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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Secret society is a term used to describe clubs or organisations in which the activities and inner functioning of those societies is 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, and might involve the retention and transmission of secret knowledge, denial 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.



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, global reach, and often Luciferian beliefs.[citation needed]

A purported "family tree of secret societies" has been proposed, although it may not be comprehensive.[1]

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

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.[citation needed]

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, or the Know Nothings.[citation needed]

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, for example, has included a ban of secret political parties and political organizations in its constitution.[2] Not all secret societies are perceived as a threat by the existing political establishment.[citation needed]

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 at Yale. Secret societies are disallowed in a few colleges. Virginia Military Institute has rules that no cadet may join a secret society[3], and secret societies have been banned at Princeton University since the beginning of the 20th century. British Universities, too, have a long history of secret societies in universities with a focus on aristocracy or privilege such as the The Pitt Club at Cambridge University, the Flamma Satus of Cardiff University and the Kate Kennedy Club at the University of St Andrews. At one time it was common to refer to all collegiate fraternities as "secret societies".

Disputed groups

The term "secret societies" could include criminal organizations, such as the Triad, Yakuza, Mafia or the Cosa Nostra organizations.[citation needed]

The United States of America's National Security Agency has been described as a secret society since its very existence was, for many years, a secret.[citation needed] People (such as James Bamford, in The Puzzle Palace, 1982) used to say that the letters NSA stood for "No Such Agency" or "Never Say Anything"; and, in the early 1990s, the CIA had a website but the NSA did not. This has changed: the NSA has had a website for several years, and its activities are debated in Congress and the press. Its activities are authorized and are paid for, although the size of its budget and details of those activities are secrets.[citation needed]

See also


  1. ^ Stevens (1907), p. vi.
  2. ^ The Constitution of the Republic of Poland, 1997-04-02,, "Political parties and other organizations whose programmes are based upon totalitarian methods and the modes of activity of nazism, fascism and communism, as well as those whose programmes 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." 

Further reading

  • Heckethorn, Charles William (1997). The Secret Societies of All Ages and Countries, Embracing the Mysteries of Ancient India, China, Japan, Egypt, Mexico, Peru, Greece, and Scandinavia, the Cabbalists, Early Christians, Heretics, Assassins, Thugs, Templars, the Vehm and Inquisition, Mystics, Rosicrucians, Illuminati, Freemasons, Skopzi, Camorristi, Carbonari, Nihilists, and Other Sects. Kessinger Publishing. ISBN 1-56459-296-0. 
  • Whalen, William Joseph (1966). Handbook of Secret Organizations. Milwaukee: Bruce Pub. Co. LCCN 66-026658. 
  • Axelrod, Alan (1997). The International Encyclopedia of Secret Societies and Fraternal Orders. New York: Facts on File. ISBN 0-8160-2307-7. 
  • Roberts, J. M. (John Morris) (1972). The Mythology of the Secret Societies. New York: Scribner. ISBN 0-684-12904-3. 
  • Robbins, Alexandra (2004). Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities. New York: Hyperion. ISBN 0-7868-8859-8. 
  • Stevens, Albert Clark (1907). The Cyclopædia of Fraternities (2nd ed.). New York: E.B. Treat and Company. 

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