|Posted by Sir Knight Nash on July 20, 2014 at 5:55 PM|
THE MASONIC LADDER AND THE GREAT CHAIN OF BEING
by Bro. William Steve Burkle KT, 32°, KCRBE
Alpha Lodge No. 116, Grand Lodge of New Jersey Philo Lodge No. 243, South River, New Jersey SciotoLodge No. 6, Chillicothe, Ohio.
This paper examines the esoteric symbolism of the Masonic Ladder and will develop the thesis that the Masonic Ladder's esoteric meaning derives from an ancientconcept dealing with thehierarchal ordering ofthe universe known as the Great Chain of Being . This ordering was so ingrained in the cultural, political, and theological structure of society that it was accepted as a matter of absolutefact at least until thelate1800's or early 1900's. This paper will discuss the concept of the Great Chain of Being, will examine its historical basis, and will explain how the esotericsymbolism of the Masonic ladder is related to this concept.
The Masonic ladder is a unique symbol in Freemasonry in that its symbolic allusion
may be traced directly to the Bible (Genesis 28: 10-22)[i]. To my knowledge no other
Masonic symbol is thus distinguished. This Bible verse ties the symbol to the story of Jacob,
and thereby establishes that the symbolism of the Masonic Ladder is identical to that of
Jacob’s ladder. The symbol of the Masonic Ladder figures prominently in the both Entered
Apprentice Degree and the Degrees of York Rite Masonry, and is one of the few Masonic
symbols which vary in its depiction depending upon the degree system in which it appears.
It is also interesting that the symbolism of the ladder is linguistically similar to another
prominent Masonic symbol, namely the “Winding Staircase”, however the explanations
provided in the degree lectures for these two symbols are distinctly different. As with all
Masonic symbols, the Masonic ladder has a much deeper esoteric symbolism which
underlies the literal (exoteric) meaning provided in the degree lectures.
This paper examines the esoteric symbolism of the Masonic Ladder and will
develop the thesis that the Masonic Ladder’s esoteric meaning derives from an ancient
concept dealing with the hierarchal ordering of the universe known as the Great Chain of
Being[ii]. This ordering was so ingrained in the cultural, political, and theological structure of
society that it was accepted as a matter of absolute fact at least until the late1800’s or early
1900’s. In many instances this powerful notion remains with us today. This paper will
discuss the concept of the Great Chain of Being, will examine its historical basis, and will
explain how the esoteric symbolism of the Masonic ladder is related to this concept.
The Masonic Ladder
The Masonic ladder is believed[iii] to
have been introduced into Masonic
ritual by Dunckerly in 1776, having
purportedly been borrowed from
ancient Hermetic tradition. Other
accounts believe the introduction of
the Masonic Ladder to have been as
early as 1732 (attributed to Matin
Clare) or 1760[iv] based upon an
image of the Ladder found on a
trestle board inscribed with this date.
Other accounts indicate the symbol
appeared in a Masonic context as
late[v] as 1819 as a figure or symbol
on a certificate in which the ladder is
depicted as resting upon the VSL,
reaching upwards towards the
heavens. A version of this symbol is
shown in Figure 1 in a Masonic
tracing board image attributed to
Lady Frieda Harris (1877 - 1962).
The number of rungs (rounds) found on the Masonic ladder has varied over time;
however, either three or seven rungs are most common. Historically[vi], the ladder is closely
associated with Mithraic, kabalistic, and numerous other mystery traditions.
The exoteric (literal) meaning attributed to the symbol of the Ladder in the EA
degree lecture is that the three rungs in the ladder represent the Cardinal virtues[vii] of Faith,
Hope, and Charity often called the “theological virtues”. There is also another explanation
which posits that the three rungs allude to Youth, Manhood, and Old Age. Versions of the
lecture in which the ladder is shown with seven rungs add the four additional Cardinal
virtues (Temperance, Fortitude, Prudence, and Justice). In some cases the rails of the
ladder are included in the symbolism[viii]. However, just as with the Biblical story of Jacob’s
ladder, there is deeper meaning in the symbolism than is apparent from the explanation
given in the lecture.
