In European writings from the age of witchcraft persecutions, the term for a meeting of witches. The word was borrowed from the Jewish sabbath, as many medieval Christians had trouble telling the difference between members of any other religion beside their own, and antisemitism played a significant part in the creation of the medieval mythology of the witches’ sabbath. See Antisemitism; witchcraft persecutions.

English Egyptologist and witchcraft theorist Margaret Murray (1863–1963) took the term from documents concerning witchcraft trials, and reshaped it to fit her theory that medieval witchcraft was actually a survival of ancient pagan religious practices. When Murray’s friend Gerald Gardner (1884–1964) created modern Wicca as a supposed survival of medieval witch cults, Murray’s sabbats were among his many borrowings from her writings. In the early 1950s, the term came to be associated with the eight festivals of contemporary neopaganism and is still used in that sense in pagan circles today. See Murray hypothesis; Wicca.

Modern conspiracy theories written or influenced by fundamentalist Christians have picked up the use of the term in modern pagan writings, but like their medieval equivalents have usually failed to notice the difference between Wicca and Satanism. Many of today’s books of Christian conspiracy theory thus feature lurid accounts of Satanists celebrating sabbats, which is a little like claiming that Christians celebrate Yom Kippur or Americans celebrate the birthday of the Queen. See Satanism.


Until recently one of the most neglected branches of the western esoteric tradition, sacred geometry began to experience a renaissance in the last two decades of the twentieth century and is becoming a known factor again in the alternative scene. The links between geometry and spirituality go back to the beginnings of geometrical study in the western world, for Pythagoras, the first known teacher of geometry in the Greek world, gained his knowledge of the art in Egypt and Babylon and taught it to students as a sacred mystery surrounded by religious taboos and disciplines. See Pythagorean Brotherhood.

The principles behind classical sacred geometry remain essential to the tradition today. The laws governing form in geometrical constructions are understood by sacred geometers as expressions of the same timeless patterns experienced by mystics in their meditations and visions. The most significant of these laws express themselves in irrational ratios. The most widely known of these ratios is pi, π, the ratio between the diameter of a circle and its circumference. The others that have been central to sacred geometry since ancient times are 1/√2, the ratio between the side of a square and its diagonal; 1/√3, the ratio between the side of an equilateral triangle and twice its height; √5, the ratio between the side of a double square and its diagonal; and phi, φ, the Golden Proportion, the ratio a/b that makes a/b=b/(a+b). These ratios appear constantly in nature and art.

From its Pythagorean sources, sacred geometry became common in the ancient world and was preserved by Christian monks through the chaos that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West. As the first stone cathedrals rose above European cities in the early Middle Ages, the stonemasons who put this lore into practical use became expert in the symbolic dimensions of geometry as well. While the fusion of practical and symbolic geometry went out of use in most of Europe with the rise of the universities and a growing separation between the educated and working classes, in the cultural backwater of Scotland guilds of stonemasons survived into the seventeenth century with significant elements of the old lore intact, and eventually gave rise to Freemasonry. See Freemasonry, origins of.

Medieval stonemasons evolved two schools of sacred geometry, based on different systems of proportion. One, the ad quadratim (“by the square”) system, used the relationship between squares and diagonals as the basis for its designs; the other, the ad triangulum (“by the triangle”) system, used equilateral triangles and hexagons for the same purpose. The two rival systems each had partisans, and quarrels, sometimes descending to the level of fist-fights, sometimes broke out between stonemasons of different schools working on the same building project. The Scottish stonemasons’ guilds that gave rise to modern Freemasonry were partisans of the ad quadratim system, which is why right angles and squares play such a central part in Masonic symbolism. Continental stonemasons’ guilds aligned with the ad triangulum approach may have had an influence on later systems of high degree Masonry, which may explain the greater importance of equilateral triangles in the higher Masonic degrees. See high degrees.

Long before Freemasonry emerged out of the operative stonemasons’ guilds, however, sacred geometry became an integral part of the Renaissance occult tradition. Magicians of the Renaissance used geometry as one of many tools to bring themselves into harmony with the entire cosmos and call down universal powers into the human world. These methods passed at the end of the Renaissance into the underworld of occult secret societies, where they fused with Masonic lore to become essential elements of magical work. Practices based on sacred geometry remain a significant part of the teachings of many occult secret societies today; the pentagram, for example, derives its role in ritual magic from the Golden Proportion geometries that define it. By the nineteenth century, however, very few people in the occult scene understood the geometrical principles behind their rituals and practices. See Magic; Pentagram.

The revival of sacred geometry in the western world began with the work of one man, French occultist R.A. Schwaller de Lubicz (1887–1961). After decades of involvement in occult and alchemical circles in Paris and elsewhere, Schwaller went to Egypt, where he found that the geometries of ancient Egyptian art and architecture provided him with a symbolic language perfectly suited to express mystical teachings. His studies there resulted in a series of brilliant if difficult works on the subject, which introduced traditional sacred geometry to the modern occult tradition. In the 1970s, several English writers researching leys and other earth mysteries stumbled across old treatises on the subject, notably William Stirling’s forgotten 1897 classic The Canon, and introduced the fundamentals of sacred geometry to a wider audience. Since that time, books on the subject have proliferated; some excellent work has been done, though certain authors have mixed sacred geometry with the wilder and less useful ends of the modern rejected knowledge industry, with dubious results. The field remains lively at present, and has begun to influence certain schools of architecture and design. See Leys; rejected knowledge; Schwaller de Lubicz, René Aor.

Further reading: Lawlor 1982, Pennick 1979, Stirling 1999.


European adventurer, c.1710–1784. One of the most colorful figures of the eighteenth century, the Comte de Saint-Germain loomed large in life and even larger in the mythology that gathered around him after his death. A skilled physician, painter, chemist, musician, and composer, he was fluent in at least six languages, and by all accounts was one of the star raconteurs of an age when conversation very nearly counted as one of the fine arts. He was also vain, boastful, fond of dropping hints that he had been alive for thousands of years and had known most of the great figures of the past, and implicated in a string of very dubious financial dealings. In an age when the courts of Europe thronged with remarkable individuals who made their living by sheer personality, he was the adventurer’s adventurer, admired even by those he defrauded.

He wrapped himself in a shroud of mystery so effectively that historians have yet to find any solid data about his origins and early life. Even his birth name is unknown. “Comte de Saint-Germain” was an assumed name, and he also made use of other aliases – Count Bellamare, Count Tsarogy, Count Surmont, Lord Weldon, the Marquis of Montferrat, General Soltikov, and Chevalier Schöning, among others. In his last years he claimed to be the son and heir of Francis Rákóczi, the last Prince of Transylvania, and his portraits and those of Rákóczi show what might be a family resemblance. Other claims circulated during his lifetime identified him as the son of a civil servant from Savoy named Rotondo, the son of a Jewish physician from Alsace named Wolff, the illegitimate son of a king of Portugal, and, for good measure, the son of an Arabian princess by a jinn. His first documented appearance was in 1735, when he wrote a letter from Holland that is now in the British Library; 1739 saw him in Holland again, and in 1743 he arrived in London and cut a dashing figure at the court of King George II. Briefly arrested in 1745 for his supposed role in a Jacobite conspiracy, he was cleared of all charges but left the country. Between 1745 and 1757 his whereabouts are unclear, with some sources placing him in Vienna while others put him in India. From 1757 to 1760 he dazzled the French court at Versailles, but in the latter year was entrusted with a secret diplomatic mission by Louis XV and bungled it so badly that he had to flee to England to avoid a stay in the Bastille. In 1762 he was back in Holland, involved in shady financial dealings that cost a Dutch industrialist almost 100,000 gulden. From 1768 to 1774 he lived in Italy, and won an honorary commission as a Russian general for providing the Russian navy with his famous healing tea, a mild laxative made from senna pods. From 1774 on he was in Germany, living off a string of German noblemen who found his charm and conversation worth the cost of his upkeep. He died in 1784 at the home of Charles, Prince of Hesse-Cassel, the last of his patrons.

His role in the secret traditions of the time is uncertain at best. The Prince of Hesse-Cassel wrote that when the two of them discussed philosophy and religion, Saint-Germain rejected both religion and occultism and held strictly materialist views. He was initiated into Freemasonry at some point in his life, according to comments recorded by an acquaintance, but admitted that he had long since forgotten all the signs and passwords; eminent Masons and Rosicrucians who knew him were convinced that he had no real knowledge of either society, and most of the occultists of his time believed that he was a fraud. The only evidence supporting the later claim that Saint-Germain was a master occultist are two rare books that apparently came from the Comte’s pen, The Most Holy Trinosophia (“threefold wisdom”) of the Comte de Saint-Germain– a complex, visionary allegory of initiation – and the Triangular Book, a magical ritual for finding treasure and attaining long life. Conclusive evidence for or against Saint-Germain’s authorship of either book has yet to surface, however.

Nonetheless the Freemasons, Theosophists, and occultists of later generations readily transformed Saint-Germain into one of the great occult masters of all time. They received a great deal of help from the eminent French forger Étienne Léon de Lamothe-Langon, who in 1836 published a set of fraudulent memoirs supposedly written by the Comtesse d’Adhemar, a lady-inwaiting to Queen Marie Antoinette on the eve of the French Revolution. The memoirs include descriptions of Saint-Germain’s reappearances at Versailles years after his death, and his attempts to warn the queen about the revolution. Though the memoirs were discredited more than a century ago, Lamothe-Langon’s tales continue to be cited by authors in the alternative realities field as proof that Saint-Germain did not actually die in 1784.

In the teachings of some modern occult traditions and secret societies, as well as in the New Age movement, the Comte de Saint-Germain is one of the Masters of the Great White Lodge, the benevolent secret order that supervises the evolution of humanity. Several modern occult movements, including the I Am Activity of Guy Ballard and its offspring, the Ascended Masters teachings, consider Saint-Germain to be their founder. See Ascended Masters teachings; Ballard, Guy; Great White Lodge; Masters; New Age movement.

Further reading: Butler 1948, Patai 1994.


The Samothracian mysteries, an important ancient Greek mystery cult, were celebrated on the island of Samothrace in the northwest Aegean Sea around the time of the spring equinox. Its gods were called the Cabiri; their true names were secret, but a late source gives them the names Axieros, Axiokersos, and Axiokersa, and also mentions a lesser god, Kadmillos, who was their messenger. Almost nothing is known about the ceremony of initiation except that it took place at night and included the sacrifice of a ram, the wrapping of initiates in a purple sash, and an act of confession in which each candidate was asked to name the worst deed he had ever committed. Initiates wore an iron ring after passing through the ceremony, and were believed to be immune from drowning and other dangers at sea.

Archeological evidence suggests that the mysteries of the Cabiri were celebrated on Samothrace by the seventh century BCE, and possibly earlier still. By the fifth century BCE the Samothracian mysteries were sufficiently famous to attract initiates from Athens, and they remained well known and popular around the Mediterranean, especially among sailors, until the Christian seizure of power in the fourth century CE. Like most of the ancient mysteries, the rites of Samothrace were studied intensively during the great age of secret societies in the eighteenth,

nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and references to the Cabiri appear in several nineteenth-century secret society initiation rituals. See mysteries, ancient.

Further reading: Burkert 1985.


One of the two most widespread secret societies in West Africa, the Sande Society is a women’s society found along the Upper Guinea coast from Sierra Leone to Liberia. In earlier times, before Christian and Muslim missionaries gained influence in this area, most girls were initiated into the Sande Society as an essential part of their transition to womanhood, while boys became members of the similar Poro Society. See African secret societies; Poro Society.

