Symbolical Masonry, by H.L. Haywood, , at sacred-texts.com
The Three, Five and Seven Steps have long been a puzzle to the candidate and a problem to Masonic writers; in the present connection there is no need that we go into the erudite debates that have circled about the matter, because our main concern is with that living and practical truth of which the stairs are a symbol.
Whence came this symbolism? To that question many answers have been offered, some ingenious, but none very convincing. Any discussion of origin is valuable only as it throws light on the symbol itself.
Some scholars have contended, though not in recent years, that there was a winding stair of three, five and seven steps in Solomon's temple itself. It is thought that at the Gate Nicanor there was a semi-circular stairway leading from one court to another, and that it was on the successive steps of this stair that the Levites chanted the fifteen "Psalms of Degrees," specimens of which remain in the Book of Psalms. But the archæologists who have learned most about the Temple as it actually existed are generally agreed that this stairway could not have been the prototype of the three, five and seven steps as we find them in our Second Degree. Sir Charles Warren, as eminent in archæology as he is in Masonry, writes that "there was a winding staircase, certainly, but this led to little cells or chambers a few feet square in the thickness of the Temple walls, in which the functionaries
[paragraph continues] [temple attendants] kept their stores for the votive offerings." ("A.Q.C.," vol. 1, p. 42.)
Other scholars have opined that the steps were originally the same in the Masonic system as the Theological Ladder, and had the same historical origin. This Theological Ladder, which appears on our Tracing Board, and represents by its seven rungs the three theological virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity, and the four cardinal virtues of Temperance, Fortitude, Prudence, and Justice, was introduced into the Ritual it is thought by Martin Clare in 1732. This ladder was made to stand for the progress of the soul from the earthly to the heavenly and it was looked upon as a Masonic type of a similar symbol used in several of the Ancient Mysteries (especially in Mithraism), in Brahminism, etc., and it was generally held to be, in its strictly Masonic form, a suggestion of that Ladder which Jacob saw in his vision, up and down which the angels came and went. Inasmuch as this Theological Ladder symbolised progress, just as does the Winding Stair, some have argued that the latter symbol must have come from the same sources as the former. This interpretation of the matter may be plausible enough, and it may help toward an interpretation of both symbols, but it suffers from an almost utter lack of tangible evidence.
Other scholars of more modern views believe that the Winding Stair symbol may have been devised by Operative Masons during the Saxon period in England. It seems that the numbers, three, five and seven were in the air, so to speak, at that time as is proved by Gould, who gives examples to show that these numbers were grouped together in laws, religious doctrines, superstitions, etc., "with startling frequency," especially during the years 449–1066. But this latter date, it will be seen, is some two centuries earlier than our oldest Masonic record, consequently there can be no hope of tracing the Winding
[paragraph continues] Stair symbol to that time with any degree of accuracy.
Thus it is that we are thrown back upon conjecture. Accepting that alternative we may believe that the Stairway was first used simply because it was a necessary part of the symbolic temple of the Second Degree. Here were the pillars standing at the entrance on the porch; yonder was the Middle Chamber, on a higher level; some means of ascent was obviously needed to get the candidate from one to another.
But the difficulties in the way of accounting for the origin of the symbol need not perplex us while searching for an interpretation, for that is plain; the mystical use of numbers in the Ascent suggests to us that the climb itself is a divine task, worthy of the noblest in man; the stair as a whole is a symbol of the progress of a man from the low level of natural ignorance toward that high level of spiritual power and insight symbolised by the Middle Chamber.
