The Multiple Meanings of the Cable-Tow

By Bro. Ron Craft, Senior Deacon

The candidate is introduced to the cable-tow while being prepared to receive the degrees in Freemasonry, but to some noteworthy brethren, the symbol was never clearly explained. The cable-tow has an outward meaning, which stems from the degrees of Masonry but is also part of our daily Masonic vernacular. The first meaning seems obvious to Masons, as all of us have seen the cable-tow in use and heard its purpose explained in a degree lecture, but we also tell each other not to go further than the length of it, meaning only to do what we can according to our ability. Is there a deeper or esoteric meaning to the cable-tow? A check of the many sources will yield a variety of answers, however, there are some common themes. One concise definition of the cable-tow is given by A.E. Waite, who says:

Most generally, the binding covenant of Masonry, and the length of the cable tow is the reasonable limit of obligation. In a particular sense the length signifies the extent of a Mason’s ability to attend meetings. The Cable Tow has another meaning in the first degree. (Waite, 1970, p. xiv)

The definition appears very simple, and could easily be accepted with little afterthought. I contend, however, that the cable-tow, like most Masonic symbols, has multiple meanings and our common use of the word merely conceals the inward meanings.

First, it is necessary to clear up one common misconception; is “cable-tow” an English word at all? A contemporary Masonic scholar, Henry Coil in his Masonic Encyclopedia defines cable-tow as “A heavy rope or hawser by which a mass, especially a ship, may be hauled, pulled, or towed” (Coil, 1996, p. 115). Albert Mackey, on the other hand says that a “cable tow is a rope or line for drawing or leading” and then writes that “The word is purely Masonic” (Mackey, 1929, pp. 168-169). If one is to search for the word “cable-tow” in either the Oxford or Webster’s dictionary he will find that there are zero results. Because cable-tow is not defined in the English language, it is unclear where Coil found his particular definition, but it appears that Mackey is correct, when he stated that the word is “purely Masonic.” Mackey also wrote that “cable-tow” may have derived from a similarly pronounced German word, however that is beyond the scope of this discussion. For now, we will stipulate that “cable-tow” appears to be strictly a Masonic word, created for a Masonic purpose.

Next, I would like to call attention to Waite’s definition where he noted that the cable-tow has another meaning in the Entered Apprentices degree. Here, Mackey expands on this point and says that:

In its first inception, the cable tow seems to have been used only as a physical means of controlling the candidate, and such an interpretation is still given in the Entered Apprentice’s Degree. But in the Second and Third Degrees a more modern symbolism has been introduced, and the cable tow is in these grades supposed to symbolize the covenant by which all Freemasons are tied, thus reminding us of the passage in Hosea (xi, 4), “I drew them with cords of a man, with bands of love.” (Mackey, 1929, pp. 168-69)

The Old Charges, exposures, and written rituals indicate that in England, Scotland and France, the cable-tow was used in the Apprentice or Entered Apprentice degree only, and it is likely that, for a time, ritual in the United States followed this same pattern. The appearance of the cable-tow in the second and third degrees possibly came about in the 1840’s with the meeting of the Baltimore Convention where it was defined as “the scope of a man’s reasonable ability” (Coil, 1996, p. 115). Therefore, if the cable-tow was traditionally used in the first degree only, it is here we can uncover some of its more esoteric meanings.

On the inward meaning of the cable-tow, Masonic writers have come to varied conclusions. Joseph Fort Newton believed that a rope or cable anciently represented a pledge, or a vow in which a man pledged his life. This pledge was used in earlier initiation societies as well as in the Bible. Newton cites 1 Kings 20:31,32 when the Syrian King was defeated in battle, his servants approached the victorious Israeli King “with ropes upon their heads,” in order to remind him about a pledge (Newton, 1969, p. 77). Newton further elaborates on the bond:

If a Lodge is a symbol of the world, and initiation is our birth into Masonry, the cable tow is not unlike the umbilical cord, uniting a child with his mother. When the umbilical cord is cut, it is replaced by a stronger, invisible bond between mother and child. The candidate is released from his cable tow at the altar following his obligation, and is bound to a stronger, invisible bond (Newton, 1969, p. 77).

Newton has beautifully laid out a symbolic meaning for the cable-tow, which rings true as being released from the cable-tow coincides with the moment that the initiate becomes a brother, instantly forming a bond with the men of his Lodge.

Albert Pike’s thoughts on the cable-tow do not fundamentally disagree with those of Newton. However, he expands on the definition by offering a view of the state of the man who is wearing the cable-tow. Pike writes:

The Cable-Tow, therefore, is the Hieroglyphic of a Pledge or Obligation, and it not only means the Candidate’s pledge and obligation, which, to become a Neophyte, he must take to the Order and to every individual Brother; but that, wearing it, he represents men and nations, all whose rights of property, liberty, conscience and life, and they themselves, chattels in the form of human creatures and peoples, are pledged to their masters, as an article of clothing or of furniture is to the pawnbroker (Pike, 2008, p. 280).

Pike’s definition is puzzling, so in order to understand his meaning, we must look to other writings. Pike was dissatisfied with the standard explanation concerning the length of the cable-tow, because in his opinion, it was supposed to bring a feeling of degradation to the candidate. According to Pike, the candidate represents a man deprived of light, knowledge of reason, of God, nature, or even himself and the cable-tow is a symbol of a man in bondage (Pike, 2008, pp. 98-99). When the cable-tow is lifted, the candidate receives light, both physically and symbolically, and he becomes bound to his brethren by a stronger obligation. As many veterans can attest, basic training works much the same way. You begin as a “pathetic recruit” but you leave with esoteric knowledge of the service, as well as a bond with the men and women of the uniform.

Like many Masonic symbols, the cable-tow has multiple meanings. However, they can be boiled down to length, obligation and reasonable limitations. The outward symbol is used in our degrees and our everyday communications. The inward and original meaning may be lost to time, as we will never know exactly why the cable-tow was selected. Masons like Newton and Pike, however, believed that the cable-tow was purposely and symbolically used in the initiation of an Entered Apprentice. Regardless, the symbol is worthy of your contemplation, particularly as students and mentors in the Craft.


Works Cited

Coil, H. W. (1996). Coil’s Masonic Encyclopedia. Richmond: Macoy Publishing & Masonic Supply CO., INC.

Mackey, A. G. (1929). Encyclopedia of Freemasonry and Kindred Sciences (Vol. I). Chicago: The Masonic History Company.

Newton, J. F. (1969). Short Talks on Masonry. Richmond: Macoy Publishing & Masonic Supply Company, INC.

Pike, A. (2008). Esoterika: The Symbolism of the Blue Degrees of Freemasonry. Washington D.C.: The Scottish Rite Reseach Society.

Waite, A. E. (1970). A New Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry. New York: Weathervane Books.