No matter what their supposed purpose, there’s something inherently sinister about a secret society. Though most are formed with relatively realistic political and religious goals in mind, their focus on mystery and secrecy has made them the target of countless criticisms and conspiracy theories involving everything from aliens and the occult to world domination. Of course, the reality is usually much more innocuous, but that doesn’t mean that the groups don’t have some fascinatingly weird practices, or that they haven’t had an impact on world events.
With this in mind, the following are ten of the most famous and influential secret societies in history.
10. Ordo Templi Orientis
Ordo Templi Orientis is a mystic organization that was started in the early twentieth century. The group was established along the same lines as the less secretive Freemasons, and supposedly relies on ritual and occult practices as a means for members to move from one level of prestige to another within the organization. The general philosophy of the group was a belief in new age esoteric principles and practices as a method of realizing one’s true identity. Famed occultist and all-around eccentric Aleister Crowley composed much of the group’s lore, including a manifesto called the Mysteria Mystica Maxima, and he later became its head. After his death, the influence and popularity of Ordo Templi Orientis began to wane, but it still exists today and has various chapters scattered across the world, chiefly in the United States, the U.K., and other parts of Europe.
As Aleister Crowley’s popularity as a new age figure has continued to grow, more and more of the teachings of the Ordo Templi Orientis have come to light. As such, the group makes much less of an attempt to be secretive today than it did in the past. This doesn’t mean that they don’t still have some bizarre practices. Chief among these is the group’s fixation on the sexual, especially their teachings on the “adoration of the phallus” and the magic of masturbation.
9. The Bilderberg Group
No members, but attendees have included Ben Bernanke, the royal families of Spain and the Netherlands, World Bank officials, and representatives from major corporations
The Bilderberg Group is not a secret society per se, but it does operate under a similar veil of mystery, which has made it the subject of countless conspiracy theories and criticisms. The group was started in 1954, and since then it has convened every year as an exclusive, invitation-only conference of various world leaders, captains of industry, and media moguls. The group was originally started as a means of addressing a streak of anti-Americanism that was spreading through Europe following WWII, but over the years it appears to have morphed into a more broad discussion on reaching mutual understanding between cultures.
The Bilderberg Group has become controversial for one key reason: no press is allowed in the conference and no significant details concerning the topics discussed are ever officially released to the public. That kind of secrecy, along with the intense security of the meeting sites, which often feature armed guards, police, and even fighter jets patrolling the skies overhead, has produced a number of conspiracy theories centered on the conference. The most popular is that the group tries to steer the direction of public policy, financial markets, and media in certain prescribed directions of their choosing, perhaps even with the goal of forming a so-called “one world government.” These claims have been brushed aside by the group, which claims global understanding and the end of nuclear proliferation as its main goals.
8. Hashshashin– The Order of Assassins
None of note
The Hashshashin, or Nizari, were a mysterious band of Muslim assassins that operated in the Middle East during the 13th century. The group was made up of Shia Muslims who broke off from a bigger sect and banded together in order to establish a utopian Shi’ite state. Because their number was small, the group used guerilla tactics in their battle against their enemies, including espionage, sabotage, and, most famously, political assassination. The Hashshashin would plant highly trained moles inside enemy strongholds, with instructions to only attack when the time was right. They were known for their extreme discretion in minimizing civilian casualties, as well as their penchant for using stealth to intimidate their targets. As the story goes, enemy leaders would often wake in the morning to find a Hashshashin dagger lying on their pillow, along with a note saying “you are in our grip.” Their legend soon grew, and before the Mongols finally destroyed the group, they became well known contract killers, supposedly performing jobs for the likes of King Richard the Lionheart.
Around the time of their downfall, the library that contained all Nizari records was destroyed, so much of what is known about them today has taken on the status of myth. The most controversial legend centers of the group’s use of drugs and other intoxicants– “Hashshashin” translates roughly as “Hashish user”–which some have said were employed by the members in battle. This has been widely discredited, but the term “Hashshashin” as it refers to the Nizari is believed to be the origin of the modern word “assassin.”
