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A Masonic Conundrum

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March 2008
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Alrighty. Now this is going to be really arcane. The Grand Lodge Education Officer in Minnesota, Right Worshipful Brother Ed Halpaus posed this poser in a recent emailing of his called Masonic Matters. Someone noticed that on the base of the pillar called Jachin (one of the two outside Solomon’s temple), there are carved four zodiacal signs — Taurus, Scorpio, Gemini, and Cancer. This is, apparently, one of those unsolved Masonic conundrums. Why are they there? What do they mean? Can they be “decoded”?

First, it is fairly obvious why these signs would be carved on Jachin (the celestial pillar) and not Boaz. That seems safe. Constellations and astrological symbols logically go on this pillar. At least we can take that as a start. It may have more significance later.

But, why these four signs? It seems clear that it is not a reference to the equinoxes and solstices (which first springs to mind with 4 signs). Of the four, only Cancer corresponds to one of these key annual solar events. One notices that Taurus, Gemini, and Cancer are adjacent successive signs. Arguably, these four signs constitute the season of Summer — or at any rate the first half of the summer months. In pagan calendrical traditions, the 1st of May marked a particular celebration of the return of life to the earth, the beginning of the agricultural cycle in earnest. Now, that would not apply in ancient Judea, but across the northern latitudes it does and Masonic symbols are as likely to derive from Northern Europe as from ancient Judea. The fact that Mason’s traditionally (like modern pagans and ancient Celts) start their yearly cycle with November 1st (Samhuinn in Irish), lends strength to the idea that May 1st should also be significant as the start of summer, or the light half of the year.

Cancer is the constellation (and time segment of the wheel of the year) containing the summer solstice and the Feast of St. John the Baptist. The saint’s day is celebrated by Masons. We know that in many mystery traditions the point at which the Sun has its greatest power is significant and that is one of the reasons put forth for our own Masonic observance of the Baptist’s feast day. Masonry, which is devoted to the cultivation of Light (as is the modern Druidry which descended from it), must place special significance on the longest day and the point of greatest illumination.

So, in Taurus, Gemini, and Cancer we see the three months of summer, which certainly resonates with the interpretation R.W.B. Halpaus mentioned that the ruffians represent the three months of winter. I would dispute that interpretation mainly on the grounds that there were a total of 15 fellowcrafts in the rebellion, three of which turned out to be murderers. If it was three out of twelve, I would find the interpretation more convincing. I do wonder, however, if the “twelve companions of Hiram” might not be considered to represent the twelve fellowcrafts who repented and came to him in white, and who subsequently brought the murderers to justice and found Hiram Abiff’s body. Those twelve, and the signs of the zodiac also are often interpreted as symbolizing the twelve tribes of Israel, which in turn are often considered to have some correspondence to the twelve signs of the zodiac.

But, that leaves Scorpio. Does it signify November 1st which lies in the middle of the constellation in our astrological system (ignoring the knotty matter of the procession of the equinoxes). Scorpio is, in fact, one of those winter months that are supposed to correspond to the ruffians and the extinguishing of Light. If we look at the circle of the zodiac, we will see that Taurus is opposite Scorpio, so that in the listing of the four signs on the pillar, our mind is invited to move across this access of the year — from May 1st to November 1st, from the sign dominating the inception of the light half of the year to the sign dominating the inception of the dark half. In druidic terms this alludes to samos (the light half) and giamos (the dark half) and the holy days of Bealtaine and Samhuinn respectively.

Can we go further than to interpret the astrological signs with their traditional meanings? Does the sequence Taurus, Scorpio, Gemini, Cancer encode a meaning based upon the significance of these symbols? Can we read them?

I do not have any good ideas on how to interpret that pattern. It looks to me as if we begin with the start of summer in Taurus, then move across the wheel of the year to the end of summer at Scorpio. Then our mind is brought back to the other two signs under which the Light increases and reaches its zenith. Is it even useful to reduce this symbolism to words? Symbolic messages are usually best understood intuitively, gesturally, without being “explained” in words. However, a crude translation might be that the writer wishes us to behold a pattern in the foundations of the cosmos (the celestial pillar), the balance between darkness and light, and then draws our attention to the triumph of the Light.

Can we go still further, though? Cabalists are inclined to see in the signs of the zodiac references to the four evangelists and the twelve tribes of Israel. What is the point of doing so? Well, the interpretative move allows us to tie our symbols to the myths and legends of the Bible and so add another layer of meaning, or to conceal a deeper message in a further set of symbolic correspondences.

