Billy Joel has a song, We Didn't Start the Fire. The lyrics are a bunch of disjointed words and short phrases, which evoke many images in rapid succession. Here’s a taste of it:♫♫ Harry Truman, Doris Day, Red China, Johnnie Ray South Pacific, Walter Winchell, Joe DiMaggio ♫♫♫♫Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Studebaker, television North Korea, South Korea, Marilyn Monroe…♫♫ Now imagine instead of a 3-4 minute song, it’s a 400 page book. Then further imagine that instead of being a nostalgic ditty about Baby Boomer angst, it’s a treatise on esoteric religions and the societies which have preserved them since antiquity. Here is a taste of it:♫♫ Zodiac, psilocybin, Sister Moon and Francis Bacon Gilgamesh and Zerathustra, Sufis, Titans, Abraham ♫♫♫ ♫♫ Shaman magic, pyramids, chakras, Enoch, Mona Lisa Golden Ratio, Rama, Shakespeare, Templars and Pineal gland…♫♫♫In both, there is a sense of a general unifying theme; the images aren't exactly “random”, but they come at you a bit too fast to make much out of them. Some of the juxtapositions are interesting, but it lacks any thoughtfulness. That's how this book felt to me. Granted, you can put a book down and think about its contents, but you can't be doing that every thirty seconds and still call it a reading experience. What I’d really like is a conversation with author Mark Booth... a two-way dialogue where I could ask him to elaborate on the more captivating elements of his "Secret History". The guy is obviously brilliant, and I’m not knocking his writing skills. In fact, some of these topics seem so complexly interrelated, I can't imagine how anybody could describe them coherantly (well, Edward Gibbon could). It's like, how does one write a detailed description of this, so a reader can picture it perfectly?:Here's my stab at it: The book can be divided into two subsets: esoteric beliefs, and secret societies. The two are related because oftentimes esoteric beliefs have been taboo, and have only survived because the faithful preserved them in secret. Here are my impressions of just a few of the beliefs Booth touches on in this book:The Zodiac is a good place to start. Nearly every culture attaches special magical significance to the arrangement and movement of the stars and planets. One recurring Creation myth is that Saturn (the furthest out planet the ancient world knew of) defined the limits of the universe. Booth shows various ways that Saturn has been represented by Satan, Death and other ominous icons. The Sun rescues Mother Earth from Saturn’s dark realm, and gives life. The Sun is represented by Apollo, Krishna, and the Judeo-Christian God. So far, so good… uh, then there’s the Moon, who is represented by ancient Mediterranean "Jehovah", a war god, who became incorporated as one of the names of God in Judeo-Christian tradition, but used to at one point be a seperate figure. And now don’t forget about Venus, represented by Lucifer, who is not, apparently, the same guy as Satan… it’s complicated. All this talk about the sun and moon is a good segue into chakras, and the pineal gland, which is sensitive to light and heat patterns, and which regulates sleep and hormonal cycles by secreting melatonin. That’s modern science, but apparently was well-known to Sumerians and pre-Hindu Indians who even correctly located the pineal, in a feat of neuroanatomy which kind of blows my mind. They knew the pineal as the “crown chakra“, while the throat chakra lays over the thyroid, and the groin chakra covers the gonads, suggesting some hormonal basis to all the chakra/energy-field beliefs, which are also apparently in tune with the energy fields of the Earth (to include magnetism)… bringing us to the cosmology which recognizes a Mineral Spirit (of the Earth). This represents matter and the inanimate material world. It is the first of three spirits which form the universe. The mineral spirit lies in the dirt and rock of the ground, and was followed by the Vegetable Spirit, representing plant life. The Garden of Eden harkens to older stories of the age of the Vegetable Spirit, where the world was enlivened, but inanimate. This was a peaceful, verdant paradise. The fall from grace occurred when the Animal Spirit made its debut, bringing with it predation, hunger, lust, and perforce suffering. Tangent: Booth goes into a lot of fascinating details about the mineral, vegetable, and animal spirits. It sounds prehistoric to me, but became the basis for alchemy, which was practiced in some form or another from the Romans up to the 1600’s. Alchemists growing crystals from colloid metal suspensions thought they were effecting a crossover of the mineral and vegetable worlds… creating minerals that grew like vegetables. Crossover of the different spirits figures big into this belief system. Pre-Judaic shamans in the near east saw sleep as a temporary abandonment of the animal spirit from the body, leaving the dormant-yet-living vegetable spirit in charge Subtangent: The comatose to this day are described as being in a “vegetative state”, which leads to a interesting discussion about how many of these old beliefs show up in modern language Where it gets odd is in writings about a race of vegetable people who inhabited the Earth during a period of transition from the Vegetable Era to the Animal Era. People with branches or stalks growing from their foreheads, branches for arms, stuff like that. I think some of those teachings have to do with cataloguing medicinal plants. Since we’re kind of on the topic of minerals and matter, it is as good a time as any to bring up the competing philosophies