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part II - Symbolism and the Teachings of Freemasonry

W. M. Don Falconer PM, PDGDC

From the earliest times sunrise and the east have been symbols of birth, light and learning, whilst sunset and the west have been symbols of death and darkness.


Sunrise and sunset


Since our prehistoric ancestors first awoke to the glory of a primeval sunrise, east and west have held a pre-eminent position in the symbolism of human beings. Archaeological evidence indicates that the first humans dwelt in the tropical zone. It therefore would be reasonable to assume that Rudyard Kipling’s dramatic description of sunrise in his poem Mandalay would reflect a primitive human being’s perception of the event, that “the dawn comes up like thunder!” Imagine too the indelible impression that the sunset would have left on a primitive human being’s mind at the end of that first day. Robert Browning portrays the event graphically his poem Home Thoughts from the Sea, in which he says that the “sunset ran, one glorious blood-red, reeking . . . .”. It is impossible for us to understand how primitive human beings would have comprehended the events of that first day, from awe-inspiring sunrise to overwhelming sunset, but there can be no doubt that the impact of those two events would have left a lasting impression in their minds. Since the first human beings walked on this earth, sunrise and sunset have been inescapable factors that have significantly influenced their daily lives.


The symbolism that has been derived from sunrise and sunset has evolved progressively, in parallel with the development of human mental capacity, while mankind learned and put into practice the various occupational pursuits necessary for survival. When primitive humans searched for food they became nomadic hunter-gatherers of necessity, when they could no longer find sufficient sustenance in the immediate vicinity of their original domicile. Their travels gradually took them away from the equatorial regions, where the weather had always been either hot and wet or hot and dry. As the hunter-gatherers ventured into the higher latitudes, they noticed that the sun no longer passed almost directly overhead throughout the year. After living for several years in the more temperate regions they deduced that the seasonal changes, to which they had become accustomed, were related to the elevation of the sun in the sky at different times of the year. They also observed that the germination of plant life varied with the seasons and was directly related to the influence of the sun. Thus from the earliest times sunrise and the east were symbols of birth, light and learning, whilst sunset and the west were symbols of death and darkness. In the ancient Mysteries, for example, the rising sun that originally typified physical birth also became a symbol of the regeneration of the soul.


The sun in ancient religions


The discoveries that primitive human beings made about the influence of the sun naturally intensified their awe of and reverence for the sun. This fostered a conviction that the sun not only was a harbinger of birth, but that it was in fact a life sustaining orb, which in turn cultivated the belief that the sun was the source of life itself. Because the primitive human mind could not comprehend that the sun was only one of the Almighty Creator’s bounteous and life-sustaining gifts, our prehistoric ancestors began to visualise the sun as God. Thus arose the worship of the sun, which was an essential element in most of the ancient religions around the world, including the earliest that evolved in Egypt, Phoenicia, Babylonia, Persia, India, Mexico and Peru. The wandering Celts and Teutons in the primeval forests of northern Europe regularly held feasts to the sun. Offerings to the sun were also made in ancient China.


In Greek mythology one of the twelve tasks of Hercules was to kill Hydra, the many-headed water snake of the Lernaean marshes, which symbolised the dissipation of marsh malaria by the purifying rays of the sun. In ancient times, especially in Babylonia, Persia and India, the worship of the sun was often coupled with the worship of the moon and stars, collectively described as the host of heaven. This also was a feature of the religion of ancient Egypt and had a powerful influence on all later religions. The worship of the host of heaven is known as Sabaism, from the Hebrew tsäbä meaning a host. Sabaism should not be confused with the ancient Sabaeans or Sabians of southern Iraq and western Iran, now living mainly in Yemen. The Sabians, also called Mandeans, derive their name from the Arabic säbi’ meaning to baptise. In the Koran the Sabians are included with Moslems, Jews and Christians as believers in one true God.


