Anthony  D  Buckley

‘Royal Arch, Royal Arch Purple and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Secrecy in Orange and Masonic ritual’

In (ed.) T M Owen From Corrib to Cultra: folklife essays in honour of Alan Gailey. Institute of Irish Studies Queen's University Belfast in association with the UlsterFolk and Transport Museum, 2000, 163-180.


This essay is concerned with the secrecy found in Orange and Masonic ritual in England and Ireland. Secrecy, however, is very widespread in human affairs. So I shall begin with an anecdote from studying medicine among Yoruba herbalists in Nigeria.

At that time, I was trying to find out about the number three. I knew that among the Yoruba, three was associated with the secret society called Ogboni. I had been told, for example, that if you put three spots in the cor¬ner of an envelope, then the postman might deliver the letter without insisting on a stamp. I knew that three was important, but I could persuade nobody to talk about it. One day, I asked one of my main informants to tell me about the number four but he just chuckled and said, 'if I tell you about four, I shall have to tell you about three'.

Eventually, a man who worked near to where I had an office took me on one side. 'I understand', he said secretively, 'that you are trying to find out about the number three'. And then he said, 'The three stones of the hearth will not spill the soup (aaro meta kii dobeenu)'. He explained that this proverb showed how the earth supported the world. And I also worked out that you had to use three stones in a fireplace so you could rest a round cooking pot on it without spilling the soup. And there, abruptly, the con¬versation ended.

Suddenly, I realised that the proverb was very profound indeed. Though it took me many years to put the pieces together, I felt, at least in principle, that I understood how Yoruba herbalists understood both the cosmos and the human body. [i]

But the strange thing is this, that this proverb, 'The three stones of the hearth will not spill the soup' was not a secret at all. It was actually very well known. But by hearing it as though it were a secret, I learned just what an important saying it was. To use an idea of Elizabeth Tonkin’s, the loci that it was secret gave the idea 'power'.

Secrecy is ubiquitous in all human societies. There is confidentiality in all but the most fleeting of relationships. Information is often shared with some, and hidden from others. Secrecy is also found in drama, and it has a special place in ritual.

This article will attempt two things. First, it will imitate Alan Gailey’s survey of Irish Folk Drama3, looking at some traditional dramas which are essentially very similar to each other, drawing out differences and similarities. The dramas dealt with here are the Royal Arch rituals found in English and Irish Freemasonry, and the rite of the Royal Arch Purple Order, associated with the Orange Order.

Second, the article will make use of the fact that there is a well-known adventure film, Raiders of the Lost Ark, whose plot is remarkably similar to one of the motifs found in these rituals. My aim in comparing some important rituals with a popular film, is to consider the nature of ritual. More specifically, and developing some of Robinson’s ideas4, I want to explore the ritual secrecy which is so characteristic of not only the Royal Arch and Royal Arch Purple rituals, but also more generally among the groups I call ‘brotherhoods’5.

It will be suggested that, in these rites, as more generally in social relationships, secrecy has the function of symbolising the boundary between insiders and outsiders, in this case emphasising bonds of fellowship. It will also be argued, more importantly, that secrecy can be intrinsic to the dramatic structure of the ritual itself. Without the secrecy, the rite would lose much of its purpose6.

Though here the discussion will be confined to a very few rituals, the list of organisations with secretive rituals is, in fact, very long indeed.For example, a nineteenth-century source gives details of more than six hundred such secretive brotherhoods in America7. In nineteenth and early twentieth century Ireland, there were friendly societies such as the Ancient Order of Foresters, the Irish National Foresters, the British Order of Ancient Free Gardeners and the Independent Order of Odd Fellows; temperance groups like the International Order of Good Templars and the Independent Order of Rechabites; convivial societies like the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes and the Freemasons themselves; and the politico-religious organisations like the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Orange Order8. From the eighteenth century too there were the so-called agrarian secret societies, Oak Boys, Steel Boys, Defenders, Ribbonmen and others also characterised by ritual secrecy9.

There are, of course, many rituals in the British Isles which are not secret, the major exceptions here being the ritual practices of most Christian churches, and of other world religions, such as Islam, Hinduism or Buddhism. Nevertheless, one can say that very many of the rituals found in eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth century Britain, Europe and America - perhaps the majority - have contained ritual secrets.

The rituals described here differ in important respects, but they nevertheless bear a close family resemblance to each other. Specifically, each rite contains at least one of two separate types of story. One type of story comes from the Book of Exodus and tells of the Israelites wandering through the desert. The other type of story is what Jones calls the ‘crypt legend’, telling of the discovery of an ancient text - the Bible or some part of it - in a previously unknown crypt10.

The Royal Arch Purple rite is almost entirely based on the first of these stories, the wandering of the Israelites in the desert, and it contains only a hint of a connection with the story of the crypt. The Masonic Royal Arch rite found in England consists almost entirely of a version of the second story, but it does contain a hint of desert wanderings. And the Royal Arch degree worked by Irish Masons contains quite full versions of both stories.

As a non-member of these different bodies, I rely on published materials for my analysis. My understanding of the Irish Royal Arch depends largely upon Jones’ study of the Royal Arch11. It is fortunate that the English Royal Arch has been revealed to the curious by a number of ‘exposés’, of which I have found Hannah’s Darkness Visible particularly useful12. My analysis of the Royal Arch Purple depends upon Cargo’s delicate exposition13, and more generally upon the work by Kilpatrick, Murdie and Cargo which has, indeed, opened up the field for study14.

