One of the core elements of the western occult tradition, the Cabala emerged in Jewish mystical circles in southern France around the middle of the twelfth century CE. In English it is spelled variously Cabala, Kabbalah, and Qabala, due to the difficulty of expressing Hebrew sounds adequately in Latin letters. In recent times various branches of the tradition have adopted different spellings as a way of differentiating themselves from the competition, but the Hebrew word (QBLH) simply means “tradition,” or “that which is passed down.”

Like most mystical traditions, the Cabala engaged in retrospective recruitment, backdating itself centuries before its actual origin. According to some texts, the Cabala was originally revealed to Adam in the Garden of Eden by the angel Raziel. Adam’s third son, Seth, when he journeyed to the gates of Paradise, then learned the Cabala from the angels who guarded the garden with a flaming sword. The patriarch Abraham is also cited as an early Cabalist, while all accounts agree that Moses received the Cabala as well as the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. From one or another of these beginnings, according to traditional histories, the Cabala has been passed on from master to disciple until the present. See retrospective recruitment.

The actual origins of the Cabala can be traced to a circle of mystics around Rabbi Isaac the Blind, a leader of the Jewish community in Narbonne, France, who died around 1235. Rabbi Isaac and his students had material from two older systems of Jewish mysticism, the Ma’aseh Berashith (Work of Creation), based on the Book of Genesis, and the Ma’aseh Merkabah (Work of the Chariot), based on the Book of Ezekiel. They also had a good working familiarity with Neoplatonism, a Greek mystical philosophy that had been borrowed and reworked extensively by Jewish, Christian, and Muslim mystics alike. An old book from the Ma’aseh Berashith literature, the Sepher retzirah (Book of Formation) and a collection of old fragments reworked by Isaac’s circle into the Sepher ha-Bahir (Book of Radiance), provided essential elements for the new synthesis.

The Cabala caught on quickly in Jewish communities in Spain, where schools started by Isaac’s pupils sprang up in the thirteenth century in Burgos, Gerona, and Toledo. The masterpiece of the tradition, the sprawling Sepher ha-Zohar (Book of Splendor), was written by Moses de Leon in the thirteenth century, but attributed by him to the second-century Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai. In the century or so before the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, Cabalistic ideas became all but universal in the Jewish communities of that country, and spread across the Mediterranean world.

In 1486, the Italian Hermetic philosopher and magician Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola learned about the Cabala from a Jewish friend, and shocked intellectuals across Europe by proclaiming that, “no science can better convince us of the divinity of Jesus Christ than magic and the Cabala.” By the time Pico died in 1494, the German scholar Johannes Reuchlin had published De Verbo Mirifico (On the Wonder-working Word), the first published introduction to Christian Cabala. In 1533 Henricus Cornelius Agrippa launched a Hermetic, magical Cabala with his bestselling Three Books of Occult Philosophy. From that point on, the Cabala was an integral part of most western occult traditions, and permeated the underworld of occult secret societies throughout the western world.

The factor that made the Cabala so pervasive is its flexibility. At its foundation is a simple act of counting. In the opening passages of the Book of Genesis, the phrase “God said” appears 10 times, while God is described as doing 22 other things in the process of creating the world. The circles of Jewish mystics around Isaac the Blind linked these divine speeches and acts to the numbers from 1 to 10 and the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Later generation’s of Cabalists added more layers of symbolism, resulting in an infinitely expansive symbolic matrix in which everything in the universe relates to one of the 10 sephiroth (“numberings” in Hebrew), and the Hebrew letters define 22 paths that connect the sephiroth together and channel energy from one to another. Together, the sephiroth and paths form a diagram called the Tree of Life.

The symbolic patterns of the Tree of Life can be used in a galaxy of different ways. Traditional Jewish Cabala applies them largely to the task of interpreting the scriptures, a task made much easier by the fact that every Hebrew letter is also a number. In Cabalistic analysis, or gematria, the numerical values of words, phrases, and whole sentences are added up, and their totals compared with those of others; any two words or passages that add up to exactly the same value, according to the Cabalistic tradition, have exactly the same meaning. Thus in Genesis 18:2, where God visits Abraham, the Hebrew words for the phrase “And behold, three men” adds up to the same number as the phrase “These are Michael, Raphael and Gabriel;” by this equation, Cabalists know that the “three men” were actually these three great angels. See Gematria.

In the Hermetic and magical branch of Cabala, by contrast, analysis of scripture plays little if any role, and the Cabala functions as the fundamental symbolic toolkit of the operative magician. A Hermetic occultist designing a ritual to bring balance into a situation, for example, starts by identifying this goal with one of the 10 sephiroth – in this case Tiphareth (Beauty), the sixth sephirah, which represents the point of balance between extremes. The occultist drapes her altar with a yellow cloth, places six candles on it, burns frankincense in the censer, and wears a crown of laurel leaves; she begins the ritual, during the day and hour assigned to the sun, by ringing a bell or chime six times, and calls on the archangel Raphael, or on solar gods such as Apollo or Ra – all these being symbols of Tiphareth. See Magic.

The Cabala has been one of the major sources of symbolism for secret societies of every kind. Magical secret societies such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn relied on it constantly, and most of the higher grades of Freemasonry borrowed from it extensively. It is not accidental, for example, that the Scottish Rite has 33 degrees – these represent the 10 sephiroth and 22 paths, plus one more to represent the pure potential from which the paths and sephiroth alike unfolded – or that its predecessor, the Rite of Perfection, had 22 degrees. More surprising, but equally relevant, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows – the largest fraternal order in the world a century ago – has a total of 10 degrees of initiation, and assigns 22 emblems to these degrees. In all three cases the symbolism of the degrees can be mapped onto the Cabalistic Tree of Life precisely. It is fair to say that a knowledge of the Cabala is one of the master keys to the secret society traditions of the western world. See Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite (AASR); Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn; Odd Fellowship; Rite of Perfection.

Further reading: Greer 1996, Scholem 1974.


See Samothracian mysteries.


Sicilian adventurer, 1743–95. Born Giuseppe Balsamo into a working-class family in Palermo, he spent a short time in his youth as a novice of the Brothers of Mercy, a Catholic monastic order, but was expelled after a series of scandals and launched a new career as a confidence artist and forger who claimed to have magical powers. After convincing several landowners that spirits would show him buried treasure on their property for a price, he was caught forging the title deed to an estate and fled Palermo.

He next turned up in Rome, where he met and married the beautiful blonde Lorenza Feliciani, a belt-maker’s daughter in her teens with a taste for high living and no moral scruples worth mentioning. The two of them quickly found a niche preying on the highest circles of European society. Balsamo at first called himself the Marquis Pellegrini, then settled on the more dashing Count Alessandro Cagliostro, while Lorenza became the Countess Seraphina Cagliostro. He sold patent medicines and elixirs of life for inflated prices, while she marketed her charms to rich noblemen and dabbled in blackmail as well. The proceeds proved rewarding enough to ensure that Cagliostro was soon in the forefront of society, moving from city to city just often enough to keep the threat of exposure at bay.

In 1777 he was in London, and there applied for membership to a Masonic lodge affiliated with the Rite of Strict Observance, then the most popular Masonic rite in Germany. He was initiated in the first four degrees of the Rite’s system, and a short time thereafter announced that he had found an old Masonic manuscript at a London bookstall, containing rituals for a system of Egyptian Masonry as old as the pyramids, full of occult and alchemical secrets. His new Egyptian Rite was launched in 1778, with Cagliostro as Grand Copht, and immediately attracted a wide following. Since the initiation fees and dues paid by members of the Rite ended up in Cagliostro’s pocket, this proved much more lucrative than his previous trade in elixirs and launched the most successful phase of his career. See Rite of Strict Observance.

He traveled around Europe with Lorenza for most of the following decade, establishing lodges of the Egyptian Rite and spending money lavishly. In 1780 he came to Strasbourg and became an intimate of Louis, Cardinal Rohan, one of the most influential men in France. After traveling elsewhere in France, establishing the Grand Lodge of his Egyptian Rite in Lyons, Cagliostro made a triumphant entry into Paris in 1785, cutting a dashing figure in Parisian society. In August of that year, however, he was arrested along with Rohan as the “affair of the diamond necklace” came to light. This was a complicated fraud in which Rohan was duped into spending 1,600,000 livres on a diamond necklace, supposedly for the French queen Marie Antoinette, whose political and sexual favors Rohan hoped to enjoy. While Cagliostro’s complicity in the hoax has never been proved, he repeatedly advised Rohan to do what the plotters wanted.

