The meaning of the Broken Column as
explained by the ritual of the Master mason degree is that the column represents
both the fall of Master Hiram Abif as well as the unfinished work of the Temple
This interesting symbol has appeared in some fascinating places; for example, a
Broken Column monument marks the gravesite in Lewis County Tennessee[ii]
of Brother Meriwether Lewis (Lewis & Clark), and a similar monument marks
the grave of Brother Prince Hall[iii].
In China, there is a “broken column-shaped” home which was built just
prior to the French Revolution by the aristocrat François Nicolas Henri Racine
Today “The Broken Column” is frequently used in Masonic newsletters as the
header for obituary notices and is a popular tomb monument for those whose life
was deemed cut short. Note that when I speak of The Broken Column here, I am
referring to only the upright but shattered Column Base with its detached
Shattered Capital, and not to the more extensive symbolism often associated with
the figure such as a book resting on the column base, the Weeping Virgin (Isis),
or Father Time (Horus) disentangling the Virgin’s hair. In this version the
shattered column itself is often said to allude to Osiris[v].
While these embellishments add to the complexity of the allusion, it is the
shattered column alone which I intend to address.
The Broken Column is believed to be
a fairly recent addition to the symbolism of Freemasonry, and has been
attributed to Brother Jeremy L. Cross. Brother Cross[vi] is said to have devised the symbol based upon a broken
column grave monument dedicated to a Commodore Lawrence[vii], which was erected in the Trinity Churchyard circa
1813. Lawrence perished in a naval battle that same year between the Frigates
Chesapeake and Shannon. The illustration of the broken column was reportedly
first published in the “True Masonic Chart” by artist Amos Doolittle in 1819[viii].
There is however little evidence beyond the word of Brother Cross that the
symbol was thus created[ix],[x].
Whether the Broken Column is a
modern invention or passed down from times of antiquity is of little
consequence; regardless of its origins the symbol serves well as a powerful
allusion in our Craft, and as will be discussed, may have deeper meanings which
align with other Masonic symbols which also incorporate images of columns and
Freemasonry makes generous reference
to columns and pillars of all sorts in the work of the various degrees including
the two pillars which stood at the entrance of Solomon’s Temple, the four
columns of architectural significance, and the three Great Columns representing
strength, beauty, and wisdom[xi].
The first mention of pillars in a Masonic context[xii]
is found in the Cooke Manuscript dated circa 1410 A.D. The three Great
Pillars of Masonry are of particular interest in this article even though it is
the Broken Column and its deeper meanings which I ultimately intend to explore.
Three Great Columns
The basis for the Three Great
Columns can be traced to an ancient Kabalistic concept and a unique diagram
found in the Zohar which illustrates the emanations of God in forming and
sustaining the universe. The diagram also reflects certain states of spiritual
attainment in man. This diagram, called the Sephiroth consists of ten spheres or
Sephira connected to one another by pathways and which are ordered to reflect
the sequence of creation. In accordance with Kabalistic belief Aur Ein Sof
(Light Without End) shines down into the Sephiroth and is split like a prism
into its ten constituent Sephira[xiii],
eventually ending in the material universe. To discuss the Sephiroth in
sufficient depth to impart a good understanding is well beyond the scope of this
paper; however, a basic understanding of how the structure of the Sephiroth is
related to the Great Columns is manageable, and is in fact essential to the
subsequent discussion of the Broken Column. Be aware that the explanations I
give are vast oversimplifications of a highly complex concept. In an attempt to
simplify the concept, it is inevitable that some degree of inaccuracy will be
I would like to begin my discussion
of the Three Great Columns by discussing the Cardinal Virtues. The Cardinal
Virtues are believed to have originated with Plato who formed them from a
of the attributes of man (power, wisdom, reason, mercy, strength, beauty,
firmness, magnificence, and base kingship) presented in the Sephiroth. These
concepts were later adopted by the Christian Church[xv]
and were popularized by the treatises of Martin of Braga, Alcuin and
Hrabanus Maurus (circa 1100 A.D.) and later promoted by Thomas Aquinas (circa
1224 A.D.). According to Wescott[xvi]
the Four Cardinal Virtues are represented by what were originally branches of
tassels refer to four cardinal virtues, says the first degree Tracing Board
Lecture, these are temperance, fortitude, prudence, and justice; these again
were originally branches of the Sephirotic Tree, Chesed first, Netzah fortitude,
Binah prudence, and Geburah justice. Virtue, honour, and mercy, another triad,
are Chochmah, Hod, and Chesed.”
