Graham Hancock and Robert Bauval. The Master Game: Unmasking the Secret Rulers of the World. The Disinformation Company, 2011. Review by Clive Prince

Ever since Graham Hancock and Robert Bauval emerged as the stars of the pre-Millennium ‘alternative history’ boom – which they largely created through seminal books such as The Sign and the Seal and The Orion Mystery – their work has had a subtext. Although the main thrust of their solo and joint books is the challenging of conventional ideas about the origins of civilisation and championing the case for an advanced global culture in the ancient past, they set this against a more eschatological, indeed apocalyptic, background. 1996’s Keeper of Genesis, for example, didn’t just argue that the pyramids and Great Sphinx of Giza are far older than conventional Egyptological wisdom admits, but also proposed that those monuments contain and encode secrets that are somehow vital to our own time, even hinting that it is all part of a greater cosmic drama.

But with The Master Game, they appear to have stepped well and truly out of the closet. The book’s subtitle promises that they will do no less than reveal the identity of the secret rulers of the world, and the accompanying PR release hypes it as ‘the ultimate guide to ancient and contemporary agendas that are fueling a new world order and a coming Armageddon’.

These buzzwords show the audience The Master Game is aimed at. Indeed, it will be interesting to see what the burgeoning conspiracy and ‘truther’ community make of the book. In general they are well disposed to H&B but this new book, while featuring all the usual suspects of conspiracy lore – Templars, Freemasons, and even the Illuminati – portrays them as heroes rather than villains, on the side of the angels (perhaps literally) in a millennia-long underground war between a suppressed ancient wisdom and the forces of repression and inhumanity.

This dense 600-page opus is a sweeping reconstruction of history centring on a 2000-year-old conspiracy, established at the beginning of the Christian era to advance certain spiritual and esoteric beliefs, which is still shaping world events such as the War on Terror, and which is part of a cosmic battle between the forces of light and dark. The beliefs driving the conspiracy derive from the pyramid age of ancient Egypt, linking with H and B’s back catalogue and, through it, all the way back to that lost civilisation of which Egypt was the heir. Heady stuff indeed!

So H and B have finally pinned their colours to the mast… Or have they? In fact, they are rather more circumspect than we’d expect from the blurb, routinely employing phrases such as ‘it is as if this is part of a great cosmic drama’ and ‘it looks very much like there is a secret order guiding these events’, while never quite declaring a firm belief in these things. And yet they obviously do believe, and passionately, otherwise what would be the point of the book?

The Master Game is riddled with a transparent disingenuousness – a kind of doublethink, or perhaps doublespeak - by which H and B seem to think that if they say something, but then say they haven’t said it, or that it doesn’t mean what it appears to mean, then they can maintain an image as objective researchers while still delivering their message to the world.

To take one of a host of examples, towards the end of the book H&B muse that the 9/11 targets may have been chosen for their Masonic symbolism: the major symbol of the 32nd degree of the dominant form of Freemasonry in the USA, the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite, is a pentagon, and the twin towers of the World Trade Center may have been meant to represent the Jachin and Boaz pillars of Masonic lodges (left). The terrorists may therefore, they suggest, have been making a veiled attack on Freemasonry, reflecting the widespread belief in the Muslim world that the Brotherhood is an instrument of America and Israel (or vice versa). Their speculation is debatable to say the least, but they follow this with the declaration, ‘We know, of course, of the many harebrained conspiracy theories that followed the 11 September 2001 attacks, and we don’t want to add more fuel to the fire’. But haven’t they just done exactly that?

This desire to have things both ways produces circuitous statements such as: ‘Our primary objective in this book is to follow the traces of what we suspect may be a “conspiracy”, or something very like one, based on Hermetic and Gnostic ideas and originally formulated about 2,000 years ago.’ Is it a conspiracy (or ‘conspiracy’) or is it merely something that looks like a conspiracy – in which case what is it?

