10 Strange Secret Societies That You’ve Probably Never Heard Of
By Debra Kelly, Urban Ghosts Media, 26 August 2015.
By Debra Kelly, Urban Ghosts Media, 26 August 2015.
Today, the term ‘secret society’ seems somewhat ironic. Arguably the most famous one - the Freemasons - really isn’t all that secret. The group’s esoteric rites and rituals might be steeped in mysticism and symbolism, but much has been written about the group that appears in the public domain. The Priory of Sion, meanwhile, has been well and truly debunked.
Many people have heard of the Illuminati, of Skull and Bones and of the Rosicrucians. Secret societies, it seems, are something of a household name. But what about the clandestine groups that were, in fact, more secret? The ones that nobody remembers any more; the ones that thrived - and died - in the shadows? We did some digging, and found traces of some fascinating organisations.
1. The Great Enlightened Society of Oculists
Image: 18th century; two pages from the mystical Copiale cipher.
In 2012, Wired documented the journey to crack a mysterious coded text dated from the 18th century. The arcane manuscript, known as the Copiale cipher, had foiled all previous attempts to translate it, and it was only when a determined linguist teamed up with a computer programmer who specialized in machine translation that they were able to decode it.
What they found were the long-lost rituals of a group known as the Great Enlightened Society of Oculists. In the mid 18th century, the esoteric organisation appeared to be made up of ophthalmologists who were performing ground-breaking work in the field of eyesight. They were experimenting with the likes of eye surgeries and cataract removals. At least, that’s how they presented themselves to the public, or even to church and state.
The Great Enlightened Society of Oculists also used the eye as a symbol of knowledge; they seemed to be experts in the eye and gatekeepers to the knowledge that lay beyond it. And while much of the text, even when translated, is still full of code and double-speak, experts were able to make educated guesses as to what was going on behind closed doors.
Intriguingly, the arcane document spoke of a “general revolt,” suggesting a distinctively subversive element to the society. There were multiple references to Freemasonry, along with the suggestion that it had been founded by Oculists as a joke. One theory posited holds that the Copiale cipher may actually be a masonic text coded in a way that concealed the organisation’s activities at a time when secret societies were heavily persecuted.
References to a “light hand,” which appear in both the Copiale cipher and the by-laws of the Great Enlightened Society of Oculists, suggest the delicate touch of an eye surgeon, but may also conceal a more esoteric meaning. The text also mentions the mystical Jewish Cabala, while imagery such as the common motif of a cat lurking behind a mouse may suggest the Oculists were spies of some sort.
Little was known of the Great Enlightened Society of Oculists until the arcane cipher was decoded. And there’s much we still don’t know, and likely never will. What we can say is that the secret society was once led by a man named Friedrich August von Veltheim, who died in 1775, at a time when it was fashionable to belong to secret societies. His Oculist papers were sealed and only discovered again in 1918, but they were largely ignored until now.
2. The Carbonari
Image: Ec.Domnowall; Drapeau des Carbonari.
Active in early 19th century Italy, the Carbonari was an arcane political society whose origins and goals remain somewhat elusive. We know they promoted liberal thinking, and were operating against the ruling political parties installed after the 1815 fall of Napoleon. The underground stream is thought by some to have laid the groundwork for Italian unification, but beyond that, their motives remain shadowy.
How the organisation developed or proliferated remains a mystery. Some theories hold that it came to the area from France, or that it was originally an offshoot of the Freemasons. The Carbonari’s goals were far from singular - different members campaigned for varying forms of unified governments, though all considered themselves patriots.
Members were mostly drawn from the upper class; they were landowners and nobles, for the most part, until their esoteric endeavours gained some measure of popularity and their views trickled down to the middle classes. Lodges originated in southern Italy, complete with a complicated series of symbols, initiations, and a distinct hierarchy.
Their name simply meant ‘charcoal-burners’, and many of their words were taken directly from that profession. The meetings rooms of their lodges, for example, were called ‘vendita’, or a place for selling coal. Like other secret societies, the esoteric group was comprises masters and apprentices, and welcomed everyone regardless of their religious affiliation.
