Templar Week: Six Templar Stories That Taught Us (Mostly) Bad Things About Templars

By Paula R. Stiles


Ahh, the Templars. You know you want to read about them. Dan Brown’s publisher knows you want to read about them. But where did all the fantasies about them come from? Here’s a list of six books that heavily influenced what we think about Templars, even when we don’t know what Templars are:

Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival [early 13th century]: Eschenbach’s is the second of the great medieval Grail cycles (the first is Chrétien de Troyes’ 12th-century Grail saga, Perceval, The Story of the Grail). There were quite a few, 891459but Eschenbach and Troyes stand out as being…well…more complete, or centralized, or something, than the others. Eschenbach tells us the story of a Holy Fool – Parzival. Parzival finds himself on a quest for the Holy Grail, which King Arthur and his knights have been searching for. He finds the Grail, but there is trouble in Paradise (as it were). The Fisher King, who guards the Grail (a stone) with his knights, has been wounded in a “sensitive area” by the Spear of Longinus (the spear that wounded Christ in the side during the Crucifixion). He can only be healed by a holy fool (our eponymous hero, natch), and only after that fool has gone through a series of trials that make him wise because he was too dumb to understand what he was supposed to do the first time round. Parzival is all about second chances.

The Parzival plot has seeped into a lot of different stories, probably because we can all relate to the Hero, who starts out brave but naïve, kindly but a little selfish, wanting to see God but distant from Him. Ironically, this means that people who’ve never heard of the Templars know a lot more about them than they might think. This is because Eschenbach appears to have modeled his Grail knights after the Templars by calling them “Templeisen”. There’s been much discussion over just how exact this etymology is and how much the Templars influenced real knightly behaviour and development of chivalric concepts (probably not much), but their influence on popular fiction is pretty strong.

One of the most famous examples in modern film is the Order of the Knights of the Cruciform Sword in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (here, the Grail is the cup of Christ from the Last Supper). Demon Knight (which we reviewed yesterday, where the Grail is a relic vial of blood from Christ on the Cross) also presents us with a series of solitary immortal Grail knights who always start out as thieves (like the thieves who died with Christ on the Cross). You even see this in shows like Supernatural (which we also review), where the Parzival figure has been separated into two brothers. Sam seeks God, but never quite finds him because he is still a bit selfish (and that leads to dire consequences). Older brother Dean is a holy fool who has God constantly banging on his door and is just as constantly running away from God (this also leads to dire consequences). An angel has to tell Dean that he’s been unknowingly wearing the Grail around his neck for nearly two decades, but it is Sam (who gave Dean the Grail, here a horned protection amulet, when they were children) who recognizes what that means. This dualism is even reflected in Eschenbach’s original poem: Parzival achieves enlightenment when he discovers a long-lost older brother who bests him in battle but refuses to kill him. Parzival declares, “I was against my own self.”

Ivanhoe (1819): Walter Scott’s most memorable novel is set in Merrie Olde Englande in 1194. It features dastardly Norman Templars, heroic Saxon peasants, a female Jewish physician named Rebecca, Crusaders, Robin Hood, and a cameo by a jolly Richard Lion-Heart. Oh, and there’s the Saxon knight Wilfred of Ivanhoe, who is in about one third of the book (he gets laid up during a tournament early on and spends a lot of the book in bed). The novel is instead dominated by much-hotter bad boy Templar Brian de Bois-Guilbert and his self-destructive passion for Rebecca. Rebecca, meanwhile, saves Ivanhoe’s life and nurses a massive, forbidden crush on him. She and Bois-Guilbert are one of the great star-crossed couples of literature and the main reason to read the book in this day and age.

To get to that romance, though, you have to wade through some very dated history (Scott’s historical knowledge of the Templars is poor, even for the period), Scott’s tendency to bend history and logic to fit his fancy, anti-Freemasonry, racism, sexism, and antisemitism. The racism and sexism I get. Scott was never going to have the bearded, sun-bronzed, southern-French Bois-Guilbert prevail over the ruddy, upright and English Ivanhoe, especially not considering the brutal way he dispatched some of his other antiheroes and villains. Milton probably would have sooner let Satan win against God in Paradise Lost. And poor Rebecca was not only too Jewish, but too well-educated and forthright a woman to end up anything but an old maid.