For example, Bro. W.L. Wilmhurst in a discussion of the ladder and the instruction
once given during the Degree Lecture in his classic text The Masonic Initiation, notes[ix]
“They were taught of the different levels and graduations of the Universe-some of them
material and some ethereal,-the planes and sub-planes of it, upon which the great scheme
is being carried out ; which levels and planes, all progressively linked together, constitute as
it were one vast ladder of many rounds, staves, or rungs …”
Wilmhurst further elaborates that
“Jacob's vision and ladder, therefore, exemplify the attainment of Initiation, the expansion of
consciousness that comes when the Light of the centre is found…”
Brother Wilmhurst’s comments are absolutely accurate; there is an esoteric meaning
associated with the symbol of the Masonic Ladder which relates not to the virtues, but
rather to cosmology and spiritual evolution.
Ladder symbolism is not unique to Christian doctrine; in fact its use supersedes
Christianity. Table 1 provides a summary of common ladder symbolism used by divergent
cultures[x]. Note that in each of the cultures listed four levels of being are represented which
correspond[xi] to Body, Mind, Soul and Spirit in the microcosm, and to the Infinite, Celestial,
Intermediate, and Terrestrial in the macrocosm. This four-fold similarity is consistent with
the original concept of the Great Chain of Being as conceived by Plato.
1 - A Summary of Divergent Cultures Having Similar Ladder Symbolism (after Wilbur)[xii]
Christianity Judaism Islamist
Macrocosm Microcosm Macrocosm Microcosm Macrocosm Microcosm
Godhead Spirit Emancipation Neshamah Sovereign Power Qalb
God Soul Creation Ruah Domination Ruh
Angels Mind Formation Nefesh Dominion Nafs
Nature Body Action Body Kingdom Jinn
Chinese Buddhism Hinduism
Macrocosm Microcosm Macrocosm Microcosm Macrocosm Microcosm
Unspeakable(Tao) Shen Nirvana Buddha NirgunaBrahman Turiya (Atman)
Heaven (T’ien) Ling Bodhisattvas Subtle Mind Saguna Brahman Causal Body
Heaven/Earth Hsin Apsaras Gross Mind Devas in Lokas Subtle Body
10,000 Things Shen Nirmanakaya Five Senses Prakriti Gross Body
Modern anthropologists generally concur that the commonality of symbolism of this
sort is the result of “diffusionism” and “acculturation”. Diffusionism may be simply
defined[xiii] as the spread of a cultural item from its place of origin to other places usually
through migration, trade, war, or other contact. Acculturation[xiv] is considered to be those
gradual changes purposefully produced in a given culture because of the influence of
another politically dominant culture, in which the two cultures become similar as the end
There are also numerous examples in which a seven-fold hierarchical symbolism is
found widely distributed among variant cultures. Table 2 provides an example of one such
complex (three parallel meanings) seven tier symbolism which was used in the cult of
2 – Structure of Seven-fold Mithraic Symbolism
Chain of Being in Mithraism
7 Gold Sun Truth
6 Silver Moon Mansion of the Blessed
5 Iron Mars World of Births
4 Tin Jupiter Middle World
3 Copper Venus Heaven
2 Quicksilver Mercury World of Pre-Existence
1 Lead Saturn First World
Of those traditions displaying ladder symbolism, that which is of particular interest in
Freemasonry is the Kabalistic representation of the ladder provided by the Tree of Life glyph.
