A secret Masonic cult of wealthy bankers called the Illuminati has been plotting for centuries to take over the world. And they're keeping their eye on you from the back of the dollar bill.
If any tale deserves the term "conspiracy theory," it's this one. It's become such a popular part of America's underground lore -- passed along in intensely delivered monologue from self-published author to late-night bus passenger to coffeehouse slacker to Internet blogger -- that a new Nicolas Cage movie, National Treasure, plays on the conspiracy theory and its elaborately embroidered sub-plots: hidden fortunes, Knights Templar, Benjamin Franklin.
And always overlooking this modern mythos of hidden elites controlling ordinary people's destiny is that spooky window on the soul that stares out from the nether side of the Great Seal of the United States of America.
Feeling watched ...
But the Seal is by no means the only place the "All-Seeing Eye" appears. A radiant eye, often in a triangle, was drawn in many a Renaissance book of occult alchemical symbols. In 1784, a few years after Ben Franklin helped design the Great Seal, the Marquis de Lafayette presented George Washington with a Masonic stonecutter's apron embroidered with dozens of mystical glyphs -- including, most prominently, the All-Seeing Eye.
courtesy of Phoenix Masonry Museum
Yes, Franklin, Washington and Lafayette were all devout Masons -- Washington, in fact, refused to set foot in a church all his life, even when he married -- as have been a great many of America's presidents and military and business leaders.
As recently as 2002, the Eye showed up in the logo of the Information Awareness Office -- acronym IAO, which just happens to be the Gnostic name for the Supreme Being -- that was proposed by John Poindexter of Iran-Contragate notoriety. This mega-spying project was going to fight terrorism by using computers to track and instantly analyze Americans' e-mail and phone communications. It was pulled (from public view, anyway) when controversy flared up around it. (Xpress' query about the significance of IAO was one of the many questions about the project the government never answered.)
When you pile all that circumstantial evidence so insinuatingly together, it's no wonder that a slew of Fundamentalist Christian Web sites equate the symbol with the devil. The author of www.exposingsatanism.org, for instance, purports that the "All-Seeing Eye" is "believed to be the eye of Lucifer and those who claim control of it have control of world finances."
Whose eye is it -- really?
The ironic truth is that the eye above the pyramid is the only symbol of God in the resolutely non-Christian national iconography adopted by America's church-skeptical founders. The records of the several committees that worked on the Great Seal's design during the Revolutionary War show that it was non-Masonic artist Pierre Du Simitiere's idea -- not Franklin's -- to include the "eye of providence," contained in a triangle. (The triangle is a symbol of divinity in many religions -- think Father/Son/Holy Ghost, Brahma/Vishnu/Shiva, Maiden/Mother/Crone.)
In 1782, the final designers of the Seal, Secretary of Congress Charles Thomson and consulting artist William Barton -- neither one a Mason -- gave Congress the one and only authentic interpretation of the symbolism of the Seal's reverse:
"The pyramid signifies Strength and Duration: The Eye over it & the Motto [Annuit Coeptis, "Providence has favored our undertakings"] allude to the many signal interpositions of providence in favor of the American cause."
So ... far from an international conspiracy of bankers, the Eye in the Pyramid actually symbolizes the lucky breaks the Revolutionaries felt they got during the war, on top of the fortitude and endurance of the 13 colonies. (The pyramid has 13 courses of stones.)
In these days of instant media exposure, it doesn't take much delving into the actual patterns of global financial power to discover that the rumors of Freemasonry's influence are wildly overblown -- a folk memory, it appears, of the days when an ambitious man really did have to join the Masons if he wanted to advance his business or political career.
President Kennedy, a member of the Catholic Church -- the Masons' historical archenemy -- put an end to that particular old-boy elitism, according to Phoenix Masonry Museum curator David Lettelier.
But the profound influence on American history of this "moral science that you study to improve yourself" (as Lettelier describes the core of Freemasonry) is far more complex and interesting than anything you're likely to hear on the midnight talk shows.
No, the Great Seal doesn't derive from the Masons -- but many other familiar American icons do.
Early American Masons disseminated the five-pointed star, for example, that we now take for granted on the American flag. Washington's influential Masonic apron shows this symbol, which Masons call the Eastern or Blazing Star and use to represent fellowship. Yes, this ancient glyph is the same pentagram modern Wiccans use to signify blessing and protection. But no, it has nothing to do with "devil worship" -- that sensationalist Hollywood fiction, like many others, originated with the 19th-century pop occultist Eliphas Levi.
As for the radiant All-Seeing Eye -- it's not the logo of the Illuminati, a perennially popular but mostly fictional conspiratorial elite. Masons do use the mystical symbol, but with a meaning more subtle than that providential eye that was looking out for the Colonists' best interest. It signifies Deity as the omnipresent eye of conscience, whose sight penetrates even to those thoughts, words and deeds we try to hide from human eyes.
Our own conscience staring back at us -- not even Hollywood could dream up a symbol so potentially scary.
For more information on Masonry, see www.phoenixmasonry.org.