Anthony  D  Buckley

’Rise up dead man, and fight again’

Mumming, the Mass and the Masonic Third Degree.

Anthony D Buckley


In Border Crossing: mumming in cross-border and cross-community context  (eds) Anthony D Buckley, Críostóir Mac Cárthaigh, Séamas Ócatháin and Séamas Mac Mathúna 2007 19-38


This article uses a formal approach to the mummers’ play.  It treats it as a rite, comparing it with the Masonic Master Mason's Degree and the CatholicMass.  Each of these rites is in itself a ritual drama. Embedded within each one, however, is also a performance that resembles theatre.  This comparison elaborates van Gennep’s theory of ritual, by weaving in concepts based on Aristotle’s Poetics.  These include the notion of a turning point, and ideas of comedy and tragedy.  Each of the three rites deals with death and resurrection,  exploring this theme in different ways.  Sometimes the rite is serious and sometimes it is  absurd.  Sometimes the ending is happy; sometimes it is catastrophic.  Sometimes the depiction is naturalistic; and sometimes it invokes divine intervention.  The article suggests that while all ritual is a response to immediate historical and social circumstances, some features of ritual arise from considerations that may be thought universal.

The “mummers’ play”, as the phrase suggests, can be taken as a piece of theatre, but it is better to see it as a comic, frivolous ritual. Indeed, most rituals have features in common with theatre. This article compares the mummers’ play with two other, much more earnest rituals, the Roman Catholic Mass and the Third Degree of Craft Freemasonry.[1] It examines these rituals using concepts established by Aristotle is his study of theatre, the Poetics (nd).[2] Despite an emphasis on Aristotle, my approach is consonant with the formalism of Van Gennep (1908) and Propp (1928). These three rituals have in common a quasi-theatrical element that addresses the question of death and resurrection. They differ, however, in the way they deal with this shared topic.

In the mummers’ play, after an introductory sequence, two players appear, acting the part of two heroes, or perhaps a hero and a villain.  In Ireland, these are typically St Patrick or the Turkish (or “Turkey”)  Champion and Prince George, but there are others (Gailey 1969: passim).  The two men quarrel and then fight. In the course of this battle, one of these leading figures dies.  A doctor is then called, and he cures the dead man, bringing him back to life.  In some versions of the story, as the dead hero revives, the doctor will exclaim, "Rise up dead man, and fight again" (Gailey 1969:56).

In the Mass, again after an introductory sequence, there is an acknowledgement of sin and confusion.  This gives way to death followed by resurrection.  Here, the congregation learns how Jesus died and how he rose again by means of a miracle.  Although this theme underlies the whole drama of the Mass, the death and resurrection takes place, so to speak, off-stage, away from the visible action.  On-stage, the Mass re-enacts the supper that took place on the original Holy Thursday before the death of Christ.  The priest acts out the manner in which the “elements” of bread and wine were miraculously transformed into Christ's body and blood and given for the disciples to eat.  In addition, the priest, assuming the role of Christ, enacts this very same transformation.  He then gives the transformed elements to the members of the congregation who thereby take the part of the disciples.  Those who eat this bread and wine, the priest explains, like Christ himself and the disciples, may hope to die and then rise again.

Finally, in the Third Degree, there is a similar motif of death and rebirth.  Here, the hero is Hiram Abiff, the builder who built Solomon’s Temple at Jerusalem. Hiram was a Master Mason who alone knew the secret Mason's Word.  By implication, he also knew the secret techniques that would allow him to build theTemple correctly.  Unfortunately, three ruffians approached him and demanded that he reveal his secrets to them.  When Hiram refused to tell these secrets, the ruffians killed him and they put his body into a shallow grave.  A search party was then sent to wander through the wilderness in search of the dead Hiram.  When at last they found the body, they made three attempts to pull him out of his grave.  The first two attempts were unsuccessful.  Only at the third attempt was the dead Hiram raised from his grave (Hannah 1998:129ff).[3]

In each narrative, therefore, we see a recurrent pattern.  At its simplest, a protagonist enters a period of conflict or discomfort leading to death.  After this, he experiences a transformation leading to a resurrection from the grave. The moment of resurrection is often a moment of enlightenment, discovery or “recognition” (anagnorisis) (Aristotle nd: XI).  In the different rites, however, there is also a more prolonged period of enlightenment or learning.

Gluckman once complained that a formal approach to ritual, such as that of van Gennep, failed to consider particular rituals in their immediate historical and social context (Gluckman 1962).  This article does not ultimately challenge this complaint. Indeed, I shall conclude by saying that a formal approach to ritual raises questions answerable only by proper historical or sociological analysis. Nevertheless, it is part of the task of human studies not merely to study variety, but also to seek what people have in common.  One must look for the common ground that makes particular human actions possible (Chomsky 1988:1ff). Part of this common ground, I shall argue, has been given expression in Aristotle’s Poetics.


