See unidentified flying objects (UFOs).


Since ancient times, when myths filled the earth with underground kingdoms inhabited by monsters and goblins, the idea of hidden realms beneath the surface has captured the human imagination. As with mythology of other kinds, the truths behind the stories include spiritual and psychological symbolism, ancient astronomy and seasonal lore, visionary and shamanic experiences, and much else. Here and there, scraps of archaic history and half-forgotten memories have found their way into the mix, for – whatever else may or may not be true about the realms beneath the earth’s surface – natural caves and caverns exist; so do underground structures built by human hands, and both of these have been inhabited by people, sometimes for many centuries at a time.

One example much cited by folklore scholars in the nineteenth century are the “hollow hills” of Irish legend, where the sídhe or fairy-folk live. Most of the fairy hills of Ireland are ancient burial mounds dating back to the Bronze Age and before, and their inhabitants are in one sense the ghosts of the people who built them, still remembered in Irish legend as the Tuatha de Danaan, the race that inhabited Ireland before the present inhabitants arrived and conquered them. Yet those same ancient people, according to archeologists, lived in earth-sheltered lodges that looked much like the tombs of their dead.

Victorian scholars of fairy lore drew on these and other parallels to suggest that survivors of the older race might have endured for centuries, hidden away in deep forests and inaccessible areas, camouflaging their traditional houses until only the keenest eye could tell them apart from natural hills. Much of the old fairy lore makes perfect sense when read as lingering memories of a Neolithic people: small, lithe, close to nature, armed with stone-tipped arrows and subtle natural poisons, by turns fighting and bargaining with their larger Iron Age neighbors. It may not be accidental, these researchers pointed out, that a common Scottish folk name for fairies is “Picts,” the name of the pre-Scottish inhabitants of northern Britain, or that Hawaiian legends cheerfully admit that the menehune, the fairy-folk of the Hawaiian islands, are descended from ordinary humans who reached the islands from the Marquesas chain long before the ancestors of today’s Hawaiians crossed the sea from Tahiti.

Yet whatever historical realities fed into legends of underground kingdoms, they became tangled up early on with material from many other sources. By the end of the Middle Ages, old Celtic and Germanic stories about “little people” living in hollow hills had been blended with Classical accounts of Hades, Christian legends of journeys to Hell, Arabic and Hindi tales that came west along the Silk Road, and much else. The result was a vision, half literary and half serious, of an earth honeycombed with countless caverns and tunnels and peopled with creatures as strange or stranger than the legendary inhabitants of fairyland.

The great Renaissance Hermeticist Athanasius Kircher (1601–80) gave a crucial boost to this process with one of his most famous and widely read books, Mundus Subterraneus (The Subterranean World, 1665). Trying to explain everything that was known of geology, including the source of volcanoes and the presence of metals in underground veins, Kircher postulated a network of underground passages through which fire, water, and air move, and a vast central passage from the north pole to the south, through which all the earth’s oceans ebb and flow – an image that also provided a boost to the later idea of a hollow earth. See hollow earth.

Most of the writers that followed Kircher’s lead, though, used fiction as their medium. Dozens of eighteenth-and nineteenth-century stories sent people from the surface into the subterranean world of caverns Kircher described. No less a figure than Giacomo Casanova the famous adventurer wrote a novel titled Icosameron (1788) in which his protagonists clambered down through caves in Transylvania to an underground world of “megamicros” who worshipped reptilian gods. Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race (1873) pictured an underground civilization wielding an omnipotent energy called vril. The torrent of underground adventures reached its peak in Jules Verne’s classic A Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), which sent a team of explorers down an extinct volcano in Iceland, only to emerge from Vesuvius in southern Italy.

The transformation of the underground realm from a setting for stories to fodder for the rejected-knowledge industry was given an immense boost by the invention of Agharta, the great underground city of the Himalayan masters. See Agharta.

