"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).