Seth – gnostic hero, son of Adam, father of humanity


The Knights Templar were believed to be attracted to the gnostic variant of Christianity which in turn draws from pre-Christian beliefs with a heavy influence from Plato.  Crudely put, the material world is a sham and through a deep knowledge attained through intense meditation and a life of good, we can open the curtain to reveal the true spiritual world beyond.  OK – that’s very, very crudely put. But essentially, the gnostics viewed God and the Christian story in philosophically dualist terms – there is the human story played out here in a world of material shadows, but hidden from view is the true nature of God that we must strive to discover.

Some early gnostics venerated the figure of Seth – the third son of Adam and Eve.  He was born when Adam was 130 years old (remember that everybody in the book of Genesis lives to a crazily old age). Adam, incidentally, would live another 800 years after the birth of Seth. This son was given by God to Adam to replace Abel who you will recall had been killed by biblical bad guy Cain. In chapter five of Genesis, you will discover that it’s through Seth’s lineage that we arrive at Noah and given that every other human being is snuffed out by the flood, that makes Seth the father of humanity.

Seth has been worshiped in Judaism, Christianity and Islam – he is seen as the originator of the Kabbala to many Jews and to Islamic Sufis, he was a prophet possessing great wisdom passed on to him by his father Adam.  Up to the Middle Ages, there was a branch of Christian gnosticism now termed the Sethians.  Needless to say this adoration of Seth is believed to have been passed down to the Knights Templar.


How The Devil Got His Horns

Giotto - Scrovegni - -28- - Judas Receiving Pa...

On BBC Four this week, historian Alastair Sooke tackled the vexed question of how the devil got his horns? Did he always look as we imagine him? Well, if we go back to the start of Christianity – there are some surprises in store.

Sooke starts in Ravenna, the Italian town that was the capital of the western Roman empire in its final declining years. Christians in Ravenna were still deliberating about the nature of Christ’s divinity – let alone the devil’s physical appearance. But in one church, there is a depiction of the devil in a mosaic. Christ is seated in purple like a wealthy Roman in a toga. On one side is an angel in red and on the other side is one in blue. Strangely, it’s the angel in blue that is the devil – because in the 6th century AD, blue was viewed as a more sinister colour than red (not everybody agrees with this analysis – though if it was true it would be the first image of the devil).

The devil is an angel in early writings – beautiful Lucifer who was cast out of paradise. He’s not mentioned in Genesis and details of him are scant in the rest of the bible. Yet we have a huge artistic tradition showing Satan as a diabolical tyrant ruling over hell. So where did this imagery come from? Off to Venice then – where Sooke is mesmerised by the huge 11th century Byzantine influenced mosaics in Santa Maria Assunta.

Heaven and hell are depicted. A blue figure with flowing white hair sits at the centre – a grotesque figure. Is he the devil? Well, maybe. But on his lap is a much smaller figure in a toga with his hand raised in benediction – who is he? Possible Judas? Sooke is convinced the blue figure is the devil – but he’s a custodian of hell acting on God‘s behalf, not an enemy at war with the Almighty.

Finding human-like depictions of the devil challenged the early church but eventually they settled on previously worshiped pagan deities. For the first millennium of Christianity, the church was still engaged in mopping up pockets of paganism. How better to discredit pagans than turning their Gods into the devil. The imagery of the Egyptian god Bes – a lucky amulet for centuries – became a hideous Satan. The Greek satyr with hairy legs, pointy ears and mischievous faces was transformed into the Lord of Evil.

A figure that was previously a marginal figure in the bible, often there to test and accuse – a kind of bureaucrat acting on God’s behalf – now becomes a monstrous figure acting in his own right. As the Middle Ages progressed, the devil transformed into the master of a realm distinct from heaven – and in hostile opposition to it. The Winchester Psalter in the mid-12th century showed the devil with a vast mouth swallowing up kings, queens and great secular figures. At Lincoln Cathedral, there’s an orgy of sado-masochism over the porch leaving little to the imagination as to what hell would be like for sinners.

