Chapter 12: The Grail Tale
Karl Maria Willigut* removed his eyeglasses and polished them thoughtfully.
What an innocuous looking little man, thought Josef Streicher.
Willigut looked up.
Please be seated, Standartenführer.
“Thank you, sir.” Streicher clicked the heels of his boots, bowed slightly and seated himself in a straight-backed wooden chair facing Willigut’s massive oak desk.
Willigut paged slowly through an official Reich dossier.
“Your service record is quite impressive” He put his glasses on and began to read: “Josef Streicher, Oberststurmführer in the Waffen SS, formerly Military Attaché at the London Embassy. Widower. One son, Hans Streicher, Oberleutnant, also Waffen SS. Served one and a half years on the Russian front. Two Iron Crosses, Second Class. One Iron Cross, First Class. Hobby: mountain climbing. Languages: fluent in English, Italian, French and Provençal.” Willigut paused and looked at Streicher with a smile. “How did you come to learn Provençal, Josef, if I may so call you?”
“Yes, of course, sir.” Streicher had no intention of even remotely offending the powerful Willigut, widely known as Hitler’s Rasputin and a powerful force within the Ahnenerbe-SS. “As an undergraduate I was very much interested in medieval Aquitaine.”
“Yes, it says here that you studied under the late Otto Rahn.”
“That is correct, sir.”
“A pity.” Willigut shook his head. “Rahn was a great man, a great intellect. Most unfortunate that he took his own life. As Rahn’s former student you are no doubt familiar with his books The Crusade Against the Grail and Lucifer’s Court?”
“I have read all of Professor Rahn’s works.”
“Tell me,” Willigut smiled more broadly and leaned back in his chair, “What do you think of Rahn’s theory concerning the Holy Grail?”
“I’m not certain that I recall all of the details, sir.” Never commit yourself in front of a superior until you first discern his intentions. It was a rule that had always served Streicher well.
“Allow me to refresh your memory, Josef.” Willigut stared up at the ceiling, momentarily lost in concentration. “Otto Rahn maintained that the Holy Grail contained the laws laid down by Ahura Mazda for the Aryan race. Just as the Jews and later the Christians possessed the Ten Commandments of Moses so the Aryans received from Ahura Mazda through the prophet Zarathustra the Aryan Commandments governing the Master Race. The word ‘Grail’ itself, said Rahn, was derived from the Persian ‘Gorr’, meaning ‘precious stone’ and ‘aal’ meaning stylus. The ‘Graal’ or ‘Grail’ is thus a precious stone engraved with the Aryan Commandments. It was kept by the sacred priesthood of the Aryans, the Magi of Persia, the Gnostics, the high priests of Mani, and finally by the Cathar Perfecti. The Grail disappeared during the Catholic siege of the fortress of Montségur in 1244, nearly seven hundred years ago. Catholic propagandists, with their talent for torturing the truth, transformed the true legend of the Grail into a children’s fairy tale about its being the cup from which Christ drank at the Last Supper.”
Willigut paused and gave Streicher a curiously sardonic look. “March 16, 1944 is the seven hundredth anniversary of the fall of Montségur and the disappearance of the Grail. That is less than four months away. The Führer plans to reveal on that date the rediscovery of the Grail and of the Aryan Tablets of the Law.”
“I see, sir,” said Streicher who did not see at all. “A brilliant concept, to reaffirm our sacred origins. I am sure it will succeed in further vitalizing the spirit of the German people.”
“Exactly, Josef,” said Willigut patronizingly. “This great event will take place at the castle of Wewelsburg. Do you know it?
“I believe so, sir. In Westphalia, is it not?”
“Correct. A magnificent structure in need of much repair, of course, but that is being accomplished with workers from the camps.”
Streicher nodded. What was all of this leading to? Did Willigut want him to take charge of the restoration of Wewelsburg?
“And now, Josef, we come to your role in this great event.”
Streicher sat up very straight.
“You will lead the expedition to recover the Grail.”
Too stunned to speak for a moment, Streicher merely stared at Willigut. What madness is this?
“A great honor, sir,” he managed to reply without stammering. “You know where the Grail is to be found?”
Willigut shook his head. “Not precisely, but we have a very good idea. On his last expedition to Montségur in 1937 Rahn discovered where the Perfecti hid the Grail. At that time he believed he could not safely smuggle it past the French authorities so he left it safely hidden where it had lain undisturbed for centuries. After Rahn’s death I ordered that his papers be turned over to the Ahnenerbe. Fortunately he left a fairly detailed description of the general location of the Grail although he did not identify its precise hiding place. That will be your responsibility.”
Streicher experienced an immediate sensation of nausea. Failure to locate the Grail would mean certain death. Willigut arose and extended his hand. “Good luck, Herr Oberst Streicher. You have been entrusted with a grave responsibility. Before you leave ask my secretary to make an appointment for you with my aide, General Eisner, who will provide you with everything you will need for your expedition.”
Streicher snapped to attention and saluted. “Heil Hitler.” Willigut languidly returned the salute like a civilian who had nothing to prove regarding his loyalty to the Führer.
