The case of the devil
Part 1: Better the devil you know…
guardian devil at the entrance of the church of Rennes-le-Château
is one of the best known images linked with the mystery of the village and
its priest, Berenger Saunière. Still, though the guardian welcomed
every visitor to the church, it was only after the priest’s death
and the first publication of his enigma, that the author Gérard de
Sède identified the devil as Asmodeus, a famous demon of the underworld.
Since Saunière’s first modifications to the church, the devil has sat on the left as one enters the church. The character has its left knee to the ground, his body weighed down by the enormous font carried on his shoulder. Above his head is a base decorated with two salamanders and a red oval cartouche, containing the letters B S, which we assume stand for Berenger Saunière – what else could it be?
Above, we can read: PAR CE SIGNE TU LE VAINCRAS… by this sign you will conquer him, or it. It is displayed in three portions: PAR CE – SIGNE TU LE – VAINCRAS. It is a play of words on the expression “Par ce signe tu vaincras”: “le”, “him”, is clearly inserted by Saunière. This in itself is surmounted by the statues of four angels, making the sign of the cross. Each character presents one of the four phases that the right hand makes when making the cross. Is it this sign that will vanquish the devil? Is it the holy water of the font? Or something else that we are missing?
A strange request from Saunière
statue of the devil was specifically ordered by and custom made for Saunière.
Why is it known. For the moment, let us agree that a devil inside a church
is strange – though not extra-ordinary; other chapels and churches
have similar images and though they are far between, it is a fact that a
devil inside his church is not unique.
Still, it is clear that requesting the presence of this enigmatic devil has worked well in the myth: many have used the devil as the typifying image of the mystery; it has appeared on numerous book covers, an item we will return to later.
It is known that the work was executed by Giscard, a famous religious statue maker from Toulouse. There is an invoice dated June 30, 1897, which lists terracotta statues of the cross, for 800 French Francs; the font with the devil and the Sign of the Cross costing 300 French Francs and other expenditure. It is clear that though it was a unique image, Giscard did not charge Saunière through the nose for it.
It was Gérard de Sède who identified the devil as Asmodeus – before, it was considered to be “just” a devil – any devil. What lead de Sède to this precise identification is difficult to ascertain.
Still, any observer will notice that there is a certain pained expression about the figure, whose gaze seems preoccupied by the “weight” of the message above him. However, it should be noted that this expression has slightly changed since in recent years the statue’s head was chopped off and stolen, and a substitute head made. Comparison between the “old” and the “new” clearly reveals that different eyes have been created, as well as that apparently the angle of the head in regards to the body is somewhat different.
What is also apparent is that the right knee of the devil rests on the ground, with his left hand pressed on his right thigh; his left shoulder is nude, his tunic otherwise covering his upper body. The skin is dark brown. His right hand, at the height of his hip, forms a circle with his fingers. This in itself is not a sign; originally, this hand held a fork, which was removed because of its possible cause for accidents.
Finally, we know this is a demon, not only because of his horns, but also because of his membranous wings, dark in colour, closed to his back. Only the top of the left wing can be seen.
The old and the young Asmodeus
mentioned, the current statue is slightly different from the statue ordered
by Saunière. First, one of the eyes of the devil was removed; then
the entire head was removed. Why these acts of vandalism occurred is not
known; perhaps they were treasure hunters, perhaps there were people who
felt that a devil had no room in this church; perhaps it were the local
villagers who held some inside information and had a particular cause for
the damage. Whatever its origin, it is clear that the act was irresponsible,
with the sole goal to destroy. Still, this act of vandalism allowed for
certain modifications to be made: the eyes and the position of the head
are one, but the colouring of the tunic of the devil is another. The changes
are substantial enough to refer to the original model as “the old”
and the modified version as “the young”.
At first sight, the differences are difficult to notice, but photographic comparison of the position of the head clearly shows that “the young Asmodeus” was quickly done, based on photographs of the head, but with little detail to the entire composition. The roundness of the eyes and the expression of the mouth differ, the colour of the eyes also: from black, they are now piercing, much more devilish – unnatural – than before. They are small differences between the two versions that will escape the visitor, but differences they are – whether important or not, is a different question.
Though only the head was destroyed, the restoration seems to have resulted in the repainting of the tunic. The old Asmodeus has his tunic in a blue colour; the young Asmodeus’ tunic is green. Despite this difference, the belt remains of the same gilded colour. This change of colour might be important, as it does not fit neatly within the character of a restoration – this was an alteration of the original design and seems odd. Perhaps it is indeed purely the case that the restorer did not have any blue paint on hand… but can we really assume that this is the case? Equally remarkable is the observation that the above statements seem to have escaped most observers.
The blue world of Asmodeus
The blue tunic is a large proportion of the entire statue; it is approximately 3/5 (sixty percent) of the entire surface of the statue. Getting this colour “wrong” during the restoration process is therefore a major issue, which, whether intriguing or not, should be addressed by the people involved in the restoration.
