Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Shhhh... it's a secret

Recently my son and I were talking about secret societies.  The first thing we concluded was that we couldn't have a meaningful discussion about truly secret societies, because, well, they'd be secret and we wouldn't know about them.  So we were confined to talking about the sort-of-secret variety -- the ones that people know about, or think they know about, but don't know enough about to make them just garden-variety social clubs.

One of the ones we discussed was the infamous Skull & Bones Society at Yale, about which much has been written and even more has been speculated.  George Bushes Sr. and Jr. are both members, as is John Kerry; numerous other famous Yale alumni are also "Bonesmen."  The most reputable inside information is that it amounts to an organization for wealthy social-climbers, but the rumors about what goes on behind the windowless walls of 64 High Street, New Haven vary from the wild but possible to the patently ridiculous.  Some of the more colorful ones are the legend that they stole, and still have, the skulls of Martin van Buren, Geronimo, and Pancho Villa; and that during the initiation ceremony, prospective members have to lie naked in a coffin and recount their sexual exploits to the assembled membership.  The Skull & Bones Society also figures high in events favored by conspiracy theorists, such as the Kennedy assassination and the faking of the moon landing.  Members have been asked about the veracity of these rumors, but have maintained a steadfast silence -- which, of course, conspiracy theorists have taken as tacit admission of guilt.

No discussion of secret societies would be complete without at least a brief mention of the Freemasons.  Freemasonry developed in the 16th or 17th century, and apparently was never really a trade organization, despite the name -- it started out as a mystical society, probably in Scotland or England.  Then, the whole thing began to shake itself to pieces, and now we have (to name a few) the Grand Lodge of England, the Grand Lodge of Scotland, the Ancient Grand Lodge of England, the United Grand Lodge of England, the Ancient and Accepted Grand Lodge of Scotland, and the Great Big Huge Lodge Of Really Impressive Freemasons of England and Scotland Who Are Way Cooler Than Any Of You Other Posers.  Okay, I made the last one up.  Each one of the different lodges has its own set of ranks, titles, rituals, secret handshakes, vestments for officers, and so on, which makes them sound a lot like the whole "Grand Pooh-Bah of the Leopard Lodge" thing on Happy Days.

Then we have the Rosicrucians, or the "Ancient Order of the Rosy Cross," another mystical society, this one founded in Germany.  Rosicrucianism didn't really take off until the beginning of the 20th century in France and England, mostly amongst the wealthy.  And have you heard the joke about how five Frenchmen were shipwrecked on a deserted island, and immediately founded six political parties?  Well, that's what the Rosicrucians are like.  You thought the Freemasons were complicated -- the list of subgroups and sub-subgroups of the Rosicrucians runs to several pages.  It's entirely possible that the number of Rosicrucian sects, as with our marooned Frenchmen, exceeds the number of actual Rosicrucians.  It should also be mentioned that the Rosicrucians are the ones who generated Aleister Crowley, who is notable for calling himself "The Great Beast" and claiming that he was the "wickedest man on earth," and who said he could transmute base metals into gold but who mostly seemed to be interested in screwing anyone of either gender who'd hold still for long enough.

Then, of course, there are the Illuminati, who are actually in control of every country's government and who secretly run all the big corporations, through cooperation with reptilian aliens from the planet Zeta Reticuli.  Oh, wait, I'm getting my nonsense confused -- how embarrassing!  Forget the part about the aliens, that's just ridiculous.  The Illuminati were formed as a mystical society by Bavarian Jesuit Adam Weishaupt around the year 1800, and after Weishaupt's death in 1830 it kind of pooped out for a while -- but with the resurgence of mysticism in the early 20th century, people started to claim that the Illuminati had survived in hiding and now were secretly running everything.  Once the 60s hit and being a wacko was more-or-less in vogue, there began to be books written about how the Illuminati were exerting mind control on people through putting hallucinogenic chemicals in drinking water and in jet contrails.  (Given how many hallucinogenic chemicals were being deliberately ingested back in the 60s, you'd wonder why the Illuminati would bother.)   I also found out that the Illuminati include(d) Barack Obama, Winston Churchill, Lady Gaga, and Michael Jackson, a foursome that sounds like it should somehow be worked into a joke.  ("Barack Obama, Winston Churchill, Lady Gaga, and Michael Jackson were in a bar one day, discussing world domination...")

This is only the barest sampling of the secret societies out there -- if you don't believe me, Google the words "secret societies" and you'll find hundreds, probably thousands, of societies so secret that you'd never guess their existence unless you happened to type "secret societies" into a Google search.  Myself, I find it a little funny that people are attracted to these things.  Most of them seem to be banal and a tad ridiculous -- little boys pretending to be grown ups Doing Great Big Important Mysterious Things.  (And sadly for my own gender, I'm using the masculine not as a catchall, but because the vast majority of members do seem to be male.)  I'm kind of curious as to the numbers of members these groups have, but there didn't seem to be much in the way of reliable information about that.  Apparently that part really is secret, or maybe most people are just embarrassed to admit that they're members.

So if you're interested in joining one, the field is wide open.  I'm not sure what the application process is like -- most of the societies seem to have websites, presumably to make sure that everyone knows how incredibly secret they are.  There are probably yearly membership fees, but maybe you'll get a monthly magazine ("Rosicrucian Home Journal" or "Illuminati's Digest").  Just watch out for those initiation rituals involving coffins and less-than-recommended amounts of clothing.

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