French conspirator and secret society leader. Born into a poor family in provincial France, Babeuf (1760–97) worked as a minor functionary in the local government until the Revolution, when he went to Paris and became a journalist. During the elimination of the radical wing of the Revolution in 1795, he was thrown into prison, where he met Filippo Buonarroti, an Italian revolutionary. When they were released in October 1795, they launched the Societé du Panthéon (Society of the Pantheon), a semi-secret group that met to discuss egalitarian ideas and published a newspaper, the Tribun du Peuple. When the authorities shut down the newspaper in early 1796, Babeuf was ready to take the next step: the most committed members of the society were brought into a new secret society, the Conspiracy of Equals, and went to work under Babeuf’s direction planning a coup d’etat. See Conspiracy of Equals; French Revolution.

A police informer within the Conspiracy alerted the authorities to the plot, and just before the planned coup, Babeuf and 200 other members were arrested. He was tried in February 1797 and executed. His friend Buonarroti landed in prison. After his release in 1806 he pursued the plans the two of them had devised together for the rest of his life, becoming the most famous figure in the political secret societies of the nineteenth century. See Buonarroti, Filippo.

Further reading: Roberts 1972.


English philosopher, author, lawyer, and possible secret society member. One of the most brilliant minds of the Elizabethan age, Bacon (1561–1626) was the youngest son of Sir Nicholas Bacon, Lord Keeper of the Seal to Queen Elizabeth, and his second wife, the classical scholar Anne Cooke. Lord Burghley, Elizabeth’s chief minister, was a close relative by marriage. These connections and his own precocious intellect brought him to Trinity College, Cambridge, at the age of 12. Graduating three years later, he entered Gray’s Inn to study law, and was admitted to the Bar in 1582.

A brilliant and many-sided scholar, Bacon envisioned his life’s work as the “Great Instauration,” a complete reform of scholarship and human knowledge. His writings included On the Advancement of Learning (1605), which played an important role in launching the scientific revolution, and the posthumously published The New Atlantis (1627), a utopian novel of a society centered on a “think-tank,” the House of Salomon, where all human knowledge was gathered, tested, and put to constructive use. He has also been credited with writing at least some of the works attributed to William Shakespeare. See Shakespeare controversies.

All this took place in the midst of a dazzling political career. In 1584 he entered the House of Commons, beginning a parliamentary career that only ended with his elevation to the peerage in 1618; 1591 saw him become a close associate of Robert Devereaux, Earl of Essex, a rising star in Elizabeth’s court at that time. Only when Essex shifted from politics to rebellion did Bacon abandon him, serving as counsel for the prosecution in the trial that ended with Essex’s execution in 1601. Knighted on the accession of James I, Bacon rose thereafter through the highest offices of the English civil service, becoming Lord Chancellor in 1618. In 1621 he was created Viscount St Albans, but in the same year his political enemies brought charges of bribery and corruption against him, and he was fined and imprisoned in the Tower. Pardoned by King James, he retired to his estates, where he spent the rest of his life in scientific and literary pursuits. He died in April 1626 from pneumonia contracted in an experiment to preserve a chicken by stuffing it with snow.

Bacon’s level of involvement in secret societies during his lifetime remains an open question. Among the plays he wrote while at Gray’s Inn includes one called Ancient and Honourable Order of the Helmet, and this order has accordingly been adopted into the legendary history of a number of more recent secret societies, notably the contemporary magical order Aurum Solis. In the literary and political war between the School of Night, the famous circle of freethinkers and occultists centered on Sir Walter Raleigh, and the supporters of the Earl of Essex, Bacon sided with his friend Essex, but – unless he was the author of the Shakespeare plays and poems – he does not seem to have contributed to the literary dimension of the struggle. See Aurum Solis; School of Night.

This may seem to offer only limited evidence for secret-society connections, but that has not prevented secret societies and their opponents from describing Bacon as a prominent member of esoteric secret societies, or even the leading figure in a world of secret societies underlying the Elizabethan Renaissance. Despite a complete lack of supporting evidence, he has been described as a prominent Freemason and one of the leading members of the Rosicrucian order, and some of his more enthusiastic supporters have credited him, or a secret society headed by him, with creating most of the great literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Ironically, Bacon himself took a dim view of occult sciences, admitting at most that they ought to be searched for any scraps of real knowledge they might happen to contain. See Freemasonry; Rosicrucians.

A large part of this literature has based its claims on complex ciphers allegedly found in Bacon’s own acknowledged works, as well as those attributed to Shakespeare and other writers of Bacon’s period. Bacon himself was interested in ciphers, but attempts to use ciphers mentioned in his writings to decode hidden messages in Shakespeare’s plays have proved equivocal at best, turning out wildly different results depending on the personal biases of the individuals employing them.

Further reading: Pott 1900.


Anglo-American occultist and secret society founder, 1880–1949. Born in Manchester, the daughter of an engineer, Bailey was a devout Christian in her early years and went to India as a missionary. She met her first husband, the evangelist Walter Evans, in India and married him in 1907. They moved to America, where he took a position as an Episcopalian minister. The marriage proved to be unhappy, though, and ended in divorce.

Shortly after her arrival in America, Bailey encountered Theosophy for the first time and found it far more convincing than the Protestant Christianity of her youth. She came to believe that she had been receiving spiritual guidance from the Master Koot Hoomi (or Kuthumi), one of the Mahatmas of Theosophy, since the age of 15. In 1919, she experienced contact with another of the Masters, Djwal Khul, whom she called simply “the Tibetan.” She spent the rest of her life writing down his teachings and communicating them to the world. See Masters; Theosophical Society.

In 1920 she married her second husband, the Freemason and fellow Theosophist Foster Bailey, and in 1923 they founded a teaching organization, the Arcane School, to pass on the Tibetan’s teachings. An additional organization, the Lucis Trust, came into being later on to publish her voluminous writings. She pursued an active career in the American occult community for more than two decades thereafter until her death in 1949. See Arcane School.

Before the end of her life, despite a very quiet and uncontroversial career, Bailey was being named by conspiracy theorists as the leading figure in a Satanist conspiracy controlling the world. This role was the invention of Christina Stoddard, a former Golden Dawn initiate and temple chief of the Stella Matutina – the largest splinter group that emerged after the collapse of the Golden Dawn in 1900 – who later became a devout fundamentalist Christian, anticommunist, and author of classic conspiracy-theory books. Her The Trail of the Serpent argued that one of the major projects of the global Jewish–Satanist– Communist conspiracy was the invention of a syncretistic religion to unite the world’s disparate faiths and replace conservative Protestant Christianity. At the center of this web of conspiracy, Stoddard placed Alice Bailey and her Lucis Trust. Despite a glaring lack of evidence for this claim, it has been repeated by more recent conspiracy theorists,

notably the American fundamentalist writer Texe Marrs. See fundamentalism; Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.


American writer and occultist. Ballard (1878–1939) was born and raised in Kansas, and worked as a mining engineer all over the western United States for nearly three decades. In the late 1920s, according to his later account, he met the Comte de Saint-Germain, one of the ascended masters, on the slopes of Mount Shasta. From the Comte and several other masters, Ballard claimed, he learned the secrets of the Violet Flame and the supreme power of the cosmos, the mighty I AM Presence. In the process he remembered his previous life as George Washington, and took part in conflicts between the servants of the ascended masters and dark forces that threatened America, which was under the Masters’ special protection. See Masters; Saint-Germain, Comte de.

In 1934 he published his first book, Unveiled Mysteries, under the pen name Godfré Ray King, and followed it up with a series of other books. With the help of his wife Edna and son Donald, both of whom took active roles in his work, Ballard established an organization – the I Am Activity – to pass on his teachings, which included much of the Theosophical lore standard in early twentieth-century American occultism but focused specifically on the occult powers of color and light. Traveling from city to city as the sole “Accredited Representative of the Masters,” Ballard pioneered the use of multimedia presentations, using colored lights and banners along with live and recorded music in his public presentations.

In the midst of this second career he died unexpectedly, an event that caused a great deal of consternation among his followers, since as a representative of the ascended masters he was expected to ascend rather than simply expire. Still, the Activity (now the Saint-Germain Foundation) survived him and remains active in a quiet way today, while Ballard’s books are among the primary sources for the Ascended Masters teachings, one of the most innovative branches of American occultism today. See Ascended Masters teachings.


