Gnosticism: what is it? 4

Gnosticism, with a capital G, is a system of religious belief. It is derived from the word gnosis, the Greek for knowledge. “Gnosticism” implies the possession of a particular sort of knowledge, a kind that needs no objective proof, but exists to the knower as an absolute, incontrovertible certainty. It arises by instinct, by private experience. To Gnostics, inner certainty is the sole source and authentication of their religious belief.

Gnosis is the opposite of doubt. It eludes enquiry, defies rational argument. Science demands objective proofs and practices doubt through experiment. Gnosis neither seeks nor offers proof. In this sense, Gnosis and Science scorn each other. They are two different ways of knowing: by intuition the one, by reason the other. Many European languages (Greek-descended or Greek-influenced) recognize two different ways of “knowing” by having different words for them. In French, for instance, “connaitre” and “savoir”; in German, “kennen” and “wissen“. In “connaitre” and “kennen” the Greek root “gnosis” can be seen, as in the English word “know”. The English word, however, does for both senses: being acquainted with directly (“I know him”, “Je le connais”), and being aware of, having learnt (“I know Euclidean geometry”, “Je sais la géométrie euclidienne”).

A Gnostic system was an elaboration of instinctual belief as direct knowledge. Doctrine and practice were taught just as they are in the “revealed” religions. Some Gnostic teachers established schools of thought, their successors carrying on their teaching, though often altering details of vision or ritual. Some started in the tradition of one or another school but came to be so far at variance with the founders that they broke away and launched sects of their own, which in turn could develop into new schools and traditions.

Founders of Gnostic sects described each his own vision of heaven and earth, prescribed each his own rites. But  though they varied and became numerous, all the sects had enough in common for them to be grouped together as “Gnostic”, and the term has a set of special connotations. The name is particularly applied to a category of sects that arose in the first and second centuries CE, a few of them to last for hundreds of years; and also to sects of similar theology and practices that appeared in the Middle Ages.

Most of them shared these beliefs: –

That this world is evil: all of it, every material thing. Every flower, every tree, every blade of grass, every fruit, every stream, the land and the ocean, every bird, fish, insect, animal is evil. Every human being is base, vile, made of filth. And as an evil creation has to be the work of an evil creator, he who made and rules this world is an Evil God (or, in a minority of systems, a God who is not outright evil but yet not very nice, being a stickler for justice).

But, the Gnostic believed, there is something in this world which is not evil, and that is his knowledge itself. And since an evil god can only create evil things, this knowledge cannot come from the creator of this world. There has to be another source, another god who has nothing to do with this vile world, but exists outside and beyond it, and is good. The Good God is the Primary Source, pure Being, the One. Only good can come from Him.

Yet Evil exists. How did it come into existence? To answer this question, the Gnostics chart a family tree of divine beings: a theogony. At the summit is pure Being, the Source, which is purely Good. From the Source descend “hypostases”, beings whose degree of divinity diminishes the further they are from the Source. Each lesser being receives from the one immediately above him a portion of his divinity, and passes on a portion of what he receives to the one below him. From being to being descending, goodness diminishes with each diminishing degree of divinity. The goodness runs out before the divinity, however, and the lowest god receives none of it. He has the divine power to create, but no good to put into his creation. So what he makes is evil. He is the creator of this evil world and all that dwells therein. He is often named Ialdabaoth, and is comparable to the “demiurge” (demiurgos) of Greek philosophy: the divine artisan or smith who takes everlasting Matter and shapes it into the things of our world. In many Gnostic systems he is identified with the God of the Jews.

And yet something of the good, a miniscule spark of the Good itself, did come into human beings (or at least some of them), to remain deep within them, trapped inside their vile bodies throughout their lives on this earth until finally it is released when they die. But how did it come into human beings? It could not have come from the evil creator of this world – it was not his to give. It came, the Gnostics said, directly from the Source. It is a gift from the Highest, it belongs to Him, and to Him it will at last return, to be again one with the One. And for the time that people have to endure life in this world, by that spark they may know the good, and the layered heavens full of immortal beings, and the Supreme God Up There.

Up there the One is at a distance immeasurably remote; but within the Gnostic, He is intimately close. And the Gnostic knows that He will at last redeem – take back – the vital spark.

Did the Gnostics believe in such “redemption” for everyone? The answer to that is not easy to find. Some Gnostics knew that the minuscule spark of the divine was in all human beings. But others – an apparent majority – knew, with equal conviction, that it was the property of only a privileged few.

These few, in most systems, were the true Gnostics. They were also called Illuminati, or Pneumatics (meaning that the Spirit or Pneuma was in them).

Those who had not discovered the spark within them but might yet – being disciples of the Pneumatics, observing the rites and rules of the faith, and showing themselves to be a cut above the rest – were called Psychics (those with a Soul).

The masses of the unillumined were called the Hylics (those consisting only of Matter). Hylics were nothing but vile clay, the stuff of which this base world is made. They were of the earth earthy. This was their world, the only one to which they belonged and to which they were tied forever, in life and in death. They worshipped the God who made it. They mistakenly believed him and his creation to be good.

The Illuminati, and possibly the aspiring Psychics, held that they were strangers in this world. As long as they sojourned on earth they must remain hostile to it. The reversal of values that their creeds propounded – whatever most mortals saw as morally good being evil and vice versa – made them rebels born. As the enemies of God the Creator, it was their holy duty to defy him and scorn all his works.

