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Da Vinci Decoded

It’s not often that a novel with fortean subject matter takes the world by storm, but The Da Vinci Code has done just that. Gordon Rutter attempts to unpick the fact from the fiction in Dan Brown’s best-seller. All photos are by the author.

Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code is a publishing phenomenon. It has sold over 17 million copies, been translated into over 40 languages and topped best-seller lists around the world. It’s also about to be made into a Hollywood movie directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks as hero Robert Langdon and (possibly) Kate Beckinsale as fellow sleuth and love interest Sophie Neveu. Why has this book caught the imagination of the world? Why has it achieved notoriety amongst certain circles? And why has it spawned a host of explanatory guides, articles and websites?

Firstly – if you haven’t read it and you want to save all the surprises for the book or the film, go and read a different article – there are spoilers aplenty below.

It’s probably best to begin with a quick summary of the book’s specific mythology or back-story, as it is this, in particular, that will be of greatest interest to the fortean reader. It runs something like this:

Before his death on the cross, Jesus had married Mary Magdalene; a union that had produced offspring. The descendents of Jesus and Magdalene bred with the French Merovingian dynasty. An organisation called the Priory of Sion (PoS) was founded to protect this Holy Blood Line, and the PoS, in turn, founded the Knights Templar. Both of these organisations protected the descendants of Jesus and Magdalene, and passed on the secret knowledge of their existence from generation to generation. After the (possible) dissolution of the Knights Templar, the PoS continued this mission alone. Over the years, the Priory’s leaders have consisted of the great and the good – Newton, Robert Fludd, Jean Cocteau… and, of course, a certain Leonardo Da Vinci. Da Vinci inserted coded references to the truth protected by the PoS into many of his most famous works, and it is these codes that launch our heroes on their quest.

Oh yes, and the Catholic Church has always known about the ‘truth’, but suppressed this knowledge because of internal schisms within the early Church.

Now a lot of this material is not necessarily new to forteans (having been the subject of a great many books over the years), but to the general public, who don’t necessarily read the same books we do, it all appears to be Earth-shattering. At the start of the book, Brown sets out the following claim: “All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate”.

But are they? What is the real truth behind the “Da Vinci Code”?

So sue me

One truth about The Da Vinci Code is that, as well as praise, it has attracted a fair bit of notoriety. For example Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln (authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, 1982) and David Wood (Genisis, 1986) are all suing Brown for infringement of their ideas. Wood was the first person to use the phrase “The Da Vinci Code” in the context that it is used in Brown’s book. This, apparently, gives him the right to sue Brown. Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln claim that the theories expounded in Brown’s book derive directly from their own, as set out in HBHG, and that this gives them grounds to sue Brown – but surely the whole point of their book is that it’s history, and how can anyone claim exclusive rights to that?

An American friend first introduced me to The Da Vinci Code. Whilst visiting the UK, he mentioned that the book was becoming quite popular in the States. My next encounter was at the Edinburgh Fortean Society, where Scott Russell recommended it during his talk on Rennes-le-Château.

I decided to pick up a copy to read over the summer, and found that – quite coincidentally – all of the major locations in the book, with one exception, were destinations on my own itinerary. I would have, it seemed, a perfect opportunity to discover the truth behind the Da Vinci Code as well!

The Pyramids of Paris

As I’ve mentioned, Brown prefaces his book with the statement: “All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.”

Well, it was certainly true that all the geographical locations employed in the novel existed – and I was going to visit them – so they seemed a good place to begin.

The book opens in Paris, more specifically in the Louvre, and from the start there are elements that will be familiar to forteans. The museum’s curator, for instance, is one Jacques Saunière – named after Bérenger Saunière , the priest at the centre of the Rennes-le-Château story. And also we have the first of Brown’s factual errors. Saunière is described as being 76 years old; the mandatory retirement age in France is 65, and there is no way a government employee (even a well respected one) would be able to get round that! And if you want to be really picky, when Saunière closes the iron door in the Louvre to seal himself in and set off the alarms, it should actually have been a wooden one. Trivial, I know, but when a book insists on its accuracy it tends to drive people to all sorts of extremes, whether of open and uncritical acceptance, or nitpicking criticism.

