Among the major political secret societies in recent European history, P2 (standing for Propaganda Due, “Propagation 2”) was founded in Italy in 1877 as a private Masonic lodge, headed by the Grand Master of Italy, for members of the Italian parliament who wanted to become Masons but needed their membership kept secret from the Roman Catholic Church. Suppressed in 1924 by Mussolini’s government, it was reactivated again in 1946. In the late 1960s, under the leadership of conservative businessman Licio Gelli, P2 reinvented itself as a political secret society. Gelli was no stranger to intrigue; he had simultaneously been a member of the Gestapo and the Italian communist underground during the Second World War. Under Gelli’s leadership, P2 received CIA money as part of a project to fight communism in Italy, but the evidence suggests Gelli played the CIA and KGB off against one another and pocketed much of the proceeds. See Freemasonry.

P2’s opposition to communism made it attractive to many people at the conservative end of the Italian political spectrum. In 1981, when its records were seized in a police raid, its membership included 3 Italian cabinet ministers, 43 members of the Italian parliament, the heads of all Italy’s intelligence agencies, and many other public figures. The Mafia’s traditional conservative politics made mafiosi another significant group within P2; members with known Mafia connections included Michele Greco, rumored to be the capo dei capi of Italy, and Michele Sindona, the lodge treasurer, a multimillionaire financier who managed the Mafia’s profits from the transatlantic heroin trade. See Mafia.

The Vatican, another Italian institution with conservative leanings, also entered into a rapprochement with P2. Despite the Church’s official ban on Masonic membership, Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, the head of the Vatican bank, became a member. P2 treasurer Sindona and his protégé Roberto Calvi served as key financial advisers to the Vatican. Calvi, along with Archbishop Marcinkus, created hundreds of fictitious bank accounts through which Mafia drug money was laundered. Pope Paul VI placed a large portfolio of Vatican investments under Sindona’s control in 1969, an act that cost the Vatican some $240 million in losses by 1975. See Roman Catholic Church.

Obsessed with fighting communism on all fronts, P2’s members staged at least one major terrorist attack – the bombing of the Bologna rail station in 1980 – in an attempt to discredit the Italian Communist Party and move public opinion to the right. Some investigators have argued that P2 was also behind the mysterious death of Pope John Paul I. After launching a close personal inspection of the Vatican’s finances, the Pope announced on September 28, 1978, that he intended to remove Archbishop Marcinkus and three other Sindona protégés from the Vatican bank. The next morning he was found dead; no autopsy was performed, and allegations of suppressed and destroyed evidence have dogged the Vatican ever since.

P2’s plans to move Italy to the right went awry when the financial empire that supported its activities came crashing down and Italian Freemasonry turned against it. The 1974 collapse of Franklin National Bank of New York, Michele Sindona’s largest American holding, set off a chain of defaults and bankruptcies that landed Sindona himself behind bars in 1980, and sparked the Italian police investigation that led to the seizure of P2’s records and the public release of its membership list in 1981. At the same time, disputes between P2 and the Grand Orient of Italy – the grand lodge of Italian Freemasonry – escalated steadily; the Grand Orient formally withdrew P2’s charter in 1974, and by the early 1980s one former Grand Master had been expelled from Masonry and many other Masonic officials voted out of office because of ties to P2.

In 1982, while the P2 scandal was still front-page news, Banco Ambrosiano – Italy’s largest private bank, headed by Roberto Calvi – collapsed after being stripped of $1.4 billion in assets. The immediate aftermath of the collapse involved a flurry of mysterious deaths. Calvi was found hanging from Blackfriars Bridge in London. A coroner’s inquest labeled the death suicide, but his widow forced the verdict to be overturned, presenting evidence that Calvi intended to name everyone involved in P2’s actions, and the verdict was changed to “cause of death unknown.” The same day Calvi was found hanged in London, his longtime secretary committed “suicide” by leaping from the window of her office in the Banco Ambrosiano building. Within the following year Licio Gelli vanished mysteriously from a Swiss prison cell, where he was being held for extradition, and has never been seen since, while Sindona died in a Milanese prison, claiming that he had been poisoned.

As far as anyone outside its membership knows, P2 went out of existence after it and its records became public. Still, the tradition of political secret societies runs deep in Italy and it seems likely that some of the members have reorganized under a new name.

Further reading: DiFonzo 1983, Yallop 1984.


One of the most spectacular hoaxes in the history of secret societies, the Palladian Order was the brainchild of Léo Taxil (Gabriel Jorgand-Pagès), a French hack writer and Freemason who made his living writing pornography, muck-raking journalism, and anti-Catholic literature. In 1884, Pope Leo XIII issued an encyclical attacking Freemasonry, and shortly thereafter Taxil suddenly announced that he had reconciled himself to the Catholic Church. He renounced his Masonic membership, sought absolution from the local bishop, and was received back into the church after a lengthy penance. See Roman Catholic Church.

Within a few months of his reconciliation, Taxil began writing a series of sensational books and articles describing the Satanic inner core of Freemasonry, the Free and Regenerated Palladium or Palladian Order. Taxil’s breathless prose described Palladist meetings in which the members worshipped Satan, committed horrible blasphemies and sacrileges, and practiced every sort of sexual excess with “female Masons” specially initiated for the purpose. A vast spider-web of Satanic conspiracy dedicated to undermining the Catholic Church and supporting the British Empire – the bête noire of conservative French opinion at the time – the order was headed by Albert Pike, “Sovereign Pontiff of Universal Freemasonry,” who ruled the world in secret from his headquarters in Charleston, South Carolina. See Pike, Albert; Satanism.

All this was music to the ears of conservative French Catholics in the late nineteenth century, and Taxil’s books became overnight bestsellers. French bishops and archbishops rallied to his cause, and in 1887 he received the honor of a private audience with the pope. A dozen other authors entered the lists with shocking new revelations about the Palladists. By the early 1890s a new name had appeared among the secret masters of Palladism, the Grand Priestess Diana Vaughan, whom Taxil solemnly insisted was descended from English alchemist Thomas Vaughan and a female demon. Rumors spread that Vaughan had moved operations from South Carolina to France. A new magazine appeared shortly thereafter under Diana Vaughan’s name to preach the Palladist gospel to an infuriated and titillated French public; few people apparently noticed that the magazine was edited and published by Taxil himself.

