In this evolving research piece, I explore the many possible origins of the Three Links. They all have their merits and perhaps one of them is the truth. I also try to delve into the more esoteric symbolism behind the image and the lessons it has to teach us as we contemplate it. Much of this piece is up for interpretation and I welcome any dialogue on this subject.
Origins of the Three Links
Why did the Odd Fellows settle on three links?
Did they have the symbol first and then assign the “friendship, love, and truth” to it because it was a neat fit? Or vise versa? As a symbol it isn’t found in the 1798 Ritual of the Patriotic Order of Odd Fellows. Nor is it visible in the early facsimiles of charters. The Heart in Hand is the central symbol surrounded by other symbols of the Order (some no longer used by the IOOF but still used by the Manchester Unity).
Some accounts state that an 18th century group in England called the “Ancient Order of Bucks” may have been what evolved into the Odd Fellows as the 1700’s carried on. The first writing mentioning the “Odd Fellows” dates to 1745 and any mention of the Bucks fades out by the end of the 1700’s. The leader of the Bucks was the “Most Noble Grand” and they had many similar symbols like the bundle of sticks. It is believed that their main symbol of three buck heads with their antlers interlinked became simplified down to three interlinked ovals, and the three link chain was born. It bears to be mentioned however that this is a loose theory that is not held by all. As seen on page 255 in “Symbolism of Odd-fellowship“, the writer feels that the use of the three links comes more from the “Triquetra” symbol of the Holy Trinity or the Borromean Rings where if one of the rings is broken they all come undone. The final theory I have come across is the two intertwined serpents of the Alchemical Caduceus symbol, with each loop representing Mercury, Sulpur, and Salt AKA Spirit, Soul, and Physical Body.
More from the 1904 book “Symbolism of Odd Fellowship” by William Henry Ford there are a couple other entries that also provide compelling origins to the Three Links.
The first entry on page 74-75 mentions the Gimmel Ring, a popular wedding band from the 16th and 17th centuries in England consisting of three separate bands either on a single pivot or all linked together like a puzzle ring. What makes this possible origin even more interesting is as the ring is assembled the two small hands come together over top of a heart, so there is a bit of overlap into the Heart in Hand symbol.
The second entry on page 142 discusses research into the symbols of Heraldry/Family Crest’s that the Trade Guilds pulled imagery from. The symbol of the “Annulet” or tiny ring used to make up chain-mail was commonly used, either singularly or in multiples, and as mentioned in the screenshot above, “three annulets interlaced” appears seven times in Fairbank’s “Book of Crests”.
From my best research at this time, it seems that the Three Links first start appearing on regalia and artwork by the all Odd Fellows Orders in the late 1830’s to early 1840’s. I hope to one day find a ritual book or documentation from that period that will show a more precise moment that the links make their first appearance. There is no way to know for sure what the true origin of the Three Links symbol is until a definitive document surfaces, so it is only up for conjecture. Anyone with information on the topic is welcome to share it with me. A reader commented that the Three Links were used far earlier as a “recognition symbol” between members.
The deep and varied symbolism of the number 3.
The number 3 itself is has a lot of symbolic meaning. Many of the symbolic meanings of the number can be read at http://mysticalnumbers.com/number-3/ beyond what I am sharing here:
“Number 3 is the number of good fortune.Number 3
The Pythagoreans taught that the number three was the first true number.
Three is the first number that forms a geometrical figure – the triangle.
Three was considered the number of harmony, wisdom and understanding.
Past Now FutureThree is the number of time:
Past Present Future
Birth Life Death
Beginning Middle End
Three is the number of the divine.
Escape Criticism Quote
Three is a sacred number in many religions.
In ritual many actions are preformed three times.
Three is the Number of Magic
We are all familiar with the expression “third time lucky”.
In fairy tales three is often the magical number.
Heroes and heroines are often offered three choices or three tests. They overcome difficulties on the third try.
In Zoroastrianism there are three ethical principles: To think good, to speak good, to act good.”
