Among the most colorful of nineteenth-century American secret societies, E Clampus Vitus was founded by goldminers in the frontier town of Mokelumne Hill, California in 1851, in the midst of the Gold Rush. At that time most of northern California was full of little mining towns and camps whose populations shifted constantly. The Freemasons and Odd Fellows, the largest American secret societies of the time, had established lodges in many of the larger mining towns, and this inspired a group of Mokelumne Hill miners to parody these relatively formal rites with an order better suited to the rough humor and lawlessness of the frontier. E Clampus Vitus was the result. See Freemasonry; Odd Fellowship.

Meetings of E Clampus Vitus chapters – which could be held “at any time before or after a full moon” – were held in saloons, and announced by the braying of the Hewgag, a makeshift trumpet. Inside, the officers – the Noble Grand Humbug, the Royal Gyascutis, the Clamps Petrix, the Clamps Matrix, the Grand Imperturbable Hangman, and many others (as all Clampers are, by definition, officers) – presided over meetings well lubricated with beer and cheap whiskey. Initiation rituals for PBCs (Poor Blind Candidates) consisted mostly of raucous pranks. Once initiated, each candidate was given the official title of “Chairman of the Most Important Committee.” Clampers also marched in parades, with a billy goat for their mascot and a banner consisting of a woman’s hoop skirt and the motto, “This is the flag we fight under.”

These antics coexisted with more serious activities. Life in the California mining towns was harsh and often violent, as men from every corner of the world labored and fought for their share of gold. The robust humor of the Clampers helped bring a spirit of community to the Gold Rush country. Clampers raised money to help widows and orphans, and were quick to respond when fire or flood destroyed towns and left people homeless. This combination of raucous humor and practical charity made E Clampus Vitus the largest secret society in northern California within a decade of its founding. As the gold was mined out and the mining towns dwindled, however, E Clampus Vitus faded as well, and the Hewgag announced a meeting of the original order for the last time in Quincy, California in 1916.

Pride in California’s history rescued E Clampus Vitus from oblivion, however. In 1931, a new chapter of E Clampus Vitus was founded in San Francisco with the help of Adam Lee Moore, one of the few surviving members of the original order. In the years that followed the revived E Clampus Vitus spread throughout northern California and into Oregon, Nevada, and Arizona. The new order retained many of the customs and traditions of its forebear, though public drunkenness was (and is) frowned on, and interest in Gold Rush history is one of the requirements for initiation. Clampers nowadays wear red shirts, in memory of the red woolen union suits of yore, and vests bedecked with pins, patches, and medals made of tin can lids. Calling itself “a historical drinking society” (or “a drinking historical society”), it maintains a lively presence in the old mining country of northern California as of this writing.


See Fraternal Order of Eagles (FOE).


The idea that vast catastrophes have swept the earth in the distant past can be found in many of the ancient mythologies and philosophical traditions of the world. Plato’s famous dialogue Timaeus speaks for traditional lore worldwide when it comments,

There have been, and will be again, many destructions of mankind arising out of many causes; the greatest have been brought about by the agencies of fire and water, and other lesser ones by innumerable lesser causes. (Plato 1961, p. 1157)

Despite this, the theme of earth changes – past or future – played a very small role in occult traditions and secret society teachings until the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Most people in the western world before that time accepted the historical reality of the story of Noah in the Book of Genesis, and references to great floods and the changing of the earth’s landscape usually referred back to that belief. The nineteenth century, however, saw nearly all geologists accept the theory of uniformitarianism, which rejected the idea of global catastrophes and argued that the earth’s surface had been shaped by the same slow processes of mountain building, volcanism, erosion, and deposition that can be seen in the present-day world.

Two bestselling books by Irish-American author and politician Ignatius Donnelly (1831–1901) reintroduced the concept of catastrophic earth changes to popular culture. His Atlantis: The Antediluvian World (1882) argued that the lost continent of Atlantis had actually existed in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, while his Ragnarok: The Age of Fire and Gravel (1883) proposed that the Ice Ages had been caused by a collision between the earth and a giant comet. His theories about Atlantis helped inspire Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831–91), the founder of the Theosophical Society; Blavatsky’s second major book, The Secret Doctrine (1888), put Atlantis at center stage of a visionary prehistory of the earth. For good measure, Blavatsky added the lost continents of the Imperishable Sacred Land, Hyperborea, and Lemuria to her system; all but the first, she claimed, had been destroyed by vast cataclysms that completely changed the distribution of land and water on the earth’s surface. See Atlantis; Blavatsky, Helena Petrovna; Lemuria; Theosophical Society.

