With all the recent public revelations, disinformation campaigns, and high weirdness of the past few years the topics of the esoteric, the occult, and secret societies (aka “The Illuminati”) are very much en vogue at the moment. There’s a lot of heated rhetoric on all sides concerning these issues. I’d like to try to take a step back from the fray of the present moment and offer some wider thoughts to bring clarity and a more coherent worldview to the issue. Though I haven’t particularly used the language of the esoteric or occult all that much on the site—preferring instead terms like high strangeness, weird naturalism, ontological flooding, etc.—the terms inherently interrelate as we’ll see and have been core to the explorations here however they’re named.
First, I’ll define the terms esotericism and occult. Both of these terms have many different layers of meanings in various schools of thought. I’ll simply offer here my own understanding of these two terms—very much a first draft/rough cut version to be sure. No definition is going to perfectly encapsulate all these various nuances of each term so these are meant to be working definitions, not perfectly finalized all encompassing understandings of either or both.
By esoteric I mean traditions of mystical and spiritual realization. My earlier pieces exploring the psychic, the subtle, the causal, and the non-dual states/realms and their associated traditional paths and practices are explorations of the esoteric (by this definition). This definition specifies that the path is one of realization of non-ordinary forms of consciousness and energy. Under that very large umbrella of realization consists of a multitude of various schools, practices, beliefs, and even debates, arguments, and fights between esoteric groups themselves. That’s not my concern in this piece but it’s worth noting because it does for example put orthodox Christian mysticism in the same broad category as say Gnosticism—two camps which publicly oppose each other which yet hold some strange unacknowledged commonalities as I’ve argued elsewhere.
The main point here though is that esoteric is to be contrasted with exoteric—exoteric would involve things like social religious conformity or outer ritual, dogmatic belief systems, as well as contemporary consensus secular materialist reality (itself a form of philosophical dogmatism).
The combativeness between exoteric religions and esoteric spiritualities is also very strange insofar as religions—at least the ones that have large scale hold—all originally started out as esoteric movements which over time ossified into exoteric ones.
Jesus drives out demons, performs healings, teaches mystical methods of prayer, meets with his closest students only in secret—whatever else you can say about that, it’s most definitely esoteric. Then the later church that forms in his name creates social forms of persecution, enforced dogmatism, heretic hunting, and all the rest. The mystics within the church proceed to hide out in caves, the desert, and monasteries away from the strict control of the exoteric state and church hierarchy. Examples of much the same trend can be found in Islam, Judaism, Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism.
Esotericists, of various stripes, claim they have a personal embodied realization of otherwise religious faith statements like “humans are made in the image of likeness of God”, “humans are from the stars”, or “all humans are the expression of Buddha Nature.” The key here is the claim of direct, personal, experiential grasp of the inner meaning of those statements. That personal realization and embodiment of those otherwise metaphoric or symbolic statements is the core of esotericism.
In The Renaissance there was the notion of the “occult sciences” which included things like astrology, magic, and alchemy. Occult means hidden and typically carries with it a sense of forbidden, potentially even dangerous, knowledge. I’ve explored alchemy in numerous pieces on the site so I don’t want to recover that ground here. But it’s enough to say that the claim is to truly perform alchemy one must have access to higher (or at least altered) states of consciousness.
In the Venn diagram of esoteric and occult there’s a lot of overlap but the two are nevertheless distinguishable from each other. There are, for example, numerous esoteric traditions of realization that spend a great deal of critiquing paths that seek to gain occult power. Pantanjali fills his Yoga Sutras with multiple denunciations of seeking out siddhis (occult powers). St. Paul in his Letters to the Corinthians chastises members of that church for their attempts to gain spiritual power (charisms) and forget the most important element of Love:
"If I speak in the tongues of humanity or angels but do not have love I am only a ringing gong or a clanging symbol. If I have the gift of prophecy and faith so as to move mountains but have not love I am nothing."
By angelic or human tongues St. Paul means glossolalia. (See Diane Slattery's work on xenolinguistics, aka astrolinguistics, for a contemporary exploration of that topic). By the gift of prophecy Paul means what we would call psychic or psi phenomena. Paul calls them the gifts of the Holy Spirit (charismatic) but they are psi capacities by any other name. Paul's point however is they are clearly subordinate in his mind to the work of Love.
