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THE SQUARE AND COMPASSES - In search of Freemasonry

by W. M. Don Falconer PM, PDGDC
Chapter Twenty - THE FOUR TASSELS

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The four tassels pendent to the corners of the lodge are important operative symbols seldom explained adequately in speculative craft freemasonry.

An ancient operative symbol 

The Four Tassels, that are referred to near the end of the lecture on the first tracing board in various rituals, are important ornaments of the lodge. They are of great antiquity and their symbolism deserves further explanation. In fact the symbolism of the Four Tassels, which has its origins in operative freemasonry, is of great importance and its omission from many rituals, or only the briefest of references to it in other rituals, is surprising. In earlier times explanations of the origin and deep symbolic meaning of the Four Tassels were often given, but nowadays they are so rarely mentioned that many speculative freemasons, if not most, are unaware of their significance. 

References in modern rituals 

The following reference to the Four Tassels, which is taken from the English Emulation Ritual, is very similar to the references found in many other English and Scottish rituals and some Irish rituals and their derivatives around the world, probably is better known than most: 

“Pendent to the corners of the Lodge are four tassels, meant to remind us of the four cardinal virtues, namely: Temperance, Fortitude, Prudence and Justice, the whole of which, tradition informs us, were constantly practised by a majority of our ancient Brethren.” 

The concluding portion of that quotation is the only inkling that is given of the operative origin of the Four Tassels and their significant symbolism. Whilst the reference to the four cardinal virtues should stimulate constructive thought, no explanation is given to associate the tassels with the corners of the lodge and there is no apparent reason for them to be there. Moreover, as the concluding portion of that quotation has been omitted from many versions of the ritual, the origin and significance of the Four Tassels has become even more obscure.  

In the Scottish A.S.MacBride Ritual reference to the Four Golden Tassels is made in relation to the ornaments of the lodge in the explanation of the plan or tracing board, which is quite a brief charge. Many of the American and several of the English, Irish and Scottish rituals do not include extended lectures on the tracing boards, but describe much of the relevant symbolism in a series of charges. In the Scottish Modern Ritual the first lecture on the tracing boards concludes with the following statement, which is somewhat unusual and probably has its origins in the rituals of some lodges on the continent of Europe: 

“You will see that our carpet has a tessellated border, which represents the divine protection encircling humanity, whilst the four tassels, which ornament its corners, denote prudence, temperance, fortitude and justice.” 

Before explaining the operative origins of the Four Tassels, it would be appropriate to consider the lecture on the first tracing board included in the English Revised Ritual, which was originally written during the 1800s, has been under continual review ever since and has received high praise from many distinguished brethren. In nearly all of its aspects this ritual is indeed a beautiful exposition of the rites and symbolism of speculative craft freemasonry, but the following section relevant to the Four Tassels, which is quoted from the sixth edition printed in 1962, brings into sharp focus some of the misconceptions on the subject: 

“The two Ends of the Lodge, facing severally due East and West, and the two sides, facing respectively North and South, thus indicating the four cardinal points of the compass, represent to us the Four Cardinal Virtues, namely, Temperance, Fortitude, Prudence, and Justice.” 

Moreover, the lack of knowledge on the subject is highlighted by the footnote in the ritual relating to the passage, which says: 

“The allusion sometimes made to four tassels is misleading; very few, if any, Lodges have any such thing, and they could serve no useful purpose if they had. No symbolical meaning is given to them anywhere.” 

It is remarkable that the mistaken beliefs and indeed the lack of understanding that these two passages reflect in relation to such a fundamental aspect of masonic symbolism have not been noticed and corrected for so long a time, especially as it is not very difficult to seek out the correct information. 

Before explaining the operative origins of the Four Tassels, it would be appropriate to consider other cords and tassels often depicted on tracing boards and surrounding the mosaic pavement, which refer to the protective care of the deity and the uniting bonds of the fraternity. Although the origin and symbolism of those cords and tassels are not the same as those of the Four Tassels, they also were in use before the advent of modern speculative freemasonry and the two symbolisms are often confused. Comprehensive explanations of the symbolism of the surrounding cords and tassels are given in various old rituals from the continent of Europe, at least the elements of which are still explained in their catechisms. 

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The wavy cord and the tassels 

Some early tracing boards of the first degree were enclosed within a continuous wavy cord that was knotted at the four corners and terminated with its two tasselled ends hanging down. In French lodges this arrangement of the cord is called la houppe dentelée, which means “the scalloped tassel” and is described as “a cord forming true-lovers’ knots”. The old French ritual explains that the cord should remind all freemasons that the bonds uniting them should draw them closer together, irrespective of the distances that may separate them. In German lodges the knotted wavy cord is called die Schnur von starken Faden, which signifies “a cord of strong threads”. The old German ritual also explains that the cord symbolises the fraternal bond by which all freemasons are united. 

