Vol. XXXIII No. 1 — January 1955

The Altar Is Born

This publication has thrice previously been devoted to this subject; “The Altar,” February 1924, is a spiritual study; “The Altar of Memory,” August 1938, is a description of a memorial service peculiarly Masonic; “The Altar of Obligation,” October 1945, considers the Masonic altar as the focus of its faith, the heart of the lodge, the spirit of Freemasonry. This Bulletin looks at the altar historically.

Between invention and discovery today there may be only a fine line; in primitive times the distinction was great.

Fire, for instance, was a discovery, not an invention; the first fires known to man were either volcanic or from lightning. The use of fire to change the composition and the taste of foods was doubtless due to accident — discovery.

The first vital needs of man are food, clothing, and shelter. Food the primitive found; clothing he made, first from skins; and shelter began with caves.

The wheel was a true invention, probably stemming from some primitive, brighter than his fellows, watching a log roll down a hill. “Planting trees on end and then laying others across to support a covering” was true invention. Twisting the wool of sheep into threads and from these crossing and intercrossing thus making a fabric, was true invention, as was the use of flax, cotton and other fibers in a loom.

The invention of the loom is a curious study of the necessities of many peoples in many lands, remote each from each, finding the same means for the satisfaction of that need. Spreader and heddle, warp and woof, shuttle and shed have been invented by so many races none can say “this was the place and people of the origin of the loom.”

Fire making, the use of the wheel, artificial shelter, whether hut, tent, ice igloo or log hogan, came into use all over the world, independently among all or almost all primitive peoples. It appears that human necessities produce answers that, while differing in detail, satisfy similar basic needs! The Exquimaux ice house and American Indian wigwam are different in detail but alike in purpose.

Such has been the history, so far as it is known, of the satisfaction of another basic need of man; a faith in the higher power and a means of expressing it. “If God did not exist it would be necessary to invent Him” said Voltaire. From the earliest times all over the earth, different people have “invented” the means of worship that we know as an altar.

Altars are made of metal, stone, wood, earth; they are large and small, high and low, stepped and rounded. They are for sacrifices, for incense, for worship, for safety, for prayer. They are for all people or for priests only; they are permanent and stationary or movable.

In almost every land, among almost all peoples, as far back as the archeologist, the anthropologist, and the ethnologist can go, the altar appears. It has been a universal expression of faith, belief, dependence upon a higher power; a focus of the spirit that seems inescapably a part of man as his need for food, clothing and shelter.

The altar in a Masonic lodge is thus the child of a long line of ancestors who go back into so remote a past that no historian may assign a date and say “here came into being the first place of worship.”

Apparently the first altars were constructed for the practical purposes of sacrifice, either by killing a beast, a bird or even a human being and, later, offering either or both blood and flesh as a “burnt offering” by the use of fire. Among the best known of sacrificial altars is that upon which Abraham was about to sacrifice his son Isaac.

And they came to a place which God had told him of;> and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar upon the wood. (Genesis 22:9)

The whole story of the rise of man from brute beast to civilization has never been told — probably never can be. If man has lived on the earth for a hundred thousand years, we have learned but a tenth of his story and that tenth often with great gaps in the tale of the development of his culture. So it appears impossible to put a date, even an era, to that turn in men’s thinking that took the altar from practical use and elevated it to a more meaningful, because spiritual, significance. The best that may be guessed is that at various times (within a few thousand years) actual sacrifices of blood or grain or personal possession became less important, and more so the thought that at an altar the Most High became nearer the reach of the worshipper. For thus changed the altars as known in Egypt, among the Twelve Tribes, and in Greece and Rome long after the nomadic Semites had built altars of unhewn stones for sacrificial purposes.

Acts 17:22, 23 reads:

Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars hill, and said, ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious. For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, To The Unknown God. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, Him I declare unto you.

Here the altar is definitely a place of worship and not of convenience of sacrifice.

There are 377 references to altars in the Old Testament and only 22 in the New. Interesting is the Old Testament prohibition of making altars of hewn stone, or using upon the materials any tool of iron (as also in the building of the Temple) a reflection of that fear of iron which for untold ages afflicted the superstitions of early man.

While the ancient constructed altar was intimately associated with sacrifice, sacrifices were often made upon or in connection with a natural altar. The ancient human sacrifices of the people of Nicaragua were made by casting the victim into the crater of a volcano. Among the Huron Indians tobacco was thrust in the crevices of a rock in which a spirit was believed to be. In some portions of Tyrol, meal was flung into the face of a gale to placate the storm demons. The Greeks made blood sacrifices to Poseidon by allowing the blood of the sacrifice to flow into the water.

The altar was important to the religious beliefs of the American Indians, particularly those who were the less nomadic. Ancient Natchez Indians had an altar with perpetual fire burning upon it. The Mound Builders made altars of clay and, more rarely, of stone.

In James Hasting’s Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, altars are described in Africa, Arabia, Syria, Babylonia, Canaan, Ireland, China, Egypt, and the Teutonic countries. In all, the stories differ only in details. In all, of these histories, altars seem to have begun as focal points for sacrifices and to have ended as centers of worship and adoration of a Deity.

