If you want to be spiritual, ask uncomfortable questions,’ Goddess News, Spiritual Blog, Divine Feminine,
Dr Joanna Kujawa
As I was writing this blog – which is really a small excerpt from my book-in-progress – I asked myself whether it was insane to expect people to read about something that happened about 900 years ago simply because of my obsession with Mary Magdalene. I also asked myself what the meaning of this research was in these times – and the answer was surprisingly simple. The meaning is both hidden and apparent; that is, apart from the obvious mystery surrounding Mary Magdalene and the Cathars themselves there is a deeper philosophical meaning to this topic. We live in the times when what is real and what is perceived as real is very difficult to pinpoint. In the last few months the reality to which we are accustomed has shifted in strange directions and the future seems to be being created in front of our eyes – but what future and by whom? And do we have any say in it?
On this deeper level this is what the more unusual narratives of Mary Magdalene and the Cathars teach us: Which story of Mary Magdalene is real and the most meaningful to us? And who decides this future, if not we? Or are we going allow others’ perceived authority to decide it for us? As for the Cathars, they and other so-called heretics or free-thinkers had the audacity to interpret their spiritual truths for themselves, not allowing any existing – however powerful – authority to tell them otherwise. That is why both Mary Magdalene and the Cathars fire up our imaginations because in the depths of our being we can sense that the stories we are currently being fed are like images seen through a broken mirror.
Before I plunged into the mystery of the Black Madonnas in my recent blog https://www.joannakujawa.com/two-tale-of-the-two-black-madonnas/ , I decided to look into the first set of ‘conspiracy’ theories surrounding Mary Magdalene. A conspiracy theory is generally an approach which is not accepted in the mainstream discourse or discussions on a given topic. This can either be due to the intended or unintended omission of the approach for the purpose of hiding ‘difficult to handle’ information, or because the information is considered untruthful and not worthy of proper scholarly scrutiny.
I could not be call myself a spiritual detective if I were not attracted to these kinds of speculations. I am a scholar but at the same time I believe there is no smoke without fire and that it is not beyond the powers-that-be (usually bound to mainstream institutions) to not tell us the whole truth, for whatever reasons. Having said that, as a serious spiritual seeker I do not want to waste my time on theories, however fascinating, if there is no truth to them.
So I am going to look specifically into the theories about Mary Magdalene, the possible connection she had to the Cathars (medieval French heretics). In short, I am going to look into Mary and her French connection.
I will comment only briefly on the political side of the events, as they contributed to the demise of the Cathars in France and have some relationship with what I am looking for here – the connection between the Cathars, Mary Magdalene and the Black Madonnas, as Margaret Starbird writes in her work Woman with the Alabaster Jar. Just to recount her claim briefly, by using clues from both the Bible and French legends, Starbird came to a conclusion that Magdalene was Jesus’ wife and that after the crucifixion she went to Southern France, where even today there is a stronghold of worship for her. There is also another source – coming from mainstream religion – supporting a similar version of the story of Mary Magdalene in France. Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich, an 18th century nun and mystic, in her visions saw Mary Magdalene, Lazarus and her ‘servant’ Sarah arriving in France after the events of crucifixion. In her vision, Sarah was a servant not a daughter but, perhaps, just perhaps, Mary Magdalene having a child with Jesus was too much to digest for a Catholic nun? Also, Sarah is celebrated by the Gypsies as their own holy woman. I somehow doubt that the Gypsies – who are very independent and proud people – would celebrate Sarah if she were a servant (I am currently researching this).
But who were the Cathars?
As a medieval scholar I studied medieval heresies, and I know that the Cathars were brutally executed for their unorthodox beliefs (they were burned en masse at the stake). But I also know that very little was and is understood about what it was that they really believed. Usually, all evidence of any ‘heretical’ beliefs is burned along with the heretics.
These are the pure historical facts: the Catholic Church launched a crusade (called the Albigensian Crusade) against the Cathars dating generally from 1209 to 1244. The most reliable scholarly source on this crusade and the Cathar movement is the old classic by Steven Runciman The Medieval Manichee, recently republished by Cambridge University Press. This book a priceless gem for anyone who wants to dive into the details of the events of the crusades and their complexities. The political scene at that time of itself would make for a great historical, if horrific, drama. In historical terms the crusade was initiated by Pope innocent III in 1209, but the persecution of the Cathars had begun much earlier.
