The ‘cloak and daggers’ nature of secret societies make them an endlessly intriguing – but persistently elusive – topic in the media. These Secret societies are usually clubs or organizations whose inner workings are highly classified, accessibly only to the elite members who generally have to go through considerable hazing. Of course, depending on the nature of the society and the tact of its members, they conceal their secrets with varying degrees of success. Secret societies are usually marked by the desire to conceal the group from the general public, a lack of clarity on membership figures and finances, involvement in the exchange of off-the-record information and clandestine rituals between members which reinforce a kinship and solidarity. Historically and anthropologically, secret societies were generally brotherhoods, encouraging traditional ‘male bonding’ and networking.
The covert nature of secret societies has inspired several novels and movies depicting the societies as ominous, even sinister – ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ and ‘Skulls’ are two memorable examples. Many of these societies are generally believed to be formed with a certain religious or political agenda, and this combine with the inherent mystery of such groups has meant they’ve been the subject of innumerable conspiracy theories. In reality , of course, these groups may well be a lot more innocuous but reliable information that’s filtered through on some of the known groups seems to indicate that in some cases the truth is stranger than fiction.
Over the centuries, secret societies have appeared and disappeared – but some have managed to stay, thanks to the many legends associated with them. We have a list of the top five oldest and most high-profile conspiracy-laden secret societies throughout history.
5. Rosicrucian Order – 1607
The brainchild of a group of German Protestants, the Rosicrucian (Rose-Cross) Order is believed to have emerged in the early 1600s after the publication of at least two critical documents, namely Fama Fraternitatis Rosae Crucis – or ‘The Fame of the Brotherhood of RC’ – and Confessio Fraternitatis, or the Confession of the Brotherhood. The first document narrates the life of a mysterious alchemist who travelled to different parts of the world gathering secret knowledge. The second document tells of a secret brotherhood of alchemists prepared to change the political and religious face of Europe. When pamphlets began to circulate around Europe in the 17th century, there was a distinct buzz about this group of alchemists who would transform the artistic and scientific and cultural landscape of the time.
While shrouded in mystery to this day, allusions to the brotherhood in literature from the time imply the movement was based on the search for knowledge through experimentation, but it’s unclear whether the group intended to partake in literal alchemical experimentation or more of a epistemological alchemy. It’s said that Rosicrucianism contributed to the emergence of Freemasonry in later years and today, there are several Rosicrucian groups that claim to be direct descendants of the original order.
Famous Members: Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin, Walt Disney
4. Freemasons – 1717
While this high-profile society could hardly be called ‘secret’, the group are known to be exclusive – with a gradual, graded system of entry – and their practices are still shrouded in secrecy. In 1717, four small groups of lodges were joined together to create the Grand Masonic Lodge: Initially, members could either be first degree or second degree freemasons but a third degree was introduced in the 1750s causing the group to split. The three degrees of masonry are Entered Apprentice, which qualifies one as a basic member of the organization, Fellow Craft – which requires one to further his knowledge about masonry – and Master Mason, the standard a member has to meet to partake in Masonic activities. The Freemasons’ regular meetings are conducted in a ritualized style that revolves around an array of signs and symbols. Member are said to use secret hand gestures to identify themselves to each other. In this way, the group manages to restrict admission to only those people who are deemed ‘worthy’ by the group. Masons have stylized attires based on the clothing worn by stonemasons in the middle ages.
The society requires one to be of sound mind, at least 18 years old and recommended by three existing masons, in order to join as a member. The Freemasons refer to god as ‘The Great Architect of the Universe’ and many religions reject Masonic practices. Indeed, the Roman Catholic Church actually forbids Catholics to join the society under pain of excommunication.
Famous Members: Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, Henry Ford
3. Illuminati – 1776
Illuminati was originally the name given to followers of an intellectual movement during the era ub Europe, in the late 17th and 18th Century. It was originally founded as a secret society founded on the ideals of empiricism, opposing notions of superstition and religion. Founded in Ingolstadt in Upper Bavaria by Jesuit Adam Weishaupt on May 1776, members of the Illuminati often referred to themselves as Perfectibilists. Initially, the society was outlawed but several progressive politicians and influential intellectuals joined the ranks and the Illuminati gained traction throughout Europe; the modern day incarnation of the Illuminati groups are often discussed but remain elusive. The Illuminati are atheistic, and most of its members would also identify with humanist ideals. One conspiracy theory of many attached this secret society is that the Illuminati plans to overthrow organized religion.
While the majority believe that the Illuminati’s failure to find a new leader and the government’s attempts to ban the group eventually led to its collapse in the late 1700s, conspiracy theorists maintained that the Illuminati survived into the 19th century and some hold that the organization still exists today. Celebrities and powerful figureheads are often alleged to be part of the modern day Illuminati but in reality there’s very little evidence to support the popular conspiracy theory that the Illuminati manipulates world events and the media and is striving to form a One World Government based on atheist and humanist principles.
(ALLEGED!) Famous Members: Beyonce, Rhianna, Nicki Minaj, Michael Jackson, Bono…!
2. Skull and Bones – 1832
The Order of Skull and Bones was originally known as the Brotherhood of Death and it holds the title of the oldest student secret society in the United States. Founded in 1832 for senior undergraduate students at the Ivy League Yale university, this society is open to a few elite members only. To this day, it makes use of Masonic rituals when the members meet on Thursdays and Sundays of each week in a building that they call the ‘Tomb’. According to Yale University’s chief archivist Judy Schiff, the names of the members used to be commonly known before the 1970s but their rituals were always kept secret. There are a number of conspiracy theories that surround Skull and Bones, one of which is that the CIA recruits directly from this group. In 2007 however, the CIA released a statement denying any association with the secret society.
Famous Members: John Kerry, George H W Bush, George W Bush
1. The Bilderberg Group – 1954
This secret organization is slightly different from the others since it has no official membership. The Bilderberg Group is a name given to a circle of highly influential people who meet each year in privacy, with strong government sponsorship and military security, to discuss issues remain entirely mysterious to the outside world. Attendance at these world-class conferences is strictly by invitation only. The first of such meetings, initiated by Polish political advisor Joseph Retinger, took place at Hotel Bilderberg in the Netherlands in 1954. He was worried about increasing anti-American sentiment in Western Europe and suggested an international conference take place between leaders from the United States and several European countries in order to work towards a solution.
While the agenda of the get together and a list of participants is made available to the public, what exactly happens on the inside of these meetings remains unclear to the world, especially since the press is prohibited from entering the congregation. Not only is the content of the meetings kept secret, the attendees are forbidden, under oath, to divulge any details. Needless to say, the group’s fixation on privacy has led to much controversy and a number of conspiracy theories.
Famous Attendees: Bill Clinton, Gordon Brown, Bill Gates and officials from the World Bank