"To preserve the reputation of the Fraternity unsullied must be your constant care."


Thursday, September 01, 2011

Lore of the Ring

When researching Freemasons For Dummies, I came across the urban legend that there are no 33rd degree rings in pawn shops because 33rd degree Masons dabble in witchcraft and are immolated in the practice of Magick™. Apparently, so this one goes, the ring goes *poof!* along with the body.

There are no howlers quite as hilarious as anti-Masonic howlers.

The truth is that the ring given to the 33rd degree Mason in the Ancient Accepted Scottish Rite, at least in the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction, is either to be buried on the finger of the Brother when his end comes, or returned to the Supreme Council by his family so that it may be passed to another generation of Freemasons.

As to the symbolism, it features a triangle or delta (with the number "33"), in plain gold with no other color, and three distinct rings, which might be interpreted as 3+3. Inside, it is inscribed with the Latin phrase "Deus Meumque Jus", commonly translated as "God and My Right" (or perhaps more clearly, 'God and my moral rightness'). A stricter definition translates 'Jus' into English as 'Law,' which would render it as "God my law" or even "God my justice." There aren't any verbs in the phrase, which also makes it about as clear as a muddied lake.

So what is the original source of this motto? The answer lies in England - not in English, but in French. 

The French translation of the phrase - "Dieu et mon droit" -  is actually the royal motto of the monarch of the United Kingdom, and it appears on a scroll under the shield of the coat of arms of the U.K. (interestingly, only when used on the coat of arms outside of Scotland, for a whole stack of diplomatic reasons). You'll find it all over England, and even on passports issued there. 

The legendary source is said to have originally been a battle cry of England's King Richard I during the Battle of Gisors in 1198, and his defeat of France's Philip II. Richard adopted the French phrase as his motto and it refers to the longstanding notion of the 'divine right of kings.'  Subsequently, King Henry V during the early 1400s officially made it the royal motto, and plastering it on the coat of arms in French was partially to rub in his right to the throne of France at the time (although, Norman French was actually the language of the English court and the nobility after the Battle of Hastings in 1066, anyway). 

So, the motto is the Latin version of a French phrase that originated in England and used in a Masonic degree system named after Scotland that descended from French sources by way of Haiti with the help of a Dutch trader through Jamaica and eventually almost completely redefined in the United States. 

Got that?

By the way – the most quotable passage from Shakespeare's Henry V is the 'St. Crispin's Day' speech in which the King famously says, 

"From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be rememberèd—
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers..." 

Which puts a nice fraternal punctuation on Henry's connection to the motto. Don't for a second think that the founders of the Scottish Rite weren't well-read enough to recognize that.

There are approximately 11,000 33° Scottish Rite Masons in the United States, roughly split 50/50 between the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction and the Southern Jurisdiction. And for those who have asked, the 33° ritual in the two jurisdictions is VERY different. Even the names of the degree itself are different in the two Supreme Councils: in the NMJ it is called Inspector General, while in the SJ it is called Sovereign Grand Inspector General. However, outside of the U.S., a 33° Scottish Rite-styled Mason is extremely rare to encounter. It is common throughout Europe for members of the organizations to be 'perfected' only to the 18° and rise no farther. (And just to be even more confusing, the Rectified Scottish Rite is not the same thing as the Scottish Rite, AT ALL.) 

The number 33 was not just selected at random by the originators of the Scottish Rite. It has long been considered sacred within Christianity for several reasons. It is the multiple use of three, signifying the Holy Trinity. Christ was 33 years old when he ascended into heaven, and the gospels list thirty-three miracles performed by Christ. (Dan Brown is incorrect when he states, appropriately on page 333 of The Lost Symbol, that God is mentioned thirty-three times in the Book of Genesis. God is actually mentioned thirty-two times, in the first chapter of Genesis of the King James Bible.)

