Just the mention of ‘secret societies’ conjures up visions of men in robes offering sacrifices and conspiring in villainous, world-domination plots.
Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction, however. Join us as we delve into 10 notorious rites and rituals of the world’s most secretive clubs.
1. Secrets societies aren’t all about nocturnal rituals. Internet-based clubs started appearing in 2012 with the secret Cicada 3301 society, a group that recruits with internet-based puzzles placed online on 4Chan with clues dropped on Twitter. The challenges focus on cryptography, data security, steganography, and internet anonymity. Some speculate Cicada 3301 is a recruitment tool for US or UK intelligence agencies. Others believe it is an alternate reality game, or a group advocating for online privacy and freedom of information. There have been no attempts to monetize the society, although the thriller Dark Web adopted the concept.
2. The Knights Templar, a religious military order during the Crusades (founded in 1119 in Jerusalem), lived like monks and fought like medieval Green Berets. They were suited and booted in black or white robes bearing a red cross (pointy, lace-up shoes were forbidden as ‘pagan’ fashion). Their disciplinary code involved hundreds of rules with disobedience punished by flogging or an order to eat meals on the floor with dogs. While they were founded to protect Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land, they also operated a bank and some despised their wealth and influence. French King Philip IV accused the knights of having secret, homoerotic induction ceremonies and worshiping statues - trumped-up charges that led to their demise. Mexican drug cartel Los Caballeros Templarios models itself on the knights, mimicking their medieval approach to discipline and punishment.
3. The Order of the Skull and Bones founded in 1832 at Yale University is one of the most secretive student societies - more notorious even than Seven Society, The Flat Hat Club, or Bullingdon Club. Skull and Bones, with an HQ known as ‘The Tomb’, initiates 15 people a year (both George Bush and G.W. Bush were members) with fewer than 800 living members at any time. New York’s Observer, equipped with night-vision video equipment, recorded a shocking initiation rite in which new recruits were berated with sexual insults, forced to kneel and kiss a skull at the feet of initiators, and watched as other members acted out a throat-cutting ritual. Other reports cite ceremonies in which members dressed as the devil, a skeleton, and in robes to recite the club’s death mantra: The hangman equals death! The devil equals death! Death equals death! Initiates are told they must ‘die to the barbarian world’ and be reborn in the Elysian company of ‘The Order’.
4. Former US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia spent his final hours in 2016 in a Texas lodge that was hosting The International Order of St. Hubertus - an aristocratic society of hunters founded in Austria in the 1600s whose members are knighted on behalf of the King of Spain. The Grand Master is His Imperial Highness Istvan von Habsburg-Lothringen, Archduke of Austria, and the society’s motto is: ‘Honoring God by honoring his creatures’. US members dress in white tails before being knighted at Washington’s Immaculate Conception Catholic Church. Gentlemen are dubbed with a sword before donning forest-green capes with embroidered Maltese crosses. What does the cabal actually do? Weekend shoots (often game birds), posh dinners, and masked balls. You’ll need to discuss the more private parts of the agenda over brandy and cigars.
5. George Washington, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Mozart were Freemasons, the world’s oldest closed fraternity. Some scholars trace the Freemasons’ roots to the building of King Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem in 967 BC, with builders as the original stonemasons who knew the secrets of the temple. Lodges meet four times a year where the Worshipful Master welcomes new members. Architectural symbolism is incorporated in ceremonies, with The Supreme Being called the ‘Great Architect of the Universe’. Masons pass through three degrees of knowledge, called ‘entered apprentice, fellow craft, and master mason’. They wear lambskin aprons at ceremonies to symbolize purity. So is it just a secret club set up to help members get ahead in business and society? Masons prefer to discuss their charitable work, complaining they are tired of the discrimination.
6. While relatively new in the history of secret societies, the Bilderberg Group gathering of the global elite is believed to be the world’s most powerful secret society and has spawned many conspiracy theories. (US radio host Alex Jones claims Google launched the Arab Spring at one gathering.) The A-list of corporate America and Europe meet regularly, triggering conspiracy theories that the world’s wealthiest are bypassing governments to enrich themselves. Politicians are also invited - Britain’s Margaret Thatcher and Bill Clinton have attended. Goldman Sachs International chair José Manuel Barroso was on the guest list in 2019 along with former Bank of England governor Mark Carney. What did they discuss? Cyberthreats, China, Russia, the ethics of artificial intelligence and the weaponization of social media. And no... your invitation was not lost in the post.
7. Do you need ancient wisdom to improve your memory or enrich your spirit? Rosicrucianism may be able to assist. The spiritual and cultural movement, developed in Europe in the early 17th century, claims to have the key to a previously unknown order of the world built on ‘esoteric truths of the ancient past’. The doctrines offer insight into nature, the universe, and spirituality. Philosophers Robert Fludd and Thomas Vaughan showed interest, and Rosicrucians are believed to have influenced Freemasonry. Rosicrucian teachings are a combination of occultism and other practices including Hermeticism, Jewish mysticism, and Christian gnosticism. There are several branches, including the international Rosicrucian Order.
8. Ian Fleming’s Dr No was involved with the Tongs, a Chinese syndicate with tentacles stretching from Shanghai to New York, but were the Tongs fictional or real-life secret societies? A Tong, which means a hall or meeting place, generally refers to a group involved in nefarious activities like gambling or the opium trade. They originated in 17th-century China but spread to the US as Chinese immigrants needed protection against lawless members of society. As specialized Tongs evolved - societies of craftsmen or merchants - so too did criminal Tongs selling ‘protection’. From the 1880s-1930s, Tong wars erupted in San Francisco, Chicago, and New York as Tongs fought for territory to control the trade of opium, prostitution, people smuggling, and gambling. Tongs still exist as fraternal organizations, but Triads have primarily taken on the violent roles that Tongs occupied in the early 20th century.
9. The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was devoted to practicing the occult, metaphysics, and paranormal activities during the 19th and 20th centuries. It borrowed from occult traditions like Kabbalah, Tarot, astrology, and Enochian magic (magic practiced by angels) to create a magic system still in use today. The society was based on hierarchy and initiation similar to Masonic lodges. The first order involved learning esoteric philosophy and improving personal development through the study of astrology, tarot divination, and geomancy (one of the seven ‘forbidden’ arts in Renaissance magic). The second order taught magic, including astral travel, and the third order involved secret chiefs who direct the lower two orders by spirit communication.
10. Beyonce and Jay-Z are frequently depicted as Illuminati heads of the New World Order, but who were the real Illuminati? The mysterious secret society was founded in Bavaria in the 18th century by a professor who wanted to stop the church from interfering in public life. Adam Weishaupt pushed another form of illumination: ideas that could radically alter the way European countries were governed. His secret society was based on the Freemasons. One of the defining features of the society was that Illuminati members initially did not trust anyone over 30. Bavaria cracked down on the Illuminati and other secret societies in the 1700s but rumors persist that it has survived as an underground society. The symbols most associated with the Illuminati include triangles, pentagrams, goats, 666, and all the all-seeing Eye of Providence which appears on US $1 bank notes.
Unfortunately, the Order of the Phoenix, the League of Assassins, Tenet, The Spider Society and the Syndicate shadow government don’t exist (as far as SPYSCAPE knows), nor does Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Watcher, a secret organization of parapsychologists. As for Homer Simpson’s ancient society, the Stonecutters, well… anything’s possible.