Sunday, December 25, 2005

Glossary: Secret Societies

A secret society may be described as a society known or thought to exist that strives to conceal its membership, meetings, laws, organization, rituals, etc.

Secret societies often involve members taking oaths to preserve the secrecy of the group, and different levels of membership which, in turn, conceal higher knowledge of the society from lower level members.

At the extreme end, secret societies attempt to conceal, or at least mask, their very existence and as a rule do not publish, even secretly, any documents for fear of them passing into the wrong hands. At the other end, semi-secret groups openly seek members and have practices that are, in fact, easy to ascertain even without joining the group.

Such organizations can be formed for any purpose. The most well-known may be those created along religious or spiritual lines. However, other societies have been linked with everything from organized crime to national revolutions.

Crime organizations like the Yakuza of Japan and the Tongs of China enforce secrecy on pain of bodily injury or death. For this reason, these groups are often successful in concealing important details about their activities and structure despite significant resources focused against them. Almost all secret societies will expel and ostracize members who do not adequately keep their oaths of secrecy.

Among spiritual and healing groups such as the West African society doctors, one's spirito-magical powers depend on keeping certain key knowledge concealed from non-initiates.

According to the Greeks, the Ancient Egyptians had secret societies, and the philosopher Pythagoras was said to have modeled his own fellowship on what he had learned while in Egypt. The Greeks also referred to roving "Chaldeans" and "Magi" who were skilled at the magical and secret arts.

The Chaldeans were originally an ethnic group from the marshes of southern Iraq known in ancient times as the "Sea-Lands." Some believe the Chaldeans were descendents of the ancient Sumerians. When they conquered Babylon in the seventh century BCE they had brought with them Sumerian knowledge and words that had been "lost" for more than 2,000 years. They still used many terms which had long been replaced in known texts with Akkadian or other words. It may be that the Chaldeans had preserved both orally and secretly the older knowledge.

In modern European history, secret societies are nearly all linked with Freemasonry. The Illuminati, Carbonari and the Reading Societies are examples of organizations started by Masons.

The Freemasons themselves have often been linked mysteriously with the Knights Templar, and through the latter, with old "heretical" sects like the Cathars. The suspected involvement of the Freemasons in the overthrow of the French throne is often linked directly with the destruction fo the Knights Templar by the French monarchy.

Although most rule out the idea that the French Revolution was a Freemason plot, no one denies their influence particularly in the area of propaganda. Nearly every Freemason in France joined the revolution, and every revolutionary municipality had a Freemason lodge.

Interestingly enough, the youth organization of Freemasonry is known as the Order of Demolay, after Jacques, although the group professes no links with the old Templars.

The Catholic Church has taken a strong stand against the Masons. Popes Clement XII, Benedict XIV, Pius VIII and Pius IX have all condemned the Freemasons and any similar or linked organizations. Joining the Freemasons is prohibited according to the Encyclical of Leo XIII. Cardinal Ratzinger before his recent elevation to the Papal office reaffirmed the church's traditional position against masonry.

Secret societies played an important part in the revolutions of Third World countries against Western colonialism.

In the Philippines, a strange coalition of indigeneous and foreign secret societies cooperated in the struggle for independence. The elite intelligensia became freemasons while studying in Europe, and imported the practice to the Philippines where it was eventually illegalized.

At the peasant level, many similar organizations formed, the most prominent of which was the Katipunan. Organized with a mixture of Masonic and indigenous socio-religious concepts, the Katipunan started and led the Revolution against Spain until betrayed by their elite allies. Like the Lusung lords centurie ealier, the leaders of the group had sought help from Japan.

Later when the Philippines came under American domination, various secret societies sprung up usually rallied around a charismatic religious leader. These resembled in some ways the messianic Ratu Adil cults that arose during Indonesia's liberation struggle.

In Japan, descendents of the Samurai warrior class formed the Black Ocean and later the Black Dragon Society to protect the emperor and traditional Japanese culture. The Black Dragon Society was always at odds with the secular government and suffered numerous crackdowns before the start of World War II. These societies saw Western influence and expansionism as the main culprit eroding traditional Japan and continually aimed at curbing this influence.

When the Black Dragon Society condemned Japan's ally Italy for invading Ethiopia, the government nearly crushed the organization.

However, the group was able to influence movements in the U.S. in various ways. One secret organization known as the Pacific Movement of the Eastern World had established close links with Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), and seems to have had real links with the society.

After World War II, secret societies often played the key role in revolutionary independence movements throughout the world. Even into the present-day, the Falun Gong plays a similar role in China.

With the breakdown of colonialism, new indigenous religious movements have used the secret society model to spawn a wave of "cults" that continue to change the spiritual landscape of the developing world.

Paul Kekai Manansala


Daraul, Arkon. A History of Secret Societies, New York: Kensington Publishing Corp., 1961, 1989.

Fanning, William H.W. The Catholic Encyclopedia s.v. "Secret Societies," Robert Appleton Company, 1912.

Hunt, Lynn. Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution, University of California Press, 2004.