The Carbonari was at the shadowy forefront of the Neapolitan revolution of 1820, which forced the king to grant the people a constitution. Austria intervened, though, and gradually, (especially with the establishment of the Young Italy movement) the Carbonari became increasingly ineffective until finally disappearing altogether.
3. The Knights of the Apocalypse
Image: Viktor M. Vasnetsov; depiction of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
In true secret society form, there isn’t a whole lot out there on the Knights of the Apocalypse - but what we do know is thoroughly compelling. The arcane group was established in Italy in 1693 by Augustine Gabrino, the son of a merchant. The purpose of the society was supposedly to protect the Catholic Church against the Antichrist, and it would seem that Gabrino took his duty rather seriously.
In the same year the secret society was founded, Gabrino was at the heart of two strange outbursts in the church. In the first, he rushed into the church of St. Peter’s in Rome, charging up to the altar and into the cloisters, brandishing a sword. He was said to have done the same thing in a church in San Salvatore, but after the second bizarre outburst, he was committed to an insane asylum.
Prior to his removal from mainstream society, Gabrino had labelled himself the Monarch of the Holy Trinity, and, strangely, had hoped to introduce the idea of polygamy to the church. He laid some optimistic ground rules for his members, citing that they were only allowed to marry virgins.
It’s said that the Knights of the Apocalypse continued without its founder, and its members - who were mostly tradesmen - could be identified by their badge. They wore a star with seven rays and a tail (representing St. John) and were instructed to always be armed with a sword.
The esoteric collective finally fell when one of its members, a woodcutter, turned another over to the Inquisition. Eighty knights were arrested and charged with trying to lead a rebellion against the papacy. Despite its aim of protecting the Catholic Church, it would seem that the Knights of the Apocalypse, and indeed its detained members, didn’t survive much longer.
4. Order of Chaeronea
Image: Wikipedia; George Cecil Ives, founder of the Order of Chaeronea.
George Cecil Ives certainly wasn’t the first person to identify as homosexual, but he was one of the first to speak out in favour of acceptance. It was the 1890s, though, and that time was a long way away. In 1892, Ives met Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas the following year, who in turn introduced him to a number of Oxford poets. Ives encouraged them both to join what he called the “Cause,” which was a fostering of understanding and acceptance in the gay community.
Because he knew that the society of the day would never go for such a thing, Ives founded the Order of Chaeronea, a secret society named for the battle of Chaeronea of 338 BC. It was the battle in which the Sacred Band of Thebes, made up entirely of men who were friends and lovers, were annihilated by the forces of Philip of Macedonia.
The Order of Chaeronea was officially founded in 1897, the date upon which all arcane materials and correspondence produced by members would be based. For instance, the year 1899 would be written as C2237. Perhaps not surprisingly, the secret society also had an elaborate system of passwords, codes and initiation rites. A strict code of conduct was also observed - which wasn’t, in the end, about sex or sexuality.
Ives envisioned a group where those that would be ostracized by mainstream society were free to be themselves. The Order’s official statement included the idea that “all real love shall be to you as sanctuary.” At its height, the Order of Chaeronea is thought to have had several hundred members. No official list survives, but it’s suspected that Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas were both early proponents of the Cause. Though the society was male dominated, women were able to join too.
Image: Ukabia; an Ekpe headdress.
Ekpe was one of the most powerful of the secret societies of Nigeria (others being ekpo, ekong, isong and idiong). Some of the earliest information available on the esoteric group dates back to around 1785, when a diary was translated into English by the Rev. Dr. Wilkie. The translation was taken to the Church of Scotland, only to be destroyed during World War Two. As a result, only secondary sources outlining the society’s existence survive.
High-ranking members of the ekpe were said to have played a vital role in keeping the peace between warring tribes and settling disputes between organizations and individuals. When Nigeria fell under colonial rule, the role previously filled by the secret society became the jurisdiction of the area’s colonial governors, and the group went underground.