Also relevant to this discussion are the comments of Dr John I. Browne in the Master Key, which sets out the elements of the Prestonian lectures. He says that the wavy cord and tassels allude to “the kind care of Providence which so cheerfully surrounds and keeps us within its protection whilst we justly and uprightly govern our lives and actions by the four cardinal virtues in divinity”. Alternative English translations of dentelée are “serrated” and “indented”, whence the “indented border” has been derived. On the other hand “tessellated” is not a derivative of houppe, but comes from the Latin tessella, which is the diminutive form of the Latin tessera and means “a small four-sided tile”

From the foregoing it is evident that the “indented or tessellated border” of black and white triangles, which usually surrounds the mosaic pavement on the lodge floor and also the first tracing board, is not the same as the knotted and tasselled wavy cord that represents the divine protection encircling humanity. Nor is the “indented or tessellated border” the same as the bonds that unite the members of the fraternity and should draw them closer together. As mentioned earlier, the modern indented or tessellated border is primarily an ornament that alludes to the celestial sphere of our existence. However the tassels depicted at the four corners of most tracing boards of the first degree, which among other things is a representation of the lodge room, do refer to the four cardinal virtues. 

The operative origins of the Four Tassels 

All speculative freemasons are or should be aware that, symbolically, they are intended to find the answers to their questions on the centre, which is that point within a circle from which all parts of the circumference are equally distant. The Point within a Circle is an ancient and sacred hieroglyph that refers to the deity. It is a symbol of sufficient importance to merit thorough contemplation, but it will suffice now to say that answers found on the centre are those established in accord with the decrees of the deity. Many speculative freemasons may not be aware that, down through the ages, all significant religious structures and other stately edifices have been set out from the centre, because such structures should be located having a proper regard for the position they will occupy in the civilised society in which they will fulfil an essential role. Their position and form therefore are expected to reflect their importance and their significance. Thus in ancient times a temple often was located on the site of an earlier sanctuary, place of offering, sacred site or memorial stone. A cathedral likewise has often been located on the site of an earlier religious structure or a succession of structures like the York Minster, to perpetuate the sanctity of the site. For this reason it usually was considered important for the centres of the old and new structures to be the same. 

In operative times, when the location of the centre of an intended structure had been decided, the master mason’s first duty was to establish the centre point of the structure on the site. This was referred to as striking the centre. He would then determine the required orientation of the building by an appropriate method and set it out on the ground. Sacred buildings usually were required to face either due east or the rising sun at the summer solstice. If the required orientation was to be due east to west, the first step was to determine the true north-south line accurately, from which the true east-west line could be set out. In the northern hemisphere either due north could be determined by sighting the pole star at night, or due south could be determined by marking the direction of the sun at noon at either of the equinoxes. As there is no pole star in the southern hemisphere, it is necessary there to determine due north by marking the direction of the sun at noon at either of the equinoxes. In both hemispheres the correct orientation at the summer solstice could be ascertained by direct observation of the sunrise at that time.

 In the northern hemisphere the true north-south line can be determined by setting up a plumb line over the established centre point and then aligning two other plumb lines with the pole star and the plumb line over the centre point, the other two plumb lines being placed one each at convenient distances outside the northern and southern boundaries of the building. The north-south line can then be set out on the ground by stretching a string line between the two outer plumb lines and passing through the centre point. The true north-south line in both hemispheres can be determined at either equinox by observing the sun’s shadow from about two hours before noon until about two hours after noon. When two or preferably three concentric arcs of sufficient length have been marked out on the ground, using the line from a skirret that has been set up at the centre point, a perpendicular rod of sufficient height is erected at the centre point. The several points where the end of the sun’s shadow just touches each of the arcs, as the shadow shortens and again as it lengthens, are then marked on the ground. A line from the centre point to the point on each arc that bisects the distance between the two points on that arc, where the sun’s shadow just touches the arc, indicates the true north-south line. It is desirable to use several consecutive arcs in this observation, in case the sun is obscured when the end of the shadow would just touch the arc, as well as to confirm the accuracy of the several observations. It also is desirable to carry out the observation on three consecutive days, including the day before and the day after the equinox. 

