The first thing most of us do when encountering a new word, is reach for the nearest dictionary. Although other variations, such as Cable-length and Cable-laid were found, the word Cabletow, could not been found outside of Masonic publications, despite trying different spellings and different (older) dictionaries.
Breaking cabletow down, we find the word cable and tow. Webster’s lists three words in this context, namely tow-line, hawser, and cable. It defines a tow-line as “A small hawser, used to tow a ship”, a hawser as “A small cable; or a large rope, in size between a cable and a tow line”, and a cable as “A large strong rope or chain, used to retain a vessel at anchor; composed of three strands; each strand of three ropes; and each rope of three twists. A ships cable is usually 120 fathom, or 720 feet, in length. “Furthermore, the encyclopedia of knots describes a cable as three hawsers, twisted so that they spiral to the left.
In any case, it is clear that the one of the main purposes of a tow-line, hawser and cable is to pull and secure heavy objects, and is an essential piece in construction. Ancient builders used cables extensively, and although it is unclear exactly when the term cabletow came to be used in Masonry, it is no stretch of the imagination to suggest it came from terms and equipment operative masons were using which speculative masons then adopted.
Symbolism of ropes around a neck:
Other religions and societies have used a device similar to a cabletow in their religious ceremonies, commonly referred to as a halter, or a rope put around a candidate during religious ceremonies, presumably as a symbol to indicate the mercy of the candidate to whatever was awaiting him after an initiation.
However, the main symbolism of having a rope around one’s neck, is submission. Many cultures put halters, or collars, around prisoners and slaves, an example of which can be seen in the illustration below.
Usages in Masonry:
It seems that the first time the word Cabletow came in use was 1730, when it was described as a cable rope, and also as a tow-line. Part of the FC obligation is that “wi an al du si an re su se me fr a Lo of Fe Crs or gi me by a Br of ths de, if wi the le on my ca-to”. This usage probably stemmed from the fact that Medieval Masons were required to attend their annual or triennial “assemblies” except in case of sickness or “in peril of death”. Others have said that certain assemblies specified what that distance was, ranging from 3 to 50 miles.
What is interesting is the term is used as “my cabletow”, implying that it is an individual thing, and hence unique. If so, many have said that the length of ones cabletow, and hence the ability to attend Lodge, depends on the individuals circumstances, like work obligations, family, distance and the like.
It is also interesting to note that in some Masonic ceremonies, the number of times the cabletow is bound around a candidate increases as the candidate progresses higher in the degrees, symbolizing the increasing importance of the lessons therein taught. The opposite also exists, where the number of times a candidate is bound decreases, signifying the increased "trust" the candidate receives as he progresses.