Secret societies always intrigue people, whenever and wherever they are spoken of. Owing to the very strong ‘mystery’ element in case of secret societies, their very existence is often doubted. Let’s try to clear the fog, and see if they really exist or not.
And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”
~ Roald Dahl
People have a penchant for secrets, and since antiquity, they are deeply rooted into the human psyche. Being secretive is not a sin, and does not always signify evil intentions. Owing to this, the existence of secret societies in the world since ancient past, does not come as a surprise. The concept of a secret society may have come into being, when people began gathering in groups, in order to preserve, maintain or safeguard secret information – that information, which could be either malevolent or benevolent for the society.
Reality or Fiction
In today’s world, with so many technological advancements and extremely active global mass media, the existence of secret societies seems to be a little unbelievable. After all, we get 24-hour news coverage from around the globe on our television sets, irrespective of our location. Plus, with Internet and mobile phones at our disposal, anonymous groups hiding vital information, seems next to impossible. Secret societies seem like a phenomenon of the past, however, such is not the case, and there are so many of them existing around the globe. Quite possibly, due to lesser or no media coverage in the past, it might have been easier for secret organizations to thrive and maintain confidentiality. But, it should be noted that with increased media coverage and public awareness these days, keeping and, more importantly, protecting secret information, has become the need of the day. When more and more information is being made public, it has become extremely important to keep certain vital information away from the public eye, behind closed doors. Of course, not all secrets are intended to do good to the world, and secret societies primarily function to guard secret information for purposes, best known only to themselves.
The exact definition of a secret society is quite disputed. Nobody, till date, has been able to come up with a prompt and precise definition for a ‘secret society’. What we know, however, is that they are clubs/groups/organizations, established for guarding certain vital information, be it in any form. Though outsiders might have knowledge about their members and whereabouts, their internal functioning and agendas are always kept secret. Most of them claim to have ancient origins, although some of them may be actually, quite new. Claiming to be ancient, possibly gives them political mileage. Nevertheless, studies tell us that some of the most famous secret societies in the world are essentially elitist organizations, which means that their members are among the rich and the famous. This is quite obvious in most cases; after all, every organization, whether secret or not, needs strong sources of funding. The most popular examples of such ‘elitist’ secret societies include, the Freemasons, the Bohemian Club, and not to forget, Skull and Bones, amongst many others. Some of these societies are so powerful that they are capable of influencing the world political scenario. Doubtlessly, when a group of powerful people meet secretly, it is time to sit up and take serious notice.
Most secret societies are structured such that it is extremely difficult to penetrate them. Unlike other organizations, which have a pyramidal structure, secret societies, more often than not, have a circular hierarchical system. Thus, while in case of pyramidal hierarchies, the apex (seat of power) is easily visible from the base, the epicenter of a circular hierarchy is never.
Moreover, an outsider or even a new initiate in the order cannot comprehend the number of circular ranks that surround the epicenter and so, one can never know how close he/she is, to the actual seat of power. Added to this, such a structure is extremely difficult to trespass and so, the chances of unraveling a secret are very less. However, risks are always involved and we have instances of seemingly impregnable orders being penetrated several times, and certain ‘secret information’ being leaked out.
There are essentially two kinds of secret societies viz., those that are aimed for the benefit of society; and those that are aimed to secure personal/political motives, which, as history has shown us, have even indulged in criminal acts from time to time. Because, secret societies often have political aims, several countries have declared them illegal and imposed a ban. For instance, in Poland, such organizations have been constitutionally banned.
Secret Societies Vs. Societies With Secrets
There is a very thin line of differentiation between a ‘secret society’ and a ‘society with secrets’. However, more often than not, both these are perceived as one and the same. The confusion arises when both of them exist and function, side by side.
A secret society, as mentioned above, is one about which we have either no or very little information. Most of the time, one can never find out who their leader is. They do not make frequent media appearances, and more often than not, choose to remain silent regarding their motives. However, secret societies, often, do exercise substantial control over national/global politics and economy, even without coming into the limelight.
