The Symbol of the Skull and Crossbones and its Masonic Application

Guest Contributor: P.D. Newman

There has been a great deal of controversy of late concerning the symbol of the skull and crossbones and whether or not it should be regarded as a legitimate Masonic emblem. This article is an attempt to demonstrate that this symbol is indeed authentic in its Masonic association, for it both conceals and reveals genuine mysteries pertaining to our Craft.

Considering the fact that the skull and crossbones continue to be a common addition to chambers of reflection and third degree tracing boards of many Masonic jurisdictions as well as a prominent feature within the Templar and Kadosh Degrees of the York and Scottish Rites, it would seem to me that the symbol's legitimacy is, if the reader will allow the parlance, a "given," but unfortunately for many Masons, the connection between the seemingly macabre emblem of the skull and crossbones and our gentle Craft is one which remains obscured by what in all probability are simply and understandably the shadows of their own ill-founded fears and insecurities. The association of the symbol of the skull and crossbones with notions of piracy and poison has no doubt left many Masons desirous of distancing themselves and indeed the Fraternity from these and similar emblems.

Memento Mori.1 It is natural to fear death, but we as Masons are taught to view that inescapable moment not as something to dread but rather as the motivating factor in accomplishing our own work and duty as men and as Masons.

"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."2

For this reason we are given a sobering reminder every time we have the fortune to sit in Lodge during the raising of a fellow of the Craft to the Sublime Degree of Master Mason or during the Knighting of a Mason as a Templar or Knight Kadosh that death is always near and that it could come at any place and any time, regardless of the person or persons involved.

Be it in the chamber of reflection in the jurisdictions where one is permitted or required, the tracing board of the Master Mason degree, the Knighting ceremony of the Order of the Temple in the York Rite or the Knights Kadosh Degree in the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of the Southern Jurisdiction, that which stands as the primary reminder of the grim truth that death is ever imminent is the chilling human skull and crossbones. However, the symbol also has an esoteric application which is equally if not more profound in its relevance.

We shall begin our explanation by first focusing on the Masonic significance of the death's head or human skull. In his book, Low Magick, Brother Lon Milo DuQuette half-jokingly stated regarding the mechanism of ritual work and ceremonial magic that "[i]t's all in your head…you just have no idea how big your head is." According to one 18th century Masonic expose, Brother DuQuette is absolutely right. In Samuel Pritchard's Masonry Dissected we encounter the following dialogue:

Q. Have you any Key to [the Secrets contained in the Lodge]?
A. Yes.
Q. Where do you keep it?
A. In a Bone Bone Box that neither opens nor shuts but with Ivory Keys.
Q. Does it hang or does it lie?
A. It hangs.
Q. What does it hang by?
A. A Tow-Line 9 inches or a Span.
Q. What Metal is it of?
A. No manner of Metal at all; but a Tongue of good Report is as good behind a Brother's Back as before his Face.

- N.B. The Key is the Tongue, the Bone Bone Box the Teeth, the Tow-Line the Roof of the Mouth.3

A similar exchange, appearing in the Sloane Manuscript, led historian Tobias Churton to declare outright that indeed "the Lodge is in the head."4 This suggests that the Lodge, furniture, ornaments, and officers may all have their reflection within the make-up of man. Sufi-inspired Russian mystic, G.I. Gurdjieff, offered a similar teaching. According to Gurdjieff, every man, not unlike a perfect Lodge, has an internal sevenfold constitution which he termed the "Seven Men." This notion is not unlike the Theosophical teaching concerning the septenary nature of the soul of man, an interpretation which has, since the occult revival of the 19th century, consistently been extended by authors such as Manly P. Hall, J. S. M. Ward, and W. L. Wilmshurst to the seven officers which constitute a perfect Lodge.

"[M]an, the seven-fold being, is the most cherished of all the Creator's works, and hence also it is that the Lodge has seven principle officers, and that a lodge, to be perfect, requires the presence of seven brethren; though the deeper meaning of this phrase is that the individual man, in virtue of his seven-fold constitution, in himself constitutes the "perfect lodge," if he will but know himself and analyze his own nature aright."5

More recently, in his formidable book, Freemasonry: Symbols, Secrets, Significance, W. Kirk McNulty applied a decidedly Jungian solution to the problem of Masonic ritual, placing the Lodge, candidate, and officers squarely and neatly within the conscious and unconscious mind; that is, inside of the head.

