When we left off yesterday, Richard Stanley had been exiled from the industry after what he calls “The Moreau Affair,” and found himself roaming the globe, eventually making documentaries for British television. This led to nothing less than tracking down Nazi occultists in pursuit of the Holy Grail. (Yes, really. Read Part 1 here.) Today we continue, with Stanley recounting his research into the occult investigations of Nazi Otto Rahn.
2: QUEST KNIGHT
Daniel Noah: Tell me more about Otto Rahn.
Richard Stanley: Otto was a contradiction in terms, a figure so bizarre, whose life seems so farfetched, that I had a hard time believing he even existed. When I first started on his trail, I kept expecting him to turn out to be a complete fiction.
Technically, Otto was Jewish by his mother, Clara. He joined the SS, which was kind of a really bad move. It was his only source of income as the SS offered to underwrite all of his research and his journeys to try to locate truth behind the Grail. But at the same time, Otto was incapable of providing proof of his Aryan ancestry. He was requested over and over by the superiors to submit his Ahnenpass, the document which proves his racial purity, which was something that was always going to catch up with him sooner or later. Another big problem is that, upon closer examination, it’s pretty clear that Otto was gay. Not openly gay but certainly possessed of sentiments that weren’t exactly popular within the Third Reich. At that point in time, being either gay or Jewish would be a ticket to the camps. So Otto certainly walked a very curious line.
Otto was born in the Black Forest close to Wildenburg Castle. Wildenburg was where Wilfred Van Eschenbach wrote the epic manuscript Parzival, the original story of the quest for the Grail. So Otto grew up around the story of the Grail. He connected the legend of the Grail with an older form of Christianity, which was possibly a step closer to Buddhism or paganism, which had flourished in Southern Europe up to the early 13th century.
Raiders of the Lost Ark popularized the idea that the Nazis were looking for sacred objects like the Ark of the Covenant. In real life, they were looking for the Holy Grail. This quest largely fell on Otto’s shoulders. Otto became the SS’s resident Grail historian, their Quest Knight.
DN: Why were the Nazis interested in the Grail?
RS: Largely, it was Otto’s idea. Otto was influenced by the sensational discovery of the lost city of Troy, which was a big deal back in the 1920s. The discovery of Troy came about through treating Homer's Iliad as if it was reflective of real history and wasn't just a dramatic fantasy. In this case, it turned out that Troy was actually a real city, and the Germans succeeded in locating it. So Otto thought he could do the same with Parzival. He thought that the 12th century troubadour epic reflected real places and real historical events, and that it may have been created by the poets and songwriters of old Occitania, the ancient kingdom that existed here in the South of France. He sought to trace the roots of the Grail myth back to what he believed were its origins. And this brought him to the Mountain of Montségur.
DN: What did he find there?
RS: Otto was out here for about two years. In that time, his most prominent contribution was that he wrote a book which was the first account of the Albigensian Crusade, the so-called Cathar Heresy and the siege of Montségur, and the final battle that basically brought the crusade to an end. This account, a book called Crusade Against the Grail, was the first time this history had ever been made available to the public outside of France. The inquisition and the Holy Roman church had succeeded in erasing all records and memories of the event to such an extent that Otto, in a way, broke open the case. His book was a bestseller in Germany in the early 1930s and basically broadened people's knowledge of European history.
There was a ruin up there by the beginning of the 13th century. At that time, the high priestess of the Cathar faith had a vision of upcoming apocalypse, and began to refortify the ruins and prepared for the coming crusade against the South. The Holy Roman church waged a genocidal crusade against the Christian heretics in the South, and basically destroyed their culture and language. Toward the end of this genocidal campaign, the last heads of the Cathar church wrote to the Lord of Montségur and requested permission to take shelter in the castle and to bring with them the treasures of their faith. So we know that the last heads of the Cathar church brought their treasures to Montségur.
Soon the entire might of the French army was turned against Montségur, which led to a situation where approximately 250 fighting men held off an incoming Crusader army estimated to be between 6,000 and 12,000 dogs of war for about ten months. It was inevitable that the castle would fall. By the end of the siege, both sides wanted it to be over so badly that the Crusaders gave the Cathars extremely lenient terms, and said that they would be allowed to go free so long as they recanted and swore to abide by the tenets of the Holy Roman Church. The 250 defenders refused to recant and were burned alive at the base of the mountain in the largest mass burning of heretics and witches in European history. But none of the treasure was there when the castle fell. The treasure disappeared.
Otto was certainly looking for a treasure. Partly a spiritual treasure in that he hoped to uncover an earlier form of Christianity that had almost been erased from human memory. But with this there was also a material treasure, because whatever holy relics had once been there had disappeared, or had been smuggled out of the castle, or hidden somewhere within the mountain. Otto, with a rather straightforward, Germanic view of the events, assumed that he could possibly pick up the trail of the sacred treasure, and believed that it was still hidden in the mountains, sealed within a cave within the Pyrenees.
