I model a lot of my writing on bronze age and stone age mythology. People living today may have evolved considerably on a physical level, but I believe the biggest difference between us and our ancestors lies in our ability to store information outside of our own minds.
Writing. Records. Books. Decent filing systems. Databases.
Otherwise, we very much resemble the people who lived at the beginnings of our known history although it seems most of us want to believe that our intelligence or our humanity, our civilization, outshines cultures that practiced human sacrifice or cannibalism. We’re much better than that, right? Not biologically. No. We may not be superior, but our ability to communicate is more advanced. We can share photos of our cats anywhere. Instantly. Ancient Egyptians would be SO jealous.
I think a lot about what the ancient world must have been like without information. Even before the internet, we had encyclopedias and libraries and telephones and broadcast television and newspapers keeping us from lacking knowledge of history as well as current events.
During my research for the second book in my Immortal Coffee Series, which is a post apocalyptic narrative, I was ravenously devouring documentaries about Mesopotamia, where civilization began in the Western world, when I ran into the same problem.
No one is objective about the origins of human civilization
On one end of the spectrum, you find archeologists making assertions that what cannot be proven doesn’t exist and lay persons on the other, sometimes accrediting their preconceived theories with degrees, trying to show that the evidence supports events in their religious text. Everyone has a personal agenda. Objectivity is rare regarding this region of the world, because the early myths and cultures gave rise to Judaism, Islam and Christianity.
In general, I notice the academics interviewed in documentaries tend to maintain complete skepticism and avoid acknowledging the possible historical value of the writings combined to form religious texts. They’re quick to cry, “Confirmation bias!!” at anyone drawing a connection between an event in the Bible or Quran and archeological evidence in modern Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the surrounding regions.
Unfortunately, both parties are equally guilty of treating the writings used by current religious communities as something other than documents from an early era of human history. Avoiding those records is as bad as relying on them entirely to tell us what the world of was like around the time writing was invented in 3200 BCE. That happened in Mesopotamia. People began writing in China in 1200 BCE and in Mesoamerica in 600 BCE. People generally accept the idea that ancient Mexico invented writing independent of the ancient people of the Middle East, but people just as quickly believe that ancient China was taught. It had two thousand years to filter over there, but that distance between Asia and Alaska? Impassable!
As a writer, I like to challenge myself to imagine how people without our access to information reasoned about the world around them and to the best of my ability, I try not to bother with historical fact. Although, I have one main guideline, I assume that people living then were as intelligent as people living today. You can take that however you want.
The World Before Literacy and Public Libraries
I was watching the series Secrets of the Bible on Netflix this week. This series, produced in Britain, some ways lacked the American passion for fundamental interpretation and extreme refutation of Biblical scholars. They focused less on the people’s conclusions as on the journey each layman and archeologists with religious motives took to confirm evidence of the Bible. Most episodes proposed solutions to Biblical events that were contradictory. It seems everyone wants the story of Exodus to be true, unless you’re an academic, then the ancient people of Israel borrowed the story from another culture and there is no connection between the development of monotheism and an enslaved population of semites in ancient Egypt.
I remember being amazed by the poor quality of the special effects in Cecil B. DeMile’s Ten Commandments (1956) as a child where a pillar of fire appeared out of nowhere and somehow managed to prevent Egyptian chariots from steering their horses around it. A man with the staff and robe of a wizard performed some magic. I could hardly distinguish Moses from Merlin or Gandalf.
The actual text of Exodus referred to a god leading some recently freed Hebrews with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Cecil B. DeMile envisioned a pillar of fire in the day. No smoke. No leading. While, in fact, a better interpretation of the text may have been that the people in the story followed a massive volcanic eruption. Why not? If you’d never seen or heard of a volcano, wouldn’t you mistake it for something incredibly awesome worth investigating?
Natural wonders are sublime, because they force us into a higher awareness of our own insignificance. We marvel at the awesome forces required to create the natural world. They’re beautiful. Even the destructive forces of flooding or tornados or earthquakes demand some respect. It stops us from thinking about the petty interpersonal disputes of our lives and places our lifetime in a broader context.