7. The Black Hand
Gavrilo Princip (rumored)
The Black Hand was a secret society of anti-imperialist political revolutionaries that was started in Serbia in 1912. It formed as an offshoot from Narodna Adbrona, a group that sought to unite all of the Slavic people of Europe under one country. This required the separation of Serbia from the monarchy of Austria-Hungary, which had annexed the country some years before. With this in mind, the group began disseminating anti-Austrian propaganda and training saboteurs and assassins to disrupt political rule within the province. Their plan was to incite a war between Serbia and Austria, which would give them a chance to free their country and unite the different Slavic nations as one.
Black Hand would be all but forgotten today if not for their unlikely involvement in one of the biggest events of the twentieth century. In 1914, the group engineered the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The job was badly botched, and was only completed when a low-level hood named Gavrilo Princip stumbled upon the Archduke’s car and shot him to death at close range (see photo). Still, the results of the assassination were catastrophic. Within days, Austria-Hungary had declared war on Serbia, and after the allies of both countries joined the fray, the small dispute managed to escalate into WWI. The aftermath of WWI eventually led to WWII, and this led to the Cold War, which makes the Black Hand one of the most strangely influential forces of the twentieth century.
6. The Knights of the Golden Circle
John Wilkes Booth, Jesse James (above), Franklin Pierce (all rumored)
The Knights of the Golden Circle was a secret society that flourished in the U.S. during the American Civil War. In the beginning, the group sought to encourage the annexation of Mexico and the West Indies, which they believed would help the waning slave trade to once again flourish. But once the Civil War started, the group switched its focus from colonialism to fervent support of the newly established Confederate government. The Knights soon had thousands of followers, many of whom formed guerilla armies and began raiding Union strongholds in the West. In the Northern states, the mysterious order had an even bigger impact. Many newspapers and public figures engaged in witch-hunts where they accused supposed Southern sympathizers, including President Franklin Pierce, of being members of the Knights of the Golden Circle.
Unlike most secret societies, the Golden Circle didn’t just concern itself with clandestine meetings and mysterious plans. Instead, the group often formed renegade armies and bands of bushwhackers in order to forward their agenda by force. In 1860, a group of the Knights made a failed attempt to invade Mexico. During the war, they robbed stagecoaches and attempted a blockade of the harbor in San Francisco, and a group of them even managed to briefly take control of southern New Mexico.
5. The Thule Society
Rudolf Hess, Arthur Rosenberg, Adolf Hitler (rumored)
Lots of secret organizations are suspected of having malevolent ulterior motives, but the Thule Society is one of the few where such suspicions have been proven. The group was unofficially started in Germany just after the end of WWI. It began as a kind of German heritage group that dabbled in the occult, but it quickly transformed into an organization that sought to forward the ideology of the Aryan race, and it took an outwardly racist approach toward Jews and other minorities. The group soon boasted over a thousand members, and even had its own propaganda newspaper. In 1919, members of the Thule Society formed a political organization called the German Workers’ Party. A young Adolf Hitler became a member, and eventually took over the party, which would later become known as the National Socialist German Workers’, or Nazi, party.
Even before the Thule Society became a vehicle for Nazism, the members were involved in some pretty bizarre activities. The strangest was the group’s fascination with the Aryan race, whose origins they tried to trace back to the mythical land of Thule, which the Greeks had claimed was found north of Europe near Iceland and Greenland.
4. The Sons of Liberty
Paul Revere, John and Samuel Adams, John Hancock
The Sons of Liberty is the name for a loosely organized group of dissidents that existed in America prior to the Revolutionary War. The group did not exist as a secret society in the traditional sense; rather, it was made up of smaller factions of patriots from across the colonies that united in support of a common goal. When they did meet, it was usually in Boston around an elm tree that has since become known as the Liberty Tree. It was here that the group would formulate their resistance, which included the dissemination of pamphlets and even some sabotage and terrorist activity. This behavior led to the British branding the Sons of Liberty as seditious, and they were often referred to pejoratively as “The Sons of Violence.” The group is most notable today for sowing the seeds of revolution among the colonists with their protest of the Stamp Act, and for coining the now famous phrase “no taxation without representation.”
