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The Masonic Ladder and the Great Chain of Being

by Bro. William Steve Burkle KT, 32°, KCRBE
Alpha Lodge No. 116, Grand Lodge of New Jersey
Philo Lodge No. 243, South River, New Jersey
Scioto Lodge No. 6, Chillicothe, Ohio.

This paper examines the esoteric symbolism of the Masonic Ladder and will develop the thesis that the Masonic Ladder’s esoteric meaning derives from an ancient concept dealing with the hierarchal ordering of the universe known as the Great Chain of Being . This ordering was so ingrained in the cultural, political, and theological structure of society that it was accepted as a matter of absolute fact at least until the late 1800’s or early 1900’s. This paper will discuss the concept of the Great Chain of Being, will examine its historical basis, and will explain how the esoteric symbolism of the Masonic ladder is related to this concept.

The Masonic ladder is a unique symbol in Freemasonry in that its symbolic allusion may be traced directly to the Bible (Genesis 28: 10-22)[i]. To my knowledge no other Masonic symbol is thus distinguished. This Bible verse ties the symbol to the story of Jacob, and thereby establishes that the symbolism of the Masonic Ladder is identical to that of Jacob’s ladder. The symbol of the Masonic Ladder figures prominently in the both Entered Apprentice Degree and the Degrees of York Rite Masonry, and is one of the few Masonic symbols which vary in its depiction depending upon the degree system in which it appears. It is also interesting that the symbolism of the ladder is linguistically similar to another prominent Masonic symbol, namely the “Winding Staircase”, however the explanations provided in the degree lectures for these two symbols are distinctly different. As with all Masonic symbols, the Masonic ladder has a much deeper esoteric symbolism which underlies the literal (exoteric) meaning provided in the degree lectures.

This paper examines the esoteric symbolism of the Masonic Ladder and will develop the thesis that the Masonic Ladder’s esoteric meaning derives from an ancient concept dealing with the hierarchal ordering of the universe known as the Great Chain of Being[ii]. This ordering was so ingrained in the cultural, political, and theological structure of society that it was accepted as a matter of absolute fact at least until the late1800’s or early 1900’s. In many instances this powerful notion remains with us today. This paper will discuss the concept of the Great Chain of Being, will examine its historical basis, and will explain how the esoteric symbolism of the Masonic ladder is related to this concept.

The Masonic Ladder

Tracing Board first degree The Masonic ladder is believed[iii] to have been introduced into Masonic ritual by Dunckerly in 1776, having purportedly been borrowed from ancient Hermetic tradition. Other accounts believe the introduction of the Masonic Ladder to have been as early as 1732 (attributed to Matin Clare) or 1760[iv] based upon an image of the Ladder found on a trestle board inscribed with this date. Other accounts indicate the symbol appeared in a Masonic context as late[v] as 1819 as a figure or symbol on a certificate in which the ladder is depicted as resting upon the VSL, reaching upwards towards the heavens. A version of this symbol is shown in Figure 1 in a Masonic tracing board image attributed to Lady Frieda Harris (1877 – 1962).

The number of rungs (rounds) found on the Masonic ladder has varied over time; however, either three or seven rungs are most common. Historically[vi], the ladder is closely associated with Mithraic, kabalistic, and numerous other mystery traditions.

The exoteric (literal) meaning attributed to the symbol of the Ladder in the EA degree lecture is that the three rungs in the ladder represent the Cardinal virtues[vii] of Faith, Hope, and Charity often called the “theological virtues”. There is also another explanation which posits that the three rungs allude to Youth, Manhood, and Old Age.  Versions of the lecture in which the ladder is shown with seven rungs add the four additional Cardinal virtues (Temperance, Fortitude, Prudence, and Justice).  In some cases the rails of the ladder are included in the symbolism[viii]. However, just as with the Biblical story of Jacob’s ladder, there is deeper meaning in the symbolism than is apparent from the explanation given in the lecture.

For example, Bro. W.L. Wilmhurst in a discussion of the ladder and the instruction once given during the Degree Lecture in his classic text The Masonic Initiation, notes[ix] that:

They were taught of the different levels and graduations of the Universe-some of them material and some ethereal,-the planes and sub-planes of it, upon which the great scheme is being carried out ; which levels and planes, all progressively linked together, constitute as it were one vast ladder of many rounds, staves, or rungs …”

Wilmhurst further elaborates that

“Jacob’s vision and ladder, therefore, exemplify the attainment of Initiation, the expansion of consciousness that comes when the Light of the centre is found…”

Brother Wilmhurst’s comments are absolutely accurate; there is an esoteric meaning associated with the symbol of the Masonic Ladder which relates not to the virtues, but rather to cosmology and spiritual evolution.

Esoteric Meaning

Ladder symbolism is not unique to Christian doctrine; in fact its use supersedes Christianity. Table 1 provides a summary of common ladder symbolism used by divergent cultures[x]. Note that in each of the cultures listed four levels of being are represented which correspond[xi] to Body, Mind, Soul and Spirit in the microcosm, and to the Infinite, Celestial, Intermediate, and Terrestrial in the macrocosm. This four-fold similarity is consistent with the original concept of the Great Chain of Being as conceived by Plato.

