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Rennes-le-Château and the successful narrative of Pierre Plantard

Published on Saturday 27 august 2011 • Post by Mariano Tomatis • Permalink

If the Rennes-le-Château phenomenon is really a infinite game, this summer 2011 triumphantly confirmed Pierre Plantard's role as its puppetmaster.

In order to support the survival of a hidden Merovingian blood-line in the Rennes-le-Château area, during the 1960s Pierre Plantard (1920-2000) forged a number of documents, later "implanted" in a series of books published by other authors. (1)

The most "successful" elements created by him, with the help of the surrealist artist Philippe De Chérisey, were:

• the image of a rectangular tombstone with the words ET IN ARCADIA EGO.

Eugene Stublein, Les pierres gravées du Languedoc, Limoux 1884
(this book never existed but it was referenced in Gérard de Sède, L'Or de Rennes, Julliard, Paris 1967.).

Its main purpose was to link the geographical area with the painting of Nicolas Poussin "Sheperds of Arcadia", showing a tomb with the same words. (2) Arcadia is a Greek region often associated with an underground stream: the River Alpheus which flows underground to surface towards the fountain of Arethusa in Sicily. The stream in the painting symbolizes the secret Merovingian blood-line in Rennes-le-Château area, hidden for centuries. Although the tombstone has never been found, supporters of the legend (like Henry Lincoln) think that it is still in the domaine of Bérenger Saunière, abandoned in front of the chapel of Villa Bethania. Being a broken stone without any inscription, they say that unfortunately it has been erased from its surface. That's why no evidence of its existence is available today.

• a small parchment with a Latin text; some of the letters are raised above the rest on the line, and reading them in order gives the words A DAGOBERT II ROI ET A SION EST CE TRESOR ET IL EST LA MORT (To Dagobert II, King, and to Sion is this treasure and he is dead there).

Small parchment, first published in Gérard de Sède, L'Or de Rennes, Julliard, Paris 1967.

According to the version of the story given in L'Or de Rennes (1967), written by Gérard de Sède and based on the material provided by Pierre Plantard, it was found by Bérenger Saunière in a hollow pillar inside his church. Its main purpose was to plant the idea that the priest discovered something related to a treasure, the Merovingians and Sion. The person "dead there" was Sigebert IV, Dagobert's son, who (according to the version of history given in the game) died in Rennes-le-Château. The parchment had probably other purposes in Plantard's agenda, because it included some crosses and geometrical elements, maybe related to a map.

• a large parchment with a Latin text with additional letters at fixed intervals. The text is the account from John's Gospel in which Mary of Bethany anoints Jesus.

Large parchment, first published in Gérard de Sède, L'Or de Rennes, Julliard, Paris 1967.

In order to link this parchment to Saunière's predecessor, Antoine Bigou, a message was coded in the parchment using as a key the text engraved on a real tombstone: the one of Marie de Nègre d'Ables, who died when Bigou was in Rennes-le-Château. Plantard and De Chérisey provided a double link to the tombstone, because not only the key, but also the message itself was a anagram of the engraved text: BERGERE PAS DE TENTATION QUE POUSSIN TENIERS GARDENT LE CLEF PAX DCLXXXI PAR LE CROIX ET CE CHEVAL DE DIEU J'ACHEVE CE DAEMON DE GARDIEN A MIDI POMMES BLEUES. Philippe De Chérisey describes the creation of the parchment in the essay "Pierre et Papier" (3). Here a complete analysis of the creation process.

The negative attitude

Although the purpose of each of these element is almost clear and coherent with the Merovingian scenario forged by Pierre Plantard in the 1960s, its redundance has always fascinated players of the "game". In particular, the geometrical implications suggested by the small parchment and the complexity of the message coded in the great one (deriving from its anagrammatic style, a typical Oulipian "constraint") have generated hundreds of hypotheses, articles, books and posts in the Internet forums dedicated to the treasure hunt. The greater purpose of the players is now to demonstrate that all those element could not have been created in the 20th century by Plantard. This "negative attitude" is common to many areas of the paranormal research: crop circles cannot be created by humans; coincidences cannot be explained by chance; the Turin Shroud cannot be reproduced by natural means; Life itself cannot emerge by random processes. The problem with this approach is that Sherlock Holmes' rule "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth" does not apply. As Andrea Ferrero wrote, "It is easy, for the opposition party, to point at the errors of the Government; it is harder to demonstrate that, in the same situation, it would have behaved better". A negative attitude underestimates the necessity of proving the alternative hypothesis: pointing at the deficiencies in the main hypothesis does not support in any way the alternative one.

