Folk U: The Secret behind Tribal Societies

2/5/21 Folk U 101 Show: The Secret Behind Tribal Secret Societies

Secret societies were relatively common in the tribal world that Europeans encountered and documented, including the Northwest Coast.  They embodied some of the most awe-inspiring events in the cultures of traditional societies with mystifying public displays of magic and occult powers. as well as profane powers.  Masked spirits appeared and demonstrated their powers as well.  The feasts held for initiates were the most important and lavish events for many families.   

Despite the fanfare, there was also a dark side to most tribal secret societies.  Membership was restricted to the rich and powerful, and the main goal seems to have been to increase the power and wealth of members.  Members were not adverse to enforcing their wishes on their communities using violence and killings.  They extracted considerable material support in order to confer their supernatural benefits on communities and controlled political heads.  

In spite of these features, secret societies have been relatively neglected by recent anthropologists and archaeologists and do not feature in any of the major models of cultural evolution. 

Brian Hayden argues that they were, in fact, pivotal institutions in creating regional and more complex polities and religions leading up to the formation of early states and even world religions.   

He suggests hat they account for the striking emphasis on religion in early civilizations from the early painted caves of Europe 30,000 years ago, to the megalithic monuments like Stonehenge, the ziggurats of Sumer, and the pyramids of Egypt.  

Rather than early religions of the Neolithic being created to increase social solidarity and decrease social divisions as most archaeologists believe, Hayden argues that secret societies benefited exclusive elite members and increased social inequalities.  This explains the small size and often remote location of the earliest religious structures.  The secret was not that these organizations existed or who were members, the purported secret was how to exert power, both sacred and profane.  And those secrets were closely guarded by the highest ranking members of the organizations.

In this episode learn more about:

  • What is the secret of tribal secret societies? 
  • What are tribal secret societies?
  • Why would tribal communities need secret societies? 
  • What did secret societies do? 
  • Who were in them?
  • What differentiated secret society initiations from tribal initiations?
  • What were some of the variations in the kinds of secret societies?
  • And were there noticeable regional variations in how secret societies may have developed?
  • You say in your book that Tribal Secret Societies may have been the precursors of both stage magic show and institutionalize religions as well as the foundation of complex political organizations…. we tend these days to think of magic, religion and politics as being very different.. how might have Tribal Secret Societies laid the groundwork for all of these?
  • There seems to be a lot of room for interpretation as to the purposes that secret societies played: were they about Social integration or competition and division; were they about the power of belief versus the power of power, were they used for sacrifice or terror? Where do you fall in these dichotomies?
  • The art and science of archeology: how one goes from artifact to theories on motivation  and purpose?
  • Your work with secret societies started with a study of children’s handprints and footprints found in the Upper Paleolithic caves of France.  What did you discover about the rituals that may have led to children having their hand and feet prints left behind for thousands of years?
  • What was life like in the last part of the Old Stone Age which if I am right is what corresponds with the Upper Paleolitich time?
  • You also found archeological evidence that you came to believe might be involved with Secret Societies at Keatley Creek, an archeological site closer to home. Tell us about that dig and what you found there?
  • In your book, you talk about how rare it is to have enthographic accounts of tribal secret societies because, by nature, they operated out of the eyes of others, especially missionaries, colonizers, national politics, etc. Yet some accounts have survived of the societies and their rituals, can you share some of these?