A curious feature of many ancient alphabets is that each of their letters is also a number. Alphabets of this sort, called “isopsephic alphabets” by scholars, lend themselves to forms of number symbolism using the numerical value of letters, words, and sentences. In the Jewish Cabala, the mystical tradition that developed this approach most extensively, this is called gematria; the term has been adopted by most other surviving systems of number symbolism as well. See Cabala.

An immense amount of gematria, most of it unrecognized, occurs in the sacred writings and occult traditions of the western world. The name of the god Mithras in Greek letters, for example, adds up to 365, the number of days in a year, as do the names of the Gnostic god Abraxas and the Druid god Belenos – and it should come as no surprise that all three are solar divinities. The New Testament is especially crowded with gematria, from the name of Jesus (888 in Greek gematria) to that of the Beast of the Book of Revelation, whose number 666 has become famous in contemporary Satanism. See Antichrist; Christian origins; Jesus of Nazareth; Mithraic mysteries.

Further reading: Fideler 1993.


A core element of the underground of racist secret societies that laid the foundations for the Nazi party, the Germanenorden (“Order of Germans”) was founded in 1912 by Hermann Pohl, a German antisemite and right-wing political activist who belonged to the Reichshammerbund (“Reich Hammer Society”), the most influential antisemitic organization in Germany. Like most reactionaries of his time, Pohl believed devoutly in the existence of a vast Jewish conspiracy. He believed, though, that the only way to successfully counter this alleged conspiracy was to turn its own methods against it, and organize a secret society to oppose it. See Antisemitism.

By 1910 Pohl drafted an initiation ritual for a German antisemitic secret society. His sources include the rituals of the United Ancient Order of Druids (UAOD), a fraternal secret society that had a large presence in Germany at that time; the Ariosophical teachings of Guido von List (1848–1919), an Austrian racial mystic whose writings were a major influence all through the German far right of the time; and the musical and philosophical works of composer Richard Wagner. In 1911 Pohl and a group of fellow antisemites organized the Wotan Lodge around the new rituals. In the following year the Germanenorden drew up its bylaws and began recruiting members through the Reichshammerbund, and by the end of the year it had six lodges and over 300 members. See United Ancient Order of Druids (UAOD).

The Germanenorden quickly became a significant force on the German far right. From the beginning, though, its members disagreed on the approach the order should take. Pohl himself argued that the Germanenorden should concentrate on fostering an “Aryan-Germanic religious revival” through its ritual and occult work, but a majority of the membership wanted to concentrate on secret political action instead. These differences finally came to a head in 1916, splitting the Germanenorden in two. The more occult half, under Pohl’s leadership, took the new name Germanenorden Walvater of the Holy Grail and began a systematic campaign of expansion using cover names to camouflage its existence. Walvater member Rudolf von Sebottendorf founded what would become the order’s most successful local lodge in Munich, under the cover name Thule-Gesellschaft (Thule Society), which played a crucial role in bringing the Nazi party into being. See Thule Society.

As the Nazi party grew into the dominant party on Germany’s far right, members of both branches of the Germanenorden joined it, while others helped it directly or indirectly. Adolf Hitler’s inauguration as Chancellor of Germany in 1933 was thus the fulfillment of the Germanenorden’s ambitions, but it also proved to be the end of the road for the order. Along with all other secret societies outside the Nazi party the Germanenorden was ordered to dissolve shortly after the Nazi takeover.

Further reading: Goodrick-Clarke 1992.


A diverse and poorly understood religious movement in the ancient Mediterranean world, Gnosticism first appeared in the cultural melting pot of Hellenistic Egypt within a century of the start of the Common Era and spread throughout the Roman world over the next 200 years. Even among religious traditions, which tend to draw their inspiration from far and wide, it was remarkably eclectic in its choice of sources. Greek philosophy, pagan mystery cults, Jewish and Christian theology and myth, Egyptian magic, and (quite possibly) ideas drawn from Buddhist missionaries, who were active in the Egyptian city of Alexandria by 200 BCE, all flowed together to create a series of radical religious viewpoints that overturned the conventional ideas of every other religion of the time. See Egypt; mysteries, ancient.

Gnosticism was never a single religion, and attempts to construct a coherent doctrine out of the wild diversity of Gnostic belief fall apart in the face of the surviving evidence. A handful of core themes, though, run through nearly all Gnostic writings. The most important of these is a radical dualism that places spirit and matter in absolute opposition. The world of matter, in Gnostic thought, is a prison, and the powers who rule it are demons whose dominion over humanity is as brutal as it is unjust. The body, as a microcosm of the corrupt world of matter, is equally a prison, and the soul trapped in the body is like a living person sealed inside a tomb. The human soul has been lured into the trap of matter from another universe, a realm of light governed by timeless powers who wait for humanity to return from the material world, and these powers send messengers to call souls back to their true home. To Gnostic Christians, Jesus was such a messenger, an eternal being from the world of light who came to communicate the gift of gnosis (“knowledge”) to those ready to receive it, because the only thing holding human souls in bondage to matter is ignorance of their true nature and the way back home. See dualism.

On this broad framework, a dizzying array of different theologies, teachings, and systems of practice took shape during the centuries when Gnosticism was in full flower. Some Gnostics argued that the demiurge, the evil creator of the world, was none other than the angry and jealous god of the Jews; others named the god of the Jews as the ruler of the world of light. Some Gnostic sects insisted that absolute celibacy was essential, others argued that the body was powerless to affect the spirit and indulged in total sexual freedom, while still others held that sexual rituals were the key to attaining gnosis. Since Gnostic traditions put personal spiritual experience at the center of their vision of religion, such variations were inevitable.

Some evidence suggests that the earliest Christian proto-churches were at least heavily influenced by Gnostic ideas, if not wholly Gnostic, and for the first three centuries of Christian history Gnostic interpretations of the teachings of Jesus were at least as popular as what later became the orthodox belief. Only a long struggle on the part of the emerging church hierarchy forced Gnosticism out of the Christian mainstream, and even then the result was a flurry of new heretical organizations outside of Church control. Gnosticism remained a living tradition in the western world until the fourteenth century, when the last major Gnostic movement – the Cathar church in southern France – was crushed by military force. See Cathars; Christian origins.

Gnosticism proved impossible to bury, however, and in the first decades of the nineteenth century, French occultists succeeded in reviving it. The Église Gnostique (Gnostic Church) of Jules Doinel, founded in Paris in 1828, launched a tradition of Gnostic churches in Europe and the Americas that remains active to this day. For more than a century, however, the Gnostic revival struggled to piece together what Theosophical writer G.R.S. Mead very appropriately termed “fragments of a faith forgotten.”

All this changed in 1945, when Egyptian peasants from the village of Nag Hammadi found an ancient stone jar full of papyrus scrolls. They proved to be the library of a Gnostic monastery, hidden away at the time of the triumph of orthodox Christianity in the fifth century of the Common Era. The translation and publishing of the Nag Hammadi scrolls in the 1960s and 1970s brought Gnosticism back into the limelight and provided a wealth of material for a new generation of Gnostics. As of this writing Gnostic churches and secret societies of many kinds have proliferated throughout the world and show no sign of losing momentum any time soon.

Further reading: Barnstone and Meyer 2003, Culianu 1992, Filoramo 1990, Layton 1987.


See Ancient Noble Order of Gormogons.


The central mystery of the Arthurian legends, the Grail – also named the Grâl, Graal, or Holy Grail – was a puzzling object for which many of the Knights of the Round Table quested in the last years of Arthur’s reign. Usually but not always described as a cup or goblet, it had the power to feed any number of people the food and drink they loved best. It could be found in the Castle of Carbonek, somewhere in the enchanted Waste Land, where it played the central role in a mysterious ceremony presided over by a female Grail bearer and a wounded Fisher King. In order to awaken the Grail’s power, heal the wounded king, and bring fertility to the Waste Land, a wandering knight had to reach Carbonek, witness the ceremony, and ask the right question; the wording of the question varied from text to text, but the most common was “Whom does the Grail serve?” See Arthurian legends.

The Grail legends surfaced very suddenly around 1180, when Chrétien de Troyes – one of the first great writers of Arthurian tales – began Perceval, ou le Conte du Graal (Perceval, or the Story of the Grail), the oldest known Grail romance. It was unfinished at his death, but two other writers finished it in the following years. Wolfram von Eschenbach’s German version, Parzival, appeared in 1207, and in the same year Walter Map’s version, Queste del Sant Graal, reworked the Grail story to bring it closer to Christian orthodoxy, transforming it into the cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper. The production of Grail stories continued at a brisk pace until 1220, and then stopped; speculations have proliferated over the centuries, but to this day no one is sure why. See Jesus of Nazareth.

Scholars have argued for more than two centuries about the origin and meaning of the Grail legends. Certainly many of the core themes of the legend have roots in archaic Celtic traditions, where enchanted cauldrons that magically produce food are a common feature. Close similarities exist between the Grail procession of the legends and a ceremony known from a handful of ancient Celtic and Germanic sources, in which a woman bore a cup of mead to the king in a ceremonial proclamation of his kingship. Jessie Weston, one of the premier scholars of the Arthurian legends in the early twentieth century, argued that the rituals surrounding the Grail in the legends were echoes of an ancient mystery initiation, perhaps descended from a Gnostic sect known as the Naassenes. See fertility religion; Gnosticism; mysteries, ancient.

