Regular readers will remember Zena Halpern, an octogenarian who claimed on The Curse of Oak Island to have access to copies of medieval maps that demonstrate what she believes to be evidence of a voyage by the Knights Templar to map Oak Island and other parts of North America. Halpern is ill with what her friends have described online as a very serious illness, though I have no knowledge of her current health status. Last week Halpern released her long-gestating project, The Templar Mission to Oak Island and Beyond: Search for Ancient Secrets: The Shocking Revelations of a 12th Century Manuscript. As you can tell from the multiple subtitles, the book has some problems with editing. It is self-published, and the rough, unfinished quality of the writing is at times distracting and sometimes infuriating when the author repeats the same thing several times in a row. It needed an editor.
As an editor, I wanted to strike out many sentences, rearrange information, and mark up paragraphs with red pencil notes about missing transitions and unclear writing. As a reviewer, I can only note the problems. Usually, when a book has been professionally written and edited, I have a good idea how it will unfold and can usually guess what each chapter will cover and where the book will end up. Here, it is much more difficult, and more than usual, I am reacting only to what I have read so far, without any clear indication of how it will come together in the parts I haven’t read.
So, be warned: The following are my impressions as I read through the book. Some of these may turn out to be incorrect if the author surprises me with unexpected evidence later in the volume.
Halpern’s tale, such as it is, relates to the alleged secret voyage of Templar benefactor Ralph de Sudeley, whom fringe historian Graham Phillips once accused of discovering the Ark of the Covenant and hiding it in England. According to Halpern, Ralph made a clandestine trip to Hunter Mountain, New York from 1178 to 1180 to retrieve secret scrolls, and he wrote an account in a diary that spent five centuries hidden in an Italian monastery. Halpern opens the book by saying that her sources for this story are “shady characters” and that the Freemasons, the Vatican, and the CIA are all “involved” in the search for the secret Templar scrolls.
Halpern says that she has spent a decade chasing the story, and that it is incomplete. A second volume (!) is planned, but she chose to present the incomplete material because “I can wait no longer to share this with the world.”
The book proper opens with a 1984 account by a man named William D. Jackson of events that allegedly transpired off Bannerman Island in the Hudson River, about fifty miles north of New York City, in 1968. Jackson admits to stealing decorative stonework from the ruins of Bannerman Castle, a Gilded Age faux-Scottish castle on the island, and he claimed that a year later he found inside one of the decorative elements a box capped with a circular disc with crude astrological symbols and writing in Theban, a Latinate alphabet invented in the sixteenth century and used by alchemists as a cipher. Inside the box, Jackson claimed to find several small geometric objects, most of which are now conveniently lost. Without explaining the source or providing documentation, Halpern alleges that the box was purchased in 1906. Halpern posted a photo of the circular brass disc here.
Conveniently, Jackson did not admit to the theft until after the five-year statute of limitations had passed. However, it is convenient that he alleged that the theft took place in 1968, when the stolen goods belonged to the Bannerman family, since in 1969 the property reverted to the State of New York, who would be more inclined to press charges for criminal possession of stolen property.
The facts and the speculation are so entwined that it is a bit difficult to present Halpern’s conflated story without the speculative aspects. The above are the facts, insofar as Halpern warrants them to be true. The speculation is bizarre: Castle-builder Francis Bannerman VI (described, weirdly, in biographies as “a great lover of boys”) was of Scottish birth, so Halpern connects him to the Scots who may or may not have received the exiled remnants of the Knights Templar after the French King and the Pope suppressed the order in 1307. Bannerman might have been connected to the Templars, Halpern thinks, through six centuries of secret societies, and these in turn must have had access to Templar secrets because of a manuscript, uncited and unquoted, that alleges that the Templars fled with troves of documents. She only says that this text is in the National Library in Paris.
Bannerman, in reality, was a known eccentric with vaguely mystical beliefs typical of his time, and echoes in odd ways the tyrant who built Hill House in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House since both men ensured that their homes had not a single right angle. He seems like the kind of person who would have enclosed an artifact in a boundary marker, as the Victorians were wont to do, but the photographs of the brass object look a lot like something that someone in the middle twentieth century crafted as an “occult” piece. Either way, the question is what evidence Halpern has that it dates back to the time of the Templars—a time before the “Theban” alphabet can be shown to have existed. Halpern believes, without evidence, that the Templars brought Theban to Padua in the 1100s, from which place it spread to alchemists. Odd that no evidence of it survives before the Renaissance.
