It appeared to be a local mystery. How did a 19th-century French priest, living in an obscure village at the foot of the Pyrenees, suddenly amass a fortune amounting to several million dollars? And why did he then behave so oddly, building himself a stone tower, the Tour Magdala, and inscribing above the church door TERRIBILUS EST LOCUS ISTE (THIS PLACE IS TERRIBLE)?
Over the years, several books have examined the priest, Bérenger Saunière, and his activities at Rennes-le-Château. In 1972, the BBC made a film on the subject, and its scriptwriter, Henry Lincoln, became so obsessed with this constantly deepening mystery that he began to devote all his time to it. Now he and two coworkers, Richard Leigh, an American novelist and university lecturer, and Michael Baigent, a New Zealand psychologist and photographer, have published the results of a decade of research: The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail (Clarke, Irwin). Their conclusions could hardly be more shocking.
What Saunière discovered seems to have been a group of parchments, one dating back to 1244, which were of crucial importance to a clandestine society called the Prieuré de Sion (Priory of Sion). To keep the priest silent, the Prieuré paid him off extravagantly. Begun in 1090, the society’s activities have continued to this day. Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln have held several wary meetings with the order’s present grand master, Pierre Plantard, a librarian, French Resistance hero and former associate of Charles de Gaulle. But Plantard may be something more. If the au-
thors and the Prieuré are to be believed, he is also a lineal descendant of Jesus Christ. And incredible though it sounds, the Prieuré is working to establish one of Christ’s descendants on the throne of a united Europe. The authors suggest that another purported descendant, Alain Poher, the former interim French president who served in 1969 and 1973, may be the candidate in question. “Its [the Prieuré’s] aims,” says Richard
Leigh, “are renewed recognition of the sacred, a reintegration of secular and spiritual under the auspices of a priestking.”
The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail draws on recent scholarly research into the ancient mystical cult of gnosticism—particularly the writings that came to light at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945. These texts reveal that the fathers of the early church censored a great deal of what had originally been written about Jesus in the interests of ecclesiastical consistency and power. Some of the Gnostic texts suggest that Jesus had a more intimate association with Mary Magdalene than the Christian gospels allow; another states that he did not in fact die on the cross. Yet their discovery seems to have caused little stir within the church. Anthony Phillips, the Oxford theologian and author of God B.C., believes that “They’re very important for scholars, but I don’t think the general public knows anything about them.”
Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln also suggest that the New Testament is radically incomplete. They postulate a division in z infant Christianity between the adherents of ¿the message, such as St. r Peter, and an inner circle iof initiates which included Mary Magdalene, Jesus’ mother and the “beloved disciple”—who was, in their opinion, not John but Lazarus. Even more controversially, they accept the ancient traditions that Joseph of Arimathea (who received Jesus’ body after the crucifixion) and Mary Magdalene sailed across the Mediterranean to southern France. They go on to suggest that Mary, who had been Jesus’ wife, brought with her at least one child. And
after the Roman Empire collapsed in the fifth century, that child’s descendants founded a dynasty of French kings: the Merovingians.
As its title suggests, the book contains a stunning new interpretation of that most elusive of treasures: the Holy Grail, the cup or platter used, according to medieval legend, by Christ at the Last Supper. In the best-known of the many Grail romances of Europe, Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzifal, the Grail is described as “the fruit of blessedness, such abundance of the sweetness of the world that its delights were very like what we are told of the kingdom of heaven.” The authors believe that the Grail had a secret, double meaning. First, it referred to the true receptacle of the blood of Jesus: the womb of Mary Magdalene. And second, in its original spelling as used by Thomas Malory in Morte d'Arthur, the “sangreal” was really “sang réal”: the royal blood of the king of the Jews.
The authors are sensitive to charges that they’re out to destroy faith. In Leigh’s opinion, “Very much of what we say about Jesus is in the mainstream of contemporary theological thinking.” Nonetheless, if any of its conclusions are accepted, the beliefs cherished by millions of people will be bruised if not broken. Moreover, the political implications are enormous. The authors report that the present-day Prieuré is working to a precise timetable and that Pierre Plantard expects France to have a king on the throne by 1990. Prieuré members are said to wield quiet influence in France, Switzerland and the European Parliament. Its members, or close associates, include politicians, financiers, religious leaders and one of the foremost writers of our time, the Mexican novelist (and former ambassador to France) Carlos Fuentes.
Almost as a passing fancy, the authors mention that the Prieuré de Sion claims to possess the treasure of the Temple of Jerusalem, lost since Roman legions sacked the city in 70 AD and rediscovered by the Knights Templar, the Prieuré’s former military arm. The society’s right to this seems doubtful at best—but as Baigent says, “The Templars, as part of their policy, sought a synthesis between Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Sion would seem to have a very similar policy in mind.”
It remains to be seen how much respect historians will pay this book. Even if 90 per cent of it should prove to be nonsense, the other 10 per cent might be enough to upset conventional accounts of Western history. As the senior author, Henry Lincoln, says with a wry smile: “We take our work seriously, but we don’t take ourselves very seriously. If we did, we’d be megalomaniacs.” <£»
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