Savage Infinity: Masks and Symbolism as Hidden Aberrations of the Body Politic

In 1908, a professor of sociology and anthropology at the University of Nebraska, by the name of Hutton Webster, wrote a book called, Primitive Secret Societies. Webster called his book a study in early politics and religion. He prefaced his work by touting the great wealth of recent knowledge he had garnered together on the initiation ceremonies and secret societies of “many savage and barbarous” communities throughout the world.

Writing for Yale University, home of the most exclusive American secret society, Skull and Bones, scholar Mark Carnes would look back in 1989 on Professor Webster’s era and write a book about it called Secret Ritual and Manhood in Victorian America.   

In Primitive Secret Societies,  Professor Webster outlined the rudiments of the secret society in most primitive cultures as: almost exclusively male; serving as the religious, social and civil center of tribal life;  requiring a series of secret, ritualistic initiations which stepped the initiated through various grades of prestige and privilege; a tendency to terrorize those that were outside of the sphere of the membership; and having a central place that all this activity took place called “The Men’s House.”   He observed the subsequent “power of the elders,” and their responsibility in the training of the novice.  Depending on the evolution of the culture studied, he found that most early secret societies were more closely related to the pagan rites of early religion and later evolved to the utilitarian function of law, governance and brotherhood. These later societies added the characteristics of limited membership, degrees, lodges, and the elaborate paraphernalia of mystery. Finally, and perhaps most notably, he devotes an entire chapter of his book to the ebb and flow of the primitive secret society and observes: “Where societies survive they tend to become strongholds of conservatism and of opposition to all foreign influence.”

Mark Carnes’s book, Secret Ritual and Manhood in Victorian America, reflects on Victorian America’s “Golden Age of Fraternity,” a time when Protestant, male American had a “strange and powerful attraction to the ritual.”  The book takes us through a history of secret, fraternal rites and behavior that is almost identical to Webster’s description of the practices of his “primitive and barbarous people.” Only the location and the accouterments of the lives of these two groups of men differ, and, according to author William Edward Smith writing in his book Christianity and Secret Societies, the American secret society stands outside of the American religious norm. Stating, “The membership of these secret societies rise up and condemn all who attempt to make known to the world their ungodly, satanic, wicked, blasphemous, demoralizing nature, and seek to destroy all that oppose them,” Smith goes on to devote almost 500 pages of impassioned rhetoric to what he sees as a great threat to democracy from   “. . . the groveling slaves of secretism.”  While Mark Carnes, writing in 1989, draws his book to a conclusion, stating that the Great Depression on the 1930’s all but “collapsed,” the secret societies, Smith, writing in 1936 states: “These secret societies have gotten themselves into such a position in and out of Congress that they think that they are a law unto themselves; and they are not afraid of our civil courts of Justice, as they by great numbers can control them."   Secret societies and pagan ritual has survived and thrived in western, civilized culture, thwarting efforts to control them. 

There are commonalities under the umbrella of secret societies in both primitive and modern day secret societies: Members share secrets that are not know by non members; this fact gives the member satisfaction that somehow this secret knowledge makes them a superlative in the community; the tools of all modern and primitive secret societies are their signs, symbols and masks; their vehicles are the rituals of drama and dance.    Webster and Smith argued that the secret society always involves itself in governance.   The earliest secret societies governed the spiritual life of primitive peoples and rites of passage through puberty and then evolved to matters of state.   Carnes, on the other hand, sees the secret ritual’s use in Victorian America as a benign phenomenon, a reaction to “a remote and problematic conception of manhood that prevailed at that time.”

In both modern and so called “primitive” societies the membership has very definitive ranking systems, with some significant differences.   The primitive variety usually has different groups of secret societies that progress up a hierarchal ladder; the groups are usually either caste like, with different functions in the society rated as above others, or they are by age groups.   Most modern day secret societies produce a grade structure with in one group, such as the Masonic order, which has within its own ranks up to 33 degrees of rank.   Secret societies universally have two primary goals. There is the use of the society to further the selfish needs of the members, and there is the society’s use of power for the community welfare.  Webster notes the protection of the tribe and the training of its youth to prepare for adult life; Carnes extols the service organizations that were an outgrowth of the secret society.

 The innate goal of the secret organizations is the preservation of the status quo and privilege for its powerful member base, and they use the tools of the secret society, masks, signs, symbols and drama, to control their members.   In the University of Miami’s Lowe Art Museum there are several fine examples of the paraphernalia from what Webster would call a “primitive,” secret society and their use.   The Komo Society mask, belonging to the highest ranking class of the West African Bamana people, is an instrument of governance by fear. Decorated with horns, feathers and quills, the jaws of a Hyena are covered with clay, cemented with the excrement of the sacrificed. It is  worn by the leader of this highest of secret societies in a conceptually unique orientation, horizontal, and it is  worn only in front of other members; its mission is to coral the leader’s lesser citizens by terrorizing them. The Bamana’s Komo leaders terrorize their membership, but the membership in total reserve the most fearsome intimidation for those outside the group, especially females; significantly, the name Bamana means “those that refuse to be governed.”

