Friday, September 18, 2009

"Dressed As a Master":
Clothing in the First Three Degrees of Freemasonry

The Prologue to Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol takes place during a ceremony, the ritual of the 33rd degree of initiation into the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry. We'll go into those matters -- the Scottish Rite, the 33rd degree -- in future posts. What I'll focus on in this post is the fact that the Prologue mentions that the unnamed central character in this Prologue has been through other, earlier initiations -- initiations with distinctive clothing.

As the story mentions:

As was tradition, he had begun this journey adorned in the ritualistic garb of a medieval heretic being led to the gallows .... Tonight, however, like the brethren bearing witness, he was dressed as a master. (Page 3 of the English language edition of The Lost Symbol)

What is he talking about?

The First Three Degrees of Freemasonry

Freemasonry, of course, is a fraternal organization that offers men the opportunity to receive ritual initiations focused on the higher values of life. (My post giving a brief introduction to Freemasonry is here.)

The basic unit of Freemasonry is the Lodge. This is a group of men who meet at regular intervals for Masonic business and ritual. (For example, the Lodge where I became a Mason, Winter Park Lodge #239 Free and Accepted Masons, in Winter Park, Florida, meets on the second and fourth Tuesdays of each month, at 7:30 p.m.) This level of Freemasonry is sometimes referred to (for mysterious traditional reasons) as the "Blue Lodge." It is the foundation of all forms of Freemasonry.

The Blue Lodge offers the first three degrees of Freemasonry:

  • The 1st degree, called "Entered Apprentice"

  • The 2nd degree, called "Fellow Craft"

  • The 3rd degree, called "Master Mason"

Some aspects of the initiation process are similar -- not identical -- across the degree rituals, including clothing.

The Candidate's Clothing

We'll have more to say about Masonic initiation in future posts. Today, it's all about the clothing.

The candidate for Masonic initiation appears in ceremonial clothing for the first three degrees. This is what Dan Brown alludes to as "the ritualistic garb of a medieval heretic being led to the gallows."

Brown is taking a page here from the fascinating book by the late John J. Robinson, Born in Blood: The Lost Secrets of Freemasonry (now available in a new paperback edition from M. Evans). Robinson analyzed certain distinctive aspects in Masonic ritual language and practice, and came to the conclusion that Freemasonry had its origins in a society of men on the run: the medieval Knights Templar, who were condemned by the Papacy and subjected to mass arrests as heretics in 1307. The distinctive garb of the candidate in the first three degrees of Masonic initiation, in Robinson's view, would be a tradition to remember the Templars in their time of trial.

Robinson's conclusions are thought-provoking, although currently they are accepted neither by the mass of Masonic historians nor by most academic historians. Not that this would stop Dan Brown.

"Dressed like a master"

When Dan Brown writes that Mal'akh is "dressed like a master" during his ceremonial initiation into the 33rd degree, he means that Mal'akh was dressed the way a Master Mason dresses following his initiation. Masons typically come to lodge meetings formally dressed. Business suits are common; I know of Lodges that require black tie (that is, tuxedos). (Some Lodges are substantially less formal, but formality is a rising trend.)

Of course, a special apron is the badge of a Mason. The Masonic apron is a tradition that carries today's Masons back to the days of the medieval stonemasons. Today's Masonic aprons are done up rather more elaborately than a medieval stonemason's apron, though.

In the photo above, I am the fellow on the left. (Click on the photo for a larger image.) The occasion is my installation, in late December 2007, as the Marshal of the Lodge in Winter Park; for most lodges, like Winter Park, the annual installation of officers is a public event. (The Marshal is the most junior of Lodge officers.) I am here dressed in a tux, with the specific apron of my office. (Winter Park does not require black tie at its functions, but this was the formal installation, and all officers to be installed arrived in black tie.)

The regular member attending the Lodge would have a less elaborate apron. However, in most essentials, in the photo above I am "dressed like a master," in Dan Brown's phrase.

