Most forms of spirituality or religion look back to the past in some way. 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 chapter. The Cathars believed that their initiation rite, the consolamentum, was the result of an unbroken tradition stretching back to Jesus himself.
Aspiring modern Cathars look back to the myths of the original spiritual realm, the fall of Satan and the angels, and the creation of the material world in which souls reincarnate until they can escape. 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 melange of spiritually-unsympathetic popular history, obtuse scholarly research, and a revivalist esoteric tradition that often has little to do with critical history.
The Cathars are best known not for what they did but for what was done to them. 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. Tourists visit the Languedoc, now branded as Cathar country, for the fairytale citadel of 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.
The reader of a history of the Cathars encounters a list of atrocities so numbingly extensive she is at risk of experiencing compassion fatigue. 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 colourfully brutal event of the crusade but it is merely one example and certainly did not have the highest body count. The Inquisition mopped up the survivors.
The contrast between the Cathars themselves, with their high ethical standards, kindness and deep spirituality, and the crusaders and Inquisitors, reminds me of P.D. Ouspensky’s view of esotericism and history. 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.
Although the Cathars were typically principled, enlightened and simple people, they by no means uniformly lived up to their high standards. The Italian Cathars were embroiled in turf wars and denominational disputes. William Bélibaste, the last Cathar Perfect in the Languedoc, was a murderer who bedded many women in violation of his vows and tried to cover up his shortcomings.
To the Cathars, the material world was intrinsically evil, fashioned by the devil, the god of this world. The heavenly realm of the true God existed in spirit only. Catharism really was an esoteric religion. In a pattern still demonstrated by many of the minority religions of the Middle East, such as Mandaeans, Yazidis, Alawites, and Druze, 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.
To some extent the Cathars have been treated by esotericists as a blank canvas onto which many different patterns are painted. Many of the extravagant claims of neo-Cathars have little to do with the remnants of the Cathars that history bequeaths us. I found myself in sympathy with these romantic esotericists but wanting to test their more fantastic claims.
The three most influential neo-Cathars of the twentieth century would be Antonin Gadal and Deodat Roché, both born in 1877 and from the Languedoc, and the German Otto Rahn. Both Gadal and 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 centres by the Cathars. Historically speaking, it is unlikely. But a whole system of ritual initiation was recreated and practised 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.
Otto Rahn is nearly as famous as the Cathars themselves. 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 epitomises 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.
Rahn appreciated the resources set before him, facilitated by Himmler’s fascination with myth and the occult. He could now travel to ancient sites with a substantial budget at his disposal. Yet the impractical, romantic, raffish, homosexual Rahn was a poor fit for the SS. In 1939 he travelled to Austria, walked up a peak in the Tyrel Mountains, took sleeping pills and died of exposure.
Another influential Cathar revivalist was Maurice Magre, a well-known French novelist who became convinced the Cathars represented a form of Buddhism. 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.
Among all these eccentrics and romantics, Weil stands out in particular for the quality of her work. 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 turberculosis, though many considered her death an imitation of the Cathar endura, a fast to the end.
Arthur Guirdham & the Transmigration of Souls
It may surprise many people to discover that the medieval Cathars really did believe in reincarnation, and more specifically in the transmigration of souls from creature to creature, including animals as well as humans. 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.
Not only did the medieval Cathars believe in reincarnation, but there are many modern people who believe or feel they were Cathars in previous lifetimes. 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.
Guirdham’s group reincarnation is commonly described as one of the most convincing cases. Yet does it survive closer scrutiny? In none of his books does Guirdham tell his story in a very methodical way. 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.
Mrs Smith, in her Cathar incarnation, was a Catholic named Puerilia. Guirdham was Roger de Grissolles, a Cathar. 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. She recalled, “I didn’t know when you were burnt to death you’d bleed. I thought the blood would all dry up in the terrible heat. But I was bleeding heavily. The blood was dripping and hissing in the flames. I wished I had enough blood to put the flames out. The worst part was my eyes. I hate the thought of going blind… I tried to close my eyelids but I couldn’t. They must have been burnt off, and now those flames were going to pluck my eyes out with their evil fingers.” (The Cathars and Reincarnation by Arthur Guirdham)
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. And yet details not backed up by historical or archaeological evidence are of no help in determining authenticity.
There is therefore a very narrow band of evidence that could constitute objective evidence (though not even proof) for reincarnation. As the stories given to Guirdham by the two women became more complex there were suggestions of fraud or that published information was being used. Yet there is an early example of evidence that might satisfy the criteria.
Mrs Smith insisted the Cathars she saw in her dreams wore dark green and dark blue robes. This was inconsistent with published information on Catharism. French scholar Jean Duvernoy discovered in the Fournier Inquisition registers that during the time of the Inquisition some Perfect wore these dark colours rather than black. It seems these colours 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.
Guirdham was a professional man of high standing. 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 channelled teachings from disembodied Cathar spirits. How convincing are these when compared to what we know historically about the Cathars? Did Guirdham have the wool pulled over his eyes, or did he knowingly suspend disbelief? If he was mistaken about the veracity of these past life memories, did this really matter if the entire process proved to be spiritually enlivening for him? Or was this strange fabric of experience, history and wool-gathering more or less what Guirdham claimed it was – the far memories of a group reincarnation?
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 crystallised in its original form.
Spirituality should be based on experience rather than on pure flights of fancy. Yet the historically fantastic has often been a better cocoon of the spiritual butterfly than the historically sound. In Lost Teachings of the Cathars I examine the teachings and the histories of both the Cathars and their aspiring modern successors.
For more on the Cathars and its modern day revival, read Andrew Phillip Smith’s book Lost Teachings of the Cathars: Their Beliefs and Practices (Watkins 2016), available from all good bookstores & online retailers.
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