The concept of an altar is as old as man's concept of himself and of God.
The earliest altar was a rough, unhewn stone. The Old Testament tells of stone altars being set up by Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and other patriarchs. More elaborate altars of wood and brass were built to accompany the Ark of the Covenant.
The shape of an altar eventually came to be more cubical, with carvings and inlays of brass and precious stones. When temples came to be built, altars became more elaborate still. The Jews then built two altars, one for sacrifice, the other for the burning of incense.
Christian churches followed in the footsteps of their Hebrew predecessors, utilizing altars in their worship services.
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, early churches were oblong, situated on an east-to-west plane, and the altar was placed in the east, the source of light. Freemasonry places the altar in the center of a lodgeroom, but recognizes that the true source of light does indeed come from the east.
In 2nd Chronicles and in 1st Kings, the altar of King Solomon's temple is described as being made wholly of brass, and covering a structure made of stone or earth. It was renewed by Asa, removed by Ahaz, "cleansed" by Hezekiah, and then broken up and carried away by the Babylonians. It was re-erected upon the return of the Jews from Babylonian captivity, defiled by Antiochus IV, and renewed again by Judas Maccabeus when he re-took Jerusalem. There again it stood until the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.
The underlying stone formation that held the altar is believed to still stand at the site, now the Mosque of Omar underneath the great dome.
A dismantled altar was discovered at the ruins of ancient Beersheba and was most likely destroyed during a revival, possibly by King Hezekiah. The Bible says that Hezekiah, "removed the high places and broke down the sacred pillars and cut down the Asherah. He also broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the sons of Israel burned incense to it." (2 Kings 18:4). One of the stones that compose this altar is engraved with a serpent.
A stone altar found in Scotland dates from 200 A.D., and is believed to have been used for human sacrifice.
Today altars are used not only in Freemasonry and Christian churches, but in Jewish synagogues (known as the bimah), Buddhist temples and homes, in pagan or earth-based traditional rites, and in modern-day homes.
Early altars were used to hold animal and sometimes human sacrifices to deities. Altars came to hold also incense, fires, relics and other more symbolic devices, such as gemstones, books, or other items that hold special meaning to the users of the altar, such as the Square, Compasses and Volume of Sacred Law on a Freemasonic altar.
Personal altars are used today as a meditation site, a place to focus one's energies, to sit and think and to pray, and thus these altars hold objects that symbolize the user's goals, dreams and desires. Gemstones and colored cloths are often placed upon such altars, as well as candles and incense.
Initiation into Freemasonry is a journey designed to lead the candidate into a greater knowledge of the Self and the Self's relationship to God and the Universe. Masonry calls self-knowledge "the most interesting of all human studies."
W. L. Wilmshurt, in his early 20th century essay "Masonic Initiation: The Knowledge of the Self," tells us that the very word "initiation" comes from the Latin "in ire," "to go within." He says:
...and thence, after learning the lessons of self-analysis, to make a new beginning (initium) by reconstructing one's knowledge of life and manner of living. The 43rd Psalm restates the same instruction: Introibo ad altare Dei, "I will go in to the divine altar." Similarly, the Masonic Initiation contemplates a going within oneself, until one reaches the altar or centre, the Divine Principle or ultimate hidden basis of our being.Thus the altar (and the Three Great Lights upon the Holy Altar) represents true self-knowledge, the:
"...unobstructed conscious union of the human spirit with God and the realization of their identity. In that identic union the unreal, superficial selves have become obliterated. The sense of personality is lost, merged in the Impersonal and Universal. The little Ego is assumed into the great All, and knows as It knows. Man realizes his own inherent ultimate Divinity, and henceforth lives and acts no longer as a separate individual, with an independent will, but in integration with the Divine Life and Will, whose instrument he becomes, whose purposes he thenceforth serves. This is "the great day of atonement," when the limited personal consciousness becomes identified or made at one with one's own divine, omniscient, vital and immortal Principle, which each must realize as the high priest of his personal temple and after many washings and purifyings against the contrary tendencies of his former unregenerate nature. This was the secret supreme attainment hinted at in the cryptic maxim "Know thyself!" Each of us may judge for himself whether he has yet reached it.Freemasonry | Archeology | Altar
To find our own Centre, our real self, involves, therefore, a turning inwards of our previously externalized faculties of sense and thought, and an introspective penetration of the outlying circumferential elements of our nature until the Centre" is found. This task is figured by our ceremonial perambulations and by the path of the winding staircase leading from the ante-rooms and forecourts of our nature to the Centre, up which the aspirant must ascend, asking, seeking, knocking, all the way; being subjected from time to time to tests of his progress and receiving, without scruple or diffidence, such wages of good fortune or adversity as unseen Providences may know to be his due.
