In 1307, Philip IV of France was deeply in debt to the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon (a military order more commonly known as the Knights Templar). The Templars had originated during the first crusade as a monastic order dedicated to helping pilgrims reach Jerusalem. They soon became a powerful military presence in Outremer (the Christian-held lands within the Middle East) and because of an extra-national network of knights, they amassed immense power and wealth around Europe. Since they had a financial infrastructure which stretched through many different countries, the Templars began acting as bankers (imagine if you deposited gold in England, and then withdrew it in Jerusalem without having to carry it through all the bandit-infested areas between). They took over and managed the estates of noblemen who took up the cross and went to fight in the crusades, and, as Philip could attest, they leant money. Some historians regard them as the first multinational corporation of Europe.
Philip IV really liked money and he hated repaying debts. In 1306 he had exiled France’s Jews so that he could take over the loans which had been made by them. When rumors started cropping up about the profane nature of the Templar’s initiation rituals, the French king made sure the rumors spread widely and gained credence. He used his influence over Pope Clement V (a weak pope who was almost entirely under Philip’s control) to squelch the order. On October 13th 1307, hundreds of French Templars were rounded up and arrested. They were then subjected to intense torture in order to find out the truth of their heresies. Unsurprisingly, under torture, the imprisoned Templars confessed to all sorts of heresies (and other sins). One of the things which Templars confessed to was worshipping the dark god Baphomet. Baphomet had originated as a mispronunciation of Mohammed among untutored French soldiers during the First Crusade, however he was about to transcend his roots and become a deity in his own right.
With inspiration supplied by torturers the Templars came up with all sorts of examples of how they worshipped Baphomet idols and committed enormities in his name. Philip’s purpose was to destroy the Templars not to find out truth and the Baphomet story worked very well. Other imprisoned Templars were questioned about the entity, and when the rack and iron and pinchers were applied, they suddenly confirmed their fellow prisoners’ stories about the dark demon-god.
Baphomet, a hitherto nonexistent deity was literally born from the pain and fear and misinformation of the torture chamber. During the 19th century, there was a burst of historical interest in the destruction of the Templars (I have left the ghastly details out of this post, but Philip IV was entirely effective in crushing the order for personal gain: the grandmaster of the Templars was burned at the stake in the middle of Paris in 1314). Various authorities of the occult (which is to say fabulists) became interested in Baphomet and started providing further information about him. Baphomet came to be pictured as a “Sabbatic Goat” a winged androgynous being with a pair of breasts, a goat’s head, and various evil supernatural accessories and emblems.
This image of Baphomet was seized on by Aleister Crowley, the influential English occultist, whose works had such an influence on modern neopaganism. As a result, Baphomet has become popular. You can buy devotional books and resin statues of him more easily than you can for almost any deity from my “deities of the underworld” category. The fact that this deity has always been entirely a fraud, a bowdlerization of the medieval devil, and a complete invention (created under torture) seemingly has little bearing on the deitiy’s popularity. Indeed it is a good origin story for a dark god and possibly has helped Baphomet to prominence.