Tuesday, 30 September 2008


"Those who take part possess better hopes in regard to the end of life and in regard to the whole of eternity.' - Isokrates

So the Eleusinian Mysteries drew to an end. After the Final Vision the Initiates partook of one more day of the Rites, this time involving food, drink and celebration in honour of the abundance and fertility of Demeter - the Gift of the Grain. Thus after Death had been faced and transcended the bounty of Nature was rejoiced in. After that, the Mystai were free to return to the world, their understanding of their place in it transformed...

Why are the Eleusinian Mysteries so important to us? For the Greeks, as we have seen, they were crucial: the axis, as it were, around which the Universe of Gods and Men revolved. For two thousand years (as long as Christianity has been on this Earth and longer than Islam) they performed this vital role for Greek culture, only being discontinued several centuries after Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire. Imitation Eleusises were founded in Alexandria and in other parts of the classical world but none are believed to have had the energy or pull of the original. The fame of the Rites reached even India. One story speaks of a Brahmin Priest traveling to Athens to experience the Mysteries and walking into the flames of the Final Vision in order to show his contempt for them.

What makes the Rites of Eleusis important is their influence on almost all the Mystery Traditions that followed them. In their exploration of Immortality and their focus on imagery of grain and corn they almost certainly found their way into the New Testament. We have seen how the iconography of corn is used in the Gospel of John, for instance and, of course, there are other such images in parables such as that of the sower of seed. Of course, we could easily say that corn is a universal image for Immortality and Resurrection and that therefore there may well have been no influence but the reality is probably much more subtle than that. Historians of religion have done a great deal to unearth how all sorts of pre-Christian Mysticism worked its way into the Gospels. We forget how at the time of Christ's birth and ministry nearby Alexandria was a focus for spirituality in the known world at the time. Alexandria was a centre for Jewish religion and mysticism, Zoroastrianism, Platonic, Pythagorean and Hermetic spirituality and the old Egyptian Mysteries. It should come as no surprise that the new spirituality of Christianity should not encounter and absorb these traditions. One can see this in one of three ways depending upon your view - firstly that Christianity was just a cobbling together of what came before, secondly that it took these images in order to trump them or thirdly that it became a synthesis of all that came before embodied in the human/divine figure of Christ. Whatever the case there would seem to be no doubt that the Mysteries of Eleusis found their way into the new religion. Taken with the Mysteries of Dionysus and their imagery of the Vine, those of Eleusis reappear in the bread and wine of the Last Supper. Initiates of the Eleusinian Mysteries wore bracelets made out of red and white wool. Once again, those key colours appear as central to the process of achieving Immortality in both ancient Greek and Christian cultures.

As an image of the life-giving energy of the Divine Feminine, the Mysteries found themselves reworked in a complex way in the figures of the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdelene and the Sophia. As if to point out that the Goddess could no longer provide Resurrection, the Virgin, unlike her Greek predecessor, is not able to bring Christ back to life, or so it would appear. Nonetheless in John's Gospel the two Marys and a third, Mary, wife of Cleopas, are present at the foot of the Cross like another version of the Triple Goddess. And just as the Eleusinian Final Vision took place in the Inner Sanctum, Christ's Resurrection, witnessed by the Persephone counterpart Mary Magdelene, takes place in the Tomb which is itself an image of the Womb of the Divine Mother. Interestingly, just as the Mystai witnessed some kind of manifestation in the blinding fire of the Sanctum, so Mary Magdelene encounters Christ shortly after encountering two Angels in shining white garments in the Tomb. Equally important is the fact that in all four accounts of the Resurrection, not only is the Tomb attended by women followers of Christ (natural given the customs of the time) but the miracle occurs after the Sabbath Day when the Feminine Aspect of God, the Shekinah, dwells with the people of Israel. Thus the life-giving energy of the Divine Feminine is inextricably associated with the Resurrection of Christ all of which, the two Marys, the Shekhinah, become expressions of the Wisdom of God, the Sophia. Without her and the energies she represents, the central miracle of the Christian Mysteries cannot happen.

In esotericism, the Rites appear vividly not only in the distinction between the Lesser and Greater Mysteries but also in things such as the Tarot, most particularly in the Empress Card as depicted in the Rider-Waite pack. Waite's Empress is pure Demeter-Persephone. Her robe is covered in pomegranates, associated with the Daughter while at her feet is the wheat of the Mother. Also associated with Demeter is the diadem of stars the Empress wears. In astrology, Virgo is linked to the Mysteries, being often represented as maiden carrying a sheaf of corn in each hand. People who have been on the ball will have noticed that the ten days of the Rites fell during harvest time, the period we associate with September, the month of Virgo. Thus they would have been presided over by this constellation which rules the ninth month, nine months being, of course, the nine months of gestation before birth. So all these images of femininity, fertility and fecundity all merge into one.