One advantage of studying this particular set of rituals is that the second of these story-types, the crypt legend, has also been used as the pivotal idea in the now classic movie Raiders of the Lost Ark15 by Stephen Spielberg. Gailey has suggested, in his discussion of the Mummer’s play, that ancient rituals can ‘survive’ in the modern world by becoming theatrical or quasi-theatrical forms of drama16.Speilberg’s film is undoubtedly one such transformation.

This happy coincidence between a well-known adventure film and an important set of rituals allows this discussion to focus on a distinction between what I shall call theatrical presentations - drama in the normal sense, whether on stage or screen - and those dramatic presentations which are properly called rituals. By engaging in a comparison, I shall tease out the role of secrecy in both theatrical drama and ritual, and specifically explore why so many rituals are secretive.


The Royal Arch Purple and the Exodus through the Desert

Though it is, undoubtedly, part of the same family of rituals as the Masonic Royal Arch, Kilpatrick argues convincingly that the Royal Arch Purple ritual has its proximate origins not in Freemasonry, but in the rites of the Boyne Society17, a body set up in the early eighteenth century to celebrate King William’s victory at the Boyne.

The Royal Arch Purple degree is one of a sequence of degrees open to members of the Orange Order. An Orangeman who has taken the two Orange Order degrees of Orange and Purple is free to enter the organisationally separate Royal Arch Purple Order. He may then choose to pass through the eleven degrees of yet another organisation, the Royal Black Institution18.

The narrative which is the basis for the Royal Arch Purple degree is almost entirely taken from the Biblical story of the Exodus. It has only the faintest echo of the second of the other type of narrative under consideration, the story of the crypt. Cargo’s account of the ritual19 takes care not to reveal too much of what is going on - and I shall try to follow his example. Cargo gives an informative list of the Biblical texts read out during the ritual and these spell out much of the narrative.

The rite begins with the preparation of the candidate before his entry to the chapter room. Here the candidate is blindfolded (‘hoodwinked’), and his shoelaces are undone. Perhaps one or both shoes are taken off. His belt may also be removed or unbuckled. As well as this, the candidate is likely to be frightened by lurid stories and allusions. He may have been told that he will have to ‘ride a goat’. He might be advised to put butter behind his knees, and have no holes in his socks. He might be asked if he suffered from heart trouble or had a back injury. He will also have to remove any sharp objects from his person (informant’s description).

Blindfolded, slipshod, and a little apprehensive, the candidate now enters the body of the hall, and is greeted by the word ‘Profane’20. Also, it appears from an oblique reference that a sword is pointed towards candidate’s heart, to indicate the seriousness of the obligation he is taking21.The candidate is now asked to declare his trust in God and to promise to keep secret what is to be revealed to him, even should he be threatened by some terrible danger22.

There now follows the main part of the ritual, called ‘the travel’. The word ‘travel’ is open to several possible readings. It seems to be derived from the French travail (work) thus linking it to the Masonic expression ‘working’ - i.e. performing - a degree’. The closely related English term travail, however, suggests that it may also refer to the fact that the ritual is something of an ordeal for the candidate23. The word may also refer, however, to the fact that, as in the Irish Royal Arch, it involves a lot of ‘walking all around’24.

Cargo’s account continues: ‘Many of the things that happen during this travel remind us of the sufferings of God’s people and the likelihood that we may fall from grace but that with His help we can conquer even death’25. The journey around the room is ‘a metaphorical journey … through the desert’ (informant’s description), accompanied by an interjection of Biblical texts26.

The travel begins with an allusion to the departure of the Children of Israel from Egypt (Exodus 13, 15-18) and to the way that they eluded both the Egyptians and the land of the Philistines by miraculously crossing the Red Sea. There is a mention too of the fecklessness of the Israelites which led to their being condemned to wander in the wilderness for forty years (Numbers 14, 11-12, 26-28, 33). There now follows an incident reminiscent of the Irish Masonic Royal Arch, an encounter by Joshua with the angelic Captain of the Host. In the story, the Captain of the Host instructs Joshua to ‘loose the shoe from off thy foot; for the place whereon thou standest is holy’ (Joshua 5, 13-15). Thus, one imagines, the candidate is instructed to remove his already untied shoe, or perhaps the only one that still remains. Recitals from the psalms (Psalm 107, 4-8, 12-15; Psalm 46, 43-45) now acquaint the candidate of the discomforts of the desert. It is probably at this moment that the most publicly well-known part of the rite takes place, for the candidate finds his feet bitten by ‘serpents’. An informant tells me that there may be other events which upset the harassed candidate.

Cargo tells us that there next takes place the ‘advancement’. This ‘reminds us of the tribe of Reuben, the tribe of Gad and the half tribe of Manasseh who, although their inheritance was assured on the other side of Jordan advanced in the vanguard of the army when crossing the river to assist their brethren to secure the Promised Land’27.

At the end of these desert meanderings, the ritual comes to a dramatic conclusion. Cargo speaks obliquely about this final and spectacular part of the ceremony. The blindfolded candidate is introduced to the idea of a ladder, whose three steps are named respectively ‘Faith’, ‘Hope’ and ‘Charity’. He is also told the story of Jacob’s ladder, the ladder which, in a dream, allowed Jacob to meet God and be promised the land ofCanaan (Exodus 13, 15-18).

The candidate now experiences the sensation of falling, and he is told that this fall signifies a “fall from grace’ by disobedience from God which can only be remedied by seeking forgiveness28’. Finding himself flat on the floor, his hoodwink is at last removed. Then, in a manner not unlike that of the Third Degree ritual in Freemasonry, he is lifted to his feet and taught the formalised embrace called the Five Points of Fellowship: Hand to Hand, Foot to Foot, Knee to Knee, Breast to Breast, Hand to Back.