The sun in Central American cultures


As recently as 200 BCE the Toltec inhabitants of Teotihuacan in Mexico began to construct the Temple of Quetzalcoatl the Plumed Serpent. The Toltecs also constructed the Pyramid of the Moon and the enormous Pyramid of the Sun, that was more than 60 metres high and larger than the Great Pyramid of Cheops in Egypt, containing at least a million cubic metres of earth, rubble and sun-dried mud brick. The two pyramids were not tombs, but temple platforms with shrines on top. The Temple of Quetzalcoatl and the two pyramids were all associated with the “Way of the Dead” that was about 2 kilometres long, bisecting the metropolis of ancient Mexico in a north-south direction. Teotihuacan flourished until about 650 CE when it began to fall into decay, being looted and burnt in about 750 CE. In Teotihuacan and in the many Mayan centres throughout Mesoamerica, the altars in the temples to the sun streamed with blood, including human blood, from the sacrifices made in honour of the golden orb. The Aztecs later occupied the site of Teotihuacan and built their own city over the ruins. They believed that the Pyramid of the Sun was the birthplace of the sun in our solar system. The Aztec empire lasted from about 1325 CE until Mexico fell to the Spanish invaders in 1521.


The sun in South American cultures


Among the edifices of the several regional cultures in South America, probably the best known are the “Gateway of the Sun” at Tiahuanaco near Lake Titicaca at an elevation of 4,000 metres in Bolivia and the “Temple of the Sun” at Pachacamac on the coast of central Peru. The Gateway was commenced in about 200 CE and the Temple in about 400 CE, both continuing in use until the Spanish conquest. Sun worship was also a key feature of the vast empire of the Incas on the west coast of South America. The Incan Empire extended for more than 3,000 kilometres from Quito in Ecuador to Talca in Chile and lasted from 1438 until the Spanish conquest in 1532. Archaeological investigations high in the Andes Mountains confirm that the Incas also carried out human sacrifices.


The sun in Hinduism


The origins of Hinduism are shrouded in the mists of time. It probably is the oldest religion that has existed continuously until the present day. The Aryans of ancient India worshipped and tried to appease a number of gods who personified the forces of nature, originally revering the sun as their godhead. With the merging of many cultures down through the ages, those ancient beliefs have been modified as they have absorbed and reflected the developing social structures, progressively transmuting into modern Hinduism. As a result of this process the sun came to be regarded in its various aspects as a composite symbol of the triune essence of the Supreme Being. This triune essence is reflected in the Trimurti, the trinity in unity of God found in the mythology of the Hindus. In modern Hinduism the one Supreme Being is represented by three coeval and coequal manifestations in the form of Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver and Siva the destroyer. As a composite symbol of the Trimurti, the rising sun represents Brahma and signifies birth; the midday sun represents Siva and signifies life; and the setting sun represents Vishnu and signifies death.


Religion in ancient Egypt


Long before their first dynasty, the ancient Egyptians called the sun Ra. It is not known what the name meant, nor is it known what attributes it ascribed to the sun, but it is known that Ra was believed to possess the power of creation and was identified as the visible emblem of God and was venerated as the god of the earth. Osiris was identified with the constellation of Orion and was believed to possess the power of rebirth and resurrection. He was venerated as an astral body from the Zep Tepi or the “first time of the Gods”, who would conduct the spirits of the deceased on their celestial journeys from their earthly tombs to dwell in the heavenly Duat. Some of the most important of the extant Egyptian texts are the Wisdom of Ptah-Hotep, the Papyrus of Ani and the Pyramid Texts that date from about 2500 BCE. They say that the souls of the deceased will travel to the “abode of the blessed” in heaven, which is the “barque of millions of years” in which Ra sails across the sky. The ancient Egyptians believed that the sun had a morning boat and an evening boat, in which Ra travelled in the company of his morning and evening forms that were called Khepera and Tmu respectively. Khepera represented birth in both the physical and the spiritual worlds, which enabled the dead from the earthly Duat to burst forth into a new life in glorified form in the heavenly Duat. Tmu represented death in a compassionate sense and supposedly was the source of the “cool breezes of the north wind”, which those who mourned the dead prayed for.


