A medieval city in Yemen, on the southwestern corner of the Arabian Peninsula, now called Dhamar. Damear has been an important center of Muslim theological studies since the Middle Ages. According to the original manuscript versions of the Fama Fraternitatis – the first Rosicrucian manifesto – Christian Rosenkreutz, the legendary founder of the Rosicrucian order, heard about the wise men of Damear while he was in Damascus, and traveled there in order to study Cabala, magic, and alchemy. See alchemy; Cabala; Rosenkreutz, Christian; Rosicrucians.
In the first printed version of the Fama Fraternitatis, published in 1614, the name was misspelled “Damcar,” and this spelling has been repeated in nearly all Rosicrucian writings ever since.
DA VINCI CODE, THE
Shortly after its 2003 publication, Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code shot to the top of the New York Times bestseller list and stayed there for well over half a year, and at the time of writing has sold more than 37 million copies in hardback. The Code is a capably written thriller, like Brown’s earlier books, but the key to its phenomenal success was Brown’s use of some of the most popular themes of today’s alternative history industry as background for his tale. For literally millions of readers, The Da Vinci Code offered a first intriguing glimpse into the world of secret societies, forgotten heresies, and alternate visions of the origin of Christianity. Its success marked the coming of age of rejected knowledge in the mainstream of modern culture. See rejected knowledge.
The novel starts with the murder of the curator of the Louvre Museum in Paris, who is also the Grand Master of a powerful secret society, the Priory of Sion. Before he dies, he passes on a coded message to his granddaughter, Sophie Neveu, and to Harvard professor Robert Langdon, sending them on a madcap quest to discover the secret of the Holy Grail and stay ahead of the forces of orthodoxy, in the person of an albino assassin named Silas who belongs to the conservative Catholic organization Opus Dei. The secret proves to be the existence of a bloodline descended from Jesus of Nazareth and his wife Mary Magdalene, guarded through the centuries by the Priory of Sion. The denouement takes place at Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland, where one of the two surviving heirs of the Jesus bloodline is revealed. All these themes can be found in many different combinations in the rejected-knowledge literature of the last half-century or so. See Christian origins; Grail; Jesus of Nazareth; Mary Magdalene; Opus Dei; Priory of Sion; Roman Catholic Church; Rosslyn Chapel.
The Da Vinci Code is thus at least as much a novel of ideas as it is a thriller, and its protagonist is a scholar who specializes in artistic symbolism rather than one of the hardboiled private investigators, soldiers, and spies who more often populate the pages of the thriller genre. Much of the book’s appeal is in its willingness to tackle serious intellectual issues – the role of women in Christianity, the scholarly debates surrounding early Christian history, the role of secret societies in western culture, and the like – through the medium of popular fiction. This is not to say that Brown always gets his arguments straight, as many critics have been keen to point out. Central to part of the plot, for example, is Brown’s claim that the letter V is always a symbol of the feminine; one wonders, just for starters, how this squares with Winston Churchill’s “V for victory” sign during the Second World War. Symbolism is rarely if ever so single-voiced as Brown makes his characters suggest. See Allegory; Emblems.
Deeper issues surround the factual status of some of the historical material in the book. Brown cites several popular books from alternative-history literature in the text of his novel, but he seems to have considered them more than simply raw material for a thriller. A note on the first page describes the existence of the Priory of Sion since 1099 as a historical fact, and Brown himself has stated in public interviews that in the course of writing The Da Vinci Code, he went from initial skepticism to belief in the reality of the Priory of Sion, the Jesus bloodline, and the other bits of rejected knowledge that play a role in his plot. To judge by the novel’s impact on popular culture, many of Brown’s readers went through a similar shift in perception after encountering these ideas in his book. The irony in all this is that, in coming to this conclusion, Brown was taken in by one of the more audacious hoaxes of modern times. See Priory of Sion.
At the same time, however, The Da Vinci Code has played a significant role in bringing current scholarly debates about the origins of Christianity out of the academic community and into popular culture as a whole. Conservative Christian writers have assailed The Da Vinci Code for its negative portrayal of the Roman Catholic Church, leading figures in the rejected-knowledge scene have hailed it, and scholars of many different opinions have grappled thoughtfully in print with the issues raised in its pages. The resulting discussions have given Brown’s work an impact on modern culture rarely achieved by a popular novel.
Further reading: Baigent et al. 1983, Bock 2004, Brown 2003, Burstein 2004.