The Royal Arch Purple degree therefore, focuses almost exclusively upon a sojourn in the desert. As the candidate emerges from the wilderness, he joins in a ‘link and chain’ (in the manner of Auld Lang Syne). Thus he is:

brought to the realisation that the true light can only be found in the Trinity … and that every day living will and can be enhanced by the help of those in the chain of fellowship who had received that Purple in the darkness of ignorance and brought it to the true light of understanding29.


The Masonic Royal Arch in England: The Descent into the Crypt

We turn now to the English and then the Irish Royal Arch degree as found in Freemasonry. This degree has, as its central feature, a descent into a crypt. The Royal Arch degree in Freemasonry has existed since at least the eighteenth century. It is now one of the commonest forms of ritual found in America, Europe and elsewhere. The degree is available to those who have been initiated through the basic three degrees of Craft Masonry. It is also associated with another degree, that of Mark Master Mason. The crypt legend is the other main type of story found in the Royal Arch type of ritual, and it seems to have considerable antiquity. It tells how a group of people, searching among the ruins of an ancient building - usually the Temple in Jerusalem - come upon an entrance to a deep crypt. When one of their number is lowered by a rope into the vault, a Bible (or a portion of it) is discovered30.

In the English Royal Arch, this descent into a crypt is added on to the story of the building of the Second Temple of Jerusalem by Zerubbabel after the Babylonian exile. This story is Biblical, and it is recounted at some considerable length in the books of Nehemiah, Ezra and Haggai. In this rite, three individuals, Zerubbabel the Governor, Joshua the High Priest and the Prophet Haggai, are credited with the rebuilding of the Second Temple of Jerusalem. It is these figures, addressed as ‘Most Excellent Zerubbabel’, ‘Excellent Joshua’ and ‘Excellent Haggai’ who are the main officers (the ‘Principals’) in an English Royal Arch chapter31.

In the English Royal Arch, the hoodwinked candidate is guided around towards the West of the chapter room by an officer called the Primary Sojourner. This comparatively brief journey is almost certainly a faint shadow of the sojourn in the desert found in the Royal Arch Purple and in the Royal Arch in Irish Freemasonry.

From here, the candidate advances towards the Sacred Shrine in the East. There, the candidate is invited to pretend with a crow bar, to wrench a stone from the floor (this stone is here represented pictorially on a floor-cloth). Unlike in Irish Masonry, the candidate is only symbolically lowered into the vault. In fact, he kneels down on a small stool32. He then gropes around until he finds ‘something like a scroll of vellum or parchment’ which ‘for want of light’ he is unable to read33.

Next the candidate is guided to lever up a second keystone and again he is symbolically ‘lowered’ into the vault to the accompaniment of a reading (Haggai 2, 1-9) (Hannah 1963, 163). Thence, he is taken to the Altar where he makes a vow upon the Volume of the Sacred Law. The candidate is then brought to his feet, and at last the hoodwink is removed. Having thus come ‘into the light’, the Candidate reads aloud the scroll on which are written the opening three verses of Genesis, and which concludes ‘And God said, Let there be light, and there was light’34.

The Principal Sojourner now tells the whole story to Zerubbabel (the first officer of the chapter) and to the assembled brethren, speaking on behalf of the initiate.

Principal Sojourner … Resuming our labours … our progress was here impeded by the fragments which had fallen during the conflagration of the former Temple. These we cleared away, and arrived at what appeared to be solid rock; accidentally striking at it with my crow, I remarked a hollow sound … Aware of who had been the Architect35 of the former Temple, and that no part thereof had been constructed in vain, we determined to examine it further, for which purpose we wrenched forth two of the archstones, when a Vault of considerable magnitude appeared to view …

My companions then tied this strong cord or lifeline round my body by which to lower me into the Vault … I was then duly lowered into the Vault. On arriving at the bottom I felt something like the base or pedestal of a column, with certain characters engraven thereon, but for the want of light I was unable to decipher their meanings. I then … found this scroll of vellum or parchment, but from the same cause was unable to read its contents. I therefore signalled with my right hand, and my Companions drew me up, bringing the scroll with me. On arriving at the light of day we found from the first words therein recorded that it was a part of the long-lost Sacred Law, promulgated by our Grand Master Moses at the foot of Mount Horeb in the wilderness of Sinai. The possession of this precious treasure stimulated us to further exertions; we therefore enlarged the aperture by removing the key-stone, and I descended as before. The sun by this time had gained its greatest altitude, and darted its rays with meridian splendour into the Vault, enabling me clearly to distinguish those objects I had before so imperfectly discovered. In the centre of the Vault stood a block of white marble, wrought in the form of the Altar of Incense, a doubled cube. On the front were engraven the initials of the three Grand Masters who presided at the building of the former Temple, that is Solomon, King of Israel, Hiram King of Tyre, and Hiram Abiff36 - with certain mystic characters, and a veil covered the Altar. Approaching with reverential awe I raised the veil, and there beheld on a plate of gold that which I humbly conceived to be the Sacred and Mysterious Name of the True and Living God Most High. I carefully re-veiled it, retired with all respect and reverence, gave the agreed-on signal, and was again drawn up. With the assistance of my Companions I closed the aperture …37.

The Principal Sojourner on the candidate’s behalf at first declines to state what he has seen on the plate of gold, since:

 ‘it was not lawful for anyone to pronounce the Sacred and Mysterious Name of the True and Living God Most High, save the High Priest, nor him but once a year, when he entered the Holy of Holies and stood before the Ark of the Covenant to make propitiation for the sins of the people’38.