By 1895 Taxil was at the storm center of a media furor, assailed by liberal writers and stoutly defended by Catholic conservatives. In that year Diana Vaughan’s conversion to Catholicism made newspaper headlines over much of France. The former Grand Priestess immediately released a new magazine from Taxil’s press, Mémoires d’un ex-Palladiste (Memoirs of an ex-Palladist), recounting her experiences as the head of the world’s largest Satanist organization, with details of the orgiastic ceremonies over which she had presided before her conversion, and accounts of secret power struggles within the inner circle of the Palladian Order that involved some of Europe’s leading political figures.

This brought matters to a head. Pressured by the media and the Catholic hierarchy to provide some evidence for his claims, Taxil announced in 1897 that Diana Vaughan had agreed to emerge from hiding for a public appearance. He rented a large hall in Paris for the event, which sold out well in advance. When the time for herappearance came, though, it was Taxil who mounted the stage. With perfect sangfroid he explained to the audience that he had made fools of them for more than a decade.

The Palladian Order and all its activities, he told them, were figments of his own imagination; Diana Vaughan was a typist who had worked for him, and who agreed to lend her name and photograph to the hoax. The other authors who had chimed in to corroborate Taxil’s revelations were simply Taxil himself and one of his friends, writing under a galaxy of pen names. The entire exercise had been set in motion to show the world just how easily Catholics could be made to believe perfect nonsense. At the end of his talk, he left the stage just in time to avoid the ensuing riot. The hall had to be cleared by the gendarmes, while Taxil dined with friends at a nearby restaurant.

The consequences of Taxil’s stunt were surprisingly large, and include the word “Satanist” itself, which entered the English language by way of press reports during the Palladist furor. Despite Taxil’s revelation, many people have continued to believe devoutly in the existence of the Palladium and its sinister plans ever since. In the 1924 edition of A Dictionary of Secret and Other Societies, a standard Catholic handbook on secret societies compiled by one Arthur Preuss, the Palladium still had an entry as a real organization based in Charleston, with the comment that “this Order is not numerous and keeps its membership and proceedings so secret that little is known about them.” Material from Taxil’s inventions is still quoted as fact by antimasonic conspiracy theorists and fundamentalist Christians, including such public figures as American televangelist Pat Robertson. (On the other side of the balance, there were Freemasons in Italy who wanted to join the Palladian Order, who refused to believe Taxil’s claim that it never existed, and who spent years trying to contact Palladian headquarters and apply for membership.) See Antimasonry; fundamentalism.

Taxil also launched a significant theological movement within Satanism itself by way of his claim that the Palladian Order was divided by a bitter theological rift between Luciferians, dualists who worshipped Lucifer as the god of light and spirit and abhorred Adonai the god of darkness and matter, and Satanists, who simply stood Christian theology on its head and argued that the struggle between God and Satan would end with the devil’s triumph. Taxil’s invention has been duly repeated in hundreds of books about Satanism, and was also adopted into the mythology of Nazi occultism in the 1950s. See Black Sun.

Further reading: Riggs 1997, Waite 2003.


American author and magazine editor, 1910–77. One of the most influential figures in twentieth-century American alternative thought, Raymond Palmer suffered severe childhood injuries that left him partially crippled for life. Like many boys of his generation, he grew up reading science fiction, and by the late 1920s he was a significant figure in the science fiction fan community. In 1930 he published the first of many science fiction stories, and in 1933 he launched the first American prize for science fiction, the Jules Verne Prize.

In 1938 Ziff-Davis, one of the major pulp publishers of the time, hired him as managing editor for Amazing Stories, a failing science fiction magazine they had just purchased. Palmer’s job was to save the magazine, and he accomplished this with panache. His secret was an unerring sense for the lowest common denominator of taste. Atrociously written short stories about alien monsters and buxom maidens jostled for space on Amazing’s pages with feature articles about the World of Tomorrow and filler pieces about a dozen different species of crackpot science. Serious science fiction readers sneered, but subscriptions soared and money poured in.

Palmer’s greatest triumph began inauspiciously enough in September 1943, when Richard Shaver, a welder from Pennsylvania who claimed to hear telepathic voices while he worked, sent him a letter announcing the rediscovery of Mantong, the lost language of ancient Lemuria. Published in the December 1943 issue, the letter got a favorable response from the readership, and Palmer wrote to Shaver and asked for more. What he got was an incoherent 10,000-word letter titled “A Warning to Future Man,” revealing the existence of a race of psychotic underground dwarfs called “deros” who tormented dwellers on the surface with diabolical mind-control beams. Palmer rewrote it into a 31,000-word novella titled “I Remember Lemuria!” and printed it in the March 1945 issue. The issue promptly sold out, and Amazing’s mailbox overflowed with 2500 letters a month asking for more information on the sinister deros. Palmer, realizing that he had stumbled upon a gold mine, spent the next three years milking the “Shaver mystery” for everything it was worth and sending Amazing’s sales to stratospheric levels. See Lemuria; underground realms.

Another of Palmer’s oddball insights, although less profitable in the short term than Shaver’s story, had more sweeping effects on modern culture. During the 1940s, looking for striking imagery for the magazine’s covers, Palmer came up with the idea of a saucer-shaped airplane and had staff artists produce it. By 1947 millions of Americans had seen flying saucers on Amazing’s garish covers, and on June 24 of that year, pilot Kenneth Arnold reported spotting them in the sky above Mount Rainier. The modern UFO phenomenon was born. Unnervingly, many of the themes of later UFO writings appeared in fictional form in the pages of Amazing decades in advance; Richard Shaver’s “Earth Slaves to Space” in the September 1946 issue, for example, centers on alien spaceships visiting the earth to kidnap humans for slave labor on another planet, a theme later reworked by the inventors of Alternative 3 in the late 1970s and endlessly recycled since. See Alternative 3; unidentified flying objects (UFOs).

