The Tau or Tav means “cross,” and is the final letter of the Hebrew alphabet. It is numbered 300 in the Greek and 400 in the Hebrew numerical alphabet. The tau corresponds astrologically with the planet Saturn and the concept of finality. The mark was associated with the absolution of sin and may have been the original “mark of Cain” of the Old Testament. In the Hebrew kabbala, the Tav represents the completion of creation and is an emblem of infinity. In the visions of Ezekiel, it is the sign etched on the foreheads of priests and initiates. The Greek Tau is associated with the letter Theta, an emblem of death originally symbolized by a cross in a circle or a skull.
It is assumed the the biblical symbolism of the Tau stems from the ancient cult of Tammuz, a vegetation god whose annual death and resurrection was commemorated by ritual mourners who marked their foreheads with the cross. Tammuz, like Christ, was associated with fishing and shepherding. The Tau cross takes the shape of the letter of his name, and is one of the oldest letters known. The custom of marking the forehead with a cross of ashes as a sign of mourning dates back to these rituals.
The Tau was adopted as the emblem of the Franciscan order of monks, and during the renaissance it was used in religious paintings to denote monks, pilgrims, and wandering hermits. The Tau was a special symbol of Saint Anthony, considered the progenitor of monasticism, and may have referred to the “T” in the word “Theos,” God. In magic, the Tau represents a supplicating posture. Ritual robes are typically referred to as “Tau robes” due to their shape, going back to the traditional pattern of monastic robes.
Esoterically, the Tau represents a gate or opening, symbolic death. In the Victorian magical Order of the Golden Dawn, the Tau was the “sign of the Enterer,” a posture that symbolized the opening path of the Kabbalistic tree of life, connecting the sphere of Malkuth (earth) with that of Yesod (the moon). It was strongly associated with the World or Universe card in the tarot, and emblematic of the cross of life juxtaposed on the sphere of matter- a symbol of death as initiation.
The tau cross is often used as a variant of the Latin, or Christian cross.
An arrangement of three Taus in a spoked formation is an emblem of the Royal Arch degree of Freemasonry, symbolizing the Temple of Jerusalem. The Triple Tau is said to actually comprise only two letters, for the Greek phrase “Templum Hieroslymoe,” with the H as a pictographic stand-in for the Arch of the Temple entrance; the Tau likely reflecting the death-and resurrection symbolism of the Masonic initiation.
The Greek “Hiero,” or “holy,” is also the root of the word “Hierophant,” an initiator. To add a further layer of symbolism, the Hebrew equivalent of the Greek eta (H) is cheth, a gate. Cheth/eta enumerates to 8 or 800, with the Tav 400, making it truly a double Tau.
A tau cross displayed alongside a rope with knots symbolizes the vows of the order. A tau displayed with crossed arms is called the “Franciscan Shield.”