Zerubbabel nevertheless instructs the candidate to speak the Sacred Name to the scribes Ezra and Nehemiah (other officers of the chapter), who in turn report that what he has learned is correct. The candidate is then invested into the degree, and is taught how properly to recite the Sacred Name of God.

Zerubbabel now explains that the candidate has found the secret information lost at the building of Solomon’s First Temple. The Third, Master Mason’s degree ritual, through which the candidate has already passed, has already explained that the premature death of the master builder, Hiram Abiff, has led to the loss of certain secret information and this had prevented Solomon’s Temple being perfect. According to the legend dramatised in the Royal Arch degree, this lost secret is now restored.


The Masonic Royal Arch in Ireland: the two stories united

In Ireland, the Masonic Royal Arch degree puts both of these stories together. According to Jones, the hoodwinked exaltee is first taken through the Biblical story of the Exodus through the desert in a similar but not identical manner to the Royal Arch Purple. It then makes him descend into a crypt where he discovers a sacred text. This part of the ritual is similar, but again not identical, to that found in the English Royal Arch rite.

The Irish Royal Arch starts in much the same way as the Royal Arch Purple rite of the Orange system, the hoodwinked exaltee (candidate),his knees bared, his feet slipshod, with a cable-tow around his waist, is admitted to the chapter by giving the Past Master’s word and sign. He is then led by a Conductor on a meandering journey which tells the story of the Israelites’ Exodus through the desert39.

This Masonic version of the Exodus, however, differs somewhat from that of the Royal Arch Purple. The incidents chosen from the Bible are different in each case. Importantly too, the candidate’s desert journey in the Royal Arch is punctuated by a passage through a series of veils. The veils have different colours: blue, denoting friendship; purple (a union of blue and scarlet) denoting unity and concord; scarlet, denoting fervency and zeal; and white signifying purity40. Each veil is presided over by a ‘Captain’ who allows the candidate to pass only when he has uttered an appropriate password. At each veil, a Biblical text is read out, each referring to an incident in the life of Moses.

Jones tells us that this part of the modern Irish Royal Arch ceremony is similar to that found in an older English one41. The narrative is therefore significantly different from that found in the Royal Arch Purple:

The scripture reading was from Exodus iii, 1-6, referring to the burning bush, following which the thirteenth and fourteenth verses of the same chapter were read, including the words ‘I am that I am’.At the second veil the Candidate gave a password already received and met the emblems of the Serpent and Aaron’s Rod, and the relevant Scripture (Exodus iv) was read. Suitably entrusted, he was now enabled to pass the Guard of the Third Veil; here the Scripture reading, from Exodus iv, told of the miracles of the leprous hand and of the water poured upon the dry land and turning into blood.He now heard the words ‘Holiness to the Lord,’ and was shown the Ark of the Covenant containing the tables of stone, the pot of manna, the table of shew-bread, the burning incense, and the candlestick with seven branches, and was now qualified to enter as a Sojourner and Candidate for Exaltation. During the veils ceremonies he received passwords and signs enabling him to pass the successive veils and finally to present himself as a Sojourner42.


It is at the end of this journey in the desert that the Irish Royal Arch degree takes up the motif of the crypt. However, just as the Exodus story in Irish Masonry differs from the Exodus story in the Royal Arch Purple, so the crypt legend in Irish Masonry differs significantly from that found in English Masonry.

In Ireland, the crypt story tells not of the building of the Second Temple under Zerubbabel. Rather it speaks of the repair of Solomon’s original Temple by King Josiah (2 Kings 22, 3-13 and 2 Chronicles 34, 8-21).

The relevant Biblical accounts tell how Josiah, having purged the land of Judah of idolatry (2 Chronicles 33), decided to repair Solomon’s Temple. Workmen were paid and began work, and in the ruined Temple, a book was found:

Hilkiah the priest found a book of the law of the Lord given by Moses. And Hilkiah answered and said to Shaphan the scribe, I have found the book of the law in the house of the Lord. And Hilkiah delivered the book to Shaphan. And Shaphan carried the book to the king (2 Chronicles 34, 14-16).


The Irish Royal Arch ritual’s narrative is an expansion of this brief Biblical story and indeed, the King, the High Priest and the Chief Scribe (Josiah, Hilkiah and Shaphan in the Bible), are the ‘Principals’ the chief officers in Irish Royal Arch Masonry. However, the ritual also weaves into this story elements from the crypt legend absent in the Biblical accounts.

The exaltee is first of all told that he is searching for something which is lost. He is also told that he should search for the truth. He is then admitted to the Council Chamber, where sit the three Principal officers of the chapter, The Chief Scribe, the High Priest, and the Excellent King behind the Captain of the Host43.

The exaltee, together with two other Companions, asks the King’s permission to repair the Temple. He is given tools to help him with this task. Symbolically, the pick roots out from the mind all evil thoughts; the shovel clears away from the mind the rubbish of passion and prejudice; and the crowbar raises a person’s desires above the interests of this life, the better to prepare for the search after knowledge and the reception of truth and religion. The three Craftsmen, one of whom is the exaltee, now stand on what is represented to be part of the foundations of the Temple. They clear away the rubbish and they raise a stone slab which gives entrance to an arched vault44.

The ritual now continues much as before, but with this rather spectacular variation: The exaltee is actually lowered into the vault, and there he makes certain discoveries, among them being the squares of the three Grand Masters; ancient coins of Israel and Tyre; a medal bearing the interlaced triangles and the triple tau; a plate of gold on which is engraved the sacred Tetragrammaton;’ a cubic stone on which has been sculpted certain initial letters; and lastly, a copy of the Sacred Law45.


