A member of a lodge of Masons who is not an operative Mason – that is, a working stonemason – but has joined the lodge to take part in its social and initiatory activities. The first accepted Masons documented in lodge records were Anthony Alexander, Lord William Alexander, and Sir Alexander Strachan of Thornton, who became members of the Edinburgh lodge in 1634. Sir Robert Moray, a Hermeticist and founding member of the Royal Society, became a member of the same lodge in 1640; the alchemist and astrologer Elias Ashmole was another early accepted Mason, joining a lodge in England in 1646. They and the thousands who followed them over the next century played a crucial role in the transformation of Freemasonry from a late medieval trade union to the prototypical secret society of modern times. See Ashmole, Elias; Freemasonry; Moray, Robert.

Further reading: Stevenson 1988.


A system of initiatory rites originally practiced in the Phoenician city of Byblos, in Lebanon, to celebrate the life, death, and resurrection of the old Babylonian vegetation god Tammuz, lover of Ishtar and subject of a quarrel between her and her underworld sister Ereshkigal. Local custom used the Semitic title Adonai, “lord,” for the god; after Alexander the Great’s conquests brought Lebanon into the ambit of Greek culture, the god’s name changed to Adonis, while Aphrodite and Persephone took the places of the older goddesses. In this Hellenized form the mystery cult of Adonis spread through much of the Middle East.

According to Greek and Roman mythographers, Adonis was the son of an incestuous affair between Cinyras, king of Cyprus, and his daughter Myrrha. He was so beautiful that the love goddess Aphrodite fell in love with him, but while hunting on Mount Lebanon he was gored to death by a wild boar. When he descended to Hades, Persephone, the queen of the underworld, fell in love with him as well and refused to yield to Aphrodite’s pleas that he be allowed to return to life. Finally the quarrel went before Zeus, king of the gods, who ruled that Adonis should live six months of the year in the underworld with Persephone and six months above ground with the goddess of love.

Brief references to the mystery rites suggest that initiates carried out a symbolic search for the lost Adonis, mourned his death, and then celebrated joyously when he returned to life. All this follows the standard pattern of Middle Eastern vegetation myth, with the deity of the crops buried with the seed and reborn with the green shoot, only to be cut down again by a sickle the shape of a boar’s tusk. The same pattern occurs in the Egyptian legend of Osiris, the myths behind the Eleusinian Mysteries of ancient Greece, and arguably in the Gospel accounts of the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth as well. See Christian origins; Eleusinian mysteries.

Many scholars during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries recognized the common patterns behind these myths and many others, and argued that worship of the life force expressed through the fertility of vegetation, crops, and human beings was the source of all religion. These ideas found a ready audience in secret societies of various kinds, and similarities between contemporary secret society rituals and surviving information about the mysteries of Adonis encouraged secret society members to draw connections with this and other classical mystery cults. Older works on the origins of Freemasonry commonly list the mysteries of Adonis as one of its possible sources. See fertility religion; Freemasonry, origins of.


A system of quasi-Masonic rites for women, Adoptive Masonry appeared in France in the middle of the eighteenth century; the first known Lodge of Adoption was founded in Paris in 1760 by the Comte de Bernouville. Another appeared at Nijmegen, the Netherlands, in 1774, and by 1777 the adoptive Rite had risen to such social heights that the lodge La Candeur in Paris had the Duchess of Bourbon as its Worshipful Mistress, assisted by the Duchess of Chartres and the Princess de Lamballe. Its basic pattern came partly from Freemasonry and partly from earlier non-Masonic secret societies in France that admitted men and women alike. See Freemasonry; Order of the Happy; Order of Woodcutters.

The degrees of Adoptive Masonry take their names from corresponding Masonic degrees, but use an entirely different symbolism and ritual. The first degree, Apprentice, involves the presentation of a white apron and gloves to the new initiate. The second, Companion, draws on the symbolism of the Garden of Eden, and the third, Mistress, on that of the Tower of Babel and the ladder of Jacob. The fourth degree, Perfect Mistress, refers to the liberation of the Jews from bondage in Egypt as an emblem of the liberation of the human soul from bondage to passion, and concludes with a formal banquet. The entire system focuses on moral lessons drawn from Christian scripture, a detail that has not prevented Christian critics from insisting that Adoptive Masonry is yet another front for Masonic devil worship. See Antimasonry.

Despite its ascent to stratospheric social heights, Adoptive Masonry faced an early challenge from the Order of Mopses, a non-Masonic order for men and women founded in Vienna in 1738 after the first papal condemnation of Freemasonry. The chaos of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars finished off the Mopses but left Adoptive Masonry tattered but alive, and it remains active in France at the present. Attempts to launch it in other countries had limited success, although the example of French Adoptive Masonry played a major role in launching the Order of the Eastern Star and similar rites for women in America. See Order of Mopses; Order of the Eastern Star.


The forced transportation of millions of Africans into slavery in the New World set in motion an important but much-neglected tradition of secret societies. The West African nations from which most slaves came had secret societies of their own, and these provided models that black people in the New World drew on for their own societies. See African secret societies.

The first documented African-American beneficial society was the African Union Society, founded by a group of former slaves in Providence, RI in 1780. The Union provided sickness and funeral benefits to members, raised money for charities in the black community, and networked with similar organizations locally and throughout the country. Like most of the earliest black societies in the New World, it attempted to raise money and hire ships for a return to Africa. Despite the obstacles, projects of this sort managed to repatriate tens of thousands of African-Americans to West Africa, and founded the nation of Liberia.

By the time of the Revolution, though, most American blacks had been born in the New World; their goals centered not on a return to Africa but on bettering themselves and securing legal rights in their new home. The rise of a large population of free African-Americans in the large cities of the east coast inspired new secret societies and beneficial organizations with less direct connections to African tradition. Among the most important of these were Masonic lodges, working the same rites as their white equivalents. From 1784, when African Lodge #459 of Boston received a dispensation from the Grand Lodge of England, Prince Hall lodges – named after the founder of African-American Freemasonry – became a major institution in African-American communities and provided a vital social network for the emergence of the earliest black middle class. By the beginning of the American Civil War Prince Hall lodges existed in every state in the North, and had a foothold in the few Southern states with a significant free black population. See Prince Hall Masonry.

Freemasonry was not the only secret society of the time to find itself with a substantial African-American branch. A social club for free blacks in New York City, the Philomathean Institute, applied to the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF) in 1843, intending to transform their club into an Odd Fellows lodge. The IOOF rejected their application, and the Institute then contacted the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows in England and received a charter. With its innovative system of sickness and funeral benefits, Odd Fellowship found an immediate welcome among African-Americans, and expanded into the West Indies and black communities in eastern Canada as well. See Odd Fellowship.

While Prince Hall Masons and Grand United Order Odd Fellows were the most popular fraternal societies among African-Americans before the Civil War, many other societies emerged in the black community during that period. Secret societies faced competition from public voluntary organizations rooted in Protestant churches, however the same cultural forces that drove the expansion of secret societies in the white community helped African-American secret societies hold their own and expand, especially in Maryland, Virginia, New York, and Pennsylvania, where more than half the free black people in America lived between 1830 and the Civil War.

The years after the American Civil War saw vast economic and cultural changes across the defeated South, as former slaves tried to exercise their new political and economic rights and conservative whites used every available means to stop them. The Ku Klux Klan used secret society methods to unleash a reign of terror against politically active African-Americans. While the Klan’s power was broken by federal troops in the early 1870s, “Jim Crow” segregation laws passed thereafter imposed a rigid separation between black and white societies south of the Mason–Dixon line. Ironically, this led to the rise of an educated black middle class in the South as black communities were forced to evolve their own businesses, banks, churches, colleges – and secret societies. See Ku Klux Klan.

Masonry and Odd Fellowship were joined by more than a thousand other fraternal societies among Americans of African ancestry. Most of these grew out of the black community itself and drew on African-American cultural themes for their rituals and symbolism, but some borrowed the rituals and names of existing white fraternal orders as an act of protest. The Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the World (IBPOEW), for example, came into being in 1898 in Cincinnati, Ohio when two African-American men, B.F. Howard and Arthur J. Riggs, were refused membership in the local Elks lodge because of their race. Riggs obtained a copy of the Elks ritual, discovered that the Elks had never copyrighted it, and proceeded to copyright it himself in the name of a new Elks order. Despite lawsuits from the original Elks order, the IBPOEW spread rapidly through African-American communities and remains active to this day. See Benevolent Protective Order of Elks (BPOE).

During these same years fraternal benefit societies became one of the most popular institutions in American culture, offering a combination of initiation rituals, social functions, and insurance benefits. Americans of African descent took an active role in the growth of the new benefit societies. They had more reason than most to reject the costly and financially unsteady insurance industry of the time, since most insurance companies refused to insure black-owned property. Since nearly all fraternal benefit societies founded by whites refused to admit people of color, blacks founded equivalent societies of their own. See fraternal benefit societies.

Between 1880 and 1910, the “golden age” of African-American secret societies, lodges vied with churches as the center of black social life, and became a major economic force in the black community. One example is the Grand United Order of True Reformers, founded by the Rev. W.W. Browne in 1881 at Richmond, Virginia. In the two decades following its founding, the order grew from 100 members to 70,000, expended more than $2 million in benefits and relief funds, and established a chain of grocery stores and its own savings bank, newspaper, hotel, and retirement home.

The problems that beset most American fraternal benefit societies in the years just before the First World War did not spare the African-American societies; like their white equivalents, few used actuarial data to set a balance between dues and benefits, and aging memberships and declining enrollments became a source of severe problems. The True Reformers were not exempt, and went bankrupt in 1908. The support of the black community kept many others ‘going, until the Great Depression of the 1930s and the mass migration of blacks to northern industrial cities during the Second World War shattered the social basis for their survival and left few functioning. Sociologist Edward Nelson Palmer commented that “[a] trip through the South will show hundreds of tumble-down buildings which once served as meeting places for Negro lodges” (Palmer 1944, p. 211) – a bleak memorial to a proud heritage of mutual aid.

Like its white equivalent, black Freemasonry found a new lease of life in the 1950s, as servicemen returning from the Second World War sought active roles in their communities, but few other African-American secret societies benefited much from this. In the second half of the twentieth century, civil rights organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), radical groups such as the Black Panther Party, and new religious movements such as the Nation of Islam (also known as the Black Muslims) absorbed much of the energy that had driven secret societies a century earlier.

Further reading: Harris 1979, Palmer 1944.


Like other traditional societies around the world, the cultures of sub-Saharan Africa possess a rich and varied body of secret society traditions, many of which still exist today. The sheer diversity of the hundreds of distinct African cultures makes generalizations about African secret societies risky at best, and continuing prejudices and misunderstandings on the part of people in the industrial world cloud the picture further. It is just as inaccurate to think of all African secret societies in terms of masked “witch doctors” and fire-lit dances, as it is to think of all Africans as tribal peoples living in grass huts.

In reality, just as traditional African societies include everything from tribal hunter-gatherer bands to highly refined, literate, urban cultures, African secret societies include initiatory traditions that focus on the education and ritual transformation of children to adults; craft societies governing trades such as black-smithing and hunting; religious and magical societies that teach secret methods of relating to supernatural powers; secret societies of tribal elders or leading citizens that play important roles in the government of many African communities; and many other forms of secret society as well. While most African secret societies are specific to particular cultures or nations, a few, such as the Poro and Sande societies of West Africa, have spread across cultural and national boundaries. See Poro Society; Sande Society.

During the four centuries of European colonialism in Africa, African secret societies faced severe challenges from the cultural disruptions caused by the slave trade and colonial incursions, from the efforts of Christian and Muslim missionaries, and from colonial governments that often identified secret societies as a potential threat to their rule. During this time, African slaves deported to the New World brought several secret societies with them, and they and their descendants created new secret societies of their own, influencing the development of fraternal secret societies in America and elsewhere. Nor did this process of exchange go in only one direction; several secret societies of European origin, including Freemasonry and the Loyal Orange Order, established themselves in the nineteenth century among European-educated Africans and remain active, especially in the large cities of West Africa. See African-American secret societies; Freemasonry; Loyal Orange Order.

Today many traditional African secret societies survive in a more or less complete form, and the twilight of western colonialism enabled some to reclaim the roles they once had in their own cultures. Thus the Mau Mau society, derived from older oath-bound societies in Kenya, played an important role in freeing that country from colonial rule, while the Poro Society in Sierra Leone was able to impose and enforce a “Poro curfew” during the Sierra Leone civil war of the 1990s that protected local communities from the attacks both of rebels and government soldiers. African-descended communities in the New World have also preserved a number of African secret society traditions, and these have become more popular with the decline of Christian control over governments and the spread of religious freedom. See Mau Mau.

Further reading: Mackenzie 1967.


Since ancient times many cultures have divided the history of the world into a series of distinct ages, separated by cataclysms. The oldest documented teaching about ages of the world in the West appears in the writings of the Greek poet Hesiod, who wrote sometime in the eighth century BCE. According to Hesiod, history began with the Golden Age, when people lived without sorrow or toil; they became earth spirits, and their age ended. Next came the Silver Age, inhabited by people who refused to worship the gods and so were destroyed. The Bronze Age followed, and its people were savage warriors who ended the age by exterminating one another. The fourth age was the Age of Heroes, the setting for all the Greek heroic myths, and ended when the heroes either died in battle or went to the Elysian Fields in the far west of the world. Finally came the Iron Age of Hesiod’s own time, an age of poverty, toil, and bitter suffering. Later Greek and Roman writers suggested that the Iron Age would end with a return to the Golden Age, but Hesiod holds out no such hope; in his vision the Iron Age is fated to worsen until the gods finally abandon the world and the human race perishes.

A similar scheme appears in India, where a sequence of four yugas or world-ages sets the beat for a cosmic clock. First in the sequence comes the Satya Yuga or golden age of righteousness of 1,728,000 years, then the Treta Yuga or silver age of 1,296,000 years, then the Dvapara Yuga or bronze age of 864,000 years, and finally the sinister Kali Yuga, the iron age of darkness and ignorance, lasting a mere 432,000 years. The Kali Yuga ends in catastrophe, after which the entire cycle begins again.

Another scheme of the same type can be traced in Native American traditions. A set of myths found from Oregon to Peru divides time into world-ages called suns, of which the present is the fifth. Each sun lasts about 5125 years and ends with a disaster. The current Fifth Sun, according to the Mayan calendar, began on August 11, 3114 BCE, and will end in catastrophe on December 21, 2012. See Mayan calendar.

What lies behind these numbers, according to many scholars, is the precession of the equinoxes, a slow wobble in the earth’s orbit that moves the equinoctial and solstitial points backwards through the zodiac at the rate of one degree every-72 years: 2160 years, one Great Month, takes the markers through an entire sign of the zodiac, and 25,920 years, one Great Year, completes the full precessional cycle. For convenience, the position of the sun at the spring equinox is used to track the entire process; when the cast of the 1960s musical Hair sang about the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, they were referring to the shift of this position out of Pisces, where it has been for a little more than 2000 years, into the sign of Aquarius.

The same numbers govern most other systems of world-ages. The Fifth Sun of the Mayan calendar, for example, is almost exactly one-fifth of the Great Year, and the Kali Yuga consists of 200 Great Months. Even shorter cycles such as the system created by the German Renaissance wizard Johannes Trithemius of Sponheim (1462–1516) unfolds from the precessional cycle; the seven angels of Trithemius’s system each rule over a period of 307 years and 7 months, so that the full cycle completes in one Great Month.

Not all secret society teachings about world-ages, however, follow the movements of the precessional cycle. For more than two thousand years, Chinese revolutionary secret societies have postulated a simplified system of world-ages as part of their ideology. The length and number of previous ages vary from one secret society to another, though a three-age system is the most common. Of central importance, though, is the transition from the present dark age – identified with the then-current Chinese imperial dynasty – to the bright new age that will dawn as soon as the dynasty is overthrown and the secret society’s leader becomes the next emperor. See White Lotus societies.

A remarkably similar system can be found in nineteenth- and twentieth-century European secret societies, which borrowed it from the medieval Italian mystic Joachim of Floris. Joachim’s system originally postulated an Age of God the Father, ruled by the principle of law and lasting from the fall of Adam and Eve to the crucifixion of Jesus; an Age of God the Son, ruled by the principle of love and lasting from the crucifixion to Joachim’s own time; and an Age of God the Holy Spirit, ruled by the principle of liberty and lasting from Joachim’s time to the end of the world. Later Joachimite theologians flipped the first two to produce a more satisfying drama, in which an original blissful Age of Love gave way via the fall of Adam and Eve to the bitterness of the Age of Law, which was about to yield to the redemption of a utopian Age of Liberty.

Stripped of its theological framework, this latter scheme became the most common system of world-ages in the modern West. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels redefined it in economic language to become the basic historical scheme of communism, with primitive communism as the Age of Love, capitalism as the Age of Law, and the workers’ paradise of communism as the future Age of Liberty. Aleister Crowley used Egyptian mythology rather than political economy to define history in terms of the Aeons of Isis, Osiris, and Horus, with himself the prophet of the latter. A string of feminist writers, in turn, subjected gender relationships to the same scheme and saw the Age of Love reflected in their hypothetical ancient matriarchal utopias, the Age of Law in Indo-European patriarchy, and the future Age of Liberty in a “Partnership Society” of gender equality in which, to adapt George Orwell’s phrase, women would be noticeably more equal than men. See Communism; Crowley, Aleister; Matriarchy.

These two grand schemes – the precessional cycle and the myth of fall and redemption – define most of the systems of world-ages circulated in secret societies during the last four hundred years or so, but the sheer creativity of the secret society underground has guaranteed a hearing for other, unique systems. One of the best examples is the work of Sampson Mackey (1765–1843) of Norwich, a shoemaker and self-taught cosmologist, who argued that Earth’s poles gradually turned over in a vast cycle no less than 2,332,800 years in length. When the poles were perpendicular to its orbit, Earth basked in perpetual springtime; when the poles were parallel to the orbital plane, it entered an “Age of Horror” in which its inhabitants alternately froze and fried in nights and days that were each six months long. This vision of prehistory found a home in the teachings of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, an influential magical secret society of the late nineteenth century. See Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor (H.B. of L.).

