Many a Mason fails to realize that the Acacia, both in its occurrence as the Sprig of Acacia and its occurrence as the proper material of the Horns of the Masonic Altar, is a symbol--an example of the symbolism of natural objects and, more specifically, an example of the symbolism of plants. Therefore, two suggestions for interesting study offered by Masonry are neglected far more often than they are heeded. This is hardly the place for the making of a full investigation of either of these two fields of research, and no investigation will be attempted. The most that will be endeavored is a brief review of certain phases of the significances of some few plants, with particular reference to the Acacia.
The practice of assigning certain symbolic meanings and peculiar significances to plants has come down to us from a time so distant "that memory of man runneth not to the contrary" and, although so far as present-day usage is concerned much has been lost, we moderns yet follow the practice to no inconsiderable extent. To cite but a few examples: the olive is recognized by us as the symbol of peace, the laurel of victory, the rosemary of remembrance, and the oak of sturdiness and strength.
The symbolistic systems of nearly all the ancient peoples included examples of the symbolism of plants. Among the Egyptians the names of women, except those of Egyptian queens, were, in the hieroglyphics, terminated, or accompanied by, a representation of a bouquet of the flowers of the papyrus. The bunch of papyrus was also the generic determination of the names of all plants, herbs and flowers. The bean symbolized unclean things--a conception adopted by the Pythagoreans and, therefore, of particular interest to the Mason--the apparent reason for assigning this significance to the bean being that the name of that vegetable, in the Hebrew, is the same, except for a difference in gender, as that of the nomadic people, which people were an abomination to the Egyptians.
Referring further to the conceptions of the Egyptians; the fig tree was, Portal in his "Egyptian Symbols" supposes, the symbol of marriage. The lily or lotus was the symbol of initiation or the birth of celestial light, indeed, on some of the monuments of Egypt the god Phree, the sun, is pictured as rising from the cup of a lotus; this symbolical meaning--that the lotus is the symbol of the birth of celestial light--was probably assigned to the plant by the Egyptians because of the fact that the flower opens at the rising of the sun and closes at the close of day.
In the legend taught in the Adonisian Mysteries, Venus placed the body of the dead Adonis on a bed of lettuce. In the Druidical Mysteries the mistletoe was a sacred plant. In the Grecian Mysteries the myrtle was of peculiar significance. In the Mysteries of Dionysus the ivy was a sacred emblem. And in the Egyptian Mysteries of Osiris and Isis the heath was held in veneration, this-being due to the following circumstance:
It is related, in a certain legend taught in the Mysteries of Osiris and Isis, that Isis, after a long search for the body of her husband, the god Osiris murdered by Typhoon, discovered the body buried on the brow of a hill; there was a heath plant growing near by. Hence, in the mysteries which Isis established to commemorate the death and resurrection of Osiris, the heath plant was adopted as sacred on the strength of the fact that it had pointed out to Isis, in her search, the spot where the body of Osiris lay concealed. Let us now consider the Acacia.
Among the Hebrews, in early biblical times, the Acacia or, as it is rendered in the Scriptures, the Shittah, was set apart from the other trees of the forest as the one from whose wood various objects having a special religious significance should be constructed. So that, as told in the Scriptures, Acacia was the wood from which were made the sanctuary of the temple, the Ark of the Covenant, the table for the shew bread, and all the articles of the sacred furniture that ought properly to be constructed from wood, including the Horns of the Altar. So, this tree comes to the Mason endowed with a special and peculiar importance and with a history that well qualifies it for that important place which it occupies in the symbolistic system of Masonry.
To the Mason the symbolic significance of the Acacia has a double aspect, as the tree is the symbol Both of Innocence and of Immortality of the Soul. Its character as a symbol of Innocence is dependent upon the two-fold meaning of the Greek word for Acacia as that word signifies both the Acacia and the moral quality of innocence or purity of life. It must be confessed that had not this conception-- depending as it does merely upon the double meaning of a word--the sanction of Brother Albert Mackey, it might seem to some a straining after the symbolical hardly necessary or called for, in a symbolistic system so rich in clear and straightforward conceptions as is Masonry.
But, however it may be with the assigning to the Acacia the character of a symbol of Innocence, the preeminent symbolic significance of the Acacia--that it is the symbol of Immortality of the Soul--is both natural and beautiful, being based upon and derived from the fact that the Acacia is an evergreen.
As the evergreen never yields to the Changing Seasons or gives up its hold on Life under the attacks of Winter, so the Soul never yields to the Vicissitudes of Mortal Life or surrenders its existence under the attacks of Death.
The Acacia, then, presents to the Mason's attention an example of the symbolism of natural objects and so points the way to interesting fields of investigation; reiterates that lesson taught by every investigation of Masonic symbolism--that practically everything in Masonry has a veiled significance not apparent at first glance, and not intended to be so apparent, but designedly so veiled in order that the Mason, to arrive at a basic knowledge of his craft, must exert himself-- and, finally, it presents symbolically one of the Great Teachings of Masonry--Immortality of the Soul.