Erotic religion 114

Here’s another essay in our series on religions to entertain our readers. This is about the Gnostic cults of Carpocrates and Epiphanes.

1. Carpocrates lived and flourished in the great Egyptian city of Alexandria in the reign of the Emperor Hadrian (117-138). He was said to be a scientist (whatever that meant in the second century), and an authority on Plato. His theogony conformed to the Gnostic pattern – a remote unknown God emanated a series of Aeons or Archons, the lowest of which created the material world and man. Man was a badly made creature wallowing in filth, until the remote God took pity on him and sent into him a tiny spark of knowledge of Himself.

Like many another, though not all, Gnostic sects in his time, his was communistic. It seems that the initiates lived together, since they held all property – including women – in common. They occupied themselves with practising magic. Ritually they took drugs and intoned magical formulae to conjure up spirits – ‘incantations and philtres,’ as the shocked Church Fathers would have it; and held ‘love-feasts’; and deciphered secret meanings in ancient texts (probably the Jewish scriptures) by means of numerology.

As all flesh in their beliefs (or most of them) is evil, they were against normal sexual intercourse because to beget children was to bring more fleshly creatures into this evil rotten world.

Jesus, they maintained, was not divine, only a righteous human teacher and healer, the natural son of Joseph and Mary. When the soul of Jesus became pure and strong (with baptism?) it remembered its origin in the remote unknown God, the Primary Source, the Good, which granted him the power of communicating directly with itself, without his having to go through the intermediaries of the World-Creators and the higher Aeons. This power was not necessarily unique:

‘Whoever,’ Carpocrates taught, ‘despises this world and all that is in it more than Jesus did, can become greater than he.’

All things on earth are evil except one: human nature when it is ‘true to itself’, to its own deep instincts, those very urges that the Law decrees to be wrong. All moral laws proceeded from the evil creator-powers, so it is man’s duty to break them.

To do what the law forbade was to defy evil and thus serve good. He who abided by the law was committing evil. He must also deliberately think the very thoughts that were conventionally held to be unthinkable, appalling and corrupting. The man who did not do and think everything the wicked world calls evil in one lifetime, would be reincarnated again and again until he had comprehensively carried out these sacred duties. The Chief of the Creator Angels sent the Devil into the world to harvest the souls of those who failed to commit all possible ‘sins’ in a lifetime, and once gathered in, another of his minions would imprison each of them in a new body, until at last the creature came to know that only Faith and Love were good: one faith – in the Primal Source; one love – of the God Knowable Only By Instinct Illumined By The Gnosis.

Two aspects of the Carpocratean schema are particularly worth noticing:

First, that here the Chief of the Creator Angels is not the same Being as ‘Satan’ or ‘the Devil’, while others among the early Gnostic sects called the Creator by those names, or implied an identity between the Jewish God and the Devil. However, a doctrine of the Creator’s evil intention and evil work are common to almost all the cults.

Second, with Carpocrates a difficulty of language inherent in the Gnostic reversal of values becomes distinct. If everything conventionally described as good is to be re-branded as evil, and vice versa, the problem arises as to what words to use in praise or in condemnation of anything. It was all very well to call the ‘Good Lord’ evil, but what did that make the Devil? Who could be said to serve the now-Evil Lord – some ‘Good Angel’, meaning a bad one? And what word could be used for the other, the high God whom Gnostics – if they allowed him any attribute at all – knew to be ‘all Good’? The conundrum was insoluble, and the name Satan and the office of the Devil with conventional connotations of evil were still found useful.

This confusion in Gnostic thought was not superficial; not merely terminological. The actual concepts of good and evil were rendered unmanageable. Contradictory views on what needed to be done about evil continued for centuries to muddle the Gnostics’ own explanations of their religious practices. Almost all such sects throughout our common era enjoined the deliberate performance of what the Law calls crimes, and the ‘revealed’ religions call sins, as a defiance of the evil Creator Law-Giver. To carry out this duty, the Gnostic celebrants would commit sodomy, adultery, onanism; they had to steal, rape and murder, tell lies, fast on feast-days and feast on fast-days, pollute their own bodies and desecrate objects held sacred by other faiths, especially Judaism. But if filth was a cleanser, what was the medium in which the lower Archons’ botched Man-thing squirmed until the spirit was sent to him by the Godhead? To teach their creed they had to call this world ‘filthy’. And when committing sins for their own ‘good’ purposes, they had to see them as sins and call them ‘sins’. Some Gnostics explained their ritual sinning – and their secret way of life in which their immoral duties were regularly pursued – by saying that they were ‘consuming sin’, using it up. But this plainly recognises sin as sin.

