"The Key," says Doctor Oliver (Landmarks I, page 180), "is one of the most important symbols of Freemasonry. It bears the appearance of a common metal instrument, confined to the performance of one simple act. But the well-instructed brother beholds in it the symbol which teaches him to keep a tongue of good report, and to abstain from the debasing vices of slander and defamation." Among the ancients the key was a symbol of silence and circumspection; and thus Sophocles alludes to it in the Oedipus Coloneus (line 105), where he makes the chorus speak of "the golden key which had come upon the tongue of the ministering Hierophant in the mysteries of Eleusis--Callimachus says that the Priestess of Ceres bore a key as the ensign of her mystic office. The key was in the Mysteries of Isis a hieroglyphic of the opening or disclosing of the heart and conscience, in the kingdom of death, for trial and Judgment.
In the old instructions of Freemasonry the key was an important symbol, and Doctor Oliver regrets that it has been abandoned in the modern system. In the ceremonies of the First Degree, in the eighteenth century allusion is made to a key by whose help the secrets of Freemasonry are to be obtained, which key "is said to hang and not to lie, because it is always to hang in a brother's defense and not to lie to his prejudge." It was said, too, to hang "by the thread of life at the entrance, " and was closely connected with the heart, because the tongue "ought to utter nothing but what the heart dictates." And, finally, this key is described as being "composed of no metal, but a tongue of good report." In the ceremonies of the Masters Degree in the Adonhiramite Rite, we find this catechism (in the Recueil Prcieu:, page 87):
What do you conceal? All the secrets which have been intrusted to me. Where do you conceal them? In the heart. Have you a key to gain entrance there? Yes, Right Worshipful. Where do you keep it? In a box of coral which opens and shuts only with ivory teeth. Of what metal is it composed? Of none. It is a tongue obedient to reason, which knows only how to speak well of those of whom it speaks in their absence as in their presence.
All of this shows that the key as a symbol was formerly equivalent to the modern symbol of the "instructive tongue," which, however, with almost the same interpretation, has now been transferred to the Second or Fellow-Craft's Degree. The key, however, is still preserved as a symbol of secrecy in the Royal Arch Degree; and it is also presented to us in the same sense in the ivory key of the Secret Master, or Fourth Degree of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite. In many of the German Lodges an ivory key is made a part of the Masonic clothing of each Brother, to remind him that he should lock up or conceal the secrets of Freemasonry in his heart. But among the ancients the key was also a symbol of power; and thus among the Greeks the title of Kxeiaouxos~ or key-bearer, was bestowed upon one holding high office; and with the Romans, the keys are given to the bride on the day of marriage, as a token that the authority of the house was bestowed upon her; and if afterward divorced, they were taken from her, as a symbol of the deprivation of her office, Among the Hebrews the key was used in the same sense. "As the robe and the baldric," says Lowth (Israel, part ii, section 4), "were the ensigns of power and authority, so likewise was the key the mark of office, either sacred or civil." Thus in Isaiah (xxii, 22), it is said: "The key of the house of David will I lay upon his shoulders; so he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open" Our Savior expressed a similar idea when he said to Saint Peter, "I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven." It is in reference to this interpretation of the symbol, and not that of secrecy, that the key has been adopted as the official jewel of the Treasurer of a Lodge, because he has the purse, the source of power, under his command.
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