Reading Time: 7 minutes

Questions and Answers – Craft Freemasonry First Degree

A look at the First Degree, in freemasonry : 

The phrase “The Sun at its meridian seems incongruous, can you explain?

The correct phrase would be on the meridian. i.e. when the sun is at its greatest altitude. We should say “the sun is always on the meridian of some part of the surface”. The writers of our original ritual were perhaps not so concerned to use the scientific explanation although the meaning is clear. If we pursue the logic a little further we should not say “appears a paradox” but “is a paradox”. If however, “the meridian” is substituted for “its meridian” it solves the first problem. Perhaps that was the original rendering.

What is the significance of the two parallel lines found in some tracing Boards ?

As in so many cases of Masonic symbolism there are a number of ideas. They could represent the two pillars of Mercy and Severity on the Tree of Life. The Point within a Circle representing Beauty. Alternatively it could represent the Sun and solar system with the two lines representing the totes of the earth at the two solstices. The two parallel lines would then be close to the two Saint John days, i.e. Saint John the Evangelist and St John the Baptist.

Should we pronounce “hele” as “heel” or “hail”? What does the word mean and where does it come from?

A. The Oxford English Dictionary gives the meaning “To hide, conceal; to keep secret,” its use dates from about 825 AD. The dictionary says that its use is now obsolete. There is another meaning given; to cover, cover in; for example covering roots or seeds and the like with earth. The meaning of the word so far as Freemasonry is concerned is, I believe, to keep secret. The word may be pronounced either heel or hale. The late RW Bro. Sir Lionel Brett, PDGM, Nigeria, who spent some years as a judge in that country and who was a Past Master of Quatuor Coronati, wrote: In his Life of Johnson Boswell records that on 28 March 1772 Johnson said “When I published the Plan for my Dictionary Lord Chesterfield told me that the word great should be pronounced so as to rhyme to state; and Sir William Yonge sent me word that it should be pronounced so as to rhyme to seat, and that none but an Irishman would pronounce it grait.”

Now here were two men of the highest rank, the one, the best speaker in the House of Lords, the other, the best speaker in the House of Commons, differing entirely. It is significant that this difference of opinion concerned the same vowels as in hail and hele. I think Bernard Jones in his Freemasons’ Guide and Compendium wrote good sense on the point. He points out that the words “hele, conceal and never reveal” must have been put together as a triple rhyme, and suggests that if, as he maintains, the last two words have changed from ale to eel there is no reason why the first should not do the same. However we must acknowledge the fact that, as indicated above, there have always been differences of opinion.

The Length of my Cable Tow

This is a comparatively modern symbolical allusion to ancient operative practice by which masons were obliged to attend the (annual) assemblies if they were within a specified distance. The earliest documents belonging to the Craft, i.e. the MS. Constitutions (or Ancient Charges), usually contained regulations on this subject, e.g. the Regius MS., c. 1390, prescribed attendance except in case of sickness or reasonable excuse. The Cooke MS., c. 1410, only excused attendance if in “…perylle of dethe. Neither of these texts specified any particular distance, but later versions stated the number of miles which attendance was obligatory, e.g. in two newly discovered versions of the Constitutions now in the care of the Grand Lodge Library the earlier text, c. 1625, demands attendance within seven miles, and the later one specifies fifty miles. In most cases the distances vary from five to 50 miles.

The Dumfries No.4 MS., c. 1710, has a question in its catechism: Q: how were you brought in? A. shamefully with a rope about my neck. Pritchard, in 1730, mentioned “the Length of a Cable-rope from Shore as part of one of the penalties in his Obligation. These are indications of the way in which the rope may have come into the ceremonies, and they probably bear quite separate symbolical explanations. But when a candidate undertakes to attend the Lodge, if within the length of his cable-tow, he is making a simple promise to attend so long as it is in his power to do so.

The word ‘cable’ appears several times in the course of the ritual, and it seems to have a different meaning in each case.

1. In the initiation the cable-tow is to prevent any attempt at retreat.

2. At another stage there is a warning of something to be buried ‘at least a cable’s length from the shore, where the tide, etc….’. This seems to indicate a specific measurement but the distance is not stated.

A Cable’s Length from the Shore.

The cable, or cable’s length, is indeed a unit of marine measurement, defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as about 100 fathoms; in marine charts 607.56 feet, or one-tenth of a sea-mile. The same work quotes several examples of the early use of this term, the earliest being dated 1555. It may be assumed that this distance from shore was specified in our ritual to ensure that whatever was buried there would be irrecoverable.


