Above, the Spanish legend of El Dorado (The Golden One) originated in stories the Spanish heard concerning the initiation rite of the Zipa. This was the name given to the hereditary ruler of the southern confederation of Muisca tribes, which occupied territories corresponding to part of present-day Colombia. The Zipa’s body was covered in gold dust prior to submerging himself in Lake Guatavita, while his attendants threw gold and jewels in to the Lake as votive offerings to the gods. (Photograph by Andrew Bertram, CC BY-SA 1.0).
Alchemy, Gold and the Temple of Solomon
A hunger for gold provided the impetus for the Spanish adventurers to seek out the temples and lofty holy places of the native peoples. Stories of cities and kings lavished with gold enticed them to press beyond the Eastern Cordilleras, deep into the bosky lands surrounding the many headwaters of the Amazon. Their actions are often characterised as simple greed, but many of them were in severe debt at home. While this does not excuse their rapaciousness, it does perhaps explain their motives a little more completely. The Americas provided the possibility of an escape from poverty for at least some of these secular adventurers.
The Catholic clergy also possessed an acute hunger, but theirs was for the conversion of those, whom they saw as indigenous savage souls, to the Church of Rome. Hence, not long after the fall of the Tawantinsuyo – and the removal of its gold – the clergy quickly got to work on the conversion of the peoples of the former Inca lands. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was the Jesuits who were in the vanguard of this process on behalf of the Pope, to whom they had pledged their utmost allegiance. Founded by the Basque soldier, Ignatius Loyola in 1534, the Jesuits combined intellectual rigour with military discipline in carrying out their appointed duties.
The Jesuits set about the task of eradicating every visible feature of the Andean religion in something known as the Extirpation, which was carried out with characteristic meticulousness. The Jesuit priest Pablo José de Arriaga published a training manual called The Extirpation of Idolatry, which set out the methodology to be adopted. It included, as a priority when entering a village or settlement for the first time, the destruction of its lineage huaca. The reader will recall that huacas were arranged across the land in lines, called cesques. As a result, it became common practice amongst the indigenous people to destroy any visible signs of the cesques. Where possible, the native peoples removed the huacas from their alignments in an attempt to conceal their spiritual and cultural heritage from the encroaching Jesuit clergy.
So it was that the beliefs, lore and practices of the many tribes that inhabited the Tawantinsuyo became submerged beneath the baptismal waters of Roman Catholicism. The old beliefs did remain as undercurrents, however; and undercurrents are potent. They often move in barely perceptible ways that alter the nature of the more visible waters nearer to the surface.
There are countless examples across the Andean regions of where ostensibly Christian festivals thinly veil local ancient myths, customs and beliefs. Around the shores of Lake Titikaka, and centred on the small Bolivian town of Copacabana, the local people celebrate the Festival of Our Lady of the Candelaria in early February. This is one of the most important saints’ days in the towns and villages that surround Lake Titikaka, regardless of whether they may be in Peru of Bolivia. In early February 2010, I was staying in the Peruvian city of Puno. Throughout the whole day, its streets were thronged with thousands of people dressed in all manner of costumes, ranging from traditional tribal ponchos and chullos to the lassos and leather trousers of gauchos.
Those in the procession were members of the numerous folk societies that had come from the small towns and villages dotted around Puno’s altiplano hinterland. The members of each folk society moved in formations along the streets in their costumes; each group dancing in to the rhythms of its own band. The parade went on all day and well into the night, amidst much drinking and the setting off of fireworks as the day’s festivities drew to a close.
The Virgin of the Candelaria is also the Patron Saint of Bolivia and the story goes that her adoption in the region arose out of a dispute between those who venerated the Virgin Mary and those who venerated San Sebastian in Copacabana. The people on each side in the dispute were descended from the either Aymara speaking inhabitants, or the Quechua speaking ‘newcomers.’ It is most likely that the different ‘Saints’ worshipped by the two grooups represented Christianised versions of their respective traditional local tribal deities.
The need for the dispute to be resolved became more pressing, we are told, because of a series of bad harvests. The much needed favours of heaven could not be bestowed upon the people of Copacabana if they were undecided as to whom they should pray. Eventually, through a series of miraculous events and involving paintings and statues of the Blessed Virgin, the copacabeños adopted the Blessed Virgin and Copacabana became the home of one of the oldest shrines to Mary in the Americas.
Significantly, according to the social scientist Mario Montaño Aragón, the name Copacabana probably derives from Kotakawana, an Andean fertility god, who was androgynous. What is interesting is that the Christian story of the adoption of the Blessed Virgin contains all of the essential elements of the more ancient myth of Kotakawana. The need to resolve the dispute as to which saint to venerate, the Blessed Virgin or San Sebastian, being made more pressing because of a failed harvest is a clear relic of Kotakawana’s role as a fertility deity.
