By Kerry A. Shirts (Nov. 14, 2009)
In a stimulating conversation I had with my fellow Masonic
brother, David Nippur (next year’s  Worshipful Master of our Lodge, Eagle
Rock Lodge #19, in Idaho Falls, Idaho) and I were discussing the number
symbolism in Masonry and he mentioned to me the singular importance of the
number 3, not only in Masonry, but throughout antiquity, the Medieval Ages, and
on into our own day. This piqued my interest in researching into its almost
literal ubiquity through time. I
In a stimulating conversation I had with my fellow Masonic brother, David Nippur (next year’s  Worshipful Master of our Lodge, Eagle Rock Lodge #19, in Idaho Falls, Idaho) and I were discussing the number symbolism in Masonry and he mentioned to me the singular importance of the number 3, not only in Masonry, but throughout antiquity, the Medieval Ages, and on into our own day. This piqued my interest in researching into its almost literal ubiquity through time. I
believe many stimulating themes of this number can help us appreciate why we as
Ancient Free and Accepted Masons are inheritors of this number, among many
others, for teaching us of who we are, what we do, and why we do it. I won’t necessarily go about this in
chronological historical order, but even thematically, it has much to stimulate
our intellects, enlarge our spirits, and enhance our lives, as proper
understanding and application of symbols in our lives properly do to the
mentally alert. I make no apology for delving into disparate cultures,
religions, and nations, rather, I believe the over-arching use of this number 3
by all peoples in all time ought to signal us into giving it a little thought
about why it was used, who used it for what and how it gave meaning into multi
millions of lives from the very beginning. Hence my broad search from what
might seem almost anywhere, instead of a tighter focus into once specific
culture or time.
believe many stimulating themes of this number can help us appreciate why we as Ancient Free and Accepted Masons are inheritors of this number, among many others, for teaching us of who we are, what we do, and why we do it. I won’t necessarily go about this in chronological historical order, but even thematically, it has much to stimulate our intellects, enlarge our spirits, and enhance our lives, as proper understanding and application of symbols in our lives properly do to the mentally alert. I make no apology for delving into disparate cultures, religions, and nations, rather, I believe the over-arching use of this number 3 by all peoples in all time ought to signal us into giving it a little thought about why it was used, who used it for what and how it gave meaning into multi millions of lives from the very beginning. Hence my broad search from what might seem almost anywhere, instead of a tighter focus into once specific culture or time.
The Masonic use of the number 3 is obvious considering the Blue Lodge has 3 degrees, that of Entered Apprentice, Fellowcraft, and Master Mason. The 3 principle officers of the lodge, as well as the 3 steps which the Worshipful Master resides from are all well known. There is much other use of 3 besides this also. What interests me is how in antiquity 3 was understood in various multiple senses, whether cosmic, earthly, and even underworldly, the universe being divided into 3 basics constituents: the gods, the living, and the transfigured dead. The number 3 to the Egyptians signified plurality, and many of their, for lack of a better word, “godheads” were trinities, such as Re, Isis, and Anubis, or Atum, Shu, and Tefnut. Three signified “a closed system which was both complete and interactive among its parts.” What ought to particularly catch the attention of every Mason (think of where the officers – Worshipful Master, Jr. Warden, Sr. Warden - in the lodge are stationed, east, west, south, etc) is the theme of Amun, Re and Ptah “According to this conception the solar deity Re was the god’s face, Ptah his body, and Amun his hidden identity – or to express it differently, his ba (spirit or double of the person) is in the sky, his body is in the west, and his cult image is in Heliopolis (Thebes – the City of Amun) Heliopolis the city of the sun.” The triple aspect of the deities signified the sun in the morning, then again at high noon, and once again as it set in the west. It is of more than passing interest that not only do the actual Hieroglyphs have 3 levels of meaning, but the “Het-her” is something “referring to the divinity’s function to the abode of solar light in its incubation phase. Het-her represents the Lunar principle that houses and reflects the sun. It also expresses the rhythms of the Lunar Principle in the sky on earth and in the inner life.” Notice the conscious application of real things, objects, (in this instance, literally celestial orbs!) nay symbols, for personal use. The parallel in Masonry with say the 24 inch gauge and common gavel, among other items needs little commentary. The application of people to the sun in its various locations in the sky at different times of the day are deliberately applied in our Blue Lodges with the officers as well. This is the famous ancient Hermetic tradition of “As Above, So Below,” what is in heaven, is reflected on earth. We deliberately, as Ancient Free and Accepted Masons carry on this venerable tradition of tying ourselves cosmologically together, not only in brotherhood, but with earth and the heavens as well. This is the large picture with a vengeance! It is meant to be a broadening of our own consciences and decisions to help us realize life is not only about ourselves, but every decision we make, every action we perform has cosmological significance, because, after all, the cosmos is our actual home, not this mere planet we call earth.
