A large number of readers have asked me to check in with the History Channel’s most popular current fringe series, Curse of Oak Island, after its episode on the Knights Templar, conveniently labeled S02E07 “The Trail of the Templars,” which aired December 16. I have no particular interest in Oak Island, which in 200 years has never provided any evidence that it is the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant, the Holy Grail, pirate booty, the lost works of Shakespeare, or the treasure of the Templars as fringe believers have claimed. However, I’m going to give this a go and see what this series has to say about the Knights Templar and their imaginary voyage to America.
The show opens with some boring business about pumping and digging, which I have elected to skip over. I moved ahead to the moment when the History Channel traveling circus comes together in Scotland, where Ancient Aliens pundit Kathleen McGowan (not going by her married name of Coppens on this show), who believes she is the descendant of Mary Magdalene, has brought along America Unearthed conspiracy theorist Alan Butler, whom regular readers will remember as the man who (a) believes the moon was built by time-traveling Freemasons and (b) whose writing partner threatened to sue me over a book review of their coauthored book nearly a decade ago. The narrator, who does double duty over on Ancient Aliens, informs us that Butler has done “extensive research on the Knights Templar,” which somehow seems to involve not reading the primary sources.
McGowan and Butler believe that the Cathars gave the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail to the Knights Templar, who took them to Scotland. This seems a bit unbelievable since the Templars and the Cathars did not share similar doctrines, and, when push came to shove, the Templars resident in the Cathar areas of France eventually joined with Catholic forces in suppressing the Cathars. It was the Cathars, not the Templars, who venerated Mary Magdalene. The Templars were virulently misogynistic, giving no special place to the Magdalene and recording in the Templar Rule that the “company of women is a dangerous thing, for by it the old Devil has led many from the straight path to paradise” (clause 70, trans. J. Upton-Ward).
Butler, however, says that because Robert the Bruce and the Scottish were excommunicated for a 1306 murder that made him king, the Templars sought refuge in Scotland after the suppression of their order in 1307. The narrator says that they took 18 ships full of treasure from La Rochelle to Scotland. This is based entirely on a single sentence from the testimony of one Templar, extracted under torture, in 1308 at a papal inquiry at Portiers. I’ve presented this testimony from Jean de Châlons more than once, but it bears repeating since it is the only support for this elaborate claim:
Then he said that, learning beforehand about this trouble, the leaders of the Order fled, and he himself met Brother Gerard de Villiers leading fifty horses; and he heard it said that he set out to sea with eighteen galleys and that Brother Hugues de Châlons fled with the whole treasure of Brother Hugues de Pairaud. When asked how he was able to keep this fact secret for so long, he responded that no one would have dared reveal it for anything, if the Pope and the King had not opened the way, for if it were known in the Order that anyone had spoken, he would at once be killed. (Vatican Secret Archives, Registra Avenionensia 48, f450r; my trans.)
As I have mentioned in the past, the word translated above as “galley” is galea, a borrowing from the Byzantine Greek, meaning a single-decked oared warship; they were not oceangoing vessels but meant to hug the coasts. Do Butler and McGowan think that the Knights Templar sailed to Scotland with just 51 men in 18 ships—less than three men per ship? These ships had crews of anywhere from a hundred to up to 1,000 men apiece. Where did the crews come from to run these vessels, and why did they leave no record of their existence? Surely anywhere from 200 to 18,000 people vanishing overnight would be worthy of note. Note, too, that the treasure and the galleys are separate in the account, though later writers conflate them. But since neither McGowan nor Butler wants to deal with the only original source, they instead claim that the treasure of the Cathars arrived in Scotland on these Templar ships to be stowed in a nearby abbey.
After some boring material back at the island, McGowan tells the Oak Island crew that there is a “strong tradition” of the Ark of the Covenant in Kilwinning, Scotland, which is not true at all. It appears only in fringe history conspiracy theories, derived, as best I can tell, backward from the fact that in the eighteenth century the Freemasons, under the first Grand Master, Baron William St. Clair (Sinclair) of Roslin (Rosslyn), held their annual meetings at Kilwinning. Therefore, since the noble Sinclair family of Roslin are ascribed Templar secrets in Freemason conspiracy theories, conspirators have reasoned backward that centuries earlier the family must have retrieved the Ark from Kilwinning when they ensconced it at Rosslyn Chapel. Butler tells the Oak Islanders that, while there is no evidence, he sees Kilwinning as the only logical choice for a Templar port of call in Scotland, and he falsely asserts that Freemasonry derives directly from the Templars.
