Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Prologue of The Lost Symbol and the Thirty-Third Degree

Today (Sunday, Sept. 13, 2009), Parade Magazine (an insert in many American newspapers, such as the New York Post) published the Prologue to Dan Brown's forthcoming novel, The Lost Symbol. The Prologue is also online, here, along with Chapter 1. (This publication occurs with Brown's blessing. The magazine also carries an interview with Brown--always a rare occurence.)

Readers of the Prologue must be stunned. The Prologue describes a ceremony of initiation into the Third Degree of Freemasonry, full of dramatic imagery. However, even Masonic readers must be stunned, because there are some interesting differences between the ceremony described in the Prologue and the ceremony with which most of us Freemasons are familiar.

In addition, the Prologue describes the ceremony as taking place at the Temple Room (pictured above) of the House of the Temple, the headquarters of the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry in the Southern Jurisdiction of the United States, an impressive site in Washington, DC. (Hey, folks, if you get to DC, take the free tour! Until then, you can take an online virtual tour.)

What degree is Dan Brown trying to show here? The two basic choices are the Third Degree, and the Thirty-Third Degree. Let's consider each possibility.

What Kind of Third Degree Is This?

Some of the language of the Prologue suggests that this is supposed to be the Third or Master Mason degree, the last of the three foundational degrees of basic Freemasonry.

  • The unnamed narrator of the Prologue (whom we learn in Chapter 2 is the villain Mal'akh) specifically mentions that he his journey "had begun at the first degree." The symbolic journey of the Mason begins at the first degree, and, in a sense, ends at the third. Other degrees are elaborations on that journey, or new journeys altogether.
  • The narrator talks about special ritual clothing, suggestive of the first three degrees of Masonry, and then says "Tonight, however, like the brethren bearing witness, he was dressed as a master." This suggest the third degree, again, although the candidate does not dress as a Master Mason until after taking the ritual oath of the Third Degree.
Overall, this does seem a bit odd. Beyond that, since when does one receive the Third Degree in the Scottish Rite House of the Temple? And what is up with the whole business of drinking from a skull?

I must admit that at first I was confused about this issue. I thought that perhaps the Prologue was referring to a form of the First Degree that is administered under the somewhat different format of the Scottish Rite, very rarely, although it can be observed in New Orleans. It was only after Chapter 2 was released through the British paper The Mail that I understood that what I was seeing here was a version of the Thirty-Third degree. (I cannot supply a link to The Mail at present.)

So let's go into the Thirty-Third degree.

The Thirty-Third Degree of the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry

Let me state at the outset that I address the whole drink-from-a-skull thing in a separate post. Here, I'm just dealing with the issue: What is the 33rd degree? To do that, I need to discuss the degree structure of Freemasonry--which involves correcting some widely held inaccuracies about Freemasonry.

The Degree Structure of Freemasonry

Freemasonry is built around ceremonies of initiation, ceremonies known in Masonry as "degrees." There are three foundational degrees in Freemasonry, the First Degree (Entered Apprentice), the Second Degree (Fellow Craft), and the Third Degree (Master Mason). One is never more a Mason than when one is a Master Mason, a brother of the Third Degree.

There are a variety of Masonic organizations that offer further collections of degrees to enhance the Masonic experience. Some of these offer but one or two additional degrees. The York Rite offers ten. The Scottish Rite offers 29 additional degrees to the Master Mason, the Fourth through the Thirty-Second Degree. I am proud to say that I am both a York Rite Freemason (holding the degree of Knight Templar) and a Scottish Rite Freemason, of the Southern Jurisdiction (holding the 32nd degree). (There is also a Northern Masonic Jurisdiction of the Scottish Rite in the U.S., with different rituals. Washington, DC, where The Lost Symbol is set, is in the territory of the Southern Jurisdiction, so I'll focus a bit more on the Southern Jurisdiction.) We'll get to the Thirty-Third Degree in a minute.

The important thing to understand here is that Freemasonry is not like a thermometer, running from the First to the Thirty-Third Degree. Rather, it is like a wagon wheel, with the basic or Blue Lodge and its first three degrees as the all-important hub, and other Masonic organizations--like the Scottish Rite--as spokes offering different experiences.

The Thirty-Third Degree and the Scottish Rite

Masons who have shown a great deal of devotion to Freemasonry in general, and the Scottish Rite in particular, over the course of many years, may be invited to receive the 33rd and final degree of the Scottish Rite. It is important to understand what this is, and what it is not.

  • The 33rd degree is the highest degree of the Scottish Rite alone. It is not "the highest degree of Freemasonry." That status is actually held by the Third Degree, the Master Mason degree. The Scottish Rite is one "appendant organization" among many that are available to Master Masons. Each of these has its own "highest degree" that is only the 'highest' with respect to that group. For example, I am also a member of the York Rite, and I hold the highest degree within this group, the Knight Templar degree. But this is only the highest degree for the group known as the Commandery within the York Rite Masons; there are even subgroups within the York Rite for which other degrees are the "highest."
  • The 33rd degree is a real ritual initiation. However, it is reserved for a small number of Scottish Rite Masons who have shown real devotion to their Masonic work over the course of many years.
  • A very small group of 33rd degree Masons -- thirty-three of them, to be precise -- comprise the Supreme Council, or governing body of Scottish Rite Freemasonry. They rule the Rite, but they do not rule the world. Nor do they run conspiracies from the House of the Temple to try to run the world.

The ceremony shown in the Prologue of The Lost Symbol is supposed to be an initiation ceremony for the Thirty-Third Degree of Scottish Rite Freemasonry. However, there are several inaccuracies here.

