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The Power of Ritual in Prehistory: Secret Societies and Origins of Social Complexity

The Power of Ritual in Prehistory: Secret Societies and Origins of Social Complexity

By Brian Hayden. Pp. xii + 398. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2018. $125. ISBN 978-1-108-42639-8 (cloth).

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The Power of Ritual in Prehistory takes us on a journey through the Old and New Worlds, examining ethnographic evidence for secret societies with a view to enriching our archaeological interpretations of prehistoric cultures. As stated in the book’s summary, it is the first book in decades that addresses secret societies in a comparative perspective and the first from an archaeological perspective.

The author’s goal is “to place secret societies at the forefront of archaeological consciousness and to have them occupy their rightful place in prehistorians’ accounts of how and why many important sociopolitical and religious changes took place in the past.” He argues that these societies provide the “missing link” that explains why cultures invested so much into ritual centers and how religion and ritual became associated with power and a force of cultural change. His premise is that secret societies were socially disruptive and created inequality through the control of surplus resources that enabled aggrandizers to promote their own self-interest and status. Based in political ecology, this view counters the conventional, widespread, functionalist- and Marxist-driven arguments that interpret religion and ritual as cohesive forces that reduce social tension. He argues that archaeologists speak erroneously of the power of ritual and belief and instead proposes that any power connected to ritual and religion rests in the ability of the leaders in secret societies “to exact acquiescence for the ideological and other dictates,” much of which was achieved through terror.

The book is arranged in three sections: the New World, the Old World, and implications for archaeology. Most of the content is dedicated to detailed ethnographic case studies of secret societies around the globe that the author uses to exemplify potential archaeological signatures and artifacts, which he discusses in more detail in the section on archaeology and in the conclusions. Accepting that most people will use this volume as a reference work, the author purposely structured it with the main argument laid out in the first chapter, case studies presented in chapters 2–9, and the evidence and arguments summarized in the concluding two chapters.

In the first chapter, Hayden describes secret societies, explaining why they are important and using them to support his critiques of common archeological models and interpretations. He describes them as a type of ritual sodality controlling exclusive knowledge with access to spirits and the spirit world, which is the “secret” in secret societies, and having voluntary, ranked membership, frequently with expensive fees. He argues that: they embody traditional ritual, art, food, music, dance, costume, and language; their members cut across kinship groups and communities and create a supracommunity level of control, organization, and power that is far reaching; they extract large amounts of resources from the community and direct them to a few individuals; the highest ranked individuals in a community frequently hold the highest ranks in the secret society, with access to exclusive arcane knowledge and large amounts of resources, which makes them driving forces in wide-ranging cultural change; and they lead to the development of some of the most notable ritual centers and formation of regional and state religions. Secret societies can be classified into four main types: power-oriented, militaristic, curing or fertility, and defensive. The author mainly explores the first two, since they are most commonly described in the ethnographies. The dominant activity of a secret society is often public rituals that allow members to communicate and display their arcane knowledge to the wider community. Their frequent occurrence in transegalitarian and chiefdom societies and the buildings, spaces, and paraphernalia that are visible in the archaeological record make them significant for archaeological studies of early cultures.

In chapters 2–9, which draw on detailed ethnographies collected during the 19th and early 20th centuries from a wide range of cultures, Hayden explains the various manifestations of secret societies and their characteristics, origins, and impact on people. Through these examples, he elucidates how the secret societies ensured a strong economic position for their organization by controlling surplus through membership and initiation fees, reciprocal feasts and gifts, the expense associated with rituals and paraphernalia, fines from members and nonmembers for transgressions or for doubting the ritual power, and payment from community members for transformative or protective rituals. He provides multiple examples of the high cost for higher-level initiations and how this may stretch as far as sacrifice of one’s oldest son to engender superior loyalty to the secret society that cuts across kin and community. He argues convincingly for the disruptive role of secret societies and stresses how they commonly terrorized communities, especially women and children, with extreme violence and destruction of property, and with cannibalism not uncommon. The attendant rituals must have a sufficient public presence that the effect and benefits of society membership can be fully felt. Hayden especially stresses the motivation for the societies and highlights multiple instances that show individual aggrandizers using the societies to gain social, political, and economic leverage. He also uses these examples to bolster his theoretical position in political ecology, explaining the connection between ritual and power and arguing against the more traditional views of religion as a social unifier. Throughout these case studies our attention is drawn to many examples of the secret societies’ ritual equipment that might be identifiable in the archaeological record—such as masks, specialized clothing, bodily ornaments, musical or noise instruments, figurines, and decorated implements—and their ritual structures, spaces, and burials, which are found in 25–50% of transegalitarian societies.

In chapter 10, Hayden highlights the material patterns discussed in the case studies and, using a wide range of examples, explores how they could be used to infer the presence of secret societies archaeologically. His aim is not to argue unequivocally for “the presence of secret societies but to point out examples where the application of the secret society model might prove to be insightful or productive” (285). He uses several archaeological examples to argue his case, in most of which he seems to equate small spaces and those in isolated places or outside the main residential areas with secret societies. In the example that I am most familiar with, the Minoans, he contends that the Minoan peak sanctuaries are a form of secret society that was brought into the palace. Although this is a novel interpretation—as Minoan archaeologists predominantly envision the sanctuaries as regional, communal ritual areas that were then brought under palatial control—it is an interesting model to explore.

In the final chapter, he fills the lacuna that he noted in the first chapter: the lack of explanatory power in common scholarly acceptance of the inherent power of religion. He expressly argues that secret societies are “the missing link in our understanding of why ritual, astronomy, sacrifice and religion are so important to early state societies” and became subsumed or transformed into mainstream religions. He summarizes some of the major themes discussed in the case studies and stresses the connection between the secret society and wealth acquisition, promotion of self-interests, sociopolitical control, creation of inequalities, and how secret societies were a driving force of cultural change.

This is a strong book and a fascinating account of practices not much discussed in archaeology or in cultural anthropology. It gives us clear examples of secret societies in a variety of cultures and helps us get an appreciation for how they might have functioned in the past as well as how this undermines perceived notions of the role of religion in ancient societies. A minor drawback to the work is that information is repeated within the chapter subdivisions of the area case studies, although this may be beneficial to someone who is only looking at a small subsection of the volume.

Joanne M.A. Murphy
University of North Carolina Greensboro

Book Review of The Power of Ritual in Prehistory: Secret Societies and Origins of Social Complexity, by Brian Hayden

Reviewed by Joanne M.A. Murphy

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 123, No. 4 (October 2019)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1234.Murphy

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