my take on things - comments about all the world and his brother
Popular science and conspiracy theories in literature
Published on July 29, 2009 By utemia In Books

I was ransacking my bookshelfs the other day looking for Harry Potter book 1 to give to a friend, and I rediscovered my copy of Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code. I know that his book created quite a stir back in the day due to the conspiracy of Mary Magdalene and Jesus and their supposed offspring and subsequent royal dynasty of the Merovingians. Many religious people were outraged and warned against the dangers such statements could produce etc pp. People wrote books about the historic errors and faults, which are surprisingly easy to spot. In some instances a simple wikipedia search is enough to discover them.

Dan Brown didn't come up with his conspiracy plot by himself though. There was another book called The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail which said essentially the same, that Mary Magdalene was married to Jesus and had his children, and that his bloodline became later the ruling dynasty of france (Merovingians) and that the last descendants are still alive today and are protected by the prieure dé sion. The descendants of Jesus were a threat to the vatican and the church tried to murder every descendant in a century long blood feud. Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln published their book in 1982.

Nevertheless, Dan Brown did something exceptional because he intertwined two very popular literarary themes, the search for the holy grail and the conspiracy plot. Because Mary Magdalene is the Holy Grail in his Da Vinci Code, the two heros who search for her, Robert and Sophie, actually search for  the holy grail. In accordance with that theme, they have to survive adventures, chases, solve riddles along the way- all classic themes from arthurian novels and grail novels. In fact, Sophie resembles the prototype of Perceval. She grows up without knowing the family secret about her heritadge, which is being the last of Mary Magdalenes bloodline, and adventures and riddles lead her to finding out the truth about herself and her family.

Classic court literature always had a strong religious theme and a strict structure in which the story was told. That is not paralleled in Dan Brown's book, but some of the character traits of Sophie are similar enough to those of Chretien de Troys Perceval. He wrote the oldest known version of the Perceval novel in the 13th century. Perceval is a knight of King Arthur's round table. It is interesting to see the similarities between the classic grail literature and Brown's book - something that hasn't really been pointed out anywhere because people were only interested in historic faults or the consequences for the catholic church etc. This parallel goes on even more, because Brown develops a pagan cult of femininity in his book. This trend has also parallels in grail studies where fertility myths were linked with the holy grail at the turn of the 19th and 20th century. New age fantasy literature picked up on that link as well, the most prominent example being Marion Zimmer Bradley's Mists of Avalon. Part of the reason why people were researching the origins of the grail myth was due to Charles Darwin and theories of going back to the origins that were prominent at the end of 19th century.

This mythic side of the story, Sophie searching for the holy grail, adventures, riddles etc. is padded with a classic conspiracy plot. A dark power with dark goals is trying to take over, nobody really knows who "They" are, there is a secret society with secret sacred rituals and nobody really knows who "They" are either. Who is better suited to be the bad guy than the Vatican with its secret archives and ancient history or power and wars? "Everybody" knows that there has to be some dark secret, and thrillers about the vatican and the church in general are always popular for that very reason. It is fun to read about those who you suspect, I suppose. Brown gives his conspiracy credibility by halftruths and historic events and names that really did exist, and those who don't know it any better like most of his broad audience, might get lulled into taking his constructed conspiracy for the truth.

It does sound believable enough, so much that serious authors wrote responses defending the church and religion and whatnot. Herein lies the problem I have with his book. As I wrote this paper while studying history, my aim was to point out why popular science can be problematic in such usage. Historic facts just have to be dressed and altered in a conveneant way to fit the plot - and such is literary freedom. But Dan Brown states in the beginning of his book: "

Fact: The Priory of Sion - a European secret society founded in 1099 - is a real organization. In 1975 Paris's Bibliothèque Nationale discovered parchments known as Les Dossiers Secret, identifying numerous members of the Priory of Sion, including Sir Isaac Newton, Dandro Boticelli, Victor Hugo and Leonardo Da Vinci. The Vatican prelature known as Opus Dei is a deeply devout Catholic sect that has been the topic of recent controversy due to reports of brainwashing, coercion and a danverous practice known as 'corporeal mortification'. Opus Dei has just completed construction of a $47 million National Headquarters at 24e Lexington Avenue in New York City. All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate."

Brown tricks his readers with this prologue, because he never really quotes his secret documents, the treasure (of course there is the treasure of the templars as well.. ) with all the archives and books about Mary Magdalene's bloodline  are only referred to but never quoted. He does quote the apocryphic testaments and the bible, but never those documents that are the supposed sound proof for his theory. Artwork and architecture are not the same as a written records, and so it appears that Brown has historic sound proof while all he does is making his readers believe that he does. And they believe him more than maybe a historian that tries to tell them that they got it all wrong. That is a point of contention for me because he blurrs the lines between fact and fiction and simply sells his fiction as fact. I could go on about the Dossiers Secret, which are fake, and the Priory of Sion, which is also almost fake and was invented by the forger of the Dossiers Secret. That guy simply smuggled them into the National Library in Paris.