Halpern did not consult with a historian or an archaeologist or even an astrologer about the brass box. Instead, she presented the brass box to an Air Force remote image analyst and fringe historian Richard Moats. Both the author and Moats publish on Ancient America, a fringe history blog. Moats looked at a photograph of the object and determined that it was a secret navigation aid used by Europeans to reach ancient America, claiming that navigators “could have used it to make a transatlantic voyage from Western Europe or Africa to the Americas and return home to sail another day.” At no time did Moats actually have access to the object.
Based on drawings Jackson made of a copper disc (now lost) within the brass box, Halpern concludes that the scrawls and squiggles on the disc “clearly portray a voyage.” Your mileage will vary depending on whether you see the lines as representing Florida or a penis, and whether you believe a dotted line must indicate seaward travel. Halpern reads into the crude shapes a map of the Atlantic Ocean, which it vaguely and inaccurately resembles, and she says that the reverse of the disc show a voyage from Florida to Oak Island, but without the original, the 1984 drawing of an object that Jackson seems to have lost sometime after 1969 is rather pointless. Anyone could have drawn anything at any time. Even if we assume what Halpern assumes, the voyage seems to terminate farther north than Nova Scotia, around Labrador, which in the 1960s was famously the location where Vikings were finally proved to have lived in North America. The “map”—if that is what it was—seems very similar to fringe history claims about trans-Atlantic voyages to America popular in that era. This seems to be confirmed by a second object, a rectangle of copper, which has the name Quetzalcoatl and coordinates for Mexico. This reflects the popular claims about Vikings and/or Templars in Mexico that originated with Eugène Beauvois and spread from him into the broader fringe history community in the middle twentieth century.
The disc and the rectangle show an octopus with five arms, and Halpern alleges—again without evidence—that this octopus is identical with the Quinotaur, the five-horned bull of Frankish mythology (Chronicle of Fredegar) that allegedly spawned the Merovingian line. The Quinotaur is believed to be a Christianization or Christian adaptation of Neptune, with his two bull’s horns and three-spiked trident, but Halpern, differing from nearly all scholars and all artistic depictions of the bull-fish creature for 1,300 years, instead makes him into an octopus. This seems to be an extension, again, of claims by Phillip Gardner, who alleged that the Quinotaur was actually a bull-serpent hybrid, based on Pictish rock art of practically no relevance to Frankish legends.
The L-shaped object is just silly. It shows stick figures, some wearing feathers on their heads (!), fighting around some upside-down V’s, presumably crudely representing mountains. A final object, a gold triangle, was inscribed with the name of Quetzalcoatl and the Portuguese term Angra Pequena, the name of a small cove in West Africa. Jackson claimed that he had the gold “tested” and it dated between 1000 and 1200 CE. The copper objects, Jackson said, were tested and dated to 1700 CE, though I am not sure what methods would allow for such testing in 1984, nor can Halpern explain why such test results weren’t preserved in Jackson’s notes, being rather important to the argument.
Oh, and just for the fun of it: Jackson claimed to work for the super-secret Spartan Agency, an off-the-books group hired to do the work the CIA can’t officially do. Sure it is. (I can find no record of it outside of video game and slash fan fiction sites, where the name has appeared for fictitious agencies. Several property management and literary agencies have also used the name.) A few years ago, the Spartan Agency’s Portuguese liaison “translated” a “Theban” document found with the brass box, and discovered Jesus Holy Bloodline names in a document allegedly first reported in 1984, two years after The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail became a bestseller and spawned the Bloodline frenzy. Frankly, I am not yet convinced that any of this material goes back as far as 1984, let alone 1968 or to the Templars. I will need to see evidence documenting the existence of any of this prior to a decade ago.
At the end of chatper 1, Halpern descends into a strange fog of conspiracy, alleging that she was being stalked by operatives of the “Spartan Agency” who were trying to intimidate her into silence. This intimidation supposedly took place between 2009 and 2011, during a period when Jesus Bloodline claims, Templar voyages, and other nonsense were quite commonplace thanks to The Da Vinci Code. I can’t help but think that someone was having a laugh at Halpern. Perhaps there was an original hoax from the 1960s or 1980s, but without original materials to examine, we only have Halpern’s word to go on. From her writing, it is clear that she is not a reliable narrator. She is suffused with conspiracy theories and appears quite credulous and gullible. I am afraid this book is sad rather than interesting because of it, and I wish the History Channel and The Curse of Oak Island had not exploited her.
Tomorrow I will continue with chapter 2 and see if Halpern provides any evidence for these quite unbelievable claims.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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