Raiders of the Lost Ark: ritual and theatrical drama

It will be seen that, despite elements of fun and horseplay, the different Royal Arch and Royal Arch Purple rituals do have a certain gravity. Freemasons, I gather, treat some of their rituals more seriously than they do others. I have been told, for example, that Irish Masons often regard their First Degree rather light-heartedly. Other degrees, however, are treated with some reverence. A Masonic informant tells me, for example, that when you go through the Third Degree, ‘you feel yourself to be touching something very old and very mysterious’. ‘Nobody’, he says, ‘mocks the Third Degree’. And the same is certainly true of the Royal Arch which all sympathetic commentators write about with some awe. Orangemen too seem to regard the Royal Arch Purple as having great significance beyond its undoubted horseplay. As an Orange colleague said to me with understated feeling, ‘It’s a great wee ritual.’

The next narrative, the film Raiders of the Lost Ark, in contrast, has no such theological pretensions, but it is none the worse for this, for it does constitute a good adventure story. I want now to look at this film, drawing comparison between ritual and theatrical forms of drama. The aim will be to gain a better understanding of the nature of ritual, and especially of ritual secrecy.

The central episode in Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark is provided by the same basic crypt legend found at in the Royal Arch rituals. The story in this case tells of a modern archaeologist, Indiana Jones, played by Harrison Ford, who journeys to the Holy Land in search of the lost Ark of the Covenant. This Ark, of course, was an elaborate box containing the Mosaic Law, and it prefigures the Ark containing the Torah, found in every synagogue to this day. So the story remains faithful to the idea of a descent into the crypt and the discovery of a sacred text.

The film also contains motifs found in the crypt legend of the Masonic Royal Arch rituals. As in the rituals, the hero searches with some friends in the desert. As in the Royal Arch, there is much digging around in the debris of a sacred place. Also, the sun coming through the roof of an underground vault, manages to illuminate the otherwise hidden knowledge. Once the stone has been lifted, Jones is lowered deep into a second vaulted crypt where, as fire falls from heaven46, he discovers the lost Ark. Here, rather like the Royal Arch Purple candidate, Jones finds himself amid serpents which, with some difficulty, he manages to evade.

The ritual and the film, of course, differ in important respects. In the film, the actors and the audience are physically separate, the one putting on a performance for the edification and entertainment of the other. In the ritual, in contrast, the actors put on the show for themselves, being, so to speak, their own audience. In the film, too, the hero has a chequered relationship with an attractive woman but he rescues her from danger and wins her affection. There is also an array of bad people - especially Nazis - who are also searching for the Ark, who hope to harness its powers for their evil cause. Bad people and attractive women are, of course, absent from the ritual.

Despite these obvious differences, there is, both in the Masonic rituals and in the film, the common idea of a central character who is lowered or who falls into a crypt-like place where, amid difficulties of various kinds, he discovers a sacred scripture. Both the ritual and the film, of course, are metaphorically related to more commonplace events in real life. The play and the ritual are both ‘set aside’, are placed ‘in quotes’47so they may imprecisely evoke, for example, the conflict between good and evil, the quest for and discovery of knowledge and truth, the search for the sacred, the emergence from darkness into light, etc. These concerns, found both in the rites and in the film, are also real-life concerns. However, as is often the case with symbols, it is left to the individual to interpret precisely what this real-life good or evil, power or knowledge might be48.

An important point is that, although the Spielberg film is peculiar in that it makes use of a legend found at the heart of a well-known ritual, in other respects it is not peculiar at all. Whatever the origin of the story,Raiders of the Lost Ark is, quite, simply, a ripping yarn. It tells how a lone (male) individual confronts evil and other dangers and difficulties, and how he overcomes these difficulties by discovering information which was hidden. This even more basic theme, underlying the crypt legend itself, is the basis for countless popular stories, novels, films and television programmes. A very similar pattern is found, for example, in another genre of story close to the adventure story and the thriller, namely the detective story, where the emphasis is less upon the personal difficulties of the hero as on the search for hidden information. Indeed, a major point which arises out of this brief comparison between these rituals and this film is that there can often be a remarkable similarity between the rites of passage of brotherhoods (of which the Royal Arch is almost an archetype) and typical stories of adventure and detection.

The most crucial difference between the ritual and the film, however, concerns the relationship between the characters being portrayed and the actors who do the portraying. It has to do with the fact that in both film and ritual, the actors are involved in make-believe, but that the make-believe has a slightly different quality in each case.

The first point to make here is that everyone knows, for example, that Raiders of the Lost Ark is fiction, that the people on screen are not really Indiana Jones, or archaeologists, or Nazis etc. And similarly, in the rite, everyone knows that the initiate and those around him are not really Sojourners in the desert or Zerubbabel or the Chief Scribe or whoever. Harrison Ford and his supporting actors, but also the initiate and his brethren in the rite, all go home to their quite normal households at the end of their respective performances.

There is, however, an important difference between the actors in the film and the participants in the rite. I am thinking here especially - but not exclusively - of the leading actor, Harrison Ford in the film and of the candidate for initiation in the ritual. In the ritual, the real life status of the initiate is central to the ritual’s action. In the film, this is not the case. One can say, I suppose, that the status of the actor on the screen, Harrison Ford, was transformed by his having participated in the film. No doubt Mr Ford gained hugely, both financially and in professional prestige, through having been an actor in Raiders of the Lost Ark. In the play or film, however, the transformation of the actor is strictly peripheral to the action of the play. The transformation of Harrison Ford’s life, to the extent that it happened at all, is not what the film is about. It happened, as it were, ‘backstage’49, away from the film’s action.

