Dan Brown certainly packed a lot into the 500-plus pages of his novel The Lost Symbol. But perhaps the key element to the story is the search for the ‘Lost Word’, and – in the final pages – Robert Langdon’s discovery as to what that actually means. In the early chapters, Langdon explains to Sato that the Lost Word was “one of Freemasonry’s most enduring symbols”…
…a single word, written in an arcane language that man could no longer decipher. The Word, like the Mysteries themselves, promised to unveil its hidden power only to those enlightened enough to decrypt it. “It is said,” Langdon concluded, “that if you can possess and understand the Lost Word . . . then the Ancient Mysteries will become clear to you.”
Later, when Langdon is incredulous at Peter Solomon’s insistence that the ‘treasure’ buried in Washington, D.C. is the Bible, he is counseled that powerful secrets are hidden within its pages: “a vast collection of untapped wisdom waiting to be unveiled.” This seems a quantum leap: the ‘Lost Word’ has jumped from legendary Masonic treasure, to being hidden Biblical wisdom. What is Dan Brown getting at?
The answer lies in one of Brown’s major sources for his previous novel: the ‘Gnostic Gospels’, a collection of early writings about the teachings of Jesus which are not part of the Biblical canon of mainstream Christianity.
The Divine Within
In The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown used a particular concept found in the Gnostic Gospels to good effect: the idea that Mary Magdalene was of high standing in the early Church, perhaps even being Jesus’ partner. In The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown once again mined a rich vein from the Gnostic Gospels: this time, the belief that we are all divine, and that we can all access that divine aspect. The word ‘gnostic’ comes from the Greek gnosis, meaning “knowledge” – the early ‘Christian gnostics’ who wrote the Gnostic Gospels believed that salvation lay not in faith and worship of God, but in each person having personal knowledge or experience of the divine aspect of their souls. In short, the Gnostic spirituality was about looking within; the divine aspect was immanent, not transcendent. In the words of Elaine Pagels, an expert on the Gnostic Gospels:
…Orthodox Jews and Christians insist that a chasm separates humanity from its creator: God is wholly other. But some of the gnostics who wrote these gospels contradict this: self-knowledge is knowledge of God; the self and the divine are identical.
As such, Gnostics did not require the help of a church or religious officialdom for salvation – their religion was more a matter of personal exploration. Obviously, this didn’t play too well with those who were doing quite well out of organized religion, and so Gnosticism became a heresy. Very little of the Gnostic writings survived the Catholic Church’s purge – so much so that it was mostly through the Church’s own tirades against Gnosticism that the various Gnostic teachers and schools were known. Then, in December 1945 an Egyptian peasant stumbled across a number of papyrus books stored within a sealed earthenware jar in a cave near the town of Nag Hammadi. The ‘Nag Hammadi library’ has revolutionized thinking on the origins of Christianity – the leatherbound books contained various ‘alternative gospels’ and teachings which differ sharply from the content of the canonical gospels. These ‘secret’ gospels proclaim Jesus as a Gnostic teacher: “These are the secret words which the living Jesus spoke, and which the twin, Judas Thomas, wrote down,” says one. Another phrase in the Gospel of Philip gets to the heart of Gnosticism, describing the initiate as “no longer a Christian, but Christ.”
So, for all his talk about the Bible being the ‘Lost Word’, Dan Brown once again is actually seriously undermining the Church with his follow-up novel to The Da Vinci Code, as he is saying that organized religion has subverted the original meaning of the Bible. The underlying message in The Lost Symbol is one of rebirth, transformation, and gnosis: various allusions are scattered throughout the book, including Mal’akh’s personal life changes, the “rebirthing” technique of the ‘Total Liquid Ventilation’ tanks, and even when Langdon emerges from the circulation conveyor in the Adams Building (“Langdon felt like he had just emerged from some kind of subterranean birth canal. Born again”). Dan Brown is, in fact, preaching the message of the Gnostics: that we all must pursue a personal path to illumination from within, rather than relying on salvation from the Church:
You’ve put your finger on the precise problem! The moment mankind separated himself from God, the true meaning of the Word was lost. The voices of the ancient masters have now been drowned out, lost in the chaotic din of self-proclaimed practitioners shouting that they alone understand the Word…that the Word is written in their language and none other.
