Wednesday, December 23, 2009
The Lost Caves of Montsegur
The evidence for there being a large cave or caves on the southwest side of the pog of Montsegur is starting to fall into place. After Miss Scarlett was apparently abducted from the courtyard by someone or something in June 2008 ( * see 'Trail of the White Lady/ 'Midnight in the Well of Souls' for the full story ) she recalls waking to find herself lying in a cave in the side of the mountain, one that had two large stones close to the entrance. Although the experience bore elements of a shamanic journey that is not wholly explainable by the “rational mind” we do not believe that what happened to her that night was a mere 'hallucination' or some trick of the light. Miss Scarlett claims to have been forced to slide a good ten meters or more down a steep incline to escape the grotto and the dried red mud was there for all to see caked on the back of her jeans and heavy leather trenchcoat the next morning.
The black djellaba that Miss Scarlett was clutching when she was first grabbed by the 'barrow wite' or whatever the hell it was that snatched her out of the courtyard was later found halfway up the mountain but our best efforts to retrace her steps to the mouth of the grotto itself have thus far proved strangely fruitless. One might readily assume that the cave itself existed either in some other plane of time, space or consciousness or indeed solely in her mind were it not for the corroborative evidence that we have since gleaned from the inhabitants of the isolated hamlet clinging to the base of the pog.
Much of what we have heard during our time in the area amounts to little more than oral tradition, scraps of verbally transmitted data that can all too easily become confused with myth as they are handed down from one generation to the next. For example one of our most reliable informants, a perfectly level headed young German lady whose name must for now remain a secret, claims to have spoken to an elderly villager who was present when they conducted a dig halfway up the pog in 1897. The labourers apparently unearthed a trench 5-6 meters wide and 3-4 meters deep with two columns and a collapsed arch. Behind it was a tunnel. The man who told the story was in his 70's at the time but was apparently still haunted by the memory of that tunnel mouth although the excavation had been long since been covered over and “no trace of it remains.”
We picked up a very similar story only the other day from another one our friends, Thierry, who can trace his ancestry back the knights involved in the Avignonet raid in 1243 and whose own birthday celebration we attended whilst preparing this 'blog entry. Thierry told us of an encounter with an elderly gent who had apparently wandered into a cave below the castle as a boy and seen a stone altar or table surrounded by a circle of rocks resembling chairs. According to Thierry the memory had stayed with this individual all his life but when he returned to the mountain as an old man no trace of the cave could been found. He complained that the path had been altered and he no longer recognised the lie of the land but Thierry suspected that the venerable gentleman was simply a few cards shy of a full deck at the time and had conflated a vividly imagined recollection of a childhood 'conte' or fairytale with his own remembered experience.
Another equally wild yarn is said to have originated from a former member of a group of amateur spelunkers who once operated in the area and claimed to have found a great cave deep inside the pog, complete with a mysterious subterranean lake. Further crypto-archeological gossip concerns persistent rumours of an entrance to a tunnel leading deeper into the mountain that was unearthed when they built the road to the village but “...they covered it over and didn't want anybody to talk about it...”
That said there seems nary a soul in the settlement who doesn't have an opinion on the matter. One long term pog watcher and ardent Occitan nationalist whom we encountered at Madame Couquet's auberge told us over breakfast that he had entered and explored a cave below the castle that he termed the 'well of the steps'. He claimed it had been easier to access in times gone by and that there was a bottleneck in the tunnel so narrow that only a child or a midget would have any chance of squeezing through. When we asked him to describe the well's location he shied away from answering, claiming that it was 'dangerous' to try and pin things down, suggesting rather fancifully that the precise topography of the pog had a tendency to shift capriciously between one visit and the next. "You can't define it ! Every time you try to define it, it changes..." He confided darkly, as if this were explanation enough. Indeed were he to tell us any more, he hinted, he might find his own way barred the next time he attempted to return to the area. Only the mountain itself apparently or whatever mysterious force is at work in the keep has the power to decide who is allowed through the maze and just how much they are permitted to see at any one time.
