Hidden History

Inside the Secret Society That Inspired the New Age Movement

Blending meditation and astrology with Saturn worship and “sex magic,” they survived the Nazis and remain one of the world’s most mysterious sects.

Inside the Secret Society That Inspired the New Age Movement

Figures draped in hooded black silk robes disappear through guarded doors, and wardens armed with swords ensure that no intruders will make it inside. Tonight, a ritual will be performed in the Fraternitas Saturni lodge, one of the oldest magical occult orders in Germany — and what goes on behind its doors is a secret.

An air of solemn silence permeates the space, as members prepare for the ritual in the antechamber and the initiates find their appointed seats in the main lodge room. Candles are lit as apprentices begin to gather on the left side of the room. Master fellows can be found on the right, and the master of the chair claims the space behind the altar at the front. Once all of the members have congregated in the main atrium, they form a magical chain of brotherhood, performing a rhythmic breathing exercise as they prepare to summon the energy of Saturn. A hammer strikes the door three times.

“The lodge is opened!” the Second Warden declares.

Music, possibly a classical composition from Mozart’s Magic Flute, plays as the First Warden addresses the brothers and sisters of the order, inviting them to meditate before incense is burned throughout the room.

The Master of Ceremonies begins to chant:

“The primeval serpent

The great dragon

Who was and who is

And who lives through the eons of eons

He is with your spirit!”

Three black candles of Saturn are set ablaze, and the Master of Ceremonies uses a magic dagger to trace the planet’s sigil — which looks like two intersecting Vs split down the middle with a straight line — three times in the air to begin the magical work. The room fills with the sounds of chanting and the steady banging of a gong, and the brothers and sisters eventually take their seats and begin working to mentally transmit Saturnian energy to those members who are not physically present.

The ritual ends with the summoning of the spirit of the Thelemic god Hadit. The candle of Hadit, a symbol of eternal regeneration, burns on the altar as members use the light of the small flame to cultivate internal power. Together they chant, “It works in our spirits! It works in our hearts! It works in our deeds! RA-HOOR-KHUIT!”

That was how they opened the lodge in the early days — before Hitler, before the war, before the founder died. Founded in 1928, at the tail end of an occult revival that swept through Europe in the late 19th century, Fraternitas Saturni is now one of the oldest and most revered magical lodges in Central Europe. Since its founding by Gregor A. Gregorius, it has devoted itself to invoking the dark energy of Saturn and honoring Lucifer, the embodiment of enlightenment and reason.

Banned by the Nazis, riven by internal conflicts following its founder’s death, and written off as little more than a sex cult by its detractors, its influence can be felt everywhere. As the trappings of New Age spirituality are rebranded for the sake of a billion-dollar wellness industry, this mysterious occult group, which did so much to define 20th century mysticism, remains more important than ever.

At the end of the 19th century, the Second Industrial Revolution ushered in rapid urbanization and the growth of industries like railroads, coal and textiles. Germany and the United States finally caught up to Britain, both in terms of industrialization and in the alienation that comes with life in modern societies. It was in this environment of overwhelming change that occult and pagan doctrines took root.

“They were frustrated with the disenchantment of the world,” says Eric Kurlander, a professor at Stetson University who specializes in German history. “In response, you have a lot of educated people and some scientists, like William James, experimenting with parapsychology, and spirits, and theosophy as ways of reinscribing enchantment into their everyday lives, because traditional religion isn’t working anymore.”

Fraternitas Saturni was conceived out of this mystical, magical brew. In 1925, after the catastrophic First World War, a group of magicians met deep in the dark forests of Germany to discuss the fate of the Law of Thelema, which at its core emphasizes individualism and calls upon adherents to live by their own True Will. The Law of Thelema had been developed by famous occultist Aleister Crowley, who was also a leading figure in the influential Ordo Templi Orientis secret society. The Weida Conference, as this meeting in the forest came to be known, was organized by the leader of the German Pansophical Lodge, Heinrich Tränker, as an exploration of the possibility of uniting the multiple occult groups under Crowley’s leadership, and to establish either the acceptance or rejection of the Law of Thelema. Lodge secretary Gregorius, a member of Crowley’s entourage, was there to uphold the Crowley line.