Even more interesting than all this is the presence of the Mysteries of Eleusis in the works of Shakespeare, particularly in the fascinatingly elusive Late Plays. It seems to have gone almost completely unnoticed, for instance, that the Masque that Prospero shows Ferdinand and Miranda in The Tempest is an enactment of the Mysteries, featuring Demeter, Persephone and Hades in their Roman guises as Ceres, Iris and Dis. That Shakespeare should have Prospero chose this story to commemorate the bethrothal of the two lovers seems to have gone completely unremarked by anyone since its premiere in the 17th Century. Similarly in The Winter's Tale the return of Hermione to Leontes at the hands of Paulina almost exactly parallels the Final Vision of the Mystai in the Inner Sanctum. In it Paulina, the Demeter-figure of the play in guiding Leontes and the others to Hermione draws them into a Chapel where a statue of the supposedly dead Queen is found. She then performs a magical ceremony which brings Hermione back to life, just as Persephone returns from the Underworld, when she is reunited with her King. No play marks the seasons like The Winter's Tale, the bucolic fourth act of which is presided over by 'thou Great Goddess Nature' before the process of regeneration of the end. Cymbeline has a death and resurrection (Imogen) and Pericles sees the wizard Cerimon resurrect Thaisa who goes on to become a Priestess of Diana in Ephesus. Somehow, for whatever reason, these ancient Rites of the Greeks seem to have come to Shakespeare's awareness and informed the redemptive vision of his final four plays.

Clearly the Mysteries of Eleusis have depths and reverberations we have not yet even begun to fully explore. Their profundity, their imagery and their influence continues to make itself felt even in our world today. For so long shrouded in mystery they have been neglected as an important phenomena by historians until this last century. Esotericists seem to have known about them and to have been aware of their deep significance, but in terms of the popular perception of what ancient Greek culture was all about, even in supposedly educated circles they have been largely overlooked until now. Whatever the truth about them, the fact is that the Greeks conceived of these Mysteries as the pivot of their Cosmos and world view - not the Mysteries of Zeus, or Apollo or even Dionysus. For them the fundamental source of Mystery, the means whereby the health and equilibrium of everything was maintained, was a ritual centred not around a masculine energy but one that was specifically feminine, not around any God but the Goddess in all of her three of her aspects. Zeus may have been the ultimate ruler of Olympus, but the Mysteries of Demeter, Kore and Persephone held the key to everything. Perhaps in our modern time with food shortages, GM crops and an environment badly out of balance the Eleusinian Mysteries have more to say to us than ever...

Tuesday, 23 September 2008


"We have been given a reason not only to live in joy but also to die with better hope" - Cicero

Corn was a central image of the Rites of Eleusis. Quite apart from the obvious association of corn with fertility and harvest (the Mysteries took place in September, the time of the drawing in of the year's yield) it was also a symbol of the immortality of the Soul. When corn is laid out in the sun the stem or stalk withers and dies but the cornseed itself remains. Thus the Body dies but the Soul survives. Not only that but the seed can be sown and thus give birth to a new sheaf of wheat, beginning the process again. Thus the Corn Mystery points towards the possibility of either Resurrection or even Reincarnation. When we remember that Plato and Pythagoras believed in Reincarnation, as did the Orphic/Dionysiac Gnostics, that this was the idea of Immortality the Eleusis gave its Initiates an insight into becomes a possibility. For the Immortality the Rites offered was not of the flesh, but of the Spirit. The Initiate was able to face death with joy and hope, understanding the true nature of existence as being more than the material. Rather like the message of a certain religious teacher to come, the Eternal Life being offered by Demeter was not a literal one of the body but a vision of a spiritual existence that went beyond the mortal.

"Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit." (John 12:24)

Another key image was the Moon, the heavenly body associated with Goddesses all over the world. Like the Moon, Demeter, whose name echoes the Greek and Roman words for 'Mother', wandered across the Earth in her grief. Also like the Moon, the Mysteries celebrated the Goddess in her Triple Form, in this case Demeter-Kore-Persephone, corresponding, traditionally, to the cycle Maiden-Mother-Crone. This is symbolised by the famous image of the full moon flanked by two crescents, one waxing, the other waning, demonstrating not only the eternal cycle of Nature but, like the imagery of the Corn, of Death and Rebirth. For even though the moon waxes, reaches fullness and then wanes before disappearing, it quickly reembarks upon the process again. Thus the Moon image of the Triple Goddess dramatises the relationship between Permanence and Mutability, or physical death and spiritual immortality. Although the Moon appears to die, it is always reborn. Indeed, it never really dies. Its disappearance is an illusion we perceive, just as death is. What is essential always remains even if it is hidden.

