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Gnosis and Secret Societies


Caspar David Friedrich


Gnosticism, ‘Secret Societies’ and Conspiracy Theories


We have all heard of the Freemasons, the Templars and other ‘secret’ religious Orders or Societies - all of which are therefore no longer a secret, and many of which were no secret even in their own time. What exactly is a ‘secret society’ then, and is there any truth to the increasingly widespread belief that such societies have played and continue to play a secret but significant ‘conspiratorial’ role in shaping the course of human history – doing so, some declare, with quite different intents and therefore also in intense secret conflict with one another? To begin with, it is necessary to understand that the very term ‘secret society’ has many meanings, some of which are hidden to most people and therefore a secret in themselves - except to those who know them, and who are therefore themselves implicitly united as a ‘secret society’ by virtue of this knowledge or Gnosis.


The Spiritual Meanings of ‘Secret Society’

1.       A society that is united by virtue of knowing and sharing common access to a secretum – a ‘hidden place’ in both the literal and metaphorical sense of the phrase (a cave or hidden temple, a hidden place within the soul or on other planes of awareness).

2.       A society in possession of such ‘secret’ spiritual knowledge, invisible or hidden, opaque or ‘occult’ to others, and/or engaging in esoteric spiritual practices that cultivate such knowledge and provide a portal or gateway to ‘hidden places’.

3.       A society that needs to keep itself secret by virtue of the spiritually and politically subversive nature of its secret knowledge and practices. Examples are certain lesser-known Gnostic sects.

4.       A society that needs to keep its knowledge and practices secret for the same reason – for example the Essenes and the Knights Templar, whose existence as societies was not ‘secret’ but whose practices were a secret before the Inquisition exposed them.  

5.       A society that is secret by virtue of its invisibility - being composed of seemingly ordinary people with extra-ordinary spiritual awareness or powers known only to themselves, and practices giving them access to ‘places’ hidden to others.

6.       A society whose secret lies in being the group incarnation of a single spiritual soul entity - for example the 12 Disciples, who were all incarnations of the Christ Entity.

7.       A society that is initially secret by virtue of being gathered around an unknown spiritual teacher or initiate possessing secret knowledge and practices - for example the groups that first gather around founders of religious faiths, before those faiths become formally named, known and organised as religions.

8.       A society of initiates united by their shared spiritual awareness, and by the secret knowledge and hidden places to which their spiritual practices give access.

9.       The soul itself as a secret society being a hidden place or secretum in which is gathered a whole society of selves, more or less hidden or secret to one another.

10.   The secret of society itself - the soul of society or social psyche being itself a secretum, a hidden place from which mass social and political events are given birth to in the same way that dream events are given birth to in the individual psyche.

11.   A social group or community that is the (re-)incarnation of a soul group or community, intended to awaken either the awareness of its members and/or that of society as a whole.

12.  Societies such as the Knights Templar who practiced in secret the sacrament of con-spiratio – literally a commingling of breath through a subtle form of mouth-to-mouth kiss, linking their soul-breath with that of the Holy Spirit (pneuma / prana). 

13.  A group that secretly ‘conspires’ to change the course of social history and world events. Past examples were the Indian Rishis, and also the early Jewish prophets, who forged the neurological patterning necessary for the social development and eventual transcendence - through the rebirth of Indian wisdom - of individual ego-consciousness and ego-identity.

Today’s equivalent of the Jewish prophets are those semi-public and semi-clandestine cabals who seek instead to maintain a totally ego-centric global ‘culture’ dominated by economics. They do so by communicating ‘under the breath’ in a different way – through strict rules of internal secrecy or ‘non-attribution’ regarding their closed-meeting communications (for example The Council on Foreign Affairs).


The Spiritual Meaning of ‘Conspiracy’


“ … around the year 300 pax became a key word in the Christian liturgy. It became the euphemism for a mouth-to-mouth kiss among the faithful attending services; pax became the camouflage for osculum (from os, mouth), or the conspiratio, a commingling of breaths.


The Latin osculum is neither very old nor very frequent. It is one of three words that can be translated by the English “kiss”. In comparison with the affectionate basium and the lascivious suavium, osculum was a latecomer into classical Latin …. In the Christian liturgy of the first century, the osculum assumed a new function. It became one of two high points in the celebration of the Eucharist. Conspiratio, the mouth-to-mouth kiss, became the solemn liturgical gesture by which participants in the cult action shared their breath or spirit with one another. It came to signify their union in one Holy Spirit, the community that takes shape in God’s breath. The ecclesia came to be through a public ritual action, the liturgy, and the soul of this liturgy was the conspiratio. Explicitly, corporeally, the central Christian celebration was understood as a co-breathing, a con-spiracy, the bringing about of a common atmosphere, a divine milieu …


Conspiratio became the strongest, clearest and most unambiguously somatic expression for the entirely non-hierarchical creation of a fraternal spirit in preparation for a unifying meal. Through the act of eating, the fellow conspirators were transformed into a “we”, a gathering which in Greek means ecclesia. Further, they believed that the “we” is also somebody’s “I”; they were nourished by the shading into the “I” of the Incarnate Word … Peace [pax] … as the result of conspiratio exacts a demanding, today almost unimaginable intimacy.


