God, Goats, and (Paintball) Guns: A Brief History of the Secret Symbolism Behind the Proud Boys

Editor’s Note: This article contains racist imagery and caricatures, which we have included to provide historical context for the subject matter. 

The United States has a deep history of secret fraternal organizations — “Good ol’ boy” groups for the privileged white, Christian, middle-class men and others deemed worthy of inclusion. In other words, current-day chuds. These secretive boys clubs afford their members opportunities for camaraderie, entertainment, and networking. 

If deemed to be of good moral and social standing by their peers, some men would receive other benefits of membership — most notably in the form of charity masked as social support. 

Service in these groups is touted as “not for oneself but for others” as benevolent societies. Being charitable is one of the characteristics used to define men of good moral and social standing. 

However, to receive charity from others is often frowned upon in capitalist American society.

Fraternal organizations skirt this issue by keeping charity in-house. In other words, support is done in private, is for members only, and is not discussed outside of the lodge. Some organizations do publicly contribute to charity groups, however, this usually has a way of serving themselves first, while excluding those deemed as outsiders.

Famed author Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, noted the striking characteristics of these organizations and members in his book of fictional poems from 1883 titled Rhyme? and Reason?. In Phantasmagoria, he describes members of these secret societies and how they operate as “little Ghosts.” 

Carroll also details their rules of decorum, called “Maxims of Behaviour,” which outline how to identify other members using special handshakes and a dance; a little sleight of hand, similar to the “hokey pokey.” Within these poems, Carroll mocks every facet of elitist British society.

As the reader progresses through the poems it becomes clear that Carroll is identifying one specific secret society of Freemasons lodged at Christ Church, Oxford where he taught. 

In the poem “Hiawatha’s Photographing,” he even pinpoints the change of the Grand Master’s seven point star to five directly due to John Ruskin, a staunch, prude Victorian and influential freemason. 

“Next the Son, the Stunning-Cantab :

He suggested curves of beauty, 

Curves pervading all his figure,

Which the eye might follow onward,

Til they centered in the breast-pin,

Centered in on the golden breast pin.

He had learnt it all from Ruskin

(Author of ‘The Stones of Venice,’

‘Seven Lamps of Architecture,’

‘Modern Painters, and some others);”

Arthur B. Frost (ca. 1883) Next the Son, The Stunning-Cantab Carroll, L. First initial. Middle initial. (ca. 1883). Rhyme? and Reason? Published by Macmillan & Co, London 1883 [Photograph] Retrieved from Classic Literature https://classic-literature.co.uk/lewis-carroll-hiawathas-photographing-poem/hiawathas-photographing-poem-next-the-son-the-stunning-cantab-illustration-by-arthur-b-frost/

There is no mention of any goats in Rhyme? And Reason? Because, at that time, goats were not a major symbol of British secret societies. However, there is a poem about a fake horse with a mutton saddle and the accompanying image could be confused for a goat. 

Arthur B. Frost (ca. 1883) Ye Carpette Knyghte Carroll, L. First initial. Middle initial. (ca. 1883). Rhyme? and Reason? Published by Macmillan & Co, London 1883 [Photograph] Retrieved from Classic Literature https://classic-literature.co.uk/lewis-carroll-ye-carpette-knyghte-poem/

In the United States, “riding the goat” became part of initiation ceremonies for some secret societies while also being outright denied by those groups entirely. 

This is a high jinx; a type of hocus pocus or hokey pokey, played on a much larger audience. The idea is to never admit that riding the goat is an initiation progress, thus gaslighting your enemies through denial. 

William D. Moore’s 2006 article “Riding the Goat: Secrecy, Masculinity, and Fraternal High Jinks in the United States” explains how the symbol of the “lodge goat” was used between 1845 and 1930. 

During those years, Moore claims that the goat was initially used by anti-fraternalism outsiders to cast shame onto their secret nature. In traditional Christianity, the goat is a symbol of the occult and, specifically, Baphomet, the pagan deity the Knights Templar were accused of worshiping. 

However, Moore writes that the symbol of the goat was embraced by fraternal organizations as masculinity and its role within men’s organizations was transformed during the early 20th century. 

Baphomet, though, would later be associated with the devil.  

Fraternal organizations were “omnipresent” in the late 19th and early 20th century. Moore’s sources estimate that at least 40 percent of the adult male population, or roughly five-and-a-half-million men held membership in them. 

There were plenty of organizations to choose from too. The Freemasons, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, the Knights of the Pythias, Modern Woodmen of America, and the Ku Klux Klan were just a few groups active during this period.

“While often referred to as ‘secret societies,’ these groups maintained visibility in the public sphere by participating in civic parades, displaying symbols on the exterior of their meeting places, and wearing lapel pins and other emblematic jewelry,” Moore explains.

