Month: August 2007

Finding My Religion IV – Dustin Erwin on how and why he became a member of the Freemasons

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Practically every major city in America has a Masonic temple, often a grand structure featuring an ornate stone facade, towering columns and a sprawling interior. However, exactly what goes on behind closed doors remains a mystery to most outsiders. The Freemasons, an international fraternal organization, are known for keeping their activities secret.

For centuries, that penchant for secrecy has fueled countless conspiracy theories — Masons have been accused of everything from plotting world domination to acting as an agent of the pope. In recent years, the novelist Dan Brown has drawn heavily on Masonic lore and symbolism in his best-selling novels “Angels and Demons” and “The Da Vinci Code.”

Although the organization maintains no particular religious affiliation, its largely aging male membership — there are a few women, too — does espouse certain ideals of a metaphysical nature. Masons live by a moral code that emphasizes charity and community service.

Dustin Erwin, a 26-year-old graduate student at the University of San Francisco, is a member of the Freemasons in San Francisco. I interviewed him by e-mail last week.


Why did you decide to join the Freemasons?
I joined for a number of reasons. For one, I’ve always been interested in “secretive” societies. Even though Freemasons are adamant that they are not a “secret society” but rather a “society with secrets,” it still had that mysterious attraction. I also have an interest in European/Christian/early American history, and the history of the Freemasons is absolutely fascinating.

Secondly, I was raised in a suburban, Protestant household. So I’ve had a fair amount of exposure to Christianity. But as I got older, went to college, began studying philosophy and other religions, I took issue with the “my way is right, your way is wrong” mentality that many of the Christians I was raised around had. I wouldn’t say I was ever an atheist, but I was a hard-core agnostic.

I wanted a way to get closer to God. I wanted some rational spiritual structure and guidelines. Freemasonry turned out to be exactly this — a system of morality. In fact, one of their mottos is “We make good men better.”

Tell me more about the Freemasons’ idea of morality. What are the main ideas?

It’s a very simple concept: Masons seek to improve themselves and help others not only because it’s the right thing to do but also because we want to do it. All of the major religions share some variation of this same idea, and that is part of the reason why Freemasonry is so welcoming of people from different backgrounds. It really all boils down to this simple theme.

So you don’t have to be part of a particular religion to join?

A Freemason can be of any faith. The only requisite is that he believe in a supreme being (whom they diplomatically refer to as “The Great Architect of the Universe”).

Why did you think that Freemasonry would help you “get closer to God,” as you put it earlier?

I feel like being righteous is about much, much more than simply believing and praying; it’s about your actions. I liked the fact that Freemasonry reinforced the idea that one’s actions are as important as one’s faith or intentions. In this way, I felt it might help put me on the right track in being closer to God.

I want to point out that I’m not on a high horse or preaching or trying to tell you all how good I am. I’m very, very far from perfect, and I’m still very far from where I want to be. But you have to figure out which direction you’re walking before you can take that first step, and I feel like Freemasonry is the compass in this sense.


Was it difficult to become a member? Did they make you jump through a lot of hoops?

Joining was not that difficult. It’s a rather long story, but I’ll summarize by saying that a Mason friend took me to a lodge dinner where he introduced me to several members. I filled out an application signed by two sponsors, paid my application fee and waited for a couple of months. Then I was contacted by three Masons individually, who asked if they could come to my apartment to interview me.

What did they want to know?

It was less intimidating than you might think. They asked questions like, What did I hope to get out of Masonry? What do I do [for a living]? Had I ever been arrested? And then there was some basic small talk. I think they were just trying to get a sense of what kind of person I am.

The Freemasons are known for their unusual initiation rituals, although exactly what goes on is kept secret. What can you tell me about them?

The initiation is essentially a drama that begins to reveal and explain the symbolism and ritual of Masonry. It was a little strange in that it was very old and completely foreign to me. I’ve never been a joiner — I was never in a college fraternity or anything.

There is no tomfoolery involved, and it’s meant to be a very solemn event. It turned out to be a very intriguing and memorable experience.


Was the process upsetting or scary?

It definitely wasn’t upsetting. And I wouldn’t quite call it scary either. I was out of my element, for sure, which made it slightly uncomfortable. I really didn’t know what to expect, but it turned out to be completely benign — there was no hazing involved.

