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Secrets of the Widow's Son: The Mysteries Surrounding the Sequel to The Da Vinci Code Excerpt from Secrets of the Widow's Son: The Mysteries Surrounding the Sequel to The Da Vinci Code

by David A. Shugarts

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Origins of Freemasonry

Freemasonry is a philosophy added onto a practical craft. Both of these took thousands of years to come to fruition, if you look for the true roots.

To focus on the practical craft, it's clear, of course, that there have been masons for perhaps five-thousand years, since there are stone structures in Egypt and the Middle East to prove it. Greeks and Romans, with their celebrated architecture, were relative latecomers in this context. All of the famous cathedrals and palaces of Europe, not to mention modern skyscrapers, occupy only the last fifth (or less) of the history of masonry.

Certain crafts tend to attract more respect than others, and masons over the centuries tended to rise to the top of the building craft. Stonecutting may seem like a simple task, but it takes both knowledge and skill.

To get a sense of the required humility just imagine you're standing next to a large rock with a hammer and chisel and think about what you would do to make it into a smooth, squared cube of stone. If you're honest with yourself, you will realize you don't have the slightest clue what to do next. With this humility, you might make a good apprentice Mason.

Apprentice stonemasons were taught how to cut squared stones, and journeymen stonemasons -- eventually called fellow crafts -- had more skills. By the time one became a master mason, and particularly in the context of the great cathedrals, it was expected that a man could carve intricate ornamental work in stone, including statuary such as gargoyles and grotesques. In fact, the great stonemasons could carve these freehand (and a few are alive today who still can).

The experienced master masons on the very big projects (which sometimes took 100 years or more to build) would learn a lot more than stonecutting skills. The ones who served as Master of the Works would study architecture, along with geometry, mathematics, and quite a number of other aspects of science and art. They shared their knowledge with fellow masons when possible.

Thus, by the sixteenth century, if not long before, stonemasons claimed a higher status than other craftsmen. Also, it was already common for masons to be organized into lodges and to have a rudimentary form of self-government within the lodge system. Since building a cathedral or palace required many skilled masons, it was accepted that they would travel and stay at the job site. This was different from, say, an ironwright, who might never leave a given village. Consequently, the term freemason, as a stonecutter free to travel, was already commonly heard in the sixteenth century when the craft began to change.

The age of building stone cathedrals was in full swing from about 1100 to 1500 and then it tapered off. It is generally believed that the hotbed of change from practical masonry to symbolic masonry was Scotland at the end of the sixteenth century. For a large part of the seventeenth century, the system incubated in Scotland and found fertile soil in England, where signs of the change had been spotted frequently.

Masons' lodges began to attract men who were never going to cut a stone or wield a trowel. They began to accept members who were not actually stonemasons, and this trend rapidly got out of hand when the noncraft members began to outnumber the craft members in some lodges. A working mason became known as an "operative" member, while the others were called "speculative" members. Lodges of the latter type were "symbolic" lodges.

In 1717, a gentlemen's fraternity of Freemasonry was formally founded by a transformation of four lodges in London, into symbolic lodges, forming the Grand Lodge. This was the movement that took hold and grew, eventually reaching global proportions.

In the context of Dan Brown's novels, the nascent Freemasons could also be seen in other poses. For instance, one could view the Freemasons as the antithesis of the Church, a refuge from its hegemony over intellectual cosmology and philosophical thought. In A&D particularly, this is what allows Dan Brown to put the Freemasons (and the Illuminati) on the side of science, and therefore "against" religion.

As we have seen so far, the brothers who invoked the "Widow's Son" plea could call on one another through secrets and symbols, the very fuel that drives Dan Brown's creative fires. But Freemasons also derived certain social advantages from their affiliation.

Social Advantages of Being a Freemason

In the eighteenth century, the social aspects of Freemasonry offered men some real benefits in the age when monarchs and prelates could no longer use feudal schemes to control the population, as the merchant class rose to prominence.

It was a time of societal strife. People needed a safe haven for social interaction. Religious wars in England and on the Continent had decimated whole populations. One of the greatest attractions of a Freemasonry lodge was the opportunity for a "boys' night out" for men of very different religions and philosophies to talk politely about any topic under the sun, while sipping wine or beer. (However, today's Freemasons neither drink within their temples nor discuss politics or religion.)

More important, there was a change taking place in the way that men gained and held social standing. The older system of royal birthright had built-in limits. Meanwhile, the spread of literacy, commerce, and some allowance for leisure activities among "commoners" meant that they could create social groups with at least modest pretensions. There were actually lots of men's fraternal organizations, literary societies, and the like, but the Freemasons offered a mixture of symbology, morality, friendship, and fun that satisfied many tastes. There were plenty of lords and earls among the membership in England, and yet there were plenty of merchants, lawyers, and tradesmen. Likewise, when Freemasonry caught on among military men, there were lodges where colonels, sergeants, and privates could all mingle.

