In various occult movements, Secret Chiefs are said to be transcendent cosmic authorities, a spiritual hierarchy responsible for the operation and moral calibre of the cosmos, or for overseeing the operations of an esoteric organization that manifests outwardly in the form of a magical order or lodge system. Their names and descriptions have varied through time, dependent upon those who reflect their experience of contact with them. They are variously held to exist on higher planes of being or to be incarnate; if incarnate, they may be described as being gathered at some special location, such as Shambhala, or scattered through the world working anonymously. One early and influential source on these entities is Karl von Eckartshausen, whose The Cloud upon the Sanctuary, published in 1795, explained in some detail their character and motivations. Several 19th and 20th century occultists claimed to belong to or to have contacted these Secret Chiefs and made these communications known to others, including H.P. Blavatsky (who called them the "Tibetan Masters" or Mahatmas), C.W. Leadbeater and Alice A. Bailey (who called them Masters of the Ancient Wisdom), Guy Ballard and Elizabeth Clare Prophet (who called them Ascended Masters), Aleister Crowley (who used the term to refer to members of the upper three grades of his order, A∴A∴), Dion Fortune (who called them the "esoteric order"), and Max Heindel (who called them the "Elder Brothers").
In certain esoteric teachings of Islam, there is said to be a cosmic spiritual hierarchy whose ranks include walis (saints, friends of God), abdals (changed ones), headed by a ghawth (helper) or qutb (pole, axis). The details vary according to the source.
One source is the 12th Century Persian Ali Hujwiri. In his divine court, there are three hundred akhyār ("excellent ones"), forty abdāl ("substitutes"), seven abrār ("piously devoted ones"), four awtād ("pillars"), three nuqabā ("leaders") and one qutb.
All these saints know one another and cannot act without mutual consent. It is the task of the Awtad to go round the whole world every night, and if there should be any place on which their eyes have not fallen, next day some flaw will appear in that place, and they must then inform the Qutb in order that he may direct his attention to the weak spot and that by his blessings the imperfection may be remedied.
Another is from Ibn Arabi, who lived in Moorish Spain. It has a more exclusive structure. There are eight nujabā ("nobles"), twelve nuqabā, seven abdāl, four awtād, two a’immah ("guides"), and the qutb.
According to the 20th-century Sufi Inayat Khan, there are seven degrees in the hierarchy. In ascending order, they are pir, buzurg, wali, ghaus, qutb, nabi and rasul He does not say how the levels are populated. Pirs and buzurgs assist the spiritual progress of those who approach them. Walis may take responsibility for protecting a community and generally work in secret. Qutbs are similarly responsible for large regions. Nabis are charged with bringing a reforming message to nations or faiths, and hence have a public role. Rasuls likewise have a mission of transformation of the world at large.
In Theosophy, a similar concept is that of the Ascended master or Masters of the Ancient Wisdom.
The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was founded by those claiming to be in communication with the Secret Chiefs. One of these Secret Chiefs was Anna Sprengel. Her name and address were decoded from the Cipher Manuscripts.
In 1892, Mathers was convinced that he had contacted these Secret Chiefs, and that this confirmed his position as head of the Golden Dawn. He declared this in a manifesto four years later saying that they were human and living on Earth, yet possessed terrible superhuman powers. He used this status to found the Second Order within the Golden Dawn, and to introduce the Adeptus Minor ritual.
While in Algeria in 1909, Crowley, along with Victor Neuburg, recited numerous Enochian Calls or Aires. After the fifteenth Aire, he was told that he had attained the grade of Magister Templi (Master of the Temple), which meant that he himself was now on the level of these Secret Chiefs, although this declaration caused many occultists to stop taking him seriously if they had not done so already. He also described this attainment as a possible and in fact a necessary step for all who truly followed his path.
In 1947, when Aleister Crowley died, he left behind a sketch of one of the Secret Chiefs, Crowley's invisible mentor that he called LAM. The sketch looks like a grey alien.
The Graeco-Armenian G. I. Gurdjieff's teachings, known as the Fourth Way, mentioned a "Universal Brotherhood" and also a mysterious group of monks called the Sarmoung (also: Sarman, Sarmouni). Both groups were described as in possession of advanced knowledge and powers, and as being open to suitable candidates from all creeds. He also believed in advanced kinds of humans called "man number 6" and "man number seven", although he never explicitly linked higher man to his brotherhoods.
J. G. Bennett was both a prominent student of Gurdjieff and an independent thinker. In his work The Dramatic Universe he speculated on a discarnate hidden directorate, or "Demiurgic intelligences". He later linked the hidden directorate with a historically attested lineage of Sufis, the Khwajagan. These theories, influenced by a Turkish Sufi called Hasan Shushud, were spelled out in his last book, Masters of Wisdom.
The Afghan-Scottish teacher Idries Shah regarded himself as a Sufi, not a Fourth Way exponent, although he took on pupils from Bennett's, and other, Gurdjieff groups. He mentioned the Sarmoung or Sarman several times in his works. Shah also linked a number of Western initiatory groups such as the Rosicrucians and Freemasons to Sufis.
In 1983, the journalist Edward Campbell wrote a book, The People of the Secret, under the pseudonym Ernest Scott. The author, referring to a thesis first published by John G. Bennett in his work The Dramatic Universe in 1956, postulates that there is a "Hidden Directorate" influencing, guiding and intervening in humanity's destiny over the centuries.