Friday, September 12, 2008

The apron and “The Snake”

A lecture by Wor Bro Harvey Lovewell Sec WHJ Mayers Lodge of Research

We are told that Masonry is a system of morality veiled in symbol and allegory. I wanted to know the symbology of the snake on our aprons, but when asking my peers I did not get a satisfactory answer. This paper is my attempt to provide an answer. I would like to focus on the hook attached to our aprons, which is formed and decorated as a snake! Why is it formed like a snake, what does the snake symbolize?

It cannot be overemphasized that the serpent or snake plays no role in the teachings or ritual of regular Freemasonry. Its introduction as a fastener for masonic aprons is easily seen as the work of regalia manufacturers. That said, the symbolic usages of the snake are of interest to students of religion, esoterica, and of history.

Let us first look at the band of the apron, which in itself is an important symbol. The band separates the lower half of the body from the upper half. Wearing a band around the waist is also said to be a sign of stature, knowledge, or a particular promise. Remember for example the cords monks wear, or the bands worn by knights, and modern army officers. Even today, bands with colour are an expression of authority, such as the Karate and Judo belts. To lay down ones band, or belt, means surrender or to renounce ones duties, as army officers would do. Indeed, traditionally, Islam spoke of the Christians who gave up their faith to become Muslims as "snapping his girdle." But let me go back to our aprons, and the snake.

Symbolic meaning of the snake:

I believe that when we first think of the symbolic meaning of a snake, that it reminds us of The Bible, and the Book of Genesis, and the story of Adam and Eve. In Christian beliefs, the snake represents temptation and evil, the snake is the servant of Satan.

It is interesting to note that the snake has an important role in many culture's legends and fairy tales, but also in religious matters in the West, as well as in the East. Not only is the creature itself described in detail in these stories and ceremonies, but so are its characteristics, such as the coiled body, the association with trees as in the Genesis story, and in our society as a symbol of medicine. The snake regularly sheds its skin, its menacing hiss and split tongue, and the speed whereby it attacks from small crevasses, or from an open field. Due to these dynamic characteristics, the snake plays an important role in religious matters around the globe.

The snake and the Egyptians:

I would like to give some examples of this. Maybe the history of Egypt is the best known. The ancient Egyptian mythology states that the world was created by four powers, or Gods. One was the sun God of Amun-Ra which took the form of a snake and emerged from the water to inseminate the cosmic egg which was created by the other gods. It was said that all life on this earth stemmed from this egg.

We of course know also of the many struggles between Seth and Osiris, the lord and judge of the dead. The father of Horus Seth and the brother of Osiris tried to kill Osiris and take the world for themselves. So the story goes, that on one attempt to take Osiri's life, a God named Hathor transformed itself into a poisonous snake called Agep and killed the would-be assassins. That snake also guarded the wheat fields where the spirit of Horus was said to live. This brought the sheaf of wheat to be regarded as the symbol of reliving, or rebirth. This symbol is also used in our second degree.

In another we learn that a God, Isis, was transformed into a fire spewing cobra (called Uraeus in Greek), and symbolized the bearer of this symbol that he was in possession of the secrets of the material world. The Pharaohs therefore wore the symbol of Uraeus on their head as a symbol of sovereignty, or royalty. This snake worn on the head also indicated the possession of the so-called third-eye, from which nothing could be hidden, in this or in the next world.

The same interpretation is made by the practitioners of Yoga, who claim that ones inner strength is like a coiled-up snake which is deep within oneself. By practicing Yoga, this snake will extend itself through the several so-called Chakras, and eventually reach the head and form the third eye.

The Hindu also principally follows this thinking, that at that moment when the snake, or spirit, awakes through strict religious practices and rises into eternity, one can reach the ultimate state of humanity.

In Greek mythology also, the snake plays an important role. It is said that the Zeus freed eagles at each end of the world. The place where these two eagles met was the centre of the world, the centre of the earth. This centre, sometimes called the navel of the earth, is guarded by a snake, called Pytho. Above this navel the Oracle of Delphi, called Pythia, was constructed. We see this Oracle play an important role in the life of Pythagoras.

The snake is also used by Chinese mythology. The Chinese maintained that the world was surrounded by two intertwined snakes, which symbolized the power and wisdom of the creator. (Ying/Yang) However, the snake was also said to cause the devastating floods, as the movement of the water resembled a snakes movement.

The Aztecs too placed high regard for the snake, which they called by the almost unpronounceable name of Quetzacoatl. This snake was feathered so that it could communicate with the Gods. The use of this snake is widespread, the most famous of stories entails an Aztec King who seeks immortality, and to find it sets out to sea on a raft laden with snakes.
The soothsayers claimed that one day, a new god would return from the seas. That he will have long blond hair, blue eyes, and will be wearing a brighten armour. This vision was very much taken advantage of in 1519 when the Spanish conqueror Ferdinando Cortez invaded Mexico.