This is in line with my conversation with Brother Nippur. When I saw once again the three pillars of strength, wisdom, and beauty in the Entered Apprentice lecture, I mentioned to him that those correspond beautifully to the three pillars of the Kabbalah Tree of Life. That was when he noted that the number 3 is significant in Masonry in many instances. The cosmological significance of Svayamatrnna – Janus Coeli, of the 3 perforated bricks (Svayamatrnna) “representing these worlds, Earth, Air, and Sky; the seasonal bricks, representing the year; and the Universal-Light bricks representing Agni, Vayu, Aditya,” are part of the superstructure of the regular fire altar, which correspond to the “three intervening ‘Universal Lights’ representing Agni, Vayu, and Aditya (Fire, Gale of the Spirit, and Sun) compose the vertical Axis of the Universe, the passageway from one world to another.” So here we have concepts such that correspond to our own ashlar, (the bricks are referred to as “stones”!), 3 lights, a superstructure of which we are preparing our own minds for, and incorporating the afterlife into our lives right now in Masonry through proper morality, goodly vicissitudes, etc. These 3 “stones” we read, are “also for vision of the world of heaven.” The fire altar we are taught “must have been ring-stones,” which have been found in all sizes on Indus Valley sites. The point is, bringing it home for we Masons, is that “all things are connected with the sun in what is literally a common con-spiracy.” As the center of the earth life is the altar, so the importance of the altar being centered with the sun is associated cosmologically with the axis mundi – the Axis of the universe tying all earthly life to the heavenly. Think of the Blue Lodge Masonic Altars, the ashlar, and the Worshipful Master, Jr. and Sr. Wardens as representing the sun in its different places in the sky during the day, and you are getting the idea!
The Kabbalistic text the Bahir teaches that the 3 princes are the Axis, the Sphere, and the Heart, which all comprise the pillar reaching to heaven which pillar is called Tzadik – Righteous. We read that this pillar supports the entire world, in perfect correspondence to the Worshipful Master of the Blue Lodge who supports the entire lodge. In one of the most intriguing esoteric interpretations I have ever read, the Egyptian hieroglyphs for the very word “Kabbalah” are the hieroglyph of the Ka, the hieroglyph of the Ba, and the hieroglyph of the Akh – “Ka-ba-akh” – the ka being the upraised two arms meaning the independent life force, the ba is the nonphysical attributes of the personality, and the akh is the form which the blessed dead inhabited the underworld after the successful union of his ka and ba, which then existed for eternity. This 3 fold aspect of a person is an interesting Egyptian as well as Kabbalistic interpretation, which we can certainly see echoed in the 3 degrees of Masonry offered in the Blue Lodges. The 3 mother letters of Hebrew, the Aleph, Mem, and Shin “exemplify the cosmic functions of expansive fire (shin), contractive water (mem), and the air that mediates between these opposing forces (aleph).” The Hebrew letter Aleph itself is composed of 3 parts, which symbolizes the infinite eternal nature of God. The upper right segment of Aleph is actually a yod and its lower left segment is also a yod, which are both connected by a diagonal vav, each yod having a numerical value of 10, while the vav has the value of 6 = 26 (10 + 10 + 6 = 26) which is the numerical value of the Four-Letter-Divine-Name YHVH. Interestingly, Aleph spelled backwards reads Peleh – “Mystery, Miracle,” etc. This letter has hidden forces precisely because of its quality of threeness! The Hebrew alphabet as a whole is perfectly divided into precisely 3 parts due to the nature of its letters, the 3 mother letters, the 7 double letters, and the 12 simple letters. The entire cosmos is built of the Hebrew letters, the aligned elements to the 3 Mother Letters, the planets correspond to the 7 double letters, and the zodiac is aligned to the 12 simple letters. These three divisions correspond to the dimensions of the Cube of Space, of all things! The center of the cube and its 6 faces are formed from the 7 planetary double letters. The 12 edges of the cube that border the 6 exterior faces are formed from the 12 zodiacal simple Hebrew letters. Secretly, the three interior dimensions of this cube are formed from the 3 elemental mother letters.
