A major social movement throughout the western world during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, labor unions drew on methods pioneered by the fraternal secret societies of the same period in building a movement to unite laborers for mutual aid. While attempts to organize workers to press for higher wages and improved working conditions go back to the late Middle Ages, and journeymen’s associations of this sort played a role in the formation of secret societies such as Odd Fellows and Compagnonnage, the first modern labor unions emerged at the beginning of the nineteenth century. See Compagnonnage; Odd Fellowship.

In Britain and Europe, the first workers’ associations drew little from the secret societies of the time, but in America, where the fraternal movement had its greatest success, many nineteenth-century unions closely resembled fraternal orders. The first American labor union to include workers of all trades, the Knights of Labor, was founded in 1869 by a labor organizer who belonged to the Freemasons, Odd Fellows, and Knights of Pythias. In its early years the Knights of Labor had an initiation ritual, passwords, secret handshakes, and all the other practices of secret societies of the time. These were dropped in 1882, and very few later labor unions made use of them, but many unions to this day follow patterns of organization modeled on secret societies. Until the last few decades, similarly, labor unions in predominantly male industries had ladies auxiliaries that were all but indistinguishable from those of fraternal orders. See fraternal orders; Knights of Labor; Knights of Pythias; ladies auxiliaries.

From the last decades of the nineteenth century on, most labor unions in Europe and America were caught up in struggles among competing leftist ideologies. Some unions, such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in America, aligned with the anarchist movement and laid plans for a nationwide general strike that would overturn the existing order; others affiliated with the Communists; still others, including the largest labor unions in Britain, aligned with the Social Democrat movement and sought to change the system gradually through peaceful political action. The first half of the twentieth century saw the gradualists win out, and labor unions became part of the system they had once set out to overturn. In the process, unions shed the last traces of their secret society ancestry – a detail that has not prevented conservative conspiracy theorists from insisting that unions are still part of a vast leftwing conspiracy. See New World Order.


Most of the fraternal secret societies that flourished in Europe, America, and Australasia during the nineteenth century limited their membership to adult men. This echoed social prejudices of the time that consigned women to home and church, while defining the wider social world as a male preserve. The emergence of feminism as an active social force in the English-speaking world around the middle of the nineteenth century challenged this state of affairs and forced fraternal orders to find a place for women. A few, such as the Patrons of Husbandry, took the radical step of admitting men and women to the same lodges on an equal basis, but most compromised by creating a ladies auxiliary: a lodge for women connected to the sponsoring order by birth or marriage, with its own initiation ritual and its own passwords, signs, and grip. See fraternal orders; Patrons of Husbandry (Grange).

Ladies auxiliaries of the nineteenth century drew some of their inspiration from the French rites of Adoptive Masonry, but America was the principal seedbed of fraternal ladies auxiliaries; the decade following the seminal 1848 conference at Seneca Falls, New York, the birthplace of American feminism, saw the first wave of auxiliaries founded. The Order of the Eastern Star, the first Masonic ladies auxiliary in America, and the Daughters of Rebekah (later simply called Rebekahs), the ladies auxiliary of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, both appeared in 1852. By the 1880s, when dozens of new fraternal orders appeared each year, most came into existence with ladies auxiliaries already attached. See Adoptive Masonry; Odd Fellowship; Order of the Eastern Star.

Relations between auxiliaries and their sponsoring orders were not always cordial. The Knights of Pythias, the third largest American fraternal order, and the Pythian Sisters, their ladies auxiliary, had a stormy relationship that featured attempts by the Knights’ Supreme Lodge to abolish the Sisters entirely. Two other lodges, the Modern Woodmen of America and the Woodmen of the World, found themselves out-competed by their own auxiliaries, and ended up severing the connection and sending the former auxiliaries into the world as independent fraternal benefit orders – the Degree of Honor and the Royal Neighbors of America respectively. See fraternal benefit societies; Knights of Pythias.

Even when relationships between the sponsoring order and the ladies auxiliary remained amicable, gender issues brought in complexities of their own. Brothers of the sponsoring order were also allowed to join most auxiliaries, and in the early days, ladies auxiliaries were often organized and managed by the brethren, but well before the end of the nineteenth century most ladies auxiliaries had taken control of their own affairs. In the twentieth century most auxiliaries outside Freemasonry discarded the requirement that members have some relationship to the sponsoring fraternal order; the Rebekahs led the way in this change, starting to admit women with no Odd Fellow connection in 1921.

Ladies auxiliaries remained an important part of social life in America and a few other countries well into the twentieth century, and the decline in membership that hit all fraternal orders in the last decades of the century often took longer to affect the ladies auxiliaries than the fraternal lodges that sponsored them. In many areas, lodges of the Eastern Star, the Rebekahs, the Pythian Sisters, and other auxiliaries remained large and active long after the equivalent male lodges had dwindled or disbanded. Still, the membership of most ladies auxiliaries at the century’s end averaged well past retirement age, and attitudes reflected the social customs of an earlier time – two serious barriers to effective recruitment of younger women. The first years of the twenty-first century have accordingly seen most ladies auxiliaries suffer drastic losses in membership, in some cases even more dramatic than those of fraternal orders. It remains to be seen if these societies of the nineteenth century can reinvent themselves in a way that will permit them to survive into the twenty-first.