What is the origin and significance of our procedure in this part of the preparation of the Candidate? The polluting influence of metal is stressed several times in the Bible. Here are two examples: “And if thou wilt make me an altar of stone, thou shalt not build it of hewn stone: for if thou lift up they tool upon it, thou hast polluted it.” (Exodus XX.25.)

“And the house, when it was in building, was built of stone made ready before it was brought thither: so that there was neither hammer nor ax nor any tool of iron heard in the house, while it was in building.” (I Kings. VI. 7.) The idea of pollution by metal seems to have been common in many countries and we find it in various mythologies, e.g. in the Baldur myth, the mistletoe may not be cut with iron.

Although we have descriptions of ritual and ceremonial procedure in a number of documents from 1696 onwards, the earliest hint of this practice appears in the Graham MS. of 1726: “How came you into the Lodge – poor and penyless (sic) blind and ignorant of our secrets – Pritchard’s exposure, Masonry Dissected, dated 1730, emphasized the “metallic” aspects of the procedure of those days, but he gave no reason for it:

“How did he bring you?” “Neither naked nor cloathed, barefoot nor shod, deprived of all Metal and in a right moving posture.” The next description – from a similar source – Le Secret des Francs-Macons, by the Abbe G.L.C. Perau, was published in France in 1742, and it is much more detailed: “After he has satisfied these questions, he is deprived of all metal articles he may have about him, such as buckles, buttons, rings, (snuff) – boxes, etc.

There are some Lodges where they carry precision so far as to deprive a man of his clothes if they are ornamented with galon (i.e. a kind of gold or silver thread). Another French exposure, Le Caéchisme des Francs Macons, seems to have been the first document of this kind to give the reasons for the procedure:

Q. Why were you deprived of all Metals?

A. Because when the Temple of Solomon was in building, the Cedars of Lebanon were sent all cut, ready for use, so that one heard no sound of hammer, nor of any other tool, when they used them (i.e. the timbers). (Note the Biblical quotation to stone; Le Catéchisme and later French texts speak of the Cedars of Lebanon).

A more extended symbolism began to make its appearance towards the end of the 18th century and the following is an unusual interpretation from Preston’s First Lecture, Section ii Clause 1: “Why deprived of metal?” “For three reasons: first reason, that no weapon be introduced into the Lodge to disturb the harmony; second reason, that metal, though of value, could have no influence in our initiation; third reason, that after our initiation metal could make no distinction amongst Masons, the Order being founded on peace, virtue and friendship”

There can be little doubt that the present-day procedure is a survival of the idea of pollution from metal, and since the Candidate for Initiation is symbolically erecting a Temple within himself, that is probably the reason why the “deprivation” has remained a part of our practice throughout more than two centuries. What is the origin and significance of the custom of clapping the hands when the hoodwink is removed from the candidate at his initiation and of the similar action when he is invested with the apron?

The clap after the hoodwink has been removed is nothing more than a form of applause, a form of welcome. It is occasionally used in some lodges after a joining brother has been elected. After the result of the election has been declared, the Director of Ceremonies says; “Brethren, a greeting for our newly-elected member” the response is a single clap. There are other occasions when a single clap is used for a similar reason, for example, in some lodges, after each officer has been invested. The clap at the end of the investiture of the apron is a different matter, especially as the action is better described as smacking the apron.

One learned ritualist, WBro. Dr E.H. Cartwright, PSGD, in his book A commentary on the Freemasonic ritual, had this to say about it; “The practice, sometimes witnessed, of the Warden taking hold of the badge towards the end of his address and smacking it, besides being disrespectful to the badge itself, is ineffective, and therefore undesirable”. However, it is only fair to point out that not all accept Cartwright’s views; the practice to which he refers is widespread.

It is difficult to find a good reason for the practice. The statement is sometimes made that it emphasizes the phrase “If you never disgrace that badge, it will never disgrace you”. Cartwright argues that this implies the corollary; if the candidate does disgrace the badge, it will disgrace him, and he considered that unthinkable! He argues that what is intended, and what should be said is “Let me exhort you never to disgrace it, for you may well be assured that it will never disgrace you”.

I understand that Emulation places the emphasis differently; “If you never disgrace that badge, it will never disgrace you”.

The Questions and Answers given herein have been reproduced with the kind permission of: The Brethren of Quatuor Coronati Lodge, No 2076