English scholar, Rosicrucian, and secret society member, 1833–86. Born in London, he spent his childhood in Vienna and was educated in European schools. By the age of 18 he had returned to London and embarked on a scholarly career, producing excellent English translations of German works while contributing to Notes and Queries and other journals. He was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Antiquaries in 1854, before his 21st birthday. These scholarly pursuits ran in parallel with an intense interest in the occult. In 1858 or 1859 he began to study magic with Frederick Hockley, an important English magician, and in 1861 he went to Paris to meet Eliphas Lévi and Allan Kardec, two leading occultists of the time.

Mackenzie never managed to live up either to his potential or his own self-image; he suffered from a serious drinking problem and a habit of blaming others for his problems. Hockley broke off his training sometime in the mid-1860s. Robert Wentworth Little sought his help in creating rituals for the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia (SRIA), a British Rosicrucian order founded in 1866, but Mackenzie did not become a member of the SRIA until 1872 and resigned in 1875. See Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia (SRIA).

His involvement in regular Freemasonry was even briefer; he was initiated in March 1870, went through the other two degrees of the Craft in April and May of the same year, and resigned in January 1871. Despite this limited background, he presented himself as an expert on Masonry in his Royal Masonic Cyclopaedia (1877). Most of Mackenzie’s encyclopedia was paraphrased and condensed from standard Masonic reference works of the time, but it contains accounts of several secret societies that were Mackenzie’s own inventions. See Freemasonry.

By the middle of the 1870s Mackenzie was hard at work trying to launch a number of occult secret societies. He attempted to interest some of the major figures in the Victorian occult scene in them, but his own reputation was bad enough and his management of the societies slapdash enough that he found few takers. Mackenzie was active in the Brotherhood of the Mystic Cross from around 1870 when it was launched by Richard Morrison, until Morrison’s death in 1874 but this proved to be no more successful than Mackenzie’s own ventures. From 1875 to 1878 he also took an active role in launching the Royal Oriental Order of the Sat B’hai, a quasi-Hindu secret society created by Capt. James Henry Lawrence Archer; this also failed to find a market and faded out after 1880.

Somewhat more successful was the Swedenborgian Rite of Masonry, which was imported to England from Canada in 1876; Mackenzie served as Grand Secretary for the rite in Britain until his death. In his last years Mackenzie was involved with a small working group organized for the study of alchemy, the Society of Eight. His health finally broke down as a result of his drinking, and he died on July 3, 1886, just short of his 53rd birthday. Most of his papers were bequeathed to William Wynn Westcott, who became the Swedenborgian Rite’s Grand Secretary; in those papers, according to the most likely hypothesis, was the original cipher manuscript Westcott used a year later to launch the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. See Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn; Westcott, William Wynn.

Further reading: Godwin 1994, Howe 1997.


American occultist and fascist, 1927–79. The forefather of American fascist occultism, James Hartung Madole was born in New York City and spent most of his life there. An avid reader of science fiction, he gravitated toward the fascist wing of the science fiction fan community in the 1940s. At the age of 18, Madole founded the Animist Party, a radical right-wing political movement drawing most of its support from among science fiction fans. When Kurt Mertig, a veteran pro-Nazi organizer, founded the National Renaissance Party (NRP) in 1949, he recruited Madole and shortly thereafter made him the NRP’s leader, a position Madole held until his death 30 years later.

Madole began his career as a Nazi enthusiast, copying Hitler’s hatred of communism and alliance with capitalist interests, but during the 1950s he pioneered the central theme of neo-Nazi economic theory worldwide, a “Third Way” rejecting both communism and capitalism in favor of a “corporate state” modeled on Mussolini’s Italy that rejected class warfare and economic competition alike. His contributions to neo-Nazi ideology were at least as creative. Like many in his generation, he encountered the spiritual teachings of the Theosophical Society by way of popular adventure stories (such as Robert Howard’s “Conan the Barbarian” series) that used Theosophy’s mythic history as background. See Theosophical Society.

Madole borrowed much of Theosophy, combined it with Nazi antisemitism and homegrown American racism, and added dollops of science fiction and popular occult literature to create his own brand of fascist occultism. In his major treatise on the subject, The New Atlantis: A Program for an Aryan Garden of Eden in North America, he proposed a social order dominated by a strict caste system and racial segregation, centered on the quest to produce the God-Man, a new human species produced by “selective breeding, cosmic thinking, specialized training and Occult Initiation” (cited in Goodrick-Clarke 2002, p. 82). He despised Christianity as a Jewish invention and had close contacts with the Church of Satan and other Satanist groups. See Church of Satan; Satanism.

Despite his exotic ideology and odd appearance – when speaking in public, he always wore three-button suits with all three buttons fastened, black horn-rimmed glasses, and a white motorcycle helmet – Madole attracted a modest following. In public appearances he was always surrounded by members of the Security Echelon (SE), the NRP’s storm troopers, who wore black and gray uniforms and served as security guards and brawlers in the street battles that frequently surrounded Madole’s speeches. Consciously modeled after Hitler’s SS, the SE combined a paramilitary ethos with occult training and the study of metaphysics. See SS (Schutzstaffel).

Madole died of cancer in 1979, and his party collapsed shortly thereafter. While the NRP was never a secret society, Madole’s career played a crucial role in launching fascist occultism in postwar America and spreading ideas central to the neo-Nazi secret societies of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. See neo-Nazi secret societies.

Further reading: Goodrick-Clarke 2002.


The world’s most famous criminal secret society, the Mafia emerged in the early nineteenth century but traces its roots to bandit clans in the rugged hill country of Sicily in the Middle Ages. During much of Sicily’s troubled history, foreign rulers – Arabs, Normans, Spaniards, kings of the independent kingdom of Naples, and Northern Italian elites since unification – exploited the island ruthlessly, and only the bandits of the hills offered protection against their exactions. The name Mafia probably comes from the Arabic word mafiyya, “place of refuge,” referring to the bandit strongholds in the hills. Then as now, Mafia families were bound by a code of honor known as omertà that demands loyalty to the family, obedience to the family head, revenge for any harm done a family member, and refusal to cooperate with government officials or to expose family secrets.

A flexible and effective organizational system evolved with the modern Mafia and remains in place today. Mafia families united by blood or locality are headed by a capofamiglia (“family head”) elected by influential family members. Each capofamiglia has effective control of an area of Sicily, cooperates with other Mafia chieftains, and owes allegiance to the capo dei capi, the head of the Sicilian Mafia.

The Mafia took its modern form in the nineteenth century, as the old Sicilian aristocracy finally lost control over the island’s wealth, and feudal estates – many of them already managed by Mafia families for absentee landlords – fell into Mafia hands. Control of the farmland, orange orchards, and sulfur mines of the island quickly amounted to control over Sicily’s political and economic structure and an island-wide protection racket. When Sicily became part of the newly founded Italian state in the 1860s, the Mafia quickly learned to control local voters, and struck alliances with political parties by delivering Sicily’s votes on demand. Despite occasional bursts of prosecution – the most severe of them under Mussolini’s government – the tacit bargain between the Mafia and the government has remained a fixture of Italian politics since that time.

