It’s been exactly ten years since Dan Brown sparked a new interest in the mythology of the Holy Grail with his Da Vinci Code. In it, Brown weaved a badly-written conspiracy thrilled in which a globetrotting hero in a made-up field of study (symbology) put together a series of ambiguous clues to reveal that the Holy Grail was actually an esoteric symbol for the bloodline launched when Jesus Christ married Mary Magdalene and had a secret child with her. On America Unearthed S01E11 “Tracking the Templars,” another globetrotting protagonist, show host Scott Wolter, who also operates in a self-created field of study (archeopetrography), follows the same clues and also goes in quest of the fruits of Mary Magdalene’s womb.
Before we begin talking about the show, there are few things that it’s important to know about the Holy Grail and the hoax mythology concocted around it in order to understand where Scott Wolter went so terribly wrong. This is very long, so if you know this material, you can skip ahead to the heading indicating my review of the episode proper.
The first is that the Holy Grail originally had nothing whatsoever to do with Christ. In fact, it does not date back far enough to do so. The first appearance of the Holy Grail is in the Perceval of Chrétien de Troyes, written around 1190 CE. There, a “golden serving dish” descends before Perceval in the castle of the Fisher King, but Chrétien does not call it holy or call special attention to it, as opposed to an equally sacred lance. A century later, Wolfram von Eschenbach made it into a stone in his Parzival. Robert de Boron told a different tale in the twelfth century, that Joseph of Arimathea had received the Holy Chalice that caught Christ’s blood and spirited it away to Great Britain and founded a line of knights to guard this sacred vessel. The stories of the Holy Chalice and the magical Grail merged, and suddenly a myth arose that a line of sacred knights guarded the magical cup of Christ called the Holy Grail. Medieval people understood Robert’s poem to be courtly fiction, not a report of actual fact.
The name Holy Grail derives from Old French for Holy Cup, san graal or sangreal, derived via Latin from the Greek krater, or drinking-vessel. Medieval writers, discussing how the Holy Cup held Christ’s royal blood (since he was of the royal line of David), played on a pun, writing san greal as sang real, or Holy Blood. Thus, mystically, the Royal Blood and Holy Grail were one and the same, the cup standing for the divine blood it contained. This is very much in keeping with medieval religious symbolism, and most scholars accept that the magical powers of the holy cup derive from a mixture of Christian symbolism, particularly that of the newly-instituted ritual of communion, and Celtic (more broadly Indo-European) myths of the immortality bestowed by magic cauldrons. Many appear in Celtic lore, though I am more familiar with the cauldron used by the Greek Medea to restore Jason (or Aeson) to youth, another version of the same Indo-European magic cup myth. (The story also is the origin of the witch’s cauldron of fairy tales.)
The trouble is that modern speculators are not content with the idea that medieval people had mystical or religious symbolism that wasn’t tied to facts on the ground. Beginning in the Romantic Era, writers began to see a parallel between the storied Knights Templar and the Grail Knights, part of the increasing respect afforded the pageantry and drama of the Middle Ages in that era. The Knights Templar, officially the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, existed from about 1119 to 1312. They were a practical military order based at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem during the Crusades. Involved in banking, they became very wealthy, leading a greedy pope and French king to accuse them of idol worship and heresy in 1307 in order to suppress the order and gain their money. They were never famed in their own time for any particular religious piety beyond that of any other crusading group. Since then, writers have tried to imagine any less mundane reason than money for their demise. Often, this effort descended into wild claims about alternative religions, derived from the original accusation of the heretical worship of a demon-idol named Baphomet.
Thomas Wharton, the British poet laureate, wrote in the History of English Poetry (1774-81) that the Grail myth was influenced by “esoteric doctrines” brought from the “heathen” East, though he accused no specific group; but this was simply part of the standard anti-Catholicism of the era, which saw the Catholic Church as too influenced by ritual and ceremony. Wharton specifically accused the “Romish Church” of perpetuating the “heathen temple.”
