In 1976, American writer, researcher and explorer Judith Mann was presented with the opportunity to travel to Europe with her son. Before she left, a friend suggested that she might spend her time in France and Yugoslavia to research the Gnostic sects of the Cathars and the Bogomils.
From this initial interest in the Gnostic beliefs and spurred on by a number of coincidences while traveling, Judith began a study of Gnosticism that has lasted for over 25 years.
In her book, ‘The Trail of Gnosis”, Judith shares her research into a number of different groups of spiritual seekers who, in their own ways, have followed a form of spirituality which, unlike more traditional religious practices, is centered around a celebration of the sacred within the individual, rather than as an external force or principle.
The book features a number of these well known, as well as less common, sects, ranging from the Kabbalists to the Cathars and the Knights Templars to the Bogomil.
Mixed into this collection of spiritual misfits is a number of other interesting groups and individuals—all of whom have influenced the development of both Western spirituality as well as secret fraternal organizations.
The author begins her journey of exploration into this shadow world with a look at the founder of the Manichaean religion, which was founded by the Persian scholar Mani in 216AD.
Next up are the Paulicians—an influential sect of eighth-century heretics, then the Mandaeans, who were a peaceful and religious group that once lived in Southern Iraq and southwest Iran and then the Massalians—a thoroughly heretical group who rejected the Orthodox Christian Church and even John the Baptist—a figure whom they felt to be closely connected to the anti-christ.
One of the better known Gnostic groups, the Bogomils (formed in the first century AD as an offshoot of Manichaeism) is examined at length by Judith. She explores their adherence to what is known as the Orphic Tradition as well as the Bogomil cosmological beliefs, doctrines and some of the Bosnia sites.
Following a brief look at the Johanniter sect, the book features another highly influential collection of free-thinkers: the Kabbalists—a group which, as the author explains, emerged from Sephardic communities of Provence, Languedoc and Roussillon in the twelth century.
It is probable that the Kabbalists emerged from the next group of Gnostics to be featured in this book—namely the Cathars.
In revealing some of the esoteric teachings of the Cathars, Judith Mann focusses upon their symbols, such as the Dove, which was emblematic of the Holy Spirit, the Solar Cross, the Tau, Pentagram and Fleur-de-Lys.
Staying with a connection to the Cathars, the author then takes a look at the Caves of Sabarthez, located on the French border of the Pyrenees. This vast complex of underground chambers was used as far back as 12,000 years ago and still contains Palaeolithic images on their walls. Judith explains how one of these natural chambers, called the Cave of Bethlehem, may have been the
…spiritual center of the Cathar world.
The book reaches a climatic finish with a look at the most highly venerated, powerful and secretive of all the Mediterranean breakaway groups: the Knights Templar.
Here, Judith explores their history, formation and final, dramatic demise in 1314 when their leader, Jacques de Molay, was put to death at the hands of the reigning Pope.
The history of the Knights Templar is full of associated arcane imagery, religious plots, political intrigue and rich mythology.
One that is closely connected to the Templar story is that of the Holy Grail and Judith traces the legend from its purported original function as a cup used at the Last Supper through to its subsequent travels that resulted in its secure keeping at the Cathar stronghold at Montsegur castle in France up until 1244AD.
The book closes with a look at some of the Grail Castles located throughout the Languedoc regions of France and Spain.
The Trail of Gnosis includes a bibliography and index.
Judith is clearly the sort of person not known for passing up an opportunity when one is presented to her. She gives the impression of an intrepid explorer who would dive headlong into the darkness of a cave or castle dungeon with little regard for what may lie deep within.
These qualities translate themselves well into her collection of historical and empirical research into an aspect of mediterranean spirituality which, today, all too sadly, is not acknowledged for its influence upon western occultism and spirituality in the way that it should be.
Gnostiicism is a dry subject—there is no getting over the fact—but in her book Judith Mann has brought the history of its major players and influences into the light of day.
Within the Gnostic tradition as a whole, the main players are well-known, but do tend to be somewhat fictionalized. The Knights Templar, for example, although universally understood, are, to my mind anyway, deemed less esoterically important than the Cathars.
Thus, I was particularly pleased to see them given a decent treatment in ’The Trail of Gnosis’. Along with a look at their core philosophy which, although it might not have wholly originated with them, is, nonetheless, highly influential in modern occultism, the author looks at their influence as a sect and the part that they have played in forming the spiritual heritage of this important region of the world.
That said, it would be wrong to highlight the Cathars as the only part of this book that caught my attention for I enjoyed reading about all of the Gnostic sects that Judith Mann features.
What did somewhat surprise me was the fact that Gnosticism was quite as widespread and influential as it seems to have been. It even spread out as far as the Orient at certain times.
The book is well illustrated—although I would have preferred some of the photographs to have been a little larger. All the same, they add to the unique flavor that this publication carries and Judith has an extensive gallery of photographs that were taken on her travels at www.academia.org
The included maps are handy guides and the drawings add to the sense of antiquity that underpins the author’s research.
All-in-all, this is a book that those who would like to get a flavor of the Gnostic tradition will thoroughly enjoy. It is not an encyclopaedic examination but more of an investigative romp.
The Trail of Gnosis takes you on a hot and sweaty journey of exploration, during which it draws you into a page-turning examination of a fascinating cultural and historical tradition.