Like so much of the Arthurian legends, the Grail dropped out of popular culture at the end of the Middle Ages and received little attention until the Victorian period. Druidic secret societies in Britain and France in the late nineteenth century made room for it in their teachings, but it entered the wider realm of occult secret societies only in the twentieth century, when it was adopted as an important occult symbol by many magical traditions. Occult lodges based on the work of English magician Dion Fortune (1890–1946) use it as a central symbol, and it has also become important in some branches of Wicca and a range of secret societies inspired by the Arthurian legends. See Druid Revival; Society of the Inner Light; Wicca.

More recently, the Grail has been re-defined in a radically different way From the early twentieth century on, Christian occultists and mystics have made use of the pun between the medieval French sangreal (“holy grail”) and sang real (“royal blood”) to draw attention to the symbolic role of the Grail as the ‘cup of the Last Supper and the symbolic or physical container for the blood of Jesus. In the last decades of the twentieth century, however, this bit of wordplay was pulled out of its context in occult teaching and turned into an element in one of the most popular branches of the contemporary rejected-knowledge scene. See rejected knowledge.

In their bestselling The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (1982), which postulated that Jesus had a child by Mary Magdalene and founded a bloodline that survives to the present, authors Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln argued that the Grail was a symbol of the Jesus bloodline. This identification has been widely accepted in the rejected-knowledge community since that time, and plays a role in alternative visions of Christianity in popular fiction such as Dan Brown’s bestselling novel The Da Vinci Code (2003). The medieval Grail romances themselves offer no noticeable support for this claim, but that has not stopped it from being stated as fact in dozens if not hundreds of books since that time. See Da Vinci Code, the.

Further reading: Baigent et al. 1983, Enright 1996, Matthews and Green 1986, Weston 1983.


In Freemasonry and most other fraternal secret societies, the organization that charters and supervises local lodges. The first grand lodge was created in 1717 by four Masonic lodges meeting in London, and went through a long period of political disagreements and schisms before it was accepted as the governing body of all English Masonic lodges. Other national grand lodges were founded in Scotland, Ireland, continental Europe, and elsewhere starting in the 1720s. Today every country that has Masonic lodges has at least one grand lodge; some nations have several, and the United States and Canada have a grand lodge for every state or province. See Antient–Modern schism; Freemasonry.

Freemasonry is all but unique in that each national, state, or provincial grand lodge is independent of every other. Many other fraternal orders add a third level. Thus the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, for example, has grand lodges for each American state and Canadian province, and above that a Sovereign Grand Lodge formed of delegates from each of the grand lodges. This is all the more ironic in that Freemasonry has often been accused of being a centralized conspiracy out to dominate the world, while the Odd Fellows, the Loyal Order of Moose, and other relatively centralized fraternal secret societies have escaped such accusations. See Antimasonry; Loyal Order of Moose; Odd Fellowship.

Like local lodges, grand lodges of different societies commonly have different names. Many Druid orders have a Grand Grove, for example; the Fraternal Order of Eagles has a Supreme Aerie, while the Shriners have an Imperial Divan. Some Masonic jurisdictions have a Grand Orient instead of a Grand Lodge. See Ancient Arabic Order of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine; Druid Revival; Fraternal Order of Eagles; Grand Orient; lodge.


The Swiss Grand Lodge of Freemasonry, the Grand Loge Alpina (“Alpine Grand Lodge”) was founded in 1844 by the fusion of two earlier Grand Lodges in Switzerland. For more than 150 years it has exercised the usual functions of a Masonic Grand Lodge over most Swiss lodges. In the second half of the twentieth century, however, it became caught up in conspiracy theories about the Priory of Sion, a secret society allegedly dating back to the early Middle Ages but actually founded in 1956. Several of the documents forged by Priory founder Pierre Plantard and foisted off on French libraries were labeled, falsely, as Grand Loge Alpina publications. See Priory of Sion.

In the usual manner, once introduced into the world of conspiracy theory, the Grand Loge Alpina was promptly pulled out of its context and turned into part of the network of nefarious secret societies that allegedly control the world. The contrast between this colorful reputation and the rather dowdy reality of a very ordinary Masonic Grand Lodge is remarkable, to say the least. Like every other society, secret or otherwise, the Grand Loge Alpina has members with political interests, but investigators looking for successors to the Illuminati are likely to be disappointed. See Bavarian Illuminati.


In Freemasonry and some secret societies descended from it, a term for a national or international grand lodge. The phrase, “Grand East” in French, was adopted for the newly founded grand lodge in France in 1773, after several decades of dispute between various claimants to the title of grand lodge of France. See grand lodge.

From then until 1877, through a complicated history of quarrels with grand bodies of the numerous high degrees active in France, the Grand Orient of France was a national grand lodge like any other. In the annual meeting of the Grand Orient that year, however, the delegates almost unanimously adopted a resolution removing belief in a Supreme Being from the requirements for membership. The United Grand Lodge of England and most other Masonic grand lodges immediately withdrew recognition from the Grand Orient and declared it and all its subordinate lodges irregular. Despite that ruling, which still remains in force, the Grand Orient of France remains the largest French Masonic jurisdiction today. See Freemasonry; high degrees.


See Patrons of Husbandry (Grange).


The most famous monument on earth and one of the greatest works of architecture in human history, the Great Pyramid is one of three massive stone pyramids that rise from the Giza plateau, southwest of Cairo. According to traditions known to the ancient Greeks and confirmed by modern archeological research, it was built by Khufu, a pharaoh of Egypt’s third dynasty, in about 2170 BCE. Its ancient name was Akhet Khufu, “Splendor of Khufu.” See Egypt.

The Great Pyramid deserves its modern label. Superlative in every way, it stood 481 feet (146 meters) tall when it was complete; sheathed in smooth white limestone, it must have shone like a beacon in sunlight. Some 2.5 million limestone blocks, weighing a total near 6 million tons, were quarried from the Giza plateau to supply the bulk of the stone. The facing stone came from quarries across the Nile, while granite for the interior chambers came by raft down the Nile from Aswan 500 miles (over 800 kilometers) upstream. All those blocks of stone had to be hauled into place one at a time by human muscle. During the 20 or 30 years of its construction, a good fraction of Egypt’s total labor force must have been called to Giza during the months of the Nile flood, when no work could be done in the fields. The work was not done by slaves; though equivalent records don’t survive for the Great Pyramid, workers on later pyramids were paid in bread, beer, and onions, and proudly daubed the names of their work teams on the stones they quarried and hauled.

The builders of the Great Pyramid also managed an extraordinary degree of precision in their work, lining up the four sides of the pyramid to the compass points to within a tenth of a degree and making the sides equal to within 8 inches (20 centimeters). This level of accuracy does not require advanced technology; it can be achieved with simple tools and careful observation, but only when supported by a powerful motive.

The motive is one of the great mysteries of the Great Pyramid. Ancient Greek sources and modern archeological opinion agree that it was a tomb, and yet when the Arab Caliph Abdullah al-Mamun and his men forced their way past untouched granite barriers in 820 CE, they found no body in the great stone sarcophagus in the King’s Chamber, and none of the treasures Egyptian kings typically brought with them into the afterlife. Unlike most Egyptian monuments, the interior of the Great Pyramid is bare of bas-reliefs and hieroglyphic inscriptions that might help explain it, and it contains three large chambers and a variety of passages and air-shafts, unlike other pyramids, which have one chamber with a single entrance. Mainstream archeologists suggest that the tomb was plundered in ancient times, but offer no evidence for the claim. Despite many arguments, no one knows for sure why Akhet Khufu was built or what purpose it might have served.

The sheer scale and grandeur of the Great Pyramid and the mysteries that surround it made it a magnet for strange theories. Charles Piazzi Smyth, Astronomer Royal for Scotland under Queen Victoria and a highly original religious thinker, became convinced that the ascending passage leading to the King’s Chamber had been laid out in such a way that the length of its floor predicted the future history of the world and the date of the Second Coming. He also sorted through hundreds of measurements to find some that had remarkable qualities, such as a fair approximation to pi and the relative proportions of the earth and moon. His 1880 book, Our Inheritance in the Great Pyramid, launched the modern movement of pyramidology, sometimes labeled “pyramidiocy” by its critics; the term is not always deserved, but it is true that some remarkably dotty theories over the years have centered on the Great Pyramid.

One of the major themes of current pyramid speculation focuses on the age of the Great Pyramid. While it has traditionally been dated to Khufu’s reign, no conclusive dating has been found within the Pyramid itself, and uncertainties surrounding the date of the nearby Sphinx – it has what might be signs of erosion by rain on its flanks, which would require it to date from before 6000 BCE – have been applied to the Great Pyramid as well. Some radical Egyptologists argue that it dates from thousands of years before the other pyramids, which were built in imitation of it. It is an interesting speculation but proof for it is still lacking.