To be initiated into the society, candidates undergo a series of ritual encounters with the Sande spirit, a female entity associated with rivers and fertility. Masked dancers wearing a distinctive wooden helmet mask represent the spirit, and pass on women’s mysteries to the new initiates. A council of Sande elders oversees these rites, and also traditionally wields a great deal of political and economic authority, which, however, is balanced by the influence of the men’s Poro Society. In some areas, in fact, Poro and Sande elders alternate in power, with Poro elders having the final word in one year and Sande elders holding authority the next.

Unlike the Poro Society, which faced significant legal repression during the colonial era, the Sande Society was largely neglected by colonial governments. It remains a living tradition across a sizeable area of West Africa today.

Further reading: Phillips 1995.


The worship of Satan, the fallen archangel and spirit of evil in Christian mythology, has played a relatively minor role in secret societies in the western world, but a much larger role in the mythologies and misunderstandings that have surrounded secret societies in recent centuries. A handful of secret societies have actually embraced Satanism in one form or another, but most of the organizations accused of harboring Satanists have no actual connection to Satanism at all.

Satanism has the curious historical distinction of being almost entirely a creation of the propaganda of its enemies. The first references anywhere to the worship of Satan are in lives of Christian saints written in the late Roman period and early Middle Ages, some of which included revisionist descriptions of pagan religion as devil worship. The theme of Satanist worship had a fairly small place in Christian thought, however, until the fourteenth century.

In the aftermath of the Black Death of 1345–50, when nearly a third of the population of Europe died, rumors spread like wildfire among the survivors claiming that the plague had been caused by Jews, lepers, or Muslims, the traditional scapegoats in Christian Europe at that time. Over the next half century, these rumors mutated into a belief that a secret cult of heretics who worshipped Satan were personally responsible for much of the evil in the world. That belief launched the first great wave of witchcraft persecutions, which broke out in Switzerland and western Germany early in the following century, and remained widely accepted throughout Europe for nearly 400 years thereafter. See witchcraft persecutions.

The era of witchcraft persecutions also saw the first solidly attested cases of Satanist worship. The immense publicity given to the supposed Satan-worshipping witch cults during that time in effect presented Satanism as a tempting option to people dissatisfied with early modern Christianity, especially since sermons and pamphlets about witches during the age of persecutions frequently dwelt at great length on the extravagant sexual license, drunkenness, and feasting that supposedly went on at witches’ sabbats, and the ability to blight their enemies’ lives with magic that Satan allegedly gave to witches. Since these inevitably attracted at least as many people as they repelled, Christian propaganda directed against witchcraft ironically became publicity for Satanism. See sabbat.

Sorting out actual Satanists from victims of the witch-hunt hysteria can be a difficult task. In a handful of cases, though, the evidence for organized worship of the Christian devil is almost impossible to dismiss. A classic example surfaced in the “Affair of the Poisons” in late sixteenth-century France, where important figures at the court of Louis XIV, among them the king’s mistress Françoise Athénaïs de Montespan, took part in black masses meant to win royal favor. The ringleader of the group was an elderly fortune-teller and abortionist who went by the name La Voisin, who also dabbled in poisons and prostitution. After members of the group made several attempts to poison the king himself, the group’s existence came to light. La Voisin and 35 others were burned alive, and Madame de Montespan was forced to leave the court. See Black Mass.

As the witchcraft persecutions faded into memory, Satanism came to draw much of its interest from literary fashions. The craze for “Gothic” novels in eighteenth-century Britain also inspired one of the more colorful Satanist groups, the Hell-Fire Club, though this was at least as much an excuse for orgies and heavy drinking as anything. In the same way, nineteenth-century French Decadent literature inspired both the masterpiece of literary Satanism, J. K. Huysmans’ harrowing Là-Bas (Down There), and a thriving subculture of Satanist groups whose rituals were as much performance art for bored gentlemen as anything else. See Hell-Fire Club.

Late nineteenth-century France also saw one of the defining events in the history of modern Satanism, the “Palladian Order” hoax of Léo Taxil. Taxil, a professional pornographer turned fraudulent conspiracy theorist, claimed to have uncovered a secret society of Satanist sex fiends hidden within Freemasonry, the Palladian Order, and published a torrent of books on the subject, freely inventing evidence out of whole cloth to support his claims. In the process he invented most of the rhetoric used by fundamentalist Christians and conspiracy theorists today, and in fact the word “Satanism” itself is one of Taxil’s creations. See Palladian Order.

Satanism had little appeal, though, in the freewheeling occult scene of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Most occultists in that era were either comfortable with the relatively liberal Christianity of the time, or rejected Christian beliefs altogether to worship Pagan gods or devote themselves to Eastern systems of mysticism. Even rebel occultist and self-proclaimed Antichrist Aleister Crowley, though he dabbled in Satanism, ended up settling on a new religion of his own invention instead. At a time when almost half of all adult Americans and nearly as many Britons belonged to at least one secret society, furthermore, conservative Christian claims that secret societies all worshipped Satan behind closed doors served mostly to marginalize Christian conservatives in the eyes of the general public. In this environment neither Satanism nor accusations of Satanism flourished. See Crowley, Aleister.

Not until the middle years of the twentieth century did Satanism become an organized public presence in the western world, and by that time it had little to do with older ideas of devil worship. Anton Szandor LaVey (Howard Stanton Levey, 1930–97), the colorful San Francisco eccentric who founded the Church of Satan in 1966, drew his ideas from the Objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand and used the trappings of Satanism mostly as an effective way of promoting himself. LaVey’s media antics and his heavily marketed books, especially The Satanic Bible (1969), spawned many imitators, and a Satanist secret society with far more serious aims, the Temple of Set, broke away from LaVey’s Church of Satan in 1975 and has become a significant presence in the modern occult scene. See Church of Satan; Temple of Set.

As these trends played out in the media, however, a new wave of claims about Satanism was brewing. These burst into public awareness in 1980 with the publication of Michelle Remembers, the book that launched the Satanic ritual abuse panic. Michelle Smith, the co-author of the book, claimed that she had been raised in a multigenerational Satanist cult in Vancouver, Canada. Her lurid narrative of torture, rape, human sacrifice, and cannibalism became a bestseller and inspired numerous imitations. By 1983 claims of Satanic ritual abuse leapt off the bookshelves and into the law courts, with the first prosecutions for Satanic ritual abuse in America.

The furor that followed these events depended on an alliance of convenience between two groups usually at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Fundamentalist Christians played a key role in launching and sustaining the panic with a torrent of books, articles, and sermons that had millions of Americans looking nervously behind every corner for signs of lurking Satanists. They also provided the vast majority of “Satanism experts,” most of whom had no relevant professional training at all, but conducted seminars for law enforcement agencies and therapists across North America.

The other key group was social workers and therapists. Predisposed by their training and political views to see women and children as helpless victims of oppression needing support and advocacy, many of these turned ritual abuse cases into a personal crusade and convinced themselves that any client they encountered might be a survivor of Satanic ritual abuse. The methods they devised to help people “recover repressed memories” are textbook examples of ways to distort memory, including hypnosis, powerful drugs, suggestion, and subjection to intense emotional pressure in therapy groups to validate others’ memories of abuse by coming up with memories of their own. Most people subjected to this sort of “therapy” will end up believing whatever the therapist wants them to believe; the methods are not all that different from those used in brainwashing or the more intense forms of cult recruitment.

The furor crested and began to wane in the 1990s as law enforcement agencies found no evidence to support ritual abuse claims, investigative journalists began printing stories that uncovered awkward holes in ritual abuse stories, and the first wave of malpractice lawsuits hit therapists whose methods of extracting “recovered memories” violated accepted professional standards. By this time, however, all the noise and hype had succeeded in publicizing Satanism more effectively than anything since the great witchcraft persecutions of the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries. The predictable result was a swarm of newly minted Satanist groups.

The new Satanist secret societies of the 1990s and the first years of the twenty-first century were primarily a youth phenomenon, and used the Internet as their most important forum for recruiting new members and disseminating their ideas. Fragmented and wildly diverse, these groups have almost nothing in common except total rejection of Christianity and conventional moral codes. Some aspects of the new Satanism overlap with the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), the Illuminates of Thanateros (IOT), and other avant-garde magical orders; others have close connections with neo-Nazi secret societies such as the White Order of Thule. The future of these new Satanist groups remains hard to predict, but as long as fundamentalist churches continue to label anything they dislike as Satanic, it seems likely that Satanism will continue to thrive. See Illuminates of Thanateros (IOT); Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO); White Order of Thule (WOT).

Further reading: Nathan and Snedecker 1995, Smith and Padzer 1980, Victor 1993.


See Priory of Sion.


Scottish builder, engineer, and Freemason, 1550–1602. The younger son of John Schaw, an influential Clackmannanshire laird, Schaw grew up close to the Scottish court. He was probably the William Schaw mentioned in court records as a page of Mary Guise, Dowager Queen of Scotland, in 1560, and received a share of his father’s goods in the same year when John Schaw and four of his servants were outlawed for murdering the servant of another laird. In 1581, as one of King James VI’s courtiers, he was forced to sign the Negative Confession, a denunciation of Catholicism, despite his own devout Catholic faith.

In 1583 he was appointed Master of Works by James VI, with authority over all royal building projects in Scotland. This brought him into close contact with Scottish lodges of operative masons. In 1598 he issued a set of ordinances, the first Schaw Statutes, to be observed by master stonemasons throughout Scotland. These ordinances generally follow the Old Charges, the oldest records of Masonry, but include further details of the organization and functioning of stonemasons’ lodges. Apparently some lodges objected to certain elements of the first Statutes, for a revised version, the second Schaw Statutes, was enacted in 1599. These statutes are the earliest detailed records of the organization of operative masons in Scotland, and provide a crucial snapshot of the Scottish lodges early in their evolution toward Freemasonry. See Freemasonry.

Schaw’s duties as Master of Works did not keep him from an active career as a courtier and ambassador. In 1584 he traveled to France along with Lord George Seton on a diplomatic mission, and in 1589 he accompanied James to Denmark for the king’s wedding. In 1590 he became chamberlain to the queen, Anne of Denmark, and sometime after 1591 was appointed the king’s master of ceremonies. On his death in 1602, Anne paid for a lavish monument in Dunfermline Abbey, where he was buried.

Further reading: Stevenson 1988.


Among the most important occult societies in Elizabethan England, the School of Night almost certainly did not go by that name, if the group had a name at all; the phrase comes from Shakespeare, who lampooned the group in his play Love’s Labour’s Lost (c. 1590). A circle of freethinkers, scholars, and occultists centered on the famous adventurer and courtier Sir Walter Raleigh and his magical instructor, Thomas Harriot, the School’s membership included such notables as Henry, Earl of Northumberland, known as the “Wizard Earl” to his contemporaries for his involvement in alchemy and magic; Sir George Carey, later raised to the peerage as Lord Hounsdon; the playwright Christopher Marlowe; the poets George Chapman, Matthew Roydon, and William Warner; and possibly Edmund Spenser, author of The Faerie Queene and arguably the most important poet of the age.

Members of the School were widely thought to be atheists. A 1592 pamphlet speaks of

Sir Walter Rawley’s school of Atheisme by the way, and the Conjuror that is Master thereof, and of the diligence used to get young gentlemen of this school, wherein both Moyses and our Saviour, the olde and Newe Testamentes are jested at, and the scollers taught, among other things, to spell God backwards. (Bradbrook 1965, p. 12)

Certainly the School’s members studied occult sciences – Raleigh himself was a capable alchemist – and had skeptical ideas about established religion. See Alchemy; Magic.

