Acéphale is the name of a public review created by Georges Bataille (which numbered five issues, from 1936 to 1939) and a secret society formed by Bataille and others who had sworn to keep silent. Its name is derived from the Greek ἀκέφαλος (akephalos, literally “headless”).
Dated 24 June 1936, the first issue was only eight pages. The cover was illustrated by André Masson with a drawing openly inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s famous drawing of Vitruvian Man, who embodies classical reason. Masson’s figure, however, is headless, his groin covered by a skull, and holds in his right hand a burning heart, while in his left he wields a dagger. Under the title Acéphale are printed the words Religion. Sociologie. Philosophie followed on the next line by the expression the sacred conspiracy (la conjuration sacrée).
Because of its very nature, it is difficult to describe the society’s acts. Bataille referred several times to Marcel Mauss who had studied secret societies in Africa, describing them as a “total social phenomenon”. On this model, he organized several nocturnal meetings in the woods, near an oak which had been struck by lightning. Members of the Acéphale society were required to adopt several rituals, such as refusing to shake hands with anti-semites and celebrating the decapitation of Louis XVI, an event which prefigured the “chiefless crowd” targeted by “acéphalité”. Members of the society were also invited to meditation, on texts of Nietzsche, Freud, Sade and Mauss read during the assemblies. To psychologically prepare for the violence and losses that active duty in the French Resistance to Vichy—Nazi occupation of France would bring, members discussed carrying out a human sacrifice, but this may never have been carried out.