Monday, September 14, 2009

The Thirty-Third Degree and the Skull Oath

The Prologue to The Lost Symbol (available online) is full of melodramatic touches. The narrator is not named in the Prologue, but in Chapter 2 he is revealed as a villain who calls himself "Mal'ach," the Hebrew word for 'angel' or 'messenger.' In the Prologue, Mal'ach goes through a Masonic ceremony of initiation, which we learn in Chapter 2 is the 33rd degree, the final degree of the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry.) And, in the course of the ceremony, Mal'ach is given wine to drink--from a real human skull. In the ceremony, he states takes an oath that says, in part:

"May this wine I now drink become a deadly poison to me ... should I ever knowingly or willfully violate my oath."
Does anything like this really happen in the Thirty-Third Degree ritual? That is, does anyone (a) drink from a real human skull, (b) with an oath that wishes death on themselves?


Although I have only received the 32nd degree of the Scottish Rite, I can tell you with a great deal of confidence that what you read in the Prologue to The Lost Symbol is not an accurate depiction of the 33rd degree.

"But how could Dan Brown do that?" you might ask. After all, in the front of his book, he specifically says that "all rituals ... in this novel are real."

Yes, he does say that--but we need to be careful how we understand that statement. Let me explain.

Over a century ago, a renegade Masonic group did indeed have its candidates drink wine from a human skull. This was the Cerneau group, a renegade form of the Scottish Rite. Albert Pike (head of the legitimate Scottish Rite in the Southern Jurisdiction in the late 19th century) did his very best to discourage the practices of the Cerneau group. However, the Cerneau group was powerful, especially in New York City.

Why do I call them "renegade"? Because the Cerneau Supreme Council was never properly chartered; it was essentially the creation of a group of guys who simply decided to have a Masonic group, and took on the mantle of the Scottish Rite, without bothering to have the actual Scottish Rite authorities give them their permission. This would be like folks in, say, New Milford, Connecticut, deciding to have their own alternative U.S. federal government. I once lived in New Milford; it's a lovely little town. But having some people simply designate it as the seat of the U.S. government does not make it so.

As part of the Cernau ritual of the 33rd degree, a human skeleton was used, as well as a human skull. During the Cernau ritual of the 33rd degree, the candidate for the degree states the following (with material in parentheses indicating actions):

I furthermore solemnly swear that I will hold true allegiance to the Supreme Council of the United States of America, its territories and dependencies. And that I will never acknowledge any body or bodies of men as belonging to the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite, claiming to be such, except such as hold allegiance to this Supreme Council, or those who recognize this Council. To all these I do most solemnly swear, calling upon the Most High God to ratify my oath.

And should I knowingly or willfully violate the same, may this wine I now drink, become a deadly poison to me, as the hemlock juice drank by Socrates. (Drinks wine out of skull.) And may these cold arms forever encircle me. Amen. (Skeleton's arms enfold him.)

(This oath, and the illustration above, are found on p. 470 of Volume 2 of John Blanchard's book, Scotch Rite Masonry Illustrated, originally published 1887-1888. A reprint edition of this book is available from Kessinger Publishing.)

This is the ritual that Dan Brown is showing in the Prologue to The Lost Symbol. Thus, Dan Brown took a ritual from a 19th century renegade Masonic group, an alternative "Scottish Rite," and portrayed it as the ritual of the legitimate Scottish Rite of the Southern Jurisdiction in the 21st century. It's a colorful ritual, to be sure. As Dan Brown claims, it is even a "real" ritual--just not the real ritual of the group that he shows in the book. What you see in the Prologue is not an accurate reflection of the Masonic group who is supposed to be conveying this degree.

Use of the Skull in Masonic Symbolism

The skull is a potent and obvious symbol of human mortality. As such, it appears in a number of Masonic degrees, in some way or another. The intent in these degrees is neither to threaten the candidate (as is the case in the ceremony shown in the Prologue), nor to celebrate death, nor to mock it. The intent, rather, is to be a forceful reminder to the candidate for initiation that life is short, that one's relatively brief life must be used well, and that one should focus on the important things in life, rather than the superficial. This is a respectful and appropriate use of a symbol of mortality.