Having two Gods, Gnosticism was dualistic. In most of the sects in the Roman Empire, and later in medieval Europe, the Evil God that created this world was an inferior power to the Good God. In others – chiefly those whose geographical origins lay further East, in Persian Zoroastrianism with its twin gods of Good and Evil – the Second God was equal (or nearly) in status and power to the First.

Most Gnostic sects from the second century on were Christian in the sense that they included Christ in their theogonies, as messenger or Son sent to earth by the True God, with a redemptive role to perform in the divinely decreed drama of human history. There is nothing about their creeds which makes them more or less absurd than other Christianities, including Catholicism and the Protestant denominations – or more or less than any religion whatsoever.


Jillian Becker    March 3, 2013


We have posted outlines of several Gnostic creeds and histories, and will post some more. See: How a rich shipowner affected Christianity, January 2, 2010 (on Marcion); Erotic religion, January 24, 2010 (on Carpocrates and Epiphanes); The father of all heresy, February 23, 2010 (on Simon Magus); Yezidis and Mandeans, April 4, 2010; Mani and Manicheism, May 9, 2010; Hot in the land of Hum, October 14, 2010 (on the Bugomils); Valentinus, February 14, 2011; The heretics of Languedoc, May 1, 2011 (on the Cathars).

On Zoroastrianism see Thus, more or less, spake Zarathustra, May 26, 2009.

Flip 1

The Christian Gnostics of the early centuries CE reversed the moral judgment of their inherited civilization, decreeing that what was commonly considered good was evil, and vice versa.

Planets, even the earth, can flip their poles, north becoming  south, south north.

In the twentieth century the Russian empire was communist, America capitalist. In the twenty-first, Russia is capitalist, while America … well, you’ve got the point.

Now women are becoming men, and men women. Not just individually, which has become quite common and adds to the gaiety of nations, but en masse. This has to happen because women want to be soldiers, so men must be feminized.

Diana West puts it best:

And so it came, the coup de grace. The final “barrier” to “opportunities” for women in combat is no more. With a stroke of their pens, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin E. Dempsey decreed that no battlefield mission or military role is off-limits to the female sex. The defense secretary and the general thus liberated mothers, daughters, sisters and wives to kill and be killed in the infantry, commando raids, even in Obama administration “overseas contingency operations.” In so doing, they also slashed away at that last institutional protection for the space that separates men and women, where civilization once grew.

It (civilization) has been struggling there for decades, as social engineers and radical feminists — all heirs to Marx — have been cutting away at elemental human instinct, social grace, language and thought itself. This overhaul of manners and mores, the family structure and marriage — even private aspects of the relationship between men and women — has been successful to a point where the cultural argument against women in combat (women in the military being a lost cause) is rarely voiced, not even on the right. …

We are left to make only the utilitarian arguments — body strength and speed, unit cohesion, even urinary tract infections and other hazards that front-line deployment pose to females. These are compellingly logical points, but they are unlikely to reverse an ideological juggernaut. When the secretary of defense says putting women in combat is about “making our military … and America stronger” and no one says he’s lying to further a Marxian ideal via social engineering, the cultural argument is lost, and the culture it comes from is bound and gagged, hostage to what we know as “political correctness.” 

I still see threads of the cultural argument in emails and some blog responses to the Pentagon’s latest whack at creating “gender neutrality.” It erupts like a reflex against the conditioning to deny differences defined, at their essence, by muscle mass and womb. Such conditioning erodes the male protective instinct — which, surely, is what war is supposed to arise from — and the female nurturing instinct, which surely is what a civilization depends on.

No more. Women with wombs and without manly muscle mass now count as Pentagon-approved “warriors,” modern-day knights in Kevlar, soon to be humping 80-pound packs over mountain and desert.

Or maybe not. Didn’t Gen. Dempsey indicate that dropping some of those old-fashioned strength and speed requirements might be in order? “If we do decide that a particular standard is so high that a woman couldn’t make it,” Dempsey said last week, “the burden is now on the service to come back and explain to the secretary, why is it that high? Does it really have to be that high?” Of course not! Why train Navy SEALs when Navy OTTERs will do as well?

And what about their children, when these front-line warriors bear them? And their pregnancies, when they decide it’s better for their mission, for their country, to terminate them? Don’t think Daddy Government, once again, won’t be a steady provider to his womenfolk. …

This penultimate shift at the Pentagon (will the NFL be next?) is just the tail end of something, not the beginning — the rewiring of the human spirit. In other words, the whole movement in the name of “equal rights” has no more to do with women being legally able to apply for a credit card and other aspects of equality before the law than ordering women into combat is about making the military and America stronger.

No, it’s about behavioral manipulation and transformation — the Equal Rights Amendment by executive fiat. These changes have been a long time coming. In my lifetime, I have watched even post-1960s standards of femininity, for example, plunge to a point where female tendencies toward privacy, intimacy and modesty have given way to norms of clinical-style revelation and numbing brazenness — and I’m talking about today’s “nice” girls, the ones who soon will be considered eligible for Selective Service.