DEAD SEA SCROLLS
In 1947, Bedouin shepherds found a jar containing seven old scrolls in a cave in the desolate area of Qumran in Jordan, near the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. They sold the scrolls to an antiquities dealer, who sold them to an official of the Syrian Church. Eventually they came into the hands of archeologists, and the first of many excavations at the Qumran cave and the surrounding area began in 1949. These uncovered a community that, according to most scholars, belonged to the Essenes, a Jewish sect mentioned in ancient sources. See Essenes.
In all, the remains of around 800 manuscripts were discovered at Qumran, most in fragments. Close to half of the total consists of copies of books from the Old Testament and pseudepigrapha (alternative quasi-biblical books) known before the Qumran discoveries. The rest is made up of previously unknown pseudepigraphic books, extensive commentaries on scripture, legal documents governing the life of the Qumran community, ritual texts, a document called the War Rule, which describes an approaching 40-year war between the forces of light and darkness, and the famous Copper Scroll, which describes 64 places where immense amounts of treasure were said to be hidden.
The great majority of the Dead Sea Scrolls were published within a short time of their discovery, but the texts from Cave 4 at Qumran became the center of an international controversy. The team of scholars assigned to publish these texts released very little, and refused even to show the texts to other scholars. Biblical scholar John Allegro claimed publicly that the team, which included many Roman Catholic members, was deliberately sitting on the texts because they contained material that undermined the Christian religion. His accusations were taken up by other writers, and in 1991 unofficial versions of the unpublished scrolls saw print. This publicity finally forced the scholars to make the disputed texts available to other scholars. Despite the claims of tremendous secrets about Christian origins, the texts proved to contain nothing particularly shocking, and the refusal to release the texts proved to be based on academic politics rather than anything more sinister. See Christian origins; Roman Catholic Church.
Further reading: Shanks 1992, VanderKam 1994.
On December 14, 1825 a group of officers led 3000 fully armed soldiers into the Senate Square near the center of the imperial capital, St Petersburg, hoping to spark a rising in the Russian army. The attempt failed, and late that afternoon troops loyal to the Tsar opened fire on the would-be revolutionaries, killing many and scattering the rest. Another rising a few days later in the Ukraine met a similar fate. Members of both risings were called “Decembrists” after the date of their attempted revolt. When a government commission investigated, however, it discovered that the rising was the product of secret societies who had been busy for most of a decade.
The first steps toward the Decembrist rising were taken in 1816, when an organization called the Union of Salvation, or Society of True and Faithful Sons of the Fatherland, was organized in St Petersburg. Under the leadership of Pavel Pestel, a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, the Union began drawing up plans for a constitutional monarchy and the abolition of serfdom. The Union had four degrees of initiation – Friend, Brother, Elder, and Boyar (an old Russian title of nobility), which was reserved for the original founders. Each degree had an elaborate initiation ritual. See Initiation.
The Union fell apart in a series of internal disputes in 1817, but in 1818 a new order, the Union of Welfare, was founded by the original core group. The new Union discarded the initiation rituals and focused on a strategy of infiltration, seeking the transformation of Russian society through liberal reforms carried out by an elite of enlightened minds assisting one another in secret. The similarities of this plan to that of the Bavarian Illuminati of the pre-Napoleonic period may not be accidental; the Illuminati had a wide influence in central Europe, and many revolutionary secret societies of the time drew ideas from Adam Weishaupt’s failed conspiracy. Many members of the Union and its successor organizations were also Freemasons, at a time when Masonry was among the primary conduits for liberal ideas in Russia. The Union of Welfare also drew inspiration from the Carbonari, the most important political secret society in Europe in the post-Napoleonic period. See Bavarian Illuminati; Carbonari; Freemasonry.
In 1821, disagreements within the Union of Welfare split it into two groups, the Northern Society based in St Petersburg, and the Southern Society centered in the Ukraine. The Southern Society later consolidated with another secret society with similar aims, the Society of United Slavs. Both societies drew much of their membership from the junior officer corps, men who had served in the Napoleonic Wars and absorbed liberal ideas in Paris during the occupation of France. The Southern Society was the more radical, and took an active role in distributing propaganda among ordinary soldiers; the Northern Society took a less activist approach and spent much of its time in debates about a better Russian society. Neither Society seems to have understood the challenges involved in overthrowing a government, and their plans were poorly drafted and ineffectively executed.
The Decembrist rising itself was a total failure, and the Tsar’s government had little difficulty rounding up the ringleaders, executing Pestel and four others, and condemning the rest to prison or internal exile. The severity of the government response, though, had the paradoxical effect of turning the Decembrist failure into something like success. Public opinion, especially among the educated classes, strongly favored the Decembrists’ aims of liberal reform, and the government’s reaction convinced much of the Russian intelligentsia that revolution rather than reform would be needed to establish a progressive society on Russia’s soil. The Decembrist movement thus launched Russia into the spiral of revolt and repression that culminated in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. See Russian revolution.
