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History and Symbolism of the Stone of Foundation

History and Symbolism of the Stone of Foundation
Provided by the Oklahoma Chapter and Council Education E-Newsletter (
Extracted from the It\’s Monitorial Column in the November 2021 Issue

Albert Mackey
(Public Domain)

The following entry appears on pp. 722-727 of the 1912 edition of “An Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry and Its Kindred Sciences” by Albert G. Mackey.

The Stone of Foundation constitutes one of the most important and abstruse of all the symbols of Freemasonry. It is referred to in numerous legends and traditions not only of the Freemasons, but also of the Jewish Rabbis, the Talmudic writers, and even the Mussulman doctors. Many of these, it must be confessed, are apparently puerile and absurd; but most of them, and especially the Masonic ones, are deeply interesting in their allegorical signification.

The Stone of Foundation is, properly speaking, a symbol of the higher Degrees. It makes its first appearance in the Royal Arch, and forms indeed the most important symbol of that Degree. But it is so intimately connected, in its legendary history, with the construction of the Solomonic Temple, that it must be considered as a part of Ancient Craft Masonry, although he who confines the range of his investigations to the first three Degrees will have no means, within that narrow limit, of properly appreciating the symbolism of the Stone of Foundation.

As preliminary to the inquiry, it is necessary to distinguish the Stone of Foundation, both in its symbolism and its legendary history, from other stones which play an important part in the Masonic Ritual, but which are entirely distinct from it. Such is the corner-stone, which was always placed in the northeast corner of the building about to be erected, and to which such a beautiful reference is made in the ceremonies of the First Degree; or the keystone, which constitutes an interesting part of the Mark Master’s Degree; or, lastly, the cape-stone, upon which all the ritual of the Most Excellent Master’s Degree is founded. They are all, in their proper places, highly interesting and instructive Symbols, but have no connection whatever with the Stone of Foundation, whose symbolism it is our present object to discuss. Nor, although the Stone of Foundation is said, for peculiar reasons, to have been of a cubical form, must it be confounded with that stone called by the Continental Freemasons the cubical stone—the pierre cubique of the French and the cubik stein of the German Freemasons but which in the English system is known as the perfect ashlar.

The Stone of Foundation has a legendary history and a symbolic signification which are peculiar to itself, and which differ from the history and meaning which belong to these other stones. We propose first to define this Masonic Stone of Foundation, then to collate the legends which refer to it, and afterward to investigate its significance as a symbol. To the Freemason who takes a pleasure in the study of the mysteries of his Institution, the investigation cannot fail to be interesting, if it is conducted with and ability.

But in the very beginning, as a necessary preliminary to any investigation of this kind, it must be distinctly understood that all that is said of this Stone of Foundation in Freemasonry is to be strictly taken in a mythical or allegorical sense. Doctor Oliver, while undoubtedly himself knowing that it was simply a symbol, has written loosely of it as though it were a substantial reality; and hence, if the passages in his Historical Landmarks, and in his other works which refer to this celebrated stone, are accepted by his readers in a literal sense, they will present absurdities and puerilities which would not occur if the Stone of Foundation was received, as it really is, as a myth conveying a most profound and beautiful symbolism.

It is such that it is to be treated here; and, therefore, if a legend is recited or a tradition related, the reader is requested on every occasion to suppose that such legend or tradition is not intended as the recital or relation of what is deemed a fact in Masonic history, but to wait with patience for the development of the symbolism which it conveys. Read in this spirit, as all the legends of Freemasonry should be read, the legend of the Stone of Foundation becomes one of the most important and interesting of all the Masonic symbols.

The Stone of Foundation is supposed, by the theory which establishes it, to have been a stone placed at one time within the foundations of the Temple of Solomon, and afterward, during the building of the second Temple, transported to the Holy of Holies. It was in form a perfect cube, and had inscribed upon its upper face, within a delta or triangle, the sacred Tetragrammaton, or Ineffable Name of God. Doctor Oliver, speaking with the solemnity of a historian, says that Solomon thought that he had rendered the house of God worthy, so far as human adornment could effect, for the dwelling of God, “when he had placed the celebrated Stone of Foundation, on which the sacred name was mystically engraven, with solemn ceremonies, in that sacred depository on Mount Moriah, along with the foundations of Dan and Asher, the center of the Most Holy Place, where the Ark was overshadowed by the Shekinah of God.” The Hebrew Talmudists, who thought as much of this stone, and had as many legends concerning it, as the Masonic Talmudists, called it eben shatijah, or Stone of Foundation, because as they said, it had been laid by Jehovah as the foundation of the world, and hence the apocryphal Book of Enoch speaks of the “stone which supports the corners of the earth.”

