For centuries, it’s been alleged that the Knights Templar had secret initiation rites through which a young man joined this order of holy warriors.
Some allege the Templars used rituals from the Cathar heresy – a variant of Christianity condemned by the Catholic church. I discuss the Cathars in other blog posts – do search! But basically, the Cathars had a distinction between ordinary believers and an elect of the knowledgeable; rejected the authority of priests and were convinced that their scripture was older and more authentic than that of the Catholic church.
Other commentators believe the Templars may have even woven elements of Islam into their clandestine practices. The argument runs that through contact with mystical Sufi elements in Islam – for example, the Assassins (see my other blog posts on them) – the Templars imbibed some of their beliefs.
Some argue that the Templar interest in geometry reflected in their rebuilding of the Holy Sepulchre – and the shape of all their churches throughout Europe – came from the Sufis.
For those of a more occult mindset, the Templars had been inducted into the mysteries of ancient Egypt. While out in the Holy Land, they discovered that the roots of Christianity lay in the religion of the pharaohs – that it was essentially a development of ancient Egyptian belief.
The idea of Christianity as a continuation of ancient Egyptian mythology was an argument put forward in the 20th century by the late theologian Tom Harpur. And interestingly, Sigmund Freud – father of modern psychology – believed that Moses in the Old Testament had a been a priest under the monotheist pharaoh, Akhenaten.
There’s also been speculation about the Templar’s alleged interest in going underground. They were digging beneath the Temple of Solomon, seeking the Ark of the Covenant, the Holy Grail and/or other sacred artefacts. But the mere act of being deep below the earth’s surface held some kind of significance. Or so the argument runs. QED – their initiation rites were held in caves and other dark, secluded places.
But what do we know from the Templar themselves and their trial – where some pretty racy allegations were made about the knights. When the Templars were arrested throughout France on 13th October 1307, one of the key accusations brought by the King of France, Philip the Fair, against the order was that Templar initiation rites involved denying Christ and spitting on the cross.
So, is this true?
Under torture – the rack and the strapado – many Templars gave differing accounts of their initiation that involved the above as well as illicit kisses to the base of the spine, navel and mouth.
There are theories – that I’ll discuss elsewhere on the blog – that these kisses were intended to ‘awaken’ the ‘serpent wisdom’ or ‘third eye’. And so on. This points again to eastern mystical influence on the Knights Templar.
What really shocked medieval opinion was the alleged demonic sorcery more than the lewd stuff – which most people would have simply found titillating. It was one thing for a chap to be making out with another chap – but summoning up the devil was way more serious. Because unleashing evil put the whole world at risk – not just a bunch of errant knights.
Heresy was absolutely abhorrent and dangerous. It destabilised the natural order of things. It could provoke God into acts of punishment such as plague or crop failure. Remember this was a pre-modern society where the cause of natural events were seen as supernatural.
All the more shocking then that these religious warriors fighting for Christendom in the Holy Land turned out to be denouncing their own faith in private. They didn’t resemble the Holy Sepulchre so much as the ‘whited sepulchre’ mentioned in the bible – all clean and white on the outside but full of death and corruption within.
This spelt trouble for the whole of medieval society. Everybody had funded and supported the Templars. If they were truly diabolic, as was alleged, then every man, woman and child was in peril until these knights were very publicly punished.
Templar initiation rites created tougher warriors
The Vatican secret archives historian Barbara Frale offers an explanation that this was a form of psychological testing of Templar knights. If they were captured by the Saracens, then they would more than likely be forced by the enemy to reject Christ, spit on the cross and convert to Islam. Or so it was believed.
This test stripped bare a man’s true character, and it was at that point that courage, pride, determination, and the capacity for self-control emerged – all essential qualities for a Templar…
In my Templar novel – Quest for the True Cross – I describe the siege of Lisbon in 1147. And in a contemporary account of the battle, that I used heavily, it mentions an incident where Muslim defenders of the city urinated on a crucifix in full view of the besieging crusaders to try and break their spirit.
So – maybe this point about Templars attacking the crucifix to inoculate themselves against that kind of insult in battle had a point. Though it seems a little far-fetching that they would have carried out such an act of desecration just to anticipate somebody else doing it. But we have to get our heads into the medieval mindset to grasp the point.
As for some of the other more racy aspects of the initiation (the kissing all over the body), Frale argues that the whole thing was about bending the individual will to the collective needs of the order – that a knight would do what he was told by this superiors without question.
Yeah – I’m not so sure about that one either!
Frale claims that there were abbreviated ceremonies for more well-connected initiates and one boy related to the king of England was excused spitting directly on to the cross, instead spitting on the preceptor’s hand. A sort of junior-level heresy!
We’re left with several options when it comes to Templar initiation rites. Either the knights had developed some very bizarre rituals based on practices they encountered in the Middle East. Or their initiation was pretty much in line with that of your average Cistercian monk and nothing out of the ordinary by the standards of the time.
Conversely, the whole initiation rite story was a fiction devised by King Philip of France to turn public opinion against the knights so he could crush them.
I think, as with fake news today, there had to be a germ of truth to build on. So, more than likely the Templars did have their own brotherhood initiation rituals but these were turned into something thoroughly heretical and pornographic by a monarch with a poisonous agenda.