IN PRECEDING PAGES, we described why the Cathars built their hermitages and temples in the caves of Sabarthès, and explained how the plot of the fable of Hercules, Pirène, and Bebryx developed around the four stalagmites in the heretical cathedral at Lombrives. A little further on, we will learn that according to Spanish ballads, a skeleton key is hidden in the “enchanted cave of Hercules” which resolves the mystery of the Grail. But before this, we are going to penetrate into another no less mysterious cave in the Sabarthès so that we may finally reach Montségur—Wolfram von Eschenbach shows us the way.
Before leaving for the Grail Castle, Muntsalvaesche, Parsifal makes a visit to a pious hermit named Trevrizent in the cave of the Fontane la Salvaesche.
Trevrizent was a heretic because he never ate “bloody foods, meat or fish.” In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, any Christian who abstained from eating meat was instantly suspected of Cathar heresy.¹ Quite frequently, the pontifical legates who were entrusted with exterminating the heresy and the heretics gave anyone suspected of Catharism the choice between eating meat or being thrown into the fire.
… He had no mind for such food
As fish or meat or anything with blood.
Such was the holy life he led.
God had inspired this gentleman
To prepare to join the heavenly host
He endured much hardship from fasting.
Self-denial was his arm against the Devil.
WOLFRAM VON ESCHENBACH¹
Doesn’t Trevrizent’s desire to overcome the devil’s power nested in meat by fasting, and his belief that life is a period to prepare for the soul’s return to heaven from whence it came, make him a Cathar?
When a person “suffers the fast,” it is only normal that he would be emaciated and pale, developing the outward aspect of an ascetic. From the fourth century until the end of the twelfth, the Catholic Church considered paleness a symbol of heresy. Even orthodox Catholics who appeared pale because of their fasting and macerations were often accused of heresy, and many good Catholics were killed because of the mistaken belief that Christians with a gaunt countenance were heretics.
Trevrizent the hermit lived in a cell next to the La Salvaesche fountain. He led young Parsifal to a second cave in which an uncovered “altar” was located. One cave in front of the cathedral of Lombrives is called the Hermit’s Cave, and not very far away, a second one is called the Cave of Fontanet. In its deepest chamber stands a snow-white stalagmite: the Altar.
Just thirty years ago, four young men went into that cave and disappeared forever. Their bones must have found an eternal resting place in one of the still-undiscovered Phoenician or Phocian funeral chambers. Or did the four find the pathway that leads to the summits of the Tabor and Montségur? Was it one of these young men who wrote the question on a wall in the cave’s entrance in big letters: Why did I not …?
In the caves of Sabarthès, a question comes to mind, but there is no known answer. When, as if by magic, my lamp conjured the Altar out of the darkness of the Cave of Fontanet, I would often ask myself: What sort of reliquary was placed on the altar in Trevrizent’s cell before which Parsifal was initiated in the secrets of the Grail?
An altar-stone stood there bare of its cloth;
On it a reliquary could be seen
WOLFRAM VON ESCHENBACH
Was this reliquary casket part of “Solomon’s Treasure,” which was taken by the Visigoth king Alaric from Rome to Carcassonne in A.D. 410? According to Procopius, it was filled with objects that had once belonged to Solomon, the King of the Hebrews. Removed from Jerusalem by the Romans, the largest part of this treasure was moved to Ravenna by Teodoric, and later from there to Byzantium by none other than Belisario, the celebrated general of the Greek emperor Justinian. Nevertheless, a portion remained in Carcassonne. According to multiple Arab accounts, the “Table of the Hebrews” was part of this treasure. Did the great King of the Jews, whose tomb according to legend is situated between the Altai and the Hindu Kush, know of the Grail?³
There was a heathen named Flegetanis
Who was highly renowned for his acquirements.
This same physicus was descended from Solomon,
Begotten of Israelitish kin all the way down from ancient times.
He wrote of the marvels of the Grail
WOLFRAM VON ESCHENBACH
In the seven-day battle for Jerez de la Frontera (A.D. 711), the Arabs vanquished the Visigoths, and Solomon’s treasure fell into the hands of the infidel in Toledo. However, the “Table of Solomon” was not there.
The famous master Kyot found the prime version of this tale in heathenish script
Lying all neglected in a corner of Toledo.
WOLFRAM VON ESCHENBACH
Trevrizent kept the reliquary in his cave as well as the “Grail legend.” The two were inseparable. Were the reliquary’s treasure and the “original source of the legend” brought to his cave to protect them from the infidels?
According to Spanish ballads, the Table of Solomon, also known as the “casket” or reliquary, was kept in the “enchanted grotto of Hercules.” It was said that the Gothic king Rodrigo penetrated the cave, and found the casket in a dark corner with three chalices in it.