A German revolutionary secret society of the 1830s, the Bund der Geächteten or League of Outlaws was founded in Paris in 1834 by a group of German exiles. Its founder, Theodor Schuster, drew most of his ideas from earlier secret societies such as the Carbonari and the Philadelphes, and from the writings of Filippo Buonarroti, the most influential revolutionist of the time. The League had a hierarchical structure derived from that of Buonarroti’s Universal Democratic Carbonari, with local “tents” answering to provincial “camps” that received orders from a central “focus.” See Buonarroti, Filippo; Carbonari; Philadelphes.

While it borrowed organizational elements from these older sources, the League was among the first European revolutionary groups to push for a social revolution to abolish class barriers and eliminate exploitation of workers by capitalists. Schuster argued that the major divides in the Europe of his time were between classes, not nations, and proclaimed a future “cooperative republic” in which peasant cooperatives and government intervention would keep the influence of wealthy capitalists in check. The League thus pioneered the ideologies later claimed by Communist secret societies and regimes. See Communism.

At its peak, the League had perhaps 200 members, half in Paris and the rest in the westernmost states of Germany. It never achieved a coherent plan for revolution, and broke up in a series of internal disputes beginning in 1836. In early 1838, most of its remaining members left it to join a new secret society structured along the same lines, the League of the Just. See League of the Just.


In 1837, as the League of Outlaws was falling apart, several of its members in Paris drew up a new organization, the League of the Just (Bund der Gerechten). Like its predecessor, the League was an association of German radicals who hoped to spark revolution in the fragmented states of nineteenth-century Germany, and it drew much of its organization and strategy from the Carbonari and other early nineteenth-century political secret societies. One of the League’s leading members, Johann Höckerig, was an associate of Filippo Buonarroti – the grand old man of European revolutionists at that time – in Buonarroti’s last years, and echoes of Buonarroti’s writings and secret societies show up all through the League’s publications. See Buonarroti, Filippo; Carbonari; League of Outlaws.

The League broke with earlier revolutionary secret societies in combining a democratic system of internal government with the hierarchical structure common to secret societies. Each group of 10 members formed a commune, 10 communes a county, 10 counties a hall, and each of these units elected its own leaders and made many of its own decisions. This system left the League vulnerable to disagreements between its members. A schism soon developed between a moderate faction, the “carpenters,” who sought political reform, and a more radical wing, the “tailors,” who advocated social revolution to break the power of the rich over the working classes. “Tailor” Wilhelm Weitling, the chief theoretician of the League’s early years, published a book, Der Menschheit wie sie ist und wie sie sein sollte (Humanity as it Is and as it Should Be, 1838), arguing that the artificial economy of money should be replaced by a system in which goods were priced according to the hours of labor needed to make them, and existing political systems should be abolished in favor of a “universal republic.”

The League’s original headquarters was in Paris, but police repression after the insurrection of 1839 forced many of the League’s leaders to emigrate to Britain. There, the League found supporters in the radical wing of Chartism, a British movement for constitutional reform. An Educational Society for German Workingmen was founded in London in 1840 as a front group for the League’s activities, and soon established links with revolutionary circles as far afield as Hungary, Poland, and New York. Close cooperation between the League and the Democratic Association, a radical group founded by dissident Chartists in 1837, led to an effective fusion of the two organizations during the 1840s.

Before the end of that decade the League mutated into a different, and far more famous, revolutionary organization. In 1847, impressed by the writings of a young German journalist and economic theorist then living in Brussels, the League’s leadership dissolved what was left of the secret-society framework of their organization and took a new name. The journalist’s name was Karl Marx, and the new name was the Communist League. Ironically, the League accomplished little before dissolving in the mid-1850s, but it popularized Marx’s ideas and helped lay the groundwork for the First International. See Communism; First International.

Further reading: Billington 1980.


Hindu and Buddhist Tantric traditions are traditionally divided into two “paths” based on their attitude toward sex, alcohol, and meat. In the orthodox or “right-hand” Tantras, these are forbidden to initiates, since they cloud the awareness and distract the mind from the hard work of spiritual transformation. In the heterodox or “left-hand” Tantras, on the other hand, sex, alcohol, meat and other things forbidden to ordinary Tantric practitioners are used ritually as means to transcend the ordinary limits of the self.

These terms came west by way of the Theosophical Society, the most influential occult organization of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, but underwent distortion in the process. In India the left-hand Tantras are considered the more risky branch of Tantrism, and practitioners sometimes have a dubious reputation, but only a minority of puritans consider them evil. In Theosophical usage, however, the term “right-hand path” became a standard term for morally pure occultism, or white magic, while “left-hand path” came to be used for evil or black magic. The overwhelming impact of Theosophy on western occultism made the left-hand path synonymous with Satanism, and this usage was soon adopted by Satanists themselves and remains in common use in those circles today. See black magic; right-hand path; Satanism; Theosophical Society; white magic.


