Originally appeared in The Village Voice, October 25, 1994

In the beginning, there is only the event: the Order of the Solar Temple’s mass demise by fire, drug, and bullet. Forty-eight corpses in Switzerland, divided almost evenly between a farmhouse in Cheiry and a cluster of gutted chalets 100 miles to the south in Granges-sur-Salvan; plus five more bodies in two torched homes in Morin Heights, Quebec. But before that cool newsprint ax attempts to fall between clarity and madness, information and cult, there is nothing but a kind of abject awe before details at once horrid and absurd:

A circle of corpses arrayed in a wheel around a triangular altar, heads aimed outwards like rockets ready to launch. Robes of red and gold and black splayed against tacky crimson wall-to-wall carpeting. A jar of fluid labeled “DNA.” Pendants and paintings and chalices redolent of the esoteric West, of mystical brotherhoods and the alchemical rose. A chapel lined with mirrors. A cassette taped to a door. A charred baby wearing a plastic bag.

“With a clear mind do we leave this Earth for a Dimension of Truth and Perfection,” claimed one of four suicide notes sent from the Solar Temple to various news organizations. “There, away from obstruction, hypocrisy and hostility, we shall give birth to the seed of our future Creation.” But despite the basically lucid tone of this “we,” scrutiny instantly fell on Luc Jouret, leader of the “bizarre doomsday cult.” A Belgian born in the Congo, Jouret was known as a healer and lecturer who combined catastrophic environmental prognostications with New Age themes and later founded the Solar Temple as a more occult inner circle. “Dark-haired” and “charismatic”, the messianic Jouret stepped right into a story as easy to whip up as a batch of Texas Kool-Aid: the cult leader sucked into a black hole, dragging his entranced followers down with him. New reports consistently allude to his homeopathic practiceconsidered perfectly legitimate in French-speaking Europewhile neglecting mention of his earlier, perhaps even more demonic work as an obstetrician.

Just one catch: no corpse. Before Jouret’s charred body was identified last Thursday, evidence emerged that some of the dead were slain outright, leading to suspicions that the ritual costumes may have cloaked a far more worldly deed. The press and police linked Jouret to money laundering and massive Swiss bank accounts; to “brainwashing” his followers out of their savings, and to financial power struggles and rivalries inside his network of sects (he had recently been replaced as Grand Master of the Canadian branch of the Temple). Clues continued to pile up with the pulpish pleasure we all know from the crime novel’s fusion of information and death: cult cars abandoned at the Cheiry train station; three of the five bodies in Canada stabbed to death days before the fire; a .22 used at Cheiry discovered in Granges-sur-Salvan; the post date of the suicide notes, which indicated they were sent after the carnage.

Loopier accusations came from the Canadian police, who had gotten a guilty pleas out of Jouret in 1993 for weapons charges (silencers). Along with his supposed involvement in an arms-trafficking ring, they suspect Jouret of blowing up transmission towers belonging to Hydro-Quebec (the provisional utility company where Jouret had given inspirational seminars on business and self-realization) and of leading the James Bond sounding “Q-37,” a paramilitary group that threatened to kill public security minister Claude Ryan for his “favoritism to redskins.” These accusations were hysterically denied in one of the Solar Temple’s suicide notes, which accused Ryan of belonging to the right-wing Catholic secret society Opus Dei. But the straight-to-video flare of these allegations suddenly transformed Jouret into a very different kind of Antichrist: the arms-dealing, jet-setting, money-laundering, con-man terrorist.

Faced with the curious dynamics of fringe religious movements, dynamics which cannot be grasped within a purely secular paradigm, the media went schizo, simultaneously portraying Jouret as a crazed occult messiah and a cynical huckster manipulating rich lemmings. But the suicide notes turned out to have been mailed by a spared member of the Temple’s “golden circle”: Patrick Vaurnet, son of the French ski champ and sunglasses mogul Jean Vaurnet (who never noticed that his wife Edith, also a cult member, “tended to go our with her friends on nights of the full moon”). And once Jouret’s corpse was discovered, the con man reading collapsed like a house of cards, leaving only bafflement. Suddenly, Jouret achieved a perverse integrity, leaving nothing but the Solar Temple’s dark alchemical conjunctio, or union of opposites: guns and healing, murder and suicide, prophecy and fraud, all fused into one incandescent eschatology.