Despite this obvious cloak of polytheism, Champollion Figeac, one of the earliest Egyptologists who had studied the Egyptian texts intensively, said “the Egyptian religion is a pure monotheism, which manifested itself externally by a symbolic polytheism” when writing in Égypte in 1839. This view, which has been supported by many other eminent Egyptologists including the director of the School of Egyptology in Cairo 1870-1890, Dr Heinrich Karl Brugsch, was summarised by M. Pierret in Religion et Mythologie des anciens Égyptiens in 1881 when he said “the texts show that the Egyptians believed in One infinite and eternal God who was without a second”. The relationship between the monotheism of Egypt and such concepts as “body, soul and spirit” and the “triune essence of the deity” are reflected in aspects of the Egyptian beliefs. Many of these concepts are revealed in the texts of the Papyrus of Ani, translated by E. A. Wallis Budge in his Book of the Dead, which was first published in 1895 by order of the Trustees of the British Museum. In his discussions on the “abode of the blessed”, Wallis Budge explains the ancient Egyptian belief that the gods dwelt in heaven, each with its ka, khu and khaibit, where they received the blessed dead to dwell with them. Some of the relevant doctrines relating to this belief will now be discussed briefly.


The physical body of a person considered as a whole was called khat, which always seems to suggest something that is liable to decay and is the word usually used with reference to a mummified body. Notwithstanding mummification, nowhere do any of the texts suggest that a person’s corruptible body will rise again. It is only the sahu or spiritual body, after having obtained a degree of knowledge, power and glory that becomes lasting and incorruptible and rises again. The ka is a person’s abstract individuality or personality which has all its characteristic attributes, but can separate from or unite with the body at will and can also enjoy life with the gods in heaven, when it seems to be identical with the sekhem which was the power, form or image of the body supposed to exist in heaven. They are separate from the ab, which is seat of the power of life and the fountain of good and evil thoughts loosely referred to as the heart and also from the ba, which is the soul and signifies sublime or noble and was believed to enjoy an eternal existence in heaven in a state of glory. The ab and the ba are associated with the khu or shining one, which is the spirit of a person that after death joins the khu’s of the gods in heaven. Closely allied with the ka and khu is the khaibit or shadow of a person comparable with the umbra of the Greeks and Romans and the aura or subtle essence that it is claimed emanates from all living things and affords an atmosphere for occult phenomena.


After the end of the Old Kingdom, in about 2200 BCE, Egypt fell into a state of rapid decline, when the priesthood progressively increased their authority over the people, using the accepted cosmogony and the associated pantheon of subsidiary gods to their own benefit. This insidious state of affairs continued for more than 800 years, until the pharaoh Amenophis IV (1372-1354 BCE) and his beautiful wife Nefertiti overthrew the power of the priesthood during the sixth year of their reign. They renounced the worship of the old gods and emphasised the power of an intangible deity. Amenophis IV overruled the apparent functions of the old gods and introduced a purified form of solar monotheism as the official religion. He emphasised his action by changing the name of the sun disc of the absolute god Ra from Amen to Aten, at the same time changing his own name to Akhenaten, meaning the Glory of the Aten.


In the mind of the Egyptians, the sun represented the source of all life and creation, whose power was made manifest by its life-giving rays. It was synonymous with movement and typified the life of man, with sunrise in the east representing birth and sunset in the west representing death. The Egyptians also developed a moral conception of the sun, as a symbol of the victories of right over wrong and of truth over falsehood. The beliefs and actions of the pharaoh Akhenaten had an impact on the people similar to that of the covenant God made with Noah, who survived the great flood recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures. Many scholars regard Akhenaten’s unequivocal reintroduction of a monotheistic religion in Egypt as the vision of a Messiah who was before his time. However the priesthood strongly objected to their loss of power and did everything they could to resist Akhenaten changes, calling him the “heretical pharaoh”.


