There is something about secret societies that make us immensely distrust them and undeniably fascinated with them at the same time. Even if we have no interest in being a part of one, we can’t seem to shake off the inherent curiosity we have to get to know as much as we can about them. Many of us regard these covert organizations as an elite selection of individuals who have more than enough wealth, power, and influence to further their own self-interests to the detriment of the rest of the world. We view them as a faceless evil lurking in the shadows, dictating the ways of the world and quietly enslaving most of the human society through their cunning schemes and careful plotting.
This negative view on secret societies is largely founded on our natural wariness of anything shrouded with mystery and perpetuated by dozens of conspiracy theories about these organizations that have sprung up over the years. While we can’t say for certain whether or not some of these secret societies are guilty of surreptitiously trying to rule the world, we can confirm that hundreds of these groups have indeed been established across the globe to serve grand social, political and religious agendas. Some of these institutions date back to several centuries and even a thousand years. Many of them had long since been disbanded but a few of these old clandestine orders continue to exist today.
Here are five of the oldest secret societies you may or may not know about.
Probably the most well-known and most infamous secret society on this list, the Illuminati historically refers to the Bavarian Illuminati, a secret society of freethinkers formed during the era of Enlightenment in the late 18th century. It was founded by Adam Weishaupt on May 1, 1776, and its objectives were to oppose the deliberate restriction of knowledge dissemination of that time; to decrease the influence of superstition and religion over public matters, and to stand against those who abuse state power. Though they were not legally permitted to form an organization, a large number of intellectuals and politicians was a part of this secret group, with some freemasons even joining the fray. Internal dissent and the government’s effort to expose the group and disband it completely led to the Illuminati’s collapse before the end of the 18th century.
While the original Bavarian Illuminati is long gone, several fraternal organizations that exist today claim to have descended from the original members of the 18th-century Illuminati and openly use the name for their own organizations. Conspiracy theorists, however, insist that the real Illuminati organization was not completely quashed and that its members for the past few centuries have orchestrated a variety of historical events to control global society and to establish a “New World Order” governed by atheist and humanist principles. Some have even gone so far as to say that the Illuminati are also Satan worshippers who are furtively plotting to bring the Antichrist into power.
2. The Freemasonry
The Freemasonry is a “not-so-secret” secret society whose presence is still widely felt worldwide today ever since the First Grand Masonic Lodge was founded in London back in 1717. While the existence of Freemasonry is public knowledge for the past few centuries, the group has managed to maintain its exclusivity and has kept most of its practices and activities under wraps. They refer to god as “The Great Architect of the Universe,” and they are known to use various architectural symbols. They strictly observe a ritualized style in conducting their meetings, and it is said that Masons are taught secret signs and handshakes that will help them identify fellow Masons.
The challenges of being a part of the Masonry does not end with a confirmed membership to the group. The organization observes a gradual and graded membership system. Initially, the Masonry only had two membership levels – the first and the second degree. However, in the 1750s, a third degree was introduced – a move which was met with outrage and led to the group’s split at the time. Today, the three degrees of Masonry are the Entered Apprentice, the Fellow Craft, and the Master Mason. Being an Entered Apprentice equates to a basic membership to the organization. A Fellow Craft is required to pursue furthering his knowledge of masonry. Finally, achieving the degree of a Master Mason means being able to be a part of various Masonic activities.
3. The Rosicrucian Order
Said to have been founded by Christian Rosenkreuz back in the early 15th century, this secret society is regarded as one of the oldest ones ever formed. The order’s official symbol is a rose on a cross, and initially, the organization was just a very small circle of doctors who are also sworn bachelors. Each member of this secret society took a vow to always tend to the sick, maintain the strength of the secret fellowship, and to select a suitable disciple to replace him in the event of death.
The Rosicrucians ultimate objective as a group is the “universal reformation of mankind,” and to them, this meant turning to occultism as well as other religious beliefs and practices. Members of this secret society essentially believed that they possessed secret knowledge that have been passed on to them from the “esoteric truths of the ancient past” about “nature, the physical universe and the spiritual realm.”
The secret Rosicrucian Order reached the peak of its glory during the 17th century with the publication of the group’s three manifestos. All of Europe was fascinated with the revelation of the existence of a covert brotherhood of sages and alchemists who were dedicated to transforming the political and intellectual landscape of the continent through the arts, sciences and religion. There are even rumors that this secret society was the hidden force operating behind every major war or revolution that occurred for the last several centuries.
4. The Hashashin
Also known as the Nizari Ismailis, the Hashashin was an enigmatic order composed of Muslim assassins that operated during the medieval period in the Middle East. This secret organization was formed by Shia Muslims who separated from a larger sect and decided to form a coalition in the late 11th century in hopes of building a utopian Shi’ite state. The Nizari did not have a large army so the group had to resort to various tactics like psychological warfare and orchestrating assassinations to accomplish their goals and defeat their enemies. While the term “assassins” refers to the medieval Nizari sect as a whole, those who actually complete the assassination missions are referred to as the “fida’i.” By using these warriors, they managed to eliminate many of the sect’s enemies, including caliphs, sultans as well as the leaders of the Crusaders of that period.
The Hashashin met its downfall at the hands of the Mongol Empire in the late 13th century, permanently losing their political power and influence as an organized sect. With the destruction of the Nizari, the remaining members of the fida’i class found a means to survive using their skillset by operating as contract killers. It is said that they charged a fixed rate for their services and were employed as mercenaries by various rulers. Records about the Nizari Ismailis has been lost or destroyed so much of what we know about them today is labeled by experts as more legend and myth than real facts.
5. The Brethren of Purity
The oldest and the most mysterious secret society on this list, the Brethren of Purity was formed around the 8th or 10th century by Muslim philosophers in Barsa, which is located in modern-day Iraq. Not much is known about this organization’s structure as well as the identities of its members in the past. However, they may have been followers of Shiism – a branch of the Islam religion which holds on to the belief that the prophet Muhammad had selected Ali ibn Abi Talib to succeed his position.
The Brethren of Purity followed a hierarchy with four levels: the “Craftsmen,” the Political Leaders,” the “Kings,” and the highest is the rank of “Prophets and Philosophers.” Members of the Brethren had also compiled a massive compendium titled the “Epistles of the Brethren of Purity,” which contains the organization’s esoteric teachings and philosophy on fifty-two treatises, including theology, natural sciences, mathematics and psychology.
The Brethren also strictly observed their rituals and traditions, especially on how their meetings are scheduled and how they are conducted. For example, they regularly held meetings for three evenings every month. The first meeting is set in the beginning of the month during which speeches were given. The second meeting is scheduled in the middle of the month, and it is allotted for topics about astronomy and astrology. And the third meeting is around the end of the month during which members of the order would recite hymns rich in philosophical wisdom. They also held feasts and lectures.
It cannot be said for certain whether the Brethren of Purity has completely been disbanded or if a branch of this secret society remains active to this day. At present, a large number of Muslim and Western scholars have made it their mission to identify the members of the Brethren of Purity and establish the period or century in which they were most active.
The five organizations we have just enumerated are just a few examples of dozens of mysterious secret societies that have been formed for the last thousand years. Most of these old elite orders have long been abolished or exposed, and those that remain until today no longer conduct most of their business in the shadows.
But can we say with absolute certainty that secret societies like the original Illuminati and the Hashashin no longer exist today? It’s hard to be that confident. And even if they’re really gone for good, many contemporary elitist groups and mysterious organizations have already taken their place. They might go by different names now, but their objectives are perhaps not so different from those that came before. Maybe these faceless entities are still trying to change the world but the manner in which they try to do so has already changed as well.