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Secret Handshakes, Grips and Signs of Freemasonry

By Sarah Wilson    2/15/13

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Do you think you'd be able to identify the gestures of a secret society, such as the Masons, if you came in contact with their handshakes, signs or other signals? Today, Freemasonry represents one of the oldest (and most prosperous) of all fraternal organizations in American history. Many groups have modeled their societies after some of the beliefs, activities and identifiers of the Masons, and still use some of the secret gestures.

Freemasonry involves achieving different levels (or degrees) within the society. The foundational level of Freemasonry is called the 'Entered Apprentice Mason,' which jumpstarts the initiation process. It is a time of observance, participation, and the studying of ceremonial processes in an Entered Apprentice Lodge. An entered Apprentice is in the phase of learning with guides and teachers available for assistance. It's a time to absorb the lectures and teachings of the Masons. They are expected to become an active member – immersing themselves in the study of Masonry. It is a must to learn the rules and regulations of Freemasonry at this time.

Entered Apprentices position their hand in a certain way when taking their oath. Their left hand supports the Bible while their right hand in a resting position. The sign of the Entered Apprentice is made by drawing the right hand quickly across the neck, and then dropping the arm to their side. This is a sign that symbolizes the penalty of having the throat cut and the tongue ripped out if they should betray their fellow Masons. The grip or handshake of an Entered Apprentice is recognized by the pressing of the thumb against the top of the first knuckle-joint of another fellow Mason, who then also presses his thumb against his fellow Mason's knuckle.

A Fellow Craft Mason has made it through various ceremonies and has fulfilled their required responsibilities as a Mason. They can now sit in a Lodge of Entered Apprentices or of Fellow Crafts, but they are not admitted into a lodge set aside for Master Masons.

The Fellow Craft Mason has a sign that involves cupping their right hand over the left breast while quickly drawing it across their body. Their hand then drops to the side. The sign suggests that violating their obligation as a Fellow Craft Mason means that they would have their left breast torn open, their heart plucked out, and "given to the wild beasts of the field and the fowls of the air." When Fellow Craft Masons shake hands (known as the pass grip), they press the top of their thumb against the space between the between the first and second knuckle joints of the first two fingers of their fellow Mason.

When a Mason reaches the Sublime Degree of Master Mason, they have relentlessly studied for many years. They are well beyond knowing all of the architecture symbols and emblems associated with the society. As they pass into the Third Degree, they start to become knowledgeable in a deeper language.

When the Master Mason takes their oath, they place both hands on the Bible, square and compasses. The sign of the Master Mason is made by drawing the thumb quickly across the waist to the right hip, and then letting their hand drop to the side. The action is a reference to having their body cut in two and their "bowels removed and burned to ashes which are then to be scattered to the four winds of heaven" if they betray their obligations as a Master Mason. When shaking hands, they will place their thumb on the space located between the second and third knuckles of their fellow Mason's right hand, while the fellow Mason moves his thumb to the corresponding space.

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