There have been many articles published describing the Masonic symbolism
of “The Point Within A Circle”, including those which ascribe (mostly)
metaphoric meaning to the symbol[i],[ii]and
others which illustrate that the symbol has unique Geometric significance[iii].
This paper describes a possible link between the traditional, metaphoric
interpretation of this symbol and a complex ancient system for star mapping.
This link in turn leads points to a connection between the Masonic symbol of
“The Point Within A Circle”, and an astronomical event known as the Autumnal
(or Fall) Equinox.
The Point Within A Circle
I will not consume the reader’s time and patience with yet another
general description of “The Point Within A Circle”. I will instead
concentrate upon those specific characteristics of the symbol which lead to an
understanding of the concepts which form the premise of this paper. The first
such characteristic is that the symbol has traditionally been considered a
two-dimensional figure, constructed with a compass, although the “point” at
the center of this construction is usually taken to be one-dimensional. In a
similar fashion the two parallel lines are two-dimensional. The addition of
Saint John the Baptist (to the left of the circle) and Saint John the Evangelist
(to the right of the figure) add a three-dimensional perspective to the figure,
but are represented by two-dimensional figures. The figures of the Saints John
are widely recognized to represent the feast days for these two Saints[iv],
which coincide with the Summer Solstice and the Winter Solstice, respectively.
When reflecting upon the nature of the Symbol, it occurred to me that the
entirety of the figure might be viewed as a three-dimensional construction. In
this construction, the circle would become a sphere, which is the
three-dimensional locus of a point. It
also occurred to me that in a three-dimensional construction the two parallel
lines might actually represent a cylinder enclosing the sphere or, given the
association of the Saints John with the Solstices, could represent lines marking
the Zodiac or seasons. As a step in gaining an understanding of how the ancients
might have represented the earth and the celestial globe, I researched the
interesting topic of star mapping.
Star mapping of course has evolved over the many
centuries, from the crude early efforts of the Druids to the first sophisticated
star charts developed by Mercator[v]
in the middle 1500’s A.D. Mercator[vi]
was among other things a professional cartographer, and spent a period of time
imprisoned for heresy. The basic method[vii]
developed by Mercator for constructing his star charts is similar to that shown
in Figure 1. Essentially he
visualized the earth as a spherical body surrounded by a celestial sphere upon
which the stars and planets were affixed. He further visualized a cylinder
placed between the celestial sphere and the earth upon which the position of the
stars would be projected and recorded. The cylinder could then be “unrolled”
(see Figure 2) with the result being an accurate map of the heavens. Mercator
developed several Astrolabes[viii],[ix]
(instruments for navigation using the sun and stars) as well as detailed
star charts based upon this principle. Some of Mercator’s Astrolabes have only
recently been discovered[x].
The influence of Mercator’s work upon society and history were enormous[xi].
Using the principles of projection mapping originally developed by Mercator,
other astronomers, such as Flamsteed[xii]
were later able to refine the method, producing star charts accurate to within
10”” (ten seconds of one degree). Many ancient star charts remain, and
contain beautiful illustrations of the constellations. A few of these may be
viewed at the website of Antiquities Dealer George Glaser[xiii].
When examining Figure 1 and Figure 2, the reader will notice that the
figure of our symbol appears prominently. The cylinder enclosing the earth which
is used to record the projected positions of the stars has been embellished with
parallel lines corresponding with the zodiac, representing the seasonal position
of the constellations of the stars.
The figures have also been marked (dashed line) to
show the ecliptic[xiv],
which is the apparent path taken by the sun in the course of one year. The
curvature of the ecliptic is the direct result of the fact that the earth not
only rotates on its axis, but also wobbles as it spins. This characteristic is
are the two points along the ecliptic at which the sun is at its furthest
northern and furthest southern position (the summer and winter solstices,
respectively). The solstices are located 180 degrees apart. The Equinoxes[xvii]
represent the points at which the Sun crosses the equator, either moving north
to south (Autumnal Equinox), or moving south to north (Vernal Equinox). The
Equinoxes lie at 90 degrees to the Solstices, and 180 degrees from one another.
These points have been marked on Figures 1 and 2. Please note that Figures 1 and
2 have been prepared to illustrate the concepts central to this paper and are
not intended to be scientifically or physically accurate depictions of the
stated in the beginning of this article, Saint John the Baptist is symbolically
represented by the parallel line at the Summer Solstice (left of the circle),
and Saint John the Evangelist is represented by the parallel line at the Winter
Solstice (right side of the circle). Note that in Figure 2 the Autumnal Equinox,
which is separated from the Solstices by 90 degrees, is positioned exactly in
the center of the circle, coinciding with “The Point Within A Circle” of our
Symbol. Because the Vernal Equinox is located on the side of the projection in
which the positions of the Saints John are reversed, it cannot be considered
“The Point Within A Circle” as detailed in our Symbol. I
will not attempt to explain the significance of this observation other than to
offer the observation that the Vernal Equinox is traditionally associated with
rebirth and the Autumnal Equinox with old age (harvest and preparation for
winter). Just as nature is reborn from the death of winter during the spring
(Vernal Equinox), so is the Master Mason reborn in his Raising. The Autumnal
Equinox might then signify preparation for the symbolic death
(winter) which precedes Raising.
is true with many of our symbols there is more than one answer as to what
exactly is being represented. I believe this is exactly the intent of those who
devised our symbols to begin with; even when we are presented with basic
explanations of our symbols during our ritual work, no deeper understanding of
any Masonic symbol is possible without significant reflection and study. If we
maintain an open mind, study often leads us to new and previously unthought-of
William F. Bowe, “A Certain Point Within a Circle,” The Builder
Magazine, vol. 4, no. 7 (Jul. 1918. http://www.phoenixmasonry.org/the_builder_1918_july.htm.
Accessed May 28, 2007.
Morris, Brent S. The Hidden Secrets of a Master Mason – A Speculation on
Unrecognized Operative Secrets in Modern Masonic Ritual. 1982. http://www.mn-masons.org/assets/2368.pdf.
Accessed May 28, 2007.
“Feast of Saint John”. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume VIII.
Published 1910. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, October 1,
1910. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley,
Archbishop of New York. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08492a.htm
Turner, G L'E. The three astrolabes of Gerard Mercator, Annals of science
51 (1994), 329-353.
Turner, G L'E and E Dekker. An astrolabe attributed to Gerard Mercator, Annals
of science 50 (1993), 403-443.
Turner, G L'E Turner.'To find the mind's construction in the face' : the
newly-discovered astrolabes of Mercator, Bulletin of the Scientific
Instrument Society 43 (1994), 16-21.
Monmonier, Mark S. Rhumb Lines and Map Wars: A Social History of the Mercator
Projection. 13-15. University of Chicago Press. 2004. ISBN 0226534316
The Gresham lectures of John
Flamsteed, edited and introduced by Eric G. Forbes. London: Mansell,