When King Philip IV of France rounded up the Knights Templar in his kingdom and turned them over to the Inquisition for torture, one of the offenses they were charged with was that they had worshipped an idol named Baphomet. Under torture, some of the Templars admitted to the charge, though their descriptions of Baphomet varied so wildly that it’s clear they, like most victims of torture, simply said whatever would make the torturers stop. See Knights Templar.

During the centuries that followed, as most people forgot about the Knights Templar, references to Baphomet gathered dust in old archives. The first great transformation of the Templar myth, at the hands of Jacobite Freemasons in the middle years of the eighteenth century, left Baphomet untouched. Only when Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, an Austrian government clerk turned historian, published his Mysterium Baphometis Revelatum (The Mystery of Baphomet Revealed, 1818) did Baphomet find its way back into the burgeoning Templar myth. Hammer-Purgstall argued that the Templars were part of an ancient Gnostic cult that practiced sexual orgies in honor of the hermaphroditic goddess Achamoth, and redefined Baphomet as the idol of Achamoth that the Templars worshipped during their obscene revels. See Gnosticism.

As so often happens in the history of secret societies, Hammer-Purgstall’s theory was then borrowed by would-be Templars, attracted by his portrayal of Templar heresy and sexual deviance. By 1845, when Eliphas Lévi’s Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie (Doctrine and Ritual of High Magic) took the occult scene by storm and reinvented magic for the modern world, some reference to Baphomet was all but obligatory in a French book on magic. Lévi met the demand with a description of Baphomet as a symbol of the Absolute, and an illustration: the half-human, hermaphrodite Goat of Mendes with its veiled phallus, bare breasts, and dark wings, a torch blazing between its horns and a pentagram on its brow, its hands pointing up and down in echo of the old Hermetic axiom “as above, so below.” The image was a creation of Lévi’s own magical imagination, inspired by Hammer-Purgstall’s claims and the contemporary theory of fertility religion, but it has defined Baphomet in occult circles ever since. See fertility religion.

Since Lévi’s time Baphomet has remained a constant presence in occult symbolism and philosophy. Predictably, given the phallic symbolism of the name, Aleister Crowley took Baphomet as his magical title as head of the Ordo Templi Orientis, the magical secret society he took over from Theodor Reuss. In some contemporary magical systems, Baphomet has become a symbol of the spiritus mundi or soul of the world, formed from the sum total of life energy generated by all the living things on earth. A new interpretation of the old legend surfaced in the early 1980s, when writers in the alternative-history field suggested that the idol of the Templars might have been the Shroud of Turin, a medieval forgery that claims to show the face and body of Christ miraculously imprinted on his shroud. See Crowley, Aleister; Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO); Reuss, Theodor; Shroud of Turin.

Interpretations of the meaning of the alleged idol’s name form a sideline among Baphomet researchers. Suggestions range from German bookseller Friedrich Nicolai’s claim that it derived from Greek words for “color” (and in a somewhat unlikely extension, “baptism”) and “spirit,” through Eliphas Lévi’s proposal that it was a backwards abbreviation, TEM.O.H.P.AB, of the Latin phrase Templum omnium hominum pacis abbas (“abbot of the temple of peace for all men”), to Crowley’s suggestion that it came from a phrase meaning “Father Mithras.” It took twentieth-century scholars of medieval history to point out that “Baphomet” is the standard medieval French mispronunciation of the name of Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, equivalent to the medieval and early modern English “Mahound.” Philip IV’s use of the term to blacken the Templars’ reputation, in other words, was simply meant to imply that they had betrayed the Christian cause and gone over to the Muslim side.


The most famous political secret society of all time, the focus of countless conspiracy theories and paranoid fantasies for more than two centuries, the Ancient Illuminated Seers of Bavaria was founded on May 1, 1776, by a professor at the University of Ingolstadt named Adam Weishaupt and four of his friends. Weishaupt was an avid student of the liberal ideas proposed by Voltaire, Diderot, and other French philosophers of the time; he hoped to foster progressive ideas in conservative, intensely Catholic Bavaria, and especially at his university, where liberal faculty members struggled against a clique of ex-Jesuits whose influence remained intact even after the Society of Jesus had been dissolved in 1773. He became a Freemason in 1774, but found the Craft’s ban on political and religious discussions little to his taste. The birth of the Illuminati in 1776 was the logical result, an attempt to use the Masonic model as a tool for liberal cultural politics. See Society of Jesus (Jesuits); Weishaupt, Adam.

From this modest start the order grew slowly. In 1779 it had 54 members, divided among five colonies (local lodges) in Bavaria. Membership growth was limited by the intensive course of study Weishaupt set out for his initiates. Weishaupt believed in the essential goodness of human nature, arguing that only the burdens of religious obscurantism and fossilized tradition stood in the way of universal human enlightenment; he originally planned to call his order the Perfectibilists, because of its focus on the possibility of human perfection, but settled on Illuminati as a reference to the enlightened attitudes he hoped to foster. Illuminati novices thus started their studies with classical moral writers such as Aristotle and Cato, and then went on to contemporary philosophers such as Holbach and Helvetius. A process of self-examination, guided by written questionnaires and the close supervision of a senior initiate, helped direct the novice toward the goal of this strenuous training program – the creation of an elite of enlightened initiates who would insinuate themselves into influential positions in Bavarian society and transform the kingdom into a Utopia.

Illuminati recruitment focused on the socially prominent, the wealthy, and the talented from the very beginning. Starting in 1779, a new and highly successful second recruitment front opened as Illuminati began to infiltrate Masonic lodges in Germany and elsewhere, recruiting Masonic leaders and taking control of lodges. Xavier Zwack, the architect of this new strategy and one of Weishaupt’s senior lieutenants, started the process with the successful takeover of an important Munich lodge. By 1784 the order had spread through much of central Europe, with active colonies in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Bohemia (now the Czech Republic), Hungary, and northern Italy, and the total number of Illuminati who had received the Illuminatus Minor degree (the basic working degree of the order) topped 650. See Freemasonry.

Codes, ciphers, and secret names played an important role in the Illuminati system. Each member had a code name; for example, Weishaupt was Spartacus, Zwack was Cato, and Baron von Knigge, another leader, was Philo. Places also had code names: Ingolstadt was Eleusis, Munich was Athens, and Vienna was Rome. Communications between members were always in cipher, and even the names of months were disguised.

By the period of the order’s greatest growth, however, the secrecy essential to its survival had been breached. Some of its members talked too freely about the order’s opposition to religious and political autocracy. In 1782, when Illuminati agents attended the great Masonic conclave at Wilhemsbad in an effort to take control of the crumbling Strict Observance, important attendees such as Jean-Baptiste Willermoz already knew enough about the order to checkmate their plans, and the Illuminati went away empty-handed. By 1784 horrifying rumors about the Illuminati were in circulation in Bavaria itself, and the Bavarian government imposed an edict banning secret organizations; 1785 saw another edict proscribing the Illuminati by name. See Rite of Strict Observance.

Weishaupt fled into exile, and ordered Illuminati lodges in Bavaria to go to ground, but his hopes of rebuilding the Illuminati in secret were dashed in 1786 when Bavarian police raided Xavier Zwack’s house and seized copies of hundreds of the order’s documents, including Weishaupt’s own secret correspondence. Most of the Illuminati in Bavaria either left the kingdom or were jailed. Weishaupt himself moved to Gotha, in relatively liberal Saxony, where he settled down to a quiet career as a professor of philosophy and writer.

Most of the other Illuminati scattered in the same way, though a handful attempted to restart something close to Weishaupt’s organization. Christoph Bode, an influential Illuminatus, made two visits to Paris in an attempt to interest French radicals in Weishaupt’s teachings. Among his most important converts was Nicholas de Bonneville, a lawyer who went on to become one of the most influential radical journalists of the French Revolution and the founder of an important secret society, the Social Circle. Filippo Buonarroti, who would become the most influential revolutionary of the early nineteenth century, belonged to a Masonic lodge in Italy that had briefly been under Illuminati control, and he spent the rest of his long life using Illuminati methods in an attempt to foster liberal revolutions across Europe. See Buonarroti, Filippo; Social Circle; Sublime Perfect Masters.