By 1949, despite the sizeable profits made by Palmer’s antics, the Ziff-Davis company had had enough, and told him to return Amazing Stories to its original science fiction focus. Palmer responded by quitting. The year before he had launched a magazine of his own, Fate, entirely devoted to allegedly factual accounts of strange events. When the pulp magazine industry collapsed in the fall of 1949, the victim of a stock market scheme that liquidated the last national wholesaler of pulps, Fate was one of the few survivors, and Palmer soon launched a second magazine, Search, to compete with it. A third title, Flying Saucers From Other Worlds, joined them in 1957, and then dropped the last three words from its title after a few months when Palmer announced that UFOs actually came from inside the hollow earth. Nearly every theme that became central to the alternative-reality scene in late twentieth-century America, from lost civilizations and the mysterious powers of crystals to alien abductions and psychic powers, found a home in the pages of these magazines long before the revival of popular occultism in the 1970s made them common currency. See hollow earth; lost civilizations.

Comfortably ensconced as the king of American lowbrow esotericism, Palmer sold Fate to his partners in the 1960s and concentrated on his remaining magazines, mail order sales of UFO books, and further projects with Richard Shaver until not long before his death in 1977. By that time the alternative scene had long since passed him by, but he left an indelible stamp on American popular culture. Further reading: Keel 1989.


Among the most remarkable secret societies to emerge from the golden age of American fraternalism in the second half of the nineteenth century, the Patrons of Husbandry was launched in 1867 by Oliver H. Kelley, an employee of the federal Bureau of Agriculture, and six other men, mostly government clerks, who were concerned with the plight of small farmers after the American Civil War. Kelley was a Freemason, and the other founders were all either Masons or Odd Fellows; they felt that a fraternal secret society designed for farmers would provide them with a framework for cooperative action and mutual aid. See Freemasonry; Odd Fellowship.

The Grange, as the organization has been called from the first, copied many of the standard features of other fraternal secret societies of the time. Local lodges, called Granges, confer four degrees of initiation, based on the four seasons of the agricultural year. Three higher degrees named after Greek and Roman goddesses of agriculture and plant growth are conferred by higher levels of the organization – the Degree of Pomona by county Granges, the Degree of Flora by state Granges, and the Degree of Demeter by the National Grange. The Degree of Demeter, a reconstruction of the ancient Eleusinian mysteries, was supposedly purchased by Kelley from an Italian nobleman who claimed to have access to the original rites of Eleusis; it is sufficiently pagan that nowadays many Christian members refuse to receive it. See Eleusinian mysteries.

Certain features of the Grange set it apart from most other fraternal orders of its time, however. At the urging of Kelley’s niece, Caroline Hall, the order admitted men and women on an equal basis, allowing women to hold every office while setting aside four positions in each local Grange that men are not allowed to hold. In addition, whereas nearly all fraternal secret societies were strictly non-political, the Grange made political activism one of its central activities, and also took on the job of organizing economic cooperatives among its members.

Recruitment was slow at first, but during the 1870s and 1880s Granges spread rapidly through America’s farm belt. During these years the Patrons of Husbandry became famous for their stand against the abusive policies of American railroads, which made it almost impossible for farmers to earn a living. Railroads were among the richest corporations in the country, with a huge degree of influence in the corrupt politics of that time, but Grange lawsuits, lobbying, and electoral organization forced through a series of laws – the “Granger Acts” – that reined in the railroad corporations and helped make possible the vast expansion of agriculture in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America.

Through much of the twentieth century, the local Grange hall was the center of community life in most of America’s farm country, featuring a busy calendar of social events and political rallies as well as regular Grange meetings. As the percentage of farmers in the American population dwindled in the course of the century, the Grange lost ground, but it still counts some 300,000 members and 2600 local Granges, and has a significant voice in political debates over American agricultural policy.

Further reading: Howard 1992.


A five-pointed star formed of five equal intersecting lines, the pentagram has a complex history that has been drastically oversimplified by recent conspiracy theorists and popular occult writers. Found in most cultures worldwide, it was the ancient Babylonian symbol for “star.” The Pythagorean Brotherhood is said to have used it as a secret sign of recognition. By the Middle Ages it had found a place in magic as a symbol of power, though it also appears in the English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (c.1380) representing, among other things, the five wounds of Jesus and the five pure joys of the Virgin Mary. In heraldry it is known as a mullet and forms the most common star on flags and coats of arms; the stars in the American flag are pentagrams. See Magic; Pythagorean Brotherhood.

Its roles as the most important symbol of magic and the emblem of Satanism were the work of French occultist Eliphas Lévi (1810–75). Lévi essentially reinvented the western tradition of magic in a series of popular books, and much of the material he presented was of his own creation. One of these innovations was his claim that a pentagram with one point up represents good magic and God, while a pentagram with one point down represents evil magic and Satan. This interpretation was borrowed by most occultists in the late nineteenth century and has become all but universal since then. The magical religion of Wicca and twentieth-century Satanism both borrowed the pentagram from occult sources influenced by Lévi, and it was from these sources that fundamentalist Christian conspiracy hunters took it and further redefined it as the primary symbol of devil worship. See fundamentalism; Satanism; Wicca.

This has caused some predictable confusion in dealing with symbolism dating from before Lévi’s time. The most popular ladies auxiliary in American Freemasonry, the Order of the Eastern Star, for instance, adopted a pentagram with one point down as its emblem not long after its founding in 1852. The Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest US military decoration, also features a pentagram with one point down. The Eastern Star’s emblem has occasionally been cited as evidence for the alleged Satanic ideology of Freemasonry; to the present writer’s knowledge no one has yet made the same claim about the Medal of Honor. See Freemasonry; ladies auxiliaries; Order of the Eastern Star.


