The Masonic Altar W.·. Henry Perrault
MLR 10/17/1988 Paper #182
This paper is presented to inform the candidate: (and to refresh the membership) in the usage of
Masonic Language and reference heard in the Lodge Room
The most important article of furniture in a Lodge room is undoubtedly the altar. It is worth while,
then, to investigate its character and its relation to the altars of other religious institutions. The
definition of an altar is very simple. It is a structure elevated above the ground, and appropriated
to some service connected with worship, such as the offering of obligations, sacrifices or prayers.
Altars, among the ancients, were generally made of turf or stone. When permanently erected and
not on any sudden emergency, they were generally built in regular courses of masonry, and usually in a cubical form. Altars were erected long before temples. Thus, Noah is said to have erected one as soon as he came forth from the ark. Heroditus gives the Egyptians the credit of being the first among the heathen nations who invented altars.
Among the ancients, both Jews and Gentiles, altars were of two kinds, for incense and for
sacrifice. The latter were always erect:ed in the open air, outside and in front of the temple. Altars
of incense only were permitted within the Temple walls. Animals were slain, and offered on the
altars of burnt offerings, On the altars of incense, bloodless sacrifices were presented and incense
was burnt to the Deity.
The Masonic altar, which, like everything else in Masonry is symbolic, appears to combine the character and uses of both of these altars. It is an altar of sacrifice, for on it the candidate is directed to lay his passions and vices as an oblation to the Deity, while he offers up the thoughts of a pure heart as a fitting incense to the Grand Architect of the Universe. The altar is, therefore, the most holy place in a Lodge.
Among the ancients the altar was always invested with peculiar sanctity. Altars were Diaces of refuge and the supplicants who fled to them were considered as having placed themselves under the protection of the deity to wh
om the altar was consecrated, and to do violence even to slaves and criminals at the altar, or to drag them from it, was regarded as an act of violence to the deity himself, and was hence a sacrilegious crime. The marriage covenant among the ancients was always solemnized at the altar, and men were accustomed to make all their solemn contracts and treaties by taking oaths at altars. An oath taken or a vow made at the altar was considered as more solemn and binding than one assumed under other circumstances. Hence, Hannibal’s father brought him to the Carthaginian altar when he was about to make him swear e:er enmity to the Roman power. In all the religions of antiquity, it was the usage of the priests and the people to pass around the altar in the course of the sun, that is to say, from the east, by the way of the south, to the west, singing paeans or hymns of praise as a part of their worship.
From all this we see that the altar in Masonry is not merely a convenient article of furniture, intended, like a table, to hold a Bible. It is a sacred utensil of religion, intended, like the altars of the ancient temples for religious uses, and thus identifying Masonry, by its necessary existence in our Lodges, as a religious institution. Its presence should also lead the contemplative Mason to view the ceremonies in which it is employed with solemn reverence, as being part of a really religious worship.
The situation of the altar in the French and Scottish Rites is in front of the Worshipful Master, and, therefore, in
the East. In the York Rite, the altar is placed in the centre of the room, or more properly a little to the East of the center.
The form of a Masonic altar should be a cube, about three feet high, and of corresponding proportions as to length and width having, in imitation of the Jewish altar, four horns, one at each corner. The Holy Bible with the Square and Compass should be spread open upon it, while around it are to be place three lights. These lights are to be in the East, West and South. The stars show the position of the light in the East, West and South. The dark spot represents the position North of the altar where there is no light, because in Masonry, the North is the place of darkness
Coil’s Masonic Encyclopedia
Mackey’s Revised Masonic Encyclopedia