The Bavarian Illuminati was one among many minor secret societies of the late eighteenth century, and might well have become nothing more than a footnote to the history of the time. Between its origins in 1776 and its suppression by the Bavarian government in 1786, it succeeded in a small way in its primary goal of spreading French Enlightenment ideas in conservative Bavaria, and won some influence over the more liberal end of German public opinion, but that was all. It is one of the great ironies of secret-society history that this modest achievement launched the most remarkable of all the myths that make up contemporary conspiracy theory, and turned Adam Weishaupt’s circle of would-be reformers into the foundation of a sprawling mythology of global domination by the ultimate secret society.

The dawn of the Illuminati myth was the Bavarian government’s publication of papers seized from Illuminati in 1786. The papers launched a brief furor in the conservative press of the time, but probably would have been forgotten had the French Revolution not broken out three years later. The first years of revolution saw references to the Illuminati in antimasonic publications, and now and again the suggestion that Weishaupt’s society or something like it might be behind France’s political troubles. The real transformation of the Illuminati from a minor episode in the history of secret societies to the centerpiece of two centuries of paranoid speculation, though, began in 1797, with the publication in London of the first two volumes of Augustin de Barruel’s Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire du Jacobinisme (Memoirs serving as a History of Jacobinism).

De Barruel was an ex-Jesuit, a Catholic priest, and an author of conservative political tracts who had fled revolutionary France in 1792. He had become convinced that a widespread conspiracy was responsible for the Revolution. While he blamed Freemasons and philosophers for helping to lay the groundwork for the overthrow of the French monarchy, he argued that an inner circle within Masonry had deliberately planned the whole affair as part of a sinister crusade against monarchy and Christianity. That hidden inner circle, he insisted, was none other than the Bavarian Illuminati. Despite the complete lack of evidence presented for the claim in de Barruel’s book, his idea was taken up enthusiastically by conservatives in France and elsewhere, who found it impossible to believe that the French people might have had a reason to overthrow the most corrupt and inefficient monarchy in Europe.

In the same year that the first volumes of de Barruel’s work appeared, a Scottish Freemason, John Robison, published a book of his own, with the inflammatory title Proofs of a Conspiracy against all the Religions and Governments of Europe, carried on in the secret Meetings of Free Masons, Illuminati, and Reading Societies. Robison’s motivation was curious; he wanted to protect British Freemasonry by distancing it from the political activities of Masons in France and Italy and throwing the blame for the French Revolution on the Illuminati. Robison’s book was savaged by critics for its shaky logic and lack of evidence, but was regularly reprinted and has had an immense influence on conspiracy theories in the English-speaking world ever since.

De Barruel and Robison between them caused an immediate sensation across Europe; their claims were taken up enthusiastically by conservatives as a weapon against liberal opponents. Robison’s and de Barruel’s ideas blended with the parallel mythology of the Knights Templar and media reports about actual nineteenth-century secret societies to make the vision of secret societies opposed to monarchy, Christianity, and property an item of faith for most European conservatives throughout the 1800s. The same beliefs found a home in a different social milieu on the far side of the Atlantic, where Robison’s book sparked a brief antimasonic witchhunt in the 1790s. The belief in sinister Illuminati plots fed into the antimasonic movement of the 1830s, became an item of faith among the Know-Nothings of the 1840s, and helped lay the foundations for the rise of fundamentalism in the early twentieth century. See Antimasonic Party; fundamentalism; Know-Nothing Party; Knights Templar.

The next stage in the development of the Illuminati mythology came in the aftermath of the First World War. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an antisemitic hoax claiming that Jews were behind an international conspiracy to enslave the world, and the success of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 gave a massive boost to conspiracy theories worldwide. Nesta Webster, the leading light among British conspiracy writers, responded to the Russian revolution in much the same way Robison and de Barruel had responded to the French, arguing that a vast conspiracy must have been needed to cause it. Her books argued, however, for a “One Big Conspiracy” theory in which the Bolsheviks, and the Illuminati themselves, were merely pawns in a larger game, manipulated along with countless other groups by an inner core of Jewish Satanists. These ideas found a ready audience throughout the western world, and helped feed the fascist movements of the 1920s and 1930s in Europe and America. See Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

The Second World War and the revelations of Nazi atrocities against the Jews made antisemitic conspiracy theories difficult to defend publicly, but did nothing to dispel the popular appeal of conspiracy theories in general. The Illuminati mythology proved more than capable of filling the void. A crucial role in the postwar expansion of Illuminati-hunting was played by Robert Welch, founder and chief ideologist of the John Birch Society. Welch started his career as an anticommunist, but became convinced that communism itself was simply a pawn in the hands of a shadowy league of wealthy “Insiders,” who manipulated parties and movements across the political and social spectra. Welch drew extensively from de Barruel and Robison in his writings and explicitly identified his “Insiders” as the Illuminati. See John Birch Society.

Welch’s claims helped make the second half of the twentieth century a golden age of speculation about the Illuminati, and did much to ensure that these speculations would proliferate free of the limits of evidence or logic. Since the original sources on Weishaupt’s society had been all but forgotten, and even de Barruel and Robison were cited far more often than they were read, the shadow of the Illuminati could be stretched or cropped as needed to cover any desired collection of facts or fantasies. Thus the original Illuminati, with their dream of human moral perfection and their commitment to liberal ideals, have been completely eclipsed. Most of the conspiracy theories about the Illuminati nowadays claim that the order consists of 13 extremely wealthy families who already run the world, but who have been plotting for thousands of years to impose a Satanic dictatorship on the entire planet in the next few decades.

The result has been an extraordinary profusion of imaginative theories uniting all the world’s real or imagined secret societies under the Illuminati banner. One widely quoted theory claims that the Illuminati were founded in Mesopotamia sometime around 300,000 BCE, when a group of conspirators infiltrated an existing secret society called the Brotherhood of the Snake. Since the first Homo sapiens apparently didn’t come into being until sometime after 100,000 BCE, this theory would make the Illuminati conspiracy substantially older than our species, and indeed older than the Neanderthals. The thought of a contemporary secret society dating back to Homo erectus may seem dizzying at first glance, but compared to some other theories about the Illuminati – such as David Icke’s claim that the world is ruled by a secret aristocracy of shape-shifting reptiles from the constellation Draco – it is relatively tame. See Reptilians.

The sheer diversity of Illuminati theories has driven many attempts to force some sort of order on all the confusion. Many writers simply insist that all secret societies are the Illuminati, or that the Illuminati themselves are actually another organization called Moriah Conquering Wind. Others have arranged the different groups into a neat hierarchical pyramid. The most common scheme of this sort, included in many books and websites about the Illuminati, starts at the top with the degree of the All-Seeing Eye, which is held personally by Lucifer. Next comes the Rothschild Tribunal or RT, the inner circle of Rothschild family members, whom other Illuminati allegedly regard as gods in human form. Below them is the Great Druid Council, staffed by 13 great druids who form the Rothschild family’s private priesthood, although why a family of Jewish bankers would have Celtic Pagan priests is an interesting question rarely discussed. The next two levels of the pyramid are the Council of Thirty-Three, consisting of the highest Freemasons; and the Committee of 300, made up of families of satanic nobility, headed by the British Crown. Ordinary, garden-variety Illuminati fall somewhere beneath this baroque hierarchy, which brings most of the popular candidates for the post of hidden masters of the world into a single scheme. See Committee of 300; Druids; Moriah Conquering Wind; Satanism.

Predictably, all this myth-making has propelled at least two known attempts to revive the Bavarian Illuminati, at least in name. Masonic entrepreneur Theodor Reuss, better known as the originator of the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), was also involved in an attempt to relaunch the Illuminati. He and his associate Leopold Engel raised the Illuminati banner in 1895 in Berlin, but a split between Engel and Reuss sent the latter pursuing other projects. Engel’s Illuminati continued to exist until the middle years of the twentieth century, when it merged with the Ordo Templi Orientis. See Ordo Templi Orientis; Reuss, Theodor.

