"The Da Vinci Code" has ignited a worldwide controversy. The Vatican has denounced it, church leaders have condemned it, and audiences are flocking to see it. The book and the movie both take a sympathetic view of Paganism—or rather, a critical view of Christianity’s elimination of the female principle and roles of authority for women. (Although certainly Christianity was not the first or last religion to do so.)

Demystifying 'Da Vinci'Dan Brown, who wrote the "Da Vinci Code" novel, implies that many of the major splits and injustices of our world could be healed by restoring the Sacred Feminine to Christianity, and by acknowledging that Jesus was mortal, had children with Mary Magdalene, and intended for her to carry on as leader of the church.

I am not only a Pagan, but I was born, raised, and educated as a Jew. From either perspective, I find it hard to be shocked by the basic premise of "The Da Vinci Code." Nu? Jesus was a father? Why not? I find it much harder to believe that a professor of religious symbolism would make enough money, even at Harvard, to stay at the Ritz in Paris, as Brown’s protagonist Robert Langdon does. Or that even the worst fanatics of Opus Dei would murder to suppress a secret that could so easily be dispatched by academic disputes.

But is "The Da Vinci Code" good for the Pagans?

The book and movie both turn on the power of images. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is at the beginning, when Langdon is giving his public lecture on symbols of the Sacred Feminine. With enormous economy, he reveals the Devil’s fork to be Poseidon’s trident, and the Madonna and Child to be Isis and her divine child Horus. But both book and movie open with a scene that is high on any Pagan’s list of Images We Most Hate to See: a corpse marked with a pentacle, another instance of our faith being impugned as violent Satanism. The story goes on to explain the pentacle as the archetypal symbol of the Feminine, identified with Venus, love, and the mysteries of life itself. I was skeptical as to whether verbal explanations could counter the negative power of the image itself, especially in film, which is such a visual medium. But overall, I think it does. The Satanic murder/pentacle cliché is brought up, and immediately knocked down by Tom Hanks with assurance and conviction. The camera does not linger over the gruesome details—it’s almost as if the movie makers were saying to us, "Here’s what you’ve been taught to believe, now, let’s move on!"

The movie even mentions the witch persecutions, and the Malleus Mallificarum--the 15th-century manuscript that sent the Inquisition after the practitioners of the ancient traditions of healing, herbalism, and indigenous European spirituality, and which created the stereotypes of devil worship to begin with.

The best argument against "Da Vinci's" premise might be that, in the realm of symbols, the Feminine has never been absent from Christianity. Christian doctrine or practice might try to subordinate women, but Christian imagery has always celebrated her birth-giving, life-giving power. The figure of Mary, mother of Jesus, already incorporates much of the ancient imagery of the Goddess. She is Queen of Heaven, often depicted with a robe of blue studded with stars. She stands on the moon: Is she triumphing over it or emerging from it? A serpent lies at her feet—is she conquering it as the symbol of evil, or is she rooted in the regenerative power of the snake, who sheds its skin and is renewed? Pregnant, or holding her divine child on her lap, or grieving over his dead body, she becomes the primeval Goddess as Mother.

But the true mysteries of the Sacred Feminine are not about cryptic codes, secret messages, and hidden hoards of treasure. They are the most ordinary, everyday things of life, which we all experience: birth, growth, death, and regeneration. Not that a child survives from some hidden royal bloodline, but that the blood of life, waxing and waning like the moon, nurtures every child in the womb. Not that one man may have risen from the dead, but that every Spring, seeds buried in the earth’s dark tomb sprout and rise anew. The Holy Grail, from the Pagan perspective, is neither cup nor princess: It is the receptive consciousness, our awe and wonder and reverence for the real wellsprings of life. Only the worthy can find the Grail.

Real Pagan ritual may disappoint "Da Vinci Code" fans. As it happens, I spent last summer solstice in the forest beneath Roslyn Chapel, one of the key sites in "The Da Vinci Code." The chapel is truly exquisite, a gem of sacred architecture encrusted with carvings that celebrate many religious traditions and mostly, life itself: flowers, vines, roses, and more Green Men—vegetation Gods—than any other church in Europe. Its setting is far more suburban than the movie shows, but beneath it a stretch of woods is preserved, and there I met with local Pagans and activists organizing for the protests against the G8 meetings scheduled for that July.

We hiked slowly through the woods at dusk, bathed in the stream at the bottom of the hill, climbed up to a clearing, and built a fire in the shelter of ancient oaks. We chanted, sang, spoke to each other from our hearts, and shared moments of deep connectedness to all of life. No golden masks, no hidden hoards of documents, no ghostlike monks pursuing us.

Neither the movie nor the book quite hint at any of the true power of Pagan ritual and belief, but they might start many people off on the quest. That’s got to be good for the Pagans, and certainly good for Roslyn Chapel, the Temple Church in London, and the Louvre.

We would be more than human if we didn’t take some sly satisfaction in a movie where the bad guys are creepy priests and the Pagans, for once, get some good press. But we should resist gloating. For the movie certainly is not terribly good for the cause of interfaith understanding. In the long run, what’s really good for the Pagans is the work of our many allies in the Christian world and among people of other religions, who work for tolerance and connections among different faiths and beliefs.

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