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part II - Symbolism and the Teachings of Freemasonry

W. M. Don Falconer PM, PDGDC

The rite is a symbol of the passage of the spiritual self through the cycle of life.




To circumambulate means to walk round about, which is derived from the Latin words circum meaning around and ambulare/ambulatum meaning to walk. In its original sense it referred to that portion of the religious rites in the ancient ceremonies of initiation, wherein the candidate was conducted in a formal procession around the altar or some other holy and consecrated object. To perambulate, in which the Latin word circum is replaced by the Latin word per which means through, originally meant to walk through, up and down or over for the purpose of surveying the land or patrolling a beat. Nowadays perambulate is often used in a general sense, meaning to walk about or around. In lodges of operative freemasonry and also in the formative period of modern speculative freemasonry, the clear distinction between circumambulation and perambulation was always maintained in the ceremonials.


The rite of circumambulation obviously relates to the circle, which is a symbol of the all-embracing principle of Divine manifestation that is without beginning or ending, being complete and absolute. Attributes of the Divine manifestation are illustrated in the Wisdom of Solomon, which is an important part of that compendium of moral and spiritual instruction known as the Book of Proverbs, much of which repeats earlier Egyptian exhortations almost word for word. In Proverbs 8:27-29 we read:


                          “When he set the heavens in their place I was there,

                           when he girdled the ocean with the horizon,

                           when he fixed the canopy of the clouds overhead

                           and set the springs of ocean firm in their place,

                           when he prescribed its limits for the sea

                           and knit together earth’s foundations.”


The rite of circumambulation is also related to the circle of existence, which is a symbol of the passage of the spiritual self through the cycle of life, whence darkness is dispelled and the long upward course of purification is begun, leading towards that perfection which can only be achieved in the life hereafter. This circle is symbolical of and can only be completed by a rebirth, as described in the words of Jesus when he cleansed the temple, which is recorded in the following words of John 3:7-8:


“You ought not to be astonished, then, when I tell you that you must be born over again. The wind blows where it wills; you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from, or where it is going. So with everyone who is born from spirit.”


Originally, circumambulation was only performed in the lodge in relation to the specific preparation and examination of the candidate prior to his obligation, to ensure that he was properly prepared and a fit and proper person to participate in the ensuing ceremony. This procedure reflected the combined symbolisms of the circle and the circle of existence, which was intended to remind the candidate that his upward course of purification was beginning. All other movements in the lodge were made by the most direct and convenient route, which clearly distinguished the rite of circumambulation from routine movements and emphasised the importance of the rite. This visible distinction is still maintained in lodges of operative freemasons and also in those lodges of speculative freemasons that follow either the Emulation working or some of the old Scottish workings. Nowadays the word circumambulation has almost disappeared from use in speculative craft freemasonry and perambulation is usually used to describe all movements on the floor of the lodge.


In the eighteenth century the development of the rituals of speculative craft freemasonry was at its peak. At that time the masonic scholars who prepared the rituals gave clear and conventional explanations of the ceremonials, which left no doubt of their intention that the rite of circumambulation should represent the “toilsome progress of humanity”, advancing from barbarism to civilisation and from ignorance to enlightenment. This advancement will ultimately lead us from this profane earthly existence to a state of perfection in that grand lodge above, eternal in the heavens. Although they are not identical with the rituals now worked, some of the very old catechisms and lectures clearly indicate that the early ritualists visualised the progression of candidates through the three degrees of speculative craft freemasonry as a symbolic journey from the profane world to a spiritual paradise, typified by the progress of the priests through the several compartments of King Solomon’s temple.


This progression still has a place in speculative craft freemasonry. The first degree symbolises rebirth, which is emblematically represented by the priest stepping between the two great pillars and passing through the ulam, the porch or entrance at the eastern end of the temple. The second degree symbolises life, education and work, which is represented emblematically by the priest entering the temple proper and making ritual offerings in the hekhal, the holy place set aside for the celebration of divine service by the priests. The third degree symbolises a victorious completion of this earthly existence, culminating in the perfection that can only be achieved by passing through that mystic veil which cannot be penetrated by human eyes, which is emblematically represented by the High Priest entering the debir or holy of holies at the western end of the temple. The debir was in the form of a perfect cube and was considered to be the seat of the Shekinah, the dwelling place of God in the midst of his people.


