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Header Chapter XXI.


The Rite of Circumambulation.

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 ancients.

"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 represented.

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 felicis olivæ."
Æn. vi. 229.

"Thrice with pure water compassed he the crew,
Sprinkling, with 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."  93

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 Toland 94 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 deteriorated.

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.

Next: XXII. The Rite of Intrusting, and the Symbolism of Light