Tell me about your lodge. How often do you meet?

There are lodge events nearly every week. As an entered apprentice, a sort of entry-level Mason, I am not permitted to attend all of the events — so far I’ve only been to dinners. Like I said, I’m very new to this.

What happens at meetings?

Some nights they do “degree work,” where a Mason is promoted to a higher level, and some nights are strictly social functions. There is a large social component to being a Freemason. You have to realize that many members are retired, and this is their primary social outlet. However, I have noticed that many of the new members are younger (in their 20s), and I’ve read that there are more younger people joining.

Is it true that you have a secret handshake?

There are a few handshakes.

I’m sure you’re aware that Freemasonry has been linked to numerous conspiracy theories over the centuries. It’s been described in some circles as an occult and even an evil power. What do you make of these claims?

I really can’t answer this question for fear of my life — just kidding! For the most part, I find these claims to be ridiculous. If you were to walk into the lodge on any given night, you’d find a bunch of good-natured older guys playing billiards and telling unfunny jokes. It’s not like there is a dark-robed master sacrificing goats by candlelight or anything.

I think most conspiracy theories stem from the unknown. For example, we don’t know who killed JFK, and therefore there are countless conspiracy theories about who did it. Most people are uninformed or misinformed about Freemasonry, and I think this is the cause of a lot of it. From what I’ve seen, the Masons are about as harmless as the Girl Scouts.

The group has also been seen by some religious leaders, particularly the Catholic Church, as a threat to their beliefs.

I honestly don’t understand why certain religious leaders condemn Freemasonry. I suspect it’s mostly influenced by power and paranoia.

Like I said, I was raised Christian — Sunday school, Bible camp, the whole nine yards. And everything I know about Freemasonry is completely compatible with Christianity and has really provided me with a way to implement those principles into my life.

What do your friends think about your joining the Freemasons?

It’s quite funny to try to explain it to them. They’re like, “Isn’t that some sort of satanic cult?” It can be tough, especially in San Francisco. I don’t come across a lot of people my age wanting to talk about God, religion or righteousness. When I’ve tried to bring these things up at bars or parties, the conversation tends to die, although I think that is changing.

I think a lot of younger people are getting tired of our increasingly materialistic and shallow culture, and are looking for something more traditional. I know that was part of the appeal for me. You can only hang out in bars and go to shows for so long. I felt like I needed something more relevant and lasting.



By David Ian Miller

During his far-flung career in journalism, Bay Area writer and editor David Ian Miller has worked as a city hall reporter, personal finance writer, cable television executive and managing editor of a technology news site. His writing credits include, Wired News and The New York Observer.

His “Finding My religion” series of interviews that you can find in look at individual experience of how different people found their religion. It is considered that this is a subject close to all Templars heart, that will surely resonate with some of our own individual experiences, helping us understand how mystical traditions far apart from ours have so many common points. You will also read about people that today follow mystical disciplines that it is said the historical Templar Order was familiar with, including Sufism, Kaballah, Gnosticism, Sacred Geometry, Meditation, etc.

 Photos of the Grand Lodge of New York and Temple – Luis de Matos (c) 2007


Stairways to heaven – Templars in Portugal

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There cannot be many more forbidding places of worship than the Convento de Cristo at Tomar, 80 miles north of Lisbon. Built as a fortress as well as a monastery, it stands menacingly above the town, its gloomy yellow walls piled on mournful grey ramparts. Your first instinct, on reaching the end of the winding road up to it, is to jump back in your hire car and return to the duel-to-the-death known as Portugal’s A1 motorway.

But if you press on through the outer keep, something extraordinary happens. Rounding a corner, you come upon a pair of tall gates that opens onto a garden of other-worldly serenity. Delicately sculpted hedges border the path; a snatch of birdsong pierces the hum of traffic from the streets below; exotic blooms stretch inquisitively from the flowerbeds; elaborately tiled benches command an orchard of orange trees. Spring, it seems, has come to the giant’s garden after all.


At the far end, a balustraded terrace leads to the extraordinary Romanesque building known as the Charola. On the inside, this shares the circular ground plan of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the spiritual home of the Knights Templar. On the outside – buttressed, castellated, and 16-sided [inside there’s a 8 sided towered church] – it resembles a decapitated Dalek.