The spread of these ideas into twentieth-century popular occultism was hastened by the career of legendary science fiction magazine editor Raymond Palmer (1910–77), who padded the pages of Amazing Stories in the 1940s with tales of an underground world of tunnels and artificial caverns, originally made by long-vanished Lemurians and now inhabited by deranged mutants called deros. These stories originated from Richard Shaver, a Pennsylvania welder who started hearing voices in his head while welding and ended up as one of the formative influences on today’s alternative-realities scene. Shaver’s stories were presented now as fiction, now as fact, and shared space in the pages of Amazing Stories with breathless accounts of Agharta and Shambhala, Theosophical root races, paranormal phenomena, and unexplained events. See Palmer, Raymond.

Real underground bases build in the Cold War provided more fodder for theories about underground realms. In the decades following the Second World War, faced with the prospect of nuclear war with the Soviet Union, the United States and many of its allies built extensive underground military complexes designed to survive direct nuclear attack. Several such bases in America, including the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) headquarters inside Cheyenne Mountain, Wyoming, and the Strategic Air Command headquarters near Omaha, Nebraska, are a matter of public knowledge; the existence of dozens, or possibly hundreds, more is classified under national security laws. Studies carried out in the 1960s by the RAND Corporation, a military think-tank, and later released in response to Freedom of Information Act requests, suggest that plans were made for bases 5000 feet (1520 meters) or more underground and many miles in extent, serviced with their own electric railways and capable of remaining functional for years with no contact with the surface at all.

The rise of rejected knowledge from the cultural fringe to the subject of international bestsellers in the last quarter of the twentieth century set the seal on the underground realm as a standard element of alternative realities around the world. UFO literature made room for vast underground alien bases; the more outré writings on Bigfoot speculated that the giant ape might live in some hidden underground refuge and venture onto the surface for purposes of its own; conspiracy theories inflated the admittedly extensive network of underground bases built by the US government during the height of the Cold War into a vast labyrinth of subterranean cities where the black helicopters of the New World Order have their home. Some of the more exotic theories fused the underground realms with the hollow earth and filled the planet’s crust with hidden passages leading from the surface to the unknown world inside. See black helicopters; New World Order; unidentified flying objects (UFOs).

The earth undoubtedly remains full of mysteries. Like many other aspects of the modern rejected-knowledge industry, though, the current lore of underground realms has ignored the role of symbolism and visionary experience and imposed a rigidly literal-minded materialism on the fluid and subtle legends of hidden places within the earth. While many ancient traditions look to the earth’s depths for contact with spirits and insights into reality, today’s less sophisticated mystics seek tunnels full of Lemurian machinery and the hidden city of Agharta. As physical realities, at least, these are unlikely to be found beneath the earth’s surface any time soon.

Further reading: Godwin 1993, Kafton-Minkel 1989, Sauder 1995.

Unidentified Flying Objects [UFOs]

On June 24, 1947, a private pilot named Kenneth Arnold was flying past Mount Rainier in Washington State when he saw a group of “flying saucers” moving silently through the air at a tremendous speed. Arnold reported his sighting to the media shortly after landing. Hundreds of reported sightings followed in the weeks after Arnold’s, ranging from obvious mistakes and ‘blatant hoaxes to verifiable accounts of flying objects witnessed by dozens or hundreds of people and tracked on radar. The age of unidentified flying objects, or UFOs, was born.

Within a short time of Arnold’s original sighting, public and scientific opinion alike had settled on two hypotheses to explain sightings of unidentified flying objects. UFO researcher Jacques Vallee has labeled these the natural phenomena hypothesis and the extraterrestrial hypothesis. According to the natural phenomena hypothesis, reports of UFOs are all the product of observational errors, recognized atmospheric phenomena, and mistaken sightings of ordinary manmade objects such as airplanes and weather balloons. According to the extraterrestrial hypothesis, reports of UFOs include sightings of spacecraft controlled by intelligent beings from another planet. Most UFO researchers, scientists, and people in general treat these two as the only possible explanations.

However, as Vallee and a handful of other researchers have pointed out in numerous books, there are many other possible explanations for the UFO phenomenon that have been almost completely neglected in the rush to judgment. Vallee himself, along with veteran UFO researcher John Keel, has argued that UFOs have close similarities to ancient traditions about elves and spirits, and might be controlled by intelligences who have been here on earth as long as humanity or longer. Another possibility rarely discussed, but at least as plausible as the more popular theories, is that the UFOs of the Cold War era may have been part of a secret military or intelligence program using wholly terrestrial technology.

