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Nine Moons » Blog Archive : Joseph and the Amazing Misunderstood Pentagram » Joseph and the Amazing Misunderstood Pentagram

Joseph and the Amazing Misunderstood Pentagram

Seth - August 6, 2009

Back when the Nauvoo temple was rebuilt, many of Mormonism’s critics were delighted to note that it kept a lot of the original “occult” symbolism on the temple exterior. The sunstone is well known, but also featuring on the exterior stonework are a series of pentagrams. You can see similar symbology on the Salt Lake Temple exterior. A few dedicated LDS critics are quick to point out (in addition to general swipes at Freemason symbols) that the pentagram is the symbol of the devil.

After which, I’m sure they run off to Evangelical book clubs where they discuss their plans to petition the removal of Harry Potter from the local school library.

But since these criticisms prove irksome to some faithful Mormons, let’s dive into the pentagram and explore whether it really deserves the bad rap it’s gotten on The X Files and other popular portrayals.

The earliest Geometric symbolism of the pentagram can be traced back to Plato, and his translation of Pythagoras – one of the fathers of mathematics and music. He discovered in the pentagram, a remarkable mathematical symmetry that eventually provided a mathematical and proportional foundation for much of Greek art and architecture. The Greeks also believed that the pentagram contained the mathematical proportions of life itself in a “golden rectangle.” This rectangle could be constructed from the mathematical proportions of the pentagram. It is found throughout ancient Greek art and architecture and is still used by artists today.

If you want a easy to understand summary for the kids (and even watchable for the adults), the old Disney cartoon “Donald Duck in Mathemagic Land” is a good one. Start at about 1:20 on the linked YouTube video for the stuff on the pentagram and its mathematical significance.

So that’s nice and all… but Joseph Smith was hardly a math wiz (as far as we know). What’s the pentagram doing on the Nauvoo temple?

It’s widely believed that it comes from his links to Freemasonry during the Nauvoo period. The pentagram is a well-used symbol in Freemason ritual (though it’s status as an official Freemason symbol is in some doubt). It is often assumed that Joseph got the symbol from them, and incorporated it into the temple decor.

Now, whether Joseph pirated our entire system of temple worship from the Freemasons or not is not a question I’m interested in exploring here. Critics will call plagarism, and accuse us of raving mysticism. LDS apologists respond that Joseph wasn’t as well-versed in Freemason ritual as some portray, and the similarities are only superficial at best anyway.

Whatever. I would point out however that I find it rather amusing how certain Evangelical critics (they often seem to be Evangelical in bent) seem to assume that simply linking Mormons with Freemasonry is somehow enough to discredit the whole movement. It’s an argument born from a culture that has rejected ceremony and ritual significance. For much of Evangelicalism, the Bible is all there is to know about it, and all this “ritual stuff” merely clouds the plain light of Jesus’ holy words. Often for certain conservative Evangelicals, all you need is a hint of mysticism to send them running out of the room with their hands over their kids’ eyes. So lumping us together with Freemasons… well, that’s enough.

Or so they think. But regardless of the Mormon-Freemason link, what is the real meaning in Freemason use of the pentagram?

A natural reaction when faced with a new criticism one is unfamiliar with, is withdrawal and denial. Thus I have seen many Mormons shy away from any asserted Freemason connection when they are presented with it. They’ll flatly deny any such connection for the simple reason that they were unaware of the possibility, and still haven’t processed it, and are unlikely to be able to do so with a raving Baptist minister in their face.

This is unfortunate, because our Freemason neighbors have been taking it in the chin from Christian fundies for ages now, and I think we could really benefit from some of their explanations of certain key symbology. The pentagram is no exception.

