THE THREE LESSER LIGHTS
By Bro. William H. Taylor,
P.G.M., Philippine Islands
In all ages and among all peoples there have ever been two fundamental beliefs which have permeated-the body politic. The first is, that nature itself is subject to a constant struggle between two contending forces which continually strive for the supremacy. As day and night, light and darkness, good and evil. The other belief was that the soul is immortal. On these two beliefs were founded the ceremony of initiation depicted by the Mysteries of the various nations.
Masonry as the logical descendent of these Ancient Mysteries likewise seeks to impress upon its initiate of 'today, in' the strongest manner possible, its continued belief in these two great fundamental principles, which have come down to us from our forefathers of long ago. Therefore do we bring the initiate in Masonry from darkness to light and illustrate to him the Hiramic legend in the third degree.
In all the Ancient Mysteries this struggle between light and darkness was typified by two deities, who in each case were a male and a female representing respectively the Sun and the Moon.
In the Indian Mysteries these two deities were called Mahadeva and Bhavani; in the Persian, Mithras and Asis; in the Egyptian, Osiris and Isis. This same characteristic is also peculiar to the Phoenician, Phrygian, Grecian, Britain and Scandinavian systems of theology.
In the Egyptian Mysteries Anubis shares in the honors which were paid to Osiris and Isis. He was the friend and counselor of Osiris and when Isis started out in her search for the body of Osiris she was accompanied and aided by Anubis, who took the shape of a dog and thus becomes sirius, The Dogstar, the brightest star in the heavens. Anubis is of peculiar interest to us, as Masons in that he was renowned among other characteristics as the inventor of astronomy and surveying and as the deity who first taught the worship of gods and the building of temples.
In the Eleusian Mysteries, the temple in which the ceremonies were held was lighted by a hole or a window in the roof and the three great lights of nature, the Sun, the Moon and Mercury (the latter being the same as Anubis) played an exceedingly important part and were mystically represented by three images.
It has ever been a custom on the rise of a new sect or institution for it to lay hold of that which was good in its predecessors and make it an integral part of itself, either on the one hand because it believed by so doing it would the more securely fasten its hold on its converts or on the other, because it desired to thus perpetuate its intimate connection with that which it had succeeded. From a study of the growth of the early Christian Church we know that to make the new religion more understandable to their new converts, the priests held their meetings in the same temples where the sacrifices had been made to the "pagan" divinities. They appropriated the statues of the "heathen" gods and sometimes by placing on them a new head and at other times even dispensing with this formality they transformed them into "Saints" of the Church.
Among their new converts, especially, the priests continually found a tendency to revert to the worship of the gods. Particularly was this true in the case of Isis and her infant son Horus. After combating unsuccessfully with this tendency for several years the priests finally assimilated both the statue and the attributes which were associated with it. Thus Isis and her son Horus became the virgin Mary and the Infant Jesus whence comes the prominent place given to their worship in the Roman Catholic Church of today.
As the church has thus unintentionally and unconsciously immortalized the mysteries no less has Masonry deliberately perpetuated the customs of our ancient brethren. The three great lights of nature, as we have said, which in the Ancient Mysteries were represented by images dedicated respectively to the Sun, the Moon and Mercury, have become the three lesser lights of a Masonic lodge, but how, when or where the substitution of the "Master of the Lodge" for "Mercury" crept in, it is impossible to trace. There seems to be about as much justification for it as there was for the addition by Jeremy Cross of the "Marble Monument" and its explanation as given in the lecture of the third degree. While the three lesser lights are to be found in all regular Masonic lodges there seems to be no fixed rule as to where they should be placed in the lodge.
In some jurisdictions a light is placed at the station of the Master, one at that of the Senior Warden and one at that of the Junior Warden.
There may be some justification for this arrangement but it would not be possible to adapt it to the "work" as it is now given in this and many other jurisdictions.
In some lodges they are represented by a metal stand about three feet high with three arms branching out at the top. At the extremity of each arm is a light and these lights are in the form of an equilateral triangle. This metal stand is usually placed at the right of the altar as one faces the East. In other lodges the three lesser lights are grouped about the altar in the form of a right angle triangle; the base of the triangle parallel to the West, with the hypothenuse running from the South to the East to join up with the perpendicular in the East.
