Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

The Cathar Mary Magdalene and the Sacred Feminine: Pop Culture Legend vs. Medieval Doctrine

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

The Cathar Mary Magdalene and the Sacred Feminine: Pop Culture Legend vs. Medieval Doctrine

Article excerpt

The Popular Narrative and Its Scholarly Reception

Since the publication of The Da Vinci Code in 2003, the notion that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married has been linked in popular culture with the Gnostic-like medieval sect known as the Cathars; (1) in particular, with the notion that the Cathars of southern France held to an ancient tradition that Mary Magdalene and Jesus were the ancestors of a royal lineage. In brief, the Cathars (also known by other names; e.g., Albigensians, Manicheans) were a twelfth-and thirteenth-century Christian sect that was considered heretical by Catholic authorities and was scattered throughout western Europe. As early as the 1140s, the Cathar church was hierarchically organized, with a distinctive liturgy and doctrines. Cathars agreed that matter was evil and that the human spirit was fallen from its heavenly origins and trapped in the evil material world; the aim of human life was to free the divine spark within to restore its relationship to God with the aid of the divine redeemer, Christ. Since the material world was utterly corrupt, the ideal Cathar life was celibate, ascetical, and world-denying. Due to their popularity in southern France, especially in the Languedoc, the Albigensian Crusade (1209-1229) was proclaimed against them by Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) and several Cathar fortresses were attacked by Catholic forces from northern France. The final Cathar stronghold of Montsegur was destroyed in 1244 under the auspices of King Louis IX and the Inquisition. Although Catharism endured underground in other parts of Europe, it had virtually disappeared by the beginning of fifteenth century. (2) Today, purveyors of spiritual tourism advertise their itineraries in Languedoc, southern France, with slogans such as "Cathar Country: The Da Vinci Code began here"; "Cathar Country: In the footsteps of The Da Vinci Code"; and "Da Vinci Code Holidays." (3) Many easily accessible Web sites feature the claim that the marriage of Jesus and Mary was a Cathar tenet. (4)

In fact, Dan Brown's book does not mention the Cathars, or even Languedoc, but credits the Knights Templar with guarding the secret of the messianic lineage. However, the pop scholarship exposes cited by Brown (2003, 253)--Picknett and Prince's The Templar Revelation (1997) ; Starbird's The Woman with the Alabaster Jar (1993) and The Goddess in the Gospels (1998) ; and Baigent, Leigh, and Lincoln's The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (1996)--do make such claims, as do subsequent works by these authors (Picknett 2003; Starbird 2005). According to Baigent, Leigh, and Lincoln, the Cathars held the unique and secret doctrine that "Jesus was indeed married to the Magdalene," and, taking seriously the medieval provencale tradition that connects Mary with southern France, they speculate, "If the Magdalene, with Jesus' offspring, did find refuge with a Judaic community in that region, some knowledge of the circumstances might well have filtered down through the centuries into Cathar tradition" (Baigent, Leigh, and Lincoln 1996, 471). Lynn Picknett hypothesizes that there was a pre-existing Magdalene cult in southern France that harboured doctrines similar to those of the Cathars, who assimilated the Magdalene traditions, including the notion that she bore children fathered by Jesus, testified to by the Black Madonnas that dot the region. These madonnas are identified by Picknett as representing the dark-skinned, possibly Egyptian, Mary Magdalene, not the Blessed Virgin:

Although these statues are specifically associated with the Magdalene and not the Virgin Mary, it is also an uncomfortable fact that these statues are of a mother and child. They do not depict a woman alone, as might be expected in representations of the Magdalene, almost certainly a visual confirmation of the heretical belief that she bore Christ's children (Picknett 2003, 98, 132). (5)

The most influential and passionate promoter of the notion that the Cathars harboured the secret of the sacred offspring is Margaret Starbird, who identifies St. …

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