The Delta is a recurring symbol in Masonic iconography and can be found on many ritual items (aprons, collars, jewels, lodge tracing boards, etc.), as well as on more private and decorative accessories, such as pendants, rings, key rings, stickers, etc. In the continental Masonic Rites, the Delta - then known as the Radiant Delta - is placed at the east of the Temple, surrounded by the Sun and the Moon. It is usually adorned with an Eye at its centre and can sometimes be lit from the inside. But where does the Delta come from and what does it mean? 

The origins of the Masonic Delta 

Where did Freemasonry borrow the symbol of the Delta, adorned with an Eye, or in some instances the divine Tetragrammaton in Hebrew (יהוה, i.e. YHWH)? It is clearly to the Christian tradition. In the shape of an equilateral triangle, the Delta is undoubtedly a meaningful symbol of the Triune God. And, although Freemasonry developed mainly in the eighteenth century, it first appeared in the seventeenth century, during an age known as the Baroque era. During this period, both the Catholic Church and the churches of the Reformation frequently used the Delta adorned with the Hebrew Tetragrammaton, or occasionally the Eye, to decorate their churches and altars.

But the concept of the divine Ternary, sometimes symbolised by a triangle, goes back much further than Christianity. Egypt honoured its gods in the form of Triads, the best known of which is formed by Osiris, Isis and Horus, but the most meaningful for Freemasons is undoubtedly the Memphite Triad: Ptah ("He who creates" = Wisdom), his spouse Sekhmet ("Powerful" = Strength) and their son Nefertum ("Beauty of the Creative Principle" = Beauty). The Indian pantheon is dominated by Brahma, the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver and Çiva the Destroyer. In Persia, Ahura Mazda, the transcendent principle, gives rise to two opposing principles, Spenta Mainyu (Holy Spirit) and Angra Mainyu (or Ahriman, the Evil Spirit). And we could go on and on with examples of Triads in ancient civilisations. 

According to Plutarch, the philosopher Xenocrates symbolised God as an equilateral triangle, which is perfect because it has equal angles and sides; the Geniuses (i.e. exceptional men, heroes, etc.) were compared to isosceles triangles of incomplete perfection; as for mere mortals, they were no more than scalene triangles.

The Delta in Freemasonry 

Fed by Christian culture, the first Freemasons borrowed the Delta from Baroque imagery, but it wasn't just a question of aesthetic imitation. As a geometric figure, the triangle offered them a rational and abstract symbol of divinity and was perfectly suited to the Great Architect of the Universe, a notion (sometimes theistic but more often deistic) by which they designated the Creator Principle, from a philosophical rather than religious point of view. 

The symbolism of Freemasonry is largely based on numbers and geometry. The triangle therefore has a prominent place, as it is the first geometric form. Three then is the first number that Freemasons encounter, from the degree of Apprentice onwards.

The Masonic Delta is probably the most obvious expression of the ternary principle in Freemasonry, at least in the continental Rites, where it is placed to the east of the Lodge, above the Worshipful Master, and also often figures on the latter's collar. The Radiant Delta that enlightens the Lodge is usually adorned with an Eye, but can sometimes (especially in the Higher Degrees) be decorated with the Hebrew Tetragrammaton. And it is worth noting that in the Rectified Scottish Rite, the Radiant Delta does not contain any symbol, but is surrounded by rays of light, with the inscription "Et tenebræ eam non comprehenderunt", an allusion to the 5th verse of the 1st chapter of the Gospel according to John ("et lux in tenebris lucet, et tenebræ eam non comprehenderunt", and the Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not understood it").

Which triangle should we choose?

What proportions should the Radiant Delta have? In the Lodges and on Masonic Regalia, all sorts of triangles can be seen. But two triangles seem to stand out: the equilateral triangle and the Golden Ratio triangle, i.e. an isosceles triangle with an upper angle of 108° and two opposite angles of 36°. The point here is not aesthetic considerations, but symbolic interpretation. 

The equilateral triangle (mandatory in the Rectified Scottish Rite) emphasises the perfection of the Supreme Being in himself, while the isosceles triangle, constructed with the Golden Ratio, is more a manifestation of the geometric order that rules the universe, the Universal and Natural Law. One might therefore imagine that the equilateral triangle is more appropriate for Lodges with a theistic or Christian orientation and the other for Lodges with a more deistic or rationalistic approach. But that would undoubtedly be a caricature, as the symbol of the triangle transcends these distinctions. On the other hand, we could consider using the equilateral triangle in Entered Apprentice Degree, and reserving the Golden Number Triangle triangle for the second Degree, as the Fellowcraft already discovered the Golden Number in the Blazing Star.

The Delta is omnipresent in Freemasonry

While the Masonic Delta may at first appear to be nothing more than a symbol of the Great Architect of the Universe, this is far from being the reality, as the ternary structure is a recurring feature of Freemasonry. The Masonic Delta may symbolise many other ternaries, of a more philosophical or moral nature, such as Past-Present-Future, Wisdom-Strength-Beauty, Thought-Action-Realisation, and may evoke the motto "Think well, speak well, do well".

But the symbolism of the triangle in Freemasonry exceeds the "Radiant Delta" item, as the entire Masonic edifice is based on the number Three and on triangles: the three Craft Degrees, the three First Lodge Officers, the Three Great Lights, the Three Pillars... The layout of the Craft Lodge Officers also generates numerous triangles, with the Worshipful Master always at the apex: The Worshipful Master and the two Wardens; the Worshipful Master, the Secretary and the Orator; the Worshipful Master, the Treasurer and the Almoner; the Worshipful Master, the Expert and the Master of Ceremonies... Moreover, even speaking in a Lodge is subject to triangulation, since you have to ask your Warden for permission to speak, who then asks the Worshipful Master before granting you the right to speak.

November 01, 2023 — Ion Rajalescu