Every set of imagery that carries a significant emotional charge in modern culture has been adopted and put to use by secret societies, and the UFO phenomenon is no exception. The involvement of secret societies in the UFO mystery goes back to the years immediately before Arnold’s famous sightings, when members of several occult secret societies in the United States were convinced that they had received mediumistic communications from another planet. The appearance of the first flying saucers in 1947 seemed to fulfill predictions made in these channeled messages, and influential American occultists such as Dr. Meade Layne played a significant role in spreading the idea that the first wave of sightings represented the arrival of aliens from outer space. Their claims dovetailed with those of Raymond Palmer, editor of the science fiction magazine Amazing Stories, who had already made his magazine a haven for alternative views of reality. See Palmer, Raymond.

More recent secret societies have also made use of UFOs. Some occult and spiritual secret societies claim to pass on spiritual or scientific teachings received from extraterrestrial sources, while others teach explanations for UFOs that break free of the conventional wisdom; some claim, for example, that UFOs are spiritual beings such as angels or faeries rather than extraterrestrial machines, while others claim that UFOs come from secret bases on Earth or from an unknown world hidden inside the earth. All these teachings serve the usual secret society tactic of creating an alternative vision of reality for society members, and some also serve more pragmatic ends such as fundraising. See hollow earth; underground realms.

The neo-Nazi movement has proven to be a particularly fertile source of these alternate visions. By the early 1950s rumors were already being spread that UFOs were actually German secret weapons created by the Third Reich and flown by the “Last Battalion,” a Nazi force based in Antarctica that was preparing a counterstrike against the victorious Allies. These claims have been recycled at intervals ever since, enhanced with ever more colorful details. One recent version claims that the Nazi flying saucers were created by the secretive Vril Society before and during the war, using technology decoded from medieval documents written by Gnostic Templars who were in contact with alien intelligences from Aldebaran. Rumors like these served to bolster the shattered morale of the defeated Nazis and help recruit members for neo-Nazi secret societies. See Antarctica; neo-Nazi secret societies; Vril Society.

Not all secret societies that make use of the UFO phenomenon limit themselves to interpreting existing sightings; some have gone so far as to manufacture sightings of their own. The most sophisticated attempt in this direction so far seems to be the uncanny UMMO hoax of the late 1960s and early 1970s, in which carefully faked sightings of UFOs were used to provide support for a set of documents allegedly passed on by aliens. During the late 1990s, rumors flew around the alternative-spirituality community in the United States and elsewhere that a far more dramatic attempt to fake an extraterrestrial arrival was planned for midnight on December 31, 1999, at the Great Pyramid. Nothing happened, but several groups of people and at least one secret society apparently positioned themselves to exploit the event if it happened.

At the present time it is fair to say that nobody actually knows all of the factors involved in creating and sustaining the UFO phenomenon. It has so many different ramifications, and has been adopted, adapted, manipulated, and faked by so many different groups for so many different purposes that any attempt to track the changes would be doomed to failure. Meanwhile strenuous efforts have been made to link it with other mysteries, real as well as fabricated, such as the Great Pyramid and the origins of Freemasonry. Some aspects of the UFO phenomenon remain in the hands of secret societies of various kinds, and will doubtless continue to attract secret society interest as long as the dream of visitors from another world remains a focus of human hopes and fears.

Further reading: Goodrick-Clarke 2002, Keel 1976, Keel 1989, Picknett and Prince 1999, Vallee 1991.


The largest and most successful Druid order of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the United Ancient Order of Druids (UAOD) was founded in 1833 as a schism from the older Ancient Order of Druids (AOD). Many of the members of the Ancient Order wanted to adopt a beneficiary plan like the one introduced by the Odd Fellows, which provided sick pay and funeral benefits to members, but the AOD’s Grand Grove wanted nothing to do with such a project. In the end, most of the AOD’s groves (local lodges) and members broke away to form a new order, the UAOD, with a beneficiary plan. See Ancient Order of Druids; Odd Fellowship.

