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File:Secret Society Buildings New Haven.jpg

"Secret Society Buildings at Yale College", by Alice Donlevy[1] ca. 1880. Pictured are: Psi Upsilon (Beta Chapter), 120 High Street. Left center: Skull & Bones (Russell Trust Association), 64 High Street. Right center: Delta Kappa Epsilon (Phi Chapter), east side of York Street, south of Elm Street. Bottom: Scroll and Key (Kingsley Trust Association), 490 College Street.

A secret society is a club or an organization whose activities, events, inner functioning, or membership 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 warfare insurgencies, that 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, the denial about 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.[2]

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 members.

David V. Barrett, author of Secret Societies: From the Ancient and Arcane to the Modern and Clandestine, has used alternative terms to define what qualifies a secret society. He defined 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 is usually not part of the American college fraternities, the Carbonari, or the 19th-century Know Nothings.Template:Citation needed



Template:Further Because some secret societies have political aims, they are illegal in several countries. Italy (Constitution of Italy, Section 2, Articles 13–28) and Poland,[3] for example, ban secret political parties and political organizations in their constitutions.

Colleges and universities[]

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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.[4] The influence of undergraduate secret societies at colleges such as Harvard College, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, the University of Chicago,[5] the University of Virginia, Georgetown University, New York University,[6] and Wellesley College has been publicly acknowledged, if anonymously and circumspectly, since the 19th century.[7][8]

British Universities, too, have a long history of secret societies or quasi-secret societies, such as The Pitt Club at Cambridge University,[9][10] Bullingdon Club at Oxford University,[10] and the 16' Club at St David's College.[11] Another British secret society is the Cambridge Apostles, founded as an essay and debating society in 1820.

In France, Vandermonde is the secret society of the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers.[12]

Notable examples in CanadaTemplate:Citation needed 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,[13] and secret societies have been banned at Oberlin College from 1847[14] to the present,[15] 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 of confraternity activities is unclear. One estimate in 2002 was that 250 people had been killed in campus cult-related murders in the previous decade,[16] while the Exam Ethics Project lobby group estimated that 115 students and teachers had been killed between 1993 and 2003.[17]


While their existence had been speculated for years, internet-based secret societies first became known to the public in 2012 when the secret society known as Cicada 3301 began recruiting from the public via internet-based puzzles.[18][19] The goals of the society remain unknown, but it is believed that they are involved in cryptography and cryptocurrency.[20][21]

The only secret society abolished and then legalized is that of the philomaths;[22] it is now a legitimate academic association founded on a strict selection of its members.

By location[]



A Hongmen seal, 19th century.[23]


  • Red Lanterns (Boxer Uprising)
  • Red Spear Society
  • Tiandihui, Society of the Heaven and the Earth
  • Tong (organization)
  • Yellow Sand Society
  • White Lotus


  • Black Dragon Society
  • Double Leaf Society
  • Gen'yōsha
  • Green Dragon (order)
  • Kenkokukai
  • Sakurakai

Singapore Template:See



  • Abakuá
  • Ekpe

West African

  • Leopard Society
  • Poro, a secret men's society
  • Sande society, the female counterpart to the Poro society
  • Simo (society)


  • Nyau



  • Ordo Templi Orientis
  • Illuminati


  • Irish Republican Brotherhood
  • The Ribbonmen
  • The Defenders

United Kingdom

  • Ancient Order of Druids
  • Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn


  • Rosicrucianism

North America[]

United States

  • Seven Society
  • Skull and Bones
  • Loyal Order of Moose

Popular culture[]

Main article: Secret societies in popular culture


Many Christian Churches forbid their members from joining secret societies. For example, ¶41 of the General Rules contained in Discipline of the Allegheny Wesleyan Methodist Connection teaches:[24] Template:Quotation

See also[]

  • Freemasonry


  1. Alice Donlevy was the author of a book on illustration called "Practical Hints on the Art of Illumination," published by A. D. F. Randolph, New York, 1867
  2. Stevens (1899), p. vii.
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  8. Template:Cite news
  9. Template:Cite news
  10. 10.0 10.1 Template:Cite news
  11. D.T.W. Price. A History of Saint David's University College, Lampeter. University of Wales Press, Cardiff. Volume One, to 1898 (Template:ISBN)
  12. Template:Cite web
  13. Template:Cite web
  14. Template:Cite book "Revised codes were issued every few years, but not many important changes were made in them. Provisions with regard to the hours of 'athletic exercises and sport' were added in 1847. In the same revision there appeared for the first time the 'peculiar' Oberlin rule against secret societies. 'No student,' it runs, 'is permitted to join any secret society, or military company.'"
  15. Template:Cite book D. Secret Societies: "No secret society is allowed at Oberlin, and no other societies or self-perpetuating organizations are allowed among students, except by permission of the faculty. This is to be understood to include social and rooming-house clubs."
  16. "NIGERIA: Focus on the menace of student cults", IRIN, 1 August 2002
  17. "Cults of violence", The Economist, 31 July 2008
  18. Template:Cite news
  19. Template:Cite news
  20. Template:Cite news
  21. Template:Cite news
  22. Arthur Morius Francis. Secret Societies. Vol. 3: The Collegiate Secret Societies of America. 2015 (file pdf).
  23. Alexander Wylie: Secret Societies in China, in China Researches, p131, 1897 Shanghai, reprinted in USA by Nabu Public Domain Reprints
  24. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named AWMC2014

Further reading[]

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  • Harwood, W. S. "Secret Societies in America," The North American Review, Vol. 164, No. 486, May, 1897.
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  • Stephen Klimczuk, Gerald Warner (2009). Secret Places, Hidden Sanctuaries: Uncovering Mysterious Sights, Symbols, and Societies, New York: Sterling Publishing Company.

External links[]

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