Of course our informant was, in this case, in all probability, nuttier than the proverbial wagonload of pralines but considering how far fetched our own experiences on the pog have been over the last few years we're scarcely in a position to be too fussy about who we choose to break bread with. Besides our informants claims, absurd as they may sound, would seem to possess a grain of truth...
In the early 13th century the then head of the Cathar church Guilhabert de Castries wrote to the lord of Montsegur, Raimond de Perelha asking permission for the treasures and records of their faith to be moved to the fortress and its adherents to be allowed to live 'infra-castrum', a term taken by some to literally mean 'beneath the castle' although it is more commonly believed to refer to the small settlement that once existed in the lee of the chateau's walls. Several sources however mention the castle's water supply being drawn from 'underground cisterns' although no sign of such an arrangement has ever been found and the question of quite how the defenders refreshed themselves during the eleven month siege remains a bit of a poser.
A retired member of the former archaeological society of Montsegur who must for now remain anonymous hinted that there was a lot that he and his colleagues in the GRAME ( Groupe de Recherches Archeologiques de Montsegur et Environs ) were forced to leave out from the official record. He claims that the castle foundations go 4.5 meters deeper than anyone is willing to admit and that there are things below. Nonetheless the person responsible for the 'Monuments Historiques' declared emphatically in 1948 that there was nothing under the castle, no cisterns, cellars or caverns, manmade or otherwise.
In the inquisition records however can be found a brief but puzzling reference to the death of one Arnaud Narbona de Carol. He was mortally injured and before dying they took him 'dans la grotte de ce chateau' ( to the cave of the castle ) where two parfaits gave him the consolamentum in the company of 10 others - so we can assume it must have been a reasonably large cave. Again nobody knows where this cave might be and not only don't they know, they say there is no cave, that it was only a “place between two rocks”.
To date only two complete skeletons and three partial ones have been retrieved from the ruins of Montsegur although it is known that many people died during the 40 years of occupation in the 13th century and that in fact many bothers deliberately came to the pog to die. Accordingly we have begun to focus our attention on an area known as 'Prats de la Gleizo' which once existed at the bottom of the pog on the far side of the road from the parking lot. 'Gleizo' is an archaic word for church, a name mentioned in an old diary recently turned up by one of our informants concerning the discovery of several coffins buried in the vicinity.
« ...Du village nous remontons la route jusqu’au col du Tremblement. A mi-côte nous dépassons l’ancienne carrière de plâtre et la mine abandonnée de l’Argentière. Nos yeux se reposent un instant sur la prairie au sud. Un pré longe la route : il fut un cimetière – probablement aux temps féodaux. Naguère encore, en labourant on y trouvait des débris d’ossements, de planches, des clous ; et l’endroit porte le nom de ‘Prats de la Gleizo’ (Les prés de l’église). Il s’agit sans aucun doute de l’emplacement d’un ancien village brûlé lors du siège du château. Plus haut, à droite du col, le lien se nomme ‘La Cave’. Ce nom laisse perplexe. Une grotte naturelle serait-elle à la base de la pyramide rocheuse ? Y aurait on aménagé des magasins et des écuries ? L’entrée en serait-elle reste cachée ? En tout cas, des écuries tout au haut du piton, dans la forteresse ; cela semble improbable... »
From the village we go up the road to Col Earthquake ( or literally the 'trembling col' – the area that constitutes the current parking for the castle – although nobody calls it by this name any more ) Halfway we passed the old lime quarry and the abandoned mine Argentiere. Our eyes rest a moment on the prairie to the south. Along the road there was a cemetery - probably in feudal times. Once again, there was ploughing that had uncovered the remnants of bones, planks, nails, and the place is called 'Prats of Gleizo' (near the church). This is undoubtedly the site of a former village burned during the siege of the castle. To the top right of the neck, the link is called 'The Cave'. This name is perplexing. A natural cave perhaps at the base of the pyramid rock? Where would they have constructed shops and stables ? Would the entrance be hidden? In any case, situating the stables at the top of the peak in the fortress itself would seem unlikely...”
