A secret society is a club or 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:
- is exclusive
- claims to own special secrets
- shows a strong inclination to favor its members.
- The group’s existence is usually not kept secret, but some beliefs or practices are concealed from the public and require an oath of secrecy and loyalty to learn.
- The group promises superior status or knowledge to members.
- The group’s membership is in some way restrictive, such as by race, sex, religious affiliation, or invitation only.
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).
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.
The organisation “Opus Dei” (Latin for “Work of God”) is portrait 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 dictatorFrancisco Franco.