The Length Of The Cable-Tow

Bro. Jon Patrick Sage

Described in the several degrees, is the use of the Cable-Tow as part of Ritual. During our degrees, the cord is utilized differently, and in doing so, has different meaning and application to that particular degree. Many explanations abound for the practical and symbolical meanings of the Cable-Tow, and I will not seek to explain, or even to number all of them here. There are simply too many different interpretations concerning the use of the Cable-Tow, and while all may be, according to time and place, appropriate and/or correct, many border on  near-sighted speculation; and have not a great deal of basis in anything other than local lore.

It is doubtful to the author that any operative Masons had a use for the Cable-Tow, except that they might have, at one time or another, looped a rope around a stone, and hoisted it skyward. In speculative terms, we, once again, have a great many explanations. For the purpose of brevity and accuracy, let us examine 3 interpretations. The first has to do with actual behavior, and could have, at one point in time, actually been an active part of some initiations, especially when our Craft made the transition from operative to speculative. Our second and third examples are wholly symbolic, though what is conveyed is a most beautiful kind of symbolism.

The first use, is esoteric, and will simply be explained as …; any regular Mason knows what the dots mean, and what the Cable-Tow could be used for, in the event that a Candidate decides to proceed no farther in his initiatory process as an Entered Apprentice. This has to do with the symbolism that he who is without and is not worthy, must remain without.

Secondly, we envision the Cable-Tow as a bond to the Fraternity. According to Mackey, a Mason was said to be within the reach of a Cable-Tow if he were within 3 miles of his Lodge. In former times, if a request from the Lodge or a Brother, were sent for him to appear, and if he were within that “length” of the Cable-Tow, that Mason was bound to oblige. This no doubt, has to do with the bond of Brotherly Love, and is representative of the indissoluble chain of affection which unites the Brethren, as well as to a Brother’s duty to his Lodge.

Another, less frequent view of the Cable-Tow, is that of an umbilical cord, and is symbolic of our birth and resulting new lives as Masons. Just as a newborn infant is received from his mother, and arrives into the world; blind, naked, destitute, and wholly dependent upon her for every sustenance received; the newly made Mason is no different. As an Entered Apprentice, we arrive at the door of the Lodge, which is representative of, among other things, the World at large. Upon entering that new world; we are blind, destitute, and symbolically naked and without anything other than what we shall receive at the Altar of Masonry.

Along the way, yes- we are with our trusted guide, but the physicality of the Cable-Tow ends there. After the sacred obligation, it is important to remember the words which were spoken, and if we do this, it is easy to envision how the bond of the Cable-Tow is now irrelevant. In fact, we are now born into the Fraternity, and are bound by something so much stronger than a physical object. Indeed, we are now bound to our Brethren by our lives, and they to us. We are now Brothers among Brethren, in our Lodge assembled, and are able to begin to learn to gain nourishment on our own. In doing so, each individual Brother embarks on his own separate, yet connected, journey within the Freemasonic Institution.

The birth of a Mason frees him, effectively, from any physical or worldly bond, including the former substance of life, directly given via the Cable-Tow (the world without, the profane), which is absolutely anchored in Terra Firma, and is fleeting in scope and nature. This is why the umbilical definition has so little to do with a human birth. It has more to do with a supernatural re-birth, away from the mortal world. When we are freed from the formerly necessary nourishment furnished by the world, in the human sense; we are then able to feast on the manna sent down from above, as it were. We have effectively begun our existence as Masons, an eternal endeavor, at the instance of light, as we are delivered from the “womb” of the former life.

In closing, a passage from Joseph Fort Newton:

There is an unseen cord that binds

                        The whole wide world together;

            Through every human life it winds,

                        This one mysterious tether;


            There are no separate lives; the chain

                        Too subtle for our seeing,

            Unites us all upon the plane

                        Of universal being.