Born Eugen Grosche, Gregorius was raised in Riesa, Germany, by relatively poor parents. His interest in literature inspired a move to Berlin, where he became an editor of periodical magazines before eventually opening his own bookshop. Deemed a narcissist by many historians, his personal letters shine light on a more nuanced character, one that is equally power-obsessed and concerned with humble matters of family and friendship. Gregorius took an early interest in the occult, but he was not directly involved in it until he met Tränker, who was also a bookseller. As the secretary of the Theosophical Society, an organization formed to promote the study of mysticism, Tränker gave Gregorius the task of building a Pansophical Society in Berlin.

The Weida Conference didn’t go as planned. As Crowley demanded that each attendee accept him as the “World Savior,” the magicians found themselves pontificating well past sunset. During a break, Crowley took an unusual walk through the forest, greeting various natural elemental spirits and tree souls, or so Gregorius reported. In the end, Tränker had a change of heart and disputed Crowley’s claims of supreme leadership, causing a portion of the Pansophical Lodge to openly turn against him. Crowley left Germany, and a great schism formed between these two magic societies, which eventually led to the collapse of the Pansophical Lodge. Out of its ashes, Gregorius formed the Fraternitas Saturni, a magic society that would accept Crowley’s teachings but would not answer to him.

Crowley cuts a powerful, controversial path through history with his stubborn, flamboyant personality. Although Gregorius admired his teachings, his desire to remain independent of the erratic, larger-than-life Crowley was not an unusual one. Gregorius was adamant that his lodge would answer to no one. That desire for independence aligned with his belief that Saturn, “the highest planetary intelligence of this solar system,” not Crowley, was the ultimate spiritual leader, and it served as motivation to form the Fraternitas Saturni brotherhood.

One spring afternoon in 1928, Gregorius sat behind his typewriter drafting a letter to Crowley, choosing his words carefully, walking a careful line between asking for support from his mentor and making it sound like he was asking for permission. The convoluted prose style common to the occultists of the day, which may read like gibberish to the uninitiated, worked in his favor.

“We are fully aware that it is a grave undertaking to revive the old Saturnlodge of the Middleages, which is disappeared (not known, disappeared below the surface) since centuries. We also know that — on steep path, through hard ordeals — we will have to face Saturnus the (guardian) of the Threshold,” he wrote, before coming to the tricky part. “Now we ask, you, highly honoured Master, to lend us your benevolence and to let us have your spiritual support.”

There is no evidence that Crowley actually responded to this letter, but Gregorius claimed to have received his approval. On Easter Saturday, 1928, the Fraternitas Saturni lodge officially opened, probably using a similar ritual to the one described at the beginning of this article, which is drawn from Stephen E. Flowers’s The Fraternitas Saturni. It would soon change the course of European occultism.

Gregorius’s lodge was a unique blend of Scottish Freemasonry, Luciferianism, astrological mythology and Indian yoga systems, with an emphasis placed on the unique power that its adherents believed could be drawn from the dark side of Saturn. Using Gregorius’s Berlin bookshop as its base, lodge members experimented with the magical effects of high-frequency sound and electromagnetic fields — techniques they used to develop an instrument known as the Tepaphone, which they believed capable, when powered by sufficient magical will, of killing people from a great distance.

Its members were some of the first Europeans to dabble in practices that are today considered bedrock principles of spirituality: meditation, astrology, working with chakras. But the most lasting legacy of the lodge has been its belief that the benefits of magic have to be earned through the rigorous application of traits like self-discipline and hard work — what today is known as self-help.

“The point is, whatever you dislike can actually be quite important to you,” says longtime member Ralph Tegtmeier. “So, you have to address it, because if you don’t it will keep controlling you, whether you realize it or not. This realization is really actually what the [Fraternitas Saturni] is about.”

That realization is also what Fraternitas Saturni members mean when they talk about Saturn Gnosis — the ability to draw on the power of a far-off planet in order to steel oneself for the difficult things in life. It’s a “strict, severe principle,” in Tegtmeier’s words, and it is what kept the group going even when it ran afoul of the Third Reich.