From Van Gennep to Aristotle

Van Gennep’s classic study, The Rites of Passage (1908), still overshadows the study of ritual. To van Gennep’s framework, however, one needs to add features found in Aristotle.

Van Gennep argues that all rites of passage embody a universal form, a unity of three separate parts.  These parts are “rites of separation”, “rites of transition” and “rites of incorporation”.  He also calls them the “pre-liminal”, “liminal” and “post-liminal phases” of the rite (1908:10-11 et passim).  While not abandoning this rather simple scheme, I want here to extend his analysis, by treating the drama of ritual as something akin to theatre.

Aristotle’s Poetics sets out some practical principles that allow a “poet” to write a well-constructed theatrical drama. In a remarkably similar manner to van Gennep’s description of ritual, Aristotle says of theatrical drama that its plot should have a “beginning, a middle and an end” (nd:VII).  A play, he explains, should have a Prologue (or introduction), an Episode (the main action), and an Exode (conclusion) (1, XII)[4]. This rather crude description of theatrical drama corresponds almost precisely to van Gennep’s description of a rite.

Aristotle, however, has much more to say.  He analyzes “complex drama”, choosing tragedy as an example.  The main action of a complex drama, he says,  is divided by a turning point or “reversal”.  This ensures that the plot is divided into several sections.  After an introduction, the plot of a play becomes complicated. At the reversal of the situation, good fortune turns towards bad, or bad fortune turns towards good. There then follows a dénouement leading to a conclusion(nd:VII, XII).

I now claim that this fivefold scheme exists not only in most theatre but also in the more elaborate forms of ritual.  Indeed, it is the reversal that gives complex ritual its dramatic force. In each of the three rituals considered here, a hero’s fortunes are portrayed as heading towards disaster.  However, at a crucial point in the story, at the reversal, these fortunes turn sharply away from seemingly inevitable death and towards a happy conclusion.

The three rites, however, the mummers’ play, the Mass and the Third Degree, are not at all identical, for one is a comedy, another a tragedy with a strong supernatural element, and the third is both a tragedy and a comedy. These distinctions too have their origins in Aristotle.

First, Aristotle distinguishes tragedy and comedy.  Tragedy, he says, is a serious drama portraying characters who are better than people in actual life.  Comedy, in contrast, presents events in a ludicrous manner by portraying characters who are worse than people in actual life (Aristotle nd:II; V).  And indeed, the question of death and resurrection, in the three rites considered here, is depicted either in a serious manner by lofty characters or in a ludicrous manner by ignoble ones.

Second, Aristotle distinguishes between plays that have a happy, and those which have a sad, ending.  Aristotle claims that a tragedy is better if its hero comes to an unhappy rather than a happy ending (Aristotle nd:XIII).  In the centuries since Aristotle, this distinction has come to be seen as a second defining characteristic of tragedy and comedy.[5]  We will see that two of the rituals here have a happy ending, but in one case the ending is both happy and sad.

Third, Aristotle differentiates between what I shall label “supernaturalistic” and “naturalistic” drama.  Aristotle notes that the plots of some dramas depend upon divine intervention through the theatrical device of deus ex machina (Aristotle nd:XV).  These supernaturalistic dramas can be differentiated from the majority which are naturalistic[6].  Again, rituals, like theatre, may or may not involve the intervention of the divine.

I shall later suggest that these formal principles, applicable both to theatrical drama and to ritual, correspond to typical real-life responses to hardship, sickness, death and other misfortune.  The catastrophic unhappy end of much tragedy, for example, invokes the need to face disaster with stoical equanimity.  The deus ex machina provides a hope of supernatural salvation.  And the absurdity of farce suggests one should not take life (and death) too seriously.

The notion of a complex drama hanging upon a turning point, together with these three sets of opposed concepts –  serious / ludicrous; unhappy ending / happy ending; and naturalism / supernaturalism –  are all derived from Aristotle.  Not only have they provided the basis for nearly all subsequent criticism of theatre, they also provide a most useful typology for defining the elementary forms of ritual.  They also enrich the well-established scheme of van Gennep, while leaving it intact.


The Mummers’ Play as Ritual

It will generally be agreed that the Mass and the Masonic Third Degree are rituals.  However, I shall argue that the mummers’ play is also a ritual. Mumming, however, is neither magical  nor religious, and it does not try to change the world.  It is that common form of rite that simply asserts that a state of affairs exists.