So, one aspect of the four signs we are considering is their traditional animal symbolism. Taurus is the Bull, Gemini the Twins, Cancer the Crab, and Scorpio is often associated with the Eagle, or the serpent as well as with the scorpion. Similarly, Cancer is very closely associated with the Moon, being considered the sign in which the Moon is most exalted. That gives Cancer the interesting quality of being a Lunar sign in which the Sun reaches its summer solstice (in the Northern hemisphere, the point of greatest strength and the longest day, or most light). What meaning can we derive from these associations?

These symbolic creatures correspond only partially to the four creatures assigned to the four evangelists (or the beasts seen in the vision of Ezekiel) so we might dismiss the attempt as strained and likely not intended. However, let us look for a moment at what might be there. The Bull is the symbol of St. Luke and the Eagle the symbol of St. John. It may be that the Eagle is associated with St. John precisely because the sign of Scorpio presages the winter solstice and the re-birth of the Light (Logos).

The bull is a symbol central to the cult of Mithras, in which cult the hero sun-deity Mithras is often depicted wrestling a bull. The Eagle is a prominent symbol in Scottish Rite Freemasonry (which is to say the Masonry developed in France and most often associated with the Knights Templar). The Eagle in this Masonic rite is two-headed like the Hapsburg or Romanoff eagle. It does not, however, imply that Freemasons allude to these two empires. Rather, I think the empires borrowed the symbol from the same sources as the Masons and for the same reason – that the eagle with two heads looks both East and West. In the case of the empires, they looked in these directions for dominion. In the case of the Masons, the eagle looks in these two directions for wisdom — the two great traditions of eastern and western philosophical understanding.

The other two “beasts” associated with the four evangelists area human figure and a lion. Arguably, to stretch the interpretation a bit, Gemini could be compared to the Human figure which is traditionally assigned to symbolize St. Matthew (usually assigned to Aquarius). If this human figure is, as I read, supposed to symbolize human reason, then Gemini also may be said to do so, for it is a sign particularly associated with the human capacity for thought, reason, speech and writing. But if Gemini is here being chosen to represent St Matthew and his gospel, that raises a question about why. Why twins? If one human figure is traditional, deliberately choosing a constellation that represents two human figures (Castor and Pollux) invites the question. Is it a veiled allusion to a reference to “twins” in Matthew’s gospel? Does it suggest a duality or complementarity of some kind? Doubling? Does it invite us to interpret the gospel of Matthew in the light of the myth of Castor and Pollux, or in light of the Israelite tribe which corresponds to Gemini?

Alas, we have no lion at all, Cancer being symbolized by Crab or Moon but presaging Leo. If the four signs in this sequence we are considering are intended to correspond to the four evangelists, there are some deliberate changes being made, some diversion that must be intended for us to unearth something secret and unusual in the evangelists. The theme of the Twin, the symbolism of a Crab, or the Moon. Do we proceed to comb the gospels or the Greek myths or both? I have not yet tried to do so, but that would be one approach to test this vague hypothesis. The problem is, of course, that once you start looking for hidden patterns of meaning, you are likely to find them, whether that was the intention of our Masonic carvers?

A similar long digression which I have followed in part is the one that takes signs of the zodiac to symbolize the twelve tribes of Israel. These are the sons of Jacob, for the most part, with a couple of the sons of Joseph added in after the Israelites escaped from Egypt. Now, allusions to these tribes could encode meanings based upon the Biblical accounts of the tribes and/or their founders. Or, there may be meta-meanings connected to the fact that the whole lot of them went into Egypt and then came out again. In the occult and esoteric traditions of the West, Egypt has long been considered the font of all wisdom and magic. Freemasonry, particularly in the 18th century looked to Egypt and it has been argued that the ancient Hermetic traditions passed through alchemy and Renaissance philosophy and Rosicrucianism to pass down to Freemasonry its web of insights into the cosmos conveyed in symbols.

Be this as it may, the correspondence of the twelve tribes and the twelve signs of the zodiac is, alas, not simple. There have been many theories and attempts and no consensus. Albert Pike attempted it (perhaps based on Eliphas Levi) and this was taken up by Macgregor Mathers, the founder of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. The associations of Pike would give us for these four correspondences: Taurus – Reuben; Scorpio – Dan; Gemini – Zebulun; and Cancer – Issachar.