The School probably came into being around 1585, when Raleigh returned from his adventures in Virginia, and it died on the executioner’s block with Raleigh himself in 1618. Nearly all the evidence concerning it comes from the years from 1593 to 1595. In the former year Raleigh was exiled from court and Marlowe was murdered under mysterious circumstances in Deptford, shortly after being brought before the Court of Star Chamber in London to answer charges of blasphemy and atheism. Both these events focused public attention on rumors already in circulation about Raleigh’s circle, and gave Robert Devereaux, Earl of Essex – a rising star at Elizabeth’s court – a chance to strike at his hated rival Raleigh. Essex had his own playwright-poet, a man who wrote under the name of William Shakespeare (and may or may not have been the actor of that name), and Shakespeare and the School of Night sniped at one another in their writings – Shakespeare targeting Chapman’s poem The Shadow of Night and the School generally in Love’s Labour’s Lost, Chapman retorting with a revision of The Shadow of Night and the later poem Ovid’s Banquet of Sense, and other members of the School writing Willoughbie his Avisa as a further counterblast to Love’s Labour’s Lost. By 1596 the literary war wound up, and Essex turned his attention more and more toward the political intrigues that led to his failed coup d’etat and execution in 1601.

Despite the quarrel between the School of Night and the author of the Shakespeare plays and poems, several members of the School, notably Sir Walter Raleigh and Christopher Marlowe, are among the people suspected of hiding behind the mask of “William Shakespeare.” See Shakespeare controversies.

Further reading: Bradbrook 1965, Yates 1936.


French esoteric and secret society member, 1887–1961. One of the most influential figures in twentieth-century occultism, René Schwaller was born in Alsace and served an apprenticeship with a chemist before moving to Paris in 1905 and plunging into occult studies. A member of the Parisian branch of the Theosophical Society, he knew most of the significant figures in the French alchemical scene of the early twentieth century. An associate of the mysterious French alchemist Fulcanelli, Schwaller claimed in later life that he, not Fulcanelli, had first worked out the alchemical symbolism of French Gothic cathedrals that Fulcanelli published in his occult masterpiece Le Mystère des Cathédrales (The Mystery of the Cathedrals, 1925). See Alchemy; Theosophical Society.

In the aftermath of the First World War, like many other intellectuals of the time, Schwaller dabbled in fascist politics, organizing a group called Les Veilleurs (The Watchers) and publishing a journal, L’Affranchi (The Liberated). French astronomer Nicolas Camille Flammarion and Lithuanian poet O.V. de Lubicz Milosz were members, as was a young occultist from Germany who went on to become far more famous – the Nazi leader Rudolf Hess. Schwaller and Milosz became close friends, and the Lithuanian adopted Schwaller, giving him the second half of his later name and the title Chevalier de Lubicz.

Schwaller de Lubicz’s political activities came to an end in 1920, when he disbanded Les Veilleurs and moved to Switzerland. Near St Moritz, he and his wife, Isha, established what would now be called a commune, Suhalia, where he and other members practiced nat ural healing methods and handcrafts. Suhalia broke up in 1927, and Schwaller de Lubicz moved to southern France, then to the island of Majorca, and finally, in 1938, to Egypt, where he and Isha studied the ruined temples of the Pharaohs and waited out the Second World War.

His stay in Egypt proved to be the turning point in Schwaller de Lubicz’s career. Close study of Egyptian art and architecture revealed to him a complex esoteric philosophy based on sacred geometry. He and Isha returned to southern France in 1952, where he spent the rest of his life writing a series of erudite books expounding his teachings to the world. While his active involvement in secret societies seems to have ended with the disbanding of Les Veilleurs in 1920, his writings and teachings have been enormously influential in contemporary occult societies. See sacred geometry.

Further reading: Picknett and Prince 1999, VandenBrouck 1987.


A series of Masonic degrees created in France in the middle of the eighteenth century. Despite the name, they have no actual connection to Scotland, and first arrived in Scotland in 1833, when the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite came there from America. This has not prevented incautious researchers from searching the degrees of that Rite for secrets passed down from medieval Scottish Templars. See Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite; Freemasonry; Knights Templar.

The first chapters (local lodges) working Scottish degrees appeared in Paris in the late 1730s, in circles closely connected to the Jacobite exile community then planning the 1745 attempt to put Charles Edward Stuart on the British throne. The legendary origin of the degrees draws heavily on the famous Masonic oration of the Chevalier Ramsay, who first proposed that Masonry descended from the knightly orders of the medieval Crusades. Ramsay was himself a Jacobite, and it has been plausibly suggested that the oration and the new degrees were part of a single project to create a new Jacobite Masonry at a time when Jacobites were losing control of ordinary Craft lodges in France and other European countries. See Jacobites; Ramsay, Andrew Michael.

This Templar origin, according to the legend, came via Scotland. Allegedly a band of Knights Templar fled from France to escape the destruction of their order under Philip IV. They were given a safe haven in Scotland, and in gratitude fought for Robert the Bruce against the English at the battle of Bannockburn in 1314. Each of the branches of Scottish Masonry that emerged after the failure of the 1745 rebellion traced their roots back to that group of Templars; thus the Royal Order of Scotland, for instance, claims that Bruce rewarded the Templars for their valor by instituting the Royal Order of Scotland, with the Templars as its first members and himself as the first Grand Master. See Royal Order of Scotland.

After the battle of Culloden put an end to Jacobite hopes in 1746, the Scottish degrees appear to have been left to their own devices, and spread through European Masonry. The Royal Order of Scotland was among the first to surface, establishing a lodge in The Hague in 1750. A much more elaborate rite of 22 degrees, the Rite of Perfection, went public in 1754 with the foundation of the Chapter of Clermont. Four years later this yielded to a new body, the Council of Emperors of the East and West, which lasted until 1781 and contended with a rival body, the Council of Emperors of the East. One or the other Council – to this day, no one is sure which – authorized a French Mason named Stephen Morin to establish the Rite of Perfection in the New World, and thus laid the foundations of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite, one of the most important Masonic bodies today. See Rite of Perfection.


See Yale secret societies.


One of the most common magical practices in European magic from the Middle Ages until the present, scrying is the art of seeing visions in a crystal, a magic mirror, or the scryer’s own trained imagination. Since communication with the unseen is always central to occultism, scrying has often had an important role in the teachings offered by occult secret societies. It is also known as clairvoyance (from the French for “clear seeing”) and, in recent New Age writings, as “remote viewing.” See New Age movement.

The art of scrying depends on the ability to enter into a shallow trance, in which dreamlike images appear. The classic method depends on a crystal, a mirror, or some other transparent or reflective surface. Gazing into the depths of the scrying tool, the scryer can perceive cloudlike shapes and then, as the trance deepens, other images. Scrying in a crystal formed one of the key elements of English magic from the late sixteenth century until the last decades of the nineteenth. The mid-nineteenth century in particular saw it adopted by many occult secret societies, and at least one such society – the Fratres Lucis, founded by Francis Irwin in 1873 – was created using rituals and symbolism received via crystal-gazing. See magic.

By contrast, the great occult orders of the late nineteenth century made little use of crystal vision. The Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor (H.B. of L.), which for a few years in the 1880s seemed likely to become the predominant magical secret society in the Western world, taught the consecration and use of magic mirrors. Although it was founded in Britain, the H.B. of L. took its scrying methods from the writings of American magus Paschal Beverly Randolph. See Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor (H.B. of L.); Randolph, Paschal Beverly.

The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which succeeded where the H.B. of L. had failed and redefined the entire western magical tradition for most of a century, taught its initiates to practice “scrying in the spirit vision.” This method dispensed with crystals, mirrors, and scrying tools altogether; Golden Dawn exercises help spontaneous imagery rise directly into the mind’s eye, turning the visual imagination into a vehicle for clairvoyant experience. See Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

Many modern occult secret societies teach variants of the Golden Dawn methods of scrying, and a few preserve older methods of mirror and crystal scrying. The open publication of many occult techniques in recent years, though, has removed most of the veil of secrecy from these practices; it’s not uncommon in modern occult lodges for students to be told to learn their scrying techniques from publicly available books on the subject.

Research on remote viewing (which is simply scrying by a different name) has shown that most people can learn to perceive images of distant places, the contents of sealed envelopes, and the like with a success rate well above chance. Not even the most gifted scryers are always accurate, however, and those who have practiced scrying know that the results can never be taken at face value without thorough checking.

This point has particular relevance to the study of hidden history, because a very large amount of the information circulated about lost continents, ancient civilizations, secret societies, and hidden traditions of the past has its origins in scrying and related techniques. In the case of Atlantis, to name only one example, the hard facts in the case consist of a few paragraphs in the writings of Plato and an assortment of equivocal details from oceanography, geology, and history; nearly everything else currently believed about the lost continent came from various kinds of scrying or the even more uncertain source of hypnotic regression, when not simply made up from whole cloth. The fact that resulting accounts of the lost continent vary drastically does not lend credence to the idea that any one of them can be taken as fact. See Atlantis.

The same caution should be applied to any other material from visionary sources. In today’s rejected-knowledge scene, however, these concerns rarely get raised, and a huge amount of half-baked speculation and fantasy has unfortunately ended up being treated as proven fact in alternative circles. See rejected knowledge.

Further reading: Besterman 1965, Godwin 1994, Regardie 1971.


A major focus of conservative fears about secret societies in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Second or Socialist International was founded in 1889 by a congress of French, English, and German Marxists and trade unionists who met in Paris to establish some common framework for working-class solidarity in the aftermath of the First International, which had imploded in a series of bitter internal quarrels in 1872. The meeting, which took place at the Salle Petrelle, had been called in a deliberate attempt to compete with another international radical congress meeting at the same time in the same city, at a hall on the Rue de Lancry; this latter meeting was dominated by anarchist groups, and the Marxists wanted an International of their own. See Anarchism; Communism; First International.

The congress at the Salle Petrelle laid the foundations for a new International, but it took 11 years to establish a formal organization and most power remained with the Socialist and Social Democratic parties from different countries that composed it. Annual congresses provided a venue to work out a common platform, but too often most of the International’s energy went into squabbling over theoretical issues.

In the early years of the twentieth century, as the political strains that gave rise to the First World War became increasingly apparent, the Second International drew up an ambitious plan to prevent a European war by simultaneous general strikes in every country that declared war. The Stuttgart Congress of 1907 made this plan a centerpiece of Socialist policy in every major European country. When war broke out in 1914, however, every Socialist party in Europe abandoned the plan and supported its country’s war effort. The mutual recriminations that followed soon tore the International apart, and a flurry of emergency congresses in 1915 failed to repair the damage. The Second International thus ended, and the Third, or Communist International, replaced it in 1919. See Third International.

Further reading: Drachkovitch 1966.


The defining characteristic of secret societies is the fact that they keep secrets. This is obvious enough. Less obvious, to those who have not participated in secret societies and paid attention to their symbolism and structure, is the deep role secrecy plays in every aspect of a secret society. The secrets of most secret societies are remarkably trivial – a few signs of recognition and the texts of initiation rituals are usually all a member promises to keep secret – and yet those secret societies that have abandoned secrecy have rarely survived for long. Secrecy, in fact, is the glue that holds secret societies together.