A similar bargain with more pervasive results connects the Mafia with the Roman Catholic Church. Mafia families in Sicily traditionally contribute their share of sons to the priesthood and leave Church revenues alone. Connections between the Church and the Mafia have been exposed in recent years, most notably in the links between the Mafia, the Vatican, and the renegade P2 Masonic lodge. See P2 (Propaganda Due); Roman Catholic Church.

These compromises with power took on new forms on the far side of the Atlantic. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries more than a million emigrants from Sicily arrived in America. Inevitably they brought the Mafia with them, and by the 1880s Mafia chieftains were beginning to exert authority in the port cities of America’s eastern seaboard. They faced competition from the Camorra, a criminal secret society originally based in the Italian city of Naples, and from Irish and Jewish immigrant gangs as well. From the 1880s until 1929, gang warfare was a constant feature of the American underworld and few leading mafiosi died in their beds.

The transformation of the American Mafia from warring factions to a national crime syndicate was set in motion by Alphonse Capone. Though born in Rome, outside the network of Sicilian families who dominated the American Mafia in its early days, Capone rose through the ranks of Chicago’s Italian underworld to the top of the city’s Mafia hierarchy, then brokered a truce between the Mafia and the Irish, Jewish, and Polish gangs contending for shares in the lucrative bootleg liquor trade, assigning each gang a territory of its own in the city. In 1929 he organized a convention of organized crime heads in Atlantic City and applied the same logic to the United States as a whole.

Capone’s truce lasted two years, until he went to prison on tax evasion charges in 1931. In his absence a bloody struggle broke out among Mafia families. In testimony to a Senate subcommittee in 1963, mafioso Joseph Valachi called the struggle the “Castellamarese war,” after a region in Sicily where one important faction had its roots. The war ended as Charles “Lucky” Luciano, the leading figure in a younger generation of mafiosi, had his leading rivals gunned down and imposed a renewed truce, with himself as capo dei capi. Luciano and his right-hand man, Meyer Lansky, went on to become the architects of modern American organized crime.

The key to the new system pioneered by Luciano and Lansky was a refocusing of Mafia activities away from the small-time rackets of its early days into the immense profits to be gained from legitimate businesses, gambling, and the international drug trade. Lansky introduced sophisticated financial methods into Mafia operations, replacing old-fashioned money laundering techniques with a worldwide network of financial institutions.

Lansky also played a central role in the blackmail scheme that turned FBI head J. Edgar Hoover, a homosexual with a taste for cross-dressing, into an ally of organized crime. Lansky succeeded in getting compromising photos of Hoover, and used them to force the FBI chief to take the heat off organized crime. Hoover’s repeated public insistence throughout the 1950s and 1960s that America had no organized crime problem, and his refusal to use FBI assets against the Mafia, was the quid pro quo that kept Lansky and his associates from releasing the photos to the press and destroying Hoover’s career.

Another element in the new Mafia was a rapprochement with US intelligence services. At the beginning of the Second World War Luciano was recruited by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency. His first assignment was to influence New York gangsters to keep Italian-American stevedores from sabotaging Allied ships on the New York docks. When this proved successful, the OSS aimed at bigger game. In 1943, as Allied armies drove the Nazis out of North Africa and prepared for the invasion of Sicily, Luciano made contact with leading Sicilian mafiosi and arranged Mafia support for the invasion. The project was a spectacular success: as Allied troops landed, nearly two-thirds of the Italian troops on the island deserted, and the Mafia kidnapped the Italian commander and handed him over to American forces. These contacts between organized crime and the American intelligence services continued decades later in the 1960s, when CIA operatives employed Mafia hitmen in several attempts to assassinate Cuba’s Communist leader Fidel Castro.

By the end of the twentieth century the Mafia had become part of the American scene, with a significant presence in city governments, construction firms, labor unions, and the entertainment industry, as well as in gambling and the international drug market. The protection rackets and small-time drug dealing that gave the original Mafia their start went to newly arrived immigrant gangs from Asia, eastern Europe, and elsewhere. The central insight underlying the Mafia of the late twentieth century is the recognition that organized crime is simply another facet of the American free enterprise system. As accounts of spectacular corporate fraud fill the headlines, it has become hard to distinguish a Mafia family from any other closely held family business.

Further reading: Fox 1989, Lacey 1991, Mackenzie 1967, Summers 1993.


The art and science of causing change in consciousness in accordance with will – to borrow the definition of one of its greatest twentieth-century practitioners, Dion Fortune (Violet Firth, 1890–1946). Magic is the core practice of western occultism and the main ingredient in the hidden teachings of most occult secret societies. Frequently misunderstood, dismissed as blind superstition by rationalists and condemned as devil worship by misinformed Christians, magic in reality consists of a relatively simple yet powerful set of psychophysical methods, evolved over many centuries, that allow magicians to transform their experience of the world and themselves. See Occultism.

In recent centuries the word “magic” has been bandied about with more enthusiasm than precision. Magic is not a religion, any more than psychotherapy or plumbing is; rather, it is a traditional set of psychophysical techniques, sharing a common history and philosophy, that can be used effectively by members of any religion, or none. Many of the great magicians of the last 1500 years have been devout Christians, and Christian magic forms a large and distinguished branch of the western occult traditions.

A more useful distinction is coded into the terms “white magic” and “black magic.” The magical traditions have their ethical codes but, like psychotherapy, plumbing, or anything else, it has practitioners who consider ethics to be a waste of their time or a barrier to their desires. The fact that magic existed in a cultural underground for so many centuries has limited effective self-policing in the magical community. As a result, modern occultism includes practitioners of white magic, who maintain ethical standards and work their magic with an eye to the consequences of their actions, and practitioners of black magic, for whom magic is a tool to be used in the pursuit of their own desires. See black magic; white magic.

The very language we use to talk about magic reflects much of its history. The English word “magic” derives from magos, the ancient Greek word for a Persian priest and ritualist. By the fifth century BCE the term was being borrowed by Greeks, for the same reasons “swami” came into use among mystics of all varieties in twentieth-century America, and a wide range of practices – some Asian, some native Greek – were labeled mageia, “what magoi do.” The equivalent terms magus and magia were borrowed into Latin a few centuries later.

