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Esoteric History
by Carlo Trabia

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Star of David in the Church of San Cataldo, Palermo."Secret" knightly orders, carbonari, freemasons, religious confraternities, mystical secret societies. Hidden headquarters. Esoteric symbols. Arcane initiation rites. All part of Sicilian society into the nineteenth century? Maybe the time has arrived to clear the air on some of these matters, which are beginning to be "revealed" in privately-published (but widely distributed) books on Sicilian "history."

Pseudo-history may be a better description. Sicily has had more than its share of secret societies, the Mafia and the Beati Paoli among them. But looking further into the past, the Sicilian commanderies of the Templars (the closest thing ever to a "secretive" order of knighthood) were confiscated by Frederick II in the thirteenth century, partly due to that order's poor treatment of the Sicilian sovereign --who was also King of Jerusalem-- during his bloodless "crusade" to the Holy Land. Much later, the colorful charlatan Cagliostro made a career of the Esoteric, achieving greatest success far from his native Sicily --where, one presumes, his fellow citizens might have recognised him for the fraud he was. Here in Sicily, the Freemasons, led in times past by Count Federico, were recognised publicly only with the initiation of Giuseppe Garibaldi in Palermo in 1860. Like the pseudo-masonic Carbonari of the nineteenth century, the Freemasons were officially banned in Sicily until the 1860s, though a few small local lodges existed, necessarily in secret.

Truth be told, the Freemasons and local Catholic fraternities were rarely any more secretive than the Catholic Church's Holy Inquisition, which in Sicily was a particularly unpleasant social force. It should also be recognised that an event's being "private" does not necessarily make it "secret." Much of the recent public interest in such matters has resulted from The Da Vinci Code, a work of bestselling fiction set in France and the United Kingdom. As none of the pseudo-historical ideas advanced by its author are at all new, many having been presented elsewhere long ago in books such as Holy Blood-Holy Grail, it is amazing that a curious (if poorly informed) readership has embraced so much fiction as if it were fact.

Few of these ideas are, strictly speaking, "New Age," though a few certainly embrace principles which have come to be associated with the New Age movement. We now see the publication in Italy of imaginative books alleging, while presenting no supporting documentary evidence whatsoever, that certain Sicilian churches once hosted arcane "knightly" initiation rituals. Citing as proof the presence, in several of Sicily's Norman-Arab churches, of geometric astrological, Muslim or Judaic symbols reflecting the island's multicultural past, certain authors have asserted (though hardly demonstrated) that "secret" rites once took place here. Some authors have even suggested that certain Catholic knightly orders (the Order of Malta prominent among these) are arcane bastions of esoteric "mysticism." It has all the trappings of a paranoid conspiracy theory. In fact, knightly investitures are celebrated during the day or early evening in churches open to the public.

In scientific and historical circles, the burden of proof to establish "fact" falls to the scientist or would-be historian who must demonstrate, beyond reasonable doubt, that a certain event did indeed take place. The inventive authors of works claiming the past existence of events such as secret initiation rituals in Sicilian churches simply have not presented anything more than highly speculative, circumstantial evidence to make their case. Most of their books and articles lack anything resembling a reliable, historically-authenticated account of such events. Historians debate the details of many events of the past, but anybody who proposes the clear revision of history, or speculation involving minute particulars, should support such ideas with realistic evidence. That evidence must be based on specific records (chronicles, literature, art, architecture) in their proper social context (language, customs, lifestyles, natural events). Anything less is a disservice to those interested in history's true legacy.

The rebuttal to this reasoning, naturally, is that a secret society would not leave a paper trail of its existence, and that's why symbols are so important. There is some logic in this, but certain symbols, even the fleur de lis and the heraldic lion of England, have varying meanings, depending on their historical (and geographical) context. In medieval Sicilian art and architecture, the "Star of David," for example, has various meanings, ranging from its Judaic symbolism (as the Magen David) to its use as a geometric motif by Muslims and Christians, but it does not represent anything more unusual than that. History, of course, is eclectic, and perspectives are individual. To a woman forbidden entry into a mosque, Islam might seem "secretive."

