The Knights Templar are those medieval warrior monks, that infamous ‘militia of Christ’ of popular imagination. And yet, they were the subject of speculative fantasy long before the more recent spate of books connecting them to secret knowledge about Jesus, or the Freemasons, or the alleged Lost Treasure of Jerusalem. On this latter, the Knights Templar had supposedly discovered the ‘treasure’ once belonging to the Old Testament King, Solomon, beneath his Temple in Jerusalem. However, not only has no such treasure ever been found, historians are divided on whether Solomon really existed. The same goes for the Temple, too, for “we know nothing about the First Temple, because there are no traces of its physical remains,” says Benjamin Kedar, a history professor at Hebrew University and chairman of the board of directors at the Israeli Antiquities Authority.
But if much of Templar history is fiction, ironically, it is the ‘fiction’ we’re interested in here. We want to know why so much mythic gloss is there, and why the ‘history’ just doesn’t add up. The answer is that the story of the Knights Templar has been suffused with Hermetic symbolism – the language of Alchemy. That’s right – the Hermetic Code has been smuggled into the real story of this band of wealthy, powerful Christian warriors to draw attention to the Adepts of Alchemy. Let’s investigate.
As far as the orthodox version goes, it was in 1118 that a nobleman, Hugues de Payen, visited Baldwin II, the reigning king of Jerusalem. He was accompanied by eight other men and on this day they vouchsafed the king their loyal service to protect Christian pilgrims on their route to the Holy Land. Baldwin thus installed the nine men in a wing of his palace, allegedly erected on the original site of the Temple of Solomon, the putative tenth century BC monarch. The Order of the Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon was thus formed. A chronicle from about 1163, written by the prelate William of Tyre (c. 1130 – 1186), tells us that:
‘Although the knights now had been established for nine years [since 1118], there were still only nine of them. From this time onward their numbers began to grow and their possessions began to multiply. Later … it is said that both the knights and their humbler servants, called sergeants, began to affix crosses made of red cloth to their mantles, so as to distinguish themselves from others.’ 1
In a treatise from the early 12th century by the Cistercian abbot Bernard of Clairvaux, we find a glowing account of the Templars: In Praise of the new Knighthood. St. Bernard is apparently writing to Hugues de Payen, and extols the Templars’ virtues of fearlessness, valour, nobility, obedience, piety, and how the world should rejoice at their arrival in the Holy Land. As for where they lived, Bernard says, ‘their quarters indeed are in the very Temple of Jerusalem, which is not as vast as the ancient masterpiece of Solomon, but is no less glorious.’2 And yet – and this will soon become significant – Fulcher de Chartres, King Baldwin’s own biographer (writing much nearer to the time than either William or Bernard) never once mentions Hugues or his nine knights protecting the Holy Land.
Answerable only to the Pope himself, the Templars eventually became a powerful, independent force across the Continent. Stockpiling massive wealth, they essentially created the modern banking system as we know it, aided by donations of money and property from noble families whose sons had been admitted to their ranks. All of this eventually backfired on the Templars when, in 1307, Philippe IV of France had them arrested, and seven years later the last Grand Master of the Temple was burned alive at the stake. They were accused, among other things, of heresy: spitting or trampling on the Cross of Christ.
Significantly, their arrest and imprisonment was accompanied by the seizure of their property, and here is where the story picks up some occult interest. Among the goods confiscated by the Inquisition was a casket described as ‘a great head of gilded silver, most beautiful and constituting the image of a woman. Inside were two head-bones, wrapped in a cloth of white linen, and another red cloth around it. A label was attached, bearing the legend caput LVIIIm [“Head 58m”]. The bones inside were those of a rather small woman.’ Also, the Knights Templar were accused of worshipping (or at least venerating) a bearded male head: a skull, apparently, with three faces.) The female skull and bones we’ve mentioned also appear in a medieval legend associated with the Templars:
‘A great lady of Maraclea was loved by a Templar, a Lord of Sidon ; but she died in her youth, and on the night of her burial this wicked lover crept to the grave, dug up her body, and violated it. Then a voice from the void bade him return in nine months time, for he would find a son. He obeyed the injunction, and at the appointed time opened the grave again and found a head on the leg bones of the skeleton (skull and cross-bones). The same voice bade him “guard it well, for it would be the giver of all good things,” and so he carried it away with him. It became his protecting genius, and he was able to defeat his enemies by merely showing them the magic head. In due course it passed into the possession of the Order.’3
For a start, unnatural sexual acts in myth and legend are always deeply symbolic (like the ‘incest’ of the Biblical Lot and his daughters, or Zeus seducing mortals whist in animal form). The underlying idea is that masculine and feminine energies combine to generate something higher, more refined, for such acts refer to the spiritual, not the physical, plane. (The sexual ‘violation’ in the Templar myth above, then, is metaphor.) Plus, the allusions to a head possessed of magical powers come directly from Celtic myth (indirectly, from Alchemy). For example, the head of King Bran could magically speak after being removed from his body. According to Paul Jacobsthal, ‘the Celts [venerated] the human head … above all else, since the head was to the Celt the soul, the centre of … life itself, a symbol of divinity and of the powers of the other-world.’4
The male idol the Knights Templar were accused of worshipping was likewise imbued with miraculous wealth-giving properties – it could even make the land germinate. (This was also a function of the alchemical Philosopher’s Stone.) Not surprisingly, it had three faces (the number of the alchemical stages.) And recall how the Templars’ female skull and bones (symbolising death, or blackness) are wrapped in white and red cloth. These are the three alchemical colours, the three stages of spiritual transformation which must occur: blackening/putrefaction, cleansing or whitening, and illumination/‘reddening’. Plus, you’ll recall the Templars’ attire is of these three colours, from the (black) chain mail, to the (white) smock, to the (red) cross emblazoned onto it.
