A secret society is a club or 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.


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. Alan Axelrod, author of the ''International Encyclopedia of Secret Societies and Fraternal Orders'', 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 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 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."



Because some secret societies have political aims, they are illegal in several countries. Italy (Constitution of Italy, Section 2, Articles 13–28) and Poland, 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. The influence of undergraduate secret societies at colleges such as Harvard College, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Emory University, the University of Chicago, the University of Virginia, Georgetown University, New York University, and Wellesley College has been publicly acknowledged, if anonymously and circumspectly, since the 19th century. British Universities, too, have a long history of secret societies or quasi-secret societies, such as The Pitt Club at Cambridge University, Bullingdon Club at Oxford University, and the 16' Club at St David's College. 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. 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, and secret societies have been banned at Oberlin College from 1847 to the present, 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,"NIGERIA: Focus on the menace of student cults"
''IRIN'', 1 August 2002
while the Exam Ethics Project lobby group estimated that 115 students and teachers had been killed between 1993 and 2003."Cults of violence"
''The Economist'', 31 July 2008
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. The only secret society abolished and then legalized is that of The Philomaths, it 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. The goals of the society remain unknown, but it is believed that they are involved in cryptography.

By location


China * Red Lanterns (Boxer Uprising) * Red Spear Society * Tiandihui, Society of the Heaven and the Earth * Tong (organization) * Yellow Sand Society * White Lotus India * Akhil Bharatiya Akhara Parishad Japan * Black Dragon Society * Double Leaf Society * Gen'yōsha * Green Dragon (order) * Kenkokukai * Sakurakai Singapore


Nigeria * Abakuá * Ekpe * Nze na Ozo * Ogboni West African *Crocodile Society *Leopard Society * Poro, a secret men's society * Sande society, the female counterpart to the Poro society * Simo (society) Zimbabwe * Nyau


Germany * Ordo Templi Orientis * Illuminati Ireland * Irish Republican Brotherhood * The Ribbonmen * The Defenders Italy * Propaganda Due Serbia * Black Hand United Kingdom * 5 Hertford Street * Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn * Bullingdon Club * Scintilla Juris * National Action (UK) Pan-European * Rosicrucianism

North America

* Collegiate secret societies in North America United States * International Debutante Ball * Order of the Star Spangled Banner

South America

Brazil * Shindo Renmei

Popular culture


Many Christian Churches forbid their members from joining secret societies. For example, ¶41 of the General Rules contained in ''Discipline'' of the Allegheny Wesleyan Methodist Connection teaches:

See also

* Fraternal order


Further reading

* * * * Harwood, W. S
"Secret Societies in America,"
''The North American Review,'' Vol. 164, No. 486, May 1897. * * * Jeffers, H. Paul. ''Freemasons: A History and Exploration of the World's Oldest Secret Society.'' (Citadel Press, 2005). * Jeffers, H. Paul. ''The Freemasons in America: Inside the Secret Society'' (2006
* * * * * * Stephen Klimczuk, Gerald Warner (2009). ''Secret Places, Hidden Sanctuaries: Uncovering Mysterious Sights, Symbols, and Societies'', New York: Sterling Publishing Company.

External links

Secret Societies: a very short history
– Documents of Freemasons, Jesuits, Illuminati, Carbonari, Burschenschaften and other organizations * Stevens
The cyclopædia of fraternities (2nd ed.)
A dated review of the subject.
Secret Societies in Australia and English Freemasonry
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