By the second half of the nineteenth century circumambulation was no longer regarded as a purely religious or mystical practice, having acquired a new and more general usage, simply meaning to walk around or about. During the same period perambulation had also lost its specific meaning, because it was being used more and more frequently when circumambulation previously would have been used to describe the movement more accurately. Over-enthusiastic ritualists then introduced the squaring of the lodge room for all movements on the floor, so that the original purpose of circumambulation ceased to be understood, or at the very least it was subjugated to the extent of becoming a mere routine, seriously detracting from the symbolism of the ceremonials.


The influence of Egypt


The explanation of the first tracing board states that the usages and customs among freemasons have ever born an affinity to those of the ancient Egyptians, while other statements in the rituals suggest a direct and continuous link between speculative craft freemasonry and the workforce that constructed King Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem. When the early speculative ritualists wrote the explanation of the first tracing board, the word affinity had a more specific meaning than it has today, indicating a direct descent from one to another. In fact, modern usage of the word reflects the relationship more correctly. The ritual and ceremonials that constitute speculative craft freemasonry were not derived as a unique system from remote antiquity, whether Egyptian, Hebrew or otherwise. In fact, speculative freemasonry developed progressively through the ages, as a natural consequence of the ecclesiastical environment in which succeeding generations of freemasons worked. The fundamentals of modern speculative freemasonry evolved directly and indirectly from the practices and symbolism that had been used in the earlier lodges of operative freemasons, although the speculative aspects were expanded. Thus the spiritual doctrines embodied within the masonic ritual are extremely ancient, having been influenced by the teachings of many religions from time immemorial. Foremost among those influences is the ancient religion of Egypt.


The oldest written records that we have of any of the ancient religions are those from Egypt that are known as the Pyramid Texts. These texts are the hieroglyphic inscriptions in the pyramids of Unas, of Teti and of Pepi I in particular, all of which are located in the vicinity of Saqqara and date from about 2300 BCE to about 2100 BCE, which was during the Vth and VIth Dynasties of Egypt. However, philological studies show that the original composition of these texts may be conservatively dated at least to the predynastic period from about 3200 BCE, but probably even earlier, more than two thousand years before the reign of King Solomon. These earlier texts include material very similar to that in the Book of the Dead, which was assembled from later sources, but the older references are especially significant as they have not been edited or modified by a series of successive scribes. Even so, there is a remarkable consistency in all of the known texts until the XXnd Dynasty, which flourished in about 1100 BCE, more than a century before King Solomon.


All of these texts show that the ancient Egyptian religion was founded on a belief in a circle of existence that commenced with birth in the spirit and then progressed through a life on earth. It was believed that the divine spirit Ka accompanied the earthly body, which also had a soul Ba. Earthly life was terminated with a physical death, followed by a descent into the afterworld of the terrestrial kingdom, where the heart was weighed and the soul was judged. If the soul was not found wanting, the culminating events in the circle of existence were resurrection and ascent into the heavenly Duat, which are referred to in the following words of the Pyramid Texts of Teti:


“Rise up thou Teti. Stand up thou mighty one being strong. Sit thou with the gods, do thou that which Osiris did in the great house of Annu. Thou has received thy Sahu and thy foot shall not be fettered in heaven, nor shalt thou be turned back upon earth.”


The Sahu that must be received before resurrection and ascent into the heavenly Duat is the spiritual body that has obtained a sufficient level of knowledge, power and glory to become everlasting and incorruptible, transcending the divine spirit Ka and the soul Ba that had accompanied the body during its earthly life.


This circle of existence was central to the religion of ancient Egypt. The final stages of the circle of existence are represented ritually by progress through the various chambers in the Great Pyramid of Khufu. The entry of the soul into the afterworld begins in the Chamber of Ordeal, a subterranean chamber excavated deep into the bedrock below the pyramid, where a period of trial and probation must be completed. If the soul is judged to be acceptable as determined symbolically by weighing the heart against the feather of justice, it then ascends to the grotto known as the Well of Life, just under the base of the pyramid. There the soul must reflect upon its passage through life on earth, before being allowed to ascend into the Chamber of Regeneration and Rebirth, which is called the Queen’s Chamber in the Great Pyramid. After regeneration and rebirth, the soul must undergo a final period of purification in the Hall of Truth in Darkness, which is the Grand Gallery in the Great Pyramid. After purification the soul enters the Chamber of Resurrection, which is the King’s Chamber in the Great Pyramid, whence the Sahu or enlightened soul returns to God in the heavenly Duat, thus completing the circle of existence. The ceremonials in modern speculative freemasonry include the symbolic elements of the circle of existence.