Just as in many of Europe’s mediaeval churches and cathedrals, stonemasons carved representations of people, spirits and legends that were not strictly Christian, so in South America indigenous craftsmen included carvings of their traditions into the decoration of the new churches. Around Lake Titikaka for example, it is common to see carvings of creatures that resemble mermaids in many churches. These are, in fact, Umantuus aquatic members of the court of the fertility god Kotakawana. Such indigenous representations, along with others, were commonplace in the style of architecture that came to be known as Andean-Baroque.
The Christian Basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana was built on the exact spot where Kotakawana’s temple had once stood. Clearly, the Catholic Church was seeking to stamp its mark on the spirituality of the local people, just as it had done at the Coricancha in Cusco. I am left to ponder, however, if such superimposition of Catholic buildings, legends and iconography has converted the root and branch of the Andean psyche even today, almost half a millennium after the Pizarro brothers first arrived in Peru from Spain.
The accepted view of Spain in the sixteenth-century is that it was a fanatically Catholic country. It was, after all, one of the two European powers (the other being Portugal) that sought to convert on behalf of the See of Rome, the heathen masses of South America to the Catholic faith. Yet, residing beneath its staunch evangelism there were undercurrents of other traditions, beliefs and forms of spiritual expression. Moreover, these were not simply confined to the peasant classes as remnants of earlier pagan times. Rich and powerful aristocratic families, even royalty, entertained different and heretical notions, which they kept hidden from the eager scrutiny of the Inquisition.
There was perhaps something in the vehemence of Spain’s Catholicism at this time that betrayed a certain insecurity of belief and identity. It was only in 1492 that the Emirate of Granada had been defeated and the Iberian Peninsula was once more entirely under Christian rule. This put to an end to nearly 800 years of Muslim political occupation that stretched back into Europe’s dark ages. Especially during the earlier times, the Islamic scholars of Al-Andalus – as southern Spain was then called – were the custodians of learning from across the known world. This included classical Greek and Latin, as well as Arabic and Persian texts on astronomy, mathematics and alchemy amongst other subjects.
Islamic scholars, such as Ibn Rusjd, were not only examples of a great florescence of learning in Islamic Spain, they also came to exert a strong influence on contemporary Jewish and Christian thinking. Islam perhaps reached its apogee in Spain in the 9th century, with the rise to prominence of Córdoba as a cultural and political centre. The Al-Andalus city had what was probably Europe’s greatest library and arguably its first university.
Within certain limits, this was largely a tolerant society. Christians, Jews and Muslims each lived in their own quarters in Spanish towns, but there was much in the way of exchange of ideas as well as commerce between them.
Until 1492, Spain was also the home to a large and influential Jewish population, amongst some of whose members the practice of Kabbalah featured prominently. In all of Western Europe up until the 16th century, the Iberian Peninsula was the most exposed to the rich and diverse cultural traditions that emanated from outside of Christendom. Significant components of those traditions were esoteric in nature and ranged from the Kabbalism of Sephardic Jews to the Hermetic, Neo-Platonic and alchemical texts studied by Islamic scholars.
Alchemical and other secrets
By the time that Ferdinand and Isabella had united the kingdoms of Castile and Leon in the 1470s to form what was eventually to become the modern nation-state of Spain, the new realm had become a repository for esoteric learning. Figures such as the Majorcan, Ramon Lull (1232-1315/6) were a major influence on esoteric thinking across Europe. It was even said that the reputed alchemist Nicholas Flamel had learned the secrets of transmutation from a book that had originated in Spain, written by a Jewish conversio (convert) to Christianity.
Certainly, the Spanish royalty, whilst fiercely proclaiming the Catholic Faith in the New World and in Europe, was not averse to incorporating alchemical and Hermetic symbolism into the architecture it commissioned and built. There is perhaps no greater example of this than Félipe II of Spain (1527-1598), who despite his staunch Catholicism, was also deeply interested in alchemy. Félipe was responsible for the construction of the part-monastery part-palace of the Escorial. When the original architect for the project died, Félipe appointed the Hermetic architect, Juan de Herrera to complete the building. In the event, Herrera, with the King’s approval, changed the building’s design to accord with their mutual esoteric interests.
Having accepted Herrera’s changes to the building’s design, Félipe supervised the construction and embellishment of the Escorial in every detail. The edifice was devised and built in rigorous conformity to principles of geometric harmony and proportion. Its various stages of construction were computed and inaugurated in accordance with astrologically propitious dates.
It is evident, from Félipe’s personal oversight of the construction of the Escorial, that he took the inclusion of Hermetic symbolism and esoteric lore into the building’s construction very seriously indeed. The Escorial was no mere fad, folly, or fashion statement for him.
