Throughout history, men and women have formed secret groups, gathering behind closed doors in pursuit of shared ideals. They might have used unexpected methods to get what they wanted. Some attempted magic, others turned to violence, and many, in fact, got caught and persecuted for the things they did. Yet still, secret societies continue to meet in private today — perhaps there’s even one in your hometown.
Not every secret society is about the occult, magic, or the dark arts. The Knights of Malta — founded in the year 1048 — had noble aims from the start.
Members would take care of anyone making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, regardless of the person’s faith. The Pope ordered them to aid any Christians who needed protection along the way, too. Things have changed somewhat since 1048, though.
Nowadays, the Knights of Malta have a much different focus. Its 13,500 members across 120 countries focus on charitable causes in general.
Their motto is “Tuitio Fidei et Obsequium Pauperum” — nurturing, witnessing, and protecting the faith and serving the poor and the sick. Considering their focus on charity, it makes sense that Nelson Mandela was once part of the organization.
So many rumors surround the Freemasons — possibly the least secret "secret society" in history. This makes sense, considering how old and storied the organization is. The Freemasons emerged in Europe in the midst of the Middle Ages, a time when craftspeople were arranged into regional guilds.
It wasn’t until 1717 that the Freemasons morphed into its current iteration. That's when four branches from London joined together, and the group expanded to the rest of the continent and the Americas.
What started as a fraternity for craftsmen is now a bit more mysterious to non-members. The Freemasons are ostensibly about charity work and social networking. However, rumors swirl that the group is plagued with bullies, nepotism, and a refusal to change with the times.
People also suspect that the Freemasons have a secret handshake, but they won’t show it to anyone outside of their six million members. The Freemasons were given the honor of being parodied by The Simpsons in an episode that saw Homer join the "Stonecutters."
An organization made up of Irish immigrants in 19th-century America might sound innocent enough. But the Molly Maguires had sinister aims that the all-male membership carried out while dressed as women — hence the name.
In the 1870s they allegedly completed their most notorious job of all: assassinating 24 foremen and supervisors working in the Pennsylvania coal mines. The subsequent investigation led to 20 suspected members of the Molly Maguires getting convicted.
The Molly Maguires supposedly had their hand in arson and threat-making as well — but it was the two dozen murders that finished the organization off. A mole infiltrated the group, leading to the arrests of the 20 suspected members.
All of the men received death sentences and were hanged. As time has gone on, though, some remember the Maguires positively as being dedicated to labor and unions despite their unforgivable alleged crimes.
London in the late 16th century set the scene for some of humankind’s greatest writers to create their finest works. But they didn’t spend all of their time at their desks with pens in hand. Instead, some authors gathered in the School of Night.
It was a society that explored atheism and alchemy, all illegal subjects of conversation at the time. In fact, if you didn’t believe in God back then, you could have found yourself charged with treason.
Playwright Christopher Marlowe — the top tragedy writer of his time and an inspiration to William Shakespeare — was said to be a member of the School of Night. Other members supposedly included Sir Walter Raleigh, George Chapman, Matthew Roydon, and Thomas Harriot.
Marlowe faced charges for writing a text deemed to be heretical, but before he could face any kind of trial, he died under suspicious circumstances in 1853. After that, no one knows what happened to the School of Night.
The Order of the Temple of the East — or Ordo Templi Orientis — used the Freemasons as its inspiration, but it operated on a completely different belief structure. Its eventual leader was occultist Aleister Crowley, who taught members the tenets of Thelema, an ideology he created himself.
He incorporated mysticism, contributing to some very strange rituals performed by the society — supposedly to this day. A gathering of the Order of the Temple of the East incorporates two components — gnostic mass and magic ceremonies.
Gnostic mass mimics Catholic mass, but attendees don extravagant get-ups to worship. And then there are the rituals, which range from conjuring spirits to tantric love-making and encouraging out-of-body experiences called astral projections.
