The Origin of the Four Tassels
The inner meaning of the Checkered Pavement on the floor of the Lodge is to exemplify the checkered way of life i.e. the alterations of joy and sorrow, of good and evil, of day & night, which we all experience in the course of our lives. Indeed, it may be said to stand for all opposites.
But what probably strikes us more than anything else about this pavement are the four tassels which have been placed at the four corners. We are told, in our lectures, that these represent the four cardinal virtues, but this is late gloss, probably invented toward the close of the eighteenth century and there seems to be no particular reason why they should represent the four cardinal virtues more than the four elements or any other particular four.
We find the true origin of these tassels, if we study the medieval methods employed by the Operative Masons when laying out the ground for a new building. The Master Mason or Architect, as we would call him today, commenced his work by striking the centre of the piece of ground on which the building was to be erected, and from it he plotted out the square or rectangle on which the containing walls were subsequently to rise.
To do so he extended ropes from the centre pin to the four angles, and pegged these down at the corners of the building; then by the simple use of the square and the triangle he was able to check the four corners and ascertain if they were true. As the walls rose, from time to time a piece of wood was extended from the corner inwards and plumb line dropped down to make sure that the walls were perpendicular and the angle as true on it’s upper tiers as it was on the base.
A dim remembrance of these corner plumb lines lingered on well into the nineteenth century in Speculative Masonry as I have observed actual woven tassels hanging in the four corners of many older Lodge Rooms.
In those Lodge Rooms it was those hanging tassels to which the lecturer pointed when identifying the four cardinal virtues as guides to a man to maintain an upright life.
Like many other old and interesting customs these actual tassels appear to have disappeared and we are left with a symbolic representation.
This article by Colin Dyer was published in The Tracing Board. G.R.S. 1980
The Four Tassels symbolically represent the four Cardinal Virtues.
Starting at the South East Corner TEMPERANCE
South West Corner FORTITUDE
North West Corner PRUDENCE
North East Corner JUSTICE