"The history of the world is the history of the warfare between secret societies."
-Ishmael Reed, Mumbo-Jumbo (opening quote of The Illuminatus! Trilogy, 1975)
Above: "Novus Ordo Seclorum", Latin for "New World Order". Look familiar?
I can by no means claim to be qualified to write a "complete" history of secret societies, but I don't think anyone in their right mind really can. The whole point of a "secret" society is to keep it secret, right? It's right there in the name.
Secret societies dwell in a self-induced cloud of mystery, often deliberately feeding the public disinformation about themselves just for the sake of chaos. No one can say for sure if the Illuminati still exists or if Freemasons are really Satanists, as any sort of information on the topic is subject to too much speculation, confusion, and and heresy.
What I CAN tell you, though, is that secret societies are a subject that fascinates me, and one that I've read up on quite a bit (I recently decided to take another swing at The Illuminatus! Trilogy). I CAN tell you that the more you learn about these mysterious sects, the less you know, and any scholar who spends decades researching this subject is still at the tip of the iceberg. My knowledge on secret societies is literally a grain of sand on a vast beach, but I thought I'd share a little of what I've learned, as a primer for the uninitiated and an object of scorn for those more knowledgable. In reality, I can't confirm or deny much of what follows, but I CAN tell you this: secret societies have had a large part in the development of our civilization. They are among us, and they are POWERFUL beyond our understanding.
Above: Hassan-I Sabbah, leader of the Hashshashin, an ancient order of assassins.
The origins of the secret society are near impossible to trace, due to passage of time and the nature of the subject. Ancient Egypt would be the best place to start, as practices and symbolism from modern secret societies in many ways harken back to those of the Egyptian pantheon. Education in ancient Egypt was often accompanied by mystic initiations and and secret rites, but due to the sack and destruction of the Library of Alexandria (sometime between 48 AD and 642 AD, depending on who you ask), information on Egyptian society and customs is impossible to verify.
Probably the first well-documented case of a secret society is that of Hassan-I Sabbah, a Persian missionary born in 1034 who formed a society of assassins called the Hashshashin (the word "assassin" is actually a corruption of their name). Conquering an area known as Alamut in northern Iran, Sabbah established a kingdom based on assymetrical warfare, basically the idea of destroying your opponents through brains instead of brawn. Well educated in astronomy, mathematics, and alchemy, Sabbah was a follower of Ismailism, and the Hashshashin were extremists of the faith. It is also rumoured that the Hashshashin were dopesmokers, and the word "hashish" is derived from the name as well.
A popular (but apocryphal) story about Sabbah went something like this:
To gain new recruits for the Hashshashin, Sabbah would hold audience with them in his quarters. A hole was dug in the ground and one of his follwers placed in it, so that only their head remained above ground. A halved platter was placed under the follower's head, and fresh blood was added, to give the impression that they had been beheaded. In view of prospective recruits, Sabbah would command the "severed" head to speak, and when it did, his divinity was confirmed. To add to the realism, he would behead the follower afterward, and put the head on display.
Sabbah's society flourished in the Middle East until long after his death, one of the first examples of a secret society with cryptic aims and rituals.
And now, a complete digression to a different time, place, and astral plane. Another man essential to the understanding of many secret societies (well, not MAN so much as demigod) is Hermes Trismegistus (left). H.T. was a composite god, modeled after the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian god Thoth (below, right). Both cultures realized the significant similarities between the two (both were gods of writing and magic to their cultures in addition to being 'psychopomps', or guides to the realm of the dead), and H.T. was the outcome. In addition, the Greek Hermes was a god of interpretive communication, while Thoth was the Egyptian god of astrology and alchemy. Hence, Trismegistus ruled a triumvirate of studies, namely alchemy, astrology, and theurgy.
The reason that Hermes Trismegistus is so important to the study of secret societies is that several of the most well-known societies adhere to the field attributed to him, namely "Hermeticism". The Order of the Golden Dawn (later, simply "The Golden Dawn") and Rusicrucianism are based in Hermeticism, and mystics such as Aleister Crowley and Paracelsus were well-known as Hermeticists. Hermeticism, and its focus on magic, potions, astrology, and symbolism, was the perfect precursor for the secret society, an exclusive realm of "higher learnings" only taught to the privileged.
Below: Hermes Trismegistus, Trippy Dude.
All of which brings us in no way, shape, or form to the strange tale of Johann Adam Weishaupt and the Bavarian Illuminati. Weishaupt was born in 1748, raised Roman Catholic (specifically, Jesuit, who at the time were themselves an outcast Jesus-cult), and went on to completely abandon the ideas of his church and state, opting instead to form his own belief system and society, the quasi-Masonic Order of Illuminati. The Order of Illuminati (the name refers to illumination, "the acceptance of the light") were dedicated to the abandonment of government and organized religion, instead depending on nature and gnosticism to form the fabled "New World Order". Sounds hippy-dippy right? Well, the irony is that the Illuminati came to be known as an ultra-Right Wing organization, furthering its nefarious agenda through a lattice of spies and counter-spies in a bid to take over the world.
Weishaupt, in a delicious bit of conspiracy-buff trivia, adopted Hassan-I Sabbah's motto "Nothing is true: everything is permitted" as his own, and part of the Illuminati fascination is that after 225 years, no one really knows what they were (or ARE) about. Romanticized by Hollywood in movies like "The DaVinci Code", "Angels And Demons" (both based on semi-decent novels by Dan Brown), and even "Tomb Raider", the Illuminati has managed to remain anonymous even in the public eye, and depending on who you talk to, they either run the governments of every country in the world or don't even exist at all.