The Mysteries of Gnosticism
In implying that the Word isn’t written in just one language, Dan Brown is referencing the long history of gnostic thinking beyond the traditions of the Christian Gnostics. For example, he has Peter Solomon note that the figureheads of a number of mainstream religions have espoused gnostic principles in their teachings:
Peter lowered his voice to a whisper. “The Buddha said, ‘You are God yourself.’ Jesus taught that ‘the kingdom of God is within you’ and even promised us, ‘The works I do, you can do…and greater.’ Even the first antipope – Hippolytus of Rome – quoted the same message, first uttered by the gnostic teacher Monoimus: ‘Abandon the search for God…instead, take yourself as the starting place.’ ”
There is actually some evidence that Gnostic Christianity was influenced by Buddhist traditions. British scholar of Buddhism Edward Conze has pointed out that trade routes between the Far East and the Mediterranean opened up at the beginning of the Christian era. Conze notes that “Buddhists were in contact with the Thomas Christians (that is, Christians who knew and used such writings as the Gospel of Thomas) in South India,” and Buddhist missionaries were spreading their message in the intellectual milieu of Alexandria in Egypt. But Buddhism would not have been the only influence to Gnostic Christians in Alexandria – the city was a literal melting pot of philosophies and religions which would have had some attraction to Gnostics, including Hermeticism and Neo-Platonism. For instance, it is notable that the Nag Hammadi library contains several Hermetic works amongst its texts.
Before this mix occurred though, there were earlier mystery religions which had a definite gnostic edge to them – most notably, the ‘Ancient Mysteries’ of Greece, a term that features often in The Lost Symbol. Taking their name from the mystai – the blindfolded participants who were about to undergo an extraordinary experience – the Mysteries were said to awaken within the initiate a new appreciation of both life and death. In the words of Cicero, “not only have we received a way of living with prosperity but also a way of dying with greater hope”.
The most well-known of these were the Mysteries of Eleusis. Many citizens of Athens took part in these Mysteries, but we still don’t know a lot about them as the secrecy of the rituals was heavily guarded – revealing them to non-initiates was considered a crime punishable by death, and in the words of one modern scholar, they “rank among the best-kept secrets of the ancient world.” In both the blindfold and the stringent secrecy we can see antecedents to the hoodwink and blood oaths of Freemasonry, though whether there is any direct influence is debatable.
Kevin Clinton, in his essay “The Mysteries of Demeter and Kore”, suggests that the most important benefit of the Mysteria was likely that “the initiate gains a better position in the afterlife than the non-initiate.” This advantage may have been through a mimicking of the death experience. Clinton cites a passage from the Greek historian Plutarch, in which it is said that at the point of the death, the soul “suffers something like what those who participate in the great initiations suffer.” Interestingly, some of these experiences are distinctly similar to the ‘Near Death Experience’ discussed in the last chapter. There is a journey through darknesss, followed by an encounter with “an extraordinary light”, and “pure regions and meadows” with “majesties of sacred sounds.” This all sounds very similar to an exhortation in the Gnostic Gospel of Philip which contrasts strongly with traditional Christianity : “Those who say they will die first and then rise are in error. If they do not first receive the resurrection while they live, when they die they will receive nothing…”
Another Greek Mystery religion which some see as a possible influence on Gnosticism was Orphism:
The Orphic cult – said to have been derived from the mythic figure of Orpheus – has a number of interesting parallels with Gnosticism: according to Orphic belief, when Dionysus was torn apart by the Titans, shards of his divine nature fell into all human beings, who had yet to be created.When people did finally appear, they had Dionysus’ nature within them, often without their realising it. Only those who joined the Orphic cult could be freed from the prison of their earthly existence.
In their recent book The Jesus Mysteries, Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy go so far as to claim that “the Jesus story was not a biography at all but a consciously crafted vehicle for encoded spiritual teachings created by Jewish Gnostics,” and was based on the Mysteries of the ancient gods Osiris and Dionysus.
So where does the true origin of Gnostic philosophy lie? Some researchers have speculated that the Great Pyramid of Egypt (ca. 2500 BC) was used for initiations into Gnostic-style Mysteries, during which the aspirant would undergo an Out of Body Experience (OBE) and be “born again” upon his return to the material realms. This idea may have its origin in the thirteenth book of the Corpus Hermeticum, in which Hermes Trismegistus explains to his son that “when a man is born again; it is no longer a body of three dimensions that he perceives but the incorporeal.”