Nearly half a world away, a group of Berkeley, California college students, loosely affiliated with the Discordian movement, proclaimed themselves as the Bavarian Illuminati in 1968 and sent out raucous proclamations to a bemused world for several years thereafter. See Discordian movement.

Further reading: Billington 1980, Roberts 1972.


One of the strangest cases in the files of the Italian Inquisition is the case of the benandanti (Italian for “good walkers”), a secret society of peasant magicians in the region of Friuli, in the far northeast of Italy. The benandanti first came to the attention of the Catholic authorities in 1575, when a member of the society was brought before the Inquisition on an unrelated charge. The inquisitors were completely baffled by what they learned, as it did not match official portrayals of Satanism or pagan religion. Investigations continued in a desultory way for the next three-quarters of a century, with over a hundred benandanti finding themselves hauled before the Inquisition and grilled about their beliefs.

According to their testimony, children born with a caul (a portion of the amniotic sac) on their head were destined to become benandanti. On the ember days – the days to either side of the solstices and equinoxes – they left their physical bodies behind and traveled in animal form to the Vale of Josaphat at the center of the world. There, using fennel stalks as their weapons, they battled the malandanti or “evil walkers,” sorcerers armed with sorghum stalks. If the benandanti won, the harvest would be good; if the malandanti won, the crops would fail. The special powers of the benandanti gave them the ability to heal illnesses and lift curses, but their central duty was the nocturnal battle against the malandanti.

The Inquisition office in Friuli, as elsewhere in Italy, rejected the use of torture and gave accused persons certain legal rights rare north of the Alps. As a result, very few of the benandanti faced serious punishment; most were let off with penances and a stern warning to abandon their supposedly superstitious beliefs. The last trial involving benandanti was in 1644; after that time, faced with more serious threats to Catholic orthodoxy, the Friulian Inquisition abandoned the issue and no further investigations were ordered.

As historian of medieval culture Carlo Ginzburg has pointed out, the records of the benandanti are of high importance because they document one form of a tradition – found all over medieval Europe in various guises – of nocturnal journeys in animal form, often in the company of a goddess. This tradition surfaced by the ninth century, when it was condemned by the canon Episcopi, part of Catholic canon law, and can be found mentioned in Inquisition records and folklore from across Europe. See canon Episcopi.

Further reading: Ginzburg 1985, Ginzburg 1991.


One of the largest and most prestigious of American fraternal orders, the Elks had their origins in a drinking club called the Jolly Corks, founded in 1867 by a group of actors and entertainers in New York City who took umbrage at the “blue laws” that forbade saloons from serving alcohol on Sundays. The group had been meeting for a few months when, just before Christmas, one of its members died, leaving his wife and children penniless. Another member of the Corks, the English-born actor Charles Vivian, was a member of a British fraternal order, and proposed to the others that they found a similar organization that would combine social drinking with a beneficial system for members. Disagreement immediately rose about the name; Vivian suggested that the new order name itself after the American buffalo, but by a vote of eight to seven the members present voted to call themselves Elks instead.

The new order was founded in February 1868 with a ritual of two degrees, and began attracting new members almost at once, first from within the theatre and entertainment industries and then from all walks of life. In these early days, Elks initiations drew heavily from the burlesque degrees of the time, as well as from Freemasonry and other fraternal orders; members even wore lambskin aprons like those used by Masons for initiation rituals. Many of these elements, however, fell out of use as the order expanded. In 1890 the second degree of initiation was eliminated; in 1895 the lambskin aprons dropped out of use; passwords stopped being used in 1899, membership badges in 1902, grips in 1904, and the use of an oath in 1911. A 1952 change eliminated the custom of blindfolding candidates. A final traditional barrier, the limitation of membership to men, went by the board in 1995. See burlesque degrees; Freemasonry.

By the last years of the nineteenth century the Elks had become one of the most prominent fraternal orders in America. Unlike most other orders of the kind, they continued to expand their membership until 1976, reaching a peak of 2200 lodges and over 1.6 million members in that year. Their success at a time when many other fraternal orders were suffering severe losses depended partly on their willingness to discard ritual practices that many twentieth-century Americans found old-fashioned, partly on the order’s tradition of establishing a bar and restaurant for members in every lodge, and partly on the fact that by the early twentieth century the Elks had become the favorite social club for many members of America’s political elites. US presidents Warren Harding, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Gerald Ford were all Elks. In most US state capitals the Elks lodge can be found within a few blocks of the state government buildings, and a great deal of lobbying and informal political business was transacted there. The last quarter of the twentieth century saw some contraction in Elkdom, but the Elks remain one of the largest surviving fraternal orders at the time of writing.

The history of organizations associated with the Elks is relatively complex. Two competing ladies auxiliaries, the Emblem Club and the more exclusive Benevolent Protective Order of Does, emerged in the 1920s and still exist today. An independent Canadian Elks order was founded in 1912 and established its own ladies auxiliary, the Royal Purple, in 1914. Another Elks order, the Improved Benevolent Protective Order of Elks of the World, was launched in 1898 in Cincinnati, Ohio by two African-American men, who were refused admission into the local Elks lodge on account of their race. The BPOE attempted to force them out of existence with a series of lawsuits but failed, and in 1918 abandoned the attempt. See African-American secret societies; ladies auxiliaries.


One of the bêtes noires of contemporary conspiracy theory, the Bilderberg Group – this is not its actual name, but the title given it by its critics – is composed of the attendees of a series of informal top-level conferences among politicians, bankers, and businessmen begun in 1954 by Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands. The first meeting was held in Oosterbek, the Netherlands, in the posh Bilderberg Hotel, and subsequent annual meetings have been held in cities in Europe and the eastern seaboard of North America. The guest list for these conferences reads like a Who’s Who of European and American elites, with Europeans outnumbering Americans on average by 2 to 1. The official purpose of the meetings is to foster closer ties and better understanding among political and economic leaders in the nations of the Atlantic alliance.

American conference attendees have been drawn largely from the membership of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and other policy-making organizations in the upper levels of the American elite, and the entire project of having annual meetings of decision makers from many countries was probably inspired by the CFR and its European equivalents. In turn, the Bilderberg meetings probably played a role in laying foundations for the Trilateral Commission, which includes Japanese government and business leaders alongside their opposite numbers from Europe and America. See Council on Foreign Relations (CFR); Trilateral Commission.

The role of the Bilderberg conferences in contemporary conspiracy theory began with American far-right groups, such as the John Birch Society and the Liberty Lobby, who pounced on the first conference as proof of the conspiracy of “Insiders” that John Birch Society founder Robert Welch identified as the puppet masters behind capitalism and communism alike. Since then, the “Bilderbergers” have taken a place in conspiracy literature as one among many likely candidates for the position of secret masters of the New World Order. See John Birch Society; New World Order.


In most traditional secret societies in the western world, candidates for initiation are elected to membership by a secret ballot of current members of the lodge where their application has been received. The usual method involves a wooden ballot box with a tray of white and black marbles. One at a time, members advance to the box, pick up a marble and drop it in. White marbles are favorable votes, black marbles unfavorable. In the stricter lodges, one negative vote is enough to bar a candidate from membership, while some American fraternal orders now require a majority of negative votes to exclude a potential member. See fraternal orders; lodge.

The custom of voting in members with black and white balls was widespread enough that it gave rise to the verb “to blackball,” meaning to ostracize someone or block their membership in an organization.


Central to many of the current New World Order conspiracy theories is the belief that a fleet of black military helicopters carries out secret missions in US airspace, and sometime soon will spearhead the imposition of a nationwide police state. Helicopters painted black, rather than the dark green of ordinary Army or Marine Corps craft, do exist in the US military arsenal, and have been sighted and photographed many times. The black helicopters of contemporary conspiracy theories, though, are no ordinary craft, but form the keystone of an evolving myth of immanent evil; see New World Order.

The first reports of black helicopters surfaced in 1971, in the early days of the cattle mutilation phenomenon. Some of the baffled farmers and ranchers whose livestock turned up dead and mutilated in otherwise unmarked pastures reported seeing mysterious black helicopters flying over their fields. The black helicopters formed only one of many purported explanations for cattle mutilations, though, and claims linking the mutilations with UFOs and Satanic cults got considerably more press. Black helicopters continued to be reported in mutilation accounts until the phenomenon faded out around 1985.