Yes, I know, only 15 percent of our all-volunteer military is female — even after decades of active government courtship to woo women into the ranks and make “a force that looks like America” (not Obama’s Cabinet), as Bill Clinton has put it. But don’t think this “opportunity” for the few comes without strings to the many. As Army Col. Ellen Haring pointed out on “PBS NewsHour” last week, “With full rights come full responsibilities.”

And then what? Will gender-neutral raw recruits soon be brawling outside the bar (with the man “beating the snot” out of the woman, as one Iraq veteran recently suggested to me in an email)? Will gender-neutral male soldiers be trained out of their protective instinct toward women? Do we want to live with the results?

One senior officer with multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan wrote this to me: “I would never want my mother, sisters, wife or daughter to have to experience the ravages of combat or, worse, become a prisoner of war. It goes against every fiber of my being.”

Yesterday’s man. For a better tomorrow, we need more like him.


Here’s a sad old English verse by that prolific poet Anonymous:

A girl in the Army

Longed for a baby

She took her father’s greyhound

And laid it in the cradle

“Long legs hast thou

And were it not for thy cold snout

I’d kiss thee, now-now!”


The right and the totally absurd 5

Most conservative writers take it for granted that those who share their political opinions also share their religiousness, and are surprised, even shocked, that some conservatives are atheist.

We look at the matter the other way round. It is a perpetual puzzle to us why so many persons who are clear-sighted and rational enough to be conservatives yet believe in the supernatural.

Writing in the American Thinker, Lloyd Marcus opines:

Without beating around the bush, I believe the battle being fought in America today goes beyond politics; right vs. left. It is a spiritual battle; good vs evil.

We agree that the battle is between good and evil. We think the Left and Islam – in alliance with each other at present – are evil.

But what do the religious mean when they use the word “spiritual”? We understand “spirit” to be adverbial: one does this or that in such and such a spirit. They believe that spirit is a noun, identical with the “soul”. And what is the soul? It’s the ghost inside “you” which will continue to live when “you” die. Christians believe that it will live forever in “heaven” if it was good on earth, and will suffer forever in “hell” if it was naughty.

As if to strengthen his argument, Marcus quotes a passage from the Epistle to the Ephesians, ascribed to St. Paul, but of disputed authorship. Whoever wrote the epistle put into it one of the most egregiously Gnostic passages in the New Testament, and that’s the one Lloyd Marcus quotes:

For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. – Ephesians 6:12

In Gnostic systems there were layers of heavens between the ascending spirit of the Gnostic and the highest sphere of the good God. In them dwelt powers called Aeons (heavenly beings and ages in time) and principalities (Archons). A low-dwelling, evil god, identical to Jehovah the god of the Jews, created this world and ruled it with his own set of Aeons and Archons.

That is not orthodoxy to any Christian sect. Christians are hard put to interpret the passage in their terms, which is probably why some argue that St Paul  didn’t write it.

But Marcus means that flesh and blood Democrats are the “powers and principalities” he and his fellow Christians are wrestling against, and the Senate and the White House are his “high places”. In other words his battle is within the realm of politics. He just vaguely supposes that good and evil are terms that belong only to religion, so quotations from his scriptures leap to his mind:

The mindset of the American left is a spirit of Antichrist which is man making himself God.

Before writing me off as a Bible nut, please hear me out. Understanding this reality will explain much of the left’s behavior. Because they believe man is God, in their insane arrogance, the left think they can fix everything; legislate equal outcomes and even save or destroy the planet.

Now we agree with him that lefties arrogantly “think they can legislate equal outcomes and even save or destroy the planet”. And we know they cannot. Not because they lack divine power, but because equal outcomes cannot be legislated, and because the human beings who “infest” the planet (as H. L. Mencken once put it), cannot affect the thing to any significant extent.

What the religious right cannot or will not see, is that you can believe in the market economy, small government, low taxes, strong defense, individual liberty under the law – all the important conservative ideas – without believing that they issue from, or are sanctioned by, a supernatural source.

Marcus defends Sarah Palin:

Make no mistake about it folks, we are in a spiritual battle. Ask yourself. Specifically, what about Sarah Palin inspires such visceral hatred from the left? The word is “wholesome.”

We agree that she is wholesome. We like her wholesomeness. We like her decency and probity and patriotism and moral strength. We like what we have gathered are her favored policies. We agree with Marcus that the Left hates her for the very things we admire in her. And we are willing to disregard her religious views, as we have to disregard the religious views of all possible presidential candidates because the time has not come when a self-confessed atheist will stand a chance of being elected to the White House. (We suspect, however, that many a presidential candidate is a secret atheist – and perhaps a few presidents have been too.)

Our point is, good values make good sense and don’t require the sanction of a Nobodaddy-in the-sky. All moral ideas, all ideas proceed from the minds of human beings. A person who knows this to be the case is not one who “thinks he is God”; “God” is superfluous to him or her.

Marcus holds that without God to tell us what to think, none of us would ever get it right.

Because liberal elitists think man is God, they assume moral authority to confiscate as much control over our lives as we simple-minded god-fearing peons will allow them, including procreation. I picked up a government-funded brochure at my local library which basically said birthing babies is an irresponsible abuse of the planet.

Folks, this is leftist control-freak hogwash!

Yes it is.

The seven billion people who live on the planet could fit in Texas enjoying about the same amount of living space as residents of New York.

True. But he adds:

God said be fruitful and multiply. But then, what the heck does God know?

