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Monday, February 16, 2015

Noon Blue Apples



If you don't know the story of Rennes-le-Château (RLC), let me try and break it down for you.

In the late 19th century a priest named Bérenger Saunière was appointed as the village priest of RLC.  He found his church and presbytery in a sorry state, reflecting the overall poverty of this small village, remote and isolated atop a large hill.

At some point Saunière came into a large amount of money, the origin of which is unknown, but which at least in part came from trafficking masses.  Ads placed in various Catholic newspapers throughout Europe, as well as his own account books, attest to this fact.  But the amount of money this previously impoverished priest spent is the equivalent of millions of euros in today's money, so it is possible there were other sources.  Having been punished for preaching Royalist views from the pulpit, it's possible that some moneyed Royalists furnished him with cash, but this is speculation.  Fact is, we simply don't know where all the money came from.

Saunière refurbished his church quite elaborately and built himself an impressive villa complete with large gardens he stocked with exotic animals such as peacocks and llamas.  He also built an orangery and a personal library in the form a small castle with a crenelated tower.  This was stocked with rare and expensive volumes.  Indeed, Saunière lived well, and his accounting ledgers show an impressive collection of fine wines and spirits, gourmet foods and other small luxuries.  His largess extended to the village as well, for it was he who paid for its electrification.  He also had a road built, winding upside the hill from the village of Couiza.  Though his early renovation angered the villagers -- his work had displaced their family tombs -- his generosity eventually won their loyalty.  After being called into account over his lavish ways by his Bishop at Carcassonne, Saunière went; once.  After that he simply refused to go, eventually being suspended, then replaced.  But when his replacement arrived, the villagers didn't go to mass at the church, but to the masses held by Saunière in his private chapel!

After his death in 1917, he was survived by his servant and confidant, some have said mistress, Marie Dénarnaud.  The money had pretty much dried up at this point and Marie found it difficult to maintain the property, so it was bequeathed to one Noël Corbu in 1946.  Corbu claimed that Marie had told him the real story of Saunière's wealth and promised to reveal the location of an extensive treasure in exchange for room and board until the end of her days; however, when she died in 1953, she hadn't revealed the secret.  In 1955 Corbu opened a hotel and restaurant on the property and in 1956 gave a serialized interview in a regional newspaper, claiming Marie had told him that Saunière had found the treasure of Blanche de Castile, accumulated to pay the ransom of Saint Louis, most of which was still hidden in the area.  He also claimed Saunière found some mysterious parchments which were of enormous value.

Now this of course could all be true.  It's also possible Marie invented it all in order to scam her way into a secure retirement.  It's also possible that Corbu, a published novelist, made it all up to promote  his hotel and business.  Corbu was pretty much correct in assuming a story of hidden treasure would attract visitors.  Today the place attracts thousands of visitors a year for nothing more than a lovely view, a small but admittedly interesting church -- and an intriguing enigma.  It has attracted treasure-hunters from the start, obliging the town to pass a law in 1965 specifically prohibiting excavations in the commune.  By that time Corbu had sold the property and died soon after in 1968 in an auto accident (which adds a little something to the mystery).

In 1966 Pierre Plantard and/or Philippe de Chérisey published a book which linked the treasure to the Merovingians, based upon an earlier book that had quoted Corbu extensively.  This book was credited to St. Anthony the Hermit.  These two in fact created a whole host of documents that later cropped up in Gérard de Sède’s 1967 book, L'Or de Rennes.
The central claim in L'Or de Rennes was that Saunière found parchments proving that the lineage of the "last" Merovingian king, Dagobert II, assassinated on 23 December 679, did not die with him as had previously been thought. His son was presumed to have escaped the massacre and took refuge at Rennes-le-Château, where he founded a line of descent before being buried in 758 in the church crypt. These genealogical documents implicated to an exceptional degree the Priory of Sion, a secret organisation working behind the scenes ever since the Carolingian and Capetian usurpations for the recognition of the legitimacy of the Merovingian line of descent to the throne of France. Pierre Plantard claimed to be descended from Dagobert II. 
Their motivations are obscure.  Plantard was a royalist who had been involved in various right-wing secret societies and who supported a Merovingian restoration.  He may have actually believed he was the rightful heir to the throne, as he claimed.  There is some indication they felt some financial gain might be made from it.  De Chérisey was a self-described satirist who had been involved in various surrealist-inspired groups such as Oulipo and the College of Pataphysics.  It was he who forged the parchments upon which de Sède and later authors have based many of their claims.  Both he and Plantard have admitted the forgery, and the current holder of the parchments has had them tested and determined that they are only a few decades old.  De Chérisey was an artistic man; perhaps the whole thing was for him an amusing intellectual game, from encrypting the documents to weaving an alternate reality.  In this latter regard he was, like Corbu, a stunning success.  Like Corbu, he never seemed to have made any money from it.  De Sède, Plantard and De Chérisey all fell out with one another over time for reasons which involved, among other things, royalties and other monies.

