A Satanist magical order founded by Michael Aquino in 1975, the Temple of Set began as a schism from Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan, driven by disagreements between Aquino and LaVey about LaVey’s penchant for putting showmanship ahead of serious Satanism. From the time of its foundation, the Temple of Set has pursued an intellectually rigorous system of Satanic spirituality and magical practice. See Church of Satan; Satanism.

The Temple’s public documents distinguish between nature-worshipping religions, which include nearly all the world’s religious traditions, and consciousness-worshipping religions, which consist of the Temple’s own teachings and a few others. Nature-worshipping religions are dismissed as emotional crutches for those unwilling or unable to think for themselves. Intellectual clarity, self-discipline, and personal autonomy are core values of the system, and members are expected to violate conventional codes of morality to break free of the “herd mentality.” The goal of Setian training is the attainment of godhood, defined as eternal, isolated self-consciousness outside of nature and the universe. The similarity of this goal to the concept of eternal damnation held by many of the world’s spiritual traditions is unlikely to be accidental.

The Temple of Set is divided into Pylons, some of which are local groups while others are networks linked by the Internet, and nine Orders, special-interest groups focusing on particular magical or cultural traditions. The best known of the Orders at this point is the Order of the Trapezoid, which works with the magical currents of German National Socialism. While the Temple rejects antisemitism, and indeed counts many Jews among its membership, Aquino has claimed SS leader Heinrich Himmler as a high Satanic initiate, and has carried out intensive ritual work at the Wewelsburg, the castle formerly used by Himmler and top SS officers as a center for their own occult rituals. See National Socialism.

Headquartered in San Francisco, the Temple of Set is a significant force in contemporary Satanist circles. It does not release membership statistics but probably has some hundreds of members at present.


According to Jewish legends recorded in several books of the Old Testament, a temple to the Jewish god constructed in Jerusalem in c.975 BCE by Solomon, king of Israel, to replace the tabernacle used to house the Ark of the Covenant since the time of Moses. According to the biblical texts the temple was a small structure, 30 feet wide and 90 feet long (9 x 27 meters), with a porch 15 feet (4.5 meters) deep in front of its doors, covered inside and out with gold leaf. The space inside was divided into a main room, the Holy Place, and an inner room, the Holy of Holies, where the Ark of the Covenant and several other sacred objects were kept. Only priests entered the Holy Place, and the high priest alone had the right once a year to enter the Holy of Holies. Outside were a series of open courts: the Court of the Priests, where sacrifices took place; the Court of the Children of Israel, where Jews gathered to worship; and the Court of the Gentiles.

According to the same sources, this First Temple was looted and destroyed during the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 586 BCE. The Second Temple was begun by Zerubbabel, a Jewish aristocrat who served the Persian empire as governor of Judah, in 535 BCE and finished in 515. The Third Temple, the most magnificent of the three, was built by Herod the Great in 18 BCE and destroyed along with the rest of Jerusalem during the Jewish revolt against Rome in 70 CE. A few traces of this final temple have been discovered by archeologists, but no definite traces of the first two have ever been found. While this seems likely enough, given the history of continued construction and reconstruction on the site, some historians have argued on this basis that the First Temple never existed outside Jewish folklore.

As the most lavishly described building project in the Bible, and a constant source of metaphors for Christian churches from the late Roman period onward, the Temple of Solomon became a central symbol in the Christian west. The Knights Templar took their name from the location of their original headquarters, near the supposed site of the Temple, and the medieval stoneworkers’ guilds that eventually became Freemasonry used legends set during the Temple’s construction as a basis for their rituals. See Freemasonry; Hiram Abiff; Knights Templar.


