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Within Freemasonry, we know there are many symbols used to articulate important messages and perform many of the internal rituals and ceremonies. A significant part of a brothers’ journey, particularly early in his Masonic career, is to understand as many of these symbols as possible to reflect on their significance.
The majority of Masonic symbols have been borrowed and adapted from ancient religions and the practice of medieval stonemasons and are showcased proudly within Masonic lodges and literature today.
However, one symbol that is somewhat controversial in the world of Freemasonry is the skull and crossbones. When regarded in isolation, the skull and crossbones seem a little out of place alongside many other prominent Masonic symbols. This article will examine the history of the symbol and how it has been associated with Freemasonry in years gone by.
As always, this writing does not represent the views and opinions of Freemasons Community, but is merely the reflections of one Mason.
The history of the skull and crossbones
Before we look at the use of the skull and crossbones within Freemasonry, it’s important to understand its evolution throughout history. Perhaps the most common famous use of the skull and crossbones in history was on the Jolly Roger flag.
The Jolly Roger flag was flown to identify a pirate ship about to attack during the eighteenth century. It was used by famous pirates such as Black Sam Bellamy and Edward England, and it became one of the most commonly used pirate flags during the 1720s.
The skull and crossbones were adopted by pirates in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries when many privateers were turning to piracy due to the instability of the times, exacerbated at the end of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1714.
While pirates have been somewhat romanticized in western culture through literature and film, the reality is that pirates were dastardly criminals, who mercilessly looted on the high seas and showed very little mercy to their victims. Piracy was a significant problem throughout the eighteenth century, and the Jolly Roger became a symbol of those within the life.
In this respect, the skull and crossbones were adopted to represent the death and danger brought by pirates, and the symbol has endured to this day.
Although the skull and crossbones are most famous as a symbol of piracy, there is evidence of its use in history long before the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In fact, it is considered to have originated in the Late Middle Ages and first appeared as a memento mori on tombstones.
The skull and crossbones became widespread with the medieval Danse Macabre symbol. It was used on military flags and insignia from the early twelfth century and represented the military unit’s ferocity that was wearing it.
It wasn’t until 1829 that the skull and crossbones were used to label poison, as New York State adopted it in such a way. When interlaced with its piracy roots, we see that the skull and crossbones is a rather macabre and troubling symbol throughout history.
It seems that pirates adopted the symbol to reflect their barbaric acts and to indicate to those they were about to attack that they were in danger. When we consider this, it comes as a surprise that the symbol has been adopted by Freemasonry, as it certainly doesn’t seem to fit within the Masonic teachings of peace and virtue.
Let’s look at why Freemasonry adopted the symbol and how it is understood within the fraternity.
The skull and crossbones within Freemasonry
Within Freemasonry, the skull and crossbones are typical on third-degree tracing boards within many Masonic jurisdictions. Moreover, it is a prominent feature within the Knights Templar and Kadosh Degrees of the York and Scottish Rites.
While many Masons know that the skull and crossbones symbol is used within these degrees, they’re not entirely sure why it is used, as the macabre representation of the skull and crossbones is in direct contradiction to the peace of the craft.
It comes as no surprise that many Masons have tried to distance themselves from this symbol and don’t necessarily associate with it. Despite this, we still need to understand its symbolic meaning.
The primary meaning of the skull and crossbones in Masonic usage is to represent the certainty of death. While it is natural to fear death, Masons are taught to view death as a motivating factor to accomplish great things in life, rather than simply fear the inevitable.
In some ways, then, the certainty of death acts as a motivation to Masons to live a life full of accomplishment guided by strong moral values. In this regard, the symbol is used to represent memento mori, a Latin phrase that when translated means ‘remember that you must die.’
The phrase is thought to have its origins in ancient Rome, where it is believed that slaves accompanying generals on victory parades whispered the words as a reminder of their commander’s mortality.
In the Folger Manuscript, Masons are given a pertinent reminder of the certainty of death:
“The particles [of the hourglass] run rapidly, and, for aught we know, with the passing of one of them you or I shall die. It is uncertain. We should not…neglect a moment, but…do all we can do to the great end of being really happy. For we shall die, and in the grave there is no working. There is no device, no knowledge, no pardon there.”