The Sons of Liberty in Boston were the most famous arm of the group, but there were factions spread out all across the 13 colonies. One group in Rhode Island looted and burned the British trade ship Gaspee in protest of unfair trade practices, while others were known to tar and feather British loyalists. Still, the most famous event engineered by the Sons remains the Boston Tea Party in 1773, when members of the group dressed as Indians and dumped shiploads of overtaxed tea into Boston Harbor.
3. Skull and Bones
George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, John Kerry
Ivy League Colleges are known for their many secret societies and student organizations, and of these Yale’s Skull and Bones is probably the most famous. The society taps new students for membership every spring, and the only real prerequisite for membership is that the initiate be a campus leader. As such, athletes, members of the student council, and fraternity presidents are often considered. Skull and Bones counts among its membership U.S. Presidents, Senators, and Supreme Court Justices, which has lead many to argue that the group works as some kind of underground organization for the high-powered political elite. There is no denying that the club is well funded: an alumni organization called the Russell Trust Association bankrolls its activities, and the group supposedly owns an island in upstate New York.
Skull and Bones’ membership is no longer kept secret, but their practices still are. The order meets twice a week, but just what goes on at their meetings has never been revealed. To the disappointment of conspiracy theorists, what rumors have come out are relatively innocuous. The group has supposedly taken part in a number of pranks, and was once even sued by chairman of the Apache tribe, who claimed the Bonesmen were in possession of the skeleton of Geronimo. Beyond this, the group is known for allegedly forcing new members to relate their sexual history to the rest of the society, and for giving out nicknames to each initiate. In a widely reported rumor, President George H.W. Bush was supposedly known as “Magog,” a name given to the Bonesman with the most sexual experience.
2. The Illuminati
Goethe, Ferdinand of Brunswick, many others rumored
In popular culture and the realm of wild and weird conspiracy theories, no secret organization has become as well known as the Illuminati, who have made frequent appearances in books, movies, and television. The group as it is popularly understood is more or less a myth, but the legend of it dates back to a real organization that existed in Germany in the late 1700s. At the time, the members of the group presented themselves as an order of enlightened free thinkers. The press soon turned against them, and they came to be regarded by many as an underground force of dissidents intent on overthrowing the government, and they were even blamed for inciting the French Revolution. The group disbanded shortly thereafter, but their influence remained strong, and for years after their dissolution they were rumored to still be operating somewhere in the shadows.
Thanks to its constant presence in popular culture, the Illuminati have continued to be feared to this day. Modern conspiracy theorists have asserted that the group survived and now operates as a sinister shadow government, directing world industry and politics as it sees fit. The Bush family, Winston Churchill, and President Barack Obama have all been named as prominent members, but no legitimate evidence of such a group has ever been uncovered. Still, the rumor lives on as one of the most popular, albeit bizarre, of all conspiracy theories.
1. The Freemasons
Winston Churchill, Mark Twain, James Buchanan, Bob Dole, Henry Ford, Ben Franklin
Although they are less influential and secretive today than they once were, the Freemasons remain one of the most famous fraternal organizations in the world, with a membership somewhere in the neighborhood of 5 million. The group was officially founded in 1717, but documents relating to its existence date back to the 1300s. It was originally created to be a brotherhood whose members share certain key philosophical ideas, among them a belief in a supreme being. The group stresses moral uprightness, and as such many of the chapters have become known for their charitable work and community service. Despite these seemingly harmless practices, the Freemasons are not without their critics. Conspiracy theorists have long targeted them for supposedly being involved in nefarious occult practices, and there have even been whole political groups based around opposition to the group. Churches of all denominations have also criticized the organization, as its moral teachings and esoteric spiritual beliefs have been said to be in competition with more traditional religion.
The Stonecutters, a secret society featured on the Simpsons is based on the Freemasons.
With its huge membership and different lodges scattered across the globe, modern Freemasonry no longer has the same universal principles as it did in the old days. One practice that has remained constant is the method for induction. Initiates must be recommended to the group by someone who is already a Mason, and once a member they must pass through three different degrees of standing before reaching the level of “Master Mason.” Members also have certain prescribed modes of greeting one another, including handshakes, gestures, and passwords, and non-masons are always banned from attending meetings.