A Summary of Divergent Cultures Having Similar Ladder Symbolism (after Wilbur)[xii]

Christianity Judaism Islamist
Macrocosm Microcosm Macrocosm Microcosm Macrocosm Microcosm
Godhead Spirit Emancipation Neshamah Sovereign Power Qalb
God Soul Creation Ruah Domination Ruh
Angels Mind Formation Nefesh Dominion Nafs
Nature Body Action Body Kingdom Jinn
Chinese Buddhism Hinduism
Macrocosm Microcosm Macrocosm Microcosm Macrocosm Microcosm
Unspeakable(Tao) Shen Nirvana Buddha Nirguna Brahman Turiya (Atman)
Heaven (T’ien) Ling Bodhisattvas Subtle Mind Saguna Brahman Causal Body
Heaven/Earth Hsin Apsaras Gross Mind Devas in Lokas Subtle Body
10,000 Things Shen Nirmanakaya Five Senses Prakriti Gross Body

Modern anthropologists generally concur that the commonality of symbolism of this sort is the result of “diffusionism” and “acculturation”.  Diffusionism may be simply defined[xiii] as the spread of a cultural item from its place of origin to other places usually through migration, trade, war, or other contact. Acculturation[xiv] is considered to be those gradual changes purposefully produced in a given culture because of the influence of another politically dominant culture, in which the two cultures become similar as the end result.

There are also numerous examples in which a seven-fold hierarchical symbolism is found widely distributed among variant cultures. Table 2 provides an example of one such complex (three parallel meanings) seven tier symbolism which was used in the cult of Mithraicism[xv].

Chain of Being  in Mithraism








Mansion of the Blessed




World of Births




Middle World








World of Pre-Existence




First World

Of those traditions displaying ladder symbolism, that which is of particular interest in Freemasonry is the Kabalistic representation of the ladder provided by the Tree of Life glyph. Figure 2 illustrates the Tree of Life rendered as a seven-run ladder. The Kabalistic Tree of Life is comprised of three pillars. Each of these pillars contains spheres or “Sephira” (plural: Sephiroth) which are considered to be “emanations” of God. These spheres are connected by pathways. The Sephiroth of the left pillar (called the Pillar of Severity) represent the “masculine” characteristics of God (such as “judgment” and “understanding”), Sephiroth of the right pillar (the Pillar of Mercy) represent the “feminine” characteristics of God (such as “mercy” and “wisdom”). The Center pillar is the perfect “balance” between Severity and Mercy. Both the Angel Metatron (identified as the transported person of Enoch) and Christ are commonly associated with the Sephira “Tipareth” which are centered upon the middle pillar. 

Tree of Life

In the Zohar the Pillars on the left and right are associated with the Biblical characters of Isaac and Abraham, respectively. The center Pillar is associated with Jacob. Through his dream as detailed in Genesis, Jacob is made to understand by the image of the ladder the unity of the three pillars. There are Theologians who believe that the three pillars of the tree of life were the original basis for the concept of the Christian Trinity.  In the account of Jacob’s ladder given in Genesis 28: 10-22 the Angels serve as the entities which carry out the will of God. Their pathway in doing so is Jacobs Ladder – the center pillar, or the pillar of balance. Thus the ladder is associated with God’s perfect and balanced will and God’s grace.

There are two different Kabbalistic interpretations of the story of Jacob. The Jewish philosopher Maimonides Moses ben Maimon, 1138–1204 AD[xvi], in his “Guide to the Perplexed[xvii]” believed the story of Jacob’s ladder was intended as an explanation of the relationship between man’s existence on earth and existence in the “world of heavenly spheres”. He believed that the ascending angels are the prophets whose understanding of the ladder allows them an elevated level of spiritual awareness. The descending angels represent the prophets who having gained spiritual awareness descend to the material world to transmit their knowledge. Therefore, the dream relates that the two worlds, while separate are none-the-less connected and may be comprehended by study of the Tree of Life. Through this understanding man may reach the level of the Prophet.

 A second interpretation is given by Hassidic leader R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady (1745 – 1813 AD[xviii]) and R. Hayyim of Volozhin (1749-1821). In this interpretation, the Ladder symbolizes the stages of spiritual progression. This interpretation views the ascending and descending Angels to represent the mobility of spirit. It is interesting that in the commentary on this interpretation it is noted that the ladder does not rest “on the ground” but rather “near the ground” and that its anchor-point is in heaven.

Since it is not my purpose here to explain the complex meaning of the Tree of Life I will simply note that from my point-of-view, the esoteric notion represented by the Masonic Ladder is consistent with the interpretation rendered by Shneur Zalman of Lyady et. al. This is not surprising since this interpretation appears to have been formulated at about the same time period in which the Masonic ladder first appeared in our ritual. The Masonic Ladder alludes to the Spiritual growth and transcendence which is possible through study. We are also reminded that having ascended and received light, we are obligated also to descend the ladder to share our knowledge and faith with our Brothers.