I believe we all interpret all rely on faith to interpret what we cannot explain. Many people living today firmly believe that the scientific method can and will explain everything eventually. Maybe this sounds like simple good reasoning, but it’s actually just inductive reasoning. Science has provided many explanations in the past so we can induce that it will continue to do so in the future. Unfortunately, we have to use induction to prove that inductive reasoning is valid reasoning, which is known in philosophical circles as the problem of induction. At best, it’s been claimed that science doesn’t rely on induction, but those arguments rely heavily on semantics. And no matter. Induction works. It’s just not perfect. Most people accept that the current collection of scientific theories do not represent perfect knowledge of the world. That is easy to accept. But, the belief that science will eventually provide all answers as merely a strong conviction derived from inductive reasoning similar in almost every meaningful way to religious faith? Much less easy to accept.
I’m not trying to undermine the philosophy of science in favor of current religious belief systems. I’m trying to demonstrate that all belief systems depend on rational thinking, creative insight and faith in uncertain theories operating within the context of the information available to them.
This is the premise for my speculation about the Knights Templar
Who Were the Knights Templar?
Episode 11 of the Secrets of the Bible was the most ridiculous of the series, because it lacked a concrete conclusion. They followed a man who followed the activities of the medieval knights established to protect pilgrims from Europe to Jerusalem in 1108, but then got tangled up in stories about a Holy Grail and during their steep ascent to power and ruthless disbandment and may have a century later, merged with the Freemasons.
They purportedly excavated the Temple of Solomon, which was and still is assumed by many to be the Temple Mount where the Dome of the Rock was built. This holds significance, because Orthodox Judaism believes they can have only one Temple, which is why the places where they gather their congregations are referred to as shuls, Yiddish for school. In Christianity, Jesus would have knocked over a table and got the attention of the authorities who killed him at this very important temple. The Ark of the Covenant would have been kept in it. It was filled with a lot of gold and statues of angels.
Anyway, the episode draws a quick connection from the discovery of something in the Temple that led to the sharp increase in power of the Knights Templar. Presumably, it was the grail, but scholars know it wasn’t necessarily a cup. After visiting a few cathedrals displaying the Black Madonna and talking about Freemasonry, the person interviewed for the episode concludes that the Knights Templar did indeed find something at the Temple Mount.
They found brotherhood.
What an obvious conclusion! So easy to miss! The quest for the Holy Grail was always really just a quest for spiritual enlightenment. There never was a cup of immortality that caught the blood of Jesus and held wine at the last supper. Nope. They dug and dug and dug and found brotherhood.
In some ways, it’s a better theory than Dan Brown related in The Da Vinci code. In his extremely popular novel, the great secret of European Christianity was that the grail was a woman. Mary Magdalene. She carried the DNA of Jesus forward to our time. Real actual descendants of Jesus are alive today. That’s um, great.
How You Could Mistake a Woman for a Chalice in Medieval Europe
Jerusalem was captured by European crusaders in 1099 and the Knights Templar formed in 1118. The first mention of a graal occurred in an unfinished romantic story about a guy named Perceval, written sometime between 1135 and 1190, maybe 1180.
It should be understood that literacy wasn’t the priority in the past in the same way it is today and a lot of time and distance separated the first mention of something like a grail. The work written by Chretien, who may have been a member of the Order of the Knights Templar, was clearly a fantasy story. A romantic fantasy story that happened in the time of King Arthur, which would have been the 5th or 6th century CE. Five hundred years before the crusades during the Saxon invasion.
From the original source, we can’t tell what the graal is supposed to be.
In the story, a squire brings a white lance, which is bleeding, to a meal where the Fisher King is present. He is accompanied by a beautiful young girl who is carrying an elaborately decorated golden graal past Perceval and another servant carries a silver serving platter. The room is illuminated by the contents and they pass by him again on their way out.
The next day, a woman admonishes Perceval for not asking why the lance bled or who was served by the graal. It wasn’t said to be a holy graal and it wasn’t more significant than the bleeding white lance, but whatever it was, it wounded the king in the thigh region. It is implied that Perceval could have prevented the injury if he asked about it. The women then tells him that she is his first cousin and that his mother is dead.
In the next known graal story, written in 1210, Parzival, not Perceval, has to go on a quest, because he did not ask the healing question. The graal is assumed in this story to have the power to heal, because if Perceval had asked about it, then the Fisher King would not have been wounded in the thigh region. In the Parzival story, the Fisher King gets a name and it is explained that the wound is a punishment for taking a wife, because the person who keeps the grail was supposed to remain chaste.