I hope that this might make a reread of the Da Vinci code fun. It is a very well written book, Dan Brown is a great author and he put alot of research into the Holy Grail theme. It is worth checking it out again.


Comments
on Jul 30, 2009

Hm...

Seems to me that if the Christians want a king, they can use this one:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Line_of_succession_to_the_Ethiopian_Throne

The royal family of Ethipia for nearly 3000 years, descendants of King Solomon and hence of King David. Their kingdom was the second country to become Christian, long before Europe became so.

Very usable royal family if you need one.

 

on Jul 30, 2009

I didn't read it (

on Jul 30, 2009

lol. Yeah,, you can try suggesting it.

That part of the plot is actually pretty wild and completely made up. The Merovingians didn't suddenly rise in power and became royalty, it was a long process of working with the romans, being their soldiers and generals and gaining influence over time (becoming roman aristocracy) which lead them to be the ruling power in the 5th century in france. The roman empire perished, but it was more of a smooth transition of power in gaul. The Merovingians kept the roman administrative and legal practices in place so that many didn't even realize that the romans weren't in power anymore.

They were pretty bloodthirsty on top of that, killing each other over power quite regularly.

Another thing that is slightly unlogical is that Dan Brown states that Mary Magdalene fled to the jewish community in southfrance who protected her as the heiress of the throne and kept records of her lineage and history - and that there were thousands of documents which comprise the treasure of the templars. That Jesus wrote his own biography even and other writings that were widespread. Widespread literacy wasn't really an issue though, as fas as I could research. There was no need for simple jewish people to be able to read or write. If they had the need for that they went to the temple. It is highly unlikely that Jesus was even able to write or, if he could, that his followers - who were mostly simple people, woman, farmers, fishers and artisans, could read. I found a study about literacy in the middle east by a israli professor who said this, so it's not something I made up on the spot.

I find the parallels to grail literature much more interesting because it's hidden and if I hadn't done research on the holy grail and its history, literature, research, fertility cults etc,  I wouldn't have noticed it because it isn't very obvious on the surface. But Brown draws from grail research about pagan fertility cults and tradition literature like Perceval and once you realize it it is glaringly obvious

The  hidden messages in pictures, riddles, secrets and rituals are popular devices of conspiracy stories. They flesh that part of the story out - but the book can be read as a new version of the search for the holy grail.

Thie historic events and persons, whom Brown describes in a slightly embellished manner, don't hinder that feature of his story. The way he presents them is questionable, but it is part of artistic license and his book remains fiction in the end.

on Jul 30, 2009

Actually.. the point of Brown was that Constantin created a sort of coup de etat in the council of Nicea, dethroning the goddess and making Jesus into the immortal son of god himself. He didn't want a king or queen, Constantine wanted to rule himself and created the catholic church as the antipolar construct to the feminine mothergoddess. The vatican became a male dominated patriarchaic dark powerhungry power. That part belongs to the conspiracy spun by Brown, and it's almost cliché.

It is also completely made up by Brown, only the names and dates he mentions are accurate, content and context are pure fiction.

But since it is relatively easy to spot his literary freedom with historic facts, it is not very hard to point out all the errors in the history of the Templars, the crusades (which weren't just organized to hunt down family members of the holy grail Mary Magdalena), the Priory of Sion was never a thousand year old secret society, .. since it is so easy to do it, it's not that much fun. Whereas the hidden literary similarity to grail lore is a neat trick from Brown.

on Jul 30, 2009

Actually.. the point of Brown was that Constantin created a sort of coup de etat in the council of Nicea, dethroning the goddess and making Jesus into the immortal son of god himself. He didn't want a king or queen, Constantine wanted to rule himself and created the catholic church as the antipolar construct to the feminine mothergoddess. The vatican became a male dominated patriarchaic dark powerhungry power. That part belongs to the conspiracy spun by Brown, and it's almost cliché.

Did you know that in ancient Semitic mythology, the creator god El ("god") had a wife named Asherath (or Ashera in absolute state)?

She was a product of Sumerian mythology (like most of the Semitic pantheon) and was still worshipped in ancient Israel before the Babylonian exile, although worshipping her was discouraged/forbiden by the authorities.

After the Babylonian exile most people didn't see the sense in worshipping her any more, since El's unique powers had been proven beyond doubt to most of the population.

 

 

on Jul 30, 2009

I didn't know that, but it doesn't surprise me. Goddesses for various reasons existed in almost every culture. But you pointed out that the people stopped worshipping her as the product of a development. It wasn't staged by some outside power but part of a process.