The immense popularity of Theosophy during the century from 1875 to 1975 guaranteed these ideas a privileged place in the occult societies and alternative speculations of the twentieth century. Another crucial role was played by American clairvoyant Edgar Cayce (1877–1945), whose utterings in trance included a great deal of material about Atlantis. Cayce seems to have introduced the idea that another round of catastrophic earth changes was in the offing; he predicted that Atlantis would surface in 1968 or 1969, as part of a series of catastrophes that would plunge the western half of North America beneath the waves by 1998.

Long before these prophecies disproved themselves, the idea of an imminent wave of earth changes had spread throughout alternative circles, especially but not only in America. The Ascended Masters teachings, a diffuse but widespread American occult movement, proved a particularly receptive audience for earth-changes theories, and the New Age movement provided another venue for these ideas. As these currents spread, and the rejected knowledge industry became a major influence on popular culture, the idea that the world was approaching a series of vast geological catastrophes became common throughout the world. See Ascended Masters teachings; New Age movement; rejected knowledge.

These trends drew strength from the collapse of strict uniformitarianism in the earth sciences, beginning in the 1970s. Two major changes in scientific opinion heralded this shift. The first was the discovery of evidence suggesting that the great wave of extinctions at the end of the Cretaceous period some 70 million years ago, at the end of the age of the dinosaurs, was caused by a collision between the earth and a large asteroid. The second was the realization that much of northwest North America had been reshaped at the end of the Ice Ages by a series of immense floods of glacial meltwater let loose by the repeated breaching of ice dams in the area of modern Montana. Both showed that large-scale catastrophes had happened in the earth’s past, and thus provided credibility to the idea that others might occur in the future.

The emergence of the “new catastrophism,” as it has been called, resulted in a great deal of reexamination of the earth’s past and a renewed willingness on the part of historians to consider the impact of climate changes, volcanic eruptions, and similar events on the human past. It also lent additional force to the warnings by environmental scientists that climate change driven by human maltreatment of the global environment might cause massive disruptions to industrial society in the relatively near future. Inevitably, though, it also provided ammunition for visionaries of various kinds who claimed advance knowledge of less credible catastrophes. The much-ballyhooed Y2K problem – the anticipated failure of computer systems worldwide to handle the transition from 1999 to 2000 – was only the largest of many false alarms to grab headlines in the western world, and divert attention from less colorful but more likely threats to the survival of industrial society.

As global temperatures rise into un-precedented territory in the early years of the twenty-first century, the possibility of widespread earth changes can hardly be dismissed. To name only one possibility, the breakup of the West Antarctic ice sheet – a process that some scientists believe has already begun – would raise sea levels 16 to 20 feet (5 to 6 meters) worldwide, drowning more than a hundred major cities. Still, such possibilities need to be assessed carefully in the light of known fact and physical possibility, and the often inaccurate claims of popular literature on such subjects may not be the best guide in these challenging times. See Antarctica.


One of the most isolated islands in the world, this small triangular patch of land in the middle of the western Pacific is famous for the towering stone statues, or moai, that face inward from the island’s shores. As with so many of the great works of Third World peoples, many popular writers in the industrial world refused to believe that the moai could have been made by the people of Easter Island, and in the twentieth century Easter Island and its statues were taken up into the canon of rejected knowledge and included in many speculations about the world’s past. Along with Nan Madol, an overgrown stone city on the Micronesian archipelago most of the way across the Pacific, it has often been identified as a surviving outcropping of the lost continent of Mu. See Mu; rejected knowledge.

The islanders, who speak a dialect of the Polynesian language, say that their ancestors came by sea from a tropical island far to the west, led by a chieftain named Hotu Matu’a. After many years, another group of voyagers reached Easter Island and established itself as an aristocracy, the Hanau Eepe, a term sometimes translated as “Long Ears.” Under the Hanau Eepe, the common folk of Easter Island were made to set up the great statues. Finally the commoners revolted, killed all but one of the Hanau Eepe, and destroyed many of the statues.

This account is likely based on history, but recent research has uncovered another dimension to the end of the Hanau Eepe’s rule. When human beings first arrived there before 700 CE, Easter Island was covered with trees. As the native population expanded, more and more of the island was cleared of trees, and the island’s people became dependent on catching fish and dolphins in deep waters that could only be reached by dugout canoes. Eventually the demand for new farmland and logs for canoes led to deforestation, severe soil erosion, and the collapse of the island’s agricultural economy. With no large trees remaining, the deepwater fisheries could no longer be reached, and warfare and cannibalism broke out on the overcrowded island. The revolt against the Hanau Eepe may well have occurred in the midst of this crisis. The statues of Easter Island thus offer not a relic of alien contact or lost civilizations, but a warning to today’s industrial society about the risks of ignoring ecological reality.

