May 27, 2006
Shadow People: Inside History's Most Notorious Secret Societies
John Lawrence Reynolds has done the world a service. In 300 or so pages, he gallops through the main secret societies, from the religious (Shia Assassins who slaughtered people obediently in the 13th century and the Gnostics who advocated an alternative Christianity), through the mysterious (Templars, Illuminati, Freemasons), up to the ruthless (Triads, Mafia and Yakuza), demonstrating a sure touch in description and analysis.
Uncluttered by footnotes, yet demonstrating considerable reading, Reynolds's book describes each group in society before concluding by presenting the scholarly consensus. He is good at debunking and does so ruthlessly -- so the Priory of Sion, made famous by Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, is not an ancient society founded to protect the blood line of Jesus, but an invention of Pierre Plantard in the mid-1950s. And the Rosicrucians were not an occult movement founded by Christian Rosenkreuz (born in 1378), but a hoax created by a Lutheran pastor, Johann Valentin Andreae, in 1614.
Naturally, there are plenty of organizations that are real: The Mafia really did dominate Sicily; George W. Bush and John Kerry really are members of the Skull and Bones; and the Japanese Yakuza, a secret crime society, really did require a finger for a violation of its code. Reynolds navigates all this material with some skill.
The only problematic chapter is the opening one, on the Shia Assassins. Although it is true that the Crusades birthed this Islamic response, it is unhelpful to link this group with contemporary militant Islam. It is not true, for instance, that there is a "linear connection between the Assassins and al-Qaeda." For starters, the Assassins were not into suicide.
Al-Qaeda has particular roots in a potent mix of Wahhabi Islam, the Egyptian Brotherhood and field experience, courtesy of the U.S. military, in Afghanistan. The virgins that inspired the Assassins (and that is much more contested than Reynolds seems to appreciate) do not really inspire the suicide bombers of al-Qaeda. Reynolds is so careful to avoid the racist stereotypes in his Triads chapter, but here he flirts dangerously with Islamaphobia. But if you skip the opening chapter and enjoy the remaining 12, you will finish the book better informed about the extraordinary world of secret societies.
In the last two chapters, Reynolds stands back. Why are conspiracy theories so popular? He offers the following hypothesis: Given that the majority of secret societies are Western inventions, the wealthy and fortunate need conspiracy theories to explain the few remaining mysteries of life. This is a strange hypothesis: Five of his 11 case studies -- the Assassins, Gnostics, Kabbalah, Triads and Yakuza -- are not Western. And anyway, perhaps the majority of believers today in the anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion conspiracy (the Protocols purport to be minutes of the First Zionist Council that outline the plan by world Jewry to control the world) are found in non-Western countries. Sadly, some Muslims, disturbed by the strength of Israel and the inability of Muslim countries to resist Western military power, find themselves sympathetic to this conspiracy narrative.
It is humiliation that makes the conspiracy hypothesis attractive, not mystery-solving for the affluent. Reynolds deals very nicely with the history of the Protocols and the uses to which they have been put. He discusses the Protocols at length when he is providing a critique of The Da Vinci Code. Reynolds suggests that both The Da Vinci Code and Brown's main source, Holy Blood and Holy Grail, are the modern equivalent of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Holy Blood and Holy Grail is a deceit with no historical basis, while The Da Vinci Code treats Opus Dei the same way that the Protocols treats the Jews.
Although I understand Reynolds's anger, I do think this analogy is unfair. The Protocols is a deeply evil tract that led to the persecution of millions of Jews. Opus Dei is much more capable of taking care of itself. Reynolds's attitude to conspiracy theories has been distorted by this disproportionate attention he gives to Dan Brown's popularity. It is true that there are lots of middle-class Canadians who are sympathetic to the Da Vinci Code hypothesis, but there are also plenty of readers in India and elsewhere around the world.
But even with his Canadian friends who are into the book, Reynolds is missing the key feature: People warm to the Da Vinci Code thesis because they want a feminist-friendly church with a married Jesus who was kept awake at night by babies crying. With Dan Brown, liberal Canadians encountered a conspiracy they want to believe in.
But this is to move beyond this book. For those searching for an entertaining book (and Reynolds is a funny man with a delicious turn of phrase), this is a must-read. It is done with exceptional skill and competence, and is a good addition to any educated person's library.
Ian Markham is the dean of Hartford Seminary in Connecticut and professor of theology and ethics. He is the author of numerous books, and teaches and writes on religion and conspiracy theories.