Ancient Hebrew traditions


The significance of the covenant God made with Noah is derived from the root meaning of the Hebrew word berith, which signifies to bond or to fetter and implies a binding relationship that is based on a commitment that includes both promises and obligations. In the covenant with Noah, God’s promise established Noah’s security, in return for which Noah was obliged to construct the ark and save his family and specified creatures. As a result of this covenant Noah, who was the son of Lamech and the tenth in descent from Adam, was able to hand down to his descendants two important religious truths that he had received from the line of Patriarchs who preceded him. These truths were a belief in the existence of one Supreme Being who is the creator, preserver and ruler of the universe, coupled with a belief in the immortality of the soul. Noah’s three sons, who accompanied him in the ark, were Shem, Ham and Japhet. The Hebrew Scriptures record that the flood occurred in the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, which was 2348 BCE according to the chronology established by Bishop Ussher in 1650. Modern research indicates that the great flood would have occurred about 12,000 years ago or a little earlier, during the melt down that took place towards the end of the last great Ice Age.


In the book of Genesis we are told that after the flood the descendants of Noah’s three sons populated the earth and used a single language. However the truths handed down by Noah must have become obscured, because we also read that when they had learnt to make bricks and to use bitumen for mortar, they apparently displeased the Lord when they said “let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens and make a name for ourselves” and put their words into action. The scriptures tell us that, as a punishment for their pride and disobedience, the people were dispersed from Babel all over the earth and that their speech was confused so that they could not understand one another. Babel is the Hebrew name of Babylon, from the Hebrew word balbel that means to confuse. The original Tower of Babel was the first temple tower or ziggurat mentioned in the scriptures. Archaeological investigations indicate that it was indeed built of bricks jointed with bitumen, almost certainly before 4000 BCE and possibly as early as 4800 BCE. The temple tower derives its name from the Assyrian word ziqquratu, which means a pinnacle and also is often used to signify the top of a mountain.


The descendants of Noah again lapsed into polytheism after their dispersion from Babel, in consequence of which there were serious deviations from the worship of the one true God that had been established by Noah. This lapse was not rectified until after the Israelites had escaped from slavery in Egypt, during the Exodus under the leadership of Moses when he was about 80 years old, probably in about 1280 BCE. We are told in the scriptures that the pharaoh’s daughter took Moses from the waterside. This most probably this would have been at about the end of the pharaoh Akhenaten’s reign, or very soon after. As Moses was brought up in a royal harem, he would have received a very good classical education and Akhenaten’s monotheistic beliefs would have been impressed on his mind. This might well have been the foundation for Moses’ belief in the one true God, but at the very least it would have reinforced those beliefs.


The tabernacle


Tabernacle is derived from the Latin word tabernaculum, which means a tent. It is the diminutive of taberna, which means a hut. In the Hebrew Scriptures the three tabernacles that are mentioned all signify a tent of meeting, which is also called a tent of congregation. During the second year of the Exodus, Moses established the first or provisional tabernacle after he had destroyed the image of the golden calf made by Aaron and the Israelites. They had made the golden calf while Moses first spent forty days and forty nights on Mount Sinai, when he was in communion with the Lord. The provisional tabernacle was an ordinary tent, probably that of Moses himself, pitched well outside the camp so that it would not be disturbed by the commotion of everyday life. Although there was no priesthood and no ritual was carried out, the people went out to the tabernacle as if to an oracle. A transitional period followed, during which the whole future of the people depended upon their contrition and penitence. Moses displayed the most earnest zeal and interceded with the Lord on behalf of his people, which was rewarded during his second stay of forty days and forty nights on Mount Sinai. This was when the glory of the Lord was revealed to Moses, the tables of the law were renewed and a new covenant was made with Israel. When Moses returned to his people his shining face was covered with a veil.


Moses then erected the second, or Sinaitic tabernacle, in accordance with directions given to him by the Lord on Mount Sinai. This tabernacle was a portable sanctuary in which it was said, “God dwelt among the Israelites”. By God’s special command the tabernacle was oriented due east and west, with its only entrance at the eastern end. The tabernacle was composed of two parts. The main part was the mishkan or dwelling, which was the tabernacle proper. The mishkan was covered by the other part, the ohel or tent, which was in the form of a fly roof. The mishkan was 30 cubits long and 10 cubits wide, divided into two compartments. The compartment at the eastern end was the Holy Place, 20 cubits long and 10 cubits wide. The compartment at the western end was the Holy of Holies, a perfect cube with sides of 10 cubits. The ohel or tent was a weatherproof covering, which the New English Bible describes as “a cover of tanned rams’ skins and an outer covering of porpoise-hides”. It is now known that portable shrines similar to the tabernacle were being used in Egypt before the Exodus led by Moses.