Following some more boring island digging, we visit Rosslyn Chapel, where the narrator falsely claims that its builder, the fifteenth-century William Sinclair, 1st earl of Caithness, came from a family with close Templar ties. This is not supported by any documentation, and the extant records show that Sinclair family members testified against the Templars during their heresy trials more than a century before.
At the chapel, the Oak Islanders go looking for “symbols” that they claim connect Rosslyn to the Mi’kmaq (Micmac) of Nova Scotia via Henry Sinclair, the medieval earl of Orkney whom conspiracy theorists falsely believe traveled to America because they accept the offhand 1784 comment of the dispossessed Scottish nobleman Johann Reinhold Forster that the name of a fictional character in a Renaissance era hoax is that of Sinclair: “This name of Sinclair appears to me to be expressed by the word Zichmni,” Reinhold wrote. But the so-called “Zeno Narrative” in which Zichmni appears never mentions America, and it is at any rate a fairly obvious hoax whose parts Fred W. Lucas carefully traced back to earlier sources in 1898. Even taken at face value, the narrative states only that Zichmni traveled to Greenland and settled there.
Using the passive voice, the narrator tells us that “it has been reported that the Mi’kmaq saw Henry Sinclair as a god named Glooscap.” This is true only in the technical sense that Frederick J. Pohl made that claim by misunderstanding an 1894 retelling of Mi’kmaq legends. Pohl misread the book as a book about Glooscap, and as I have demonstrated previously therefore concocted similarities between Glooscap and Sinclair that did not exist since the stories he used were often not about Glooscap.
The narrator then tells us that the Mi’kmaq and Henry Sinclair shared the same Templar-influenced battle flag, with a red cross on a white background and a red star and crescent moon. This flag does not exist in Europe and has no record whatsoever in any of the Henry Sinclair documents that exist. Henry’s arms, so far as we can reconstruct them, involved a black cross, and there is no account of a flag. The Mi’kmaq flag is a modern design but is based on symbols that the Mi’kmaq themselves explain that they adopted from French Catholic priests in the 1600s. European accounts agree. The specific Catholic priest from whom the cross was adopted is actually known. His name was Jessé Fléché. The exact moment when the Mi’kmaq adopted a red cross as a Mi’kmaq symbol is recorded by Marc Lescarbot in The Conversion of the Savages written in 1610:
Chkoudun, a man of great influence, of whom I have made honorable mention in my History of New France, because I saw that he, more than all the others, loved the French, and that he admired our civilization more than their ignorance: to such an extent, that being present sometimes at the Christian admonitions, which were given every Sunday to our French people, he listened attentively, although he did not understand a word; and moreover wore the sign of the Cross upon his bosom, which he also had his servants wear; and he had in imitation of us, a great Cross erected in the public place of his village, called Oigoudi, at the port of the river saint John, ten leagues from Port Royal.
A guide at Rosslyn Chapel asserts the truth of the Henry Sinclair myth and shows the men some stylized foliage carved above a window that she says is maize, even though it looks nothing like maize. A stylized three-petal flower is asserted to be a trillium, native to North America, though it could be any sort of flower, such as an iris.
After some more digging back on Oak Island, we hear a presentation from Alan Butler. “It’s time to connect the dots,” he says. Butler claims that flat paving stones found on Oak Island in 1795 are a threshing floor, but not the kind used for separating wheat from chaff. Instead, it was a spiritual threshing floor like that atop which Solomon built his Temple (2 Chronicles 3:1). Butler says that this is connected to the Freemasons’ Royal Arch of Enoch. The narrator tells us that “ancient texts” connected to Enoch state that he built an underground vault to protect the world’s ancient treasures. This doesn’t appear in the Enochian literature, but it is connected with claims about Hermes and the pyramids from medieval lore, drawing on Ammianus Marcellinus, Roman History 22.15.30, which writes of underground Egyptian chambers of wisdom. Later, medieval writers identified Hermes with Enoch and folded in the so-called Prophecy of Adam, which involved the creation of tablets or pillars of wisdom which were kept safe from the Flood. You can read about a dozen versions of that story on my all-new Watchers page, collecting as many accounts of the Fallen Angels and their tablets of wisdom as I can find. In Freemasonry’s Matthew Cooke Manuscript (c. 1450), these wisdom tablets were not associated with Enoch but were instead composed by Jubal, who hid them before the Flood. Hermes and Pythagoras found them thereafter and restored science (folios 12-15).
Butler asserts that Masons believe that Enoch constructed eight chambers beneath the Temple Mount, the last of which contains tablets of wisdom. This was a new one on me, and it took a little while for me to figure out where it came from. I see that in the 1990s, Robert Cox, writing in The Pillars of Celestial Fire attributed the story that Enoch built underground chambers of wisdom to Flavius Josephus, but it does not appear in Josephus. Instead, such claims for Josephus—which fly around the internet and are in dozens of fringe books—seem to be a misreading of a passage in Manly P. Hall’s crazy-quilt Secret Teachings of All Ages (1923), which summarizes Josephus on the pillars of wisdom built by Seth’s children before stating the following:
The Patriarch Enoch—whose name means the Initiator—is evidently a personification of the sun, since he lived 365 years. He also constructed an underground temple consisting of nine vaults, one beneath the other, placing in the deepest vault a triangular tablet of gold bearing upon it the absolute and ineffable Name of Deity. According to some accounts, Enoch made two golden deltas. The larger he placed upon the white cubical altar in the lowest vault and the smaller he gave into the keeping of his son, Methuseleh, who did the actual construction work of the brick chambers according to the pattern revealed to his father by the Most High. In the form and arrangement of these vaults Enoch epitomized the nine spheres of the ancient Mysteries and the nine sacred strata of the earth through which the initiate must pass to reach the flaming Spirit dwelling in its central core.
This is obviously where Alan Butler got his ideas. But where did Hall? Hall, in turn, takes the above almost verbatim from Charles T. McClenechan’s The Book of the Ancient & Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry (1868):
Enoch, accepting his vision as an inspiration, journeyed in search of the mountain he had seen in his dream, until, weary of the search, he stopped in the land of Canaan, then already populous with the descendants of Adam, and there employed workmen; and with the help of his son Methuselah, he excavated nine apartments, one above the other, and each roofed with an arch, as he had seen in his dream, the lowest being hewn out of the solid rock. In the crown of each arch he left a narrow aperture, closed with a square stone, and over the upper one he built a modest temple, roofless and of huge unhewn stones, to the Grand Architect of the Universe.
McClenachan goes on to say that Enoch’s tablet ended up in the Ark of the Covenant and thus in Solomon’s Temple, which had nine underground vaults—different vaults from Enoch’s, contrary to Butler’s version, which is derived from Hall. In case you care, in the passage above the first pillar is of granite to identify it with Egyptian obelisks, while the second pillar is of brass because of the 1701 Masonic Alnwick Manuscript’s reference to the two pillars of stone having two names, “Marble” and “Laturus,” which later Masons took to be brass. The word comes from the Alnwick Manuscript rewriting the earlier 1450 Cooke Manuscript (on my Watchers page), which says that the pillars were made of two different materials, marble and “latres.” The Cooke Manuscript’s source, the Latin Polychronicon of c. 1330, quotes Josephus on the pillars of stone and brick but gives the pillar of brick as being made of “lateritia,” an obscure variant of the Latin word for brick, later (genitive: lateris). The Freemasons seem to have wanted to identify Enoch’s pillars with Hiram’s two bronze pillars for the Temple of Solomon and chose to make it brass when the real meaning of lateritia faded away. This is doubly odd since by the time of McClenachan, anyone could have checked Josephus to see that this wasn’t the case, but by then the myth was more important than the translation errors that created it.
Alan Butler quotes Hall (without citation) on the treasure being “a short distance away” and therefore tells the Oak Islanders that they are close to the treasure because he has chosen to conflate the threshing-floor with the marble column of wisdom. He relates the distance to his pretend measurement of 366 “megalithic yards,” which is just about 1,000 British feet—the actual unit of measurement used, within tolerance, by British people. Kathleen McGowan then tells them that Oak Island is destined to be the New Jerusalem, which she claims will be built on “an island of swamp” according to ancient prophecy. She’s making stuff up, right? Revelation 22 says only that a river of the water of life flows down the middle of the New Jerusalem. She must be referring to Isaiah 35:7, where in the future God will make the deserts erupt with water, with grass and rushes. Still not the same thing as the city appearing in a preexisting swamp.
It is, however, a good metaphor for the History Channel traveling circus’s approach to truth, turning dry history into a fetid swamp of misinformation and misunderstanding rather than into a lush garden of vibrancy and life.
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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