Later they state the book’s primary theme to be ‘the survival of secret traditions that have carried ancient Egyptian religious concepts and symbolism through time and lodged them in the Western heartlands of orthodox Christian power.’ That’s the crux of the matter. The transmission of traditions, ideas and beliefs from age to age is one thing; a secret brotherhood pursuing a specific agenda down the centuries is quite another. Yet they don’t distinguish between the two, and so present the resurgence of a tradition or idea as evidence that somebody is pulling the strings.

This lack of discrimination particularly dogs the first part of the book, in which they explore the long history of heretical Gnostic movements that surfaced in different periods and places, each time to be ruthlessly crushed by the Church. They begin with the last such movement, the Cathars of medieval southern France, and trace the ‘chain of heresy’ back – through Bogomils, Paulicians, Manicheans and others - ultimately to Egypt in the early Christian era and the fourth-century sect that hid the Nag Hammadi codices. The authors see the whole chain of events, from the fourth to the fourteenth centuries, as being directed by a single secret organisation, a ‘counter conspiracy’ formed to preserve the true form of Christianity in reaction to the emergence of the organised Church, which deviated from the original message. But they present no evidence for this other than the periodic revival of Gnostic challengers to orthodoxy and the circular reasoning that, if a secret society with such an agenda really did exist, then that’s the kind of thing it would have been responsible for.

Both sides in the long-running struggle believed they had the authentic version of Christianity and the other a perverted form, and so saw it as part of the great war between God and Satan, although naturally with themselves representing the light and their opponents the dark. H&B loftily declare that they are merely relating the history and that it isn’t their place to take a position on which side they think was right – but they immediately do just that! They squarely blame mainstream Christianity for pretty much all of today’s ills, accusing it of a ‘righteous sense of domination’ that lies behind our despoiling of the planet and the intolerance of other faiths that has blighted history, and fill pages with examples of the Church’s brutal and sadistic behaviour in suppressing the heresies. On the other hand they write approvingly of the Gnostics’ greater morality, respect for the individual and essentially egalitarian principles. I’m with them on all of this; I just wonder why they don’t have the courage of their convictions rather than posing as objective observers with no axe to grind.

In the second part of the book the story moves on to the influence of the Hermetic tradition in Europe following the rediscovery in the 1460s of the Corpus Hermeticum, after having been lost for a thousand years. they suggest that the fact that these texts were recovered a mere (!) 120 years after the execution of the last known Cathar was no coincidence, and neither was the speed with which the Renaissance Hermetic revival swept Europe after the rediscovery. Both are signs of the secret order manipulating events although, as usual, H&B leave themselves a get-out, writing (their emphasis), ‘It is almost as though some sort of system or “organisation” was already in place when the texts resurfaced that had both the will and capacity to exploit their full potential in undermining the established Church.’ They don’t consider that the Hermetica's rapid dissemination might have something to do with their rediscovery coinciding with the introduction of the printing press (nor notice the glaring flaw in their logic that, if a secret society of Hermetic adepts already existed in positions of power, why the books needed to be rediscovered at all).

They go on to suggest (or rather, being them, imply) that since important esoteric movements such as Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry emerged from the Hermetic tradition, they too were set up by the same shadowy organisation as part of its anti-Church, pro-Gnostic agenda.

Behind it all, though, ultimately lay the magical star-religion of the high point of the ancient Egyptian civilisation. The key chapter in this respect is Chapter 9, in which they compare the core beliefs of Hermeticism, Christian Gnosticism and Egypt as embodied in the Book of the Dead and the Pyramid Texts, and find them to be essentially one and the same. The parallels between the ancient Egyptian and Hermetic beliefs are, in my view, convincing – indeed, they miss out some important evidence connecting the Hermetica and the Egyptian religion – while those with Gnosticism are rather more strained.

