(Richard H. Ryder, 2017)
So, what’s up with all the walking around? Why do we, as Masons, ceremoniously process clockwise around the altar, always keeping it on our right side? The answer: CIRCUMAMBULATION.
“Circum” means around, or about; “ambulate” means to walk from place to place or to move about. Thus, circumambulate means to walk around from place to place, or more precisely, to circle on foot especially ritualistically.
Synonymous to circumambulate is perambulate, meaning to walk or travel through or around a place or area; to travel on or through especially on foot; to make an official inspection of (or boundary) on foot.
Circumambulation has its roots in ancient religious ceremonies – Greece to be exact. Priests and others walked thrice around the altar during a sacrifice, singing ancient hymns, one of which indicates turning to the right hand. The direction of the procession was always in the direction of the sun, from east to west. (1)
Romans also practiced circumambulation and moved with their right hand toward them. This was done during rites of sacrifice, expiation (i.e. reparations), and purification.
Druids, the high-ranking Celtic social class during the Iron Age (800 BC) also practiced circumambulation, making three turns around the alter. (2)
Some believe that after the completion of King Solomon’s temple the twelve tribes circumambulated Mount Moriah three times in jubilation. (3)
The Rite of Circumambulation has been practiced by Hindus, where the priest explains “As the sun in his course moves around 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”. (4)
It is no wonder, therefore, that with the sun as an important Masonic symbol, and centuries of ritualistic ceremonies of people traveling from east to west around an altar with right hands toward them, that Freemasonry adopted the ceremonial practice of circumambulation.
So, the next time you observe Masons circumambulating, or when doing it yourself, you will now know that mankind has been ritualistically circling on foot for thousands of years. Quite a tradition!
- Lexicon of Freemasonry, Albert G. Mackey, 2004. p. 80
- Encyclopedia of Freemasonry, Mackey and Clenachan, 1920. p. 152