According to Moore, the IOOF was the first secret society associated with the goat.  Many societies had stopped meeting in the early 1820s and 1830s due to evangelical and political enemies. Oddly, the Odd Fellows escaped the evangelical crusades and maintained strong membership regardless. 

However, this made the IOOF the target of propaganda aimed at discrediting the organization. One of the results was an anti-Odd Fellow publication that put out the first story about riding a goat and labeling it as an initiation process. 

Moore also wrote about how the publication went on explaining the ceremonial process in detail as a way to raise suspicion among their readers. 

As it goes, the newest member is initiated into the men’s club by being told to mount and ride a goat while holding onto its horns. The nervous rider is quickly bucked off of the goat to the floor and the room erupts in laughter. 

This would be called a low jinx. A small trick played on an unsuspecting “newbie” to see how easily he can be rattled. By writing about this initiation process and including crude cartoons and images associated with witchcraft, sexual abandon, and demons, the public was easily convinced that these secret men’s organizations were damned. 

It wouldn’t be until after the Civil War that the symbol of the goat would be embraced by these men’s clubs when it came to be a symbol of their shared knowledge. The goat was a way of celebrating that outsiders had incorrect knowledge of what happened behind closed doors. 

Page 425 Advertisements for Lapel Pins for Fraternal Organizations, Featuring a goat for the IOOF, Sears, Roebuck and Company. 1897 Sears Roebuck catalogue. New York: Chelsea House Publishers

Soon, the symbol of the goat would again transform. As time went on the riding the goat became a common “joke” and spread through “artful deception.” Eventually racist caricatures and cartoons were created too, called The Darktown Lodge. 

Currier & Ives. (ca. 1887) Initiation Ceremonies of the Darktown Lodge – Part First: The Grand Boss Charging the Candidate. , ca. 1887. New York: Published by Currier & Ives. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2002699714/.

The deceptive joke was that, even if riding a goat was part of the initiation process, obviously only white men could do it well. As lodges across the country began to propagate these racist cartoons, the goat’s symbolism grew.

Currier & Ives. (ca. 1887) Initiation Ceremonies of the Darktown Lodge – Part Second: The Candidate Charging the Grand Boss. , ca. 1887. New York: Published by Currier & Ives. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2002699711/.

Soon, the goat represented chaos and the cartoons propagated tired stereotypes about the might and power of white middle-class men as compared to Black and African American men and children. Maintaining control over the goat was something only white men knew how to do, even if they don’t actually do it. Does a Mason ever tell?

The goat became such a revered symbol it was soon on the face of member coins, beer pitchers, Masonic aprons, and annual invitational posters. Manufacturing companies began building all sorts of fake goats and listed them for sale as comical prank material.

“The Bucking Goat” from DeMoulin Bros. & Co., The 1930 DeMoulin Bros. & Co.Fraternal Supply Catalog No. 439Burlesque and Side Degree Specialties;Paraphernalia and Costumes Published by Demoulin Bros & Co. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Phoenix Masonry, http://www.phoenixmasonry.org/masonicmuseum/demoulin/index.htm

The Woodmen of the World would “up the ante” when it came to goat riding, though. 

Established in 1883, the WOW billed itself a fraternal mutual aid society, basically a white boy insurance club formed to give charity to families due the death of the breadwinner. The WOW Hall in Eugene still stands today after being built by the organization in 1932. (Currently it hosts concerts without any goats, that I know of.)

Regardless, in 1894 their initiation process involved hoodwinking the new guy, placing him on a mechanical goat, and riding them through the lodge hall a few times. 

No amount of pain or inconvenience would keep white men from joining as lodges across the United States embraced the goat. Moore explained that many men had been injured on the various mechanical goats and there were numerous lawsuits claiming damages. 

However, the goat, along with membership, offered men with dull lives a way to have a little “harmless” fun. The lodge offered a place for men to lose inhibition and care, through “innocent diversion.” As Moore said, this was a place where a man could enjoy himself. 

During the late 1930s, the goat grew to symbolize a respectful relationship with chaos and the benefits of membership: networking, camaraderie, and entertainment. 

In one annual feast invitation, the goat appears seated at the head of the table during a lodge dinner surrounded by other men smoking and drinking frivolously, and would later be ridden with abandon and exhilaration through the town.

C.F. Beatty (ca. 1895) Invitation to the Seventh Annual Fest of the Brooklyn Mason Veterans, December 14, 1895. [Photograph] Retrieved from Moore, W.D.. (2006). Riding the goat: Secrecy, masculinity, and fraternal high jinks in the United States, 1845-1930. 41. 161-188.