By that time magia had almost exactly the same meaning “magic” has today. It referred to systems of ritual practice, usually performed by individuals in secret, meant to cause changes in the practitioner and the surrounding world. These systems had diverse roots, borrowing freely from ancient Egyptian, Babylonian, Jewish, and Greek traditions, and included a dizzying array of different practices. The common theme uniting them was the belief that hidden sources of power existed throughout the universe, and could be put to work by those who knew how. The magicians of Greek and Roman times, like magicians today, performed rituals to create sacred space in order to invoke spiritual forces and entities; they learned invocations that included strange divine names and words of power; they gathered herbs and roots to compound charms; they performed various kinds of divination to gauge the flow of spiritual power and the will of the gods; and they based all of these on a philosophy that envisioned the human individual as not merely a helpless plaything of fate or the gods, but as a participant in the powers of creation.

These core elements of magic have taken countless forms over the last 25 centuries, changing to fit religious and philosophical fashions. Popular Greek and Roman magic drew heavily from the mystery cults of the time, particularly the Dionysian and Orphic mysteries, while an educated tradition of magic in the same years used Greek Neoplatonic philosophy and Egyptian priestly lore as the basis for Hermetic and Gnostic magical workings. The Dark Ages, in turn, saw a remarkable flowering of Christian magic in which the names of Jesus, Mary, and the saints replaced pagan gods and spirits in ancient spells and invocations. Much of this heritage vanished forever in the holocaust of the Burning Times, but while witchcraft persecutions raged through most of Europe, Italian scholars were rediscovering the old Hermetic tradition and introducing the Cabala to non-Jewish audiences. The great magicians of the Renaissance left an extraordinary wealth of philosophy and practical methods to later students of magic and effectively defined the magical universe in which modern occultism operates. See Cabala; Dionysian mysteries; Egypt; Hermeticism; Orphism; witchcraft persecutions.

The coming of the scientific revolution forced magic underground and sparked a new epoch in the history of the tradition. Borrowing the organizational toolkit of Freemasonry, the first magical secret societies took shape in the eighteenth century and became widespread in the nineteenth. In the hothouse environment of secret lodges, the magical heritage of the Renaissance was reworked in countless ways and combined with other branches of the occult tradition, such as astrology and alchemy. Leading occult secret societies of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, built on this heritage to bring the entire occult tradition of the western world into a single coherent system. It only remained for the cultural revolutions of the 1960s to launch today’s occult renaissance by putting many once-secret magical traditions into circulation throughout the western world. See Alchemy; Freemasonry; Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

For all the publicity given to occult traditions in today’s world, though, the level of knowledge about magic among the general public, and even among scholars and historians, is radically lower now than it was in the Middle Ages. Poorly informed denunciations and disinformation on the part of fundamentalist Christians and scientific materialists alike have done much to muddy the waters, and far too many writers of alternative history and conspiracy theory have been content to parrot received opinion on the subject, rather than conducting their own research into authentic magical texts and practices, and finding out what magic means from the practitioner’s point of view. As a result, the role of magical traditions in important historical events, such as the rise and fall of the Nazi movement in twentieth-century Germany, remains needlessly obscure. See National Socialism.

Further reading: Crowley 1976, Greer 1997, Greer 1998, Lévi 1972, Yates 1964.


An obsolete spelling of the word “magic” adopted by Aleister Crowley to distinguish his own occult teachings from those of his many rivals, magick was defined by Crowley as “the art and science of causing change in accordance with will.” Since the 1920s it has been adopted by followers of Crowley’s own magical religion of Thelema, and by many others at the avant-garde end of the occult community. The adjective “magickal” and the noun “magickian” have also seen play in recent years, though neither of these were pioneered by Crowley himself. See Crowley, Aleister; Magic.


One of the major traditions of Western esoteric spirituality, Martinism traces its roots back to Martinez de Pasqually (1727–74), whose Order of Elect Cohens (Ordre des Élus Coens) included several of the most influential occultists of pre-Revolutionary France. Pasqually taught a system of ceremonial magic rooted in Freemasonry, and his most famous student, French mystic and Freemason Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin (1743–1803), became expert in this system. Later in his life, though, Saint-Martin turned away from ceremonial magic and embraced the Christian mystical teachings of the German visionary Jakob Böhme. The tension between these two very different expressions of the mystic quest provides much of the strength of the later system of Martinism, but has also tended to form a fault line along which more than one Martinist organization has broken apart. See Elect Cohens.

While he was still committed to Pasqually’s ceremonial magic, Saint-Martin founded a Masonic rite at Lyons, titled the Rectified Rite or Rite of Martinism, but this went out of existence before the French Revolution. Saint-Martin’s mystical writings, however, had a powerful influence on European Freemasonry and occult traditions. The Rite of Strict Observance, the most influential Masonic order in central Europe during the third quarter of the eighteenth century, helped spread his ideas throughout educated circles in Germany and the Russian Empire, and the Asiatic Brethren, an influential occult order of the time, made his book Des Erreurs et de la Verité (About Errors and the Truth, 1775) a textbook for initiates. See Rite of Strict Observance.

The convulsions of the French Revolution caused most of the occult secret societies of the late eighteenth century to go out of existence. The great revival of occult studies that began with the 1845 publication of Eliphas Lévi’s Doctrine and Ritual of High Magic, however, gradually gathered up most of the previous century’s teachings in its ambit. Saint-Martin’s turn came in 1884, when one of the most important members of the French occult community, Papus (Dr. Gérard Encausse, 1865–1916), launched a revived Martinist Order. The new organization had only secondhand links to Saint-Martin’s original Rite of Martinism, and borrowed its degree ceremonies from other sources – Cagliostro’s Egyptian Rite yielded one degree, while the Beneficent Chevaliers of the Holy City, a degree created by Saint-Martin’s fellow student Jean-Baptiste Willermoz, provided another – but it became the fount from which essentially all later Martinist orders descend.

Papus’s Martinist Order fragmented after his death and spawned half a dozen competing orders, and this fragmentation has continued since that time, accompanied by the usual claims by each order that the other orders are invalid. At present more than 20 Martinist orders are active throughout the western world, offering variations on Papus’s system of initiation and training. There has been surprisingly little borrowing between Martinist orders and other occult or mystical secret societies, though the American Rosicrucian order AMORC has its own Martinist organization, the Traditional Martinist Order (TMO). See Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (AMORC).


A minor figure in the New Testament but a major factor in contemporary speculations about Christian origins, Mary Magdalene – originally Miriam of Magdala – appears in the gospel accounts as a woman from Galilee who accompanied Jesus to Jerusalem, watched his crucifixion along with his mother Mary, and was the first person to see him after his resurrection. Luke adds that she was one of a group of women who provided financial support for Jesus and his inner circle of followers, and that she had had seven devils cast out of her. Medieval commentators identified her with several unnamed women in the New Testament narrative and turned her into a harlot converted to a life of sanctity by Jesus. See Christian origins; Jesus of Nazareth.

Gnostic traditions gave her a much larger role. A Gospel of Mary Magdalene was among the books suppressed by the Church councils that established the current New Testament. This and several other suppressed gospels, including the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of the Egyptians, describe a confrontation between the apostle Peter and Mary Magdalene in which Peter tries to discredit Mary on the grounds that she is a woman, but is rebuked by Jesus or one of the other disciples. The occurrence of this scene in several independent sources is interesting, and suggests that this passage may have been derived from a tradition current in the early Church. See Gnosticism.

