The word “occultism” entered the English language in 1881 by way of Russian mystic Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831–91), founder of the Theosophical Society and one of the most influential alternative thinkers in history. The older term “occult,” meaning “hidden,” had been used to describe magic and related arts since the Middle Ages, but nobody before Blavatsky seems to have thought of turning the various secret traditions of magic, alchemy, astrology, and mysticism into an “ism,” a system of thought and life with its own distinctive worldview. See Blavatsky, Helena Petrovna; Magic.

In the aftermath of Blavatsky’s work, occultism as an organized movement and way of thought established itself throughout the world. No two occultists agree completely on what occultism is, but nearly all versions start with the idea that spiritual forces act constantly in the material world and humanity can learn to experience them directly. Disciplines such as meditation, magic, and divination are used by occultists to attune themselves to the hidden dimensions of existence, while the study of occult philosophy provides an intellectual dimension to the movement. In practice, occultism is a challenging and intensely personal path in which each individual is responsible for his or her own spiritual life.

Many current conspiracy theories insist that occultism, the New Age movement, Satanism, and rejected knowledge are the same thing, and that all secret societies are involved in the occult. This is a product of the same way of thinking that insists that all secret societies, including those that have had serious disagreements with each other for centuries, are actually one and the same. While there are points of overlap between traditional occultism, the modern New Age movement, Satanism, and the cultural underworld of rejected knowledge, the differences are much greater. See New Age movement; rejected knowledge; Satanism.

Secret societies, in fact, vary wildly in their attitude toward occultism. Some secret societies, such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, exist for the purpose of teaching and practicing occultism. Others, such as Freemasonry, have had a minority of occultist members but have focused on other things. Some, such as the Knights of Pythias, have been indifferent to occultism, while others still, such as the Ku Klux Klan, have been actively hostile to it. The claim that all secret societies practice occultism is disinformation created and spread by Christian fundamentalists, who have a long history of insisting that anyone who disagrees with their worldview must secretly worship the Christian devil. See Ancient Order of United Workmen; disinformation; Freemasonry; fundamentalism; Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn; Knights of Pythias; Ku Klux Klan.


An American esoteric order teaching spiritual alchemy, the Octagon Society traditionally dated its founding to 1158, when members of the Knights Templar at the castle of Gisors in France devised eight spiritual laws governing the transformation of the self. The octagonal rooms within the castle’s famous eight-sided tower supposedly inspired the name of the Society. In the realm of reliable history, however, the oldest surviving documents of the order date from 1958, when its Guardian, Dr. Juliet Ashley, revised the training program based on the eight laws, and those documents refer only to a 1923 text of the eight laws. This may well have been the original formulation, as the society’s methods bear the stamp of early twentieth-century American esotericism and mental healing.

The spiritual alchemy taught by the society is a method of psychological healing, and the traditions of operative alchemy are used as metaphors for the transmutation of the “lead” of painful memories and psychological states into the “gold” of happiness and mental balance. The methods used have much in common with New Thought and other “mind cure” methods from the half-century before the society’s apparent emergence. See Alchemy.

The Octagon Society has eight grades, numbered 1/8 through 8/8. Members of the 8/8 grade are eligible for advancement into two higher orders, the Temple of Solomon and the Ancient Order of Spiritual Alchemy. The Temple of Solomon claims to have been originally founded “toward the end of the first millennium, at the request of Pope John” as a military initiatory order open to single Catholic males; in its present form, it was founded in 1942 as a secret initiatory order for men and women of any religious background, and works the three degrees of Candidate, Seeker, and Student. The Ancient Order of Spiritual Alchemy was founded in 1948 by three senior members of the Octagon Society, and provides very little information about its activities to the public.


Once the largest fraternal secret society in the world, the Odd Fellows emerged in England sometime before 1700. Documentation concerning the sources of Odd Fellowship and the origins of its quirky name did not survive the first decades of the nineteenth century, the era of the Unlawful Societies Act, but the sparse evidence suggests that the first Odd Fellows lodges evolved from craft journeymen’s societies in the English Midlands and Yorkshire. The name “Odd Fellow” itself points in this direction, since “Fellow” was a standard English term for guild members of journeyman rank. See guilds, medieval.

Whatever its precise origin, Odd Fellowship had a significant presence in northern and central England by the early years of the eighteenth century, and some Yorkshire lodges founded before 1700 remain active today. They welcomed adult men of every profession and social standing, though the working classes always formed the majority of membership. New members were admitted by way of a single degree, called Making or Initiation, like the “brothering” rituals practiced by apprentices and servants in Scotland during these same years. See Brothering; Initiation.

The Odd Fellows quickly distinguished itself from the many other clubs and societies of the time by helping its members when they were in financial trouble. At a time when health insurance and social welfare programs were unknown, Odd Fellows lodges collected money to meet the bills of members who became ill, pay for the funerals of those who died, and support their widows and orphans. During the course of the eighteenth century this evolved into a system of regular contributions and benefits; in exchange for paying a small sum into the lodge treasury each week, members could count on fixed weekly sums for sick pay, funeral expenses, and survivor benefits. This system was widely copied by fraternal orders throughout the English-speaking world, and inspired the fraternal benefit societies of the nineteenth century. See fraternal benefit societies; fraternal orders.

With this benefit system in place, Odd Fellowship expanded steadily during the eighteenth century. Organizational stability lagged behind the growth in membership, however. In the early years of the century, each Odd Fellows lodge was effectively independent of all others. As the century went on, many lodges affiliated with one of two national organizations, the Ancient Order of Odd Fellows (which had strong Jacobite leanings) and the Patriotic Order of Odd Fellows (which was staunchly Hanoverian). See Jacobites.

The two orders finally united in the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows in 1802, but problems with the Grand United Order’s leadership structure caused many lodges to break away from its jurisdiction within a few years. Most of those joined another Odd Fellows body, the Manchester Unity, which became the largest Odd Fellows order in Britain by 1820 and has kept that status ever since. Governed by an Annual Movable Committee, the Manchester Unity managed to negotiate the difficult years of the early nineteenth century with fair success, and expanded steadily in Britain after the ban against secret societies was removed in 1834.