The practice of the osculum did not go unchallenged; documents reveal that the conspiratio created scandal early on. The rigorist African Church Father Tertullian felt that a decent matron should not be subjected to possible embarrassment by this rite. The practice continued, but not its name; the ceremony required a euphemism. From the later third century on, the osculum pacis was referred to simply as pax, and the gesture was often watered down to some slight touch to signify the mutual spiritual union of the persons present … Today the pax before communion, called “the kiss of peace”, is still integral to the Roman, Slavonic, Greek and Syrian Mass, although it is often reduced to a perfunctory handshake.


Community in our European tradition is not the outcome of an act of authoritative foundation, nor a gift from nature or its gods, nor the result of management, planning and design, but the consequence of a conspiracy, a deliberate, mutual, somatic and gratuitous gift to each other … the shared breath, the con-spiratio are the peace understood as the community that arises from it.


One can fail to perceive the pretentious absurdity of attempting a contractual insurance of an atmosphere as fleeting and alive, as tender and robust, as pax.


The medieval merchants who settled at the foot of a lord’s castle felt the need to make the conspiracy that united them into a secure and lasting association. To provide for their general surety they had recourse to a device, the conjuratio, a mutual promise confirmed by an oath that uses God as witness … “conjuration” or the swearing together by a common oath confirmed by the invocation of God, just like the liturgical osculum, is of Christian origin. Conjuratio which used God as epoxy for the social bond presumably assures stability and durability to the atmosphere engendered by the conspiratio of the citizens. In this linkage between conspiratio and conjuratio, two equally unique concepts inherited from the first millennium of Christian history are intertwined, but the latter, the contractual form, soon overshadowed the spiritual substance.”

Ivan Illich The Cultivation of Conspiracy


The modern capitalist state has replaced conspiratio with secular juridicial conjuratio – with Law - and has turned ‘conspiracy’ into a word tinged with connotations of nefarious scheming outside the framework of the law. Above all ‘conspiracies’ are seen as being ‘hatched’ in secret by small groups of societies of persons, rather than as an embodiment of the very communio of spirit and soul uniting and transcending them. The inquisitorial trial and torture of the Templars focused on their ‘sexual perversion’ - the con-spiration seen as some sort of lascivious homosexual ‘French kiss’ (the osculum infame). But esoterically understood, the con-spiratio requires that lips be barely touching, if at all. Its essence lies in a bodily proximity intimate enough to allow inhalation of the soul breath and soul scent of the other, as emanated or ‘exhaled’ from mouth or nose. The persecution of the Templars took place in the early part of the 14th century – precisely that century which, as Illich notes, historians see as the one in which the idea of the ‘social contract’ (an expression of the conjuratio) took root. But Illich is quite wrong when he asserts that the cultivation of ‘conspiracy’ is unique to Christian and European history, and that: “The European idea of peace that is synonymous with the somatic incorporation of equals into a community has no analogy elsewhere.”

The festive meal is an integral part of the Jewish tradition, indeed of Jewish Law. And in the Hindu Tantric tradition, the somatic embodiment of spiritual unity took the form of maithuna –a spiritualised, but nevertheless highly sensual metamorphosis of the experience of sexual intercourse, practiced by pairs within groups. The conspiratio constituted a Gnostic-Christian form of communal maithuna. Similarly, maithuna was seen as the “somatic incorporation of equals” into a spiritual family group or kula. The kula was understood as a soul family and soul community spiritually united as a “We” not just by a kiss but by the bliss of identification with the transcendental and divine “I” of Shiva and with the transcendental “We” of the divine couple (yamala) – the conjugatio of Lord Shiva with his feminine counterpart Shakti.

