The Grail Code 

Archive for November, 2006

The Blood Is the Life

Sunday, November 26th, 2006

A remarkable excavation is going on right now in the venerable city of Mexico, an ancient metropolis that was the capital of the great Aztec empire long before it became the capital of New Spain. This article gives some more details, and it also has some very interesting things to say about the Aztecs themselves.

Most of all, what caught my eye was the way the article describes the Aztecs as a “deeply religious people.” It sounds like some sort of political correctness at first: the Aztecs have been called superstitious savages far too often, so now we call them “deeply religious” to atone for the sins of our imperialist ancestors.

But it’s absolutely true. The Aztecs were deeply religious, more deeply religious than most of us can ever imagine being. I’m not being facetious (for a change) when I say that human sacrifice on an industrial scale requires a deep religious commitment.

The Aztecs were famous, or notorious, for the frequency and quantity of their sacrifices. The constant demand for human victims was one of the things that made many of their subject peoples hate the Aztec rulers, and indeed the main reason Cortez was able to conquer one of the world’s mightiest empires with only a handful of Spanish soldiers was that he had legions of American soldiers to back him up, all drawn from discontented victims of Aztec tyranny.

Human sacrifice is not something that sits well with those of us who have inherited the Judeo-Christian tradition. It was the sin that was always most horrifying to the Old Testament prophets—especially the sacrifice of children, a common ritual in Canaanite religion.

Yet it was also the sin to which the ancient Israelites were most susceptible.

Why? Certainly not because they weren’t religious. Quite the contrary: they had a superfluity of religion.

The Law of Moses specified exactly what sacrifices were necessary and acceptable to God, but to a really religious Israelite they just didn’t seem like enough. It just wasn’t safe to neglect the ultimate sacrifice. That, at least, is how it must have seemed to the unfailingly religious Israelites who crossed the line and entered the temple of Molech.

The Aztecs had that same sort of religious fervor, but they had it in even greater depth and abundance. Mexican chronicles tell of occasions when thousands of victims were sacrificed in one day. Those must have been proud days for every sincerely religious Aztec.

The Aztecs were hardly unique in their devotion to human sacrifice. It seems that every Central American people worshiped gods who demanded human blood now and then. The only thing that really distinguished the Aztecs was the scale of the operation. They had refined sacrifice into an industry; being a highly civilized people, they had a highly civilized factory system for dispatching human victims to the gods.

These are all facts of history that are not in dispute, but what we do with those facts tends to divide us along religious and cultural lines. Christian writers among the Spanish conquerors, and some of the historians who followed them, have tended to dwell on the horror of human sacrifice in contrast to the Christian religion that replaced it. On the other hand, many recent writers treat the same subject as an irreducible fact of anthropology. We can neither condemn nor understand it, because the Aztecs were utterly different from us.

Both views, I think, miss the point, and for the same reason. Both treat the ancient Mexicans as if they were utterly different from us, which helps us avoid the extremely uncomfortable fact that they were actually just like us. If they are different, we don’t have to worry about them. We couldn’t be like that; it’s an Aztec thing.

But if they’re people just like us, we have to admit that we are perfectly capable of human sacrifice.

The Holy Grail, after all, is filled with the real blood of Christ, the one perfect human and thus the one perfect human sacrifice. We are very little different from the Aztecs.

But what a big difference that very little difference makes!

Our religions are both founded on human sacrifice, and for exactly the same reason: no other sacrifice is good enough. The animal sacrifices of the Old Law could not take away sin, as the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us.

But the human sacrifices of the Aztecs and the Canaanites didn’t take away sin, either. On the contrary, they compounded and multiplied sin. If no sacrifice was great enough to atone for our ordinary sins, what could possibly atone for murder?

No, there was only one sacrifice that could be good enough to make us right with God, and that was the sacrifice of himself that God willingly made.

That is the deep and basic difference between the Aztec idea of human sacrifice and the Christian idea of human sacrifice. The Aztecs’ gods demanded a constant flow of blood, and too much was never enough. Our God demanded one perfect sacrifice, and he provided the victim himself.

When you read in the weeks to come about the magnificent discoveries coming out of Mexico City, don’t shake your head and wonder at the benighted savagery of the Aztecs. Instead, admire the wisdom and true religious spirit of a great and philosophical people, and understand that they were horribly wrong precisely because they were so very close to being right.

