I own a couple of strange old books by an author named Christina Stoddard. Using the name "Inquire Within," Light-Bearers of Darkness (1930) and its sequel, The Trail of the Serpent (1936), supposedly illustrate how virtually all secret organizations (including the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn) and more public representative groups with secret aspects, were nothing but tools of the Devil and practiced serpent worship. Their true single goal: to destroy Christianity and Western civilization.
Besides her raging paranoia, the unfortunate thing was that Stoddard had actually been a member of the Golden Dawn and had been promoted to the level of head of a temple! Several years ago I discussed her with Israel Regardie. We agreed that the members of the Golden Dawn who believed she had a high level of mystical potential had unwisely pushed her through the degrees of the Order too quickly. She was not ready for the influx of occult energy she received from her initiations, nor for the responsibility that accompanied the authority she experienced in her high-ranking Order position.
She ended up having a type of mystic experience, a sort of paranoid epiphany, about the nature of secret organizations and their teachings. In her somewhat anti-Semitic diatribes, she denounced just about anything that wasn't commonly known. Paganism, Gnosticism, Kabbalah, Freemasonry, Swedenborg, the Templars, the Rosicrucians, Theosophy, AMORC, her former group the Golden Dawn, and many other individuals and groups came under attack. These two books are filled with her paranoia and fear, and although difficult to obtain today they remain popular among modern conspiracy theorists. You might wonder how such obviously bizarre, paranoia-fueled fantasies can survive and be looked at as having any sort of value.
Why Are Conspiracy Theories Popular?
Part of the answer—a technique commonly used by some conspiracy theorists—is to use a bit of fact to support the fantasy. I obtained Stoddard's books (and even some members of current Golden Dawn groups read them today) for the minimal historical accuracy while ignoring (or laughing at) the fear-filled fantasies. Sometimes separating the two was difficult and it was necessary to look for other corroborating sources to discover the truth.
But there is more to the popularity of such conspiratorial concepts than the fun of trying to separate fact from fiction.
The popularity of conspiracy theories seems to ebb and flow with the economic times. The 1930s, when Stoddard's books were published, were a time of incredible turmoil. The political systems of Europe, which had evolved over the previous 1,000 years, were falling apart. Communism and fascism were on the rise. The Depression was destroying the lives of the masses while a tiny group of incredibly wealthy individuals (and their families) seemed to have unimaginable power. People looked for a single cause for these culture-disrupting events and situations. It was much easier to find a simple cause rather than trying to understand the complex difficulties of the times. For many, that simple answer was found in a single source: secret societies.
Of course, the very fact that they are secret makes them suspect. If you don't know who the members are or what they do in the meetings, it's easy to project anything upon them:
Communism? It's Satanic.
Fascism? It's Satanic.
The Depression? It's Satanic.
The change from kingdoms to more popular governments? It's Satanic.
The reason you don't have a job? It's Satanic.
The cause of the "Dust Bowl" in the US? It's Satanic.
Children rebelling against their parents? It's Satanic.
And who runs things for Satan? Those secret organizations that you know nothing about!
The great thing about such conspiracy theories (for those who believe them) is that because they are not based on facts, but on interpretations of facts, you can never really prove whether they're true or false. Prove the interpretation of one fact is wrong and there's always another fact you can (mis)interpret. If you show that the streets of Washington, DC don' form a Satanic pentagram, the conspiracy fans will find some other data that can be interpreted to show that some supposed Satanic Masons control the country. There's always something new to prove the conspiracy theory, even when the old evidence proves to be untrue. People look for the simple causes, and secret societies can't defend themselves and remain secret.
There is another potential reason for the popularity of such conspiracy theories. Often, the most creative and independent people are drawn to join secret societies. Often, to have the free time necessary to devote to such organizations, they tend to greater financial wealth. Such people are also frequently involved in other organizations, including ones that are politically active. Although there may be an indirect link between certain members of secret societies and political movements, there probably is no direct control over the political movements by members of such groups.
Debunking or Proving the Conspiracies
As long as secret societies remain secret, we don't know what they're doing. But the truth that most people don't know is this: most of the secrets of secret societies have been revealed! Except for a word here or a handshake there, the information is out there. Most of the conspiracy theorists don't want you to know that because it would ruin their conspiracy theories. Thus, even though what is done in the Masonic lodge has long been available to the public, conspiracy theorists want their fans to see the Masons (or the Templars, the Jesuits, Golden Dawn, OTO, or some other group) to be secretly behind everything. This can be compounded by some of the members of the groups who want you to think they have amazing, inner secrets so you'll want to join them. The real power comes from what you do with the secrets. The groups can show you how to make practical use of that knowledge. Thus, both conspiracy theorists and some members of secret societies present the same concepts—that the societies keep secrets and have power—even though they'll interpret the facts of those "secrets" differently.