A particularly saucy conspiracy theory: Weishaupt's similarity in appearance to George Washington has been noted on more than one occasion, and some have speculated that he (Weishaupt) came to the New World, assassinated our first President, and assumed his identity. Is that the head of the Bavarian Illuminati on our one-dollar bill? Hmmmm....
Below: It's all true!
-A COUPLE IMPORTANT SECRET SOCIETIES:
-The Knights Templar, Europe, early 1100's- early 1300's
The Templars, also known as The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, were identifiable by their boring crest (left) and superb fighting skills (a large percentage of English knights were part of the Order during the Crusades). The Knights Templar were somewhat of a Christian version of the Hashshishan, a military order backed by the wealthy and the Roman Catholic church in medieval Europe. Mostly active during the Crusades, the Order crumbled when the Holy Land was lost, and due to their secret ceremonies and suspicious ways, were cast out by King Philip in 1312. As a result, many of the Knights Templar were beheaded and/or burnt at the stake, but myth and legend has kept rumors of their continued existence alive to this day.
-The Rosicrucians, origins in Germany, early 1600's-internationally active in several forms at present.
The Rosicrucians are an "enlightened" secret society whose belief system is "built on esoteric truths of the ancient past", which, "concealed from the average man, provide insight into nature, the physical universe and the spiritual realm." (from a Rosicrucian manifesto). As I mentioned before, Rosicrucianism is based on the concepts of Hermeticism, heavy on philosophy, Sufism, and Zoroastrianism. Beliefs of the Middle East are heavily borrowed upon, and part of Rosicrucianism's appeal is it's broad cultural structure. No less than 30 (documented) sub-groups have sprung up from their belief system (the most recent in 2002), making The Rosy Cross one of the largest and best-known "secret" societies.
Below: The College of the Rose Cross, Teophilus Schweighardt Constantiens, 1618. Pretty much explains it, right?
-The Freemasons, International, origins unclear, late 1600's-VERY active at present.
The Freemasons are BY FAR the best known secret society, a fraternal order with over 5 million members (2 million in the U.S. ALONE). Chances are you are acquainted with a Freemason, whether you know it or not. The Masons have been somehow involved with the creation of almost ALL other secret societies in one way or another, in the U.S. and abroad. The basic idea behind the society is faith in "A Supreme Being", though whether that supreme being is God or Satan (or something else) is definitely open for debate. Louis Armstrong, Abbott (from Abbott & Costello), Gene Autry, Augustin I (emperor of Mexico), and Buzz Aldrin are all confirmed Masons, and that's just a tiny cross-section of the "A's". Seriously.
The Freemasons are EVERYWHERE, they hold TONS of power, and they are SCARY. Shriners, too.
Above and below: many architectural and civil engineering designs in the Washington, D.C. area hint heavily at the influence of the Masonic "Triple Tau".
Other weird secret societies deserving your attention:
-The Bilderberg Group, a shadowy international organization consisting of many of the wealthiest people in the world.
-Skull And Bones, a super-secretive Yale University club that both George W. Bush and John Kerry were members of.
-Click here for the story of a group of Wall Street businessmen (including George Bush's grandfather Prescott), unnamed society-wise, who put together an army of 500,000 men in a 1934 attempt to overthrow the U.S. government.
-The Club of Rome, an international think tank who have aroused suspicion due to their cryptic nature.
-The Carbonari, a mysterious group of liberal, working class Italians who plotted to overthrow their government.
-IMMANENTIZING THE ESCHATON: "SPOOFING" THE SOCIETIES, 1975-PRESENT
Above: Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson's Illuminatus! Trilogy, the first literary Whack at the secret society Pinata.
A major break in the "Illuminatus" case came via the most unlikely source, an LSD-heavy trilogy of books released in 1975. Concerning talking dolphins, lots of kinky sex, a giant gold submarine, and the "immanentization of the Eschaton" (read as: the end of the world via secret society), these books were a frantic stab at uncovering a secret world, brilliant as fuck and insane in every way. As I mentioned earlier, I'm currently re-reading this series, so I won't gush at length about them, as I'm planning a huge "Illuminatus" post in the future.
What I will say: Both authors are now DEAD. So they must have been on to something.
Another schizophrenic attempt at deciphering the odd world of religion and secret societies is The Boomer Bible (left), compiled by R.F. Laird and released in 1991. Basically a re-telling of the Old and New Testament (presented as the Past and Present Testaments) through the eyes of coke-addled 1980's punk rockers, the book is every bit as detailed and creepy as the actual Bible, albeit substituting Philadelphia for the Holy Land. Cult as fuck and totally rad, fans of mindfuck literary weirdness can get the Boomer Bible here.
Probably the most interesting modern take on the world of secret societies is The Church of the Subgenius, a psychedelic collective of artists and musicians whose uniquely American take on the underground is expressed through vandalism, sacred geometries, mysticism, and drug use. Ever-present deity Bob Dobbs (above), with his telltale pipe and perfectly-coiffed hair, is the picture of 1950's "nuclear-family" idealism, making the Church all that much more creepy and disturbing.
Below: A simple explanation of the Subgenius mind-set (hint: "Slack" is key).
The Subgenius borrows heavily from just about every secret society within arm's reach, from the eye-in-the-pyramid dominant in Freemasonry to the tentacled Cthulhu-worship of ancient Sumeria. Mark Mothersbaugh (from Devo) is a major proponent of the Church of the Subgenius, which, in itself, should give you some idea how important it is. View a full version of the Subgenius Manifesto here.
Right: Dobbs is EVERYWHERE.
Below: The many faces of "Bob".
Epilogue: I suffered a series of migraine headaches while writing this post, along with a strange internet outage during the Rosicrucian section. Coincedence????