The first connection between the Templars and the Freemasons came from the German critic Lessing in the 1770s. He was a Freemason and read backward into the Grail Romances the Masonic tradition, on the authority of the Scottish Freemasons, who had adopted the Templars as honorary predecessors as part of their fabricated mythic past. In 1737, Freemason Andrew Michael Ramsey gave a speech in Paris claimed that the Knights of St. John gave rise to the Masons, in symbolic association, derived from his belief in the One True Religion of which all pagan cults were decadent aspects: “Our Order [was] founded in remote antiquity, and renewed in the Holy Land by our ancestors in order to recall the memory of the most sublime truths among the pleasures of society.” This became confused with the Templars after the speech was adopted into Masonic lore, probably because after 1314 the pope had allowed the ex-Templars to join the Knights of St. John, also called the Hospitallers. (No, the Templars did not move to Scotland to form Masonry.)
By the 1820s, anti-Masonic activists were using the confused Templar connection to paint the Masons as a revival of the idol worshipping pagan Templars. The Austrian Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall specifically claimed that the Masons revived the Templar heresy, the worship of the idol Baphomet (probably Muhammad), and that Templar images of Baphomet’s head were cast in the form of a Greek krater, the very origin of the blasphemous Holy Grail.
Claude Charles Fauriel, in 1832, was perhaps the first to confuse the Knights Templar (named for the Temple Mount in Jerusalem) with the Grail Knights when he described the Grail as preserved in a temple in the Pyrenees, from which the Knights took their name: “Titurel [the Grail King] instituted for his defense and his guard a militia, a special Order of Chivalry, which is called the Knighthood of the Temple, whose members are called Templiens or Templars. … I have already hinted, and I can say here explicitly, in this religious Grail guard is an obvious allusion to the Order of the Templars” (“Romans Provençeaux,” Reveu des Deux Mondes, 8, 185; my trans.). He had no evidence other than a shared chivalry between the groups and the fact that one Grail romance described the knights as templien, or “temple-guardians,” not Templars as in the Knights of the Temple. But Fauriel was proposing a literary theory—that the Grail Romances symbolized the Templars—not a historical theory that they encoded an actual Holy Grail.
Later scholars, such as Alfred Trübner Nutt, agreed that the Grail stories were intended as political documents, designed to provide a mythic history for the Angevin Kings of France, thus paralleling the Knights Templar; mainstream scholars, however, never thought the Templars had an actual magic cup, or anything else that actually belonged to Christ.
The development of this idea is chiefly the work of the mid-Victorian French scholar E. Aroux, who believed that the Holy Grail must have been the secret doctrine of the Templars, an alternative Gospel, for which they were condemned for heresy. A German, Dr. Simrock—a mythologist prone to seeing ancient connections in every similarity of symbol—took up the story, reporting the work of his predecessor:
Baron von Hammer-Purgestall, who gives the most detail on the connection of the Templars with the Holy Grail, by tracing its history from the identity of hieroglyphs which he found on the old churches and buildings in the Danubian Provinces. He unfortunately is for ever trying to find the most unsavoury interpretation for all the ancient symbolism; with his views we are not concerned, but to the work of research which he carried on with such ability we are profoundly indebted.
By 1900, the idea that the Holy Grail story had symbolically represented the Knights Templar had become a given, and one that became associated with anti-Masonism and Theosophy. The Theosophical writer Isabel Cooper-Oakley produced a book called Traces of a Hidden Tradition in Masonry and Medieval Mysticism that forever linked the Grail, the Templars, and the Freemasons, in service of the alien-worshipping Theosophists, who believed the Templars were privy to extraterrestrial secrets imparted by the Ascended Masters from other planets. She, in turn, was again drawing on Simrock, who divined (without proof) a secret order that had preserved Templar secrets from the fourteenth to eighteenth centuries.