A ritual is a dramatic representation of some slice of the world.  Searle usefully says that the propositional content of a representation either fits or does not fit the world it depicts (1985:52ff).  For a representation to fit the world, either the world must change so as to fit the representation; or else the representation must change (or be devised or selected) to fit that pre-existing feature of the world. And so it is with ritual.

In a transformative rite, the world changes to fit the representation.  A wedding, for example, is a representation of a couple becoming man and wife. The representation, however, becomes true only to the extent that the couple are indeed transformed by the rite into a married couple. Or a healing rite is a representation of the transformation of a sick person into a healthy one.  So the rite fits the facts of the world only if the world changes and the person gets better.[7]

Both the Mass and the Masonic Third Degree are transformative rites in this sense. The Mass represents a process of salvation, and the representation of that process fits the reality it depicts only when the congregation members do indeed renew their relationship with God and grow nearer to salvation. The Masonic Third Degree ritual is a “rite of passage” in Van Gennep’s sense.  It is effective to the extent that the social status of a candidate changes to fit the representation of change depicted in the ceremony.  The world fits the rite only if the candidate ceases to be a Second Degree and instead becomes a Third Degree Mason.

The second main type of ritual is the assertive rite, and a mummers’ play is one such rite. It asserts what is already the case. Funerals are assertive rites: they mark a state of affairs –  the death of a person –  that exists independently of the rite. Most seasonal customs too, are assertive rites.  A seasonal custom, such as eating Christmas dinner, marks the fact that it is Christmas.  However, as Mr Scrooge discovered, Christmas exists independently of our marking of it. Failing to eat Christmas dinner will not abolish Christmas.  Also, it is no use, for example, holding a Christmas dinner on Ash Wednesday, hoping thereby to create Christmas.[8]  The mummers’ play is one such assertive rite.  Like Christmas dinner and carol singing, it too is performed in Ireland to mark the fact that it is indeed Christmas.

One should note that ritual, like other human activity, is multifaceted, so particular rituals can be both assertive and transformative.   Both Christmas dinner and the mummers’ play, while they assert that it is indeed Christmas, may sometimes also have a transformative role. Christmas dinner, for example, is often a way of transforming (in this case reaffirming) the bonds of family life; and the mummers’ play can sometimes do the same for the bonds of a wider community.

If the mummers’ play is ritual, however, it should not be thought either magical or religious. In magic, people try to treat the natural, non-social world as if it were susceptible to ritual transformation.  Magic uses incantation, drama or some similar means, for example, to overcome death or disease, to enhance the power of medicinal herbs, or to improve a person's prowess at hunting.  Malinowski famously said that certain Melanesian people tended their gardens and fished with great technical efficiency; but that they also used magic to ward off the uncertainty their technical skill could not address (Malinowski 1936).  In such cases, the linguistic and dramatic actions we call "magic" are used in a natural or physical context that everyday ideas would place beyond the influence of meaningful acts such as drama.

Speaking broadly, religion is similar.  Most religion assumes there are quasi-human forces lying outside the normal social world –  God, the gods, the ancestors etc. – who have power over an otherwise immutable nature.  Ritual addresses these supernatural beings using language and drama (Stark and Bainbridge 1987).  The aim, not always successful, is to allow natural and immutable social processes – sickness, death and the pain of social relationships –  to be changed by human messages perhaps to the gods.

Some writers have mistakenly speculated that the mummers’ play is (or might once have been) a means to assist nature in the unfolding of the seasons. Gailey, for example, wonders whether certain aspects of the play might not encourage dead nature to come into life (1969, 75ff).  Helm calls it, "a men's seasonal ritual intended to promote fertility" (1981:6).  And Brody calls the very similar wooing play, "a fairly tame version of the processes of fertility" (1971:104).

Informants, in Ireland at least, sometimes nod in the direction of magic when they say that the mummers’ play brings "good luck".  Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that people ever systematically used the mummers’ play to banish the cold, hasten the spring or fertilise the harvest.  The mistake here is to leap from the correct opinion that mumming is a ritual, to the incorrect one that sees all rituals as either religious or magical.  The mummers’ play is indeed a ritual, but it is neither magical nor religious.  It does not change the seasons or generate fertility. It merely asserts that it is indeed Christmas.


The Similarity of the Three Rites.

I shall shortly explain why these rites are so different from each other, but first one needs to say why they are similar. Their similarities, it should be noted, constitute a version of the basic Aristotelian complex dramatic form, which is so very familiar to anybody who attends the theatre or watches television, that one can neglect noticing it.  This basic dramatic form mainly provides a hook (though a vital one) on to which the more interesting aspects of these different rite are hung.  Analysis aside, it is the differences between the rites that make them interesting.