The first important Italian political secret society, the Lega Nera (Italian for “Black League”) took shape around 1796 in the aftermath of the French invasion of Italy. Almost nothing is known about its origins and history, except for reports in French secret police records of the time. According to these, the Lega Nera had connections to the radical Jacobin party inside France, and planned a campaign of assassination aimed at killing French officials and military personnel. Nothing seems to have come of this plan, and by 1798 the place of the Lega Nera seems to have been taken by a more effective secret society, the Raggi. See French Revolution; Raggi.


The continent of Lemuria, according to modern occult traditions, existed in what is now the eastern Indian and southwestern Pacific Oceans but sank beneath the waves long before the heyday of Atlantis. The history of the concept of Lemuria offers an extraordinary glimpse into the genesis of rejected knowledge. While Lemuria is second only to Atlantis itself among the lost continents of occult lore, and has been backdated into myth and legend from around the world, the idea of a Lemurian continent dates only from the 1860s, and was first proposed not by mystics or secret society initiates but by a group of sober British geologists. See Atlantis; lost continents; rejected knowledge.

In the 1860s, geologists in India and South Africa noticed close similarities in rock strata and fossil animals from the two regions. Lemurs, primates now found only on Madagascar, formed the crux of the problem; lemur fossils occurred in both areas, but at that time they had been found nowhere else. The theory of continental drift had not yet been proposed, much less accepted by conventional geology, but land bridges – the most famous being the Bering Sea land bridge connecting Alaska and Siberia – were much in fashion. Thus several geologists proposed that a sunken landmass once connected southeastern Africa with the west coast of southern India. British zoologist Philip Sclater gave the concept its lasting name by suggesting that it be called “Lemuria,” after the lemurs that supposedly once inhabited it.

Within a few decades, lemur fossils had been found over most of southern Asia and the Middle East, making the land bridge unnecessary, and the acceptance of continental drift in the 1970s removed the last supports for the old concept. Well before then, though, Lemuria had come to the attention of the occult philosopher Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. In her first book, Isis Unveiled (1877), Lemuria got a brief discussion alongside Atlantis, but the sprawling The Secret Doctrine (1888) placed it at center stage. To Blavatsky, Lemuria, a vast continent stretching from south and east Africa to Australia and New Zealand, was the home of the third root race of humanity, a race of hermaphroditic egg-laying apemen ancestral to the Atlantean root race and, through them, present-day humanity. See Blavatsky, Helena Petrovna; Theosophical Society.

This vision was expanded on by other Theosophical writers. The most influential of these was William Scott-Elliot, whose The Lost Lemuria (1904) moved the continent further out into the Pacific and pictured 12-foot-tall Lemurians leading tame plesiosaurs on leashes. According to Scott-Elliot, their modern descendants include Australian aborigines and African bushmen, and he also claimed Chinese as a language descended from ancient Lemurian. Another major source was Frederick Oliver’s 1894 novel A Dweller on Two Planets, which he claimed to have received telepathically from a Master named Phylos the Tibetan; it included accounts of Lemurian colonies inside Mount Shasta in northern California. This launched an entire literature on underground Lemurian survivals, culminating in Richard Shaver’s “Dero” tales of the 1950s.

By way of Blavatsky, Scott-Elliot, and other Theosophical writers, Lemuria quickly entered the mainstream of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century popular culture. Among many others, American pulp fantasy writer Robert Howard wove it and most of the Theosophical worldview into the imaginary history behind his “Conan the Barbarian” stories. The rise of a rival lost continent of the Pacific, Mu, in the 1930s muddied the waters for a time but had little long-term impact, and by the 1950s many believers in lost continents simply assumed that Mu and Lemuria were actually the same continent. See Mu.

Buoyed by all this attention and a steady stream of publications, Lemuria became part of the stock-in-trade of occult secret societies all through the “Theosophical century” from 1875 to 1975. The revival of Rosicrucian mysticism in early twentieth-century America drew heavily on Lemurian lore, and two major American Rosicrucian societies – the Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (AMORC) and the Societas Rosicruciana in America (SRIA) – included material about Lemuria in their publications. On the other side of the Atlantic, Dion Fortune’s magical secret society, the Fraternity (later Society) of the Inner Light, made room for Lemuria in its teachings, though it never had the importance there that Atlantis achieved. See Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (AMORC); Societas Rosicruciana in America (SRIA); Society of the Inner Light.

Like the rest of the Theosophical synthesis, Lemuria fell out of fashion among occult secret societies in the 1970s and remains only in a few traditional magical lodges at this point. By an irony of history, though, the same decade saw the old continent find a new home in the New Age movement. Material from early twentieth-century occultism was recycled enthusiastically in late twentieth-century New Age literature, expanded as necessary to make room for UFOs and other concerns of the post-1960s counterculture; thus, for instance, sightings of UFOs in the area of Mount Shasta were interpreted as flights to and from the Lemurian colonies inside. A parallel process saw Lemuria become popular in Japanese occult circles, where fusions of mythology from the indigenous Japanese religion of Shinto with western occult ideas led many Japanese alternative religions to claim that Japan itself was the last remnant of Lemuria above water. See New Age movement.