The Christian part of the story isn’t added until later on by the guy who wrote Merlin, Robert de Boron. He establishes that the grail was a vessel given to Joseph of Aramethia.
In its original unfinished Perceval form, the popular romance with lots of sex and many female characters had a single mention of a bleeding lance and a golden serving dish or vessel, which is best understood as something carried by a processional salver. The beautiful woman would have been carrying some item of food tasted for poison in a vessel and perhaps the room lights up, simply because the platter is gold.
These stories were popular at the same time that the Knights Templar rose to prominence, a very secret and very powerful group of people, but if they found something in the Temple Mount in 1099 or so, it was not in the possession of the Fisher King in the 5th or 6th century CE.
What we know from other sources that two centuries after the conquest of Jerusalem, people claimed that the Knights Templar were denying Jesus Christ, spiting on crucifixes during their initiation rites and worshiping idols. Specifically, they called them Baphomet, a word that may be derived from the Greek words baphe and metis meaning absorption of knowledge. Since the 19th century, Baphomet has often been associated with an Egyptian goat or fertility god. This Goat of Mendes is associated with the snake in the Garden of Eden story via the Babloyian version. One way or another, the Knights Templar were accused of dismissing Christ and worshiping some form of knowledge, like the pursuit of knowledge was a sin of some sort, maybe an original one. And fertility.
The Knights Templar were supposed to be chaste, they couldn’t have physical contact with any women, including members of their own family. They gave all their possessions and wealth to the Order when then joined, which explains their increasing influence in Europe in a short period of time. Publicly, the Knights Templar erected many churches to the Black Madonna or Black Virgin and were said to carry many of these figures back with them from Jerusalem.
The Queen of Heaven
Well, I bet they found figures of Asherah. I know many people would prefer to interpret the black madonnas as a statement about race, but semites from the region known as Canaan depicted in Egyptian art have light skin and light hair. Other people would say that the crusaders learned about a black goddess of wisdom from the mystic sufis, a dimension of Islam. Of course, the Hagia Sophia translates as Holy Wisdom, which is an ancient Greek personification of Wisdom, but also an important Byzantine church visited by the crusaders. They could have learned about a goddess from the gnostics. They could have learned about goddesses from their contemporaries in Europe. Regardless of what sources they sought to increase their knowledge of a female deity, I believe they would have required a significant catalyst to adopt the concept with enough enthusiasm to erect hundreds of statues, as they did.
It seems likely to me that they arrived in their Holy Land and found at least one of the extremely common, but ancient figure of a woman in the location where they expected to find sacred artifacts like the Temple Mount.
The Queen of heaven. God’s wife. Asherah, the Canaanite goddess, was everywhere in Mesopotamia, because no one had gone there and sat the people written about in the Bible down and explained they were supposed to have always been exclusively monotheistic since around 1300 to 1500 BCE when Moses supposedly lived. In the early texts of the Bible, the Torah, and the stories written by prophets of ancient Israel, people are constantly trying to wipe out and destroy images of Asherah and Baal. El is often assumed to be the same as Yaweh. Lots of Canaanite gods are mentioned in the Bible. Yep, the god of Abraham was a jealous god that wanted no other gods before him, because there were a lot of other gods at the time.
I don’t think the crusaders would have thought of the discovery of a female figure as heresy, but rather an expansion of their truth.
People have always ascribed to more than one system of thought or faith and generally been more flexible than they claim. Today, people who believe in primarily in science often find themselves praying as their car crash or face other life threatening situations. Religious people find evidence supporting another religion and convert. Agnostics discover neo-pagan movements that allow them to experience spiritual community without supporting the larger organized religions. Many churchgoers attend services weekly, but often do so out of habit or familial obligation, while firmly convicted of the theories of science and rationalizing it with a humanistic perspective.
We are, if anything, we are very complicated and so was humanity at the beginning of history and so was the time of the crusaders.
At some point in Biblical history, apparently Jeremiah 44:15-18, First Kings 14:23; Second Kings 17:10, First Kings 14:15, Second Kings 16:3-4 and Second Kings 17:1, the female deity that accompanied the main male deity of the Canaanite tribes was regularly translated as the grove and there was a big thing about her being associated with trees. While the Bible talks about the people destroying images of other deities, like the Canaanite Baal, in surges of monotheistic outrage, it seemed that a lot of people may not have been completely on board with the idea.