Figure 2 illustrates the Tree of Life rendered as a seven-run ladder. The Kabalistic Tree of
Life is comprised of three pillars. Each of these pillars contains spheres or “Sephira” (plural:
Sephiroth) which are considered to be “emanations" of God. These spheres are connected
by pathways. The Sephiroth of the left pillar (called the Pillar of Severity) represent the
"masculine" characteristics of God (such as "judgment" and "understanding"), Sephiroth of
the right pillar (the Pillar of Mercy) represent the "feminine" characteristics of God (such as
"mercy" and "wisdom"). The Center pillar is the perfect "balance" between Severity and
Mercy. Both the Angel Metatron (identified as the transported person of Enoch) and Christ
are commonly associated with the Sephira “Tipareth” which are centered upon the middle
In the Zohar the Pillars on the left and right are associated with the Biblical characters
of Isaac and Abraham, respectively. The center Pillar is associated with Jacob. Through his
dream as detailed in Genesis, Jacob is made to understand by the image of the ladder the
unity of the three pillars. There are Theologians who believe that the three pillars of the tree
of life were the original basis for the concept of the Christian Trinity. In the account of
Jacob’s ladder given in Genesis 28: 10-22 the Angels serve as the entities which carry out
the will of God. Their pathway in doing so is Jacobs Ladder - the center pillar, or the pillar of
balance. Thus the ladder is associated with God’s perfect and balanced will and God’s
There are two different Kabalistic interpretations of the story of Jacob. The Jewish
philosopher Maimonides (Moses ben Maimon, 1138–1204 AD[xvi]), in his “Guide to the
Perplexed[xvii]” believed the story of Jacob’s ladder was intended as an explanation of the
relationship between man’s existence on earth and existence in the “world of heavenly
spheres”. He believed that the ascending angels are the prophets whose understanding of
the ladder allows them an elevated level of spiritual awareness. The descending angels
represent the prophets who having gained spiritual awareness descend to the material
world to transmit their knowledge. Therefore, the dream relates that the two worlds, while
separate are none-the-less connected and may be comprehended by study of the Tree of
Life. Through this understanding man may reach the level of the Prophet.
A second interpretation is given by Hassidic leader R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady (1745
– 1813 AD[xviii]) and R. Hayyim of Volozhin (1749-1821). In this interpretation, the Ladder
symbolizes the stages of spiritual progression. This interpretation views the ascending and
descending Angels to represent the mobility of spirit. It is interesting that in the commentary
on this interpretation it is noted that the ladder does not rest “on the ground” but rather
“near the ground” and that its anchor-point is in heaven.
Since it is not my purpose here to explain the complex meaning of the Tree of Life I
will simply note that from my point-of-view, the esoteric notion represented by the Masonic
Ladder is consistent with the interpretation rendered by Shneur Zalman of Lyady et. al. This
is not surprising since this interpretation appears to have been formulated at about the
same time period in which the Masonic ladder first appeared in our ritual. The Masonic
Ladder alludes to the Spiritual growth and transcendence which is possible through study.
We are also reminded that having ascended and received light, we are obligated also to
descend the ladder to share our knowledge and faith with our Brothers.
The Great Chain of Being
The “Great Chain of Being”, also known as the “Scala Naturae” (Latin: Ladder of
Nature) or the “Echelle des Etres” (French: Scale of Beings) is a concept[xix] developed from
the ideas of Plato (circa 427 – 347 BC), Aristotle (384 – 322 BC), and the Neo Platonist
philosophers Plotinus (circa 204–270 A.D.) and Porphyry (circa 234– 305 A.D.). Plato
conceived of "Ideal Forms" which were the patterns of perfection of physical being which
exist in the mind of God. This may be loosely interpreted as meaning that all of God’s
physical and spiritual creations possess some degree of perfection. Aristotle considered
that man is the most perfect of animal creations and that it would be possible to rank
animals based upon their level of perfection relative to man. The concept evolved to include
a hierarchal scale based upon degrees of perfection in which in which God was at the top,
followed by Spiritual Beings (i.e. Angels), followed respectively by Man, remaining members
of the Animal Kingdom, members of the Plant Kingdom, and lastly the Inert (mineral) world.
Within each these major Hierarchical categories, further ranking was developed. For
example Kings were placed at the top of the list of perfection in the Human realm, with
nobles following. This hierarchical scheme was justified using Biblical text from Romans
13:1 which establishes the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings, and was the basis of the
medieval feudal system. During the Renaissance[xx] (roughly spanning the 14th to the 17th
century) and the ensuing Age of Enlightenment, the entire social spectrum was incorporated
into the hierarchy of the Great Chain of being. Written works by Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716,
Compte de Buffon (1720-1788), Charles Bonner (1720-1793) established the Great Chain of
Being as “scientific fact”. In 1774 botanist Karl von Linné (Latinized as Carolus Linnaeus)
proposed a binomial system of nomenclature for classifying animal and plant organisms. In
his system, organisms were given two Latin names: “genus” and “species”. Each genus
included related species and was also part of a larger category of living things (this later
evolving into the modern system of Taxonomy comprising Class, Order, Genus, and
Species). Linné’s system was of course consistent with the Great Chain of Being. Author
Oliver Goldsmith in his text A History of the Earth and Animated Nature[xxi] published in
1774 created an exhaustive index[xxii] and hierarchical ranking of the organisms
constituting the Great Chain of Being, complete with illustrations.
