The Grail Code 

Archive for April, 2006

Finding the Grail in Pittsburgh

Saturday, April 29th, 2006

A few days ago Mike and I went on a Grail hunt. The quest was a big success: we rounded up about two dozen Grails in less than an hour.

It helps if you know where to look. We were looking in the Carnegie, the vast museum complex in Pittsburgh, which made the hunt a bit easier. You don’t have to look far in any big art museum to find images of the Last Supper or the Eucharist.

One of my favorite places on earth is the Hall of Architecture at the Carnegie, a single gigantic room that houses North America’s greatest collection of plaster casts. These are life-size duplicates of the original monuments, made a hundred years ago so that Pittsburghers could study the whole history of Western architecture without crossing the sea, or for that matter the Monongahela River.

Neither words nor pictures can describe the awe this place inspires. You can follow Western architecture from ancient Egypt right through to the Renaissance, all at life size. The casts perfectly duplicate every pockmark and grain of the originals. In fact, they do better than that.

In the hundred years since the casts were made, most of the originals have suffered heart-wrenching damage from air pollution, two world wars, vandalism, and tourism. But the Carnegie’s casts have been safe in the great space that was built for them. They’re not just duplicates of the originals anymore: in many cases, they’re more original than the originals.

The centerpiece of the collection is the entire west front of the Romanesque abbey church of St Gilles in France. (You can see photos of the original church on line.) The church was built in the 1100s, which - as you’ll read in The Grail Code - was right around the time when Chretien de Troyes was writing the first of the great Grail romances. A great wave of Eucharistic piety was sweeping Europe

Three giant doorways, crowded with sculptures (many defaced hundreds of years ago by Calvinist fanatics), lead into the church. Over the doors is a frieze that narrates the events of Holy Week, from the entry into Jerusalem to the Crucifixion.

Right in the center, over the main portal, is the Last Supper.

The position could hardly be more symbolically appropriate, as any Harvard symbologist could tell you. In unmistakable visual language, the institution of the Eucharist is placed as the central event of Christ’s earthly ministry. It’s also literally the center of the church, as you see it from the front. And by walking in through the main door, you, the Christian worshiper, would enter the Last Supper. You would become a guest at Christ’s table.

By placing this medieval masterpiece of symbolism as the focal point of the Hall of Architecture, the Carnegie has - probably unwittingly - placed the Eucharist at the very center of Western architecture itself. That sounds about right to me.

Chalice piety from a patristic point of view

Friday, April 28th, 2006

Over on the other side, Mike Aquilina has some thoughts about chalice piety at his Way of the Fathers site. He also has a link to take you back here, so you could get stuck in the kind of infinite loop that always happened in those BASIC programs I tried to write when I was in high school back in the early 1980s.

Connoisseurs of the simply awful pun will want to check out Mike’s blog for that reason alone. He says his headlines have been unusually inspired over the last few days, if that’s what you call it.

Objectifying women in the name of the sacred feminine

Thursday, April 27th, 2006

Brad Kirkegard has a very thoughtful and charitable article in the Journal of Lutheran Ethics about The Da Vinci Code, and in particular about a strange irony in the way that novel presents women.

Though Dan Brown’s novel talks a lot about the “sacred feminine,” women don’t amount to much in the story. The Mary Magdalene of the Bible is a strong character who overcomes social assumptions about the role of women and actually gets the whole Church moving at a crucial point in history. On the other hand, says Mr. Kirkegard,

“Taking a specific textual tradition that celebrates Mary’s importance for her mind and perception, he has made her and women once more important only as objects and vessels to be saved by sexuality and particularly by child birth.”

Mr. Kirkegard is a lot more charitable than I usually am. He probably gives the revisionist historians more credit than I would, and he’s probably more sympathetic than I would be toward some of the first-century heresies. His patience seems a bit strained by time he gets to his last paragraph, but on the whole his article is a model of charity for those of us who find ourselves forced to talk about The Da Vinci Code, even when we’d much rather be talking about Walter Map.

