Cathar Beliefs, Rituals, and Holy Books

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Real History of Secret Societies

By Richard B. Spence, Ph.D., University of Idaho

Cathars believed that the Catholic Church was the tool of the evil god. They vehemently opposed the Old Testament and the idea of Holy Trinity. Did they believe in crucifixion or resurrection? What did they think about Christ?

An aerial view of the Cathar castle of Montségur, France.
In contrast to the Catholic Church’s cathedrals and abbeys, the Cathar church had no fixed abodes. (Image: Colibri vision/Shutterstock)

Cathar Beliefs

The essence of Cathar belief was that there wasn’t one god but two. It’s called Dualism. This solved that sticky problem of how a good God lets bad things happen. The good god, the lord of light and mercy, rules the world of spirit: the celestial realm from which humankind’s pure, immortal souls had fallen. What they fell into was the material world, a spiritual prison ruled by the evil god, the Demiurge, or more simply, Satan. In other words, we’re trapped in Hell. Everything in the material realm is corrupt, and our pure souls yearn to escape it.

But we’re condemned to this eternal rebirth in this cosmic hellhole through the allure of its seductive, but false, pleasures. None of these was more insidious than lust, which caused the creation of more fleshly prisons, babies, to trap more divine souls. The only way to escape the cycle was to reject the physical world and pleasures. If this sounds vaguely like Hinduism or Buddhism, one may be on to something.

Gustave Doré's painting depicts the war of heaven.
The Cathars mainly believed that a good god rules the world of spirit while the material world is a spiritual prison ruled by the evil god. (Image: Gustave Doré/Public domain)

By its encouraging of reproduction and wallowing in wealth and privilege, Cathars saw the Catholic Church as a tool of the evil god. Cathars rejected the Old Testament and identified Jehovah with the evil god.

To them, the Holy Trinity was a lie. To the Cathars, Jesus was neither god nor man. He was a manifestation of the Holy Spirit sent by the good god to show us the way to freedom. So, naturally, the evil god had him destroyed. But the Cathars didn’t believe that Christ was really flesh and blood. Rather, he was a kind of hologram. So, in their view, there was no real crucifixion or resurrection, or virgin birth because Jesus had no material form. To Cathars, the cross was a hateful symbol, which is why there’s no such thing as a Cathar cross.

It’s easy to see why the Catholic Church would object to this. But that wasn’t all. In contrast to the Catholic Church’s cathedrals and abbeys, the Cathar church had no fixed abodes. Worship could take place anywhere, outdoors or in private homes. Nor was there any Cathar pope or rapacious clergy. The highest level was that of a bishop.

Learn more about the Islamic Assassins.

The Cathar clergy were the perfects. Since foregoing the false pleasures of the world was something most simple souls couldn’t manage, only a chosen few became perfect. Even thinking about becoming a perfect meant a three-year apprenticeship with a current perfect who had to find you worthy. After an initiation called the consolamentum, what you had to look forward to was a life of celibacy and non-violence coupled with a strict vegetarian diet (you couldn’t eat anything born of sexual intercourse) and poverty.

A map representing the Cathar castles located in France.
A map of the Cathar castles in France, where the main Cathar belief of Christian dualism was practiced. (Image: Made with Inkscape/Public domain)

One had to wander a lot because the perfecti were both the priesthood and the missionaries of the Cathar faith. It sounds not only like Buddhist monks but also like the dais used by the Assassins, and other Shia sects. Are we looking at the same thing under different names?

Most importantly, perfects were role models for rank-and-file Cathars: the credentes, or ‘believers’. In return, the believers supported and obeyed the perfecti just like secret-society underlings should.

This is a transcript from the video series The Real History of Secret Societies. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Cathari Rituals

Credentes lived more-or-less regular lives and looked forward to receiving the consolamentum on their deathbed. Supposedly, if it looked like a consoled person might recover, they trusted their brethren to smother them to ensure that they departed the earthly realm sin-free.

Besides the consolamentum, there was also a ritual suicide by starvation called the endura. The basic Cathar ritual was a simple meal of broken bread, and a mutual greeting between credentes and perfecti called the melioramentum. The mass and the cross played no part in any of this. But remember, much of what we do know about the Cathars has been handed down from their mortal enemies, the Catholic Church.

Learn more about the Knights Templar.

Cathar Holy Books

There are mentions of Cathar holy books like the Book of Two Principles, The Secret Supper, and the Interrogation of John, but the Inquisition zealously destroyed them. Denying the heretics their gospels was seen as key to defeating them. Catholic critics frequently accused the Cathars of witchcraft and sexual perversity.

There isn’t any real evidence of witchcraft but there might be something to the perceived perversity. The Cathars’ issue wasn’t so much with sexual gratification as procreation. Thus, masturbation and homosexuality may have been condoned as acceptable—if not desirable—practices.

And then there was the fact that Cathars ordained women alongside men, and generally afforded them social and spiritual equality. Still, the Cathars ignored Virgin Mary because the purely spiritual Christ had no mother. Yet they held Mary Magdalene in high esteem.

This has led some to propose that the Cathars’ big secret—their Holy Grail—was knowledge of a holy bloodline established by Jesus and Magdalene. A romantic theory, but it makes no sense because the Cathars didn’t believe Jesus was a physical being.

Learn more about the Rosicrucians.

Common Questions about Cathar Beliefs, Rituals, and Holy Books

Q: What did the Cathars think about Jesus Christ?

Cathars believed that Jesus Christ was neither god nor man. He was a manifestation of the Holy Spirit sent by the good god to show us the way to freedom.

Q: What was the life of a Cathar perfect?

A Cathar perfect led a life of celibacy and non-violence coupled with a strict vegetarian diet.

Q: Why were the Cathars such a threat?

The Cathars were a threat because they rejected the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church. They believed that the Catholic Church was the tool of a evil god.

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