The Cathar movement had its stronghold in Southern France, known then as ‘Languedoc’ and often referred to as the County of Toulouse. On many levels, Languedoc was a separate region of France, ruled by wealthy and cultured counts and completely independent of the French crown and Paris. Languedoc was definitely seen as the centre of arts which flourished under the patronage of wealthy nobility. But it was also a centre of envy by the French kings and lords of Northern France who had not then managed to bring the region under their dominion. In many ways this was a land of religious freedoms – and this especially irritated the Popes in Rome, who unsuccessfully tried to bring Catholicism to Languedoc. As we can see, this beautiful region of Southern France had many envious enemies with a shared agenda – to subordinate Languedoc to the French crown and force Catholicism on the region. It took the united powers of the papacy and French crown 35 years of brutal persecution to make this happen. This was also responsible for the creation of the infamous Inquisition and of the Dominican order as the guardian of Catholic orthodoxy.
The final stand of the Cathars took place in 1244, and is known as the siege of Montsegur, after which the Cathars were forced to surrender. According to the accounts collected by Runciman in The Medieval Manichee, both women and men took part in the defence of the fortress of Montsegur under the lord Perelle and the Cathar bishop Guillebert of Castres. When it became apparent that the fortress would fall, something extraordinary happened: 200 of the defenders decided to take the final rites in the Cathar faith known as ‘Consolamentum’, which meant that they would become ‘Perfects’ or ordained Cathars. They did this knowing that it meant death at the stake. Then, just before the surrender of Montsegur, four of the Perfects were selected to escape the fortress under cover of the night ‘with the holiest of the books and the treasure of the Cathars’. A day or so later the combined papal and French crown’s forces destroyed the fortress and the Cathars were burned at the stake. This was, in all likelihood, the most brutal of all the crusades: the Cathar movement was destroyed, Languedoc was subordinated to the French crown and Catholicism was established in the region as the only faith. A complete genocide of a people, their culture and beliefs.
This is what we know from hard history. But history tells us very little about the Cathar belief system and the theological reasons for Rome wanting them exterminated at all cost. Even Runciman, with his scholarly cool as he praises the Inquisitors for their attention to detail while describing their torture methods, admits that they got very little out of their victims (something that was later repeated during the torture of the Knights Templar). Indeed, the Cathars embraced their fate very peacefully, a fact which the Inquisitors saw as another sign of their ‘evil’.
So what were the Cathar beliefs? Not much is known about them, except that they were deeply spiritual people, pacifists, vegetarians (albeit they allowed eating fish) whose beliefs were often compared to those of some early Christian Gnostic groups who believed in the inherent battle between good and evil in the world. The most common comparison is to the Manicheans, who flourished from the early third century onwards, with their influence spreading as far as China. Runciman believes that Catharism was a form of Manicheism which spread to France via Constantinople to Bulgaria (where it was known as the Bogomil movement) and, finally, from Italy to Languedoc in Southern France.
Although Runciman was an impeccable historian, like many academics he was wary of making any interpretation without hard facts or documentation. This in itself poses a problem, since all the documentation created by the Cathars was destroyed and all that is available to scholars are the testimonies of their Inquisitors and torturers. I choose to pay little attention to these testimonies, as they were not only biased by their own beliefs but were also used to provide ‘evidence’ of heresy and the ‘evil’ of the Cathars. In order to be accused of heresy, it was enough simply to hold different beliefs than the ones the Catholic Church prescribed. As for evil, this was one thing that the Cathars were against, and they believed (like the early Christians or Manichees) that it was our conduct, the good deeds and the focus on the spirit, that could end the battle between eternal evil and eternal good in favour of the good. It is known, for example, that the Cathars were healers and that apparently the gift of healing was given to them after their ritual of Consolamentum. Another often forgotten fact is that the Cathars ‘priests’ and healers – even at the highest level – were both women and men. This was something originally practised by some early Christian groups but banned after Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire. From a theological point of view, what might have also upset Rome was the Cathars’ rejection of the Old Testament (or at least parts of it), as they believed that Yahweh was the creator of the world of matter which envelopes us.
