The Roots of Catharism

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Real History of Secret Societies

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

As a visible movement, Catharism lasted about 250 years. But it was part of a much wider phenomenon that embodied beliefs and practices dating back hundreds—maybe thousands—of years, and it survived long after the roots of Catharism had vanished.

A circular symbol of Bogomilism carved on a rock.
Catharism has its roots in Bogomilism. Bogomilism appeared in the Balkans around 950. The Cathars regarded the Bogomils as a kind of ‘mother church’. (Image: Destefano/ Shutterstock)

Catholics frequently referred to Cathars as Manichees and the Cathar church as a revival of Manichaeism. This was a dualistic religion founded by the Persian prophet Mani in the third century A.D. It was one of the main rivals of Christianity during the later Roman Empire. Manichaeism, as an organized faith, seemingly died out around 500.

So, how could it pop up in France hundreds of years later? Did Cathar roots go back further, to the Pythagorean brotherhood, a mystical secret society that appeared in Greece and Italy around 500 B.C.?

Pythagoreanism and Gnosticism

Like the Cathars, Pythagoreans believed that divine souls were trapped in a corrupt material world, and that their ultimate goal was to break the cycle of reincarnation and return to the celestial realm. They also practiced asceticism and vegetarianism, and initiated women. Catharism probably wasn’t a direct descendant of Pythagoreanism, but they did share a common root in Gnosticism.

Gnosticism is more philosophy than religion or cult. There’s pagan Gnosticism, Christian Gnosticism, even Jewish, and Islamic Gnosticism. Gnosticism holds that the key to enlightenment and salvation is knowledge—gnosis—rather than faith or grace. Illumination allows one to achieve union with the true divine through the realization of one’s own divine nature. Although this isn’t exactly what Cathars believed, but you can see the similarities.

Zoroastrianism and Manicheaism

Another thread in the Cathar tapestry goes back to the Zoroastrian religion of ancient Persia. Again, it formed around 500 B.C. and featured a lord of light and a lord of darkness.

Zoroastrianism, in turn, influenced the later prophet Mani. The prophet Mani, born in present-day Iraq, was raised in a Jewish-Christian Gnostic sect. Inspired by visions, he proclaimed himself the reincarnation of Jesus, Zoroaster, Buddha, and even the Hindu Krishna.

A painting of the four primary prophets of Manichaeism: Mani, Zoroaster, Buddha, and Jesus.
Manichaeism, the root of Catharism, was a blend of different religions.
(Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

If one mixed all the religions and esoteric traditions floating around the Near East in the 3rd century A.D., then one would come up with something like Manichaeism. Mani’s faith featured a spiritual realm of light and a material world of darkness run by rival gods, with captive souls struggling to escape corrupt matter and return to the light.

Today, we tend to identify Buddhism with East Asia. But the faith originated in India. And as Mani shows, its influence was well-established in the Middle East by Roman times. It’s no stretch to argue that its influence also spread into Europe. So, when the French historian Zoé Oldenbourg suggests that the Cathars were, basically, Western Buddhists, she might be right.

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

The Paulicians and the Cathars

Manichaeism influenced a bewildering array of sects and heresies during the early Middle Ages. In the seventh century, the Eastern Christian Byzantine empire waged a bloody war against the so-called Paulician heresy. Paulicians also followed the dualist ‘Good God vs. Evil God’ track and rejected the official church.

Like the Cathars, the Paulicians believed Jesus was an avatar of the Good God. But unlike the Cathars, Paulicians had no elect or perfecti. The Paulicians did, however, adopted egalitarianism and violent social revolution, rejecting not just the Orthodox Church but whole Byzantine social and political order. Traces of this rebel spirit is evident in the Cathars. In the late 900s, the Paulician heresy was militarily crushed, and the Byzantine emperors settled thousands of supposedly repentant heretics in their Balkan provinces.

The Ultimate root of Catharism: Bogomilism

In the late 900s, a new dualist heresy sprouted in the Balkans, supposedly through the efforts of a single wandering priest. It was called the Bogomils—the Beloved of God. Barely 50 years later, a ‘Manichee’ heresy—not yet dubbed Catharism—existed as far west as the Rhineland, Flanders, and France. Its original appearance seems to have been more or less simultaneous with Bogomilism.

By 1020, an early Cathar sect was reported in the Limousin region of central France. But then it seemed to die-out or go underground, and doesn’t get mentioned for another century when it’s condemned as a pernicious threat at a church council in Toulouse.

During the 12th century, the heresy spread like wildfire, especially in the Occitania and Provence regions of southern France, and in neighboring parts of northern Spain and Italy. But an attempt by two-dozen German perfects to infiltrate into England in 1166 failed when they were caught and put to death.