The Australian Aborigines see the snake as the beast that will make them man by devouring them as boys, and re-emerging as man. Do we not see similarities between his and the story where the Jonas travelled the seas, to be devoured by a whale, and spewed out three days later a new man? It is also similar to Baptism, which took place in the river Jordan on Easter, where people would be submerged in the water, where it was said that a beast of the underworld devoured their soul, after which one would re-emerge a new man. In these stories, the characters are often given a new name after such a rebirth, after being added to a new group of people. Do we not see this phenomenon in our own degrees, where through initiation, passing and raising a new name is given?

The snake as a duality:

We can conclude from these examples, that the snake has both positive and negative images. In positive stories it creates the world, in others; it causes flooding, devastation, even death. The snake therefore is usually portrayed as a duality.

In "The Book of the Dead", we learn that snakes were the first to acclaim Ra when he appears from the surface of the waters, and hence, snakes were referred to as the lowest strata of life. Therefore man, who is considered to be at the very top of the strata of life, wearing a snake as in our aprons, continually reminds us of where we came from, and of what we are in search.

In The Book of Numbers, for example, we find the story whereby the serpents sent by God cause many of the children of Israel to perish, but His chosen people were restored to life by the same serpents (Numbers 21:6-9).

We learn in another example that in Paradise there are two trees, the tree of life and the tree of knowledge. Symbolically the tree of life holds the world together in harmony and represents truth. The other tree gives the temptation of body, of earthly things, and discord. Again, a duality between harmony and disharmony, good and bad, truth and lies is present. We know what happens with the snake and the apple. But how can the snake, a symbol of evil, be used to tempt Eve? For in the Bible, God declares after creating the heaven and the earth in 6 days, that "I am the creator of good and evil."

If we follow this logic, then the snake should not be seen as a tool of evil, but a tool of good, which was created by God and which taught men the notion of choices by eating from the tree of knowledge, of the duality of this world of two opposites, life and death, happiness and sadness. It is through the work of the snake, that man is the only being on earth with the power to choose between this duality, to be given a choice, and have a free will to choose. The snake therefore
symbolizes something very important. It is a symbol to which we must work to rise above the material to a wider and higher knowledge of the world. The snake helps us bring out our inner strength.

Many philosophers refer to the snake in the same way. In the famous story by the German philosopher Goethe called "The Green Snake" we learn of a king who enters a mysterious temple where he through comparisons and choices is taught how to gap the bridge between the human mistakes and the ideal state. The snake plays an important role in this story.

This story is reflected in Italian Freemasonry, where the Brethren often wear a green band on their arms, symbolizing this quest. History also shows that the Italian Fascists, who regard Masonry as an enemy to their ways, referred to masons as "Serpente Verte", or green snakes.

The snake as the Ouroboros:

The re-living or re-experience which the snake represents is also well represented in the symbol Serpens Candivorens, a snake which bites itself in its tail, representing the unending cycle of nature between destruction, and new creation, life and death. The Greeks called this figure Ouroboros, which was expressed as the Ying-Yang symbol in the Orient. A dual snake has also been used as a symbol of medicine, probably also reflecting this interpretation, as we can see from the symbols usually found around medical people, doctors and paramedics.

The snake we have seen plays an important role in symbolism, and I hope to have explained a little more why maybe the snake was chosen as our hook on our aprons.

In the higher degrees of masonry, we find the snake extensively used. The 25th degree for example is the degree of The Knight of The Brazen Serpent, in which the symbols I have covered can be seen, including an Orobouros. The degree symbolizes the wandering of the children of Israel through the wilderness, and who rail against Moses.

Serpents are send from God to punish those who were ungrateful, and many die. Moses then erects a pole with a brazen serpent on it, and as we see from Number 21:9 "Any who are bitten may look upon it and not die".

So finally, why the snake on our aprons?

I reiterate that the interpretation of symbols is something personal, and we should all make our own judgment. Maybe however, we can see the snake on our aprons as the guardian of the secrets of one's inner strength. Maybe our entire apron band represents a snake, an Ouroboros, to remind us to seek deeper insights, or maybe to seek inner strength as outlined in another legend which has it that Buddha was attacked by a snake which bound itself 7 times around the Buddha's waist, but that through the inner strength of the Buddha the snake could not kill him, and instead became his follower. The snake thus helped Buddha realize his inner strength, and in a way helped him attain a higher plain.


From the above, we can see that some jurisdictions have lost a very precious and deep symbol from their aprons by having changed it to a simple hook and band. Knowing however some reasons why our aprons have a snake will help us focus us on the importance of our labours which await us.

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