Symbolism, Freemasonry, and the Tarot

Symbolism, Freemasonry, and the Tarot

Is a picture worth a thousand words? In our modern society, most are acquainted with Tarot cards as a form of divination or fortune telling. However, there is a deeper, more esoteric meaning attached to the Tarot. A legend exists related to the Tarot which tells of a group of adepts traveling through an enchanted forest. Along the way, these individuals lost their voices and were only able to communicate with each other by displaying Tarot cards to one another. Through the exercise of relation via symbols, the adepts were able to navigate out of the forest and into the light. What is the Tarot, and what relationship does the Tarot have with Freemasonry?

The Tarot System

On a surface level, the Tarot is a deck of 78 cards, each with its own distinct image and meaning. While many have used the cards as a divination tool, Tarot cards can also represent a mysterious oracle of hidden knowledge. The Tarot cards are divided into two separate groups: the Major Arcana and the Minor Arcana. The Minor Arcana consists of 56 cards divided into 4 suits: Wands, Cups, Swords, and Pentacles, and 4 court cards: Page, Knight, King, and Queen.

MinorArcana

The meaning of the Arcana represents “what is necessary to know, to discover, to anticipate, so as to be fruitful and creative in one’s possible endeavors.” Arcana is derived from the Latin words “Arca,” meaning “Chest” and “Arcere” meaning “To shut or to close.” Thus, Arcanum symbolically represents a tightly-closed treasure chest which holds a secret meaning.

Nobel Prize winner Herbert A. Simon provides this illuminating sentiment related to the Tarot:  “a symbol is simply the pattern, made of any substance whatsoever that is used to denote, or point to, some other symbol, or object or relation between objects. The thing it points to is called its meaning.” By reading Tarot cards symbolically, each person is able to divine their own meaning and truth.

Historical Origins of the Tarot

Mystery shrouds the historical origination of the Tarot. The French scholar, Court de Gebélin, wrote that the Tarot was the one book of the ancient Egyptians that escaped the burning of the great Library of Alexandria Library.

This book was said to contain “the purest knowledge of profound matters” possessed by the wise men of Egypt. After the library was destroyed, a group of sages met in Fez, Morocco and decided to preserve the secrets of this ancient text into pictorial form on the cards of the Tarot.

There is general consensus that the pictures on the cards represented the visual retelling of the secrets of ancient mysteries, with different accounts of the wisdom being Egyptian, Zoroastrianism, or Gnostic in tradition. The symbols depicted on the cards provided a manner to keep the secrets safe except for those prepared to receive them. The cards were brought to Europe, purportedly as a result of the Crusades, but were suppressed during the inquisition of the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages.  

treeoflifekabbalahTarot and the Kabbalah

Many esoteric scholars have sought to understand the Tarot through the Kabbalah, the mystic teachings of Judaism. Kabbalah has been translated to mean “receiving,” from God, the Eternal One. Referred to as one, the deity is actually twofold in nature including the male aspect, Adonai, and the female aspect, the Holy Shechinah. The Kabbalistic Tree of Life, displayed above, is particularly useful in understanding and interpreting the Tarot. The Tree of Life consists of ten spheres, referred to as Sefirot, which are connected by 22 different paths, expressing different interactions between the Sefirot: Kingdom, Foundation, Victory, Splendor, Victory, Beauty, Mercy, Severity, Wisdom, Understanding, and Crown. Each path corresponds to a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, which contains 22 letters. Similarly, the Tarot deck contains ten numbered cards in each Minor Arcana suit and 22 cards in the Major Arcana.

Freemasonry and The Tarot

What is the relationship between The Tarot and Freemasonry? To begin, there is the existence of a Masonic themed Tarot Cards: The Square and Compass Tarot Card Deck, which is displayed above. Deeper connections exist as well, including the symbolic journey of the initiate into Freemasonry. The Tarot has been described as symbolizing the path of initiation or a journey towards reintegration with one’s true self. “Know Thyself” is a motto of the Craft and the twenty-two cards of Tarot’s Major Arcana provide useful tools for reflection for those interested in doing the work. The cards reveal stages of an archetypal journey of man with each card representing a stage to be encountered by each individual on their life path.

Like the Tarot, Freemasonry’s origins are difficult to trace and veiled in mystery, and both systems have evolved through history, HolyGrailyet their essential substance remains unchanged. The Masonic scholar, A.E. Waite, posits that the Tarot and Freemasonry are both connected to the Legend of the Holy Grail. In his book The Hidden Church of the Holy Graal, Waite presents his conclusive belief that the Tarot is the “canonical Hallows of the Graal legend,” linking the character Percival, the Fool in the Tarot deck, to the Mason in search of light.