Yet their secrecy has played an equally central part in creating the climate of suspicion that surrounds secret societies today. M. William Cooper’s 1991 conspiracy theory classic Behold A Pale Horse sums up the common attitude succinctly:

You must understand that secrecy is wrong. The very fact that a meeting is secret tells me that something is going on that I would not approve. Do not ever believe that grown men meet on a regular basis just to put on fancy robes, burn candles, and glad-hand each other…THE VERY FACT THAT SOMETHING IS SECRET MEANS THERE IS SOMETHING TO HIDE. (Cooper 1991, p. 95; emphasis in original)

Some secret societies, some of the time, have unquestionably used secrecy as a cover for reprehensible conduct. Still, it is nonsense to claim that all secrets are wrong by definition. The same people who object to the secrecy of secret societies, for example, would likely object to having the details of their finances or their sex lives printed on the front page of the daily newspaper. Equally, there are reasons for secrecy that make obvious sense even to the critics of secret societies. Political secret societies struggling to overthrow dictatorships, for example, keep their plans secret to keep the police at bay; religious secret societies condemned by intolerant religious authorities keep their meetings and beliefs secret to shield members from persecution; the fraternal secret societies common in nineteenth-century Britain and America, which provided benefits to traveling members, relied on secret signs of recognition to keep non-members from claiming benefits they had not earned.

Such concerns played a major role in creating the secret society movement of the modern western world. As secret societies spread and their members explored the psychological impact of secrecy, though, a deeper dimension came to the fore. The experience of having and keeping secrets has potent transformative effects on the self. One who has promised to keep a secret from his family and friends can no longer drift through life in the half-conscious manner usual to most of us; he must watch his words and actions, and in the process awakens to a new awareness of himself and his world. Combine this new awareness with the moral focus of traditional fraternal lodges such as Freemasonry or Odd Fellowship, and significant moral and personal changes can result; combine it with the powerful transformative techniques of occult secret societies such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and the initiate gains potential access to hidden worlds in the self and the universe. This is the hidden purpose of secrecy in the traditional lodge system – a secret that, like most of the inner dimensions of that system, is hidden in plain sight. See fraternal orders; Freemasonry; Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn; Odd Fellowship.

Further reading: Greer 1998.


One of the major occult secret societies in the western world today, the Servants of the Light began in 1965 as a correspondence course published by Helios Book Service and written by W.E. Butler and Gareth Knight, two former members of Dion Fortune’s Society of the Inner Light. In 1961, the Society had abandoned much of its original magical focus for Christian mysticism, and Butler and Knight both left it around that time; the Helios Course on the Practical Qabalah, as the correspondence course was titled, was their way to disseminate Fortune’s magical teachings to a new generation of occultists. See Society of the Inner Light.

In 1975, together with a core of students who had completed the correspondence course, Butler organized the Servants of the Light as a magical secret society, while Knight left to pursue other projects. In 1978, on Butler’s death, Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki became director of SOL and still holds that post as at the time of writing. The order still operates a correspondence course and has local lodges in Britain, North America, and Europe.


The identity of the writer of the plays and poems attributed to William Shakespeare (1564–1616) has been a matter of debate for nearly two centuries, and like almost everything else in the world of rejected knowledge, the controversy over Shakespeare has been drawn into the realm of secret societies. The literature on the controversy is immense and can only be outlined here; Michell 1996 offers an accessible overview of the debate. See rejected knowledge.

The controversy unfolds from the almost total mismatch between the historical William Shakespeare and the work attributed to him. Shakespeare came from an illiterate working-class family in the rural town of Stratford-upon-Avon. While he may have attended the local grammar school – no one is sure, as the school’s records have not survived – that was the maximum extent of his education. The only surviving specimens of his handwriting are five signatures, three of them on his will, and his children were illiterate; one of them, his daughter Judith, could not even sign her own name. The same will, which specifies Shakespeare’s worldly goods in detail, includes not a single book.

Shakespeare’s documented life offers few clues to help resolve the matter. After a completely undistinguished childhood, he left Stratford in 1587 for a theatre career in London, leaving behind a wife eight years his senior and three young children. In an age full of diarists, satirists, and gossips, he made little impression on his contemporaries. The first reference to him in his new career is a 1592 diatribe by Robert Greene, an unsuccessful writer and dramatist, who describes him as a plagiarist who “is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in the country.” The year 1595 saw him listed as a comic actor, while court records from 1596 show him dodging taxes and give him an active role in a quarrel among Surrey gangsters, no rare thing at a time when the theatre business had close connections to organized crime.

By 1599 he had risen in the theatre world to the level of managing the Globe Theatre, and held a portion of the lease there until at least 1611. Sometime between 1604 and 1611, however, he retired to Stratford, where public records show him buying property and engaging in petty lawsuits with his neighbors for the remainder of his life. His death in 1616 was a non-event outside of Stratford; this is all the more puzzling because the deaths of other poets and playwrights of the same period were marked by outpourings of verse from their fellow writers.

Meanwhile, starting in 1598, the name William Shakespeare began appearing on the title pages of published plays. Some of them are now considered to be Shakespeare’s, but others are not – The Life of Sir John Old-Castle, The London Prodigall and A Yorkshire Tragedy appeared in print as William Shakespeare’s work, though modern experts insist he had nothing to do with them. Many of the works now attributed to Shakespeare, on the other hand, appeared anonymously or under the names of other authors years earlier, while the First Folio of 1623 included 18 plays that had never before been published and have no traceable connection to Shakespeare other than their appearance there.

The plays themselves are almost impossible to square with the life of their supposed author. They are clearly the work of an extremely well educated mind. Allusions to classical and contemporary literature, much of it unavailable in English in Shakespeare’s time, appear frequently in them, as do legal turns of phrase – the author of the plays apparently had a first-rate knowledge of English law. The plays also frequently use slang unique to Cambridge University, while the Warwickshire dialect of Shakespeare’s hometown is conspicuous by its absence. The plays constantly and accurately echo the habits and perspectives of Elizabethan aristocracy, from courtly manners to the complicated terminology of falconry. Whoever wrote the plays was also well-traveled by the standards of the time; plays such as Romeo and Juliet and The Merchant of Venice include detailed, accurate knowledge of north Italian geography and culture, and Love’s Labour’s Lost contains up-to-date gossip from the court of the King of Navarre. None of these things make sense if the plays were written by William Shakespeare, the glover and wool-dealer’s son from Stratford-upon-Avon.

Who did write the plays then? There is no shortage of candidates. The first to be proposed was Sir Francis Bacon (1561–1626), one of the most brilliant minds of the Elizabethan age. A Cambridge man, a barrister, and a classical scholar fluent in many languages, Bacon came from a family with aristocratic connections. While studying law at Gray’s Inn, he wrote plays that were performed by his fellow-students, and Bacon himself and one of his biographers, John Aubrey, call him a “concealed poet.” In 1597 and 1598 two satirists, Joseph Hall and John Marston, teased Bacon (under a transparent pseudonym) for having written the poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, which are usually assigned to Shakespeare.

Bacon was notorious in his lifetime as a secretive, cunning man – John Aubrey, who collected accounts from those who knew him, was told that Bacon had “the eie of a viper” – and he had an excellent motive for keeping work as a playwright secret. The public theatres of his time had roughly the same social cachet that soft-core pornography has today, and the discovery that he was responsible for the plays attributed to Shakespeare would have meant the end of his career in politics. Among secret societies, Bacon has long been a favorite candidate, and a number of important occult authors have claimed Bacon’s secret authorship of the Shakespeare canon as part of a far-reaching plan to shape the collective consciousness of the Elizabethan age. See Bacon, Francis.

The most popular candidate nowadays is Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford (1550–1604), another intellectual Elizabethan nobleman. Like Bacon, de Vere was educated at Cambridge and studied law, but unlike Bacon he traveled extensively in Italy and elsewhere in Europe. He had personal connections with the Elizabethan theatre – in fact, he supported a theatre company – and was widely considered the best poet among Elizabeth’s courtiers; an anonymous 1589 book The Arte of English Poesie lists him as the foremost of the “notable gentlemen in the court that have written commendably, and suppressed it again, or else suffered it to be published without their own names to it” (quoted in Michell 1996, p. 173).

The sonnets attributed to Shakespeare offer the most support to the Oxford claim. They reflect his life and known relationships precisely, and include riddling lines in the Elizabethan style that point straight at him. A good example is Sonnet 76’s line “That every word doth almost tell my name”; “every word,” a near-anagram of “Edward Vere,” does indeed almost tell Oxford’s name. The only drawback to the Oxford claim is that he died in 1604, and plays in the Shakespeare canon kept appearing for several years afterwards, including some of the greatest; King Lear, Macbeth, and The Tempest, among others, had not yet been staged for the first time at Oxford’s death.

Other candidates include William Stanley, Earl of Derby (1561–1642), Oxford’s son-in-law, who also supported a theatre company, who was reported by a Jesuit spy of the time to be “busyed only in penning commodyes (comedies) for the common players,” and who visited the court of Navarre at the right time to gather the details that appear in Love’s Labour’s Lost; Roger Manners, Earl of Rutland (1576–1612), another Cambridge man who traveled in Italy and Denmark; and Christopher Marlowe (1564–93), the first great playwright of the Elizabethan age and an agent for Queen Elizabeth’s intelligence service, whose death under mysterious circumstances might possibly have been faked, leaving him alive to continue writing plays that were published under another author’s name. Many theorists in recent years have argued that the plays and poems were written by two or more people working together. Each of these claims is backed by some evidence, but none can be proven conclusively.

Shakespeare’s own role in all this is the least difficult of the many questions surrounding the origins of the plays and poetry bearing his name. Many entirely orthodox scholars agree that not all the plays in the Shakespeare canon are his own work; collaboration was standard practice in his time, and Titus Andronicus and the three parts of Henry VI are frequently cited as works by other playwrights lightly reworked and edited by the author of the Shakespeare plays. Robert Greene’s 1592 rant about “Shake-scene,” accusing Shakespeare of plagiarism, is not the only accusation. Ben Jonson, who publicly praised Shakespeare to the skies in the foreword to the 1623 First Folio, described him in a satirical epigram of 1616 as a “Poet-Ape, that would be thought our chief” who started out as a broker of plays – “At first he made low shifts, would pick and glean/Buy the reversion of old plays” (quoted in Michell 1996) – and ended up putting his own name wholesale on other people’s work.

A plausible case, then, can be made that the works attributed to Shakespeare are actually the work of many different authors. This would account for the notorious variations in quality and tone among the plays, as well as the fact that the works as a whole use a vocabulary twice as large as any other writer in the English language – a likely sign that several people were involved in their creation, since every writer inevitably has a distinctive personal vocabulary. If this theory is correct, what stands behind the writings attributed to Shakespeare is not a single mind but the collected genius of an age, including the works of several noblemen who were perfectly content to have their authorship concealed behind the name of an unscrupulous play broker and actor named William Shakespeare.

Further reading: Challinor 1996, Michell 1996.


A hidden city in Tibetan tradition, Shambhala is said to be located somewhere north of Tibet in the desert wastelands of central Asia. Tibetan sources describe it as the original source of the Kalachakra teachings, an important branch of Tibetan Buddhist spirituality, and also claim that someday a messianic king named Rigden-Jyepo will lead his armies out from Shambhala to rid the world of evil.

References to Shambhala appear in a number of western works on Tibet from the nineteenth century, but it was Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Society, who put the hidden city on the western occult map. Both her major books, Isis Unveiled (1877) and The Secret Doctrine (1888), refer to the hidden city. Later Theosophical accounts describe Shambhala as a city founded by the Manu of the Fifth Root Race around 70,000 BCE on the shores of the sea that once filled the Gobi Desert. From Theosophy, Shambhala found its way into the mythic geography of the New Age movement, where it still plays a significant role. See Blavatsky, Helena Petrovna; New Age movement; Theosophical Society.

By the early twentieth century writers in the occult community had begun to pair Shambhala with the other hidden city of central Asia, Agharta. See Agharta.