Further reading: Diamond 2004.


The lost civilization par excellence in the imagination of western cultures, ancient Egypt has had a huge impact on secret societies and alternative history from the eighteenth century onward. Even in ancient times, Egypt had a reputation as the home of magic; a saying from the Talmud claims that all the world’s magic consists of ten parts, of which nine were given to Egypt and the remaining tenth divided among all the other nations of the world. The central role of ancient Egyptian tradition in the formation of western magic, and the importance of magical practices in ancient Egyptian religion, give such claims a grounding in fact. See lost civilizations; Magic.

According to currently accepted archeological theory, ancient Egyptian civilization took shape around 4000 BCE, rising out of tribal cultures that flourished along the banks of the Nile for millennia before that time. Some alternative archeologists have argued that a handful of Egyptian relics, including the famous Sphinx of Giza, may be several thousand years older; the evidence for this is inconclusive but intriguing, and the existence of an older proto-Egyptian civilization – perhaps in the years before 6000 BCE, before the Sahara became a desert and when northern Africa was a vast grassland full of antelope, zebra, and lions – would fit easily into the prehistory of the Middle East.

Definite history begins in Egypt around 3200 BCE, when Narmer, founder of the First Dynasty, united the Nile valley from the First Cataract to the Delta into a single kingdom. Many of the central themes of ancient Egyptian civilization throughout its long lifespan, from the cult of the dead and the role of the great temple priesthoods to the regalia of the pharaohs and the pervasive presence of magic in every aspect of ancient Egyptian life, were firmly established within a few centuries of Narmer’s time. Isolated from neighboring cultures by the desolate sands of the Sahara, and shaped by a traditional philosophy that looked back to zep tepi, the “First Time,” when the gods had established the laws necessary for human life, Egypt had an immense conservatism that preserved many of its features from prehistory until the final collapse of Egyptian civilization in late Roman times.

Nearly two centuries of hard work by archeologists and linguists, beginning with the first successful translation of a hieroglyphic text by Jean François Champollion in 1822, provide a detailed picture of the history, culture, religion, magic, and daily life of the ancient Egyptians. Ironically, though, many occultists in the western world, and nearly all of the current alternative-history community, derive their ideas about Egypt from speculations from well before Champollion’s time, and include misinformation discredited more than a century ago. The century or so before Champollion’s work, in fact, was the great seedtime of modern inaccuracies about ancient Egypt.

The land of the Nile had been a focus of strange beliefs since the Renaissance. The Corpus Hermeticum, a collection of mystical documents dating from the early Common Era but backdated by its unknown authors to the time of the pharaohs, and the Hieroglyphica of Horapollo, a late Roman book claiming (inaccurately) to reveal the secret of Egyptian writing, had become wildly popular as early as the fifteenth century, and generated a range of misperceptions that remain active in alternative circles today. See Emblems; Hermeticism.

Much eighteenth-century speculation about Egypt, though, centered on Freemasonry, for the same period saw the manufacture of new Masonic degrees reach its all-time peak, and each freshly minted degree needed its own origin story and mythological symbolism. Ancient Egypt, as fashionable as it was mysterious, provided a tempting option. Pseudo-Egyptian rites in Masonry invented during these years included the Crata Repoa, which surfaced in 1770; Cagliostro’s Egyptian Rite, founded in 1778; the Rite of Misraim, probably founded in 1805; and the Rite of Memphis, probably founded in 1814. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Masonic operetta The Magic Flute, first performed in 1791, is a good snapshot of the age, with its mixture of Masonic and faux Egyptian symbolism, surrounding a fairy-tale plot. See Crata Repoa; Freemasonry; high degrees; Rite of Memphis; Rite of Misraim.

These rites pioneered the redefinition of ancient Egypt as the original homeland of early nineteenth-century occultism, and made Egypt a feature of origin stories and attempts at retrospective recruitment for two centuries thereafter. Many later secret societies borrowed just enough newly discovered material from scholarly sources to put new paint over the old misconceptions. Thus the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the premier English occult secret society in the late nineteenth century, borrowed material from the recently translated Egyptian Book of the Dead for its rituals, and the Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (AMORC), an American occult order founded in 1925, adopted the “heretic pharaoh” Akhenaten – then at the center of media attention due to the recent discovery of the tomb of his son Tutankhamun – as one of its forefathers. See Akhenaten; Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (AMORC); Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn; origin stories; retrospective recruitment.

