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Published: July 19th 2010
The first time I became aware of Montsegur Castle and the Cathars was about fifteen years ago. A friend of mine, the Austrian writer Gerhard Hallstadt, published a booklet about his pilgrimage to Montsegur, the most significant of the Cathar castles in Southern France. In the booklet, Gerhard described how he walked and hitchhiked to Montsegur over several days. Once he reached his destination, he spent a rainy night in the castle ruins. Completely enclosed in dense, white fog, he had eerie dreams and visions about the castle’s mysterious, poignant past.
I was fascinated by his evocative account and poured over the writings and photographs for hours. Especially the pictures got to me. They showed a remote castle perched on a steep rock, with a backdrop of seemingly endless mountains: the Pyrenees. It looked so mysterious, as though it wasn’t part of this world. I kept one of Gerhard’s Montsegur photographs on my altar for years, filled with a strange longing whenever I looked at it. His writings inspired me to find out more about the Cathars, a religious group of ascetics who lived and practiced between the 11th and 13th Century in the Languedoc region of France.
years passed, my interests changed, and although I yearned for it for a long time, I never made it to Montsegur. Over time, I pretty much forgot all about it.
Until recently. This spring, I decided to spend a couple of months at La Muse, a writer’s retreat in the South of France (see previous blog). Just before I was due to go, I found out that it was located in Languedoc. Still the penny didn’t drop. It wasn't until I actually got here and John, the owner of La Muse, pointed out Lastours, a famous Cathar castle, on our way to the retreat that I realized where I was: in Le Pays Cathare
, the land of the Cathars. The old longing stirred quietly inside of me, and I remembered Gerhard’s beautiful writings about Montsegur. I’d long lost touch with him, but within days we reconnected via Facebook and I learned that he was just about to re-issue his old writings in book format.
Synchronicity continued to weave its web, and soon I was immersed in reading a novel about the Cathars: ‘Labyrinth’ by Kate Mosse. Set in Carcassonne and surrounding areas, this book brought it all back
to me. I remembered how fascinated I had been with the mysterious Cathars and their untimely death during the crusades. Another book ‘The Treasure of Montsegur’, written by Sophy Burnham, drew me even more into the ancient world of Languedoc. It tells the story of a Cathar wise woman who lived at Montsegur during its occupation. It had me in tears with its wonderful, evocative descriptions of life in the 13th Century.
So who were the Cathars? They were a Christian sect, although their beliefs dated back to a time when Christianity wasn’t yet rooted in the dogma of the Church. The religion of the Cathars, or the ‘Pure Ones’, originated in the East, and was built around a dualistic belief system. They believed in the existence of two opposing principles: Good and Evil. The Earth, as they saw it, was created by a fallen Angel, a type of Devil, who fought against Good. Thus, the Cathars held little regard for material life. They were vegetarians, believed in reincarnation and abstained from sexual activities to decrease their attachment to earthly existence. Their ultimate goal was to be reunited with God in Paradise.
Unsurprisingly, the Catholic Church regarded the
Montsegur viewed from below
You can make out the castle walls on the left
Cathars as dangerously heretical. They held different beliefs about the life and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and more importantly perhaps, they rejected the authority and wealth of the Church. Thus, under the rule of Pope Innocent the Third, the Catholic Church started an enormous crusade against the increasingly popular Cathars in the early 13th Century. During this crusade, which lasted for many years, thousands of people were cruelly tortured and murdered ‘in God’s name’. In the city of Beziers alone, the entire population (an estimated 20.000 people) was wiped out by French soldiers on 21st July 1209.
Montsegur, located on an inhospitable, impregnable rock in the Pyrenees, carries a similarly tragic history. For a long time, the castle was a refuge for hundreds of persecuted Cathars and thus became known as a symbol of resistance against the crusaders. So important was Montsegur that the Catholic Church called it ‘Satan’s Synagogue’. This heresy couldn’t be tolerated by the Church. Montsegur had to fall.
In 1242, six thousand soldiers laid siege around the castle. Two hundred Cathars held out inside the fort for almost two years, but eventually ran out of provisions and were forced to surrender. That was the
end. On 16th March 1244, a huge funeral pyre burnt at the foot of mount Montsegur, on which hundreds of Cathar men and women were burnt to death for their beliefs.