In 1969, Henry Lincoln read de Sède's book while on holiday in France.  Intrigued, he convinced his bosses at the BBC it would a great subject for a documentary.  In 1982, Lincoln, Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh published The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail.  The book elaborated upon all the elements heretofore present, but brought in a whole host of other mysteries.

The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail claimed many things, but the centerpiece was that the Priory was guarding a secret, namely, that the Holy Grail -- the "Sangreal" -- was really the "sang real", the Royal Blood evoked in the title.  This royal blood was the bloodline of Jesus Christ, which had survived and become the Merovingian Dynasty.  The Priory was dedicated to protecting and restoring the dynasty.  Now, the idea of a royal bloodline was not unique to this trio of authors; indeed, they supported many of their claims by bringing in pre-existing French legends.  That Mary Magdalene ended her days in Provence, for example had been a widespread belief in Medieval France.  But the book has since had a tremendous impact on our culture and contemporary spirituality.

One great book -- Foucault's Pendulum -- satirized its methods and conclusions and one absolute ball of shit -- The Da Vinci Code -- borrowed freely from its ideas and became an international publishing phenomenon, selling millions of copies and igniting dozens of copy-cat books, documentaries, a Hollywood adaptation and a number of sequels.  Dan Brown became a very rich man.  Today the corpus of books studying the phenomenon of a Jesus bloodline are legion, as are books about Rennes-le-Château, becoming a genre of its own in the world of esoteric literature.

I think that as a sociological phenomenon, it's actually an important story.  First of all, the hoax itself is extensive.  It consists of just enough fact to make it credible and all the right elements -- such as secret societies, encrypted documents and hidden treasure -- to make it irresistible.  But how this hoax and story mixed with history in order to produce such a complex web of beliefs is amazing, for today it encompasses a whole range of what could be termed New Age ideas:  numerology, mystical toponymy, UFO's, whatever.  If you can think of a connection someone else probably already has too -- and published a book about it.

The parchments forged by De Chérissey contain secret messages.  The first reads:

"À Dagobert II Roi et à Sion est ce trésor et il est là mort." 

"To Dagobert II King, and to Sion belongs this treasure and he is there dead."

The second has another equally cryptic phrase:

"Bergere pas de tentation que Poussin Tenniers gardent la clef pax DCLXXXI par le croix et ce cheval de dieu j’achieve ce daemon de gardien a midi pommes bleues"

"Shepherdess, no temptation. That Poussin, Tenniers hold the key: peace 681. By the cross and this horse of God. I complete (or destroy) this daemon of the guardian at noon blue apples"

The encryption that reveals this nonsensical phrase is very complicated, you can read about it here.  In order to make the encryption work, it was necessary to use up all the extra letters.  This is why the phrase "blue apples" appears.

You will recall that Plantard and de Chérisey's first book was attributed to Saint Anthony the Hermit.  On his feast day, January 17th, it has become tradition to visit RLC in order to witness the noon blue apples.  Basically, at noon light shines through a stained-glass window and casts blue blobs of light onto the sculpture of Christ on the pulpit.