Sheer limits of space make it impossible to list even a representative sample of the other claims that have been made about the Great Pyramid. It remains a central focus of rejected knowledge and the alternative-realities movement, and will probably continue to collect strange theories and speculative visions as long as it looms up against the desert sky of Giza. See rejected knowledge.

Further reading: Edwards 1985, Lehner 1997, Tompkins 1978.


In Theosophy and occult systems influenced by it, the brotherhood of advanced souls who form the hidden government of the world and direct the course of human evolution. Headed by the Lord of the World, Sanat Kumara, the Great White Lodge or Great White Brotherhood – the terms are used interchangeably – includes all the Masters. See Masters; Theosophical Society.

The concept of a vast, benevolent occult brotherhood managing the world behind the scenes developed over the course of the nineteenth century by a kind of intellectual inflation from the Unknown Superiors of eighteenth-century high degree Freemasonry. As occult secret societies competed with one another for members and prestige, claims about the importance of their respective Unknown Superiors provided a useful weapon. In such an environment, claims that one particular set of secret chiefs ran the world were an unavoidable result. Ironically, such claims played an important role in launching the distinctive conspiracy myth of the twentieth century, the theory that all the world’s secret societies took orders from a single central group pursuing a malevolent plan of world domination. See New World Order; Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Ironically, recent research by historian K. Paul Johnson has pointed out that in the writings of Madame Blavatsky, the Masters of the Great White Lodge were specifically described as ordinary, though spiritually advanced, human beings, and the Great White Lodge itself only took on its supernatural qualities in the writings of Blavatsky’s successors, Annie Besant and C.W. Leadbeater. Johnson has argued that the actual “Great White Lodge” of Blavatsky’s time was a network of Hindu spiritual and political leaders who worked with her during her time in India to oppose the British colonial government and the activities of Christian missionaries. These conclusions have been sharply attacked by modern Theosophists, but Johnson offers substantial evidence for his case and it cannot be dismissed out of hand. See Blavatsky, Helena Petrovna.

Further reading: Johnson 1994, Leadbeater 1925.


Among the fundamental social institutions of European society during the Middle Ages, a guild (the word is also spelled gild) was an association of craftsmen of a particular trade in a single town. Members were divided into three classes: masters, who had expert knowledge of the craft and owned their own businesses; journeymen, fellows, or companions, who had basic skill in the craft and worked in the shops of masters for daily wages; and apprentices, who studied the craft from masters and worked for them as servants in exchange for room and board. Masters of a guild formed its voting membership and assembled at regular meetings under the leadership of an elected guild master.

Close parallels exist between the medieval guild system and the fraternal orders of the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Europe and America. Like their later equivalents, guilds collected money from their members to provide funerals for members and support widows and orphans, and also did charitable work in their communities; each guild had its own symbols and origin legend, and put new apprentices, journeymen, and masters through traditional initiation rituals. Despite these parallels, the only guilds that changed directly into fraternal secret societies are a handful of stonemasons’ guilds in Scotland, which began to admit members who did not belong to the building trades around 1600. These guilds became the ancestors of modern Freemasonry. See Brothering; fraternal orders; Freemasonry, origins of.

At least two other modern secret societies, however, have slightly less direct links to the medieval guild system. Through most of the Middle Ages, apprentices who showed reasonable skill and diligence at their craft could count on progressing to journeyman and then to master. The breakdown of the medieval social order in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, however, saw many guilds turn into associations of business owners who restricted access to the rank of master to themselves and their sons. In response, journeymen organized guild-like organizations of their own, with many of the same benefits as guild membership and which also assisted their efforts to gain higher wages and better working conditions. These proto-labor unions of the late Middle Ages usually had the word “journeyman,” “fellow,” or “companion” in their titles, and these marks remained in two traditions that descended from them – Compagnonnage and Odd Fellowship. See Compagnonnage; Odd Fellowship.



Canadian-American occultist, 1901–90. One of the most influential figures in twentieth-century American occultism, Hall was born in Peterborough, Ontario and raised by his maternal grandmother, who took him to live in the United States in 1904. He was interested in occultism from an early age and joined the Theosophical Society in his teen years. In 1919 he left home and moved to Oceanside, California, where he spent a year as a member of Max Heindel’s Rosicrucian Fellowship. See Rosicrucian Fellowship; Theosophical Society.

In 1920 he moved to New York City, where he was briefly employed on Wall Street as a stockbroker’s clerk, then returned to the west coast and settled in Los Angeles, where he spent the rest of his life. In his first years there, like several other noted occultists of the time, he worked as a screenwriter in the fledgling motion picture industry, but he lectured frequently at occult organizations in the Los Angeles area as well. In 1923 he was ordained as a minister of the Church of the People, a metaphysical church in Los Angeles.

By that time he had begun work on his magnum opus, The Secret Teachings of All Ages, also titled An Encyclopedic Outline of Masonic, Hermetic, Qabbalistic, and Rosicrucian Symbolical Philosophy. Published by subscription in 1928, with gorgeous color illustrations by artist Augustus Knapp, it made Hall one of the most widely known occultists in the world. A mystery surrounds the book; in its pages, Hall speaks in glowing terms of Freemasonry and makes accurate references to its teachings and rituals, but by all accounts he was not initiated into regular Freemasonry until decades later. The most likely explanation is that he was a member of an irregular branch of the Craft, possibly a Co-Masonic lodge. Later in his life he joined a regular Masonic lodge and the Scottish Rite, rising to the rank of 33°. See Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite (AASR); Co-Masonry; Freemasonry.

The success of The Secret Teachings made it possible for him to pursue his lifelong dream of establishing a center for education based on ancient mystery traditions. The Philosophical Research School (PRS) was founded in 1934, and construction began on its Los Angeles headquarters the next year. For the rest of his life, Hall gave weekly lectures at the PRS, managed an extensive correspondence school, and wrote more than 200 books published by the PRS press.

The esoteric dimension of Hall’s work was far less public. His contacts with Max Heindel were not the only connections Hall had with the Rosicrucian movement, and a small and very private Rosicrucian group met regularly in the PRS headquarters to practice meditations and rituals. One of the sources for his work was apparently a triangular book in cipher once in the possession of the Comte de Saint-Germain, described as “The Holy Magic revealed to Moses discovered within an Egyptian monument and preciously preserved in Asia under the emblem of a winged dragon.” The book contains a theurgic magical ritual for finding treasure and conferring health and long life; Hall owned two copies of it, and considered them among his most important possessions. See Rosicrucians; Saint-Germain, Comte de.

Hall’s impact on the occult community waned after the cultural revolution of the 1960s, but he and the PRS retained a faithful audience until Hall’s death in 1990. After a period of confusion and reorganization, the PRS regrouped successfully and continues to offer Hall’s teachings to the world. Whether his Rosicrucian group still meets in the PRS headquarters, on the other hand, is a secret known only to its initiates.

Further reading: Hall 1988.


The most notorious Satanist organization in eighteenth-century Britain, the Hell-Fire Club was originally founded in London in 1719 by Philip, Duke of Wharton, a liberal politician and atheist who set out to ridicule the religious orthodoxies of his time by holding mock-Satanist ceremonies in a tavern near St James’s Square, London. The Club was closed down the next year after it became a political liability to Wharton, who went on to become the Grand Master of English Freemasons in 1722, and then left Masonry the next year to organize an antimasonic order with Jacobite connections, the Gormogons. See Ancient Noble Order of Gormogons; Jacobites.

The Hell-Fire Club remained in abeyance until 1746, when Sir Francis Dashwood and a group of his friends revived it. Dashwood may have learned about the earlier club from Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Wharton’s ex-mistress, who had participated in its rites and became a friend of Dashwood’s in 1739. Early meetings of the Club took place at the George and Vulture, a London pub, but operations soon moved to Medmenham Abbey, and the club continued to meet there for the remainder of its existence. The Abbey, rebuilt by Dashwood and stocked with a celebrated collection of pornography, also included a “chapter room” for private ceremonies.

According to contemporary accounts, members attended in black monastic robes and took part in burlesque pseudo-Satanic rituals along with “nuns” hired for the evening. The rites involved the consumption of impressive amounts of alcohol and ended with an orgy. Such entertainments were popular enough among the eighteenth-century English upper class to attract some of the leading figures of the time; MP John Wilkes and the Earl of Bute were members, and Benjamin Franklin took part during his second stay in England. See Franklin, Benjamin.

Like the great majority of Satanist organizations, the Hell-Fire Club was mostly a way for people frustrated by the moral restraints of a nominally Christian society to act out fantasies of sexual wickedness in a safe setting. In its first incarnation, though, it had echoes of a more serious purpose. Like the Chevaliers of Jubilation, a libertine secret society founded in Holland about a decade before Wharton’s Hell-Fire Club, it combined ribald entertainment with calculated attacks on the dogmatic religious beliefs that underpinned political autocracy. See Chevaliers of Jubilation; Satanism.

Further reading: Towers 1986.


