The study of new religions is a field which tends to be dominated by sociologists. I have no quarrel with sociological approaches; it is simply that they only tell part of the story about the phenomenon, just as my own specialism -- Religious Studies -- tells a mere part. It is a religion’s doctrines that drive its thinking, and my aim here is to unpack the various strands of ideas that contributed to the Order of the Solar Temple’s (OTS’s) thinking, and serve to explain the multiple deaths that occurred within the organisation in 1994 and 1997. The incidents were noteworthy, not merely because they involved multiple deaths, but on account of their timing: the initial news reports recounted five simultaneous deaths at Morin Heights, Quebec on 4 October 1994, and twenty-five the following day in Granges-sur-Salvan, Switzerland and a further twenty-three at Cheiry. On 15 December 1995 a further sixteen OTS members were found dead in Vercors, France, and another five in St Casimir, Quebec, in 1997.
In what follows I shall examine several spiritual traditions that significantly influenced the Solar Temple : Templarism, neo-Templarism, Rosicrucianism, Theosophy and the Arcane School which developed from it, the New Age Movement, and Christian apocalyptic ideas.
Although the most obvious of source of beliefs and practices is Templarism, I want to start with Theosophy, which has had an incalculable influence on many present-day NRMs. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky’s early interests included ancient Egyptian religion, and her book Isis Unveiled (1877) combines ancient Egyptian ideas with those of Eastern spirituality. Blavatsky’s notion of ‘mahatmas’ or ‘adepts’ -- supernatural beings with whom she claimed to have established contact -- were enlightened beings, now free from the cycle of birth and rebirth, but who chose to contact selected humans from their celestial abode, in order to help humankind. They later came to be known as ‘Ascended Masters’ or the ‘Great White Brotherhood’.
These ideas were developed further by Alice Bailey (1880-1949) and her Arcane School. In common with the early Theosophical founder-leaders, she claimed to have contact with Ascended Masters, in particular a spiritual being named Djwahl Khul. The first of these channelled writings was entitled Initiation: Human and Solar (1922). In this work Bailey taught of humankind’s debt to advanced spirits inhabiting the Sirius star system. She wrote:
First and foremost is the energy or force emanating from the sun Sirius. If it might be so expressed, the energy of thought, or mind force, in its totality, reaches the solar system from a distant cosmic center via Sirius. Sirius acts as the transmitter, or the focalizing center, whence emanate those influences which produce self-consciousness in man. During initiation, by means of the Rod of Initiation (acting as a subsidiary transmitter and as a powerful magnet) this energy is momentarily intensified, and applied to the centers of the initiate with terrific force; were it not that the Hierophant and the two sponsors of the initiate pass it primarily through their bodies, it would be more than he could stand. This increase of mind energy results in an expansion and an apprehension of the truth as it is, and is lasting in its effects. It is felt primarily in the throat center, the great organ of creation through sound. (Bailey, 1922, p.99, itals. original.)
Bailey’s subsequent books introduced the notion of the ‘reappearance of the Christ’. Jesus, Bailey taught, was a medium, whose body was inhabited and used by the Christ. This Christ would reappear sometime towards the end of the twentieth century, to herald a new age and inaugurate a new world in which people’s consciousness was heightened. The Masters would draw close to humanity, with the Christ heading the spiritual hierarchy. In order for this to happen, the conditions had to be right: this included the configuration of the planets, a spiritual awakening on the part of humanity, and invocation of the Masters.
It is hard to over-estimate Bailey’s influence on the Solar Temple. Di Mambro himself used Bailey’s Great Invocation to commence OTS ceremonies:
Let the Forces of Light bring illumination to mankind.
Let the Spirit of Peace be spread abroad.
May men of goodwill everywhere meet in a spirit of cooperation.
May forgiveness on the part of all men be the keynote at this time.
Let power attend the efforts of the Great Ones. So let it be, and help us to do our part (Bailey, 1951, p.571).
It is hardly necessary to point out of course, that the New Age Movement, in which Luc Jouret was caught up, also owes a considerable debt to Bailey.
Bailey’s preoccupation with Sirius, and her emphasis on Ascended Masters provided momentum to the modern Rosicrucian revival, and it is therefore necessary to examine the role of Rosicrucianism in the development of the Solar Temple. Rosicrucianism derives its name from Christian Rosenkreutz (trad. 1378-1484), who allegedly founded Spiritus Sanctum in 1409. Rosenkreutz may or may not have existed, but Spiritus Sanctum undoubtedly did -- it was an esoteric society which, among other things, allegedly used magical ritual for healing (alchemy), and which, more widely, was dedicated to the improvement of society.