When the true north-south line had been determined, it was accurately set out on the ground by means of a string line through the centre point, from which the true east-west axis was also set out on the ground. The east-west line can be set out from the north-south line with the aid of three long rods having lengths of three, four and five units, with which a right-angled triangle can be formed. As a check for accuracy, right-angled triangles should be assembled on both the left and the right of the east-west line and the procedure should be carried out both to the east and to the west of the north-south line. When assembling the triangles it was customary to place the side three units long against the north-south line, so that the side four units long indicated the east-west line. A more accurate method of setting out the east-west line is to use two skirrets, which are set up at two points on the north-south line that are equidistant from the centre and as far apart as practicable. The lines from the skirrets are then extended sufficiently to intersect on the east-west line where, for accuracy, their angle of intersection should be approximately a right angle. As a check for accuracy this procedure should be carried out both to the east and to the west of the north-south line. If carried out properly the line between the two points where the skirret lines intersect is the east-west line, which should pass through the centre point.


When the centre point of the building and the two main axes passing through the centre point had been established, the next step in setting out was to establish the four points of a rectangle to delineate the four corners of the principal constituent of the building. When setting out a cathedral, for example, these four points would define the corners of the nave. The setting out of subsidiary components, like the transepts and the chapter house, usually could be deferred until an appropriate time during construction. The axes of the nave and the transepts of York Minster and many cathedrals in the Gothic style intersect at the centre point of the structure, but this arrangement is not always adopted. For example the Salisbury Cathedral has two transepts, although the axis of the main transept does pass through the centre point. In France the plan of the nave and transepts in some cathedrals is in the form of a Latin cross. The three traditional shapes for temples are the square; the oblong-square in the proportions of two to one; and the temple-square in the proportions of three to one, like King Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem. Although the principal constituents of religious structures are predominantly rectangular in plan, other shapes also are used. These include the octagon adopted for most chapter houses attached to churches and cathedrals, which were usually constructed in the style used by the Knights Templar. The octagon was also used frequently in Byzantine churches. The circle was adopted for the Pantheon constructed in Rome by Hadrian as the temple of the gods, which is now the church of Santa Maria Rotonda. Sometimes a circular interior has been combined with an exterior that is square or octagonal, or occasionally an even more complex shape.


The points established to locate the four corners of the principal constituent of the building were also set out from the centre point. This was achieved by fixing a skirret at the centre point, from which a line of the required length could be extended to each of the four corners in succession. The required direction of each of these diagonal lines was a function of the shape of the principal component of the building. It was one of the duties of the master mason to determine the required directions, which he then set out with reference to the north-south and east-west axes that had been established through the centre. The diagonals were set out using the three long rods, each of which was appropriately graduated to enable the required angles to be measured with reference to the main axes of the building. The method was similar to that used when setting out the east-west axis from the north-south axis, except that the right-angled triangle formed by the three rods was rotated by the required amount. Having marked the four corners, the accuracy of the rectangle was checked by comparing the measurements of the two ends and the measurements of the two sides. When the four corner marks had been established, distinctively marked perpendicular stakes were set up near them, drawing attention to their location and protecting them from inadvertent damage. Suspended coloured cords or streamers distinguished the marker stakes, in the same way as brightly painted stakes or stakes with coloured bunting are used to indicate important survey marks in the present day.


The four tassels pendent to the four corners of the lodge, that are referred to in lectures on the first tracing board, are directly related to the methods used by the operative master masons when setting out the four corners of the building and also when constructing the corners in stonework. The relationship between the four tassels and the setting out of the building is immediately evident from the foregoing description of the methods used, but their relationship to construction of the building may not be so evident. When constructing the corners of the building plumb lines were suspended from timber supports adjacent to the corners, to ensure that the corners were perpendicular as well as being correctly located in relation to the established corner marks. Lines were also strung between the relevant plumb lines at the corners, to ensure that the walls followed the correct lines to ensure that the corners were square as well as perpendicular. The four tassels also allude to the plumb lines that were set up at the corners of the building during construction.


In operative times the four tassels that were suspended in the four corners of the lodge room represented guides, which were intended to assist a freemason to maintain a just and upright life, whence was derived the reference to the four cardinal virtues that traditionally are temperance, fortitude, prudence and justice. In modern speculative lodges those four tassels, respectively representing temperance, fortitude, prudence and justice in that sequence, should commence in the southeast corner, which is on the Worshipful Master’s left hand side, then proceed clockwise around the lodge room. Nowadays tassels are not a common feature in lodge rooms, but are usually represented only by the name of one of the four cardinal virtues in each corner. In some lodge rooms the name is shown on a decoration representing a tassel attached to a short cord, which sometimes is incorrectly depicted as a loop. In other lodge rooms the only representations of the tassels are those that appear at the corners of the first tracing board. As mentioned earlier, the cords and tassels that are often incorporated into the tessellated border surrounding the mosaic pavement have a different origin, even though in some rituals they are said to represent the four tassels.

