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:
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.