Saturday 04 October 1997
The Book: The Elixir and the Stone (Viking, pounds 16.99). After their smash debut (The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail) and a clutch of follow-ups, B & L "uncover" another secret strand running from Plato to NATO. This time it's Hermetic sorcery, "the tradition of magic and alchemy" that fuels our culture from Alexandria to Altamont. So they say.
The Deal: The early Nineties saw an occult-history boom ignited by B & L themselves, with extra sparks from Graham (Fingerprints of the Gods) Hancock. Blanket coverage from the mid-market tabloids persuaded publishers that they need only stick a runic symbol on the cover of some fanciful Theory of Everything and they'd soon be laughing all the way to the pyramid. Vast sales of late for the deeply loopy Bible Code show why the book trade loves to bankroll this hogwash.
The Goods: The weirdest thing about B & L is that they have gone (relatively) straight. The pair try to trace an underground stream of Hermetic magic from ancient Memphis (the cult of Thoth) to modern Memphis (the cult of Elvis). But, cannily, they don't need to sign up with the gold-brewing and spirit-conjuring brigade; only to argue that nearly everyone from Dante to Hendrix did. Their promising "Faust" theme - of science as the "ungrateful child" of magic - crumbles into mere random jottings on Hermetic survivals.
The Verdict: You can trust in Baigent and Leigh's sanity, but not in their - slapdash and scatter-gun - scholarship. Paradoxically, their lack of glinty-eyed mania makes this book less fun than works from the outright fruitcakes who really think spacemen built the Sphinx or the Templars offed Kennedy.
The Alternative: Secret histories
1 Frances Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition: B & L's best sections draw on her great studies of Renaissance magic.
2 Frank McLynn, Jung: Searching, balanced life of the sage who set the New Age agenda.
3 Greil Marcus Mystery Train or Lipstick Traces: Offbeat but entrancing bids to write the esoteric history of pop and rock music.
4 Umberto Eco, Foucault's Pendulum: His sparkling satire-thriller has the last, hilarious word on fringe cults and conspiracy-hunters.
Life & Style blogs
Planes go hybrid-electric in important step to greener flight
Victoria Beckham's clothing sales double to £30 million in one year
GTA 5: Christmas arrives in Los Santos as update brings snowball fights, festive jumpers and a homing missile launcher
'Tis the season!: Google celebrates Christmas Eve with second animated Doodle
Christmas 2014: Jesus was not born in a stable, says theologian
Nigel Farage defends Kerry Smith 'ch***y' comment: 'If you are going for a Chinese, what do you say you’re going for?'
British actor Idris Elba cannot star as James Bond because he is black, says shock jock Rush Limbaugh
Rozanne Duncan: Ukip expels councillor for 'jaw-dropping' comments made in BBC TV interview
Germany anti-Islam protests: 17,000 march on Dresden against 'Islamification of the West'
Ukip member gets into Christmas spirit with Union Flag plea to Santa 'for our country back'
Panic Saturday: 13 million Britons spend £1.2bn – while 13 million others across the country live in poverty unable to afford food
- 1 Planes go hybrid-electric in important step to greener flight
- 2 Antonio Martin shooting: Police and protesters clash over teenager's death just five miles from Ferguson, Missouri
- 3 Northern Lights above Britain: Stunning Aurora Borealis illuminates Northumberland sky on Christmas Eve
- 4 British actor Idris Elba cannot star as James Bond because he is black, says shock jock Rush Limbaugh
- 5 New route to Mars could make manned mission much cheaper and easier
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