Religious conspiracy? Do me a fervour

December 24, 2004 - 12:00AM


Popular culture has discovered religious history. And, writes Jane Sullivan, the line between fact and fiction is being treated with scant respect.

It was the moment when Kath turned to Kim and said: "I'm thinking of joining Opus Dei," that I realised the code was well and truly cracked.

For centuries, we have lived with arcana, the world of secrets and mysteries known solely to the initiated few. Only a special training at the feet of the masters, a weird ritual or two or possibly a pact with the Devil would get you past the gate. Then along came popular culture and the secret was out.

Thanks to Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code , a couple of foxy morons in the outer suburbs of Melbourne know all about the hidden history and shocking revelations that go back to the dawn of Christianity: the real Holy Grail; the Catholic Church's cover-ups; the secret societies; the desperate men who will kill to stop the truth getting out. Or they think they know all about them, which is perhaps all that matters. Opus Dei isn't exactly a social club for housewives, but that isn't going to stop Kath Day Knight from joining up.

Thanks to Nicolas Cage and the other stars of National Treasure , Kath and Kim can now go to the Fountain Gate cinema and discover all there is to know about the most fabulous treasure the world has ever seen. It's a lot of gold statues and stuff that the Knights Templar put together in the 11th century while they were crusading around.

Then the priceless stash came to North America and was hidden away by the Freemason Founding Fathers. Our hero Nicolas discovers the treasure map written in invisible ink on - where else, the back of the Declaration of Independence. Nice, different, unusual, as Kath would say; and all based on what the filmmakers call "the inspiration of actual historical legends", whatever that means.

National Treasure hasn't had good reviews - one critic called it The Da Vinci Code for dummies, which was a worry for anyone who thought Dan Brown's thriller was already pretty dumbed down. But when it opened here, as in America, it went straight to the no.1 box office spot.

As everyone knows, The Da Vinci Code - now out in a new illustrated edition - has been a staggering worldwide no.1 bestseller for years, with more than 10 million copies in print. Tourists in Europe flock to "Da Vinci Code sites", such as the Louvre in Paris, and have driven the village priests mad by tunnelling under church walls at Rennes-le-Chateau in France to get at what they suppose are ancient secrets.

Not far behind in the bestseller lists is Brown's other big hit Angels and Demons, another story of centuries-old secrets, murder and evil masterminds who will stop at nothing; a flood of Code-cracking books; a host of copycatting, piggybacking novels by rival authors; and a revival of some classic titles by authors who got into the whole secret society thing before Dan Brown thought of it.

It's an unstoppable craze. As one writer has put it, no author has been "so obtuse as not to image forth a profligate abbot, an oppressive duke, a secret and mysterious association of Rosycrucians and Illuminati, with all their properties of black cowls, caverns, daggers, electric machines, trap-doors and dark lanterns".


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Pure escapism from a sad reality
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Knights Templar
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Actually, that's not a modern writer. It's Sir Walter Scott in Waverley, commenting on the vogue for Gothic romance novels at the end of the 18th century (quoted in Francis Wheen's How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered The World ). So arcane conspiracy as the subject of popular entertainment is nothing new. But in Sir Walter's day they didn't have worldwide promotion, or Hollywood movies and million-dollar special effects, or loopy internet-spread conspiracy theories: wow, did you know that Bill Gates is a member of the Illuminati?

What makes a typical arcane entertainment? A hero, or heroes. A villain. A centuries-old cover-up. Mysteries, murders and a race against time to solve an elaborate puzzle that will decide the destiny of the world. The first key to the puzzle turns up in an ancient book, manuscript, scroll, painting, map or chess set. There will be symbols, codes, chunks of ancient history or legend, secret temples, tombs or underground passageways and unspeakable rites.

The creator of the entertainment has a difficult task: to keep up a cracking thriller pace, yet at the same time suggest a weight of authenticity and vast scholarship lurking behind the action. Some creators zap straight into the thrills, others concentrate on building up the background.

Somewhere in the story there will be one or several of the following cast of characters: Templar knights (said to be the keepers of the Holy Grail), Freemasons, Illuminati, Rosicrucians, Opus Dei, Jesuits, Caballists, Nazis, Zionists, Cathars, Gnostics, Hermetics, dabblers in alchemy or black magic, members of the Priory of Sion, John the Baptist, Mary Magdalene and Jesus. Some of these people will be villains (but not John or Mary or Jesus). Optional details: modern police or secret services or terrorists or scientists; and supernatural creatures such as demons, or the devil himself.