The new society spread rapidly, establishing groves in the United States from 1839 on and expanding into Europe and Australia later in the same century. The benefit system proved just as effective a draw for the Druids as it had for the Odd Fellows – the largest fraternal secret society in the world in the late nineteenth century – and the UAOD became one of the largest dozen or so secret societies in most of the countries where it had a presence at all. By popularizing the ancient Druids, it played an important role in laying the foundations for the modern Druid movement, and later orders such as the Ancient Order of Druids in America borrowed from its symbolism and rituals. See Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA); Druid Revival; Druids.

Like most of the fraternal secret societies of the time, the UAOD experimented with several different degree systems, but finally settled on the three degrees of Ovate, Bard, and Druid, drawn from the Welsh branches of the Druid Revival. In America, it also created a ladies auxiliary, the Druid Circle. See ladies auxiliaries.

The Order’s expansion in Europe, however, ended up unwittingly helping to create one of the twentieth century’s great nightmares. The ancient Druids were popular in Germany in the nineteenth century, and the UAOD’s expansion there attracted a minority of members from the German antisemitic far right. In 1913 some of these helped-create a new secret society, the Germanenorden, which drew heavily on UAOD ritual but pursued a racist political agenda utterly at odds with the UAOD’s traditions. The Germanenorden’s Bavarian branch, under the name of the Thule Society, sponsored a political front group which in 1919 became the nucleus of the Nazi Party. See Germanenorden; National Socialism; Thule Society.

The second half of the twentieth century was as difficult for the UAOD as for most other fraternal secret societies, and membership dropped to a small fraction of its nineteenth-century peak. It still survives in Britain, Australia, several European countries, and a handful of American states, almost completely ignored by the modern Druid movement it helped to launch.


Many secret societies have kept the identities of their top leadership a secret, but starting in the middle years of the eighteenth century, certain secret societies made the presence of “Unknown Superiors” or “Secret Chiefs” a major element in their public relations. This habit seems to have started with the Rite of Strict Observance, a German Masonic rite publicly launched in 1754 but active for several decades before that time. Baron Karl Gotthelf von Hund, the head of the rite, insisted that he was acting on behalf of a group of unknown superiors whose names he was sworn not to reveal, but who had promised to pass on important occult secrets to the rite later on. Some evidence suggests that these original unknown superiors may have been leading figures in the Jacobite movement in exile, who hoped to use the rite for political purposes. See Jacobites; Rite of Strict Observance.

At the Convention of Wilhelmsbad in 1782, the Rite of Strict Observance rejected the belief in unknown superiors, but by that time the idea had found its way into common practice among secret societies. Much of this had political roots. The Bavarian Illuminati, which copied many of its features from Strict Observance practice, borrowed the concept of unknown superiors as well, and members of the Areopagus, the governing body of the Illuminati, were not known as such to members below the highest rank. Most of the revolutionary secret societies of the following century, such as the Sublime Perfect Masters, similarly imposed secrecy at all levels to keep secret police at bay, and a mystique of unknown superiors played an important role in this process. See Bavarian Illuminati; Carbonari; Philadelphes; Sublime Perfect Masters.

It was the occult secret societies of the nineteenth century, though, that did the most with the concept. The Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the two most influential British magical orders of the late nineteenth century, both claimed to have been founded at the behest of unknown superiors; in the case of the Golden Dawn, the “Secret Chiefs” of the order were simply the known leadership acting under pseudonyms. The Martinist Order, an occult secret society founded in France in 1884, even had a degree of initiation titled Superieur Inconnu (Unknown Superior). See Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor (H.B. of L.); Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn; Martinism.

The Theosophical Society, however, trumped all other claims of unknown superiors by insisting that it and it alone had been founded directly by members of the Great White Lodge, the mystical body of unknown superiors who formed the secret government of the world. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831–91), the Russian mystic who founded the Society, originally insisted that the Masters who guided and taught her were incarnate human beings, a claim that has gained support in recent years by the work of historian K. Paul Johnson. After Blavatsky’s death, however, the Mahatmas of the Great White Lodge were gradually redefined as essentially supernatural beings that had transcended ordinary human limitations many lifetimes ago. See Blavatsky, Helena Petrovna; Great White Lodge; Masters; Theosophical Society.

