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The earliest known complete copy of the Greek New Testament has been made available here. The book is housed in the British Library and it has always blown me away whenever I’ve been to see it – whatever my personal views on the religion it codifies.  In fact, if you are in London and haven’t gone to the John Ritblat Gallery, then go.  If you have any affection for books, history or human knowledge then do yourself a favour and go bask in the glow of those pages.  And if not, then you can always go and sneer at them (quietly).

Anyhow, this development will give scholars the ability to examine the manuscript from anywhere in the world and is definitley a ‘good thing.’

Ancient Ostrich Worship

Ancient Ostrich Worship

Charles, Duke of Lorraine by blood, was known to have once been in love with an ostrich, that was said to have belonged to his cousin Louis, the one-time King of Toulouse.  Could this have been the same Louis who may have been the mysterious author of the Nine Laws of the Lords of Light?  It was at least an intriguing possibility.  And if Louis was indeed the real author then this might explain why Charles never appears in any verifiable document known to historians.  In that case, we reasoned, the ‘Lords of Light’ must clearly be a code-name for the Masons, whose secret symbol we believed to have been a monk riding an ostrich.

The pieces of the puzzle were beginning to fall into place, but their implications were so explosively staggering in their incredible magnitude that we remained hesitant and skeptical.  Surely, we argued, if a secret alternate society of ostrich-riding masons were truly behind everything significant in history then there would at least be some kind of evidence.  But that was where we were wrong.

On October 17 1978 (a date whose symbolic significance escaped us at the time) we received an anonymous phone call from a man referring to himself only as ‘The Ostrich’.  After telling us his code name he said one word – ‘Austria’ – then hung up.

This seemingly innocuous central European toponym hit all of us like a thunderbolt as we scrambled for the Britannica.  Could it be mere coincidence that the word ‘Ostrich’ has the same basic semantic structure as the word ‘Osterreich’ (the Austrian for Austria)? Or that this word could possibly be translated as ‘The Eastern Empire’ (i.e. the Austro-Hungarian/Holy Roman Empire)? Furthermore, is not the East well-known as the source of many an exotic mystery? And, is the ostrich in fact not symbolically congruent with the ‘mythical’ roc, or phoenix, the magical bird that is able to resurrect itslef from the ashes?  In fact, is it not at least possible that the ostrich is a thinly-veiled reference to Jesus, who is well-known to have spent his formative years in the East (-ost = Host/Holy Ghost) learning secret teachings?

So what lay in wait for us in Austria?  What enormous secret, too monumental to reveal was veiled beneath the vaults of Vienna?  We got on the next train from Paris and sat right at the front.

[So I’m reading The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and the whole thing is like this.  Got to finish it though so I can at least say I’ve read it, rather than slag it off by hearsay, and it is quite entertaining].

The Holy Grail by Richard Barber is a detailed study of the history of an enduring, yet mutable, legend.

The book is structured into three main sections. The first part describes the creation of the grail, based on a close reading of the original source texts by Chretien de Troyes and his successors, by Robert de Boron and others and by Wolfram von Eschenbach, author of Parsifal.

The survey provides the reader with a solid working knowledge of the key textual sources of the legend and Barber quotes some lengthy passages to this end. He emphasises the importance of direct evidence from the texts over speculation and inference, as well as the key role of the author’s imagination in their creation.
The second section examines a set of themes as they arise from the sources: the grail itself, its setting, the historical and religious contexts – the importance of relics and the grail’s relationship to the eucharist – and how these themes were carried through into later grail literature.

This moves us on to the third section, which narrates the grail’s entrance to the modern world: its discovery and embellishment by scholarship, its revival within the European cultural landscape and its adoption by modern mystics and conspiracy hunters, though he does note the strong relationship between such works and ‘urban myths’.

Most surprising to me was Barber’s refutation of the Celtic origins of the legend, something that was simply ingrained in my understanding of the grail. His case is pretty convincing though.

Barber has some devastating things to say about The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, ‘…essentially a text which proceeds by innuendo, not by refutable scholarly debate’ (p.310). But most damning are the quotes he takes from the work itself, where the authors describe their procedures: ‘By means of cryptic asides and footnotes, each piece… enlarges and confirms the others’; and later: ‘What is necessary is an interdisciplinary approach to one’s chosen material – a mobile and flexible approach… (where) it is not sufficient to confine oneself exclusively to facts’ (p.310-11).

For me, this is probably the most interesting part of the book. Conspiracy history can perhaps be regarded as a form of speculative fiction, although its practitioners seldom, if ever, recognize or admit this – Carlos Castaneda being a possible exception. In some (largely superficial) senses all history can be characterised as fictional, but there are useful distinctions to be drawn between writers who allow refutation and work within a critical framework, and those who glory in their ‘outsider’ status, taking any denial of their assertions as evidence of a plot against them. I particularly recommend Richard Evans’ work if anyone need reminding how important responsible history is and that it can have foundations beyond taste or preference, especially his book In Defence of History.

I enjoy reading conspiracy histories – they can be a lot of fun, but in the end careful scholarship is nearly always more interesting and rewarding. Did the Maya migrate into space, or did they survive on in their region after the Classic period decline, where they still live today? Were the Egyptian pyramids built by aliens, or perhaps by local inhabitants?

