Secret society

A secret society is an organization whose activities, events, inner functioning, or membership are concealed. The society may or may not attempt to conceal its existence. The term usually excludes covert groups, such as intelligence agencies or guerrilla warfare insurgencies, that hide their activities and memberships but maintain a public presence.[1]

"Secret Society Buildings at Yale College", by Alice Donlevy c. 1880. Pictured are: Psi Upsilon (Beta Chapter), 120 High Street. Left center: Skull and Bones (Russell Trust Association), 64 High Street. Right center: Delta Kappa Epsilon (Phi Chapter), east side of York Street, south of Elm Street. Bottom: Scroll and Key (Kingsley Trust SSS Nonse Association), 490 College Street.


The exact qualifications for labeling a group a secret society are disputed, but definitions generally rely on the degree to which the organization insists on secrecy, and might involve the retention and transmission of secret knowledge, the denial of membership or knowledge of the group, the creation of personal bonds between members of the organization, and the use of secret rites or rituals which solidify members of the group.

Anthropologically and historically, secret societies have been deeply interlinked with the concept of the Männerbund, the all-male "warrior-band" or "warrior-society" of pre-modern cultures (see H. Schurtz, Alterklassen und Männerbünde, Berlin, 1902; A. Van Gennep, The Rites of Passage, Chicago, 1960).

A purported "family tree of secret societies" has been proposed, although it may not be comprehensive.[2]

Alan Axelrod, author of the International Encyclopedia of Secret Societies and Fraternal Orders,[3] defines a secret society as an organization that:

  • is exclusive
  • claims to own special secrets
  • shows a strong inclination to favor its members.

Historian Richard B. Spence[4] of the University of Idaho offered a similar three-pronged definition:

  • The group's existence is usually not kept secret, but some beliefs or practices are concealed from the public and require an oath of secrecy and loyalty to learn.
  • The group promises superior status or knowledge to members.
  • The group's membership is in some way restrictive, such as by race, sex, religious affiliation, or invitation only.

Spence also proposes a sub-category of "Elite Secret Societies" (composed of high-income or socially influential people), and notes that secret societies have a frequent if not universal tendency towards factionalism, infighting and claiming origins older than can be reliably documented. Spence's definition includes groups traditionally thought of as secret societies (Freemasons and Rosicrucians) and other groups not so traditionally classified such as certain organized crime cabals (the Mafia), religious groups (Order of Assassins and Thelema) and political movements (Bolsheviks and Black Dragon Society).

David V. Barrett, author of Secret Societies: From the Ancient and Arcane to the Modern and Clandestine, has used alternative terms to define what qualifies a secret society. He defined it as any group that possesses the following characteristics:

  • It has "carefully graded and progressed teachings".
  • Teachings are "available only to selected individuals".
  • Teachings lead to "hidden (and 'unique') truths".
  • Truths bring "personal benefits beyond the reach and even the understanding of the uninitiated."

Barrett goes on to say that "a further characteristic common to most of them is the practice of rituals which non-members are not permitted to observe, or even to know the existence of." Barrett's definition would rule out many organizations called secret societies; graded teaching is usually not part of the American college fraternities, the Carbonari, or the 19th-century Know Nothings.

Historian Jasper Ridley argues that Freemasonry is, "the world's most powerful secret Society."[5]

The organisation "Opus Dei" (Latin for "Work of God") is portrayed as a "secret society"[6][7][8] of the Catholic Church. Critics such as the Jesuit Wladimir Ledóchowski sometimes refer to Opus Dei as a Catholic (or Christian or "white") form of Freemasonry.[9][10][11][12][13] Other critics label Opus Dei as "Holy Mafia"[14] or "Santa Mafia"[15] as the organisation is connected with various questionable practises including intense "brainwashing" of its members to exploit labor force[16] as well as the direct involvement of members in severe crimes such as baby-trafficking[17] in Spain under the dictator Francisco Franco.