Among the most colorful occult secret societies in the modern magical scene, Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth (TOPY) was founded in London in 1981 by Genesis P-Orridge, a popular musician in the industrial-music scene. Drawing on the Zos Kia Cultus system of English magician Austin Osman Spare, the sexual magic of Aleister Crowley’s Ordo Templi Orientis, and the chaos-worshipping Discordian religion, and combining these with most of the popular trends in the 1980s and ’90s counterculture, TOPY defined occultism as a means of personal liberation based on freeing the implicit powers of the human brain through sexual orgasm and the transcendence of all habitual and conventional ideas. See Discordian movement; Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO); Zos Kia Cultus.

A tribal network consisting of three Stations (in Britain, Europe, and the United States) and a constantly changing assortment of local groups called Access Points, TOPY has created a non-structured structure all its own. Candidates for initiation write down a favorite sexual fantasy and, on the 23rd hour of the 23rd day of the month, anoint the paper with three different bodily fluids and hair from two parts of their body. The result is mailed to TOPY headquarters in order to build up a reservoir of magical power. When a candidate has done this 23 times, he or she becomes an initiate, and take the name “Coyote,” “Kali,” or “Eden” followed by a number as their magical name. As the name of the organization suggests, TOPY members and initiates are notorious in the occult community for their non-standard spellings of English. TOPY documents consistently use “coum” for “come,” “ov” for “of,” “thee” for “the,” and “majick” for “magic.” This is not simply eccentricity; it is intended, as TOPY members might express it, to majickally overcoum thee power ov habit and social convention.

For a decade after TOPY’s founding in 1981, it was as much a piece of performance art as a magical (or majickal) secret society, and gained most of its members among fans of Genesis P-Orridge’s musical group, Psychic TV. In 1992, after British police raided his home in the hope of finding evidence of Satanic ritual abuse, P-Orridge resigned his position as TOPY’s leading member and tried to dissolve it, with no noticeable effect. TOPY remains an active presence today in the occult community, with Access Points scattered across Britain, America, and Europe, and a substantial online presence as well.


The most influential force in the great renaissance of occultism in the late nineteenth century, the Theosophical Society was founded in New York City in 1875 by the colorful Russian occultist and adventuress Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, her American promoter Col. Henry S. Olcott, and a handful of other students of the occult. According to Blavatsky, the society was sponsored and supported by the Brotherhood of Luxor, an American occult secret society. See Blavatsky, Helena Petrovna; Brotherhood of Luxor.

During its first two years the Theosophical Society was simply one more group in the crowded New York occult scene, sponsoring lectures by local authors and researchers. For a time it operated as a secret society with its own passwords and grades of initiation, though these went by the board as the fledgling Society struggled to define itself. The publication of Blavatsky’s first book, Isis Unveiled (1877), ended this period and transformed the Society into a major player in the western world’s occult scene.

Isis Unveiled was the largest and most comprehensive occult critique of religious orthodoxy and scientific materialism in its time, a sprawling two-volume work that challenged nearly all the preconceptions of its Victorian audience. Much of the material in it was drawn from the occult literature of the time, especially the writings of Eliphas Lévi and P.B. Randolph, but it presented an extraordinary and rather quirky occult philosophy all its own, different in many ways from the later system of Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine (1888). See Randolph, Paschal Beverly.

The year after Isis Unveiled saw print, Blavatsky and Olcott traveled to India by way of England and established a headquarters for the Society at Adyar, near Bombay. From 1879 to 1884 Blavatsky remained at Adyar, writing articles, performing minor miracles to awe visitors, and working closely with the Arya Samaj, a movement for Indian national and religious revival, against the British colonial government. During her stay in India she stopped talking about the Brotherhood of Luxor and began claiming that her teachings came from two Tibetan Mahatmas, Koot Hoomi (Kuthumi) and El Morya. Historian K. Paul Johnson, in a controversial book on Theosophical history, has argued that these names were pseudonyms for two important Indian political and religious leaders of the time. See Masters.