Codice Graal

Tuesday, November 21st, 2006

Once again there was no warning. I stepped out on the porch and there it was: a little box from Loyola. What language would it be this time?

And the answer is…Italian! Yes, The Grail Code—or rather Codice Graal—is now in print in Italian, so all our friends in Italy can finally know what all the fuss is about.

The Italian blurb on the back of the book aptly describes it as “a cultural, historical, and theological detective story.” It turns out that the Italian word for “detective story” is “detective story.” You know more Italian than you thought you did.

Exclusive! A guide to faking it in Welsh

Monday, November 20th, 2006

In response to a number of requests, I’ve added a new page to this site: How to Pronounce Those Impossible Welsh Names.

Quite a few Welsh names came up in The Grail Code, and quite a few more have come up in this little journal (especially when we talked about the Welsh superheroes of long ago). The problem with Welsh spelling is that it looks plainly impossible to eyes accustomed to reading English. We just can’t imagine the alphabet working that way.

Now, there are a number of good sites on the Web that will teach you how to pronounce Welsh exactly the way the Welsh do, or—if you prefer—the way the Welsh did when the Mabinogion was compiled. But this page is different. This page teaches you to pronounce Welsh names as if you knew how, which will fool anyone who doesn’t speak Welsh. That, as far as I know, makes it unique in the wonderfully wacky Web.

A new marketing idea

Monday, November 20th, 2006

I was walking past a towering display of Da Vinci Code DVDs when I noticed a cover that seemed out of place. I looked again: it was Sleepless in Seattle, the venerable romantic comedy with a much younger Tom Hanks. But it wasn’t a mistake in shelving: Sleepless in Seattle was wrapped with a copy of The Da Vinci Code, so you could buy them both for just one inflated price.

This seems like good marketing to me. If you buy a good movie bundled with a bad movie, at least you get something for your money.

I might suggest the same marketing tactics with books. It seems to me that Random House could bundle The Da Vinci Code with a good book, so you’d have something to read when you bought it. I might suggest The Grail Code. It features some of the same cast of characters, and it tells a much more engrossing story in a much more entertaining way.

A historico-mechanical detective story

Tuesday, November 14th, 2006

Another Holy-Grail-of: the Holy Grail of Portable Manual Typewriters. According to this page, it’s the Rooy, an elegant, wafer-thin portable made in France in the 1950s. Terribly expensive in its time, it’s one of the few manual typewriters worth more than $5 today. That’s as good an excuse as any for talking about typewriters.

I love manual typewriters, because I love all clever mechanical things. I don’t really use them much, though. I prefer a good old steel pen with sepia writing fluid. This newfangled technology is all very well for you busy office types, but a gentleman of leisure can afford to take some care with his writing.

Nevertheless, I do own a typewriter, but not an elegant little Rooy. Mine is a great hulking beast from the 1940s, an office machine designed to take years of abuse and still keep churning out one dull memorandum after another. There are still things for which a typewriter is simply better than a laptop computer. For example, the computer makes a very poor murder weapon compared with a cast-iron office typewriter. These modern plastic computers would just go to pieces. You could probably murder your worst enemy with an old cast-iron typewriter and then type your confession on the same machine.

Now I’ll tell you an interesting little historico-mechanical detective story. For years I had no idea what brand of typewriter mine was: there’s no nameplate on it at all. My five-year-old son loves typing on it, though, so a few days ago we decided to make a project of cleaning it and restoring it to first-class typing condition.

While I was cleaning the back, I noticed a patch of black that was a little smoother than the rest of the black crinkle finish. I scraped it with a fingernail and discovered some gold letters underneath.

At that moment, I knew how Howard Carter must have felt when he shone his torch into Tutankhamen’s tomb. He must have felt the same way I did, only about ten thousand times better, because all I discovered as I scraped was a label identifying the typewriter as the product of “The Woodstock Typewriter Company.”

Well, there’s a bit of a mystery. Why was the name deliberately obscured, and obscured so carefully that I had never noticed before that it had been obscured?

At this point, a certain number of readers who happen to be older than I am have already guessed the answer. For the rest of us, though, I’ll continue the story.

My son and I looked up Woodstock typewriters on Google. The first entry was what we thought we were looking for: a history of the Woodstock typewriter, with a picture of my exact model (showing the nameplate on the front that has been carefully removed on mine) and a serial-number chart that dated ours to 1946.