Notice however that those critiques acknowledge the reality of the thing being criticized—in other words, Pantanjali and St. Paul were both personally well aware of the reality of occult powers. They were not arguing that these powers were unreal. Rather they were arguing that those capacities lead people astray if sought as the ultimate end.
As Dean Radin’s research has definitively established, psi capacities and phenomena are very much real (i.e,, magic by any other name). Those are occult realities. Still one can easily be esoterically inclined while rejecting the occult.
On the flip side, there are examples of occult interest in magic and gaining psi abilities without a deep grounding in esoteric wisdom. The CIA’s Project Stargate which trained and studied remote viewing as form of psychic espionage was not built on a bedrock of esoteric teaching to put it mildly. The multitude of various processes associated with MK-Ultra (detailed in this excellent piece by Ezekiel73) would also fit into this category: e.g. the use of psychedelics and hypnosis to induce dissociative states of consciousness for mind control purposes.
The latter point establishes that esoteric realms and the occult capacities within them are very powerful and are indeed capable of great good but also weaponized destruction. I’ll come back to this point again later but occult here also refers specifically to potentially alchemical technologies—e.g. The UFO Phenomenon is an occulted technology that is also somehow tied into non-ordinary states of consciousness (i.e. esoteric).
The esoteric includes metaphysics, cosmology, ethics (ideally), which may or may not be in play in terms of the occult realms of magic and alchemy. Again often the two do go together but not always. Generally speaking, whenever there is a desire to gain occult powers without a foundation in a wider spiritual realization and ethical process, then that is dark or black magic.
But what unites both esotericism and the occult is their public rejection by the official religion and state/secular scientific power, especially though not exclusively in the West. As I’ve covered elsewhere that public rejection of magic and alchemy by science is actually a limited hangout meant to prevent a wider recognition that science is in reality a form of alchemical magic. This keeps the magical power to be held by an elite for occult, and usually dark purposes (an idea covered here).
In conspiracy circles, there’s a great deal of critique of esotericism and the occult—with constant references to The Illuminati. Typically these critiques come from orthodox Christians. Conspiracist thought, especially in America, has much of its roots in fears of the esoteric—see for example the anti-Masonic craze of the 19th century.
One of the most often heard critiques consists of the secrecy of such groups. Of course there are reasons to be critical of opaque agendas and groupings, especially if they have power. On the other hand, to be fair to esotericists for a moment, arguably the principal reason they have historically been hidden is they were persecuted. Secret oaths and memberships were means of self-defense and protection. Jesus hid out multiple times in his ministry only to eventually be captured and executed. While we tend to think of the persecution of the esoteric being unique to the West (or the Abrahamic religions), it was also common in the East. Esoteric groups have sought various forms of marginalization to protect themselves throughout history globally.
Esotericism is generally divided into two camps: The Right Hand Path and the Left Hand Path. The Right Hand Path is also known as “white” or light magic with the Left Hand path being called “black” or dark magic. I put white and black in quotation marks to alert us to the potentially racist undertones to those terms. There are definitely two paths, one more oriented to benevolence and the other towards malevolence (or at least self-will); they have nothing to do with race however as practitioners of both stripes (“colors”) exist across the world throughout time.
The Right Hand Path are The Jedi and the Left Hand Path are The Sith in other words. As I covered in my review of the recent Stars Wars movies, one of the things we’ve seen happen recently is recognition of various kinds of corruption on both The Jedi and Sith sides. Acknowledging that reality however is the not the same as entirely conflating and erasing the distinction between the two as many orthodox Christians are wont to do. Right Hand Path practitioners are humans and by nature therefore imperfect and fallible but that is very different than subscribing to a view of dominance and power over others (Left-Hand path).
This brings us to our third interrelated (though distinct) term: secret societies/occult groups. Now as mentioned historically most esoteric groups have been hidden (literally “occulted”) in order to protect themselves. That doesn’t mean they were necessarily up to insidious or nefarious plots. Most of them in fact renounced public society, especially politics, as devil’s business, which they wanted no part in and consequently retired to mountains, caves, forests, and wilderness locations to be left alone and do their spiritual work in peace.