Sarcasm of course. But what the heck does “God” know? If there is a being who knows more than man, how can man know that he does?

The rest of the article (see it here) rambles on about this and that – “Christianity only religion not respected, Jesus is divine, true Christians trust God, zz-zzzz” – the points being tied together only by the buzz in his head that they all represent aspects of wrong guidance by “the Antichrist”.

Like an episode of Star Trek, the left believes universal peace can be achieved via America apologizing and admitting to the world that we suck, surrendering our power, signing treaties and singing a few verses of Kumbaya. They believe the greatest source of evil in the world is warmongering Christian white guys like George Bush. If only Bush had “Given peace a chance.” Liberals always cater to man’s lowest base instincts. They hate standards for behavior, labeling all rebuke of bad behavior as being intolerant and judgmental.

We don’t argue with that. But this follows:

And yet, they believe without divine influence, man is capable of someday achieving universal peace. Totally absurd.

Has he not noticed that a great many wars have been fought over religious issues? What has “divine influence” ever done for peace?

Christians believe that though we strive to do the right thing, the heart of man is critically flawed which is why we were in need of a savior, Jesus Christ.

And just when will his “savior” remove the flaws in the human heart?

This is how he concludes his article:

Despite the left’s relentless attempts to ban God from America’s public square, the emergence and power of the Tea Party tells me God is still on our side.

Mr. Obama, though your liberal zealots perceive you to be “the messiah,” God is still on the throne.

Totally absurd.

Jillian Becker   June 11, 2011

The heretics of Languedoc 3

Next in our occasional series on lost and obscure religions comes Catharism. (Our choice of which to write about and when depends to some extent on chronology, but also on whim.)

The name “Cathar” derives from the Greek word for “pure”: catharos.

The sect arose (not exclusively, but most memorably to history) in the Languedoc in southern France (the land where the word for “yes” is “oc”).  “Cathars” was the name bestowed upon them by the Catholic Church. They called themselves simply “Christians”, “Good Christians”, “Good Men” or “Good Women”. They were opposed to the Catholic Church as ardently as the Church was opposed to them.

The cult stemmed from the Balkans (see our post on the Bugomils, Hot in the land of Hum, October 14, 2010). Bugomil and Paulician missionaries brought it to Western Europe. And the Crusades had more than a little to do with the spread of eastern doctrines into the West.

In the Languedoc, the first Cathars were tradesmen and artisans, mostly weavers.  Nobility joined the sect later than townspeople and peasants.

Because the Catholic authorities believed that the town at the center of French Catharism was Albi – when in fact it had no center – they called Catharism “the Albigensian heresy”.

It was a form of Gnosticism. One typically Gnostic aspect of it was its discouragement of procreative copulation. Because of this, it has been conjectured by numerous historians that Courtly Love (love between a man and a woman which excluded sexual intercourse), a cult contemporaneous with Catharism and celebrated by the troubadours, arose directly out of it.

The Cathars were first recognized by the Catholic Church to be an organized heresy around the year 1030, but it wasn’t until 1208 that it sent an army to the Languedoc to wipe out Catharism. The campaign was called the Albigensian Crusade. The Cathars resisted, and the Catholic forces, under the command of Simon de Montfort, took decades to accomplish their aim.

Like the Manicheans (see our post, Mani and Manicheism, May 9, 2010 ) and their offshoots (including the Paulicians and Bugomils), the Cathars believed that Two Principles govern the universe: Good and Evil.

They identified the Jewish God, Jehovah, with the evil principle, the Devil. They also called him “The King of the World”.

There was a division among the Cathars into two main sub-sects: the Dualists and the Monarchists.

The Dualists, more closely adhering to the Iranian Gnosticism of Mani, believed that Evil is co-eternal with Good.

The Monarchists believed that evil came into being with the fall of an Angel who became the Evil God, and that he will be overcome, and evil destroyed, when the material world comes to an end.

The Dualists believed that the material world is entirely the work of the Evil God, the Monarchists that the Evil God created it out of material already existing. Some Monarchists held that the Evil God had the Good God’s permission to create it. All agreed that matter is evil; that the Evil God imprisoned man in his creation; that men and women are made of base matter, but each has a spark of divinity in him or her.

And all believed that between the Good God in his highest heaven and the lower world, are sequences of Aeons (for an explanation of which see our post, Valentinus, February 14, 2011). The chief of these is the Don, or Christ, who was sent in “a moral casing” to earth, to combat the Evil God and redeem all the sparks which belonged to, and originated from, the celestial sphere and return them to where they belonged.

They all believed that Christ had not been human. A divine being could not be clothed in such base matter as flesh, because it is evil.

The Dualists held that, therefore, the “Christ-Aeon”, being wholly divine, had only seemed to be crucified (a theory known as “docetism”).

The Monarchists, or at least some of them, believed that a few of the elements of which this world is made came from the Good God, so a divine being could enter matter, and seem to be human, in order to dupe the Devil and rescue the scattered fragments (or “sparks”) of the good.

The Virgin Mary was not important. To some she was an Aeon through whom the Christ-Aeon passed when descending. To others she was a mere woman whom Christ had used as a conduit for his emergence into this world. He entered her through her ear, and came out the same way.