The entire historic and reincarnational lineage of Tantric schools and adepts constituted a ‘secret society’ of yet another sort, embodying an inner knowledge or gnosis of the body itself – and focused particularly on its subtle inner soul breath (prana). This Gnosis (jnana) of sensually embodied spirituality and communion was as subversive of the ascetic and hierarchical caste religion of the Brahmins as the secret knowledge of the early Christian Gnostics was subversive of the ascetic, hierarchical and institutionalised Church or ecclesia. Yet whereas the latter left its trace only in the con-spiratorial kiss, the shared experience of divine bliss that constitutes the essence of tantra has survived to this day through its sophisticated metaphysical treatises or tantras, through the meditational practices or yogas they describe, and through the incarnation of new contemporary adepts. 

Secret Societies and Conspiracy Theory Today

Today there is no theory of ‘conspiracy’ in its historical root sense, as embodied in the Gnostic-Christian sacraments and maintained as a spiritual practice by the Templars. Instead there is a plethora of superficial historical conspiracy theories. Many of these surround or involve the Templars, and later religious orders and ‘secret societies’ that sought to model themselves on them – or to root out what they represented. As Rudolf Steiner recognised however, a deeper historical understanding of the role of ‘secret societies’ in social history must go back much earlier.

The Mystery temples of ancient times guided the development of their respective cultures. It was not possible in those distant times to reveal all knowledge to those who were unprepared for it or too immature to receive it. The hallmarks of the Mysteries were secrecy, hierarchy, silence, obedience and teaching, not through intellectual discourse or reasoning so much as through the manipulation of symbols and ritual ceremonies. These spoke not to the wakeful mind or conscious Ego, but to the dreaming feeling life of the soul and to the life forces of the body itself. The pupils of the Mysteries, East and West, were sworn to obedience to their superiors, in whose hands their destiny was trustingly placed as a child trusts its parents. The peoples of the East especially, then and now, were aware that truth and reality existed behind the veil of the visible and illusory material world. The origin of worldly power they also felt to exist behind that veil.

Terry M. Boardman  Anthroposophy and the Question of Conspiracy in Modern History

In Western society today, on the other hand,

… "conspiracy" is a dirty word. Its conventional meaning today invariably implies an underhanded secrecy, a devious attempt to manipulate free people. Oligarchy, hierarchy, manipulation via the subconscious, string-pulling, old boys' networks - all of this is looked upon askance as an affront to the modern individual's sense of dignity, and so it should be, for we have indeed grown up and have cut ourselves off from the divine apron-strings. But conspiracies, of types both beneficial and injurious to human development, nevertheless remain.  


The “manipulation of symbols” to affect the dreaming, feeling life of the soul has since been turned into a tool of cynical commercial advertisers and Murdoch-style media monopolists to maintain a materialistic consumer culture. From its earliest beginnings, television advertising exploited the insights of Freudian psychoanalysis in its use of carefully crafted symbolism.  Even before this however, new forms of ‘secret society’ emerged which conspired to halt the growing self-consciousness and self-assertion of the working class in the heartland of industrial capitalism. These took the form of

… clandestine or semi-secret advisory groups which today we would call 'think-tanks', the manipulation of mass public opinion through the mass media, and the use of symbol systems through which to mesmerise and focus the loyalty of the 'newly-empowered' mass electorate. Thus, after 1877, by creating Queen Victoria Empress of India, Disraeli set in train the gaudy spectacle of late Victorian imperialism which enabled the workers of Leeds and Manchester always to feel that there were some poor foreign wretches who were worse off than themselves and inferior to themselves. With pride, England’s poor could send their sons off in gleaming redcoats to bestow upon dark-skinned savages via Bible, law-book and Maxim gun all the blessings of British civilisation. Yet this 'most advanced of civilisations’ was based on what constitutionalists Walter Bagehot and Lord Acton respectively hailed as a 'mystical monarchy' and a 'mystical constitution', an 'arcanum imperii'.


Right up to the 1890s England was the perfect example of honest and upright parliamentarianism....[but] during the time when the things I have hinted at were beginning to take a hold it became necessary to create a special institution, for it was not possible to pull all sorts of strings if everything had to come from Parliament. For this reason the conduct of foreign affairs was taken away from Parliament and also from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and made the preserve of a committee whose members consisted exclusively of the Cabinet and certain officials in the Foreign Ministry … In the 90s the place where all the threads came together was separated from 'external' politics, which became nothing much more than a kind of shadow politics, no longer having much to say and revealing only what was really going on if one happened to look at it at the right moment. So, at the moment when it became necessary to commence pulling threads, the scene of action was transferred from external view to a hidden place, to a so-called committee of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Rudolf Steiner

What Steiner describes here is very familiar to us today in the form of those influential extra-parliamentary ‘cabals’ of spin-doctors or neo-conservative groupings that operated behind the scenes of the British Cabinet and U.S. Presidential advisors respectively – the latter being responsible for conspiring to launch the war on Iraq.  According to Boardman, such groupings had their origin in what Steiner himself was most likely referring to, namely:

… the group operating in Lord Salisbury's administration from 1895 onwards around the Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain, and who, together with Cecil Rhodes, Sir Alfred Milner and the Times newspaper conspired to bring about the Jameson Raid in South Africa which, they designed, would provoke war with the Boers and ultimately lead to British control of South Africa. The details and proof of the conspiracy and the way in which it was hidden from the Parliamentary Select Committee set up to investigate it are given by the American historian Carroll Quigley in his book ‘The Anglo-American Establishment’.


