Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Role of the Pelican Inside and Outside the Walls of the Scottish Rite


Sublime Prince Conor Moran,32°
AASR Valley of New York

The role of the pelican and its meaning is not particularly unique to the Scottish Rite. As we have recently seen in the 18th degree, it plays a subtle role that probably deserves some further exploration. The pelican’s influence can be traced back to its origin in the organization that helped form what is now the 18th degree of the AASR – The Rosicrucians. The exact nature of their influence on the degree is debatable, but there seems to be some pattern of modeling their activities and ideals around those of the 18th degree.

As a matter of background, the Rosicrucians formed sometime around the year 1400, although it could have been as late as the early 1600’s. They were founded as an esoteric society with no more than 8 members who each undertook an oath to heal the sick and maintain a secret fellowship. The organization expanded during the 1500’s at a time when philosophical and religious freedom had grown, and so the organization began seeking good men to work within those parameters.

The organization spawned several esoteric societies, each claiming a lineage from the Rosicrucian and its founder, Christian Rosenkreuz (Rose-cross). What is now known as the Knight of the Rose Croix (18th degree AASR) developed from these organizations. The jewel of the 18th degree is the ‘Rose Cross’ – a cross below the rose followed by the pelican feeding its young.

The concept of the pelican as a symbol seems to derive from early Christian symbolism. The pelican itself is only mentioned twice by name in the modern version of the Bible. The pelican is used to represent abstract ideas – it is an image or symbolic representation with sacred significance. The Pelican Christian symbol represents atonement and charity. The ‘pelican in her piety’ in heraldry and symbolic art is a representation of a pelican in the act of wounding herself to nourish her young. The pelican cutting open its own breast represents Christ’s death on the cross and the shedding of his blood to revive his followers. It is therefore adopted as a symbol of the redeemer and charity. A simpler explanation of this is that the pelican’s bill has a red tip – contrasting the red tip against the naked white breast probably gave rise to the tradition that the pelican tore open her own breast to feed her young with her blood.

The legend of the pelican is explained like this in the text Bestiarium (Natural History) : “The pelican is very fond of his young ones, and when they are born and begin to grow, they rebel in their nest against their parent, and strike him with their wings flying about him, and beat him so much till they wound him in his eyes. Then the father strikes and kills them. And the mother is of such a nature that she comes back to the nest on the third day, and sits down upon her dead young ones, and opens her side with her bill and pours her blood over them, and so resuscitates them from death; for the young ones, by their instinct, receive the blood as soon as it comes out of the mother, and drink it.”

The whole notion of the mother pelican sacrificing herself by giving blood is somewhat of a misunderstanding. The mother pelican has a habit when feeding her young of reaching into her pouch to extract food.

Until the 18th century, the Christ-pelican was almost always portrayed piercing itself on the right side of the breast. This dynamic provides a link between the Christian Church and Freemasonry as Freemasons began portraying the pelican piercing its left side as a symbol of self-sacrifice required of its members. Many artists and craftsmen were unaware of the significance of the right side of the breast and so began the act of using the pelican of Freemasons into Christian art and churches.

Another myth about the pelican is that it would consume the smallest amount of food necessary to maintain life – symbolizing those who fast or strive for spiritual perfection. We now know this to not be true.

Lastly, there is a bit of symbolism in the 7 hatchlings presented that the pelican is feeding on the jewel. The number seven is mentioned several times in the degree at various points and with various meanings.


Tucker, Suzetta. ChristStory – Pelican Self Sacrifice. 1998.

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