This world is the Devil’s domain. It is Hell. The body will remain in this world, and if  a person lives sinfully, which is to say, too “materialistically” (ie comfortably), he (or she) becomes ever more entangled in matter, too bound to the earth for the spark within him to escape. He will live other lives on this earth, perhaps in the form of an animal. Any animal may be a reincarnated human being with a holy spark in it, and this was a reason why meat-eating was forbidden.

To bring new life into the world by having a child was  to embed oneself very deeply in this Hell. So the Cathars deplored marriage and reproduction.

Sexual intercourse was strongly discouraged, and this in itself was a heresy in the eyes of the Catholic Church. The Church alleged that the Cathars did not live chastely, however, but indulged in forms of sexual activity that did not carry the risk of reproduction. The Church Fathers had accused Gnostic sects of the second century, which had been against child-bearing for the same reason, of holding orgies in which they indulged in perverse sexual practices. But orgies among the Cathars would seem to be inconsistent with their rejection of pleasure.

They were extreme puritans, but they did not refuse all sexual activity. They used  various forms of contraception, and may have gone in for pregnancy-avoiding sexual practices such as the Bugomils did. Consistently with their beliefs, they admitted that casual debauchery was preferable to marriage, as marriage regularized the practice of sexual intercourse.

Life on earth, they believed, was to be endured because it is the state in which purification must be accomplished. A Cathar’s ideal life was  lived chastely, abstemiously. He practiced self-denial, eschewed pleasure. The purer the life he led, the more his spark of the divine was likely to ascend to the celestial sphere when he died.

Like many Gnostic cults before them, the Cathars recognized three grades of human beings.

The bulk of mankind were Hylics, of the earth earthy, strongly bound to this evil  material world.

Among Cathars, the elect of the human race, the faithful fell into two grades.  The Psychics, also called the Believers, and the Pneumatics, also called the Perfects.

From among the Perfects were selected a Bishop, a Filius Major, a Filius Minor, and Deacons to serve and assist them.

The Cathar ritual of worship was simple. They had no churches. Daily, in a house of one of the faithful, they would gather round a table. Bread and wine were blessed by the most senior Perfect or Believer present. (This had nothing to do with the Catholic rite of the Eucharist, which the Cathars abominated.) All then said the Lord’s Prayer, standing. Then they seated themselves and the bread and wine were distributed among them.

Entrance to the sect was through a rite called the Covenenza.  The candidate undertook (made a covenant) to honor and serve the Perfects.  From then on he was eligible for the next rite, the Consolamentum, which wiped out all sin and by which he would become a Perfect.

A prolonged fast prepared the candidate for the Consolamentum, or Baptism of the Holy Spirit.  At the ceremony he promised never again to eat meat, eggs, cheese or “any food except from water (so fish were allowed) and wood (plants)”.  He promised never to lie, or to make oaths, or carry out any lustful act. He would remain completely celibate.  And he promised never to “go about alone” when he could “have a companion”, and never to denounce or abandon the faith for fear of water or fire or any other form of torture and death.

Then the witnesses and the postulant would kneel, and the ministrant would place the St John Gospel on the postulant’s head and recite its opening verses.

The new Perfect was then invested with a sacred “thread” which he had to wear for the rest of his life (a tradition descended from the Manicheans, who had received it from Zoroastrianism). The thread or cord was tied round the body, probably as a symbol of carnal restraint.

The ceremony ended with the Kiss of Peace. The men would kiss each other, and the women would kiss each other. As they were forbidden to kiss a member of the opposite sex, the men touched the women on the elbow.

A final rite was called the Endura.  He who submitted  himself to it could choose to become a Confessor or a Martyr. If he chose to be a Confessor, he would neither eat nor drink for three days. If he chose to  be a Martyr, he would never take food or drink again, but fast and thirst to death.  So long drawn out and intense would the agony of this be, that the Martyr was permitted to cut his life short by other means. And it was considered a kindness if someone close to the dying Martyr killed him. Both suicide and euthanasia were morally acceptable in that circumstance.

The Cathars held out against the Crusaders until 1244.  (Simon de Montfort was killed in battle at Toulouse in 1218 – his head shattered by a stone flung from a piece of artillery called a stone-gun, worked by a group of Cathar women.) The Cathars’ last stand was on Montsegur, a great rock of a mountain, where they were embattled and besieged. There they held out for ten months, but finally surrendered. Most of the survivors agreed to abjure their faith and embrace Catholicism, and had their lives spared. Three or four Perfects escaped. But the rest, about two hundred men and women, chose martyrdom and were burnt to death en masse, on a huge pyre enclosed by a roughly erected palisade at the foot of the mountain.

It was to counter Catharism that the first inquisition was established by the Church in the Languedoc in 1184. As a permanent institution, the Inquisition became the torturing arm of the Catholic Church. From the 13th century the Dominican Order was in charge of it. It still exists, though it no longer officially tortures people physically, or burns them to death. In the early 20th century it was given the new name “Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office”, changed again in 1965 to “the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith”. In 1981, Joseph Ratzinger – the present Pope, Benedict XVI – became its Cardinal Prefect.

Hot in the land of Hum 3

What high-minded Western intellectuals like to call “Islamism”  and  we call the waging of violent jihad in accordance with the commandments of the Prophet Muhammad,  is growing in the Balkans.