As it disintegrated, the Grand United Order gained an unexpected lease of life due to American racism. In the early 1840s the Philomathean Institute, a social club for free blacks in New York City, recognized the need to provide a welfare safety net for the African-American community. Beneficial fraternal orders such as the Odd Fellows had appeared in America during the previous two decades, and the Institute applied to the Independent Order of Odd Fellows in 1843 for a charter, hoping to transform their club into an Odd Fellows lodge. Their petition was rejected out of hand by the white Odd Fellows on racial grounds. The Institute then applied to the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows in London, and promptly received a charter. When the Grand United Order finally broke apart in England a few years later, and its surviving English lodges joined the Manchester Unity, the Grand United Order’s American lodges founded their own Grand Lodge and carried on. By the end of the nineteenth century the Grand United Order was one of the largest African-American fraternal orders, and also had a sizeable presence in eastern Canada and the West Indies. See African-American secret societies.

In the meantime, the largest and most influential of the world’s Odd Fellow orders had been launched in America – the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF). In 1819, an English Odd Fellow named Thomas Wildey and four other members from England formed the first successful Odd Fellows lodge in the United States in Baltimore, Maryland. The Odd Fellows system of contributions and benefits proved popular in the new republic, and by 1830 Odd Fellows lodges existed in all the states of the Atlantic coast. In that year disputes with the Manchester Unity led the American lodges to cut their ties with Britain and found a new order, the IOOF.

The antimasonic movement in America in the 1820s and 1830s helped the new order attract members, as Odd Fellowship had not yet been tarred by the brush applied so lavishly to Freemasonry; when an attempt was made in the late 1840s to launch a similar campaign against Odd Fellowship the Independent Order weathered it easily. See Antimasonic Party; Antimasonry.

The expansion of white settlement in the West of the country brought Odd Fellowship into a period of explosive growth; as new towns sprang up across the continent Odd Fellows lodges rose with them. By 1880, soaring population growth in America and Britain, together with the founding of IOOF lodges in Australasia and Europe, the steady growth of the Grand United Order among African Americans, and the expansion of the Manchester Unity to eastern Canada, had made Odd Fellowship the largest fraternal secret society in the world.

Paralleling this growth was an expansion of the ritual dimensions of Odd Fellowship. By the middle of the eighteenth century other degrees, many of them strongly influenced by Masonry, had been added to the single degree of the old Odd Fellows lodges. The oldest surviving ritual, dating from 1798, has Initiatory, White, Pink, and Blue Degrees, followed by the degree of the Royal Arch of Titus, modeled on the Royal Arch degree of Masonry. Organizational problems made uniformity between lodges impossible, but other Odd Fellow orders had degree sequences more or less paralleling this. See Freemasonry; high degrees; Royal Arch.

The most dramatic expansion of degrees took place in the Independent Order. By 1820 IOOF worked the Initiatory Degree; the White or First Degree; the Pink or Covenant Degree; the Royal Blue or Second Degree; the Green or Remembrance Degree; and the Royal Scarlet or Third Degree. In 1821 a new branch of the order appeared, the Encampment branch, modeled on the Royal Arch Chapter of Freemasonry; it had three further degrees – the Patriarchal, Golden Rule, and Royal Purple degrees – which could be received by Third Degree Odd Fellows. The birth of the first ladies auxiliary of any American fraternal order, the Daughters of Rebekah, took place in 1852, with one degree, the Rebekah Degree, and 1880 saw a major revision of the Odd Fellows Lodge rituals, which were condensed from six to four degrees. In 1885 came a uniformed branch for Odd Fellowship, the Patriarchs Militant, and a ladies auxiliary for the uniformed branch, the Ladies Auxiliary Patriarchs Militant, followed in 1903. See ladies auxiliaries.

The Independent Order reached its zenith around 1920, with a membership of some 9 million. The years after the First World War proved difficult for the order, however, and membership began to decline. The Great Depression was an unmitigated disaster for the order; many lodges, hoping to expand their benefit funds, invested them in the stock market of the late 1920s and lost everything in the market crash of 1929 and 1930, leaving them without assets at a time when their members needed more help than ever before. The reforms of the American New Deal in the late 1930s weakened the order further as government programs supplanted Odd Fellowship’s benefit system. The 1950s saw a modest recovery, but the cultural revolution of the 1960s began a period of rapid decline as middle-aged and elderly Odd Fellows and Rebekahs, offended by the manners of the younger generation, closed the doors of their lodges against new members. The same patterns were repeated in the Manchester Unity and the Grand United Order as old customs and cultural expectations turned into barriers few potential members were willing to cross.

A new phase in Odd Fellowship’s history began in 1984, when the Manchester Unity voted to admit women to regular membership in Odd Fellows lodges. After much debate, the Independent Order passed similar measures in 2000. During these same years, much-needed reforms helped encourage an influx of younger members into the Odd Fellow orders, and began to level out the steep declines in membership. At present the Independent Order remains active in the United States, Canada, and 24 other countries; the Grand United Order has lodges in the eastern half of the United States and the former British colonies in the West Indies; and the Manchester Unity has lodges throughout Britain and in eastern Canada. While the immense size and influence held by Odd Fellows a century ago is barely even remembered, all three orders seem likely to survive for the foreseeable future.


The most controversial religious organization in the Roman Catholic Church today, the Prelature of the Holy Cross and Opus Dei – to give it its full name – was founded in Madrid in 1928 by a conservative Catholic priest, Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer, as an association of Catholic laypersons. It currently has some 85,000 members in over 80 countries, primarily in Europe and the Americas. About 20 percent of those are “numeraries,” single members who live in Opus Dei residential buildings and donate all their earnings to the association; the others are “supernumeraries” and “associates,” who live on their own but contribute money and time to Opus Dei activities. See Roman Catholic Church.

Opus Dei is highly regarded by many figures in the upper reaches of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. It was granted the special status of “personal prelature” by Pope John Paul II in 1982, a status that frees its members and activities from the authority of local bishops and church officials, and its founder was elevated to sainthood in 2002. While church officials speak glowingly of Opus Dei, its many critics, including a large number of ex-members, describe it as a secret society with a right-wing political agenda, and accuse it of using unscrupulous recruitment methods.

