The Secret History of Secret Societies

The book Ritual America catalogues the quirks and artifacts of Freemasons, Elks, and their ilk.

ritual america 615.jpg"Whether it be the Camel, Tiger, Elk, Eagle, Moose, Owl or Goat, there can be no more appropriate ceremony than serving a candidate with the blood of an animal," reads a vintage catalog targeted at secret societies.

It is not surprising that America has hundreds of secret societies—after all, they're meant to inspire fascination. Adam Parfrey, the founder and owner of Feral House publishing, has been keeping an eye on them since he watched his first Shriners parade as a child. Their mysterious garb and raucous behavior "provoked me, and stayed with me throughout the decades," he says. Now he's produced Ritual America, a book that reveals these quirky and nefarious underground cultures. "We tried to cover all sides of the story," he says—not always an easy task when the story is about cultures premised on secrecy.

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In 1987 Parfrey published his first essay on this theme, "King-Kill 33," in the first edition of his book, Apocalypse Culture. One of the leading subjects of his research, conspiracy theorist James Shelby Downard, proposed a scenario about the JFK assassination that contained a fascinating speculation about the importance of Freemasonic "twilight language" (double and triple meanings, numerology, and onomatology). The essay stirred up controversy, even leading Marilyn Manson to title one of his songs "King Kill 33."

In recent years, Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code bestsellers revived popular interest in secret societies. But none of the books in the latest wave of pro-Masonic and conspiratorial literature, says Parfrey, "had an image-heavy and sociological approach as does Ritual America."

Given the vast number of cults and sub-cults, Parfrey knew his research would be surprising to many. "Despite the success of Joseph Campbell's PBS series a couple decades ago, what good American thinks he's practicing 'rites' or 'rituals?'" Parfrey asks. "These words are thought to refer to what primitives do in foreign lands." Ritual America shows that hundreds of ritualistic oaths and procedures are practiced behind the doors of lodges and clubs, even today.

Parfrey defines a "secret society" as a social group that demands an oath of allegiance to join. "That's our perspective; we know that others may feel differently," he says. "Some service-oriented organizations, like Lions or Elks, have a great deal of secret ritual within its structure. Rotary and Kiwanis, less so, but these organizations, like the Masons, require oaths of allegiance. No oath, no membership."

Researching the book was eye-opening (and, fittingly, the cover illustration is the so-called "eye of providence"). There were an amazing number of groups "particularly at a time when there was no seeming reason for integrating secret rituals into their organizations," he says. "Hundreds of years ago, the Catholic church battled groups of Freemasons over power and money, and the need for secrecy back then was logical." But today it's a bit more mystifying.

ritual america cover.jpgParfrey says his primary source was Albert C. Stevens's The Cyclopaedia of Fraternities (1899). And the subtitle says it all: A Compilation of Existing Authentic Information and the Results of Original Investigation as to the Origins, Derivation, Founders, Development, Aims, Emblems, Character, and Personnel of More than Six Hundred Secret Societies in the United States, Supplemented by Family Trees of Groups and Societies, Names of Many Representative Members. Of those "More than Six Hundred Secret Societies," Freemasonry is the grandaddy, "like AA is the archetype of all the 12-step sobriety movements," Parfrey says. But secret societies had many purposes and took many shapes: labor unions, business groups, rural/agrarian organizations, religious and occult organizations, sobriety groups, drinking groups, immigrants, anti-immigrant organizations. As Parfrey puts it, taking in the breadth of them provides "a snapshot of America."

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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