The recycling of misinformation from late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century pseudo-Egyptian rites has continued to the present. Numerous occult secret societies still teach that ancient Egyptian temples offered initiation ceremonies like those of high degree Masonry, though the seshtau – “that which is hidden,” the secret inner rituals of ancient Egypt’s temples – are known, and include nothing of the kind. Many occult orders, similarly, claim that their magical teachings were practiced in the time of the pharaohs, even though a wealth of ancient Egyptian magical lore has survived, and has almost nothing in common with the nineteenth- and twentieth-century occultism offered by today’s magical secret societies. See mysteries, ancient.

The great irony of the contemporary flood of misinformation about ancient Egypt, as this suggests, is that authentic Egyptian traditions and spiritual teachings are readily available. The realities of ancient Egyptian magic and religion are covered in detail in hundreds of books in the scholarly literature, and the Hermetic and Gnostic traditions, both of which originated in Egypt and drew deeply from the old Egyptian lore, are also available. There is no need for those interested in classic Egyptian spirituality to settle for modern fabrications. On the other hand, neo-Egyptian systems like those of the Golden Dawn also have their value, so long as they are recognized for what they are – creations of a later age, not authentic survivals of ancient Egyptian mysteries.

Further reading: Hornung 2001.


The most influential of eighteenth-century French occult secret societies, the Élus Coens or Elect Cohens were the creation of Martinez de Pasqually, a Portuguese occultist of Jewish ancestry who arrived in France sometime before 1754. In that year he established his first lodge in Montpellier, calling it a lodge of Scottish Judges (Juges Ecossais). By 1760, when he founded a lodge in Toulouse, the term Elect Cohen first appeared. In 1766 he went to Paris to try to interest the Grand Lodge of France in his system. The attempt failed, largely because the Grand Lodge itself was wracked by disastrous political quarrels at that time. While in Paris, however, Pasqually met Jean-Baptiste Willermoz, a Mason and mystic from Lyons, who became the new system’s most effective promoter, helping Pasqually establish his rite through much of France.

The Freemasonry of Knight Masons Elect Cohens of the Universe, to give the rite its full title, was in part simply another colorful system of high degree Freemasonry, like so many popular rites in late eighteenth-century France. Behind it, though, lay a complex and distinctive philosophy with roots in Gnostic traditions, and an equally distinctive system of ceremonial magic. Pasqually’s one book, Traité de la Réintégration des Etres (Treatise on the Reintegration of Beings), outlines a Gnostic cosmology in which the material world was created as a prison for the fallen angels under the guardianship of Adam. In violation of the divine will, Adam desired to create beings in his own image. He and Eve, his first creation, mated without God’s blessing and produced Cain; then, repenting, he sought divine blessing and fathered first Abel, who was killed by Cain, and then Seth. This third son received all the divine wisdom once possessed by Adam. Later, the descendants of Cain and Seth intermarried to produce today’s humanity, but a continuous line of “Friends of Wisdom” preserved fragments of Seth’s knowledge. Pasqually claimed to be the latest of the Friends of Wisdom. See Gnosticism; high degrees.

Pasqually’s system of magic was evasively called La Chose (“The Thing”). It consisted of secret rituals performed by each high-ranking member on the days of the spring and autumn equinoxes, to conjure the intelligences of the spiritual realm into visible appearance. Success in these rites, which marked the accomplishment of reintegration, was shown by “passes” – mysterious lights and sounds experienced during the ritual. See Magic.

A complex and difficult man, Pasqually refused to name a successor or allow any definite organization to be established for his rite. When he left France in 1778 for Santo Domingo, in what is now the Dominican Republic, the Elect Cohens continued under the leadership of Willermoz, but Pasqually’s death abroad in 1779 caused the rapid dissolution of the order. Pasqually’s teachings, however, were taken up by Willermoz into the latter’s rite of Beneficent Chevaliers of the Holy City, which was widely adopted in central Europe by lodges of the Rite of Strict Observance after the Congress of Wilhelmsbad in 1782, and by another of Pasqually’s students, Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin, in the Rite of Martinism. In one form or another, they spread widely through the European occult community and remain a significant factor in western occultism to this day. See Martinism; Rite of Strict Observance.


Far and away the most famous of the ancient mysteries, the mystery rites of Eleusis were celebrated every September for nearly 2000 years in the small town of the same name, a few miles from Athens. Archeologists have found that by about 1500 BCE, an open space for ritual dancing had been established on the site of the later mystery temple. A century later, the first stone temple was built there, surrounded by a rough wall. Even through the Dark Age that followed the fall of Mycenae around 1250 BCE, the rites at Eleusis survived, and as Greece recovered in the eighth century BCE, the temple was rebuilt and expanded. By the beginning of the Common Era the temple had become a vast hall, the Telesterion, half the size of a football field. At its center was a small stone building, the Anaktoron, whose location remained the same through all the rebuildings of the temple.

