Secret Societies

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SECRET SOCIETIES . The term secret society can be used to describe all groups whose membership or very existence is unknown to nonmembers, or that keep certain of their practices or conceptions hidden from nonmembers, no matter how public or recognized they are as a group. Within these broad limits one could include subversive political groups, criminal gangs, and some professional guilds. There may be a religious dimension to these organizations, perhaps in ritual behavior, legends about their origins, or other counterparts to phenomena typical of religious groups. In this article, however, attention will be given to groups that are more clearly religious, as determined by their recognition of supernatural powers or their subscription to certain values and ideals.

It must be admitted, however, that there is no clear border between those secret societies that definitely celebrate religious matters and those that are secular. Of course, secret societies that are both very secret and religious can change into societies that have few secret elements and little specifically religious language. The aura of the past and the persistence of generic or Deistic religious language can nevertheless make such societies seem like rival religions to some people. A prominent indication of this problem is the prohibition of membership in the Freemasons for Roman Catholics and some Lutherans, despite the claim of many Masons that they are not a religion in any way, especially today.

Distinguishing Features

The secret society is characterized first by its being a voluntary or selective group within a natural community. Although there may be times and places in which nearly everyone of a certain gender, age, and status may be included, there is always the theoretical possibility that some otherwise eligible person will not be elected to join the group. The possibility of exclusion is a powerful factor in the sociopsychological dynamics of a secret society. The pool of potential members is also restricted, usually to men beyond puberty. There are few secret societies that include women or children, although secret societies restricted to women are known, such as the Bundu society among the Mende people of Sierra Leone.

Obviously, another primary characteristic of the secret society is secrecy. It is not characteristic of religious secret societies, however, that their very existence or their membership is secret. Instead, it is knowledge of their activities, rituals, texts, doctrines, myths, and offices that is restricted to the group. Some argue that such secrets are new, dangerous, or deep matters that demand the protection of secrecy; in this light it might be said that the secret society is humankind's nursery for new insights and new political or social structures. No matter what the depth or the power of the secrets, however, there is always a measure of artificiality in keeping them secret. Furthermore, at least in some cases, the secrets so carefully guarded are actually trivial and assume importance only because they are shared secrets. At the base of secrecy lies not so much a set of hidden facts as a group of experiencesany group of people that works or performs rites together shares memories that others do not have.

A third major feature of the religious secret society is initiation. There is a logical necessity that entrance into the group be clearly marked so that the group and the individual can be sure exactly who is and who is not included. Many of the initiatory practices can be understood as means by which the simple fact of inclusion in the group is emphasized and reinforced. There are other dimensions to these often elaborate initiation practices, however. In their use of ordeals and trials, the symbolism of death and rebirth can become apparent: one does not merely join an organization, but undergoes a transforming experience and achieves deeper contact with the meaning of life and the world.

Closely related to the phenomenon of initiation is the hierarchical structure of the secret society. Often the society seems to be an outgrowth and extension of puberty-initiation practices. As such, it is based on the notion that human life does not merely grow into maturity, but that a distinctive, new kind of existence or ontology must be attained in the transformation from child to adult. Likewise, then, it is reasonable to recognize still higher stages of life with other initiations. The secret society itself represents such a stage beyond the status of simple adulthood, and within the secret society there may be other stages or levels of advancement. Role differentiation within the society is, from this perspective, not merely a differentiation in function, but a manifestation of degrees of metaphysical weight or height.

Finally, the religious secret society regularly posits a myth concerning its origins that is central to its self-consciousness. Such myths are probably not historically accurate, but should be read as indications of the concerns or mindset of the group. Many primitive secret societies, for example, tell a story in which their secrets were derived from a woman, but subsequently kept from other women. This does not necessarily mean that the male secret society was a device by which the men in a previous age wrested control from the women in a matriarchal society. It does, however, indicate a tension in the men's psychology: they are keeping from the women something in which the women also have, or have had, a stake.

