by Andrew Phillip
New Dawn Special Issue
The last Cathar stronghold
The past is a source of origin, tradition, revelation, and inspiration. For the medieval Cathars the most distant past was, as it is for most religions, the time in which the mythic foundation of the world was established.
More recent developments,
such as the coming of Jesus, brought the story forward to a new
The Cathars believed that their
the consolamentum, was the result of an
unbroken tradition stretching back to Jesus himself.
They also look back to the historical groups and individuals who were involved with the development of this worldview in the first place.
Modern esoteric lineages typically derive not from antiquity but from revivals that occurred in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Thus when exploring
movements like the Gnostics of antiquity or the Cathars of the
Middle Ages, the modern spiritual seeker is often presented with a
mélange of spiritually-unsympathetic popular history, obtuse
scholarly research, and a revivalist esoteric tradition that often
has little to do with critical history.
The Albigensian Crusade, launched in 1209 on the authority of Pope Innocent III, laid waste to the Languedoc in the south of France. The Inquisition was subsequently founded to root out and eradicate what remained of the Cathar heresy.
Books on the Cathars focus on the relentless march of the crusading army as it moves from castle to castle, siege to siege, atrocity to atrocity. Or historians weigh up the influence of the Inquisition, a ruthless bureaucracy that survived into the nineteenth century.
Languedoc, now branded as Cathar country, for the fairytale citadel
Carcassonne, restored in the nineteenth century, for the wild
ruins of medieval castles on challenging hilltops, and for the
relaxed locals, good weather, cheap food and wine.
After the crusaders ended the siege of the city of Bram, 99 men had their noses and upper lips cut off, were blinded, and were tied together with another one-eyed man at their head to lead them.
This is perhaps the most
colorfully brutal event of the crusade but it is merely one example
and certainly did not have the highest body count.
mopped up the survivors.
The history we know, the history of war and temporal power, is the history of crime. But there is another history, the history of esotericism. It is that other history that interests me.
Fragments of Cathar beliefs can be dug out of the writings of the Catholic intellectuals who opposed them, like shards of tile that make up a buried mosaic.
We cannot reconstruct the
inner lives of the Cathars by scholarship, yet knowledge of their
beliefs and practices suggest to us by analogy what their inner
experiences may have been.
Cathar Perfect in the Languedoc, was a murderer who
bedded many women in violation of his vows and tried to cover up his
Catharism really was an esoteric religion.
In a pattern still demonstrated by many of the minority religions of the Middle East, such as,
...a large community of lay people support the inner circle of priests or clerics or Perfect.
The rite of the consolamentum
dedicated the aspirant to the austere restrictions and
responsibility of the Cathar Perfect. When the spirit is said to
descend on the participant during the consolamentum or when the
spirit is so much part of the Cathar myth, I cannot believe this was
not accompanied by some sort of transcendent mystical experience.
I found myself in sympathy with these romantic esotericists but wanting to test their more fantastic claims.
Both Antonin Gadal and Deodat Roché had eccentric opinions of the Cathars' history.
Gadal, in particular, became fascinated by the idea that cave systems in the Languedoc had been used as initiatory centers by the Cathars. Historically speaking, it is unlikely. But a whole system of ritual initiation was recreated and practiced in the caves.
To this day there are esoteric groups who use the caves for this purpose.
Roché was a more
reliable scholar, yet he believed the caves had connections with
Mithraism. Roché lived into his 90s and was greatly respected by
both esotericists and the local population.
Often billed the real 'Indiana Jones', Rahn was a romantic and idealistic young German who came to the Languedoc in the 1930s. He is particularly associated with connecting the Cathars with the Holy Grail.
Rahn's classic Crusade Against the Grail is neither the most original nor the most well-researched book on the Cathars. Yet somehow it epitomizes the essence of romantic esotericism. As does Rahn's life.
Fleeing the Languedoc in debt, having associated
himself with several dubious characters, he found himself invited to
an interview with an admirer of his recently published book. That
person was Heinrich Himmler and Rahn found himself invited to join
the SS, an offer he could not refuse.
In 1939 he travelled to Austria, walked up a peak in the Tyrel Mountains, took sleeping pills and died of exposure.
