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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.