The Sprig Of Acacia
the symbolism of freemasonry
albert gallatin mackey
Intimately connected with the legend of the third degree is the
mythical history of the Sprig of Acacia, which we are now to consider.
There is no symbol more interesting to the masonic student than the
Sprig of Acacia, not only on account of its own peculiar import, but also
because it introduces us to an extensive and delightful field of research;
that, namely, which embraces the symbolism of sacred plants. In all the
ancient systems of religion, and Mysteries of initiation, there was always
some one plant consecrated, in the minds of the worshippers and
participants, by a peculiar symbolism, and therefore held in extraordinary
veneration as a sacred emblem. Thus the ivy was used in the Mysteries of
Dionysus, the myrtle in those of Ceres, the erica in the Osirian, and the
lettuce in the Adonisian. But to this subject I shall have occasion to
refer more fully in a subsequent part of the present investigation.
Before entering upon an examination of the symbolism of the
Acacia, it will be, perhaps, as well to identify the true plant
which occupies so important a place in the ritual of Freemasonry.
And here, in passing, I may be permitted to say that it is a very great
error to designate the symbolic plant of Masonry by the name of
"Cassia"—an error which undoubtedly arose, originally, from the very
common habit among illiterate people of sinking the sound of the letter
a in the pronunciation of any word of which it constitutes the
initial syllable. Just, for instance, as we constantly hear, in the
conversation of the uneducated, the words pothecary and
prentice for apothecary and apprentice, shall we also
find cassia used for acacia.177
Unfortunately, however, this corruption of acacia into
cassia has not always been confined to the illiterate: but the long
employment of the corrupted form has at length introduced it, in some
instances, among a few of our writers. Even the venerable Oliver, although
well acquainted with the symbolism of the acacia, and having written most
learnedly upon it, has, at times, allowed himself to use the objectionable
corruption, unwittingly influenced, in all probability, by the too
frequent adoption of the latter word in the English lodges. In America,
but few Masons fall into the error of speaking of the Cassia. The
proper teaching of the Acacia is here well understood.178
The cassia of the ancients was, in fact, an ignoble plant having
no mystic meaning and no sacred character, and was never elevated to a
higher function than that of being united, as Virgil informs us, with
other odorous herbs in the formation of a garland:—
The poppy's flush, and dill which scents the
Cassia, and hyacinth, and daffodil,
With yellow marigold the
Alston says that the "Cassia lignea of the ancients was the larger
branches of the cinnamon tree, cut off with their bark and sent together
to the druggists; their Cassia fistula, or Syrinx, was the same cinnamon
in the bark only;" but Rućus says that it also sometimes denoted the
lavender, and sometimes the rosemary.
In Scripture the cassia is only three times mentioned,180
twice as the translation of the Hebrew word kiddak, and once as the
rendering of ketzioth, but always as referring to an aromatic plant
which formed a constituent portion of some perfume. There is, indeed,
strong reason for believing that the cassia is only another name for a
coarser preparation of cinnamon, and it is also to be remarked that it did
not grow in Palestine, but was imported from the East.
The acacia, on the contrary, was esteemed a sacred tree. It is
the acacia vera of Tournefort, and the mimosa nilotica of
Linnćus. It grew abundantly in the vicinity of Jerusalem,181
where it is still to be found, and is familiar to us all, in its modern
uses at least, as the tree from which the gum arabic of commerce is
The acacia, which, in Scripture, is always called shittah182
and in the plural shittim, was esteemed a sacred wood among the
Hebrews. Of it Moses was ordered to make the tabernacle, the ark of the
covenant, the table for the showbread, and the rest of the sacred
furniture. Isaiah, in recounting the promises of God's mercy to the
Israelites on their return from the captivity, tells them, that, among
other things, he will plant in the wilderness, for their relief and
refreshment, the cedar, the acacia (or, as it is rendered in our common
version, the shittah), the fir, and other trees.
