Clandestine meetings, secret handshakes, strange rituals and members who wield phenomenal powers are all hallmarks of the secret societies in the mind of the populace. There are countless movies on the subject, and even more websites explaining how, even today, seemingly normal events in our lives are actually manipulations carefully masterminded by such societies. Here’s ten of history’s most infamous secret societies.
10) The Bacchanalians
One of the earliest types of ‘secret society’ was that of the mystery cult, found in classical Rome. The secretive nature of these cults, the antithesis to Rome’s official religions, tended to worry the authorities. Once such cult, the Bacchanalians, worshiped Bacchus, the god of wine (also known as Dionysus). Only those initiated into the cult were permitted to know the cult’s rites and activities, so many of the details have been lost to history. We do know, however, that they believed in re-affirming the primal parts of humanity, and that celebratory rites involved wild parties. According to Livy, the Bacchanalians were censured in 186BCE, as it was believed that their rites fostered civil unrest, criminal activity, and worst of all, mixing of social classes. This censuring introduced legislation that attempted to control the size, structure, leadership and activities of the group- on pain of death. However, the cult persisted well into the Imperial era of Rome.
The Tiandihui, or the Heaven and Earth society, reportedly came into being during the 1760s, during the reign of the Kangxi Emperor. Secret societies had been outlawed a century earlier, by the Qing Dynasty, due to worries that they were hotbeds of insurrectionist activity. In the case of the Tiandihui, they were right: one of their goals was the removal of the new Qing dynasty and the restoration of the Ming Dynasty. After the 1911 overthrow of the Qing dynasty, members of Tiandihui, called Hongmen, diverged mainly into regional groups, some of which became involved in crime. Because of some splinter groups’ involvement in criminal activities, it is illegal to be a part of the Tiandihui in Hong Kong, though it has become a politically active party in both Taiwan and on mainland China.
8) Molly Maguires
Originating in eighteenth century Ireland, the Molly Maguires made the move to Pennsylvania in the nineteenth century. This secret society had an agenda, focused against the mining companies that dominated the economy, and paid workers a pittance to toil in dangerous conditions that saw hundreds of deaths and serious injuries a year. The Philadelphia & Reading Railroad hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency to investigate the society plaguing their mines. Under the pseudonym ‘McKenna’, James McPharlane infiltrated a chapter of the Mollies that was, according to his book, existing secretly within the Ancient Order of Hibernians, a legitimate organization. He was accepted into the society, and learned its secret passwords and gestures. His testimony, beginning in 1870, resulted in trials that saw twenty men sentenced to death, and if the Mollies’ American contingent persisted after this, it has not been recorded.
7) The Grand Firmament
In the late 1700s, the fires of revolution were actively being stoked in many European countries, much to governmental chagrin. And, in the dawn of the eighteen-hundreds, statesmen began to worry (and revolutionaries to hope) about the Grand Firmament, a rumored overarching committee that linked the German, French and Italian revolutionary movements into a single, coherently planned uprising, headquartered in either Paris or Geneva. But, the closest historians have found to its existence is the partnership of Gioachhino Prati, Carl Follen and Wilhelm Snell, which started attempting to link French, German and Italian revolutionaries in 1816. They were aided by Filippo Buonarroti, who tried to strengthen their group by drawing in other secret societies. However, there’s no proof that they succeeded, and the group parted ways in the 1820s.
Located in Sicily, the Carbonari (which translates to ‘coal burners’) took a place of prominence in the violent unrest following Napolean’s downfall. The order had existed since at least 1806, but its origins remain shrouded by history. They, like the Freemasons, formed small, highly independent cells that were scattered about the land. Like others on the list, the Carbonari had both patriotic zeal and the desire to see it liberated from foreign control and influence. The Carbonari helped organize the 1820-21 uprisings, and fought in the insurrection that forced King Ferdinand I to shift towards a constitutional monarchy. But in 1821, Pope Pius officially condemned the Carbonari, excommunicating all of its members. Their importance waned starting in 1830, when members marching on Rome were decimated by the Austrian army, and then further weakened by the development of the more popular Young Italy movement.