After making the appointment with Eisner, Streicher emerged from Ahnenerbe headquarters in a state of near panic. Had Willigut and the Führer gone utterly mad? They obviously believed the ravings of Otto Rahn, a once respected scholar who had ended his life after publishing two books of occultist drivel. With a sense of conviction approaching certainty Streicher knew that there was no Grail at Montségur or anywhere else. The Sacred Commandments of the Aryan Race, Tablet of Laws or whatever one wanted to call it, did not exist except in the fevered imaginations of the most powerful man in the Third Reich and a handful of his deluded underlings.
“God in heaven,” Streicher mumbled to himself, “if indeed there is a God, only He can save me now.”
Kurt Eisner was a veritable Gilbert and Sullivan model of a perfect Major General. Fat, heavily jowled and pompous, he had risen to his present rank by efficiently catering to the whims of his superiors. If Eisner did not believe in the Grail legend (and who in their right mind could) he betrayed no hint of skepticism during his briefing session with Streicher.
“These are the men assigned to you,” he said gruffly from behind his ornate ormolu decorated desk, which was almost as large as Willigut’s. “Professor Franz Gottlieb, archaeologist, Professor Ludwig Werba, historian and Professor Ernst Ziller, geologist. You will also be accompanied by two members of my staff, Oberleutnant Helmut Fischer and Obergrüppenführer Gottfried Amann.”
Streicher glanced over the personnel dossiers Eisner handed him. The five men ranged in age from twenty-five to forty-seven, Gottlieb being the oldest. All five had recently undergone six weeks of strenuous physical training and instruction in speleology.
“May I ask the reason for the speleology course?”
Eisner puffed out his cheeks in what Streicher regarded as one of the most revolting grimaces he had ever witnessed.
“My dear Streicher, you should be able to derive the obvious conclusion without my assistance.”
Streicher resisted an urge to leap across the desk wring Eisner’s bulbous neck.
“The Grail is hidden in a cave,” he said through clenched teeth.
“A cavern is more like it. According to Rahn’s notes, during the siege of Montségur the Perfecti secreted the Grail somewhere near what is known as the Tomb of Hercules in the Sabarthez caverns.”
As Streicher mentally digested this unsettling piece of information (unsettling because, although he enjoyed mountain climbing, he was deeply frightened of caves) Eisner outlined the details of the mission.
The three SS officers were to rendezvous at Carcassonne with the other members of the team. Since none of them knew the mission’s true purpose, Streicher was to provide a vaguely worded briefing before their departure to Vauclousons where they were to hire a local guide for their ascent to the ruins of Montségur. Streicher silently cursed himself for having been so stupid as to study Provençal for it was clearly his familiarity with that little known language that especially qualified him for this insane expedition.
Eisner handed him an attaché case containing transciptions of Otto Rahn’s final notes, one copy for each academic member of the team.
“We anticipate that it should take no longer than six weeks to locate the Grail. You are charged with the responsibility of bringing it to Germany and handing it over to Herr Doktor Professor Willigut in person.”
Streicher nodded glumly. He did not need to ask Eisner what the penalty would be if anything went wrong.
The train ride from Berlin to Paris gave Streicher ample time to study Rahn’s notes in the hope of figuring out some way out of the dilemma. While his two Gestapo companions traded insipid gossip about suspected members of the French Resistance whose surveillance dossiers they were reading, Streicher spent much of the journey silently examining possible alternatives.
He could imitate Rudolf Hess and fly to Britain to be interned by the Allies. Unfortunately he did not know the first thing about flying. He could try to force someone else to fly him but such a course of action might easily backfire. He could desert Amann and Fischer in Carcassonne and seek out Resistance leaders but, chances were, even if he found them, they would simply kill him. He could murder all the members of the expedition and spend the rest of the war hiding out in the remotest reaches of the Pyrenées where his mountain climbing skills could prove invaluable. Streicher pondered this alternative at considerable length. But he knew that Willigut and the Führer would send their most skilled manhunters to track him down. Sooner or later he would be found. No, his only hope for survival was to carry out successfully the mission he had been assigned. But how could he do this? After much reflection, he began to formulate a plan of action.
There was a twelve-hour interval in Paris before the next train to Toulouse where he would board the final train to Carcassonne. On arrival in Paris, Streicher went directly to the Bibliothèque Nationale where he checked out seven old and rare Persian manuscripts and also the original German editions of Otto Rahn’s The Crusade Against the Grail and Lucifer’s Court. Seating himself at one of the well-lighted cubicles in the elegant reading room of the BN, he skimmed Rahn’s books first, pausing over key passages.
About the Sabarthez cavern from Crusade:
“In time out of mind, in an epoch whose remoteness has been barely touched by modern historical science, it was used as a temple consecrated to the Iberian God Illhomber, God of the Sun. Between two monoliths one which had crumbled, the steep path leads into the giant vestibule of the cathedral of Lombrives. Between the stalagmites of white limestone, between walls of a deep brown color and the brilliant rock crystal, the path leads down into the bowels of the mountain. A hall 260 feet in height served as a cathedral for the heretics.”
