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Rule and Line = Merkhet?

Originally presented on December 13, 2021, in Fellowship Lodge by Wor. Shawn Berry

Merkhet and Bay donated by Wor. Berry to Fellowship Lodge. The merkhet, it is made of 5,000-year-old fir, recovered from an ancient Lahar (volcanic mudflow) on Mt. Rainier in the state of Washington. The color is natural, the result of mineral infiltration of the wood over the centuries.

Tools and implements of architecture, symbols most expressive, have been selected by the fraternity, to impress upon the mind wise and serious truths...

Today, we will consider one symbol, the Rule and Line. During the installation of the Master, he is presented with the Rule and Line and instructed:

I also present to you the Rule and Line. The Rule directs that we should punctually observe our duty, press forward in the path of virtue, and, inclining neither to the right nor the left, in all our actions have eternity in view.
The line teaches us the criterion of moral rectitude, to avoid dissimulation in conversation and action, and to direct our steps to the path which leads to Immortality.

And then we never see or hear of it again. The ritual is actually optional, so why mention it?

Both the rule and line only make sense in connection with the plumb. The plumb rule is the stick which holds the plumb line. The plumb line is the cord stretched by the plumb. Together, they are used to test verticals.

But all of this is covered in the Junior Warden’s installation lecture on the plumb. Why present it twice, especially when the Master’s symbol is the square?

And, what does time (punctuality, eternity) and movement (paths – virtue and immortality) have to do with a device which is used on stationary objects? The symbolism is difficult to see.

One possibly explanation, that I would ask you to consider, is that the Rule and Line is not modeled after the Junior Warden’s plumb, but the ancient Egyptian Merkhet.

The word Merkhet (or perhaps Merjet) means “instrument of knowing.” It was used from the Old Kingdom through the Roman period, as a surveying instrument and sundial, sort of an early multi-tool. It was generally had a ‘L’ shaped handle with a line and plumb attached to one end.

As a surveying instrument, it was used, together with a slotted stick (Bay), to determine true North, as demonstrated below:

The determination of true North was important to align buildings accurately with the cardinal directions. It was also used to tell time at night, but tracking the paths of certain stars. Tied to both of these were symbolic meanings:

The North was the direction of the Imperishable Stars, those circumpolar stars which dipped below the horizon, into the land of the dead, and yet emerged alive after some hours. These stars were seen as the visible manifestations of those souls that had achieved immortality.

“I will cross to that side on which are the Imperishable Stars, that I may be among them.”

The Merkhet was also a portable sundial. apparently important enough. that someone actually carved a user’s manual into stone.

Taken all together, the uses of the Merkhet are a rather good match for the symbolism of the Master’s Rule and Line:

As a time keeper, we may punctually observe our duty.

As a surveying tool, with the Bay, we may observe the criterion of moral rectitude and incline neither to the right nor the left.

Also, with the Bay, we may keep Eternity in view and press forward in the Path of Virtue, which leads to Immortality.

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