Scottish Rite Signs, Signals, Symbols and Allegory

October 13, 2009 by  
Filed under Scottish Rite

Because symbols and allegory form such an important part of the Scottish Rite, a few works of review may be helpful.
General Semanticists (scientists concerned with the ways in which meanings are transmitted) divide behavior into signals, signs and symbols.

A signal is a communication so basic that it appears to be “wired in” the structure of the brain rather than being learned. Most animal communication takes that form, whether it is the mating dance of a peacock or the danger signal of the white-tail deer. Very little human behavior is signal, since very little human behavior is instinctive. Stopping when someone we are approaching holds out an arm toward us, with the palm of the hand facing us, may be an example.

Sign behavior is learned rather than instinctive, but once learned it does not require thought, and we react appropriately without conscious thinking. Examples would be a stop sign, a flashing red light, the sound of a siren, or skull and crossbones on a bottle of liquid. Symbols, on the other hand, work ONLY if we consciously think about them, and they “work better” (become richer and more meaningful) the more we think about them.

Usually, a symbol is only very generally related to the thoughts it invokes. There is nothing about a triangle, for example, which inherently suggests God. It is only when the intellect operates upon the symbol, considers that its three equal sides might relate to a Being Who is Three in One, and explores what that might mean or suggest, that the Triangle equates with Divinity.

The Scottish Rite, as is true of all Masonry, makes heavy use of symbols. As we are frequently warned, “the symbol conceals, it does not reveal.” Masonry dates from the time when “thought control” was common in society. Certain ideas were forbidden, and it was damnation to think them and a rather messy death to utter them aloud.

And so, many of the ideas were encoded in symbols, rich in meaning to those who understood-silly or meaningless to those who did not. The early Christians use of fish as a symbol is a classic example of communicating by drawing that which it was unwise to communicate more directly.

The symbols of the Scottish Rite do not easily yield their meanings and there may be many meanings to any symbol. Only after thought and reflection do they fulfill their function and begin to trigger ideas in the mind.

To illustrate this point, let us consider one of the most familiar of all Scottish Rite symbols, the double-headed eagle.

The double-headed eagle was probably first accepted by Freemasonry as a symbol in the year 1758. In that year the body called Council of Emperors of the East and West was established in Paris. The double-headed eagle was adopted to symbolize the double jurisdiction of the Council-one which looked both to the East and to the West.

The symbol is an ancient one, however, and not Masonic in its origins. The earliest appearance so far discovered was in the ancient kingdom of Lagash in the Middle-East long before the rise of Babylon. There it was known as the “storm bird” and was the special symbol of the kings of Lagash. It is later to be found among the rock carvings in an ancient Hittite cemetery. Over the centuries, the double-headed eagle has been used as a symbol by many nations.

In general, its symbolic meaning in the Scottish Rite is that of duality contained in or resolving itself in unity. Thus, among many other things, it reminds us that man, while only one being, is composed of both body and spirit, that he is both temporary and eternal; that both good and evil exist in the world and that we must ever foster good while opposing evil. It reminds us also that knowledge comes both from study and from insight; that we have obligations both to ourselves and to others, and that both faith and reason are necessary.

So, in the Scottish Rite, as in earlier symbolism, it has many applications, but all center about the same idea.

1. The present, which must learn from the past and look to the future.
2. Man, who is both spiritual and animal.
3. Eternity, which is the product of both life and death.
4. That we have obligations both to ourselves and to others.
5. That creation is the result of both imagination and power.
6. Knowledge comes both from study and from sudden insight of inspiration.

How then are we to use symbols in our thinking? Let’s use the Eagle to illustrate the process.

Again, we must work with it; let the mind dwell on it. Perhaps the “eternal dialogue” in our brain might go something like this:

What could it suggest, these two heads on one body? Two as part of one thing. Duality as part of unity. Perhaps even two opposites as part of one thing. What things have that double nature? Well, the Scottish Rite draws its teaching from both the Mysteries of the East and those of the West. We are told that man is both beast and soul, both animal and spiritual. Any object is defined in space by light and shadow that’s another example of two opposites defining or giving form to one thing.

And then, why an eagle-why not a cat or bull or a mouse? What do I know about eagles? Well, they are symbols of freedom. They are royal birds-only the king can hunt with an eagle. They fly high; the ancients believed they carried the souls of the dead to heaven. They are famous for their keen sight and powerful wings. They look down on the world and see it clearly, but rise above it.

With thought, the symbols become a richer and richer source of ideas and insights.

Finally, we should briefly consider allegory.

Allegory might be thought of as symbols in words. It is a story told to make a point. Always the “real” story is something other than appears on the surface. These are old in the human experience, so old we cannot find a culture without them. Many children’s stories are allegories. Indeed, any story that has a moral is probably an allegory. We treasure them so much that the fables or allegories of the ancient Greek slave, Aesop, have come down to us.

The story of Hiram, the building of Solomon’s Temple, and the rebuilding of the Temple are primary and important allegories in Masonry. It’s important to remember that they are allegories, and not intended as history, lest one miss the point. The child who assumes that the story of Little Red Riding Hood has nothing to teach him or her because the child’s grandmother lives in a condo in Florida and not a cottage in the woods, or who believe that Goldilocks is nothing more than a treatise on the feeding habits of bears has lost an important chance to learn. And the Mason.

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