First, as in all rites, they are intended either to mark that a state of affairs exists, or else to create a real transformation or real restoration of a state of affairs.  Second, however, these particular rites represent this change through theatricality.  By theatre, I mean that those taking part half-pretend (they pretend without deception) to be people that they are not.  In the mummers’ play they pretend to be the Turkish Champion, St Patrick, the Doctor etc. In the Mass, they act out the drama of the last supper the priest in the role of Christ, the congregation in the role of disciples. In the Third Degree, they act out the part of Hiram Abiff, the ruffians etc. Third, in each case, the quasi-theatrical drama of each ritual is concerned with death and resurrection.

Each rite consists of five related sections.

•         Introduction: In each case, the central actors make an emphatic entrance, dressed in unusual apparel.  This introduction corresponds to van Gennep's pre-liminal "rite of separation", for it separates the rite from ordinary life.

•         Complication: Soon the action moves on to what Aristotle calls the complication involving some depiction of confusion or conflict.  In these particular rites, this leads to a death.

•         Reversal: in the manner of Aristotle's description, there follows the peripeteia or reversal, when fortunes change "from bad fortune to good, or from good fortune to bad” (Aristotle nd: XI; XIII et passim).

•         Dénouement: in the theatre, following the reversal there is usually a long period of disentangling.  In most rites, the dénouement takes the form of teaching.

•         Conclusion: the drama ends and the participants are (in Van Gennep’s word) "re-incorporated" into the real world.  There is here what Kermode calls "a sense of an ending" (Kermode 2000), or what Aristotle calls a purging or "catharsis" when all the emotions stirred up by the drama are purged.[9]


Of the three rites, the Mass is the most complicated, for each Mass has a place in an ordered sequence of Masses. First, each occasion of saying Mass provides a link in a year-long chain of Masses (called “The Proper of the Mass”) that take place throughout the Christian year.  The festivals and season of the Christian year, commemorated in this sequence of Masses narrate, the story of Christ and His Church.  Second, each individual Mass also makes explicit the life of Christ and the Church.  This is set out in what is called “The Ordinary of the Mass”.

The Proper of the Mass therefore follows the Christian year that in turn narrates in outline the story of Christ’s life.

•         Introduction: The Christian year opens with the birth of Christ at Christmas.

•         Complication: The Christian year commemorates Christ's wanderings in the desert at Lent, a period that ends with Holy Week and His death on Good Friday.

•         Reversal: The turning point of the story is at Easter, when Christ rises from the dead.

•         Dénouement: God's purpose is now progressively revealed, first at the events of Pentecost celebrated at Whitsun and then through the work of the Church commemorated during the long season of Trinity.

•         Conclusion: The year ends at the feasts of All Souls and All Saints, which not only celebrate the departed dead, but also anticipate the end of the world.

This pattern is reflected in the Ordinary of the Mass (the basic individual rite)

•         Introduction: The introit (entrance of the priest).

•         Complication: Penance corresponding to Jesus’ stay in the desert, and leading to his death.

•          Reversal: the communion meal exemplifies death and resurrection.

•         Dénouement: teaching, the Liturgy of the Word.

•         Conclusion: the dismissal.


In one respect, the Christian year (found in the Proper of the Mass) and the basic individual rite (the Ordinary of the Mass) are not entirely congruent.  In the Ordinary of the Mass, the teaching (called the "Liturgy of the Word") that might more tidily have been put after the communion meal is in fact placed beforecommunion.  This seems to have been done to conform with the place of teaching in the pattern of Christ's life found in the different Gospel stories.  In consequence of this shift, the "dismissal" that ends the Mass ("ite missa est") is notoriously abrupt.

The same form can be discovered in the Third Masonic Degree.[10]

•         Introduction: There is a somewhat spectacular introduction when the candidate enters the lodge room in some disarray.

•         Complication: The candidate must perambulate in some difficulty around the lodge room. Just as the penance in the Mass is obliquely connected to Christ’s wandering in the desert, so this perambulation carries explicit references to the image of wandering in the desert.  Finally, the candidate experiences a symbolic death: he falls into a coffin (or perhaps a representation of a coffin).

•         Reversal: There follows a peripeteia, an Aristotelian turning point, when the candidate is enlightened[11] and his apparent death is reversed by a kind of rebirth.

•         Dénouement: The candidate is then taught at some length the doctrines and symbolism of the degree and the story he has just enacted.

•         Conclusion.


The mummers’ play is also very similar.

•         Introduction: The company assemble and there is an opening speech.

•         Complication: Two heroes meet, fight and one is killed.

•         Reversal: The hero is resurrected

•         Dénouement: All of the different characters explain who they are.

•         Conclusion:  The play ends

•         Choric song: It is usual for the Play to end with singing.[12]


Tragedy, Comedy and Deus ex Machina

If, therefore, there is a certain similarity between these three rituals, we may ask what it is that makes each of these three rites so very different from each other.  The answer will be that they differ in the manner that theatrical performances differ.  They have the characteristics of tragedy, comedy and the deus ex machina.

