Secret Societies: The Templars and the Assassins
A Lecture given at the Masonic Reading Room
November 8, 2006
Copyright 2006 James Wasserman
Good evening. Turn on a TV or open a newspaper in any country on earth today, and you will be faced with the inescapable conclusion that the Crusades did not end in 1290. Western civilization and Islam are now fully engaged in what I believe can only be understood as the modern Crusades. This war began with the Muslim invasion of Spain in 711. It continued with the attack on France in 732. In 1095, the Muslim military advance drew perilously close to Constantinople (modern Istanbul). The Byzantine emperor approached the West and vowed to abandon the Greek Orthodox faith in return for Roman Catholic assistance in the defense of Christendom. The medieval Crusades were an act of self-defense.
The politically correct version of this story attributes the Crusades to an outbreak of religious fanaticism and aggression on the part of Europe. However the author of the Song of Roland, the classic ninth century account of the defense against the Muslim invasion of France, would heartily disagree — as would the many thousands who lost their lives in that campaign. A similar interpretation of the modern Crusades — such as American lust for oil — might be equally rejected by the three thousand people who died here on September 11.
It is important to place the political situation in context because it hints at the primary theme of tonight’s discussion. And that is the modern relevance of two groups of warrior monks from the Crusades — secret societies vowed to the extension and defense of their religions. We will also examine some of the roots of their mystical doctrines.
One unexpected consequence of the medieval Crusades was the end of centuries of control of Europe by the Roman Catholic Church. In addition to the military defeat of Christian armies, there were three primary spiritual causes for the fall of the Church’s political and religious hegemony — and the flowering of the Renaissance beginning at the end of the 14th century. That burst of religious and cultural creativity would result in the rise of the esoteric movements, of which Freemasonry may be considered the crown jewel.
The Knights Templar
The first of these influences was of course the Knights Templar. They were founded in Jerusalem in 1118 or 1119 by nine knights who pledged themselves to poverty, holy obedience, and chastity under the leadership of Hughes de Payens. Hughes had spent two decades in the Holy Land as a Crusader. His wife died leaving him with no ties to this world other than his faith. Of late, he had despaired of fighting and the secular life, and was in the throes of a spiritual crisis. The Patriarch and King of Jerusalem suggested that Hughes and his men serve God by protecting pilgrims who came to visit the sites of the Christian faith, and walk in the very footsteps of Christ and the Apostles.
The pilgrimage had become especially popular in the tenth and eleventh centuries as the dreary conditions of the Dark Ages began to improve. Swamps were drained, forests cleared, houses, castles and towns constructed, roads improved, and a more positive mindset infused Europe. Millennial fears and the dark expectations of a fervently anxious and superstitious people passed. Think back to our own reaction to the millennial fears of Y2K. To the medieval mind, St. John’s description of the Beast of the Apocalypse and his thousand year reign of evil was even more unnerving than the threat of a worldwide computer breakdown.
Survival brought hope, and tentative steps were made toward the modern world — of which the pilgrimage was a prime component. For it offered the opportunity to scholars, students, religious devotees, wanderers, merchants, even criminals punished by exile, to move beyond the limited confines of Europe. (During the period from 6th through 10th centuries we call the Dark Ages, most people never traveled more than ten miles from their birthplace.)
Travelers discovered that the Holy Land of their dreams and aspirations was occupied by an alien populace, whose language, customs, and beliefs were in sharp contrast to their own. The biblical sites of Bethlehem, Sinai, and Jerusalem were controlled by those who demanded a tax for pilgrims, who might unleash bands of brigands against people they considered infidels, and who had erected mosques and madrassas where churches should stand. In Constantinople, Roman Catholic pilgrims learned that the burial shroud of Christ, fragments of the True Cross, and other precious relics of their faith were in the hands of unrecognizable Christians —who claimed to worship Jesus, but who did so in strange languages, with a married clergy, alternate Mass, and no allegiance to the pope.
The pleading of the Byzantine emperor for help against the invading hordes of Islam aligned perfectly with the stars to launch the First Crusade in 1095.
After a stunning series of hard-won victories at Nicaea, Antioch, and Jerusalem — in which God’s assent to the plan seemed demonstrated — a new period of European civilization developed in the Palestinian region. Construction of castles and fortifications, churches, residences, the development of government, farming, commerce, and military readiness proceeded.
At the same time, pilgrims continued to visit in increasing numbers. Yet travel was still difficult. Muslim robbers and insurgents attacked Christian caravans. A particularly horrific assault took place in 1119 in which 300 pilgrims were killed and another 60 captured and held for ransom.
