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Engraving of a Freemason initiation

5 secret societies with intriguing origins and rituals

From a fabled brotherhood of medieval knights to the Victorian organisation dedicated to occult metaphysics, here’s a rundown of the most fascinating secret societies ever to exist.

Image: Engraving of a Freemason initiation | Public Domain

1. The Knights Templar

A feared, revered, much-mythologised fighting force, the order of the Knights Templar was formed in 1119 with the express purpose of protecting Christian pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land. Deriving their name from their headquarters on the former site of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, the Templars grew in wealth and influence, becoming major power players in the medieval world and even establishing what is regarded as the first international banking system.

Yet, despite the might of the organisation, the brother knights were expected to live humble lives, strictly regulated by a code of conduct known as the Latin Rule.

This governed the smallest details of a Templar’s life, openly stating that a good knight should ‘secretly despise their own will’ and embrace an existence of absolute obedience. Taking a vow of chastity and adopting a largely vegetarian diet was only the tip of the iceberg – some of the more peculiar rules included swearing off shoelaces (which were designated ‘pagan’), asking for permission before adjusting their stirrups, and even being forced to eat off the floor, among the dogs, as punishment for misbehaviour.

2. Freemasons

Freemasonry is perhaps the world’s most famous secret society, with members grouped in lodges all over the world. The exact origins of this fraternal organisation are lost in time, though it’s widely believed modern Freemasonry evolved from guilds of actual, practising stonemasons who built castles and cathedrals in the Middle Ages.

Freemason lore takes things further, with an allegorical origin story centred around Hiram Abiff, chief architect of Solomon’s Temple, who according to legend was murdered after refusing to divulge the master mason’s secrets.

Today, ‘Master Mason’ is the highest of the three main degrees of Freemasonry, with the second-highest being ‘Fellow Craft’ and the first degree being ‘Entered Apprentice’. During the highly esoteric initiation, a new freemason is presented among his peers blindfolded, with a noose around their neck, a trouser leg rolled up, and their left breast exposed.

Every aspect of this ritual has deeper significance – the blindfold represents darkness before receiving knowledge, the noose signifies the bondage of ignorance, the rolled-up trouser leg demonstrates the initiate is free and unshackled, while exposing the breast is meant to prove the initiate isn’t a woman (though some women-only lodges do exist).

3. Skull and Bones

Founded in 1832 at Yale University – one of the most prestigious centres of learning in the US – Skull and Bones is a secret student society that has attracted numerous conspiracy theories over the decades. The fascination is partly because of the sinister symbolism of its name and the fact that members meet in an ominous dwelling known as the ‘Tomb’.

Then there’s the tantalising fact that its alumni include a who’s who of the most powerful figures in American history, including countless politicians, judges, CIA agents, titans of industry, and US presidents. Indeed, both candidates who ran for presidency in 2004 – John Kerry and George W. Bush – were Bonesmen. It’s also alleged that, back in 1918, Bush’s grandfather Prescott Bush dug up the remains of legendary Apache leader Geronimo to keep as a trophy in the Skull and Bones Tomb.

It’s well known that only 15 new members are selected, or ‘tapped’, annually on what’s known as ‘Tap Day’. All other rituals relating to Skull and Bones remain a closely guarded secret.

4. The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn

Boasting one of the most intriguing names of any secret society, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was formed in 1887 by three English occultists: William Robert Woodman, Samuel Liddell Mathers and William Wynn Westcott. They were all Freemasons and took inspiration from the hierarchical, degree-based Masonic structure for their organisation. However, a notable difference was that women were able to join Golden Dawn.

They also developed their own esoteric initiation rites, with members donning elaborate tunics and striped headdresses in the style of Egyptian pharaohs. One member, the eminent theatre patron Annie Horniman, was even chained to a cross in a kind of symbolic crucifixion during her initiation.

The ideology of this secret society was drawn from astrology, alchemy, and a mystic tradition known as Hermetic Qabalah. The society came to include many eminent figures, including the infamous occultist Aleister Crowley, the great Irish poet WB Yeats, and Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

5. Le Cercle

Unlike the other secret societies on this list, there’s nothing esoteric or spiritual about Le Cercle. Established in the early 1950s by French prime minister Antoine Pinay and French intelligence agent Jean Violet, it was an avowedly anti-Communist organisation during the Cold War, seeking to influence public opinion through its connections with think tanks and other institutions.

Today, Le Cercle remains intensely secretive, making it almost impossible to speculate on its true agendas. We do know that many of the world’s most influential figures have attended meetings over the decades, including former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher, former chairman of the US Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan, and Gulf War commander Norman Schwarzkopf.

More recently, notable Conservative Party figures Nadhim Zahawi and Rory Stewart have served as chair of Le Cercle, a fact that’s stirred up some controversy given how little is known about the organisation. The chances are they don’t don strange robes or enact any mystical rituals, but you’ll have to become a member to find out for sure.