And a shepherd’s tale from Lucifer’s Court:
“During the time when the walls of Montségur were still standing, the Cathars kept the Holy Grail there. Montségur was in danger. The armies of Lucifer had besieged it. They wanted the Grail, to restore it to their Prince’s diadem from which it had fallen during the fall of his angels. Then, at the most critical moment, there came down from heaven a white dove, which, with its beak, split Tabor [Montségur] in two. Esclarmonde, who was keeper of the Grail, threw the sacred jewel into the depths of the mountain. The mountain closed up again, and in this manner was the Grail saved. When the devils entered the fortress, they were too late. Enraged, they put to death by fire all of the Pures [Perfecti], not far from the rock on which the castle stands in the Field of the Stake. All of the Pures perished on the pyre except Esclarmonde de Foix. When she knew the Grail to be safe, she climbed to the summit of Mount Tabor, changed into a white dove and flew off toward the mountains of Asia.”
Also from Lucifer’s Court this paean to poppycock:
“In the house of the Light-Bringer there is much light! More light than in the houses of God, the cathedrals and churches into which Lucifer could not find and did not want to find because of the dark windowpanes on which Jewish prophets and apostles or Roman Gods and saints are painted.”
Streicher leaned back in his chair and reviewed what little he knew of Otto Rahn’s death. Having somehow fallen out of favor with the SS hierarchy, he had been sent as a guard to Dachau, where he served the winter of 1938-39. There were rumors that he was either a homosexual or a Jew or both. Streicher, who had known Rahn well, knew that he was neither. Not that that mattered.
A copy of Rahn’s last letter to a friend was in the dossier Eisner had given him and contained a line indicating his growing disillusion with the Third Reich and with the SS, from which he had unsuccessfully tried to resign:
“I have much sorrow in my country. Fourteen days ago I was in Munich. Two days later I preferred to go into my mountains. Impossible for a tolerant, liberal man like me to live in the nation that my native country has become.”
On 13 March 1939 Otto Rahn was found dead in the snows of the Tyrolean Alps, an apparent suicide, perhaps emulating the Cathar Perfecti. As Rahn had written in The Crusade against the Grail:
“[The Cathar] doctrine allowed suicide but demanded that one did not put an end to his life because of disgust, fear or pain, but in a perfect dissolution from matter. This kind of Endura was allowed when it took place in a moment of mystical sight of divine beauty and kindness...It is only one step from fasting to suicide. To fast requires courage but the final act of definitive ascesis requires heroism. The consequence is not as cruel as it may look.”
Streicher went to the forefront of the reading room and requested of its président, a pompous functionary seated on a raised platform, whether there were any newspaper articles from Westphalia covering Rahn’s last public appearance probably in early Winter, 1938. The président immediately dispatched a researcher to the archives and, less than a half-hour later, the researcher deposited the Westfalia Landeszeitung of January 9, 1938 on Streicher’s desk. On page three he found an article by one Dr. Wolff Heinrichsdorff headlined “Otto Rahn Reads in Dortmund Evening Lecture at the Dietrich Eckart Haus”:
“Otto Rahn, the young poet and researcher read and lectured Friday evening at the Dietrich Eckart Verein in front of a rather large and very captivated audience. After a few introductory words by the person in charge of cultural events for the Dietrich Eckart Verein, Kurt Eggers, who greeted Rahn as a comrade and briefly outlined the Lucifer-Problem which Rahn would talk about, Rahn created an image of Lucifer in such emphatic and compelling language that it could not be thought out in a more moving and explicit manner. Rahn read from his newest work, “Luzifers Hofgesind” [Lucifer’s Court], which tells about his travels and findings in Southern France where he followed the traces of the Grail and the Albigenses [Cathars], the pure and true heretics, and from new viewpoints, he drew a prolific picture of this anti-Catholic movement which also spread in Germany at that time. The lecture covered difficult material and required extreme discipline and alertness. It was a good sign for the symbioses of lecturer and audience that no word was lost and that the image of Lucifer, which Rahn celebrated with the Albigenses as the Bringer of Light, was most effective.
“Two parts of the evening can clearly be differentiated: The first, where Rahn reported on the research and current status of the Grail and Lucifer-Problem - here the most powerful words and the most exciting creative power came into play - and a second, which the lecturer based on concrete examples, drew conclusions from his new points of view and teachings and arrived at a not only interesting but also largely convincing reevaluation of historical events, leading figures, and facts. The hurdle of a rationalism of the old kind was avoided by Rahn very well. With contagious enthusiasm, he examined the sources and origins of the real desire for freedom and true closeness to nature.
“The Albigenses have been exterminated. In Southern France, 205 leading followers of Lucifer were burnt on a giant stake (March 16, 1244) after a great crusade led by Dominican priests in the name of Christian piety. The, followers of Lucifer, the Bringer of Light, were persecuted with fire and sword. The Albigenses are dead, but their spirit is alive and takes effect, especially in these days, in a renewed and rejuvenated excitement and passion. Christ’s representatives could burn people, but they were wrong when they thought they could burn with them their spirit, passion and desire. This spirit became alive again yesterday, took its effect and was visible in Otto Rahn - a descendent of the ancient Troubadours - in front of many people.
“Rahn pointed out the severe limitations of Roman Catholicism, including the belief in a life after death, and the fear of Hell; he mocked Yahweh and the Jewish teachings, and professed “Luzifer’s Hofgesind” in whose name Kurt Eggers closed the evening with the following greeting: “Lucifer, to whom great wrong has been done, greets you.”
