Otto Rahn is one of those characters who would have had to be invented, if he didn’t actually exist. And if that were the case, you might accuse the author of fantastical speculations far beyond reason.
This book review by John J. Reilly serves not only as a short biography of Rahn, but also a capsule history of the Albigensian crusade.
Crusade against the Grail
The Struggle between the Cathars, the Templars, and the Church of Rome
========= By Otto Rahn =========
German Original Kreuzzug gegen den Gral: 1933
Translation by Christopher Jones
Inner Traditions International, 2006
229 Pages, US$16.95
Anyone who undertakes the study of the intellectual underpinnings of Nazi Germany (1933-1945) will soon notice that at least some members of the regime were doing things that are not covered by the typical survey course in political theory. Researchers who attempt to investigate these anomalies will dig through a swamp of popular and crank literature about the Third Reich’s connection to the occult underground, some of it coincident with conspiracy theory and some of it (often the most coherent works) purely fictional. Nonetheless, a sober study of primary sources will reveal that not all the fantastic rumors were made up out of whole cloth. When researchers strike bedrock, one of the things they find is this book by Otto Rahn, the Nazi who really was looking for the Holy Grail, or at least for traditions about what it was and what happened to it.
Otto Rahn (1904-1939) was an amateur German folklorist with a keen interest in speleology. In company with the Swiss mountaineer Paul-Aléxis Ladame and the folklorist Antonin Gadal, he explored the regions of southern France associated the with Cathar heresy and its suppression in a series of military and evangelical campaigns in the 13th century. The Cathars had made extensive use of the spectacular caves of the mountainous southeast of France as fortresses and refuges, and Rahn duly found new evidence of their occupation of those sites, as well as greater knowledge of the size and interconnection of the caves themselves. He also collected stories and traditions from the local people about the Cathars, the crusade against them, and about the region in general. Most of this book deals with what Rahn calls “Occitania.” The one map the book provides depicts part of the modern region of Languedoc-Rousillon, though the story extends across Alpine and Pyrenean France into Catalonia. Occitania is really a linguistic term, referring to the Romance language of that region, which French has still not wholly displaced. Occitan, better known as Languedoc (which is also a better known term for the region), was the language of the French troubadours, and once was a serious rival to the language of northern France that became modern French.
SS leader Heinrich Himmler might be supposed to have had more practical matters on his mind in 1933, but he found time to read Rahn’s book. Then he invited him to an interview and immediately offered him a job as a professional folklorist for the SS, of which Rahn eventually became a member. Rahn continued to pursue his researches and to write, but he does not seem to have been a happy Nazi. He died of exposure during a hike in 1939; his death was ruled a suicide. The sympathetic Translator’s Introduction notes briefly that there had been rumors about homosexuality and Jewish ancestry. We are not told that alternative (and admittedly unsupported) versions of his biography have him dying in a concentration camp in 1944.
Crusade against the Grail supports the thesis articulated by Joséphin Péladan (1858-1918) in a short work, The Secret of the Troubadours. Péladan, a novelist who favored occult themes, had argued that the legend of Montsalvat, the fortress of the Grail, and the Grail legend as a whole, were closely connected with Montségur, the last great Cathar stronghold, with the Cathar heresy, and (inevitably) with the Templar order of knights that was suppressed early in the 14th century. More particularly, Rahn tried to show that the people and places in the German version of the Grail story created by Wolfram von Eschenbach (1170-1220) are lightly allegorized renderings of real people and places in Occitania in the early 13th century, when Eschenbach composed his Grail epic, Parzival. The most important of these identifications was of the fortress of Montségur (which fell in 1244 to the forces of orthodoxy) with Montsalvat, also known as Muntsalvaesche, or Munsalvaesche, and other variants.
Trying to substantiate Eschenbach’s version of the story has some odd consequences. The original Grail story, composed by Chrétien de Troyes probably in the 1180s, was artfully unclear about the nature of the Grail, except that it was a sort of dish or table that carried the Eucharist and provided nourishment and healing. In the Anglo-French tradition, thanks to the romancer Robert de Boron who wrote a generation after Chrétien, the Grail became associated with the plate or cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper. In Eschenbach’s telling, however, the Grail became a Stone that conferred immortality. Moreover, according to Eschenbach, this Stone had been brought to Earth by angels of ambiguous allegiance during Lucifer’s rebellion against God. In later German tradition, this Stone was said to have broken off from the crown of Lucifer when he fell from Heaven. If we are to believe Rahn, the folk tradition of Occitania also took this view of things. A shepherd is quoted thus:
When the walls of Montségur were still standing, the Cathars, the Pure Ones, kept the Holy Grail inside them. Montségur was in danger; the armies of Lucifer were before its walls. They wanted to take the Grail to insert it again into the diadem of their Prince, from where it had broken off and fallen to Earth during the fall of the angels. At this most critical point, a white dove came from the sky and split the Tabor [the local peak] in two. Esclarmonde, the keeper of the Grail, threw the precious relic into the mountain, where it was hidden. So they saved the Grail. When the devils entered the castle, it was too late. Furious, they burned all the Pure Ones, not far from the rocky castle on the camp des cremats.