More about “maudlin”

Thursday, April 27th, 2006

A correspondent sends us an important correction. “Just a little factoid: while those in the other place do pronounce Magdalene as ‘Maudlin’, in Cambridge we always used ‘Mag-da-lene’ of the college which goes by that name.” My apologies to everyone at Mag-da-lene College, Cambridge. I feel especially guilty because I went to a tiny college called Saint John’s in Annapolis, Maryland, and every once in a while someone outside the college would try to pronounce the name “SIN-Jins.” I’m sorry to say that, though St. John’s was founded way back in 1696 (which seems like a very long time ago to us Americans), we still pronounce the name the way it’s spelled. We have at least that in common with the good people in Cambridge.

Another comment from Catalonia pointed out two Catalan expressions: plorar com una magdalena, “to cry like a Magdalene,” and semblar una Maria Magdalena, said of a woman with very long hair. Thank you for these very interesting observations, which give us more evidence of the prominent place of Mary Magdalene in popular piety.

The Holy Grail of Blogs

Monday, April 24th, 2006

Blessed reader, you’ve done it. You’ve just stumbled across the Holy Grail of blogs.

Now, doesn’t that sound silly? Actually, of course, what you’ve really found is a blog about the Holy Grail, which is a bit different.

We’re used to finding the Holy Grail of this or that. Go to your favorite search engine and see what you turn up by looking for “holy grail of.”

I found lots of Holy Grails that way: the Holy Grail of applied physics, the Holy Grail of data storage management, the Holy Grail of the nonprofit sector - even the Holy Grail of Crap, which was such a delightful expression that I thought I might have found the Holy Grail of holy-grails-of. Google counts “about 1,860,000″ results for “holy grail of,” which by the time you read this we can probably safely round up to two million.

We all know what the expression means. There’s something out there so desirable that we’d give up everything to have it. When we find it, our lives will finally be complete, and the world will be paradise again.

That doesn’t actually happen to the fellow who finds the Holy Grail of data storage management. Even if it makes him filthy rich, he still doesn’t find paradise on earth, as you can confirm by following the antics of the filthy rich in the gossip columns.

But we all feel that inborn longing for lost paradise. We all know there has to be a way to get back there. The old romances of the Holy Grail were about that longing. And they were more than that: the best of the romances were nothing less than a road map to paradise.

That’s what The Grail Code is about: the powerful myth of the Holy Grail, the object of all desire, and what that myth really meant to the people who told the best stories about it.

But there’s far more to be said about the Holy Grail than one book can say. That’s what this blog is about. All the scenic byways and entertaining digressions we had to pass by in the book will find their home here. I’ll have a lot to say about the Holy Grail in modern culture, too - it’s getting a lot of attention these days.

Most of all, though, I’m here to enjoy myself. I hope my readers will come for the same reason.

Christopher Bailey

Postscript: We had meant this to be the first entry in the blog. But when we put up a test version of the site a few days ago, interested readers managed to stumble across it almost instantly, and one kind soul even left a comment in reply to one of the sample blog entries. Since the conversation has already begun, I won’t try to start over. Welcome once again to everyone.

Comic-book heroes of the Dark Ages

Thursday, April 20th, 2006

Looking for the beginnings of the Grail story takes us into some strange places. It’s hard to tell sometimes whether we’ve entered the realm of ancient pagan mythology or the realm of Saturday-morning cartoons.

We spent many happy hours rummaging through old Welsh legends when we were putting together The Grail Code, and it really hurt to leave out some of the treasures we found. We had a particular story to tell in the book, and we couldn’t distract our readers with long side trips into the far reaches of Welsh legend.

But that was the book. We don’t mind distracting you here.

In the ancient Welsh stories, Arthur’s court is like an assembly of comic-book superheroes, each with his own special power. The story of Kilhwch and Olwen, preserved for us in the Mabinogion, gives us an amazing list of Arthur’s warriors. Many of the names are annotated with scraps of legend:

Gilla Coes Hyd could leap over three hundred acres at one bound.

Sugyn son of Sugnedydd could suck up the sea on which three hundred ships floated, leaving nothing but a dry beach. (”He was broad-chested,” the story adds, which must be a bit of an understatement.)
Sol could stand on one foot all day.

Rhacymwri, the attendant of Arthur, could flail a barn into oat-size splinters. Apparently he did it to “whatever barn he was shown”; it must have been necessary to keep him out of sight of barns until his barn-flailing services were required.