The first thing, then, that we notice in this symbol of the acacia, is,
that it had been always consecrated from among the other trees of the
forest by the sacred purposes to which it was devoted. By the Jew the tree
from whose wood the sanctuary of the tabernacle and the holy ark had been
constructed would ever be viewed as more sacred than ordinary trees. The
early Masons, therefore, very naturally appropriated this hallowed plant
to the equally sacred purpose of a symbol which was to teach an important
divine truth in all ages to come.
Having thus briefly disposed of the natural history of this plant, we
may now proceed to examine it in its symbolic relations.
First. The acacia, in the mythic system of Freemasonry, is preeminently
the symbol of the IMMORTALITY OF THE SOUL—that important doctrine which it
is the great design of the institution to teach. As the evanescent nature
of the flower which "cometh forth and is cut down" reminds us of the
transitory nature of human life, so the perpetual renovation of the
evergreen plant, which uninterruptedly presents the appearance of youth
and vigor, is aptly compared to that spiritual life in which the soul,
freed from the corruptible companionship of the body, shall enjoy an
eternal spring and an immortal youth. Hence, in the impressive funeral
service of our order, it is said, "This evergreen is an emblem of our
faith in the immortality of the soul. By this we are reminded that we have
an immortal part within us, which shall survive the grave, and which shall
never, never, never die." And again, in the closing sentences of the
monitorial lecture of the Third Degree, the same sentiment is repeated,
and we are told that by "the ever green and ever living sprig" the Mason
is strengthened "with confidence and composure to look forward to a
blessed immortality." Such an interpretation of the symbol is an easy and
a natural one; it suggests itself at once to the least reflective mind,
and consequently, in some one form or another, is to be found existing in
all ages and nations. It was an ancient custom, which is not, even now,
altogether disused, for mourners to carry in their hands at funerals a
sprig of some evergreen, generally the cedar or the cypress, and to
deposit it in the grave of the deceased. According to Dalcho,183
the Hebrews always planted a sprig of the acacia at the head of the grave
of a departed friend. Potter tells us that the ancient Greeks "had a
custom of bedecking tombs with herbs and flowers."
184 All sorts of purple and white flowers were acceptable to the
dead, but principally the amaranth and the myrtle. The very name of the
former of these plants, which signifies "never fading," would seem to
indicate the true symbolic meaning of the usage, although archaeologists
have generally supposed it to be simply an exhibition of love on the part
of the survivors. Ragon says, that the ancients substituted the acacia for
all other plants because they believed it to be incorruptible, and not
liable to injury from the attacks of any kind of insect or other
animal—thus symbolizing the incorruptible nature of the soul.
Hence we see the propriety of placing the sprig of acacia, as an emblem
of immortality, among the symbols of that degree, all of whose ceremonies
are intended to teach us the great truth, that "the life of man, regulated
by morality, faith, and justice, will be rewarded at its closing hour by
the prospect of eternal bliss."
185 So, therefore, says Dr. Oliver, when the Master Mason
exclaims, "My name is Acacia," it is equivalent to saying, "I have been in
the grave,—I have triumphed over it by rising from the dead,—and being
regenerated in the process, I have a claim to life everlasting."
The sprig of acacia, then, in its most ordinary signification, presents
itself to the Master Mason as a symbol of the immortality of the soul,
being intended to remind him, by its evergreen and unchanging nature, of
that better and spiritual part within us, which, as an emanation from the
Grand Architect of the Universe, can never die. And as this is the most
ordinary, the most generally accepted signification, so also is it the
most important; for thus, as the peculiar symbol of immortality, it
becomes the most appropriate to an order all of whose teachings are
intended to inculcate the great lesson that "life rises out of the grave."
But incidental to this the acacia has two other interpretations, which are
well worthy of investigation.