But the antisemitism is virulent even by 19th-century British standards. Rebecca’s father is abused and thrown down a set of stairs at one point by two of Ivanhoe’s friends, who are presented to us as “good” characters. We never see them get punished for this, let alone repent or regret it. It’s just the way things are and anyway, Isaac’s a shifty whiner who “deserves” it. Scott also makes it abundantly clear that the reason why Ivanhoe throws over the heroic woman who saved his life for the insipid and passive Rowena is more because the Jewish Rebecca, for all her many virtues, is simply not “good enough” for Ivanhoe than for any personal virtue in Rowena. Scott even hints that Ivanhoe may just love Rebecca more than Rowena the Titled Lump, but that doesn’t stop him doing a Willoughby from Sense and Sensibility and marrying the Lump.

Modern critics have judged Scott harshly and that’s probably fair. Still, there’s a lot to love, too, and it is a rousing, classic adventure. Check it out. And check out the 1997 miniseries for Ciarán Hinds as Bois-Guilbert and Susan Lynch as Rebecca. Avoid, avoid, avoid Scott’s other “Templar” novel, The Talisman. Scott “corrected” his mistake by giving his evil Templar Grand Master no redeeming features whatsoever and the book sucks hard as a result.

The Mystery of Baphomet (1818): This pamphlet by German Orientalist Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall baph_wgp_1was an attempt to “prove” a link between the Templars and the Freemasons, but not (as some Freemasons had wanted to do in the 18th century) to give them a noble pedigree. Hammer-Purgstall wanted to discredit them. His “theory” was that the Templars were a secret, pagan (idol-worshipping) cult. He claimed that the Templars really did worship “Baphomet” (as the charges against them said that they did). Hammer-Purgstall’s model of Baphomet appears to have an Egyptian flavour. His pamphlet includes a now-famous illustration of a hermaphroditic figure holding two staffs, each topped by the moon and the sun.

BaphometIt took a little while, but this idea (and image) eventually proved very popular among occult writers, both of fiction and non-fiction. Eliphas Lévi‘s book, Dogmas and Rituals of High Magic (1854) expanded on this and refined Hammer-Purgstall’s image into the goat-headed figure English occultist Aleister Crowley later made famous as the face of the Devil. One book by G. Legman, The Guilt of the Templars (1966), even has the Templars being nature-loving, vegetarian pantheists on top of being idol-worshippers (how this flies with the Rule’s regulations allowing the eating of meat and encouraging the hunting of lions is never explained).

If you’ve seen any horror film involving human sacrifice, you’ve probably seen the goat-headed figure of the Devil, though it’s usually male, with the problematical hermaphrodite angle dropped completely. The idea of the Templars as devil-worshippers in occult fiction (and models for demonic cults) was pretty much fixed by Lévi and Hammer-Purgstall by the time Crowley came along. Unfortunately, the libelous “proof” of the Freemasons as a secret, devil-worshipping cult also survived the transition into popular culture.

One interesting and rare representation of this image as a female Satan appears in the film DeVour (2005).

The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (1982): This is the book that Brown ripped off. Authors Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln build up this elaborate idea that there has been a centuries-old secret society called The Priory of Sion and that all sorts of famous people have managed to be part of it without ever letting on that they were. If you’ve never encountered the circular reasoning of pseudo-history, HBHG is a classic of the field. Baigent, Lincoln and Leigh pull together all sorts of unrelated “facts” from documents of questionable provenance. When they reach something that doesn’t connect well or is missing, you get the now-classic, “But of course you’ve never heard of this because it’s a centuries-old secret.” Riiiight.

The Templars are dragged into the conspiracy as one of the many famous people and groups who were supposedly members of this secret supersociety. Then the authors start to get into the Merovingians (and that’s when it starts to get pretty odd). But all of this is mere set-up for the real claim at the end of the book, which is that the Priory of Sion was founded to protect the bloodline of the Merovingians (the French dynasty before the Carolingians), who were descended from (wait for it) Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene, who got married and had babies. The best part is when we’re told that only a few descendants of the Merovingians have survived and that they are the bloodline of the Holy Grail.

It’s not just that we’re being told that the Holy Grail is: 1. real and 2. people (kind of like Soylent Green), but that we’re being told that the Merovingians had hardly any descendants. If you’ve ever studied the Frankish culture of the time, you’d know that Merovingian and Carolingian rulers had lots of wives, concubines and other sexual liaisons, as a matter of course. So, there are probably quite a lot of Merovingian descendants running around France and Germany today.