Starting in the middle years of the twentieth century, Mary Magdalene became central to many efforts to redefine Christian origins. Speculations that she was actually the wife of Jesus appeared in English poet Robert Graves’ novelistic rewriting of Christian origins, King Jesus (1946), and burst into popular culture with the publication of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (1982), the book that put Christian origins into the alternative-realities scene. Since then, despite the lack of definite evidence one way or another, Mary’s role as the wife of Jesus has taken on nearly canonical status in alternative circles. See Da Vinci Code, the; Priory of Sion; rejected knowledge.

Further reading: Haskins 1987, Starbird 1993.


In the original, operative Masonry of Scottish stonemasons’ lodges, a series of signs of recognition by which one Mason could identify another without any obvious communication passing between them. The first known reference to the Mason Word is in a long and amazingly bad poem, The Muses Threnodie, written by one Henry Adamson and published in 1638. The relevant lines, dealing with the rebuilding of a bridge over the River Tay, run as follows:

For what we do presage is not in grosse,

For we be brethren of the Rosie Crosse;

We have the Mason Word and second sight,

Things for to come we can foretell aright.

Other references in Scottish sources through the middle of the seventeenth century make it clear that the Mason Word was a secret passed on among Scottish stonemasons that allowed one mason to identify another at a glance. The Reverend Robert Kirk, peerless researcher of Scottish fairy lore, wrote an appendix to his 1691 book The Secret Common-wealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies discussing five Scottish “Curiosities…not much observ’d to be elsewhere,” one of which was the Mason Word. Kirk wrote:

The Mason-Word, which tho some make a Misterie of it, I will not conceal a little of what I know; it’s like a Rabbinical tradition in a way of comment on Iachin and Boaz the two pillars erected in Solomon’s Temple; with an addition of som secret signe delivered from hand to hand, by which they know, and become familiar one with another. (Cited in Stevenson 1988, p. 133)

See Freemasonry; Temple of Solomon.

One source, the Sloane manuscript, gives an account of the secret signs summed up by the phrase “the Mason Word.” These included placing the feet or a pair of tools at right angles to one another, in the image of a square; turning the eyes toward the east and the mouth toward the west; and knocking on a door with two light knocks followed by one heavy one. A Mason visiting a building site could knock on a wall and say, “This is bose [hollow];” any Freemason present would respond by saying that it was solid.

None of these signs remained in use in Freemasonry after the early eighteenth-century reformation of the Craft, and in most Masonic works comments about “the Mason Word” refer instead to the password of the Master Mason degree. See Freemasonry, origins of.

Further reading: Stevenson 1988.


See Freemasonry.


In Theosophy and traditions descended from it, a person who, after many cycles of reincarnation and spiritual growth, transcends the physical plane but remains active in the world as a teacher and initiator of others on the spiritual path. The Masters are also known as ascended masters or mahatmas. The concept of the Masters derives partly from Buddhist teachings about bodhisattvas, enlightened beings who refuse to enter into Nirvana until all other sentient beings are saved; partly from nineteenth-century ideas about occult initiates who secretly shape world events and pass on their teachings to a chosen few; and partly from alternative visions of Christianity that identify Jesus, not as a divine being come to earth, but as a very advanced human soul. These latter commonly treat Jesus’ ascension into heaven as his most important act, showing his transcendence of human limits. The broadening of this idea to high spiritual adepts of all cultures played a crucial role in creating the concept of the Masters. See Theosophical Society.

Lists of known or suspected Masters vary widely. Jesus is almost always counted among them, and often ranks as the Master of Masters, while Kuthumi (Koot Hoomi) and El Morya – the spiritual masters credited by Theosophy’s founder Helena Blavatsky as the source of her teachings – also rank high on the list. Djwal Khul, “the Tibetan,” who inspired Alice Bailey’s voluminous occult writings, also makes the short list in most accounts, and so does the Comte de Saint-Germain. Beyond this core the list broadens considerably, sometimes taking in unlikely candidates. Dion Fortune’s Fraternity (later Society) of the Inner Light considered Euclid, the ancient Greek mathematician, to be one of the Masters, while some twentieth-century American groups gave the same status to George Washington. See Arcane School; Jesus of Nazareth; Saint-Germain, Comte de; Society of the Inner Light.

Critics of modern occultism have had a field day with some of the more overblown descriptions of the Masters, but an experiential reality lies behind the colorful beliefs. Most practitioners of occult disciplines have had the experience of contact with disembodied entities that have distinct personalities and intellectual powers of their own – sometimes going far beyond those of the people they contact. Many of these entities claim to have been human at particular points in the past, and their speech and knowledge tends to be consistent with their claims. Thus whether the Masters exist or not, as Aleister Crowley famously said of spirits, the universe appears to behave as though they do.

At the same time, the astral cloak of the Masters has more than once served as a veil for incarnate human beings. According to K. Paul Johnson, a historian of Theosophy, Blavatsky’s Masters themselves may have been Indian political and religious leaders with whom she worked in the early 1880s. Johnson has argued that the Master Koot Hoomi was actually Thakar Singh Sandhanwalia, a liberal Sikh leader of the time, while El Morya was Ranbir Singh, Maharajah of Kashmir, a Hindu who campaigned for religious tolerance; both men were closely associated with Blavatsky and helped support the Theosophical Society. Theosophists have sharply criticized Johnson’s claims but his arguments have proven hard to refute. See Blavatsky, Helena Petrovna.

Further reading: Johnson 1994.


The claim that ancient human society was governed by women rather than men has been a theme in alternative-history circles since 1861, when Swiss historian Johann Jakob Bachofen (1815–87) published his famous book Mutterrecht (Mother-Right). Like other scholars of his time, Bachofen attempted to create a universal system of human prehistory, and divided it into three periods. The first, hetairism, was a society of universal equality and sexual promiscuity, in which people worshipped the stars; the second, matriarchy, saw power held by women and the focus of worship change to the moon; in the third, patriarchy, men took control of society and the sun became the focus of religious worship. Bachofen’s theory, which drew on older theories of astronomical and fertility religion, became very popular in the alternative scenes of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. See astronomical religion; fertility religion.

Several other writers built on Bachofen’s theories in various ways, but the modern theory of ancient matriarchies first appeared in 1903, when English classicist Jane Harrison presented it in detail in her widely read book Themis. According to Harrison, southeastern Europe during the Neolithic period – the last phase of the Stone Age – was a utopian society without war or crime, ruled by female elders and worshipping a mother goddess. This idyllic world was destroyed just before the beginning of recorded history by hordes of Indo-European horsemen who invaded from the east and imposed a male-dominated society. This view was widely accepted, and during the middle years of the twentieth century peaceful Neolithic matriarchies formed part of the reigning orthodoxy in archeology, especially in Britain. The belief in ancient matriarchies was so deeply rooted that sites with signs of violence were dated to the Bronze Age even when only stone tools were found there and radiocarbon dates placed them centuries too early.