A perennial interest of inventors since the Middle Ages, perpetual motion machines of various kinds have an active presence in today’s alternative scene, although terms such as “zero point energy” and “over-unity devices” tend to be used for them nowadays. Some use the latest technology while others are schemes that have been tried repeatedly and unsuccessfully for centuries. All have two things in common. First, they violate the laws of thermodynamics, among the most thoroughly tested principles in modern physics, by extracting more energy out of a process than goes into it. Second, none of them work.

The oldest known perpetual motion machine is the overbalancing wheel, which first appears in a fifth-century CE astrological manuscript from India, the Siddhanta Ciromani. Endless variations conceal a common theme – a wheel with weights around the rim that move inward or outward as the wheel turns: inward as they rise up, and outward as they sink down. The goal is to use leverage to turn the wheel; since the same weight exerts more leverage when it’s further from the hub than it does when it’s nearer, the weights going down should exert more leverage than those going up, and since each weight moves in as it starts to rise and out as it starts to sink, it seems logical that the wheel should turn forever and produce useful energy in the process.

Logical or not, it doesn’t work in practice. The energy gained by the out-of-balance weights is used up in moving the weights inward and outward. The best overbalancing wheels make excellent flywheels, and will run for quite a while from a single good push, but eventually the laws of thermodynamics win and they come to a halt. The same is true of perpetual motion machines that use other gravity-based methods, such as chains made of sponges designed to wring themselves out at the bottom of the loop and soak up water at the top, or self-contained hydroelectric units designed to pump water up to a tank, using energy from the same water as it pours down from the tank into a turbine or water wheel.

The repeated failures of perpetual motion schemes have not prevented thousands of inventors from trying their hand at making a working model, and devices along these same lines are still being tried today; a closed-cycle hydroelectric machine named Jeremiah 33:3 was designed and marketed by a Texas inventor in the late 1970s. Nor has there been a shortage of confidence artists whose schemes aimed at a perpetual motion of other people’s money into their bank accounts. Among the greatest of these was the redoubtable John Keely (1827–98), who used concealed compressed air lines to run a “vibratory motor” that brought him millions of dollars of investment money. Even though the fraud came to light immediately after Keely’s death, believers in perpetual motion continue to cite the Keely Motor as proof that free energy devices actually work.

The logic of the overbalanced wheel applied to steam turbines and internal combustion engines produce devices like the Stewart engine, a device heavily promoted in the American farm belt during the late 1970s’ energy crisis. The Stewart engine supposedly extracted heat from well water and used it to run a heat engine. Hundreds of investors bought Stewart engine distributorships in 1978 and 1979, only to find the laws of thermodynamics in the way of making a profit; similar problems halted John Gamgee’s zeromotor, a device along similar lines meant to run naval vessels off the heat in seawater. While liquid water (like anything else above absolute zero) contains energy in the form of heat, the energy is so diffuse that extracting the heat from it takes more energy than the extracted heat provides. Like unbalanced wheels, heat engines like the Stewart engine try to get something for nothing, and fail.

Getting something for nothing is, in fact, the keynote of all these projects, including the currently popular “zero point” technologies, whose proponents deny that their devices are perpetual motion machines and claim to extract “free energy” from quantum flux, the rotation of atomic nuclei, the universal field, or some other unquantifiable source. This thinking seems reasonable in a society that runs on the almost-free energy of petroleum and other fossil fuels, which human beings did nothing to create and are using up at a reckless pace. The possibility can’t be dismissed that some ingenious inventor will come up with a way to tap some other source of energy that will allow us to continue the extravagant lifestyles currently popular in the developed world. So far, though, the utopia of infinite free energy promised by the perpetual motion industry has failed to materialize, and betting on its arrival may not be the best strategy for the future.

Further reading: Ford 1986, Ord-Hume 1980.


One of the most important political secret societies of the nineteenth century, the Philadelphes began life in 1797 as a student literary club in the town of Besançon in eastern France. Like other student societies of the time, it combined rituals loosely modeled on fraternal secret society ceremonies with such innocuous activities as picnics and poetry readings. According to its chronicler, the French writer Charles Nodier, it took on a more political focus when Napoleon seized power in 1799, and gradually mutated into a widespread political conspiracy headed by Jacques-Joseph Oudet, a colonel in the French army. Organized groups of Philadelphes existed in six regiments in the army. The Philadelphes made several attempts to prepare for a rebellion against Napoleon, but none of them went far, and after Oudet was killed in action in 1809 it accomplished little more within France.

The Philadelphes reached Italy sometime after 1807, when a group of Italian exiles in Paris became members and began planning organized resistance to Napoleon. Known as Filadelfi or Adelfi in Italy, the organization played an active role in the complex politics of the early nineteenth century and, along with the Carbonari, helped coordinate preparations for the widespread revolutions of 1820 and 1821. It apparently went out of existence after that time, though many of its members were absorbed by other secret societies with similar aims. See Carbonari.

The accuracy of Nodier’s account of the Philadelphes has been challenged by some modern scholars, but the Philadelphes certainly existed and at least attempted to play the role that Nodier painted for it. The veteran revolutionary Filippo Buonarroti became a member of the Philadelphes while in prison for his involvement in the Conspiracy of Equals, and organized a Philadelphe circle in Geneva after his release in 1806. From 1818 until at least the mid-1820s, another of Buonarroti’s societies, the Sublime Perfect Masters, infiltrated the Philadelphe leadership in Italy and took control of the organization. Certainly material gathered by police spies and informers in Italy in the 1820s claimed that the Adelfi were headed by a secret directorate called the Great Firmament – the name of the governing body of the Sublime Perfect Masters. See Buonarroti, Filippo; Conspiracy of Equals; Sublime Perfect Masters.

The Philadelphe model of revolution by secret society dropped out of use in the 1830s, as mass movements and political parties took up the cause of political liberalization and religious freedom in Europe. A few secret groups of the old style survived in France, where they took over the Rite of Memphis, one of several irregular systems of Masonry active in Europe at the time. After the failed European revolutions of 1848 and 1849, however, many disappointed liberals returned to the secret society tradition. Exiled in London, a group of French expatriates with connections to Buonarroti’s secret societies launched a new Philadelphe lodge in 1850 with a Rite of Memphis charter. When Napoleon III seized power in France in 1852 and proclaimed the Second Empire, the new lodge redefined itself as a Philadelphe Grand Lodge, formed at least 10 subordinate lodges, and launched itself into a vigorous campaign of subversion against the new French regime. See Rite of Memphis.

