One of the primary methods used by secret societies to conceal their actual origins, retrospective recruitment was defined and satirized by a famous passage in Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary of 1911:

Freemasons, n. An order with secret rites, grotesque ceremonies and fantastic costumes, which, originating in the reign of Charles II, among working artisans of London, has been joined successively by the dead of past centuries in unbroken retrogression until now it embraces all the generations of man on the hither side of Adam and is drumming up distinguished recruits among the pre-Creational inhabitants of Chaos and the Formless Void.

The basic strategy of retrospective recruitment, as this suggests, is the same as that of the person of humble origins who claims descent from some famous monarch or aristocrat. Since few people have the resources to check the claim, and fewer still are likely to devote the time and effort to the task, such claims often go unchallenged even when they are clearly bogus. Secret societies can claim prestigious forebears with even less compunction, since it is all but impossible to prove conclusively that a given public figure in the past did not belong to some secret society or another; a complete lack of evidence, after all, just shows how assiduously the person in question kept his oath of secrecy.

Such considerations have made it easy for some recently founded secret societies to claim roots reaching back hundreds or even thousands of years. One of the most widely publicized claims of this sort has been circulated by (and on behalf of) the Priory of Sion, a French secret society founded in 1956. Similar historical imagination shaped the pedigree of the Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (AMORC), an American Rosicrucian secret society founded in 1925; AMORC claimed the “heretic pharaoh” Ahkenaten, among others, in its list of forebears. See Akhenaten; Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (AMORC); Leonardo da Vinci; Priory of Sion.

While retrospective recruitment functions mostly as an advertising gimmick nowadays, it was more important in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when the Masonic custom of requiring a lodge to be chartered by a grand lodge was standard practice throughout the world of European secret societies. Innovators who devised new secret societies thus had to invent a lineage for themselves in order to gain acceptance for their creations. Romantic origin stories played a crucial role in this process, but retrospective recruitment also saw much use. See origin stories.

Some of the most influential secret societies in modern history equipped themselves with blatantly forged charters in order to meet this requirement. Martinez de Pasqually in 1767 founded the Elect Cohens, the fount of most contemporary French occult secret society traditions, on the basis of a charter allegedly issued by Bonnie Prince Charlie as “head of all Scottish Masonry,” while the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was founded by a coterie of English Masonic occultists in 1887 using an equally bogus charter supposedly issued by a German adept in Nuremberg. This same logic drove the manufacture of imaginary “family traditions” by the creators of modern Wiccan and Pagan traditions in the second half of the twentieth century. While the wholesale manufacture of roots is not as necessary now as it once was, its value as a marketing tool remains high, and retrospective recruitment will probably remain a favored tactic in secret society circles for a long time to come. See Elect Cohens; Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn; Wicca.


The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies : the ultimate a-z of ancient mysteries, lost civilizations and forgotten wisdom written by John Michael Greer – © John Michael Greer 2006