DN: What did Otto believe the Grail was?
RS: In Eschenbach’s text, the Grail is described as a stone from the sky, a hard, dark stone, named as lapsus ex caelis, which is a stone from whence the Knights within the Grail Castle Munsalvaesche nourish themselves to remain young and strong. Otto also compares the stone to “the diadem of Lucifer,” the stone that fell from the brow of the rebel angel when he was cast out of heaven, a stone that presents the lost link between God and the fallen angels, the crown of Lucifer for which the servants of the fallen angel continue to seek from one lifetime to the next so their master might regain his rightful place in the kingdom of heaven.
DN: Put that into layman's terms for us. What does “a stone from the sky” mean?
RS: Here in the Pyrenees, it turns out that there are black stones which we know were held in reverence by ancient people here. These black stones are apparently meteoric debris that I believe are the results of a meteoric impact in pre-human times. This debris may have lain in a deep stratum of the earth, and then been plowed to the surface by glaciation in the last ice age.
DN: When we first met, you showed me a pair of these black stones and made them bleed, which blew my mind. How and when did these stones first come into your possession?
RS: The meteoric stones, the fragments of meteoric aerolites that had been identified with Otto Rahn’s lapsus ex caelis, first came into my hands in 1998. They were given to me by a French investigative journalist named Christian Bernadac, who was on the trail of Otto Rahn. He was obsessed with a conspiracy theory that Otto Rahn had survived the war and become the head of Coca Cola Europe with the collusion of the CIA, which was a claim so far fetched that I would have completely dismissed it had it not come from a relatively respectable journalist. During the course of my dealings with Christian, he placed two of these meteoric samples in my hands and demonstrated their properties. They are capable of being magnetized. They seem to function as superconductors, and also have this particularly freaky property whereby they seem to bleed. They secrete a ferrous solution that is 99% pure iron.
DN: Have you ever attempted to have it analyzed?
RS: Over the years, I've made multiple attempts. To date, I've been let down every time. I've given samples to the meteorite section of the British Museum. I've given samples to the BBC. I've given samples to people at Cambridge. Each time, they fuck around. Then usually, after about two years, they lose the sample or for whatever reason fail to allocate the time or the necessary funds to conduct a spectrographic analysis. We need to establish whether these things came from outer space and, if so, what their chemical density actually is so we can place them within the periodic table. At the moment, they remain unidentified. They are simply part of Lovecraft’s Great Outside, something which seems to have come from another world, and which has no real place in human science.
DN: Just to connect all the dots on this, is the implication that a meteor at some point struck the earth, exploding into fragments, one of which was shaped like a cup, and that when those who had it in their possession discovered that its secretions had healing properties, they began to consider it a sort of supernatural prop, and that led to it being deemed the Holy Grail?
RS: Yeah, that's the implication. I know that Otto and some of his associates removed a large number of these meteoric stones and artifacts – including a bowl, literally some kind of meteoric cup – from the caves in the areas. Some of these artifacts were still on public display through into the 1980s in a local museum in the Ariège that have subsequently disappeared into private hands. I believe most of the meteoric artifacts are held by a secret society which still operates in the area. I suspect that if there is a Pyrenean grail, a meteoric vessel or bowl, it's probably used in a secret society’s initiation rituals.
DN: Have you pursued that theory?
RS: Yeah, it keeps coming up in nagging ways. The last time this came up was when I was at Clive Barker's house at Coldwater Canyon, and I spotted two paintings that weren’t by Clive, leaning against the wall in the guest bedroom. I inquired as to who had painted them, because they were extremely detailed, mind-bending images of the Gates of Hell, full of thousands of demons and the souls of the damned. No one seemed to remember the name of the artist other than that they were paintings that had been given to Clive while he was in Europe.
I then found out that the artist was a Dutch painter named Johfra, who had in fact been one of the leaders of the secret society based in here in the Ariège. In fact, he was a curator of the museum where the meteoric bowl and some of the other artifacts were exhibited. It seemed super strange to me that two of these paintings of the Gates of Hell had found their way into Mr. Barker's possession. So yeah, the issue of the secret society’s possession of the meteoric cup in the Ariège remains a tantalizing and rather creepy business.
DN: Have you ever tried to track down the secret society?
RS: Oh yeah! We're on semi-friendly terms!
DN: [laughs] So what do they have to say for themselves about all this?
