The rite of circumambulation is perhaps the most overlooked of all Masonic rituals. This action is an inherent part of almost every Masonic degree and plays a critical role in the three degrees of the Symbolic Lodge. However, few Masons have ever truly examined this ritual or its symbolism. Even a short inquiry into its purpose will reveal that the rite of circumambulation is among the most universal and widely practiced religious rites in the world.
When I became a Freemason, my excellent Masonic mentor explained that the reason I was conducted once around the lodge (or circumambulated the lodge) was to allow the three principle officers to observe that I had been properly prepared and was worthy to receive the degrees of Masonry. That is a correct explanation, but it is only a functional explanation. The truth is that the purpose of circumambulating the lodge has a greater symbolism.
Albert Mackey links the Masonic rite of circumambulation to the practices of the Greeks and Romans who used it as part of their sacrificial rites. Mackey hypothesizes that this was done to imitate the movement of the sun from the east to the west by way of the south. He claims that this is the influence of the pagan mysteries on what he calls the “Spurious Freemasonry of Antiquity.”1 While we will avoid discussing the concept of Spurious Freemasonry in depth, it will be enough to explain that Mackey speculated that the ancient pagans practiced a form of Freemasonry which was tailored to fit their spiritual beliefs. However, a look at the use of circumambulation in the world’s major religions will give us another perspective.
In the Old Testament, God ordered the Israelites to complete a circumambulation during the siege of Jericho.
“Then the LORD said to Joshua, ‘See, I have delivered Jericho into your hands, along with its king and its fighting men. March around the city once with all the armed men. Do this for six days. Have seven priests carry trumpets of rams’ horns in front of the ark. On the seventh day, march around the city seven times, with the priests blowing the trumpets. When you hear them sound a long blast on the trumpets, have the whole army give a loud shout; then the wall of the city will collapse and the army will go up, everyone straight in.’”
Muslims practice the rite of circumambulation during the annual pilgrimage to the Ka’ba in Mecca (Hajj). Those participating in the pilgrimage make seven trips around the Ka’ba to imitate the movement of the constellations or in other words to imitate movement of the universe as created by God.2 Hindus and Buddhists also use circumambulation to imitate the movement of the constellations. In the Catholic religion, the circumambulations used to purify the sacrificial rites of the Romans have become part of the modern religion’s rituals. But is this rite’s presence in these religions merely the impact of pagan traditions on more advanced theologies?
Let us take a look at a verse from the Old Testament, which can also be found in the Fellowcraft Degree:
The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament showeth His handiwork.
Astronomy has long been a part of every religion. Often, the movement of the stars and constellations is seen as a representation of God. The act of admiring his creation is among the purest forms of worship. Therefore, it is no surprise that the rite of circumambulation appears in our lodges. The act of replicating the movement of the heavens around the lodge—which we are told in the first degree is representative of the universe—is among the most time-honored methods of appreciating God’s great creation.
- The Symbolism of Freemasonry by Albert Mackey
- No god but God by Reza Aslan