The English is a little tricky in this transcription but you get the idea…
As above, so below...
( ii )
Only the other night we were taking dinner at our landlady's house and talk turned, as it does around here, to the lost caves of Montsegur. Our landlady claimed that her own grandmother had stumbled across just such a cavity beneath the castle, which she had reached via a flight of stairs that, of course, “no longer exist”. She told us that when her grandmother entered the cavern she had found a giant “saucisson”. While the word was immediately recognizable we assumed that we must have misheard her. Wresting control of the dog-eared Franglais dictionary that we carry around like a Bible, our estimable hostess proceeded to look up the word “sausage”, whilst continuing to insist on the literal truth of her story. Apparently her grandmother had found a huge cellar and within the castle's cavernous pantry she had seen an “enormous sausage” - quite literally the 'food of the Gods' you might say.
In these mountains magic and superstition still have common currency and belief in the supernatural and the powers of the 'fee' or faery folk surprisingly widespread. Our landlady's account of a ghostly sausage still hanging in an equally ghostly larder is only marginally more ridiculous than similar friend-of-a-friend reports I picked up in Wales and the West of England concerning children wandering through doors in the hill on midsummer's night to return clutching “strange flowers” in their hands and their heads aspin with weird music or, for that matter, anonymous shepherds blundering across long buried hoards still guarded by sleeping knights. Like Osama bin Laden or King Arthur before him the so-called 'White Lady' of Montsegur and the last of the 'Cathars' are believed to still be concealed within the bosom of the living rock, awaiting the day that the stars come around to their right place so that they might awaken to lead their future kin to freedom.
Above: 'Esclarmonde in her enchanted sleep' - a plate from 'La Legende de Jean de l'Ours ou legende d'Esclarmonde' ( 1936 )
As Arthur is commonly believed to have been borne away to Avalon so Esclarmonde de Montsegur is said to have 'passed alive into the kingdom of heaven' from whence she will return to reign as a sort of 'once and future' queen over her Pyrenean empire after seven centuries have passed and “the Laurel turns green again”. The 'treasure of the ages', be it the 'Holy Grail' or the 'Book of the Seven Seals' which 'will not be opened until judgement day' is quite naturally said to rest beside her.
All this is plainly the stuff of folklore, the archetypal myth of the 'eternal return' writ large, yet the legend is persistent enough to have motivated countless professional and amateur archeologists and spelunkers to scour the cave systems which honeycomb this area, one of the largest limestone regions in Europe, in the hope of finding some trace of the vanished heretics and their ever elusive treasure.
As above, so below: In the footsteps of Otto Rahn
My colleagues and I have followed a trail blazed the enigmatic German-Jewish Grail historian Otto Rahn ( * see 'Terra Umbra/ Journeys 2009 / The Cave of the Hermit' and 'The Secret Glory' ) who plumbed the claustrophobic depths of Fontanet, Bouan, the Lombrives and the grotto of Ornolac in search of a dream and his mentor, Antonin Gadal, the former minister of tourism and one time leader of the European Rosicrucian movement who believed so ardently in the myth that he felt compelled to try and make it a reality by unearthing and exhibiting artefacts, mostly Egyptian tat, jade ornaments that were later found to have been purchased at museum auctions before being deliberately re-buried at the sites in question.
Above: Antonin Gadal displays artefacts allegedly retrieved from the grotto of Lombrives
Below: The fortified grotto of Bouan
The French occult group 'The Polaires' resorted to similar tactics in 1932 when their leader Cesare Accomani ( aka 'Zam Bhotiva' ) stooped to hiding a book of Hindu astrology in the ruins of Montsegur for subsequent re-exhumation after a lengthy, highly publicised and typically fruitless sweep of the surrounding countryside, including extensive digging in the ruins of Lordat and other castles, apparently in the hope of turning up that pesky missing grimoire, the 'Book of the Seven Seals'. Accomani was forced to resign as a result and the bewildered occult lodge he left behind spontaniously imploded not long afterwards.
