Famed Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon answers an unexpected summons to appear at the U.S. Capitol Building. His planned lecture is interrupted when a disturbing object--artfully encoded with ...(more)
"Good morning, everybody," Langdon shouted from the expansive stage. He turned on a slide projector, and an image materialized behind him. "As you're getting settled, how many of you recognize the building in this picture?"
"U.S. Capitol!" dozens of voices called out in unison. "Washington, D.C.!"
"Yes. There are nine million pounds of ironwork in that dome. An unparalleled feat of architectural ingenuity for the 1850s."
"Awesome!" somebody shouted.
Langdon rolled his eyes, wishing somebody would ban that word. "Okay, and how many of you have ever been to Washington?"
A scattering of hands went up. "So few?" Langdon feigned surprise. "And how many of you have been to Rome, Paris, Madrid, or London?"
Almost all the hands in the room went up.
As usual. One of the rites of passage for American college kids was a summer with a Eurorail ticket before the harsh reality of real life set in. "It appears many more of you have visited Europe than have visited your own capital. Why do you think that is?"
"No drinking age in Europe!" someone in back shouted.
Langdon smiled. "As if the drinking age here stops any of you?"
It was the first day of school, and the students were taking longer than usual to get settled, shifting and creaking in their wooden pews. Langdon loved teaching in this hall because he always knew how engaged the students were simply by listening to how much they fidgeted in their pews.
"Seriously," Langdon said, "Washington, D.C., has some of the world's finest architecture, art, and symbolism. Why would you go overseas before visiting your own capital?"
"Ancient stuff is cooler," someone said.
"And by ancient stuff," Langdon clarified, "I assume you mean castles, crypts, temples, that sort of thing?"
Their heads nodded in unison.
"Okay. Now, what if I told you that Washington, D.C., has every one of those things? Castles, crypts, pyramids, temples . . . it's all there."
The creaking diminished.
"My friends," Langdon said, lowering his voice and moving to the front of the stage, "in the next hour, you will discover that our nation is overflowing with secrets and hidden history. And exactly as in Europe, all of the best secrets are hidden in plain view."
The wooden pews fell dead silent.
Langdon dimmed the lights and called up his second slide. "Who can tell me what George Washington is doing here?" The slide was a famous mural depicting George Washington dressed in full Masonic regalia standing before an odd-looking contraption--a giant wooden tripod that supported a rope-and- pulley system from which was suspended a massive block of stone. A group of well-dressed onlookers stood around him.
"Lifting that big block of stone?" someone ventured.
Langdon said nothing, preferring that a student make the correction if possible.
"Actually," another student offered, "I think Washington is lowering the rock. He's wearing a Masonic costume. I've seen pictures of Masons laying cornerstones before. The ceremony always uses that tripod thing to lower the first stone."
"Excellent," Langdon said. "The mural portrays the Father of Our Country using a tripod and pulley to lay the cornerstone of our Capitol Building on September 18, 1793, between the hours of eleven fifteen and twelve thirty." Langdon paused, scanning the class. "Can anyone tell me the significance of that date and time?"
"What if I told you that precise moment was chosen by three famous Masons--George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Pierre L'Enfant, the primary architect for D.C.?"
"Quite simply, the cornerstone was set at that date and time because, among other things, the auspicious Caput Draconis was in Virgo."
Everyone exchanged odd looks.
"Hold on," someone said. "You mean . . . like astrology?"
"Exactly. Although a different astrology than we know today."
A hand went up. "You mean our Founding Fathers believed in astrology?"
Langdon grinned. "Big-time. What would you say if I told you the city of Washington, D.C., has more astrological signs in its architecture than any other city in the world--zodiacs, star charts, cornerstones laid at precise astrological dates and times? More than half of the framers of our Constitution were Masons, men who strongly believed that the stars and fate were intertwined, men who paid close attention to the layout of the heavens as they structured their new world."
"But that whole thing about the Capitol cornerstone being laid while Caput Draconis was in Virgo--who cares? Can't that just be coincidence?"
"An impressive coincidence considering that the cornerstones of the three structures that make up Federal Triangle--the Capitol, the White House, the Washington Monument--were all laid in different years but were carefully timed to occur under this exact same astrological condition."
Langdon's gaze was met by a room full of wide eyes. A number of heads dipped down as students began taking notes.
A hand in back went up. "Why did they do that?"
Langdon chuckled. "The answer to that is an entire semester's worth of material. If you're curious, you should take my mysticism course. Frankly, I don't think you guys are emotionally prepared to hear the answer."
"What?" the person shouted. "Try us!"
Langdon made a show of considering it and then shook his head, toying with them. "Sorry, I can't do that. Some of you are only freshmen. I'm afraid it might blow your minds."
"Tell us!" everyone shouted.