In 1884 Blavatsky and Olcott traveled to England on a lecture tour that attracted huge crowds, and established several European sections of the Theosophical Society. During their absence from Adyar, however, an investigator from the Society for Psychical Research arrived there and learned from Blavatsky’s housekeeper Emma Coulombe that the “miracles” were simple sleight-of-hand tricks. The scandal that followed earned newspaper headlines on five continents. In the aftermath of the revelations, Olcott forbade Blavatsky to stay in Adyar, and she moved to London, where she spent the rest of her life.

While at London she wrote, lectured, and debated with the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, an influential magical order of the time. She also founded the Esoteric Section of the Theosophical Society, an inner circle that received instruction in practical occultism. Finally, and most significantly, she wrote a second vast book, The Secret Doctrine, which was published in 1888. Unlike Isis Unveiled, which drew most of its material from western occult sources, The Secret Doctrine took its inspiration from Hindu traditions and presented an immense vision of a cyclic cosmos in which souls, called monads in Theosophy, descend from cosmic unity to pass through a series of evolutionary journeys through the elemental, mineral, vegetable, animal, and human kingdoms and beyond. In order to pass through the human level, the souls of humanity must make seven “rounds” or circuits of a sequence of seven “globes” or worlds, while being reincarnated in seven different root races on each world during each sequence. Today’s humanity is on the fourth globe of the fourth round; Europeans, Indians, and other Indo-Europeans are believed to belong to the fifth, or Aryan root race, while other humans belong to the fourth or Atlantean root race. See Atlantis; Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor (H.B. of L.). This is only a first glimpse at a portion of the sprawling cosmos of The Secret Doctrine, but it may help convey the flavor of the book’s dizzying complexities. After Blavatsky’s death in 1891 these teachings became the Society’s core doctrine, and were developed and discussed in dozens of books by later authors. The new head of the Society, Fabian socialist and liberal political activist Annie Besant, helped transform The Secret Doctrine into an orthodoxy, and brought the Society into alliance with Co-Masonry, an offshoot of Freemasonry that admits women as well as men to membership, and the Liberal Catholic Church, an esoteric Christian church. Schisms followed; William Quan Judge, a leading American Theosophist, broke with Besant and established a rival organization in America in 1895; widely respected occult scholar G.R.S. Mead left in 1909 to found the Quest Society, and Robert Crosbie and another dissident group founded the United Lodge of Theosophists in Los Angeles the same year. Most damaging of all was the defection of Rudolf Steiner, former secretary of the Society’s German section, who left in 1912 and took 90 percent of German Theosophists with him into his newly founded Anthroposophical Society. See Anthroposophical Society; Co-Masonry; Fabian Society.

Steiner’s split was caused by one of Besant’s most serious missteps – her identification of a teenage boy named Jiddu Krishnamurti as the next World Teacher, a messianic figure who would rank with Jesus and the Buddha. In 1911 Besant and her close associate Charles Leadbeater founded the Order of the Star in the East to promote these claims. Highly successful in the years following the First World War, the Order collapsed overnight in 1929 when Krishnamurti courageously disavowed the claims made about him and disbanded it. See Order of the Star in the East.

The implosion of the Order of the Star in the East nearly shattered the Theosophical Society. Most Theosophical groups outside the English-speaking world quietly disbanded, while Theosophists in Britain, America, Australasia, and India went to ground and carried on their work well out of the limelight. In the meantime, however, dozens of groups inspired by Theosophy or derived from it took over large portions of Theosophical teachings and practice. In the “Theosophical century” from 1875 to 1975, nearly every significant occult secret society in the western world drew on Theosophy as a major (though often uncredited) source. By the 1970s, as occult groups abandoned Theosophical ideas for older or newer teachings, the New Age movement stepped in and adopted Theosophy wholesale. See New Age movement.

Several branches of the Theosophical Society remain active today, and the last decade or so has seen a modest growth in Theosophical numbers and activity. While the Society may never again play the dominant role it once had in the occult community, it remains a living tradition with an active publishing program.

Further reading: Blavatsky 1877, Blavatsky 1888, Godwin 1994, Johnson 1994, Washington 1993.


