Readings on the Masonic Altar
As Master Masons, all of us have taken obligations in a tiled lodge at an altar. The three great and three lesser lights were present at the altar as our brothers listened in silence to our obligation. We repeated what the Master told us to repeat. We adjusted our arms, hands, knees, and legs according to the commands of the Sr. Warden. The Sr. Warden and Deacons attended to us, impressing the penalty physically as we repeated vocally what we heard. We were blinded during the obligation with our other senses heightened. Personally I remember the cold metal and smell of an old book (VSL) in front of me. We concentrated on the words and phrases from the WM as best we could, enunciating them and finding value in them at times. We tried (and failed) to grasp everything we were saying while we were saying it, remembering less after the event that same night. After each of us had finished our obligation, a request for illumination is met with an allegorical lesson binding us to our brothers, symbolism of the setting of the square and compass for that specific degree, and a mode of recognition of the degree.
The obligation in closed lodge initiates, passes, or raises us to the next level in our Masonic journey. The obligation lists all facets of what Free & Accepted Masons feel the need to cover in order to promote Brotherly Love, Relief, and Truth. Why the ritual? Why the darkness? Why the Altar? An Altar belongs in a church, but a lodge? Did the traveling guilds of medieval Europe carry an Altar with them from building site to building site? Did they borrow one from the Cathedral under construction? In this short presentation select altars and their uses in rituals (religious and Masonic) will be reviewed. I have focused on cultures and ritual that hold familiarity to modern Masonic traditions regarding the altar and teachings. Although the altar has been used in religious ritual worldwide, I have chosen to review altar practices in the Jewish Tabernacle and Temple, the Egyptian Sun Temple, and the Zoroastrian Fire Temple.
Freemasonry as practiced in Western Europe and the Americas look at an altar as defined in the King James Bible (VSL). In the Old Testament, altars were heaps of stones or elevated earth where a portion of your best harvest or livestock would be offered up as a sacrifice to the Lord. The altars of Cain and Able showed differences between giving God your best vs. greed, eventually leading to Murder (Genesis 4). Abraham was asked by God to sacrifice his son, Isaac, on an altar in Moriah (Genesis 22). Noah gave an offering of beasts and birds to God after being spared in the Biblical flood (Genesis 8). There are several more Old Testament examples of giving an offering of gratitude to Yahweh in the VSL. More central to Freemasonry is the construction of the Tabernacle and Solomon’s Temple. The altar of the Hebrew tabernacle was constructed of acacia (shittum) wood, covered in gold, and was used to burn incense daily in the Holy Place of the tabernacle. The altar had horns crafted into its corners. Once yearly, the priests (starting with Aaron) would make an atonement sacrifice for the “blood of the sin offering of atonements” (Exodus 30:10). The blood atonement is literally the reconciliation of God and humankind through blood sacrifice of preferred animals. This sacrifice took place on the Day of Atonement, where Yahweh would descend from heaven and reside in the tabernacle in the Most Holy Place. The altar was positioned in front of the Most Holy Place, which contained the Ark of the Covenant, where Yahweh would sit on the “Mercy Seat” of the Ark.
Figure 1. Hebrew Tabernacle
King Solomon’s temple used a similar layout as to the tabernacle, with regard to altar placement. KST was designed with a large altar in the outer courtyard for worshipper’s sacrifices, with a golden altar of incense inside the middle chamber (I Kings 7). The incense was to remain lit or burning with a pleasing smell. The sacrifices to the Lord were consumed with the outer altar for the populace, while the rituals inside the temple were for priests.
Figure 2. King Solomon’s Temple Cutaway (Top), Overview (LL), and High Priest with Altar of Incense (LR)
Human tradition of an altar sacrifice to God does not begin with Abraham or Noah in the ancient world. Several other civilizations used altars and offerings to bring their citizens closer to God(s).
What is now called the Fifth Dynasty ruled ancient Egypt from 2494 to 2345 BC. During this time altars were used for sacrifice and pleasing Ra. The ruling Pharaohs were members of Ra’s sun cult and temples were built for Ra’s worship. The rituals of the cult of Ra occurred approximately fifteen hundred years before Solomon’s temple was constructed. Several Temples were dedicated to the Sun, and the symbol Ra as the sun disk. At the Sun Temple of Niuserre in the complex of Abu Ghurab, the temple contains dedication to the sun god, including an obelisk, elevated causeway from the valley below, and an altar showing meaning in its geometry. The altar is composed of several limestone blocks with one block, carved in a circle, and four blocks below it carved hieroglyphically to form the word “hotep,” which translates to offering, satisfied, or peace. The carved round disk above the four blocks is thought to represent Ra as the sun disk. In Egypt at this time, tithing and offering to the gods was common practice, although at the Sun Temple of Niuserre it is unclear if offerings were made of animals, or other forms of sacrifice (bread, oils, alcohol), as there has not been a large discovery of bones and tools for slaughtering animals.
Figure 3. The Sun Temple of Niuserre (Drawing) and the Temple Altar Today
Additionally, the Sun Temple of Niuserre contained a lower valley temple and a Solar Boat in which the Pharaoh could travel with Ra.