The legendary founder of the Hermetic tradition and the inventor of astrology, alchemy, medicine, and magic, Hermes Trismegistus (“Hermes Thrice Great”) was literally a figure to conjure with from the dawn of the Middle Ages until the seventeenth century. Medieval writers disagreed about his place in history; some claimed that he was the same person as Enoch, the great-grandfather of Noah, who was lifted up into heaven to become the great angel Metatron, while others held that he was the wisest of the Egyptians and lived at the time of Moses. According to the early Christian writer Eusebius, he wrote 36 books on philosophy and theology and 6 more on astronomy. See Alchemy; Magic.

The facts behind the legend are as interesting as the legend itself. After Alexander the Great conquered Egypt and installed a Greek ruling class there, Greek philosophy and Egyptian spirituality mingled freely on the banks of the Nile. In the hybrid culture that emerged, the Greek god Hermes took on many of the attributes of Thoth, the ibis-headed Egyptian god of wisdom, whose traditional titles included “Thrice Great.” Just as Egyptian magical writings from the pharaonic past claimed Thoth as their author, many of the astrological, alchemical, and mystical writings produced in Hellenistic Egypt were attributed to Hermes the Thrice-Great. In the last few centuries of the Roman Empire, these writings had a wide circulation and were pressed into service by the proponents of many different traditions. Several of the early theologians of Christianity, including Augustine of Hippo, quoted the writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, and thus guaranteed that later generations of Christians would remember him as a wise man of the distant past. One dialogue attributed to Hermes, the Asclepius, survived into the Middle Ages in a Latin translation, and this and the references in old Christian sources helped build Hermes’ medieval reputation.

Most of the other writings attributed to Hermes vanished forever in the chaotic years that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire. In 1453, however, a manuscript volume containing 18 short books attributed to Hermes surfaced in Greece. Translated by Marsilio Ficino, one of the greatest scholars of the age, this collection – the Corpus Hermeticum – launched the tradition of Renaissance Hermeticism and, directly or indirectly, became the core inspiration for most of the occult secret societies of the next 400 years. To Renaissance occultists, Hermes was an ancient Egyptian sage whose writings, older than the Bible, offered access to a purer spirituality than the Christianity of their own time. The spirited defense of magic in Hermes’ writings also made it easier for Renaissance mages to justify their own practices and condemn the intolerance of their persecutors. See Hermeticism.

Both the medieval and the Renaissance traditions surrounding Hermes had an impact on early Freemasonry and, through it, on many other secret societies. The old medieval Masonic constitutions all refer to Hermes as one of the traditional founders of architecture and the building trades, and refer to a legend that he found and deciphered one of the two great pillars made before the Flood. These references to Hermes made it easy for the gentlemen scholars who became the first accepted Masons to read occult secrets into the medieval symbolism of Masonic initiations and reshape the old operative Masonry into modern Freemasonry. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, references to Hermes in the old constitutions inspired the proliferation of high degrees containing magical, alchemical, and astrological teachings. See accepted Mason; Freemasonry; high degrees.

Ironically, all this came about after the historical status of Hermes himself had been convincingly debunked by British scholar Isaac Casaubon, who showed in 1612 that the Corpus Hermeticum, far from being more ancient than the Bible, was a product of the first few centuries of the Common Era. As a result, the occult secret societies of the next few centuries, while they drew much of their philosophy from the Hermetic writings and most of their practices from Renaissance Hermeticism, avoided references to Hermes himself. Neither the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor (H.B. of L.) and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, two of the most influential magical orders of the nineteenth century, made use of the legends around Hermes Trismegistus. See Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor (H.B. of L.); Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

The emergence of Hermes as a pseudo-historical figure in the alternative-realities scene began with the founding of the Theosophical Society in 1875. Madame Blavatsky, the founder and chief theoretician of the Society, based her system of thought on the idea that everything believed by the orthodox science and religion of her time was false. Many of her followers interpreted that to mean that anything rejected by orthodox science and religion must be true. The denial of Hermes’ existence by historians, by this logic, was proof that he must actually have existed. During the “Theosophical century” (1875–1975), countless writers treated Hermes as a historical person of the distant past who had written everything attributed to him. Some groups identified him with historical figures; thus the Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (AMORC), one of the premier American occult orders of the twentieth century, identified Akhenaten as “the second Hermes.” See Akhenaten; Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (AMORC); Theosophical Society.

The rediscovery of Renaissance Hermeticism by mainstream scholarship in the late twentieth century produced a series of excellent historical studies of the Hermetic tradition, and showed conclusively that the name “Hermes Trismegistus” was used by dozens of writers over a period of centuries. None of this mattered in the world of rejected knowledge, however, and books treating Hermes as a historical figure continue to proliferate. See rejected knowledge.

Further reading: Faivre 1995, Fowden 1986, Yates 1964.


The collapse of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor (H.B. of L.) in 1886 left scores of initiates in Europe and America, many of them members of other occult secret societies and some of them in possession of the full teachings of the original order. Revivals were inevitable once the embarrassment of H.B. of L. secretary Thomas Burgoyne’s exposure as a convicted felon had become old news. See Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor (H.B. of L.).

The most important of these revivals was the Hermetic Brotherhood of Light, founded in Boston in 1895 by a group of American H.B. of L. initiates in contact with Burgoyne, who had moved to America in 1886. Burgoyne may have played a role in launching the order, and certainly Norman Astley, a retired British Army officer who had helped Burgoyne write a detailed resumé of H.B. of L. teachings, The Light of Egypt (1889), was active in the new Brotherhood. Genevieve Stebbins, an innovative teacher of the Delsarte system of exercise, and Sylvester C. Gould, an enthusiastic occultist and Freemason who became the new organization’s secretary and treasurer, were among the early members. A triad of senior members ran the Exterior Circle or earthly organization of the Brotherhood; Gould was certainly one of these, though the identities of the other two remain uncertain.

Hostile publicity spread by the Theosophical Society about the original H.B. of L. and The Light of Egypt made the Brotherhood more than usually interested in secrecy, with the result that very little is known about the organization and its activities. It recruited candidates for membership through classified advertisements in occult periodicals and assigned each new initiate to a senior member for instruction; only after passing through a detailed course of study was the initiate allowed any contact with other members of the organization. See Theosophical Society.

In 1900, a young man named Benjamin Williams, later known as Elbert Benjamine, responded to one of the Brotherhood’s advertisements and was accepted into its membership. He progressed rapidly through the Brotherhood’s study course, and on Gould’s death in 1909 he was elected to the governing triad of the order. In 1914, as effective head of the order, he began the process of transforming the Brotherhood into a correspondence school of occultism, and moved its headquarters to Los Angeles in 1915, where in 1932 it took its present name, the Church of Light. See Church of Light.

Further reading: Deveney 1997, Gibson 1996.


One of the most influential magical secret societies of the nineteenth century, the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor (H.B. of L.) was founded in London in 1884 by Peter Davidson and Thomas Burgoyne under the guidance of Max Theon, one of the most mysterious figures in the European occult scene of the time. Theon’s original name may have been Louis Maximilian Bimstein, he was probably Jewish, and he might have been born in Poland; his death in Tlemçen, Algeria in 1927 is one of the very few firmly established facts in his biography. He apparently gave some form of occult initiation to Davidson in the early 1880s, but his precise role in launching the H.B. of L. is one of the many mysteries surrounding him.

The H.B. of L. made its first public appearance in an advertisement on the last page of a new edition of the Corpus Hermeticum issued in 1884 by Robert Fryar, a leading English occult publisher. The advertisement offered membership in an occult brotherhood to all “who may have been disappointed in their expectations of Sublime Wisdom being freely dispensed by HINDOO MAHATMAS”. This deliberate dig at the Theosophical Society was the opening volley of a two-year struggle between the two organizations, which ended with the H.B. of L.’s collapse. Coming at a time when Theosophical pretensions had alienated many people in the occult scene, however, the H.B. of L.’s open defiance of Theosophy brought it many members and quickly made it a significant presence in Europe and America. See Theosophical Society.

Those who responded to the advertisement and paid the fee for membership in the H.B. of L. received a detailed postal course of instruction in practical occultism. Much of the material in the course was drawn from the work of American occultist P.B. Randolph. Another part came from the theories of Sampson Mackey, a self-taught savant of the early nineteenth century who argued for a system of world-ages based on changes in the angle of the earth’s axis. Material also came from a variety of occult writers of past and present, ranging from Johannes Trithemius (1462–1516) to Eliphas Lévi (1810–75). See ages of the world; earth changes; Eulis; Randolph, Paschal Beverly.

During 1885 and 1886 the H.B. of L. reached its zenith. The order boasted a monthly periodical, The Occult Magazine, and attracted hundreds of members. There was, however, a skeleton in the Brotherhood’s closet: its secretary Thomas Burgoyne, whose real name was Thomas Dalton, had served a jail term in 1883 for postal fraud. This came to light in 1886 and Theosophists, galled by the H.B. of L.’s ascendancy, made sure the information got into circulation throughout the occult community. The reaction was severe enough that the H.B. of L. closed its doors and both its leading members moved to America. Davidson settled in Loudsville, Georgia, and published an occult magazine for many years thereafter. Burgoyne went to Carmel, California, and became involved with the Hermetic Brotherhood of Light, the H.B. of L.’s most important successor order. See Hermetic Brotherhood of Light.