The popularity of teachings about world-ages shows no signs of ebbing at present, and recent discoveries about natural catastrophes in the distant and not-so-distant past have provided a good deal of fodder for present and future theories about ages of the world. Whatever else can be said about the present world-age, it is one in which world-ages are a perennially hot topic!

Further reading: de Santillana and von Dechend 1977, Godwin 1993, Hesiod 1973.


An underground city supposedly hidden away somewhere in the vast-nesses of central Asia, Agharta – also spelled Aghartta, Agharti, Agartha, and Arghati – has become a fixture of modern occultism, the secret teachings of numerous secret societies, and the further shores of contemporary conspiracy theory. Unlike its twin and rival Shambhala, which has deep roots in Tibetan Buddhist traditional lore, the hidden city of Agharta was concocted out of Norse mythology and thin air by two nineteenth-century French authors. Its invention and spread is one of the most remarkable tales in hidden history. See Shambhala.

The story begins with Louis Jacolliot (1837–90), a French official in Chandernagore, India, who eked out a sparse salary by writing for the popular press. Jacolliot made several contributions to the field of rejected knowledge; the Nine Unknown Men, one of many groups claimed as the secret masters of the world, was another of his inventions. One of Jacolliot’s favorite themes was euhemerism, the idea that ancient mythology recounted events from even more ancient prehistory. In 1871 he published a bestseller, Le Fils de Dieu (The Son of God), supposedly recounting the 15,000-year-old history of India, as revealed to him by friendly Brahmans. See Euhemerism; rejected knowledge.

Suspiciously, the “history” in Jacolliot’s book has almost nothing in common with the traditional history of India as recounted in Hindu scriptures and epics, and almost everything in common with the Norse mythology then wildly popular in Europe as a result of the folklore collections of the Brothers Grimm and the operas of Richard Wagner. The city of Asgartha, capital of the ancient Indian empire at the center of Jacolliot’s history, is a case in point. This is simply Asgarth – an alternative spelling of Asgard, the home of the Norse gods – with an a tacked on the end to make it look like a Sanskrit word.

The success of Jacolliot’s book put Asgartha on the map in French popular culture, but it is not quite clear how the city came into the hands of the next major figure in the Agharta saga, the eccentric French occultist J.-A. Saint-Yves d’Alveydre (1842–1909). Saint-Yves claimed that he was taught about Aghartta (his preferred spelling) by Haji Sharif, whom Saint-Yves called “a high official in the Hindu church” but who had a Muslim name and seems to have been a parrot-shop proprietor in Le Havre. According to the researches of Joscelyn Godwin, one of the few capable historians to explore the Agharta myth, Haji Sharif taught Sanskrit to Saint-Yves, and also passed on some material derived from Jacolliot’s book. From there, Saint-Yves went on to create the entire modern mythology of Agharta.

In 1886 Saint-Yves privately published a book about Aghartta titled Mission de l’Inde en Europe (The Mission of India in Europe). He then became convinced he had revealed too much, recalled the entire edition, and had all but two copies burned. Not until 1910, a year after his death, was the book reissued. It proved to be an account of astral journeys in which Saint-Yves went in search of Aghartta and found a living city deep underground, inhabited by millions of people under a Sovereign Pontiff whose absolute rule was backed up with technological marvels as well as mystical powers. Much of the book expounds Saint-Yves’ political philosophy of synarchy, and the whole account shows obvious borrowings from Jacolliot’s Le Fils de Dieu, Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s occult novel The Coming Race, and the “Mahatma letters” circulated by the Theosophical Society. See synarchy; Theosophical Society.

Well before Mission de l’Inde’s reissue, rumors about Agharta circulated in occult circles in Paris, and the Martinist order headed by Papus (Dr. Gérard Encausse), one of Saint-Yves’ closest students. The republication of the book instantly made the hidden city a hot topic throughout the European occult underworld. This was probably the channel by which it reached its next major publicist, Polish adventurer Ferdinand Ossendowski. After traveling through central Asia in the throes of the Russian Revolution and the civil war that followed it, Ossendowski published the sensational bestseller Beasts, Men, and Gods (1922). Large portions of the first three chapters were plagiarized from Saint-Yves’ book, though Ossendowski changed the spelling of most of the proper names: Saint-Yves’ Aghartta, for example, became Agharti in Ossendowski’s tale. See Martinism.

Ossendowski’s book was published in several languages and brought Agharta into a blaze of publicity that has never really faded. The Traditionalist philosopher René Guénon took time from his abstruse studies of Vedanta to write Le Roi du Monde (The King of the World, 1927), turning the story of Agharta into vehicle for subtle analyses of symbolism and myth. On the other end of the cultural spectrum, the pulp science fiction magazine Amazing Stories, under its legendary editor Raymond Palmer, made room for stories about Agharta in the 1940s. See Palmer, Raymond.

In the second half of the twentieth century, Agharta became a fixture in New Age and alternative reality circles in America and elsewhere, and found itself associated and at times confused with Shambhala, the other mysterious city in central Asia. During these same years, however, most serious occult secret societies dropped the entire superstructure of occult alternative history that had accumulated during the “Theosophical century” (1875–1975), and few if any magical secret societies include teachings about Agharta at present. Further reading: Godwin 1993, Guénon 1983, Kafton-Minkel 1989.


Pharaoh of Egypt, c.1400–c.1350 BCE. The second son of Amenhotep III of Egypt’s 18th Dynasty, the future Pharaoh Akhenaten was originally named Amenhotep. There may have been ill feeling between father and son, as the young Amenhotep is never named or portrayed alongside his siblings on his father’s monuments, but he became crown prince after the death of his older brother Thothmes and took the throne a few years later as Amenhotep IV.

Shortly after his enthronement, he proclaimed that the gods of Egypt’s polytheism were lifeless and powerless, and the only real god was Aten, the physical sun. In the first four years of his reign he imposed a religious revolution on Egypt, abolishing the priests and temples of all gods but his own and changing his name from Amenhotep, meaning “Amen is satisfied,” to Akhenaten, “spirit of Aten.”

In the fifth year of his reign, Akhenaten abandoned the capital city at Thebes and built a new capital for himself nearly a hundred miles down the Nile, at Tell el-Amarna, across the river from the ancient city of Hermopolis. Akhetaten, “Horizon of Aten,” contained a huge temple to Aten and a grandiose palace for Akhenaten himself, built and decorated in a style that flouted the traditional geometries of Egyptian art. Surrounded by his courtiers and favorites, the pharaoh pursued his religious vision and isolated himself from the world outside Akhetaten’s walls.

The last decade of his reign was a period of continual crisis, as the burden of rising taxes and forced labor for Akhenaten’s building programs crushed the Egyptian economy, and the rising power of the Hittite Empire in what is now Turkey challenged a military already stretched to the limit by Egypt’s own internal troubles. Meanwhile epidemic disease swept through Egypt, adding another strain to a crumbling society. Many Egyptians believed that the gods were abandoning Egypt because Egypt had abandoned the gods.

In the midst of these crises, Akhenaten died. Three short-lived successors – a shadowy figure named Smenkhare, the boy-king Tutankhamen, and Akhenaten’s elderly Prime Minister Ay – struggled with the situation without resolving it. Finally, on Ay’s death, the throne passed to Horemheb, commander of the army. Often tarred as the villain of Akhenaten’s story, Horemheb was a canny realist who understood that Akhenaten’s disastrous experiment had to be reversed if Egypt was to survive. During Horemheb’s 25-year reign, Egypt returned to peace and prosperity, but the price was the total destruction of Akhenaten’s legacy. Akhetaten was razed to the ground, the temples of Aten were torn down stone by stone to provide raw materials for new temples to the old gods of Egypt, and every trace of Akhenaten’s reign, his image, his name, and his god was obliterated.

The destruction was systematic enough that historians afterwards had only scattered references to “the accursed one of Akhetaten” and a confused legend of a time of troubles to suggest that something unusual had happened near the end of the 18th Dynasty. Not until the 1840s did the wall of silence raised by Horemheb break down, as European archeologists carried out the first surveys at Tell el-Amarna and found puzzling images of people worshipping the sun’s disk, carved in a style utterly unlike traditional Egyptian art. Curiosity about these so-called “disk worshippers” led to systematic digs at Tell el-Amarna and the gradual uncovering of the facts about Akhenaten.

The discovery of the tomb of Akhenaten’s son, the boy pharaoh Tutankhamen, in 1922 finished the process and catapulted the “heretic pharaoh” into public awareness throughout the western world. Akhenaten’s monotheism guaranteed that most portrayals of his life and reign during the early twentieth century were strongly favorable, and this made him an easy target for retrospective recruitment. H. Spencer Lewis of AMORC and Savitri Devi, the first major theoretician of the neo-Nazi movement, were among the many who found a place for Akhenaten as a forerunner of their own ideas. See Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (AMORC); National Socialism; retrospective recruitment.

Further reading: Aldred 1988, Redford 1984.


A common term for the Cathars, derived from the town of Albi, where the Cathar faith first established itself in France. See Cathars.


One of the core elements of the western esoteric traditions, the science of alchemy has had an important part in the teachings of secret societies from ancient times up to the present. Today’s popular culture and the publicists of modern western science portray alchemy as a failed predecessor of chemistry that wasted centuries in an attempt to turn lead into gold by hopelessly inadequate means, but alchemy was much more than this.

A comprehensive philosophy of matter, alchemy included physics, chemistry, biology, meteorology, medicine, herbalism, embryology, the environmental sciences, psychology, economics, and mystical religion. Alchemists in China more than a thousand years ago successfully extracted steroidal sex hormones from human urine and used them to treat cases of hormonal insufficiency, and produced metallic aluminum. In the same way, the first distillation of alcohol, the discovery of phosphorus, the invention of organic fertilizers, and the first successful treatment for syphilis can be credited to western alchemists.

Nor is it certain that the central goal of western alchemy, the transformation of base metals to silver or gold, is entirely a will-o’-the-wisp. Such transmutations were witnessed more than once by qualified and skeptical observers, who used the best available technology to check their results. Nature doubtless has nooks and crannies that modern western science has not yet discovered, and alchemists in the past might have stumbled across one or more of those. The alchemists themselves claimed that a mysterious substance called the “secret fire” was necessary for transmutation; might this have been electricity, produced by simple lead-acid batteries, and transmutation akin to the “cold fusion” that set the scientific world on its ear a few years ago? No one knows.

Alchemy first surfaced in China, India, and Hellenistic Egypt around the second century BCE. The question of its origins remains wide open; scholars have argued inconclusively for many years whether it began in one of these areas and spread to the others, whether it emerged independently in all three, or if it originated in some other area that has not yet been traced.

Common to all alchemical traditions is the use of symbolism and evasive language to communicate alchemical secrets to those who already know the craft, while hiding them from all others. According to all accounts, the only way to understand the core secrets of alchemy is to receive them from an experienced alchemist, or to grasp them through a sudden flash of insight after careful reading of alchemical texts. Alchemists themselves claimed that openly publishing the secrets of their art might literally bring about the destruction of the world. Since those secrets are still hidden today, the reality behind these dire warnings remains anyone’s guess.

While these common themes connect all the different branches of alchemy, the art went through many changes in its history. The Chinese alchemical tradition spread throughout the Far East but had only indirect contact with traditions further west until recent times. It focused on creating the elixir of life. The original wai dan or “Outer Elixir” school, which attempted to create this substance in the laboratory, was largely replaced in medieval times by a newer nei dan or “Inner Elixir” school, which used meditation, breathing, and subtle energy exercises (qigong) to create the elixir within the body using the body’s own internal substances. Important elements of Taoist meditation, Chinese medicine, and “internal” martial arts such as tai chi developed out of this alchemical tradition. Chinese secret societies such as the White Lotus societies adopted many of these practices in past centuries and some offshoots of the White Lotus tradition still teach them today. See White Lotus societies.

In India, alchemy paid more attention to the creation of gold, but underwent the same transformation as in China. The art of laboratory alchemy, known as rasayana in India, was cultivated using simple equipment but complex vegetable compounds, while on the internal side alchemy fused with yoga and Tantric spirituality to create subtle sciences of physiological and psychological transformation.

In the West, the alchemy of Hellenistic Egypt failed to catch on in Greece or Rome, but found eager pupils among the Arabs. Arabic alchemists such as Jabir ibn Hayyan (c.720–810 CE) focused their efforts on metallic alchemy and invented most of the later toolkit of the western alchemist, perfecting the athanor (the alchemist’s furnace) and making important advances in laboratory technique. Beginning in the twelfth century, Arabic alchemical writings made their way to medieval Europe and launched a widespread alchemical movement there.

During the Renaissance, the golden age of European alchemy, tens of thousands of alchemists bent over retorts and crucibles in an attempt to wrest the secrets of gold-making from mute matter. Most of these were “puffers,” untaught novices motivated by greed, but some of the greatest alchemical writings of all time came out of the ferment of the Renaissance – works such as Salomon Trismosin’s Splendor Solis, Basil Valentine’s Triumphal Chariot of Antimony, and the lavishly illustrated writings of Michael Maier. These same years saw alchemical studies expand to include almost every branch of human knowledge from theology to agriculture.

It was the alchemy of the late Renaissance that flowed into secret societies in the early modern period, as the spread of the scientific revolution forced all occult sciences underground and esoteric secret societies tried to salvage everything they could of the occult traditions before they were lost forever. The complexity of Renaissance alchemical studies means, though, that a secret society that claims to teach and practice alchemy may be doing almost anything. When the eighteenth-century German Orden des Gold- und Rosenckreuz (Order of the Golden and Rosy Cross), an influential Rosicrucian order of the time, boasted of its alchemical teachings, it meant that its initiates spent long hours in laboratories over crucibles and retorts, attempting to create the philosopher’s stone that enabled common metals to be turned into gold. When the Octagon Society, an American esoteric order founded in the 1920s, refers to its alchemical teachings, it means that its initiates practice a system of psychological healing meant to turn the “lead” of painful memories and unproductive mental states into the “gold” of mental healing and joy. Both of these can be very worthwhile pursuits, but they have little in common beyond the label “alchemy” and a handful of symbolic themes drawn from alchemical teachings. See Octagon Society; Order of the Golden and Rosy Cross.

After many years when alchemy was practiced only in secret, alchemical studies saw a revival in the late twentieth century. To some extent this was the work of psychologist Carl Jung (1875–1961), whose studies of alchemical literature convinced him that the old alchemists had been studying depth psychology concealed as folk chemistry. While this is true only of a small portion of alchemical writings, it made alchemy respectable again and encouraged scholars and occultists alike to take another look at the complex symbolism of alchemy.

At the same time, though, several occult secret societies in the early twentieth century began the process of reviving a tradition of laboratory alchemy. During the first decades of the century, a secretive occult order in Paris, the Brotherhood of Heliopolis, helped reintroduce practical alchemy into French occult circles. Inspired by this, the American Rosicrucian order AMORC taught classes in laboratory alchemy at their San Jose headquarters in California during the 1940s and circulated information on alchemical practice through its widespread network of initiates in America and elsewhere. During the late twentieth century, a lively alchemical revival took off from these beginnings; many classic works of alchemical literature are again in print, and alchemical studies are once more spreading through secret societies and the occult community as a whole. See Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (AMORC).

Further reading: Albertus 1960, Anonymous 1994, Fulcanelli 1971, Grossinger 1983, Trismosin 1991.

Aldworth, Elizabeth

According to contemporary accounts, Elizabeth Aldworth (née St Leger), the daughter of Viscount Doneraile, was the first woman to be initiated into Freemasonry. In 1710, at the age of 17, she walked into a room in her father’s mansion near Cork where a lodge meeting was in progress. The members of the lodge put her in the anteroom, debated the issue, and decided that the only way to prevent her from revealing their secrets was to initiate her and swear her to secrecy. She was duly initiated, and remained a supporter of Masonry until her death in 1773 at the age of 80. Masons referred to her after her marriage as “our sister Aldworth.”

Similar accounts describe the admission of a handful of other women to Masonic lodges in the eighteenth century. The first lodges of Adoptive Masonry, a branch of the Craft specifically for women, were founded in France in 1760, and several irregular jurisdictions of Masonry have admitted women to the standard Craft degrees since the middle of the nineteenth century. See Adoptive Masonry; Co-Masonry.


Founded in 1923 in Memphis, Tennessee, the All-American Association was one of many organizations that rose in opposition to the revived Ku Klux Klan. Its official objects were to promote patriotism and combat intolerance and bigotry. Members pledged themselves to gather information on the Klan’s illegal activities and expose the individuals involved. It went out of existence sometime after the Klan’s implosion in the late 1920s. See Knights of Liberty; Ku Klux Klan; Order of Anti-Poke-Noses.


One of the core elements in secret society ritual, symbolism, and literature is allegory, the creation or use of a story with a hidden meaning concealed beneath the obvious one. Allegory was one of the most popular literary devices in the Middle Ages and Renaissance; few works of literature from those times failed to have at least one allegorical meaning, and Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scholars all treated their respective scriptures as allegorical books in which many levels of hidden meaning could be found beneath the literal interpretation. While allegory was driven out of philosophy and science around the time of the scientific revolution, it remained a common feature in popular literature until the beginning of the twentieth century.

Secret societies picked up the habit of allegory early on. Freemasonry drew from its roots in operative masonry the habit of thinking of its tools as the emblems of moral ideas; for example, the level, used by operative masons to check the set of stones, became a symbol of equality – the idea that all “are on the same level.” Similar connections link other working tools and objects in a Masonic lodge to moral concepts, and this led the designers of Masonic degrees to weave allegorical stories early on. In many Masonic degrees, events from history or legend have been turned into moral allegories. See Freemasonry.

Complexities enter the picture because the same story can have more than one allegorical meaning, and such meanings can change without any alteration to the ritual itself. Nor is it easy to tell what any particular allegory is intended to mean. The Masonic legend of Hiram Abiff, the master builder of King Solomon’s Temple, is a case in point. Most modern Masons interpret it as an allegory of faithfulness in the face of death, but Jacobite Freemasons in France used it as an allegory for the execution of King Charles I of England in 1649, which they hoped to avenge; revolutionaries of many nations in the nineteenth century saw it as an allegory of their countrymen’s sufferings under the rule of foreign overlords; Theosophist mystics in Co-Masonry in the early twentieth century understood it as an account of the fall of the spirit into matter; while certain modern writers on the origins of Freemasonry insist that it refers to events in the distant past, ranging from the assassination of an obscure Egyptian pharaoh to the destruction of the planet Mars by asteroids. See Hiram Abiff.

