The Oxford English Dictionary says that the first appearance of the name “Baphomet” in English was in the book The View of the State of Europe During the Middle Ages by Henry Hallam, published in 1818. Here the word was described as “an early French corruption of ‘Mahomet’,” the name of the Muslim prophet, more frequently spelled “Mohammed” in modern times. This is a theory that has been supported by many other authors since then. There are two main reasons behind this. One is that the Templars were suspected at the time of their trials of having been secret converts to Islam. In at least one of the knight’s confessions he mentioned that he had been taught to exclaim the word “Yallah” during the blasphemous ceremonies, which he said was “a word of the Saracens.” Also, according to scholars, “Mahomet” was used in the Middle Ages as a generic word for “idol.”
But there have been other interpretations as well. The writer responsible for our modern understanding of Baphomet was a mid-nineteenth-century occult author named Eliphas Levi. Born Alphonse Louis Constant, he was the son of a shoemaker in Paris who had studied in the Seminary of St. Sulpice, a known hotbed of occultism and heretical thinking. He eventually dropped out, got married and began writing books about ritual magic that were published in the 1850s under the Hebraicized version of his name.
Levi’s main thesis was that all forms of occultism and mysticism held a common, secret doctrine. Ritual magic, he said, utilized the existence of what he called the “Astral Light,” defined as “a natural and divine agent, at once corporeal and spiritual, an universal plastic mediator, a common receptacle for vibrations of movement and images of form, a fluid and a force which may be called, in a sense at least, the imagination of nature.” (1) It was this agent which reflected the magician’s will, expressed during a ritual, and actualized it into existence. He illustrated this concept with a hieroglyphic form which he called “Baphomet,” claiming that this was the spiritual principle secretly revered by the Templars. Levi used this picture as the frontispiece for a number of his books.
At first glance Levi’s Baphomet looks like the Devil himself. But that is only because the most common modern depiction of the Devil is based on the card of the same name in the popular Rider-Waite tarot deck, and this card is itself based on Levi’s depiction of Baphomet. Certainly the creature presented by Levi looks demonic and evil, with the head and legs of a goat, along with a human torso sporting both male and female sexual organs. On its forehead is that foremost symbol of witchcraft, the pentagram, and between its horns issues forth an enflamed torch.
Levi repeatedly stated that Baphomet was not the same as the Devil, however. Rather it was a symbol of a transcendental power beyond good an evil, man and beast, or male and female energies. Baphomet was in Levi’s view the synthesis of all energy, both on Earth and in Heaven, forming something greater than the sum of its parts, capable of performing any transformation of matter which the human mind could conceive. As for the meaning of the word, Levi suggested it was a code, made up of abbreviations for the Latin words “Templi omnium hominum pacis abhas,” meaning “the father of universal peace among men.”
Levi wrote many books in which he proclaimed the virtues of Baphomet, and of the universal agent which he said the figure represented. His writings, translated into English by A.E. Waite, helped to spread the occult revival which swept Europe in the mid-1800s. His ideas contributed greatly to the type of magic that was practiced by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Later, at the turn of the twentieth century, one Golden Dawn student, Aleister Crowley, not only adapted many of Levi’s ideas, but saw himself as a reincarnation of Levi. He took on “Baphomet” as his own initiatory name in the magical order he headed: the Order of Oriental Templars (a.k.a. “Ordo Templi Orientis,” or “O.T.O.”) Crowley also chose to use Islamic terminology when he proclaimed himself the “Caliph” of the O.T.O.
Towards the end of his life, Eliphas Levi himself had come to question his dabblings in the occult. When he had quit the seminary as a young man, his mother had actually committed suicide, perhaps because of her disappointment in her son’s life choice. Levi had apparently carried that guilt with him his whole life, and as he neared death, he converted back to Catholicism. His final book, Magic: A History of Its Rites, Rituals and Mysteries, was a sad attempt to reconcile the faith of his family with the occult ideas he had promoted all along. The text if full of statements which contradict those found in his previous works. He came to describe Baphomet as a false idol, and the Templars as practitioners in Black Magic:
“For their better success, and in order to secure partisans, they fostered the regrets of every fallen worship and the hopes of every new cultus, promising to all liberty of conscience and a new orthodoxy which should be the synthesis of all persecuted beliefs. They even went so far as to recognize the pantheistic symbolism of the grand masters of Black Magic, and the better to isolate themselves from obedience to a religion by which they were condemned beforehand, they rendered divine honors to the monstrous idol Baphomet, even as of old the dissenting tribes had adored the Golden Calf of Dan and Bethel. Certain monuments of recent discovery and certain precious documents belonging to the thirteenth century offer abundant proof of all that is advanced here. Other evidences are concealed in the annals and beneath the symbols of Occult Masonry.”
