The most important article of furniture in a Lodge-room is undoubtedly the altar. It is worth while, then, to investigate its character and its relation to the altars of other religious institutions.
The definition of an altar is very simple. It is a structure elevated above the ground, and appropriated to some service connected with worship, such as the offering of oblations, sacrifices, or prayers.
Altars, among the ancients, were generally made of turf or stone. When permanently erected and not on any sudden emergency, they were generally built in regular courses of Freemasonry, and usually in a cubical form. Altars were erected long before temples. Thus, Noah is said to have erected one as soon as he came forth from the ark. Herodotus gives the Egyptians the credit of being the first among the heathen nations who invented altars.
Among the ancients, both Jews and Gentiles, altars were of two kinds-for incense and for sacrifice. The latter were always erected in the open air, outside and in front of the Temple. Altars of incense only were permitted within the Temple walls. Animals were slain, and offered on the altars of burnt-offerings. On the altars of incense, bloodless sacrifices were presented and incense was burnt to the Deity.
The Masonic altar, which, like everything else in Freemasonry, is symbolic, appears to combine the character and uses of both of these altars. It is an altar of sacrifice, for on it the candidate is directed to lay his passions and vices as an oblation to the Deity, while he offers up the thoughts of a pure heart as a fitting incense to the Grand Architect of the Universe. The altar is, therefore, the most holy place in a Lodge.
Among the ancients, the altar was always invested with peculiar sanctity. Altars were places of refuge, and the supplicants who fled to them were considered as having placed themselves under the protection of the Deity to whom the altar was consecrated, and to do violence even to slaves and criminals at the altar, or to drag them from it, was regarded as an act of violence to the Deity himself, and was hence a sacrilegious crime.
The marriage covenant among the ancients was always solemnized at the altar, and men were accustomed to make all their solemn contracts and treaties by taking oaths at altars. An oath taken or a vow made at the altar was considered as more solemn and binding than one assumed under other circumstances.
Hence, Hannibal’s father brought him to the Carthaginian altar when he was about to make him swear eternal enmity to the Roman power.
In all the religions of antiquity, it was the usage of the priests and the people to pass around the altar in the course of the sun, that is to say, from the east, by the way of the south, to the west, singing paeans or hymns of praise as a part of their worship.
From all this we see that the altar in Freemasonry is not merely a convenient article of furniture, intended, like a table, to hold a Bible. It is a sacred utensil of religion, intended, like the altars of the ancient temples, for religious uses, and thus identifying Freemasonry, by its necessary existence in our Lodges, as a religious institution. Its presence should also lead the contemplative Freemason to view the ceremonies in which it is employed with solemn reverence, as being part of a really religious worship.
The situation of the altar in the French and frequently in the Scottish Rites is in front of the Worshipfu1 Master, and, therefore, in the East. In the York Rite, the altar is placed in the center of the room, or more property a little to the East of the center.
The form of a Masonic altar should be a cube, about three feet high, and of corresponding proportions as to length and width, having, in imitation of the Jewish altar, four horns, one at each corner.
The Holy Bible with the Square and Compasses should be spread open upon it, while around it are to be placed three lights.
These lights are to be in the East, West, and South, and should be arranged as in the annexed diagram. The stars show the position of the lights in the East, West, and South. The black dot represents the position North of the altar where there is no light, because in Freemasonry the North is the place of darkness.
– Source: Mackey’s Encyclopedia of Freemasonry