Initiation into the Eleusinian mysteries involved a strict process that took more than a year and a half to complete. Candidates first took part in the Lesser Mysteries, the Myesis, which was celebrated in February each year on the banks of the Ilissos River near Athens. Each candidate sacrificed a pig to the gods, bathed in the icy waters of the Ilissos, and received instruction in the myth of Demeter, the goddess of the earth, and her daughter Persephone. The myth at the center of the mystery rite told how Persephone was carried off by Pluto, god of the underworld; how mourning Demeter deprived the earth of its fertility as she searched for her daughter; and how Zeus finally ruled that Persephone would henceforth live half the year on Mount Olympus with the gods and half in the underworld. The whole myth, like the sacred stories central to all the ancient mysteries, is an allegory of the seasons. See fertility religion; mysteries, ancient.

After the Lesser Mysteries, candidates had to wait until September of the following year before they could take part in the Greater Mysteries, called the Teletai. These rites formally began on the 14th of the month of Boedromion, when priestesses from Eleusis came to Athens carrying baskets. The baskets contained sacred objects that were stored in the Eleusinion, a temple in Athens; what those objects were, nobody knows. Candidates began fasting on the 10th, and on the 16th they marched in a procession down to the sea to purify themselves in its water, then went into seclusion for the next two days.

At dawn on the 19th, the candidates gathered at the Painted Porch in the central market place of Athens, donned myrtle wreaths, and formed a procession with the priestesses and their mysterious baskets. They left Athens by the Sacred Gate and proceeded along the Sacred Road toward Eleusis. At a bridge they met priests who gave each of them a carefully measured portion of a beverage called kykeon (“the mixture”) containing water, roasted barley, and pennyroyal. At a second bridge, another detachment of priests tied a thread to the right hand and left foot of each candidate. Finally, around sunset, the procession reached Eleusis and marched by torchlight into the sacred precinct. They entered the Telesterion, where the Hierophant, the chief priest of Eleusis, sat on his throne just outside the entrance to the Anaktoron.

It is at this point that most of the surviving sources fall silent. Some ancient authors mention that a brilliant light shone out of the Telesterion, bright enough to be seen for miles. By that light, the Hierophant apparently opened the doors of the Anaktoron and showed something to the candidates. No reliable ancient source mentions what they saw. While a few people in ancient times were said to have violated the oath of secrecy demanded of initiates, and one – Diagoras of Melos, called “the godless” – even wrote a book about what went on at Eleusis, no certain trace of their testimony remains. One late and unreliable Gnostic source claims that the secret of Eleusis was a single ear of grain, held up in silence.

According to Clement of Alexandria, a Christian writer from the fourth century, initiates of Eleusis had a special password, the synthema: “I have fasted, drunk the kykeon, taken things out of the large basket, worked with them, put them into the small basket, and then back into the large basket.” Comments from many initiates indicated that whatever they saw within the Telesterion freed them from the fear of death – a point that merely deepens the mystery that surrounds Eleusis.

During the heyday of the Roman Empire, people came to Eleusis from all over the known world to seek initiation, and the prestige of the mysteries made their suppression difficult even after the Christian seizure of power. In 364 CE, when the Emperor Valentinian ordered all other nocturnal pagan ceremonies suppressed, the rites at Eleusis won a reprieve. The collapse of the Roman state in the following years proved to be less easy to survive, though. In 386 the Visigoths, who converted to Christianity earlier in the century, invaded Greece and devastated most of the surviving pagan sanctuaries in the country. The temple at Eleusis was destroyed and the mysteries lost forever.

Interest in the mysteries of Eleusis seems not to have revived until the eighteenth century, when the rapid spread of Freemasonry made the ancient world’s initiation rites a subject of much speculation. Few eighteenth-century secret societies made much use of the legends of Eleusis, though Adam Weishaupt – the founder of the Bavarian Illuminati – used “Eleusis” as his code word for Ingolstadt, the site of the Illuminati headquarters. By the nineteenth century, though, attempts to reconstruct the Eleusinian mysteries had begun. One of them ended up as the seventh and highest degree of the Patrons of Husbandry, one of the most influential American secret societies of the time, and several others were in use at one time or another. See Bavarian Illuminati; high degrees; Patrons of Husbandry (Grange).

Further reading: Kerenyi 1967, Mylonas 1961.


See Benevolent Protective Order of Elks.


