HOLY GRAILS!

Christ appears to a hermit in a vision, holding a book containing the true history of the Holy Grail. From History of the Holy Grail, French manuscript, early 14th century
Copyright © The British Library Board

There’s a lot of them about, Holy Grails, that is. But one in Spain has an intriguing tale to tell.

The venerable Christian relic known as the Cup of Christ, the Lord’s Chalice and, most evocatively, ‘The Holy Grail’ is the centre of a twisting tale of history and myth. Every facet of its corporeality – shape, colour, size – is uncertain, as is its origins. It is said, variously, to have been the cup or plate used by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper; to have been the bowl used to collect Christ’s blood as he died on the Cross, or both. Then again, it might just be a symbol encoding the mysteries and meanings of the Holy Communion.

We first hear of this relic in medieval Europe where it appears in a number of romances from around the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. This is also the context in which we first hear of the involvement of the Knights Templar in the guardianship of the Grail, a notion that has fed a fecund flow of often farcical fiction right up to the present day. By the fifteenth century it melded into the Celtic Arthurian legends then very much in vogue at court and wherever people could afford books and were able to read them, or have them read aloud. Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485) is the main vehicle for this transformation. In all these variations of the tale, the Grail is located not in the Middle East but in Europe.

How the Grail actually got from its original location in Jerusalem to Europe is a similarly slippery story. One version is that it was brought by the disciple, Peter, when he went there to bring the gospel to the west. This one, not surprisingly, seems to have at least the tacit approval of the Roman Catholic church given Peter’s significance in its founding. 

Another, more folkloric tradition, concerns Joseph of Arimathea, the man who is said to have taken responsibility for the transmission of the dead Jesus to the disciples who interred him in Joseph’s garden in a man-made cave.  In this version, of which there are several variants, the Grail is usually said to have been a wooden cup taken to England by Joseph, or his followers, where a Christian institution was founded at Glastonbury. This strand of the legend, which may only date from the late nineteenth century[1] also continues to have potency in the modern era as a variety of people seeking spiritual awareness and confirmation, as well as Christians, actively venerate the Glastonbury area, with its intriguing pre-Christian resonances of standing stones and paganism in general.

None of these stories have any credible historical evidence to support them. Like the obsession of the Nazis with aspects of the Cathar version of the legend,[2] they are purely the blended outcomes of belief and fictioneering, producing a potent and enduring myth.

But, relatively recently, another unexpected strand has been added to the rich narrative of the Holy Grail. In 2006 and 2010, a number of early Islamic manuscripts were said to have been discovered in Egypt and translated. They provide potentially verifiable evidence of the history of one particular object identified as the Holy Grail by Islamic sources as early as 400CE. According to Margarita Torres Sevilla and José Miguel Ortega Del Río, the academic authors of Kings of the Grail, an object long identified as the Holy Grail in its place of imputed was kept in Jerusalem for the first thousand years or so of its existence. There, it was visited and venerated by pilgrim Christians for centuries. 

Jerusalem was under Muslim control at this point and around 1053-54 a Caliph took the Grail and gifted it to a Muslim ruler in Spain. This man wished to develop good diplomatic relations with the Christian Ferdinand 1 of León and decided to send the object to him. By then the object, described as a stone cup, was said to have medicinal powers. The great Muslim leader, Saladin ((Salah-ad-din), would later play a part in this version of the Grail story, using a ‘fine shard’ previously struck from the object to cure his daughter’s illness. The authors of the book use these documents and other evidence to trace the journey of the Grail to where, they argue, is its current resting place, the Basilica of San Isadoro in León.[3]

So, we now have a new and, it seems, authoritative historical identification of the resting place of the Holy Grail. Not Dan Brown’s Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland; not Rennes-le-Château in Cathar country; and not in the glowing mysteries of the Arthurian romances. It’s in Spain.

Whatever we might think of this argument, remembering that it is made by academics from the region, it seems that this line of Grail legend has some serious historical cred. Far more than any of the many other Grails around the world, including several in Britain and Ireland, some in Italy, one in Vienna, and another in America, among others.

Why does it all matter? For Christians, the answer is obvious. The Grail is a relic as closely associated with the body and death of Jesus Christ as possible. It’s up there with the True Cross, the reed used to give him water and the sponge used to cruelly whet his lips with vinegar as he died. As the authors of Kings of the Grail show, these relics were exhibited in the Temple together with their version of the Grail for centuries. 

Interestingly, the Grail does not seem to have been accorded any more significance in this period than the other sacred items, until around the time that it was sent off to Europe for some diplomatic ingratiation. It may be that we owe the evolution of the Holy Grail into Christendom’s most sacred relic to the power politics of the Muslim world as much as the romancing of medieval European troubadours and writers.