Secondly, then, the acacia is a symbol of INNOCENCE. The symbolism here
is of a peculiar and unusual character, depending not on any real analogy
in the form or use of the symbol to the idea symbolized, but simply on a
double or compound meaning of the word. For αϗαϗια, in the Greek language,
signifies both the plant in question and the moral quality of innocence or
purity of life. In this sense the symbol refers, primarily, to him over
whose solitary grave the acacia was planted, and whose virtuous conduct,
whose integrity of life and fidelity to his trusts, have ever been
presented as patterns to the craft, and consequently to all Master Masons,
who, by this interpretation of the symbol, are invited to emulate his
Hutchinson, indulging in his favorite theory of Christianizing Masonry,
when he comes to this signification of the symbol, thus enlarges on the
interpretation: "We Masons, describing the deplorable estate of religion
under the Jewish law, speak in figures: 'Her tomb was in the rubbish and
filth cast forth of the temple, and Acacia wove its branches over
her monument;' akakia being the Greek word for innocence, or being
free from sin; implying that the sins and corruptions of the old law and
devotees of the Jewish altar had hid Religion from those who sought her,
and she was only to be found where innocence survived, and under
the banner of the divine Lamb; and as to ourselves, professing that we
were to be distinguished by our Acacy, or as true Acacians
in our religious faith and tenets."
Among the nations of antiquity, it was common thus by peculiar plants
to symbolize the virtues and other qualities of the mind. In many
instances the symbolism has been lost to the moderns, but in others it has
been retained, and is well understood, even at the present day. Thus the
olive was adopted as the symbol of peace, because, says Lee, "its oil is
very useful, in some way or other, in all arts manual which principally
flourish in times of peace."
The quince among the Greeks was the symbol of love and happiness;188
and hence, by the laws of Solon, in Athenian marriages, the bride and
bridegroom were required to eat a quince together.
The palm was the symbol of victory;189
and hence, in the catacombs of Rome, the burial-place of so many of the
early Christians, the palm leaf is constantly found as an emblem of the
Christian's triumph over sin and death.
The rosemary was a symbol of remembrance, and hence was used both at
marriages and at funerals, the memory of the past being equally
appropriate in both rites.190
The parsley was consecrated to grief; and hence all the Greeks decked
their tombs with it; and it was used to crown the conquerors in the Nemean
games, which were of a funereal character.191
But it is needless to multiply instances of this symbolism. In adopting
the acacia as a symbol of innocence, Masonry has but extended the
principle of an ancient and universal usage, which thus consecrated
particular plants, by a mystical meaning, to the representation of
But lastly, the acacia is to be considered as the symbol of INITIATION.
This is by far the most interesting of its interpretations, and was, we
have every reason to believe, the primary and original, the others being
but incidental. It leads us at once to the investigation of that
significant fact to which I have already alluded, that in all the ancient
initiations and religious mysteries there was some plant, peculiar to
each, which was consecrated by its own esoteric meaning, and which
occupied an important position in the celebration of the rites; so that
the plant, whatever it might be, from its constant and prominent use in
the ceremonies of initiation, came at length to be adopted as the symbol
of that initiation.
A reference to some of these sacred plants—for such was the
character they assumed—and an investigation of their symbolism will not,
perhaps, be uninteresting or useless, in connection with the subject of
the present article.
In the Mysteries of Adonis, which originated in Phoenicia, and were
afterwards transferred to Greece, the death and resurrection of Adonis was
represented. A part of the legend accompanying these mysteries was, that
when Adonis was slain by a wild boar, Venus laid out the body on a bed of
lettuce. In memorial of this supposed fact, on the first day of the
celebration, when funeral rites were performed, lettuces were carried in
the procession, newly planted in shells of earth. Hence the lettuce
became the sacred plant of the Adonia, or Adonisian Mysteries.