Thus we have a connection between the Cardinal Virtues and the Sephiroth.
The Three Pillars of Freemasonry (Wisdom, Beauty, and Strength) are
associated with the Cardinal Virtues[xvii]
and also therefore with the Kabalistic concept of the Sephiroth[xviii].
I have provided an illustration of the Sepiroth in Figure 1. This particular
version of the Sephiroth is based upon that used in the 30th Degree
or Knight Kadosh Grade[xix]
of the ASSR. The Sephiroth, incidentally is also called “The Tree of Life”.
Each of the vertical columns of spheres (Sephira) in the Sephiroth are
considered to represent a pillar (column). Each pillar is named according to the
central concept which it represents; thus in Figure 1 we have the pillars
Justice, Beauty, and Mercy left to right, respectively. The Sephiroth is a very
elegant system in which balance is maintained between the Sephira of the two
outermost pillars by virtue of the center pillar. Note also that traditionally
the Sephiroth is divided into “Triads” of Sephira. In Figure 1 the uppermost
triad, consisting of the spheres Wisdom, Intelligence, and Crown represent the
intellectual and spiritual characteristics of man. The next triad is represented
by the Sephira Justice, Beauty, and Mercy; the final triad is Splendor,
Foundation, and Firmness (or Strength).
According to S.L. MacGregor Mathers[xx],
the word Sephira is best translated to mean (or is best rendered as)
“Numerical Emanation”, and each of the ten Sephira corresponds to a specific
numerical value. Mathers also asserts that it was through knowledge of the
Sephiroth that Pythagoras devised his system of numerical symbolism. While there are additional divisions and subdivisions of the
Sephiroth, the concept which is of interest to us here is that God created the
Material World or Universe (signified by the lowest Sephira, Kingdom) in a
series of ordered actions which proceeded along established pathways (i.e. the
connecting lines between the Sephira in our Figure). Each of the Sephira and
each pathway are a sort of “buffer” between the majesty and power of God and
the material world. Without these buffers, profane man and the material world he
inhabits would meet with destruction. On the other hand, enlightened man is able
to progress upwards along these pathways to higher level Sephira and to thereby
achieve enhanced knowledge of the Divine. Tradition holds that man once was
closer to the Divine spirit, but became corrupted by the material world, losing
this connection (i.e. The fall of Man from Grace. Note also the reference to the
Tree of Knowledge and possible connections to the Tree of Life). God uses the
Sephiroth in renewing and sustaining the material universe. Each new soul
created is an emanation of God and travels to materiality (physical existence)
via the pathways established in the Sephiroth. In a similar fashion, the spirits
of the departed return to God via these same pathways, making the Sephiroth the
mechanism by which God interacts with the universe.
The Broken Column
In Figure 2, I have redrawn the
Sephiroth as an overlay of the Three Great Columns; however in this version the
Pillar of Beauty is Broken. Note especially that the center pillar, the Pillar
of Beauty in the Sephiroth has a gap between Beauty and Crown, in effect making
this column a Broken Pillar[xxi]. I
believe this “fracture” symbolizes Man’s separation from knowledge of the
Divine, and an interruption in the Pathway leading from Beauty directly to the
Crown (which symbolizes “The Vast Countenance”[xxii]).
I would also like to extrapolate that if the Broken Column indeed
represents Hiram Abif as per the explanation given to initiates, then the two
remaining columns would then correspond to Solomon and Hiram King of Tyre[xxiii].
Certainly the Sephira (Wisdom, Justice, and Splendor) which comprise the column
of Justice align well with the characteristics traditionally associated with
King Solomon. Tradition unfortunately does not address Hiram King of Tyre
although we can assume that Intelligence, Mercy, and Firmness or Strength would be a likely requirement for a
Monarch of such apparent success. The connection between the Three Great Columns
and the three principle characters in the drama of the Third Degree does have a
certain sense of validity. The “Lost Word” associated with Hiram Abif would
then allude to the lost Pathway.
In so many of our Masonic Lessons we initially receive a plausible but
quite shallow explanation of our symbols and allusions. Those who sense an
underlying, deeper meaning tend to find it (Seek and you will find, knock and
the door shall be opened). Perhaps in our ritual of the Third Degree, that which
is symbolically being raised (restored) is the Pillar of which resides within
us. If so, the Lost Word has then in fact been received by each of us. It only
remains lost if we choose to forget it or choose not to pursue it.
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Duncan, Malcom C.
Duncan's Masonic Ritual and Monitor. Crown;
3 Edition (April 12, 1976).