St John Karp

Ramblings of an Ornamental Hermit

Secret Societies

We have a paranoid fantasy that the world is controlled by a secret order or brotherhood. Exactly which one depends who you ask, but we’re variously told it’s the Illuminati, the Freemasons or Skull and Bones. But these are only a drop in the ocean of secret societies, and they’re none too secret at that. In the old city directories there was often a whole section devoted to which “secret” societies were in town — they even published photos of their members. Not only were they more visible than secret, they also picked the most absurd and ridiculous names for themselves. Are these the actions of the sinister puppetmasters who control the White House? Or are they the deluded fantasies of men in funny hats? Have I written a serious and in-depth history of secret societies from their foundation in Roman and Egyptian cults to their revival and influence in modern America? Or have I cherry picked the most ridiculous societies and mocked them relentlessly? Stay tuned.

Men in Funny Hats
Ed Norton and Ralph Kramden singing the Raccoon anthem

The epitome of these wicked and world-controlling societies is the sinisterly-named Order of the S.S.S. and Brotherhood of the Z.Z.R.R.Z.Z. These fellows put about a lot of new-age nonsense with a healthy dose of faux-mystic symbolism thrown in for good luck. The gorgeously helpful Cyclopædia of Fraternities gives a review of the order that’s way more cynical than a mere “cyclopædia” probably ought to be:

Seal of the Order of the S.S.S.
The seal of the Order of the S.S.S.

Headquarters “for this country” at Boston. Its motto is: “All things come from within.” Its seal is a circle, formed of three cobras “separated by three swastikas, encircling two interlaced triangles,” which, in turn, enclose “the crux ansata1,” from which its theosophic temperament and mystical tendencies may be inferred. It declares that Love with Wisdom is the secret of Life, and that the Torch of Life is fed by the Oil of Love. Among its relics is said to be a “large cube of cream-white stone,” of great antiquity, presented by “a Mexican chief.” Membership is small.

When I read this description to a friend, he immediately responded “I wanna be a love-snake-Nazi!” I could probably do with some “Oil of Love” myself, but seeing as membership is so small (despite the obvious rush)

I cannot be guaranteed a place among their number. The “hierophant” (and founding member?) of the order is the mysterious Italian Count A. de G., “whose noble contour of face and majesty of form are only excelled by the exalted, loving Soul within” (Street, iii). What a guy.

Secret societies loved to associate themselves with a mythology and a sense of mysticism that they couldn’t create themselves. So they attached themselves limpet-like to an ancient god or a few words that sounded suitably exotic. We have the Fifth Order of Melchizedek and Egyptian Sphinx; the Hermetic Brothers of Luxor; the Mystic Order, Veiled Prophets of the Enchanted Realm; the Temple of Isis; the Prudent Patricians of Pompeii and the Tribe of Ben-Hur. If these people weren’t ransacking the world’s mythology, then the animal kingdom would do instead. Everyone wanted to be an Owl, an Elk or a Moose. They couldn’t join fast enough.

Emblem of the International Concatenated Order of Hoo-Hoo
The emblem of the International Concatenated Order of Hoo-Hoo

It might look like these societies sat around making “wooooo” ghost noises at each other amid flickering candlelight. This kind of society falls under the mantle of theosophic or esoteric societies, which is code for making ghost noises and lighting scented candles. The good old Brotherhood of the Z.Z.R.R.Z.Z. was one of this ilk, and even after reading their published literature you’re lucky to have any idea what they did. But many societies were actually well-advertised clubs for a specific purpose, such as investment, insurance, charity, politics, religion or simply socializing. These clubs might organize social events, pay health insurance, donate money to charities, or ensure the burial and remembrance of the dead. Nowadays the function of these societies has largely been siphoned off to other groups, such as medical insurers, trade unions, churches, clubs and charities. However a good number of secret societies still exist and are going strong. The Freemasons and the International Order of Odd Fellows are the largest of these, but you’ll also find smaller societies like the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks and the International Concatenated Order of Hoo-Hoo.

This leaves a burning question in my mind. Whatever happened to the lost societies, the ones who fell clear off the map and have never been heard from since? Where is the Brotherhood of the Z.Z.R.R.Z.Z.? The Tribe of Ben-Hur? The Genii of Nations, Knowledges and Religions? If you are a member of any of these societies (or were a member before they closed), I want to hear from you.


  1. The briefest look reveals the elusive “crux ansata” (Latin: “cross with a handle”) to be the well-known Egyptian hieroglyph ankh, “life”. The symbol is described in the ZZRRZZ-ian text The Hidden Way Across the Threshold in a way that does not fail to please: “The Oldest Known Hieroglyph. The insignet of Life. The Emblem of Eternal Hope. The Mystery of Life and Death. The Union, the good time yet to come, united by Love.” (Street 44) Any Egyptian who read this description of such a simple word would punch the author in the face and steal his organs. 

  • “Masonic and Arcane Societies in the U.S.” Miscellaneous Notes and Queries 14.11 (1896): 265-284. Print.

  • Stevens, Albert C. The Cyclopædia of Fraternities. New York: Hamilton Printing and Publishing, 1899. Print.

  • Street, J.C. The Hidden Way Across the Threshold. 3rd ed. Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1889. Print.