For his part in the affair, Cagliostro spent most of a year in the Bastille; in June 1786 he was released and banished from France. Through the whole affair, the French popular press mocked him unmercifully as a fraudulent alchemist and poseur. The final blow fell late in 1786, when a newspaper article by a hack journalist in London, Charles Théveneau de Morande, traced him back to his origins and revealed, behind the dashing image of Count Cagliostro, the far less impressive figure of Giuseppe Balsamo, the confidence artist from Palermo. Abandoned by his patrons, Cagliostro fled from London to Switzerland, and Lorenza, who wanted to see her family again, convinced him to go on to Rome. There, in 1789, he was arrested by the Inquisition. The Roman Catholic Church at that time considered Freemasonry to be a religious heresy; Cagliostro was condemned to death, but the pope commuted his sentence to life imprisonment. He lingered in the dungeons of the papal fortress of San Leo until 1795, when he died of a stroke.

Cagliostro’s dazzling career and his dismal fate in the pope’s dungeons predisposed many people in the Protestant countries of Europe to remember him as the mysterious Masonic adept he pretended to be. There are still occultists and occult traditions that insist that Cagliostro the Grand Copht and Giuseppe Balsamo the petty crook were two different people. The Fratres Lucis, a small British occult order of the late nineteenth century, claimed to have received its teachings from the spirit of Cagliostro via crystal ball.

Further reading: Butler 1948, Trowbridge 1910.


French for “hood.” Popular name of the Organisation Secrete de l’Action Révolutionnaire Nationale (Secret Organization of National Revolutionary Action), a French right-wing secret society founded in 1935 to oppose the Third Republic and prepare the way for a fascist takeover. Some of its members borrowed the Ku Klux Klan’s custom of wearing hoods to conceal their identity, thus their popular name, and the Klan’s activities in America seem to have been a source of inspiration for the Cagoule’s leaders. Much of the Cagoule’s ideology, however, came from synarchy, a right-wing political ideology popular among French secret societies in the early twentieth century. See Ku Klux Klan; synarchy.

The Cagoule had a military organization and recruited heavily from other secret societies on the French right wing. Arms from Germany, Italy, and Spain provided the wherewithal for the planned seizure of power. An attempt to fake left-wing bombings of industrial employers’ associations in Paris in September of 1937, though, brought the attention of the authorities down on the would-be revolutionaries. The Cagoule’s leader, Eugène Deloncle, was arrested the following month, and the organization’s arms dumps surfaced shortly thereafter. Stripped of their weapons and publicly humiliated, the Cagoule sank into insignificance, though many of its members collaborated with the Nazis and the Vichy regime after the French defeat in 1940.


A text from Catholic canon law dating from ninth-century France, the canon Episcopi (the title comes from the Latin for the first word of the text, “Bishops”) was mistakenly thought to come from the fourth-century Council of Ancyra, and found its way into several major medieval collections of canon law. In criticizing various forms of semi-pagan folk belief as superstitious and un-Christian, it provides the first solid documentation for a tradition found in many other parts of medieval and early modern Europe. The specific passage runs as follows:

Some wicked women…profess that in the hours of the night they ride out with Diana, the goddess of the pagans and an innumerable multitude of other women, and in the silence of the dead of night they journey over vast distances of the earth, and obey her commands as their mistress, and are summoned to her service on certain nights.

This tradition of nocturnal shamanistic journeys appears in various places – a group of goddess worshippers rounded up by the Inquisition in fourteenth-century Milan, the benandanti (“good walkers”) of northeastern Italy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the testimony of a seventeenth-century werewolf from Estonia, and many others. Exactly what was going on is difficult to tell from this distance of time, but clearly a widespread but coherent shamanistic tradition existed in organized form in medieval Europe, and survived until quite recent times in a few areas. Some scholars have argued that distorted accounts of these traditions may have helped inspire the first great wave of witchcraft persecution. See Benandanti; witchcraft persecutions.

Further reading: Ginzburg 1991.


A powerful force in the European revolutionary struggles of the early nineteenth century, the Carbonari (“Charcoal Burners”) traced its roots back to southeastern France around the beginning of the French Revolution, where a fraternal association called la Charbonnerie was among the most popular social groups. La Charbonnerie claimed descent from medieval charcoal burners, but probably derived from the Order of Woodcutters (Ordre des Fendeurs), a fraternal secret society founded by Masons and their wives in the 1740s in Paris. See Order of Woodcutters.

One of the initiates of la Charbonnerie, Pierre Joseph Briot, ended up in Naples after the French conquest of Italy. Briot had been a member of the House of Five Hundred, the lower house of the French revolutionary parliament under the Directory, and remained faithful to the ideals of the Revolution even after Napoleon’s seizure of power. In Naples, along with other French Republicans opposed to the march toward empire, Briot blended the rituals and traditions of la Charbonnerie with elements from Masonic sources to create the Carbonari. See Freemasonry; French Revolution.

Members of the Carbonari called one another “good cousins” and pledged mutual support and protection on the blade of an ax. Their lodges were termed venditas, literally “shops.” They worked a system of two degrees, apprentice and master; in the latter, initiates were taught the legendary origin of the Carbonari, a long tale involving St Theobald, King Francis I of France, and poor but honest Scottish charcoal burners. Members took Carbonaro names drawn from the history of the Middle Ages, and had secret signs and passwords to identify themselves to other Carbonari. All this follows patterns shared with many other secret societies of the same time. Less standard was the requirement that each Carbonaro acquire a rifle, fifty cartridges, and a dagger immediately after initiation and be prepared to use them in the struggle for liberty.

During the first four decades of the nineteenth century, the Carbonari had a remarkable degree of success in organizing political pressure and revolutionary violence across Europe. The keys to the Carbonari achievement were twofold. First was its use of popular religious symbolism instead of the symbols of esoteric spirituality; these made it more acceptable in the devoutly Catholic and Eastern Orthodox countries where it flourished. Second was its deliberate strategy of recruiting from the middle classes, who provided most government functionaries and junior army officers for the European governments of the time. The Carbonari ideal of constitutional government appealed powerfully to these classes, since it offered them a voice in government and protection against the abuses of autocracy. Carbonari venditas built on this by recruiting bureaucrats, policemen, and soldiers, with dramatic results over the following decades as the rulers of Europe’s autocratic states found their own officers and civil servants on the other side of the barricades. This program of infiltration also made it easier for the Carbonari to counter the efforts made to suppress them, since the police and soldiers detailed to hunt them were as often as not members themselves.

Alongside this strategy ran an organizational flexibility that few other secret societies achieved. While a Supreme Vendita in Paris served as a central coordinating body, and High Venditas in each country had authority over venditas in their territories, the control exercised by these bodies over individual venditas was modest at best, and local venditas were, for most purposes, independent. Members of the Carbonari’s second degree were also free to establish groups of their own, called economias (“economies”), to pursue specific goals within the broad framework of the overall Carbonari agenda. Some of the major revolutionary secret societies of the early nineteenth century started out as Carbonari economias, and many stayed in close contact with the Carbonari throughout their existence.

The Carbonari first flexed their muscles in 1814, during the waning days of Napoleon’s power, when the order helped topple French puppet governments the length of the Italian peninsula. In 1820 and 1821, Carbonari revolts set up short-lived constitutional regimes in Spain and several Italian states, and a Greek branch of the order, the Philike Hetairia, launched a massive rising that won Greek independence after four centuries of Turkish rule. The Decembrist rising in St Petersburg and the Ukraine against Tsar Nicholas I of Russia in 1824 was largely inspired by the Carbonari example, and revolts in Paris in 1830 and central Italy in 1831 had strong backing from the Carbonari. Outside Greece, none of the Carbonari revolts succeeded in their immediate aims, as the conservative powers of Europe quickly sent troops to suppress any successful rising, but the constant threat of Carbonari risings played a large part in forcing governments across Europe to grant civil rights to their people. See Decembrists; Philike Hetairia.

Some of the most famous revolutionists of the age were members of the Carbonari at various points in their careers. The veteran conspirator Filippo Buonarroti, a tireless organizer of revolutionary secret societies, had close connections with the Carbonari during his years in Swiss exile, and made use of his Carbonaro connections in recruiting for his primary secret society, the Sublime Perfect Masters. Later in his career he reorganized the Carbonari in France in 1832 as the Reformed Carbonarism (Charbonnerie Réformée), renamed Universal Democratic Carbonarism (Charbonnerie Démocratique Universelle) the next year. Buonarroti’s great opponent in the revolutionary debates of the early nineteenth century, Giuseppe Mazzini (1805–72), shared his Carbonaro background; Mazzini’s main secret society, Young Italy, started out as a Carbonari economia. See Buonarroti, Filippo; Sublime Perfect Masters; Young Italy.

