The Murdered Magicians: The Templars and their Myth
he library of the occult gets fatter every day. Here in the belly of the New Age, the average bookstore carries "ancient secrets" and "hidden wisdom" by the metric ton. But literature ABOUT the occult, of the history of occult ideas and their influence on important people, is skimpy and often unreliable. It's hard to find an honest scholar among the mystagogues and Fundamentalists. We have Dame Francis Yates, a gem of a historian who cares about things that would make most academics turn up their noses. And now we have Dr. Peter Partner. As we bow three times in the direction of Dame Frances, it must be said that Dr. Partner is a better writer. An alchemist would envy his ability to turn the junk of history into gold.
HE MURDERED MAGICIANS starts off on familiar ground. We meet the historical Templars themselves, fresh from the Crusades, returning to France, getting rich in the Church market and drawing the wrath of the odious Philip the Fair. There is the famous midnight arrest and the subsequent "trial". There are the usual confessions of heresy and sodomy extracted under torture. Then there is the stake, where most accounts of the Templars end. In Dr. Partner's history of ideas, though, the stake was just the beginning.
acques de Molay and his cohorts did not rest easily in their graves. As the years passed, Templar stories and rumors became grander with each telling. Finally, these illiterate Crusaders from the lowest ranks of the aristocracy emerged as powerful sorcerers who used ancient magical secrets for their own mysterious ends. At least that's what everybody thought.
here had been charges of black magic from the start. In the "trial" itself, the Templars were accused of worshipping an idol called "Baphomet" -- a French corruption of "Muhammad" -- which they supposedly picked up from the Muslim conquerors of the Holy Land. (Of course, the idea that ANY Muslim would worship an image of Muhammad says more about the parochial mentality of the European Church than anything else.)
n the 1500's, the magical fame of the Templars spread from the pen of Henry Cornelius Agrippa, a sort of Renaissance Shirley McClaine whose works were highly popular and influential. In DE OCCULTA PHILOSOPHIA, Agrippa set about classifying the "good" and "bad" schools of magic. He placed the Templars in the latter category, along with the Gnostics and folk witches.
he Templar myth did not attain its full potency until the eighteenth century. If it seems odd that occult gossip would thrive in the Age of Enlightenment, it must be remembered that Reason was just one part of the Enlightenment hodge-podge. Alchemy and Cabala seemed just as important to the educated minds of the day. Also, the new liberal climate produced a lot of nostalgia for the good old days of noble status and "chivalry". Thus we see Elias Ashmole, chemist, bibliographer, and one of the founders of the Royal Society of London, writing sentimentally of the Templars.
t this stage, the Templar myth gets mixed up with Freemasonry. Masons of the period traced their heritage back to the Crusaders who, they supposed, were privy to the mystical knowledge of Egypt and Greece. It seems inevitable that they would bring in de Molay and company.
ccording to Dr. Partner, "The birthplace of Templarism was Germany, where the egalitarian and rationalist thrust of Freemasonry was resisted by an old-fashioned and rank-dominated society, and there was a demand for a version of the Masonic craft acceptable to conservative doctrine and Gothic taste."
nder the tutelage of such Masters as Samuel Rosa and George Frederick Johnson, "Provost-General of the Templar Order of the Scottish Lords", Templarism went far beyond the relatively simple edifice of traditional Masonry. "The invention of the Templar myths amounted to a patent to create new noble titles. ... Johnson and Rosa, as 'Heads' of their Orders, created elaborate hierarchies with hundreds of such knightly titles." And, incidentally, earned a tidy living in the process. By the last decades of the century, Europe was dotted with competing Templar lodges, each claiming to possess the True Secret.
he end came with both a bang and a whimper. For one thing, the Templarist Masons were afflicted by the stagnancy that is the hallmark of the occult: "The successively unveiled mysteries of the Order had yielded nothing but boring ritual; the alchemists had made no discoveries; the Templar lands would never be returned. No one expected to identify the long-concealed Unknown Superiors. The thirst for mystical illumination remained, but hope of quenching it at the Templar spring was over."
urthermore, there was the spectacular scandal of the "Bavarian Illuminati", the pet conspiracy of that Jesuit-haunted secular humanist, Adam Weishaupt. Dr. Partner dispels any notions of co-fraternity between the Illuminati and the Templarists. True, Weishaupt had recruited some members from the crumbling Templar lodges, but otherwise the two groups had opposing styles and aims. "There was no direct continuity between the Strict Templar Observance and the Bavarian Illuminati at all. The aristocratic mumbo-jumbo of the Templar lodges pandered to the confused conservatism of the German nobles and had a great deal in common with the mumbo-jumbo of the Rosicrucians, to whose ideas the Illuminati were absolutely opposed."