The Rites took ten days as the Initiates reenacted Demeter's ten days of mourning before the return of her daughter. According to legend, the Goddess quit the company of the Gods and taking on the form of a wizened old woman (Demeter as Mother becoming the Crone), wandered among humanity in search of Persephone. No-one could lift her spirits except for the chief maid of the King of Eleusis who was able to make her laugh with her dirty jokes. Demeter was take in by the King and, in return, she offered to give his son Immortality. This involved secret rites of her own, the chief of which was placing the child in fire each night, an image of purification familiar to many cultures. Unfortunately one evening the Queen of Eleusis stumbled across Demeter doing this and screamed in shock, not understanding what was going on. In her fury, Demeter stopped the process of giving Immortality to the child but out of the encounter the Eleusinian Mysteries were born. Although shrouded in secrecy, the one element which all commentators agree on about the ceremonies was a blazing light or fire in the Telesterion, or Inner Sanctum where the Initiates had the final vision which gave them an understanding of Immortality. It would seem reasonable to suppose, then, that the fire in which the young Prince of Eleusis was placed each night was the same fire that formed the centrepiece of the Mysteries.

Initiates, known as Mystai (from which we get the word Mystic), began their procession to the Temple of Demeter at Eleusis from the sea where they engaged in a ritual purification ceremony in the water. Prior to the procession, along which they carried branches or bacchoi, they had to drink a special potion known as the Kykeon which involved a mixture of barley, mint and water. What the significance of this drink was is not clear but it is thought by some commentators that it may have had hallucinogenic qualities thanks to fungus found on the barley. This is not to say that the Mystai spent the Rites tripped out, more that, like the indiginous cultures of south America, hallucinogens were regarded as part of the process of opening the mind to the Cosmos. Another interesting element of the Kykeon was that it was drunk out of a cup which each Initiate was given. Again, keen Jungians will spot a parallel with a certain other legend of a Sacred Cup out of which Immortality-giving liquid was drunk...

After the purification and the Kykeon, the Mystai processed to Eleusis, at each stage reenacting Demeter's journey. At one point, in emulation of the maid who made her laugh, they were required to shout out obscenities and dirty jokes. The Rites were clearly far from solemn in this respect, being as much a celebration of life as a means of transcending its limitations. At another point, the Initiates found themselves at the Virgin's Well, the sacred Well that Demeter was said to have sat at during her wanderings before making contact with the people of Eleusis. Sacred Wells are, of course, a universal phenomena all over the world with mystical significance for all cultures. Think of the encounter with the Samaritan Woman at Jacob's Well in John's Gospel, for instance, or the preeminence of Chalice Well at Glastonbury both before and after the arrival of Christianity in England. As an image of the source of life and the abundance of the feminine energy of Nature they are archetypal.

No-one knows for sure what the culmination of the Eleusinian Mysteries were. The vow of secrecy Initiates undertook was punishable by death, thus we can only guess. Nevertheless a certain amount of fragmentary hints have given us some kind of idea of what it may have involved. The Final Vision (sometimes called the Beatific Vision) was the culmination of the Greater Mysteries which the Initiates undertook only after they had completed the Lesser Mysteries which prepared them for the ultimate encounter with the Goddess. It is from this distinction between the Lesser and Greater Mysteries that later esotericists drew their deliniation of things like the Lesser Work and the Great Work. In the Rider Waite Tarot, for instance, the Chariot Card is associated with the completion of the Lesser Work. The potential of this card lies in whether the drawer of it recognises that the Lesser Mysteries are what they have achieved. If they understand this, then they are destined to move on to the Greater, which are contained in the Magician Card. If they don't and believe they have already reached their goal, the danger is that their destiny will be that of Icarus or Phaeton, who fatally overreached themselves.

When the Mystai passed beyond the Lesser Mysteries into the Inner Sanctum, they were literally stepping into the unkown, so complete was the vow of silence surrounding them. Would they encounter Demeter herself? The sense of excitement and fear must have been overwhelming. In the Inner Sanctum they would have encountered the High Priests and Priestesses of Eleusis. The belief is that the final ceremony took place in utter silence with an ear of corn presented to the Initiates before the Sacred Flames. In this atmosphere of stillness and reverence, the corn was cut before the audience and in the blazing fire the Final Vision was revealed. Given the descriptions we have of Spirits and Phantasms being seen it is thought that the Initiates had an experience of Persephone herself manifesting in the flames. At that moment Mother and Daughter were reunited in the Mystai's gaze. Demeter was seen as having lead the Initiates to Persephone, creating a Divine Union between them both. For a moment the Two became One, as the Goddess/Mother of our world was united with the Goddess/Daughter of the Underworld.. Persephone had risen from Hades and been reunited with Demeter. In that brief, cosmic moment, death had been transcended in the oneness of the Goddess and the veil between the two worlds had been passed through. Thus the Initiate understood the true nature of Death and Life, that they were in fact one, parts of an eternal process that went beyond human comprehension. That the experience was unforgettable and transforming is demonstrated in these words from Socrates quoted in Plato's PHAEDRUS:

"But then there was beauty to be seen, brightly shining, when with the blessed choir the souls beheld the beatific spectacle and vision and were perfected in that mystery of mysteries which it is meet to call the most blessed. This did we celebrate in our true and perfect selves, when we were yet untouched by all the evils in time to come; when as Initiates we were allowed to see perfect and simple, still and happy Spirits and Phantasms. Purer was the light that shone around us, and pure were we."

Saturday, 20 September 2008


"Blessed is he who, after beholding this, enters upon the way beneath the earth: he knows the end of life and its beginnings given by Zeus!" - Pindar

Should anyone tell you that Western culture is irremediably male-dominated, suggest they take a look at the Ancient Greeks. Spiritually, if not politically (and there has been discussion about that, recently), women were well catered for in the Greek pantheon. However powerful Zeus and the male Gods were, the female were just as potent. Artemis, Aphrodite, Hera - all gave a good as they got. Indeed, the focus of Hellenic Culture, Athens, fountainhead of almost all of European culture, had the Goddess Athena as its patroness. The Deity of Artificers, Warfare and, above all, Wisdom in its Divine Forms, no Greek Goddess was more revered by this great city as Pallas Athena. To see how she was able to coexist and operate with her favoured followers, one need only read Homer's ODYSSEY. Shekinah-like, she helps, guides and intercedes for Odysseus and his family against all the obstacles he encounters, arguing against Zeus to protect the wandering hero and, ultimately, guiding him back to Penelope, her earthly counterpart, for a Divine Marriage of their own. Pico de Mirandola, the great architect of mystical Renaissance Humanism, said in his ORATION ON THE DIGNITY OF MAN that Homer concealed the truths of Kabbalah in THE ODYSSEY. If Odysseus is the Kabbalistic Initiate, Penelope the earthly Shekinah and Athena the supernal (Binah), then the return of Odysseus to his Kingdom (Malkuth) to regain his Crown (Kether) through the reunion of the King and the Queen is, indeed, Kabbalah in a Toga. Its just a shame Odysseus wasn't Jewish... or at least if he was, he didn't look it...

Although political power was denied women in ancient Greece, religious/spiritual power was not. As High Priestesses of the different Goddesses, women were able to wield considerable influence culturally. Moreover, through the Goddesses women were able to explore and express their spirituality in a way as vivid as the men and, in the case of figures such as Artemis, in a way which specifically excluded men ie in a way which was exclusively female. If Aphrodite was the embodiment of feminine sexuality as a cosmic force, then Artemis was an expression of femininity in a form which did not need men. Hers was a private spirituality of childbearing, of girlhood, of coming of age. Artemis protected young girls, who ritually discarded their toys before her as they reached puberty and who processed in her ceremonies in the guise of bears, the animals most favoured by the Huntress. She also protected those who were shy and watched over women as they went through their gestation period. As a Goddess attached to the Moon, she was often identified with Isis. Indeed, Apuleius explicitly says so in THE GOLDEN ASS when the eponymous hero, having finally been transformed back into a human from a donkey, has his vision of the Goddess rising from the waves. Her Temple was at Ephesus and was so important the Romans agreed to let it stand as long as the Greeks renamed her Diana. It was also at Ephesus that she was represented by the famous multi-breasted Goddess of Nature that is so familiar to us today. Clever Jungians among you will think it no coincidence that Ephesus was where the Byzantines consecrated the doctrine of the Theotokos (the Mother of God) having identified it as the place where both the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdelene died. And all this in spite of Paul having tried to spoil the day by putting sellers of souvenir statues of Artemis out of business by preaching the risen Christ there. Clearly the Goddess has a powerful presence in that now Turkish Mediterranean port...

Chief among the Cults of the Goddess for the Ancient Greeks, however, were the famous Eleusinian Mysteries of Demeter, Kore and Persephone. Almost forgotten today, these were seen as being right at the heart of Greek culture and civilisation and reserved for the very blessed. So important were they that on the one occasion where they could not be carried out by the people of Athens owing to the city being besieged by the Persians, the citizens of that state were astonished to see a procession of Gods, Spirits and Immortals carrying them out. If the Eleusinian Mysteries were not performed, the harmony of the Universe would be shattered, with fatal consequences for Gods and mortals alike. When war threatened to disrupt them so high were the stakes that the Olympians had to step in to save the day.

The power of the Eleusinian Mysteries, the reason why they were so important, was that they conferred upon the Initiate Immortality. For this reason they were kept utterly secret, lest their nature fall into the hands of the profane. Those who took part were obliged to swear never to reveal any detail on pain of death. Initiates included Plato, Socrates, Pindar, Cicero, Hypatia and all the Roman Emperors, including Marcus Aurelius himself (again, a measure of the importance the Rites had to the ancient world) but they were also open to non-celebrities and ordinary people, women as well as men. Given the feminine nature of the Deities involved women could hardly be excluded. Indeed, in all likelihood the original Initiates probably were entirely women.

The Rites followed the story of Demeter's loss and recovery of her daughter, Persephone. Legend has it that, in collusion with Zeus, Hades (Pluto, or Dis in his Roman form, hence the title of this post) abducted and raped the beautiful Persephone, taking her off to his Underworld Kingdom to be his Bride. Demeter, unable to find out what had happened to her daughter, went into deep mourning as she searched in vain for her. Eventually Helios, the Sun God, revealed to her what Hades had done and, in her rage and pain, she withdrew her energies from the Earth, causing a blight to fall upon it and refusing to lift this curse until Zeus ordered Hades to return Persephone. The impasse continued until Zeus could take no more and agreed to allow Demeter audience with the King of the Underworld. An agreement was struck whereby Persephone was allowed to return to her Mother but only on the condition that she took nothing with her from Hell. Demeter agreed to this condition, but in doing so fell into Hades' trap. For unbeknownst to her, Hades had persuaded Persephone to eat a single pomegranate seed during her stay. Unable to return it, Persephone was forced to remain in the Underworld for a third of the year while for the rest of the time she could return to her Mother. Thus the seasons were born. While Persephone was in Hades, Demeter's pain meant winter dwelt upon the Earth. But when she was able to return, around the time of our Easter, spring and summer came with her, as Demeter was joyously reunited with her child...

Tuesday, 2 September 2008


"That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: which were born, not of blood, nor the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God." Gospel of John

So why were the Cathars so important? Historically speaking, as the first great heresy to challenge the Church in the Middle Ages they paved the way for the vast array of heresies which followed in their wake. The Lollards in England, the Brethren of the Free Spirit in Germany, the Taborites in Bohemia and the Beguines and Beghards of Belgium, Holland, the Rhineland and northern France were all influenced and affected by the grass-roots spirituality they represented. Its a fascinating and little remarked fact that many of the areas where these heresies sprang up were Cathar centres. All had in common with the Pure Ones an emphasis on the individual as opposed to the State and the Church. All believed in the ability of the Holy Spirit to dwell within us all and many, the Beguines and Beghards in particular, appealed to traditionally disenfranchised sectors of society such as women and the poor. Even the Mystics of the Rhine such as the genius Meister Eckhardt, Henry Suso and Johannes Tauler, all of whom vigourously denied heresy and spoke against these movements from within the Church, shared with the Cathars a vision of God and Christ becoming 'born' within the human Soul. Significantly, all three ran into trouble with the Inquisition, Eckhardt in particular falling foul of their investigations. Doctrinally and politically the Cathars may have differed from these later groups, but their attempt to reestablish an Apostolic, Mystical Christianity more closely modeled on that of Christ which stood in opposition to the Church was clearly an inspiration on movements to come.

The Cathars were also the first to translate the Bible into the vernacular, a key element in all the heresies to follow. In an effort to break the monopoly on the Word possessed by the Latin-speaking Church, they translated whole parts of the New Testament into Languedoc French. In so doing they helped pave the way for figures such as Wycliffe and Tyndale in England and Luther in Germany. Ironically, it was Church suppression of the Cathars which probably lead to the ultimate decline of Rome as the primary expression of Christianity in Western Europe. Although the Church defeated the Cathars the brutality with which they did so created widespread revulsion and helped fuel the growth of heresy and reform movements across the continent. Militarily they had won but morally the Cathars were victorious. The stain of the Cathar Crusade and the Inquisition is still being worked off today.

Ultimately the stone the Cathars set rolling would lead to the Protestant movement, inspired by Luther, which eventually fought Rome to a standstill. Luther's Christianity was a far cry from Catharism. Indeed the Cathars would have probably resisted it as little better than Catholicism, but that was probably why the military and political force was able to swing behind it to defeat the Church. The pure form of Christianity the Cathars represented would never have been appealing to the ruling classes and, by its very nature, would have abjured the military might needed to defeat Crusaders and Catholic armies. At the same time, it would have been unlikely that Luther would have viewed the Cathars with much enthusiasm either.

Ironically, Catharism also effected the Church. As mentioned earlier, the Dominican Order was explicitly set up to combat the Cathars as exemplars of the Apostolic Ideal within Catholicism. It is widely thought that the Franciscan Order was allowed to be founded for similar reasons. The moral call for a return to the way of the Apostles the Cathars put out was responded to in kind. Ironically, the Spiritual Franciscans, the branch of Order who most sought to emulate the original Little Brother's way of life, also ran into trouble with the Church and were denounced as heretics.

In our own time, the Cathars have undergone an enormous upsurge of interest. In esoteric circles, their doctrines have been taken up and identified as key elements in the development of Western spirituality. An eccentric French intellectual, Napoleon Peyrat first began the Cathar revival in the 19th Century, weaving rather lurid and fantastical theories about them (Esclarmonde de Foix, mother of seven children and matriarch of the Foix family was recast as a young, beautiful Joan of Arc figure by him, for instance). In the 20th Century, preeminent esotericist Rudolf Steiner identified the Cathars as important antecedents to Theosophy and Anthroposophy. Some have linked the Cathars to the founder of the Brotherhood of the Rose Cross, identifying Christian Rosenkreutz as a Cathar survivor smuggled to a Templar refuge after the fall of Montsegur. The Cathar-Templar connection has caused a great deal of speculation, particularly given the association with the Holy Grail ascribed to these two movements. A sympathetic relationship between them is disputed but the Templars had a major presence in the Languedoc (indeed they saw it as a prime candidate for their Ordenland) and, perhaps not insignificantly, they refused to take part in the Crusades against the Cathars. Some commentators have pointed to the possibility of certain Templar families having Cathar members as indications of a link. It is thought that the Templars, who seem to have been great absorbers of other spiritualities from Sufism to Alchemy and Kabbalah, adopted certain key Cathar ideas. That both movements were dedicated to protecting the scandalous knowledge that Christ was married to Mary Magdelene and had a child by her is entirely down to the speculations of Dan Brown and Messrs Baigent, Lincoln and Leigh... In this Winged Horse's humble opinion, this is the least interesting possibility concerning the Cathar-Templar connection and reduces two visionary, mystical groups to the level of keepers of religious gossip...

Keen esotericists will have spotted within Cathar doctrine key spiritual ideas - Reincarnation, Subtle Bodies/Higher Selves (the Angelic Bodies in the air which so echo those described as being left in the Pleroma by the Christian Gnostics of Valentinus), the 'Spiritualising' of Matter (a fundamental aim of Alchemy) and a God of Light that transcends the material world - all of which have fed into modern esoteric ideas and are shared in common with Eastern spirituality. Not everything about them may be that appealing to the modern sensibility: the extreme austerity of Parfait life, the hostility (or apparent hostility) to the created world and the body, for instance. Some of what they did may even seem ridiculous: so determined not to lie were the Parfaits that they developed a tortured way of speaking in the conditional which often gave them away. But there is something about the Cathars which haunts the mind and animates the soul. The purity of their vision, their absolute spirituality, their egalitarian outlook, their refusal to back down or recant even in the face of death, their belief in the possibility of universal transformation through the Holy Spirit, all testify to a remarkable flowering of an ideal in a continent famous for brutality, violence, materialism and religious hypocrisy. Simone Weil remarked upon their famous holiness, denying the Church's right to judge them as heretics on the grounds of their clear love for Christ.

In France today, the Languedoc has so embraced its Cathar past that the region is now known as the Pays Cathar ('the Country of the Cathars'). There is an element of commercialisation here but there is also a very real pride in an episode in their history when something remarkable flourished and was stamped out. Certainly walking in the area, standing in Montsegur, travelling among the Pyrenees, crouching in the caves they hid in and exploring the towns and streets they walked, one gets the impression that the Cathars are far from being a dead spirituality. Released from the flesh by the Church in the 13th Century they are back and walking among us now...

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him nothing was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in the darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not..."


"These things have I spoken unto you, that ye should not be offended. They shall put you out of the synagogues: yea, the time cometh, that whomsoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service. And these things will they do unto you, because they have not known the Father, nor me." - Gospel of John

It took four decades of bloody fighting before the Cathars were finally destroyed as a major presence in the Languedoc. The brutality of the conflict was unsurpassed, even by Medieval standards, with whole towns and communities put to the sword by the marauding Crusaders. Most notorious was the sack of Beziers where 20000 citizens were slaughtered when they refused to hand over 2000 Cathars in their midst. The story has it that when the gates of Beziers fell and the Crusaders poured in to kill the Cathars, they asked their leaders how they would be able to tell the difference between heretics and fellow Catholics. The answer came: 'Kill them all. God will know his own'. Records show that no-one survived the bloodbath. Beziers was razed to the ground.

Important Languedoc families came to the aid of the Cathars, some, like the Comtes de Foix, because members of their family were of the movement, others, like Duke Raymond of Toulouse, because he hated the incursion on his territory first by Crusaders and then by the northern French. Campaigns raged backwards and forwards, with Raymond and his sons leading the resistance, constantly being defeated but constantly looking for a way of rising up again to defeat the Crusaders under the savage Simon de Montfort. So hated was de Montfort that when he was killed during a siege of Toulouse by a slingshot fired by a group of women, a cheer went up across the entire city walls. Panicked by the death of their previously invincible leader, the Crusaders fled and the Languedoc people were able to roll back the invasion, albeit temporarily. At one point King Pedro of Aragon took the field to defend the region against Rome and was roundly defeated in a tragically bungled battle in which he and his entourage of Knights were surrounded and cut down to a man.

All this time the Cathar Parfaits continued to operate, resorting to more and more subterfuges to slip the net of the marauding Crusaders. As a means to root out the heresy, the Pope ordered the formation of the Inquisition by the Dominicans. The reign of terror this august organisation began spread all across Western Europe with whole communities informing upon each other to escape investigation. Friends and neighbours were denounced as Cathars, 'proof' was negligible and one by one the heretics were hunted down. Refusal to recant meant death at the stake. Even if someone was dead and condemned posthumously, their body would be exhumed and burnt as an example. In some instances terminally ill Cathars were carried to the stake in their beds and put to death. And yet recantations were almost nil. Most Cathars chose to go to their deaths rather than surrender their faith. Records show that onlookers and soldiers who lit the fires were astonished at the calm with which they faced their end. It would seem their unwavering belief in their impending release from Satan's world meant they feared nothing.

The final showdown took place at the now legendary citadel Montsegur (literally 'Mount Secure'), an extraordinarily remote fortress built on top of an almost insurmountable Pog in the Languedoc hills near Foix. The final onslaught had been triggered by the assassination by a group of Cathar sympathisers of a troop of Dominican Inquisitors. Unable to tolerate this final act of violence, the Church launched one last, decisive campaign. The remaining Cathar leadership holed themselves up in Montsegur, protected by mercenaries and sympathetic Knights and prepared to fight on. The held out for almost a year, hoping for relief from Raymond of Toulouse or the Comtes de Foix. But this time it did not come. Eventually the outer defences were breached and the outlook became hopeless. The Cathars and the Crusaders made a truce. Sick of the fighting, the Crusaders' terms were surprisingly fair. The Cathars would have a few weeks of calm before they had to hand themselves over and any who agreed to recant would be allowed to go free unharmed. On the final night before the truce expired, the Cathar leaders gave the offer to their followers and soldiers who had defended them to undergo the Consolamentum and become Parfaits should they wish to. Twenty four Croyants came forward to receive the Holy Spirit.

The next day the entire Cathar leadership were burnt at the foot of the Pog at a spot commemorated today by a small stone obelisk. Inquisition records relate that, as this was happening, three Cathars slipped away via secret route with 'the Treasure of the Cathars' to make contact with other cells in Italy and France. Speculation is rife with what that 'Treasure' was, from the Holy Grail to possible sacred texts to, quite simply, money with which the Cathar movement could continue. But to all intents and purposes, the movement was dead. One final siege occured a decade later at Queribus, but this was an isolated remnant. The main Cathar leadership had been killed at Montsegur. Some ragtag survivors continued to operate into the 14th Century in villages like Montaillou, but eventually they were tracked down and killed by the Inquisition. The last remaining Cathar leader is said to have sealed himself up in the Lombrives Cave with a hundred or so followers to escape the Pope's soldiers, never to emerge. Stories tell of how when 'le Bon Roi' King Henry 4th of France came to the throne and brought in his edict of Religious Tolerance, thus bringing to an end centuries of Catholic/Protestant conflict, he reopened the Cave and had the Cathar remains given a proper burial. If it were true it would not be surprising. After all, Henry was a member of the Comtes de Foix, the famous aristocratic dynasty which had fought to defend the Cathars and counted members in their bloodline.

But that was in the 17th Century. By the 14th Century the Cathars were finished. Other heresies would spring up over the next few centuries but the Pure Ones would rise no more.

Monday, 1 September 2008


"Neither pray I for for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us... And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them, that they may be one, as even we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one..." Gospel of John

It was this vision of the Parfait as receptacle for the Holy Spirit that is thought to be the origin of the Mystery of the Holy Grail. Aside from the wild speculations of Dan Brown, Baigent and Lincoln, the theory goes that the Legend of the Holy Grail as passed down through the Troubadours and Minnesingers (eg Chretien de Troyes and Wolfram von Eschenbach) was a coded version of the Cathar doctrine of the transfiguration of the Self by the Holy Spirit sent by God through Christ. Thus the Grail, far from being a physical object (or even Mary Magdelene!) was us - all humanity - equally able to be transformed and reconnected to our Angelic Selves. In saying 'equally', this was literally true, as the Cathars made their particular idea of Redemption available to all regardless of gender, race or class. Focussing more on the Soul than the Body, they took the notion of Reincarnation to its logical conclusion. If one could be born as a nobleman in one life and a milkmaid in another, how could anyone possibly discriminate against anyone on such grounds? In this they were, once again, in accord with New Testament teaching. As Paul says:

"There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Jesus Christ."

This egalitarian approach was, as can be imagined, fairly anathema to the Church and the Feudal Authorities who depended upon people knowing their place. There is a famous story about a disputation taking place between a group of Cathar Parfaits and delegates of the Church at which Esclarmonde de Foix, a Parfaite from one of the most powerful Languedoc noble families, got up to speak. Used to being allowed to preach as a Cathar, she was shocked to be shouted at by one of the Catholic delegates who insisted that, as a woman she should sit down and shut up. Catharism's appeal to those areas of society which tended to be downtrodden and rejected by the Church - women, the poor - was one of its great strengths for the population of the region. The fact that women could play an equal role to the men set it apart from the institutional misogyny of the Church. Once again, the Cathars appeared to be connecting more closely with the ideals of Christ than the Priesthood and the Pope.

Another thing which infuriated the Church was the Cathar refusal to acknowledge any of their Feast Days or Sacraments, which they denounced as blatant corruptions of Christ's teachings. They rejected the the rite of Holy Communion, or rather the notion of transubstantiaton on the grounds that, firstly, Christ was not Material and thus the Host and Wine could not possibly become flesh and blood and, secondly, that there was something obscene about Christ's body passing through the digestive system of humans. Once again the Cathars understood the words of Christ about the need to drink of his blood and eat of his flesh symbolically. Always issues of Matter became Spirit for them. In their version of the Lord's Prayer, rather than asking for Daily Bread they asked for the 'Cosubstantive Bread', or Spiritual Bread (in fact closer to the meaning of the original Aramaic). In keeping with their anti-materialism, they offered their sacraments and absolutions from Sin without demanding money and never took tithes. This was equally frustrating to the Church, whose economic survival depended upon it.

Cathar sacraments were always held in natural places - in forests, caves, fields or by rivers. The only times they held services in buildings was, as mentioned before, in the homes of Croyants. Never once did they build a Church or Chapel of any kind, believing, like Paul, that God 'dwelleth not in temples made with hands'. Again as anti-materialists building monuments to God was anathema to them. Even the famous 'Cathar Castles' were not constructed by them, rather they were chosen as defensive positions and fortified by Cathar-sympathising families such as the Comtes de Foix. Herein lies a mystery. For a movement which purportedly despised Matter and viewed the natural world as the creation of Satan, the Cathars seemed to operate in perfect harmony with it. Forests, rivers, caves and fields are strange places to chose for worship for nature-hating people. Some commentators have drawn comparison between this practise of the Cathars and their Pagan predecessors the Druids who also held services in such places. Similarly in India such locations are regarded as ideal places in which to meditate and communicate with the Deity. It is believed that the Cathar Initiates, as they underwent the process of training to become Parfaits through the Holy Spirit were prepared through a long process in the cave networks in the Pyrenees mountains near Tarascon. Key complexes such as the Lombrives are said to have housed whole communities of Cathar Parfaits and served as the final hiding place of refugees fleeing the Inquisition. Haunting caverns such as those known as the Cathedral (so-called because it is equal in size to Notre Dame in Paris) and the beautiful Bethlehem Cave where the process of 'Perfection' was completed testify to the role of these natural hollows in Cathar Initiations and Rituals. And yet Church records insist that the Cathars viewed Nature as irredeemably corrupt and of the Devil. Clearly there is a contradiction here that needs further exploration.

Cathar popularity hit its peak in the early 13th Century, when it first drew the attention of the Church. To begin with, Pope Innocent sought to combat the growing heresy peacefully and by reasonable means. Church dignitaries were sent to preach against the Parfaits and disputations were held. Whole town populations would turn out to witness these debates. It was rather like a sort of theological football match. Records show that on almost every occasion the Church would lose before a word was spoken. As soon as the Dignitaries would turn up with their lavish robes, entourage and train of carriages and retainers, the crowds would look at the Parfaits with their simple clothes, ragged shoes and look of poverty and immediately the moral victory went to the heretics. Even the Catholic icon St Bernard of Clairvaux could not make any headway with them. Indeed, he came away from his encounters with them acknowledging that they 'could not be more Christian'. The legendary St Dominic, then just starting on his religious career, spent several years preaching in the Languedoc to no avail, finally unleashing a torrent of anger at the apostate southern French and fully supporting the Crusades that were to come. Indeed he and his Order were to become the chief architects of the Inquisition. The Cathars were too popular and the Church too corrupt in the region for peaceful means to make any headway. Then in 1208 Cathar sympathisers murdered a representative of the Pope. The reaction was swift and direct. A Crusade was ordered against the Cathars and the Languedoc nobility that tolerated them. An army lead by Simon de Montfort was launched against southern France and the fate of the Cathars was sealed...