Further reading: Mazour 1937, Raeff 1966.
One of the most popular of the ancient mystery cults, the Dionysian mysteries were celebrated throughout Greece, and spread through most of the Mediterranean world after Alexander the Great’s conquests imposed Greek culture on most of the Middle East. The rite was based on the Orphic myth of Dionysus, in which the god was born of Zeus and Persephone, murdered by the Titans, and resurrected in the form of humanity, which was made from the mingled ashes of the Titans and the body of Dionysus. See Orphism.
A few scraps of information about the Dionysian mysteries have come down via classical authors. Candidates for initiation were purified with water, dressed in the garments of the god Dionysus, and given over to a conductor, who took them on a journey through darkness. They were symbolically killed by the Titans and placed in the pastos or tomb, and heard lamentations for the dead god and the search for his body. Finally the candidates emerged from the pastos as the reborn god. All this is classic vegetation myth, with Dionysus as deity of the crops buried with the seed and reborn with the green shoot. The same pattern can be found in most of the other ancient mystery cults, as well as in the Gospel story of the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. See Christian origins; fertility religion; mysteries, ancient.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, scholarly writings about the Dionysian mysteries found a ready audience in many secret societies of the time, and secret society members in search of ancient roots for their traditions routinely turned to the Dionysian mysteries, as well as other classical mystery cults. Nineteenth-century books on the origins of Freemasonry generally list the mysteries of Dionysus as one of the ancient sources of the Craft. See Freemasonry, origins of.
One of the odder spiritual movements in America today, the Discordian movement came into being in the late 1950s when founders Gregory Hill and Kerry Thornley evolved a religion centered on Eris, the ancient Greek goddess of chaos, discord, and confusion. According to the Principia Discordia, the sacred scripture of the movement, the tenets of Discordianism were originally revealed to Hill and Thornley by a phantom chimpanzee late one night in a Los Angeles-area bowling alley.
Discordianism remained the private joke of a small circle of friends until the 1970s, when two publishing events launched it into the larger world. The 1970 publication of the first widely available edition of the Principia Discordia, by the San Francisco publishing house Rip Off Press, began this process. Then the first volume of Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus! trilogy, a sprawling satire on conspiracy theories, came out in 1975 and spread Discordian ideas throughout popular culture, where they came to the attention of several avant-garde secret societies, including the Illuminates of Thanateros and Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth. See Illuminates of Thanateros (IOT); Temple ov Psychick Youth, Thee (TOPY).
Discordianism occupies the conceptual space between an alternative religion and an elaborate prank, and attempts to force it to make sense in conventional terms result mostly in additional amusement for Discordians. The doctrines of the faith forbid Discordians from eating hot dog buns on Thursdays, and so every Discordian is required at some point to go out on a Thursday and eat a hot dog, bun and all. Discordian organizations (which might better be termed disorganizations) such as the Paratheoanametamystik-hood of Eris Esoteric (POEE) and the Legion of Dynamic Discord add an additional layer of confusion to the mix; members join more or less by deciding to do so, and carry on whatever activities they feel like – as might be predicted for a movement worshipping a goddess of chaos.
For an extended practical joke masquerading as a religion (or a religion masquerading as an extended practical joke), Discordianism has had a surprisingly widespread impact. Several secret societies beyond the ones already mentioned, and the Chaos Magic movement, a major element of the occult community in the 1980s and 1990s, drew extensively on Discordian ideas.
Further reading: Malaclypse the Younger 1970.
One of the basic methods of concealment used by secret societies is disinformation, the deliberate spreading of false information. Simple concealment is rarely enough to keep a secret safe, since the absence of information rouses curiosity. By inventing a false “secret” and putting it into circulation, though, and the secret is doubly protected; those who think they know a secret rarely keep trying to find it out, and those who believe they have secret knowledge often become emotionally attached to that belief, and cling to the disinformation they have received even in the face of contrary evidence. See Secrecy.
A canny awareness of these factors has guided secret societies in using disinformation for centuries, and enemies of secret societies – governments, religious hierarchies, opposing secret societies, among others – have made free use of the same methods. Thus much of what passes for knowledge about secret societies nowadays in popular culture and the media consists of deliberately circulated disinformation of various kinds, some recent and some centuries old.
Secret societies have as many reasons to circulate disinformation as they have secrets to hide. Political and revolutionary secret societies conceal their plans and goals, and often their very existence; criminal secret societies conceal their illegal activities; occult secret societies conceal their teachings; even fraternal secret societies conceal the recognition signs that allow members in good standing to receive benefits from other members. Disinformation usually has a central role in concealing any or all of these.
