Knights of Pythias
The Knights of Pythias was founded in 1864 in Washington, D.C., as a secret society for government clerks, but admission and goals have both broadened since. The order now functions as a fraternal organization with service aspects, in the United States and Canada. It publishes the Pythian International quarterly. There were 80,000 members in 1994.
The story of Damon and Phintias, as reported by Diodorus Siculus and Cicero, is given below. It is worth noting that “Pythias” is a widespread misreading for Phintias.
In Syracuse in the fourth century b.c. Phintias was condemned to death for opposing the tyrant Dionysius. His friend and fellow member of the Pythagoreans, Damon, offered himself as hostage so that Phintias could go make his farewells.
When the time for the execution of Phintias drew near and he had not returned, Damon offered himself in Phintias’ stead. At the last minute, Phintias reappeared and embraced his friend. Dionysus was so impressed that he released both men and begged to be admitted to their friendship.
Justus H. Rathbone was so taken with this story that he organized the Knights of Pythias on February 19, 1864. Initially, he had intended to limit membership to government clerks like himself and his six cofounders, but membership was soon broadened. Even so, in its original form, the Knights of Pythias lasted less than six months, and the Venerable Patriarch Rathbone resigned from the wreckage. Then he rejoined, and with the help of a new ritual that he devised, he managed to attract about 3,000 members by 1868. The lodges were called “Castles,” though they are now commonly called ‘Subordinate Lodges”; the usual three-tiered structure went on to Grand Lodges (state level) and the Supreme Lodge.
Rathbone then invented a new higher degree, the Supreme Order of the Pythian Knighthood; this would have added a fourth degree to the three described above. The Supreme Lodge not only rejected the new degree in 1869; it also forbade anyone to take the degree under pain of expulsion. The founder was out again, but was allowed to rejoin (after some debate within the organization) in 1874. Hired by the Knights as a lecturer, he was in serious financial trouble by 1884 and was bailed out by a collection that raised some $5,085. He died in late 1889.
With a fine disregard for the remote antiquity of its inspiration, there is a medieval flavor to the general terminology. Lodge buildings are called Castles, and officials include the Chancellor Commander, Vice Chancellor, Prelate, Master of the Work, Keeper of the Records and Seal, Master of Finance, Master of the Exchequer, Master at Arms, Inner Guard, and Outer Guard.
The rituals are unusual in that they have been officially published in full, as distinct from being “pirated.” They follow a pattern typical of deism, with three degrees, Page, Esquire, and Knight. The ritual has some rough-house qualities; for example, candidates were led to believe that they would have to jump barefoot onto a spiked board, though the spikes were removed (or rubber spikes were substituted) before the jump. It is unlikely that these aspects of the ritual survive.
For the Page degree, postulants are asked if they believe in a supreme being and are of sound bodily health; they must also answer in the affirmative the question:
Are you willing to take upon yourself a solemn obligation to keep forever secret all that you may hear, see or be instructed in — an obligation that will in no way conflict with your creed or your conscience.
The paraphernalia includes the following:
On two trestles, twelve inches high, covered by a black pall reaching to the floor shall be placed an open coffin which shall contain a skeleton. On the coffin shall be two crossed swords, with the hilts towards the Prelate, and on these the open book of law.
This is the usual sort of symbolism for death and resurrection, and, again in typical Masonic fashion, the candidate is blindfolded for part of the ceremony.
The Esquire degree is similar, except that there is a trick in it. The candidate specifically promises not to commit to writing any of the secret work of the order, nor to permit this to be done by another if it be within his power to prevent. The ritual then requires him to do just that, by filling in the motto in the blank space provided. If the candidate remembers his oath and refuses to fill it in himself, the Keeper of Records volunteers to do it for him. If he still protests, he is congratulated and installed; if he fills in the blank space, proceedings are delayed for a while during a mock trial. When the trial is over, he is inducted as an Esquire.
For the Knight degree, he is equipped with a shield on his left arm and a helm on his head; the visor serves as a blindfold. In another merry jump through space and time, his admission is publicly debated by other lodge members who take the part of “Senators,” whose job it is to keep unworthy candidates from becoming Knights. This is where the bit about jumping on spikes comes in.
In addition to all this, pietist “historians” of the order invented all kinds of wonderful symbolism, quite unsupported by Rathbone’s mish-mash of ritual; the number of Pythian symbols was variously placed at 10,000 and 20,000. Predictably, Pythagorean philosophy (as interpreted by said pietists) plays no small part in this symbolism.
In 1887, the Knights founded an Endowment Rank to provide insurance coverage, which no doubt helped growth; the insurance department financially separated from the Knights proper in 1931. and the United Mutual Life Insurance Company took over its role in due course, leaving the Knights where it started as a fraternal organization.
By 1900, the Knights of Pythias had more than half a million members, despite the fact that in 1894 the Holy Office forbade membership to Catholics. In 1896, the Catholic Church did, however, make a few concessions:
A Catholic might remain in the organization if he had joined in good faith; and if he would suffer severe temporal loss (i.e. of insurance) if he quit; and if he were in no danger of loss of faith.
The Uniform Rank, open only to Knights, is entitled to wear a pseudo-military marching costume and was founded in 1877-78, while the Endowment Rank (again introduced in 1877) provided insurance benefits. In 1930 the Endowment Rank became a separate organization; it now calls itself the American United Insurance Company, with headquarters in Indianapolis, Indiana.
The order has a 'fun-degree', the Dramatic Order Knights of Khorassan.
At its peak, in 1923, the Knights claimed 908,000 members. It lost tens of thousands a year during the Depression, however, and never really recovered despite the initiation of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936. By the l960s, it was down to about 200,000, where it apparently remained in the 1970s, and matters have not improved since: 80,000 (1994) is a fraction of the membership the group once enjoyed. Many lodges have closed, as have some of the 22 original Knights of Pythias retirement homes.
From a service/community viewpoint, the Knights sponsors an annual international public speaking contest.
Colored Knights of Pythias
This is a small black order, formed when blacks discovered that they would not be admitted to the Knights proper. It is less significant than the Knights of Pythias of North and South America, etc., below.
Improved Order of Knights of Pythias
This was a German-speaking version of the Knights of Pythias, which seceded from the determinedly English-speaking parent organization in 1895 and disappeared at the time of World War I.
Knights of Pythias of North and South America, Europe, Asia and Africa
Although the membership requirement that candidates be white males was not introduced until after 1871, black people had never been admitted. The K of P of N and S America, etc., is a duplicate of the Knights of Pythias for black people, and was founded in 1869. Its female auxiliary is the Order of Calanthe, its 'fun-degree' the Dramatic Order Knights of Omar.
Order of Calanthe
Ancient Order of Knights of the Orient
This was a side degree, which was full of mock-serious ritual.
Junior Order of Princes of Syracuse
This is or was the junior or “farm” order for the Knights of Pythias. It has probably vanished altogether, though there may be a few odd local pockets still holding out. It had its own ritual.
This was an unusual auxiliary, which admitted women only, though the women had to be relatives of the Knights of Pythias.
Rathbone Sisters of the World
The Pythian Sisters of the World became the Rathbone Sisters of the World in 1894, and was the other female auxiliary of the Knights of Pythias. It permitted members of the masculine parent order to join, in the usual fashion.
Pythian Sunshine Girls
This was the girls' order of the Knights of Pythias. It had its own ritual.
We have published more rituals and other texts on our CD-Rom Knights of Pythias Library.