Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Cable Tow

The cabletow, is purely Masonic in its meaning and use. As far back as we can go in the history of initiation in several parts of the world, we find the cabletow, or something like it, used very much as it is used in a Masonic Lodge today. No matter what the origin and form of the word may be, - whether from the Hebrew “Khabel,” or the Dutch “cable,” both meaning a rope - the fact is the same. If we were to take a good look at the Cabletow used in our Lodge we will notice that it is a three stranded rope (made of soft material, so as not to injure,) the three strands make it stronger for its use. The cable consists of individual fibers, worked together to form strands. These strands are laid together to make up ropes and the ropes to form a cable. As separate entities, the fibers have little strength. However, when organized into a cable, as we have shown, their strength is immense. So it is with Freemasonry. A Masonic Cable is made from individuals who form a Lodge. Lodges organize into Regions. Regions unite in a Grand Lodge. And as three ropes entwined produce the strong cable, so too does Virtue, Morality and Brotherly Love give strength to Masonry. Further, a cable gains its strength from three equal ropes, laid together.

Each rope is as important to the whole as the other. So it is with the three degrees of Freemasonry. As a strong cable is made of three ropes entwined, the strength of a Lodge comes from the Three Great Lights, the Three Lesser Lights, the three principal officers and the three pillars denoting Wisdom, Strength and Beauty.

We are first introduced to the cabletow as a restraint and control applied to the candidate prior to an obligation, however, that would only have been so in the 1°. Control, obedience, direction or guidance - these are the three meanings of the cabletow, as it is interpreted by the best insight of the Craft. It controls us, shapes us through its human touch and its moral nobility. By the same method, by the same power it wins obedience and gives guidance and direction to our lives. At the Altar we take vows to follow and obey its high principles and ideals; and Masonic vows are not empty obligations - they are vows in which a man pledges his life and his sacred honor. In speculative Masonry it is symbolic of our obligations and teaches restraint, self discipline, prudence, temperance, etc.

If a lodge is a symbol of the world, and initiation is our birth into the world of Masonry, the cabletow is not unlike the cord which unites a child to its mother at birth; and so it is usually interpreted. Just as the physical cord, when cut, is replaced by a tie of love and obligation between mother and child, so, in one of the most impressive moments of initiation, the cabletow is removed, because the brother, by his oath at the Altar of Obligation, is bound by a tie stronger than any physical cable.

The cabletow is the sign of the pledge of the life of a man. As in his oath he agrees symbolically to forfeit his life if his vow is violated, so, positively, he pledges his life to the service of the Craft. He agrees to go to the aid of a Brother, using all his power on his behalf, “if within the length of his cabletow,” which means, if within the reach of his power. How strange that any one should fail to see symbolical meaning in the cabletow.

The old writers define the length of a cabletow, which they sometimes call a “cables length,” variously. For each Mason the cabletow reaches as far as his moral principles go and his material conditions will allow. Of that distance each must be his own judge, and indeed each does pass judgment upon himself accordingly, by his own acts in aid of others.

The cabletow is part of the preparation of every Freemason in the world and in every ritual it carries a connotation of submission, of humility, of servitude. The length of my cabletow can be regarded as a symbol of the binding covenant I have made. And part of this covenant is a pledge to assist others and in this respect, the length of my cabletow depends on my ability and willingness to fulfill my obligations and I must decide that length for myself. Measurement of service can never be subject to any externally imposed limitation for who else can decide the length of my spiritual ties? How long is my Cabletow? It's as long as I want it to be!

According to ancient laws of Freemasonry every brother must attend if he be within the length of his cabletow. Old writers define the length of a cable as three miles, others five to fifty miles. Three miles was generally recognized as a reasonable walking distance. The Master Mason promises to obey all signs and summons sent to him if with in the length of 'my cabletow'.