Beyond this, secret societies have good reason to look older, larger, and more powerful than they are, since this helps attract and retain members. Disinformation plays a central role in this process. Ironically, opponents of secret societies have equally solid incentives to make secret societies look older, larger, and more powerful than they are, since this makes it easier to raise funds and attract supporters for campaigns against the supposed evil influence of secret societies! The result is that the role of secret societies in the western world over the last three centuries, important and dramatic as this has been, has been almost entirely eclipsed in the popular imagination by vast phantoms conjured into being by disinformation campaigns.
Secret society disinformation campaigns range from simple pieces of useful trickery to grand deceptions involving planted documents and years of preparation. Toward the simpler end was a project carried out by the Independent Order of Odd Fellows in the late 1850s, when that society became the target of attacks from conservative Christians after it opened its doors to men of all religions. One of the main forms taken by the attack was the publication of exposés of its signs, passwords, and rituals. The Odd Fellows responded by publishing their own exposés, with deliberate inaccuracies inserted into the signs and passwords, so that non-members attempting to gain admittance into Odd Fellows lodges would betray themselves. See Odd Fellowship.
At the other end of the spectrum is the spectacularly successful campaign carried out in the 1960s and 1970s by the Prieuré de Sion (Priory of Sion), a tiny French secret society. Around 1960, its Grand Master Pierre Plantard began to plant rumors and documents supporting a claim that the Priory had been active since the Middle Ages, and ultimately dated back to the Merovingian kings of sixth-century France, whose last descendant Plantard claimed to be. This disinformation campaign eventually came to the attention of three English writers, resulting in a series of popular books including the bestselling The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (1982), which gave Plantard’s campaign international exposure. The English researchers added material of their own to the mix, most notably a claim that Plantard himself was a lineal descendant of Jesus of Nazareth. The resulting revision of history has become a fixture in modern alternative culture and played a significant role in inspiring Dan Brown’s popular novel The Da Vinci Code (2003). See Christian origins; Knights Templar; Merovingians; Priory of Sion.
While the worldwide publicity that came out of Plantard’s disinformation campaign is unusual, it is by no means unique, and the methods he used – planting forged documents, circulating rumors, recruiting journalists and writers, and the like – have been standard practice for centuries. Successful pieces of disinformation may be reworked and recycled many times for different purposes, and competing campaigns of disinformation, positive and negative, can repeatedly redefine a single organization. Among the many ironies surrounding disinformation is that those conspiracy theorists who insist most loudly that one secret society or another has maintained total secrecy about its origins and aims are often the most likely to believe disinformation circulated by secret societies, without even taking the time to check it against basic historical facts. See rejected knowledge.
A common label used among white people for Native American warrior societies of the Great Plains, the term originated among the Cheyenne tribe of the southern plains, where the Dog Soldier Society was one of the most prestigious of the tribal warrior societies in the middle years of the nineteenth century. Among the Cheyenne, the Dog Soldiers functioned as a tribal police force, enforcing traditional law codes, and also played a central role in tribal warfare.
Several other Great Plains tribes had secret societies that filled somewhat similar social functions, and inevitably the label “Dog Soldiers” was applied to these societies by whites unaware of the enormous cultural differences among native peoples. References to the Dog Soldiers as a single secret society common to all the Plains tribes can still be found in older books on secret societies. See Native American secret societies.
A radical political movement within Protestant Christianity, Dominionism (also known as “Dominion theology”) emerged in the second half of the twentieth century in the writings of Armenian-American minister Rousas J. Rushdoony, whose Institutes of Biblical Law (1973) remains its central book. Rushdoony argued for a biblical legal system and demanded the abolition of democracy and its replacement by a Christian religious dictatorship in which slavery would be legal, women would lose civil rights, and heretics, astrologers, juvenile delinquents, and women (but not men) who had sex before marriage would suffer the death penalty.
Rushdoony’s views, like Rushdoony himself, emerged from the Presbyterian branch of Protestant Christianity. Based on the writings of Swiss Protestant reformer John Calvin (1509–64), Presbyterianism has always included a strain of theocratic politics based on the doctrine of post-millennialism, which holds that the Second Coming of Christ will occur after the Millennium, the thousand years of bliss mentioned in the Book of Revelation. The opposing belief, pre-millennialism, puts the Second Coming before the Millennium. The difference may seem as relevant as the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin, but it leads to sweeping divergences in strategy. Pre-millenarians believe that Christ will cause the Millennium to happen himself, while post-millenarians believe that the task of bringing about the Millennium is up to the Christian churches. To radical post-millenarians such as Rushdoony and his followers, the process involves political action or revolutionary violence.
