From the Mafia and the Yakuza to the Priory of Sion, Skull and Bones and the Templars, John Lawrence Reynolds offers illuminating and entertaining exploration of the stories that surround these societies.
They generate fear, suspicion, and—above all—fascination. Secret societies thrive among us, yet they remain shrouded in mystery. Their secrecy suggests, to many, sacrilege or crime, and their loyalties are often accused of undermining governments and tipping the scales of justice.
The Freemasons, for example, hold more seats of power in the U.S. government than any other organization. No fewer than sixteen presidents have declared their Masonic affiliation, and there may have been more. Secret societies have infiltrated pop culture as well. Celebrity members of Kabbalah include Madonna, Demi Moore, and Elizabeth Taylor, among others.
Dispelling myths and providing gripping revelations—such as a direct historical link between the Assassins of the Middle Ages and today’s Al Qaeda—Secret Societies gives us a smart, surprising look at Druids and Gnostics, Wiccans, Roscrucians, and more. Here are intimate details of the best known and often least understood covert organizations.
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THE ASSASSINSNOTHING IS TRUE, EVERYTHING IS PERMITTED
IN AD 1191 CONRAD OF MONTFERRAT ASCENDED THE THRONE as King of Jerusalem, appointed to this position by the celebrated hero of the Crusades, Richard the Lion-Hearted. After instructing Conrad to rebuild Christian forces in preparation for his return, Richard departed for home, destined to achieve immortality as a fair-haired idol in tales of Robin Hood and fables of great heroics.
Conrad, who had campaigned against Henry, Count of Champagne, for the throne, planned to glorify his reign as King of Jerusalem by driving Muslims from the Holy Land forever, earning a hallowed place in history as a Christian hero, and a seat in heaven near the right hand of God.
He had precious little time to do it. Soon after Richard departed the Holy Land, three Christian monks entered Conrad's campsite, bowing and making the sign of the cross to all they encountered. Their pious actions persuaded Conrad and his warriors to let down their guard, a fatal mistake. As soon as the monks were within reach of Conrad, they withdrew daggers from beneath their cloaks and cut him to pieces, slashing and stabbing in a violent display of butchery before the guards could intervene. With Conrad dispatched, the young men, who were not Christian monks but devout Muslims, made no attempt to escape. Surrendering to Conrad's guards, they suffered silently through a ghastly ordeal that included first flaying them alive, then slow-roasting them to death. Such were the penalties in that unforgiving world.
Later, while mourning the loss of their leader, Conrad's followers whispered among themselves about the odd behavior of his killers, especially their passivity after the deed was accomplished. It was strange how they dropped their weapons and simply stood awaiting capture while the king's death rattle faded. Even when informed of the agony that awaited them, the young men actually appeared to welcome the grisly experience of a torturous death. No one had seen such behavior before. No one could explain it. No one knew what it meant.
Henry, Count of Champagne, spent little time pondering the manner of the young killers. Conrad's premature death may have proved a tragedy to some, but it was an opportunity for Henry who, had he been born eight centuries later, might have become an outstanding corporate ceo. Soon after the last shovelful of Holy Land earth had been tossed onto Conrad's coffin, Henry took strategic action by marrying Conrad's widow, hoping to inherit the title that had eluded him and cost her husband his life. Whether through lack of support within Conrad's court or simple bad luck, Henry failed to win the crown as king of Jerusalem, settling instead for an administrative position that required him to make several trips east from Jerusalem into Persia. During one of these journeys, he encountered the source of Conrad's demise, and tapped one of history's most chilling secret societies.
It occurred when Henry and his entourage were following a rarely traveled road through the rugged Alborz Mountains, north of Tehran in modern-day Iran. During the Crusades, this land was occupied by Shiite Muslims who permitted Christians to pass with relative safety. Nearing a large fortress poised on the brink of an elevated bluff, Henry and his guards were met by representatives of the castle's resident, the Dai-el-Kebir. At first apprehensive, the Christians were reassured when the servants displayed every mark of honor to them before extending an invitation from their master to view the fortress and sample the Dai-el-Kebir's hospitality. Such an invitation could not be ignored without insulting the host. Besides, the impressive fortress captured Henry's interest. The prospect of both a tour of the intriguing structure and a good meal was irresistible.