The Lowe Art Museum’s Janus bi-gender mask is an example of the use of the secret society for community welfare.   It is the mask of the leader of the Ejagham people. This tribe also has different groups of graded secret societies.  Their Janus bi-gender mask is always worn by a man of the highest grade of secret society, Epke; however, unlike their West African neighbors, the Bamana, they recognize the duality of society and gover by what can be best be described as corporate cool, an aesthetic value of many  West African tribes,  whereby  masked emotions were highly valued. Masks effectuating “facial serenity” were the assurance that  “. . . certainty and calm from the past is transferred to the present and, as a phenomenon of mirrored order — from this world to the next.”  This difference in the underlying psychology of this society as compared to their West African Neighbors, the Bamana, is evident in its choice of materials, which differs from the Komo Society mask.  The Janus mask is made of wood with smooth stretched leather pulled over the dual, back to back face of a male and female, coolly frozen together.  The eyes of the male are holes; the eyes of the female symbolically solid   . . . blind.  It is worn only by a male, but it is worn in a dance for the whole community as a representation of same.

Looking at two views of modern day secret society,  William Edward Smith saw only the Komo mask:  “I have brought these assassins; and professional perjurers before the world with all their secret paraphernalia, signs and wonders, with which they are entwined that it might see their ghastly hideousness, as they masquerade before it and render a decision,” but Mark Carnes saw only the corporate cool of the chosen fraternity male, a leader serving his community, perhaps seduced by “hokum,” but only because it was such a confusing time for American manhood.
In modern day secret societies, William Smith saw only one goal — the selfish goals of its membership, enacted in secret, according to Smith. According to Carnes, the secret society was only the secret means to public behavior, going from his so called “hokum” to male role playing in Victorian America.

Getting back to Webster and other scholars of what is defined as a “primitive” secret society, it is important to mention that in some primitive societies the leaders of the secret societies are always the political leaders of their communities, and in some they are a group that stands outside of leadership and tries to influence it,  and many male societies allow female secret societies as a status symbol for the male  As scholar  Karen Paige Ericksen put it,  writing for the Behavior Science Research magazine in 1989, coincidently the same year Carnes wrote  Secret Ritual and Manhood in Victorian America,  these primitive African societies played:   “. . . significant political roles in the larger society, either by acting as political bodies or by providing an important prerequisite for their individual members’ political careers.”  Backing up Smith’s opinion of the dangerous state of secret societies in the United States of 1936, Paige Ericksen adds “Among the majority of societies, however, the political role takes the character of a police force, so the political decisions made elsewhere are simply carried out by the society as a group or by its individual members. The targets of such “police action,” moreover are limited to three classes of individuals: women, witches, and individuals who attempt to learn the secrets of the organization   . . . ."       

Another female scholar, C.H. Wedgward, writing for a 1930 publication called Oceania, astutely called these roles of community welfare and selfish interest - functions, an “ostensible, manifest function’ and under certain circumstances a “latent, underlying function.” As if defining the clash between  America’s founding Protestant religion and incoming Catholic immigrants, she said that members of secret societies and their outside world only became aware of its latent function if they receive: “ . . . some rude shock (often the powerful interference of an immigrant people of different culture and masterful manner) . . . .”  The legacy left by Victorian America to post war America turned malignant with the ascension to the United States Presidency by the son of two Irish immigrant families, evoking an outcry of political backlash from both nativists
. . .  Protestant Americans . . . and the Secret Societies dedicated to their preservation as the ruling class.

Modern day secret societies in Europe and America are very similar to primitive ones in their practices of ritual and rites of passage utilizing the masks and symbols, Mark Carnes tells us.   In Europe (England, France, Italy and Germany),   from the Fourteenth Century onward, the Masonic order predominated.  It ranked members within that one organization in many different degrees that required an elaborate ceremonial transformation for each elevation.  In Victorian America, the Masonic order was the first secret society, but here in our country, it diversified.  Mark Carnes’s book focused on the “Age of Golden Fraternity,” takes us through the multitude of secret societies that Masonic organization gave birth too, college fraternities, and multitudes of special function secret service organizations which sprung up all over the nation. All used symbols and masks in their rituals; even wives, daughters and sons of the rank and file all had their own secret societies and their own ritual and dramas.  Initially, both initiates and those initiating them wore masks.  We learn from Mark Carnes that by the end of the 19th century in the United States, this was discontinued; only the initiate wore a hole-less mask, until his transformation to the higher level was complete. Nonetheless, the elder members, taking the initiate through their ceremonies to a higher grade, always worn costumes, and participated in dramatic enactment of Masonic legend.