These views, known as Christian Reconstructionism, remained the province of a small coterie of right-wing intellectuals until the early 1990s. The failure of right-wing Christianity to gain more than token elements of their agenda from Republican administrations between 1980 and 1992, and the sweeping Democratic victory in the 1992 elections, sent many religious radicals in search of a movement less willing to compromise with the status quo. A significant minority of them found it in Rushdoony’s views.
The most influential among overtly Dominionist organizations is the Coalition on Revival (COR), founded in 1984 by Rev. Jay Grimstead with the assistance of two major figures in the political wing of the Protestant churches, Rev. Tim LaHaye and Rev. Francis A. Schaeffer. Its founding document, the “Manifesto-Covenant,” pledges the signers (60 members of the COR steering committee) to die, if necessary, to replace American democracy with a Christian dictatorship. Headquartered in Mountain View, California, COR trains ministers and other leadership figures in political activism, and produces and circulates propaganda supporting the abolition of the Bill of Rights and other constitutional freedoms.
The Dominionist movement nonetheless remains a relatively small faction among American Christians, and has a negligible presence outside the United States. Even within America its influence is fading, as the percentage of Americans who belong to a Protestant church has declined steadily from 72 percent in the late 1970s to 49 percent today. Like many right-wing Christian movements, it denounces secret societies such as Freemasonry but functions as a secret society itself, pursuing its subversive political agenda mostly in secret. See Fundamentalism.
Further reading: Barron 1992, Diamond 1995.
DRUID CIRCLE OF THE UNIVERSAL BOND
One of the most influential Druid groups in the twentieth century, the Druid Circle of the Universal Bond claims to date from 1717, when an assembly of Druids from all over Britain met at the Apple Tree Tavern in London and established the Universal Bond. Its roots, again according to its traditional history, go back via a Mount Haemus Grove at Oxford, founded in 1245, to surviving groups of ancient Celtic Druids. Like all other stories of direct descent from the ancient Druids, this one has no evidence to support it, and may be considered another example of the common secret society habit of retrospective recruitment. No record of a Druid grove at Oxford has yet surfaced from before modern times. The 1717 meeting at the Apple Tree Tavern is plausible enough, since the Druid Revival was in its earliest stages at that time and the Apple Tree was used as a meeting place by several other secret societies active in London then, but even so, no evidence has yet surfaced to support the claim that it happened. See Druid Revival; Druids; retrospective recruitment.
The traceable history of the Druid Circle of the Universal Bond begins around 1904, with George Watson MacGregor-Reid, a naturopathic physician and Universalist minister in London. MacGregor-Reid’s religious interests extended to Buddhism and the teachings of the ancient Druids, and sometime in the first decade of the twentieth century he began celebrating the summer solstice at Stonehenge with members of his congregation. Over the following two decades Druid activities took up a progressively larger part of MacGregor-Reid’s work, until his church renamed itself the Druid Circle of the Universal Bond sometime in the 1920s. By this time, its membership included several members or former members of secret societies descended from the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and MacGregor-Reid’s son Robert became an initiate of one of these societies during the 1920s. See Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.
In 1946 MacGregor-Reid died and a new minister attempted to bring his church back into conformity with the Universalist Church. In response, a number of members including Robert MacGregor-Reid quit the church and founded the Druid Circle of the Universal Bond as an independent body. For the next 20 years it was the most influential Druid group in England, with a membership that included poet and artist Ross Nichols and Gerald Gardner, the probable founder of modern Wicca. On Robert MacGregor-Reid’s death in 1964 the order split, with Thomas Maughan becoming its new Chosen Chief and Ross Nichols, who had been Scribe under Robert MacGregor-Reid, breaking away to found his own Druid society, the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids. See Order of Bards Ovates and Druids (OBOD); Wicca.
The Druid Circle of the Universal Bond remains active today, though it remains aloof from other Druid organizations and its public activities are limited.
Further reading: Nichols 1992.
One of the oldest continuous traditions of pagan nature religion in the western world, the Druid Revival began in England in the early eighteenth century, and had essentially no connection to the ancient Druids whose name and image inspired it. Several Druid Revival groups have claimed direct descent from the original Celtic Druids, but all the available evidence suggests that these latter were extinct by the ninth century CE. See Druids.
The roots of the Druid Revival lie instead in the rediscovery by northern European nations of their own past during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The ancient Druids were mentioned in classical sources such as Caesar’s Gallic Wars, and Druids accordingly began to appear in European histories, sometimes as ignorant heathens but surprisingly often as wise custodians of a profound spiritual heritage. National pride and the lingering Renaissance faith in a primeval wisdom from the beginning of time fed into this latter image, which made attempts to lay claim to the heritage of the Druids inevitable.
