The Order of the Solar Temple

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Order of the Solar Temple: The Temple of Death, edited by James R Lewis.

There is little durable literature on the Order of the Solar Temple in English, but the group’s nature and catastrophic demise is extremely important to understanding the situation of minority religions and occult groups in the Francophone world. Over seventy members of this society, constituting the greater part of its core membership, murdered each other and suicided in a few ritual events over the course of three years in the mid-1990s.

Many of the authors in this volume of collected papers evaluate the inevitable comparisons–even drawn by Solar Temple members themselves–with the nearly contemporaneous Branch Davidian massacre in Texas, as well as the later Heaven’s Gate UFO cult suicides and the earlier People’s Temple of Jim Jones. Ultimately, such comparisons or contrasts are unenlightening because even these better-known groups are poorly understood; and in the absence of further supporting detail, the authors seem to be passing judgment on the basis of superficial media representations. In other respects, it’s difficult to generalize about this fairly diverse group of papers.

There is some predictable redundancy among chapters all written in parallel; each reestablishes the basic scenario of the deaths of the members and their discovery, but each emphasizes different aspects of the Solar Temple culture and organization. Papers that stand out for their particular usefulness include Jean-Francois Meyer’s 1993 (i.e. pre-“Transit”) study of the society, Susan Palmer’s analysis using Mary Douglas’ religious purity model, George Chryssides’ discussion of the original sources for Solar Temple teachings, and Henrik Bogdan’s account of the ceremonial rituals of the Temple.

The second paper in the volume, written by Massimo Introvigne for CESNUR in 1995, provides an impressively clear summary of the history of neo-Templarism as a context for the Solar Temple, and raises a number of questions regarding agency and responsibility surrounding the deaths which have yet to be decisively answered, and perhaps never will be. Contrasting with Introvigne’s clarity, the penultimate paper, Marc Labelle on “The Ordre du Temple Solaire and the Quest for the Absolute Sun,” is an attempt to explain the Solar Temple teachings, but culminates in a stretch of unintelligible metaphysical prose that seems to be purely Labelle’s own.

The book also helpfully furnishes the reader with two primary documents: the “Testaments” released by the leadership of the Solar Temple on the occasion of their primary “Transit,” and the ritual text for a ceremony of initiation. [via]