Later in the 20th century, “riding the goat” faded into history even though many of those same men’s clubs are still active today. Whether or not they still include the same initiation process is something the general public is likely to not know. 

However, one of the newest factions of these men’s groups loudly entered the scene in 2016: The Proud Boys. 

Piggy backing on their elders, they too, have included crass acts of initiation. Their four-degree initiation process is:

  1. Publicly declare yourself a Proud Boy
  2. Allow a physical beating by other members while verbally listing five brands of breakfast cereal and vowing to stop masturbating.
  3. Getting a Proud Boy tattoo.
  4. Engaging in physical violence with antifascists, whom they consider to be members of “Antifa.” 

In Oregon, and many other states, Proud Boys are actively recruiting new members. These “boys” have been violently declaring their status and waving their flags, emblems, and tattoos, demonstrating their Babbitt status to the world.  

Much like the low and high jinx from the good ol’ days, these “boys” have upped the ante, incorporating old and new world techniques and technology.

The sport of paintball grew in the 1980s out of the lumber and livestock industry. Paintballs and guns are still being used today to mark animals in numerous ways. Colorado has been actively monitoring a disease in their wild mountain goats with paintballs for the last year.

In other places, paintballs have been used to cull aggressive mountain goats who have been defending their territory.  In Oregon, however, Proud Boys have been using paintballs in the last degree of initiation and beyond. They have been using these weapons as means of intimidation to bully their opponents in efforts of keeping the status quo.

Following a rally for then-President Trump on Aug. 29, 2020, dozens of flag-waving pickup trucks paraded through Downtown Portland. Doing so, they were met with antifascists there to defend the area. Instead of brawling, men shot paintballs from the truck beds and sprayed bear mace — another favorite weapon of the right. Earlier the same day, Patriot Prayer-affiliated Chandler Pappas was photographed with a paintball gun. 



Trump later refused to condemn his supporters’ attack. 


On July 16, 2021, two Eugene activists’ home was vandalized in a paintball attack as reported by Double Sided Media. In that same article, DSM highlighted the use of oil-based red paintballs — uncommon in recreational circumstances. Many recreational paintball courses ban them as they match the color of  blood. 


A few weeks later, on Aug. 1, Maxwell Adam Lewis, a 19 year old, was arrested for the crime as reported by DSM

“A single count of 3rd Degree Criminal Mischief–a misdemeanor offense that carries a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail and up to $1,250 in fines. He was held for roughly three hours before being released, though the mechanism of his release is unclear.” 


On Aug. 22, as antifascists gathered at Portland’s waterfront several miles away for a brawl that never came, Proud Boys attacked antifascists in front of Parkrose High School not far from where a large right-wing rally was being held. 

There, an antifascist driving a modified medical van was ambushed by Proud Boys—many of which came from the Bakersfield chapter—and both shot with paintballs and bear maced at point-blank range. The driver later provided a recounting of the events to Left Coast Right Watch

A minivan was attacked in another incident that day by Proud Boys. It’s rear window was smashed and paintballs were shot into the vehicle. 

In true jinx fashion, these chuds actually seem to know gun laws rather well, because, in most states, paintball guns are not defined as dangerous or deadly weapons. So, while they are running around playing mock war games, they actually are not violating any laws or statutes.

Their mission, during these violent escapades, is to dole out maximum damage and harm without breaking the law, and to gaslight the community about their true intentions when organizing events: masking them as patriotic flag waves, or peaceful rallies – another high jinx.  

Furthermore, many Proud Boys along with other right-wing supporters, though Christian, have been self identifying as “goats not sheep.” 

Baphomet and goats are also used as imagery and team mascots for paintball and airsoft sports teams. So, now, it seems that the individual Proud Boy represents the goat: chaos, reckless abandon, and the devil, all rolled into one.

Most shocking was, in 2015, when a self professed neo-nazi, Augustus Sol Invictus, while running for the U.S. Senate, confessed to sacrificing a goat and drinking it’s blood. This, too, was an old practical joke that, unfortunately, seems to have gone too far.

“Drinking the Goat’s Blood” from DeMoulin Bros. & Co., The 1930 DeMoulin Bros. & Co.Fraternal Supply Catalog No. 439Burlesque and Side Degree Specialties;Paraphernalia and Costumes Published by Demoulin Bros & Co. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Phoenix Masonry, http://www.phoenixmasonry.org/masonicmuseum/demoulin/index.htm

So while “riding the goat” is a thing of the past, the goat is back, and it’s being used to scapegoat, gaslight, and terrorize everyone and anything that is not alt-right. 

It’s enough to make your head spin, just don’t put your right hand in.

Mary Bell

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1 Response

  1. Thor says:

    Interesting and detailed research. The Sears catalog from 1926 is very interesting and informative of thoughts and attitudes at that time.

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