One of the interesting differences between a Stone and, say, a chalice (as the Grail was usually pictured in later years) is that the provenance of a chalice would be awfully hard to prove, but stones really do fall from the sky. It is also not unknown for meteoric rocks to become cult objects, as the Kaaba at Mecca exemplifies. So, it is not quite impossible that the Cathar treasure which Rahn frequently mentions could have included a sacred stone. It’s even possible that Rahn was looking for it; that’s part of Rahn’s legend. However, no such specific quest is apparent in Crusade against the Grail. Moreover, though the Translator’s Introduction mentions the meteorite possibility, Rahn, perhaps surprisingly, does not.
Be this as it may, it is very unlikely that Rahn’s thesis about the historicity of Parzival is correct. The fit between Eschenbach’s story and medieval Occitania just is not very close (or so we must judge from this account, which does not describe either systematically). Moreover, the thesis is based on Eschenbach’s claim to have found a more reliable version of the Grail legend than that of Chrétien de Troyes. There is no evidence at all for that. Chrétien’s modest romance was original, and Eschenbach was just exercising his poetic license to take the story in a grander direction.
Even if Rahn was wrong as a historian, his book is by no means without interest as a record of influential esoteric thought. He was not the only person in the first third of the 20th century who admired the Cathars. Another admirer, according to Otto Wagener, an aide to Adolf Hitler in the 1920s, was Hitler himself. Wagener, his book Memoirs of a Confidant (1978), quotes an apparent reference by Hitler to Catharism and its suppression:
During the Middle Ages, a new movement of inner liberation and the establishment of the natural link of man to his God began, which fell back on the true teachings of Christ and the instinctive apprehension of the truth. The reaction was not long in coming. The Inquisition and witch-hunts rooted out all aspects of the heresy, as the hypocritical priesthood called it...
That was, pretty much, Rahn’s understanding of the history, too. In large part, Crusade against the Grail is an anti-Catholic polemic, recounting history “in the tradition of the French Romantic historians,” such as Jules Michelet. This school saddled later generations with the myth that millions of people were executed during the witch-burnings of the late medieval and early modern periods, and that the Inquisition (usually depicted as a single institution, rather than a class of court) would torture thousands of people anywhere in Europe at the asking of an awkward question in a seminary class. The actual crusade against the south of France in the 13th century (yes, it was an official crusade, sanctioned by Pope Innocent III (1161-1216) in the same terms as an expedition to the Holy Land) did not lack for low motives and atrocity. As is usually noted, its chief supporters were the kings of France, whose control of the wealthy and culturally prestigious south traditionally had been nominal. It was also the campaign to which we owe the expression, “Kill them all; let God sort them out!” Nonetheless, Rahn’s account of the suppression of Catharism is simply uncritical popular history.
Who were these Cathars whom Rahn championed? The term “Cathar” is Greek for “pure.” Those who were fully initiated into the Cathar church were “Cathari,” that is to say, “Pure Ones.” (The German word for heretic, by the way, “Ketzer,” is derived from the term.) Catharism, sometimes called Albigensianism after a city in the region, was a form of Gnosticism, a cult of esoteric wisdom that purported to teach its adherents the way to salvation. It incorporated elements of Manicheanism, which held that the world is a duality of spirit and matter; the meaning of salvation was liberation of the spirit from an irredeemably corrupt physical world.
Rahn had a theory that Catharism was a refined resurgence of a form of Manicheanism called Priscillianism. This rather intellectual doctrine had become popular in northern Iberia and southern Gaul in the fourth and fifth centuries. It was the first heresy to be violently suppressed by the secular government (in this case, the collapsing Roman government, which, like Himmler, might be thought to have had more practical things to worry about). Rahn somewhat fantasticates this hypothesis by arguing that Priscillianism worked on the pre-existing Druidism of the region, which already would have included ideas like metempsychosis. Thus, he tells us, the Manicheans converted the Druids to Christianity.
Be that as it may, the Cathar laity of the High Middle ages, called “the believers,” were of every class and way of life. They married and had children. They conducted business and politics in the ordinary way. (Indeed, the Catholic Church may have been so alarmed by Catharism because of its many followers among the aristocracy of Languedoc.) However, Catharism despised matter and even life; birth was a matter of regret. The fully initiated were those who had received the Cathar sacrament called the “consolamentum.” They were expected to be celibate and sterile for the rest of their lives. Similarly, the fully initiated would not kill, even for food, and so were vegetarians. Except for an elite who functioned as clergy, most Cathars took the consolamentum only on their death beds. This book does not mention the rumor that the Cathars encouraged sodomy because it was inherently nonreproductive. It does mention the less controversial point that the Cathari were permitted to take their own lives, preferably through starvation, provided they did not do so from boredom or to evade a duty.