What Quigley calls the Rhodes-Milner Group of conspirators in the 1890s, seeing itself as Arthur's Knights resurrected that would make the world safe for peace, democracy and domination by the English-speaking peoples, went on to establish the Round Table movement in 1909 in Anglesey, an ancient Celtic Druid  centre. It then took over the government of Britain in 1916, masterminded the development of the ideology of the Commonwealth as a means of continuing British influence in the post-imperial age, and established the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) in 1919 and the Council On Foreign Relations in the USA in 1921 to coordinate Anglo-American foreign policy. Both these institutions often operate (still today) according to the so-called Chatham House Rule of non-attribution of sources or comment to the media. Here again one sees the gesture of secrecy, the desire to work from behind a veil . A key role was played in this project in the first half of this century by the American journalist Walter Lippmann, who shortly after joining the cabal in 1916 wrote in his book ‘Public Opinion’ advocating the establishment of extra-parliamentary institutions, or 'think tanks':

We shall assume that what each man does is based not on direct and certain knowledge, but on pictures made by himself or given to him.... The way in which the world is imagined determines at any particular moment what men will do. I argue that representative government, either in what is ordinarily called politics, or in industry, cannot be worked successfully, no matter what the basis of election, unless there is an independent, expert organization for making the unseen facts intelligible to those who have to make the decisions...My conclusion is that public opinions must be organized for the press if they are to be sound, not by the press as is the case today. This organization I conceive to be in the first instance the task of a political science that has won its proper place as formulator, in advance of real decision, instead of apologist, critic, or reporter after the decision has been made...

At present, the inheritors of this conspiratorial stream, who work closely with leading Anglo-America banking and financial concerns … are aiming at a one world government by the mid-21st century through a lengthy three stage process: the creation of a United States of Europe (well under way) allied to a Union of the Americas (under construction via the North American Free Trade Area, NAFTA), and finally, some kind of Asia-Pacific Community or Union (preliminary spadework completed through the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation group, or APEC).

This is essentially a project aristocratic and oligarchical in spirit, descending from the top-down, not a democratic project arising from the intuitions and wills of the peoples of Europe. It has been par excellence a conspiratorial project. However, one should not lose sight of the larger game … namely the drive towards a single world state [‘The New World Order’] a drive dominated not so much by the overt political will of the Anglo-American elite in the old 19th century territorial sense, as by their economically focused will, which is the bearer of certain cultural 'values': Rupert Murdoch's ever-expanding global satellite network as a mediator for American cultural norms and ideas, for instance. 


In recognition of the type of planned misinformation and distortion of truth now disseminated by the Murdochian media, Rudolf Steiner emphasised already in 1917 that:

In our day the communication of truths … is the most vital thing and men must orientate themselves in regard to them on the basis of their own freedom.

In opposition to the semi-secret societies and ‘think tanks’ of global capitalism, this is the task of new spiritual world teachers, and their co-con-spirators – those who learned from them how to breathe the air of an undistorted and symbol-free knowing. Such world teachers can no longer rely on the manipulation of symbols and ritual ceremonies to communicate spiritual truth. On the contrary, their task is to undermine the dominant mythology of our ‘post-modern’ world. For this is a world of ‘i-dollartry’, a world in which symbols or ‘signifiers’ of all sorts, whether in the form of the dollar or brand image, economic statistics or mathematical models, genetic codes or esoteric codes, are worshipped as the very essence of ‘truth’ - in contrast to the dreaming feeling life of the soul … and of the body itself.” (Boardman)

New world teachers are born not ‘made’. Their inner knowledge or Gnosis is accumulated over many lifetimes – from their own secret society of selves - and above all drawn from their recollection of the larger dimensions of reality which surround the life-between-lives. Such teachers do not advertise themselves through the media but seek instead to embody the truths they articulate in the immediacy of face-to-face encounter with other human beings. That way their inner identity as world teachers remains a secret to the world - even whilst they secretly ‘conspire’ with those around them to change that world - through their own con-spiratio and communio of soul.