For many European Freemasons, Masonic swords are a normal and omnipresent part of their rituals. In some Rites (Traditional French Rite, Rectified Scottish Rite, etc.), all Master Masons bear swords in Craft Lodges, and in nearly all continental Rites, the Worshipful Master carries a sword known as the Flaming Sword because of its wavy blade. This is not the case in Anglo-Saxon Freemasonry, however, where swords are reserved for certain Side Degrees, but are absent from Craft Lodges, with the exception of the Tyler's sword. Why this difference? What is the origin of this enthusiasm for swords in European Freemasonry (particularly in French Freemasonry)? And why are swords so important in an Order that claims to be rooted in the tradition of the builders?

The Sword as a protective device

The first use of the sword in the Lodge is obvious, and there's no point in discussing it too long. The sword is a weapon, offensive of course, but also defensive. 

There is no particular symbolism here, only the statement that it is necessary to protect the Lodge and the Masonic work from the indiscretions of profanes. This is why in all Masonic Rites, whether Anglo-Saxon or continental, the Lodge Officers responsible for guarding the Lodge door (Tyler, Inner Guard) bear a sword.

The Sword as a mark of equality

The custom of all Master Masons wearing swords in their Lodges is a particular feature of French Freemasonry, and more widely of European Freemasonry. This practice had a sociological significance and served to affirm the equality prevailing among Freemasons. In fact, in the Ancien Régime French society, the wearing of swords in civil life was an exclusive privilege of the aristocracy, and more particularly of the so-called nobility of the sword. From the seventeenth century onwards, a distinction was drawn between the "nobility of the sword", i.e. the traditional nobility inherited from the old feudal class, and a new reality, the "nobility of the robe", i.e. the nobles who entered an administrative or judicial career and who, because of their university studies, wore academic robes.

With so many nobles attending the Lodges, it was out of the question to express equality in any way other than from above. In this way, French Freemasonry was turning somewhat away from the traditions of operative Freemasonry, something that Anglo-Saxon Freemasonry never did. This contempt for the operative tradition also became apparent in the famous Discours of the Chevalier de Ramsay in 1736, which portrayed Freemasons as descendants of the Crusaders and thus paved the way for the proliferation of Masonic Higher Degrees. When you were a Freemason, you became the equal of a nobleman, a descendant of the Crusaders, of the Knights Templar, of the mysterious Rosicrucians, of the alchemists... It was more prestigious than claiming to be the heirs of humble construction workers!

The Flaming Sword 

The Flaming Sword worn by the Worshipful Master in most continental Masonic Rites is the result of a more elaborate symbolic development. The starting point for this development was the protective function of the Tyler's or Inner Guard's sword.

In a society that was still largely based on Christianity, what might a sword whose function was to prevent access to a sacred place suggest? The famous Flaming Sword that the Cherubim wielded to guard the Garden of Eden after the Fall of Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:24). But then, it would have been more logical to arm the Tyler or the Inner Guard with a Flaming Sword rather than the Worshipful Master. This was probably a possibility, as demonstrated by the embroidery of a Flaming Sword that can sometimes be found on the Inner Guard's Collar in some Rites (particularly the Ancient Accepted Scottish Rite).

But the symbolism of the Sword has been enriched by another interpretation: several biblical texts consider the Sword to be a symbol of the divine Word, at once creator, destroyer and vivifier. Freemasonry therefore used the Flaming Sword as a means of transmitting initiatory knowledge.

In a number of Masonic Rites, the Flaming Sword belongs by right to the Worshipful Mason, because it juxtaposes the two biblical interpretations and is therefore given a dual function : that of guarding access to Knowledge as a transcendent reality, and not just to the Lodge as a place, and that of transmitting this Knowledge to those who have shown themselves worthy of it.

Like Jules Boucher (La Symbolique maçonnique, Dervy, 1948, pp. 63 et seq.), we might wonder whether it would not be more appropriate for the Worshipful Master to use a flaming sword for reception ceremonies only, and a normal sword at other times. The symbolic significance of the flaming sword would then be better highlighted.

December 06, 2023 — Ion Rajalescu