On the other hand, societies with secrets are those organizations, which are often completely opposite of what a secret society is. They aim to impose their presence on the world, which they do, not only by making frequent media appearances, but also by doing things, more evil than good, so that the world takes notice of them. They also exercise considerable political control, and their sources of monetary inflow are usually unknown (and often unfathomable). Moreover, many of them have sinister motives. Organizations such as the Mafia, and all the intelligence agencies such as CIA and Mossad fall under this category.
So, how an organization defines the term ‘secret’ is indeed very vital to determine its exact nature. However, it should be noted that maintaining secrecy or hiding information from the public for a very long time is not always possible. People, especially those working for different public media, have always been trying to extract secret information from inside these organizations, and we have several instances wherein, some of them have succeeded in doing so. Despite this, there are many even deeper secrets that lie within, and some of them are so sensitive that perhaps the saying, ‘ignorance is bliss’ may seem apt.
Famous ‘Secret’ Societies
For those who are intrigued by the whole idea of a secret society, here are some of the most popular ones, the existence and motives of which are no more a secret.
More commonly known as the ‘Order of the Assassins’ (also the ‘Order of Devoted Masters of the Quiet Death’), this secret society originated in Persia around 1080 A.D., just before the First Crusade. Its first grandmaster was Hassan-i Sabbah, who believed that war was a waste of time and resources and so, targeting individuals and assassinating them was the best way to achieve one’s goals.
The members of the Order mastered in treachery, disguise, and murder, and generally infiltrated the enemy’s palace/army/service staff in order to get closer to him. They attacked either individually or in pairs, and never made any attempts to escape. In fact, they were trained to die in order to kill. Their attacks used to be well-organized, sometimes they planned for years together and waited patiently for the right opportunity. They usually targeted military commanders, religious leaders, and kings.
Very little is known about the secrets of the ‘Order of the Assassins’. However, their motto is no more a secret. Hassan-i Sabbah taught, “nothing is true, everything is permitted”.
Commonly known as ‘Illuminati’, this secret society was established in the enlightenment era, on May 1, 1776. The group’s original name was the ‘Order of Perfectibilists’, and it was founded by Adam Weishaupt, a law professor at Ingolstadt University, Bavaria, Germany.
The Bavarian Illuminati was formed to oppose prejudice, superstition, and gender inequality. However, their enemies alleged that the Illuminati favored free love, feminism, and universal brotherhood, concepts which were both, anti-king and anti-church. Subsequently, they were alleged to be a society whose aim was to destroy Christianity from the face of the earth. Their enemies propagated that the motive of the Illuminati was to set up a utopian one-world government, which would be ruled by Lucifer. Illuminati was permanently banned in 1785 by the Bavarian government on the order of the Roman Catholic Church.
What we know of the Illuminati is more by means of fiction than fact. However, some sources tell us that even the members of the Illuminati were hardly aware of its true purpose. Only the upper ranks were trusted. All the members had to take an oath of perpetual silence, unshakable loyalty, and submission to the order.
Skull and Bones
Also known as ‘the Order’ or ‘Chapter 322’, and initially as the ‘Brotherhood of Death’, Skull and Bones is a secret society established in 1832 at the Yale University. It was founded by an opium dealer called Huntington Russell, and former U.S. President William Howard Taft’s father, Alphonso Taft. Its headquarters, known as ‘the tomb’, is located in a shady building that allegedly does not have any windows.
Sources tell us that Skull and Bones admits 15 new members every year, and membership is strictly by invitation. Their current members, known as ‘Bonesmen’ are allegedly some of the most powerful people in the world, including top politicians and businessmen. All members have to take the oath of silence, and they are prohibited from discussing things about the order, outside the premises of the ‘tomb’, even with their fellow members.
Skull and Bones has several weird allegations against it. One of them is of course regarding their ‘mysterious’ objectives. But, the other one is even more bizarre. They allegedly hold in their possession, the skulls of Geronimo, Pancho Villa, and Martin Van Buren, and quite interestingly, all of them have been stolen from their graves.
Ku Klux Klan
Also simply called ‘the Klan’, the Ku Klux Klan is allegedly, America’s most headstrong terrorist organization. It was founded in Tennessee in 1865, originally as a secret underground movement to restore white supremacy in North America.
