Archive | November, 2011


23 Nov

Arcadia is a region of Greece: in ancient times, it occupied the highlands of the central Pelopponese, a secluded and largely mountainous district. Its remoteness may have contributed to the symbolic role it was to hold in literature, of an unspoiled wilderness where humans still lived in a state of idyllic innocence (or more negatively of  primitive backwardness).

Arcadia on a map of ancient Greece

The River Alpheus has its source in the highlands of Arcadia, and is said to flow partly underground until it resurfaces at the Fountain of Arethusa, in Sicily. In the 15th century, this quality of Alpheus as an `underground stream’ made it popular as a metaphor for an underground tradition of esoteric knowledge, which had supposedly survived from antiquity. Schools of thought and spiritual movements such asPythagoreanism, Gnosticism and Hermeticism, which had seemed to vanish during the Middle Ages only to resurface in the 15th century, were-according to `underground stream’ thinking- in fact clandestinely transmitted through the generations. The authors of Holy Blood,Holy Grail also think that `underground stream’ might connote a `subterranean’ bloodline, which had preserved the esoteric tradition when it was driven underground.

It could connote that: the Eumolpids were the hereditary priests and keepers of the shrine at Eleusis, the most important  shrine in Greece and devoted to the cult of Demeter, one of the incarnations of the archaic mother goddess Cybele.  What happened to them and the primordial traditions they had faithfully preserved at the coming of Christianity? It is not inconceivable that they met up with other fugitive pagans and devised a means of preserving their religion in the face of persecution. These surviving remnants could very well constitute a bloodline- or several- which preserved, in clandestine fashion, the ancient religion of the Goddess.

The writers of Holy Blood,Holy Grail believe the bloodline is the bloodline of Jesus, who had married and had children with Mary Magdalene. After his death, Mary Magdalene moved to the south of France with the children. The art historian Peter Blake, in his The Arcadian Cipher, apparently agrees with this story, going so far as to claim that he discovered the tomb of Jesus and Mary Magdalene in the vicinity of Rennes-le-Chateau, on a hill called Estagnol. These stories have gained such popularity that no one has thought to ask why Mary Magdalene, or even Jesus, should have moved to the south of France, nor why the theme of Arcadia, which symbolizes a return to a lost primordial innocence, should be used in the telling of the story. What, after all, does Arcadia have to do with Jesus?

But it makes more sense if we realize that the south of France was a particularly thriving centre for the cult of Cybele until the fall of the Roman Empire, and that the prehistoric matriarchal religion of the Mediterranean might indeed be described as a time of lost primordial innocence, destroyed by the Indo-european invasions. According to this interpretation of the Arcadian myth, the `underground stream’ represents a hidden current of knowledge dating back to matriarchal times, preserved in secret by ancient bloodlines who can trace their ancestry back to the priesthood of the matriarchal religion, and eventually transported to the south of France, which had long had a favourable climate for goddess worship. The Priory of Sion is the modern incarnation of these bloodlines, grouped now into a secret society for the preservation of the ancient religion.

ruins at Eleusis


The Cambridge Five

15 Nov
The Cambridge Five were, as their name suggests, five Cambridge alumni found guilty of spying for the Russians during the Cold War and before. Only two of them concern us here: Anthony Blunt and Kim Philby.

Anthony Blunt

Anthony Blunt, who would reach the position of Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, was an art historian who specialized in Nicolas Poussin, an artist who plays a mysterious but significant role in the mythology of the Priory of Sion. Blunt was born in Britain 1907, but grew up mostly in Paris when his vicar father was appointed chaplain to the British embassy there. This allowed him to grow up fluent in French and with a keen interest and knowledge of French art and architecture. On going to Cambridge, he soon took an interest in Nicolas Poussin and in 1933 was allowed to take a sabbatical to Rome to study his works. He also made some trips to the south of France and to Germany during this period, occasionally going to the same places and at the same time as Otto Rahn. Sometime earlier he had met Tomas Harris, a dealer specializing in Spanish art, described by Blunt’s biographer as “a secretive and charismatic character who might not be absolutely honest.” Harris worked for MI5 and would run one of the most successful espionage and disinformation networks of World War II.

