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the point within a circle


part II - Symbolism and the Teachings of Freemasonry

W. M. Don Falconer PM, PDGDC

The Point within a Circle is an ancient and sacred hieroglyph that has been a symbol of great importance from time immemorial.

Ancient origins

The Point within a Circle is an ancient and sacred hieroglyph that has become a symbol of great importance in speculative craft freemasonry, but the usual explanation that is given in modern rituals differs significantly from the original symbolism. However, this does not imply that it is a recent invention, but rather that the symbolism has evolved over many centuries and has taken on various interpretations. As the ancient interpretation of this sacred hieroglyph is a fundamental tenet of the philosophical system that forms the basis of speculative craft freemasonry, it is important to examine the origins of the symbol. The original symbolism reflects the most ancient beliefs in creation, although the symbol itself appears to have been derived from an unusual modification relating to sun worship, which was widely prevalent among nations in antiquity.  A brief examination of ancient beliefs in Egypt, India and China will illustrate their fundamental tenets, which will then be compared with similar beliefs expressed in some relevant passages from the Hebrew Scriptures.

The Egyptian Mysteries

In the Egyptian Mysteries the sun god, Ra or Ra Harmakhis “the ever living”, probably is one of the best known. Ra was a symbol of the Logos, that is the Supreme Self or the Higher Self, who first created himself and then caused the Universe to emanate from its state of latency in Nu, who was regarded as the great god of truth and reality. The Greek historian, biographer and philosopher, Plutarch (c.46-120), tells us in his Morals that upon the first of the new made days of the Universe the god Osiris was born, when a voice from heaven proclaimed: “The Lord of all things hath appeared”. Then the goddess Isis was born. Isis was revered as the Divine Mother and was a symbol of the fount of spiritual life, which transcends the highest intellect and is the source of all higher emotions and ideal qualities that appertain to truth, love and wisdom. 

The Greek philosopher Plato (c.428-348 BCE) was one of the most important philosophers of all time. He says in his Letters that the ancients signified the Holy One by calling Isis by the name Isia, which signifies a current and a movement impulse of the mind that yearns for an object and is carried onwards. The Greek historian Plutarch (c.46-120 CE) informs us that Isis and Osiris conceived Horus the Elder, or Aroueris, while they were still in their mother’s womb, whence Wisdom (in the person of Isis) and Will (in the person of Osiris) primordially produced Action (in the person of Horus), which went forth as the Second Logos, which is the Self revealed upon the buddhic plane. The buddhic plane is the highest of the four planes that are said to constitute the arena of life in the present cycle. This Divine Union of the two sexes is represented in the Egyptian pantheon by the sacred hieroglyph of the Point within a Circle.

Hinduism and ancient India

The Veda, or Sastra are the sacred writings of ancient India. They symbolise the Word of God, which is the direct utterance of the Supreme within the soul and the Divine Law of true life on the higher planes. The Sastra are supported by the Upanishads, the theosophical and philosophical treatises that communicate the secret meanings and instructions hidden in the Veda. All the sacred texts of ancient India were written in Sanskrit, the ancient Indo-Germanic literary language of India. The Upanishads tell us that in the beginning Brahma was all “this”, by which is meant the Infinite Self that is invisible in time and space, which is not to be reasoned about and cannot to be conceived. “This” is also referred to as the Higher Self. Thus Brahma symbolised the Supreme Spirit, the One Absolute Being who breathed the Divine Life into time and space to commence the cycle of life as we know it and who, at the destruction of the universe, alone will be awake. 

It is a central concept of Hinduism that God is always identified with the totality of creation and can never be entirely separated from it. This concept differs significantly from the concepts held by the Egyptians and the Hebrews, because it requires that in the beginning God must have created out of himself, not from that which did not previously exist. The principles expounded in the Veda are interpreted in two great Hindu epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. In the Hindu epics Rama is the incarnation or Avatar of Vishnu and he personifies the incarnate Deity that dwells in a human being’s Higher Self. Coupled with Rama is his wife, Sita, who symbolises the transmutation of the lower emotions into the higher emotions that constitute the incarnate Higher Self. Thus in Hinduism, Rama and Sita are conjoined, together representing the dual sexuality of the Deity that is portrayed by the Point within a Circle.