I set out this year for RLC with my brother-in-law, jazz crooner Alfredo Buendia.  Alfredo has just returned from Rio, where he spent the last few years busking and selling his CDs, playing for weddings and events.  It was a clear if frigid day, and we made good time, stopping just after Fanjeaux to pick up some bread, cheese, ham, chocolate and a couple of beers.  A bit later, in Mirepoix, we had lovely croissants and cafés au lait under the bastide.  If I'd had my head about me, I'd have realized we were going the wrong way -- Mirepoix is not on the road to Limoux from Fanjeaux, and Limoux was the next point on the map we didn't have, before heading the last few kilometers down to Couiza and then up to RLC.  So we plunkered along various routes until I realized something was amiss.  We lost a good half-hour getting back to Mirepoix until I feared we'd miss noon.  But we made it with about 15 minutes to spare.  This meant that upon arrival, there was nowhere in the village to park.  This also meant we didn't have to stand around uselessly waiting for it to happen.

There were a lot of people in the church, but it wasn't jammed.  We found a place pretty easily and fortunately, we're both pretty tall.  There were a lot of English voices in the crowd, which was unsurprising, but there were a smattering of Dutch voices as well.  In Summer, a lot of Dutch head this way, so it's not surprising there'd be some in Winter as well.  While we waited, I surveyed the crowd.  A lot of men wore mustaches and wore fedoras (including myself!)  There were few women in woolen scarfs and dresses of a style that looked to me like what older hippies or Wiccans would wear.  Not saying all Wiccans dress alike!  But there was a certain vibe, something akin to gaydar I guess, which would all be perfectly natural in this place, on this day, at this time.

One guy handed me a tract and said a few things that were hard to follow.  Some mystical shit.


This tract is in French with unusual spelling.  The content is rather strange, railing against consumerism and hypocrisy of the French in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders.  The man implies that he is in fact the "true king."  It's filled with puns, at one point saying we're all hostages to the 14th letter: "N".   Alfredo and I were talking about this guy over sandwiches and a lady next to us said that he'd removed "l'N" from his writings, that is to say, "la haine," or hate.

Later, this guy, apparently named René and the leader of some sort of local commune, something of a notorious eccentric, tried to climb up into the pulpit but was shouted down by the crowd.  He continued his discourse outside the church, standing atop a low wall before the crucifix, his arms outstretched and wearing a crown upon his head.

As noon rolled around the wan blobs of blue light did creep across the pulpit and surround the head of the Jesus carved there.  No one seemed overwhelmed, but there was lots of discussion and photograph taking.  Some guy mentioned that the light wasn't bright enough because of a tree branch that had grown across the front of the window and that the mairie had promised to cut it back for next year.

There are many sites across the globe where architecture has been designed so that the sun would shine one a certain spot or through a certain window on a specific date, but to me, this seemed more coincidence than anything else.  Unless something more spectacular happens when the light is stronger, it's pretty much a non-event.  It's quite possible De Chérisey had noticed this and included noon blue apples in his text as a reference, having already chosen this Saint as the pseudo-author of his first book with Plantard.  Or he may have merely chosen the phrase and someone else then noticed the blobs of light, connecting the two.  It's not as if this phenomenon is especially striking.  First of all, the same lights will appear on days before and after the 17th; they won't be in a much different a position than they are on that day.  Secondly, on that very day there were other places where blue circles were cast on the walls that were much clearer and distinct than those on the pulpit and no one seemed to be making a hubbub over them.

The 17th is pretty much a non-event where nothing out of the ordinary happens.  Except for the fact that several dozen carloads of people make their way here to observe the phenomenon, look for an audience or simply get together.  I'll bet most of these people just use it as an excuse to come here.  Of course there must be a smattering of true believers, but I'll bet they're not the majority.  There are people like me, curious to see for myself and mainly, to observe the people.  I didn't come to observe the event as so much the event around it. And why not?  It's a lovely drive and the village is charming.  I always leave feeling good, charged up.

After RLC, we went to Rennes-les-Bains and had more great coffee and went up and down the main thoroughfare of the village in search of local oddities.  We scoped out some things in the village cemetery and, as you can see in the video, took a short hike to the rock formation known as the "Devil's Armchair" and the "Trembling Rock".   Because of RLC, everything around here is invested with esoteric meaning.

I'd passed through these parts a few years ago with my kids, it's always a great visit.  I'm a skeptic, but an open-minded one.  Nothing I've seen yet has convinced me of anything especially mystical about this place, but the reputation does precede it and lends it an air of mystery another place might be lacking.  But all that aside, it's a lovely place to pass a day or two and I would like to make Noon Blue Apples Day an annual event.  Check back next January to see how it turns out.