The first such claim seems to have been made by the Irish philosopher John Toland (1670–1722). A radical who invented the word “pantheism” for his own beliefs, Toland founded at least one secret society, the Chevaliers of Jubilation, and the rituals in his Pantheisticon (1720) were at least intended to be used by another. Two modern Druid groups, the Druid Circle of the Universal Bond and the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids, claim that he also became the head of a Druid order founded in London’s Apple Tree Tavern in 1717. The claim is not implausible – any number of secret societies and odd clubs came together in London and elsewhere during the first half of the eighteenth century – but no documentation has yet surfaced to support it. What is certain is that Toland was fascinated by the ancient Druids, and believed that they taught the pantheist wisdom he also traced in the pages of the Corpus Hermeticum. He never completed his planned history of the Druids, but his influence helped make Druids popular among British radicals. See Chevaliers of Jubilation; Druid Circle of the Universal Bond; Hermeticism; Order of Bards Ovates and Druids; Toland, John.
The most important figure in the eighteenth-century Druid Revival was William Stukeley (1687–1765). One of the founders of British archeology, Stukeley became convinced that the ancient Druids taught a profound and mystical religion that foreshadowed Anglican Christianity. By the 1720s he identified himself as a Druid; by the 1750s, he was the chief of the Mount Haemus Grove, a group of Druidically inclined friends who met at his home in Highgate, near London. His books on Stonehenge and Avebury, published in 1740 and 1743 respectively, put Druids on the cultural map all across Britain and made the explosion of Druid secret societies over the next century all but inevitable.
Stukeley’s Mount Haemus Grove, which may or may not have been a continuation of the shadowy Druid Order headed by Toland and may or may not have continued after Stukeley’s time, is the only documented Druid group from the middle of the eighteenth century. By the end of the same century, though, historians of the Revival are on firmer ground. The Ancient Order of Druids, the first solidly documented modern Druid society, was founded in 1781, probably by a London carpenter named Henry Hurle. In 1792 Edward Williams (1747–1826), a Welsh poet who adopted the Druid name Iolo Morganwg (Iolo of Glamorgan), celebrated “ancient Welsh bardic ceremonies” of his own invention on Primrose Hill in London, and over the next few decades succeeded in having them adopted by Welsh gorseddau (traditional bardic competitions), which still use them today. In 1833 the United Ancient Order of Druids (UAOD) broke away from the Ancient Order of Druids and began a process of growth that by the second half of the nineteenth century made them the largest Druid organization in the world. Finally, 1874 saw English Freemason and occultist Robert Wentworth Little (1840–78) found the Ancient and Archaeological Order of Druids (AAOD). Many of these groups spread outside Britain; the UAOD became a significant presence in the American, Australian, and central European secret society scene within a decade of its founding, while the AAOD chartered an American branch, the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA), in 1912. See Ancient and Archaeological Order of Druids (AAOD); Ancient Order of Druids; Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA); United Ancient Order of Druids (UAOD). Toland’s pantheism and Stukeley’s liberal Anglican Christianity defined the spectrum of religious beliefs within which early Druid groups positioned themselves. In the course of the nineteenth century, however, theories of astronomical religion and fertility religion spread from the world of scholarship into British popular culture, and into the Druid Revival. As a result, several nineteenth-century Druid orders embraced what they thought was the pagan religion of their ancestors; most of these contained some Christian elements, but in many cases those were reshaped in ways Christian orthodoxy found difficult to tolerate. Thus the Druid Gorsedd of Pontypridd, one of many Welsh Druid groups that traced their origin to Iolo Morganwg’s work, espoused a theology that fused astronomical and fertility religion and redefined Christianity in Druid terms, turning Jesus of Nazareth into a pagan symbol of the sun and the phallus. See astronomical religion; fertility religion.
The rise of Theosophy and other explicitly non-Christian occult traditions in the late nineteenth century had a large impact on the occult end of the Druid Revival, and so did the collapse of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in internecine struggles after 1900, a process which sent many former Golden Dawn initiates into other occult secret societies. Druidry received a sizeable fraction of these, resulting in hybrid orders such as the Ancient Order of Druid Hermetists and the Cabbalistic Order of Druids. Similarly, French Druid societies borrowed material from the lively French occult scene of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, just as American Druid societies of the same period made connections with other esoteric secret societies and exchanged rituals, practices, and teachings. See Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn; Theosophical Society.
