It has been said that "The history of the world is the history of the warfare between Secret Societies" (Robert(s) Shea & Anton Wilson purportedly quoting one Ishmael Reed on the flyleaf of their tri-lateral masterpiece Illuminatus!); it has also been said, attributably by Socrates, that "The Gods give us paranoia so that we may occasionally glimpse something of the truth".
My experience is that one is rarely closer to a subjective appreciation of the axiom that "There can be no ultimate truth" than when attempting to research the origins of Secret Societies.
The reality today is that these organizations can range from a handful of people performing magic rituals in a bricked-up railway arch, to an annual get-together of the cream of the worlds financiers and statespersons mapping out the economic and political destiny of the planet. The first of these groups style themselves the Bilderberg Conference, named after the block of council flats where they first met; the second group are a shadowy intercontinental organization known as the Illuminates of Thanateros.
This is precisely the sort of misinformation which a serious researcher has to contend with. If the misinformation is recent, the inconsistencies are easy to spot, but, after fifty, a hundred or a thousand years, it is more difficult.
It is unusual to find objective material about Secret Societies. Most researchers are either endeavouring to demonstrate that a particular group (or groups) is (are) no more than an innocuous charitable benevolent club who like to maintain a level of anonymity to cloak their good works, or, on the other hand, to demonstrate that the same group(s) are responsible for every bloody revolution and heinous conspiratorial plot which has ever been perpetrated. Both objectives can be well served by producing evidence that the existence of the Secret Society or Societies in question can be traced back into antiquity.
In order to try and introduce an element of objectivity into this exercise, I propose to isolate certain essential features which can be found across a spectrum of secret and/or secretive societies today. I shall then to attempt to trace manifestations of those features in various historical groups and/or orders in as far as reasonably reliable information appears to exist in the historical record.
One feature shared in common between many of today's Secret Societies, of both ritual/charitable and occult flavour is that of a membership structure consisting of graded or hierarchical degrees. The number of degrees can vary widely, even within different branches of the same society, as can the direction of numbering. For example, the Ordo Templi Orientis, on the evidence provided in Francis King's book Secret Rituals of the OTO, appears to be structured into eleven principal degrees, headed by an individual described as the Outer Head of the Order (OHO) holding the eleventh degree. The OTO is not a homogeneous body, and there are at present at least two separate organizations purposing to represent the original tradition; each of these has its own OHO.
Some degrees in the OTO have distinctive names, for example, according to the same source, the designation of new entrants to the organization is to a zero degree named Minerval.
By contrast, the Illuminates of Thanateros, a Chaos Magic "Pact", on the basis of an article published in 'Chaos International' Issue 3, appear to be headed by a Supreme Magus who holds the designation 0 Degree, while new entrants or Neophytes are admitted to the 4th Degree.
One feature which both of these occult groups have in common is that they admit members of both sexes, and claim to have no policy of sexual preferment in regard to promotion within the group. For all that, there is no evidence to suggest that either group has ever been headed by a female. The Order of the Golden Dawn, a magical group which flourished in this country for some 40 years prior to 1920, also admitted both male and female members with equal status. Though apparently dormant in the UK at this time, the Golden Dawn is known to be active in North America and there is evidence to suggest that a significant proportion of it's senior officers are female.
[Note (1997): There is now understood to be a chartered Order of Golden Dawn Temple in London]
Of the contemporary charitable/ritual societies, the most important ones in numerical terms, such as the United Grand Lodge Freemasons, are exclusively male oriented, although females may be admitted to subsidiary branch organizations.
There is some cross-fertilization of traditions between masonic orders who may not be directly affiliated to the United Grand Lodge in Great Queen Street and some of the occult orders mentioned above. In his much denigrated book The Brotherhood, the late Stephen Knight provided some detailed information about the existence of higher masonic degrees, admittance to which is purportedly in the gift of a body described as the Supreme Council of the 33rd Degree. In support of this assertion, Knight points out that there is an entry for just such a body in the London telephone directory, and he was correct, at least as regards the old S - Z phone book; indeed the entry was still there in 1988, some four years after Knight's book was published, with an address in Duke Street. It seems to have disappeared now since the London telephone directories have been reorganized, and is not obviously to be found either in the 'residential' or 'business' sections. Not that much can be read into that; Lewisham Council, the United States Embassy and the British Library are equally difficult to track down under the new schema.