Some of the criticisms leveled against the organization unfold from the inevitable clash between the expectations of a modern liberal society and the almost medieval form of Catholic spirituality practiced in Opus Dei, which includes various forms of physical self-torture and strict segregation of the sexes. Another factor in the controversies surrounding it is the perennial struggle between the central authority of Rome and local Catholic institutions. As a religious order free from the control of local bishops, Opus Dei has become a target for the same pressures that once focused on the Knights Templar and the Jesuits, two older orders that once possessed the same independence. On the other hand, Opus Dei’s renowned secrecy and its use of cultlike recruitment techniques do provide ammunition for its detractors. See Knights Templar; Society of Jesus (Jesuits).

Further reading: Allen 2005, Walsh 1989.


A pro-Confederacy secret society during the American Civil War, the Order of American Knights (OAK) was founded by Phineas C. Wright in 1863 in St Louis, Missouri. Similar to the Knights of the Golden Circle but more deeply committed to a militant approach, the Order quickly spread throughout the Midwestern states, absorbing much of the membership of the Knights of the Golden Circle and spreading as far east as New York state. The leader of the Knights of the Golden Circle, Clement Vallandigham, then in exile in Canada, also accepted the post of Grand Commander of the Order of American Knights. See Knights of the Golden Circle.

The Order’s major strength was in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, and Michigan. Its membership reached somewhere between 300,000 and 400,000 in 1864. It had a complete military organization, from the general staff of the Supreme Commander to the local township Temples, organized as companies each headed by its Captain. Despite this, the Knights never managed to oppose Federal troops effectively, and their military activities were limited to occasional guerrilla activities in Illinois and Indiana. With the backing of the Confederacy, the Order attempted to launch a revolt in the Midwest in July 1864, with the goal of breaking the entire region away from the Union, but the attempt failed dismally.

The OAK went out of existence after the defeat of the Confederacy in 1865, but its legacy can be traced in the Midwest for decades thereafter. The same states that provided the bulk of OAK membership were also, six decades later, among the most successful recruiting grounds for the revived Ku Klux Klan. See Ku Klux Klan.

Further reading: Gray 1942.


Founded in Searcy County, Arkansas in 1923, the Order of Anti-Poke-Noses was a secret society founded to oppose the revived Ku Klux Klan. Its constitution stated that the Order was “opposed to any organization that attends to everyone’s business but their own.” One of several secret societies founded in the 1920s to oppose the Klan, it ceased activities around the time the revived Klan collapsed at the end of that decade. See Knights of Liberty; Knights of the Flaming Circle; Ku Klux Klan.


The largest and most active Druid order in the world as of this writing, the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids (OBOD) was founded by Ross Nichols (1902–75) and a group of fellow Druids from the Druid Circle of the Universal Bond after a disputed election for the leadership of the latter group. Nichols, a poet and painter who had served as the Universal Bond’s secretary for some years, focused his new order’s work on the bardic arts of poetry and music, and brought in the three grades of Bard, Ovate, and Druid from Welsh traditions of Druidry. Never large, OBOD nonetheless played an important role in publicizing Druidry in Britain, but on Nichols’s death in 1975 it went dormant. See Druid Circle of the Universal Bond; Druid Revival.

In 1984 one of the youngest initiates of the order in Nichols’s time, Philip Carr-Gomm, was asked to take over OBOD and revive it. Carr-Gomm borrowed one of the core approaches of early twentieth-century occult groups, the postal correspondence course, and applied it to Druidry, apparently for the first time. The result was a dramatic expansion of the order. From a handful of inactive members at the time of his accession, OBOD has expanded into an international Druid order with some 60 groves and seed groups on four continents. Its members are active in tree planting and ecological causes. Carr-Gomm’s books on Druidry, and his edition of Nichols’s erudite work The Book of Druidry (1992), have been extremely influential in the modern Druid scene.

Further reading: Carr-Gomm 1993, Nichols 1992.


Founded in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1920, the Order of Camels was a political secret society dedicated to overturning Prohibition in America. The founding members chose the camel for their emblem because it can withstand long dry periods. Members took an oath with only one clause, pledging themselves to support the legalization of alcohol. Like several other fraternal secret societies of the time, the Camels probably took part in smuggling alcohol into the United States from Canada. In 1933, with the end of Prohibition, the Order quietly went out of existence.


When Pope Clement XII formally condemned Freemasonry in 1738, many Catholic members of the Craft in Germany, France, and Austria had to renounce Masonic membership. The desire for a secret society on Masonic lines that would be acceptable to the Catholic Church inspired several Viennese ex-Masons to create a new organization, the Order of Mopses. The name of the order derived from the German word mops, pug dog, whose fidelity and affection were to be imitated by initiates. Members seeking admission at the door of a Mopses lodge had to bark like a pug dog. See Antimasonry; Freemasonry.

Unlike Freemasonry, the Mopses admitted women as well as men to membership, and may have played an important role in inspiring adoptive Masonry in the 1760s. The Mopses had parallel male and female officers all the way up to a Grand Master and Grand Mistress, who each had supreme authority over the order for six months out of each year. During the 1740s and 1750s, when the popularity of the Mopses was at its height, its membership included many of the most illustrious members of the German and Austrian nobility. It apparently went out of existence, however, in the early years of the French Revolution. See Adoptive Masonry.


The most important British neo-Nazi magical order, the Order of the Nine Angles (ONA) emerged in the 1960s out of the fusion of three small British neo-pagan groups, Camlad, The Noctulians, and the Temple of the Sun. During the mid-1970s it came under the control of David Myatt (1950–), who combined a longtime interest in occultism with extensive involvement in the British skinhead and nationalist scene. Myatt had attracted headlines starting in 1974 as the head of the National Democratic Freedom Movement, a short-lived racist party with a reputation for violence, and served two prison terms for involvement in street fights. After becoming head of ONA, Myatt fused these interests and soon made the order a major presence in British Satanist circles. See neo-Nazi secret societies.

