The last major Gnostic movement in the western world before the nineteenth century, the Cathars (“pure ones”) or Albigensians (“those from Albi”) emerged in northern Italy and southern France around the middle of the eleventh century. While Gnostic groups existed in those regions centuries before, the Cathar movement began with the arrival of Bogomil missionaries from the Balkans in that century. The first use of the term “Cathar” was in Monteforte, Italy, where the Gnostic community called itself by this term as early as 1030. See Gnosticism.

Like earlier Gnostics, the Cathars argued that the universe was created by an evil power as a prison for souls descended from a spiritual world of light. Jesus, according to their belief, descended from the world of light to show imprisoned souls the way of escape, but his teachings had been perverted by servants of the evil creator god. Cathar theologians debated whether the evil god had existed from the beginning of time, as claimed in the Cathar scripture The Book of the Two Principles, or whether he was a fallen servant of the true god, as claimed in another Cathar scripture, The Gospel of the Secret Supper. These two points of view have been called “absolute dualism” and “mitigated dualism” by modern scholars. See dualism.

These doctrines found such a favourable reception in southern France that in 1167 Nicetas, a leading Bogomil bishop, travelled to Toulouse. By 1200 the new Cathar Church was well on its way to becoming the majority religion in southern France and was sending out missionaries as far afield as England and western Germany. Believers fell into two classes. Perfecti or “perfect ones,” pledged to poverty, vegetarianism, and celibacy, formed the clergy, while credentes, “believers” free from ascetic restrictions, formed the mass of the movement. The Gnostic belief that ignorance rather than sin barred the way to the realm of light fostered a more relaxed attitude toward sex, and helped spark a brilliant literature of love poetry.

The Cathars rejected all of the Catholic Church’s sacraments and replaced them with rituals of their own. The most important of these was the Consolamentum (“consolation”), a ritual of laying on of hands by which a Cathar believer was received among the ranks of the perfecti. Another ritual, the Endura, consisted of deliberate suicide by starvation, and was considered a shortcut back to the world of light. Despite recent claims, the ritual of the Consolamentum has survived in several copies and contains no references to the Holy Grail, the Knights Templar, bloodlines descended from Jesus of Nazareth, or any of the other hot topics in today’s alternative-history industry. See Grail; Knights Templar.

The response of the Roman Catholic Church to the rise of the Cathars was as predictable as it was brutal. In 1209, after various efforts by papal legates to bring southern France back into the Catholic fold failed dismally, Pope Innocent III proclaimed a crusade against the Cathars. The crusaders, eventually joined by King Louis VIII of France, ravaged the south of France without mercy. By the time the last Cathar citadel at Montségur fell in 1244, the population of the region had fallen by more than half. Refugees fled into northern Italy, Catalonia, and Bosnia. In 1233, to complete the task of rooting out Catharism, Pope Gregory IX founded the Inquisition and placed it under the control of the Dominicans. The legal precedents established by the Inquisition over the next half century in the effort to exterminate the Cathar faith laid the groundwork for the witchcraft persecutions of the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries. See Roman Catholic Church; witchcraft persecutions.

Like the Gnostic movement as a whole, the Cathars had a complex afterlife once Christian orthodoxy lost political power in the western world. The first revivals of Catharism appeared in southern France in the early years of the nineteenth century, and drew much of their strength from a strong current of cultural and linguistic separatism in the south of the country. The establishment of Jules Doinel’s Gnostic Church in Paris in 1828 helped drive the revival of the Cathar faith by making Gnosticism a known factor in popular culture. Several independent Cathar churches now exist in France and elsewhere.

This revival also succeeded in launching the Cathars into the underworld of rejected knowledge, where the facts of the Cathar faith soon got lost beneath a torrent of fashionable beliefs and sheer invention. The Cathars featured in Madame Blavatsky’s first great work, Isis Unveiled (1877), and found themselves adopted as ancestors by a variety of early twentieth-century occult groups via the long-established tradition of retrospective recruitment. The explosion of alternative theories of Christian origins in the late twentieth century, sparked by media treatments of Pierre Plantard’s remarkable Priory of Sion hoax and the publication of the Nag Hammadi Gnostic scriptures, also enlisted the Cathars under many different (and often mutually contradictory) banners. In all this outpouring of misinformation the reality of a remarkable spiritual movement is in danger of being forgotten. See Blavatsky, Helena Petrovna; Christian origins; Priory of Sion; rejected knowledge; retrospective recruitment.


The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies : the ultimate a-z of ancient mysteries, lost civilizations and forgotten wisdom written by John Michael Greer – © John Michael Greer 2006