Religious beliefs in ancient China

Tao is the ancient religion of China that is recorded in the celebrated Taoist work, the Tao-te Ching or Way and Moral Principle Classic. The ancient Taoist religion is also called The Way of Power, which is supposed to have been written by Laocius, a shadowy and perhaps mythical figure of the sixth century BCE, about whom virtually nothing is known. Taoism is a fanciful philosophy. It is steeped in mysticism, but has no static standards or conventions. The meaning of the designation Tao is identical with the word used to translate both the Word and the Way in the first and fourteenth chapters of St John’s Gospel. The designation Tao is of utmost importance in Chinese philosophy, because it primarily signifies the way and the road and is used symbolically to mean the Way of the Universe. The Tao is conceived as the universal cosmic energy behind the order of nature, which is believed to be the first principle, or essence, that preceded even the existence of God. The original reign of Tao is conceived as having been that ideal state of pristine perfection and spontaneous harmony, in which good and evil were unknown, similar to the portrayal that is given in the Hebrew Scriptures of the Garden of Eden before the fall of the human race.

Confucianism is a pragmatic School or Teaching that expresses the Taoist beliefs in a practical everyday form that the masses can understand. A central aspect of both Taoism and Confucianism is the ancient Chinese principle of negative and positive polarity. This principle is represented by Yin and Yang, wherein Yin is the receptive female principle and Yang is the creative male principle. Yin turns inward and comprises interior activity, while Yang radiates outwards in all directions like the solar flames. This ancient concept is recorded in the traditional texts of Chou Li, which were collated and edited by Confucius, possibly in the eleventh century BCE. Confucius expressed the concept in the following terms:

“The Great One separated and became Heaven and Earth. It revolved and became the dual forces. It changed and became the four seasons. It was distributed and became the breathing (ch’i).”

Thus in Taoism it is said that the rhythm of the Great Breath produced the duality of Spirit and Matter, while Yin and Yang respectively represent earth and heaven and together the dual sexuality of the Deity and all of the creation that is symbolised by the representation of the Point within a Circle.

 The esoteric teachings of Judaism 

The esoteric teachings of the Jewish mystics are encompassed by the Cabala, also variously spelled Kabbalah and Qabbalah. Traditionally it was taught that the Cabala did not develop, but was revealed in its perfection to Adam, so that any new revelations were only given when the original teachings had been forgotten. Notwithstanding this tradition, there is an alternative teaching that says  the Cabala was the secret part of the oral law given to Moses on Mount Sinai. In particular, the Cabala is concerned with the interpretation of the halakhah, the Jewish legal system that traditionally is said to go back in its entirety to Moses. In any event, the Cabala relates especially to the esoteric teachings of Judaism that have evolved from the time of the second temple, which was constructed by the Israelites after their release from captivity in Babylon, which took place under the Decree of Cyrus issued in 538 BCE. The second temple was enlarged and beautified by King Herod, who began the renovations in about 20 BCE, but the Romans destroyed it completely in 70 CE. 

Moses ben Maimon (1135-1204), who is usually referred to as Maimonides, was the foremost philosopher in medieval Judaism. Maimonides brought the teachings of the Cabala into prominence through his prolific writings, putting great emphasis on the Cabalistic conviction that God can be perceived most clearly through contemplation and illumination, by which the transcendence yet immanence of God can best be perceived. When explaining their teachings, the Cabalists place great importance on the subdivision of words and the numerical values of their characters. An important example in the present context relates to the Ineffable Name, which the Cabalists revere and have analysed in several ways. The English equivalents of the characters in the Ineffable Name, or Tetragrammaton, are IHOH. When read backwards and subdivided the Tetragrammaton forms the Hebrew words Ho and Hi. The Cabalists regard this to be a very important transposition, because in Hebrew the words Ho and Hi respectively signify He and She, which therefore mystically denotes both the male and the female aspects of the Creator. The Ineffable Name thus represents the Male and Female Principle, which therefore is equivalent in its symbolism to the Point within a Circle. The concept of the existence of a Creator with a dual gender has permeated all of the major religious systems since ancient times.  

Ancient beliefs in summary

A belief in a Supreme Creator has been a central doctrine of world religions through all ages, whence it inevitably became a fundamental tenet in speculative freemasonry. The concept that the Deity has a dual sexuality likewise has been recognised and accepted from the beginning of recorded history, as narrated in the first story of the creation given in Genesis 1:27-28 of the Hebrew Scriptures:

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.  And God blessed them and God said unto them, be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth and subdue it.”

The dual sexuality of the Deity is again mentioned in the introduction to the generations of Adam in Genesis 5:1-2, after the second story of the creation: 

“In the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made he him; male and female created he them and called their name Adam, in the day when they were created.” 

The first of those two passages of scripture also highlights fertility, which is a fundamental aspect and an essential tenet of each of the religions outlined above.