The Templars were the special forces of Christendom – fierce warrior monks who enjoyed a good massacre. They played a leading role in driving the Moors from this part of Portugal, and when their Grand Master Gualdim Pais began building here in 1160, he created a monument to their pursuit of war and spiritual peace. The knights, it is said, rode their horses not only to church, but into church.

As it grew to its present enormous size, the monastery developed an ever more extreme multiple-personality disorder. Between the 12th and 19th century – when Portugal’s religious orders were abolished, and the monks evicted – it went through seven distinct stages of development, and its architecture ranges from sublime simplicity to Versace-esque extravagance.

Inside the main building, it is the simple you meet first. Although originally used for funerals, the Gothic-arched Cemetery Cloister seems too jolly by half to deserve its name: a lavender bush blooms in the middle, the walls are adorned with intricate blue azulejos (the decorative painted tiles which the Portuguese pirated from their Moorish enemies), and the most potent symbol of mortality you will find is a single fallen orange, glowing beside a dark puddle. In the adjoining Washing Cloister, where the monks’ habits were once laundered, the water troughs have been turned into flowerbeds – a small triumph of soil over detergent.

Both cloisters were built under Henry the Navigator, the 15th-century prince who transformed Portugal into a major seafaring nation. The ensuing enthusiasm for anything to do with boats can be seen in the famous Chapter House window, ingeniously carved with the anchor chains, twists of rope, and other maritime motifs which characterise the Manueline style of Gothic architecture. Green with moss, the window looks like a seaweed-smothered wreck freshly hauled from the ocean bed.


But if you think this is over the top, it is nothing compared to the inside of the Charola. Under a high ceiling stands a two-storey octagon – its pillars and arches smothered with Byzantine patterns of painted gold – looking like a huge ecclesiastical desk-tidy for the monk who has everything. There are murals and painted panels above, behind and before you; there are corbels bearing painted statues of bearded prophets, sallow friars and anaemic archbishops; there are more gilded carvings than you could shake an episcopal crook at. You can almost hear the Grand Master and his architect egging each other on: “Is there anything we’ve left out? Couldn’t we squeeze in just one more angel?” The monastery’s comparatively austere Main Cloister is considered one of the greatest examples of Renaissance architecture in Portugal, brimming with splendid arches and ingenious spiral staircases. The real treat, though, is to escape down the long, beautifully ascetic corridors off it – a symphony of red-brick floors, half-tiled white walls, and barrel-vaulted ceilings leading past the monks’ abandoned cells.

At this point, the place frankly becomes a bit of a maze, and if you have children you would be wise not to let them out of your sight, or you may never see them again. But it is worth persevering in the search for the magical Sala do Capitulo – another chapter house – on the ground floor. Never finished, it has capitulated to the elements, and stands open to the sky with a lawn for a nave and two pigeons for sacristans, solemnly cooing their vespers under the ruined arches.

The advantage of visiting the monastery off season is that you can experience the kind of moment that crowds make impossible. Mine came when, standing in the empty Philippine Sacristy, I suddenly caught the sound of distant singing: a high, exquisite voice glorying in a medieval carol. Baffled, and half expecting to meet the ghost of a dismembered chorister, I followed it to the heart of the monastery, where I found a boiler-suited young woman halfway up a scaffolding in the Charola, serenading herself as she dabbed at one of the murals. I didn’t interrupt, but stood there transfixed for several minutes, watching the sunlight steal through the stained-glass windows of the church, and listening to a song the Templars might have sung 800 years before.


Glorious religious relics in Portugal
Two other magnificent monasteries lie within easy reach of Tomar. The Mosteiro de Batalha, 25 miles to the west, is a Gothic extravaganza built by King Joao I after the battle of Aljubarrota in 1385 (facing 30,000 Castilians with only 6,500 men, he promised to dedicate a great abbey to the Virgin if he won). Joao is buried in the star-vaulted Founder’s Chapel beside his English queen, Philippa of Lancaster, the daughter of John of Gaunt.

Outside, the church is a riot of pinnacles and flying buttresses; inside, its high and narrow nave is flanked by such immense pillars that you might be walking through a stone forest. The breathtaking Cloister of King Joao I first defined Manueline architecture with its elaborate tracery, while the Unfinished Chapels – still roofless 500 years after they were commissioned – are a poignant testament to thwarted human endeavour.