It is worth noting at this point that alchemy is not necessarily to be understood as a form of primitive science. Although it is typically associated with attempts to transform base metals into gold, to discover a panacea or elixir, to create human life non-biologically, or to discover a philosopher’s stone that might accomplish any or all of these, many alchemists from the eighteenth century onwards came to regard alchemical discourse as symbolic and metaphorical, and associated more with religious than with scientific goals. Some alchemists taught that Christ was the philosopher’s stone, attaining perfection through death and resurrection. The nineteenth-century ‘spiritual alchemist’ Mary Anne Atwood wrote,
Alchemy is an universal art of vital chemistry which by fermenting the human spirit purifies and finally dissolves it. . . . Alchemy is philosophy; it is the philosophy, the finding of the Sophia in the mind. (Cited in Encyclopaedia Britannica CD, 1999.)
Alchemy thus offers the key to personal rather than physical transformation, which, as I shall argue, was the Solar Temple’s fundamental quest.
The original Templars were initially led by the Cistercian Abbot Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), who was appointed to lead the Crusades against the Muslims, and formally disbanded by Pope Clement V in 1312, the last historically accredited Grand Master being Jacques de Molay (1244-1314).
The physician Bernard-Raymond Fabré-Palaprat (1773-1838), who is regarded as the founder-leader of modern Templarism when the movement experienced a revival in the late eighteenth century. Fabré-Palaprat established his own rival ‘Johannite’ Church, which was based on the teachings of a book entitled the Levitikon, which made reference to Jesus’ ‘lost years’: he allegedly spent his youth in Egypt, where he became a priest of Isis and gained initiation into the Egyptian mysteries. Fabré-Palaprat claimed to have discovered a covert but unbroken lineage of Grand Masters, running from Jacques de Molay to himself. Fabré-Palaprat secured ordination as an ‘irregular bishop’ -- that is to say, someone who is ordained in the Church’s apostolic session, and in the correct manner, but without the Church’s authority: such ordinations are therefore considered ‘valid’, but not ‘legal’. As Introvigne observes, neo-Templarism thus became intertwined with various independent Christian-related organisations with irregular bishops. Luc Jouret, he believes, was probably not consecrated as an irregular bishop within these traditions, but was possibly an ‘irregular’ priest.
The more recent revivals of Templarism and Rosicrucianism are in forms that inextricably intertwine. However, two inter-related organisations are of key importance in the development of the Order of the Solar Temple: the Ancient Mystical Order of the Rosy Cross (AMORC), and the Renewed Order of the Temple (ORT).
AMORC (established in 1904, assuming its present name in 1915) is structured into Lodges: a Lodge required at least 50 members, and was empowered to perform Degree Initiation Rituals. In common with the Order of the Solar Temple, the Lodge had two inner sanctums, namely Chapters and Pronaoi. (Pronaos is the Greek for ‘antechamber’.)
Of key importance in the rise of the Order of the Solar Temple was Julian Origas (1920-1983), who was a member of AMORC, but came to lead his own Rosicrucian organisation, the Renewed Order of the Temple. ORT was founded in 1970 by Raymond Bernard (b.1923). Bernard was the leader of AMORC in the French-speaking world, but he swiftly gave way to Origas, finally abandoning neo-Templarism in 1972. Origas continued to lead the movement until his death in 1983.
A further key figure in the development of the Solar Temple was Jacques Breyer (1922-1996), who inaugurated what has come to be known as the Arginy Renaissance, which began in 1952. Breyer identified Arginy as the original location at which Hughes de Payens, together with his nine knights, founded the Order of the Temple on 12 June 1118. Breyer drew on apocalyptic ideas, teaching of an imminent destruction and the possibility of escape; he mentioned 1995 as the year in which this would take place, although he also cited other dates. He established the Sovereign Order of the Solar Temple on 24 June 1966.
Breyer’s organisation was distinctive in a number of ways. He created clubs, which provided a means of introducing seekers to his Templar group, and to spread the ideas of Templarism. Unlike traditional Templarism, which claimed to trace a physical lineage of Grand Masters, the Solar tradition was based on presumed psychic contact with spirits of the mediaeval Templars, with whom it continued to encourage mediumistic communication. Belief in psychical communication provided an effective means of solving the problem of the unbroken tradition of Grand Masters: Templarism’s past Masters could re-emerge in apparitional form and participate in initiations. Breyer also drew to a considerable degree on Alice A. Bailey’s writings, and his organisation, which gave rise to the OTS, laid emphasis on communication with the Ascended Masters, the star-cluster Sirius as their point of origin, and the apocalyptic elements to which Bailey had attached great significance.
Joseph Di Mambro’s connections with AMORC and with Breyer’s movement are well accredited. He joined AMORC in 1956 and remained a member until 1970, by which time he had become associated with the Arginy movement. He had become a teacher of the occult, and in 1978 he founded the Golden Way Foundation. This organisation was open to the public, and thus provided a means of introducing the uninitiated into Templarism. The Foundation’s premises were called The Pyramid, and they also housed the Fraternity. Luc Jouret joined the Golden Way Foundation in 1982.
In 1981 a joint meeting was held between the Renewed Order of the Temple, the Sovereign Order of the Solar Temple (another neo-Templar organisation) and the Golden Way Foundation, at which an important ceremony, renewing their Templarist oath of allegiance, was enacted. Di Mambro came to regard this ceremony as the founding ceremony of the Solar Temple (Introvigne and Mayer, 2002, p.177). Luc Jouret was present at this event, and became introduced to Origas. Origas and Jouret established a rapport, and it seems that Origas nominated him as his successor. When he died in 1983, Luc Jouret officiated at his funeral.
After Origas’ death Luc Jouret became Grand Master. This caused disquiet to Origas’ widow and their daughter Catherine. A split emerged, in which the majority of members followed Catherine, leaving Jouret to establish his own schismatical group in 1984, called the International Order of Chivalry Solar Tradition (OICST), which became the precursor of the Order of the Solar Temple.
According to Mayer, Jouret talked in 1987 about an imminent apocalypse that the earth was facing; humankind, he affirmed, had reached the end of the kali yuga, a 6,000-year period at the end of which there would be ecological disaster. However, a New Age was dawning, and survival was possible if the earth’s inhabitants showed due concern for the environment. The Solar Temple , in fact, went on to set up designated survival centres, in Quebec and in Australia.
Jouret defined the following seven principles as the goals of the Solar Temple. These were derived from the Sovereign Order of the Solar Temple, in virtually unaltered form. Collectively they re-enforce the notion of a global predicament, a need for re-appraising one’s values, and a transition to an ideal state involving a renewed earth.
(1) Re-establishing the correct notions of authority and power in the world.
(2) Affirming the primacy of the spiritual over the temporal.
(3) Giving back to man the conscience of his dignity.
(4) Helping humanity through its transition.
(5) Participating in the Assumption of the Earth in its three frameworks: body, soul, and spirit.
(6) Contributing to the union of the Churches and working towards the meeting of Christianity and Islam.
(7) Preparing for the return of Christ in solar glory.
(Cited in Peronnik, 1975, pp. 147-149).
During this stage of the OTS’s development, Mayer notes, Jouret’s message was world-affirming and positive. This contrasts with the ‘transit letters’, which were world-renouncing and pessimistic about the planet’s future. Mayer reports that one of the four ‘transit letters’ rejected the idea of positive creative forces in the earth, recommending withdrawal from the world in the face of coming destruction. Another stated that the group’s mission had been interrupted prematurely: the author maintained that the group had been misunderstood, deploring the police investigations of the group and the blackmail to which Di Mambro had been subjected. A third letter spoke of scandals relating to the group, and the need to punish ‘traitors’.
A number of factors, internal and external to the group, may well have contributed to the tragedy. In the external world, there was little to inspire confidence in the late 1980s and early 1990s that the earth was becoming renewed. Although the demise of communism in Eastern Europe had given some religious organisations (including NRMs) hope of a better world, the demise of communism was violent, and other wars marred the planet, for example the Iraq war, and the escalating Arab-Israeli conflict. Jouret may also have felt that there was little evidence that an ecological disaster might be averted. Added to this, the OTS had its own problems, to which Palmer and others drew attention.
As I have suggested, the group’s problems are insufficient to explain the disasters. The acceptance of death as the solution must be related to an emergent worldview within the OTS. A number of key themes within the organisation, I believe, help to explain Jouret’s ultimate solution to their problems. First, I have identified the role of Sirius in the group’s thinking. This was the home of the Ascended Masters, who had appeared on earth in discarnate form in the OTS’s subterranean chambers. But if the Ascended Masters were not enabling humanity to achieve the golden age on earth, then it is an understandable step, although perhaps not a justifiable one, to transpose the notion of the transformed earth to another world -- Sirius -- to which they would journey. This transit can be viewed in terms of spiritual alchemy: it purported to provide a means whereby the souls of the OTS members could be transformed to perfected beings in this new world.
A second key theme was reincarnation. In the OTS’s worldview the soul was the essence of the self, and not the body, and the soul was capable of transmigrating from one body to another. As we have seen, both Di Mambro and Jouret, as well as several of leading OTS members, claimed to be reincarnated forms of various spiritual leaders who had previously left their bodies, and conversely a number of the Ascended Masters themselves had once inhabited human bodies, but had now moved on to a higher plane. If humans could end up as spiritual beings on Sirius, this set a precedent for present-day earthly mortals: transition was a realistic possibility. Introvigne has suggested that the role of fire in the incident was an attempt to ensure that members’ bodies were destroyed, to prevent the possibility of souls returning to them.
A third theme was the apocalyptic message. Jouret held that the earth was in its last days, and probably concluded that it was irredeemable. In common with much traditional apocalyptic writing, Di Mambro and Jouret not only believed in earthly opposition to the group, but projected this opposition to a supernatural plane: evil forces and an Antichrist were confronting the group, and required more than conventional ways of being dealt with. Not only did Emmanuelle Dutoit have to die, but in a ritual manner that exorcised the evil forces that were at work.
Allied to the apocalyptic message was the final theme of the periodisation of human history, and the use of astrology and numerology to reach the conclusion that the earth was in its last days. Christian apocalyptic and the Rosicrucian notion of historical eras starting from the earth’s creation, and the astrological evidence of a transition from the Age of Pisces to the Age of Aquarius, all pointed to a crucial point in the earth’s history, which the group associated with the appearance of the star Sirius. A date sometime near the end of the twentieth century is consistent with a number of millennium end-time calculations, marking variously the end of a 2000-year astrological era (Pisces), the 6,000th year of creation, 2,000 years after Jesus’ birth (normally reckoned to be either 4 B.C.E. or 7 B.C.E. by historians), and it is consistent with dates suggested by Bailey and Breyer. There were only short windows of opportunity to make the transition. It is not unreasonable to suggest that, like the slightly later Heaven’s Gate group, they expected their souls to depart from their bodies and journey to the star Sirius.
Any attempt to reconstruct the worldview of a spiritual group, most of whose initiates are now dead, and whose rites and teachings are esoteric, must inevitably be tentative. What has been outlined above is, I believe, consistent with the known facts about the OTS, and in line with the various traditions on which the group drew. Unless one assumes, contrary to reliable research, that there are spiritual teachers who are capable of mesmerising and ‘brainwashing’ their followers in such a way as to make them commit suicide for unobvious cynical purposes, one must look to the leaders’ and members’ worldview to explain their deviant behaviour. Although it may be the case that members of the Solar Temple were drawn to the organisation by the rituals rather than the teachings, doctrines provide the underlying rationale for a spiritual group’s practices, and, in the case of the Solar Temple, for its untimely end.
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------. Les Mythes du Temple Solaire. (The myths of the Solar Temple). Geneva: Georg, 1996.
------. “‘Our Terrestrial Journey Is Coming to an End’: The Last Voyage of the Solar Temple.” Nova Religio, no. 2 (April 1999): 172-196.
Palmer, Susan J. “Purity and Danger in the Solar Temple.” Journal of Contemporary Religion, 11, no. 3 (1996): 303-318.
Partridge, C. (ed.). Encyclopedia of New Religions: New Religious Movements, Sects and Alternative Spiritualities. Oxford: Lion, 2004.
Peronnik (pseudonym of Robert Chabrier), Porquoi la Resurgence de l'Ordre du Temple? Tome Premier: Le Corps (Why a Templar Revival? Vol. One: The Body) 1975, pp. 147-149.
© George D. Chryssides 2005
Dr G D Chryssides, University of Wolverhampton, Religious Studies, School of Humanities Languages and Social Sciences, Millennium City Building, Wulfruna Street, Wolverhampton, WV1 1SB, England UK.