Among the most common elements of secret society symbolism and initiation ritual, emblems are visual images with specific meanings hinted at, but usually not clearly revealed, by the details of design. An example is the main emblem of the Odd Fellows, the largest fraternal secret society in late nineteenth-century America and Britain, formed by three links of a chain bearing the letters F, L, and T. Odd Fellows know that the letters stood for Friendship, Love, and Truth, and the three links for the bonds of brotherhood uniting them with other Odd Fellows; those outside Odd Fellowship generally have no notion of the emblem’s meaning. The use of emblems thus ties into the complex uses of secrecy in secret societies. See Odd Fellowship; Secrecy.

The use of emblems dates from the Renaissance, when the Italian author and lawyer Andrea Alciato or Alciatus (1492–1550) launched a literary genre with his bestselling Emblemata Liber (1531), the first emblem book. Alciatus’s book was inspired by a forgery of the fifth century CE, the Hieroglyphica of Horapollo, which claimed to give the secret meanings of the Egyptian hieroglyphs, but simply provided allegoric readings – a circle meant eternity, a dog fidelity, and so on. Rediscovered in 1419, the Hieroglyphica inspired many Renaissance intellectuals to think in imagery. While Alciatus was the first to turn this habit into a literary genre, hundreds of other authors turned out emblem books of their own during the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. These emblem books, and the social habit of using emblems to convey moral or philosophical ideas spread into Freemasonry and other secret societies toward the end of this period. After the coming of the Industrial Revolution, emblem books dropped out of popular culture, and the habit of thinking in visual symbols they once inculcated survived only in secret societies. See Freemasonry.


A sect of Jewish mystics active in Palestine around the beginning of the Common Era, the Essenes were known only from scattered references in a handful of ancient books until 1947, when the Dead Sea Scrolls came to light in a cave near Qumran in Jordan. As with most of the secret traditions of the ancient world, the Essenes were woven into many theories of the history of secret societies, and turned into the ancestors of several nineteenth- and twentieth-century secret societies in the western world. Much of the misinformation still circulating about the Essenes in popular culture comes from this source. See Dead Sea Scrolls; retrospective recruitment.

Between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the references in Josephus and other ancient writers, a fairly clear history of the Essenes can be pieced together. They emerged out of the tangled religious politics of the kingdom of Judea in the second century BCE, as a group of puritanical Jews convinced that the Judaism of their time had gone astray and they themselves were the only true worshippers of the Jewish god. They left Jerusalem and, after 20 years of uncertainty, settled at Qumran under the direction of a leader called the Teacher of Righteousness. Convinced that the Messiah would soon appear, destroy their enemies, and make them rulers of the world, they remained a fringe group on the edge of the Jewish community until 68 CE, when the Qumran community was destroyed by Roman soldiers and its members killed, enslaved, or dispersed. Before the end, members of the group hid its sacred scriptures in caves near the community, where they were found nearly 2000 years later.

The possibility that the early Christian church in Jerusalem had strong parallels with the Essenes has been much discussed among scholars, and there are certainly similarities between the Essene beliefs and those of early Christianity. Still, it is a very long leap from this to the confident assertions in many recent books of alternative history that Jesus was an Essene, for example, or that the early Church and the Essene movement were the same thing. Attempts to fasten the Essenes securely into a line of initiates reaching from ancient Egypt to Freemasonry or the like are equally difficult to justify, since the “Essene” features in Freemasonry are also found in the Old Testament and the Talmud, while the distinctive elements of Essene spirituality were lost when Qumran was destroyed and cannot be found in Freemasonry or any later tradition. See Christian origins; Freemasonry, origins of; Jesus of Nazareth.

Further reading: Knibb 1987, VanderKam 1994.


Named after the Greek philosopher Euhemerus, who introduced it in a book written around 200 BCE, euhemerism is the belief that myths and legends derive from garbled retellings of ancient historical events. Since ancient times, it has been among the most popular theories about the origins and meaning of mythology, and it has seen an enormous amount of use in today’s alternative history.

Euhemerus’s original idea seems to have been that the marvelous features of the Greek myths were simply poetic metaphors that ended up being taken literally. He suggested, for example, that Actaeon – who according to myth had spied on the goddess Artemis bathing, and was turned into a stag by her and torn to pieces by his own hounds – was simply a nobleman so addicted to hunting that the expense of keeping packs of hunting dogs ate up all his wealth. Most later euhemerists, though, have focused their arguments on the claim that the gods of myth are ancient kings and queens whose exploits grew in the retelling until they reached divine status. Many medieval and Renaissance retellings of Scandinavian history, for example, start with a watered-down version of Norse mythology in which Odin, the high god of the Norse, becomes a famous king of the distant past.