Henry and his men followed the servants to the heights of the castle entrance, where their host greeted them with warmth and fanfare. The Dai-el-Kebir, a man of obvious wealth and power, took some pleasure in displaying the fortress to his guests, escorting them through extensive gardens and drawing their attention to the many stone towers that soared high above the rocky valley. At one point, he gestured at the tallest of the towers, asking if Henry was impressed by its height and magnificence.
Henry agreed it was an imposing sight, rising almost a hundred cubits over the edge of a steep rocky cliff. At the tower's summit, two sentinels dressed in immaculate white robes stood watching the Dai-el-Kebir's every move. Henry had noticed similar young men positioned atop other towers of the fortress, each smiling and nodding at their master and his guests, all apparently happy and contented. "These men," the Daiel-Kebir said, "obey me far better than the subjects of Christians will obey their masters."
His guest appeared confused by his host's words. They had not discussed anything to do with armies or obedience.
At the sight of Henry's puzzled expression, the Dai-el-Kebir smiled, said, "Watch," and waved his arms in an obviously pre-arranged signal. Immediately, the men on the peak of the highest tower threw themselves from the ledge and into the air, dashing their bodies to pieces on the rocks below.
Henry was appalled. The two young men had been content and physically fit, yet they had died at the whim of their master without hesitation.
"If you wish," the Dai-el-Kebir said, "I shall order the rest to do the same. All the men atop my towers will do likewise at a signal from me."
Henry declined with thanks, shaken at the sight of the senseless waste of life.
"Could any Christian prince expect such obedience from his subjects?" the Dai-el-Kebir asked.
The count replied that no Christian leader he knew could exert such power over his men. His own warriors, like the warriors of other leaders, would march into battle drawing bravery from their dedication to honor, devotion and loyalty, willing to sacrifice themselves for a greater good. They would die, if necessary, defending themselves and their honor, with the opportunity for victory and glory. But none would act with such apparent delight in the manner that the two young men had, responding to a simple wave of their master's hand.
"By means of these trusty servants," the Dai-el-Kebir said with an attitude of unmistakable superiority, "I rid our society of its enemies."
Henry, Count of Champagne, had encountered the organization that had murdered his predecessor and would terrorize lands from Persia to Palestine for more than a hundred years. He had met the Assassins.
The Assassins were neither among the earliest of secret societies nor the most widespread and enduring. Their actual power lasted little more than a hundred years, waning with the advance of the Mongol hordes, and by the fourteenth century they were no longer a viable force in Middle East politics. Yet so terrifying was their reputation for ruthlessness that many European nations believed the killers were responsible for political murders well into the 1600s, and some evidence suggests that descendants of the Assassins remained active in India as late as 1850. Their legacy extends down to this day in two significant measures.
One is their name. In English, assassin identifies the killer of a prominent individual, usually in a violent manner. The other provides a timely motive for probing their origins, because the methods and motivations of the Assassins, initiated almost a millennium ago, serve as the model for the most deadly and prevalent terrorist group at large today. Spiritual descendants of the Dai-el-Kebir and the smiling white-robed men who joyfully threw themselves to death have formed a small secret society that terrorizes the globe. Its members scurry among the hills and waddis of Afghanistan, meet in clandestine cells from Karachi to Cologne, and threaten the world's only remaining superpower. It is called Al Qaeda.
The Assassins grew out of a seventh-century schism among Muslims that produced two warring factions, Shiites and Sunnis. No event in any other religion, even the Christian Reformation, produced the enmity created by this division following the death of Mohammed.
