Secret handshakes, rituals, symbols, aprons, a noose, a big eye and goats.

Yes, it's the Freemasons, a "society of men" with millions of members worldwide.

Freemasonry is no longer seen by outsiders as the secret it was decades ago.

The Grand Masters - commonly referred to by Masons themselves, their wives and the uninitiated as Grand Poobahs - have drawn back the curtains.

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Today a function at Toll Stadium will honour identical 70-something twin brothers, Bryan and Bruce Wiig, for their 50-year membership.

Over 200 Freemasons, wives and Grand Poohbahs from other districts will be there, and the media is invited.

The Masons began in the Medieval Age, as a guild or workers' union.

Special handshakes, trick questions and secret rendezvous identified fellow stone masons, and ensured contracts for building castles and cathedrals went to properly qualified, or at least well-connected, people.

Notions of jobs for the boys, back-scratching and protectionism have been ascribed to Freemasonry for centuries. Today's Freemasons vehemently deny elitism, or other "isms", in their ranks.

"It is a society of men concerned with moral and spiritual values," said Whangarei Freemason Brian Smith.

"It was originally the world's first trade union, that's not the case now. We do say we take good men and make them better.

"It's not for everybody. People can stay for life, or resign but when you're a member, you're part of a fraternity.

"People have to ask to join, they are never invited. To join, you have to believe in a 'higher power', and that could be Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, it doesn't matter. You never talk religion or politics.

"Yes, we do recite rituals, we do dress up in suits and ties, there are a lot who wear tails, and the wives attend the 'dos' in formal frocks. That's a standard we adhere to."

Freemasons are adamant there is no professional elitism in being able to join, and no agenda for internal wheeling and dealing, backing and banking.

In New Zealand every year the Freemasons give away millions of dollars in scholarships, to hospices and in other grants. They own pensioner housing and rest homes.

Rumours have stuck to them of political clout, always denied.

And they do really get up to a bit of intrigue and drama, as some rituals like the still-secret, one-act initiation plays prove.

"It's such fun, I love it!" enthused John MacDonald, editor of the newsletter Northtalk, and Northland District 1 education adviser.

He gleefully recited tales of the six o'clock swill, when chaps would go home for a meal after the pubs shut at 6pm, get kitted out in their Freemason gear and head off to the lodge, and drink some more.

"We were great boozeroos, back in the day."

Mr MacDonald remembers being a young member, "putting the suit on, tucking the bag of goodies under my raincoats and sneaking off down to the lodge".

He laughs uproariously about that now. "Freemasonry is good. Let's talk about it!"

Oh, regarding the noose and the eye mentioned in this article's opening sentence, Freemasons say the noose is not sinister but symbolises the umbilical cord; the eye is the godly symbol, the all-seeing Eye of Providence (also on the American dollar bill).

And as for the old jokes about "riding the goat"? Explanations include it's a hangover from medieval belief that witches rode goats (and Freemasons were "suspect"; that goats were needed to keep down the grass outside the lodges; and - more likely - a "goat" is a mason's two-pronged lifting tool.

Anything else about Freemasons and goats is simply myth, they say.