Let me say, first off, that this book is such a crock – such a shameless, ridiculous, patently pathetic attempt to sell off second-hand, second-rate baloney conspiracy theories as truth – that it staggers belief any reader would take it seriously. Baigent and his pals use false rhetoric, false evidence and elaborate propaganda to mount an argument that, while vaguely thrilling and appealing in the way a cryptic crossword can be appealing on a Sunday morning, makes no more sense than other half-baked theories such as Intelligent Design or Flying Spaghetti Monsters.
The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail
Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln
Arrow (Random House), 1996
Reviewed by Nike Bourke
I first read this book when I was a teenager; as gormless and eagerly naïve as any girl of my generation looking for reasons to doubt any of the tenets of my parent’s faith. I swallowed Baigent et al’s theory whole, at the time, ignoring the niggling doubts about the vague, circumspect, wishy-washy arguments. I had no tools, then with which to refute the emotionally-appealing high-dudgeon arguments.
I first read Holy Blood, Holy Grail
at about the same time I read von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods
– the late-60s conspiracy work, which argued – among other things – that alien gods had built the pyramids and genetically-engineered early humans. I should have read The Book of Mormon
at the time, too, or perhaps Dianetics
. All of these books – which purport to reveal ‘truths’ of one kind or another are really the mangled outpourings of confused, dishonest or cynical individuals. Sometimes all three.
Erich von Daniken, for example, the author of Chariots of the Gods
first drew critical attention as a small boy, when he stole money from the Boy Scouts. By 1967 – the year before Chariots
was released – he had been convicted of fraud, petty theft, large scale embezzlement, and tax evasion. Nevertheless, the great unwashed readership of the 70s lapped up his wacko theories. It may have been the drugs, though it seems not much has changed.
Holy Blood, Holy Grail
has two main, interdependent theories that it propounds, claiming that the revelation of these ‘truths’ about human, and in particular Christian, history, have the potential to blow apart Christian faith and doctrine – to rattle the very foundations of civilisation (or at least that portion of it that has its cultural roots in Anglo-Europe). These two claims – bluntly summarised – are as follows:
1. That a secret society was founded in 1099 – the Prieure de Sion, or Priory of Sion, whose military arm was that other familiar bogey of conspiracy theorists – the Knights Templar.
2. That the Prieure de Sion are the guardians of the second secret – the marriage of Jesus Christ to Mary Magdalene, and the family tree that resulted from their union.
There are, of course, other assertions that follow from these two key ideas: that the Prieure was headed by a series of Grand Masters – including such eminent figures as da Vinci, Isaac Newton, Victor Hugo and Jean Cocteau – whose role it was to guard these secrets, though, for some unspecified reason, each of them chose to liberally scatter hints and clues about the secret they jealously guarded about the place. That Mary Magdalene (who is identified in Baigent with May of Bethany and with the Mary who washed Christ’s feet – the same conflation Mel Gibson makes in his film, The Passion of the Christ, though it is not a conflation made by Eastern Orthodox Christians, or Protestants) was the chief apostle of Christ and was intended by Jesus to be the head of his church after his crucifixion – and that, by extension, women, were intended by Jesus to form a more central, powerful role in the Christian faith from the beginning.
Baigent and his co-authors use as their main source in this book a dossier of papers held by the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris – the ‘dossiers secret’ as they call it. The dossier includes parchments and other documents pertaining to the Priory of Sion, the Merovingians and the family history – the bloodline – of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Unfortunately, what they fail to reveal is that these documents and their contents are an elaborate though not particularly well-constructed hoax by their principal source – Pierre Plantard. Like von Daniken, Plantard had a less-than-illustrious history of fraud and embezzlement, he was also the member of a number of extremist, ultra-conservative, anti-semitic, semi-mystical Catholic groups who sought the reunification of Europe of a divinely-ordained leader of the Roman Catholic Church – preferably himself - once it was revealed that he was not, as all evidence seemed to indicate, the humble son of a cook and a butler, but the true heir to the line of Christ and Mary Magdalene – and a descendant of the Merovingian line. Plantard founded – invented – the Prieure de Sion – on July 20, 1956. The offices of the Priory of Sion, and its dubious journal, Circuit, were within Plantard’s modest council flat.