Harrison and many of her followers, such as British archeologist Jacquetta Hawkes, were closely associated with conservative politics. Their ideas of matriarchy gave a privileged place to traditional female roles of nurturing and childbearing, and argued for a society in which social roles were governed by unchanging tradition; Harrison even campaigned against giving women the vote in Britain. In the 1970s, however, American feminists discovered Harrison’s theories and redefined them to support a left-wing political agenda. Lithuanian-American archeologist Marija Gimbutas (1921–94) became the leading spokesperson for this view, writing a series of bestselling books that presented matriarchal “Old Europe” as a liberal feminist Utopia. These views became extremely popular throughout liberal circles in the western world, and played a major role in helping to define the Wiccan movement of the late twentieth century. See Wicca.

Ironically, the movement of ancient matriarchies from a conservative political theme to a liberal one happened at about the same time that archeological research finally debunked the idea that the Neolithic period had been a Utopia free of violence. Whether or not Gimbutas’s “Old Europe” was ruled by women, the usual traces of warfare and social hierarchy are abundant in its archeological remains. None of this has kept the belief in a matriarchal golden age from remaining an article of faith in many alternative circles.

Further reading: Eller 2000, Gimbutas 1991.


Beginning in 1948, members of the Kikuyu tribe in what was then the British colony of Kenya organized a secret society to oppose the expropriation of Kikuyu land by white farmers and drive out the colonial government. The Movement of Unity, to give it its proper name, grew out of a long history of legal Kikuyu organizations dating back to the 1920s. When legal measures and protest marches did not succeed, guerrilla war was the next logical step, and the Mau Mau movement formed in response.

The phrase “Mau Mau” evolved from the cry Uma uma, “Out! Out!”, given to warn that police were approaching. Members took a secret oath to support the movement, in a ceremony adapted from Kikuyu tribal rituals. Committed members took another oath, the Batuni or platoon oath, which bound them to kill the movement’s opponents on command, maintain its secrets with their lives, and protect its members.

Like most Third World insurgencies in the postwar years, the Mau Mau movement combined a sophisticated urban wing, providing support and intelligence, with guerrilla forces in isolated rural areas. The struggle that unfolded between the Mau Mau and the British government followed just as typical a pattern, with mass arrests and clumsy military actions on the part of the colonial power, matched by assassinations and atrocities on the part of the insurgents. A state of emergency was declared in 1952 and 11 infantry battalions hunted Mau Mau forces in the Aberdare range and around Mount Kenya with very mixed results.

Systematic government operations against the urban wing in Nairobi had more success, detaining some 77,000 Kikuyu on suspicion of Mau Mau involvement. Jomo Kenyatta, president of the Kenyan African Union, the political arm of the movement, was arrested in 1952 and spent nearly the entire insurgency in British colonial prisons. By 1956, harried by police and army units, Mau Mau forces in the countryside offered little further threat to the British colonial government, but by then the insurgency had achieved its goals, convincing the British government and popular opinion alike that the colonial presence in Kenya was too expensive to maintain. Kenya won its independence in 1963, with Jomo Kenyatta as its first prime minister. While a few Mau Mau bands remained in the forests after independence, claims in the British press that the Mau Mau would become a persistent problem proved inaccurate.


The calendar system of the classic Maya, the most elaborate calendar system of medieval Central America, has recently become a fixture in the New Age movement and the rejected-knowledge industry. Forgotten shortly after the conquest of Yucatan by the Spanish conquistadors, it was reconstructed in the twentieth century from scraps of information preserved in the writings of Fray Diego de Landa, a Dominican monk who accompanied the Spanish armies. See New Age movement; rejected knowledge.

Mayan timekeeping used three intersecting calendar cycles, the haab or civil year, the tzolkin or religious year, and the Long Count. The haab consisted of 18 months of 20 days each, plus 5 extra days, for a total of 365 days. The tzolkin consisted of two meshed cycles, one of 13 days and one of 20 days, for a “year” of 260 days. A Mayan date consisted of two words and two numbers; for example, 4 Ahau 8 Cumku meant the 4th day of the 13-day cycle and the day Ahau of the 20-day cycle, giving the tzolkin date, and the 8th day of the month Cumku, giving the haab date. The intersecting cycles make each date repeat every 52 years.

Alongside these, the Maya kept a sequential calendar called the Long Count, which simply gave the total number of days since a fixed point in the distant past, which works out in our calendar as August 11, 3114 BCE. The Long Count comes to an end and restarts after 13 baktuns of 1,872,000 days, about 5125 years. This is almost exactly one-fifth of the cycle of precession of the equinoxes, the slow wobble of earth’s axis that moves the position of the sun at the solstices and equinoxes backward through the zodiac. See astronomical religion.

The Long Count of the Mayan calendar tracked the cycle of suns, or ages of the world; the current Fifth Sun ends on December 21, 2012. While Mayan teachings about the suns survive only in fragmentary form, other versions of the same myth are found from Peru to Oregon, and suggest that each sun ends with a catastrophe. The imminent end of the current sun has thus become a major theme in the alternative scene in recent years and feeds into speculations about approaching earth changes. See ages of the world; earth changes.

Further reading: Jenkins 1994.


Large stones (the meaning of the word, from Greek megas, “big,” and lithos, “stone”) moved and erected by human beings in the distant past, megaliths are found across much of the world. The most famous examples are in southwestern Britain and Brittany, where Stonehenge and Carnac define megaliths to the popular mind. Nearly identical megalithic structures, however, are found all across northwestern Europe, in New England and eastern Canada, in certain parts of India and Africa, and in Japan. See Stonehenge.

Megaliths have a terminology all their own. A menhir is a single stone set upright in the ground. A dolmen or cromlech is made of three or more stones supporting a larger capstone. A trilithon is a stone lintel atop two uprights, as at Stonehenge. A rocking stone is a single large stone balanced so delicately that it can be rocked back and forth by the pressure of a hand. A cairn is a heap of stones. Barrows are heaps of earth; a round barrow is circular in plan, while a long barrow extends along a straight line; both kinds usually have stone chambers inside them, and dolmens or cromlechs seem to be the stone chambers of old round barrows whose earth has been washed or ploughed away. A henge is a circular earthen bank with a ditch outside the bank (as at Stonehenge) or inside it (as at every other henge in the British Isles). A stone circle, finally, is exactly what it sounds like – a more or less circular pattern of big upright stones.