A curious feature of Knight's listing of the Higher Masonic Degrees is that some of the titles are identical to those of some of the higher OTO degrees. For example 'Prince of Jerusalem' is given as the 16th Degree in Masonry, about half way up the hierarchy, while the same title is accorded to a 4th degree OTO officer, rather less than half way up the structure. This may of course be a co-incidence, but there are said to be links of tradition between the two organizations through a mysterious body, or system of observance, called the Rite of Memphis and Misraim. The right to award degrees within that structure having been bestowed on the OTO in the early part of this century through a charter issued by a high ranking Mason named Yarker, who may have held dual membership. Whether a 'Prince of Jerusalem' in the OTO would necessarily be acknowledged by the Supreme Council of the 33rd Degree (or vice-versa) is not known, but it may be suspected that there might be difficulties if the OTO officer seeking masonic recognition was female!
This may seem to be a trivial detail, but it is through exactly this sort of link that the threads of the history and development of these organizations can be traced. Another feature which some of the societies, particularly the more overtly occult ones, have in common is the assumption by members of a pseudonym or 'magical' name or motto for use within the organization.
Secrecy was widely practiced by the priesthoods of the ancient Mediterranean cultures. The Egyptians were particularly notorious in that respect, and the same practices were carried over into Pythagorean tradition. In the latter case, though, it may have assumed an additional importance because some of their mathematical discoveries involved concepts, such as the irrational nature of mathematical ratios like PI, which overstepped the boundaries of what was considered admissible within their concepts of number theory. If something seemed to threaten the fundamental numerical basis on which the universe was thought to be constructed, then it was best to keep it quiet - the sums might be wrong after all!
Egypt retained it's status as a centre of learning throughout the latter days of the Roman Empire, despite the destruction of the Library of Alexandria and Diocletian's wholesale burning of proto-scientific and alchemical texts. After that country's assimilation into the expanding Islamic empire, the Fatimid Caliphs sponsored the establishment of what was effectively a University in Cairo. This institution was known as The Abode of Learning; it awarded degrees, but these were accompanied by initiations of a mystical or esoteric character.
It seems probable that the Grand Lodge of Cairo, founded in 872 AD by adherents of the Ismaili Sect of Islam, adopted from the Abode of Learning the concept of a sequence of academic degrees marked by mystical or quasi-occult initiations.
The Grand Lodge of Cairo had seven degrees and variants existed during the following two centuries within various splinters of the Ismaili sect. The most influential of these were the Nizari Ismailis, and in 1090, by stratagem or deception, their leader Hasan-e Sabah took possession of a fortress named Alamut (meaning Eagle's Nest) which dominated a valley of the same name in the Elburz Mountains to the north of modem Teheran. Within this fortress under the motto "Nothing is true and all is allowed", Hasan instituted the Order of the Hashishim or Assassins. In many respects these people might be regarded as a highly efficient bunch of terrorists.