Because some secret societies have political aims, they are illegal in several countries. Italy (Constitution of Italy, Section 2, Articles 13–28) and Poland,[18] for example, ban secret political parties and political organizations in their constitutions.

Colleges and universities

Many student societies established on university campuses in the United States have been considered secret societies. Perhaps one of the most famous secret collegiate societies is Skull and Bones at Yale University.[19] The influence of undergraduate secret societies at colleges such as Harvard College, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Emory University, the University of Chicago,[20] the University of Virginia, Georgetown University, New York University,[21] and Wellesley College has been publicly acknowledged, if anonymously and circumspectly, since the 19th century.[22][23]

British Universities, too, have a long history of secret societies or quasi-secret clubs, such as The Pitt Club at Cambridge University,[24][25] Bullingdon Club at Oxford University,[25] the Kate Kennedy Club, the The Kensington Club and the Praetorian Club at the University of St Andrews, and the 16' Club at St David's College.[26] Another British secret society is the Cambridge Apostles, founded as an essay and debating society in 1820. Not all British Universities host solely academic secret societies, for both The Night Climbers of Cambridge and The Night Climbers of Oxford require both brains and brawn.

In France, Vandermonde is the secret society of the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers.[27]

Notable examples in Canada include Episkopon at the University of Toronto's Trinity College, and the Society of Thoth at the University of British Columbia.

Secret societies are disallowed in a few colleges. The Virginia Military Institute has rules that no cadet may join a secret society,[28] and secret societies have been banned at Oberlin College from 1847[29] to the present,[30] and at Princeton University since the beginning of the 20th century.

Confraternities in Nigeria are secret-society like student groups within higher education. The exact death toll of confraternity activities is unclear. One estimate in 2002 was that 250 people had been killed in campus cult-related murders in the previous decade,[31] while the Exam Ethics Project lobby group estimated that 115 students and teachers had been killed between 1993 and 2003.[32]

The Mandatory Monday Association is thought to operate out of a variety of Australian universities including the Australian Defence Force Academy. The Association has numerous chapters that meet only on Mondays to discuss business and carry out rituals.[33]

The only secret society abolished and then legalized is that of The Philomaths,[34] which is nowadays a legitimate academic association founded on a strict selection of its members.


While their existence had been speculated for years, internet-based secret societies first became known to the public in 2012 when the secret society known as Cicada 3301 began recruiting from the public via internet-based puzzles.[35][36] The goals of the society remain unknown, but it is believed that they are involved in cryptography.[37][38]

By location


A Hongmen seal, 19th century.[39]

Secret Societies before 1950 played a major role in Chinese affairs for centuries. They created and supported patriotism until they were disbanded by the Communist regime.[40]

  • Mohamed Nasir, Kamaludeen. "Protected Sites: Reconceptualising Secret Societies in Colonial and Postcolonial Singapore" Journal of Historical Sociology (2016) 29#2 pp. 232-249.


South Africa
West African
  • Crocodile Society
  • Leopard Society
  • Poro, a secret men's society
  • Sande society, the female counterpart to the Poro society
  • Simo (society)


United Kingdom

North America

United States
  • Freemasonry in the United States
  • History of the Knights of Columbus, Catholics
  • Knights of the Golden Circle, Civil War era
  • Ku Klux Klan, three separate organization from 1860s, 1920s, and recent decades
  • Odd Fellows, Fraternal order
  • Order of the Star Spangled Banner, nativists in 1850s
  • Feminine Brigades of St. Joan of Arc

South America



The Catholic Church strongly opposed secret societies, especially the Freemasons. It did relent somewhat in the United States and allowed membership in labour unions and the Knights of Columbus, but not the Masons. See Anti-Masonry.[41][42]

Some Christian denominations continue to forbid their members from joining secret societies in the 21st century. For example, the Allegheny Wesleyan Methodist Connection.[43]

