All About UVA Secret Societies

UVA Secret Societies

Have you ever wondered about the UVA Secret Societies?

They are Ravens and IMPs, T.I.L.K.A.s, Elis, and Zs. Purple Shadows and Sevens. Thursdays and Thirteens. And that’s not even all of them. Together, they are the University of Virginia’s secret societies. Some are honorary. Some are social. Most are historic. All are philanthropic. 

First-time visitors to the Rotunda might be shocked by the various letters and signs that adorn the steps and sidewalks leading up to it.

This is not graffiti, however. These mysterious looking signs and symbols are the seals of UVA’s numerous clubs and societies, and they can be seen on almost every building on the Grounds of the University.  In “Wrapped in Mystery,” Robert Viccellio’s excellent 2012 overview of UVA’s numerous clubs and societies in Virginia Magazine, he states that “the ubiquity of these symbols and signs is a testament to their respected place among the University’s traditions.”  These organizations are as deeply embedded in the history and culture of the University as are The Corner, Rugby Road, and Jefferson himself. 

The existence of these societies is no secret, even if their rituals, purpose, and membership might be. There are at least twenty of these societies at UVA and some of them have existed almost since the University’s founding. The University and its students take these traditions very seriously, for these organizations both honor student leaders and make a philanthropic impact on the University and larger Charlottesville community. 

IMP Image

For many incoming students, the University’s thirty-one fraternities, fifteen sororities and seventeen service fraternities are their first exposure to the ways in which college students build social identity.

Despite their popularity, these fraternal organizations have, through increased community service involvement, sought to overcome the “party image” that is the bane of university administrators everywhere, and membership affords students unique leadership and service opportunities. 

While these groups make no secret of their affiliation, the societies and clubs exist in another strata of university life that is more exclusive. And mysterious. Jennifer Mendelson, writing in 1989 for The Declaration, a student paper, opined that UVA’s numerous societies and organizations “are an integral part of University life, inexorably linked to the web of tradition which gives the University such a strongly individual character. And indeed, by nature of their very secrecy, they add a great deal to the Virginia mystique.”  

Members are drawn from across the student body, with leadership in some facet of student life – student governance, academics, athletics, even hell-raising – being the prerequisite requirement. The allure is undeniable, the desire for membership unquenchable. 

Of course, such organizations are not unique to the UVA.

The Flat Hat Club, or F.H.C., founded at William and Mary in 1750, is the country’s oldest known collegiate society. Thomas Jefferson was a member. The country’s most famous secret organization undoubtedly is Yale University’s Skull and Bones. Its membership reads like a who’s who of American leadership. Washington and Lee has its Cadaver Society. The University of North Carolina has The Order of Gimghoul. The sinister sounding names undoubtedly heighten the mystery attached to them.

At UVA, some of these clubs/societies/organizations identify themselves with ribbons and others with rings. Still others offer no accoutrement, with members having only the knowledge and satisfaction of belonging to a grand UVA tradition. 

At the beginning of that tradition is the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society, UVA’s oldest student-run organization formed in 1825, shortly after the University’s founding. It proclaims itself to be the “oldest active collegiate debating society in the United States.”  Edgar Allen Poe was a famous early member, joining shortly after arriving at the University in 1826. In its early days, the University was a rowdy place, home to duels, riots, miscreants, and mayhem. Students and professors often were at odds, compelling these student organizations to operate secretly and away from professorial oversight. While once clandestine, The Jefferson Society no longer operates in secret and membership is open to any student who applies and survives the interview process. 

In a nod to Poe, another university group, The Raven Society was founded in 1904. It bills itself as “the oldest and most prestigious honor society at the University of Virginia,” taking as its symbol the raven, the bird with whom Poe is inextricably linked.

UVA Secret Societies

Founded in 1892, the Z Society began as a ribbon society but now confers rings to its members on the day of their graduation.

Tradition holds that Z membership originally was drawn from the Elis and the T.I.L.K.A.s, although it is not known if this still is the case. The Zs sponsor several awards that are given to outstanding students and faculty during commencement exercises each year. 

Another ring society, the IMP Society began life in 1903 as the Hot Feet. According to the IMP website, the Hot Feet’s “avowed purpose was to stage a number of open air soirees throughout the year at which beer from wooden kegs would be freely flowing for all and sundry who wished to join the festivities.” Rowdy behavior soon got the Hot Feet banned and from its demise sprang forth the IMPs, whose place in university lore is secure. In his article, Viccellio states that IMP stands for “Incarnate Memories Prevail” and that the IMPs have a longstanding and friendly rivalry with the Zs. In a tradition befitting the name, IMPs can be identified by the pitchforks they carry and the devil horns they wear on the night that they tap new members. Ralph Sampson was an IMP during his time at UVA.

Eli Banana and Thursdays are UVA’s secret drinking societies. They are primarily social organizations, albeit with philanthropic outreach. Founded in 1878, Eli draws its members from fraternities and for years has recognized those with an especial aptitude for merrymaking. Its members wear robes on special occasions and its leader is known as the Grand Banana. Thursdays is Eli’s sorority counterpart, formed after the University became coeducational, and named for the traditional start of the UVA weekend. It generally abides by the same standards for membership as Eli. 

T.I.L.K.A. is all male and billed as an honor society.

Its webpage states that its “principal object is to bring together a group of students who will work to advance the ideals and preserve the traditions of the University. These men are selected for membership not only for what they have done, but also for what they will do in their remaining years at the University. A student becomes eligible for membership when he is in his fourth semester, all semesters having been spent at UVA.”  One may be a member of either T.I.L.K.A. or Eli, but not both. 

Paradoxically, The Seven Society is both UVA’s highest profile and most cryptic organization. Only a few facts about the Sevens are known, and only because the organization makes them known. We know that the Sevens make gifts to the University and others for causes they deem worthy. We know that membership is revealed only at death. We know that its existence was first mentioned in 1905, in the school’s yearbook. We know that the Sevens include women. Glynn Key, a 1986 graduate of the University and an accomplished student leader, was a member. Just about everything else is conjecture. Included among its gifts are the school’s chapel bells, which toll to mark the news of a Seven’s passing. Why seven? There is no definitive answer, although theories abound. The mystery that accompanies this group, their collective anonymity, and the secretive way they communicate all contribute to a lore that makes the Sevens UVA’s preeminent society.  

UVA Secret Societies

In an April 2024 article for Town & Country entitled “Why You (Still) Want In,” Nicole Laporte writes that these “private clubs are purveyors of subtler advantages sought by many of the nation’s best and brightest college students.

There’s the law of averages implicit in joining a club whose members are carefully culled from an already highly curated pool of undergraduates.” Over and above the career-advancement opportunities afforded by the honor and prestige that accompanies membership in these groups, there is the element of fun and camaraderie that pervades them as an accompaniment to the grind that college can be. Certainly, that is something to be celebrated and embraced. 


About the author of this article: Seward Totty ’85 is a transplanted Virginian living in Kentucky with an abiding love for the University, its history, cultural significance, and its place among the nation’s great universities.  His children are the 4th generation of his family to have attended the University.