The second half of the twentieth century saw the Druid Revival emerge from the underworld of secret societies and become a public presence through much of the western world. Two organizations, the Reformed Druids of North America (RDNA) and the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids (OBOD), led the way in this process. The RDNA had one of the most unlikely origins of any Druid organization, which is saying something; founded as an undergraduate prank at a small American college, it mutated into a thriving tradition of nature spirituality to which a large fraction of modern American Druid groups trace their beginnings. The OBOD, by contrast, was founded as a schism from the Druid Circle of the Universal Bond, one of the most influential Druid groups in Britain; after the death of its founder Ross Nichols, the OBOD went dormant for a period, then revived under its current chief Philip Carr-Gomm and rapidly became the most influential Druid order in the western world.
Ironically, this widespread popularity came just as the Druid Revival came under attack from within the modern Druid community. The Celtic Reconstructionist movement emerged in the 1980s among neopagans who based their systems of thought and practice on currently accepted scholarship about ancient Celtic paganism. Never more than a small faction among Druids, the Celtic Reconstructionists succeeded in polarizing the Druid community with strident attacks on Druid Revival traditions as “fake Druidry.” The resulting quarrels took up a great deal of bandwidth on the Internet but did little to impact the popularity of Druid Revival groups. At the time of writing, the Druid Revival movement remains a significant presence in the occult and pagan communities throughout most of the western world.
Further reading: Green 1997, Greer 2006, Nichols 1992.
An ancient Celtic caste of loremasters and wizards, the Druids have been a favorite subject of speculation, myth-making, and retrospective recruitment since European intellectuals rediscovered them in the seventeenth century. Nearly everything that currently passes for knowledge about the Druids in popular culture came out of this fertile soil of misinformation, or out of the Druid Revival, a modern spiritual movement inspired by the ancient Druids, which took shape in Britain in the eighteenth century. See Druid Revival; retrospective recruitment. Very little information survives about the ancient Druids, and much of what does exist is incomplete, obscure, and contradictory. Some 30 quotations in Greek and Roman authors, a somewhat larger body of Irish legend and saints’ lives dating from centuries after the Druids ceased to exist, and the ambiguous evidence of archeology and comparative religion provide a very uncertain foundation of fact. According to these sources, Druids could be found in Gaul, Britain, and Ireland, but apparently not among the Celts of central Europe, the Iberian Peninsula, or Asia Minor. Some sources refer to them as philosophers, others call them wizards; modern scholars often refer to them as priests, but none of the contemporary sources describe them as such. Rather, they taught religion and philosophy, judged disputes, recited sacred verses at sacrificial rituals, and cast spells.
Would-be Druids underwent a course of study that lasted up to 20 years and required them to memorize a great deal of material in verse form, including lore about theology, astronomy, divination, and natural history. A strict taboo forbade Druids from writing down the secrets of their caste, though one Roman source comments that they used the Greek alphabet for ordinary correspondence; one unexpected confirmation of this latter claim is the fact that the name of Belenos, the Druid sun god, adds up to 365 – the number of days in a year – in Greek letters. See Gematria.
As the Roman Empire expanded into Gaul and Britain in the two centuries surrounding the start of the Common Era, the Druids played a significant role in rallying Celtic resistance and so were targeted for destruction after Rome’s victory. Sources from the third and fourth centuries CE mention the occasional Druid or Druidess, but it is impossible to be sure whether these refer to direct descendants of the old Druids or not. In Ireland and Scotland, where Roman power never established itself, the Druids remained an active presence until the coming of Christianity. The last Druids mentioned in authentic sources lived among the Picts in present-day Scotland in the ninth century, and tried unsuccessfully to stop their people from converting to the new faith.
From then until the sixteenth century, Druids were essentially forgotten in the western world. Their rediscovery came as the Renaissance spread into northern Europe and encouraged people in Germany, France, and Britain to explore their own history. References to the Druids from classical literature, and in the pseudo-classical forgeries of Annius of Viterbo, an Italian monk who manufactured an imaginary history of northern Europe full of Druids and heroes, brought the old Celtic wizards back into prominence. By the early 1500s French, German, and Scottish historians had adopted the Druids as a colorful part of their national histories. England took a little longer to climb aboard the Druidic bandwagon, but by the later years of Elizabeth I’s reign Druids had found their way into Holinshed’s Chronicles and William Camden’s Britannia, the two most influential British histories of their time.
Thus the Druids reached the eighteenth century, the dawn of the golden age of secret societies, as prime candidates for retrospective recruitment. First off the starting line was John Toland, who drafted them into service in the first decades of the new century as antecedents for the freethinking pantheism he helped introduce to the British cultural scene. His contemporary William Stukeley, the leading light of the eighteenth-century Druid Revival, remade them into the ancestors of his own brand of liberal Anglicanism. John Cleland – more renowned as the author of Fanny Hill, the most famous work of pornography in the English language – entered the lists in 1766 with a book arguing that the ancient Druids were the ancestors of the Freemasons, launching a theory of Masonic origins that still has its followers today. See Freemasonry, origins of; Toland, John.