The most recent development in the history of Lemuria is in many ways the most unexpected. While the original theory behind the continent was discredited not long after Blavatsky imported it into occult lore, and the trail of Lemuria through occult secret societies and the New Age movement has been more notable for wild speculation and uncritical acceptance of visionary material than anything else, recent research has shown that there actually was a sizeable land mass, now submerged, near the middle of the area where twentieth-century Theosophists placed Lemuria. Known among today’s geologists as Sundaland, this lost not-quite-continent was once a huge peninsula extending from present-day Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand south to Java and east beyond Borneo to the southern Philippines. At the end of the last Ice Age 11,000 years ago, when sea levels rose 300 feet in a few centuries, most of Sundaland was flooded, while its highlands remained above water as Malaysia, western Indonesia, and the Malay Peninsula. While the pet plesiosaurs Scott-Elliot described must unfortunately be relegated to the realm of occult legend, the possibility remains that the occultists who clairvoyantly saw a lost continent between the Indian and Pacific Oceans may have been onto something. See Scrying. Further reading: Blavatsky 1888, Cervé 1982, de Camp 1970, Scott-Elliot 1962.


Italian engineer, artist, and scientist, 1452–1519. One of the greatest geniuses of the Italian Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci was the illegitimate son of a wealthy Florentine and his peasant mistress. At the age of 15 he was apprenticed to the famous painter Andrea del Verrocchio, and studied anatomy with Antonio Pollaiuolo. He became a member of the painters’ guild in Florence in 1472, and in 1482 took a position as painter and engineer to the Duke of Milan. After the French conquest of Milan in 1499, he returned to Florence for a time, worked as a military surveyor for Cesare Borgia, returned to Milan to work for the French viceroy there from 1506 to 1513, and in 1516 went to France at the invitation of King Francis I. He remained at Amboise, near the king’s summer palace, until his death in 1519.

His life near the zenith of the Italian Renaissance brought him into contact with some of the most famous minds of the age, including the political philosopher Niccolò Macchiavelli and the master of sacred geometry Luca Pacioli. His paintings are among the most revered works of art ever made, but painting took up a relatively small part of his time, and he left most of his artistic projects unfinished. As court painter and engineer to the Duke of Milan, the French viceroy of northern Italy, and the King of France, he devoted most of his time to military and civil engineering, and to designing sets and stage machinery for the masques and entertainments fashionable in the courts of the time. His scientific and anatomical works seem to have been closest to his heart, though, and he spent most of his final years on them.

Leonardo’s reputation for genius and eccentricity made him a ready target for attempts at retrospective recruitment by later secret societies. In the 1970s, Pierre Plantard’s audacious Priory of Sion hoax drew Leonardo into its net along with so many others, reinventing him as one of the secret chiefs of the Priory’s imaginary pre-1956 history. The Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (AMORC), whose teachings Plantard studied intensively before launching the Priory hoax, also listed Leonardo among its past chiefs. See Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (AMORC); Priory of Sion; retrospective recruitment.

In the last two decades of the twentieth century, as Plantard’s creation transformed itself into one of the dominant themes in rejected knowledge throughout the western world, Leonardo’s supposed involvement in the Priory became a springboard from which dozens of writers launched him into countless secret intrigues and heretical traditions. Novelist Dan Brown’s bestselling The Da Vinci Code, which used Leonardo’s masterpiece The Last Supper as one of its main plot engines and borrowed many of Plantard’s inventions, is only one of many redefinitions of Leonardo along these lines, and has predictably been taken as factual in large parts of the rejected-knowledge community. See rejected knowledge.

Ironically, Leonardo seems to have had less involvement in esoteric traditions, religious heresy, or secret societies than most of his contemporaries. The only initiatory organization he is known to have joined was the painters’ guild in Florence, hardly a hotbed of radical ideas at the time. He had little interest in religious matters and, beyond an interest in sacred geometry partly driven by his artistic concerns and party by his friendship with Luca Pacioli, no connection with the Hermetic and Cabalistic occult traditions widespread among Renaissance intellectuals. The doubtful gender of figures in some of his paintings, a point that has inspired wild speculations and played no small role in Brown’s novel, was rooted in Leonardo’s own psychology; like many of the greatest artists of his age, Leonardo was homosexual, and recent art historians have argued convincingly that his most famous painting, the Mona Lisa, is actually a painting of himself as a woman. See Cabala; guilds, medieval; Hermeticism; sacred geometry.


In the summer of 1921, commercial traveler Alfred Watkins (1855–1935) was on his way through his native Herefordshire countryside when revelation struck. For years Watkins had an interest in the prehistoric monuments of Hereford. That day, as he looked across the countryside from a hilltop near Blackwardine, he saw several sites before him, and realized that they formed a straight line reaching across the landscape. A map and ruler confirmed his intuition, launching Watkins on a quest that lasted for the rest of his life and sparking a controversy that is still far from settled.