Further reading: Billington 1980, Hales 1956, Mackenzie 1967, Roberts 1972.


American musician and occultist. Born in Fairport, New York into a middle-class family, Case (1884–1956) showed remarkable talent for music in childhood and was a professional musician by his teens. After meeting the occultist Claude Bragdon in 1900, Case took up the study of occultism and yoga. In 1907 he contacted William Walker Atkinson, one of the leading figures in the occult community. The two worked together extensively; together with Michael Whitty of the Alpha et Omega – the largest Golden Dawn group in America at that time – they wrote The Kybalion, which was published anonymously in 1912 and went on to become one of the classics of American occult literature. See Atkinson, William Walker; Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

In 1915 Case, then living in New York City, became a student of Aleister Crowley and was initiated into the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), rising to the third degree. He left the OTO after a few years, though, and joined the Alpha et Omega, still headed by his friend Michael Whitty. In 1918 he was initiated into New York’s Thoth-Hermes Temple, taking the magical motto Perseverantia, and reached the grade of Adeptus Minor in 1920. When Whitty died the same year, Case was appointed Praemonstrator (chief instructional officer) in America. In 1921 he formed a study group within Thoth-Hermes Temple, calling it the Hermetic Order of Atlantis. See Crowley, Aleister; Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO).

A series of disagreements with Moina Mathers, the Alpha et Omega’s chief, came to a head in 1922, and Mathers expelled Case from the order. Unfazed, Case took most of the members of the Hermetic Order of Atlantis with him, and launched his own organization, the School of Ageless Wisdom, the next year. An occult correspondence school at first, it transformed itself into an esoteric secret society over the next decade. Case’s initiation into Freemasonry in 1926 may have helped catalyze this process by convincing him that ritual work in a group setting had potentials worth exploring. In 1938 Case renamed his organization Builders of the Adytum. See Builders of the Adytum (BOTA); Freemasonry.

The rest of Case’s life was intimately tied up in the growth of BOTA into one of the premier American occult schools. In 1932 he moved the order’s headquarters to Los Angeles, the most important center of American occultism during the Depression years. He continued to write and teach until shortly before his death while vacationing in Mexico in 1954.


The last major Gnostic movement in the western world before the nineteenth century, the Cathars (“pure ones”) or Albigensians (“those from Albi”) emerged in northern Italy and southern France around the middle of the eleventh century. While Gnostic groups existed in those regions centuries before, the Cathar movement began with the arrival of Bogomil missionaries from the Balkans in that century. The first use of the term “Cathar” was in Monteforte, Italy, where the Gnostic community called itself by this term as early as 1030. See Gnosticism.

Like earlier Gnostics, the Cathars argued that the universe was created by an evil power as a prison for souls descended from a spiritual world of light. Jesus, according to their belief, descended from the world of light to show imprisoned souls the way of escape, but his teachings had been perverted by servants of the evil creator god. Cathar theologians debated whether the evil god had existed from the beginning of time, as claimed in the Cathar scripture The Book of the Two Principles, or whether he was a fallen servant of the true god, as claimed in another Cathar scripture, The Gospel of the Secret Supper. These two points of view have been called “absolute dualism” and “mitigated dualism” by modern scholars. See dualism.

These doctrines found such a favorable reception in southern France that in 1167 Nicetas, a leading Bogomil bishop, traveled to Toulouse. By 1200 the new Cathar Church was well on its way to becoming the majority religion in southern France and was sending out missionaries as far afield as England and western Germany. Believers fell into two classes. Perfecti or “perfect ones,” pledged to poverty, vegetarianism, and celibacy, formed the clergy, while credentes, “believers” free from ascetic restrictions, formed the mass of the movement. The Gnostic belief that ignorance rather than sin barred the way to the realm of light fostered a more relaxed attitude toward sex, and helped spark a brilliant literature of love poetry.

The Cathars rejected all of the Catholic Church’s sacraments and replaced them with rituals of their own. The most important of these was the Consolamentum (“consolation”), a ritual of laying on of hands by which a Cathar believer was received among the ranks of the perfecti. Another ritual, the Endura, consisted of deliberate suicide by starvation, and was considered a shortcut back to the world of light. Despite recent claims, the ritual of the Consolamentum has survived in several copies and contains no references to the Holy Grail, the Knights Templar, bloodlines descended from Jesus of Nazareth, or any of the other hot topics in today’s alternative-history industry. See Grail; Knights Templar.

The response of the Roman Catholic Church to the rise of the Cathars was as predictable as it was brutal. In 1209, after various efforts by papal legates to bring southern France back into the Catholic fold failed dismally, Pope Innocent III pro-claimed a crusade against the Cathars. The crusaders, eventually joined by King Louis VIII of France, ravaged the south of France without mercy. By the time the last Cathar citadel at Montségur fell in 1244, the population of the region had fallen by more than half. Refugees fled into northern Italy, Catalonia, and Bosnia. In 1233, to complete the task of rooting out Catharism, Pope Gregory IX founded the Inquisition and placed it under the control of the Dominicans. The legal precedents established by the Inquisition over the next half century in the effort to exterminate the Cathar faith laid the groundwork for the witchcraft persecutions of the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries. See Roman Catholic Church; witchcraft persecutions.

Like the Gnostic movement as a whole, the Cathars had a complex afterlife once Christian orthodoxy lost political power in the western world. The first revivals of Catharism appeared in southern France in the early years of the nineteenth century, and drew much of their strength from a strong current of cultural and linguistic separatism in the south of the country. The establishment of Jules Doinel’s Gnostic Church in Paris in 1828 helped drive the revival of the Cathar faith by making Gnosticism a known factor in popular culture. Several independent Cathar churches now exist in France and elsewhere.

This revival also succeeded in launching the Cathars into the underworld of rejected knowledge, where the facts of the Cathar faith soon got lost beneath a torrent of fashionable beliefs and sheer invention. The Cathars featured in Madame Blavatsky’s first great work, Isis Unveiled (1877), and found themselves adopted as ancestors by a variety of early twentieth-century occult groups via the long-established tradition of retrospective recruitment. The explosion of alternative theories of Christian origins in the late twentieth century, sparked by media treatments of Pierre Plantard’s remarkable Priory of Sion hoax and the publication of the Nag Hammadi Gnostic scriptures, also enlisted the Cathars under many different (and often mutually contradictory) banners. In all this outpouring of misinformation the reality of a remarkable spiritual movement is in danger of being forgotten. See Blavatsky, Helena Petrovna; Christian origins; Priory of Sion; rejected knowledge; retrospective recruitment.

Further reading: Barnstone and Meyer 2003, Runciman 1995.


A minor secret society with a major impact on late nineteenth-century culture, the Catholic Order of the Rose+Cross (Ordre Catholique de la Rose+Croix) was founded in 1890 by Joséphin Péladan, a flamboyant French art critic, occultist and novelist who two years earlier had been one of the founders of the Kabba-listic Order of the Rose+Cross, the premier French occult secret society of its time. Péladan combined his occult beliefs with a devout if idiosyncratic Catholic faith, and had doctrinal as well as personal disagreements with Stanislaus de Guaita, the Grand Master of the Kabbalistic Order. In 1890 Péladan broke away from the latter and founded an order of his own. See Kabbalistic Order of the Rose+Cross.

The Catholic Order was never much more than a framework for Péladan’s own artistic crusade, but Péladan was the leading defender of the Symbolist movement in art and a friend of major artists and musicians of the time. Under his order’s banner, he produced six famous art exhibitions, the Salons de la Rose+Croix, which showcased Symbolist art between 1892 and 1897 and helped launch the career of eccentric French composer Erik Satie. While it never had many members, the Catholic Order, later renamed the Order of the Temple and the Grail, remained quietly active during Péladan’s life.

When Péladan died in 1918, what was left of his order fragmented. His long-time personal secretary, Georges Monti, attempted to establish himself as the new Sâr or head of the order, but had little success. In Monti’s last years, however, he found one student, a young man named Pierre Plantard, who later went on to model his own secret society – the undeservedly famous Priory of Sion – on the Catholic Order of the Rose+Cross. See Priory of Sion.