It seems though that Gnosticism, in its raw form, is simply a human urge. Before the Christian Gnostics, and the Hermeticists, Neo-Platonists, Buddhists, Jewish mystics and Egyptian initiates, there were the shamans – who could perhaps be seen as the true masters and original progenitors of the Ancient Mysteries.
Masonic Mystery School
What then do Gnosticism, the Bible, and the Ancient Mysteries have to do with Freemasonry and the Lost Word? Consider this description of the Lost Word by the 19th century Masonic scholar Albert Mackey:
…The WORD therefore, may be conceived to be the symbol of Divine Truth; and all its modifications – the loss, the substitution, and the recovery – are but component parts of the mythical symbol which represents a search after truth. In a general sense, the Word itself being then the symbol of Divine Truth, the narrative of its loss and the search for its recovery becomes a mythical symbol of the decay and loss of the true religion among the ancient nations…and of the attempts of the wise men, the philosophers, and priests, to find and retain it in their secret mysteries and initiations, which have hence been designated as the Spurious Freemasonry of Antiquity.
Many of the early writers on Freemasonry echoed Mackey’s view that the Craft was in fact the continuation of secret ancient traditions – the ‘Ancient Mysteries’ that we have just discussed – in which an initiation led to a personal epiphany and transformation. They also agree that the metaphor of the Lost Word was central to this quest. For instance, Charles H. Vail wrote in 1909 that the Lost Word was symbolic of “the degradation of the Ancient Mysteries…the Word was no mere name, but a knowledge of occult science which could only be attained by soul development.” George Steinmetz, in his book The Lost Word: Its Hidden Meaning, names the Ancient Mysteries as the “mutual source” of Rosicrucian and Masonic philosophy:
What is that source? It can only be the Ancient Mysteries, the original source of all Occult philosophy extant in the world today…the Ancient Mysteries, in harmony with the doctrine of the three-fold man, had as their objective the bringing of man to an intellectual knowledge of his Spiritual Estate, that having cognizance thereof he might develop the spiritual latent within himself, and eventually regain his original status as a SPIRITUAL BEING, conscious of his innate spirituality.
Steinmetz quotes one anonymous writer describing his initiation with the words “Suddenly, I knew as the gods, more cannot be said.” Another claims that “At midnight I saw the Sun shining with a splendid light.”
The latter testimony offers an interesting parallel with the Masonic search for Light; the “Luciferian Philosophy” which landed Albert Pike at the center of anti-Masonic controversies. There are other curious similarities. The comment in the Gnostic Gospel of Philip, mentioned above – stating that you must be resurrected in life – seems a precursor to the ritual of the Third Degree in Freemasonry, where the Master Mason is ‘raised’ from his grave during an elaborate initiation ceremony. So does Masonry preserve the Gnostic teachings of the Ancient Mysteries?
Modern Masonic scholars would say no. Extensive research has failed to show any unbroken direct lineage between Freemasonry and earlier mystery teachings and secret societies. Instead, it is assumed that Freemasonry arose from ‘Operative Masonry’ (groups of actual working stonemasons) and then it evolved with the addition of various “suppositions about Masonry’s own past and mankind’s spiritual roots.”
Nevertheless, there are hints of influence. Robert Cooper – who has debunked a number of the ‘alternative histories’ of Masonry – suggests that some aspects of Hermeticism may have found their way into the Craft at the turn of the 17th century via the ‘Father of Scottish Freemasonry’, William Schaw. And Jay Kinney, in his recent book The Masonic Myth, ponders whether Masonic rituals involving the Lost Word originated in the Jewish mystical (and Gnostic-themed) system of Kabbalah. “[I]t seems likely,” says Kinney, “that someone conversant with Kabbalistic concepts and symbolism contributed to the evolution of the ritual.”