Freemasonry preserves a lot of ancient ritual significance in it’s practices. It also preserves a lot of deep Christian significance – something Evangelical fundamentalists often overlook. The pentagram has already been linked with ancient Greece. Plato, in his explanation of Pythagoras, posited the pentagram as a symbol of the five limbs of the human body itself: head, arms, and legs. You can see a later adaptation of this concept in Leonardo da Vinci’s famous “Vertruvian Man.” I believe it also has this same significance in the Jewish Kabbalah as representing the human body, and by extension, God himself – in whose image man was made. The pentagram was also used as the official seal of the city of Jerusalem under Solomon.

The pentagram also found common use in early Christian symbology. Early Christians used the pentagram as a symbol of the five wounds of Jesus Christ. It was also later used to symbolize the theological notion of the Holy Trinity – the three beings of the Godhead, plus the two different natures of the Son (human and divine). Emperor Constantine even incorporated the pentagram with point facing down, as his own personal seal and amulet after his defeat of Maxentius (to which he gave credit to the Christian God and then converted to Christianity). Some Greek Christians even used the pentagram instead of the cross at the beginning of inscriptions as a symbol of Christ. The pentagram with point down was often identified with the “bright morning star” identified with Christ in Revelations 22:16. The point facing down apparently represented Christ’s descent from heaven.

Even today, the pentagram still features on historical Christian structures, such as the cathedral in Chartres, France; the rose window of the cathedral in Amiens, France; the gateposts of the churchyard in S. Peter’s in Walworth, England; and the monastery of Ravna in Bulgaria.

The pentagram also shows up in a 14th century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In the poem, the five points of the star each have five meanings: they represent the five senses, the five fingers, the five wounds of Christ, the five joys that Mary had of Jesus (the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Resurrection, the Ascension, and the Assumption), and the five virtues of knighthood which Gawain hopes to embody: noble generosity, fellowship, purity, courtesy, and compassion.

So where did this claim of the inverted pentagram being a symbol of the devil come from?

While the pentagram has been used by many – from Babylonians, to Greeks, to Jews, to Christians – it is never, even once, portrayed as a symbol of evil, until the mid 19th Century. In the mid 19th century (several years after Joseph Smith’s death, as it so happens) a French magician and occult writer by the name of Eliphas Levi made the unprecedented (and completely unsupported) claim that when the pentagram is inverted with point down, it becomes the symbol of Baphomet – the goat-headed god. This is the first time the inverted pentagram is ever recorded being associated with evil, and it appears to be entirely of this French magician’s own invention.

Even at this point, the inverted pentagram was still not a symbol for Satan per se. That only happened in the late 20th century when the newly formed American Church of Satan decided to adopt the symbol in their worship. Since then, movies and other works of pop fiction have run with the idea, and the inverted pentagram has become synonymous with devil worship. Thus giving certain Evangelical counter-cultists a convenient club to discredit Mormonism in front of people for whom prejudice and hostility come easily.

But by golly, we got there first! There is no reason any Mormon has to apologize for use of the inverted pentagram, any more than a Catholic need apologize for the cross simply because some Satanic imagery uses an upside-down cross. Just because a beautiful symbol has been hijacked is no reason to abandon it. Rather, the goal should be to reclaim it.

What should the pentagram on the Nauvoo and Salt Lake Temples mean to a believing Mormon?

There’s an interesting Sunstone lecture from 2004 treating this subject. You can listen to the MP3 here if you have some spare time:

https://www.sunstonemagazine.com/audio/SL04315.mp3

I can’t really validate the speakers’ sources in this lecture. But I like where they are going with the symbolism. To give a brief summary:

Note the positioning of the pentagrams on our temples. You will find both inverted and upright pentagrams. If you observe carefully, you will see that when the pentagram is found on a rectangular or square portion of the temple, it faces point-down. But whenever it is found on a triangular portion of the temple, it faces point-up. Why?

For the answer, we go back to Plato. Plato, along with other ancient Greeks, identified earth and fire as the foundational elements from which the universe was made. He also identified geometric forms with these elements. The square was meant to represent earth. The triangle represented fire, or the upper realm. Together, the two represented the cosmos. Placed together, with a triangle on top of a square, you will notice that it resembles a child’s drawing of a house. The same basic design figures in the structure of ancient Greek temples, such as the Parthenon.

