Store Banner Desktop

Store Banner Mobile

Ancient assassin at the sea.

10 Killer Tactics From the Secret World of Ancient Assassins

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

The game series Assassin’s Creed is a wildly successful franchise following a secret order of assassins who have existed for thousands of years. The games are known for their historical accuracy and while the society itself may be fictional, there really were assassins in most, if not all, of the ancient civilizations we are familiar with today.

The truth behind these ancient groups of assassins is often clouded in mystery – their activities were clandestine and discussing their work was often considered taboo – but the surviving information about assassins provides some fascinating information about the roles they played in ancient society and the tactics they were willing to employ. From secret codes to secret weapons, these are ten facts about assassins you may not have heard before.

1.They Did Not Always Kill Their Targets

The word ‘assassinate’ today means to kill an important figure for political reasons, but the assassins of the past did not always resort to killing to get their point across. The Hashashins, a group of assassins formed in Persia and Syria, were so feared that when they left a warning note and a calling card, such as scones made in the characteristic Hashashin way, it was often enough to persuade someone to do what they were told

The notorious Muslim leader Saladin allegedly received one of these threatening Hashashin notes pinned to his table with a poisoned dagger as he slept, along with a tray of Hashashin scones. He was wise enough to heed the warning and did as they had instructed.

14th-century painting of the successful assassination of Nizam al-Mulk, vizier of the Seljuq Empire, by an ancient assassin from the Hashashins. It is often considered their most significant assassination. (Bahatur / Public Domain)

14th-century painting of the successful assassination of Nizam al-Mulk, vizier of the Seljuq Empire, by an ancient assassin from the Hashashins. It is often considered their most significant assassination. (Bahatur / Public Domain)

Their ability to stay hidden and undetected also made them perfect candidates to conduct espionage and assassins were sometimes hired with the sole intention of spying on and not killing or harming a target. Espionage was something that other groups would often refuse to do, for example samurais felt that espionage was beneath them which meant people would hire ninjas instead.

2.Some of the Best Ninjas Were Women

Warfare has traditionally been left to men and as a result most great warriors and generals have been men. However, in the world of assassins, women should not be forgotten, and a special order of ninjas called kunoichi were particularly formidable assassins.

The kunoichi liked to take advantage of the fact people generally regarded women as harmless housewives, and they were able to get far closer to their targets to either gather information or kill them because the men did not anticipate this. After they had gained access to their target, they dispatched them just as ruthlessly as their male counterparts and had no qualms utilizing the famed throwing stars and katanas we associate with ninjas today.

Ninja women call the kunoichi were particularly formidable ancient assassins. (Frédéric Prochasson / Adobe)

Ninja women call the kunoichi were particularly formidable ancient assassins. (Frédéric Prochasson / Adobe)

3.They Could be Thugs

Ancient assassins could be thugs - it’s actually where the word ‘thug’ originates. A cult of ancient assassins called the Thuggees (which is Sanskrit for ‘concealment’) were a gang of assassins operating in India between the 13th and 19th Centuries. Rather than working alone as many ancient assassins did, Thuggees attacked as a group with each member of the gang playing a different role such as look-out.

The Thuggees have been called the world’s first Mafia and it is believed they were responsible for around 2000,000 deaths. They were widely feared at the time and certainly seemed to live up to their name.

Ancient assassins known as Thuggees worked as a team. Panting depicting Thuggees strangling a traveler; one holds his feet, another his hands, and a third tightens the ligature around his neck. (Magnus Manske / Public Domain)

Ancient assassins known as Thuggees worked as a team. Panting depicting Thuggees strangling a traveler; one holds his feet, another his hands, and a third tightens the ligature around his neck. (Magnus Manske / Public Domain)

4.The Original Assassins Had Their Own Enormous Headquarters

The name assassin comes from the order of the Hashashins, the group that slipped Saladin some less than hospitable scones. Their headquarters were in a huge castle in Alamut, in modern day Iran, which they captured in the 1100s. Alamut means eagle’s nest which gives some indication of the location of the castle, atop a foreboding mountain. After it was captured by the Hashashins, the fortress was vastly improved upon. The land surrounding the fortress was utilized more efficiently to provide rations, and a renowned library with rare books and astronomical instruments was constructed. It was originally thought the fortress was impenetrable, and the Hashashins did successfully defended the castle against an attack led by Saladin in 1176 AD. However, it was eventually captured by the Mongols in around 1260 AD.