Thirty-three appears throughout the Old Testament and other Jewish writings. Jacob had thirty-three children; Mosaic Law required that a woman purify herself for thirty-three days after her male child was circumcised; the holy day of Lag B’Omer occurs thirty-three days after the start of Passover; and the Seal of Solomon, or Star of David, made up of two intersecting triangles, is considered a graphic representation of 3+3. It also plays a prominent role in Kabbalah. And it is perhaps appropriate that Jeremiah 33:3 says, "Call 
to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know."

The religions of Islam, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism and Hinduism all associate sacred meanings with the number thirty-three. There are even thirty-three bones in the human vertebrae. Therefore, it appears in the Scottish Rite as a symbol of the fraternity’s universality as well as the perfection that every man should aspire to achieve in his soul.

Another curious aspect of the numbers thirty-two and thirty-three in regards to the Scottish Rite is that both Charleston, South Carolina, the birthplace of the Rite in 1801, and Jerusalem, location of Solomon’s Temple, lie between the 32° and 33° latitude. For many years it was common for Scottish Rite officers to include the latitude of their location when writing letters, articles or papers.

The double-headed eagle is the principal symbol of the 33rd degree of the Scottish Rite. It is not, as is mistakenly referred to in Brown’s text concerning the tattoo on Mal’akh’s chest, using his nipples as the bird’s eyes, a “double-headed phoenix.” The legendary phoenix, rising from the ashes, as described in Greek (and earlier) mythology, is not what depicted here at all.

Rather, the symbol comes from an early European rite of degrees called the Order of the Royal Secret, from which the Scottish Rite descended in 1801. The Royal Secret’s most advanced degree was called “The Knight of the White and Black Eagle.” The French Masonic authority that issued a patent (a document that authorizes the formation of new chapters) in 1761 was called the Council of the Emperors of the East and West. They used the double-headed eagle as a heraldic device (like a logo) on their documents, and it is believed they had appropriated the imagery from the period of the division of the Roman Empire into an eastern and western empire under the Byzantine emperors. The image of the double-headed eagle also appears in heraldry of the Holy Roman Empire (see image at right), Germany, Austria, Russia, Armenia, Albania, Serbia and many others. It also appears as a symbol of the Greek Orthodox Church.

What makes the image specific to the Scottish Rite is the triangle on the eagle’s breast, and the number “33.”

As to the three stacked rings on the gold band, my own interpretation these days is that it is a personal reminder to the wearer to 'Think twice before speaking once.' But that's just me.

And finally, since France is one of the principal fonts of source material in Scottish Rite degree rituals, practices, and symbolic interpretation, note that 33 is the international dialing code for calling French telephone numbers. 

I'll just leave that right here...


  1. An excellent post that helps to differentiate fact from fiction.

  2. Nice write up. Still hoping to join the SR myself someday, when the time is right. Thanks!

  3. Brother, love your article. However, as an English teacher I can't in good faith let you go on with an error showing. You said 33rd degree Masons are "immolated in the practice of magick". If that is the case, there would be no 33rd degree masons, because to immolate means to burn or incinerate someone, like the Buddhist monks who self-immolated during the Viet Nam era. I love your article. - Br. Dan Bristol

  4. Dan, that's the joke of the legend. The claim is that 33rds can't help themselves after a few years, eventually succumb to the "dark side," read an Albert Pike satanic incantation, and go out in a blaze of glory. And that's why there aren't any old 33rd rings around.

    1. I have one i found in my great aunts house inscribe with a name looks to me titus e. Loyte

  5. Chris, if you are aware of any printed or interwebs reference for that urban legend, I would be most apppreciative. Best regards to you and Lady Alice.

  6. Brother Chris,
    Great as usual. I always enjoy reading what you write, and learn in the process. Take very good care of yourself.

  7. That was an excellent explanation. I have been a freemeason since 1979, I am a 33rd in the Scottish Rite, a Past Master, a Shriner, a Knight Templar, and an Knight of the Red Cross of Constantine. I wear my 33rd ring to church even when acting as a lector and serving communion, in a mainline (Lutheran) church. I have yet to be smitten dead for such blasphemy. I am extremely disappointed that I have not yet been let in on the plans for world domination and the turn to the dark side, even after going through all these degrees. These conspiracy theories are hilarious, and provide much entertainment. Continue to fight the good fight against ignorance.

