Freemason symbols have been the subject of conspiracy theories since the secret society was founded in the 18th century. Freemasons have been persecuted in Francisco Franco’s Spain, Benito Mussolini’s Italy, and even inspired the first third party in American politics: the Anti-Masonic Party. Central to this distrust is Freemasonry’s use of symbols that outsiders have been reading into for centuries.

“The confusing thing for outside observers is that Freemasons took historical symbols that predated them and coopted them to convey something genuine about Freemasonry, that it really did go back to medieval stonemasons or the Knights Templar or the Old Testament,” says John Dickie, author of The Craft: How The Freemasons Made the Modern World. These symbols included pyramids, The Temple of Solomon, and multiple images associated with death and mortality from cultures around the world.

“Because of paranoia about Freemasonry and misgivings generated by its code of secrecy, people saw these symbols and began to believe Freemasons were sending secret messages,” says Dickie. “There’s a widespread belief that Freemasons have hidden symbols everywhere and there’s something sinister about it.”

The growth of the British Empire brought Freemasonry around the world, exporting fears of a global conspiracy along with it. Here are three alleged Freemason symbols hiding in plain sight and the stories behind them.

Symbols of Freemasonry on the Dollar Bill?

Back of US one dollar bill showing pyramid.
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The Eye of Providence, as seen on a U.S. one dollar bill.

The reverse of the one dollar bill features the Great Seal of the United States. The seal includes an all-seeing eye, or the Eye of Providence, and a pyramid commonly believed to be a secret Freemason symbol placed there by the Illuminati. This is false.

The Founding Fathers added the Eye of Providence to the Great Seal to “show God watching over the New Republic, which was represented by the pyramid (meaning it was built to last) with its 13 levels (representing the thirteen original states),” writes Dickie in The Craft. When the Great Seal was adopted in 1782, “The mason’s had not yet gotten around to incorporating the pyramid and all-seeing eye into their vast lexicon of symbols. It predates their usage,” Dickie says.

The Great Seal was not even added to the dollar bill until 1935, during a redesign spearheaded by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his Secretary of Agriculture, Henry A. Wallace. While both men were 32nd Degree Freemasons, they did not include the seal with freemasonry in mind—on the contrary, Dickie says, Roosevelt worried using the seal would offend Catholic voters. Instead, the President hoped the Latin inscription, NOVUS ORDO SECLORUM, or “New order of the ages,” would remind voters of his New Deal.

Masonic Symbols in Layout of Washington, D.C.?

Aerial view of the U.S. Capitol and Washington Monument in Washington, D.C.,
Stefani Reynolds / AFP) (Photo by STEFANI REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images
Aerial view of the U.S. Capitol and Washington Monument, Washington, D.C.

There is a lot of Masonic history in Washington, D.C., but its layout does not contain a hidden message. Symbols of Freemasonry are, however, displayed in plain sight. Many of the Founding Fathers were Freemasons, including George Washington. When the Capitol Building was first built, then-President Washington donned his Masonic apron to perform the Masonic cornerstone laying ceremony, consecrating the stone with wine, corn and oil before striking it with a ceremonial gavel.

“Washington thought that the United States, as a young, vulnerable republic, needed the kind of sense of the sacred and of public ceremony that other states got from religion and monarchy which the United States, with its religious openness and status as a republic, didn’t have access to,” says Dickie. “He thought Freemasons were great candidates for that public ceremonial role.”

Did you know? Thirteen of the 39 men who signed the Constitution were Freemasons.

The George Washington Masonic National Memorial in Alexandria, Virginia has a gigantic statue of Washington in his apron, unveiled by Harry Truman, another Mason. The House of the Temple, headquarters of the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, Southern Jurisdiction, has invited the public for tours since it opened in 1915 in Washington, D.C. “None of this is sneaky or secret,” says Dickie. “This is Freemasons proclaiming their pride in being freemasons to the world.”

Masonic Symbols in the Vatican?

View of St Peter's Square from atop the cupola of St Peter's Basilica.
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View of St Peter's Square from atop the cupola of St Peter's Basilica.

Some have suggested that the obelisk in St. Peter's Square carries Masonic symbolism. But Arthur Goldwag, author of Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies, denies any link. “There is no truth to it,” he says. The 4,000-year-old Egyptian obelisk at the center of St. Peter’s Square was built long before Freemasonry was founded and brought to Rome by Emperor Caligula.

The surrounding pillars in the square are more Roman in influence than Masonic. Masonic pillars evoke the Temple of Solomon in the Old Testament, thus borrowing from a Judeo-Christian symbol, not the other way around. “Believing Masons and the Vatican are the joint enemy is core conspiracy theory,” says Goldwag.

Freemasonry is not a religion, but all Freemasons must believe in a God—though which God is not specified. Initiates can be sworn in on religious texts ranging from the Bible to the Quran, and rites and symbols are drawn from multiple religions. This has raised the ire of several faiths—and the Catholic Church in particular.

In 1738, the Catholic Church issued a Papal Ban on Freemasons, and as late as 1983, the Pope declared “The faithful who enroll in Masonic associations are in a state of grave sin and may not receive Holy Communion.”

That said, you need only to look up at Janiculum Hill from the Vatican to find a Masonic message to the Catholic Church: A giant statue of Giuseppe Garibaldi on horseback. Garibaldi, a Grand Mason known as the “Father of Italian Independence,” was a figurehead for Italian Freemasons. “[He] famously hated priests and wrote novels in which priests were evil,” Dickie says.

When Italy unified in 1860, the new nation claimed much of the Church’s land. In retribution, the pope banned Catholics from participating in Italian elections. In the growing conflict between Church and state, Freemasonry enjoyed a surge in membership as a champion of lay values. And Freemasons wanted to send a clear message to the powers that be at the Vatican. The horse and rider originally looked down at the seat of the Catholic Church, but in 1929 the statue was turned around so the horse’s rear end faces the home of the Holy See.

“Masonry comes out of the Enlightenment. Freemasons were rebelling against the Protestant and Catholic orthodoxies of the time and taking a romantic view of forbidden knowledge from the past,” says Goldwag.

Masonic symbols like the Square and Compasses, letter “G,” and beehive can now be found—openly displayed—on gravestones, cornerstones, and monuments around the world. The pervasive symbols are testament to how far those Enlightenment ideas spread.

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