A major secret society in early nineteenth-century Italy, the Raggi (“rays” or “radii”) emerged in northern Italy sometime in 1797 in the aftermath of the French invasion. The French were originally welcomed as liberators by Italians weary of the political and religious autocracy of late eighteenth-century Italy, but soon changed their minds as the French turned the newly founded Cisalpine Republic into a puppet state subordinate to orders from Paris. Attempts to remedy the situation by legal means failed, and in response the Raggi formed and began plotting a revolt against French supremacy.

The organization, also known as the Centri (“centers”) or Astronomia Platonica (“Platonic astronomy”), pioneered a system of organization that became standard throughout nineteenth-century political secret societies. Individual members, or “lines,” belonged to groups of five, “rays,” and members of one ray had no contact with other rays or their members; the head of each ray reported instead to one member of a “segment” or regional coordinating body. The president of each segment belonged to one of the two “hemispheres” or governing councils of the order, which were headquartered in Bologna and Milan respectively, and received instructions from the supreme directing body, the “Solar Circle.” See cell system.

The Raggi expanded throughout Italy during the next decade; some estimates put its membership in 1804 at between 30,000 and 50,000. The Napoleonic Wars put the Raggi in a difficult situation, however, as it became increasingly clear that the alternative to French rule was a return to the old conservatism. After the fall of Napoleon, when most of the small kingdoms of Italy ended up ruled by reactionary governments backed by Austrian troops, the Raggi were apparently absorbed by the Carbonari and Philadelphes, two more militant secret societies with connections to the wider world of European revolutionary movements. See Carbonari; Philadelphes.


At the extreme end of the contemporary alternative-realities spectrum is the claim that an ancient Martian city, made of multicolored plastic blocks, lies hidden somewhere beneath the icy wastes of Antarctica. Rainbow City, as this metropolis is called, is one part of a vast network of underground Martian cities established two and a half million years ago. The other cities have long since been abandoned, but Rainbow City remains inhabited by descendants of the original Martian colonists. Warm springs on all sides keep out the Antarctic cold, and ice walls 10,000 feet tall guard it from intruders – not merely humans, but also savage lizard beings from Venus, the age-old enemies of the Martians. See Antarctica; extraterrestrials; Reptilians; underground realms.

These claims first surfaced in the American occult community in the 1940s in a document called the Hefferlin Manuscript, supposedly written by William and Gladys Hefferlin after their first contact with Rani Khatani, one of the “Ancient Three” who govern the Martian refuge. Rumors claim that the Hefferlins, shortly after putting their manuscript into circulation, moved to Rainbow City and are living there now, freed from old age and death by advanced Martian medical science. The tale is colorful enough that it seems almost a shame to point out that not a single scrap of evidence supports these fancies.

Further reading: Kafton-Minkel 1989.


Scottish Freemason and Jacobite, 1686–1743. The son of a baker in the Scottish town of Ayr, Ramsay attended Edinburgh University, then worked as a tutor for a time before relocating to London, where he encountered the writings of Archbishop François de Salignac de la Mothe-Fénelon, a noted Catholic author of the time. In 1709 he moved to the Netherlands and settled in Cambrai, where Fénelon lived. There he converted to Catholicism and became part of Fénelon’s circle of friends, remaining with the archbishop until the latter’s death in 1715. Shortly thereafter he was in Paris, where he associated with the Duc d’Orleans, Regent for the young King Louis XV, and became a Chevalier of the Order of St Lazare. In 1720 he published a biography of his late patron Fénelon that won him widespread acclaim.

In 1724 he went to Rome to take up a position as tutor to the two sons of the “Old Pretender” James Stuart, the exiled heir to the English throne. He held the position for some 15 months, but remained in contact with Jacobite circles in Paris and elsewhere after his return to France. Curiously, not long after his departure from Rome he was offered another position as tutor, this time to the Duke of Cumberland, second son of the Hanoverian Prince of Wales; he declined it, but returned to Britain in 1728 as a guest of the Duke of Argyll, and in 1730 – despite his religion and his Jacobite connections – was awarded a doctorate at Oxford. See Jacobites.

It was probably in 1728 that Ramsay was admitted to a Masonic lodge in London. On his later return to France, he became active in French Masonic circles, rising to the rank of Chancellor of the Grand Lodge of France in 1736. In that same year he wrote his most famous work, an oration on the history of Freemasonry, which traced its roots back to the Crusading knights of the Middle Ages. This was the first time that claim had been made, and it provided crucial backing for the new “Scottish” Masonry that appeared shortly thereafter in France. See Freemasonry; Scottish degrees.

Ramsay continued to write and publish until his death in 1743 at St Germain-en-Laye. His career cut across some of the most bitter political divides of the eighteenth century. He received patronage simultaneously from the Duc d’Orleans, a firm ally of the English government, and from James Stuart, who hoped to overthrow it. Mainstream historians have speculated that he might have been a double agent, working for the Jacobites and Hanoverians at the same time, while Masonic historians have suggested that he was responsible for the first Templar rite within Masonry, a rite of three degrees closely allied with the Jacobite movement. While both these claims remain unproven, his career places him near the center of some of the most complex secret intrigues of the eighteenth century, and his role in propagating the legend of a crusading origin for Freemasonry has shaped the history of secret societies ever since. See Knights Templar.

Further reading: Roberts 1972.


American occultist, spiritualist, physician, politician, author, and founder of secret societies, 1825–75. A leading figure in nineteenth-century American occultism, Randolph was the illegitimate son of Flora Clark, an African-American woman, and William Beverly Randolph, a white man, whom Randolph later claimed belonged to the wealthy Randolph family of Tidewater Virginia. Born and raised in the Five Points area, New York’s most notorious slum district, Randolph lost his mother by the age of seven and had to fend for his own living thereafter. He worked as a bootblack, begged from door to door, and finally, in his teen years, found a position as a cabin boy on a merchant ship.

By 1845 he was working as a barber in upstate New York. When Spiritualism burst onto the public stage in 1848, Randolph was quickly caught up in it, first as a convert and then as one of the first African-American Spiritualist mediums. By the early 1850s he also claimed to be a “clairvoyant physician,” specializing in sexual problems, and 1854 saw the publication of his first book, a novel titled Waa-gu-Mah. In 1855 he toured England, France, and Germany, holding Spiritualist séances and meeting with European occultists, and his reception was favorable enough that 1857 saw a second European tour.

In 1858, however, Randolph publicly renounced Spiritualism and spent the next few years on the anti-Spiritualist lecture circuit, assailing mediums as the passive victims of evil spirits. He soon quarreled with the Christian church that supported much of this activity, though, and left the country again. According to his later accounts, he spent 1861 and 1862 traveling in the Near East, making contact with the “Ansaireh” or al-Nusairi, a heretical Islamic sect in Syria, and receiving from them the principles of his later occult teachings. Whether this actually happened is anyone’s guess, as Randolph’s statements about his own biography changed frequently and were full of contradictions.

By the mid-1860s Randolph was back in America, helping to recruit African-American volunteers for the Union army in the Civil War, and after the war ended he made a brief and unsuccessful foray into politics. By the end of the decade he had returned to writing and occultism, and began setting forth the teachings he called Eulis or the Ansairetic Arcanum, the distinctive system of occult philosophy and sexual magic that would be his lasting legacy. Eulian magic started with the basic practices of “volantia” (calm focused concentration), “decretism” (unity of will), and “posism” (mental receptivity). These allowed the initiate to make use of the magic mirror, the primary magical instrument of Randolph’s system, for clairvoyance and contact with spiritual entities, leading up through the practices of zorvoyance and aethavoyance (astral and spiritual vision) to the art of blending, Randolph’s term for a conscious trance in which the initiate’s consciousness fused with that of a higher spiritual being. See Eulis; Scrying.

The core teachings of Eulis, however, focused on the mysteries of sex. Randolph was far ahead of his time in his views about sex; in an era when most physicians denied the existence of the female orgasm, Randolph insisted that orgasmic release was essential to mental and physical health in women as well as men. When two lovers focused minds and wills on a common intention at the moment of mutual orgasm, Randolph believed, the result was an energy release with unlimited magical powers.

The origins of this system are a matter of much dispute. Some researchers give credence to Randolph’s claims that he received them from the Rosicrucians or the al-Nusairi; others point out close similarities between Randolph’s ideas and those of several important American occultists of the generation before him, notably Andrew Jackson Davis. Still others point out that Randolph himself admitted, in several places in his writings, that his teachings were entirely his own creation. It seems entirely possible that all these claims have some truth to them, and that Randolph combined scraps of older traditions with the occult teachings of his own time and his own unique insights to create his system.

Randolph’s brilliance, unfortunately, coexisted with an arrogant personality that lost him friends and supporters wherever he went. He made repeated attempts to launch a magical secret society to carry on his teachings, only to quarrel with their members and dissolve them, usually within months of their founding. His personal life was no more stable, filled with broken marriages and failed businesses. In his last years his mood swings became increasingly violent, and he finally committed suicide in 1875.

The last two of his secret societies, the Brotherhood of Eulis and the Triplicate Order of Rosicrucia, Pythianae, and Eulis, both reformed after his death and played a significant role in launching other occult secret societies later on, notably R. Swinburne Clymer’s Fraternitas Rosae Crucis (FRC). Moreover, two students of his work in England, Peter Davidson and Thomas Burgoyne, went on to found one of the most influential magical secret societies of the late nineteenth century, the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor. See Fraternitas Rosae Crucis; Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor (H.B. of L.).

Further reading: Deveney 1997.


The precise equivalent of religious heresy in today’s secular scientific culture, the field of rejected knowledge consists of all those beliefs, ideas, and systems of thought about nature, history, and the universe that have been condemned by accepted scientific authorities. While many of the elements of today’s rejected-knowledge scene date back centuries, or even millennia, a hard and fast distinction between accepted ideas and rejected ones did not begin to take shape until the second half of the nineteenth century, when scientists won the struggle with Christian religious authorities over the age of the earth and the origins of humanity.

The aftermath of the struggle saw the scientific worldview take on many of the dogmatic features of the religious worldview it had conquered. By the early twentieth century, ferocious disputes within the scientific community itself over psychic phenomena and similar subjects gave way to a consensus that ruled such fields off limits to serious research. Even inoffensive proposals such as Alfred Wegener’s theory of continental drift were consigned to the dustbin by a scientific orthodoxy convinced of its own correct understanding of the world. In this climate the rise of an alternative community for rejected ideas was all but guaranteed.

The inventor of rejected knowledge as a distinct cultural phenomenon was the American politician and writer Ignatius Donnelly (1831–1901). In the later years of a long and contentious career, Donnelly wrote a series of books that launched several of the enduring themes of the rejected-knowledge scene into popular culture. His Atlantis, The Antediluvian World (1882) put the idea of Atlantis back on the map; his Ragnarok, The Age of Fire and Gravel (1883), which argued that the earth had been hit by a giant comet at the beginning of the Ice Age, reintroduced the concept of catastrophic earth changes to popular culture; and his The Great Cryptogram (1888) played a crucial role in bringing the Shakespeare authorship controversy to public attention. See Atlantis; earth changes; Shakespeare controversies.