Carpocrates, though he condemned this world as the work of an evil god, praised ‘nature’.  Nothing ‘natural’ is evil, he proclaimed, only man-made law and opinions make it so. By ‘natural’ he might have meant only the instincts of human beings sent by the unknown God, but his son Epiphanes (surely accidentally begotten?) plainly applied the word to what we would commonly call the natural world.

2. Epiphanes was a precocious sage. When he died at the age of 17, he already had a following of his own. He echoed and laid particular stress on his father’s teaching that the law was wrong and the natural order right. (As with the terms ‘good’ and ‘evil’, there was no escape from having to use the words ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in their conventional sense, in order to reverse the conventional view and so make the Law wrong and the unbridled indulgence of natural passions right.)

Epiphanes contradicted the usual Gnostic belief that this world is evil.

All creation – so the lad taught – belongs to all mankind. There should be no such thing as ‘mine’ and ‘thine’. The law invented private property, and so allowed the private owner to steal from the community of men. (An evergreen idea that has often been propagated, and became widely popular in the 19th century when Proudhon declared that ‘property is theft’.)

Women were part of the common property. As all men are equal, women are equally the property of all men. Because copulation is natural, it is holy, but every effort should be made to avoid procreation. Most sexual intercourse was therefore anal and oral, and was performed publicly as a sacred rite and called a love-feast. Drugs, especially aphrodisiacs, were routinely used.

We may suppose that only women who had no objection to being kept as a common possession of the men joined the cults of Carpocrates and Epiphanes – those willing to give up willing. Yet it seems that their chattel status did not prevent them attaining equal stature with the men. At least one female Carpocratean initiate, named Marcellina, was convinced of the rightness of the faith. She carried it to Rome in 150 AD, and there established herself as a cult leader in her own right.

Epiphanes’s mother seems to have been less communal than other women, not only conceiving a child but declaring him with certainty to be the son of Carpocrates. She came from the Ionian island of Cephalonia, and when Epiphanes died, the islanders, or some of them, proclaimed him a god. They built a temple dedicated to him (and consecrated, no doubt, according to the intoxicated and sensual rites of his cult). His memory as a man was also honoured there with a museum which housed, among other relics, the many books he had found time to write in his short life. We have been protected from them by the Christian Church; but the Church Father, Clement of Alexandria, who was allowed to read them before they were destroyed, has left us brief summaries of their contents.

His account shows us a priapic boy with long, long thoughts, full of ‘back to nature’ idealism; a lover of animals; an aesthete moved by the beauty of the earth and the starry skies, rather than one who condemned this world as a place of darkness. God lets the light of the sun and the stars, Epiphanes said, fall equally on all human beings, so we ourselves should not regard some among us as better than others, discriminating between rich and poor, ruler and subject, the foolish and the wise, male and female, the free and the enslaved. Even the beasts are blessed by the light. Each man and beast takes his enjoyment of it without depleting it for any other. The sun causes the earth to be fruitful and the fruits of the earth are for all. Beasts are exemplars of communitarian life, and being so they are righteous. Together they graze, equal, harmonious, and innocent. And so would we be had not the Law made transgression possible. The Law ‘nibbled away’ the fellowship of nature. Righteousness lies in fellowship and equality, in sharing and caring, which is to say in mutual and general love. Into every male God put vigorous and impetuous desire for the sake of the continuance of the human race. No law can take that away. It is right and good for a man to enjoy sexually every woman he desires. That a law should say ‘Thou shalt not covet’ is laughable. And the very idea of marriage is absurd since all women naturally belong to all men.

If like other Gnostic teachers Epiphanes was against the procreating of children, and considered this world a base work worthy only of destruction, no hint of it shows in this sample of his mind. Rather it suggests that he was more of a primitive Dionysian than an Anno-Domini Gnostic. His creed as far as we can know it is a boy’s sweet erotic dream, such as has recurred often enough in every age since then, and almost certainly had many precedents.

Jillian Becker  January 24, 2010