At the heart of symbolism

The compasses and (Mason's) square


Masonic emblem

Heaven and Earth

The compasses and the (Mason's) square with equal branches were used in the Middle Ages for stone cutting and the construction of sacred structures. They are obviously associated with the circle and the square. These two geometric figures respectively represent Heaven characterized by the zodiac and Earth oriented according to the four compasses points.

When both tools are combined as in Masonic symbolism, the compasses are naturally located above the square just as Heaven covers Earth. Let us note that in the above image, one of the compasses branches stands over and the other one underneath the branches of the square. This corresponds to the predominance of celestial influences in one case and terrestrial influences in the other. In other words, the branch of the compasses in the foreground characterizes the descending path from Heaven towards Earth and the branch behind the ascending path from Earth towards Heaven. In case both square branches are above the compasses branches, the ascending path from Earth to Heaven alone is taken into account 1.

Between the compasses and the square we mostly find the “flaming Star”. This five-branched star symbolizes Man (for more details, see the European flag) or more precisely the Master Mason. More generally, it represents the initiate, gleaming in the celestial light in the middle of the terrestrial obscurity.

The Master Mason consequently belongs to the intermediary world between Heaven and Earth. He represents the perfectly accomplished terrestrial being on the way towards the celestial accomplishment. According to the Chinese tradition, it is a matter of the fully human or true being on the way towards the supra-human or transcending being. Or according to the words of the Egyptian tradition, it is a matter of the being initiated to the “little mysteries”, an essential step on the way towards the initiation to the “great mysteries”.

At the centre of the flaming Star, the letter G represents the divine Principle, the One that lies in the heart of the regenerated being (for more details, see the heart symbol). The central letter corresponds to the letter iod of the Hebraic alphabet transformed into G further to a phonetic equivalence with God (G stands for God).

The circle and the square

The circle and the square, associated with Heaven and Earth, can be represented in various ways and even contain each other:

Square fitting into  a circle Circle fitting into a square

These two figures correspond to two visions of the world:

  • In the first figure, Earth is inside and Heaven outside. The terrestrial being looks out of himself for access to the celestial world. It is a matter of a properly cosmological vision corresponding to the ascending path from Earth to Heaven 2;
  • In the second figure, Earth is outside and Heaven inside. The terrestrial being is searching deeply within himself for access to the celestial world. Here, it is a question of a fundamental metaphysical vision associated with the descending path from Heaven to Earth.

The Chinese tradition offers an illustration of both visions, notably the ancient coins and the cong (jade) tubes:

Old Chinese coin Cong tube

Of course, the cong tubes date back to the Liangzhu culture (3300-2600 before our era) and are previous to our knowledge of the symbolic image of the “round Heaven and square Earth” of the Chinese tradition. Nevertheless, the choice of forms already had a meaning in the Neolithic era.

Let us also note that the parallel of Western initiatory traditions and Far East traditions regarding compasses and square symbolism is not accidental (for more details, see the arrangement of the trigrams).

1 back In a more prosaic way, these three representations perfectly describe the relationships between the three Masonic degrees: Master Mason, Fellow Craft and Apprentice.

2 back Let us mention by passing that the image of a square surrounded by a circle can be found in Islam and, particularly, at Mecca. Indeed, the print left by the Kaaba on the ground and the circle drawn by the circumambulation of believers around the cubic monument make such an image reflecting the celestial aspiration of the pilgrim.

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