By Bernard E. Jones
This paper originally appeared as Section 22 on pp. 233-237 of the “Freemasons’ Book of the Royal Arch.”
The tau itself, one of the two most important symbols in Royal Arch masonry, is the Greek letter Τ, the nineteenth letter in the Greek alphabet, a letter which takes the same form in many different alphabets, including the English. It was in ancient days regarded as the mark or symbol of life, whereas another Greek letter, ‘theta’ Θ, the eighth letter in the Greek alphabet and corresponding to the English sound ‘th,’ was regarded as the symbol of death. Three taus came together to form the triple tau, but they did not do this in ancient days—not earlier, as a matter of fact, than somewhere about 1820.
An Early Form of Cross
The tau is an extremely early form of cross. In shape it is the simple Τ. It is often called St. Anthony’s Cross because the saint was martyred on a cross of that simple form, but long before then it had been the anticipatory cross or type cross of the pre-Christian Scriptures. It is not known as a simple cross in Craft, Royal Arch, or Mark masonry, but is so recognized in certain of the additional degrees.
It is understandable that, as the cross has been adored as a sacred symbol from the earliest of pagan times, it has assumed many different forms, and it is even said that more than three hundred variations are known. The illustrations herewith show a few of the chief forms; one of them is the swastika which originally may have been an emblem of the Deity and is so ancient that it is found in Chaldean bricks many thousands of years old and in the ruins of Troy dating back to, say, 2500 years B.C.
The Hebrew form of the word ‘tau’ is pronounced tov and carries the meaning of marking, etching, scrawling, delineating, etc., which perhaps explains how a cross came originally to be used by illiterate people in ‘signing’ their name to a document.
In pagan days a warrior honourably surviving a battle could attach a Τ to his name, and a Royal Arch lecture explains that the tau was set as a sign on those who were acquitted and on those who returned unhurt from the field of battle. As a mark of distinction it is referred to in Ezekiel 9:3-4, where the Lord commands “the man clothed with linen, which had the writer’s inkhorn by his side,” to “go through the midst of the city, through the midst of Jerusalem, and set a tau upon the foreheads of the men that sigh and that cry for [because of] all the abominations that be done in the midst thereof.”
It has been said that three taus come together to form the triple tau (see the illustration), but this extraordinary device was not originally produced by the conjunction of the three Τ’s; rather it developed from Τ over Η as suggested by the sequence of figures given [above]. There is no doubt that the triple tau was originally
meaning Templum Hierosolymæ, the Temple of Jerusalem. It was so alluded to in a letter from Dunckerley given later in this section.
The early symbol has been given other meanings. For example, it signified thesaurus, a treasure or treasury, usually given as clavis ad thesaurum, a key to the treasure. It was also known as res ipsa pretiosa, the precious thing itself, which may have referred to the Sacred Name; in a sense this idea is supported by another of its descriptions, theca ubi res pretiosa deponitur, reasonably translated as “the depository in which the sacred thing is placed or hidden,” this again suggesting the preservation of the Sacred Name.
The simple tau was the Egyptian’s nilometer, a gauge by which was measured the rise of the Nile in flood. The instrument was a solidly constructed giant Τ which might be as much as 32 feet high, its crossbar at the top being about 10 feet or 12 feet wide. In its permanent form, standing in a well that communicated with the Nile, the height of the rising water was read from the graduated pillar, and that height might be anything from 12 cubits (meaning famine to the population) to 22 (meaning an abundant supply). A height of 24 cubits of water might mean the destruction of people, their stores and their houses. It is easy, indeed, to see that, as the life and health of the Egyptian people depended upon the rise and fall of the Nile as recorded by the nilometre, the instrument itself became a symbol and later grew into a talisman which was believed to avert evil and charm away sickness. The Egyptian logos or god-incarnate, Thoth, carried it as his emblem.
Of the meaning of the triple tau the ritual provides explanation, but it must be remembered that the geometrical interpretations have come since the complete joining up of the T and the H and probably were unknown much earlier than 1835. The Scottish ritual knew nothing of the triple tau for a great many years, but it well knew the T-over-H emblem, and the official Irish ritual is not concerned with that symbol, although there were many Irish lodges in which it had a place.