All these themes and more were taken up by Russian mystic Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831–91), the founder of the Theosophical Society. Her first book, Isis Unveiled (1877), launched an all-out assault on the scientific and religious orthodoxies of her time in an effort to demonstrate the superiority of mystical and occult ideas. Many of the standard features of rejected knowledge in the following century, from lost continents and forgotten planetary catastrophes to suppressed technologies and the superior knowledge of ancient cultures, play central roles in Isis Unveiled and its sprawling sequel, The Secret Doctrine (1888). The enormous popular success of Theosophy ensured a wide distribution for these ideas and inspired many other intellectual dissidents to challenge the scientific mainstream with heresies of their own. See Blavatsky, Helena Petrovna; Theosophical Society.

Another central figure in the emergence of rejected knowledge was American writer and researcher Charles Hoy Fort (1874–1932). Fort made it his life’s work to collect facts that refused to fit accepted scientific theories. Combing through stacks of scientific journals in the reading rooms of the New York Public Library, he compiled the raw material for his four famous books, The Book of the Damned (1919), New Lands (1923), Lo! (1931), and Wild Talents (1932). Unlike Blavatsky, who used flaws in the scientific consensus to argue for the value of her own system of mystical thought, Fort rejected all attempts at universal explanation, arguing that the universe was too bizarre for any human theory to adequately explain.

A fourth figure, American science fiction writer and editor Raymond Palmer (1910–77), fused Blavatsky’s and Fort’s contributions to launch rejected knowledge once and for all into popular culture. In the late 1930s, as managing editor of the science fiction magazine Amazing Stories, Palmer started running articles on rejected knowledge themes to fill out monthly issues when the supply of science fiction ran short. The response from the readership was so positive that more and more of the magazine came to be devoted to rejected ideas of all kinds. In 1945 he rewrote and published “I Remember Lemuria!”, the first of Richard Shaver’s bizarre accounts of sinister “detrimental robots” or “deros” tormenting surface dwellers with forgotten Lemurian technology from a network of abandoned tunnels far underground, and more than doubled Amazing Stories circulation. The UFO phenomenon that burst into popular culture two years later was more grist for Palmer’s mill, and he played a crucial part in popularizing UFO lore among the general public. By 1948 Palmer was publishing and editing Fate, America’s first monthly magazine devoted to rejected knowledge. In Fate’s pages, Fort’s scientific skepticism and Blavatsky’s mystical ideologies blended seamlessly to create the modern field of rejected knowledge. See Lemuria; Palmer, Raymond; unidentified flying objects (UFOs).

The items that ended up becoming part of this field were, to some extent, a grab bag of half-forgotten traditions, anomalous experiences, and new belief systems, united mostly by the fact that scientific orthodoxy rejected them and despised their adherents. Nearly all the core elements of Blavatsky’s Theosophy – lost continents, forgotten civilizations, reincarnation, disembodied masters, Asian spiritual disciplines, and unrecognized powers hidden away within the human body and mind – flowed into late twentieth-century rejected knowledge. Traditional western occultism had a much smaller role, though astrology found a place. Unexplained phenomena of every kind, from ESP and dowsing to UFOs and cattle mutilations, had a major part in defining the field.

An even larger role, though, went to alternative visions of history. Anyone who claimed to disprove the officially accepted version of history in favor of some alternative was guaranteed a hearing, and a following, among fans of rejected knowledge. From disputes about the real author of the Shakespeare poems and plays to arguments that the early history of humanity had been shaped by encounters with alien space travelers, alternative history became the backbone of the rejected-knowledge industry. Speculations about the origins of Freemasonry and Christianity became particularly popular, especially when the Priory of Sion hoax linked the two together in an appealing though completely fictional narrative. See Christian origins; Freemasonry, origins of; Priory of Sion.

The widespread loss of faith in the western world’s institutions during and after the cultural revolutions of the late 1960s made all these ideas increasingly believable in the last quarter of the twentieth century. As evidence surfaced that government officials had lied to the public about CIA activities and that two generations of geologists had been completely wrong in dismissing continental drift, it became easy to believe that government officials were also lying about UFOs and that scientists were equally wrong in rejecting the historical reality of Atlantis. The ham-fisted efforts of self-described “skeptics” to discredit honest accounts of unexplained phenomena, and to dismiss proven but scientifically unpopular practices such as acupuncture, also helped convince millions of people that the voices of scientific authority could not be trusted. As a result, many aspects of rejected knowledge became widely accepted by the general public across most of the world, and a thriving publishing and media industry sprang up to fill the demand for new books, videos, and television programs about rejected knowledge.

The downside of this process was a complete breakdown in critical thinking on the part of many believers in rejected knowledge. Increasingly, in the last decades of the twentieth century, the only evidence that was needed to prove the reality of some piece of rejected knowledge to many people was the sheer fact that someone in science or government had dismissed it. Real anomalies and traditional systems of alternative thought and practice were shoved aside in order to make room for new and more colorful theories, many of which rested on foundations of pure fantasy and some of which had been invented from whole cloth to cash in on a lucrative market. A current of paranoia flowed into the movement as conspiracy theories gained widespread acceptance. The same period also saw alternative circles around the world embrace a “machismo of credulity,” an attitude that treated a willingness to believe the most extravagant and unsupported claims as proof of one’s intellectual liberation or spiritual insight.

A crucial role in this transition was played by the systematic misuse of hypnosis in several different areas of rejected knowledge. UFO researchers were first off the mark here, relying on hypnotic regression from the 1970s onward in an attempt to recover suppressed memories in people who believed that they had been abducted by aliens. Similar practices came into use after 1980 among therapists claiming to treat Satanic ritual abuse, and at about the same time hypnotherapists started recovering material from people who claimed to be unwilling experimental guinea pigs in secret government mind control projects. Despite drastic problems with therapeutic standards, objectivity, and supporting evidence, evidence from hypnosis came to be accepted without question through much of the rejected-knowledge community in the 1980s and 1990s. See Satanism.

By the last years of the century these trends set the stage for the emergence of theories that attempted to unite all rejected knowledge into a single coherent ideology. No two of these theories covered exactly the same ground, but the same themes did recur in them: alien astronauts who reached earth in the prehistoric past, lost civilizations and the catastrophes that overwhelmed them, sinister figures ruling the world in secret, and secret societies passing on a hidden heritage from ancient times all featured over and over again in a kaleidoscope of combinations. Some theorists, such as English ex-football commentator and Green Party candidate David Icke, offer readers a paranoid mysticism in which all the evil in the world is caused by bloodthirsty, shape-shifting extraterrestrial reptiles who, disguised as human beings, make up the ruling class of all human societies and maintain their power through a network of diabolical secret societies practicing ritual sacrifice. Others, such as English author Graham Hancock, take the opposite viewpoint and claim that secret societies such as Freemasonry preserve valuable spiritual teachings from an ancient Martian civilization destroyed by asteroids in the distant past, and now offer timely warnings to Earth’s people as they blunder toward a similar fate. These and many other writers offer powerful mythic visions of history whose emotional force too easily obscures the weaknesses in the evidence supporting them. See lost civilizations; Reptilians.

These grand narratives and unified field theories of rejected knowledge make it very difficult to sort out the wheat from the chaff, and very easy to fall into the trap of either rejecting or uncritically accepting all rejected knowledge in a lump. Just as continental drift was dismissed as a crackpot theory for most of the twentieth century, until sea floor evidence proved unequivocally that Wegener’s theory was right, some elements of today’s rejected knowledge have value despite the denials of contemporary authority figures: among many other points, esoteric traditions such as Hermeticism and Freemasonry offer teachings that can transform human life for the better, alternative healing methods such as acupuncture and homeopathy yield effective treatments for human illness with fewer side effects than conventional medicine, and secret societies have arguably had more impact on the history of the last four centuries or so than most mainstream historians are willing to admit. Still, none of this makes it reasonable to insist without good evidence that Queen Elizabeth II is actually a shape-shifting lizard who runs the world drug trade, or that a middle-aged American couple have attained immortality in a Martian city of giant plastic blocks near the South Pole – both claims that have been made by more than one figure in the rejected-knowledge scene in recent years.

Further reading: Blavatsky 1888, Goldberg 2001, Icke 1995, Keel 1989, Nathan and Snedecker 1995.


See Scrying.


A small village in the hills of southern France, located between the walled medieval city of Carcassonne to the north and the slopes of the eastern Pyrenees to the south, Rennes-le-Château was of little interest to anyone but its inhabitants until the early 1950s, when a promoter named Noel Corbu opened a restaurant in the Tour Magdala, a nineteenth-century stone building erected by a former parish priest of the village, Bérenger Saunière. Saunière earned local notoriety by his spending habits, which he financed by performing masses for money, a practice illegal under canon law that finally got him suspended by the local bishiop in 1911. Looking for publicity to attract customers to his new restaurant, Corbu heard old stories about hidden treasures from the Albigensian Crusade. He joined these tales to accounts of the free-spending Saunière to create a romantic tale about the priest’s discovery of buried treasure while restoring the old parish church in the village, and talked a magazine, La Dépêche du Midi, into carrying an article repeating his claims in 1956. See Cathars.

One of the people who heard the treasure story was an acquaintance of Corbu’s, Pierre Plantard, who happened to be the head of a very small secret society called the Prieuré de Sion or Priory of Zion. Plantard had founded the Priory himself in 1956, but like most secret societies it claimed links to the distant past, and Corbu’s story apparently struck Plantard as the perfect framework for a manufactured history. Corbu’s story became central to Plantard’s disinformation campaign, which was taken up by a group of British writers and turned, with substantial additions, into the bestselling book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (1982). Other researchers have disputed this and argued instead that the treasure of Rennes-le-Château was the Ark of the Covenant, an extraterrestrial artifact, a coded message warning that the Earth would be struck in 2012 by a giant comet, or any of a dozen other things. The entire landscape around Rennes-le-Château has been combed for clues and turned into the background for a burgeoning subgenre in the alternative realities publishing industry. See Ark of the Covenant; Christian origins; earth changes; extraterrestrials; Priory of Sion.

Ironically, the entire Bérenger Saunière story had been effectively debunked by French researchers by the time The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail reached the bookstands. Church records and Saunière’s own papers show that the vast majority of the stories circulated about Rennes-le-Château and Saunière are sheer invention, based on the modest reality of an eccentric parish priest. See Disinformation.

Further reading: Baigent et al. 1983, Fanthorpe 1989.


One of the features of the 1980s UFO scene was a series of attempts to categorize the entities reported by people who had encountered UFO occupants. These efforts foundered on the sheer variety of reported space beings, but managed to turn up a handful of common types. The so-called “grays,” large-headed dwarfs with gray or brown skin, spindly limbs, and black featureless eyes were the most widely publicized variety of UFO pilot, but another variety consisted of lizard-like aliens with scaled skin and yellow eyes. These “reptilians” soon became a recognized type in UFO research circles. See unidentified flying objects (UFOs).