I'll have much more to say about Masonic ritual, legitimate and otherwise, in my forthcoming book, Discovering The Lost Symbol: The Mind of Dan Brown and the Truth About the Freemasons (agents' and publishers' inquiries invited).


  1. There is a lot of Rituals in the past the use human skulls, i suppose the main one would be the Tibetan Kapala.

    Could I ask if this could be part of a 'Skull and Bones' ritual??

    Since it takes place in Washington, and there are a few leading Politicians that are members. As far as Im aware, Freemasonry and Skull and Bones are not connected.

  2. Brett: Always good to see your comments.

    There is, in fact, not a shred of connection between Freemasonry, on the one hand, and Skull and Bones, on the other. It's just that simple.

  3. What about Jim Shaw's Deadly Deception? Any truth in what he says about drinking from a skull?

  4. Anonymous: Thank you for bringing up the late Reverend Jim Shaw's book, Deadly Deception: Freemasonry Exposed ... By One of Its Top Leaders.

    This book is particularly chock-full of what can only be described as outright lies. I strongly suggest that any readers of Shaw's book read Chapter 8 of the following book, which is available in many large bookstores, and easily obtainable through Amazon:

    Arturo de Hoyos & S. Brent Morris, Is It True What They Say About Freemasonry?: The Methods of Anti-Masons. (New York: M. Evans & Co., 2004). ISBN 1-59077-030-7.

    de Hoyos and Morris are two of the finest Masonic scholars in the world. They note (p. 120) that Shaw cribbed the description of the Cerneau ritual from Blanchard (from which I quote above). The authors also demonstrate that many of Shaw's claims about his involvement with Masonry were demonstrably false; for example, Shaw was never a 33rd degree Mason.

  5. Thanks, Mark. I will read de Hoyos and Morris.

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  7. Has anyone considered the idea, that the ritual portrayed in the beginning of the book, might possibly be sourced in the York Rite?

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  9. Brother Mark,

    You should know better than to plumb the depths of the recognition argument. In point of fact, Cerneau was using the Morin derived rites which he had legitimately received in Cuba. Beside that fact, before the founding of the immediate ancestors of the current SMJ, those masons were only 25 degree Rectified Rite masons. The additional degrees were all new inventions and their claims to authenticity in comparison to Cerneau amount to little more than a group of bullies claiming that might makes right.

    As we all know, most contemporary claims of regularity amount to little more. The usual claims of "problems" amount to little more than political propaganda. Claims of scams and attempts to get rich fly in the face of logic and reality.

    The Cerneau affair represents nothing more than a turf war. Had Cerneau won, the SMJ would be called "an irregular" rite today. Suggesting that it is something less than legitimate is dissimulation. Certainly, it is not likely to be performed by the SMJ or NMJ 33rd degree today (but then, since neither of us have that degree, we can only speculate on that), but that hardly puts it outside the pale of historic Freemasonry.

    Bro. Owen

  10. Oh men what kind of traditional they have so suck drinking blood as a wine from human skull.

  11. Where are the York KT's? I believe that DB has taken ritual and carefully confounded it, much like Duncan did.
    LGA 32°KCCH KH

  12. Err... I am not a 33rd degree but from the 5th degree I am certain that it's a myth.

  13. Hi folks. Great blog, it's good to read a professional one now and then. I'm not a Freemason, as a woman I can only study every book I can get on it. That's fine, the oral traditions are only slightly meaningful to me. One point I am curious about is the first Dan Brown DaVinciCode scene of the alleged black mass the girl stumbles on in her "grandfather's" house. It may have been more of a Kabbalah session instead of a Satanist one. Knowing that the Kabbalah is a big part of Royal Arch, and it's interpretation should never be assumed outside of Rabbinic guidance, what is your take on that scene and it's relationship to FM?


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