Alternatively, the Masonic writer, Manly P. Hall argued that the Major Arcana represent the 22 chapters of the Book of Revelations: a spiritual road map to achieve oneness with God.

It has been said that individuals come to Masonry to remember what has been forgotten; that all knowledge already exists with us. Through the signs, symbols and images in Tarot, the seeker is directed to recollect the universal teaching that we are all the same in essence, each traveling the same road despite perceived differences in form.

The Real Reason a Masonic Temple is Called a Lodge

The Real Reason a Masonic Temple is Called a Lodge

Why is a Masonic Temple called a Lodge? This is a very good question; and the correct answer to this question is full of valuable wisdom that is of great and essential importance to Freemasons in particular, and to Philosophers in general. So, let us begin to unravel this mystery so that we can discover some of the useful life lessons that it has in store for us as Philosophers, or as lovers of wisdom.

All students of Freemasonry know that Freemasonry is of a symbolic nature, and that most of the foundational customs and symbols of Freemasons are derived from the work of the stone masons of ancient Egypt and other ancient countries. The universal masonic custom of referring to our temples or meeting places as “lodges” is an example of one of these foundational customs and symbols of Freemasonry that come from ancient stone masonry. Unfortunately, too many students of Freemasonry fail to realize that the soul or spirit of Freemasonry is essentially religious, philosophical, and spiritual. This causes these students to lack knowledge of the true and intended meaning of most of our masonic-lodge.jpgmasonic symbols, and to unknowingly give a false interpretation to not only our symbols, but to Freemasonry as a whole.

This is most often a result of the student limiting his studies to a trash heap of purposely misleading books and articles on the history and subject of Freemasonry that have been published by unqualified, overly pretentious, and overtly biased, self-proclaimed “authorities” on the subject.

However, this lack of a true understanding of Freemasonry is primarily due to the student making the costly mistake of overlooking the significance of the simple fact that the work of ancient stone masonry, which Freemasonry uses as an analogy or symbol of its own work and teachings, was centered around religion and philosophy, which is to say, the worship and study of Mother Nature, ourselves, and the divine.

As the old saying goes, “the true nature of a tree can be known by the kind of fruit it produces,” and the ancient stone masons (not to be confused with brick masons), who were of many different cultures, nationalities, and religions, were the builders and creators of all of the most important buildings of the ancient world, which were the temples and monuments dedicated to the Gods and Goddesses of ancient religion. By overlooking this aspect of the nature of the work of ancient stone masonry, the non-co-masonic student of Freemasonry usually misses the point that Freemasonry is likewise centered around God, the Supreme Architect of the Universe.

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The religious, philosophical, and spiritual nature of Freemasonry is the reason as to why the meeting place of any group of Freemasons is called a temple, which is defined in everyday language as being a building devoted to the worship, or regarded as the house or dwelling place, of a God or Gods.

On the other hand, a masonic temple, as was already mentioned, is also called a lodge, and this is because ancient stone masons (who were literally travelers, or “traveling men” and “traveling women,” due to the nature of their work, which often required them to leave behind their families and homes for long220px-Schwind_-_Sabina_von_Steinbach periods of time as they traveled from place to place and worked on various building projects all throughout the country) would always build several temporary houses, called “lodges”, near their work site, which they used as both shelters and workshops.

Although this obviously gives us the superficial reason for which we symbolically call our temples “lodges”, it would be very unwise of us to automatically conclude that this is the reason for this ancient universal custom in its entirety, since we know that Freemasonry is essentially philosophical and spiritual, and uses its symbols as its main method of teaching and expressing important life lessons that are based on timeless philosophical principles and truths. It is therefore very highly likely that the word lodge is a masonic symbol that indirectly expresses a very deep and fundamental lesson for us about the true nature of our existence.

Since the word lodge is synonymous with the word temple in the symbolic language of Freemasonry, we must logically conclude that they both symbolically refer to the human body as the “house” that God lives in. As is said in I Corinthians 3:16 of the Holy Bible, asabovesobelowwhich is another one of the many symbols of masonic philosophy and spirituality: Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the spirit of God lives in you?

By applying the masonic and hermetic principle of correspondence* (“As within, so without”), which is a universal law of Nature, to the human body, we discover that the human body can be symbolically and very accurately described as being a miniature replica of the Universe, or existence as an infinite whole. This lets us know that the masonic temple, or the masonic lodge, is a symbol of both the Universe and the human body; and this is very powerfully hinted at us in the symbolic description of the lodge in the ritual of Freemasonry’s first degree. Now that we know that the masonic lodge is symbolic of both the Universe and the human body, and that Freemasonry thereby likens or compares the Universe and the human body to a lodge of ancient stone masons, all that remains is for us to figure out why this is so.