The unpopularity of allegory in modern philosophy and literature has much to do with the spread of speculative theories about secret societies. In nineteenth-century Britain and America, when allegory was still popular, people handled it with some degree of sophistication and rarely fell into the trap of thinking that because an allegory seems to make sense, it must have been intended by the author. Too many people nowadays lack this awareness. Much of the wilder modern literature on secret societies assumes that if a story can be interpreted allegorically, the hidden meaning must not only be intentional, but true. This has added to the entertainment value of today’s alternative reality literature, but does little to make it accurate or even reasonable. See rejected knowledge.


See Grand Loge Alpina.


In some nineteenth- and twentieth-century conspiracy theories, the name of a secret society conspiring to overthrow monarchy and private property across Europe. The name is actually the title used by national grand lodges of the Carbonari, an early nineteenth-century political secret society with liberal aims. See Carbonari.


One of the most common pieces of lodge furniture in secret societies of all kinds is an altar, usually placed at the center of the lodge room, draped with an altar cloth, and provided with one or more symbolic objects. The existence of altars in lodge rooms is one of the facts most often pointed out by Christian critics of secret societies to claim that the latter practice a non-Christian religion. In some cases this claim is justified, in most it is not; in all cases, though, the symbolism and function of a lodge altar set it apart from altars in Christian churches and Pagan temples alike. See Antimasonry; lodge.

A lodge altar forms the symbolic focus of the lodge. The most important events in initiation rituals and other lodge ceremonies take place at it; core symbols of the lodge rest on it; new initiates go on symbolic journeys around it. In nearly all lodges, the line connecting the seat of the presiding officer with the altar is not to be crossed except when the ritual specifically directs it.

The shape of the altar, the color of the altar cloth, and the items put on the altar have provided the creators of secret societies with a wide field for their symbolic art. Rectangular altars are most common, but secret societies that use threefold symbolism, such as Royal Arch Masonry and the Knights of Pythias, commonly have triangular altars. Altar cloths range from solid colors, such as the plain black cover of the altar in a temple of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, to complicated patterns and designs with extensive symbolic meanings. See Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn; Knights of Pythias; Royal Arch.

The symbolic objects on the altar provide the lodge designer with enormous freedom, though it’s not always used. Most American fraternal secret societies, for example, simply place an open Bible on the altar. On the other hand, not all secret societies have an altar in the lodge at all. In lodges of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, for example, the center of the lodge room is empty, and the open Bible rests on a podium at the chaplain’s station. The empty space at the center of the lodge forms a symbolic focus in Odd Fellows ritual, however, and important objects and actions are located there at various points in the degree work. See Odd Fellowship.


On June 20, 1977, a British television network, Anglia TV, ran a mock-documentary titled Alternative 3, perhaps the most successful science-fiction spoof since the radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. According to the show and the 1979 book that followed it, the earth’s governments had discovered that air pollution would shortly doom the earth and its inhabitants. Three plans had been devised to save the human race. Alternative 1 used nuclear explosions to blast pollutants into space; Alternative 2 mandated the creation of underground habitats into which survivors could retreat from the dying surface of the planet.

Both these alternatives had proven unworkable, however, leaving only Alternative 3 – the emergency colonization of Mars. Working in total secrecy, a joint American–Russian space program had reached Mars in 1962. In order to provide a labor force for the huge project, many thousands of ordinary people had been kidnapped, turned into mindless slaves by brain surgery and drugs, and shipped to Mars via two concealed lunar bases. These “Batch-Consignment Components” were directed by small crews of “Designated Movers” under the command of an international leadership. Anyone who attempted to leak the truth about Alternative 3 was targeted for assassination via laser “hot job.”

Although the show displayed a prominent notice that it had originally been scheduled for April 1, and listed a cast of professional actors in its credits, Alternative 3 quickly became a hot topic among conspiracy theorists. A flurry of magazine articles and at least one book, Jim Keith’s Casebook on Alternative 3 (1994), argued that even though the film itself was fiction, all its allegations were true. Some writers suggested that the TV show was “gray disinformation” meant either to help build a social consensus in favor of an Alternative 3-type evacuation, or to make people dismiss the idea as fiction so Alternative 3 could continue unhindered. Like so many elements of modern conspiracy theory, the Alternative 3 story seems destined to keep playing out in the collective imagination for a long time to come. See Disinformation; unidentified flying objects (UFOs).

Further reading: Keith 1994b, Watkins 1979.


Since Christopher Columbus sighted a small island in the West Indies and mistook it for part of Asia, the possibility that America was visited by Old World voyagers before his time has been hotly debated. The first discovery of America, of course, happened tens of thousands of years before his time, when the ancestors of today’s Native American peoples reached the New World. In recent years, though, the probability that others made the trip before 1492 has become a certainty. One set of transatlantic crossings has been firmly proven by archeology; three others are supported by significant evidence, and at least three contacts across the Pacific Ocean have solid backing as well.

The best documented voyages across the Atlantic before 1492 were those of the Vikings. In 1000 CE Leif Ericsson, the son of the man who led the Norse settlement of Greenland, sailed along the coasts of what is now eastern Canada and spent the winter on the continent before sailing home to Greenland. A few years later, inspired by his example, several shiploads of Greenlanders sailed to L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland and built a settlement. Troubles with local Native Americans forced the settlement to be abandoned a few years later; it was uncovered by Canadian archeologists in the 1970s, proving a Norse presence in America.

The other probable Atlantic voyages also took the northern route. That route may have been opened by Irish voyagers, sailing westwards in hide-covered boats that have been navigated from Ireland to America in modern times; the early medieval Voyage of St Brendan includes good descriptions of icebergs and other North Atlantic sights on a saint’s voyage to the “Land of Promise” in the west. Canadian writer Farley Mowat’s book The Farfarers presents a good case for a migration from ancient Scotland via Iceland and Greenland to Newfoundland, partly drawn by rich resources ahead of them and partly driven by the Viking presence behind. If he’s right, maritime Canada saw immigrants from far off long before the seventeenth century.

Later on, as European shipbuilding improved, fishing craft ventured further into the North Atlantic. Several historians have pointed to evidence that British, French, and Portuguese fishing fleets used harbors along the northeast coast of North America as stopping places where water casks could be refilled and food restocked by barter with the native peoples. Some of the enigmatic stone ruins along the coast may have been built by fishermen who over-wintered in the New World, or set up facilities to process catches before sailing home to Europe.

The voyage of Henry Sinclair, Earl of Orkney, to the shores of America in 1398 followed these fishing routes. According to the record of his Venetian navigator Niccolo Zeno, the main source for the voyage, Sinclair sailed west from Orkney with 12 ships, wintered over in Nova Scotia, and sailed south as far as Massachusetts before returning to Europe. Here the evidence of Zeno’s written account combines with something far more concrete – the image of a figure in fifteenth-century armor, hammered painstakingly into a rock face near Waterford, Massachusetts, where it can still be seen today. According to Zeno’s account this was the burial effigy of Sir James Gunn, one of Sinclair’s companions. See Sinclair family.

The Pacific Ocean may seem like a much greater barrier than the Atlantic, but solid evidence exists for crossings to America from the west. Several plant crops from southeastern Asia, such as cotton and sweet potato, were grown in Mexico and South America before 1492; crops don’t cross oceans by themselves, so clearly somebody brought them. The most likely candidates are the Polynesians, who crossed vast stretches of open ocean centuries before European mariners first dared to sail out of sight of land. Linguistic and technological evidence suggests that several Polynesian voyages reached America well before Columbus did.

Japanese and Chinese sailors seem to have accomplished the same feat. The Kuroshio Current, one of the great Pacific currents, sweeps past Japan and the eastern shores of Asia, arcs across the northern Pacific, and flows down the western coasts of North and South America. Most people who grew up near the beaches of Washington and Oregon state, as the present author did, remember beachcombing for blown glass fishing-net floats from Japanese fishing vessels; lost in the Aleutians or the waters off Japan, the floats followed the Kuroshio around to the beaches of the Pacific Northwest. The same current brought scores of Japanese fishing vessels to America in historic times, and doubtless did so earlier as well. The language of the Zuñi people of New Mexico shares hundreds of words with medieval Japanese, and Zuñi religion and culture combine Japanese and Native American elements; in her book The Zuñi Enigma, Nancy Yaw Davis has argued that the Zuñi emerged out of the fusion of a native tribe with voyagers from Japan who landed on the California coast in the Middle Ages and moved inland.

Chinese contact with the New World may date back many centuries further. Old Chinese myths speak of a wonderful land across the Pacific, the paradise of the goddess Hsi Wang Mu, and voyagers seeking the peaches of immortality sailed east from China’s shores in search of that far country for more than two thousand years. Physical traces ranging from Chinese coins to stone anchors from Chinese oceangoing junks have been found along the coasts of North and South America. While some recent claims for Chinese overseas voyages appear overstated, a Chinese presence on the western shores of the New World is hard to dismiss.

All these are tolerably well supported by evidence. The literature on voyages to the New World before 1492, however, includes literally thousands of other claims. Some of these may well be true. The fact that some people from the Old World reached America before Columbus, though, does not mean that all the claims are true. This should be obvious, but today’s alternative history literature demonstrates that it is not obvious enough. Claims that the Knights Templars had an overseas empire in the New World, for example, are based on a series of unlikely assumptions about seventeenth-century pirates and Masonic symbolism, a legend about a non-existent Templar Atlantic fleet, and very little more, except the fact that books on Templars are a hot commodity in the alternative scene nowadays. Equally, claims that ancient Egyptians (who stopped building pyramids around 2000 BCE) must have crossed the Atlantic to teach the Mayans (who started building their own, very different pyramids around the beginning of the Common Era) rest on wild assumptions, not evidence. See Egypt; Knights Templar; skull and crossbones.

Further reading: Davis 2000, Pohl 1974.


A competitor to the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the American Order of Clansmen was founded in San Francisco in 1915 as a “patriotic, social and benevolent secret society.” The year is significant, since 1915 saw the appearance of the movie Birth of a Nation, a masterpiece of racist propaganda that portrayed the original Ku Klux Klan of the post-Civil War South as heroic defenders of white culture against bestial black hordes. Birth of a Nation inspired Col. William Simmons to launch the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the most successful Klan revival, in Georgia, and probably played the same role on the other side of the country in bringing the American Order of Clansmen into being. See Ku Klux Klan.

Under pressure from the revived Klan, the American Order reorganized itself as a fraternal beneficiary order in 1919, discarded the white robes and hoods of the original Klan, and focused on patriotic causes. Never very large or successful, it seems to have gone out of existence sometime in the 1920s.


See Know-Nothing Party.


Founded at Clinton, Iowa in 1887, the APA was an anti-Catholic secret society motivated by fears that the Roman Catholic Church sought to dominate American politics and erase barriers between church and state. It pursued immigration restrictions, removal of tax exemption from Catholic churches, and “public inspection of all private institutions where persons of either sex are secluded, with or against their will” (a reference to media stories about Catholic monasteries and nunneries). By 1896 it had a membership between one and two million, and could count 20 known members in the US Congress. See Roman Catholic Church.

Unlike the revived Ku Klux Klan, which took up the anti-Catholic banner after the First World War, the APA did not combine its anti-Catholicism with racism; in northern states, black men were admitted to full membership, while south of the Mason–Dixon line the APA organized separate white and black Councils (local lodges). The APA remained a significant force in American politics until the First World War but was eclipsed thereafter. See Ku Klux Klan.


A secret society organized and operated by the US government, the American Protective League was founded in 1917 after the American declaration of war on Germany. Under the auspices of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), responsible for counterintelligence work on US soil, the APL recruited volunteers as unpaid secret agents for the duration of the war. Each member had a number, and reported suspicious activities to his or her captain, who forwarded them to the local FBI office.

The APL had 250,000 members by the end of the war. In February 1919, the FBI dissolved it and issued colorful certificates to each of its members. As far as can be determined, the APL’s activities did not result in the arrest of a single spy or the prevention of a single act of sabotage. When the Second World War broke out, the experiment was not repeated.


The successful insurgency of American colonists against British rule between 1775 and 1782 has been cited far more rarely by historical conspiracy theorists as an example of secret society interference in politics than the French Revolution that broke out less than a decade later. This is ironic, because – while the role of secret societies in the French Revolution is ambiguous at best – the American Revolution was unquestionably planned and carried out by well-documented secret societies.

The origins of the American Revolution can be traced to British colonial policy under the Tory governments favored by King George III. British attempts to restrict colonists’ westward expansion combined with unpopular tax policies to produce widespread resentment against British rule. The British responded with military repression, and the colonists countered with boycotts and the first outbreaks of violence.

In the midst of this rising spiral of confrontation, at least two significant secret societies took shape. The first of these organizations was the Committees of Correspondence. Largely drawn from the landowners and educated classes, the Committees coordinated political action across the 13 colonies and kept each colony abreast of radical activities and British government responses throughout America. Many members of the Committees ended up becoming delegates to the Continental Congresses of the war years and the Constitutional Convention that followed. See Committees of Correspondence.

The second of these organizations was the Sons of Liberty, a radical organization centered in Boston, the hotbed of colonial radicalism. The Sons of Liberty drew most of its membership from the urban middle classes and pursued a radical line, favoring independence while most colonists still hoped for an improved relationship with Britain. Terrorist actions against British property were a Sons of Liberty hallmark, with the famous Boston Tea Party – the dumping of three shiploads of imported tea into Boston Harbor to protest a tax on tea – their most famous act. During the last months before the outbreak of war, the Sons of Liberty organized armed bands that became the nucleus of the colonial army. See Sons of Liberty.

Both these societies had connections to Freemasonry, but the role of the Craft in the American Revolution was an ambivalent one. Most of the upper-level leadership of American Masonry on the eve of the Revolution sided with Britain, but many ordinary Masons supported independence. George Washington was a Mason, as were 32 other generals in the Continental Army and 8 members of Washington’s personal staff. Benjamin Franklin, ambassador to France and architect of the Franco-American alliance that won independence, was not only a Freemason but a member of the prestigious Loge des Neuf Soeurs in Paris, as well as a member of the Friars of St Francis of Wycombe, better known as the Hell-Fire Club. See Franklin, Benjamin; Freemasonry; Hell-Fire Club.

The war years saw the Sons of Liberty and Committees of Correspondence absorbed completely into the Continental Army and the emerging government; once their purpose was fulfilled, these secret societies faded away. Freemasonry became popular during and after the Revolution, but its popularity did not prevent it from becoming the target of a New England witch-hunt in the late 1790s and a systematic attempt at extinction by the Antimasonic Party of the 1830s. See Antimasonic Party; Antimasonry.


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A major political force in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, anarchism was communism’s most important rival in the struggle to define and control the Left, and gave rise to important political secret societies. Its principal founder was French philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809–65), who argued that all legal systems are methods by which the rich oppress the poor, and a just society could only be founded on the basis of voluntary associations. Proudhon’s famous What is Property? (1840) argued that “property is theft” and that systems that give ownership of land and other necessities to a few are simply methods of institutionalized robbery.

After Proudhon, anarchism developed in two main directions, and the most important figure in each was a Russian. Prince Pyotr Kropotkin (1842–1921), the doyen of pacifist anarchism, argued for an ideal state in which government and private property would alike be abolished, removing the causes of crime and violence. His older contemporary Mikhail Bakunin (1814–76) argued instead for the violent overthrow of every government. Bakunin was the head of the International Brothers, a revolutionary secret society, and his writings helped inspire a wave of political violence in the late nineteenth century carried out by anarchist and Nihilist secret societies. See International Brothers; Nihilists.

All through the late nineteenth century, anarchist and communist groups struggled for control of labor unions and left-wing political parties in Europe and America, and only the victory of the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Russian civil war that followed it made communism the standard doctrine of the far left in the middle years of the twentieth century. Despite a small resurgence of interest during the 1960s, anarchism never regained the ground it lost and remains mostly the concern of historians of ideas today. See Communism.

Further reading: Joll 1980, Wells 1987.


The most influential of the concordant bodies of Freemasonry in the United States and one of the most important Masonic rites worldwide, the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite was founded in Charleston, South Carolina in 1802 by a group of Freemasons who had received a charter to work the Rite of Perfection, a system of high degrees from France that claimed descent from the medieval Knights Templar but actually had their roots in the Jacobite Masonry of the mid-eighteenth century. They obtained several additional degrees from various sources, expanding their Rite from the 25 degrees worked by the Rite of Perfection to 33. Recruitment was slow, and for decades the Scottish Rite ranked as one of the minor rites in American Freemasonry. It has two jurisdictions in America, Northern and Southern; the Northern, despite the name, includes only those northern states east of the Mississippi River, so that Scottish Rite Masons in Alaska belong to the Southern Jurisdiction. See Freemasonry; Jacobites; Rite of Perfection; Scottish degrees.

The transformation that turned the Scottish Rite into one of the world’s most successful Masonic rites was the work of one man, Albert Pike (1809–91). Pike joined the Scottish Rite in 1853 and rose quickly through its ranks, becoming Sovereign Grand Commander of the Southern Jurisdiction in 1859. He completely rewrote the Rite’s initiation rituals, replacing dull and turgid language with genuine poetry and inserting a great deal of occult philosophy into the ceremonies. In addition, his Morals and Dogma (1871) – a commentary on the Scottish Rite degrees – is one of the classics of nineteenth-century occultism. It has been said, with some justice, that Pike “found the Scottish Rite in a log cabin and left it in a Temple.” See Pike, Albert.

Pike envisioned the Scottish Rite as the university of Freemasonry, a body in which those Masons interested in the philosophical and spiritual dimensions of the Craft could work their way through degrees that summed up the moral and intellectual heritage of the western world. During his time, Scottish Rite lodges met in buildings owned by other Masonic bodies, and Pike wrote movingly of the simplicity and dignity of the rituals. Under Pike and his successors, the Rite spread to many other countries, and Supreme Councils were chartered in Europe, South America and Australasia.

