5 Bizarre European Secret Societies That Make American Frats Look Like A Convent

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5 Bizarre European Secret Societies That Make American Frats Look Like A Convent

You hear a lot of tales of spooky and secret happenings in fraternity initiation rites. It’s part of the allure of American greek life that gives it a little spice beyond the surface level networking and alcohol abuse. You get to learn a weird little handshake and see some old president’s skull tucked away in the basement, and feel like you’re channeling ancient power. Compared to real, ancient secret societies of Europe, though, we all know they’re just playing drunken dress-up.

Let’s look at 5 European secret societies that were into some truly weird stuff.

Hellfire Club

National Gallery of Ireland

No, not the Stranger Things one, though Eddie does have similar hair.

It’s pretty unsurprising that the people who end up in secret societies tend to be the rich and powerful. They could say it’s because of their admission standards, but at the same time, they’re probably the only people who had the free time and boredom that led to dancing around books in some old cave for fun. The hoi polloi were probably too focused on losing as few fingers as possible at the steelworks to wonder about the unknown.

The Hellfire Club was a collection of powerful playboys with magical interests founded by Francis Dashwood in 1746 in England. Dashwood himself was the second most powerful man in England and other members included, reportedly, hundred-dollar-bill headliner Benjamin Franklin. His flair for gothic drama was immediately apparent when he renovated a ruined abbey and dug tunnels to create their headquarters, their motto of “do what thou wilt” heavily featured. So what did they wilt? Well, a lot of weird, debauched sex. Mixed in with tales of brimstone cocktails and costumed baboons, it seems that above all, they were focused on popping on masks and fucking real spooky-style.

Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn

Public Domain

“Glad you could make it!”

If the basis of a group is a mysterious, black-leather bound book from an unknown author, written entirely in ciphers? They’re probably not sitting around playing Scrabble. These Cipher Manuscripts were decoded by a man named William Wynn Westcott and turned out to be chock-full of weird rituals and supposed spells. So he wasted zero time calling up a few fellow Freemasons to see if they’d be interested in trying to spurn God on their open weekends.

This was the founding of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an occult society that would welcome all sorts of famous members through the years, including the poet W. B. Yeats and a man that it’s shocking we’ve even gone this long without mentioning, Aleister Crowley. In the case of some of these clubs, like the aforementioned Hellfire Club, the actual occult practice was at least partly in jest. Not here. These dudes were very genuinely trying to contact the dead and summon demons.

Knights Templar

Public Domain

A very, very different kind of red cross.

Those first two entries might have spilled some blood here and there, but it was probably limited, of animal origin, and into some weird bowl in service of a ritual. The third secret order we’re looking at is considerably more blood-soaked, and not from unfortunate goats but from fellow humans. This is the Knights Templar, an order of extremely religious fellows who, at first, had a simple goal: protect Christian pilgrims on their travels.

As often happens with the church, this new order very quickly expanded its sphere of influence and power beyond what anyone would have imagined. Instead of throwing up a shield in front of a scared Christian on holiday, suddenly they had an entire banking system, which doesn’t seem crucial to their religious business. As you’d expect of any mega-religious club, there was also a whole lot of mystery around what they were up to out of the public eye, including being the guardians and worshipers of the Shroud of Turin. You don’t end up as the main antagonist in video games about ancient assassins by being boring. 

The Independent Order of Odd Fellows

Danilo Formaggia

If you're a member, maybe you understand what the fuck is going on here!

One of the most famous secret societies of all time is the Freemasons. As its name might suggest, at least originally, it was made up of masons. A lot of fraternal organizations back then were centered around trade, so what were you to do if you were the odd ones out? Well, to take that word and start your own club, just as the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (commonly known as simply the Odd Fellows) did.

What was at first a group of ragtag tradesmen left out of other organizations became a force in its own right, with a historical membership that even Skull and Bones couldn’t scoff at. Famous Odd Fellows include everyone from world leaders like Harry Truman and Winston Churchill to western lawman Wyatt Earp and comedian Charlie Chaplin. Though they might not be as outwardly mystical as the others, that doesn’t mean the walls of their lodges aren’t filled with bones used in initiation rites.

The Black Hand

Public Domain

Under absolutely no circumstances should you make fun of these guys' hats.

Some of the other entries on this list might have been involved in some unsavory things, and arguably have had an effect on the world’s trajectory. But none of them can much compare to the single, abrupt wrenching of world history achieved by the secret Serbian military society of the Black Hand. Now, even the description of “secret society” feels a little too… social for the Black Hand, who were basically a self-governed black ops unit serving what they considered the good of Serbia. This culminated in maybe one of the most historically impactful acts of aggression ever carried out: the assassination of Duke Franz Ferdinand and the start of the first World War.

Eli Yudin is a stand-up comedian and writer living in Brooklyn, New York. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @eliyudin and listen to his podcast, “What A Time To Be Alive” about the 5 weirdest news stories of the week on Apple PodcastsSpotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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