Otto Rahn & the Quest for the Holy Grail

Otto Rahn (1904-1939)
This article was published in New Dawn 43 (Jul-Aug 1997)

Otto Rahn (1904-1939), described as a gifted young author and historian, was one of this century’s truly fascinating figures. Prior to his mysterious death, at age 35, he wrote two books about the Cathars of southern France: Kreuzzug gegen den Gral (“Crusade Against the Grail”) and Luzifers Hofgesind (“Lucifer’s Court”). Myth and legend continue to shroud both his life and tragic death. His books influenced such authors as Trevor Ravenscroft and Jean-Michel Angebert. In the 1982 best selling book Holy Blood, Holy Grail, Otto Rahn’s name appears in a small but intriguing footnote.

Otto Rahn believed that he had found the location of the Holy Grail Mountain, the Montsalvat of legend, in the Cathar mountain fortress of Montsegur in the French Pyrenees. He was, says  Prof. Joscelyn Godwin, “largely responsible for the mythological complex that associated the Cathars and Montsegur with the Holy Grail and its Castle.”

Norma Lorre Goodrich in her own highly acclaimed work The Holy Grail pays tribute to Otto Rahn’s Kreuzzug gegen den Gral (“Crusade Against the Grail”) describing it as “a wonderful book, a monument to this German idealist author, who died mysteriously during a descent in the Alps.”

According to his French translator, Otto Rahn believed with absolute conviction that (1) the Cathars were the last owners of the Holy Grail, and (2) the Holy Grail “perished” when they died at the hands of the “pope and the King of France” at the beginning of the thirteenth century.

Otto Rahn maintained that hidden within the Grail Romances was the essence of Catharism. The Quest for the Holy Grail was a symbolic presentation of Cathar initiation and the Grail itself (which in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival is a sacred stone) symbolised the Secret Tradition of the Cathars.

The war of the Roman Catholic Church against the Cathars is variously described as a war where Roma and Amor stood opposite each other, in which the catholic (‘common’) idea triumphed with flame and sword over the catharic (‘pure’) idea.

The Cathars or Cathari were members of a Gnostic Christian community which appeared in Western Europe in about 1050. They were also known as the Albigensians or men of Albi. This name derives from the city of Albi in southern France which was one of the Cathars’ chief centres. Perhaps as many as two million people belonged to the movement by the twelfth century and Catharism was beginning to become a serious rival of the Church of Rome.

The Cathar claim to be the true church of Jesus Christ was a real threat to the authority of the Roman Church as Zoe Oldenbourg explains in Massacre at Montsegur:

“The Cathars declared themselves the heirs of a tradition that was older than that held by the Church of Rome — and, by implication, both less contaminated and near in spirit to the Apostolic tradition. They claimed to be the only persons who had kept and cherished the Holy Spirit which Christ had bestowed upon His Church; and it looks as though this claim was at least partially justified….

“Today we are better informed than they were concerning the practices of the Early Church, and have to admit that the Cathars merely followed a tradition somewhat more ancient than that of the [Roman] Church herself. It was with some appearance of reason that they claimed Rome as the party guilty of ‘heresy’ through her falling-out from the original purity which had characterized the Church of the Apostles.”

The medieval Cathars believed in a cosmic battle between the principles of Light and Darkness on whose meetings and encounters everything in the universe was based. Darkness was for them dark matter, the unperfected, the transient. They identified all clerical and secular rulers, principally the Catholic Church as the personification of the Darkness. In their mythology the sun symbolised the primordial Light from which all life emerged. Miguel Serrano coined their doctrine: Solar Kristianity. For Otto Rahn, Montsegur was the “Lighthouse of Catharism.”

Rahn’s Grail Quest

Otto Rahn was born on 18 February, 1904 in Michelstadt in southern Germany. In secondary school he developed a fascination with the history of the medieval Cathars, their faith and revolt against king and pope. From 1922 to 1926 he studied jurisprudence, German philosophy and history. Rahn intended to write a dissertation on Guyot, the Provencal Troubadour on whose lost Grail poem Wolfram von Eschenbach claimed to have based his Parzival.

