With Dan Brown's book The Lost Symbol displaying the double-headed eagle and 33rd degree shield of the Scottish Rite on its cover, along with the release date of the book 9/15/09 adding up to the number "33," it's a fair bet to say that Brown will place 33rd degree Masons in an important role in his novel. Good or bad remains to be seen. And since literally millions of people will read it and think Brown's version of Freemasonry and the Scottish Rite is "factual," as he has claimed in the past about his treatment of the Illuminati, the Priory of Sion, the Knights Templar and Opus Dei, I figured it was worthwhile to post a brief explanation of just who and what the Scottish Rite is.
The Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite is an appendant body to Freemasonry, requiring membership in a Blue Lodge (the local, neighborhood lodge). The Scottish Rite confers a series of Masonic degrees numbered 4 through 32. In the United States, these degrees are conferred as a series of dramatic plays which illustrate certain moral and philosophical lessons.
To become a 32° Scottish Rite Mason in the U.S., it is not necessary to witness or participate in all 29 of the Rite's degrees. A candidate might participate in, for instance, the 4th, 14th, 18th, 30th, 31st and 32nd degrees, but not the others in between, yet is still considered a 32° degree Mason. Because the degrees are literally major theatrical productions that require large casts, props, scenery, lighting and music, not all of them are presented at one time for every class of candidates. In addition, he might simply receive a brief lecture or explanation of a degree, be shown its signs and passwords—this is called "communicating" the degree. Many Scottish Rite valleys rotate the presentation of the other degrees over a period of years so a candidate can eventually see all of them. But as long as he has had the 32° conferred upon him, a man is considered a 32° Scottish Rite Mason.
This is very different outside of the U.S. An American Scottish Rite Mason can attain the 32° literally in a day or two of degree presentations. Outside of the U.S. this process can take years. In some countries, rising above the 18° is very rare and time consuming.
In addition, the Scottish Rite confers a 33rd degree, “Inspector General.” This is an honorary degree for Scottish Rite Masons who have made a significant contribution to society or to Masonry in general. Far from a “secret,” recipients are announced in public newspapers, and are entitled to place 33° after their name. Those who are elected to serve as part of the Supreme Council's governing board must be 33° Masons, and are known as “Sovereign Grand Inspector General.” The top officer of a Scottish Rite jurisdiction is a Sovereign Grand Commander.
You will sometimes read the term "high degree Masonry" or "a high ranking Mason." I don't care what you read anywhere else. Regardless of any other Masonic organization a Freemason may join in his lifetime, and no matter how any other organization may describe or number their degrees, there is no degree of higher rank or importance in Freemasonry than the 3rd degree, the Master Mason. The Scottish Rite degrees are comparable to continuing education, not higher authority. A grand lodge allows the Scottish Rite to operate in its jurisdiction, but has the authority to tell Masons they may not join or participate in the Scottish Rite. This is the delicate dance of Masonic authority.
While we're discussing misnomers, despite its name, the Scottish Rite is not really Scottish, but primarily French and a little Austrian. The name is believed to have come from the influence of Scottish Jacobite Masons living in exile in France in the early 1700s. And no, you don't have to be Scottish to join.
The territory of the U.S. is divided into two governing Scottish Rite bodies. The Supreme Council of Ancient Accepted Scottish Rite of the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction governs the Rite in 15 states, roughly north of the Mason-Dixon line and east of the Mississippi. It is headquartered in Lexington, Massachusetts. The Supreme Council of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite, Southern Jurisdiction was first formed in Charleston, South Carolina, and is now headquartered in Washington D.C. It’s building is known as The House of the Temple, and is located at 1733 16th St. NW. The Southern Jurisdiction governs the remaining 35 states.
(The official name of the Scottish Rite Southern Jurisdiction is "The Supreme Council (Mother Council of the World) of the Inspectors General Knights Commander of the House of the Temple of Solomon of the Thirty-third Degree of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry of the Southern Jurisdiction of the United States of America." It claims that all other Scottish Rite jurisdictions derive from its origin.)
Regional chapters, called "valleys," are located across the country and are far less numerous than Masonic lodges—there are generally no more than four or five per state.
There are great differences between the Northern and Southern jurisdictions in terms of the degree rituals they confer on their members. There are even differences in degree names, in spite of the fact that both confer degrees numbered 4 through 33.
The rituals worked by the Southern Jurisdiction were extensively rewritten by Albert Pike in the 1850s. While they have simplified the work over the years (largely shortening the rituals and clarifying the language), today's degrees are revised versions of Pike's rituals.
The Northern Jurisdiction never adopted Pike's rituals completely, although at various times they used a few of them. Instead, the NMJ has modified its work over the years on a regular basis, writing new rituals and modifying old ones to keep them, in their view, more relevant. As a result, while Pike stuck with stories drawn from biblical and chivalric sources, the NMJ has added patriotic stories about George Washington, Ben Franklin, and (although not a Mason) Abe Lincoln. Those influences have waxed and waned over the years—Washington and Lincoln degrees have been removed recently—but the two jurisdictions are VERY different in their ritual approaches.
The Northern Jurisdiction has recently revised and made available an updated history of its degree development on its website. See The Degree Rituals of The Supreme Council, 33°, AASR for the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction United States of America by C. DeForrest Trexler, 33°.
Of the 1.5 million Freemasons in the United States, approximately 500,000 are Scottish Rite Masons.