secret society

secret society, organization of initiated persons whose members, purposes, and rituals are kept secret. Human groups throughout history have maintained secret societies. The ceremonies of initiation into such a society typically begin with an oath pledging secrecy as to all proceedings of the society, ascribing special obligations to its members, and assenting to penalties for violation of the oath. This is followed by tests of the candidate's worthiness, including physical courage and even painful mutilations. A dominant theme in the initiation trials of most of these societies is the symbolism of death and rebirth. After the candidate has passed the prescribed tests, the secret knowledge is transmitted to him. Secret societies have served as schools in which the elders instruct the young men in the ways of their society. These initiations are reminiscent of coming-of-age ceremonies. Women have comparable societies, but theirs have never matched those of men in number. (A notable exception was the Hung Society of China, a secret society of women that lasted over 1,500 years.) The mysteries, or secret rites and doctrines, of the Egyptians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, and other ancient peoples were transmitted solely through secret societies. In modern civilizations secret societies such as Freemasonry are numerous. They usually offer various types of mutual aid for their members; there are, for example, special obligations to members who are ill and to the families of deceased members. Some historic secret societies, such as the Bavarian Illuminati, have been the object of massive paranoid speculation, accused of conspiring for world political domination; but the model of the secret society, with its emphasis on absolute commitment and secret truths that set the initiate apart, has been used to explain various political groups from terrorists to Cold Warriors. Some secret societies, e.g., the Mafia and the Ku Klux Klan, under the guise of fraternal benevolence, have defended the interests of their members by violence. See also fraternal orders, fraternity.

See J. H. Lepper, Famous Secret Societies (1932); A. Daraul, A History of Secret Societies (1962); J. M. Roberts, The Mythology of the Secret Societies (1972).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2024, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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