“Altogether the evening was a huge success, which was a promising beginning for the future work of the Dietrich Eckart Verein. The quartet of the Conservatory provided an excellent setting for the evening and furnished an artistic background for the variety and richness of thought expressed by the speaker.”
Streicher turned his attention to the lavishly illustrated Persian manuscripts, paging through them carefully, pausing now and again to photograph certain pages with the miniature Leica that Eisner had so thoughtfully provided him. He returned Rahn books and all but one of the Persian manuscripts, informing the president that he was confiscating the oldest and most valuable manuscript in the name of Third Reich. The outraged president was so flustered that he failed to notice that Streicher signed the confiscation voucher with a false name. He did not want anyone to discover that he had ever visted the Bibliothèque Nationale.
Departing the BN he hailed a taxi, telling the driver to take him to the Champs d’Elysées. As he passed near the Arc de Triomphe, Streicher told the driver to pull over and wait for him.
He walked rapidly to a jeweler’s shop on the corner of the Champs d’Elysées and the Boulevard de Lafayette.
“May I help you?” asked the clerk, an attractive woman in her early thirties.
“Yes, thank you,” he replied in fluent, unaccented French. “I am looking for a present for my wife.” Greta, he reflected briefly had been dead for nearly two years.
“Do you wish a ring or perhaps a bracelet or necklace?
“No, no,” he said testily, “just a stone. No setting please.”
“Perhaps you should try a lapidary,” the Frenchwoman smiled condescendingly. “Jewelers do not sell unset gems.”
“I do not have time to wander all over Paris for a stupid stone,” Streicher said angrily. “You must have some jewels that have not yet been set. What about in the back there?” He pointed to the curtain that separated the sales area from the rest of the shop.
“Those are not for sale,” the woman said firmly.
“Allow me to correct you, Madame,” Streicher said in his most menacing voice. “You will sell me one of those stones or I will have your shop closed and you and every member of your family imprisoned.”
The woman looked at the SS Colonel’s insignia for a brief moment, then said reluctantly, “Very well, please wait.” She disappeared behind the curtain, reemerging a few minutes later carrying a tray containing unset gems. Streicher glanced at them briefly.
“These are all much too small. Haven’t you something larger?”
“We do have one large stone, a black onyx. In fact we were planning on sending it back to the lapidary. It is too large and vulgar for a piece of our jewelry.
“Get it,” commanded Streicher.
The onyx, three inches in diameter, was just what Streicher needed. He knew that it would appeal to assorted Ahnenherbe crackpots because black onyx was associated with the first Chakra, its mystic allure enhancing man’s affinity with nature and therefore symbolically aligned with Cathar doctrine.
“I want this engraved.” He opened the Persian manuscript to a marked section containing illustrations. “With these characters.”
The astonished clerk looked at the illustrations. “I believe we can reproduce these,” she said at last.
It took nearly three hours. Streicher had less than an hour before his train to Toulouse departed. Furiously smoking foul-tasting Gauloises, he paced the sidewalk in front of the tiny jewelry shop. Finally, the woman signaled him. The results he found satisfactory except for one thing.
“I want it to look very old.”
The clerk gave a Gallic shrug. What will this madman think of next, she seemed to imply. But she returned to the back of the shop and twenty agonizing minutes later showed Streicher the results. The onyx was now corroded and worn looking.
“I soaked it in a special acid,” she explained. “It will appear to age even further over the next several hours.”
“Excellent, madame. How much do I owe you?”
“Six thousand francs.”
“You will accept Reichsmarks,” said Streicher decisively. “I have no francs.” The woman looked at him with silent contempt as he counted out the requisite Reichsmarks.
During the fifteen-hour train ride to Toulouse, Streicher struck up a conversation with three Wehrmacht officers. He joked with them, bought them drinks and merrily embellished the stories about how he had won hius Iron Crosses. The Wehrmacht officers, unaccustomed to such joviality from a senior SS officer, concluded that he must have had a pleasurable encounter with one of Paris’s incomparably delectable whores.
The five members of his expedition were waiting for him at the train station in Toulouse, the SS officers, Amann and Fischer looking characteristically dour, the academics appropriately nervous but irremediably arrogant.
“At last perhaps we shall find out what this is all about,” said Gottlieb, the tall, spare archaeologist, as he shook Streicher’s hand.
“Gentlemen, let’s repair to a fine hotel while we await the train to Carcassonne,” Streicher said, positively aglow with fellowship and good will. “I have a most remarkable story to tell you.”
Fischer and Amann listened to the Colonel’s description of the expedition’s purpose without batting an eye. As members of General Eisner’s staff, they were used to the curious vagaries of Ahnenerbe assignments. Werba, an NSDAP hack who had been elevated to a professorship on the strength of his romantically evocative descriptions of early Germanic tribes, nodded somberly in an effort to give the impression that he had known about the Grail quest all along and, of course, approved of it unquestioningly. The geologist Ziller looked uncomfortable but said nothing. Professor Gottlieb, however, was outspoken and harsh.
“I do not believe I have read such utter rubbish in my entire professional life,” he sneered as he paged through the transcriptions of Rahn’s notes. “Surely you do not expect us to take this seriously?”
Streicher looked coldly at Gottlieb.
“Are you suggesting, Herr Professor, that your judgment is superior to that of both Dr. Willigut and the Führer?”