 Before considering in which corners the four tassels would have been suspended in an operative lodge room, it would be appropriate to review what the four cardinal virtues signify. In modern everyday language temperance suggests moderation or even abstinence; fortitude implies courage in endurance; prudence conveys an impression of cautious self-interest; and justice implies the awarding of what is due. Whilst all of these definitions reflect important characteristics that are relevant to the principles esteemed in freemasonry, they do not embrace all facets of importance in masonic conduct. For example, in freemasonry temperance requires the exercise of caution in thought, judgment, feeling, speech, act and deed in every aspect of life and work. The practise of temperance must be closely allied with fortitude, which implies moral courage as well as physical bravery, which requires a freemason to pursue the course that he knows to be right, even if in so doing he meets unforseen problems and the outcome is not what he had anticipated. Even so, the pursuit of the right course of action must always be tempered with prudence, which involves the use of common sense and the proper application of reason and logic. In commonplace usage justice implies a strict interpretation of the law, but in its broader sense it should reflect the greatest good for the community as a whole. In freemasonry justice is always allied with mercy. This is why, in many versions of the lecture on the first tracing board, the reference to the four cardinal virtues is followed immediately by a statement similar to the following passage quoted from the English Emulation Ritual:


“The distinguishing characteristics of a good Freemason are Virtue, Honour, and Mercy, and may they ever be found in a Freemason’s breast.” 

In this context mercy implies that justice alone is insufficient, but that it must be tempered by mercy if an equitable outcome is to be achieved. By definition mercy means forbearance towards anyone who is in one’s power, but in a parallel sense it is considered to be something good that is derived from God. Virtue and honour are important corollaries of mercy. Virtue signifies goodness, morality and probity and also implies the many attributes of honour, which in turn signifies honesty, integrity, rectitude and uprightness.

The Four Tassels in operative lodges 

As operative lodges were oriented in the same direction as King Solomon’s temple at Jerusalem, which is the reverse of modern speculative lodges, the entrance to the lodge was in the east and the master was seated in the west. To avoid possible confusion, in the following discussion reference will be made to the positions of the officers’ stations in the lodge, not to the compass points. Operative lodges had a Master, a Senior Warden and a Junior Warden who were located with respect to each other, except for the compass orientation, similarly to the stations of those officers in modern speculative lodges. In operative lodges there also was a fourth officer, the Superintendent of Work, whose location was on the opposite side of the lodge from the Junior Warden. In this explanation of the location and symbolism of the four tassels pendent from the corners of the lodge, all four of these officers are assumed to be seated facing inwards towards the centre of the lodge. 

The tassel in the corner on the Master’s right hand side should represent justice and that on his left hand side should represent temperance. The reason for this is that, when ruling in his lodge and managing his work force, the Master should rule with justice that nevertheless must be tempered with mercy, so as to ensure that not only will the client obtain the service he is paying for, but also that his workmen will receive their just dues. The tassel in the corner on the Superintendent of Work’s right hand side should represent prudence and that on his left hand side should represent justice. Like his Master, whom he represents, the Superintendent of Work must be prudent in the use of his work force and the materials, so that the Master is properly served; but he must also ensure the men are treated with justice so that they receive the dues to which they are entitled. 

The two Wardens are the officers who exercise direct control over the workmen, under the immediate supervision of the Superintendent of Work. The tassel in the corner on the right hand side of the Senior Warden should represent fortitude and that on his left hand side should represent prudence. The reason for this is that, as the officer who exercises direct control over the workmen while they are at labour, he is responsible for overcoming the many difficulties that inevitably will beset the work, which will require the utmost fortitude on his part. At the same time he must exercise his control over the men’s employment and the use of materials with the utmost prudence, to protect the men’s welfare whilst at the same time ensuring that the workmanship cannot be faulted. The Junior Warden, whose duty it is to assist the Senior Warden, is the officer primarily responsible for the men’s welfare especially when they are at rest and refreshment. The tassel in the corner on right hand side of the Junior Warden should represent temperance, in allusion to the manner in which refreshment should always be conducted. The tassel on the Junior Warden’s left hand side should represent fortitude, because he is supposed to personify Hiram Abif whose fortitude should always be emulated by every freemason.