Henry Lincoln's tour

At the cost of 20 euros for 4 hours of storytelling, Henry Lincoln offers the tourists the possibility of visiting the domaine of Bérenger Saunière with his explanations. The experience may be frustrating for someone who is trying to deconstruct the mythopoiesis of Rennes-le-Château phenomenon, because Lincoln's approach is entirely based on Plantard's elements. Starting from the (undebatable) premise that "there is something" in the parchments and in the ET IN ARCADIA EGO tombstone, he concludes that this "something" is extremely important, and it has to do with an ancient knowledge mathematically expressed in the measures fixed in the area by castles, churches and stones. "Plantard knew it", Lincoln repeats during all his tour.

As we have previously seen, "there is something" in the props provided by Plantard, so it is easy for Lincoln to point at the meaningful elements in the parchments, but analysing it from the correct historical perspective, it has more to do with a Merovingian bloodline than with an ancient geometrical knowledge.

Serious historical research has nothing to do with Henry Lincoln's approach, whose peculiar element is a open contempt towards academics: "They repeat what they are told", he goes on saying in his books and during the tour. His populist attitude is explicitly revealed by asking the visitors to "seek simplicity" (4), as a child would do", ignoring what they have read or heard about the topic. The explicit request of making tabula rasa of the previous knowledge is a perfect way to implant the old stuff created in the 1960s by the puppetmaster. But he is good at hiding the modern origin of the roots of his hypothesis.

In August I took part to Henry Lincoln's tour, and it was a good occasion to study his role in the "infinite game" of Rennes-le-Château. He supports the game with a slogan often repeated during the visit; referring to the visitors, he says: "They look but they don't see." Implicitly, he is advocating apophenia - the experience of seeing meaningful patterns or connections in random or meaningless data - as a tool to keep the game alive. His geographical maps are apophenic triumphs, and can be considered valuable props for the game, supporting funny forest walks on the trails of theoretical vertices and alignments. (5)

The treasure in Sougraigne

In July a French researcher, Michel Vallet, revealed the entrance to a rock cavity in Sougraigne, close to Rennes-le-Château; the revelation was published in a Internet forum with the title "The Secret of Rennes". The news was reported in the English The Telegraph, the Italian La Stampa and in many local newspapers.

La Depeche du Midi, 07/27/2011

Some days before the revelation, his colleagues Didier Héricart de Thury and Franck Daffos, released a book giving some hints on a supposed treasure, titled "L'Or de Rennes" - Quand Poussin et Teniers donnent la clef de Rennes-le-Château (The gold of Rennes" - When Poussin and Teniers gave the key of Rennes-le-Château).

The "code" solved by the three treasure hunters is still not entirely clear, because it was partially released in the book and is going to be fully explained in a number of articles, books and Internet forum, often difficult to be found in the noise of unrelated discussions.

This is not the first cave found in the region which has been linked to the secret of Rennes-le-Château. Some years ago Ben Hammott allegedly found a cave with treasures in the hills to the east of the village. Its discovery was supported by a series of documents without roots in the 60s: they were completely unknown to Rennes-le-Château fans, so the discovery didn't get the same coverage. On the contrary, the discovery by Vallet, De Thury and Daffos was in a way "respectful" of the Tradition and based on the documents forged by the puppetmaster.

• The altitude of the cave was derived by the code in the great parchment: the number DCLXXXI was a reference to 681 metres.

• The painters whose works were used to locate the cave were derived by the same code: BERGERE PAS DE TENTATION QUE POUSSIN TENIERS GARDENT LE CLEF were considered references to Nicolas Poussin's painting "Sheperds of Arcadia" and David Teniers' painting about the temptations of Saint Anthony.

• The book published by Didier Héricart de Thury and Franck Daffos is almost unreadable by persons who have not already been "inside" the mystery for a long time: it is very difficult to get the core of their analysis, which is the way they have located "the" two correct paintings. The purpose of finding those paintings is not clear, because they don't write about caves or treasures, but always about a secret to be revealed in the future. Probably the book was planned to be the first of a series, and Vallet's revelation ruined their plan. They concluded that the correct version of Poussin's "Sheperds of Arcadia" is the second one; this was derived from the presence of the words PAX 681 in the coded message of the great parchment. Providing a reference to an obscure book about numerology published in 1928, they write that the letters P, A and X may be summed to get the number 681, so PAX 681 hides 681 681, i.e. 681 repeated TWO times. This would be a reference to the version TWO of Poussin's "Sheperds of Arcadia".