Are the conspiracies real or are they nothing more than the fevered fantasies of the deluded and the paranoid? The solution is not in interpretation. Rather, it will be found in getting all the facts without interpretations from believers on any side of the issue.
The Leading Conspiracy Theorist
Currently, the most famous popularizer of conspiracy theories doesn't seem to be doing so in order to spread fear, but rather to spread fun and entertainment. Novelist Dan Brown uses his interpretations of facts (and myths that are supposedly facts) to write some of the most popular fictional books available. The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons used the concept of hidden symbols and conspiracies as "plot points" to move the action of his stories. Some readers, taking the interpreted information as objective fact, have traveled around the world trying to find more evidence to support the theories in Mr. Brown's books. In some ways these followers are like fans of the Harry Potter books that dress up like the characters in those books and denounce the "muggles."
The difference, of course, is that the fans of Harry Potter realize what they're doing is pure fun and fantasy. They may pretend to take a train to Hogwarts, but they know it's just imaginary.
That's not always the case with conspiracy fans reading Dan Brown. Besides, if one "fact" in the novels proves to be untrue there's always something else that will come along to prove the conspiracy in the story is objectively real.
Brown's latest book, The Lost Symbol, continues his established pattern. His main character, the symbologist Robert Langdon, returns, joined this time by Katherine Solomon (a "Noetic [the study of the intellect and intuition] scientist" who works at a secret laboratory at the Smithsonian Institute), and together they struggle to save her kidnapped brother, a high-ranking Mason. They look for secrets in places such as the US Capitol, the Library of Congress, and the Washington National Cathedral. In their search they become involved with Masonic ciphers, an alchemical formula, and ancient engravings. In other words, it's another great Dan Brown novel.
But are the concepts accurate? Is Dan Brown actually using facts or has he invented (or copied) interpretations of facts and myths, interpretations that make a fun story and support conspiracy theorists, but aren't true?
Secrets of The Lost Symbol
In reality, though, there really is a "program" that will explain the secrets in Brown's newest book. It reveals the facts about the concepts in the story.
Secrets of The Lost Symbol calls itself "The Unauthorized Guide to Secret Societies, Hidden Symbols & Mysticism." It stands by itself as such a guide, a great introduction to many of these groups and concepts. But it's more than that. It's the real key to getting the most value from Brown's novel. It's written by John Michael Greer, who has become known for his objective and incisive observations of mystical concepts (see, for example, his books Atlantis and The UFO Phenomenon). As the introduction to his new book states:
While the The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown may be a work of fiction, the author includes many elements of reality and truth in his book, especially occult lore. (The word "occult" merely means "hidden.") But when the lines between reality and fiction are blurred, especially in a mystery novel such as The Lost Symbol, just how much is really the truth, and what is merely fiction?
Secrets of the Lost Symbol is here to aid in understanding the "occult" truth behind the hidden lore found in The Lost Symbol. Arranged as encyclopedic entries, this reference book is meant to supplement The Lost Symbol. (For those who haven't read the novel yet, there are no spoilers in this book!) As a bonus, some of the occult elements hinted at in The Lost Symbol can be found here, too, which will add an even deeper meaning to the "occult" and "open" truths used in Dan Brown's latest novel.
From "Abramelin the Mage" to "Zohar," each bit of specialized information from Brown's book is identified, clarified, and expanded upon. You'll find the truths about the concepts Brown mentions, including explanations that will make Brown's novel a richer and more thoroughly enjoyable experience. It's presented, as mentioned, like an encyclopedia, so you can keep it next to you when reading Brown's book for greater information and clarification of any point. Learn who the "Three Initiates" are that wrote the famous work, The Kybalion. Discover who Hermes Trismegistus was. Learn the history of Gnosticism and what Gnostics believe. Find out the real history of Freemasonry and their degrees. Learn about Egyptian Occultism, Aleister Crowley, Christian Occultism, Talismans, Solomon the King, and many other concepts presented in The Lost Symbol but whose truth, without this book, remains hidden.
I like Dan Brown's books and the movies that have been made from them. Chances are you do, too. As a long-time student of occultism, I knew some of the truths behind the concepts (both real and mythical) that Brown presents. I also happen to know John Michael Greer and like his writings. This book makes his knowledge from decades of studying the occult available to anyone who is reading Brown's latest novel. It reminds me of what the late Martin Gardner did by explaining all of the terms and story lines and secrets of Lewis Carroll's famous tales of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass in his brilliant The Annotated Alice. If you have read or plan to read The Lost Symbol, I would encourage you to add this book to improve your experience.