Dramas, such as our three rituals, that have to do with death and resurrection raise the special existential difficulty that the finality of death is not ordinarily overcome by resurrection.  Our three rituals address this difficulty in different ways.  The question of death and resurrection is depicted sometimes in a serious and sometimes in a frivolous or ludicrous manner.  Some of the rituals provide a happy ending, but sometimes the ending is sad.  And sometimes the story is naturalistic, and sometimes it invokes the deus ex machina.


The Mummers’ Play: a Farce

First, the mummers’ play does not actually claim that anybody, in real life, could be raised from the dead.  Rather the opposite.  The events in the story are transparently absurd.  As Gailey says, "the cure that he works is always treated as comedy, as if the very idea of bringing a dead man back to life is so preposterous that only laughter is possible" (Gailey 1969:17).


A real doctor perhaps, armed with defibrillators, adrenaline-shots and other modern magic, might effect such a miracle.  Our doctor, however, could not.  He claims to "cure all diseases, the plague within and the plague without, the palsy and the gout", but he could not, in truth, cure a nosebleed.  He resembles Groucho Marx in the films.  He is clearly an impostor, and we see through him in an instant.  The mummers’ play, therefore, holds up the idea of death and resurrection and declares it ludicrous.  It may be a piece of theatre embedded in a ritual, but its narrative consists of farce.


The Mass: a Supernatural Tragedy

In contrast, the Mass is a dramatic narrative based in the deus ex machina.  The deus ex machina is a device which is only occasionally found in modern theatre,[13] but which was common in the theatre of Ancient Greece (Aristotle nd: XV).  When human reason could not escape from a difficulty, then some miraculous intervention would put things right.  If, however, the deus ex machina is rare in modern theatre, it is quite common in ritual and is pre-eminently found in theMass.

At root, the Mass is a mimetic, non-fictional drama, telling of events that took place in the past.  It is a tragedy in Aristotle’s main sense of this word, in that it deals seriously with a serious topic, telling of the death of a noble historical character, and of a genuine resurrection that occurred though a miraculous intervention. On-stage, the Mass provides a representation of the Last Supper.  Here, the bread and wine are miraculously transformed into body and blood, and the disciples present at the Supper are shown miraculously to have gained immortality by eating and drinking this body and blood.

The Mass, however, does more than merely represent the past, for, in the course of the Mass, the same sequence of miraculous changes that took place long ago once more takes place in the present.  At the Mass, the bread and wine is changed, then and there, into flesh and blood.  The congregation, therefore, acting the part of the disciples can similarly hope to be changed, again then and there, from mortality into immortality.  Both in the past, as represented in the Mass, and in the rite, as it is celebrated in the present, there is an authentic divine intervention, a deus ex machina.

It is perhaps useful to note in passing that the Mass differs from other versions of the same Eucharistic drama.  The Irish Presbyterian Communion, for example, confines itself merely to representing past events.  The Westminster Confession of Faith, on which much Presbyterian theology is based, denies that a rite such as Communion could transform a person from a state of sin to one of grace.  On the contrary, it argues that the communion is merely a “commemoration”.  According to this doctrine, communion is not a transformative rite in the sense of this article, but only an assertive rite, asserting that certain events have indeed taken place (Westminster Confession of Faith 1646: xx1x, 1-2 et passim).


The Third Degree; a Tragi-Comedy

One can aptly describe the last ritual in our trio, the Third Masonic Degree, as a tragi-comedy, for in the Third Degree, two distinct dramas are played out simultaneously.  One of these dramas is comic.  The other is tragic.

First, the rite is, in both senses of the term, a comedy.  Acting the part of Hiram Abiff, the candidate is paraded around the lodge room.  He is then subjected to a mock attack, and he finds himself lying in a grave, from which he cannot be revived despite the best efforts of his friends.  However, at the third attempt, when his companions make use of the Third Degree grip, the candidate rises from his mock-grave.  He is therefore restored not only to life, but to a new and elevated status within his lodge.  He is then told important truths about the meaning of Masonic symbolism and its relevance to the meaning of life (Hannah 1998:136ff). This is what one may call “a happy ending”.

The rite is also a comedy in the other, more strictly Aristotelian sense that the candidate’s dignity is stripped from him, and his situation is made absurdly funny to the other participants.  Indeed, the candidate’s resurrection in the Third Degree has much of the absurd quality of the resurrection that takes place in the mummers’ play.  The candidate’s resurrection is an impossible resurrection.  It has a frivolity that borders on farce.


