Secret Societies, or Societies with Secrets?

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: SECRET SOCIETIES

By Richerd Spence, Ph.D., University of Idaho

Although termed as ‘secret’, many societies or cults did not hide their existence. In fact, several cult leaders enjoyed the attention showered upon them. Yet, we know very little about their rituals and beliefs. And the details that come out eventually are sometimes beyond belief. What really happens behind the closed doors?

Photograph of a plaque depicts three saints raising from dead
Secret societies kept their rituals, beliefs, and the individual identities of their members well-hidden. (Image: Victoria and Albert Museum/CC BY 2.5/Public domain)

Definition of a Secret Society

Most of the secret societies did not hide their existence from non-members. For example, Masonic lodges announced their presence on signs outside every town but there were certain things which would be kept secret. What was secret about most secret societies was, what went on inside, including everything from rituals and passwords to what the members really believed in, and even their individual identities. The best-known secret society, the millions-strong Freemasons, preferred to think of themselves as ‘society with secrets’.

Blackburn’s Love for Publicity and Art to Conceal Secrets

May Blackburn, of the Blackburn Cult, played by the same rules and didn’t hide the Great Eleven under a bushel. She relished good publicity and at the same time, built an isolated community with a hidden amphitheater to hide her organization’s activities. She swore her followers to absolute secrecy about things like a dead teenage princess slowly decomposing under the floor.

Learn more about the Great Eleven, also known as the Blackburn Cult.

Eleven Great Queens

Secret societies were selective in who they recruited and the selection would be broad or narrow. Most of May Blackburn’s followers were females, who held all the power in the order. That’s where the Great Eleven came from. Those were the Eleven Great Queens, including May and Ruth, who ruled the world from marble mansions in Hollywood Hills after the Sixth Seal was revealed, and paradise reigned on Earth. Another common denominator in secret societies was the promise of special knowledge, status, or power to the chosen initiates. For the men following her, May Blackburn dangled the bait of the White Messiah: the man who would ascend the golden throne. The oilman, Clifford Dabney, dreamed of that role, so did every other man in the cult.

This is a transcript from the video series Secret Societies. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Key Elements of a Secret Society

The key elements of a secret society were secrecy of beliefs and practices, selective recruitment, and the promise of special knowledge or status. But the secret societies came in many shapes and sizes. There were examples from four very different places, circumstances, and times that seemed to have nothing in common but with the key elements, they did.

Tierra del Fuego

Tierra del Fuego, was at the bottom of South America, among the most isolated and inhospitable places on Earth. For thousands of years, that island was home to the Ona people who lived in small groups of 50 to 100. They had a system of beliefs and rituals that guided their day-to-day lives.

Picture of a bent tree, a common sight in Tierra del Fuego
Ona people lived for thousands of years at Tierra del Fuego island, controlling access to the spirits and their power, which meant controlling everything including women. (Image: LongJon/Shutterstock)

An important part of that was a secret society into which all males were initiated soon after puberty. The society was run by the shamans who communicated with the spirits, and who, in turn, controlled the natural forces. Controlling access to the spirits and their power meant controlling everything else, including the women.

Learn more about how secret societies often work behind the scenes to change the world.

Ona’s All-Male Secret Society

The Ona’s all-male secret society was based on the legend of an earlier female order. In the beginning, women were believed to control access to the spirits. From the spirits, the women learned magic and used that to control men. The men resented that, hatched a conspiracy to overturn the matriarchy and observed that females received their initiation at puberty. Younger girls were ignorant of magic, so the men killed the initiated women and girls, sparing only the young and ignorant. From then on, men ruled the world and women.

The Dolcinians

Portrait of Fra Dolcino
Fra Dolcino was the leader of Dolcinians, rejecting the authority of the Pope, the Church, and all worldly power (Image: See page for author/Public domain)

In medieval Italy, in 1307, inhabitants of the northern Italian town of Vercelli gathered to watch an execution of heretics or religious dissidents. The best known as the leader, Fra Dolcino who was the leader of a thousand-strong society of like-minded believers known as the Dolcinians.

Rejecting the authority of the Pope, the Church, and all worldly power, the Dolcinians built a fort in the mountains where they practiced primitive communism and gender equality, awaiting the Day of Judgment. Fra Dolcino assured his followers that they were an enlightened elite. Everything they did was blessed by God. Rejecting their views were considered sinners and enemies.

Learn more about the history of the smaller secret societies.

Fra Dolcino, a Socialist Jesus

Papal crusaders stormed the Dolcinians’ hideout and killed or captured most of them. The Inquisition demanded that Fra Dolcino explain his monstrous behavior towards fellow Christians. Dolcino replied with scripture, Titus 1:15—’To the pure all things are pure’, a way of saying that the ends justified the means. Dolcino saw the villagers as infidels deserving death, so he and his followers committed no sin. The Inquisition didn’t buy it and Dolcino was castrated, dismembered, and his mortal remains burned on a pyre. But like many secret societies, the Dolcinians never disappeared. Their spirit and their example lived on. In the 20th century, Italian leftists hailed Fra Dolcino as a ‘Socialist Jesus’.

E Clampus Vitus

In the old mining towns of California and Nevada, there were brass plaques commemorating historical places and events, the handiwork of an organization calling itself, ‘the Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus’, or ECV. But there was nothing ‘usual’ about E Clampus Vitus. In the 1850s, the mining camps of Gold Country were home to thousands of men struggling to strike it rich. Among them were the well-established lodges, such as the Odd Fellows and the Freemasons. And the members of those established societies were the most influential and well-to-do citizens. At the same time, many ordinary miners found them pretentious, and way too serious.

The Clampers

Around 1851, a group of miners in Mokelumne Hill, California, formed the first chapter of E Clampus Vitus, or ‘Clampers.’ The new order spread like wildfire among the mining camps and shantytowns. Their motto was Credo Quia Absurdum, ‘I believe it because it’s absurd’. Every lodge or chapter was headed by a Grand Noble Humbug. Presiding over the whole thing was the “Clampatriarch.” Clampers paraded around in red shirts, vests, and hats festooned with hand made badges and ribbons. Membership was by invitation only and the initiation rituals were rowdy, rough, and often thought-up on the spot. Drinking was the heart of fraternal activity with pranks and practical jokes, a part of the fun.

Common Questions about Secret Societies

Q: What are the key elements of secret societies?

The key elements of secret societies are secrecy of beliefs and practices, selective recruitment, and the promise of special knowledge or status.

Q: What are the secret societies?

Secret societies generally aren’t secret with most of them not hiding their existence. Sometimes, they advertise it. The secret about most secret societies is what goes on inside, which can include everything from rituals and passwords to what the members really believe in, and even their individual identities.

Q: Who are Dolcinians?

During medieval Italy, in 1307, Fra Dolcino was the leader of a thousand-strong society of like-minded believers known as the Dolcinians. Rejecting the authority of the Pope, the Church, and all worldly power, the Dolcinians built a fort in the mountains where they practiced primitive communism and gender equality, awaiting the Day of Judgment.

Q: Where was Tierra del Fuego situated?

Tierra del Fuego was situated at the bottom of South America, among the most isolated and inhospitable places on Earth. For thousands of years, that island was home to the Ona people who lived in small groups of 50 to 100, having a system of beliefs and rituals that guided their day-to-day lives. An important part of that secret society was that all males were initiated soon after puberty.

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