The Real History of Secret Societies

In partnership with
Professor Richard B. Spence, PhD
University of Idaho
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Course No. 8680
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers Discover the truth behind secret societies across the globe and through the ages, looking at how and why they came to be and their influence on the world.
  • numbers Debunk myths surrounding secret societies, both real and imagined.
  • numbers Get a new perspective on human motivations and psychology through the many organizations that we consider secret societies and understand their mystery and appeal.
  • numbers Uncover the intersection of politics, power, and secret organizations around the world.

Course Overview

The first rule of this course is you don’t talk about this course. The second rule of this course is YOU DON’T TALK ABOUT THIS COURSE. Welcome to The Real History of Secret Societies, a historical look at the true-life groups which, if you believe the myths, are the unspoken power behind some of the world’s major turning points, from controlling the British crown to holding back the electric car and keeping Martians and Atlantis under wraps.

Prepare yourself. In this course, brought to you in partnership with HISTORY®, you will be visiting some of history’s deepest rabbit-holes, across centuries and continents, in search of secret societies in all their varieties. You will journey to some very dark places and, frankly, some odd and sometimes silly ones as well. During 24 eye-opening lectures, Dr. Richard B. Spence, professor of history at the University of Idaho, guides you through the always fascinating, often mystifying—and sometimes disturbing—world of brotherhoods, sisterhoods, orders, cults, and cabals that have influenced human culture from ancient times to the present.

Not-So-Secret Societies

Despite the name, “secret” societies have permeated popular culture and become symbols of wonder, mystique, and rumormongering. Thanks to phenomena like Dan Brown’s best-selling novels, hit movies such as Skull and Bones, or hit songs by Madonna, the idea of secret societies has become utterly mainstream, allowing the general population to think they know about the most important parts of this clandestine underworld.

However, the commonly known groups barely scratch the surface of the number of real-life secret societies that exist. In fact, if one didn’t know better, one might think the popularization of a few groups is a conspiracy, in of itself, to cover up for the many that are never acknowledged…

With help from the archives of HISTORY, Professor Spence leaves no society uncovered, and will open your eyes to the history and evolution of factions you think you know, introducing you to fascinating and illuminating stories and insights. Consider:

  • The Illuminati—A group so pervasive in popular culture that their name has become synonymous with any generic conspiratorial group—noted throughout literature in everything from Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein to Marvel comic books. There are a variety of global groups which considered themselves Illuminati—or at least affiliated with them—but the Illuminati initially took root with a young lawyer who was obsessed with secrecy, rank and order, and creating a New World Order that echoed the promises of communism.
  • The Shriners—Founded by a wealthy New York Freemason, named William Florence, who enlisted a group of well-heeled masons to establish Mecca Temple, the first lodge of the Mystic Shrine. Exclusivity added to the mystique, growing the membership of The Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine to hundreds of thousands over time. They adopted a motto of “Fun and Fellowship,” and they are known for wearing red fezzes and seen riding small bikes or cars in parades, though they also founded a number of children’s hospitals.
  • The Freemasons—A group known for secret rings and handshakes, subtle symbology, dangerous initiation rituals, and a complicated hierarchy. You’d think with all this secrecy and protection of the group, the last place you’d find them is being parodied on The Simpsons. But the truth is that they are a hard organization to keep hushed up because there has never been just a single school of Freemasonry; many variations exist and they don’t play by the same rules.

Professor Spence also looks at groups who have become so ubiquitous in our history that it’s impossible to think of them as being secret, such as the Ku Klux Klan, the Mafia, the IRA, or the Nazi Party. But as Professor Spence explains, these were the groups which began to organize behind closed doors, and their original, secret—or at least exclusive—status was likely an impetus in the group’s successfulness and omnipresence. After all, half the power and draw of a secret society stems from the fact that everyone (secretly) wants to join one.

Myth and Reality

The time period from 1890–1930 is known as a “golden age of fraternalism,” when hundreds of lodges, mystical orders, and fraternal organizations came into existence in the United States. During this time, America accounted for more than half of the world’s Freemasons. And, millions of Americans were affiliated with lesser-known, oath-bound orders such as Odd Fellows, Red Men, Woodmen of the World, Knights of Columbus, B’nai B’rith, Elks, Owls, Eagles, and the Moose.