Figures of Asherah are still found buried all over what is today Israel and Palestine, which makes it likely the crusaders dug around and found some.
The Israelites wouldn’t have been likely to destroy them anyway. Imagine you’re a clergyman at a temple a few thousand years ago. You’re surrounded by cherished images of your deities. Some radicals come tearing in demanding you destroy the ones they feel are destroying society.
Okay. Imagine it’s today. You’re a museum director who just finished giving investors a tour of the Renaissance collection when a bunch of radicals, powerful radicals, march in and demand that you remove and destroy all evidence of Issac Newton, because they consider his legend scientific dogma. They claim that scientific inquiry was not discovered or invented, but one of many processes of determining knowledge used as early as Aristotle and developed by multiple theorists in a variety of cultures. These people believe that the narrative of Newton’s apple hinders human progress by creating a mythology around science and an ethnocentric distraction from the corporate bias that has increasingly driven the pursuit of knowledge, muddying science, and generally bastardizing it.
Maybe you don’t totally disagree with them, but what about Ibn al-Haytham? Why should the museum maintain the mythology of great dead European male geniuses as if they acted in isolation and ascribe them godlike status. You know Leonard Da Vinci was a great artist attributed with inventing many great developments in engineering during the Victorian era that we know now were recorded in earlier publications by other people of his time. He just drew them well. You sort of agree.
Right or wrong. You probably also, as this museum director, remember force equals mass times acceleration and the story of the apple from your childhood. You don’t want to destroy the Newton collection. Instead, you hide it in the basement where most of the items deteriorate, except that magnificent bronze bust.
Many of us maintain lingering respect for what was considered to be true even in the face of reasonable skepticism and valid argument. We still love the stories of Newton and DaVinci. They still inspire us. It is normal to mythologize history just as it would have been normal for people to hide the statues of Asherah.
When the Knights Templar discovered female figurines, they would not have been expert scholars of their time who somehow might connect the figures to the forbidden Asheroth. The excavation of the Temple Mount would have been just as much of a religious experience for the crusaders as traveling to Israel is today for many Jews, Christians and Muslims. However, they would have believed their god was actively guiding their life and naturally would associate the figures with their current system of belief and the most prominent woman in the Christian narrative, the mother of Jesus, Mary.
And they might even assume that the people of their Bible venerated Mary. So, they may have done likewise, because the people living in the time of Jesus must have known something, a purer version of the ultimate truth of our existence. In fact, this is the same line of thinking that created the myth of the Holy Grail. The Knights Templar must have found something or learned something truly exceptional to be accepted as an Order by the Pope of their time and rise to power and influence so quickly.
But, then after a lot of veneration of Mary and a lot of accumulation of money and power, it might just have easily been misunderstood that they had been worshiping the ancient European goddess associated with Spring and fertility from which the word Easter is derived or some other European female goddess that had not been completely eradicated by the presence of Christianity.
By Victorian times, their goddess worship may have been interpreted as fertility god worship or worship of an ancient Egyptian god, because Victorians had more access to knowledge of ancient Egypt.
In the end, none of that really matters.
Wait, Why Does This Matter?
People love to recycle old themes when they write. In the Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan sacrifices himself to save everyone just like Jesus. In Harry Potter, Harry sacrifices himself to save everyone just like Jesus. We have to face facts. People continuously retell the same themes making adjustments to suit the cultural atmosphere of the time they live in, borrowing from new sources, reworking old ones. That is what writers do. We don’t work in isolation. We use stories and actual events and theory like a palate of paint to create something original.
We also use myth and legend to shield ourselves from the uncertainty of our own systems of thought, our methods and the real horror that is a human existence. Birth. Conflict. Aging. Death. Stories help us cope with uncertainty and give us numerous convulsions of facts and ideas so that we don’t have to question the tenets of our systems of belief and they keep us from overthinking the questions we can’t answer so we can get on about the business of life. We believe the impossible of our heroes and events we never witness personally, because it is practical to do so.
Many people, lots of feminists, believe Asherah was systematically removed from the Bible as an act of chauvinism rather than monotheism. Many academics do not draw a connection between the Knights Templar and Asherah, but they do bypass her and make a connection between the ancient Egyptian god Isis or ancient Greek Virgo and the Roman Catholic veneration of the Virgin Mary.