In 1993, though cattle mutilations remained a very occasional event, the black helicopters returned in force. The force behind their reappearance seems to have been the inauguration of Bill Clinton as US President after 12 years of Republican ascendancy, an event that convinced many people on the American far right that their worst fears were about to be realized. Internet chat-rooms buzzed with claims that the new President, with the help of United Nations forces, was about to suspend civil rights and impose firearms laws on America comparable to those in most other developed countries. Black helicopters full of foreign troops played an important role in these fantasies. In all probability, the entire phenomenon was deliberate disinformation meant to rally the far right around the Republican Party after its stinging defeat in the 1992 national elections. See Disinformation.

Like many other disinformation campaigns, though, this one took on a life of its own. The image of sinister black helicopters in America’s skies mirrored the fears and fantasies of too many Americans in the 1990s to fade away once it had served its political purpose. Before long talk of black helicopters spread from the far right into many other American subcultures: UFO researchers began discussing the role of black helicopters in the government’s alleged UFO cover-up and dealings with alien intelligences; therapists in the Satanic ritual abuse industry began extracting stories of Satanists in black helicopters from their hypnotized clients; and radicals on the far left repeated tales that originated on the far right. By 2000 black helicopters were such a fixture in every corner of the alternative-realities scene that the phrase “the black helicopter crowd” came into widespread use as a term embracing all Americans who believed in conspiracy theories of every kind. See Satanism; unidentified flying objects (UFOs).

Further reading: Keith 1994a.


One of the most influential conservative secret societies in pre-revolutionary Russia, the Black Hundreds – more formally known as the Union of the Russian People – was founded in 1905 in St Petersburg by V. M. Purishkevich, a reactionary agitator. Russia’s disastrous defeat in its 1904–05 war with Japan, along with serious economic and political troubles, forced the Tsar to grant limited political freedoms and to call the first Russian parliament, the Duma of the Empire. Purishkevich set out to discredit these changes by convincing the Russian masses that the new constitution and the Duma were part and parcel of a Jewish conspiracy against the Tsar. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a newly manufactured forgery claiming to disclose a Jewish plot for world domination, became a central element of Black Hundreds propaganda. See Antisemitism; Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

As the Union of the Russian People, the Black Hundreds ran candidates for office and held a handful of seats in the Duma. Meanwhile armed bands raised by the political wing of the organization carried out assassinations and pogroms against Jews, Freemasons, liberals, and ethnic minorities such as Armenians and Poles. The Hundreds received substantial support from Tsar Nicholas II, who wore its badge on his uniform, as well as from many influential aristocrats. It also received up to 2.5 million rubles a year from the imperial government itself.

The Black Hundreds remained a significant factor in Russian politics until the beginning of the First World War, when the government subsidies and support that kept it functioning had to be redirected to the war effort. When the Revolution broke out in 1917, most of its remaining members joined the White (anticommunist) side and were killed or exiled in the bitter civil war that followed. See Russian revolution.

Further reading: Cohn 1967, Laqueur 1965.


In the occult scene of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a term for occult secret societies devoted to the study and practice of evil magic. Many of the occult writers of this period treat the existence and activities of the Black Lodges as a matter of common knowledge, and discuss in detail the differences between the true path of occult initiation and the corrupt and counterfeit path offered by the Black Lodges to their initiates. In practice, however, the term was used by members of rival occult orders to slander their opponents. Even Aleister Crowley, himself considered a black magician by most of his contemporaries in the occult community, used the term to describe his doctrinal opponents. See Crowley, Aleister; lodge; Magic.

Specific definitions of the Black Lodges varied depending on the beliefs of the lodge or occultist defining them. In the teachings of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, for example, the Black Lodges were composed of necromancers working with the energies of the mysterious Dark Satellite and its hierarch, Ob. Theosophical writings of the same period claimed that the Black Lodges glorified the separate individuality, while the Great White Lodge sought to lead all souls into the Divine Unity. See Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor (H.B. of L.); Theosophical Society.

In fact, to judge by all the evidence, Black Lodges of the sort described in occult literature did not actually exist in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. By the last decades of the twentieth century, however, several organizations that fit the old definitions exactly had come into being and were advertising for members on the Internet. Magical orders such as the Temple of Set and the White Order of Thule, drawing on modern Satanism and the mythology of German National Socialism, duplicated the teachings and practices of the Black Lodges as described by occult writers of a century before. Fictional secret societies have inspired real ones so often that the roots of today’s “black lodges” may include a good deal of inspiration from their imaginary nineteenth-century equivalents. See Satanism; Temple of Set; White Order of Thule.


In nineteenth- and twentieth-century occult parlance, a term used for systems of magic that were morally evil, as opposed to “white magic” which was, or at least claimed to be, morally good. No two definitions of black and white magic cover the same territory, but most define black magic as magical work performed with selfish intentions, while white magic has unselfish intentions and orients itself toward higher spiritual powers. In practical terms, magic that harms other people or pursues wholly selfish aims has usually been characterized as black magic. See magic; white magic.


The classic ritual of traditional Satanism, the Black Mass is a parody of the Catholic mass in which a naked woman is used as the altar, Christian symbols are defiled or inverted, and the consecrated Host (the wafer of unleavened bread that, according to Catholic theology, becomes the body of Christ) is abused in various ways. Like most transgressive forms of magic in the western world, the Black Mass seems to have started out as a fantasy of authority figures – in this case, officials of the Catholic Church – that was then adopted by opponents of authority for its shock value. See Satanism.

For this reason, the Black Mass has rarely been popular outside of Catholic countries. In France, where baiting the Catholic Church has been a sport for centuries, the Black Mass seems to have been practiced more often than anywhere else. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, numerous French priests were burned at the stake for performing Black Masses, and though many of these cases were clearly miscarriages of justice, evidence suggests that not all of them were. At the end of the seventeenth century, the “Affair of the Poisons” turned up a flourishing trade in Black Masses reaching into the court of Louis XIV himself, and 36 people were burned alive for their roles in a plot on the king’s life. The end of the nineteenth century, for its part, saw the Black Mass once again in vogue as an expression of the Decadent esthetic, and J.K. Huysmans’ Satanist novel Là-Bas (Down There) drew on the author’s experience of Black Masses performed in Liège.

The Black Mass had a brief vogue in England at the end of the eighteenth century, when Sir Francis Dashwood’s Hell-Fire Club became notorious for its ceremonies, though these seem to have been mostly excuses for heavy drinking and sex. In the same way, Satanist-showman Anton Szandor LaVey’s Church of Satan titillated audiences in the 1970s with a version of the old ritual designed to play down the religious elements and play up the display of female nudity. See Church of Satan; Hell-Fire Club.

The Black Mass has fallen almost entirely out of use among modern Satanists, however, and traditional Satanism as a whole has been largely replaced in the last two decades by more avant-garde forms of organized wickedness, such as the Temple of Set and “dark-side” neo-Nazi lodges. The reasons behind this change are instructive. As a parody and inversion of the Catholic mass, the Black Mass depended for its effect on its contrast with the participants’ memories of the grandeur of the Catholic ritual. The Second Vatican Council reforms, which banished the Latin rite, stripped away most of the mystery and power from the ceremony, and brought in such dubious entertainments as folk-music masses, left little for Satanists to parody; it’s hard to imagine even the most enthusiastic Satanists getting noticeable results by singing “Kum Ba Ya” backwards. See neo-Nazi secret societies; Temple of Set.


See White Order of Thule (WOT).


The central symbol of contemporary neo-Nazi occultism, the Black Sun first appeared as a symbol in the writings of Erich Halik, a member of the circle that gathered around the seminal neo-Nazi thinker Wilhelm Landig in Vienna after the Second World War. Halik argued that occultists in the SS before and during the war had split into two factions, a Luciferian group, symbolized by the Golden Sun, who drew on the Cathar tradition and attempted to link up with secret occult centers in Tibet, and a Satanist core group, symbolized by the Black Sun, who were in contact with a mysterious Blue Island in the Arctic. He claimed that the black roundel painted just after the war on captured German aircraft had actually been the insignia of the Black Sun, proving that the Wehrmacht had reached the Blue Island before the end of the war and stationed an elite corps of SS members there to prepare a counter-stroke against the victorious Allies when the time was ripe. See Cathars; neo-Nazi secret societies; Satanism; SS (Schutzstaffel).