It was in this setting that Hughes and his friends approached the Patriarch and King. And they assumed the obligations to bear arms in service to Christianity as protectors of the Holy Land.
The Order of the Poor Knights of Jesus Christ was awarded lodgings on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem at the site of the Temple of Solomon in the al-Aqsa mosque. Thus they were known as the Knights of the Temple, or Knights Templar. Their vow of poverty caused them to dress in the donated clothing of the faithful, while their lodgings were described by a contemporary visitor as shabby. Yet something was happening. Count Fulk of Anjou (later King of Jerusalem) is believed to have become an associate member. A castle was donated to the Order in the northern mountain region of Lebanon. One of the original nine knights was the nephew of Bernard of Clairvaux, an enormously influential Cistercian abbot, later canonized,.
In less than a decade, the Order was catapulted into prominence and history. The Patriarch wrote to Bernard asking his help in getting the Templars regularized by the Church, and in drafting a Rule for their conduct. Bernard was captivated with the idea of an order of warrior monks in service to Christ and His Church. He worked to get them papal sanction and proselytized on their behalf throughout Europe. The Templars were recognized at the Council of Troyes in 1128. Bernard helped draft a Rule, based on the fourth century monastic Rule of Saint Benedict. In 1136, he wrote a long letter to Hughes de Payens, In Praise of the New Knighthood, that hymned the ideal of the Holy Warrior.
“Neither does he bear the sword in vain, for he is God’s minister for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of the good. If he kills an evildoer, he is not a mankiller, but, if I may so put it, a killer of evil. … These men are appointed by God and searched out by his hand to the limits of the land; honorable men of Israel to guard faithfully and protect vigilantly the tomb, which is the bed of the true Solomon, each man with sword in hand, and skillfully trained to battle.”
Yet within two hundred years, these heroic warrior/monks would be arrested, tortured, and executed — slandered as demonically inspired heretics, devil worshipers, sexual libertines, and traitors to Christianity.
While images of a Crusade to reclaim Jerusalem were inspiring European Christians, a Persian visionary was meditating upon a fortress in which he and his flock could maintain their independence, pursue their religion, and spread the doctrines of pure Islam. For Hasan-i-Sabah, founder of the Assassins, understood the secret of the true line of succession from the Prophet Muhammad, and the proper direction for the faith.
When Muhammad died in 632, most Muslims (known as Sunnis) believed he had endorsed his father-in-law Abu Bakr as his successor. (The Caliph, or successor, is not the spiritual equal of the Prophet. Rather, he is charged with leading the flock and enforcing religious regularity. Since Islamic government is a theocracy, the Caliph is a combination of Pope and King.) An alternate contemporary faction (known as Shiites) claimed that Muhammad had actually appointed his son-in-law and cousin Ali as his heir. They asserted that the genetic stamp of righteousness would be passed through the Prophet’s bloodline by his sole surviving child, his daughter Fatima. Leadership should be reserved for descendents of the Prophet through the marriage of Fatima and Ali.
The 1400-year-old conflict over succession between Sunnis and Shiites has produced rivers of blood. In Iraq today, these are the car bombers and executioners whose daily antics are reported with such tedious regularity by our breathless media.
As early as 680, the Prophet’s grandson Husayn, and a group of his Shiite followers, were brutally murdered at Karbala by Sunnis. The massacre is commemorated today by Shiite self-flagellants mourning their inability to have protected him.
After Husayn’s murder, Islam was widely perceived by Sunnis and Shiites alike as having taken a wrong turn. Shiism henceforth became a reformist movement. On a religious level, it sought for a rebirth of spiritual purity. As a political movement, it was allied with the poor and disaffected. (These themes continue to play themselves out in the social programs of such Iranian-backed militant groups as Hizb’Allah and the Mahdhi Army.)
In 686, a leader named Muktar arose to revenge Husayn’s murder. His army enjoyed military success, but he died within a year. However he imbued Shiism with two crucial concepts. He elucidated upon the identity of the Imam — a kind of highly spiritualized Caliph guided by Allah to lead Islam. The Mahdhi was that unique Imam who would appear at the End of Time and bring forth the Day of Righteousness. All the world would bow before Mecca and the Prophet. (In a very under-reported story, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad invoked this apocalyptic messiah during his recent speech at the UN.)
