Great Seal: Myth and Meaning

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Friday, February 22, 2008

The keepers of the Great Seal of the United States, the familiar emblem on the back of the $1 bill, want you to know what it is not. The seal is not a sign that a group known as Freemasons runs the country. It has nothing to do with magic or the supernatural. And it does not contain clues to a hidden treasure.

For more than 200 years, the seal has been the nation's stamp of authority and power. It appears on our paper money and important documents.

Its symbols -- the all-seeing eye, the unfinished pyramid (on the back of the seal, below) and the eagle clutching an olive branch and arrows (on the front, above) -- are powerful. But their meanings have been misunderstood almost since the Continental Congress asked to have the seal designed in 1776. Over the years, people have said the seal was ancient Egyptian, mystical or otherwise otherworldly. The "National Treasure" movies added to these myths.

To set the record straight, last week the State Department unveiled a traveling exhibit that traces the seal's history and symbolism.

Among the myths:

* That the seal proves that the country is controlled by a powerful group, often said to be the Ancient Scottish Rite of Freemasonry.

* That repeated references to 13 -- the number of pyramid steps, stars over the eagle's head, arrows in its claw and stripes on its shield -- symbolize the power of 13 American families.

* That there are two seals: one with the eagle facing the arrows (for times of war) and one facing the olive branch (for peace).

Among the facts:

* Masons such as George Washington and Benjamin Franklin had no role in designing the final seal. Symbols include the unfinished pyramid for a work in progress, arrows for war and an olive branch for peace. Masons do use some of these symbols, but so do others.

* The number 13 refers to the 13 original U.S. colonies.

* The eagle has always faced the olive branch in its right talon. (A similar eagle on the presidential seal has, at times, looked toward the arrows.)

-- Associated Press


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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