Immersed in the wild beauty of Le Pays Cathare
, I remembered it all, as though it had happened yesterday. My old fascination with this land and its people flared up again, this time brighter than ever before. And so one day, during a walk through the lush mountain landscape near Labastide-Esparbairenque, I had an intuition. I’d make a pilgrimage to Montsegur at the end of my writer’s retreat, and perform a ceremony to honour the people who lost their lives there during the crusades. Inspired by this idea, I asked my friend and priestess sister Tara to come along, who didn’t lose much time and booked herself on the next possible flight.
We spent a couple of days in Aulus-les-Bains, a small spa town, and on a hot, sunny Tuesday morning, we made our way to Montsegur over the Col d’Agnes, a glorious mountain pass. Behind France’s endless trickle of cyclists, we crawled up the steadily ascending mountain in second gear. The landscape, with its white mountain
peaks and lush green foothills reminded us of our beloved Himalayas. Thrilled and in reverie, we got out of the car so many times that it might have been quicker to walk to Montsegur.
In the afternoon, we were finally nearing our destination. I felt excited and nervous at the same time. What would it be like? Would it live up to my expectations? Would it be like Gerhard had described it? We continued to creep over the curvy mountain road in the sweltering heat. I took in rocks, hills, vast forests, illuminated by the bright light of the sun.
I finally got a glimpse of Montsegur between two sharp curves. ‘There it is!’ I cried and pointed at the huge rock which appeared out of seemingly nowhere. It looked striking, stark with its many grey clefts that were overgrown with green shrubs and trees. I could make out the castle walls on top of the mountain. My heart jumped. Finally I was here, after all these years!
We rented a room for the night in the charming Montsegur village. Tara lay down to have a nap, but I couldn’t sit still. I left her a note
and set off alone towards the castle. It was early evening. I climbed up the stony path, shaded by dense woodland, towards the foot of the mountain. When I reached the site entrance, I stopped in my tracks. To my left was a beautiful meadow, overgrown with wildflowers and herbs. In the midst of it, somebody had built a huge wood pyre ready to be lit, about six ft tall. What was this? I wondered. Some cruel reminder of the past, designed to make a visit to Montsegur more authentic?
Bemused, I walked further towards the left and sat down in the tall grass. I looked up towards the Castle that towered over me ominously. This had to be the Meadow of the Burned, so called because it was the place where the Cathars were burnt at the stake. I imagined the Cathars as they filed down the narrow mountain path, one after the other, almost eight hundred years ago. Legend has it that they were singing as they walked towards the huge funeral pyres, drowning out even the prayers of the church men that had come to burn them alive. They sang even as they climbed up onto
the pyres, until their songs turned into screams when the flames started to scorch their skin.
On top of the meadow, a stone monument honours the Cathars and ‘victims of pure Christian love’. People had left offerings of flowers, candles and prayers in remembrance of the people who died here. I added rose petals and lavender and lit some incense. A strange sadness filled my Being. I lingered near the meadow for a while, feeling tearful and melancholic. Despite its visual beauty - so filled with bright flowers and fragrant herbs - Montsegur seemed tragic and desolate to me.
I began my climb towards the actual castle on the precipitous path that leads through a small woodland. I walked slowly, carefully, as if not to disturb the past that appeared so tangible, so alive. The path was empty and a heavy silence filled the air.
Once on top of the mountain, the views took my breath away. Beneath me, the Pyrenees spread out for miles: vast, conical hills in hazy blues and greens. Above me, downy and white and so close that I could almost touch them, were the clouds.
Finally I entered the deserted castle,
a mere ruin now. As I walked across the roofless, pentagonal hall, I sensed a potent, peaceful energy. I sat down on a wall at the edge of the castle and looked into the distance, still feeling very emotional.
Towards the North, just beneath the hall, was a little grassy platform, surrounded by low stone foundations. When I climbed down, I was astonished to see what appeared to be a fire place in its centre. A few burnt logs rested in it. I was amazed. The same had happened at Lastours castle at the Summer Solstice. Just like in Lastours, I had already given up on the idea of holding a fire ceremony, as I wanted to, mainly for lack of materials, but this was like the Universe saying: ‘Do it. Here is all you need.’