The lotus was the sacred plant of the Brahminical rites of India, and
was considered as the symbol of their elemental trinity,—earth, water, and
air,—because, as an aquatic plant, it derived its nutriment from all of
these elements combined, its roots being planted in the earth, its stem
rising through the water, and its leaves exposed to the air.192
The Egyptians, who borrowed a large portion of their religious rites from
the East, adopted the lotus, which was also indigenous to their country,
as a mystical plant, and made it the symbol of their initiation, or the
birth into celestial light. Hence, as Champollion observes, they often on
their monuments represented the god Phre, or the sun, as borne within the
expanded calyx of the lotus. The lotus bears a flower similar to that of
the poppy, while its large, tongue-shaped leaves float upon the surface of
the water. As the Egyptians had remarked that the plant expands when the
sun rises, and closes when it sets, they adopted it as a symbol of the
sun; and as that luminary was the principal object of the popular worship,
the lotus became in all their sacred rites a consecrated and mystical
The Egyptians also selected the erica193
or heath, as a sacred plant. The origin of the consecration of this plant
presents us with a singular coincidence, that will be peculiarly
interesting to the masonic student. We are informed that there was a
legend in the mysteries of Osiris, which related, that Isis, when in
search of the body of her murdered husband, discovered it interred at the
brow of a hill, near which an erica, or heath plant, grew; and hence,
after the recovery of the body and the resurrection of the god, when she
established the mysteries to commemorate her loss and her recovery, she
adopted the erica, as a sacred plant,194
in memory of its having pointed out the spot where the mangled remains
of Osiris were concealed.195
The mistletoe was the sacred plant of Druidism. Its consecrated
character was derived from a legend of the Scandinavian mythology, and
which is thus related in the Edda, or sacred books. The god Balder, the
son of Odin, having dreamed that he was in some great danger of life, his
mother, Friga, exacted an oath from all the creatures of the animal, the
vegetable, and the mineral kingdoms, that they would do no harm to her
son. The mistletoe, contemptible from its size and weakness, was alone
neglected, and of it no oath of immunity was demanded. Lok, the evil
genius, or god of Darkness, becoming acquainted with this fact, placed an
arrow made of mistletoe in the hands of Holder, the blind brother of
Balder, on a certain day, when the gods were throwing missiles at him in
sport, and wondering at their inability to do him injury with any arms
with which they could attack him. But, being shot with the mistletoe
arrow, it inflicted a fatal wound, and Balder died.
Ever afterwards the mistletoe was revered as a sacred plant,
consecrated to the powers of darkness; and annually it became an important
rite among the Druids to proceed into the forest in search of the
mistletoe, which, being found, was cut down by the Arch Druid, and its
parts, after a solemn sacrifice, were distributed among the people. Clavel196
very ingeniously remarks, that it is evident, in reference to the legend,
that as Balder symbolizes the Sun-god, and Lok, Darkness, this search for
the mistletoe was intended to deprive the god of Darkness of the power of
destroying the god of Light. And the distribution of the fragments of the
mistletoe among their pious worshippers, was to assure them that
henceforth a similar attempt of Lok would prove abortive, and he was thus
deprived of the means of effecting his design.197
The myrtle performed the same office of symbolism in the
Mysteries of Greece as the lotus did in Egypt, or the mistletoe among the
Druids. The candidate, in these initiations, was crowned with myrtle,
because, according to the popular theology, the myrtle was sacred to
Proserpine, the goddess of the future life. Every classical scholar will
remember the golden branch with which Aeneas was supplied by the Sibyl,
before proceeding on his journey to the infernal regions198—a
voyage which is now universally admitted to be a mythical representation
of the ceremonies of initiation.
In all of these ancient Mysteries, while the sacred plant was a symbol
of initiation, the initiation itself was symbolic of the resurrection to a
future life, and of the immortality of the soul. In this view, Freemasonry
is to us now in the place of the ancient initiations, and the acacia is
substituted for the lotus, the erica, the ivy, the mistletoe, and the
myrtle. The lesson of wisdom is the same; the medium of imparting it is
all that has been changed.
