Information Corner - Masonic Goat

From whence came the curious belief that in the making of a Mason, the candidate must ride upon the goat?

It is, alas, sufficiently easy to understand why the idea persists. It continues because well-intentioned but unthinking Freemasons tell their friends, prior to initiation, to "Look out for the goat!" and "The goat will be starved so he'll butt the harder." and "I'll be there to see you ride the goat!"

Not one in a thousand who so demeans a fraternity wholly concerned with such serious matters as belief in a Great Architect, the inculcation of charity, the establishment of brotherly love, the building of character, realizes that by such silly jokes he perpetuates an ancient ridicule of Freemasonry, and, far worse, an old accusation of blasphemy against an organization which has ever held the Most High in greatest reverence.

Many animals have played curious parts in secular history and in religion. the Russian Bear, the British Lion, the American Eagle, are national emblems the world over. The lamb plays a part in both Christianity and Freemasonry. The bull is sacred in India, as was the cat in Egypt. Lion and lamb are both important to Freemasonry, as are "beasts of the field and vultures of the air." But search the rituals of all lands and climes and ages and no goat is found in Freemasonry, save in the minds and on the lips of those who ridicule the brotherhood which stretches 'round the world.

In the north of Europe, popular belief has the wood spirit, Ljesche, wearing a goat's horns, ears and legs. The African Bijagos worship the goat as a principal deity.

Mythologically the goat played a prominent part. Silenus, chief of the Satyrs, attendants of Dionysus, also of Bacchus, was half goat. The Fauns, also half goat, were familiars and servants of Pan, the Arcadian God of the shepherds, huntsmen, country people. He is represented as horned, long eared, a man with the lower half of his body a goat. He plays a pipe made of reeds of various lengths, the Pan's Pipes or Syrinx. He is supposed to have been of terrifying appearance, when he wished - our word "panic" comes from the terror he is said to have inspired. but mythology makes him on the whole a gentle deity with elfin characteristics. Except for scaring the countryside, he is depicted as mischievous rather than dangerous.

The early Christian fathers understood that a world could not be won from a paganism which had permeated lives for thousands of years, merely by ukase. It was far simpler to keep the old, transfer to it a Christian significance, as in Christmas and harvest festivals, anciently days of pagan ceremonies, made Christian and brought into the church. Mythology could not be uprooted, but it could be made useful. Gradually gentle Pan was resolved, or evolved, into Satan. Thus Satan has Pan's horns and tail and, in early England, the devil rode upon a goat!

It is an old superstition in England and Scotland that a goat is never seen during an entire twenty-four period. Once a day he visits the devil to have his beard combed! Even in this enlightened age, when a goat is considered to do no more harm than is inherent in eating tin cans and leather shoes, he retains his ancient smirched character in our language. To "be the Goat" is to get the worse of an affair, be blamed for what we did not do. To "Get your goat" is to annoy, perturb, distress. To "Separate the sheep from the goats" is no longer a mere act of division as it was in Matthew, but dividing the fit from the unfit, the good and the bad, the evil and the pure.

Those familiar with Shakespeare will recall the incantation of the Third Witch in the cavern, forth act of Macbeth. The witch is adding to the list of horrible articles to be tossed in the cauldron for the hellish brew;
Scale of dragon, tooth of wold, Witches mummy; maw and gulf Of the ravin'd salt-sea shark, Root of hemlock, digged i' the dark, Liver of blaspheming jew Gall of goat and slips of yew...
Old Testament instructions for priestly sacrifices included the goat among the clean animals. Most important from the standpoint of the metamorphosis of the goat from a gently and inoffensive beast to one of terrifying propensities, was the scapegoat. We read (Leviticus 16:7-10).
"And he shall take the two goats, and present them before the Lord at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the Lord , and the other lot for the scapegoat. And Aaron shall bring the goat upon which the Lord's lot fell, and offer him for a sin offering. but the goat, on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat, shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make an atonement with him, and to let him go for a scapegoat into the wilderness."
The idea that the sins of the people might be transferred to a goat, which, driven into the wilderness to die, carried away the moral trespasses with which he was symbolically loaded, doubtless had much to do with the change which came over the complexion of the Great God Pan, when Christianity commenced to rewrite the ancient heathen mythology. Gently Pan, who harmed no one beyond creating terror, became first Satanic, and then, in the end, Satan himself. In the middle ages, men believed that the Evil One took the form of a goat on earth, when he wished to work his wicked will unseen of men in his true character. Therefore Satan gradually grew both horns and tail!