The last of the three revolutionary Internationals, the Third International or Comintern was founded at Moscow in 1919, in the aftermath of the Bolshevik seizure of power in the Russian revolution and the civil war that followed it. As the first political party of the far left to succeed where so many others had failed, the Bolsheviks had immense prestige in radical circles, and the embarrassing failure of the Second International to follow through on its plan to prevent the First World War left the field open to a new Bolshevik international. See Second International.

The new International won widespread support from European leftists in the years just after its founding, but it soon became clear that to Vladimir I. Lenin, the new Russian head of state, and even more to his successor, Josef Stalin, the Third International was nothing but a tool of Russian foreign policy. Communist parties that became part of the International were expected to obey orders from Moscow without question, even when these ran counter to the stated policy of the International. The decision by Stalin to sign a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany in 1939 was, for many people on the left, the final straw in his betrayal of Marxist ideals. With the outbreak of war later that same year the International became useless, and it was formally dissolved on Stalin’s orders in 1943. See Communism.

Further reading: Drachkovitch 1966.


Among the most notorious secret societies in history, the Thugs practiced a combination of human sacrifice and highway robbery on the roads and byways of India. Bands of Thugs, 10 to 50 in number, roamed the country and lured unsuspecting travelers to journey with them. At traditional killing grounds known only to the Thugs, they turned on their hapless companions, strangled them, robbed them, and buried their mutilated bodies in concealed graves. The term “Thug” was their common name in northern India, and means “deceiver;” in southern India they were known as Phansigari, “stranglers.” When Thuggee was at its height at the beginning of the nineteenth century, tens of thousands of travelers met this fate annually in every corner of the Indian subcontinent.

The origins of Thuggee are unknown. Sir William Sleeman, the British colonial official responsible for its eradication, speculated that the Thugs might have descended from members of the Sagartii, a Persian tribe described by the Greek historian Herodotus, whose members fought armed with a dagger and a leather noose. The Thugs themselves believed that they had been created by Kali, the Hindu goddess of death, during a battle against a mighty demon. When the goddess cut down the demon, more demons sprang up from its spilled blood. Kali then created the first two Thugs from the sweat on her arms, gave them strangling cloths, and sent them to kill all the demons without shedding their blood. The Thugs quickly dispatched the demons, and the goddess rewarded them by commanding them to kill and rob travelers as a sacred and profitable way of supporting themselves and their families.

Whatever their origins, the Thugs were active in India by the Middle Ages. Held at bay by the Mughal Empire at its height in the sixteenth century, they became widespread again as the Empire declined into chaos. Traditional laws ordered captured Thugs to be walled up inside pillars and left to die, or for their hands and nose to be cut off, but in many areas local rajas permitted the Thugs to operate in exchange for a share of the profits.

The Thugs themselves perfected the arts of deception in order to catch travelers off their guard. They had their own language, Ramasi, and secret gestures that allowed them to signal one another unnoticed. When not on the roads, they lived as ordinary peasants, and married only into one another’s families. Strict taboos governed their killing expeditions; a sheep had to be sacrificed to Kali before the band set out, band leaders paid close attention to omens, and women and members of certain crafts and castes were not to be killed. When they struck, an absolute rule required that the only witnesses left alive be Thugs, so entire parties of travelers escaped death because one person the Thugs were forbidden to kill traveled with them.

As British rule over India spread out from coastal enclaves at the beginning of the nineteenth century, colonial administrators gradually became aware that something other than ordinary banditry was taking place on the roads. An 1816 article by Richard Sherwood, “Of the Murderers called Phansigars,” helped catalyze a response. William Sleeman, then a young officer in the Bengal army, read Sherwood’s paper, transferred to the civil service, and began investigating Thug activities. His discoveries pointed to the existence of a nationwide Thug organization and caused a furor in India and Britain alike. In 1830, after further investigations, he was appointed by the Governor-General to suppress Thuggee throughout central India.

