What is allegory? It’s a simplistic enough concept. I am sure we all understand what it is, but do we understand its purpose? Masonry is full of allegory. As a matter of fact, much of the lessons are “veiled in allegory” to coin the phrase. But why? Wouldn’t it be easier to impart the lessons directly, and not leave so much guessing? To understand this concept, you must first understand the reason and meaning of Allegory.
Well, let’s allegorically return to the North East, and begin to learn.
There are three definitions of Allegory. First: as a “representation of an abstract or spiritual meaning through concrete or material forms. Figurative treatment of one subject under the guise of another.” Second: “a symbolic narrative.” And finally third: “an emblem.”
The word “allegory” comes from the Latin “allegoria”, the translation of the Greek ἀλληγορία (allegoria), or “veiled language, figurative”. Combined from: ἄλλος (allos), “another, different” + ἀγορεύω (agoreuo), “to harangue, to speak in the assembly”, and that from ἀγορά (agora), “assembly.”
To address and expand upon the first definition, we find that allegory is a rhetorical device in which characters or events in a literary, visual, or musical art form represent or symbolize ideas and concepts. Allegory has been used widely throughout history in many different forms of art. The major reason is that it has an immense power to illustrate very complex ideas and concepts in ways that are easily understood by its intended viewers, readers, and listeners. An allegory conveys its hidden messages through symbolic figures, actions, imagery, and events. It is generally treated as a figure of “rhetoric.” A rhetorical allegory is an outward demonstrative form of representation. This conveys meaning other than words that are spoken.
As a literary device, allegory, in its most general sense, is an extended metaphor. Many types of allegory exist from classic fables to biblical parables. Some even exist where they were never meant to in the first place!
We are all familiar with the story of a boy who was given the task of watching sheep. The boy that fooled all of the villagers not once, but twice, that a wolf had threatened to attack him and his flock of sheep. The concerned villagers came running to the boy’s aid, only to realized that they had been bamboozled!
When the wolf actually does come to attack, the boy’s cries for help are rendered futile, as the villagers think he is calling out for company again.
Hence, the allegory insinuates the danger of lies.
Allegory also takes the form of parables. One of the largest collections of parables available is the Holy Bible. In the book of Matthew, chapter 13, NIV, Jesus explains this parable to a very confused crowd.
“A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.”
And of course, to truly understand allegory, we must use one of the most popular allegories, Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.
Plato has Socrates describe a gathering of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall by things passing in front of a fire behind them, and begin to designate names to these shadows. The shadows are as close as the prisoners get to viewing reality.
He then explains how the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall do not make up reality at all, as he can perceive the true form of reality rather than the mere shadows seen by the prisoners.
Allegory takes many different forms. “Veiled in allegory, and illustrated by symbols.” is the catch phrase. Now that we understand allegory, what about symbols? Let’s try an example, such as the symbolism of the American Flag.
Charles Thompson, Secretary of the Continental Congress, reporting to Congress on the Seal, stated: “The colors of the pales (the vertical stripes) are those used in the flag of the United States of America; White signifies purity and innocence, Red, hardiness & valour, and Blue, the color of the Chief (the broad band above the stripes) signifies vigilance, perseverance & justice.”
Also this from a book about the flag published in 1977 by the House of Representatives…
“The star is a symbol of the heavens and the divine goal to which man has aspired from time immemorial; the stripe is symbolic of the rays of light emanating from the sun.”
Many of the colors, and symbology used on the American Flag have hidden meanings to those who do not understand their original purpose and design. Without a frame of reference, these meanings would be lost. The same follows with many of the symbols throughout Masonry.
Symbology at it’s root, is illustrated allegory.
So, what is the purpose of all of this allegory and symbolism? The impression that it leaves upon your mind. It would be easy to just tell someone what they were supposed to do. But how many people actually follow direct advice?
“Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.”
– Douglas Adams, Last Chance to See (1990)
This is a question that we must all answer ourselves. However, in the book of Matthew, Chapter 13, NIV, Jesus explains his allegorical parable by
The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?”
He replied, “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. This is why I speak to them in parables:
“Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand. In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: “You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’
“But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. For truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.”
“Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”
Through retention, definition, and comprehension, we are able to understand these allegories. Sometimes, they need to be explained. Sometimes, we contemplate the story long enough to finally understand the allegory. Sometimes we are presented with a situation in our lives that makes the allegory become much more clear to us after that event is over.
We utilize this allegory in our day to day lives when we speak in metaphor. “Hey Dan, don’t cry ‘Wolf’, just hang on a few until we can help you.” Or, “Don’t throw pearls before swine.” Or my personal Masonic favorite: “Stop giving me the third degree!”
When we say that it is “veiled in allegory”, we are imparting that the lessons learned in Masonry are to be taught to all Masons, and it is up to the Mason and his lodge to assist in lifting the veil. This way, the lesson can be learned, and in so doing, light is given to the seeker in a way that allows him to open his own eyes to the lesson, bringing the light in upon himself.
When we say “illustrated by symbols” we refer back to the “veil of allegory” with objects or illustrations. We want Masons to impress upon their own minds the meaning behind the Plumb, Square, and Level. Understand the use of the 24 Inch Gauge, and the Common Gavel. Make sure they really understand how to use a Trowel Look closely at your Cable-Tow, and what the symbolism really means.
Each tool, as a symbol and allegory, impresses upon your memory, and continues to assist each Mason with further light.
Worshipful Master (2016)
Matanuska Lodge No. 7
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