The influence of the ancient mysteries


Ancient secret systems of teaching are generally called Mysteries, from the compound Greek word misthrion, which has a range of associated meanings including a mystery, a secret and also an initiate. The Mysteries have existed in all parts of the world and in all periods of its history. They taught suitably receptive individuals about human nature and human destiny, by imparting to their prepared minds what was then known about human life and divine things, but they were withheld from the multitude whose lack of education and understanding might profane those teachings or who might use the esoteric knowledge for perverse purposes. Such systems existed in Egypt, Assyria, Chaldea, India and China from the most ancient times. They were also used among the Hebrews, the Greeks, the Druids and the Romans in later times, for many centuries before the advent of Christianity. Even in more recent times the Mysteries were practiced, even among the early Christians and the Muslims.


The oldest Mysteries of which we have a detailed account are those of Isis and Osiris in Egypt, which were derived directly from Egypt’s ancient religion and therefore need no further comment. The Eleusinian Mysteries of Greece are possibly the best known, traditionally having been brought into Greece directly from Egypt, although historically that almost certainly is not true. In any event they were preceded in Greece by earlier Mysteries. Saint Epiphanius (c.315-403) was born in Palestine and became a Christian bishop of Constantia in Cyprus. He wrote extensively on various cults and heresies, which he had traced back for about eighteen hundred years before Christ. Saint Epiphanius found that those earlier Greek Mysteries were essentially the same as the Mysteries of the Persian religious leader and prophet, Zarathustra (c.630-530 BCE), who reformed the ancient Parsee religion, which was of Egyptian origin. The Muslims persecuted the Parsees in the eighth century CE, when the Parsees carried the Mysteries of Zarathustra into India, where they became known as Zoroastrianism. Although the form of communication has varied from age to age, the central theme of an initiation in all of the Mysteries has always been the Rite of Circumambulation.


Initiation in the ancient Mysteries represented a spiritual rebirth, for which the candidate was required to undergo appropriate preparation and purification. In ancient times preparation of the candidate for initiation could take many days, even weeks. It involved fasting, contemplation, stringent trials and many ablutions. During the ceremony of initiation the candidate was usually cloaked in white and conducted three times in a clockwise direction around the altar or other consecrated object. Great care was taken to follow the apparent clockwise course of the sun, which in the northern hemisphere was “by the right”, because the sun was a symbol of the commencement of a new life. The circuits were always commenced in the east which was regarded as the source of light, thence passing through the south to the west and returning through the north to the east, which also was esteemed as the birthplace of God and hence the logical place to seek a spiritual rebirth. Many famous persons were initiates of the ancient Mysteries, including Aristotle the philosopher and scientist, Euclid the mathematician, Plato the philosopher, Pythagoras the philosopher and mathematician, Socrates the philosopher, Saint John, Saint Paul and many other well known teachers.


The Druidical Mysteries of the ancient Celts were similar to the other ancient Mysteries, except that the initiate’s robe incorporated three colours that they considered to be sacred. The three colours were white which was the symbol of light, blue which was the symbol of truth and green which was the symbol of hope. The tri-coloured robe was changed to green robe towards the completion of the initiation ceremony, which was emblematical of the candidate’s expectation of further enlightenment. In the next stage, which was equivalent to the second degree in speculative craft freemasonry, the candidate wore a blue robe emblematical of his search for the truths of life. In the final stage, which was equivalent to the third degree in speculative craft freemasonry, the candidate wore a white robe emblematical of the light of knowledge that was the ultimate object of his quest. When the candidate had successfully completed the stringent trials associated with the final stage he was crowned with a red tiara, which symbolised the purification and regeneration of his soul. At the beginning of each session of worship the Druids rededicated themselves, when the priests made three clockwise circuits around the sacred central cairn, followed by all of the worshippers and commencing from the east.


Ancient mysteries and modern religions


Most modern religions incorporate features of the ancient Mysteries in their attendant ceremonials. The Rite of Circumambulation probably is the one most readily identifiable of those ancient usages and customs because it is the one most frequently seen. Its use is always associated with the basic religious element of consecration, as illustrated in the following examples from several different religions. The universality of the practice is reflected in the symbolic ceremonials used by operative freemasons in their lodges and still used by their successors in lodges of speculative craft freemasons, which incorporate this outward expression of purification and consecration derived from the Mysteries and the religious practices of their day. This highlights the fact that the squaring of the lodge in modern speculative freemasonry usually is not associated with the ceremony of purification and consecration, which therefore conceals and detracts from the symbolism of the Rite of Circumambulation that is an important part of the ceremonial, especially during initiation.