The basic structure of political secret societies during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the cell system was pioneered by Italian secret societies in the very early 1800s but spread throughout the secret society underworld within a few decades. Intended to prevent secret police from infiltrating an organization, the cell system divides up the membership of a secret society into “cells” of between 3 and 12 members. Each cell has a leader, and only the cell leader has contact with the next higher level of the organization. A group of between 3 and 12 cell leaders form a second-level cell, and only the leader of that cell has contact with the third level, which is usually the core of the organization. As new members are recruited, they become members of first-level cells, with no access to higher levels, no contact with members outside their own cells, and a very limited idea of the society’s plans and objectives.

While the cell system is foolproof in theory, in practice it usually proved impossible to maintain the absolute division among cells and levels that the system required. Secret police in most countries became adept at getting agents into the upper levels of a secret society, where they could gather information on the society’s membership and plans. The failure of the cell system was one of the main factors behind “leaderless resistance,” a system of non-organization popular in right-wing secret societies at the end of the twentieth century.


The most powerful conservative secret society in Napoleonic France, the Chevaliers du Foi or Chevaliers of Faith were organized in 1810 by Ferdinand de Bertier (1782–1864), whose father, the Intendant of Paris, was murdered by a mob just after the fall of the Bastille. A royalist and devout Catholic, Bertier became involved in conspiracies against Napoleon’s regime in his youth. In 1809, after the pope was arrested by Napoleon’s police and imprisoned in France, Bertier was thrown into prison for helping to circulate copies of the bull of excommunication against all those involved. See French Revolution.

After his release in 1810, Bertier joined a Masonic lodge to find out how it worked, and then launched his own secret society, the Chevaliers of Faith. Officially, the Chevaliers existed to carry out works of charity and piety, and members of the lowest level of initiation, Associés de Charité (Charitable Associates), learned no more than this. At the second level, Ecuyer (Squire), members learned that the order sought to re-establish medieval traditions of knighthood. Only at the third level, Chevalier, did initiates discover the existence of a political agenda within the order, and the nature of that agenda was revealed step-by-step in the three sub-grades of Chevalier, Hospitalier, and Chevalier of Faith; only members of this last sub-grade knew that the order aimed at Napoleon’s overthrow.

By 1813 the Chevaliers of Faith had a large following in several regions of France, and they played a significant role in the collapse of Napoleon’s regime the next year. Allied armies found themselves provided with detailed intelligence and guidance, and many historians hold that the Chevaliers stage-managed the Bordeaux rising in March 1814 that proclaimed Louis XVII King of France and got the Restoration under way. In the aftermath of Napoleon’s final defeat, the Chevaliers seem to have faded quietly away, their work done.


A handful of manuscript pages among the private papers of John Toland (1670–1722), the prolific Irish writer and philosopher, reveal nearly everything known about a Dutch secret society called Les Chevaliers de la Jubilation (the Chevaliers of Jubilation). Founded sometime before 1710 by a group of French exiles in The Hague, the Chevaliers were part dinner club, part private joke, and part serious conspiracy against French political and religious absolutism in the age of Louis XIV. See Toland, John.

Very little is known for certain about the Chevaliers; the surviving papers include minutes of four meetings, a short speech made by the Grand Master to the other members, and nothing else. The scanty source material includes the names of several members, the fact that the Chevaliers considered the Roman gods Mercury and Minerva to be their patrons, and the fact that they apparently drank a great deal. Toland himself was a member, and may have been the founder of the order during his stay in The Hague between 1708 and 1710.

A good deal of their reported meetings consisted of buffoonery and heavy drinking, but the Chevaliers had a serious purpose. Nearly all the members were French dissidents in exile from the autocratic government of their homeland, and several of them – Jean Rousset de Missy, Charles Levier, Michael Böhm, and possibly Toland himself – worked together to produce the most scandalous book of the eighteenth century, the Traité des Trois Imposteurs (Treatise on the Three Impostors), which argued that Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad were swindlers who manufactured bogus religions in order to manipulate people through fear and credulity, and proposed a new pantheist religion of nature.

The central target of this treatise was the intensely Catholic and conservative absolutism of Louis XIV of France. Ideas of the sort put into circulation by the Chevaliers of Jubilation, however, helped lay the foundation for radical secret societies in France and elsewhere in western Europe for more than two centuries to come.

Further reading: Jacob 1981.


A radical racist movement that broke away from American Protestantism in the middle of the twentieth century, Christian Identity recast many of the dualist themes of classical Gnosticism in a violent new vein. With its call for a race war between whites and so-called “mud people,” the Christian Identity movement launched a number of revolutionary secret societies in 1980s America. See dualism; Gnosticism.

The Christian Identity movement emerged out of British Israelitism, an unlikely nineteenth-century ideology that argued that the British people were actually one of the lost tribes of Israel. The British Israelite movement spread to the United States and Canada in the last decades of the nineteenth century, where it became a fringe preoccupation of a tiny faction of conservative Protestant sects. During the early twentieth century, a handful of churches in California and British Columbia combined this with the pervasive racism and antisemitism of the time, and ended up claiming they were descended from the ancient Israelites, but that modern Jews were not. See Antisemitism.

These views found common cause with another fringe movement in American Protestant Christianity, the “two seeds” theology of Baptist theologian Daniel Parker (1781–1844), who argued that humanity was divided into two bloodlines, an evil bloodline descending from Cain, supposedly fathered on Eve by Satan, and a good bloodline descending from Seth, whose father was Adam. This theory became popular in the South after the American Civil War and was put to use by racist ideologues at the turn of the century, who argued that the children of Seth were white while those of Cain were black.

During the 1950s and 1960s, these ideologies flowed together to form the Christian Identity movement. Wesley Swift (1913–70), the leading theoretician of the movement during its formative years, taught that the “Aryan race” (that is, light-skinned people of European ancestry) were the true Israelites and the children of God, while all other races are animals who happen to look human, and Jews are literally the biological descendants of Satan. To Wesley and his followers, a final battle between Aryans and their racial enemies was about to begin, and white people therefore needed to arm and equip themselves for a race war of extermination. This rhetoric moved from theory to practice in 1983 with the founding of the Bruders Schweigen, a racist secret society that attempted to launch a revolution against ZOG, the so-called “Zionist Occupation Government” of the United States. See Bruders Schweigen; Zionist Occupation Government (ZOG).

The complete failure of the Bruders Schweigen project forced Christian Identity groups to reconsider their plans for racial warfare. The spread of racist paganism and neo-Nazi secret societies in the last decades of the twentieth century also drew many potential recruits away from the Christian Identity movement. It remains a significant force on the extreme right in America, however, and has substantial overlaps with contemporary neo-Nazi groups and surviving branches of the Ku Klux Klan. See Ku Klux Klan; neo-Nazi secret societies.

Further reading: Aho 1990, Barkun 1997, Gardell 1994, Goodrick-Clarke 2002.


As the largest religious movement in the modern world, and one of the most diverse and fractious religions in recorded history, Christianity has always had to deal with competing stories about its origins and early development. The question of Christian origins starts from the fact that for the first two centuries or so of its existence, the Christian movement was one of hundreds of tiny religious cults on the social fringes of the Roman world, and left very few traces of its existence. On the inkblot patterns of the handful of surviving sources, none of them impartial and many of them drastically edited later on, almost any set of claims can be projected.

According to the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, Christianity began with the career of Jesus of Nazareth, the son of the creator god of the universe, who transmitted a system of teachings, sacraments, and spiritual authority to a circle of followers before his death by crucifixion at the hands of the Roman colonial government of Judea. The books selected for inclusion in the New Testament all support this claim to one extent or another. See Jesus of Nazareth; Roman Catholic Church.

Other early Christian scriptures ex-cluded from the New Testament, many of them lost until twentieth-century archeological discoveries brought them to light again, challenge every aspect of the orthodox account but fail to establish any common ground among the alternatives. The wildly diverse Gnostic movement, which flourished from the first to the fourteenth centuries of the Common Era, presented dozens of interpretations of the nature of Jesus and the founding of Christianity. Early Jewish and Pagan sources, most of which survive only in fragments, suggest an alternative vision of Jesus of Nazareth as an itinerant wizard and folk healer on the fringes of Jewish society; while this interpretation is deeply disturbing to most Christians, it fits the evidence better than most other claims, including that of orthodoxy. See Gnosticism; Magic.

The last three centuries, however, have seen the greatest variety of alternative visions of Christian origins enter the field of debate. In the early eighteenth century, for example, French free-thinkers in a secret society titled the Chevaliers of Jubilation wrote and published one of the most scandalous books of the century, the Traité des Trois Imposteurs (Treatise on the Three Impostors), which claimed that Jesus of Nazareth was one of “three impostors” (the others being Moses and Muhammad) who manufactured fake religions and imposed them on credulous people. See Chevaliers of Jubilation.

