Secret Societies: The Hidden History of Power

Come spesso succede, le pagine di storia si scrivono in segreto e gli sviluppi sociali si raggiungono grazie a persone che restano nell’ombra. Ripassiamo alcune delle più importanti organizzazioni segrete, alcune di esse ancora attive, che hanno operato nel Regno Unito.

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Rachel Roberts

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Secret societies are often formed in order to obtain power and influence for their members. This power may be political, or, in some cases,  more esoteric. You may be surprised to learn that many of these secret groups originated in the UK.


The most famous secret society in the world is the Freemasons. They have approximately six million all-male members worldwide, occupying powerful positions in society.

The Freemasons originated in Scotland in the 15th or 16th century from the local fraternities of stonemasons. Their meeting place is called a ‘lodge’. The oldest is the Lodge of Edinburgh, which dates back to 1598. Today, the largest single lodge is the United Grand Lodge of England in London, established in 1775. 

Initiation to the three ‘degrees’ of membership involves secret ceremonies, where the candidate is entrusted with passwords, signs and grips (secret handshakes) specific to the rank. The Freemasons themselves describe Freemasonry as a “beautiful system of morality … illustrated by symbols derived from the traditional tools of stonemasons with a moral lesson attached to each one.” Their ceremonies are said to provide “opportunities for personal development”. What this personal development consists of remains a mystery. Famous alleged members include Benjamin Franklin and Winston Churchill.

The Hermetic Order of the Golden DAWN

A historical secret society that no longer exists but that has proved influential at the time is the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. This society – which has nothing to do with the far-right Golden Dawn Party in Greece – dealt with the occult. In fact, the word “hermetic” referred to ancient Greek mystical texts written by Hermes Trismegistus. Britain-based, Golden Dawn was, like the Freemasons, hierarchical and admission to each level included initiation ceremonies. A key difference, however, was that women were admitted on an equal basis with men.

The order started in 1887. It didn’t last long into the 20th century, but served as a school for adults wanting to learn about alchemy, metaphysics and the paranormal. It attracted many famous members, including W. B. Yeats, Arthur Conan Doyle and the occultist Aleister Crowley.

Born into a religious family, Crowley’s own mother nicknamed him ‘the Beast’. Some biographers claim that he spied for British Intelligence during his time as a student at Cambridge University, so he was certainly a shady character.

While in Egypt, Crowley claimed to have been contacted by a supernatural entity who instructed him to write the principles of an esoteric religion in what came to be his Book of Law. Crowley eventually left the Golden Dawn and co-founded another esoteric order, the A:A:, which, according to some sources, still exists.

The Order of Chaeronea

The 19th-century English poet and writer George Cecil Ives founded the Order of Chaeronea in 1893. He had begun to research topics such as theories of crime and punishment, transvestism and the psychology of homosexuality while studying at Cambridge. A homosexual himself, Ives was convinced that homosexuals would never be accepted openly in society. The Order of Chaeronea was meant to provide them with a safe means of underground communication.

The order was named after the town in ancient Greece where an elite corps of 150 pairs of male lovers called the Theban Band died in battle in 338 BC. Members evolved an elaborate system of ceremonies, seals and secret passwords. The prerequisites of membership were ‘zeal, learning and discipline.’
Oscar Wilde is believed to have been a member and the organisation reportedly grew into a worldwide one. It gradually died out as homosexuality became less taboo.

Cicada 3301

No one can claim that Cicada 3301 is a British secret society, as its origins remain a complete mystery. It is included here for two reasons: its use of the English language to communicate and an apparent connection to the British Intelligence Services of the Second World War era.

In January 1942 the Telegraph newspaper launched a competition to solve the paper’s cryptic crossword in under twelve minutes. The British Intelligence Services were watching and those who succeeded received confidential invitations to work at Bletchley Park, breaking German military codes during World War II.

Cicada 3301 is a secret organisation which has posted a set of complex puzzles on line and around the world, with the stated aim of recruiting “highly intelligent individuals from the public.” It is often thought to be linked to an intelligence agency like the CIA or MI5. The complex and well-researched clues not only appear on the web, engineered to a high level of sophistication, but also in physical locations around the world.  This would suggest huge funds, and an army of people working in secret. The first internet puzzle started on January 4, 2012, and ran for approximately one month. Rolling Stone magazine reported that ‘winners’ were invited to a forum where they were asked to participate in a project aimed at furthering the ideals of the group. What those ideals are, we still don’t know.

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