Born in ad 570, Mohammed is believed by Muslims to be the last messenger of God, following Adam, Abraham, Moses and Christ. His visions and teachings, acquired in a cave near Mecca around 610, form the basis of the Koran and represent the foundations of Islam. Driven from Mecca for his beliefs, he fled to Yathrib, now called Medina (City of the Prophet) in 622, returning to conquer Mecca on behalf of Islam in 630. Muslims date their calendars from the Prophet's arrival in Medina. At the time of Mohammed's death in 632, Islam had spread across Arabia and into Syria and Persia.
With Mohammed gone, his followers had to deal with the question of naming his successor. Sunnis, who take their name from the Arabic phrase ahl as-sunnah wa-lijma (People of the Sunnah and the consensus), are considered today as the orthodox branch of Islam. They believed authority should be handed down to the Prophet's closest and most trusted advisers, or caliphs. Shiites ("Followers of Ali") insisted that the bloodline must be rigorously sustained and proposed Mohammed's cousin Ali, who was also his son-in-law, as the Prophet's successor.
It is impossible to overstate the impact of this rift among Muslims, for it extends beyond the question of legitimate succession. Each group disagrees about numerous social and cultural mores, including the date and meaning of sacred ceremonies, the legitimacy of temporary marriages, and the use of religious compromise to escape persecution and death (Shiites accept it, Sunnis consider it apostasy).
Christianity's Reformation wars were mere skirmishes compared with battles between Shiites and Sunnis — battles that usually ended in defeat for the Shiites, who have always been outnumbered about ten to one. Not long after the death of Ali, his grandson Husayn and every member of his family were brutally murdered by the Umayyads, an opposing faction. All Muslims were horrified by this event, which further solidified the split between Sunnis and Shiites; it also provided the Shiites with a sense of tragedy and persecution that colors their beliefs and inspired their melancholy mood down to this day. In Western vernacular, Shiites see themselves as underdogs, an oppressed minority willing to sacrifice themselves if necessary for their convictions. And, as current events demonstrate, they often do.
In the period leading up to the Crusades, individual Shiites living among Sunnis risked death upon discovery. Forced to live in a clandestine manner to survive, they became adept at maintaining secrecy and demanding that members be totally obedient to instructions from their leaders. With time, Shiites arranged themselves into factions, scattered throughout the Middle East, to promote their beliefs and protect their adherents, and while the differences between the factions may appear inconsequential, they fueled enmity and suspicion that helped spawn the Assassins.
Two of the most significant splinter groups were the Twelvers and the Ismailis. The Twelvers believed only twelve true imams (the word means "leader" in Arabic) existed in the Muslim faith and the twelfth imam has remained alive and in hiding for the past thousand years. The Ismailis are further split into various segments including the Seveners, who believe in only seven imams, and the Nizaris, who insist that the imams will never vanish from the earth and identify the Agha Khan as their imam. While the Twelvers are substantially larger in numbers than the Ismailis, comprising 90 percent of the current population of Iran and perhaps 60 percent of Iraqis, the Ismailis have tended to be more violent in response to their minority status within a larger minority.
These divisions, unfamiliar and confusing to non-Muslims, grew insistent upon even the smallest distinction between actions and philosophy, often to the point of violent dissent. In preparation for prayer, for example, purification rituals must be performed. Shiites accept wiping the feet with wet hands to be sufficient, but Sunnis insist that a total cleansing is necessary. In the standing position of prayer, Shiites believe that hands must be held straight down; Sunnis (with the exception of the Malikis group) insist that the hands be folded. Minor concerns? Not to sincere Muslims. These and dozens of other issues remain contentious today; in the Islamic world of a millennium ago, they led to enmity that was often resolved in pitched battles to the death, a fact that must be understood in order to appreciate how the Assassins developed and maintained their ruthless character.
Around ad 1000, a group of Ismailis in Cairo founded the Abode of Learning and began attracting acolytes with promises of secret techniques that would enable believers to carry out divine missions on behalf of Allah. The movement became known as Ismailism, and teachers in the Abode of Learning acted under direct orders of Egypt's ruler, the Caliph of the Fatimites, a direct descendant of Mohammed.