These ideas made their way into the broader neo-Nazi movement by way of a trilogy of novels Wilhelm Landig himself published in the last decades of the twentieth century. In Götzen gegen Thule (Godlings against Thule, 1971), Wolfszeit um Thule (Wolf-time around Thule, 1980) and Rebellen für Thule (Rebels for Thule, 1991) Landig painted a picture of secret Nazi bases in the Arctic and Antarctic, stocked with flying saucers and fighting a secret struggle against a Jewish world conspiracy. The Black Sun, which Landig explains is not black but deep purple, is the emblem of the new, magical Reich. See Thule.

Another neo-Nazi thriller, Die schwarze Sonne von Tashi Lhunpo (The Black Sun of Tashi Lhunpo, 1991) identified the Black Sun symbol with the sun-wheel emblem on the floor of the great tower of Wewelsburg, the SS ceremonial center in Westphalia, Germany. This version of the Black Sun, a wheel of twelve zigzag S-runes, has become a central symbol in today’s neo-Nazi secret societies.

These fictional manifestations of the Black Sun launched it into the wider world of neo-Nazi occultism, where it soon became a primary symbol. In the hands of Miguel Serrano, the chief theoretician of the movement, the Black Sun represents the star around which the true home world of the Aryans circles, bathed in the “extra-galactic” light of the Green Ray. According to Serrano, when the original Aryans came to our world to battle the Demiurge and his legions of subhuman beast-men, they had superhuman powers as a result of the light of the Black Sun circulating in their veins; those powers were lost when the original Aryans mated with the beast-men to produce modern humanity. The purpose of Aryan spiritual training, according to this theory, is to open up contact with the Black Sun through the crown chakra, cleanse the self of the contamination of non-Aryan blood, and regain the lost powers of the ancient Aryans. This drastic distortion of traditional occult teaching has inspired various systems of neo-Nazi yoga and magic in recent years.

Further reading: Godwin 1993, Goodrick-Clarke 2002.


Russian author and occultist. One of the most influential figures in the history of modern occultism, Blavatsky (1831–91) – née von Hahn – was born in Yekaterinoslav in the Ukraine to a military family of German origin. Her great-grandfather, Prince Paul Dolgourouki, had been a member of the Rite of Strict Observance, the leading eighteenth-century occult Masonic order, and Blavatsky spent many hours in her youth reading occult books from his library. See Rite of Strict Observance.

When she was 19, her father arranged to marry her off to an elderly Russian nobleman, Nikifor Blavatsky, but she left him after a few months and traveled widely in Europe and the Near East. According to later Theosophical writings, she spent much of this time as a pupil of the Masters in Tibet, while researchers outside the Theosophical fold have argued instead that she spent these years as a circus performer, fraudulent medium, and adventuress. Her travels took her back home to the Ukraine in 1858, to the Caucasus in the 1860s, and back to Cairo, surviving shipwreck on the way, in 1871.

By the time she visited her family in 1858 she was already an accomplished spiritualist medium, and on her second trip to Cairo she established a spiritualist organization, the Sociéte Spirite or Spirit Society, with the help of French medium Emma Coulombe and her husband. The Society foundered a few years later amid charges of fraud and embezzlement, and Blavatsky proceeded to Paris. In 1873 she crossed the Atlantic to New York City, where she met Col. Henry Steele Olcott, whose abilities as an organizer and publicist made Blavatsky’s later career possible. Within a short time the two were living together, and had drawn up plans for an organization to teach the wisdom of the ages to the western world. Blavatsky’s friend Henry Sotheran, a high-ranking Freemason and occultist, suggested the name “Theosophical Society” for the new organization, and in 1875 the movement that would dominate western occultism for a century was born at a meeting in New York. See Theosophical Society.

For the next two years, while the Society slowly grew around her, Blavatsky labored over the first of her two massive books, Isis Unveiled (1877). An all-out attack on the materialist science and orthodox religion of her time, Isis Unveiled presented a worldview mostly drawn from the western occultism of the time, with particularly heavily borrowings from the writings of French magus Eliphas Lévi and American Rosicrucian Paschal Beverly Randolph. An instant success, it launched the Theosophical Society on a trajectory that gave it worldwide popularity. See Randolph, Paschal Beverly.

In 1878 Blavatsky and Olcott went to England, and the next year arrived in India, where they established a new headquarters for the Society at Adyar, near Bombay. Blavatsky’s old Cairo confidantes the Coulombes joined them there and took housekeeping positions at the headquarters building. At Adyar, Blavatsky astonished the local British community and visiting occultists by performing apparent miracles. Silverware disappeared and reappeared, and messages from mysterious Tibetan Mahatmas showed up in unlikely ways, on one occasion fluttering down from the ceiling after apparently materializing in mid air. This attracted the attention of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) in London, and an investigator went to Adyar while Blavatsky and Olcott were conveniently away on a lecture tour. The investigation quickly turned up damning evidence of fraud, including detailed confessions from the Coulombes, who had been involved in manufacturing the “miracles.”

The SPR’s report, published in 1885, caused a widespread scandal, and Olcott broke with Blavatsky and forbade her to set foot in Adyar again. She returned to London and spent the next six years lecturing, writing, and organizing an inner circle of the Theosophical Society, called the Esoteric Section, to receive advanced instructions on her system of occultism. Her second major book, the massive The Secret Doctrine (1888), drew on material she had gathered while in India and became the essential text not only of Theosophy but also of most versions of popular occultism in the western world for the next three-quarters of a century. By the time of her death, despite the scandals, the Theosophical Society had become the largest occult organization in the world.

Further reading: Godwin 1994, Washington 1993.


In the jargon of Freemasonry, a lodge working the three fundamental Masonic degrees of Entered Apprentice, Fellow Craft, and Master Mason. Blue is the symbolic color of these three degrees, while other degrees have their own distinctive colors; the Royal Arch and its associated degrees, for example, have red for their color. See Freemasonry; Royal Arch.


One of dozens of private clubs in American cities that cater to the needs and interests of America’s economic and political elites, the Bohemian Club in San Francisco has attracted a good deal of attention in recent years by way of the ritual performed at its annual retreat in a pristine corner of northern California. Routinely labeled occult, pagan, or Satanic worship by fundamentalists and the far right press, the Bohemian Grove ritual actually has no religious or esoteric content at all. In contemporary conspiracy theory, however, it has come to play a role far out of proportion to its actual importance. See fundamentalism.

The Bohemian Club was founded in San Francisco in 1872. Originally a social club catering to artists, writers, and intellectuals, it began to attract members of the city’s financial elite within a few years of its founding, and by the early twentieth century was the most prestigious social club in town. Its imposing six-story building stands a few blocks from San Francisco’s financial district. The Club began hosting its annual male-only retreat at the Bohemian Grove, a wooded property 65 miles north of San Francisco, in 1878, and within a few years guests from high political and economic circles began putting in appearances at the encampment. At this point the attendees at the retreat include many of the top politicians, financiers, and corporate executives in North America.

The two-week retreat, held in late June and early July, features theatrical and musical performances, informal talks by influential speakers, and many other events, but the feature that has attracted nearly all the attention lavished on the Bohemian Club focuses on the annual ritual of the Cremation of Care. In the ceremony, the body of Dull Care is brought to a funeral pyre, but comes back to life before it can be burnt and mocks the guests for thinking they can be rid of their cares during the retreat. The Bohemians beseech the Owl, the emblem of the club, for his guidance, and the Owl tells them that only the flame of the Lamp of Fellowship can incinerate Dull Care. This is duly applied, and Care gives up the ghost in a blaze of pyrotechnic glory. The ceremony is a typical piece of nineteenth-century fraternal ritual. Inevitably, though, it has been redefined by conspiracy theorists and fundamentalists as a pagan ritual of sacrifice to Satan. See fraternal orders; Initiation.