Despite its short life, the H.B. of L. had a major influence on the history of western occultism. Through its students and the magical secret societies they founded, Randolph’s sexual teachings became the common property of dozens of occult orders, and through these connections, most contemporary sex magic in the western world derives in one way or another from the H.B. of L.

Further reading: Godwin 1994, Godwin et al. 1995.


The most influential magical secret society of modern times, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was founded in 1887 by three English Freemasons, William Wynn Westcott, Samuel Liddell Mathers, and William Robert Woodman. According to its origin story – a variation on a very old theme – Westcott found a manuscript in cipher in a London bookstall containing rituals for a magical secret society, along with a contact address for a German adept in the society. He contacted the adept and received the charter for the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. See origin stories; Westcott, William Wynn.

The actual origins of the Golden Dawn are more convoluted. The cipher manuscript actually existed, but the letters from “Fraulein Sprengel” (the alleged adept) are clumsy fakes written by someone with little knowledge of German. The most likely theory is that the cipher manuscript came from Kenneth Mackenzie, who died in 1886 and whose Masonic papers ended up in Westcott’s hands. Mackenzie tried to launch an occult secret society called the Hermetic Brotherhood of Egypt, but his very dubious reputation in the British magical scene kept it from attracting members. Most likely Mackenzie’s draft rituals for the Hermetic Brotherhood of Egypt provided the template for the Golden Dawn. See Mackenzie, Kenneth.

The new order soon became the premier occult secret society in Britain. Its success had several sources. Unlike the Masonic secret societies of the time, it admitted women as well as men; its ceremonies were splendid and dignified, and it offered a complete course of instruction in the theory and practice of occultism. Members began with the rudiments of occult symbolism and ceremonial magic and proceeded step by step from there, receiving training in every aspect of magic, divination, and alchemy. See Alchemy; Magic.

By the late 1890s the Golden Dawn had temples in Paris and several American cities. Political problems within the order, however, were building toward an explosion. Woodman died in 1891, and Westcott, the coroner for southwest London, was forced to resign in 1897 after his involvement came to the attention of his Home Office superiors. Mathers, a brilliant but unstable magician with few organizational skills and an autocratic temper, demanded in 1899 that all members of the Second Order – the inner circle of the Golden Dawn, where the secrets of ceremonial magic were taught – sign a pledge of loyalty to him. The result was open rebellion, and Mathers was deposed.

By the time the dust settled in 1903, the Golden Dawn had broken into three orders – the Stella Matutina or Order of the Morning Star, headed by Robert W. Felkin; the Holy Order of the Golden Dawn, headed by Arthur Edward Waite; and the Alpha et Omega, a group of loyalists headed by Mathers. The first and last of these continued to teach the original Golden Dawn system, while the Holy Order replaced magic with Christian mysticism. In 1914 Waite closed the Holy Order, though he started a new organization, the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross, the next year; late in his life he also chartered an American branch of the Holy Order, which remains active today. The Alpha et Omega survived Mathers’ death in 1918 but went out of existence 10 years later when Mathers’ widow, Moina, died. The Stella Matutina ran into trouble after Felkin relocated to New Zealand in 1916 and the head of its London temple, Christina Stoddart, converted to fundamentalist Christianity; most of its temples went out of existence before the Second World War, though Hermes Temple in Bristol closed in 1960 and Smaragdum Thalasses in Havelock North, New Zealand, remained active until 1978.

Publication of Golden Dawn material began in 1909 when Aleister Crowley, a Golden Dawn member from 1898 to 1900 and a Mathers loyalist until 1904, printed several rituals in his magazine The Equinox. Most of the order’s papers saw print, starting in 1937 when Israel Regardie, a member of the Stella Matutina in 1933 and 1934, published the first volume of his massive collection The Golden Dawn. In the 1970s, independent Golden Dawn temples sprang up in various parts of the western world, and by the end of the twentieth century more than a dozen Golden Dawn orders existed. Unfortunately many of these failed to shake off the Golden Dawn habit of bitter political quarrels, and the Golden Dawn scene today is riven by factional disputes. See Crowley, Aleister.

The Golden Dawn heritage found its way into the wider circle of occult secret societies as well. Several Druid orders in the early twentieth century took in members who left the Golden Dawn, and incorporated Golden Dawn practices and rituals in their own work. Crowley used large elements of Golden Dawn theory and practice in his own secret societies, the Ordo Templi Orientis and Argenteum Astrum. The American occultist Paul Foster Case, co-author of the classic occult work The Kybalion and founder of the Builders of the Adytum, similarly drew much from Golden Dawn sources for his own system. See Argenteum Astrum (A∴A∴); Builders of the Adytum; Case, Paul Foster; Druid Revival; Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO).

Even more influential was English occultist Dion Fortune (Violet Firth), a member of the Alpha et Omega in its last years who later founded her own magical order, the Fraternity (later Society) of the Inner Light. Fortune combined Golden Dawn material with Theosophy to create a distinctive magical system. Several of her students, including Gareth Knight and W.E. Butler, became influential occultists in their own right, and through them Fortune’s system became central to more than a dozen magical secret societies in the late twentieth century. See Servants of the Light; Society of the Inner Light.

In the occult revival of the late twentieth century the Golden Dawn system was far and away the most influential tradition of occultism in the western world. The basic philosophy and practices of Golden Dawn magic remain fundamental to more than half of all occult secret societies active today in Europe, America, and Australasia, including many who heatedly reject the notion that they owe anything at all to it.

Further reading: Howe 1972, Regardie 1971.


One of the most influential spiritual movements in the western world, Hermeticism emerged in Roman Egypt in the first few centuries of the Common Era, born of the collision between traditional Egyptian spirituality and Greek philosophy in an age of radical religious change. Like Gnosticism, another movement born at the same time and in the same place, Hermeticism saw direct experience of spiritual realities as the key to inner transformation. Where Gnosticism drew massively on Judeo-Christian dualism and rejected the world of matter as a prison ruled by an evil god, however, Hermeticism celebrated the beauty of the material world as a reflection of spiritual realities. In place of the wild mythologies of Gnostic tradition, Hermetic writings present philosophy, piety, and a vision of spiritual transformation available to all those willing to turn their minds to contemplate “the things that are.” Yet a deep current of magical practices and alchemy also runs through ancient as well as modern Hermeticism; the contemplation of the universe, in Hermetic thought, leads step by step to a mastery of its secret powers. See Alchemy; dualism; Gnosticism; Magic.

Three sources conveyed the Hermetic tradition to later ages. The first is the Corpus Hermeticum, a collection of short books attributed to the founder of the movement, the godlike sage Hermes Trismegistus; this collection survived the fall of Rome in the Byzantine Empire and reached the western world by way of a single copy bought by the Medici family, the rulers of Renaissance Florence, in 1460. The second is the Asclepius, a Latin translation of a lost Greek original also attributed to Hermes, which survived in medieval Europe. The third is a smattering of occult texts headed by the Picatrix, a collection of old Hermetic magical practices collected by an unknown Arab wizard sometime in the early Middle Ages and attributed to the great Muslim scholar al-Majriti. All of these works came to the attention of occultists and scholars in the Italian Renaissance and launched Renaissance Hermeticism. See Hermes Trismegistus.

Renaissance Hermeticism was the seedbed of the entire modern occult movement. In the writings of Hermetic philosophers and occultists such as Marsilio Ficino, Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola, Henricus Cornelius Agrippa, and Giordano Bruno, the teachings of the Hermetic writings became a universal philosophy in which every material object mirrors spiritual realities, and a mastery of the correspondences between stones, plants, stars, and spirits allows the Hermeticist to transform the world. These ideas flowed into nearly every corner of Renaissance culture, and formed the background of the art of memory, the notory art, and other forgotten spiritual disciplines of the age. It also underpinned the Rosicrucian movement, and became a key factor in the late medieval stonemasons’ guilds that evolved into modern Freemasonry. See art of memory; Bruno, Giordano; Freemasonry; Rosicrucians.

Through these channels Hermetic ideas and teachings flowed into the secret societies of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Major late nineteenth-century orders such as the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn show their roots in Hermeticism in their very names. While these orders flourished, though, the Theosophical Society had already begun the great turning toward the east that distracted most twentieth-century western mystics from their own cultural heritage and convinced four generations of seekers that wisdom was only to be found in Asia. As this conviction has faded, the secret traditions of the west have gradually found a new audience, and Hermeticism in particular has experienced a modest renaissance. How far that will extend remains one of the questions the twenty-first century will have to answer. See Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor (H.B. of L.); Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn; Theosophical Society.

Further reading: Faivre 1995, Fowden 1986, Yates 1964.


In Freemasonry, all those degrees that come after the Master Mason degree, with the exception of the Royal Arch and its associated degrees, are referred to as high degrees. This usage is controversial in some circles, as Masonic tradition insists that the degree of Master Mason is the highest of all Masonic degrees. In recent years, with declining membership in all branches of Freemasonry, some Masons have insisted that the high degrees are unnecessary, and divert time and resources that should be devoted to Craft Masonry. Members of the high degrees, for their part, argue that these latter are important elements of Freemasonry and should not be discarded. See Freemasonry; Royal Arch.