Some groups were organized to promote fellowship, mutual aid, or political and social causes during a trying time for the U.S. economy. Other groups took advantage of desperate times to turn groups of humans against each other, encouraging supremacy or separatism. Still, others simply came into existence for solely self-serving reasons and were not considered legitimate, yet their stories and reputations endure. Consider these groups:

  • U. S. Secret and Civil Service Society, Self-Supporting Branch—Founded by Arthur Rochford Manby to “combat nameless evils that regular authorities couldn’t, or wouldn’t, handle.” This society was a cover for Manby to receive money, deeds, and mortgages from his followers in order to partake in bootlegging, extortion, fraud, robbery, and murder for hire. It also solidified the secret society mantra of “join or die,” as Manby preyed on well-to-do citizens and then showed the new initiates how broken oaths of silence or obedience would result in a beheading.
  • The Learned Elders of Zion—A super-secret group of Jewish leaders purported to be bent on world domination through subverting the morals of non-Jews and by taking control of the press and the economy. Henry Ford fueled the fire of the Elders by paying for 500,000 copies of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion to be printed and distributed in the United States in a fit of anti-Semitism. This guide was also taught by German school teachers after the Nazi’s came to power. The real history? This group never existed and the Protocols were a hoax.
  • The Priory of Sion—An uber-secret society claiming to be the restoration of an order dating back to the First Crusade in the 11th century that was created to protect the bloodline of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. The society’s objective was supposedly to restore a descendant as the ruler of a unified Europe. However, it was nothing more than the concoction of a career con man, who had developed a complete pseudo-history that was picked up and repurposed by the likes of Leonardo da Vinci; Victor Hugo; Claude Debussy; and most recently, Dan Brown.

Secret societies, real or not, were often a mirror of their times, in some cases, reflecting exclusionary practices with religious, racist, or classist overtones. In other cases, they could be considered America’s first social welfare system, as many groups established programs to bridge the very divides caused by others.

But as much as these societies echoed the consciousness of America, they were fundamentally un-American. As Professor Spence points out, John F. Kennedy said in 1961: “The very word ‘secrecy’ is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths, and to secret proceedings.”

A Personal Connection to History

Professor Spence opens each lecture with a story—a specific glimpse at another time, another place, and a real person or group who is connected in some way to the secret society being examined. This approach introduces you to these societies from both the inside-out and on a personal level. You’ll also get unprecedented access to images, photographs, and more, provided by HISTORY, which give you a true picture of what these societies looked like and how they were organized.

As you uncover secret and often now-defunct societies from around the world—including Ancient Greece, Japan, Korea, Ireland, Russia, France, Germany, and more—you’ll feel like you are there with them, whispering in underground meeting rooms or conspiring around a table in Bavaria. You’ll get to know the founders, leaders, and famous and influential members associated with these groups. And you’ll follow many of the well-known clandestine conspiracies back to their roots, through their uprising, their unearthing, and into the new secret societies that almost always sprang up to take their place.

Secret societies have attracted some of history’s most brilliant, and some of its most evil, minds. Often demonized by their enemies, many secret societies have become the stuff of myths and conspiracy theories. Why do they exist? And when they are invented or imagined, why would someone pretend they exist? What do secret societies believe? Who do they recruit? Most important, what influence do they have? Buckle up and get ready to find out.