However, the novel purports to depict, not a Blue Lodge ceremony, but a Scottish Rite ceremony. Thus, I would expect that Mal'akh would be wearing a Scottish Rite cap and "jewel" (that is, a medal), probably the distinctive red cap and jewel of the Knight Commander of the Court of Honor.

So, that is what you should be envisioning Mal'akh wearing in the Prologue: black tie, with a red hat and ceremonial medal. (Head-to-toe tattoos under coverup makeup is entirely optional.)

[The photo above was taken by Ricardo Parente, the webmaster and photographer of Winter Park Lodge #239 F&AM. Thank you, Brother Ricardo, for making me look respectable.]


  1. Do you know if John Quincy Adam's Letters on the Masonic Institution are nonsense, in particular his claims that Freemasons drink wine from a skull. Dan Brown cites JQA about precisely this in The Lost Symbol.

  2. Anonymous: There are a number of directions from which to approach your question.

    (1) JQA was not himself a Mason, so he probably learned about Masonry through exposures composed either by people who had betrayed the fraternity or by people who despised it. A lot of these people really didn't care about telling the truth; some of them were spectacularly inventive in what they said about Masonry. (The epitome here, years after JQA, is probably Leo Taxil, who invented his descriptions of many degrees, and an entire Rite of degrees as well.) So, we shouldn't be surprised if JQA was not especially well informed.

    (2) I have seen no evidence whatsoever involving drinking any beverage, let alone from a skull, during the ritual of the first three foundational degrees of Freemasonry. These 3 degrees are offered in what we call the Blue Lodge, the basic Mason's Lodge.

    (3) The first three degrees of Freemasonry, however, are not all there is to Masonry. There are Rites that offer entire degree systems to Master Masons, that is, those who have obtained the 3rd Degree in the Blue Lodge. I am not privy to each and every one of these. I know that there is a degree here and there, beyond the Blue Lodge, where there are ceremonial toasts made with wine. (For those who do not drink alcohol, a beverage like unfermented grape juice is provided.)

    (3) Similarly, we should not be surprised if there were a degree ritual here and there, beyond the Blue Lodge, where the candidate drank from a skull (most likely the plaster or plastic representation of a skull). The skull is a powerful symbol of mortality, and the message conveyed many places in Freemasonry is that one's life is brief, and one should concentrate on the most important things while one is in this world. (This is not the kind of message one gets from our ephemera-obsessed popular culture.) Nothing gets the message of mortality across more quickly or powerfully than a skull.

    Yes, I know that, in the popular culture, skulls and candles are associated with Satanism. However, learning about spiritual practices from popular culture is like trying to learn about Judaism, Catholicism, or Mormonism from Jack Chick comic books -- one learns lurid, highly inaccurate details. I can testify confidently and accurately that there is not a hint of devil worship or Satanism in the Lodge, nor in any of the degrees beyond the Blue Lodge that I have taken, nor have I heard even the whisper of the hint of a rumor that it is any different in any of the Rites or degrees to which I am not privy.

  3. John Quincy Adams claims to have seen Freemasons drinking wine from a skull with his own eyes. I take it that you believe John Quincy Adams was a liar.

  4. Anonymous: I have just downloaded a .pdf of JQA's "Letters on the Masonic Institution" from Google Books. My 19th century copy is not appropriately indexed, and my old Adobe software has not detected the word "skull" in the text -- probably a limitation of the software I have.

    If you will please tell me which section of the "Letters" this claim appears, I shall be glad to evaluate the claim.

    Based on the small amount of information available to me, I find the statement curious. Several possibilities present themselves:

    (1) JQA was a Mason and witnessed such a ceremony in the Blue Lodge (which administers the first 3 degrees of Masonry), despite the fact that I've never seen anything like this. This is the only way he could have witnessed Freemasons in a Masonic ceremony performing such an act. However, I thought that JQA said in his diary that he'd never been a Mason, so this seems unlikely.

