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.
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Street preacher quoting from the Bible fined for calling homosexuality an 'abomination'
Woman filmed launching racist tirade against men on the Tube for speaking in 'own lingo'
The West has it totally wrong on Lee Kuan Yew
David Cameron calls Labour 'hopeless, sneering socialists' while announcing 7-day NHS plans
Revealed: Putin's army of pro-Kremlin bloggers
- 1 Tidal launch: The most pretentious lines from Alicia Keys' valedictory speech
- 2 Trevor Noah: Jon Stewart's replacement faces online criticism over 'anti-Semitic' tweets
- 3 Martha Stewart accuses Snoop Dogg of 'smoking for four hours' during Justin Bieber Roast
- 4 Gamers confess the worst things they've done in The Sims
- 5 Syrian child photographed 'surrendering to camera because she thought it was a gun'
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