The ONA presents Satanism as a path of self-overcoming in a chaotic, amoral universe. The Satanist must break through his own limitations through acts generally considered illegal and evil in order to come into contact with a sinister, acausal realm of hidden magical forces. Access to those forces takes place through nine “nexions” or angles of the Tree of Wyrd, the basic symbolic diagram of the order. The nexions can only be opened by the performance of evil deeds of various kinds. Myatt’s writings thus argue that human sacrifice is an important ritual practice for Satanists, and dwell at length on the proper selection of victims – primarily people reviled by society, though Christians and journalists are also suggested. These comments have landed Myatt in heated debates with Satanists such as Michael Aquino of the Temple of Set, who seek to make Satanism socially acceptable. See Satanism; Temple of Set.

Another branch of ONA teaching consists of “Aeonics,” the magical study of history. Drawing on the historical writings of Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee, ONA texts on Aeonics argue that the western world is imprisoned in a prolonged “time of troubles” caused by a contamination of western, Faustian ideas with an older, decadent Magian cultural pattern, which Myatt predictably identifies with the Jews. Satanic rituals help overcome the Magian contamination and hasten the arrival of Vindex, the future dictator who will establish the western world empire of the future on the heaped corpses of its opponents. See ages of the world.

Further reading: Goodrick-Clarke 2002, Myatt 1984.


One of several American orders drawing their membership from Master Masons and their female relatives, the Order of the Amaranth was originally founded in 1860 by James B. Taylor, a Freemason in New Jersey, under the name of “the Ancient Rite of Adoptive Masonry.” Taylor drew his inspiration from the older French systems of adoptive Masonry, the rival Order of the Eastern Star, and a chivalric order founded by Queen Christina of Sweden in the seventeenth century. See Adoptive Masonry; Freemasonry; Order of the Eastern Star.

Taylor’s Ancient Rite fared poorly in the scramble for popularity among fraternal orders in mid-nineteenth-century America, and by 1873 what was left of it had been taken over by Robert Macoy, one of the leading American Masonic promoters and publishers of the time. Macoy also ran the Order of the Eastern Star, and set about combining the two organizations into a single “Rite of Adoption of the World” with three degrees. The Order of the Eastern Star, in Macoy’s system, became the first or Initiatory Degree; the second degree was a little-used rite named Queen of the South, while the Order of the Amaranth was the third.

The combination of the rites proved to be unworkable, however, as leading members of the Order of the Eastern Star disliked the fact that their organization was at the bottom of the degree sequence. In 1897 the Order of the Amaranth separated from the Rite of Adoption of the World and became an independent body, though its female membership remained limited to members of the Order of the Eastern Star. In 1921 this last connection was severed and the Order of the Amaranth began admitting Master Masons and their female relatives without requiring an Eastern Star connection.

The Order of the Amaranth remains active today, although its membership has declined in recent years along with that of all Masonic concordant bodies. As a social and charitable organization, its major activities are raising money for diabetes research and assisting with other Masonic activities.

Further reading: Voorhis 1997.


The largest American Masonic organization for women, the Order of the Eastern Star was the brainchild of Robert Morris, an influential American Freemason. Morris was familiar with the French system of adoptive Masonry – a rite with its own lodges and degrees for Master Masons and their female relatives – and in 1850 began to draft a ritual for an equivalent American system, using narratives from the Bible as its basis. Some evidence suggests that an earlier adoptive degree with the same name may have had a role in Morris’s creation. He founded the first Constellations (as local lodges were then called) of the Eastern Star in 1852, but Morris’s organizational skills proved inadequate, and his system struggled along for more than a decade with limited success. See Adoptive Masonry.

In 1866, before an extended trip to Palestine, Morris gave control over the Eastern Star system to Robert Macoy, one of the most enterprising Masonic promoters of the age. Macoy completely reorganized the rite, and relaunched it with much more success. In place of Constellations and Families, Macoy named local units “chapters,” with state and provincial Grand Chapters and an international General Grand Chapter to govern them. In 1873, after Macoy gained control of the rival Order of the Amaranth, he joined the two degrees together with a third, the Queen of the South degree, to form the grandly titled Rite of Adoption of the World. In this rite the Order of the Eastern Star formed the first degree, the second was the Queen of the South, and the Order of the Amaranth was the third degree. See Order of the Amaranth.

The combined system proved unworkable, however; members of Eastern Star chapters in particular resented having their order being turned into the lowest rung of an initiatory ladder. In 1897 the Rite of Adoption broke apart and the three degrees went their separate ways. The Order of the Eastern Star proved far and away the most successful, and quickly rose to its present position as the dominant women’s organization within Masonry. A social and charitable organization, its main activities today include raising money for a galaxy of charitable causes and helping to support the activities of other Masonic bodies. Like all Masonic bodies, the Order of the Eastern Star has suffered sharp declines in membership numbers in recent decades but it remains as active as any of the Craft’s concordant bodies.

Morris’s choice of symbolism for his newly minted order had unexpected effects in the late twentieth century, when the rise of Christian fundamentalism and conspiracy theories sparked a revival of antimasonic agitation in America and elsewhere. The emblem Morris created for his order was a five-pointed and five-colored star with one point down, bearing the initial letters of the sentence “Fairest Among Ten thousand, Altogether Lovely.” This fine example of Victorian American sentimentality took on entirely different meanings a century later, when an inverted pentagram with the word FATAL in it was redefined as a Satanic symbol. The Eastern Star logo has thus appeared frequently in modern books attempting to prove that Freemasonry is a secret cult of devil worshippers. See Antimasonry; Pentagram; Satanism.


The premier order of chivalry in Great Britain, the Most Noble Order of the Garter is not a secret society in any sense of the word, but it has more than once been labeled a secret society by conspiracy theorists. It was originally founded by King Edward III sometime between 1344 and 1350, probably in 1348. The Order’s membership was originally limited to the reigning English monarch and 25 knights. This has been expanded somewhat in recent centuries, although the extra members are not counted among the official numbers of Garter Knights. The Order’s traditional patron is St George, its annual meeting is on St George’s Day, and its original badge is a blue garter worn on the left leg, bearing in gold the words Honi soit qui mal y pense, “Shame be on him who thinks evil of it” in medieval French.

