It would be amiss to describe the hourglass as a Masonic symbol. More accurately, it’s a symbol that is used within Freemasonry. The hourglass, in essence, is a device that has been used to measure the passage of time and was prominent long before watches and clocks.
But when used within Freemasonry, does it represent something deeper than just time? In this post, we take a look into the history of the hourglass as a symbol and ascertain how and why it is used within the Craft.
The hourglass in ancient history and beyond
Although the precise date of origin of the hourglass is unclear, it is widely accepted that the device first appeared in antiquity. A water clock similar to the hourglass was used in both Babylon and ancient Egypt and can be traced as far back as the sixteenth century BCE.
Some eight centuries later, a Frankish monk named Liuptrand documents his use of an hourglass in Europe. This is the first record of such a device being used in Europe, and it can be traced to a cathedral in Chartres, France.
But it wasn’t until the fourteenth century and the Middle Ages that the hourglass began being used commonly. In Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s depiction of the Allegory of Good Government, a royal is seen holding the hourglass, which is a sign it was used from 1338 onwards.
Marine sandglasses in the Middle Ages
From the fourteenth century onwards, the Marine sandglass was used to measure the passage of time. Written records suggest that the sandglass was used regularly on European ships, as logbooks document their use. They were popular aboard ships as they were deemed to be the most dependable way of measuring time from the water.
Unlike water measurements that were used previously, the motion of the ship didn’t affect the sandglass, therefore giving a much more accurate measurement of time. But it wasn’t just on ships that sandglasses gained popularity in the Middle Ages.
They were regularly used in churches to indicate the beginning of services and various events when society accepted that there was a need to keep track of time. They grew in popularity as they were inexpensive and relatively easy to produce.
From churches, they quickly became used in homes as well as places of work. It was with the sandglass that people started monitoring labor, as well as various other chores and daily activities that were previously carried out irrespective of time.
The emergence of the mechanical clock reduced the need for sandglasses
As mechanical clock technology was introduced after 1500, the sandglass [or hourglass] became less useful. The clock made keeping time much easier, and as is the case with many inventions, it changed the way in which things had been done previously.
That being said, the hourglass still serves a purpose today and is put to various uses across society. The oldest known hourglass stands in the British Museum and is a testament to its longevity.
The symbolism of the hourglass
The hourglass as a symbol is particularly interesting. In some instances, the hourglass serves as a reminder that human existence is fleeting and that ‘the sands of time’ will eventually run out for every human being on earth.
It represents the fact that death is the great equalizer, and is something that will meet us all at some stage. Due to their representation of fate and death, the hourglass was often placed on coffins and gravestones in certain parts of Europe to signify that a person’s time had finally passed.
Most commonly, however, the hourglass is used simply to represent time. Although timepieces have evolved remarkably since the invention of the hourglass, it’s still universally understood as a mechanism by which one can tell the time.
The hourglass within Freemasonry
The Hourglass is a Freemasonry symbol that represents a variety of things.
Time and death are the two most important symbols for Freemasons. This brings us to the Level, another Masonic symbol and, some may argue, a Masonic principle.
The hourglass, which represents time, can have a variety of meanings. One is that we are all moving forward in time and are unable to reverse the sands up the glass. The sand continues to migrate from the top of the glass to the bottom of the glass, regardless of our station or position in life or how much wealth we may amass. In this regard, we are all equal or on the same footing.
Death is another allusion in the Hourglass. The Hourglass is sometimes depicted with a scythe, emphasizing the theme of death. The scythe has a long history of depicting the Grim Reaper or the Angel of Death, especially in Europe and the Americas. It’s also linked to the legendary figure of Father Time. Death, the great leveler, is mentioned in this metaphor. Death will come for us in the end, regardless of our station in life or the money we have amassed.
This is most likely one of Freemasonry’s darkest references. It can, however, be turned around by believing in the soul’s eternal existence. It is true that time passes for all of us and that death arrives for all of us. It is through the belief that leading a good, honest and true life that we will be able to one day turn the hourglass on its side, stopping the flow of time as our good works here on Earth are recognized.
The hourglass, then, is another interesting historical symbol that has been incorporated within Freemasonry to encourage brothers to see the world in a particular way while remembering some of life’s important lessons.
It’s just one of a plethora of intriguing symbols that make up the complex teachings of Freemasonry and serves as a pertinent reminder that life here on earth isn’t eternal, and brothers must do everything they can to live a true and meaningful existence.