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Chapter 23: Oh Mighty Isis!

My mother had expressed a growing desire to see all the places I had told her about during her convalescence, and when she was strong enough I took her to meet the Black Madonna. Again I rode the cablecar through the curling eternal mists and joined the queue of pilgrims winding in single file through the basilica to touch the globe in La Moreneta's extended hand, and if I wished for anything, this time it was merely for the right thing to happen, for my eyes to penetrate the toxic 21st century haze and my ears to hear her whisper once more, for my heart to know her mysteries ever more keenly, so that I might at last find the words and images to express the inexpressible.

And that night I climbed the mountain and gazed by starlight once more upon the faces of those antehuman Gods. And I waited for a sign perhaps. And waited again. But the Gods were silent.

We made an early start and headed north across the Pyranees by way of Andorra and the valley of Ussat to Montsegur and Madame Couquet's auberge, where the first fire of the season already smouldered on the hearth. Madame greeted us with open arms, looking somehow younger than when I saw her last. The old inn was the closest I had come to a real home over the years, and despite the language barrier, she struck up an instant rapport with my mother that was to become a lasting, almost intuitive bond. Strange and oddly reassuring as it was to see these two matriarchs together at the long table, the homecoming was not complete without a third mother, a third replica of the Madonna of Montserrat that I had purchased the day before in Spain and presented now to Madame Couquet to watch over the auberge.

"Merci. It's very nice. But we already have one."
"She says she's already got one."
"Thanks mom. I can... What d'you mean she's already got one?"
"Oui, oui!" Madame nodded, trying to explain in her heavily accented Southern French. "Notre Dame la Lumiere!"
"You mean a replica like the one I got in New York?"
"No. A real one."

And it was true...

The third mother had been there all along, hidden in plain sight in the tiny church opposite the auberge. To be fair, the chapel was locked six out of seven days and Sunday mornings in Montsegur had invariably found me either still in bed or camped out on the mountain. The last thing any of us had thought to do over the years in the course of getting with the whole Cathar deal was to go to mass.

And there she was. Beautiful, cryptic, proud, staring out from the dust of three hundred years since monks from Montserrat had first brought Her from the far side of the mountains to symbolize their spiritual kinship with the hardy villagers of Montsegur, explicitly drawing together and linking the initiatory mountains in a way that Otto had scarcely guessed at. He had spent enough time at Montserrat to familiarize himself with the Benedictine library reading room and drew on its medieval texts in his research, but in his haste to denigrate the Catholic faith responsible for the extermination of his beloved Cathari, he blinded himself to the common pagan roots that bound these ancient sites together, roots that were deeper and older than Christianity and its heretical antithesis.

"My ancestors were witches and I am a heretic", wrote Otto and in his natural revulsion for the inquisition and championing of the lost ideals of the troubadours, he missed what had been right under his nose all along. He derided the faith of Madame Couquet's father, the town priest who had given him lodging, and never set foot inside the church to catch sight of that all-important icon, the Black Mother who had been venerated in those mountains by one name or another since time out of mind. If he did see the image in the church he made no mention of it, nor did he remark on the crude yet unmistakable outline of the arachnid daubed on the wall of the cavern, where he first unearthed those bleeding stones that would help speed him towards his early grave. 

Perhaps in his haste to identify Montsegur with the mythical 'Grail Castle', he overlooked the fundamental contradiction of a heretical faith that viewed the material world as being inherently flawed, having a material treasure to begin with. It was not in the nature of the Cathari to venerate relics in the manner of the Catholic church, and the sight of the blood of Christ liquifying from the living rock tends to lose much of its superstitious charge if the attendant culture doesn't accept the existence or theological relevance of a flesh and blood messiah to begin with.

As with the consistent conflation of the ancient Celts, the Druids, Beaker folk and megalith builders of Stonehenge and Avebury into a single mythic culture by the modern New age movement, it was all too easy before the advent of reliable carbon-dating and other techniques common to modern archeology to misidentify the shrapnel of a dozen time periods as the residue of a single 'old religion', and it transpires that the caves of the Lombrives have been continuously inhabited since the end of the last ice age. It is my considered contention that Otto Wilhelm Rahn and Antonin Gadal did not find the 'holy grail' or the mythical 'treasure of the Cathars' but the relics of a far older cult that had held those caverns sacred long years before Christ and his cup, the Cathari or Abraham and the prophets.

Before the Blessed Virgin Mary or the Black Madonna, before Kybele, or Cybele, or Sybil, she was known as Kubaba, the goddess of the caves, who was worshipped in grottos and on mountaintops since the dim-red dawn of creation and known to her adherents as the Great Mother - Magna Mater or Meter Orie, the 'mountain mother', and by whose name we know the black stones that have been associated with her worship since the fogs of timeless time. Meteorites; quite literally the 'stones of the Mountain Mother'.

The stones that fell from heaven were venerated, not because of their extraterrestrial origins which primitive man could barely have guessed at, but because their alleged physical properties - the power to heal grave illness, protect against one's enemies and grant the gift of prophecy - are so closely intertwined with the veneration of the Black Mother that the two are effectively one and the same. The ideograms for the 'mountain mother' in the Hittite alphabet range from a lozenge or cube, a double-headed axe, a dove, a cup, a door or a gate - all images of the goddess in Neolithic Europe. The very name Kubaba may betoken a cave or empty vessel, a wombspace or possibly derive from kube or kuba, recalling at once the black meteoric cube of the Ka'bah, that was brought into Islam after Mohammed routed its original idolatrous worshippers out of Mecca.

