Documents verifying the existence of secret societies date as far back as the advent of recorded history. Even prior to this, anthropologists and archaeologists have discovered artifacts that point to the proliferation of concealed rituals within the context of secret societies operating in cultures all over the world.
Secret societies are typically defined as groups that require their members to adhere to a code of secrecy and silence regarding the details of the organization. Historically, men have comprised the vast majority of the memberships of such organizations, although a few have either admitted women into their ranks or have been completely comprised of female members. A heavy emphasis on rituals and rites also characterizes many secret societies. The most commonly used rituals usually center on an elaborate series of initiation ceremonies and “the ritual use of symbols, passwords, and handgrips as a means of recognition among members”.
Secret societies have been documented in nearly every culture and every country. Some secret societies throughout history that have been particularly well chronicled include those indigenous to China, Africa, Persia, and several Native American tribes. These types of secret societies were primarily based on implementing certain aspects of the religion practiced by the society as a whole.
Another common type of secret society includes the groups based on the unification of proprietors of certain types of industries, vocations, or trades. Similar in scope to contemporary unions, these organizations began to insist on group confidentiality in order to secure their trade secrets. Prevalent examples of this type of secret society include the Freemasons, the Grangers, and the Knights of Labor.
A third class of secret societies includes those that are assembled as a means of advancing a specific social or political agenda. Often, the cause of the group is viewed as subversive, radical, or revolutionary, thus explaining the need for secrecy among its members. Examples of politically oriented secret societies include the Italian Carbonari, the Russian Nihilists, the American Sons of Liberty, and the Irish Fenians. Some politically oriented secret societies have eventually devolved into terrorist or criminal organizations, such as the Mafia or the Ku Klux Klan.
Another type of secret society is loosely based around academia or a specific scientific discipline. Historically, the Rosicrucians are recognized as a scientifically based secret society. College fraternities, by far the most widespread incarnation of “secret” societies, began as academically-oriented groups, but are now principally known for their philanthropic work.