Now I’m going to burn a few bridges by criticizing the American Heroes Channel, the Discovery-owned network that airs Codes and Conspiracies, the program on which I appeared last year. AHC is also the American outlet for Britain’s America Unearthed rip-off show Forbidden History, and the network is so pleased with the fringe-celebrating pack of misinformation and lies that they commissioned the producers of the program at Like A Shot Entertainment, Ltd. in England to produce a companion series, Inside Secret Societies, in which fringe history’s C-list pontificate about secret societies both real and imagined.
So why would AHC, formerly a cable channel that distinguished itself from the History Channel and its own corporate cousin Destination America by focusing on facts, double down on misinformation, distortions, and lies? Ratings and money, obviously. We all knew it was a PR stunt with Discovery Communications announced that it was turning its back on fringe history and fake documentaries. That turned out to be a smokescreen; the ban applied only to the flagship Discovery Channel while the parent company simply moved the worst of their programming to Destination America, the Science Channel, and Animal Planet. Now AHC, on the strength of Forbidden History, a program they imported from Britain, is making more of the same. According to the production company’s website, the financial reasons for making a program like this are obvious: The program can be sold and resold around the world, and chopped into pieces for reuse in newish recycled programming. In short, they say, fringe history programs (“factual entertainment TV” as they call it) provide the network with “a balance of reducing risk on upfront capital and maximizing the upside return.”
Now that is an honest tagline AHC should use: “Reducing Risk on Upfront Capital through Factual Entertainment.”
Most of the episodes of the series hold little interest for me, but fifth episode of the six-episode series covered the Priory of Sion, the fake organization created in the twentieth century by a French hoaxer that ended up tied to the Holy Bloodline Conspiracy. The episode was very strange in that it selectively edits its conspiracy theorist “experts” to make them say things on both sides of the controversy until the show becomes an incoherent exercise in trying to have it both ways.
So what does this series have to say about the Priory of Sion? Well, Heretic magazine publisher Andrew Gough shows up and at first is made to say that the priory dates back to the Crusades, and some others talk of its “treasure” as the body of Jesus Christ. The narrator made me laugh when he ignorantly called the 1982 nonfiction bestseller Holy Blood, Holy Grail a “novel” of the 1970s—while showing the book’s cover flap, which says in plain type that it was “first published in 1982.” The writer of the show seems uncertain what a “novel” is, which is oddly a rather modern problem. Since the turn of the century, professors have reported that college students have started calling any lengthy prose work a “novel” regardless of whether it is fiction or nonfiction. For Millennials, “novel” seems to now mean “long and boring book.”
Chris Hodapp, who is himself a Masonic-Templar conspiracy theorist, explained that Holy Blood, Holy Grail derives from French works on the Prior of Sion—he doesn’t admit they are hoaxes—but seems unaware that Pierre Plantard’s French conspiracy claims about the marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene and their subsequent child come from a French conspiracy theory put forward by Louis Martin in The Gospels without God in 1887. As you can see from the translated chapter I provide, it was based on no factual evidence. The show does not acknowledge that another of its “experts” in the Holy Bloodline, Alice von Kannon, a self-described “greedy and villainous landlord” and Grail-Templar conspiracy theorist, is not an independent expert but the writing partner of Chris Hoddap. Nor does it acknowledge that von Kannon, author of The Templar Code for Dummies, belongs to a Holy Grail conspiracy theory fan club called the Order of the Grail.
The two provide a summary of the case for a married Jesus that uses points taken virtually verbatim from 1850s-era Mormon arguments for a married Christ, including the allegation that the Wedding at Cana was that of Jesus himself.
Because this program is looking to “maximize the upside return,” much of the material in this hour is clearly based on the same research that appeared in the Forbidden History episodes on the same topics.
That’s why we have Forbidden History regular Andrew Gough show up to ask whether the Prior of Sion and the Bloodline descendants of Christ “control our governments.” Gough admits to understanding that Pierre Plantard was a fraud who wanted to make a claim to be the rightful king of France, but Gough won’t admit that Plantard made the whole thing up. He knows that Plantard either made it up or was privy to a real secret, but “I don’t know which I believe,” he said. (He would say other things before the end of the hour.)