Another theological reason for the persecution of the Cathars may be the confused perception of those outside of their faith about Cathar views on sexuality. On the one hand, Runciman claims, the Roman Church rejected the Cathars because they were considered unreasonable ascetics with the contempt of everything physical. But on the other hand, they were also accused of sexual promiscuity and having a ‘lax attitude’ towards sexual orgies. This confusion is clarified immediately by Runciman, who says that the Cathars did not reject sexuality, they only rejected procreation – a complete reversal of a Catholic belief. Thus, in theory, they could prefer casual sexual encounters (as long as these did not result in children) to the bond of marriage. Interestingly – and I discuss this later in the chapter on the Gnostics – some Gnostic groups (for example, the Sethians) held similar views as early as the second century or even earlier. This ‘easy-going attitude about sexual morals’, Runciman continues, made them very popular among the Southern French troubadours – the poets of love. Therefore, I believe that it is more appropriate to call the Cathars ‘spiritualists’ – the name given to them by Arthur Guirdham.
It was one of the readers of my Goddess News blog who brought the work of Arthur Guirdham to my attention. Guirdham was a British psychiatrist who wrote several books, two of which are important in my search for s possible connection between Mary Magdalene, France and the Cathars. I admit that when I was first directed to his books The Cathars and the Reincarnation and We are One Another, I was very reluctant to even look at them, as I was afraid they were going be some fanciful, largely imagined ‘recollections’ of past lives. So when I learned that Guirdham was a psychiatrist, I was relieved. As much as I am open to alternative accounts, I also appreciate his training and scientific detachment. In his books he describes experiencing an astounding collection of synchronicities when he met a small group of people (separate from each other) who, through a very painful and lengthy process, remembered fragments of their lives as French Cathars in the 13th century. I have in mind the two cases he mentions of Mrs Smith and Ms Milles. The story is fascinating and no doubt true, as no one would put themselves through so much pain over such long and confusing periods of time to remember even more painful events from 800 years ago. The subjects knew nothing of Cathar history but remembered some events, usually the most tragic ones, as Cathars. Most of their recollections happened during sleep (in repetitive, often nightmarish dreams), automatic writing and sudden, disconnected memories. What is truly memorable about this is that these people knew the minute details of Cathar rituals or prayers, often in the now-extinct language of Languedoc or Latin, without knowing either of the languages. These people’s past identities as Cathars were only able to be confirmed much later after many translations of the records of Inquisitors. None of the participants was a famous or well-known Cathar, whose existence could easily be confirmed. I have searched in Guirdham’s books for any mention of Mary Magdalene but have not been successful as yet. His subjects do mention some Cathar prayers with Mary in them but Guirdham immediately assumes that this must have been a reference to Virgin Mary. For example, Ms Milles spontaneously remembers a line from an enigmatic Cathar verse, ‘Then they rose up in the sky of glass and for everyone that rose aloft another fell and was lost and God came down from heaven with the twelve apostles and took ghostly shape in Holy Mary’. I know from my studies that any text considered heretical or esoteric was usually worded in an enigmatic way so that the meaning would be concealed to all but revealed to those in the know or the initiated.
Was this ‘Holy Mary’ really the Virgin Mary (Holy in the Catholic and Christian Orthodox traditions) or the other Mary? I could not find any other reference to Mary Magdalene in Guirdham’s work. Where does the connection between Mary Magdalene, France and the Cathars come from, apart from in Starbird’s A Woman with an Alabaster Jar and The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail by Michael Baignent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln? However, to my surprise, Runciman did have something to say about this when, in a off-handed way, he mentions in his book The Medieval Manichee that the Virgin Mary was ‘of little importance’ to the Cathars. So if they did not give her much credence apart from her being the physical vehicle for Jesus’ birth and they cared nothing for the material/physical existence, why would they have a prayer for her? Were they honouring another Mary, especially as Runciman also says that for some apparently inexplicable reason the Cathar religion was enthusiastically embraced by the ladies of the noble houses of Southern France? Why would they give such enthusiastic support for a dangerous heresy, unless they could find some reason to identify with her – a fact missed by both Runciman and Guirdham?