Further reading: Godwin 1993.


One of the many secret societies who have been tabbed as the hidden puppet masters behind the New World Order, the Shickshinny Knights of Malta – also known as the American Grand Priory of the Sovereign Order of St John of Jerusalem, Knights of Malta – are headquartered in the modest town of Shickshinny, Pennsylvania, in Luzerne County, an area settled largely by German and Russian immigrants. The order, incorporated in 1956, was created in the mid-1950s by Charles Pichel and a few associates, and provided with a colorful origin story in the usual secret society manner. See New World Order; origin stories.

According to Pichel’s account, the Shickshinny Knights are descended from the original Knights of Malta. When Napoleon seized the island of Malta and dispossessed the Knights of their last territorial base, a handful of knights took refuge at the court of Tsar Alexander I of Russia, where they became members of his personal honor guard but preserved a Priory of the Knights of Malta in secret. Some of their descendants emigrated from Russia to Pennsylvania and brought the knightly traditions of their forefathers with them; in 1908, the Order’s Grand Priory in America was founded. By this process, the heritage of the original Knights Hospitallers made its way to Luzerne County. Not least among the ironies of the Shickshinny Knights is the close parallel between these stories and the “family tradition” origin legends of many modern Wiccan groups. See Wicca.

Despite their lurid reputation in certain conspiracy theories dealing with the New World Order, the Shickshinny Knights are among the smaller conservative secret societies in twenty-first-century America. Its membership has included a number of retired generals from the Second World War era, including Charles Willoughby, former chief of intelligence for General Douglas MacArthur, but very few figures with significant power or wealth. It does apparently have significant connections with other extreme right-wing groups in America and Europe – one of its members, for example, was an editor for the John Birch Society magazine American Opinion. See John Birch Society.


A medieval relic turned modern cause célèbre, the Shroud of Turin is a 14-foot (4.2-meter) strip of linen bearing the images of the front and back of a bearded man with the marks of crucifixion. Kept at Turin Cathedral since 1578, it originally appeared in northern France around 1350. Its owner, one Geoffroy de Charny, claimed that it was the original shroud of Jesus of Nazareth, wrapped around his body after his crucifixion. See Jesus of Nazareth.

The local bishop investigated the matter and discovered that it was a fraud, manufactured like so many other medieval relics in order to cash in on the lucrative pilgrim trade of the time; he even managed to interview the artist who created it. The bishop’s finding makes sense in the context of the time; more than 40 other “shrouds of Jesus” could be found in churches in medieval Europe in the fourteenth century, part of a cult of relics that also resulted in six different French churches claiming ownership of the one authentic relic of Jesus’ circumcision. Charny hurriedly put the “holy relic” away at the time of the bishop’s investigation, but brought it back out in the 1380s, prompting another investigation and a ruling from the Pope forbidding it to be called the actual shroud of Jesus.

Charny’s granddaughter sold the Shroud to the Duke of Savoy in 1453, and very little was heard of it thereafter until 1969, when the Catholic Church called together a commission of experts and charged them with testing the relic’s authenticity. The commission’s report, published in 1976, found that pollen in the linen suggested that it might have been woven in Palestine, but that what looked like blood was actually paint. Another round of tests beginning in 1978 found that the image consisted of red ochre and vermilion, common pigments in medieval art; the “blood” was tempera paint, and radiocarbon dating of the cloth dated it to between 1260 and 1390. All these findings confirmed the original fourteenth century report.

As these results surfaced, though, the Shroud became the focus of an unusual alliance between conservative Christians, who argued that it was an authentic relic of Jesus, and proponents of rejected knowledge, who argued that it was almost anything except what the Christians said it was, but still insisted that it could not be a medieval fake. One popular theory held that it was actually the image of Jacques de Molay, the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar, imprinted on the cloth by a hypothetical chemical process after he was tortured and, according to this account, crucified by the Inquisition. The Shroud dates from the right century, and both de Molay and the figure on the shroud had beards; no other evidence supports the claim, however, and the same logic could be used to “prove” that the Shroud was in fact the burial cloth of de Molay’s persecutor King Philip IV. This has not prevented this claim, and many others, from being circulated as fact in the rejected-knowledge community. See Knights Templar; rejected knowledge.

Further reading: Nickell 1987, Wilson 1979.


Central to many recent theories about secret societies, the Sinclairs are a Scottish aristocratic family of Norman extraction – their name was originally St Clair – with a historical connection to Scottish stonemasonry. In the Middle Ages, certain noble families had the right to supervise and judge disputes among members of particular professions; thus, for example, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, had supervision of all minstrels in England at the end of the fourteenth century, and the Dutton family had similar rights over all minstrels in the county of Chester in the sixteenth. The Sinclairs apparently had the same authority over stonemasons in late medieval lowland Scotland. Their position was not unique – the Coplands of Udoch had supervision over stonemasons in the shires of Aberdeen, Banff, and Kincardine, for example – but it was well enough established in tradition in the early seventeenth century that one branch of the Sinclair family was able to gain the backing of Scottish stonemasons’ lodges in two attempts to re-establish their rights over the craft. The Sinclairs were also patrons of one of the masterpieces of Scottish medieval architecture, the famous Rosslyn Chapel. See lodge; Rosslyn Chapel. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the family reached its zenith, as three successive Sinclairs became Earls of Orkney and may have had connections through the north Atlantic fishing trade with early transatlantic voyages. According to a near-contemporary account the second of them, Henry Sinclair, crossed the Atlantic to what is now New England in 1398. This may explain the apparent presence of New World plants in the decorations of Rosslyn Chapel, commissioned by Henry Sinclair’s son less than 50 years later. See America, discovery of.

The hereditary rights of the Sinclairs over Scottish masons lapsed with the transformation of Scottish stonemasons’ lodges into modern Freemasonry in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. In 1736, at the establishment of the Grand Lodge of Scotland, William Sinclair of Roslin formally relinquished all rights over Masonry. In return, the members of Grand Lodge made him Scotland’s first elected Grand Master for a term of one year. See Freemasonry; grand lodge.

The retrospective transformation of the Sinclairs from a minor family of Scottish nobility to a focus of contemporary secret society literature began in the early 1960s, when Pierre Plantard wove their position in early Scottish Freemasonry into the tapestry of disinformation he created for his own secret society, the Priory of Sion. Plantard claimed to be descended from the Merovingian kings of early medieval France, and presented the Priory, which he had founded in 1956, as an ancient secret society that lay behind the Knights Templar and Freemasons. As part of his campaign, he added “de St Clair” to his name and claimed the Sinclairs as one branch of his imaginary Merovingian connection. Along with the rest of Plantard’s inventions, this material was picked up by Henry Lincoln and his co-authors and included in their bestselling book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (1982). See Disinformation; Priory of Sion.

Once launched into the world of contemporary conspiracy literature, the Sinclairs quickly found themselves bedecked retrospectively with historically questionable honors and titles. One popular account, for example, insists that the Sinclairs had been the hereditary masters of all Scottish craft guilds, and traces their ancestry back to an imaginary group of 24 hereditary High Priests of the Temple of Jerusalem. Fundamentalist conspiracy-hunters, for their part, eagerly assigned the Sinclairs to the Satanic “black nobility” who figure prominently in current speculations about the New World Order. See New World Order; Rex Deus.

Further reading: Baigent et al. 1983, Hopkins et al. 2000, Stevenson 1988.


The most notorious college fraternity in America, the Skull and Bones Society was founded in 1832 at Yale University by valedictorian William H. Russell and 14 other undergraduates. Russell had taken time off from his Yale studies to travel in Germany, and apparently encountered a college society there that he used as a model for his new fraternity. Originally called the Eulogian Club, after its invented patron Eulogia, goddess of eloquence, the fraternity in 1833 took the pirate skull and crossbones flag as its symbol, and so became known as Skull and Bones. Like other college fraternities, it has an initiation ceremony consisting of roughly equal parts nineteenth-century melodrama and undergraduate pranks. Skull and Bones came out of a long history of similar organizations at Yale. The oldest known Yale student society, a literary society called Crotonia (after the location of Pythagoras’s school in ancient Italy), was in existence before 1750. Skull and Bones, however, was the first to limit its membership. Each year, 15 members of the incoming senior class were (and are) selected for admission by vote of the existing members. Membership was restricted to male students until 1991, when the first female members were initiated. See Yale secret societies.

The society’s headquarters, or “tomb” in Yale slang, was built in 1856 in the location it still occupies, on High Street in New Haven, Connecticut. Current members, or “knights,” meet there on Thursday and Sunday nights for dinner and society activities; former members, or “patriarchs,” are welcome to attend when in town, and several annual events attract large numbers back to Yale and events at the tomb. The society also owns Deer Island in the St Lawrence River, used as a vacation spot by knights, patriarchs, and their families.

As the oldest and most prestigious student society at one of America’s top universities, Skull and Bones has attracted its share of members who went on to become important figures in politics and business, and three US presidents – William Howard Taft (president 1909–13), George Bush (president 1989–93), and George W. Bush (president 2000–) – were members during their time at Yale. All this is business as usual for upper-class college fraternities, and can easily be exceeded by other secret societies. The society’s total of presidents measures up poorly, for example, next to the 14 presidents who have been Freemasons, or even the 5 who have been Elks. See Benevolent Protective Order of Elks; Freemasonry.

In the eyes of some recent conspiracy theorists, however, the two Bush presidencies made Skull and Bones “America’s most powerful secret society.” One popular book on secret societies claims that Skull and Bones forms the inner circle of the Council on Foreign Relations, an elite think-tank that is among the most popular targets for American conspiracy theorists. The Bush family connection to Skull and Bones has also brought the fraternity to center stage in many accounts of the New World Order. This sinister reputation doubtless delights the society’s undergraduate members. See Council on Foreign Relations (CFR); New World Order.

Further reading: Robbins 2002, van Helsing 1995.


The classic symbol of death in western culture, a skull on two crossed thighbones appears on countless tombs and other carvings from the early Middle Ages onward, and became very common after the Black Death of the mid-fourteenth century gave death imagery a prominent place in European culture. Like many elements of medieval symbolism, it survived into modern times, and was adopted by several secret societies including the Freemasons and Odd Fellows. As a symbol of death, it was also one of several flags used by pirates in the Atlantic during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. See Freemasonry; Odd Fellowship.

Misinterpreted as a purely Masonic symbol, the skull and crossbones has come to play a central role in recent claims that the Knights Templar discovered America. Supposedly a Templar fleet at La Rochelle in France escaped from the roundup of French Templars in 1307 and sailed to the New World, where the descendants of its sailors became the pirates of the Caribbean. The pirates’ use of the skull and crossbones, allegedly a Templar symbol also inherited by the Freemasons, is cited as proof of the claim. In fact the Templars had no fleet at La Rochelle; their fleets were in Mediterranean ports and consisted of keel-less lateenrigged craft, suitable for voyages to the Holy Land but unusable for Atlantic crossings. The Templars themselves never used the skull and crossbones as a symbol, and the alleged link between the Templars and the Freemasons was an invention of eighteenth-century Jacobite Freemasons. One could as easily argue that since Odd Fellows use the skull and crossbones, the pirates of the Caribbean were sixteenth-century Odd Fellows bolstering their widows’ and orphans’ funds by plundering Spanish galleons. See America, discovery of; Jacobites; Knights Templar; Scottish degrees.