Perhaps even more surprising, the society still exists today, although the locations of their lodges remain largely unknown to non-members. The latest branch to continue Crowley's teachings is the Caliphate O.T.O., which was incorporated in 1979.
To understand The Calves’ Head Club, you need to brush up on English history. Here's the basics: King Charles I married a Roman Catholic French princess in 1626, a union that angered his Protestant subjects. In response to rising opposition, he dissolved Parliament and eventually incited civil war in England.
Headed up by Oliver Cromwell, Parliamentarians later defeated the monarchy and in 1648 Charles I was facing charges of treason. The following year, King Charles I was executed by beheading, and Oliver Cromwell seized power.
The highly controversial Calves’ Head Club came to be after Charles I’s execution. On the anniversary of his slaying, the group gathered for a grotesque celebration of his demise. Members would first decapitate a calf — a representation of the former king — then prepare it and eat it.
Their behavior was treasonous to the monarchy, which returned to power in 1659. Eventually, the Calves’ Head Club disappeared, with the last record of its existence coming in 1734 when a riot about their tasteless ways brought an end to proceedings.
The Bilderberg Meetings started in 1954 when 11 Americans traveled to the Hotel de Bilderberg in Oosterbeek in the Netherlands. There, they met with 50 people from 11 Western European nations.
Among the attendees, apparently, were a prime minister, a royal, and a one-time CIA leader. As its website describes, "The Bilderberg Meeting is a forum for informal discussions about major issues." The meetings are exclusive, invitation-only affairs,
The latest Bilderberg Meeting took place in Lisbon, Portugal, in May 2023. The list of attendees was published on its website, and the topics discussed during the meeting included AI, banking systems, and the situation in Ukraine. But historically, the details of the meetings were kept secret from the public.
Naturally, the secrecy around the meetings has made for many conspiracy theories about the organization. Some people wonder if the group gathers to plan for world domination, or even to sway the global economy.
The Priory of Sion — or Prieuré de Sion — both is and is not a secret society. A man named Pierre Plantard founded the fraternal organization in France in 1956. The idea was that was forming a neo-chivalric order — meaning the Priory of Sion was an order of knighthood.
So far, so normal. The problem was that Plantard claimed that the Priory of Sion was actually formed as a secret society in 1099 by a knight named Godfrey of Bouillon on Mount Zion in the Kingdom of Jerusalem.
To back up that claim about a secret history, Plantard faked a bunch of documents and had them inserted into the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris. He also had two encrypted medieval parchments created, complete with references to the Priory of Sion.
The whole thing was later found to be an elaborate literary hoax, of course. You might even recognize parts of the story from Dan Brown's famous novel, The Da Vinci Code.
The abbreviated tale of the Rosicrucians goes something like this: legendary Founder Christian Rosenkreuz apparently traveled from his native Germany into the Middle East so that he — a mystical philosopher — could gain some esoteric wisdom.
According to the story, his studies gave him a greater perspective on the natural world and the universe at large. Upon getting back home, they say, he wanted to share his wisdom with others and set up the Fraternity of the Rose Cross.
It's possible, however, that Christian Rosenkreuz never existed and the story is just allegorical. Still, some people were taken in by the idea of a "universal reformation of mankind" via "esoteric truths of the ancient past." Yet rumors plagued the Rosicrucians since its foundation in the 15th century.
Many especially thought this "universal reformation" would actually be via occult methods. Conspiracy theorists have also said the Rosicrucians were behind some of history’s modern uprisings as well as the founding of other prominent secret societies.
The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn — often shortened to just the Golden Dawn — began gathering in 19th-century London. Group members shared an interest in the occult, magic, and mysticism.
If that sounds familiar, it’s no coincidence. Some say that Golden Dawn was the precursor to other supernatural-focused groups on this list, such as the Order of the Temple of the East.