The medieval Germanic tale of Parzival, revived in the 1800s by Wagnar’s popular mystical music dramas, fired Otto Rahn’s latter day quest for the Holy Grail. He soon pieced together a series of clues gleaned from a study of the history of the Cathars and the poem of Wolfram von Eschenbach, a Knight Templar of the thirteenth century.

Driven by his deep interest in the Cathars and Grail legends, from 1928 to 1932 Rahn researched and travelled widely in France, Spain, Italy and Switzerland.

Early in the summer of 1929 Otto Rahn made his first appearance in the Languedoc region of southern France. He quickly settled in the village of Lavelanet and over the next three months systematically explored the ruined Cathar temple-fortress on Montsegur as well as the surrounding mountain grottoes.

It was in Languedoc that the city of Carcassonne, the holy mountain of the Cathars (Montsegur) and the mysterious church of Rennes-le-Chateau were located. All of these places were steeped in Cathar lore and it was here that all legends of the Holy Grail seemed to converge.

At Montsegur, writes Nigel Pennick, “in 1244 the heretical Cathars had made their last heroic stand against a Catholic crusade which finally triumphed in their destruction. Here, tradition affirms that on the night before the final assault, three Cathars carrying the sacred relics of the faith slipped unnoticed over the wall. They carried away the magical regalia of the Merovingian King Dagobert II and a cup reputed to be the Holy Grail.

“Possession of the Grail has always been the dream of chivalric orders. The Knights of King Arthur’s Round Table, the Templars, even the Teutonic Knights have sought the mystic vessel. But Otto Rahn believed that he could triumph where centuries of questing had failed. He had studied the sacred geometry of Montsegur, its sunrise orientations and its relationship with other sacred places, and had discovered secret underground passages, where he felt the treasure must be concealed.” (Hitler’s Secret Sciences)

Nigel Pennick traces Otto Rahn’s knowledge of ‘sacred geography’ back to the Druids and Templars. The Cathars were also said to be familiar with this esoteric science.

In many meetings with the local people (he spoke the local Provencal language fluently) Otto Rahn gathered everything concerning the Cathars and the Grail.

In 1931 Rahn made an extensive exploration of the grottoes of the Sabarthes area south of Montsegur, notably Ornolac and the massive cavern of Lombrives. Here he explored a huge chamber called “the Cathedral” by the local people. Rahn later described this magnificent cavern as follows:

“In time out of mind, in an epoch whose remoteness has been barely touched by modern historical science, it was used as a temple consecrated to the Iberian God Illhomber, God of the Sun. Between two monoliths one which had crumbled, the steep path leads into the giant vestibule of the cathedral of Lombrives. Between the stalagmites of white limestone, between walls of a deep brown colour and the brilliant rock crystal, the path leads down into the bowels of the mountain. A hall 260 feet in height served as a cathedral for the heretics.”

Rahn tells how, “Deeply stirred I walked through the crystal halls and marble crypts. My hands put aside the bones of fallen pure ones and knights…”

The local people called him a “seducer doubled with believer, an eternal adolescent with a superhuman passion for the Grail and the Hermetic Tradition”.

Both Kreuzzug gegen den Gral (“Crusade Against the Grail”) and Luzifers Hofgesind (“Lucifer’s Court”) are full of remarkable insights and revelations of important historical links.

Deep within the grottoes of Sabarthes Otto Rahn found chambers in which the walls were covered with symbols characteristic of the Knights Templar, side by side with emblems of the Cathars. This finding confirmed the notion, fostered by esoteric historians, that the Knights Templar and the Cathars were at one time closely associated. One intriguing image carved into the stone wall of a grotto was clearly a drawing of a lance. This depiction immediately suggests the bleeding lance that appears over and over again in the Arthurian legends.

The legend of the Grail, explains the Chilean mystic Miguel Serrano, “reappears forcibly Christianised in the Middle Ages. The Templars disseminated it. It is centred on the legend of the court of King Arthur (who is the King of the Grail and is also called Amfortas). It is interesting to point out that Arthur is Arthos, Bear, that is to say Arctic. By which the exact geographical position of the lost continent of the first Solar Age is pinpointed: Hyperborea, seat of the Grail. In the Middle Ages, it became a cup, when the myth was Christianised, the one from which Christ was said to have drunk at the Last Supper, or else the one in which Joseph of Arimathea received the blood of Christ as it spurted from his side as he hung on the cross.”

