Yesterday I mentioned in passing that a so-called “Gnostic Templar” cited Helena Blavatsky in support of his views on Templar mysteries, and this prompted me to take a closer look at the Theosophist’s influence on Templar conspiracies. It’s a well-known fact that Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine (1888) and Isis Unveiled (1877) served for fringe theorists that the function that James Frazer’s Golden Bough served for mainstream scholars for much of the twentieth century: a convenient storehouse of data that might be plundered at will without recourse to primary sources. I’ll cop to not having read the two volumes of Isis Unveiled cover to cover, and so I was a bit surprised to find so much of the Templar conspiracy already laid out alongside Atlantis and the Nephilim in Blavatsky’s first great work of pseudo-history.
In the eighth chapter of the second volume of Isis Unveiled, Blavatsky begins laying out the case we’ll see adopted and adapted by most later fringe writers. She explains that Christianity as currently conceived, especially in its Catholic form, is a “religious farce” and that one must turn to ancient Egypt to get hold of the true essence of spirituality. “The light of Christianity has only served to show how much more hypocrisy and vice its teachings have begotten in the world since its advent, and how immensely superior were the ancients over us in every point of honor.” She notes parallels between the Pentateuch and Egyptian texts and thus concludes that Moses learned his mysteries from Egyptian originals. She grounds this in material drawn from the German scholar Christian Charles Josias von Bunsen, who had tried to connect Egypt to the Aryan race in his multivolume Egypt’s Place in Universal History. To this she adds the false claim that the Mithraic Mysteries were exact parallels of the Christian Eucharist, another perennial mainstay of fringe history.
This she then ties into the claims of the Freemasons to draw their mysteries also from ancient Egypt, through the Knights Templar. Blavatsky, surprisingly, will have none of it and actually disputes the claims of Masonry to such ancient connections. “But now that so many of the most important secrets of Masonry have been divulged by friend and foe, may we not say, without suspicion of malice or ill-feeling, that since the sad catastrophe of the Templars, no ‘Lodge’ in Europe, still less in America, has ever known anything worth concealing.” This is, of course, partly posturing on her part, for if she conceded that the Masons had the true wisdom, where would that leave her lucrative cult of Theosophy? Indeed, she argued that Masonry knows nothing which the East (i.e. India) does not already have in spades, and thus Blavatsky herself can reveal secrets that even the Masons cannot.
Blavatsky (correctly) traces the Freemason-Templar connection back to the Abbé Augustin Barruel, a Jesuit conspiracy theorist who argued in 1797 that the French Revolution was an anti-Catholic and anti-monarchist conspiracy orchestrated by the Illuminati and the Freemasons. Barruel had asserted that the Freemasons were the descendants of the Knights Templar and had launched the Revolution as revenge for the suppression of their order by the French king and the Pope in the 1300s. To her credit, Blavatsky dismisses this conspiracy as the ravings of an idiot, though she did so only in service of her own anti-clerical views, claiming instead that the Jesuits were secret assassins and arch-criminals serving the nefarious forces of Papism.
Blavatsky argued that the Catholic Church (and even the Protestant clergy) had infiltrated Masonry and had begun to use it as a tool to their own conspiratorial ends. To this end, they created the Masonic Templars themselves (!) as a tool of the Jesuits to promote Catholicism. In this, we see the origins of the weird claim that the Masons and the Church have worked together to suppress the “truth” about Jesus, but in context the claim originated from Blavatsky’s conflation of two political trends that were still prominent within living memory: anti-Masonic and anti-Catholic. The anti-Masonic movement of the early 1800s was dying out as Masonry gained popularity, but anti-Catholicism was on the upswing. Blavatsky darkly notes that Americans had been “warned” that Catholicism will take over soon. (This manifested as anti-immigrant sentiment and failed Congressional action in 1875 and 1876 to bar public funding of Catholic schools.) Blavatsky was cleverly folding old conspiracies into new ones to keep old ideas relevant for new readers, and she threw in a populist appeal, too, blasting the Masonry of her day as the tool of “aristocracy, wealth, and personal ambition.”
As for the Templars, to them she attributes the true ancient mysteries and helped to launch a thousand conspiracy theories. Speaking of the Zohar, Blavatsky declares that there is one true sentence that reveals the truth about God and the universe that was never committed to parchment, only passed on orally. “Only a limited number among the chiefs of the Templars, and some Rosicrucians of the seventeenth century, always in close relations with Arabian alchemists and initiates, could really boast of its possession.” In other words, the Templars gained this knowledge in Jerusalem, from secret cultists who practiced alchemy, and passed it on to other secret societies. Sound familiar?
When Blavatsky accuses the Templars of a conspiracy to restore a lost pre-Christian religious tradition tied to alchemy, Hermeticism, and mysteries, you can see the embryo of all the crazy quilt of claims that would follow:
The true version of the history of Jesus and early Christianity was supposedly imparted to Hughes de Payens, by the Grand-Pontiff of the Order of the Temple, one named Theoclete, after which it was learned by some Knights in Palestine, from the higher and more intellectual members of the St. John sect, who were initiated into its mysteries. Freedom of intellectual thought and the restoration of one universal religion was their secret object. Sworn to the vow of obedience, poverty, and chastity, they were at first the true Knights of John the Baptist, crying in the wilderness and living on wild honey and locusts. Such is the tradition and the true Kabbalistic version.
Blavatsky’s claims were published the same year as they appeared in the occultist Kenneth Mackenzie’s Royal Masonic Cyclopaedia, which explicitly claimed that the “truth” was that of Gnosticism. Mackenzie was a friend of Eliphas Levi (Alphonse Louis Constant), who had used the myth of the Watchers to develop his own occult beliefs. Blavatsky also drew on the Watchers, but from a different angle, and as always they hover in the background of this conspiracy theory, the myth that stands behind the Freemasons’ tablets and pillars of Enoch, the secret wisdom that that Templars allegedly possessed.
Blavatsky’s sources, though, were simply standard Masonic texts and anti-Masonic rants. By the time she wrote, the Masons had adopted Barruel’s libel as a point of honor and had concocted a fantastical history for their society tracing back through the Templars to Egypt and even the antediluvian world. Her direct source was the appendix to the English edition of Gottfried Joseph G. Findel’s History of Freemasonry (trans. 1869), in which the German historian dismissed a connection between Masonry and Templars except for one of admiration and imitation, but accepted that the Church rightly pegged the Templars as anti-Catholic heretics.
Blavatsky said nothing new, really, but she did package a wide variety of old ideas in one convenient place and helped fold the Templars into the stew of Atlantis, Nephilim, and occult rumblings that birthed the modern fringe history movement.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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