It would take a volume larger than this one to describe all the accounts of Christian origins proposed during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Three in particular, however, require some discussion. The first of these emerged from the rebirth of Gnostic spirituality in the nineteenth century following the establishment of the Eglise Gnostique (Gnostic Church) by Jules Doinel in 1828. Doinel’s followers resurrected the old Gnostic teaching that Jesus had actually been a Gnostic but was redefined by the orthodox churches during the suppression of Gnosticism in the third and fourth centuries CE. By the early twentieth century this idea had become widespread, and came to focus on the revision of Jesus’ teaching by the apostle Paul, whose New Testament writings include most of the elements of Christian theology modern people find objectionable, and who many scholars believe played a central role in defining the version of Christian belief that ended up becoming the orthodox version of the faith.

A second theme entered the field of Christian origins via Theosophy’s belief in Masters, advanced spiritual beings that watch over the course of human evolution. Many Theosophists from Christian backgrounds, searching for compromises between their new beliefs and their cultural heritage, came to see Jesus as one of the Masters, the Master of Compassion, whose teachings had been horribly distorted by the Christian churches of later times. By way of Theosophy’s massive influence on the twentieth-century occult community, this set of beliefs became part of a dizzying range of alternative spiritual systems in the twentieth century. See Masters; Theosophical Society.

A final theme came into play in the late twentieth century as the underworld of rejected knowledge moved into popular culture throughout the western world. The basic claim of the rejected-knowledge scene holds that all historical and scientific theories backed by authority must be wrong, and Christian origins offered a tempting field where longstanding claims of authority could be overturned. Pierre Plantard’s Priory of Sion hoax of the 1960s and 1970s, though it originally had nothing to do with Christian origins, was reworked by the trio of British authors who publicized it in the late 1970s and early 1980s into a vehicle for colorful speculations about Jesus of Nazareth, and the huge popular success of their book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (1982) established alternative theories of Christian origins as a lucrative publishing field. Since that time almost any imaginable speculation about Christian origins has found a ready market, and such speculations have become fodder for an entire genre of popular novels, including Dan Brown’s bestseller The Da Vinci Code (2003). See Da Vinci Code, the; Priory of Sion; rejected knowledge.

Despite this torrent of speculation, the one thing that remains certain so far is that real evidence on the origins and development of the tiny fringe religious movement that became Christianity is very scarce. The words “We simply don’t know” are among the least satisfying in the English language, but this is one situation in which they need to be used much more often than they have been to date.

Further reading: Baigent et al. 1983, Smith 1978.


A major player in the twentieth-century American occult scene, the Church of Light traces its ancestry back to the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor (H.B. of L.), one of the most influential occult secret societies of the late nineteenth century. After the H.B. of L. collapsed in a scandal in 1886, members in America reorganized as the Hermetic Brotherhood of Light in 1895. In 1900, the new organization recruited a young man named Benjamin Williams (1882–1951) who, under the name Elbert Benjamine, became a member of its governing triad in 1909 and its sole effective leader by 1914. See Hermetic Brotherhood of Light; Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor (H.B. of L.).

In that year he began the process of transforming the Brotherhood into a correspondence school, following the model already pioneered by the original Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, and 1915 saw Benjamine and the Brotherhood’s headquarters move to Los Angeles, at that time a hotbed of American occultism. For the next two decades Benjamine, under the pen name C.C. Zain, wrote an immense, 210-lesson study course in astrology and occult philosophy.

In 1932, the Brotherhood of Light (as it then called itself) reorganized itself as a religious body, the Church of Light. Its members, or Stellarians, follow what Benjamine termed “the Religion of the Stars,” a fusion between occult philosophy and astrological teachings. Stellarians work their way through the 21 volumes of Benjamine’s study course, and receive no fewer than 50 degrees of initiation; the first 21 are earned by mastering sections of the study course, the second 21 must be earned by achieving certain psychic states, while the final 8 can be earned only by reaching advanced spiritual states. Members who receive all 50 degrees are eligible to join an inner order, the Order of the Sphinx.

Like most of the great occult correspondence schools of the period, the Church of Light passed through difficult times in the second half of the twentieth century, as membership dropped and most people interested in the occult turned away from traditional Hermetic orders toward Wicca and other more recently founded systems. In the 1990s, however, the Church’s leaders came into contact with scholars researching the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor and its offshoots, sparking a renewed interest among Church members in their own history and roots. The relocation of the Church headquarters from a decaying Los Angeles neighborhood to a suburban location also helped buoy the organization. At present the Church of Light remains active, with a significant Internet presence, and its inner Order of the Sphinx has revived many of the old magical practices of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor. See Wicca.


Among the most colorful organizations in late twentieth-century popular occultism, the Church of Satan was founded in 1966 by San Francisco eccentric Howard Stanton Levey (1930–77), better known by his assumed name Anton Szandor LaVey. Beginning in the late 1950s, LaVey parlayed an interest in the occult and a willingness to shock into an impressive public presence, abetted by local and national media who reported even his most outrageous claims at face value without bothering to check the facts.

As much a work of performance art as anything else, LaVey’s Church of Satan became famous for public ceremonies that used all the trappings of traditional Satanism, including inverted pentagrams and female nudity. The church also taught LaVey’s Satanist philosophy, a system of “rational selfishness” derived from the writings of Russian-American Objectivist philosopher Ayn Rand. Belief in the existence of Satan as an actual being was never one of the church’s articles of faith; this detail completely escaped the notice of fundamentalists across the United States, who boosted LaVey’s publicity campaign markedly by denouncing him at every turn. See fundamentalism; Satanism.

The late 1960s and early 1970s were the glory days of the Church of Satan, as LaVey attracted celebrities such as Jayne Mansfield and Sammy Davis Jr. to his organization, and performed Satanic weddings, baptisms, and funerals in a glare of media publicity; 1969 saw the publication of his bestselling The Satanic Bible and an appearance on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. LaVey organized a network of local Grottoes across the United States in the following years as would-be Satanists flocked to the Church of Satan’s banner. Many of these new recruits took Satanism far more seriously than LaVey did, however, and found his passion for publicity difficult to handle. In 1975 one of the Satanic priests he had ordained, Michael Aquino, broke with the Church of Satan to found a rival organization, the Temple of Set, and not long thereafter LaVey closed the Grottoes and abandoned the limelight. See Temple of Set.

The Church of Satan remained in existence, however, and surfaced again in the early 1990s as members of the alternative music scene adopted LaVey’s kitsch Satanism as a symbol of their disaffection from society. A new book by LaVey, The Devil’s Notebook, helped draw a new generation into the Church. The organization survived LaVey’s death and remains active at the present time.

Further reading: LaVey 1969.


One of the many organizations named in modern conspiracy literature as parts of a global plot against humanity, the Club of Rome was established in 1968 by Aurelio Peccei, former CEO of Fiat, and a select group of industrialists and social scientists to discuss responses to what Peccei termed “the problematique” – the converging crises of industrial society produced by the attempt to sustain infinite material growth on a finite planet. Shortly after its founding, the Club commissioned a group of scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to run computer simulations of future economic and demographic trends. The results were published in 1973 as the bestselling book The Limits to Growth. The study’s results – that unrestricted economic growth leads to inevitable collapse due to resource depletion and pollution – sparked an immediate firestorm of criticism, but 30 years after the original study, its models remain among the more accurate predictions of the likely course of industrial society, with recent concerns about peaking oil production and global warming only the latest examples of “the problematique” in action.

Since the evasion of unacceptable facts is a driving force behind many modern conspiracy theories, the Club of Rome and its predictions have been grist for a good many conspiratorial mills. Several recent theories identify the Committee of 300, an alleged secret society of European industrialists, as the hidden power behind the Club of Rome. These theories claim that in order to bring about a new Dark Age and global slavery under a worldwide government, the Club publicized a fictional crisis to force the industrial countries of the world to de-industrialize and prevent Third World countries from undergoing an industrial revolution in the first place. The closure of most of America’s industrial plant during the Reagan years is said to be their doing, as was the collapse of the Russian economy after the fall of Communism in 1989. See Committee of 300.

The Club of Rome, like most policy-making organizations and think-tanks in the industrial world today, is a secret society only in the imaginations of conspiracy theorists. Still, the widening social chasm between educated elite groups and downwardly mobile middle and working classes in the developed world has increasingly pushed class antagonisms into a conspiracy-theory mold. As resource depletion and environmental damage become even more obvious problems than they are today, claims that such problems are the result of conspiracies will doubtless become more common still.