Many of the “cult experts” trotted out to unpack the enigma only muddied the waters. The Cult Awareness Network folk had a field day on Nightline, reaffirming secular prejudices about the uniformly manipulative character of small-scale alternative spiritual groups. A descendent of the Citizens Freedom Foundation, whose “de-programming” tactics in the ’70s rode roughshod over civil liberties, CAN spokespersons now present themselves as religious experts. As J. Gordon Melton, an adjunct professor at UC Santa Barbara who specializes in new religions movements, says, “CAN are always there first because they always say the same thing, while the rest of us are busy doing research on the group in question.”

The day the report broke, The New York Times said that the Solar Temple represented the persistence of ancient pagan magic into modern times and linked the Order to the turn-of-the-century trickster-magician Aleister Crowley and his Ordo Templi Orientis. Though Jouret clearly owed a debt to ceremonial magic (robed Temple members gathered under full moonlight, tracing a “star” in the ground and invoking the four elements), laying the Solar Temple at the foot of the Beast (Crowley’s favorite nickname) not only neglects Jouret’s debt to the conventional and nonpagan Rosicrucian and Templar groups, but distorts the legacy of “Uncle Al”who would have upchucked at Jouret’s authoritarian New Age Christian hermeticism.

In fact, Jouret’s occult influences are far more odious than the heavy metal vibe of today’s typical O.T.O. lodge. Before he founded his International Chivalric Order Solar Tradition (later known as the Solar Temple), Jouret belonged to the Renewed Order of the Templewhich, according to Gerry O’Sullivan, a Fordham professor and expert in hermetic secret societies, is a racist, neo-Nazi magical society founded by the ex-Gestapo officer Julien Origas. After a failed power grab in 1984, Jouret struck out on his own, nesting his occult inner circle inside groups like the Club Amenta and Club Archédia that offered a milder New Age blend of teachings. Former Solar Temple communalists paint an odd picture of occult Green authoritarianism: “Wash the lettuce seven times before serving it! Walk on the grass with bare feet!” Jouret was reported to have ordered. And given the likelihood that Jouret directed the murder of some of his own followers (an act Melton claims is unprecedented for these small groups), he certainly deserves his own trading card in whatever False Messiah deck includes Jim Jones, Charles Manson, and Jan Bockelson, the handsome Dutch messianic prophet who won over the German town of Münster in 1534, proclaimed himself King of the New Jerusalem, and led thousands to a grisly demise.

Figures like these are strange attractors, drawing people away from the magnets of consensus reality (the media, church, common sense) into their own turbulent but eerily coherent paradigms. Mix in the sense of imminence created by end-of-the-world scenarios and the approach of the millennium, and these worldviews become even more intense, libidinal, and liable to explode. “Brainwashing” does not explain how Jouret could have attracted such a straight crew: a business journalist, a mayor, a Hydro-Quebec official. (Even the best sunglasses in the world couldn’t shade the Vuarnets from the Solar Temple.) And the fact that the Temple’s Canadian branch edged Jouret out of power without severing ties with him demonstrates a degree of autonomy on the part of at least some of his followers. The worldly language of psychological aberration and “mind-control” can never fully encompass or explain intense spiritual desire, because that intensity begins with the radical and dangerous act of pulling the rug out from under “the world.”


Whether you consider them radical, reactionary, or insane, heretical religious groups that abandon the secular laws of reality set themselves up for a head-on collision with the state. Both the press and the Solar Temple’s suicide notes make comparisons with the Waco massacre, but with very different aims: the media to reinforce the image of self-destructive, apocalyptic crackpots, and the Solar Temple to demonstrate the insidious conspiratorial aims of the New World Order. What the resonance between these two tragedies really indicates is the total dissonance between prophetic language and modern state powerand, in both cases, this mutual negation proved disastrous. But in the case of Waco, it’s the government that deserves the lion’s share of the blame.

