CIA / Kryptos © 1988 James Sanborn
|The Kryptos sculpture at CIA Headquarters was featured during the buildup to publication of "The Lost Symbol," Dan Brown's latest thriller.|
Mystery sleuth Greg Taylor knew years ago what "Da Vinci Code" author Dan Brown would be talking about in the follow-up thriller now known as "The Lost Symbol," which is due for release on Tuesday. So he rounded up a whole book's worth of found symbols with puzzling histories, all having to do with Washington, the Founding Fathers and Freemasonry.
You don't have to read "The Lost Symbol" to get hooked on the historical puzzles lying in and around the nation's capital - including a puzzle that even super-symbologist Robert Langdon would be hard-pressed to solve.
We're talking about the Kryptos sculpture at CIA Headquarters in Langley, Va. The swoopy copper creation, devised by James Sanborn, was placed on a spot of the agency's campus that's off limits to the general public - but for almost 20 years, professional and amateur code-crackers from around the world have been trying to decrypt the message stamped into the metal.
Actually, make that four messages: Three of them have been deciphered, but the final 97-character (or is that 98-character?) message is still uncracked. There's a whole Web site devoted to the puzzle, and this Wired article provides a nice update on the state of play.
As Taylor notes in his book, references to Kryptos popped up in the puzzles that Brown left behind after "The Da Vinci Code" was published, and some Brown-watchers are even hoping that "The Lost Symbol" will bring the puzzle closer to solution. Now that would be news.
Keys to the city
Brown's previous Robert Langdon books were packed with references to architectural curiosities in Rome, Paris and London (plus Rosslyn Chapel, of course). Although Washington isn't quite as ancient, the city offers plenty of monuments you could turn into mysteries, particularly if you're trying to play off tales of a Masonic conspiracy amid America's roots.
In fact, the working title for "The Lost Symbol" was "The Solomon Key," which is an allusion to one of the ritual keys said to be part of Masonic lore. Is the Solomon Key the Lost Symbol? You'll find ample references on bookshelves and on the Web to the supposed connections between Freemasonry and the Founding Fathers. One of the historical twists has to do with the cornerstone for the U.S. Capitol, which was laid by George Washington amid Masonic pomp and circumstance but went missing. (Was it later found? Maybe ... maybe not.)
Another popular focus for the Masonic Washington meme is the layout of the capital itself, with lots of pentagrams, triangles, crosses, circles and other odd shapes. All these shapes can easily be worked into a conspiracy theory ... or a thriller plot.
And then there are the zodiacs. Whole books have been written about the various zodiac motifs found scattered amid the city's monuments - for example, the "Zodiac Fountain" across the street from the National Gallery. David Ovason's"Secret Architecture of the Nation's Capital" claims that special attention was given to the constellation Virgo.
The Masons say Ovason is reading way too much into the astrological lineup - but Taylor notes that the Virgo angle could link up handily "with Brown's use in 'The Da Vinci Code' of a secret society which worships the female aspect of divinity."
"The sacred feminine goes international!" Taylor writes.
End of a long wait
In "The Guide to 'The Lost Symbol,'" Taylor delves into the murky historical background behind the rise of Freemasonry and its connection to the Founding Fathers. (Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, Paul Revere are counted among the Freemasons involved in the nation's founding.) There's virtually a whole chapter given over to the supposedly Masonic symbolism of the Great Seal printed on dollar bills.
Tuesday's release of "The Lost Symbol" marks the end of a long wait for Taylor, and you can't say the guy hasn't been prepared. From his home base in Queensland, Australia, Taylor has been monitoring the hype surrounding the book for years on a Weblog called The Cryptex. He's also been passing along updates on The Daily Grail, a Web site devoted to "science, magick, myth and history."
Taylor told me he was running out to buy a copy of "The Lost Symbol" as soon as it was available in Australia - hours before its release in the United States.
He won't be alone: The book is already easily No. 1 on Amazon's bestseller list, and there'll be plenty of buzz about it on NBC's TODAY show (including an interview with Brown himself). If you're hungry for even more information about "The Lost Symbol," you can check these Web sites:
- The Lost Symbol, the book's official Web site, which features a Symbol Quest online game (there are ample cheats out there if you look for them).
- Fans of The Lost Symbol, an unofficial discussion board.
- Cult of Dan Brown, a blog plus a discussion board for all of Brown's books.
