Depending on whom you ask, the concept of the secret society has survived many an age – at least as far back as the Bronze Age. Some claim that even the Space Age depended on secret orders to transport and hide the identities of Nazi scientists who would pilot the US to nuclear dominance and the moon. Can a shadowy concept as primal as this actually die in the constantly brightening light of moveable type, telegraph, telephone, radio, television, Twitter, and even Wikileaks?
Whatever its future, the secret society has undeniably common elements stretching deep into the past:
- Secrecy: There’s something they want to keep most people’s noses out of. This secret could be as innocent as a personal bonding ritual (boyish spit-shake) or as important as the common thread believed to preserve a civilization. Whatever the big secret is, on some level it’s worth keeping only between the members.
- Exclusivity: Ever heard of “Dunbar’s Number” – the theory that a person can’t maintain close, personal relationships with more than 150 people? Someone gets left out of every social circle. The larger the society, usually the more rules they have for membership. Seems, historically, that the first class of people to be excluded is women (ref: “boyish spit shake” above), which automatically cuts out over half the population. The various membership profiles are refined from there to let “us” in and keep “them” out.
- Tradition: What’s the use in having a secret if it connects you to nothing and no one? Most people are curious about what came before them. Having stories, rites and interests in common with people of history is a simple but deeply meaningful rallying point for members.
- Ritual: Joseph Campbell described the stripping of one’s identity to become part of a larger whole as a fundamental stage of human experience. The sometimes complex and mythical rituals of secret societies bring the individual out of isolation and bind them to something bigger.
- Mutual gain: Since we’re all here, we might as well do something! Personal advancement, financial gain, benevolent or nefarious effects on others’ lives, cultural influence, etc. are thought be achieved by secret societies through control of information and markets, consolidation of skills or talents, and focusing the influence of its members.
No one knows how long the secret society has existed. Some modern secret societies trace their histories back to remote and mythical beginnings (the Freemasons and King Solomon’s architect Hiram Abiff). The priesthoods of ancient Egypt were certainly secret societies, so why not even older civilizations, like the Mesopotamians, the Druids, or whoever built Göbekli Tepe 12,000 years ago?
Secret societies even lived through the Nuclear Age intact. But can they persist into the Information Age like the sneaky cockroach beating Atomic Armageddon? Maybe. The real question is: if they do survive, will we even know about them?
Now, here’s the cheese on this Brain Burger.
3 secrets that secret societies don’t mind you knowing:
- The first secret society was the Loyal Order of the Water Buffalos, whose high-profile members included Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble.
- Secret handshakes arose from the need of stoic men to express complex emotions in visually ridiculous ways.
- The first freemason started the club to extract dues from other masons who constantly mooched mead at happy hour and never paid for a round.