This leads to a review of the so-called “mystery” of Rennes-le-Chateau, a modern conspiracy invented in the middle twentieth century. The overlapping conspiracy theories range from allegations that Jesus or Mary Magdalene is buried within or under the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, or that the Jewish Temple treasures were buried there, or the treasure of the Templars, etc. No evidence of any Holy Bloodline or Temple treasure conspiracy ever turned up, but the redecorated Victorian-era church created room for conspiracy theories because of its large statue of the devil and a depiction of Mary Magdalene in Rennes on its altar. (These church statues were ordered from the catalog of Giscard of Toulouse—yes, conspiracy items can be ordered from a catalog!) The altar shows Mary in a cave beside a grave, which seems to quite clearly refer back to local southern French legends that the Magdalene came to France, as given in the Golden Legend and earlier medieval texts. But Holy Bloodline conspiracy theorists think that the picture shows Christ’s grave, pretty much as Louis Martin imagined it in 1887.
Now, here’s what’s interesting: The priest who redecorated Rennes-le-Chateau, François-Bérenger Saunière, did so from 1887 onward. He was apparently an indifferent Catholic, and not above selling masses for cash to fund his lavish lifestyle. It is just possible (though no evidence exists) that he was aware of the controversy in the French press over Louis Martin’s book, or even that he read Louis Martin’s book, and actually did incorporate material from it into his redecoration of his church, either out of his own bemusement or because he considered it to be the “true” history of the Magdalene in southern France. If that were the case, it would be hilarious (and sad) that Martin’s fact-free pseudohistory inspired the symbolism that “proves” the conspiracy. Either way, the art in Rennes-le-Chateau postdates Louis Martin’s account of the same alleged conspiracy.
After this, the show interviews a man who claims to be a member of the Priory of Sion, and a spokesman for the Priory, but the producers make no effort to confirm the story. Indeed, the “spokesman” says he isn’t allowed to give any details about the Priory, and he evinces no knowledge of it not already in the hoax documents created by Pierre Plantard.
Having given the show’s resident “experts” enough rope to hang themselves in vouching for the reality of the Priory of Sion, the show then begins to backtrack and undo its own argument. It then allows each expert to contradict himself by revealing that he knows that the whole story was put forth by a fraud and a fake who lied his way to fame.
In so doing it introduces us to Jean-Luc Chaumeil, who says he worked with Plantard to fabricate the Priory of Sion documents. “If there are no (real) parchments, there is no story,” Chaumeil said. (The authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, allege that Chaumeil is openly hostile to them and trying to harm their claims.) Hodapp and Gough both admit to knowing that Plantard was a fraud—despite how the show edited them for the first two-thirds of the show—and the show treats its viewers like idiots.
The program then recycles content from Forbidden History about alleged later Holy Bloodline conspirators, all postdating the publication of Holy Bloodline conspiracy theories and therefore no evidence of anything. The narrator tells us that there is a “growing acceptance” that the Church has lied about the life of Christ and that a “more humane figure” is needed to replace Christ as the head of Christianity. These are debatable as facts but in keeping with the show’s only consistent point: that popular belief is more important than objective truth.
Rob Howells, a British esoteric conspiracy theorist, opines that the Priory isn’t just real but is dedicated to forwarding the “evolution of mankind,” through overturning religious dogma and overturning social rules and constraints.
By the end of the show, most of the talking heads have been on both sides of the issue, and the narrator, Huey Morgan, says that the program’s position is that it’s “probably” true that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and was buried in Rennes-le-Chateau. He claims that the Priory’s “greatest trick” is to bury the truth under a wave of intentional falsehoods so that only those who make “a leap of faith” through Holy Blood, Holy Grail or The Da Vinci Code will know the truth. In testament to the show’s bad writing, Morgan’s narration then declares these statements that he just presented as a probability to be “a modern urban legend,” which both contradicts the preceding lines and is factually false since an urban legend is, by conventional definition, not the product of an intentional historical hoax or spread through pseudo-scholarly texts.