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The Accidental Pentagram in Provence

© Vincent Bridges 2010

sunrise fortEarly on in my research on the Grail in Provence, I noticed something unusual about the landscape. Not only was the region roughly a triangle, the delta of the Rhone delta, with a small mountain range across the center, but the area around Glanum seemed to be the center or connecting point of some kind of invisible web that apparently animated the larger landscape. The pattern was hard to make out as it wasn’t an alignment of churches or shrines, or even pilgrim routes, but a structural component, formed by geology, which shaped the pattern. Humans, for thousands of years, made use of the pattern on the landscape, without perhaps ever being aware of it directly.

From the top of the Alpilles, the view to the south is unobstructed to the horizon, which on a clear day is the Mediterranean. To the east is the Luberon hills and above that the edge of the Vaucluse plateau. To the west lies Nimes and the rough hills to the north of it, and due north the view is clear all the way to Avignon, the papal city at the confluence of the Durance and the Rhone. Further north is the Rhone valley and beyond that looms the hills and gorges of the Ardeche.

It is plain to see that the rivers, the Rhone and the Durance have shaped the landscape, and other rivers emptying into the Rhone have created even more contours and gorges around the edges. This creates the tension of the landscape, defining the places that suggest “holiness.” The confluence of the two great rivers would have been an obvious sacred site, now co-opted by the Catholic Church, as would the spring at the base of the Holy Mountain of the Alpilles. The line between them, slightly west of north, continues up the Rhone valley until in the Ardeche it hits a small village called St. Mountain, Holy Mountain, where there is a grotto, the Grotto de le Ste. Baume, said to be one of Mary Magdalene’s hermitage sites.

With one line, we have connected three very ancient and sacred locations, two Holy Mountains with grottoes and springs and the confluence of the two rivers that shape the landscape. To the ancient people who inhabited the valley, these were unmistakably sacred sites and their alignment would have been seen as a spiritual, and actual, axis of the region. The curious point is that attribution of a cave or grotto in the Ardeche to Mary Magdalene, la Ste. Baume.

map of GlanumTraditionally, the better known chapel and grotto in the Massif de la Sainte Baume, far to the southeast from the Ardeche and almost on the coast, has been seen as the focus of the 12th century’s stories of Mary Magdalene’s penitence and hermitage. There seems to be no connection at all to the Ardeche in any of the surviving Magdalene legends, yet there it is. More than just the grotto, the region is full of Madeleine names, including the sharp bend in the Ardeche River and the Templar hospital and fort defending it. Perhaps the Templars were the source for the local and somewhat late Madeleine/Magdalene tradition; however the evidence for long term habitation and importance as a sacred site, going back to the Neolithic era, includes a set of monoliths near another grotto a few kilometers east of the Magdalene cave.

This spot marks the north end of the axis line from Glanum, through the confluence of the rivers and on to the monoliths, which are on the same level as the Robinet de Donzere, the rocky out cropping that forms the narrows of the Rhone, just before the Ardeche empties into it. This clearly, from deep prehistory, was the gateway to the valley and the delta beyond. And the connection from the gateway, in the far north, to the center, the sacred springs and caves of the Alpilles in the delta, is also quite clear. But there must be more, even if this is the main line of the invisible web.

My next logical step was to draw a line on my map connecting the Ardeche’s la Baume grotto with the more famous one in the far southeast of Provence. This line ran along the edge of the Vaucluse plateau and near many famous cave and spring locations, including Fontaine de Vaucluse and Pernes-le-Fontaine, but no odd attributions to the Magdalene. The line crosses the Durance northwest of Aix-en-Provence, passes west of the Forest of Peyrolles and the Montagne Ste. Victorie and east of the Chaine de l’etoile, through a gap marked by range of low hills to the Grotto and its chapel. From there, aligning yourself along the low pass or col in front of you, would direct you along the water edge of the Vaucluse and on to the Gateway of the Rhone. Because of its 12th century overhaul and the continuing presence of the Catholic Church, we have little evidence of Neolithic habitation near the grotto or chapel, but the importance of the site clearly predates its Christian adoption.

Our next line, from Glanum’s sacred mountain to the Grotto and chapel of la Ste. Baume, makes this clear as it encloses Aix-en-Provence to the south. Aix was originally named Aquae Sextae Salluviorium for the thermal spring of sweet water around which the Romans founded a town in 123 BCE. So the idea of a sacred spring is reinforced by the lines connecting the center and the two widely separated holy grotto locations, as they converge on the most famous holy spring of the region. Also, the line from Glanum to the Grotto la Ste. Baume falls in between the Montagne Ste. Victorie and the Chaine de l’etoile, with an even better and more direct line of sight back to the eastern Alpilles. This gives us a triangle, tilted from the north to the southeast, centered on Glanum’s sacred mountain.

But where are the lines for the western and the southern directions?

ruinIt just felt like there had to be more of the pattern there, and so I kept on looking.