Thus, the Greek temples were meant to embody both the foundational elements, and were therefore, a miniature of the cosmos. Mormons who have been through the LDS Endowment ceremony can draw their own conclusions here.

So, to bring this back to the pentagram. When placed upon a square field, the pentagram faces point-down representing both the Fall of Adam, and Christ’s own condescension in becoming mortal. When placed upon a triangular field however, the pentagram faces point-up representing the resurrection and the redemption of human kind.

The pentagram, as placed on early Mormon temples, therefore becomes a profound and comprehensive symbol for none other than Jesus Christ himself, and the Atonement that he performed on our behalf.

A final word – symbols are what we make of them. The pentagram has meant a lot of things to different people. To Pythagoras, a symbol of the mathematical symmetry of creation. To Wiccans, a symbol of the four elements combined with spirit. To ancient Jews, a symbol of the human likeness of God. To early Christians, the Holy Trinity and even Christ himself.

Almost all associations with the pentagram throughout human history have been positive and uplifiting. It is only recently that opportunistic trespassers have stolen this symbol and perverted it.

But no Mormon needs to be ashamed of reclaiming this symbol for our own purposes – as a symbol of Jesus Christ himself, and his divine mission to redeem humankind and return us into the presence of the Father – in who’s divine image each of us was made.

And if the Evangelicals want to side with an obscure French magician in perverting one of the most exalted images in human history… I suppose that’s their loss.

28 Comments »

  1. Wow, Seth. Very impressive. High five to you.

    This also makes me feel good because Rush uses the pentagram also….couldn’t resist.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — August 6, 2009 @ 8:03 pm

  2. Fascinating, Seth — something I’m saving in my files because it is so informative. Thanks!

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — August 6, 2009 @ 8:15 pm

  3. Thanks guys.

    Be sure to double-check my historical sources before you go. A couple Freemason apologetic articles were particularly helpful:

    http://freemasonry.bcy.ca/anti-masonry/pentagram.html

    (lots of good footnotes in the above)

    and:

    http://www.freemasons-freemasonry.com/pentagram_freemasonry.html

    Lots of good resources there.

    Comment by Seth R. — August 6, 2009 @ 8:32 pm

  4. I always thought that the criticisms of Mormonism’s use of the pentagram were dumb. Pointing out that the endowment ceremony was pinched from Freemasonry may have some relevant arguments, but simply yelling “AMG PENTAGRAMS!!!!1!1oneoen” doesn’t. Of course, I think lots of LDS criticisms of traditional Christian symbolism are dumb, but we’ve already had the crosses thread.

    Just because a beautiful symbol has been hijacked is no reason to abandon it. Rather, the goal should be to reclaim it.

    So remind me again, why is it that Mormons don’t use crosses or fish? “Because they’re in use by traditional Christianity and we wanted to set ourselves apart” doesn’t really work very well given this statement.

    I also think this post trades rather unkindly in stereotypes of evangelicals. But I give the title a 10/10.

    Comment by Bridget Jack Meyers — August 7, 2009 @ 1:08 am

  5. Sounds like my Slayer t-shirt has just been rehabilitated.

    Comment by Peter LLC — August 7, 2009 @ 3:46 am

  6. Seth,
    Awesome post.
    I’m glad you included a video. It was just at my level.

    Hey, did anyone else think they may see some fundie head explode if they were to watch the cartoon? Disney’s not only trying to make freemasonry acceptable by showing the pentragram isn’t evil, they also showed depictions of unclothed statues! Fundie head explosions are messy, but I’d still like to see one.