The attendee list for the Bohemian Grove retreat overlaps with the memberships of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Trilateral Commission, and the Bilderberg group, and it is often included by conspiracy theorists (together with the mythical Committee of 300) as one of the secret elite organizations intent on bringing about the New World Order. See Bilderberg Group; Committee of 300; Council on Foreign Relations (CFR); New World Order; Trilateral Commission.

Further reading: Domhoff 1974, van der Zee 1974.


In modern Wicca and some related Pagan traditions, the usual name for the handwritten book of rituals and spells created by each initiate in the course of her training and copied in turn by her students. This process of transmission guarantees that Books of Shadows vary wildly, but nearly all contain ritual texts for the degrees of initiation and sabbats (seasonal celebrations) used in a given tradition, along with much else in the way of religious, magical, and divinatory lore. Several Wiccan Books of Shadows have been published; while a few of the more strident defenders of Wiccan tradition have insisted that these have nothing to do with the “real thing,” most Wiccans allow that these published versions are relatively accurate, while some Wiccan traditions now encourage students to use the published versions in place of the laborious and error-prone process of hand copying. See Wicca.

The term “Book of Shadows,” like most of the standard terminology of Wicca, has been claimed as an inheritance from ancient European Pagans, but it appears nowhere in occult or Pagan material from before 1950, when it appears in one of Gerald Gardner’s books on Wicca. He seems to have borrowed the phrase from an article in the British occult magazine The Occult Observer in 1949, “The Book of Shadows” by Mir Bashir, which described an alleged Hindu system of divination using the length of the querent’s shadow.


According to the early writings of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, the founder of Theosophy, a secret society active in America and elsewhere that sponsored the Theosophical Society. Some recent historians of Theosophy have suggested that the Brotherhood might have been inspired by, or descended from, the Fratres Lucis or Brotherhood of Light. So far, though, no independent evidence for the Brotherhood’s existence has yet surfaced, and Blavatsky changed her story completely after her first visit to India in 1879. See Blavatsky, Helena Petrovna; Theosophical Society.

Confusingly, Blavatsky’s Brotherhood of Luxor appears to have had no connection to the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor (H.B. of L.), an occult secret society founded in Britain in the early 1880s. The Theosophical Society and the H.B. of L. ended up as bitter enemies in the late 1880s. See Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor (H.B. of L.).


According to a handful of late twentieth-century conspiracy theorists, the oldest secret society in the world, founded in prehistoric times to carry out a diabolical plot of world domination and enslavement, culminating in a New World Order scheduled to arrive sometime in the very near future. The Brotherhood of the Snake, according to several recent books, was either founded or taken over by evil forces in Mesopotamia in the year 300,000 BCE. Every secret society in history, according to these same books, is simply a branch of the Brotherhood of the Snake and cooperates with all other branches of the conspiracy, despite careful manipulation of appearances to make it look as though the different branches are distinct and even opposed to one another. See New World Order.

The name of this alleged society, with its reference to the serpent of the Tree of Knowledge in the biblical book of Genesis, points to the origins of the claim in fundamentalist Christian fantasies about Satanism. It may be worth adding that the writers who claim to have detected the Brotherhood of the Snake behind every secret society in history have yet to present any evidence for its existence. See fundamentalism; Satanism.

Further reading: Cooper 1991, Goodrick-Clarke 2002.


In seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England and Scotland, ceremonies used to welcome new servants to a household or new apprentices and employees to a business were known as “brotherings.” Customs varied by region and profession, but most brothering rituals began with a good deal of horseplay and pranks and finished with drinks for all paid for by the newcomer. Many Scottish brothering ceremonies included “washing the head” of the new initiate, usually by pouring a little water mixed with whiskey over him.

Most of the surviving records of brothering come from the futile efforts of Scottish civil and religious officials to suppress it. In 1639, for example, the Privy Council prohibited brothering among servants, on account of the “drinking, ryot and excesse” that took place. In 1663 the burgh council of Peebles formally denounced brothering among servants in the burgh. In 1701 the Society for the Reformation of Manners in Edinburgh petitioned the burgh council to suppress brothering in the city guard, and denounced “brothering and excessive drinking and spending thereat;” the captains of the guard promised to end the custom – a promise that may or may not have been kept – but the agitation apparently had no other effect.

Ceremonies of the brothering type can be traced back into the Middle Ages, when entry into almost every imaginable group was accompanied by some similar form of initiation, and continued in the more traditional corners of British society until the social transformations of the First World War era.

Further reading: Stevenson 1988.


A violent revolutionary secret society that flared and burnt out in early 1980s America, the Bruders Schweigen (German, “Silent Brotherhood”) was the brainchild of Robert Mathews, a member of the racist Christian Identity movement. Mathews’ conviction that racial war was brewing between “Aryan” whites and other races was inflamed by William Pierce’s racist novel The Turner Diaries (1978), a fictional account of the overthrow of the US government by a white supremacist secret society. In 1983, Mathews decided to put the novel’s scenario into practice by organizing a secret society and launching a terrorist campaign. See Christian Identity.

The Bruders Schweigen found recruits among members of the racist right eager to begin the long-awaited war against ZOG, the so-called “Zionist Occupation Government.” To raise funds for the coming apocalypse, Mathews and his followers carried out an armored car robbery and counterfeited US money. They also assassinated Alan Berg, a Denver radio talk-show host who made a habit of baiting racists on his program. See Zionist Occupation Government (ZOG).

These actions brought down a massive response from federal law-enforcement officials, who had little difficulty placing an undercover agent within the group. Mathews was cornered by federal marshals in a safe house in Washington State and gunned down, while most of the other members of the organization were arrested in 1985 and 1986 and are currently serving long prison terms. The Bruders Schweigen effectively ceased to exist with these arrests, and its complete failure to accomplish its goals did much to turn the racist right away from standard revolutionary methods and toward the occult teachings of the Black Sun and the ideology of “leaderless resistance.” See Black Sun; neo-Nazi secret societies.

Further reading: Barkun 1997, Flynn and Gerhardt 1989, Goodrick-Clarke 2002.


Italian author, magician, and (possibly) founder of secret societies, 1548–1600. Born in the little town of Nola not far from Naples, Bruno entered the Dominican Order at the age of 15. At the time, the Dominicans made a special study of the art of memory, a method of mental training that allows the human mind to accurately store and recall large amounts of information. Bruno mastered the art so well that he was taken to Rome to display his skills to the Pope. See art of memory.

In 1567, however, his superiors discovered that he had taken up the study of ritual magic. Bruno abandoned his friar’s habit and fled from Naples across the length of Italy, crossing the Swiss border just ahead of the Inquisition. Safe in France, where the Catholic Church had little influence at that time, he taught astronomy at the University of Toulouse for two years, then moved to Paris, where he wrote his first book on the art of memory. Thereafter he took up a wandering life, traveling through France, England, and Germany, teaching magic and the art of memory. He was suspected by the Catholic Church of founding secret groups of “Giordanisti” (“Giordanists”) in Germany, though no solid evidence for these has surfaced.

In 1591 he returned to Italy, in response to an offer of money from the Venetian nobleman Zuan Mocenigo. It proved to be a fatal mistake. Mocenigo handed Bruno over to the Inquisition, and he spent eight years in church dungeons in Venice and Rome. In 1600 he was burned at the stake as a relapsed heretic at the Campo de Fiori in Rome.

Bruno’s career ended in failure and a wretched death, and his circles of “Giordanisti,” if they ever existed, left no traces. His impact on the later history of secret societies, though, was surprisingly large. Bruno’s version of the art of memory, passed on by his disciple Alexander Dicson, was apparently prescribed for early Scottish Freemasons by William Schaw, the royal master of works who did much to foster the transition from operative to speculative Masonry at the end of the sixteenth century. In the early seventeenth century, the Irish philosopher John Toland, the founder of at least one secret society and a significant figure in the origins of modern Druidry, studied Bruno closely, translated his Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast into English, and reformulated Bruno’s ideas into the pantheism that motivated many eighteenth-century radicals. See Druid Revival; Freemasonry; Schaw, William; Toland, John.

Further reading: Jacob 1981.