With the assistance of an expert forger – Phillipe de Cherisey – Plantard and de Sede (in all - the three known members of this ‘ancient’ secret sect) fabricated a range of documents regarding the Priory of Sion. Among other wonderfully playful sleights of hand, Plantard later claimed that the documents had been discovered in a hollowed-out Visigoth pillar, which was later found to be solid. Cherisey later confessed on camera to the whole scheme, and displayed some of the faked documents.
Henry Lincoln, one of the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail
, came across these documents during his research and convinced the BBC’s Chronicle
to support him in making a series of documentaries. The documentaries generated intense interest in viewers, and brought Lincoln together with Baigent and Leigh to write the book. Whether Baigent and his co-authors were duped by Plantard and his elaborate falsifications at the time of the first printing of the book is a matter for speculation, what isn’t clear is why a new edition – the edition I read was published in 1996 – would not have incorporated or acknowledged such pertinent, if tragic, outcomes as the search of Plantard’s home in 1993, which revealed a plethora of forged documents, some of which proclaim that Plantard is the true kind of France. Under oath, Plantard admitted that everything had been a fabrication – the whole writhing, messy false history of the Priory and the secrets of the Magdalene's ancestors, his lineage and the 'secrets' the false sect he had said the Grand Masters were protecting. He was ordered to cease and desist all activities related to the Priory of Sion.
Instead of acknowledging these problems with their evidence chain, the 1996 edition of HBHG
claims to include ‘explosive new discoveries’. In the introduction, the authors also claim that their work influenced such well-known figures as Martin Scorcese and Umberto Eco – claiming – quite astonishingly for this reader, at least – that Eco had “clearly discerned the extent to which our research had constituted a ‘semiotic exercise’ and … ingeniously adapted aspects of it to a fictitious ‘semiotic exercise’ of his own.” This has to be one of the most astonishing claims of the book – almost warranting the work ‘shocking’ being blazoned across the cover.
Baigent et al are not afraid of a little dubious research. Among the plethora of misleading scholarship they cite as ‘evidence’, is the use of the word ‘companion’ in the Gospel of Philip to describe Mary Magdalene. The gospel translation is cited as, “there were three who always walked with the Lord; Mary his mother and her sister and Magdalene, the one who was called his companion.” The authors insist that this use of the word ‘companion’ should be translated as ‘spouse’ from the Aramaic use of the term current at the time the gospel was written (this they cribbed from a Protestant theologian, William Phipps – who published his own religious potboiler in the early 1970s – Was Jesus Married?). This translation relies on the assumption that the Gospel of Philip was in fact written in Aramaic, when the Gospel in question was written in Coptic and the particular word in question is borrowed from the Greek – it does not mean ‘spouse’ or ‘lover’ or ‘wife’, but ‘companion’ (or, in the Australian vernacular, mate) – a word commonly used to refer to friends.
If you’re fond of conspiracy theories and confused argument, not afraid of a little dubious, arcane ‘research’ that cites forged documents as if they are real, relies heavily on secondary, innacurate translations of Gnostic and uncanonical texts, and uses as its main evidentiary source a man radically out of touch with reality, then make yourself a pot of tea and settle in for a tepid thrill-ride through religious history. In fact, if you’re a lover of conspiracy theories – a person, like me, who thinks it’s great fun, on a Sunday afternoon, to suspend one’s critical faculties in order to enter the wacky world where weak inductive reasoning replaces good scholarship, where the evidence of history, truth, is no obstacle to a good story – then this may well be the perfect book for you. And it’s certainly more well-written than its fictional love-child – The Da Vinci Code.
In fact, in the spirit of laughter and pseudo-enlightenment, I’ve put together a little reading list, just between you and I, of some of the great crackpot books to litter the second-hand bookshops of the twenty-first century. Enjoy! But please, for your sake and mine, don't take them as gospel. Though you may consider penning a poorly-written thriller based on one or two, even a lucractive movie deal with Ron Howard or Tom Cruise.
L. Ron Hubbard. Dianetics
Erich von Daniken. Chariots of the Gods
Michael Baigent. The Jesus Papers: Exposing the Greatest Cover-Up in History
Baigent and Leigh. The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception
Immanuel Velikovsky. World in Collision
Anatoly T Fomenko. History: Fiction or Science Chronology 1 & 2
Richard Harwood. Did Six Million Really Die?
Gavin Menzies. 1421: The Year China Discovered The World
Heribert Illig’s Phantom Time Hypothesis
(not in English, but you can google it!)