The aspects of secrecy inherent in the graded degree structure, borrowed from the Grand Lodge of Cairo, were used to mislead the lower echelons of the Order about the actual nature and objectives of the organization as a whole. According to Nesta Webster, an admittedly unreliable source, the Assassins were structured in the following manner:
|lst Degree||Grand Master||"The Old Man of the Mountains", Hasan-e Sabah|
|2nd Degree||Grand Prior|
|3rd Degree||Dais||Political Emissaries|
|4th Degree||Rafiqs||Associates in training for Higher Degrees|
|5th Degree||Fadais||"The Devoted Men" - Undertook to deliver the Secret Blow on orders from above|
|6th Degree||Lasiqus||Lay brothers|
|7th Degree||The "common people"||"simply blind instruments" (sic)|
In trying to explain how the Assassins operated, it would be difficult to better Nesta Webster's florid prose; the following passage might well have earned her a place on the shortlist to script "Reefer Madness"; it comes from her book Secret Societies and Subversive Movements published in 1924:
“To stimulate the energies of the Fadais who were to carry out the crimes, the superiors of the Order had recourse to an ingenious system of delusion. Throughout the territories occupied by the Assassins were gardens with fruit trees, bowers of roses and sparkling streams. Here were arranged luxurious resting places with Persian carpets and soft divans around which hovered black-eyed "houris" bearing wine in gold and silver drinking vessels, whilst soft music mingled with murmuring water and the song of birds. The young man whom the Assassins wished to train for a life of crime was introduced to the Grand Master of the Order and intoxicated with Hashish. Under the brief spell of unconsciousness induced by the drug, the prospective Fadai was carried into the garden, where, on awaking, he believed himself to be in Paradise. After enjoying all it's delights, he was given a fresh dose and transposed back to the presence of the Grand Master, who assured him that he had never left his side, but had merely experienced a foretaste of the Paradise that awaited him if he obeyed the orders of his chiefs.”
A rather more gruesome deception perpetrated at Alamut is recorded in an ancient text, the "Art of Imposture" by Abdel-Rahman of Damascus. The following extract is quoted from Arkon Daraul's book Secret Societies Yesterday and Today :
“Hasan had a deep narrow pit sunk into the floor of his audience chamber. One of his disciples stood in this in such a way that his head and neck alone were visible above the floor. Around the neck was placed a circular disk in two pieces which fitted together, with a hole in the middle. This gave the impression that there was a severed head on a metal plate standing on the floor. In order to make the scene more plausible (if that is the word) Hasan had some fresh blood poured around the head, on the plate.
Now certain recruits were brought in. "Tell them" commanded the chief, "what thou hast seen". The disciple then described the delights of Paradise. "You have seen the head of a man who died whom you all knew. I have reanimated him to speak with his own tongue".
Later, the head was treacherously severed in real earnest and stuck for some time somewhere that the faithful would see it. The effect of this conjuring trick plus murder increased the enthusiasm for martyrdom to the required degree.”
A ruthless deception indeed, but, whether apocryphal or not, it would appear to have been passably successful as a recruiting tactic. By the time the area was over-run by the "Mongol hordes" of Mangu Khan in 1296, there were no fewer than 60 Assassin castles in an area of 3 miles wide by 30 long in the Alamut Valley itself, and the Order's influence extended throughout every town and city in the Middle East. There is little doubt that they were a pervasive organization, and there is much evidence to suggest that their motivations were towards the benefit of the Order rather than that of the prevailing Islamic establishment; except of course where those two interests coincided.
Almost in parallel with the rise of the Assassins, but on the other side of the formal spiritual divide in the Middle East, there came into being another militarily oriented Order, that of the Knights Templar. In the wake of the success of the First Crusade in capturing Jerusalem, Hugh de Payens petitioned that city's King Baldwin II for permission for himself and eight other Knights to establish a new Order, ostensibly to protect pilgrims travelling to the sacred sites. Approval was given in 1118, and confirmed by the Pope. Subsequently at the Council of Troyes the Knights were given a monastic 'rule' or constitution. They took their name from the quarters allocated to them adjunct to the ancient site of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem.
The relationship between the Templars and the Assassins was by no means amicable, although it's inception appears to have been in the negotiation of a treaty of convenience between Baldwin II and the Assassin Grand Master against the influence of Baghdad. In subsequent years, like the Assassins, the Templars' motivations appear to have been towards the advantage of their own order, rather than necessarily towards the overall Christian cause, unless, of course those objectives happened to coincide.
For example, in 1149 the Templars appear to have had a relationship with insiders in the Islamic garrison defending Damascus which led to the Crusader Emperor Conrad's failure to take that city; and in 1166 Amaury, King of Jerusalem is said to have hanged twelve Templars for betraying a fortress to the Saracens.