For one, the 33rd degree is rarely, if ever, conferred upon a single individual, or in the House of the Temple! The House of the Temple is used to govern the Rite; the Temple Room is where the Supreme Council meets. The 33rd Degree is conferred upon a large number of candidates at one time, drawn from all across the Southern Jurisdiction, usually at a separate facility that is used for ritual initiations, the Scottish Rite Temple in Washington, DC. In fact, there will be such an initiation on Tuesday, October 6, 2009--something publicly announced in the pages of the Scottish Rite Journal, the largest-circulation Masonic magazine in the United States (see page 3 of the September-October 2009 issue). The publicly available online announcement is here.

There are other inaccuracies. My basic point is two-fold:

  1. Freemasonry in general, and the Scottish Rite in particular, are not really what one would call a secret society. Secret societies typically deny their very existence. By contrast, the initiation into the 33rd and final degree of Scottish Rite Masonry is a matter of public record. The list of individuals made into 33rd Degree Masons is publicly available from the Scottish Rite.
  2. There is a technical word for what Dan Brown is writing: fiction. Don't expect to come away from The Lost Symbol with a technically correct understanding of Freemasonry. Enjoy the ride, and if you do happen to learn something, be grateful.

In my blog post on Freemasonry, I give a number of resources regarding places where one might find reliable information about Freemasonry. Enjoy.


  1. the bit about the slit throat reminded me so much of Jack the Ripper...I visited whitechapel and they explained the deaths of the victims in a very similar way!

  2. Brett, There is an excellent article that addresses (and debunks) the connection that some have made over the years between the Ripper murders and Freemasonry:

    Paul M. Bessel, "The 'Jack the Ripper' Murders: An Examination of Alleged Masonic Connections," Heredom: The Transactions of the Scottish Rite Research Society, volume 9, 2001, pages 53-68.

    If this is a subject that really interests you, you may obtain this article either through Inter-Library Loan at your university library, or from a good Masonic library (such as the magnificent library at Freemasons' Hall in London). Usually, Masonic libraries are open to all, and they would welcome you.

  3. I'll check it out sometime! Thanks

    The London Dungeon Museum talks about Jack the Ripper a lot, but they do not really mention masonic involvement, but its just the thing that popped into my head when i read the prologue. I was not aware of a masonic connection before, but it seems that there is a big theory around it!

    I'll take a look at the book though sometime.

  4. this is
    would love to learn more about the actual freemasonary...and not the conspiracy stuf...
    thank u!!

  5. this is
    would love to learn more about the actual freemasonary...and not the conspiracy stuf...
    thank u!!

  6. What struck me about the Prologue's theme of a villain infiltrating up to the highest ranks of Freemasonry, is the question of whether Dan Brown is repeating his linking of Michael Baigent (who is now a high-ranking Mason) with the villain of Da Vinci Code (Leigh Teabing). Richard Leigh (Baigent's co-author of Holy Blood Holy Grail) is also linked by name to Leigh Teabing, but I haven't found any evidence that he was a Mason. Perhaps Dan is averse to vilifying the dead or stirring up ghosts.

  7. Nirman: If you interested in learning more about Freemasonry, go to the second post on this blog, in June. It is specifically about the Freemasons and has suggestions for further study.

    deetective: Interesting thought. However, what I think is more likely is that Dan Brown is staying true to his habits here: a conspiracy involving a legitimate organization with a highly placed traitor or bad guy of some sort. He did this in Angels & Demons with the Camerlengo. He did this in The Da Vinci Code with the Teacher. What he is doing here is combining that role with the role of torturer / assassin, in the person of Mal'akh. Or so it all seems to me; I could certainly be wrong.

  8. Yes, Mark you are right, of course, but I am talking about something beneath and other than the surface themes of Brown's thriller. I am suggesting that, as in DaVinci Code, Brown is making teasing covert references to his rivals and inspirers who preceded him in writing speculative histories on the same subjects as his derivative thrillers. Baigent (and Leigh) also wrote a book featuring American Fremasonry "The Temple and the Lodge" 1991, with a section on the Masonic significance of the street layout of D.C. and peppered with hints at secret negotiations between the Freemasons of the Continental Congress and British Crown Masons.

  9. Deetective - bit hard to picture Baigent as a "tattooed muscleman" though...

  10. Machine - But he has been playing Indiana Jones, leading parties of tourists and friends and Masons on quasi archeological expeditions to Egypt and Malta. I did not realise that you were on intimate enough terms with Michael to know that he has no tattoos ;)

  11. I am really new to all this but in regards to the skull drinking thing. Didn't that remind anyone with the MOVIE "THE SKULLS" speaking of such secret society & it followd up with Part 2! just a question!

  12. deetective: I certainly could not prove that Dan Brown is not doing the sort of thing that you suggest. However, the case would be a lot stronger for me if Mal'akh were an author of some sort. Or, if Mr. Baigent had the furnishings attributed to Mal'akh's residence -- the Piranesi etching, the Savonarola chair, the Bugarini lamp -- or similar accoutrements from someplace other than Italy, then it would make a stronger case for me. Could be!

    Wonderer!: The movie "The Skulls" was very loosely based on the real-life fraternity Skull and Bones, at Yale University. One or more real human skulls do indeed figure into their ritual, according to reliable exposures. But they still have no connection to Freemasonry.

  13. Catholicism? do you see the movie 'Exorcism'?

  14. Few thrillers have so cleverly "fused scientific inventions with mythical gods and human apotheosis." The Lost Symbol works within the world Brown has created. Read this novel and you will never look at Washington, D. C. in the same way again.


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