By Kerry A. Shirts MM
Eagle Rock Lodge 319
Idaho Falls, Idaho
April 27, 2010
The Acacia sprig plays a prominent part in the Ritual of the Third Degree in Freemasonry. We simply could not have a more appropriate symbol for immortality, for that is precisely what it signifies. “For first, the acacia which grows in Israel is an evergreen, a symbol of immortality containing all the hope and expectation of the life to come. Secondly the acacia was a sacred tree, the Hebrew ‘Shittim,’ and of its wood Moses was commanded to make the Ark of the Covenant, the Table of Shewbread, and all the furniture of the Tabernacle. Thirdly the word ‘acacia’ itself is a Greek word signifying ‘innocent’ or ‘guiltless.’ Here then, in this symbol of innocence, holiness and
Henry Pirtle, quoting Albert Pike, informs us “the genuine acacia is the thorny Tamarisk, the same tree which grew up around the body of Osiris. It was a sacred tree among the Arabs. It is abundant in the Desert of Thur: and of it the ‘crown of thorns’ was composed. It is a fit type of immortality.”
But a more practical reason for its choice, interestingly enough, is because of its hardness and durability that it is “a symbol for the victory over death,” and is an important part of Freemasonry, because it is associated with the legend of Hiram Abiff, where it was set at his head when he was dead.
Interestingly, in the Book of Enoch, Israel collectively is called “a Plant of Righteousness.” In the Zohar we read Rabbi Abba asked about how we know Adam and Eve were “saplings.” And the response is a quote from Isaiah 60:21 – “sprout of my planting, work of my hands, that I may be glorified…” They, along with Israel are “certain saplings, later firmly implanted… once planted firmly, their light increased and they were called ‘cedars of Lebanon.’”
In Egypt, “the tree could function in Egyptian art as a symbol of life, fecundity, and rebirth, as well as an emblem of a number of deities.” In the Salt Papyrus, sacred trees were visited at the temple, “and Osiris was conducted to ‘the mound of the nbh-trees’ while a crown of branches was cut for him. The ubiquitous holy tree ‘could not itself confer fertility, but it typified that perfection… which it was hoped to obtain by due performance of the rites.’ The Cedar of Osiris, the vine, the sycamore, the thorn acacia, shows, according to Kurt Sethe ‘that the same role was attributed to other tree as well.’”
Most interesting, “the vital sap [in the Greek epics, Homer, Aeschylus, Hesiod, Aristophanes, Sophocles, etc.] of the human body was spoken of in terms of plant life. Robert Ingham Clegg taught “in all the ancient systems of religion, and Mysteries of initiation, there was always some one plant consecrated…” “The early Freemasons very naturally appropriated this hallowed plant to the equally sacred purpose of a symbol which was to teach an important divine truth in all ages to come.” In the ancient Egyptian rites, “Ptah, Horus, Seth, and Thoth all enjoyed the epithet, ‘he who possesses life beneath his olive-tree.’ This certainly recalls Adam’s tree and ‘oil of mercy,’ which restores life as well as ‘the leaves of the tree [that] were for the healing of the nations.’ (Revelation 22:2). In Papyrus Skrine the initiate is crowned with cypress – another non-Egyptian evergreen. In the rites of Papyrus Salt 825, the subject receives a royal crown made of a branch that must be cut from a tree that grows over the tomb of Osiris. The cutting or splitting of the tree is thus an essential element in the rites, marking both the ending and beginning of a life cycle.” In the Dead Sea Scrolls ‘Genesis Apocryphon’ Abraham and Sarah and Pharaoh are symbolized by trees as well.
In the Babylonian Purulis festival the erection of an evergreen “coupled with the display of a fleece, are part of the ritual for expelling disease.” Interesting also is the Greek Septuagint Old Testament which says the Acacia is the Shittim wood in the Greek means “imperishable; not liable to decay.” The Burning Bush where God gave Moses the Law was called “the thorn bush,” hence proposed as being the Acacia. Tree and foundation stone were found together since one represented pillars of heaven, the other represented the cubic ark, both being motifs to ascend or get to heaven in the ancient rites.