This idea of a foundation-stone of the world was most probably derived from that magnificent passage of the Book of Job (ch. xxxviii, v. 4-7) in which the Almighty demands of Job,

Where wast thou, when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Declare, since thou hast such knowledge!
Who fixed its dimensions, since thou knowest!
Or who stretched out the line upon it?
Upon what were its foundations fixed?
And who laid its corner-stone,
When the morning stars sang together.
And all the sons of God shouted for joy?

Noyes, whose translation we have adopted as not materially differing from the common version, but more poetical and more in the strain of the original, thus explains the allusions to the foundation-stone: “It was the custom to celebrate the laying of the corner-stone of an important building With music, songs, shouting, etc. Hence the morning stars are represented as celebrating the laying of the cornerstone of the earth.”

Upon this meager statement has been accumulated more traditions than appertain to any other Masonic symbol. The Rabbis, as has already been intimated, divide the glory of these apocryphal histories with the Freemasons; indeed, there is good reason for a suspicion that nearly all the Masonic legends owe their first existence to the imaginative genius of the writers of the Jewish Talmud. But there is this difference between the Hebrew and the Masonic traditions: that the Talmudic scholar recited them as truthful histories, and swallowed, in one gulp of faith, all their impossibilities and anachronisms; while the Masonic scholar has received them as allegories, whose value is not in the facts, but in the sentiments which they convey.

With this understanding of their meaning, let us proceed to a collation of these legends.

In that blasphemous work, the Toldoth Jeshu, or Life of Jesus, written, it has been supposed, in the thirteenth or fourteenth century, we find the following account of this wonderful stone:

“At that time (the time of Jesus) there was in the House of the Sanctuary (that is, the Temple) a stone of foundation, which is the very stone that our father Jacob anointed with oil, as it is described in the twenty-eighth chapter of the Book of Genesis. On that stone the letters of the Tetragrammaton were inscribed, and whosoever of the Israelites should learn that name would be able to master the world. To prevent, therefore, any one from learning these letters, two iron dogs were placed upon two columns in front of the Sanctuary. If any person, having acquired the knowledge of these letters, desired to depart from the Sanctuary, the barking of the dogs, by magical power, inspired so much fear that he suddenly forgot what he had acquired.”

This passage is cited by the learned Buxtorf in his Lexicon Talmudicum; but in his copy of the Toldoth Jeshu, Doctor Mackey found another passage, which gives some additional particulars, in the following words:

“At that time there was in the Temple the ineffable name of God, inscribed upon the Stone of Foundation. For when King David was digging the foundation for the Temple, he found in the depths of the excavation a certain stone on which the name of God was inscribed. This stone he removed and deposited it in the Holy of Holies.”

The same puerile story of the barking dogs is repeated still more at length. It is not pertinent to the present inquiry, but it may be stated, as a mere matter of curious information, that this scandalous book, which is throughout a blasphemous defamation of our Savior, proceeds to say, that he cunningly obtained a knowledge of the Tetragrammaton from the Stone of Foundation, and by its mystical influence was enabled to perform his miracles.

The Masonic legends of the Stone of Foundation, based on these and other rabbinical reveries, are of the most extraordinary character, if they are to be viewed as histories, but readily reconcilable with sound sense, if looked at only in the light of allegories. They present an uninterrupted succession of events, in which the Stone of Foundation takes a prominent part, from Adam to Solomon, and from Solomon to Zerubbabel.

Thus, the first of these legends, in order of time, relates that the Stone of Foundation was possessed by Adam while in the Garden of Eden; that he used it as an altar, and so reverenced it that, on his expulsion from Paradise, he carried it with him into the world in which he and his descendants were afterward to earn their bread by the sweat of their brow.

