History & Heritage of the AODA
Written by Betty Jean McCloud Reeves, D.D., Grand Archdruid, Emeritus, with additional material by John Michael Greer, Grand Archdruid Emeritus, Grant Davis, Grand Archivist & Historian, and Dana O’Driscoll, Grand Archdruid.
The Ancient Order of Druids in America is descended from the Ancient Archaeological Order of Druids (AAOD) founded in 1874 by Robert Wentworth Little, an English Mason and Rosicrucian. Little is perhaps better known as the founder of the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia (SRIA), the immediate predecessor of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Little’s Order drew on nearly two centuries of previous Druid orders in Britain. While many of the original members of the AAOD were Masons, Masonic membership was not originally required for admission.
In 1886 the name of the Order was changed to Ancient Masonic Order of Druids (AMOD) and about two-thirds of the non-Masonic members were expelled from the Order. It was these expelled members who adopted the name Ancient Archaeological Order of Druids (AAOD) and attempted to revive the old order but it apparently died out around 1900. As of June 2003 the Ancient Masonic Order of Druids in England was still active.
An American Freemason with Druidic interests, James Manchester, M.D. obtained a Charter from the Ancient Masonic Order of Druids in England for the Ancient Order of Masonic Druids in America (AOMDA) on June 22, 1912 and founded the order in Boston, Massachusetts. Dr. Manchester was a stout man of average height – being about five feet eight inches tall – and a devoted family man. He was a high-ranking Mason and belonged to Masonic Lodges both in America and in England.
During the time he served as Grand Archdruid the organization was called the Ancient Order of Masonic Druids in America and only men who were also Masons were allowed to join. The Massachusetts Masonic Grand Lodge told Grand Archdruid Rhodonn Starrus that that Grand Lodge had never recognized AOMDA and was not interested in doing so in early 1972. By this time the Order was no longer in contact with its parent organization in England. The Grand Lodge in Colorado declined to recognize the AOMDA later that summer unofficially citing the fact the Order initiated women.
Mr. Robert Hayes, the second Grand Archdruid, was the spitting image of Dr. Manchester except that his hairline was receded. He, too was a staunch Mason and his wife was a high-ranking member of the Eastern Star, which is a Masonic organization for both men and women. It was Mr. Hayes who opened the doors to women. As it was told to me, Mrs. Hayes wanted to be a Druid and she usually got what she wanted.
Mrs. Hayes was the first female member of the AOMDA. Dr. Juliet Ashley was either the second or third female to be initiated into the Order. Since Dr. Ashley celebrated the twentieth anniversary of her Druid initiation in about 1965, the Order must have started accepting women in about 1944 or 1945. Dr. Ashley was a prim and proper minister and psychologist who used hypnosis and Logotherapy to help people learn about their past lives and overcome problems in this life. She was a short woman of medium build. She was born in 1887 in Northville, MI and passed away in 1985 in San Diego, CA.
Dr. Ashley studied the work of Manly P. Hall, A.E. Waite, and Alice Bailey; Dr. Ashley was rumored to be a Theosophist. She also studied with Edgar Cayce in Virginia Beach, Alexander Cannon at the Isle of Man, and Viktor Frankl in Vienna. She also studied at Columbia University (NYC) and the C.G. Jung Institute in Zurich. Moreover, she was active with New Thought Churches and supported the work of Emmet Fox while he was in NYC.
Dr. Ashley became the Grand Archdruid in 1952 following the untimely death of Mr. Hayes. Mrs. Hayes was the Archdruid of Fire and she resigned shortly after his death. The Archdruids of Water and Fire declined to become Grand Archdruid because of advancing age. This left the Order in somewhat of a pickle. Mrs. Hayes in her infinite wisdom convinced the two gentlemen to appoint Dr. Juliet Ashley and Dr. Rhodonn Starrus as Archdruids before her resignation became effective. With the two older Archdruids declining to advance, Dr. Starrus became Archdruid of Fire and Dr. Ashley became Grand Archdruid of Earth.
Dr. Starrus moved to the West as Archdruid of Water a few years later when the gentleman filling that position passed away. Robert Johnson became the new Archdruid of Fire. Within a couple of years the other gentleman expired and Dr. Betty Reeves became the Archdruid of Air.
Dr. Ashley was somewhat hampered by a set of Bylaws requiring all members to either be a Mason, be related by blood or marriage to a Mason or be recommended by a Mason. She attempted several times during her tenure as Grand Archdruid to delete that requirement from our Bylaws. It never happened during her time as Grand Archdruid. It did happen on June 22, 1976 when the Order officially changed its name to the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA). About one-third of the Masons resigned at that time including one of the Archdruids. History repeated itself in reverse ninety years after the first name change of the Order.
Dr. Ashley was very innovative and instituted a number of changes in the rituals to make them less Masonic (note: see more in John Michael Greer’s essay on Jungian psychology and the Sphere of Protection in Volume IV of Trilithon: The Journal of the Ancient Order of Druids in America (2017)) . The original rituals carried symbolic penalties that were quite gruesome in their detail. Some Druids took great delight in causing undue fear in new initiates by explaining in great detail how they enforced these penalties. Rt. Rev. Reeves notes: “I can remember thinking about forgetting the whole thing when I was the victim of this as a young and naive Apprentice of the First Degree. Thankfully, this is a thing of the past due to the efforts of Dr. Ashley and others.”
