by Andrew Phillip Smith
The Cathars were exterminated and suppressed in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries but their influence lives on. Some people believe that they are reincarnated Cathars and thus the original Cathars live on through them. The Cathars themselves believed that anyone who didn’t achieve redemption at the end of their lives would move on and on through successive lives until they were liberated from the material world.
Others have been inspired by the Cathars in different ways. In the Languedoc the Cathars became a symbol of regionalism, representing the indigenous Occitan language and the importance of local tradition over an intrusive French national identity. Beyond this the Cathars have inspired esotericism, conspiracy theory and philosophy.
The Cathar revival began at the end of the nineteenth century, but it was in the 1930s that individuals and groups became inspired by the Cathars in individualistic spiritual ways. Their legacy lives on in various ways.
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 Languedocs 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 that 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 in 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 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 Mautrice Magre, a well-known French novelist who became convinced that the Cathars represented a form of Buddhism.
Among all these eccentrics and romantics one figure stands out in particular for the quality of her work. Simone Weil (pronounced ‘Vay’) was a respected philosopher. 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. The Cathars were to her a source of inspiration and she had some contact with neo-Cathars via Roché.
She 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, and when she worked as a schoolteacher she would regularly give away all but the most basic income to trade unions. 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 TB, though many have considered her death to be an imitation of the Cathar endura, a fast to the end.
The Cathar teachings continue to be revived and reinterpreted through the centuries. Among the most recent fictional use of the Cathars is Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth, a time slip thriller. In music the Cathars have inspired everything from early music reconstructions to heavy metal.
Few of these esoteric revivalists have achieved any measure of historical authenticity. Yet each of them was on a spiritual quest, however flawed or unsuccessful.
For more information about the Cathars, you can read The Cathars and Reincarnation by Andrew Phillip Smith on our blog.
Andrew Phillip Smith
The Lost Teachings of the Cathars
£10.99, Available from Watkins Publishing
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