The Druid Revival itself played a crucial role in introducing the ancient Druids to modern times. By the end of the eighteenth century Druid-inspired secret societies existed in Britain and America, and had begun the process of making the white-robed Druid with his golden sickle and mistletoe an instantly recognizable figure in popular culture. Druid gatherings at Stonehenge at the summer solstice apparently began sometime during the nineteenth century, adding another element to the popular image of the Druid.
The emergence of the neo-pagan movement in the second half of the twentieth century launched a new round of retrospective recruitment as many of the inventors of newly minted pagan faiths turned to the ancient Druids as a source of inspiration and a locus for claims of authenticity. Inevitably, the same “family tradition” origin stories circulated by Wiccans of the same period sprang up in many Druid groups, and were used to justify further redefinitions of the ancient Druids. The Druidic proto-pantheists, proto-Anglicans and proto-Freemasons invented in the Druid Revival era made room for proto-hippies in the 1970s, proto-shamans in the 1980s, and proto-Traditionalists in the 1990s. While some of the most prominent Druid Revival groups of the present time disclaim any direct connection with the ancient Druids, ideas about Druids in popular culture throughout the western world remain remarkably confused at present. See origin stories; Traditionalism.
Further reading: Green 1997, Piggott 1975.
The belief that the universe is governed by competing powers of good and evil, dualism has some role in most ancient mythologies but first took center stage in the teachings of Zoroaster, the prophet of the Persian religion of Zoroastrianism. According to the Zoroastrian faith, the world is partly the creation of Ahura Mazda or Ormuzd, the god of light and goodness, and partly the creation of Angra Mainyu or Ahriman, the spirit of darkness and evil. The history of the world is the story of the struggle between these two powers, which is fated to end in Ahura Mazda’s victory and Angra Mainyu’s total defeat. These ideas were adopted in modified form into the Jewish faith after the Persians released the Jews from their captivity in Babylon, and became part of Christianity and Islam from the beginning.
The Gnostics of the early Common Era inherited the modified dualism of the Judeo-Christian tradition and transformed it into a teaching more radical even than Zoroaster’s. To most of the Gnostics, the world and everything in it, except for a minority of human souls, had been created by the Demiurge, an evil and ignorant power who fancied himself lord of the cosmos. Certain human souls were sparks of light from another universe who had been trapped inside the Demiurge’s corrupt cosmos, and the Gnostic faith claimed to offer them a way to escape from this universe and return to their true home in the World of Light. See Gnosticism.
These views blended with many other viewpoints in the theological free-for-all of the late classical world, and gave rise to two versions of dualism shared by later Gnostic sects such as the Manichaeans, Bogomils, and Cathars. One version, called “absolute dualism” by modern scholars, returned to the Zoroastrian vision of good and evil powers existing from the beginning of time; the other, “mitigated dualism,” accepted the Judeo-Christian idea of a single good god but made the fallen archangel Satan into God’s rival and the evil ruler of the material world. Until the fourteenth century, when the last Cathars were exterminated in France, these views had a sizeable following in the western world. See Cathars.
Thereafter the modified dualism of conventional Christianity was in the ascendant until modern times. The first modern Gnostic churches in France, which emerged in the nineteenth century, adopted various forms of dualism, some more extreme than others, while the esoteric wing of the Masonic movement during the second half of the same century borrowed ideas from Zoroastrian dualism to expand the spiritual dimensions of Freemasonry. Dualist approaches faced a serious challenge from monist beliefs of the sort promoted by the Theosophical Society and its many offshoots, but in the smorgasbord of spiritual teachings that characterized the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries dualism was nearly always an option on the menu. See Freemasonry; Theosophical Society.
The contemporary revival of Gnosticism that began with the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Gnostic library in Egypt in 1945, ironically, has often found classic Gnostic dualism too hot to handle, and most self-proclaimed Gnostics in the contemporary spiritual scene promote a monist spirituality worlds away from the beliefs of their supposed forebears. A handful of modern Gnostic groups affirm some version of dualism at present. A far larger dualist movement, with beliefs that closely parallel those of the ancient Gnostics, is the Christian Identity movement, a racist offshoot of Christianity that defines “Aryan” peoples (that is, those descended from western Europeans) as true humans and all other peoples as soulless creations of Satan as demiurge. These views have close parallels in the neo-Nazi underground as well. See Christian Identity; neo-Nazi secret societies.