Twelve miles south of Batalha is Alcobaça, whose monastery commemorates another victory – this one over the Moors at Santarem in 1147. The Cistercians based the design partly on their abbey at Clairvaux, and the church – the largest in Portugal – has a wonderful austerity. It contains the tombs of Pedro I and his wife Ines de Castro, who was murdered on her father-in-law’s orders; on becoming king, Pedro – maddened by grief – tore out and ate the killers’ hearts, and made his courtiers kiss the hand of Ines’s exhumed body.

The monks of Alcobaça were famously greedy (though they probably stopped short of cannibalism) and two of the most remarkable areas are the kitchen and the refectory – a graceful vaulted room with a colonnaded staircase. The kitchen contains an awe-inspiring tiled indoor chimney, over 70 feet high, and two marble tables, each large enough to hold an ox.

Portugal basics

Getting there
British Airways (0845 773 3377; has daily scheduled services from Gatwick to Lisbon (flights operated by GB Airways).

If you are using Lisbon as a base, the Hotel Avenida Palace (00351 21 342 6135) is a central, old-style hotel. Leiria is a convenient town for visiting all three monasteries, as is Fatima.

Further information
The Portuguese National Tourist Office, 2nd Floor, 22-25A Sackville Street, London W1S 3LY (0906 364 0610).

By Anthony Gardner in

Photos by Luis de Matos (c) 2007

A Minnesota Mystery: The Kensington Runestone

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It’s one of Minnesota’s greatest mysteries. It’s something that puts settlers in America well before Columbus. A Minnesota geologist thinks the controversial Kensington Runestone is the real thing and there is evidence that he says backs up the theory.

The Kensington Runestone is a rock found near Alexandria a century ago. It’s inscription speaking of Norwegians here in 1362. It begs the question. Were Vikings exploring our land more than 100 years before Columbus? Or is it just an elaborate hoax?

New research shows that the stone is genuine and there’s hidden code that may prove it. It contains carved words that have haunted these hills and the Ohman family for more than 100 years, yet their faith has never wavered.

“I just never had any doubt. I mean I was very emphatic about it. Absolutely it’s real. There’s no doubt,” said Darwin Ohman. His grandfather found the Runestone.

Darwin’s grandfather Olof Ohman has been considered the author of Minnesota’s most famous fraud, the Runestone. He says he found it buried under a tree in 1898. Critics say the language on the stone is too modern to be from 1362, that some of the runes are made up. They say this simple farmer carved it himself to fool the learned.

“You’re calling him a liar. If this is a hoax he lied to his two sons, he lied to his family, lied to his neighbors and friends and lied to the world,” said Scott Wolter a geologist and researcher of the Runestone.

Wolter and Texas engineer Dick Nielsen are sharing for the first time new evidence about the hidden secrets they say are carved in this stone.

“It changes history in a big way,” Wolter said

In 2000 he performed one of the very few geological studies on the stone. He says the breakdown of minerals in the inscription shows the carving is at least 200 years old, older than Olof Ohman. Those findings support the first geological study in 1910 that also found the stone to be genuine.

“In my mind the geology settled it once and for all,” he said.

Linguistic experts are not convinced. They say runes like those on the stone are made up. But Nielsen has now found the same one here in an old Swedish rune document dating back to the 1300’s.

“It makes me ask the question if they were wrong about that what else were they wrong about?” Wolter said.

For the first time Wolter has documented every individual rune on the stone with a microscope. He started finding things that he didn’t expect. He was the first to discover dots inside four R shaped runes on the stone. He said they are intentional and they mean something. So Wolter and Nielsen scoured rune catalogs.


“We found the dotted R’s. It’s an extremely rare rune that only appeared during medieval times. This absolutely fingerprints it to the 14th century. This is linguistic proof. This is medieval, period,” Wolter said.

They traced the dotted ‘R’ to rune covered graves inside ancient churches on the island of Gotland off the coast of Sweden. What they found on the grave slabs were very interesting crosses. They were Templar crosses, the symbol of a religious order of knights formed during the crusades and persecuted by the Catholic Church in the 1300’s.