A report at Deutsche Welle gives some detail, naming Bosnia as a region where Saudi Wahhabism is increasing “tension” between Muslims and Serbs.

Some Bosnian Wahhabis, estimated to number 3,000, are former foreign fighters who married Bosnian women and stayed in the country after the Bosnian war that ended in 1995.

The 1990s wars in the Balkans, in which NATO became involved, are hardly ever mentioned now. Under Commander-in-Chief Bill Clinton, America fought its most unnecessary military engagement ever. Absolutely no American interests were involved. American lives were sacrificed to Muslim interests, including the protection of Muslim terrorists in Kosovo.

In early September, Bosnian police uncovered a cache of weapons and detained a third suspect as part of their inquiry into a June bomb attack that killed one policeman and injured six others. The attack on a police station in the town of Bugojno was one of the most serious security incidents in Bosnia. Police arrested the suspected mastermind and an aide shortly after the blast.

Prosecutors [are] investigating several people from Bugojno and Gornja Maoca on suspicion of Wahhabi ties, terrorism and human trafficking.

The report contains some picturesque details:

In February, Bosnian and EU police raided Gornja Maoca and arrested seven men described as Wahhabis because of their beards and shortened trousers. Police said they were detained for suspected illegal possession of arms and threatening the country’s “territorial integrity, constitutional order and provoking inter-ethnic and religious hatred.”

We will quote some more of the report, on both Bosnia and Macedonia, partly because we like the curious names:

Gornja Maoca was home to some 30 families who lived by strict Shariah laws … Nusret Imamovic [a name that encapsulates Slavic Islam – JB], the town’s self-proclaimed Wahhabi leader, endorsed suicide attacks on the group’s Bosnian language website, saying they should be launched only in “exceptional circumstances.” The site features statements by al-Qaeda and Islamic groups fighting in the Caucasus and celebrates suicide bombers as joyful Muslims.

Serbian officials say 12 alleged Wahhabis convicted last year to prison terms of up to 13 years for planning terrorist attacks, including on the US Embassy in Belgrade, had close ties to their brethren in Gornja Maoca. One of the convicted, Adnan Hot, said during the trial that Imamovic was one of only three Muslim leaders that he followed. Four other Wahhabis were sentenced in a separate case to jail terms of up to eight years on charges of planning to bomb a football stadium in the southern Serbian town of Novi Pazar.

In Macedonia, Suleyman Rexhepim Rexhepi, head of the official Islamic Religious Community (IVZ), recently called on the government and the international community to crack down on increasingly influential Wahabbi groups. Rexhepi is locked into a bitter battle with Ramadan Ramadani, the imam of the Isa Beg mosque in Skopje, that has caused a rift in the country’s Muslim community.


The history of Bosnia’s Muslim population is interesting.

It is a chapter in the story of Gnosticism, which spread westward through southern Europe from the 8th to the 14th centuries.

The Bugomils (or Bogomils) were a Gnostic sect established in  the Land of Hum, now known as Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Their name Bugomil means “Beloved of God”.  (The Slavic word for “God” is “Bug” or “Bog”. “Mil” means “dear”.)

Their creed was a variation of the Paulicians’, a sect which became numerous in the 8th century Byzantine Empire, their beliefs deriving from Manicheism (see our post Mani and Manicheism, May 9, 2010) and possibly also from the church of Marcion (see our post How a rich ship owner affected Christianity, January 2, 2010). It spread from Bulgaria into the Balkans, where its followers were also known as Patarenes.

In brief, the Bugomils believed:

There are two gods, one good and one evil. The good god is knowable only by the Elect. The evil god is the God of the Jews, who created this material world. As it is his creation, everything in it is evil, every flower, every rock and grain of sand, every drop of water, every living thing of land and air and sea, excepting only the Elect.

Jesus was sent to earth by the remote good god to cure all ills. Although Mary “gave birth” to him, he was not her son but entered her through an ear and “emerged by the same door”. No reverence was due to Mary, who was only an incubator for the Christ, and was the mother of many other children fathered by Joseph.

They taught that this evil world must be renounced as much as possible in this life, so they forbade the drinking of wine and the eating of meat, and discouraged marriage. Reproduction was disapproved of but not totally eschewed – so the sect did not die out. To keep procreation down, sex was practiced in ways that would avoid it.

It is from the Bugomils’ normal practice of anal sex that the words “bugger” and “buggery” are derived.

Some teachers, such as one Theodosius, favored nudism. His followers celebrated “holy orgies” of sexual excess.

They had no icons, no feast days, no sacraments except baptism, which was performed by words only, water being an evil material substance. The ritual consisted of placing the Gospel of John on the head of the candidate, invoking the Holy Ghost, and reciting the Lord’s prayer. The candidate thus became one of the Elect.

They had no consecrated churches, only meeting-houses for communal praying. They repeated the Lord’s prayer 10 times over, 7 times daily and 5 times nightly.

They disobeyed their Orthodox overlords as a religious duty, passively resisting their authority.

After centuries of holding out against attempts at their conversion by both the Orthodox and Catholic churches, they greeted the Turkish invaders of the late 15th century as liberators, and many of them became Muslim. How many is not known; nor how many contemporary Bosnian Muslims are descended from the Bugomils; but some certainly are, and possibly most of them.