And that’s about where things stood for most of the twentieth century. There was no evidence of any Grail-Templar-Freemason connection outside some disconnected symbolism, some anti-Catholic assumptions, and a confusion between the Templars—suppressed because the pope and the French king wanted their money—and the Cathars, who provided the final pillar of this theory, the worship of the “sacred feminine.” That weird concept derives from the works of the Freemason and Rosicrucian Hargrave Jennings, who believed all religion was penis-worship, and Otto Augustus Wall, whose influential book Sex and Sex Worship claimed that all religion was the worship of sex organs, particularly the penis. The triangle, circle, or lozenge, due to their resemblance to the female pubic region, was in his view symbolic of the woman and thus the feminine counterpart to the true object of universal veneration, his—er, the—penis. It would, however, be modern writers who introduced Wall’s sex-worship theory into the Grail mythos.
Graham Hancock, in The Sign and the Seal (1992), thought that the varied descriptions of the Grail as a vessel and as a stone suggested that it was a symbol of the Ark of Covenant, a vessel containing the stones inscribed with the Ten Commandments. In this reading, the Grail Knights were of course the Knights Templar, who had conducted secret digs on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount in search of the Ark. Never mind that the Knights Templar were not British, as Robert de Boron insisted that the Grail Knight must be.
But Hancock was merely piggybacking on the success of an earlier book, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (1982) by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln. It is impossible to summarize this influential and ridiculous book in a few words, but its central thesis is that in 1099 a secret society called the Priory of Sion formed to guard the “Holy Grail,” which was the bloodline of Mary and Jesus, currently represented by the dethroned Merovingian royal house of France. The Priory created the Knights Templar and continue working today to reestablish Merovingian rule over all Europe, following the anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which the authors believe was not a hoax but the Priory’s master-plan. It was this book that tied together Theosophy’s Masonic conspiracy, Wall’s “sacred feminine” sex worship, and Fauriel’s literary view of the Templar-Grail connection—all theories for which there was little direct evidence. Compounding speculation upon speculation did not strengthen the results.
The Priory of Sion was a hoax created in 1956 by a delusional French draftsman named Pierre Plantard who fabricated its entire history to support his false claim to be the last descendant of Christ and the rightful universal monarch of the world prophesied by Nostradamus. Despite the exposure of the hoax, Laurence Gardner, the late genealogist to the pretender to the Stuart royal line in Britain, wrote a book called Bloodline of the Holy Grail recapitulating all of this and ascribing the Christian bloodline to his boss, the Stuart pretender. He then wrote a follow-up called Genesis of the Grail Kings where he explained that the secret society guarding the grail originated with Zechariah Sitchin’s aliens from Nibiru, and their alien-hybrid human descendants maintained immortality by consuming refined white gold and human menstrual blood.
In 2000, Andrew Sinclair and Timothy Wallace-Murphy connected the imaginary bloodline of Christ to Rosslyn Chapel, the St. Clair family chapel in Scotland. They believed the chapel had been built as a model of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem (even though the ground plans do not match in any way) and that the chapel contained Templar and Masonic symbolism, a claim denied by both experts in the Templars and the Masons themselves. (Some Masonic symbols were added later, and others are actual mason’s marks used by stonemasons in building the chapel.) In this reading, the St. Clair family was in fact the Scottish branch of Jesus bloodline, guarded by the Templars, who after their disbanding became Freemasons. (They did not, of course, as mentioned above. Freemasonry did not erupt for more than 400 years after the end of the Templars, too long for any real connection.) Then, to tie it up with a bow, the faker Pierre Plantard once went by the fake name Saint-Clair.
Dan Brown then canonized the entire story by using elements of all these modern versions in The Da Vinci Code (2003). Scott Wolter simply accepted all of these as more or less true in his book The Hooked X, where he sees a mason’s mark at Rosslyn Chapel featuring an X with a line through it as identical to the “hooked X,” an otherwise unattested rune found on the Kensington Rune Stone. They are not morphologically the same.