As their reconstruction of history progresses, they see the presence of the Egyptian-Hermetic religion everywhere in the Western esoteric tradition, often on the flimsiest of grounds. Inevitably, they bring the Knights Templar into their grand scheme, on the basis that a Templar heritage was claimed by certain Masonic orders from the eighteenth century. The merit of those claims is never explored; they simply accept them at face value. (I’m one of the dwindling band that maintains the unfashionable view that there was a connection of some kind between the Templars and the origins of Freemasonry, but it’s not good enough simply to take it for granted, as H and B do.) But it suits their purpose, as thereafter anyone that uses a Templar symbol is taken to be an initiate of the Hermetic conspiracy who uses magical concepts from the star-magic of ancient Egypt.

Another example of this promiscuous use of symbols from different esoteric traditions comes when the authors propose that Christopher Wren and John Evelyn, in their rival proposals to redesign London after the Great Fire, both employed the principles of Egyptian magic. They triumphantly note that both men appear to have based their new street plans on the Cabala’s Tree of Life. But hang on! Isn’t the Cabala Jewish? A minor problem for our intrepid researchers: they note that a couple of decades earlier Athanasius Kircher had proposed that the Cabala actually originated in ancient Egypt – thereby justifying Hermetic initiates such as Wren using it. But even if they are right, all it shows is that Wren and Evelyn were influenced by contemporary theories about the ancient Egyptian religion, not privy to secrets handed down from Egypt itself. Their putative use of Kircher’s novel theory actually weakens rather than supports their case for a genuine initiatory trail from Egypt.

The analysis of Wren and Evelyn’s plans for London is part of another major theme of The Master Game, which dominates the last part of the book. One of H and B’s more plausible arguments for an ancient Egyptian influence on the Hermetica is the latter’s recurring concept of sacred cities designed according to magical talismanic principles – ‘occult urban planning’ as they call it – which they propose derives from the Egyptian practice of constructing temples and cities in accordance with their astral magic. They go on to argue that the same principles were employed from the seventeenth century onwards in the layout of cities such as Paris, Washington and, to a lesser extent, London – further evidence, they claim, of the existence of that mysterious secret organisation and the grand conspiracy. (It isn’t, of course: it’s simply evidence of post-Renaissance groups basing themselves on the Hermetic tradition.)

This gives Bauval, in particular, the opportunity to indulge in a favourite pastime, one that will be familiar to readers of his previous books: finding significance in the ground plan and orientation of buildings, in particular their astronomical alignments. As with his other claims, some – particularly those concerning the heart of Paris - seem to work and do indeed suggest that some architects and city planners were consciously working to a Hermetic or Masonic plan, while others seem rather more contrived.

However, past experience has shown it’s a big mistake to take their word for it. Indeed, the truly objective researcher will soon realise the need to rigorously check their claims in these areas; some crucial alignments and correspondences in their earlier books have, notoriously, turned out to be nowhere near as precise or unique as they led their readers to believe, often relying on a quite blatant fudging of the data. And while I haven’t had the time for this review to double-check these particular measurements, angles and calculations, there are some immediate signs that they are up to their old tricks.

To take one glaring example, in Chapter 19 they attempt to show that Wren’s St Paul’s cathedral was designed as an ‘intensely “Templar” talisman’. The sole evidence that they put forward for this is that its foundation stone was laid on 23 June 1675, a date apparently decided by Elias Ashmole, a famous early Freemason. They brush aside evidence that he actually planned the ceremony for two days earlier but delayed it because of the weather, as they discern a hidden meaning in the date. In 1675 England was still using the Julian calendar, while the rest of Europe was on the Gregorian – and by that calendar it was 4 July, the date of the Battle of Hattin, the Templars’ last major battle (and defeat) in 1187. The St Paul’s ceremony was therefore, H and B conclude, commemorating one of the Templars’ sacred days.

Not only is their reasoning questionable – would the Templars really have wanted to honour the anniversary of their greatest military disaster, the one that lost them Jerusalem? - but in any case H and B’s basic premise is just plain wrong. In 1675 the gap between the two calendars was 10 days, and this means that 23 June Julian was 3 July Gregorian. This basic fact, which completely undermines their case, is easily verifiable – even using the source (on Wikipedia) that they themselves cite! Such an elementary mistake – only too reminiscent of similar ones in their earlier books – hardly inspires confidence in their claims based on more complicated astronomical and calendrical calculations.

