A secret society is 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:
Historian Richard B. Spence of the University of Idaho offered a similar three-pronged definition:
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).
Historian Jasper Ridley argues that Freemasonry is, "the world's most powerful secret Society."
The organization "Opus Dei" (Latin for "Work of God") is portrayed as a "secret society" of the Catholic Church. Critics such as the Jesuit Wladimir Ledóchowski sometimes refer to Opus Dei as a Catholic (or Christian or "white") form of Freemasonry. Other critics label Opus Dei as "Holy Mafia" or "Santa Mafia" as the organisation is connected with various questionable practises including intense "brainwashing" of its members to exploit labor force as well as the direct involvement of members in severe crimes such as baby-trafficking in Spain under the dictator Francisco Franco.
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.
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 have a long history of secret societies or quasi-secret clubs, such as The Pitt Club at Cambridge University, Bullingdon Club at Oxford University, the Kate Kennedy Club, The Kensington Club and the Praetorian Club at the University of St Andrews, 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; 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 from confraternity activities is unclear. One estimate in 2002 was that 250 people had been killed in campus cult-related murders in the previous decade, while the Exam Ethics Project lobby group estimated that 115 students and teachers had been killed between 1993 and 2003.
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, which is now 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 Cicada 3301 began recruiting from the public via Internet-based puzzles. The goals of the society remain unknown, but it is believed to be involved in cryptography.
The following contemporary and historic secret societies formed in Africa, by country:
Secret societies played a major role in Chinese affairs for centuries. They created and supported patriotism until they were disbanded by the Communist regime around 1950. Examples of Chinese secret societies include:
Secret societies in India include:
Secret societies in Japan include:
Secret societies in the Malaysia include:
Secret societies in the Philippines include:
Main articles: Secret societies in Singapore and Secret societies in colonial Singapore
Secret societies in Australia include:
Several secret societies existing across Europe, including:
Other organizations are listed by country.
Main article: Collegiate secret societies in North America
Secret societies in Canada that are non-collegiate include:
Secret societies in the United States that are non-collegiate include:
See also: Anti-Masonry
The Catholic Church strongly opposed secret societies, especially the Freemasons. It did relent somewhat in the United States and allowed membership in labour unions and the Knights of Columbus, but not the Masons. Some Christian denominations continue to forbid their members from joining secret societies in the 21st century. For example, the Allegheny Wesleyan Methodist Connection.
Article 13: Political parties and other organizations whose programs are based upon totalitarian methods and the modes of activity of nazism, fascism and communism, as well as those whose programs 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.