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The Greek System and Freemasonry at American Universities

Each year many thousands of undergraduates at universities and colleges throughout the U.S. will join a social fraternity. Its organisers claim a number of benefits are attached to being in a fraternity. In addition to an increased social life, it is also a lifelong commitment in which fellow members can network with each other throughout their entire professional careers (Chicago Tribune - Embracing the Greek life. Or not.). However despite the positive points fraternities have also gained a bad reputation because of their harsh and sometimes dangerous initiation rituals known as ‘hazing’.  During the hazing a new member is psychologically and physically humiliated by the other members of the house. There is also the ever present risk that the hazing can go too far and this results in a regular number of recorded deaths each and every year. This has caused a 

negative public reaction and the practice of hazing has been banned at many universities and colleges throughout the U.S. Indeed some universities and colleges don’t allow fraternities to meet at all with or without the hazing.


Fraternities, and sororities in the case of female equivalent, follow what is known as the ‘Greek system’. It is called this as the fraternities and sororities are identified with either two or three Greek letters. These letters represent the initials of a motto that is written in the Greek language. For example Phi Beta Kappa comes from the motto ‘philosophia biou kybernetes’ which means ‘philosophy is the guide of life’. The motto tends to be kept a strict secret between members of the fraternity in question. 

Greek system group photo

However it is an accepted fact that the Greek system is largely modelled on the structure of Freemasonry. The following quote is highly revealing as to the Masonic origins of the Greek system. It comes from the Candidate Syllabus of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority of 1990 (page 30), "The most direct line of descent from Greek societies to America is the Freemasons (called Masons). Historians of American fraternities and sororities trace most of our rituals, ceremonies and rites to the Masons. An examination of Masonic rituals open to the scholars suggest that our Founders were also influenced by Masonic ritual, symbolism and initiation experiences." (Library Thing - Delta Sigma Theta Sorority......)


Details of the initiation rites of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity were revealed in the memoirs of the author Julian Hawthorne, the son of Nathaniel Hawthorne the novelist. His initiation took place in 1863 when Hawthorne first entered Harvard College. “The neophyte is effectively blindfolded during the proceedings, and at last, still sightless, I was led down flights of steps into a silent crypt, and helped into a coffin, where I was to stay until the Resurrection.” He then continues, commenting on the fact that he had to endure this ritual on the very same day he had heard that his father had passed away, “Thus it was that just as my father passed from this earth, I was lying in a coffin during my initiation into Delta Kappa Epsilon.” (The Chronicle of Higher Education - Nathaniel Hawthorne's Untold Tale) The initiation rite has a particularly Masonic flavour to it as do the use of the terms ‘neophyte’ and ‘resurrection’.

Delta Kappa Epsilon coat of arms

The Delta Kappa Epsilon coat of arms contains Masonic symbolism; an 'all-seeing eye', a pair of crossed keys, a square and Egyptian sun disc with outstretched wings.

Just as with Freemasonry proper participants in the Greek system also swear an oath of fidelity and use secret handshakes (University of Texas Arlington - Greek Life Origins). The oath sworn involves a lifetime commitment to fellow members of the fraternity (Methodist University - Fraternity Sorority Life). A further possible Masonic influence is the use of heraldic coats of arms which are specifically medieval in origin and are not found in ancient Greece.


Of course the organisers of the Greek system themselves are keen to emphasise the positive aspects of being in a fraternity. For example it is claimed being in a fraternity can greatly increase your communication skills and makes you a more professional person all round. It is even claimed that being in a fraternity can teach you business and accountancy skills, and last but not least it is great for personal development and character building (Fraternity HQ - 12 Reasons Why You Should Join a Fraternity).

Typical hazing session.

A typical hazing session. Dressed in humiliating attire and forced to drink large amounts of alcohol.

However critics would argue this is all just PR with the intention of recruiting more members. As far as public opinion is concerned the Greek system has been given a bad name by the lurid stories of hazing rituals that brought disgrace upon the university or college. It is often the case during these fraternal hazing rituals that the new recruits are made to drink dangerous amounts of alcohol in a short space of time or are forced to eat unpleasant things such as raw meat or rotten food. The hazees can be made to dress in degrading clothing or forced to go completely nude while being psychologically and verbally humiliated. Physical punishments can also be administered such as being struck with a ‘paddle’ or having freezing cold or hot water poured over them. The hazees may also be asked to perform humiliating sexual acts in front everyone present. The hazees are often treated as servants by the other members of the fraternity who expect to be waited upon and have their every order carried out without a moment’s hesitation (Wikipedia - Hazing).


A scientific study conducted in 1996 on college students and followed up by a second study in 2006, found that fraternal membership had an overall negative impact on the academic abilities of the students concerned (EBSCO Host - Cognitive Effects of Greek Affiliation in College). However it was also acknowledged that the effect was only noticeable in the first year and became less pronounced in the second and third years. Further scientific studies have shown that students who have experienced hazing have a lower self-esteem and morale compared with students who have not experienced hazing (Ramapo Journal of Law & Society - The Effects of Hazing on Student Self-Esteem). 

Greek life advert

A sign advertising Greek life at an American college.

But despite the negative public opinion it has gathered over the years, the Greek system still manages to receive its positive reviews. The T.V. comedy/drama series “Greek” which followed fraternities at the fictitious Cyprus-Rhodes University, ran for four seasons from July 2007 to March 2011 (IMDb - Greek). Even though the main subject of “Greek” could be considered slightly controversial, the series didn’t exactly receive poor ratings, it wouldn’t have run for four seasons if it had.


Movie goers are also exposed to films which seek to glamorize fraternities such as the comedies “American Pie Presents: Beta House” (2007) and “Neighbors” (2014). Such movies portray life at university as one long party and don’t give a real impression of what it’s like either attending a university or belonging to a Greek fraternity.  T.V. series like “Greek” and the comedy films about fraternities only have the net effect of swelling the numbers still further in the yearly ‘rush’ to join a university or college fraternity or sorority.     


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