Mystery plays, originating in France 900 years ago, took the idea of Lucifer to new extremes as lay people let their imaginations run riot. During the 13th and 14th centuries, it was the mystery plays that rapidly evolved what we visualise today as the devil. At a time when plague or hunger could wipe out whole populations, the hand of evil was seen everywhere by ordinary people. All the woes serfs suffered had to be a torment inflicted, not something random without a cause.

In the Baptistry in Florence, a 14th century mosaic of Satan is still blue in the face with a green body and there are two huge horns and animalistic ears, created by the artist Coppo di Marcovaldo. In Padua, Sooke views the fresco of Giotto bringing the last judgment to life – painted just a few decades later. His devil is eating and excreting victims while around him, sinners are being skewered and nearby, Judas Iscariot is hanging from a tree.

But Giotto’s devil is not his finest accomplishment – in fact, it’s rather mediocre compared to the amazing naturalistic depictions of other biblical figures. Around the same time as Giotto, it was the poet Dante who really took the concept of the devil forward. In the Divine Comedy, hell is a series of concentric circles with a giant devil embedded in ice at the centre. Dante’s devil is a three dimensional figure who is the father of sorrow and pained by his fate. This fallen angel of Dante would go on to inspire Milton and Gustav Dore more than Giotto’s comic book figure.

Siena is then visited by Sooke, which has several images painted by Luca Signorelli of devilish activity including a very eerie painting of Anti-Christ active on earth. A false prophet on a podium being advised by the devil. It’s believed this Anti-Christ was the 15th century preacher turned dictator of Florence, Savonarola, whom Signorelli despised. The demons are brightly coloured including the painter’s self portrait as a blue devil with a single horn protruding out of his forehead.

Sooke concludes that the devil appears to have gone on a journey from beautiful angel cast out of heaven to a vile demon. The historian concludes that if god is western culture’s superego then the devil is our id.

Archangel Michael and sinners

Here is a roadside shrine I came across in the town of Ancora in northern Portugal. Behind bars is a painted and carved depiction of sinners amidst flames and above them the triumphant figure of the archangel in what I’m guessing is a vague idea of Roman dress though the cap is curious. These kinds of shrines can still be found all over Europe and would once have offered travelers a place to pray while en route. Many have rotted away, made of perishable materials, others would have been destroyed as idolatrous in Protestant Europe while some have survived.

Plague – what exactly happened when the Black Death came to town?

Decameron. Plague
Decameron. Plague 

Plague. The silent killer of the Middle Ages terrified people and rightly so. Medicine was rudimentary and in the face of a viral assassin like the Bubonic Plague – largely useless. Prayer was a common recourse but if you were wealthy, another avenue was presented by simply running away.

This is what the heroes of The Decameron – a fourteenth century book – do. Seven women and three men flee to a villa outside plague-ridden Florence and tell ten stories each – 100 stories in total – as they wait for the plague to abate.

The Decameron was written by an Italian writer called Boccaccio who saw the Black Death with his own eyes – and like many of his class and standing, the pestilence made him question the authority of the church and Rome. There is a very disrespectful and sarcastic attitude towards priests and friars that might surprise a modern reader.

Boccaccio knew the plague had originated in the east but in his writings supposed it might be the result of God being hacked off with human behaviour or, more curiously, “disseminated by the influence of the celestial bodies“. This was a common view that astronomical movements in the heavens had a direct influence on us down here – something that survives in astrology.

Despite refusing entry to sick folk and cleaning the city of “impurities”, Florence succumbed to the Black Death “where an issue of blood from the nose was a manifest sign of inevitable death”.  Boccaccio goes on to describe “the emergence of certain tumours in the groin or armpits, some of which grew as large as a common apple, others as an egg.”

It then seemed to take a hold of the whole body and soon the victim was dead within three days. Boccaccio pointed to the emergence of men and women who claimed to be doctors but were complete charlatans taking advantage of the situation. Contagion seemed rampant and unavoidable.

“The virulence of the pest was the greater by reason that intercourse was apt to convey it from the sick to the whole, just as fire devours things dry or greasy when they are brought close to it. Nay, the devil went further, for not merely by speech or association with the sick was the malady communicated to the healthy with consequent peril of common death; but any that touched the clothes of the sick or aught else that had been touched or used by them, seemed thereby to contract the disease.”

