WHAT’S IN A NAME: HOW A MEDIEVAL FRENCH TYPO MIGHT HAVE COME TO REPRESENT SATANISM
By: Matthew Phelan
Baphomet: the name means different things to different people. To ceremonial occultist (and posthumous hard rock icon) Aleister Crowley, Baphomet was the true name of the solar deity “Father Mithra.” It had been disclosed to Crowley and his then-wife Roddie Minor by the inter-dimensional wizard Amalantrah — whom the couple had reportedly summoned on January 20th, 1918, during a complex “magical operation” in their West 9th Street studio apartment. To Anton Szandor LaVey, the founder of the Church of Satan, “the symbol of Baphomet was used by the Knights Templar to represent Satan,” as he stated in his 1969 Satanic Bible. For today’s Satanic Temple, in the words of its co-founder and spokesman Lucien Greaves, Baphomet “embodies opposites and celebrates contrasts […] above and below, part animal, part human. Male and female.”
For Malcolm Barber however, the name Baphomet is little more than a transliteration error. An emeritus professor of medieval history at the University of Reading in the UK, Barber believes that the name comes from a 12th Century typo politicized into heresy by King Philip IV of France and the Catholic Church, and then imbued with Gnostic significance by many others. “The origin of this probably goes back to the French government’s accusation that the Templars worshiped idols and that they did this because they had, in effect, apostatized,” Barber explained. “Baphomet appears to be the Old French word for Muhammed, and therefore it is not surprising that some Templars [a Western Christian military order intimately involved in the Crusades] might use the word.” A specialist in the High Middle Ages, Barber has been a notable scholar on those popular objects of occult fascination, the Knights Templar, since at least 1978 — when he first published his Trial of the Templars. “Of course, no Muslims ever worshiped idols, either then or since,” Barber adds, “but there was a popular belief in the 12th and 13th Centuries that they did, and the French lawyers seem to have been exploiting this to discredit the Templars.”
To someone untrained in linguistics (me, for example), it’s hard to grasp the intercontinental game of telephone that must have led these crusaders and their French countryman to transform the name of the Muslim prophet, first into Mohamet, and then into the feared idol Baphomet. It helps to note that both “m” and “b” sounds are what severe phonics wonks call bilabial consonants, meaning consonants generated by the use of both lips. (Try it out, if you want to. I did.) The best evidence that this fateful spelling error occurred, however, is its repeated contextual appearance in many chansons de geste — epic poems about the crusaders, and France’s other celebrated warriors, more literally translated as “songs of heroic deeds.” In the epic Ayemeri de Norbonne, for example, Baphomet is the name of a Muslim king “with twenty pagan warriors / who don’t believe in God, the king of majesty / nor in his mother most high.” Frequently, the name recurs in the context of Islam — as the uncle of a Muslim warrior in the Crusade poem Chanson d’Antioche, as a Muslim character in the 13th Century tale Enfances Guillaume, and as one of two Islamic gods in La vie de Saint Honorat — thus, reinforcing the theory that the name originated as a Provençal, or Old French, lexical mishap.
In a different world, that would be the end of it, but this is academia.
Tobias Churton is an expert on Rosicrucianism, Freemasonry, Gnosticism, and the occult, and a course lecturer at the Exeter Centre for the Study of Esotericism (EXESESO) — an institution I hope someone has the good sense to put into a Ghostbusters movie one day. In his 2005 book Gnostic Philosophy: From Ancient Persia to Modern Times, Churton challenged this scholarly consensus, acknowledging the likelihood that Baphomet originated as a botched transliteration from Arabic to French, but offering a few alternate etymological routes that it may have traveled to get there. According to Churton, “the Arabic abufihamet in Moorish Spanish comes out as bufihimat, and has been translated as ‘Father of Wisdom’ or ‘Father of Understanding.’ If we take the word as a transliteration from Greek, we could sustain βαϕη μηθρα (baphe methra), Baptism of Mithra.” (This may be something of a comfort to those rooting for the credibility and good name of Crowley’s inter-dimensional wizard friend: Mithra was a sun God borrowed from the Zoroastrian tradition in Persia, and worshiped in secretive ceremonies that were popular with Roman soldiers.)