The number Fifteen itself cannot have much mystical significance because it is another one of those dreaded "American innovations" which have given so much scandal to certain interpreters. In some eighteenth century tracing boards the stair is composed of only five steps, in others of seven. Preston divided them into one, three, five, seven, nine and eleven, making thirty-six in all. The Hemming lectures, which replaced Preston's at the time of the Union, struck out the group of eleven steps, thus reducing the number to twenty-five. The American Ritual, in turn, further reduced the number to fifteen by striking out the one and the nine. Albert Pike was of the opinion that the nine should have been retained because he believed that the series three, five, seven and nine
had a very ancient and very precious meaning. "As long ago as the time of Zarathustra," he writes, "the Irano-Aryan Soldier and King of Bactria, five thousand years or more before our era, [this date is most certainly wrong.—H.L.H.] the Barecura, or bundle of twigs used in the sacrifices, were bound by three, five, seven and nine twigs, and even then the number seven had a peculiar significance." I consider it a fine thing that the architects of the House of the Temple at Washington, which is a monument to Albert Pike and headquarters of the Scottish Rite of the Southern Jurisdiction, have divided the steps that lead from the street to the entrance of that noble building into groups of three, five, seven and nine. But while it may possibly be true that the original symbolism should have contained the group of nine, the Winding Stair as it now exists in the Second Degree can never be changed; to do so would dislocate the entire structure of the Ritualism of the Second Degree, and it is doubtful if the additional group would give us any additional meanings.
From ancient times numbers have been much employed in symbolism as is proved by the records of all the ancient nations, philosophies, and religions. For one reason or another, too complicated to explain here, the even numbers were usually made to denote earthly or human things while the odd numbers were revered as expressions or suggestions of divine or heavenly truths. This was not the case invariably because the early Christians used 888 as the number of Jesus; but even they made 666 to stand for the human or demoniac and 777 to mean absolute perfection. It is now believed that the "number of the beast" spoken of in the Book of Revelation, and given as 666 in our Authorised version was really 616, which was the numerical value of the words "Kaisar Theos," or "God Cæsar," and referred to the worship of the emperor.
[paragraph continues] At any rate, with few exceptions, number symbolism has always made the odd number to suggest that which is divine or very noble and as such we may understand the use of the odd numbers, three, five and seven. An old Roman historian of architecture notes that ancient temples were nearly always approached by an odd number of steps because they led to the divine precincts.
The Three, or triad, or ternary, is found scores of times throughout the Ritual, and it is bodied forth in the Triangle, the symbol of Deity. It would be impossible in the present space even to hint at the wealth of instances in which the Triad occurs in the various symbolic systems of the past; we must satisfy ourselves with the following paragraph from Pierson's "Traditions of Freemasonry.
"The ternary [or triad] is the first of unequal numbers. The triad, mysterious number, which plays so great a part in the traditions of Asia, the philosophy of Plato, the mysteries of all ages, an image of the Supreme Being, includes in itself the properties of the two first numbers [that is—1 plus 2, equals 3.—H.L.H.]. It was to philosophers the most excellent and favourite number, a mysterious type, revered by all antiquity and consecrated in the mysteries; wherefore there are but three essential degrees among Masons, who venerate in the triangle the most august mystery—that of the Sacred Triad, object of their homage and study."
Concerning the number five I cannot do better than give Mackey's interpretations, as found in his Encyclopædia, Volume I:
"Among the Pythagoreans five was a mystical number, because it was formed by the union of the first even number and the first odd, rejecting unity; and hence it symbolised
the mixed conditions of order and disorder, happiness and misfortune, life and death. The same union of the odd and even, or male and female, numbers made it the symbol of marriage. Among the Greeks it was a symbol of the world, because, says Diodorus, it represented ether and the four elements. It was a sacred round number among the Hebrews. In Egypt, India, and other Oriental nations, says Gesenius, the five minor planets and the five elements and elementary powers were accounted sacred. It was the pentas of the Gnostics and the Hermetic Philosophers; it was the symbol of their quintessence, the fifth or highest essence of power in a natural body. In Masonry, five is a sacred number, inferior only in importance to three and seven. It is especially significant in the Fellow-Craft's Degree, where five are required to hold a lodge, and where, in the Winding Stairs, the five steps are referred to the orders of architecture and the human senses. In the Third Degree we find the reference to the five points of fellowship and their symbol, the five-pointed star. Geometry, too, which is deemed synonymous with Masonry, is called the fifth science; and in fact, throughout nearly all the degrees of Masonry, we find abundant allusions to five as a sacred and mystical number."