Otto Rahn believed it was possible to trace the Cathars, who guarded the Holy Grail in their castle at Montsegur, back to Druids who converted to Gnostic Manichaeism. The Druids in Britain were forerunners of the Celtic Christian Church. He saw in the culture of the medieval Cathar stronghold of Languedoc strong resemblances to the Druids. Their priests akin to the Cathar Parfaits. The Cathar secret wisdom being preserved by the later Troubadours, the travelling poets and singers of the medieval courts of France.

Most Troubadours, according to Rahn, were secret Cathars. Their apparent yearning and longing songs only seldom dedicated to a special woman, their feminine symbolism referred to the Cathar community, the Sophia, the Wisdom of the Gnostics. Julius Evola explains in The Mystery of the Grail: “To make this doctrine inaccessible to the profane, it is hidden in an erotic symbolism, similar to the Grail cycle where it is represented by a heroic symbolism.”

When Otto Rahn first studied Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival he noticed remarkable similarities with names and places in southern France, and he suspected that Parzival’s Grail castle Munsalvaesche (Richard Wagnar called it Montsalvat) was none-other than the Cathar solar-fortress Montsegur. In Eschenbach’s work he discerned the influence of Cathar poetry. Otto Rahn adopted from the research of Cathar enthusiast Antonin Gadal the probably incorrect assumption that the persecuted Cathars had retreated under the earth and celebrated their mysteries in subterranean churches. Gadal gave Rahn the freedom of his library and private museum. In letters Rahn called him his “Trevrizent” (the uncle of Parsifal in Eschenbach’s work) and developed the propositions laid out in Gadal’s Au Chemin du Saint Graal.

Antonin Gadal believed that the Cathars or ‘Good Christians’ derived from the original ‘Johannite’ form of Gnostic Christianity. ‘Johannite Christianity’ was based on the teachings of St John the Evangelist, the disciple whom Jesus loved and personally instructed in the Mysteries. The Cathars were said to possess the original version of John’s Gospel.

The tale that Otto Rahn actually found the Grail and kept it until the end of World War II in the Wewelsburg, the SS castle near Paderborn, is easily disproved. There was a Grail in Wewelsburg but it was just a huge rock crystal. Rene Nelli, an important scholar of Catharism, maintains that existing Cathar texts do not mention the Grail, while Julius Evola did not think much of the Cathar Grail thesis.

Return to Germany

Otto Rahn left France in September 1932 and returned to Germany to devote himself to further studies of the Grail. In 1934, following on from his library research and his various expeditions, Rahn completed Kreuzzug gegen Gral (“Crusade Against the Grail”).

Rahn showed that the heroes of Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Grail romances were modelled after real personalities. The pure knight Parzifal was a Carcassone Cathar, one of the foremost and heroic victims of the Crusade. The hermit Trevrizent was the Cathar Bishop Guilhabert de Castres; the King Anfortas, Raimon-Roger de Foix; and Montsegur was Montsalvage. Moreover, Montsalvage is protected by a Fountain “Salvage” in which Rahn believed he recognised the intermittent fountain of Fontestorbes, a few kilometres from the Pog, Montsegur’s promontory. Also, the forest around Montsalvage is called the “Briciljan” and close by Montsegur is Priscilien Wood. Rahn firmly concluded that the Fortress Castle of Montsegur was the Temple of the Grail.

Rahn associates the Cathar Church with the Church of the Grail, with the mystical group Fideles d’Amour of Dante. He believed that the Templars after their enforced dissolution found refuge in the Pyrenean caverns. Rahn wrote of the many indications that the white tunic with octagonal red cross of the Templars was to be found with the black cassocks and yellow cross of the Cathars in the dark grottos of Sabarthes.

Rahn believed that the Grail consisted of several tablets of stone engraved with runic or even pre-runic inscription. He believed that it was either one perfect emerald with 144 facets or 144 tablets of stone engraved in emerald. This emerald would have graced the Crown of Lucifer, symbolising his third eye, and which fell to earth, precisely on the Montsegur.

