Who were the Cathars?

The French castle of Montsgur yielded up the last members of its population, in the year 1244, to the bonfires of what became the Roman Catholic Inquisition. These religious martyrs, known collectively as the Cathars, were the last of an obscure culture that was hated and persecuted throughout the province of Languedoc. But who were the Cathars, and why were they and their philosophy so detested that they were brutally exterminated?

The exact origin of this peculiar people is unclear. According to some sources, the Cathar world view came from the Paulicians of Armenia through the Bulgarian Bogomils, both older cultures within the Byzantine Empire. They appear to have been Gnostics, followers of a pre-Christian concept that contact with the divine, and thus spiritual salvation, could be obtained personally by each individual human through direct knowledge of God (the word knowledge itself is derived from the Greek gnosis). While some sources assume that the ancient Jewish sect known as the Essenes held similar beliefs, and that even Jesus himself may have been a member, Christians as a whole tend to believe that salvation comes only through faith in Jesus and his authorized representatives, the priesthood. Even as early as the year 325, at the Council of Nicea, the Church labeled the Cathari as heretics.

Independent of the roots of their beliefs, the Cathars apparently considered the physical world as an illusion, as is the case of various oriental religions, and thus evil. Further, they thought that the being who created the mentality which considers the material world as real was deranged. This being was not the Highest Creator, but a servant of the Most High who became lost in illusion and supposed himself to be supreme. The Cathars, like the Gnostics, sought to preserve themselves as pure and isolated from this evil world they avoided the waste of sexual energy for carnal pleasure alone, and abolished the ownership of private property, much as the early Christians are said to have done.

They respected Mary Magdalene as a principal disciple of Jesus, and so permitted women to serve as religious leaders. They were also vegetarian, not accepting the shedding of blood for their nourishment, and believed in reincarnation, considering humans as being immortal souls temporarily imprisoned in mortal bodies. According to J.G. Frazer's The Golden Bough, they worshiped each other, but this distorted idea has also been interpreted to mean that they worshiped the Divine in each other, considering each person to hold a fragment of God within themselves. And, most important to their would-be rulers, they rejected the Church as an intermediary between man and God, which threat to papal authority may have been the deciding factor in their being labeled as heretics and destined for destruction.

Living in Southern France at the time of St. Francis of Assis, the Cathars were first attacked when the Albigensian crusade to exterminate their heretical faith was declared in 1208 (this name refers to the town of Albi, a strong nucleus of Cathar beliefs). The year before, Cathar Perfects, as their highest initiates were called, had debated religion with the papal legates of Rome at the Conference of Pamiers, and had certainly made the Church nervous. During the following decades, they suffered at the hands of the armies sent against them by the Church.

Finally, after a prolonged siege at Montsgur, the remaining Cathars gave themselves up to their enemies and voluntarily walked into the waiting bonfires rather than deny their views. It was rumored that 4 of their monks escaped with secret objects which were considered as the Cathar treasure, but analysis of their beliefs seems to cast doubt as to the importance which they would have given to any material object. Some legends do link the Cathars to the Knights Templar, even indicating that reported treasure may have been salvaged from the Temple of King Solomon in Jerusalem.

In this last regard, Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code would indicate that the Templar treasure was knowledge as to genetic descendants of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. This book claims that the true goal of the Crusades was to obtain (and apparently destroy) information about this relationship and its progeny. Thus, the faithful defended the decisions of the Church's Councils that Jesus was divine, superior to other men and above all carnal sins such as sex. Brown based much of his fiction novel on the non-fiction research of Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln in their publication Holy Blood, Holy Grail, which defended the unconventional view that Jesus had a family and left descendants.

Some theories link the Cathars to the older Merovingian line of French ruling nobility. These in turn link the Merovingians back to a daughter of Mary Magdalene, who was brought to France by Joseph of Arimathea, a devoted follower of Jesus, after the crucifixion. If these suppositions were based in fact, or even suspected by the Church to be true, they alone would have been sufficient cause for a threatened religious and political power structure to demand their annihilation.

Written by : David Michael (Teres'polis, Brazil)

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Edited by: Rajesh Bihani ( Find me on Google+ )

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