Most modern alternative visions of history borrow euhemerist ideas, and some rely on euhemerism nearly to the exclusion of all other methods of interpretation. The huge literature arguing that the gods and goddesses of various mythologies were actually astronauts from other planets, for example, is euhemerist through and through, insisting that the gods’ miraculous powers are simply advanced alien technology as interpreted by primitive humans, and so forth. In the same way, the attempts to identify Hiram Abiff, the murdered master builder of Masonic legend, as any of several dozen different historical figures – from the Egyptian pharaoh Seqenenre II to Britain’s King Charles I – are euhemerist interpretations. See extraterrestrials; Hiram Abiff.

In some circumstances, it deserves to be said, the euhemerist approach has merit. To name only two examples, the medieval legends of King Arthur probably do reflect, however dimly, the exploits of a real Romano-British cavalry commander in the sixth century CE, and many of the flood legends from around the world – including the legend of Atlantis – quite plausibly derive from dim memories of the worldwide flooding at the end of the last Ice Age in 9500 BCE. Still, it is a huge leap from this to assume that every detail of myth and legend must have some historical foundation, or even that every myth retells ancient history. Mythology is an immensely rich symbolic language, and oral cultures past and present used it for many purposes; trying to force it into the Procrustean bed of any one system of interpretation usually produces more nonsense than anything else. See Arthurian legends; earth changes.


In the writings of American occultist Paschal Beverly Randolph (1825–75) and several secret societies that trace their descent back to him, a system of magical practice based on sex. The word “Eulis” combined a reference to Eleusis, the site of the most famous of the ancient mysteries, and the Greek word eos, “dawn.” According to some of Randolph’s writings, the teachings of Eulis were originally titled Marek Gebel or Gebel el-Marek, the Gate of Light, and were passed onto him by mystics of the Ansairehs or al-Nusairis, a Sufi order he claimed to have contacted; according to other comments in his writings, he came up with them himself. See Randolph, Paschal Beverly.

The basic principle of Eulis was that sexual polarity between male and female was the fundamental power of the cosmos, and could be tapped into by sexual intercourse that resulted in simultaneous mutual orgasm. Its preliminary training included “volantia,” or calmly focusing the mind; “decretism,” or intense focus on a single idea to the exclusion of all else; and “posism,” or physical and mental receptivity. Unlike most later versions of the same theory, Randolph insisted that love between sexual partners was essential to Eulis, and placed much stress on the importance of the female orgasm.

While Randolph’s career was one of almost unbroken self-induced failure, and few of the magical secret societies he founded survived more than a few months, the teachings of Eulis went on to have an extraordinary wide circulation. His ideas became the principal source for several successful magical orders, including the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor (H.B. of L.), the Fraternitas Rosae Crucis, and the Ordo Templi Orientis, and for much of the twentieth century most methods of sex magic practiced in the western world drew extensively on Eulis. See Fraternitas Rosae Crucis; Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor (H.B. of L.); Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO).

Further reading: Deveney 1997, Randolph 1874.


Italian philosopher, writer, occultist, and Fascist. Born Giulio Cesare Andrea Evola, into an aristocratic Sicilian family, Evola (1898–1974) rebelled against his family’s strict Catholicism in his teens and became involved in avant-garde circles in Rome. After serving in the Italian army during the last year of the First World War, he began a career as a poet and painter, winning a reputation as the leading representative of the Dadaist movement in Italy. In 1922, however, he abandoned painting and plunged into an intensive study of Oriental philosophy, occultism, and magic. As a student of the famous occultist and Freemason Arturo Reghini (1878–1946), Evola became part of the UR Group, a loose association of Italian occultists, and devoted himself to alchemy and ritual magic. Reghini also introduced him to the writings of René Guénon (1886–1951), founder of the Traditionalist movement. See Traditionalism.

In 1925 Evola published the first of his philosophical works, Saggi sull’ Idealismo Magico (Essays on Magical Idealism), and a widely praised work on Indian Tantrism, L’Uomo comme Potenza (translated into English as The Yoga of Power). These books earned him a reputation as one of the leading lights of the Italian occult scene, while his right-wing political journalism won him friends not only in Fascist Italy but throughout central Europe, where authoritarian regimes sprouted like mushrooms during the 1920s and 1930s. Later books addressed the Hermetic tradition, the Holy Grail, Pagan religion, politics, and culture, and made him the twentieth century’s most influential Fascist intellectual. See Grail; Hermeticism.

