The Great Seal of the United States is the insignia that appears on the back of every one dollar bill. It is the nation's official emblem and represents the country's authority and sovereignty. It's now celebrating its 225th birthday; its origins date back to the first secretary of state -- Thomas Jefferson -- who headed the State Department from 1789 to 1793.
The National Treasure films have popularized the seal's mythology. Among the rumors:
• That the Seal proves the domination of the United States by a powerful, quasi-religious cult. The Ancient Scottish Rite of Freemasonry is a perennial favorite of conspiracy theorists as some Founding Fathers were Masons and the Seal uses several Masonic symbols.
• That the Seal draws on Satanism or polytheistic ritual to promote a universal new world order under which Earth would be ruled by a single omnipotent government.
• That repeated references to 13 — the number of steps in the unfinished pyramid, stars in the constellation over the eagle's head, arrows in the eagle's claw, stripes on the eagle's shield, letters in the phrase "Annuit Coeptis" — demonstrate the power of 13 American families.
• That there are two seals: one in which the eagle's head faces the arrows for times of war and another in which the eagle's head faces the olive branch for times of peace.
The real history of the seals -- at least its official history as described by the State Department -- appears somewhat less ominous.
• That known Masons like the first U.S. president, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin had no role in designing the final seal, which uses elements of traditional heraldry, such as the unfinished pyramid to symbolize a work in progress, arrows for war and an olive branch for peace. Masons share some of those symbols, but they have never been exclusively the domain of the order.
• That the phrase "Novus Ordo Seculorum" below the Roman numerals for 1776 at the base of the pyramid translates as "A New Order of the Ages" that began with independence and does not imply the United States will be the lynchpin of a sinister "New World Order."
• That the words "Annuit Coeptis" ("Providence favors") and the eye of providence that hovers over the pyramid refer to unexpected interventions of fate that assisted the colonists in creating a new country.
• That the references to 13 refer to the number of colonies that formed the original United States.
All that said, I'm not sure I buy this all-too-innocent fable. Using our electron blogoscope, let's examine the seal in detail.
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