 One factor is evident in modern day secret societies that is absent in the primitive, and that is revolution. The Masonic order in Europe originated as a revolutionary and subversive force against the Catholic Church.  In American, the Masonic order turned revolutionary against the British. Scholar Robert Ulin addressing the revolutionary characteristics of Chinese secret societies makes an observation that all other scholars miss in a thesis written in the same decade as the Mark Carnes book.  His work entitled “Peasant Politics and the Secret Societies: The Discourse of Secrecy,” makes it clear that:  “Through highly formalized initiation rites and the oath of secrecy, these extra-Kin collectives take on an educational role in the shaping of practical action. From time to time they emerge with strategically oriented, but publicly informed political action that attempts to restore the eclipsed public realm - thus reinforcing a view of secret societies as an order within and opposed to the state(Simmel 1950)”  Interestingly,  Ulin tells us, unlike their European and American counter parts which would make death the penalty for revealing the secrets of the symbols of the organization, the Chinese  secret society used the drama, signs and masks, not in secret, but in public meetings to influence the masses, much like some African cultures that performed in front of their non members; however, in the United States, the Masonic order did, in the 1930’s, add a public performer    . . . the Shriner.

 In the case of all secret societies the mask was used to transform the member  . . .  not disguise him.    Mark Carne tells us why he thinks American secret society elders gave up their masks; it was because they wanted to be more serious he ventures, but I would venture to guess it was because they realized that they, the elder, higher ranking members had gone through enough transformation and could now hold out their real face as the mask of corporate cool and wisdom to the initiate

 Some thought must be given to the reason why “hokum” (Mark Carne’s name for use of masks, signs and symbols), survives in modern secret societies, despite its portrayal by the religious norm as pagan. The pagan is at its core the multitude of the disciplines of the art of man, and he finds it hard to relinquish.  The mask was always art in its design, as recognized by the artist Picasso, who used the African mask in his cubist dissection of man, his landscape, and his symbols; as did many of his contemporaries, but the artist Paul Klee recognized the mask was, in practice, psychotic transformation.  Klee conceptualizes this psychosis in his famous painting ‘Mask of Fear.’  Paul Klee, artist and Bauhaus teacher, authored this painting just as Fascist Germany was bringing true horror and psychotic transformation to his country.  It depicts one mask with two sets of male legs protruding from it.  The mask became the man; the man became the mask. 

Significantly, none of the separate elements of ritual were enough in and of themselves. In both primitive and modern days societies the members put all their symbols together on garments and take them to the grave. An example of this in African, primitive societies can also be seen in the Lowe Museum, the Ukura cloth of the Igbo people, another of the West African locales with practicing secret societies.  Covered in drawings of the masked member, his landscape and symbols of a secret language, it was worn in life and it wrapped the house of its owner in death.  In Western, Masonic practice, an apron worn in ceremonies of the members, decorated with the secret symbols of the order, accompanies the Mason to the grave.

Secret societies are a part of the commonality of humankind.   Even as the human race advances technologically, our subconscious apparently stands still.  The pagan rites of societies survive because, at their core, they are the art of man’s subconscious, transformed into the real face of humankind.

The reason for the existence of the secret society itself is not addressed well in any article or book that this author could find.  Mark Carnes guesses that it is because they “appeal particularly to the creative faculty      . . . .” Only the author Karen Paige Ericksen points out that the logic of the secret society has not been codified, and she suggests: “The wide prevalence of secret societies, many of which include females, suggests that the examination of their social significance has been seriously neglected.”   Christian author Smith agreed in 1936, taking the need for examination one step further; he felt they should be vanquished, because the “blighting influence of secret societies has caused our courts, jury and judges, to become one grand masquerade of deception.”

The most profound difference between primitive and modern secret societies is the fact that the western variety exists outside the religious norm, while the primitive, pagan society can embrace the paraphernalia of their chosen spirituality.  The enemy of the secret society has been predominantly the Christian Church — primarily the Catholic Church, but the eighteen hundreds saw even Protestant groups attack the Masonic orders and their offspring. Writing in 1936, Smith would be one of the last native Protestants to speak out against them for a long time. Beginning in 1933, America’s Catholic population began to count heavily in democratic elections. Sharing a mutual hatred and distrust of Catholics and their foreign leader, the Pope, Protestants and secret societies found a common bond, and in both Masonic and Christian writings  Ms Wedgwood’s description of the secret societies’ “latent function” jumped into fifth gear.  Only recently have we again heard Evangelical Christians attack the Masonic orders and their kind

Mark Carnes ends his book Secret Ritual and Manhood in Victorian America with the observation that most of America’s secret societies have not survived with the important exception of Masonry. Writing for the Yale press, never once in his book does he mention the superlative of American secret societies, Yale’s Skull and Bones or the “hokum” of its secret initiation rites.  Perhaps Mr. Carnes scholastic efforts were influenced by fear.

Andrea Silverthorne
Prof J G Peralta
On my honor, I have completed this paper with out aid from anyone other than the suggestions of my Professor.


(New York, New York: Routledge, 2001).