The book is written in H&B’s usual professional, fluid and readable style that carries the reader along, which certainly helps given The Master Game’s unnecessary length. They could easily have said all they have to say in half the pages, the chapters on the Gnostic ‘chain of heresy’ being particularly overladen with extraneous detail.

The reader is also encouraged to stick with the story by the promise, seeded throughout the book, that it is all building up to the revelation of a great secret – some contemporary manifestation of the Egyptian occult agenda – that is of momentous importance to the modern world. Although the bulk is devoted to the historical material, and only a couple of dozen pages to the modern era, the packaging and promotion of The Master Game make it apparent that this is what the book is really about. And it is here that their persistent desire to have things both ways – to say something while saying they’re not saying it – seems to move beyond a wish to maintain a veneer of objectivity into something much more bizarre and, frankly, worrying.

The book proper ends with a chapter on the influence of Freemasonry in the United States from Independence to the twentieth century, as displayed in public works and buildings from the Statue of Liberty to the Pentagon. So far, so good; few who have studied the subject will doubt that Freemasonry has been a factor in the development of the American republic, although opinions differ on how significant a factor and just what it means.

They finish by looking at Freemasonry’s influence on American government support for the founding of the state of Israel in 1948. They note that the two presidents who formulated and carried through the pro-Israel policy, Roosevelt and Truman, were both high-ranking Masons. They also note that the dominant form of Freemasonry in the USA is the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite, which places an emphasis on the symbolic rebuilding of the Temple of Solomon, usually taken as an allegory for the individual Mason’s pursuit of self-perfection. But they suggest that, in the case of FDR and Truman, they – and by implication the Rite as a matter of policy – were attempting to bring about this reconstruction in a literal sense through the re-founding of Solomon’s kingdom, an example of the Hermetic ‘occult urban planning’ writ large. They also make much of the fact that the Israeli state’s borders lay between the very Masonic-sounding latitudes of the thirtieth to thirty-third degree (the highest grades of the Scottish Rite) clearly implying that events were contrived to make it so.

Immediately after having made this extremely contentious series of suggestions, they portentously declare that throughout their research they kept unearthing clues to something even bigger, but that ‘the revelation of what lay behind the veil was so sinister, so worrying and so misunderstood by so many, that at first we thought it best to let it be, to ignore it, to delete it from our thoughts lest we be branded as “conspiracy theorists”’. However, they came to realise that it was their duty to bring what they have found to the attention of the public.

They make their great revelation in an epilogue, itself entitled ‘The Master Game’, reinforcing its crucial importance to the book as a whole. What is it they have discovered? By now we’re primed to hear that the big secret is that the shadowy fraternity they’ve been talking about for over 500 pages still hold the reins of global power – that they are the secret rulers of the world that H and B have promised to unmask - and are propelling the world towards Armageddon as part of the great cosmic battle between good and evil. But no. The revelation is that… extremist Islamists believe that Freemasonry is an organisation used by Jews and Americans to control the world, and is the latest manifestation of a Zionist and ‘crusader’ war on Islam. And their evidence is – wait for it - that’s what Islamist leaders have said in speeches, press interviews, on their web sites and in literature distributed in Arab schools, being so successful that millions of Muslims now believe it. Hardly the most opaque of veils or fruits of the deepest research - and certainly not something that justifies the soul-searching that the two authors claim to have gone through when agonising over whether to bring this to the world’s attention.

They rightly condemn the belief as a mistaken and bigoted smear that has made Freemasons and lodge buildings legitimate targets for terrorism in the eyes of the extremists. As they point out, suicide bomb attacks have already been made on Masonic lodges in Turkey.