“This was the genesis of their secret societies, secret codes, secret symbols, secret signs all this stuff. If they carved the rune stone why did they come here and why did they carve this thing?” Wolter asked.

He has uncovered new evidence that has taken his research in a very different direction. Wolter now believes that the words on the stone may not be the record of the death of 10 men but instead, a secret code concealing the true purpose of the rune stone.

Two runes in the form of an L and a U are two more reasons why linguists say Olof Ohman carved the stone. They are crossed and linguists say they should not be.

A third rune has a punch at the end of one line. Each rune on the stone has a numerical value. Wolter and Nielsen took the three marked runes and plotted them on a medieval dating system called the Easter Table.

“When we plotted these three things we got a year, 1362. It was like ‘oh my god is this an accident? Is this a coincidence?’ I don’t think so,” Wolter said.

They wondered why Templars would come to North America, carve the stone and code the date.

“If it’s the Templars that were under religious persecution at the time, that would be a pretty good reason to come over here,” Wolter figured.

“I’m sure a lot of people are going to roll their eyes and say oh it’s the Davinci Code and if they do they do. This is the evidence. This is who was there. This is what the grave slabs tell us. It is what it is,” he said.

Wolter and Nielsen’s authored the book “The Kensington Runestone: Compelling New Evidence.” Wolter is currently writing another book on the Runestone.

By Ben Tracy in CBS WCCO

See the video report: HERE

Home to priests, troops – and cows

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FASCINATING as it is to visit historic houses that have been continuously inhabited by one family since they were built, it is equally interesting to find a venerable building that has not been so privileged and protected.

St Mary’s House at Bramber in is just such a place: constructed by Bishop Waynflete in 1470, it has weathered periods of dereliction, division and habitation by monks, farmers, MPs, Oscar Wilde characters, soldiers and even cattle, and has probably never looked more beautiful than it does today – a tribute to the present occupants, Peter Thorogood and Roger Linton.

The house presents a classic half-timbered Wealden façade. It is listed Grade I, not only for its exterior but also for interior features, which include a panelled room with Elizabethan trompe l’oeil painting and medieval shuttered windows, which lacked glass but coped with the vagaries of the weather through a system of triple-hinged wooden panels.

St Mary’s original occupants were monks, who provided hospitality for pilgrims walking the South Downs Way to Canterbury. The monks were also guardians of the Great Bridge of Bramber and its integral chapel. What is now the village street was then a wharf on the estuary of the River Adur. The present garden wall is built of local winklestone recycled from the medieval wharf and set with plaques commemorating former owners of the house.

Foremost among them is its builder, Bishop William Waynflete of Winchester, Lord High Chancellor of England, first Provost of Eton and founder of Magdalen College, Oxford. Although his original entrance door has been replaced, a section of its arch survives, carved with his mitre and a Plantagenet rose.

The great bridge, which stood until the 17th century, was not the first on the site. Bramber was fortified by William de Braose soon after the Norman conquest – his ruined castle can still be visited – and a wooden bridge then spanned the river.

In 1125 the site of St Mary’s was given to the Knights Templar, who used the port of Bramber as an embarkation point for the Holy Land and built the first chapter house; its hearth, of clay tiles, was discovered in 1990 under one of the floors in St Mary’s. When the Templars moved to Sompting, the property passed to the Priory of Sele and later to Bishop Waynflete.

The bishop, in turn, bequeathed his estate to Magdalen College, which leased out St Mary’s for the next 300 years – mainly to members of Parliament for the thoroughly rotten borough of Bramber. (Until the Reform Act of 1832, the constituency, of fewer than 100 inhabitants, returned two MPs.) Notable among them was the anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce, who apparently passed through his constituency only once, quite by accident, and asked the post boy where he was. “Bramber?” he exclaimed in surprise. “Why, that’s the place I’m member for!”

Some earlier MPs had felt they should at least pretend to reside in their constituency, so St Mary’s was enriched with embossed and gilded leather wall-coverings, oak panelling and elaborate marquetry fireplaces.

The first floor’s Painted Room is unique in England today; only one other interior at all like it survives, in Essex. Although similarly painted in crude trompe l’oeil panels with land and sea views at their centres, the Essex painting is on canvas, whereas St Mary’s is on wood.

