Shadows in the Shadows: The Rosicrucians, A Fake Secret Society, Had a Real Impact on the World

Caption: Mysterious Ceremony A member pf Societas Rosicruciana in America stands in the interior of his society's New York temple, in 1913. Organizations adhering to the teachings of Rosicrucianism continued to crop up centuries after the society's foundational text began circulating. Private Collection / Bridgeman Art Library

By Senior Editor James Ellis

A secret society's greatest power isn't always its network of influential members or its guarded knowledge promising untold wealth or power to adherents. Sometimes, the idea of the group and what it represents is enough to inspire real-world change, even if that change is based on a lie. As origin myths go, the story of The Order of the Rosy Cross contains all the mystery and adventure to garner attention. According to their own myth, laid down in the Rosicrucians' three defining pieces of literature, German doctor Christian Rosenkreuz started the Order at the turn of the 15th century. Rosenkreuz, according to three books released at the beginning of the 17th century, had journeyed across the Middle East toward Jerusalem, amassing ancient wisdoms from sages. He later shared it with a small brotherhood upon his return to Germany, who became the first Rosicrucians. This fellowship believed that the secret knowledge Rosenkreuz brought with him, which blended science, arts, alchemy and mysticism, led to personal enlightenment for the initiated.

In actual fact, scholars almost uniformly agree today Rosenkreuz only existed on the page. Even the manifestos themselves go so far as to state that they are speaking in parable. The European response to these ideas, however, was very much real. Ravaged by political instability and religious conflict, the people of the 17th century latched on to a movement emphasizing scientific knowledge as a key to advancing mankind. The literature quickly spread across the whole of the continent, with Rosicrucian ideas making their way into new works, influencing any number of emerging intellectuals, including the English philosopher Francis Bacon.

But just like Christian Rosenkreuz's mystic journeys, a secret brotherhood assembled under the Rosy Cross during the 1600s was also a fantasy. Dame Frances Yates, the preeminent scholar on the subject, urges all "sensible people and sensible historians" to put away ideas of Rosicrucianism as a shadowy secret society, instead arguing its definition as a looser, more fluid body of philosophical and theological thought. Rosicrucianism emphasized the betterment of mankind through acquired knowledge, but the rise of scientific enlightenment, which placed complete stock in empirical evidence, discarded Rosicrucianism for its more mystical elements.

While the Rosicrucians may not have existed as an actual secret society, they've helped inspire several real organizations. The Freemasons took great inspiration from the Rosicrucian belief in hidden knowledge leading to enlightenment. Rosicrucian ideals also led to the founding of the Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis in France in 1909. They maintain their beliefs date back to ancient Egyptian mysticism and were established with the aim of preserving the teachings of the universe, its nature and its human inhabitants.

This article appears in the Newsweek's special edition, "Secret Socities: Infiltrating the Inner Circle," by Issue Editor James Ellis of Topix Media Lab.