Cults of the World: Order of the Solar Temple

*Post written by James Wethington, senior library assistant of the University Archives and Special Collections.

Over the next couple of weeks, the communal studies collection touches on various types of communes such as eco-villages, religious life, collective settlements, and many more. Some groups in the collection were cults. According to Merriam-Webster (2018), a cult is “… a great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work (such as a film or book)”. Followers of the Order of the Solar Temple definitely showed their “undying” devotion to their leaders.

Established in 1984 in Geneva, Switzerland, by Luc Jouret and Joseph Di Mambro. Solar Temple traced their lineage back as a revival of the Knights Templar. The order had a strict structure with a thirty-three member council with regional lodges located throughout the world such as Australia, Switzerland, Canada, and France (‘Joseph Di Mambro’, 2014; Melton, 2015).

The Sunburst Sacrifaces A murder-suicide ritual in the French Alps revives European alarm about a shadowy, well-heeled group. Geneva was brimming with holiday cheer as a small convoy of cars set out for France. The travelers looked more respectable than any ordinary party of vacationers. In their four cars, the 16 French and Swiss nationals included three little girls, two policemen, a Geneva psychotherapist and the son of a famed European former skiing champion. But as they arrived in the vicinity of Grenoble in southeastern France, a furtive air crept in to the seasonal image. Near the village of St. Pierre-de-Cherennes, the party halted in the thick of an Alpine forest and walked about half a mile to a clearing. There, 14 members were dosed with sedatives and lay down in a sunburst pattern, most of them with plastic bags over their head. The remaining two then shot the others dead, set the bodies ablaze and killed themselves with pistol shots under the chin. One of the executioners was a policeman, Jean-Pierre Lardanchet. Two of the three girls shot through the forehead with a .357 magnum were his own daughters, ages 2 and 4, investigators disclosed last week. When the ghastly scene was discovered, the day before Christmas Eve, much of appalled Western Europe was compelled to ask again-Why? The winter solstice ritual enacted about an hour's drive from the site of the glittering 1992 Winter Olympics reprised similar cult sacrifices that took place 14 months earlier. And among the victims were some of the most privileged, responsible members of society. Besides the police officers, the woman psychotherapist and an architect, the dead included Patrick Vuarnet, the 27-year-old son of l960 Winter Olympics gold medalist Jean Vuarnet, best known today for his line of chic sunglasses. For Vuarnet fils-whose mother Edith, his woman companion Ute Verona and their daughter Tania, 6, accompanied him in death-the prerogatives of status had melted under the mystical thrall of a sect known as the Order of the Solar Temple. Founded by a Belgian homeopath named Luc Jouret, the cult at first seemed to be a harmless New Age mishmash of astrology and health regimens professing to trace some of its ideas back to the Knights Templar, an order of Crusaders. By late 1994, the directions his sect was taking became horribly clear when Jouret and 52 fellow Templars were found dead as part of mass immolations in Switzerland and Quebec. Police pursued complaints of manipulation of wealthy cultists for their money by shadowy Solar Temple survivors. With the guru's demise, though, the decapitated order seemed likely to wither away. Vuarnet's family knew better. Recalling his brother's guilt at not having been "called" in 1994, Alain Vuarnet says Patrick "looked me straight in the eye and said, 'Alain, you are the one deluding yourself. You just don't understand.' "In view of the cult's still extensive assets and international following, authorities are trying harder than ever now to understand. - By James Walsh. Reported by Bruce Crumley/Paris, January 8, 1996. Source: CS 538-2 (Time Magazine).

Article from Time Magazine about the Order of the Solar Temple’s suicides, 1998. Source: CS 538, Order of the Solar Temple.

This was not Joseph De Mambro’s first time dealing with cults. In 1978, he established Golden Way in Switzerland, where he met Jouret. They worked together to establish the Order of the Solar Temple using their talents and abilities: Jouret held lectures while De Mambro took control of finances and ran the order. Their beliefs included “… astrology, medieval legends, and Christianity”: by the late 1980’s, the Order had over four hundred members (‘Joseph Di Mambro’, 2014).

The order started to unravel in the early 1990’s under Jouret and Di Mambro’s leadership. Word began to spread the apocalypse was upon them. Just before the world ending event, Jouret and Di Mambro “… orchestrated a dramatic exit for themselves and their followers. Believing in the transformative powers of fire, they thought that they could be reborn on Sirius, another planet in another universe” (‘Joseph Di Mambro’, 2014). Sadly, their plan went into effect on October 4 and 5: fires were set to their compounds and their members committed suicide. From 1994 to 1997, seventy-four members committed suicide or died in the set fires (‘Joseph Di Mambro’, 2014; Melton, 2015).

At the University Archives and Special Collections, there are over six hundred and fifty communities available in our communal studies collection. On our online digital gallery, the Order of the Solar Temple have a finding aid available and materials can be requested at or in-person. Stay tuned for our next blog in “Cults of the World”.


Joseph Di Mambro biography. (2014, April 2). Retrieved from

Melton, J. G. (2015, January 9). Order of the Solar Temple. Retrieved from

Merriam-Webster. (2018). Cult. Retrieved from

This entry was posted in Communal Studies, Cult, European History, Murder. Bookmark the permalink.

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