Mackey says:
"Then cane the witch stories of the Middle Ages, and the belief in the witch orgies, where it was said the Devil appeared riding on a goat. These orgies of the witches were, amid fearfully blasphemous ceremonies, they practiced initiation into their Satanic rites, became, to the vulgar and illiterate, the type of the Masonic mysteries; for, as Dr. Oliver says, it was in England a common belief that the Freemasons were accustomed in their Lodges to "raise the Devil". So riding of the goat, which was believed to be practiced by the witches, was transferred to the Freemasons."
Two organizations of the early eighteenth century seem to have been formed and to have lived their short lives wholly to bring ridicule on Freemasonry. the Gormogons began in 1724, the Scald Miserables held their Mock Masonry processions in 1741.

According to Mackey, one of the rules of the Gormogons was:
"No Freemason could be admitted until he was first degraded and then renounced the Masonic order. It was absurbly and intentionally pretentious in its character, in ridicule of Freemasonry claiming a great antiquity and pretending that it was descended from an ancient society in China. There was much antipathy between the two as will appear from the following verses, published in 1729 by Henry Cary:

The Masons and the Gormogons are laughing at one another While all mankind is laughing at them; then why do they make such a pother?

"They bait their hook for simple gulls, And truth with bam they smother; But when they've taken in their culls Why then, tis; 'Welcome, Brother'

"The Gormogons made a great splutter in their day, and published many squibs against Freemasonry; yet that is still living, while the Gormogons were long ago extinguished. They seem to have flourished for but a very few years."
The Scald Miserables paraded in mockery of the Masonic processions of early days, ridiculing the Order and being in turn ridiculed by members of the Fraternity in the somewhat brutal give and take of those days. the efforts of the Scald Miserables were frowned upon by the better classes, who respected the Fraternity to which at that time so many men eminent in public life in England were turning.

It is perhaps, too much to state that these two societies had much to do with the spread of the idea that the Masonic Fraternity, "raised the devil" in its Lodges. Yet a print by Hogarth entitled "The Mystery of Masonry brought to Light by Gormogons," shows a curious goat-like figure walking in the procession in the middle of the picture. Nor is it likely that organizations conceived in hatred of the Fraternity would omit from their guns of ridicule so powerful a weapon as the belief that Masons "raised the devil" and "rode upon the goat."

That Masons were supposed to "raise the devil" in their secret meetings may be understandable in the credulous times of a century or two ago, but it does seem rather incredible that in a modern day and age any one should so believe. Yet as late as 1894, the Transactions of Quatuor Coronati, the great Research Lodge of England, published a note which reads as follows:
"A curious and interesting libel suit is, our Berlin Correspondent says, pending against two newspapers, one at Rome and the other at Bonn. A Catholic priest at Friburg in Switzerland lately refused to allow a lady to participate in Holy communion. The Swiss court, however, rejected her claim. The above-mentioned papers in reporting the case denounced the lady as a grand mistress of a lady's lodge and added that this lodge had accepted the Satan worship imported from America and the devil's Mass..."
This is bad enough, but what shall we think of men so credulous as to believe in 1927 - nine years ago - that Masonic bodies in France steal the Hosts from the Catholic church to use in blasphemous ceremonies in Masonic Lodges, the celebration of the Black Mass (whatever that is!) and the "raising of the devil?"

Yet an article in La Revue Internationale des Societies Secretes, of Paris, sets forth these alleged "facts" in some detail!

It is natural to believe the worst of an opponent; all secret societies are supposed by their detractors to be secret because of concealed evil. The Grand Orient of France, frankly anti-clerical, accepts either theists or atheists as members, but because it does not demand a believe in Deity, is often supposed to be anti-religious. As well say political parties, chambers of Commerce or a social club are anti-religious because no belief in a Deity is demanded as a qualification for membership. Some Clerical enthusiasts have read anti-religion into anti- clericalism, just as the people of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, from jealously at not being permitted to join, or dislike of that which contained "secrets" that they did not know, denominated Freemasonry as anti-religious, "raising the devil" in its Lodges.

Of course no one well informed believes that Freemasonry has anything to do with goats. If any one does so believe, he marks himself at once either as singularly credulous, or as ignorant. Yet the idea that the goat is a part of Masonic initiation has soiled the reputation of the fraternity in many minds; many people do believe that Freemasonry's initiations are humorous in character, concerned with horse play, a sort of exaggerated college fraternity in action.