It is said that in pagan times, the seven priestesses of the Ka'bah circled the black stone naked as when the world was yet young. Today that practice is still recalled in the tawaf, the sevenfold counterclockwise circuit of the shrine, performed by all pilgrims to take the Hadj. The ancient rituals roots almost certainly descend from the Sumerian goddess Inanna and her Babylonian equivalent Ishtar, who was supposed to have passed through the seven doors of death or 'seven gateways' on her journey to the underworld, each successive gate keeper demanding she remove a garment as tribute, until she finally stood naked before her elder sister Ereshkigal, 'Queen of the Great Earth', goddess of the underworld, a dance of death clearly echoed in the later Christian myth of Salome and the 'seven veils'.

Erishkigal is also known by the epithet 'Allatu' (literally 'the goddess'), which is beyond question an earlier form of Al'Lat or Alilat, identified by Herodotus in the fifth century B.C. as the divinity worshipped in Mecca before the coming of the prophet, Mohammed and the substitution and subsequent veneration of her partriarchal counterpart, Allah - essentially the goddess Al'Lat with a soft 't'.

Al'lat has been identified with the three-fold moon goddess codeified by Robert Graves into the archetypes of virgin, hag and whore, whereas in the introduction to the Penguin edition of the Koran translator N.J. Dawood states that the three mothers Al'Lat, Al'Uzza and Manat represent 'the Sun, Venus and Fortune, respectively' and the writer Alby Stone suggests that in early Mesopotamian art the only heavenly bodies to be depicted regularly were a trinity of the Sun, the Moon and Venus, tracing the roots of the names 'Al'uzza' and 'Manat' to an even more archaic source, betokening 'strength' and 'destiny', respectively.

If the three 'daughters of Allah' are personifications of natural phenomena, then Al'Lat/ Allatu/ Ereshkigal is surely the earth, while the other two may well have stood for fire and water as in the Book of Creation, the Sefir Yetzirah or for that matter the 'banat', the three daughters of Baal, the Canaanite supreme being. Islamic oral tradition (al-Hadith: 'The Talk') has it that Mohammed's original vision initially endorsed the notion that the three mothers were goddesses, but he apparently later disowned this as a false teaching inspired by Satan. (Mircea Eliade: A History of Religious Ideas, vol.3, p.68)

At Petra, the nabateans venerated a four-sided stone named after Allat (Arthur Cotterell, Dictionary of World Mythology, p. 24), whose son Dusura is just another take on Tammuz/ Dumuzi/ Du'uzi, the green man, who dies only to be reborn every spring after six months in the underworld. The Sumerians called him 'Dumu-zi'abzu' ('faithful son of the abyssal waters'), and believed that as in the later myth of Orpheus and Persephone, the goddess Ishtar/ Inanna was forced to descend to the underworld to retrieve him. Her actions provoked the wrath of the Gods and she was sentenced by the seven Anunnaki, the judges of the underworld, the hellacious counterparts of the Sebettu, the seven sages venerated by the Babylonians, and associated with the seven major cities that dominated their civilization.

The three most sacred sites in Islam are Mecca, Medina and the Dome of the Rock on Temple mount, Jerusalem, which is identified in Judaism as the 'Eben Shettiyah', the 'stone of foundation', around which God built the world. Deep beneath the rock is a partly flooded cavity known to Muslims as 'Bir-el-Arweh', or the 'Well of Souls', and Jewish lore maintains how when David dug the foundations of the first temple he found the 'Eben Shettiyah', the block that holds back the Abyss. When he tried to move the stone, the waters of the underworld burst forth mirroring a parallel tradition in Islam, which holds that when Mohammed cast down the idol that once stood in the sacred complex at Mecca, he unblocked an ancient well beneath the Ka'bah. The idol was said to resemble the body of a 'black woman', a deity named 'Hubal', almost certainly another mask of Kubaba or Cybele, who was known to be venerated at that time in Phrygia.

In fact, a Phrygian statue of Cybele graven from a single meteoric 'aerolite' (Cumont, Oriental Religions in Roman Paganism, 1911, pp.46-7) was apparently presented to Rome by King Attalus in 204 BC. The ecstatic rites of Cybele's worship, whilst initially a little alien to the Roman temperament, seem to have caught on with the populace, who venerated her in the Phyrgianum, the vast temple that once stood on the site of the present-day Vatican. The high priest who presided over those frenzied rituals was known as 'Papus', or father, the direct ancestor of the present day Pope, the head of the patriarchal Holy Roman Church. As her worship spread throughout the Empire, icons made in her image proliferated, painted black not because of the skin of the Egyptians, the dark alluvial soil of the Nile, or some obscure Arabic root word, but because the template on which she is based, the original statue that held sway over Rome was made of a black stone. Behind the masks of Christianity and Islam the Goddess, the Grail and the bleeding stones were one all along.

The original idol may still exist somewhere deep beneath the walls of the Vatican, although it is said to have been lost in the fifth century. To some extent, the Vatican's interest in Montserrat is indicative of the continuing power of the goddess cult within the edifice of the Church itself, and the extraordinary degree of theological doublethink deployed to maintain the existing partriarchal order and keep the wool pulled over the public's eyes as to what force they truly serve.