The Symbolism of Freemasonry/Chapter XV

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The Symbolism of Freemasonry by Albert Mackey
Chapter XV
Chapter XV.
The Point Within a Circle.

The point within a Circle is another symbol of great importance in Freemasonry, and commands peculiar attention in this connection with the ancient symbolism of the universe and the solar orb. Everybody who has read a masonic "Monitor" is well acquainted with the usual explanation of this symbol. We are told that the point represents an individual brother, the circle the boundary line of his duty to God and man, and the two perpendicular parallel lines the patron saints of the order--St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist.

Now, this explanation, trite and meagre as it is, may do very well for the exoteric teaching of the order; but the question at this time is, not how it has been explained by modern lecturers and masonic system-makers, but what was the ancient interpretation of the symbol, and how should it be read as a sacred hieroglyphic in reference to the true philosophic system which constitutes the real essence and character of Freemasonry?

Perfectly to understand this symbol, I must refer, as a preliminary matter, to the worship of the Phallus, a peculiar modification of sun-worship, which prevailed to a great extent among the nations of antiquity.

The Phallus was a sculptured representation of the membrum virile, or male organ of generation,[1] and the worship of it is said to have originated in Egypt, where, after the murder of Osiris by Typhon, which is symbolically to be explained as the destruction or deprivation of the sun's light by night, Isis, his wife, or the symbol of nature, in the search for his mutilated body, is said to have found all the parts except the organs of generation, which myth is simply symbolic of the fact, that the sun having set, its fecundating and invigorating power had ceased. The Phallus, therefore, as the symbol of the male generative principle, was very universally venerated among the ancients,[2] and that too as a religious rite, without the slightest reference to any impure or lascivious application.[3] He is supposed, by some commentators, to be the god mentioned under the name of Baal-peor, in the Book of Numbers,[4] as having been worshipped by the idolatrous Moabites. Among the eastern nations of India the same symbol was prevalent, under the name of "Lingam." But the Phallus or Lingam was a representation of the male principle only. To perfect the circle of generation it is necessary to advance one step farther. Accordingly we find in the Cteis of the Greeks, and the Yoni of the Indians, a symbol of the female generative principle, of co-extensive prevalence with the Phallus. The Cteis was a circular and concave pedestal, or receptacle, on which the Phallus or column rested, and from the centre of which it sprang.

The union of the Phallus and Cteis, or the Lingam and Yoni, in one compound figure, as an object of adoration, was the most usual mode of representation. This was in strict accordance with the whole system of ancient mythology, which was founded upon a worship of the prolific powers of nature. All the deities of pagan antiquity, however numerous they may be, can always be reduced to the two different forms of the generative principle--the active, or male, and the passive, or female. Hence the gods were always arranged in pairs, as Jupiter and Juno, Bacchus and Venus, Osiris and Isis. But the ancients went farther. Believing that the procreative and productive powers of nature might be conceived to exist in the same individual, they made the older of their deities hermaphrodite, and used the term [Greek: a)r)r(enothe/lys], or man-virgin, to denote the union of the two sexes in the same divine person.[5]

Thus, in one of the Orphic Hymns, we find this line:--

[Greek: Zey\s a)/rsên ge/neto, Zey\s a)/mbrotos e)/Pleto ny/mphê]
Jove was created a male and an unspotted virgin.

And Plutarch, in his tract "On Isis and Osiris," says, "God, who is a male and female intelligence, being both life and light, brought forth another intelligence, the Creator of the World."

Now, this hermaphrodism of the Supreme Divinity was again supposed to be represented by the sun, which was the male generative energy, and by nature, or the universe, which was the female prolific principle.[6] And this union was symbolized in different ways, but principally by the point within the circle, the point indicating the sun, and the circle the universe, invigorated and fertilized by his generative rays. And in some of the Indian cave-temples, this allusion was made more manifest by the inscription of the signs of the zodiac on the circle.