The Golden Dawn was actually founded by three Freemasons: William Robert Woodman, William Wynn Westcott, and Samuel Liddell Mathers. But unlike other groups, the Golden Dawn also allowed women into their inner circle.
Famous former members of the Golden Dawn include Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and W. B. Yeats. And in 1937 author Israel Regardie published The Golden Dawn: The Original Account of the Teachings, Rites, and Ceremonies of the Hermetic Order — an influential tome that dives deep into the society's practices.
The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the World first cropped up on the scene in 1868. Then, just over three decades later, a pair of African-American men weren’t permitted entry into the club’s ranks — and decided to form a splinter group.
B. F. Howard and Arthur J. Riggs formed the fittingly titled Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the World in 1897. The group is still going to this day.
The founders of the Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the World ended up creating a club that would become central within Black communities during segregation. It was, apparently, one of the only places where African Americans could gather.
As society started to integrate, however, the order’s influence faded. But they still fund scholarships, participate in parades, and host community events today. The fact that the fraternal order has a website also suggests they're not really a secret society, either.
History buffs may be familiar with the work of the Black Hand. In the early 20th century, this revolutionary group hoped to bring together the Slavic people into a single country.
To do this, they’d need to break Serbia free from the rule of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, which had earlier taken control of the small country by annexation. The official name of the group was Unification or Death.
The Black Hand decided to free Serbia from Austria-Hungary through military campaigns, but they didn’t plan for the conflict they would arguably create. Their plan was supposedly to assassinate Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand — which Gavrilo Princip did in 1914.
Right away, the monarchy declared war on Serbia, but each country’s allies decided to join in, and this inter-country war soon became World War I. Because of its alleged connection to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Black Hand may have caused that war.
Peter Droomgole, a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill student in the mid-19th century, inadvertently inspired the start of a very creepy on-campus society. He vanished from campus in 1833, and legend has it that he died after losing a duel.
Not only that but his body is said to be entombed on the school grounds. Robert Worth Bingham, Shepard Bryan, William W. Davies, Edward Wray Martin, and Andrew Henry Patterson started the secret society in 1889.
In the student’s honor, this secret society was first called the Order of Droomgole, but changed the last part to Gimghoul "in accord with midnight and graves and weirdness." The group supposedly meets on campus at a very creepy, enshrouded castle.
Photo evidence of their activities seems to show satanic references, making them even more off-putting. The castle allegedly sits close to Peter Dromgoole's final resting place — and his ghost supposedly haunts it.
It’s no secret that some of the brightest minds in the country end up studying at Ivy League institutions. And Yale University just so happens to be one of the most selective — with an acceptance rate of just 4.46 percent in 2022.
Therefore, the amount of brilliance packed into the school’s secret Skull and Bones society should be enough to scare the rest of us. Other names for the group include The Order, Order 322, and The Brotherhood of Death.
No one outside of Skull and Bones really knows the purpose of this society, but there are plenty of theories. Some say that the Bonesmen — who have gone on to become Supreme Court justices, CEOs, and presidents — might influence the CIA or strive for global control.
Making things even creepier, the group meets in a building called the Tomb, a building without windows. This group is now possibly the least-secret secret society as it has been popularized in movies such as The Skulls and The Great Gatsby and TV shows such as The Simpsons.
The Grand Orange Lodge drew its name from William of Orange, the Protestant king who defeated the Catholic King James II and took over as ruler of Scotland, England, and Ireland in 1689. Almost 200 years later, the Northern Irish Protestants still revered Orange’s leadership.
So, they formed the Lodge to better protect their fellow worshippers. Its full name is the Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland or the Loyal Orange Institution of Scotland. They are still going strong after forming in 1798.
Had Lord Lieutenant of Ireland George William Frederick Villiers not thrown his support behind the group, the Grand Orange Lodge’s aims might have flown under the radar. Ireland had always been a Catholic stronghold, so having a leader support a Protestant society ruffled some serious feathers.