Later I started to tell the story to my father. “We discovered that my big old typewriter is a Woodstock,” I began.

“Oh,” my father replied. “Is it the Woodstock?”

And that was when I first learned that every member of my father’s generation immediately associates Woodstock typewriters with Alger Hiss. If you go further down the Google results for “Woodstock typewriter,” the name Alger Hiss keeps coming up. Briefly, the whole case against Hiss hinged on proving that the Hiss family’s Woodstock typewriter was used to type copies of secret documents. For the better part of 1949, the news every day was full of “the Woodstock typewriter.” The Commie mole used a Woodstock typewriter. Woodstock typewriter, Hiss, Woodstock typewriter, traitor, Woodstock typewriter, Communist, Woodstock typewriter.

By a strange coincidence, the Woodstock Typewriter Company went out of business in 1950.

I think what I have in my office is a relic of the Red Scare. I think the name Woodstock must have been deliberately obliterated everywhere it appeared because it was a Commie name.

Now I have a great deal more reverence for my old Woodstock. It’s not just a typewriter; it’s a relic of history. It lived through the Red Scare and still bears the scars. It makes that part of history more concrete for me; by living with that typewriter, I also live, to a certain extent, with the complex legacy of Hiss and Chambers and Nixon and Truman and all the other big players in that strange part of our history.

This must be why so many people are fascinated by the question of whether the “real” Holy Grail still exists somewhere. Is there a chalice in Valencia, or in Wales, or in Scotland, or somewhere else, that Jesus Christ actually used at the Last Supper? Even just imagining that the thing still exists brings us closer to that event.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: you’re asking yourself, “Is there any subject on earth that he won’t manage to tie in with the Holy Grail somehow?”

I don’t know. I haven’t tried all the subjects on earth yet. Give me time.

A milestone

Tuesday, November 14th, 2006

Since I last wrote, the spam count is up to 10,225. We’ve broken the 10,000 mark, which calls for opening a bottle of cheap imitation champagne.

Da Vinci all over again

Sunday, November 12th, 2006

What’s that racket in the distance? It sounds like a tired old brass band playing a crusty march badly out of tune.

Oh, I know! It must be the Da Vinci Code publicity machine, getting ready for the DVD release of the movie. The trumpeter’s lip is numb and the cymbal player’s knuckles are all bruised and bloody, but the band has just this one more number to play. Then everyone can go home and rest, at least until the network television premiere.

I still haven’t seen the movie, and I can think of a lot of things I’d rather spend money on than a DVD copy of it. A book, for example. I could recommend a humdinger if you asked me.

Or marbles. You can have a lot of fun with marbles, and you can practically fill your parlor with marbles for the price of one new DVD release.

Or how about a good movie? There are plenty of better movies on DVD, many of them at very reasonable prices. Plan 9 from Outer Space, for example, can be had for less than $10 if you shop around.

Meanwhile, we can expect the same round of tired old hoohaw about the “controversy” surrounding The Da Vinci Code. (There’s no controversy about the book’s—and movie’s—historical claims, any more than there’s controversy about the existence of the Tooth Fairy.) It will all be more muted this time around, though. The band doesn’t have the breath left to blow really loud, and anyway most of the parade-watchers have gone home.

But when all the noise has died down and the street sweepers are picking up the confetti, the medieval romances of the Holy Grail will still be as fresh as they ever were. Then you’ll see the difference between a sensation and a masterpiece.

A well-deserved tribute

Sunday, November 12th, 2006

According to the latest statistics, this site has received 9,520 spam comments so far. That’s a testament to the tireless industry and good old capitalist work ethic of the online-sleaze industry, and I pause to offer this tribute to Best Online Casinos, Buy Viagra, Sex Movie, Football Picks, and all the other hard-working commentators who help keep the wheels of commerce liberally greased. Keep those ads coming, friends, and I’ll keep deleting them. It gives both of us something to do.

The Holy Grail of Democracy

Friday, November 10th, 2006

Whatever you think of the outcome of the American elections this week, you must admit that democracy in action is an amazing thing to watch. Every two years, we Americans tell a certain number of our most powerful leaders that their services will no longer be required. And they just pack up and go.

They leave their power, their privileges, often their very homes—all because a bunch of people they’ve never met told them to go away.