The altars of Greece and Rome were built to many gods and goddesses. No people so accustomed to creating beauty out of stone as the Romans and the Greeks would build their altars of other materials; some of these Greek and Roman altars seem to have been structures of great beauty.

It is curiously interesting to members of the Masonic Fraternity that Vitruvius states “altars ought to face East.”

In early Italy there were altars in houses as well as in Temples, and even today, in some parts of Europe, notably in Russia where religion must be more or less hidden, there will be an icon or sacred figure in a livingroom.

The Roman Lares and Penates, domestic gods, particular to the household in which they were displayed, were not always within the house but sometimes on a small altar in the garden; occasionally portable altars were used.

In early Rome the citizens had a common hearth or altar in which an undying fire was kept burning to the goddess Vesta by the Vestal Virgins.

In Reformation times the church altars were looked upon as symbols of the unreformed doctrine. In England the name “altar” was retained in the English Office, printed in 1549, and in the first Prayer Book of Edward VI. But altars were afterwards ordered to be replaced by wooden tables. In the revised Prayer Book of 1552 the term “God’s board” or “the table” was substituted for “altar.”

The name “altar” has been retained in the English Coronation Office. In the canons of 1640 it was recognized, but with the reservation that “it was an altar in the sense in which the primitive church called it an altar and in no other”; and the rule for the position of the communion tables, which has been since regularly followed throughout the Church of England, was formulated.

In an American lodge room the altar is in the center of the room, or perhaps slightly nearer the East; this follows the practice of the ancient Hebrews, and that of the primitive church, which placed altars so that they might be surrounded by worshippers. The altars of the fire worshippers, in the open, were “surrounded” inasmuch as the rite of circumambulation, still a part of Masonic practice, began with fire worshippers who circled their stone altars from East to West by way of the South in humble imitation of the sun that seemed to them so to move.

In the Middle Ages the altars were placed against the east wall of the churches or against a reredos erected at the east side of the altar; the celebrant was thus brought round to the west side and caused to stand between the people and the altar.

In England the altar in the lodge is a pedestal near the master; English lodges follow the Middle-Ages church practice in placing the altar; American lodges follow the ancient and primitive practice, which has seemed to American brethren a means of making the altar more the common possession of all who gather in a tiled lodge.

Scholars, historians, authorities dispute about the age of Freemasonry; at times the argument is caused by a lack of understanding of a terminology. Before the age of anything may be determined, understanding must be of what the thing is.

Freemasonry is 237 years old if by the term is meant that society that created the first grand lodge. If its earliest document is correctly dated at 1390, Freemasonry is 565 years of age. If belief in the early date mentioned in the Regius Poem be sustainable and Masons met in the city of York in the year 926, Freemasonry is 1029 years old. If by Freemasonry is denominated an organization that employs symbols and religious practices that come from the dawn of civilization, then it is as old as civilization.

Freemasonry’s altars are derivations of the altars of churches. Churches received their altars from the religious sense of men whose simple human necessity demanded a point, a place, a structure, a something that they could connect physically with that which they felt spiritually.

The wheel, the hut, the cloth, the loom, the altar — they go back to the beginning of history and are answers to necessities. The Masonic altar is as much the heart and center of the Craft that reveres it as the simple pile of unhewn stones of the fire worshippers was their conception of a place in which dwelt the Unseen Presence.

If this short survey of the birth of the altar make any brother think the more of that structure in his lodge that represents the Sanctum Sanctorum of the Temple of Solomon, these words have served their purpose.

Question Box

This column will attempt to answer questions about Freemasonry

Are there Women Freemasons?

No; for a woman to become a real Freemason is as impossible as for a man to become a mother. A female duly elected, properly prepared, initiated and obligated, passed, and raised who signed the by-laws of a regularly constituted lodge could not be a freemason, as all which has been done would be illegal, and one illegally initiated is not a Freemason. The third of the Old Charges, foundation law of the Craft, states emphatically: “The persons admitted Members of a Lodge must be good and true Men, free-born, and of mature and discreet Age, no Bondmen, no Women, or immoral or scandalous Men, but of Good Report.”

There are at least two historic instances in which a woman was initiated. Prior to the formation of the first Grand Lodge, an Irish lodge, meeting in the home of Arthur St. Ledger, First Baron Kilmayden and Viscount Doneraile, had its privacy invaded accidently by the Honorable Elizabeth St. Ledger, later Mrs. Richard Aldworth. The lodge members decided the only way to preserve secrecy was to obligate her; she was, therefore, duly obligated both as an Apprentice and Fellowcraft.

The second instance concerns Helene, Countess Hadik-Barkóczy, born 1833, “made a Mason” in Lodge Egyenloseg, warranted by the Grand Orient of Hungary. The Grand Orient of Hungary took immediate action on this “breach of Masonic vow, unjustifiably conferring Masonic degrees, doing that which degrades a Freemason and Freemasonry, and for knowingly violating the statutes.” the Deputy Master of the lodge was expelled, the officers of the lodge had their names struck from the rolls, and the members were suspended for various periods of time.

The Masonic Service Association of North America