The reptilians, like so much of the UFO phenomenon, showed remarkable parallels to the science fiction of previous decades – lizard-men from other planets were a staple of the pulp science fiction magazines – and to traditions on the fringes of the occult community. The Hefferlin manuscript, a purportedly factual document circulating in American occult circles since the 1940s, claimed that evil reptile-men from Venus invaded the earth in the distant past to do battle with benevolent humanoid Martians for control of Rainbow City, a metropolis hidden beneath the Antarctic ice cap. Despite obvious borrowings from science fiction-horror writer H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, the Hefferlin manuscript and an assortment of writings based on it helped popularize the idea of sinister alien reptiles and blend it with the experiences of UFO contactees. See Rainbow City.

A crucial role in this process of synthesis was played by an American science fiction television production (two mini-series and a short-lived weekly series) of the early 1980s. Titled V, these shows pitted humanity against an invasion of shape-shifting reptiles from outer space. The aliens used advanced technology and mind-control methods to manipulate humans and take over the earth’s political and economic systems. Just as the cinema Satanism of the 1960s’ horror movie Rosemary’s Baby was copied in the first wave of Satanic ritual abuse claims in the late 1970s, most of V’s themes appeared in detail in the alien-reptile mythologies of the next decade.

By the 1990s, UFO contactees and abductees had woven the “grays,” “Nordics,” reptilians, and other widely reported types of UFO occupants into their narratives of alien contact. The reptilians, many contactees claimed, came from solar systems in the constellation Draco. Where the Nordics were generally portrayed in a positive light, and the grays tended to range between positive and neutral, the reptilians came in for mostly negative portrayals, playing essentially the same role they had in the V storyline. It was in this form that they entered the writings of David Icke, whose attempt to create a universal synthesis of all rejected knowledge gave a central role to the reptilians. See rejected knowledge.

Icke’s reptilians are the evil aliens of the V series projected onto a sprawling mythology of class warfare. According to Icke, the reptilians are the secret masters of the world, a race of aliens from Draco who crossbred with human beings millennia ago to produce hybrid bloodlines that run the world on the surface, while others of pure reptile blood lurk in caverns far below. The crossbreeds, who can shape-shift from human to reptile form, include all past and present royal families of Britain, all other European royal houses, and every one of the presidents of the United States, from George Washington to George W. Bush. It is no exaggeration to say that in Icke’s view every person who has ever held political, religious, or economic influence at any point in human history is a reptilian crossbreed.

While Icke insists that there are good reptilians elsewhere in the universe, he paints the ones we have here on earth in uniformly unflattering colors. As the rulers of the planet, they are personally responsible for all the evil, ignorance, and suffering on earth, manipulating humanity through a network of secret societies to cause war, poverty, and other social ills. The Knights Templar, the Illuminati, and most of the other bêtes noires of contemporary conspiracy theory are simply fronts for the vast reptilian conspiracy, and the establishment of the New World Order is their central goal. If this were not enough, they also passionately enjoy drinking human blood. To be fair to the reptilian crossbreeds, Icke admits that their nefarious deeds are not entirely their fault, as most of them are possessed by lizard-demons from the lower fourth dimension. See Illuminati; Knights Templar; New World Order.

This extraordinarily colorful mythology has found an eager audience in counterculture circles throughout the western world, and has been incorporated into the theories of several other popular conspiracy theorists. As an ideology of class conflict, which is its primary thrust, it has few equals. Not even the most extreme forms of Marxism ever accused members of the industrial world’s political and economic elites of being shape-shifting extraterrestrial monsters who thirst for human blood. The evidence Icke presents is thin even by conspiracy theory standards – his claim that US president George Bush Sr. is a reptilian crossbreed, for example, depends on the testimony of one person who claimed under hypnosis to have been used as a robotic sex slave by most of the world’s political leaders, and on Icke’s own unsupported claim that he knows other people who saw Bush shape-shift into reptile form – but this has not prevented his books from being taken as gospel on the far ends of the political and cultural spectrum throughout Europe and America.

Further reading: Icke 1995, Icke 1999, Icke 2001.


One of the primary methods used by secret societies to conceal their actual origins, retrospective recruitment was defined and satirized by a famous passage in Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary of 1911:

Freemasons, n. An order with secret rites, grotesque ceremonies and fantastic costumes, which, originating in the reign of Charles II, among working artisans of London, has been joined successively by the dead of past centuries in unbroken retrogression until now it embraces all the generations of man on the hither side of Adam and is drumming up distinguished recruits among the pre-Creational inhabitants of Chaos and the Formless Void.

The basic strategy of retrospective recruitment, as this suggests, is the same as that of the person of humble origins who claims descent from some famous monarch or aristocrat. Since few people have the resources to check the claim, and fewer still are likely to devote the time and effort to the task, such claims often go unchallenged even when they are clearly bogus. Secret societies can claim prestigious forebears with even less compunction, since it is all but impossible to prove conclusively that a given public figure in the past did not belong to some secret society or another; a complete lack of evidence, after all, just shows how assiduously the person in question kept his oath of secrecy.

Such considerations have made it easy for some recently founded secret societies to claim roots reaching back hundreds or even thousands of years. One of the most widely publicized claims of this sort has been circulated by (and on behalf of) the Priory of Sion, a French secret society founded in 1956. Similar historical imagination shaped the pedigree of the Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (AMORC), an American Rosicrucian secret society founded in 1925; AMORC claimed the “heretic pharaoh” Ahkenaten, among others, in its list of forebears. See Akhenaten; Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (AMORC); Leonardo da Vinci; Priory of Sion.

While retrospective recruitment functions mostly as an advertising gimmick nowadays, it was more important in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when the Masonic custom of requiring a lodge to be chartered by a grand lodge was standard practice throughout the world of European secret societies. Innovators who devised new secret societies thus had to invent a lineage for themselves in order to gain acceptance for their creations. Romantic origin stories played a crucial role in this process, but retrospective recruitment also saw much use. See origin stories.

Some of the most influential secret societies in modern history equipped themselves with blatantly forged charters in order to meet this requirement. Martinez de Pasqually in 1767 founded the Elect Cohens, the fount of most contemporary French occult secret society traditions, on the basis of a charter allegedly issued by Bonnie Prince Charlie as “head of all Scottish Masonry,” while the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was founded by a coterie of English Masonic occultists in 1887 using an equally bogus charter supposedly issued by a German adept in Nuremberg. This same logic drove the manufacture of imaginary “family traditions” by the creators of modern Wiccan and Pagan traditions in the second half of the twentieth century. While the wholesale manufacture of roots is not as necessary now as it once was, its value as a marketing tool remains high, and retrospective recruitment will probably remain a favored tactic in secret society circles for a long time to come. See Elect Cohens; Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn; Wicca.


German singer, journalist, Freemason and secret society founder, (1855–1923). Born in Augsburg, the son of an innkeeper, he began a musical career as a vocalist in his youth and did tolerably well, winning a part in the chorus of the first performance of Richard Wagner’s opera Parsifal at Bayreuth. He was initiated into Freemasonry during an 1876 visit to London. In 1885 he returned to London to pursue his singing career on the English stage, and also involved himself in radical politics, becoming a member of the Socialist League; it was later alleged that he was a spy for the Prussian secret police sent to check up on links between the London socialists and anarchist circles in Germany. See Anarchism.

During this stay in England he also began a career as a journalist and traveled throughout Britain, Europe, and America. Until 1894 he showed no interest in occultism at all. In that year, however, he published an article on “Pranatherapy’ in a German occult journal and made connections with a variety of central European occultists, above all Austrian industrialist Carl Kellner (1851–1905), an initiate of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Light. He and Kellner began to discuss the idea of a quasi-Masonic organization that would teach occultism, especially the sexual magic the Brotherhood had inherited from American occultist Paschal Beverly Randolph (1825–75). See Hermetic Brotherhood of Light; Randolph, Paschal Beverly.

At this time, however, Reuss was active with another organization, an attempted revival of the Bavarian Illuminati, which he founded with Leopold Engel in 1895. Unlike the original Illuminati, a rationalist organization with liberal political views, Reuss’s Illuminati was an occult Masonic order working five degrees – the three ordinary Craft Masonry degrees, plus the degree of St Andrew and the Rosicrucian degree. It attracted a small amount of interest, and at one point had six lodges affiliated with it. He and Engel parted company in 1902 and Reuss, leaving the Illuminati name with Engel, obtained a charter for the Rite of Memphis and Misraim from John Yarker in Britain. This proved more successful than the Illuminati, and by 1903 his order had over a hundred members; for an irregular occult Masonic order at the time, this was respectably large. See Bavarian Illuminati; Rite of Memphis and Misraim; Rosicrucians.

The success of the Rite of Memphis and Misraim proved fleeting, though, as the members had little patience with Reuss’s demands for large sums of money. By 1906 Reuss was interested in a new project, the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), which would be the quasi-Masonic body he and Kellner had discussed years before. He found few takers before 1910, when he recruited Aleister Crowley. In 1912, in a move he would later richly regret, Reuss made Crowley head of the British branch of the order. Within a few years the two had fell out, and Reuss spent much of the First World War and the years immediately following it trying to undercut Crowley’s position, especially in America, where he gave an OTO charter to H. Spencer Lewis, later the founder of the American Rosicrucian order AMORC. See Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (AMORC); Crowley, Aleister; Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO).

Reuss spent most of the First World War in Switzerland, and moved back to Germany in 1921. Two years later, still in the midst of quarrels with Crowley, he died in Munich.


(Latin, “King God.”) According to recent speculative literature, the title held by a group of European aristocratic families allegedly descended from the family lines of the 24 High Priests of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, who took names from Jewish mythology corresponding to their ritual roles. In every generation, therefore, there was a Melchizedek, a Michael, a Gabriel, and so on. See Temple of Solomon. The Rex Deus priesthood allegedly operated two boarding schools in the Temple complex, one for boys and one for girls, and had the privilege of ceremonially deflowering the girls when they reached childbearing age.

The girls would then be married off to husbands, who would raise the children as their own; however, the children had to be returned to the temple boarding school on their seventh birthday to receive the priesthood’s training and presumably, if female, another helping of their genetic material as well. Jesus is claimed as the result of one such union, fathered by a priest with the ceremonial name of Gabriel. See Christian origins; Jesus of Nazareth.

According to the story, the Rex Deus families escaped the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 68 CE and survived as an underground family tradition, surfacing in the early Middle Ages as important families of European aristocracy; how a group of Jewish families achieved this feat at a time when other Jews were confined to ghettos and subject to harsh persecution is not clear. Several founders of the Knights Templar were allegedly members of Rex Deus families, and the same families played a crucial role in the origins of the Freemasons and a variety of other currently popular historical events. The Sinclair family of Scotland is inevitably cited as one of the Rex Deus families. See Freemasonry; Knights Templar; Sinclair family.

The extensive surviving documentation on the ancient Jewish priesthood, ranging from the Old Testament to the writings of the Roman historian Josephus, contains no trace of the supposed Rex Deus tradition, or for that matter of 24 High Priests in the Temple, and many of the claims made for the Rex Deus priesthood include drastic violations of Jewish religious law. The evidence for the existence of the Rex Deus families, on the other hand, consists of unsupported claims made to the co-author of a book on the subject after a lecture on Rosslyn Chapel. This has not prevented the story from being repeated as fact in a number of other books on the subject of Christian origins. See Rosslyn Chapel.