This last flourish of the old tradition had an unexpected offspring. Starting in 1855, Philadelphe initiates in England began contacting other radical groups overseas, hoping to create an international revolutionary society along the lines of Mazzini’s Young Italy. The International Association lasted from 1855 to 1859 but never attracted much interest outside the French expatriate community. The growth of the labor union movement and the possibilities opened up by international organization inspired another attempt in 1864 – a front organization called the International Workingmen’s Association. Later, control of the Association slipped out of Philadelphe hands into those of a German economist named Karl Marx. See Communism; First International; Young Italy.

Recent conspiracy theorists have almost completely neglected the Philadelphes, even when their tracks run across fields of current interest. One of the few exceptions is The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (1982) by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln. In the process of recycling disinformation produced by Pierre Plantard’s audacious Priory of Sion hoax, Lincoln and his co-authors claim that Charles Nodier was a grand master of the Priory, and quote a line from Nodier’s book on secret societies in which he mentions that behind the Philadelphes was another, more secret society, whose name he was oathbound not to reveal. The book implies that this inner circle was the Priory of Sion, but since the Priory was not founded until 1956 that possibility can be discarded. The name Nodier would not mention, rather, was that of the Sublime Perfect Masters. See Priory of Sion.

Further reading: Baigent et al. 1983, Billington 1980, Drachkovitch 1966, Roberts 1972.


A Greek offshoot of the Carbonari, the Philike Hetairia (“Brotherly Association” or “Friendly Society”) was founded by a group of exiled Greek patriots in Odessa, Russia, in 1814. While the exact organizational connections have proven hard to trace, it apparently rose out of Carbonari lodges (venditas, “shops”) founded by the political agitator Rhigas Velestinlis in Vienna, Belgrade, and Bucharest shortly before his execution by the Turks in 1798. The rituals of the Hetairia show many close similarities to those of the Carbonari, and its goal of national liberation was shared by the Carbonari and its sympathizers across Europe at the time. See Carbonari.

The Hetairia spread quickly through the large Greek merchant communities around the Mediterranean; by 1821 lodges existed from the Russian ports on the Black Sea to Gibraltar. These maritime links allowed weapons to be smuggled into Greece in large quantities, and veterans of the Napoleonic Wars and the failed revolutions in Italy and Spain in 1820 and 1821 supported the Hetairia in large numbers. The Russian government, seeing an opportunity to weaken its longtime Turkish enemy, provided covert backing. With this help, the Hetairia launched a rising against the Turks in 1821. After a difficult five-year struggle, the rebels succeeded in freeing Greece from Turkish rule and establishing the modern Greek nation.


American soldier, author, occultist and Freemason, 1809–91. Born in Massachusetts to a working-class family, Pike showed intellectual promise from an early age and mastered Latin, Greek, and Hebrew before the age of 18. Although he was accepted at Harvard, his family was unable to afford his tuition, and so he headed west instead. Pike wound up in Fort Smith, Arkansas, where he taught for a time, edited the local newspaper, and studied law, qualifying for the Bar in 1834. In the same year he married Anne Hamilton, a wealthy local widow, and with her money went into politics in the Arkansas branch of the Know-Nothings, an anti-Catholic organization that was part secret society and part political party. Pike became the leader of the Know-Nothings in Arkansas and took an active role in the national party as well. See Know-Nothing Party.

Pike’s military career began in 1846 during the Texan war for independence; he organized and led a regiment of volunteers against the Mexican army at the battle of Buena Vista in 1847. After the war he became involved in land disputes between settlers and local Native American peoples and took the native side in several court cases, defending the tribes against the federal government. When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, he sided with the Confederacy and was appointed commissioner of Indian affairs by Confederate president Jefferson Davis. This position placed Pike in the middle of conflicts between Indian treaty rights and the military requirements of the Confederacy, a situation that worsened when Pike was given the rank of brigadier general and put in command of Indian regiments in the western theatre of the war. In July 1862 he resigned his commission and publicly criticized the Confederate government for violating its own treaties with the Native Americans. He was thrown into jail, and then released in the autumn of 1862 as the Confederacy’s western defenses collapsed. Bankrupt and with his marriage in ruins, he fled to a cabin in the Ozark hills and remained there until 1868, pursuing a project that would become his life’s work.

Pike had become a Freemason during his Arkansas years, and in 1853 was initiated into the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite, then one of the smallest Masonic bodies in the United States, with fewer than a thousand members. Shortly after his initiation the Supreme Council appointed him to a five-man committee charged with revising the rituals. The committee never met, but Pike took on the massive task himself. In 1859, he was elected Sovereign Grand Commander of the Rite’s southern jurisdiction. In his self-imposed seclusion in the Ozarks, Pike finished his revision of the rituals, including in them a wealth of material from nearly every aspect of western occult tradition. He also began the writing of his massive book Morals and Dogma, which was published in 1871. See Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite (AASR).

In 1868 he moved to Washington DC, where he received a congressional pardon for his wartime activities and resumed a legal career. His duties as head of the Scottish Rite took up ever more of his time as the Rite grew, however, and after a few years he abandoned his law practice and devoted the rest of his life to his Masonic involvements, which were not limited to the Scottish Rite. When the Royal Order of Scotland established a Provincial Grand Lodge for the United States in 1878, for example, Pike accepted the office of Provincial Grand Master and held it until his death. See Royal Order of Scotland.