I turned my attention to places with a Magdalene connection, and immediately it occurred to me that Ste. Maries-de-le-Mer, with its Sarah the Egyptian grotto and fresh water spring, was, as the Magalene’s supposed landing spot in Provence, an obvious choice. A line from Glanum through the sacred mountain to Ste. Maries-de-le-Mer runs through Les Baux and the ancient Drudic valleys, so that felt correct. The line from La Ste. Baume to Ste. Maries-de-le-Mer passed the Chaine de etoile to the south and along the coast north and west of Marseilles and created a counterpart to the eastern section of the larger triangle.

So, I looked west toward Nimes, which had a large nympheum and spring as the center of its ancient settlement. The nympheum is just below the ancient Greco-Roman watch tower, the Tour Magne, with its odd multi-lingual connections to Magdalene/Magdala, (The words mean roughly the same thing in Latin and Aramaic, “great tower”.) However, Nimes, for all its suggestive connotations, has never had a direct Magdalene connection.

But to the north, in the Gorges de Gardon, there is a curious story about the Magdalene’s original, pre-la Baume, hermitage spot. A few kilometers up the Gard from the Pont-du-Gard aqueduct, this Grotto de la Baume is the only one without the Sainte prefix, indicating that it was a hermitage for all Baume, or cave dwelling anchorites. In fact, a Hellenistic 2nd century BCE statue of a seated Buddha was found in this grotto, indicating that it was used by many traditions as a hermitage spot. The story is that the Magdalene spent a few years there soon after her arrival, then was miraculously flown across Provence to the Grotto southeast of Aix by an angel. This immediately caught my attention, because, assuming an angel would fly in a straight line, then a line connecting the Grotto de la Baume and the Grotto de la Ste. Baume would pass directly over Glanum’s sacred mountain.

I now had two western triangles, centered on the grotto north of Nimes, and a southern triangle anchored by Ste Maries-de-le-Mer, to accompany the north to southeastern original triangle, and all focused on Glanum. But it still felt incomplete. Four lines from the sacred mountain above Glanum connecting Magdalene caves and springs, making a larger sense of some ancient mother/water goddess connection and this knowing continued as part of the early Christian/Magdalene anchorite tradition. The southern triangle along the sea felt whole, it needed no division into smaller pieces like the western section. However, that northern to southeastern triangle seemed to beg for another division to match the western sections.

And then it hit me.

glanumIf I just continued the line from Ste. Maries-de-le-Mer through Les Baux and Glanum until it touched the long side of the triangle, then I would indeed have five sections or triangles; northeast, southeast, south, southwest, and northwest. And the center would be a pentagonal alignment focused on a spot on the top of the sacred mountain above Glanum…

This is what I call the accidental pentagram. No one planned it, but the ancient pattern of goddesses and caves and springs, and the legends grafted onto them, point to the larger archetype on the landscape. I had four interconnected sacred sites, with Glanum at the center, but could there really be five? What of that point where the Ste. Maries/Les Baux/Glanum line crossed the long side of the triangle, could there be something there that clinched the connection?

On the map, there was nothing there but a bend in the road coming down across the Vaucluse plateau from St. Didier to Sausaune-de-Vauclause. But, when I began to look closer, I found something truly strange. In the odd bend in the road where the lines crossed was an old hermitage and shrine to a local Dark Age local saint, St. Gens. On the right hand wall of the hermitage is a large dark stone said to be the hidden location of St. Gens’ cave and perhaps either his tomb or where he awaits the end of the world. Gens, in the local dialect, is pronounced as “jean” and so we have a mysterious St. “Jean” or John with a cave hermitage/tomb and above that a miraculous spring.

Recently, I redrew my original somewhat rough diagram of the accidental pentagram. In making it more accurate, I stumbled on a very important point, literally. In my first version, I knew the intersection point was somewhere above Glanum, about halfway between Glanum and Les Baux, on the slopes of the Mount Gaussier, the sacred mountain, but locating the exact spot required a better map and a larger scale. When I did that, I found that the spot where the five lines of the Nuit star/pentagram meet fell just off the side of the old road that climbs from Glanum and St. Remy over the Alpilles.

I had accidentally stopped at that very spot in 1999 and noticed the similarities between the spot and the foreground and rock seat of Leonardo’s St. John in the Wilderness. I was so impressed that I looked up the painting in the Louvre, amazed that Leonardo Da Vinci had placed his oddly heretical saint on that hillside in the Alpilles. And, this particular spot turns out to be the exact location of the pentagram’s center…

With this, the pattern of our pentagram seems complete. Four Magdalene sites, caves with springs, and a fifth connected to a mysterious Gens or Jean, with a cave and a spring, and all focused on Glanum and its nympheum, a temple to the mother goddess of living water. This ancient sacred pattern on the landscape provides the most vital clue of all to the mysteries of Provence and the Holy Grail. As the true history of the Grail in Provence emerges, these curious locations – a Templar hospital and grotto, the church’s chapel and grotto, the gypsy’s sea-side shrine to the Maries, the old hermitage site above Nimes, the hidden saint and his tomb in the Vaucluse, and of course Glanum – will develop into key, but hidden, components of the story.