Builders of the Adytum [BOTA]

One of the major American occult societies of the twentieth century, the Builders of the Adytum started out in 1921 as the Hermetic Order of Atlantis, a small working group within the Thoth-Hermes Temple in New York City. Thoth-Hermes was a local lodge of the Alpha et Omega, one of the surviving fragments of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. The head of the working group was Paul Foster Case, who at that time was Praemonstrator (chief of instruction) of Thoth-Hermes. When Case left the Alpha et Omega in 1922, he took most of the members of the Hermetic Order of Atlantis with him, and in 1923 he renamed the group the School of Ageless Wisdom. See Case, Paul Foster; Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

The School of Ageless Wisdom started out as a provider of occult correspondence courses with no group ritual or local organizations. After he was initiated into Freemasonry in 1926, however, Case revised the course, and allowed any student who had reached an advanced level of study to set up a local chapter, or Pronaos. The first Pronaoi were established in 1928. In 1938 he renamed the order the Builders of the Adytum. See Freemasonry.

The system of occult training and philosophy taught in BOTA started from the same intellectual foundations as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn but moved in a different direction. The Tarot cards play so central a role in BOTA’s training system that many people in today’s occult community think of BOTA primarily as a Tarot school. Ritual magic, the core of the Golden Dawn system, has been sharply down-played in BOTA. Case’s ideas about the higher reaches of occult practice are likewise entirely his own; he claimed that intensive practice of occult meditation would cause an alchemical transformation of the practitioner’s small intestine, causing him to digest food in a new and more spiritual way and thus achieve physical immortality. Unfortunately Case himself failed to achieve this, and died in the normal way in 1954.

In 1932 Case moved BOTA’s headquarters to Los Angeles, the occult capital of the United States in the Depression years. Unlike many of its competitors, BOTA weathered its founder’s death without noticeable disruption and has continued as one of the largest American occult orders ever since. Still based in Los Angeles, it has Pronaoi in most large American cities and keeps most of Case’s books in print.

Further reading: Case 1985b.


Italian revolutionary and secret society leader, 1761–1837. Born at Pisa to an aristocratic family, Buonarroti spent his childhood in patrician circles, serving as a page at the court of the Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1773 and becoming a cavalier in the Order of St Stephen, a military order in Tuscany, in his teen years. A headstrong and temperamental boy, he ran away to Marseilles in 1780 and spent a short time in the French army, before officials of the Grand Duke arranged to have him sent home. His rebellious streak soon landed him in radical circles; in 1786 he was initiated as a Freemason, in a lodge that had been under Illuminati control until the break-up of the order two years previously. See Bavarian Illuminati.

That same year the authorities raided his house and discovered seditious books. He escaped with a warning, but by 1789 Buonarroti’s political activities made Tuscany too hot to hold him and he went to Corsica, where he immediately took an active role in revolutionary agitation there. In 1791 he was chased off the island by an angry Catholic mob, but returned within a month and plunged back into local politics. Visits to Paris and meetings with Robespierre brought him into the midst of the French revolutionary government, and when France invaded Italy, Buonarroti was posted to the town of Oneglia as its administrator. There he became the focus of a network of Italian exiles who wanted to copy the French revolutionary experiment in Italy. See French Revolution.

With the fall of Robespierre’s government and the establishment of the more moderate Directory in the Thermidor coup d’etat of 1794, Buonarroti lost his support in Paris; in March 1795 he was recalled to the French capital and imprisoned for redistributing wealth from landowners to peasants in Oneglia. While in prison he met François “Gracchus” Babeuf, another ambitious radical. When they were released in October 1795, they plunged into politics, organizing the Societé du Panthéon (Society of the Pantheon) to spread egalitarian ideas and oppose the Directory’s policies. When the Society was suppressed by police in February the following year, its most committed members formed a revolutionary secret society, the Conspiracy of Equals. See Babeuf, François “Gracchus”; Conspiracy of Equals.

The mass arrests that followed the failure of the Conspiracy landed Buonarroti in jail again, where he remained until 1806. While in prison he renewed contacts with his Italian associates, and managed to become a member of another secret society, the Philadelphes. On his release he moved to Geneva, where he supported himself by teaching music; he resumed his revolutionary activities, starting a Philadelphe group in the local Masonic lodge and planning a coup against Napoleon’s government. He also organized another secret society, the Sublimes Maîtres Parfaits or Sublime Perfect Masters, which went on to become the first international political secret society of the nineteenth century. A police informant leaked news of the Philadelphe plot, but the authorities in Paris decided to bide their time, and merely ordered Buonarroti to leave Geneva. See Philadelphes; Sublime Perfect Masters.

Buonarroti spent the rest of Napoleon’s reign at Grenoble, returning to Geneva at the Restoration. There, working through the Sublime Perfect Masters, he plotted a continent-wide revolution to establish republican governments and abolish private property. His efforts had some influence on the widespread risings of 1820–22. A subordinate, Alexandre Andryane, was arrested in Milan in 1822 with compromising papers, and details soon were circulated among European police officials and the general public, where they sparked a flurry of anti-secret society literature.

While Buonarroti’s secret society was all but destroyed by the revelations, and Buonarroti himself was driven out of Switzerland, he gained a continent-wide reputation as the conspirator’s conspirator. He went to Brussels, where he attracted a circle of young radicals who studied the art of conspiracy with him. He relaunched the Sublime Perfect Masters as Le Monde (The World), and published a book on the French Revolution and the conspiracies that followed it, Conspiration pour l’Egalité (Conspiracy for Equality, 1828), which became the Bible of liberal secret societies all through the nineteenth century.

In 1830, when a new revolt broke out in France, he moved to Paris, where he spent his final years pursuing his lifelong dream of revolution. In 1832 he created a new international secret society, the Charbonnerie Réformée or Reformed Carbonarism, and expanded it into the Charbonnerie Démocratique Universelle or Universal Democratic Carbonarism in 1833. He died in 1837, surrounded by friends and admirers. See Carbonari.

Further reading: Eisenstein 1959, Roberts 1972.


A feature of American fraternal secret societies in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, burlesque degrees were humorous ceremonies enacted for the entertainment of the members, usually at the expense of new initiates. The fashion for burlesque degrees started in the 1870s and reached a peak of popularity between 1890 and the outbreak of the First World War.

Burlesque degrees featured a combination of raucous humor and ingenious mechanical devices designed to startle a blindfolded candidate out of his wits. Examples include chairs rigged to fire a blank cartridge and collapse when someone sat on them; imitation wells containing real water, with a spark coil beneath to provide a harmless but startling shock to anyone touching the water; paddle machines designed to swat the candidate unexpectedly on the backside; and mechanical goats that candidates had to ride. See riding the goat.

Many burlesque degrees remained informal entertainments put on by individual lodges, but some took on a life of their own and turned into societies in their own right. Freemasonry, always quick to establish new orders, took the lead in this department with at least three major burlesque branches – the Ancient Arabic Order of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine (Shriners), the Mystic Order of Veiled Prophets of the Enchanted Realm (Grotto), and the Tall Cedars of Lebanon. A similar profusion of burlesque degrees in Odd Fellowship, including the Imperial Order of Muscovites and the Oriental Order of Humility and Perfection, underwent consolidation in 1902 into the Ancient Mystic Order of Samaritans (AMOS). The Knights of Pythias had their Dramatic Order Knights of Khorassan, and the Red Men their Order of Haymakers; even the Knights of Columbus climbed aboard the burlesque bandwagon with the International Order of Alhambra. Other organizations, such as E Clampus Vitus, were simply burlesque orders with no fraternal order behind them. See Ancient Arabic Order of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine (AAONMS); E Clampus Vitus; Freemasonry; Improved Order of Red Men; Knights of Columbus; Knights of Pythias; Odd Fellowship.

During the twentieth century, changes in social habits, the rising fear of lawsuits, and a belief among fraternal secret societies that their survival depended on becoming as respectable as possible, all worked against the survival of the old burlesque degrees. Most of the burlesque orders disappeared, and many of those that survived banished the old pranks and pratfalls from their rituals and refocused their efforts on charitable causes. By the late 1960s the Shriners, who once prided themselves on throwing the wildest parties in North America, had refocused their publicity on their chain of free children’s hospitals and burn treatment centers, and boasted that while alcohol could still be found in Shriner conventions, it was limited to private room parties.

Further reading: Goldsmith 2004, van Deventer 1964.

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