The crossbones also have an intriguing Masonic application. In the guidelines provided by the Grand Lodge of Colorado for implementing and conducting a proper chamber of reflection, Masons are informed that "[t]he crossbones are also a hint at the pillars, the portico of man upon which he must stand as he labors in the quarry."6 As Matthew C. Pelham, Sr. demonstrated in his thought provoking article "A Search for More Light in the Symbolism of the Skull and Crossbones," the association between the crossbones, which themselves are always constructed using human femurs or thighbones, and the two pillars of the Temple, stems no doubt from the verse in Song of Solomon which announces in a moving hymn to Deity that "His legs are as pillars."7 Still, there is another similarity between the pillars of the Masonic Lodge and someone's (or, more specifically, something's) legs which is so absolutely striking that I dare not fail to mention it.

In the Greek myth of Jason and the Argonauts, the ship Argo sailed to Europa in Crete following Jason's legendary retrieval of the golden fleece. On the island of Europa, the Argonauts encountered a great metallic giant called Talos, meaning sun or solar, which was cast wholly of solid bronze. His legs, on the other hand, while also made of bronze, were cast completely hollow, and one of them, it was said, contained a single vein through which flowed the divine ichor or golden blood of the gods. The presence of the ichor within his leg animated the giant, enabling Talos to perform the sole function for which he was created, that is to circumambulate Europa three times daily in order to protect and guard the land from approaching pirates. If the reader will recall, the Pillars of Freemasonry are also said not only to have been hollow and cast from bronze, but according to some traditions within the Craft, it was only one of them which contained the treasured archives of Freemasonry, not unlike Talos' peculiar legs, only one of which was possessive of the Olympic gods' magical ichor. Lastly, it is notable that scholar A. B. Cook interpreted the myth of Talos as being a veiled allusion to the Masonically relevant lost wax casting method of metallurgy thus bringing us back full circle to the question of the legitimacy of this symbol.

Regardless of the negative connotations which may surround the image, the symbol of the skull and crossbones, whether considered exoterically or esoterically, is absolutely possessive of profound Masonic import. As we have demonstrated, the image is suggestive of both man's mortality and more significantly, initiation within the Masonic Lodge. We are hopeful that we've aided our more uncertain Brethren in laying aside some of their underlying fears and insecurities concerning this most curious and potent of Masonic emblems. The symbol of the skull and crossbones points at once to the inevitable end of man as well as to one of the means by which he might accept and come to peace with the knowledge and anticipation of such an ending, tried and true Masonic initiation.

End Notes

1 Meaning "Remember Death"
2 Folger Ms. 1
3 Samuel Pritchard's Masonry Dissected (1730)
4 Tobias Churton's- The Golden Guilders: Alchemists, Rosicrucians, and the First Freemasons, p. 222
5 Song of Solomon 5:15

References

Blavatsky, H.P.- The Secret Doctrine
Churton, Tobias- The Golden Builders: Alchemists, Rosicrucians, and the First Freemasons
Cook, A.B.- Zeus a Study in Ancient Religion
De Hoyos, Arturo- Committed to the Flames: The History and Rituals of a Secret Masonic Rite (with S. Brent Morris)
De Hoyos, Arturo- Albert Pike's Esoterika
DuQuette, Lon Milo- Low Magick: It's All In Your Head…You Just Have No Idea How Big Your Head Is
McNulty, W. Kirk- Freemasonry: Symbols, Secrets, Significance
Ouspensky, P.D.- The Fourth Way
Porter, Cliff- The Secret Psychology of Freemasonry
Pritchard, Samuel- Masonry Dissected
Ruck, Carl A.P.- Classical Myth
The Holy Bible: Master Mason Edition
Ward, J. S. M.- The Master Mason's Handbook

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Engaging the Risks of Contemplative Practice

Across all great spiritual traditions, there are warnings about risks in contemplative practices. This article explores some of those risks and associated problems, all of which I have personally experienced to some extent. 

The Problem of Results

I’ll begin approaching this issue from the observation that each of us has a tendency to judge some particular kind of experience as especially meaningful or rewarding, and so we can naturally focus our efforts on contemplative practices that we believe improve our chances of having such experiences, our metaphorical wages.  However, because very few practices have a 100% return of the desired results, the effect of partial reinforcement can push us toward a kind of addiction in which we feel compelled to try harder and harder to get the high, no matter what the cost.  In effect, we run the risk of our practice becoming a drug that we use to attain our particular favorite high. Casinos profit obscenely from this phenomenon, and so do some people in the spirituality/religion business, but I digress.

From this point, let’s consider different categories for experiences and practices people commonly consider meaningful or rewarding in their spiritual lives.  This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it’s a good starting place and you are encouraged to add some ideas of your own.  It will probably be fairly easy for you to look at the list and pick out a few things at each end of your own like/dislike scale.