The religious website chabad.org wrote eloquently on the number three:
“One symbolizes unity, agreement, simplicity. When something exists alone, nothing disturbs it. It remains completely at peace, without regard for anything else.
Two symbolizes duality, tension and complexity.
The number three symbolizes a harmony that includes and synthesizes two opposites. The unity symbolized by the number three isn’t accomplished by getting rid of number two, the entity that caused the discord, and reverting to the unity symbolized by number one. Rather, three merges the two to create a new entity, one that harmoniously includes both opposites. On its own, Entity A leaves no room for Entity B, and Entity B does not allow for the existence of Entity A. Entity C demonstrates how A and B really are compatible, and even complementary. Bringing together two opposites (A and B) requires the introduction of an entity or common goal (C) that is greater than both of them.”
Another religious website betemunah.org has a great piece on the number three.
“The number three is used in the Torah to mediate between two opposing or contradictory values. The third value mediates, reconciles, and connects the two. Three is the number of truth.
Time is divided into three portions: The past, the present, and the future. The position in time that is most expressive of the non-physical is the present, because it is so fleeting and instantaneous. The function of that time, the present, is its service as connector. The number three expresses connection.
According to Jewish law, once something is done three times it is considered a permanent thing. This is called a “chazakah“. Once we have done something three times, we have connected to it and connected it to this world.
“The number three represents permanence. That’s why we do things in threes, since it adds strength to our acts.”
The Chains that Bind
Symbolically, the chain has a complicated meaning… it is a symbol of slavery, being bound to something against your own will, burdened, unable to attain freedom. But it can also mean strength in unity, being bound by duty, and creating a strong connection between objects. At face value, a chain is a functional tool. It can be used for good and for harm. It is up to us to use it to bind us together as a force for good with the common goal of making ourselves and the world better. Much like the duality of friendship, love, and truth when not used together in harmony, we must be wary to not use the binding links as a tool of force to hold back progress. A chain is very strong when held taught and will not break, however, it is also very flexible when some slack is given. We must be both when necessary.
I am sure I will find more on this topic to write about so in the future I may amend this post or create another one depending on what I have to add.
In F,L,& T
Originally posted April 28, 2017.
Updated July 12, 2017.
Updated July 19, 2017.
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8 thoughts on “Origins and Meanings of the Three Links”
The suggestion that the three links date only from the 1830s or 1840s cannot, I think, be correct as this symbol is used by the Grand United Order of Oddfellows which dates back at least to 1792 or earlier as a partial amalgamation of the Ancient and Patriotic Orders, and also by the former Nottingham Ancient Imperial Order of Odd Fellows which seceded from the Grand United Order in 1812 and also the IOOF Manchester Unity which formally seceded from the Grand United Order in 1813. That the three links is described as the “recognition badge” by which a brother may discover a fellow-member, may explain why it does not appear on the early coats of arms of the various branches of the Order.
I am totally open to editing and amending this open article and your information is very interesting.
Do you have any physical documentation available either in the form of writing, an image, or regalia that would back up the idea of using the Three Links as a more secret symbol of recognition between brothers?
I look forward to learning more and if you would like to submit a post it would be welcomed as well!
My grandfather J Albert sharp from West Virginia may have been an Odd Fellow I have a coffee mug where I can send you a photo of word has 3 chain links together FLT
Very cool. You can send a pic to email@example.com
Hi I was exploring my local towns cemeteries tonight, I kept noticing the 3 link chain. I took a picture and came home and googled, I came across the odd fellows and I fell in love. But above the 3 rings on the head stone is a star. What does it represent I can’t find anything
It may indicate that they were a Past Grand. Someone who served a term as Noble Grand (lodge president).
I’m wondering about the colors of today’s three links- red white and blue. Do you know when these colors came into play. It looks to me like earlier versions are gold and then pink blue and red.
I think it was mixed use of Gold with pink for the first degree. And the White Blue Red for a while until maybe the 1920s or so when it was officially changed to reflect the original colors of the Degrees from Wildey’s time. Even today you will see gold links with the white blue and red.