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Any of various oath-bound societies devoted to brotherhood (or sisterhood), moral discipline, and mutual assistance. Such societies usually conduct rituals of initiation to instruct new members in the rules of the group (seerite of passage). Greek and Roman mystery religions had their secular counterparts in clandestine social clubs, some of which served as platforms for political dissent. In West Africa secret societies such as Poro (for men) and Sande (for women) serve to translate slight advantages of wealth and prestige into political authority. In parts of New Guinea secret men's societies serve as repositories of tribal knowledge. Fraternal orders such as the Freemasons (seeFreemasonry) may be considered secret societies, as may criminal groups such as the Mafia and the Chinese Triads and hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on secret society, visit Britannica.com.