The President of the United States is often called the most powerful man on earth. He’s commander-in-chief of the world’s biggest armed force. Yet not once in more than two centuries of fearsomely interesting times has one of our presidents refused to step down when his time was up. Not one of them has called the army into the streets to prevent his successor from taking office.

There’s a lot at stake there. Every president must have had strong opinions on how the country should be run. Every Federalist succeeded by a Whig, every Whig succeeded by a Democrat, every Democrat succeeded by a Republican, and so on, must have been sure that his successor would lead the country to ruin. A president who was popular with the generals would find it very easy just to decide that the current emergency (and when is there not a current emergency?) renders it absolutely necessary that the current administration remain in power.

That is exactly what has happened, over and over again, in almost every other country whose constitution is modeled on ours. We often praise the wisdom of the authors of our Constitution, but that wisdom has seldom been successfully exported. Our Constitution gives our President an awful lot of power. In other countries, that power turns presidents into dictators. But though our President is the most powerful of them all, we never doubt that he’ll be gone after eight years at most.

We’ve had some pretty bad presidents in our history. My personal nominee for worst ever is James Buchanan, who’s also the only one from Pennsylvania. It figures. But even he walked away when it was time for Lincoln to take office—even though he knew that Lincoln’s taking office meant inevitable civil war.

Why do people just walk away from the most powerful positions on earth? Why don’t our presidents cling to power with every last fingernail? Why didn’t the Republicans just decide to annul last Tuesday’s elections if they didn’t like the result?

It must be because there’s something they want even more than power. The ideals of democracy and the rule of law actually have more physical power than the President of the United States has.

There is, in other words, something worth even more than the very best and the very most the world has to offer.

That’s a very hard lesson to learn. The things of this world, after all, are here right now, where we can see them. “Democracy” is out there somewhere in the land of invisible abstractions.

Yet this is the lesson we need to learn if we really want to be happy. Clinging selfishly to possessions and privileges won’t make us happy: in fact, it ends up making us miserable. This world has a lot of good things in it, but we’re born with a longing that they can’t satisfy. Only the people who are willing to give things up for the sake of something greater will ever be happy.

If you’ve read The Grail Code, I don’t need to tell you that this is also the lesson of the Holy Grail romances. The things we love and prize may point the way to the thing we really want, but they may also stand in our way. In the Walter Map romances, Lancelot had to lose everything to learn that lesson. The things he had prized most in the world didn’t make him happy. In fact, they stood in the way of the only thing that could really make him happy, which was meeting God face to face.

So some congratulations are due to the winners in Tuesday’s election. They’re taking on a noble public duty, and we certainly hope they’ll fill their positions with wisdom and dignity. But even more congratulations go to the losers. They’ll walk away from their power and privileges, and toward what just might make them truly happy.

A cheap cup? Maybe not

Friday, November 10th, 2006

My wife was just watching a bit of a documentary on the Discovery channel about the Holy Grail. I couldn’t take the MTV-style editing, so I didn’t watch much. The part I did see had a parade of experts explaining why the original cup of the Last Supper couldn’t have been anything very elaborate: it would certainly have been something simple and utilitarian, made of wood or terra cotta.

Allow me to disagree.

I don’t say the cup wasn’t utilitarian; it may well have been. But I do say there’s good reason to suppose that it might have been something rather expensive. We considered the question a little in The Grail Code, but here’s a recap:

Think for a moment about what we know of the Last Supper.

Jesus and his disciples didn’t have much in the way of possessions. In fact, the disciples were particularly instructed to travel with nothing.

But when the time came to celebrate the Passover, they did it in style.

For the occasion, they borrowed a house with a big dining room. It must have belonged to one of Jesus’ followers who was fairly well off—well off enough, anyway, to have a dining room suitable for entertaining a party of thirteen.

Since Jesus and his disciples certainly didn’t carry a full table service around with them, the plates, cups, and utensils probably came with the house. And since the Passover was the most important Jewish feast, and the owner of the house was entertaining the Master, we might guess that he set out the best he had. That might include a cup made at least of glass, or possibly of silver or gold.

I don’t know any of that, of course. But I do think it’s unscientific and unhistorical to dismiss the possibility that the original cup was something elaborate and expensive. In fact, on the whole, I’d say the circumstances are in favor of that possibility.

(C) 2006 Mike Aquilina and Christopher Bailey