The room was possibly, or even probably, decorated for the visit of Elizabeth I during her progress through Sussex in 1585. Claims that “Elizabeth slept here” have become something of a joke because there are so many of them; but the parsimonious queen really did make so many progresses that she must have stayed in dozens of houses.

Similarly with Charles II and the many hiding places he used during his flight into exile. St Mary’s has a King’s Room, believed to be his last sleeping-place before he embarked for France from nearby Shoreham.

By 1841, St Mary’s was divided in two, with half of the building used as a cattle shed. Its renaissance began with the tenancy of prosperous Farmer Hudson, whose photograph, taken about 1860, shows him with his wife, Harriet, beside the front door. They and many of their 11 children lie in Bramber churchyard.


The Hudsons would probably have approved of their successor, Captain Ashmore of the Irish Royal Fusiliers, because he came to St Mary’s after a spell in an Episcopalian community in Iowa, where he pioneered organic farming. But they would doubtless have tut-tutted over the next occupants for precisely the same reasons that Oscar Wilde was attracted to them: the Hon Algernon Bourke was the pleasure-loving second son of the Earl of Mayo and cousin to the Marquess of Queensberry. He and his fashionable wife, Gwendolen, inspired Wilde’s frivolous characters of the same names in The Importance of Being Earnest.

Alfred Musgrave, who succeeded the Bourkes, filled the house with sumptuous furnishings, including Louis XV gilt suites and early Flemish tapestries. Then the Second World War brought dereliction to the property – not from enemy bombing but from “friendly” occupation by the Royal Canadian Artillery.

In 1944 the house was rescued by Dorothy Ellis and she gallantly struggled to restore and maintain it, by breeding spaniels, dealing in antiques, taking in paying guests and selling off land and portions of the house. Eventually, in 1979, she was forced to sell. For the next four years St Mary’s was filled with butterflies – the collection of a lepidopterist, Paul Smart – until he, too, had to sell.

St Mary’s needed another rescuer, and happily found two: the author and composer Peter Thorogood and the artist-designer Roger Linton, who moved into the house in 1984. Inspired by several historical family connections, Peter and Roger have since devoted their lives to the house.

Land sold by Ellis has been bought back. Algernon Bourke’s Music Room, with the addition of a charming octagonal ante-room designed and built by Roger, is once more the scene of concerts, poetry evenings and parties. The garden makes an idyllic summer setting for Shakespeare productions.

A charitable trust has been formed and a bid for National Lottery money is under way. If successful, the funds will be used to restore areas of the garden, uncover medieval murals in the King’s Room and buy back a section of the house currently divided into flats. But there is already more than enough to entertain visitors on the special open days arranged for Planet readers next weekend. Taking St Mary’s into the realms of time travel, you can even see the marks of blue paint made by Dr Who’s Tardis during the shooting of Silver Nemesis.

St Mary’s (01903 816205) is in the centre of Bramber, West Sussex, which is off the A283, three miles from the A27 junction and 10 miles west of Brighton. The special open days for Planet readers will be held next Saturday and Sunday (January 24 and 25) between 10am and 4pm.


The cup that runneth over

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In his breezily comic novel A Connecticut Yankee at the Court of King Arthur, Mark Twain pokes fun briefly at the cult of the Holy Grail. “The boys all took a flier at the Holy Grail now and then. It was a several-years’ cruise. Every year expeditions went out holy Grailing and next year relief expeditions went to hunt for them. There was worlds of reputation in it, but no money.”

The satire seems gentle enough, but this, at the time when Twain was writing (1889), was already verging on the Victorian equivalent of The Life of Brian. For few subjects had captured the imaginations of poets, artists and composers as strongly as the Grail Quest and its associated Arthurian legends. Wagner was obsessed with it, and Pre-Raphaelite painters lovingly depicted the radiant visions experienced by their androgynous Sir Galahads. Victorian spirituality had seized greedily on a body of myths which, unlike the mythology of Greece and Rome, had an indisputably Christian message at its core: the search for the original cup or dish used by Christ at the Last Supper was a powerful symbol of humankind’s quest for spiritual perfection.

From the hotbed of late 19th-century medievalism, however, some much stranger growths emerged. Members of the “Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn” (a group which included Yeats) tried to revive the practices of medieval magic and alchemy, and became convinced that if only they could penetrate the secrets of the Grail romances, alchemical treatises, Tarot cards and suchlike, they would become the possessors of a hidden higher truth, a secret doctrine which had been passed down by adepts throughout the ages.

