Heretic Heroes part 3: Cathars, Witches and Rebel Voices

Reading is good. Reading does all sorts of great stuff to us, it provides stimulus, transports us to new worlds and at best promotes curiosity. In my last post I had the pleasure of reviewing Andrew Phillip Smith’s excellent The Lost Teachings of the Cathars and like many a good book it left me with as many questions as it provided answers.

The Cathars have always proved to be something of an enigma. While on one level they provide a vivid example of how Gnostic religion survived into the medieval period, it can still be problematic trying to discern what they did and did not believe. This is partly due to history often belonging to the most powerful, i.e. the Church and the Inquisition, but it may also reflect a religious tradition more focused on a living encounter with mystery, rather than codifying a systematic theology.


Cathar cross

What does seem clear about them, is that they were incredibly courageous in being willing to question the orthodoxies that the Church and State were hugely invested in maintaining. As with the Gnostics of antiquity, Cathar theology seems to have been derived from an encounter with a God who seemed irreconcilable with the material realm. The stark realities of human pain and impermanence led to them adopting a worldview that was a radical inversion of Church teaching.

The Cathars’ dualism meant a rejection of the creator God. By extension they rejected the Church teaching that the project of marriage and reproduction was actually a good idea. If your view is that the material realm needs to be escaped from, then the entrapment of even more spiritual beings tends to not be viewed positively. Not only were the Cathar Perfecti clear in their rejection of sexual activity that could lead to childbirth, they viewed marriage itself as negative and were accused by the church as advocating abortion.

The historic connection between the Cathars and the Bulgarian Bogomils is fairly well attested, and the accusation of the latter engaging in “buggery” and other forms of non-reproductive sexual activity may have some credence beyond mere slander. The terms Bogomil originally meant “Friend of God”, but those threatened by their Gnostic teachings were so persistent in their accusations of sodomy, that the group became synonymous with anal activity. It may well be difficult to ascertain whether the Perfecti themselves were absolute celibates, but it seems probable that an engagement in non-penis in vagina sex in the wider Cathar church was consistent with their desire to avoid pregnancy.

Whatever one makes of their dualism, it’s fascinating to consider how these themes of inversion and the unnatural became central to not only the persecution of heretical groups such as the Beginues, Cathars and the Brethren of the Free Spirit, but also how such themes contributed to the perception of Medieval Witchcraft. As Norman Cohn has rightly highlighted, the accusations brought against the alleged practitioners of Witchcraft are as old as time its self. Accusations of sexual depravity, cannibalism and abortion are the stock-in-trade for those in power wanting to depict a religious minority as being the hidden cause of societal unrest. Jews, Christians, Gnostics and practitioners of Magic have all been persecuted on the basis that they engaged in such activities and that their practice of such unnatural inversions is a direct threat to the well being of the masses. Such acts of depravity either promoted the presence of disorder and disease e.g. the Black Death, or they invited divine retribution due to the failure to eradicate such miscreants.

What seems fairly clear is the manner in which minority groups such the Cathars and those accused of Witchcraft became a location onto which the fantasies and fears of those in power could projected. Whether it was the imagined orgies of Witches at the Sabbat or Cathars having tonnes of Queer sex, their status as outsiders, without real power and recourse to stable judicial process, made them highly vulnerable to persecution. Sadly, history confirms that such strategies of distancing and demonising only make it easier for the powerful to view such minority communities as dangerous, threatening and therefore disposable and warranting of savagery.
In light of the recent traumas inflicted by both the UK’s Brexit vote and the US presidential elections this can seem like decidedly bleak reading. Indeed those of us seeking to avoid such catastrophes must know, understand and promote awareness concerning such saddening examples of powers’ misuse. But dear friends, be of stout heart! These heretic heroes provide us with some keys for reclaiming both power and the magics of conscious subversion.


Never again the burning times

While some occultists may sneer at the way that the Witch as truth-teller has been co-opted by the so-called “liberal agenda” (like that’s such a bad thing?) recent events in Poland provide us with a powerful example of liberation. In being faced with a parliament hell-bent on implementing draconian laws aimed at further restricting Women’s access to safe and legal abortions; the Witches took to the streets. Thousands of black-clad (predominantly women) activists downed tools and protested as a potent and defiant “fuck you” to those who sought to further their control. While the battle for religious and reproductive liberty is ongoing, I couldn’t help but smile and be inspired at a social media post by a Polish friend of mine who had taken part:

“We are the granddaughters of all the Witches you were never able to burn.”

For most of us, the pursuit of spiritual paths that involve magic and gnosis entails a direct challenge to the forms of reality that the mainstream wants us to accept. We are the inverts, the Queer and the outsiders seeking to push forward the liminal edge of our cultures, so that they may evolve and that we may have space to thrive. I do not reject nature and the wild beauty of our world, but I continue to question concepts of what it means to be “natural” within it. Concepts of fixity and desires for a romantic stone age should be open to questioning and as a heretical freethinker I will continue to do so.

