An initiation at a Viennese Masonic Lodge in 1784

These 5 secret societies changed the world—from behind closed doors

From the Oracle at Delphi to the Freemasons, covert cults and clandestine clubs have existed in different cultures for millennia.

An initiation at a Viennese Masonic Lodge in 1784
Image courtesy of Unterberger, Ignaz (1748-1797)/Wien Museum Karlsplatz, Vienna, Austria/Bridgeman Images

Secret societies have existed since the rise of the first great civilizations, ranging from religious cults to political associations to college fraternities. Including philosophers, artists, presidents, and even astronauts among their ranks, members typically conducted their business in private, hiding their activities—and sometimes their identities—from the public. Some use secret handshakes and symbols, while others wore coded clothing or jewelry. They have toppled rulers and reshaped nations; influenced writers and artists; and changed the way people think about God. And they’re still around.

What exactly were they doing in the shadows? What’s behind their mysterious rituals? Here are the real stories behind some of the most secretive societies throughout history.

(Who was Adam Weishaupt, founder of the Illuminati?)

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