The Hand of Morenci
“When I raise my hand all five beams will stay with you...”
( i )
We came across the road to Morenci quite by accident. We were searching for the Pass de la Portes - the 'place of the doors' or 'pass of the gateways' – a small glen due north of Montsegur where the Cathars were said to have met in secret to exchange supplies, documents and God only knows what else during the siege of 1243-44. This little known site lies at an ancient ford in the river somewhere on the road to the village of Benaix. Just before we reached the remote settlement itself we spotted a signpost for Morenci and being in a devil may care mood decided to give it a go. We had been warned last year that the road was virtually unnavigable and that we would probably ruin our car just trying to get within striking distance. While the way proved steep enough, however, winding vertiginously upwards through the wild, densely forested hills, it was fortunately no match for the newly retuned Shadow Theatre Mark XII Interceptor. Nothing however had quite prepared for what we found at the end of the trail...
I first heard about the 'hand of Morenci' from Madame Couquet all the way back in 1998 during the making of 'The Secret Glory' but had never quite been able to get a fix of the location's whereabouts, nor did I know quite what the 'hand' was at the time or how it tied in with the rest of the story. As Dario Argento succinctly puts it “ film-makers are always rude, tired and in a hurry” and so, for whatever reason, neither myself nor any of the other Shadow Theatre irregulars saw fit to follow through on Madame's Couquet's well intentioned advice, leaving this particular loose end to lie trailing for well over a decade. Her recommendation might have been forgotten entirely had the ardent Occitan nationalist and long term pog watcher Micheau Pierre not come blasting out with the theory one lazy summer evening a solstice or so gone by that “Montsegur is exactly equidistant from Stonehenge and the Externstein and if you draw a straight line from Montsegur, using the cross of Morenci as a marker you will find the true location of Atlantis.” There’s something about twilight that seems to bring out the best in all of Madame Couquet’s regulars.
At the top of the mountain we came to a cross roads and pulled the Interceptor to a halt as we caught our collective breath. Before us stood a spectacular sphinx-like rock formation that cried out for further investigation.
The view from Morenci
Climbing the barely discernable path to the top of the jagged extrusion we were rewarded with a breath taking view of Montsegur looming across the untenanted valley, not that all views of the pog aren't breathtaking, mind you, but its always a treat to see the magic mountain from a fresh angle and this one was particularly choice.
Several years ago four bodies were unearthed on the eastern, sunward side of the strangely squared off rock facing the crossroads, their remains apparently ritually buried with necklaces made of jais ( a jet stone known to the Greeks as the ‘stone of Gagas’) and pierced teeth. Reportedly, the road that leads away from this rock, and down into the valley below, traverses the ancient loam of a vast necropolis although just how much archeological research has really been done in the area is hard to say.
Across the trail, on the other side of the crossroads, perched a top a gently mounded uprising is the cross of Morenci.
A large and expressionless face stares blindly out from the centre of the cross. Directly below this inscrutable countenance appears the figure eight, formed with curiously thick lines. The number eight can allude to infinity or even the departure of man from the natural realm to a supernatural one. The number 1780 is carved towards the base of the cross, apparently dating the monuments erection to the late 18th century. Around this meeting place of sky and earth sits a semi circle of stones so evocative of a place of unknown rites that we couldn't help but wonder if the cross might not have been an attempt to “Christianize” a reputedly or actively pagan place. Later we learned that the cross had been literally carved out of a far larger sandstone boulder that had rested at this spot. The surviving face and the figure of eight or one circle resting atop another are all that remain of the countless ornate carvings that once covered the surface of the stone. Although it is not marked on any existing map local feeling about the monument evidently still runs deep. The cross has been vandalized on several occasions, most notably in March of 1972 when a local hunter blew off part of the face and the lopsided eight with buckshot. Every time the monument has been silently and fastidiously repaired, quite possibly by the same unknown hands that helped erect and maintain the stone altar at Montsegur...
On the north-western side of the crossroads, just down a short path is the Roc of Fougasse. Fairly easy to spot in the winter one can only imagine how hidden and secluded this place must be in the summer. The boulder was much larger than we expected and one of the first things we noticed was that the area below the rock seemed vaguely terraced, its steps a little too regular to be quite in accordance with the surrounding topography.