Masons have new reasons now for thinking about the cube, which symbol, Albert Pike taught, “became the symbol of perfection.” This cube becomes the cornerstone for the building of our lives. In what can only be a startling correspondence, we read as well that the Kabbalistic text Sefer Yetzirah says the creation is the process of constructing the cube of infinite space! The “Pythagorean Sacred Science” which Sefer Yetzirah is explaining is based upon shape, sound, and number and its geometric enigma, one that explains the 12 diagonals to the cube of space, is the process about “how this relationship permits the cosmic expansion of the cube.” The Holy of Holies of Solomon’s Temple was imitating this perfect cube! The Bible describes it as a perfect cube in shape. And if we are also ashlars, then from our own person, to the temple, to the earth, and into the cosmos the same imagery is utilized in teaching us about our own perfection, and possible infinite capacity to forever grow in light and knowledge. This is the astonishing power of symbolism, especially in our own Masonic traditions. And, it almost goes without saying, that a simple square, being just one side of a cube, when cut along the diagonal, gives rise to the triangle, of which our Pythagorean inheritance of Euclid’s 47th proposition plays a peculiarly significant part in our Masonic tradition. In the ancient Jewish mysticism the hexagram (6 pointed star) and cube were the two most important symbols, the hexagram symbolizing creation, the cube symbolizing redemption. This was understood to be “Solomon’s seal.”
A.E. Waite noted that in the Masonry and the connection to Kabbalah, the number 3 is in the moral order, the three theological virtues while in the physical order are the three principles of bodies. This actually indicates the alchemical elements Salt, Sulphur, and Mercury, which according to Waite, “indicates the Hermetic connections of this Grade. Three also denotes the triple Divine Essence.” Is this one reason why a 5th century love charm contains a triple repetition of the name of the god Thouth or Thoth, the ibis-headed Egyptian god whom the Greeks called “thrice-greatest Hermes”? In another very interesting Greek Magical Papyrus we read “Helios ACHEBYKROM (which signifies the flame and radiance of the disk) whose is the glory, AAA, EEE, OOO because he was glorified by you Phos (Light)…” Notice the triple invoking of the vowels. The triple lettered Jewish god IAO “is compiled entirely of mystic vowels… the letter Iota, being the middle of the 7 vowels, could be seen as representing the Sun or God of Light, while the last two letters, alpha and omega, signified the beginning and end. In the Gnostic texts known as the Pistis Sophia, Jesus gives the following analysis of the name IAO to his disciples: This is its interpretation: Iota, the universe came out; Alpha, they will turn them; Omega, will become the completion of all completions.” In the Gnostic Book of Jeu after Jesus repeats words of prayers to the Father of Light, he specifically instructs his disciples to say Amen 3 times, which they do after every sentence. In the 2nd Book of Jeu, Jesus gives the disciples “the three baptisms” which are water, fire, and of the Holy Spirit. Elsewhere in the Book of Jeu, we read of the 3 gates of the treasury, the 3 amens, the mystery of the 5 trees, and the mystery of the 7 voices, thus the numbers 3, 5, 7 come together which numbers ought to be familiar to absolutely every Fellowcraft Mason! We also read of the 3 amens, the 5 helpers, and the 7 voices. The hidden aeon of the Father which belongs to the great powers of glory is called among the glories “thrice-born,” that is, “the one who has begotten three times, which is also called thrice-begotten, and is also called Hermes.” Hermes Trismegistus signifies that Hermes exists on three levels at once. Being embodied is the middle in-between of the above and below. The Hellenistic cosmological speculation was Trinitarian in nature. This is why the Pythagoreans saw the cosmos as “a dynamic union of complementary principles, joined through a mean term: the power of logos and harmonia, the power of mediation.” The Philosophumena says thatamong the Naassenes, “Hermes is the Word who has expressed ad fashioned the things that have been, that are and that will be.” Thus the ancient Egyptian theme of the relationship of two opposing forces itself being a third force. One, in becoming Two, becomes Three simultaneously. “The ‘becoming’ is the third force, automatically providing the innate and necessary (and mysterious) reconciling principle.”
