Pic de Bugarach in Aude, France, is a place that effortlessly combines natural wonder and legends. Add to its history a heaping portion of serious scientific misunderstandings, flavor with rumors and imaginative speculation, then bake for centuries, and the result is a bizarre mashup of fact and fiction that satisfies in our modern spooky times.

Vassil / CC0

There are so many sacred mountains around the world. Perhaps every significant peak has its own mythical origin story. Pic de Bugarach, ranks near the top. Its geological oddness was recognized early in the scientific community as one of the “Pyrenean Paradoxes”. But the copious number of metaphysical claims about this particular mountain is striking. To demonstrate the weirdness, I can’t do better than to quote from a horrendous website called Mary Magdalene France Tours. I leave the spelling and punctuation as in the original:

Pic De Bugarach is both an energetic and geological phenomenon. Geologists say Bugarach is a mountain built upside down. Thousands of years ago when the formations of the Pyrenees Mountains were arising out from the earth one particular peak arose and was toppled over in this cataclysmic transition. […] From an energetic perspective Pic De Bugarach is one of the special power centers of the world holding a dynamic presence for the planet. This relatively small mountain, standing less than 4,000 feet above sea level and a two and a half-hour walk to the top from its base, is a Stargate. A conduit for energies (and possibly life-forms) from other dimensions and realities to pass into the earth, as well as move out from a deep source within the planet. Those with extrasensory abilities, perceive an invisible cloud-like formation directly above the small dome shape peak, it is the entry point into something beyond the human/earth experience, something at such a higher vibration few humans can comprehend all of what it is. […] It appears Pic De Bugarach was designed through the thousands of years for this very function as it has an energetic presence (most likely due to the Stargate) with lay lines streaming out in a variety of directions. The early places of worship were built on the lay lines and later Catholic Churches and Chateaus constructed their temples on the same spots.

Bart Sharp

The writer then meanders into musing about earth chakras, but I will spare you any more of this “sciencey New Age” (or “Sewage”) prattle. This source hits upon most of the claims about the mountain that circulate in fiction (which some think are fact), in paranormal circles, and in modern media. The town of Bugarach itself even capitalized on the weirdness for their own means.

Jcb-caz-11 / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Claims

You don’t need extra-sensory ability to notice that the mountain above the sleepy commune-village of Bugarach has a certain presence. Its height at 1230m, while not towering, is enough to generate clouds that shroud the peak. Sources mentioned it is also called ”the crossroads of the four winds” and link it to Atlantis (of course). A few online sources give a magical origin to the peak saying (without reference) that the name is derived from the tale of two brave dwarfs (or children of Jupiter) called Bug and Arag who were granted a wish by the Gods. They wished for a mountain that would shelter the three regions of Roussillon, Corbieres, and Aude. More legitimate sources ignore that tale and opt for a more mundane naming of the village from a Roman settler.

The mountain has caves that are said to be “magical” or full of beautiful crystals. There are rumors of a river and lake under the mountain. There are also stories of old mines and burial crypts. The caves are linked to the colorful conspiratorial tales about Mary Magdalene, and even Jesus, escaping to France. The Cathars, a religious sect in opposition to the Catholics, supposedly hid sacred items in the area, including perhaps in these caves, and kept the location secret and protected. Pic de Bugarach is only about 20 miles from Rennes-le-Chateau, one of the rumored resting places of the lost treasure of the Knights Templars. Daniel Bettex was consumed by his search for the Ark of the Covenant in the mountain. In 1988, his correspondence to others relates that he was looking for the entrance to this hidden world of treasure. When he seemed days away from a revelatory discovery, he was found dead. The circumstances of his death were never made clear and feed additional conspiracies about clandestine groups still guarding the mountain and various secrets or treasures.

The most durable claim is that the mountain is a place of special energy. This is often associated with its unusual geology but also that it is located on the Paris meridian ley line and is part of a system of sacred geometry of earth features. The mountain is said to be “magnetic” and cause compasses to malfunction, so much so that planes will not fly over it because their equipment fails. The nebulous “energy” seems to affect some people positively and others negatively. Strange sounds and lights are said to come from inside. These arcane stories morphed in recent times to encompass the belief that the mountain was a UFO base. The caves, which were also thought to be a passage to the hollow earth or another dimension, were now a hiding place for alien craft.

LucasD / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Inspiration

It is not altogether clear why the mountain of Bugarach was considered sacred and why it motivated many in the weaving of such fantastic yarns. Jules Verne was influenced by it and ultimately strengthened its mysterious nature. Bugarach is said to be where he found the inspiration (and the entrance) for his Journey to the Center of the Earth.

Famous sci-fi story weaver Stephen Spielberg also poked around here and may have formed ideas for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, prior to choosing Devils Tower in Wyoming as the alien rendezvous location. We can see several similarities between the two locations! But in several ways, Bugarach has the upper hand in weirdness.