Of course there are some historical examples of secret societies into esoteric rituals who were involved in violent tendencies—for example groups holed up in the mountains practicing strange (and potentially heretical) forms of Islam, who also happened to run a public terror campaign….no, not al-Qaeda but the Hashishin (origin of our word assassin). Secret societies, occult rituals, and military orders go way back—think Masada or The Templars, The Mithras Cult, and The Teutonic Knights amongst others.
Those examples notwithstanding, when the topic of secret societies comes up in conspiracy circles, what we’re really talking about is a more specific claim: namely that occulted esoteric groups are involved in deep control of society from behind the scenes/throne, aka The Illuminati. Usually the control is thought to exist as a part of a unified global conspiracy.
Before diving into that specific charge notice how quickly all these terms get so easily conflated and thrown about without context or nuance. Many, if not, most esotericists have little or nothing to do with politics. Or if they do it’s so all across the board politically as to be hard to distinguish from politics generally. As I covered in my previous piece on Wake vs. Woke, spiritual realization does not automatically bring with it any kind of political (or ethical) vision. Esotericists have been monarchists, fascists, socialists, republican constitutionalists, utopian idealists, revolutionaries, status quo reactionaries, and again (most often) totally apolitical and quietistic.
George van Tassel led a group of bohemian UFO contactees out in the desert to discuss living off the land and forming resilient communes of human solidarity—for which he got put under surveillance by the FBI as a possible social and political threat.
In a different vein, Annie Besant, the second leader of the Theosophical Society (after Madam Blavatsky) was hugely influential on Gandi, Nehru, and the entire Indian independence movement. Besant was also a suffragist and a major advocate for Irish independence. In fact, Theosophy was crucial (and crucially forgotten or underplayed nowadays) in the entire suffragette movement.
Spiritualism, another esoteric and occult movement, was similarly very influential in the abolitionist movement in America. So was the 2nd Great Awakening and the movement towards what we today think of as “born again” evangelical Christianity—they were the radicals both in UK and US for abolition.
As Taylor Branch showed in his magisterial series on the US Civil Rights movement, it was first and foremost a spiritual renewal movement in the American black churches that spilled over into political reform. Similarly the Azusa Street Revival, the birth of modern day Pentecostalism, brought people in across racial and class lines before it was later co-opted and segregated.
Conversely the Nazis were an occult esoteric movement. They grew out of occult circles, spiritual practice, and a mythology of being descended from “star beings” crashed down to earth to struggle and fight to remember their true identity (Aryan overlords) in order to overcome the forces of darkness (as they imagined it).
One set of esoteric movements sought to free people from bondage, the other sought to put millions precisely into such deathly chains.
The point is that there’s incredible diversity and no simplistic formulation can do justice to the subtlety of the topic. In the worst of cases this ignorance can lead to deep misunderstanding and persecution of individuals doing their own thing off in a corner somewhere (even if said thing is being into high strangeness).
Plenty of occult practitioners (with or without esoteric realization) were similarly on their own. Think of the classic stereotype of the alchemist as a lone individual isolated away in a lab somewhere—i.e. not participating in the public social order.
George Gurdjieff, a Right-Hand path esoteric realizer and occult practitioner, ran a semi-public/semi-private mystery school, based on claims of connection to hidden occulted esoteric groups that he encountered in his journeys. Gurdjieff and those in his orbit (e.g. Ouspensky, Tomberg, Mouravieff) were not particularly political. They mostly tried to stay in obscurity—Tomberg had his magnum opus published under an anonymous name! These practitioners sought out some aesthetic, mystical, and spiritual space for their pursuits.
But not all have been apolitical. There have been some key examples of occultists directly connected to political power—this is getting us a bit closer to the Illuminati question. John Dee was court astrologer, magician and alchemist for Queen Elizabeth I; he was also her spymaster, and in that role was the basis for James Bond. Dee’s code was 007. Dee was also influential in setting the stage for the experiment in “The New World” (aka United States).
Aleister Crowley, covered elsewhere on the site, a Left-Hand magician and occultist, also seems to have had some intelligence asset background.
Giordano Bruno, explored previously on the site, was an esoteric realizer, a magician/occultist, and also very possibly a spy or intelligence asset of some variety. Bruno ran afoul of The Catholic Church, as well as the Venice banking establishment, for which he was executed. Bruno’s martyrdom and spiritual vision of a unified European “brotherhood” brings up his potential influence upon the later movement of Rosicrucianism, one of the preeminent Western secret societies.
