- Donald E. Hester
Discovering the History Behind Secret Societies: Truth or Fiction
I have just completed an audio course on Secret Societies, taught by Professor Richard B. Spence. Professor Spence is a historian who specializes in Russian and European history, as well as espionage and occultism. He is currently a professor of History at the University of Idaho and has authored several books and articles on various historical topics. I found his approach in this course to be well-balanced and appreciated his efforts to dispel popular myths surrounding these organizations. Throughout the course, he not only delves into the history of secret societies but also sheds light on lesser-known groups that qualify as such.
One of the highlights of the course was Professor Spence's definition and characterization of secret societies. He notes that despite their name, secret societies are not always secret. However, they are selective in their recruitment, offering special knowledge, status, or power to those who are chosen to join. Members are bound by a strict oath of secrecy, and although secret societies come in various shapes and sizes, they share the common traits of being internally secretive and offering members some form of special status. Furthermore, secret societies tend to disappear and reappear over time.
Here are some highlights that I found intriguing.
Secret Societies Origins
A question that arises is where do secret societies come from? It appears that many are established by individuals who possess charisma and a lack of scruples. However, it's unlikely that people would join a brand new group that claims to have all the answers. To gain credibility, many secret societies incorporate elements from other groups and create a mythic genealogy or pseudohistory making a chain of custody to ancient mysteries. But in reality, there is typically no evidence to support these claims, and it's more probable that they simply borrow ideas, symbols, or rites from past organizations to gain legitimacy and attract followers. This is because a secret society without followers is essentially meaningless. An evil genius needs henchmen.
For example, many groups falsely claim to be descended from the Knights Templar. However, none of those organizations engage in banking or protecting pilgrims on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, as the Templars did. So, in what way are these groups actually connected to the Templars? The answer is most likely that they have appropriated certain elements of Templar lore and incorporated them into their own mythos, rather than having any actual historical link.
Most secret societies assert their connection to one another based on the supposed transmission of "secret knowledge." However, there is no evidence to support the existence of any such knowledge or treasure. This belief in secret knowledge seems to fuel a bias toward conspiracies, and it reinforces the convictions of members of new secret societies. Unfortunately, this bias often leads members to ignore the more likely explanation, as it may not be as exciting or intriguing.
Upon examining the ideas and rites of Mormonism, it becomes apparent that Freemasonry has had a strong influence. However, it would be inaccurate to suggest that Mormonism is a form of Freemasonry. Nevertheless, it is clear that some form of connection must exist between the two. Perhaps this connection can be likened to the concept of meme theory, in which ideas are transmitted, lost, rediscovered, and borrowed by different groups over time. We know that the transmission of "secrets" evolves over time, resulting in the emergence of new and novel secrets and groups dedicated to those secrets. This topic is certainly a rabbit hole worth exploring further. There is much more to contemplate and consider.
To me, it seems that there is a strong psychological desire to be "included" especially when it comes to secrets. This may be due to our natural inclination towards camaraderie and community as human beings. Additionally, there is, I am sure, a sense of satisfaction in having knowledge or status that others do not.
Gave Me More Context to History
A few years ago, I read "George Washington's Secret Six", and it proved to be an incredibly rewarding experience. As someone who had already read several books on the American Revolution, it was fascinating to gain a deeper understanding and insight into the Revolution's events through the lens of Washington's Spy Ring and their espionage tactics. The book provided me with a newfound connection and appreciation for the world of espionage and security. As someone with a career in cybersecurity, it helped me to better connect with historical events, bringing them to life in a unique way.
Reading about certain secret societies had a similar effect on me, providing me with greater context for historical events. I found it particularly interesting to learn about how both the communists and Nazis leveraged secret societies for their own gain. This was a clear example of how these societies played a significant role in warfare and espionage. Another example can be seen in the events that led up to the start of World War 1.
Not Your Typical Secret Societies
Spence's coverage of secret societies goes beyond the typical examples and includes organized crime, terrorist cells, spy rings, and cults. According to his definition, these groups can all be considered secret societies. Reading about these organizations has certainly changed my perspective on them.
It is worth noting that some secret societies blatantly imitate religious orders for nefarious activities, like the Knights Templar Cartel, an organized crime group in Mexico. Initially, it was composed of former members of the La Familia Michoacana drug cartel based in Michoacán. The Knights Templar Cartel trains its members to be fiercely loyal to the cartel, willing to "fight and die" for it, and it has a reputation for drug trafficking, extortion, kidnapping, and murder. Other than their name, they have no connection with the original Knights Templar.