The accurate picture is perhaps of factions within the Templars becoming very closely allied with the Assassins, possibly at the relatively senior 3rd Degree 'Political Emissary' level. The source quoted by both Nesta Webster and Arkon Daraul for the assimilation of Assassin observances and rituals by the Templars is the early 19th Century Austrian orientalist Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, but the work which supposedly establishes this link, "History of the Assassins", is not listed in the British Library catalogue, and it is possible that Daraul may have echoed it's existence from Webster's writings.
Whatever the link may have been, the Templars built up a veritable banking and property empire throughout Europe, they had their own fleet, and they were highly secretive about their internal affairs. After the purge of Friday 13th October 1307, about which some of them may have been tipped off, there were consistent confessions under torture to secret ceremonies involving an entity called Baphomet, and prostration before a bearded male head, which apparently spoke to them and conferred magical powers. Though there appears to be little documentary evidence of 'Baphomet' having predated the Templars, the Talking Head is reminiscent of the Assassin anecdote quoted above.
The persecution of the Templars was most strenuous in France, but, nonetheless, many of them appear to have made an escape with the Order's fleet of ships from La Rochelle, and there is evidence presented by Baigent and Leigh to suggest that they may have established settlements in Scotland and Ireland dating from this period. Robinson, in a recent work on masonic history, presents evidence that the English 'Poor Knights of Christ' went underground and, among other things, credits them with having provided the organizational impetus for the Peasants Revolt of 1381 - though there is no specific record of any banner reading "Templars Against the Poll Tax".
The Knights in Scotland are said to have been influential at the Battle of Bannockbum, and subsequently to have formed a 'Praetorian Guard' for the Scottish Royal Family. Links with "operative masonry" (the modern Freemason's term for the working stone-masons tradition) are also traceable through some interesting ornamentation in churches and private chapels associated with aristocratic Scottish families, such as the Sinclairs, where construction dates from a period in the 15th Century which is consistent with the hypothesis.
The balance of evidence suggests direct and probably continuous links from the disbanded Templars, both to the English Lodges which were in existence at the time of the formation of the Grand Lodge of England on 24th June 1717, and also to the 'Strict Observance' and Grand Orient branches of Freemasonry which migrated to continental Europe with the exiled Jacobites.
An intriguing thesis is presented by Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln in their book Holy Blood, Holy Grail. In a nutshell, this postulates the existence of an organization named the Ordre (or Prieure) de Sion whose members are able to claim a direct blood lineage from the family of the Christian Messiah, via the ancient Merovingian dynasty of France through to the Cathar communities which flourished in Languedoc and Provence, and thence forward to the present day. The suggestion is that these people sponsored the various revivals of the Manichean heresy until it was so viciously suppressed by the Vatican in the Albigensian Crusade of the 13th Century. They are also said to have been the provenance of the Rosicrucian Manifestos which appeared in 1614 and of other allegorical documents such as "The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz" which date from the same period.
There is no suggestion that members of this tradition either worshipped Baphomet, indulged in discourse with Talking Heads, or defiled Christian sacred symbols, but their story does, in some particulars, seem to be intertwined with that of the Templars and of organizations deriving from that provenance. It is claimed, for example that the Alchemists Nicholas Flamel and Robert Fludd were Grand Masters of the Prieure de Sion, that the latter was succeeded in the post by Sir Isaac Newton, who was also a Freemason, and that both organizations had been instrumental in establishing the Royal Society in 1660. A major divergence in the masonic tradition occurred in the wake of the so-called 'Glorious Revolution' of 1688. The Scottish lodges were firmly committed by tradition to the Jacobite cause and followed the deposed King James II into exile in France, subsequently favouring the claim of Charles Edward Stuart (Bonny Prince Charlie) to the throne of the United Kingdom. The United Grand Lodge of England was formed in the wake of the Scottish rebellion of 1715, with the intention of bringing the movement into line with the prevailing anti-Jacobite stance. There were slip-ups, such as the appointment of the Duke of Wharton to the Grand Master's post; not only was he a vociferous Jacobite, he was also a founding member of the Hellfire Club with Sir Francis Dashwood. He was booted out of office after a tenure of only a year in 1723 and the subsequently issued 'Constitutions' of James Anderson, a masonic minister of the Scots Church, ensured that respectability and support for the Hanoverians were indelibly established.