The concept of the Great Chain of Being is believed[xxiii] to have been introduced to
Christian theology by St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1275 AD), and was especially popular with
the Christian Church since the concept adopted a stable hierarchy in which God is Supreme,
and because Clergy were considered to occupy the space just below Nobility in this
hierarchy. Further, the power of the Church ranked second only to the Power of the Empire
A person living during the 16 th though the 18 th centuries knew without doubt his or
her own places in the Great Chain of Being. The doctrine of the Great Chain of Being
permitted no opportunity for improvements upon God’s perfection, hence one’s lot in life
was considered both divine destiny and unalterable, not only for a given individual but also
for one’s descendants. (i.e. a baker’s son would produce only baker’s sons and daughters).
As will be discussed later, this part of the doctrine appears to be highly contrived. This is
considered as such, since the Biblical description of Angels ascending and descending
Jacob’s ladder clearly represents the possibility for upward and downward mobility of spirit
within the Chain. This rigid doctrine also did not provide for any degree of overlap within the
Chain of Being, i.e. the overlap of beings exhibiting higher levels of perfection in one class
with lower level beings of the next higher class. This is puzzling as well since the Great
Chain of Being and the revival of Alchemy were contemporary concepts.
Arthur O. Lovejoy in his seminal work the Great Chain of Being[xxiv] made the
observation that persons living during the “Age of Enlightenment” (roughly 1670 to
1815[xxv]) were largely those with minds which habitually assumed that simple solutions
are possible for even the most complex matters. Lovejoy used the term “esprits simpliste” to
describe this propensity. He wrote:
“The representatives of the Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, for
example, were manifestly characterized to a peculiar degree by the presumption of
simplicity. Though there were numerous exceptions, though there were powerful ideas in
vogue which worked in the contrary direction, it was never-the-less largely an age of esprits
As can be plainly discerned, the Great Chain of Being introduced a socio-political
order which upheld the existing power structure. The acceptance by the masses of the Great
Chain of Being as unalterable fact began to unravel around the time of the French Revolution
and the founding of the United States, both of which championed a form of political rule
which was not based upon hereditary kingship. Social mobility of the classes was indeed a
shockingly radical concept.
The Great Chain of Being had an immense influence upon early western culture and
the way we viewed ourselves in the context of relationships between men and between man
and God. The close ties of Esoteric Freemasonry and Kabalistic concepts are well known
and are generally accepted by knowledgeable Masons. It is entirely possible that the Great
Chain may have had Kabalistic thought as its inspiration, since the concept of the Kabalistic
Tree of Life probably pre-dated Plato. It is interesting to note that the basic concept of the
Great Chain of Being which began as a brilliant question aimed at defining Man’s place in
the Universe eventually evolved into a complex system which restricted freedoms and was
responsible for racial discrimination.
I am proud to say that the tie which binds the Masonic Ladder and the Great Chain of
Being is consistent with the original brilliant question: How does mankind relate to God and
how does Man ascend to the light of God ?
[i] Jacobs Ladder. Short talk Bulletin. Masonic Service Association ofNorth America. Vol.XIII April, 1935 No.4.
[ii] Tillyard, E.M.W. (1944).The Elizabethan World Picture: A Studyofthe Idea of Order in theAge of Shakespeare, Donne, and Milton. New York: The MacMillan Company.
[iii] Jacob’s Ladder. Kennings Masonic Cyclopaedia and Handbookof Masonic Archeology, Historyand Biography. Kenning, George & Woodford A.F.A.(Eds.). London. 1878.
