Masonic Monday – Riding Goats and Other Stunts

Masonic Monday is a series that discusses a bit of Freemasonry each week, from famous members to strange rituals.

When Father Rode the Goat ~Author Unknown

The house is full of arcana, and mystery profound;
We do not dare to run about or make the slightest sound.
We leave the big piano shut and do not strike a note;
the doctor’s been here seven times, since father rode the goat.

He joined the lodge a week ago; got in at 4:00 a.m.,
And sixteen brethren brought him home, though he says that he brought them.
His wrist was sprained and one big rip had rent his Sunday coat—
There must have been a lively time when father rode the goat.

He’s resting on the couch today! And practicing his signs—
The hailing signal, the working grip, and other monkeyshines;
He mutters passwords ‘neath his breath, and other things he’ll quote—
They surely had an evening’s work when father rode the goat.

He has a gorgeous uniform, all gold and red and blue—
A hat with plumes and yellow braid, and golden badges too.
But, somehow, when we mention it, he wears a look so grim;
we wonder if he rode the goat—or if the goat rode him!

Mason Riding Goat

Vintage Humorous Postcard

Do Masons really ride goats? The short answer is no. The long answer is a bit more complicated.

Goats are not part of the rituals of Freemasonry, and would no more be found in a Lodge building than they would in a school. Instead, Masonic rituals are rites (called degrees) in which Masons reenact the building of King Solomon’s temple, emphasizing certain moral lessons to new members. It is a joyful, but solemn, occasion.

But.

Before candidates are initiated, they may receive some teasing from the men of the Lodge. “Better watch out for that goat—he’ll take you for a wild ride!” and similar comments portend things such as riding goats, being buried alive, and other alarming activities. This is a holdover from days when stunts were customary before initiations.

How long have humans been playing pranks on one another? Probably as long as there have been humans. When a group pulls a prank on an individual before allowing the individual to join their group, we call it hazing, and hazing has been around since antiquity. It was practiced by the Greeks, Celts, Romans, and other ancient civilizations, all the way through modern times.*

Such a long and widespread history hints that there may be an innate, psychological benefit to the practice; otherwise, no one would put up with it. It is part of human nature to want to belong, to be part of a group—the more exclusive the group, the better. Throughout history, there have been various means for individual to “prove” worthy of joining particular groups and enjoying the accompanying prestige, and hazing as we know it in modern times descends from these practices.

The custom became especially entrenched in universities. The idea was that Freshmen were “uncivilized,” and must be made aware of their lower status. Subjecting them to (usually, but not always, mild) abuse kept them humble, until they were worthy of being called “learned.” Once they passed through this period of humiliation, they were proud to be counted among the true scholars, a privilege afforded to few. It created a bond among those who had endured the same trials, while at the same time signaling to society at large that each member had “passed the muster,” so to speak.**

Universities were not the only groups that took advantage of this psychological conditioning. Fraternities did as well, including Masonic Lodges as well as Odd Fellows, Elks, and other such organizations. Pulling stunts became common in the nineteenth century.

Generally, these were mild teasing: a trick mirror that sprayed water; a “whoopee” cushion; a phone which would release a burst of soot.

Capture

From a fraternal stunt catalog of the 1800s.

Sometimes, they were a little more involved, such as making the candidate ride a mechanical goat.

ride the goat2

From a fraternal stunt catalog of 1909.

Why a goat? It is believed that the idea of a goat in the Lodge has its origin in the mythical Greek god Pan, who was goat-like in form. When Christianity began to spread, Pan was transformed into Satan (which is why the devil has historically been pictured with horns, hooves, and tail).*** As Freemasons held secretive rituals, rumors abounded about them consorting with the devil.

This was further perpetuated by the fact that some early ritual books of the fraternity referred to God as “God Of All Things” and abbreviated it as G.O.A.T. When Masons realized that this was contributing to the false belief that they were worshiping goats, they put an end to that phrase, but the idea had already taken hold.

Although there have always been those who persist in believing such claims, the idea mostly petered out as people realized that the members of a Lodge (such as George Washington and other founding fathers, as well as many clergy and other upstanding citizens) would not be involved in any form of satanic activity. Eventually, the Masons were able to turn it into a joke—similar to the way the patriots of the American Revolution turned the derogatory phrase “Yankee Doodle” into a positive rally song.

Stunts were never part of the initiation itself, and certainly never part of the rituals or meetings. Nor are stunts pulled today; however, the joke of riding a goat persists.

*Student Conduct Practice: The Complete Guide for Student Affairs Professionals, James M. Lancaster and Diane M. Waryold. Virginia: Stylus Publishing, 2008.
**Manliness and Civilization : A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917, Gail Bederman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
*** The Classical Tradition, Anthony Grafton, Glen W. Most, and Salvatore Settis. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2010.
A History of the Devil From the Middle Ages to the Present, Robert Muchembled. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2003.

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3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by lauri5567 on June 8, 2015 at 4:51 pm

    I know most schools have come out as “officially” not hazing. Have the Masons ever released a message that unofficial stunts are not welcome? Or since the Masons are more mature adults usually than typical 19 year old frat boys wasn’t this a problem?

    Reply

    • Great question, Laurie. Some Grand Lodges have officially discouraged pranks, but I haven’t checked every state, so I can’t say for sure that all have.
      However, in the lodge there was never the danger factor that school hazing can have, for two reasons. One, as you say, the men are more mature. Two, alcohol is not allowed at a Lodge meeting. Alcohol is one major factor why school hazings often result in injury (or worse), since it impairs the judgement of both hazers and victims.
      In any case, the practice has gone out of style in the fraternities, and no stunts are pulled in any Lodge anymore, just lots of teasing beforehand.
      Hopefully, all the universities will follow the example of those that have condemned hazing in favor of less dangerous forms of bonding.

      Reply

      • Posted by lauri5567 on June 9, 2015 at 2:57 am

        The Greek system where I went to school has managed to get itself in a lot of trouble over the last few years. I was wondering how that translated to similar but different groups.

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