The Mason's arms

the material world : However fanciful the myths, there is little doubt that the Masonic Order, to which high-ranking politicians on both sides of the Atlantic belonged, supported the American revolution
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Money talks. But much of what is said by the American dollar bill - the world's most potent symbol of materialism - is gobbledegook.

A fifth of all banknotes in circulation are American, so it is not surprising that the dollar's two devices reproduced from the Great Seal of the United States - that Egyptian pyramid with the top cut off and the All-Seeing Eye emitting a "glory" of light - have inspired modern myths about their origins.

Example: George Washington, who became first president of the United States in 1789, was a member of the Masonic Order. The All-Seeing Eye is an emblem in the degree of Master Mason; the Sage of the Pyramids is the name associated with Royal Master, the eighth degree of American Freemasonry. Of the 56 American rebels who, in 1776, signed the Declaration of Independence and ordered a seal to be designed, 50 were members of the Masonic Order.

Seal of approval

However fanciful the myths, there is little doubt that the Masonic Order, to which high-ranking politicians on both sides of the Atlantic belonged, supported the American revolution. Benjamin Franklin, one of the three members of the committee appointed to design the Seal, was Grand Master of Masonic lodges in both America and France. In the 1770s he used his Masonic contacts in Paris to raise funds to buy arms for the American rebels. He and fellow Mason Sir Francis Dashwood, British Chancellor of the Exchequer and founder of the Hellfire Club, worked unsuccessfully to reconcile the British and American governments. The scandal provoked by the club ruined their cause.

Besides Franklin, the committee comprised John Adams, the future second president of the United States, and Thomas Jefferson. Adams has been cited as leader of an English society of neo-pagans called the Dragons; Jefferson was at one time, allegedly, Grand Master of the Rosicrucians.

Shaking hands with the President

The trio's proposed design for the Seal seems to have stuck in the gullet of Congress, which repeatedly rejected it. Even after its approval, for reasons that are obscure, only the face of the Seal, with its eagle, and not the back, with its pyramid and eye, were cut in brass. The first appearance of the pyramid and eye before the American people was not until new banknotes commissioned by President Roosevelt were printed in 1935. Roosevelt, too, so the mythology goes, belonged to a secret society based on the Illuminati, which had the All-Seeing Eye as its symbol.

It's all completely innocent, honest

The official print-out explaining the iconography of the Great Seal contains no mention of Masons or the occult but has a quaintness all its own. The pyramid was chosen because it was "the best-known and the largest building in the world. It represented strength and durability". The "Eye of God" is "an ancient symbol of divine Providence". The motto "E pluribus unum" was taken from the masthead of the Gentleman's Magazine.

Within a few weeks, the US Treasury will announce the most radical redesign of banknotes in its history. Intended to thwart counterfeiters, the new, "smart" bills are expected to have their president's portrait printed off-centre to make space for a watermark, micro-printing that produces tell-tale optical patterns if photocopied, and metallic "planchettes" that change colour when viewed from different angles.

But because no US paper currency has ever been declared non-legal tender, and it is hoarded worldwide as a result, the new design will deviate as little as possible from the old. So it looks as though that funny pyramid and eye are there to stay