The Rite Of
the symbolism of freemasonry
albert gallatin mackey
The rite of circumambulation will supply us with another
ritualistic symbol, in which we may again trace the identity of the origin
of Freemasonry with that of the religious and mystical ceremonies of the
"Circumambulation" is the name given by sacred archaeologists to that
religious rite in the ancient initiations which consisted in a formal
procession around the altar, or other holy and consecrated object.
The prevalence of this rite among the ancients appears to have been
universal, and it originally (as I shall have occasion to show) alluded to
the apparent course of the sun in the firmament, which is from east to
west by the way of the south.
In ancient Greece, when the priests were engaged in the rites of
sacrifice, they and the people always walked three times around the altar
while chanting a sacred hymn or ode. Sometimes, while the people stood
around the altar, the rite of circumambulation was performed by the priest
alone, who, turning towards the right hand, went around it, and sprinkled
it with meal and holy water. In making this circumambulation, it was
considered absolutely necessary that the right side should always be next
to the altar, and consequently, that the procession should move from the
east to the south, then to the west, next to the north, and afterwards to
the east again. It was in this way that the apparent revolution was
This ceremony the Greeks called moving εϗ δεξια εν δεξια, from the
right to the right, which was the direction of the motion, and the
Romans applied to it the term dextrovorsum, or dextrorsum,
which signifies the same thing. Thus Plautus makes Palinurus, a character
in his comedy of "Curculio," say, "If you would do reverence to the gods,
you must turn to the right hand." Gronovius, in commenting on this passage
of Plautus, says, "In worshipping and praying to the gods they were
accustomed to turn to the right hand."
A hymn of Callimachus has been preserved, which is said to have been
chanted by the priests of Apollo at Delos, while performing this ceremony
of circumambulation, the substance of which is, "We imitate the example of
the sun, and follow his benevolent course."
It will be observed that this circumambulation around the altar was
accompanied by the singing or chanting of a sacred ode. Of the three parts
of the ode, the strophe, the antistrophe, and the
epode, each was to be sung at a particular part of the procession.
The analogy between this chanting of an ode by the ancients and the
recitation of a passage of Scripture in the masonic circumambulation, will
be at once apparent.
Among the Romans, the ceremony of circumambulation was always used in
the rites of sacrifice, of expiation or purification. Thus Virgil
describes Corynasus as purifying his companions, at the funeral of Misenus,
by passing three times around them while aspersing them with the lustral
waters; and to do so conveniently, it was necessary that he should have
moved with his right hand towards them.
"Idem ter socios pura circumtulit unda,
Spargens rore levi et ramo
Æn. vi. 229.
"Thrice with pure water compassed he the crew,
olive branch, the gentle dew."
In fact, so common was it to unite the ceremony of circumambulation
with that of expiation or purification, or, in other words, to make a
circuitous procession, in performing the latter rite, that the term
lustrare, whose primitive meaning is "to purify," came at last to
be synonymous with circuire, to walk round anything; and hence a
purification and a circumambulation were often expressed by the same word.
Among the Hindoos, the same rite of circumambulation has always been
practised. As an instance, we may cite the ceremonies which are to be
performed by a Brahmin upon first rising from bed in the morning, an
accurate account of which has been given by Mr. Colebrooke in the "Asiatic
Researches." The priest, having first adored the sun while directing his
face to the east, then walks towards the west by the way of the south,
saying, at the same time, "I follow the course of the sun," which he thus
explains: "As the sun in his course moves round the world by the way of
the south, so do I follow that luminary, to obtain the benefit arising
from a journey round the earth by the way of the south."
Lastly, I may refer to the preservation of this rite among the Druids,
whose "mystical dance" around the cairn, or sacred stones, was
nothing more nor less than the rite of circumambulation. On these
occasions the priest always made three circuits, from east to west, by the
right hand, around the altar or cairn, accompanied by all the worshippers.
And so sacred was the rite once considered, that we learn from Toland94
that in the Scottish Isles, once a principal seat of the
Druidical religion, the people "never come to the ancient sacrificing and
fire-hallowing cairns, but they walk three times around them, from
east to west, according to the course of the sun." This sanctified tour,
or round by the south, he observes, is called Deiseal, as the
contrary, or unhallowed one by the north, is called Tuapholl. And
he further remarks, that this word Deiseal was derived "from
Deas, the right (understanding hand) and soil,
one of the ancient names of the sun, the right hand in this round being
ever next the heap."
I might pursue these researches still further, and trace this rite of
circumambulation to other nations of antiquity; but I conceive that enough
has been said to show its universality, as well as the tenacity with which
the essential ceremony of performing the motion a mystical number of
times, and always by the right hand, from the east, through the south, to
the west, was preserved. And I think that this singular analogy to the
same rite in Freemasonry must lead us to the legitimate conclusion, that
the common source of all these rites is to be found in the identical
origin of the Spurious Freemasonry or pagan mysteries, and the pure,
Primitive Freemasonry, from which the former seceded only to be
In reviewing what has been said on this subject, it will at once be
perceived that the essence of the ancient rite consisted in making the
circumambulation around the altar, from the east to the south, from the
south to the west, thence to the north, and to the east again.
Now, in this the masonic rite of circumambulation strictly agrees with
the ancient one.
But this circuit by the right hand, it is admitted, was done as a
representation of the sun's motion. It was a symbol of the sun's apparent
course around the earth.
And so, then, here again we have in Masonry that old and often-repeated
allusion to sun-worship, which has already been seen in the officers of a
lodge, and in the point within a circle. And as the circumambulation is
made around the lodge, just as the sun was supposed to move around the
earth, we are brought back to the original symbolism with which we
commenced—that the lodge is a symbol of the world.
93. See a paper "on the
religious ceremonies of the Hindus," by H.T. Colebrooke, Esq. in the
Asiatic Researches, vol. vi. p. 357.
94. A Specimen of the
Critical History of the Celtic Religion and Learning. Letter ii. § xvii.
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