Gottlieb laughed nervously. “Ordinarily I would not think of questioning their judgment. But in a matter such as this, I do believe that as an expert of long standing on the history and archaeology of medieval Provence and Languedoc that my opinion rather more likely to be accurate than theirs.”
“Isn’t Gottlieb a Jewish name?” put in Werba slyly.
The archaeologist paled. “My Aryan ancestry has been thoroughly verified by the Ahnenerbe.”
“Quite,” said Streicher quickly. “Otherwise you would not have been permitted to join this expedition. But gentlemen, please, enough of this squabbling. Professor Gottlieb, you are entitled to your doubts as long as they do not interfere with your work. I for one am absolutely convinced that we will find the Grail.”
Even Gottlieb seemed impressed by the absolute sense of conviction that Streicher conveyed.
As always, Streicher was charmed by the ancient walled city of Carcassonne. It had been an Iron Age Oppidum that became a Roman city in the first century B.C. In medieval times Carcassonne belonged to the powerful Trencavel family who ruled over Bas-Languedoc. At the end of the Albigensian Crusade the city grew even more powerful. But after the Treaty of the Pyrenees, Carcassonne’s strategic importance was much reduced and the city’s magnificent fortifications fell into disrepair. In the nineteenth century, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc was commissioned to restore the ancient fortress to its original appearance, a task, that in Streicher’s view, he had accomplished admirably.
Now, strolling Carcassonne’s narrow, winding, cobblestoned streets, he felt as if he had returned home. But he knew that he could not tarry in this beautiful city for long. At the Vauclousons Hotel where he and the rest of his expedition were staying, he inquired of the manager, “I am looking for a local man, a guide who knows the area around Montségur well.”
“Everyone in Carcassonne knows the area well. We live here.”
Streicher ignored the manager’s impertinence. “I am the leader of a scientific expedition to explore the fortress of Montségur. Whoever we hire as a guide will be well paid.
“If it’s Montségur you’re interested try Laquedem at this address.” The manager scribbled a name and address on a sheet of notepaper and handed it to Streicher.
The door to the small whitewashed cottage was opened by a medium-sized heavy-set man of about forty. “Yes, monsieur?” He was dressed in loose trousers and a linen shirt that had seen cleaner days and seemed utterly unsurprised to see an SS officer standing on his doorstep.
“I am looking for a guide to Montségur. I was told to try here.”
Streicher entered and glanced around at the barren interior of the one-room cottage.
“Thank you.” There were only two chairs around a woodblock kitchen table. Streicher chose the one he deemed less rickety.
“I know these mountains and caverns as well as anyone. If the pay is right, I will act as your guide.”
He bargained with the man until they reached a salary satisfactory to both.
“You will meet us at eight tomorrow morning in front of the Hotel Vauclousons.” Streicher turned to leave. “By the way, what are you called?”
“My name is Laquedem, Isaac Laquedem.” Seeing the look on Streicher’s face, Laquedem broke into laughter. “Do not be concerned, Colonel. Laquedem is not a Jewish name. It is Basque. You can ask anyone in Carcassonne if you do not believe me.”
“Very well, Laquedem. Tomorrow at eight.”
“I will be there.”
The next morning Streicher’s little group left for Montségur in two Volswagen jeeps and a Wehrmacht truck crammed with supplies and scientific equipment. The eighty kilometers southwest from Carcassonne to Montségur were characterized by a series of increasingly rough and narrow country lanes. Isaac Laquedem said little throughout the journey, communicating mostly by pointing out which tortuous little dirt, boulder-strewn road to take next. When they reached the base of the mountain late that afternoon, everyone piled out of the jeeps and the truck, stretched shaken limbs and proceeded to set up a base camp under the direction of Amann and Fischer. Streicher paid no heed to this activity, standing to one side, smoking Gauloises and gazing thoughtfully at what little he could see of the ruins of Montségur nearly three thousand feet above, perched on a rock formation known as a pog--a word from the local Occitan dialect meaning peak.
Once camp was established, Streicher spoke to the group.
“It is too late in the day to attempt an ascent but prepare to leave tomorrow morning at first light.”
That evening after a surprisingly good dinner of knackwurst, white beans, and potato pancakes prepared by, of all people, Amann, Streicher sat at the field desk in his tent which, as befitting his rank, he shared with no one, and pored over the disjointed, demented scribblings of Otto Rahn.
Streicher looked up to see Fischer standing at the open flap of his tent.
“What do you want, Oberleutnant?”
“Sir, I am curious, and wish to ask a question”
Curious? Streicher had not thought this glorified thug capable of such a natural human impulse.
“I have found all this discussion of the Grail and the Cathars very interesting but I am not an educated man so I hoped that you could enlighten me on at least one matter that I have found perplexing.”
“Of course. And that is?”
“The Perfecti or the ‘Pure Ones.’ I have heard you and the professors mention them but who were they?”
Streicher permitted himself a smile. “An excellent question, Oberleutnant. Have a seat and allow me to, so to speak, enlighten you.”
Fischer seated his considerable bulk on the spare camp chair and waited expectantly.
“Catharism consisted of the credenti-- the ‘believers’ -- who constituted the majority and the perfecti-- the ‘perfect ones’-- celibate vegetarians who had undergone the consolamentum, a laying on of hands ritual. Only the perfecti were regarded as actual Church members.