A branch of Freemasonry that admits women as well as men to membership, Co-Masonry traces its roots to a schism in the French branch of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite. One of the lodges involved in the schism, Les Libres Penseurs (The Free Thinkers) at Pecq in Seine-et-Oise, voted in 1881 to admit Mlle. Maria Desraimes to membership. Forbidden to do so by the Grand Loge Symbolique, their grand lodge, the lodge initiated her anyway and promptly had its charter suspended. In 1893, Mlle. Desraimes and a group of other women interested in Masonry, along with a number of male Masons who felt the exclusion of women from the Craft was unjustifiable, formed a new Grand Lodge that admitted both men and women. Over the next few years the new movement, Co-Masonry, spread rapidly; the first British lodge was founded in 1902 and the first American lodge the next year. See Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite (AASR); Freemasonry.

Among the members of the first lodge in London was Annie Besant, Madame Blavatsky’s successor as head of the Theosophical Society. Besant quickly brought Co-Masonry in the English-speaking world into a close alliance with Theosophy and used Theosophical connections to set up Co-Masonic lodges around the world. Not all Co-Masons have found the Theosophical presence agreeable, and one of the continuing sources of strain in the movement is the relevance of Theosophy to Co-Masonry. See Blavatsky, Helen Petrovna; Theosophical Society.

Officially, all regular Masonic grand lodges condemn Co-Masonry as irregular, and regular Masons who attend Co-Masonic lodge meetings face expulsion from their lodges. How strictly this rule is enforced varies sharply from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and there have been quiet, unofficial contacts between regular and Co-Masonic Masons for many years. Presently Co-Masonry remains active in some 50 countries around the world.

Committee of 300

One of the alleged secret societies proposed as secret masters of the world by modern conspiracy theorists, the Committee of 300 owes its existence in conspiracy literature to a passing remark in a 1909 newspaper article by Walther Rathenau, a German-Jewish industrialist and civil servant. Rathenau, in a passage criticizing industrial monopolies, commented that the European economic system was under the control of some 300 men who all knew one another. Reprinted in Rathenau’s 1921 book, Zur Kritik der Zeit (A Critique of the Times), the article came to the attention of German antisemites just after the first German publication of the forged Protocols of the Elders of Zion. See antisemitism; Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Erich von Ludendorff, the former general and leading right-wing politician, insisted in his 1922 book Kriegsführung und Politik (Warfare and Politics) that the 300 men were none other than the heads of the secret Jewish world conspiracy described in the Protocols. Articles in German antisemitic newspapers claimed that Rathenau’s knowledge of the exact number of these men proved that he himself was one of them. All this propaganda helped lay the groundwork for Rathenau’s 1922 assassination by right-wing fanatics allied to the Nazi Party, then a small but rising power in German politics.

By the middle years of the twentieth century the Committee of 300 had become a fixture of European conspiracy theories, and by the end of the century it merged with other conspiracy narratives. A recent book on the Committee, John Coleman’s Conspirator’s Hierarchy: The Story of the Committee of 300 (1992), describes the Committee – also known as the Olympians – as a secret society of aristocratic Satanists, and identifies them with the Bavarian Illuminati, the Bogomils, the Cathars, and the ancient Isaic and Dionysiac mysteries. The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), a standard element of contemporary conspiracy theories, is simply a pawn in the hands of the Committee, which also sponsors the Club of Rome. See Bavarian Illuminati; Cathars; Club of Rome; Council on Foreign Relations (CFR); Dionysian mysteries; Isaic mysteries; Satanism.

Despite all these impressive details, no one has actually offered any evidence that the Committee of 300 actually exists. While Rathenau’s original comment was quite likely correct at the time, and is at least as likely to be true today, the loosely organized network of financiers and industrialists he meant to describe seems much more plausible than the secret Satanic conspiracy imagined by the Committee’s would-be enemies.

Further reading: Cohn 1967, Coleman 1992.


One of the two major secret groups involved in the American Revolution, the Committees of Correspondence came into being in the 1760s among leading citizens of the American colonies who favored reforms in the colonies’ relationship with Great Britain. The Committees circulated news and helped coordinate political activities across the 13 colonies. Many of their members were also involved in Freemasonry; no evidence shows a direct link between colonial Masonic lodges and the Committees, but Masonic connections likely formed a major channel by which the Committees expanded and recruited new members. See American Revolution; Freemasonry.

The Committees in New York and Boston played an important role in founding the other major secret society of the Revolution, the terrorist Sons of Liberty, and Committee members Samuel Adams and Paul Revere led the Sons of Liberty in many of their most famous actions. In 1773, as relations with Britain soured, the Committees were absorbed into colonial legislatures, and the first Continental Congress in 1776 rendered the Committees obsolete by establishing a more formal structure for cooperation between the colonies. See Sons of Liberty.


“A specter is haunting Europe,” Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels claimed in the ringing opening lines of The Communist Manifesto: “the specter of Communism.” The phrase proved more prophetic than they could have known. While communism existed as a philosophy and a political system, its greatest impact on the history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries came less from these realities and more from the spectral image it cast, an image that haunted the hopes of intellectuals and the fears of ruling elites across the world.

Though it took Marx hundreds of pages of fine print to explain communism, the core concepts are simple enough. Social classes, according to Marx, are groups of people with a common relationship to the means of economic production, and the struggle between classes is the driving force of history. Industrial society is split into two classes – the bourgeoisie who own the means of production and live on their investments, and the proletariat who work the means of production and survive on wage labor. Since all economic value is the result of labor by the proletariat, the bourgeoisie are a parasitic class; the proletariat receives a fraction of the value of its labor while the bourgeoisie batten on the rest. Since competition imposes progressively lower wages and worse working conditions on the proletariat, workers will eventually rebel, overthrowing the bourgeoisie and seizing the means of production. The result, at least in Marx’s theory, is communism, a society of universal justice in which economic production would serve human needs rather than bourgeois greed.

This ideology appealed powerfully to the intellectuals who made up the mainstay of the European Left through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Yet one of the paradoxes of communism throughout its history was that it was always at least partly a creation of its opponents. As historian James Billington pointed out, in Fire in the Minds of Men: Origins of the Revolutionary Faith (1980), the word “communism” appeared before there were any communists to proclaim it, and it gained most of its popularity when it was used by conservatives to attack their liberal opponents. Though the word was probably coined in French radical circles in the late 1830s, its first documented use was in a German conservative newspaper on March 11, 1840: “The Communists have in view nothing less than a levelling of society – substituting for the presently-existing order of things the absurd, immoral and impossible utopia of a community of goods” (quoted in Billington 1980, p. 246).

Since the idea of public ownership of land, housing, and factories hardly seemed absurd, immoral, or impossible to working people trapped in the fetid industrial slums of nineteenth-century Europe, attempts by conservatives to launch communism as a bogey to frighten the masses succeeded mostly in providing free publicity to the first successful radical movement to adopt the name. While a handful of political factions in France tried to lay claim to it in the early 1840s, Karl Marx made it his own later in that decade with his first significant publications on political economy. In 1847 the League of the Just – one of the major political secret societies in Europe – embraced Marxist theory and renamed itself the Communist League. Marx and his colleague Engels responded by writing The Communist Manifesto and permanently defined Communism in Marxist terms. See League of the Just.

The newborn movement grew up in a world powerfully shaped by secret societies. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, secret organizations such as the Philadelphes and the Carbonari, originally founded to oppose Napoleon’s betrayal of the French Revolution, became lightning rods for nationalist aspirations and sparked more than a dozen revolutions against the conservative monarchies of the early nineteenth century. The very mixed success of these revolutions, which took power from the hands of kings and aristocracies only to hand it over to industrialists and bankers, drove a steady leftward drift in the political secret societies. Thus the Philadelphes, which started out in 1797 as a Republican secret society, by 1864 helped to create the First International. See Carbonari; First International; Philadelphes.

Yet communism came on the scene just as most of the radical political movements in Europe were turning away from secret societies to establish political parties, labor unions, and mass movements. The new ideology’s rhetoric of mass struggle made it appealing to leftists who saw little hope in secret conspiracies. As a result, though communism borrowed some features from the older secret society tradition, it saw itself as a mass movement even when the masses wanted nothing to do with it.

This was particularly true during the long years when Marxism was only one among many movements on the Left. During the late twentieth century, propagandists for communism and capitalism alike liked to picture the history of the modern world as a contest between these two alone, but until the Second World War the options were much wider. Anarchism offered major competition to Marxist parties, and lesser-known traditions such as distributism, social credit, guild socialism, corporatism, and many others contended for influence. Many radicals criticized Marxism just as severely as capitalism. Thus Polish anarchist Waclaw Machajski, for example, argued presciently in his 1898 book The Intellectual Worker that a Marxist revolution would simply transfer power from business owners to government bureaucrats. See Anarchism.

