The Principal Banners

The following monitorial instructions on the Principal Banners of the Royal Arch degree appear on pp. 247-250 of the “Freemasons’ Book of the Royal Arch” by Bernard E. Jones.

Entering a chapter, we see the altar with its twelve small banners or ensigns around it, and beyond, in the East, four principal banners carrying ancient emblems; generally, also, we see in the East a fifth banner, centrally placed, displaying the Royal Arch device – the triple tau within a triangle within a circle. We may, in some chapters, see in the West three banners beyond the Sojourners. Let us deal first with the principal banners, secondly with the ensigns, and lastly with the banners sometimes seen in the West, and in doing so attempt to avoid any undue repetition of information to be found in the printed ritual.

The banner comes into freemasonry from ecclesiastical and high civic custom. Great significance attends its display in the chapels of certain orders of knighthood ‑ of the Garter, St. George’s Chapel, Windsor; of the Bath, Henry VII’s Chapel, Westminster, are examples ‑ where each knight’s personal banner is suspended above his stall on special occasions. It is thought that from the establishment of Grand Chapter in 1766 banners have been in use probably – to begin with, no more than four in number. If they were what are now the principal banners carrying the symbols of the ox, man, lion, and eagle they must have been borrowed from the ‘Antients,’ who had themselves recently discovered the four emblems in a coat of arms associated with a model of Solomon’s Temple originally exhibited in London in 1675 by a Spanish Jew, Jacob Jehudah Leon. The ‘Antients’ adopted the coat of arms complete with its symbolic devices just as they found it.

With regard to the arrangement of the four banners, there is no definite rule; Ezekiel in its tenth chapter gives the arrangement as cherub, man, lion, eagle, but in its first chapter as man, lion, ox, eagle. The lion represents the tribe of Judah, the man that of Reuben, the ox Ephraim, the eagle Dan. These tribes were encamped respectively east, south, west, and north of the Tabernacle. The order last given (lion, man, ox, eagle) is the sun‑wise direction. In the present armorial bearings of Grand Lodge, which, of course, incorporated those of the ‘Antients’ Grand Lodge at the Craft Union, the order is lion, ox (calf), man, eagle, agreeing with that given in Revelation iv, 7. Taking this order and remembering that the lion represents strength and power, the ox, or calf, patience and assiduity, the man intelligence and understanding, and the eagle promptness and celerity in doing the will and pleasure of the great I am, then the progression in meaning and significance is appropriate.

The Book of Revelation represents the emblems of four distinct beings: the Old Testament represents them as four faces. The oldest emblazonment known in the records of Freemasons’ Hall, London (date about 1776), shows a golden lion on a red ground, a black ox on a blue ground, a red man on a white or yellow ground, and a golden eagle on a green ground, but it is obvious that banners have been produced to suit the different tastes and whims of many individuals.

The derivation of these four emblems has been learnedly dealt with by G. S. Shepherd‑Jones. He recalls that the very ancient peoples regarded fire, light, and air as direct manifestations of the Deity, and symbolized them by the bull, the lion, and the eagle: the rage of the bull to denote fire; the piercing eyes of the lion to denote light; and the soaring flight of the eagle to denote air. Later they gave the Deity these three attributes, and depicted a human body with three heads ‑ those of the bull, the lion, and the eagle. To other ancient gods they gave several heads, and to some several arms, all in an attempt to signify their god and his attributes. Then, in the course of time, the Egyptians and possibly still earlier peoples transformed their three‑headed god into four separate figures which, after some elaboration, became the bull, the lion, the eagle, and the man. The Hebrews, after their exodus from Egypt, adopted the symbols, and thus we find the ox and the lion upon the bases of the lavers (brazen vessels in which the priests washed) of the Temple at Jerusalem.