As I researched Pike’s attributions, I found the logic of them unconvincing. There are a number of ways of approaching putting the twelve tribes of Israel “in order” but in my opinion the method used by Pike and Mathers carries some aspects that do not fit with my own esoteric intuitions and training. The associations are based on drawing strained comparisons between the animals to which the Bible alludes in reference to the tribes and the animals of the zodiac signs. So, most notably we get Judah called “the lion” and so (obviously) he must correspond to Leo. Mathers and his cabbalistic compeers also assign Judah to the East because it is considered to the be the place of honor. These two logical moves end up producing the illogical association of the constellation Leo with the East. And this is perhaps the best of the associations. Issachar, associated with an ass, does not fit the zodiac at all, and the attempt at matching animals becomes quickly ridiculous.

In my own druidic training, which is fairly mainstream in its associations, East represents springtime and renewal. It is the place of beginnings. Judah is associated with the East in another part of the biblical legend of the twelve tribes — namely the description of their encampment. In that description of the encampment, as David Godwin explains clearly in a fine article (see: “Astrological Attributions of the Twelve Tribes of Israel“), Judah is named as camping in the east of the encampment. The tribes are grouped in triads each assigned to one of the quarters. This means that if we can link the quarters to the seasons, we can link the tribes in each quarter to the three signs in each season.

If we follow the strained bestiary associations of Mathers and Pike, we end up with one arrangement of the tribes. An arrangement that does not accord with the description of the encampment. So, I prefer to follow the description of the encampment as this is the origin of our notion that the tribes ought to correspond to the four seasons in the first place.

Doing so, I place Judah due east. Today, East is usually taken at the point of the circle corresponding to the Vernal Equinox in Aries. The others listed “in the East” are Issachar and Zebulun. I take the simplest route and place these in order following Judah clockwise — so, Issachar is Taurus, and Zebulun Gemini.

Now, arguably, one could interpret “in the East” different ways. Do Issachar and Zebulun, for instance, flank Judah (giving them to Pisces and Taurus then)? Or should we go counterclockwise through the signs? I reject both of these possibilities. Clockwise is the more usual way of unfolding things in the northern hemisphere. The Sun moves through the signs in this order anyway. If we wanted to go counterclockwise, the signs of the zodiac would have to be reversed. To my druidical mind, starting in the East means moving clockwise round the circle of the seasons from Spring, the dawning of the new light.

The observant reader will note that I said earlier that the light half the the year is considered to start May 1st at Bealtaine, not at the Vernal Equinox. But the fact is that the light half of the year is considered to start in both points. The equinoxes mark the point of balance. The vernal equinox is the astronomical point at which the light starts to outshine the darkness and the days become longer than the nights. Bealtaine is the point (six weeks later) when we can really start to notice that this is happening. The trees and the weather also notice it. Again, I am speaking in terms of more northerly lattitudes. I cannot speak to Jerusalem. However, in northern lore, it is in May that the risk of frost passes reliably.

So, back to the tribes. Following my logic, I come up with Cancer assigned to the first named of the tribes encamped in the south of the camp. This is Reuben. I will not list all twelve, but we find Scorpio, of course, located in the beginning of the darkening of the year, actually the middle of the three tribes assigned to the West (Autumn), which is Manaseh.

I fully expect that these tribes are meaningless to the majority of my patient readers, and indeed they do not bring anything immediately to my mind either. So, I turned up my copy of “Who’s Who in the Bible” first of all for the overview. Here is what I found for each of the four tribes and their founders, those corresponding to Taurus, Scorpio, Gemini, and Cancer in turn. Let us see if any pattern emerges that might have Masonic significance.

Issachar (the ass) actually means “man of reward” or else “hired man”. The Mason will likely think of the apprentice or the fellowcraft — the laborer. Issachar was the fourth son of Leah and Jacob. The sons of Leah are significance in general because Leah was the unloved wife whom Jacob was tricked into marrying by her father who forced him to marry the older sister before he could have Rachel, the more beautiful younger sister whom Jacob loved. Jacob, who had tricked his elder brother Esau out of his inheritance by playing a trick on his blind father Isaac, was in turn tricked by his uncle Laban, who was Rachel and Leah’s father. He didn’t have any money for the bride-price so he offered to work seven years for Laban in return for Rachel.

