A symbol is defined to be a visible sign with which a spiritual feeling, emotion, or idea is connected. It was in this sense that the early Christians gave the name of symbols to all rites, ceremonies, and outward forms which bore a religious meaning; such, for instance, as the cross, and other pictures and images, and even the sacraments and the sacramental elements. At a still earlier period, the Egyptians communicated the knowledge of their esoteric philosophy in mvstic symbols. In fact, man's earliest instruction was by means of symbols. "The first learning of the world," says Doctor Stukely, "consisted chiefly of Symbols. The wisdom of the Chaldeans, Phenicians, Egyptians, Jews, of Zoroaster, Sanchoniathon, Pherecydes, Syrus, Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, of all the ancients that is come to our hand, is symbolic." And the learned Faber remarks that "allegory and personification were peculiarly agreeable to the genius of antiquity, and the simplicity of truth was continually sacrificed at the shrine of poetical decoration."
The word symbol is derived from a Greek verb which signifies to compare one thing with another; and hence a symbol or emblem, for the two words are often used synonymously in Freemasonry, is the expression of an idea derived from the comparison or contrast of some visible object with a moral conception or attribute. Thus the Plumb is a symbol of rectitude; the Level, of equality; the Beehive, of industry. The physical qualities of the Plumb are compared or contrasted with the moral conception of virtue or rectitude of conduct. The Plumb becomes to the Freemason, after he has once been taught its symbolic meaning, forever afterward the visible expression of the idea of rectitude, or uprightness of conduct. To study and compare these visible objects -to elicit from them the moral ideas which they are intended to express-is to make one's self acquainted with the symbolism of Freemasonry.
The objective character of a Symbol which presents something material to the sight and touch, as explanatory of an internal idea, is best calculated to be grasped by the infant missal, whether the infancy of that mind be considered nationally or individually.
Hence, in the first ages of the world, in its infamy, all propositions, theological, political, or Scientific were expressed in the form of symbols. Thus the first religions were eminently symbolical, because, as that great philosophical historians Grote, has remarked, At a time when language was yet in its infancy visible symbols were the most vivid means of acting upon the minds of ignorant hearers."
To the man of mature intellect, each letter of the alphabet is the symbol of a certain sound. When we instruct the child in the form and value of these letters, we make the picture of some familiar object the representation of the letter which aids the infantile memory. Thus, when the teacher says, ".A was an Archer," the Archer becomes a symbol of the letter A, just as in after-life the letter becomes the symbol of a sound.
Doctor Barlow (Essays on symbolism i, page 1) says: Symbolical representations of things sacred, were coeval with religion itself as a system of doctrine appealing to sense, and have accompanied its transmission to ourselves from the earliest known period of monumental history. Egyptian tombs and stiles exhibit religious symbols still in use among Christians. Similar forms, with corresponding meanings, though under diffent names, are found among the Indians, and are seen on the monuments of the Assyrians, the Etruscans, and the Greeks. The Hebrews borrowed much of their early religious symbolism from the Egyptians, their latter from the Babylonians, and through them this symbolical imagery, both verbal and objective, has descended to ourselves. The Egyptian Priests were great proficients in symbolism and so were the Chaldeans, and so were Moses and the Prophets, and the Jewish doctors generally-and so were many of the early fathers of the Church, especially the Greek fathers. Philo of Alexandria was very learned in symbolism and the Evangelist Saint John has made much use of it. The early Christian architects, sculptors, and painters drank deep of Symbolical lore, and reproduced it in their works.
Squier gives in his Serpent Symbolism in America (page 19) a similar view of the antiquity and the subsequent growth of the use of symbols:
In the absence of a written language or forms of expression capable of conveying abstract ideas, we can readily comprehend the necessity, among a primitive people, of a symbolic system. That symbolism in a great degree resulted from this necessity is very obvious; and that, associated with man's primitive religious systems it was afterwards continued, when in the advanced stage of the human mind the previous necessity no longer existed, is equally undoubted. It thus came to constitute a kind of sacred language, and became invested with an esoteric significance understood only by the few.
In Freemasonry, all the instructions in its mysteries are communicated in the form of symbols. Founded as a Speculative science, on an operative art, it has taken the working-tools of the professions which it spiritualizes, the terms of architecture, the Temple of Solomon, and everything that is connected with its traditional history and adopting them as Symbols, it teaches its great moral and philosophical lessons by this system of symbolism. But its symbols are not confined to material objects as were the hieroglyphics of the Egyptians. Its myths and legends are also, for the most part, symbolic.
Often a legend, unauthenticated by history, distorted by anachronisms, and possibly absurd in its pretensions if viewed historically or as a narrative of actual occurrences, when interpreted as a symbol, is found to impress the mind with some great spiritual and philosophical truth. The legends of Freemasonry are parables, and a parable is only a Spoken symbol. By its utterance, says Adam Clarke, "spiritual things are better understood, and make a deeper impression on the attentive mind."