The transformation of the initiate, on the contrary, takes place with quite a different emphasis. In the ritual, the transformation of the hero - the initiate - happens down-stage. It is not at all peripheral or incidental.It is at the heart of the action. Transforming the real life status of the ordinary person who is acting his heroic part is what the action of the ritual is about.

In the ritual, we may not forget that the initiate has two personalities both at once and that both of these personalities are transformed. Importantly, the ritual depends on the initiate being continually seen to remain an ordinary everyday person. He must consistently remain an actor-playing-a-character, with the actor, as much as the character at the front of the stage, in the centre of the action. In the theatrical drama, the events portrayed have to do with the trials and tribulations of the character Indiana Jones, not the actor Harrison Ford. The events in the rite, in contrast, portray events in the lives of both the character and the actor. They are intended to have an impact on the actor’s real-life relationships. What is being dramatised in his transition from one real-life status to another.



We may turn now to the central issue of this article, the question of secrecy. This question is important, since not only the Royal Arch and Royal Arch Purple rituals, but the rituals of very many brotherhoods - Odd Fellow, Rechabite, Good Templars, Buffalo and other, as well as Masonic and Orange - have also contained secret elements.

Robinson speaks of three aspects to the secrecy of brotherhoods: of the secrecy of initiation rituals, involving catechisms or ‘lectures’; of the secrecy of the organisation’s official histories or ideologies; and of the use of secret handshakes, passwords, and other signs of recognition50. The focus of the present discussion is upon rituals of initiation, though my remarks apply to all of Robinson’s categories.

I want here to consider two elements to ritual secrecy. One has to do with the symbolism of companionship, or social proximity; the other is concerned with the dynamics of ritual or drama.


Concealment and companionship

First of all, ritual secrecy should be seen as just a special case of secrecy in general. Secrecy - by its presence or absence - has the very general role of differentiating comparatively close from comparatively distant relationships. It is a widespread, if not universal, feature of human life that insiders to a relationship of whatever kind, will share information which they keep secret from outsiders.

This kind of secrecy can be either pragmatic or symbolic, though the two are often intertwined. Indeed, it seems plausible to regard the symbolic use of secrecy, as a means of differentiating social proximity from social distance, as originating in more pragmatic considerations.

First of all, knowledge and skill can be a form of property51, and this intellectual property is constituted in major part by secrecy. In very many contexts, people will sell their privileged access to specialised knowledge and special techniques or skills. This is not confined to Europe. I have myself argued, for example, that Yoruba healers keep their medicinal recipes secret largely because, if they became freely available, the valuable knowledge implicit in the recipe could be used by anybody52. The same principle is found in western law: patents, copyright, performers rights, codes against plagiarism, industrial secrets etc. and all these ensure that particular information should be used only by those with the right to use it. Clearly, secrecy is not the sole element in legal restrictions on the use of information, but it is very important. If others discover our knowledge or techniques, they can use them for profit.

Another element here is strategy and tactics. If one is engaged in competition - or, in extreme cases, in crime or warfare - then one does not want to reveal one’s strategy or tactics to the opposition. In the case of military information, breaches of confidentiality bring the severest penalties. But all situations of conflict require a degree of discretion.

Conversely, if it is important that certain others should not have ready access to personal, political, professional or military secrets, it is often also important that yet other people should be taken into one’s confidence. There is a need to share information in order to co-operate with others, whether this be in one’s private or professional dealings. More than this, one must talk through one’s difficulties (or whatever kind) with others as a way of solving one’s practical difficulties. Understanding, knowledge, skill are rarely wholly individual enterprises. Rather, one gains knowledge and skill by collaborating with others.

It is plain that even where symbolic considerations are few and where pragmatic considerations predominate - for example, in business or military secrets - a pragmatic need for secrecy places secrecy de facto at social boundaries and tends to make the secrecy as such a symbol of boundaries. By its very nature, secrecy divides those who know from those who are kept from knowing. It is a small step from this to use secrecy in a wholly symbolic way, merely as a boundary marker, in contexts where it is unconnected to pragmatic concerns.

Secrecy and openness, therefore, usually stand at the boundary between proximate and distant relationships. The sharing of knowledge, skills or even messages between individuals or within a group is contrasted with the non-sharing of such knowledge, skills or messages. The revelation of otherwise secret or confidential information to another implies trust, a reliance on the other not to disseminate the information across a relevant boundary. In part, as we have seen, this trust may have a pragmatic basis, but it is often merely symbolic, for the sharing of information or the refusal to share can symbolise the boundary between insiders and outsiders.

This kind of thing is very widespread. It exists, for example, in gossip, where private opinions are expressed in the expectation, not always realised, that the information will not be repeated53. Most obviously it exists in the intimate relationships of family life. A man may address his wife privately as ‘my squidgy poo’, but he is unlikely to tell his colleagues in the office about it. Nor will he speak of their sexual practices, or even of the satisfaction he gains from playing cribbage or from walking through the park with his wife. It is not that there is any pragmatic reason for keeping these matters secret. If revealed, his acquaintances will not be surprised or dismayed. Rather, the information is kept secret precisely to convey a sense of intimacy between the individuals who share it.


Secrecy and the dynamics of ritual and dramatic practice

Although the most obvious purpose of secrecy in brotherhoods such as the Masons, Orangemen, Odd Fellows etc is to point up the boundary between insiders and outsiders, this is not its only function. In the Royal Arch Purple and Royal Arch degrees, it is essential to the thrust of the story that the candidate be kept in the dark about what will happen next.

