The pelican feeding her young with her blood is a prominent symbol of the Eighteenth or Rose Croix Degree of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite, and was adopted as such from the fact that the pelican, in ancient Christian art, was considered as an emblem of the Savior. Now this symbolism of the pelican, as a representative of the Savior, is almost universally supposed to be derived from the common belief that the pelican feeds her young with her blood, as the Savior shed his blood for mankind; and hence the bird is always represented as sitting on her nest, and surrounded by her brood of young ones, who are dipping their bills into a wound in their mother's breast. But this is not the exact idea of the symbolism, which really refers to the resurrection, and is, in this point of view, more applicable to Christ, as well as to the Masonic Degree of which the resurrection is a doctrine.
In an ancient Bestiarium, or Natural History, in the Royal Library at Brussels, cited by Larwood and Rotten in a recent work on the History of Signs Boards, this statement is made:
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 Ortus Vocabulorum, compiled early in the fifteenth century, gives the fable more briefly: "It is said, if it be true, that the pelican kills its young, and grieves for them for three days. Then she wounds herself, and with the aspersione of her blood resuscitates her children." And the writer cites, in explanation, the Latin verses: Ut pelicanu fit matris sanguine sanus, Sie Saneti sumus nos omnes sanguine nati. As the Pelican is restored by the blood of its mother so are we all born by the blood of the Holy One, that is, of Christ.
Saint Jerome gives the same story, as an illustration of the destruction of man by the old serpent, and his salvation by the blood of Christ. Shelton, in an old work entitled the Armorie of Birds, expresses the same sentiment in the following words:
Then said the pelican When my birds be slain, With my blood I them revive Scripture doth record The same did our Lord And rose from death to life.
This romantic story was religiously believed as a fact of natural history in the earliest ages of the church. Hence the pelican was very naturally adopted as a symbol of the resurrection and, by consequence, of Him whose resurrection is, as Cruden terms it, "the cause, pattern, and argument of ours."
But in the course of time the original legend mas, to some extent, corrupted, and a simpler one was adopted, namely, that the pelican fed her young with her own blood merely as a means of sustenance, and the act of maternal love was then referred to as Christ shedding his blood for the sins of the world. In this view of the symbolism, Pugin has said that the pelican is "an emblem of our Blessed Lord shedding his blood for mankind, and therefore a most appropriate symbol to be introduced on all vessels or ornaments connected with the Blessed Sacrament " In the Antiquities of Durhom Abbey, we learn that "over the high altar of Durham Abbey hung a rich and most sumptuous canopy for the Blessed Sacrament to hang within it, whereon stood a pelican, all of silver, upon the height of the said canopy, very finely gilt, giving her blood to her young ones, in token that Christ gave His blood for the sins of the world
But Doctor Mackey believed the true theory of the pelican is, that by restoring her young ones to life by her blood, she symbolizes the resurrection. The old symbologists said, after Jerome, that the male pelican, who destroyed his young, represents the serpent, or evil principle, which brought death into the world; while the mother, who resuscitates them, as the representative of that Son of .Man of whom it is declared, "except ye drink of His blood, ye have no life in you." Hence the pelican is very appropriately assumed as a symbol in Freemasonry, whose great object is to teach by symbolism the doctrine of the resurrection, and especially in that sublime Degree of the Scottish Rite wherein, the old Temple being destroyed and the old Word being lost, a new temple and a new word spring forth--all of which is but the great allegory of the destruction by death and the resurrection to eternal life.
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