Much of the faculty at the Abode of Learning was drawn from the caliph's own court, and included the commander-in-chief of the army and various ministers. To ensure the Abode's success, the caliph bestowed on it a collection of advanced scientific instruments and an annual endowment of a hundred thousand gold pieces. In its early stages, the group welcomed both men and women into its movement, although the genders remained segregated.
Along with opportunities to acquire an education, students of the Abode were promised that elevations to the highest degrees of learning would earn them a similar level of respect as their teachers. In a culture where government officials and teachers were drawn from the same class, this opportunity held enormous attraction for young people eager to rise above their lowly state, and the prospect of improving their lot while learning to strike back at their Sunni tormentors must have been especially exciting for hot-headed young men.
Whatever goals the caliph may have had for the Abode of Learning, it failed to achieve them directly. Nothing within the Muslim world was altered by the Abode's existence. Its impact, however, continues to resonate to our present day, and the structure it pioneered and implemented became a model employed, with minor variations, by secret societies through the centuries.
Government organizations and large corporations traditionally organize themselves in a pyramid configuration, with one individual at the apex. Immediately below is a small, generally cohesive group of advisers — think of the cabinet in a democracy, and a board of directors in a corporation. From the summit down, in steadily decreasing levels of influence and authority, layers of bureaucracy extend towards the wide base, which consists of the lowest-paid and least-recognized workers. This common means of corralling and controlling power remains familiar and understandable to us today. It is not the only method of structuring an organization, however, and in the case of secret societies it is far from the most appropriate.
Instead of pyramids, many secret societies and religious cults tend to be organized at the epicenter of a series of concentric circles, with the ultimate power residing somewhere in the hub. Circular organizations are not nearly as easily understood or penetrated as pyramid structures are because their internal mechanism remains concealed. In addition, the number of circles can vary, meaning that outsiders are never aware of how close they may be to the actual center of power. From the foot of a pyramid, you can see the summit, but from anywhere within a circular organization you can never accurately measure your proximity to authority. In this manner, circular organizations conceal and protect their centers more effectively than pyramid structures.
The circular configuration of the Abode of Learning, copied by religious-based secret societies over the years, began with study groups called Assemblies of Wisdom, designed to discard candidates lacking sufficient dedication.
Successful graduates of the Assemblies of Wisdom entered a nine-stage initiation procedure built upon the characteristic circle structure. This initiation process represents a classic method of securing allegiance to a group's cause and building a foundation of unquestioned obedience.
In the first initiation stage, doubts were planted in the minds of students about the values and concepts they had been taught to respect throughout their lives. Applying false analogies, teachers began to dismantle their students' entire system of beliefs and any who were unable to deny their beliefs and values were dismissed. Those who accepted the teachings — essentially emptying their minds — were warmly congratulated by their instructors. Today, we refer to this technique as brainwashing. With no value system in place, students were forced to rely upon their teachers as a source of knowledge and the means to apply it. The most dedicated students swore a vow of blind allegiance to their masters, elevating them to the second degree.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Secret Societies"
Copyright © 2011 John Lawrence Reynolds.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: Fools, Fears and Fanatics 11
1 The Assassins: Nothing Is True, Everything Is Permitted 19
2 Templars, Illuminati And Freemasons: The Secret Seat of Power 43
3 Priory Of Sion: Keepers of the Holy Grail 77
4 Druids And Gnostics: Knowledge and the Eternal Soul 101
5 Kabbalah: Origins of the Apocalypse 119
6 Rosicrucians: The Pursuit of Esoteric Wisdom 139
7 Traids: Cultural Criminals 157
8 The Mafia And Cosa Nostra: Wise Guys and Businessmen 173
9 Yakuza: Traditions and Amputations 199
10 Wicca: The Great Godess and the Horned God 209
11 Skull & Bones: America's Secret Establishment 229
12 Secret Societies In Popular Culture: An Endless Fascination 253
Afterword: Of Demons and Baloney 295
Picture Credits 313
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Reynolds exposes the fabricated connections and inner workings. In one case even a group that probably never existed.