5.Some Assassins Gained Legendary Status – But it Wasn’t Always Flattering

Whether you think he acted alone, with an accomplice, or was framed by the Government, you’ve probably heard of Lee Harvey Oswald – the man credited with assassinating President John F Kennedy. To Ancient Athenians the names Harmodius and Aristogeiton would have been equally well known, and their exploits as assassins and lovers were recounted in several ancient texts.

While they made elaborate plans to kill two men at a festival they panicked and ended up revealing their plans too soon, allowing one of their intended targets to escape while Harmodius was himself killed.

Aristogeiton may have survived his own ambush, unlike Harmodius, but he was captured and executed soon afterwards. The story is quite comedic to hear today, and it probably served as a warning not to try and assassinate anyone unless you were willing to make a fool of yourself and die in the process.

Legendary ancient assassins Harmodius and Aristogeiton. (Daderot / Public Domain)

Legendary ancient assassins Harmodius and Aristogeiton. (Daderot / Public Domain)

6.Some Assassins Inherited Their Role

It seems like something from a fantasy novel, but within certain cultures the role of an assassin was passed down from father to son. Although it was possible to gain entry to the Indian Thuggees by training with a guru, many men were born into the fraternity. The caste system in India is still influential even today, and in the past its rules and classes were even more ironclad. This means that being an assassin with the Thuggees was a position that is likely to have remained in the same families for generations.

The Thuggees were not the only assassins to inherit their role, however, as this was also the case with many ninjas. In order to keep the secrets of the order and preserve the mysteries some families would only pass on knowledge to their own children.

7.They Went Through Extensive Training

Within the Hashashins there were a number of ranks of assassin. The Fida’yin were the lowest ranked assassins but even though they were seen as dispensable the Fida’yin went through rigorous training. They needed a number of attributes – along with physical strength and skill with weaponry, assassins had to be clever enough to trap their targets, as well as literate and educated so they could understand other cultures and speak multiple languages. Legends surrounding the training of the Fida’yin suggest they may have been plied with cannabis when they first joined the Hashashins, though this is likely down to travelers such as Marco Polo misinterpreting the name “Hashashins” as being linked to the use of hashish.

Training for ninjas was even more wide reaching, as they also had to learn skills such as scouting, and the basics of a wide range of basic professions in case they had to work in a covert role to gain access to a target without giving up their real motivations.

8.They Had a Lot of Secret Codes

Given the sensitive nature of their work, assassins couldn’t just talk openly with each other, but they still needed to pass messages on. This meant that a lot of groups of assassins had secret codes to transmit messages to one another. One such code was used by ninjas who passed on secret messages with something as inconspicuous as rice.

Ancient Assassins used various forms of secret codes. (Fotokitas / Adobe)

Ancient Assassins used various forms of secret codes. (Fotokitas / Adobe)

The system is known as Goshiki-Mai, which means ‘five colors of rice’. As the name implies, messages were left with five different colors of rice. There were said to be over a hundred different combinations which the ninjas had to memorize. The rice was inconspicuous enough that it could be left in places such as road sides without attracting attention. The dye used had the bonus of making the rice unappealing to birds and other creatures who may otherwise have unwittingly consumed a hidden message.

9.They Used Specialist Weapons

Assassins needed to be discreet, and this meant they were not always able to carry traditional weaponry with them. While weapons such as shuriken (throwing stars) are fairly well known, there were plenty of other examples of ingenious assassin weaponry, too.