The fact is of enough importance to bear repetition - the responsibility for the goat idea of Masonic initiation today rests squarely on the shoulders of the unthinking, who perpetuate it by attempting to terrify petitioners. The same idea is sometimes carried into Lodge rooms, where one of the most beautiful of ceremonies is occasionally butchered to make a holiday for those who cannot or will not see its sublime symbolism.

When all Freemasons reverence the holy teachings of the Order and find in the ceremonies only uplift and inspiration, the goat will disappear from the lips of those who profess brotherhood, and soon thereafter will vanish from the minds and the literature of those not of the fraternity.

Popular belief has often identified masonic initiation with the riding of a goat. But where, or when did the expression originate? Masonic historians have been at a loss as to the source of this myth, speculating as far afield as the horns on the four corners of the altar used by Old Testament Hebrews and echoed in modern Scottish Rite ritual, or the myth of the goat-headed Baphomet.

The goat has been both a positive and negative symbol throughout history. In depictions of Pan, and Bacchus, or Dionysius, the goat carried the favorable connotations of youth, merriment, freedom and love. As the attributes of these Greek deities became identified with the Christian Satan, the goat became a symbol for excess, drunkenness, gluttony and licentiousness. Goats represent the souls of the wicked, according to Matthew 25:32-33. For discussion of the rôle of the goat in Greek drama, see Francisco Rodriguez Abrados, Gerald Frank Else (1908-1982), Sir Arthur Wallace Pickard-Cambridge (1873-1952), and Sir William Ridgeway (1853-1926).1 But this may be looking too deeply into what may have once been nothing more than a bit of fraternal humour.

Odd Fellows

Rather than antimasonry, it was in attacks on the Odd Fellows that riding the goat was first claimed to be an aspect of initiation. The anonymous Odd Fellowship Exposed (Exeter New Hampshire, 1845) is the earliest extant attack, while James Madison, in his Exposition (1848) refers to "...the prevalent notion of Masonic and Odd Fellows initiations."2 By the time the goat came to be associated with all secret societies it was no longer perceived as a malicious slander, perpetrated in an anti-masonic attack, but was merely a jocular euphemism, embraced by many freemasons.


None of the early exposures of masonic ritual, such as A Mason’s Examination (1723) or Masonry Dissected by Samuel Prichard, London, (1730), or the much later Manual of Freemasonry by Richard Carlisle (1825), make any mention of a goat. Nor is the goat found in Harry Carr’s The Early French Exposures (1971).

Although there had been handbills and flyers attacking Freemasonry throughout the eighteenth century, other than the three dozen or more ritual exposures published, the main attacks came from Augustin Barruel (1741-1820) in Mémoires pour servir à l'Histoire du Jacobinisme (1797) and John Robison (1739-1805) in Proofs of a Conspiracy... (1797). Neither suggested that a goat played any rôle in the masonic lodge. But they were, respectively, a cleric and an academic, and stories of goat riding may have possibly circulated in other, earthier, social sets.

First applied to masonic initiation in the 1840s, by century's end the expression was a popular addition to masonic humour, and a real aspect of other fraternal societies.3

Albert G. Mackey, in his Encyclopedia of Freemasonry (1873) cites the Rev. Dr. George Oliver in recording a common belief of the early nineteenth century that freemasons practiced some form of witchcraft:
"Doctor Oliver says, it was in England a common belief that the Freemasons were accustomed in their Lodges "to raise the Devil." So the riding of the goat, which was believed to be practised by the witches, was transferred to the Freemasons; and the saying remains to this day, although the belief has long since died out."4
A few of the more inflammatory pamphlets of the mid-eighteenth century did accuse freemasons of satanic practices, but Mackey fails to provide any documentation for his claim that these were the source of the expression, "riding the goat." Mackey may record the expression as being common in 1873 America, but Oliver does not confirm its use in 1847 England.