Jillian Becker    October 14, 2010

Mani and Manicheism 6

Here’s another essay in our series on religions that are dead or obscure or just curious. This one is about Mani and his cult. I’ve made choices from various accounts of his life and teachings, not out of any conviction that these are the true or truer versions, but because I like their drama and colorfulness. Only fragments of Mani’s writings are extant, and what is known of his life derives from Christian and other writers who have quoted him, among them St. Agustine, and from a Greek codex found in Upper Egypt in 1969, and probably written more than 100 years after his death, which is rather too hagiographic to be considered authoritative.

Mani’s myths and beliefs were trusted by millions for hundreds of years, and however incredible they may seem now, they’re hardly more so than those of religions more familiar to us, that vast numbers of persons trust in our own day.


Mani was born about 216 C.E. in Babylonia. His father, it is said, was a Mandean [see our post Yezidis and Mandeans, April 4, 2010] or an Elcasaite. (The Elcasaites were one of the Jewish Christian sects called Ebionites, who believed that Jesus was the Messiah but not divine.) During his childhood, the Persian Kingdom passed into the hands of a new dynasty, the Sassanids, and under their rule Mani flourished for about thirty years from 241 C.E.

It was Mani’s intention to found a new universal religion, and in a way he did.

When he was a child, a spirit whom he recognized as his “twin”, or “Divine Self”, revealed holy mysteries to him. He developed them into a religion that eventually spread from the shores of the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean, with Manichean churches concentrated in central Asia. There Manicheism survived for centuries after it was crushed in the West by the Catholic Church. So pernicious an infection did the Medieval Church consider Mani’s doctrine that the word “Manichean” became synonymous with “heresy”.

According to some accounts, Mani’s life ended in prison. But there is a persistent legend that, although his beliefs derived largely from Zoroastrianism (see our post Thus, more or less, spake Zarathustra, May 26, 2009), he suffered martyrdom at the hands of the Zoroastrian state. Exactly how is disputed. Some say he was crucified, others that he was pegged out under the mid-day sun in the midst of a packed arena and skinned alive. Perhaps both methods were employed, one after the other, there being no limit to the zeal of those who would save mankind from false doctrine.

What Mani added to the wisdom of the ages was his own version of the Gnostic myth of the War between Good and Evil – alias Light and Darkness. Darkness encroaches on the Light, there is a cosmic battle, some of the Light is lost to the Darkness, and as part of the strategy of the Light to redeem what it has lost so that the universe can be restored to its proper order, mankind is created.

In Mani’s cosmogony there was no gradual decline of the spiritual and good into the material and evil as in the Gnostic sects that emerged north and south of the Mediterranean, such as those of Simon Magus [see our post The father of all heresy, February 21, 2010] and Marcion [see How a rich ship owner affected Christianity, January 2, 2010]. From the beginning they were both there, Good and Evil, Light and Darkness; side by side, two equal Kingdoms. There was no wall between them, only a space. Then a partial but catastrophic intermingling took place, and the right order was lost, only to be re-established when every scrap of the lost Light has been retrieved, literally redeemed, and put beyond the reach of Darkness.

It was a dramatic story, full of sex and violence in the heavens.

The Two Kingdoms, one of Light and one of Darkness, existed side by side. They had always existed.

Then, still before Time began, yet at some point of “time” before Time began, Darkness “encroached” on the Kingdom of Light.

It was a crisis that had to be remedied. The response of the Ruler of the Kingdom of Light was to create beings whose task it was to restore the separation of Light and Darkness. They would take immediate action.

This was the First Creation.

The Ruler of the Kingdom of Light, whose name was The Great Father called forth The Mother of Light, who called forth The Primal Man, who called forth five Sons named Gentle Breeze, Cooling Wind, Glowing Light, Clear Water, Quickening Fire.

The Mother of Light held out her right hand to Primal Man who, led by an Angel [of unexplained origin] spreading light ahead of him, advanced to the edge of the battlefield armed with his Soul (which is also called his ‘Maiden’), and supported by his five Sons, who commanded the legions of the Archons of Light, did battle with Primal Man’s counterpart from the Kingdom of Darkness called the Arch-Devil. (Called forth presumably by a Mother of Darkness, who was called forth by the King of Darkness.)

The Arch-Devil also had five Sons, Smoke, Consuming Fire, Sirocco Wind, Steam, Gloom. And his legions were the Archons of Darkness.

Primal Man used an astonishing tactic. He fed his five sons to the five sons of Darkness, and the Archons of Light to the Archons of Darkness, to “poison” them with Light. But the plan didn’t work. The outcome of the battle was an intensification of the disaster: Light mixed with Darkness.

Primal Man, defeated, was taken prisoner and dragged into the Kingdom of Darkness, where he was chained, and made blind and deaf, and deprived of understanding, so that he forgot the Kingdom of Light. Thus it came about that Good now shared in Evil – though concomitantly Evil was “calmed” [mitigated] by its dose of Good.

Although Primal Man could not remember the Kingdom of Light, he prayed to The Great Father, who heard his prayer, and in response created The Friend of Light, who called forth The Great Architect, who called forth The Living Spirit who called forth his own five sons.

This new party went to the edge of Darkness and looked down into the abyss of Hell, but could not see Primal Man. So The Living Spirit called with a loud voice, which cut through the darkness, and Primal Man heard him and answered the call. The Living Spirit held out his right hand to Primal Man and hauled him out of the pit.