Theories Concerning Origin and Function

Many suggestions concerning the basic motivation for secret societies have been proposed. One theory emphasizes the sexual element. In this view, secret societies constitute an attempt by men to establish a life independent of women, a rejection of feminine power and influence. Secret societies that are not exclusively male are reluctant concessions or counter-reactions to this motive. Other theories on the all-male composition of so many groups include suggestions of homoerotic attraction and the observation that many male animals cultivate activities limited to their gender. This pattern of male bonding can be as casual as the camaraderie incidental to the hunt or the neighborhood bar, or it can take the highly organized form of the secret society. Patterns of gender grouping in work, war, and play also may have their roots in male bonding and thus contribute to the strength of the secret society phenomenon.

A second kind of analysis emphasizes the social and political functions of the societies. On the one hand, the secret society may be consonant with the existing social and political order and may reinforce that order through the fear it inspires. On the other hand, a secret society may be an agency for change, rebellion, or reform. In this situation, it will be opposed by the dominant forces in society, and its need for secrecy will be greater. Its membership and its very existence will be kept secret if possible. Certainly, such groups will be labeled criminal by the dominant society, but they may also be understood as supporting an alternative political or social structure.

In many historical situations, the phenomenon of secrecy has given rise to the attitude that every secret organization is a conspiracy against the welfare of the rest of humankind. The rest of society, if sufficiently distressed, might blame all social ills on a real or even a supposed secret society. It is unlikely that many secret societies have been as powerful or as conspiratorial as public opinion has, on occasion, conceived them to be. Especially pernicious when used as a basis for discrimination and repression is the supposition that subversive secret societies exist among minority populations. The threat, real or imagined, that a secret society represents to the total community is an important factor in the social dynamics of such a group.

A third theory about secret societies stresses more positive social functions. It is argued that secret societies foster a person's sense of identity. In tribal societies they afford some people a sense of privacy in the midst of proximity, and in modern societies they give the individual a special status in the midst of pressures for conformity. It is clear that in some societies the secret group is a primary means of education and socialization. Insofar as the desire to improve oneself or to achieve greater power and status can be considered a beneficial motivation in human life, the secret society has had the positive function of offering people a way to advance their programs of social and financial success.

Such aspiration to greater significance and fuller existence brings us to the religious motivations and functions of the secret society. There is a style of being religious in which the reason and goal of religious activities is the improvement of one's strength or ontological status. By performing certain ritual, ascetic, or ethical acts, or by thinking certain thoughts and controlling the mind, this kind of religion seeks to promote one's career in this or another world. In light of this kind of religious motivation, the secret society is a major arena for structuring, formulating, and traveling a path toward that goal.

The goal, as well as the path, varies from society to society, of course. Among tribal peoples the attempt to progress beyond the stage of adulthood achieved through puberty initiation often takes the form of more and more rigorous physical ordeals. It may involve learning magical techniques. The goal may be conceived in terms of transcending the ordinary human condition, especially by identifying with the dead and the spirits who occupy the next higher rung in the hierarchy of being and power. Many masked dancing rites performed by secret societies are understood to represent the return of the dead to the world of the living. Some of the most shocking practices of secret societiesfor example, the eating of raw human flesh in a secret society of the Kwakiutl Indians of North Americacan be seen as a way of demonstrating the transhuman (and certainly nonhuman) nature of the life of a secret society member (members of this kind of secret society think of themselves as being something else, superior to humans; the cannibalism demonstrates that they are no longer human because they do something no normal human being would do). The right of secret society members to frighten or steal also derives from this supposed superior existence.

The higher status and power bestowed through the secret society might be conceived as benefiting the fertility of the earth, improving one's health or wealth, giving greater power to the tribe, or enhancing one's interior life. When the secret society is seen as a school for attaining ecstatic states or mystical knowledge, its similarity to monasticism becomes apparent. The element of secrecy is not so prominent in the conventional monastic community, hence the connection between monasticism and secret societies has seldom been recognized. Nevertheless, monastic communities do cultivate religious advancement and identify with a stage of humanity beyond the ordinary, as do many secret societies.