Given that Koresh frequently left Mt. Carmel and was on friendly relations with local law enforcement, it’s difficult to justify the ATF’s initial assault, and Melton and other scholars point to the heavy hand of CAN “exit counselors” in the decision to use force. But by coming on strong, the FBI turned a page in the Book of Revelation, fulfilling a role which for the fiercely religious Branch Davidians had already been prepared for them: the armies of the Antichrist. On their side, the federal forces readily projected their own self-fulfilling mirage: leveling accusations of sexual impropriety and child abuse (a chestnut in anti-heresy crack-downs throughout the ages); portraying the members of the community as mindless hostages and Koresh as a manipulative huckster; demonizing a cache of weapons that, when judged in the context of proudly pro-NRA Waco, was hardly remarkable.

But the most tragic act of this eerily archetypal conflict was the end game, where the state’s refusal to acknowledge or empathize with the Davidian’s world-view proved fatal. While the FBI was blasting the compound with Tibetan chants and “These Boots are Made for Walkin'”, religious scholars enlisted by the Bureau’s negotiating team carefully decoded Koresh’s unusual exegesis of Psalms and Revelation. Using Koresh’s language, and basically “agreeing” with his interpretation of himself as a messianic figure foretold in the Book of Revelation, James Tabor and Philip Arnold edged Koresh into reinterpreting scripture in a manner that would avert what seemed to be an inevitable disaster. Koresh subsequently gave signs of agreeing to come out with his followers after writing up his interpretation of the Seven Seals (he speaks of being “freed of my ‘waiting period'” and of preparing to “stand before man”). But despite the pleas of the scholars, the FBI got antsy and stormed the compound the day after Koresh began the document. “The commanders were ignorant of the language and viewpoints of these very religious people,” says Arnold, now coordinator of the Religion-Crisis Task Force. “They thought Koresh was a con man. They couldn’t understand that he really believed it.” Carried out of Mt. Carmel on computer disc by the survivor Ruth Riddle, Koresh’s textincluding a poem and a coherent Biblical exegesisestablishes, too late, that the man was working in good faith.

The state could not allow Koresh’s revelatory language to mean anything, however, even to himself. Cults are always mute. In an intriguing parallel, the Swiss police have yet to release either the content or an analysis of the Solar Temple cassette message found stuck to the farmhouse at Cheiry. Apparently, the police dismissed the tape when they realized it was filled with astrological information. But as Ted Daniels, the editor of Millennium Prophecy Report, said, “That’s the suicide note. You gotta get someone who understands the symbolism.”

Yet understanding the symbolism requires allowing the horror to speak. And if we allow ourselves to communicate with the Solar Temple, to attempt to reconstruct its worldview and put it in context, then we may begin to see Jouret’s cult not as an isolated aberration, but as an hallucinatory eruption of the apocalyptic sentiment brewing beneath Western civ.

As a close reading of the Solar Temple’s suicide note makes clear, Jouret demands to be seen not against the scripture-quoting apocalyptic Christianity of Koresh, but rather the West’s great esoteric stream of gnostic hermeticism, particularly as expressed in Rosicrucian and neo-Templar secret societies. Crystallized in the gap between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, these hermetic brotherhoods were essentially composed of radical humanists, deeply inspired by the gnostic dream of transforming man into a kind of enlightened god. This urge, at once magical and rational, became enshrined in a powerful social structurethe hierarchical secret societywhich would influence everything from the Royal Society to the American Revolution, from Skull and Bones to the Shriners puttering around in those goofy little cars.