Before taking young Parsifal to the casket in the cave in order to initiate him in the mystery of the Grail, Trevrizent dressed him in a coat.
His host led Parsifal into a grotto
Well protected from the wind …
There was a coat lying there
The hermit lent it him to put on
And then took him to another grotto
WOLFRAM VON ESCHENBACH
The coat or tunic, the fish, the bridge, and the boat are all elements that appear in poetic contemplations of sacrosanct relics, not solely in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s epic. In all myths and epics about the Grail it is easy to find similar images. Let’s examine how the greatest German poet of theMinne relates Parsifal’s visit to the castle of Muntsalvaesche, where the Grail was kept.
In the evening, he came to a lake.
Some sportsmen, whose lake it was had anchored there.
One of those he saw in the boat was wearing clothes of such quality
That had he been lord of the whole Earth, they could not have been finer.
Parsifal set off and moved into a brisk trot
Along the right path, as far as the moat.
There he found the drawbridge raised.
“The fisherman asked me,” said Parsifal,
“To follow the path up to the castle.”
Seeing that it was the angler who said so
“You are welcome Sir!”
“My lady the Princess Repanse de Schoye was wearing it,”
Said the discreet Master of the Wardrobe.
“It is lent to you from off her person.”
WOLFRAM VON ESCHENBACH⁴
Invariably, a vast expanse of water and an enchanted mountain appear in all these legends and myths. In the Vision of Gregory the Great, a magnificent countryside leads to a bridge, which is open only to the good; it is a reminder of Garodemana [paradise] and the bridge of Tchinvat in Babylonian mythology. Everyone who wants to reach the magical mountain has to cross the waters in a canoe, which above all in ancient mythology is a chalice, a ride on a fish, or the crossing of a bridge. Once there, they find a magnificent field:
The field of the Asphodelos, of the Greeks.
The valley of Avalon of the Celts where, according to Robert de Borron’s poem, Joseph of Arimathea, the first keeper of the Grail, is buried.
On the branches of oaks in a sacred forest hangs the Golden Fleece.
The fountain of youth is found in the Garden of the Hesperides.
The enchanted forest of Oberon surrounds and protects the Castle of Monmur.
The forest of Briciljan separates the Grail temple Muntsalväsche from the rest of the world.
The Argonauts leave in their ship, the Argo, for the land of the Golden Fleece. Apollo is transported across the seas in a chalice to the Hyperborean, and eventually to Hesperides, the garden of the golden apples. According to the Greeks, the souls of the dead are taken to the land of light in a boat. This is why so many drawings of boats are found on the walls of Greek tombs. The same custom is repeated in Christian catacombs. Many times a fish, or specifically a dolphin, replaces the boat. In this way, Homer speaks of the fisherman Orpheus who captured the sacred fish.⁵
The first Christians used the fish as a symbol of their Savior, Jesus Christ, who accompanied human beings to heaven. The Cathars used the symbol of a canoe as a means of transport to celestial life: the vessel of the dead whose candle is the sun, symbol of the enlightened Savior. For them, as for the first Christians, the fish was the emblem of “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior” [Iesous Christos Theou hyios sôter, from whose initials comes ICHTHYS = fish].
In epic poems of the Grail, the Grail King Amfortas is described as the “King of the fishermen.” Chrétien de Troyes calls him the “Rois Pescière.” This name probably has its origin in Christ’s words, “I will make men into fishermen.”
In the ancient poem Huon de Bordeaux, to which we will return, the “tunic” of Mallabron, (a “powerful monk” and, according to another version, a fisherman), is transformed into a dolphin, who takes both Huon and Esclarmonde to the marvelous world of Oberon.
We should remember that after receiving the consolamentum in the Occitan Church of Love, a Cathar would dress in a new tunic and cape—symbolic new garments in place of old clothing, which represented Lucifer’s intrigues and the imprisonment of the soul.
Trevrizent’s cell was salvasche (rugged) and at the same time salvat (saved, secure). The Cathars, as spiritual brothers of the ascetic, would have also considered themselves safe in the rugged caves of Sabarthès. When the Inquisitors became lords over the cathedral of Lombrives and the hermit’s cave, the Cathars still managed to resist the besiegers in their spulgas until well into the fourteenth century. (A spulga is a fortified cave, from Latin, spelunca = cave.)
The spulgas of Sabarthès—two exist—were authentic subterranean fortresses. Unfortunately, only a few of their galleries and rooms have been explored. Over hundreds of years, their walls have been converted into steep embankments by the constant leaking of chalky water. They continue to guard the secrets that still sleep behind them.
