A secret society is a type of subculture. According to Alan Axelrod, the author of the International Encyclopedia of Secret Societies and Fraternal Orders, a secret society has three characteristics: it is exclusive, it claims to own special secrets, and it shows a strong inclination to favor its own.
According to David V. Barrett, the author of Secret Societies: From the Ancient and Arcane to the Modern and Clandestine, a secret society features these characteristics: it has "carefully graded and progressive teachings" that are "available only to selected individuals." These teachings lead to "hidden (and 'unique') truths" that bring "personal benefits beyond the reach and even the understanding of the uninitiated." Moreover, according to Barrett, "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."
Whatever the definition, members may be required to conceal or deny their membership, and they are often sworn to protect the society's secrets. Violating the oath may result in the application of severe sanctions.
Like the most successful forgeries, the most effective secret societies are unknown beyond their adherents. Members may be required to deny the organization itself exists.
Purpose and Function of secret societies
Secret societies have many ends and serve many functions. Some, such as the Thelemic societies, exist to maintain, spread, and practice an esoteric or occult body of knowledge. Others, while they have esoteric philosophies, are social organizations, such as fraternities and sororities on U.S. college campuses, burschenschaften at German universities, or Elk Lodges. Others were primarily created to provide benefits and charity to members, such as the Knights of Columbus or the Woodsmen.
Secret societies with political ends have typically been considered dangerous by their enemies. The Carbonari of Italy were a revolutionary, anti-monarchist movement. The Ancient Illuminated Seers of Bavaria (Illuminati), like many other secret societies before and since, were considered so threatening that they were officially suppressed by the State.
Political secret societies represent a special class or grouping of secret societies. In the modern era, they tend not to focus extensively on rituals or regalia and often involve momentous, or even deadly, consequences for participants and others. The Sons of Liberty were a secret society that helped launch the American Revolution. Membership was secret because of fear of persecution by British colonial authorities.
One especially provocative European secret society in the first decades of the 20th century was the Black Hand of Serbia. Organized in 1911 as a secret society of Serb assassins, its purpose was to use targeted killings to liberate Serbian lands held by other nations. Dmitrievich recruited assassins who were young and suffering from terminal diseases. A member of the Black hand, Gavrilo Princip, was 19 years of age when he sparked World War I by firing 2 shots with a pistol and killing Archduke Franz Ferdinand, an heir to the Austrian throne and his wife. When recruited Princip was dying of tuberculosis.
The Heroes of America was a secret society operating in western North Carolina, east Tennessee and southwest Virginia during the American Civil War. It’s purpose was to encourage desertion of soldiers from the confederate army. This organization "had an elaborate organization with secret signs and signals” according to Escott (1978). Beginning in 1862, another secret society named the Washington Constitutional Union had members in northern Alabama and the Army of Tennessee whose principal aim was to end the war. Both organizations were eventually discovered by the confederate national government in Richmond. 
Most secret societies conduct elaborate rites of passage for the purposes of initiation into the society as well as status elevation within the society. In many cases, the form and content of these rituals figure among the group's most closely kept secrets - outsiders are strictly barred from participation or observation and initiates are instructed to remain silent about their experiences.
While the content of these rites varies widely from one secret society to another, their structure tends to closely follow the pattern outlined by Arnold van Gennep and elaborated by Victor Turner. They begin with the physical and symbolic separation of initiates from their their established social identities. A period of liminality follows, during which initiates are considered statusless and often face physical, emotional or psychological tests. And they conclude with the revelation of secret knowledge (which is inaccessible to the uninitiated) and the "reaggregation" or reintegration of the individuals into society in a new role, often with higher prestige or more power.
Admittance into a secret society generally begins with a rite of initiation. The location of the ritual is often heavily adorned with symbolic icons such as skulls, daggers, and sacred texts. The rite makes use of darkness, blindfolds, or other symbolically laden objects and circumstances that extract or "separate" initiates from their normal situations. Tests of the initiates' resolve are common. The candidate may undergo symbolic death (statuslessness) and resurrection, which achieves a type rebirth into the society with a wholly new persona. Blood oaths may be used to seal the initiates' membership in the society as well as to seal their lips with secrecy.
Many secret societies will have layers of membership, with a person entering first as a neophyte of some sort, and then advancing through the ranks as he participates more in the organization. These ranks are very often called "Degrees". Some organizations have as few as one or three degrees, others as many as thirty-three. In many cases, rituals echoing those of initiation accompany the transition from one degree to the next. As the applicant advances through the ranks, he will often learn new passwords, hand grips, or other modes of recognition during the rituals.
Note: Lists of several different types of Secret Societies can be found on the Related Articles page of this entry.
- Escott, Paul (1978). After Secession: Jefferson Davis and the Failure of Southern Nationalism. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 194. ISBN 0807118079.
- Van Gennep, Arnold (1960). The Rites of Passage. Chicago IL: University of Chicago Press.
- Turner, Victor (1969). The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Piscataway NJ: Aldine Transaction. ISBN 0202011909.