As he traced alignments on Ordnance Survey maps and followed them on foot across the British countryside, Watkins came to believe that the straight lines represented the last traces of an ancient system of trackways and navigation markers used by ancient peoples to find their way through the forests and moors of prehistoric Britain. The element “ley” appeared so often in place names along the lines that Watkins ended up calling them “leys.” When he published his findings in The Old Straight Track (1925), orthodox archeologists dismissed them as lunacy – the magazine Archaeology even refused to print a paid advertisement for Watkins’ book – but Watkins attracted a following. His admirers organized the Straight Track Postal Club, which linked researchers across Britain and sponsored ley walks and visits to ancient sites.

While Watkins was making and publicizing his discoveries, German researchers Josef Heinsch, Wilhelm Teudt, and Kurt Gerlach traced similar alignments in the German countryside. Heinsch discovered that the oldest Christian churches in Germany, built on the sites of old pagan temples, formed alignments at specific angles anchored by ancient holy hills and sites of sun worship. During the war years his work was extended by Kurt Gerlach, whose investigations were funded by the SS through its department of occult research, the Ahnenerbe. See SS (Schutzstaffel).

The Straight Track Postal Club suspended operations at the start of the Second World War, and most of the German research was lost by the war’s end. Until the 1970s the entire subject of ancient landscape alignments was nearly forgotten. The catalyst for its rediscovery was the bestselling book The View Over Atlantis (1969) by English occultist John Michell. An expert in sacred geometry and occult lore, Michell argued that the leys were not simply ancient trackways, but rather a network of invisible channels of subtle energy that belonged to a forgotten system of natural magic. In prehistoric times, he claimed, priest-initiates had used the ley grid to bring the sun’s magical radiations together with the subtle energies of the earth and send the combined force out through the countryside to bring fertility to the soil. While his facts were not always accurate and his speculations sometimes ran wild – he argued, for example, that the huge stones of sites such as Stonehenge had literally been levitated and flown to their present positions by ancient wizards using the subtle forces of the leys – his book was one of the great works of British landscape mysticism and inspired a surge of interest in leys. See sacred geometry.

Two main currents of ley research rose out of the blossoming of interest in the 1970s. On the one hand, researchers such as Paul Devereaux and Nigel Pennick pursued the scientific and historical dimensions of the leys, drawing back from Michell’s more extravagant ideas while still exploring the possibility that there was more to the lines than ancient tracks. Devereaux played a leading role in the Dragon Project, a research initiative that used advanced technology to study stone circles and other ancient sites. On the other hand, leys found their way into the realm of rejected knowledge, the New Age movement and other forms of popular occultism. In this setting, Michell’s speculations were often rejected because they were not exotic enough, and ley research tended to focus on visionary experience, map dowsing, and sheer fantasy. Much of this material ended up being drawn into the great crop circle furor of the 1990s, and inspired many of the weirder ideas floated to explain crop circles in southern Britain and elsewhere. See New Age movement; rejected knowledge.

Both these currents of ley research remain active as of this writing. Ley researchers have amassed impressive statistical and archeological evidence that at least some leys are deliberate alignments. Similar systems of alignment elsewhere in the world offer confirmation that a ley system would have been conceivable in ancient Britain; one striking example is ancient Japan, where standing stones and burial mounds also follow straight alignments, and the traditions of the ancient Shinto religion include lore on the straight paths favored by the kami (Shinto gods). Even so, the one sure thing that can be said about leys is that no one today knows for certain what they are and why they were created.

Further reading: Michell 1969, Watkins 1925.


The basic working unit of most secret societies in the western world, the lodge derives its name and many of its customs from the operative stonemasons of the Middle Ages. At each building site, the masons would construct a one-story wooden building, called a lodge, as a workplace. Meetings of stonemasons’ guilds and initiations of new guild members would often be held in the lodge, with one member – the tyler, in later Masonic language – posted outside to make sure that non-members did not enter. Like most medieval guilds, stonemasons’ guilds opened and closed their meetings with a brief ritual and a prayer. While the master mason in charge of the building project and his two assistants, or wardens, had absolute authority over the building site, many decisions affecting the community of working masons were made, as in other guilds, in a roughly democratic fashion, with every qualified mason having an equal vote. See Freemasonry, origins of.

Many of these features remained standard practice through the transition between operative stonemasons’ guilds and early Freemasonry. By the eighteenth century the word “lodge” meant a local group of Freemasons under the authority of an elected Master, rather than the building (by then, usually a private room at a tavern) where they met. The simple opening and closing ritual of the operative guilds had expanded substantially, and the two degrees of initiation (Apprentice and Master) of the guilds had grown into three, with many more on the way, but lodges stillgoverned their affairs by a combination of the Master’s authority and the votes of the lodge members. See Freemasonry.

These features were borrowed by other secret societies starting in the eighteenth century, and by the nineteenth lodges of many different secret societies shared a common language of architecture, behavior, and symbolism. Three raps with a gavel, for example, will bring the members to their feet in lodge meetings of most secret societies, and lodges of the Freemasons, Odd Fellows, and Knights of Pythias – the three largest secret societies in twentieth-century America – can all use one another’s lodge rooms for meetings by shifting the positions of a few chairs. See Knights of Pythias; Odd Fellowship.

