Before being initiated into Freemasonry, I had never heard any association between the fraternity and goats. This was just something I was not made aware of, I guess. So, when the guys in the lodge joked about getting a goat ready for the initiation, I figured they were just kidding. I had no idea that there was such a history of goat initiations in Freemasonry, albeit a completely fabricated one.
As a grad student, I’m used to doing research, so I went onto the JSTOR database and did some digging. I found an article called Riding the Goat: Secrecy, Masculinity, and Fraternal High Jinks in the United States,
1845–1930 by William D. Moore (2007). It provided the history surrounding the relationship between the goat and fraternal societies in general. It wasn’t just related to Freemasonry, and in fact, the first recorded reference came from an Anti-Odd Fellows Exposé in 1845, “The text of this pamphlet deserves attention because it provides insight into how the idea of the lodge goat developed over time. The pamphlet’s author wrote:
Suddenly a loud voice exclaimed, ‘Prepare the Goat!’ and a large black and white goat was led forward. This caused me but little fear, as I had often heard that it was part of the ceremony. I was immediately mounted upon him, and told to hold by his horns, but no sooner had my conductors released their hold upon me, than I found myself thrown upon the floor, the goat having precipitated me over his head; at this a general laugh issued from those in the room.
Moore’s (2007) article shows how there was already a commonly held belief that goats were involved in these initiation rituals. The idea of a lodge goat crossed over to many fraternal organizations at the time. It was considered an attack and shaming device used to criticize these secret societies. No actual goats were harmed during these initiation rituals, at least not at that time. In 1901, the Knights of Pythias were busted by a health inspector for improperly housing a goat, according to the New York Times.
Below is the 1916 cartoon, Bobby Bumps Starts a Lodge, in which the young hero tries to start a lodge by bringing in a goat and having it buck the blindfolded, would-be initiate.
As with any derogatory term given unto a people by another people, the meaning may eventually change from a negative to a positive.
From the 70s to 90s, being called a nerd was the worst and now people are competing to become the king thereof.
These fraternal societies eventually embraced the idea of the goat and even made it a part of their ritual. See the ad above. That is for a real goat device sold in the early 20th century for initiates to ride upon. It seems to have been used by the Odd Fellows in New Kensington, as well as several other fraternities that sued the makers for injuries caused by the contraption (Moore, 2007).
At some point, the power of calling fraternal societies “Goat Riders” had worn off. Instead, riding a goat became a symbol of masculinity similar to that of bull-riding (Moore, 2007). It also became a symbol of hazing for awhile, even up to 2006 when a Western Kentucky University fraternity was busted for improperly housing a goat.
Without its power, the goat stories began to disappear, and today they’re only whispered jokes in the lodge. For more on this, check out this posting on r\freemasonry subreddit.
Here’s one more cartoon about devious fraternal societies and that menacing Mickey Mouse.