Eighth century Shiism hosted an eclectic and radical mix of beliefs. Heretical strains were contributed by new converts including Persians, Greeks, Gnostics, Sufis, Christians, Manichaean dualists, and Jewish kabbalists. Doctrines of the purity of the bloodline of David, and of the Messiah were absorbed. Beliefs in metempsychosis, reincarnation, magick, astrology, and numerology were common. The concepts of Imam and Mahdhi evolved to something closer to what Western occultists describe as Inner Plane Adepts, or members of the Great White Brotherhood. Teachers (or dais), the Imam’s representatives, were accorded near-divine status and viewed to possess miraculous powers.
In 749, the Abbasids came to power in Baghdad where they would reign for five hundred years. Their political ascent had been heavily supported by Shiites. But the Abbasids abandoned their Shiite base the moment they seized the throne — declaring themselves to be a Sunni dynasty.
This caused a terrible crisis among Shiites. They were forced once again to question their movement. They concluded they had become too relaxed in accepting claims to spiritual leadership. Lineal descent from Muhammad through the marriage of Fatima and Ali would again be defined as the gold standard.
Yet in 765, a dispute arose concerning the identity of the seventh Imam. Which of two brothers (both lineal descendants of the Prophet) had been given the spiritual mantle to lead Shiites? The supporters of one became known as Ismailis. While they were a minority, they went on to establish the first successful Shiite government in 909. The Fatimid Caliphate ruled Egypt and beyond for over two hundred years.
In 1095, during the decline of the Fatimid Caliphate, another schism occurred that is central to our story. The Fatimid Imam (or caliph) appointed his son Nizar to succeed him. Yet the Turkish general who had seized control of Egypt decreed a different successor, Nizar’s much younger, and more malleable, half-brother. Nizar led a revolt, but despite some early success, was captured and killed.
Hasan-i-Sabah was the leader of the Fatimid Ismaili mission in Persia. He had been born near Tehran about 1055 to a majority Shiite family. At seventeen, he was exposed to the Ismaili doctrine. He experienced an illness and a religious conversion, and traveled to Cairo where he was trained as an Ismaili missionary. He was arrested by the military ruler of Egypt, and escaped under marvelous conditions. The minaret of a prison in which he was held collapsed. He sailed on a boat that survived a fierce storm, miraculously quelled by the intensity of his prayers. He traveled throughout Persia, modern Iran, preaching the doctrines of the Fatimid Imam.
He supported the succession of Nizar, and organized a resistance movement when that succession was usurped. When he learned that Nizar had been killed, he declared Nizar’s son the true Imam, and founded the Nizari Ismailis. The sect remains flourishing to this day under the cosmopolitan leadership of the Aga Khan. Hasan built a community of believers in the northernmost regions of Iran near the Caspian Sea. His headquarters was named Alamut, the Eagle’s Teaching. It was a secluded mountain fortress where he reigned for 35 years — fortifying his defenses, developing agricultural sustenance, working on the Nizari doctrine, training religious teachers, and sending forth missionaries as far away as Syria. Hasan’s strategic use of selective political murder to eliminate military threats to his community led to the Nizari Ismailis becoming known as Assassins.
Hasan’s most illustrious successor was the fourth leader at Alamut named Hasan II. Although he was killed within less than four years of assuming the throne, he presided over a spiritual revolution.
On August 8, 1164, Hasan II proclaimed the Qiyama, the Resurrection, the Day of Judgment, the immanence of the Imam. He ordered the overturning of all outward observances of Islam in favor of a Gnostic enlightenment, a heaven on earth. He declared that Nizari Ismailis had entered a state of perfection in which the experience of God within was an ascertained reality. Traditional Islam was heresy. The Ramadan fast was abandoned. Turning in the direction of Mecca to pray was irrelevant — for all the earth had been illumined by the Light of Allah. Dietary restrictions were deemed unnecessary and some Assassins were said to have overturned sexual propriety.
The Qiyama heresy was promulgated in Syria by the charismatic Assassin leader Sinan. He was a contemporary and sometime ally of both Saladin and Richard the Lionhearted. The Syrian Assassins were the channel by which the Ismaili Gnostic current entered the Knights Templar Order.
The third influence in the Templar Esoteric Revival was the Dualist Christian sect of southern France known as the Cathars.
Dualism posits the existence of Good and Evil in balance. Radical dualists believe the world is equally divided between God and Satan; that neither is stronger. Moderate dualists believe that the balance of Good and Evil is the Will of God, and that Good will triumph in the end. Dualism was a major aspect of the Gnostic movement of the second through fifth centuries in the Mediterranean region, including Greece, Egypt, and the Mid-East. In the sixth century, the Gnostic academies of the Roman Empire were closed. Scholars and mystics fled East and were welcomed in Persia. Esoteric Christianity and dualist heresies fused with Hebrew and Sufi mysticism, and indigenous shamanic traditions. A rich spiritual teaching evolved — occasionally spread to the West in isolated pockets of clandestine worship. It would also migrate into the Ismaili and Assassin mysteries.