Spence's discussion on cults was particularly intriguing, especially when he brought up Aleister Crowley and the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO). Crowley, a prominent figure in the world of occultism, founded the OTO, which had members that included Jack Parsons. Parsons, who was an occultist himself, had a secret clearance and worked for JPL. What's fascinating is that Parsons was not only a member of the OTO, but he was also known for practicing black magic with his friend L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology. In my mind, this raises questions about the extent to which secret societies, such as the OTO, have influenced and impacted the beliefs and practices of other groups, such as Scientology. It also begs the question of how much influence individuals like Crowley and Parsons had on the development of these groups and their ideologies. The interconnectedness of these secret societies and their influence on the wider world is a fascinating area of study and one that warrants further exploration. Just another rabbit hole!
When discussing secret societies, it's impossible not to mention the Knights Templar. Despite numerous theories, ideas popularized by authors like Dan Brown lack evidence and are beyond the fringe. Frist, King Philip IV of France was heavily in debt and needed money. He expelled Jews and later the Templars to seize their assets. To have the Templars killed and claim their assets, he brought heresy charges against them.
Secondly, while the Templars were not technically a secret society, they did have secrets. The secrecy surrounding their organization was primarily related to banking and codes for authentication, as I previously discussed in a blog post. However, these secrets were not related to any heretical beliefs or practices.
Furthermore, despite being put in the papacy by Philip and having been under house arrest in Avignon, Pope Clement did not initially support Philip's charges against the Templars. However, he eventually relented under pressure from Philip. It is important to note that the demise of the Templars was not due to any threat they posed to organized religion, but rather because Pope Clement was a puppet of Philip's.
I learned much of this information from Dan Joens' book, which I read a few years ago.
The fall of the Knights Templar, while noteworthy, pales in comparison to the sensational meteoric rise of the myths that have been created around them. There is an abundance of conspiracy theories about the Templars, with one popular idea being that they and their secrets went into hiding forever after Friday, October 13th, 1307. Some even speculate that they made their way to the New World before Columbus, burying their treasure on Oak Island. However, the truth behind these claims remains unknown. Who knows! Like Agent Fox Mulder "I want to believe."
When talking about secret societies, Freemasonry is one group that often comes up. One of the distinguishing characteristics of Freemasonry is the extensive variety of lodges and rites, each with its own rituals and practices. Unlike other secret societies, there isn't a monolithic organization or a central authority in Freemasonry. The diversity within the group makes it impossible for them to maintain the conspiracies they are often accused of.
One intriguing topic discussed by Professor Spence is the potential role of Freemasonry in the American Revolution. It's worth noting that many prominent figures on both sides of the war were Freemasons, including George Washington and the head of the British forces. Even Benedict Arnold was a member of the organization. Consequentially, it's highly unlikely that Freemasonry had a direct hand in plotting or instigating the revolution. It's more probable that the Masonic lodge was simply used as a space for conducting business or that these individuals just happened to be Freemasons.
After completing the course, I have gained a deeper understanding and appreciation for the complexity and diversity of secret societies. One key takeaway for me is the importance of approaching these groups with a critical eye and a healthy dose of skepticism. While there may be some truth to certain theories and conspiracies surrounding secret societies, it is essential to separate fact from fiction and avoid jumping to conclusions based on incomplete or biased information.
Overall, while there may be a sense of intrigue and mystery surrounding secret societies, it is important to approach them with a balanced and open-minded perspective. By doing so, we can appreciate their rich history and contributions while avoiding the pitfalls of conspiracy theories and misinformation.
I ask Bing chat AI about Professor Richard B. Spence and I got this:
"It is worth noting that Professor Spence's work on occultism and espionage has sometimes attracted controversy and criticism, particularly from those who feel that he places too much emphasis on conspiracy theories and sensationalism. However, he is generally considered to be a respected and knowledgeable historian within his fields of expertise."
The Real History of Secret Societies, The Great Courses by Professor Richard B. Spence https://amzn.to/4041T15
Trust No One: The Secret World of Sidney Reilly by Richard B. Spence https://amzn.to/40p9nMv
Secret Agent 666: Aleister Crowley, British Intelligence and the Occult by Richard B. Spence https://amzn.to/42e02J6
George Washington's Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution, by Brian Kilmeade & Don Yaeger https://amzn.to/3YVsWdP
The Templars: The Rise and Spectacular Fall of God's Holy Warriors by Dan Jones https://amzn.to/3lh6mig