Jonathan Black’s The Secret History of the World is a hard book to recommend.
On the one hand, it is an overwhelming undertaking; namely an attempt to reveal the secret ideas of cults and mystery societies since the dawning of mankind. On the other hand, it is an undertaking that seems to be abandoned by the author throughout the book.
Here is not a scholarly research, but more of a mixture of history and speculative literature, with Black often playing on the Secret part to allow a lack of eruditeness. You won’t find exact references and citations in Black’s book, but many stories, anecdotes and tidbits which at times create a cohesive account of a secret history, yet more often remain fragmented.
It is nevertheless full of interesting ideas and references to noted historical figures, who Black attests by were all knowers of the secret history. Black, the eponym for Mark Booth, asks the reader from the first pages of TSHOTW to allow this indiscretion since the narrative conceived by the secret societies is “upside down and inside out”; meaning, they adhere to an almost reverse view of the world from the modern, physical science’s conception.
The Secret History of the World
The secret history of the world, according to Black, goes something like this:
The world was created out of thought (and not from matter as is conceived in today’s physical sciences). This thought predated and in fact created matter. Matter first appeared as a thin gas, impossible to sense even by sight or touch. Then, this gas began to slowly condense and solidify until it hardened enough in order to generate the minerals around us. From these minerals gradually emanated a second, vegetative phase, with the growing of plants. From this, emerged the third and final animal phase, from which humans have arisen. According to the secret history, mankind is the summit point of all evolution, being the only creature capable of being consciously aware of this creation.
Black calls this history an “idealistic” one for its formation of physical things out of ideas – matter out of mind. This mind is what that initial gas was, and it appeared in an already perfect form, reminiscent of Plato’s sense of ideals. Black indeed sees Plato as a member of secret societies and thus a proponent of the secret history.
In the times of the ancient Egyptians and Greeks, idealism was still a “living Philosophy (TSHOTW, p. 124). When Plato speaks of Ideals he is referring to them very much as an existing realm. The allegory of the cave is in fact about how thought creates material. Additionally, most of the ancient hybrids depicted in classical literature, such as the creatures that are a mixture of man, animal and God – the likes found in Ovid, the Greek pantheon, the Egyptian one and so forth – are all depictions of the living world while we could share imaginatively the same mind with the animals and the rest of creation. These creatures are envisioned anachronistically by us today as if they are half-breeds, while back when these stories were lived and perceived these creatures were thought of as actual.
This history is also not completely linear and is in actuality moving in an ebb and flow pattern. According to Black, humanity is currently moving on a returning path, back into the initial gas form. The axis of this boomerang evolution was the appearance of Jesus Christ. As Black states throughout TSHOTW, the appearance of many renowned figures on the stage of history indicates consecutive spiritual phases in the development of mankind.
If you can’t criticize a book – what’s the point of reading it?
I do not wish to criticize Black’s book for its obvious incommensurability with today’s materialistic beliefs of the world, as some critics have already done. His request to depict a “topsy turvy” image for the origins of the world, in his words, is enough to make such criticisms futile. What I do regret is the book’s lack of ordered conclusiveness, showing in Black’s unsystematic approach. The Secret History offers many interesting and at times magically inspiring notions, yet does not pursue any of the to the fullest.
Although TSHOTW wishes to unravel the fact that many renowned historical figures were avid members of mystery groups, it does little to show how this affected their craft or their lives. The brevity of description awarded to most of these figures reads often like tabloid material or an old fashioned almanac. The idea that the secret history has been around us in literature, art and music for so long, and that hints have been planted by initiates as a way of communicating secretly with other acolytes is definitely intriguing. Sadly, black only allows glimpses of this idea throughout the book, as if he himself was writing a secret, hint-laden manuscript.
Another point of critique is that the attempt at a historic account of secret thinking is almost entirely westernized. Black focuses mostly on the esoteric ideas promulgated and followed by westerners. He fails to deal with the influences of eastern belief, science and philosophy on early western thought. He does note the Chakras throughout the book, although as an already fully formed idea that is intertwined with western arcane concepts. While this omission might be done for the sake of adding mystery, I believe that Black simply knows more about western cults to dare plunge into the ocean of ancient eastern wisdom. A choice that, for me at least, nullifies much of the “historic” intention that is behind TSHOTW.
Secret Initiation Stories
Black claims that many great minds throughout history have been initiated into secret knowledge. This means that they were also probably taught in ways of reaching higher, more ancient connections with said knowledge. The fact that this knowledge was so well disseminated on the one hand yet was still kept under wraps is not easy to accept. Black hints at the ways of secret societies in keeping this history private, in their constant alluding to it in allegorical art. He recounts some the characteristics of the practices undertaken by mystery cults throughout history.
Secret practices make us realize the true possibility of stepping out of the body. They involves an initiation, which usually practices being taken to a secret location, mostly underground; being asked inquisitive questions about our life and past, and being scared for our life to the point of realization that we wish to transform who we are and give for the greater good. “By the act of leaving the body the candidate knew beyond any possibility that death is not the end.” (p. 186). There is an out of body experience “that is shattering (p. 190), the spirit experiences “a lightness which nobody who has not been initiated could describe or understand”. A being guides the initiate through the underworld, who is the god of the planet mercury, and then there is a strange swap, in which this guide reveals himself to be Lucifer, who is a “necessary evil”. Secret initiation prepares the candidate for a meetings with the guardians after death – who are the stars of the different spheres “both on the way up and on the way down”.
So, for the sake of making the most out of Black’s 500+ page book, I would like to assume that he is right in at least the detailing of the secret initiation rites. It could be interesting to pursue the secret initiation in the plotlines of several famous stories. These are some of the symbols and narratives which characterize, according to Black, the process of being initiated into a mystery school:
- Being underground – a place where on receives secret knowledge
- Being scared to death – a part of the process of forgetting past identity and accepting a renewed, spiritual life
- An out of body experience
- Traveling through the stars, both upwards and downwards
- Conversing with the devil
- Spiritual transformation and enlightenment
- Oath or understanding of mandatory secrecy
So, much in the spirit of presumption embedded in The Secret History of the World, but with a nudge towards a more researched approach, let’s look at some of the classic stories available for us in our western society and see whether they meet these criteria. These narratives take the form of children stories, folk tales, myths and legends, known to us from the bible to Disney movies. Some of these stories will not contain all of the parameters on the list for an initiation story. They might nevertheless be about a form of secret initiation, or inspired, as stories often are, by a predecessor tale which was indeed about rites of accepting secret knowledge.
Secret Initiation Symbols and Acts in famous Stories
|Initiation Story Criterion /Story||Being Underground||Scared to Death||Near Death/Out of Body Experience||Traveling through the Stars||Meeting the Devil||Spiritual Transformation||Oath of Secrecy|
|The Golem of Prague||–||–||+||–||–||–||+|
|The Binding of Isaac||–||+||+||–||–||+||–|
|The Little Mermaid||+||–||+||–||+||–||–|
|The Lion King||–||+||–||–||–||+||–|
|Jonah and the Whale||+||+||+||–||–||+||–|