Nicolas Poussin, Sheperds of Arcadia (1637–1638), version 2, oil on canvas, Louvre Museum, Paris.

It is still more intricate (and playful) the way they discovered the correct painting by David Teniers to be used. In the second line of the small parchment they found the words "SECUNDO PRIMO".

By considering only the letters DO PR and adding a letter A coming from the line above, they create the anagram PRADO and conclude that the painting by Teniers is in the Prado Museum in Spain. As for its title, starting from the coded words in the parchment PAS DE TENTATION (no temptation), they choose a painting titled "The Temptation of Saint Anthony - Seven Deadly Sins of Mankind".

David Teniers, The Temptation of Saint Anthony - Seven Deadly Sins of Mankind (1670),
oil on canvas, Prado Museum, Madrid. (Explore it in high resolution)

According to Vallet, some elements in the painting have a resemblance to the geographical area of Sougragne - and particularly with the Pech d'en Couty, a hill behind the small bourg of Le Clamencis.

Thanks to Christian Doumergue, I could visit the location of the cave: the entrance is surprisingly small, and it is very difficult to explore.

The presence of water makes its exploration very difficult, but - according to Michel Vallet - the Via Crucis in the church of Rennes-le-Château hides a code revealing its content: a treasure hidden behind the corpses of 30 workmen killed during the digging of the cave. This statement raised some scepticism but it is a revealing example of the freedom given to players in writing the biggest revelations without the need to support them with strong evidences. The game must go on, truth may wait.

The whole thing is rather archetypical. Take a treasure cave, add some water and you'll get an everlasting mystery. Consider the case of the treasure of Oak Island, allegedly hidden at the bottom of a pit. It was firstly dug in the 18th century, but during the work, water began to seep into it. Since then, dozens of attempts to pump water have been unsuccessful. And the legend of the treasure marches on.


Both Henry Lincoln and the three French researchers share a secret: there is a puppetmaster behind the curtains, who died in 2000, whose influence on the present is still strong. His narrative was significant and had something special. But in a Freudian way, they kill their father, refusing to acknowledge his role in forging the documents on which they all found their theories.

It is a great lesson for modern players: if you want your game to be successful, follow the Tradition; Dan Brown did so, and he has been the most successful player in the game of Rennes-le-Château, so far.

At the same time, it is absolutely inspiring for those who are trying to deconstruct the mythopoiesis of Rennes-le-Château phenomenon: what are the elements in Plantard's narrative explaining their success, still half a century after its beginning? This is a problem which has nothing to do with historical analysis, facing the problem of understanding his role and the alleged presence of someone or something behind him. The strength and credibility of his mythology has something to do with a correct balance between reality and inventions, a perfect mix of elements from the real world and from imagination - just as in the best Alternate Reality Games. It is an analysis which is of paramount interest for a magician like me, always playing on the line between perception and deception, and working on the idea of "shaping" narratives in order to create the strongest emotional impact on the audience.

Many thanks to Christian Doumergue, my Virgile in the path to the treasure cave, and to Marcus Williamson for the editing and for his friendship.


(1) Gérard de Sède, L'Or de Rennes, 1967.
Mathieu Paoli, Les dessous d'une ambition politique, 1973.
Jean Luc Chaumeil, Le trésor du triangle d'or, 1979.
Jean Pierre Deloux & Jacques Bretigny, Rennes-le-Château capitale secret de l'histoire de France, 1982.

(2) A secondary purpose was to link the tombstone with the book by Henri Boudet La Vraie Langue Celtique, Imprimerie Pomies, Carcassonne 1886: at page 268 he lists the temperatures of three Rennes-les-Bains sources: Bain-Fort (51°C), la Reine (41°C) and Bain-Doux (40°C). The three numbers LI, XLI and XL appear at the bottom of the tombstone.

(3) Available here in English translation.

(4) Alfred North Whitehead would have commented: «Seek simplicity. And distrust it.»

(5) Here a geometrical analysis of Rennes-le-Château area given by Henry Lincoln himself.

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