Soon after its publication Kreuzzug gegen den Gral came to the attention of Nazi SS leader Heinrich Himmler. The SS hierarchy were eager for Otto Rahn’s collaboration in SS-sponsored research. After first joining the SS heritage bureau, the Ahnenerbe, as a civilian, his superiors quickly recognised his talents. Persuaded to formally join the SS in 1936, Otto Rahn became member 276 208 of the Allgemeine-SS.

Paul Ladame, a friend of Rahn’s, insists that Otto joined the SS because there was no option. Ladame says Otto was no Nazi or racist. Himmler offered him a salary and the freedom to conduct his own academic research. To refuse may have resulted in Rahn’s eventual imprisonment anyway.

In September 1935 Rahn was writing excitedly to the chief of the Ahnenerbe about the places he visited in his hunt for Grail traditions in Germany, requesting complete confidence in the matter with the exception of Himmler.

Otto Rahn is even rumoured to have founded a neo-Catharist circle within the SS. In the summer of 1936 he undertook, by order of the SS, an expedition to Iceland. Intriguingly, the ship that sailed for Iceland flew a flag with a blue swastika on white background (in sharp contrast to the official standard of the Third Reich). Highlights of this journey formed part of some chapters in his second and final book Luzifers Hofgesind (“Lucifer’s Courtiers”), published in 1937.

Rahn’s second book reads quite differently from his first. Arnaud d’Apremont writes in the preface to Luzifers Hofgesind that its style is more ideological, to all appearances ‘national-socialist’. However, more perceptive critics see Rahn in a quandary, having to toe the nationalist party line, negotiate the censor, and be able to write the full objective text he would have liked. He may even have indicated the irony of his position in the book’s title.

But it is clear from Luzifers Hofgesind that Otto Rahn did not see Lucifer as synonymous with Satan, the Adversary, or the Devil. To Rahn, Lucifer was the Pyrenean Abellio, the Celtic Belenos, the Nordic Balder, the Greek Apollo. These are the Light-Bearers, an attribute Rahn, himself, wanted recognition for: a Lucifer.

For Rahn the primordial Light came not from the East but from the North. He travelled around the ancient sacred places of Europe: Externsteine, the site of Irminsul, sacred symbol of the Saxons; Thingveillir, place of assembly of the ancient Icelanders, and Reykholt, birthplace of Sturlusson, the Nordic Homer and author of the Edda.

One reviewer describes Luzifers Hofgesind as “an expedition through the ‘garden of roses,’ Rahn’s affectionate term for the Kingdom of the Asgardian Elfin, and a realm closed to non-believers or the uninitiated. Rahn dreams of a return to Thule, the primordial centre of the European Hyperboreans. He pines for a return to the Golden Age.”

For Rahn the Holy Grail was an emblem set up in opposition to the Catholic Church — indeed it was a truly Luciferian [Light-Bearer] symbol. Lucifer stood in opposition to the god of Darkness, the god of the Church of Rome. Thus Otto Rahn wrote in his final book:

“There is much more [Light] than in the houses of god — cathedrals and churches — where Lucifer neither is able nor wishes to enter due to all the sombre, stained glass windows whereon are painted the Jewish prophets and apostles, the Roman gods and saints. The forest, that, that was free!”

During his time with the SS Rahn noticed that his telephone was tapped and that he was being spied upon.

We know that Otto Rahn fell into disgrace with the Nazi hierarchy in late 1937 and for disciplinary reasons was assigned a tour of duty at the SS run Dachau concentration camp. In the winter of 1938/39 he wrote to the SS Reichsfuhrer requesting immediate dismissal from the SS. A few months later he was dead.

Rumours abound concerning Otto Rahn’s departure from the Nazi SS. Some claim that he was a homosexual or of Jewish ancestry, but evidence is lacking. In a conversation Rahn claimed that he had been betrayed and that his life was in danger. In a letter to a friend he openly expressed his concern about the Third Reich:

“I have much sorrow in my country. Fourteen days ago I was in Munich. Two days later I preferred to go into my mountains. Impossible for a tolerant, liberal man like me to live in the nation that my native country has become.”

Col. Howard Buechner, the author of the Emerald Cup, says that Rahn “let it be known that he opposed the war for which Germany was obviously preparing in 1938. In place of war, he believed that Germany and then Europe, should be transformed into a community of ‘Pure Ones’ or Cathars. In other words, Rahn’s long association with the history of the Cathars and their unjust persecution by the church and the throne of France, had led to his conversion to the Cathar faith. He was also proposing a ‘New Order’ in which the states of Europe, and perhaps all other nations, would adopt the Cathar beliefs in the interest of world peace.”

Otto Rahn gave his last public lecture — based on Luzifers Hofgesind — in January 1938. A local newspaper reported on his talk:

“The Albigensians [Cathars] were exterminated. 205 leading followers of the Light-Bearer were burnt on a huge pyre by Dominicans in the South of France after a large-scale priestly Crusade in the name of Christian clemency. With fire and sword, the Lucifer doctrine of the Light-Bearer was persecuted along with its followers. The Albigensians are dead, but their spirit lives on and has an effect today through new devotion and rejuvenated enthusiasm. The Vicar of Christ could truly burn men; but he was mistaken if he believed that he burned along with them their spirit, devotion and longing. This spirit became alive again before many men yesterday, powerfully and visibly, in Otto Rahn, a descendant of the old Troubadours.”

A little over one year later, on 13 March 1939 — almost on the anniversary of the fall of Montsegur — Otto Rahn died in the snow on the Tyrolean mountains. “In the manner of the Cathar heretics,” says Nigel Pennick, “Rahn voluntarily left a world he saw disintegrating.” A few years earlier Otto Rahn had written in Kreuzzug gegen den Gral (“Crusade Against the Grail”):

“Their doctrine allowed suicide but demanded that one did not put an end to his life because of disgust, fear or pain, but in a perfect dissolution from matter. This kind of Endura was allowed when it took place in a moment of mystical sight of divine beauty and kindness…It is only one step from fasting to suicide. To fast requires courage but the final act of definitive ascesis requires heroism. The consequence is not as cruel as it may look.”

The story of the enigmatic life and work of Otto Rahn, symbolising as it does a greater mystery, will always fascinate both students of the Holy Grail and seekers of the Cathar tradition. This mystery can be discerned in the following quote from Miguel Serrano’s Nos: Book of the Resurrection:

“When we talk about the religion of love of the troubadours, of the initiated knights of the Grail, of the true Rosicrucians, we must try to discover what lies behind their language. In those days, love did not mean the same thing as it does in our day. The word Amor (Love) was a cipher, it was a code word. Amor spelt backwards is Roma. That is, the word indicated, in the way in which it was written, the opposite to Roma, to all that Rome represented. Also Amor broke down into ‘a’ and ‘mor’, meaning Without-Death. That is, to become immortal, eternal, thanks to the way of initiation of A-Mor. A way of initiation totally opposed to the way of Rome. An esoteric, solar Kristianity. The Gnostic Kristianity of Meister Eckhart. And mine. Because I have tried to teach western man to resurrect Kristos in his soul. Because Kristos is the Self for western man.

“This is why Roma destroyed Amor, the Cathars, the Templars, the Lords of the Grail, the Minnesanger, everything which may have originated in the ‘Hyperborean Blood Memory’ and which may have had a polar, solar origin.

“The love talked and written about so much in novels, poetry and magazines, the love of one’s neighbour, the universal love of the churches, love of humanity, has nothing whatsoever to do with ‘loveless love’ (A-Mor, Without-Death), which is a harsh discipline, as cold as ice, as cutting as a sword, and which aspires to overcome the human condition in order to reach the Kingdom of the Immortals, Ultima Thule.”

This remains a fitting tribute to Otto Rahn.

This article was published in New Dawn 43.
If you appreciate this article, please consider subscribing to help maintain this website.

© New Dawn Magazine and the respective author.
For our reproduction notice, click here.

About the Author

MEHMET SABEHEDDIN is a researcher, writer and inveterate global traveller. He is a long-time contributor to New Dawn magazine. A “wandering Sufi” and “spiritual swaggie,” his areas of interest are wide ranging and include mysteries, hidden history, Sufism, Eastern wisdom, and Gnostic Christianity.

Author Archive Page