Until now, science has largely forgotten about the spulgas of Sabarthès.⁶ And yet, once past the small springs of Ornolac-Ussat-les-Bains on the Toulouse-Barcelona highway near the pass of Puymorens, you cannot miss, halfway up to the right on an embankment carved out with pickaxes, the impressive entrance to a number caves surrounded by walls that are crowned with parapets. That is where the best-preserved spulga can be found: the fortified cave of Bouan. In it, you find all the fundamental elements of a medieval castle: keep, water tank, stairways, casemates, and watchtowers. The spulga of Bouan is only different from other castles in that it is composed exclusively of subterranean galleries.
On the opposite bank of the Ariège river, between the hermitage and the Fontanet, is the spulga of Ornolac (located not far from the houses of the half-demolished baths of Ussat, which are teeming with snakes). After a difficult, rutted approach, you arrive at an impenetrable thicket of fig trees and brambles, behind which stands the demolished door of a castle. The pathway runs alongside rocky walls blackened by fire to the ruins of this spulga where a rock juts out above, like a snow overhang. It is no longer possible to determine the exact location of the entrance to the deep entrails of the mountain in times past, because it was buried when the heretical castle went up in flames. The grandeur of its proportions can still be seen in the holes of the supporting beams driven into the rocky walls that had to support four stories.
The spulgas of Bouan and Ornolac are silent sentinels of some extraordinarily violent times. First they served as refuge for the Celt Iberians who were exterminated by the Roman legions here after the fall of their capital, Vicus Sotiatum. Later, the Romans converted them into impregnable fortresses. When the victorious Moors pressed north 700 years later, they stayed here until the armies of Charlemagne defeated them on the field of Lombard, between Tarascon and Ornolac, in A.D. 719. Three hundred years later, the Cathars found their last home in them.
Lupo de Foix converted to the heresy in the spulga of Ornolac, as noted in a document of the Inquisition in Carcassonne, Lupus haereticavit in spulga Ornolaco. Lupo was the son of Raimon Drut, the Count of Foix. Like all the sons of the Languedocian nobility, he was initiated into the heretical belief by the patriarch of the Church of Love, Guilhabert de Castres. Guilhabert came from the House of Castres in the region of Albi. A Son of Belissena, he was the neighbor and vassal of Trencavel de Carcassonne. Although documents of the era say nothing in this regard, it is probable that Guilhabert also received Raimon-Roger, the young Trencavel, as a believer in the spulga of Ornolac. When the Inquisitors began to assemble their now sadly famous registries, Trencavel was already long dead—poisoned.
Another haereticatio of the patriarch Guilhabert caused an enormous sensation in the Christian world. In the year 1204, he administered the consolamentum to Esclarmonde de Foix.
Esclarmonde was the sister of Count Raimon Drut and aunt of the young Raimon-Roger de Carcassonne. From the tower of her father’s castle in Foix, she could contemplate the snowy summits of the Tabor, the gorges of Sabarthès, and the pastures of Olmès. While she was still just a girl, her heretical parents consecrated her to the Holy Spirit. Esclarmonde’s name is the symbol of her life: Its true meaning can be roughly translated as “the light of the Earth” and also as “pure light”—a name that was born and died with Catharism. She was the light of the Occitan world, the pure splendor that illuminated the Church of Amor in the darkness of the Middle Ages.
After a prolonged stay in the court of the Viscountess Adélaide, where she presided over the Minne of Poivert, Esclarmonde married the Viscount Jordan de Lille y Gimoez. Jordan descended from an old family of Iberian nobility; on his mother’s side, he was related to the house of Comminges, which together with Foix and Carcassonne dominated the Pyrenees.
We know very little of Esclarmonde’s life after her haereticatio. Maybe one day someone will discover a clue in a Pyrenean cave that will reveal the true story of this woman who, from the summit of a jagged rock, challenged the greatest powers of Medieval Europe: the Vatican and the Louvre.
The orthodox world of the thirteenth century named her “the Popess of the Heretics.” Cathar Occitiania called her Esclarmunda.
Esclarmunda, your name means
that you truly give light to the world
and that you are pure having done nothing disloyal
and are thus fully deserving of such a noble name.
GUILHEM DE MONTANHAGOL⁷
The figure of Esclarmonde belongs at the same time to history, poetry, and legend. Poetry has made her into the queen of the faeries of the castle of Monmur, a legend that was told to me by an old pastor when I was going up to the Tabor from Montségur along the trail of the Cathars. Esclarmonde would become known as “Titania” and “Repanse de Schoye”—the keeper of the Grail.
The historical Esclarmonde de Foix was the lady of the Tabor and of Montségur.
Montségur was Muntsalvaesche and Monmur!