In these and nearly all other lodges, the officers sit in assigned positions around the outer edge of a rectangular lodge room, with seats for the members on the long sides of the room. The floor space is open, to allow for ritual movement; the center of the lodge may have an altar with the Bible on it, though this varies from one secret society to another – for example, Masonic and Knights of Pythias lodges have an altar in the lodge, Odd Fellows lodges do not. One lodge officer sits just inside the door to the lodge, and another is stationed outside. Members who wish to enter a lodge after it has been ritually opened must give the proper password to pass through the door, and then advance to the center of the lodge, make a secret sign of recognition, and be recognized by the presiding officer before taking a seat.

While the vast majority of traditional secret societies use standard lodge procedure, not all of them use the word “lodge” for their local groups. Even within Freemasonry, the Royal Arch has chapters rather than lodges, the Templars have commanderies or encampments (depending on jurisdiction), and the Scottish Rite has valleys in which Lodges of Perfection, Chapters of Rose-Croix, Councils of Kadosh and Consistories hold their meetings. Outside Masonry the options become much more varied. The difference in terminology, though, rarely involves a difference in practice. See Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite (AASR); Knights Templar; Royal Arch.

In recent years, however, traditional lodge practice has fallen by the wayside in some secret societies obsessed with the desire to modernize. Many more recent organizations never adopted it in the first place. While traditional secret societies remain active in most western countries, it remains to be seen whether the old lodge traditions will survive the twenty-first century.

Further reading: Greer 1998.


Since the coming of the Renaissance, the West has seen its vision of the past expanded many times by the discovery of lost civilizations. The Renaissance itself was launched by the recovery of Greek and Latin texts that turned the classical world of the Greek city-states and the Roman Empire from a dim memory to a massive cultural presence. The early nineteenth century saw the rediscovery of Egypt and the first translations of Egyptian hieroglyphics. By the middle of the nineteenth century Babylon and Ur had leapt off the pages of the Bible and become real cities whose clay tablet records had begun to yield their secrets to scholars, and the Mayan cities in the Yucatan jungle had been discovered. Lost civilizations became hot topics in popular culture, and inevitably found their way into occult traditions and the cultural underworld of rejected knowledge. See Egypt; occultism; rejected knowledge.

By the early twentieth century the existence of civilizations in the prehistoric past had become a major theme in alternative circles. Since there is no reason, after all, why people in 10,000 or 15,000 BCE couldn’t have accomplished what people in 5000 BCE did, the possibility cannot be dismissed out of hand. At the same time, Egypt and Babylon got into the history books because researchers turned up plenty of hard evidence that they actually existed – tens of thousands of ruined buildings, writings, artifacts, and environmental traces of many centuries of civilization. So far, evidence on this scale for urban settlements only goes back to 9000 BCE or a little earlier, and the oldest high urban civilizations uncovered by archeologists’ spades date to around 5000 BCE. The only evidence found so far for civilizations older than this consists of a handful of scattered artifacts and puzzling sites.

These can be summed up briefly. First, a handful of maps from the Middle Ages and Renaissance contain information impossible to square with the geographical knowledge of the time; examples include the Oronteus Finaeus map of 1532, the Schoner globe of 1523–4, and the Mercator map of 1538, all of which include clear and relatively accurate portrayals of Antarctica at a time when no European mariner had ever visited that continent. Second, apparent urban ruins have been found underwater, most notably in Bimini in the West Indies, at depths that were above water during the last Ice Age. Third, a few startling ancient technologies, such as the simple electric batteries found in Babylonian ruins, and legends that might refer to advanced technologies, such as the vimanas or flying machines that feature in ancient Indian epics, suggest the possibility of a technologically proficient civilization at some point in the distant past. Finally, certain exact details shared among ancient myths and legends of many peoples could be signs that these had diffused from a more ancient civilization in the distant past. None of this proves the existence of lost civilizations in the distant past, though taken together the points are suggestive and deserve more research than they have received.

A great deal of the debate around lost civilizations in the last century has overlapped with claims about the possible existence of Atlantis and similar lost continents. Recent geological evidence suggesting that the glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age may have melted much more quickly than previous theories had suggested, raising sea levels worldwide by some 300 feet (90 meters) in a few centuries or less, makes the Atlantis legend and its many equivalents very plausible. Again, though, none of this proves the existence of lost civilizations in the distant past. See Atlantis; lost continents.


While the Atlantis legend has roots reaching back to the fourth century BCE, the belief in several lost continents in the earth’s past is a much more recent phenomenon. During the century from 1875 to 1975, lost continents of varying names and locations became omnipresent in the teachings of occult secret societies of the period, and still retain a large role in today’s New Age thought. This is almost wholly the result of one person, the Russian occult philosopher and founder of the Theosophical Society, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831–91). See Atlantis; Blavatsky, Helena Petrovna; Theosophical Society.