In the last two decades of his life Pike was far and away the most prominent Freemason in America, and this position made him a target for conspiracy theories during and after his time. Léo Taxil’s brilliant Palladian Order hoax of the late 1870s and early 1880s elevated Pike to the non-existent office of “Sovereign Pontiff of Universal Freemasonry” and head of the Palladian Order, a supposed inner circle of Satanist sex fiends inside Masonry; the title and some of the writings Taxil forged and attributed to Pike are still circulated among opponents of Freemasonry, especially fundamentalist Christians. Another inaccuracy, debunked by historians but much repeated in antimasonic circles, is the claim that Pike was a high officer in the Ku Klux Klan immediately after the Civil War. In point of fact, after his troubles with the Confederate government Pike took no further role in politics and had nothing to do with the Klan. See Antimasonry; fundamentalism; Ku Klux Klan; Palladian Order.

Further reading: Carnes 1989, Duncan 1961, Pike 1871.


One of the two most widespread secret societies of West Africa, the Poro Society is found all along the Upper Guinea coast from Liberia to Sierra Leone. In the past, before Christian and Muslim missionaries became influential in these areas, most boys were initiated into the Poro Society as an essential part of their transition to adulthood, while girls were initiated into the similar Sande Society. See African secret societies; Sande Society.

To be initiated into the society, candidates leave their homes and live communally for a time in the “Poro bush,” a sacred grove located outside the town limits. There they are symbolically eaten by the Poro spirit, a fierce guardian entity of the forest; they spend time within the womb of the spirit’s wife, and then are reborn as men with new Poro names. A council of Poro elders oversees these rites, and also traditionally manages certain community affairs and settles disputes over land or succession in aristocratic lineages. In many areas the local Poro Society wields a great deal of political and economic authority, which, however, is balanced by the influence of the women’s Sande Society. In some areas, in fact, Poro and Sande elders alternate in power, with Poro elders having the final word in one year and Sande elders holding authority the next.

During the era of British rule over Sierra Leone, several colonial administrations attempted to break the economic and political authority of the Poro Society: an 1897 “Poro Ordinance” barred Poro groups from their traditional role in managing the harvest of certain trade crops, while an 1898 rising against the colonial government, the Hut Tax War, was blamed by the British on the Poro Society. Stringent repressive measures against the Society failed, however, to force it out of its traditional position, and since the collapse of colonial rule the Society has played an important part in the region. During the civil war in Sierra Leone in the 1990s, local Poro elders were even able to proclaim and enforce a “Poro curfew” forbidding night attacks in certain regions, helping local communities stay out of the crossfire between insurgents and government troops.

Further reading: Bellman 1984.


Prince Hall was a black minister of West Indian origin who emigrated to Boston in 1765 and became the pastor of a Methodist church in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 1775 he and 14 other men of African descent were entered, passed and raised by a Masonic regimental lodge in Boston. They then applied to the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts for a charter and were turned down, but an application to the Grand Lodge of England proved more successful. African Lodge #459 received a dispensation in 1784 and a charter in 1787. Seven years later it assumed the powers of a Grand Lodge and began granting charters to African-American lodges throughout the new republic. By the beginning of the Civil War “Prince Hall” lodges, as they came to be called, could be found throughout the northern states, as well as in Maryland, Virginia, and Louisiana, the states with the largest number of free African-Americans. The established (and entirely white) American Masonic lodges denounced these lodges as “clandestine,” but this does not seem to have slowed the growth of black Freemasonry at all. See Freemasonry.

The second half of the nineteenth century saw this steady growth turn exponential as black Americans turned to fraternal orders for mutual aid and networking. Three years after the Civil War, Prince Hall lodges existed in every state of the old Confederacy. By 1900 Prince Hall Masonry was the premier African-American secret society in the United States and formed one of the core social institutions of the black middle classes. The twentieth century brought the same challenges to Prince Hall Masonry as it did to every other secret society in the western world, but it survived when many other African-American orders went under. At the time of writing, Prince Hall lodges exist in 41 US states, as well as in Canada, the Caribbean, and Liberia. See African-American secret societies.

In the last decades of the twentieth century, many historically white Masonic jurisdictions found themselves rethinking the old rules of racial segregation, and the issue of recognizing Prince Hall lodges formed one of the battlefields on which this was fought out. In 1989 the Grand Lodge of Connecticut formally recognized its state’s Prince Hall grand lodge, a move that infuriated white Grand Masters in the deep South and saw several southern jurisdictions stop recognizing Masons from Connecticut as brothers. The movement spread, however,

and at the beginning of the twenty-first century, Prince Hall Masons are recognized by 38 American grand lodges and essentially all other regular Masonic bodies around the world.

Further reading: Walkes 1979.


The most spectacular secret society hoax in recent history, the Priory of Sion (Prieuré de Sion) was founded in 1956 in the small town of Annemasse in southeastern France by Pierre Plantard (1920–2000), a minor figure in French right-wing occult circles. The founding papers of the organization declare that its objects were “1. The constitution of a Catholic association intended to restore antique chivalry; 2. Pursuit of the study and practice of solidarity.” Its membership was limited to adult Catholics.

Behind the Priory lies two decades of failed attempts by Plantard to launch a similar organization to pursue the conservative Catholic esotericism much in vogue in early twentieth-century France. In his younger years, Plantard had been an associate of Georges Monti, the former secretary to Joséphin Péladan. Péladan had been among the most influential figures in the Paris occult scene in the 1880s and 1890s, and Monti passed onto Plantard something of Péladan’s taste for aristocratic and reactionary occultism. Plantard also had a long history of involvement in reactionary political groups; before the war he was associated with members of the Cagoule, a secret society that attempted to overthrow the French government and establish a fascist state modeled on Mussolini’s Italy. See Cagoule; Catholic Order of the Rose+Cross.

In 1940, not long after the German conquest of France, Plantard organized a secret society named Alpha Galates, with 12 levels of initiation culminating in the degree of Druidic Majesty, reserved for himself. Although he produced a periodical, Vaincre (“Conquer”), that supported the Vichy puppet government and circulated pro-Nazi propaganda, Plantard spent four months in prison when the authorities found out about it, since it had been launched without official approval. Vichy-era government documents nonetheless dismissed Plantard as a crank whose organization existed mostly in his own head. Other than his brief prison stay, he spent the war years in Paris working as a paid sexton at a Catholic church and studying lessons from the correspondence course put out by AMORC, an American Rosicrucian order based in California. See Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (AMORC).

