Albert G. Mackey on the Rite of Circumambulation
Provided by the Oklahoma Chapter and Council Education E-Newsletter (https://okyorkrite.com/)
Extracted from the According to Mackey Column in the August 2021 Issue
The following entry appears on pp. 152-153 of the 1912 edition of “An Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry and Its Kindred Sciences” by Albert G. Mackey.
Circumambulation is the name given by sacred archeologists to that religious rite in the ancient initiations which consisted in a formal procession around the altar, or other holy and consecrated object. The same Rite exists in Freemasonry.
In ancient Greece, when the priests were engaged in the rite of sacrifice, they and the people always walked three times round the altar while singing a sacred hymn. In making this procession, great care was taken to move in imitation of the course of the sun. For this purpose; they commenced at the east, and passing on by the way of the south to the west and thence by the north, they arrived at the east again.
The strophe of the ancient hymn was sung in going from the east to the west, the antistrophe in returning to the east, and the epode while standing still. The strophe in Greek choral poetry was the first in a pair of two corresponding stanzas, or rhymed lines; the second being called the antistrophe. The epode was the name for the last part of an ancient ode or poem. In this procession, as it will be observed, the right hand was always placed to the altar. “After this,” says Potter, “they stood about the altar, and the priest, turning towards the right hand, went round it and sprinkled it with meal and holy water.” (Antiquities of Greece, Book II, ch. iv, p. 206)
This ceremony the Greeks called moving, 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 (Curcul., 1,1, 70), 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,” Si deos salutas dextroversum censeo. Gronovius, in commenting on this passage of Plautus, says: ”In worshiping 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 Apolio 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.”
Among the Romans, the ceremony of circumambulation was always used in the rites of sacrifice, of expiation or purification. Thus, Vergil (Aeneid, vi, 229), describes Corynacus 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 toward them.
Idem ter socios pura circumtulit unda,
Spargens rore levi et ramo felicis olivae.
That is: “Thrice with pure water compass’d 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 lustrate, whose primitive meaning is “to purify,” came at last to be synonymous with circumire, to walk round anything, and hence a purification and a circumambulation were often expressed by the same word.
The circuit of sacred places as a significant religious rite has many recorded examples. William Simpson (The Jonah Legend, page 18), says: “With the Semites there is one example which appears to be a good illustration of the principle. The pilgrims of Mecca perform what is considered to be a very sacred part of the ceremonies; that is, the tawuf or circumambulation of the Kaabah. The reason given for this is that the first Kaabah was an imitation of the celestial throne which is constantly being circumambulated by the angels. Going round sacred places and things is not peculiar to the Semites; it is a ritualistic custom that can be traced through most parts of the ancient world, and in many cases it is continued down to our own times. Being part of the ritual at the Kaabah, it is not difficult to understand how it gave birth to the mythos of the angels and the throne.”
Among the Hindus, the same Rite of Circumambulation has always been practiced. As an instance, we may cite the ceremonies which are to be performed by a Brahman, upon first rising from bed in the morning, an accurate account of which has been given by Colebrooke in the sixth volume of the Asiatic Researches. The priest having first adored the sun, while directing his face to the east, then walks toward 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 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.”
Lastly, we may refer to the preservation of this Rite among the Druids, whose “mystical dance” around the cairn, or heap of 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 worshipers. And so sacred was the rite once considered, that we learn from Toland (Celt. Rel. and Learn., II, xvii), 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 Deaseal, as the contrary, or unhallowed one by the north, is called Tuapholl. And, he further remarks, that this word Deaseal was derived ”from Deas, the right (understanding in this case the hand) and soil, one of the ancient names of the sun; the right hand in this round being ever next the heap.”
This Rite of Circumambulation undoubtedly refers to the doctrine of sun-worship, because the circumambulation was always made around the sacred place, just as the sun was supposed to move around the earth; and although the dogma of sun-worship does not of course exist in Freemasonry, we find an allusion to it in the Rite of Circumambulation, which it preserves, as well as in the position of the officers of a Lodge and in the symbol of a point within a circle.
The Rite of Circumambulation may not be without some suggestion of the old ceremony of beating the bounds or, as it is called in Scotland, riding the marches, a custom still observed in some cities. The procession usually started and ended at the town cross if there should be one. So much we are told on page 16 of By-Gone Church Life in Scotland in an essay by Reverend George S. Tyack.
A more elaborate discussion of the old ceremony of beating the bounds is given by John T. Page in the collection of essays contained in Curious Church Customs edited by William Andrews. From this we learn that in the early days when deities were called into existence at the will of any human power we may note the fact that somewhere between the years 715 and 672 B.C. Numa Pompilius introduced to the Roman cities the worship of the god, Terminus. The king originated a plan by which the fields of the cities were separated from each other by means of boundary stones. These were dedicated and made sacred to a god Terminus. Terminalia, as the Feast of Terminus was called, was celebrated annually on the 23rd of February. On this day the people turned out in force and visiting the several boundary stones, bedecked them out with flowers and performed various sacrificial rites with great rejoicing.
From the seventh century before Christ to the present time is a long step, but it is generally admitted that in this yearly Terminalia of the ancient Romans we have the germ of the custom known as beating the bounds, which in many parishes throughout England is still carried out either annually or every third or seventh year as the case may be.
The early Christians readily adopted some of the heathen customs to their own requirements. Thus we soon find them making a perambulation around their fields accompanied by their bishops and clergy. They repeated litanies and implored God to avert plague and pestilence and to enable them in due season to reap the fruits of the earth. We find these processions recorded as early as the 550th year of the Christian era.
The curious custom of whipping during these processions around the bounds of any particular locality came to form a part of the ceremony. In order that the boundaries of the parish might be deeply impressed on the younger portion of the community, it became common to publicly whip a boy while he was near one of these landmarks in the course of the procession. In order to encourage the youngsters to undergo this treatment, we find that a present was usually given to them at the close of the proceedings.
Something of the same sort has been preserved in certain religious observances whenever a piece of property has been dedicated for sacred use. Then the procession marches around the various boundary marks and dedicates them solemnly.
In all this there is a kinship showing the ancient source of the Rite of Circumambulation.
The full text of the 1912 edition of Mackey’s “An Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry and Its Kindred Sciences” may be found at: