In 2017, National Geographic published Secret Societies: True Tales of Covert Organisations and their Leaders. It looked like a fascinating subject, and certainly one I could not resist. I investigated further, and what I found is the substance of this paper. In presenting it, I hope that I do so without personal judgment or evaluation.
The National Geographic booklet has a poignant note, which is worth mentioning here:
‘The desire for inclusion and influence may explain why, across 4,000 years of human civilisation, we are so fascinated by these societies and why their claims continue to haunt us to this day.’
What is a Secret Society?
The exact qualifications for labelling a group as a secret society are not universally agreed upon, perhaps even disputed. However, definitions generally have some common features and rely on the degree to which the organisation insists on secrecy and might involve:
- the retention and transmission of secret knowledge (that is, known only to members of the organisation);
- the denial of membership or knowledge of the group;
- the creation of personal bonds between members of the organisation; and
- the use of secret rites or rituals which solidify members of the group.
There seem to be many definitions of what constitutes a secret society, some of which are presented below.
Wikipedia says: ‘A secret society is a club or an organisation 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.’
Alan Axelrod is the author of the International Encyclopedia of Secret Societies and Fraternal Orders, which contains over 800 A-to-Z entries describing the names, natures, and purposes of secret societies throughout history and worldwide. He defines a secret society as:
- an organisation that is exclusive;
- claims to own special secrets; and
- shows a strong inclination to favour its members.
Axelrod was quoted several times by John Brandon in the 7th June 2012 article in Popular Mechanics entitled: How Assassin’s Creed III Re-created the Revolutionary War because Axelrod was the author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the American Revolution.
Britannica.com describes a secret society as:
‘any of a large range of membership organizations or associations that utilize secret initiations or other rituals and whose members often employ unique oaths, grips (handshakes), or other signs of recognition. Elements of secrecy may vary from a mere password to elaborate rituals, private languages, costumes, and symbols. The term may be applied to such widely divergent groups as US college fraternities and sororities, the Ku Klux Klan, and international Freemasonry, as well as to similar phenomena in ancient or pre-colonial cultures.’
A further characteristic common to most secret societies is:
‘the practice of rituals that non-members are not permitted to observe or even know exist and are designed to remain obscure and mysterious to outsiders.’
Some secret societies have political aims and are illegal in several countries. Italy and Poland, not universally agreed, for example, ban secret political parties and political organisations in their State constitutions. Clearly then, secret societies are a very different animal from, for example, a village horticultural society or local historical group. But, and perhaps unfairly in some cases, by their very name and nature, secret societies inspire curiosity, fascination and distrust.
Secret Societies at Places of Learning
Many student societies established on university campuses in the United States, Britain and elsewhere have been considered secret societies. Perhaps best known is Skull and Bones at Yale University. The influence of undergraduate secret societies at other US colleges has been publicly acknowledged, if anonymously and circumspectly, since the 19th century. British Universities also have a long history of secret societies or quasi-secret societies, such as The Pitt Club at Cambridge University, Bullingdon Club at Oxford University, and the 16′ Club at St David’s College. In France, Vandermonde is the secret society of the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers.
Secret Societies Throughout History
Among the earliest secret societies of which historical evidence exists were the mystery religions of ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, which had secret rites, initiations, and revelations of still more ancient wisdom. Among these were the cult of Dionysus, the keepers of the Eleusinian and Orphic mysteries, and the Pythagorean brotherhood. Whereas the mysteries employed secrecy to guard religious truths, other groups have been forced to adopt secrecy to escape or survive suppression and persecution. This was the case of the early Christians in pagan Rome and, in their turn, of various groups deemed heretical by the Roman Catholic Church in the Middle Ages. So widespread were these groups that the church created the Inquisition to hunt them down and prosecute their members. The following organisations are but the tip of an iceberg. There are probably more not mentioned than have been included:
Gnostic Christians – Gnostics worshipped two (or more) gods, whereas Christians and Jews worshipped one God. Gnostics focused on the eradication of ignorance; Christian concern was the eradication of sin. Gnosticism (from Ancient Greek: ‘knowing’) is a collection of religious ideas and systems which merged in the late 1st century AD among Jewish and early Christian sects. These various groups emphasised personal spiritual knowledge (gnosis) above the orthodox teachings, traditions, and authority of religious institutions. Viewing material existence as flawed or evil, gnostic cosmogony generally presents a distinction between a supreme, hidden God and a malevolent lesser divinity (sometimes associated with the Yahweh of the Old Testament) who is responsible for creating the material universe. Gnostics considered the principal element of salvation to be direct knowledge of the supreme divinity in the form of mystical or esoteric insight. Many Gnostic texts deal not in concepts of sin and repentance but with illusion and enlightenment.
Opus Dei – formally known as The Prelature of the Holy Cross and Opus Dei, is an institution of the Catholic Church which teaches that everyone is called to holiness and that ordinary life is a path to sanctity. Opus Dei has around 85,000 members worldwide and about 500 members in the UK. Members are encouraged to promote their faith through their professional work and their everyday lives. Joining Opus Dei is a long process and takes over five years. A person’s commitment to joining has to be renewed each year before a lifelong commitment is possible. There are three types of members of Opus Dei: numeraries, associates and supernumeraries.
Opus Dei was featured in The da Vinci Code, the 2006 American mystery thriller film directed by Ron Howard, written by Akiva Goldsman, and based on Dan Brown’s 2003 novel. The film stars Tom Hanks, Audrey Tautou, Jean Reno and Ian McKellen. The film financing company I was working for at the time helped put the finances together with support from a large number of British taxpayers.
Scientology – a set of beliefs and practices invented by American author L. Ron Hubbard. It has been defined as a cult, a business or a new religious movement, and is popular with Hollywood stars. The most recent published census data indicate that in the United States, there were about 25,000 followers (in 2008), around 2,300 followers in England (2011),[ and about 1,700 each in both Canada (2011) and Australia (2016). Scientology followers believe that a human is an immortal, spiritual being (Thetan) that is resident in a physical body.
The Assassins – a Nizari Isma’ili sect of Shia Islam, who lived in the mountains of Persia and Syria between 1090 and 1275, during which they held a strict subterfuge policy in the Middle East through the covert murder of first Muslim, and later Christian leaders considered to be enemies of their State. The modern term assassination is based on their tactics.
The Cathars – Catharism was a Christian dualist or Gnostic movement between the 12th and 14th centuries which thrived in Southern Europe, particularly in northern Italy and southern France. They were also known as Albigensians for the town of Albi, which was a strong Cathar centre of belief. Cathar priests lived simply, had no possessions, imposed no taxes or penalties, and regarded men and women as equals; aspects of the faith which appealed to many at the time disillusioned with the Church. Cathar beliefs ultimately derived from the Persian religion of Manichaeism but directly from another earlier religious sect from Bulgaria known as the Bogomils, who blended Manichaeism with Christianity.
The Eleusinian Mysteries – initiations held every year for the cult of Demeter and Persephone based at the Panhellenic Sanctuary of Eleusis in ancient Greece. They are the “most famous of the secret religious rites of ancient Greece”. The rites, ceremonies, and beliefs were kept secret and consistently preserved from antiquity. For the initiated, the rebirth of Persephone symbolised the eternity of life, which flows from generation to generation, and they believed that they would have a reward in the afterlife. Since the Mysteries involved visions and conjuring of an afterlife, some scholars believe that the power and longevity of the Eleusinian Mysteries, a consistent set of rites, ceremonies and experiences that spanned two millennia, came from psychedelic drugs.
The name of the town (Eleusís) seems to be Pre-Greek and is likely a counterpart with Elysium and the goddess Eileithyia.
The Freemasons – fraternal organisations that trace their origins to the local guilds of stonemasons at the end of the 13th century. It requires that a volume of scripture (Sacred Law) be open in meetings, that members profess belief in a Supreme Being (The Great Architect (or Geometrian) of the Universe), excludes women and the discussion of religion and politics be banned at meetings. The basic, local organisational unit of Freemasonry is the Lodge. These private Lodges are usually supervised at the regional level (usually coterminous with a state, province, or national border) by a Grand Lodge or Grand Orient. No international, worldwide Grand Lodge supervises all of Freemasonry; each Grand Lodge is independent. They do not necessarily recognise each other as legitimate. The degrees of Freemasonry retain the three grades of medieval craft guilds, those of Entered Apprentice, Journeyman or fellow (now called Fellowcraft), and Master Mason. The candidate of these three degrees is progressively taught the meanings of the symbols of Freemasonry and entrusted with grips, signs, and words to signify to other members that he has been so initiated. The degrees are part allegorical morality play and part lecture. There are additional degrees, which vary with locality and jurisdiction.
The Hongmen – the Tiandihui, the Heaven and Earth Society, also called Hongmen (the Vast Family), is a Chinese fraternal organisation and, historically, a secretive folk religious sect in the vein of the Ming loyalist White Lotus Sect, its ancestral organisation. As the Tiandihui spread through different counties and provinces, it branched off into many groups and became known by many names, including the Sanhehui. he Hongmen grouping is today more or less synonymous with the whole Tiandihui concept, although the title “Hongmen” is also claimed by some criminal groups. Its current iteration is purely secular. Under British rule in Hong Kong, all Chinese secret societies were collectively seen as criminal threats and were bundled together and defined as “Triads”, although the Hongmen might be said to have differed in its nature from others. The name of the “Three Harmonies Society” (the “Sanhehui” grouping of the Tiandihui) is, in fact, the source of the term “Triad” that has become synonymous with Chinese organized crime. Because of that heritage, the Tiandihui (more commonly known there as “Triads’) is both controversial and prohibited in Hong Kong. The Hongmen, or Chinese freemasons as they have been called, were a secret society dedicated to overthrowing the Manchu dynasty in China and the re-establishment of the Ming. The Chi Kung Tong was one of five factions of the Hongmen set up in different cities.
The Illuminati – in use from the 15th century, applied to various groups claiming to be unusually enlightened. The original Illuminati group was founded in Bavaria in the 18th century by Adam Weishaupt, an anti-clerical professor who wanted to limit the interference of the Church in public life. The Vox.com website says: When it comes to shadowy cabals that supposedly control the world, the Illuminati should be at the top of any conspiracy theorist’s list. An Illuminati Facebook page has 3.4 million likes, Madonna writes songs about the group, and YouTube channels calling pretty much everyone Illuminati, notch almost 200,000 subscribers. Eventually, the group’s aims focused on influencing political decisions and disrupting institutions like the monarchy and the Church. Some members of the Illuminati joined the Freemasons to recruit new members. A bird known as the ‘owl of Minerva’ (Minerva being the ancient Roman goddess of wisdom) eventually became its main symbol.
The Jesuits – a Roman Catholic order of religious men founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola, noted for its educational, missionary, and charitable works. The Order has been regarded by many as the principal agent of the Counter-Reformation and later a leading force in modernising the church. The Jesuits, also known as the Society of Jesus, is a religious order of the Catholic Church headquartered in Rome. It was founded with the approval of Pope Paul III in 1540. The society is engaged in evangelisation and apostolic ministry in 112 nations.
The Knights of Malta – in the 11th century, they established a hospital in Jerusalem to care for pilgrims of any religious faith or origin. Pope Paschal II officially recognised the monastic community as a lay religious order. The Sovereign Military Order of Malta, officially the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta, commonly known as the Order of Malta, Malta Order or Knights of Malta, is a Catholic lay religious order, traditionally of a military, chivalric and noble nature.
The Knights Templar – a religious, military order of knighthood set up at the time of the Crusades, becoming a model and inspiration for other military orders. The Knights Templar were warriors dedicated to protecting Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land during the Crusades.
The Order assumed more significant military duties during the 12th century. The military Order was founded around 1118 when Hugues de Payens, a French knight, created the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon—or The Knights Templar for short. Headquartered at Temple Mount in Jerusalem, members pledge to live a life of chastity, obedience and poverty, abstaining from gambling, alcohol and even swearing.
The Mithras Cult – Mithraism, also known as the Mithraic mysteries, was a Roman mystery religion centred on the Iranian god of the sun, justice, contract, and war in pre-Zoroastrian Iran. Known as Mithras in the Roman Empire during the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE, this deity was honoured as the patron of loyalty to the emperor. After the acceptance of Christianity by the emperor Constantine in the early 4th century, Mithraism rapidly declined. Romans considered Mithra as a sun god. He was probably also the god of kings. He was the god of mutual obligation between the king and his warriors and, hence, the god of war. He was also the god of justice, which was guaranteed by the king. Whenever people observed justice and contract, they venerated Mithra. The secretive cosmology of Mithraism has baffled people for nearly 2,000 years. Members of the cult-like religion don’t appear to have left behind any reputable written accounts of their inner workings, and if they did, the documents have joined the many other primary historical sources lost to time. Scholars, from ancient Greek and Roman writers to modern-day academics, have been left to decode the mystery religion with the clues they’ve uncovered within the Mithraea, their underground temples. 
The Pharisees – members of a Jewish religious party, founded in 167 AD, that flourished in Palestine during the latter part of the Second Temple period (515 BC to 70 AD). The Pharisees’ insistence on the binding force of oral tradition (“the unwritten Torah”) remains a basic tenet of Jewish theological thought. After the destruction of the Second Temple, Pharisaic beliefs became the foundational, liturgical, and ritualistic basis for Rabbinic Judaism. The Pharisees are mentioned, either collectively or as individuals, ninety-eight times in the New Testament, mainly in the Gospels.
Attribution: This picture is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International, 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license. Author: Jeff Dahl. Published under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License
The Rosicrucians – the Ancient and Mystical Order Rosæ Crucis, also known as the Rosicrucian Order, is the largest Rosicrucian organisation in the world. It has various lodges, chapters and other affiliated bodies throughout the globe, operating in 19 different languages. Rosicrucianism is a spiritual and cultural movement that arose in Europe in the early 17th century after the publication of several texts that purported to announce the existence of a hitherto unknown esoteric order to the world and made seeking its knowledge attractive to many. The name derives from the Order’s symbol, a rose on a cross, which is similar to the family coat of arms of Martin Luther. Rosicrucian teachings are a combination of occultism and other religious beliefs and practices, including Hermeticism, Jewish mysticism, and Christian Gnosticism. The central feature of Rosicrucianism is the belief that its members possess secret wisdom that was handed down to them from ancient times.
The Secret Osirian Cult – the Osirian religion, focused on vindication, fertility, and resurrection, had a great appeal for ordinary Egyptians, but this funerary cult was restricted to the upper classes. Osiris is the god of fertility, agriculture, the afterlife, the dead, resurrection, life, and vegetation in ancient Egyptian religion. He was classically depicted (see right) as a green-skinned deity with a pharaoh’s beard, partially mummy-wrapped at the legs, wearing a distinctive Atef crown, and holding a symbolic crook and flail. He was one of the first to be associated with the mummy wrap. When his brother, Set, cut him up into pieces after killing him, Isis, his wife, found all the pieces and wrapped his body up, enabling him to return to life.
The Order of the Skull and Bones – founded in 1832 at Yale University after a dispute among Yale debating societies, the Order is one of the most secretive student societies – more notorious even than Seven Society, The Flat Hat Club, or Bullingdon Club. Skull and Bones, with an HQ known as ‘The Tomb’, initiates only 15 people a year (both George Bush and G.W. Bush were members) with fewer than 800 living members at any time. It is also known as The Order, Order 322 or The Brotherhood of Death and is an undergraduate senior secret student society at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Skull and Bones’ oldest senior class society at that university has become a cultural institution known for its influential alumni and various conspiracy theories. It is one of the “Big Three” societies at Yale, the other two being Scroll and Key and Wolf’s Head. The society’s alumni organisation, the Russell Trust Association, owns the organisation’s real estate and oversees the membership. The society is known informally as “Bones“, and members are known as “Bonesmen“, “Members of The Order“, or “Initiated to The Order“. The society’s original name was the Eulogian Club. It was incorporated in 1856 as the Russell Trust Association. The society’s emblem is a skull and crossbones with the number “322” beneath it. The number is generally taken to refer to the year (322 BCE) of the death of the Greek orator Demosthenes, a turning point in the transformation of ancient Athens from democracy to plutocracy.
The emblem of Skull and Bones
ATTRIBUTION: Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/41/Bones_logo.jpg
The Teutonic Knights – The Order of Brothers of the German House of Saint Mary in Jerusalem, a Catholic religious order founded as a military order c. 1190 in Acre, Kingdom of Jerusalem, was formed to aid Christians on their pilgrimages to the Holy Land and to establish hospitals. Members of the Teutonic Order have commonly been known as the Teutonic Knights, having a small voluntary and mercenary military membership, serving as a crusading military order to protect Christians in the Holy Land and the Baltics during the Middle Ages. Purely religious since 1810, the Teutonic Order still confers limited honorary knighthoods. In 1189–90, when crusading forces were besieging Acre, some German merchants from Bremen and Lübeck formed a fraternity to nurse the sick there. After the capture of Acre (1191), this fraternity took over a hospital in the town and began to describe itself as the Hospital of St. Mary of the German House in Jerusalem. Pope Clement III approved it, and it adopted a rule like that of the original Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem (i.e., the Knights of Malta).