As outlined in its 1956 documents, the Priory of Sion was a new version of Alpha Galates. Even by secret society standards it was a tiny organization, and for most of its history its membership consisted mainly of Plantard himself. In its first years it either was, or masqueraded as, a committee for the right to low income housing, though these efforts were hindered by a six-month stint in prison following Plantard’s conviction for fraud; he had claimed the Priory was a large organization, and sold high degrees of initiation for even higher sums of money.

Despite this setback, Plantard spent the next two decades engaged in a massive campaign of disinformation to make the Priory look larger than it was. During France’s constitutional crisis of 1958, he put out publicity claiming that the Priory was behind the Committees of Public Safety that put Charles de Gaulle back in power. These efforts had little impact, but Plantard’s further attempts to publicize the Priory had unexpected consequences.

Around 1960 Plantard met Noel Corbu, who opened a restaurant in the little town of Rennes-le-Château in southern France in the early 1950s, using for the purpose a stone tower built by an eccentric former parish priest named Bérenger Saunière. To publicize the restaurant, Corbu concocted a romantic tale about hidden treasure supposedly discovered by Saunière in the parish church, and turned Saunière into a man of mystery with international connections. None of Corbu’s tale has the slightest basis in fact, nor can it be traced back past a 1956 magazine article for which Corbu himself was the sole source. See Rennes-le-Château.

Plantard took these stories, embellished them, and used them to provide a fictitious origin for the Priory of Sion, tracing it back via the Albigensian heretics and the crusading Knights Templar to the Merovingian kings of early medieval France, whose last descendant he claimed to be. In the process he borrowed liberally from the origin story of the Order of the Golden and Rosy Cross, an eighteenth-century German Rosicrucian order; he added “de St Clair” to his own name to imply a connection to the Sinclair family of Scotland, once the hereditary patrons of Scottish stonemasons’ guilds, and invented a stellar list of past Nautonniers (grand masters) of the Priory, including such luminaries as Leonardo da Vinci and Isaac Newton, borrowing most of the names from lists of Rosicrucian Imperators circulated by AMORC. Along with a friend, Philippe de Chérisey, he started inserting documents backing these claims into several important French historical archives. See Albigensians; Knights Templar; Leonardo da Vinci; Merovingians; Order of the Golden and Rosy Cross; origin stories; retrospective recruitment; Rosicrucians; Sinclair family.

In 1964, he wrote a book detailing his claims, but was unable to find a publisher. In 1965 he arranged with Gérard de Sède, a writer of popular non-fiction, to have de Sède revise the book and publish it under his own name, with the proceeds to be split with Plantard. Plantard’s friend Philippe de Chérisey was also to receive a share in return for concocting two parchments, allegedly found in a Visigothic pillar in the church at Rennes-le-Château, that contained coded messages backing up the Priory of Sion’s invented Merovingian origins. The book was published, and launched the “Rennes-le-Château mystery” into French counterculture literature, but the partners fell out over the division of the royalties. In a variety of court documents and publications, Plantard and de Chérisey both admitted that the parchments had been forged, a conclusion later backed up by laboratory analysis.

None of this prevented the next stage in the unfolding of the story. In 1969, English actor Henry Soskin (who wrote under the pen name Henry Lincoln) encountered the Rennes-le-Château story by way of a second book by Gérard de Sède, and began to pursue the story, first on his own and then with the help of two other British writers, Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh. Soskin, Leigh, and Baigent soon found themselves on the receiving end of Plantard’s disinformation campaign. Ironically, they realized early on that they were following a prepared trail produced by a single source (see Baigent et al. 1983, pp. 96–7), but still accepted the accuracy of the Priory’s manufactured pedigree.

However, the British authors were by no means passive receptacles for all this material. They had interests of their own, focused most notably on the origins of Christianity, and managed to link Plantard’s revelations into these interests, with sensational results. Their interpretation of the Priory “mystery” appeared in three TV documentaries, followed by the bestselling book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (1982), which claimed that Pierre Plantard was a descendant of Jesus of Nazareth, who had a child by Mary Magdalene – a claim Plantard himself, a devout if eccentric Catholic, rejected with some vehemence. See Christian origins.

In 1984, after a series of bitter quarrels with Soskin, Plantard folded up the Priory and tried to distance himself from the media circus of claims and counterclaims around the bloodline-of-Jesus theory. In 1989 he attempted to launch the Priory again, this time with a completely different set of claims about its origins, but his efforts went nowhere. An incautious claim about the Priory connections of controversial French business figure Roger-Patrice Pelat landed Plantard in court in 1993, where he admitted under oath that he had invented the Priory of Sion, its history, and its claims out of whole cloth.

From that time until his death in 2000, Plantard seems to have made no further attempts to revive the Priory. Still, his efforts succeeded in giving his small and unsuccessful group an unearned reputation as one of the most important secret societies in history, and the disinformation campaign he concocted, liberally enlarged by the imaginative contributions of more than a dozen busy writers, has redefined the history of the western world for millions of people. A bestselling novel, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (2003), borrowed much of its theme and plot from Plantard’s claims, as expanded by Soskin, Leigh, and Baigent, and at least 10 secret societies now claim either to be the authentic Priory of Sion or the current holders of its lineage. The richest irony of all is that the flurry of media attention given to the Priory of Sion has largely succeeded in distracting researchers from the activities of real secret societies in various periods of European history. See Da Vinci Code, the.

Further reading: Baigent et al. 1983, Richardson 1998.


The most influential book in the history of modern antisemitism and the original source for most of the key themes of contemporary conspiracy theory, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion first surfaced in Russia around 1895. It purports to be a plan for world conquest adopted by a secret meeting of Jewish leaders at an unspecified place and time. The 24 “protocols” or sections of the plan lay out a campaign of subversion and financial manipulation. The Elders, according to the book, already control all European political parties and economic interests, and use their control of the media to discredit authority and undermine Christianity, in order to bring the Christian kingdoms of Europe to their knees and establish a worldwide empire under a Jewish monarch. See Antisemitism.

