article by: Albert G. Mackey

Albert Gallatin Mackey (1807 – 1881) was an American medical doctor and author.

He is best known for his books and articles about freemasonry, particularly the Masonic Landmarks.

In 1849 he established The Southern and Western Masonic Miscellany, a weekly masonic magazine.

He served as Grand Lecturer and Grand Secretary of The Grand Lodge of South Carolina, as well as Secretary General of the Supreme Council of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite for the Southern Jurisdiction of the United States

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