Cryptic Origins

Jay S. Williams, Ph.D.
Santa Fe Council No. 5
Santa Fe, New Mexico


Castle Burgruine Fortress – Courtesy of Creative Commons

The following presentation is an amalgamation of the following works:

  • Coil’s Masonic Encyclopedia, 1961
  • Bro. S. Brent Morris, The High Degrees in the United States: 1730–1830, Pietre-Stones Review of Freemasonry
  • Grand Chapter of Royal Arch Masons in Virginia (online)
  • General Grand Council of Cryptic Masons International (online)

The Cryptic Rite

This is one of the smallest but one of the most important and certainly one of the most curious of all the rites. It might well be called the rite of Aeneas, because of its long wanderings. One of its oddities is that the two degrees of Royal Master and Select Master have associated with them a ceremony known as Super Excellent Master, which is not considered a degree, yet it is more dramatic than most Masonic degrees. Another peculiarity is that there has long been a difference of opinion as to which of the two degrees should be conferred on the candidate first. They should both precede the Royal Arch, yet, in early days were often limited to Royal Arch Masons. The Super Excellent is the dramatization of an incident mentioned in the lecture of the Principal Sojourner in the Royal Arch Degree. Both the Royal and the Select are of the type known as French Ecossais, Ninth Arch, or Secret Vault degrees and the name Cryptic was given them by Rob Morris as derived from the Greek crupe or the Latin crypta, meaning vault. They are known collectively as the “Cryptic Degrees” or the “Cryptic Rite” because their legend deals with the secret vault or crypt beneath King Solomon’s Temple.

The assumption, often indulged, that the Royal and the Select were always associated is incorrect, for the Select, under the name Select Masons of 27, was contained in the rituals brought to this country by Stephen Morin about 1762 as a side degree of the Rite of Perfection, while Royal Master was not so included and is not mentioned in any preserved record until a much later date. Hughan stated that Cryptic Masonry was worked in England from about 1760 but died out, though it continued in Scotland under one branch of the Grand Encampment of Knights Templar. It evidently died out there also.

Attempts to fix the origin and trace the course of these degrees in the United States is rather baffling, not only because of the shifting control over them and sometimes the absence of any control, but particularly by the tendency of writers upon the subject to refer to the two degrees jointly as though they had always constituted a pair. The latter association of the degrees and the frequent reference to them as Royal and Select Masters naturally led careless writers into the anachronism of supposing their present relationship always to have existed. Writers also, instead of examining closely upon finding one degree mentioned, have used the term “degrees” or “Cryptic Rite” to cover up lack of definition.

Chateau de Chillon

Chateau de Chillons – Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Historical Development of the Rite

The Select Master Degree was conferred at Charleston, S.C. in 1783, and the Royal Master Degree in New York City in 1804.

A Council was formed in New York City as Columbian Grand Council #1 in 1809. In 1810, the degrees became permanently associated together with the formation of Columbia Grand Council of Royal and Select Masters in New York City. (14) (Even though the “Grand” is in the name, the body was local.)

The state of Connecticut bore the first Grand Council in 1819.

Jeremy Ladd Cross included these two degrees in his popular 1819 illustrated monitor, producing a nine-degree system extending from Entered Apprentice to Select Master. The degrees were sometimes conferred in Royal Arch Chapters.

The Virginia Capitular Degrees*

The Virginia Capitular Degrees are a set of 6 degrees controlled by the Grand Royal Arch Chapter of Virginia. The Cryptic degrees were incorporated and chronologically reordered with the Capitular Degrees.

  • Mark Master
  • Past Master (Virtual)
  • Select Master
  • Royal Master
  • Most Excellent Master
  • The Royal Arch
  • Super Excellent Master

This degree is an honorary one in most jurisdictions, and a member of the Council need not have it in order to hold membership or office. Exceptions such as Arizona, where you need to have it to be Illustrious Master; and Ohio, where it is the degree for some inspections and a Cryptic Mason must be an SEM before he is electable as the Principal Conductor of the Work, do exist.

The Cryptic Degrees slowly emerged as independent Masonic bodies, governed by state Grand Councils of Royal and Select Masters and a national General Grand Council. The earliest independent Councils were formed in the following locations:

  • 1810—New York City
  • 1815—New Hampshire
  • 1817—Massachusetts, Virginia, and Vermont
  • 1818—Rhode Island and Connecticut

On January 25, 1828, at a convention called for the purpose, the Grand Council of Royal and Select Masters of New York was formed. By 1830 there were Grand Councils in ten states. Under the influence of Cross’s Chart and other monitors, the Select Master Degree came to be viewed at the culmination of “Ancient Craft Masonry,” even if Councils were found in only a few metropolitan areas and their degrees available to only a few. This is probably the beginning of the American “York Rite,” consisting of the Chapter of Royal Arch Masons, Council of Royal and Select Masters, and Commandery of Knights Templar.

The General Grand Council of Royal and Select Masters of the United States was slow in formation. In 1871, the Grand Council of Massachusetts took the initiative in calling a convention of representatives which met in New York City on June 12, 1872, with 14 Grand Councils represented. It was resolved that the Cryptic Degrees should be under the exclusive jurisdiction of Grand Councils and that no members should be recognized, except those who received the degrees in a Council of Royal and Select Masters or by authority of a Supreme Council of the Scottish Rite. This was a harsh measure for Virginia and West Virginia because they had no Grand Councils, the degrees there having been conferred in Royal Arch Chapters since 1841. In 1889, the General Grand Council ameliorated the harshness of the resolution of 1872 by authorizing each State Grand Council to determine the status of Royal and Select Masters in their several jurisdictions. In 1942, The General Grand Council resolved to recognize the Royal and Select Master Degrees as conferred in the Grand Chapters of Virginia and West Virginia. New Mexico had not, up to 1952, formed a Grand Council, though it has councils under charters from the General Grand Council as do Canal Zone, Mexico, Philippines, Hawaii, and Alaska.

The Cryptic Rite as now worked was reintroduced into England by charter from the Grand Council of Royal and Select Masters of New York in 1871, and the Grand Council for England was formed in 1873. Cryptic Masonry reentered Scotland by charter from the Grand Council of Illinois in 1878 and the Grand Council of Scotland was formed in 1880. As now worked in England, the Cryptic Rite consists of Most Excellent Master (a short form of that degree as worked in American Chapters), Royal Master, Select Master and Super Excellent Master.

From the Editor

This piece is NOT a research piece, rather a documented conversation starter based upon experience, previous reading, and a love of the Craft. Congratulations to IC Jay for leading by example and encouraging discussion of topics such as this at EVERY meeting. Other presentations during this year, (done by others as well!), have included an history of Santa Fe York Rite, and the relationship between York Rite and Grand Lodge at the beginning of New Mexico’s establishment of what Masonry today is in our jurisdiction.

If you have or know of such work that will contribute to the benefit of the Craft, PLEASE contact us and submit them.