Secret Societies: Fact and Fiction

If you ask me, secret societies are kind of the coolest. Enigmatic organizations, with their clandestine meetings and peculiar rituals, spur serious intrigue. And who doesn’t love being let in on a secret!

Many secret societies we know of today have a nefarious reputation. However, undercover organizations used to be quite the thing, and for a good reason. Smithsonian Magazine explains that secret societies reached peak popularity in the 18th and 19th centuries, when such organizations served as place for people to congregate and discuss ideas away from surveilling eyes of the government and church. That said, not everyone approved of these organizations, considering their secrecy to be morally reprehensible. This opposition culminated in the late 1800s, when objectors actually created the Anti-Secret Society Convention. Which will henceforth be referred to, by me, as the Un-secret Society of Secret Society Objectors.

Indeed, the idea of creating your own secret club just seems so fun. Fortunately, we don’t have to enter a mysterious cult in order to explore a secret society, because there are tons of great fiction books which do just that.

There is something a little didactic in crafting fiction about a secret society – the setting provides a rich foundation for character study. Fictional societies allow us, as readers, to explore why people would want to collude in secret, as well as the group dynamics involved in supporting institutional secrecy. The plot can demonstrate the tensions of belonging to a group which may conflict with the need for individual action. Readers can also evaluate how a secret society gives a feeling of belonging to its members by the exclusion of others (a few real life societies may come to mind here). And notably, we can observe how people behave within the society to maintain power in and out of the organization.

One book in particular comes to my mind: Secret History by Donna Tartt. This author may ring a bell; she received a Pulitzer prize for her widely popular third book, Goldfinch. However, Tartt’s talent has been evident since the beginning, as Secret History is beloved among readers. In fact, it has turned out to be one of my favorite books read this year!

Secret History follows Richard, a young man who transfers to a small East Coast university in search of his true life’s passion. He is drawn to the study of Greek, and the mysterious professor who instructs the subject; but alas, the professor only accepts five students, and his class is full. When Richard, much to his own surprise, is accepted to join Greek study, he must forfeit nearly all other classes and study exclusively with the professor and his five peers, thus handing over the fate of his education to this secretive group. This is where the real story begins to take form.

Secret History moves at a dream-like pace, shifting back and forth between time, with heavy allusion to the fact that all is not as it seems. Yet despite this ample warning, it is easy to fall into the idyllic lives of the six students. When not immersed in the rigors of in-depth language and philosophy discussions, the students spend weekends luxuriating in their country home, dallying and basking in each other’s company. However, Tartt lets you know early on that suspect activities lurk beneath the placid veneer. Rather than spoil the story, I’ll offer you this foreshadowing quote from the professor, speaking of Greek Dionysian rituals:

It’s a very Greek idea, and a very profound one. Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it. And what could be more terrifying and beautiful, to souls like the Greeks or our own, than to lose control completely? To throw off the chains of being for an instant, to shatter the accident of our mortal selves? Euripides speaks of the Maenads: head thrown I back, throat to the stars, “more like deer than human being.” To be absolutely free! One is quite capable, of course, of working out these destructive passions in more vulgar and less efficient ways. But how glorious to release them in a single burst! To sing, to scream, to dance barefoot in the woods in the dead of night, with no more awareness of mortality than an animal! These are powerful mysteries. The bellowing of bulls. Springs of honey bubbling from the ground. If we are strong enough in our souls we can rip away the veil and look that naked, terrible beauty right in the face; let God consume us, devour us, unstring our bones. Then spit us out reborn.

Dionysus, Greek god of wine and ritual madness.

Tartt utilizes an almost rapturous language to demonstrate humanity’s inner animal as the students attempt to pursue ritualistic enlightenment. Thusly, Secret History is an exceptional expose on the social dynamics that take place in a secret group. However, it is not the only story to do so. Check out some more titles below:

Try out one of these titles and become part of a new secret world for a day!