My first fleeting glimpse of the near-mythical French village of Rennes-le-Chateau was suitably mysterious. Perched atop a majestic cliff in the foothills of the Pyrenees, she peeked out briefly and tantalisingly from behind a murky veil of mist before swiftly vanishing again, leaving behind only more questions and very little by way of answers. This murky first encounter seemed somehow to encapsulate everything about this magical village and the labyrinthine web of mysteries which entangles it - a place full of wonder and intrigue, its secrets forever elusive, the answers always remaining just slightly out of reach. Rennes-le-Chateau attracts tens of thousands of tourists every year, many of them treasure hunters drawn to the area's rich history and mythology. Legends of buried treasure abound here, with the village thought by many to be the location of the riches of the Knights Templar or the Cathars, the resting place of the Holy Grail or the Ark of the Covenant. Some believe it to contain the tombs of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, while others claim it to be the site of a subterranean extra-terrestrial base. The area is a conspiracy theorist's paradise and it's easy to see why it has attracted this reputation. Everything about this place, and the wider region of Languedoc, is jaw-droppingly bizarre, from geological anomalies and precise geometric alignments to extraordinary natural phenomena and a chain of endless peculiar synchronicities which cannot simply be dismissed as chance. Indeed, the further I ventured down the veritable rabbit warren of the Rennes-le-Chateau mystery, the more I realised that the truth is much, much stranger than any fiction my writer's imagination could ever conjure.
Throughout my 10-day visit to Languedoc I was blessed to have the assistance of the most expert guides in the business - author and adventurer Allysha Lavino and her husband Mark Atos - whose company Sacred Mystery Tours has been operating in the region for several years in partnership with the legendary author, broadcaster and historian Henry Lincoln. Now 89 years of age but with a mind still as sharp as a Templar's sword, Lincoln was the man responsible for introducing the local mysteries of Rennes-le-Chateau to the wider world through a trilogy of documentaries he produced for the BBC in the 70s and 80s and later through the best-selling book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and its sequel The Messianic Legacy both of which he co-authored with his researchers Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh. More than three decades after its publication, Lincoln has scant regard for The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and rues the fact that it has turned Rennes-le-Chateau into what he describes as "Disneyland" - a magnet for gauche tourists and treasure hunters who show little respect for the area's beauty and natural wonders. However, no matter what one thinks of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, and its controversial hypothesis which inspired Dan Brown's best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code, there can be no doubt that it has served a powerful and valuable purpose in awakening people to the mysteries of this magical region of Southern France and enticing adventurers like myself on our own mystical journeys down the esoteric rabbit hole.
At the core of the mystery of Rennes-le-Chateau lies the curious true story of impoverished priest Berenger Sauniere who somehow became an overnight millionaire in 1887 while restoring the village's modest church to which he had just been appointed. In the course of the renovations Sauniere discovered a number of parchments hidden within a stone pillar, two of which were written using complex ciphers and codes, so he journeyed to Paris to have them decoded by clerical scholars. Overnight the 33-year-old priest somehow became immensely rich. In the years that followed he spent lavishly, restoring and redecorating his ancient church of St Mary Magdalene, incorporating many bizarre esoteric and highly heretical features such as a statue of the devil and a secret room which could only be accessed via a panel in the back of a wardrobe in his vestry. He also built a large tower called the Tour Magdala, which he used as a library, and a luxurious villa replete with orangeries and ornamental gardens, and he entertained extravagantly. Overall he is believed to have spent the modern day equivalent of £3 million, despite an annual salary of just 900 francs. All through his years of high-spending, Sauniere had one trusted companion - his beloved housekeeper Marie Denarnaud. The priest almost certainly shared the secret of his wealth with Marie and he signed over everything he owned to her shortly before he died from a sudden stroke in 1917. In her old age, Marie was befriended by Noel Corbu, who had purchased Sauniere's former estate from her. In return, Marie had promised that when she knew herself to be dying she would give Corbu a secret that would make him rich and powerful. However, shortly before Marie died in 1953 she too suffered a stroke which robbed her of speech and paralysed her hands. As she lay dying, Marie tried to honour her promise by revealing the secret. She muttered something but Corbu maintained he could not understand it. Corbu later died in a car accident. If he had gleaned Sauniere's secret from Marie, it died with him in the wreckage.