Sleeman’s campaign was made simpler by his ability to find informers among the Thugs, who were offered pardons in exchange for telling all they knew, and his efforts to establish schools for the children of Thugs to teach them less bloodthirsty trades. Thug families became particularly famous for carpet weaving; the magnificent carpet of the Waterloo Chamber of Windsor Palace, measuring 80 feet by 40 (24 meters by 12) and weighing two tons, was commissioned by Queen Victoria and manufactured for her by former Thugs. By 1850, pressed on all sides by British colonial authority, Thuggee was effectively extinct.


Originally ultima Thule, “furthest Thule” in Latin, Thule first appeared in classical Greek and Roman writings as a name for a distant island somewhere north of Britain. The Greek voyager Pytheas of Massalia claimed that he sailed there, and his description of the northern seas has enough accurate details to make the claim plausible; it is likely Pytheas sailed as far as the Orkneys, or possibly even Iceland.

In the nineteenth century the name Thule was recycled for a hypothetical lost continent somewhere in the far north. In this form it found its way into proto-Nazi occult movements in central Europe as the lost Arctic homeland of the Aryans, identical to Arktogäa and Hyperborea. See lost continents.


The National Socialist movement in early twentieth-century Germany emerged out of a complex underground of secret societies, occult traditions, and racist ideologies that historians have just begun to uncover. One crucial piece of the puzzle was an organization known as the Thule-Gesellschaft or Thule Society. Named after the legendary lost continent of Thule, believed by German racists of the time to be the original homeland of the Aryan peoples, the Thule Society posed as a private organization for the study of Germanic folklore. In reality, it was the Munich lodge of an occult secret society, the Germanenorden, whose distinctive blend of racist occultism and right-wing politics defined the central commitments of the Nazi party. See Germanenorden.

The Thule Society was the creation of Rudolf von Sebottendorf, a German-Turkish adventurer who joined the Germanenorden in 1917 and immediately set to work organizing a Munich lodge for the order. His efforts paid off handsomely, increasing membership in Bavaria from 200 to more than 1500 by the autumn of 1918. He rented rooms for the society in the posh Hotel des Vier Jahreszeiten in Munich, and succeeded in attracting members of the Bavarian aristocracy into the organization. He also encouraged two Thule members, Karl Harrer and Anton Drexler, to organize a political circle for the Munich working class, in the hope of drawing them away from communism.

When the German imperial government collapsed in 1918, a socialist coalition seized power in Bavaria, but was then supplanted by a hardline communist faction headed by Russian exiles. Munich descended into open war, and pitched gun battles, assassinations, and summary executions by firing squad became frequent events. The Thule Society hurled itself into the struggle, networking with other conservative groups and raising a sizeable private army, the Kampfbund Thule, for the final struggle that ended the Bavarian Socialist Republic in May 1919.

By that time the political circle headed by Drexler and Harrer had already transformed itself into a political party, the Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (German Workers Party, DAP). Small and poorly organized, the DAP floundered for most of 1919 as most Thule members turned their attention elsewhere. In September of that year, however, the DAP gained a new recruit, an Austrian war veteran named Adolf Hitler. Not long after joining, Hitler convinced the other party members to change the organization’s name to the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (National Socialist German Workers Party, NSDAP) – a name newspapers and the German public quickly shortened to “Nazi.” See Hitler, Adolf; National Socialism.

As the fledgling party grew explosively, driven by Hitler’s powerful oratory and impressive political skills, Thule Society members gave it vital support and direction. Thule initiate Ernst Röhm, a tough army veteran with a taste for brawling, brought many members of the Kampfbund Thule into the Sturm-Abteilung (Storm Troop, SA) or Brownshirts, the Nazi party’s private army of street thugs. Another Thule member, Rudolf Hess, used his connections throughout the occult community in France and Germany to win support for Hitler, becoming the future Führer’s right-hand man in the process. Other members introduced Hitler to wealthy conservatives in Bavaria and elsewhere in Germany, and brought him into contact with the writer and occultist Dietrich Eckart, who became Hitler’s mentor.

