Vol. XL No. 2 — February 1962

Symbolism: The Circle

Conrad Hahn

Symbolism is the representation of a thing, an idea, an emotion, or a quality by means of a sign or emblem that stands for or suggests the thing or the idea. Symbolism is the lifeblood of Freemasonry. Symbols are the stuff of everyday life. When we use words, for example, we are using symbols to denote ideas. Each letter of the alphabet is a symbol for a sound that the human vocal apparatus is capable of reproducing. Words, which are language symbols, make possible the communication of ideas without reproducing the material objects from which those concepts are derived.

Symbolism has always been prominent in religious art and literature. From ancient times to the present, the olive branch has denoted peace; the anchor, faith or hope. The fish was an early Christian symbol for Jesus Christ because the five letters making up the Greek word for fish, ikhthýs (ιχθυς), are the initial letters of the five Greek words meaning “Jesus Christ, Son of God, and Savior,” Iēsous Christos, Theou Yios, Sōtēr (Ιησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ Υἱός, Σωτήρ). He is also referred to as the Lamb of God, because the lamb in ancient times was a well-known sacrificial animal, and Jesus offered himself as a sacrifice to redeem mankind. The first and last letters of the Greek alphabet — Α, alpha, and Ω, omega — represent “the beginning and the end,” the all in all, therefore, God Himself.

Here we may begin to speculate on the symbolic use of the circle to suggest divinity. Every point in the line of a circle may be regarded as its beginning and its end. Every point is equidistant from the center from which a circle is generated. The circle, therefore, suggests the “universal handiwork of God,” every part of which is equally valuable and necessary to the Creation in which the Creator “moves and has His being.”

As ancient as this symbolism really is, it represents a late development in the intellectual history of mankind. Long before man had developed language symbols by which he could express such abstract ideas as the majesty and power of the Ineffable All in All, he was using the circle as a symbol.

It first represented the radiant disc of the sun in man’s earliest picturization of the powers that govern and regulate his existence. Primitive man lived very close to nature; the forces of nature became the first of the gods that he feared and tried to placate. Even today, in astronomy and the arts related to it, a circle with a dot in its center — ⊙ — is a symbol for the sun.

To develop the arts of civilization, especially agriculture, primitive man had to observe nature closely and “to trace her curious windings to her innermost recesses.” From those elementary studies he acquired a rudimentary knowledge of the heavenly bodies and their positions, of the apparent movements of the sun and moon, and of their relation to the planet on which he lived. The circle naturally became the symbol by which he tried to depict the annual “revolution” of the sun.

In the following pictograph, which represents a Stone Age inscription found in Sweden, the circle of small rings probably represented the sun’s ecliptic. The lowest point of the circle denoted the winter solstice, when primitive man was reassured that the sun would stay “on course” and that spring and summer would follow once again, to insure the seasons of planting, cultivating, and harvest time.

Swedish Pictograph of Circle

The human figures with arms upraised represent the “resurrected ones,” the “joyful ones," the prototypes of the more sophisticated god-like characters who in ancient cultures symbolized the annual mystery of Nature’s death and resurrection — Osiris, Tammuz, Persephone, and others. They also suggest the earliest celebrants of the festival of “the return of the sun”. . . the original keepers of the Feast of St. John the Evangelist!

Some anthropologists believe that the first civilizations sprang from Indo-European peoples who lived not in a tropic or subtropical area in central Asia, but rather in sub-Arctic regions of the European-Asian mainland. Their inferences are based on the persistent ideas and symbols found in ancient epics, which speak of a “year being a day and a night,” a characteristic of the northernmost latitudes inhabited by man.

Among the oldest pictographs found in Scandinavia, dating from the Stone Age probably, are circles divided into upper and lower halves, the lower one being filled or “darkened.” In such a symbol the sun’s ecliptic is symbolized by the circle; the year is divided into a bright upper half, representing summer, and a shaded lower half, representing winter. In lands of “the midnight sun,” such a division of the year into a day and a night is ‘close observation” of nature for primitive peoples who had not yet learned the art of writing and reading.

