From Dan Brown's bestselling novels to video games to "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" to Wagner's Parzival opera, the Knights Templar have inspired popular culture for centuries. The supposed bravery and purity of the medieval knights who protected Christian pilgrims in the Holy Land have provided plenty of fodder for other forms of light entertainment, as well as for conspiracy theorists.
But the allure of the Knights Templar has taken a deadly turn, inspiring brazen acts of violence on two continents.
Anders Behring Breivik, the man charged in Friday's terror attacks in Norway, which killed 76 people, wanted to re-form the "Knights Templar Europe" to fight a holy war against Islam. In his 1,500-page manifesto, Breivik claims that he and eight other extremists re-founded the Christian military order at a meeting in London in 2002, and he details the group's military badge, motto and goals.
The knights are also claimed as inspiration in Mexico, where a new drug cartel calling itself the Templar Knights issued a 22-page "code of conduct" illustrated with men on horseback bearing lances and crosses, vowing to fight a war against poverty and injustice. Medieval-style helmets made of steel grating and white tunics adorned with red crosses were found earlier this month by police at a training camp used by the gang.
Mexico's Templar Knights gang has been implicated in multiple murders, drug trafficking and extortion in recent years. Their religious guise is considered a publicity stunt to win favor among locals in the country's western state of Michoacan.
"They mirror a bit of the sociological, anthropological logic of the Mafia," national security expert Javier Oliva at Mexico's National Autonomous University, told the Associated Press, explaining the knights' appeal in poor areas where government services are non-existent. "They seek to take justice into their own hands in a Mexico where no functional justice system exists."
The group's links to gang violence and drug trafficking have modern-day members of a different set of Knights Templar, a charity group inspired by the legendary military order, concerned about the safety of their own members.
"The authentic Knights Templar have never had any link to criminal activities," Robert Molinari, Prior of the Order of the Knights Templar in Mexico, told reporters last week. "The danger is if the criminals hurt someone and their rivals are looking for revenge, they might find one of our members and shoot them."
Historians of the the Knights Templar say the legend of the group's purity and bravery is being exploited.
The Knights Templar were founded more than 800 years ago at the height of the Dark Ages by a French knight who wanted to protect the many Christian pilgrims killed in the Holy Land. With just nine founding knights, the order was given space on the Temple Mount above the ruins of King Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem -- a privilege that led to long-standing rumors that they had found the Holy Grail and the Ark of the Covenant at the site -- and soon became one of the most favored charities in the Christian world.
The order attracted new members from all over Europe and became the fighting force at the vanguard of the Crusades; legend has it that at the battle of Montgisard, 500 Templar knights helped several thousand Crusaders crush Saladin's army of 26,000 soldiers.
The knights were flush with wealth -- they had their own fleet of ships and even owned the island of Cyprus -- but they clashed with other Christian military orders and attracted the suspicion of the pope. Charged with corruption and homosexuality, some Templar knights were burned at the stake. Though the order was disbanded by Pope Clement V, many believed that the knights simply went underground, and that to this day they harbor a secret that could topple the Catholic Church.
Both Breivik and the Mexico gang are "seeking to tie into the mystique of the Knights, this legendary group," Devin Burghart, vice president of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, told The Huffington Post. "[It's] attempting to start up another round of the Crusades."
In Norway, Breivik's manifesto posted online is replete with references to the Knights Templar -- in addition to calling himself a Justiciar Knight, he claims there are up to 80 such knights in Europe, "completely unknown to our enemies." The distinctive symbol of the Templar -- a red cross on a white field -- adorns the front page of "2083: A European Declaration of Independence."
In his account of a 2002 meeting to re-form the order, Breivik claims that the group assembled included two Englishmen, a Frenchman, a German, a Dutchman, a Greek, a Russian, a Norwegian and a Serb -- a "war hero" whom Breivik once claimed to have met in Liberia. Breivik claims one of the British members acted as a mentor, the first to describe the "perfect knight."
The group, Breivik writes, intends to serve as a military order to fight against "the ongoing European jihad" by Muslims and as a military/criminal tribunal to try traitors. Among its goals: to replace all "multiculturalist regimes" in western Europe with governments supervised by a tribunal of cultural conservatives and nationalists by 2100. The rights of the media and multinational companies would be considerably restricted -- yet, ironically, Breivik believes in a sort of affirmative action, requiring that at least half of all journalists and editors be cultural patriots.
In the wake of the Friday attacks, authorities in Britain and Norway started probing the existence of such a reconstituted Knights Templar group. But experts in right-wing extremism are skeptical that such a group exists, believing that the claim is a product of Breivik's imagination and bravado.
"The notion of a crusade or a religious war is something that has been featured in far-right discourse and literature for some time, but I've talked to some prominent anti-fascists and nobody has a handle on this Knights Templar group -- if it exists or if it's fantasy," said Matthew Goodwin, an authority on right-wing extremism who teaches at Nottingham University in England. "It's only what we know from Breivik's manifesto. He was known to play fantasy games, and it could be completely fiction or it could be an established organization that's been in hiding."
Goodwin thinks that Breivik intended his manifesto -- and its description of his version of the Knights Templar -- to inspire future white "knights" to fight Islam.
"What he wants to do is galvanize a movement, much like how al Qaeda started a brand," he said, noting that Breivik spent nine years preparing the document, with its detailed breakdown of the stages of an upcoming battle. "It offers a blueprint to the far right: If you want to be a crusader, a knight, then here's what you should do."
Historians of the Knights Templar say that Breivik has a warped idea of the military order, applying its legacy to his own violent purposes.
Breivik claims that the new Knights Templar group functions without a centralized command and is composed of lone heroes driven to fight Islam. The historical Templar always acted in unison, answered to a Grand Master in Jerusalem and often immersed themselves in Arab culture.
"Let's put an end to the misuse of the Templar name by far-right-wing fanatics and Nazis," writes Tony McMahon, a historian who is writing a book on the group, on his blog. He says the historic Templar "operated with maximum camaraderie and were monks, bankers and farmers -- highly productive people fully engaged with the society around them."
"Yes, they fought the Saracen to protect the 'holy places,'" McMahon said, "but they were not sociopathic psychopaths killing innocents to make some vague point."