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Chapter 5: Myths of the Holy Grail

The object of a successful Grail quest is "to kneel before the bones of Mary Magdalene", (257) something Brown’s hero–but not his heroine–actually gets to do at the novel’s sodden climax. (454). On the other hand, the villainous Vatican’s Grail quests were secret missions to kill the Magdalene’s descendants who continue the holy blood of Jesus (257). The hierarchy has always tried to destroy the Grail to keep its ill-gotten patriarchal power (268). As another negative example, Brown’s villain Teabing is a quester so murderously obsessed that the Grail has become his spiritual mistress and therefore he fails for unworthiness.

Brown’s version of the Priory of Sion not only guards the secret of the Magdalene-Grail equationbut also her relics, her bloodline, and four huge chests full of documents verifying same. Significantly, he adds another feature to the society, goddess-worship, which had not featured at all in the program of the modern Priory.

To this degree Brown fuses the principal tenets of Holy Blood, Holy Grail with The Templar Revelation’s emphasis on the goddess and the mystical feminism of Margaret Starbird. Brown’s characters worship the fusion of masculine and feminine divinity through the ancient pagan rite of hieros gamos "sacred marriage" but he doesn’t specifically identify Jesus and Mary Magdalene as lovers who performed this ritual. They are properly wed, just like his heroine Sophie’s grandparents in The Da Vinci Code, and their cultic functions are discreetly unmentioned. Starbird has the Magdalene as Christ’s Bride in The Woman with the Alabaster Jar, but Picknett and Prince have Jesus and Mary Magdalene unmarried–and uncongenial–participants in the sexual worship of the Egyptian goddess Isis. Picknett’s recent solo book, Mary Magdalene: Christianity’s Hidden Goddess depicts her as a Jewish-Ethiopian goddess-worshipping priestess-preacher of Johannite Christianity. Whatever happened to the signature red hair? Perhaps Brown realized that he’d better stick to prettier theories.

Brown makes large claims for the Grail story, calling it "the most enduring legend of all time" (249). Never mind that is was unknown until the late twelfth century. He wonders why none of the other Passion relics have attracted such a mystique, apparently unaware of the stories of the True Cross which are more than seven centuries older and connected with widely dispersed visible relics. Brown says that the Grail has been the object of wars and quests–as if these were real and not literary events.

To universalize the Grail, Brown connects it with a V-shaped figured called the "chalice". It is supposed to be the most ancient symbol of femininity while the reversed figure termed the "blade" represents masculinity. Turned into triangles and superimposed, they become the familiar Star of David or Seal of Solomon, which supposedly means a conjunction of gender principles. Brown is taking these ideas from Riane Eisler’s Chalice and the Blade which Neo-Pagan writer Margot Adler calls "a provocative, feminist reinterpretation of history". Dipping a blade into a chalice is in fact a detail in Gardnerian Wiccan ritual.

Incidentally, one paragraph of Alder’s own summary of common Neo-Pagan beliefs wouldn’t have sounded out of place in The Da Vinci Code: "In our culture which has for so long denied and denigrated the feminine as negative, evil or, at best, small and unimportant, women (and men too) will never understand their own creative strength and divine nature until they embrace the creative feminine, the source of inspiration, the Goddess within." The incompatibility of these notions with Christianity should be obvious.

The Star (more properly the Shield) of David wasn’t used by Jews in biblical times but entered Jewish culture as a protective sign via Islamic magic practices around the tenth century. It became a heraldic symbol in early modern Prague and finally emerged as the universal emblem of Jewishness among nineteenth century Zionists, hence its use on the Israeli flag.4 Granted that anything concave is "feminine" and anything convex is "masculine" in a Freudian sense, if the so-called chalice and blade were as primordial and universal as Brown claims, they would be easy to detect in the most ancient human societies. But an examination of a work by pagan-friendly archeologist Marija Gimbutas, The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe, on Neolithic divine imagery reveals many kinds of sexual symbols, but no chalices or blades. Going farther back in time to Ice Age Europe, two pages of Paleolithic signs reproduced by Alexander Marshak in The Roots of Civilization show a variety of female and male signs but only one possible chalice.

On the other hand, recognition of the female body as a container is a basic mythological insight simply extrapolated from observing the functions of breast and womb as vessels. The Great Mother by Erich Neumann is a notable analysis of the worldwide maternal archetype from a Jungian perspective. Neumann connects the grail with the breast as an "open" symbol of nourishment, transformation, and fertility.

These traits will be met in the legendary Holy Grail. But it’s worth noting that Mary Magdalene is essentially a transformed rather than a transforming person: in the Bible she goes from possessed to free; in tradition she goes from sinner to saint. In neither the canonical nor the Gnostic gospels is she physically fertile; her impact is spiritual only. The Grail-as-Magdalene is a poor fit. Our Blessed Lady as Virgin and Mother–Neuman analyzes her in both roles–makes the perfect living Grail because she is the "container" par excellence of Christ’s own blood.