“Because the Cathars rejected the very idea of the church owning property, their services were held in private homes or in field and forest. And although they also abhorred the Catholic institution of the priesthood, the perfecti were somewhat analogous to priests. Because the credenti were insufficiently pure to have their prayers heard by God they knelt before the perfecti and asked them to pray for their souls in a ritual known as the melioramentum.
“Women could also be perfecti – such a woman was called a perfecta and was permitted to perform the melioramentum but women could not become Cathar bishops, nor could they join the somewhat subordinate ecclesiastical Cathar ranks of filius major and filius minor. Women also could not perform the consolomentum.”
Fischer’s expression was one of rapt bemusement.
“I think I understand, Herr Oberst. But what actually did they believe in?”
Streicher paused to light another Gauloise.
“A matter of some controversy, I’m afraid, Fischer. But let me give you the standard interpretation, unalloyed by the insights of the great Otto Rahn.” He hoped he had managed to mask the sarcasm in his voice.
“The Cathars were dualists, inheritors of the great Manichean religion to which, as you may know, St. Augustine belonged in his youth.”
“No, I did not know that,” said Fischer miserably. “I told you I am uneducated.”
“No matter,” Streicher said kindly. “Briefly, the Cathars believed that a good god had created the heavens and the human soul, whereas an evil god imprisoned our souls to suffer in the flesh of our human bodies in the material world, the earth, which the evil god had created. And so the way to enlightenment, to union with the good god, required that human beings free themselves from their prisons of flesh and ascend to the realm of pure spirit.”
“An inspiring doctrine,” Fischer said.
“Some have found it so,” said Streicher, nodding in agreement, “including Otto Rahn and evidently the Führer, but I must say there were aspects of Catharism that were inherently self-defeating. As I mentioned, the perfecti were celibate, they viewed sex as a perpetuation of the human soul’s imprisonment in the material world and thus viewed marriage as a form of prostitution. All children were necessarily demons until converted to the true faith. The Cathars were also strict pacifists although they were not above hiring mercenaries to defend them.”
“That doesn’t sound like the Führer.”
“I agree. Vegetarianism, yes. Celibacy, possibly. But pacifism definitely not. Still, as with all religions one picks and chooses.”
The next morning Laquedem preceded the six Germans up the only path that led to the summit, harshly calling out directions and warning of dangerous spots on the trail. When Streicher had scrambled up the last few feet of the almost sheer cliff beneath the fortress, he shed his pack and looked all around. The view was magnificent. The mountains of the mid Pyrennees stretched into the distance as far as the eye could see in any direction. He turned to look at the ruined exterior of the ancient citadel which rose above him to a height of nearly thirty feet. Built of granite it still seemed almost impregnable even after seven hundred years.
“Those walls are six feet thick,” said Isaac Laquedem.
“How could it have fallen to the Crusaders?” Fischer asked.
Laquedem shrugged. “It is said that the Cathars were betrayed.”
Taking advantage of the brightness of such a clear day so rare amidst the winter’s gloom that ordinarily suffused these mountains, the members of Streicher’s expedition explored the interior of Montsegur. With Teutonic precision, they measured the central courtyard finding it to be three hundred thirty-one feet six inches by fifty-nine feet eight inches. At the northwest corner lay the remains of the massive dungeon where the Cathars had made their last stand against the Crusaders. In the far right hand corner of the dungeon Gottlieb discovered a two-foot square hole at the base of the wall.
“This is where Rahn believed the Perfecti escaped with the Grail,” Werba observed.
Gottlieb sniffed. “Ridiculous. If that hole existed at the time of the siege, it would just as easily have served to let the Crusaders in as to let the Perfecti out.”
When darkness fell, Amann and Fishcer built a fire in the central courtyard and all seven men huddled around it.
“Do you know the Sabarthez caverns?” Streicher asked Laquedem.
“As well as anyone, Colonel But no one knows the Sabarthez completely; the caverns stretch for dozens of miles throughout these mountains. Most of the Sabarthez has never been explored.
“We are looking for a location known as the Tomb of Hercules.”
“I think I know what you are referring to although we call it the Tomb of Ilhamber, the ancient Iberian sun god. It is located in the Grotto of Ornolac, perhaps two kilometers from the dungeon entrance.”
“Good, you can take us there tomorrow.”
“At your service, Colonel.”
Again Fischer approached Streicher. “Could you tell me about the siege, sir?”
Streicher glanced around at the other members of the expedition. “Of course, Oberleutnant, subject to correction or amplification by Professor Gottlieb who I am sure knows far more about the subject than I.”
Gottlieb nodded, pleased by the Colonel’s compliment.
“After a six-month siege, the Cathar leader, Pierre-Roger Mirepoix, negotiated a fifteen day truce to begin on March 1, 1244. At the truce’s end he promised to surrender Montsegur. The Crusaders offered generous terms. The Cathar mercenaries would be allowed to keep their weapons. Cathars who renounced heresy would be forgiven and allowed back into the bosom of the Catholic Church.
“The Perfecti turned down these terms, and twenty-six credenti requested consolamentum on March 13th, the Spring equinox.
“At some point during the truce a handful of Cathars escaped the fortress through a secret passageway evidently transporting their holiest relics to a secret hiding place.”
