Riding The Goat

Kash Coolidge’s depiction of a canine Masonic Initiation to sell cigars.

You may not be familiar with the name Cassius Marcellus Coolidge, but it’s almost certain you will be familiar with at least some of his work.

The American artist is most known for his series of paintings depicting “Dogs Playing Poker” amongst other things.

The title “Dogs Playing Poker” has come to represent a collection of 18 paintings showing anthropomorphised or ‘humanlike’ dogs, which includes a painting from 1894, a series of sixteen oil paintings commissioned by publishing company Brown & Bigelow to feature on calendars advertising cigars and then a final painting in 1910.

Some of these are extremely well known, I will list all of them at the end of the article, and a few are all but engrained into American pop culture as some of the most duplicated pieces of art in history. However, there is a lesser known painting within this series that depicts a Masonic Initiation.

Bro. Cassius Marcellus Coolidge, known more fondly in his family as Kash was born September 18, 1844 in Antwerp, New York in the United States and is documented in his official biography of his affiliation with Freemasonry in Antwerp. I don’t have much information on his Masonic career, however I look forward to discovering it at a later date and updating the article.

The Masonic Initiation

“Riding the Goat” has been described by many uninitiated as a “Jester entertaining a royal couple”, however a closer look at the painting shows that it’s actually full of Masonic symbolism, satire and allegory of the first degree. Given Coolidge’s membership of The Craft it is mere ignorance to suggest otherwise in my opinion.

Let's start with the most obvious at the centre of the painting. The hoodwinked candidate riding the goat with his conductors and being led by the cable tow around his neck around the carpet presented to the gathered “Brethren”. I trust that I do not need to point out the symbolism here of the First Degree in Freemasonry.

But there is so much more that this painting has to offer the artistic mason.

In the background we find the 2 principal officers of the Lodge, look closely and you will notice they are wearing the collars of their office. The central character, depicted as a St. Barnard sitting in the larger of the chairs representing the chair of King Solomon is wearing a red crown and holding a gavel in his right paw.

To the far right we see the Secretary, sitting at his desk, wearing the jewel of his office and taking notes of the proceedings. He is wearing a red cap, designating that he is a 32nd Degree Mason of Scottish Rite Masonry , invested with the “rank and decoration” of Knight Commander of the Court of Honour ‘KCCH’).

We also see the character directly in front of the Secretary and over on the left of the assembled Brethren also, wearing the blue cap of that of a fifty-year Scottish Rite Mason.

The painting is often reproduced and displayed online in a cropped format, perhaps something related to the advertising campaigns it was part of, however in it’s full format, you can clearly see that the office bearers in the background sit in front of two pillars on the back wall featuring what could easily be the terrestrial and celestial globes depicted on them.

Then of course there is the elephant in the room... or more specifically the Goat. The title of the image itself, “Riding the Goat” was a common term for joining Freemasonry during the early part of the 20th Century when this picture was painted and to this day the Goat is used as a form of teasing new candidates prior to their initiation worldwide. Perhaps we can look at various pieces of Masonic Goat Art in the future, as Coolidge was certainly not the only artist to include it in his work.

Finally, whilst not unique to this particular piece by Coolidge, it is fitting that the painting includes Collies, Mastiffs, Great Danes, St. Bernards and Terriers showing the incompassing nature of Freemasonry and the various social classes that make up it’s ranks.

Paintings that make up the “Dogs Playing Poker” Collection

Original painting of the series “Poker Game” (1894)

The titles in the Brown & Bigelow series are:

  1. A Bachelor's Dog – reading the mail

  2. A Bold Bluff – poker (originally titled Judge St. Bernard Stands Pat on Nothing)

  3. Breach of Promise Suit – testifying in court

  4. A Friend in Need (1903) – poker, cheating

  5. His Station and Four Aces (1903) – poker

  6. New Year's Eve in Dogville – ballroom dancing

  7. One to Tie Two to Win – baseball

  8. Pinched with Four Aces – poker, illegal gambling

  9. Poker Sympathy – poker

  10. Post Mortem – poker, camaraderie

  11. The Reunion – smoking and drinking, camaraderie

  12. Riding the Goat – Masonic initiation

  13. Sitting up with a Sick Friend (1905) – poker, gender relations

  14. Stranger in Camp – poker, camping

  15. Ten Miles to a Garage – travel, car trouble, teamwork

  16. A Waterloo (1906) – poker (originally titled Judge St. Bernard Wins on a Bluff)

These were followed in 1910 by a similar painting, Looks Like Four of a Kind.