[iv] Zeldis, Leon. (2003). Symbolism ofthe Ladder. Masonic Symbolsand Signposts. Anchor Communications.
[v] McEvoy, Norman. (2003-2011). Jacobs Ladder. The Educator. Retrieved May 10, 2012 from http://www.theeducator.ca/symbolism/jacobs-ladder/.
[vi] George Oliver (1837). Signs And SymbolsIllustrated And Explained in a Course of Twelve Lectures on Freemasonry. London: Sherwood, Gilbert, and Piper.
[vii] Ramachandran, R. (2002). Jacob's Ladder. Sri Brahadeeswara LodgeMasonicResearch Circle. Retrieved May10, 2012 from http://www.masonicpaedia.org/showarticle.asp?id=4
[viii] Sherer, John. (1876). The Masonic Ladder, or, The Nine Stepsto AncientFreemasonry: A Practical Exhibit, In Prose and Verse, ofthe Moral Precepts, Traditions, Scriptural Instructionsand Allegories of the Degrees of Entered Apprentice, Fellow Craft, Master Mason, MarkMaster, Past Master, Most ExcellentMaster, Royal Arch Mason, Royal Master and SelectMaster. Cincinatti: R.W. Carroll & Co. Publishers.
[ix] Wilmhurst, W.L. (2007). The Masonic Initiation. Plumbstone. ISBN-10: 1603020020; ISBN-13: 978-1603020022
[x] Wilbur, Ken. (2001). A BriefHistory of Everything. Shambhala. ISBN-10: 1570627401; ISBN-13: 978-1570627408
[xi] Smith, Houston. (2003). Beyond the Postmodern Mind: ThePlace of Meaning in a Global Civilization. Quest Books. ISBN-10: 0835608301; ISBN-13: 978-0835608305
[xii] Op Cit. Wilbur, Ken. (2001). A BriefHistory ofEverything
[xiii] Winthrop, Robert H. (1991). Dictionary of Concepts in Cultural Anthropology. Greenwood Publishing Group. ISBN: 0-313-24280-1
[xiv] Kroeber, Alfred Louis. (1948). Anthropology: Race, Language, Culture, Psychology, Pre-history. New York: Harcourt, Brace &Company
[xv] Mackey, Albert G. (1917). Encyclopedia ofFreemasonryand its Kindred Sciences. Philadelphia: McClure Publishing Company.
[xvi] Seeskin, Kenneth, Maimonides, TheStanford Encyclopedia ofPhilosophy (Spring 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Retrieved May13, 2012 from http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2010/entries/maimonides/.
[xvii] Pines, S. (1963) TheGuide of thePerplexed. Chicago: University ofChicago Press.
[xviii] Shimon.(2012) Torah and Kabbalah Commentary with the Teaching of theZohar. Retrieved May 10, 2012 from http://rabbishimon.com/tzadikim/.
[xix] Knuuttila, Simo. (1981). Reforging the GreatChain of Being: Studiesof the History ofModal Theories. Dordrecht, Holland: R. Reidel Publishing Company.
[xx] Stuber, Peter. (1997). The GreatChain of Being. Retrieved May12, 2012 from thewebsiteof the Department of Philosophy, Earlham College at http://www.earlham.edu/~peters/courses/re/chain.htm
[xxi] Goldsmith, Oliver. (1824). A History of theEarth and Animated Nature. Philadelphia: Edward Poole.
[xxii] Lynskey, Winifred. Goldsmith and the Chain of Being. Journal of the HistoryofIdeas. Vol. 6, No. 3 (Jun., 1945), pp. 363-374.
[xxiii] Fairweather, A.M. . (2011). Natureand Grace: Selections from the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas. Literary Licensing, LLC. ISBN-10: 1258117428; ISBN-13: 9781258117429.
[xxiv] Lovejoy, A. (1942). TheGreat Chain ofBeing: A Studyof the History ofan Idea. The William James lectures, Delivered at Harvard University1933. Cambridge Mass: Harvard UniversityPress.
[xxv] Israel, Jonathan. (2006). Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation ofMan 1670-1752. USA: Oxford University Press. ISBN-10: 0199279225; ISBN-13: 978-0199279227