No one is quite sure why these stories are suddenly so sought after. It might be that in our post-September 11 gloom we find it cosier to read thrillers about bad guys descended from biblical or medieval or mythical times, rather than today's terrorism. We might enjoy the sense that we are smarter and more informed than the average reader because we can decipher a few clues. We might also be fascinated by what we assume are the real-life histories, secrets or spiritual ideas behind the plot.

What is the typical trajectory of arcane entertainment? First, people read or watch it, enjoy it, recommend it to their friends. It becomes popular - in some cases, spectacularly so. Then out of the woodwork come the experts in non-fiction, seeking to cash in on the success, crack the code, explain the background, separate truth from invention or rumour or hoax, interpret the puzzles - or, in some cases, to denounce the creator as a charlatan or a dangerous peddler of half-lies, lies and downright threats to the Catholic Church, or the Christian religion in general. Suddenly it all gets very, very serious.

Dan Brown has practically started a publishing genre in his own right, with at least 11 non-fiction books: Cracking the Da Vinci Code and Illuminating Angels and Demons by Simon Cox; The Truth Behind the Da Vinci Code by Richard Abanes; De-Coding Da Vinci: The Facts Behind The Fiction of the Da Vinci Code by Amy Wellborn; Cracking the Da Vinci Code: You've Read the Fiction, Now Read the Facts by James Garlow and Peter Jones; Breaking the Da Vinci Code: Answers To the Questions Everybody's Asking by Darrell Bock and Francis Maloney; Da Vinci Decoded: The Truth Behind the New York Times Number One Bestseller by Martin Lunn; Secrets of the Code: The Unauthorised Guide by Dan Burstein; Fact and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code by Steve Kellmeyer; The Da Vinci Code: Fact or Fiction by Hank Hanegraaff; and Da Vinci Decoded: Discovering the Spiritual Secrets of Leonardo's Seven Principles by Michael J. Gelb.

Why so much cracking and decoding? By now the worst-kept secret of The Da Vinci Code is its "Holy Grail revelation" that Jesus did not die on the cross, but married Mary Magdalene and fathered children whose bloodline continues today.

This is an ancient creed hotly contested by the church and Dan Brown has never endorsed it; he says he hoped merely that his novel would serve as a catalyst and a springboard for people to discuss the important topics of faith, religion and history. But some of the novel's millions of fans automatically believe the children-of-Jesus story, or at least believe in it as an equally plausible alternative to the church version.

They can be forgiven, because arcane entertainment's rapid switches from fiction to fact and back to fiction are enough to bamboozle any humble reader and searching on the internet for help may not necessarily enlighten them. Many reputable-looking websites contain highly dubious statements (example: "There is no doubt whatsoever that the Templars possessed the Holy Grail.") From there, it's a short step to paranoid conspiracy theories about secret societies such as the Illuminati, apparently still alive and kicking and poised to take over the world.

The Da Vinci Code is based on a controversial non-fiction bestseller, Holy Blood, Holy Grail , which claims to be the result of 10 years' research. But this book in turn was sparked off by fiction.

One of the authors, British writer and documentary filmmaker Henry Lincoln, picked up a little light reading while on holiday in France in 1969, a thriller called The Accursed Treasure . As Lincoln says on his website, this book told the story of Rennes-le-Chateau, a tiny, virtually unknown village in the foothills of the Pyrenees and the much-loved priest who lived and worked there at the end of the 19th century.

Hidden in the parchments reproduced in the book were mysterious clues not referred to in the text. Lincoln had stumbled across a subject that would provide him with half a lifetime's work and involve him in three BBC films, two international bestsellers, a series on Discovery channel and a two-hour video documentary guide. And that was before The Da Vinci Code came along.

Lincoln has gone on to claim that Rennes-le-Chateau is at the centre of "a perfect pentacle of mountains" and a vast invisible man-made temple that stretches as far as Bornholm, a tiny island in the Baltic Sea. The Templars, naturally, had a hand in it.

He seems unfazed by claims that some of the clues that began his search were based on a hoax. In The New York Times this year, critic Laura Miller dismissed Holy Blood, Holy Grail as "not so much factual as fact-ish. Dozens of credible details are heaped up in order to provide a legitimising cushion for rank nonsense."