uch nit-picking hardly mattered, though, especially after the French Revolution when all secret societies seemed to be part of a single gargantuan evil. Those days saw the beginning of modern conspiracy theory. Pamphleteers such as Friedreich Nicolai and Augustine de Barruel offered lurid exposes of the secret societies. For these zealots, "it all connects": Templars, Illuminati, Masons, Gnostics, Cathars, Manicheans, and the other enemies of normalcy and the status quo. The gaps in logic never seemed important; it was all grist for the mill as one pamphleteer reprinted the wooly ideas of another. The tradition continues to this day with the intellectual descendants of Nicolai and Barruel advertising in THE SPOTLIGHT and other right-wing tabloids.
ith the suppression of the Illuminati, German Templarism slumbered for a hundred years. There was a flurry of Templar activity in France under Napoleon and in the United States with the Civil War general Albert Pike. But, for the most part, nineteenth century Templarism thrived in its rightful soil: the land of literature and myth.
he Templar myth could have been made for the Romantic period. It had everything a Romantic could want: the middle ages, chivalry, pre-Christian wisdom, wicked clergymen, sex, and plenty of Gothic shudders. Indeed, the list of nineteenth century artists who contributed to the Templar myth or were influenced by it reads like a "Who's Who": Balzac, Walter Scott, Disraeli, Wagner, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and Gabriel Rosetti, of whom Partner says "He knew hardly anything of the heresies which had in fact existed in the middle ages, but he made up for this by inventing new ones on a generous scale." When Templarism revived in Germany at the end of the century it had come a long way from the humble actuality of Jacques de Molay.
he modern Templar revival was largely the work of a journalist named Theodore Reuss and, later on, the British occultist Aleister Crowley. Their Order of the Temple of the Orient (O.T.O.) continues to this day with chapters in most of the United States and several European countries. O.T.O. literature claims a connection with the medieval Order of de Molay and it emphasizes the "sexual magic" that the Templars supposedly picked up from the Gnostics or Indian Yogis or whomever. In any case, the popularity of the O.T.O. seems to be growing, which demonstrates once again the hardiness of this remarkable myth.
side from its durability, the Templar myth has been astonishingly adaptable. Where one group hates and fears the Templars for their purported demonology and unusual sexual practices, another group rallies to their defense for the same reasons. (Of course, few people question whether demonology and unusual sexual practices ever happened.) To quote Dr. Partner: "The shifting history of Templarism, with its movements from one interpretation of the Templar story to another, reflects the original Masonic confusion between the parable and the truth the parable was supposed to represent. But it also reveals the way in which men fulfill their spiritual needs in a way which broadly corresponds to an earlier pattern, but which is nevertheless made in their own image. Nothing is more misleading than the claim that there is an immemorial esoteric tradition which places antique and prehistoric wisdom at the disposal of the adept. It is true that some esoteric principles derive from a philosophical tradition of great antiquity. But students of the supposed hidden truths are also men of their times, and they have employed esoteric ideas in the service of interests and concepts which have changed from one generation to another. The tradition as applied to the Templar myth has proved to be Protean in its mutability. The Templars have been benign, rational sages for one generation, demonic Satanists for another, wise, wealthy technocrats for a third."
n other words, a Rorschach blot.
oes it matter if the Templar myth is true or false, profound or silly? Apparently not. What matters is that people believe. And the Templar myth has attracted some very influential believers, often with unpleasant results. "Secret society myths are usually concerned to suggest the influence of small, powerful groups which work invisibly. But the political importance of such myths is their effect on the general currents and atmosphere of public opinion. It can be shown from the history of Templarism that small, private groups of people who profess esoteric doctrines with a political flavour, and sometimes practice eccentric rituals, do from time to time exist. So far as Templarism is concerned, the political and social effect of such groups has been negligible. What matters to society is the vague, disquieting effects either of propagandists who spread alarming reports of secret society conspiracies, or of esoteric publicists who diffuse ideas of the miraculous and the marvelous, and give the impression that social change can easily be accomplished by the workers of wonders."
he fate of the original Templars may be history's best argument against secrecy. On the other side of the myth, those "who spread alarming reports of secret society conspiracies" seem doomed to their own sad fate. The moral might be "Choose well your myths."
n all the hub-bub, it's easy to misplace the historical Knights of the Temple. When he returns to Jacques de Molay and company, Dr. Partner is as eloquent as he is sane: "The unromantic truth is that the Templars of the Middle Ages made not the slightest attempt to build the Temple of Wisdom, unless that Temple is defined as that of the Catholic Church. The end of the Templars arose not from the operation of demonic forces but as a result of their own mediocrity and lack of nerve. A handful of them measured up to the terrible challenge which confronted them, but most, including their leaders, at the moment of trial proved to have nothing much to say. In the Holy Land the Templars had been brave soldiers but rather short-sighted politicians, who in no way conformed to the high standards which their nineteenth-century admirers ascribed to them. The most striking characteristic of the medieval Templars was their ordinariness; they represented the common man, and not the uncommon visionary. Mozart's noble Masonic opera, THE MAGIC FLUTE, holds out the vision of a Temple of Reason and Nature presided over by a ruler- seer, Serastro. If the Temple of Serastro is ever to be built, and if man is to live in some state of Mozartian harmony, it may be on principles in which the Freemason ideal has had a part, but it will not be based on the ideals of the medieval Templars."
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