Boccaccio claimed he had seen inter-species infection with his own eyes. Two hogs wandering the streets had started chewing then fighting over the rags of a poor man who had died of the plague. They then went into an instant spasm and fell down dead.

The movie ‘Black Death‘ came and went faster than the plague itself and some critics thought it stank just as bad. However, I haven’t seen it and I’ll confess to being curious. Here is the trailer.

Interview with the Grand Master – The Grand Commandery of Knights Templar

English: Knight Templar
Knight Templar 

I’ve been asked by many of you – where are today’s Knights Templar? Well, here is an interview with Sir Mark Borrington – Grand Master of The Grand Commandery of Knights Templar and he explains the organisation and the work that it does:

>  Tell me what The Grand Commandery is, for those who don’t know?

I probably don’t need to do any more than point you to the foundation statement I wrote for our Rules & Constitution which states: The Grand Commandery of Knights Templar is a chivalric order of like-minded individuals who demonstrate seven core principles: Chivalry, honour, integrity, humility, courtesy, wisdom & charity. Members take their inspiration from the highest ideals of the medieval Order of Knights Templar, originally founded by Hugues de Payens and eight fellow noblemen in Jerusalem circa 1118. These core principles have strong correlations to the Latin Rule of Templars, adopted by Hugues de Payens and others under the guidance of St Bernard of Clairvaux and Council of Troyes on 13th January 1129. It is expected that members commit themselves to these core principles at all times.

> What charitable work are you currently involved in?

We have numerous projects on the go at any one time. Currently, we are raising money for Cancer Support Services, UNICEF, Water Aid and pretty much anything that fits in with the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. Some of the senior members of the Order are currently undergoing training in readiness for a 26 mile hike to raise money for the MacMillan Cancer Support charity in the UK. In situations like this, we tend to set targets with all donations being sent direct to the charity. So far we’ve raised £840 out of the £1000 target. As a chivalric order, members tend to get involved with our ARK project – that’s Acts of Random Kindness. These endeavours can be as diverse as donating financial aid to a member’s local hospice, donation of food to food banks, clothes to clothes banks or toys to orphanages. Members also volunteer time and energy to local projects around the world such as helping in cleaning off graffiti from public places, marshaling and supporting charitable events, handing out sleeping bags & blankets to the homeless or just baking in Medieval Templar Armour at summer fayres whilst collecting money on behalf of numerous worthy causes.

>What is your relationship to the original Knights Templar?

We don’t claim to have any relationship to the original Knights Templar other than what has been mentioned in our foundation statement. Just like Hugues et al., the founding members of the Grand Commandery of Knights Templar came together for a specific purpose whilst wishing to live by a certain code. Compared to our medieval Templar brothers who ended up with over 650 rules by the turn of the 14th century, we narrowed these down to our modern seven core principles which means, quite simply put, doing the right thing, by yourself and others, and seek the truth at all times. We founded a new Templar Order to try to show that convictions such as chivalry and honour, commitment and dedication still have a place within the modern world – following exactly on the same principles the original nine noblemen had back in 1117. Thankfully, however, gone are the days when Templars were charged to take up arms and fight in Holy Wars. The world is packed full of diversity, different ideals, philosophies, good and evil. Our battles today are not military in nature against those who do not happen to follow the same religious beliefs. We are no longer told that it is God’s will to kill our fellow brothers or sisters. Our modern day battles are more spiritual in nature and we actively fight against hatred, intolerance and prejudice within the world whilst helping our fellow mankind by promoting peaceful co-existence and acts of humanitarian work and aid.

>How does one become a member?

Individuals can join the Order by completing an initial enquiry form online at Once we’ve reviewed an applicant’s resume and agreed an application in principle, references are sought from someone of professional standing to vouch for the applicant’s character and suitability in joining the Order. If everything is acceptable, the applicant is granted entry into the Order at Preceptor level. Normally after two years of proven merit and charitable action, the member is promoted up to the rank of Knight Templar.

The 13th Warrior – medieval movie and guilty pleasure

I’ve never understood the hostility that this movie generated when it came out in 1999 – it seemed that once the critical slating got underway, everybody jumped on board to throw rotten tomatoes at it…and you can go to the Rotten Tomatoes movie website to see that plenty of people still hate The 13th Warrior.

