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Symbolic Ladder of Mithras

In the Mysteries of Brahma we find the same reference to the ladder of seven steps. The names of these were not different, and there was the same allusion to the symbol of the universe. The seven steps were emblematical of the seven worlds which constituted the Indian universe. The lowest was the Earth; the second, the World of Pre-existence; the third, Heaven; the fourth, the Middle World, or intermediate region between the lower and upper worlds; the fifth, the World of Births, in which souls are again born; the sixth, the Mansion of the Blessed; and the seventh, or topmost round, the Sphere of Truth, and the abode of Brahma.

Doctor Oliver thinks that in the Scandinavian mysteries the tree Yggrasil was the representative of the mystical ladder. But although the ascent of the tree, like the ascent of the ladder, was a change from a lower to a higher sphere--from time to eternity, and from death to life--yet the unimaginative genius of the North seems to have shorn the symbolism of many of its more salient features.

Among the Cabalists, the ladder was represented by the ten Sephiroths, which, commencing from the bottom, were the Kingdom, Foundation, Splendor, Firmness, Beauty, Justice, Mercy, Intelligence, Wisdom, and the Crown, by which we arrive at the En Soph, or the Infinite.

In the advanced Freemasonry we find the Ladder of Kadosh, which consists of seven steps, thus commencing from the bottom: Justice, Equity, Kindness, Good Faith, Labor, Patience, and Intelligence. The arrangement of these steps, for which we are indebted to modern ritualism, does not seem to be perfect; but yet the idea of intellectual progress to perfection is carried out by making the topmost round represent Wisdom or Understanding.

The Masonic Ladder which is presented in the symbolism of the First Degree ought really to consist not of three but seven steps, which thus ascend: Temperance, Fortitude, Prudence, Justice, Faith, Hope, and Charity; but the earliest examples present it only with three, referring to the three theological virtues, whence it is called the theological ladder. It seems, therefore, to have been settled by general usage that the Masonic Ladder has but three steps. As a symbol of progress, Jacob's ladder was early recognized. Picus of Mirandola, who wrote in the sixteenth century, in his oration, De Hominis Dignitate, says that Jacob's ladder is a symbol of the progressive scale of intellectual communication betwixt earth and heaven; and upon the ladder, as it were, step by step, man is permitted with the angels to ascend and descend until the mind finds blissful and complete b repose in the bosom of divinity. The highest step he defines to be theology, or the study and contemplation of the Deity in His own abstract and exalted nature.

Other interpretations have, however, been given to it. The Jewish writers differ very much in their expositions of it. Thus, a writer of one of the Midrashes or Commentaries, finding that the Hebrew words for ladder and Sinai have each the same numerical value of Setters, expounds the ladder as typifying the giving of the law on that mount. Aben Ezra thought that it was a symbol of the human mind, and that the angels represented the sublime meditations of man. Maimonides supposed the ladder to symbolize nature in its operations; and, citing the authority of a Midrash which gives to it four steps, says that they represent the four elements; the two heavier, earth and water, descending by their specific gravity, and the two lighter, fire and air, ascending from the same cause. Abarbanel, assuming the Talmudic theory that Luz, where Jacob slept, was Mount Moriah, supposes that the ladder, resting on the spot which afterward became the holy of holies, was a prophetic symbol of the building of the Temple.

And, lastly, Raphael interprets the ladder, and the ascent and the descent of the angels, as the prayers of man and the answering inspiration of God. Fludd, the Hermetic philosopher, in his Philosophia Mosaica of 1638, calls the ladder the symbol of the triple world, moral, physical, and intellectual; and Nicolai says that the ladder with three steps was, among the Rosicrucian Freemasons in the seventeenth century, a symbol of the knowledge of nature. Finally, Krause says, in his drei altesten Kunsturkunden (ii, page 481), that a Brother Keher of Edinburgh, whom he describes as a skillful and truthful Freemason, had in 1802 assured the members of a Lodge at Altenberg that originally only one Scottish Degree existed, whose object was the restoration of James II to the throne of England, and that of that restoration Jacob's ladder had been adopted by them as a symbol. Of this fact he further said that an authentic narrative was contained in the Archives of the Grand Lodge of Scotland. Notwithstanding Lawrie's silence on the subject, Krause is inclined to believe the story, nor is it in all its parts altogether without probability.

The old writers believed it is more than likely that the Chevalier Ramsay, who was a warm adherent of the Stuarts, transferred the Symbol of the mystical ladder from the Mithraic Mysteries, with which he was very familiar, into his Scottish Degrees, and that thus it became a part of the symbolism of the Kadosh system. But as regards the later conception of Brother Ramsey's connection with Degrees see the article herein about him. In some of the political lodges instituted under the influence of the ,Stuarts to assist in the restoration of their house, the philosophical interpretation of the symbol may have been perverted to a political meaning, and to these Lodges it is to be supposed that Keher alluded; but that the Grand Lodge of Scotland had made any official recognition of the fact is not to be believed. Lawrie's silence seems to be conclusive.

In the Ancient Craft Degrees of the York Rite, Jacob's ladder was not an original symbol. It is said to have been introduced by Dunckerley when he reformed the lectures. This is confirmed by the fact that it is not mentioned in any of the early rituals of the eighteenth century, nor by Hutchinson, who had an excellent opportunity of doing so in his lecture on the Nature of the Lodge, where he speaks of the Covering of the Lodge, but says nothing of the means of reaching it, which he would have done, had he been acquainted with the ladder as a symbol. Its first appearance is in a Tracing Board, on which the date of 1776 is inscribed, which very well agrees with the date of Dunckerley's improvements. In this Tracing Board, the ladder has but three rounds; a change from the old seven-stepped ladder of the mysteries; which, however, Preston corrected when he described it as having many rounds, but three principal ones.

As to the modern Masonic symbolism of the ladder, it is, as Brother Mackey has already said, a symbol of progress, such as it is in all the old initiations. Its three principal rounds, representing Faith, Hope, and Charity, present us with the means of advancing from earth to heaven, from death to life--from the mortal to immortality. Hence its foot is placed on the ground floor of the Lodge, which is typical of the world, and its top rests on the covering of the Lodge, which is symbolic of heaven. In the Prestonian lecture, which Brother Mackey believed was elaborated out of Dunckerley's system, the ladder is said to rest on the Holy Bible, and to reach to the heavens. This symbolism is thus explained:

By the doctrines contained in the Holy Bible we are taught to believe in the Divine dispensation of Providence, which belief strengthens our Faith, and enables us to ascend the first step. That Fasth naturally creates in us a Hope of becoming partakers ot some of the blessed promises therein recorded. which Hope enables us to as send the second step. But the third and last being Charity comprehends the whole, and he who is possessed of this virtue in its ample sense, is said to have ample that the summit of his profession. or, more metaphorically into an ethereal mansion sealed from the mortal eye by the starry firmament.

In the modern lectures, the language is materially changed, but the idea and the symbolism are retained unaltered. The delineation of the ladder with three steps only on the Tracing Board of 1776, which is a small one, may be attributed to notions of convenience. But the Masonic ladder should properly have seven steps, which represent the four cardinal and the three theological virtues.

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