This book isn’t really about Mary Magdalene (neither Holy Blood/Holy Grail nor the Priory of Sion are listed in the index), but for those of us who can’t get enough about King Arthur, here is a treasure trove. Arthur and his knights are the central characters of the medieval Grail romances, most of which were written by poets in France and Germany, though the stories are always set in Britain. Arthur is the Grail Guardian. The Grail is described in eight stories written between 1190 and 1220 as a stone, as a carved head, as a sort of plate, as a book, as a highly decorated something, and as a cup.
Following hints and clues in the literature and lore of Dark Age and Medieval Britain, the author sets out to find the historical Arthur. Our favorite hero, he learns, was not a king but a warlord, the scion of the Votadini tribe of southern Scotland. This tribe was invited to what is now the English Midlands (next to Wales) early in the sixth century to help defend the kingdom of Powys against the Saxons. Arthur’s real name was Owain Ddantgwyn, and Phillips speculates that he lived from 488 to 520 C.E. “Arthur,” his title, comes from arth (“bear” in Brythonic) and ursus (“bear” in Latin); Arthursus was shortened to Arthur.
Owain Ddantgwyn lived in the city of Viroconium, which had been built by the Romans but abandoned when Rome left Britain. After the battle of Mt. Badon—which was probably fought at Bath—Viroconium was rebuilt, then destroyed by the Saxons in the mid-seventh century; its ruins still exist. Modern pagans will be intrigued to learn that Bath was said to be “in the country of the Hwicce,” the Hwicce being an Anglo-Saxon tribe. The name Camelot wasn’t invented until 1190 by Chrétien de Troyes. Phillips has even found the real Avalon. Today it’s “an isolated site, silent and eerie,” called the Berth; in the seventh century, it was two hills surrounded by water, and old graves have been discovered there.
What about Mary Magdalene? Using geography and genealogy as his guides, Phillips leads us in the second half of the book along a winding path of literary and historical scholarship—the visions of Empress Helena (Constantine’s mother, who also “found” the site of the Holy Sepulchre); the sack and fall of Rome, when important relics were taken to Britain for safety; the Albigensians, Gnostics, and other heresies; Pope Joan; the Marseilles Tarot (aha! another possible interpretation of the Major Arcana); the Gospel of Thomas; a 17th century bible code; and a ruined medieval chapel with symbolic stained glass windows and a labyrinth of tunnels. At the end of his travels, the author finds a small onyx cup that may have been a possession of Mary Magdalen. Is this the true Holy Grail? He cannot say for sure and concludes that “[t]oday the Grail is no longer simply an artifact—it has come to represent a search for truth or enlightenment. … This search to discover the truth behind the Grail legend has thrown invaluable new light upon the historical King Arthur and the mystery of the medieval romances” (p. 214).
This is a fascinating book. If the Arthurian novels of Bradley, White, and Stewart are on your shelves, along with Arthurian studies by the Matthewses, Goodrich, Ashe, and others, then this book should be there, too. Of course, if Phillips is correct, then John Boorman’s cinematic vision is, alas, romantic but mightily askew.
~review by Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D.
Author: Graham Phillips
Bear & Company, 2004