Since then, bizarre theories have proliferated: that the Grail story related to a particular place in Persia, that it was a version of Jewish ritual, or (most famously, given the use made of this theory by T. S. Eliot in The Waste Land) that it was a remnant of an ancient fertility cult. Others have argued, on the slenderest of evidence, that it was bound up with either the Templars or that other standby of medievalist conspiracy theories, the heretical Cathars.

One best-selling modern book even claims, preposterously, that the true secret of the Grail was the “holy blood”, the blood-line of biological descendants of Jesus Christ. Enter any big bookshop, go to the section marked “mysticism” (this sort of thing does sorely test the descriptive powers of bookshop employees), and you will find shelves full of this stuff. Aspiring authors are, in Mark Twain’s words, “taking a flier” at the Holy Grail all the time – and, contrary to Twain’s remark, finding that there is really quite a lot of money in it.

Anyone who has more than a fleeting interest in this subject must often have longed for a rational and reliable account of the whole Grail phenomenon – one that would set out the known facts of when and where these stories appeared, and test the theories against the evidence. This is not an easy task; it requires not just a good grounding in medieval literature and history, but also certain mental or moral virtues – the ability to deal patiently but firmly with the intellectual equivalent of time-wasters. But Richard Barber, who possesses both the medievalist expertise and the requisite calmness and clarity of thought, has managed it at last, and has produced a really valuable and fascinating book.

As Barber clearly demonstrates, the Grail stories were the product not of immemorial legend, folklore or secret cults, but of individual authors: Chrétien de Troyes (who started the whole fashion), Robert de Boron, Wolfram von Eschenbach and some others. They were writing romances, similar to the other (non-Arthurian) romances they also produced, and subject to the same conventions; so, for example, when they claimed that their story was derived from a previous “book” by a mysterious author, this was just a standard fictional device.

In most of these early texts the “secret” of the Grail is, as Barber points out, a secret withheld only from characters in the story (above all, Parsifal, who fails to ask the essential question about it); nothing special is hidden from the reader. These romances do have a theological message, about the veneration of the Eucharist, the body and blood of Christ (the Grail is first described as a dish holding a communion wafer, and is later identified with the cup that held some of Christ’s blood at or after the Crucifixion); but it is a message openly proclaimed in the text. Far from being coded presentations of Cathar heresies or pagan nature-cults, the romances are, as Barber puts it, “quintessentially orthodox in their presentation of the Christian faith”.

One popular theory attributes a purely Celtic origin to the Grail stories, arguing that Chrétien de Troyes’s Perceval (the first text, dating from the 1180s) was inspired by an earlier Welsh poem called Peredur; it is also claimed that the Grail itself originated in the “magic cauldrons” of Celtic mythology. Barber argues convincingly that Peredur is a later imitation, not a predecessor, and politely points out the difference between a communion dish or a chalice and a cooking-pot.

He also describes some of the contemporary factors that must have stimulated interest in the idea of the Grail: the cult of relics (stimulated by the grotesque looting of Byzantine relics during the Fourth Crusade), and the new trends in the liturgy of the Mass. His only notable error comes when he states that in the Catholic Mass both bread and wine are given to the congregation. In fact communion under both kinds was common in the earlier Middle Ages, but the reserving of the wine for the priesthood only was a change that was under way in the period he discusses; this fact would surely have been relevant to his story, as it supplies a further motive for his orthodox romance-writers to promote the veneration – at a distance – of the chalice.

Not only has Richard Barber dealt skilfully with the original medieval evidence; he has also traced the long after-life of the Grail legend, above all in its various 19th- and 20th-century avatars. This not only gives him the chance to investigate some modern literary history (Charles Williams, John Cowper Powys, et al); it also enables him to take a properly historical attitude to the various “loony tunes” modern theories, by setting them in their own historical context.

Overall, then, this is the most reassuringly sane of all modern writings on the whole “Holy Grail” phenomenon. One finishes the book just wishing there were more works like it. Anyone for Nostradamus?



Book details
The Holy Grail: The History of a Legend
By Richard Barber
480 pages; £6.49.
Buy it on the Templar Globe Store