The quest which led to this book developed over more than a decade during which Gerard Russell worked as a British and UN diplomat in some of the most difficult postings imaginable, including Baghdad, Cairo, Cabul, and Jerusalem. His intellectual adventure, exploring the surviving remnants of religious groups that are secretive and little-known, engages the reader with a sense of constant discovery. The physical courage involved in some of his travels is inspiring and reminiscent of a 19th century British diplomat, Richard Francis Burton, who combined travel adventure and spiritual exploration in his writings. Each of Russell’s chapters is devoted to a different group: Mandaeans, Yezidi, Zoroastrians, Druze, Copts, Samaritans, and Kalasha. The largest of these groups, the Copts, number several million, while the smallest, the Samaritans, are estimated to number 750. Every chapter is intriguing but I will limit my comments to the two which are of special relevance to the idea of the “Religion of the Stars.” We tend to think of this in terms of Hermeticism and modern astrology, but Russell’s investigations include groups of ancient origin but still surviving, almost unknown in the Western world and little understood in their homelands, that offer another angle on the subject..
The first chapter describes the Mandaeans who “believe in a heaven, but it is called the Light-World” and think their secret wisdom originated with Adam. Their earliest texts have been dated to 300-500 AD, and show some influence by Judaism. They honor John the Baptist but not Jesus, and practice baptism. Russell writes: “Mandaeans believe themselves to be sparks of the cosmic light that have detached themselves from it and become trapped in a material home. When liberated by death from their bodily prisons, these sparks of light can ascend back to the great light from which they came.” The Mandaeans, historically rooted in southern Iraq, now number fewer than 100,000 in total membership. Heirs of Babylonian astrology, Mandaeans use the terms “the Seven” and “the Twelve” to refer “to the stars and planets as supernatural, quasi-divine beings.” Sadly, in the wake of the 2003 invasion and subsequent civil war, “More than 90% of the Mandaean population of Iraq has emigrated or been killed. It is only in southern Iran that one can find their communities intact.”
My greatest interest was in the chapter on the Druze which emphasizes their Pythagorean roots. Russell quotes Najla-Abu Izzeddin describing their beliefs: “The Druze Faith reaches beyond the traditionally recognized monotheisms to earlier expressions of man’s search for communion with the One. Hence its reverence for Hermes, the bearer of a divine message, for Pythagoras…for the divine Plato and for Plotinus.” Half of the world’s one million Druze live in Syria,with most of the rest in Lebanon and Israel. After noting that Blavatsky associated the Druze with Tibetan Buddhism, the author emphasizes a more familiar perception of nineteenth century Europeans, which is that the Druze beliefs were similar to Freemasonry. In the 1890s the Rev. Haskett Smith argued that they “retain many evident tokens of their close and intimate connection with the Ancient Craft of Freemasonry.” In this he echoed the preoccupation of Masonic historian and Blavatsky associate Albert L. Rawson. In 1922 this alleged connection was the theme of a book by Bernard Springett, Secret Sects of Syria and Lebanon.
Russell reports, but does not endorse, such theories. His book combines reliable history, clear explanation of doctrines, and engaging travelogue. His travels in search of forgotten kingdoms occurred just as their heirs were facing persecution and extinction, which makes the book timely in the present, and of lasting value to the future.