It took a century of turmoil and two world wars to reduce the crowded playing field of political and economic ideologies to a forced choice between two contenders. The First World War and its aftermath in Russia was the major turning point in the process. The Socialist Second International had long discussed stopping a European war in its tracks by launching a general strike in the combatant nations, but in 1914 not one Socialist party or labor union followed through on these plans, and the Second International collapsed shortly after the outbreak of hostilities. See Second International.

In the aftermath of the Second International’s failure, the Russian revolution of 1917 came like a thunderbolt. The fact that the Bolsheviks had succeeded where every other party on the Left had failed, taking absolute power in an entire nation and abolishing the capitalist system there, put them instantly at the forefront of the radical movement worldwide. Followers of most competing systems on the Left, including major leaders such as the anarchist Emma Goldman, rallied around the Bolshevik banner. The Bolsheviks made this easy by inviting anarchists, syndicalists, and non-Marxist labor unions to take part in the Third or Communist International, founded in 1919 amid widespread expectations that a proletarian revolution would follow in the rest of Europe. See Russian revolution; Third International.

Attempted communist revolutions in Hungary, Bavaria, and Yugoslavia failed, however, and as the new Russian government turned its attention to maintaining its own power, leftists who joined the Third International found themselves expected to obey orders from Moscow that focused purely on the goals of Russian foreign policy. The result was a series of schisms between pro-Russian and anti-Russian factions on the left. These splits played an important role in weakening the Left and leaving much of central Europe vulnerable to the fascist parties that seized power in the 1920s and 1930s.

The Second World War completed the transformation launched by the First. Hitler’s crusade against “Jewish Bolshevism” ironically did much to save the Soviet Union from its own incompetence. German brutality bolstered Russians’ wavering support of Stalin’s government, while shipments of war material from the United States gave the Soviet system an economic and technological boost that helped overcome its internal problems. The establishment of the Iron Curtain after the war was made easy by the Nazi annihilation of moderate Socialist and Social Democrat parties in most eastern European countries. See Hitler, Adolf; National Socialism.

In an important sense, though, communism went out of existence in the years after the Second World War. In the bare-knuckle politics of the Cold War, “communist” came to mean nothing more than “allied with Russia.” The leaders of Third World countries learned to mouth communist slogans when they wanted help disentangling themselves from the grip of American business interests, and radical parties in western Europe and elsewhere knew that using Marxist language and symbolism got them more attention than anything else, but few people anywhere went beyond slogans and symbols to study ideas that had shaken the world a century before.

By the 1990s, as the Soviet Union broke apart and China announced it was adopting a “market socialist” economy, the specter of communism haunted nothing but the history books. Its passing left a gaping void on the radical Left, which abandoned philosophy for ideology in the early twentieth century and so had few resources left for the difficult task of formulating a new critique of society, and an equally yawning gap on the radical Right, which lost most of its claim to relevance once the enemy it claimed to be fighting went out of existence. Many in both camps have tried to fill the void with resources borrowed from contemporary conspiracy theory, with the curious result that in many western countries, rhetoric about the New World Order has become the common property of both ends of the political spectrum. See New World Order.

Further reading: Billington 1980, Drachkovitch 1966.


An important system of secret brotherhoods in late medieval and early modern France, the institution of Compagnonnage emerged among journeymen of a variety of French trades as the medieval guild system broke down under the pressures of early capitalism and the earliest forms of industrialism. Under the original guild system, most journeymen could count on advancing to the rank of master and owning their own business, but as guild masters became owners of large business firms that hired dozens or hundreds of journeymen, access to master status and full membership in guilds was closed off. In response, journeymen in France created organizations modeled on the guilds but open to journeymen. In France, these took the name of Compagnonnage (from compagnon, “companion,” the standard French term for a journeyman); a parallel process in Britain gave rise to Odd Fellowship, one of the major secret societies of the modern age. See guilds, medieval; Odd Fellowship.

Brotherhoods of Compagnonnage, like guilds, had their own initiation rituals, patron saints, and elected officers. Most brotherhoods belonged to one of three loose associations – the Children of Père Soubise, the Children of Maître Jacques, and the Children of Solomon – each with its own rituals and traditions. Members contributed money weekly or monthly to a common fund used to pay for sickness and funeral benefits for members and support the widows and orphans of those who died. As the institution expanded, rival brotherhoods took shape, and sometimes fought pitched battles with quarterstaffs, the traditional Compagnonnage weapon.

Compagnonnage flourished through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but was largely replaced by the labor union movement in France in the nineteenth. A handful of brotherhoods survived in provincial towns, and the second half of the twentieth century has seen a modest resurgence in membership and activity. So far, Compagnonnage has had little presence in modern conspiracy theory or rejected knowledge literature, though a few books in the latter field have managed to confuse it with the builders of the Gothic cathedrals. See rejected knowledge.

Further reading: Truant 1994.


One of the oddities of American fraternalism, the Concatenated Order of Hoo-Hoo was founded in a train station in Gurdon, Arkansas in 1892, by businessmen in the wood products industry on their way home from a convention. One of the founders had been reading Lewis Carroll’s nonsense-poem The Hunting of the Snark; this explains why the national governing body of the order, the Supreme Nine, consists of the Snark of the Universe, a Senior Hoo-Hoo, a Junior Hoo-Hoo, a Boojum, a Scrivenoter, a Jabberwock, a Custocatian, an Arcanoper, and a Gurdon. The mascot of the order is a black cat with its tail curled into the figure 9, its initiation ceremony is known as a Concatenation, and new initiates are Kittens.

According to its constitution, the objects of the order are the promotion of health, happiness, and a long life. In practice, at least in the early days of the order, these praiseworthy goals took a back seat to frivolity, and most of the wild habits of nineteenth-century burlesque orders found equivalents in Hoo-Hoo concatenations. Like many burlesque societies, however, the Hoo-Hoos gradually calmed down in the course of the twentieth century, and at this point it functions primarily as a service club in the lumber industry. Hoo-Hoo clubs exist in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, and South Africa as well as in the United States, and members must be employed in the wood products industry. See burlesque degrees.


A short-lived secret society born and destroyed in the ferment of Revolutionary France, the Conspiration des Égales or Conspiracy of Equals was the brainchild of François “Gracchus” Babeuf and Filippo Buonarroti, two supporters of the radical Jacobin party who met in prison in 1795, after the Jacobin defeat. Babeuf had been an associate of Nicholas de Bonneville, founder of the first important secret society of the Revolution, the Social Circle. During their imprisonment, the two men discussed the Circle and its goals, and resolved to use similar methods to promote the radical agenda in France and oppose the new, more conservative government, the Directory. See Babeuf, François “Gracchus”; Buonarroti, Filippo; French Revolution; Social Circle.

On their release in October 1795, Babeuf and Buonarroti launched a political organization called the Societé du Panthéon (Society of the Pantheon) to promote Jacobin ideas, copying most of the details from Bonneville’s organization. They also launched a radical newspaper, the Tribun du Peuple – a title borrowed directly from Bonneville’s first paper. When the Society was suppressed by Directory authorities in February 1796, its leaders immediately organized its core members into a secret society, the Conspiracy of Equals.

Instead of trying to incite a popular rebellion, the plan Babeuf and Buonarroti devised focused on a seizure of power by a small elite of committed revolutionaries, and concentrated on recruiting government and military personnel and spreading propaganda. By May, the Conspiracy felt ready to strike, but the Directory had an informer in its inner circle and struck first, arresting 200 members. Babeuf and one other member were executed, and Buonarroti and most of the other members ended up in jail for long terms.

The Conspiracy of Equals would have been no more than a footnote to the history of the French Revolution except for the fact that Filippo Buonarroti went on to become the most famous organizer of political secret societies in the early nineteenth century. His 1828 book Conspiration pour l’Egalité, a history of Babeuf’s conspiracy, was the Bible of liberal revolutionaries throughout Europe, and the model of revolution by elite takeover became the standard for secret societies from then on. The Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 Russia and the Nazi seizure of power in 1933 Germany are only among the most dramatic echoes of the Conspiracy’s original plan. See National Socialism; Russian revolution.

Further reading: Roberts 1972.


See Mafia.