From the Knights Templar to the Knights of Christ
Other undercurrents had been bubbling beneath the surface European culture in the late middle ages that originated from slightly different sources. The Royal Order of the Knights of Our Lord Jesus Christ (Real Ordem dos Cavaleiros de Nosso Senhor Jesus Cristo), popularly known as the Knights of Christ, was a Portuguese and largely maritime chivalric order . It was to play a pivotal role in the exploration of the New World. The Knights of Christ originally were Knights Templar who had fled to Portugal after the Order had been suppressed in 1307 by Pope Clement V in collusion with the French King Philippe IV.
When the south-bound flotilla of the Templar fleet left La Rochelle in France in 1307 and arrived at Nazaré in Portugal, it was given refuge by King Denis I. Denis had reluctantly obeyed the Papal decree to confiscate all Templar properties in his realm. However, he negotiated with Clement’s successor to found a new chivalric order, the members of which were all former Templars. These Knights of Christ became the recipients of all of the Templars’ former properties in Portugal. It was hardly surprising that Denis should support this group of refugee Templars. He needed their expertise in rebuilding his country after the Muslim occupation and he may have wished to have a counterbalance to the increasing power and influence wielded by the Knights Hospitaller in his realm.
There were other deeper reasons as well. The Portuguese monarchy at this time was a cadet branch of the House of Burgundy. The same Royal House, in the person of André de Montbard, had been one of the founders of the Knights Templar, nearly two hundred years previously. Whatever the dynastic allegiances between the Templars and the House of Burgundy, it is certainly true that the Burgundian Kings of Portugal were enthusiastic in their support of the Knights of Christ.
It was during the reign of Denis’ son, King Alfonso IV (the Brave), that the Portuguese Age of Discovery really began. This was an age that included the exploration of the Atlantic even from the onset. Indeed, Alfonso was said to have been a Grand Master of the Order of the Knights of Christ. Alfonso set in train expeditions to the Canary Islands during the first quarter of the 14th century. Later on, the famous seafarer Vasco de Gama was a Knight of Christ and the renowned Prince Henry the Navigator was a Grand Master of the Order.
Christopher Columbus: a secret Knight of Christ?
Another significant fact is that Christopher Columbus, although sponsored by Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, was married to the daughter of a Knight of Christ. It is said that Columbus gained access to his father-in-law’s sea charts. Some writers even claim that Columbus was himself a Knight of Christ and that he had studied cartography and navigation at the school founded by Henry the Navigator. Whatever the truth of this claim, on Columbus’ first expedition, the Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria all crossed the Atlantic under sails emblazoned with the cross pattée of the Knights of Christ. That same emblem once had symbolised the power and enterprise of the Knights Templar throughout Europe for two hundred years.
Templar knowledge and doctrines
It is not within the scope of this short account to give a full history of the Knights Templar. However, it is perhaps worth reminding the reader of their origins during the crusades and especially of their association with the Temple of Solomon. The Templar Order rose to prominence in Europe during the middle ages. Their founders and principal members came from the elite European families. The Templars became great landowners and wealthy bankers. They were also excellent soldiers and, as we have seen, they seem to have developed into highly skilled and knowledgeable seafarers. Significantly, they also appear to have been instrumental in the introduction of Gothic architecture into Europe shortly after the Second Crusade.
It is little wonder then that some thought the Templars to be too powerful and too influential. Many writers have argued that the Pope and Philippe of France sought to persecute and suppress the Templars in order to gain access to their fortunes, especially their gold. Hence, it is argued, the charges of heresy and of other occult practices against them were fabricated.
On the other hand, the Templars do appear to have entertained unorthodox doctrines and ritual practices that may have arisen through their contacts with some Islamic groups (including the Assassins) and other religious traditions in the Middle-East during the crusades. They were claimed to have discovered certain writings during their excavations in Jerusalem, under the Temple Mount. They may even have discovered secrets encoded in the geometry of the Temple Mount itself. Whatever their exact source, several authors have contended that the Templars were in possession of information that called into question the accepted story of Christ’s life, and therefore of Christian doctrine, as promulgated by the Roman Church.
Others have pointed out the possible connection between Templar beliefs and a sect called the Mandaeans, who may have inherited their traditions from the Essenes. The Mandaeans, who exist even today, venerate John the Baptist, rather than Jesus as their principal prophet. According to Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince, their Gnosticism and Hermeticism seem to have influenced the Templars through direct contacts of some sort. Interestingly, the Mandaeans entertain a belief in a land across the ocean called Merica, which some have gone so far as to connect with the name America.
There has been much written about the relationship between the Knights Templar in Europe and the later Freemasons. Again, it is not within the scope of this short account to examine this in detail. As far as South America was concerned, former Templars as Knights of Christ, played a large part in opening up South America to European influence and colonization. However, did they also help in the transfer of esoteric knowledge? In order to determine if there is any truth to this, we need to understand a little more about the Templars knew, or may have known.
