is a term used to describe a
variety of organizations. Although the exact meaning of the term is
disputed, several of the definitions advanced indicate a degree of
and secret knowledge
, which might include
denying membership or knowledge of the group, negative consequences
for acknowledging one's membership, strong ties between members of
the organization, and rites or rituals which outsiders are not
permitted to observe.
Several definitions for the term have been put forward. The term
"secret society" is used to describe fraternal organizations
that may have
secret ceremonies, ranging from the common and innocuous (collegiate fraternities
) to mythical
organizations described in conspiracy theories
powerful, with self-serving financial or political agendas
reach, and often Luciferian
A purported "family tree of secret societies" has been proposed,
although it may not be comprehensive.
Application of the term is often hotly disputed, as it can be seen
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.
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
- 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
, the Carbonari
, or the
Many societies require members to take an oath at membership. Parts
of an oath can include a promise to support the organization, to
keep its secrets, or to conceal or deny their membership in the
organization. Sometimes such oaths can include penalties (ranging
from the purely symbolic to the very real) for not living up to the
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.
Not all secret
societies are perceived as a threat by the existing political
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,
and secret societies have been banned at Princeton
University since the beginning of the 20th
Groups disputed as "secret societies"
The term "secret societies" could include criminal organizations
, such as the
or the Cosa Nostra
States of America's National Security Agency has been described as a secret society since for
many years, its very existence was a secret, as was its
People (such as James
, in The Puzzle
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 budget is still classified, but it officially exists. Its
activities are authorized and are paid for, although the details of
those activities, which may include the dissemination of
information, are secrets.
- Stevens (1907), p. vi.
- REGULATIONS FOR THE VIRGINIA MILITARY INSTITUTE, PART II,
Revised 5 December 2008, 12-16(b)