Further reading: Hopkins et al. 2000, Knight and Lomas 1997.


The rise of the Whiteboys movement in southern Ireland in the late eighteenth century inspired Irish farmers and laborers throughout the island to consider secret societies and violence as options in the bitter economic and sectarian struggles of the time. Sometime around 1800, small groups of Ulster Catholics began organizing secret bands to attack landlords and estate managers accused of unfair practices. Members of these bands tied a colored ribbon around one arm as a uniform of sorts, a habit that soon gave them their distinctive name. See Whiteboys.

The Ribbonmen never had a central organization, and local Ribbon groups each took names of their own, so any attempt at a history of the Ribbon movement is fragmentary at best. Their activities rose and fell with economic cycles and harvests; when times were good and the potato harvest large, relative peace prevailed, while economic slumps and poor harvests guaranteed an upsurge in Ribbon activities. Members came predominantly from the poorest classes, who had no farms of their own and supported themselves as hired laborers. Close to the edge of survival, deprived of political rights, and more often subject to abuses and extortionate rents than others, rural laborers turned to secret organizations and nocturnal violence as their only means of any sort of redress.

The Ribbonmen flourished in the half century before the catastrophic potato blight and famine of the 1850s. As starvation and emigration reduced the Irish population to a fifth of its pre-Famine levels, the vast majority of the rural laborer class died or left the country, and the Ribbon movement dissolved.

Further reading: Williams 1973.


For close to two centuries, if not longer, initiation into fraternal secret societies has been described throughout the English-speaking world as “riding the goat.” The exact origins of the phrase remain obscure, but the most plausible hypothesis is that it comes from antimasonic propaganda linking Masonic initiation to the goat-headed idol Baphomet allegedly worshipped by the Knights Templar. See Baphomet; Knights Templar.

If the phrase did have its roots in antimasonry, it was quickly adopted by Masons and members of other secret societies with a vengeance, and it soon spread from secret society circles to the general public. Thus a one-act farce from 1846, The Secrets of Odd Fellowship, has one character bring a saddle to his initiation; if he has to ride a goat, he tells the others, he plans to do it in a dignified manner. By 1902 goat references and goat jokes were universal enough that James Pettibone of Pettibone Co., one of the premier manufacturers of secret society regalia and equipment in North America, could write and publish a book entitled The Lodge Goat and Goat Rides: Butts and Goat Hairs, Gathered from the Lodge Rooms of every Fraternal Order, filled with raucous stories and cartoons involving goats in lodges, complete with an introduction by “Billy the Goat.”

The omnipresence of fraternal goat jokes made it inevitable that someone would attempt to stage an actual goat ride in a secret society initiation. The honor of the first such attempt belongs to the Modern Woodmen of America (MWA), a fraternal benefit society founded in the late nineteenth century. Faced with stiff competition from other benefit societies, the MWA’s Head Consul, William A. Northcott, began in 1890 to add practical jokes to the MWA’s initiation rituals. Mechanical goats were among the first and most popular additions to the ritual, and the company that manufactured them – DeMoulin Bros. & Co. of Greenville, Illinois, widely known as “the goat factory” – quickly became the premier supplier of “burlesque and side degree specialties” to the North American secret society market. See burlesque degrees; fraternal benefit societies.

The standard DeMoulin mechanical goat had a three-wheeled iron undercarriage, a body covered in wool, and a realistic head with curling horns. The rear axle had a zigzag in the middle connected to a push rod that moved the back end of the goat’s body up and down, guaranteeing a memorable ride. As the goat business expanded, DeMoulin brought in several other designs with names such as “A Low Down Buck” and “The Rollicking Mustang Goat,” rigged to deposit the rider on the lodge room floor in various ways.

Mechanical goats fell out of use in initiation rituals in the second half of the twentieth century, as customs changed and fear of lawsuits caused potentially risky elements to be eliminated by secret societies throughout the English-speaking world. The occasional DeMoulin goat, its undercarriage rusty and its woolen coat moth-eaten, turns up now and then in old lodge halls. To this day, however, candidates for initiation in American fraternal secret societies and college fraternities and sororities can expect to be teased by members about having to ride the goat. See Initiation.

Further reading: “A Member of the Order” 1846, Goldsmith 2004, Pettibone 1902.


A term borrowed into western occult jargon from Indian Tantrism, this phrase originally referred to those Tantric systems that maintain the rules of behavior standard in Indian yoga traditions, including celibacy, vegetarianism, and abstention from alcohol and intoxicating drugs. The schools of the left-hand path, by contrast, permit their students to engage in sexual intercourse and in the consumption of meat, alcohol, and drugs, often using these things as tools for attaining higher awareness. See left-hand path.

These terms came into use in western occultism by way of the Theosophical Society but underwent a change in meaning. In late nineteenth-and early twentieth-century occultism, as a result, the phrase “right-hand path” meant roughly the same thing as “white magic” – a magical system that was, or at least claimed to be, morally good. In the same way, “left-hand path” simply became a synonym for “black” or morally evil magic. Ironically, since most western magicians then and now have sex, eat meat, and indulge in the occasional alcoholic beverage (or other intoxicant), the vast majority of self-described occultists of the right-hand path would be considered practitioners of the left-hand path in India. See black magic; Theosophical Society; white magic.


One of the many systems on the fringes of regular Masonry that emerged in the nineteenth century, the Rite of Memphis was one of the most extensive, with no fewer than 95 degrees of initiation (plus an honorary 96th for its governing Grand Hierophant). According to the most widely accepted theory, it was originally founded by Samuel Honis, an expatriate Frenchman living in Egypt, in 1814. After the fall of Napoleon, Honis returned to France and brought his new rite with him, establishing one lodge, “Le Disciples de Memphis,” in Montauban in 1815. It went out of existence after a year, but in the interim one Gabriel-Mathieu Marconis de Negre had received the full set of degrees.

In 1838 the Rite surfaced again in Paris with Marconis’s son, Jacques-Etienne Marconis de Negre, as Grand Hierophant 96°. The younger Marconis had previously been a member of the Rite of Misraim, which boasted 90 degrees, but was expelled in 1833 and again (having joined in a different city under another name) in 1834. It has been suggested that the entire previous history of the Rite of Memphis, along with the Rite itself, was concocted by Marconis in the mid-1830s as an attempt to build a rival organization to the Rite of Misraim; conclusive evidence one way or the other is lacking, but such things happen frequently enough in the history of secret societies. See Rite of Misraim.

After the 1838 refounding (or founding) of the Rite, Marconis founded several lodges, but in 1841 the Rite was suppressed by the French police as a subversive secret society. To be fair, they had some justification; while Marconis seems to have been completely apolitical, the Rite of Memphis attracted attention from the radical left almost immediately it appeared, and many of its members belonged to the Philadelphes, one of the major revolutionary secret societies of the time. The suppression drove lodges underground rather than out of existence, and connections between the Rite and the Philadelphes spread during this time. See Philadelphes.

The revolution of 1848 brought a short-lived liberal regime into being in France, and Marconis was able to launch the Rite again under more favorable conditions. The next few years were the period of the Rite’s greatest expansion, as charters for Grand Lodges went to Egypt, Romania, and the United States. French expatriates in England founded a Philadelphe lodge under the Rite’s aegis in 1850. Napoleon Ill’s seizure of power in 1852 turned this latter lodge into a major center of political opposition and conspiracy against his regime. Despite the efforts of the Grand Lodge of England to suppress the Rite of Memphis, the Philadelphe Lodge remained active at least until the end of the 1870s, and played an important role in the foundation of the First International. See First International.

In France, however, the Rite fell on hard times during the Second Empire; old-fashioned political secret societies such as the Philadelphes seemed out of date in an age of mass political movements. In 1862 Marconis turned what was left of the organization in France over to the Grand Orient of France, which turned its few French members into regular Freemasons and took the Memphis degrees out of circulation. Several subsequent attempts to relaunch the Rite of Memphis in Europe attracted few takers, though a handful of lodges in France, Switzerland, and Germany still work the Rite. In the United States the Rite of Memphis is in the possession of the Grand College of Rites, an organization founded for the specific purpose of taking irregular degree systems out of circulation and keeping them there. Its major descendant is the Rite of Memphis and Misraim, created by John Yarker from the remnants of Marconis’s system and its most important rival. See Rite of Memphis and Misraim; Yarker, John.

Further reading: Drachkovitch 1966, Howe 1997.


The most extensive system of Masonic degrees ever worked, the Rite of Memphis and Misraim was the creation of John Yarker, the great promoter of fringe Masonic degrees and rites in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Yarker systematically gathered Masonic rites and high degrees from every available source, and the then-independent rites of Memphis and Misraim were among those that came into his hands. Both rites claimed ancient Egyptian origins, and both had a vast array of degrees – 90 in the Rite of Misraim, 95 in that of Memphis. Yarker hit on the scheme of combining the two, taking the best degrees from each to form the monumental 96-degree Rite of Memphis and Misraim, also called the Antient and Primitive Rite. See high degrees; Rite of Memphis; Rite of Misraim; Yarker, John.

Yarker’s Sovereign Sanctuary of the Rite of Memphis and Misraim was founded at his hometown of Manchester in 1872 and immediately began conferring charters and patents (certificates of initiation) far and wide. Yarker also produced a magazine for the rite, The Kneph, which published occult and Masonic articles. The sheer cumbersomeness of its 96 degrees of initiation limited the appeal of the new rite, but a number of significant figures in the European occult community acquired Rite of Memphis and Misraim credentials. The most important of these was Theodor Reuss (1855–1923), who used the Rite as the basis for a quasi-Masonic magical secret society of his own, the Ordo Templi Orientis. See Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO); Reuss, Theodor.

The Rite remained essentially Yarker’s during his lifetime. Shortly after his death in 1913 his Sovereign Sanctuary became the center of a tug of war between Theosophical leaders Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater, who wanted to annex it for Co-Masonry, and a group of Yarker loyalists backed by Aleister Crowley. The Theosophists were foiled, but the Rite passed into dormancy thereafter. It has since seen several revivals, but none of them have managed to attract more than a handful of followers. See Co-Masonry; Crowley, Aleister; Theosophical Society.


Yet another of the complex systems of higher degrees born on the fringes of Freemasonry in the nineteenth century, the Rite of Misraim (also spelled Mizraim) had 90 degrees of initiation, with three additional honorary degrees for its Secret Chiefs. Its origins are obscure and have been much debated among Masonic historians; the most common theory is that it was concocted in Milan in 1805, and arrived in France in 1814 or 1815, after the fall of Napoleon, with the three Bedarride brothers. It was almost immediately attacked by the Grand Orient (Grand Lodge) of France, which declared it an irregular rite in 1816, but it proved to have more staying power than some of its rivals and has remained active in France since that time. It established a presence in England in 1870; after a few years of quarrels between its members and the Ancient and Accepted Rite, which sought to maintain its status as the only system of high degrees in Britain, it became a minor fixture in the world of British fringe Masonry. See Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite (AASR); high degrees.