At almost the same time, Cathar communities in France and Italy received an important visitor from the east. He was Father Nicetas, the Bogomil bishop of Constantinople. Nicetas acted very much like the boss. He rebuked the Cathar bishop of Lombardy for straying from the strict dualist line and forced him to recant.

In 1167, Nicetas convened a general conference near Toulouse where he re-consecrated all the bishops and perfecti in the proper rite. He also consecrated three new bishops for the expanding franchise. This clearly shows that the Cathars regarded the Bogomils as a kind of ‘mother church’.

Learn more about the Rosicrucians.

Medieval Persian Assassins and Messalians

Curiously, another secret order, the Medieval Persian Assassins, had the credo of ‘Nothing is true, everything is permitted.’ Could the Assassins have been another aspect of the vast Gnostic conspiracy?

Historian Steven Runciman points to yet another obscure Gnostic sect, the Messalians, which appeared in Syria around the fourth century A.D. Runciman suspected the Messalians had preserved secret traditions and secret books that were later passed on to the 10th century Bogomils.

Syrian Messalians used ritual initiation to create a perfecti-like elite. Also, like the Bogomils and Cathars, they abhorred the cross, the Old Testament, its god, and the churches based on them. The Messalians also proselytized through ‘vagabond preachers’, the same as Bogomils and Cathars would do centuries later.

Chain Transmission or Coordinated Plots?

The question is whether we’re looking at chain transmission—Manichaeism inspired Paulicianism, which inspired Bogomilism, which inspired Catharism—or at the spontaneous generation of similar sects inspired by some unseen common source.

Sufi scholar Idries Shah proposed that the hidden hand was a ‘‘secret Gnostic organization’’, that manifested in many forms before and after the rise of Christianity. Its symbol, he argued, was a rooster-headed, snake-limbed deity known as Abraxas. The name Abraxas shows up in Kabbalah, a form of Jewish mysticism widely adopted by Gnostic Christians and others.

The ultimate goal of the Gnostic secret society, Idries Shah believed, was the creation of an enlightened elite. The basic aim was to undermine existing religious and social inhibitions to create an environment in which gnosis and enlightenment could flourish. But, as Shah put it, these secretive Gnostics could ‘‘subscribe to the outward doctrines of any religion’’, and ‘‘operate under many politico-religious systems’’, all the while working to destroy them.

The subversive conspirators might encourage ‘sexual liberation’ in one place and ‘sexual abstinence’ in another. From this perspective, the doctrine was meaningless; experience was everything.

A problem with the chain transmission theory is that while Paulicianism thrived mostly among Armenians, Bogomilism spread almost exclusively among Slavs, and Catharism among the Latinized peoples of France and Italy. It’s almost as if these were variants generated for cultural communities.

Researchers Graham Hancock and Robert Bauval also provocatively speculate that Bogomils and Cathars were part of a ‘‘well-planned and coordinated plot’’. The Bogomils’ aim was thought to be the overthrow of the Roman and Eastern Christian churches, along with the feudal, hierarchical societies that they served. In its place, they aimed to create a new world order free of throne and pulpit.

Hancock and Bauval claim that Italian Cathars had a well-organized system to infiltrate ‘capable students’ into church-run universities. These interlopers diligently studied logic and theology, all with the ultimate goal of using them against the Catholic faith.

Learn more about the Islamic Assassins.

The Root of Catharism: Original Christianity Theory

Another theory is that Catharism and kindred heresies were survivals of an original, primitive Christianity. This was the supposed ‘true church’ before it was taken over and perverted by a self-serving cabal of bishops, pontiffs, and patriarchs. Hancock and Bauval even argue that early Christianity was ‘‘overwhelmingly Gnostic’’, and Catharism but one manifestation.

References to a primitive, ‘true’ Christianity also crop-up among Masonic and neo-Templar groups in the 18th and 19th centuries. Was that imitation? Or continuity?

Thus, it is clear that the Cathars adapted a lot from the prevalent beliefs of the time, which helped them to challenge the Catholic authority.

Learn more about the Knights Templar.

Keep Reading
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Women in the Medieval Society: The Case of Hildegard of Bingen
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Common Questions about the Roots of Catharism

Q: Who were the Bogomils?

Bogomils or the Beloved of God were the followers of Bogomilism. The ideas of Bogomilism heavily influenced the Cathars.

Q: What was Mani?

Mani was the founder of Manichaeism. The prophet Mani, born in present-day Iraq, was raised in a Jewish-Christian Gnostic sect. Inspired by visions, he proclaimed himself the reincarnation of Jesus, Zoroaster, Buddha, and even the Hindu Krishna.

Q: What was the Pythagorean brotherhood?

The Pythagorean brotherhood was a mystical secret society that appeared in Greece and Italy around 500 B.C. Like the Cathars, Pythagoreans believed that divine souls were trapped in a corrupt material world, and that their ultimate goal was to break the cycle of reincarnation and return to the celestial realm.