Langdon shrugged. "Perhaps you should join the Masons or Eastern Star and learn about it from the source."
"We can't get in," a young man argued. "The Masons are like a supersecret society!"
"Supersecret? Really?" Langdon remembered the large Masonic ring that his friend Peter Solomon wore proudly on his right hand. "Then why do Masons wear obvious Masonic rings, tie clips, or pins? Why are Masonic buildings clearly marked? Why are their meeting times in the newspaper?" Langdon smiled at all the puzzled faces. "My friends, the Masons are not a secret society . . . they are a society with secrets."
"Same thing," someone muttered.
"Is it?" Langdon challenged. "Would you consider Coca-Cola a secret society?"
"Of course not," the student said.
"Well, what if you knocked on the door of corporate headquarters and asked for the recipe for Classic Coke?"
"They'd never tell you."
"Exactly. In order to learn Coca-Cola's deepest secret, you would need to join the company, work for many years, prove you were trustworthy, and eventually rise to the upper echelons of the company, where that information might be shared with you. Then you would be sworn to secrecy." "So you're saying Freemasonry is like a corporation?" "Only insofar as they have a strict hierarchy and they take secrecy very seriously."
"My uncle is a Mason," a young woman piped up. "And my aunt hates it because he won't talk about it with her. She says Masonry is some kind of strange religion."
"A common misperception."
"It's not a religion?"
"Give it the litmus test," Langdon said. "Who here has taken Professor Witherspoon's comparative religion course?"
Several hands went up.
"Good. So tell me, what are the three prerequisites for an ideology to be considered a religion?"
"ABC," one woman offered. "Assure, Believe, Convert."
"Correct," Langdon said. "Religions assure salvation; religions believe in a precise theology; and religions convert nonbelievers." He paused. "Masonry, however, is batting zero for three. Masons make no promises of salvation; they have no specific theology; and they do not seek to convert you. In fact, within Masonic lodges, discussions of religion are prohibited."
"So . . . Masonry is anti religious?"
"On the contrary. One of the prerequisites for becoming a Mason is that you must believe in a higher power. The difference between Masonic spirituality and organized religion is that the Masons do not impose a specific definition or name on a higher power. Rather than definitive theological identities like God, Allah, Buddha, or Jesus, the Masons use more general terms like Supreme Being or Great Architect of the Universe. This enables Masons of different faiths to gather together."
"Sounds a little far-out," someone said.
"Or, perhaps, refreshingly open-minded?" Langdon offered. "In this age when different cultures are killing each other over whose definition of God is better, one could say the Masonic tradition of tolerance and open-mindedness is commendable." Langdon paced the stage. "Moreover, Masonry is open to men of all races, colors, and creeds, and provides a spiritual fraternity that does not discriminate in any way."
"Doesn't discriminate?" A member of the university's Women's Center stood up. "How many women are permitted to be Masons, Professor Langdon?"
Langdon showed his palms in surrender. "A fair point. Freemasonry had its roots, traditionally, in the stone masons' guilds of Europe and was therefore a man's organization. Several hundred years ago, some say as early as 1703, a women's branch called Eastern Star was founded. They have more than a million members."
"Nonetheless," the woman said, "Masonry is a powerful organization from which women are excluded."
Langdon was not sure how powerful the Masons really were anymore, and he was not going to go down that road; perceptions of the modern Masons ranged from their being a group of harmless old men who liked to play dress-up . . . all the way to an underground cabal of power brokers who ran the world. The truth, no doubt, was somewhere in the middle.
"Professor Langdon," called a young man with curly hair in the back row, "if Masonry is not a secret society, not a corporation, and not a religion, then what is it?"
"Well, if you were to ask a Mason, he would offer the following definition: Masonry is a system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols."
"Sounds to me like a euphemism for `freaky cult.' "
"Freaky, you say?"
"Hell yes!" the kid said, standing up. "I heard what they do inside those secret buildings! Weird candlelight rituals with coffins, and nooses, and drinking wine out of skulls. Now that's freaky!"
Langdon scanned the class. "Does that sound freaky to anyone else?"
"Yes!" they all chimed in.
Langdon feigned a sad sigh. "Too bad. If that's too freaky for you, then I know you'll never want to join my cult."
Silence settled over the room. The student from the Women's Center looked uneasy. "You're in a cult?"
Langdon nodded and lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "Don't tell anyone, but on the pagan day of the sun god Ra, I kneel at the foot of an ancient instrument of torture and consume ritualistic symbols of blood and flesh."
The class looked horrified.
Langdon shrugged. "And if any of you care to join me, come to the Harvard chapel on Sunday, kneel beneath the crucifix, and take Holy Communion."
The classroom remained silent. Langdon winked. "Open your minds, my friends. We all fear what we do not understand."