The origins of the Order and its emblem are uncertain. The traditional story has it that the king, attending a ball in Calais during his campaigns in France, happened to be nearby when a lady accidentally dropped her garter. The king picked it up, and faced down the onlookers with the words Honi soit qui mal y pense. He then tied the garter around his own knee and said “I will make of this, ere long, the most honourable garter that ever was worn.” The story does not appear in written sources before 1550, when the notoriously inaccurate historian Polydore Vergil mentioned it, and later historians of the Order of the Garter from Elias Ashmole on have rejected it as pure legend. See Ashmole, Elias.

According to the “Old Religion” hypothesis of Margaret Murray, however, this event reveals that the Order of the Garter was originally a witch coven. Murray argued that the witch persecutions of the Middle Ages were an attempt by the Catholic Church to stamp out an ancient Pagan fertility religion that worshipped a horned god of nature. The garter was allegedly one of the emblems of the Old Religion, and its sudden appearance on the floor betrayed the fact that its wearer was a high priestess of the witch cult. By picking it up Edward III indicated that the witch cult was under his personal protection, and the original Order, with its 26 members, was a double coven (2 x 13 members). The fact that its membership was entirely male, in flat contravention of normal practice in a fertility cult, does not seem to have occurred to Murray. See Murray hypothesis; witchcraft persecutions.

Further reading: de la Bere 1964.


An influential German Rosicrucian order, the Order of the Golden and Rosy Cross (Orden des Gold- und Rosenkreutz) was founded in the late 1750s by German Freemason and alchemist Hermann Fichtuld and a circle of fellow occultists. Like most of the occult secret societies of the time, candidates for membership had to be Master Masons in good standing. Unlike most of the Masonic rites of its time, though, the Golden and Rosy Cross was allied with the conservative movement in European politics and culture, and seems to have taken shape in opposition to the Rite of Strict Observance, a neo-Templar Masonic rite with close ties to France and links to liberal circles in Germany. See Freemasonry; Rosicrucians; Rite of Strict Observance.

The conservatism of the eighteenth century, unlike modern conservatism, saw nothing wrong with occult practices. The Golden and Rosy Cross was among the most active occult orders of its time, requiring students to study alchemical and mystical literature, and members of its higher degrees carried out extensive experiments in the alchemy of metals. It was among the first occult secret societies to establish a formal curriculum of study for each of its degrees. See Alchemy.

The origin story circulated by the order was colorful even by the standards of the time. It claimed to have been founded by Ormus, an Egyptian magician who converted to Christianity in 96 CE. He founded a secret society, the Society of Ormus, to pass on a Christianized version of ancient Egyptian wisdom, and assigned its members a red cross as their symbol. A little later, the Society of Ormus united with another secret society organized by the Essenes to form the Order of the Rose Cross. In 1188, members of the order initiated the Knights Templar in Palestine, who then traveled to Europe; three masters went to Scotland, where they founded the Order of the Masons of the East, the original version of Freemasonry. Another member, Raymond Lully (Ramon Lull), came to England and initiated Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward I) in 1196. The awkward facts that Edward I was not born until 1239, and that he was never Prince of Wales – he created that title for his son, the future Edward II, in 1301 – do little to lend credibility to this account. See Essenes; Knights Templar; Ormus.

Other claims insisted that the order had actually arrived in Britain long before the twelfth century, and was established there in the time of King Arthur; some also mentioned that each Grand Master from the beginning took the name “John” followed by a number. These claims were cited in a nineteenth-century collection of French Masonic materials, and Pierre Plantard borrowed liberally from them for his Priory of Sion hoax. See Arthurian legends; Priory of Sion.

During the late eighteenth century the Order was among the most successful secret societies of its time. Its membership included many German aristocrats, and in 1786 one of its members ascended to the throne of Prussia as King Friedrich Wilhelm II and appointed several other members to high political positions. It outlived its original rival, the Rite of Strict Observance, and carried on lively feuds with the Bavarian Illuminati and a splinter group from its own ranks, the Asiatic Brethren. After Friedrich Wilhelm’s death in 1797, however, the sweeping social changes that followed the French Revolution sent the order into a steep decline, and it does not seem to have survived the Napoleonic Wars. See Bavarian Illuminati.


The Order of the Happy (Ordre des Felicitaires) was founded in 1743 in Paris. One of the first secret societies to admit women as well as men to membership, it may have been inspired by the Mopses, a Catholic secret society of the same kind founded in Vienna five years earlier. Its symbolism was entirely nautical, with candidates symbolically sailing from the Island of Felicity. The degree system included four degrees, Cabin Boy, Captain, Commodore, and Vice-Admiral, and the presiding officer of the Order’s one lodge was titled the Admiral. See Order of Mopses.

The Order gave rise to at least one offshoot, the Knights and Ladies of the Anchor, founded in 1745. Both these organizations sank without a trace sometime in the late 1740s or early 1750s, but they helped inspire the more successful Order of Woodcutters and Adoptive Masonry later on. See Adoptive Masonry; Order of Woodcutters.


In one of a series of plays written by Francis Bacon (1561–1626) and performed by his fellow law students at Gray’s Inn before he was called to the Bar in 1582, a fictional order of chivalry called the Order of the Helmet had a role. The Order was modeled on the English chivalric orders of the Garter and the Bath, and as far as anyone has been able to tell it had no existence outside the play for which it was written. None of this has prevented secret societies from the nineteenth century onward from claiming that the Order of the Helmet was a real secret society, headed by Bacon, and placing it in their origin stories. See Aurum Solis; Bacon, Francis; origin stories.


One of several groups organized by the Theosophical Society in the early twentieth century under Annie Besant’s leadership, the Order of the Star in the East was founded in 1911 at the Society’s headquarters in Adyar, near Bombay. The inspiration behind it came from Charles Leadbeater, one of Besant’s close allies, who became convinced that Jiddu Krishnamurti – the young son of a servant at the Adyar headquarters – was the next great World Teacher, a being on the same level of Jesus of Nazareth or the Buddha. The Order was founded to publicize these claims and prepare the world to receive Krishnamurti’s teachings. See Theosophical Society.