5) Skull and Bones
Founded in 1832, Yale University’s Skull and Bones chooses fifteen seniors every year, gifted, wealthy or powerful, to join their society. In a building called ‘the Tomb’, these initiates are groomed to join the world’s elite. According to Alexandra Robbins, who wrote Secrets of the Tomb, a tell-all about the society, the Skull and Bones’ main purpose is to get as many members into positions of power as possible. Something that, according to Business Insider’s list of alumni, they’ve more than succeeded at: they list William Taft, John Kerry, George Bush Jr (as well as his father and grandfather) as notable members.
4) The Knights Templar
One of two knightly orders to be founded during the first crusade, the Knights Templar, have captured public imagination for centuries. As a knightly order, they rose rapidly in prominence after the 1120s, not only for their martial skill but also as financiers (though, there were rumors that their headquarters also housed the treasure of Solomon). However, being politically and financially powerful held its own dangers, and on October 13th, 1307, King Philip of France issued an arrest warrant for the Knights Templar. Accused of heresy, idolatry and homosexuality, Pope Clement also arranged a formal investigation into the order. On November 27th, a bull was issued, authorizing the arrest of the Templars throughout Christendom. The executions started May 12, 1310, and the Templar’s last grandmaster was executed in 1314.
But what happened after this? Did the Templars, as the conspiracy theorists think, go underground, surviving up into the present as a secret, treasure-guarding society? the most persistent rumors involve the Freemasons, and Mason John Hamill, director of the United Grand Lodge of England, lays them to rest: the Masons commemorate the Templars, and see them as having certain Masonic principles, but have no direct connection to them. Other groups have sprung up in the last two hundred or so years, but, as far as we know, they merely pay homage to the extinct order.
3) The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn
During the spiritualist craze of the Victorian Era, one particular occult society takes the crown. The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was reportedly founded when Dr. William Westcott obtained part of an ancient-looking manuscript in 1887. When translated, it contained fragments of the rituals of the ‘Golden Dawn’. Expanding upon them, Dr. Westcott left the Rosicrucians (another occult society), and opened the first English chapter of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn alongside Samuel Liddell and MacGregor Mathers. With a hierarchy based upon the Kabbalah’s tree of life and Freemason-inspired rituals members practiced magic, from geomancy to astrology, and sought to commune with the Secret Chiefs, supremely powerful supernatural entities. During it’s heyday, the Golden Dawn claimed William Butler Yeats and Aleister Crowley as members. However, it was rife with personality clashes and splintering, and by the 1930s, it had largely been forgotten, with the longest lasting chapter being New Zealand’s Smaragdum Thallasses Temple, which closed in 1978. A modern order has been founded in the United States, claiming initiatory descent from the original Order through its founder, and it is more concerned with the preservation of the knowledge of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, rather than secrecy.
2) The Freemasons
In 1717, the Masonic Grand Lodge of London was founded, and since then, the Freemasons have become one of the wold’s best known secret societies. Originally, members went from apprentice to journeyman to master, and thanks to expensive membership fees, most of their members came from the upper classes, lending the society an air of respectability. Nonetheless, the Catholic Church condemned Freemasonry in 1738, but this did nothing to curtail the society’s popularity. As it grew in popularity throughout Europe and in the New World, freemasonry dedicated itself to “making good men better” through education, charitable work, as well as providing members with a sort of social club. They follow and believe in a moral system “veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols”. Today, Freemasons eschew the notion that they are a secret society, with the Grand Lodge of Canada’s website explaining that “‘private’ is a more appropriate description than ‘secret and as with many organizations, certain information is reserved for members only”.
1) The Illuminati
Formed in 1776 by Adam Weishapt, a professor of Canon Law at Ingolstadt University, the Illuminati went through several names (including the Order of the Bees), before settling on the name that has since become synonymous with ‘secret society’. The order’s final goal- of which only high ranking members were aware- was to attract prominent citizens to them, and through them establish a moral regime that would push society back to a state of equality and liberty. One method they employed, which was not always successful, was seizing control of local Masonic lodges and thus their members. And things looked to be going well, up until the mid 1780s, with princes and intellectuals rumored to be among their ranks. But the society was outlawed in 1785, and the Illuminati became a cautionary tale of the threat that the Enlightenment posed to social order. But that hasn’t stopped people from holding onto the idea of the Illuminati: modern conspiracy theorists claim everyone from Beyoncé to the Pope as members of the Illuminati, working towards world domination (which is a far cry from the society’s original lofty goals of freedom and equality).