By their very nature secret societies are secret. When we do hear about them, it is only half truths and stories, as their true origins are difficult to pin down. What are some of the most famous secret societies from history, and what is actually known about them?
Freemasons were established by the 15th century, formed as a union of older secret societies, including stonemason groups that regulated qualifications and interactions with authorities and clients. They are probably the longest-lasting secret society in history, at least that we know about. They are infamous for using secret handshakes, bizarre rituals, using ceremonial regalia and having an elaborate hierarchy. Their hierarchy is based on the three grades of the medieval craft guilds including Apprentice, Journeyman and Master, and much of their symbolism is also based on traditional tools. The Freemasons describe themselves as a “beautiful system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbol.” Famous members include Ben Franklin, George Washington, Clarke Gable and John Wayne.
The Illuminati, whose name means enlightened ones, branched off the from the Freemasons in the late 18th century. Their goal was to oppose superstition, government secrets and religious influence over public life. Many subsequent groups have claimed the mantle of the illuminati, and primarily focus on conspiracy theories. Contrary to their original mission statement, they are often depicted as the secret power behind world events, lurking in the shadows and pulling the strings.
Ordi Templi Orientis
This mystic order, often simply called the OTO, is an international brotherhood founded at the start of the 20th century by Karl Kellner and Theodor Reuss. It was modelled after the Freemasons as they sought to establish their own order in the German-speaking world. Their philosophy was using new age esoteric principles and practices to realise one’s true identity. The occult focussed cult spread to France, Denmark, Switzerland and the United States in the early 20th century. The group took off in the English speaking world when Aleister Crowley joined in 1910, using it as a vessel to advance the cause of his new esoteric religion Thelema. Crowley developed Thelema while exploring ceremonial magic in Egypt where he claimed that a non-corporeal being revealed the secrets of Thelema to him.
The Skull and Bones
Not very secret, the Skull and Bones was founded at Yale University by William H. Russell in 1832. Originally called the Eulogian Club, it is now considered a cultural institution with many powerful alumni including many heads of states. The society is extremely wealthy, with its assets managed by another group known as the Russell Trust Association. The group was exposed in 1871 when Lyman Bagg published his book Four Years at Yale. Skull and Bones select new members among the students every spring. They only started admitting women in the early 1990s.
Founded in the early 15th century by Christain Rosenkreutz, the Rosicrucians reportedly used occult practices to bring about global transformation. In the 17th century they were revealed to the wider world by the publication of some of their fundamental texts. The society was reportedly built on esoteric truths of the ancient past which have been concealed by the majority of mankind and provide insight into nature, the physical universe and the spiritual realm.
The Molly Maguires
In the late 19th century, two dozen foreman and supervisors in the coal mines of Pennsylvania were assassinated. They are thought to have been killed by the Molly Maguires, a secret society of Irish immigrants. They got their name as they often disguised themselves in women’s clothing to carry out their illegal acts, which included arson and murder. They were finally thwarted by an undercover agent planted by the famed Pinkerton Detective Agency.
The Elders of Zion
In the 1920s, a newspaper owned by industrialist Henry Ford ran a series of articles that claimed to share a Jewish plan for global domination written by a group called the Elders of Zion. It was quickly revealed as a hoax, but many anti-Semitics continued to believe that the texts were real, and that there is a genuine Jewish conspiracy to achieve world domination. It has been claimed that Hitler read the book and was highly influenced it, and even appropriated many of the ideas for himself.
Many people who have studied the Thule society claim that it was the real inspiration for Nazism, and many Nazi leaders were members. Founded in Munich in 1919, the society believed in bringing about a New World Order by killing people to reduce the population. They practiced sexual magic, racist chanting and esoteric rituals. They were said to invite demons into their midst for guidance. Some claim that it was a demonic ritual involving the sexually impotent Hitler that made him into a sadistic killer.
The Knights Templar
In the early 12th century, nine knights vowed to protect pilgrims travelling in the Holy Land. Over time more knights joined the cause and the organisation grew. They gathered significant wealth, fame and power and grew very influential. Popular culture cast them as founders of many other secret societies, as well as guardians of many sacred Christian treasures. The members of the order were eventually tortured and executed, and the order disbanded. The rapid disappearance of so many influential people gave rise to speculations and legends about their fate and continued activities.
The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn
The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn created by Dr Willian Robert Woodman, William Wynn Westcott and Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers, three members that were both Freemasons and Rosencrucians. Their belief system is largely taken from Christian Mysticism, Qabalah, Hermeticism, Alchemy, magic and Renaissance writings. William Yeats and Aleister Crowley are two of their most famous members. Crowley in particular brought the order into disrepute by sharing many of its secrets and openly practicing sexual and drug-based magic. However, the order is still active today.