I suppose that people usually have an agenda behind their beliefs, as well as an ego stake and the need for mystery, for something more, is clearly extremely potent. Indeed, that is the very origin of the grail stories themselves, though Barber argues that this was largely from within medieval Christian orthodoxy, pretty mysterious in its own right.

What bothers me is that the ‘conspiracy’ stories tend to be so much less rich than interesting than the ‘mainstream’ theories that they deride. Isn’t it more amazing to suppose that humans built the pyramids, or that millions of people still speak Mayan languages? As for the Holy Grail, it is ironic that such a powerul work of the imagination has spawned the compulsion to insist on its physical reality, thus leaching it of its true magic.

It reminds me of the character in Philip K Dick’s A Maze of Death, after he’s been watching a rendition of a Tolkien story on holo-vid or some such device. He stops the film and speaks to the image of Gandalf, wondering whether he ever really existed or not. Maybe one day people will be writing books (or holo-vids) about a secret key pointing to the survival of the One Ring, which didn’t actually fall into the crater of Mount Etna after all.

Now there’s a short story plot…

In summary, I would really recommend this book. The material it explores is actually quite seriously strange in its own right and the author manages to take us through a lot of confusing material and abstruse imagery with remarkable clarity and narrative skill. Some of the hidden gems he uncovers are worth further investigation, for example the writer Mary Butts (‘an interesting and neglected figure’ p.329) and her novel Armed with Madness, which sounds truly amazing.

The wonderfully named Kithtra’s Krystal Kave has a summary of myths, legends regarding the lost Kingdom of Lyonesse. It is pretty informative and comprehensive, despite showcasing what some less charitable folks might term ‘fringe’ archaeology.

Wikipedia gives its outline on Lyonesse here.

I still contend that Jack Vance’s historical novels are based solidly upon fact and that they accurately reconstruct Hybras as it really was.

Editions Andreas Irle is still offering a beautiful set of these invaluable documents.


It turns out that it was Theodore Roosevelt JR (aided by his brother Kermit) who went to China to shoot a Panda. I always thought it was the Presidential Theodore, who owned the book mentioned previously.

This from Wikipedia:

Kermit and Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., became the first foreigners to shoot a panda, on an expedition funded by the Field Museum of Natural History in the 1920s. In 1936, Ruth Harkness became the first Westerner to bring back a live giant panda, a cub named Su-Lin who went to live at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. These activities were halted in 1937 because of wars; and for the next half of the century, the West knew little of pandas.

Apologies to all concerned.

Visited the library at the Barbados Museum today. Met a volunteer librarian, who was really nice. I had a quick look around, but couldn’t get much of an idea of the holdings. They are trying to recruit a new librarian at the moment and I am looking into the possibility.

I glanced through Wild Majesty, an anthology of reports of encounters with the Carib Indians from Columbus to the present by Peter Hulme (who taught me at Essex University) and Neil Whitehead. I read the extracts by Jean Rhys and Patrick Leigh Fermor and looked at the section on Douglas Taylor who sounds very interesting. I wonder if any of his works are available as full view on Google Books?

I just checked and the answer seems to be no, mostly it’s articles by him in ‘snippet view’. But I did find a ‘full view’ copy of one of Walter Roth‘s book on Guiana Indians here. I am rapidly becoming addicted to Google Books and Gutenberg. I only wish I could afford an ebook reader like the Iliad. As it is though I am reading in depth rather than in breadth, as the books I have are few. There are strong advantages to this, so perhaps for now I am better off.

Visited the library at the Barbados Museum today. Met a volunteer librarian, who was really nice. I had a quick look around, but couldn’t get much of an idea of the holdings. They are trying to recruit a new librarian at the moment and I am looking into the possibility.

I glanced through Wild Majesty, an anthology of reports of encounters with the Carib Indians from Columbus to the present by Peter Hulme (who taught me at Essex University) and Neil Whitehead. I read the extracts by Jean Rhys and Patrick Leigh Fermor and looked at the section on Douglas Taylor who sounds very interesting. I wonder if any of his works are available as full view on Google Books?

I just checked and the answer seems to be no, mostly it’s articles by him in ‘snippet view’. But I did find a ‘full view’ copy of one of Walter Roth‘s book on Guiana Indians here. I am rapidly becoming addicted to Google Books and Gutenberg. I only wish I could afford an ebook reader like the Iliad. As it is though I am reading in depth rather than in breadth, as the books I have are few. There are strong advantages to this, so perhaps for now I am better off.

Useful site on Judaic history and contexts.


Looking forward to listening to this. I have just enough time to get myself a coffee and something to eat first…

In fact I missed it as none of the machines here have RealPlayer installed or they don’t have sound, so I will use ‘listen again’ later.

[Photo from BBC]

Karen Armstrong’s latest book is, in my humble opinion, a masterpiece. It is amazing how she manages to summarise and explain such complex religious and cultural movements with clarity. And this is certainly the clearest exposition of the development of Hinduism and classical Greek religion I have read. She sequences motifs and ideas so that you understand them in a new way and things you thought you knew fall into place, a bit like when you realise that areas in a city are closer together when you walk or drive a new route – this happens to me all the time in London. So… read it.

And for a fictional version, Gore Vidal’s Creation is also excellent, though somewhat flippant by comparison.

The Wikipedia article on Armstrong can be found here, but it’s not great.

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