The Occult Tradition
Sun 4 Dec 2005
David S Katz
Jonathan Cape, £17.99
DAN Brown's sequel to The Da Vinci Code, it is rumoured, will be about a masonic conspiracy in Washington DC. It would certainly fit the pattern of his previous books. In Angels And Demons, his first thriller featuring code-breaking scholar Robert Langdon, a sinister secret society called the Illuminati figured prominently.
Then, in The Da Vinci Code, we had - among other things - the Knights Templar, who have long been a favourite topic with historical conspiracy theorists.
To see where the next book could be coming from, we only need to look at that funny picture on the back of every US dollar bill, showing a truncated pyramid with a disembodied eye floating above it. The American founding fathers' fondness for masonic symbolism has long been a source of puzzlement and speculation.
Walk into any bookshop and you will find a plentiful supply of books about Atlantis, pyramids, lost ancient wisdom and secret societies. Brown's ability to turn this esoteric pop culture into readable thrillers has made him a millionaire and spawned countless imitators. But where did it all come from? David Katz's fascinating book offers a few answers.
Right from the start, Katz - an Israeli professor of literature and history - makes his position clear. There are, he says, lots of "trashy" and "parasitic" books on this subject, and his is not one of them. Instead, his book "traces the growth and meandering path of the occult tradition over the past five hundred years and shows how the esoteric world view fits together".
That is a big ambition, and this is not a particularly big book. Moreover, the time period it has to cover is not really 500 years, but is instead more than 2,000. Yet although Katz's book is necessarily incomplete in what it can cover, it lives up to its goals remarkably well. Anyone wanting to understand the deep historical connections between the numerous strands of modern esoterica would do well to read it.
THE STORY BEGINS with Plato. The Greek philosopher believed our world to be a shadow of the true reality, so for Plato's later followers - the neo-Platonists and Gnostics of the early Christian period - wisdom was to be found by looking beneath the surface appearance of things. Truth was 'occult', meaning hidden, and it became the business of philosophers and alchemists to seek it by mystic means.
Katz fast-forwards to the Renaissance, when many people believed in the existence of a lost, ancient Egyptian book, the Corpus Hermeticum, offering the key to astrology, alchemy and magic. In 1463, a Balkan monk showed up in Florence with the fabled book, which he had found in a Byzantine archive. It turned out to be less spectacular - and a lot less old - than initially hoped, but this did nothing to shake the belief that the ancients knew far more about the secrets of the universe than later generations, and had left their wisdom in code.
Isaac Newton was a firm believer in this hidden code theory. As Katz explains, Newton thought that the lost Temple Of Solomon, described in the Bible, was a scale model of the universe, built by people who knew all about gravity and planetary orbits. Brown's next opus - whose title has been announced as The Solomon Key - will presumably regurgitate such information, as the hero tries to solve a mysterious murder.
Seventeenth and 18th-century interest in Hermeticism spawned numerous clubs and societies, some more secretive than others. Many people tried to join the Rosicrucians, but nobody could find out where they were. Even when the society's creator announced it was all a hoax, some reckoned he was lying so as to hide the sinister truth.
Freemasons claimed to be the modern heirs of the builders of Solomon's Temple, and the Knights Templar, and one of their early leaders in France was Andrew Ramsay, an exiled Jacobite whom Katz considers "a key figure in the development of esoteric lore". Ramsay gave Hermeticism a new twist by saying it all started not in Egypt, but in China.
The Order of Illuminati began as a student society in 1776 and was soon accused of infiltrating Masonic lodges. "By the time the French Revolution began in 1789," writes Katz, "not only was there a myth of conspiratorial secret societies, but a reality as well, as life imitated art."
The remainder of Katz's absorbing book illustrates this well. Through Swedenborgianism, spiritualism, Mormonism and other belief systems, he shows how people have continued to be inspired by the notion that life is fundamentally mystical, interconnected and inexplicable. Equally, certain people are attracted by organisations offering elaborate rituals, ancient tradition, and ascending levels of rank. Some find what they are looking for in the Boy Scouts, others need something a little edgier. Symbolism, sprinkled in art and architecture (or on dollar bills), adds to the sense of significance.
Katz is under no illusion about the fakes and charlatans who have used esoteric lore as a way of profiting from a credulous public, but what is fascinating about his study is the way it makes historical sense of patterns of belief which - whether you share them or not - have a certain coherence over time.
Thus, for example, the enigmatic Madame Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Society, made an "impressive attempt to synthesise... a single esoteric philosophy tinged with an aura of Indian wisdom". Blavatsky claimed to have seen a book of magic in a Himalayan monastery whose wisdom she relayed. Detractors soon identified the various modern books she had cribbed for her alleged mystical vision, but the Theosophical Society she founded became a respectable political movement in India, playing an important role in the independence movement. In the end it did not matter whether Blavatsky's ideas made sense.
Many would say much the same about Brown's novels. His secret masters of the world may be a myth, but imagining they exist can make for an enjoyable reading experience. Like Blavatsky, Brown can pick his themes from the mass of esoteric literature already extant, and his success has led to a renewed surge of the sort of "parasitic" book Katz despises.
The Occult Tradition is of a different order, demonstrating how ideas can lodge themselves in public consciousness and stay there for hundreds or even thousands of years, regardless of whether they ever had any basis in fact. The book's only flaw is that it is too short to cover such a vast field in adequate depth; but for people seeking a sane, authoritative and entertaining guide to the intriguing world of fringe beliefs, this is an excellent starting point.