There is a large circular disc carved atop the rock with deep grooves reminiscent of the grinding stones found at Black Star and Bell Canyons in Orange County, CA. Those stones were made and once used for grinding corn by the Gabrielino and Tongva Indians who chose the locations largely because they were the only areas in the surrounding mountains relatively safe from bears. The circle on the stone at Fougasse is much, much bigger than anything we had come across back in the States although it is curious to note that Fougasse is a type of flat bread, akin to Foccacia, found in depots de pain throughout the region. The term Fougasse also means a type of weapon, an improvised mine apparently constructed by making a hollow in the ground and then filling it with explosives (originally, black powder) and projectiles. The most common type in early use was the stone fougasse, which was simply filled with large rocks, bricks and any other available bits of rubble. When fired, a process which sounds hellaciously dangerous, it would scatter a hail of fast-moving stones across the entire area. The normal method of firing was to use a burning torch or slow match to ignite a saucisson (French for "sausage” ) a cloth or leather tube water-proofed with pitch and filled with black powder, leading to the main charge.
Despite the name however this place seems to have been used for neither bread making nor for weaponry...
( ii ) Transcripts from the Zone - Dec 13 2009
“Maybe they made wine here – like in that Paul Wegener film, The Magician”, Richard muttered, tapping the raised disc with the tip of my boot. “You only see it for a couple of seconds during the bachanale sequence but I seem to recall a bunch of dwarves or trolls pushing something resembling a big ol'millstone to grind out the grapes.”
“This is pretty high up for growing grapes.”
“Yeah. And that was only a movie...” Richard paused, slowly taking in the leafless trees that marched silently away on all sides of us. “Still, this would make one helluva place for a bachanale , wouldn't it ?”
“Why would anyone want to carry fresh produce uphill ? Unless there was already a settlement here ?”
“I get the feeling that this might have been a sacrificial altar. Corny, I know, but just look at the way the ground is terraced. You have to admit it'd make for a pretty decent show.”
“You know, the Druids often sacrificed holy animals on an altar to read the future and if it was a matter of dire importance they’d plunge a dagger into the heart of a man and read the signs depending on how he flailed around in the death throes . I think there’d be some kind of run off system and then they’d catch the blood in a basin below.”
“Like that, you mean ?” Richard indicated a funnel in the lip of the rock. Beneath it a channel had been scoured deep into the stone by untold centuries of erosion.
“That’d take a hell of a lot of blood!”
“Might explain the bone yard at the top of this place.”
We stared in silence at the evidence before us for a minute, contemplating the horrible possibilities. The whole area had grown eerily silent. But this place was not going to give up its secrets that easily. We did our best to conduct a fingertip search of the rock but the unnaturally warm winter had encouraged the thick growth of moss about its base, making it impossible to find any corroborative glyphs or markings, if indeed any existed.
If this was a place of sacrifice, either symbolically or literally, then what deity could possibly have been propitiated here ? Was it part of a solar cult like the altar and the stone pentagram in the Bethlehem Grotto that the modern Rosicrucian movement still use in their initiation rituals or was it a Celtic place of fertility where blood offerings were made to the moon at certain times of the year. Given the area's convoluted history it could hew either way and as tantalizing as these ideas may be, there is no proof to support or confirm either theory.
Above: Solar symbol on carving found at Morenci Below: Steatite vase retrieved from beneath the rock known as Dentilhero
( iii )
Approximately fifty feet southwest of the 'Rock of Fougasse' is a small but very lovely spring. Its easy enough to miss if you don’t know where to look and a little too small for ritually bathing away your sins or ritually bathing anything at all for that matter, although this might add some credence to the Celtic druid hypothesis.
Springs were considered sacred to the druids, not only as a fresh water supply, but as portals to the otherworld. The Devil’s Armchair in Rennes-les-Bains has a similar set up with the strange rock formation, hidden in a grove, near a natural source. The difference is this place seems much, much older.
Above: Spectrometry on the Morenci vase ( ph: Laurent Crassous ) Below: Le Poulet de Morenci
The 'Hand of Morenci', the bizarre relic Madame Couquet tried to tell us about all those years ago, was discovered in a fault near here, beside a rock known as Dentilhero where it was covered by a stone. The artefact is fashioned from soap stone or steatite, a substance primarily composed of talc, which is easy to work with, and was used frequently during the Iron age for the sculpture of ritual objects, and later during the Middle Ages for the manufacture of seals. The hand is large enough to belong to one of the brethren of the 'Giant of Stenay' or, for that matter, Goliath and his Biblical kin. If sculpted to scale the person it was taken from would have been over two meters high. Moreover the carved appendage is notably deformed, missing the upper phalanges on all of its fingers.
While it is possible that the fingers were broken off deliberately or otherwise and the stumps of the phalanges later worn smooth by the passage of untold centuries it would appear at a cursory examination that the 'Hand of Morenci' was deliberately sculpted this way.