Documents said to prove the bloodline descended from Jesus and Mary Magdalene were found in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. They listed names of the leaders of a secret society, the Priory of Sion, which had guarded these descendants through history. On the list were such illustrious names as Sir Isaac Newton and Jean Cocteau.

It is now generally accepted that these documents are fake, planted by Pierre Plantard, a notorious hoaxer who had affiliations with right-wing anti-Semitic groups. These "shocking revelations" were exposed in a series of French books and a documentary, but have not earned much attention. "The only thing more powerful than a worldwide conspiracy," Miller concludes, "is our desire to believe in one."

Meanwhile, the plot thickens. Dan Brown is writing another book that takes over where the last one left off. Lincoln's co-authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, are suing the publishers of The Da Vinci Code . They say Brown "lifted the whole architecture" of their research.

And in Hertford in Britain, a Templar Order that claims to be descended from the original Knights Templar has asked the Pope for an apology for the persecution that led to the suppression and exile of the order 700 years ago.

A maze of secret tunnels was recently discovered in Hertford, under the castle where Edward II imprisoned four Templar knights on suspicion of hiding a great treasure. They escaped and the treasure was never found. When local archaeologists wanted to investigate the tunnels last month, they received anonymous threats warning them off.

But then you probably shouldn't believe anything you read in this article. According to one site I visited on the internet, 80 per cent of the world's media are members of the Illuminati and are part of the plot for world domination.

Jane Sullivan writes the Turning Pages column in The Sunday Age.

The Adventures of Indiana Jones (boxed set on DVD)
The George Lucas-produced Indiana Jones trilogy (Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Temple of Doom and The Last Crusade) introduced 1980s filmgoers to a scholarly expert in the occult who was also a whip-cracking action hero. Indy (Harrison Ford) raced the Nazis to discover the secret of the Ark of the Covenant, faced ancient gods in the Indian jungle and chased the Holy Grail. Some Christian critics were sniffy, but audiences lapped it up.

Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco
The ultimate conspiracy theory thriller, which predates Dan Brown by many years. Three learned book editors decide to have some fun by inventing a history of the occult that predicts that the ancient society of Templars is plotting to take over the world. Gradually their spoof becomes chillingly real. Some readers hail Eco's immensely erudite follow-up to The Name of the Rose as the thinking person's Da Vinci Code; others get bogged down in the copious detail.

The Dumas Club by Arturo Perez-Reverte
One of a series of popular thrillers by this Spanish writer in the tradition of elegant 19th century entertainers such as Alexandre Dumas, The Dumas Club involves an ancient book that poses a demonic puzzle and includes Spot the Difference medieval woodcuts. Filmed by Roman Polanski as The Ninth Gate, starring Johnny Depp.

Ex Libris by Ross King
Murder mystery in which a mild-mannered bookshop proprietor in 17th century London is set on the trail of a mysterious manuscript and drawn into a labyrinth of clues including a lost map of El Dorado, astronomy, invisible ink and menacing men in black.

The Rule Of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason
Smartypants Princeton students fascinated by a mysterious 15th century manuscript find themselves in a race to solve a puzzle involving Renaissance history, cyphers, acrostics and anagrams. Critics say this much-praised first novel is a mix of Umberto Eco and Donna Tartt . . . and Dan Brown, of course.

Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln
Twenty years after its first release, this non-fiction book, accompanied by documentary DVDs, has come storming into the bestseller charts on the back of The Da Vinci Code. The authors say they spent 10 years in research that indicates that Jesus may not have died on the cross, but lived to father children and the bloodline continues today. Critics say the research jumps to too many conclusions and is based on a hoax.

The Templar Revelation: Secret Guardians of the True Identity of Christ by Lynn Picknett, Clive Prince
Another piece of historical detective work, following an underground religion that goes back to the first century. The authors claim a secret history, encoded in great works of art and the Gothic cathedrals, points to the "most closely guarded secret of the Western world" that could "shatter the foundations of the Christian church". Critics' verdict: don't get excited, it's not proven.

Cracking The Da Vinci Code and Illuminating Angels And Demons by Simon Cox
Two of the many books that purport to reveal the "truth" behind Dan Brown's fiction, Cox's guides are no-nonsense alphabetical references that help uninitiated readers to sort out their Ankh from their Vitruvial Man. (Caution: some of the other books have a strong evangelical bias.)