Templar head worship – did the knights venerate skulls?

human skull

When the Knights Templar were put on trial in 1307, an accusation made over and over again was that these holy warriors worshipped heads. But why would these defenders of the Catholic church be engaged in religious practices condemned as heretical?

The proof for head worship

The historian Malcolm Barber has written very authoritatively about the trial of the Templars and I’m drawing on information in his excellent book The Trial of the TemplarsSo what evidence did he find for Templar head worship?

  • A Templar brother called Ralph of Gizy accused a leading Templar, Hugh de Pairaud, of engaging in sodomy and also forcing the knights to worship a head. It was a figure of a demon referred to as a maufe in French
  • William of Arreblay testified that Pairaud had brought forth a head made of wood and silver at two Templar gatherings. Later, Pairaud – possibly after torture – confessed to having “stroked” such a head
  • Nine Templars at hearings in Paris claimed to have seen heads being worshipped at chapter meetings taking place in many places from France to Cyprus. The head was painted on a wooden beam in one place while in another it had four legs attached!
  • A Templar brother called Stephen of Troyes told a judicial hearing at Poitiers that once in Paris, a head had been brought out in a procession held by a priest. In front of him were two Templars with “two large wax candles upon a silver candelabra”. It was placed on a cushion on top of the altar. Stephen claimed it was covered in flesh, “bluish” in colour with a black and white beard. It was encrusted with jewels and was apparently the head of Hugh of Payens – first grand master of the Templars!
  • John Taylafer had been a Templar for three years and he told the trial judges that a head had been produced to worship that was human-sized and red in colour
  • Various testimonies painted a picture of a head that was viewed as a kind of sacred idol which could bring plenty to the land. The Templars wrapped cords around this head that they then placed around their waists. This ritual was associated with a forbidden variant of Christianity called Catharism, which the Catholic church stamped out in blood
  • The head sometimes had three or even four faces – a many faced God (very Game of Thrones!)
  • This idol may have been a very ancient head with “hollow, carbuncled eyes glowing like the light of the sky”. One Templar said it had two horns and could answer questions that were put to it
  • One of the more bizarre suggestions to the papal commission in 1311 was that a nobleman in the east committed necrophilia with a dead woman and then a voice commanded him to carry her head around with him. As luck it would have it, this head had superhuman powers. Possibly, it fell into the hands of the Templars
  • In the trials it emerged that the Templars did keep two silver gilt heads in Nicosia, Cyprus – one of which was the head of Saint Euphemia
  • The bearded head that some Templars referred to was called “Baphomet” but what that actually means was a matter of conjecture

I will confess that this aspect of the trial of the Knights Templar fascinates me. Why the emphasis by the church on head worship? What was so significant? I’m going to return to this topic and some of the theories that have sprung up around it.

FIND OUT MORE: Were the Knights Templar heretics?

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