Now, the seven years indentured servitude sounds familiar too – the customary time for an apprenticeship. Issachar was the fourth son of the marriage of Leah and Jacob. Leah repudedly kept thinking with each successive child she bore Jacob that he would come to love her. Issachar apparently died in Egypt during the time when his whole family had come there under the protection of their brother Joseph (whom they had tried to sell as a slave on account of his amazing technicolor dream coat).

When the children of Israel returned to the promised land, Moses gave the tribe of Issachar land near the River Jezreel, near the tribe of Zebulun, who we will meet in a moment. Two kings of the Israelites descended from Issachar — Baasha and Elah). Baasha reigned for twenty years in the northern kingdom but came to his throne by assassinating the previous king, Nadab. In general he seems to have been a conniving, unsavory fellow. Elah was Baasha’s son who rigned as king of Israel for only two years (877-876 B.C.E.). He was reputedly a drunkard and idoloter, and was murdered along with all his household by Zimri, the commander of the royal chariots. So, the claim to fame of Issachar’s tribe in terms of kings is not an admirable one. Baasha’s name meant Baal hears, so he is numbered among those who turned away from the worship of Jahweh and took up with Baal in the ninth century B.C.E.

Manasseh. The firstborn son of Joseph and his Egyptian wife Asenath. His name repudedly means “God has made me forget” referring to the fact that Joseph, who had been sold into slavery and then made his fortune in Egypt, was trying to forget his old family and their beliefs. However, after being reunited with his family, bringing them to Egypt and thereby causing the Hebrew sojourn in Egypt that ended when Moses led them out. When they came back into the promised land, the tribe of Manasseh had been acknowledged (by Jacob) as one of the twelve tribes (remember Jacob was re-named Israel). So, the tribe of Manasseh was given lands in Gilead and the highlands west of the Jordan River. It was a big tribe and yet it was among those northern tribes that disappear almost entirely from history when the Assyrians invaded and took the northern tribes to Babylon.

The captivity in Bablylon, as Scottish Rite masons know, plays a major role in the higher degrees of the Lodge of Perfection. Issachar and Manasseh are, we postulate, represented by the two signs, Taurus and Scorpio, lying on opposite sides of the zodiac and the year. The one represents spring and beginnings, the other, the dying of light, or its fading and implicitly its rebirth. Such an interpretation is plausible if we think of Issachar as the workman-apprentice and Manasseh as the Master (at least the Master Joseph’s heir). The Master represents old age and maturity; the apprentice the unskilled youth. The Bull and the Eagle — the animal who inseminates and is the foundation of wealth counted in cattle, and the animal who soars above all, closer to God and the spirit world, as well as the celestial sphere.

Having drawn this diameter across the wheel of the year from southeast to northwest, we are now drawn by the next pair of zodiac signs to the summer and the south. These two tribes are as follows.

Gemini corresponds to Zebulun. He is Leah’s and Jacob’s sixth son an his name means something like “honor, exalt, or dwell”. Might we imagine it means to pass on to a higher degree of honor? The Tribe of Zebulun was settled in the area of Galilee and is associated with the port of Sidon as well. Powerful, but eventually, like all the northern tribes taken away to Babylon by the Assyrians.

Cancer corresponds to Reuben. His name means “behold a son” and is Leah’s first son by Jacob. This illustrious position among the sons of Israel rings true with the significance of Cancer as the sign in which the Sun reaches its summer solstice, its height and the longest day. Reuben also died in Egypt and his tribe was settled in Gilead but sunk into obscurity after the time of King David.

Reuben’s story has a few other weird twists. He had been conceived through the use of mandrake, a magical aphrodisiac. Later, he himself had sexual relations with the servant-woman with whom his father had had two children. This action was a symbolic usurpation of his father’s property, one of his women, and because of it Reuben, the first born and eldest son was disinherited. Later it was the sons of Joseph who inherited the birthright of Israel.

All of this family history is significant as the history of royal succession in what is effectively the royal family of the Hebrews. One of the aspects of these legends or histories that strikes me is the role of the women who are, often as not, manipulating the outcomes through their sexuality and their tricks.

Is there a pattern here? Does the key to interpreting the four signs of the zodiac lie in the tribes of Israel? Is there a key to the establishment of God’s kingdom, the cosmos? Is it all idle musing? Is the purpose behind it merely to think and ponder and make meanings within our own imaginations? I suppose the Cabalist would want to delve further to see if there were numerological significances — Gematria (Geometries). Stay tuned!


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