The hoodwinked candidate must not know in advance the tribulations he will encounter. He may have heard he must ‘ride a goat’, and, as he begins the travel through the rite, he may wonder if this is not indeed true. He may come to wonder whether the things snapping at his feet are not indeed serpents. Then, as he finds himself hanging in the air, trusting only in his brethren and in God, he may well wonder, with some justice, what on earth is happening to him. Because of the secrecy, the candidate’s adventure is a traumatic ordeal. Without it, it would all seem tame indeed. When, at the end, he discovers the truth, the revelation to him is the more significant because it was initially hidden.

But secrecy is not just a part of ritual drama. It is also found in the theatrical dramas found in theatres and cinemas. In theatrical drama, however, it is not the actor who must be kept in the dark about the forthcoming events: it is the audience. Newspaper critics, for example, will hide details of a play or film from potential audiences. Some things they may talk about. Critics may tell their readers whether a film or a play is worth going to see. They may tell about the actors and the quality of their performances, of the directing, and the sets and the special effects. They will also, however, go to considerable lengths to avoidgiving their public certain information. In particular, they will avoid giving detailed information about the play’s development and especially about its dénouement. To reveal too much of a play’s plot will give ‘the game away’ and ‘spoil the story’. In some genres of play more than others, but in all to some degree, the fact that the plot is unknown to the audience has some considerable importance. Even in well-known plays, such as those by Shakespeare, the audience must effectively pretend not to know. They must suspend their knowledge of how the play will turn out if they are to understand and enjoy it.

Typically, in detective mysteries - Poirot, Whimsey, Frost, Morse - as in mere adventure stories such as Raiders of the Lost Ark, the story’s hero remains ignorant of the truth until he has confronted a succession of difficulties. Often the audience must share in the hero’s ignorance. Sometimes it is just the audience who is ignorant. In the Inspector Morse detective series, for example, until the final episode, the author kept from his audience the Christian name of the eponymous hero whom everybody addressed simply as ‘Morse’. This name, however, remained so closely guarded, that many avid fans (including myself) who did not see the final episode still do not know what the character’s name actually was.

The crucial difference between the ritual and the theatrical drama in these cases is not, therefore, the presence or absence of secrecy. In theatrical drama, there is no point at all in hiding the dramatic events from the actor(s) since the collaboration of the actors is necessary for the performance. To have kept Harrison Ford in ignorance of his script would have destroyed the film. Instead, the drama must be kept secret from the audience. In the ritual, in contrast, it is the actor-playing-the-character who is hoodwinked and to whom the truth in the story is dramatically revealed.


Concluding Remarks

I have here drawn a comparison between a well-known film and an important set of rituals, taking advantage of the fact that both make use of the crypt legend motif. My aim was to highlight certain features of a typical rite of passage, and examine in particular the role of ritual secrecy. The argument is that in ritual, secrecy can act as a symbolic means of binding participants together in a bond of intimacy and fellowship.As well as this, however, and perhaps more importantly, secrecy can often be an essential feature of the presentation itself. In much the same way that the success of a theatrical drama often depends on nobody giving away the plot to a potential audience, so in certain rites of passage it is important not to give away the plot to potential candidates.

I began by saying how information which I encountered among the Yoruba was for me made more powerful by the very fact of having hitherto being kept secret, an idea which I took from Elizabeth Tonkin’s discussion of masks54. And indeed this is what happens in both theatrical drama and in ritual. In the theatre, the impact of the play is made greater by the fact that one does not know what is going to happen next.So too in the ritual.

This is put into words to the newly exalted candidate in the English form of the Masonic Royal Arch by the Most Excellent Zerubbabel. He says:

When you were raised to the Third Degree, you were informed that by the untimely death of our Master Hiram Abiff the secrets of a Master Mason were lost. … These secrets were lost for a period of nearly five hundred years, and were regained in the manner which has just been described to you, somewhat in a dramatic form, the more forcibly to impress on your mind the providential means by which those ancient secrets were regained55.

Much of the basic story-material included in much of the narrative of each rite is well known or at least accessible by virtue of its being contained in the Bible. Many of the ideas embodied in the ritual too are readily available. Secrecy is, therefore, not only a means of drawing men together into a form of brotherhood, it is also the means of impressing on to the mind important ideals using a dramatic form.



1Buckley, A.D., Yoruba medicine (Oxford, 1985), 118-19 et passim.

2Tonkin, J.E.A., ‘Masks and Power’ Man (NS) 14 (1979), 237-84.

3Gailey, R.A., Irish Folk Drama (Cork, 1969).

4Robinson, P.S., ‘Hanging Ropes and Buried Secrets’, Ulster Folklife, 32 (1986), 3-15.

5Buckley, A.D. and Anderson, T.K., Brotherhoods in Ireland (Cultra), 1988.

6In deference to the members of these different bodies, I have attempted to be discreet in my revelations.

7Stevens, A.C., The cyclopedia of fraternities: a compilation of existing authentic information as to the origin, derivation, founders, development, aims, emblems, character, and personnel of more than six hundred secret societies in the United States, supplemented by family trees of groups of societies comparative statistics of membership, charts, plates, maps and the names of many representative members. (New York and Patterson N J 1899).

8Buckley, A.D., ‘On the Club: Friendly Societies in Ireland’, Irish Historical Studies, 24 (1985), 39-58; Buckley and Anderson, op.cit.

9Bartlett, T., ‘Select Documents 38: Defenders and Defenderism’, Irish Historical Studies, 24 (1985), 338-39; Biggar, F.J., The Ulster Land War of 1770 (the Hearts of Steel) (Dublin, 1910); Donnelly, J.S. ‘The Rightboy Movement’, Studia Hibernica, 17-18 (1978), 120-202; Donnelly, J.S. ‘Hearts of Oak, Hearts of Steel’, Studia Hibernica, 21 (1981), 7-73; Moody, T.W. The Fenian Movement (Cork, 1969); Robinson, P.S., op.cit.; Williams, D. (ed.), Secret Societies in Ireland (Dublin, 1973).