The French philosopher Simone Weil (pronounced 'Vay') is perhaps the most admirable figure of the Cathar revival.
A superb writer who lived a short and difficult yet
highly principled life, she found in the Cathars an example of how
to live authentically. But her historical knowledge of them was no
better than that of the Languedoc neo-Cathars such as Antonin Gadal
and Déodat Roché with whom she had corresponded.
She was born into a middle-class secular Jewish family and attended the Sorbonne where she was in the same class as Simone de Beauvoir. Weil was a pacifist and trade unionist, fighting on the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War, with an anarchist militia in 1936.
She worked in factories to experience the life of the working class, to the detriment of her health and her income.
Often referred to as a Christian neoplatonist, Weil was in effect a Perennialist, believing that the ancients essentially shared a single esoteric tradition, Plato being its finest expression.
She died in London in 1943 of tuberculosis, though many considered her death an imitation of the Cathar endura, a fast to the end.
One of the most charming stories surrounding this concerns a Cathar Perfect who remembered being a horse in a previous life, and was able to find the horseshoe that he had once shed.
The Cathar understanding of reincarnation or transmigration is
intimately connected with their myth of a fall from Heaven. Each
spirit has fallen into the material world and is reincarnated
constantly until it finds its way into a human who becomes a Cathar
Perfect and, by following the Cathar path, is liberated at death and
returns to the heavenly realm.
The granddaddy of modern Cathar reincarnation was Arthur Guirdham (1905-92), Senior Consultant Psychiatrist for the clinical area of Bath, UK, for over twenty years.
Highly considered by his associates and friends, his legacy was not to be in the area of psychiatry but in a series of books detailing the past life knowledge of a patient known only as Mrs. Smith, who he met in the 1960s. Later another local woman known as Miss Mills also became involved.
Eventually an entire group of people emerged who
had reincarnated together with Guirdham into different eras.
He is often very careful to state what is accurate in the past life
memories and what isn't, to reveal what facts were already known to
him, and so on. But he can be so rambling in his accounts that the
reader is left none the wiser.
The two had been lovers in the thirteenth century. Puerilia was eventually condemned and burnt as a heretic herself. Mrs Smith's memories of this past life were dramatic and seemingly accurate in strange details.
Events developed rapidly as the scope of the reincarnations expanded.
Miss Mills' friend Jocelyn S. subsequently died and communicated to the group from beyond the grave as Braïda de Montserver.
The group reincarnation expanded to 19, nearly all of whom were friends or relatives of Miss Mills. It is an extraordinary story. Objective evidence for previous lives can only be assessed by comparison with historical and archaeological information.
The very nature of historical evidence itself muddies the waters. If a particular facet of history has been documented and published, anyone who subsequently claims to remember this from a previous life may actually have acquired the information from a book.
details not backed up by historical or archaeological evidence are
of no help in determining authenticity.
Yet there is an early example
of evidence that might satisfy the criteria.
French scholar Jean Duvernoy discovered in the Fournier Inquisition Registers that during the time of the Inquisition some Perfect wore these dark colors rather than black.
It seems these colors were adopted as a compromise between the
traditional black and the need to disguise their status. Duvernoy
only published this information in 1965, and only in French. This
tiny detail suggests authenticity.
Although obviously intoxicated by the 'far memories' of Mrs Smith and Miss Mills, he was careful in his comparison of their statements with historical data.
But it seems Guirdham was never able to successfully meet any of the reincarnation circle aside from Mrs Smith, Miss Mills and Miss Mills' very ill father.
Miss Mills, and then Guirdham, eventually channeled teachings from disembodied Cathar spirits.
A worldview is different from history, yet esoteric or alternative worldviews often make historical claims.
These are in tension with each other. I always have mixed feelings about these claims. As something of a romantic myself, I admire and somewhat envy those who can take the ball and run with it.
On the other hand, claims which are insisted on as historical should be verifiable. Esotericism is often based on the scholarship of the time.
When that scholarship
makes further discoveries or changes the basic understanding of an
historical phenomenon, the esoteric worldview based upon it often
stays crystallized in its original form.
In Lost Teachings of the Cathars I examine the teachings and the histories of both the Cathars and their aspiring modern successors.