I had wondered whether lighting a fire at Montsegur, with its tragic history of burned human beings, would be appropriate. Yet, it felt right. In many spiritual traditions, fire is a sacred medium of transformation and everything offered into it is believed to reach the Gods. Though the Cathars were brutally murdered, through death they were reunited with their beloved God- something
they wanted more than anything else in the world. With this ceremony, I wanted to honour and remember the people who had lost their earthly lives in the flames and reclaim the sanctity of fire in this special place. For this, I brought to Montsegur an open heart and an intention of love and respect.
As I sat on the edge of the castle pondering the views, Tara appeared. I had to look twice to recognize my friend, for she resembled a Cathar woman with a coarse grey shawl draped around her body. We both looked at the fire place and nodded silently. I collected some kindling and fallen branches from the slopes and together, we built a small pyre. Before we lit it, we anointed each other with rose ghee, created a ritual space by calling in the five directions and honouring the Spirits of Place. Then we lit the fire. To my surprise, it burnt brightly instantly, fanned by the light wind that caressed us gently.
We chanted the Tibetan Buddhist mantra Om Tare Tuttare Ture Soha
108 times, and fed the fire with offerings of rose petals, lavender and nuts. We chose to invoke Tara,
the Tibetan Goddess of compassion, because she is a bridge between heaven and earth, between this world and the next - like this castle, like our human bodies. Her compassion is so vast that she vowed to remain rooted in this world until all beings are enlightened. Compassion. A quality that had been so sorely missing here in the 13th Century. ‘Tara’, I said, ‘let there never be a time here again in which we persecute and burn one another for our beliefs.’
We offered our prayers to the fire and this sacred Sky Temple. We prayed for the Cathars and for the inquisitors who were so filled with hatred and fear that they felt compelled to kill, and for all the people who are still suffering under oppressive regimes. To finish the ceremony, we chanted the Gayatri mantra and the Maha Mritunjaya healing mantra. It was still and peaceful. The sun was setting behind us and drenched everything in a golden light.
After the ceremony, we went back into the castle hall. We looked around the vast, five-pointed space that is so entwined with the rock on which it was built. I felt drawn to sit on
a stone near the far edge of the hall. It radiated an incredibly peaceful energy that glued me to the spot. It felt like the atmosphere in a temple, as though somebody had meditated for years in this space.
I called Tara over. Together, we sat in silence and sensed the energies rising up from the earth. And suddenly, from seemingly out of nowhere, we saw a red light. It appeared slowly, like an apparition, on the wall opposite us. Within seconds, it turned into a fiery red triangle on the top half of the wall. It was absolutely magical, as though the castle wanted to show us something special before we left. It was the light of the sunset coming through one of the narrow windows. I had read that at sunrise of the Summer Solstice, the first red rays of the sun cross the entire hall from one side to the other, part of the reason why Montsegur is believed to have been connected with a Sun Cult. I just hadn’t expected to see something similar this evening.
It was almost dark when we began our descent back into the village. I was surprised to see
Inside the castle
The stones at the far end were the ones with the peaceful energy
people gather around the huge bonfire logs I’d seen earlier. Were they planning to have a bonfire? And there was something else - a large, camouflaged truck. ‘They’re soldiers’ I said, incredulous. ‘What are they doing there?’ Tara and I looked at each other.
It was eerie, especially when a young soldier strolled towards us, casually pointing a machine gun in our direction. Other soldiers stood around in the dark and some were setting up camp. We felt like we were reliving some bizarre incident from the past, as though we were a symbol of the Cathars as they filed down the rock towards their inquisitors. It was disturbing. The next morning we found out that this part of Montsegur is army land (interesting that it still draws that type of energy) and that the bonfire was left over from the Summer Solstice. It hadn’t been lit as it was raining on the day.
The special energy of Montsegur stayed with me for days. After our fire ceremony here, a theme developed almost of its own accord. We performed an Air ceremony on top of Queribus castle, where we danced naked and chanted mantras in the Pyreneen winds.
On nearby Peyrepertuse castle, we meditated silently with the birds to honour Spirit. We bathed in the icy waters and sang to Shiva at the Cascade d’Ars, a humongous waterfall in the mountains, and grounded the experience with an Earth ceremony at Rennes-les-Bains. It was a beautiful, magical week, full of inspiration and synchronicities in which the veils between the worlds thinned and in certain moments vanished altogether. Tara Devi and I will be publishing a booklet of essays, poetry and photographs of our Pyrenean adventures in the autumn. Gerhard Hallstadt’s book 'Blutleuchte', featuring his classic 'Montsegur' text and many others, will be available soon via
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