See also


  1. Daraul, Arkon (6 November 2015). A History Of Secret Societies. Pickle Partners Publishing. ISBN 978-1-78625-613-3.
  2. Stevens (1899), p. vii.
  3. Checkmark Books (1998), ISBN 0816038716
  4. Spence, Richard B. The Real History of Secret Societies (2019), The Great Courses
  5. Jasper Ridley (2011). The Freemasons: A History of the World's Most Powerful Secret Society. Arcade. ISBN 978-1-61145-010-1. see also Jeffers, H. Paul. Freemasons: A History and Exploration of the World's Oldest Secret Society. (Citadel Press, 2005).
  6. Walsh, Michael. OPUS DEI: An Investigation into the Secret Society Struggling for Power within the Roman Catholic Church.
  7. Secret Society: Opus Dei - Catholicism's Secret Sect.
  8. Their Kingdom Come: Inside the Secret World of Opus Dei.
  9. "Beyond the Threshold". Retrieved 30 March 2018.
  10. Preston, Paul (1986). The triumph of democracy in Spain. London: Methuen. p. 28. ISBN 9780416900101. OCLC 14586560.
  11. Harding, Nick (2005). Secret societies. Edison, N.J.: Chartwell Books, Inc. p. 107. ISBN 9780785821700. OCLC 78244509.
  12. Hesse, Alexander (2015), Geheimbünde Freimaurer und Illuminaten, Opus Dei und Schwarze Hand (in German), Reinbek: Rowohlt Taschenbuch, p. 54, ISBN 9783499630491
  13. Augias, Corrado (2012), Die Geheimnisse des Vatikan : Eine andere Geschichte der Papststadt (in German) (1., neue Ausg ed.), München: Beck, C H, p. 415, ISBN 9783406630927
  14. Pilapil, Vicente R. (1971). "Opus Dei in Spain". The World Today. 27 (5): 211–221. ISSN 0043-9134. JSTOR 40394504.
  15. SPIEGEL, Peter Hertel, DER (7 April 2005). "Vatikan intern: Der Aufstieg der Santa Mafia". Der Spiegel (in German). Retrieved 16 June 2021.
  16. "Opus dei members in court for 'brainwashing'".
  17. "On the trail of Spain's stolen children". EL PAÍS. 7 March 2011.
  18. "The Constitution of the Republic of Poland". 2 April 1997. Article 13: Political parties and other organizations whose programs are based upon totalitarian methods and the modes of activity of nazism, fascism and communism, as well as those whose programs or activities sanction racial or national hatred, the application of violence for the purpose of obtaining power or to influence the State policy, or provide for the secrecy of their own structure or membership, shall be prohibited.
  19. "Skull And Bones". The Secret Society Manual. Retrieved 11 May 2012.
  20. "To The Members of the University of Chicago". The University of Chicago Magazine. 5 (9): 298. July 1913.
  21. Megan Findling (3 November 2011). "Edgar Allan Poe in Greenwich Village" (article). Researching Greenwich Village History. Retrieved 11 May 2012.
  22. "Secret Societies. | News | The Harvard Crimson".
  23. "Student Government at Wellesley and How It Makes for Loyalty among the College Girls and Faculty". The New York Times. 12 February 1912.
  24. Bowers, Mary (17 November 2006). "Pitt Club under pressure from Council" (PDF). Varsity. p. 5. Retrieved 20 August 2009.
  25. Gray, Kirsty (11 February 2011). "Oxford's Bully-ingdon Club faces more scandal". Varsity. Retrieved 25 June 2011.
  26. D.T.W. Price. A History of Saint David's University College, Lampeter. University of Wales Press, Cardiff. Volume One, to 1898 (ISBN 0-7083-0606-3)
  27. "Naissance de " Alexandre-Théophile Vandermonde ", mathématicien français – Espace " Sciences du Numérique " Alan Turing (LJAD – CNRS/UNS)". Retrieved 20 August 2017.
  28. "Regulations for the Virginia Military Institute, Part II, Revised 5 December 2008, 12–16(b)".
