Tassel, tessel, tarsel, tessellated?

In California Masonic ritual we learn that the “Indented Tessel” is a representation of the tessellated border which skirted the pavement of King Solomon’s Temple, and is emblematic of the blessings of the Great Architect that surrounds us. Many of us take this lesson to heart, and presume that this border has in fact always been and always will be a part of Masonic ritual.

Masonic ritual is the world’s oldest and largest game of telephone. Through centuries of oral tradition that spans the entire globe, many of our words and symbols have transmogrified through the ages. Even our own revered “Perfect Ashlar” got its start as a completely different word and symbol, the perpend ashlar, which was an oblong stone that laid perpendicularly across other bricks to strengthen a wall. The indented tessel is no different.

In early English Masonic exposes we see at least five different words alluding to the same concept: tassel, tessel, tarsel, tessellated and even indented trestle. We know from engravings and woodcuts of initiation ceremonies of the 16th and 17th centuries, that the symbols of our order were marked out in chalk, and that these symbols were at times surrounded by a cord, sometimes wavy, sometimes knotted, sometimes with tufts or tassels attached to it. It is very likely that each of these words is a corruption of the prior or a mix of both.

Dr. Albert Mackey, in his encyclopedia says this of the issue: “the gradual steps of corruption and change from the original name indented tassel, which the early French Masons had literally translated by houpe dentelée to indented tarsel, and sometimes to indented trassel, and then to tassellated border, and finally to tessellated border, the name which it now bears. The form and the meaning of the symbol are now apparent, The tessellated border as it is called is a cord decorated with tassels which surrounds the tracing board of an Entered Apprentice, the said tracingboard being a representation of the Lodge, and it symbolizes the bond of love - the mystic tie -- which binds the Craft wheresoever dispersed, into one band of brotherhood”

While we may never know if the black and white triangulated border of our current ritual was formed with intent, or with the erosion of time and language, it is important to focus on the thing that is symbolized, rather than the symbol itself. Be it a cord that binds us into a sacred union, or the stones surrounding King Solomon’s temple, it is the spirit of the symbolism that matters, and both are a blessing.