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Article # 124
The Twelve Tribes and Ensigns of Royal Arch

Author: W.Bro. Bharat V. Epur    Posted on: Wednesday, October 27, 2004
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[ E.Comp. Bharat V. Epur is one of the rising stars of Masonic Scholars in India. He presented the paper on “The Twelve Tribes and Ensigns as they appear in the Holy Royal Arch Chapter” at the Regular Convocation of Dakshin Principals Chapter (No.103). Subsequent research and study had enabled him to revise the paper by adding many useful information. His revised paper presented at the Convocation of The Coorg Chapter (No.107) on 8 th March 2004 was well received. He has explained the Twelve Tribes of Israel and the Ensigns as depicted in the Holy Royal Arch Masonry. The paper provides valuable information. Please read on…]




The Twelve Tribes of Israel


By E.Comp. Bharat V. Epur



Companions, I presented this paper for the first time on 23rd November 2003 at Chennai during the Regular Convocation of Dakshin Principals Chapter No.103. After my presentation was over, there was an interactive session from which I learnt a little bit more about the subject in question. I have since studied the subject further on my own. The result of these efforts is included in this revised paper that I am about to present to you.


Ever since the blindfold was removed from my eyes during the ceremony of my Exaltation, and I beheld the glorious arrangement of banners and lights in a Holy Royal Arch Chapter, I have been fascinated forever with this truly exalted, truly superior degree. Not only were the lost secrets rediscovered and revealed to me, but also a number of other lovely concepts were introduced, albeit briefly. An inquiring mind was presented with just that soupcon of information to whet one’s appetite. It was left for the individual Companion to make his daily advancement in Masonic knowledge into the hidden mysteries of nature and science in this degree also.  


The twelve banners arranged in the centre of the temple particularly struck my attention. Not only were they colourful, but they seem to contain some hidden secrets. I have tried to unravel some of these hidden mysteries in this paper. I have used a number of sources, starting with the King James Version of the Bible, other versions of the same VSL, commentaries by Harry Mendoza, PGStBr, PAGSoj, PM of Quatour Coronati Lodge, the Masonic Newsletter of the Masonic Study Circle of the Goshamahal Masonic Building Committee, etc.


I have divided my paper into two parts. In the first, I have tried to give a brief background on the twelve tribes themselves. In the second, I have touched upon the ensigns that are placed in the body of a Royal Arch Chapter. Hopefully, some time in the future, I shall get an opportunity to speculate on the particular significance of these twelve items.


Part 1: The Twelve Tribes


The twelve tribes are mentioned in the Bible. As per the Book of Genesis, Chapter 49:


1. And Jacob called unto his sons, and said, Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you that which shall befall you in the last days.


2. Gather yourselves together, and hear, ye sons of Jacob; and hearken unto Israel your father.


3. Reuben, thou art my firstborn, my might, and the beginning of my strength, the excellence of dignity, and the excellence of power.


4. Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel; because thou wentest up to thy father’s bed; then defildst thou it; he went up to my couch.


5. Simeon and Levi are brethren; instruments of cruelty are in their habitations.


6. O my soul, come not thou into their secret; unto their assembly, mine honour, be not thou united; for in their anger they slew a man, and in their selfwill they digged down a wall.


7. Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce; and their wrath, for it was cruel: I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel.


8. Judah, thou art he whom thy brethren shall praise: thy hand shall be in the neck of thine enemies; thy father’s children shall bow down before thee.


9. Judah is a lion’s whelp: from the prey, my son, thou art gone up: he stooped down, he couched as a lion, and as an old lion; who shall rouse him up?


10. The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be.


11. Binding his foal unto the vine, and his ass’s colt unto the choice vine; he washed his garments in wine, and his clothes in the blood of grapes:


12. His eyes shall be red with wine, and his teeth white with milk.


13. Zebulun shall dwell at the haven of the sea; and he shall be for an haven of ships; and his border shall be unto Zidon.


14. Issachar is a strong ass couching down between two burdens:


15. And he saw that the rest was good, and the land that it was pleasant; and bowed his shoulder to bear, and became a servant unto tribute.


16. Dan shall judge his people, as one of the tribes of Israel.


17. Dan shall be a serpent by the way, an adder in the path, that bitteth the horse heels, so that his rider shall fall backward.


18. I have waited for thy salvation, O LORD.


19. Gad, a troop shall overcome him: but he shall overcome at the last.


20. Out of Asher his bread shall be fat, and he shall yield royal dainties.


21. Naphtali is a hind let loose: he giveth goodly words.


22. Joseph is a fruitful bough, even a fruitful bough by a well; whose branches run over the wall:


23. The archers have sorely grieved him, and shot at him, and hated him:


24. But his bow abode in strength, and the arms of his hands were made strong by the hands of the mighty God of Jacob; (from thence is the shepherd, the stone of Israel :)


25. Even by the God of thy father, who shall help thee; and by the Almighty, who shall bless thee with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that lieth under, blessings of the breasts, and of the womb:


26. The blessings of thy father have prevailed above the blessings of my progenitors unto the utmost bound of the everlasting hills: they shall be on the head of Joseph, and on the crown of the head of him that was separate from his brethren.