Once again, a lodge, by common definition, is a temporary house or home, as opposed to a permanent house or home, which would make a lodge a very fitting symbol of the Universe, since the Universe is not only “the house and home of humanity,” but a temporary house and home for us, as we will not be living in this world forever. We will all, one day, die. But until then, we must continuously come together and unite as luxorskeletonschwallerdiagramFreemasons to do the work of Freemasonry (which is to evolve and perfect humanity) within the “lodge” or “workshop”, meaning within the Universe or world of everyday life. This is perhaps the most basic of all of the valuable life lessons that we are indirectly taught by the masonic lodge being a symbol of the Universe or the macrocosm (the “big Universe”).

When we look at the masonic lodge as being a symbol of the human body or the microcosm (the “little Universe”), we learn an equally valuable life lesson. In the same way that the Universe is a temporary house and home for humanity, so is the human body for the Spirit of God. And just as we must continuously come together and unite as Freemasons to do the work of Freemasonry within the workshop or lodge of the Universe collectively, so must we also do the work of Freemasonry on an equally constant basis individually, within the secret, inner lodge or workshop of ourselves as individuals, thereby achieving balance and harmony between the two opposite poles of selflessness and selfishness within us.

As we can now see, the use of the word lodge as a symbol of Freemasonry contains some very useful and valuable life lessons for us, indeed. So let us take heed. And let us continue to work both collectively and individually, but most important of all, unceasingly, toward the evolution and perfection of humanity.


For a deeper understanding of the masonic and hermetic principle of correspondence, which is mentioned in this article, and to help expand the Great Work of the Masonic Philosophical Society, purchase the book, The Kybalion.

Death and the Maiden

Death and the Maiden

I’ve long been fascinated by this picture, statue, or representation of “Death and the Maiden” as it relates to Freemasonry. I first saw the picture when I became a Freemason, in one of the many books that I was able to pour through. Masonic art in general has fascinated me because it is, generally, not only beautiful but also weird; it was weird in a way that made you ask “why does that bird sit on the oddly-shaped stone” or “why is that man holding the woman’s hair while carrying a scythe?” It spoke to me, begging me to figure out what it was trying to tell me. Still, today, I can sit for hours and look at paintings, engravings, and statues and wonder what their creators meant to impart.

Death and the Maiden isn’t a new concept. Artists as far back as Duerer, Baldung, and Beham in the Middle Ages were showing that “all human beauty is ended in death (Beham.)” Shubert and Dorothea Tanning created at least two pieces of their art around the concept of Death and The Maiden. Yet, the pictures attributed to the Freemason’s ideas of Death and the Maiden seem to be very specific and rich in symbolism.

The Freemason’s “Death and the Maiden” seems to be attributed to a 19th Century Freemason named Jeremy Cross. A student of Webb and follower of Preston, he taught and lectured on Freemasonry extensively at the beginning of the 19th Century. General knowledge about him seems to be all we can find, according to Phoenix Masonry scholars and articles, but it seems the idea of the entire composition is attributed to his genius.

The composition has been recreated by others, but the basic design is as you see it above. Some have the maiden holding specific tools with an evergreen and others have her holding a piece of Acacia and an urn. The latter is a modern invention as cremation is a relatively modern invention. However, for my purposes for this post, we will still talk about it. It’s important to reflect on how symbols may change but meaning remains the same – and in this case, the emphasis is to see death on one hand, and everlasting life on the other.

Ostensibly, the winged figure behind the Maiden is Death. Shown as an old man, long-bearded, with wings and a scythe, he seems to be, as one author put it, removing the tangles from her hair. When one looks at this picture, it appears that he is about to cut her hair; taking a purely Judaeo-Christian point of view, from the inventor, the inference is that this is about the moment before death, before life is cut short. Tearing of hair and cutting hair were signs of grief and distress to the Israelites, and even implied the whole destruction of a people. Women’s hair was grown long to distinguish them from men but hair overall was a sign of health, virility, and life. That Death’s scythe is not raised implies that death of the physical world is not imminent but it is on the horizon. Death prepares the youth for what may come at any time, as implied by the hourglass sitting beside the figures. As one is born and grows, Death is always behind them, preparing.