...Masonic Initiation has no other end than this conscious union between the individual soul and the Universal Divine Spirit.
This union is symbolized by the familiar conjunction of the square and the compasses. The square is the emblem of the soul; the compasses of the Spirit which indwells in that soul. At first the Mason sees the points of the compasses concealed behind the square, and, as he progresses, their points emerge from that concealment until both become superimposed upon the square.
Thus is indicated the progressive subordination of the soul and the corresponding coming forward of the ultimate Spirit into personal consciousness, so that the Mason can "work with both those points," thus becoming an efficient builder in the spirit
and rendering the circle of his own being complete by attaining conscious alliance with his ultimate and only true self.
An anonymous Masonic Short Talk Bulletin from February 1924 further enlightens us:
A Masonic Lodge is a symbol of the world as it was thought to be in the olden times. Our ancient Brethren had a profound insight when they saw that the world is a Temple, over-hung by a starry canopy at night, lighted by the journeying sun by day, wherein man goes forth to his labor on a checker-board of lights and shadows, joy and sorrows, seeking to reproduce on earth the law and order of heaven. The visible world was but a picture or reflection of the invisible, and at its center stood the Altar of sacrifices, obligation and adoration.
While we hold a view of the world very unlike that held by our Ancient Brethren — knowing it to round, not flat and square — yet their insight is still true. The whole idea was that man, if he is to build either a House of Faith, or an order of society that is to endure, he must initiate the laws and principles of the world in which he lives. That is also our dream and design; the love of it ennobles our lives; it is our labor and worship. To fulfill it we too need wisdom and help from above; and so at the center of the Lodge stands the same Altar — older than all Temples, as old as life itself — a focus of faith and fellowship, at once a symbol and shrine of that unseen element of thought and yearning that all men are aware of and which no one can define.
Upon this earth there is nothing more impressive than the silence of a company of human beings bowed together at an Altar.
No thoughtful man but at some time has mused over the meaning of this great adoring habit of our humanity, and the wonder of it deepens the longer he ponders it. The instinct which thus draws men together to prayer is the strange power which has drawn together the stones of Great Cathedrals, where the mystery of God is embodied. So far as we know, man is the only being on our planet that pauses to pray, and the wonder of his worship tells us more about him than any other fact. By some deep necessity of his nature he is a seeker after God, and in moments of sadness or longing, in hours of tragedy or terror, he lays aside his tools and looks out over the far horizon.
The history of the Altar in the life of man is a story more fascinating than any fiction. Whatever else man may have been — cruel, tyrannous or vindictive — the record of his long search for God is enough to prove that he is not wholly base, not altogether an animal. Rites horrible, and often bloody, may have been part of his early ritual, but if the history of past ages had left us nothing but the memory of a race at prayer, it would have left us rich. And so, following the good custom of the men which were of old, we set up an Altar in the Lodge, lifting up hands in prayer, moved thereto by the ancient need and aspiration of our humanity. Like the men who walked in the grey years agone, our need is for the living God to hallow these our days and years, even to the last ineffable homeward sigh which men call death.
...As far back as we can go the Altar was the center of human society, and an object of peculiar sanctity by virtue of that law of association by which places and things are consecrated. It was a place of refuge for the hunted or the tormented — criminals or slaves — and to drag them away from it by violence was held to be an act of sacrilege, since they were under the protection of God. At the Altar, marriage rites were solemnized, and treaties made or vows taken in its presence were more Holy and binding than if made elsewhere, because, there man invoked God as witness. In all the religions of antiquity, and especially among peoples who worshipped the light, it was the usage of both Priests and people to pass around the Altar following the course of the sun — from the East, by way of the South, to the West — singing hymns of praise as a part of their worship. Their ritual was thus an allegorical picture of the truth which underlies all religion — that man must live on earth in harmony with the rhythm and movement of heaven.