- Secrets of the Lost Symbol, a blog that's tied to another upcoming guide to the book, written by Dan Burstein and Arne de Keijzer.
- The Dan Brown Sequel Generator, Slate's just-for-fun gizmo that could help Dan Brown make up the plot for his next book.
Update for 9:30 p.m. ET: Here's an edited version of an e-mail Q&A I did with Greg Taylor across several time zones:
Cosmic Log: Do you finally feel vindicated for doing "The Guide"? Are there some guesses you wish you could take back? Have you heard back from anyone about how close your book came to "The Lost Symbol"?
Greg Taylor: The book was never about being absolutely right - it was, as I mention in the introduction, written in the spirit of Dan Brown's books themselves: tracking down clues, interpreting them to find possible answers, but also enjoying the chase as much as the final outcome. The journey, as they say, is sometimes the most important part - and I think the book will have educated readers to some little-known history which might challenge their preconceptions about the founding of the United States and the beginnings of the scientific era.
I have no doubt some of my guesses were off the mark, but I'm happy with the book as a whole - it appears I was correct on a lot of the topics. And what I was wrong about was still fun and educational, I think!
[SLIGHT SPOILER ALERT] Looking through the first few chapters of "The Lost Symbol," it seems that the "new" topic that will benefit from "the Dan Brown effect" is Noetic Science. The female lead in the new book is a Noetic scientist, which reminds me quite a bit of Marilyn Schlitz from the Institute of Noetic Sciences. As you know, parapsychology researcher Dean Radin is also an IONS scientist - so all of these "heretical science" topics (like the Global Consciousness Project) are likely to come to the fore and generate much debate.
Given that my Web site The Daily Grail covers news on both alternative history theories and fresh science, such as that being done at IONS, I'm feeling as if it could be a busy year ahead!
Q: Can you list two to four of your favorite mysteries relating to Washington, Freemasonry and other topics? I'm quite taken by Kryptos, for one, but I expect there are others. For a while, for example, it sounded as if the Capitol cornerstone, laid by Washington in a mason's apron, was missing ... but that's now apparently been found. Or was it???
A: I recently heard from a documentary producer that they definitely know where the cornerstone is, so that one might be solved. Probably my favorite mysteries are Skull and Bones and the Great Seal. I still can't believe that more hasn't been made of the fact that the 2004 election was a contest between two members of Skull and Bones, a small but influential secret society. Both George W. Bush and John Kerry refused to speak about their membership because they were bound by secrecy, and journalists seemed happy with that answer and didn't pursue it any further. Given Italy's problems in the past with the insidious influence of the pseudo-Masonic lodge "P2" (Propaganda Due), surely journalists and investigators should have been more concerned with this Skull and Bones influence.
The Great Seal of the U.S. is just a wonderful Dan Brown-ish plot device: Here's this symbol of the most powerful nation on Earth, and it is filled with esoteric iconography. Not to mention the ability to spell out "MASON" by drawing a Seal of Solomon on the seal. The truth of the matter seems to be that the designers were not in fact Freemasons ... but you do get the feeling that maybe Benjamin Franklin dropped over to their house with a few beers and mentioned casually some of the things he might like to see in there.
And there's also the topic of Deism. Considering the influence of fundamentalist Christianity in America, and how often it is proclaimed a "Christian Nation," it's rather ironic to think that Franklin, Washington and Jefferson were likely all Deists rather than Christians. And Thomas Paine was actually rather hostile to Christianity. These Founding Fathers were aiming at a country free of the strictures of an influential religion or ideology dictating individual freedoms - something worth keeping in mind when we see the influence of religion in politics today.
Q: Do you think "The Lost Symbol" will spark a larger debate about history, as "The Da Vinci Code" did about the Nativity and other Bible stories? Or was "The Da Vinci Code" a perfect storm that would be quite hard to match?
A: I think "The Da Vinci Code" was a perfect storm - people have these internal questions about religion, and especially the dictates of organized religion, and "The Da Vinci Code" all of sudden opened a huge floodgate for those thoughts to come out into the public arena. Freemasonry, while interesting, doesn't have that same allure to most of the public. I think, if Dan Brown is smart, the best method for stirring up debate would be to concentrate on the pagan and Deist influences on the Founding Fathers of the United States, as I outlined earlier. That certainly is something that would excite the passions of most Americans, whether Christian or otherwise.
Do you have other pointers to "Symbol" secrets? Feel free to pass along your Web links and your comments - but please, no spoilers!