Thus was the modern idea of a Grail-Templar-Freemason-Bloodline myth born from the accidental asides of a range of earlier ideas, including literary theory, anti-Catholicism, anti-Masonry, Theosophy, sex worship, New Age mysticism, and fraud. Quite the pedigree.
We start the episode in New England in 1984 with a giant boulder called the Narragansett Rune Stone with “fourteenth century” carvings that the show asserts contained a “Hooked X,” a symbol used by “only one group at that time,” the Knights Templar. The boulder was stolen, so there is nothing to look at it. Instead, we get mood shots of an airport, where Scott Wolter takes a phone call from Paul Roberti in a quite obviously staged discussion of the stolen stone. “I’ve got to handle this right now!” Wolter shouts, as though he had authority to do anything. The stone was actually stolen sometime in the early summer of 2012, and Wolter commented on the affair in August of 2012, but the airport scene, filmed in the autumn—as shown by the colors on the trees and Wolter's heavy clothes—pretends it just happened and he just learned of the theft.
“This stone is one of the very few artifacts that proves the Templars came to America,” Wolter asserts. It does not. There is no evidence that the Templars ever used a Hooked X, and Wolter over the course of the hour provides none.
In 2009, the History Channel—and Wolter—did a documentary called The Hooked X which already covered this material. There is an inscription on the Narragansett rock, which is almost certainly a modern hoax for a reason I will mention momentarily. The entirety of Wolter's claim for the “Hooked X” derives from its appearance on the Kensington Rune Stone, before which it is unattested in any runic literature. It exists in only six places on earth—five in America and, as mentioned above, once in a very different form at Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland—not enough to draw any conclusions. Other American rocks featuring this same symbol only appeared after the discovery of the Rune Stone, suggesting that the inscriptions were copied from the Rune Stone by recent hoaxers. No museum specimen or ancient text from prior to the 1890s features this “mysterious” symbol despite Wolter's attempt to tie it to European symbols of differing shapes.
The “hooked X” at Rosslyn chapel differs in two key respects from the one on the Rune Stone: Its crossbar (the hook) appears on both sides of the upper right leg of the X, not on just one; and the lower two legs (staves) are connected with a small “V,” forming a lozenge-shape not found on the Rune Stone “hooked X.” It is quite obviously a mason’s mark, very similar to other mason’s marks of various shapes found on every medieval stone building. It isn’t special, or sacred.
In this episode, Wolter suggests that the Narragansett stone was stolen due to its occult connection to the Templars, but that’s not what he told Chris Church of the Independent this summer: “Wolter suggested the boulder was removed by a neighbor who was tired of people coming to the neighborhood to search for the stone.” It’s interesting that his ideas changed immediately upon filming the episode.
Wolter and Roberti commiserate about the loss of the stone, and Wolter repeats information provided just minutes ago about his study of the Kensington Rune Stone. Wolter describes the Rune Stone as reporting a “land acquisition journey” in 1362, though he does not explain why the Templars, an order disbanded in 1312 and largely composed of a core of French knights, would be writing in Norse runes. Nor can he explain how he sees a connection between the Knights Templar in 1312 and Rosslyn Chapel almost 150 years later—without leaving a single “hooked X” of any kind in any other record before or between the two dates.
Wolter next drafts Christopher Columbus into his conspiracy, arguing that Columbus used the “Templar Cross” (a standard red cross used by many European orders), signed his name with a “Hooked X,” and married into the Sinclair (St. Clair) family. Columbus’s monogram signature does use a small, rounded “hook” atop the stroke forming the lower-left to upper-right line of the X (standing for the Ch in Greek), but it also has one in the lower left as well, and on the lower left leg of the “M” and the top right leg of the “Y,” which he thinks has no special significance. It is obviously a handwriting tic, probably due to the constraints of writing with a quill and needing to have the ink flow smoothly. Most writers of the period made similar marks.
