The Masons, formally known as Freemasons, make up the world's largest and oldest fraternity. Although it finds its inspiration in fraternal societies dating back to the Middle Ages, the first Freemason Grand Lodge appeared in England in 1717, giving the organization hundreds of years to develop its traditions and significant symbols. Among these symbols, the enigmatic skull and crossbones continues to appear in Masonic culture.

An Iconic Symbol

The image of the skull and crossbones is often associated with death and piracy. Likewise, the symbol often serves as a warning of dangerous or harmful substances. While the concept of death does play a role in its usage, the Masonic application of the skull is not related to piracy or poison. Today, the skull and crossbones appears at Masonic lodges in Chambers of Reflection and in tracing boards used to teach Masonic beliefs and traditions. It can also be seen in the fraternity's rituals, such as initiation and knighting ceremonies. The image commonly appears on Masonic paraphernalia, such as rings and jewelry.

Memento Mori

Throughout history, the skull and crossbones has symbolized the concept of “memento mori,” which translates from Latin as “remember death” or “remember you must die.” In his essay, “The Symbol of the Skull and Crossbones and Its Masonic Application,” Brother P.D. Newman of Tupelo Lodge Number 318 observes that this remains true for the Masonic symbol, stating the the skull “stands as the primary reminder of the grim truth that death is ever immanent.” This reminder seeks to incite contemplation and reflection in life.

A Gentle Craft

Freemasons sometimes refer to their fraternity as a “Gentle Craft,” and though the skull symbol appears grim, it has underlying layers of hope. Newman speculates that in addition to the inevitability of death, the skull may also symbolize the inward potential of people, or the concept that “the Lodge is in the head,” as stated in Tobias Churton's “The Golden Guidelines: Alchemists, Rosicrucians and the First Freemasons.”

More to Consider

Guidelines from the Grand Lodge of Colorado state that the crossbones behind the skull “hint at the pillars, the portico of man upon which he must stand as he labors in the quarry.” In his essay “Memento Mori -- The Symbol of Skull with Crossed Bones,” Brother William Steve Burkle associates the skull not with death, but with rebirth, a reminder of the temporal world that calls for spiritual and intellectual reawakening.