The Grail Code 

Archive for the 'Archaeology' Category

Maybe the Grail isn’t in Iceland after all

Monday, October 6th, 2008

Shhh! Be vewwy, vewwy quiet! I’m hunting Gwails!

I’m still going to talk more about Mrs. Lennox and the romances of Mlle de Scudery, but first a brief diversion.
Mr. Adrian Murdoch points us to the news of the latest Grail hunt, this time led by a cryptographer named Giancarlo Gianazza. He’s hunting Grails in Iceland, although so far without success.

Why Iceland?  Well, because the clues all point there.

In Botticelli’s “Primavera” a series of numeric symbols form the date March 14, 1319, which somehow supports Gianazza’s theory, and in da Vinci’s “Last Supper” Gianazza believes to have found outlines matching the landscape at Kjölur.

Further clues were found in Dante Alighieri’s “Divine Comedy” and an ancient Icelandic script states that poet and politician Snorri Sturluson was accompanied by “eighty armored Eastmen” at the Althingi parliament in 1217, who could have been the Knights Templars.

So, to sum up the evidence: A painting by Botticelli gives us a date, which of course means Iceland, and Da Vinci’s Last Supper, which we rather naively thought was a picture of the Last Supper, is actually a map of part of Iceland, and–here’s the clincher–the Knights Templars actually went to Iceland. Because who else would be both armed and from the “east”?

I must confess that, to my non-cryptographically-trained eye, this looks like a bunch of conspiracy-theory nonsense. Conspiracy theories work by confirmation bias. You get an idea in your head, and you start looking for evidence to support it. And sure enough it’s everywhere! Of course, your brain, rejoicing immoderately over the molehills of evidence you’ve dug up with such labor, ignores the mountains of evidence on the opposite side.

I think the Holy Grail is hidden in Pittsburgh. Why? Consider the evidence:

1. The city of Pittsburgh just celebrated its 250th anniversary this past weekend. 250 is a big, round number.

2. Leonardo’s Last Supper uses many triangular elements in its composition. Downtown Pittsburgh is built on the “Golden Triangle.” Coincidence? That’s what they’d like you to believe!

3.  St. Anthony’s Chapel in Troy Hill has the largest collection of relics in the world. Frankly, if you were looking for the Holy Grail, it would be hard to think of a better place to start.

4. The Knights of Columbus have a chapter in Pittsburgh. I always get the Knights of Columbus and the Knights Templars mixed up.

I see only one reasonable course of action: some Grail-lover with deep pockets needs to give me a grant to look for the Grail in Pittsburgh. Just make the check payable to Christopher Bailey. I’ll keep an eye out as I wander around here and there, and if I happen to see any Grails, I’ll let you know.

What Science Is For

Wednesday, October 1st, 2008

According to the BBC, we can use mouse genetics to track human migration. The Viking invasions are mentioned here, but human migrations of all sorts may well be mirrored in the house-mouse populations. Can you imagine a more useful or interesting use of genetic science? I mean, sure, we might be able to cure cancer or something dull like that, but perhaps we can also know exactly where the Saxons settled and when. Now that’s what I call science.

Tomb of Jesus: still not found

Thursday, December 20th, 2007

In honor of the still-striking writers in Hollywood, here’s a rerun. One of the most-emailed items on the BBC’s web site this morning is this crusty old thing, a story that first appeared way back in February. “Jesus tomb found, says film-maker”—with a headline like that it’s got to be true! Actually, it’s not, but apparently some people are still talking about it as though it were. As you might expect, I thoroughly demolished the filmmaker’s argument when the story first ran, but as a public service to all those who might be taken in by the story on its second go-round, here we go again.

By now you’ve surely heard the wonderful news. But I’ll tell you anyway: the tomb of Jesus and his wife Mary Magdalene has been found—and found, just coincidentally, by a famous director with a movie to peddle.

Mr. James Cameron is no fool. He knows a pot of gold when he sees one, and that’s exactly what he has on his hands here. Alternative-Jesus theories are big money these days. Just ask Mr. Dan Billion-Dollar-Industry Brown.