The original parchments found by Sauniere were never seen again. However, in the late 1960s, a shadowy secret society calling itself the Priory of Sion claimed to have them in its possession. This mysterious group, boasting a history pre-dating the Knights Templar and an illustrious list of alleged former Grand Masters including the likes of Leonardo da Vinci, Victor Hugo and Claude Debussy, published two of the parchments in a book by author Gerard de Sede, and the story swiftly caught the public imagination. Many sceptics continue to question whether the parchments ever even existed but this ignores the fact that builders witnessed Sauniere's discovery of the documents, plus there can be no denying the extravagant sums of money spent by the priest. So where did his riches come from? One popular hypothesis, first mooted by Henry Lincoln and his co-authors in The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail and later embellished in Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code, is that Sauniere was blackmailing the Vatican after unearthing evidence that Christ survived the cross and fathered a family with Mary Magdalene - a revelation with the potential to shatter the foundations of the Roman Catholic faith. This theory is supported by local legends suggesting that Mary settled in the south of France after the crucifixion and that her tomb is hidden somewhere in the region of Rennes-le-Chateau. According to the bloodline hypothesis, the descendants of Jesus and Mary married into the Merovingian dynasty - France's mysterious royal family who were credited with possessing magical powers. The Priory of Sion claims to be comprised of the descendants of this royal bloodline and to be the guardians of its great secrets. Some scholars have dismissed the Priory as an elaborate hoax cooked up in the 1960s by its then Grand Master - the enigmatic Pierre Plantard, though others have rightly pointed out that the amount of time, money and ingenuity required to orchestrate a plot of such magnitude and complexity and to keep it going for more than half a century goes well beyond the realms of a mere practical joke. I can reveal that the Priory of Sion is in fact a genuine organisation which is still very much active to this day with rapidly expanding activity in France, Italy and London among other places. Its current Grand Master is an Italian gentleman by the name of Marco Rigamonti and its Grand Patriarch is the Frenchman Gino Sandri, who was formerly Plantard's secretary. The society's members are engaged in a mischievous game of cat and mouse with investigators for whom they plant authentic clues hidden within a tangled web of carefully orchestrated disinformation. The Priory appears to operate on the basis that a truth is best concealed between two lies and delights in laying seed-trails for researchers like Lincoln and myself to follow and then sitting back and watching as we are led down blind alleys while attempting to sift fact from fiction. The object of this eccentric game of bluff and double-bluff appears to be two-fold - firstly to gradually leak authentic esoteric information into the public domain and secondly to ferret out those with the aptitude to successfully decode it with a view to either recruiting them or at least using them as conduits to disseminate the arcane knowledge to the wider populace through vehicles such as literature, art, film and television. The Priory has close historic ties with the French intelligence services, which goes some way towards explaining its considerable expertise in the use of codes and ciphers. Despite my initial scepticism, my own encounters with the Priory have persuaded me of its legitimacy as a bona fide custodian of the ancient mystery knowledge. But whether the organisation is all that it claims to be in a historical sense - and whether there is any genuine connection with Jesus and Mary Magdalene outside of a purely metaphorical one - is another matter entirely and one which lies outwith the scope of this particular article. Stay tuned though as it's a subject I'll be returning to at a later date.
Another range of possible explanations for the riches at Rennes involves the discovery of a cache of hidden treasure. While many researchers agree with the idea that the documents found by Sauniere were coded treasure maps, there remains considerable disagreement on who hid the treasure or what form it took. A strong contender for original owners of the treasure is the Cathars - a powerful religious sect that flourished in and around the Rennes area until the 13th century when they were persecuted and all but wiped out by the Catholic Church. The peace-loving Cathars made their last stand at the mountaintop fortress of Montsegur, not far from Rennes. However, legend has it that before the Catholics overwhelmed them, four intrepid Cathar mountaineers escaped by night - lowered on ropes down the sheer side of the mountain - carrying with them what records later described as the treasures of their faith, percuniam infinitam, which literally translated means "unlimited money". Did Sauniere discover the secret hiding place of that unlimited money? Dr Arthur Guirdham, a leading authority on Catharism, believed the Cathar treasure was a form of esoteric knowledge and that the four mountaineers had hidden books and documents somewhere in the region of Rennes. Could the Cathars' percuniam infinitam have been the fabled philosopher's stone - the knowledge of how to make gold?