But I’ve got a soft spot for certain movies that have been put through the critical mincer but still retain a certain historical fascination and are actually very watchable – and The 13th Warrior is not a dull movie. It’s rather violent and its take on the relationship between the emerging Arab/Islamic world of the east and the so-called Dark Ages in the west is if nothing else, picturesque and spooky!

And to be blunt – it’s certainly not down there with the unintentionally hilarious Ironclad and pretty dreadful Season of the Witch – two recent historical and hysterical offerings from Hollywood.

The 13th Warrior was based on a book by Michael Crichton – the man who brought you great horror sci fi movies in the 1970s like Coma and Westworld and then went on to conjure up Jurassic Park. The 13th Warrior was based on his book Eaters of the Dead and the movie originally adopted that name but when he was called in to direct it, it changed title.

In short, the year is 922CE and an Arab emissary (Antonio Banderas) leaves his beautiful homeland to go to the barbaric west where he falls in with a bunch of uncouth Vikings. He learns their language and fights battles alongside them against a mysterious creature that is threatening to wipe them out. A Viking prophecy stipulates that a foreign man must be present if the beast is to be vanquished – and along comes our Arab friend. I won’t spoil the plot any further!

The movie cost far more than it made back at the box office and Omar Sharif – who had a bit part in the film – slated it and then the critics gave it a good booting. But I think for those trying to understand the cultural clashes of the very early Middle Ages – it’s a good watch. Time, I suspect, may be kinder to The 13th Warrior than the critics were – I hope you agree!

Eleanor of Aquitaine versus Pope Celestine

English: A mural which most likely depicts Ele...
A mural which most likely depicts Eleanor of Aquitaine in a royal procession, with a figure variously identified as her son, John I of the England, her daughter, Joan, or her daughter in law, Berengaria of Navarre. 

A new BBC programme airing now in the UK looks at the so-called She-Wolves: England’s Early Queens – these were the women who married kings of England but often wielded equal if not more power than their husbands.

If you think women in the Middle Ages were demure damsels in distress then I strongly advise you to watch the programme – follow the link above and download the episodes on the BBC i-Player. You’re in for an education!

The queen that cannot fail to impress anybody the most is Eleanor of Aquitaine. Well, that was one of her many titles. She took full control of the Duchy of Aquitaine in 1168 and was also Countess of Poitou. This you might say was the French period of her life. She married Louis VII of France and became queen of that country. Unfortunately, Louis seems to have had trouble in the bedroom and Eleanor bullied the pope in to a dissolution of her marriage. She then plumped for a prince eleven years her junior who conveniently became King Henry II of England and the Angevin empire. So now she had been queen of France and then England and duchess of Normandy – not bad going.

Her children were a fiery brood – inheriting some of their mother’s backbone and they included Richard the Lionheart and John – both of whom went on to become kings of England. Richard famously spent the greater part of his reign on crusade against Saladin. And while returning from crusade, he was imprisoned by a German prince who was something of an enemy of his.

Eleanor – no longer wife of the king but an imperious mother to her darling enthroned Richard was furious when Pope Celestine didn’t pull his finger out to get her son released. And she wrote the pope a letter which no leader would write today. It began with a curious description of herself – saying she was queen by the ‘wrath of God‘.

To her revered father and lord, Celestine, by the grace of God the highest pontiff, Eleanor, in the wrath of God queen of the English, duchess of Normandy and countess of Anjou, to show himself a father to her, a suffering mother.

And she implored him to get her son back.

I beg that the clamor of the afflicted enter your ears; for our calamities are multiplied beyond number. You cannot pretend not to know of the crime and infamy, when you are the vicar of the crucified, the successor of Peter, the priest of Christ, the anointed of the Lord, the God even of Pharaoh.

But Celestine seems to have been rather deaf to her pleas.  So two more letters came from her queenly hand and they were far less polite than the first.

Give my son back to me, man of God, if you are a man of God and not a man of blood. If you are sluggish in the freeing of my son, may the Highest exact his blood from your hand.

