29 October 2013

Fraternal Terminology

What are the key terms that are necessary to understand the world of fraternal societies?

We've already taken the time to define "fraternal." What else do we need to know in order to be successful in further understanding this part of our cultural history?

There are various types of societies:

  • Secret Societies: a fraternal organization with an emphasis on clandestine activities; their mission statement, traditions, rituals and ceremonies are closely guarded within the confines of the membership. Typically fall under one or more of the following categories: social, benevolent, ethnic, trade, mystical, political or criminal. 
  • Friendly Societies: a British term, which essentially refers to financial mutual aid associations. Members would pool funds, and those funds would then be used during times of hardship. Rituals and ceremonies are rarely encountered.
  • Auxiliaries: Commonly, "Ladies' Auxiliary. Typically refers to the female counterpart of the larger, predominant male organization. Principal functions varied, but were largely created to include women in their husbands' activities, and to provide assistance for social gatherings (cooking, cleaning, organizing, etc.) Almost always, the rituals and ceremonies are much more conventionally Christian than their parent organization. 
  • Temperance Societies: Historically, temperance can be traced to 1600, but the movement really gained ground in the beginning of the 19th century in the U.S. Most advocated minimizing the daily intake of alcohol, though some did call for complete sobriety. 

And there is the language specific to the organizations themselves:

  • Lodge: The basic unit of fraternal orders and secret societies. The term originated from actual "lodges," a place where members might stay while traveling, looking for work, or otherwise. Today, lodges typically include a lodge or altar room, club rooms, libraries, and a bar. Some organizations do not have the funds to maintain a facility. Depending on which society you are referring to, the lodge may go by another name, but the concept is generally the same. 
  • Oaths: Prominent in secret societies, simply because of the nature of being secret, oaths are typically taken by all new initiates (with some religious exceptions). This can come in many forms, including "Oath of Secrecy," "Oath against schism," "Oath of Honesty," etc. 
  • Rituals and Ceremonies: Rituals are simply a formalized way of doing something, in in this case, are used for initiation, to mark progress from one degree to another, or a dedication of a new temple. 
  • Mantra: a word, phrase or longer passage, which is chanted repeatedly with the purpose of altering the mental or spiritual state of the individual participant. 
  • Degrees: ranks or grades of membership. Each society is organized differently, however, it is common that with each new degree you achieve, your level of knowledge and awareness of "secrets" would increase. Degrees are not always progressive; side degrees are available also. 
  • Signs: Designed so that members can recognize and communicate with each other in public. These signals must be unobtrusive, preferably mimicking everyday gestures and mannerisms. 

Wallet card with fraternal signs described. Fraternal society unknown.
Summit County Courthouse Vault, Summit County, Colorado.
Image ©Ancestral Journeys, 2013.

There is more... these are just some of the more common terms I have seen used. In future posts, will get into more detail on the variations inside the organizations.   

Source: Alan Axelrod. The International Encyclopedia of Secret Societies and Fraternal Orders. Checkmark Books, New York, NY, 1997. 

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