The broken column seems to be the main figure of the composition, and implies that it is a symbol of the Freemason who is viewing the piece. Why not “every man?” Because columns are, symbolically, the individual Freemason. Freemasons are columns to uphold that “temple not made with hands.” Freemasons are there to hold up the ideals for others to emulate and must be strong and sturdy enough to do so. As we age, we start to crumble, become weak, and eventually our “bent backs” signify the end of our contributions to Humanity. Again, the broken column sitting beside its foundation shows that while Death is not ready to strike, we must prepare for it by the time our moment draws near. Hence, what appears to be a book of sacred knowledge, of whatever kind speaks to us, sits beneath the Maiden’s hands. She is studying intently, in quiet contemplation and thoughtfulness. She is not distraught or upset. Both figures are somber and still and accepting.

Then what is the Maiden? The Maiden seems to represent the essence of Life, the Will, Wisdom, and Beauty that we all can tap into to do whatever work calls us. This work is not fixing plumbing or diagnosing code or mopping floors; this work is the Work that is remembered when our time is done, in the Service of Humanity. Someone may remember that we always cleaned up the dishes or swept floors, and in that memory they see the love and dedication we had to a principle. That principle might be as material as “cleanliness” or it might be more virtuous, such as loyalty or dedication, sacrifice and service. The floor will get dirty again but the memory of the work we put into keeping it clean is what we bring to the world. The memory of Service to Humanity. The Maiden represents the potential we all bring with us at birth.

The most interesting of the symbols is the acacia plant. There are many, many theories regarding the use of Acacia as regards Freemasonry. I choose to take a more practical approach, beyond the poor or convoluted translations of the word and speculation as to Acaciaits use as a sacred symbol to the mystery school of Freemasonry. It is, generally, a low shrub or tree that grows in all parts of the world but appears to have originated in Africa and the Middle East. It is evergreen with watering, and is still cultivated mainly in the Middle East, Africa, and Australia for its gum. Besides being an evergreen plant and symbolizing ever lasting life, its qualities as a gum make it far more interesting in relation to Freemasonry.

Since ancient times, the gum or sap of the tree has been used as a fixative. Powdered, the sap is a powerful glue that can be ingested by humans. It is used to combine, fix together, and generally adhere human consumables; this includes things like beverages, soaps, and icings and sweets. It is also used to combine and emulsify paints, slips for ceramics, printing inks, and photography. Thus, it is used to bring together individual components into a sooth solution, able to create works of art as well as feed the human body. Weird as that may be, these attributes show it is directly related to our Work as Freemasons – to bring together, to combine into a well-oiled “machine” to nourish the body, mind, and emotions of the Human Being.

Lastly, there is the myth of Osiris’ death at the hands of his brother, Typhon, and his body being placed into a coffin, and the coffin being thrown into a river. Presumably, Osiris dies and the coffin is captured by low hanging Acacia plants by the river. Over time, the Acacia tree is cut down to create a column for a new temple, and in the cutting of the column, the body of Osiris is found by Isis and she uses her wings to breathe new life into her fallen husband. Many myths of Osiris’ death and resurrection are found, in parts or in whole, throughout literature and this is only one of those (Plutarch). What I find this particular myth explaining to me is that the physical form can be had once again, if the aspirant is understanding the nature of everlasting life and perhaps of the lessons that nature and Freemasonry have to teach us. In this, the column and the acacia seem to go hand in hand.

Thus, in one hand we have the energy of our lives holding onto the evergreen which brings us all together, and the ultimate symbol of our physical passing – the urn. In ancient cultures where the belief in the physical body’s transference to the Underworld was prevalent burning of bodies was not performed, namely China and Egypt. In general, however, bodies were burned using many methods, and the remains were sometimes kept in a funerary urn. Additionally, the remains of skeletons and internal body organs were also kept in urns as a sign of respect and reverence. The practice of cremation became even more prevalent in Western cultures after the creation of the first cremation chamber in 1873. For some, the urn is one of those symbols that is still a little vague as regards a deeper meaning. Maybe there isn’t one. Maybe it is simply the reminder of our physical passing, and the fact that we keep the ash-filled urns of our loved ones near us is a constant reminder of the transient nature of this mortal life.

Death and the Maiden is better for its whole than its individual parts. It is a story of humans who strive for better, only to be still chained and linked to the eventual death we all face. That the Maiden is not facing her Death but still working to better the world is hope to me. It is the hope we all bear that in our work as Builders and Creators, we have left Humanity a little better for our having been part of it. We leave behind our passions, our principles, and our virtues to be passed on to further generations of humans. Our ripples effect the ocean of Mankind. While I live, I can carry on the Work of those who have passed before me, and I hope I leave a good enough legacy that others may find their burdens lighter.


For Joy Cornell, who will always remind me to be Authentic, Passionate, Joyous, Lively, and Loyal to home and hearth. Thank you for your Light. And May Light Perpetual shine upon you, my dearest brother and friend.