Sicilian history already boasts a number of "arcane" social movements. It doesn't seem necessary to create new ones. The Sicilian historical phenomenon most often romanticised is the Mafia. This form of organised crime, partly a product of many Sicilians' suspicious attitudes towards authority --and each other-- has existed in its present form only since the late 1700s or early 1800s, but some authors claim a medieval origin for it.

Despite occasional claims to older roots, Freemasonry began in the early 1700s, and has been present in Sicily only since the 1840s. The Catholic proscription officially resulted from what were viewed as quasi-theological characteristics such as Masonry's non-sectarian definition of God, but in effect the Vatican's position cast suspicion upon any organisation which might challenge the established social order. Freemasonry, like the Catholic Church itself, has changed since the eighteenth century. Until the twentieth century, however, the Papacy rarely voiced open support of anything "new," such as newly-founded democratic republics (i.e. France and the United States) or populist movements (universal voting rights, representative government). It's not surprising that Freemasonry would be discouraged. Conversely, the Church was often adamant, if not reactionary, in its support of clearly repressive monarchies, rarely standing at the vanguard of social progress in matters such as ecumenism or women's rights. Few would argue that the Catholic Church and the Freemasons of today bear little resemblance to their predecessors of the nineteenth century.

In Sicily, the successful invasion by Piedmontese forces in 1860 had more to do with external factors (such as the refusal of British naval officers to stop Garibaldi's landings) than with any "secret" group in Sicily, Masonic or otherwise. Likewise the War of the Vespers in 1282, planned with the help of exiled Norman and Swabian nobles friendly with the King of Aragon. The Mafiosi who collaborated with American forces before and after the Allied invasion of 1943 were of very little help during the actual military campaign. Yet these events and others are often the object of "fantasy history."

The Beati Paoli probably existed as a reaction against the Inquisition, but very little is known of the brotherhood, whose purported exploits were popularised by just a few authors, usually as fiction, long after that fraternity had ceased to exist.

Catholic and dynastic orders of chivalry (both real and imagined) have members in Sicily, as do religious fraternities. Opus Dei and similar Catholic lay organisations may have a few eccentric members given to unusual practices, but that is not the primary scope of such associations. In Sicily, Opus Dei has a prominent academic --though not intellectually exceptional-- component represented by professors in some of the island's undistinguished universities. Dogmatic and secretive they may well be, but they pose a threat to nobody other than a few students, who may find themselves penalised for expressing overly "secular" or "non-Catholic" views in (for example) a political science course. Unfair. Unpleasant. Perhaps even mediocre. But hardly diabolical.

Italy's short-lived, revolving-door governments manage to exhaust themselves without outside help from special-interest organisations, even when the quasi-masonic P-2 Lodge is the alleged culprit. The last political coup in Italy came with Mussolini and his Fascists in 1922, and even then it was sanctioned by the royal authority and parliament of the day. The Neo-Fascists of today are not very secretive; they actually seek members and promote public events, including an annual Catholic mass in Palermo.

The arcane mysticism of history will continue to fuel the imagination, finding its way into contemporary literature. It's not surprising to see the spirit of the medieval Knights Templar in the Jedi Knights of Star Wars fame, but it would be silly to attribute secret knowledge to men who lived in the Middle Ages unless there were tangible proof of it.

In the minds of fantasists, an ordinary artistic motif becomes a secret "Esoteric" symbol. A stone inscription becomes a "secret code." Orders of chivalry and Catholic fraternities become sinister "secret societies." There's something Freudian --and perhaps even curious-- in all this bizarre analysis, but real history remains interesting enough without embellishment. It has been so for thousands of years.

About the Author: Architect Carlo Trabia has written for this publication and others.

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© 2005 Carlo Trabia