Hail to those seeking liberty, diversity, kindness and freedom! May we be inspired to new levels of wisdom and action, by those heretical heroes who have come before us.


Witchhunts and drawings

Witches and Wicked Bodies: This exhibition explores the relationship between witches, sorcery and the artistic imagination. Prints and drawings are used to convey how the female gender has been key to the depiction of witches, sirens and harpies in western art. These enduring images reveal how witches have been seen as harbingers of misfortune and horror, objects of misogyny and sexual fantasy, as well as figures of ridicule and caricature.

I was going to be in London for a meeting last month, so on my way there I stopped off at this little show high up on Level 4 at the rear of the British Museum in London. It is on for a few more days, until the 11th January 2015. Go if you can!

Starting at the end of my experience, I left with my head in a whirl, understanding the way that the raw female body served/serves as the projection for all sorts of unacceptable desires on the behalf of society. Feelings of lust, animal sensuality, rejection of the status quo (whether political, cultural or other), become anchored in the fevered imaginings of repressed men, who seek out salacious graphic pictures depicting those acts they declare sinful:

Moral indignation is jealousy with a halo.” HG Wells

Witches have long been portrayed as temptresses, similar iconography accompanies them as the portrayals of sirens, spells cast by wicked women are used to excuse the viewers’ obsessions; with the agency taken away from the bewitched viewers,  they cannot be blamed for their fascination with these pendulous breasts, muscular arms and bare behinds.

Witches' Sabbath, 1510 (Hans Baldung) Showing an obsession with the malevolence of female sexuality.

Witches’ Sabbath, 1510 (Hans Baldung)

One label, on Hans Baldung’s 1510 woodcut Witches’ Sabbath, stated; “This print… shows an obsession with the malevolence of female sexuality… It is likely [it] found a ready market… in the affluent city of Strasbourg… The violent Witches’ Hammer, … was first published in this city in 1487; by 1520 it had been reprinted fourteen times.

Similarly to the prurient outrage of readers of the News of the World poring over pictures of wrong-doers, ‘abnormal’ sexuality is displayed in great detail in many of these 15th/16th century engravings, presumably in part to titillate the purchasers. Obviously it is more nuanced than JUST this, but the prominence of nakedness, same-sex interactions, and generally non-reproductive sex acts depicted does seem to point towards voyeuristic motivations of the sexually curious/repressed. Nakedness itself was used in art of the time to show the people concerned were outside the realm of contemporary cultural mores, and those who practise magick (amongst other marginalised groups) have often had accusations of unacceptable behaviours projected upon them. It is generally agreed that tales of secret meetings where all kinds of bizarre activities take place, are often more revealing of the phantasies of the person ‘revealing’ them, rather than the actuality of what went on.

In my experience most meetings of any group, whether anarchists, community gardeners, magicians, musicians, writers, scientists, or academics, tend to centre around the quality of the coffee and biscuits, with the administrative structure of the group, and when/where to hold the next meeting, as the top three items on the agenda.

Conspiracy theorists existed then as now, as people of limited power and knowledge construct elaborate hidden rationales to explain that forces are arrayed against their own missions, thus thwarting the easy path that Others have to privileged positions in our societies. What other reason could there be for virtuous persons’ lives being imperfect?! Surely, some kind of judgement from an ineffable source.

In reality of course there are many problems with this vision of Those Other people messing up our nice world, and who are adversarial towards us (thus legitimising our defending ourselves against Them). Whilst this dualistic perspective provides emotional comfort, and a strong way of identifying as a group which exists in contrast to Them, it does not help with a constructive approach to mutual understanding of the multiplicity of ways of life, and finding possible common ground to moving forwards together in partnership into the future.

The mindset of the inquisitors of the witchhunts still exists today too, luckily not so often directed in so many places towards those of a non-mainstream religious lifestyle, but couched in terms of race, sexuality, or dress style. Tribal affiliations are often based upon the observable differences rather than the more important basic behavioural and ethical values we tend towards such as being nice to one’s fellow humans, trying to take care of the land we inhabit and lifeforms we interact with, and generally living in a way that maximises good feelings for oneself and others.

I know this is a rather rose tinted view of the state of affairs and that economic/social constraints affect and limit the reification of these ideals into daily practices, but if you take a broad view of all human societies as they actually function, these kinds of values remain core to what would be considered a good life.

Although homosexuality was not featured in the exhibition (well, not that between two males… the bestial lusts of women for women are portrayed as existing within the general depravity of these harlots, out of control and with insatiable physical bodies…) we know that many of those persecuted in the heresy/purification frenzy of the 15th and 16th centuries were executed for the crime of sodomy. Fear of the temptations of female flesh were bad enough (let alone anything worse!) and injunctions in the various holy books of all the Abrahamic religions against all that sinful ‘lying with another man’ business meant that a person’s basic desires were one avenue used to justify murder and torture. [NB ‘Sodomy’ grouped together homosexual and heterosexual anal sex as equivalent to bestiality, amongst other unspecified unnatural acts, but a large proportion of those prosecuted were men who had sex with men consensually. The term and concept of a ‘homosexual’, and also the notion of a ‘heterosexual’, does not appear until relatively recently in our culture.]