Intellectual – These experiences are about the discovery, acquisition, processing and communication of information, ideas, and insight.  Along with such effects through the usual academic pursuits, this category would include those from all forms of analytical, theoretical, and speculative thinking, as well as from visions and related psychic experiences.

Social – These experiences are dependent upon relationship with other human beings, and involve themes of acceptance, belonging, support, roles and responsibilities, status, esteem and power.

Physical – This category involves increased or decreased sensory stimulation.  Nature, art, ritual, ceremony, service to others, dietary observances, exercise, sex, austerities, and the bodily aspects of meditation and prayer all have relevance.

Emotional – Here we are speaking of heightened or lessened feelings, such as pleasure, pain, comfort, discomfort, satisfaction, frustration, excitement, sadness, happiness, anger, peace, confidence, anxiety, fear, release of tension, relief from boredom, and so on.

It’s apparent that these categories aren’t completely discrete from each other; they are interconnected.   In considering that interconnectedness, you might have already noticed how often the emotional category serves as the final arbiter of our choices.  We can contrive lots of rationalizations and justifications for pursuing one thing more than another, but the deeper we look the clearer we see that we’re more likely to follow through with something if we believe it promises some sort of emotional satisfaction for ourselves, whether it is comfort in having done the “right” thing or even a kind of masochistic satisfaction.  Even the continuation or cessation of our own physical lives is subject to this dynamic.

It’s not my intention to encourage self-flagellation about our very deep and powerful tendencies to serve ourselves.  I am convinced that emotional self-interest is an inextricable part of human nature, and any attempt to pretend otherwise only leads deeper into a life of unhealthy illusion.  These observations are instead made primarily to point out some of the most crucial dynamics leading to imbalance, disharmony, and fragmentation in our souls.  Likewise, they suggest that our choices about contemplative practice can actually contribute more to psychospiritual dysfunction than to wellbeing, even when they feel very good.

The Problem of Discipline

With regard to discipline, in observing my own practice and the practice of others, it’s obvious that consistency and persistence can be huge challenges. Quite frankly, I believe a large part of this problem is our wanting easy, low-cost, instant gratification. It might be a little reductionist, but it sometimes seems to me that we regard contemplative practice more like a form of entertainment than a way to greater awareness, wholeness, integration, and depth of being in ourselves, in relationship with God, and in our presence in this world.  Many of us also want our experiences to be intellectually or emotionally profound, and perhaps even socially or materially tangible.  Any practice that doesn’t seem to quickly produce such fruit can quickly be judged as unproductive and worthless, and then we flit off to something different; we can also imagine ourselves as having already “advanced” beyond the need for that practice.  It’s so easy to ignore how often the great saints and sages have asserted the value of enduring commitment to the most basic practices.  My personal observation is that it’s often in persisting through boredom with a contemplative practice that we begin to gain the most significant benefits, subtle though they may be. 

The Problem of Discernment

Here we are beginning to consider how confusion about the value of experiences can impair discernment about the value of a practice.  A major element of such confusion is assuming that the value of an experience, and therefore the practice that facilitated it, is measured by the magnitude of its immediate impression upon our conscious minds. Another aspect of this confusion is in taking an extraordinary experience too literally; there are countless stories of visionaries who have brought horrible suffering to themselves and others because of knee-jerk reactions to their own inner experiences. For example, strong desires can lead to mistaking an experience as a direct contact with something that the experience actually only represents.  More specifically, a flash of light experienced in the depths of meditation may reveal something to us about the presence and action of Spirit, but it does not necessarily mean that the light was the appearance of a particular spiritual being.  Similarly, just as the on-screen image of a movie actor is not the actual character portrayed, or even the actual actor, so too can dreams and visions about other beings be far removed from actual contact with them.  Even the images of these words are not the actual forms on the screen, let alone the actual thoughts in my mind, but are your mind’s perception of the words and the thoughts behind them.  Another potential confusion is taking the magnitude, frequency or total number of one’s experiences as an unquestionable sign of spiritual “progress.” Such an attitude is dangerously self-aggrandizing and a highly volatile fuel for wish-fulfilling delusions.

Mediating the Risk-Benefit Problems

So, is there some way to minimize these risks without turning contemplative practice into nothing but a heartless drudgery or abandoning it all together? 