Rosicrucianism, an occult esoteric society, did have a major influence in courtly politics of the era: see Joseph Farrell’s book Thrice Great Hermetica for more on that dynamic. In fact, Farrell’s book consists of a series of speculative thoughts about any number of potential conspiracies during the late Middle Ages through the Renaissance—e.g. who was Shakespeare really?; what really was behind the attack on the Knights Templar?; did Christopher Columbus already know about the location of The New World and why did he sail under The Templar flag (when the group had been officially banned)?
Theosophy argued that there was a secret group of hidden spiritual adepts—alternatively known as The Masters, The Mahatmas, and the Great White Brotherhood—who were secretly guiding humanity into higher forms of spiritual awakening and evolution.
As previously mentioned, The Nazis were an esoteric occult society who happened to take over the German military and state apparatus leading to horrors upon horrors. The Nazis' occult nature explains why Himmler had secret rituals for the SS in their own castle, practiced geomancy, were involved in esoteric off books physics and alchemical technological experiments, and were sending researchers to Tibet to measure skull sizes on their quest to see if Tibetans were their long lost Aryan cousins (among other bizarre things).
During the Cold War the United States used a series of churches and esoteric groups as intelligence fronts. Prominent examples include the so-called “wandering bishops” (episcopi vagrantes) who very creepily show up time and time again at key points in investigations around the assassination of JFK.
Were those groups actually esotericists and occultists? Or were they using the cover of religion to hide what was a pretty purely materialist though nefarious political power play? Tough to know really.
We do know the CIA studied cults and cult leaders in particular for how they created (sub)cultures of mind control. The CIA probably also created its own cult(s), as in the case of the Siamenese Liberation Army (Patty Hearst/Stockholm Syndrome). Other examples could include the strange intelligence intersections with Charles Manson and The Family (Operation Chaos?), as well as Jim Jones and The People’s Temple.
The documentary Wild Wild Country examined the Rajneeshi movement in the United States and how it took over local municipal politics in a small town in rural Oregon, leading eventually to commit the largest domestic biological terrorist attack in US history.
Sirhan Sirhan, the accused murderer of RFK, was a member of the American Rosicrucian Order (AMORC) and was known to have been studied by the group for his susceptibility to hypnotic states. Sirhan later claimed he was in fugue state and had no recollection of attempting to shoot Robert Kennedy.
Joseph Smith was an occultist and magician who channeled a religious scripture from an entity (just as Crowley would later claim to do), which we now know as Mormonism. From that revelation came a very distinct social grouping with its own ethics—care for their own poor as well as plural marriage. Smith had his own currency and even ran for President of the United States before being assassinated.
The US Space program was created by ex-Nazis occultists like Werner von Braun on the one hand, as well as Left-Hand path occultist followers of Crowley on the other in the person of Jack Parsons. Parsons, along with L. Ron Hubbard—who it should be noted claimed he was naval intelligence—performed the same rituals that Joseph Smith did. Certain Mormon elites later interface with the aeronautics industry through their control of Howard Hughes (aka “The Mormon Mafia”). Hubbard of course went on to found Scientology which keeps detailed notes on all sessions of the clients which (it has been claimed by many) were then used as control files for blackmail. For the record, Charles Manson underwent Scientology clearing processes during one of his many prison stays—possibly connected to the wider MK Ultra project.
In these examples we could see why intelligence groups might want to use cult members or individuals in secret societies as intelligence assets: they are used to top-down control, taking orders, secrecy, and high levels of dedication and unquestioning loyalty. They also work as perfect patsies and fall guys if something goes wrong or they get found out as the intelligence agencies can deny any connection with them and blame it all “on the crazies” (see Sirhan, Sirhan).
All that shows that there are conspiracies in our world—local ones, regional ones, and yes even trans-national or global ones.
In that sense I am perfectly fine with a term like the deep state, so long as we remember its proper usage as articulated by Peter Dale Scott (and not Donald Trump’s co-opting of the term). The deep state, as Dale Scott argues, is more like a weather system, sometimes even self-contradictory (i.e. there’s internal factions within it). But, just like a weather system, it effects the overall climate. The deep state is an occulted series of influences, forces, groupings, and factions not part of the above ground state. The deep state consists of a nexus of intelligence agencies, elite finance, private foundations, military black operations, hidden space/aeronautics industry, organized crime, and Big Oil/Big Pharma among others.