The genesis of the high degrees of Masonry was a complex process, beginning in the late 1730s and continuing through the end of the nineteenth century. The catalyst for the first important series of high degrees was the famous 1736 oration of the Chevalier Ramsay, in which he argued that Masonry could trace its roots back to the knightly religious orders of the Crusades. Ramsay himself was a Jacobite – a supporter of the claims of the exiled House of Stuart to the British throne – and most of the high degrees that surfaced in Masonic circles in the two decades after his oration had close connections to the Jacobite movement. Ramsay himself is credited by some sources with the invention of the first set of high degrees, a system of three levels above Master Mason. See Jacobites; Ramsay, Andrew Michael.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the manufacture of high degrees formed an important part of Masonic activity throughout Europe, and especially in France, where more than half the high degrees still worked originated. More than 2000 high degrees surfaced within Freemasonry during these years, most of them as part of degree sequences within many competing rites of Masonry. For details of the most important of these rites, see Rite of Memphis; Rite of Misraim; Rite of Perfection; Rite of Strict Observance.

Most of these rites went out of existence before 1900, or survive only as small organizations on the fringes of Freemasonry. In the English-speaking world, the two main survivors are the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite and the York Rite. In America, both these rites are independent of ordinary Craft Masonry; the Scottish Rite is governed by its own Supreme Councils, the York Rite by a patchwork of state and national jurisdictions bewildering to the uninitiated. In England, while the Ancient and Accepted Rite is independent, the degrees of the York Rite are under the jurisdiction of United Grand Lodge. See Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite; York Rite.


The central character of the legend at the core of Freemasonry, Hiram Abiff appears in the Old Testament (I Kings 7:13–40) as a master brass-worker from Tyre commissioned by King Solomon to cast the brass furnishings for the Temple. In the legendary history of the medieval stoneworkers’ guilds that became Freemasonry, however, Hiram turned into the master builder in charge of the Temple’s construction. When the project was nearing completion, 15 of the journeymen laborers who worked on the Temple plotted to extort from him the Master’s Word, which would enable them to pass as Master Masons. Twelve of them repented, but three went ahead with the plot, lying in wait for him at noon at the three entrances of the unfinished temple. When Hiram refused each of them in turn, each struck him with a tool, and the third blow killed him. The three ruffians, as they are called in Masonic writings, hid the body in a heap of rubbish until midnight, then carried it elsewhere and buried it. Hiram’s death, the search for his body, and its recovery make up the core of the Master Mason degree in Masonry, while other events surrounding them appear in dozens of higher Masonic degrees, especially in the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite. See Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite (AASR); Freemasonry.

The story of Hiram Abiff can be interpreted in many ways, and most branches of Freemasonry have steadfastly refused to impose a single rigid meaning on it, preferring to allow each initiate to understand it in his own way. Books and articles over the last three centuries have suggested moral, mystical, historical, geometrical, sexual, and occult interpretations, among many others. In recent decades, though, popular books claiming to reveal the secrets of Masonry have focused almost exclusively on the historical dimension, insisting that “Hiram Abiff” is a cover name for a specific person whose life and death matched the events of the Masonic allegory.

This sort of euhemerist reading satisfies the modern craving for simplistic literal meanings, but quickly runs aground on the awkward fact that dozens of plausible candidates have been proposed for the role – ranging from Charles I of England to the minor Egyptian pharaoh Seqenenre II – and hundreds more could as readily be added. This flexibility points to the universal and archetypal dimension of the story of Hiram Abiff – a dimension too often wholly lost in interpretations fixated on the rigidities of historical fact. See Allegory; Euhemerism.

Further reading: MacNulty 2002.


Austrian politician and occultist, 1889–1945. Born in the small border town of Braunau-am-Inn, Hitler was a moody and difficult child with a passion for reading, philosophy, and art. He dropped out of school in 1905, and in 1907 went to Vienna in the hope of enrolling in the prestigious Vienna Academy of Art. He failed the entrance exams twice, however; unwilling to return home, he ended up on Vienna’s mean streets, eking out a living as a postcard painter and male prostitute while staying in cheap rented rooms or a shelter for homeless men. A friend of his Vienna days reported that Hitler spent much of his free time reading books on occultism, astrology, hypnotism, and mysticism. He also read Ostara, the virulently racist Ariosophical magazine issued by the Ordo Novi Templi, one of the major occult secret societies in Austria at the time. See Ordo Novi Templi (ONT).

In 1913 he emigrated to Germany and settled in Munich, finding a home in the Munich counterculture and continuing his studies. When the First World War broke out in 1914, he enlisted in the German army and served on the Western Front for the duration of the war, earning an Iron Cross for bravery under fire. He was in a military hospital, temporarily blinded by Allied poison gas, when Germany collapsed and the war ended. Thereafter he returned to Munich and earned a small salary as an informer for German army intelligence. In 1920 he attended a meeting of the German Workers’ Party (Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, DAP), got into a heated discussion with one of its members, and was invited to join. His acceptance marked the beginning of one of the strangest political careers in modern history.

The DAP was a front group for an Ariosophical secret society, the Thule Society, which had links to right-wing occult groups across Europe. Hitler never became a member of the Thule Society, but its members and allies soon recognized his remarkable gift for oratory and brought him wealthy and influential supporters. As the DAP grew into the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (National-sozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, NSDAP), Thule members Rudolf Hess and Ernst Röhm took important roles in the organization, while Thule ally Dietrich Eckart, a widely read writer and an Ariosophical occultist, became Hitler’s mentor and helped him polish his manners and oratory. Eckart has often been identified as one of Hitler’s occult instructors as well, and was certainly capable of filling that role, though proof one way or another is lacking. See National Socialism; Thule Society.

From the early 1920s on, Hitler’s private life lay hidden behind a carefully crafted public image, and little is known for sure about his activities outside the realms of politics, diplomacy, and war. Comments preserved in his table talk, and in the memoirs of associates such as Brownshirt chief of staff Otto Wagener, show that he had not lost his interest in occultism, but most of the documented occult activities in the Third Reich’s upper levels were the work of Heinrich Himmler, a passionate Ariosophist who became chief of the SS in 1929 and turned it into something even mainstream historians call “Nazi Freemasonry.” See SS (Schutzstaffel).

In the public sphere, Hitler and his party gained momentum slowly at first, contending with scores of other small right-wing parties in the political chaos of Weimar Germany. An early attempt at a coup in 1923 failed dismally, but Hitler’s defense of his actions at his trial won the battle for popular opinion and the Nazi Party flourished thereafter. In 1933 Hitler became Chancellor, forced an Enabling Act suspending the Weimar constitution through the Reichstag, and took absolute power. For the rest of the decade he was all but invincible, transforming Germany into one of the world’s great powers and bringing Austria and Czechoslovakia under German rule without a shot being fired. When Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939 began the Second World War, the British and French expected an easy victory, only to find themselves outmaneuvered at every turn by the Führer.

Yet Hitler’s victories convinced him of his own infallibility and led him to make a series of disastrous mistakes, culminating in his invasion of Russia in 1941. As Germany faced a two-front war it could not win, and the Wehrmacht struggled to hold the sprawling empire it had seized, Hitler retreated more and more from the public eye. An assassination attempt in 1944 by a clique of top generals left him permanently disabled, but he held onto the reins of power in Germany until his suicide in 1945, a few days before Russian troops seized Berlin.

Hitler’s occult involvements were no secret to occultists before and during the war, but in the years since his death an immense and almost totally fabricated mythology of Nazi occultism has emerged in the alternative-realities scene. Louis Pauwel and Jacques Bergier started the process with their wildly speculative Le Matin du Magiciens (The Morning of the Magicians, 1960), which linked Hitler to the Vril Society and Tibetan adepts, and Trevor Ravenscroft’s 1972 book The Spear of Destiny built on this with a wholly fictional tale of Hitler’s quest to seize and control the Spear of Longinus. From there, the new mythology of Nazism has spread to embrace every aspect of rejected knowledge, from flying saucers to the Hollow Earth. See hollow earth; rejected knowledge; Spear of Longinus; unidentified flying objects (UFOs); Vril Society.

Parallel to this, and often borrowing from it, is an equally fabricated but far more noxious mythology that redefines Hitler as the messianic savior of Aryan humanity. These beliefs have become central to the growing neo-Nazi occult scene, which has largely supplanted Satanism on the dark side of contemporary occultism. See Black Sun; neo-Nazi secret societies.

Further reading: Goodrick-Clarke 1992, Hitler 1974.


A leading force in the proto-Nazi underworld of early twentieth-century central Europe, the Höhere Armanen-Orden (Higher Armanen Order, HAO) rose out of the Guido von List Society, an organization founded in 1908 to promote the ideas of the Austrian racial mystic Guido von List (1848–1919). List, a popular novelist famous for works that glamorized ancient German tribal customs, believed that a caste of priest-kings, the Armanen, had governed all the Germanic tribes before the coming of Christianity. Driven underground by the persecuting Catholic Church, the Armanen had disguised themselves as the Knights Templar, the Freemasons, and the Rosicrucians in order to pass their hidden knowledge down to the future. This pedigree inspired List’s supporters to reconstruct the Armanen mysteries; the HAO was the result. See Armanen; Freemasonry; Knights Templar; Rosicrucians.

