There are numerous reasons why one might hesitate to write about this book, so I’ll start off by firstly stating that the views of the author do not reflect the views of the site, nor myself. That said, I don’t shy away from the controversial, so onward we march.
The Secret of the Zodiac was published in 1930 by Julian Sterne AKA Nesta Webster and is about a secret society known as The Zodiac, a group of individuals who run industry, media and politics with their reach extending across the globe. The main hero of the novel is openly fascist – herein lies one of the major reasons for the opening disclosure! However, the plot itself is quite intriguing, purporting to be based off true facts and information, and the storytelling, the writing itself was quite well done. You quickly forget that the lead protagonist is a fascist, which is how propaganda through storytelling works, so there’s a layer of irony there with what the author is so quick to point at in the work of others. How did I end up reading this? I happened to come across the book when I was looking for fiction in a used bookstore, and grabbed the book for its cover alone and what I assumed was a tie into astrology, being a fan of occult-related literature. I got something quite different than expected, though not disappointingly, as there’s lots to chew on which we’ll look at below.
While I’ve not written about a lot of fiction thus far on the site, when I have, it was due to the books strong emphasis on a subject of particular fascination of mine, of course being both a pun and truth, that subject is hypnotism, such as prominently being a part of Dion Fortune’s novel The Secrets of Doctor Taverner. The Secrets of the Zodiac follows this trend looking at hypnosis and control in media (entertainment and news), politics, and by forceful induction by individuals or by group indoctrination with secret society cults. The aspects of these hidden societies especially had me caught up as it detailed quite vividly, and accurately initiation rituals unlike those seen in other novels (especially modern) where they’re quite farcical and obviously made up with more intent on shock value than conveying an experience within a mystery tradition. It’s evident that Sterne/Webster had done her homework as there was even Qabalistic aspects of the rituals, and the telling of these is almost worthy of the admission alone. From the perspective of a student of the literature and movements within Eastern and Western Esotericism, this very biased look at the Western Esoteric tradition was rather amusing yet was indeed thought provoking.
Coincidentally, the lead protagonist in SoTZ is named Terence Kavanagh, a surname of Irish origin, but I bring it up not for that, but rather that the word is very close to kavanah which literally means “intention” or “sincere feeling, direction of the heart”, and to the Kaballists the word pluralized is kavanot and means a focus on the sefirot or aspects of God. Some of these Sefirots appear in SoTZ, like in chapter IX, where the Celebrant of the ritual sprinkled water to the four points of the compass while intoning “Water descending from Binah, pure water… water of contemplation… fire of Geburah… fire of aspiration…” Those being the spheres of Saturn and Mars. Though, I don’t believe the author has much respect for Qabalah (given that it appears they were quite antisemetic) so I’d not assume they had so much as a glimpse of an understanding of what they wrote (especially as the characters experienced the Qabalistic portion of the ritual as an endless meandering), yet she did do her research. In chasing a curiosity I had to see where she was inspired for the details of her rituals (anyone familiar with initiations of Western Occult orders would see very identifiable ordeals being undertaken by these characters), I had found that she received much information from British Freemasons. Her connections must have been quite strange, she even had praise for her writings by figures such as former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Winston Churchill. Despite her alleged sources, the love from modern Freemason’s doesn’t carry over, I even found a page on the Freemasonry Grand Lodge of British Columbia denouncing the book and essentially calling it rubbish.
So why still insist on writing about this publication and bring attention to it? We’ll look at the Order aspects shortly which is worth looking at, but first taking a glance at some of the mentions of hypnosis I found of interest for contemplation despite their source:
- “I think that some of the Zodiac may not be men of vast wealth but of vast intelligence, providing the organising brains behind the movement. And also the mass hypnotism that’s exercised over the minds of the public to-day.”
- “But I do think it possible that there have been and still are people who have in some way mastered the art of projecting thought and floating ideas in a way unknown to the rest of the world. And I’ve also wondered often whether personal magnetism isn’t more used in political life than most people have any conception of.”
- “It almost seems as if they have been able sometimes to injure people. Remember some of the mysterious deaths and illnesses we’ve discussed that have seemed, to say the least of it, too opportune. But of course there may be some natural explanation. Poison, for example. Anyhow, whatever powers they may profess, the great thing is not to fear them. For the so-called power of occultism and black magic is really a sort of hypnotism working on minds weakened by fear.”
- “If really they’ve been able to injure people it is those who, as Rosamund says, have established a contact with them by taking an oath and joining some occult group, and who are then afraid of their vengeance. Believe me, Rosamund, there’s no ‘occult power’ in the oath itself, there’s only the fear of what may happen if you break it that can hurt you.”
- “[…]I see now what you mean by his hypnotic powers. He’s mastered the art of swaying audiences just as a clever comedian can set the house in a roar without saying anything funny but merely by a certain tone of voice. Do you call that hypnotism?” “Well, yes, I think I do. How else do you explain it?”
Quote 5 stood out to me when I read it I couldn’t help but think of comedian Joe Rogan who often mentions on his podcast his theory that stand-up is a form of hypnosis (which I definitely agree with him on).