RS: We've had an on-off relationship over the years. I'm quite fond of their main front man here in the mountains, a fellow called [REDACTED]. Actually, strike that. I probably shouldn't name him. But basically, it’s a European branch of the Rosicrucian, a secret society started by two Dutch brothers back before World War II who wanted to revive the authentic Rosicrucian way. They wear these black stones as pendants around their necks in the hope that it will keep them young and vital. I've run into them a lot because I go in and out of the caves myself, so I’m on nodding terms with the folk who keep an eye on the principal archeological sites connected to the mystery.
DN: How did Otto’s story end?
RS: He didn't last very long. He was dead by the age of 32. By the end of it, when they first started to round up the Jewish population, Otto still believed that he could somehow turn things around, and was writing complaining letters about the conditions in the camps to Himmler, believing that if Himmler and the upper brass in the SS knew what was going on in the camps, that they would put a stop to it. So I think he remained stupidly naive until probably 1939, when it became clear to him that the people he was working for were criminals and murderers. At which point Otto did something unheard of for the time. He literally quit the SS, and went on the run.
When I first started on the case in 1990, I believed that Otto was possibly still alive. I was told by many people here in Pyrenees that he was a very old man who still visited the area. But after approximately eight years of research, I'm satisfied that the real Otto Rahn died in 1939, when he froze to death after attempting to walk across the French-German border to get back to Montségur.
DN: What did you learn that satisfied you that was the true story?
RS: I met his family. I went to Germany, and I tracked down his niece and his senile sister. His niece still had Otto’s Teddy bear and his ashtray and paperweights, and the unpublished manuscripts of his novels and plays. The family had had to write begging letters to the SS to get his property back, and eventually his remains were handed back to the Rahn family and buried in the family plot in Darmstadt. I took him 12 crow feathers from one of the caves, and some roses.
DN: What were you looking for specifically when you went to visit his family?
RS: Throughout it all, one has to think that if somebody out there found the Holy Grail, or found the thing that everyone else is looking for, that maybe if you might find them, you might find out where the whatsit is. I was kind of hoping that Otto’s niece Ingaborg might have the Grail hidden away somewhere amongst the family effects.
DN: And Otto wrote two books about the Grail?
RS: Otto’s first book, Crusade Against the Grail, is an unpacking of Parzival. The second book is a lot weirder. The Court of Lucifer was written while he was under the aegis of the SS. It's really more like a compilation of what feel almost like blogs, a series of different journal entries on sacred places and archeological sites that Otto had visited in Europe while working for the SS. So The Court of Lucifer for is almost a travel guide for folk who are interested in walking in Otto’s footsteps.
DN: And you did that yourself, did you not?
RS: Yeah, increasingly, I found that the best way of understanding it all was to go to the places. I noticed Otto had a very good eye for very dramatic and Lovecraftian locations, Montségur and The Devil’s Lake, some of the most striking, fantastical locations that I've ever set foot in. Otto was trying to find real life locations he believed were the basis of the myths in Parzival. The young hero comes across a hermit named Trevrizent, who lives in a cave described in the text as The Wild Fountain of Fontenay Disavage. There is in fact a Fontenay Disavage in the Ariège. Otto identified this cave and removed a large number of meteoric stones and artifacts.
The cave at Fontenay was officially sealed by the French government after World War II, and they placed a very strong, metal security gate partway down the cave, set into concrete to make certain that no one ever went in there again. The remaining meteorites were locked on the other side of an impenetrable barrier.
Anyway, I found that Otto was a very good tour guide when it came to discovering sites in Europe, Scandinavia and even in Iceland that I had literally never heard of or seen.
DN: Where did you go in Iceland?
RS: In 1936, Otto went to the North Pole with a group of SS men. I tried to follow them as far as I could on the basis of the very slender data available from that period. Obviously, there's all kinds of fantastical stories about the Third Reich at the Pole, stories of the Hollow Earth, Nazi UFOs, dinosaur survivals. I was keen to try to unpack as much as I could of the journey north, and that took me eventually to a warm water lake underneath a volcano on the Icelandic North Cape. This lake seemed to have petroglyphs and carvings on the rocks that did have an uncomfortably Atlantean, fantastical flavor to them.
DN: What do the records show about what Otto and his team were doing in the warm water lake? What were they looking for?
RS: We literally don’t know. It was the last reference point that Otto gives. Otto actually trails the story at the end Court of Lucifer. He says that his next book, which he claims will be the third and final volume of his thesis, a book called, Orpheus: A Journey to Hell and Beyond, will begin with the North Icelandic Cape. But unfortunately, the manuscript has never been found.
Tomorrow: how a witch, a shaman, and the death of his mother led Stanley on the path to resurrecting Lovecraft - and his own career.
Daniel Noah is a partner and Head of Development for SpectreVision, the award-winning indie genre company behind such titles as A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and Mandy. He is co-host of the acclaimed podcast, “Visitations with Elijah Wood and Daniel Noah.”