Very little is known about the HAO’s teachings and practices, beyond the fact that it conducted pilgrimages to ancient Germanic holy places. It likely shared List’s interest in runes, and seems to have been instrumental in launching and promoting Ariosophy, a racist offshoot of Theosophy that defined the Aryan peoples as the only true humans and saw the struggle between Aryan god-men and everyone else as the driving force behind human history. The membership of the HAO overlapped substantially with that of the Ordo Novi Templi (ONT), another racist secret society founded by Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels, and many ONT teachings may also have been common to the HAO. See Ordo Novi Templi (ONT); Theosophical Society.

List himself prophesied during the First World War that a “Strong One from Above” would soon appear to liberate the Germanic peoples and lead them on a crusade against their supposed racial enemies. His prophecy came true in 1933 when Adolf Hitler, backed by many German Ariosophists, became Chancellor of Germany. Ironically, the German takeover of Austria in 1938 meant the end of the HAO and the Guido von List Society, as the Nazis enforced a strict ban on all secret societies other than their own. See Hitler, Adolf; National Socialism.

Further reading: Goodrick-Clarke 1992.


The teachings of occult secret societies have included quite a few strange ideas, but among the strangest are claims that the earth we live on is hollow, and contains an unknown world inside. Hollow earth theories have deep roots in ancient traditions about the underworld, and appear in prototypical form in the writings of Renaissance savants such as Athanasius Kircher, but their modern presence on the far shores of popular culture dates from 1818.

In that year Captain John Cleves Symmes, an American veteran of the War of 1812 against Britain, announced that he had made the greatest geographical discovery of his time. The earth, he claimed, was a hollow shell containing no fewer than four undiscovered worlds inside – each one a concentric sphere, inhabitable inside and out, and accessible via openings at the poles. Symmes announced his intention to lead an expedition northwards beyond the polar ice to launch American settlement in the land inside the globe, which he modestly named “Symmzonia.” In 1828, after years of lobbying by Symmes’s supporters, the US Congress authorized funds for a naval expedition of three ships, but President Andrew Jackson scotched the project.

Symmes’s “discovery” attracted more attention from writers and poets than from scientists, but others picked up the idea of hidden worlds within the earth and added their own stamp to the vision. At the beginning of the twentieth century, maverick geographers William Reed and Marshall Gardner argued for a single hollow globe with continents and seas inside. Their visions found their way into a seminal work of science fiction, Edgar Rice Burrough’s At the Earth’s Core (1922), before vaulting back out of fiction later in the twentieth century.

By this time, a different version of the hollow earth theory – perhaps the most striking of all – had been pioneered by the American visionary Cyrus Teed (1839–1908). Teed’s “Koreshan philosophy” argued that the world was hollow, but we are already on the inside. Rejecting the idea of an infinite universe, Teed proposed in 1868 that the entire universe consisted of the hollow earth, surrounded by seven shells of different metals, with gold on the outside and literally nothing – not even empty space – beyond that. Inside, a black “counter-sun” spangled with bright points of light filled most of the intervening space, with the sun and planets whizzing through the open space between the counter-sun and the earth’s inside surface. His cosmology found a receptive audience, and he established a commune in Florida that still survives and preaches Koreshanity to a mostly uninterested world.

Even in its more conventional forms, the hollow earth is a fringe concept even in the world of rejected knowledge, but the sheer power of the image has guaranteed it a place in a surprising number of alternative visions of the universe. The legendary science fiction editor Raymond Palmer, who sent sales of Amazing Stories to stratospheric levels in the late 1940s with pseudo-factual articles about sinister “deros” lurking in underground caverns, boosted circulation of his new periodical, Flying Saucers, in 1957 by revealing that UFOs actually came, not from outer space, but from within the hollow earth. Here as elsewhere, Palmer proved to be the unsung prophet of late twentieth-century popular occultism, and most of the ideas he launched in the pulp magazines he edited were recycled again and again by later and apparently more serious writers. See Palmer, Raymond; unidentified flying objects (UFOs).

Far and away the most systematic development of his ideas, and of the hollow earth theory, has emerged from the murky underworld of neo-Nazi secret societies. The road that put Nazis inside the hollow earth was a complicated one, beginning with claims right after the Second World War that Nazi leaders, including Hitler, escaped from Germany via U-boat to Neuschwabenland, the section of the Antarctic coast claimed by Nazi Germany after a 1938 expedition. Another set of claims in the late 1940s argued that flying saucers were actually advanced Nazi aircraft flown by the “Last Battalion,” a force of Luftwaffe and SS men hidden away in some distant corner of the world. Raymond Palmer’s claim that flying saucers came from inside the hollow earth provided the bridge between these claims. By the 1970s pro-Nazi writers Wilhelm Landig and Ernst Zundel, among others, were arguing that Hitler, defeated on the outside of the globe, had retreated inside it to continue the war against “world Jewry” with a fleet of flying saucers that sallied forth via openings at the north and south poles. See Antarctica; Hitler, Adolf; neo-Nazi secret societies.

The most detailed of these neo-Nazi hollow earth theories belongs to the “esoteric Hitlerism” of the Chilean mystical fascist Miguel Serrano. In Serrano’s vision, the lost polar continent of Hyperborea – the original home of the Aryans after their arrival on earth from another dimension – slid through the polar opening into the hollow earth after some of its inhabitants fell from grace by mating with non-Aryans. The descendants of the pure-blooded Hyperboreans can supposedly still be found there, in the subterranean cities of Shambhala and Agharta, and Hitler himself traveled there by U-boat after escaping from the defeated Reich, before returning via the Green Ray to the mysterious Black Sun, the extra-galactic home of the Aryans. See Agharta; Black Sun; Shambhala.

Despite all these speculations, by turns colorful and repellent, the fact remains that not a scrap of evidence actually supports the theory of hidden worlds within a hollow earth. Still, the vision of undiscovered realms somewhere beneath our feet remains appealing enough that new attempts to argue in favor of a hollow earth are certain to appear in the years to come.

Further reading: Godwin 1993, Goodrick-Clarke 2002, Kafton-Minkel 1989.



The first magical secret society to embrace the late twentieth-century paradigm of chaos magic, the Illuminates of Thanateros was founded in Germany by two chaos magicians in 1978, drawing on materials from the Thelemic magic of Aleister Crowley’s Ordo Templi Orientis and the Zos Kia Cultus of the English autoerotic mystic Austin Osman Spare. The word “Thanateros” is a fusion of the Greek words thanatos, “death,” and eros, “love,” and reflects the central themes of its system. See magic; Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO); Zos Kia Cultus.

Chaos magic is based on the belief that the only valid parts of traditional magical teaching are its techniques for transforming consciousness and causing change, while its philosophy, cosmology, and ethical teachings should be discarded. In place of these latter, the IOT urges the rejection of all fixed patterns of belief and the use of improvised rituals centering on altered states of consciousness. The antinomian outlook of the IOT has predictably prevented it from becoming particularly large or well organized, but a recently updated Internet site lists 16 IOT temples scattered around the world.


See Bavarian Illuminati.


The first fraternal secret society original to America, the Improved Order of Red Men traces its roots back to the Sons of Liberty, a political secret society founded in Boston before the American Revolution. After the Revolution, many Sons of Liberty chapters renamed themselves the Society of St Tammany or Tamina, a name that had been taken by the Annapolis chapter as early as 1773. As the Society of St Tammany became increasingly political, members interested more in social activities than in politics founded a new organization, the Society of Red Men, which began at Fort Mifflin, Pennsylvania in 1816. Like most fraternal orders of the time, the Society met in taverns and included plenty of drinking among its activities; in 1834 members who wanted to move away from this model toward fraternal and charitable work broke away from the Society of Red Men to found their own organization, the Improved Order of Red Men. See fraternal orders; Odd Fellowship; Society of St Tammany; Sons of Liberty.

The Red Men reflected the intense ambivalence many Americans felt toward the native peoples they had displaced on the North American land. Its rituals and symbolism were based on white ideas of Native American life and spirituality, but until 1974 Native Americans themselves (along with members of all other non-white ethnic groups) were barred from membership. The order cultivated a patriotism that, as so often in nineteenth- and twentieth-century America, blended too easily with racism and xenophobia, but it also took a stand against the Ku Klux Klan in 1922, at a time when many other fraternal secret societies were covertly or openly siding with the Klan. See Ku Klux Klan.

The Improved Order had a slow start, and by 1850 still counted only 45 tribes (local lodges) and just over 3000 members. That same year saw a schism among the Red Men that gave rise to a competing organization, the Independent Order of Red Men, which remained in existence until the 1890s. During the second half of the nineteenth century, though, new degree rituals and the expanding popularity of fraternal orders enabled the Improved Order of Red Men to grow steadily. It established a ladies auxiliary, the Daughters of Pocahontas, in 1887, and a burlesque lodge, the National Haymakers Association, in 1878. See burlesque degrees; ladies auxiliaries.