Returning, then, to the acacia, we find that it is capable of three
explanations. It is a symbol of immortality, of innocence, and of
initiation. But these three significations are closely connected, and that
connection must be observed, if we desire to obtain a just interpretation
of the symbol. Thus, in this one symbol, we are taught that in the
initiation of life, of which the initiation in the third-degree is simply
emblematic, innocence must for a time lie in the grave, at length,
however, to be called, by the word of the Grand Master of the Universe, to
a blissful immortality. Combine with this the recollection of the place
where the sprig of acacia was planted, and which I have heretofore shown
to be Mount Calvary, the place of sepulture of Him who "brought life and
immortality to light," and who, in Christian Masonry, is designated, as he
is in Scripture, as "the lion of the tribe of Judah," and remember, too,
that in the mystery of his death, the wood of the cross takes the place of
the acacia, and in this little and apparently insignificant symbol, but
which is really and truly the most important and significant one in
masonic science, we have a beautiful suggestion of all the mysteries of
life and death, of time and eternity, of the present and of the future.
Thus read (and thus all our symbols should be read), Masonry proves
something more to its disciples than a mere social society or a charitable
association. It becomes a "lamp to our feet," whose spiritual light shines
on the darkness of the deathbed, and dissipates the gloomy shadows of the
177. Oliver's idea (Landmarks, ii. 149) that cassia has,
since the year 1730, been corrupted into acacia, is contrary to all
etymological experience. Words are corrupted, not by lengthening, but by
abbreviating them. The uneducated and the careless are always prone to cut
off a syllable, not to add a new one.
178. And yet I have been surprised by seeing, once or twice, the word
"Cassia" adopted as the name of a lodge. "Cinnamon" or "sandal wood" would
have been as appropriate, for any masonic meaning or symbolism.
179. Eclog. ii. 49.
"Pallentes violas et summa papavera carpens,
Narcissum et florem
jungit benč olentis anethi:
Tum casia, atque aliis intexens suavibus
Mollia luteola pingit vaccinia, caltha."
180. Exod. xxx. 24, Ezek. xxvii. 9, and Ps. xlv. 8.
181. Oliver, it is true, says, that "there is not the smallest trace of
any tree of the kind growing so far north as Jerusalem" (Landm. ii.
136); but this statement is refuted by the authority of Lieutenant Lynch,
who saw it growing in great abundance at Jericho, and still farther
north.—Exped. to the Dead Sea, p. 262.—The Rabbi Joseph Schwarz,
who is excellent authority, says, "The Acacia (Shittim) Tree, Al Sunt, is
found in Palestine of different varieties; it looks like the Mulberry
tree, attains a great height, and has a hard wood. The gum which is
obtained from it is the gum Arabic."—Descriptive Geography and
Historical Sketch of Palestine, p. 308, Leeser's translation. Phila.,
1850.—Schwarz was for sixteen years a resident of Palestine, and wrote
from personal observation. The testimony of Lynch and Schwarz should,
therefore, forever settle the question of the existence of the acacia in
182. Calmet, Parkhurst, Gesenius, Clarke, Shaw, and all the best
authorities, concur in saying that the otzi shittim, or shittim
wood of Exodus, was the common acacia or mimosa nilotica of Linnćus.
183. "This custom among the Hebrews arose from this circumstance.
Agreeably to their laws, no dead bodies were allowed to be interred within
the walls of the city; and as the Cohens, or priests, were prohibited from
crossing a grave, it was necessary to place marks thereon, that they might
avoid them. For this purpose the acacia was used."—DALCHO, Oration,
p. 27, note.—I object to the reason assigned by Dalcho; but of the
existence of the custom there can be no question, notwithstanding the
denial or doubt of Dr. Oliver. Blount (Travels in the Levant, p.