In reviewing Templar history, Wolter claims that the Templars fled Europe to practice their religion and to “protect” a secret—the Holy Grail—which, of course, is the fictional bloodline of Christ that I discussed above. Confusing ancestors and descendants, Wolter seems to think that Jesus’s kids gave rise to the Templar hierarchy (a departure from the Holy Blood claims about the bloodline being the Merovingian kings), and dear Lord, I apparently came to close to the “truth” when I described the fictional unicorn conspiracy earlier in the week.
Wolter then discusses the “symbols” of males (^) and females (V) derived from the Victorian sex-worship theorists, and he chooses to revise the Holy Trinity to represent the family of Christ: Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and their kid…Boots? Esmeralda? Scott? Thus, the small bar on the “hooked X” is the baby in Mary’s V-shaped womb above Jesus’s inverted v-shaped penis. That would be news for the Vikings most alternative believers think carved the Kensington Rune Stone. I’m also unsure how the French Knights Templar, fleeing France, decided to start speaking Old Swedish.
The “proof” of this theory is a sculpture made in the 1500s in which Mary Magdalene appears in bulging, flowing robes. This Wolter and Roberti interpret as evidence of Mary’s pregnancy. I am not quite sure I understand, though, how the statue connects to the Templars that Wolter had just asserted fled from Europe to America two centuries earlier, on Saturday, October 14, 1307. (Isn’t it nice we know the exact day?) Who was left to carry on the Templar heresy in Europe and become Freemasons if they all went to America?
Wolter’s next piece of “evidence” is a “dot code” on the Kensington Rune Stone that supposedly indicates which special letters to read to find the word “Grail,” gral in Swedish he says, though that form of the word is actually German, from the French graal or greal. In fact, the word gral is not found at all in any genuine Old Swedish document. There has been a great deal of controversy over whether these dots were intentional, and I have no particular interest in litigating this dispute. I am not sure how Wolter can translate the hooked X as the letter A if there are no other examples of a hooked X to know what letter it is meant to represent. Wolter uses 3-D microscopic analysis to determine that the marks are genuine, but his former colleague Richard Nielsen, who accused Wolter of dishonesty in documents available on his website, has also conducted microscopic analysis and found that, when accepting Wolter’s standard for what constitutes a punch mark (a “dot”) two other runes feature the same dot in between the G and the R, forming GTER, not GR, and ruining the Grail Code. At the very least, the evidence is much more ambiguous than Wolter claims. (Full disclosure: Nielsen sent me links to material on his websites.)
As we cross the halfway point, Wolter suggests that the ossuary (burial box) of Jesus was (a) real and (b) concealing a hooked X as a sacred symbol of Wolter’s imaginary trinity. This “Lost Tomb of Jesus” was the subject of a 2007 documentary of that name, promoted by Simcha Jacobovici, who claimed that because two ossuaries marked Jesus and Mary contained remains DNA proved were unrelated they were therefore married and the Jesus and Mary Magdalene of the Da Vinci Code conspiracy. The forensic archaeologist Jacobovici claimed confirmed the marriage of the two denied he did any such thing, noting DNA cannot test for marriage. Additionally, the archaeologist who first excavated the tomb in 1980 confirmed that the “Jesus ossuary” was not found in the tomb when it was opened but had been added into the tomb at a later date, backed up by site reports that failed to record any evidence of the Jesus ossuary in 1980. By most scientific accounts, the Jesus ossuary was a fake, with a new inscription added to a genuinely old ossuary. But even if it were there, Jesus and Mary were two of the most popular names of the era, making the chances of these boxes belonging to the Biblical figures vanishingly small.
Jerry Lutgen, whose only credential seems to be that he runs a website about the Talipot Tomb, claims that the odds are 175:1 in favor of this being Jesus’ tomb, a ridiculous number derived from several assumptions about the statistical prevalence of certain Biblical names and the uncritical acceptance that the Jesus bone box is legitimate, something most archaeologists do not accept because of significant problems with it.