In two massive books, Isis Unveiled (1877) and The Secret Doctrine (1888), Blavatsky launched an all-out assault on the Christian orthodoxy and scientific materialism of her time. In her first book, one of Blavatsky’s basic strategies for this assault was to argue that various pieces of rejected knowledge made as much sense as the doctrines of contemporary science. By the second book, her strategy had changed to the presentation of a comprehensive vision of the origin, development, and destiny of the universe and humanity, as an alternative to Darwin’s scientific mythology of progress from primeval slime to Victorian civilization. Lost continents played a large role in her vision of the past, forming the homelands of the various root races into which ancient humanity was divided. See Occultism; rejected knowledge.

The first root race of humans on earth, according to Blavatsky, dwelt on a lost continent called the Imperishable Sacred Land, located above the North Pole; etheric rather than physical, like its inhabitants, this land still exists but modern human beings are not spiritually advanced enough to perceive it. The next root race emerged in Hyperborea, located in what is now the Arctic; the third originated in Lemuria, in what is now the Indian Ocean, and the fourth in Atlantis. Except for the first, which ended with the final descent into physical matter, each root race saw its time on earth end with a vast geological catastrophe that overwhelmed its homeland, leaving a handful of scattered survivors to repopulate the world. See Lemuria.

The influence of the Theosophical Society and of Blavatsky’s ideas was so widespread during the early twentieth century that nearly every occult secret society during that period found room for lost continents in their secret teachings. Additional lost continents such as Thule, Pan, Mu, and Isuria found their way into occult writings during those years. From the occult scene, lost continents found their way into popular culture, and in the New Age movement belief in Atlantis and Lemuria, at least, was an article of faith from the movement’s earliest days. See Mu; New Age movement; Thule.

Ironically, at the same time that the belief in lost continents emerged as a major theme in popular culture, occult secret societies and the occult community generally lost interest in them. Partly this happened because new visions of alternative history became more popular. Many of the new feminist spiritualities of the late twentieth century adopted a belief in ancient matriarchies overwhelmed by patriarchal invaders, while the neopagan movement generally focused attention on the end of paganism and the coming of Christianity. While neither of these excluded Atlantis and other lost continents, they both filled the emotional need – the desire for a lost golden age in the past – that gave the belief in lost continents most of its power. Another important factor in the loss of interest in lost continents, though, was a growing conviction on the part of many occultists that such things actually contributed very little to the hard work of occult training and practice, which is, after all, the primary work of occultists. See Magic; Matriarchy.

The most recent chapter in the development of the lost continent theme is also the most unexpected. While all these changes were under way, a slow revolution in the geological sciences brought unexpected support to the idea that large areas once above water are now at the bottom of the sea. Research into the last Ice Age has shown that at its end, around 11,000 years ago, sea levels rose some 300 feet (90 meters), drowning hundreds of thousands of square miles of land beneath the rising waters. While the whole process took centuries, the filling and draining of vast glacial lakes in the northern hemisphere caused sea levels to rise irregularly, with some periods of rapid outflow causing sea levels to surge upwards 10 feet (3 meters) or more in as little as a few months. Behind the image of lost continents, in other words, may well lie dim memories of the catastrophic flooding of fertile lowlands as the glaciers melted and the seas rose, just a few thousand years before the birth of the first known cities. See lost civilizations.

Further reading: de Camp 1970.


According to Masonic legend, the true password of a Master Mason was lost when Hiram Abiff, the master architect of King Solomon’s Temple, was murdered by three craftsmen. Since the true word was lost, King Solomon is said to have established a replacement for it, the word now used in Masonic practice as the Master’s Word. See Freemasonry; Hiram Abiff.

This legend offered an obvious opportunity to the creators of higher degrees. Starting in the middle of the eighteenth century degrees were in circulation purporting to reveal the true Lost Word, and most systems of high degrees introduce at least one such word to candidates; the Scottish Rite, the most popular system of higher degrees in Masonry, presents three such words to its initiates at different points along its sequence of degrees. Many Masonic writers, however, argue that the true Lost Word is a symbol of divine truth, which can only be discovered within the self through prayer, meditation, and moral effort. See Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite (AASR); high degrees.


The most important Irish Protestant secret society, the Loyal Orange Order emerged in the bitter sectarian politics of Ireland at the end of the eighteenth century. The passage of the Catholic Relief Act of 1793 threatened the privileged place of Protestants in British-ruled Ireland, and agrarian secret societies such as the Whiteboys seemed to many Irish Protestants the forerunners of a Catholic revolution. The Peep-o’-Day Boys, a Protestant secret society of the 1780s that raided Catholic homes to search for weapons, had been met by the creation of the Defenders, a Catholic secret society that met Protestant raids with armed force. After the Battle of the Diamond, a pitched battle between Protestants and Defenders near Loughgall, Co. Armagh, on September 21, 1795, a group of radical Protestants led by James Sloan, a Loughgall innkeeper, set out to organize a secret society capable of securing the Protestant ascendancy. See Whiteboys.