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26 lectures
 |  Average 29 minutes each
  • 1
    Small-Town Secrets
    Get a brief introduction to the realm of secret societies you will study throughout the course, seen through the personal experience of Professor Spence in his home town of Taft, California. Often demonized by their enemies and misunderstood by outsiders, many secret societies have become the stuff of myths and conspiracy theories. x
  • 2
    Secret Societies: The Underworld of History
    Meet Willa Rhoads. She was 16 when she died. Her body was discovered in October 1929-five years after her death-which opened the door to a public awareness of the Divine Order of the Royal Arms of the Great Eleven, also known as the Blackburn Cult. Professor Spence intentionally opens his course with an obscure story to introduce you to the idea that secret societies come in many forms and operate under many names. x
  • 3
    The Knights Templar
    Uncover the story behind The Knights Templar-a military monastic founded two centuries earlier, during the Crusades who persevered through time to become the subject of so much rumor, speculation, and outright fantasy that it's almost impossible to separate fact from fiction. Are they guardians for a holy bloodline reaching back to Jesus and Mary Magdalene or are they secret devil worshippers? Are they connected to the heretical Islamic sect known as the Assassins or the Jewish mystics known as Kabbalists? x
  • 4
    Masonic Revolutions in America and France
    Secret societies do often work behind the scenes to change the world, although not often in the way the stories claim. Professor Spence looks at the secret societies behind the Boston Tea Party and Bastille Day. Understand the part that the Sons of Liberty, the Society of the Friends of the Constitution (the Jacobins), the Grand Orient Lodge, the Nine Sisters Lodge, and other groups played in these important revolutions and see how famous names such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Adams, and additional founding fathers were involved with these-and other-secret groups. x
  • 5
    Bolsheviks, Masons, and Russian Revolution
    Were the Bolsheviks a political movement or a secret society? Dive into this question as you survey the rich history of governmental secret societies who combated revolutionary conspiracies with their own conspiracies. You will gain a vivid appreciation for the allure of the elite, and the power of conspiracy, showing that history is made not by the inactive majority but by active minorities-including Trotsky, Lenin, Kaplan, and others. And you'll see that there is no better active minority than a well-oiled secret society. x
  • 6
    Adolf Hitler and the Thule Society
    Start with the history of the smaller secret societies that were popping up all over Germany at the end of the 19th century. Then look at how the larger societies and individuals, which have already been covered in this course, will weave through the background of Hitler's rise to power. Then explore the role that secret societies played, or might have played, in Hitler's rise; how they influenced his beliefs; and how the Nazi leader came to embrace secret-society methods for his own purposes. x
  • 7
    Synarchy, Schemers, and Vichy France
    The 1930s has been called a low, dishonest decade." It saw economic crisis, the rise of Hitler, Stalinist terror, and the general decline of democracy. Were the events coincidence or consequences? Was there a hidden hand at work undermining democratic institutions and encouraging dictatorship? And was this hidden hand something called Synarchy? Dive into the movements and events that have been tied back to various Synarchy ideas and see how it may have bled over into America with the so-called Business Plot of 1934." x
  • 8
    Ancient Mystery Cults
    Travel back to Ancient Greece to hear what we do know of The Eleusinian Mysteries-which are among the most ancient and prestigious of the Greco-Roman world and were guarded on pain of death. This first secret society-which had endured for almost 2,000 years, and counted among its members the likes of Socrates, Plato, Plutarch, and Cicero-ceased to exist. Or did it? After reviewing the history of the Great Mysteries of 391, Professor Spence considers if secret societies ever die or if they just change into something else. x
  • 9
    The Islamic Assassins
    Travel to a historic empire that stretched from Anatolia to Central Asia as you get to know The Assassins, who's roots reach back at least as far as the beginning of Islam in the 7th century. This invisible empire was led by Hasan-i-Sabah who called his acolytes asasiyun, the faithful." See how "assassin"-our generic term for professional killer, especially one who commits political murders-is linked to these asaiyun, who were notably the cause of 200 years of terrorism and murder, including a chief minister, a sultan, viziers, emirs, and even a Crusader king." x
  • 10
    The Medieval Cathars