There is also a religious function ascribed to the secret society in those theories that see such societies as the nurseries or nursing homes of religions. The secret of some groups may be a new religious insight that is protected from persecution or ridicule by restricting its rites to believers' eyes. This theory may have been persuasive to those who interpreted the semi-secrecy of early Christian ritual in this way. It has also been argued, however, that secret societies can preserve for a small group some outmoded religious ideas and practices that the rest of a population has abandoned. Through secrecy and mystification, ancient religious patterns might retain some attraction that they would not enjoy in the full light of public scrutiny. Thus, the secret society could embody the first or the last stage in the history of a religious movement.

There is nothing inevitably good or bad in the form of the secret society itself. It is a powerful human phenomenon that can be turned to purposes either beneficial or harmful to its members, the larger society, or both. Of course, many of the factors listed here can be operative at the same time; thus they can strengthen the attraction of a secret society for its members by fulfilling many expectations, both religious and secular.

Prominent Examples

One of the richest areas for research into secret societies in tribal or primitive cultures has been the islands of the South Pacific. The Melanesian Dukduk society and others like it provide classic examples of their type. There is some problem, however, in distinguishing the voluntary secret society from the secret rites performed at puberty on all boys of the tribe, transforming them into men of the tribe. The important distinction lies in the selective nature of membership in the secret society, no matter how similar the society's initiation is to the general puberty initiations. Also, the activities of the secret society tend to take place in special grounds or in buildings away from the village and not in the centrally located "men's houses" that are often found in these cultures.

West Africa has witnessed a proliferation of secret societies. Some of them, such as the Poro society in Sierra Leone, existed among aboriginal cultures, and apparently are unconnected with specific modern religious traditions. Other secret societies in this area are Muslim, or contain a mixture of Muslim and native elements, and may have been influenced by the ūfī orders of North Africa. There are also some women's secret societies and some with members of both sexes, but these are not as old as the all-male groups.

In the history of Kenya, the Mau Mau secret society has figured prominently. It was mainly derived from the large Kikuyu population and emerged in the 1940s as a reaction to the distress this group was experiencing under colonial administration, modernization, and Christian evangelism. The link between nostalgia for the old ways and political aspirations is especially clear in this example.

The secret societies of China are well-known examples of this type of political group, although in many of them the religious factors do not seem to have been prominent. These groups have been known since the first century ce and bear such names as White Lotus, Dragon Flower, and Big Swords. It is thought that they provided those people who did not have a strong family with an alternative affiliation by which to promote their interests. They also provided some authority and order in situations where social and political structures were weak or absent. Where political structures were strong, however, they often constituted the chief form of political opposition or religious dissent. At the beginning of the twentieth century the Boxers, a xenophobic secret society, became known worldwide because of the rebellion that bore their name. More recently, the Triad societies have gained notoriety in Hong Kong and elsewhere for their criminal activities.

In North America, secret societies existed first among Native American groupsfor example, the Kwakiutl. Settlers from Europe and Africa brought secret societies to America, or created them after they arrived. An example of an African American secret society was the Moorish Science Temple, established in 1913 in Newark, New Jersey. It provided some unchurched African American men with a semireligious lodge community and presaged the role of Islam in later African American history.

From Italy, the United States inherited another type of secret society, the Mafia. It is unusual in many ways, including its family connections and economic (protection racket) functions. Its specific religious character is not obvious, except in the dedication that it inspires and requires. Ethnic or nationalist secret societies clearly exhibit the role of such organizations in protecting and promoting historical identities in a new world dominated by peoples of other races and religions.

In the Ku Klux Klan the United States saw another kind of motivation for secret-society organization. Founded in the southern states following the Civil War, the Klan was a reaction to the distresses of change experienced by the white population. Again, it is impossible to ascertain to what degree religious factors were used superficially to bolster the organization's strength and to what degree these factors indicated a real religious fervor, however misguided. There was a resurgence of Klan activity during the 1930s when the objects of Klan fear and opposition were expanded beyond blacks and northern white politicians to include Jews and Roman Catholics. The Klan remains in the United States as an organization ready to provide a format for revolt against any social or religious change that some segment of the population does not affirm.