Examining the story itself:
The book is about a man returning to English high society and getting involved in politics, finding his old childhood friend James Brandon (who is on the opposite team politically) as one of the only people he can relate to, and who happens to be a spy and master of disguise. He also is reacquainted with a childhood crush who becomes a loose love-interest/secretary for Kavanagh in Rosamund Dare. Rosamund reveals that she was initiated and brought into an organization with two of her friends while at university, as she found the ideas presented to her by the hypnotizing speaker interesting… that is until she gets brought into a layer of an ‘inner Order’ and witnesses a Black Mass where she sees the Satanic worship in the work, and suffers mentally from seeing her friends be broken and she herself is too afraid to reveal all the details of her experience, though reveals she was branded on the arm during an initiation. The book goes on with the group investigating charismatic individuals who they find linked to a circle of individuals named The Zodiac, which are twelve key members who sign off on their documents with astrological symbols. United in the purpose to expose the crimes, they stay at a resort/clinic run by members of the Order, and do diligent spy work to connect the dots. The Order seems to run politics, occult movements and secret societies, as well as youth communist revolution movements, all of whom are kept separate and ignorant of one another, all being used as pawns of the Order to achieve their goal of conquest, seeing the rest of man as nothing but cattle. The Occultists are brought into the Order by being lured in through mystical seminars and figures talking of transcendent states, and of the Great Work, and the establishment of the Law of Love which will usher in an age of peace and universal brotherhood.
“To take the occult side first. The rank and file consist mainly of harmless individuals with an innocent love of mystery who imagine they’re being initiated into all the secrets of the Universe—usually people who would not be bothered to study deeply on their own and who really imagine that all the wisdom of Greece and Egypt is being instilled in their minds. That there’s any connection between their group and the revolutionary movement probably never enters their heads ; they’re content to be led by their own particular teachers, and to know that behind these teachers are what they call the Hidden Chiefs, or, in full, the Hidden and Secret Chiefs of the Inner Order.” – Secret of the Zodiac
As someone who has studied and appreciated the work of Aleister Crowley, I was rather amused by the correlations one can make to his system — the fiction not obviously written about him or his work — however the word choices and concepts such as the Secret Chiefs rather amused me. The Secret Chiefs concept gained popularity from Christian mystic Karl von Eckartshausen’s 1793 book The Cloud upon the Sanctuary (Die Wolke über dem Heiligtum), and reemerged in occultism in the writings of HP Blavatsky, and Aleister Crowley. Crowley remarked in Magick Without Tears that the Secret Chiefs “insinuate [themselves] into any desired set of circumstances. These powers allow the Secret Chiefs to induce a girl to embroider a tapestry, or initiate a political movement to culminate in a world-war; all in pursuit of some plan wholly beyond the purview or the comprehension of the deepest and subtlest thinkers.”
Anyways, the story goes on, they investigate the Order and risk life and limb on several occasions. It’s a thrilling novel that would make for a good movie, minus of course the offensive loathing nature of it, but it could probably be reworked and retold for modern audiences. As I don’t care about spoiling it for you, they end up killing some members after infiltrating a Satanic ritual and free a woman, they collect what evidence of their investigations they’re able to and they bring it about to the media expecting that their revelations will expose these corrupt individuals networked and in various positions of control and influence, but they find that all the newspapers won’t run the story as they’re in someone’s pocket. Only one small publication releases a short article that doesn’t quite doesn’t express the full gravitas of the situation or the findings, and the news finds itself in a few people’s mouths for a few days in a coffee shop, and then they move on distracted by the rest of the happenings in the world and in entertainment. The group had experienced, suffered and endured all they had for nothing. At the closing of the book the main characters open the door and see the once Prime Minister who wouldn’t believe their plight now standing before them as a milkman, and finally more time goes on to where the Order finally collapses due to its overreaching and brash moves. They are lynched and killed by rioters, they are sent to ruin. Then humanity, free from the Order are left to salvage what they can and rebuild themselves. (We don’t get to see any of the rebuilding in the story, but are left to ponder if they can restore the disaster they inherit).
“The Revolution, like Saturn, was eating its own children. The thousands of writers, speakers, artists, propagandists, who had spent their energies in undermining the structure of civilisation, found themselves being gradually buried underneath its ruins. This was no return to Nature, no clean sweep such as they had pictured, but a squalid mess amidst which they wandered trying to pick the means of existence from beneath the wreckage. Powerful to destroy they had no conception how to set about the work of reconstruction, They had killed society and could not live upon its corpse.
Even the Zodiac had overreached itself. Events had moved too quickly for its reckonings. Accustomed to know beforehand what was going to happen and therefore how to turn everything to profit, the Twelve now found themselves unable to keep pace with the changes taking place simultaneously at all points of the globe. They had wanted revolutions, but ordered revolutions exploding like time fuses at the appointed moment. They had wanted wars, but wars carried out on fixed lines, of which they could calculate the outcome, not sporadic wars breaking out here and there like heath fires in all directions at once.”
“The world they left behind them was in chaos ; civilisation had been set back a hundred years. But the power of the Zodiac was ended. Humanity was free to work out its own salvation.”
If you wish to read the full story, you can purchase the book on Amazon or pick it up elsewhere, though why do that when you can read without spending a penny as it’s freely available online archived as a PDF. here on Archive.org.