Brahmanism is the comparatively modern religious system practised by the Hindus. It springs from an ancient and primitive Aryan religion nearly as old as the ancient religion of Egypt. It did not have any one founder, but developed gradually over a period of almost five thousand years, during which time it absorbed and assimilated all the religious and cultural movements of India. Superficially, the Hindu religion appears to embrace a variety of gods, which undoubtedly is the way it is understood by the uneducated people of India. Nevertheless its philosophy actually encompasses a belief in one all-embracing, all-pervading and omnipresent God, with the subsidiary pantheon representing nothing more than imaginative pictures of the infinite aspects of God for the enlightenment of the uneducated masses. These aspects are revealed to the learned Hindus in the hidden or esoteric faith of their Mysteries. Priests and other devout Brahmans, on first rising each morning, rededicate themselves by facing the east and adoring the sun, then walking to the west by way of the south and back to the east by way of the north. During this circumambulation they recited, among other things:


“I follow the course of the sun, to obtain the benefit arising from a journey round the earth by way of the south.”


This appears to be the origin of the rededication ceremony conducted by the Druids among the Indo-European Celts, who first appeared in Europe in about 1200 BCE.


Muslims who undertake the Hadj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, are required to participate in the Tawuf, which is considered to be a very sacred part of the ceremonies. The Tawuf, or circumambulation of the Kaaba, must be carried out seven times. Kaaba is an Arabic word signifying a cube, which is a symbol of completion or perfection. The Kaaba is the holy building in Mecca into which the black stone is built. The black stone is reputed to possess many virtues. The founder of Islam, the Prophet Mohammed (c 570-632), who was born in Mecca, declared that the black stone was given to Abraham by the archangel Gabriel. The circumambulation of sacred places and consecrated objects was a common practice among the animistic Semites long before the introduction of Islam. The Rite of Circumambulation was retained by the Prophet, but given a new significance, possibly as an act of reconciliation with the people of Mecca.


The reason given for the circumambulation of the Kaaba is that the Kaaba represents the celestial throne of Allah that is constantly being circumambulated by angels. This part of the pilgrimage relates to the consecration of the mind, body and soul to Allah, the one God. The belief in the one God is professed in the religion of Islam by the pronouncement “la ilaha ill’ Allah” which literally translates as  “there is no God but God” and means “there is only one God”. The origin of this pronouncement is ascribed to the Prophet Mohammed himself who said that, during his journey from Mecca to Jerusalem, he had ascended through the seven heavens. Mohammed said that it was then that he beheld the mystic inscription in Arabic, “la ilaha ill’ Allah”, above the throne of God. Thenceforth the green standard of the prophet was adorned with this sentence and Muslims turned in prayer towards the Kaaba in Mecca, instead of turning towards Jerusalem. Mohammed’s vision of ascending through seven heavens is an allusion to purification and perfection, which is the symbolic reason why Muslims make seven circumambulations around the Kaaba in Mecca during their pilgrimage.


The early Christians readily adapted aspects of the ancient Mysteries to their own requirements, including the adoption of pagan festival days as their own festival days and also the ceremony of baptism. Probably the most obvious adaptation is the use of the Rite of Circumambulation in association with dedication and consecration. Two very old ceremonies, those known as “beating the bounds” in England and “riding the marches” in Scotland, both derive from the Roman practice of dedicating the boundary stones of the fields, which originated in about 700 BCE. There are existing documents, from as early as 550, recording that bishops and their clergy accompanied parishioners circumambulating the boundaries of the fields for this purpose. Gulielmus Durandus (1237-1296), the French jurist who had studied canon law and became the Bishop of Mende, describes the ceremony of consecrating a church in the thirteenth century in one of his books entitled the Speculum Judicale. He says that the bishop’s procession made three circuits clockwise around the church, during which the bishop knocked on the door after each circuit, but was admitted only on the third occasion. Bishop Durandus said:


“Rightly . . . doth the bishop strike three times, because that number is the most known and sacred; . . . without the invocation of the Trinity there can be no sacrament in the church.”


This form of ceremonial exists to the present day and is even reflected in the opening of parliaments, when the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod knocks three times on the door of the House of Commons or House of Representatives to gain entrance for the opening of Parliament. In consecration ceremonies the chaplain circumambulates with a censer to disperse incense, which is an ancient symbol of purification. This practice perpetuates the usage of the ancient Israelites and also is a regular practice in Christian churches.

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