Another legend informs us that from Adam the Stone of Foundation descended to Seth. From Seth it passed by regular succession to Noah, who took it with him into the Ark, and after the subsidence of the Deluge made on it his first thank-offering. Noah left it on Mount Ararat, where it was subsequently, found by Abraham, who removed it, and constantly used it as an altar of sacrifice. His grandson Jacob took it with him when he fled to his uncle Laban in Mesopotamia, and used it as a pillow when, in the vicinity of Luz, he had his celebrated vision.

Here there is a sudden interruption in the legendary history of the stone, and we have no means of conjecturing how it passed from the possession of Jacob into that of Solomon. Moses, it is true, is said to have taken it with him out of Egypt at the time of of the exodus, and thus it may have finally reached Jerusalem. Dr. Adam Clarke repeats, what he very properly calls a foolish tradition, that the stone on which Jacob rested his head was afterward brought to Jerusalem, thence carried after a long lapse of time to Spain, from Spain to Ireland, and from Ireland to Scotland, where it was used as a seat on which the kings of Scotland sat to be crowned. Edward I, we know, brought a stone to which this legend is attached from Scotland to Westminster Abbey where under the name of Jacob’s Pillow, it still remains, and is always placed under the chair upon which the British Sovereign sits to be crowned; because there is an old distich which declares that wherever this stone is found the Scottish Kings shall reign.

But this Scottish tradition would take the Stone of Foundation away from all its Masonic connections, and therefore it is rejected as a Masonic legend.

The legends just related are in many respects contradictory and unsatisfactory, and another series, equally as old, is now very generally adopted by Masonic scholars as much better suited to the symbolism by which all these legends are explained.

This series of legends commences with the patriarch Enoch, who is supposed to have been the first consecrator of the Stone of Foundation. The legend of Enoch is so interesting and important in this connection as to excuse its repetition in the present work.

The legend in full is as follows: Enoch, under the inspiration of the Most High, and in obedience to the instructions which he had received in a vision, built a Temple underground on Mount Moriah, and dedicated it to God. His son, Methuselah, constructed the building, although he was not acquainted with his father’s motives for the erection. This temple Consisted of nine vaults, situated perpendicularly beneath each other, and communicating by apertures left in each vault.

Enoch then caused a triangular plate of gold to be made, each side of which was a cubit long; he enriched it with the most precious stones, and encrusted the plate upon a stone of agate of the same form. On the plate he engraved the true name of God, or the Tetragrammaton, and placing it en a cubical stone, known thereafter as the Stone of Foundation, he deposited the whole within the lowest arch.

When this subterranean building was completed, he made a door of stone, and attaching to it a ring of iron, by which it might be occasionally raised, he placed it over the opening of the uppermost arch, and so covered it that the aperture Could not be discovered Enoch, himself, was permitted to enter it but once a year, and on the deaths of Enoch, Methusalem, and Lamedh, and the destruction of the word by the Deluge, all knowledge of the vault or subterranean temple and of the Stone of Foundation, with the Sacred and Ineffable Name inscribed upon it, was lost for ages to the world.

At the building of the first Temple of Jerusalem, the Stone of Foundation again makes its appearance. Reference has already been made to the Jewish tradition that David, when digging the foundations of the Temple, formal in the excavation which he was making a certain stone, on which the Ineffable Name of God was inscribed, and which stone he is said to have removed and deposited in the holy of Holies. That King David laid the foundations of the Temple upon which the superstructure was subsequently erected by Solomon, is a favorite theory of the legend mongers of the Talmud.

The Masonic tradition is substantially the same as the Jewish, but it substitutes Solomon for David, thereby giving a greater air of probability to the narrative, and it supposes that the stone thus discovered by Solomon was the identical one that had been deposited in his secret vault by Enoch. This Stone of Foundation, the tradition states, was subsequently removed by King Solomon and, for wise purposes, deposited in a secret and safer place.