“The Grail among them,” exclaimed Werba.
Gottlieb snorted in disgust.
“Perhaps,” Streicher said. “We don’t really know. The legend is that these objects were eventually smuggled to Perfecti bishops in Italy, although of course Otto Rahn believed they were secreted somewhere in the Sabarthez caverns.
“On the morning of March 16, the last day of the truce, the remaining two hundred or so Cathars quietly climbed ladders to the top of a huge wooden pyre they had secretly erected at the base of the southern slope of the pog. saying their prayers. Several Perfecti lighted the pyre and then leaped into the flames. The Crusaders could only look on in wonder at this mass suicide, a kind of Cathar Masada.”
“They were quite mad, you know,” said Gottlieb.
“They were quite heroic,” Werba interjected angrily.
Fischer said nothing but a look of deep sadness crossed his face. Laquedem was also silent, barely repressing a smile.
The next morning Isaac led the group through a narrow passageway that stemmed from the opening in the hole of the dungeon. Sliding and scraping through sharp bends, the Germans cursed and muttered. All save for Streicher who, claustrophobe that he was knew that ahead lay some sort of salvation. He fingered the engraved onyx stuck deep in the right hand pocket of his greatcoat. Not much further now, he thought.
After two hours a cleft in the rock even narrower than the ones through which they had previously passed provided the only entrance way to the Grotto of Ornolac. Streicher followed Isaac over the stalagmite strewn path that led to the Tomb of Hercules/Ilhamber some seventy-five yards from the entrance. Werba was right behind him followed by Gottlieb and the geologist Ziller. The two junior SS officers brought up the rear. The grotto itself was magnificent, more than two hundred sixty feet high and six hundred yards in circumference, multi-colored stalagtites hanging from on high like crystal chandeliers designed by demons from the subterranean depths, it resembled the interior of a great cathedral.
But the Tomb of Hercules proved a disappointment. It was merely a stalagmite, somewhat larger than the others, situated at the south end of the grotto. Ziller and Gottlieb poked around at its base with their ice axes. Laquedem stood off to one side watching their activities disinterestedly.
“As I suspected,” Gottlieb said to Streicher, “there is no evidence of any hiding places in the immediate vicinity.” Ziller voiced his agreement.
“If the Grail were easy to find,” said Streicher, “it would have been uncovered long ago. We must inaugurate a systematic search beginning with the Tomb itself and radiating outwards in all directions. We need to recognize from the outset that this task could take considerable time.”
Streicher did not wish to arouse the scholars’ suspicions by making the discovery of the Grail stone too easy. He planned to wait until at least the second week of the search before “finding” the onyx he had purchased in Paris.
They set up camp in the Grotto of Ornolac near the Tomb of Hercules, their gas lanterns throwing minatory chiaraschuro shadows on the walls and ceiling of the gigantic cavern. Streicher devoted most of his time over the nect several days to updating the log of the expedition’s activities. Laquedem assumed the duties of a general factotum, preparing the meals, mysteriously delicious Basque concoctions, keeping the camp neat and uncluttered and, after a week, making the trip to the tiny village of Montsegur to purchase additional supplies and mail letters.
Streicher wrote to his son, Hans, now head of security at Greyerhausen, an “experimental” SS hospital in Bavaria. Streicher wrote that he had been put in charge of an important scientific expedition, the details of which security forbade him to disclose. But he described life in the camp and commented on the personalities of the other expedition members.
He dismissed Gottlieb as arrogant. Ziller was “too quiet.” Werba appeared “surprisingly ignorant and ill-informed.” Amann was “loyal and competent,” and he’d taken quite a liking to Fischer, who reminded him a bit of Hans. As for Isaac Laquedem, he wrote that “our guide is a typical Basque, simple and superstitious, full of misplaced pride in his barbarous race the origins of which, as you know, are obscure. After witnessing innumerable instances of this man’s primitivism, I am inclined to agree that the Basques are the last remnants of the subhuman race known as the Neanderthal who once peopled these parts.”
Streicher also penned several pages of stern advice to his son, reminding him of his duties as an officer of the SS and his obligation to bear in mind always the greater purpose of this war which was to restore Germany to its proper position of world leadership. These words were intended perhaps more for the SS censors’ benefit than for Hans’ edification.
On Wednesday of the second week in the Grotto of Ornolac Streicher decided it was time to act. Everyone’s temper was fraying. Gottlieb had grown increasingly caustic, Werba ever more defensive and irritable. Even the taciturn Ziller’s silences exuded a subtle air of dissatisfaction.
He waited until he was certain that the others were asleep. Carrying a hooded lamp and a length of rope, he picked his way carefully through one the grotto’s many rough paths. There were several areas in the huge cavern that the expedition members had not explored. One was the giant mass of crystal and limestone that formed part of the grotto’s northeast wall. Streicher made his way to the wall and examined it carefully. Millennia of slowly dripping water had created a variety of fantastic shapes and thousands of tiny recesses in the cavern wall. He knelt and ran his hands over the uneven surfaces a few feet from the wall’s base until he found a tiny hole, approximately nine inches beep. Removing the onyx from his right pocket, he inserted it in the hole. It would not be easy to find but he knew that the meticulous search procedure he had instituted would eventually uncover it.