The metal stand with its branching arms in the form of an equilateral triangle is emphatically incorrect. It is a product of an inventive age and a concession to cheapness and facility in installation which should never be tolerated save when a more expensive arrangement is inadvisable.
The other grouping is the one used in this and many other jurisdictions. It is sanctioned by Albert Pike than whom there is no greater authority. He uses this arrangement in his liturgy for the first as well as in the thirty-second degree.
This arrangement is justified too in that it is the natural position in which to place the triangle, could we but consider it as separate and apart from the necessity of avoiding the placing of a light in the North; in that the base, which here represents "Ignorance" is surpassed in potentiality by "Learning," represented by the perpendicular which is longer than the base as four is to three. This perpendicular runs from East to West which constantly reminds us of the belief of our ancient brethren that all learning has its origin in and proceeds from the East.
This grouping, however, might be considered objectionable in that it places a light in the North directly opposite the one in the South. This is contrary both to the practices of the Ancient Mysteries as well as to teachings of modern Masonry. In the Ancient Mysteries the initiate in his circumambulations followed the course which our forefathers ascribed to the-sun in his daily travels. When the initiate reaches the East, it is here the Sun rises, at the South the Sun is at meridian height, while it is in the West that the Sun sets. From here until he reaches the East again the initiate is supposed to be traveling at night, or as we say in a place of darkness. For this reason modern Masonry has no light in the North and not for the stupid reason as given in our lecture in the first degree.
The correct placing as depicted in all the ancient prints we have been able to find, fixes the lights about the altar in the form of a right-angled triangle but with the right angle at the South; the base runs from the East to the South, the hypothenuse runs from the East to the West with the perpendicular connecting the South with the West.
Both methods represent the right angled triangle as we have it in the 47th Problem of Euclid. Its sides in the proportion of 3, 4 and 5 of which proportion 3 is the base, 4 the perpendicular, and 5 the hypothenuse. Its perpendicular represents the male, its base, the female, while the hypothenuse represents their progeny or the product of the two. Thus to the ancients did this right-angled triangle represent "Humanity."
The light in the East is dedicated to the Master of the lodge, the one in the West to the sun and the one in the South to the moon. As the Master sits in the East the light dedicated to the Sun is on his right hand; the one to the Moon is on his left. Hence you will understand why the jewels of the Senior and Junior Deacons who likewise sit on his right and left bear respectively representations of the Sun and of the Moon.
Therefore, in pointing out the lesser lights to the initiate, the Master should be careful to call his attention first to the light in the West as representing the Sun, next to the one in the South as representing the Moon and finally to the one in the East as representing the Master of the Lodge. When the three principal officers of the lodge group themselves about the altar each should be careful to take his stand directly in front of his respective station. They will thus form an equilateral triangle ever considered by our ancient brethren as an emblem of "Deity."
With the Master, Senior and Junior Wardens thus grouped about the altar we have formed a living equilateral triangle symbol of Deity; with the three lesser lights about the altar forming the right-angled triangle of Euclid, symbol of Humanity. We, therefore, have at the conferring of each and every degree in Masonry a striking symbolism of the two great fundamental teachings of our order:--"The Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man."
- Source: The Builder September 1918
When an initiate is first brought into the light in a Masonic Lodge,
the radiance come from the Lesser Lights, which form a triangle about
the Altar. It seems, at first, rather odd that so great and
important a symbol should receive such scant attention in the
ritualistic body of Freemasonry.
We are instructed that they are called Lesser Lights, that they are
placed in a triangle, that by their light we may see other objects,
that they represent the Sun, Moon and Worshipful Master, for certain
reasons which are rather briefly explained . . . and that is all!
Later on we learn, more by example than by precept, more by custom
than by law, that Lesser Lights are always lit when a lodge is
opened. Even when their flames do not really burn (have you ever
stood at a grave side on a day too windy to permit the flickering
candle to send forth its light?) they are constructively burning.
They are supposed to be lighted as soon as the lodge is opened, and
then the Altar is arranged; to be extinguished after the Altar is
disarranged, and the Great Lights displaced. But nowhere in our
ritual are we told much of anything as to why all these things are
so; how the Lesser Lights came to be; what their hidden, covered,
secret, symbolic meaning is.