In this the Masonic tradition again agrees with the Jewish, for we find in the third chapter of the Treatise on the Temple, the following narrative:

“There was a stone in the Holy of Holies, on its west side, on which was placed the Ark of the Covenant, and before the Pot of Manna and Aaron’s rod. But when Solomon had built the Temple, and foresaw that it was at some future time to be destroyed, he constructed a deep and Winding vault underground, for the purpose of concealing the ark, wherein Josiah afterwards, as we learn in the Second Book of Chronicles (xxxv. 3) deposited it with the Pot of Manna, the Rod of Aaron, and the Oil of Anointing.”

The Talmudical book Yoma gives the same tradition, and says that “the Ark of the Covenant was placed in the center of the Holy of Holies, upon a stone rising three fingers’ breadth above the floor, to be as it were a pedestal for it.” This stone, says Prideaux, in his Old and New Testament Connected (vol. i, p. 148), “the Rabbins call the Stone of Foundation, and give us a great deal of trash about it.”

There is much controversy as to the question of the existence of any Ark in the second Temple. Some of the Jewish writers assert that a new one was made; others that the old one was found where it had been concealed by Solomon; and others again contend that there was no Ark at all in the temple of Zerubbabel, but that its place was supplied by the Stone of Foundation on which it had originally rested.

Royal Arch Masons well know how all these traditions are sought to be reconciled by the Masonic legend, in which the Substitute Ark and the Stone of Foundation play so important a part.

In the Thirteenth Degree of the Ancient and Accepted Rite, the Stone of Foundation is conspicuous as the resting-place of the Sacred Delta.

In the Royal Arch and Select Master’s Degrees of the American Rite, the Stone of Foundation constitutes the most important part of the ritual. In both of these it is the receptacle of the Ark, on which the ineffable Name is inscribed.

Lee, in his Temple of Solomon, has devoted a chapter to this Stone of Foundation, and thus recapitulates the Talmudic and Rabbinical traditions on the subject:

“Vain and furious are the feverish dreams of the ancient Rabbins concerning the Foundation Stone of the Temple. Some assert that God placed this stone in the center of the world, for a future basis and Settled consistency for the earth to rest upon.

Others held this stone to be the first matter out of which all the beautiful visible beings of the world have been hewn forth and produced to light. Others relate that this was the very same stone laid by Jacob for a pillow under his head, in that night when he dreamed of an angelic vision at Bethel, and he afterwards anointed and consecrated it to God. Which when Solomon had found, no doubt by forged revelation or some tedious Search like another Rabbi ,Selemoh, he durst not but lay it sure, as the principal Foundation-Stone of the Temple. Nay, they do say further, he caused to be engraved upon it the Tetragrammaton, or the Ineffable Name of Jehovah.”

It will be seen that the Masonic traditions on the Subject of the Stone of Foundation do not differ very materially from these Rabbinical ones, although they add a few additional circumstances.

In the Masonic legend, the Foundation-Stone first makes its appearance, as we have already said, in the days of Enoch, who placed it in the bowels of Mount Moriah. There it was subsequently discovered by King Solomon, who deposited it in a crypt of the first Temple, where it remained concealed until the foundations of the second Temple were laid, when it was discovered and removed to the Holy of Holies. But the most important point of the legend of the Stone of foundation is its intimate and constant connection with the Tetragrammaton or Ineffable Name. It is this name, inscribed upon it within the Sacred and Symbolic Delta, that gives to the stone all its Masonic value and significance. It is upon this fact, that it was so inscribed, that its whole symbolism depends.

Looking at these traditions in anything like the light of historical narratives, we are compelled to consider them, to use the plain language of Lee, “but as so many idle and absurd conceits.” We must go behind the legend, which we acknowledge at once to be only an allegory, and study its symbolism.

The following facts can, we think, be readily established from history. First, that there was a very general prevalence among the earliest nations of antiquity of the worship of stones as the representatives of Deity; secondly, that in almost every ancient temple there was a legend of a sacred or mystical stone; thirdly, that this legend is found in the Masonic system; and lastly, that the mystical stone there has received the none of the Stone there has received the name of the “Stone of Foundation.”

Now, as in all the other systems the stone is admitted to be symbolic, and the traditions connected with it mystical, we are compelled to assume the same predicates of the Masonic stone. It, too, is Symbolic, and its legend a myth or an allegory.