    Professor Spence starts with the 1244 the fall of Montsegur, which most history books note as The Cathars last stand as an organized movement. Yet, as Professor Spence demonstrates, this influential group shows up over and over throughout history. The true origins of the Cathars are lost in time, yet it's clear they didn't spring from nothing. See how The Cathars inherited and adapted much older beliefs, and how they undoubtedly influenced other groups to come. x
  • 11
    The Rosicrucians
    Did you know there is a secret-society theme park right in the middle of Silicon Valley? Professor Spence introduces you to The Ancient and Mystical Order of the Rosae Crucis, or Rosy Cross, or just AMORC for short. AMORC might be the first commercially marketed secret society. During the early 20th century, the mystical order's grand imperator, H. Spencer Lewis, advertised in magazines, radio, and comics, claiming that The Secrets Entrusted to the Few," including skills like levitation and telepathy, could be yours for a low price and enticing the likes of Walt Disney and L. Ron Hubbard. See how this group-or more accurately, the idea of this group-wove itself throughout both history and society." x
  • 12
    The Illuminati
    Even if you haven't taken notice of secret societies before, you've heard of the Illuminati, a group so prevalent they have been satirized by Taco Bell. Explore the roots of the 28-year-old Adam Weishaupt's secret society-the Order of Perfectibilists, which later became the Order of the Illuminati, or, in German, the Illuminatenordern: The Order of the Enlightened. Discover how Weishaupt envisioned nothing less than A New World," which necessitated destruction of Christianity and all other forms of religion. Professor Spence demonstrates the goals of Weishaupt's Illuminism, the influence of the movement-even reflected in the modern-day promises of Communism, and the famous names associated with the Illuminati." x
  • 13
    The Freemasons
    The Freemasons inspired and influenced many societies, so much so that many object to the idea that their group is secret. They don't hide their existence. However, they did popularize the idea of secrecy: adopting a clandestine set of identifying factors, ensuring their rituals and initiations are complicated and intimidating, and even having a term for outsiders or non-members. Discover the multiple evolutions and adaptions of Freemasons, which has helped to keep this group shrouded in mystery. x
  • 14
    Ireland's Secret War for Independence
    The Irish Republican Army was a tightly organized secret society battling the greatest power on Earth, the British empire, and, after Bloody Sunday, perhaps the best known. But they were not the first secret society to practice resistance in Ireland. Professor Spence introduces you to The Whiteboys, the Peep o'Day Boys, the Orange Order, the Sons of the Shamrock, Young Ireland, the Molly Maguires, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, and more-outlining the effect these secret societies had both on Ireland and on America as they migrated to the United States. x
  • 15
    Debunking the Elders of Zion
    Professor Spence opens the door on secret society conspiracy that permeated across countries and decades, with each iteration more complicated and bizarre than the last. The Learned Elders of Zion never actually existed, but to this made-up secret society was attributed a real-life protocol to take over the world, which caused-and continues to cause-incalculable harm and religious intolerance. Discover the deceitful origins and global impact of the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. x
  • 16
    Mafia! Criminal Secret Societies
    We are exposed to them all the time in movies, television, and novels, so do criminal gangs really qualify as secret societies? Yes: They're selective in membership, require oaths and initiations, and members usually advance through grades or ranks. Starting with the biggest-and most feared-all-female gang in the London underworld, Professor Spence turns a spotlight on organized crime. From the early 20th century, Thuggees of India to the modern-day Mafias that have arisen in cities all over the world, you'll get to know the seedy underbelly of society like never before. x
  • 17
    Aleister Crowley, Occultism, and Espionage
    Focusing on the worldwide impact of Aleister Crowley, Professor Spence highlights the murky connections between secret societies, occultism, and espionage. Credited with being the wickedest man in the world," the reason America joined the war, a Satanist, the "Leader of Irish Hope," and a number of other nefarious titles, you may be surprised to see the number of world-changing events Crowley had his hands in. Although once you discover the extent of power stemming from the secret societies he was involved with, including his turn as a spy, it may not be so surprising after all." x
  • 18
    Red Octopus: The Communist International