This is a timely and helpful reminder to us all to live a life full of meaning and integrity. We often let life pass us by and complete tasks just for the sake of it, rather than because they add meaning or joy to our lives.
The continual reminder of memento mori is very important, and it is clear why it has been adopted within Freemasonry. When we come across the skull and crossbones within the fraternity, we can accept that it symbolizes the importance of living life to the full.
Moreover, the skull relates to rebirth and serves as a reminder of the importance of spiritual reawakening. We should note that when an initiate becomes an Entered Apprentice, he experiences the start of a spiritual rebirth.
It is ultimately the end of his life in darkness and the beginning of his journey towards light and the universe’s ultimate truth. Through the Masonic rituals and teachings, each Apprentice undergoes a spiritual reawakening, and for many, the prevalence of the skull and crossbones symbolises this. It is also believed that the crossbones within the symbol signifies the pillars of portico where a man stands as he labours in the quarry. In itself, this has essential meaning for Masons, as this serves as a metaphor for living the best life possible under challenging conditions.
The skull and crossbones in the Knights Templar
Although the skull and crossbones are used to represent the certainty of death within Masonic teachings, it should also be known that it is a symbol widely used by the Knights Templar on their ships.
During the thirteenth century, the Knights Templar had the world’s biggest fleet and were a genuinely dominant force during the Crusades. The Knights were well known for specific acts on the high seas that would be fairly described as piracy in the centuries that followed, meaning in some respects they could be considered early adopters of the famous symbol of piracy.
This link is made by Masonic and Templar historians, who point to the Maltese knights who were well known for their acts of piracy at sea, and it is from this link that the use of the symbol can be traced within the Knights Templar.
Why is there a controversy surrounding the skull and crossbones use in Freemasonry?
It’s fair to say that the skull and crossbones as a Masonic symbol are unpopular with many brothers. Part of this is the fact that it doesn’t sit well due to its links with rampant criminality in the past, and many brothers believe it should be replaced or adapted.
This is an interesting viewpoint, and it’s understandable why some men don’t want to be associated with what the skull and crossbones once stood for.
But can we really apply such logic to other Masonic symbols? Just because we associate with a symbol and extract meaning from it, it doesn’t mean that we support actions that were carried out under the symbol in centuries gone by.
For example, if we look at the Eye of Providence as a key Masonic symbol, we know it has its roots in Ancient Egypt. Many historians believe the Eye of Providence was a symbol of royal power represented in the Eye of Horus.
It’s clear that we can extract meaning from the Eye as a symbol, particularly in the fact that the Grand Architect of the Universe is watching over everything we do. But equally, it doesn’t mean that Masons must agree with or believe in the Ancient Egyptian Gods’ existence.
The same must be valid for the skull and crossbones symbol. We must acknowledge that it has been used in a macabre and depressing way throughout history; it even appeared on specific Nazi uniforms during the heinous crimes committed in 1930s and 1940s Germany.
But it doesn’t mean that Freemasonry condones such violence that was exercised under the symbol of the skull and crossbones in the past. Far from it, actually. Symbols evolve over time and are adapted by organizations and countries to represent different things.
The same is true in the case of the skull and crossbones within Freemasonry. If we acknowledge that above all else the skull and crossbones is a daily reminder to Masons of the certainty of death, then we can be satisfied that it is used to inspire brothers to lead their best possible life.
That being said, it’s important to recognize that some Masons remain unhappy with the use of the skull and crossbones by the Knights Templar, as they believe this is to close a connection to the criminal acts carried out by the Knights during the Crusades.
As far as the symbol of the skull and crossbones is concerned, it’s best to understand its broader meaning and not necessarily get too caught up on the finer historical details.
Conclusion: are the skull and crossbones an appropriate Masonic symbol?
The answer to this question is likely to be mixed. Some brothers will feel that the symbol is unnecessary and points to several dark chapters in global history. This sinister is something that Freemasonry should seek to avoid, as there are already numerous unfounded conspiracy theories laid at Freemasonry’s door.
On the other hand, brothers will believe that if understood as memento mori, the skull and crossbones is an important Masonic symbol and should be preserved. Reminded brothers about the certainty of death, and therefore the value of living a productive and virtuous life is undeniably beneficial.
From this viewpoint, the skull and crossbones are important symbols of Freemasonry, particularly when considered in its broadest sense.