Lynn Picknett’s and Clive Prince’s The Templar Revelation—a book directly referenced in The Da Vinci Code, as the paperback cover proudly notes (though only in passing and by title)—is a case in point. The 1997 book seems to be written for the illiterate, full of dramatically italicized emphasis that the authors think substitutes for proving an assertion with facts. It opens with a faintly ridiculous claim that Leonardo da Vinci created the Shroud of Turin, ridiculous because the Shroud first enters the public record in 1357, more than 100 years too early to have been Leonardo’s work. Our authors cite their source as, of course, their own previous book, leaving it to readers to simply trust that they figured a way out of the chronological conundrum.
Time and again, the authors refer back to their previous book, seemingly in an effort to double their books sales. (The largest block of their citations is actually to the books of the authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, of which this tome is essentially a rewrite.) But that’s of less interest than the fact that in doing so, our authors help us to connect the Holy Bloodline conspiracy to—what else?—the Watchers. What, after all, is a conspiracy theory without the Watchers or the Nephilim?
In the opening chapter, Picknett and Prince allege that the Holy Bloodline conspiracy is part of the wider Hermetic movement, and that Leonardo and other “heretics” who stood against the official Church subscribed to an occult magical belief system derived from the Hermetic corpus. This would be a neat trick under any circumstance, but it is especially noteworthy since the Corpus Hermeticum had only been brought to Italy in 1460 and translated in 1471, just ten years before the authors allege that Leonardo had begun producing art to embody conspiracy theories. How, one might ask, did such a widespread hermetic cult develop in ten years’ time? That, sadly, is a mystery that we cannot solve. The Hermetic materials available in the West before the publication of the Corpus—the Emerald Tablet, a few references in Classical authors, and mentions of Hermes in Christian chronologies—seem insufficient to indicate the existence of a secret Hermetic cult prior to the arrival of Byzantine Greek Hermetic texts in 1460 and their publication in Latin a decade later.
The detail, alas, are said in an endnote to be found only in the authors’ previous book.
The interesting thing about Hermeticism, from my perspective, is that the character of Hermes is a sort of composite figure who embodies stories originally ascribed in earlier myths and legends to the antediluvians in the time of the Watchers. Leaving aside the complex question of the three to five different Hermes characters who sprang from one original, Hermes Trismegistus is said to have warned of the coming destruction by flood and fire (as Enoch and Idris had done) and to have inscribed the secrets of all wisdom on standing stones or tablets (again as Enoch had done). Such stories were prevalent as early as the Kore Kosmou, a Hermetic text of perhaps the first century BCE or CE. By 300 CE, the connection between Hermes and the Watchers was so firmly fixed that the alchemist Zosimus of Panoplis blithely ascribes understanding of the Watchers’ antediluvian wisdom (best known from the Book of Enoch) to Hermes:
The sacred Scriptures inform us that there exists a tribe of genii, who make use of women. Hermes mentions this circumstance in his Physics; and almost every writing, whether sacred or apocryphal, states the same thing. The ancient and divine Scriptures inform us, that the angels, captivated by women, taught them all the operations of nature. Offence being taken at this, they remained out of heaven, because they had taught mankind all manner of evil, and things which could not be advantageous to their souls. The Scriptures inform us that the giants sprang from these embraces. Chema is the first of their traditions respecting these arts. The book itself they called Chema; hence the art is called Chemia. (George Syncellus, Chronicle 18, trans. Thomas Thompson)
But whiffs of the absurd rise up from this story, too, for the story of Hermes Trismegistus was hardly a secret, and certainly not forbidden knowledge to good Catholics in the Middle Ages, provided one was not actually worshiping him. A few might have been aware that Eastern Christians preserved traditions that Hermes was the pagan name for Enoch (e.g. Bar Hebraeus, Chronology 1), or that Muslims believed Hermes to be the same as both Enoch and Idris. By 1450—twenty years before the Corpus Hermeticum was published—Freemasons were already ascribing to Hermes Trismegistus the wisdom of the Watchers (e.g. Matthew Cooke MS.). This is hardly a surprise since absolutely orthodox Catholic chronologers like Peter Comestor and Ranulf Higden had made mention of him under his Latin name: “The noble Mercury is said to have been in this time the son of the daughter of Atlas, begotten by Maia, wise in many arts, wherefore he was called a god after his death” (Higden, Polychronicon 2.14, adapted from a medieval English translation).