For an upcoming member of the merchant class, Freemasonry was a way to demonstrate that he could "improve" himself, attaining the refinement of a gentleman. In the ceremonies -- which eventually became grand public processions -- the Freemasons could wear regalia such as regal-looking sashes and jewels, and even swords (hitherto the mark of royalty). Undoubtedly the real royals among them must have been amused, particularly with the rest of a Freemason's costume, which included an apron and white gloves. They sometimes carried a ceremonial trowel and occasionally even a wand. Undoubtedly, this amused the real stonemasons as well, among those few who remained in the lodges.

Foundations of Masonic Philosophy

So far, we have been looking at the overt part of Freemasonry, the surface veneer. What will surely interest Dan Brown are the deeper roots of Masonic philosophy, particularly how it connects to ancient, pagan beliefs.

Behind the scenes, some very powerful themes were being developed in support of Freemasonry. Interestingly, no one has been able to positively identify the authors of the Freemasons' rituals and lore. Some of it, such as the stories tracing their origins back to the Temple of Solomon, might be part of the oldest legends of real stonemasons, although even this could have been merely an attempt to make the legend appear ancient. But other parts of it were definitely brought in fresh, then sorted, sifted, and assembled into a coherent system.

The melting pot of Freemasonry has at least these ingredients:

Greek philosophy, science, and mathematics
Geometry, especially from Euclid and Pythagoras
Terms and themes of stonemasonry
Biblical literature, especially favoring Hebrew Scriptures
Kabbalah, an ancient Jewish system of mysticism
The symbolism of alchemy
Hermeticism, said to derive from Hermes Trismegistus, a mythical figure sometimes said to be the Egyptian god Thoth
"Egyptian" culture (as far as was known)
"Druidism" (as far as was known)
Eastern religions and philosophies (as far as they were known)

It's certainly not going to be possible now to figure out who the authors of the rituals and lore were. But there are a number of "suspects" and some of them were brilliant and famous men. In the following pages, I will talk about a number of these suspects, both usual and unusual.

Poindexter and the IAO

In an interview about A&D on the Web site, Dan Brown made this intriguing observation:

Fortunately, I recently learned of another U.S. intelligence agency, more covert even than the National Security Agency. This new agency will figure prominently in the next novel. Until then, of course, mum's the word.

For a long time, I was stumped by this clue, and I am not totally sure I have found the answer. However, there is one outfit -- and a unique individual running it -- that does seem to fill the bill for Brown's covert agency. It is the Information Awareness Office (IAO) within the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). DARPA is the forward-thinking branch of the Defense Department that can rightfully brag about at least two big accomplishments: creation of the network that evolved into the Internet, and development of the Stealth series of aircraft, not to mention many other new technology developments.

The IAO was a new arm of DARPA created in the months after 9/11. Picked to head it was an enigmatic "spook," Vice Admiral John M. Poindexter. If there were ever a single modern figure who could pose as a model for an arch Illuminati worthy of a Dan Brown novel, I think it would be John Poindexter.

Poindexter is extremely bright, extremely computer-savvy has occupied top government positions, and is an admitted dissembler (fancy word for "liar"). He is "Mr. Disinformation." He once lied to his own fellow staffers in the White House about the invasion of Grenada. He was Oliver North's boss in the infamous Reagan-era Iran-Contra affair and later admitted that he falsified a cover story so as to provide "plausible deniability" for President Reagan.

Poindexter was working in private industry when the events of 9/11 gave him a shot at rehabilitation with the Pentagon. With a reported budget of $200 million, Poindexter had a plan for about a dozen high-tech programs, the sort that would scan the e-mails and the personal and financial information of huge numbers of people. But perhaps more chilling was the IAO home page that was put onto the Web, with a logo reportedly designed by Poindexter himself.

It is worth looking at the details. It shows the famous dollar bill symbol, the "unfinished pyramid and all-seeing eye," shining its rays upon a globe. Surely by no coincidence, the region of the globe in view is the Middle East. The motto in Latin is Scientia Est Potentia which translates as "Knowledge is power," a quote attributed to Francis Bacon, but having a very ominous Big Brother meaning in the current context.

When the Web site and the IAO programs got national attention in November 2002, there was an immediate uproar, and the logo was promptly expunged from the Web site (only to be preserved by web bloggers and esoterica buffs). However, the IAO itself continued until 2003, when Poindexter was forced to resign after a scandal over a controversial new program, a futures exchange that would have bet on gambles like the possibility of Arab leaders being assassinated.

It should be noted, however, that observers believe most of his programs were not totally killed. Rather, they may have been redistributed to other DARPA offices or even other agencies. (in fact, if you were a deep conspiracy theorist, why would you even believe IAO has been disbanded? Is anyone keeping watch on Poindexter?)

Copyright 2005 David A. Shugarts