The Templars, Gothic Architecture and the Notre Dame Cathedrals
What is certain is that the Templars were associated with the construction of many of the great European Gothic cathedrals, as much as they have been credited with the introduction of Gothic style of architecture itself. Moreover, these same early Gothic cathedrals, called Notre Dame Cathedrals, also happened to exhibit a great deal of alchemical symbolism in their decoration. The earliest of the Notre Dame cathedrals is at Chartres, just to the West of Paris. Apart from its breath-taking Gothic architecture, part of the Cathedral’s tiled floor displays a labyrinth.
The French researcher and writer Louis Charpentier described the transformational spiritual workings of the labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral thus:
It is likely that the ritual progress had to be made above all at times when the telluric current was in strong pulsation, which should coincide with the times of pilgrimage. In the spring certainly, as the “Easter rounds”, led by the bishop, suggest.
The man who reaches the centre of the labyrinth, having made the ritual progress through it and having “danced”, is changed and for all I know in the sense that there has been an opening of the intuition to natural laws and harmonies; to laws and harmonies that he will perhaps not understand but which he will experience for himself, with which he will feel in tune…….
Cathedrals such as Chartres were built on pagan sites that appear to be at the confluence of strong telluric currents, called wouivres. (The word wouivre is derived from the ancient Gaulish word for snake, or serpent). Its famous labyrinth may have served as a means of focusing the telluric currents in the earth to affect the consciousness of the initiate who ‘danced’ barefoot within the labyrinth situated on the Cathedral’s floor.
The Labyrinth at Amiens Cathedral
Another Cathedral said to have Templar associations is at Amiens in Picardy. Sadly, the original labyrinth at Amiens Cathedral was destroyed in the 19th century, although it has now been reconstructed. It differed from the one at Chartres in that it was octagonal, which is suggestive of an axis mundi. It is also worth noting that Cologne Cathedral, the design of which was based on Amiens, also has an octagonal labyrinth. We shall return in a later article in this series to these two cathedrals, and their connection to the Cathedral of La Plata, Argentina.
The exoteric explanation for placing labyrinths in churches was that it was some kind of symbolic representation of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem on which the devout person would wander before reaching the axis at the centre. Hence, they were given the generic title of Road to Jerusalem; but does this name hint at a more esoteric connection to Solomon’s Temple? Perhaps revealingly, labyrinths were also believed to have alchemical and Kabbalistic meanings, representing the Road to Solomon and the Great Work (of alchemy) and the triumph of spirit over matter.
Chartres and Amiens cathedrals are said to be located on particular points on the ground, along with other the Notre Dame cathedrals of Reims, Evreux and Bayeux, in a formation that reflects the arrangement of the stars in the constellation of Virgo. If this is so, it is curiously similar to the writings of Cornelius Agrippa, some three hundred years or so later, on geomancy. It may also be an example of the Hermetic dictum, As above, so below.
After the suppression of the Templars in 1307, the extensive lands that they owned were confiscated by the Church. Curiously, many of these places became centres of alchemy. Given their proclivity for adorning cathedrals with alchemical symbolism, it is not stretching the powers of conjecture too much to suppose that the Templars may have fostered the practice of alchemy on their lands before their banishment in 1307.
Noble Families and Esoteric Lore
Of course, the Templars did not exist in a vacuum socially, or politically. Many of their most prominent figures were members of some of the best-connected and most powerful European aristocratic families.
Those same families provided the wealth for the building of the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe. More often than not, these cathedrals venerated the Divine Feminine through their stone masonry and devotional art. This was especially the case with the Notre Dame Cathedrals. It is a tradition which ultimately stems, according to John Major Jenkins, from the worship of the Egyptian Virgin Mother, Isis. The same author notes that the early Christian cathedrals of Colonial South America continued this tradition and that their construction was sponsored by the aristocratic families of Spain and Portugal.
Divine proportions, what we would refer to today as earth energies, celestial correspondences and alchemical symbolism were all part and parcel of the construction of great religious buildings in the Mediaeval and early modern periods in Spain, France and across Europe.
The royal and and aristocratic sponsors of these enterprises had the political will and financial power to ensure that esoteric principles and symbolism were woven into the very fabric of monumental architecture; albeit covertly. The Knights Templar were a repository for Gnostic, Hermetic and alchemical lore in mediaeval Europe and their expertise had guided the construction of the great Gothic cathedrals, especially the French Notre Dame cathedrals.
The transformation of members of the Templars into the maritime Knights of Christ in Portugal had stimulated to the exploration of the Atlantic. What was more, the stimulus to learning of the crafts of navigation and seafaring also seems to have exerted a considerable influence on Spain at the end of the Middle Ages. In the following parts of this history I will show how esoteric lore informed the construction of sacred and municipal architecture and the landscape of South America in the years that followed.
To be continued …….