It seems a bit difficult to imagine that the Church was suppressing information about a character that Catholic monks wrote about in the most popular works of the day. “The threat to the Church of Rome is obvious,” the authors write of Hermeticism, viewing it as a branch of feminist Gnosticism. Indeed, our authors praise the 1471 translator of the Corpus Hermetica, Marsilio Ficino, as one of the most “notorious” of “occult thinkers.” Ficino was a Catholic priest—literally part of the “Church of Rome.” He’s also the first translator of Plato (Atlantis!) and the Orphic Argonautica, which speaks more to his interest in Classical learning than secret occultism. In fact, Ficino’s driving goal was to find a way to reconcile Neoplatonism with orthodox Catholicism. He did in fact get in trouble with the Church for practicing magic, but it wasn’t related to Hermeticism. Eighteen years after he translated the Corpus Hermeticum, the Church became upset that he practiced astrology and had declared it true and accurate. The dispute arose because the same Ficino who had rejected astrology in the 1470s came to embrace it in the 1480s and considered it a science that could be used to create medical talismans for healing. The Church called it sinful witchery. This is decidedly not the same as Hermetic-occultist Holy Bloodline heresy.
Just for kicks, it’s probably worth noting that Ficino’s astrological beliefs were influenced by those of Abu Ma‘shar, the early medieval Persian astrologer who ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus the antediluvian wisdom of the Watchers! (He rejected many of Abu Ma‘shar’s more complex formulations, if you care.) Ficino wasn’t alone in using Arabic astrological sources. Abu Ma‘shar is cited as well by Nicholas of Cusa (albeit critically), who, incidentally, was a Prince of the Church (a cardinal) and the vicar general of the Papal States.
Indeed, it seems to be churchmen who had the most and best information about Hermes Trismegistus during Leonardo’s lifetime.
There are so many absurdities in the book that it’s amazing anyone ever took it seriously. Holy Bloodline conspiracy? Check. “Lost Templar Fleet” discussed without any knowledge of the original source? Check. (They know it only from the book The Temple and the Lodge.) Recycling Louis Martin’s arguments about the lost tomb of Jesus in Provence without understanding that he made them up, or even that he started the story? Of course!
Consider this: The authors also allege that the Order of the Golden Fleece was an explicit continuation of “Templar” brotherhood. It most certainly was not. The Order of the Golden Fleece was explicitly modeled on Jason and the Argonauts (hence the name and the commissioned novelization, the famous Histoire de Jason) and was designed as Burgundy’s answer to England’s Order of the Garter, which the Duke of Burgundy wasn’t able to accept for political reasons, prompting his jealousy. This lie is a bit of Sinclair family propaganda. It derives from claims made about the Sinclair who served as the first Grand Master of Scottish Freemasons, William St. Clair, who was said to have been a member of the Order of the Golden Fleece (though no record exists) and the Order of Santiago (of which also no record exists), the latter of which was connected to the Templars. The claim came from a Father Hay, a Sinclair super-fan of the 1600s who wrote a hagiographic history of the haughty lineage.
So where do you think Picknett and Prince got this ridiculous idea? Andrew Sinclair. And him? Oh, right: From the authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. In the quasi-sequel, The Temple and the Lodge (1989), co-authors Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh assert quite without evidence that nearly every order of chivalry founded in the 1300s and 1400s was explicitly modeled on and designed to continue that of the Templars. “They looked to the Temple as a model,” they write. Our authors conflate modeling (itself an iffy proposition) with direct descent. It’s probably worth mentioning that the version of the story Picknett and Prince use is almost identical to the fictitious connection between the Order of the Golden Fleece and the Templars that Umberto Eco concocted for Focault’s Pendulum in 1989, where the Order is imbued with the “Templar spirit.” Eco didn’t mean it seriously.
I see I am running a bit long. I’ll finish up by noting my discomfort with the authors’ reliance on Sincalir family propaganda to shore up their shaky thesis. It’s a bit uncomfortable in light of recent revelations about Niven Sinclair’s child rape convictions to hear the authors lionize him as the finest fruit of an “illustrious” family.