    Jack,
    From my interactions with many Evangelicals, the stereotype is well earned. You can call the Nauvoo Christian visitors center (or visit their website) where you can be “informed” from a “former” Mormon how LDS use their temples to worship the devil, and they “prove” it because the pentagram is “satanic.” Nevermind the Christians who used it previously, they were devil worshippers too. Nevermind the churches Seth mentioned in Europe (you forgot one, one of the churches in Hannover, also has a huge pentagram on it’s steeple, visible from half the city). Sorry Jack, but this is one where you’re in the severe minority, and although I love that you’re in the open minded-part, the sad fact is that this book has a really good thesis.

    Comment by psychochemiker — August 7, 2009 @ 7:06 am

  7. Ah, psychochemiker, let’s not swipe at Jack. I’m sure Mark Noll doesn’t think very highly of Mormonism either.

    Thanks for the great stuff Seth.

    Comment by CJ Douglass — August 7, 2009 @ 8:03 am

  8. Just because a beautiful symbol has been hijacked is no reason to abandon it. Rather, the goal should be to reclaim it.

    I don’t necessarily disagree, but I still wouldn’t try that with a swastika.

    Comment by Last Lemming — August 7, 2009 @ 8:47 am

  9. Good catch on Hannover, Germany psycho.

    I read about that one. The reason I didn’t include it was because I wasn’t sure if the building survived World War II or not. Lot’s of beautiful German historical buildings were lost in that conflict. So I left it off.

    Point taken Jack.

    I acknowledge that Evangelicals are a diverse bunch and not all fit the stereotypes contained in the post above. Some of them even voted for Obama, for instance.

    As for claiming the cross, I imagine we might at some point come to terms with it. But as far as reclaiming symbols, I didn’t intend that to mean reclaiming the symbol as something to put on our church steeples or anything (although honestly, I think an upright pentagram would be a better representative symbol than the angel Moroni).

    The main reason is that this isn’t just a Mormon symbol. Muslims attach meaning to the pentagram. As do Wiccans. As do Jews. And I’ve already detailed the Christian history. It’s not our symbol alone to appropriate.

    In a sense, I think the pentagram also represents the common thread of worship in MANY different religious traditions. If you were ever to try and find a religious symbol for the entire globe, the pentagram wouldn’t be a bad candidate.

    But I think we can at least reclaim our own history and existing symbology. I’d like to see Mormons stop apologizing for their history and religious practice.

    Which is probably were some of the belligerence toward strains of our Evangelical critics came from.

    Comment by Seth R. — August 7, 2009 @ 8:55 am

  10. I don’t necessarily disagree, but I still wouldn’t try that with a swastika.

    I don’t know… I saw them on Buddhist shrines in Japan a lot, and they didn’t seem to care much what people thought about it.

    Comment by Seth R. — August 7, 2009 @ 8:56 am

  11. PC ~ I wasn’t talking about evangelical aversion to pentagrams; that’s quite common. I was talking about things like this:

    After which, I’m sure they run off to Evangelical book clubs where they discuss their plans to petition the removal of Harry Potter from the local school library.

    And this:

    Often for certain conservative Evangelicals, all you need is a hint of mysticism to send them running out of the room with their hands over their kids’ eyes.

    I understand that a few idiots who would actually do these things do exist, but come on. I’ve been evangelical for 17 years now and I’ve never personally known someone who wanted to censor public library books. Jesus Camp isn’t what evangelical Christianity looks like any more than The God Makers is what Mormonism looks like.

    Seth ~ I’d like to see Mormons stop apologizing for their history and religious practice.

    I would, too. Viva polyandry, baby!

    Comment by Bridget Jack Meyers — August 7, 2009 @ 9:28 am

  12. A well written, well researched bit there. Thanks for your clear and concise thinking. Too few bother to make a thorough investigation, as you have so ably done. Such information gives us a more solid foundation for our faith. It’s invaluable knowledge, which is the end goal of faith after all, according to Joseph Smith.