27. Benjamin shall ravin as a wolf: in the morning he shall devour the prey, and at night he shall divide the spoil.


28. All these are the twelve tribes of Israel: and this is it that their father spake unto them, and blessed them; every one according to his blessing he blessed them.


29. And he charged them, and said unto them, I am to be gathered unto my people: bury me with my fathers in the cave that is in the field of Ephron the Hittite,


30. In the cave that is in the field of Machpelah, which is before Mamre, in the land of Canaan, which Abraham bought with the field of Ephron the Hittite for a possession of a buryingplace.


31. There they buried Abraham and Sarah his wife; there they buried Isaac and Rebekah his wife: and there I buried Leah.


32. The purchase of the field and of the cave that is therein was from the children of Heth.


33. And when Jacob had made an end of commanding his sons, he gathered up his feet into the bed, and yielded up the ghost, and was gathered unto his people.


As you can see from the above, the twelve names referred to in Genesis do not quite coincide with those seen in the Holy Royal Chapter. Let us compare the two sets of names:



As per

The Holy Bible


As per

The Holy Royal Arch Chapter






The Twelve Tribes


The Twelve Ensigns






Jacob’s sons from Leah:








Reuben – the first born






Simeon and Levi






















Jacob’s sons from Rachel:

(Leah’s sister)
























Jacob’s sons from Bilhah:

(Rachel’s handmaid)




















Jacob’s sons from Zilpah:

(Leah’s handmaid)
















The question now arises, how did this name changes take place and why? The answers are once again in the Holy Bible. But first, let us look at how Jacob himself underwent a name change.


As per the Book of Genesis, Chapter 35, Verse 10:


“And God said unto him, Thy name is Jacob: thy name shall not be called any more Jacob, but Israel shall be thy name: and he called his name Israel. “

Thus, Jacob got a new name from none other than God himself. It is thus that his progeny, who went on to populate a new area, came to be called Israelites


Now let us examine how Simeon and Levi got onto one ensign. Chapter 35 of the Book of Genesis explains how Dinah, Jacobs’ daughter through Leah, was ‘defiled’ by Shechem and how Simeon and Levi, who were brothers of Dinah, took revenge by slaying Shechem and his father, how  they destroyed their city and all its inhabitants. Ever since, they have been kind of  lumped together.            


That only leaves us with an explanation for the only two new names which came in lieu of Joseph. For this one has to remember the fact that Joseph was the darling of his father, Jacob as is told in Chapter 37, Verse 3 of the book of Genesis. This partiality of Jacob made his other sons jealous of Joseph until finally they took their revenge by first imprisoning him and then selling him in slavery to some itinerant Midianite merchantmen for twenty pieces of silver (See Chapter 37, Verses 18 – 36 of the Book of Genesis.) They tricked their father into thinking that he had been devoured by some wild beast by showing his coat of many colours stained with blood. Now the same Joseph was brought to Egypt where he made a remarkable name and place for himself by earning the Pharaoh’s pleasure. Joseph went on to marry Asenath with whom he had two sons, namely, Manasseh and Ephraim (See Chapter 41, Verses 45, 51 & 52). The Holy Bible goes on to explain that after many more trials and a tribulation, Jacob/Israel goes onto ‘adopt’ these two grandchildren of his as his own sons (See Chapter 48, Verse 5 of the Book of Genesis).  




Part 2: The Twelve Ensigns


In Numbers, Chapter 2, Verse 2 we are told that the twelve tribes were ordered to pitch their tents in a particular manner near the Tabernacle in the Wilderness:


Every man of the children of Israel shall pitch (his tent) by his own standard, with the ensign of their father’s house, far off about the tabernacle of the congregation

shall they pitch.


On the east side were Judah, Issachar and Zebulun; on the south side were Reuben, Simeon and Gad; on the west side were Ephraim, Manasseh and Benjamin, and on the north side were Dan, Asher and Naphtali.


As per Harry Mendoza, in a Royal Arch Chapter the ensigns are placed in the same order, but for practical reasons we do not put any ensigns in the east or west. We place Judah in the north-east, Issachar in the south-east and next to him we place Zebulun. That looks after the tribes in the east. For those that should be in the west we place Ephraim in the south-west and Manasseh and Benjamin in the north-west. This arrangement allows the Principals a clear view down to the west.


The ‘standard’ referred to in the Biblical verse quoted was the large field-sign of each of the four leading divisions making up the tribes who were encamped around the Tabernacle in the Wilderness. In the Royal Arch Chapter we refer to these standards as the Principal Banners; they hang in the east.