However, there is more to the Third Degree than knockabout fun.  The Masonic story also contains a major element of tragedy, again in both senses of this term, and this, indeed, gives the rite its importance as a cultural artefact. First, beneath the comedy, it deals with a serious topic in a serious manner.  And second, its central character comes to a catastrophic end.

In the Third Degree, lodge officers have mimicked an act of murder and have left the candidate lying in a representation of a grave.  However, while the candidate rises victorious from his imitation grave, Hiram, the historical character, does not.  Hiram, the rite makes clear, has been killed, and he remains dead.  Though Hiram's corpse was pulled from its shallow grave, this was only so that it could be re-buried elsewhere.  It is a mistake, therefore, to see the Masonic rite entirely as a tale of death and resurrection.  Hiram's predicament clearly echoes that of Christ, but he should not be seen –  as he sometimes is by hostile commentators such as Hannah (1998:32-3) –  as a substitute Christ.[14]  Unlike Christ, Hiram did not rise again.  There is no happy ending; and no deus ex machina.  So, as a piece of theatre-within-a-ritual, the story of Hiram is, in both senses of the word, a tragedy.

Moreover, the secrets, which died with Hiram when he was murdered, remained lost.  The secrets told to a Master Mason at the end of the ritual are not the ones that Hiram took with him to his grave.  Rather, they are "substituted secrets".  This is made clear in a dialogue at the closing of the lodge meeting in the Third Degree:

Worshipful Master: Brother Junior Warden, whence come you?

Junior Warden: The West, whither we have been in search of the genuine Secrets of a Master Mason.

Worshipful Master: Brother Senior Warden, have you found them?

Senior Warden: We have not, Worshipful Master, but we bring with us certain substituted Secrets, which we are anxious to impart for your approbation.

Worshipful Master: Let those substituted Secrets be regularly communicated to me (Hannah 1998: 90-91).


Even in the very earliest known version of this rite, published in 1730, it is clear that the task of a present day Master Mason is to search for the genuine secrets that were lost at the time of Hiram's death (Prichard 1730).

We may indeed ponder on the nature of these lost secrets.  There is a strong implication that these secrets were needed to build a proper temple.  But this temple should be considered, in the manner of V W Turner, to be a “multivocal” or a “polysemic” symbol (Turner 1969:41-42): i.e. it gives voice to a wide range of meanings.  It may therefore stand as a metaphor for human life or for the individual or for the Masonic lodge or for the world or for the cosmos or for society or for the family or, indeed, it may stand for any number of countless social institutions.  By losing the secret of how properly to build a temple, the Master Mason has lost the ability to live satisfactorily in the world.  In effect, the rite reveals that the different forms of human life are all more or less imperfect.

The solution that the ritual offers the new Master Mason is not comforting.  It is the following rather grim message:

You stand on the very brink of the grave into which you have just figuratively descended, and which, when this transitory life shall have passed away, will again receive you into its cold bosom.  Let the emblems of mortality which lie before you lead you to contemplate on your inevitable destiny, and guide your reflections to that most interesting of all human studies, the knowledge of yourself.  Be careful to perform your allotted task while it is yet day; continue to listen to the voice of nature . . .” (Hannah 1998: 140).


In short, the ritual tells the new Master Mason to face life's adversity with a stoical equanimity.  The central secret of Craft Freemasonry is that Man has a duty to strive with his companions to build a perfect temple, but that he may never finally succeed.



This article has raised some abstract, non-historical and non-sociological questions about the universal principles underlying human experience.  Nevertheless, this approach must return finally to the particularity of individual actions in immediate social and historical situations. Gluckman (1962) was ultimately correct to argue that ritual has significance only in relation to immediate lived circumstances of those who participate in it.

The Mass, the Third Degree and the mummer’s play all have embedded within them quasi-theatrical representations that deal with death and resurrection.  They have, in Aristotle’s words, “a beginning, a middle and an end” (Aristotle nd: VII) corresponding to the pre-liminal, liminal and post-liminal stages of Van Gennep’s analysis.  In addition, however, these rites possess the structure of a complex drama in which the action turns around a “reversal” in the same manner as Aristotle describes as existing in the best theatrical performances.

The three rites also differ systematically in the way they use some familiar, Aristotelian, theatrical forms.  Some of the narratives deal with serious issues in a serious manner.  Others, in contrast, are just ludicrous.  Most of the rituals have a happy ending; but one of them partially ends in sadness.  And if most of the dramas are naturalistic, one of them depends upon the intervention of the deus ex machina.