One of the most active secret societies at the height of the French Revolution, the Cercle Social or Social Circle was founded by radical journalist Nicholas de Bonneville in the summer of 1790, drawing together a network of fellow radicals linked by Bonneville’s journal Le Tribun du Peuple (The People’s Tribune) and associated in pre-revolutionary times with the Social Club, a progressive political lobby sponsored by Philippe d’Orleans. It took up a political stance on the extreme left, insisting that the revolution had not gone far enough, and championed ideas then at the fringes of politics such as equal rights for women and a social welfare program funded by a progressive tax system.

The Circle drew much of its structure and symbolism from Freemasonry; members received the title of francs-frères (“free brothers”) in place of francs-maçons (Freemasons), and a Circle publication announced that its members were “superior intelligences” who had found “a living light…in the highest spheres of Masonry” (cited in Billington 1980, p. 40). The Circle also had close links to the Bavarian Illuminati; de Bonneville was in close contact with radical circles in Germany, and was an associate of Christoph Bode, an Illuminatus who visited Paris in the summer of 1787, two years after the effective dissolution of the Bavarian organization. See Bavarian Illuminati; Freemasonry.

In many ways the Social Circle can be seen as de Bonneville’s attempt to organize a secret society of his own along Illuminati lines. Like the Illuminati, the Social Circle was tightly controlled by an inner circle of members, rather than being democratically run in the Masonic style; it worked through front organizations the way the Illuminati had used Masonry and other societies; and the imagery of the light of reason illuminating the darkness of ignorance and prejudice, a staple of Illuminati propaganda, also had a central role in the Circle’s imagery.

Like many political secret societies, the Circle walked a fine and wandering line between secrecy and publicity. Membersof the Circle took pseudonyms and had secret identification cards, but the Circle proclaimed its own existence loudly. Just before its formation, de Bonneville closed Le Tribun du Peuple, and in October 1790 he launched a new journal, La Bouche de Fer (The Mouth of Iron), as a mouthpiece for the Circle. The same month saw the appearance of a public front organization, the Confédération Universelle des Amis de la Vérité (Universal Confederation of the Friends of Truth), which drew 6,000 members to its opening session. While Paris remained the nerve center of the Circle, branch circles sprang up in Utrecht, Geneva, Genoa, London, and even across the Atlantic in Philadelphia.

De Bonneville himself achieved a modest political success in the course of the revolution, becoming secretary of the assembly of the Paris Commune in 1790, and his standing as the leading radical journalist of the time kept him from the guillotine during the Terror. He lobbied for left-wing causes via his own newspapers until 1800, when Napoleon closed down his journal Le Bien-Informé (The Well-Informed Person) after de Bonneville published an editorial comparing Napoleon to the English dictator Oliver Cromwell. The Social Circle apparently went out of existence sometime in the early 1790s, but several of its members played major roles in a later secret society, the Conspiracy of Equals. See Conspiracy of Equals.

Further reading: Billington 1980.


The oldest of the major orders in America’s twentieth-century Rosicrucian revival, the Societas Rosicruciana in America (SRIA) came into being in 1907 as the result of a schism in the Societas Rosicruciana in Civitatibus Foederatis (SRICF), the American branch of the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia (also, confusingly, SRIA). The older, English SRIA admitted only Masons in good standing to membership. Several leading members of the SRICF’s Boston College, led by Sylvester C. Gould, argued that its teachings should be available to non-Masons. After a series of disputes over this issue, the Boston College broke away from the SRICF and reorganized itself as the Societas Rosicruciana in America. Gould was its original Supreme Magus, but on his death two years later Dr. George Winslow Plummer (1876–1944) took charge of the organization. See Rosicrucians; Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia (SRIA).

The English SRIA was by no means the only influence that fed into the teachings and traditions of the new order. Gould himself was an initiate of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor (H.B. of L.), one of the major occult secret societies of the 1880s, and brought H.B. of L. materials into the American SRIA. Gould and his associates were also in close contact with American lodges of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. The resulting system of occult study and practice was sufficiently complex that Plummer established a correspondence course for members. In the process, he invented the standard model for occult secret societies in twentieth-century America, with a correspondence course to attract and train members, who joined or founded local lodges (in the SRIA, Colleges) once they had completed a certain level of training. The program was a resounding success and was imitated by dozens of other orders. See Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor (H.B. of L.); Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

Like most American secret societies, the SRIA lost members and momentum in the second half of the twentieth century, but managed to survive, and in the last decade of the century it began a modest revival. It remains active as of this writing.

Further reading: Deveney 1997, Khei 1920, McIntosh 1997.


Among the most important esoteric Masonic orders in Britain, the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia (SRIA) was founded by Robert Wentworth Little in 1866. Little, an employee at the United Grand Lodge of England offices in London, is said to have found a packet of old rituals there, and approached Rosicrucian scholar Kenneth Mackenzie for help deciphering them. Mackenzie is also said to have passed onto Little a Rosicrucian initiation he received in Austria from an Austrian nobleman named Count Apponyi. See Mackenzie, Kenneth; Rosicrucians.

The grades of the SRIA and some of its symbolism are based on those of the Orden des Gold- und Rosenkreuz (Order of the Golden and Rosy Cross), a German Rosicrucian order active in the eighteenth century, so it is at least possible that Mackenzie, who was fluent in German and had access to many rare Masonic sources via his uncle, the longtime Grand Secretary of the United Grand Lodge of England, simply borrowed freely from the older order. In 1900, when then-Supreme Magus William Wynn Westcott tried to locate any hard evidence of the society’s founding, he came up empty handed. See Order of the Golden and Rosy Cross.

Despite the help he apparently gave Little, Mackenzie did not join the society until 1872, and even then remained a member only for a few years, resigning in 1875. Most of the major figures in the English occult scene of the time – men such as Frederick Hockley, Francis Irwin, and John Yarker – became active in the SRIA. Another member, perhaps the most important of all, was William Wynn Westcott, the London coroner and enthusiastic Mason who went on to found the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the most important magical secret society of its time. Despite the efforts he put into the Golden Dawn, the SRIA always remained Westcott’s primary interest; he became its Supreme Adept in 1892 and held that position until his death in 1925. He revised the SRIA’s rituals extensively, introducing a great deal of esoteric content. During his tenure additional branches were founded in other countries, notably the Societas Rosicruciana in Scotia (SRIS) in Scotland and the Societas Rosicruciana in Civitatibus Foederatis (SRICF) in the United States. See Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn; Westcott, William Wynn.

The SRIA and its offshoots in Canada, the United States, and elsewhere are still quite active. They work a ritual of nine grades, divided into a First Order of four grades, a Second Order of three, and two honorary grades for officials. Westcott’s rituals remain in use, but the esoteric dimension of the society at present is mostly limited to passages in the rituals and the activities of individual members. Membership in the society is limited to Master Masons in good standing who are recommended by a current member.

Further reading: Godwin 1994.


The largest Roman Catholic religious order today, the Society of Jesus – known since the late sixteenth century as the Jesuits – was founded by Spanish priest St Ignatius Loyola (1491–1556) in 1534 as a mendicant order of priests dedicated to the propagation of Catholicism, and was formally approved by the Pope in a bull of 1540. See Roman Catholic Church.

Unlike older Catholic religious orders, which assign wide authority to local officials such as abbots and place important decisions in the hands of the brothers or sisters collectively, the Society of Jesus assigns absolute power to a single head, the General, who is elected for a life term by the General Congregation (a legislative assembly of provincial officials and elected delegates). The General can do anything within the scope of the Constitutions, the written law of the Society, and can even suspend the Constitutions at will, though he cannot change them without the approval of the General Congregation. He appoints the Provincials, who govern the Society in individual countries or regions, and a variety of other officials.

Ordinary members take, alongside the usual religious vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, a special vow of personal obedience to the Pope. In practice this requires perfect obedience to any superior in the Society. Enemies of the Jesuits have argued that this rule is used to justify Jesuit involvement in political crimes, including assassination. This has been energetically denied by the Society, but the involvement of Jesuits in attempts to assassinate England’s Queen Elizabeth I and other Protestant monarchs of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is accepted by many historians.

The Catholic Church, while theoretically under the Pope’s personal control, is in practice a diverse constellation of religious orders and regional authorities whose obedience to Rome is often a polite fiction. At the time of the Protestant Reformation, this disorganization put the survival of the Catholic Church itself at risk. The formation of an order under vows of personal obedience to the Pope was thus a godsend to Rome, and the Society received funding and encouragement from the highest levels of the Church. It repaid this by promoting Catholicism against the growth of Protestantism in France, southern Germany, and Austria, and by spearheading missionary efforts in the newly discovered lands of Asia and the Americas.

This concentration of power inevitably produced a reaction. The Jesuits aroused suspicions in France from the Wars of Religion onward, and were accused of having a role in the murder of Henri IV, who had converted from Protestantism to Catholicism before his coronation but who supported freedom of religion in France. German Protestants rightly identified the Society as the intellectual shock troops of the Catholic Counter-reformation, and attempted at several points to banish them from Germany forever. Other Catholic orders, jealous of the privileges conferred on the Society, encouraged opposition to the Jesuits even in the more staunchly Catholic countries.

The final straw, however, was economic. Jesuits used their position as missionaries in the New World to create mission plantations and mines worked by native labor, and their trade network inevitably came into conflict with the national trade policies of the colonial powers of the age. Portugal expelled its Jesuits in 1759 after a series of scandals capped by an assassination attempt on the royal chamberlain that allegedly had Jesuit backing. In France, a scandal that began with the sudden bankruptcy of the Jesuit missions on Martinique ended with the expulsion of the Society in 1764. Spain followed suit in 1767 after the Jesuits were implicated in political activity against the government. In 1773, after many tangled negotiations, the Jesuit order was formally suppressed by Pope Clement XIV. The suppression did not take effect in Russia, however, where Catherine the Great found the Jesuits useful in her struggles with the Russian Orthodox Church, but elsewhere the Society ceased to exist.

Many Jesuits reacted to the suppression by blaming it on intrigues by the liberals of the time, many of whom were Freemasons. The rise and destruction of the Bavarian Illuminati increased hard feelings on both sides; the Illuminati crusade against former members of the Society and Catholicism in general gave ex-Jesuits reason to believe the worst about Masonry, which was seen as closely allied to Illuminism, while liberal Masons blamed ex-Jesuits for the campaign against the Illuminati by the Bavarian government. See Bavarian Illuminati; Freemasonry.

Ironically, many Masons of the time argued that some branches of Masonry had become infiltrated and controlled by the Jesuits. Johann August Starck’s Order of Clerks Templar, one of the orders of high-grade Masonry active in Germany in the late eighteenth century, was one of the rites most often accused of Jesuit involvement. Writers with links to the Illuminati themselves, such as Nicholas de Bonneville, spread the charge of Jesuit infiltration more broadly, claiming that Jesuits had taken over the entire institution of Freemasonry and needed to be driven out by a secret order – presumably the Illuminati, though de Bonneville did not say so. It is worth noting in the light of all these charges that the Society is the only male Catholic religious order whose members are completely absent from lists of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century clergy in Masonry.

The sweeping European political changes that followed the French Revolution enabled a new Pope, Pius VII, to restore the Society in 1814. Penalties against the Society remained in force to varying degrees and in a variety of countries during the nineteenth century, however; as long as the Pope was a political as well as a religious figure, Jesuits were widely suspected of being his secret agents. With the absorption of the Papal States into the new nation of Italy in 1871, however, animosity against the Jesuits faded in most European countries, though many nations outside Europe have continued to treat them warily or forbid them altogether.