Kinney’s view finds support from Henrik Bogdan, a respected scholar of esotericism:
[T]he search for a lost word offers an intriguing parallel with zoharic speculations concerning the loss of the proper way to pronounce the name of the Lord, the Tetragrammaton (YHVH). According to kabbalistic tradition, the proper mode of vocalization, or of pronouncing the Divine Name was a guarded secret that was reserved for the Holy of Holies within the temple of Jerusalem. The second siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC that resulted in the destruction of Solomon’s temple and the beginning of the so-called Babylonian Captivity of the Jews that was to last until 538 BC, had the consequence that the High Priest no longer had the opportunity to pronounce the name of God. This subsequently led to the tragic consequence that the true way of pronouncing the holy name passed into oblivion. Thus, we find in the zoharic tradition a search for the lost name, or rather the true way of pronouncing a known name. … At the core of the Jewish Kabbalah lies the fundamental aim of the individual experience of the Godhead, or a Unio Mystica. It is this fundamental aim that links the two traditions together in a functional manner. Both traditions center on a direct identification with, or experience of the Godhead… the aim of the Master degree initiation… aimed at the same goal found in kabbalah, that is, a Unio Mystica.
As we saw in the early chapters of this book, a number of these Gnostic-styled philosophical systems (Kabbalah, Hermeticism etc.) made their way into Western culture at the beginning of the Renaissance, with the likes of Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. Indeed, as one source puts it, “Ficino was voyaging through the straits of unorthodoxy out into the open seas of the ancient Gnostic heresies.”
So while there may not be a direct lineage to the Ancient Mysteries, it is certainly likely that Ficino and other scholars reintroduced Gnostic elements back into Western civilization which became an ‘underground stream’ – a syncretic esoteric tradition largely hidden from the view of the profane. Drawing on various influences – from the Ancient Mysteries and Hermeticism through to Islamic Sufism and Jewish Kabbalah – this tradition became known under the moniker of ‘Rosicrucianism’, before emerging (almost) fully with the official uniting of the lodges in England in 1717. Its goal was personal gnosis, the recovery of the Lost Word – “a return to the primitive and primordial state of man characterized by union with God” through the process of initiation and transformation. No doubt many Freemasons would argue against this, and as the years pass it seems that the Craft seems more and more keen to distance itself from esoteric associations. Earlier Masonic writers had no such problem, disputing the more mundane historical theory of an evolution from organized stonemasonry:
Are we to believe that these craftsmen of the medieval guilds, most of whom were actually illiterate, conceived an entire philosophy such as Freemasonry, and then, with consummate cunning, concealed it beneath a complicated system of symbolism and allegory?
Manly Hall argued that “nearly every great historian of Freemasonry” – including Albert Pike, George Oliver and Albert Mackey – had all “admitted the possibility of the modern society being connected, indirectly at least, with the ancient Mysteries.” Meanwhile the French intellectual René Guénon claimed outright that “the masonic institution, through its degrees, contains a powerful esotericism and a ‘spiritual influence’ leading, as at Eleusis, from the ‘Lesser Mysteries’ to the ‘Greater Mysteries’, and opening the path to a unitive vision and to liberation of the soul.”
In truth though, we will probably never know the exact origins of Freemasonry. One of the dangers of secret traditions is that, by definition, any ‘history’ is likely to be deficient or even just plain wrong. And it is in mystical traditions that secrecy is used most extensively. The Ancient Mysteries of the Mediterranean, the Tantric secrets of Hinduism and Buddhism, the mysticism of the Sufis in Islam, the doctrines of the Kabbalists – all are obscured from non-initiates by strict secrecy and the language of symbolism.
What cannot be argued however is that Freemasonry at the very least mimics a Gnostic-style initiatory system akin to the Ancient Mysteries. One of the Brotherhood’s most celebrated mystical writers, Walter Wilmhurst, defines the aim of this initiation with symbolism that would please Dan Brown:
There remains a way of regaining consciousness of that higher world and life. It is by bringing into function a now dormant and submerged faculty resident at the depth and centre of his being. That dormant faculty is the Vital and Immortal Principle which exists as the central point of the circle of his individuality.
In writing The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown could have had Robert Langdon searching for all manner of material treasures associated with Freemasonry: the body of Jesus, the Ark of the Covenant, the Elixir of Life. It is a credit to him that instead he focused on the ‘spiritual treasure’ of the Craft. One of Brown’s primary sources, the esoteric scholar Manly P. Hall, once wrote that Freemasonry is “a science of the soul.” In his earlier Robert Langdon books, Dan Brown explored the tension arising out of the dichotomy of science and religion; in The Lost Symbol he may just have resolved it. By putting that ‘science of the soul’ back into the public consciousness, perhaps it will inspire millions of readers to explore Freemasonry and other offshoots of the Ancient Mysteries, and maybe even to embark on their own process of initiation and pursuit of the divine within.
The Guide to Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol is available now from Amazon US.