All of this raises questions which, however, can be answered properly only by looking at individual circumstances.  Why in some cases do certain people feel it appropriate to use a rite, such as the Mass, which in a serious manner invokes divine intervention to save them from death?  Why in another case, does a different set of people (or perhaps the same people on a different occasion) feel inclined to engage in a Christmas rite that reduces these same, rather solemn issues to absurdity?  Why again –  in the early eighteenth century and subsequently – have so many people joined the Freemasons and participated in a potent rite that mixes humour and resignation but which casts doubt on resurrection?  These are all historical questions that arise from the formal analysis.

The historical questions are indeed broader.  These same issues often emerge as the strategies of entire social groups.  E.P. Thompson (1963), for example, wrote about the huge variety of political and religious movements of the proto-working-class in early nineteenth century England.  Among these were people who used their intelligence and knowledge to organise trade unions, friendly societies and political parties, whose motives were stimulated by humanistic conscience and reason.  Some of these were atheistic, putting no trust in divine redemption.  He also speaks, however, of the religious movements who hoped that divine intervention might bring a better life in the next.  Yet other people engaged in the Rabelaisian chaos of the fairground with its drunkenness, its faction fights and its disdain for law and order (see also Burke 1978: ch 7 et passim). The question to be answered is why a particular stratagem is appropriate for one group at one time, but inappropriate at a different time or for a different social group.

And indeed, such stratagems and tactics are not necessarily the property of whole social groups.  Ordinary, everyday, informal life has the same range of features found in the formality of theatre and ritual.  Ordinary life has happy and sad endings.  Ordinary life too can be characterised by stoicism, optimistic reason or a sense of the absurd. And it too can look for naturalistic solutions or else turn towards God.  Many of us, at certain times of our lives, will hope for divine salvation as the dark clouds roll in.  At other times, however, we will be more optimistic, using ingenuity, reason and companionship to stave off calamity.  Sometimes, there is little choice but to employ stern courage and face misfortune.  But yet another option is to laugh.

Such possibilities are found in the daily lives of individuals, in the ideologies of entire groups and in the theatre.  It is not surprising, therefore, that they are also found in rituals involving death and resurrection.


Rites of Death and Resurrection

Van Gennep


Third Degree

Mummers’ Play

Life of Christ and His Church

The Ordinary of the Mass

The Proper of the Mass






Supernatural Tragedy

Supernatural Tragedy

Preliminal rite 







Liminal rite


The candidate wanders in the desert and dies. He is placed in a shallow grave.

Conflict between two heroes. One of the heroes dies

Christ wanders in the desert. He dies.


Lent and Holy Week: commemoration of perambulation in desert and death of Christ.


Candidate rises from the dead. Hiram does not.

The dead hero is raised from the dead.

Christ is raised from the dead.

Meal exemplying death and resurrection

Easter: commemorating rising from the dead.

Denouement and enlightenment

Teaching: lectures.

The characters explain who they are.

Teaching: the life of  the Church

(Teaching: the Liturgy of the Word)[1]

Pentecost and Trinity: commemorating the life and teaching of Church.

Postliminal rite



Conclusion, followed by Chroric song.

The End

The dismissal.

All Souls, All Saints: commemorating the Dead.



Alford, Violet 1962: Sword Dance and Drama, London.

Aristotle, nd: “Poetics” in Samuel H Butcher, Aristotle’s theory of poetry and fine art with a critical text and translation, London 1898:1-111.

Brody, Alan, 1971: The English mummers and their plays: traces of ancient mystery. London.

Buckley, Anthony D. 2002: "Royal Arch, Royal Arch Purple and Raiders of the Lost Ark: secrecy in Orange and Masonic ritual" in (ed) T Owen, From Corrib to Cultra: folklife essays in honour of Alan Gailey, Belfast and Cultra.

Butcher, Samuel H 1898: Aristotle’s theory of poetry and fine art with a critical text and translation London. .

Burke, Peter 1978: Popular culture in early modern Europe. London.

Capra, Frank (director and producer.) 1946: It's a wonderful life.

Cawte, E. C., Alex Helm and N. Peacock 1967: English ritual drama: a geographical index, London.

Chomsky, Noam 1988: Language and problems of knowledge, Cambridge Mass and London.

Covey-Crump, Walter W 1934: The Hiramic tradition: a survey of hypotheses concerning it. London.

Eliade, Mircea 1964: Myth and reality, London.

Gailey, Alan 1969: Irish folk drama, Cork.

Gluckman, Max 1962: “Les Rites de Passage” in (ed) M. Gluckman, The ritual of social relations, Manchester.

Hannah, William 1998: Darkness visible: a Christian appraisal of Freemasonry, London.

Helm, Alex 1981: The English Mummers’ play. With forward by N Peacock and E. C. Cawte, Woodbridge.

Kermode, Frank  2000: The sense of an ending studies in the theory of fiction with a new epilogue, Oxford.