She even suggested that if the pope had any honour, which Eleanor now doubted, he would have offered his life for the return of Richard.

My son is tormented in chains and you do not descend nor send to him; you are not moved by Joseph’s grief. Christ sees this and is silent; but the work of God abundantly repays with the highest severity those who act negligently.

Eleanor went on to lambast the pope for promising to send legates that never arrived whereas if her son was free – they would have come in the hope of getting riches from him.

You alone compel me to despair who alone after God are my hope, who were the confidence of our people. Cursed is he who trusts in man. Where is my expectation now?

She then employed a very poetic turn of phrase to suggest that the pope was a man who condoned wrongdoing.

The highest pontiff sees this and suppresses the sword of Peter which he has replaced in its sheath. So he adds horns to the sinner and his silence is taken for consent.

It’s astonishing to us that such a letter could have been sent but after watching She-Wolves – you’ll find that England brought forth female rulers with the sharpest tongues and most poisonous of pens.

Exorcism, fairies, devils and how to turn a maiden in to a love slave

feat_demonsA new series on Channel Four in the United Kingdom – Gods and Monsters –  covers the history of belief in evil spirits in England.  Spirits who could disguise themselves as humans, take other people’s forms, angels cast out of heaven, spirits who possessed you and made you ill, etc.

Violent demons were believed to be extremely dangerous and their power was derived from the fact that they were originally angels – living in heaven.  They rebelled against God and were cast out.  They became ugly and hideous.  But they did not lose their power.  Even when they fell from heaven, the power of their fall created the pit of hell.  And forever, they are trying to escape from hell.

Beneath the earth these demons were trying to grab at your soul while up above, angels were trying to guide you to God.

Demons could enter your body as a vapor through any opening.  They could possess you through your open mouth, for example.  Chester girl Anne Millner was possessed in this way in the 16th century when she found herself surrounded by a white cloud.  She had no doubt it was a physical entity and it entered in to her.

People in the Middle Ages truly believed that demons could turn in to everyday objects like food – there are accounts of people inadvertently admitting a demon by consuming an apple or even a lettuce leaf.  Bad case of food poisoning?  Maybe.  Very probably.  But the resulting fevers and lack of medicine to help meant these sick folk appeared to be possessed.

So how to get rid of a demon?  How to treat a ‘demoniac’?  Well, an exorcism of course.  In 1585, Sarah Williams was subjected to an exorcism.  Sarah truly believed herself to be possessed.  She could not cross herself.  She behaved strangely.  Her verbal outpourings were taken to be the demon talking.  So, like a scene out of the Hollywood movie ‘The Exorcist’, she had holy water chucked at her and Sarah called her tormentors all sorts of lovely words.

If there was no sign of improvement – the treatment moved up a level.  A cauldron stew of powdered root that smelt disgusting was held under nose and the smoke turned Sarah’s face black. Sure sign of possession!  Next step, cram the bones of a revered saint in to her mouth!  And touch the victim over and over again with a crucifix – particularly the extremities like the feet.  And incant the rite of baptism or other prayers.  After several months, Sarah was ‘cured’.

Not everybody wanted to get rid of demons – some people wanted to harness their power through necromancy…the conjuring up of spirits through spells.  A crime punishable by death.  Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester (1400-1452), was an infamous necromancer.  She consulted two astrologers who predicted that King Henry VI of England would suffer a life threatening illness.  For this she was forced to do penance while one of the astrologers was hung, drawn and quartered.

The Munich Handbook was hugely popular in the Middle Ages and gave detailed instructions on just how to summon up the spirits. One spell described how to turn a beautiful maiden in to a love slave.  This involved finding a white dove, bite in to it near its heart, draw with the blood using a quill from an eagle on a parchment made from a female dog on heat….no, I’m not making this up!  The dove, by the way, was seen as being the symbol of Venus while the dog was the symbol of lust.

Having turned the maiden one is after in to a slave, the demon that has been summoned would create a replica human in the shape of the maiden who would return to her home and pretend to be her.  So you could never be sure who was a real human being and who was a demon in disguise.