It was shortly after his return to Cambridge from Rome that Blunt would be recruited as a Soviet agent. At the outbreak of war he joined the British army, and in 1940 was recruited to MI5. At the end of the war, in August 1945, he performed a delicate but rather odd mission to Germany. Supposedly on behalf of the Royal Family, he and another agent, Owen Morshead, travelled to Friedrichshof, the seat of the Landgrave of Hesse near Frankfurt, to retrieve some 4 000 letters. The official version of the story says that these were letters from Queen Victoria to her eldest daughter, and that the Royal Family thought they would be safer in England. Another version states that they were, in fact, correspondence of the Duke of Windsor which might prove highly embarassing (the Duke had often expressed Nazi sympathies.)  Whatever the truth, Blunt and Morshead flew to Frankfurt on August 3, locked themselves in the Friedrichshof library on the 4th to peruse the mysterious papers, and by the end of the day had a signed agreement by the Dowager Landgravine of Hesse to release the documents into their possession. On August 5th, Morshead flew back to England while Blunt stayed behind another day on `military business.’  The ‘letters’ would eventually be returned to the Landgrave in 1951.

It is not clear when exactly Blunt met Kim Philby, though it seems certain that Blunt was recruited to

Kim Philby

theSoviet cause earlier than Philby, and may have recruited the latter. Other versions of Philby’s recruitment state that he went over to the Soviet cause during a 1934 trip to Vienna, and this seems more probable. Whatever the case, Blunt and Philby’s shared condition as Soviet agents, their many mutual friends and their permanence at Cambridge created a bond between them.

Philby was the son of St.John Philby, a British civil servant who had served in the colonial administration. St.John was also a noted Arabist who, shortly before his death, was considered the greatest living British expert on the Middle East. The elder Philby’s career in the colonial administration had been tumultuous, largely due to his insistence on going his own way. Early on, he had urged the British government to back ibn Saud against the Hashemites in their struggle for dominance over the Arabian peninsula, spotting (correctly, as it turned out) that without outside help the Hashemites could never have triumphed on their own. Unfortunately for him, this was not the position of the British government, and so led to considerable ill feeling between the elder Philby and his employers. St.John would eventually end up far closer to ibn Saud and a far better advocate of the Saudi cause than of the cause of his own government. In one of his many books, Arabian Jubilee, he would admit to having done his best to undermine the British cause by encouraging a Soviet presence in the Middle East. But his penchant for insubordination caused him to also quarrel with ibn Saud’s successor, and in 1953 he was expelled from Saudi Arabia. Some years before, ibn Saud had given him a slave girl as a present, and he now went to live with her in Beirut, a city which at that time was described as “crowded with improbable men and lurid events.”

It was here that Kim joined him in 1956. Kim did not share St.John’s enthusiasm for all things Arab,but he had fallen under a cloud of suspicion when two other members of the Cambridge Five, Burgess and Maclean, defected to the Soviet Union in 1951. In order to pre-empt being fired, he resigned voluntarily from MI6, only to find himself without work and at loose ends. Wishing to keep him under surveillance, MI6 obtained for him the job of Beirut correspondent for The Observer and The Economist. So it was that Kim found himself living with his father in Lebanon, where his two noisy half-brothers and his father’s concubine grated on his nerves. Luckily for him, in his capacity as foreign correspondent he was able to travel extensively throughout the Arab world, including to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Yemen.

In 1961 or 62, a Soviet defector finally confirmed MI6’s suspicion that Philby had been the `Third Man’ of the Cambridge spy ring. A friend of Philby’s was sent to confront him and elicit a confession, but before he could obtain a written declaration, on the night of January 23, 1963, Philby fled to Moscow, most likely on a Russian freighter.

In 1964, Tomas Harris, the art dealer and MI5 operative, died in a car crash in Majorca.