North American fraternities

It is also a curious fact that another North American fraternal society, the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, claims to have actually used a goat in its initiation ritual. Prior to 1952, when the blindfolding of candidates was done away with, a range of pranks were played upon incoming members. Reports have it that a widespread practice was for each candidate to ride a live goat around the lodge room.5

The Modern Woodmen of the World—created in Iowa in 1883—made use of a mechanical goat. A major promoter of the Modern Woodmen was Ed DeMoulin who started DeMoulin Bros. in 1890 to cater to, and promote, the use of an ever-expanding list of initiation devices.6 The growth of the Modern Woodmen may have encouraged other North American fraternities to adopt similar practices. A 1915 published ritual of the Modern Woodmen has a list of all of the articles used in the ceremony, including a goat.7

There was certainly no secret about the Woodmen goat. A special correspondence to the LeMars Sentinel newspaper on 12 September 1898 wrote: "Elam Chapman got so excited over riding the goat at the Woodman Lodge last Saturday night that he forgot his wife and left her here in town, drove home alone and forced his way into the house through a cellar window and had the key in his pocket." A music school fraternity founded in Boston in 1898, Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, 'held regular fornightly meetings, one of the main features of which was the initiation of new members by a mysterious process called "riding the goat."' 8

When one contemplates the image of a 50 kilo goat carrying an 80 kilo mature man, or considers the logistics of keeping a live goat in an urban environment, one is left with the suspicion that anecdotes of goat-riding refer to one of Ed DeMoulin’s contraptions and not to a live farm animal.

Literary references to riding the goat—in poem, song, prose and drama—abound in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The anonymous poem, When Father Rode The Goat is clearly intended as a jocular burlesque and not as an exposure of actual lodge practice.

When Father Rode The Goat

The house is full of arnica
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 a.m.
And sixteen brethren brought him home
Though he says 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 to-day!
And practicing his signs —
The hailing signal, 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 bat with plunges 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.

A few examples will suffice to demonstrate the prevalence of a popular knowledge or belief in fraternal goat-riding. The anonymously written Free Masonry Exposed (1871)10 has a humourous account in which a wife demands to know what went on at the lodge. The husband, Mr. Bricktop, divulges to his wife, Emily Jane, the secrets of Freemasonry, including a ride on a goat during the "Fellow-Calf degree." The story ends with the revelation that the wife knew all along that her husband had been lying. This may have been the inspiration for an 1898 film entitled Riding the Goat. While not the origin of the story, Free Masonry Exposed certainly popularized the image and brought it to the attention of a wider masonic audience.

By the early twentieth century, riding the goat had truly entered the mainstream. American artist Cassius Coolidge (1844-1934) is remembered today for his early twentieth century "Dogs Playing Poker" series of illustrations, one of which was titled "Riding The Goat". Charles Francis Bourke’s short story Riding the Goat was published in The Cavalier for 15 June 1912 and Frank Gee Patchin’s 1910 novel for boys, The Pony Rider Boys in Montana included the chapter, "Chunky Rides the Goat".11

In Bobby Bumps Starts a Lodge (1914), the candidate doesn't ride a goat, but he wears an apron with a goat's head emblem and is initiated by being butted by a goat. In 1922, Bud Fisher, creator of the comic strip Mutt and Jeff, wrote and directed a black and white silent cartoon short, also entitled Riding the Goat. The one-act play, Riding the Goat12 (1929) by May Miller [Sullivan] (1899-1995), refers in the dialogue to a fictional fraternal lodge initiation, but also uses the title as a metaphor for initiation in life, as one grows and learns.

Bro. Sir Lionel Brett tells us :
The name "Boaz" occurs frequently in the accounts of the building of K.S.T. The Polyglot Bible gives the meaning as 'in it is strength', but Cruden's Concordance, first published in 1737, gives 'in strength or in the goat.' I am told by Hebrew scholars that 'in the goat' is the misreading of the component parts of the word, but the misreading may explain the buffoonery which I have heard of as practiced on candidates in some places.13
The expression is also known outside of English-speaking Freemasonry. In the Afrikaans of South Africa, up to the present time, freemasons are called "bok ryers" or "goat riders".

Outside the literary world, there is also a report from Te Hana, New Zealand, of a simple stonemasons' device, used to move heavy stone blocks, called a goat. 14

That there was ever a popular belief in masonic goat-riding has not been demonstrated, although one South African ministry appears to have accepted the fiction as fact.15 Like the purported practices of the Gormogons and Scald-Miserables16, the story of the goat—although perhaps inspired by mediaeval superstition and promoted by anti-masonic attacks—may have only represented a literary burlesque intended to poke fun at fraternal initiation, and was never a widespread belief. In its humorous form it is clear that the story has been kept alive by freemasons and not by anti-masons.