Among the most prestigious of American think-tanks, and the centerpiece of most recent speculations on the New World Order, the Council on Foreign Relations was founded in New York City in 1921 by a group of leading American financiers. The seed of the CFR had been planted in Paris during the 1919 negotiations over the Versailles Treaty, when US President Woodrow Wilson’s close adviser, Col. Edward M. House, assembled a group of British and American politicians at a dinner party and broached the idea of an institute to coordinate public policy in the Anglo–American alliance. The CFR came into being two years later. See New World Order.

The CFR’s 1500 members have long included the most important movers and shakers in American politics, including four US presidents and a stellar list of ambassadors, top business executives and bureaucrats, leading academics, and cultural figures. The CFR publishes the journal Foreign Affairs, easily the most prestigious journal in the foreign-policy field.

Unquestionably the CFR is among the major policy-making institutions of the US upper class. Its role has been stretched out of all proportion in recent conspiracy theories, however, where it shares pride of place alongside the Trilateral Commission, the Bilderberg group, and the fictional Committee of 300 as one of the top groups behind the New World Order, supposedly a scheme to impose a global dictatorship under the control of a corporate elite. These claims, like most of contemporary conspiracy theory, fail to explain why people who allegedly run the world need to carry out a vast secret plan in order to take over the world they already run. In fact, even a cursory reading of CFR publications and the pages of Foreign Policy make it clear that the CFR strives – not always successfully – to find common ground among the diverse and often quarrelsome groups who form the US governing class. See Bilderberg Group; Committee of 300; Trilateral Commission.

Further reading: Domhoff 1974, Wilgus 1978.


According to a ritual text anonymously published at Berlin in 1770, the highest order of ancient Egyptian initiation, consisting of seven degrees. The ancient Egyptian language had not yet been deciphered in 1770, however, and the ritual of the Crata Repoa is standard eighteenth-century high degree Freemasonry with no resemblance to actual Egyptian temple ritual; the supposed Egyptian origin of the ritual is thus yet another fictitious origin story, of the sort so frequently practiced at the time. See origin stories.

There seems to be no evidence that the Crata Repoa existed in eighteenth-century Germany as a functioning secret society. The published ritual, however, had a surprisingly wide influence. Several groups of French occultists in the nineteenth century worked the Crata Repoa rituals, and the Ordo Templi Astarte, a currently active American magical order, uses the Crata Repoa system as the basis for its own system of initiation. See Ordo Templi Astarte.


English writer, occultist, and would-be Antichrist. One of the most colorful figures of modern occultism, Crowley (1875–1947) was born in Leamington, Warwickshire and raised in the Plymouth Brethren, a sect that invented most of modern Christian fundamentalism. Like many children from strict religious backgrounds, he rebelled against his family’s beliefs in his teens. He replaced his birth names Edward Alexander with the more romantic Aleister, and convinced himself that he was the Beast 666 from the Book of Revelation. See Antichrist; fundamentalism.

In 1895 he matriculated at Trinity College, Cambridge, and briefly pursued chemistry, but left without a degree. Money inherited from his father, who died when Crowley was five, enabled him to pursue the lifestyle of a bohemian poet and self-publish two books of poetry, including a pornographic volume entitled White Stains. Like many young fin-de-siècle men of letters, he gravitated toward the occult, and in 1898 he was initiated into the Neophyte Grade of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the premier British occult secret society of the time. See Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

In the power struggles and schisms that beset the order just after his admission, he pledged absolute loyalty to the Order’s head, Samuel Liddell Mathers, and served as Mathers’ emissary to the rebellious London adepts, though his insistence on wearing full Highland dress and a black mask through the whole process cannot have helped Mathers’ case. His ardor for the cause cooled, however, and in 1904 – convinced that he had been granted authority by the Secret Chiefs who ran the order – he contacted Mathers and demanded to be recognized as true head of the Golden Dawn, an act that resulted in Crowley’s expulsion from Mathers’ branch of the order.

The authority Crowley claimed came in a typically dramatic manner. In 1903 he married Rose Kelly, the daughter of a portrait painter, and set out with her on a world tour. Stopping in Cairo the next year, he received – by a disembodied but clearly audible voice, according to his later accounts – a communication from a spirit named Aiwass, who claimed to be the messenger of the gods who would rule the age of the world then beginning, the Aeon of Horus. Over three days, Aiwass dictated to Crowley the text of the Book of the Law, the holy scriptures of the new religion of Thelema (from the Greek word for “will”), whose central tenet was “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.” See ages of the world.

This revelation was the turning point of Crowley’s career. In the years that followed, his marriage broke apart, his literary career failed, and his occult activities took up more and more of his time, as he became convinced of his own messianic role as the prophet of the Aeon of Horus. He returned to England in 1908 and began publishing a lavish journal, The Equinox, to announce the good news of the arrival of Horus to the world at large. Crowley also launched his own Golden Dawn-based order, the Argenteum Astrum; however, his publication of Golden Dawn papers and rituals landed him in a court battle with Mathers. See Argenteum Astrum.

The journal and the court case alike brought him to the attention of Theodor Reuss and John Yarker, two major figures in irregular Masonry at the time. In 1910 Crowley was accepted into Reuss’s Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO) and Yarker’s Rite of Memphis and Misraim. Yarker’s death in 1913 and the subsequent collapse of the Rite of Memphis and Misraim limited his activity in that field, although he did take part in the struggle to keep the order out of the hands of Annie Besant, who wanted to make it part of Co-Masonry. See Co-Masonry; Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO); Reuss, Theodor; Rite of Memphis and Misraim; Yarker, John.

The Ordo Templi Orientis was another matter. In 1912, Reuss made Crowley head of the British branch of the OTO, and he proceeded to make the order a vehicle for his new religion. By 1913 he was enmeshed in bitter quarrels with Reuss and other members of the order, and in 1914 he left Britain for America, leaving a remnant of the OTO in Britain to struggle on for a few more years before collapsing after a police raid. Once in America, Crowley and his Canadian acolyte Charles Stansfield Jones attempted to spread the OTO, and once again quarreled with Reuss, who tried to recruit AMORC founder H. Spencer Lewis to spread Reuss’s branch of the order instead. While in America Crowley also initiated Paul Foster Case into the OTO, though Case lost interest and became active in Mathers’s branch of the Golden Dawn instead. See Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (AMORC); Case, Paul Foster.

In 1920, after returning to Europe, Crowley gathered up a small coterie of followers and went to Cefalu in Sicily, where they established what would now be called a commune and devoted their time to sex, drugs, and magic. When one of the commune’s members died of food poisoning, the media furor prompted Italian dictator Benito Mussolini to order Crowley’s expulsion from Italy. After staying in Tunisia and France, becoming a heroin addict in the process, Crowley returned to England and promptly sued British sculptor Nina Hammett for referring to him in print as a “black magician,” making the same mistake that ended Oscar Wilde’s career. British law required Hammett to prove the accuracy of her statement in order to clear herself, and she did so to the satisfaction of the court and the public, in the process shredding what was left of Crowley’s reputation and finances.

Crowley spent the remainder of his life in cheap lodgings, first in London and then at Hastings, preaching the gospel of Thelema to anyone who would listen and struggling to finance his drug habit. His small circle of friends and students at the time included Gerald Gardner, who later launched modern Wicca on its career, though there seems to be no truth to the much-quoted rumor that Gardner paid Crowley to write the original Wiccan Book of Shadows. When Crowley died in 1947, his friends performed a Thelemite funeral service for him; typically, the media reported it inaccurately as a Black Mass. See Black Mass; Book of Shadows; Wicca.

Further reading: Crowley 1989, King 1991.


A Christian monastic movement in Ireland and Scotland, the Culdees (from Gaelic celi De, “servant of God”) emerged in the seventh and eighth centuries within the Celtic Church. They adopted some elements of the Eastern Orthodox rite and lived a life of prayer and austerity in isolated hermitages. Their variations from the standard Roman Catholic practice of the time led them to be condemned as heretics once Roman authority extended to the Celtic fringe of northwest Europe, and the Culdees were gradually absorbed into more orthodox monastic traditions in the tenth and eleventh centuries. See Roman Catholic Church.

Very few traditions of the past have had their reputation as roughly manhandled as the Culdees. Starting in the nineteenth century, Druid Revival secret societies, which claimed connections back to the ancient Druids, redefined the Culdees as a group of Druids who nominally converted to Christianity but preserved their ancient mysteries. The neo-pagan movement of the late twentieth century borrowed this re-definition and mapped their own ideas of paganism onto it, resulting in claims that the Culdees worshipped the earth goddess and practiced free love. The reaction of the ascetic and rather puritanical Culdees themselves to this suggestion scarcely bears imagining. See Druid Revival.