Another plausible theory for the treasure at Rennes concerns the lost wealth of the Knights Templar - the powerful order of warrior monks formed in 1119 to protect pilgrims heading to Jerusalem. The Templars founded the modern banking system as we know it today and amassed a huge fortune, becoming so powerful and influential that they were answerable only to the Pope. Their banking system allowed religious pilgrims to deposit assets in their home countries and withdraw funds in the Holy Land. The order became known for its austere code of conduct and signature style of dress, which featured a white habit emblazoned with a simple red cross. Members swore an oath of poverty, chastity and obedience. Prayer was essential to their daily life, and the Templars expressed particular adoration for the Virgin Mary. As the Knights Templar grew in size and status, it established new chapters throughout Western Europe. At the height of their influence, the Templars boasted a sizable fleet of ships, owned the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, and served as a primary bank and lending institution to European monarchs and nobles. Though its original purpose was to protect pilgrims from danger, the Knights Templar progressively expanded its duties. They became defenders of the Crusader states in the Holy Land and were known as brave, highly skilled warriors - the SAS of their day. The group developed a reputation as fierce fighters during the Crusades, driven by religious fervor and forbidden from retreating unless significantly outnumbered. Their downfall came at the hands of King Philip IV of France who was heavily in debt to the Templars and who on Friday 13th 1307 ordered his troops to attack every one of their strongholds simultaneously. The Templars were rounded up, arrested and put to the torture. However, there is evidence that the Templar fort at Blanchefort, near Rennes, did not go down without a long fight and that this could have created sufficient delay for the Knights' treasure to be hidden locally. Certainly the whereabouts of their significant wealth remains a mystery to this day and many of the Templars are known to have escaped to Scotland where they founded the village of Temple near Rosslyn Chapel.
It was amidst the backdrop of all this mystery and intrigue that I made my own way to Languedoc earlier this month in search of the truth. For all the hype, I had few expectations as to what I would actually find there. Legends and mysteries can often fall short of our high hopes, as anyone who's ever journeyed to Loch Ness in hope of sighting its famous monster will no doubt be able to testify. So it was with an attitude of open-minded curiosity tinged with a liberal dose of healthy scepticism that I took the giant leap into the infamous Rennes labyrinth. What I discovered there was a mighty treasure greater than all the riches of Croesus. The treasure I found was not a physical one, however, but a spiritual one infinitely more valuable than any quantity of gold or diamonds. There is something very special - very strange - about this region which defies easy explanation. Geological oddities abound, from the mysterious upside-down mountain of Bugarach to the mind-boggling fountain at Fontestorbes whose waters build from a drip to a raging torrent and then revert back again in peculiar, perfectly-regulated natural cycles. Dramatic thunderstorms clear the air at night and then abate as suddenly as they started. The landscape is speckled with natural springs, the waters of which are renowned locally for their healing properties and for providing the gift of long life. The local vineyard bottles its wine in strict accordance with the phases of the moon. To maximise the quality of its wines, the timing of the grape-harvest is dictated by intuition - an inbuilt natural instinct as to when the moment is right. This can be a massive gamble - if the farmers' instinct is wrong then the entire crop could be written off by freak weather - and yet they've never failed yet. Magical caves and caverns can be found everywhere, as can megalithic standing stones and hidden chapels all built in perfect geometric alignment and separated by the same precise distances. There are peculiar rock formations creating a natural maze, a tree shaped like a harp, curious occurrences in local cemeteries and ancient legends of stone circles. Mysterious coded verses written in white chalk appear on the sides of bridges overnight along with drawings of salamanders. On one particular morning I was taken aback to spot a giant cat - the size of a labrador - skulking into one of the many caves in the village of Rennes-les-Bains. The region is a treasure trove, drenched in ancient knowledge and sacred geometry. Walking its blissfully picturesque landscape and gazing in awe at the breathtaking panoramic views, I found a level of internal peace and serenity which was a million miles removed from the frantic pressures of modern life. This is the real treasure - the true Grail - a place of perfect stillness in which we find the gold nugget shining at the centre of our own being. The people of the region seem to live their lives in accordance with this fundamental concept of mindful presence. I was mesmerised by the sight of an elderly man painting his front door with slow and deliberate brushstrokes as though he had all eternity at his disposal. Another man I observed sitting on a step smoking a pipe without moving a muscle for well over an hour. Men and children pass lazy afternoons playing sedate games of boules in the village square. People don't walk here - they drift serenely as though in a blissful trance. Shops open and close at random times according to the whims of the proprietors. There is an unspoiled beauty to the cobbled streets, lined on both sides by houses dating from Roman times. Many of the automobiles meandering around the winding mountain roads are ancient models from the 70s and 80s, creating the impression that the region has been stored in a hermetically-sealed time capsule for decades. Mealtimes are a long and leisurely pastime which unfold gradually over a period of four nonchalant hours. Time has no meaning in Languedoc. It is as though the area exists in a little self-contained bubble of its own where the normal rules of space and time do not apply. Albert Einstein said that the past, present and future are all occurring simultaneously. Languedoc appears to have taken this concept and applied it literally to every area of life. So surreal is the dreamy atmosphere that it would frankly come as no surprise if a Templar Knight in full armour were to appear out of the mist and ride down the street in broad daylight.