There are three very interesting lines in this last quote. The first is his description of the secret Templar doctrine as “the synthesis of all persecuted beliefs.” The second is his claim that “monuments of recent discovery” and “precious documents belonging to the thirteenth century” proved that the Templars were guilty of worshipping this demonic idol. The third is the proposition that the deepest secrets of Baphomet are hidden within the codes of Masonic symbolism.
The second point may indicate where Levi got his idea of the Baphomet image from. After all, the Templar confessions described Baphomet mainly as a head. True, some of them told of rituals in which the behind of a goat was kissed. But where did Levi get the idea for a winged half-human, half-goat androgyne? According to various writers, Levi based his depiction of Baphomet on a gargoyle that he found on a former Templar property, either in Saint Bris le Vineux in Burgundy, Lanleff in Brittany, or St. Merri in Paris. This brings us to a series of depictions of similar creatures discovered on Templar properties by a nineteenth-century Austrian Orientalist scholar named Joseph, Baron von Hammer-Purgstall, presented in his book Mystery of Baphomet Revealed. In it he documented a number of objects discovered at Templar properties throughout Europe.
Von Hammer-Purgstall’s “Baphometic Idols,” as they were later called by other authors, consisted mostly of statuettes, coffers and cups presenting strange images of inhuman figures. Seven of the images show only a head, and in two of these cases it is a head with two faces, much akin to the descriptions given by some Templars of the Baphomet head. Many of them were decorated with scenes of bizarre sexual ceremonies of a seemingly religious nature. The figures presented were in some cases covered all over their bodies with multiple eyes, or with serpents.
One image in particular, from the lid to a coffer found in Burgundy, looks most especially like it might have influenced Eliphas Levi’s depiction of Baphomet. It shows a female or androgynous figure crowned with towers ala the goddess Cybele of the ancient world. He/she is holding in each hand a chain, and connected to each chain, floating in the air and upside-down, are the figures of the Sun and the Moon. Below the figure’s feet are a 7-pointed star and a pentagram. Between these is a human skull.
This combination of images was not unique, but rather turned up repeatedly at Templar properties surveyed by Baron Von Hammer-Purgstall, and in other versions the figure is shown with a beard, making it quite clear that it was meant to be taken as androgynous. This, then, may have been why Eliphas Levi chose to depict Baphomet in this way. The origin of the goat-headed aspect of Levi’s Baphomet can be found in the Von Hammer-Purgstall collection as well. This is a depiction of a winged and goat-headed figure with human legs seated upon an eagle. Arabic, Greek, and Latin inscriptions were found among these images too. One in particular brings to mind the confessions of the Knights Templar about Baphomet. Von Hammer-Purgstall translated it thus:
“Let Mete be exalted, who causes things to bud and blossom! he is our root; it is one and seven; abjure (the faith), and abandon thyself to all pleasures.”
You will recall that some confessing Templars said Baphomet “caused the land to germinate.” Von Hammer-Purgstall believed that the Templars had been secret practitioners of Ophite Gnosticism, a sect I will discuss later on in this book. The word “Mete” in the translation above was a Greek word for “wisdom.” He believed “Baphomet” was an illusion to the Gnostic rite of “Bapho Metis,” the “Baptism of Wisdom.”
The word “Mete” has also been connected by some linguists to the name of the sun god Mithras, worshipped by some Gnostics as an incarnation of divine wisdom. Thus Aleister Crowley’s alterative interpretation of Baphomet as meaning “Father Mithras” can be considered part of the same family of translations. More recently Dr. Hugh Schonfield, known for his work on the Dead Sea Scrolls, also proffered an interpretation that again led back to this concept of divine wisdom or gnosis. He said that “Baphomet,” when transliterated into Aramaic and fed through a cipher, yields the word “Sophia,” another Greek word meaning “wisdom.” In a similar vein, Sufi scholar Idries Shah has suggested that the Templars were influenced by Islamic Sufism, and that the word “Baphomet” came from the Arabic “Abufihamat,” meaning “Father of Understanding.”
Thus it has been generally accepted among scholars that, one way or another, Baphomet represented to the Templars the concept of divine wisdom, and that they were secretly Gnostics. Thus many modern authors who are sympathetic to the Gnostic worldview have declared that the Templars were “innocent” of the charges against them. They were not guilty of Devil worship or practicing obscene rites, say these authors. They were merely “Gnostics.”
But such a point of view seems a bit naïve. As my investigation revealed, quite a wide variety of religious cults have been branded as “Gnostic” throughout history. Not all of them have shied away from extreme sexual practices, the blaspheming of the Judeo-Christian God, or the glorification of the Devil. If the Templars were indeed Gnostics, then none of the accusations against them were out of the question.
1) Magic: A History of Its Rites, Rituals and Mysteries, page 39. Dover Publications, New York, 2006 Edition.
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