The Rite of
the symbolism of freemasonry
albert gallatin mackey
Another ritualistic symbolism, of still more importance and interest,
is the rite of investiture.
The rite of investiture, called, in the colloquially technical language
of the order, the ceremony of clothing, brings us at once to the
consideration of that well-known symbol of Freemasonry, the LAMB-SKIN
This rite of investiture, or the placing upon the aspirant some
garment, as an indication of his appropriate preparation for the
ceremonies in which he was about to engage, prevailed in all the ancient
initiations. A few of them only it will be requisite to consider.
Thus in the Levitical economy of the Israelites the priests always wore
the abnet, or linen apron, or girdle, as a part of the investiture of the
priesthood. This, with the other garments, was to be worn, as the text
expresses it, "for glory and for beauty," or, as it has been explained by
a learned commentator, "as emblematical of that holiness and purity which
ever characterize the divine nature, and the worship which is worthy of
In the Persian Mysteries of Mithras, the candidate, having first
received light, was invested with a girdle, a crown or mitre, a purple
tunic, and, lastly, a white apron.
In the initiations practised in Hindostan, in the ceremony of
investiture was substituted the sash, or sacred zennaar, consisting of a
cord, composed of nine threads twisted into a knot at the end, and hanging
from the left shoulder to the right hip. This was, perhaps, the type of
the masonic scarf, which is, or ought to be, always worn in the same
The Jewish sect of the Essenes, who approached nearer than any other
secret institution of antiquity to Freemasonry in their organization,
always invested their novices with a white robe.
And, lastly, in the Scandinavian rites, where the military genius of
the people had introduced a warlike species of initiation, instead of the
apron we find the candidate receiving a white shield, which was, however,
always presented with the accompaniment of some symbolic instruction, not
very dissimilar to that which is connected with the masonic apron.
In all these modes of investiture, no matter what was the material or
the form, the symbolic signification intended to be conveyed was that of
And hence, in Freemasonry, the same symbolism is communicated by the
apron, which, because it is the first gift which the aspirant
receives,—the first symbol in which he is instructed,—has been called the
"badge of a mason." And most appropriately has it been so called; for,
whatever may be the future advancement of the candidate in the "Royal
Art," into whatever deeper arcana his devotion to the mystic institution
or his thirst for knowledge may carry him, with the apron—his first
investiture—he never parts. Changing, perhaps, its form and its
decorations, and conveying at each step some new and beautiful allusion,
its substance is still there, and it continues to claim the honorable
title by which it was first made known to him on the night of his
The apron derives its significance, as the symbol of purity, from two
sources—from its color and from its material. In each of these points of
view it is, then, to be considered, before its symbolism can be properly
And, first, the color of the apron must be an unspotted white. This
color has, in all ages, been esteemed an emblem of innocence and purity.
It was with reference to this symbolism that a portion of the vestments of
the Jewish priesthood was directed to be made white. And hence Aaron was
commanded, when he entered into the holy of holies to make an expiation
for the sins of the people, to appear clothed in white linen, with his
linen apron, or girdle, about his loins. It is worthy of remark that the
Hebrew word LABAN, which signifies to make white, denotes also
to purify; and hence we find, throughout the Scriptures, many
allusions to that color as an emblem of purity. "Though thy sins be as
scarlet," says Isaiah, "they shall be white as snow;" and Jeremiah,
in describing the once innocent condition of Zion, says, "Her Nazarites
were purer than snow; they were whiter than milk."
In the Apocalypse a white stone was the reward promised by the
Spirit to those who overcame; and in the same mystical book the apostle is
instructed to say, that fine linen, clean and white, is the
righteousness of the saints.
In the early ages of the Christian church a white garment was
always placed upon the catechumen who had been recently baptized, to
denote that he had been cleansed from his former sins, and was thenceforth
to lead a life of innocence and purity. Hence it was presented to him with
this appropriate charge: "Receive the white and undefiled garment, and
produce it unspotted before the tribunal of our Lord Jesus Christ, that
you may obtain immortal life."
The white alb still constitutes a part of the vestments of the
Roman church, and its color is said by Bishop England "to excite to piety
by teaching us the purity of heart and body which we should possess in
being present at the holy mysteries."
The heathens paid the same attention to the symbolic signification of
this color. The Egyptians, for instance, decorated the head of their
principal deity, Osiris, with a white tiara, and the priests wore robes of
the whitest linen.
In the school of Pythagoras, the sacred hymns were chanted by the
disciples clothed in garments of white. The Druids gave white vestments to
those of their initiates who had arrived at the ultimate degree, or that
of perfection. And this was intended, according to their ritual, to teach
the aspirant that none were admitted to that honor but such as were
cleansed from all impurities, both of body and mind.
In all the Mysteries and religions rites of the other nations of
antiquity the same use of white garments was observed.
Portal, in his "Treatise on Symbolic Colors," says that "white, the
symbol of the divinity and of the priesthood, represents divine wisdom;
applied to a young girl, it denotes virginity; to an accused person,
innocence; to a judge, justice;" and he adds—what in reference to its use
in Masonry will be peculiarly appropriate—that, "as a characteristic sign
of purity, it exhibits a promise of hope after death." We see, therefore,
the propriety of adopting this color in the masonic system as a symbol of
purity. This symbolism pervades the whole of the ritual, from the lowest
to the highest degree, wherever white vestments or white decorations are
As to the material of the apron, this is imperatively required to be of
lamb-skin. No other substance, such as linen, silk, or satin, could be
substituted without entirely destroying the symbolism of the vestment.
Now, the lamb has, as the ritual expresses it, "been, in all ages, deemed
an emblem of innocence;" but more particularly in the Jewish and Christian
churches has this symbolism been observed. Instances of this need hardly
be cited. They abound throughout the Old Testament, where we learn that a
lamb was selected by the Israelites for their sin and burnt offerings, and
in the New, where the word lamb is almost constantly employed as
synonymous with innocence. "The paschal lamb," says Didron, "which was
eaten by the Israelites on the night preceding their departure, is the
type of that other divine Lamb, of whom Christians are to partake at
Easter, in order thereby to free themselves from the bondage in which they
are held by vice." The paschal lamb, a lamb bearing a cross, was,
therefore, from an early period, depicted by the Christians as referring
to Christ crucified, "that spotless Lamb of God, who was slain from the
foundation of the world."
The material, then, of the apron, unites with its color to give to the
investiture of a mason the symbolic signification of purity. This, then,
together with the fact which I have already shown, that the ceremony of
investiture was common to all the ancient religious rites, will form
another proof of the identity of origin between these and the masonic
This symbolism also indicates the sacred and religious character which
its founders sought to impose upon Freemasonry, and to which both the
moral and physical qualifications of our candidates undoubtedly have a
reference, since it is with the masonic lodge as it was with the Jewish
church, where it was declared that "no man that had a blemish should come
nigh unto the altar;" and with the heathen priesthood, among whom we are
told that it was thought to be a dishonor to the gods to be served by any
one that was maimed, lame, or in any other way imperfect; and with both,
also, in requiring that no one should approach the sacred things who was
not pure and uncorrupt.
The pure, unspotted lamb-skin apron is, then, in Masonry, symbolic of
that perfection of body and purity of mind which are essential
qualifications in all who would participate in its sacred mysteries.
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