Movies and books like Dan Brown's, The Lost Symbol and Angels and Demons have kept the theory of secret societies at the forefront of everyone's minds in recent years. Even without the Hollywood embellishments of secret societies, the very concept of a small group of unknown citizens with great power boggles the minds and stirs the imagination. We have visions of men sitting in a dimly lit room filled with nothing more than stone benches and a large stone fireplace. But that's all just a figment of our imaginations... Right? Maybe.
The real secret societies which inspire the fiction have existed for centuries. They range in number of members, and meeting locations vary between groups, but they each have one thing in common: exclusivity. Secret societies around the world are not your average club. One cannot just walk into a meeting, for several reasons. Chances are you wouldn't know where the society's meetings were held.
If you did find the location of the meeting you would never make it past the front door, considering most secret societies have many secret knocks and handshakes to keep strangers out. And if you lucked out with your secret handshake, you would be one of the first to actually view not only the members of these secret societies, but also the contents of the very exclusive society meeting.
5 The Knights of the Golden Circle
The mid-nineteenth century in the United States was a time of bloodshed and upheaval. Anti-slavery movements were becoming wide spread. In 1854, motivated by a desire to preserve the slave trade, a doctor by the name of George W.L. Bickley brought together five gentlemen in Lexington, Kentucky.
The group's original intent was to create a force to colonize the northern part of Mexico, in order to facilitate the slave trade. However, the Civil War began shortly after in 1861 and refocused the society's interest.
With the new goal in mind of supporting the new Confederate government, the Knights of the Golden Circle began actively recruiting members. The group - or castle, as the Knights called their divisions - began grow. The society was involved in an attack on a Federal arsenal in San Antonio, Texas. They were also part of an attack on a pro-Union newspaper, the Alamo Express, that was burned down.
Over the next year, the society spread to Kentucky, parts of Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, and Missouri. When the Civil War ended, the Knights of the Golden Circle became even more secretive. They group went underground, resurfacing only occasionally, but still working behind the scenes. According to some theories, the society aimed to revolt against the U.S Federal Government.
Not much is known about the modern day Illuminati, and the mystery and ambiguity surrounding the purported group make it endlessly intriguing. However, the origins of the Illuminati are well known. The radical group was founded in 1776 by Adam Weishaupt. Its foundations in Bavaria earned it the name the Bavarian Illuminati, although its members preferred to be called "Perfectibilists".
Unlike other societies, the Illuminati had no legalized power, but did contain a large membership base of intellectuals and politicians. The Bavarian Illuminati were humanists without a belief in a higher power. The Bavarian government attempted to outlaw the secret society, due to its mysterious ways as well as its desire to oppose abuses of state power.
Theories about the Illuminati's influence on governments and countries dates back to the late 1700's when the group was accused by religious critics of beginning the French Revolution. They have also been credited with the Battle of Waterloo and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
The modern day Illuminati is a controversial topic. Most believe that the secret society was entirely wiped out before the 1800s and failed to expand into other countries. However, there are several conspiracy theorists who believe the Illuminati are still in existence and are working behind the scenes of international institutions and governments. There is even a small but vocal group of people who believe celebrities such as Jay-Z are part of the Illuminati, though there is no evidence to support their claim.
3 Skulls and Bones
A society has certainly established a level of prestige and allure when a former President of the United States has been a member. William Howard Taft, the 27th President, was a member of the Skulls and Bones. He was a shoe in for the society considering his father, Alphonso Taft, was a co-founder of the Skull and Bones society.
Two other men who were once members of the Skull and Bone went on to be President: George H.W. Bush and his son George W. Bush. Clearly this secret society has many ties to very powerful positions.
It's not surprising that so many well known men have walked the halls of the Skull and Bones Hall, which is more often referred to as the "Tomb", considering it has been a well known fixture within Yale University since 1832. Though the society was known to exist in the University, it remained dramatically exclusive. Every spring, Skull and Bones members selected new members from the student body. The tradition, which began in 1897, was known as "Tap Day". Those that were "tapped" were considered to be campus leaders and notable, influential figures.
Indeed, the majority of those who were a part of the Skull and Bones became major leaders in their field. Leaders who, when in power, looked to younger generations of Skull and Bones members to join them. For example, when George W. Bush was President, he tapped five Bonesmen for his administration. Shortly thereafter, Senator John Kerry, a former member of the Skull and Bones, was nominated as the Democratic presidential candidate.
The mystery that surrounds the Skull and Bones comes mainly from the members' refusal to discuss anything that goes on within "The Tomb". Each member carries the society's secrets while advancing the careers and power of the classes that follow behind, creating a powerful and extremely prestigious veil of secrecy.
2 The Knights Templar
Though all secret societies have some form of a purpose, the Knight Templar's mission was more military in nature. The first Crusaders took Jerusalem in 1096. After that, European pilgrims began coming into the city. But the trip was a dangerous one and so, over two decades later, the Knights Templar was created to protect those traveling to the Holy Land.
The Knights Templar was so important that even the Vatican exempted the group from all laws except the Pope's. With the new found privileges, membership of the Knights Templar began to grow and the group's power began to stretch. Their training was extraordinary, and they became known for victories against opposing armies.
Even the group's non-military ventures grow in size. The society began to see huge gains in money as well as power among Europe's wealthiest people. According to popular belief, and a few passages that have been passed down for centuries, the Knights Templar were once in possession of the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail.
But the society's power did not last any longer than Muslims could be kept from recapturing Jerusalem in 1187. The Knights Templar dwindled and in 1307, Philip IV of France turned against the society. He pressured Pope Clement into breaking up the society and took their wealth. Remaining members were arrested, tortured, and burned alive.
The original and longest-lasting secret society, the Freemasons began in the 1700s in Europe as a guild for stonemasons. It wasn't until 1717 in London that the first grand lodge was created, and the official fraternity of the Freemasons was born.
Since its beginning, the Freemason society has been home to some of the most important men in history. George Washington, Ben Franklin, Winston Churchill, Mozart, Franklin Roosevelt, Gerald Ford, Henry Ford, John Wayne, and Davy Crockett have all held membership within the fraternity.
From the list of people who have held positions within the Freemasons, it's pretty obvious that admission to the society is difficult. Becoming a Mason generally requires a recommendation from at least one current Mason. In some cases it requires a person to be recommended three times before they can be admitted to the society. Once a candidate is admitted he must enter his first meeting blindfolded, because according to an article by CBS News, "Masonry is all about moving from darkness into Masonic light."
Once a person is accepted into the Masonry they are in the first degree of Masonry. They move to the second degree, Fellow Craft, as they develop further knowledge of Masonry. The third degree, the Master Mason, is required for participating in most Masonic activities and means that the individual is fully knowledgeable about Masonry.
Masons are notorious for their secret handshakes and symbols. The compass and the square are both well known Freemason symbols. Meetings are conducted around an altar and tend to be formal in nature. Handshakes and codes vary between Masonic groups. While most who join the Freemasons are simply well known community members, there are members of various religions that frown upon the Freemasons. Roman Catholic Church members are not permitted to be members of the Freemasons and would be excommunicated from the church if they did attempt to join.