What is a Secret Society?

Inlfuential political players? Underground religious orders? Or just a load of make-believe? Let’s find out…

Dan Brown
19th century
The Eye of Providence
Early Christians

Are Secret Societies Influencing Our World?

Have you ever wondered if there was more at play in the world of politics and religion than you realized?

If you have read any of Dan Brown’s popular books or even watched the movies, you may have become intrigued by the idea that the world is run by shadowy entities pulling strings and making moves to create a New World Order.

The earliest secret societies were found in the mystery religions of ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Filled with secret rites and initiations, these groups secretly guarded religious truths and mystical revelations.

But is our modern world really controlled by a powerful few working undercover? In reality, probably not. But for hundreds of years, there have been groups of people who gathered to share ideas, wisdom, knowledge, and mystical teachings.

Even if these conspiracies are completely fictional, studying them can tell us a lot about our societies’ deepest suspicions, ambitions, and fears. They’re also great fun to read about!

What is a Secret Society?

It is not necessarily the society that is secret but its activities, rituals, and even members.

They can include secret rites, initiations, rituals, and shared beliefs. These could be anything from secret hand grips, as seen in Freemasonry, to a search for mystical wisdom in Rosicrucianism.

Secret societies are divergent groups and can be found in many spheres. From college fraternities, subversive political groups, criminal gangs, and professional Guilds, secret societies can be secular or religious.

Membership can be voluntary, provided members agree to uphold the ideals of the group like friendship, benevolence, and charity in the Knights of Pythias. They may also be selective, as often seen in collegiate secret societies.

Secret societies can be specific to an institution as seen with collegiate groups, while many organizations have thousands of members forming an international network.

A secret society is different to a cult, which is often a fanatical group led by an enigmatic leader. Cults often have elements of apocalyptic messaging, violence, and religious fanaticism.

The Age of Fraternalism

Fraternalism is the idea of being brotherly or having a brotherly bond.

During the 19th century, the Golden Age of Fraternalism saw a rapid increase in the number of men in America joining fraternal orders, many of them in secret. Some of the most influential men in American history, such as George Washington and Andrew Jackson, joined the Freemasons.

After the American Civil War, groups like the Knights of Pythias, the Order of the Elks, and the Rotary Club grew in popularity.

Many of these secret societies played an important role in offering stability and comfort in a quickly industrializing society. They also gathered together men with similar interests who could share knowledge and resources. These fraternal orders were often filled with ritual and regalia, and many set up local lodges or gathering places.

The Great Depression of the 1930s saw a decline in fraternal orders, and although many still exist today, the numbers are believed to be lower.

Structure of Secret Societies

Secret societies usually have a hierarchical structure with distinct role differentiation linked to degrees of spiritual or metaphysical development.

The newest initiates are allowed access to low-level knowledge, and as they progress up the ranks, more information about the society is revealed. The higher you are in the society rankings, the more aware you are of the order’s goals. These levels make secret societies more complex as there are secrets within secrets. They distinguish between members of different levels and create an interesting power dynamic.

Often Grand Masters or high-level members remain anonymous. The secrets of the society are not usually written down, and this encourages a master-pupil dynamic.

The unifying factor of most secret societies is the need for secrecy, and this informs how they are structured and how they share knowledge. Higher levels of secret societies may be as secret from the lower levels as the society itself is from the rest of the world.

Rituals, Ceremonies, and Symbolism


Most people can’t think of secret societies without envisioning prominent symbols, many popularized by modern books and films.

One prominent example of a symbol is The Eye of Providence, often associated with Freemasonry and the Illuminati. It can be found in churches, masonic buildings, and even the Great Seal of the United States. Although initially a Christian symbol, it has Egyptian influence; in modern times, it has a deliberate esoteric meaning.

Many secret societies have symbolism and allegory for rebirth as members are initiated into a new way of life. The symbols, handshakes, and other secret rituals linked to specific orders are often recognized globally, which allows members to feel welcome no matter where they are.

Almost all secret societies have an initiation process for new members. For example, the Order of Women Freemasons has an initiation ceremony that requires initiates to bare their right arm, left breast, and knee while a noose is placed around their necks. Each item has a secret symbolic meaning but may allude to rebirth.

The Function of Secret Societies

Secret societies have various functions in different cultures. Historically, they created regional networks that provided lodging, preferential trading status, and ritual activities for members.

On other occasions, secret societies are used to advance a political or ideological agenda.

Some secret societies are concerned about moral regeneration and religion, while others focus on politics and community service.

In tribal cultures, secret societies are often related to initiation rituals as children move from adolescence to adulthood. These may involve magical techniques that are about transcending the human experience. For example, the Kwakiutl people of North America are said to have eaten human flesh to transcend their humanness.

In some cases, secret societies are about status and power, while in others, they are orders that preserve religious ideas and practices. Others, however, may be agencies for change through rebellion and reform.

Some are more nefarious – using their secrecy to advance an extremist or hateful agenda.

Why the Secrecy?

Secret societies may have been hidden to protect themselves and their members. Medieval Guilds, some secret, were a form of financial protection and employment.

The early Christians in pagan Rome or those groups considered heretics in the Middle Ages gathered secretly as a form of survival. These groups were so prevalent during the Middle Ages that the Roman Catholic Church created the Inquisition to root out secret orders.

Other groups had revolutionary and subversive ideas that required secrecy from the ruling powers. Groups like the Sons of Liberty, 1765, in the American colonies, the Italian Carbonari in 19th century Europe, and the Irish Fenian in 19th century Ireland and America all used secrecy to plot and conspire.

Today, many secret societies use the secrecy surrounding their rituals and members to increase desirability, prestige, and a sense of belonging.

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