10Jones, B.E., Freemasons’ Book of the Royal Arch (Revised edition, London, 1980), 126ff.

11Jones, B.E., op.cit.

12Hannah, W., Darkness Visible: a Revelation and Interpretation of Freemasonry (London, 1963).

13Cargo, D., ‘The Royal Arch Purple Degree’, in Kilpatrick C.S., Cargo, D., and Murdie, W., (eds History of the Royal Arch Purple Order (Belfast, 1993).

14Kilpatrick, C.S., Cargo, D., and Murdie, W., op.cit. Belfast; Kilpatrick, C.S., ‘The Arch Purple Story: the Origin of the Loyal Orders and Degrees’. (Paper read to the Orange Lodge of Research 18 Feb 1995); Kilpatrick, C.S., ‘Black, Scarlet, Blue, Royal Arch Purple or any other colour’. Ulster Folklife, 42 (1996) 23-31. More generally, I have also received much private help, especially from David Cargo, Cecil Kilpatrick and Philip Robinson, but also from Linda Buckley, Roger Dixon and others for which I am very grateful indeed.

15Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) is a Paramount Picture, written by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan, directed by Steven Spielberg. It is a Lucasfilm Production.

16Gailey, R.A., op.cit. 7.

17Kilpatrick, C.S., ‘The Period 1690-1911’, in Kilpatrick, C.S., Cargo, D., and Murdie, W., (eds) op.cit. 9-55, passim: Kilpatrick op.cit. (1995), 13.

18Buckley, A.D., and Kenney M.C., Negotiating identity: rhetoric, metaphor and social drama in Northern Ireland. (Washington 1995) Chapter 11.

19Cargo, D., op.cit.

20 Cargo, D., op.cit., 191.

21Cargo, D., op.cit., 198.

22Cargo. D., op.cit., 192.

23Kilpatrick, C.S., op.cit., (1995), 3.

24Cargo, D., op.cit., 193.


26Cargo, D., op.cit., 194.

27The reference here is to the crossing of the Jordan by these tribes in fulfilment of their promise to Moses as related in Joshua 4, 12 (David Cargo, private note). It may well be that the story of these tribes is not dealt with thoroughly in the Royal Arch Purple, because it is the topic for a whole degree ceremony, that of the Royal Gold degree in the Royal Black Institution.

28David Cargo, private note.

29Cargo, D., op.cit., 193.

30This idea - of a person being lowered into a vault and discovering a sacred text - has been added on to a variety of narratives other than the ones found in Masonic ritual. For example, it has been added on to the story of the attempted rebuilding of the Third Temple at Jerusalem by the Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate. (See Johnston, S.P., ‘Seventeenth century descriptions of Solomon’s Temple’. Ars Quatuar Coronatorum Transactions 12 (1899) 139-140; Jones, B.E., op.cit., 126ff). This same story - shorn, however, of the crypt element - is also found in Gibbon, E. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (London, 1993) 117-23).

31Hannah, W. op.cit., 151.

32Hannah, W. op.cit., 161.

33Hannah, W. op.cit., 162.

34Hannah, W. op.cit., 164-65.

35God, or perhaps Hiram Abiff, the Master Mason.

36These three men are the ones in Masonic tradition, and, indeed, implicitly in the Biblical account itself, most directly responsible for the building of the First Temple.

37Hannah, W., op.cit., 168-9.

38Hannah, W., op.cit., 170.

39Jones, B.E., op.cit., 195ff.

40Jones, B.E., op.cit., 199.

41Jones, B.E., op.cit., ibid.

42Jones, B.E., op.cit., 197.

43Jones, B.E., op.cit., 215.

44Jones, B.E., op.cit., 215-6.

45Jones, B.E.., op.cit., 216.

46See the coincidence with Johnston op.cit. 139-40.

47Sperber, D., Rethinking Symbolism (Cambridge, 1975). See also Tonkin, J.E.A., ‘Cuning Mysteries’ in S. Kafir (ed.), West African Masks and Cultural Systems (Sciences humaines, 126) (Terveuren, Musee Royale de l’Afrique, 1988), 241. E. Goffman Frame Analysis (Harmondsworth, 1975) uses the less felicitous term ‘keyed’ to refer to the same idea.

48Buckley, A.D., ‘Introduction. Daring us to Laugh: Creativity and Power in Northern Irish Symbols’ in A.D. Buckley (ed.), Symbols in Northern Ireland, 10-12. Turner, V.W., The Ritual Process, Structure and Anti-Structure (London, 1969), 41-42. Not all of the rituals, however, are ‘multivocal’ or’polysemic’. For example, the Royal Arch Purple rite spells out pretty clearly the need to seek forgiveness, trust one’s brethren and trust in God.

49Goffman, E., The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (New York, 1959).

50Robinson, P.S., op.cit. 9.

51Harrison, S., ‘Ritual as Intellectual Property’. Man (NS), 27, (1992), 225-44.

52Buckley, A.D., Yoruba Medicine (Oxford, 1985) 179-80.

53MacFarlane, W.G., ‘Gossip and Social Relationships in a Northern Ireland village’ (Doctoral thesis, Department of Social Anthropology, Queen’s University, Belfast, 1978).

54Tonkin, J.E.A. ‘Masks and Power’ Man (NS), 14 (1979), 237-84.

55Hannah, W., op.cit. (my emphasis).


1[i] Buckley, A. D., Yoruba medicine (Oxford, 1985), 118-19 et passim.