Zoroastrianism is regarded as the oldest known monotheistic religion on earth. With origins in ancient Persia (northern Iran), Zoroastrianism contains several tenants familiar to monotheistic beliefs. These beliefs include monotheism, or a creator God known as “Ahura Mazda.” Zoroastrians believe in an afterlife, sin, and atonement of sin through ritual and prayer. Zoroastrian ritual still uses purification in fire temples to cleanse elements. The fire (athra) altar is not for burning sacrifices, but as a place to store the sacred fire or eternal flame for worship. The meaning of fire takes on meaning as illumination in the path of Asha (the cosmic rules of order, ethics, and choice), the fire of the eternal flame (passing the ideals from one person to the next upon death), and fire in worship as the spiritual flame (mainyu athra). Zoroastrians view the use of Fire as light was looked at as fire for creation and giving light in the darkness. Ahura Mazda, as the creator, gave man fire to light his path and to provide an aide in his daily life. There are several classifications for different fires used in Zoroastrian rituals. Each fire type requires different consecration ceremonies. There are different fires created for different temples. Through all of the Zoroastrian fire rituals, the altar is looked at as the keeper of the flame. Below are samples of Zoroastrians with Sacred fire, documented in wood cuts and a modern fire altar (Figure 4).
Figure 4. Drawing of Zoroastrian Priest with Sacred Fire and a Modern Fire Temple
Figure 5 shows a Persian coin dated 241-272 AD. The coin gives likeness of Shapur I, or Shapur the Great of Iran. The coin lists Shapur as “The Mazdah Worshiper, divine Shapur, King of Kings of Iran, heaven descended of the Gods.” On the reverse of his portrait is a great fire altar with two attendants. The coin reads “The fire of Shapur” inferring purity.
Figure 5. Silver Drachm of Shapur I of Ancient Iran
Besides these three examples, there are several cultures past and present using the altar for sacrifice, a conduit to a god’s wisdom and grace, or a place for asking for atonement. The Greeks, Romans, Babylonians, Druids, Christians, as well as East Asian and Indian cultures have created altars as a central piece in rituals. There is plenty of material in human history regarding sacrifice to deity in hopes of good fortune or forgiveness. These specific examples are just a few, but how does this relate to the altar in Freemasonry?
When a candidate for the degrees of masonry is brought into a lodge, he takes an obligation at the altar on his knees. An obligation is “an act or course of action to which a person is morally or legally bound; a duty of commitment.” The candidate is on his knees in humility and weakness, not in a position of strength. He is dressed to be destitute, blind, with no weapons and minimal ways of defending himself. While there is no blood atonement, we are asking in our great undertaking for the blessing of God to help us. We are told that our undertaking is great and serious. The altar is situated in the center of lodge room, with sacred artifacts to Masons placed on it. The VSL, Square and Compass with the three lesser lights. Remember the VSL is given to us as a guide. It is a gift from deity, whether or not we choose to use its teachings. Our actions squared against the square of virtue, and the compass representing our actions being within due bounds. Although we were led in by a trusted guiding brother, we asked in prayer for divine help and help from our brothers. Each of us asked to put our lives up as an offering to our God while our brethren silently listened as witnesses to our promise. We touched the VSL, Square and Compass during the binding vow of our obligation, making the connection physical as well as verbal in our affirmation to our brothers. For this description, an altar is justified.
The altar and its accoutrements have an interesting place in Freemasonry historically. The altar appears in documents of Masonic Lodges following the founding of the Grand Lodge (GL) of England. The diagram in Figure 7 shows lodge layout differences between what were called “Old Masons” and the “New lodge under the Desaugliers regulation.” John Theophilus Desaugliers was a French born Freemason, as well as Royal Society member and assistant to Isaac Newton, and Grand Master of the GL of England. The diagrams in Figure 7 show the “Old Masons” and the GL “Moderns” diagrams as were drawn on the lodge floor for instruction. The Wardens both sit in the West, forming a triangle with the Master in the East (symbolizing the three elements of Christian deity). Candles also form a triangle in the new lodge layout, although they are not at the center of the lodge. Candles were situated in the North, South, and East in the old lodge layout. Candles may have moved to center of the lodge room when floor work was standardized. Notice that seven formed a lodge in the “Moderns,” and five in the “Old Masons” layout. The Altar is not in the center of the lodge in these drawings. It is referred to as a pedestal, and situated in the East immediately in front of the Master for both lodges. An altar or pedestal was placed in the center of lodge in other designs.
Figure 6. “Old” and “New” Lodge Setup in 18th Century
Within the diagram of the new lodge, working tools are now drawn in the east. The Pedestal in the east can be seen in Figure 8 below, which shows a French Masonic Lodge during ritual. The master is seated wearing his tri-fold hat. The master’s arms are resting on the pedestal.
Figure 7. A French Masonic Lodge Ceremony
In “The Mason’s Words,” Robert G. Davis points out that although in America we refer to the Altar as such, England has evolved to use the term pedestal, even though a wooden altar, painted white, was often placed in the center of the lodge room in 17th and 18th century England. In this case, the American lodges have not been influenced by changes in English Masonic practice. The American ritual regarding the altar is based on earlier ritual than what is currently practiced in England.
In this review I had hoped to add insight to the altar’s significance in Masonic ritual with select religious examples and some history on the altar’s place and use in lodge. I found the amount of information on similarities in worship, altars, and temples across cultures to be immense. I hope that these selections were adequate to show familiar elements of our Masonic ritual inside these religious practices. Relating the sanctity of ancient rituals to our Masonic ritual should help in appreciation of the words and floor work we (I) admittedly have taken for granted.
Q1: Due to breadth of human use in different rituals and religions, is an altar a proper symbol to take your Masonic obligations? Is there a better way to impress the importance of the obligation to a candidate?
Q2: How does Masonic Ritual Impress upon initiates the importance of the three great and three lesser lights?
Q3: The Altar, VSL, Square, Compass, and Lesser Lights all assume some reverence to deity to make a point to the initiate regarding the obligation and the fraternity. Could an atheist/agnostic person learn the lessons without having a reverence for an altar, VSL, or light in darkness in the same fashion as someone with a religious background?