    Discover how some politically-driven secret societies have far-reaching impact, as Professor Spence dives into a period of time when America was full of Soviet espionage and clandestine communist activity. Through a number of interlinked, connected history, he demonstrates how the Communist party relied on proven secret society techniques, such as selective recruitment, rigorous discipline, and fanatical loyalty. Then note, once you start integrating secret societies inside secret societies-as the American communist party became infested with FBI informants-they can quickly wither to insignificance. x
  • 19
    Japan's Black and Green Dragons
    The 1942 fictional Bela Lugosi film Black Dragons was not just a figment of a screenwriter's imagination. The real-life group was described as a nationalistic organization" that aimed to "inform the Japanese people of their... rights to dominate the world" and enjoyed a close relationship with the Japanese crime syndicate, the yakuza. Examine how the Black Dragons had a huge impact in pushing Japan into fanaticism, militarism, and a devastating war. Explore additional Asian-based groups, including the Green Dragons and the Genyosha (or Dark Ocean), and how they dabbled in everything from major bombings to a plan to assassinate Charlie Chaplin." x
  • 20
    Italy's Secret Government: The P2 Lodge
    Propaganda-Due, or P-2 , an Italian pseudo-Masonic organization has been tied to a number of shady crimes and mysteries, including corruption, bribes, and even murder-but was made up of senior military and police officers, parliament members, journalists, and the heads of all three of Italy's intelligence agencies. In fact, this exclusive society was rumored to be Italy's secret government. Learn how this organization grew to include such important figures and what, exactly, its intent was. x
  • 21
    From the KKK to the Black Shriners
    Professor Spence turns his focus to the United States and looks at uniquely American secret societies, including the sham group known as the U. S. Secret and Civil Service Society, Self-Supporting Branch. He also covers the disturbing emergence and evolution of the Ku Klux Klan. The history of the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine-or the Shriners is also covered. Discover how the secret societies that emerged during this period provided foundation for and acted as a reflection of America at the turn of the century. x
  • 22
    Bohemian Grove, Bilderbergers, and Elites
    Sometimes being among the 1 percent is not exclusive enough. Get to know the elite secret societies that only recruited members who were already-or would likely be-rich or influential, including the Bohemian Club, the Schlaraffia, the Sath-Bhai or Asiatic Brethren, the FOGC, the Skull & Bones Society, and more. These primarily men-only clubs are rumored to have dabbled in black arts, unusual rituals, and conspiratorial agendas. Discover which famous, influential, and prominent big names were members of these privileged groups. x
  • 23
    Secret Societies for Aging Swingers
    In what sounds like the start of a bad joke involving L. Ron Hubbard, J. Edgar Hoover, and Charles Manson, Professor Spence introduces you to a crazy-sounding story about Aleister Crowley's secret society, Ordo Templi Orientis, as he debates the merits of truth around it. From there, hear some fantastical stories about UFOs, the Priory of Sion, the American Heraldry Society, the Society of St. John of Jerusalem-known as Shickshinny Knights, and other groups and events developed from hoaxes and disinformation that was intentionally designed to distract and mislead. x
  • 24
    Terrorism's Long Trail of Secret Cells
    From the 1920 Wall Street bombing to the events of 9/11, see where secret societies have embraced terrorism as a mind game throughout history. Most secret orders are more or less harmless, but Professor Spence peers inside some which have used violence to further their agendas, including the Ku Klux Klan, the Red Army Faction, the Weathermen, the Symbionese Liberation Army. Professor Spence also provides an overview of the evolution of Islamic extremism. x
  • 25
    Secret Societies: The Never-Ending Story
    Professor Spence provides some final examples of secret societies that reinforce what their common characteristics are and what their leaders are like. Taking an in-depth look at The Order-an American society of anti-Semites, white supremacists, and neo-Nazis-as well as FEAR (Forever Enduring, Always Ready), the Silver Legion of America (Silver Shirts), and others, he demonstrates how so many of these secret societies begot, influenced, or resulted in other ones, keeping the tradition going, suggesting that there are hundreds, if not thousands, more that have remained secret. x
  • 26
    UFOs and the Elusive George Hunt Williamson
    On the afternoon of 20 November 1952, a small group of people milled around a canyon outside Desert Center, California. Among them was 25-year-old George Hunt Williamson, an ex-military man and amateur archaeologist. Consider the possible connection between a desert cult and the UFO craze of the 1950s. x

