Leila Ida Nerissa Bathurst Waddell, one of Aleister Crowley's "Scarlet Women", c.1913
Leila Ida Nerissa Bathurst Waddell, one of Aleister Crowley’s “Scarlet Women”, c.1913

I’ve always been interested in clandestine military, political or religious groups, be they revolutionary movements, secret societies or arcane cults. Growing up in Ireland one is imbued in a culture where such organisations are integral to the social history of the nation, at least from the 18th century onwards (and arguably much earlier if one were to reach back to the era of the promiscuously exuberant Fianna of Medieval Ireland and Scotland). I was raised in a country where the Buachaillí Bána and the Irish Republican Brotherhood were part and parcel of the education syllabus and the Orange Order and Apprentice Boys part and parcel of the nightly news. How could one escape a fascination for the esoteric in such a milieu?

Even the more outrageous cults hold an interest for me, especially the practitioners of early 1900s “magick”. The kinks in human psychology that led the likes of W.B. Yeats to fall for the allure of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn or allowed Aleister Crowley to get away with his deviant shenanigans are intriguing. When I was younger I used to read the Fortean Times for fun and I still recommend it, especially when it’s at its most humorously cynical. I suppose that is why I am also prone to the literary and artistic genres of Fantasy and Science-Fiction (though the former also owes an awful lot to growing up with the tales of the Aos Sí – as indeed does J.R.R. Tolkien). One of my favourite Science-Fiction books is Frank Herbert’s seminal Dune and there is plenty there to wet one’s cultic appetite, from the Bene Gesserit to the Fremen. Herbert wasn’t the first author to posit the society of the “witches” but he was certainly one of the more imaginative and convincing (I’ll diplomatically gloss over Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, unashamed literary jackdaw that he was – and I won’t mention Terry Brooks!).

All of which rambling serves as an introduction to this article by Jeff Sharlet on the secularist website Killing the Buddha investigating a highly secretive Christian-based society in the United States known simply as the Fellowship. If you have any interest in religion, cults and the power of the Evangelical Right in regions of the US I highly recommend a read.

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