Poison was probably the easiest weapon to hide for use in an assassination, as it was particularly easy to conceal. But poison is not always easy to administer, and a victim may be able to raise the alarm before they succumbed to it. For this reason, more direct weaponry had to be concealed. The female kunoichi ninjas would sharpen their kanzashi hair pins to deadly points and wear deadly metal nails known as cat claws to attack their victims, and the Hashashin Fida’yin had their own special kind of dagger. Other assassins were able to modify simple tools such as farm equipment, so it would go undetected but be much more effective.

The female kunoichi ninjas, ancient assassins, would sharpen their kanzashi hair pins to use as a weapon. (Hiart / Public Domain)

The female kunoichi ninjas, ancient assassins, would sharpen their kanzashi hair pins to use as a weapon. (Hiart / Public Domain)

10.They Encouraged Folktales

There are a lot of fantastical stories about assassins and many of these are either highly unlikely or downright impossible. But far from being upset by this, the ancient assassins used to encourage and even start the rumors themselves. Being feared was a tool they could utilize and if people thought they could read minds or turn invisible at will it made their job much easier. Some assassins could get their job done without killing simply because leaving a calling card would terrify their target into submitting. Being able to turn propaganda to their advantage was typical of groups of people who were master manipulators, and a very clever tactic to employ.

Assassins have played an important role in warfare and politics around the world for thousands of years, and the different cultures and practices of each group are a fascinating insight into the ancient societies in which they functioned. Their exploits and tactics often seem outlandish to us today and perhaps it is the fact that they seem almost fictional but really did exist that makes games like Assassin’s Creed and movies featuring ninjas and other ancient assassins so popular today.

Top image: Ancient assassin at the sea. Source: bint87 / Adobe.

By Sarah P Young


Burke, M. 2019. 36 sneaky facts about Ninja’s, Japan’s hidden warriors. [Online] Available at:
Crowdy, T. 2006. The Enemy Within: A History of Espionage. Osprey Publishing.
Cummins, Antony. 2015.  Samurai and Ninja: the Real Story Behind the Japanese Warrior Myth that Shatters the Bushido Mystique. Vermont: Tuttle Publishing.
Daftary, F. 1990. The Ismailis: Their History and Doctrines. Cambridge University Press.
Gray, J. M. 2010.  Holy Terror: The Rise of the Order of Assassins.[Online] Available at:
Hatsumi, Masaaki. 1981.  Ninjutsu: History and Tradition. Unique Publications.
Hodgson, M. G. S. 2005.  The Secret Order of Assassins: The Struggle of the Early Nizârî Ismâʻîlîs Against the Islamic World. [Online] Available at:
J.T.O. 2012.  King of the Assassins: How History's Infamous Killer Cult Survives under a Playboy Prince of Peace. [Online] Available at:
Komroff, M. 2013. The Travels of Marco Polo. Read Books Ltd.
Lendering, J. 2017.  Harmodius and Aristogeiton. [Online] Available at:
Lewis, B. 2003. The Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam. Phoenix.
McCullough, H.C. 2004. The Taiheiki: A Chronicle of Medieval Japan. Tuttle Publishing.
Ninja Encyclopedia. 2015. Goshiki-Mai. [Online] Available at:
Nowell, C.E. 1947. The Old Man of the Mountain. Speculum.
Perry, T. 2007. Secrets of Assassins' Fort Unearthed in Syria. [Online] Available at:
Scribol. Date Unknown. India’s Infamous Thuggee Cult. [Online] Available at:
Turnbull, S. 2007. Warriors of Medieval Japan. Osprey Publishing.

Sarah P Young's picture

Sarah P

Sarah P Young is undertaking her masters in archaeology, specializing in early human behavior and in particular evidence of interaction between humans and Neanderthals. She hopes to continue her studies further and complete a doctorate.

Next article