197) says, speaking of the Jewish burial customs, "those who bestow a
marble stone over any [grave] have a hole a yard long and a foot broad, in
which they plant an evergreen, which seems to grow from the body,
and is carefully watched." Hasselquist (Travels, p. 28) confirms
his testimony. I borrow the citations from Brown (Antiquities of the
Jews, vol. ii. p. 356), but have verified the reference to Hasselquist.
The work of Blount I have not been enabled to consult.
184. Antiquities of Greece, p. 569.
185. Dr. Crucefix, MS., quoted by Oliver, Landmarks, ii. 2.
186. Spirit of Masonry, lect. ix. p. 99.
187. The Temple of Solomon, ch. ix. p. 233.
188. It is probable that the quince derived this symbolism, like the
acacia, from its name; for there seems to be some connection between the
Greek word ϗυδώνιος, which means a quince, and the participle ϗυδίων,
which signifies rejoicing, exulting. But this must have been an
afterthought, for the name is derived from Cydon, in Crete, of which
island the quince is a native.
189. Desprez, speaking of the palm as an emblem of victory, says (Comment.
in Horat. Od. I. i. 5), "Palma verň signum victoriae passim apud omnes
statuitur, ex Plutarcho, propterea quod ea est ejus natura ligni, ut
urgentibus opprimentibusque minimč cedat. Unde est illud Alciati epigramma,—
'Nititur in pondus palma, et consurgit in altum:
premitur, hoc magč tollit onus.'"
It is in the eighth book of his Symposia that Plutarch states this
peculiar property of the palm to resist the oppression of any
superincumbent weight, and to rise up against it, whence it was adopted as
the symbol of victory. Cowley also alludes to it in his
"Well did he know how palms by oppression speed
the vctor's sacred meed."
190. "Rosemary was anciently supposed to strengthen the memory, and was
not only carried at funerals, but worn at weddings."—STEEVENS, Notes on
Hamlet, a. iv. s. 5.—Douce (Illustrations of Shakspeare, i.
345) gives the following old song in reference to this subject:—
"Rosemarie is for remembrance
Betweene us daie and night,
Wishing that I might always have
You present in my sight."
191. Ste. Croix (Recherches sur les Mystčres, i. 56) says that
in the Samothracian Mysteries it was forbidden to put parsley on the
table, because, according to the mystagogues, it had been produced by the
blood of Cadmillus, slain by his brothers.
192. "The Hindoos," says Faber, "represent their mundane lotus, as
having four large leaves and four small leaves placed alternately, while
from the centre of the flower rises a protuberance. Now, the circular cup
formed by the eight leaves they deem a symbol of the earth, floating on
the surface of the ocean, and consisting of four large continents and four
intermediate smaller islands; while the centrical protuberance is viewed
by them as representing their sacred Mount Menu."—Communication to
Gent. Mag. vol. lxxxvi. p. 408.
193. The erica arborea or tree heath.
194. Ragon thus alludes to this mystical event: "Isis found the body of
Osiris in the neighborhood of Biblos, and near a tall plant called the
erica. Oppressed with grief, she seated herself on the margin of a
fountain, whose waters issued from a rock. This rock is the small hill
mentioned in the ritual; the erica has been replaced by the acacia,
and the grief of Isis has been changed for that of the fellow crafts."—Cours
des Initiations, p. 151.
195. It is singular, and perhaps significant, that the word
eriko, in Greek, ἐρίϗω, whence erica is probably derived,
means to break in pieces, to mangle.
196. Histoire Pittoresque des Religions, t. i. p. 217.
197. According to Toland (Works, i. 74), the festival of
searching, cutting, and consecrating the mistletoe, took place on the 10th
of March, or New Year's day. "This," he says, "is the ceremony to which
Virgil alludes, by his golden branch, in the Sixth Book of the
Ćneid." No doubt of it; for all these sacred plants had a common origin in
some ancient and general symbolic idea.
198. "Under this branch is figured the wreath of myrtle, with which the
initiated were crowned at the celebration of the Mysteries."—WARBURTON,
Divine Legation, vol. i. p. 299.
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