#NoSkullsInMasonry (Just Kidding...There Are)
The interwebs are all a flutter this month with arguments and lively discourse about one of the most hotly contested topics in Freemasonry today...SKULLS!
So why is this such a polarizing topic? Why does one side of the argument insist that the skull is an important symbol in the Craft? Why does the other side of the discourse believe that it is a malicious symbol, that inspires fear, and has no place in the Lodge? Who is right, and who is wrong?
To begin this conversation, we need to understand why the skull was used as a prominent Masonic symbol, why it appeared to fall into disuse, why American Freemasonry has little knowledge of it's deeper usages, and why a clamoring for this symbol to return is becoming a prevalent topic, especially in the United States.
A human skull, used throughout history, is a symbol that inspires thoughts of death. Most notably, it has signified the remains that we leave behind as mortal beings, and often evoke feelings of dread and fear of our own mortality. This idea permeates throughout history, and is predominantly held by the majority of the human population. The fear of death has been a great motivator during the course of human history; it has motivated the explosion of science, medicine, and research into longevity. Fear of dying has affected the course of governments and nations, and has charted the course of how people live their lives.
On a few notable occasions, however, the skull has been used to impart lessons on how the mortality of man should be celebrated, as we travel that winding road towards our immortality. Plato references the concept of death in his Phaedo where he states “The one aim of those who practice philosophy in the proper manner is to practice for dying and death" ("History of Memento Mori", 2019).
Marcus Aurelius wrote in his Meditations that "You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think" (2019). Long after these sages of the past defined what our outlook on life and death SHOULD be, this idea morphed into what we now call the memento mori.
The memento mori, adopted preeminently as a Christian motif in ancient times, successfully captures the meaning and emphasis of reflecting on one’s mortality. The skull and crossbones attributed to the memento mori symbology, misunderstood and over-utilized to describe danger or death, is an old symbol for reflection that predates Craft lodges by centuries. to be clear: Poison, danger, pirates, and fear are not the purpose of the memento mori. It is a symbol (you Freemasons may have heard of those before) that is meant to instill reflection into the finite nature of our mortal existence, and the firm knowledge that our mortal remains are the remnants of this transitory life.
Even as far back as the first century before the Common Era, adepts into the mysteries of life regarded the memento mori as a symbol of reflecting on the transitory nature of our existence on this Earth. Seen in the mural below, found in Pompeii and dated to 2200 years ago, the image displays our earthly remains as something we should be pensive of, and to think about their image in terms of what we leave behind. Truer ideas could not exist in a more poignant location as Pompeii.
Death, as the great leveler, is depicted in this mural, originally found in Pompeii. It can now be seen at the National Archaeological Museum of Naples. On either side of of the skull, in perfect balance on the scale are the symbols of poverty (the beggar's cane) and wealth (the sceptre), meaning that death comes for all, both the rich and poor alike. Freemasons should also pay special attention to the use of the plumb line, balanced perfectly on the skull, and a level at the top, showing that the weights of both wealth and poverty are equal on either side. Further denoting the balance that mortal death has for us all is the fact that the skull is perfectly balanced atop a wheel, and never teetering to one side or the other.
Other pre-Craft depictions of the memento mori can be found in art hundreds of years before it rose to prominence in Masonic Lodges. Another notable example is the Baroque-era painting by Philippe de Champaigne titled "Still-Life with a Skull"
This painting represents, in one's opinion, the perfect representation of the focal points in the reflection of life, death, mortality, and the importance of recognizing these ideas while living a complete and worthwhile life. On the left, a symbol of life, flower in vase, displays the frailty and beauty of of the wonders of life in this Creation. In the center, the Skull representing death and what one truly leaves behind. On the right, the hourglass, a striking reminder that we measure life by the sands of time, always moving in one direction, from birth to an inevitable death.
Freemasonry has lauded and derided the use of the memento mori in it's [official] 302 year history. In the early days of the Speculative Craft, the memento mori featured much more prominently in our rituals, as evidenced by the most ancient tracing boards of the early 1700's, as depicted below. This tracing board depicted below is most recently dated to 1740, and was used extensively in the third degree ritual.
Clearly depicted is the skull, our symbol of reflection, within the walls of a coffin; a sprig of acacia at the head, and other symbols adorning this implement of instruction tell a unique story to those who understand it's meaning. This board, again, comes to us from the 18th century Craft, and is likely based on a discourse or document from earlier still.
What I can say is that listening to the ritual whilst viewing this picture should move someone to contemplate their own mortality, in the context of what they leave behind as they transcend this part of our existence. This image also teaches us that our final resting place is a doorway to a new level of existence.
In the end, what this long winded blog post is trying to say, is that skulls have been around in Freemasonry for a very long time. They predate the Craft, and many of the teachings of the Craft make use of these symbols, and we need to start acknowledging that fact.
The current rise of Masons wanting to return to these traditions on the reflection of mortality and immortality (which live at the very core of the teachings of Freemasonry) are being stifled by the larger numbers of Masons who were initiated, passed and Raised in the "social club" era of the Craft, and want nothing more than to escape their spouses on a Thursday night and complain about dues going up $3.00 this year.
Our preparation rooms should be transformed from the dingy and stinky rooms where candidates leave their car keys and neckties, and BACK to a room for: reflecting on the meaning of their lives, what have they accomplished thus far, and what they hope to learn while walking down the winding road of life. From the first step into the preparation room, all the way to the final lecture of the Master Mason's degree, the initiate should ever be inundated with the fact that we will all one day die, that we need to contemplate how we spend the time we have, and that we leave this place knowing there is something more and greater and more vibrant than we can ever imagine.
History of Memento Mori. (2019, August 22). Retrieved from https://dailystoic.com/history-of-memento-mori/