In reality, The Protocols is a crude hoax patched together from several earlier antisemitic works. About 40 percent of the text was plagiarized from Maurice Joly’s Dialogue aux Enfers entre Montesquieu et Machiavelli (Dialogue in Hell between Montesquieu and Machiavelli, 1864), a satire on the authoritarian politics of Napoleon III of France. Some of the remainder is closely modeled on a chapter from Hermann Gödsche’s 1868 novel Biarritz, in which two characters spy on a meeting between Jewish elders and Satan in a Prague graveyard. The rest is pieced together from other antisemitic and antimasonic works popular at the time, from contemporary critiques of industrialism, and from claims about the Great White Lodge, the secret government of the world in Theosophical belief. The author, or rather compiler, of The Protocols was Yuliana Glinka, a Russian noblewoman living in Paris during the 1880s and 1890s, who combined an interest in Theosophy with a career as a spy for the Russian secret police. See Great White Lodge; Theosophical Society.

The Protocols was first published in an abbreviated form in a Russian newspaper in 1903, and pamphlet versions appeared in late 1905 and early 1906 from a press controlled by the Black Hundreds, the leading right-wing secret society in Russia at that time. It also appeared as an appendix to a 1905 book, Velikoe v Malom (The Great in the Small) by Sergei Nilus, a Russian Orthodox mystic whose wife was a lady-in-waiting to the Tsarina Alexandra. It quickly found a following in Russian antisemitic circles, and during the Russian revolution became standard reading material among conservative opponents of the Bolsheviks. See Black Hundreds; Russian revolution.

Refugees from the Russian civil war brought The Protocols with them to Germany, where it was translated at once and found an eager audience among radical right-wing parties. One minor party based in Munich adopted the Protocols with particular fervor; its leader, an Austrian veteran named Adolf Hitler, took to quoting them frequently in his speeches and writings. When Hitler took power in 1933, The Protocols became a standard textbook in German public schools. See Hitler, Adolf; National Socialism.

Once published in Germany, The Protocols quickly gained worldwide circulation, and during the 1920s copies could be found throughout Europe and the Americas. The first British and American editions appeared in 1920. The Second World War and its aftermath drove the book underground in English-speaking countries and in most of western Europe: images of Auschwitz and vivid recollections of Nazi diatribes made the fantasy of Jewish world domination too difficult to defend. However, in Latin America and the Arab world, where sympathy for the Nazis ran high during the war, The Protocols stayed in circulation, and editions found their way back into America and western Europe as memories of the war receded and the neo-Nazi movement took shape. See neo-Nazi secret societies.

Well before this happened, though, the Protocols had taken on a new life as evidence for secret masters of the world who were no longer linked to Judaism at all. This transformation began as early as 1919. In that year The Public Ledger, a Philadelphia newspaper, printed extracts of The Protocols as secret Bolshevik plans for world conquest, with all references to Jews removed. The writings of Nesta Webster and Lady Queensborough, the two most influential conspiracy theorists of 1920s Britain, adapted most of the book’s ideas for the communist world conspiracy they claimed to uncover, while having little to say about the Protocols themselves. By the early 1960s, when Robert Welch’s John Birch Society was redefining modern conspiracy theory, nearly all the allegations contained in The Protocols had been transplanted from the Jews to Welch’s sinister conspiracy of Insiders and their New World Order. See John Birch Society; New World Order.

The circle completed itself in the late 1990s when copies of The Protocols began to appear in conspiracy theory literature, sometimes with references to Judaism deleted, sometimes not. M. William Cooper’s 1991 book Behold A Pale Horse, required reading in conspiracy-hunting circles at the beginning of the twenty-first century, included the full text of the book, and David Icke’s books, which claim that the world is actually controlled by a secret elite of shape-shifting reptiles, also quote The Protocols in detail. See Reptilians.

Further reading: Bernstein 1971, Cohn 1967, Cooper 1991.


Among the most widely known secret societies of the classical world, the Pythagorean Brotherhood was founded by the Greek philosopher Pythagoras (c.570–c.4<95 BCE) in Crotona, a Greek colonial city in what is now southern Italy. Pythagoras had traveled from his native city of Samos to Egypt and Babylon to study mathematics, and then voyaged through the Greek islands to seek out mystery initiations, before settling in Crotona. His teachings, which centered on sacred geometry and numerology, combined mathematics and mysticism in a way that baffles many modern scholars but has close similarities to the practices of the old operative Masons. See sacred geometry.

The Pythagorean Brotherhood borrowed heavily from the ancient mystery cults but added features of its own. Candidates for membership faced a searching interview and then had to sign over all their worldly goods to the Brotherhood, to be returned if they left the society. For the first five years they had the rank of acousmatici, “listeners;” subject to a vow of silence, they were permitted to listen to lectures from behind a curtain but could ask no questions. After completing this probation they became mathematici, “mathematicians,” and worked directly with Pythagoras and his inner circle of students. Members ate a vegetarian diet and lived under many taboos. Beliefs of the society also included reincarnation and a variety of moral and philosophical maxims.

The Brotherhood drew much of its membership from Crotona’s upper classes and became deeply enmeshed in politics, supporting the aristocratic party in a series of social disputes that finally burst into violence. Around 500 BCE rioting broke out in Crotona and many members of the Brotherhood were killed; several ancient sources claim that most of the Brotherhood’s members were trapped in their headquarters, which was burnt to the ground. Pythagoras fled to Metapontum, another city not far away, where he died a few years later. Surviving members scattered throughout the Greek world. The Brotherhood may have survived in exile for a time, but there seems to be no evidence that it existed for long thereafter – a point that has not prevented a wide range of later secret societies, including Freemasonry, from claiming Pythagorean roots. See retrospective recruitment.

Further reading: Burkert 1972.

Related Posts