Henry Lincoln's protege, Allysha Lavino, guided me skillfully through the complex maze of these local mysteries, from the splendid feudal citadel of Carcassone where Nazi invaders once excavated the local well in search of the Holy Grail, to the hilltop Abbey of Saint Hilaire (where sparkling wine was discovered by accident by medieval Benedictine monks), then on to the spectacular "eagle's nest" Cathar fortresses of Puylaurens and Montsegur, the healing springs of Champagne-les-Bains, the remarkable naturally-occurring Labyrinth De Nebias located within an enchanting fairy forest and the breathtaking clifftop hermitage nestled within the Gorges de Galamus. Allysha, whose adventure novel The Heretic, inspired by the Rennes mysteries and the area's rich history, is due to be published next year, is an extremely knowledgeable and passionate guide with a strong empathetic connection to the landscape and its natural wonders. She taught me how to read the codes and ciphers hidden within the stonework of the area's ancient architecture and, perhaps most importantly, to "stop looking and start seeing". It was swiftly apparent just why she has been chosen by Lincoln to continue his decades-long work into researching the area's mysteries. There can be nobody better qualified, more enthusiastic or with such a healthy reverence and respect for the region and its heritage. Born in California to a long line of adventurers, Allysha has a lifelong interest in writing, history, travel and personal exploration. Her extensive studies in the fields of culture and psychology have provided the perfect grounding for her adventures in the south of France where she offers in-depth sacred tours. Now resident in Canada with her husband Mark, Allysha speaks fluent French and has immersed herself completely in the culture of Occitania, enabling her to blend seamlessly with the local community when conducting her tours there.
Meeting Lincoln himself was the fulfillment of another of my long-standing ambitions and the great man didn't disappoint. An actor and experienced screenwriter, he was responsible for penning scripts for some of my favourite TV shows back in the day, including classic episodes of Doctor Who, The Saint and The Avengers, though he dismisses his own writing efforts as "a load of old rubbish", insisting wearily that writing is a waste of time because neither he nor anyone else can or will ever surpass Shakespeare. Anyone who's ever had the pleasure of watching Lincoln's much-revered 1968 Doctor Who serial The Web of Fear will surely disagree with this self-deprecating assessment of his own work though. It is a masterpiece of taut and atmospheric horror-drama set within the claustrophobic confines of the London Underground tunnels and is widely regarded as one of the finest Doctor Who serials of all time. Now approaching 90 years of age with hair as white as snow and bright blue eyes that twinkle with mirth, Lincoln has the demeanour of a rather testy and world-weary wizard - a Merlin-esque Hermetic initiator whose head is filled with so many facts, figures and memories that one can sense him rummaging through the vast mental filing cabinet of his formidable mind as he grapples to recall and marshal them all. So rich is the depth of his phenomenal life experience that at times it seems as if he must have lived for a thousand years or more. He speaks fondly of his friendships with actors Patrick Troughton and Roger Moore, knows the identity of the infamous prisoner of the Bastille known as the Man in the Iron Mask and even has the man in question's arrest warrant displayed on the wall of his home. He curses his pet cat for killing birds, has an endearing propensity for speaking in Shakespearean quotes - "Are we all met?" - and bemoans the fact that "people don't speak Latin anymore". He gets irritated when people ask about his own personal beliefs, growling, "I neither believe nor disbelieve anything! I merely approach everything with an open mind and I urge you to do likewise. Don't believe anything just because I say it. Go out and prove things for yourself. The only things I ask you to believe are the things that are demonstrable and provable." Despite dismissing his own efforts with regular curmudgeonly mutterings of "I know nothing", Sir Henry's contribution to the field of esoteric research cannot be overstated. In 2003 he was awarded an honorary