If you take all this for the hokum it is, it’s really very entertaining. But apparently some people are taking this tomb-of-Jesus story perfectly seriously, and that’s where I really have to draw the line.

I’m not an archaeologist, so I can’t evaluate the supposed find the way an archaeologist would. I probably wouldn’t be allowed to examine it even if I were a reputable archaeologist—or perhaps especially if I were a reputable archaeologist. But I do know a little about history, and about the history of archaeology in general. My little knowledge doesn’t give me much confidence in this supposed discovery.

First of all, it’s very odd that the tomb of Jesus and Mary Magdalene should go undiscovered until exactly the moment in history when a lot of people are prepared to believe that there was a tomb of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Considering the number of hoaxes that blacken the history of Palestinian archaeology, I’m inclined to doubt the authenticity of this find altogether.

But let’s say that the discovery is authentic: that there really is a group of ossuaries marked Mary, Mary, Jesus son of Joseph, Matthew, and Judah son of Jesus, plus four irrelevant unknowns.

Now, Mr. Cameron says that statistics and DNA analysis prove his claim that this is the tomb of Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

Let’s dismiss the sillier claim first. DNA can’t prove anything of the sort. The only thing DNA analysis could possibly prove in this case is that some of the people were related in certain ways to some of the other people. DNA doesn’t include a coded curriculum vitae. So it might (I don’t know enough about DNA analysis to say it would) be possible to prove that one of the Marys was the mother of Jesus son of Joseph, and that Judah son of Jesus was the son of the other Mary and Jesus son of Joseph.

Now let’s talk statistics. Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and Judah were some of the most common names in first-century Palestine. Jesus had at least two disciples named Judas (the Greek form of Judah): Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him, and Judas “not Iscariot,” who didn’t. (He’s more commonly known as St. Jude.) Almost universal ancient tradition says that the given name of Thomas was also Judas, which would bring the total to three.

As for Mary, think how much trouble average readers have sorting out Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary the wife (or mother) of Clopas, Mary the sister of Martha, and Mary Magdalene. Even scholars still debate how many of those were the same person. It’s quite clear that the ground was littered with Marys in first-century Palestine.

Suppose I found a tomb dated roughly the time of George Washington—between 1700 and 1900, let’s say. Suppose it contained the remains of one George whose wife was Martha and whose mother was Mary. Would that prove conclusively that I had found George Washington? No, because those are very common names. Yet I don’t think they’re anywhere near as common as Jesus, Joseph, Mary, and Judah were in first-century Palestine.

Now, let’s look at the assumptions we’re making. Mr. Cameron says that finding the tomb of Mary Magdalene was what convinced him that this must be the real tomb of Jesus. I quote from the BBC article:

Another grave said by producers to be of Mary Magdalene convinced researchers of the truth of their find, Mr Cameron said at a New York news conference.

Unveiling his documentary The Lost Tomb of Jesus, Mr Cameron said the chances of finding that combination of names together was like finding a grave marked Ringo next to others marked John, Paul and George.

“Mariamene is Mary Magdalene - that’s the Ringo, that’s what sets this whole film in motion,” he said.

In other words, what proves that this Jesus is in fact Jesus Christ is the fact that he was buried with his wife Mary, presumed to be Mary Magdalene, with whom he had a son. Without that fact, the find wasn’t convincing even to Mr. Cameron.

Now, let’s step away from the early 21st century for a moment and remember that, in almost all the rest of history, that fact would have proved conclusively that this was not the tomb of Jesus. Relying only on the known histories of Jesus’ life, every historian—Christian, agnostic, atheist, Satanist, or whatever—would have concluded that he died without marrying.

Now a number of popular books have, without a scrap of real historical evidence, convinced the illiterati that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. Because of that unhistorical popular delusion, Mr. Cameron is convinced that he’s found the tomb of Jesus.

In other words, the premise is pure fantasy, which is why I can’t really accept the conclusion.