By 1925 or a little later, the Thule Society had been completely absorbed into the growing Nazi party, and nearly all its membership, activities, and plans became part of the Nazi system. The occult aspects it had inherited from the Germanenorden ended up becoming part of the SS once Heinrich Himmler took over that organization in 1929. See SS (Schutzstaffel).

Further reading: Goodrick-Clarke 1992.


A short story by Argentine magic realist Jorge Luis Borges, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” (published in his collection Labyrinths, 1962) draws on the history of the Rosicrucian movement to present one of the clearest models of secret society activity in print. According to the story, sometime in the early seventeenth century, a secret society, Orbis Tertius (Third Sphere), sets out to create an imaginary country and make the world believe that it actually exists. As the project unfolds, they realize that they will have to invent an entire world to give the nation of Tlön a setting. They compile a 40-volume encyclopedia containing detailed information about every aspect of Uqbar, their invented world. With funding from an eccentric American millionaire, the encyclopedia is completed and parts of it are leaked to the outside world, and a handful of artifacts from the imaginary world begin to surface. People outside Orbis Tertius become so fascinated by Uqbar that the real world begins to imitate the imaginary one.

The historical Rosicrucian movement, intentionally or not, followed a similar trajectory from fiction to reality, as people inspired by the original Rosicrucian manifestos set out to remake themselves in the image of the adepts of the Rose Cross, launching an international movement that remains a major force in the occult community 400 years later. An even closer fit to the story can be found in the bizarre UMMO case of the 1970s, in which persons unknown faked a series of close encounters with UFOs from the planet UMMO and used the resulting publicity as a springboard to pass on hundreds of pages of Ummese philosophy, spirituality, and science to a growing community of followers. See Rosicrucians; unidentified flying objects (UFOs).

Further reading: Borges 1970, McIntosh 1997, Vallee 1991.


Irish philosopher, writer, and secret society member, 1670–1722. One of the most remarkable figures of his age, John Toland was born and raised in Ardagh, on the Inishowen peninsula, and educated in Irish Catholic schools until his teen years, when he converted to the Protestant religion. In 1688 he received a scholarship to the University of Glasgow to study theology. Returning to Ireland, he published his first book, Christianity Not Mysterious, which dismissed the idea that any religion had sole possession of the truth and argued that anything in Christianity that offended against reason and common sense should be discarded. The book was burned by the public hangman in Dublin, and Toland had to flee to London, where he took up a career writing controversial books and pamphlets about politics and religion.

Toland invented the word “pantheism” for his own religious beliefs, and was apparently the first person ever to be called a freethinker. The sources for Toland’s ideas, however, reach straight back into the radical Hermeticism of the late Renaissance. Toland was a close student of the Corpus Hermeticum – the writings then credited to Hermes Trismegistus, the legendary sorcerer-sage of ancient Egypt – and the works of Giordano Bruno (1548–1600), the great Renaissance magus and master of the art of memory. Toland himself prepared the first English translation of Bruno’s Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast and had a central role in sparking a revival of interest in Bruno among English and Dutch radicals at the beginning of the eighteenth century. See Bruno, Giordano; Hermeticism.

Like many progressive intellectuals of his time, Toland was fascinated by the ancient Druids, the learned caste of the pre-Christian Celtic peoples of Britain, Ireland, and Gaul. He drew up a prospectus for a history of the Druids that was partly a vindication of his own pantheist beliefs and partly an extended satire on the Anglican Church, and tried to find a noble patron to pay for its writing and publication; not surprisingly, none appeared, and the prospectus was not published until after his death. According to several accounts Toland was involved in founding the Ancient Druid Order, the parent body of the Druid Circle of the Universal Bond, at the Apple Tree Tavern in London in 1717, though no documentation has surfaced to support this claim. See Druid Revival; Druid Circle of the Universal Bond.