    (2) Adams was witnessing a recreation of a Masonic ceremony, put on by anti-Masons. This passed for popular entertainment during the Anti-Masonic Period (roughly 1826-1844). The anti-Masons who put on these sorts of shows were not very concerned about being accurate, as I understand it, and may well have put in things to scandalize the crowd.

    (3) JQA saw an accurate re-enactment of some 'higher degree' ceremony. If this were true, I would point out two things. First, the Rites of Masonry are many, but no one of them possesses the membership of most Masons; thus, Freemasons as a group -- the Masons of the Blue Lodge -- simply would not be related to any practice of any of the high degree Rites. Second, as I stated earlier, I would expect anything involving skulls to be a solemn reminder of human mortality, and hence not objectionable on moral grounds.

  5. Try:
    scroll down to page 232 of the book itself (as printed on the page).
    This is a public address given by JQA.

  6. So no answer about John Quincy Adams and the truth or otherwise of what he said ...

  7. Although Dan Brown's descriptions are vivid, they are not meant to convey actual ritual.
    The descriptions of ritual in the book are out of sequence and context as was anything JQA may have seen. If you really seek to understand join a Lodge and take the journey. The answer will not be found in any parchment nor from any "eye witness" save you own.

  8. 'Fact: All rituals ... in this novel are real.'

    So is Dan Brown lying or not? And what about John Quincy Adams? And if Dan Brown is lying, and if he is repeating the pernicious and dishonest remarks of JQA, does that not call for some sort of response? It seems not.

  9. To one of the Anonymous commenters, I owe an apology for being out of touch for so long. I've been down with a virus and dealing with some family business, so it is only after some days that I have returned to respond to the JQA comment and so forth.

    I have read the JQA comment. My reading of this is that he did not witness this with his own eyes; if you read a few (brief) pages back, he seems to be quoting from books that he has read about Freemasonry.

    I can state definitively that there is no ritual in the three foundational degrees of Freemasonry in which anyone drinks anything from a skull.

    This does, however, leave a couple of issues to address.

    In the Prologue to The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown is supposedly portraying the 33rd degree ceremony of the Scottish Rite in the Southern Jurisdiction. Having only received the 32nd degree myself, I cannot speak from personal experience regarding the 33rd degree. However, I can state the following:

    (a) The 33rd degree is rarely or never conferred in the Temple Room or anywhere else in the House of the Temple; Dan Brown is playing around with some details for dramatic effect, and the whole skull thing may well be another.

    (b) As I state in another post, Dan Brown seems to be following the script for the renegade Cerneau rituals of the 33rd Degree, which were never followed by the Scottish Rite in the Southern Jurisdiction, nor by any Jurisdiction authorized by the Mother Council of the Scottish Rite.

    (c) The whole scene just seems out of character from the degrees with which I am familiar (the Fourth through Thirty-Second).

    Beyond this, let's take the matter to a more fundamental level.

    Let's assume, for the sake of discussion, that some high degree ceremony of Freemasonry--and there are a lot of those--does indeed have people drinking wine out of a skull.

    So what?

    The skull is a powerful symbol of mortality. To drink out of a skull is nothing anti-Christian, nothing Satanic, nothing that puts down life or exalts death. It would be a powerful way to remember that one's time on Earth is short, that one should order one's priorities accordingly.

    Thus, to sum up:

    (1) JQA may not have been lying, but he was not talking about something he witnessed; he was discussing something that he read in a book.

    (2) Dan Brown appears to have been leaning on a source for his ritual that does not correspond to authentic Scottish Rite ritual.

    (3) The basic degrees of Freemasonry do not involve drinking out of skulls.

    (4) If, in the many Rites of Freemasonry, there is a degree where people drink out of skulls--so what? This would be a powerful reminder of mortality, nothing more.

    Thank you all for furthering the conversation.

  10. Thanks for all that, Mark.

  11. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


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  13. Muito bom... naveguei e gostei. Tive ótimos aprendizados dos seus artigos,voltarei depois para ler mais.



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