Dr. Ashley started the Holy Order of the Golden Dawn in Philadelphia, Denver and San Diego during or shortly after World War Two. During 1998-1999 the Ashley lineage of the Holy Order of the Golden Dawn in Denver chartered the Magickal Order of the Golden Dawn. As of June 23, 2002 both Orders were still in operation. The Sphere of Protection taught by the AODA comes from the teachings of the Magickal Order of the Golden Dawn.
Dr. Ashley was also very active in the Order of Spiritual Alchemy and served for a period of time as their Chief Guardian. She was a great believer in alchemy and encouraged all of her students to study both spiritual alchemy and psychic development. Psychic development was for her the spiritual path of an adept and a master.
Dr. Ashley resigned in 1974 and was replaced by Dr. Rhodonn Starrus who took the Druidic name Aerach Crann Crithaec (“Great Quaking Aspen”). Dr. Starrus founded the Universal Seminary in Quakertown, Pennsylvania in 1952 and moved it to Boulder, Colorado in 1972. His timing couldn’t have been better because the rest of the Grand Grove officers all resided in the Rocky Mountain region. By moving to Colorado he made it easier for the Grand Grove to continue meeting and supervising the Groves under its jurisdiction. Dr. Starrus was active in both the Holy Order of the Golden Dawn and the Order of Spiritual Alchemy. He served as a Chief in the first and a Guardian in the other. He was also head – the correct title is Abbot – of the Order of Modern Essenes, a healing spiritual order.
Dr. Starrus was a short man of medium size. He was a fireball of a teacher and a strict taskmaster. He expected a lot from his students but most of all from himself. He was of German descent and proud of his quick German temper which he controlled the vast majority of the time. He was a Greek and Hebrew scholar who loved to translate ancient texts to compare the meaning of the original writers to modern interpreters. He loved to say the ancient Christians would rather die than practice what we call Christianity today. He was a Christian Druid but as he was very willing to say: “Not that kind of a Christian” in referring to the radical Christians of today.
Dr. Starrus resigned in 1989 and Robert Johnson, who also used the name Aerach Crann Crithaec, became our fifth Grand Archdruid. Mr. Johnson was a tall and heavy-set man who spent most of his adult life in law enforcement moving from one position to the next. He never stayed in one place very long and moved around the country a good deal. In 1998, after a series of internal troubles, Mr. Johnson sent a letter to all the Groves announcing that the order had been disbanded. Since this action had not been approved by any of the other Archdruids, it had no legal validity, but many people left the order at that time.
The remaining Archdruids elected Dr. Betty Jean McCloud Reeves as the sixth Grand Archdruid. Dr. Reeves, the presiding Archbishop of the Universal Gnostic Church, took the Druidic name Aerach Crann Crithaec as well, in honor of Dr. Rhodonn Starrus who originated it. Her term as Grand Archdruid was a period of survival and slow rebuilding as the order began to recover from the aftermath of the 1998 crisis.
In 2003, due to ill health, Dr. Reeves resigned. John Michael Greer, a Mason and author of books on occult subjects, was elected the seventh Grand Archdruid of the Order, taking the Druidic name Creyr Glas Cynwyddon (“Blue Heron Loremaster”). John Micheal Greer served as Grand Archdruid for a period of 12 years, and his contributions to the Order were many. Greer reconstructed many of the AODA’s materials based on the memories and scant surviving materials from Dr. Reeves, John Gilbert (long-term Archdruid of Air), and other surviving AODA members. He published the Druidry Handbook, which served as the AODA’s core textbook and curriculum. Under his guidance, the AODA offered a set of druid practices rooted in nature spirituality with a curriculum that included paths of the earth, sun, and moon as well as a set of seven spirals that new candidates could study. The curriculum included discursive meditation, a celebration of the druid holy days (solstices and equinoxes), regular practicing of the Sphere of Protection, regular time spent in nature in observation and focus, ecological study of one’s local bioregion. The first-degree curriculum also required the candidate to take up a study of one or more of seven spirals (divination, healing, folklore, music, etc.)The curriculum was revised in 2012 again to offer more choice and flexibility within individual studies (such as the choice of ovate, bardic, and druid arts). Greer also wrote and published The AODA Grove Handbook and Gnostic Celtic Church book. Also instrumental during the years of John Michael Greer as Grand Archdruid was the work of Sara Greer, Archdruid of Water, who saw to the many daily operations of the AODA and substantially contributed to the order’s overall vision and direction.
John Michael Greer resigned at the Winter Solstice in 2015, whereby Gordon Cooper, long-term Archdruid of Fire, took his place. Under Gordon’s leadership, the AODA expanded its support to members including through the release of the New Candidate Guide, a guide for members supporting them with the AODA curriculum and the AODA Mentoring Program (coordinated by Claire Schosser). Gordon’s leadership also saw the release of new member-driven forums, quarterly newsletters, a revised and expanded website, and the creation of AODA home circles. Gordon Cooper resigned at the Fall Equinox of 2019, and then Archdruid of Water Dana O’Driscoll became the next Grand Archdruid.
For information on the current grand grove, please view this page.
The Grand Archdruids of the Order to date are:
- James Manchester, M.D. 1912 – 1936
- Robert Hayes 1936 – 1952
- Juliet Ashley, D.D. 1952 – 1974
- Rhodonn Starrus 1974 – 1989
- Robert Johnson 1989 – 1998
- Betty Reeves 1998 – 2003
- John Michael Greer 2003 – 2015
- Gordon Cooper 2015 – 2019
- Dana O’Driscoll, Ph.D., 2019 – Present