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2002-10-21 | 9:07 p.m.

I have become obsessed with the Rennes-le-Chateau mystery in the last month, and I'm going to break it down here in case you're interested. I think it's fascinating on so many levels... historical, religious, archaeological, conspiratorial... Without further ado (and with apologies to people who know way more about this than me...):

In 1885, the village of Rennes-le-Chateau received a new parish priest, Berenger Sauniere. Sauniere was at odds with the church leaders from the area and they may have placed him in such a tiny, remote area as a sort of punishment. Sauniere made a very meager salary in the years spanning 1885 to 1891.

In 1891, Sauniere decided to perform some minor renovations on the small church of Rennes-le-Chateau. In the course of the renovations, Sauniere moved the two very old Visigothic columns that supported the altar stone. One of the columns proved to be hollow, and within he found four sealed documents. These documents, for some reason or another, changed Sauniere's life forever.

Two of the documents were reported to be genealogies, one dating from the 13th century and one from the 17th century. The other two documents were believed to have been written in the 1780s by one of Sauniere's predecessors at the church, Abbe Bigou. Bigou was most notable for being the confessor to the Blanchefort family, one of the largest landholding families of the region with a bloodline that could be traced to the Knights Templar of the holy crusades.

The two documents from Bigou's time were Latin excerpts from the New Testament. However, the texts were laid out in a very curious manner, with strange symbols and lettering appearing throughout each page. Closer inspection revealed a number of intricate codes and phrases throughout each document. Apparently, Bigou had chosen the excerpts only as a mean to convey some sort of message to the person who found them. He obviously intended for them to be found only by another clergyman, for in his day the only people who could read Latin were priests. The most obvious code, which Sauniere certainly would have noticed upon examining the parchment, spelled out the phrase: "TO DAGOBERT II KING AND TO SION BELONGS THIS TREASURE AND HE IS THERE DEAD".

Sauniere took these documents to the bishop in nearby Carcasonne, who instructed him to take them to Paris to be decoded by church experts in cryptography. While in Paris, Sauniere met some of the most notable figures of the time, including the composer Claude Debussy and Emma Calve, the famous singer. Sauniere made a few visits to the Louvre and commissioned reproductions to be made of three paintings; one was a portrait of Pope Celestine V, who reigned in the late 13th century; one was an unknown work by David Teniers; and the final was a painting by Poussins called "The Shepherds of Arcadia".

After three weeks in Paris, Sauniere returned to Rennes-le-Chateau and continued the renovations at this church. He removed a curiously carved flagstone from the floor of the church which may have concealed a tomb of some sort. He also defaced a tombstone in the church's graveyard: that of Marie de Blanchefort. Marie had been close with Antoine Bigou, the priest who had composed two of the four documents, and he had designed her tombstone and composed the inscription that was written upon it. Fortunately, many years before Sauniere had defaced the gravestone a passing traveler had copied the inscription for his own collection. The second document written by Bigou contains a code that is a long phrase that mentions Poussins, "The Shepherds of Arcadia", and Teniers. However, if one rearranges the letters of the phrase, they form the exact inscription that was on Marie de Blanchefort's headstone before Sauniere defaced it. Curious.

Sauniere's strange behavior did not stop there. He vastly expanded his renovation project and eventually made the church virtually unrecognizable from the state it had been in when he first arrived. He began to collect worthless postage stamps, and he carried out correspondence with people throughout Europe. He opened multiple bank accounts in foreign countries, who would dispatch representatives to travel all the way to the tiny village to conduct business with the priest. He carried out public works like a new road into the village, and he constructed a sprawling estate for the clergy and a tower to house his stamp collection.

His most interesting works occurred in the church. Above the outer doorway that leads into the church, he had inscribed the Latin phrase "TERRIBILIS EST LOCUS ISTE", which translates to, "This Place Is Terrible". He had a waist-high devil carved to hold the bowl of holy water near the entrance, and this devil was supposed to represent Asmodeus, the keeper of hidden treasures. The stations of the cross were painted along the walls of the church, but there are many curious abnormalities in each painting. For example, in one of the stations a child is wearing Scottish plaid. Some of the depictions also differ with the traditional interpretation of Jesus's last day.

Sauniere continued his spending spree, buying china and other delicate goods, and he continued his vast improvements to the Rennes-les-Chateau region until his death in 1917.

What did Sauniere discover in those four documents that brought him such instant wealth? He never would have been able to purchase, renovate, or construct on the scale that he did on his very meager clerical salary. His wealth seems to have sprung immediately upon his visit to Paris, beginning with his commission of the paintings, which must have been very expensive. Who gave him this sudden wealth, or is it something that he had discovered underneath his church even before his trip to the capital?

Was the Church paying him money to keep his mouth shut about some secret he had unearthed? This is unlikely given Sauniere's history of disagreement with the Church and contempt for church officials. Someone else, then?

The first document mentions "Sion," which is believed to be a shadow organization that operated behind the Knights Templar. According to some theories, the Priory of Sion may have comprised some of the most formiddable esoteric intellects of its time, and they may have founded the Knights Templar in the eleventh century to act as their military or administrative arm. The two organizations eventually split, and the Templars were disbanded in the fourteenth century by a French king who was suspicious and perhaps intimidated by their wealth and influence in Europe. Many believe that the Priory of Sion continued through modern history and exists even today. Could Sauniere have discovered some secret of the Priory of Sion, and did they pay him off in return to stay quiet?

Or perhaps Sauniere discovered some physical treasure in the Rennes-le-Chateau region. The area is believed to have been the final resting place of the treasure of the Templars, the Cathars, and the Visigoths (which includes the artifacts and treasure extracted from the Temple of David in Jerusalem before it was destroyed). However, none of this treasure has ever been discovered. The area was also the seat of the Merovingian Dynasties, and one of its kings was... Dagobert II, who is mentioned in the first document alongside "Sion". Perhaps Antoine Bigou knew something about the treasure's location, and Sauniere used these clues to find the precise location and unearth it for himself. Remember that Bigou was the confessor to Marie de Blanchefort. Marie could trace her ancestry back to one of the original founders of the Knights Templar. Perhaps the secret of the Templar treasure had been passed down through her family for centuries and eventually ended up in the hands of Antoine Bigou, who hid the secret in the form of a code in his four documents.

This is all purely speculation. The fact remains that Sauniere discovered the four documents and they instantly brought him wealth and a degree of fame among esoterics and intellectuals throughout Europe. He never revealed the source of his wealth to anybody but his beloved housekeeper Marie Denarnoud, who was believed to be his lover as well. After Sauniere's death, Marie promised to tell a close friend a "secret" before she died that would make him not only wealthy but powerful as well. Tragically, Denarnoud suffered from a stroke that left her mute, and Sauniere's secret died with her.

If anybody finds this interesting, I may continue this discussion of Rennes-le-Chateau. There's so much more to the mystery, most of it occuring centuries before Sauniere was even born. Most of this information came from a fabulous book called "Holy Blood, Holy Grail" by Baigent et al., which I highly recommend.

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