Lost Teachings of the Cathars: Their Beliefs and Practices by Andrew Phillip Smith
Reviewed by David Lorimer
Living down in Cathar country makes one aware of the extent to which it is the brand of the region. There is the Sentier Cathare, Cathar castles and even – rather ironically given their ascetic way of life – Cathar restaurants with their Menu Cathare. I have been interested in the Cathars for over 30 years and have read a good deal of literature, both in English and French as there is a Centre d’Etudes Cathares in Carcassonne. In the 90s, Tobias Churton made an interesting series of programmes on the Gnostics, one of which was about the Cathars and gave a little background on the Occitan culture and civilisation, which was effectively destroyed by the Albigensian Crusade in the 13th century. One should also remember that the troubadours came from this area – Puivert Castle is only 15 minutes away and has wonderful bosses of musicians playing contemporary instruments.
Andrew Phillip Smith is the editor of The Gnostic and author of several books on Gnosticism, esotericism and early Christianity including The Lost Teachings of the Gnostics, which has a chapter on the Cathars. Smith is right that there is a good deal of confusion about the Cathars, depending on which sources and books you have read and whether your spiritual home is Rennes-le-Chateau or Montsegur. In this even-handed study, he explains the history and doctrines of Catharism and the influence that they have had through various forms of what one might call neo-Catharism. Beginning with the history, he documents the military campaigns and slaughters extending over a period of some 50 years and devastating the people, the countryside and the culture. Some features of Catharism, such as the respect for women, were already embedded in the Occitan culture and in the idealisation of women in troubadour songs. Women had equal status as initiates or Parfaites, although Smith explains that in the scheme of rebirth, one’s final incarnation should be as a man.
He recounts the roles of St Bernard and St Dominic as well as the Knights Templar and the various noble families of the area under the Counts of Toulouse. These include notable individuals such as Guilhabert de Castres, Bertrand Marty and Esclarmonde de Foix. The Inquisition, established in 1231, was perhaps the first systematic example of a police state approach using fear and intimidation whereby neighbours were encouraged to spy and report on each other. The Cathars or good men and women regarded themselves as inheritors of the true Christianity and the church as corrupt. Pope Innocent III certainly recognised this and excoriated, among others, the Archbishop of Narbonne for his corrupt behaviour. The Cathars, on the other hand – and as St Bernard observed – led exemplary lives that inspired the people around them. It was just that they had the ‘wrong’ beliefs, particularly about God and the nature of Jesus Christ. Smith points out, quite rightly, that dualism arose as a way of approaching the problem of evil or theodicy. Looking around at the world, one can easily argue that it had been created by the demiurge rather than a good God.
Smith explains this metaphysical background, the fall of the angels and beliefs about the soul, spirit and Mary Magdalene. On this last point, he argues that this association has an independent source from the region, rather than being inherited from Catharism as such. He goes on to discuss the various rites used by the Cathars, including the consolamentum, which doubled up as ordination for the Parfait and extreme function for the believer. The preparation to become a Parfait was arduous and their regime strict. The Lord’s Prayer played a central role, as did the gospel of John, in common with other Gnostic traditions such as the Bogomils, with whom the Cathars were linked. They made one adjustment to the Lord’s Prayer, using the term supersubstantial bread rather than bread in its natural form. They were vegetarians (although in those days this also meant eating fish because it was not considered that fish had souls), a practice that was linked to their belief in reincarnation – about which there is a separate chapter. In discussing the work of Ian Stevenson he seems unaware of the many cases from other investigators from cultures where reincarnation is not the norm.
An account of Montsegur and its fall in 1244 is followed by a very informative discussion of the subsequent history of the movement and its central characters. Smith then goes on to the lineage behind the Cathars going back to Mani. He also discusses other esoteric movements that followed on. There is then a big gap until the mid-19th century, which initiated the Cathar revival. A key person was Napoleon Peyrat (1809-1881), who wrote a five volume history of the Albigenses. There is a sympathetic but critical account of the movements initiated by Deodat Roche, Antonin Gadal, Otto Rahn and others. I know more about Gadal, and there is no doubt that it is difficult to disentangle the various strands of his interpretation, but they do rest on an initiatic understanding of the spiritual journey related to some of the caves that the author says he has not visited. The principal of these is the so-called Bethlehem cave, where the winter solstice sun directly strikes the huge altar stone. There is another cave further along the same slope where the sun climbs above the craggy rocks opposite and shines directly down into a cave representing the penetration of the feminine by the masculine – these probably go back much further than the Cathars. He rightly remarks at the end of this chapter that without the efforts of the neo-Cathars they might have remained a relatively neglected episode in 13th century history while they represent a renewal of the spirit and an ever present protest against spiritual materialism.
I found Smith equally even-handed in his treatment of Dr Arthur Guirdham, through his writings many have become acquainted with the Cathars (he was an SMN member). He is critical of some of the inconsistencies within the books, but feels that his form of neo-Catharism is perhaps the closest to the original. He concludes that the Cathars are perched somewhere between history and mystery. Smith has done general readers a great service in this thorough and well researched book.