Jean Tricoire, the first person to write about the hand claimed to have felt an instinctive repulsion, believing that the greenish reflections in the ancient stone were somehow malefic. Tricoire supposed that the back of the hand, less refined than the palm, and the mutilated digits were deliberately intended to represent a leprous appendage.
Missing fingers have often been equated with various magical practices, malign or otherwise, some of them all too familiar to me. The practice of removing one joint or another from the left or right hand, according to the preferences of the various tribes, was almost universal among the Khoisan bushmen of Southern Africa who traditionally performed the operation with a sharp stone. They believed that by this act of self-mutilation they ensured for themselves a desirable life of feasting and pleasures in the hereafter. The Bushmen have a legend which states that at some undefined spot on the banks of the Orange River there is a place called Too'ga to which they will all go after death.
To ensure their safe journey they cut off the top joint of the little fingers. This serves as their passport through all manner of strange obstacles and difficulties. The ill-advised one who neglects to perform this rite in life is forced to make the passage upside down, travelling all the way to Too'ga on their head instead of their feet. He is beset with tribulations for the entire distance and even upon arrival is given only flies for food, while his wiser companions feast on locusts and honey. As the sangoma, Joe Niemand put it - “There's a whole lotta power in fingers. In knots and knuckles and such...”, a power inextricably linked in old Africa to the timeless rites of magic and the creation of the cave paintings, the elaborate blood murals that could only be drawn when the full moon was at its zenith...
Curiously enough there are a great many paintings in the caverns of the Pyrenees that depict mutilated hands although none so numerous as those that can be found in the grotto of Gargas which contains the prints of some thirty thousand appendages either stencilled in red or black paint or ochre or applied directly from the palm.
As above so below: Los Manos de Gargas
Every one of the outlines found in the cave depths of Gargas is missing an upper phalange in one manner or another. Some are missing a digit from each finger, some only one, but unlike the hand of Morenci, they all have the thumb intact.
It is a gruesome sight to behold and one cannot easily buy into the explanation that they lost the tips of their fingers to frostbite or were simply a large colony of lepers.
( iv )
From Morenci it is possible to follow the trail on foot, down into the valley to the slopes of the pog and beyond although it would undoubtedly be hike of several hours, one small section of the ancient pilgrimage route known as the 'Route of the Bonhomme' or the 'Path of the Grail'. In my heart I yearned to follow it, knowing that other mysteries undoubtedly lay ahead, safely hidden in that arborial fastness from the prying eyes of the uninitiated yet even now the shadows were deepening between the trees, the fading December sun slanting between the trunks.
Working our way back up the incline towards the car we kept our eyes peeled for further signs of terracing. Here and there amidst the undergrowth were what looked like the remains of low, stubby walls and at times we noticed what appeared to be weathered markings, so faint and worn I had to look twice to make certain we weren't imagining them.
As above so below: Vestiges of Massebrac ?
According to an archeologist we spoke to at the small museum in Montsegur there are a wealth of pictoglyphs on the surrounding rocks, including triangles, crosses, cup marks and what might be stylized hoof or clog prints. Some of these markings are said to represent the cycles of the moon and the constellation of Arcturus, or the 'Great Bear', a formation curiously reminiscent of the groundplan of Montsegur. Nearby can be found the remains of an old enclosure, a leaning standing stone, a dolmen table bearing further pediform imprints and other signs of ancient inhabitation. Frequent references appear in the inquisition registers to a castle or fortified settlement that once stood in this area known as Massabrac whose denizens were accused of aiding and abetting the defenders of the Cather citadel. According to the surviving documents “The faithful of Massabrac”, those who were known to have gone to visit the Parfaits at the chateau of Montsegur included one Bernard du Riual, Pierre Laurens and his brothers Raimond Laurens and Pinaut, Raimond Sicre, Raymond Peyre, Pierre Sicre, Arnaud de la Boulbere and Guillaume Guirafieze. Several of these family names appear on the roster of those who later perished during the fall of the castle in 1244 ( see 'The Cathars' / timeline / Appendix A ) and a few, notably Peyre, Sicre and Laurens still have surviving descendants living in the area. All traces of Massabrac have long since been erased from the map, borne away by a tide of blood and ash but as we started back towards the crossroads I couldn't help but wonder if we weren't even now strolling down the main street of that bygone hamlet.
I came to a halt at the top of the rise, filling my lungs with the deep, intoxicating smell of the forest. The rock formation adorning the crown of the hill looked different from this angle. While undeniably striking it came as little surprise to realize that from where I stood the solitary menhir looked for all the world like a thumb and the larger outcrop beyond seemed to make up the remaining four fingers of a granite hand looming impiously from the earth.
I knew that before too long we would be returning to Morenci to follow where it pointed...