Toland’s involvement with two other secret societies is less speculative. During a stay in the Netherlands in 1708–10, he became a member of, and probably helped found, a secret society of freethinkers called the Chevaliers of Jubilation. Most of the Chevaliers were liberal French intellectuals in exile from the Catholic absolutism of Louis XIV, and shared Toland’s disdain for dogmatic religion. Later, sometime before 1720, Toland wrote and circulated privately the Pantheisticon, a book of ceremonies for the meetings of a pantheist secret society; one of Toland’s friends commented after Toland’s death that at least one organization using the Pantheisticon as its ritual actually existed. See Chevaliers of Jubilation.

Toland’s radical ideas and his abrasive personality made it difficult for him to find paying literary work as the Whig establishment in early eighteenth-century Britain grew more conservative. His health failed, and he had to sell most of his library to put food on the table in his final years. His beloved Corpus Hermeticum was one of the few books left to him when he died in 1722.

Further reading: Jacob 1981, Sullivan 1982.


A small but vocal movement in the contemporary occult scene, Traditionalism was the creation of French philosopher and occultist René Guénon (1886–1951) and a number of followers and allies in the European esoteric scene. Originally a member of the French section of the Theosophical Society, Guénon broke with Theosophy around 1920 and denounced it categorically in his Le Théosophisme, Histoire d’un Pseudo-religion (Theosophy, the History of a Pseudo-religion, 1921). Guénon accepted the Theosophist suggestion that all religions were outer forms for a true esoteric spirituality, but dismissed the related claim that Theosophy was that esoteric core. Instead, Guénon argued, what lies behind all valid religions is a common thread of Tradition – the term is always capitalized in Traditionalist writings. See Theosophical Society.

Explaining Tradition is a complex matter, and few Traditionalists attempt anything like a comprehensive definition. Whatever it is, it is revealed at the beginning of each historical cycle; certain religions have it – Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Orthodox Judaism, Islam, certain Buddhist sects, conservative Hinduism and an assortment of traditions from America, Africa, and the Far East – and all others do not. Anything dating from the Middle Ages or later is, by definition, far from Tradition. Outside of Tradition, Traditionalists insist, spiritual development is impossible, and those who attempt it fall under the sway of the demonic Counter-initiation.

In practice, too often, whatever opinions a Traditionalist happens to have count as Tradition, while any dissenting opinions are tarred with the brush of Counter-initiation. Ironically, while Guénon castigates Theosophy for making a pastiche of western occultism and Hindu philosophy, his own books present exactly such a pastiche to the reader as Tradition – his The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times, for example, fuses Hindu ideas of ages of the world with Judeo-Christian apocalyptic beliefs, complete with a cameo appearance by the Antichrist. See ages of the world.

One of Guénon’s fellow Traditionalists, Italian philosopher and Fascist ideologue Julius Evola (1898–1974), has become far more influential than Guénon himself in the world of contemporary occult secret societies. Evola’s version of Traditionalism combined Guénon’s ideas with a fixation on Indo-European warrior traditions as the core example of a valid spiritual path. This combination has given him a strong appeal in neo-Nazi secret societies and to some of the more doctrinaire elements in today’s neo-pagan movement. See Evola, Julius; neo-Nazi secret societies.

Further reading: Guénon 1953, Waterfield 1987.

Triad Society

The most powerful and widely known of Chinese secret societies, the Triad Society traces its ancestry back to five Shaolin monks who survived the destruction of their monastery in 1674 by troops of the imperial Manchu government. The five survivors, after long journeys and many struggles, banded together into a brotherhood dedicated to driving out the Manchu invaders and restoring the former native Chinese dynasty, the Ming. The slogan “Subvert the Ch’ing [Manchu], Restore the Ming” became the Triad watchword. How much of this account is true and how much legend is impossible to tell, but the first Triad organizations seem to have come into existence at some point before 1750 and an origin sometime around the traditional date is entirely possible.