Lucas, George (director and writer) 1977: Star Wars. Produced by Gary Kurtz.

Malinowski, Brontislaw K. 1936: Myth in primitive psychology", in (ed) B. Malinowski: Magic, science and religion and other essays. Boston.

McLeish, Kenneth 1999: Aristotle’s Poetics: a new translation, London.

Prichard, Samuel 1730: Masonry dissected: being a universal and genuine description of all its branches from the original to this present time as it is delivered in the constituted regular lodges both in the City and County.  First published 1730, reprinted in (ed.) Harry Carr, 1984, Harry Carr's world of Freemasonry. Shepperton, Appendix.

Propp, Vladimir 1968: Morphology of the folktale, trans.L Scott, revised by A. Wagner Austin and London.

Scheff, Thomas J. 1970: Catharsis in healing ritual and drama.  Berkeley.

Stark, Rodney and William S. Bainbridge 1987: A theory of religion, New York.

Searle, John R. 1985: Foundations of illocutionary logic, Cambridge.

Thomson, Edward P 1963 The making of the English working class, London.

Turner, Victor W. 1969: The ritual process: structure and anti-structure, London.

Vaihinger, Hans 1924: The philosophy of as if: a system of the theoretical, practical and religious fictions of mankind. Trans. C. K. Ogden, London.

Van Gennep, Arnold 1970: The rites of passage.  London and Henley.

Westminster Confession of Faith 1646:




[1] This takes place before, not after Communion, as it did in the Biblical life of Christ on which the Mass is based.




[1] There is a long tradition of using comparative method to study the Mummers’ Play, for example, Alford (1962:48ff); Cawte, Helm, and Peacock (1967:24ff); Helm, (1981); Brody, (1971:5ff); Gailey, (1969:chs 7-8)

[2] Though I have found the modern translation by McLeish (1999) to be exceedingly useful, I have throughout referred to the classic Butcher translation of the Poetics. I use the conventional section numbers rather than pages.

[3] Readers may complain that in speaking of the Third Degree ritual, the present article is revealing what Freemasons would prefer to keep secret.  In fact, the article refers only to materials that have long been in the public domain. Hannah's book is one of many exposés of Masonic degrees, dating from as early as 1730, most of them available through a public library.

[4] To these, Aristotle adds a Choric Song, nowadays absent from most sport and theatre, but found in opera, musical comedy etc.

[5] See, for example, the Oxford English Dictionary under the headings Comedy and Tragedy. Aristotle himself, however, understands that a tragedy may sometimes have a happy ending (Aristotle nd:XIII).

[6] Aristotle does not use these terms, but they are implicit in what he says.

[7] What Eliade calls “rites of renewal” (Eliade 1964:39ff) that aim to restore a pre-existing state of affairs are also transformative rites of this type.

[8] Searle argues that in “declarations”, which are the verbal equivalent of certain rituals, there is a “double direction of fit”.   “In achieving success of fit, the world is altered to fit the propositional content by representing the world as being so altered”.  It does seem that certain rites have this somewhat convoluted quality, but that many rites are in effect mere directives, for example, instructing,  inviting, requesting etc people to change the world by their actions. He also argues that there may be a null direction of fit.  Here “there is no question of achieving success of fit between the propositional content and the world, because in general success of fit is presupposed by the utterance.” Expressive illocutions, he claims, have such a null direction of fit. (Searle 1985:52-54).

[9] When Aristotle discusses catharsis, his focus is almost exclusively on the topic of tragedy rather than comedy and upon the emotions of terror and pity (Aristotle nd: ch 6).  Nevertheless, it seems sensible to apply his theory to comedy and to other kinds of drama and to other emotions.  See also Scheff (1970).

[10] A similar pattern occurs in other Masonic degrees, such as the first two Craft degrees where there is little theatricality, and in the higher Masonic degree known as the Royal Arch.  It  also exists in the most elaborate ceremony associated with the Orange Order, the Royal Arch Purple degree (Buckley 2002).

[11] In many Masonic rites this enlightenment is quite literal in that it involves a removal of a hoodwink or blindfold.

[12] Aristotle says that at the end of a play there should be a choric song  (Aristotle, nd:XII). This happens in much opera and musical comedy, but not in modern theatre.  Nor is it found in all rituals. It is, however, a recurring element in the Mummers’ play.

[13] For example, an angel called Clarence comes to the rescue in It's a wonderful life, (dir. Frank Capra 1946); and Luke Skywalker achieves his goals in Star Wars (dir. George Lucas 1977) by putting his faith in "The Force".

[14] Covey-Crump more sympathetically says that the Venerable Bede thought Hiram to be a type of Jesus, but that Bede did not think that Hiram was killed, let alone that he rose from the dead, (Covey-Crump 1934: 111).