Priory of Sion

10 Nov

The Priory of Sion (PdS, or Prieure’ de Sion) is an organization of which no record exists prior to 1956.  On June 25th of that year, it was officially registered with the sub-prefecture of Saint-Julien-en-Genevois, a municipality of the French department of Haute Savoie. Its stated aims were study and mutual aid, and it published a magazine, Circuit. According to police records, the PdS ceased activity in October of the same year, but over the next several decades it would acquire a strange kind of fame. The man who had registered (and presumably founded) it, Pierre Plantard, spent the sixties and seventies elaborating a romantic history for the PdS.

pierre plantard

Pierre Plantard

  Plantard had been born in 1920, the son of a Paris concierge. In his youth, he had been active in extreme right-wing and Catholic traditionalist circles, founding several secret societies which never counted more than a handful of members. The Priory of Sion seemed another secret society along the same lines as the others, but it was destined to outlast and outshine all of them.How had it come about?

In January of 1956, the regional southern newspaper Depeche du Midi ran a multi-part expose’ on the `Treasure of Rennes-le-Chateau.’ The paper revealed that in 1891, Berenger Sauniere, the parish priest of Rennes-le-Chateau, a village in the south of France, had been restoring the village church when he found some ancient parchments hidden in the altar. Shortly thereafter, he began spending large sums of money: unusual, given that both he and the village were very poor. Where had he gotten the money? According to Noel Corbu, a local hotelier and the principal source for the Depeche du Midi story, the parchments had contained the location of a hidden treasure. This treasure had been buried in the area by Blanche of Castille, a medieval Queen of France, and found by Berenger Sauniere when he followed the directions in the parchments.


 Perhaps by telling this story Noel Corbu hoped to drum up business ( he had bought Sauniere’s old house, built with the mysteriously acquired wealth, and turned it into a hotel)and perhaps he succeeded; but one unexpected result of the story was that it encouraged amateur treasure hunters to flock to Rennes-le-Chateau to conduct their own excavations, until the town council had to pass an ordinance against the practice.

Corbu’s tall tale had a thriving career as a local legend, but it went national when a writer, Gerard de Sede, got hold of it. In 1967, he published a book titled L’Or de Rennes (The Gold of Rennes) which told the story originally published in La Depeche du Midi with some embellishments. Among these are that, when Sauniere went to Paris to have the parchments deciphered, he met several famous people and bought copies of three famous paintings.

berenger sauniere

De Sede also wrote that, after having been missing for many years, two of the parchments turned up in Paris, but did not say with whom. He also said that the parchments contained coded messages.

How had de Sede come up with this? We know that Pierre Plantard had been visiting the Rennes-le-Chateau area since 1938 and that he was acquainted with Noel Corbu. He had met de Sede when he provided the latter with material for his 1962 book Les Templiers Sont Parmi Nous (The Templars are Among us).There are credible claims that Pierre Plantard gave him information or even wrote the original manuscript for L’Or de Rennes. We can see the coming together of several strands of the Priory of Sion myth: Rennes-le-Chateau, the Templars, ancient parchments containing a secret. But what was this secret?

Plantard had begun compiling genealogies in 1956, around the same time as he officially founded the Priory of Sion. These genealogies primarily dealt with the Merovingians, a dynasty which had ruled France from 481 to 751. He began depositing these genealogies and various other documents in the Bibliotheque Nationale (National Library) in 1964. De Sede had used some of these documents for L’Or de Rennes, but he had not made any particular claims about the Merovingians, or mentioned Plantard himself. This would be left to three English writers (one actually a New Zealander), who took the local legend international.

Henry Lincoln came across de Sede’s book in 1969, and was sufficiently intrigued by it to make a television program out of it. This would be aired in three instalments, in 1972, 1974, and 1979.

The first instalment, titled The Lost Treasure of Jerusalem? told the story of Sauniere’s finding of the treasure, but proposed an alternative explanation for its origin: instead of Blanche of Castille, the program hypothesized that it was Solomon’s treasure, sacked from the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD and taken by the Visigoths when these, in turn, sacked Rome in 410. The Visigoths brought it to their kingdom in the south of France. The program also speculated that one of the last Merovingians, Sigebert, was taken to Rennes-le-Chateau to escape assassination: a connection between the Merovingians and the treaure of Solomon is thus implied. One of the paintings of which Sauniere bought a copy, Nicolas Poussin’s Les Bergers d’Arcadie, is thought to hold a coded message for locating the treasure.