In the 1870s, the Rite of Misraim came under the control of John Yarker, the indefatigable promoter of fringe Masonic degrees in England, and in 1878 Yarker merged it with its rival Rite of Memphis to form the Rite of Memphis and Misraim. After Yarker’s death in 1913 it revived somewhat as an independent rite, mostly in France, but has attracted few followers. See Rite of Memphis; Rite of Memphis and Misraim; Yarker, John.


The first known Masonic body to work the degrees that later belonged to the Scottish Rite, the Rite of Perfection was organized in Paris in 1754 by the Chevalier de Bonneville. It met in the buildings of the College of Jesuits at Clermont, thus its alternate name, the College or Rite of Clermont. Its membership included many English and Scots Jacobites in exile in France, and it seems to have played a role in reorganizing the scattered and demoralized Jacobite movement after the failure of the Stuart rising of 1745. See Jacobites.

The Rite of Perfection worked 22 degrees beyond the Craft Masonry degrees of Entered Apprentice, Fellow Craft, and Master Mason. Its rituals included a great deal of occult material, including alchemy, Cabala and Rosicrucian traditions, but its central teaching – certainly influenced by Andrew Ramsay’s famous 1736 oration – was that Freemasonry descended from the medieval Knights Templar and that every Mason was therefore a Templar. This theory was adopted by the Rite’s successor, the Council of Emperors of the East and West, which absorbed the Rite of Perfection four years after its founding. See Freemasonry, origins of; Knights Templar; Ramsay, Andrew Michael.

During its short lifetime, the Rite of Perfection also played a role in launching another important eighteenth-century secret society. One of its early initiates was Baron Karl Gotthelf von Hund, who went on to found the Rite of Strict Observance, one of the most important magical orders in Germany and the source of most Templar Masonry in continental Europe. See Rite of Strict Observance.


One of the most important secret societies in Germany in the second half of the eighteenth century, the Rite of Strict Observance had its roots in the Templar Masonry invented by Jacobite exiles in France in the years just before the Stuart rebellion of 1745. Baron Karl Gotthelf von Hund, the founder and original head of the Rite, was initiated into Freemasonry in 1741 or 1742, and traveled to Paris in 1743, where he received the Templar degrees from the Earl of Kilmarnock, a Jacobite peer attached to the Stuart court in exile. See Jacobites; Knights Templar; Scottish degrees.

During his visit von Hund also received appointment as a Provincial Grand Master of the Templar degrees for Germany. He returned home to Saxony, and to all appearances spent the next 11 years doing nothing with the degrees and authority he had received. What exactly was going on during this period is anyone’s guess, for the Templar degrees remained secret until the 1750s. Their connection to Jacobite ambitions made that secrecy something more than a ritual requirement in Germany at the time, since the House of Hanover, England’s rulers since 1714 and the object of Jacobite hatreds, had close ties to many German principalities.

In 1754 von Hund went to Paris a second time. There he renewed his connections to the higher degrees by way of the Rite of Perfection, founded at the College of Clermont by the Chevalier de Bonneville that year as a public presence for the new Templar Masonry, and received new authority to promulgate the Rite in Germany. On his return to Germany, von Hund immediately launched his own organization, the Rite of Strict Observance, which took over the Templar claims of the Rite of Perfection but worked a simpler system of degrees. Masonic historians have argued that von Hund’s system of 7 degrees was based on 6 degrees worked by Jacobite Masons before the creation of the 22 degrees of the Rite of Perfection. Hund himself claimed that the Rite and its secrets had been entrusted to him by a circle of Unknown Superiors, and that Charles Edward Stuart, the “Young Pretender,” was its Grand Master. See Rite of Perfection; Unknown Superiors.

The Rite of Strict Observance was an immense success in Germany and other central European countries, supplanting most other Masonic systems in central Europe and expanding into Italy as well. Part of the Rite’s appeal lay in the lure of new and higher degrees, and part in the Templar mythology with its attraction to German aristocrats, but von Hund also claimed to offer more tangible benefits. He claimed to have access to the secret of the philosopher’s stone and the elixir of life, and many members of the Rite experimented with alchemy in the hope of preparing themselves for the final revelation that would enable them to turn lead into gold. Members of the Rite also searched for hidden Templar treasures and discussed the possibility of regaining Templar estates still held by the Knights of Malta. See Alchemy.

The Rite of Strict Observance faced competition from other would-be Templar Grand Masters. One of the most colorful was a man who went by the name of George Frederick Johnson, and proclaimed himself “Knight of the Great Lion of the High Order of the Lords of the Temple of Jerusalem.” His real name was Leucht, and he had a shady career behind him involving other pseudonyms and claims of magical power. Johnson claimed to have received Templar degrees higher than von Hund’s at a special conclave in Aberdeen, Scotland, the supposed headquarters of the Knights Templar since the fourteenth century. He surfaced in 1763 and managed to win enough of a following that von Hund at first treated him as an equal and arranged for an official meeting in 1764. When Johnson proved unable to produce any of the great secrets he claimed, von Hund denounced him as a trickster. Johnson was arrested in Magdeburg a year later for fraud, and von Hund’s friends there saw to it that the “Knight of the Great Lion” languished in prison until his death in 1775.

Less easily dismissed was Johann August Starck (1741–1816), an enthusiastic Mason who went to Paris in 1766 and returned with the degrees of a new, higher Templar system, the Clerks Templar, which claimed to be an inner order of Templar clergy in possession of secrets not revealed to ordinary Templar knights. Membership in this new order was limited to Roman Catholics who had received all the degrees of the Rite of Strict Observance. In 1768 von Hund and Starck agreed to a union of the two organizations, but this never became effective and in 1775 Starck withdrew his followers from the combined rite.

By that time the Rite of Strict Observance was in steep decline. Its Achilles’ heel was von Hund’s claim that his Unknown Superiors were prepared to pass on important secrets. The secrets never appeared, and hard questions began to be asked about whether the Unknown Superiors existed at all. At a congress of the Rite held at Brunswick in 1775, von Hund was challenged directly on the subject, and eventually was demoted to the position of Provincial Superior, with Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick taking his place at the head of the Rite. Throughout this process, von Hund refused to reveal any information about the Rite’s hidden chiefs, citing his own oath of secrecy, but his comments suggest that he was as disappointed as anyone at the failure of the Superiors to make good on their promises.

That disappointment may well not have been feigned. Contemporary writers describe von Hund as honest, enthusiastic, and credulous, and his career shows no other signs of duplicity or, for that matter, involvement in the Jacobite cause. His passion for Masonic rites seems to have landed him in the middle of intrigues whose political dimensions escaped him completely. The failure of the Jacobite cause to recover from the disaster at the battle of Culloden in 1746 explains the silence of the Unknown Superiors, since von Hund and his Rite alike had no further value to the exiled Stuart court once the hope of a restoration was past.

Hund died in 1776, still waiting for the Superiors to reveal the secrets they had promised him. The Rite continued to function for some years thereafter, though constant debates about the reality of the Unknown Superiors wracked the organization. In 1782 von Hund’s successor, Duke Ferdinand, called another congress of the Rite, the Convention of Wilhelmsbad, to settle the matter once and for all. After much debate, the Convention decided that von Hund’s claims of Templar connections were baseless, and replaced his higher degrees withthose of the Beneficent Chevaliers of the Holy City, a system created by the French Mason Jean-Baptiste Willermoz.

After the Convention a few initiates and lodges remained faithful to von Hund’s system, and charlatans found a market for claims of access to the Unknown Superiors for years thereafter. Those members of the Rite not yet disillusioned with secret societies returned to less exotic forms of Masonry or joined the Order of the Golden and Rosy Cross, the premier German Rosicrucian order of the time, which was just then entering its period of greatest popularity. See Order of the Golden and Rosy Cross; Rosicrucians.

Further reading: Partner 1981.


The largest religious organization in the world today, the Roman Catholic Church claims origins dating back to Peter, one of the companions of Jesus of Nazareth. In historical terms, it emerged over several centuries in the late Roman period and early Middle Ages, as the bishops of Rome gradually expanded their power over Christian churches in Europe and claimed authority over the formerly independent bishops of other cities. Modest distinctions in theology and practice set it apart from the older Eastern Orthodox churches, from which it broke away in the eleventh century. Much greater distinctions separate it from Gnostic Christianity, which it exterminated in a series of violent actions from the fourth to the thirteenth centuries, and from the Protestant sects that broke away from it in the sixteenth century. See Christian origins; Gnosticism; Jesus of Nazareth.

In theory, the Roman Catholic Church is a religious monarchy in which the Pope, the bishop of Rome, is elected for a life term and has nearly unlimited power as God’s representative on earth. In practice, the Pope presides over a loose federation of national churches and religious orders, each with its own traditions and prerogatives, and must depend on a sprawling medieval bureaucracy to carry out his decrees. The constant struggle to maintain the central authority of Rome in the face of powerful national and institutional constituencies makes up one of the driving forces of the Church’s history.

One repeated factor in this struggle has been the emergence of new religious orders not under the control of local bishops and archbishops, and thus directly answerable to the Pope. The Benedictine Order in the seventh century, the Knights Templar in the twelfth, the Jesuits in the sixteenth, and Opus Dei in the twentieth all filled this role. All but the last eventually developed their own institutional momentum and left the Pope’s direct control, each becoming another quasi-independent power bloc within the church; Opus Dei has not yet completed this process but odds are that by the twenty-second century or so it will have followed the same time-honored course. See Knights Templar; Opus Dei; Society of Jesus (Jesuits).

The clash between rhetoric and reality surrounding the personal powers of the Pope has not always been grasped by people outside the Roman Catholic Church, and this has helped feed a long history of conspiracy theories surrounding it and its activities. The involvement of Catholic priests in assassination plots against England’s Queen Elizabeth I and other Protestant monarchs in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries helped give these theories credibility in their early days, and the long and inglorious history of papal involvement in European politics up until the unification of Italy in the late nineteenth century did little to dispel such ideas. Another factor was the bitter culture of hostility that developed between the Roman Catholic hierarchy and the Freemasons from the early eighteenth century onwards. The Craft’s principles of religious tolerance and its long history of commitment to liberal social and political ideals, factors which gave it a profoundly positive reputation through much of the western world, were guaranteed to antagonize a church that remained wedded to a hard-line conservatism throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. See Freemasonry.

These and other factors sparked a conviction that the Catholic Church was, in effect, a secret society plotting world domination. This belief became extremely widespread among Protestants in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and it played a large role in launching a series of anti-Catholic secret societies, including the Loyal Orange Order in Ireland and the Know-Nothings, American Protective Association, and Ku Klux Klan in the United States. See American Protective Association; Know-Nothing Party; Ku Klux Klan; Loyal Orange Order.

