I'm often astonished at the lengths people will go to to perpetrate hoaxes.
What can possibly motivate them? Is it just about getting their fifteen minutes of fame? Or the superior feeling of being able to laugh at the suckers who fall for their shtick? Or the fun of creating a wild story -- something that, as a novelist, I can certainly understand?
It was some combination of all of those that motivated the main characters in my all-time favorite novel, Umberto Eco's twisty, labyrinthine masterpiece Foucault's Pendulum. We meet three cynical, bored book editors who work for Manutius Press, a publishing company that specializes in esoteric woo. None of the three believe a word of what they publish; it's a job, pure and simple. But then they realize that having done this for years, the three of them can come up with a better book than any of the writers they publish. Skip the middle-man, out-woo the woo-practitioners. So using their extensive knowledge of history and esoterica, they cook up the be-all-end-all conspiracy theory, involving the Knights Templar, the Rosicrucians, Nostradamus, the Roman Catholic Church, the Bogomils, the Crusaders, and the final resting place of the Holy Grail. Their book leaves the reader hanging, though -- implying that part of the mystery was too catastrophically powerful and dangerous to reveal in print.
But their plan backfires spectacularly, because the book catches the attention of a (very serious) secret society, who believe it's all true -- and they kidnap one of the editors and threaten to kill him if the three don't reveal the rest of their secret.
Which doesn't exist, remember? Because they made it all up?
But, of course, the more they protest, the more convinced the secret society is that they are hiding something. Why else would they be arguing so vehemently?
I was immediately reminded of Foucault's Pendulum when I stumbled across the (true) story of Pierre Plantard (18 March 1920 - 3 February 2000), a French artist who is best known for perpetrating one of the most byzantine hoaxes I've ever heard of. It's called "The Priory of Sion," and what strikes me is the lengths to which he went to create it, and the number of apparently intelligent people he suckered into believing. Like the creation of the jaded editors in Eco's novel, the whole thing kind of turned into a juggernaut -- although there's no indication anyone ever threatened to kill Plantard to force him to reveal more of his secrets.
In fact, calling them "secrets" is kind of inaccurate, given that he pretty much never talked about anything else.
Plantard himself seems to have been a rather unsavory character. During World War II he established himself as an ultranationalist, anti-Semitic, and anti-Masonic agitator. In fact, he offered to help out Philippe Pétain, the leader of the collaborationist Vichy Régime, but apparently his views were too out there even for Pétain, and he was refused. So Plantard decided to strike off on his own and founded the Alpha Galates, an "order of knighthood" with sacred rites and the whole shebang, but despite his best efforts, according to Paris Police Prefect Claude Charlot who investigated it, it "only ever had four regular members."
But hey, if at first you don't succeed...
After the war ended, Plantard decided to give it another shot, and this time, it took off beyond his wildest dreams.
The gist is that Godfrey de Bouillon, leader of the First Crusade, had created a secret society called "the Priory of Sion" in 1099 as he stood atop Mount Zion in Palestine, which was dedicated to making certain that the bloodline of the Merovingian dynasty would be installed on all the thrones of Europe. The reason, you see, is that the Merovingians weren't (as you may have learned in history class) the leaders of the Franks, a confederation of Germanic tribes from northern Europe.
Oh, no. They are actually the direct descendants of Jesus Christ and his wife, Mary Magdalene.
Yes, I know, there's no mention in the Bible of Jesus being married, much less to Mary Magdalene. Just play along, okay?
Plantard tells us that clues include some paintings by seventeenth-century painter Nicolas Poussin, whose mythological studies Plantard interpreted as representing such themes as the reincarnation of the assassinated Merovingian king Dagobert II, who in Plantard's scheme was a "holy martyr" who had been killed by the Bad Guys because (1) he knew too much, and (2) he was Jesus's descendant and the Bad Guys couldn't have that.
Since then, the Big Secrets had been perpetuated through a lineage of Grand Masters, which includes some famous names, such as Nicolas Flamel, Sandro Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Robert Fludd, Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton, Victor Hugo, and Claude Debussy.
Well, the problem with Plantard's scheme is that there's no hard evidence for it, because he made the entire thing up. But hey, that's no problem!
Because you can always make that up as well.
Working with two guys named Philippe de Chérisey and Noël Corbu, Plantard created fake documents -- medieval-looking parchments that had information supporting the whole scheme. He then planted them all over, in churches and in libraries specializing in ancient texts -- including the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. But he and his collaborators weren't content to just sit back and wait for them to be discovered, so he enlisted the help of author Gérard de Sède to write a book about the forged manuscripts, alleging that a Catholic priest in the late nineteenth century, Bérenger Saunière, had found them while supervising the renovation of his church at Rennes-le-Château, but had recognized how dangerous they were and hid them again.
The book became a bestseller.
At this point, it becomes hard to sort out who actually fell for the hoax, who simply thought it was entertaining fiction, and who had nothing to do with it but was accused of being an initiate and so got tangled up in it unfairly. The whole thing even ensnared a couple of close associates of President François Mitterand and Prime Minister Pierre Bérégovoy. Even after Plantard's death in 2000 at the age of 79, the claim lived on -- in fiction such as Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code and in (supposedly) non-fictional form in books like The Sion Revelation: The Truth About the Guardians of Christ's Sacred Bloodline, by Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince, and "documentaries" like Bloodline.
It is, in fact, the conspiracy theory that refuses to die.
But to go back to my original point: the whole thing was made up. We know this for a fact. The documentary evidence was forged; the story of those manuscripts being found in a church by a Catholic priest in 1891 was a lie invented by a novelist Plantard had hired to help him.
So how does this still have momentum? I guess the answer is that you can't convince people who don't want to know the truth. That, at least, is the conclusion Eco had his character Casaubon come to at the end of Foucault's Pendulum:
I left Paris this morning. I left too many clues. They've had time to guess where I am. In a little while, They will be here. I would have liked to write down everything I thought today. But if They were to read it, They would only derive another dark theory and spend another eternity trying to decipher the ancient message hidden behind my words. It's impossible, They would say; he can't only have been making fun of us. No. Perhaps, without his realizing it, Being was sending us a message through its oblivion.
It makes no difference whether I write or not. They will look for other meanings, even in my silence. That's how They are. Blind to revelation.
But try telling Them that. They of little faith.
So I might as well stay here, wait, and look at the hill.
It's so beautiful.