From this divided circle probably came the later refinement of dividing the symbol of the sun, the Almighty Power, into a male and a female principle. The Rig Veda, the oldest of the Vedic scriptures of ancient India, speaks of “the way of the gods,” which proceeds through the half-year in which the sun is moving northwards, as “the return into the womb of mother earth,” where the dead are “nourished” for a subsequent “rebirth.” The full circle completes “the way of the gods”; its use as a sacred symbol was common in primitive religions that worshipped the sun.

One of the earliest representations of the sacred circle was a conventionalized symbol of the All in All, the Infinite and his derivative powers, the family of gods. The following illustration portrays one of the commonest, one of the most ancient, and one of the most persistent "sacred circles.”

Sacred All-in-all Circle

In the Old Testament (Zacharia 3:9 and 4:10) we may read about “the seven eyes of Jehovah,” which observe and govern throughout the earth. In the writings of the ancient Persian religious leader, Zarathustra, we learn that Ahura-Mazda, the wise ruler and the holy spirit, had a retinue of six Amesha Spentas, the immortal Holy Ones. The central “eye” always stood for God, the Eternal, the central Power of the Universe.

In ancient decorations and illustrations, this symbol was frequently used to identify a god or to indicate a priest or holy person. It has been found in excavations of ancient cultures in Arabia and Mesopotamia. It is found on old coins of the pre-Christian civilization of the Celts in northern Europe. It also appears in Roman wall paintings and the catacombs of the Eternal City.

Like all symbols of a religious nature, it was very quickly believed to possess some of the power of the divinity it represented. It was widely used to decorate propitiatory amulets for the dead, to protect them in their journey through the afterlife. This symbol has been found on amulets made in ancient Crete, in pre-dynastic Egypt, and also on pre-Christian burial lamps in Palestine. It has also appeared in Christian churches of the early Middle Ages.

As man’s knowledge of astronomy increased, the number of heavenly bodies that were known to influence life on this planet required a revision of the “family of gods” represented in the sacred circle. As a result, this symbol is also found with eight, twelve, or more “eyes" in the outer circle. Always, however, the pattern remained the same. There was always one eye in the center that represented the Ineffable All-Highest, the ruler of the universe. Of special interest to Scottish Rite Masons is an ancient burial vault in the Near East on which this symbol appears with eight eyes in the circle, placed in the center of a double-headed eagle to represent the divine power of a Hittite monarch who reigned at least eight centuries before Christ.

With the multiplication of gods and religions that came with civilization and culture in the recorded history of man, the circle as a sacred symbol suffered “ups and downs.” It gradually became a symbol for the world or the universe, as man’s knowledge of geography and astronomy became more exact and more scientific. Even as a symbol for the sun, it lost its mystic or religious significance, and was used to represent a physical thing.

Nevertheless, the circle has persisted down into modern times as a symbol of the all-inclusive influence of the Supreme Ruler, the creative force of the universe. This is the real significance of the all-seeing eye, a more picturesque form of the sacred circle, which is usually explained in Masonry as the conscience. A good conscience, however, requires understanding and reverence for the universal ideals of “Gods way” for men. The all-seeing eye symbolizes the universal designs of the Great Architect of the Universe.

A complete study of the symbolism of the circle will lead a student into almost every area of human thought and endeavor. From the earliest sacred circles one is led to primitive astronomy, where the circle of the Zodiac illustrates the earliest science of astronomy. Here one may choose one of two roads, the scientific path that leads to the study of modern astronomy and its dependent disciplines, like mathematics, geography, navigation, or the more colorful but more bewildering maze of mysticism and magic, in which the alchemist, the “seer,” and the Kabbalist speak with authority. Through these one may discover the fascinating customs and beliefs of primitive peoples, and learn something of the magic rota, the cross of Wotan, which is synonymous with the fire-wheel that the ancient Teutons rolled down the hillsides to celebrate “the return of the sun” at the time of the winter solstice.

Archaeology becomes a “must,” because the circle is one of the commonest forms in which early civilizations plotted and preserved their knowledge and ideas. The "calendar wheel” shown at the end of this Bulletin, contains a record of historical events as well as the astronomical knowledge and predictions of the ancient Aztecs of Mexico. The employment of circles in the architecture of both man and nature is well-nigh infinite.