The announcement of Krishnamurti’s near-messianic status became an immediate bone of contention between Besant and many old-school Theosophists, and added to the stresses already caused by Besant’s advocacy of Co-Masonry and the Liberal Catholic Church. The results included several major schisms within the society. The largest was the 1912 departure of Rudolf Steiner, secretary of the Society’s German section, who took 90 percent of German Theosophists with him into his new Anthroposophical Society. See Anthroposophical Society; Co-Masonry.

Despite these tumults, the message that a World Teacher had arrived was one that many people wanted to hear after the senseless carnage of the First World War, and through the 1920s the Order grew steadily, reaching a membership of well over 100,000 in 1929. In that year, however, it came to an abrupt end at the hands of Jiddu Krishnamurti himself. In an act of uncommon courage, addressing a mass gathering of his supporters, Krishnamurti rejected the status of World Teacher, declared that, “truth is a pathless land,” and dissolved the Order. This debacle put the Theosophical Society into a decline from which it has never managed to recover. Krishnamurti went on to a long and distinguished career writing and teaching his own spiritual philosophy, but he steadfastly refused to allow any organization to be formed around him.


One of the odder secret societies of Victorian Britain, the Order of the White Rose was founded in 1886 in London under the leadership of Bertram, Earl of Ashburnham (1840–1913) for the purpose of promoting the restoration of the House of Stuart to the British throne. The Stuart heir at that point was Princess Maria of Bavaria, a descendant of one of Charles I’s daughters, while the reigning monarch, Queen Victoria, was a descendant of Charles I’s sister; this may not seem like much of a distinction, but in the hothouse world of Victorian Jacobitism it served as a lightning rod for romantic fantasies and a reactionary political agenda. See Jacobites.

The order took its name from the white rose of York, the badge of the Stuart house during the Jacobite rebellions. Its formal purpose was to work for the restoration of the Stuart line to the British throne, to oppose all democratic tendencies, and to support the theory of the absolute power of kings by divine right. It established a newspaper, The Royalist, and had branches in Canada and the United States. In 1889 it arranged an exhibition on the history of the Stuarts in London, but contemporary magazine articles dismissed it as a “sleepy little society” more fond of ritual than practical action.

The Order of the White Rose had close connections to legitimist and reactionary political movements across Europe, but these international ties became its downfall. In 1914, at the outbreak of the First World War, members of the Order were appalled to hear that Prince Ruprecht of Bavaria, whom they considered Duke of Cornwall and Prince Consort to the Stuart queen Mary IV, had been appointed commander of the German forces. The Order promptly dissolved and has not been refounded since.


One of the first modern secret societies open to men and women alike, the Order of Woodcutters (Ordre des Fendeurs) was founded in Paris in 1747 by the Chevalier Beauchaine, an enthusiastic French Freemason who hoped to establish a society like his beloved Masonic lodge in which women could participate alongside men. He drew some of his inspiration from the earlier Order of the Happy, which seems to have been the first French “androgynous” lodge, but took from Masonry the idea of drawing symbolism from a working-class profession. Lodges of the Order were therefore called woodyards, symbolically surrounded by forest. The presiding officer had the title of Père-Maître (Father-Master), and members referred to one another as cousins. A single degree of initiation sufficed for the Order. See Freemasonry; Order of the Happy.

Beauchaine’s Masonic connections and his skill as a ritualist guaranteed the new Order a positive reception, and it quickly became popular among the highest aristocratic circles in Paris and elsewhere in France. More than a dozen societies built on similar lines emerged in the following decade, inspired by its success. The emergence of adoptive Masonry around 1760 capped this period of expansion, and launched a movement that remains active up to the present. See Adoptive Masonry.

Ironically, another offshoot of the Order of Woodcutters went in a direction neither Beauchaine nor his aristocratic fellow-Masons would have approved. In the 1780s, one of the most popular societies in southeastern France called itself la Charbonnerie (the Charcoal Burners), and used a number of the Woodcutters’ traditions, including the use of the term “cousin” for members. One of its initiates, Pierre Joseph Briot, drew heavily on la Charbonnerie’s traditions when he launched a political secret society in Italy to oppose Napoleon Bonaparte’s seizure of power there. That organization became the most widespread and feared of the radical secret societies of the early nineteenth century, the Carbonari. See Carbonari.


One of the most influential secret societies in the proto-Nazi underworld of early twentieth-century central Europe, the Ordo Novi Templi (Order of New Templars, ONT) was founded by Austrian occultist Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels (1874–1954.) in Vienna in 1907. A defrocked Benedictine monk, Lanz (the “von Liebenfels” was an affectation) had become convinced that the mystery cults of the ancient world had all been devoted to deviant sex with subhuman dwarfs, and that the original Aryans had been godlike beings possessed of strange electrical-psychic powers, which had been lost to humanity due to inbreeding with the subhuman dwarfs. In 1905 he published his magnum opus, Theozoologie, oder die Kunde von den Sodoms-Afflingen und dem Gotter-Elektron (Theozoology, or the Lore of the Sodom-Apelings and the Electron of the Gods), which expounded this theory in vast and titillating detail.

These ideas won him a following in German and Austrian racist circles, and enabled him to launch a successful magazine, Ostara, which combined reactionary politics and antisemitic diatribes with long disquisitions about “theozoology” and the lost occult powers of the ancient Aryans. Lanz also became active in the Ariosophical scene, and was a founding member of the Guido von List Society, the parent body of the Höhere Armanen-Orden (Higher Armanen-Order, HAO), another Ariosophical secret society. See Höhere Armanen-Orden (HAO).

In 1907 Lanz had attracted enough of a following to launch a secret society of his own. The Ordo Novi Templi was headquartered at Burg Werfenstein, a medieval castle on the Danube donated by a wealthy supporter, and combined Lanz’s theories with a ritual system devoted to the new racial gnosis of “the Electron and the Holy Grail.” Daily ceremonies of Matins (dawn), Prime (noon), and Compline (night) included Aryan hymns, liturgical readings, and devotional imagery modeled on Lanz’s monastic background. The ONT liturgy expanded to fill seven large volumes by the time it was completed in the mid-1920s.

