The Significance of Circumambulation

A reprint of an address by The Late Rev. Bro. J.T. Burchill and presented at the Victoria Lodge of Education & Research in February 1972. (No date indicated as to its actual date of origin)

The word “circumambulation” is derived from two Latin words; “circum” meaning “around” and “ambulare” meaning “to walk” and literally means “a walking around”.

It is not only the name of part of the Three Degrees in Craft Masonry but it is also the name of a SYMBOL.

Symbolism is a part of our daily lives. The characters which you are now reading are, per se, meaningless unless you are trained in the English Language; they are simply the symbols of thoughts in the mind of the writer. The student in school learns certain mathematical symbols. The communicant at the Lord’s Table or the Mass performs a symbolic rite which is capable of a variety of interpretations. The rings given at an engagement or marriage are symbolic of something which it is difficult to express in words.

Behind every Symbol is an idea, and it is familiarity with that idea which gives meaning and life to the Symbol.

We all know that Symbolism is the heart and soul of Freemasonry, but unlike mathematical symbols, which are precisely defined and can bear only one meaning, Freemasonry invites the initiate to speculate upon the meaning of its Symbols. As Freemasons we have an important duty to perform, that is, “to try to penetrate through the Symbolism to find its meaning”

The Entered Apprentice charge urges the initiate to “endeavour to make a daily advancement in Masonic knowledge” All our ritualistic work is written in Masonic Books, but the secrets of the Order are not capable of being written down. These secrets are concealed from both the members and the profane by Symbolism and it is the duty, as well as the privilege of every Mason to search for the meaning underlying our Symbols, that is              “a search for the truth”.        This is a search that will never end, as no two of us will ever find the same meaning to the same Symbol.

Bearing all this in mind, let us look at circumambulation as it is practiced in our Lodges today. I am referring to the “American” or “Ancient” form of ritual.

The candidate for each of the three degrees is conducted around the altar, that is, around the Lodge Room, by the Senior Deacon, once in the Entered Apprentice Degree, twice in the Fellowcraft Degree and three times in the Master Mason Degree, during which time the Chaplain recites the appropriate readings from the V.O.S.L.

Not only with all who have gone before him in Masonry, but also with the countless millions of men who, for thousands of years, have made circumambulation an offering of homage to the Unseen Presence.

We are told that among primitive mans first religions were Sun & Fire worship. This I cannot accept because I am old-fashioned enough to believe that man is a special creation of GOD and not descended from the monkey.

Those who believe in evolution have never satisfactorily explained the enormous gap between consciousness, as found in the lower animals, and the self consciousness as found in man alone.

That gap, I believe, was bridged by GOD when he made man as a special creation. Technically, Darwin did not teach Evolution; he taught “Survival of the Fittest” which is a totally different thing.

I believe, that in his pristine state, fresh from the hand of GOD, man, though uncultured and uncivilized, in the sense in which we use those words today, was too spiritual to worship the creature instead of the CREATOR.

We have today the written records of man, dating back 50,000 years, and in fact some archeologists are prepared to move that date back to 70,000 years, which give us a picture of a people, who fifty to seventy thousand years ago had developed a civilization in many respects superior to anything that the twentieth century has achieved.

We have on several of the Pacific Islands the remains of a system of canals, wonderfully engineered; also the remains of a network of roads paved with blocks of stones, so perfectly fitted together, that even grass will not grow in the joints.

On many islands we have the ruins of titanic buildings, 400 feet by 150 feet, and on one island, Tonga-Tabu a cromlech has been discovered, consisting of two gigantic uprights weighing an estimated 70 tons each and bound together at the top with another stone estimated at 25 tons. When you recall that Tonga-Tabu is a coral atoll on which there is not a particle of natural stone, the nearest available stone being well over 200 miles away, it leaves open a vast field for speculation as to what sort of ships these people had to carry such enormous weights, how they loaded them on those ships, and afterward unloaded them and set them in place.

On monuments, obelisks, monoliths, temple ruins and clay tablets, discovered in the isles of the Pacific; at Uxmal, Palenque & Chichen-Itza in the Yucatan; in Egypt, for example , the Great Pyramids; in Ur and Sumer in lower Mesopotamia; in India, Tibet, and even in the Gobi Desert, where Roy Andrews discovered the works of a highly cultured people of exceeding antiquity, we have the remains of antient civilizations whose members chiseled on monoliths and temple facades their history and philosophy.

These early prehistoric men have left remains which leave no doubt whatsoever as to the advanced state of their civilization.

The interesting thing is , that the first hieroglyphic use by these very ancient people for GOD (who for them, out of reverence, was nameless) was the CIRCLE, sometimes a plain circle, sometimes a circle with four dots, signifying the Four Great Primary Forces of the Creator.

A circle, the only perfect figure, having neither beginning or ending

This suggests to me, that they conceived of GOD, as a Being; Eternal; from everlasting to everlasting and this to my mind precludes the idea that they worshipped the Sun or Fire.