Otto Rahn makes fun of the Polaires and Engineer Arnaud from Bordeux who saught a material hoard whilst simultaniously suggesting that the true treasure lay hidden in a cave in the forest guarded by poisonous vipers. According to Rahn's 1936 opus 'The Court of Lucifer' -
”...He, who wishes to enter, must present himself there on Palm Sunday, during the priest's mass. At this time only, the stone will draw itself aside, and the serpents will be sleeping. However, tragedy will befall him who has not left by the time the priest pronounces 'misa est'. At the end of the mass, the grotto of the treasure will close in on itself and he who finds himself its prisoner will reap an atrocious death, bitten by serpents suddenly awoken....”
All of which, admittedly sounds a little fanciful, but its hard to ignore the recurrent serpentine symbolism and the correlation between Palm Sunday and the Cathar feast day of Bema, allegedly the only day of the year on which the 'Book of the Seven Seals' could be opened, a festival that according to my associate, Mr.Web, had been incorporated wholesale into the developing faith from a far earlier Manichean tradition. Accordingly I decided to take the laboratory approach and scaled the pog last year in order to present myself at the given time, only to return with little more to show for my efforts other than damp socks and incipient frostbite.
Intriguingly in the very same passage Rahn proceeds to relay a story allegedly told to him by one of the shepherds he meets during his stay in Montsegur in what was presumably the winter of 1932 who insists that his grandfather found an iron ring set into a stone slab somewhere deep in the forest. After failing to lift it Rahn claims the man “rushed back to the village to seek help. But he never found the place again” - which, strangely enough, is almost identical to another friend of a friend account proffered by one of the locals during the writing of this 'blog:-
“...Years ago my grandfather found a rock in the forest behind the castle. There was a ring attached to the slab and a seal cut into the stone. Nobody knows any more where in the forest it is...”
Above: The Grotto of Massabielle
Below: The cavern on the Montagne de la Frau
Another one of our neighbours, a former 'tough guy' from Paris insists that he saw the 'White Lady' with his own eyes, standing in the mouth of a grotto in the 'Montagne de la Frau' overlooking the pog. Her skin glowed as if it were “made of ice”. Like Bernadette Soubirous who encountered a similar presence in the hallowed grotto of Massabielle only a few miles down the pike this big, bear of a man believes that what he saw on the 'Mountain of Fear' was a vision of the virgin, “Marie”. He went to church to pray every day for a month afterwards and claims the event turned his life around, convincing him of the reality of an unseen world.
Lourdes became a place of pilgrimage and our neighbour found God but not all such attempts to plumb the local grottos have proved so beneficial...
As above, so below. The Cave of the Hermit - June 2009
The Swiss customs officer turned amateur archeologist, Daniel Bettex, perished during his attempts to chart a similar network of subterranean passages in Mount Bugarach ( * see 'The Razes Pentagram / The Secret Rapture of Daniel Bettex' ) and our landlady's father, one of the few remaining fluent Occitan speakers in the village along with another local, the son of the esteemed WW2 veteran Guy Puysegur ( who was interviewed for 'The Secret Glory' ) recently found their determined efforts to explore a tunnel on the south side of the pog of Montsegur defeated by the presence of poisonous gas. The cave was a “killer”, they told us, its atmosphere suffused with toxic levels of methane and carbon monoxide, capable not only of putting unwary spelunkers into a coma within a matter of minutes but quite possibly inflammable to boot – all of which only serves to raise further questions. Such potentially fatal pockets of natural gas might well be capable of causing hallucinations or other forms of sensory distortion, possibly even inducing visions of 'Marie'or the 'White Lady', whichever you may prefer. Similar explanations have after all been offered by conventional archeologists to explain the 'Pythean' visions of the oracle at Delphi. Not only that but, as we have already learned ( * see 'The Hand of Morenci' ) the word 'saucisson' has another, more sinister meaning. It is also a colloquial term for a 'fuse', in contemporary 13th century parliance, hinting at a potentially more explosive outcome to the mystery of Montsegur than we might have guessed...