The first secret society, according to Theodore Ziolkowski, a Princeton-based scholar on the literature of cults and conspiracies, "consisted of Eve and the serpent and then it just kept going," Ziokowski writes.
In Greek antiquity, the mystery cults were often blamed for undermining democracy. The Knights Templar was accused of threatening royal hegemony in the middle ages. The Thirty Years' War was often attributed to the machinations of the Rosicrucians. It was whispered that the Illuminati triggered the French Revolution.
Twentieth century conspiracy theorists, from Hitler and Stalin to Henry Ford and beyond to the present day, read the protocols of the Elders of Zion as the blueprint for a Jewish plot to control the world's economy.
So, are any of these secret societies real or worth worrying about? We try to separate the myth from the reality.
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- Arthur Goldwag is the author of Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies, and most recently, The New Hate: A History of Fear and Loathing on the Populist Right.
- Alexandra Robbins is the author of Secrets of the Tomb: Skull and Bones, The Ivy League, and the Hidden Paths of Power. She writes for several publications, including The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and The Atlantic.
- Jay Kinney is a former cartoonist, and the author of The Masonic Myth: Unlocking the Truth About the Symbols, Secret Rites, and History of Freemasonry.