Another dubious and much-contested fact is Dan Brown’s description of the entrance to the Louvre itself. Brown claims that the controversial Louvre pyramid – completed in 1989– is made up of exactly 666 panes of glass. Various books deny this, although they themselves seem unable to agree on the exact number – just that it isn’t 666!

The home page of the company who provide the lights for the pyramid (www.erco.com/news/en/en_frameset_news. htm) states that there are 675 glass rhombus shapes and 118 triangles, but glassonweb (www.glassonweb.com/articles/article/94/) – a website for all your glass needs – goes for 603 rhombus shapes and 70 triangular ones. So, no real help there – and we can only wonder just where Brown got his number from.

Jacques Saunière’s murder in the Louvre is the incident that kick-starts The Da Vinci Code’s ensuing narrative. The guardian of the Priory of Sion’s secret, Saunière leaves clues (some hidden in Da Vinci artworks such as the Mona Lisa and the Madonna of the Rocks) which are then pursued by the book’s various heroes and villains as they search for what turns out to be the Holy Grail.

Next stop on the treasure hunt, then, is the church of St Sulpice, a short hop across Paris. St Sulpice contains an ancient Egyptian obelisk and a copper line in the floor, the Rose Line. The Rose Line is the zero degrees Meridian Line that ran through Paris until Greenwich took over the job in 1884 (well, for everywhere in the world apart from France, which retained the use of the Rose Line until 1911). The book’s claims for St Sulpice as the former site of a Temple of Isis seem to be misplaced, and it would appear this honour belongs to the nearby St Germain; but, to be honest, there is very little solid information available on this aspect. However, one thing is for certain, St Sulpice is an impressive and fascinating church – one which covers roughly the same amount of land as the more famous Parisian Cathedral of Notre Dame.

The Priory of Sion

And now one of the main bones of contention within the book raises its head – the Priory of Sion. There is a stained glass window in St Sulpice with the intertwined letters P and S; naturally, Brown says they stand for the Priory of Sion. Given that the church is some 400 years old, you could probably make the letters stand for whatever you want – how about Fortean Times founding editor Paul Sieveking? Not that he’s 400 years old, mind.

The Da Vinci Code’s hero, historian and symbologist Robert Langdon, describes the PoS as one of the oldest secret societies in existence. It’s certainly one of the most written about. The supposed history of the PoS is that it was formed in the 11th century to search for religious treasures and that it, in turn, formed the Knights Templar in 1118. After a bitter internal dispute, there was a parting of the ways in 1188, and the Priory returned to being an underground organisation dedicated to the preservation of the bloodline of Jesus Christ. Jesus, according to the PoS, had married Mary Magdelene and they had had a daughter. After surviving the crucifixion, the Holy family had fled and eventually found themselves in the South of France. Here, the lineal descendants of Jesus married into the Merovingian royal line (in spite of conventional history insisting that this line had died out with Dagobert II); the descendants of the holy bloodline have been protected and watched over to this day by the Priory, which waits for the right moment to restore one of its Royal charges to, first, the French throne, and then as a single ruler of all of Europe; presumably, at some point, its aim will be to install a single world ruler.

The Grand Masters of the Priory have included some of the most illustrious men of history, from Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle to Victor Hugo, Jean Cocteau and, of course, Leonardo Da Vinci himself; as well as a French gentleman by the name of Pierre Plantard.

Now, I am perfectly happy to accept that the Priory of Sion did exist, although not in the sense that Brown, and a whole cottage industry of other authors, has suggested.

A Catholic order named the Priory of Sion did once have its headquarters at the monastery of our Lady of Mount Zion in Jerusalem, although this order was eventually disbanded in 1617. Brown’s Priory, though, existed only from 1956 to 1984 (probable dates only) and was largely a construct of the above-mentioned Pierre Plantard. It appears that, amongst other things, Plantard was a bit of a joker who spread tales of various forgotten bloodlines and hidden codes. Into these he wove many other elements, but he always made sure that he himself had a prominent role (as a direct descendant of Merovingian King Dagobert II). Plantard was, during World War II, a Nazi sympathiser and anti-Semite. He published a newsletter called Vaincre, and at the end of the hostilities claimed to have been working secretly for the Resistance the whole time. A report by the police in France in 1941 had said that: “Plantard, who boasts of having links with numerous politicians, seems to be one of those dotty, pretentious young men who run more or less fictitious groups in an effort to look important and who are taking advantage of the present trend towards taking a greater interest in young people in order to attract the Government’s attention”. 1

From the 1950s to the 1980s, Plantard and several friends were involved with the PoS, which was apparently set up, at least initially, to promote low-cost housing (the name came from a local hill). In the 1980s, Plantard claimed that the Priory was getting ready to reveal itself and its secrets to the world. We’re still waiting.