about whether mind comes from matter (as modern medicine, with a chemically constructed brain, would have you believe), or matter comes from a mind - as the Creation myth of Genesis contends (“God created the Heavens and the Earth.”) It wasn’t just Genesis that took the matter-from-mind route. PreHelenic Greeks believed that ideas were real, and matter just a hazy echo. Their creation story involves ideas in the void precipitating in the form of a superfine mist, which gradually became coarser, forming the gods, and then the Earth, and finally the life around us. They imagined matter combining in different ways forming different organisms with various degrees of fine-ness and coarse-ness. They came up with the many traditional mythical beasts, which appear as combinations of animals… mermaids, minotaurs, centaurs, Pegasus, unicorns, etc.. Ugh.. This is getting exhausting, and I’m barely into the first quarter of the book! You see what I mean?Let’s move on to Secret Societies.There are all sorts of reasons for keeping a belief system secret. The biggest reason is survival. Although some religions are tolerant of competing beliefs (Shintoism seems to be), many are not- particularly, it seems, in the ancient world. When a philosophy obtains dominance, it often converts, destroys or drives opposing religions underground. Another reason for secrecy around a belief system is to control advantageous knowledge. Booth shows how elements of ancient Egyptian cosmology included geometry and mathematics. Secret instructions for adding fractions are encoded in heiroglyphics. Some of this "number magic" would evolve into numerology. Knowing about fractions and arithmatic gave a social group an edge over others; allowing them to divide fields properly, allocate resources appropriately, etc. Special zodiac knowledge was akin to industrial secrets, for the agrarian world, since the stars guided the timing of the planting and harvest seasons. You wouldn't guess it from texts like Plato's Republic, or the Symposium, but the Greeks were also big into keeping many of their studies secret. They liked to run private schools and societies for passing down proprietary knowledge, both scientific and religious, outside the mainstream. Pythagoras (of triangle fame) did this with his geometry. In fact, Pythagoras died when an applicant from his school was turned away, grew enraged, and returned to burn the school down! The trade secret aspect to secret societies continued on into the Middle Ages with trade guilds, which also practiced alternative religions... particularly ones they thought would give them a magical advantage in commerce. Freemasonry is the best example of this. They started as a trade guild of architects and stone cutters, who protected the secrets of their craft, and also dabbled in mysticism. As they evolved into the fraternal lodge type organization we know them as today, the mason element kind of fell away (but is evident in a lot of their imagry). Being a trade guild, they were well-funded, and also got into banking. The Templars (of Crusades fame) are an offshoot of the Freemasons, and developed a sophisticated banking system which threatened the wealth of the Catholic Church, so they were outlawed... driving them underground (to Scottland, where a king defiant of the Pope protected them), and making them even more secretive. Tangent: Booth alludes to an entire other discussion about how various secretive groups have become involved with activities which have nothing to do with occult religions. The most famous example is how masonic lodges provided a veil of secrecy for political activities leading up to the French Revolution. Many of the American Founding Fathers were also affiliated with masonic lodges, and incorporated some of its symbols into our national iconography. None of this is surprising. Secrecy is precious when you're talking about subversive political meetings. Every revolution begins as a conspiracy, right? Conducting seditious activities under the cover of the masonic lodges didn't arouse suspicion, since Freemasonic temples were already part of the cultural landscape, and the public accepted their secrecy already, as one of their quirks. All this cloak-and-dagger behavior can work against secret societies, making them targets for suspicion, as even Monty Python recognizes in their famous "Architect sketch". On a more serious note, widespread (or at least perceived widespread) concern about possible masonic ties among British judges and magistrates have at times called the integrity of the entire system into question. I don't really have an opinion one way or the other about whether the charges are valid, but it does seem reasonable to wonder what all the secrecy is for in our current secular society, where a person may worship any occult religion he chooses. I could keep going all day with this stuff. It just doesn't seem to end... but you get the idea. If you want to look for more secret symbolism in current pop culture, "The Vigilan Citizen" website is fascinating. To wrap up, I liked the book. I'm not sure I came away with any great insights, but it does strike me how religious persecution down through the ages has forced certain groups into hiding, and how this has resulted in a distortion of our sense of history. It's hard enough to piece together how the ancient mind saw things, without having to also consider that part of our view of the past has been intentionally obscured. This alienation from ourselves, or from our cultural roots, seems to be the spiritual price of our species' innate intolerance of foreign ideas.