The Triad system has remarkable similarities to Freemasonry and other western fraternal secret societies. New members of a Triad lodge (the Chinese word is tang, “hall”) must be nominated by an existing member, and pass through an initiatory ceremony in which the candidate hears the story of the Triad’s origins and takes an oath to obey the rules of the society, provide mutual assistance to his lodge brothers, and never betray the lodge’s secrets to outsiders. Once initiated, the new members receive the secret signs of recognition that allow them to identify themselves to other Triad members. See Freemasonry.

The organization of Triad lodges also follows patterns akin to those of western secret societies. Officers of a Triad lodge include the Mountain Master, who presides over the lodge, and the Deputy Mountain Master, his assistant; the Incense Master and the Lead Guard, who conduct the initiation ceremony; the Red Staff, who assists the other officers; the White Fan, who serves as counselor, and the Straw Sandals, who is the messenger of the lodge. Each Triad lodge, however, is independent of all others, and the Triad system lacks a tai tang or Grand Lodge to judge disputes among lodges and enforce a standard code of conduct. See grand lodge.

Whatever their actual origins, by the beginning of the nineteenth century Triad lodges were the most popular secret society in southern China and had begun to stage risings against the Manchu government. A little later in the century, the Triads began to surface in Chinese immigrant communities overseas. Like fraternal orders in contemporary Europe and America, Triad lodges offered mutual assistance and protection to their members, while helping Chinese communities overseas cope with the prejudices and hostile treatment they often faced. Inevitably, Triad operations also spilled over into criminal activities, and by the late nineteenth century most criminal activity in the Chinese coastal ports and large Chinese communities overseas was in Triad hands. See fraternal orders.

The Triad lodges in China played a significant role in supporting the 1911 revolution that overthrew the Manchu and established the short-lived Chinese Republic. During the wars between the Republican government, the Japanese, and the Chinese Communist Party, different Triad lodges allied with different sides or attempted to play them against one another. The fall of the Republic in 1949 brought a campaign of violent persecution against all secret societies on the mainland as the Communist government sought to eliminate all possible rivals. In Hong Kong and throughout Chinese immigrant communities overseas, however, Triad lodges are still active, and play a significant role in organized crime activities in Asia and elsewhere.

Further reading: Chesneaux 1971.


One of the most widely discussed (and frequently vilified) coordinating bodies among the industrial world’s economic and political elites, the Trilateral Commission was founded in 1973 by American banking and petroleum magnate David Rockefeller and a consortium of politicians and businessmen from America, Europe, and Japan. The Commission drew its inspiration from Zbigniew Brzezinski’s book Between Two Ages (1970), which argued for an alliance among the world’s industrial powers as a basis for global stability. It had its period of greatest influence in the late 1970s, when Commission member Jimmy Carter was US President and Brzezinski was his national security adviser. Ronald Reagan’s victory in the 1980 presidential elections, which began an era of American military and political adventurism, represented a significant defeat for the Commission’s agenda, but it has continued to meet and lobby for international cooperation.

Currently the Trilateral Commission has some 350 members, drawn in approximately equal numbers from the three regions it represents. Since the Commission’s founding, the Japanese sector has been expanded into an East Asian Group, and the North American Group now includes Canada and Mexico as well as the United States. Like the Council on Foreign Relations and the Bilderberg Group, its most obvious models, it holds an annual meeting in a different venue each year. Between meetings, its staff functions as a think-tank, researching issues and producing position papers on topics of interest to Commission members. See Bilderberg Group; Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).

Within a few years of its founding, the Trilateral Commission had already been given a large role in American conspiracy theories at both ends of the political spectrum. The John Birch Society and other right-wing conspiracy watchers quickly identified it as a major player behind the attempt to abolish American independence in a global dictatorship, while their equivalents on the far left listed it as one of the major institutions behind a corporate world order aiming at the destruction of people’s liberation movements worldwide and the imposition of an economic Pax Americana for the benefit of the rich. It still plays a very large role in current theories about the forthcoming New World Order. See John Birch Society; New World Order.

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