This nexus (or cabal if you like) owns major media outlets and uses psychological operations, social engineering, and propaganda techniques. Christopher Simpson’s book Science of Coercion showed the profound and pervasive influence on the development of communication studies by military intelligence. The father of modern advertising Edward Bernays, got his start in propaganda and counterintelligence. Joseph Goebbels famously stated that everything he ever learned about propaganda he learned from studying Madison 5th Avenue ad agencies.
These groups also control mass swaths of educational institutions—see Weaponizing Anthropology for the deep penetration of anthropological and social scientific research by the CIA. See also the US military’s heavy funding of the NFL to promote it’s own warrior mythos and gain recruits, complete the with the absolutely ludicrous pregame football-sized flag demonstrations. (And very possibly a fake story about Pat Tillman's death).
I’ve written about the US deep state and its alliance with the postwar fascist international previously. I’ve also explored other aspects of the US deep state more allied historically to international marxism. One faction of the US deep state is more globalist and transnational in orientation, whereas another faction seems more nationalist and industrialist, mercantilist and protectionist in nature.
Furthermore, The US Deep State is only one of a series of deep states globally—some of which it has alliances with (e.g. Anglo-British), some of which it would seem not to (e.g. Russian deep state). Some of its deep states allies tend to be enemies of each other (e.g. the fascist International, the Saudi, and the Israeli deep states).
Up until 2020 the UFO was technically occult in that it was not publicly admitted as a reality by mainstream governments. Officially the US Navy has acknowledged the reality of UFOs but I believe that is part of a larger psychological operation seeking to still hide it's true occulted possibilities of over-unity/zero point energy (as detailed here).
We know for certain that deep states the world over have known about and sought to study and weaponize psi/occult phenomena. The SS did. The CIA did. The Soviets had their own such experiments.
The book Strange Tales of the Parapolitical by Frank Zero and S. William Snider—as well as Snider’s blog Visup—shows in incredible detail the interplay between various organized crime, intelligence agencies, and esoteric occult groups, particularly sovereign military orders (e.g. Knights of Malta). Those groups function not only in a spiritual sense but create cover for political networking and coordination among elites.
The connection is deep, long-standing (centuries at least, if not millennia), and consistent. It is however also one in which again we see deeply factionalism or the same structural linkage between these various forces serving variously different aims.
Again the point here is that just because there have been (and currently are) esotericists and occultists involved in conspiracies and organized criminal behavior does not mean esotericism or occultism are inherently so nefariously inclined. To reiterate my point in the Wake vs. Woke piece, esotericism and occultism can have any and all kinds of political manifestations, including yes conspiratorial and deep state variations. The parapolitical or deep state/conspiratorial is by no means the predominant political manifestation of the esoteric and the occult (quite the opposite actually) as much contemporary orthodox Christian-influenced conspiracy thought would have you believe (e.g. William Cooper).
The reason to study the influence of secret societies in parapolitical or deep state machinations—particularly those with occult and esoteric practice—is because, while small, they can have outsized political and social impact.
Mention should also be made at this point of Peter Levenda’s argument concerning Sinister Forces. In Sinister Forces Levenda speculated on whether high strange or transpersonal forces may themselves be involved in human history, creating in essence “negative synchronicities”. In other words, if it is true that various elites (at least some of them) have participated in various occult rituals, particularly of the Left Hand variety, might they themselves unknowingly be in fact controlled by various negative (even demonic) subtle forces?
So yes there are secret societies formally involved in occult explorations and often esoteric spiritual pursuits. How deep those explorations actually go esoterically and into the occult varies widely. But generally a term like The Illuminati is not typically that helpful in my view because it makes it sound like it’s a unified project (THE ILLUMINATI). When in reality, as we’ve seen, there are multiple forms of esotericism. Sometimes esotericism and occult magical-alchemical ventures are aligned and sometimes not. The Illuminati makes it sound like there’s one pyramid of conspiracy with a single group on top—and speculation goes on endlessly of which group is on top. But again when we use Peter Dale Scott’s image of the deep state as a weather system with multiple interrelated forces (“factions”) at play it helps deconstruct simplistic notions of The Illuminati and open up a view that is much plural, mutable, multi-faceted, systemic, and yes often quite occulted.