Underlying all Evola’s works was his conviction that the “degenerate” pacifist and egalitarian tendencies of Christianity, and the materialistic mass culture of the modern world, had to be cast aside in favor of a virile new warrior spirituality based on heroic values and hierarchy. In his most influential book, Rivolta contra il Mondo Moderno (Revolt against the Modern World, 1934), he pictured all of history as a vast war between an aristocratic, solar, and masculine Uranian Tradition, which he identified as the source of all cultural creativity, and the opposed Demetrian Tradition, earthy, egalitarian, pacifist and matriarchal, which was the source of all cultural decay and the root of Christianity, communism, and democracy. This theme, the central mythology of many of his books, shows both his knowledge of esoteric traditions and his failure to grasp their deeper dimensions; traditional occult and alchemical lore focuses on the need for a creative fusion of solar and telluric currents (and all other pairs of opposites), while Evola saw instead a power struggle that only one side could win.

His ideas predictably found a ready audience north of the Alps. Evola lectured in Germany regularly from 1934 on, but his relationship with Nazism was complex. He rejected Nazi racism as crude biological determinism, insisting that spiritual and cultural factors trumped genetic inheritance; his theory of an “Aryan-Roman race,” defined by its aristocratic values and spiritual orientation rather than by blood, was actually adopted by Mussolini as the basis for Italy’s race laws in 1938. He disliked other elements in Nazi theory, including its materialism and its insistence that political legitimacy comes from the Volk. For their part, the Nazis considered him an aristocratic reactionary, but allowed his books to be published in Germany.

Evola’s differences with the Nazis did not keep him from fleeing to Vienna as the Allied armies neared Rome in 1943, or accepting a position in the SS, first as a researcher in the Ahnenerbe (the research department of the SS) and later as a liaison officer working with central European fascist leaders. In March 1945, as the Third Reich’s final defenses crumpled, Evola was severely wounded in an air raid and lost the use of both legs. After the war was over, he returned to Rome, where he spent the rest of his life writing further books on politics, culture, and spirituality. His apartment on the Via Corso became a site of pilgrimage for postwar neo-fascists until his death in 1974.

By that time his writings had become required reading on the radical Right throughout continental Europe. Italian neo-fascist groups such as the Movimento Sociale Italiano adopted Evola as their primary theoretician in the 1950s, and the Vienna circle of neo-Nazi occultists around Wilhelm Landig adoted Evola’s Revolt against the Modern World as their Bible during the same years. By the 1980s Evola’s works were being translated into English, first in the pages of neo-Nazi magazines and then in book form, and began to attract a following in the English-speaking world as well. Most currently active neo-Nazi secret societies draw at least part of their ideological basis from Evola’s works. See neo-Nazi secret societies.

Further reading: Evola 1995, Goodrick-Clarke 2002.


The twentieth century’s obsession with the possibility of intelligent life on other worlds has had a massive impact on the whole range of alternative beliefs in western cultures. While evidence for the actual existence of extraterrestrial life remains equivocal and speculative at best, nearly all the traditional themes of alternative spirituality and occultism have been reworked to make room for space travelers from distant planets.

Three main themes provide core doctrines for the modern faith in extraterrestrials. The first unfolds from the belief that astronauts from other worlds came to earth at some point in the distant past and had a decisive impact on human history, which can be traced in myths as well as ancient ruins and artifacts.

The second theme derives from the belief that extraterrestrials are here on earth at the present time. Most versions of this theme draw heavily on the literature of the UFO controversy to back up the claim that visitors from other planets are present now. Some, though, argue that the aliens live on earth in underground cities, beneath the Antarctic ice cap, or walking among us in concealed form. See Rainbow City; underground realms; unidentified flying objects.

The third theme borrows the common apocalyptic idea that our relationship with the extraterrestrials is about to undergo a major change. From UFO enthusiasts who wait for flying saucers to land on the White House lawn, through believers in ancient astronauts who anticipate the discovery of alien artifacts, to conspiracy theorists of the David Icke school who believe the world is controlled by shape-shifting reptilians disguised as human beings, and hope to see their grip on the human race overthrown, most versions of the extraterrestrial faith include some equivalent of the messianic prophecies of more ordinary religions. See Reptilians.

These last similarities are not accidental, and point out the extent to which faith in extraterrestrials is ultimately a religious belief. Like the gods, angels, and spirits of older faiths, the extraterrestrials of these modern belief systems either created, engendered, or influenced humankind in the beginning; they remain present today, at least to the eyes of faith; and believers expect their reality to be revealed in an apocalyptic end of ordinary history sometime in the near future. It is indicative that many versions of the extraterrestrial faith take old religious mythologies and rewrite them with space travelers from other planets in the starring roles. To some extent this is simple euhemerism – the habit of treating myth and legend as an echo of forgotten history – but it also points to a simpler reality: aliens fill the same role in many modern minds that gods did in other times and places. The extraterrestrials, even when not omniscient and omnipotent, have advanced scientific knowledge and superior technology, and serve as a lightning rod for hopes that they will save humanity from itself. See Euhemerism.