The ‘ensign of their father’s house’ was a smaller banner carried at the head of each of the twelve tribes. In the Royal Arch these traditional ensigns are on the staves, six of which are placed in the north and six in the south. It should be pointed out that the distinctive bearings are not described in the Bible; this information comes from commentators on the text who, in general, base their interpretations on the words used by Jacob before he died. Not every set of ensigns bears a Latin inscription. Where it does appear, the source is usually from the Vulgate version of the Bible.


The Midrash (that is the Oral Law or the Tradition of Judaism, which has been handed down in the form of a running commentary on the Pentateuch by generations of teachers who have devoted their lives to a study of the Hebrew Scriptures) tells us that the colour of the ensign for each of the tribes corresponded to the colour of the precious stones on the breastplate of Aaron, the High Priest.


To associate a colour with each ensign it is necessary to associate each tribe with a particular stone. This necessitates the consideration of:


  1. The names of the stones used in the breastplate;
  2. The colour associated with each stone;
  3. The name engraven on the stone; and
  4. The order of the stones on the breastplate.


This information can be found in the Bible and in commentaries thereon; unfortunately, there are many different versions. Furthermore, there also variations in the names of the stones. Yet another difficulty is the fact that although the Bible states that the breastplate had four rows of three stones, many Bible illustrators have indicated three rows of four stones.


Our Royal Arch Regulations do not specify the colours to be used for each ensign. The Constitutions and Laws of The Supreme Grand Chapter of Scotland do; the colours mentioned are virtually the same as those used by our Supreme Grand Chapter. The details are as under:


1.         Judah                           -           Crimson

2.         Issachar                        -           Sky Blue

3.         Zebulun                        -           Purple

4.         Reuben             -                       Red

5.         Simeon & Levi             -           Yellow

6.         Gad                              -           White

7.         Ephraim                        -            Dark Green

8.         Manasseh                     -            Flesh-coloured

9.         Benjamin                      -            Dark Green

10.       Dan                              -            Light Green

11.       Asher                           -            Purple

12.       Naphtali                       -             Blue


I have thus briefly touched upon the twelve tribes and their ensigns as seen in a Holy Royal Arch Chapter. Due to paucity of time, I have not been able to delve into the actual meaning and purpose behind these items of furniture.  That alone will take a good bit of time. Once again, there are several interpretations of these items, enough food for enough minds for enough days! I trust that I shall be able to share mine with you some other day.



Thank You for Your Patient Hearing.


W.Bro. Bharat Venkat Epur affectionately called Bharat is one of the young Masonic intellectuals in India He was initiated on April, 28 th 1998 in Lodge Srinivasa Gopala (No.190) He is a good ritualist and taking a keen interest in Freemasonry. He joined Lodge Om Vigneswara (No.218) and became the Founder member of Lodge Millennium (No.327), Lodge Eagle (No.334), The Model Lodge (No.335), Lodge Engineers (No.340) and Lodge Mahamaham(No.341) He was installed as the W.M of The Millennium Lodge on 18-11-2001 and of Lodge Om Vigneswara on 19-3-2004. He is a Regional Grand Officer. In the Holy Royal Arch Masonry he was exalted on 2-3-1999 in Chapter Discovery (No.42). He is a joining member in Om Vigneswara (No.82) and Dakshin Principals Chapter (No.103) and Chapter Asoka (No.651, Scottish Constitution) He is a founder member of Chapter Bharathi (No.106), Coorg Chapter (No.107) and Millennium Chapter (No.108) In Mark Masonry, he was advanced in Mark Lodge Chennai (No.92) and later joined Mark Lodge Om Vigneswara (No.63) and Dakshin Mark Masters Lodge (No.100) and is a Founder member of The Millennium Mark Lodge (No.106), in which he was installed as the W.M in 2004.He was elevated in R.A.M Lodge Chennai (No.92) in 1999 and later became a Founder Member of Millennium R.A.M. Lodge(No.106) He is a member of Chudderghat Conclave and Mysore Conclave in the Order of the Secret Monitor. He is a prominent member of The Madras Masonic Study Circle known as ACACIA. M.W. Grand Master of India has appointed him as the Editor of GLINDIA, the official Newsletter of the Grand Lodge of India. He has attended the World Conferences held in New Delhi and Chile. We are very thankful to him for contributing this article and wish him well.

Click Here To Post Your Comment

Sai wrote on Thursday, October 28, 2004:

Subject: Appreciation

E.Comp. Bharat has culled out all the necessary details about the 12 Tribes and the 12 Ensigns referred to and used in Royal Arch Masonry. The article is very informative and instructive. The author deserves special praise and encomiums. I request the author to contribute articles on various masonic topics and enlighten the brethren and companions. E.Comp. D.Seshaasai

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