The Symbolism – Grail, Stone and Knights Templar
The Templars also enjoy a brief reference in the cycle of Arthurian ‘Grail romances’ that began in medieval France. They are really examples of sacred story-telling dressed up as knightly adventures and one in particular – Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival from c. 1200 – is of interest here. The callow, young, knight Parzival seeks out the wise hermit Trevrezent to learn about the Grail and is told: ‘At Monsalvage live a Knightly Brotherhood who are called Templars, and they serve there or in the world as the Grail commands.’ When Parzival asks what sustains them the hermit replies: ‘It is a Stone pure and precious. Through its magic, the wondrous bird, the Phoenix rises from the ashes to new life; also is man renewed by It. If he be ill and look upon It, he is made well. Those who look upon It daily never grow old. This Stone is called the Grail.’5 Thus, the Templars (for Wolfram) are associated with High Magic, presiding over a mystic symbol of spiritual renewal. It’s also why (soon to become obvious) the Knights are said to be originally nine in number.
Those investigating the outward history of the Knights Templar doubt that only nine knights could protect the roads leading to the Holy Land. Further doubt is cast upon the idea that no new members were let into the Order for another nine years. As Fulcher de Chartres failed to mention this early version of Templar History, we can assume such doubts are well founded. The nine is, in fact, symbolic – a common theme in World Myth, representing a magical cycle of completion after which one’s world is irrevocably transformed. Remember the Templar legend above where after ‘nine months’ the Knight ‘would find a son’ (complete the Hermetic process)?
According to Jolande Jacobi, it ‘has been a “magic number” for centuries’: the beautiful bard of Celtic myth, Taliesin, took nine months to be born from a black hen; there is a sacred spring in Ireland surrounded by nine wise hazel trees, and Nine Sisters oversee the otherworldly, magically invested Island of Apples. From classical legend we get the inspirational Nine Muses and the Ennead – a group of nine Egyptian deities. In Norse myth, the universe is divided into nine worlds all linked by the world tree Yggdrasil (a symbol of wholeness or ‘fate’). Plus the ‘ninth harmonic’ chart in astrology indicates a kind of fulfilment, initiation or completion – depicting the kind of fate one will encounter, no matter how much one tries to change it!
Nine is thus associated with the means towards spiritual perfection or initiatory wisdom; in psychological terms, when the whole psyche is fully integrated and individuated, as Carl Jung would have put it. ‘Guarding the way for pilgrims’ is a figure of speech, then, as is the ‘dangerous route to the Holy Land’ – for this route is an inner one, the spiritual path of all, and not an easy one to take. The ‘nine’ Knights Templar, those Guardians of the Grail in Parzival exist to ‘show the way’ towards one’s true spiritual centre (the ‘Holy Land’).
As for the charge that the Knights blasphemed by ‘trampling’ or denying the cross or even Christ himself, this was a misunderstanding about their own induction into the Christian Mysteries. According to the great Rudolf Steiner: ‘The Cross was held up before the would-be Templar and he was told: You must deny the Cross now, so as to understand it later; first become a Peter, first deny the scriptures, like Peter the Rock who denied the Lord. That was imparted to the aspirant Templar as a preliminary training’6
For Roy Norvill, the author of a modern Hermetic trilogy, this ‘heresy’ contains alchemical roots: ‘In biblical times, the Hebrew name for a Laundryman came from a word that means to trample (to trample with the feet to loosen the dirt, as was the practice). The early Launderer also processed new clothes by bleaching them white … to trample on the cross means to wash or bleach (purify to white) the cross … [symbolic of imperfect, corruptible matter]’7. Thus it was a spiritualising act, and according to Norvill, even the Latin inscription on the Cross (mentioned in the gospels) I.N.R.I (standing for ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews’) had an Hermetic interpretation. The four letters stood for Igne Natura Renovatur Integra (‘By Fire [the Spirit], Nature is Renewed Whole’). Now there’s Alchemy for you!
1.The Foundation of the Order of Knights Templar, William of Tyre, Historia rerum in partibus transmarinis gestarum, XII, 7, Patrologia Latina 201, 526-27.
2. In Praise of the New Knighthood (Liber ad milites Templi: De laude novae militae), St. Bernard of Clairvaux (trans. Conrad Greenia).
3. J.S.M Ward, Freemasonry And The Ancient Gods, 1921
4. Paul Jacobsthal, Early Celtic Art, Clarendon Press, 1944.
5. . Mary Blackwell Sterling, The Story of Parzival the Templar (Retold from Wolfram Von Eschenbach), New York, E P Dutton & Company, 1911.
6. From the Lecture: ‘Concerning The Lost Temple And How It Is To Be Restored’, Berlin, 22nd May 1905.
7. Norvill, Hermes Unveiled, Ashgrove Press, 1989.
The above is an edited version of The Knights Templar – Separating Fact from Fiction which appeared in Vol. XXXI (no. 2) of Diamond Fire magazine. Diamond Fire can be found on Facebook.