Goetia - S. L. MacGregor Mathers (1904) : Seal of Asmodeus
Even if the answer would be intriguing, it needs to be observed that perhaps Saunière did indeed pay little attention to the colour of his devil’s tunic. Then again, it might be that he was very precise about every aspect of it. As we know our priest was a meticulous man, perhaps the latter possibility seems more plausible. If Saunière furthermore wanted to convey a specific message in the design of this statue, than its colour might be a key ingredient in unravelling the enigma.
statue based at the entrance guides the visitor – he initiates. And
initiations are an important aspect of Freemasonry. It is known
that Saunière was well familiar with those circles and possessed
a large knowledge on the subject. The maker, Giscard, was
equally a notorious Freemason – so even if Saunière did not
want a specific message, Giscard might nevertheless have infused the statue
As regards to the colour, blue might represent the type of obedience, specifically the Blue Lodges. Again, we need to note that Asmodeus is at the entrance of the church – a temple. And Asmodeus was the demon who was said to have constructed the Temple of Solomon, an important part of Masonic lore.
The position of the devil – naked right knee and left shoulder, kneeling – should also be familiar to the Mason, revealing a sign of initiation – submission. “By this sign you will conquer”… or will you gain admittance into an organisation by this sign – the sign – posture – of the devil, and not the sign of the cross?
If Asmodeus had been a saint, then we know that every aspect of this figure would be important: the position of his hands, his object of martyrdom, his colours, etc. But as this is a devil, it seems that everyone has bypassed in trying to identify his basics.
Though a devil, there is some correspondence with the Egyptian mythology. There, we have the god Amun, the supreme deity of Luxor/Thebes, who was often depicted as a ram-headed deity… also associated with the colour blue. His priests wore a blue tunic, with a yellow belt – similar to Asmodeus. Furthermore, we note that rams have horns – and so does the devil of Rennes-le-Château.
‘Asmodeus the old' - blue - and Asmodeus the young - green.
Asmodeus, who art thou?
Who was Asmodeus? He is identified as a demon, an entity intent on sowing discord and mischief. He is described as having three heads: that of a bull, a man, a ram, with goose legs, the tail of a snake and spitting flames. He would also carry a standard and a lance. Furthermore, once exorcised and thus brought under control, he would teach to his conquerors the art of arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, etc. Above all, it was said that he could make men invisible. Thus, it is clear that control was everything… “By this sign you will conquer him”… and thus control him… Any treasure hunter will jump from his seat when he learns that Asmodeus was also linked with the protection of treasures, Asmodeus being able to be manipulated into revealing the secrets…
Asmodeus is mentioned in the Book of Tobias (iii, 8) and is probably derived from the Hebrew root meaning "to destroy". This means that Asmodeus also corresponds to the demon called Abaddon, the Destroyer in the Apocalypse, ix, 11.
The Book of Tobias relates that the virgin Sarah, daughter of Rachel, had been given successively to seven husbands, but all been slain on the night of the nuptials, before the consummation of the marriage. The rumour went that Sarah was loved Asmodeus and that he killed off all his competitors. Ready to marry Tobias, he himself was moved by this superstition. The archangel Raphael teaches Tobias how to deal with the demon, making him catch a fish and put its heart and liver on lit coals, which produces a vapour that makes Asmodai flee to Egypt, where Raphael (feastday October 24) binds him. More about the demon's fate in this history is unknown.
Asmodeus has Persian origins, from Æshma-deva (Asmodai), who in Mazdeism is the chief of all demons, a personal being, under direct command of Angra Mainyu, the principle of evil, and the enemy of Sraoscha, one of the suras or angels that serve Ahura Mazdah, the principle of good. Æshma's mission is to fill the heart of men with anger and vengeful desires, and to be the agent by means of whom all evil on Earth is made; he incites men to abandon the path of good and follow that of evil.
In the Talmud, King Solomon tricks the demon and obliges him to collaborate in building the temple of Jerusalem. It is said that he was able to finish the construction of the temple without using any metal tools… even though it seems that the stones used in the temple were sliced as if by a diamond cutter. In another legend Asmodai changed place for some years with King Solomon. There is, however, another legend, saying that Asmodai is the king of all demons, comparable to Satan, and married Lilith after she left Adam.
Other spellings: Æshma (Old Persian), Æshma-dæva, Ashmadia, Ashmedai (Hebrew), Asmodaios (Greek), Asmoday, Asmodée (French), Asmodee, Asmodei, Asmodeios, Asmodeo (Spanish, from a Latin declination), Asmodeius, Asmodeus (Latin, as he is known in most translations of the Book of Tobit), Asmodi, Chammaday, Chashmodai, Sidonay, Sydonai.