I think a direct line between Asherah and the Knights Templar makes the most sense, but I can also see why it would make a lot of people uncomfortable.
Asherah, along with other local gods, were vilified and outlawed in Israel. But, after the life of Jesus, during the decline of the Roman Empire, Christianity sought to incorporate Jesus in their new religion, not as a teacher or prophet, but as god. Since there could only be one god, the monotheistic god was decided to be consubstantially three distinct persons. A father. A son. A spirit, which is holy. Without diving into a theological debate, it’s interesting to note that the worship of Asherah in Israel likely ended around the 2nd century BCE and the issue of the relationship between the father and the son in the Christian movement existed for sometime before the concrete establishment of trinitarian doctrine in modern Turkey, which occurred around the 3rd century CE at the First Council of Nicaea.
Basically, within a few hundred years, the wife was kicked out and a new son brought in and the new followers of Jesus, were not looking very monotheistic at that point, having at least two apparent deities. It took centuries for Europeans to spread and maintain the illusion of monotheism by driving out pre-Christian European gods.
However, for Christianity, the era of crusades must have felt like a time of incredible certainty much like we experience today with science.
Today, old religions are typically viewed as quaint traditions or irritating backward thought. Faith in a god is debatable. Faith in the scientific method or the body of knowledge derived from the community of scientists, who are venerated by academics much like the saints of medieval Europe, is much more likely to cause a controversy. People who believe in science confidently attempt to incorporate the practice of older religions as being beneficial to mental health under the umbrella of psychology, but there is an intense unwillingness to consider that science, as a system and set of beliefs, could be replaced as the most unquestioned, most blindly accepted philosophy. Replaced by something new. Not something old.
Let’s face it. Science does make better technologies and it explains things better than religion. It’s a bit weak on morality, but it’s better than monotheism for life-saving technology. Besides, if you really need some spirituality, most scientists don’t feel threatened by archaic religions.
That is exactly what believing in Christianity must have felt like one thousand years ago. No cannibalism. No human sacrifice. The weak and the poor have an honored position. Christianity brought in a code of laws and behaviors that required a stable social order. Christianity wasn’t typically threatened by what it considered pagan beliefs and practices. It incorporated them into the religion to make people more comfortable.
Based on this similarity, we should not compare the faith of the Knights Templar to Christians today. We should compare it to the faith of the dominate philosophy today, which is science. So, if they found something in Jerusalem that challenged the tenets of their faith, I do not believe they would not reject it. Like anyone today, who believes in science, they would try to incorporate it and make sense of it within Christianity. The Christians today that reject scientific developments have typically practiced ignoring ideas that conflict with the Bible. It’s hard work ignoring fact and evidence, but the Knights Templar lived before the Renaissance. Christianity was progress, the framework of their civilization and they would most likely assume that anything and everything could be explained within the doctrine of Christianity. So, if the statues of Asherah were unearthed in the ground at the Temple Mount, the real quest would have been to make sense of what would clearly have been a sign from god.
If Asherah was the Holy Grail of the Crusades, how would that change our perception of history?
Maybe the manliest of European men at the height of chivalry in the era of the chivalrous weren’t obsessed with immortality or the legacy of Jesus. Maybe they were simply awestruck by simple figures of women they found digging in Jerusalem and they even found immense inspiration through the process of incorporating the mystery into their understanding of the world. Maybe the consulted sufis and gnostics and pagans. Maybe the borrowed enough ideas to make them figures make sense to them.
What we do know is that they erected churches to Mary and carried “fertility” figures with them. They were chaste and refused to even touch women. Within a few decades, perhaps it was their discovery that ushered in a movement toward chivalry, exemplified by the romantic stories of Camelot, complete with a code of conduct for the treatment of women.
Maybe the Holy Grail was a woman. These soldiers may have believed their god led them to find the figure of a woman, because in the religious thought, the discovery of figures of women at the Temple Mount could not have been an accident. God didn’t make accidents. So, perhaps for a few centuries, the discovery of a female deity changed the Western world, because the manliest of men had been faced with the very real possibility that their own god was not simply made in the image of a man with a son that once lived as a man. They believed their god showed them a woman and there is no reason to believe they had a quick answer for it, but they embraced the mysterious woman completely.
To me, that makes a much better story.