The explosive spread of alternative versions of Christianity and Christian origins in the second half of the twentieth century, as part of the movement of rejected knowledge from the fringes to the cultural mainstream, has added new wrinkles to this old theme. Many of the current alternative theories about Christianity’s origins and history argue that the Roman Catholic Church has deliberately suppressed evidence supporting their claims. Much of this is simply an attempt to bolster a weak case with arguments that cannot be easily disproved; when specific charges have been made – for example, the claim that the Dead Sea Scrolls were being suppressed by order of the Vatican – the facts, when they came out, showed otherwise. None of this is likely to prevent conspiracy theories about the Roman Catholic Church from being recycled in the rejected-knowledge scene for many years to come. See Dead Sea Scrolls; rejected knowledge.


Legendary German mystic and founder of the Rosicrucians, 1378–1484. According to the Fama Fraternitatis, the first of the Rosicrucian manifestoes, Rosenkreutz was born to an impoverished family of German nobility and placed in a monastery at the age of five. While still in his teens, he embarked on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the company of an older monk. His guide died on the island of Cyprus, but Rosenkreutz went on to Damascus, where he learned about the wise men of the city of Damear (modern Dhamar) in Yemen. He traveled there with a group of Arabs and stayed for three years, studying medicine and mathematics. He then traveled by way of Egypt to the city of Fez in Morocco, where he spent two more years studying magic and the Cabala. At the end of these journeys he returned to Europe, hoping to teach what he had learned, but European scholars dismissed his discoveries and mocked him. He returned to his old monastery in Germany and there founded the Rosicrucian society. He spent the rest of his life at the secret headquarters of the society, the College of the Holy Spirit, and was buried there in a concealed vault after his death. See Cabala; Damear; Magic; Rosicrucians. Numerous attempts have been made over the last few centuries to claim that Rosenkreutz was a historical figure, or to identify him with various historical figures. Many occultists during the “Theosophical century” from 1875 to 1975 believed that he had been a previous incarnation of the Comte de Saint-Germain, while more recent writers have tried to identify him with the German occultist and physician Paracelsus or the Polish alchemist Michael Sendivogius. Most historians of the Rosicrucian movement, by contrast, point to the many similarities between Rosenkreutz’s biography and other allegorical tales of the time, and suggest that the life of Christian Rosenkreutz (“the Christian of the Rosy Cross”) is best understood as a symbolic narrative of the sort that were so abundant in alchemical and occult writings of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. See Alchemy; Allegory; Saint-Germain, Comte de.


One of the many American Rosicrucian orders of the early twentieth century, the Rosicrucian Fellowship was founded in 1907 by Max Heindel (Carl Louis Grashof), a Danish astrologer and occultist who studied with Rudolf Steiner in Germany before emigrating to America. The Fellowship was originally headquartered in Columbus, Ohio, but Heindel moved operations to Oceanside, California after a visionary experience in 1910. Like most American esoteric societies of its time, the Fellowship used the successful correspondence-course model for recruiting and training members, while reserving initiation for those who had completed the introductory training by mail. See Anthroposophical Society.

The Fellowship also paralleled other Rosicrucian orders of the time by claiming a link to the medieval Rosicrucians. Heindel wrote that the material in his most important book, The Rosicrucian Cosmo-Conception, was given to him while traveling in Europe in 1907 in a Rosicrucian temple on the border between Germany and Bohemia. The result was a long and exceptionally complex work of occult cosmology noticeably inspired by Rudolf Steiner’s works and Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine, though somewhat less obscure than either. These claims brought Heindel and the Fellowship in for occasional attacks in the crossfire between two other American Rosicrucian orders of the early twentieth century, H. Spencer Lewis’s Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (AMORC) and R. Swinburne Clymer’s Fraternitas Rosae Crucis, though Heindel behaved in a noticeably more dignified fashion than either of his assailants. See Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (AMORC); Fraternitas Rosae Crucis (FRC); Theosophical Society.

The Fellowship currently defines itself as “an international association of Christian mystics.” Its correspondence school remains in operation, and it also runs a publishing house and keeps several of Heindel’s books in print. Students who have been enrolled in the Fellowship for at least two years, have given up meat, tobacco, drugs, and alcohol, and are willing to renounce all other religious and occult societies except for Christian churches and fraternal lodges, are eligible to apply for the grade of Probationer and begin studies of the Fellowship’s inner teachings. It remains a quiet but active presence in the American occult community at present.

Further reading: Heindel 1909.


A minor occult secret society in the early twentieth-century British scene, the ROCF was the brainchild of George Alexander Sullivan, a music hall actor turned occultist. Sullivan made his first attempt to launch an occult secret society in 1911, but the Order of the Twelve, as it was called, went under early in the First World War due to travel restrictions. In 1920 he tried again, and the ROCF was the result.

Sullivan had chosen a good moment to launch a Rosicrucian order; a similar organization within the Theosophical Society, the Order of the Temple of the Rose Cross, collapsed around 1918 as Theosophical leader Annie Besant turned her attention to the Order of the Star in the East, her attempt to manufacture a messiah cult around the young Jiddu Krishnamurti. Many former members of the older order, including Besant’s daughter Mabel Besant-Scott, joined Sullivan’s new organization shortly after its launching, providing the funds and volunteer labor needed to make the ROCF a modest success in the occult market of the time. See Order of the Star in the East; Theosophical Society.

Those used to the colorful antics of the Theosophical leadership after Helena Blavatsky’s death must have found Sullivan congenial. He took the magical name Aureolis, announced that he was none other than the immortal Comte de Saint-Germain, and proceeded to launch one of the twentieth century’s more ambitious projects for an occult society, complete with its own college, the Academia Rosae Crucis, and a theatrical troupe, the Theatricum. See Saint-Germain, Comte de.

It must be admitted that Sullivan’s reach often exceeded his grasp; he loved Latin phrases but knew little of the language, and went by the grand but ungrammatical title of Magi Supremus; he also claimed to have written all the plays attributed to Shakespeare while living in Elizabethan England under the name of Francis Bacon, and went on to write a series of new “Shakespearian” plays of uniformly dreadful quality for his theatre troupe. His claims of immortality proved to be equally overstated, as his death in 1942 proved, and the ROCF quietly disbanded not long afterward.

The ROCF had little impact on the occult community of its time, and would be utterly forgotten now except for the later career of one of its members, a wealthy retiree named Gerald Gardner, who had returned to England after spending many years in Britain’s colonies in the East Indies. In the 1950s and 1960s, Gardner claimed that he had been associated with the ROCF’s theatre troupe, which he called the “First Rosicrucian Theatre in England.” During his time with the Theatricum, he said, he had encountered an inner circle of members who initiated him into an ancient Pagan religion that had survived in secret in the New Forest area – Wicca. See Wicca.


No single topic in the history of secret societies in the western world is as rich with confusion, disinformation, and wild inaccuracies as the origins and history of the Rosicrucian movement. The most common assumption about the Rosicrucians – that they are a single secret organization, active for the last 400 years if not longer – is also the most inaccurate. Since the first references to Rosicrucians appeared in print in Germany in 1614, scores of unrelated secret societies have made use of the symbol of the Rose Cross – the emblem of the movement and the source of its name, from Latin rosa, rose, and crux, cross – each claiming to be the one original Rosicrucian order, and producing disinformation to support its claims. In such a thicket of claims and counterclaims, it’s necessary to step carefully. See Disinformation.

The established facts relating to the origin of the Rosicrucians are these. In 1614 the printer Wilhelm Wessel in Cassel, Germany, brought out a booklet with the lively title Universal and General Reformation of the Whole Wide World; together with the Fama Fraternitatis of the Praiseworthy Fraternity of the Rosy Cross, written to all the Learned and Rulers of Europe; also a short reply sent by Herr Haselmayer, for which he was seized by the Jesuits and condemned to a galley; now put into print and communicated to all true hearts. The first part of the booklet, the Universal and General Reformation, was a pirated German translation of one dialogue from News from Parnassus (1612) by the Italian author Traiano Boccalini, a raucous satire in which the god Apollo calls together a council of wise men to fix the world, listens to their preposterous proposals, and finally passes laws regulating the price of market vegetables, whereupon everyone goes home rejoicing.

The second part, the Fama Fraternitatis or “Report of the Fraternity,” proclaimed the existence of a secret society, the Fraternity of the Rosy Cross. According to the Fama, this society had been founded in the fifteenth century by a Catholic monk of noble birth, whose name is given only as C.R.C. In his youth, C.R.C. traveled to the cities of Damear in Yemen and Fez in Morocco, and there was initiated into the magical secrets of nature. Returning to Europe, he found his learning rejected by most, but founded the Fraternity of the Rosy Cross to pass on the secrets he had learned. He died in 1484, and in 1604 members of the Fraternity had rediscovered the marvelous underground vault where he had been buried, surrounded by secret books and mechanical marvels. The Fraternity therefore called on interested parties to contact them and apply for membership. The third part of the booklet, the letter from Adam Haselmayer, was just such an attempt to contact that Fraternity; its reference to the brothers of the Rose Cross as “undeceiving Jesuits” accounted for the Jesuits’ annoyance with the author. See Damear; Society of Jesus (Jesuits).

Within months of the booklet’s publication, its account of the Fraternity of the Rose Cross had ignited a continent-wide furor. Books and pamphlets poured from European presses in a torrent; conservatives attacked the mysterious society, Hermeticists defended it, skeptics doubted its existence. In 1615, while the furor was at its height, a second booklet appeared from the same press, A Short Consideration of the More Secret Philosophy, written by Philip à Gabella, student of Philosophy, now published for the first time together with the Confession of the R.C. Fraternity.

The Short Consideration was an essay on occultism based on the Monas Hieroglyphica, the most baffling of the writings of the great Elizabethan wizard John Dee; the Confession was a second manifesto from the mysterious Fraternity, assailing the Roman Catholic Church and making veiled promises of an approaching “reformation of the whole wide world” that had religious and political dimensions. In 1616, with the furor still in full swing, a new volume, The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz in the year 1549, came from the print shop of Lazarus Zetzner in Strasbourg. Rather than a third manifesto, this was a baffling allegorical story full of alchemical symbolism. See Alchemy.

All three of these publications appeared anonymously. The third was apparently the first one written, and its author was Johann Valentin Andreae. He wrote it in 1605 while he was a student at Tübingen University and a member of a circle of Christian alchemists and students of occultism centered on Tobias Hess and Christoph Besold, two noted alchemists of the time. In later life a sober Lutheran pastor and theologian, Andreae did his best to distance himself from his college days, but he admitted in his autobiography that the Chemical Wedding was his work, though it was published against his wishes. The other two publications had more complex origins; they were written between 1606 and 1610 by one or more members of the Tübingen circle, and circulated in manuscript before their first printing. Andreae probably had a hand in them, but a comment in one of his writings lets slip the fact that Tobias Hess was also involved. They may well have been written jointly by a group of authors, a common practice at that time.

Four centuries of speculation have gone into the question of why they were written, but the Fama, at least, can be understood by the company it originally kept. A grand scheme of social reform, it was originally printed alongside a raucous satire on grand schemes of social reform. It’s hard to avoid the implication that the Fama was originally an erudite joke, of the sort Renaissance scholars delighted in making. If this is true, it counts as the most influential college prank of all time.