The Christian Interpretation or Significance of the Triple Tau
The old sign sometimes had a Christian interpretation. It has even been defined, but doubtfully, as “Holiness supporting Trinity.” More definite is a device at the head of a Trinity College, Dublin, MS. dated 1711, taking the form of a Christian cross over the H; there is reason for assuming that this exemplifies the cross upon the name Jehovah—that is, the mystical union between the Son and His Father. The Jesuit church of Il Gesu at Rome, built late in the 1700’s, has a ceiling representing the worship of the holy name of Jesus, its centrepiece being a glory containing a distinctly Christian version of the triple tau. It takes this form:
Its meaning is Jesus Hominum Salvator, or possibly and less commonly in hac salus, to be translated in this case as “safety in this cross.” (The first of the translations is the conventional one, but in itself contains an error, for the middle letter H is actually one form of the Greek E.) The same symbol minus the S is found in a Swansea chapter warrant of 1771 and a London one of 1784, a possible interpretation being “Jesus, His Cross and His Father.” Readers particularly interested in the subject should consult A.Q.C., vol. lvii, in which Ivor Grantham advances a theory founded on verses 11-13 of Chapter 8 of the General Epistle of Barnabas (an apocryphal book possibly dating to the second century and not accepted as a part of the regular Gospel). Ivor Grantham suggests that if, as some students feel, the triple tau is Christian in its origin, then the verses referred to might well show that the symbol could be “traced back to the 4th century A.D. when the canonical nature of the New Testament writings was determined—or possibly even to the lifetime of the twelve Apostles, if the attribution of this Epistle to St. Barnabas could be sustained.”
Some Variations of the Triple Tau
In some Irish certificates appears the T-over-H sign where, apparently, the letters refer to the second of the Three Grand Masters. In an Irish ritual used in the middle of the nineteenth century the symbol is referred to, as “The Initials of the Architect”; this, says J. Heron Lepper, refers not to the Monarch, but to the Craftsman, as in Mark masonry, and he adds the comment that in those days the anachronism of the lettering would have caused qualms to few, either in England or in Ireland. In the minute-books of Concord Chapter, No. 37, Bolton, whose records go back to 1768, we find the emblem superimposed on H. AB., these last being carefully drawn capital letters.
On a silver Mark jewel, dated 1819, the symbol has an E added to it thus:
and, whatever its significance was in the Mark, it was not regarded as acceptable in the Royal Arch by so good an authority as Thomas Dunckerley, who, in a letter written in 1792, asks that it be amended “on the Patent under my name. It is the signature of our order Templum Hierosolyma Egues. For the Royal Arch it is the triple tau, Templum Hierosolyma.” To this may be added the necessary explanation that eques means ‘horseman,’ and, by implication, a knight gave the triple tau sign a Knights Templar connotation. In the museum at Freemasons’ Hall, London, is an apron bearing the symbol:
The T-over-H sign was, of course, known before the Charter of Compact, 1766, and even in that charter some examples of it have taken on a midway form. The earliest Grand Chapter regulations directed that aprons should bear on their bibs a T and H of gold. The symbol appears in the Wakefield Royal Arch records of 1767. On Dunckerley’s Royal Arch certificate issued in 1768 we find it again, the T touching the bar of the H, but both letters retaining their serifs, these being the tiny crossbars at the ends of the limbs of the letters. Instructions issued by Grand Chapter in 1803 specify that the curved bib or flap of the apron is to have the triple tau “embroidered in spangles on a piece of purple satin.” In a United Grand Chapter illustration of 1817 the letters are on their way to becoming the triple tau, but the serifs are still retained; so it appears that the changeover to the geometric symbol—the three taus—took place in the interval between May 1822 (to which date the 1817 regulations had been extended) and 1834-35, when the revised ritual was promulgated. Although we find the true triple tau following 1820, it does not appear to have an official character until the issue of the revised regulations in the 1830’s. The distinction between the triple tau where these two letters have been brought into contact and the true triple tau is that in the latter device the serifs have disappeared, and what were letters have now become right angles. And it is this difference that often provides a touchstone when judging the dates of early documents, jewels etc.
No authority for the change can be advanced. A very unconvincing explanation is to the effect that the alteration was made to accord with the symbolic explanation that the squares are repeated three times on the Installed Master’s apron. It may be that the true triple tau took on imperceptibly, particularly by the dropping of the serifs of the letters, a neater and conventionalized form which offers itself as the basis of geometrical symbolism. The Harper family, jewellers, made many distinctive Masonic jewels, and among them is one dated 1823 carrying the true triple tau. A noted member of the family was Edwards Harper, Deputy Grand Secretary of the ‘Antients’ before the Union and later Joint Grand Secretary of the United Grand Lodge.
The full text of the “Freemasons’ Book of the Royal Arch” may be found at: