- Historic Sites
Iron John In The Gilded Age
September 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 5
We neglect fraternal orders partly because they declined so rapidly in the twentieth century. A new generation of men, when draesed to the lodee bv their bosses or fathers-in-law, choked down laughter as the neighborhood grocer, donning the miter of a Jewish high priest, fumbled through an Old Testament lesson for the Odd Fellows or as the superintendent of the ironworks, wearing the headdress of an Iroquois sagamore, brandished a tomahawk and challenged the initiate’s fitness for the Improved Order of Red Men. Many young men regaled friends with hilarious accounts of what had transpired at the lodge, and they never went back. Hundreds of smaller orders quietly passed out of existence. Most beneficiary societies, financially dependent on an infusion of young members, were in serious trouble by the 1920s. The Depression finished them off and also wiped out thousands of lodges that could no longer make the mortgage payments on their temples. Within a few years most Americans would associate the orders with Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton of the Loyal Order of Raccoons.
The historical profession came of age during these skeptical years, and academics saw no reason to pay much attention to institutions that were intentionally behind the times. Scholars who bothered to look at the rituals dismissed them as hokum; they assumed that businessmen joined to make contacts, workers to acquire insurance, and others because there was not much else to do. With the development of trade associations and businessmen’s clubs, private and governmental insurance, and movies and television, most of the orders expired out of sheer inanity.
But historians erred in thinking of the orders as yet another manifestation of the backwardness of small-town America. The orders in fact thrived especially in large cities. And the businessmen, engineers, and lawyers who spent evenings pretending to be medieval knights or Indian chiefs were by day transforming the United States into an urban-industrial nation.
The popularity of Iron John in recent years further confirms that male rituals are not incompatible with modernity. At first glance the slouching, dungareed participants at Bly’s mancamps little resemble the somber, stiff faces that stare out from nineteenth-century lodge photographs. But the rituals invented by Bly’s mythopoets are uncannily similar to those performed in fraternal lodges more than a century ago.
Both sets of rituals attempted to establish a link to primitive or ancient peoples. Bly proposes that the story of Iron John, though based on a tale the Grimm brothers set down in 1820, may have originated twenty thousand years earlier. Men’s movement enthusiasts exalt drumming as an “ancient ritual” and carve wooden masks in honor of “old gods” such as Pan, Orpheus, Shiva, and Dionysus.
More than a hundred years ago Albert Pike—poet, lawyer, Confederate general, and Masonic ritualist—similarly called for a return to the primitive truths that “faded out from men’s souls before the world grew old.” He viewed Freemasonry as a faint echo of rites practiced by druidic shamans, Eleusinian mystics, and Zoroastrian priests. The Ancient Order of United Workmen and the Improved Order of Red Men in their very names suggested a link to the distant past. They did so not from any romantic attachment to Noble Savages—Native Americans who sought admission to the Red Men were turned away- but to lay claim to rites of prehistoric origin. For much the same reason the Knights of Pythias identified Pythagoras as the first member of their order.
Once they had settled into their tribal sweat lodge, Solomonic temple, or medieval castle, initiates for both the fraternal orders and modern men’s srouos underwent an initiatory se- quence with comparable motifs. After being depicted as deficient or immature, they embarked on arduous journeys revealing the knowledge necessary for self-transformation. Fraternal initiates, their shirts removed or disarranged, were blindfolded and prodded around the lodge. The ritual climaxed when the blindfolds were snatched away. “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ ” Masons were informed.
Men’s movement initiates, also blindfolded and their faces smudged or covered with masks, are carried over the heads of members or obliged to crawl on hands and knees. As the drumming reaches a crescendo, the blindfolds are removed. Newcomers to one men’s group, after scrambling throueh a tunnel, are told. “Go, The The light is gold.”