The lure of the Secret Society


From underground lairs scattered across the city, country, continent and yes, planet, plans are being hatched. Pale figures watch and wait, observing the actions of the outside world, a world they aren't truly a part of. The masses are weak, foolish, gullible and they don't even suspect how easily they will be controlled. There is one group, however, who is certain that they know who is really in control of our daily lives. That group are the Conspiracy Theorists. They have dedicated their life to gathering suspect information and half remembered legends into a unified cohesive alternative histories and alternative news of world events. Every shadow is a shadow government. Every number is a code. Every secret seems to hint at a secret society.

Secret societies and cults share many aspects, accusations and the occasional aspiration, but I'd like to make it clear that this article only refers to the evolution of secret societies.

When the inflammatory rhetoric about ungodly conspiracies is ripped away, the secret society becomes a very manageable idea. Yes, many did aspire to gain political control, just as almost every religion, or political group has. Growing up in the 'cold war' it was easy to see how fear of other political systems could run away with a culture. For those growing up in this age of the 'war on terror' it's evident that people are still equally as ready to fly off the handle when it comes to religion.

The Cradle of Exclusion

It started out very practically, of course. A group with a particular skill would unite in order to ensure that their work is not undervalued by competition or that shoddy craftsmen don't befoul their industry. Where possible, the skills they have mastered and the technological advances in their field are kept secret, known only to members of their exclusive group. While not the first association or guild the scribes at the library of Alexandria provide a great example of how a simple, practical group could begin to seem menacing.

Long before the invention of the printing press, books had to be copied out by hand. The work was meticulous, labourious and generally only happened on a small scale. Access to any great number of books was a rare thing and the skills of reading and writing which we take for granted were equally rare. To make matters worse, different 'copies' of the same book could contain vastly different information. The library at Alexandria, one of the wonders of the ancient world, employed a hefty number of people who would do nothing but transcribe books. Anyone passing through the city, reportedly, was asked to surrender any books or scrolls they were carrying to be copied before they left. Much of the library's contents would also have been copied in order to sell or to prove as protection against wear and tear or the fires that were common in libraries of that era. Eventually the scribes gathered together in order to protect their wage and to regulate the quality of work that the library produced. This group probably seems to have more in common with a union than a secret society now and in hindsight that's pretty accurate. The evolution of guilds though, is an essential component in the history of secret societies. The ability to transfer information in anything other than an oral form must have seemed a wonderful mystery then, easily the equal of dramatic incantations in some pseudo-Sumerian gibberish tongue today. These were men, huddled in the dim lamplight all day, methodically gathering various elements of the arcane knowledge.

Middle Ages Crisis

After a time loose associations of tradesmen would evolve into a guild. This really caught on at about the first millennium. Portions of a journeyman's wage were put into his guild's common purse to be used to support member's who had fallen on hard times. Additionally the member would have a certain amount of assurance that his brethren would assist him in getting back to his craft. It was at this point that the real objections began. A guild which controlled a certain industry in a city (though not all cities had established guilds) was bound to have a certain amount of power, and it stands to reason that those who traditionally held sway over a city-state would not take that. With two sides struggling for a foothold it's inevitable that rumor would take root and the guilds began to gain a more sinister reputation.

At the same time the expansion in membership of a guild would necessitate a certain amount of hierarchy. A mere neophyte could not be allowed to control such a powerful organization. To avoid clumsy exposures to the guild's enemies, or infiltration by servants of those very enemies power would be concentrated among the elder members of the organization who had already long proven true and capable of defending the cause. This was the rise of the Grand Master. Already it sounds a lot spookier than a Master Craftsman, doesn't it? Still the collapse of the guilds came more from the pressure of an increasingly expanded horizon. Semi-autonomous city-states were giving way to a firmer sense of nationhood and international trade was becoming more common. Pressure was applied to allow trade to flow more freely. Most of the guilds disappeared not to be seen again until the rise of labour unions. Those that remained would exist in a vastly altered form.