Around the late 1800s, the Klan was inactive for some years, but in 1915, following the release of the film, ‘The Birth of a Nation’ (inspired by the Klan), it was revived again. President Woodrow Wilson appreciated their efforts and claimed that the Klan helped save civilization in North America. President Warren G. Harding, even became a member of the Klan.
However, around 1983, the Klan decided that they could no longer support the security forces or the American government, and that the U.S. Government was the enemy of the people. So, they went on to become what they originally were – an underground secret operative group. Today, the Klan is classified as a hate group, rather than a secret society.
Originally named ‘Unification or Death’, and unofficially and more commonly as ‘Black Hand’, it was a secret military society of Serb assassins, formed in 1901 by members of the Serbian army. Their aim was to free all Serbian territories, which were controlled and owned by other countries. The recruits for their task used to be young people, who suffered from terminal diseases.
Initiation into the order was done in a dark candlelit setting where, on a lone table were kept, a skull, a pistol, a bomb, and a bottle of poison. Oaths of silence and fidelity towards the cause of Serbian Nationalism were then taken, and then, military training was given to the new recruits.
Black Hand is said to have allegedly triggered the First World War after, in 1914, Gavrilo Princip, a member of the organization, assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the crown prince of Austria, at Sarajevo in Bosnia. He was subsequently arrested, but honored as a hero by the Serbs.
Apart from the ones mentioned above, there are references to numerous others such as the Priory of Sion, the Opus Dei, and of course the Freemasons. There are also some other secret societies which are often spoken of, but in the absence of any solid evidence, whether or not they actually exist cannot be confirmed.
Secret Societies in Popular Culture
In 2003, a novel created quite a stir worldwide. It was a murder mystery and its plot revolved around two secret societies battling each other in order to serve their own purposes. The whole world seemed to follow the Harvard symbologist, Robert Langdon and the cryptographer from the French National Police, Sophie Neveu as they investigated a murder that happened in the Louvre Museum in Paris. Writer Dan Brown, in his masterpiece, ‘The Da Vinci Code’, centered his story around two ‘real’ secret societies, the Priory of Sion and the Opus Dei (everything else was fictional in the novel other than the names), battling each other for survival. The novel brought before the public, the fact that secret societies do exist in the real world. Not that people did not know this prior to ‘The Da Vinci Code’, but the novel made it just more prominent.
There have been many more fictional novels, which were based on themes relating to such ‘real’ organizations. Dan Brown’s other novel, ‘Angels and Demons’, centered around another real and much controversial secret society, the ‘Illuminati’. Similarly, ‘The Last Templar’ by Raymond Khoury, is built around yet another real secret organization, the ‘Knights Templar’. Furthermore, Elizabeth Kostova’s novel, ‘The Historian’ features, ‘The Order of the Dragon’, a secret society founded in 1408 in Hungary. The idea of incorporating a real secret society into a fictional plot adds an element of intrigue and activates curiosities.
In popular culture, we also have references to some fictional secret societies, which became quite famous with the audiences. One of the most famous ones is the ‘Order of the Phoenix’ that appears in the Harry Potter series. Others include, the ‘Brethern Court’ from the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End’, the ‘Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword’ from ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’, ‘The Brotherhood’ from Ralph Waldo Ellison’s ‘Invisible Man’, the ‘League of Shadows’ from the movie ‘Batman Begins’, and so on. The very idea, for instance, that the hero of the tale is being guarded and protected by a secret group of people, about whom, the hero himself has no information, is quite fascinating and entertaining. Thus, secret societies do form an excellent plot for fictional tales, and they continue to enthrall and entertain the audiences.
There is definitely no doubt that secret societies do exist in the world, and some of them are so powerful that sometimes, they really seem dangerous for the world. Throughout the course of history, authorities have imposed (or at least attempted to impose) several bans on such organizations. Even today, many countries around the globe continue to do so. Nevertheless, such organizations never cease to exist, and probably never will. Some people believe that secret organizations are groups of people, who indulge in silly things because they have nothing more important to do in their lives. However, the truth is that although there may be numerous secret societies, which are not important enough, there are also others, which may be difficult to dismiss. The goals of these societies would always remain obscure, although many of the more powerful ones will continue to influence nations and economies.