As it turned out, the pride of discovery fell to Werba. Shortly after ten a.m. on Friday morning, the historian came running into the camp waving the onyx high in the air above his head. He was followed by the others who seemed bemused by Werba’s sudden attack of hysteria. Kneeling before Streicher, he stretched out his hands as if presenting a burnt offering to a minor god.
“Her it is, Herr Oberst,” Werba burbled,” the Grail.” With exaggerated reverence he handed the stone to Streicher who, despite the fact that he had been anticipating its discovery at any moment, was nevertheless somewhat taken aback by Werba’s lack of restraint.
Streicher briefly contemplated the onyx, then turned it over to Gottlieb. The archaeologist examined the stone carefully, turning it over and over, squinting at the engraved inscription. After perhaps five minutes of close inspection he handed the onyx back to Streicher.
“An obvious fake,” said Gottlieb decisively.
“What?” Streicher blanched.
“This is no older than the watch I purchased for eldest daughter’s birthday last year.”
“What are you saying, Gottlieb?” Werba clutched at the lapels of the archaeologist’s coat. “You have been trying to sabotage this mission from the very beginning. Now that I have found the Grail, you think to deceive us with your lies.”
Streicher pushed the furious Werba out of his way. “Professor Werba is right. Consider yourself under arrest, Gottlieb.”
Fischer placed a firm hand on Gottlieb’s shoulder. The now seriously frightened archaeologist made no move to resist.
Streicher made an elaborate show of examining the onyx.
“I am no expert in these matters but this stone surely fits Otto Rahm’s description of the grail,” he said at last. Looking around at the assembled expedition members, Streicher smiled. “We will take the stone back to Germany where the finest Ahnenerbe experts can examine it at their leisure. But as far as I am concerned we have successfully fulfilled the purpose of our mission.”
That afternoon Streicher ordered Amann and Fischer to escort Gottlieb to Gestapo headquarters in Toulouse. The remaining members of the expedition were to break camp the following morning. On his arrival in Carcassonne, Streicher planned to send a message to Willigut announcing the recovery of the Grail. He was certain that neither Willigut nor the Führer subject the stone to serious examination. They would simply collect affidavits of authenticity from ideologues like Werba. He silently congratulated himself on turning a potential disaster into a personal triumph. At the very least he would receive a personal commendation from Hitler. No doubt a promotion as well. He’d always wanted to be a general.
That evening as he watched the oddly melancholy sunset from the commanding heights of the Montségur pog, Streicher took the onyx from his jacket pocket and upon it fondly. A few days from now it would be enshrined as the supreme symbol of the Third Reich, surpassing even the swastika as a propaganda tool for unifying the will and spirit of the German volk.
“I have never seen you look so happy, Herr Oberst.” Streicher swung around. Isaac Laquedem was leaning nonchalantly against a portion of Montsegur’s ruined outer wall, an ironic smile on his peasant face. With a mild sense of shock, Streicher realized that Laquedem had addressed him in German.
“Don’t you have duties to perform?”
Laquedem’s smile grew broader. “I believe everything is in order, sir.” He laughed softly. “Oh yes, the evening meal. I’m afraid there is little need for that now.”
“What are you talking about? Return to the camp immediately.”
“Such a pathetic fake, that.” Laquedem pointed at the onyx. “But dangerous in the wrong hands. Please hand it over, Herr Oberst.” He spoke now in a commanding voice.
Streicher reached for his Luger.
“I wouldn’t.” As if by magic a revolver appeared in Laquedem’s right hand. He pointed it at the row of ribbons on Streicher’s chest. The SS officer slowly raised his hands. “Now give me the stone. Let it drop from your hand and kick it towards me.” Streicher did as he was told. Laquedem bent down and picked up the onyx, all the while keeping his revolver trained on Streicher.
“You won’t get away with this. The SS will pursue you to the ends of the earth.” Streicher’s face was flushed with rage.
“I don’t think so, Herr Oberst,” said Laquedem calmly. “For one thing you and I are the last surviving members of this absurd expedition.”
“Fischer and Amann. . . .”
“Are dead. Gottlieb too, unfortunately. He at least was an honest man. Werba and Ziller are presently sharing Ilhamber’s Tomb. It is perhaps too great an honor for them but the Sun God is famously broad-minded.”
Laquedem held the onyx up to the fading light. “These Persian inscriptions are more apropos than you could ever have dreamed of.”
“What do you mean?”
Laughing, Lauquedem leaned back and hurled the stone from the pog’s two thousand foot precipice.
“They were taken from an ancient bill of lading. For a herd of swine.”
Streicher collapsed in the dirt as three slugs from Laquedem’s revolver slammed into his row of ribbons in rapid succession.
“It is now your turn, Herr Oberst,” Laquedem said softly, “to pay the Sun God a visit.”
I return to the present. “You obviously were Laquedem.”
“One of the many sobriquets applied over the centuries to the Wandering Jew,” Gilgamesh agreed.
“But I don’t see why this admittedly curious episode provides any reason for not starting a new religion or reviving an old one.”
“Then, devil, you are a greater fool than I could ever have imagined. Now please leave me. I don’t care to see you again.”
“I’m afraid, old friend, that I cannot promise you that.” I vanish, teleporting myself to what my PDA tells me is an appointment Melchom has arranged for me.