The Cathars of the eleventh century were the spiritual descendants of that heritage. They would soon face dire consequences for a belief system that challenged the primacy of orthodox Roman Catholic doctrine.
In 1233, Pope Gregory IX presented the definitive Roman Catholic view of the heresy of the dualist Cathars. He said they believed God had erred in casting Lucifer out of Heaven. They expected Lucifer to return in triumph. Gregory described a Cathar initiation ceremony that began with the appearance of a monstrous toad. This was followed by an ice-cold pale man whose kiss would suck away all traces of Christian faith. The pope described Cathar worship of a black cat (from which their name is probably derived). He wrote that congregants offered the cat an anal kiss. This was followed by an orgy which included homosexual congress. Accusations were leveled that babies born of such orgies were sacrificed, and their fat turned into a Eucharist of Hell.
Within 80 years, nearly identical charges would be hurled against the Knights Templar. The campaign of vilification against the Templars would cause many hundreds to be imprisoned, tortured, and burned at the stake.
The Cathars were, in reality, a group of Christian Gnostics. They believed in the New Testament teachings of Christ, especially His call for simplicity. They believed the materialism of the Roman Catholic Church was in direct opposition to the rejection of this world preached by Jesus and the Apostles. They regarded matter as intrinsically evil and incapable of redemption. They viewed the human soul as an angel trapped in a body of clay. They taught that one could reunite with his celestial identity through rigorous spiritual practices.
They believed sex was the means whereby the soul had been lost, that birth was the gateway of material imprisonment. They taught that animal foods should be shunned as the product of sexual union. Cathars rejected the idea of Hell, believing the world itself to be the realm of suffering.
They believed Jesus was an emanation of God sent from love of humanity, but that He was not a human being, and did not suffer, or die on the Cross. They despised the Cross as a symbol of materiality. Similarly they rejected the Mass as a false worship of the material plane.
Charges of denying the orthodox interpretation of Christ, defiling the Cross, and subverting the Mass were among the most serious made decades later against the Knights Templar.
Cathar clergy wandered through the Languedoc region of France. They lived in simplicity, demanding little from their flock other than bare sustenance. The clergy included women. They sought no tithes, no ecclesiastical opulence, and no political power.
Pope Innocent II launched the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars in 1209. In 1233, the Inquisition was formally instituted to root out the remains of the Cathar heresy. The Inquisition’s long battle against heresy would continue into the eighteenth century. Catharism ceased to exist by 1325.
After two hundred years of battling the heathen as heroes of the Christian faith, the Knights Templar in France were arrested on October 13, 1307. Accusations of devil worship, demonic intercourse, spiritual heresy, sexual impropriety, and political treason were laid against these once proud and admired warriors. In a drama that would play itself out in agonizing detail over the next seven years, the Templar Order would be crushed.
The Knights Templar, the Assassins, and the Cathars were all hunted down and destroyed by the orthodox power structure they challenged. The Templars were assaulted by an unholy alliance of Church and State, the Cathars by the Church which perceived them as its greatest rival, and the Assassins by the Sunni and Shiite majorities of Islam.
These three groups were rebels with a cause.
And I believe that cause was later embraced by Masonry, and that it has infused all spiritual secret societies since the Renaissance — from the Rosicrucians to the Alchemists, to the O.T.O.
The cause is Gnosis. The reality of direct personal experience of God while in life and within the body. The very essence of Gnosis is the rejection of intercessors between Man and God. Gnosis is thus at odds with all power structures.
I also believe that Gnosis is at the core of Masonic political values such as those that helped shape America through our Founding Fathers. These cherished principles include individual rights, freedom of thought and worship, universal tolerance and brotherhood, freedom of association, the spirit of open inquiry, equality before God and the law, and the consent of the governed.
Spiritual secret societies of both yesterday and today proclaim the inherent dignity of the individual, and his rightful place in the order of the Universe. To those who arrogate to themselves the exclusive right to determine such dignity for others, members of Gnostic secret societies will ever be smeared as heretics and subversives. Yet to lovers of Freedom, including, I hope many in this room, they will remain Light bearers of the Secret Tradition that continues to ring forth the clarion call of Human Liberty.