Pike’s immediate successors in the American jurisdictions lacked his vision, but for the most part they followed the precedents he had set. Starting in the decades after Pike’s death, however, the Rite gradually took on a more active political stance and entered into a long-running feud against the Roman Catholic Church. Masonic bitterness about the Vatican’s hostility toward Masonry goes back centuries, but in early twentieth century American opposition to Catholicism also served to cloak racist attitudes toward Irish, Italian, and Hispanic immigrants. Successive Sovereign Grand Commanders in the Southern Jurisdiction used the Rite’s resources to disseminate anti-Catholic propaganda and lobby against parochial schools. See Roman Catholic Church.

The Scottish Rite’s opposition toward Catholicism became a severe liability in the 1920s when it brought the Rite into a tacit alliance with the revived Ku Klux Klan. The Klan shared the Rite’s anti-Catholic sentiments, and white Masons’ hostility toward black Prince Hall Masonry rendered the Rite’s leadership as well as its ordinary members vulnerable to the Klan’s blandishments. During the mid-1920s several members of the Southern Jurisdiction’s Supreme Council were also Klansmen, and one of them simultaneously headed the Scottish Rite and the Klan in his home state. As the Klan’s dubious activities came to light in the media in the second half of the decade, embarrassed Scottish Rite leaders and members alike concealed their Klan involvements, but the Rite’s reputation suffered. See Ku Klux Klan; Prince Hall Masonry.

The difficulties caused by the Rite’s short-lived rapprochement with the Klan proved to be transitory. By the end of the twentieth century, though, the Rite in America faced problems that offered no easy solutions. The roots of the predicament reached back to the beginning of the century, and grew out of the soaring popularity of the Scottish Rite in those years. Faced with hundreds of enthusiastic new members, most American Scottish Rite units began to confer the degrees as theatrical performances in which new members simply sat through a series of ritual plays, standing at intervals to join in when it was time to take the obligations of each degree. At the same time, the once-mandatory time between degrees went by the wayside, and new rules allowed most of the degrees to be skipped, so that only five degrees – 4°, 14°, 18°, 30°, and 32° – were required. By the middle of the twentieth century new members of the Rite in America went from 3°, Master Mason, to 32°, Master of the Royal Secret, in a single weekend, or even a single day, by sitting in an auditorium and watching five rituals performed on stage.

These changes went as far as they did because the Scottish Rite in America during this time had become economically dependent on another Masonic concordant body, the Ancient Arabic Order of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine. The Shriners had golf courses and other members-only recreational facilities that offered a powerful draw to the middle-class and middle-aged men who made up the majority of American Masons. Membership in the Shrine was available only to Masons who held either the 32° of the Scottish Rite or the Knight Templar degree of the York Rite, but most Shriners had little interest in Freemasonry – in the late 1950s, 92 percent of Shriners never set foot inside a Masonic lodge meeting and 95 percent never attended meetings of Scottish Rite or York Rite bodies after their initiation. The Scottish Rite capitalized on this by simplifying the process so that Master Masons could qualify for Shrine membership after a single weekend of Scottish Rite degrees. This brought the Rite a steady income from hundreds of thousands of members who had no interest in the Rite itself but paid their dues every year to maintain their standing in the Shrine. See Ancient Arabic Order of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine (AAONMS).

All this changed abruptly in 2000 when the Shrine, faced with declining membership on its own account, changed its rules to allow Master Masons to join without going through the Scottish or York Rites first. Enrollment in the Scottish Rite, already dwindling at that time, plummeted thereafter. While the Rite’s survival in the United States is probably not at risk, it seems likely to shrink to a small percentage of its peak size during the next few decades.

Outside the United States, the Rite’s history has followed different paths. In Latin America, the Scottish Rite is far and away the most popular branch of Masonry, and most Masonic lodges are affiliated with it. In the years following the Soviet Union’s collapse the Rite succeeded in expanding into eastern European countries formerly closed to Masonry, including Russia itself, and seems to be taking a similar role there. In Britain, by contrast, the Rite has restricted its membership to Christians, limited access to its degrees, and dropped the word “Scottish” from its name, referring to itself as the Ancient and Accepted Rite; it remains a relatively small Masonic body there.

Further reading: Brockman 1996, Hutchens 1995, Pike 1871.


The premier burlesque order in Freemasonry, the Ancient Arabic Order of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine – the Shriners, for short – was founded in New York City in 1871 by Dr. Walter Fleming (1838–1913) and a circle of Masonic friends who met for lunch at the Knickerbocker Cottage, a popular restaurant. In its early years, the new organization claimed to be exactly what it was – a social drinking club for high-ranking Freemasons invented in the early 1870s – and for that reason attracted little attention. See burlesque degrees; Freemasonry.

In 1877, however, Fleming realized that this was a mistake and invented a romantic origin story for the Shriners, tracing it back to an Arab secret society of the Middle Ages that allegedly still had branches all over the Muslim world. Official letters from these branches were published in the Shrine’s official proceedings for several years; despite historical and linguistic howlers most high school students of the time would have easily caught, they gave the Shriners the exotic origin and history that potential candidates wanted. See origin stories.

The result was an immediate and dramatic expansion in Shriner numbers, and the founding of dozens of new Temples (local lodges) across North America. The Shrine restricted its membership to Freemasons who had received either the 32° of the Scottish Rite or the Knight Templar degree of the York Rite, but even this attempt at exclusivity failed to slow down the Shrine’s expansion. The Scottish Rite simply streamlined its initiation process to enable Master Masons to qualify for Shrine membership after a single weekend of Scottish Rite degree ceremonies, and profited handsomely from initiation fees and annual dues paid by men whose access to the Shrine depended on Scottish Rite membership. See Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite; York Rite.

For the first half of its existence, if not more, the Shrine existed primarily as an excuse for partying and drinking on a heroic scale. By the early 1880s the annual convention of the Imperial Council, the international governing body of the Shrine, had already earned a reputation as the wildest party in American fraternalism. “Water from the well of Zumzum” and “camel’s milk,” the standard Shriner euphemisms for alcohol, flowed with such abandon at Shrine events that other Masonic bodies criticized the Shrine for its effect on the reputation of Freemasonry.

The Shrine’s role as the premier Masonic drinking club, though, gave way to charitable fundraising as the twentieth century went on. Charitable projects became a focus of Shrine activity from 1888, when Shriners raised money nationwide to help Jacksonville, Florida deal with a devastating yellow fever epidemic. In 1930, the Imperial Council launched a program to build and fund free children’s hospitals. More than 20 Shrine hospitals and burn clinics in cities around North America now provide free treatment to children in the largest charity program operated by any fraternal organization in the world.

These programs cost immense amounts of money, and Shrine Temples across the continent invested equally large sums in golf courses, clubhouses, and recreational facilities to attract and keep members. During the first two-thirds of the twentieth century this strategy paid off handsomely, but the social changes of the 1960s posed challenges that an organization composed mostly of middle-aged, socially conservative, white businessmen was poorly equipped to face. Membership peaked in the 1970s and began an inexorable decline. In 2000, in an attempt to boost membership, the Imperial Council removed the longstanding requirement for Shriners to hold high Scottish Rite or York Rite degrees. This had a drastic impact on the Scottish Rite, which suffered sharp membership losses thereafter, but had little impact on the decline in Shrine membership. While Shrine hospitals, burn centers, and other charities have large trust funds supporting them, the survival of the Shrine itself is more and more in question.

In the realm of American conspiracy theory, however, the Shrine has come to play an increasingly important part in recent years. Like the other branches of Freemasonry, it has attracted plenty of attention from antimasonic crusaders, and more recently it has been listed as one of the organizations suspected of stage-managing the New World Order. Several recent books have claimed that Shrine Headquarters in Chicago contains a working replica of the original Ark of the Covenant, which top-level Shriners use to communicate with aliens from other worlds – an interesting claim, since the Shrine moved its headquarters to Tampa, Florida in 1978. See Ark of the Covenant; extraterrestrials; New World Order.

Further reading: van Deventer 1964.


A short-lived but influential British Druid order, the AAOD was founded in 1874 by Robert Wentworth Little (1840–78), an avid Freemason who also founded the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia (SRIA). Like many Masons of his time, Little believed that Freemasonry had inherited the assembled wisdom of many ancient Pagan mysteries, and he was also influenced by theorists in the Druid Revival who presented ancient Celtic Druidry as a system of initiation parallel to Freemasonry. Another influence was the Ancient Order of Druids, founded outside Masonry in 1781. See Ancient Order of Druids (AOD); Druid Revival; Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia (SRIA).

While many members of the original AAOD came from within Masonry, Masonic affiliation was not originally required to join. In 1886, however, the governing Grand Grove of the order voted to change its name to the Ancient Masonic Order of Druids (AMOD) and expel all members who were not Master Masons in good standing. Nearly two-thirds of the order’s members quit at that point, and formed a new organization under the original name, which continued in existence until sometime around 1900. The AMOD still exists as a Masonic side degree in Britain.


See Druid Circle of the Universal Bond.


See Bavarian Illuminati.


The most successful of American Rosicrucian orders, the Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis was founded in 1925 in Tampa, Florida by Harvey Spencer Lewis (1883–1939), an advertising executive with a longtime interest in the occult. He claimed Rosicrucian initiations from Europe and a lineage dating back to Akhenaten, the “heretic pharaoh” of Egypt, but the actual origins of AMORC are a good deal less exotic. The process of AMORC’s evolution began in 1904, when Lewis founded an organization called the New York Institute for Psychical Research. Despite the scientific name, this was an occult study group with a particular interest in Rosicrucian traditions. See Akhenaten; Rosicrucians.

In 1915, Lewis contacted Theodor Reuss, founder and head of the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), and received a charter for an OTO lodge. This action brought him into the middle of the feud then under way between Reuss and Aleister Crowley, over the latter’s attempt to turn the OTO into a vehicle for his new religion of Thelema. Crowley, who spent most of the First World War in America, attempted to recruit Lewis in 1918 but was rebuffed. Lewis’s efforts on behalf of Reuss’s branch of the OTO had little effect, however. In 1918 the New York City police raided his offices and arrested Lewis, charging him with selling fraudulent initiations. The charges were dropped, but Lewis relocated to San Francisco immediately thereafter. In 1925 he moved to Tampa, Florida and formally established an occult secret society of his own, the Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (AMORC). He soon discovered that the market for occult correspondence courses was concentrated on the west coast, and relocated to San Jose, California in 1927. AMORC’s international headquarters remained there until 1990, and its North American operations are still based there. See Crowley, Aleister; Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO); Reuss, Theodor.

Like most American occult orders of the time, AMORC used the correspondence-course model for recruitment and training. Advertisements in popular magazines offered a series of study-by-mail courses to prospective members, and those who completed the introductory courses were authorized to join a local group if one existed in their area, or help found one if one did not. Another standard procedure was the use of different titles and privileges for local lodges depending on their number of members, as an incentive to local recruitment; in AMORC’s case it took 15 members to form a Pronaos, 30 to form a Chapter that could work the first of the Temple degrees, and 50 to form a Lodge that could confer the degree rituals.

Lewis’s prior experience in the advertising industry gave him an advantage over his competitors. By the early 1930s AMORC was the largest occult order in America, and was expanding into foreign markets as well. The order did particularly well in France. Through this French connection AMORC unwittingly played a minor role in launching one of the most colorful hoaxes of recent years; see Priory of Sion.

Though AMORC’s overseas expansion drew on the same methods that had made it successful in the American market, connections with existing European secret societies also played a part. Lewis built on his links with OTO lodges in Germany, headed by Heinrich Tränker (1880–1956) after Theodor Reuss’s death in 1921, and also pushed the organization of an international Rosicrucian federation, the Fédération Universelle des Ordres et Sociétés Initiatiques (FUDOSI). These links with French occult sources brought Lewis into contact with the Martinist movement, and he quickly established a Martinist organization, the Traditional Martinist Order (TMO), open only to AMORC members. See Martinism.

AMORC’s rapid expansion brought it unfriendly attention from its main American competitor, R. Swinburne Clymer’s Fraternitas Rosae Crucis (FRC). From 1928 on, Clymer made common cause with disaffected ex-members of AMORC and circulated allegations that Lewis’s order was simply a moneymaking scheme with no right to call itself Rosicrucian. Lewis responded in kind. The American occult press was enlivened for years by vitriolic blasts and counterblasts from the two orders, with Max Heindel’s Rosicrucian Fellowship an occasional target from both sides. See Fraternitas Rosae Crucis (FRC); Rosicrucian Fellowship.

During the 1930s AMORC expanded its San Jose headquarters to include a planetarium, a museum, and a college for Rosicrucian studies, where courses on practical laboratory alchemy were taught during the following decade. Lewis also found time to involve himself in lost continent literature, publishing a book on Lemuria under a pseudonym. Longtime residents of the Mount Shasta area have described AMORC expeditions in the 1930s searching for entrances to the Lemurian cities in the mountain. See Alchemy; Lemuria.

On Lewis’s death in 1939, his son, Ralph M. Lewis, became Grand Imperator of AMORC. Under the younger Lewis’s leadership, AMORC continued expanding into the international market, translating its” correspondence-course material into scores of languages and marketing the order in any country that allowed it. By the time Ralph Lewis died in 1987, AMORC had members in over 100 countries and a secure place in the American occult scene.

Lewis was succeeded as Grand Imperator by Gary L. Stewart. In 1990, however, Stewart was deposed by AMORC’s board amid charges of embezzlement. He was replaced by Christian Bernard, the head of AMORC’s French branch, who remains Imperator as at the time of writing. The legal wrangling around Stewart’s removal from office brought AMORC a certain amount of bad publicity and some loss in membership, and the attrition suffered by most of the older occult secret societies since the 1970s has also taken its toll. AMORC nonetheless remains a significant presence worldwide.

Further reading: Lewis 1948, McIntosh 1997.

Ancient Noble Order of Gormogons

A short-lived rival to Freemasonry, the Ancient Noble Order of Gormogons surfaced in the fall of 1724, announcing itself to the world in a London newspaper. The announcement claimed that the Gormogons were founded “many thousand years before Adam” by Chin-Quaw Ky-Po, the first emperor of China, and had just been brought to England by a Chinese mandarin. The article solicited new members but warned them that Freemasons would only be admitted if they renounced Masonry and were expelled from their lodges. A later article announced that the same mandarin was on his way to Rome, where he expected to initiate the Pope and the entire College of Cardinals into the Gormogons. See Freemasonry.

Behind these claims lay a complex political drama. The founder of the Gormogons was Philip, Duke of Wharton, a leader of the Jacobites, the supporters of the exiled House of Stuart. Wharton had a complex career in the secret societies of early eighteenth-century England. He founded the Hell-Fire Club in London in 1719 and closed it down in 1720. Apparently reformed, he was elected Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of England in 1722, but stormed out of Masonry the following year upon the publication of the first Book of Constitutions, which committed the Craft to “obedience to the civil government” and closed lodges to religious and political agitation. The Gormogons was his attempt at a rival organization, linked with the Stuart cause. See Hell-Fire Club; Jacobites.

The Gormogons carried on a lively propaganda campaign against Freemasonry, backed by money from Jacobites in the gentry and nobility. The order was never more than a private project of Wharton’s, however, and on his death in 1731 the Gormogons seem to have quietly disbanded. The idea of a Stuart Masonry, however, was taken up in France a few years later with Andrew Ramsay’s famous oration of 1736 and the creation of the first versions of Templar Masonry. See Knights Templar; Ramsay, Andrew Michael.


The oldest firmly documented Druid organization in the world, the Ancient Order of Druids was founded in 1781, probably by a London carpenter, Henry Hurle, and a group of friends. Looking for a name and appropriate imagery for his new group, Hurle hit on the ancient Druids, who had become a fashionable property in the romantic fiction of the time. An initiation ritual was soon devised, extolling the exploits of the ancient Druid leader Togodubeline – a name concocted from the first half of Togodumnus, an ancient Briton mentioned by Julius Caesar, and the second half of Cymbeline, the title character in one of Shakespeare’s plays.

The AOD in its early days used the King’s Arms tavern in central London as their meeting place, but the order soon found itself chartering new groves (local lodges) and established a Grand Grove to administer the order. Growth led to controversies; many of the new order’s members, like its founder, came from the working classes, and by 1800 many groves were agitating for the establishment of a system of sickness and funeral benefits modeled on those of the Odd Fellows, the premier working-class secret society in Britain at that time. The leaders of the AOD, mostly drawn from the gentry, rejected this plan and tried to limit recruitment from the working classes. Finally, in 1833, most of the order’s members broke away from the AOD to found a new society, the United Ancient Order of Druids (UAOD). The UAOD quickly eclipsed its parent in size and influence and went on to become the largest Druid order in the world for more than a century. See Odd Fellowship; United Ancient Order of Druids (UAOD).

The AOD survived the defection of its working-class members, and continued to work along its original lines. Through much of the nineteenth century it drew most of its membership from the London theatrical world. The dubious social standing of the theatre at that time inspired the Freemason and Rosicrucian Robert Wentworth Little (1840–78) to found a competing Druid organization, the Ancient and Archaeological Order of Druids (AAOD), in 1874. Despite this competition, the AOD has remained quietly active up to the present. See Ancient and Archaeological Order of Druids (AAOD).


Originally chartered as the American branch of the Ancient Masonic Order of Druids (AMOD), the Ancient Order of Druids in America was founded by American physician and Freemason Dr. James Manchester in Boston, Massachusetts on the summer solstice of 1912. Its membership at first came from within Masonry, but in the course of the twentieth century it drifted gradually away from a Masonic connection. In 1942 it changed its rules to allow the initiation of anyone vouched for by a Master Mason, and began admitting women; the first female Grand Archdruid, Dr. Juliet Ashley, took office in 1954. In 1976 it removed its last formal connection with Masonry and redefined itself as an esoteric religious order teaching Druid spirituality. In 2004 it incorporated as a Druid church.

Today, like most Druid organizations rooted in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Druid Revival, AODA keeps its initiation rituals private, but has few other traces of its secret society ancestry. Its teachings and most of its rituals are public. Its training program focuses on meditation, seasonal rituals, nature awareness, and lifestyle changes to help the environment, and it has a substantial online presence. See Druid Revival.


The first and one of the most popular of the insurance lodges of nineteenth-century America, the Ancient Order of United Workmen got into the insurance business almost by accident. Its founder, John Upchurch, hoped to create an organization to help mediate the growing disagreements between business and labor in late nineteenth-century America. As an incentive for workers to join his order, he set up an insurance plan into which each member put $1 on joining and another $1 any time a member died. Out of that fund, an insurance payment of at least $500 went to the surviving family of each deceased member. The order never had much impact on labor disputes, but the insurance benefit proved extremely popular and made the AOUW an immediate success. See fraternal benefit societies.

Upchurch was a Freemason, and the symbols and rituals of his order were heavily influenced by Masonry. Even the Masonic square and compasses found a place in AOUW symbolism. See Freemasonry.

By 1895, when the order was at its peak, it had nearly 320,000 members and lodges all over the United States and Canada. By that time its insurance benefit had been copied by many other orders, and its original aim of managing disputes between business and labor had helped inspire the labor union movement. The twentieth century saw the AOUW share in the decline of most fraternal orders, however, and by the beginning of the twenty-first century it counted only a few hundred members in a handful of lodges in Washington State. See labor unions.


Originally the Babylonian word for “god,” this word acquired a new meaning in many corners of the alternative-realities scene in Europe and America with the publication of Zecharia Sitchin’s book, The 12th Planet, in 1976. Sitchin argued, based on his reinterpretation of Mesopotamian mythology, that the gods of ancient Sumer and Babylon were actually extraterrestrials from Nibiru, a previously unknown planet orbiting the sun in an elliptical orbit like that of a comet. The Annunaki, who were also the biblical Nephilim, established a base on Earth in the Middle East during the Ice Ages, and manufactured humanity from the local apes as a labor force to mine minerals for shipment back to Nibiru.

Like most ancient-astronaut theories, Sitchin’s depends on the euhemerist assumptions that any divine miracle must be the product of something analogous to twentieth-century technology, and that all mythology is garbled history, lacking any more symbolic or spiritual meaning. While Sitchin believes that his theories explain Mesopotamian mythology, a case could equally be made that he has simply retold myths in the medium of science fiction. See Euhemerism.

Despite these difficulties, Sitchin’s theories have attracted a substantial following in today’s alternative-realities scene, and several other authors have borrowed liberally from his work to bolster their own theories. Among the most successful of these is David Icke, whose efforts to create a universal conspiracy theory embracing all alternative viewpoints did not neglect the Annunaki. Icke identified Sitchin’s extraterrestrial gods with the reptilians that, in his belief, are the secret masters of the world. See Reptilians.

Further reading: Icke 1999, Icke 2001, Sitchin 1976, Sitchin 1980, Sitchin 2002.


The forbidding icebound continent at the bottom of the world was a target for speculation long before its existence was even certain. Many maps from the Middle Ages and Renaissance show a continent of the right shape at the southern end of the world. In the age of European exploration, many attempts were made to find this Terra Australis Incognita (“Unknown Southern Land”), and Australia got its name when Dutch navigators thought they had happened upon its northernmost reaches. Only in the nineteenth century did sailing vessels finally brave the bitter seas and ice floes to map out the coastline of the seventh continent, yet those coastlines appear on maps from the sixteenth century and before – one of several pretty puzzles posed by the impossible knowledge in old maps. See lost civilizations.

Its inaccessibility made Antarctica a favorite setting for adventure fiction in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The coldest weather on earth and a three-mile-thick ice cap posed little trouble for writers used to spicing their stories with geographical improbabilities. The handful of barren ice-free areas along the Antarctic coast turned, in these tales, into forests hidden behind walls of ice, teeming with woolly mammoths and similar livestock; alternatively, the ice gives way to barren uplands in which lost cities wait to be discovered. In the best of these tales, H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, explorers find an obsidian city millions of years old on an ice-free plateau. Its former inhabitants, an alien race from the stars, prove to be a good deal less extinct than they look.

The appeal of Lovecraft’s story, and its many equivalents, guaranteed that its themes would find their way into twentieth-century alternative-reality theories. A document called the Hefferlin Manuscript entered circulation by the 1940s, describing the hidden Rainbow City in Antarctica, one of a network of underground cities built by Martians some two and a half million years ago. The Martians’ enemies, monstrous reptiles from Venus, also have a hidden city in Antarctica where thousands of them sleep in suspended animation, waiting for human members of sinister serpent-worshipping cults to awaken them. The name of the reptiles’ city, Kadath, is only one of many direct borrowings from Lovecraft. See Rainbow City.

Other speculations have dealt with Antarctica’s forbidding climate by suggesting that the continent was free from ice at various points in the past – a claim that has some support from science, though the current consensus rejects it. One of the old maps to show Antarctica, the Oronteus Finaeus map of 1532, portrays the Ross Sea as it would look with open water in place of the present ice sheet. Several early twentieth-century occult orders taught that Antarctica’s original name had been Isuria, and that it was ice-free and inhabited by an advanced society until it was destroyed by an immense catastrophe. Recent alternative-history literature argues similarly that Antarctica was the original Atlantis, and that it was not drowned beneath the oceans, as nearly all other accounts suggest, but flattened by a comet and then buried beneath ice as a result of the climate changes that followed. See Atlantis; earth changes.

These themes have seen their most colorful use in the neo-Nazi mythology of the “Last Battalion,” a secret Nazi military force hidden away in some secret location in the Third Reich’s last days to re-fight the Second World War. This story surfaced in the popular media in the summer of 1945, alongside claims that Hitler himself escaped Berlin and fled to an overseas refuge via U-boat. The rapid spread of variants of this story suggests that disinformation may have been involved, though Hitler’s admirers in Europe and elsewhere proved themselves ready to clutch at straws in an effort to believe their hero was still alive. See Disinformation; National Socialism.

By the 1970s accounts in neo-Nazi circles claimed that the Antarctic base was equipped with flying saucers – allegedly, secret weapons designed and tested by the Third Reich during the war years – and had links to secret underground installations in remote corners of South America and South Africa. The German scientific expedition to Antarctica in 1938 and 1939 was redefined as a reconnaissance mission to locate sites for emergency bases in case Germany lost the approaching war, while the joint American–Soviet expedition headed by Admiral Byrd in 1946 and 1947 entered the mythology as a failed attempt by the Allies to conquer the hidden Nazi redoubt. Much of this material was circulated, and may have been invented, by the pro-Nazi writers Ernst Zundel and Wilhelm Landig to encourage loyalty to the failed Nazi cause. In recent years it has been adopted by several neo-Nazi secret societies, and blended with the “occult Hitlerism” of Miguel Serrano and Savitri Devi in the new racial mythology of the Black Sun. See Black Sun; neo-Nazi secret societies; unidentified flying objects (UFOs).

Further reading: Godwin 1993, Goodrick-Clarke 2002, McKale 1981.


Founded by Austrian mystic Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925), the Anthroposophical Society was established in Dornach, Switzerland, in 1912 as a vehicle for Steiner’s system of occult theory and practice. Called Anthroposophy (“wisdom of humanity,” from Greek anthropos, “human,” and sophia, “wisdom”), this system derives partly from Steiner’s background as a Theosophist, partly from his intensive study of the writings of the German polymath Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1749–1832), and partly from Steiner’s wide acquaintance with the occult traditions of his own time. Standard Theosophical concepts such as karma, reincarnation, lost continents, root races, and spiritual evolution play a very large role in Anthroposophy, but share space with a strong if idiosyncratic Christian spirituality, in which the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth forms the central turning point in human evolution, an equivalent for the earth and humanity of the mystery initiations of ancient Greece. See mysteries, ancient; Theosophical Society.

Steiner evolved many of these ideas during his years as a Theosophist, during which he rose to the position of General Secretary of the Theosophical Society in Germany. In 1912, he broke with the Theosophical Society over the latter’s promotion of Jiddu Krishnamurti as the next World Teacher, and founded the Anthroposophical Society as an alternative. More than 90 percent of German Theosophists followed him into the new society. Steiner obtained a charter for a lodge of the Rite of Memphis and Misraim – an occult branch of Freemasonry – from German Masonic promoter Theodor Reuss, but the Anthroposophical Society ended up taking Theosophy as its model and abandoned the secret society tradition in favor of a public teaching organization with an active publishing arm. See Order of the Star in the East; Reuss, Theodor; Rite of Memphis and Misraim.

Unlike many of the offshoots of Theosophy, Steiner’s evolved a distinctive set of meditative exercises designed to foster spiritual clarity and non-physical perceptions. It also helped to inspire a remarkable range of practical applications. Steiner’s work on biodynamic agriculture helped launch the modern organic farming movement, his Waldorf schools remain a popular alternative to conventional schooling, and eurhythmy, a performing art combining dance and gesture with the spoken word, has a small but devoted following in Europe and America.

All these movements have helped channel people into the Anthroposophical Society, which remains active today. Headquartered still in Dornach, in a building designed by Steiner, the Society focuses its efforts wholly on preserving and publicizing Steiner’s legacy. This has had the predictable effect of stopping any further growth of the tradition in its tracks. As a result, while many of the practical manifestations of Steiner’s work have seen immense development over the years, Anthroposophy remains where it was at the time of Steiner’s death, and the Society has had trouble attracting followers in recent years.

Further reading: Herrnleben 2000, Steiner 1994.


According to Christian mythology, a human servant of Satan who plays a major role in the events just before the Second Coming of Christ and the end of the world. He is described in the Book of Revelations as the Beast whose number is 616 or 666 (the earliest surviving versions of the text differ on this point), and who persecutes Christians for 42 months. He receives an apparently fatal wound but then recovers. His rule finally ends when Christ returns, defeats him in the battle of Armageddon, and casts him and his minions into a lake of fire.

Many modern Bible scholars interpret the Beast as a veiled description of the Roman emperor Nero (37–68 CE), who launched the first great persecution of Christians. Believers in more fundamentalist versions of Christianity, however, treat the Book of Revelation as an accurate account of events that will happen in the future. For most of two millennia, Christian propaganda has focused on the claim that these predictions are about to be fulfilled, and identifying the Antichrist has therefore been a popular sport since the Middle Ages. Religious differences provided the material for Antichrist-baiting for most of this time; it became an item of faith for many medieval Christians that the Antichrist would be Jewish, while during the Reformation, both Martin Luther and the Pope were labeled Antichrist by their opponents.

In recent centuries, however, religious candidates for Antichrist have been outnumbered by political ones. During the English Civil War, for example, Roundhead authors named Charles I as the Antichrist, while Royalists nominated Oliver Cromwell for the same position. In the same vein, American rebels of the Revolutionary War era noted that the phrase “royal supremacy in Britain,” translated into New Testament Greek, added up to 666. Popular candidates in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries included Napoleon Bonaparte, Napoleon III of France, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, Lenin and Josef Stalin, Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and President Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt. Before his defeat in the second Gulf War, many American fundamentalists considered Saddam Hussein a major contender for the title.

In another category are volunteers for the position, a rare breed before 1900 but fairly common since then. The best known of these was English occultist Aleister Crowley. Raised in a fundamentalist Christian family where the Antichrist and the Second Coming were everyday topics of conversation, Crowley convinced himself that he was the Beast 666 whose new religion of Thelema (“will”) would replace Christianity. See Crowley, Aleister.

Belief in the imminent appearance of the Antichrist has played a major role in spreading conspiracy theories in the western world. The idea that all the real and imaginary enemies of Christianity are in league with one another, under the direction of Antichrist or his agents, has been used to justify persecution of religious minorities for centuries, from the massacres of Rhineland Jews in the eleventh century to the attempts by today’s fundamentalists to deprive Pagans of their religious liberties. Inevitably, Christian versions of the popular “New World Order” conspiracy theory feature Antichrist as a major player. See Antisemitism; fundamentalism; New World Order.

Further reading: Boyer 1992, Fuller 1995, Goldberg 2001, O’Leary 1994.


The most significant split in English Freemasonry since the founding of the first Grand Lodge in 1717, the schism between the Antients (or Ancients) and Moderns started in 1751, when a group of Irish Freemasons living in London founded the “Grand Lodge of England according to the Old Institutions.” The Antient Masons, as they called themselves, insisted that the lodges affiliated with the other Grand Lodge had abandoned the ancient landmarks of Masonry, and that they possessed the only true Masonry. A minority of English lodges left the Modern grand lodge, as the Antients called their rivals, to affiliate with the Antient grand lodge, and for more than six decades England had two feuding grand lodges of Masonry. See Freemasonry; grand lodge.

The reasons for the split were complex, and ranged from minor organizational and ritual differences to some of the most heated political issues of the day. The organizational differences reached back to the foundation of the first Grand Lodge of England in 1717. Founded by four London lodges, the Grand Lodge won the allegiance of numerous other lodges in the years that followed, but other lodges remained independent. Many members of the latter resented Grand Lodge’s claim to govern all English Freemasonry, and this resentment helped fuel the birth of the Antient Grand Lodge.

The ritual differences had their origin in 1730, when Samuel Prichard’s Masonry Dissected was printed. Prichard’s antimasonic book revealed words and symbols of certain Masonic degrees, and the Grand Lodge of England responded by changing the order of the passwords in their ritual, to prevent readers of Prichard’s book from passing for Masons. This break with tradition was rejected by the Antients, as well as by the older European Masonic jurisdictions. The Antients also had secret material that was not part of the Modern ritual at all, including an early form of the Royal Arch Degree. See Antimasonry; Royal Arch.

Behind these formal differences lay others, cultural and political. Through most of the eighteenth century English society was split between the Whigs, supporters of the victorious House of Hanover, and the Tories, who had backed the defeated House of Stuart. The Modern Grand Lodge was closely affiliated with the Whigs, the Antients with the Tories. The Antient Grand Lodge may in fact have been founded, as were many European Masonic bodies from the same time, by Jacobites (Stuart supporters) trying to recover their position after the disastrous defeat of the 1745 Jacobite rising. See Jacobites.

Only when the nineteenth century arrived and new political issues cut across the old divide did the breach between Antient and Modern Masons come to an end. The final resolution came in 1813, when the Antient Grand Lodge elected as Grand Master the Duke of Kent, one of the brothers of King George IV. The Grand Master of the Moderns at that time was the Duke of Sussex, another of George IV’s brothers, and the two worked out a compromise that created the United Grand Lodge of England, the present governing body of regular English Masonry.

The feud between Antients and Moderns had a reflection on the other side of the Atlantic. American Masonry was founded by members of both sides of the quarrel, and for many years Antient and Modern grand lodges quarreled over jurisdictions in America. The creation of the United Grand Lodge of England encouraged a resolution of these disputes, and the last state in the Union with two rival grand lodges, South Carolina, saw the two sides unite in 1817. Nearly the last remaining trace of the old quarrel is a variation among American Masonic titles; some jurisdictions refer to themselves as Free and Accepted Masons (F∴&A∴M∴), others as Ancient Free and Accepted Masons (A∴F∴&A∴M∴).


In 1900 a sponge diver in the waters off the little Greek island of Antikythera, between Kythera and Crete at the western entrance to the Aegean Sea, discovered the sunken remains of an ancient Roman ship. Along with pottery amphorae of olive oil and wine, divers found marble statues and a strange object of corroded bronze and wood. The device remained unidentified until the 1950s, when American historian Derek de Solla Price recognized it as an astronomical machine. After years of work, de Solla Price was able to show that the hand-cranked device used dials, pointers, and gears to predict movements of the sun, moon, and planets.

The Antikythera device was quickly adopted by writers in the rejected knowledge field as evidence for the presence on earth of ancient astronauts from other planets, though the idea of aliens relying on a hand-cranked bronze computer for their astronomical calculations seems unlikely. Ironically, the Roman author and statesman Cicero mentions a similar device in his writings, but scholars before de Solla Price’s time had dismissed the claim as fanciful. See rejected knowledge.


The first significant third political party in American history, the Antimasonic Party emerged out of the furor over the abduction and murder of William Morgan, a New York Mason who broke with the Craft in 1825 and wrote a book, Illustrations of Masonry, revealing Masonic rituals. Morgan disappeared in Canandaigua, New York on 12 September 1826, three months before the publication of his book, and was never seen again. See Morgan abduction.

The light sentences meted out to those convicted of Morgan’s abduction shifted attention from Morgan and his fate to claims that Masons had infiltrated state and local governments and could commit crimes with impunity. Public meetings in upstate New York, close to the scene of Morgan’s disappearance, gave rise to an organized movement. In its first days the movement was largely religious in tone, backed by the same conservative churches that have been the core of American antimasonry since colonial times. See Antimasonry.

By 1828, though, the movement had a more political cast, and set out to drive Masons from public office and pass laws proscribing Masonry. During the brief lifetime of the Antimasonic Party, from 1828 to 1838, it put one candidate in the US Senate, 24 in the House of Representatives, and one each in the governors’ mansions of New York, Vermont, and Pennsylvania. In Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania Antimasons launched investigations of Masonry in state legislatures, and in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Vermont, the party passed state laws outlawing Masonic oaths.

As a national party, though, the Antimasonic Party failed dismally. It became a real force in only five states (Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Rhode Island) and established significant party organizations in two others (Ohio and Massachusetts). It never penetrated into the southern states at all. In its sole presidential campaign, in 1832, it ran William Wirt of Maryland as its candidate and carried only the state of Vermont. After this fiasco most of its political leaders moved into the new Whig party, helping it to victory over the Democrats in 1840, while its diehard members went on to support the Know-Nothing Party’s crusade against the Catholic Church in the following decade. See Know-Nothing Party; Roman Catholic Church.

Its effects on Masonry in the United States were significant but short-lived. Faced with public pressure, sometimes backed by mob violence, Masonic lodges in the states most affected by the Antimasonic Party went into hiding, and membership in Masonic lodges declined steeply during the late 1830s and early 1840s. After the Antimasonic Party dissolved and its adherents turned their attention to new bogeymen, however, Masonry recovered swiftly, and re-established itself as America’s premier secret society.

Further reading: Vaughn 1983.


Just as Freemasonry has been the most widely copied model in the world of secret societies, reactions against it have served as a model for most agitations against secret societies. Opposition to the Craft dates back at least to the end of the seventeenth century, when the handful of existing Masonic lodges were barely noticeable in the welter of clubs and societies that filled the British social scene of the time. A London flysheet of 1698, among the first known antimasonic publications, warned “all Godly people” that “[the Masons] are the Anti-Christ which was to come leading them from fear of God. For how should they meet in secret places and with secret Signs taking care that none observe them to do the work of God; are not these the ways of Evil-dom?” (quoted in Roberts 1972, p. 59). See Antichrist; Freemasonry.

The traditional secrecy of the Craft attracted particular attention from religious authorities concerned that it might serve as a cloak for heresy. Pope Clement XII began the long tradition of Catholic antimasonry in 1738 by issuing his bull In Eminenti, excommunicating all Freemasons in the Catholic Church and restricting the power to forgive them to the Pope alone. The bull cited Masonic secrecy and rumors of Masonic misconduct, as well as the Craft’s role in bringing men of different religions together. Similar logic drove the Presbyterian Church in Scotland in 1757 to forbid its members to become Masons. See Roman Catholic Church.

Clement’s bull also referred to “other just and reasonable motives known to us” but left unnamed. Evidence suggests, though conclusive proof is lacking, that these unstated motives revolved around the exiled House of Stuart, whose claim to the British throne had Clement’s support. During the years just before In Eminenti appeared, a power struggle in French Masonry replaced Jacobite (pro-Stuart) leaders with a younger generation that sought closer ties with the Grand Lodge in London, a bastion of support for the ruling House of Hanover. A similar shift took place in Florence, where Jacobite influences in Florentine Masonic lodges yielded to a new pro-Hanoverian leadership with close ties to the English ambassador. See Jacobites.

If an undercurrent of eighteenth-century politics moves through Clement’s bull, it marks what would become a central theme of antimasonry thereafter: the political dimension. Attacks on Masonry in the 1740s pick up this theme. Les Francs-Maçons Écrasés (The Freemasons Collapsed), a piece of sensational journalism from 1747, claimed that Masonry was founded by Oliver Cromwell as part of a vast conspiracy aimed at universal equality and liberty, to be achieved by exterminating monarchs and aristocrats, and that a secret inner core of Masonic leaders still pursued these goals unbeknownst to the majority of Masons, who were kept in the dark and manipulated by the inner circle. All this echoes the great waves of antimasonic agitation of the next century, but it took a dramatic event to bring these ideas into the limelight.

This event was the exposure of the Bavarian Illuminati in 1784–6. The Illuminati had been launched in 1776 by Adam Weishaupt, a professor at the University of Ingolstadt, and a handful of his friends, using secret society methods to promote a liberal cultural and political agenda in conservative, Catholic Bavaria. As the Illuminati expanded, it infiltrated Masonic lodges in Germany, Italy, and elsewhere, and recruited influential Freemasons; advancement beyond the grade of Illuminatus Minor, in fact, required the aspiring member to join a Masonic lodge and receive the three degrees of Craft Masonry. In 1784 the Bavarian government got wind of the Illuminati and launched a campaign of repression against it. A large cache of Illuminati documents came to light in 1786 and was immediately published, provoking a furor and making conservatives across Europe worry that Freemasonry might harbor initiates with sinister agendas. See Bavarian Illuminati.

The outbreak of the French Revolution turned these suspicions into an article of faith. In 1797, in the wake of the Revolution, two writers, the French Catholic Augustin de Barruel and the Scottish Presbyterian John Robison, produced books arguing that the Illuminati had been behind it all and planned to carry out similar uprisings in every other European state; Robison claimed an Illuminati presence in America for good measure. Neither author offered any verifiable evidence for these claims, but to the conservatives of the time they offered a convenient explanation for the traumatic events in France and a useful club to belabor political opponents.

The results appeared first in New England, where a full-blown Illuminati panic, backed by conservative Christian churches, targeted Masonic lodges from 1797 to 1799. The Rev. Jedediah Morse, a leading figure in anti-Illuminati circles in New England, prefigured Senator Joseph McCarthy by claiming “I now have in my possession…an official, authenticated list of the names, ages, places of nativity, [and] professions of the officers and members of a society of Illuminati” (cited in Goldberg 2001, p. 6). While it had little impact on Masonry at the time, the Illuminati panic helped lay the foundations for later American antimasonic activities.

In Britain, fears of Illuminati activity helped push the notorious Unlawful Societies Act of 1799 through Parliament, though ironically Freemasonry was exempted from the provisions of the Act. Until 1832, when agitation over the case of the Tolpuddle Martyrs finally forced the repeal of the act, harmless fraternal benefit societies such as the Odd Fellows and Druids risked drastic legal penalties, while revolutionaries flocked to London and plotted uprisings across most of Europe from the safety of the British Library reading room. The close alliance between Masonry and the political establishment in England helped stymie the hopes of antimasons in the British Isles until the late twentieth century.

In the United States, however, the fractured politics of the early Republic and the presence of powerful, conservative churches hostile to Masonic principles of toleration and free thought made open warfare on Masonry a political possibility. This first became apparent after the Morgan abduction of 1826, a celebrated case in which a Mason who had written a book revealing Masonic secrets was abducted and allegedly murdered by other Masons. The Morgan affair launched a crusade against Masonry, first by conservative Christians and then by the first significant third political party in American history, the Antimasonic Party. In the decade of the party’s existence, it managed to pass laws banning Masonic oaths in several states, and public pressure and occasional mob violence by party members and supporters forced many lodges to disband or operate in secret. See Antimasonic Party; Morgan abduction.

The Antimasonic Party collapsed in the early 1830s as new crises, above all the rising debate between North and South over the issue of slavery, took antimasonry’s place in the public eye. By the time of the American Civil War, Masonry had recovered all the ground lost during the 1820s and 1830s, and the end of the war in 1865 marked the beginning of the golden age of American fraternal orders. By 1920, when fraternalism peaked in America, 50 percent of all adult Americans – counting both sexes and all ethnic groups – belonged to at least one fraternal order. During those years Freemasonry was always either the largest or the second largest secret society in America, with the Independent Order of Odd Fellows its only serious rival for the top position. Antimasonic agitation continued during this period as a pet cause of Christian fundamentalists, but found few listeners outside those circles. See Odd Fellowship.

In continental Europe and Latin America, by contrast, antimasonry remained a live issue all through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The hostility of the Catholic Church toward Masonry helped drive antimasonic movements, but another important factor was the role of Masonry as an institution of the educated middle classes. In England and the United States, these classes already had a share in government and Freemasonry quickly lost any political agenda it might have had. Wherever aristocrats or the military monopolized political power, however, Masonic lodges tended to serve as the seedbeds for middle-class political organizations and revolutionary movements. Thus political conservatives denounced Freemasonry as a liberal conspiracy, while Catholic priests condemned it as an anti-Christian religion. Where these two came together, the results were sometimes comical; Léo Taxil’s remarkable Palladian hoax of the 1880s, which sent devout Catholics hunting for an imaginary secret society of Satanist sex fiends, is a case in point. Still, as the events of the following century proved all too clearly, such claims contained an enormous potential for human tragedy. See Palladian Order.

These forms of antimasonry entered public discourse worldwide once the Russian revolution of 1917 cleared the way for a new outburst of conspiracy theories. Conservatives who had dismissed Marxism as a hopeless folly backed only by idealists panicked when Russian Marxists overthrew the most autocratic regime in Europe. The trauma of revolution and the real threat posed by Russia’s new rulers to the stability of a Europe shattered by the First World War fed into old fantasies of subversion by secret societies. Freemasonry inevitably came in for its share of the resulting paranoia, even though the Communist government in Russia suppressed Masonry savagely once it seized power. See Communism.

Nesta Webster (1876–1960), the doyenne of twentieth-century British conspiratologists, played a central role in this process by reworking the old claims of de Barruel and Robison to fit a new era. Her Secret Societies and Subversive Movements (1922), the most influential conspiracy-theory book of the century, argued that every secret society, past and present, pursued a common plan of subversion and revolution against the political and religious establishments of the world. Webster saw Freemasonry as one wing of the vast Jewish-Satanist-Communist conspiracy, but singled it out as a significant force in the French Revolution and the deliberate destruction of the British Empire. In Germany a similar set of ideas became the foundation of Nazi ideology and provided justifications for the Nazi suppression of Freemasonry. See National Socialism.

After the Second World War, these views became central to the worldview of extreme conservatives everywhere. In a startling twist, the same ideas found a new home on the far left in the 1970s, as the collapse of Marxist orthodoxy after the failure of the New Left of the 1960s left a vacuum that was readily filled by conspiracy theories. By the last years of the twentieth century, the far left and far right both believed that an invisible government of bankers and industrialists, descended from the Bavarian Illuminati, functioned as the world’s unseen puppet masters, the driving force behind the dreaded New World Order, and Freemasons were cited by both camps as one arm of the universal conspiracy. Ironically, even the extreme right-wing John Birch Society has been tarred as an agent of the New World Order because some of its members have been Freemasons. See John Birch Society; New World Order.

At the same time, and once again at both ends of the political spectrum, these views blended with a dizzying range of alternative-reality claims to create conspiracy theories resembling exotic science fiction. The leading figure in this movement is the British writer David Icke, a former football commentator and Green Party candidate turned conspiracy hunter, whose many books argue that the world is secretly controlled by a race of shape-shifting alien lizards from the constellation Draco who disguise themselves as human beings. The House of Windsor, the Bush family in America, and essentially every other family in the world with political or economic influence, according to Icke, belong to this reptilian race. Freemasonry once again plays a significant role in these ideas, as a major reptilian stronghold. As weird as these claims may seem, they have attracted a sizeable following in recent years. See Reptilians.

Another source of exotic claims about Freemasonry is the Satanic ritual abuse industry, which claims that thousands or millions of children are being raped and ritually murdered by elusive cultists. While these accusations are usually aimed at Satanists, a subset within the industry accuses Freemasons of engaging in these crimes. Partly overlapping with the Satanic ritual abuse furor is Christian fundamentalism, which has long taken offense at Freemasonry’s advocacy of tolerance and freedom of conscience. A vast amount of fundamentalist literature condemns Freemasonry as a non- or even anti-Christian religion. Acting on these arguments, the Southern Baptist Convention – one of the largest conservative Protestant bodies in North America – adopted policies in 1993 and 1998 defining Freemasonry as incompatible with membership in Baptist churches. Several other conservative Christian churches in America and elsewhere have taken similar stands. See fundamentalism; Satanism.

Less focused but more pervasive is a widespread feeling among the general public in most of the world’s nations that Freemasons are powerful, sinister, and suspect. Recent demands by British politicians that Masonic lodges should be forced to submit their membership lists to the police, and that Masons should be excluded from any public position where they might treat other Masons with undue favoritism, stem from this sense. Ironically, these suspicions have become widespread just as Masonry itself has become weaker, losing members and influence in an age that offers little support to fraternal orders of any kind.

Further reading: Ankerberg and Weldon 1990, Roberts 1972, Vaughn 1983.


One of the oldest and most pervasive conspiracy theories in the western world is the claim that people of the Jewish faith are engaged in a sinister plot against the rest of the world. While antisemitism as it exists today is mostly a product of the repeated clashes between Judaism and its prodigal offspring, Christianity, prejudice against Jews has ancient roots. In Hellenistic Egypt, centuries before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, native Egyptians believed that Jews served the evil desert-god Set; their logic seems to have been that since Jews refused to worship the Egyptian gods, they must be on the side of the traditional enemy of the gods.

These attitudes were adopted into Christianity early on, and, in fact, Egypt’s role as an early center of Christianity may have helped start the long and inglorious tradition of Christian antisemitism. By the early Middle Ages, certainly, many Christians had convinced themselves that Jews worshipped Satan and were personally responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus. These attitudes helped fuel bouts of persecution and mass murder of Jews through the course of the Middle Ages, especially in Germany, where entire Jewish communities in cities along the Rhine were massacred at the end of the eleventh century by Christians on their way to the First Crusade.

The Black Death of 1345–50 brought a new wave of persecutions as Jews, among other outcast groups in medieval society, were accused of causing the pandemic by poisoning wells. By the fifteenth century, though, Christians had turned their attention to a new set of scapegoats, as the age of witchcraft persecutions began. Jews continued to suffer from persecution during the later Middle Ages and the Renaissance, but in western Europe, at least, popular opinion turned gradually against the more extreme forms of antisemitism as the narrow religiosity of the Middle Ages broke down. See witchcraft persecutions.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, though, this process went into reverse in many parts of Europe, as industrialization disrupted traditional economies and shattered the old social order. Ethnic, national, and religious prejudices of all kinds blossomed as immigration and the rise of huge urban centers redefined the cultural landscape of most European countries. Jews made a convenient target for the frustrations of those left behind by the new industrial economy, since a handful of Jewish families, such as the Rothschilds, prospered with industrialization and many of the skilled professions included large numbers of Jews. By the beginning of the twentieth century, antisemitic secret societies and political parties had emerged in Germany and elsewhere, proclaiming loudly that Jews were responsible for all the ills of the modern world. See Germanenorden; Ordo Novi Templi (ONT).

These beliefs coalesced around one of the most influential documents of the twentieth century, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forgery manufactured out of several older documents by the Russian aristocrat and Theosophist Yuliana Glinka in Paris before 1895 and first printed in Russia in 1903. The Protocols claimed to be a set of secret plans adopted by a supreme council of Jewish rabbis intent on taking over the world. Distributed worldwide in the aftermath of the Russian revolution of 1917, they featured in the propaganda of every antisemitic movement in the world in the first half of the twentieth century and were enthusiastically circulated by influential conspiracy theorists such as Nesta Webster. In Germany, where the Nazi movement embraced them with open arms, they became justifications for the most brutal massacres of Jews in modern history. See National Socialism; Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

The defeat of the Third Reich and the worldwide exposure given to Nazi atrocities against the Jews made the more virulent forms of antisemitism socially unacceptable in most western countries. Recent years, though, have seen the old prejudices find their way back into popular culture via the spread of neo-Nazi movements and, more worryingly, via conspiracy theories that disguise their antisemitic elements beneath various labels. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion have been reworked and reprinted as blueprints for world domination by the Illuminati or reptiles from other planets, but connections to Judaism – via the Rothschild family, for example – are never absent. See neo-Nazi secret societies; Reptilians.

During the heyday of antisemitic conspiracy theory in the early twentieth century, most of the important revolutionaries and secret society leaders of the past were redefined as Jews to justify their membership in the alleged “Jewish world conspiracy.” Adam Weishaupt, founder of the Bavarian Illuminati, and Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin were among those who underwent postmortem conversions to Judaism at the hands of antisemites, in a curious parallel to the secret society practice of retrospective recruitment. Though neither Weishaupt nor Lenin had any trace of Jewish ancestry, these claims are still recycled in popular books today. See Bavarian Illuminati; retrospective recruitment.

Further reading: Cohn 1967.


The essential regalia of a Freemason, the apron in its basic form consists of a rectangle of white lambskin with a triangular flap along the top, and ties on the upper corners allowing it to be tied around the waist. Masons who have served a term as Worshipful Master of a lodge have the right to wear an apron with blue trim and an emblem on the flap; those who hold current or past offices in a Grand Lodge wear much more ornate aprons with gold braid and embroidered emblems. See Freemasonry.

The concordant bodies of Freemasonry also use aprons, with their respective colors and symbolism replacing the plain white or white-and-blue of the symbolic lodge. In those bodies with many degrees of initiation, such as the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite with its 33 degrees, the regalia for most of the degrees include a distinctively decorated apron – a custom that puts significant demands on the ingenuity of the Rite’s creators. See Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite.

During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Freemasonry’s immense popularity led many other secret societies to adopt aprons as well, though most abandoned the practice later in the nineteenth century in an effort to distinguish their members from Masons. Among other fraternal secret societies, Odd Fellows lodges often wore aprons, along with the ornate collars Odd Fellowship uses as marks of membership and rank, and the Patrons of Husbandry also used aprons early on for male members. Both orders discarded aprons long before the nineteenth century was over. See Odd Fellowship; Patrons of Husbandry (Grange).


Founded by American occultist Alice Bailey (1880–1949) and her husband Foster Bailey in 1923, the Arcane School teaches the system of occult philosophy received by Alice Bailey in trance from an entity calling himself the Tibetan master Djwal Khul. The Arcane School aims at initiating and training a “New Group of World Servers” to assist in the work of the Masters of the Great White Lodge. Many of its teachings derive from Theosophy, which Bailey studied extensively before setting up her own school, and its course of study focuses on meditation, study, and service to the Great Plan as a way of life. See Bailey, Alice; Great White Lodge; Masters; Theosophical Society.

The Arcane School seems to have avoided the complex organizational superstructures and bitter politics that beset most of the occult correspondence schools of its time, and remains quietly active at the present. It consists of a series of small study groups and individual students scattered across most of the world, studying Alice Bailey’s extensive writings and practicing her forms of meditation. Ironically, despite its small size and inoffensive activities, the Arcane School has been claimed by some fundamentalist Christian conspiracy theorists as the secret controlling body behind all the other conspiracies in the world. See New World Order.


In ancient and modern Gnostic literature, the ignorant and demonic ruling powers of the world of matter, created by the dark lord Ialdabaoth to help him maintain his dominion over human souls and keep them from escaping back to their home in the world of light. Many of the surviving Gnostic scriptures provide lists of the archons, who range in number from 7 to 365; clear but complex symbolic links connect the archons to the seven planets known to ancient astronomy, while their opponents, the aeons of the world of light, correspond to the fixed stars. See Gnosticism.


One of two secret societies closely associated with the legacy of British occultist and would-be Antichrist Aleister Crowley (1875–1947), the Argenteum Astrum (Latin for “silver star”) was created by Crowley in 1908 following the instructions of the Book of the Law, the revelation Crowley believed he had received in 1904 from the ruling powers of the world in the new Aeon of Horus. The Book of the Law instructed him to salvage what he could from the rituals of the previous Aeon of Osiris; in Crowley’s view, these included those of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the secret society in which Crowley received most of his magical training. See Crowley, Aleister; Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

The major innovation Crowley brought to the A∴A∴ was a shift from formal lodge initiation to personal spiritual practice and experience as the means of advancement through the grades. To some extent this was forced on him by limits of the resources at hand, since during Crowley’s lifetime the A∴A∴ never amounted to more than Crowley himself and a handful of students. However, the transformation of the Golden Dawn grades from initiatory ranks to stages in the process of spiritual growth was an important contribution to the tradition, and had a strong influence on later Hermetic secret societies. See Hermeticism.

After Crowley’s death a handful of his students, notably the German occultist Karl Germer, revived the A∴A∴ and started teaching and initiating students on their own. The order has no formal organization at present, and consists of individual initiate-teachers and their students working with many different variants of Crowley’s teachings.

The order is occasionally misnamed the Atlantean Adepts as a result of a British reporter’s incorrect guess. During Crowley’s lifetime the meaning of the initials “A∴A∴” was a secret imparted by him to initiates under an oath of secrecy; one of the many newspaper exposés of the Great Beast guessed at the meaning, and missed.


The most sacred property of the ancient Israelites, the Ark of the Covenant was a large wooden chest covered with hammered gold, carried on two poles, and topped by a pair of golden angels. According to the Book of Exodus, it was made by the Israelites during their wanderings in the Sinai peninsula after their escape from Egypt, following a set of exact specifications given by Yahweh, the god of the Jews, to Moses; the specifications may be found in Exodus 25:10–22. The Ark was kept in the tabernacle before the building of Solomon’s Temple, and in the Holy of Holies of the temple thereafter. See Temple of Solomon.

Its fate during and after the Babylonian captivity of the Jews is uncertain. It may have been included in the “vessels of the temple” that were looted from the temple by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE and restored to the Jews by the Persian king Cyrus in 526 BCE, but it is not specifically mentioned in the biblical accounts. An Ark of the Covenant was present in the rebuilt temple, though this may not have been the original. That ark disappeared when Jerusalem was sacked by the Romans in 70 CE and all the Temple treasures were pillaged by the victorious Roman general Vespasian. Various theories have been proposed for their fate, but the most likely is that they were melted down and turned into coins during the repeated financial crises of the late Roman Empire.

The Ark has been an important part of the symbolism of Orthodox Judaism and Ethiopian Christianity for many centuries, but its role outside those traditions was minor until the eighteenth century, when inventors of new Masonic degrees began ransacking the Bible for raw material for initiation rituals. The importance of the Temple of Solomon in Masonic symbolism guaranteed the Ark frequent appearances in these rites. As degree performances became more theatrical in the nineteenth century, Arks of the Covenant became part of the equipment of many lodges inside and outside Masonry, and most commercial lodge-supplies catalogues carried several different models. See Freemasonry; high degrees.

Despite this, it took the George Lucas film Raiders of the Lost Ark, which featured cinema star Harrison Ford battling Nazis for possession of the Ark of the Covenant, to make the Ark a hot property in the world of rejected knowledge. One of many resulting theories is the claim that the Shriners, a branch of Freemasonry best known for wild parties and lavishly funded children’s charities, have an exact copy of the original Ark hidden away in their Chicago headquarters, where high-ranking Masons use it to communicate with aliens from other planets. Those familiar with Shriners may suspect them of communing with pink elephants more often than gray-skinned extraterrestrials, and their national headquarters has been in Tampa, Florida for many years. Still, such factual issues rarely penetrate into the hermetically sealed world of modern conspiracy theories. See Ancient Arabic Order of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine; extraterrestrials; rejected knowledge.


According to the theories of Guido von List (1848–1919), the father of Ariosophy and the spiritual forerunner of Nazism, the ancient Germanic tribes were divided into three castes, with the Armanen, or hereditary priest-kings, as the highest caste. He got the term “Armanen” from a misreading of the Roman author Tacitus, who lists the Irminones as one of three German tribes in the wilderness north and east of the Roman imperial border. List’s vision of a priestly caste among the Germanic tribes, however, drew extensively from popular eighteenth-and nineteenth-century accounts of the ancient Celtic Druids. Since the classical sources on Druidry insisted that the ancient Germans had no Druids, an equivalent caste had to be invented; the Armanen filled that role. See Druids; Druid Revival.

The popularity of List’s writings on the runes and ancient Germanic magic encouraged various people in the central European occult scene to claim Armanen connections and launch Armanen secret societies. List himself was out in front of this trend, recruiting members from his fan club, the Guido von List Society, for a magical secret society named the Höhere Armanen-Orden (Higher Armanen Order, HAO). Under the leadership of Heinrich Himmler, the SS drew much of their symbolism from Armanist sources, and right-wing occult circles since the Second World War have continued to make use of List’s legacy. See Höhere Armanen-Orden (HAO); National Socialism; neo-Nazi secret societies; SS (Schutzstaffel).


One of the forgotten sciences of the pre-industrial world, the art of memory was a system of mental training that enabled practitioners to memorize quickly and accurately recall very large amounts of information. The basic methods of the art were devised by the Greek poet Simonides of Ceos sometime in the sixth century BCE and became part of the standard training for orators in ancient Greece and Rome. Lost to the western world during the collapse of the Roman Empire, it was recovered from a handful of surviving texts in the twelfth century CE and became an important part of medieval and Renaissance education, while Hermetic occultists such as Giordano Bruno reworked it into a powerful system of magical meditation. See Bruno, Giordano; Hermeticism.

The core method of the art was the use of visual imagery as a code for information to be remembered. Practitioners would memorize the inside of one or more buildings until they could walk through each room in imagination and see every detail clearly in the mind’s eye. The rooms would then be stocked with images representing the words or facts to be remembered. Textbooks of the art included many rules for creating memory images designed so that the practitioner could encode large amounts of information in a single image, and stressed that the images should be funny, shocking, or otherwise intensely memorable. Once the images were put in place in the imaginary setting, the practitioner simply imagined himself walking through the building again, noted each image in its place, and recalled the information it encoded.

While this procedure may seem unnecessarily complex, in practice it works extremely well, and modern practitioners have found that the traditional rules enable them to store and recall information far more quickly and efficiently than unaided memory can manage. Nonetheless, like so many of the intellectual and mental disciplines of the Renaissance, the art of memory went into western civilization’s dustbin during the Industrial Revolution.

By 1700, when the golden age of secret societies in the western world was just beginning, the art of memory was already slipping into oblivion, but the methods of the art had a profound impact on secret societies nonetheless. The second Schaw Statutes, a set of rules for Scottish stonemasons issued by William Schaw in 1599, instruct lodge officers of Scottish stonemasons’ lodges to test the master masons of their lodge in the art of memory and fine those who proved deficient. As these same lodges evolved into the first lodges of Freemasons, the fusion of imagery, memory, and meaning central to the art of memory found its way into early Masonic ritual, and from there to every other secret society that took Freemasonry for its model. See Freemasonry; Schaw, William.

Further reading: Stevenson 1988, Yates 1966.


Sometime in the late fifth century CE, during the collapse of the western half of the Roman Empire, a Romano–British nobleman in the abandoned province of Britannia organized a troop of cavalry and led them in a series of successful battles against the invading Saxons. His name was probably Artorius, the name of a distinguished Roman family. At a place later chroniclers called Mount Badon, probably in southwestern Britain, his army crushed a large Saxon force and won Celtic Britain a fifty-year reprieve from invasion. His victory had a massive impact on the future of the British Isles. Neither the division of Britain into a Celtic western and an English eastern half, nor the survival of Ireland as a beacon of classical culture during the Dark Ages, might have happened if the Saxons had won the day at Badon.

Over the centuries that followed, a rich oral tradition of stories and poems gathered around Artorius and his soldiers among the descendants of the people he defended, enriched further by scraps of old pagan myth. In legend’s gilded hindsight, the Romano-British nobleman and his band of horsemen turned into King Arthur, greatest of monarchs, and his Round Table of gallant knights. In this form, the stories came to the ears of French minstrels in the twelfth century CE, who recognized a gold mine when they saw it and spread the legends of King Arthur across the western world. As the Arthurian legend expanded, it drew other once-independent legends into orbit around it, so that the love affair of Tristram and Iseult and the quest for the Grail became part of the Arthurian world. See Grail.

While they waxed and waned in popularity, the legends of King Arthur and his knights remained part of most Europeans’ mental furniture through the Middle Ages and Renaissance into the modern world. Until the birth of modern historical scholarship in the late seventeenth century, most people throughout Europe believed that Arthur was what legend said he was – a great king who had ruled Britain and several other countries during the fading years of Roman power. The dawn of the Industrial Revolution and the dominance of its mythology of progress led scholars to dismiss Arthur as empty legend, but this only encouraged those who rejected the materialist worldview of industrial society to reinterpret and reinvent the Arthurian legends for their own purposes.

Arthurian legends and symbolism played a relatively small part in the secret societies of the eighteenth century, though the Order of the Golden and Rosy Cross, an important German Rosicrucian order, boasted that they had first arrived in Britain in the days of King Arthur. Degrees in some of the irregular Masonic rites of the nineteenth century used Arthurian symbolism, and fraternal secret societies in America and elsewhere used the image of the Round Table to surround themselves with a romantic aura. The Druid movement in Britain and America in the nineteenth century also drew heavily from Arthurian sources in creating a revived Druidry, and several occult secret societies affiliated with the Druid movement claimed direct descent from the knighthood of Arthur’s day. See Druid Revival; high degrees; Order of the Golden and Rosy Cross.

The twentieth century, for all its boasted modernity, saw more Arthurian literature produced than any other century in history, and it also witnessed an explosion in Arthurian scholarship. From the 1940s on, mainstream historians cautiously embraced the idea that the Arthur of legend was based on some kernel of solid historical fact. The two trends, literary and scholarly, fed off one another, and both helped drive an explosion of Arthurian themes among late twentieth-century secret societies. By 2000 more than a hundred newly minted secret societies, most of them linked to the late twentieth-century Pagan revival or the older occult traditions of the western world, claimed some level of connection – ranging from inspiration to direct lineal descent – from the knights, wizards, and sorceresses of Arthur’s day. Most of these societies will likely prove ephemeral, but some show signs of turning into major players in the secret-society scene of the twenty-first century.

Further reading: Ashe 1972, Knight 1983.


One of the few distinctively American traditions of occultism, the Ascended Masters teachings emerged out of the work of Guy Ballard (1878–1939), author (under the pen name Godfré Ray King) of numerous books on esoteric spirituality. Ballard claimed he received his teachings from the Comte de Saint-Germain and several other ascended masters after an initial meeting with the Comte on the slopes of Mount Shasta in northern California. See Masters; Saint-Germain, Comte de.

Ballard’s own teaching organization, the I Am Activity, suffered from a series of internal political disputes after Ballard’s death, however, and several of the groups descended from it copied its organizational structure and thus fell into the same troubles. Many students of Ballard’s writings responded by pursuing their studies and practices on their own or in small study groups of like-minded people. The resulting movement drew on the voluminous writings of English–American occultist Alice Bailey (1880–1949), which Bailey claimed were dictated by the ascended master Djwal Khul, alongside those of Ballard and such Ballard-inspired writers such as Elizabeth Clare Prophet. See Bailey, Alice.

The resulting movement has become a large but rarely noticed undercurrent in American culture, hidden by a lack of large national organizations and a position on the cultural spectrum rarely identified with occultism. More often than not, followers of the Ascended Masters teachings tend to be socially and politically conservative, with a fervent patriotism rooted in the belief that the ascended masters themselves brought the United States into being and shaped its system of government. Most self-identify as Christians, though they revere Jesus as the highest of the Masters rather than as an incarnate deity. See Jesus of Nazareth.

The teachings, like most twentieth-century American occult traditions, draw heavily from Theosophy. The supreme being, I AM, exists in the higher self of every human being as the I AM Presence. Those who make contact with the I AM Presence within themselves are liberated from the wheel of reincarnation and experience ascension, leaving behind their material bodies and becoming ascended masters in their own right. The classic toolkit for achieving ascension includes decrees – spoken prayers to the I AM Presence and the masters, repeated in a meditative state – and work with the Violet Flame, which is visualized while practicing decrees to help burn away karma and encourage spiritual development. A wide range of other practices can be found among students of the Ascended Masters teachings, however, and the entire movement is in the midst of a major period of creativity and redefinition at present. See Theosophical Society.


English historian, astrologer, alchemist and Freemason. Born in Lichfield, Staffordshire, to middle-class parents, Ashmole (1617–92) studied law and worked for a short time as a solicitor, then went up to Oxford in 1644, where he became a member of Brasenose College and studied astrology and mathematics. His studies were interrupted by the final phases of the English Civil War, and he served with distinction in the Royalist cause, helping defend Oxford and Worcester against Parliamentary armies.

After the final collapse of the Royalist cause in 1646, Ashmole went to live with relatives in Cheshire. While there, on October 16, 1646, he was initiated into Freemasonry, becoming one of the first two “accepted Masons” (Masons not employed in the building trades) in England; the other, initiated on the same evening, was his brother-in-law Henry Mainwaring. He remained active in Masonry for the rest of his life and appears to have played a significant role in its spread in seventeenth-century England. See Freemasonry.

As the chaos of the Civil War faded, Ashmole returned to scholarship and took up the study of alchemy. He collected many of the papers of John Dee, Queen Elizabeth I’s court astrologer and magus, and Dee’s alchemist son Arthur. In 1651 he became the “son,” or alchemical student-initiate, of the alchemist William Backhouse of Swallowfield, Berkshire. The next year he published the immense Theatrum Chymicum Britannicum, an invaluable anthology of English works on alchemy. In 1653, according to Ashmole’s diary, Backhouse told him the secret First Matter of the philosopher’s stone – though Ashmole, true to his alchemists’ oaths, did not write down the name of that elusive substance. See Alchemy.

Ashmole’s loyalty to the Royalist cause finally paid off in 1660, when Charles II returned from exile to receive the British crown. The new king, recognizing Ashmole’s scholarship, gave him the position of Windsor Herald, which allowed Ashmole to carry out the research that resulted in his magisterial 1672 work The Institution, Laws and Ceremonies of the Most Noble Order of the Garter. Charles also gave his support to a project backed by Ashmole, among others: the foundation of “a College for the promoting of Physico-Mathematicall Experimen-tall Learning.” As a result, 1661 saw the establishment of the Royal Society, the first institute for scientific research in the modern world, with Ashmole as one of its founding members. See Order of the Garter; Royal Society.

From 1679 to 1683 Ashmole devoted his energies to another project of great historical importance, the founding of the first public museum of the natural sciences in Britain. The Ashmolean Museum was duly established in Oxford, where it remains today, one of the world’s most famous centers of scientific education. Throughout the last three decades of his life Ashmole also found time to support the rebuilding of Lichfield Cathedral, which had been wrecked by Parliamentary forces during the Civil War. He died quietly in his sleep in London in 1693.

Further reading: Churton 2004.


Among the world’s most famous secret societies, the Assassins emerged out of the Ismaili sect of Islam in the late eleventh century CE. Their founder, Hassan-i-Sabah, came from a Persian Shiite family but converted to the Ismaili sect after a long period of spiritual doubt capped by a serious illness. In 1078 he went to Cairo, then the center of Ismaili activity, and sought permission from the Caliph to spread the Ismaili faith in Persia. The Caliph agreed, but required that Hassan pledge to support the claim of the Caliph’s eldest son Nizar to the Caliphate. From this pledge came the formal name of Hassan’s order, the Nizaris.

In the years that followed, Hassan wandered Persia, teaching the Ismaili faith and winning converts. He seized control of the fortress at Alamut, high in the northern mountains of Iran, and made it his center of operations. As his following increased, he began to use assassination as a core strategy for dealing with opponents, and expanded his power through protection rackets backed up by the knives of his followers. In 1094, when the Caliph died and Nizar’s claim to the succession failed, Hassan was strong enough to become an independent force, seizing additional mountain strongholds as far west as Syria and using these to extend his reach through the Middle East.

Hassan imposed a strict hierarchy on his followers. Members of the lowest rank of the order, who carried out assassinations, had the title of fidai or devotee; above these were the ranks of lasiq or lay brother, rafiq or companion, and da’i or teacher. A group of senior da’is formed Hassan’s inner circle. A rule of total obedience bound those at each level to follow orders from their superiors. According to medieval accounts, Hassan reinforced the loyalty of his followers with a clever trick. After completing a course of martial arts training, each fidai was given wine drugged with hashish, and taken into a hidden garden full of fruit trees, modeled on the paradise described in the Quran, where wine flowed in streams among gilded pavilions and lovely women provided every sensual delight. The fidai stayed there for a few days, until another dose of drugged wine returned him to his ordinary life. Convinced that Hassan had literally transported them to Paradise and back, the fidais readily risked their lives for him in the belief that death simply meant a one-way trip back to the garden.

Hassan died in 1124, but his first two successors pursued his policies and made the Assassins a name to be feared throughout the Muslim world. The fourth head of the order, Hassan II, pursued a different course. After becoming Sheik of the order in 1162, he proclaimed himself the Mahdi, the prophet whose arrival marked the coming of the millennium, and abandoned Islam for a religion of his own invention centered on the teaching that “nothing is true, and everything is permissible.” After four years, he was murdered by his brother-in-law, and the Assassins returned to orthodox Islam, but Hassan II’s troubled rule allowed the head of the Syrian branch of the Assassins, Rashid ad-Din Sinan, to break free of Alamut’s control.

Syria at that time was divided between the Crusader kingdoms to the south and a Sunni Muslim kingdom centered on Aleppo in the north, and Sinan played these off against each other to maintain his own independence. When the great Arab general Saladin (Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi, 1138–93) took power in Aleppo, Sinan responded by ordering his death, but by this time Arab rulers had begun to learn Assassin ways and Sinan’s agents failed twice. He was more successful against Conrad of Montferrat, King of Jerusalem, who was cut down by two Assassins in 1192. Against the Knights Templar, who owned several large castles in southern Syria and had copied many elements of Assassin discipline, Sinan was more circumspect, and at one point paid them a yearly tribute of 2000 pieces of gold to keep them at bay. See Knights Templar.