The redefinition of unknown superiors as superhuman beings proved highly popular and played a large role in making Theosophy the dominant influence in the occult scene during the “Theosophical century” from 1875 to 1975. Combined with the loss of trust in hierarchies common to most western societies in recent decades, though, this change has all but eliminated the old belief in unknown superiors. A handful of occult secret societies still claim to be guided by unknown superiors, but most do not, and many reject the entire concept as irrelevant.


In 1999, astrologer David Ovason’s bestselling book The Secret Architecture of Our Nation’s Capital proposed that a hidden pattern based on astrology and occult symbolism underlay the urban design of Washington, DC. This was not news to people inside the occult community, where the esoteric dimensions of urban design have been a subject of discussion for many years. Researchers into leys and related earth mysteries noted long ago that many towns and cities appear to be laid out according to complex patterns, some based on the positions of sun, moon, and stars, while others follow the less easily defined patterns of the ley network. As one of the major centers of ley research, Britain has been particularly well surveyed in this regard, and Alfred Watkins’s classic The Old Straight Track (1925) includes many maps and photographs of complex urban alignments. See leys.

While Ovason’s discoveries may not have been surprising to those familiar with the field, his work provides solid documentation of the role of esoteric symbolism in the design of a major world city. Unlike many other cities, Washington, DC did not come into being by the slow process of urban growth; it was planned and built as the capital of the new United States of America in the years immediately following the American colonies’ successful revolt against Britain. The city’s plan was originally laid out by Pierre Charles L’Enfant and substantially reworked by Andrew Ellicott, both of them Freemasons. They worked a rich tapestry of astrological alignments into the city plan, and this process was later echoed by other architects and builders – many of them also of the Masonic fraternity – who placed more than 30 complete zodiacs and hundreds of other astrological symbols in the architecture of the city. Much of this focuses on the constellation Virgo and on the three stars – Regulus, Arcturus, and Spica – that traditionally frame Virgo’s place in the zodiac. The political importance of Virgo as a symbol of the “virgin land” of America at the time of the city’s founding, no less than the constellation’s deep esoteric connections to deities such as Isis and Ceres, and to the Virgin Mary in Christian myth, make this connection as obvious as it is elegant.

Few modern cities have been as comprehensively shaped by a symbolic plan as Washington, DC but most of the world’s great cities (and a surprising number of the smaller cities and towns) have such geometrical and symbolic structures underlying them, as often as not half buried by a century or more of ignorant modern design and construction. Manuals of architecture and urban design, from the Roman builder Vitruvius’s Ten Books on Architecture straight through into the early modern period, discuss the need to align streets and structures alike with winds, vistas, landforms, and heavenly bodies. These concerns blended with a vision of the world that saw the material world as a reflection of the spiritual realms to create many works of architecture that express traditional wisdom in symbolic and geometric forms. After the coming of the scientific revolution, when these approaches fell out of favor with the mainstream culture, they survived in a handful of secret societies, most specifically in Freemasonry. See Freemasonry.

The rediscovery of the role of Masonic symbolism in urban design has predictably sparked a great deal of discussion among antimasonic conspiracy theorists, who reworked it in search of more evidence for their belief that Freemasonry is a Satanic cult that runs the world. It has also been adopted by several authors in the fields of alternative history and rejected knowledge, who reworked it to fit their own belief that Freemasonry is a lineal descendant of the Knights Templar, the Gnostics, and other currently popular traditions of the past. Alongside Washington Rome, Paris, and an assortment of other cities have been cited as sites of Masonic geometrical design. See Antimasonry; Gnosticism; Knights Templar; rejected knowledge.

At least one other city in the world has a better claim to Masonic design than Washington, DC or any of these others, however. This is the modest American city of Sandusky, Ohio, where the street plan is laid out in the form of a Masonic square and compasses over an ordinary grid of streets. The surveyor who laid out the town, Hector Kilbourne, was also the first Master of the Masonic lodge in Sandusky – a detail that explains the source of the town plan’s Masonic features. To the present writer’s knowledge, however, Sandusky has yet to feature in conspiracy theory or alternate-realities literature, either as a hotbed of devil worship or as a center of the ancient mysteries.

Further reading: Kurtz 1972, Ovason 2000, Watkins 1925.

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