From facts and hints such as these we begin to see the meaning of the Altar in Masonry, and the reason for its position in the Lodge. In English Lodges, as in the French and the Scottish Rites, it stands in front of the Master in the East. In the York Rite, so called, it is placed in the center of the Lodge — more properly a little to the East of the center — about which all Masonic activities revolve. It is not simply a necessary piece of furniture, a kind of table intended to support the Holy Bible, the Square and Compasses. Alike by its existence and its situation it identifies Masonry as a religious institution, and yet its uses are not exactly the same as the offices of an Altar in a Cathedral or a Shrine. Here is a fact often overlooked, and we ought to get it clearly in our minds.
The position of the Altar in the Lodge is not accidental, but is profoundly significant. For, while Masonry is not a religion, it is religious in its faith and basic principles, no less than in its spirit and purpose. And yet it is not a Church. Nor does it attempt to do what the Church is trying to do. If it were a Church its Altar would be in the East and its Ritual would be altered accordingly. That is to say, Masonry is not a religion, much less a sect, but a worship in which all men can unite because it does not undertake to explain, or dogmatically to settle in detail, those issues by which men are divided. Beyond the Primary, fundamental facts of faith it does not go. With the philosophy of those facts, and the differences and disputes growing out of them, it has not to do. In short, the position of the Altar in the Lodge is a symbol of what Masonry believes the Altar should be in actual life, a center of division, as is now so often the case. It does not seek fraternity of spirit, leaving each one free to fashion his own philosophy of ultimate truth. As we nay read in the Constitutions of 1723:A Mason is obliged, by his Tenure, to obey the moral Law; and if he rightly understands the Art, he will never be a stupid Atheist, not an irreligious Libertine. But though in ancient Times Masons were charged in every Country to be of the Religion of the Country or Nation, whatever it was, yet 'tis now thought more expedient only to oblige them to that Religion in which all Men agree, leaving their particular Opinions to themselves; that is, to be good Men and True, or Men of Honor and Honesty, by whatever denominations or Persuasions they may be distinguished; whereby Masonry becomes the Center of Union, and the Means of conciliating true Friendship among Persons that must have remained at a perpetual distance.Surely those are memorable words, a Magna Charta of friendship and fraternity. Masonry goes hand in hand with religion until religion enters the field of sectarian feud, and there it stops; because Masonry seeks to unite men, not to divide them. Here then, is the meaning of the Masonic Altar and its position in the Lodge. It is first of all, an Altar of Faith — deep, eternal Faith which underlies all creeds and over-arches all sects; Faith in God, in the Moral Law, and in the Life Everlasting. Faith in God is the Cornerstone and the Keystone of Freemasonry. It is the first truth and the last, the truth that makes all other truths true, without which life is a riddle and fraternity a futility. For, apart from God the Father, our dream of the Brotherhood of Man is as vain as all the vain things proclaimed of Solomon — a Fiction having no basis or hope in fact.
At the same time, the Altar of Freemasonry is an Altar of Freedom — not freedom "From" faith, but Freedom Of" faith. Beyond the fact of the reality of God it does not go, allowing every man to think of God according to his experience of life and his vision of truth. It does not define God, much less dogmatically determine how and what men shall think or believe about God.
There dispute and division begin. As a matter of fact, Masonry is not speculative at all, but operative, or rather, co-operative. While all its teaching implies the Fatherhood of God, yet its ritual does not actually affirm that truth, still less does it make a test of fellowship. Behind this silence lies a deep and wise reason. Only by the practice of Brotherhood do men realize the Divine Fatherhood. As a true-hearted poet has written:
"No man could tell me what my soul might be;
I sought for God, and he has eluded me;
I sought my Brother out, and found all three."
Here one fact more, and the meaning of the Masonic Altar will be plain. Often one enters a great Church, like Westminster Abbey, and finds it empty, or only a few people in the pews here and there, praying or in deep thought. They are sitting
quietly, each without reference to others, seeking an opportunity for the soul to be alone, to communicate with mysteries greater than itself, and find healing for the bruising of life. But no one ever goes to a Masonic Altar alone. No one bows before it at all except when the Lodge is open and in the presence of his Brethren. It is an Alter of Fellowship, as it is to teach us that no man can learn the truth for another, and no man can learn it alone. Masonry brings men together in mutual respect, sympathy and good will, that we may learn in love the truth that is hidden by apathy and lost by hate.
For the rest, let us never forget — what has been so often and so sadly forgotten — that the most sacred Altar on earth is the soul of man — your soul and mine; and that the Temple and its ritual are not ends in themselves, but a beautiful means to the end that every human heart may be a sanctuary of faith, a shrine of love, and Altar of purity, pity, and unconquerable hope.
Masonic Altar | Temples | Know Thyself