The tabernacle was constructed with vertical planks of shittim wood or acacia, each plank 10 cubits high and 1½ cubits wide, plated with sheets of gold. In earlier times it was thought that the planks were butted together to form solid walls, but modern research indicates that they were used to form a framework that was joined together by cross-rails to support ten linen curtains. The curtains were decorated with figures of cherubim woven into blue, purple and scarlet tapestry. In its strict sense, the word tabernacle refers to these curtains. The roof of the tabernacle was comprised of goats’ hair curtains. In the Holy Place there were a table of shewbread, a seven-branched golden candlestick and an altar of incense. The Holy of Holies was screened from the Holy Place by a veil. The Holy of Holies held the gold plated Ark of the Covenant, which was protected by two cherubim with outstretched wings. The cherubim looked down on the lid of the ark, which was called the mercy seat.


The tabernacle was enclosed within a courtyard that was 100 cubits long from east to west and 50 cubits wide from north to south, completely surrounded by a fence 5 cubits high. The fence was constructed with pillars of shittim wood or acacia. The pillars supported rods from which sheets of “fine twisted linen” were hung, probably similar to duck canvas. The fence formed a continuous screen around the courtyard and had a gateway 5 cubits wide at the eastern end. A screen of “needlework of blue and purple and scarlet and fine twined linen” closed the gateway. In the courtyard, spaced along the centre-line between the gate and the entrance to the tabernacle, were a brazen altar nearest to the gate and a laver nearest to the tabernacle. When the tabernacle was complete, Moses consecrated Aaron and his sons to the priesthood, numbered the people and arranged the order in which the tribes would assemble when in camp and on the march. While Canaan remained unconquered, the host of Israel continued to move as an army. They dismantled the tabernacle to move it from place to place, setting it up again wherever the people intended to be camped for some time.


The host of Israel finally arrived at Shiloh in about 1220 BCE, where they stayed for almost 200 years. When the Philistines destroyed the central sanctuary at Shiloh in about 1050 BCE, worship was transferred to Mizpeh. Later, when the Philistines had returned the plundered tabernacle and its contents to the Israelites, the Ark of the Covenant was kept at Kiriath-jearim, but the tabernacle, the brazen altar and the tables for the shewbread were moved to Nob. The contents of the tabernacle were kept at Nob until about 1025 BCE when Saul, the first king of Israel, destroyed the shrine in which it was kept. Saul did this because he heard that the priests had assisted the fugitive David when he raided the shrine at Nob and then had Ahimelech and the other eighty-five priests put to death. The tabernacle, brazen altar and shewbread were then moved to Gibeon. When Saul died about 1010 BCE, David became king over Judah in the south. After David had consolidated the supremacy of Judah over the other tribes about seven years later, he captured the Jebusite city of Jerusalem and became king over Israel in the north and the first king over the united kingdom of “all Israel”. David then moved the Ark of the Covenant from Kiriath-jearim to Mount Zion, where he established the third tabernacle, usually called the Davidic tabernacle.


King Solomon’s Temple


After King David had established the tabernacle at Mount Zion, he purchased the site of the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite, on top of Mount Moriah. He then began collecting materials and gathering treasure for the construction of a temple. It is recorded in I Chronicles 22:7-9, that before King David died he charged his son Solomon to build a temple, saying that although he himself had intended to build one he had been forbidden to do so when the Lord said to him:


“You have shed much blood in my sight and waged great wars; for this reason you shall not build a house in my name. But you shall have a son . . . Solomon, ‘Man of Peace’  . . . He shall build a house in honour of my name . . . and I will establish the throne of his sovereignty over Israel forever.”