Bringing out the nuts (part 2)

Wednesday, November 28th, 2007

We were asking why the story of the Holy Grail brings out the nuts, and I think to answer that, we have to decide what makes the story of the Holy Grail so appealing in the first place.

First of all, the story of the quest for the Holy Grail, as refined by the medieval writers, is simply perfect. It’s the story every other story wants to be when it grows up.

If I were to take any random novel and tell you that it was really, underneath it all, the story of man’s quest for what is ultimately desirable and how his own failings stand in the way, you’d probably tell me I’d got it just about right. Tom Jones, or Mardi, or A Christmas Carol, or War and Peace—I’ve just given you the facile undergraduate key to interpreting them all. Feel free to use it in your papers. You’ll get at least a C minus, which is better than nothing.

But the story of the Holy Grail is the story of that quest, not underneath it all but through and through, with no fillers and no artificial additives. I’m tempted to say that it’s the story, the one we’ve been telling each other since Gilgamesh, but refined and purified until it can’t be refined any more. It’s pure essence of story, or at least as pure as our current storytelling technology will allow.

But why does a story so good bring out the nuts? Probably because it’s so good—so good that we really want to believe it’s true, at least in some sense. Unfortunately, many of us don’t want to believe the Christian part of it, because we’re still rebelling against the cartoon Christianity that pop culture mistakes for the real thing.

But if you can’t have Christianity, what’s left of the story? Not much. When you unceremoniously dump out the blood of Christ, the Holy Grail is as achingly empty as—well, as a heart without Christ. It has to be filled with something: something ultimately desirable. What do we want most of all? That’s what we’ll put in it. Love, or sex, or the Holy Grail of Information Architecture—whatever we think we want the most, we put that at the center of the story. And then the story is just about magic, which actually isn’t very interesting in itself.

The amazing thing about the Holy Grail legends is the way they use our mundane desires to lead us toward what we really desire. The Grail appears at Camelot and gives each knight his favorite meal: a straightforward appeal to the stomach. The quest is actually undertaken on that basis. But if it never went beyond the stomach, it wouldn’t be much of a story. Things really get interesting when the quest, or the Grail itself, begins to lay bare all the knights’ deepest spiritual failings.

Now, as we said in The Grail Code, there’s a longing born into our hearts. It’s like a spiritual DNA, as Mike always says: everyone is programmed to feel it. It’s designed to lead us toward God, and it takes a powerful act of the will to force it to lead us away from God.

The combination of that profound longing and our willful avoidance of its real goal is what produces silliness in the most benign cases, and madness in the most extreme. Here we can see what’s so appealing about the various perversions of the Grail legend into crazy conspiracy theories: it’s as though, by taking control of what may be the world’s most perfect story, we can somehow take control of God—who is, after all, at the center of the story—and mold him into what we want him to be. That, of course, is madness; but it’s a very common madness. It’s almost an inevitable madness. And that’s why every nut with a grudge against God wants to take over the Holy Grail.

Why does the Grail bring out the nuts?

Thursday, November 22nd, 2007

Nestled among the multiple copies of Dan Brown’s masterpieces in the clearance section of a local bookstore, I found—no, wait a minute, that sounds like I was nestled among the copies, etc., which is not a position I would put myself in. Let me start over, without taking the opportunity to bash poor old Dan Brown, who, after all, has been the target of a lot of ill-natured abuse these last few years, and only has a billion dollars to show for it.

While I was looking through the clearance books, I found a book by one Giles Morgan with the pleasingly utilitarian title The Holy Grail. For the small price I could afford to take a chance on it, even though the author’s other credits included writing for the Fortean Times, a magazine devoted to the belief that the world is inexplicably weird, or weirdly inexplicable, I forget which. I was surprised to find the book a mostly sensible and balanced history of the Grail in legend, literature, and popular entertainment. It’s a small book and a huge subject, so it skates lightly over the things The Grail Code dwells on at length: Walter Map and Thomas Malory get about a page each. But it presents a good overview of the whole story of the Grail in culture, and it doesn’t dwell on the kind of tabloid-friendly “mysteries” that make up the bulk of most Grail books.