The order reached a peak membership of more than half a million in 1920. From this high-water mark the order declined steadily, and survives today in fewer than half of the states in the US. Like most American fraternal orders, it counts several presidents among its members – Theodore Roosevelt, Warren G. Harding, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Richard Nixon were all Red Men – but what limited political influence it once had is now long in the past.


Founded in 1851 in Utica, New York, the Independent Order of Good Templars was the most successful secret society in the temperance movement. Its founder, Daniel Cady, had been a member of an earlier temperance order, and felt the need for a secret society along similar lines that concentrated its efforts entirely on opposition to alcohol, instead of combining its temperance activities with fraternal benefits and other activities.

Cady’s first attempt at a temperance society was the Knights of Jericho, founded in Utica in 1850. Within a year this society reorganized itself as the Order of Good Templars, drawing on the image and legends of the medieval Knights Templar as a basis for the new ritual. Members pledged never to drink alcohol, and campaigned for prohibition. A series of early political disputes saw a faction break away from the Order of Good Templars and rename itself the Independent Order of Good Templars; while the original order never got far, the IOGT expanded steadily and in 1868 established its first lodge in Great Britain at Birmingham. By 1900 it was the largest secret society in the temperance movement, with lodges in more than 30 countries.

Unlike most other secret societies of the time, the Good Templars admitted men and women on an equal basis and gave leadership positions to women. It also kept its original strict focus on temperance issues. Buoyed by these sources of strength, the IOGT became one of the major forces in the international struggle to prohibit alcohol. In 1902 it changed its name to the International Order of Good Templars.

The passage of Prohibition in the United States in 1919, however, convinced many people that the IOGT was no longer needed, now that its work was done, and the resounding failure of the new legislation in the 1920s caused it to lose credibility. The creation of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) in 1937 posed an additional challenge, since AA quickly encroached on the IOGT’s role as an organization for reformed alcoholics, and its widely copied “12 step” program proved more popular than the IOGT’s moralizing approach. During the middle years of the twentieth century the IOGT abandoned the secret society traditions it had adopted from its fraternal roots, and now exists as an international federation of anti-alcohol organizations.


See Odd Fellowship.


The process by which a candidate becomes a member of a secret society. Initiation is surrounded by an enormous amount of mythology, but at its core is a simple but effective process of reshaping human consciousness used by nearly all spiritual traditions worldwide, and more recently by advertisers, political movements, and many others. The core of the process is the fact that experience has a deeper impact when the subject is placed in a receptive state. Such a state can be produced in many ways; TV advertising uses immobility and the “flicker effect” of the picture tube, political rallies use the herd reactions human beings share with other social animals, and many religious traditions use the hypnotic effects of repeated prayers or mantras.

In modern secret societies in the western world, by contrast, the tool of choice is ritual, amplified by a few simple but effective psychological devices. Candidates awaiting their first initiation into a secret society are usually blindfolded, and may be bound by a cord as well. They are brought into a darkened lodge room and moved around it while voices sounding out of the darkness repeat the words of the ritual. Unable to get their bearings and moved through unfamiliar space, the candidate becomes mildly disoriented, and most secret society initiations add to this effect by startling the candidate in some way near the beginning of the ceremony. When the blindfold is finally raised, the images seen by the candidate blaze with heightened intensity, and the teachings and signs of recognition given to the candidate at that point share in that same intensity. Whenever the candidate encounters the core images of the initiation or uses the signs of recognition thereafter, what psychologists call “state-dependent memory” takes over and brings back something of the emotional tone of the moment of revelation in the initiation ritual. These effects are far from infallible – a certain percentage of candidates “fail to initiate” and usually drift out of the society in short order – but they work often enough to make the trouble of performing ‘initiation rituals worthwhile.

As with most ritual techniques, the effects of initiation vary almost infinitely depending on the nature of the symbols and teachings presented in the initiation ceremony. Initiations into fraternal secret societies such as Odd Fellowship, for example, focus on the obligations of brotherhood and create feelings of mutual affection among members. Those of magical secret societies such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn focus on awakening the subtle powers of the self and give the initiate a foretaste of the results of magical training. Those of political secret societies encourage commitment to the society’s political goals, while those of criminal secret societies foster loyalty and a sense of being unfettered by conventional rules and laws. See fraternal orders; Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn; Odd Fellowship.

From 1700 to 1950, the golden age of secret societies in the western world, designers of initiation rituals experimented with many different approaches and amassed a toolkit of successful methods, which were then put to work in the rituals of the thousands of different secret societies active in those years. Some secret societies took shape around a set of successful rituals, while others, unsatisfied with their initiation ceremonies, revised or replaced them with others that seemed more likely to accomplish their goals. The rise of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite from a minor Masonic body in the 1850s to the largest single rite in Masonry a century later is rightly credited to Albert Pike’s brilliant revision of their rituals. See Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite; Pike, Albert.

Nowadays, as most secret societies struggle with declining numbers and an aging membership, the quality of initiation ceremonies varies widely from order to order and indeed from local lodge to local lodge. Some lodges perform stunningly powerful rituals, while others go through the motions, awkwardly reading unfamiliar parts out of books. The common cultural assumption that ritual is by definition empty forms, and the conservative Christian assumption that any ritual but theirs must be devil worship, put additional obstacles in the way of effective initiatory work nowadays. Still, initiation is still available for those willing to seek it out, and those who have experienced its impact know that it can be a powerful tool for good.

Further reading: Greer 1998.


Founded by Russian ex-Nihilist Mikhail Bakunin in Italy sometime around 1864, the International Brothers were a significant presence in late nineteenth-century European politics and played an important role in the First International. The Brothers’ manifesto, Bakunin’s Revolutionary Catechism of 1866, called for capitalism’s replacement by an egalitarian society in which farmers owned their own land and industry was owned and managed by workers cooperatives. In practice, however, the society was an absolute dictatorship controlled by Bakunin, and its plan of action concentrated all power in the hands of the Brothers after the revolution in an “invisible dictatorship.” See Nihilists.

Sometime after the formation of the International Brothers, its members formed a front group, the Secret Alliance, also known as the Alliance of Social Revolutionists or the Secret Alliance of Socialist Democracy. The Secret Alliance then sponsored a public organization, the International Alliance of Socialist Democracy, which merged with the First International in 1868. Once inside the International, in time-honored fashion, they attempted to reformulate its goals and activities to fit their own vision of social revolution. See First International.

Bakunin’s followers, however, faced opponents who had already overcome one secret society within the International. Originally sponsored in 1864 by the Philadelphes, one of the last of the old revolutionary secret societies of the Napoleonic era, the International had fallen under the control of Karl Marx and his then-ally Auguste Blanqui, another leading figure in the radical circles of the time. The co-author of the Communist Manifesto and the leading figure in the radical intelligentsia of his time, Marx controlled the single largest bloc of delegates on the International’s General Council. See Communism; Philadelphes.

Bakunin and his followers remained in the International for four short and troubled years, but Marx and Blanqui checkmated them at every turn. Expelled in 1872 at the instigation of Marx, Bakunin tried to launch an “Anti-Authoritarian” International of his own, but this failed to attract more than a token following outside Bakunin’s own organization. In 1874 Bakunin diverted the entire treasury of the Brothers to pay for improvements to his Swiss villa, causing many of the society’s members to defect. Not long after he died, two years later, the International Brothers and the schismatic International they tried to control quietly went out of existence, leaving the field clear for the founding of the Second International in 1889.

Further reading: Drachkovitch 1966.


One of the ancient mystery cults, the Isiac mysteries focused on the myth of Isis, sister and wife of the Egyptian god Osiris. They emerged in Hellenistic Egypt sometime in the second or third century BCE as Greek settlers in Egypt adopted the worship of the local goddess but reshaped her rites into forms more familiar to them. By the first century of the Common Era Iseums (temples of Isis) offering initiation into her mysteries could be found over most of the Roman Empire; even Londinium in the backwater province of Britannia boasted one. See mysteries, ancient.

The myth around which the Isiac mysteries built their initiations began with the death of the vegetation god Osiris at the hands of his brother Set, god of the sterile desert. Isis searched for the body of her husband and finally recovered it in the distant town of Byblos in Phoenicia. Returning with the body to the banks of the Nile, she brought Osiris back to life and coupled with him, begetting a son, Horus. Not long afterwards, Set’s minions found Osiris in his hiding place and killed him a second time, hewing him to pieces and throwing them in the Nile to prevent a second resurrection. Osiris then became the god of the dead; Isis gave birth to Horus and raised him to manhood in secret, and Horus then slew Set and became the ruler of Egypt.

One of the core symbols of the Isiac mysteries was the image of Isis suckling the infant Horus. Ironically, when the Christian Church seized power in the Roman world during the fourth century CE, some statues of this sort were renamed, and became images of the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus. Some of the famous “black Madonnas” of southern Europe, according to recent art historians, may actually be “black Isises” preserved in this way.