Meanwhile on the continent the Jacobites were setting up new lodges in the Scottish or Grand Orient mold. Among those initiated and then given a charter to start other lodges was a German Baron, von Hund. It appears to be from him that a tradition of "Secret Chiefs" emanates. The people who originally initiated von Hund in Paris kept their identities concealed and then apparently disappeared. There is evidence to suggest that these anonymous figures were high ranking Jacobites, including perhaps "the King over the Water" himself. Their subsequent disappearance coincides neatly with the final defeat of the Jacobite rebels at Culloden in 1746, by an English army commanded by the English Mason, William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland. Warfare between Secret Societies?
A member of one of the lodges established in Germany by von Hund was an ex-Jesuit, by name Adam Weishaupt. In 1776 Weishaupt got bored with the same old stuff and founded the infamous Illuminati of Bavaria. Among the directions pursued by Weishaupt, the ancient motto of the Assassins was revived: "Nothing is true: Everything is Permitted." Among traditions introduced can be included the assumption by members of ritual names or mottos to be used at group meetings; for example, Weishaupt was known as Spartacus. This procedure was also adopted by the Hellfire Club in England, as were various libidinous or tantric practices which may have been garnered from the nations exposure to Eastern cultures, or the product of fertile imagination. The Hellfire Club was probably the first Secret Society to admit women to their rituals.
In the wake of the French Revolution the Illuminati were suppressed possibly/probably because of their involvement in it (definitely says Nesta Webster). The Hellfire Club became active in clandestine support of the American colonists and it has been claimed that Adam Weishaupt swapped identities with the real George Washington in a Hellfire Club ritual, and that the first president of the USA was none other than the Supreme Magus of the Illuminati of Bavaria. In support of this theory attention is drawn to the resemblance of Washington's likeness on every dollar bill to extant portraits of Weishaupt. This hypothesis is possibly not true.
After the French Revolution it seems likely that the French Masons became the Government, having finally avenged their Templar forebears suffering at the hands of the royal house of France. German Illuminism was driven underground however, and other species of Masonic/Rosicrucian activity adopted a low profile with the stories of 'secret chiefs' intact. Out of this period of silence emerged a masonic/illuminist group, the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO). These people adopted the Illuminati tradition of magical names and the Hellfire Club practice of admitting women, and moreover accorded them equal status. Many of the higher grade rituals, from published accounts, appear to be similar to those used in Grand Orient Masonry, with the possible exception of some of the supposed tantric practices of the OTO.
NOTE: the purported existence of such activities may be no more than a crude recruiting trick! (cf Hasan-e Sabah: "Nothing is True").
In England a specialized masonic study group came into existence in 1865 called Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia (SRA). Originally basing their practices on old documents found at Freemason's Hall they also made contact, by means of a cypher message found in a book bought off a market barrow, with a secretive German organization represented by a Frau Sprengel which turned out to have 'secret chiefs'. The Isis-Urania Temple of the Order of the Golden Dawn was founded by members of SRA in 1888. An early concern was to establish contact with the 'Secret Chiefs' who by this time were thought to be discorporeal entities, or mysterious hermits in Tibet. Madame Blavatsky came up with one such and founded the Theosophical Society, the then Curator of Horniman's Museum in Forest Hill, MacGregor Mathers, also went public that he had established some sort of psychic communication and started producing volumes of teaching material.