Now, why did I say I was “surprised” to find that the book wasn’t loopy? Partly, I’ll admit, it was just the mention of the Fortean Times on the jacket. If you haven’t experienced the peculiar kind of intellectual loopiness that grows at the Fortean Times, I can’t honestly say that you ought to, but I do sneakily admire it from a distance. Charles Fort, the eponymous founder (don’t you just love the word “eponymous”? Eponymous eponymous eponymous), spent his life searching out odd phenomena that were difficult to explain—a rain of frogs, for example—and cataloguing them in charmingly rambly books (The Book of the Damned, New Lands, Lo!, Wild Talents) whose basic theme seems to be that the world is really weird and scientists are deliberately covering up the weirdness. It’s like paranoid conspiracy theory without the invective. Fort’s followers keep up the tradition, searching the world for unusual phenomena and grinding their brains down to the corpus callosum to come up with reasons why all scientific explanations fail. You can probably imagine what sort of Holy Grail book I might have expected from a Fortean.

But the Fortean connection wasn’t actually the main reason I was surprised. I was surprised because, without ever really thinking about it, I’ve learned to expect that almost every book about the Holy Grail will be full of hooey.

It’s almost impossible to find a book about the Holy Grail that doesn’t ignore all history and logic in the most cavalier manner imaginable. There’s something about the Grail legends that brings out the wacko in everyone. Mike and I wrote The Grail Code precisely because almost all the other books about the Holy Grail went so wildly off the rails, and none of them showed much interest in what we thought was the most interesting stage of the development of the legends: the magnificent allegories spun out of the Grail legends by great literary figures like Walter Map. We had to write it because it was the book we wanted to read.

What is it about the Holy Grail that makes nutters of us all? I’m going to start right off by admitting that I don’t really know the answer, so all you’ll get from me is a bunch of speculation. Which is all you ever get from me on this site anyway. Stay tuned: in the next installment, we look at what it is that makes the Holy Grail legend the greatest legend of all.

Hadrian was fifteen feet tall and looked like a hippie

Friday, August 10th, 2007

They’ve found a great big statue of Hadrian, the Roman emperor who tried to solve the barbarian problem in Britain once and for all. He simply built a great wall right across the island to keep the nasty Picts from pouring southward the way they tended to do whenever they felt the need for a bit of plunder.

It worked pretty well as long as the Empire poured enormous resources into keeping the wall liberally coated with soldiers. But walls don’t keep barbarians out forever, as even the Chinese—who built the biggest and best anti-barbarian wall in the world—could tell you. If you build a wall, eventually the barbarians will come at you by sea and demand that you buy their opium.

The mere fact that Hadrian and his successors were willing to put so much effort into defending the province shows how valuable they considered Britain. It also created the conditions under which Britain grew civilized, prosperous, and dependent. Without those Roman soldiers keeping the Picts on the other side of the wall, how could the Britons defend themselves?

The answer, of course, was to hire somebody else to do it, which brought in the seaborne English barbarians and led to the English conquest of most of the island.

Meanwhile, we have a new portrait of Hadrian to admire. The statue would have been about fifteen or sixteen feet tall, to judge by the size of the foot, and it shows Hadrian with his trademark beard. Most emperors shaved, but Hadrian wanted to look like a Greek philosopher. In other words, he was a hippie emperor.

History has generally judged him well. He didn’t persecute the Christians for their religion, as long as they complied with the laws of the Empire (which they couldn’t always do, of course, but you can’t have everything). He improved the imperial administration, and in general the empire was governed well during his reign. Although he had to face an especially bloody Jewish revolt, that all took place in the east and didn’t affect Britain much at all. As far as Britain was concerned, Hadrian was just about the ideal emperor, and things would have been just fine if every emperor after him had been just like him.

(C) 2006 Mike Aquilina and Christopher Bailey