The skull and crossbones of the Jolly Roger flag are one of the most easily recognizable symbols found anywhere in the world. If you read any piece of children’s literature, you will see the Jolly Roger flying proudly from the mast of a pirate’s ship. In literature, pirates are somewhat romanticized.
For anyone that has seen Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean, you need only to reflect on the character of Captain Jack Sparrow to see that such figures are revered and appreciated. But the reality of piracy was a very different story indeed. Pirates were aggressive, callous thieves, who would lay siege to a particular part of the world and wreak havoc across waterfront communities.
The romantic notion of pirates as gallant adventurers is a little misguided, and would be strongly challenged by the people who suffered at the hands of these criminals of the middle ages. But however they’re represented in popular culture, the skull and crossbones is the banner under which they are represented. If you show anyone white skull and crossbones on a black background, they will immediately think of pirates.
The flag actually dates back to sometime around the 1720s, when well-known pirates like Black Sam Bellamy were laying siege to the high seas. Pirates would raise the flag as they were about to attack another sea-going vessel. Piracy on the high seas was at its worst at the end of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1714, and a great deal of people suffered as a result.
Given its nefarious history, you may well question why on earth the symbol has come to be used within Freemasonry. And what does it represent within the Craft today? Let’s take a look now.
It represents the certainty of death
Before the skull and crossbones was used on the Jolly Roger flag, it was commonly inscribed on tombstones to symbolise a human being’s passing to the afterlife. This is the main reason that the symbol can be found within Freemasonry, and it has nothing to do with piracy.
As you will likely be aware, brothers are taught not to fear death. We are taught that death is something that happens naturally and is something we can’t avoid. Instead of waiting for this inevitability, brothers are taught to accomplish great things in life and accept death when it comes as a part of the journey.
That way, brothers will be fondly remembered when they pass, for achieving great things during their lives. You may be aware of the Latin phrase ‘memento mori,’ which is common in Masonry. Its literal translation is ‘remember that you must die’ and it commonly accompanies the skull and crossbones symbol.
While at first reading you might think this is terribly morbid, it’s actually pertinent advice that brothers would do well to follow. Afterall, if you live your life fully accepting that one day you will inevitably die, you can live without regret and inhibition. You can go onto live life to the fullest, while staying true to the cardinal values of Masonry.
Few brothers could argue that such sage advice isn’t warmly welcomed. Therefore, because the skull and crossbones are used as a timely reminder of this advice within Freemasonry, it is much less controversial than initially feared.
The Knights Templar
One Masonic order that regularly attracts much curiosity from the outside is the Knights Templar. Perhaps because of the notorious reputation that preceded the defenders of Christian pilgrims throughout the Crusades, the order is sometimes tarnished with a less than complimentary brush.
Their choice of the skull and crossbones as a prominent symbol possibly doesn’t help their cause, either. During the thirteenth century crusades [400 years before ‘pirates’ were a scourge on the high seas] the knights committed many an act that could well be described as piracy. They took hostages, stole property and commodities, and acted in ways that wouldn’t be deemed appropriate for defenders of Christian honour.
Many a historian has pointed to the fact that the brutish acts committed by the knights tells an alternative story of their formation and existence. However its interpreted, you will find examples within historical documents of the knights being brandished as pirates and criminals, further adding to the controversy of the appearance of the symbolism in the Craft.
So, is the use of the skull and crossbones within Freemasonry appropriate?
When interpreting any type of Masonic symbolism, one must come from a position of nuance. Many of the most prominent symbols of Freemasonry, such as the Eye of Providence, have been represented in very many ways throughout history. Just because they’re used within Masonic teachings, it doesn’t mean that there is anything sinister about their use.
This is perhaps how we should understand the use of the skull and crossbones symbol. There’s little doubting that piracy was a terrible scourge on coastal communities in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but Freemasonry’s use of the symbol certainly isn’t in support of the barbaric acts of these men. Even if the links between the Knights Templar and modern-day Masonry can be sustained.
It’s much better, then, to regard the use of the skull and crossbones within Freemasonry as a timely reminder to brothers of the certainty of death. The Latin phrase ‘memento mori’ is extremely pertinent and is an excellent way for brothers to live their lives. By acknowledging the inevitability of death, one is able to live life to its fullest, and this is one of the fundamental teachings of Freemasonry.