Advancement in the order depended largely on the candidate’s percentage of Aryan blood, as determined by stringent tests devised by Lanz. Those with less than 50 percent Aryan ancestry could never advance beyond the lowest degree of Server; those with 50 percent or above could become Novices and then Masters, while a minimum of 75 percent was required to reach the degree of Canon. Masters or Canons who founded a new chapter of the order received the title of Presbyter, while Presbyters whose chapters had more than five Masters or Canons were advanced to the rank of Prior.

The racial tests and ritual life of the ONT helped inspire Heinrich Himmler’s reinvention of the SS as a Deutsche Mannerbund (“Order of German Manhood”) dedicated to racial purity and service to the Nazi cause. Despite these similarities, or just possibly because of them, the ONT was banned in Germany as soon as the Nazi government took power, and abolished in Austria after the anschluss of 1938. Lanz himself had the good sense to move to Switzerland in 1933, and remained there through the war years. In 1946 he returned home to Vienna, and revived the ONT. It remains active today in Austria, Germany, and several other central European countries. See National Socialism; SS (Schutzstaffel).


One of many occult secret societies active in America today, the Ordo Templi Astarte (Order of Templars of Astarte, OTA) was founded by American magician Carroll “Poke” Runyon in 1970. Runyon received an irregular Ordo Templi Orientis charter from Louis Culling in that year, but quickly moved away from OTO traditions to construct an eclectic magical system of his own, based on the eighteenth-century ritual system of the Crata Repoa, the teachings of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the gods and goddesses of the ancient Phoenicians, and his own discoveries in the field of the evocation of spirits through mirror magic. See Crata Repoa; Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn; Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO); Scrying.

Like most of the magical orders of the late twentieth century, the Ordo Templi Astarte is relatively small, with two lodges – both in the state of California – and a membership well below 100. It has nonetheless had a significant influence on the occult scene in America and elsewhere, largely by way of Runyon’s publications and the order’s magazine, The Seventh Ray.


One of the largest and most active occult secret societies in the world today, the Ordo Templi Orientis (Order of Oriental Templars) was created by Carl Kellner, a wealthy Austrian industrial magnate, and Theodor Reuss, a journalist and former opera singer. Both men were Freemasons interested in occultism and the more exotic Masonic degrees, and Kellner was an initiate of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Light, a secret society that taught a distinctive system of sexual magic. In 1895 the two began planning a “Masonic academy” of esoteric studies. See Hermetic Brotherhood of Light; Reuss, Theodor.

In 1902 Reuss obtained from John Yarker, the premier purveyor of fringe Masonic degrees at that time, a charter for a German grand lodge of the Ancient and Primitive Rite of Memphis and Misraim, and Reuss and Kellner put out a prospectus for their new rite the next year. A year after Kellner’s death in 1905, the Ordo Templi Orientis was formally founded and began initiating members. See Rite of Memphis and Misraim; Yarker, John.

In its original form, the OTO had nine degrees drawn from the irregular Masonic systems of central Europe, with a tenth, administrative degree for the head of the order in each country. The central secret of sexual magic was reserved for the ninth degree. The order attracted many members from the European avant-garde, and an influential lodge was established in Switzerland at Zurich, near the famous Monte Veritas commune, the headquarters of the alternative scene in Europe before and during the First World War.

In 1910, hoping to expand the order further by recruiting a charismatic figure, Reuss conferred the first seven degrees of the OTO on Aleister Crowley, and in 1912 made Crowley the head of the OTO in Britain. He soon regretted the move, for Crowley reorganized the order to conform to his own eccentric beliefs, centering on his own status as prophet of the New Aeon of Horus. Crowley ordered that the Book of the Law, the scripture of his new religion of Thelema, be the only Volume of the Sacred Law used in OTO lodges, and by 1913 he was quarreling with most of the British members, accusing several of embezzlement and expelling others for crimes such as absenteeism and indifference. Crowley relocated to America in 1914, and the order in Britain struggled on until 1917, when British police raided the OTO’s offices and seized all the order’s books and property. See Crowley, Aleister.

The huge market for occult secret societies in the United States attracted attention from both Reuss and Crowley. In 1914 Crowley’s protegé Charles Stansfield Jones established the first OTO lodge in North America, Agape Lodge in Vancouver, British Columbia. In 1915 Reuss entered into contact with H. Spencer Lewis, an American occultist who later launched the Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis, and gave him a charter for an OTO lodge. In 1916 Crowley countered by making Jones head of the order in North America. The final moves in the game were made in 1921, as Reuss made Lewis a member of the European branch of the order, and raised him to the degrees of 33°, 90°, 95°, and VII° in the Scottish Rite, Rite of Memphis, Rite of Misraim, and OTO respectively. However, Lewis was already developing his own system by this time, and distanced himself from Reuss, correctly judging that there was nothing to be gained by wrestling with Crowley for the miniscule American OTO franchise. See Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite (AASR); Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (AMORC).

Reuss died in 1923. On his death, Crowley proclaimed himself Outer Head of the Order, though very few of the European members of the OTO accepted his leadership. Crowley struggled for the rest of his life to establish the OTO as a Thelemic magical order, and failed completely. At the time of his death in 1947 the OTO consisted of a handful of European lodges that rejected his teachings completely, and one lodge in Pasadena, California, that went out of existence a few years later.

This situation only began to change in 1969 when Grady McMurtry (1918–85), an American student of Crowley, proclaimed that he had been given authority by Crowley to act as his Caliph or successor during a visit to Britain in 1943. All parties agreed that McMurtry did have some contact with Crowley during the Second World War and was given some sort of authority over the OTO’s one American lodge, though the rest of his claims have been the subject of bitter dispute for decades. What is not disputed, though, is that McMurtry succeeded where Crowley failed, and established the OTO as the premier Thelemic organization in the world. While the OTO has been embroiled in almost constant quarrels and legal disputes over the last 30 years, and several other small bodies claim the OTO inheritance in various parts of the world, what most Thelemite occultists today call the “Caliphate OTO” has become one of the world’s largest magical secret societies and has had a significant influence on the occult community worldwide.