The ancient interpretation of the Point within a Circle evolved as a result of the fundamental concept that God existed in a state of dual sexuality and that the deity intended its creation to “be fruitful and multiply”. The Genesis account of the creation is not an original concept of the Israelites who wrote the Hebrew text, but comes directly from the creation epic of the Babylonian deity Marduk, which was known in Chaldea about 1,000 years before becoming a part of the Canaanite tradition, whence it was adopted by the Israelites. However, the original account was of Sumerian or even earlier origin, which the Sumerians brought into southern Mesopotamia when they first appeared there in about 4000 BCE. The Sumerians’ place of origin is still unknown. In his book entitled Genesis of the Grail Kings, subtitled The Pendragon Legacy of Adam and Eve, Laurence Gardner provides an interesting history of all that is presently known about evolution of the story of the creation recorded in Genesis.

Ancient interpretations

In ancient Egypt the Phallus, or male personification of the generative principal, was a symbol of generation or fecundity, as it was among the Asiatic races that called it the Lingam. The symbolism of generation established in the ancient Egyptian Mysteries, appealed to the early Greek philosophers who visited Egypt, from whence it was adopted and used in the religious festivals of Greece. The female personification of the productive principal was called the Cteis among the Greeks and the Yoni among the Asiatic races. When the male generative principal was conjoined with the female productive principal, the ancients revered the icon as a sacred symbol of the Great Father and the Great Mother, the two elements conjointly representing the generative and creative powers of the Divine essence. In Egypt the male generative principal seems invariably to have been carved from stone, often several metres high. In India the male generative principal was variously carved from stone or cast in clay, while the female productive principal usually was a concave elliptical stone eroded naturally by water. Many of those naturally formed water worn stones have been found in the Indus River valley and date from as early as 2500 BCE. In South America phallic icons carved in marble have also been found. 

In countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, the combined symbol in a three dimensional shape usually comprised a Cteis in the form of a circular concave pedestal, in the centre of which a Phallus was erected. In Asiatic countries, the combined symbol was manifested in various ways. Often a circle of stones, or sometimes even a square of stones, was used to represent the Yoni, but more frequently it was a concave slab or pedestal, from which the Lingam arose in the centre. In ancient times the male generative principal was also considered to be a symbol of the causal body, which provides the means of self-manifestation, including all of the qualities and powers of the soul. Among the ancients some regarded the Phallus or Lingam as the equivalent of the sun, realising that the earth is made prolific by the sun’s heat and light and that crops are brought to full maturity by its benign influence. Thus the union of the Phallus and Cteis, or the Lingam and Yoni, in a single compound figure or icon has been a revered and sacred symbol of birth and regeneration from time immemorial, which is aptly represented by the hieroglyphic of a Point within a Circle

In addition to its usage in the three dimensional form, the Point within a Circle was also used by the ancients in carvings or as bas-reliefs to decorate buildings and monuments. It is significant that in plan the Point within a Circle was an arrangement commonly used in many ancient religious monuments, such as the stone circles erected by the Stone Age people and later by the Druids. In ancient times the Point within a Circle was used as a symbol to represent the sun, because of the sun’s life sustaining aspects. The symbol is still used to represent the sun in astronomical notation. It seems a paradox and is to be regretted that in speculative craft freemasonry the candidate, who symbolically has undergone a rebirth at his initiation, is not made aware of the ancient and highly significant symbolism of the Point within a Circle. A discerning candidate, who hears the explanation of the Tracing Board of the First Degree for the first time, must be at a loss to understand why so little is said about the Point within a Circle, when the symbol obviously must be of considerable importance to feature on the pedestal. This is especially true having regard to the fact that in ancient Egypt two erect parallels were used in conjunction with the Point within a Circle

Evolution of the Point within a Circle

In its decorative form on Egyptian monuments, two erect parallel serpents of the cobra species, representing the Power and Wisdom of the Divine Creator, usually supported the point within a circle. Sometimes a serpent with its tail in its mouth represented the circle, which was called the Ananta from the Sanskrit word meaning eternity. At the centre of the circle, on either side of the point, the Egyptian equivalents of the Alpha and Omega were often inscribed to represent the omnipotence of God, symbolically surrounded by His whole creation, which was considered to have no limits within the scope of His boundless Power and Wisdom. In this form of the hieroglyph, the circle also was expressive of the protection of the collective people of the world by those two great and parallel attributes of the Divine Creator, His boundless Power and Wisdom. The two grand parallel lines referred to in modern rituals of speculative craft freemasonry are derived from this ancient symbolism.

Speculative interpretations

In modern speculative rituals the parallel delineating the northern boundary of the circle is said to represent Moses, the great leader and lawgiver of the Hebrew people, whence it is the symbol of Power. The parallel delineating the southern boundary is said to represent the wise and mighty King Solomon who constructed the temple at Jerusalem, whence it is the symbol of Wisdom. From ancient times these two parallel lines have also been said to represent the limits of the sun’s northern and southern declinations in summer and winter, which are the solstitial points reached on the twenty-first days of June and December, from whence are derived the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. These dates are very close to the anniversary dates the Christian churches have ascribed to St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist, who have been regarded as the patron saints of freemasons from medieval times. This is why the two grand parallel lines were referred to the two Saints John in the formative days of speculative craft freemasonry, prior to the union of the Antients and the Moderns, when the intention was to expunge any specifically Christian references from the rituals. Even so, the two Saints John are still referred to as the two grand parallels in some jurisdictions.