Les Bergers d'Arcadie, by Nicolas Poussin

The second episode of the program, The Priest, the Painter and the Devil, aired in 1974, was the first to introduce the public to the Priory of Sion. It began with the mysterious letters PS, which had been found on one of the parchments but whose meaning was unclear. The program claimed that they stood for Prieure’ de Sion, or Priory of Sion, an organization which was connected with the Templars. The Templars, which had been founded in 1118, were one of the possible means by which Solomon’s treasure had come to France. How the PdS fit in to this is not made clear.

The third program, Shadow of the Templars, offers a partial illumination. Now it was claimed that Sigebert, the Merovingian who had fled to Rennes-le-Chateau, was an ancestor of Godefroi de Bouillon, the leader of the First Crusade. In recognition for his success, Godefroi was offered the kingship of Jerusalem by a group of mysterious but powerful men.Henry Lincoln claimed these men were members of the Order of Our Lady of Sion, which he linked with the Templars. Almost a century later, in 1187, Jerusalem was once more lost to the Saracens, and we are given to understand that the Order of Our Lady of Sion accused the Templars of treachery in this regard and a year later severed all connections with them and renamed itself Priory of Sion- an event which came to be referred to as `the cutting of the elm.’ After some observations on the unusual geometric properties of Rennes-le-Chateau and the surrounding mountains, the program concludes that the `treasure of Rennes-le-Chateau’ is not one of gold and jewels, but `a secret.’

What that secret is is revealed in the 1982 book, Holy Blood, Holy Grail. Written by Henry Lincoln and two others, Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, this book takes a (much) closer look at the genealogies and other documents which Pierre Plantard began depositing in the Bibliotheque Nationale in 1964. They note the obvious- that the genealogies seem to be intended to prove Plantard’s descent from Sigebert, the last Merovingian. From certain statements made in the files, the authors conclude that the aim of the Priory of Sion is to restore the Merovingian dynasty- in the person of Pierre Plantard- to the throne of France. Why anyone would want to restore a seventh century dynasty to the French throne is not immediately explained… but the authors turn their attention to legends of the Holy Grail. They interpret the medieval French term for Holy Grail, Sangreal, as a corruption of the words Sang real– `royal blood.’ The Grail is in fact a royal bloodline, one descended from Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene had travelled to the south of France with the `treasure’, the Holy Grail, ie- the children of Jesus, whose descendants had in due course become the Merovingian Kings of France. The aim of the Priory of Sion was to protect the bloodline until such time as it could be restored- a time we are given to understand is imminent.

Holy Blood,Holy Grail was the high-water mark of the Priory of Sion legend. In 1986, Plantard had a falling-out with the book’s authors, and revised his PdS theory. It now revolved around the mysterious geometry (particularly ley lines) around Rennes-le-Chateau, and named Otto von Habsburg, MEP, president of the International Paneuropean Union, and son of the last Emperor of Austria, as the legitimate Merovingian descendant. Plantard himself would have his house searched when he publicly named a friend of then French President Francois Mitterand’s as the current Grand Master of the Priory of Sion. Investigators uncovered various documents, including ones claiming that Plantard was the legitimate King of France. Under questioning, Plantard would admit he had fabricated everything. He died in 2000.

Most of this was compiled with information from:  The Treasure of Rennes-le-Chateau: A Mystery Solved, by Bill Putnam and John Edwin Wood, Sutton Publishing,2003

The Holy Grail

6 Nov

The Holy Grail is generally thought to be one of two things: the cup Christ used at the Last Supper, or the cup which Joseph of Arimathea used to collect Christ’s blood when the Roman soldier Longinus pierced his side with a lance while he was nailed to the cross. These two cups later became conflated both in the Grail literature and the popular imagination.

There are various legends surrounding the cup which Jesus used at the Last Supper.

One has it that it was conserved by St Peter, who brought it to Rome and used it to say mass. It remained in Rome until the reign of the Emperor Valerian. In 258, then Pope Sixtus II gave it to his deacon St.Lawrence, who gave it to a Spanish soldier, Proselius, with instructions to take it to safety in Proselius’ native country of Spain. This cup allegedly survives to this day in the Cathedral of Valencia.