That society, the Loyal Orange Order, took its name from William of Orange, the Dutch Protestant prince who drove the Catholic Stuart King James II off the British throne in 1688 and secured British rule over Ireland by defeating James’s forces at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Like nearly all eighteenth-century secret societies, it borrowed most of its structure and some of its symbolism from the Freemasons, the premier secret society of the age. In the early days, members and initiation ceremonies took place behind hedges and in ruined buildings, and new initiates swore allegiance to the king of England only so long as he upheld the Protestant cause. See Freemasonry.

The order’s leaders disavowed involvement in terror campaigns against Ulster Catholics after the Battle of the Diamond, but many members took an active role. Still, the order badly needed the support of Irish Protestant gentry and the English government, and discipline was essential for this purpose. In 1796 the order established a new degree, the Purple Degree, with an oath of initiation that forbade certain common abuses, and the 1798 rising of the United Irishmen cemented the alliance between the Orange Order and the Protestant gentry. See Society of United Irishmen.

Thereafter the Orange Order was a constant presence in the politics of British-ruled Ireland, essential to the British colonial government in emergencies but an embarrassment in peacetime. From 1825 to 1828, and then again from 1836 to 1846, the Orange Order was formally dissolved by order of the British government, though Orange lodges continued to meet secretly through these difficulties.

Meanwhile the order itself was expanding. The creation of the Purple degree in 1796 was only the first of a series of innovations made by local lodges and fought, with limited effect, by the Orange Grand Lodge of Ireland. By the 1840s a compromise of sorts had been reached, with ordinary Orange lodges conferring only the Orange and Purple degrees, Royal Arch Chapters conferring the Royal Purple Degree, and Black Preceptories conferring 11 more degrees, from Royal Black to Red Cross. Most of these drew heavily on Masonic high degrees. See high degrees; Royal Arch.

The Orange Order also spread outside Ireland, with lodges springing up in the English Midlands and in Scotland from the 1820s. The first overseas lodge was founded in Montreal in 1818; by the late nineteenth century, boosted by struggles between mostly Catholic Quebec and the Protestants who dominated the rest of Canada, the Orange Order ranked among the largest of Canadian secret societies. The United States had its first Orange lodge in 1820; Australia’s first Orange lodge was chartered in 1845, and lodges were established in the African nations of Togo and Ghana, then British colonies, in 1917 and 1925 respectively.

Through all this, however, Ireland remained the homeland of Orangeism all through the nineteenth century, and the Orange Order took an active role in the bitter political struggles of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The 30-year battle over Irish home rule occupied much of the order’s energies; eagerly pursued by Irish Catholics and many British liberals, home rule was anathema to Orangemen, who feared the power of a Catholic majority in an Irish parliament. After the partition of the country and the creation of the independent southern Irish Free State in 1921, most Orange lodges outside Northern Ireland went out of existence, while in the North the Orange Order became a major force in Protestant communities.

Today the Orange Institution, as it prefers to call itself, remains active in Northern Ireland and elsewhere in the United Kingdom, and lodges also exist in 10 American states, as well as in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ghana and Togo. Adherence to a Protestant Christian church remains one of the requirements for membership. Outside of Northern Ireland, the original political dimension of Orangeism has been largely replaced by charitable and fraternal activities.

Further reading: Williams 1973.


One of the largest fraternal orders today, the Loyal Order of Moose was founded in Louisville, Kentucky in 1888 by Dr. John Henry Wilson and a group of friends. The founders wanted to establish a social and drinking club for working-class men to rival the Elks. The new order had a single degree of initiation to start with, and the usual panoply of robes, collars, and fezzes for the members. In the crowded fraternal world of 1880s America, however, the Moose struggled to find an audience. By 1906 Wilson himself had left the order and only two lodges, in the small Indiana towns of Crawfordsville and Frankfort, still survived. See Benevolent Protective Order of Elks (BPOE); fraternal orders.

In that year James J. Davis joined the Crawfordsville lodge. Davis, a labor organizer and steel mill worker, became convinced that the organization could flourish if it copied other fraternal orders and offered funeral and survivor benefits. Given the title of Supreme Organizer and approval for his benefits scheme, he and a small group of organizers traveled back and forth across the United States and Canada, with dramatic results. By 1912 the Loyal Order of Moose could count more than 1000 lodges and a membership over half a million.

Three major developments occurred in 1913: the founding of a ladies auxiliary, Women of the Moose; the establishment of a second degree, the Moose Legion; and the founding of a home for orphans at Mooseheart, 38 miles (60 kilometers) west of Chicago. In 1922 the order founded a home for elderly members, Moosehaven, on the Florida coast. These steps boosted membership to new heights and made the Moose lodge a popular place to be; American presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Warren Harding, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Harry Truman were all members of the Moose. In the aftermath of the First World War, Moose lodges began springing up in Great Britain as well, and the Grand Lodge of Great Britain, Loyal Order of Moose, was founded in 1923. See ladies auxiliaries.

Unlike many fraternal orders, the Moose suffered no significant loss of membership during the middle years of the twentieth century, and membership peaked at well over a million in the early 1980s. It has declined since that time, though the Loyal Order of Moose remains large and active. Most of the traditional practices of secret societies were, however, abandoned in 1992, and the order now functions as a social club with a busy charitable program.