The Cathars (also known as Albigensians, Bougres, Bulgars, or Bons Hommes et Bonnes Femmes) were a gnostic, dualistic sect of Christianity. They believed the world was created by one of two Gods, an evil God known as Rex Mundi, who was the creator of all matter. By contrast, the Cathars worshiped a bodiless spiritual God, whom they believed to be the God of love and peace. They believed that goal of mankind should be to put love before power, and strive to achieve spiritual enlightenment and shed the material world.
Wikipedia does a good job of explaining it:
This placed them at odds with the Catholic Church in regarding material creation, on behalf of which Jesus had supposedly died, as intrinsically evil and implying that God, whose word had created the world in the beginning, was a usurper. Furthermore, as the Cathars saw matter as intrinsically evil, they denied that Jesus could become incarnate and still be the son of God. Cathars vehemently repudiated the significance of the Crucifixion and the Cross. In fact, to the Cathars, Rome's opulent and luxurious church seemed a palpable embodiment and manifestation on Earth of Rex Mundi's sovereignty.
The church eventually declared the Cathars to be heretics, and then organized the genocidal Albigensian Crusade to wipe them out in 1208. The crusade lasted until 1229. The last known Cathar to die, however, was burned in 1321.
Beliefs, Practices, Terminology, and Traditions:
- Bitheism - Belief in two gods, one who created heaven and one who created earth. The material god was expressly equated with Satan.
- Chastity - the Perfecti were chaste and abstained from all sexual contact. Credentes had no such obligations.
- Contraception - If the physical world is flawed or evil, it's not a good thing to bring more people into the world. Therefore, many varieties of contraception were practiced. This is the origin of the term bugger (derived from Bougres) meaning anal sex in British English.
- Credentes - Normal followers of Catharism, as a populist religion, Catharism didn't make a whole lot of demands of the Credentes
- Consolamentum - The ritual by which a practitioner of Catharism devoted themselves to purity and became a Perfecti
- Gender Equality - Both genders could become Perfecti, and women had more rights and power than in most other religions of the time.
- Gnosticism - Belief that divine souls are trapped in a flawed material world.
- Endura Rite - ritual suicide by starvation, generally only performed by those nearing death anyway
- Perfecti - Wearers of simple robes, who'd given all their wealth to the community. A little similar to a Monk, Priest, Missionary, or Healer. The French version of the word is "Parfait".
- Populism - Catharism was intended to benefit "the people" and not the elite caste. No one got rich off this religion. Sinners weren't particularly punished.
- Reincarnation - Cathars believed reincarnation was the bad thing that happens to those who don't achieve spiritual liberation before they die. One likely goal for a Cathar is to perfect their soul and escape the chains that link their soul to the earth. However, it was expected that most people wouldn't accomplish this in most lifetimes.
- Rejection of the Crucifix - The book by Gonick sums it up as: "Jesus, as an emanation of God, was not material, so never human… so never died on the cross. In that case, adoring the cross made no more sense than worshipping a hangman's noose."
- Vegetarianism - Cathars would not eat meat, eggs, dairy, or anything else that was deemed a product of sexual reproduction.
Game and Story Use
- Heresy, Crusades, and Genocide naturally make an exciting (and disturbing) backdrop for a campaign.
- Many conspiracy theories involve modern-day descendants of heretical sects long suppressed by the church, such as in The Da Vinci Code. What secrets might the children of the Cathars hide?
- A fantasy world could have a similar movement, and similar crusades. Two good-aligned religious groups could have a long-standing feud or war because they each mistakenly think the other worships a The Devil.
- The Albigensian Crusade could be viewed as an inevitable conflict between competing Memes, vying for minds and souls in the south of France. Alternately, it could be viewed as a disgusting resource-grabbing genocide. Flavoring it either way would dramatically change a campaign using it as a backdrop.
- The Cathars view of reality could make for an interesting moral code for a player character.
- That world view could also work nicely as the secret truth behind a setting. Perhaps all matter is inherently evil, and the player characters must struggle against Rex Mundi and his decadent materialistic agents.
- In a Secret History or Alternative History campaign, how would Western Culture develop if the Cathars had never been wiped out? Some interesting world-building could come out of that concept.
- A fantasy version of the Cathars could very easily be used as a very subtle and sinister religion of evil (much along the lines that the Church of Rome held them to be in real life), where the followers undertake all manner of good works, but still damn all their adherents by a combination of idolatory, blasphemy and felo de se. Can make for some very interesting values dissonance as the PCs (and even the players) try to get their heads around just why exactly these people are evil.