The Great Chain of Being

The “Great Chain of Being”, also known as the “Scala Naturae” (Latin: Ladder of Nature) or the “Echelle des Etres” (French: Scale of Beings) is a concept[xix] developed from the ideas of Plato (circa 427 – 347 BC), Aristotle (384 – 322 BC), and the Neo Platonist philosophers Plotinus (circa 204–270 A.D.) and Porphyry (circa 234– 305 A.D.).  Plato conceived of “Ideal Forms” which were the patterns of perfection of physical being which exist in the mind of God. This may be loosely interpreted as meaning that all of God’s physical and spiritual creations possess some degree of perfection. Aristotle considered that man is the most perfect of animal creations and that it would be possible to rank animals based upon their level of perfection relative to man. The concept evolved to include a hierarchal scale based upon degrees of perfection in which in which God was at the top, followed by Spiritual Beings (i.e. Angels), followed respectively by Man, remaining members of the Animal Kingdom, members of the Plant Kingdom, and lastly the Inert (mineral) world. Within each these major Hierarchical categories, further ranking was developed. For example Kings were placed at the top of the list of perfection in the Human realm, with nobles following.  This hierarchical scheme was justified using Biblical text from Romans 13:1 which establishes the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings, and was the basis of the medieval feudal system. During the Renaissance[xx] (roughly spanning the 14th to the 17th century) and the ensuing Age of Enlightenment, the entire social spectrum was incorporated into the hierarchy of the Great Chain of being. Written works by Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716, Compte de Buffon (1720-1788), Charles Bonner (1720-1793) established the Great Chain of Being as “scientific fact”.  In 1774 botanist Karl von Linné (Latinized as Carolus Linnaeus) proposed a binomial system of nomenclature for classifying animal and plant organisms. In his system, organisms were given two Latin names: “genus” and “species”.  Each genus included related species and was also part of a larger category of living things (this later evolving into the modern system of Taxonomy comprising Class, Order, Genus, and Species). Linné’s system was of course consistent with the Great Chain of Being. Author Oliver Goldsmith in his text A History of the Earth and Animated Nature[xxi] published in 1774 created an exhaustive index[xxii] and hierarchical ranking of the organisms constituting the Great Chain of Being, complete with illustrations.

The concept of the Great Chain of Being is believed[xxiii] to have been introduced to Christian theology by St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1275 AD), and was especially popular with the Christian Church since the concept adopted a stable hierarchy in which God is Supreme, and because Clergy were considered to occupy the space just below Nobility in this hierarchy.  Further, the power of the Church ranked second only to the Power of the Empire (or Kingdom).

A person living during the 16th though the 18th centuries knew without doubt his or her own places in the Great Chain of Being. The doctrine of the Great Chain of Being permitted no opportunity for improvements upon God’s perfection, hence one’s lot in life was considered both divine destiny and unalterable, not only for a given individual but also for one’s descendants. (i.e. a baker’s son would produce only baker’s sons and daughters). As will be discussed later, this part of the doctrine appears to be highly contrived. This is considered as such, since the Biblical description of Angels ascending and descending Jacob’s ladder clearly represents the possibility for upward and downward mobility of spirit within the Chain. This rigid doctrine also did not provide for any degree of overlap within the Chain of Being, i.e. the overlap of beings exhibiting higher levels of perfection in one class with lower level beings of the next higher class. This is puzzling as well since the Great Chain of Being and the revival of Alchemy were contemporary concepts.

Arthur O. Lovejoy in his seminal work the Great Chain of Being[xxiv] made the observation that persons living during the “Age of Enlightenment” (roughly 1670 to 1815[xxv]) were largely those with minds which habitually assumed that simple solutions are possible for even the most complex matters. Lovejoy used the term “esprits simpliste” to describe this propensity. He wrote:

The representatives of the Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, for example, were manifestly characterized to a peculiar degree by the presumption of simplicity. Though there were numerous exceptions, though there were powerful ideas in vogue which worked in the contrary direction, it was never-the-less largely an age of esprits simplistes…”

As can be plainly discerned, the Great Chain of Being introduced a socio-political order which upheld the existing power structure. The acceptance by the masses of the Great Chain of Being as unalterable fact began to unravel around the time of the French Revolution and the founding of the United States, both of which championed a form of political rule which was not based upon hereditary kingship. Social mobility of the classes was indeed a shockingly radical concept.


The Great Chain of Being had an immense influence upon early western culture and the way we viewed ourselves in the context of relationships between men and between man and God. The close ties of Esoteric Freemasonry and Kabalistic concepts are well known and are generally accepted by knowledgeable Masons. It is entirely possible that the Great Chain may have had Kabalistic thought as its inspiration, since the concept of the Kabalistic Tree of Life probably pre-dated Plato. It is interesting to note that the basic concept of the Great Chain of Being which began as a brilliant question aimed at defining Man’s place in the Universe eventually evolved into a complex system which restricted freedoms and was responsible for racial discrimination.

I am proud to say that the tie which binds the Masonic Ladder and the Great Chain of Being is consistent with the original brilliant question: How does mankind relate to God and how does Man ascend to the light of God ?