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Dogs playing poker

Is the famous painting by Cassius Coolidge’s a simple joke between Brothers or does it reveal the secrets of an important Masonic ritual?

Hanging in pubs around the world and replicated endlessly for more than a century, Cassius Marcellus Coolidge became famous for his oil painting series Dogs Playing Poker. This series of sixteen paintings, created by Coolidge in 1894, anthropomorphize dogs by depicting them in very human and quite humorous situations. In this series, dogs are doing everything from playing poker to reading their mail and working on cars. Interestingly, one of the paintings in this series depicts a scene with some strikingly Masonic symbols and has often been a source of discussion within the brotherhood.

An oil painting of six dogs sitting at a table playing a game of poker
Cassius Marcellus Coolidge’s oil painting, ‘A Friend in Need’

Riding the Goat

While it is one of the lesser-known paintings in his collection, Coolidge’s Riding the Goat has ignited many a discussion within Masonic circles over the years. Initial descriptions referred to the picture as a jester entertaining a royal couple; however, the overt Masonic references in the image ultimately made it synonymous with Masonic initiations. Indeed, the term ‘Riding the Goat’ was a common phrase that meant becoming a Freemason in the early 20th century.

An oil painting of dogs performing a group ritual. In the center, one dog rides a goat while blindfolded.
Cassius Marcellus Coolidge’s ‘Riding the Goat

While the concept of dogs performing a Masonic ritual is plenty entertaining on a superficial level, Coolidge does a splendid job of weaving into the painting symbols of real Masonic significance. Most brethren agree that while the work generally references Freemasonry as a whole, it more explicitly presents an articulation of the first degree through which a Mason first joins into the brotherhood.

The painting illustrates a group of dogs in a room bearing a striking resemblance to a lodge room. In the image, they perform a ritual in which one blindfolded dog rides a goat in the center of the room. The blindfold appears in each of the three degrees of blue lodge Freemasonry. Additionally, a rope called a cable toe sits around the blindfolded dog’s neck, another symbol of notable significance within the three degrees.

Finally, three dogs in the back of the painting represent the three principal officers of a Masonic Lodge. They all wear the jewels representing their office, with the final dog to the right wearing a red cap, which is an emblem in Scottish Rite Freemasonry.

A Mere Coincidence?

The cover of the 1908 book, Foxy Grandpa Rides the Goat, hints at Masonic ritual.
The cover of the 1908 book, Foxy Grandpa Rides the Goat

Coolidge wasn’t the only artist to pay homage to this centuries-old Masonic tradition, leading one to believe that “Riding the Goat” was more than a mere coincidence. The Scottish Rite Museum & Library, in their own quest to find Masonic remnants from the past, found an illustration featuring a man riding a goat on the book cover of the 1908 Foxy Grandpa Rides the Goat by Carl Edward Shultze. While Shultze’s Masonic affiliation remains unknown, a passage in the book further demonstrates a Freemasonry connection:

“Come and ride our goat, dear Grandpa,
We see you’re a mason true,”
Said the boys as they glanced below
At the mortar on his shoe.

More Than Satire

As it turns out, Coolidge was a Mason himself, giving weight to the notion that this picture was a nod, if not a joke, meant for the enjoyment of his brethren. He was actively involved in his lodge in Antwerp, New York and likely got a good laugh from slipping these satirical references to Masonry into his work. Today, the painting would not be out of place hanging in a Masonic lodge's anteroom and continues to make for a fun bit of conversation when welcoming new Brothers to the fraternity.

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