Interestingly enough, linguistically and phonetically, speaking “three” we hear its relation to words like “through” and “threshold” the prefix “trans” (“across,” “penetrate”) shows us that three takes us through or across the threshold and through past polarizing limits of the Dyad, or the number 2. Wherever we have three-ness, such as the three musketeers, three wishes, three wise men, there is “thoroughness,” the idea of rebirth, transformation, and success. Perhaps this is why Giambattista Vico taught that the 3 ages of the world are: The Age of the Gods; The Age of the Heroes; the Age of Men. The ancient doctrine from Anatolius declared that “the triad, the first odd number, is called perfect by some, because it is the first number to signify the totality – beginning, middle and end. When people exalt extraordinary events, they derive words from the triad and talk of “thrice-blessed,” “thrice-fortunate.” Prayers and libations are performed three times. Triangles both reflect and are the first substantiation of being plane; and there are three kinds of triangle – equilateral, isosceles and scalene. Moreover, there are three rectilinear angles – acute, obtuse, and right.” “Three is a number rich in association with perfection and mystery.” Philo taught in the Legum Allegoriae that “three is an image of a solid body, because a solid can be divided according to a three fold division.” And Kabbalistically, the trinity is always completed by the quaternity, that is the triangle within a square. From a Christian perspective “the number three, however, is employed in such relations as to suggest that it is especially the number of divine fullness in unity… its peculiar usage in connextion with the Divine Name gives mystical significance to the number three.” The alchemists claimed that the Philosopher’s Stone shared the same name with the Creator of the world, for it, like the Creator, was three in one. In one section of the Zohar we read of the Great Head of the Ancient of Days being three heads in one in the mysticism of Isaac Luria. It is fascinating in this respect to learn that the Hebrew word “reshit” the root of the very first word in the Bible, “Beresheit” has 3 meanings. It means “beginning.” It also means “head.” And it means “wisdom.” Intriguing ideas have been discovered by Robert Wang when he combined the Tarot with Kabbalah and found that in the suits, the four 3’s represent the realization of action owing to the Prince having been produced. The Three of wands means “Lord of established Strength.” I can’t help but think of this correspondence with a Mason who has finished the 3rd degree in the Blue Lodge from Entered Apprentice, to Fellowcraft, and finally as a “MASTER MASON.” Wang shows how the 3 of cups means “Lord of Abundance.” While the 3 of Swords means “The Great Initiator.” The 3 of Pentacles is “constructive building.” All of this appears to echo themes in the 3rd degree of Masonry, the philosophy of it being to building men into greater brotherhood.
And finally, one last terrifically fascinating concept with the number 3 and of one of our Holy Saints John, namely the Baptist. In Greek gematria, John’s name comes to 1119. This number comes from the intriguing Kabbalistic numbers of 3 X 373. The number 373 is the gematric number of the LOGOS, the Word, the Measure, Proportion, Relation, etc. Thus 1119 is the triple Logos! Interestingly this might be representing as well, the Three Persons of the Godhead in the Baptism of Jesus as John recalled. In addition though we find that the associating words also equal 1119!
“Helios Alpha & Omega (Sun, Beginning and End) = 1119
Logos, Logos, Logos (triple Word) = 1119
Eh Didache Theou (the teaching of God) = 1119
Baptisma + eh Metanoia (baptism & repentance) = 1119
There is an astonishing lot more to all this kind of working symbolisms which I shall forego elaborating on for now. There is enough to at least pique our curiousities, and intrigue our intellects.
1. John H. Taylor, Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt, University of Chicago Press, 2001: 15.
2. Richard H. Wilkinson, Symbol & Magic in Egyptian Art, Thames & Hudson, 1994: 132.
3. Wilkinson, Ibid., p. 132.
4. Rosemary Clark, The Sacred Tradition in Ancient Egypt: The Esoteric Wisdom Revealed, Llewellyn Publications, 2004: 28. Cf. the Commentary on the Dream of Scipio by Macrobius, William Harris Stahl translator, Columbia University Press, 1990: 111, on the significance of the various astronomical cycles of the stars, moon, sun, etc.
5. Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, The Door in the Sky, Coomaraswamy on Myth and Meaning, Princeton University Press, 1997: 6.
6. Coomaraswamy, Ibid., p. 7.
7. Aryeh Kaplan, The Bahir: Illumination, Samuel Weiser Inc., 1989: 38.
8. Robert Feather, The Secret Initiation of Jesus at Qumran: The Essene Mysteries of John the Baptist, Bear & Company, 2005: 89.
9. Leonora Leet, Renewing the Covenant: A Kabbalistic Guide to Jewish Spirituality, Inner Traditions, 1999: 80.
10. Rabbi Michael L. Munk, The Wisdom of the Hebrew Alphabet, Mesorah Publications, 13th Impression, 2003: 44.
11. Aryeh Kaplan, Sefer Yetzirah: The Book of Creation, Samuel Weiser Inc., 1997: 11.
12. David Allen Hulse, New Dimensions for the Cube of Space: The Path of Initiation Revealed by the Tarot upon the Qabalistic Cube, Samuel Weiser Inc., 2000: 4-5.