Christians were a threat in ancient rome because they didn't worship and sacrifice to the pagan gods and that would piss them off and cause catastrophies etc. The only way to keep the gods happy was to sacrifice, and those that didn't endangered everybody - so they were persecuted and hunted and the roman authorities tried to force them to recant in public. It makes sense if you view it from that angle. Christianity was rising steadily in numbers, but in the 4th century they were hardly 5% of the population. Bishops did have a unique powerbasis though because they were in the cities and organized their communities, did caritative work and thus were able to organize their followers into a reliable force. Constantin knew this and it was probably one among many reasons why he decided to stop persecuting christians and gave them his support.  It wasn't him though that made Christianity the official roman religious cult and banned the pagan gods, it was an emperor after him. The church as such wasn't devided in orthodox and catholic yet, and it didn't have a huge powerful structure from the very beginning. It developed over time and only gained prominence after Karl der Große was crowned emperor in 800 bc. It is a process and not something that was ordered and executed from the top - not to mention that the roman empire had started to fall appart by the end of the 3rd century because it had huge economic problems, security issues north of the alps etc. and was hardly in a position to execute a scheme like that.

It took centuries for christianity to spread throughout europe.

It is highly unlikely that the events even could have taken place the way Dan Brown described them, but because it sounds so plausible people might get tricked into thinking it.

on Jul 30, 2009

But you pointed out that the people stopped worshipping her as the product of a development. It wasn't staged by some outside power but part of a process.

Actually, it was staged by an outside power.

When the Persians invaded Babylon and the Israelites learned that the official religion of the Iranian Empire was also monotheistic, as the Israelite religion was supposed to be, perceptions changed. And after Cyrus and his decendants rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem and allowed the Israelites to return home, it was more or less obvious that the creator god worshipped by both the Israelites and the Persians was capable of sending someone to rebuild Jerusalem while Ashera was capable of doing nothing to help.

After that, worship of Ashera still existed until Jesus' time but apparently wasn't as popular any more. And worshipping her was also discouraged.

on Jul 30, 2009

Ok, change was initiated or had a catalyst in Cyrus, but it wasn't a coup to ensure political power by scheming men in the background - like described in Browns conspiracy plot. Which doesn't mean that the political benefits of Cyrus's policy weren't known to Cyrus, but it doesn't sound like a conspiracy from his part to disempower Ashera by rebuilding the temple in Jerusaelm. 

You used phrases like "perceptions changed" and "worship was discouraged" yourself which indicates that we aren't really disagreeing on this one. I am disagreeing with Browns depiction of the rise of christianity in Europe as the result of a planned coup, not with general developments of cults/religions paired with political historic change that can be traced backwards.

 

on Sep 01, 2009

Personally I preferred Angels And Demons to The Da Vinci Code, felt more Real.

And in the case of Mary, well I thought it was to the Roman advantage that Jesus was seen to be the Only instance of a semi-Diety (or DemiGod) so that people could not rally around another and cause trouble, instead they could be managed by the Church. That would also be the time of the insertion of the whole anti-female thing, so that any claims that were made by any rightful heirs could be discredited.

on Sep 01, 2009

gaussflayer
Personally I preferred Angels And Demons to The Da Vinci Code, felt more Real.

And in the case of Mary, well I thought it was to the Roman advantage that Jesus was seen to be the Only instance of a semi-Diety (or DemiGod) so that people could not rally around another and cause trouble, instead they could be managed by the Church. That would also be the time of the insertion of the whole anti-female thing, so that any claims that were made by any rightful heirs could be discredited.

Jesus was always seen as son of god, there was never any dispute about it. The thing that was so offensive to the Romans was the fact that the christians didn't worship their pagan god's and didn't sacrifice to keep them happy and content - thus making christians the culprit and potential initiators of disasters. It was also the official roman state cult, so not following it could probably be viewed as rebelling against the government  or so. The roman advantage you're thinking of lies in the fact that the bishops had most of their followers in the larger cities. The bishops could organize their parishes without a problem, giving them major political clout in the cities. Even though the Christians were a minority, they were well organized and had large groups in the cities. The roman gentry and aristocracy lived in the countryside and did not have that advantage.

The "church" didn't really exist as such before the 10th century. It only gained power and influence after Charles the great was crowned in 800 ad. He reformed the church and gave it more importance in his empire. Before that there was no huge cohesive institution, all that came later. There were the local bishops and they did what they thought was right - managing their local people, doing charity work (another thing that made the bishops politically powerful).

Christians were always a minority in the roman empire and most of the time ruthlessly persecuted. It only stopped in the 4th century, shortly before Constantine claimed the title of consul and then later on declared himself emperor. He probably saw the political power bishops had in the cities even though christians were a minority and decided to use it to his advantage by supporting christians publicly.

The anti-female thing you mentioned isn't new either.

 

I haven't read Angels and Demons so far, is it any good? The thing I appreciate about the Da Vinci Code is the grail theme and its motifs, the conspiracy itself is pretty run of the mill if you think about it. Church as the bad guys, some cracy excentric, some dark intrigue and a crazy albino monk and a mysterious fertility cult, murder mystery in the mix as well.. voilá, you have a thriller!

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