A relaunch of the Priory in 1989 claimed a different set of origins for the group, dating from 1681, and it was now tied in directly to the Rennes-le-Château story. Plantard was still descended from Dagobert II, but only indirectly. This relaunched Priory also had a different list of Grand Masters, one of whom was Roger Patrice Pelat. This was to prove somewhat unfortunate, as Pelat was soon to be investigated for fraud, with Plantard called in to testify. He admitted, under oath, that the Priory was a complete tissue of lies. A severe reprimand followed, and Plantard never returned to the stories of the Priory again.

In Brown’s novel, some of the above ‘history’ is revealed in a scene at the Château de Villette, French home of the former British Royal Historian and obsessive Grail scholar Leigh Teabing. This château exists, just outside of Paris; set in its own grounds of 185 acres (75ha) it is available for rent for any Da Vinci Code fans with ,000 per week to spare. You’ll have to be careful about the dates you choose, though – it seems Ron Howard has it in mind for the location of a certain upcoming film of his…

The jarringly odd name of Leigh Teabing derives from those of two of the authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail – Michael Baigent (anagramatically) and Richard Leigh; I’ve found myself wondering if Teabing had an undisclosed middle name somehow related to the third HBHG author, Henry Lincoln.

Holy Blood

At this point, Langdon and Teabing launch into a history of the Bible and the Holy Bloodline of Jesus and Mary. Basically, they claim that Roman Emperor Constantine commissioned the Bible we currently have, and that the Council of Nicæa accentuated the divine aspects of Christ whilst eliminating and destroying his more human ones, as well as covering up the relationship of Jesus and Magdalene as part of their purge of existing worship of the “sacred feminine”. The New Testament that now exists, to quote Teabing: “did not arrive by fax from heaven.” While all scholars agree on that, they might also point out that the formation of the current canon of 27 books of the New Testament took some 400 years to settle on, not just one conference. Books were discarded along the way, and some versions of these have now reappeared thanks to the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls (discovered variously from 1947 onwards, not in the 1950s as Teabing claims; see FT131:40-44) and the Nag Hammadi texts. The extent of such a process, and the contents of lost books, will never be known, so Teabing’s assertion that 80 gospels were on the table to start with can perhaps be ascribed to a scholar’s boastful attempts to show he knows everything. Similarly, Teabing’s claims that Christ inspired thousands of writings during his lifetime can only be looked on as an utter fabrication, particularly as the majority of people living at the time would have been functionally illiterate. Teabing and Langdon tell Sophie (who stands in, much of the time, for the supposedly ignorant reader who clearly knows nothing about religion, history or popular conspiracy theories involving both) about the heresy that has had so many people up in arms about Brown’s book.

At the time of the crucifixion, Magdalene was pregnant with the child of Jesus, who had said that he wanted Magdalene to continue his mission. She then fled to what is now France with her daughter, while the teachings of Jesus were passed on by the disciples, who were jealous of the place Magdalene had won in the heart of their Messiah – hence their attempts to marginalise her. Removing Jesus’s wife and daughter from the picture was also a way of striking a blow at the Goddess worship of the times and at the dangerous principle of the ‘Sacred Feminine’. In Gaul (France), the descendants of Mary and Jesus married into the Merovingian line, the rulers from the fifth to the eighth centuries. This line, which made its capital at Paris, supposedly died out with Childeric III’s demise in about 751. But, in true conspiracy fashion, a branch was supposed to survive in the form of Dagobert II’s son Sigisbert. The Priory was keeping this bloodline protected, as well as holding the body of Magdalene, along with documentary evidence of her relationship with Jesus. Indeed, the body of Mary is the Holy Grail, the vessel that held the ‘blood’ of Christ and allowed his line to continue.