According to modern archeologists, the megalithic sites of northwestern Europe began to appear around 4200 BCE as long barrows rose here and there across the landscape, together with a cult of ancestor worship. Other earthworks followed, with or without stones. Around 3000 BCE long barrows dropped out of use and round barrows came in, along with dolmens and the first stone circles. Around the time Stonehenge was abandoned, megaliths stopped being raised over most of Europe, though individual menhirs were still being erected into historic times. The sequence of megalithic sites elsewhere in the world is less clear, and those in the northeast of North America have never been properly studied by archeologists at all.

The purpose behind most megalithic sites remains one of the most intractable mysteries about them. The long barrows contained the bones of many people, which were apparently used in rituals to honor the dead of a community; round barrows were burial places of the chieftains of a later people. Henges were apparently ritual sites, and at least some stone circles were probably used to track the movements of the sun and moon. Many of the sites appear to be linked together in complex sacred landscapes and alignments stretching over miles of territory, a detail that has made them of interest to ley researchers. Still, the meaning and purpose of the old megaliths remains lost in the distant past. See leys.

Where facts are sparse, speculation rushes in to fill the void, and nowhere more enthusiastically than with megaliths. Every popular theme in the rejected knowledge scene has been projected onto megalithic sites. The great stones have also inspired a few unique theories of their own, notably the one that they were originally stone airships levitated by earth energies and flown along ley alignments. The ancient Druids were once linked to the stones by scholars, which was at least a plausible claim in the days before radiocarbon dating. More recently, theories about ancient astronauts, lost civilizations from Atlantis onward, and earth changes past and future have all made use of megaliths in one way or another. See Atlantis; Druids; earth changes; lost civilizations; rejected knowledge.

Further reading: Michell 1969, Michell 1982, Souden 1997.


A royal house of early medieval France, the Merovingians or House of Meroveus ruled the Frankish kingdom from 476 to 751 CE. The Franks started as a tribe of German barbarians who invaded Gaul during the final collapse of the Roman Empire in the fifth century CE, and established a series of petty kingdoms in what is now north-east France. Their war leader Merowig, Meroveus in Latin, was the grandfather of Clovis I (466–511), who first consolidated the Frankish kingdoms and is considered the first Merovingian king of France. His descendants were known as the Long-Haired Kings because a traditional taboo forbade them to cut their hair. After the reign of Dagobert I (reigned 623–39), power passed to the Mayors of the Palace, a line of ambitious noblemen of the rival Carolingian family. When Charles Martel, a Mayor of the Palace, led the Frankish armies that kept the Muslims out of France at the battle of Tours in 732, a change of dynasty became inevitable. In 751 the last Merovingian king, Childeric III, was deposed and Charles’s son Pepin III became King of the Franks.

The Merovingians were a footnote in the history of the Dark Ages until the 1960s, when Pierre Plantard read about them in a French magazine article and included them in the campaign of disinformation he carried out for his newly minted secret society, the Priory of Sion. The claims he circulated were picked up by a trio of British writers and used as the basis for a series of popular TV documentaries and bestselling books, including the famous The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (1982). Since that time the Merovingians have become a hot property in alternative circles, by turns lauded as descendents of Jesus of Nazareth, condemned as the ancestors of today’s reptilian ruling classes, and fictionalized as plot elements in popular novels such as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (2003). See Disinformation; Priory of Sion; Reptilians.


One of the most popular mystery cults of the ancient world, the Mithraic mysteries were latecomers on the classical religious scene, emerging in what is now southeastern Turkey during the first century of the Common Era. Like the fraternal secret societies of a much later age, but unlike most of the other pagan mystery cults, they admitted only men and had several degrees of initiation. Members met once or twice a month in an underground temple, called a Mithraeum, to perform initiation rituals and share in a ceremonial meal of bread and wine. Their divine patron was Mithras, an ancient Persian deity, usually shown in Mithraic sculpture in the act of sacrificing a mighty bull, surrounded by a snake, a dog, a scorpion, a lion, and a cup. See fraternal orders; mysteries, ancient.

This image may reveal the heart of the Mithraic cult, for as historian of science David Ulansey has pointed out, it forms a star map of the constellations around Taurus. Ulansey argued that the secret of the Mithraic mysteries was the precession of the equinoxes, the slow wobble of earth’s axis that shifts the sun’s position at the solstices and equinoxes back through the zodiac at the rate of one degree every 72 years. In an age when the stars were gods, Mithras represented the mighty power who turned the whole structure of the heavens, and “slew” Taurus the Bull by moving it out of the sun’s station at the spring equinox. See ages of the world; astronomical religion.

This theory finds an intriguing reflection in gematria, a traditional system of occult symbolism that uses the number values of alphabets such as Hebrew and Greek. In Greek letters, Mithras (MEIΘPAΣ) adds up to 365, the number of days in a solar year. See Gematria.

The Mithraic mysteries were a powerful religious force in the Roman Empire during the second and third centuries CE, but went under when the Christian Church seized political power in the Empire during the fourth century. Several nineteenth-and twentieth-century secret societies have made use of Mithraic symbolism, but so far no one seems to have attempted a full-scale revival of the mysteries of Mithras.

Further reading: Ulansey 1989.


See Order of Mopses.


Scottish general, scientist, Hermeticist and Freemason, 1609–73. Moray was the son of a minor laird in Perthshire, but developed an interest in science and engineering early in life. In the 1630s he emigrated to France and, like many Scotsmen of his time, entered on a career in the French army. When the Covenanter rebellion broke out in Scotland against Charles I in 1640, however, he returned to Scotland on the orders of Cardinal Richelieu, who hoped to turn the revolt to French advantage. Moray became quartermaster general of the rebel army, and served with distinction in the Scottish invasion of the north of England in 1640–41.

In 1641 Moray was initiated as a Freemason by members of the Edinburgh lodge who were serving with the Covenanter army. He has sometimes been listed as the first Mason who was not in the building trades, but this is inaccurate; speculative Masons had been joining the Edinburgh lodge since 1634. He was also a careful student of Hermetic and Rosicrucian literature. See Freemasonry; Hermeticism; Rosicrucians.

With the end of hostilities between the Scottish rebels and the king, Moray returned to French service, and seems to have mended fences with Charles I, who knighted him in 1643. Later that same year, serving with the French army, he was captured by the Germans and spent two years as a prisoner in Bavaria. He was released in 1645, as the English Civil War came to an end, and divided his time thereafter between his military career with the French army and conspiracies in favor of the exiled House of Stuart. In 1651 he was in Scotland, helping Charles II in his attempt to free Scotland from Cromwell’s forces, and in 1653 he played a central role in preparations for a rising against the English army of occupation in Scotland.

The failure of the rising forced Moray to flee for his life, first to the Orkneys and then to Maastricht in the Netherlands, where he waited out the short-lived English Republic. In 1660, with the restoration of Charles II to the British throne, Moray returned to London with the new monarch and spent most of the remainder of his life at court, winning a reputation as one of the few honest courtiers of Charles II. He played a central role in founding the Royal Society in 1661, and remained active in scientific pursuits until his death. See Royal Society.