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Your professor

Richard B. Spence

About Your Professor

Richard B. Spence, PhD
University of Idaho
Dr. Richard B. “Rick” Spence is Professor of History at the University of Idaho, where he has taught since 1986. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Barbara (1981), and taught there as a visiting assistant professor from 1981 to 1985. His primary areas of study are modern Russian, modern European, Middle Eastern, and military history. Professor Spence’s research interests include...
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The Real History of Secret Societies is rated 4.0 out of 5 by 92.
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Disgraceful! This course is not worthy of The Great Courses. It is full of innuendo and nutjob conspiracy theories, something especially dangerous in these times when credulous people buy into the disinformation of QAnon and its ilk. I was hoping to have a disinterested history of groups like the Masons, but that never came (though the Masons were implicated in a lot of history's odder moments). A great disappointment.
Date published: 2020-11-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Best course I've taken so far I just finished this course. It's the best one I've watched so far on Great Courses. The instructor's droll sense of humor combined with his thorough subject knowledge make this great fun to follow along. It's well structured for picking up and watching one or two and then leaving it for a while, since each lecture tends to stand alone quite well.
Date published: 2020-09-27
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Repeatative The course was mildly disappointing. Professor Spence seemed to be very knowledgeable in the topic. But frankly did not convey, or share the more important aspects of his understanding. After the first few secret societies were introduced and discussed, a standard pattern emerged. The primary differences in the various societies seemed limited to their name and founder. After that they soon started sounding interchangeable. The societies secret rites, signs, punishments and internal working were presented briefly. Did they all use the same oaths, et al or was there a uniqueness in each group. The internal functioning, and rites of membership were almost never discussed. There was almost no delving into the intricacies of the society itself. The discussion was essentially limited to the groups interrelationship to society in general terms. For the most part, the lectures were about the various identified societies relationship to society as a whole, not the inner workings of the society itself. It soon became very repetitive, and boring.
Date published: 2020-09-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Enjoyable as well as informative While I have yet to view all the lessons, I have viewed about 3/4 of them. This is enough to say this course is really fun as well as thought-provoking. This highlights how these sorts of groups have been influential for centuries, and still are.
Date published: 2020-07-26
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Very informative I found this to be a fantastic series of information on many secret societies I have heard of and even more I have not. I have not finished the DVD's yet, but I don't think they cover Skull and Bones, but I may be wrong.
Date published: 2020-07-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Scary Fabulous We are burning through these lectures. Good grief, they are horrifying and yet explain so much about how a few people can affect our collective history. The narrator has the most lovely voice too, mesmerizing and inspiring respect.
Date published: 2020-07-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Watch it I'm only a few lectures in and I am hooked. Now this is not science; it is social science, therefore there is only so much that is known and recorded. there is a lot of conjecture and unknowns, but the whole subject is absolutely riveting. If you can handle a course with intrigue and few definitive conclusions, this is it!
Date published: 2020-06-20
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Fairly good, but could be improved I am of two minds about this course: on one hand, it is a wide-ranging review of a little-known subject, which is inherently interesting. After all, who isn’t lured in by the prospect of being privy to a secret? On the other, it suffers from problems with the production that take a lot of the enjoyment away from the subject. Dr. Spence relies on dramatic tropes which, used sparingly, could be more effective; but he falls back on then so often it becomes “oh, please – not again.” Case in point: very many lectures begin with “On [this date] at [this time], {this person/group] did [this thing] that changed the course of…” and conclude with “and so the [name of secret society] faded out of existence… or DID it?” That, the dramatic lighting, the soft ominous music that rises from time to time, and a host of other dramatic devices just get in the way. Dr. Spence seems keen on describing the relationships between members of affiliated secret societies. It’s a worthwhile aim, but too many lectures deteriorate into a rapid-fire recitation of names/relationships – some of which do not appear anywhere else in the course – and it becomes difficult to follow. My thought: if it’s really necessary to trace these relationships to make a point, then let’s have a graphic on the screen – sort of a genealogy chart of relationships. Similarly, if we need to hear about a character from a previous lecture, could we hear a reminder like “you’ll remember him from the lecture on Hitler and the Thule Society” (plus some graphic on the screen). On the positive side, there’s a wealth of interesting and entertaining information that was new to me. The lecture “Debunking the Elders of Zion” alone was worth the price of the course. Seeing the same characters pop up in a variety of lectures (Aleister Crowley, for example) paints a fascinating psychological profile of those who are drawn to secret societies. I’ll give four stars for the course content (and five for the marketing that convinced me to buy it), but two stars for the production and presentation. They’re long on dramatic flair but way short on supporting the content.
Date published: 2020-06-16
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