[1] S. Baring-Gould, A Book of The West: Being an Introduction to Devon and Cornwall (2 Volumes, Methuen 1899; A Book of Cornwall, Second Edition 1902, New Edition, 1906. 

A W Smith, “‘And Did Those Feet…?’: The ‘Legend’ of Christ’s Visit to Britain” Folklore 100.1 (1989), pp. 63–83.

[2] Umberto Eco, The Book of Legendary Lands, Maclehose, 2013. Chapter 8 ‘The Migrations of the Grail’ on Otto Rahn’s Nazi fantastications and also good on other aspects of Grail legendry. See also chapter 14 on the modern crypto-historical invention of The Priory of Syon and the alleged bloodline of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene, as popularised in The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail.

[3] Margarita Torres Sevilla and José Miguel Ortega Del Río, Kings of the Grail: Tracing the Historical Journey of the Cup of Christ to Modern-Day Spain, The Overlook Press, New York, 2015. Translated from the Spanish edition of 2014 by Rosie Marteau.

HOW NOT TO FIND TREASURE

El dorado map high res1024px-1599_Guyana_Hondius

Nieuwe caerte van het Wonderbaer ende Goudrjcke Landt Guiana by Jodocus Hondius (1598) shows the city of Manoa on the northeastern shore of Lake Parime, alleged location of El Dorado.

 

Lost treasure legends around the world share a number of features. Readers of this blog will by now be familiar with these motifs, scattered through the tales of untold wealth just waiting for some lucky and persevering seeker to gather them up. This is a handy compilation of the essential elements for the delight of sceptics and the caution of the hopeful.

There is a treasure (or desired object of some kind)

At some time, some one or ones must claim to know of the existence of a mine, cave, horde, wreck, city etc., somewhere. It is often not apparent when and how the story of the treasure originates.

There is a hero/es

One or a number of seekers, searchers, questers have been, or will be, on an intrepid journey to find the desired treasure. Think ‘Indiana Jones’.

Origins

Untold riches – or other desired object/s – in the hands of ignorant indigenous peoples are the staple of the El Dorado code. While these beliefs sustained centuries of exploration and colonisation, they are becoming less saleable in the modern world, though this does not seem to deter seekers – or producers of movies and ‘documentaries’ that fuel the delusions of seekers and their backers.

The older the better

Ancient treasures are the most popular. This seems to be because people give most credibility to allegedly authoritative sources from the distant past and because the longer the treasure has been ‘lost’, or unfound, the more intriguing it is to questers and the general public, encouraged by mass media and the internet.

The more remote the better

Distant and/or difficult to reach locations are the norm. After all, if the treasure were readily accessible it is likely that someone will already have found it.

Guardians

Usually related to the remoteness of the treasure is the warning that it may be under the protection of a fierce group of indigenous people. Sometimes the indigenes are replaced with a hereditary cult or secret society of some kind whose members are charged with guarding the secret of the treasure’s location and preserving it from seekers.

Documents

Some form of documentation allegedly verifying the existence of the treasure is almost always part of the story. The most frequent and most intriguing, of course, is a map, chart or other visual representation of the treasure’s alleged location. Usually these are contradictory, absurd and, in any case, impossible to decipher.

Other forms of documentary ‘evidence’ may include ciphers, scrolls, manuscripts, sometimes books, sometimes markings on rocks.

Whatever form the documentation takes – and it may be more than one per treasure – it will be ‘old’, have a chequered history – or ‘mythtory’ – of transmission that is difficult, if not impossible, to verify.

Artefacts

Closely related to documents are objects of one kind or another that allegedly come from or are otherwise relate to the treasure. The standard incredibly rich ore sample has long been a favourite of fake gold mine/reef hoaxers. Other tangible ‘proofs’ might be ancient jewels or statuettes, a gold coin from a seventeenth century shipwreck and so on. The possibilities here are almost numberless.

Back Story

These elements will form part of the narrative surrounding any given treasure, though there are often a number of ancillary elements adding additional spice. Hair raising tales of what happened to previous seekers are popular. (Especially at the hands of fierce native guardians). Gruelling treks with deprivation, suffering and many deaths are frequent tropes, as are mysterious individuals or groups appearing in archives or at other relevant locations, apparently looking into things.

The ‘one that got away’ effect comes into play here. In common with fishing yarns, lost treasure legends tend to grow more astonishing and fabulous with each telling.

These overheated discourses flow through the channels of oral, digital and mass media transmission and provide continual ‘buzz’ and, for some, validation of the existence of any given treasure.

The treasure remains ‘lost’

Despite maps, artefacts and expeditions, fabled treasures remain stubbornly ‘lost’. This only stirs a continual stream of hopeful seekers, further fuelling the legend. In their turn, these seekers fail, leaving the field open to the next batch of deluded optimists with a new map or new interpretation of existing ‘sources’.

