Mankind loves mysteries—the weirder the better. Throughout recorded history, rites open to the initiated only have been performed in restricted sanctuaries; this not only provides a feeling of superiority to the participants but allows outsiders to indulge in endless speculation about “what really goes on” at such times and in such places. The rise of egalitarianism since the 18th century has added the frisson of class consciousness. Moreover, the existence of miraculous relics and sacred totems, the undeniable attempts of certain groups to wield power out of proportion to their numbers, and the fact that history is written by the victors (allowing for the defeated to weave alternate stories—more or less accurate than the received narratives—for general consumption) have provided fertile ground for a certain sort of writer and thinker over the past several centuries. Never has that ground been more fertile (or, at least in some cases, more profitable) than today. Dan Brown, for one, has been a recipient of the resulting literary largesse.
Adding to the complexity of the situation is that, over the past century, the sacred has been increasingly driven from public life—not merely in government, where monarchies and their “By the Grace of God” ceremonial have been either whittled down or done away with altogether, but even in more secular republics, such as our own. The abandonment, say, of formal morning dress for presidential inaugurations and the openings of state assemblies may have its roots in both egalitarianism and a general fatigue on the part of our elites, but it also points to a loss of whatever whiff of the sacred republican governance still clung to. Much the same may be said of the simplifying of judicial, academic, and civic costume and ritual—to say nothing of the liturgies of many of the churches, where one would expect the sacred to maintain its sway.
These developments have also fueled the growth of public interest in the uncanny: People chase ghosts, UFOs, and conspiracies with all the fervor their ancestors might have expended on pursuing holy relics and making pilgrimages to miraculous shrines. The more orthodox among us might suspect that this is a concrete demonstration of C.S. Lewis’s dictum that “spiritual nature is like physical nature; deny it food, and it will gobble poison.” Nevertheless, despite the vast difference in specific goals between the old quests for the numinous and the new, the subjective goal, perhaps, is similar: the enchantment of mundane, everyday life. Many people today hold that the Bilderbergers or the Illuminati are all-powerful, or that the U.S. government is concealing alien technology at Area 51, with all the certainty with which their grandparents held to the Trinity, the Incarnation, or the divine origin of the Ten Commandments. Of course, quite apart from questions of objective truth, the newer beliefs are unlikely to produce a Saint Augustine or a St. Thomas Aquinas.
Into this murky realm the authors of this book intrude themselves, keen on shedding light on a vast number of mysterious places, persons, and things that have long agitated the curiosity of the reading public. UFOs and Area 51? You’ll find them here. The Bilderbergers, Masons, Yale’s Skull and Bones, and the Templars? Check. They also turn their attention to such mysterious objects as the Grail, the Stone of Destiny, and the Ark of the Covenant. Indeed, the list goes on and on, from such benevolent shrines as Mount Athos to the satanic SS stronghold of Wewelsburg Castle, to the U.S. government’s “secret” refuge of Mount Weather, Virginia. The pair even turn their attention to such preserves of quiet pleasure as London’s clubs (explaining the very different meaning of the phrase gentleman’s club in England and America) and Disneyland’s elite Club 33. Ranging far and wide, the authors display three qualities uncharacteristic of the explorers of such places: solid erudition, sympathetic but thorough skepticism, and a willingness to admit that some things are indeed beyond our ken. Moreover, the narrative is genial; while keen on entertaining their readers, Klimczuk and Warner never attempt to make sport of the objects of their research, no matter how great the temptation.
Why is all of this important? Because, in Western society today, the irrational has an ever higher place in the popular consciousness. As Dan Brown’s popularity shows—especially given the large number of people for whom his books are historical references—the direction of our culture is ever more into cloud cuckoo land. The ersatz messiahship of Obama, no less than the incessant chanting of jingoistic mantras by the neocons, reflects a headlong flight from reason into the comforting safety of the irrational.
In this strange atmosphere, dark rumors of conspiracy provide a welcome respite from the tiresome analysis of historical reality. Religion based purely on emotion—and its resulting disconnect in the minds of many from practical action and political decisions—allows many people to vote for candidates who despise the teachings of their faiths. All-encompassing oligarchies liberate one from personal responsibility for his tiny bit of the body politic. Where these notions raise their heads in this book, our authors, in a kindly and gentlemanly manner, smack them on the skull—save in those few cases in which there does seem to be some flame within the smoke. But even where they discount popular ideas, such as the all-powerful nature of Yale’s Skull and Bones, they show why it might look that way, and how the rumors started.
Their search does not stop at fancied centers of hidden power. Klimczuk and Warner also take us to view places and things that do retain some sense of the sacred: the Grail Chapel in Valencia, the Pauline Chapel at the Vatican, and even the defunct Oracle at Delphi, which once held the destinies of Greece firmly in its grasp. The history and contradictory legends surrounding the Stone of Destiny, which may or may not have come from the Near East, thence to Ireland, and on to Scotland for the crowning of that country’s kings (before being nicked by Edward I for English coronations), are thoroughly explored. So, too, are the Crown of St. Stephen, which even today is considered as a sort of “eternal ruler” of Hungary, and the Holy Lance, which Hitler thought would give him unending control of Germany, and perhaps the world.
Given the current state of affairs, Secret Places, Hidden Sanctuaries may be a useful volume in the library of any denizen of the 21st century who wishes to remain among the sane.
[Secret Places, Hidden Sanctuaries: Uncovering Mysterious Sights, Symbols, and Societies, by Stephen Klimczuk and Gerald Warner of Craigenmaddie (New York: Sterling Publishing Co.) 272 pp., $19.95]