So far, then, we arrive at the true interpretation of the masonic symbolism of the point within the circle. It is the same thing, but under a different form, as the Master and Wardens of a lodge. The Master and Wardens are symbols of the sun, the lodge of the universe, or world, just as the point is the symbol of the same sun, and the surrounding circle of the universe.

But the two perpendicular parallel lines remain to be explained. Every one is familiar with the very recent interpretation, that they represent the two Saints John, the Baptist and the Evangelist. But this modern exposition must be abandoned, if we desire to obtain the true ancient signification.

In the first place, we must call to mind the fact that, at two particular points of his course, the sun is found in the zodiacal signs of Cancer and Capricorn. These points are astronomically distinguished as the summer and winter solstice. When the sun is in these points, he has reached his greatest northern and southern declination, and produces the most evident effects on the temperature of the seasons, and on the length of the days and nights. These points, if we suppose the circle to represent the sun's apparent course, will be indicated by the points where the parallel lines touch the circle, or, in other words, the parallels will indicate the limits of the sun's extreme northern and southern declination, when he arrives at the solstitial points of Cancer and Capricorn.

But the days when the sun reaches these points are, respectively, the 21st of June and the 22d of December, and this will account for their subsequent application to the two Saints John, whose anniversaries have been placed by the church near those days.

Footnotes[edit]

  1. Facciolatus thus defines the Phallus: "penis ligneus, vel vitreus, vel coriaceus, quem in Bacchi festis plaustro impositum per rura et urbes magno honore circumferebant."--Lex. in voc.
  2. The exhibition of these images in a colossal form, before the gates of ancient temples, was common. Lucian tells us of two colossal Phalli, each one hundred and eighty feet high, which stood in the fore court of the temple at Hierapolis. Mailer, in his "Ancient Art and its Remains," mentions, on the authority of Leake, the fact that a colossal Phallus, which once stood on the top of the tomb of the Lydian king Halyattes, is now lying near the same spot; it is not an entire Phallus, but only the head of one; it is twelve feet in diameter below and nine feet over the glands. The Phallus has even been found, so universal was this worship, among the savages of America. Dr. Arthaut discovered, in the year 1790, a marble Phallic image in a cave of the island of St. Domingo.--CLAVEL, Hist. Pittoresq. des Religions, p. 9.
  3. Sonnerat (Voyage aux Indes Orient, i. p. 118) observes, that the professors of this worship were of the purest principles and most unblemished conduct, and it seems never to have entered into the heads of the Indian legislator and people that anything natural could be grossly obscene.--Sir William Jones remarks (Asiatic Researches, i. 254), that from the earliest periods the women of Asia, Greece, and Italy wore this symbol as a jewel, and Clavel tells us that a similar usage prevails at this day among the women in some of the villages of Brittany. Seely tells us that the Lingam, or Indian Phallus, is an emblem as frequently met within Hindostan as the cross is in Catholic countries.--Wonders of Elora. p. 278.
  4. Num. xxv. 1-3. See also Psalm cvi. 28: "They joined themselves also unto Baal-peor, and ate the sacrifices of the dead." This last expression, according to Russel, has a distinct reference to the physical qualities of matter, and to the time when death, by the winter absence of the solar heat, gets, as it were, possession of the earth. Baal-peor was, he says, the sun exercising his powers of fecundity.--Connection of Sacred and Profane History
  5. Is there not a seeming reference to this thought of divine hermaphrodism in the well-known passage of Genesis? "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him: male and female created he them." And so being created "male and female," they were "in the image of God."
  6. The world being animated by man, says Creuzer, in his learned work on Symbolism, received from him the two sexes, represented by heaven and the earth. Heaven, as the fecundating principle, was male, and the source of fire; the earth, as the fecundated, was female, and the source of humidity. All things issued from the alliance of these two principles. The vivifying powers of the heavens are concentrated in the sun, and the earth, eternally fixed in the place which it occupies, receives the emanations from the sun, through the medium of the moon, which sheds upon the earth the germs which the sun had deposited in its fertile bosom. The Lingam is at once the symbol and the mystery of this religious idea.