The Cathars despised the physical world because, like most other Gnostics, they held that God had not made it. The world and its ways were the creation of the demiurge, the God of the Old Testament, who had entrapped the spirits of angels in the mechanisms of the world. This reviewer has seen accounts of Rahn’s later work which say that, for Rahn, the demiurge may be the devil, but Lucifer might not be. Rahn is sometimes characterized as a “Luciferian,” which is to say, one who regards Lucifer as the liberator of mankind, and the true object of Cathar devotion. However, that position is not even hinted at here.
In any case, the Cathars held that the demiurge kept the entrapped spirits in its prison universe. These spirits passed from incarnation to incarnation, deluded by the demiurge’s pretension to be the true God. Nonetheless, like Marcion, the 2nd-century heretic who had similarly rejected the Old Testament, the Cathars insisted they were Christians. They accepted parts of the New Testament, particularly John’s Gospel, and held Jesus for their savior. He was the emanation of the true God from beyond the world. However, they also held that Jesus had never had a physical body, but only pretended to be an incarnate being. (The term for that doctrine, incidentally, is “Docetism.”) Thus, Mary was not the Mother of God, and Jesus had never really been crucified. It may or may not be significant that this is also a Muslim doctrine. In any case, the Cathars distained the use of the cross.
They had other liturgical eccentricities, too. In the Lord’s Prayer, which they retained, they asked for “our supersubstantial bread” rather than “our daily bread,” thus perhaps referring to the bread used at the consolamentum and certainly expressing contempt for anything so material as the bread necessary for everyday life. In this they had the support of the Latin text of the Vulgate Bible, where Matthew’s Gospel has “panem...supersubstantialem.” Luke’s Gospel has “panem...cottidianam,” “daily bread,” but both phrases translate the same Greek term, “epiousios,” which means literally “above the substance.” The Greek Orthodox Churches in English-speaking countries today translate that “daily bread.” Go figure.
In any case, Rahn tells us that the Cathar church was also the Church of Amour, the Church of Love. The troubadours of southern France were the apostles of this doctrine, disguised as the cult of chivalric love. (The German troubadours were called “Minnesinger,” which is “love-singers”; “troubadour” means “inventor.”) The novelty is that this love of Languedoc was a cultural novelty: a practice intense personal devotion to some selected individual that systematically rejected sexual consummation. The doctrine of the troubadours was, in effect, a discipline by which human beings could cultivate among themselves the pure love of God, which generates nothing in this world.
Few of these ideas were altogether new even in Rahn’s day, and some may have merit. However, despite the fact the author was not attempting a full account of Grail scholarship, one wishes that he or his translator had addressed a few other issues. For instance, if you are looking for references to Cathars in the Grail stories, the most obvious place to start would be the great French synthesis of the Grail legend, the anonymous, The Lancelot-Grail. In the part of that romance that treated of the Grail Quest, it is precisely the failure to display the cross that excites the suspicion of the Grail knights about the orthodoxy of a monastery they later destroy. That looks more like Innocent III’s crusade than anything Wolfram von Eschenbach had to say.
One might be forgiven for suspecting that the point of Rahn’s hunt for the Grail had less to do with discovering an ancient secret than with divorcing Christianity from its Jewish roots: that would seem to be an implication of a theory that identifies Jehovah with the devil. However, the actual Cathars did not draw antisemitic implications from their doctrine, and neither did Rahn. Indeed, in his praise of Occitanian civilization, he cites the high positions of public service occupied by Jews, and compares it unfavorably with the condemnation of Jewish office-holding by the Church of Rome. Still, quite aside from what he has to say about the Cathars, Rahn tells us that Christianity was a deluded and resentful thing that, in the case of Catharism, happened to form the container in which something quite different appeared. There is demythologized Christianity for you.
Any defects in Rahn’s theological acumen are rarely made good by the translator, who restored Rahn’s citations and added some notes of his own. The text has some oddities. For instance, we are told that the penitential yellow crosses that former Cathars were forced to wear “measured five centimeters wide and ten high [two inches wide and ten high].” The brackets are presumably an editorial insertion, but even editors should be able to do better math. More seriously, there are what appear to be artifacts of translation. For instance, we learn that former Cathars were whipped at Sunday Mass between “the Epistle and the Evangelism.” The German word for “Gospel,” which is “Evangelium,” might also be rendered “Evangelism” in English, but to make that choice here suggests that the translator is not very clear about what happens at an ordinary Catholic liturgy. Aside from the whippings, I mean.
Finally, there is also this: in the long list of people whom the translator thanks for helping to see this book through to publication, we find Michael Moynihan and Alain de Benoist, both notable ornaments of today’s esoteric neo-fascism in its Traditional dimension. Despite Himmler’s patronage, people like Otto Rahn never got the opportunity to make their case freely during the Third Reich. Times change.
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Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly
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