The number seven usually stands for perfection, and it may not be without meaning that in the V.S.L. it occurs, as one writer has said, "an incredible number of times." During the mediaeval period knowledge was usually divided among seven branches of learning; first was a group of three, called the trivium and composed of grammar, rhetoric, and logic; secondly was the quadrivium, which comprised arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. It is interesting to observe how our monitorial interpretation of the third group of steps preserves this old idea. Gould says that during the same period these seven
[paragraph continues] "sciences" were thought of as "a number of steps leading to virtue, and finally to heaven."
Let us now glance first at the group of three steps. The most familiar explanation of them is that they represent the Three Degrees or the three principal officers of the lodge. In either case the first three steps suggest to the candidate that he is being helped on his way by an organised fraternity, represented by the degrees or the officers. Does not this have much to tell us? Is not this one of the prime functions of Masonry? Instead of leaving the individual to climb on alone it surrounds him with its inspiration and its help, as the organised public school stands back of the child that begins the ascent to an education. No individual Mason need fail in his attempt to lead a manly life; a world-wide brotherhood, with its almost inexhaustible resources, is at hand to help him. Have you kept that in mind during dark days? No Mason climbs alone, even from the start; the entire Order, sensitive to his needs, and responsive to his call is ever ready to help him on and up.
If we glance at the next group of five steps we find another teaching, equally valuable and quite as practicable, a teaching that has more boldness in it than appears on the surface. Let us agree with the Monitor that this group of steps now represents to us (whatever it may have originally meant) the five senses; in other words, our physical body with its organs, functions, and faculties. What does this mean? Is it not this, that the very body itself, when kept in control by thorough discipline and when trained by education, may be a stepping stone toward the highest life? This was an exceedingly bold teaching when first promulgated, for it was at a time when religious teachers and moralists were telling people that the body was evil in itself and must be put
under foot. Masonry does not despise the physical, but urges us to prepare it so as to serve as a stairway toward the noblest life.
The third group of seven steps is interpreted as referring to the liberal arts and sciences; in other words, we are told that right learning and culture of the mind will lead us up and on. This is a teaching as badly needed now as ever because so many men tend to make light of knowledge, or to excuse themselves for not having it. But Masonry condemns this attitude, teaching us as it does in other connections as well as in this that ignorance is a sin. If we lay our prejudices aside here and are brave enough to face the facts I believe that we must agree with Masonry. We may say that we have no time to read, or to learn; the fallacy of this is proved by the number of men about us who are as busy as we yet manage to get an education in odd moments. We may say that we have not the opportunities for securing an education, that we cannot go to school, or that we cannot buy books. We do not need to go to school; we can turn our bedroom into a school and be our own teacher, like Elihu Burritt, or Benjamin Franklin, or David Livingstone. Nor do we need to buy books; they can always be borrowed from public libraries or from our friends. When we remember how superstition, crime, fanaticism, disease, poverty, and kindred evils grow out of ignorance we can well afford to study again the lessons of the Winding Stairs.
The Winding Stair, as a whole, is a symbol of progress. When is a man progressing? Let Ruskin answer: "He alone is advancing in life whose heart is getting softer, whose blood warmer, whose brain quicker, whose spirit is entering into living peace." In spite of the Great War, which for so long dragged its bloody coils across the world, we may still believe that the race progresses, that
But we must not fall into the error of measuring progress by merely mechanical achievements as the custom is; the race as a race goes forward only as mankind as a whole becomes possessed of those qualities described by Ruskin. Do you not believe that Masonry has a leading rôle to play in this real progress of man? Can you think of a better recipe for advancement than Masonry's—to unite with others for co-operation, to control the passions and discipline the faculties, to enlighten the mind, and to keep ever before one a great ideal, as is suggested by the Holy of Holies?