The Rite Of Discalceation
the symbolism of freemasonry
albert gallatin mackey
The rite of discalceation, or uncovering the feet on approaching
holy ground, is derived from the Latin word discalceare, to pluck
off one's shoes. The usage has the prestige of antiquity and universality
in its favor.
That it not only very generally prevailed, but that its symbolic
signification was well understood in the days of Moses, we learn from that
passage of Exodus where the angel of the Lord, at the burning bush,
exclaims to the patriarch, "Draw not nigh hither; put off thy shoes from
off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground."
thinks it is from this command that the Eastern nations
have derived the custom of performing all their acts of religious worship
with bare feet. But it is much more probable that the ceremony was in use
long anterior to the circumstance of the burning bush, and that the Jewish
lawgiver at once recognized it as a well-known sign of reverence.
entertains this opinion, and thinks that the custom was
derived from the ancient patriarchs, and was transmitted by a general
tradition to succeeding times.
Abundant evidence might be furnished from ancient authors of the
existence of the custom among all nations, both Jewish and Gentile. A few
of them, principally collected by Dr. Mede, must be curious and
The direction of Pythagoras to his disciples was in these words: "Ανυπόδητος
θύε ϗαι πρόσϗυνει;" that is, Offer sacrifice and worship with thy shoes
Justin Martyr says that those who came to worship in the sanctuaries
and temples of the Gentiles were commanded by their priests to put off
Drusius, in his Notes on the Book of Joshua, says that among most of
the Eastern nations it was a pious duty to tread the pavement of the
temple with unshod feet.88
Maimonides, the great expounder of the Jewish law, asserts that "it was
not lawful for a man to come into the mountain of God's house with his
shoes on his feet, or with his staff, or in his working garments, or with
dust on his feet."
Rabbi Solomon, commenting on the command in Leviticus xix. 30, "Ye
shall reverence my sanctuary," makes the same remark in relation to this
custom. On this subject Dr. Oliver observes, "Now, the act of going with
naked feet was always considered a token of humility and reverence; and
the priests, in the temple worship, always officiated with feet uncovered,
although it was frequently injurious to their health."
Mede quotes Zago Zaba, an Ethiopian bishop, who was ambassador from
David, King of Abyssinia, to John III., of Portugal, as saying, "We are
not permitted to enter the church, except barefooted."
The Mohammedans, when about to perform their devotions, always leave
their slippers at the door of the mosque. The Druids practised the same
custom whenever they celebrated their sacred rites; and the ancient
Peruvians are said always to have left their shoes at the porch when they
entered the magnificent temple consecrated to the worship of the sun.
Adam Clarke thinks that the custom of worshipping the Deity barefooted
was so general among all nations of antiquity, that he assigns it as one
of his thirteen proofs that the whole human race have been derived from
A theory might be advanced as follows: The shoes, or sandals, were worn
on ordinary occasions as a protection from the defilement of the ground.
To continue to wear them, then, in a consecrated place, would be a tacit
insinuation that the ground there was equally polluted and capable of
producing defilement. But, as the very character of a holy and consecrated
spot precludes the idea of any sort of defilement or impurity, the
acknowledgment that such was the case was conveyed, symbolically, by
divesting the feet of all that protection from pollution and uncleanness
which would be necessary in unconsecrated places.
So, in modern times, we uncover the head to express the sentiment of
esteem and respect. Now, in former days, when there was more violence to
be apprehended than now, the casque, or helmet, afforded an ample
protection from any sudden blow of an unexpected adversary. But we can
fear no violence from one whom we esteem and respect; and, therefore, to
deprive the head of its accustomed protection, is to give an evidence of
our unlimited confidence in the person to whom the gesture is made.
The rite of discalceation is, therefore, a symbol of reverence. It
signifies, in the language of symbolism, that the spot which is about to
be approached in this humble and reverential manner is consecrated to some
Now, as to all that has been said, the intelligent mason will at once
see its application to the third degree. Of all the degrees of Masonry,
this is by far the most important and sublime. The solemn lessons which it
teaches, the sacred scene which it represents, and the impressive
ceremonies with which it is conducted, are all calculated to inspire the
mind with feelings of awe and reverence. Into the holy of holies of the
temple, when the ark of the covenant had been deposited in its appropriate
place, and the Shekinah was hovering over it, the high priest alone, and
on one day only in the whole year, was permitted, after the most careful
purification, to enter with bare feet, and to pronounce, with fearful
veneration, the tetragrammaton or omnific word.
And into the Master Mason's lodge—this holy of holies of the masonic
temple, where the solemn truths of death and immortality are
inculcated—the aspirant, on entering, should purify his heart from every
contamination, and remember, with a due sense of their symbolic
application, those words that once broke upon the astonished ears of the
old patriarch, "Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon
thou standest is holy ground."
85. Commentaries in
86. Commentary on Exod.
87. Iamblichi Vita
Pythag. c. 105. In another place he says, "Θύειν χρὴ ἀνυπόδετον, ϗαι πρὸς
τα ἱερὰ προστιέναι,"—We must sacrifice and enter temples with the shoes
off. Ibid. c. 85.
88. "Quod etiam nunc
apud plerasque Orientis nationes piaculum sit, calceato pede templorum
89. Beth Habbechirah,
90. Histor. Landm. vol.
ii. p. 481.
91. "Non datur nobis
potestas adeundi templum nisi nudibus pedibus."
92. Commentaries, ut
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