But their condemnation doesn’t let them off the hook. Even by their standards this is a breathtaking piece of doublespeak. Have they forgotten that just pages before they themselves presented evidence for the involvement of American Scottish Rite Freemasonry in the founding of Israel, and that throughout the book they have insisted that Freemasonry, and particularly the Scottish Rite, owes its origins to the Knights Templar – the ultimate crusading order? Surely this can only feed the very belief that they condemn? While clearly not sharing the Islamists’ twisted conclusions about what the connections mean, the authors wholeheartedly agree that the connections are there. They have written a book that provides the fanatics with even more ammunition. Why, if they really believe their own warning about the danger that such theories put Freemasons in, have they even taken the risk of writing this book and adding more fuel to such a potentially uncontrollable fire?

The authors play their own game in this book, through that repeated tactic of saying something while denying they’re saying it. This makes The Master Game a deeply dishonest book. But that final twist turns it into a dangerous one.


  1. This sounds suspiciously like a retread of their book, "Talisman: Gnostics, Freemasons, Revolutionaries, and the 2000-Year-Old Conspiracy at Work in the World Today." I wonder what difference in players or structure they could have found between 2004 and now that would make this a different read. Anything?

  2. Haven't read the book, but just finished watching a video monologue presented as an interview with Hancock. I never had an opinion on him one way or the other until carefully and critically listening to him spieling out his belief system about the "Lost Civilization" on that video. More than once he presented something as fact without any evidence other than a completely subjective personal reflection. Unfortunately, like so many embedded in or circling around the paranormal movement, he seems to be in the game simply to sell books to those who want to believe. In that sense, he's no better or worse than others peddling quasi-paranormal and alternative history nonsense. I think I'll be passing on this book, however.

  3. I enjoyed 'Supernatural' and appreciated 'Underworld' (for all their flaws, inevitable when charting the margins of human knowledge), yet this work appears messy and simplistic (like Hancock's lesser works). However not having read it I can't give it an honest nor knowledgeable assessment..

    Plus the review is from Clive Prince! Pot to kettle. Prince co-authored 'The Stargate Conspiracy' (1999) with Lynn Picknett, which put forward its own rather dubious conspiracy, in which the likes of Hancock and Bauval featured heavily - the latter being (probably unwitting) pawns in a powerful conspiracy of elite Western right-wing neocon types bent on pushing their imperialist agenda for world rule via an appealing New-Age philosophy predicated on a Hancock-Bauval-Gilbert friendly interpretation of ancient Egyptian esoteric knowledge, more modern-day occult lore and belief in UFOs as ET spaceships. This conspiracy was supposed to come to the fore (somehow) via the triggering event of the Egyptian pyramid capstone ceremony at the dawn of the new millenium!

    Central to Prince & Picknett's conspiracy is the story of 'the Nine', the hidden supposedly extraterrestial 'watchers' of humanity that seek to interfere with and steer our destiny, all for the better until we attain universal enlightenment. All this 'knowledge' of course channeled via mediums such as Phylis Schlemmer and others (like Uri Geller way back when), and catalyzed in the main via the late enigmatic parapsychologist Andrija Puharich (a major pawn if not player in P&P's conspiracy). Also the likes of Robert Temple (of Sirius mystery fame), James Hurtak and plenty others (politicians, statesmen and spy agencies included) are coloured with the conspiracy cloth. Even the CIA's remote viewing program is brought into it.

    It's not that P&P take this conspiracy seriously at all (they don't and they don't think UFOs are ET vehicles neither), it's that they allege there is a deliberate conspiracy here in the first place; ignoring the role of the unconscious, at the individual and social level and the 'it's a small world' reality. Should we really be surprised that scientists, bureaucrats, psychics, politicians and others with the same obsessive interests become acquainted with one another?

    And I have gotten off the point entirely, being H&B's book and the review! Yet I am bemused that H&B's wishy-washy soft conspiracy book is reviewed by one of the most notable proponents of modern-day conspiracy lore. No doubt this is part of the conspiracy, and Magonia is neck-deep in it!

    Where is our new Robert Anton Wilson when he is needed?