Further reading: Stevenson 1988.


On the evening of September 12, 1826, three months before the publication of his book revealing the secrets of the first three degrees of Freemasonry, William Morgan (1774–1826?) disappeared outside the city jail in Canandaigua, New York State. Witnesses heard Morgan shout “Murder!” as he was forced into a carriage by four men. The carriage drove off into the night, and Morgan was never seen again. His disappearance launched one of the great conspiracy panics in American history.

Morgan had a checkered past and a dubious reputation. Born in Virginia, he worked as a stonemason, brewer, merchant, farmer, and clerk, and contemporary accounts describe him as a quarrelsome alcoholic, in and out of jail for unpaid debts. At some point in his life he had either become a Mason or learned enough from published exposures of Masonic ritual to pass as a Mason. No record of his initiation into the three degrees of Craft Masonry survives, though he certainly attended Masonic lodges in upstate New York in the early 1820s, and received the Royal Arch degree in 1825. See Freemasonry; Royal Arch.

He signed a petition to found a Royal Arch Chapter in Batavia, New York, but other Masons in Batavia objected to his membership and had his name removed from the petition. Morgan, infuriated, quit the Batavia lodge and decided to avenge himself on Masonry by writing a book that revealed its secrets. The hope of making money may also have played a significant part in his plans. In March 1826 he contracted with the publisher of a local newspaper and two investors to produce the book. When word got out about his plan, local Masons tried to prevent the book’s publication, and Morgan and his partners received numerous threats.

On September 10, a person or persons unknown tried to burn down Miller’s print shop. A day later Morgan was arrested for unpaid debts and taken to the Canandaigua jail. The next evening the Mason who had brought the charges against Morgan paid the debt and obtained Morgan’s release. The jailer’s wife heard a shrill whistle, went to the window, and witnessed Morgan struggling and shouting as he was forced into a carriage and taken away.

Exactly what happened to Morgan after that remains a mystery. He was apparently held prisoner for several days at the abandoned Fort Niagara, and his captors tried to convince him to accept a large cash sum, withdraw the book, and emigrate to Canada. Rumors for years thereafter claimed that he had been seen in Canada, or British Honduras, or the Turkish city of Smyrna; one account claimed that he had run away to the West and become an Indian chief, another that he had turned pirate and been hanged in Cuba. Most historians argue that the Canadian deal fell through, Morgan’s captors panicked, and Morgan was tied to heavy weights and thrown into the Niagara River.

Morgan’s book, Illustrations of Masonry, nonetheless appeared in December 1826 and was an instant bestseller. By that time the governor of New York, DeWitt Clinton, had offered rewards of $300 (a large sum by early nineteenth-century standards) for information leading to the arrest of Morgan’s abductors, and a grand jury in Canandaigua had indicted four Masons for conspiracy to kidnap. Three of them pled guilty but claimed they had no idea where Morgan was. Conspiracy to kidnap was then a misdemeanor in New York, and the defendants served jail terms of between two years and three months. Three special counsels appointed by the state pursued the investigation until 1831, indicting 54 more Freemasons and convicting 10 on various charges; 13 other Masons fled the state to avoid trial.

While all this was happening, in October 1828, a badly decomposed male body was washed up on the shore of Lake Ontario. Leaders of the rapidly growing antimasonic movement insisted at once that the body was Morgan’s. The original coroner’s inquest noted that the corpse had a heavy beard; a second inquest, carried out at the request of the antimasons, found that the body was clean-shaven and closely resembled Morgan. Later that month, however, a Mrs. Timothy Munroe from Canada testified that her husband had disappeared and was thought to have drowned, and she was able to give an exact description of the corpse’s clothing. The corpse, which had been buried at the Batavia cemetery with much antimasonic speechmaking, was then re-interred as Timothy Munroe.

The third and last special counsel, who had the remarkable name of Victory Birdseye, finished his inquiry in 1831. A few Masons involved in the abduction left deathbed confessions at various points through the nineteenth century, though none of these provided any conclusive evidence. Whatever the facts of the matter, Morgan’s disappearance became the great rallying cry for the Antimasonic Party, the first significant third party in United States history, and continues to be dragged out by opponents of Masonry to this day. See Antimasonic Party; Antimasonry.

Further reading: Vaughn 1983.


According to several recent conspiracy theorists, the phrase “Moriah Conquering Wind” is the true name of the Illuminati. The origins of this odd phrase shine a revealing light into the workings of contemporary conspiracy theory. Mount Moriah, one of the hills on which the city of Jerusalem is built, was the site of the Temple of Solomon and plays an important role in biblical symbolism. The importance of the Temple of Solomon in Freemasonry ensured that Moriah became a significant word in the high degrees of the Craft, and in this way it came to the attention of conspiracy theorists convinced that high-ranking Masons actually run the world. See Bavarian Illuminati; Freemasonry; high degrees; Temple of Solomon. The remainder of the title has a more prosaic origin. The 1960s Western musical Paint Your Wagon put the song “They Call the Wind Maria,” performed by Harve Presnell, on radio stations across America. In the song “Maria” is pronounced like “Moriah,” with a long “i.” The first references in conspiracy literature to Moriah as the name of a wind surfaced a few years after the musical’s movie version’s release in 1969. By the early 1990s, conspiracy-oriented Christian fundamentalist websites were claiming that Moriah was the name of a demon representing “the destructive night wind,” and from there, “Moriah Conquering Wind” required only a bit of free association. Such fusions of misunderstood secret society lore and popular media imagery are extremely common throughout today’s rejected-knowledge industry. See rejected knowledge.


According to modern fundamentalist books condemning the Illuminati, the female branch of that society, headquartered at a castle in Belgium. The members wear veils and black robes lined with different colors to show their rank. Their symbolism includes the “thousand points of light,” the eight-pointed star, and orchids. Barbara Bush, the wife of former US president George Bush Snr., is allegedly a member; one book shows a picture of her in a striped jacket, reading to children, and commented that she “dressed for the occasion in a hypnotic suit obviously to reinforce the Illuminati hypnotic commands given to the children surrounding her” (Springmeier 2002, p. v).

No trace of the Mothers of Darkness appears outside a handful of current anti-Illuminati tracts replete with obvious historical and factual errors. Still, it is interesting that the Illuminati, in the fashion of so many fraternal secret societies, has been credited with its own ladies auxiliary. See Bavarian Illuminati; ladies auxiliaries.

Further reading: Springmeier 2002.


One of the more recent additions to the roster of lost continents, Mu has a complex history. Its origins date back to Fray Diego de Landa, a Spanish monk of the sixteenth century who accompanied the conquistadors to Yucatan and helped to destroy most of the legacies of classical Maya culture. In the process of gathering up and destroying nearly all Mayan manuscripts, he copied down a few garbled notes on Mayan writing. He misunderstood the language completely, treating the complex hieroglyphic script as an alphabet. Until the Mayan hieroglyphs were finally deciphered in the 1980s, though, de Landa’s notes were the only available information on the subject. See lost continents.