In modern speculative rituals very little explanation is given about the symbolism of the point within a circle. There is only a brief statement of geometrical fact and a short ethical exhortation to be as conversant with the doctrines contained in the Holy Book and as adherent thereto as were those two great parallels, Moses and King Solomon. By way of explanation, it is also said that a freemason who traverses this circle must necessarily touch on the Holy Book and these two great parallels and that if he keeps himself thus circumscribed he cannot materially err. Some understanding of the origins and the deep symbolic import of the ancient hieroglyph greatly enhances this meagre explanation of the Point within a Circle. The point or Yod at the centre of a circle also has an ancient religious meaning, signifying the Omnificence of the deity, which is alluded to in the following words from The New English Bible version of Isaiah 40:22 and Proverbs 8:27 -

“Have you not perceived . . . God sits throned on the vaulted roof of earth, whose inhabitants are like grasshoppers? He stretches out the skies like a curtain, he spreads them out like a tent to live in; he reduces the great to nothing . . .” 

“When he set the heavens in their place I was there, when he girdled the ocean with the horizon, when he fixed the canopy of clouds overhead and set the springs of the ocean firm in their place, when he prescribed   . . .”

Ancient parallels 

Earlier it was mentioned that the Point within a Circle was a sacred symbol that represented the Divine Union of the two sexes in the ancient Egyptian pantheon. It also was mentioned that in ancient Egypt two erect parallels were made use of in conjunction with the Point within a Circle. Those two erect parallels could be lines or representations of columns, but usually were representations of the cobra. The cobra or serpent played an important role in the symbolism of ancient Egypt and also was an emblem worn by the pharaohs as a symbol of their imperial wisdom and power. When used in conjunction with the Point within a Circle, the two erect cobras stand head uppermost and appear so be supporting the circle at their mid points, one on the left or northern side and the other on the right or southern side. They represent the Serpent of the North, which is Lower Egypt and the Serpent of the South, which is Upper Egypt. The Serpent of the North is a symbol of the lower emotions that emanate from the union of mind and desire, which is the lower mental plane that Lower Egypt was said to typify. By contrast, the Serpent of the South is a symbol of the wisdom that emanates from the higher planes of existence. To the majority of ancient Egyptians the land of Upper Egypt to the south was regarded as an almost mystical country, which they referred to as the “the land of the Gods”

The symbolism of the serpents supporting the Point within a Circle was reflected in the crowns worn by the ancient pharaohs. The red crown of Lower Egypt was in the form of an open mouth with a projecting tongue that was curled up and backwards at the tip, so as to return upon itself. Red symbolises the power of the lower self and the shape of the crown symbolises the uttered Word of Power, which is an expression of the Divine Life on the lower planes that must return to its source. The tall white crown of Upper Egypt was the crown of Osiris who symbolises the Higher Self and refers to the “voice” or Word that in the beginning was “with God”. White, of course, is the symbol of perfect purity and symbolises the power of the upper self over the lower self. The combined crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt after the union, the Sekhet or Peschent Crown was an emblem of the Divine supremacy over the higher and lower natures of the soul. Other regal emblems the Egyptians used in conjunction with the crowns were the crook and the flail, representing shepherding and agriculture. They symbolised the protective care and sustenance of the Divine Shepherd and Husbandman and were a reminder of the mount of aspiration that every individual must climb in order to obtain perfection. 

Concluding remarks 

In freemasonry the interpretation that is given for the point within a circle, bounded by two erect parallel lines, clearly has its origin in the ancient Egyptian hieroglyph and its interpretation. However, most of the original esoteric meaning has been overlooked and the identities of the two grand parallels have been changed, presumably in an endeavour to establish a setting that reflects the traditions of freemasonry. Moreover, in some respects the ancient symbolism has been reversed, insofar as the point is said to be that position which, if occupied by the individual freemason, is one from which he cannot err. In that context the circle represents the boundary line of the individual’s duty to God and to his fellow man, while the two grand parallels represent two human paragons of integrity, which is not the same as the union of emotion and wisdom by the encircling power of the Deity that was represented in the Egyptian hieroglyph. As a written hieroglyph, the point within a circle signified the sun and represented light, including the light of wisdom that comes from above. Used with appropriate determinatives, it also expressed many aspects of time and the seasons.

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