    What you write about the pentagram applies equally to all temple symbolism. Anyone like yourself who has the desire to understand the place, the meanings and the origins of such symbolism in the restored gospel might wish to visit http://www.mormonprophecy.com or http://www.mormonprophecy.blogspot.com to learn about all gospel symbolism and why it shares some of the same imagery with mythology and other religions. It bears upon the iconic language or metaphors employed by the prophets and the meaning and purpose of temple symbols and ritual, both ancient and modern. Therein lies the connection to Masonry and the cosmology of the primitive church. Knowing these things amplifies our understanding of the gospel and the teachings of our Savior and our founding prophet, Joseph Smith. I recommend you look them over.

    Comment by Anthony E. Larson — August 7, 2009 @ 9:35 am

  13. About the swastika,

    My cousin was one of the first LDS missionaries in Mongolia. Before he came home, a dear friend gave him a ring with a swastika on it. Long before Hitler hijacked it, it was a symbol of Genghis Khan – thus a national symbol of pride for Mongolians.

    My cousin forgot to take it off (realizing misunderstanding it would cause in the U.S.). The customs agent saw it and proceeded to give my cousin a lecture on “we don’t tolerate that here in the U.S.”

    Comment by CJ Douglass — August 7, 2009 @ 9:38 am

  14. FAIR’s got pictures on this topic, here.

    Good post Seth.

    Comment by Ben — August 7, 2009 @ 9:47 am

  15. The Medal of Honor has an inverted star on it. Does it have to have a circle around it to be considered “satanic”?

    Comment by AYdubYA — August 7, 2009 @ 11:27 am

  16. Amazing.

    Now I can’t wait to be challenged on the pentagram. :)

    Comment by Silus Grok — August 7, 2009 @ 12:26 pm

  17. Excellent, excellent post, Seth. There are several aspects of early Mormon thought that are worth being “reclaimed.” I really appreciated this well-researched and entertaining treatment of one of them.

    Comment by Bored in Vernal — August 8, 2009 @ 8:35 am

  18. Just for grins, here’s a different take.

    http://www.cryfromthedust.net/pentagram_modern_lds_church.htm

    Here’s an excerpt.

    “Brigham Young stated that he modeled as closely as he could, the designs that Joseph Smith set forth in the building of the temples,and every thing else in the Mormon Religion. This would include the religious symbols and marks that adorn The Temples. Nowhere on the early temples that Brigham Young had a hand in designing, was there ever a pentagram! If the pentagram was used on the Nauvoo Temple, then why was the pentagram never used, on the Saint George Temple, Manti Temple, Logan Temple, Salt Lake Temple, or the earlier Kirtland Temple?”

    “The first known inverted pentagram on a Mormon building was introduced in the 1980s less than 20 years ago, on the façade Of the History Museum that is across West Temple from Temple Square.”

    Enjoy!

    Comment by Mormon Mandy — August 8, 2009 @ 3:54 pm

  19. [...] kidding. After reading Seth’s awesome post, I know that the pentagram isn’t really a satanic symbol, I decided to scan this old mission [...]

    Pingback by Picture Proof: Satanic pentagrams on German Evangelisch Church « I Love Gellies — August 8, 2009 @ 7:09 pm

  20. Looks like my picture came just in time.

    I like how the article “Mormon Mandy” included use Eliphas Levi as their source. It’s like the commentor didn’t even read your post Seth!

    Comment by psychochemiker — August 8, 2009 @ 7:27 pm

  21. psychochemiker,

    I’ve found that there is rarely 100 percent truth in anything, but elements of truth everywhere. I just posted that link to give a different point of view. I’ve been to all of the temples listed in that article, and I’ve never seen a pentagram. I’ve seen plenty of 5 pointed temple stars, but those aren’t the same thing as a pentagram. Where are the pentagrams on the Saint George Temple, Manti Temple, Logan Temple, Salt Lake Temple, or the earlier Kirtland Temple? I think this is a legitimate question.

    It’s at least as legitimate as using photos of post apostasy churches for justification of the use of pentagrams in Mormonism.