  29. Fletcher, Robert Samuel (1943). A History of Oberlin College from Its Foundation Through the Civil War. Oberlin College. "Revised codes were issued every few years, but not many important changes were made in them. Provisions with regard to the hours of 'athletic exercises and sport' were added in 1847. In the same revision there appeared for the first time the 'peculiar' Oberlin rule against secret societies. 'No student,' it runs, 'is permitted to join any secret society, or military company.'"
  30. Student Regulations, Policies, and Procedures, Oberlin College 2011–2012 (PDF). 2011. p. 34. D. Secret Societies: "No secret society is allowed at Oberlin, and no other societies or self-perpetuating organizations are allowed among students, except by permission of the faculty. This is to be understood to include social and rooming-house clubs."
  31. "NIGERIA: Focus on the menace of student cults", IRIN, 1 August 2002
  32. "Cults of violence", The Economist, 31 July 2008
  33. "IV. The Secret Societies", Omaha Secret Societies, Columbia University Press, 31 December 1969, pp. 58–132, doi:10.7312/fort92186-004, ISBN 9780231887458
  34. Arthur Morius Francis. Secret Societies. Vol. 3: The Collegiate Secret Societies of America. 2015 (file pdf).
  35. Bell, Chris (25 November 2013). "The internet mystery that has the world baffled". Daily Telegraph. Archived from the original on 12 January 2022. Retrieved 23 July 2014.
  36. Ernst, Douglas (26 November 2013). "Secret society seeks world's brightest: Recruits navigate 'darknet' filled with terrorism, drugs". The Washington Times. Retrieved 23 July 2014.
  37. NPR staff (5 January 2014). "The Internet's Cicada: A Mystery without an Answer". All Things Considered, National Public Radio. Retrieved 13 May 2014.
  38. Scott, Sam (16 December 2013). "Cicada 3301: The most elaborate and mysterious puzzle of the internet age". Metro. Retrieved 16 December 2013.
  39. Alexander Wylie: Secret Societies in China, in China Researches, p. 131, 1897 Shanghai, reprinted in US by Nabu Public Domain Reprints
  40. See Martin Purbrick, "Patriotic Chinese triads and secret societies: from the imperial dynasties, to nationalism, and communism." Asian Affairs 50.3 (2019): 305-322 online.
  41. Christopher J. Kauffman, Faith and Fraternalism: The History of the Knights of Columbus, 1882–1982 (1982) p. 8.
  42. Simon Sarlin and Dan Rouyer, "The Anti-Masonic Congress of Trento (1896): International Mobilization and the Circulation of Practices against Freemasonry." Contemporanea: Rivista di Storia dell'800 e del '900 (July-Sep 2021, 24#3, pp. 517-536.
  43. The Discipline of the Allegheny Wesleyan Methodist Connection (Original Allegheny Conference). Salem: Allegheny Wesleyan Methodist Connection. 2014. pp. 20–21.

Further reading

  • Dumenil, Lynn. Freemasonry and American Culture: 1880-1930 (Princeton UP, 1984), major scholarly survey. excerpt
  • Jacob, Frank (2012). Geheimgesellschaften: Kulturhistorische Sozialstudien: Secret Societies: Comparative Studies in Culture, Society and History. Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann. ISBN 978-3826049088.
  • Klimczuk, Stephen, and Gerald Warner (2009). Secret Places, Hidden Sanctuaries: Uncovering Mysterious Sights, Symbols, and Societies. New York: Sterling Publishing Company.
  • Simmel, Georg. "The Sociology of Secrecy and of Secret Societies" The American Journal of Sociology (1906) 11#4 pp. 441-498 a famous classic by Georg Simmel, online
  • Stevens, Albert Clark (1899). The Cyclopædia of Fraternities. New York: Hamilton Printing & Publishing Company.
  • Whalen, William Joseph (1966). Handbook of Secret Organizations. Milwaukee: Bruce Pub. Co. LCCN 66026658.
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