For reasons too speculative and convoluted to bother recounting, Churton suggests in Gnostic Philosophy that “Baptism of Mithra” might have been a then-common regional euphemism for either rain, thunderstorms, or both. He also proposes that the multi-faced idol supposedly worshiped by the Knights Templar — which Inquisitors had labeled Baphomet — may well have been nothing more insidious or heretical than relics of St. Januarius, the patron saint of Naples, Italy.
Boring, but fair enough.
Certainly, this bears no relationship to the knowing whispers promising fun, not to mention top secret, esoterica which have thus far proven the Templars’ mettle as time-tested and commercially viable tabloid fodder. In Professor Barber’s estimation, “One of the problems of the subject is that the myth-makers and plain liars are taken too seriously. I was once so irritated by the association of the so-called Turin Shroud with the alleged Templar idol-worship, I wrote a detailed article refuting it.” That piece, “The Templars and the Turin Shroud” for the April 1982 Catholic Historical Review, was a response to a 1978 book by pop religion writer Ian Wilson, The Turin Shroud — the first in decade-spanning career Wilson has devoted to arguing that the Knights Templar were the Shroud’s secret guardians from A.D. 1204, when the Shroud was believed to be looted from Constantinople, to A.D. 1389, when this Frenchman, Geoffrey of Charney at Troyes, began showing it off. Wilson has written over half a dozen books on the Shroud since then, including 1998’s The Blood and the Shroud (“A stubborn but unconvincing apologia […] Wilson just refuses to let this issue die” – Kirkus Reviews) and 2010’s The Shroud: The 2000-Year-Old Mystery Solved (“Simply made no sense at all” – Charles Freeman, Yale University Press).
Befitting an academic whose life’s work has been superseded in the public eye by a wide variety of sensational infotainments, Professor Barber’s answer as to why latter day Satanists might regard Baphomet with such reverence is curmudgeonly and succinct. “I don’t really know why they should worship such a thing,” he said. “If there are those who worship this, they are hardly likely to take any notice of reasoned argument.”
And here, finally, is where things get weird again.
In 1818, an Austrian orientalist named Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall published an ominous-sounding and far-reaching theory about the Templars, tracing from them a long line of subversive radical groups back into antiquity, up to and including the Gnostics of the 2nd Century. The Gnostics were a wild and diverse movement of religious mystics — at least, for now, believed to have originated more-or-less contemporaneously with Christianity — whose varying sects overlapped with the early Coptic Christians in Egypt, the Middle Platonists of Greece, Hellenistic Judaism, Persian Zurvanism and others. The Gnostics were prolific authors of biblical apocrypha, sometimes mutually exclusive, sometimes syncretistic, including the Gospel of Judas, the Apocalypse of Thomas, and the Holy Book of the Great Invisible Spirit. Naturally, a lot of Gnostic beliefs were eventually branded heretical, as power around the Christian world ineluctably concentrated within the church in Rome. Here, von Hammer’s work built on this presumption of Gnosticism as false idolatry and demon worship.
Though he composed his arguments in Latin for an obscure German scholarly journal, von Hammer’s treatise on the Templars was eventually translated and republished in England and France, where it gained a devoted following. In English, his work was blessed with a curiously forward-thinking title that probably would still work today on basic cable: The Mystery of Baphomet Revealed. Among von Hammer’s innovations in Templar paranoia was, first, the conflation of the knights with the templeisen, guardians of the Holy Grail in the medieval German romance Parzival, and then the spooky insinuation that their Grail iconography was merely coded symbolism, whose true dark import bore no relationship to Christianity at all. One crucial biographical note: von Hammer was a paid subordinate during this period of the arch-reactionary diplomat and statesmen Prince Klemens von Metternich; he was more communications strategist than impartial scholar, in other words, employed by a privileged courtier on the make, whose goals very much included a quarantine and eradication of the French Revolution’s Jacobin spirit. Like many a Western aristocrat of this period, Metternich was actively entertaining the possibility that these radical democratic ideals (“Liberté, égalité, fraternité!”) had been covertly sponsored by occult secret societies, namely the now infamous Bavarian Illuminati and various orders of Freemasonry. The implication being that both von Hammer and his paymaster, von Metternich, saw a grave threat in their contemporaries, the Masonic Knights Templar (a group inspired by, but officially claiming no direct lineage with the medieval Templars); they saw in these masons a potential egalitarian challenge to the preexisting social hierarchies that they, and their betters, had so exquisitely benefited from.
Although von Hammer focused mainly on connecting the Templars to various Gnostic rituals; supposed sex rites, both infernal and, frankly, kind of tame; and the iconography of the androgynous idol Baphomet (similar to Eliphas Lévi’s later illustration) as purportedly inscribed on Templar coins, seals, and etc. — this did not stop his patrician fans from repackaging his accusations as straightforward devil worship. In 1872, for example, an excitable French librarian, Jules Loiseleur, published a derivative work, La Doctrine Secrète des Templiers, that selectively married von Hammer’s arguments with the most obviously coerced and hysterical confessions extracted from the medieval Templars by their inquisitors. Baphomet had finally been twisted into Lucifer, Prince of Darkness.
So, what is a practicing Satanist to do with all this information?
In some ways, worshiping Baphomet over the entity’s other arguably more historically accurate names is no different than Christians worshiping some guy named Jesus Christ due to a few sloppy transliteration errors from ancient Hebrew, to Greek, to Latin, and onward into countless human languages and probably whatever noises dolphins use. Given that the most accurate name for the Christian messiah is and was “Yeshua (ישוע)” or more formally “Y’hoshua (יְהוֹשֻׁעַ)” the least modern Christians could do is go with “Josh.” So, that’s one valid response.
Obviously, even a modest excavation of the historical record pulls up abundant evidence that just about anything not approved of by some Christian denomination or other has been irrationally condemned as Satanism in the past. By the time Anton LaVey had arrived on the scene — having first changed his name from the less scary Howard Levey — the act of self-identifying as a Satanist was not merely 60s’ youth culture provocation; it was arguably a kind of social justice reclamation project for America’s pagan minority, an act of defiance on par with the LGBT community confiscating and redeploying the word “queer.”
But something unexpected started happening years later in Oklahoma, when today’s Satanic Temple began their politically charged campaign against a divisive Ten Commandments sculpture.
On a Thursday night in October 2014, a 29-year-old man named Michael Tate Reed Jr., crashed his car into the Ten Commandments monument outside Oklahoma’s City’s capitol building. Satan, Reed told Secret Service agents, had told him to. The Prince of Darkness gave explicit directions, first to urinate on, and then to destroy, these stone replicas of Moses’ sacred tablets. Earlier that year, the Archbishop of Oklahoma City, Most Rev. Paul S. Coakley, had pressed formal charges against a Satanic group unaffiliated with the Satanic Temple and their Baphomet statue, the Dakhma of Angra Mainyu Syndicate. The Archbishop accused the Syndicate and its leader, Dastur Adam Daniels, of having stolen a consecrated host with the intent to desecrate it in a black mass: a truly bizarre moment in American jurisprudence, wherein the religious freedoms of one group were simultaneously manifested as a clear hate crime against another.
According to the legal brief, citing material from the Dakhma of Angra Mainyu Syndicate’s homepage, “Defendants describe what they plan to do with the consecrated host at the black mass: ‘The consecrated host is corrupted by sexual fluids, then it becomes the sacrifice of the mass…Defendants also plan to stomp on the consecrated host during the black mass. According to the defendants’ website, black masses can include ‘nudity, public urination, and other sex acts’ and have included ‘[f]orms of bestiality along with animal sacrifice.’” Dastur Daniels and his congregants were evidently something akin to “lawful evil,” as they ultimately agreed to return the consecrated host if the Archdiocese would agree to terminate their lawsuit with prejudice.
It was a heady couple of months in Oklahoma City, a bit reminiscent of that The X-Files episode “Die Hand Die Verletzt,” in which a Parent Teacher Committee of lukewarm Satanists accidentally invites hell upon their whole town: demonic retribution for having cut corners in their (no judgments!) infernal demon worship.
Good old fashioned horse sense — grounded admittedly in the very secular thinking of the corporeal world — would infer that all that had really happened here was that a couple of crazies had got a little too excited and a little too impulsive amidst a genuine Satanic media circus. And while that’s probably true, the episode speaks to an unnerving parallel transition from paganism and the occult into Satanism: the one traversed by America’s violent Neo-Nazi fringe across the same mid-century time period as their more benevolent contemporaries.
It’s no secret that the leadership of the Third Reich coalesced around a cult-like fascination with the arcane, melding traditional Germanic paganism, Theosophy, Aryan-esoteric theories, et. al, into a potent nativist ideology that odiously redefined the stature of Germany’s people against all others. It’s been the subject of major scholarly treatments, like Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke’s pioneering work The Occult Roots of Nazism, and two of the best Indiana Jones movies.
While the mystical practitioners of Nazism focused on reviving the völkisch spiritual cosmology of their ancestors — celebrated at its zenith prior to the imperial expansion of Rome — their future adherents in America’s Neo-Nazi movement joined other less malignant pagans in an adversarial pivot toward Satanism. In LaVey’s Church of Satan, for example, pagan symbols with explicit links to the Nazi SS evolved into widely adopted and semi-official church iconography: the Black Sun motif from Wewelsburg Castle, home to the SS School and its racial pseudo-science research center; the runic Wolfsangle; the ghoulish Totenkopf. In the early 1980s, Church of Satan acolyte, Temple of Set founder, and former U.S. Army Intelligence officer Michael Aquino visited Wewelsburg himself, performing a magical ritual in the castle’s North Tower hoping to tap into the well of mystical forces accreted there by Himmler’s military order. Everywhere, then, from the heights of America’s Satanic leadership to its isolated fringe practitioners, like serial killer Stanley Dean Baker, the syncretic intermingling of far right ideologies, Odinist neo-paganism, and Satanic exaltation was underway.
A look at some of the occasional advertisers in The Black Flame: International Forum of the Church of Satan provides some context for just how pervasive this intercrossing has been. An advertisement for the collected writings of Universal Order founder James Mason hailed his book as the “Mein Kampf of the 90’s.” A full-page ad for the Abraxas Foundation — adorned with a runic logo identical to that used by Austrian occultist and SS-Oberführer Karl Maria Wiligut — promoted its own publication Wake as a journal of “Social Darwinism, Primal Law, Resurgent Atavism [and] Blood Mysticism.”
As Peter Levenda put it in Unholy Alliance, his stellar examination of Nazi involvement with the occult, “Although publication in the Satanic Black Flame does not imply total acceptance by the editors of the content of these ads, it is safe to assume that the advertisers know where their market is.” Given all this — and this is just one person’s idea, humbly submitted — perhaps a dram of caution might be warranted in the more performative and politically motivated manifestations of Satanism today, within our unique political moment.
At a time when Roman Catholicism finally has an almost cool Supreme Pontiff, actively concerned with addressing environmental decline and income inequality; at a time wherein our elite overlords are chaos-worshiping Silicon Valley disrupters and creative destroyers; perhaps it is time for a few pagans, witches and Gnostic weirdos to reengage in that savvy ecumenicism that brought Christianity traditions like Easter Eggs, Christmas Trees, and Patron Saints (perhaps one of the greatest polytheism-to-monotheism cheats of all time). Maybe America could do with a noisy subversive Gnostic revival out competing for “heart and minds” against all those villainous aspiring theocrats, mega-church preacher-grifters, and Hot Profit Gospel saviors, stalking America’s airwaves, looking for unlucky marks with a soul to sell.
Ultimately, of course, as supernatural beings never seem to tire of saying in both scripture and fiction, they are “known by many names.” As a post-Enlightenment iteration of many a lusty, woolly, fertility god — the cloven-hooved Pan of the ancient Greeks, the Ram-like Banebdjedet of the Egyptians in Mendes, Burt Reynolds of the April 1972 issue of Cosmopolitan — “Baphomet” is just about as good a name as any.
I mean, right? (I could not really think of the right scholarly expert to ask.)
Images via Lucas; Bealzes Bud