The origins of the Garduna begin in a legend not dissimilar from that of El Cid (c. 1043–1099), the heroic knight who defended northern Spain from the invading Moors in the eleventh century, and the secret society continues to this day in a criminal organization akin to the Mafia. According to tradition, around 710 a holy man named Apollinario, who lived a hermitlike existence in the hills above Cordova, had a vision in which the Blessed Virgin Mary appointed him to be the savior of Spain and drive the Moors out of the land. At first the holy man was staggered by the very suggestion, regardless of the source from whence it had come. What remained of Gothic Spain had fallen into decay, deteriorating into a patchwork of petty princedoms, woefully ineffectual against the powerful Moors who had conquered most of the land and established their royal seat in Cordova. But when the apparition of Mary presented him with a button that she said had been taken from the robe of Christ, Apollinario knew that he had been given the power to raise a band of holy warriors. He followed her orders to gather an army from the simple countryfolk of Spain, even from the bandits who lived in the mountains, and to avoid the corrupt nobles and landed aristocracy.
The hermit from the hills above Cordova was blessed with a charisma that caused the common people to flock to his leadership. He told them that those who followed him in the Garduna, his sacred army, would be licensed by God and the Holy Virgin to destroy the invading heathens by any means. There would be open warfare, of course, but they would also be free to plot murders and practice any kind of secret treachery. Those who joined the Garduna would be absolved of all wrongdoing as long as their violence was committed only against non-Christians. Thousands joined the holy man in his crusade against the Moors, and his army of peasants, beggars, and bandits fought so fiercely under the standard of the Holy Virgin of Cordova that no Moorish force could repel them.
While the Garduna may have harassed the powerful Muslim armies and conducted a guerilla-type warfare against them, they by no means drove the invaders from Spain as legend told it. After about 714, the Gothic monarchy of Spain had been replaced by the institutions of the conquering Arabs, and a short time after Spain had fallen to the Moors, it became the most prosperous and civilized country in the West. Within a few more years, the Arabs had extended their European empire north of the Pyrenees Mountains to the south of France and from the mouth of the Garonne to that of the Rhone. In 732, Charles Martel of France stemmed the Muslim tide of conquest at the Battle of Tours, and the Arabs retreated back to Spain where they retained a peaceful possession of the country for many centuries. Cordova became a highly respected seat of art and learning, and the Arab philosophers became the sages of the West.
Over the centuries, the Garduna degenerated into a loosely knit criminal network controlled by the descendants of the mountain bandits who had followed Apollinario in his crusade against the Moors. Deception and murder were still practiced on a large scale by the Garduna, and they maintained the old dictum that only the blood of non-Christians was to be shed. Perhaps the Garduna would have vanished completely into legend if fifteenth-century Spain had not become a Christian nation and King Ferdinand V (1452–1516) and Queen Isabella I (1451–1504) had not so avidly supported the mission of the Inquisition and that of its chief heretic hunter in Spain, Tomas de Torquemada (1420–1498).
Until the Inquisition, Moors, Jews, and Christians had for centuries lived quite peacefully in Spain. The Moors and the Jews were respected for their learning and for their skill as craftsmen and merchants, and it was widely acknowledged that both groups of citizens had made considerable contributions to Spain's rise to power and its recent acquisitions in the New World. Ferdinand reasoned that the Moors and the Jews had grown too powerful and too rich, and that he could extend the Spanish Empire farther if he were to acquire their wealth. He also considered them heretics because they were not Christians.
The slaughter of innocent people began in earnest with Muslim and Jewish shopkeepers and scholars condemned as heretics and witches. The terrible machinery of the Inquisition was quite effective in and of itself, but Ferdinand recalled the stories of the Garduna, who killed only heathens, and he summoned their leaders to meet with high officers of church and state.
For the bandit chiefs of the Garduna, it was as if they were given a license to kill and to loot. Church officials told them that they must once again become holy warriors and become a weapon of terror against all heretics. All their sins would be forgiven. All their crimes would be pardoned. They were to be a secret society of murderers with the full approval of church and state.
For more than 100 years, the Garduna murdered, raped, and looted on the orders of the Inquisition. Their victims were always non-Christians or those suspected of being heretics.
By 1670, the Inquisition withdrew its support from the Garduna, but the holy warriors became a secret cult within the church and continued their attacks against all those deemed contrary to the teachings of Christianity. When the church itself withdrew its recognition of the Garduna, they became a secret society, maintaining always that everything they did was an expression of God's will and any alleged crime they might commit was free of the taint of any sin.
During the eighteenth century, the Garduna had expanded its parameters of potential victims to include Christians, as well as unbelievers, and they had begun selling their services of murder, kidnapping, robbery, and so forth to anyone who could afford them. They had become so powerful and daring that if any member of the society should be caught and imprisoned, the others thought nothing of attacking the prison and freeing him.
At the height of its powers in the eighteenth century, the Garduna instituted ranks within the society which could only be attained by acts of merit. At the head of the Garduna was the great brother or grand master, who ruled the society from its headquarters in Seville. Following his orders were the commanders, the district chiefs, and the chiefs, the leaders of individual bands. Under the chiefs came the swordsmen, well-trained men who were responsible for planning the criminal operations of the Garduna. The true fighting men of the society were called the athletes, tough and ruthless individuals who were often escaped convicts, galley-slaves, and vicious criminals. Below the athletes in rank were the "bellows," elderly men who were regarded by their cities and villages as men of good character who acted as the disposers of stolen goods for the society. The lowest rank in the Garduna was held by the "goats," the new recruits who had yet to prove their abilities. There were also two female ranks: the sirens, young beautiful women whose task it was to seduce state officials; and the covers, whose assignment lay in luring unsuspecting victims into ambushes where they could be robbed or murdered.
In 1822, in an era of social reform, police entered the home of the grand master in Seville, arrested him, and confiscated all his documents. Remarkably, the Garduna had kept meticulous records of all of their various criminal activities from 1520 to that date. The grand master and 16 of his district chiefs were publicly hanged in the main square of the city. Members of the other ranks of the Garduna scattered and resumed a life of banditry in the mountains.
The Garduna gave evidence of their survival as a secret society throughout the Spanish Civil War (1936–39) when their battle cry of "Remember the Virgin of Cordova!" was frequently heard. It has been said that the Garduna have established their own church, blending their concept of unorthodox Catholicism with a kind of "holy socialism." With branches allegedly established in Portugal and South America, as well as Spain, the Garduna continues to flourish as a criminal secret society 1,200 years after its conception by the hermit Apollinario.
Daraul, Arkon. A History of Secret Societies. New York: Pocket Books, 1969.
Heckethorn, Charles William. Secret Societies of All Ages and Countries. Kila, Mont.: Kessinger Publishing, 1997.
Lefebure, Charles. The Blood Cults. New York: Ace Books, 1969.