After Sinan’s time, the Assassins moved away from their sectarian roots and became an organization of hired knives who killed for money. Like the rest of the Arab world, they were fatally unprepared for the arrival of the Mongol armies in the middle of the thirteenth century. The threat of assassination meant nothing to the Mongols, who responded to the least resistance by slaughtering entire populations. Faced with these tactics, Alamut surrendered to the Mongol warlord Hulagu Khan in 1256. The Syrian branch of the order dissolved not long afterwards, and most of its members entered the service of the Sultan of Egypt as hired killers.

Further reading: Mackenzie 1967.


One of the most important theories of comparative religion from the late eighteenth to the early twentieth century, the theory of astronomical religion argued that all religions – or rather, in most versions, all religions but Judaism and Christianity – developed out of early humanity’s awe and wonder at the sun and the night-time sky. According to the theory, the gods and goddesses of pagan religions are simply poetic ways of talking about the sun, moon, planets, and seasonal phenomena on the surface of the earth. A good deal of evidence supports the idea that at least some religious thought has astronomical roots; it’s not an accident, after all, that people in the western world still call the planets by the names of old gods.

The theory of astronomical religion has taken at least four standard forms, all of which have left their traces on secret societies and the secret history of the western world. One form is solar religion, the idea that ancient religion and mythology focused on the interactions between sun and earth in the cycle of the seasons. Another is planetary religion, the idea that ancient religion and mythology focused on the movement of the seven traditional planets (the sun, moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn) against the background of the stars. A third is precessional religion – the idea that ancient religion and mythology focused on the precession of the equinoxes, a vast slow wobble in the earth’s movement that shifts the seasonal stations of the sun slowly backwards against the stars, and points the earth’s poles toward different pole stars in a 25,920-year cycle. The fourth form is catastrophic religion, the idea that ancient religion and mythology focused on the memory of a series of vast cosmic disasters caused by comets or roving planets. All four of these offer intriguing and sometimes compelling explanations of certain myths, and none of them necessarily conflict with the others – it is entirely plausible that different myths might be talking about different heavenly events, after all.

Still, in the scholarly debates of the late nineteenth century, each version of astronomical theory – like most theories of comparative religion – was taken to extremes and turned into a supposed universal key to all mythologies. One of the most comprehensive examples was the “solar theory” of Max Müller (1823–1900), who was among the greatest philologists of the late nineteenth century and a major player in the struggles over myth’s meanings during that era. Müller argued that all mythology, everywhere, retold the story of the seasonal cycle; all gods were solar and meteorological phenomena associated with the seasons, while all goddesses symbolized the earth and its changing vegetation. Müller’s theory was widely accepted until it was demonstrated, a few years after his death, that by his own criteria Müller himself could be proved to be a sun god.

Long before this, however, the theory of astronomical religion found a home in the underworld of nineteenth-century secret societies. The rebirth of European paganism in the 1790s at the hands of Thomas Taylor, the great English Neoplatonist and translator of Greek texts, made pagan religious traditions increasingly attractive to nineteenth-century intellectuals, who saw them as a humane and psychologically healthy alternative to the stultifying Protestantism of the Victorian era. Druid secret societies in particular borrowed heavily from the astronomical theory and its major competitor, the theory of fertility religion, as raw material for their reconstructions of ancient Celtic spirituality. See Druid Revival.

This process was paralleled by a movement within Freemasonry, especially (but not only) in America, that interpreted the Masonic Craft as a descendant of the ancient pagan mysteries and drew on the astronomical theory to reinvent Freemasonry as a spirituality for thinking men. Masonic writers such as J.D. Buck and E. Valentia Straiton argued that every aspect of Masonic symbolism could be traced back to ancient mystery cults, a theme that also influenced Albert Pike, Grand Commander of the southern US jurisdiction of the Scottish Rite, in his revision of the Rite’s rituals and the compilation of his sprawling Masonic sourcebook Morals and Dogma (1871). The spread of these ideas among a minority of Masons predictably ended up being used in the late twentieth century by Christian fundamentalists to claim that all of Freemasonry was a Satanic cult. See Antimasonry; Freemasonry; Pike, Albert.

The popularity of the astronomical theory of religion peaked around 1900, however, and thereafter it quickly fell from favor as psychological and social theories rose to prominence. Since then the first three versions of the theory mentioned above have had a dwindling role in the world of secret societies as well, though substantial traces can still be found in some concordant bodies of Masonry, in the older Druid orders, and in a few other occult secret societies with older roots. The one survivor is the theory of catastrophic religion, which came back into vogue in the late twentieth century and now feeds into alternative visions of approaching earth changes and ages of the world. See ages of the world; earth changes.

Further reading: Godwin 1994.


American occultist, author, and secret society member. One of the leading figures in the occult scene in turn of the century America, Atkinson (1862–1932) was born to middle-class parents in Baltimore, Maryland and took up a business career, then studied law. In the late 1890s, however, his health broke down as a result of stress, and he turned to the New Thought movement in the hope of a cure. By 1900 Atkinson had completely recovered, and moved to Chicago to take up a position as an editor at New Thought magazine. A few years later, turning his business skills to a new purpose, he founded the Atkinson School of Mental Science and began publishing books on New Thought under his own name, books on yoga under the pen name Yogi Ramacharaka, and books on mental magnetism and occultism under the name of Theron Q. Dumont.

Atkinson soon became a leading figure in the Chicago occult community. In 1907 he was contacted by the young occultist Paul Foster Case, and the two began an extensive correspondence that lasted until the end of Atkinson’s life. Sometime before 1907 Atkinson also became a member of the Chicago temple of the Alpha et Omega, the largest American branch of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and probably also joined the Societas Rosicruciana in America (SRIA), then closely affiliated with the Alpha et Omega. Together with Case and Michael Whitty, Atkinson wrote The Kybalion (1912), one of the classic works of American occult philosophy. The three concealed their authorship under the anonymity of the name “Three Initiates.” See Case, Paul Foster; Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn; Societas Rosicruciana in America (SRIA).

Sometime in the 1920s, Atkinson moved to California, which was rapidly becoming the center of America’s occult community at that time, and remained there until his death in 1932. Many of the books he wrote as “Yogi Ramacharaka” are still in print today, though his other writings went out of print as the New Thought movement faded out in the 1940s.

Further reading: “Three Initiates” 1912.


The continent of Atlantis, according to occult lore, existed in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean until its sinking some eleven thousand years ago. A constant theme in occult secret-society teachings during the “Theosophical century” from 1875 to 1975, Atlantis remains a major presence in the current realm of rejected knowledge. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of secret societies have claimed Atlantean origins or possession of Atlantean secrets in an effort to backdate themselves before the dawn of recorded history. Ironically, this has had the opposite effect, since Atlantis was very nearly a forgotten story until 1882, when the Irish-American politician and writer Ignatius Donnelly (1831–1901) launched it on its modern career. The presence of Atlantis as a significant theme in secret society teachings is thus good evidence that the society dates from the end of the nineteenth or the first three-quarters of the twentieth centuries. See lost continents; rejected knowledge.

Atlantis first appears in two dialogues by Plato (c.428–c.348 BCE), the Timaeus and the unfinished Critias. Timaeus recounts a story supposedly told by an Egyptian priest in the city of Saïs to Plato’s ancestor Solon, the Athenian lawgiver. According to the story, around 9600 BCE, the city of Athens fought a war against the empire of Atlantis, a large island located in the Atlantic Ocean opposite the Strait of Gibraltar. After the defeat of the Atlantean army, earthquakes and floods destroyed Atlantis, leaving only shoals of mud in the ocean. Plato expanded on this account in the finished part of Critias, describing Atlantis as an island ruled by ten kings descended from the god Poseidon and a mortal woman, and explaining how it fell from virtue and wisdom into decadence.

No ancient author before Plato’s time mentions anything about Atlantis, and the only classical references from after his time come from writers strongly influenced by Plato’s philosophy. The philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BCE), one of Plato’s students, thought that he made the whole thing up. For centuries thereafter, the Atlantis story floated in the indeterminate world of marvel tales. It gave its name to the ocean west of Europe and Africa, and nearly ended up fixed to the continent on the other side; both Richard Hakluyt, the Elizabethan explorer, and John Dee, Queen Elizabeth’s court astrologer, magus, and spy, thought that the Americas should be named “Atlantis.” Francis Bacon titled his scientific utopia The New Atlantis, and wove into the story a claim that the ancient Mexicans had been Plato’s Atlantean empire. The Jesuit wizard Athanasius Kircher (1602–80) took Plato literally and put a map of Atlantis in one of his many books, and the visionary poet William Blake (1757–1827) imagined Atlantean hills beneath the waves between Britain and America, but they were exceptions. See Bacon, Francis.

Not until the late nineteenth century did the lost continent find its way back to the bottom of the Atlantic. Appropriately enough, pioneering science-fiction author Jules Verne (1828–1905) helped jumpstart the process in his 1869 novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by having Captain Nemo take the story’s protagonist, Professor Aronnax, to the submerged ruins of Atlantis. Several other authors in the field of speculative prehistory also made use of Atlantis around this time, notably Cornelius Over den Linden and J.O. Ottema, the creators of the Oera Linda Chronicle (1871), which transformed the lost continent into an island in the North Sea that sank in 2193 BCE. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831–91), the founder of Theosophy, put a short discussion of Atlantis into her first book, Isis Unveiled (1877), along with many other criticisms of conventional ideas of nature and history. The bulk of her writing on Atlantis came later, though, in response to the most influential book of alternative history ever written. See Blavatsky, Helena Petrovna; Theosophical Society.

This was the 1882 bestseller Atlantis, The Antediluvian World by Ignatius Donnelly. Donnelly, born to an Irish immigrant family in Philadelphia, became a lawyer and then entered politics, winning election as a US congressman from Minnesota. After retiring from politics in 1880, he vaulted into a third career as a writer. In Atlantis, he argued that Plato’s account was based on sober fact, and that the island of Atlantis, located where the Mid-Ocean Ridge is today, was the site of the world’s first civilization. He collected cultural parallels from the Old and New World and used them as evidence that an older culture, located halfway between the two, had inspired them. The book became an instant bestseller and roused interest in the lost continent around the world; British Prime Minister William Gladstone was impressed enough by Donnelly’s arguments that he tried (unsuccessfully) to convince the Admiralty to send an expedition to look for the undersea ruins of Atlantean cities.

All this was grist for Blavatsky’s mill, and in 1888 she raised the stakes with her sprawling two-volume The Secret Doctrine, a history of the universe and everything in it transmitted, as she claimed, by secluded adepts from central Asia. Atlantis, along with the lost continent of Lemuria and much else, found a place in the vast sweep of Blavatsky’s vision. Her Atlantis was the homeland of the fourth of the seven root races of humanity, an island continent inhabited by an advanced civilization with pyramids, airships, and magical powers. Misuse of these last caused a series of catastrophes and the sinking of the continent. See Lemuria.

Blavatsky’s claims provided the foundation for a vast structure of speculation about Atlantis, much of it derived by clairvoyant means and subject to the usual problems of visionary evidence. William Scott-Eliot provided much of this via his 1896 book The Story of Atlantis, which featured eight-foot tall red-skinned Atlanteans ruling much of the world from their capital, the City of the Golden Gates, now far undersea off the coast of Senegal. Atlantean decadence and the misuse of magic for evil ends led to a gradual submergence through repeated floods; the destruction recorded by Plato was the submergence of the very last portion of the former continent, the twin islands of Ruta and Daitya. See Scrying.

This was the version of Atlantis that found its way into secret societies throughout the English-speaking world and large parts of Europe from the late nineteenth century on. Few occult societies got by without some version of the Theosophical story of Atlantis. Some societies, such as Dion Fortune’s Fraternity (later Society) of the Inner Light, based large elements of their ritual work and teaching on Atlantean roots, and Fortune and most of her inner circle recalled past incarnations in the Atlantean priesthood. The Austrian clairvoyant scientist Rudolf Steiner and his pupil Max Heindel (Carl Louis Grasshof), both founders of important esoteric traditions, imported Blavatsky’s ideas into their own substantial writings. Even Aleister Crowley, a maverick in most other matters, found room in his voluminous writings for Atlantis Liber LI, The Lost Continent, a tale of Atlantean sex magic, in which the inhabitants of Atlantis spent most of their time in orgiastic rituals to create a mysterious substance, Zro, that would enable them to escape Earth and emigrate en masse to the planet Venus. See Anthroposophical Society; Crowley, Aleister; Rosicrucian Fellowship; Society of the Inner Light.

The reign of Atlantis in occult secret societies faded out, along with the rest of the legacy of Theosophy, by the last quarter of the twentieth century. Ironically, this trend paralleled the spread of these same ideas via the New Age movement into popular culture across the world. As rejected knowledge found a new mass market, first in New Age circles and then in a booming alternative-history scene, the lost continent became raw material for scores of new books, with the popular writer Charles Berlitz leading the fray with his 1969 work The Mystery of Atlantis. Many of these books abandoned Plato’s story altogether, drawing from Theosophical sources or popular culture. One common theme in this literature was the relocation of Atlantis to the far corners of the globe. Antarctica and Peru were among the sites proposed for ancient Atlantis, despite the fact that neither of these regions has been under water any time in the last 11,000 years. See Antarctica; New Age movement.

Other writers, notably the visionary earth-mysteries scholar John Michell, have used the term “Atlantis” as a convenient label for an ancient global civilization with no particular connection to Plato’s story. In Michell’s bestselling The View Over Atlantis (1969), the remains of the lost civilization are hidden in plain sight by their sheer size: landscape alignments and ancient monuments trace out an immense pattern across the face of the earth, the remnant of a forgotten technology of earth energies. ‘See leys.

A counterpoint to the occult vision of Atlantis has been the attempt to trace the Atlantis story back to some natural event conceivable within the worldview of modern science. The most popular contender for the title is an eruption of Thera, a small volcanic island in the Mediterranean between Crete and the Greek mainland. Around 1450 BCE a cataclysmic eruption of Thera sent tidal waves crashing into Crete, sending the ancient Minoan civilization of Crete into its final decline. While the date, location, and details differ completely from Plato’s story, most mainstream archeologists who deal with Atlantis at all consider the Thera eruption the origin of the legend.

An alternative vision has been offered by researchers on the fringes of conventional archeology, who have pointed out that Plato’s original account makes a surprising amount of sense on its own terms: 9600 BCE is a good approximate date for the end of the last Ice Age, when temperatures spiked upward across the northern hemisphere, melting the vast continental glaciers and raising sea levels 300 feet in the course of a few centuries. Huge expanses of land, including the broad plains that once reached from southern Britain to France and the land whose mountains now break the surface as the islands of Cuba, Hispaniola, and the Antilles, sank beneath the waters of the Atlantic. Elsewhere around the globe, the same story repeated itself as tens of thousands of square miles of land were overwhelmed by rising oceans in an uncomfortably close fit to current predictions of the effects of global warming.

The other aspects of Plato’s story also fit the world of 9600 BCE remarkably well. In her 1986 book Plato Prehistorian, Mary Settegast left Atlantis itself untouched but joined Plato’s account of the ancient Mediterranean with current archeological research to demonstrate a close fit between the two. Charles Hapgood Jr.’s 1969 Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings, a study of early maps full of anomalous geographical knowledge, presented evidence that someone mapped large portions of the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts, not long after the end of the last Ice Age, with a degree of accuracy not seen again until the eighteenth century. These and other lines of evidence suggest that civilization may be older than current archeological models admit, and the rising seas of 9600 BCE could well have swallowed the heartland of a relatively advanced society in the lowlands on either side of the Atlantic. Still, none of this amounts to firm proof of the reality of Atlantis, much less justification for the wilder speculations about it. See lost civilizations.

Further reading: de Camp 1970, Donnelly 1973, Plato 1961, Scott-Elliot 1962.


An influential occult secret society in the late twentieth-century magical community, Aurum Solis (Latin for “gold of the sun”) was originally founded in 1897 by British occultists Charles Kingold and George Stanton. With interruptions during the two world wars, it remained active in a quiet way through the first two-thirds of the twentieth century. It suffered a short-lived schism in 1957, when a group of members broke away over differences in the initiation ritual; the group thus formed, the Ordo Sacri Verbi (Order of the Sacred Word), rejoined the Aurum Solis when it was reconstituted in 1971.

At the time of its reconstitution, the Aurum Solis came under the leadership of Vivian and Leon Barcynski, two London occultists who set out to break the Aurum Solis out of its rut of obscurity. Using the pen names Melita Denning and Osborne Phillips, the Barcynskis published books on the teachings of the Aurum Solis that vaulted the society into prominence throughout the English-speaking occult scene. It has had its ups and downs since that time, but remains active in Britain. The Aurum Solis symbolism and techniques covered in their books have also influenced occultists throughout the western world.

According to its internal history, the Aurum Solis is one expression of the Ogdoadic Tradition, a system of magical initiation dating back to classical Greek times. Such older organizations as the Knights Templar, the Fideli d’Amore, and Francis Bacon’s Order of the Helmet are claimed as earlier expressions of the Ogdoadic Tradition. No real evidence of a distinct Ogdoadic Tradition can be found in records of occult traditions before the 1970s, however, nor do any of the Aurum Solis’ distinctive symbols and practices occur in any of these older orders, so it is fair to assume that these claims are simply another example of the retrospective recruitment so common among secret societies. See Bacon, Francis; Knights Templar; retrospective recruitment.

The Aurum Solis works three degrees, or Halls, each with their own distinctive symbolism. The teachings of the order, however, are very closely modeled on those of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, with the same blend of Cabalistic and Enochian material and exact equivalents for every ritual practice in the Golden Dawn toolkit, a point-for-point equivalence not found in any of the other Hermetic magical orders of the time. Another source for the Aurum Solis system is the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids, to which Vivian Barcynski belonged in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and from which the Aurum Solis seems to have borrowed some of its distinctive features. These borrowings have occasionally been presented as evidence that the Aurum Solis was invented out of whole cloth in 1971, at the time of its supposed reconstitution, but this does not necessarily follow; secret societies routinely rework their teachings and training programs in the light of new information, and material from other secret societies is among the most common raw material for such projects. See Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn; Order of Bards Ovates and Druids (OBOD).

Further reading: Denning and Phillips 1975, Phillips 2001.

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