Secret societies are sometimes seen as religious, philosophical or spiritual sects that confer upon their initiates a certain mystery; the mystery is patiently and meticulously maintained and gradually made accessible, in succeeding stages, through the performance of secret rites designed to purify the fortunate elect. At other times, secret societies are seen as seditious political organizations, clandestine economic associations, criminal groups, ideological movements with revolutionary intentions, or occult interest groups. They may also be viewed as agencies for mutual aid, support, brotherhood, charity or good works.
In order to attract the attention of the curious or the spiritualistic, a group generally need only indulge in clandestine activities (eg, the Freemasons), have an unusual series of rites and customs (many social clubs), or maintain a certain secrecy around initiation ceremonies (some Native groups). Myth-makers capitalize on one's interest in the immaterial and supernatural to maintain in initiates and aspirants the superrational element necessary for any lasting socialization.
Historically, all secret societies, whether brotherhoods, trade guilds, mystery societies, initiating associations and spiritualist societies or, more simply, closed associations with specific economic, political or religious purpose, have or have had their own oaths, rituals, customs and secret languages to promote and maintain necessary group solidarity. All have adopted signs of recognition and passwords, rhythmic chants and other ways of reminding one another of their society's moral conditions of behaviour. All have developed and followed successive stages to the attainment of secret knowledge or power, periods of apprenticeship and trial, and an often intricate hierarchy. All have evolved internal ceremonies capable of separating the neophyte from the member of long standing, the profane from the chosen. All have identified themselves with certain moral principles and beliefs that distinguish them from that which surrounds them and is therefore foreign or subordinate to them. All have given a sacred significance to their existence.
It is therefore not very helpful to attempt to differentiate between secret societies and other organizations on the basis of distinctions of place (primitive societies, Western societies), culture (Caribbean, Germanic, Slavic or American Protestant societies), religion (Ordre de Jacques-Cartier, Orange Order), nationality (Amerindian, Spanish, Italian, Irish or French) or sex (witches or high priests).
Secret societies have been in existence at least since the date of the earliest known writings. Some have served utilitarian ends, others speculative; some have been visible, others invisible, except to government information services, which have always been aware of their existence. Each has based its existence on a secret, the secret of its mystery, purpose, direction, ritual or, more generally, its organization. Ultimately, what has at all times and in all places distinguished secret societies from other associations is that the former are organized in a manner parallel to, but often above, official forms of government, whatever those forms may be.
In Canada, secret societies were often founded by ethnic groups, particularly the Irish; the Whiteboys and the United Irishmen were active before 1812 and the Fenians (Irish Republican Brotherhood) during the Confederation period. Farm and labour organizations like the Grange and Knights of Labor began as secret societies. Today, the best-known societies are the Freemasons, Orange Order, Ordre de Jacques-Cartier, Opus Dei and, at certain periods, the Ku Klux Klan.
See also New Religious Movements.