Freemasonry was a prominent example of the secret society in the United States. There are now five million or more Freemasons in the world, about two-thirds of them in the United States. Today their membership is not secret, and the secrecy of the rituals is not a defining factor. The fact that modern U.S. Masonic lodges are often assumed to be primarily social organizations demonstrates that secret societies can dramatically change over time. Mozart's opera The Magic Flute (1791) reflects a period, however, in which spiritual aspirations and ideas were more than relics or playful references. Mozart seems to have taken very seriously the humanistic side or interpretation of Masonic symbolism, making his opera into a kind of morality play for serious human aspiration and ideals.

The Masonic orders may not have been founded before the seventeenth century, although in their mythology they claim ancient origins. The same suspicion of a fabricated ancient and medieval past attaches to the Rosicrucians. Many people have taken seriously the idea that ancient religions were preserved in these organizations. In the eighteenth century, Freemasonry was linked to various programs of political and religious reform that emphasized freedom of thought, worship, association, and the press that may have contributed to the French and American revolutions. Insofar as humanistic ideals and deistic beliefs are deemed to be religious, Masonic fraternities constitute at least semisecret, semireligious groups.

Other examples of secret societies include the medieval Knights Templar, the Thugs of India, and the Assassins of Persia. A complete list of secret societies would include many feared groups whose programs were and are condemned by the rest of society. Even in these instances it is nevertheless possible, if not probable, that religious motivation of some sort lay at the foundation of each society and provided it with its major source of dedication and devotion. It is perhaps nowhere clearer, therefore, that a phenomenon worthy of the designation "religious," according to most definitions, need not be good or true in the opinion of most people. The structure of the secret society, with its religious characteristics or dynamics, is in itself a neutral form, but it may embody and promote thoughts or acts deemed wonderful or horrible.

See Also

Assassins; Freemasons; Millenarianism, article on Chinese Millenarian Movements; Rosicrucians.


Charles William Heckethorn's The Secret Societies of All Ages and Countries, 2 vols. (18751897; reprint, New York, 1965) examines many groups that might be called "secret societies." Major examples of secret societies are discussed by various authors in Secret Societies, edited by Norman MacKenzie (New York, 1967). Theories and analyses are to be found in most of the books mentioned here, but one should note the discussions in Joachim Wach's Sociology of Religion (1944; reprint, Chicago, 1962); the article on secrecy and the secret society by Georg Simmel in The Sociology of Georg Simmel, translated and edited by Kurt H. Wolff (Glencoe, Ill., 1950); Hugh B. Urban's Tantra: Sex, Secrecy, Politics, and Power in the Study of Religion (Berkeley, Calif., 2003); and Lionel Tiger's Men in Groups (New York, 1969). See, further, the chapter on secret societies in Sissela Bok's Secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation (New York, 1983). An older survey of the phenomenon in tribal societies is Hutton Webster's Primitive Secret Societies: A Study in Early Politics and Religion (New York, 1932). The following is a sampling of area studies: F. W. Butt-Thompson's West African Secret Societies (London, 1929); Jean Chesneaux's Secret Societies in China in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1971); Paul Christopher Johnson's Secrets, Gossip, and the Gods: The Transformation of Brazilian Candomblé (Oxford, 2002); and Michael R. Allen's Male Cults and Secret Initiations in Melanesia (London, 1967). Listings of U.S. groups is to be found in Alvin J. Schmidt's Fraternal Organizations (Westport, Conn., 1980) and Alan Axelrod's The International Encyclopedia of Secret Societies and Fraternal Orders (New York, 1997). J. M. Roberts's The Mythology of the Secret Societies (London, 1972) discusses the reactions to the secret societies in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The role of the societies in British literature is reviewed in Marie Mulvey Roberts and Hugh Ormsby-Lennon, Secret Texts, the Literature of Secret Societies (New York, 1995).

An interpretation of the religious value of specific actions and symbols of secret society rituals is found in Mircea Eliade's Rites and Symbols of Initiation: The Mysteries of Birth and Rebirth (New York, 1958), which also includes extensive bibliographical notes (pp. 151161) dealing with important studies of secret societies in Europe, Asia, Australia, and the Americas.

George Weckman (1987 and 2005)