    I have to say that when I went through the Nauvoo temple I was taken aback at the number of pentagrams inside the temple. It seems that if a symbol is going to be used so prolifically that we should have some explanation from our leaders as to why this is such a significant symbol, and what the true meaning of this symbol is. I’d also like to know that if this symbol is rooted so deeply in Mormonism then why don’t we see it plastered all over other temples?

    Comment by Mormon Mandy — August 8, 2009 @ 9:09 pm

  22. I’ve seen plenty of 5 pointed temple stars, but those aren’t the same thing as a pentagram. Where are the pentagrams on the Saint George Temple, Manti Temple, Logan Temple, Salt Lake Temple, or the earlier Kirtland Temple? I think this is a legitimate question.

    Likewise, I’ve seen plenty of sun motifs on temples, but those aren’t the same thing as a sunstone. Where are the sunstones on the St. George Temple (can’t bring myself to misspell), Manti Temple, Logan Temple, Salt Lake Temple, or the earlier Kirtland Temple? I think this is a legitimate question… I’d also like to know that if this symbol is roted so deeply in Mormonism then why don’t we see it plastered all over other temples?

    Or, I could just be concern trolling…

    Comment by Nate W. — August 9, 2009 @ 12:15 pm

  23. Nate,

    Here’s a link to a picture of the sunstones on the Salt Lake Temple.

    http://www.ldschurchtemples.com/saltlake/

    Just scroll down and put your cursor over “Sunstones”.

    Sorry about not using the abbreviated form of saint. I didn’t know that one was proper and the other not. I’ve seen it both ways.

    What were you saying about trolling?

    Comment by Mormon Mandy — August 9, 2009 @ 12:48 pm

  24. I’m saying that the difference between a five-pointed star and a pentagram is about the same as a carving of a sun and the anthropomorphic sunstone on the Nauvoo temple. There are no anthropomorphic sunstones on any other temple, right? There must be some sort of doctrinal significance there. This question is as legitimate as the question as you asked earlier. In fact, given that anthropomorphic sunstones seem to be uniquely LDS (pentagrams have been incorporated into many different designs–both sacred and secular), they must be even more important. What are the leaders of the Church hiding?

    I suppose what I’m trying to say is that your question is not legitimate because your conclusions do not follow from your premises. A design element does not necessarily have any specific meaning. That the Church decided it wanted to design the Nauvoo Temple to match the original as much as possible, including the original (likely mason-inspired) pentagrams, does not justify your conclusion that the pentagram has some sort of special place in current LDS theology.

    And finally, your protests of wanting to give different points of view, followed by a question being “legitimate,” is a classic tactic of a concern troll.

    Comment by Nate W. — August 9, 2009 @ 4:51 pm

  25. Nate,

    From what I’ve read, 5 pointed temple stars are not pentagrams. They are not interchangeable. I may be wrong. That’s why I’m taking part in this conversation. To learn.

    You call me a troll, but it’s also a classic tactic to give a disparaging label to those you disagree with. Can’t we have a discussion without name calling? Why are there so many bullies in the bloggernacle?

    I’ve never heard anyone in Gospel Doctrine class called a troll, and I’ve heard people make some pretty outlandish comments. Why can’t we be more like we are at church?

    I think I’ll be leaving now.

    Comment by Mormon Mandy — August 9, 2009 @ 5:23 pm

  26. Seth, you have rendering the research and post I was working on completely obsolete! Drat.

    Nice job.

    Comment by Tracy M — August 21, 2009 @ 1:29 am

  27. Some Native Americans used the swastika as well, but the orientation was different from the Nazi version.

    Also, a rather ancient Christian meeting place, about 2nd or 3rd Century AD, was found some months ago. No crosses were found, but the fish motif was. Hmmmm.

    Comment by Mike H. — September 23, 2009 @ 7:36 pm

  28. Seth R, you really should just give up writing altogether.

    Comment by John — August 7, 2011 @ 1:38 am

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