On the same afternoon that I asked myself this question I came across a scholarly article by Mary Anne Beavis, ‘The Cathar Mary Magdalene and the Sacred Feminine’ in which she traces the same question I was asking: Did the Cathars believe that Mary Magdalene was a wife or consort of Jesus, since in the regular historical and theological sources on the Cathars she is never mentioned? And, remarkably, Beavis found proof in the testimony of a monk, Peter des Vaux-de-Cernay. The monk brags about how, on the Feast of Mary Magdalene on July 22nd 1209 (and thus at the beginning of the crusade) the Cathars were massacred in a church dedicated to Mary Magdalene. Monk Peter found this a fitting punishment for the ‘heretical’ Cathars, as they believed, according to him, that Mary Magdalene was Christ’s concubine! So here is the evidence straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. In the end, Beavis concludes that there was evidence that the Cathars believed Mary Magdalene was a concubine but not a wife of Jesus, but there was no evidence, at least in the Cathar beliefs, that she bore Jesus’ child. Both theories, by the way, are fine by me, as I explain later.
More evidence on Mary Magdalene in the Cathar beliefs is built by Yuri Stoyanov in his two books, The Hidden Tradition in Europe: The Secret History of Medieval Christian Heresy and The Other God: Dualist Religions from Antiquity to the Cathar Heresy,in which he says that the tradition of Mary Magdalene as a concubine/wife of Jesus was unique to the French Cathars and thus was uniquely French in the middle ages. Although, as I discuss my theory later, there were early Gnostic Egyptian sources from the second century onwards that argued the same.
So what is the lesson from it all?
That these free-thinkers and the alternative vision of our reality and connection with the Divine were defeated, and that the truth can be obfuscated forever?
I am more optimistic than that. The lesson here is that neither truth, nor the desire to pursue the truth can be obliterated and the traces of both are there for us to pick up so that we can grow. Another reader of the Goddess News blog directed me to a wonderful Italian scholar, Maria Soresina, who speaks of the lasting legacy of the Cathars in her work on Dante. Dante, who was born about 20 years after the slaughter of the Cathars, gave a tribute to their culture and spirit in his masterpiece The Divine Comedy. In it, his protagonist meets the troubadour and Cathar Arnaut Daniel, whom Dante introduces as a master of poetry and romance and allows him to speak in his native langue d’oc, the language of the conquered Cathars. With this one brave gesture, Soresina argues, Dante was showing his middle finger both to the northern French conquers and those who believed that there is only interpretation of our spiritual experience. By allowing the poet to speak his native language and praising him and his culture, Dante, in his own poetic disguise, showed support to all truth seekers and free-thinkers. I would add to Soresina’s argument that by placing Arnaut in purgatory and not in hell, Dante was showing those who believed they had the right to tell people what to believe or not another defiant gesture since, according the prevalent beliefs of his age, the Cathars as heretics should have been in hell. But, as Sorensina argues, Dante too believed in a much more joyful, equal interpretation of Christianity. This comment by Soresina also supports Starbird’s claim from the Woman with the Alabaster Jar that many great artists throughout the centuries, including such big names as Fra Angelica and Botticelli, believed the same.
Starbird also brings up folkloric attempts to preserve the alternative story of Mary Magdalene and her prominence in Christianity. For example, the famous medieval theme of the tapestry series The Lady and the Unicorn is thought to be the coded representation of Mary Magdalene in art from the thirteenth century onwards. I note that two places where the tapestry can be found are, interestingly, in France: one is in Sainte Chapelle, a 13th-century (Gothic) chapel and the other is in the Musee National du Moyen Age in Cluny. On one of the tapestries is the mysterious sign A mon seul desir which translates into ‘To my only desire’ or ‘To my only love’. Whether this expression of love for a mystery lover is related to Starbird’s hypothesis that it is speaking of the love of Mary Magdalene and Jesus and the Cathars expression of it, I do not know. It is certain, however, that the mystery of both Mary Magdalene and the Cathars is locked together in France, and is only one of many examples of the retelling of the one of the greatest stories of all time – that of the expelled goddess and her connection to the mystery of transfiguration and the passage between death and life.
I would love to hear from you in the comments.
Thank you to all the readers of the Goddess News blog for directing me to many fascinating sources in my research.
Dr Joanna Kujawa