Yet the joke turned serious as hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people across Europe tried to make contact with the mysterious Fraternity. The Adam Haselmayer whose letter and dire fate at the hands of the Jesuits made up the third section of the Fama’s original publication was no invention of the Tübingen circle; he was a widely respected physician, a student of the writings of the German mystic and healer Paracelsus (1493–1541), who obtained a manuscript copy of the Fama in 1611, published an answer to it in 1612, and served a term of five years as a galley slave because of his incautious remarks. He was not the only figure of the time to get into trouble because of the Rosicrucians; the great French philosopher René Descartes at one point in his career had to combat rumors that he was a secret Rosicrucian.

Many of those who embraced the emblem of the Rose Cross had backgrounds similar to Haselmayer’s: deeply involved in alchemy, Cabala, or other branches of the occult traditions of the Renaissance. Around the manifestos emerged a lively tradition of Christian Hermeticism in which alchemy, esoteric philosophy, and Protestant mysticism blended seamlessly. Major figures in the occult scene of the time, including the German alchemist Michael Maier (1568–1622) and the English polymath Robert Fludd (1574–1637), published extensive books about the Rosicrucians. Interestingly, these two authors loudly insisted that they themselves were not Rosicrucians, but offered detailed information about the teachings and organizations of the mysterious Fraternity. Whether or not they were in on the original joke, they seem to have recognized its multiple ironies and put it to good use as a way to communicate the teachings of Renaissance occultism to a new age. See Cabala; Hermeticism.

At the same time, others made use of the same symbolism in the interests of political conspiracy. While Andreae was at Tübingen, Frederick V, Prince Palatine of the Rhine, stood at the center of a web of intrigue directed against the Catholic House of Habsburg, which then held the throne of the Holy Roman Empire. Rudolf II, king of Bohemia as well as emperor, had been forced off the throne in 1611, and his successor Matthias died eight years later. Frederick, the leading Protestant ruler in Germany, was positioning himself as the logical candidate for Bohemia’s crown, a move that might have brought the Imperial crown itself within reach. Frances Yates, one of the premier historians of the Rosicrucian movement, has argued that Frederick’s supporters were involved in propagating Rosicrucian documents, particularly the Confessio, and that the “reformation of the whole wide world” portrayed by the manifestoes was propaganda for Frederick’s party.

In the end, if this was the political reality behind the Rosicrucian movement, the scheme failed disastrously. Frederick took the Bohemian throne in 1619 but was driven out by Catholic armies after the Battle of White Mountain a year later. Frederick fled to lifelong exile in Holland, and Germany plunged into the nightmare of the Thirty Years War. A handful of occult authors in Britain and a few other countries continued to produce Rosicrucian books into the middle years of the seventeenth century; Robert Fludd, Thomas Vaughan, and the master plagiarist of Jacobean British occultism John Heydon all contributed to the literature of the Rose Cross. They may have represented the last flicker of the original movement; with the coming of the scientific revolution and the hardening of attitudes against occultism, the age of the Renaissance magus had come to an end.

It took more than a century for the mythology of the Rose Cross to be pulled out of the ashes of its early seventeenth-century setting and take shape as a secret society, and this happened only because another secret society found its symbolism useful and appealing. From the beginning, the Scottish degrees of Freemasonry contained Rosicrucian elements. These degrees appeared in France in the 1740s and 1750s, and evidence suggests they were created by the Jacobites, supporters of the deposed House of Stuart, to counter the influence of mainstream British Freemasonry and further Stuart bids to regain the British throne. The Stuarts had long been involved in Renaissance traditions of courtly magic, and this may have suggested the Rosicrucian movement as a suitable subject for higher degrees. Rosicrucian degrees that entered Freemasonry by this route include the 2° of the Royal Order of Scotland, the 18° of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite, and several others. See Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite; Freemasonry; Jacobites; Royal Order of Scotland; Scottish degrees.

A different process launched the first solidly documented Rosicrucian order in Germany. The first Masonic lodges were established in Germany in the 1730s, and quickly became popular among Germans interested in mysteries and the occult. Since Freemasonry had little to offer aspiring occultists, the plan of establishing higher grades based on occult symbolism readily presented itself, and the symbolism of the Rose Cross offered an obvious starting point. The result was the Order of the Golden and Rosy Cross (Orden des Gold- und Rosenkreuz), which was founded in the 1750s by the occultist Hermann Fichtuld and spread throughout Germany and Austria in the second half of the eighteenth century, counting King Frederick William II of Prussia among its members. See Order of the Golden and Rosy Cross.

Despite the use of the Rosicrucian name and symbol, the legend of the Fama played very little role in this eighteenth-century Rosicrucianism; Christian Rosenkreutz and the mysterious vault received much less attention than claims of an Egyptian origin and attempts to graft the Rosicrucians onto the Templar myth of high-grade Freemasonry. Thus the Order of the Golden and Rosy Cross claimed that it was founded in 96 CE by Ormus, an Egyptian magus who had converted to Christianity, and reached Europe with returning Knights Templar in 1188. Membership was restricted to Master Masons. The order’s training program included a great deal of material on alchemy, and members studied classic alchemical works by Basil Valentine, Arnald de Villanova, and Raymond Lully. See Knights Templar; Ormus; Rosenkreutz, Christian.

The Order of the Golden and Rosy Cross ceased to exist sometime after 1800, and the Rosicrucian Masonic degrees had been absorbed into the busy subculture of high-degree Masonry by the same time, but the dream of hidden philosopher-mages under the banner of the Rose Cross had enough momentum to attract new recruits in a steady stream. Rosicrucian mysteries were a constant topic of talk in nineteenth-century occult circles, and the most influential occult novel of the century, Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Zanoni (1842) was subtitled A Rosicrucian Tale; by the mid-nineteenth century it becomes meaningful to talk of a Rosicrucian movement and a specifically Rosicrucian current of occult study and practice.

Not long after 1850 the first large semi-public Rosicrucian orders began appearing in the western world. The first appears to have been the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia (Rosicrucian Society in England), founded in 1866 by Freemason Robert Wentworth Little. Other major presences in late nineteenth-century Rosicrucianism include the Kabbalistic Order of the Rose+Cross, founded in Paris in 1888, and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, founded in London the year before. See Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn; Kabbalistic Order of the Rose+ Cross; Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia (SRIA).

Yet it was in America that this later Rosicrucian movement reached its full flowering. The Rosicrucian presence in America dates back to colonial times, when German Rosicrucian sects crossed the ocean to find religious tolerance in the wilderness of Pennsylvania. The first of these, calling itself “The Woman in the Wilderness” after a passage from the Book of Revelation, arrived in 1694 and built a commune on the banks of the Wissahickon River near modern Germantown. Another, the Ephrata commune, flourished between 1735 and 1765 in Lancaster County. Both of these contributed much to American folk magic, enriching local occult lore with German sorcery, but the Rosicrucian seed they tried to plant on American soil remained dormant until nearly a century later.

The real founder of the Rosicrucian movement in America was the extraordinary Paschal Beverly Randolph (1825–75), an African-American occultist who taught a system of sexual magic and the use of magic mirrors for scrying. He claimed to be a Rosicrucian, though, as he admitted in one of his books, “Very nearly all that I have given as Rosicrucianism originated in my soul; and scarce a single thought, only suggestions, have I borrowed from those who, in ages past, have called themselves by that name” (quoted in McIntosh 1997, p. 121). Brilliant but troubled, Randolph created and then dissolved a series of Rosicrucian secret societies in America, the fragments of which were gathered up in the early twentieth century by the American Rosicrucian R. Swinburne Clymer (1878–1966) as the basis for his own Rosicrucian order, the Fraternitas Rosae Crucis. See Fraternitas Rosae Crucis (FRC); Randolph, Paschal Beverly.

Clymer’s was far from the only Rosicrucian body active in America in the first decades of the twentieth century. Its great rival, the Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (AMORC), was founded by H. Spencer Lewis (1883–1939) in 1925, though in the time-honored secret society fashion Lewis backdated his own initiation to the end of the nineteenth century and his order to ancient Egypt. AMORC rapidly became the largest of the American Rosicrucian orders, and Clymer and Lewis spent most of the 1920s and 1930s carrying on a vitriolic public feud, with each loudly challenging the other’s claims to Rosicrucian lineage and accusing the other of practicing sex magic – a charge that probably had merit in both cases, since the Rosicrucian lineages of both men derived from P.B. Randolph, Clymer’s via Randolph’s American students and Lewis’s via the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor and Ordo Templi Orientis. See Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (AMORC); Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor (H.B. of L.); Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO).

Nor were these the only players in the crowded field of American Rosicrucian societies. Max Heindel (Carl Louis Grashof), a Danish astrologer and occultist, founded the Rosicrucian Fellowship in Columbus, Ohio in 1907, but relocated it to Oceanside, California in 1910, where it remains quietly active to this day. A split in the American branch of the SRIA in 1907 saw the founding of a rival group, the Societas Rosicruciana in America (also SRIA), which cut itself loose from its Masonic apron strings and became a major presence in American occult circles; it also remains active in a small way today. See Rosicrucian Fellowship; Societas Rosicruciana in America (SRIA).

Another Rosicrucian order of the early twentieth century had a minor impact in its time but may have played a key role in launching one of the major religious movements of the last years of that century. In 1912 Annie Besant, then head of the Theosophical Society and an ardent Co-Mason, launched a Roscrucian organization within Theosophy, called the Order of the Temple of the Rosy Cross. Never a large organization, it folded around 1918. Many of its members in Britain joined a new society, the Rosicrucian Order of the Crotona Fellowship (ROCF), founded by British actor and occultist George Alexander Sullivan in 1920. The ROCF in turn went out of existence in the 1940s, but in the meantime it sponsored a theatrical group in the New Forest area of England. It was in this group, according to his later claims, that Gerald Gardner met the people who first initiated him into Wicca. See Rosicrucian Order of the Crotona Fellowship (ROCF); Theosophical Society; Wicca.

The orders just mentioned are only a few of the Rosicrucian orders and Rosicrucian degrees within broader organizations in the western world today, and doubtless a new crop of secret societies will spring up under the Rosicrucian banner during the twenty-first century as well. Ironically, the popularity of the Rosicrucian name and its associated imagery has been gained at the cost of nearly everything distinctive about the tradition behind it. Cut loose from the Christian Hermeticism that guided the Fama’s authors and inspired its original audience, the movement has broadened until it is impossible to distinguish it from western occultism itself.

Further reading: Churton 2005, McIntosh 1997, Yates 1972.


Located in the village of Roslin, just south of Edinburgh, Rosslyn Chapel is the sole completed portion of a large church commissioned by William Sinclair, Earl of Orkney. Construction began in 1446 and came to a halt after William’s death in 1484. Only the crypt, the choir, and the eastern walls of the transepts were finished, though a baptistery was added to the west end in the nineteenth century. The finest example of late Gothic architecture in Scotland, the chapel features lavish interior carvings of the sort found in many French and English Gothic cathedrals. See Sinclair family.