King Solomon commenced work on the temple in the fourth year of his reign and completed it in a little over seven years, in about 950 BCE. It was not by chance that King Solomon secured the aid of Hiram King of Tyre and his Tyrian artificer, Hiram Abif, to construct the temple. King Solomon knew that the Tyrians were highly skilled in such projects, because they had been engaged in the design and construction of similar buildings for about a thousand years. Nor was the temple at Jerusalem the first of its kind, because many temples of similar style had been built in the Levant for centuries before King David first contemplated building a temple to the Lord at Jerusalem. Many archaeological excavations that have been carried out in Iraq, Syria and the Levant generally since 1930 show that the temple at Jerusalem was in a direct line of tradition that had been established in the Levant and was followed at least during the preceding two thousand years and probably for longer.


In 1950 a Canaanite temple, similar to King Solomon’s temple, was discovered at Hazor in northern Palestine, which dated from about 1950 BCE. Similar small temples have also been unearthed at Emar in Iraq and at Ebla and Moumbaqat in Syria, which predated the temple at Jerusalem by periods ranging from two hundred to eight hundred years. These later temples were contemporaneous with or perhaps a little later than the Sinaitic tabernacle, which strongly suggests that there had been an interchange of information and ideas between the various tribes inhabiting the lands around the eastern Mediterranean. In any event, the orientation and internal layout of the temple at Jerusalem was similar to that of the earlier temples, most of which also had two pillars that flanked their only entrance at the eastern end, similar to the layout of temple at Jerusalem.


The ground plan of the temple at Jerusalem, like the tabernacle proper, was in the ratio of 3:1 and the same internal arrangement was adopted. However the dimensions of the temple were exactly twice those of the tabernacle. Thus the Holy Place in the temple was 40 cubits long from east to west and 20 cubits wide, while the Holy of Holies at the western end was a perfect cube with sides of 20 cubits. The temple, like the tabernacle, was enclosed in a courtyard, but it was surrounded by another outer courtyard where the ordinary people could assemble. Although the fittings and fixtures in the inner courtyard of the temple were functionally similar to those in the courtyard of the tabernacle, they were more numerous and more elaborate.




In any discussion on the symbolism of an east-west orientation, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that in ancient times east and west respectively signified the regions, the places, the lines, or the directions in which the sun would be seen to rise and to set. At any given location the positions of the sun at sunrise and sunset varies throughout the year, especially as the distance of the location from the equator increases. However, the positions of the sun at sunrise and sunset at the summer solstice were almost universally regarded as the most important. Hence many temples and many of the ancient burial sites, such as the long barrows in the British Isles, actually are oriented more nearly on a northeast to southwest direction, so that at the summer solstice the rising sun will shine directly into the temple or burial chamber.


During the early period of Christian worship, when the gatherings were held outdoors, it was customary for the congregation to face the east. The earliest Christian churches had their entrances in the east, like the temple at Jerusalem. Lodges of operative freemasons have always followed the tradition of having the entrance in the east and the master seated in the west, so that the master faces the east, which is the symbolic source of light. However, lodges of speculative craft freemasons have adopted the reverse orientation. Possibly this is because, since early in the Middle Ages, Christian churches usually have been oriented with the altar in the east, which is the reverse of the orientation adopted in ancient temples. Although it is the custom to orient Christian churches on an east-west axis, site conditions have not always allowed this to be achieved. Even so, builders have often gone to extreme lengths to achieve an east-west orientation. The Canterbury Cathedral is a classic example of achieving an east-west orientation in difficult circumstances. Construction began in 1070, in the heart of a city that had been occupied continuously since about 200 BCE. This remarkable cathedral was completed in 1503, fortunately without destroying the ambience of the ancient city.


The east to west orientation is very significant in speculative craft freemasonry, because it is the symbolic source of light. The art of writing was first developed in the Near East as an essential medium of communication and traditionally the east is where learning originated. Unlike his operative predecessors, the master of a speculative lodge is seated in the east. Like the sun, which opens the day in the east, the master opens the lodge to employ and instruct the brethren. Also in contrast to his operative predecessors, the senior warden of a speculative lodge is seated in the west, but like his predecessors it is his duty to superintend the work. Like the sun, which sets in the west to close the day, the senior warden closes the lodge when the labours of the day have been completed. A speculative craft freemason first learns the symbolism of an east-west orientation in relation to the tabernacle erected by Moses near Mount Sinai, later amplified by an account of the construction and dedication of King Solomon’s temple at Jerusalem.

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