13. Albert Pike, Morals & Dogma, p. 5.
14. Kevin Townley, The Cube of Space: Container of Creation, Active Press, 1993: 3.
15. Leonora Leet, The Universal Kabbalah: Deciphering the Cosmic Code in the Sacred Geometry of the Sabbath Star Diagram, InnerTraditions, 2004: 5.
16. Leonora Leet, The Secret Doctrine of the Kabbalah: Recovering the Key to Hebraic Sacred Science, Inner Traditions, 1999: 326.
17. E. A. Waite, The Holy Kabbalah, University Books, Citadel Press, n.d., p. 551.
18. Kieren Barry, The Greek Qabalah: Alphabetic Mysticism and Numerology in the Ancient World, Samuel Weiser Inc., 1999: 98.
19. Hans Dieter Betz, The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation: Including the Demotic Spells, 2nd ed., University of Chicago Press, paperback edition, 1996: 177-178.
20. Barry, Ibid., p. 48-49.
21. Carl Schmidt, The Books of Jeu and the Untitled Text in the Bruce Codex, E. J. Brill, 1978: 113.
22. Schmidt, Ibid., p. 133.
23. Schmidt, Ibid., p. 135. The 3 archons of light are mentioned on page 199.
24. Schmidt, Ibid., pp. 167, 171, 169, 129. There are also 9 watchers of the 3 gates of the treasury of light on p. 135.
25. Schmidt, Ibid., p. 273.
26. Dennis William Hauck, The Emerald Tablet: Alchemy for Personal Transformation, Penguin Arkana, 1999: 43.
27. David Fideler, Jesus Christ Sun of God: Ancient Cosmology and Early Christian Symbolism, Quest Books, 1993: 298.
28. Jean Doresse, The Secret Books of the Egyptian Gnostics, MJF Books, 1986: 84.
29. John Anthony West, Serpent in the Sky: The High Wisdom of Ancient Egypt, Quest Books, 1993: 35.
30. Michael Schneider, A Beginner’s Guide to Constructing the Universe: The Mathematical Archetypes of Nature, Art, and Science, HarperPerennial, 1994: 39.
31. The New Science of Giambattista Vico, translated by Thomas Goddard Bergin and Max Harold Fisch, Cornell University Press, 1st paperback, 1984: 20.
32. The Theology of Arithmetic: On the Mystical, Mathematical and Cosmological Symbolism of the First Ten Numbers, attributed to Iamblichus, translated b y Robin Waterfield, Phanes Press, 1988: 51. The Ancient Assyrians drew three jars of water from three wells in their ceremonies which constituted a significant magical act, see Theodor H. Gaster, Thespis: Ritual, Myth, and Drama in the Ancient Near East, Gordian Press, 1975: 275.
33. Hans Biedermann, Dictionary of Symbolism: Cultural Icons and the Meanings Behind Them, Meridian Books, 1994:240. In the Dead Sea Scrolls fragment 4Q534-536, “The Birth of Noah,” where Noah is born so perfect that he glows very brightly and it terrifies everyone(!), we read of 3 special books which are said to be “having to do with mystic knowledge of the age, or as it were, the Heavenly or Angelic Mysteries.” See in Robert Eisenmann, Michael Wise, The Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered, Element Books, 1992: 34.
34. The Works of Philo Complete and Unabridged, translated by C. D. Yonge, Hendrickson Publishers, 1993:25.
35. S.L. MacGregor Mathers, The Kabbalah Unveiled, Samuel Weiser, 1st paperback, 1983: 35. Significance ofthis symbol for the Tarot found in Richard Roberts, Joseph Campbell, Tarot Revelations, Vernal Equinox Press, 1987: 90-91.
36. Milton S. Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics: A Treatise on the Interpretation of the Old and New Testaments, Academie Books, n.d., p. 381-382. Cf. the Three Books of Occult Philosophy of Henry Cornelius Agrippa, translated by James Freake, Llewellyn, 7th ed., 2004: 249f for more description of the number 3.
37. See Alexander Roob, The Hermetic Museum: Alchemy & Mysticism, Taschen, 1997: 472, under “Trinity,” the diagram of Cornelius Petraeus and its description quoted from Zosimos in the 4th Century A.D.
38. Eliahu Klein, Kabbalah of Creation: The Mysticism of Isaac Luria Founder of Modern Kabbalah, North Atlantic Books, 2005: 258.
39. David Sheinkin, Path of the Kabbalah, Paragon House, 1986: 52.
40. Robert Wang, The Qabalistic Tarot: A Textbook of Mystical Philosophy, Marcus Aurelius Press, Revised edition, 2004: 72f.