When Gwevyl son of Gwestad was sad, he let one of his lips drop below his waist and brought the other up over his head like a cap. We’re not told whether this skill made him any less sad.

Gwrhyr Gwastawd Icithoedd knew every language, even the languages of animals and birds.

Uchtryd Varyf Draws had a red beard so long that he spread it over the forty-eight rafters of Arthur’s hall.

Clust son of Clustveinad could hear an ant fifty miles away, even if you buried him (Clust, that is, not the ant) seven cubits under the ground.

Gwiawn Llygad Cath could cut a haw from the eye of a gnat without hurting him, which must have made him popular among Arthur’s insect subjects.

Drem son of Dremidyd could stand at the southern end of Britain and see a gnat at the northern end, though we don’t know whether he could see it well enough to tell whether it required the services of Gwiawn Llygad Cath.

Sgilte Yscawndroed ran on the tops of the trees whenever there was a forest in his way.

Kai or Cai (the Kay of the later romances) had a number of special powers. He could make himself as tall as a tree whenever he liked. He could hold his breath under water for nine nights and nine days, and he could go without sleep for the same period. No physician could heal a wound from his sword. His natural heat was so great that people used him to light their fires.

Strangely, although the story gives this catalogue of Kai’s powers, he doesn’t use any of them. When he comes up against a giant, he uses guile to defeat him, rather than simply making himself as tall as a tree and squashing the giant with one foot.

In fact, very few of these fantastic figures make any use of their fantastic abilities in the story. (An important exception is the case of Gwrhyr Gwastawd Icithoedd, who talks to quite a number of animals and birds.) They simply have them, the way a modern narrator might indicate that a character had chestnut hair and green eyes without making the plot turn on that description.

These are the things you find when you go looking for Arthur in the dimmest reaches of the Dark Ages.

The strange stories themselves are entertaining and even fascinating, but what’s even more fascinating is the way the great romances of the Middle Ages changed these people from comic-book heroes to memorable human characters, without losing the sense of awe and wonder that made the stories popular in the first place. This is the raw material from which the Grail romances were constructed; we hardly realize how raw it is until we see what artists like Walter Map have turned it into.

A maudlin history

Thursday, April 20th, 2006

“Etymology” is an uninviting word - which is a pity, because etymology itself is a lot of fun. By finding out where our words came from and how they’ve changed, we can learn a lot about our history and ourselves.

Take, for example, the ordinary and familiar word “maudlin,” meaning morbidly sentimental. Where does it come from? We’ll spare you the suspense: it comes from “Magdalene,” as in Mary Magdalene.

Popular images of St. Mary Magdalene traditionally showed her shedding penitential tears. Artists often pushed the poor Magdalene to the limits of lachrymosity - so much that her name became a popular byword for anything ostentatiously weepy. “Maudlin,” in fact, is the traditional English pronunciation of “Magdalene,” as in Magdalene College (Oxford or Cambridge), which is still pronounced “Maudlin.”

Now, if you’re wondering what all this has to do with the Holy Grail, you obviously haven’t read The Da Vinci Code, and we envy you.

In the novel, you see, Mary Magdalene was the Holy Grail, who carried the blood of Christ in the form of the child of Christ - an idea taken directly from the pop conspiracy bestseller Holy Blood, Holy Grail, whose authors unsuccessfully sued Dan Brown for plagiarism.

Among the many historical whoppers in Dan Brown’s book, one of the whoppingest is that the name of Mary Magdalene “was forbidden by the Church.” (It’s on page 254 of the hardcover edition, in case you keep it by your pillow for handy reference.)

Now, we could refute that silly bit of nonsense any number of ways. We could compile lists of medieval churches and other institutions dedicated to St. Mary Magdalene. (Both Magdalene Colleges come to mind.) We could jot down all the references to her in medieval literature. We could find her on calendars of saints and in popular hymns.

But we don’t have to do any of that work, because the most compelling evidence is right here in our English language, where it’s accessible to anyone.

From our language itself we know that Mary Magdalene’s name was on everyone’s lips. She was one of the most familiar objects of popular piety - so popular that her name turned into a common everyday adjective.

We don’t need any more evidence than that. Our language proves that people were mentioning the name of Mary Magdalene all the time.

See? We told you etymology was a lot of fun.

(C) 2006 Mike Aquilina and Christopher Bailey