The 4 symbolisms of the Acacia were succinctly summed up by Manley P. Hall:
1. It is the emblem of the Vernal Equinox – the annual resurrection of the solar deity.
2. Under the form of the sensitive plant which shrinks from human touch, the acacia signifies purity and innocence
3. It fittingly typifies human immortality and regeneration, and under the form of the evergreen represents that immortal part of man that survives the destruction of his visible nature.
4. It is the ancient and revered emblem of the Mysteries, and candidates entering the tortuous passageways in which the ceremonials were given carried in their hands branches of these sacred plants.
We are told in Freemasonry that by the evergreen and ever living sprig “the Freemason is strengthened with confidence and composure to look forward to a blessed immortality.” “Ragon says, that the ancients substituted the acacia for all other plants because they believed it to be incorruptible, and not liable to injury from the attacks of any kind of insect or other animal – thus symbolizing the incorruptible nature of the soul.” The many boughs of evergreen brought to the coffin of Osiris in the Egyptian rites, were thought to “symbolize the entire wealth of that fertility which Nature had now brought to birth.” There is much light to our Acacia in our Freemasonry Ritual of the Third Degree.
1. The Reverend Canon Richard Tydeman, P.G. Chap, “Masters and Master Masons: A Theory of the Third Degree,” The Prestonian Lecture for 1971, in “Ars Quatuor Coronatorum,” Vol. 84 (1971): 197.
2. Henry Pirtle, “The Lost Word of Freemasonry,” Standard Printing Co., 1951: 173.
3. Hans Biedermann, “Knaurs Lexico der Symbole,” translated in English by James Hulbert, “Dictionary of Symbolism: Cultural Icons and the Meanings Behind Them,” Meridian Books, 1992: 2.
4. R. H. Charles, “The Book of Enoch,” Makor Publishing, 1912: 25, and note 16.
5. Daniel C. Matt, “The Zohar,” Pritzker Edition, Stanford University Press, 2004, Vol. 1:220-221.
6. Richard H. Wilkinson, “Symbol & Magic in Egyptian Art,” Thames & Hudson, 1994: 91.
7. Hugh Nibley, “The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment,” Deseret Book/Foundation for the Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2nd edition, 2005: 292-293.
8. R. B. Onians, “The Origins of European Thought about the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time and Fate,” Cambridge University Press, 1st paperback, 1988: 221-224, for a fascinating discussion.
9. Robert Ingham Clegg, “Mackay’s Symbolism of Freemasonry: It’s Science, Philosophy, Legends, Myths and Symbols,” Masonic History Co., 1960: 249.
10. Clegg, “Ibid.,” p. 253.
11. Hugh Nibley, “Ibid.,” pp. 291-292.
12. Theodor H. Gaster, “Thespis: Ritual, Myth, and Drama in the Ancient Near East,” Gordian Press, 1975: 312-313.
13. F. de P. Castells, “The Genuine Secrets in Freemasonry Prior to A. D. 1717,” A Lewis (Masonic Publishers), 1971: 301.
14. Harold N. Moldenke, Alma L. Moldenke, “Plants of the Bible,” Vol. XXVIII of the Chronica Botanica, Dover, 1986: 23.
15. Giorgio Santillana, Hertha von Deschend, “Hamlet’s Mill: An Essay Investigating the Origins of Human Knowledge and its Transmission Through Time,” Nonpareil Books, 1st paperback, 1977: 223.
16. Manley P. Hall, “The Secret Teachings of All Ages,” Philosophical research Society, Inc., Diamond Jubilee Edition, paperback, 1988: XCV.
17. Clegg, “Ibid.,” p. 254.
18. Clegg, “Ibid.,” p. 255.
19. Gaster, “Ibid.,” p. 382.