Wolter is happy to accept all of this as true, and he points to one of the marks on the Jesus ossuary, an X with a curve (not a hook) at the end of the lower right line, as an “early” hooked X. I don’t see it myself; it looks like a random curve, certainly not an intentional crossbar. Wolter seems to have started from a conclusion and is working backward to pick out evidence.
Then we see something so profoundly stupid that it made me laugh: Wolter asserts that a Templar coin from c. 1200 contains an image of the front door to the Talpiot Tomb because the headgear worn by the man on the coin’s face has a triangle with a circle in the center, which he thinks looks like the pediment of the Talpiot tomb with its circular medallion set beneath. He also asserts that the face on the coin is Jesus himself. At no point does it occur to him to check with a numismatist to find out what the coin actually depicts, or even to read the writing on the coin to see if it has any relevance; that would all just be part of the conspiracy anyway. Various combinations of chevrons and circles appear on several Templar coins of the era, and on this coin by chance the chevron appears above the circle. More commonly, the chevron (or triangle) is placed between two circles.
Afterward, Wolter asserts that his proof that the Templars became Freemasons was the hooked X, which is circular logic since he earlier asserted that the Templar-Freemason connection was what led him to his understanding of the hooked X. Oh, well. It doesn’t matter because the Rosslyn Chapel hooked X isn’t one, and the Knights Templar didn’t speak Old Swedish.
Wolter also claims a connection to the Copiale Cipher, which is not a Masonic document, despite his assertions. It was a pseudo-Masonic document created in the 1740s by a group of mostly Catholic eye doctors (oculists—it’s not a code word!) after the pope banned Catholics from becoming Masons. It wasn’t a conspiracy. The “hooked X” again differs from the Rune Stone version in having a crossbar through the right upper leg (stave), and a circle attached to the left upper stave. Joe Rose, who spoke out about how America Unearthed had butchered his ideas, is very excited about the symbol and its secrets. “It’s like an eighteenth-century James Bond movie!” Wolter enthuses. [Update: My discussion, based on media reports, is contradicted by Scottish Rite masons, who state that the media reports are wrong and the cipher actually reflects German masonic rituals. The evidence, however, is not clear enough to distinguish between Masonic and pseudo-Masonic rituals; at any rate, it still does not have a hooked X like the one on the Rune Stone.]
And just because we’re not far enough down the rabbit hole, we have to look at Nicolas Poussin’s Shepherds in Arcadia, the infamous painting supposedly offering a connection to the Priory of Sion and the Holy Grail. (It illustrates a moment from Pliny’s Natural History 35.5.1 when the first artist see his shadow and thus discover the art of painting by tracing it.) As I mentioned above, the Priory of Sion is a modern hoax. We see a stone carving of the painting in Britain known as the Shugborough relief, but nothing much comes of this other than some speculation about hidden codes. We hear that some mysterious letters carved on the stone version can be read as a code indicating 2,810 miles (English, presumably) between the relief and Oak Island, the site skeptic Joe Nickell identified as a Freemasons’ initiation center. The Shugborough relief dates only from the mid-eighteenth century and is therefore far too late to have anything to do with the bloodline of Christ that would have left Europe 500 years earlier; and even if the relief was a Freemasonic code, it falls within the historic period of Freemason activities and therefore does not imply anything about the missing centuries between 1312 and the eighteenth century.
Wolter leaves us with a cliffhanger: the Newport Tower! Rafn would roll over in his grave if he knew Wolter wanted to throw overboard his Norse builders in favor of bloodline-unicorn-Templar-Masons.
But now we know: America Unearthed thinks of itself as a miniseries building toward a Da Vinci Code climax, and Wolter sees himself as making a case for a deeply-held, near-religious belief that he will find the Holy Grail.
It really gives new meaning to the term “cult archaeology.”
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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