The Jesuits have long played a major role in conspiracy theory in Protestant countries, especially Britain, where books circulating allegations of Jesuit misdeeds have had steady sales for four centuries. Similar theories played an important part in the anti-Catholic movement in the United States, and during the first half of the twentieth century were frequently circulated in some branches of Freemasonry, particularly the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite (AASR). It is ironic that Freemasonry, which has so often been tarred with accusations of conspiracy, has had a major role in circulating similar allegations about another organization, but such ironies are common in the history of conspiracy theories. See Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite; Know-Nothing Party.

Further reading: Billington 1980, Roberts 1972.


Originally an offshoot of the radical Sons of Liberty faction in the American colonies and the early United States, the Society of St Tammany has among the most complicated and checkered careers of any American society. Its story began in Annapolis, Maryland in 1773, when the local chapter of the Sons of Liberty renamed itself the Society of St Tamina or Tammany after Tamanend, a Native American elder of the Delaware nation during the colonial period, who had earned the respect of the white immigrants as well as that of his own people. His role as patron saint of the Society was a deliberate provocation aimed at Maryland’s Roman Catholic upper class, which named most of its social clubs and institutions after European Catholic saints. See Roman Catholic Church; Sons of Liberty.

In the aftermath of the American Revolution, several other Sons of Liberty chapters took the same name, including the chapter in New York City. Most members of the Sons of Liberty ended up changing their allegiance to the Society of Red Men after that organization was founded in 1816, and much of the political wing of the Society of St Tammany was drawn off into the Know-Nothing Party in the 1850s, but the New York City chapter of the older Society remained in existence. During the early decades of the nineteenth century it affiliated with the Democratic Party and became increasingly important in New York City politics. By the second half of the century Tammany Hall had become the unofficial government of the city, under the leadership of the fabulously corrupt William Marcy “Boss” Tweed (1823–78), the most notorious figure in an age of city “machine” politics. See Improved Order of Red Men; Know-Nothing Party.

The great age of political reform in the early twentieth century rooted out some of the corruption from Tammany Hall but did little to reduce its influence over city government. The social and ethnic changes that transformed most of the cities of America’s east coast during the middle of the century, however, undercut the Society’s power, and New York City’s near-bankruptcy in the 1970s destroyed what was left. Tammany Hall still exists as a private association made up mostly of New York City’s old wealth, but its days of significant influence are long past.


The most influential British occult secret society of the twentieth century, the Society (originally Fraternity) of the Inner Light was founded in London in 1924 by English occultist Dion Fortune (Violet Firth, 1890–1946) as a successor group to the Co-Masonic lodge founded by her occult teacher, Theodore Moriarty. Fortune had had a complicated career in the British occult community up to that point, belonging to two different Golden Dawn lodges and the Theosophical Society, and she had also participated in séances with maverick archeologist Frederick Bligh Bond, who believed he had made contact with the medieval monks of Glastonbury Abbey. All these sources flowed into Fortune’s own distinctive system of magical training and initiation. See Co-Masonry; Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn; Theosophical Society.

From the time of its foundation until the end of the Second World War the Fraternity was a major presence in the British occult scene. Fortune’s books and magazine articles were widely read, and several of the most influential occultists of the next generation studied with her and modeled large parts of their own occult teachings on hers. When the Second World War broke out, the Fraternity took the lead in organizing a network of British occultists who set out to use magic to strengthen Britain against the German onslaught. The network remained active through the war; its importance to the war effort is by the nature of things hard to measure, but it certainly played a key role in boosting morale in the British occult community, by no means a negligible fraction of the population at that time.

Fortune died of leukemia just after the war, and her role as head of the Fraternity was taken by Arthur Chichester, who changed the organization’s name to Society of the Inner Light and proceeded along the lines Fortune had established. In 1961, however, another change of leadership led to a complete reformulation of the work, in which most of the Society’s occult teachings were sidelined and it focused instead on Christian mysticism. Many members left during this period, and several launched new magical secret societies of their own; the Servants of the Light, founded in 1965, is the best known of these successor orders. See Servants of the Light.

In 1990 the Society returned to its roots and began working with Fortune’s original set of rituals and teachings once again. Like most of today’s magical secret societies, it remains relatively small, but its release of previously unpublished writings by Fortune and others has once again had a significant impact on the British occult scene.

Further reading: Fortune 1993, Knight 2000.


The first known Irish political secret society, the Society of United Irishmen was founded in 1791 by Theobald Wolfe Tone, a young barrister and author passionately devoted to the cause of Irish independence. Originally a public political group pressing for Catholic emancipation and a reformed Irish parliament, the Society went underground in 1793 when England declared war on Revolutionary France and several leaders of the Society were jailed as subversives.

Thereafter, it concentrated on building up a military force in the Irish countryside, with local societies answering to baronial, county, and provincial committees, and a national executive directory above all. An oath of secrecy sworn on the New Testament provided the initiation ritual, and the password was “I know U,” answered by “I know N,” and so on through the letters of the words “United Irishmen.” Weapons were in short supply, and the Society’s forces drilled with pikes while its leaders negotiated with the French to supply an army with guns and cannon. Other secret societies in Ireland at the time ranged themselves for or against the United Irishmen; the Defenders, a Catholic secret society founded to counter Protestant violence in the 1780s, allied with the United Irishmen and gave them access to extensive secret networks in south and central Ireland, while the Loyal Orange Order stood against anything that might weaken the privileged position of Protestants under British rule. See Loyal Orange Order.

Attempted French landings in 1796 and 1797 fizzled out, however, while a final invasion in 1798 ended in a crushing French defeat at the hands of English troops led by the viceroy Lord Cornwallis. The Irish rising in the same year failed to coordinate with the French landing, and the rebel force of 20,000 went down fighting at their camp at Vinegar Hill. Tone, captured by the English while trying to escape aboard a French ship, committed suicide.


One of many esoteric secret societies in pre-Revolutionary France, the Society of Universal Harmony (Société de l’Harmonie Universelle) was founded in 1782 by Nicolas Bergasse and Guillaume Kornmann, two leading Parisian disciples of Franz Anton Mesmer, the charismatic Austrian physician and inventor of Mesmerism. Bergasse and Kornmann, on behalf of the Society, paid Mesmer the substantial sum of 2400 louis d’or for all the secrets of his method. Those secrets became the teachings of the Society, given out to members in stages as they advanced through the degrees of the Society.

During its short lifetime, the Society was enormously successful, and established lodges throughout France. Its career came to an abrupt end with the coming of the Revolution, however. The tidal wave of political and social change that washed over France between 1789 and 1815 left the Society in tatters, and those of its former members who survived the Terror, the Napoleonic Wars, and the ordinary attrition of a troubled quarter-century with their interest in secret societies intact, joined new orders thereafter.


The self-immolation of the Solar Temple (Temple Solaire), a French occult secret society of the late 1980s and early 1990s, presents one of the most troubling object lessons in the recent history of secret societies. The Solar Temple, also known as the International Chivalric Organization, Solar Tradition (Organisation Internationale Chevaleresque Tradition Solaire), was founded in Annemasse, Switzerland by Belgian homeopathic physician and spiritual healer Luc Jouret (1947–94), who became a successful lecturer in the New Age circuit throughout the French-speaking world and had a sizeable following in Geneva and Montreal, two cities with large occult and New Age communities in the 1980s. In 1983 he founded a group, Club Amenta, to promote his lectures, and the next year members of Club Amenta were invited to join another organization, Club Archedia, a secret society with its own initiation ceremony and teachings. See New Age movement.

In 1981, Jouret himself joined another secret society, the Renewed Order of the Temple, a neo-Templar secret society founded by French right-wing activist Julien Origas. He became Grand Master of the Order on Origas’s death in 1983 but was forced out the next year and started his own neo-Templar order, the Solar Temple, recruiting members from Club Archedia for the new organization. The teachings of the Solar Temple came to focus on a coming apocalypse in which the earth would become uninhabitable due to pollution, and Jouret made contacts with survivalist groups in Canada and elsewhere. By 1991 these beliefs and the occult philosophy of the Solar Temple had become extreme enough that the Club Archedia dissolved in a flurry of media accusations, and the Solar Temple itself became the object of police investigations in Quebec. In 1993 Jouret pled guilty to firearms charges in a Quebec court and returned to Europe. Most of his closest followers secluded themselves in an isolated farmhouse owned by Jouret in Annemasse. They became convinced that the apocalypse had arrived and they were being called to leave their physical bodies and travel to another world orbiting around the star Sirius. On the morning of October 5, 1994, the bodies of 53 adults and children were found at the Annemasse farmhouse. Just over a year later, on November 16, 1995, 16 surviving members of the Solar Temple vanished from their homes in France; their bodies were found a few days later in an isolated forest. Three more suicides took place in the spring of 1996. The demise of the Solar Temple offers a clear example of the fatal combination of secrecy, paranoia, and apocalyptic beliefs – a mix far too common in today’s alternative scene.

Further reading: Kinney 1995.


One of two secret societies involved in the early stages of the American Revolution, the Sons of Liberty were founded in Boston and New York City in 1765 to oppose the stamp tax recently imposed on the colonies by the British Parliament. The impetus that started them seems to have come from the Committees of Correspondence, a network of leading colonial citizens formed in the early 1760s to coordinate opposition to British policies. The Sons of Liberty quickly spread to the other colonies and became a major force in the movement toward revolution. See American Revolution; Committees of Correspondence.

Where the Committees worked within the law, the Sons of Liberty engaged in terrorist activities ranging from destruction of property to mob violence against British officials and loyalists. Their most famous exploit took place in Boston in 1773, when members boarded three British ships and dumped 342 chests of tea into the harbor to protest the Tea Act. In the months before war broke out, local chapters of the Sons of Liberty formed armed bands that became the nucleus of the revolutionary army. In 1783, on the signing of the Treaty of Paris granting American independence, the Sons of Liberty dissolved.


According to a popular medieval legend, the spear that pierced the side of Jesus of Nazareth during his crucifixion, wielded by a Roman soldier named Longinus. Since Christian belief considers Jesus’ blood the medium by which the sins of the world were taken away, anything that touched that blood took on special importance in medieval legend and folklore. The lively medieval industry in forged relics responded by manufacturing many allegedly authentic relics of this sort – fragments of the cross, nails used in Jesus’ crucifixion, shrouds in which he was buried, and so on. A “spear of Longinus” appeared through these channels and, along with many other relics, became the property of the Emperors of Austria. See Christian origins; Jesus of Nazareth; Shroud of Turin.

This particular relic was of little interest to anyone until 1972, when English author Trevor Ravenscroft published his bestselling book The Spear of Destiny. Ravenscroft borrowed ideas from several occult traditions to back up a claim that Hitler’s quest for world power had been focused on the spear of Longinus, which he had seized after the German takeover of Austria in 1938. Ravenscroft’s book has since been shown to be a complete fantasy, but it is still frequently quoted by popular writers on the occult dimensions of Naziism. See National Socialism.


Originally a volunteer bodyguard of Nazi thugs organized in 1925 to protect party leader Adolf Hitler on his travels around Germany, the Schutzstaffel (“Protection Force”) began its rise to the summit of the Nazi system in 1929 when a series of political struggles within the party left Heinrich Himmler, a colorless young man with the manners of a college professor, in charge of the small organization. Widely dismissed within the Nazi movement as a nonentity, Himmler was a serious student of the occult and deeply committed to Ariosophy, the racist occult theory that had spawned National Socialism itself. Shortly after his promotion, he went to Hitler with a proposal to expand the SS into a volunteer elite within the Nazi movement, a Deutsche Mannerorden or Order of German Manhood that would ultimately reshape Germany in a Nazi mold. The Führer’s approval enabled Himmler to build the organization step by step into the most powerful force in Nazi Germany. See Hitler, Adolf; National Socialism.