These four sacred symbols, to which there are many references in the Jewish Talmud, were ascribed in a book by St. Irenaeus (second century) to the four Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, so obviously they had acquired a Christian significance at a very early date. The eagle became a prominent church symbol, and in some old parish churches there was an eagle desk at which certain processions halted and the Gospel was sung. The Old Masonic Charges well knew the eagle symbol. The presence in an old lodge of a carved eagle may possibly mean either that the lodge was dedicated to St. John the Evangelist, as lodges commonly were, or is evidence of a Royal Arch association. In the Chapter of St. James, No. 2, is an eagle carved and gilded.

In their Christian application a winged man represented the incarnation of Christ; a winged ox His passion; a winged lion His resurrection; and the eagle His ascension (and in the order thus given are respectively associated with SS. Matthew, Luke, Mark, and John). All the four emblems appear on a notable crucifix, that in the cathedral of Minden, Germany. At the foot of the cross is the man, and at the head the eagle. At the end of the arm on the figure’s right is the lion, on his left the ox.

The arms of the Grand Lodge of England consist essentially of two cherubim (plural of cherub), one on each side of a shield. Above the shield is the Ark of the Covenant, over which is Hebrew lettering, Kodes la Adonai, meaning ‘Holiness to the Lord.’ We learn much of the genesis of the whole device when we read Exodus xxv, describing the cherubim spreading out their wings on high and covering the mercy seat with their wings. Cherubim in the coat of arms are obviously symbolic figures, probably derived from an Assyrian representation in a sacred figure of the wings of an eagle, the body partly of an ox and partly of a lion and the face of a man. These figures have a close affinity with the symbolic figures represented by the four principal banners.

The Twelve Ensigns

The ensigns arranged around the altar commemorate the Children of Israel during their forty years’ travel in the wilderness, in the course of which banners were regularly set up and the tribes assembled and pitched their tents around their own individual banner.

Each ensign carries an emblematic device, the choice of emblem being governed by Jacob’s prophecy relating to the posterity of the different tribes. These tribes had been scattered throughout the length,but not much of the breadth, of Palestine. In the extreme North, near Lake Meron, were Asher and Naphtali, south of them Zebulun, and to the east of the Sea of Galilee Manasseh. Much farther south, below Manasseh, came Gad, and at the extreme south, to the east of the Dead Sea, Reuben. The six other tribes were all west of the river Jordan: starting from the North, they were Issachar, next a branch of the tribe of Manasseh, then Ephraim, Dan, Benjamin (close to Jerusalem), and finally, on the west shore of the Dead Sea, Judah and Simeon.

Jacob had twelve sons, each the head of a tribe, but on his deathbed he adopted Ephraim and Manasseh, the sons of Joseph, although on the distribution of land by Joshua the tribes counted but as twelve. Levi had no land, but some cities and many privileges. Rather more than 700 years B.C. ten of the tribes revolted from the House of Israel and took Jeroboam as their king, leaving Judah and Benjamin still faithful to the government of the line of David. Vast numbers of the revolted tribes under Jeroboam were carried into captivity beyond the Euphrates, and it is unlikely that many of them ever returned. Ultimately the tribes of Judah and Benjamin were taken into exile by Nebuchadnezzar, this exile leading up to the epoch in Jewish history with which the story of the English Royal Arch is concerned.

Each ensign carries the name of a tribe and a distinguishing emblem, as here shown:

Judah …… lion couchant and sceptre.

Benjamin …… wolf.

Dan …… horse and rider, a serpent biting the heels of the horse; sometimes an eagle in the background.

Asher …… tree or cup.

Naphtali …… hind.

Manasseh …… vine on a wall. (took the place of Levi)

Issachar …… ass couched between two burdens.

Zebulun …… ship in haven.

Reuben …… man on red ensign.

Simeon …… sword or crossed swords, sometimes with tower.

Gad …… troop of horsemen.

Ephraim …… ox.

Originally these ensigns were arranged to form a square, a most inconvenient arrangement, so it has come about that in most chapters the ensigns are in two lines, six in each, generally facing inward towards the altar, although sometimes all the ensigns face west. Some chapters have compromised by placing the ensigns in a slightly slanting position so that they can be clearly seen by anyone in the west.