Who Controls the British Crown? Who Keeps the Metric System Down?

There was actually a Stonecutter's Guild. The Simpsons wasn't kidding. Well, it was kidding, of course, but there still was a Stonecutter's Guild with roots stretching back to Roman times. During the great era of guilds in Europe several organizations tapped into that tradition. There was a certain nobility and permanence to the stonecutter's art, a romantic balance of arm, heart and brain that could hardly be said of other groups like those of ale brewers. If an organization were to survive the mass extinction of the guilds and take on a new form with the rise of 'fraternal orders', Freemasonry is the most logical choice.

I won't let this slip into a history of Freemasonry or deal with all the speculations about skulking Templar Knights and lizards in human skin. True or false histories of the organization could fill massive volumes of books... and they do. Let us only say that the Masons serve as the most recognizable and practical example of a secret society still existent.

Many fraternal organizations aided in the success of their members simply by allowing them a network by which they could have access to individuals that the common people could not. It is often said that George Washington was advised to become a mason in order to get business contracts. Sound conspiratorial? It is.

It's   an   ancient   fraternal   order.   An   old   boys   club.

Of course people 'conspired' there for money and power. In days of yore popes and princes would cut deals and marry off their children in an attempt to gain more territory. Today corporations try to wedge themselves into new markets and stamp out competition. Both imperialism and corporate expansionism are reviled by many for their blind greed but neither has attracted such wild speculation or so much absolute suspension of disbelief as secret societies have. Then again, neither of them calls so eloquently to our natural love of mystery and mythos.

I remember standing outside the doors of my public school, no later than grade three, and earnestly discussing the need to develop a secret language with a close friend of mine. I know this experience isn't exclusive to my friend and I. There are others I know who have tried and had varying degrees of success with the same project. We wanted the excitement of being involved in something mysterious. One has to suspect that the lure of secret societies is similar. You get all kinds of fancy rings or robes and participate in mysterious ceremonies before you get drunk. It's a pretty titillating antidote to your oatmeal existence. Of course that very lure is also the thing that fuels the detractors. It's only logical that people will mistrust the unknown. Fraternal orders will suffer slander and suspicion in inverse proportion to the props and playacting they employ. That's why Freemasonry is thought of as more threatening than Shriners for instance. By the time you get to the Oddfellows or Kinsmen club there is virtually no speculation of Satanism or world conquest left. Essentially people see conspiracy and dark dealings because they want to. It's more exciting to ignore an order's charity work and speculate on sinister dealings. The wonderful thing about secret societies is that almost no harebrained accusation can be proven false. If evidence should suggest that a theorist is wildly inaccurate, that theorist need only include the evidence as part of the conspiracy. The only people really qualified to speak out about secret societies are those on the inside... the ones keeping the secrets. Therefore, everyone else has carte blanche to make up whatever theories might benefit or amuse them. In this time of shrinking mythologies, secret societies are second only to aliens (when not in cahoots with aliens) as unattainable mysteries for us to chase, and dream our horrible dreams about.

The Fall from Disgrace

Today the sun is beginning to set on the age of the secret society. In spite of tabloid and celluloid extravaganzas to the contrary, the fraternal organizations have started to peter out. Even the in/famous Freemasons are unable to attract a new generation to the temple. Some may theorize that they're simply going further underground to continue their agenda farther from the prying eyes of the conspiracy kooks, but the fact is that kids today just don't seem all that interested in secret world domination. I blame birth control. (Oh, come on, I get to point a finger too, don't I?) There was a time when drinking in a dark and fusty hall with a bunch of old men and maybe working on funding for the occasional hospital wing was a fitting diversion but these youngsters today, all they want to do is go out with girls. The world is changing again and time is eroding the seemingly insurmountable, all-powerful mythology of the secret society. Now you'd think the groups who clandestinely ruled the world could do something about that, wouldn't you?

- Jason Gracey