Aaaah…but fairies you say.  They’re nice spirits aren’t they?  Cute little things with pink wings. Well, not in the Middle Ages.  The medieval mind had not heard of Peter Pan or Walt Disney.  To them, fairies did not have gossamer wings – a Victorian invention – and were not necessarily small – a Shakespearian invention.

Fairies were human size – possibly inherited from the Roman idea of nymphs.  They were only invisible when they wanted to be.  Fairies could kill you, ruin your crop and worst of all, abduct your child and replace it with a ‘changeling’. In medieval Britain, the belief in changelings led to women advising new mothers to surround the cradle with cold iron – like shears, which should be placed near the head.  Draw a chalk circle around the cradle and recite prayers as you did it. But even this didn’t guarantee a child’s safety.

If the child inherited an abnormality – a fairy had probably taken its place.  A child being deaf, not moving much or throwing violent tantrums – could very well be a fairy changeling.  A parent in the Middle Ages might do something odd to test the child.  They would bake bread in an eggshell to see if the baby or toddler laughed – thereby proving it was an old knowledgeable fairy in a child’s body.

So if the baby was proven to be a changeling – what then?  Well, according to contemporary sources, babies were left exposed on a dung heap or placed near a fire and the terrified fairy would fly out of the body and it would be replaced by your real baby.  Unfortunately, as the Channel Four programme explains, babies did die.  As late as 1895, a man killed his wife in England because he believed his wife to be a fairy changeling.

Were the Knights Templar really monks?

Templars burned at the stake.
Templars burned at the stake

The Knights Templar are routinely referred to as ‘warrior monks’.  But were the Templars really monks in the accepted sense.  In her book ‘The Templars – The Secret History Revealed’, well respected author Barbara Frale makes the point that strictly speaking, they were not.  Why?  Well – let’s start with one basic point – the Templars were never actually ordained as priests.

The knights went through some form of initiation and took the monastic vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.  But they did not have the powers of a priest to administer the holy sacraments.  A Templar knight could not give communion for example.  One reason for this was that priests were not allowed to go in to battle and kill – which obviously Templars did routinely.

Pope Innocent II (1130-1143) reigned during the early formative years of the Templar order.  He ruled that the Templars needed ordained chaplains who had received holy orders before joining a Templar house.  They could minister to the Templars’ religious needs but under no circumstances could they take to the field of battle.

Frale believes that by the early 1300s, the number of chaplains in Templar preceptories had collapsed.  Given that under the Rule set down by Bernard of Clairvaux, the Templars had to pray nine times a day – they must have had trouble guaranteeing the presence of a chaplain to minister to their needs.  It was Bernard who said the Templars had to be “meek as lambs and, at the same time, as ferocious as lions”.  They were supposed to be intensely prayerful but also ready to raise their sword high and slay the Saracen.

Meek monks and courageous warriors but not properly ordained.  Little wonder that some in the church did not regard them as part of the club and even a little suspect.

The Devil at the movies!

Portraying the Devil in film is not an easy task – as hard as it was to portray him in paint on the wall of a medieval church.  Is he a fallen angel or a hairy beast?  Does he appear to us as a human or a monster?  One Spanish movie – El Dia de la Bestia (released 1995) – depicted him as an enormous goat headed creature.  In this rather bizarre film, a Catholic priest discovers that Anti-Christ is to be born in Madrid in the year 2000.  To summon up the devil and kill his creation, the priest deliberately sets out to do evil deeds in the hope the devil will take notice of him.  It’s a black comedy for sure with typical Spanish anarchic humor.

While the Devil is indisputably a beast in that Spanish movie – he’s in human form for the movie Devil released last year.  A group of people trapped in an elevator discover that somebody among them is not quite what they seem.  When the lights go out – this individual bites!

There are those like Faust who summon the devil to make a pact they come to regret at leisure – either for riches or in the case of the 1961 movie The Devil’s Partner, for the return of youth.  You can watch the entire movie from Openflix at this link:

Of course there are those unwise souls who get together to indulge in black masses or covens to conjure spells and mess with dark forces.  One very underrated Horror movie – Blood on Satan’s Claw (released 1971) – shows a group of young villagers in seventeenth century England indulging in Satanic practices at a time when witch burning was at its height.  You can see the full movie here: