Saturday, 29 September 2012

Cathar Myths and Grail Quests

Enjoying reading A Cathar Faith: A Critical Introduction by Peter Wronski. The full site (well worth a look) is here:  

There's a lot of nonsense about the Cathars, both historical and romanticised, and this puts some of the facts in place. As Peter comments:

The dualist Cathar heretic religion has been over time both demonized and romanticized.  At the peak of their existence in 13th century Europe, primarily in France and Italy, they were characterized as satanic demon worshipers.  Today the Cathars are most often portrayed as pacifist vegetarian feminists; medieval New Agers who were ruthlessly put down by a supposedly reactionary and corrupt Catholic Church. While there are elements of some truth in these portrayals, the reality of the Cathar faith falls somewhat short of the fuzzy-warm puppy-loving reputation attributed to it.

According to the Cathar approach to dualism, a good god made the heavens and the human soul, while an evil god entrapped that soul to suffer in the flesh of the human body and in material and worldly things of the earth--an evil place.  Salvation, according to the Cathars, lay in the human soul's escape to the spiritual realm from its prison of flesh in the material world.

Cathars rejected sex as a continuation of the human soul's entrapment in earth-bound carnal evil. According to Cathars, marriage was a form of prostitution. Children were born as demons until they could be consciously lead to choose salvation in the Cathar path.  Cathars believed that the human soul could pass on its journey through animal life, thus they were vegetarians: they did not eat meat, eggs, cheese or any fat except vegetable oil and fish. The Cathars rejected oath taking and violence in principle; they conveniently hired mercenaries to do violence on their behalf.  (1)

Peter doesn't note - what I found from my own researches - was the reason Cathar's could eat fish was that they followed Aristotle in the belief that fish came by spontaneous generation from underwater mud banks. Hence, not being produced by sexual activity, it was fine to eat them! Peter goes on to note the extreme asceticism of the Cathars, and also the way in which they replaced a hierarchy of priests with their own hierarchy based on "purity". The material world being evil, the "pure" were those furthest from it, which included celibacy. This is often strangely absent part of the Cathar background from those who want to praise them as egalitarian vegetarians. In fact they were far from being egalitarians, although they did have little property or possessions (probably because that was "evil matter"):

The Cathar religion was divided between a majority of  credenti--(croyants)--the believers, or followers, and a minority of  perfecti--(parfaits)--the "perfect ones"--those who had committed themselves to the celibate and dietary rigors of the Cathar faith and had passed through a ritual known as consolamentum--"consoling"--a type of Cathar born-again baptism carried through with a laying of hands instead of water.  Only perfecti were considered as "members" of the Church.

The Cathars had no lavish church properties--services were held in homes or out in fields and forests. But while there were no priests as in the Catholic Church, the perfecti in fact functioned as priests--in a manner more restrictive than in the Catholic Church. In the Cathar Church, a mere credent was considered too impure to have his or her prayer heard by God.  Only the perfecti's prayer could reach the ears of God.  The credenti were required to abase themselves before the perfecti and beg them to pray for their souls in a ritual known as the melioramentum. The credent would fall to their knees and place their palms to the ground, bowing deeply three times and begging the perfect to pray on his or her behalf: "Bless us Lord", or "good Christian" or "good Lady" and on the third bow, "Lord, pray God for this sinner that he deliver him from an evil death and lead him to a good end."

The fact that women could become a perfecta and perform the melioramentum leads many modern commentators to portray the Cathar Church as a feminist institution where both men and women served equally as church functionaries. That was not the case in fact.  The Cathar religion had an episcopate as structured as that of the Catholic Church, with territorial titles and geographical demarcations of dioceses, and an ambitious leadership. There were elected Cathar bishops, two subordinate ranks of filius major and filius minor and a diaconate. These were exclusively the domain of males:  none of these positions were open to female perfectae.

Nor were female perfectae allowed to perform the ritual of consolomentum; the raising of a credent to the rank of a perfect was also an exclusive privilege of male Cathar perfecti.

Catharism was in some ways darkly hostile to maternity and family. Pregnant credents were admonished that they carried demons in their bellies. A perfecta advised a follower to pray to God that she be liberated from the demon in her belly; another warned a pregnant woman that if she died in pregnancy she could not be saved.  Because the Cathars believed that baptism had to be consciously understood, children who died in infancy could not be considered as saved either. (1)

All told, the Cathar picture is not as rosy as portrayed in modern New Age accounts. But another reason for interest in the Cathars is a legend that they possessed the Grail, and was taken out from the Cathar fortress at Montsegur at the end of a siege by French forces. Solar alignments of the Fortress have been noted, but what is not noted by the French Tourist board, who want to keep visitors coming, is that the current castle is a later one, the original was completely destroyed without a trace. Peter Wronski notes:

The present fortress ruin at Montsegur in France,  is not from the Cathar era.  The original Cathar fortress of Montsegur was entirely pulled down by the victorious French Royal forces after the fall of the castle and the surrender of the Cathers in 1244.   It was gradually rebuilt and upgraded over the next three centuries by Royal forces.  The current ruin dramatically occupying the site, and featured in illustrations, including those in this website,  is referred to by French archeologists as "Montsegur III" and is typical of post-medieval Royal French defensive architecture. (1)

What is also not known is that the crusade against the Cathars was motivated as much by political interests as religious ones:

The Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars was launched in 1209.  At the time the territory in question was not a part of France--it was known as Occitania, ruled by powerful independent local aristocrats.  Neighboring Catalonia and Aragon exerted their spheres of influence over the region and the English were attempting to penetrate as well.  The Crusade was as much about the Capetian French Crown consolidating its power over the territory as it was a religious crusade. (1)

The general consensus now is that the persecution was purely opportunistic, an attempt to undermine an economically powerful faction who had operated largely in a foreign arena but who were beginning to make their presence felt in Europe.(3)

We know that Cathars managed to leave with treasures, although the account of a Grail Knight by John Matthews is a fiction. But the Grail link really comes later, mostly with the German occultists.

Montsegur was brought to the attention of the Nazi's by Otto Rahn who explored the ruins of Montsegur in 1929 and went on to write two popular Grail novels linking Montsegur and Cathars with the Holy Grail...The mythology of Montsegur reached a new peak during the 1980's with the publication of Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln, a best-seller that linked the reported missing treasure of Montsegur with mysterious events in the nearby village of Renne-le-Chateau. (1)

The story of the Grail link goes back further than the Otto Rahn's Crusade Against the Grail:

Crusade against the Grail supports the thesis articulated by Joséphin Péladan (1858-1918) in a short work, The Secret of the Troubadours. Péladan, a novelist who favored occult themes, had argued that the legend of Montsalvat, the fortress of the Grail, and the Grail legend as a whole, were closely connected with Montségur, the last great Cathar stronghold, with the Cathar heresy, and (inevitably) with the Templar order of knights that was suppressed early in the 14th century. More particularly, Rahn tried to show that the people and places in the German version of the Grail story created by Wolfram von Eschenbach (1170-1220) are lightly allegorized renderings of real people and places in Occitania in the early 13th century, when Eschenbach composed his Grail epic, Parzival. The most important of these identifications was of the fortress of Montségur (which fell in 1244 to the forces of orthodoxy) with Montsalvat, also known as Muntsalvaesche, or Munsalvaesche, and other variants. (2)

So Rahn was taking the story by Eschenbach, and trying to find correspondences between that and geographical locations which really existed, thereby identifying Montségur as Montsalvat in the story. But as John Reilly points out, "The fit between Eschenbach's story and medieval Occitania just is not very close" Moroever, "Rahn's account of the suppression of Catharism is simply uncritical popular history."

The Grail legend also crops up in a number of ways. The chief source for all streams of Grail lore begins about 1180, with The Story of the Holy Grail by Chretien de Troyes. But this described as a beautiful dish, not some kind of goblet or cup, that comes later. Nor, as suggested by John Mathews is there really any link between the Grail here and the Welsh "cauldron of plenty", apart from the fact that they are both containers of a mystic sort. This is the Frazer's Golden Bough kind of loose linkage, a very loose speculation based on very superficial similarity. But as Juliette Wood observes:

In only one romance is the original language a Celtic language, and that is rather late in the schema of this material. The thirteenth-century Peredur is one of three tales in the Mabinogion that are paralleled by French romances. Whatever their relationship to French romance, there is no indication that they formed a group in Welsh tradition or in the Mabinogion...Peredur represents something of a problem for the line of argument which favours a mythic Celtic vessel for the source. The grail episode is less prominent than in other romances. As was noted earlier, if there is a theme to this Welsh tale, it is vengeance; the grail is not a mysterious object, but a platter which holds the head of Peredur's relative. This might fit in as aprimitive version of the grail story if Peredur could be shown to be an early tale,but it is not.(3)

But there is another interesting mutation of the story, described by John Reilly:

The Grail itself undergoes many modifications and improvements. The most important is that the Grail becomes associated with Joseph of Arimathea, a minor character in the New Testament. In Grail stories, he is said to have come to Britain, bringing various relics with him. Thus, the Grail becomes the dish used at the Last Supper, or the cup that Jesus used then, which is sometimes also the cup in which the blood of Jesus was collected at the Crucifixion. (2)

Reilly points that the shape of the stories have definite ends - to give claims to prioritise Glastonbury over Canterbury with the Grail tradition that the first bishop was Joseph of Arimathea.

That would give England priority over Rome; it would certainly give Joseph's traditional seat at Glastonbury priority over Canterbury. Still, the medieval religious authorities took no official notice of the Grail stories. (2)

Which could explain a lot about why the story developed in that way. Glastonbury monks were keen to expand their influence and wealth.


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