Sourced/Excerpted from and for Further Reading
- The Sociology of Secrecy and of Secret Societies, by Prof. Dr Georg Simmel, Berlin, Volume XI, January 1906, No. 4, The American Journal of Sociology: https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/pdf/10.1086/211418
- The World’s Most Dangerous Secret Societies, by James Jackson: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Worlds-Most-Dangerous-Secret-Societies/dp/1508684502/
- Witchcraft and Secret Societies of Rural England, by Nigel Pennick (Author): https://www.amazon.co.uk/Witchcraft-Secret-Societies-Rural-England/dp/1620557606/
- National Geographic Secret Societies: True Tales of Covert Cults and Organizations and Their Leaders, Single Issue Magazine – 13 Oct. 2017, by The Editors Of National Geographic (Author)
- Available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/National-Geographic-Secret-Societies-Organizations/dp/1683301188 ↑
- See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Secret_society ↑
- Alan Axelrod (born 1952) is a prolific author of history, business and management books. As of October 2018, he had written more than 150 books. He received his doctorate in English from the University of Iowa in 1979 specialising in the literature and culture of colonial America and the early republic of the United States. He has taught at Lake Forest College and Furman University, worked as a publishing executive, and has been a consultant to historical museums, cultural institutions, television’s Civil War Journal, the WB Network, and the Discovery Channel. ↑
- See: https://www.popularmechanics.com/culture/gaming/g848/how-assassins-creed-3-re-created-the-revolutionary-war/?slide=3 ↑
- See: https://www.britannica.com/topic/secret-society ↑
- Source: https://www.britannica.com/topic/secret-society ↑
- Such as The Italian Mafia, Nazi Occult Groups, Skull and Bones, The Ku Klux Klan, Propaganda Two (or Due), The Odessa, The Priory of Sion and The Red Army Faction. ↑
- Gnostic writings flourished among certain Christian groups in the Mediterranean world until about the 2nd century AD when the Fathers of the early Church denounced them as heresy. Efforts to destroy these texts proved largely successful, resulting in the survival of very little writing by Gnostic theologians. See: Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gnosticism ↑
- See: BBC at https://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity/subdivisions/opusdei.shtml ↑
- See: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0382625/ ↑
- See: https://www.scientology.org.uk/ ↑
- See more on Scientology at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientology ↑
- See more on The Order of Assassins at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Order_of_Assassins ↑
- Manichaeism was a major religion founded in the 3rd century AD by the Parthian prophet Mani, in the Sasanian Empire. Manichaeism taught an elaborate dualistic cosmology describing the struggle between a good, spiritual world of light, and an evil, material world of darkness. Source: Wikipedia. ↑
- Source/Acnowledgement: https://www.worldhistory.org/Cathars/ ↑
- See more at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eleusinian_Mysteries ↑
- See: Wasson, R. Gordon, Ruck, Carl, Hofmann, A., The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries. Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1978. ↑
- Source: Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freemasonry ↑
- See more at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiandihui ↑
- See more at: https://www.sfu.ca/archaeology-old/museum/bville/hongmen.htm ↑
- See: https://www.vox.com/2015/5/19/8624675/what-is-illuminati-meaning-conspiracy-beyonce ↑
- Read about Illuminati at: https://www.historyextra.com/period/georgian/illuminati-13-questions-secret-society-hisotry-facts-eye-join-conspiracy-world-domination/ and https://www.britannica.com/topic/illuminati-group-designation ↑
- Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Society_of_Jesus ↑
- See more at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sovereign_Military_Order_of_Malta and https://www.bbc.com/travel/article/20181129-the-last-true-knight-on-malta ↑
- The Knights Templar were known for more than their military prowess and moral lifestyle. They became one of the most wealthy and powerful forces in Europe after setting up a bank that allowed pilgrims to deposit money in their home countries and withdraw it in the Holy Land. See: https://www.history.com/news/secret-societies-freemasons-knights-templar ↑
- See more at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Mithraism and https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/mithraic-mysteries ↑
- See more at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pharisees and ↑
- See more at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosicrucianism and https://www.britannica.com/topic/Rosicrucians ↑
- Read more at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/342292657_The_Osirian_Cult_in_Temples’_Crypts_in_Egypt_during_the_Greco-Roman_Period and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Osiris ↑
- Source: https://spyscape.com/article/lifting-the-veil-rites-and-rituals-of-the-worlds-most-secret-societies ↑
- Source: Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skull_and_Bones ↑
- Source: Britannica.com, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Skull-and-Bones-Yale ↑
- Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teutonic_Order ↑
- Source: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Teutonic-Order ↑