One generally useful guideline found is to carefully attend to the overall integration and harmony of the psyche’s different aspects and functions. Of course, this guideline is itself based upon a very deep, broad and persistent practice of honest self-awareness and caring self-acceptance.  Said another way, it is the practice of being lovingly present with oneself, and thus becoming increasingly aware of the very fluid interconnectedness of everything within us – head, heart, and gut. 

Along with this practice of presence, all the great spiritual traditions recommend the mindfulness and application of certain virtues.  In Masonry we traditionally rely on the Four Cardinal Virtues – Prudence, Temperance, Fortitude and Justice – and the Three Theological Virtues – Faith, Hope, and Charity (from caritas, spiritual love).  But it’s very important to understand that the practice of the virtues is not about forcing one’s external behaviors to conform to some predetermined model of perfection.  The object here is not to build up some new external facade of perfection in the place of being more consciously whole; in fact, when rightly understood, the virtues are first and foremost internal processes. When incorporated with the practice of loving self-presence, they shed significant light on the ways one is at odds with oneself, suffering from psychic fragmentation and compartmentalization, while also pointing out paths toward greater integration and harmony. 

A third recommendation is to seek companionship and mentoring from others engaged in contemplative practice. While it is often advisable to avoid making one’s contemplative practices a topic of ordinary conversation, there are significant benefits in comparing notes with others seriously engaged in work similar to ours. This is especially true with people who not only have more experience with the work, but also impress us as having grown wiser and more loving in the process.

Being more fully present with ourselves, the checks and balances of the virtues, and the company of fellow practitioners don’t provide a foolproof guarantee that we won’t make mistakes, yet they can reduce the risks in making them.  When we do make mistakes, these guidelines can help us lovingly embrace them as learning opportunities and thus become even more meaningful experiences in our spiritual lives.  Beyond these very significant benefits, they may also facilitate a deepening awareness of something in ourselves and our relationships other than thinking, feeling, sensing, and doing – something quiet and still, and at first seemingly tiny and insignificant, yet more vast and powerful than we can comprehend, let alone control. Awareness of this perplexing presence can be fascinating and frightening – fascinating in its penetration into a very deep mystery of our being, and frightening in our awareness of the comparative smallness and powerlessness of that part of us we most often identify as “me.”

Conclusion

With contemplative practice, like the rest of life, let’s acknowledge that there is no way to totally eliminate risk; even in retreating to avoid some risks we fate ourselves to take others.

So the question I’ll leave you with is this: What risks do Faith, Hope and Love call upon you to take?

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Chuck Dunning has authored: Contemplative Masonry: Basic Applications of Mindfulness, Meditation, and Imagery for the Craft

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Introducing "Alchemically Stoned- The Psychedelic Secret of Freemasonry"

In celebration of the 300th anniversary of modern Freemasonry, The Laudable Pursuit Press is proud to present Brother P.D. Newman's groundbreaking work Alchemically Stoned- The Psychedelic Secret of Freemasonry

"P.D. Newman's bold and daring theory provides a radical interpretation of Masonic symbolism. In the tradition of Wasson, Hofmann and Ruck, in The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries (1978), and Heinrich's Strange Fruit: Alchemy, Religion, and Magical Foods (1995), Newman suggests that practical psychoactive pharmacology, rather than philosophy, lies concealed in the root of some of our allegories and mysteries. Admitting to being more than a mere theoretician, Newman draws from his own personal experiences, and a wide range of sources, in presenting his theory in a logical manner, which merits consideration. "

- Arturo De Hoyos, 33* 
Grand Archivist and Grand Historian
Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite, Southern Jurisdiction
 

"In this sensational new book, P.D. Newman argues that the use of DMT was an essential ingredient in certain Masonic Rites, especially Cagliostro’s Egyptian Rite and Melissino’s Rite, something that added to the overall ritualistic experience. These lost rites of the eighteenth century are something that I’m deeply interested in, and the idea that certain rites included the digestion or smoking of the root extracts of a certain species of acacia that had hallucinogenic properties to produce an effect in a particular ‘lodge’ room is a fascinating one. Newman’s work details the use of DMT in various initiation rituals throughout history and provides an argument for his theory that is at once convincing, entertaining and interesting.

The sprig of acacia is a strong symbol within Freemasonry, and Newman presents us with a new twist on the meaning behind this symbol. Newman also presents us with the history of the acacia symbol within Freemasonry, from its mention in eighteenth century exposes, and how during the third degree, it became an essential ingredient in the Master Mason ritual, perhaps in more ways than one."

-Dr. David Harrison
Author of The Genesis of Freemasonry
 

Here is a lecture that Bro. Newman gave regarding some of the ideas and topics contained in the book:

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