Investigating Dartmouth’s Secret Societies
Most buildings and organizations of Dartmouth College are well known to residents of the Hanover area, but the number of people who know about Dartmouth’s senior societies is very few. About 31% of the senior class is affiliated with one of the sixteen societies, not to mention the unknown amount of people in societies not officially recognized by the college.
Class societies were started in the late 19th century as an attempt to provide an opportunity for students to get to know other groups of people. This included underclassmen in their own societies, but the groups eventually morphed into being exclusively comprised of senior class members. They became much more respected in this development, and some even branched off, isolating themselves and becoming known as secret societies.
The ten senior societies that are considered to be secret are called Osiris (founded 2016, coed), Phrygian (2006, all male), Pyxis (all female), Phoenix (founded 1982, coed), Order of the Sirens (founded 1983, all female), Griffin (coed), Fire and Skoal (coed), Dragon (founded 1898, all male), Abaris (coed), and the Sphinx (founded 1885, all male).
The senior societies remaining have public affairs and are not secret, including Casque and Gauntlet (founded 1886, coed), Epeios (founded 2000, coed), Palaeopitus (founded 1899, coed), Cobra (founded 1778, all female), Chimera (coed), and Andromeda (recognized 2013, all female).
Members are chosen as juniors through the process of “tapping,” which can vary from group to group but is usually a process in which the current members vote on upcoming seniors they want to be accepted, who then undergo a traditional initiation ritual. There are some exceptions to this, such as Chimera, which accepts new members through an application process, or Cobra, which chooses its members generationally.
Each society has a different reason for its creation, most relating to leadership or community service, but the societies that are most mysterious don’t disclose their purpose for congregating. Griffin is known for being composed of the athletic captains of campus, including Olympian shot putter Adam Nelson. Abaris is known for its great campus leaders and is thought to be a sort of council where issues pertaining to the college are discussed among students.
Epeios is one of the most unique of the societies, as it was originally founded by two friends as a joke in order to trick students into going through a fake initiation ceremony, only revealing that it wasn’t real after the “candidates” completed the ritual. Afterward, the society was officially founded and now has open membership for any students who appreciate humor. Societies like this are a good example of how each one has quirks that make them recognizable, like how all the women in Pyxis have identical tattoos.
The oldest senior societies at Dartmouth college are Casque and Gauntlet, which reside in a house on 1 South Main St in Hanover, and the Sphinx, which is thought to meet in the Sphinx tomb on East Wheelock St.
The Sphinx tomb, constructed in 1903, is a windowless concrete building owned by the Sphinx Amuni Corporation. It was the first building in Hanover to be registered on the National Register for Historic Places and is justifiably a big part of Dartmouth history due to how enigmatic it is.
The all-male society was founded in 1885 by fourteen male students whose incentive was not known, but the sum of the members’ committed theft from Dartmouth is approximately $12,000. There have been reports of break-ins by two unidentified men associated with the Sphinx, but it is not known if the misconducts are being done by the same two members, or if there are many involved.
There was also a proposed addition to the Sphinx Tomb that was recorded in multiple places, including extremely detailed blueprints that can be found in documents at the Rauner Library, that some say lead to the possible existence of an underground system. This would make some sense, because one of the leading pieces of mysterious information about the Sphinx is the fact that according to Hanover’s water supplier, the Sphinx tomb has the highest water bill in town, which leaves people theorizing about a possible pool in the tomb, or other things that might cause their bill to be so sizeable.
Dragon is only one society considered to be even more of a well-kept secret than the Sphinx. It was founded in 1898, and there are many theories that attempt to explain the lack of information about the purpose of the group. The most popular theory is that the members are all fraternity leaders or sports captains from around campus. Unlike all the other senior societies, members of Dragon do not identify themselves by way of the Dartmouth yearbook, The Aegis, or the commencement ceremony.
Every member of a senior society, secret or not, reveal themselves as being a participant at their graduation, during the commencement ceremony. Each person in a society other than Dragon carries a wooden cane with the symbol of their corresponding group carved into the tip, and their membership is publicized.
Senior societies have existed at Dartmouth since 1783, and are a huge part of the college’s history. The mystifying nature of societies like the Sphinx and Dragon will always fascinate lovers of the unknown, as well as contribute to the extremely important categorizational aspect of college life.