knighthood by the Militi Templi Scotia order in recognition of his work in the fields of sacred geometry and Templar history. His writings and documentaries have inspired many others, like Allysha and myself, to venture down the rabbit hole in search of truth... and the riches to be found there are incalculable. Lincoln is dismayed that readers took the central hypothesis of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail as gospel and turned it into yet another form of dogma. He neither wants nor expects people to form a cult of belief around his works but urges them instead to search for their own truth, using his research as no more than a springboard for further inquiry. Herein can be found the secret to Hermetic initiation.
Lincoln consistently describes the Rennes affair as "a puzzle surrounding a riddle wrapped inside a mystery inside an enigma" and when I first heard this quote it brought to mind those Russian dolls which come nested one within another. I was reminded of this analogy once again during a visit to the medieval citadel of Carcassone - a seemingly impenetrable city-in-the-round with circular walls within walls within walls and a castle firmly secured at its epicentre. I was struck by the analogous similarity between that castle and the pure untarnished spark of divine potential which sits nestled at the heart of our own being, wrapped within the physical body and the multitudinous "protective" layers of our personality. In a previous blog - Superhero - Living Your Myth - I discussed the importance of peeling back those false layers of the onion to reveal the true self and shining jewel at our core. I've also spoken at some length about the importance of mythology and storytelling in encouraging us to delve within ourselves in search of the answers to life's great conundrums (see Regeneration -The Death and Resurrection Show; and Robin Hood - A Symbol of Hope). Myths and archetypes are designed to stir the cauldron of our subconscious, causing insights and realisations to bubble to the surface of our conscious awareness. This is the role of Rennes-le-Chateau and the tales of its mysterious treasure. It is the bait on the end of a fishing rod, designed to hook us and reel us in. There may or may not be an actual physical treasure located at Rennes but this question is, in any case, ultimately a distraction from the real quest which lies within us. No less an authority than Henry Lincoln himself describes the Berenger Sauniere mystery as "a flagpole on top of a castle" - the mystery is a signpost designed to catch your attention, to encourage you to delve further and find the truth for yourself. Once you begin to explore the enigma, you will soon begin to find yourself being guided from one magical discovery to another as you join the dots in a complex puzzle in which the connection between ourselves and the world we live in becomes increasingly apparent. I have shared only a tiny fraction of my findings here as the full story will be told in a forthcoming book but I strongly urge anyone with an interest in spiritual development to explore these themes for themselves and to see where the treasure hunt leads them. And if you're looking for a guide to escort you on your own magical journey through the mysteries and enigmas of Languedoc then look no further than Allysha Lavino and Sacred Mystery Tours who will lead you on the adventure of a lifetime. Believe me, you won't be disappointed.
Storytelling, mythology and legend are among the key tools we use at Phoenix to help clients achieve their dreams and tap into their full potential. Check out our website phoenixcoaching.co.uk or drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to find out how we can help you to regenerate your life and unleash the phoenix within. One final word. In considering everything you've read here, I urge you also to bear in mind the message of my previous blogs dealing with the significance of symbolism and metaphor in spiritual teaching and would remind you that it is not necessary to believe in the literal truth and historical accuracy of a story in order to still derive benefit from the metaphor embedded within its allegory. With that in mind, I invite you to meditate upon all that you've read. Bon voyage!
Sacred Mystery Tours - www.sacredmysterytours.com
Allysha Lavino - www.allyshalavino.com/
The Heretic - www.allyshalavino.com/the-heretic