Himmler borrowed freely from Ariosophical sources in reinventing the SS. The SS racial purity guidelines came from the Ordo Novi Templi (ONT), an Austrian secret society with which Hitler had connections during his Vienna years, while the dagger-and-swastika emblem of the Thule Society – the organization that had originally sponsored the Nazi party – turned into the swastika armband and ceremonial dagger worn by every SS member. Ariosophical runic lore provided the new SS emblem, a double lightning-bolt S rune, which represented victory. See Ordo Novi Templi (ONT); Thule Society.

The organization of the SS, as well as its symbolism, copied secret society methods in detail; even orthodox historians have referred to the SS as “Nazi Freemasonry.” The vast majority of SS members were volunteers who worked at other jobs and attended SS meetings once or twice a week, where they took in lectures on Nazi racial and political theory and practiced military drill. Candidates for membership were vetted for character, discipline, racial purity, and political reliability; once a member, even stricter standards came into force. Members who showed promise were promoted to officer ranks. As the Nazi party became the most powerful force in German politics, the SS expanded alongside it, and Himmler’s small paid staff expanded into one of the largest bureaucracies in the Nazi system.

Hitler’s election as Germany’s Chancellor in January 1933 and the passage of the Enabling Act giving him dictatorial powers a few months later set the stage for a massive expansion of SS power. Shortly after the passage of the Enabling Act, Hitler granted police powers to the SS, and authorized Himmler to create a new branch of his Black Order, the Waffen-SS (Armed SS), as a security and military force loyal to Hitler and the Nazi party alone. In the months that followed, the SS took a leading role in rounding up 27,000 “enemies of the state” for internment in the first concentration camps, which were guarded by special Waffen-SS units. In 1934, faced with potential revolt in the SA – the private army of “brownshirt” street thugs formed by the Nazis in their first years – Hitler turned to the SS for help, and regular SS and Waffen-SS detachments alike took part in the notorious “Night of the Long Knives” in which the SA’s leaders were massacred on Hitler’s orders.

By the late 1930s Himmler was the second most powerful figure in the Nazi hierarchy, and the SS was a state within a state, with immense power over every aspect of German life. The Gestapo, Nazi Germany’s brutal secret police, was a branch of the SS, and the Waffen-SS formed Hitler’s bodyguard, managed the new network of concentration camps, and counted Germany’s best armored divisions among its membership. German intellectual and cultural life came increasingly under SS control too, as SS membership turned into a career requirement for university professors, authors, and artists, while an SS industrial empire took over a steadily growing fraction of the German economy.

Himmler’s occult interests had not been forgotten in the course of SS expansion. The SS headquarters staff contained three departments dedicated to research into occult, pagan, and Ariosophical subjects. The most important of these was the Ahnenerbe Forschungs- und Lehrgemeinschaft (Ancestral Heritage Research and Education Society), called Ahnenerbe for short, which employed well over 100 historians and researchers, including occult luminaries such as Julius Evola. The innermost dimensions of SS occultism took place at the Wewelsburg, a medieval castle in Westphalia converted under Himmler’s personal supervision into an SS ceremonial center. All records of SS Wewelsburg activities, along with the castle itself, were destroyed on Himmler’s orders in the last days of the Third Reich, but it is known that he and 12 handpicked senior SS officers met there several times a year; it has been suggested plausibly that this linked into the organized magical core of the Third Reich that so many contemporary occultists sensed. See Evola, Julius.

After the collapse of the Nazi regime and the suicide or execution of most of the Nazi leaders, the SS went to ground. Many of its members were rounded up by the Allies, who defined the SS as a criminal organization; others fled to Spain, Latin America, or the Arab world. How much of the Black Order’s traditions and inner teachings survived in exile is unknown.

Further reading: Lumsden 1997.


The most famous prehistoric monument in the world, the ring of massive stones on Salisbury Plain was raised around 2400 BCE on a site that had been sacred for thousands of years before that time. As early as 8000 BCE, Mesolithic people erected massive wooden poles on the site. A circular earthen ditch and bank with two entrances and a ring of wooden posts were constructed there around 2950 BCE. More wooden posts, probably supporting buildings, went in at intervals over the next 400 years. All this was duplicated in scores of other monuments scattered over Britain. See Megaliths.

Then, around 2550 BCE, the first stones appeared – bluestones 6.5 to 8 feet (2 to 2.5 meters) tall, brought all the way from the Preseli Mountains in southern Wales. Within a century and a half the huge gray sarsen stones that now define the monument were hauled from the Marlborough Downs nearly 20 miles (32 kilometers) north and set up in their current positions, with a ring of uprights and lintels surrounding a horseshoe of huge trilithons open toward the midsummer sunrise. The bluestones were then arranged in a matching circle and horseshoe pattern. The final structure was probably used as a sacred calendar and observatory to track the movements of the sun and moon. Once completed, Stonehenge remained in use until 1600 BCE and then was abandoned, as the pre-Celtic civilization of ancient Britain collapsed into a dark age.

While folklore and many alternative-history theories claim that the ancient Druids used Stonehenge as a ritual site, there is very little evidence for this, though offerings were left there during the years that Britain was a Roman province. Thereafter it lay neglected for centuries, thought to be the work of giants or of the enchanter Merlin. The same rediscovery of Britain’s past that sparked the Druid Revival revived interest in Stonehenge, and made it the center of a wealth of improbable theories. Almost everyone in the world except the ancient Britons was credited with building it; early archeologist and Druid William Stukeley (1687–1765) lampooned this literature with an essay crediting intelligent elephants from Africa with raising the great stones. Stukeley himself credited the Druids with building the structure and thus helped launch one of the monument’s enduring legends. See Arthurian legends; Druid Revival; Druids.

Speculations about Stonehenge have found a home in the cultural underworld of rejected knowledge for a long time. Theories about the origins of Freemasonry that traced the Craft back to the Druids inevitably fastened on Stonehenge; the bluestones were even claimed as evidence that an ancient blue lodge had once met there! Ley hunters have also found Stonehenge as a focal point of many alignments. More recently, claims about ancient astronauts, lost civilizations, and earth changes of past and future have made much use of Stonehenge. See earth changes; Leys; lost civilizations; rejected knowledge.

Further reading: Chippindale 1994, Souden 1997.


One of the principal secret societies founded by Filippo Buonarroti, the doyen of political subversion in early nineteenth-century Europe, the Sublimes Maîtres Parfaits or Sublime Perfect Masters took shape in Geneva in 1809 as an inner circle of revolutionaries drawn from the Philadelphes, another secret society of the time, and from liberal Masonic circles. Unlike the Philadelphes, which focused its efforts on the destruction of Napoleon, the Sublime Perfect Masters set their sights on the rather more ambitious goal of launching revolutions throughout Europe to bring about republican governments and the abolition of private property. See Buonarroti, Filippo; Philadelphes.

The Sublime Perfect Masters followed the older, eighteenth-century pattern of political secret societies and drew heavily on Masonic symbolism and practice. Members learned very little about the society on their admission as Sublime Perfect Masters, and only those of proven loyalty were advanced through the middle degree of Sublime Elect to the Aréopagus, the guiding body of the order. Above it all was a central coordinating body, the Grand Firmament, whose existence was kept secret from everyone outside the Aréopagus itself. This system shows close echoes to that of the Illuminati; scholars are unsure whether Buonarroti borrowed it from his early experience with an Illuminati-influenced Masonic lodge, or whether he took it from published accounts of the Illuminati, but the borrowing played a significant role in passing the eighteenth-century system of secret chiefs and progressive revelations onto nineteenth-century political secret societies. See Illuminati.

Under various names the Sublime Perfect Masters served primarily as a coordinating body for liberal secret societies across Europe, and at its height (around 1820) it had members in Spain, France, Belgium, Italy, Germany, Denmark, and Switzerland. Along with the Carbonari, it played a significant role in the wave of rebellions that swept Europe in 1820 and 1821, and apparently helped to coordinate risings in Italy and elsewhere. In the aftermath of these risings, informers leaked details of the order’s activities to police in several countries; the results included Buonarroti’s exile from Geneva and a continent-wide panic in which conservatives and police officials alike saw secret societies hiding under every bed. See Carbonari.

In 1828 the Sublime Perfect Masters took the new name of Le Monde (The World), as Buonarroti realized that the Masonic trappings of the original organization had become more of a hindrance than help. In this reorganization it added a new preliminary “grade of observation” for potential members and people in other secret societies associated with Le Monde. Under the new name, it seems to have played a role in the French and Belgian revolutions of 1830, though details are uncertain. Afterwards it appears to have been absorbed into another Buonarroti creation, the Charbonnerie Démocratique Universelle, a new version of the Carbonari that aimed at its founder’s perennial goal of universal revolution.

Further reading: Billington 1980, Roberts 1972.


One of many political movements with secret society roots, synarchy was the creation of French occult philosopher Joseph Alexandre Saint-Yves d’Alveydre (1842–1909), perhaps the most influential figure in the French occult underground of his time. Alongside contemporaries Joséphin Péladan and Stanislaus de Guaita, Saint-Yves broke with the mostly liberal or socialist politics of earlier French occultists such as Eliphas Lévi, and launched the occult conservatism that dominated western esoteric circles until the 1960s. Synarchy was Saint-Yves’ major contribution to this movement and became a major force in European politics in the twentieth century.

Drawing on the ternary logic central to nineteenth-century French occultism, synarchy sees human society as composed of the three interdependent spheres of religion, politics, and economics. In society as it existed in Saint-Yves’ time (and exists today), these three spheres conflict with one another, resulting in the decline of all three, and ultimately leads to anarchy. The synarchist answer to this dilemma is the establishment of an inner circle of initiates who have positions of influence in the three spheres. This inner circle, working in secret, would coordinate the activities of the three spheres, resulting in peace. Synarchy, Saint-Yves argued, was thus the opposite of anarchy.

Like most nineteenth-century occultists, Saint-Yves also wove his theories into an alternative vision of world history. Synarchy, he believed, had been the governing system of the world under the great Universal Empire, which was founded by Rama in 6729 BCE, but had been lost when the Universal Empire fell. The great spiritual leaders of all ages – including Moses and Jesus – had attempted to re-establish it, and the Knights Templar had come close to the synarchist ideal in the Middle Ages. Saint-Yves claimed, though, that the only nation governed on synarchic principles in his own time was the underground city of Agharta, hidden deep beneath the Himalayas. Saint-Yves’ book Mission de l’Inde en Europe (The Mission of India in Europe, 1910) described this hidden city in lavish detail. Its ruler was the Supreme Pontiff or Brahmatma, the head of the religious sphere, assisted by the Mahatma and Mahanga, who headed the political and economic spheres. See Agharta; Knights Templar; underground realms.

Despite the more colorful dimensions of Saint-Yves’ theories, synarchy found a ready audience among French conservatives in the first half of the twentieth century, and its influence remains strong throughout the European far right today. The Cagoule, the most powerful of the French fascist movements before the Second World War, drew heavily on synarchy, and important policies of the Vichy regime in occupied France during the war copied synarchist ideas. Propaganda Due (P2), the rogue Masonic organization that dominated Italian politics in the 1970s, was nearly a textbook example of a synarchist organization in its attempt to bring the Italian political system, the Catholic Church, and the Mafia-controlled drug economy into an alliance that could resist Italian communists. By way of the French comparative mythologist Georges Dumézil, who projected Saint-Yves’ threefold division of society back onto the ancient Indo-Europeans, synarchist ideas have found their way into a handful of modern Pagan traditions too. It remains an influential theory in many places in the world of secret societies today. See Cagoule; P2 (Propaganda Due).