A secret society is a club or an organization whose activities, events, inner functioning, or membership are concealed from non-members. The society may or may not attempt to conceal its existence. The term usually excludes covert groups, such as intelligence agencies or guerrilla warfare insurgencies, that hide their activities and memberships but maintain a public presence.
The exact qualifications for labeling a group a secret society are disputed, but definitions generally rely on the degree to which the organization insists on secrecy, and might involve the retention and transmission of secret knowledge, the denial about membership or knowledge of the group, the creation of personal bonds between members of the organization, and the use of secret rites or rituals which solidify members of the group. Anthropologically and historically, secret societies have been deeply interlinked with the concept of the Männerbund, the all-male "warrior-band" or "warrior-society" of pre-modern cultures. A purported "family tree of secret societies" has been proposed, although it may not be comprehensive. Alan Axelrod, author of the International Encyclopedia of Secret Societies and Fraternal Orders, defines a secret society as an organization that:
claims to own special secrets
shows a strong inclination to favor its members.
Historian Richard B. Spence of the University of Idaho offered a similar three-pronged definition:
The group's existence is usually not kept secret, but some beliefs or practices are concealed from the public and require an oath of secrecy to learn.
The group promises superior status or knowledge to members.
The group's membership is in some way restrictive, such as by race, sex, religious affiliation, or invitation only.
Spence also proposes a sub-category of "Elite Secret Societies", and notes that secret societies have a frequent if not universal tendency towards factionalism, infighting and claiming origins older than can be reliably documented. David V. Barrett, author of Secret Societies: From the Ancient and Arcane to the Modern and Clandestine, has used alternative terms to define what qualifies a secret society. He defined it as any group that possesses the following characteristics:
It has "carefully graded and progressed teachings".
Teachings are "available only to selected individuals".
Teachings lead to "hidden truths".
Truths bring "personal benefits beyond the reach and even the understanding of the uninitiated."
Barrett goes on to say that "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." Barrett's definition would rule out many organizations called secret societies; graded teaching is usually not part of the American college fraternities, the Carbonari, or the 19th-century Know Nothings. Historian Jasper Ridley argues that Freemasonry is, "the world's most powerful secret Society."
Because some secret societies have political aims, they are illegal in several countries. Italy and Poland, for example, ban secret political parties and political organizations in their constitutions.
While their existence had been speculated for years, internet-based secret societies first became known to the public in 2012 when the secret society known as Cicada 3301 began recruiting from the public via internet-based puzzles. The goals of the society remain unknown, but it is believed that they are involved in cryptography.