The swirling mysteries of Pic de Bugarach coalesced in 2012 around the imaginative rumblings about the Mayan apocalypse. In the approach to the so-called doomsday, the mayor of Bugarach appealed to authorities to help him safeguard his village from the hoards of “esoterics” that were coming to the mountain because of its sacred energy. A narrative emerged that the alien craft holed up inside the mountain caves would emerge on the day of destruction and whisk away the lucky pilgrims. The mayor clearly embellished the stories as a way to push out unwanted visitors, depicting them as a possible suicide cult. The media took the bait, repeating many of the spooky and outrageous claims about the village’s magic mountain.

“These blasted prophets from all over the world have turned our mountain into some sort of UFO garage,”

Jean-Pierre Delord, mayor of Bugarach. Reuters

The hot topics of aliens and Mayans intersecting at one sacred mystical mountain were headline gold. The apocalypse at the end of 2012 in all aspects was a giant bust. The mountain was quiet; no crowds came.

ThierryS / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Geology

What’s next is to unpack the actual geology of the Pic de Bugarach. Crazy stories are fun and popular and blatant errors will regularly be passed on and assumed to be factual. Several popular sources repeat the misleading information that the mountain was an ancient volcano. In one absurd book, author Richard Leviton (Walking in Albion, 2010) compares it to Tolkien’s land of Mordor. Although there are extinct volcanoes in the area, Pic de Bugarach isn’t one. Tales of smoke from the mountain are more likely from the clouds that readily condense around it.

Esoteric writer Phillip Coppens repeats that claim that Bugarach is an “upside down mountain” because the layers are millions of years older than the strata below. “It is as if someone shot the mountain in the air, flipped it around, and then it landed again.” Well… No. It’s not like that at all and no reasonable geologist would think this. But the analogy was gratuitously included in several media reports during the 2012 frenzy:

“Scientists say that is because when the 1,230-meter (4,040-foot) mountain erupted, its peak flipped upside down before crashing back down upon the mountain’s base.”

Yahoo News

The peak of Bugarach has long been called “the sacred mountain”; geologists say that soon after the mountain was formed, it exploded and the top landed upside-down.

New York Times

Maybe the media should ask an actual scientist/geologist instead of esotericists because, as we look back to the early days, geologists had a pretty good idea of what really happened here.

Back in the late 1800s, geology was congealing as a science, particularly in Europe. There was not just one but many “paradoxical” locations in the Pyrenees where the law of superposition appeared to be violated. The idea of nappes — large-scale overthrusts on a low angle fault plane caused by compression — had formed based on observations in the European Alps. Nappe (pronounced “nap”) belts were confirmed in similar locations: the Dinarides, Carpathians, and Balkans. Calling the circumstances nappe de charriage (thrust sheets), Marcel Alexandre Bertrand had examined earlier studies from the Glarus Alps and unraveled the tectonic story of rock layers that had been pushed, folded, and stacked upon each other like a rumpled cloth pushed across a table. The scientists of the time recognized the idea of compression of the crust but thought it was a result of the shrinking and cooling of the earth. The timing was just not right for anyone to recognize plate tectonics in action.

Parts of a nappe belt can become isolated when erosion dismembers the overthrust layer. These are called klippen. A klippe (pronounced “klip’-uh”) is an island of older rock with younger ones around it. So, it looks “upside down”. Pic de Bugarach is a klippe where Jurassic limestones were thrust over younger Cretaceous strata. In 1889, geologist M. Carez had determined Pic de Bugarach was related to charriage.

Pic de Bugarach
Rock masses are compressed so that the older rock (gray) over-rides the younger rock (white).
Later, erosion leaves windows and klippen as outliers.

No scientist ever had seriously held that Pic de Bugarach was a volcano or a mountain top blown over. Perhaps the idea of “overthrown” strata in the description of the formation of a nappe was misinterpreted by someone who wasn’t versed in geological concepts, and the sciencey-sounding idea was interesting enough to repeat. There may be small caves in the limestone but this is not a developed karst system. It’s wishful thinking alone to expect that there are reasonable hiding places for treasure here, not to mention the existence of such treasures to begin with. The exaggerated tales of energy and magnetism are also unfounded. Such claims can easily be tested but people would rather keep repeating the magical stories instead.

Even today, Bugarach is still plagued by misleading publicity and opportunists. The New Age Sewage continues to be propagated, unabated by facts and reality. People collect and sell ‘authentic’ Pic de Bugarach pieces to sell to the esoterics worldwide, much like magical crystals.

Across the world, misunderstanding of geology and natural features can lead people to think certain places are sacred, abodes of the gods or spirits, or doorways to evil realms. Like molten blobs, the stories accrete onto the place. This isn’t always a bad thing, but it can be. And the nonsense can mask a more elegant truth underneath.

For the story of Bettex and the publicity over 2012 in Bugarach, check out the Unexplained Mysteries podcast. Part 1 and 2.

Additional References

Stuart-Menteath, P. W. (1903). “The Pyrenean Paradoxes,” Pyrenean Geology, Part III.

Trümpy, R. (2001). Why plate tectonics was not invented in the Alps. Int J Earth Sciences. 90: 477- 483.

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