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.
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
In a similar vein, the New Westminster British Columbian of December 30, 1863, noted:
“Masonic Festival: The Brethren of Union Lodge, No. 1201, in this City sat down to a sumptuous dinner on Monday evening. Not having yet taken a ride upon the mystical goat, we cannot say more than that the affair passed off well. Messrs. Smith and Bridgman were the caterers.”
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.9
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.
1. Cited in “Dramatic deception and black identity in The First One and Riding the Goat (Critical Essay),” Taylor Hagood. African American Review, St. Louis, MO : Division on Black American Literature and Culture of the Modern Language Association, 3/22/2005.
2. James Madison, An Exposition of the Forms and Usages Observed in the Various lodges of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. New York : Printed and published for the author, 1848, p. 26. Cited p. 166 : “Riding the Goat, Secrecy, Masculinity, and Fraternal High Jinks in the United States, 1845-1930”, William D. Moore. Winterthur Portfolio A Journal of American Material Culture. v. 41, nos 2/3. Summer/Autumn 2007. Chixcago : Winterthur Museum, University of Chicago Press. pp. 161-88.
3. The first meeting of the masonic lodge over the trading house of Br. A. G. B. Bannatyne in Fort Garry, Manitoba on 8 November 1864 was described in 1895:
“It was spoken of far and wide, and the description, which did not decrease in detail, or increase in accuracy as to what was done therein, was listened to with much curiousity, and in some cases with awesome wonder, which was enhanced by the jocoseness of Br. Bannatyne’s clerks, who spoke knowingly of the whereabouts and propulsive propensities of the goat….”
James A. Ovas, Freemasonry in the Province of Manitoba, Published by Northern Light Lodge, A.F. & A.M., No. 10, G.R. Manitoba  p. 7.
4. Albert G. Mackey, Encyclopedia of Freemasonry and its kindred sciences…. Moss & Co., 1873. p. 301. Not cited: George Oliver, The Golden Remains of the Early Masonic Writers…, Volume III. Masonic Persecutions. London : Richard Spencer, 1847. p. 9: ‘They were charged with the practice of forbidden arts; as for instance “raising the devil in a circle;” though the use they made of his infernal majesty does not appear; but from hints scattered about in other places we may surmise that it was for the purposes of divination, the discovery of hidden treasures, and other illegal designs, which were more openly avowed in the innovations of continental Masonry.’ See Euclid’s letter in Anderson’s Const. Ed. 1738 p. 227. [fn.] “the Freemasons in their lodges, raised the devil in a circle, and when they had done with him, laid him again with a noise or a hush, as they pleased.” Euclid.
5. Hello Bill and Other “Secrets”, Mike Kelly [Grand Lodge Historian]. The Benevolent & Protective Order of Elks of the USA. Cited 2006/03/19 : http://www.elks.org.
6. Three Frenchmen and a Goat: The DeMoulin Bros. Story, John Goldsmith. Greenville, IL : Tri-State Litho, 2004, pb 196 pages, illust. srmason-sj.org/web/journal-files/Issues/jul-aug05/goldsmith.html.
7. “Mysteries of the Lodge Goat revealed,” Heather K. Calloway . Scottish Rite Journal of Freemasonry, Southern Jurisdiction. Washington, DC : A.&A.S.R.S.J.. July-August 2005. srmason-sj.org/web/journal-files/Issues/jul-aug05/calloway.html
8. Cited by Iowa Old Press [2006/05/11]. Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia website: sinfonian.com [2006/05/11]
9. “When Father Rode the Goat,” The Lodge Goat. Goat Rides, Butts And Goat Hairs. Gathered from the Lodge Rooms of every Fraternal Order. More than a thousand anecdotes incidents and illustrations from the Humorous Side of Lodge Life. Compiled and Edited by James Pettibone. “A little nonsense now and then Is relished by the best of men.” Cincinnati, O., C.B. Pettibone & Co., 1903 Copyright 1902, by James Pettibone, Cincinnati, O. 599 p. plus the editor’s announcement. P.O. Box No. 128, Cincinnati, O. 632 Main St., Cincinnati, O. illust.: Boweman, p. 334, 352, 600. p. 45-46.
10. Free masonry exposed, Bricktop [pseud.] [George G. Small?]. Wright American fiction ; v. 2 (1851-1875), New York : Winchell & Small, 1871 32p Microfilm.Ser.8.Reel S-17, no. 2247A. Electronic version : letrs.indiana.edu.
11. Charles Francis Bourke, Riding the Goat, (with S. Ten Eyck Bourke). The Cavalier. vol. 16 no. 4. USA : Frank A. Munsey, 15 June 1912. Frank Gee Patchin (1861-1925) The Pony Rider Boys in Montana, Or, the Mystery of the Old Custer Trail, Akron, Ohio – New York : The Saalfield Pub Co., 1910. Chapter XVII. “Chunky Rides the Goat” : “The kid’s riding the goat,” yelled Hicks. “He’s initiating himself into the order of Know Nuthins. See him buck! See him buck!”
12. “Riding the Goat”, Wines in the Wilderness, Plays by African American Women from the Harlem Renaissance to the Present, Edited and Compiled by Elizabeth Brown-Guillory. Contributions in Afro-American and African Studies, Number 135. New York : Greeenwood Press, 1990. ISBN : 0-313-26509-7 hc. 251 p.. First published in Plays and Pageants from the Life of the Negro, edited by Willis Richardson (d. 1977), Copyright, 1929 By Associated Publishers, Inc. Carter G. Woodson. 1993 reprint introduction by Christine R. Gray. hc. 373 p.. Portrait (c. 1940) p. 141 with biography from Black Female Playwrights, An Anthology of Plays before 1950. Kathy A. Perkins. Bloomington : Indiana University Press, 1989. ISBN : 0-253-34358-5 hc. 288 p.
13. Ars Quatuor Coronatorum vol. 101 (1988) p. 2.
14. “…it is most likely derived from an Egyptian or Sumerian word. Its function and purpose is best described as a heavy object moving device.” The Capricorn Connection (Riding the Goat). Ian Barrow. Auckland, NZ : United Masters Lodge No. 167, August 2006. p. 82.
15. Freemasonry, All you Need to Know as a Child of God, [Amanda Buys]. Panorama [Cape Town], South Africa : Kanaan Ministies, 2005/05/08. PDF file, p. 43. kanaanministries.org (Accessed 2006/10/22) (hetzner.co.za) : “I renounce and break every tie to the goat of the Orange Lodge. I renounce and break all oaths made while sitting on a goat. I renounce the ceremony of riding the goat and break the curse of violence and fear.”
16. The Scald-Miserables processions organized by Paul Whitehead and Esquire Carey (surgeon to the Prince of Wales and masonic Grand Steward in 1740) were held on March 19, April 27 and May 2, 1741. There is a print by Bertoist entitled Grand Procession of the Scald Miserable Masons. Horace Walpole reports that the Prince promptly dismissed Carey from his post. Cited by E. Beresford Chancellor, The lives of the Rakes: Volume IV, The Hell Fire Club. London : Philip Allan & Co. Quality Court, 1925. 256p 15x22cm p. 149.