Until the early 1980s, Rosslyn Chapel was of interest only to art historians and tourists, but the publication of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail in 1982 linked it firmly in the popular imagination with the Knights Templar, the Priory of Sion, and alternative accounts of Christian origins. Since then it has featured in a torrent of books, media documentaries, and websites, and become the focus of a bumper crop of inaccuracies. Despite widely circulated claims, for example, the design of Rosslyn Chapel is no more based on the Temple of Solomon than any other Gothic church, nor is it free of Christian symbolism – a Madonna and child, crosses, and several saints may be found there. See Christian origins; Freemasonry; Knights Templar; Priory of Sion.

One possibly less specious claim about Rosslyn Chapel is the claim that its carvings show New World plants such as maize. William Sinclair was the last of three members of his family to hold the title of Earl of Orkney, and the second Sinclair earl, Henry Sinclair, may have been involved in a voyage to the New World in 1398. The earldom of Orkney had a huge stake in the north Atlantic fisheries, as well as luxury goods such as sealskins and walrus ivory; the Sinclair voyage of 1398 thus made economic sense, and the presence of depictions of maize in the chapel might have been a reflection of a successful voyage that was not followed up for more than a century. See America, discovery of.

Further reading: Stevenson 1988.


The first of the higher degrees added to Freemasonry in the eighteenth century, the Royal Arch was probably of French origin but first surfaced in England sometime before 1744, when the first references appear to it in English Masonic writings. By that year Royal Arch lodges (not yet called chapters, as Royal Arch bodies were later termed) already existed in York and London, and possibly also in Dublin. No one has yet been able to determine who invented it. Andrew Michael Ramsay, an influential Mason in Jacobite circles in France, has been proposed as a candidate but no evidence has been found to confirm this. See Freemasonry; high degrees; Ramsay, Andrew Michael.

The Royal Arch in its early years was associated with the Antient side of the Antient–Modern schism that split British Masonry down the middle in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Records of the Antient Grand Lodge in London show that the Royal Arch degree was in use among the Antients when it was still unheard of among English Moderns. In America, where the differences between the two sides were smaller, Antient and Modern grand lodges adopted the Royal Arch with equal enthusiasm, and once the split was healed in 1813 the Royal Arch became a standard element of Masonry throughout the English-speaking world. See Antient–Modern schism.

For nearly a century after the degree’s appearance, Masons debated where to fit it into the structure of the Craft, and different countries and Masonic rites put it in different places. In England, the Royal Arch is considered the completion of the Master Mason degree, and is under the authority of the United Grand Lodge of England. In Scotland and America, it has become the most important degree of a separate organization, the Royal Arch Chapter, which has its own national and (in North America) state and provincial grand bodies, and also confers several other degrees. In America, the Royal Arch Chapter is one of the four independent bodies that constitute the York Rite. See York Rite.

In France and other European countries, by contrast, it was incorporated into larger rites as one degree among many, and when these rites traveled they took their own forms of the Royal Arch with them. Thus, for example, the Royal Arch of Solomon, 13° of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite, and the Grand Royal Arch, 31° of the Rite of Misraim, are essentially the same as the Holy Royal Arch worked in Chapters affiliated with the United Grand Lodge of England or the Grand Royal Arch Chapters of Scotland and the United States. Versions of the Royal Arch were also adopted into the Loyal Orange Order and several other secret societies. See Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite (AASR); Loyal Orange Order; Rite of Misraim.

Whereas the legend of the Master Mason degree deals with the loss of the Master’s Word, that of the Royal Arch deals with its recovery. Three workmen, according to the legend, found an underground chamber while clearing away ruins, descended into it, and found an object marked with the true Master’s Word. Curiously, different versions of the ritual put this event in different historical settings. The Scottish Rite version just mentioned, for example, places it in the time of King Solomon, not long after the death of Hiram Abiff, while the version worked in Royal Arch Chapters sets it during the rebuilding of the Temple after the Jews’ Babylonian captivity. In reality, of course, the legends of this and all other Masonic degrees are symbolism, not history. See Hiram Abiff; origin stories.

The traditional color of the Royal Arch is red, contrasting with the blue of Craft Masonry (the “blue lodge”). Its emblem is the Triple Tau, a symbol formed of three capital Ts joined at the base, within a triangle.


Among the oldest Masonic high degrees, the Royal Order of Scotland first surfaced in 1750, when a Provincial Grand Lodge of that order was founded at The Hague. A few years later the Provincial Grand Lodge moved to Edinburgh and became the Grand Lodge of the order, which it has remained to this day. Several eighteenth-century Masonic historians claimed that the order had previously appeared in England in 1741 or 1743, though evidence to support this claim has yet to surface. In either case, the date of its first appearance and the presence of the Knights Templar in its origin story suggest a Jacobite source. See high degrees; Jacobites.

The Order’s own origin story is far more romantic. According to this account it was founded in 1314 after Robert Bruce, King of Scotland, defeated an immense English army at the battle of Bannockburn. Assisting the Scots army was a group of Knights Templar who had fled to Scotland to escape the destruction of their order by Philip IV of France. As a reward for their valor, Bruce conferred on them the title of Royal Order of Scotland. Versions of this same origin story are repeated by most of the other Masonic bodies that claim a Scottish origin. See origin stories; Scottish degrees.

It probably needs to be said that there is not a scrap of evidence supporting this story. Still, Bruce is traditionally considered to have been the first Grand Master of the order. To this day the King of Scots – since 1603, a title held by the British royal house – is considered to be the hereditary Grand Master of the order, and a vacant chair is left for him next to the presiding officer at each meeting.

The Royal Order confers two degrees, the degree of Heredom of Kilwinning and the degree of the Rosy Cross. Membership is by invitation only, and is restricted to Christian Freemasons who believe in the Trinity, have been Master Masons for at least five years, and are either 32° Scottish Rite Masons or members of the York Rite Knight Templar degrees. Originally limited to Scotland, the Royal Order established a Provincial Grand Lodge for England in London in 1872, and one for the United States in Washington, DC in 1878.


The world’s oldest and most prestigious scientific society, the Royal Society emerged out of the underworld of English occult secret societies in the early seventeenth century. By 1645, if not earlier, small groups of English scholars, alchemists, and natural scientists had begun meeting in private homes in and near London to discuss their work. They called themselves the “Invisible College,” a term made famous earlier in the same century by the Rosicrucian manifestoes. The Rosicrucian ideal of a secret brotherhood devoted to gathering and distributing knowledge, as well as Francis Bacon’s projects for a renovation of natural science, played important roles in inspiring the Invisible College and its work. See Bacon, Francis; Rosicrucians.

After the Restoration of 1660 put Charles II back on the British throne, the Invisible College came out of the shadows. Sir Robert Moray, a Freemason and Hermeticist who became one of the Society’s founding members, played a central role in establishing it as a public body and seeking the new king’s patronage for the organization. In 1662 his efforts were rewarded by a royal charter establishing the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge. The Society has continued to meet regularly since that time, and still plays an important role in the diffusion of scientific knowledge through its publications and meetings.


The victory of the Bolshevik party in the Russian revolution of 1917 marks one of the great watersheds in the history of conspiracy theories. While the triumph of communism proved to be transitory, the 72-year lifespan of the Soviet Union played a central role in transforming modern conspiracy theory from the concern of a small fringe to a significant force in the cultural politics of the western world.

The Russian revolution, like the French Revolution before it, unfolded from the collision between the global ambitions of the country’s rulers, the Tsars of the Romanov dynasty, and the corrupt and antiquated feudal system they relied on to support their regime. A previous revolution in 1905, following Russia’s disastrous defeat in a war with Japan, led to the creation of an elected legislature, the Duma. After legal changes carried out by the Prime Minister, Pyotr Stolypin, in 1907, though, the Duma was almost entirely elected by the aristocracy and the Tsar’s court. The extravagance of the court combined with an archaic fiscal system that exempted the aristocracy from most taxes and misguided agricultural and economic policies to hamstring the Russian economy, and in the aftermath of 1905 the peasants and urban working classes clamored for reforms that would give them economic security and a voice in government. These factors made the Tsarist regime far weaker than it appeared.

This became suddenly apparent in the autumn of 1914, when Russia declared war on Austria and Germany in the opening stages of the First World War. In September of that year, the Germans dealt the Tsarist armies the first of a series of devastating defeats, and in the spring of 1915 German and Austrian armies launched a major offensive that drove hundreds of miles into the Russian Empire. In response, Tsar Nicholas II took command of the troops in the field, leaving the government to the Tsarina Alexandra and a coterie of reactionaries whose policies worsened the crisis. By 1916 the Russian army was disintegrating, the economy had collapsed, and even the conservative parties in the Duma were calling for immediate political change.

On February 22, 1917, workers at a metalworking plant in the imperial capital of St Petersburg went on strike against the government. Over the next few days, strikes, street protests, and riots brought St Petersburg to a standstill. Army units called to quell the disturbances refused to act or joined the insurgents, and by February 28 the city was in rebel hands. As news of the rising spread, other cities rose in revolt, and mutiny spread among the armed forces. On March 2 Nicholas II abdicated and the Russian Empire came to an end.

A provisional government was formed by moderate leaders of the Duma, headed first by Georgii Lvov and later by Aleksandr Kerensky. It concentrated on restoring order and bringing the military situation under control, instead of negotiating peace and pursuing the fundamental reforms demanded by the urban working classes and peasants. A popular rising against the provisional government in July, and an attempted military coup by Gen. Lavr Kornilov in August were both barely thwarted. Meanwhile the economic situation worsened steadily and the Germans dealt the Russian army another devastating defeat. The Bolsheviks, the radical socialist party headed by Vladimir I. Lenin, seized their opportunity in late October, staging a coup against the provisional government.

The new Bolshevik regime immediately negotiated a truce with Germany and Austria. It faced civil war at home, however, as conservative forces rallied against it. From the end of 1917 to the summer of 1920, the “Red” Bolshevik government struggled for survival against a diffuse but powerful “White” opposition, supported by troops from Britain, France, the United States, and several other countries. Despite all odds, the new Soviet regime survived, and by the end of 1920 it had taken control of most of the pre-war Russian Empire.

The victory of Communist Party forces in Russia caused an immense shock to public opinion elsewhere in the world. The communist movement had been dismissed by most observers in the industrial world as a fringe group of the far left with no hope of achieving power, and very few people outside Russia before the revolution understood the catastrophic weaknesses behind the Tsarist regime’s outward façade of strength. The sudden collapse of imperial Russia played a large part in fostering conspiracy theories throughout the world, particularly in Germany, Britain, and the United States, where many people on the political left openly welcomed the Russian revolution and spoke of the possibility of similar events at home. In response, government repression of left-wing political groups in many countries increased sharply, and conspiracy theories claiming that every left-of-center organization in the world was directed from Moscow became common. For the rest of the twentieth century, the Bolsheviks formed the model on which most conservatives – and from the 1970s on, many radicals and liberals – formed their own ideas of conspiracy. See John Birch Society; New World Order.

Further reading: Schapiro 1984, Wilson 1972.