    1. :) I wear Dad's 14th level ring to a Lutheran church. I had it cut down for me when he passed. I wanted a reminder to always wear, along with Mom's wedding ring. The pastor was miffed, but I really didn't care. Satan did not visit me. I too did not get the memo on world domination. And I always have my Dad near. It is a man's ring, but no one says anything. I got my backbone from Dad, too.

    2. Sometimes it's fun to play with the minds of conspiracy theorists at public events, just to get a reaction.
      I once had a conspiracist tell me, in all sincerity, that there was a small group of secret 34th Degree Masons that ran everything, but only the 33rd's know who they are. I let him know that I was a KCCH, but didn't tell him that that's not part of the 33rd. He was confused and I could see him struggle to try and fit that into his theory.
      -Al Turek-

  8. Bro. Chris, Don't forget about us "enlisted guys." The double eagle is also a symbol of the Sublime Princes as well :-). To Bro. Doug, which Lutheran Church? Missouri Synod?

    1. Good point, Larry. That 32 on the Eagle breast is as meaningful and impressive as the 33rd.

  9. Gosh, I loved the photo if the ring which I have seen for myself only twice in my life. Pity there wasn't more about it--I do not like uneducated guesses and want to know the meaning, if any, of the ring's details. President Harry Truman wore one. I'd love to know why he wore that on his left pinky. This article at least gives some bare bones info.

    1. Generall Douglas McArthur's 33 degree ring is on display with other personal artifacts at the Douglas McArthur Memorial Museum on McArthur Square in Norfolk, VA.

  10. Let's see... 7 cervical vertebrae, 12 thoracic vertebrae, 5 lumbar vertebrae, 1 sacrum, 1 coccyx = 26. 33-26 = 7. Maybe they include in the count, the 5 fused sacral segments...that would increase the count to 30 (26+4=30 [we already counted 1 of the sacrum]). Maybe, the skull is considered to have 3 segments ?

    1. Cervical spine: 7 vertebrae (C1–C7)
      Thoracic spine: 12 vertebrae (T1–T12)
      Lumbar spine: 5 vertebrae (L1–L5)
      Sacrum: 5 (fused) vertebrae (S1–S5)
      Coccyx: 4 (3–5) (fused) vertebrae (Tailbone)

      Total: 33

  11. Thanks for rhos great read. Headed to receive my 33° this weekend. It was great to read this prior to my journey.

  12. Very enjoyable article! Is the tradition, for disposition of the ring, the same for Prince Hall? I have a good friend who wears her late father's 33rd ring on a chain around her neck.

  13. Your taking all the fun out of spooking civilians. I love tinkering with numbers to get 666 (which btw is the wrong number of the "beast" it turns out is actually was originally 616, but depending on what language you use to get Nero in numerology, it also can be 666 [Hebrew], so let the number(s) of the beast be either 616 (Greek) or 666 (Hebrew). Of course, with binary and hexadecimal, then the real fun begins, I can design entire phrases to satisfy these values when converting English to code) AND YOU ARE RUINING ALL THE FUN. How are we going to expand the ranks back to 5M from the less than 2M we are at, if you demystify all folklore. Just my 2 shekels.

  14. Amazing article!!! looking forward to becoming a brother someday, lookin for a lodge in Mount Vernon NY. best wishes to all

  15. Amazing article!!! looking forward to becoming a brother soon! need to find a lodge in Mount Vernon NY. blessings to all

  16. Bro. Scott Mishoe. God bless the fraternity. That our good works illuminate the earth, that one day, everyone may know its beautiful teachings upon the hearts of all.


Comments will not appear immediately, so be patient. I am forced to laboriously screen every post because I am constantly bombarded with spam. Anonymous postings on Masonic topics have the same status as cowans and eavesdroppers as far as I am concerned. If you post with an unknown or anonymous account, do not expect to see your comment appear.