It is no secret that the Nazi party was devoted to the occult. SS leader Heinrich Himmler used his power to create a religion intended to rival Christianity, complete with its own wedding rituals and a mythology based on a hodgepodge of Norse myths and pagan symbolism. He frequently consulted his personal astrologer, Wilhelm Wulff, on war strategy, and he founded the Pendulum Institute, which employed astrologers and pendulum dowsers on behalf of the German navy to locate enemy ships at sea.

Those occultists who were able to charm their way into the inner circle of the Reich found power, money and respectability. Those on the outside had a simple choice: collaborate, flee or die. Hitler had banned all occult organizations by 1937, and Gregorius closed his bookstore and fled, first to Switzerland, and then to the picturesque lakeside town of Cannero, Italy. In 1943, he was arrested, repatriated to Germany, and held in detention for a year before being released without charges, which could mean that he chose to collaborate — or that the Nazis simply didn’t see the dark side of Saturn as an appreciable threat. When the war ended, Saturn was waiting. Gregorius set about rebuilding his lodge from scratch.

Delayed by the Soviet occupation of Germany, it took another five years for the Fraternitas Saturni to officially become active again. Once Gregorius made it back to West Germany, the group resumed its frequent publication of occult papers and formed smaller lodges in many German cities, marking a period of considerable growth.

The lodge gathers before the altar, and the members watch as the master of the chair invites a woman, the Priestess, up on stage. They have sex while the other members watch, waiting for the pivotal moment when a live black rooster will be killed, its blood caught and smeared over the master of the chair’s body.

This is the Ritual of the Five-Fold Alpha, a sex magic ceremony inspired by the teachings of Crowley, as described in Flowers’s book, which follows the history of the Fraternitas Saturni from its founding through the late 1960s. Although the details are salacious, they are accurate. Flowers’s book is no trashy expose, but rather a scholarly work based on leaked Fraternitas Saturni documents and informed by interviews with members of the group, including Tegtmeier. It describes a group at a crossroads between the Victorian occultism of an earlier era and the low-key spirituality that would become a hallmark of the 1970s. Current members are encouraged to make the rituals their own — substituting wine for chicken blood, for instance — as they find their own path to harnessing the power of Saturn Gnosis.

“We have a different kind of membership [now], because people change,” says Tegtmeier, who describes the modern Fraternitas Saturni as a progressive organization, molded to the needs of its members. “There’s a very welcome contribution of Americanism to international and global culture, of this ‘do it yourself spirit,’ which wasn’t around in the 1920s.”

Nearly 100 years after its founding, Fraternitas Saturni remains at the forefront of modern occult spirituality. It is still a distinctly European organization (you have to speak German to join), but its influences are felt in the work of influential occult authors and thinkers throughout the world.

Only six people are publicly known members, making it difficult to trace any particularly powerful individuals, but the Fraternitas Saturni has acted as a rite of passage of sorts for numerous influential occultists. Some have had a brief membership in the lodge before moving on to other groups, while others have simply engaged in discussion or disputes with Fraternitas Saturni members. Either way, its beliefs and practices trickle into art, literature and conversation, to be passed on to the next generation of occult movers and shakers.

“You have subcultures in America that are into ritual magic, chaos magic, ceremonial magic, and they’ve been heavily influenced by the European occult revival,” says Mitch Horowtiz, author of Occult America, who believes that spirituality as it exists today wouldn’t be possible without the influence of groups like Fraternitas Saturni and the 19th century occult revival that preceded it. Tegtmeier believes that the most lasting influence of the group is its emphasis on empowering members to use Saturnian energy for what can only be called self-help.

“Getting in contact with Luciferian or Saturn Gnosis may be a life changer,” he says “It was for me.”

And so, Gregorius’s founding belief in the power of Saturn, in discovering that the darkness contains light, continues to impact lives today.

“When the ego has reached the dark gate of Saturn in its spiritual development, it is considered ripe to cross the threshold to higher realizations lying in the spheres behind it, he writes. “Then Saturnus the guardian of the threshold, the Lord of Karma, lowers the torch of death.”