Secret society
A secret society is a club or organization whose activities and inner functioning are concealed from non-members. The society may or may not attempt to conceal its existence. The term usually excludes covert groups, such as intelligence agencies or guerrilla insurgencies, which hide their activities and memberships but maintain a public presence. The exact qualifications for labeling a group as a secret society are disputed, but definitions generally rely on the degree to which the organization insists on secrecy
Secrecy is the practice of hiding information from certain individuals or groups, perhaps while sharing it with other individuals...

, and might involve the retention and transmission of secret knowledge, denial
Denial of request
Denial of request is the refusal of one party to grant the request of another. Some acts that can be considered denial may include the refusal of a person or a group of people representing a company, organization, or government agency to provide what a client or one seeking to be a client has...

 of membership in 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 are deeply interlinked with the concept of the Mannerbund, the all-male "warrior-band" or "warrior-society" of pre-modern cultures (see H. Schurtz, Alterklassen und Mannerbunde, Berlin, 1902; A. Van Gennep, The Rites of Passage, Chicago, 1960).


Several definitions for the term have been put forward. The term "secret society" is used to describe fraternal organizations that may have secret ceremonies and means of identification and communication, ranging from collegiate fraternities to organizations described in conspiracy theories as immensely powerful, with self-serving financial or political agendas
New World Order (conspiracy)
In conspiracy theory, the term New World Order or NWO refers to the emergence of a totalitarian one-world government.The common theme in conspiracy theories about a New World Order is that a secretive power elite with a globalist agenda is conspiring to eventually rule the world through an...


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

Application of the term is often hotly disputed, as it can be seen as pejorative.

Therefore, the criteria that can be adopted as a definition for the term are important for which organizations any one definition would include or exclude.

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 own

David V. Barrett, author of Secret Societies: From the Ancient and Arcane to the Modern and Clandestine, uses slightly different terms to define what does and does not qualify as a secret society. He defines 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 are not part of the American college fraternities, the Carbonari
The Carbonari were groups of secret revolutionary societies founded in early 19th-century Italy. The Italian Carbonari may have further influenced other revolutionary groups in Spain, France, Portugal and possibly Russia. Although their goals often had a patriotic and liberal focus, they lacked a...

, or the Know Nothing
Know Nothing
The Know Nothing was a movement by the nativist American political faction of the 1840s and 1850s. It was empowered by popular fears that the country was being overwhelmed by German and Irish Catholic immigrants, who were often regarded as hostile to Anglo-Saxon Protestant values and controlled by...


Oath taking

Many organizations require members to take an oath at membership, not just secret societies. Such oaths often include promises to keep certain things about the organization secret.


Since some secret societies have political aims, they are illegal in several countries. Poland
Poland , officially the Republic of Poland , is a country in Central Europe bordered by Germany to the west; the Czech Republic and Slovakia to the south; Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania to the east; and the Baltic Sea and Kaliningrad Oblast, a Russian exclave, to the north...

, for example, has included a ban of secret political parties and political organizations in its constitution.

President John F Kennedy, in the Address to the ANPA 1961, included the subject of Secret Societies and their implications in the Address, where he said the following:

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 college societies is the Skull and Bones
Skull and Bones
Skull and Bones is an undergraduate senior or secret society at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. It is a traditional peer society to Scroll and Key and Wolf's Head, as the three senior class 'landed societies' at Yale....

 at Yale
Yale University
Yale University is a private, Ivy League university located in New Haven, Connecticut, United States. Founded in 1701 in the Colony of Connecticut, the university is the third-oldest institution of higher education in the United States...

. The University of Virginia
University of Virginia
The University of Virginia is a public research university located in Charlottesville, Virginia, United States, founded by Thomas Jefferson...

 also has a long history of secret societies playing an active role in University life. The influence of undergraduate secret societies at colleges such as Rutgers University
Rutgers University
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey , is the largest institution for higher education in New Jersey, United States. It was originally chartered as Queen's College in 1766. It is the eighth-oldest college in the United States and one of the nine Colonial colleges founded before the American...

, Harvard College
Harvard College
Harvard College, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is one of two schools within Harvard University granting undergraduate degrees...

, 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
Pitt Club
The University Pitt Club, popularly referred to as the Pitt Club, is a club, only open to male students at the University of Cambridge. In the past, most of its membership attended certain private schools, and whilst this is no longer a criterion for membership it is still largely true...

 at Cambridge University, Bullingdon Club
Bullingdon Club
The Bullingdon Club is a socially exclusive student dining club at Oxford University. The club has no permanent rooms and is notorious for its members' wealth and destructive binges. Membership is by invitation only, and prohibitively expensive for most, given the need to pay for the uniform,...

 at Oxford University, the 16' Club
The 16' Club
The 16' Club is a dining club established for male members of St David's College ; also known as "The Sixteens", the "College Sixteen" or simply "16", it has been accused of being a secret society, and though some would agree with that definition, more reputable authors would not.With origins in...

 at St David's College and the Speculative Society at the University of Edinburgh
University of Edinburgh
The University of Edinburgh, founded in 1583, is a public research university located in Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The university is deeply embedded in the fabric of the city, with many of the buildings in the historic Old Town belonging to the university...


Secret societies are disallowed in a few colleges. Virginia Military Institute
Virginia Military Institute
The Virginia Military Institute , located in Lexington, Virginia, is the oldest state-supported military college and one of six senior military colleges in the United States. Unlike any other military college in the United States—and in keeping with its founding principles—all VMI students are...

 has rules that no cadet may join a secret society, and secret societies have been banned at Princeton University
Princeton University
Princeton University is a private research university located in Princeton, New Jersey, United States. The school is one of the eight universities of the Ivy League, and is one of the nine Colonial Colleges founded before the American Revolution....

 since the beginning of the 20th century.

External links

  • Secret Societies: a very short history — Documents and illustrations of Freemasons, Jesuits, Illuminati
    The Illuminati is a name given to several groups, both real and fictitious. Historically the name refers to the Bavarian Illuminati, an Enlightenment-era secret society founded on May 1, 1776...

    , Carbonari
    The Carbonari were groups of secret revolutionary societies founded in early 19th-century Italy. The Italian Carbonari may have further influenced other revolutionary groups in Spain, France, Portugal and possibly Russia. Although their goals often had a patriotic and liberal focus, they lacked a...

    , Burschenschaften and other putative secret societies and clandestine organizations
  • Stevens, The cyclopædia of fraternities (2nd ed.). A comprehensive, though dated, review of the subject.
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