Eventually one of the younger members, Aleister Crowley, started making communications with entities of his own which led him to proclaim the dawn of a New Aeon in 1904; whereupon some difference with Mathers erupted and Crowley became involved in the OTO which had emerged in Germany, eventually being promoted to 'Outer Head of the Order'. Crowley was an eccentric character. A fabled yarn of his experiments with invisibility has recently enjoyed some confirmation, and so is worth telling:
“Crowley was working with a sigil from the system presented in a book either translated or made up by Mathers known as the 'Sacred magic of Abra-Melin the Mage' which purported to bestow invisibility on the operator. Having attired himself in his ceremonial robes, and anointed his body with scented oil and saffron he performed the ritual. To see if it had worked, he left his lodgings in Jermyn Street and crossed Piccadilly Circus to the Cafe Royal, where he was an habitue. He transvected into the main tea-room, performed an adoration to the Egyptian Sun God and returned to his lodgings. Nobody had seen him - it had worked!
The assembled gentility taking tea in the Cafe Royal had seen a strangely coloured man in exotic costume walk into the room, make gesticulations and utterance, tum round, and walk out again. With typical aplomb they had chosen totally to ignore it.”
Recently two American tourists "doing Crowley's London" spoke to an elderly employee at the Cafe Royal who had been there since the 1930s when Crowley was around. He remembered that in his first week "this foreign geezer come in, all yellow, and started babbling on in some strange language and then gone out". He had asked his supervisor about this and had been told "Don't worry about that; it's just Mister Crowley being invisible again."
This story may not be true.
Like some modern day professional wrestlers, Crowley revelled in his 'bad boy' image and styled himself The Great Beast. His detractors had plenty to latch onto; drug addiction, obscene writings, and sex-magic. In my view Crowley's final joke on his acolytes in the OTO is to have left them with a constitution which is structured in such a way that schism and feuding between members is inevitable. The result has been a series of protracted legal squabbles and several competing OTOs, each claiming that one of the other's past OHOs had been expelled from the order by Crowley.
The Order of the Golden Dawn migrated to the colonies and has resurfaced on the West Coast of America via New Zealand.
If the Illuminati did indeed survive to become the founding establishment of the USA, they may still be up to their old tricks; possibly in conflict or alliance with their long-standing sparring partners in the Masons and/or the Prieure de Sion. In 1954 the Bilderberg Conference was instituted. There are paranoid people today who believe that this club, described by Encyclopaedia Britannica as an "annual three-day conference attended by about 100 of Europe's and North America's most influential bankers, economists, politicians and government officials" is, in reality, the instrument of the Illuminati by which they plot and control the world's destiny, as a sort of government behind all governments. The same paranoid people might suggest that such an organization's primary motivations are always towards the benefit of the Order, rather than necessarily towards the common good, except, of course, where those interests co-incide.
Or as Hasan-e Sabah might have said "Today Alamut, Tomorrow the World".
But all this is fanciful. They most likely just sit round a table listening attentively to the utterance of a Talking Head!
"NOTHING IS TRUE: EVERYTHING IS PERMITTED"
The Temple and the Lodge, Cape 1989
Holy Blood, Holy Grail, Corgi 1983
London Telephone Directory, 1988
Liber Null & Psychonaut, Morton Press 1980
The Magical Pact of the Illuminates of Thanateros, Chaos International #3, 1987
A History of Secret Societies, Miller 1961
Micropaedia: Bilderberg Conference, 1988
History of Freemasonry, Caxton 1951
Ritual Magic in England, Neville Spearman 1970
Satan and the Swastika, Mayflower 1976
Secret Rituals of the OTO, Neville Spearman
The Brotherhood, Granada 1984
Eccentric Lives and Peculiar Notions, Thames & Hudson 1984
Born in Blood: The Lost Secrets of Freemasonry, Century 1990
Illuminatus! (3 Vols), Sphere 1976
PERFECTIBILISTS: The 18th Century Bavarian Order of the Illuminati, by Terry Melanson
The Ascendancy of the Scientific Dictatorship, by Paul & Phillip Collins
Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism, by Abbe Barruel
Fire in the Minds of Men: Origins of the Revolutionary Faith, by James H. Billington
America's Secret Establishment: An Introduction to the Order of Skull & Bones, by Antony C. Sutton