Masonic Chamber of Reflection, Boston, c. 2018. From left to right: Shawn Eyer; Oscar Alleyne, Dr.P.H.; Baruti KMT-Sisouvong, Ph.D.; the author; and Tom Worrel.

Whispers of a Brotherhood

The true history of secret societies in modern occulture

Mitch Horowitz
32 min readJan 19, 2024

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The question of secret societies is probably the most contentious in the occult.

As I write these words, we occupy an age of suspicion. The notion that a group called the Illuminati or some other secret organization is manipulating and depriving us of power is common fare on podcasts, late-night radio, YouTube videos, below-the-radar bestsellers, and so on. In fact, one hears the term Illuminati so frequently that the very familiarity of its repetition serves as a point of validation.

Once on a streaming television show, I made laudatory remarks about the Illuminati as a historical group — and a veritable defender of principles and values that many people now embrace, such as separation of church and state, freedom of search, belief in individual potential, and perpetuation of initiatory religious experience. I received a swath of hate email. Of all the topics I’ve probed, from parapsychology to Satanism, I’ve never gotten such voluminous blowback.

The advocate of any point of contention, by nature, always perceives him or herself as part of the “Light realm,” as Gnostic teachings put it. My correspondents certainly did.

Although it is important to note current mood, my aim is not to dwell on social or psychological triggers behind the present culture’s fascination with, and emotional intensity toward, its perception of secret societies, particularly Freemasonry and the Illuminati. Nor is it my purpose to consider exclusive fraternities in general, such as Yale’s storied Skull and Bones, Bohemian Grove, or related groups that, rightly or not, are deemed clandestine power centers.

Rather, I aim to reveal the historical foundations and veritable purpose of the secret society in modern occulture. By studying our history we are studying our present because human nature remains constant. Indeed, many issues surrounding the question of early modern secret societies are not dissimilar to those we face today.

What are secret societies? It’s a given across human history that we have always organized into communities of interest and mutual aid, clubs, fraternities, pressure groups, and lobbies. But the secret society played a distinct role in…

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Mitch Horowitz

"Treats esoteric ideas & movements with an even-handed intellectual studiousness"-Washington Post | PEN Award-winning historian | Censored in China