The El Dorado code validates itself and the cycle begins again.

1808 mermaid tattoo

FLIGHT OF THE LOST DIAMONDS

smirnoff investigators

Investigators at the crash site; Jack Palmer second from right. NLA

 

It was March 1942. Japanese forces were three days away from taking Bandung on the island of Java. The predominantly Dutch European population was being evacuated to mainland north-western Australia as quickly as possible. Early in the afternoon of 3 March, a Netherlands East Indies KLM Dakota passenger plane prepared to take off with eleven anxious passengers. As the Dakota was about to taxi to the runway the airfield manager handed the pilot, Ivan Smirnoff, a sealed brown paper package, telling him to look after it. A bank would take delivery of the parcel on arrival in Australia, the airfield manager said. Ivan’s mind was on more pressing matters, so he dropped the parcel into the first-aid chest and took off straightaway for the safety of Broome. It was around 1.15 p.m.

As the plane climbed into the sky, Japanese aircraft were attacking Australian coastal communities far to the south. Unfortunately, three of the Japanese fighters returning from the raid spotted the Dakota and raked it with bullets. Passengers were wounded and Smirnoff was struck in the arms and hip. He desperately threw the plane into a steep spiralling descent, pursued closely by the fighters. As the port engine burst into flame he had to act quickly. Smirnoff turned the aircraft towards the beach, managing to bring it down more or less level and then to swing its front section into the sea, extinguishing the engine fire. One of the passengers, himself a pilot, would later recall the Russian national ‘put up the greatest show of flying anybody in the world will ever see’.

SMirnoff

Ivan Smirnoff

 

And so began one of the many enduring lost treasure mysteries. Smirnoff and his passengers were strafed by Zeroes and perishing for lack of fresh water. Survival was the priority, not packages. Four died, though the survivors were eventually rescued and Smirnoff returned to his usual flying. It was only some time later in Melbourne that he became aware of the contents of the package, when he was visited by a police detective and an official of the Commonwealth Bank. They had come to collect the mysterious brown paper parcel. Smirnoff told them that the parcel was lost. ‘What was in it’, he asked.

He was told that parcel contained a cigar box filled with thousands of high-quality diamonds rescued from Amsterdam before the invading German forces arrived. The gems had been on their way via the-then Dutch East Indies to safekeeping in the vaults of the Commonwealth Bank. They were valued at the time at half a million guilders, approximately twenty million dollars in today’s money.

The official wanted to know, quite urgently, where they were.

From this point, the story clouds over like every lost treasure tale. Although the brown paper package was – probably – lost in the sea, as Smirnoff said, it was rescued from the crash site shortly after the survivors had left. A local beachcomber and lugger master named Jack Palmer and others travelling with him came across the wreckage of the Dakota. They salvaged its remaining contents and Palmer found the package, either in the plane or in the surf, and quickly discovered its alluring contents. He divided the gems up, hiding most of them beneath the sand in an aluminium container and distributing the rest among his companions, telling them to keep quiet about the find.

Palmer was on his way to Perth to enlist in the army. When he arrived there, he went to the district military commandant and told the story of the crash and his discovery of the diamonds. To prove his point, he produced two salt cellars full of small stones for the astonished officer.

By now, though, diamonds were starting to turn up in unexpected places. One was found in the fireplace of a Broome home and another in a matchbox in a train carriage. Aboriginal people were seen with them and Chinese traders offered them for sale. Others would be found after the war, including one nestling in the fork of a tree.

An army investigation led to Palmer and two of his comrades being tried in 1943. All three accused were acquitted as they had—seemingly—handed in the diamonds to the authorities. Palmer then served out the war in the army. Afterwards, he tackled a number of business ventures and appeared to be living well through the few years that were left to him.

Jack Palmer died of stomach cancer in 1950. A priest attending his deathbed is said to have asked him what he had done with the rest of the diamonds. Palmer insisted that he handed them in. Then he smiled.

There are a number of other stories stemming from the medical staff who tended the dying man. They vary in detail but all end the same way. They all state that Palmer kept a mysterious bag under his bed which he hinted might contain riches—maybe cash, maybe diamonds. The day after he died, the bag disappeared.

Smirnoff returned to Holland after the war and continued his career as a KLM pilot. He seems never to have gone home to the USSR and died on the island of Majorca in 1956 after an adventurous life that even attracted the brief attention of Hollywood in 1944.

Stories still circulate about the ‘Smirnoff diamonds’. A number of books have been written about them. As recently as 2012 a claim was made by relatives of the man who drove Smirnoff and his surviving passengers to Broome that the pilot knew the package he was carrying contained the diamonds. Whether he knew or not, only a fraction of the hoard was ever recovered. It is thought that the bulk of the cache, perhaps twenty million dollars-worth, is still missing.