The other classic aspect of this book (in terms of pseudohistory) is that the “big mystery” advertised on the back of HBHG isn’t what the authors are interested in at all. In fact, it’s just a hook to get you believing what they want you to believe before they spring the really ridiculous stuff on you. This hasn’t stopped HBHG from influencing a whole bunch of occult fiction writers since the 80s. It’s not a shock that Brown ripped them off, more that somebody didn’t rip them off so successfully sooner.

Foucault’s Pendulum (1988): I spent half a summer of lunch half-hours forcing myself to read this for my Masters thesis. Except for an absolutely hysterical anecdote about a fictional wayward Templar’s night out on the town in medieval Jerusalem round about page 78, most of it didn’t make a lick of sense. It’s too bad, because there’s a great and very dark story under all the esoteric blather. Three editors working for an Italian publisher of esoteric (mostly of the pseudohistory variety) books are very, very bored one day. So, they invent a world conspiracy based on what they read in their slush pile. Said conspiracy has been around for centuries and they dump the Templars right into the middle of it because, according to one of them, “the definition of a madman” is that everything is connected and everything eventually leads back to the Templars.

They also bring in stuff like the Rosicrucianism myth (another group, this time from the Reformation era, that was either fictional or not nearly as old as claimed), the Illuminati (an 18th-century radical Bavarian group that was quite real and also pretty nuts), the Freemasons (of course), and so on.

Unfortunately for the editors, they are playing with fire. Certain very-crazy people start to believe that these guys have “the secret” to the Great Conspiracy out there. Before you know it, a real conspiracy has grown up to justify and “prove” the hapless editors’ fake conspiracy. At this point, things start to get really ugly (you’ll never look at a pendulum the same way ever again). Let’s just say that nobody gets out alive from this one.

Foucault’s Pendulum is an enormous mess. But it is also a gloriously well-researched, dark and brilliant mess. I hope some director who really knows his/her stuff is brave enough to tackle it someday. Sadly, I think the literary (and film) response to this has been to produce the potboiler that comes next.

The Da Vinci Code (2003): Okay, I’m sure I’m not the first person to do so, but I’m going to say it anyway – this is a stupid book. We’re talking “’70s rape-is-hot-foreplay bodice-ripper”-level stupid. Only worse, because the only sex you get in The Da Vinci Code is tedious and, we are assured, connected to a Very Important Religious Ritual That The Catholic Church Does Not Want You To Know About. I’d like to take a moment to thank the Catholic Church for doing us that public service for so long. The book starts with a medical stupidity, moves on to an assinine butchering of history, blithely exposes Brown’s utter lack of knowledge about his setting (I’ve been to Paris twice and it’s not like that), libels the Church and one group (Opus Dei) in particular, and ends with a groaner of an urban legend that has caused years of irritation for the Rosslyn Trust in Scotland (been there, too, and it’s not like that, either).

I think it’s kind of entertaining that Brown has inspired yet more people to visit and try to desecrate poor Rosslyn Chapel when the end of Brown’s book (and the cellar1film, in case you don’t read books) makes it abundantly clear that the “treasure” was really under the Louvre. I dunno, maybe they shoot Brown groupies on sight at the Louvre. If they do, I’d like to donate to the cause. I’m sure those rubber bullets aren’t cheap.

Ironically, there is something in the basement of both Rosslyn Chapel and the Louvre. At Rosslyn, it’s a crypt/cellar that looks like it was the original chapel. The only interesting thing about it, from a “mystery” point of view is a crude and partial petroglyph of what looks like a ptolemaic system on one side of the room you enterRosslyn Chapel Cellar: Copyright 2009, Paula R. Stiles when you first go down the stairs. The basement of the Louvre is an exhibit centered around an excavated portion of an early-13th century fortress. Neither area is, I’m afraid, terribly secret or esoteric.

As for the book, it’s really pretty bad and the Templars, for all the press the book got them, are nothing more than a plot device to push along Brown’s stupid “Grail bloodline” storyline that he ripped off from HBHG. But I’d sure like to hire whoever did that diabolically brilliant ad campaign for the publisher. Still, don’t be snookered by the book. Wait until it hits the dollar rack. It might be worth getting then.

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