The president of the society was called the eyamba, signifying the highest level of the organisation’s 12 tiers. The position was held for life, and brought with it a level of authority and respect that bestowed its holder with significant power. Eyamba coordinated everything that went on within the ekpe - which was supposedly named after a mysterious jungle spirit - meaning that his influence extended beyond his own actions.
Every township had a building that acted as an ekpe headquarters, and locals would be assigned to act as agents. Part of an ekpe ritual was said to involve the flogging of slaves, and those put in charge of enforcement of ekpe policies and rules supposedly had everything - from arson and vandalism to murder - at their disposal. It doesn't sound particularly discrete, but the ekpe was said to regulate trade, commerce and wealth, and ruled absolute - from the underground. In fact, the group is still around today, albeit mostly in ceremonial form.
6. Society of Horseman’s Word
Image: Julian Tysoe; a shire horse in England.
The Society of the Horseman’s Word was one of the many rural crafting and tradesmen associations that thrived in England and Scotland through the 19th century. The fraternal organisation was open to anyone between the ages of 16 and 30 whose occupation involved the care of horses, which were for a long time considered to be mystical animals. Admittance into the arcane order meant that you were trusted with the secret word that was said to give a man complete control not only of horses, but of women as well.
Whispering the secret word, which varied by location and was in some cases said to be “Both in One,” could command the attention of even the most unruly horse, and was also said to be able to make a man stop in his tracks. The Horseman’s Word symbolized the belief that in order to truly work with horses, there needed to be a true connection between man and beast, with both working together and in partnership.
The initiation into the esoteric collective always took place between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m., and involved a novice being brought to a barn for a secret ceremony that involved an oath, a loaf of bread, a candle, and a bottle of whisky.
The abilities of the men of the society were legendary, and records tell of those like a Cambridgeshire man named George, who was said to be able to calm any horse with a single word. When George’s smithy was accused of stealing money, the farmer suddenly found that his horse wouldn’t move. For an entire day, the horse simply stood until George released it. With a charm, he said.
The Society of the Horseman’s Word makes an appearance in Terry Pratchett’s works, too - though his word is quite different. Jason Ogg, the Lancre blacksmith, is said to be able to turn the most hot-headed stallion into a docile beast, and he confesses to Granny Weatherwax that it’s all done with the words, “Cross me, you bugger, and I’ll have thy goolies on t’anvil, thou knows I can.”
Sometimes, a secret society can change an entire nation. The Katipunan was founded on July 7, 1892 with the singular goal of freeing the Philippines from Spanish rule. It was led by Andres Bonafacio, a warehouse clerk from a poor family, and recruitment from the working and middle classes was incredibly fast.
In addition to freeing their country - by armed fighting - the Katipunan also had a strict moral code and felt it was their duty to help the poor and oppressed. New recruits were asked three questions: What was the condition of the Philippines in early times? What is the condition today? What will be the condition in the future? If he answered the questions correctly (with the idea that Spain had done no good, but that the country would be free again), he would be asked to sign his name in his own blood and complete his initiation into the underground order.
Initially every new adherent was asked to recruit two additional members, who didn’t know each other, in a bid to keep their identities secret. Eventually, membership grew to the point where it became acceptable simply to recruit as many people as possible, and the structure of the society developed to include legislative and judicial bodies.
On August 23, 1896, Spanish overlords discovered the secret organisation, and Bonifacio tore up his colonial identification card and declared a beginning to the revolution that would lead to the freedom of the Philippines.
8. The Ancient Noble Order of the Gormogons
The Ancient Noble Order of the Gormogons is a strange one, and we really have little idea why the secret society was formed or what its purpose was - although it’s possible that its sole reason for existence was to make fun of the Freemasons.
The Gormogons were formed by ex-Mason and Jacobite politician Philip Wharton, 1st Duke of Wharton, who left behind no written documents as to his purpose in creating the mysterious group. Only a handful of articles about the society have been found, and it seems as though Wharton had a major beef with the Freemasons.