Among the standard elements of the secret society toolkit from the seventeenth century to the present are romantic origin stories that link orders and degrees back to sources in the distant past. Secret societies, like many other organizations, benefit from making themselves look larger and more important than they actually are, and claims of a glorious history are one proven way to do this. The manufacture of origin stories combines with the equally common practice of retrospective recruitment to provide secret societies with a borrowed history more glamorous than their actual origins. See retrospective recruitment.

Some origin stories involve direct claims that a secret society descends from some powerful organization of the past. Alessandro Cagliostro’s Egyptian Rite, for example, claimed descent from rituals practiced in Egypt in the time of the pharaohs, just as each of the competing Rosicrucian societies in America in the 1920s and 1930s claimed to be the only valid offspring of the Rosicrucian order of sixteenth-century Germany. Other origin stories, however, borrow imagery or historical narratives without claiming direct descent. Many modern Druid orders, for instance, disclaim any connection to the ancient Celtic Druids but draw inspiration from them; in the same way, Masonic concordant bodies draw stories and symbols from a dizzying array of historical and legendary sources without making any claim that they derive from these sources. See Druids; Rosicrucians.

One of the less impressive habits of the current alternative-history industry is its lack of awareness that origin stories are not the same thing as historical evidence. Several of the high degrees of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, for example, include origin stories that date their foundation to the Holy Land during the Crusades. A number of popular books on the origins of Freemasonry have treated these stories as valid accounts of when and where the rituals in question were invented, and assumed that they represent ancient Scottish traditions. In fact, though, the Scottish Rite’s rituals were manufactured in eighteenth-century France, and the Rite did not reach Scotland at all until the 1830s, when it was imported from America. See Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite (AASR).


According to an origin story circulated by eighteenth-century Rosicrucians, the founder of the Rosicrucian Order, an Egyptian priest and mage of Alexandria who was converted to Christianity by St Mark in the year 96 CE. He allegedly reformed Egyptian magic to fit the teachings of the Christian religion, and founded an order called the Society of Ormus to pass on his teachings. He was also known as Ormesius. See Order of the Golden and Rosy Cross; origin stories; Rosicrucians.

Along with many other scraps of occult lore, the name “Ormus” found its way into the disinformation campaign launched in the 1960s by Pierre Plantard for his secret society, the Priory of Sion, and it appeared in the bestselling The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (1982) by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln, which drew most of its material from Plantard’s fabrications. Since Baigent, Leigh, and Lincoln lacked any noticeable familiarity with the occult traditions Plantard used, they offered no explanation for “Ormus” but proposed that it was probably something very important. See Priory of Sion.

As rejected knowledge abhors a vacuum, explanations soon surfaced. One of the more colorful describes Ormus as a mysterious substance, an alchemical form of gold that can be produced from plain water, with mysterious powers including the ability to teleport from place to place. See Alchemy; rejected knowledge.


According to several accounts from the late nineteenth century, a group of occultists active in London during the 1830s and 1840s, practicing clairvoyance with crystals and magic mirrors. The sole sources of information available to date about the Circle are the anonymous Ghost Land (1876), a memoir allegedly by one of its members, and the autobiography of Emma Hardinge Britten, a well-known Spiritualist, who claimed to have been one of the Circle’s scryers during her teen years. The Circle’s members are said to have included Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803–73), the famous author, and Richard Morrison (1795–1874), the leading figure in nineteenth-century British astrology. See Scrying.

The fact that Britten was also the editor (and may have been the author) of Ghost Land makes it difficult to use either of these sources to corroborate the other. Still, at least one major historian of nineteenth-century English occultism, Joscelyn Godwin, has shown that the accounts of occult practice in Ghost Land and Britten’s autobiography have exact parallels with what was actually going on in Britain during the decades in question. Morrison, at least, was known to practice crystal scrying using teenage girls as scryers – he published numerous visions attained in this way in his astrological almanac – and the possibility cannot be discounted that the Orphic Circle of Ghost Land and Britten’s memoirs is based, to a greater or lesser degree, on a real and influential organization.

Further reading: Godwin 1994.


The system of spirituality and philosophy underlying the Dionysian mysteries, Orphism took its name from the legendary musician Orpheus, who was considered to be its founder. It was famous in ancient times for the belief that the physical body was the tomb of the spirit, expressed in a pun between the Greek words soma (body) and sema (tomb). Teachings on number symbolism and music, as well as magical practices and a detailed account of life after death were among the things passed on in books under the name of Orpheus. See Dionysian mysteries.

The core Orphic myth centered on the god Dionysus, said here to be the son of Zeus and Persephone, who was hidden in a cave on Crete to keep Zeus’s wife Hera from learning about his existence. Hera was not fooled, though, and arranged for a band of Titans to whiten their faces with chalk, distract the infant with toys and a mirror, and then tear him to pieces and devour him. Zeus, discovering the plot too late, reduced the Titans to ashes with a thunderbolt, and from those ashes humanity was created. In Orphic writings the myth was used as an allegory of the human situation, in which the soul was the portion of Dionysus in each human being, while the body was from the Titans. See Allegory.

The great Greek mathematician and mystic Pythagoras derived some of his teachings from the Orphic tradition, and some ancient sources suggest that after the breakup of the Pythagorean Brotherhood the terms “Orphic” and “Pythagorean” were more or less synonymous. See Pythagorean Brotherhood.


Unlike Isis and the Hellenistic god Serapis, the great Egyptian god Osiris, judge of the dead and lord of the underworld, did not become the center of a Greek mystery cult. This did not keep enthusiastic eighteenth-and nineteenth-century writers on mystery religions and secret societies from writing at length about the mysteries of Osiris, and inevitably high Masonic degrees and other initiatory rituals emerged during this period in which Osiris had the central role. References to mystery initiations of Osiris can still be found in books that draw too much of their material from nineteenth-century occult sources and not enough from ancient texts or modern Egyptology. See Egypt; mysteries, ancient.