The picture above is the chalice, but take note-the relic is only the upper part:

This upper part is a cup of finely polished dark brown agate, which Professor Antonio Beltran believes to be of oriental origin and datable to 50-100 BC.

The account of the chalice’s being taken to Spain doesn’t quite jibe with the account given by the sixth century Christian pilgrim, Antoninus of Piacenza, who visited Jerusalem in 570 and described a chalice of onyx being conserved as the holy relic.

Aproximately one century after Antoninus, the Frankish bishop Arculf toured the Holy Land and described the cup as being two-handled and made of silver, and conserved in a reliquary in a chapel near Jerusalem.

Nothing more was ever seen or heard of these two chalices, and no mention of the relic of the Last Supper appears in the historical record for another five hundred years or so.

The Crusades coincided with a renewed interest in the subject. At left is a third putative chalice, kept in the church of San Lorenzo in Genoa. According to the chronicler of the Crusades William of Tyre, written in 1170, it was found in 1101 at the mosque in Caesarea. He did not, however, identify it with the cup used at the Last Supper: that connection was only made in the 13th century by the historian Jacobus da Voragine. Another account has it being taken at the sack of Almeria in 1147. How it ended up in Genoa is, predictably, the subject of fanciful interpretations, all of which claim the Genoese thought it was made of emerald. The bowl was taken to Paris by Napoleon, and returned broken (that hole you see in the bottom right quadrant) which, if nothing else, proved it was glass and not emerald. But the Almeria legend does at least have the advantage of tying in neatly with the earliest legend (accepted by the Catholic Encyclopedia) that the chalice was taken to Spain during the persecutions of Valerian (though it still doesn’t explain why Jesus would have used a large green glass bowl.)

Spain again plays a prominent role when the chalice first became the `Grail’: a picture of the Virgin Mary with a `grail’, is  possibly the earliest image of a (the?) grail, is in the church of St Clement of Taull, in the Pyrenees, which was consecrated in 1123.

But the first use of the term `Grail’ (Graal) in writing was made by the French poet Chretien de Troyes. His epic poem, Perceval, le Conte du Graal (Perceval, the story of the Grail) was written around 1180 and was the first work of literature to take the Grail as its central theme. In Chretien’s poem, a mysterious vessel or object which sustains life is guarded in a castle which is difficult to find. The owner of the castle is lame or sick and his lands are barren. A young knight (Perceval) happens upon the castle and is invited in. There, he witnesses a mysterious procession but asks no questions. The failure to ask condemns the castle owner and his lands to remain in their condition of sickness and barenness.

The exact nature of the `Grail’ is not specified in Chretien’s poem, as it wouldn’t be in the magnum opus of one of his principal successors, Wolfram von Eschenbach. The first writer to specifically identify it as the chalice of the Last Supper is Robert de Boron, who wrote his Joseph d’Arimathe sometime between when Chretien and Wolfram wrote their works on the Grail. Nevertheless, the fact that the two most important Grail epics fail to specify what the Grail is – Wolfram suggests that it might be a stone, while Chretien describes it as a light-giving object- are enough to give one pause. why would the Grail be a stone? Why would it give off light? Wolfram uses an unexplained term to designate the Grail- lapis exillis-and claims the story was told him by a certain Kyot de Provence, who had read it in a discarded manuscript he’d found in Toledo, which had been written by a Jewish astronomer. This brings us back to Spain: the Grail was a stone, and legends of it are persistently traceable to Spain and the Pyrenees.

The Grail as a literary subject did not outlast the thirteenth century, so we may well ask: what caused it to appear so suddenly and disappear just as suddenly at this particular moment in history? Oddly enough, the Grail made its appearance- first in painting and then in literature- at around the same time that Catharism, a Christian heresy with deep roots in the Byzantine Empire, came to western Europe. It was particularly prevalent in the south of France- known in French as the Midi-and flourished, then died, at roughly the same time as the Grail legends flourished and then died. Food for thought…