In 1864, the French scholar Charles-Étienne Brasseur de Bourbourg (1814–74) obtained a copy of de Landa’s notes and set out to decipher one of the four Mayan manuscripts that had survived de Landa’s purge. Scholars now know that the manuscript in question is an ephemeris of the planet Venus, written and used by ancient Mayan astrologer-priests, but in Brasseur de Bourbourg’s hands it seemed to present a garbled account of a volcanic catastrophe in a place called “Mu, Land of Mud.” Thereafter, references to Mu cropped up in alternative writings as alleged Mayan evidence for the reality of Atlantis. See Atlantis.

It was in this form that American writer James Churchward came across Mu. His 1925 bestseller The Lost Continent of Mu claimed that Churchward had studied secret tablets in India and Central America that originated in ancient Mu. Churchward described Mu as a huge continent in the central Pacific, extending from the Marianas Islands east to Easter Island. The original home of humanity and the cradle of civilization, Mu had a population of 64 million at its height, divided into 10 tribes and ruled by a priest-king known as the Ra. Some 13,000 years ago, a series of underground gas-belts suddenly deflated, and the Land of Mud sank below the sea, leaving Easter Island, the lost city of Nan Madol, and a few other sites as echoes of its lost glory. See Easter Island; Nan Madol.

Mu was briefly in vogue among the American occult community, and several occult secret societies put material about Mu into their teachings. By the middle of the twentieth century, however, Mu became an alternate name for Lemuria, another lost continent with more cachet in occult traditions. Lemuria was originally in the western Indian Ocean, connecting India and Africa, many thousands of miles away from the supposed site of Mu. Most recent occult literature splits the difference and puts the lost continent in the area of modern Indonesia – interestingly, the area where recent archeological research suggests that many thousands of square miles of lowland were drowned by rising oceans at the end of the last Ice Age. See Lemuria.

Further reading: Churchward 1931, de Camp 1970.


In a series of bestselling books, starting with The Witch Cult in Western Europe (1921), British Egyptologist Margaret Murray (1863–1963) popularized the theory that medieval witches were actually followers of a pagan fertility cult passed down among European peasants since pre-Christian times. During the first half of her professional career, Murray was a respected Egyptologist, a student of the renowned Sir Flinders Petrie and the author of several popular books on ancient Egyptian culture. Stranded in London by the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, she turned her attention to British history, and was attracted by English and Scottish witchcraft. Like nearly all students of comparative religion in her time, she accepted the theories of Sir James Frazer, who had argued in his immense The Golden Bough (1890) that all primitive religions emerged from fertility worship. Her studies of witchcraft trials convinced her that the medieval witch cult was a Frazerian fertility religion. See fertility religion; witchcraft persecutions.

During her lifetime, that theory became widely accepted among scholars, though her later theories – which argued, among other things, that the kings of England had been deeply involved in the witch cult, and most of the assassinations in English history had been ceremonial slayings of a divine king – were quietly ignored by most historians. After her death in 1963, though, scholars re-examined the source materials Murray had used, and found massive scholarly fraud. Murray had shamelessly manipulated her data, citing passages that supported her theories while leaving out those that contradicted it, and mixed evidence from many different countries and historical periods to produce an illusion of consistency.

The debunking of the Murray hypothesis has been accepted almost universally by historians of medieval witchcraft. While the hypothesis was generally accepted, though, Murray’s friend Gerald Gardner used it as the foundation for the new religion of Wicca, the first neo-pagan faith to attract a widespread following in the western world. Many people in the Wiccan and neopagan movements still treat the Murray hypothesis as an article of faith, and dismiss scholarly challenges to it as simply another round of persecution directed at their supposedly ancient faith. These same beliefs have spread outwards into a wide range of alternative spiritual contexts, where belief in medieval goddess cults suppressed by Christian brutality remains standard. See Wicca.

Further reading: Cohn 1975, Hutton 2000, Murray 1921, Murray 1933, Murray 1954.


One of the most widespread and influential religious institutions in the ancient Greek world, the mysteries of classical times were initiatory cults in which candidates passed through rituals meant to bring them into a personal relationship with pagan divinities. Most of the mysteries centered on the mythic life, death, and rebirth of a goddess or god, and initiates participated in a re-enactment of the deity’s myth. In the mysteries of Adonis, for example, candidates helped the goddess Aphrodite search for the body of Adonis, mourned him when his corpse was found, and then celebrated his resurrection. See Adonis, mysteries of.

Many of the most popular mysteries had close connections to the cycle of the seasons, and the god or goddess who died and rose again had close symbolic connections to grain, cut down in the harvest, buried beneath the earth at planting, and risen again in the green shoot to bring a promise of bounty to all. The mysteries of Adonis and Isis fell into this category, but the most famous of these agricultural rites was the Eleusinian mysteries, which centered on Persephone and her mother Demeter. A few mystery cults focused on different natural cycles; the Mithraic mysteries, for example, centered on the precession of the equinoxes. See Eleusinian mysteries; Isiac mysteries; Mithraic mysteries.

The mysteries, like nearly all other aspects of classical pagan spirituality, were suppressed after the Christian Church seized power in the Roman world during the fourth century of the Common Era. Ironically, Christianity itself probably gained a foothold in ancient times because of its close similarities to the ancient mysteries, since Christians then and now celebrate the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth in much the same way that initiates of the mysteries participated in the myths of their own deities. See Christian origins.

The mysteries were creations of ancient Greek culture, and existed only where Greek ideas and religious practices spread. The claim that ancient Egypt had mystery initiations of its own, a staple of nineteenth- and twentieth-century occultism and of today’s alternative history scene, is accurate only in that Greeks brought the concept there after Egypt’s conquest by Alexander the Great, and several ancient Egyptian cults, including that of Isis, were reworked into mysteries on the Greek pattern thereafter. The seshtau – “that which is hidden,” the secret inner rituals of the Egyptian temples – were not initiations at all. See Egypt.

Nonetheless Egypt, and every other corner of the world, was retroactively populated with mystery cults in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As secret societies of various kinds spread to become among the most typical social institutions of the western world, the traditions of Freemasonry and several other secret orders were projected on the inkblot patterns of the past. Old books thus speak of the Gothic mysteries of northern Europe, focusing on the life and death of Baldur, son of the Norse god Odin; the Druidic mysteries, based on the adventures of Taliesin; the central American mysteries, derived from the Popol Vuh, a Quiché Maya sacred text; and many more. All of these were imagined as a blend of ancient Greek mystery cults and modern Masonic practice. Completely anachronistic, and unsupported by the least scrap of evidence, these “mystery cults” continue to be cited in the alternative-realities literature today. See rejected knowledge.

Further reading: Burkert 1985.

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