Rosslyn and Beyond

From here, the book continues in true thriller fashion, with Langdon and agent Sophie Neveu pursued from all directions – the police after them for Saunière’s murder and Silas and Bishop Aringarosa for the secrets of the Grail. In the book’s third act, their search takes them to London and Westminster Abbey, via Temple Church, where they discover that the Grail is actually housed at Rosslyn Chapel, just outside Edinburgh. It is at this point that the mysterious figure of the ‘Teacher’ – the man who ordered Silas to murder the upper echelons of the Priory in pursuit of their secrets – is revealed to be none other than Leigh Teabing. (Interestingly, none of the many books on The Da Vinci Code has pointed out that the spiritual leader of the Qumran community (generally, although not without challenge, believed to be Essenes), from which the Dead Sea Scrolls originated, was known as the ‘Teacher of Righteousness’ – another tantalising connection?)

After the defeat and capture of Teabing, our heroes travel post-haste to Rosslyn, which Langdon claims is on a North–South meridian with Glastonbury – well, it is if you allow an accuracy level of 50 miles; sacred geometry works on much smaller tolerances than that, or so we are told. Langdon is right, though, to call the Chapel “symbology heaven”. He and Sophie find all manner of symbols there, from Roses for the Rose Line (Rosslyn), representing the Holy Blood, to Templar crosses and carvings supposedly representing New World plants – plants that should certainly not have been known to the Chapel’s mid-15th century builders. It’s unfinished aspect is here put down to it being a reproduction of the ruined Temple of Solomon, although it was more likely due to the death of the original owner and designer and the unwillingness of his son to continue such an expensive project.

Langdon becomes confused at this point; Saunière’s clues specifically point to the fact that Magdalene was buried beneath Roslin (the modern alternative spelling), but Langdon can’t believe that the Holy Grail rests at such an obvious spot. The past history and association of Rosslyn and its founder with the Knights Templar and the Masons makes it far too obvious a hiding place, even if there are supposedly networks of underground vaults and tunnels. Deep in despair and confusion, Sophie suddenly finds that her brother and grandmother are both living and working at the Chapel – a location they went to after an earlier attempt on Saunière’s life. Sophie’s grandmother confirms that the Grail had once been at Rosslyn, but that Saunière had moved it to a more fitting place, and Langdon realises that the clue he has been following refers to the Rose Line – the meridian through St Sulpice – and so his quest finally takes him back to where he started – the entrance of the Louvre.

On the novel’s final page, Langdon kneels down at the site of the Grail, la Pyramide Inversée (an inverted glass pyramid structure which is part of the entrance complex of the Louvre). Below it is a small stone pyramid, and it is beneath this that Mary Magdalene and the documents of the Priory are hidden. And if you look closely at the photograph above, you’ll see that the Magdelene’s mother-in-law is keeping a watchful eye on the tomb.

All in all, The Da Vinci Code is a decent enough read (it was given 7 out of 10 in a review in FT176:60), but why all the fuss?

Despite Dan Brown’s insistence on the accuracy of his descriptions of buildings, art works and ideas (as we’ve seen, this isn’t always the case), he also states (in the Dan Brown FAQ): “These real elements are interpreted and debated by fictional characters. While it is my belief that the theories discussed by these characters have merit, each individual reader must explore these characters’ viewpoints and come to his or her own interpretations.” And further: “My hope in writing this novel was that the story would serve as a catalyst and a springboard for people to discuss the important topics of faith, religion, and history.” Well, it’s certainly done that, and earned Brown a lot of money (and notoriety) in the process.

So, what could be better than the promotion of discussion around areas that are important in people’s lives? The Da Vinci Code is a fiction, and even if Brown’s statement about the veracity of his book is a fiction too, it’s still one of those texts that, ultimately, has probably helped produce a whole new bunch of potential forteans – free thinkers and seekers after the truth. Let’s get out there and tell them this is only the beginning!

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Mary Magdalene
The final resting place of Mary Magdalene, with a symbol of her mother-in-law looking on
Author Biography
Gordon Rutter is a freelance writer and lecturer based in Edinburgh, where he organisies the Edinburgh Fortean Society. He is a regular contributor to FT, and can stick a teaspoon up his nose.
    1. See Paul Smith's website www.priory-of-sion.com.


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