Of the fable, myth, or allegory, Bailly has said that, “subordinate to history and philosophy, it only deceives that it may the better instruct us. Faithful in preserving the realities which are confided to it, it covers with its seductive envelop the lessons of tile one and the truths of the other.” It is from this standpoint that we are to view the allegory of the Stone of Foundation, as developed in one of the most interesting and important symbols of Freemasonry.

The fact that the mystical stone in all the ancient religions was a symbol of the Deity, leads us necessarily to the conclusion that the Stone of Foundation was also a symbol of Deity. And this symbolic idea is strengthened by the Tetragrammaton, or sacred name of God, that was inscribed upon it. This Ineffable Name sanctifies the stone upon which it is engraved as the symbol of the Grand Architect. It takes from it its heathen Signification as an idol, and consecrates it to the worship of the true God.

The predominant idea of the Deity, in the Masonic system, connects him with his creative and formative power. God is to the Freemason Al Gabil, as the Arabians called him, that is, The Builder; or, as expressed in his Masonic title, the Grand Architect of the Universe, by common consent abbreviated in the formula G. A. O. T. U. Now, it is evident that no Symbol could so appropriately suit him in this character as the Stone of Foundation, upon which he is allegorically supposed to have erected his world. Such a symbol closely connects the creative work of God, as a pattern and exemplar, with the workman’s erection of his temporal building on a similar foundation stone.

But this Masonic idea is still further to be extended. The great object of all Masonic labor is Divine Truth. The search for the Lost Word is the search for truth. But Divine Truth is a term Synonymous with God. The Ineffable Name is a symbol of truth, because God, and God alone, is truth. It is properly a Scriptural idea. The Book of Psalms abounds with this sentiment. Thus it is said that the truth of the Lord “reacheth unto the clouds,” and that “his truth endureth unto all generations.” If, then, God is Truth, and the Stone of Foundation is the Masonic symbol of God, it follows that it must also be the symbol of Divine Truth.

When we have arrived at this point in our speculations, we are ready to show how all the myths and legends of the Stone of Foundation may be rationally explained as parts of that beautiful “science of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols,” which is the acknowledged definition of Freemasonry.

In the Masonic system there are two Temples: the First Temple, in which the Degrees of Ancient Craft Masonry are concerned, and the Second Temple, with which the higher Degrees, and especially the Royal Arch, are related. The first Temple is symbolic of the present life; the Second Temple is symbolic of the life to come. The First Temple, the present life, must he destroyed; on its foundations the Second Temple, the life eternal, must be built.

But the mystical stone was placed by King Solomon in the foundations of the first Temple. That is to say, the First Temple of our present life must be built on the sure foundation of Divine Truth, “for other foundation can no man lay.”

But although the present life is necessarily built upon the foundation of truth, yet we never thoroughly attain it in this sublunary sphere. The Foundation Stone is concealed in the First Temple, and the Master Mason knows it not. He has not the true word. He receives only a substitute.

But in the Second Temple of the future life, we have passed from the grave which had been the end of our labors in the First. We have removed the rubbish and have found that Stone of Foundation which had been hitherto concealed from our eyes. We now throw aside the substitute for truth which had contented us in the former Temple, and the brilliant effulgence of the Tetragrammaton and the Stone of Foundation are discovered, and thenceforth we are the possessors of the true word—of Divine Truth. And in this way, the Stone of Foundation, or Divine Truth, concealed in the First Temple, but discovered and brought to light in the Second, will explain that passage of the Apostle: “For now we see through a glass darkly; but then, face to face: now I know in part; but then I shall know face to face.”

And so the result of this inquiry is, that the Masonic Stone of Foundation is a symbol of Divine Truth, upon which all Speculative Freemasonry is built, and the legends and traditions which refer to it are intended to describe, in an allegorical way, the progress of truth in the soul, the search for which is a Freemason’s labor, and the discovery of which is his reward.

The full text of the 1912 edition of Mackey’s “An Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry and Its Kindred Sciences” may be found at:

Mackey’s Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry: Volume I

Mackey’s Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry: Volume II

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