Like the Renewed Order of the Temple to which Jouret briefly belonged, a healthy percentage of today’s European occult secret societies are fascist. But the French stream of Templarism that the Solar Temple took root in began as an expression of radical social change. Mystically liberated by the French Revolution, Bernard-Raymond Fabre-Palaprat unveiled the Order of the Temple, heirs to the Knights Templar, while proclaiming himself the latest in an unbroken line of Templar Grand Masters. A mythic motherlode for occultists to this day, the Templars were an autonomous, 12th-century chivalric order of knights which was dissolved by Pope Clemens V two centuries later, its leaders tried and burned as heretics and homosexuals.

But the Rosicrucians were an even more fundamental inspiration for secret societies such as Fabre-Palaprat’s. In early 17th-century Germany, just before the outbreak of the Thirty Years War, a series of manifestos appeared that “revealed” the existence of a secret fraternal group of mystical Christians who were leading the world into a New Age of universal knowledge. These pamphlets helped create the idea of a technocratic elite leading the progressive, millennialist reform of society, and this dream of enlightened evolution, universal knowledge, and social utopia would come to influence liberal democracy, socialism, and the institutions of modern science.

The growing fascism of 20th-century secret societies express the disenchantment of this progressive dream, and Jouret pushed the alienation even further: the world is so unredeemable that the apocalypse is not only necessary but to be welcomed as a purifying fire. Like many hermetic occult societies, the Solar Temple claimed to be in contact with Ascended Masters who maintained universal order and aided human beings in their evolution. But in the suicide note entitled “To All Those Who Can Still Hear the Voice of Wisdom,” the Temple author claims that the Grand White Lodge of Sirius has now recalled those beings, that the Rosicrucian Elder Brothers have left the earth from Sidney, and that the Seven Entities who inhabited the Pyramid of Giza have alighted as well, taking the Energy-Conscience that maintains the solar system with them. Faced with a decadent and doomed human order intent on destroying the Truth and Nature, Jouret and his followers saw their deaths as “not a suicide in the human sense of the term,” but rather a “transit.” “We are in a circle of fire,” the notes claim. “Everything is being consumed. We are about to make a leap in macro-evolution.”

Jouret’s blend of hermetic gnosticism and more American-style apocalyptic survivalism is not uniquein the underground bunkers beneath Montana, Elisabeth Claire Prophet and her Church Universal Triumphant traffic with Enochian Ascended Masters while preparing for an imminent missile exchange with Russia. And from the alchemists to the Rosicrucian Kindred of the Kibbo Kift to today’s right-wing Greens, nature mysticism is hardly alien to hermetic occultism.

Jouret was unusual in that, as J. Gordon Melton points out, “He was a New Ager before he was an occultist.” But Jouret wasn’t content to just think positively about the Age of Aquarius, and before his metaphysics took a darker turn he seemed to embrace a strict ecological lifestyle, starting an organic farm, researching macrobiotics, and practicing homeopathy and acupuncture. Far from casting aspersions on such practices, Jouret’s final act points to the severity of his turn away from the mythic hope of a sustained and spiritualized ecology. “Today’s planetary situation has irrevocably slipped out of human control,” proclaimed one of the notes. “Man has become vile and sterile, a parasite incapable of respecting either himself or Nature and he shall harvest the fruit of his own decay.” Unnerving stuff, the truths that madfolk bear.

Jouret’s act forces us to recognize the religious motifs that lurk beneath even the most materialist assessments of the unraveling environment, as if all the secular tools of activist science and politics cannot help us dodge the West’s great cataclysmic story. Just as some tribal societies ritually enact the birth of the cosmos, Jouret performed civilization’s end, magically expressing the ideology of those ecologists who get so deep they start lobbying for the voluntary extinction of the human race. Many Green activists must appreciate the sick poetry of the Solar Temple’s most imaginative rite: confessing your sins against nature with a plastic bag on your head. This vibrant image of suffocation and sterile alienation resonates with a vast, growing, and in many ways well-founded, intimation of doom. For when Canadians and the Swiss start going ballistic, you know there’s a vortex in the heart of civilization. Secular or spiritual, the most magnetic worldview of all may be the one in which the world dies.