These days, the Order is most visible during its yearly marches. The largest of these gatherings usually occurs on July 12, as "The Twelfth" is an Ulster Protestant day of celebrations.
A long time ago, business executive and one-time Confederate soldier Charles Slayback had an idea. In 1878 he gathered fellow St. Louis businessmen to build his own secret society. He wanted his city to have a festival like New Orleans did with Mardi Gras.
They just needed a reason to party — and the Veiled Prophet of Khorassan could be a reason for a celebration. This was a mystic based out of St. Louis — or, at least, that’s what Slayback decided to tell people.
In reality, the Veiled Prophet story was just meant to be an excuse to celebrate — and to mask negative social realities. At the time, laborers demanded socioeconomic equality and fair working conditions.
So the citywide gathering would perhaps appease them while exalting the elite’s way of life. The first Veiled Prophet Parade and Ball took place in 1878. Perhaps surprisingly, the Veiled Prophet Organization still has parties to this day.
In the 13th century, a small group of Shia Muslims split from a larger group of their religion’s practitioners because they wanted to create a utopian state. Yet they didn’t have the manpower to make their vision a reality.
So the secret society had to use much more shocking methods to get what they wanted. There is a reason why this group is otherwise known as the Order of Assassins or just the Assassins.
The Hashashin made a name for themselves by staging political assassinations as well as by sending spies over enemy lines. But these operatives had great discretion — enemies would wake up with daggers on their pillows and notes warning them of impending death.
Eventually, though, the group was squashed by the Mongols. This group has naturally inspired plenty of popular culture figures and stories, including Assassin's Creed, Angels and Demons, and the Faceless Men in Game of Thrones.
Things started out well for the Knights Templar. They had a simple mission when founded in the 12th century — to protect Christians as they traveled to the Holy Land. Templar Enlistees had to vow to a chaste lifestyle, which meant they couldn’t swear, gamble, or drink.
Perhaps this left their heads clear enough to come up with a more lucrative idea. The Knights opened a bank where people could deposit money at home and take it out when they arrived at their pilgrimage destination.
Once the Crusades ended, the Knights Templar decided to set up in Paris and make their banking business the main focus of their operation. However, they made the mistake of denying King Philip IV of France a loan.
He then had some society members arrested and tortured. The Knights began making false confessions, implicating themselves in depraved acts. So, the French monarch had dozens burned to death for their supposed wrongdoings.
The Knights of the Golden Circle first formed in 1854 because they wanted the United States to take over the West Indies and Mexico. This would then make the slave states stronger against any threats from the North.
However, the Civil War kicked off in 1861, and the society’s members switched gears. They sided with the Confederacy, so they started organizing themselves into guerrilla armies and ambushing Union soldiers.
Interestingly enough, the Knights of the Golden Circle had a bigger impact in Union states, where people pointed the finger at anyone who seemed to sympathize with the South. Even President Franklin Pierce faced accusations of being a secret member of the organization.
Despite everything, though, none of the Knights’ aims ever came to fruition. Their main objective was to see in the formation of a new country, known as the Golden Circle.
The Illuminati formed on May 1, 1776, bringing together the era’s most forward-thinking politicians and intellectuals. Unlike many other secret societies on this list, though, the Illuminati didn’t require its members to believe in any sort of deity.
This made it a popular society among non-believers. Their inclusion made people wonder if the group actually formed to get rid of religious organizations. The group claimed, "The order of the day is to put an end to the machinations of the purveyors of injustice, to control them without dominating them."
The Illuminati was eventually outlawed, and it subsequently crumbled internally when a new leader had to replace its founder, Adam Weishaupt. But some believe that the society didn’t actually collapse in the late 1700s.
Instead, they believe the Illuminati still operates — and controls all of the governments dotted around the globe. According to this conspiracy theory, the Illuminati now goes by the name of the New World Order.