And you shall search through many a Masonic volume and tome and find
no more light on the Lesser Lights than the ritual gives. Mackey,
the great authority, is unusually brief, and beyond drawing a
parallel to the use of the seven branched candelabra as described in
the Great Light, and stating that their use in Masonry is very old,
they appearing in print in references to Masonry in the seventeenth
century, adds practically nothing to the ritual explanations.
And yet it could not be possible that so important a symbol could
have no more soul than is given in the few words we devote to it. It
seems obvious that it is one of those symbols in Freemasonry . . . of
which there are so many! . . . which the individual brother is
supposed to examine and translate for himself, getting from it what
he can, and enjoying what he gets in direct proportion to the amount
of labor and thought he is willing to devote to the process of
extracting the meaning from the outer covering.
Let us dig a bit together; labor in company is lightened always; a
burden shared is a burden halved!
Immediately after the Lesser Lights are named, our attention is
directed to the fact that they are in a triangle about the Altar. In
some Jurisdictions they are closely about the Altar; in others, one
is placed at each of the stations of the three principal officers.
In some lodges the three Lesser Lights form a right, in others an
equilateral; in others an isosceles triangle. What is uniform
through out the Masonic World is the triangular formation about the
Altar; what is different is the shape and size of the triangle.
Of course, it is not possible to place three lights to form anything
else but a triangle, or a straight line; they cannot be made to form
a square or a star. Which brings us to the first place in which to
sink our Masonic shovel; why are there three Lesser Lights, and not
two or four?
There are a number of reasons. Any thinking brother has already
discovered that there is "Three" throughout the whole system of
Ancient Craft Masonry; three degrees, three steps, three ancient
Grand Masters; and so on. It will be no surprise to recall that
three is the first of the great Sacred Numbers of the ancient
Mysteries, and that it is the numerical symbol of God. Not, if you
please, because God was necessarily considered triune.. While many
religions of many ages and peoples have conceived of Divinity as a
trinity, the figure three as a symbol of God is far older than any
trinitarian doctrine. It comes from the triangle, which is the first
possible figure made up of straight lines which is without either
beginning or ending. One line, or two lines have ends. They start
and finish. The triangle, like the square or the five or more sided
figure, has no loose ends. and the triangle is the first of these
which can be made; as God was always considered as first; and also as
without either beginning or ending, the triangle itself soon became a
symbol of Deity.
Sun worship was among the first of religions; let him who knows lay
down the facts as to whether sun worship preceded fire worship, or
fire worship that of the sun. To us it does not matter. Sun worship
is far, far older than any recorded history; it goes back, far back,
into the first dim mists which obscure the very first beginnings of
intelligence. So it was only natural that the early worshipers
should set a light beside their Altar or Holy place and name it for
Ancient peoples made much of sex. Their two greatest impulses were
self-preservation and mating. Their third was protection of
children. So enormously powerful were these impulses in primal man,
that not all his civilization, his luxury, his complicated and
involved life, have succeeded in removing these as the principal
mainsprings of all human endeavor. It was natural for the savage
worshiper of a shining God in the sky to think he, too, required a
mate; especially when that mate was so plainly in evidence; the moon
became the Sun's bride by a process of reasoning as plain as it was
Father, Mother . . . there must be a child, of course.
And that child was mercury, the nearest planet to the sun, the one
the God kept closest to him. Here we have the origin of the three
Lesser Lights; in earliest recorded accounts of the Mysteries of
Eleusis ( to mention only one) we find three lights about the Holy
Place, representing the Sun, Moon and Mercury.
Albert Pike says:
"They are still the three lights of a Masonic
Lodge, except that for Mercury, the Master of the Lodge has been
Albert Pike was a very great and a very learned man.
To him Freemasonry owes a debt greater, perhaps, than to any other
who ever lived; he gave her study, he brought forth her poetry, he
interpreted her symbols, he defined her truths, he made plain much
that she had concealed. But Pike himself defended the right of
Masons to study and interpret the symbols of Freemasonry for
themselves. So that it is with no though of controversy with the
immortal dead that many contend that there is no absurdity in
Freemasonry taking the ancient lights which symbolized the Sun, Moon
and Mercury, and making them stand for the Sun, Moon and Worshipful
Master of His Lodge.
