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.

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