Secret societies have been fueling people’s imagination since the ancient times. In our new version of Travian, we make it possible for players to clandestinely work towards their goals that could otherwise easily be identified and prevented by their enemies – just like their ancient counterparts.
Knowledge is power, as the saying goes, and hidden knowledge that grants benefits in this life to those in the know, or access to friends on the other side, has always been very appealing. Secret societies hence evolved around rites and doctrines that promised access to powerful secrets or unearthly paradises. The first such esoteric secret societies can be traced back to the keepers of the religious rites in ancient Egypt. Here it was the priesthood that based their authority to a large extent on the possession of hidden, godly knowledge.
In medieval times for example it was the infamous assassins of the Middle East who built on religious beliefs. They became famous for their spectacular murderous attacks on political opponents. This Shiite sect had the goal of erecting a theocracy and they promised preferred admission to paradise to its obedient followers. Additionally, the assassins also practiced secret rites, including the use of hashish, to enter a state of religious ecstasy.
Variations of the Christian doctrines and rites also formed the intellectual core of secret societies. The different societies of the Rosicrucian Order for example were based on Christian lore, which they mixed with alchemistic and cabalistic teachings and practices. The common point of reference of the Rosicrucians are the works on Christian Rosenkreutz, which had been published in multiple volumes in the 17th century. Their aim was mainly to protect “True Christianity” from modernity.
The heyday of secret societies can be found in the Age of Enlightenment: The emerging middle class was fighting for their share of power, while at the same time, they had to protect themselves from persecution by their feudal rulers. This led to the emergence of many secret societies and groups that had the aim of changing the status quo, but had to act clandestinely. In particular, the lodges of the Freemasons, which proceeded the medieval guilds, offered the reformists a place to exchange their ideas. Under the cover of secrecy, they were able to critically discuss politics and to plan their reformist agenda here.
Similarly, the Communist League were active in the 19th century, as well as other anarchic and even nationalist groups too. The assassin who killed the Austrian successor to the throne in 1914, which led to the Great War, was a member of the Black Hand, a secret society of Serbian officers that had the aim of establishing an independent Great Serbian Empire.
So secret societies do not necessarily rely on religious doctrines, but, particularly in modern times, have been strongly formed by political ideologies. In the 19th and 20th century for example, the Ku-Klux-Clan became a kind of mass movement in the USA, promoting strict racial segregation. The Thule Society operated in Weimar Germany with a doctrine of extreme nationalism of a heavily anti-semitic character.
Often, secret societies changed greatly over the course of their existence. Some simple, openly practicing religious societies are depicted as a mystic secret society, like the Early Christian Essenes. Christian and Roman historians have later credited them with all kinds of different rites and secret ceremonies. Other secret societies like the Freemasons, which have long worked in secrecy, nowadays conduct their work openly and are widely known so that it is hard to distinguish them from other societies of our time.
Secrecy in such societies is not only a means, but usually also an end in itself, in order to protect its members from prosecution – in that sense, organized criminals like the Mafia, Triads, Yakuza or the South American drug cartels can also be classified as secret societies.
By the way: Working for or supporting a secret society was illegal in Germany until 1968, when article 128 of the German Civil Code was abolished.