According to a 1724 article in London’s Daily Post, the Ancient Noble Order of the Gormogons really was - as indeed its name suggested - a bonafide ancient order. The group had, supposedly, been established by Chin-Qua Ky-Po thousands of years before Adam appeared in the Garden of Eden. Apparently, the organisation and its tenets had come to Britain via a mysterious man from the Far East, and the article unequivocally that no Masons were to be accepted into its ranks until they had renounced their masonic allegiance. The article also proclaimed that the mysterious man was heading for Rome next, and that the cardinals and upper echelons of the Catholic Church would soon be Gormogons.
A couple more articles talked of Philip Wharton burning his Masonic paraphernalia in order to be admitted into the Ancient Noble Order of the Gormogons, but no further references were to be found in British newspapers after his death on May 31, 1731. Other than Wharton and the poet John Dennis - whose involvement with the secret society was thought to be a hoax - no further members are named.
However, there is some intriguing evidence that the Gormogons weren’t simply a society dreamed up by one bitter ex-Mason who wanted to give the figurative middle finger to the fraternal group that had kicked him out. The British Museum has a medal that they believe is one of the only remaining Ancient Noble Order of the Gormogons artefacts around, minted around 1799. So, is there another, real, story behind the secret society? We have no idea.
9. Calves’-Head Club
Image: Gerard van Honthorst; portrait of King Charles I.
Members of the Calves’-Head Club were supporters of the man they called “the Royal Martyr King Charles I.” According to records, they met every January 30 (the anniversary of his beheading), at different houses every year. The ceremonial meal was always the same - a couple of calves’ heads.
One of the heads would have a pike in its mouth, supposedly to symbolize tyranny. The other had a cod, representing the king and those that had died in his support. After the meal, a selection of hymns and anthems were sung, and members swore an oath on a copy of Milton’s Defensio Populi. After the oath, a calf’s skull was filled with wine, and the toast offered around.
Another version of the feast featured a cod to represent Charles, a pike for tyranny, a boar’s head to represent the king’s predatory actions toward his people, and calves’ heads as the king and his minions. The toast was said to go something like: “To those worthy patriots who killed the tyrant.”
Arcane meetings of the Calves’-Head Club were reported to have continued until 1734, when riots broke out and targeted those participating in the ritual dinner.
10. Brethren of Purity
Image: The Yorck Project
“Brethren of Purity” is the translation given to a Muslim secret society known as Ikhwân al-Safâ’. Apart from the fact that the group was responsible for one of the most complete encyclopaedias of scientific knowledge of the Medieval era, we know surprisingly little about them. Their works include a group of 52 treatises spanning natural sciences, psycho-rational texts, metaphysical texts and introductory texts. They’ve been dated to sometimes around the 10th or 11th centuries.
The identities of the Brethren of Purity have been the subject of considerable study, but nevertheless remain shadowy. We don’t even know how many members the esoteric group had. Their writings suggest that the Brethren met three times a month; the first meeting would be a time for speaking, the second an examination of astronomy and astrology, while the third meeting would focus on philosophy.
Four groups comprised the Brethren of Purity, referred to as “Craftsmen,” “Political Leader,” “King” and “Prophets and Philosophers.” Ranks were based on age - Craftsmen are understood to have been under 15-years-old. Prophets, meanwhile, were over 50.
Collectively, they referred to themselves as “sleepers in the cave,” acknowledging the more arcane element of their existence. The Brethren wrote that they needed to meet in secret in order to protect their knowledge - viewed as a divine gift - from the world. Like other secret societies, it’s likely that their teachings would go against the established norms of the day, and that secrecy was a critical component of their own safety.
Their texts span many subjects, from geometry and music to the essence of nature, the mystical properties of love, and a belief in the divine. Perhaps most intriguing of all was their definition of the perfect man: he is one who has the faith of the Arabic, the education of the Babylonian, the astuteness of the Hebrew, the conduct of the Christian, the piousness of a Syrian monk, the scientific knowledge of a Greek, the ability of an Indian to interpret mysteries, and the spiritual, mystic outlook of a Sufi.
Top image: A drawing of the Secret Society Buildings New Haven by Miss Alice Heighes Donlevy (1846-1929). Credit: Miss Alice Donlevy/Wikimedia Commons.
[Source: Urban Ghosts Media. Edited.]