Heraldry makes particular use of circles to denote certain qualities or ideas. Our own Western cattlemen employed circles and arcs in a variety of ways to brand the cattle that they owned. Some of the most interesting meanings attached to the circle are to be found in the “hobo signs” which were once a fairly complete “language” for the “knights of the open road.”

Marks and signets were widely used by individual merchants and guild craftsmen during the Middle Ages. Circles played a prominent part in many of these identifying “trademarks,” which became synonymous with the reputation of the workman and the quality of his product. One of the most interesting areas in which to study such signs is that of “masons’ marks,” many of which contain circles to suggest a craftsman’s particular skill or workmanship. The fine arts and designing provide other fertile fields for studying the symbolism of the circle.

Speculative Freemasonry has not emphasized the circle in its teachings to the same extent that it employs the symbols of the working tools. Perhaps its meanings are more philosophic, more suggestive of abstract, universal principles, and therefore less easily understood, than the practical rules of everyday conduct suggested by the plumb, the square, the gavel, compasses, and trowel.

Circumambulation is a ritualistic act that uses the symbolism of “the sacred circle,” but it is doubtful whether the average initiate ever realizes this fact as he is led around the altar. A symbolic meaning of the circle is given to Entered Apprentices in the explanation of “the point within a circle”; but this instruction has been complicated unnecessarily by the addition of the two parallel lines and the fanciful introduction of the two Saints John.

The two parallel lines were probably part of a “secret of the builders” in ancient times, by which they measured parts of the circle. Irrational numbers like pi, π, were unknown to them, but they could approximate it in measurements for which they used only the simple tools that they possessed. In modern Freemasonry the important explanation of the symbolism of the circle lies in the concept that the circle denotes the boundaries of a Mason’s duty to God and a brother. In this idea of the universality of moral principles the symbolism approaches most closely the traditional interpretations of the "sacred circle.”

Operative Masonry, from which Speculative Freemasonry evolved, made a very practical use of the circle. It was one of the secrets of a master workman, by which he tested one of the most important working tools of a craftsman, and by which he was able to correct and judge the stonework of his laborers.

The tools that the cathedral builders used must have been very much like the ones in use today, but they were probably all made of wood. That substance wears when it is used on stone. Wooden squares would warp when exposed to water or moisture in the air. The mason’s square would not stay square indefinitely. The workman’s square had to be tested frequently to be sure that it was right-angled. Some standard had to be adopted by which a square could be compared to the perfect or “ideal” square, so that when a workman’s square was tested, it would not “materially err.”

The master’s “secret” was his knowledge that any angle inscribed in a semi-circle is a right angle, i.e., square. Draw a circle — any size and with a straight edge draw a line across through its center, i.e., draw a diameter of the circle. Put a dot on the circumference — anywhere — and connect that point with lines to both points where the diameter crosses the circle. The angle formed by the two lines you have just drawn is a right angle, a square. It makes no difference what point on the circumference you select. Lines drawn from that point to the ends of the diameter will always form a right angle.

This was the master workmans “secret,” — how to “try the square.” This was the method by which he tested the working tools of his craftsmen. If he did it often enough and carefully enough, it was impossible for their tools or their work “to materially err.”

Once again we may discern a universal meaning for the circle, both as a thing and as a symbol. A circle is a circle, wherever it is drawn. Its structure never varies, no matter in what language, race, or climate it is used. A master workman can learn to test the square if he learns the “secret of the circle,” regardless of his nationality, sex, or creed. The circle is a universal fact, or truth.

In a similar manner, a Speculative Master Mason may learn to test his square of virtue (his ideals, his standard of ethics and morality, his faith) by learning how to use the “sacred circle” of God’s plans and purposes to judge his actions and achievements. It must have been this symbolism that prompted the writers of Masonic rituals to place the Volume of Sacred Law upon the circle. The abstract symbol of the circle was not enough; its sacred character had to be made clear.

So long as Master Masons continue to test their squares by the sacred circle of universal truth, they cannot materially err in the performance of their duties to God and their brother man.

Right Angle in Circle and Aztec Calendar

The Masonic Service Association of North America