For the Sun and Moon give light. While it is true that there is no
real "regularity" with which the Moon "Governs" the night . . . since
the night gets a along just as well without the Moon as with her . .
. she does give light when she is present. There is no question that
the Sun Governs and Rules the day. And the Sun, of course lives
light and life as well.
The Worshipful Master rules and governs his lodge as truly as the sun
and Moon rule the day and night. There can be no lodge without a
Worshipful Master; he is, in a very real sense, the lodge itself.
There are some things he cannot do that the brethren, under him, can
do. But, without him the brethren can do nothing, while he, without
the brethren's consent or even their assistance, can do much. It is
one of the principal functions of the Worshipful Master to
disseminate light - Masonic Light - to his lodge. That the duty is
as often honored by neglect as by performance has nothing to do with
the fact that it is a duty.
So that the inclusion of a symbol of the Worshipful Master, as a
giver of light, is to most of us neither fanciful nor absurd, but a
logical carrying out of that Masonic doctrine which makes a Master a
Giver of Light to his brethren.
The ritual instructs candidates that they behold the Great Lights of
Masonry by the illumination of the Lesser Lights. This is an actual
fact, but it is also a symbol. The Great Light cannot be read
without light; the Square and Compasses cannot be used in the dark;
and neither can be understood, nor can we make any use of them for
the noble and glorious purposes taught us in Speculative Masonry,
without we receive symbolic light, Masonic light from the East; that
is, from the Worshipful Master, or those he delegates to bring that
"Good and Wholesome Instruction" which is at once his duty and his
A lesson is taught in the references to regularity of the heavenly
luminaries, as guides for the government of a lodge by the worshipful
Master. The fact that the Moon is not "Regular" in her attendance
upon the sun, or the night, and the she does not, in any such sense
as does the sun, "govern" that period of darkness in which she
appears, in no way detracts from the force of these admonitions. For
these phrases are very old, and go back to a time when men knew much
less of astronomy than they do today; to a time when the moon, in
popular belief, had much greater powers than she actually possesses.
We know the moon to have almost no effect upon the earth, as far as
our lives are concerned, save as she makes the tides. Our ancient
brethren believed her light to be full of weird and wonderful powers;
"Moon-Struck" and "Lunatic" (from luna, the moon) are symbol words of
these ancient and now exploded beliefs. Less than two hundred years
ago, many crimes, misdemeanors, beneficent influences and beautiful
actions were ascribed to the moon; things evil had to be done "in the
dark of the moon;" witches were supposed to ride in moonlight; dogs
bayed at the moon because by its light they could see what was hidden
from mortal eyes; sheeted ghosts preferred moonlight to star light;
incantations were never properly recited unless in the moonlight, and
the moon gave or withheld crops, influenced the weather and, when
eclipsed, foretold disaster.
With such a body of belief it is not surprising that the moon was
considered, even by the educated, to have "governing" powers, whence,
probably, her inclusion with such abilities into our ritual.
That we know better is in no sense antagonistic to our use of the
old, old phrase in our ceremonies. We know better about many things.
The knowledge of the art of architecture as set forth in the Middle
Chamber lecture would get no one a job as office boy in a builder's
office today. Our penalties, never enforced by Masons, are wholly
symbolic. We have many other ways of transmitting intelli-gence
today which are not included in a list of ways of writing and
printing. But we love and repeat the old ritual because it is old;
because it is a bond with those who have gone this way before us,
because it is the time-tried and well-trusted way of making Masons,
and we would not alter it; no, not for any modern phrases, no matter
how deep in erudition they were steeped.
And so we continue to have our moon "govern" the night, and do it
"regularly," too, finding in this a bond with other men of other
times something dear and precious, none the less that the words
portray only a fancy.
Indeed, the whole matter of the Lesser Lights is such a bond, and
such a fancy. It would be far more accurate if we repeated "The
Lesser Lights represent the Sun,, the Earth and the Moon. As the
sun, in its gravity, causes the earth to revolve around it in three-
hundred and sixty-five and a fraction days, and the moon revolves
about the earth in approximately twenty-eight days, so the earth is
never without government and light, as all lodges should also be."