This book does exactly what it says on the cover; offers a high level and balanced overview of secret societies throughout history. Barrett’s thesis is clearly set out at the beginning – the history of these societies = the history of esoteric religion = the history of magic, and he proceeds to take us through the the roots of secret societies before looking at several in detail.

It’s almost inevitable, because of the level of interest and the number of books written about them, that he concentrates on Freemasonry and the Knights Templar. He doesn’t shy away from the rumours and controversies, but tries to identify what is factual from what is supposition and leaves the reader to make up their own mind. Once of my favourite quotes: cynics would say that [Freemasons] are a handful of late-middle aged, upper-middle class men who like dressing up in gloriously patterned costumes” rather than grand conspirators.

He comes to the conclusion that we may never know the truth about organisations like the Knights Templar, and that there is more likely to be a spiritual rather than direct line between the old and modern societies. I found this very persuasive; I’ve never been a great believer in conspiracy theories, especially ones that are supposed to have lasted undiscovered for centuries, but I can see how some of their ideas would be picked up and developed by later followers.

By the way, he has a very informative discussion on Tarot, which is a particular interest of mine, and I was fascinated by just how many of these societies use Tarot packs as teaching aids.

If you are at all interested in this subject I think you will find this book a good starting point for further exploration.

This is my second read for the Non-Fiction Five Challenge.

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