When we take the full sentence the word 'My' in this phrase is very important. It is personal, it represents the individual. So the length of each of our cable-tows can vary according to each of our own personal commitments - sickness of self or family, work obligations, transport problems. The compilers of our ritual were men who saw that it was only by attendance of our Lodge that we as Master Masons can be instructed in the spiritual and symbolical teaching of our Craft, a fuller realization of the Fatherhood of God and the universal Brotherhood of man, a greater understanding of the principles of Brotherly love, relief and truth. By emulating the virtues displayed in the Five Points of Fellowship we will find that although our duties and obligations have increased, that which was once a tie has now no longer length or distance lost in the satisfying reward of love, peace and harmony in fraternal nearness and fellowship.

First, let’s examine the physical cabletow. When we speak of the cabletow in terms of physical distance many of us make the error of assuming a reasonable distance and tend to judge others based upon our perception. As an example, let us assume that a Brother who lives less than a block from Lodge but does not attend and as a result some Brethren criticize him for not honoring his obligation as Lodge is obviously within the length of his cable-tow. More over, before criticizing a Brother for not crossing the street to attend Lodge, we must recognize that our cabletow must be even shorter than his since we have not crossed the street to ascertain his condition.

Now, let us examine an even less understood area -- our mental cabletow. By mental cabletow, it is referring to the distance we will travel intellectually or philosophically to meet and accommodate another Brother. It is this measure that will ultimately define our success in both Masonry and life as it is only by stretching our thinking beyond its normal limits that we learn, grow, and evolve. Like our physical cabletow, our mental cabletow is greatly foreshortened by prejudice (pre-judgment), judgment, egotism, and other common traits that require the constant and consistent application of the working tools.

The Cable Tow as a symbol is very old, and its symbolism can be found in many initiations and in many religions throughout the world. The Parsee wears a threefold cord wrapped and tied three times about his body, but not passing over the shoulder as the Twice Born (Hindus) wears it. There are two theories about the meaning (symbolism) of the Parsee’s threefold three times and tied about the body: One is the first circle expresses a belief in one God, the second a belief in one Prophet (Zoroaster) and the third is that the world is round. Another explanation of the three fold cord is Good Thought, Good Speech, and Good Work, in that order. In the Hindu Samskaras the Upanayana was the most important Samskara of great significance since only after undergoing the Upanayana, the initiation ceremony, a boy is admitted into the Aryan society. Initiation is mainly meant to enable a person, to acquire the means by which he can develop his inner personality to the full extent and to the right direction. The Upanayana is the first step on this long journey towards the goal of self-realization. This sacred ceremony included the Yajnopavita - the Sacred Thread. The Yajnopavita hanging from the left shoulder and passing under the right arm, constantly reminds a man that he is a bonded for an indefinite period and that he can free himself of this bondage made up of three gunas by discharging his duties to his ancestors, to the Gurus, and ultimately to the Gods. The yajnopavita consists of three cords and each cord is formed by twisting three threads into one. “A three times three symbolizing trinity(Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva) in unity in spiritual things: The three strands represent three conquests over speech, mind, and the senses respectively: The threads in the strands represent respectively three qualities; darkness(tamas), passion(rajas), goodness(sattva); three attributes: Perception, analogy, inference; and three objects: The knower, the known, and knowledge.”In another form this thread when tied by a female to her brother or even sent to an unknown male binds that male to come to her help in time of her dire need.

The above article is derived from the contributions of Douglas Messimer; Grand Lodge of British Columbia Bulletin - December 1976; Worshipful Brother W.A. Rattray, The Ashlars. The United Grand Lodge of Queensland; Right Worshipful Lonnie Lee Godfrey; Abridged item by Brother David Thomas Lang in The Virginia Masonic Herald, Summer 2007; PM, LEO Tuckahoe Lodge 347 4-08; Marry Mcgee, and many other sites.
Special Thanks to RWBro Dr. S. P. Sharma PM Lodge Kohinoor #139


  1. Thank you all for this exposition. We need more of these teachings for a better understanding of the craft. Certain mysteries should be revealed to few honest initiates. I appreciate you all at Kohinoor. Bro James Buzugbe, Nigeria.

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