Are the Smirnoff diamonds still buried in the sand along with the remains of the ill-fated Dakota? Were they found by others? Or did Jack Palmer simply take them and spend up big for the rest of his life?

 

The full story is in my Great Australian Journeys though, like all good lost treasure yarns, this one is still being told…

 

 

 

 

 

HUNTING FOR TREASURE

Map to Captain Kidd’s treasure

Late in 2015, a lost Nazi gold train was discovered in Poland. At least, that’s what a couple of treasure hunters told the world. Like all lost treasures, the search for this one had been going on for many years, usually without success. But many still believe in these far-fetched yarns and some even search for them. Every now and then a lost treasure is really found, providing just enough stimulus to keep all the other legends living on.

Armed with the latest techno gadgets and a map, the raiders of the lost Nazi treasure claimed to have found their prize. They were prepared to reveal its location in return for a modest percentage of the booty. Local officials apparently fell in with this nonsense and the Deputy Polish Culture Minister was widely quoted saying that they were 99 per cent sure the train was there.
Enter the spoilsport scientists from the Kracow Mining Academy. Their  techno gadgets confirmed that not only was there no hidden Nazi train of gold but there were not even any real railway tracks in this region of the Lower Silesia. Just empty tunnels.
Still, even if that one was dispelled by science, people love a lost treasure story.
Colonel PercyFawcett went to Brazil’s Matto Grosso searching for the lost city of “Z” in 1925. He has not been seen since. A Hollywood film about the Lost City of Z – co-produced by Brad Pitt and starring Robert Pattinson and Sienna Miller – is currently in production and will appear in our cinemas 91 years after Fawcett disappeared.
Lost treasure tales have a number of common elements that provide them with apparent credibility.
Firstly, they are in remote or otherwise difficult to access locations. Lasseter’s Reef is said to lie somewhere in some of Australia’s most desolate emptiness. South American jungles have harboured any number of fabulous Aztec, Incan or Mayan troves. Islands are excellent, especially for pirate treasure chests
Then there will be a map. Or sometimes another document, like a letter, giving the hazy location of the loot. Harold (originally Hubert) Lasseter left a diary and a map of his fabled reef as he lay dying in 1931. Many have since used these documents in futile attempts to find the gold.
The map or document will have a murky provenance. It may come from a previous seeker of a particular rumoured treasure. It might be serendipitously “found”, preferably in an atmospheric location. Tombs are good.
Usually the person who provides the document to the treasure seeker will be conveniently dead, as in the Beale ciphers. The Beale ciphers are three papers written in code, one of which will reveal the location of treasure buried in Bedford County, Virginia. No one has yet cracked the code, although claims of success have been made.
Then there will be guardians of the lost treasure. Often these are benighted savages who will stop at nothing to prevent intrepid (white) treasure hunters getting to their fabled horde. One explanation for the disappearance of Colonel Percy Fawcett in the Amazon is that he was killed by indigenous people. Indiana Jones is often said to be based on the British explorer’s exploits though a version of the trope appears in other lost treasure tales.
Often the guardians are long departed, as in the lost Nazi gold train legend of Poland’s Lower Silesia region. This is a relatively recent variation on the ancient theme of missing millions. It springs from the same deluded human hopes for untold riches that produced the El Dorado myth and its many variations around the world.
It was believed locally that possibly three such trains stuffed with stolen gold, jewels and art were buried in a complex of tunnels under construction by the Third Reich for still-unknown purposes. The train, or trains, were then sealed in, awaiting only intrepid treasure seekers to unearth their riches. People have been looking for years but no one has succeeded in the quest.
But wait! A map was found!! Even better, the map was obtained from a man on his deathbed!!! Must be real. Let’s go. And so they did.
Even after their claims were disproved by scientists, the Polish believers
clung to their story  “because the methodological approach of the scientists was [not the same as our.”
The final feature of lost treasure yarns is the unsuccessful but tantalisingly promising attempts of earlier searchers to reach the horde.
The notion that something must be there because so many have tried before is a mainspring of the mythology that supports these persistent folk beliefs. Fawcett’s quest for the city of “Z’ feeds an ongoing interest in the mystery derived from the 2009 book on which the movie is based.
Believers still risk their lives in search of Lasseter’s Reef. The lost gold of Sacambaya still attracts optimists more than 150 years after a charlatan injected it into Bolivian fantasy. Others are still burrowing for Templar, or maybe pirate, treasures on Oak Island off Nova Scotia and any number of sunken galleons and other wrecks are still the object of fervent searches in all of the seven seas.
Every now and then one of these expeditions actually strikes gold, as in the recent rediscovery of the Spanish treasure ship off Columbia. The rarity of these finds and the sensations they produce are sufficient to stoke the fires of hope that glitter in the hearts of all treasure hunters.

It might just be that the legend is true…