This is relevant to our witches because their desire, to have power over their own spheres of influence, were similarly seen as aberrant to the simplistic top down power hierarchy of the time. In the monolithic One Priest above all else pyramid structure, anyone opting out, especially one who opted out in open defiance of the ruling elite, had to be labelled as dangerous, as Other [to the status quo], and destroyed as publically as possible. A mandate from God (whichever one gets named on the contract) cannot withstand the threat from a person who claims to have direct access to supernal connections. Heaven forfend, where would we be with such a world?! Anarchy!!!

Chaos magicians, I suspect, would have little truck with this as a sensible attitude; warfare and throwing insults based upon mere paradigmatical clothing has little to offer in the way of results, apart from a waste of time and energy; and leads at best to an impasse (or, very occasionally to some witty observational comedy), instead of constructive dialogue. There are of course exceptions that prove any rule, and some situations it could be argued do need people to receive a swift blow to the head (e.g. someone materially attacking me, or invading my home).

These thoughts and other musings upon the way those holding political views Other to one’s own tend to be portrayed in mass media cartoons as witches or similar despicable (visually accessible) stereotypes, showed me as in a mirror darkly how this example of a culture’s treatment of magick makers holds deep clues to the ecosystem of paradigms which jostle for position upon the stage of our awareness, and in particular in the media led portrayals of what we the people are allegedly thinking.

Mass confusion over the argument of how to answer that age old question, ‘How does one properly worship God?’, must have unsettled the church authorities mightily once Christianity had won as the dominant religion with power over Europeans. A new collection of Others who could be banded against had to arise, in order to close ranks and enforce conformism amongst what was a ramifying and diversifying series of cults.

In the times of the witch persecutions, some of these Others included rumours of Jews and lepers poisoning wells, rumours which undoubtedly led to thousands of people from these easily identifiable (and already disliked) groups dying horribly by being burned alive. This primal need of humans to know which tribe they are in, so they can feel fine about violence towards Others, is the same cultural fear that the witch pictures, and the depictions of women in particular as malefic, tapped into. They exacerbated social prejudices, by encouraging stereotypical views of those Others upon whom the ‘normal’ populace could vent their anger at whatever the complaints of the day were. Today in western culture we still suffer the presence of the descendants of these cultural depictions of the evil female, which deny female’s any power except via a route of sexually manipulative agency, showing us as physical objectified entities, compared with the proactive self-determined agency of the ‘successful’ male (see representations in advertising and mass media drama etc.). Women were without souls, the carriers of Original Sin, and a scapegoat group par excellence for use by a divisive ruling elite.

That goes beyond what I wanted to write here though; what this exhibition revealed to me, which I knew, but was brought home in a most moving way, is the impact words and pictures can have upon the collective psyche.

The pit of Acheron, or the birth of the plagues of England, 1784 (Thomas Rowlandson)  A satirical comment on the failure of the Fox-North Coalition and the India Bill

The pit of Acheron, or the birth of the plagues of England, 1784 (Thomas Rowlandson)
A satirical comment on the failure of the Fox-North Coalition and the India Bill, reusing the witches from that tour de force of ‘blaming of Other’ propaganda piece which James VI of Scotland commisioned, Macbeth.

As I finish this blogpost, it is the day after the shooting in Paris of some people who used words and pictures to laugh at religious stereotypes. We would do well to try to understand better how prejudices can flourish in cultural atmospheres of fear and anger, which can in turn then lead to flimsy excuses for nasty acts of violence by individuals who I suspect would probably be best understood as unhappily deranged and dysfunctional. Very angry people with issues do not tend to think things through, whether attacking cartoonists or mosques.

Grouping together Those Other people on grounds of whatever arbitrary attribute happens to be the flavour of the decade does not often prove useful in building a nicer world. As a strategy it offers merely a simplistic and easy to point at a group of scapegoats, upon which to load all sorts of emotional baggage. Thinking about the folly and wisdom of this strategy will be the basis of my next blogpost, which examines mechanisms of simplistic vs complex decision making strategies.

Magicians, especially chaos magicians, consciously choose tools of belief in various situations; in order to do this effectively we could do worse than consider how those choices play out, albeit unconsciously, in wider society, even for those of us primarily interested in the internal clamour of our own psyche’s internal society of voices and opinions.

We should listen to the various discussions prompted by this attack, and learn from our approval (or not) of what they say to learn of our own prejudices, through which we cannot help but lens all we hear. Perhaps, like addictions, prejudices can also be chosen wisely…