Of course primitive man found GOD in nature, thunder was His voice; lightning was His weapon; wind was His breath; rain was His fructifying power; earthquake showed His anger; fire was His presence.

You know how difficult it is for the average person, even today, to think abstractly (Esoteric); it is much easier and safer to think concretely (Exoteric).

Ask any Roman Catholic friend and he will tell you that it is much easier to keep your mind on the worship of GOD if you have before you an image; a crucifix; a picture or even a lighted candle.

So it was with early man. He needed a Symbol to represent the Infinite; and, looking up into the sky, he saw there the blazing orb of the sun, a Circle representing Infinity, and so the Sun became his Symbol for the Unseen Presence. The Sun gave light and heat; it kept the wild beast in his lair by day; it germinated his seeds in the spring; in summer it melted the snow on the mountains and filled again his rivers and lakes; it grew his crops; it ripened his harvest, it was a veritable source of life itself.

So man made the Sun his Symbol for the Infinite, the Creator; the Fountain of Life. With the Sun before him he could more devoutly worship the Absolute, His GOD; the Unseen Presence.

But there were days when the Sun was not visible. Man saw that fire gave light and heat; it prepared his food; it kept the wild beasts away; it warmed him in winter; it too was a source of life.

And so the Symbolic worship of the Sun in the sky was conducted by the Symbolic worship of Fire upon piles of stones which were mans first Altars. Heat and light man could produce by fire, so lighting the fire on the altar became a very important ceremony.

We all know that man is incurably imitative and loves copying what he may see worth copying. The young people in the home love to strut in their parent’s clothes  & playing grown up. In their turn the parents play that game called “keeping up with the Joneses” The valet copies his master; the clerk imitates the Officer Manager.

So too, early man imitated the movement of his Symbol of GOD.

The Sun seems to move from East to West by way of the South, and so early man learned to circle his Altar on which burned the symbol for his GOD, from East to West by way of the South.

And so circumambulation became an important part of all religious ceremonies. It was observed in the rites of the earliest inhabitants of the Yucatan, who have left us the marvelous ruins of the Temple at Chichen-Itza; indications of its observance have been found in ancient Egypt; it was part of the Elusinian Mysteries, which so largely influenced the writing of St. Paul ; it was practiced in the rites of Mithraism, (the worship of the Persian Sun God which rivaled Christianity for nearly 300 Years); it was practiced at Stonehenge and in innumerable other cults, and so down through the ages it has come to us.

When the candidate first circles the Lodge Room, round the altar, he walks step by step with the shades of millions of men who have thus worshipped the Most High by humble imitation

When you view circumambulation in this historic light, you find that it is no longer a mere parade, but a ceremony of the deepest significance linking all who take part in it with the spiritual aspirations of a dim and distant past.

But I have kept the best wine till the last. To the Master Mason the really significant of the Symbolic act is its introduction of the idea of dependence.

In the American or Antient workings, the candidate is admitted to the lodge room hoodwinked and remains so until after kneeling at the altar and taking a solemn and binding obligation, after which he is brought to light in Masonry.

When he is first admitted to the lodge room he is received in the E/A Degree on the point of a sword applied to his naked left breast. He is then requested to kneel for prayer, after which he is asked “In whom do you place your Trust??”

On answering “IN GOD” he is assured “Your trust being in GOD your faith is well founded, arise and follow your guide and fear no danger.”

The Senior Deacon then conducts him around the lodge room from East to West by way of the South, first to the Junior Warden, then to the Senior Warden and lastly to the Worshipful Master during which journey all those Officers satisfies himself as to the candidate’s qualifications for initiation.

In this simple ceremony of reception Freemasonry speaks plainly to him who would listen.

From the cradle to the grave man gropes his way in the dark and none could find or keep his path without a GUIDE who can guard him from all ill and the perils and pit falls of human life. In spite of all our boasted knowledge and foresight, we may at any moment be in the presence of danger, if not death itself. Truly, it does not lie in the power of any man to direct his path, and without a true and trusted friend “In whom we place our Trust” not one of us could find his way home. So Masonry teaches us, on our first step within the body of a Lodge, that we live and walk by FAITH, not by SIGHT.

This, to my mind, is the deeper meaning and significance of the Symbolism of Circumambulation, a meaning which, at the moment of its occurrence, escapes the candidate, under the stress of his novel surroundings and circumstances & not knowing what is coming next, as the Senior Deacon conducts him in his hoodwinked state.

Since no man can find his way alone, in life as in the Lodge, we must, in humility, trust our Guide, learn his ways, follow HIM; and fear no danger.

Happy is the Freemason who has learned that Secret.


I have no idea as to the date when this paper was written, however, the writers perspective on this subject was certainly beyond anything that I had previously considered and opened up to me a very credible explanation to this, obviously important piece of our Ritual. I do know that I will never take it for granted ever again.

Such is the beauty of being able to share thoughts and ideas one with the other. We are truly blessed.