The Call and The Answer [notice how a new noun cropping up in the story can be instantly personified] rose together, The Call to the Living Spirit, The Answer to the Mother of Light “for he was her beloved Son”.

However, the Soul of Primal Man was left behind in the Darkness. Further action was needed.

So now The Great Father created The Cosmos “to unmix what had been mixed”.

This was the Second Creation.

With the creation of the Cosmos, this World and Time began. The purpose of their creation was to “sift the Light from the Darkness”.

Heaven and Earth were made from the skins and carcasses of the Archons who had swallowed the Light. So they were made form the mixed parts of Light and Darkness, but by doing this the Great Father separated the mixed parts from the mass of the Darkness.

The Light that was easiest to extract was made into the Sun and the Moon, which are called the Two Ships, and the Stars. So while the Planets belong to the Archons of Darkness, the Stars are ‘fragments of the Soul’ and belong to the Kingdom of Light.

The Mother of Light, Primal Man, and the Living Spirit prayed to the Great Father to create a New God to redeem the Five Sons of Primal Man, the wind, water, and fire that belonged to the Kingdom of Light. The Great Father heard their prayer and called forth The Messenger.

The Messenger had two forms, one male and one female, both beautiful. [It’s not alleged that the two forms were the same as The Call and The Answer, but it’s a fair conjecture that they might have been.]

The Messenger immediately went about the task of “sifting” and saving the Light by setting the Two Ships in motion, the Sun and the Moon, and starting the revolution of the Zodiac.

He also called forth Twelve Virgins (named for peaceful virtues), who set up an engine of five buckets. The Zodiac, turning like a water-wheel, lifted the Light and poured it into the buckets, and they tipped it into one or other of the Two Ships, which carried it away to the Kingdom of Light and returned for more.

This the cosmic process of salvation was engineered with machines and processes to transport the Light upwards as it was redeemed from its entrapment in nature.

It happened that by the light of the Two Ships, the Sun and the Moon, the Messenger was revealed to the children of Darkness. Both his two forms, Male and Female, were made apparent to them. At once the Archons of Darkness lusted after them, the male Archons after the Female Form, and the female Archons after the Male Form. Their desire brought them to ecstasy, in the throes of which they released the light that had entered them when they had devoured the Five Sons of Primal Man. Their emissions were collected in the five buckets and the two Ships transported the recovered light back to where it belonged.

Unfortunately, a dark substance also “escaped from the male Archons”, and tried [it is instantly a thing with a will] to enter the ships along with the light. The Messenger, hiding himself again, did his best to sort out the good freight of Light from the evil cargo of Darkness. He succeeded by and large, sending the load of Light off through Heaven in the ships, and letting the Dark sink to the earth, where it formed all the flora rooted in our world. All vegetables, herbs, trees and flowers are creatures of Darkness, though they have minute fragments of Light still imprisoned in them.

The female Archons had managed to conceive in the throes of their ecstasy at the sight of the male form of The Messenger; but they miscarried, and their abortions are the animals that roam the earth.

Now the King of Darkness conceived the idea of creating Adam and Eve as copies of the Messenger’s two forms, which he too had seen and admired. He intended the man and the woman to be lock-boxes for holding Light. He threw a cosmic orgy, selected two of the embryos procreated by his demons, and shaped them into the beautiful Male and Female forms. Into them he poured all the Light – which is to say the Soul – that remained in his dwindling store. So the human body is a devilish thing of dark earth, imprisoning the redeemable soul, made of light.

This was the Third Creation.

From then on, the battlefield of Light and Darkness has been the human race. The souls of men and women are themselves the prize. But the more souls there are trapped in lusting bodies the better for the distribution and safe-keeping of the Light. The demons “gave Eve their concupiscence” so she would do her utmost to seduce Adam. They would have children, and generations would follow, more and more bodily prisons keeping the Light from its home. The Light within would try to keep the human creature from giving in to the lusts of the flesh. But they found the struggle to save themselves too hard to win. So the Mother of Light, the Living Spirit, and the Messenger sent Jesus to earth to save the human race, and to reveal knowledge to it.

Just as there was an archetype of Adam – the Primal Man – in the Kingdom of Light, there was also an archetype of Jesus. He was called the Luminous Jesus. He appeared on earth when Adam was made, advised him to eat of the Tree of Knowledge, but not to let Eve seduce him. Adam took his advice, tasted the fruit, and resisted Eve – for a while. But he gave in, and the dire history of mankind began. After long ages Zoroaster was sent to help the human race, and ages later Buddha. Then the second Jesus came, the Passible Jesus – the Jesus who could suffer.

Finally here was Mani, the last best hope of mankind. He renewed the lost mission of the Luminous Jesus. He taught the race of men how to fulfil its part in the great mission – the redemption of the Light from the Darkness.

To do its great work, there were things human beings must do and not do.

They must abominate the Laws of Moses and all the scriptures of the Jews.

They should not copulate, because the begetting of children created more human bodies to lock up bits of the Light. (This command was not strictly obeyed, and many Manichean generations were born.)

There was to be no eating of meat because of the Soul-stuff in animals. Of course there was some Soul-stuff in vegetables too, but less, and unlike animals they did not suffer pain, so they could be consumed.

The good Manichean must not accumulate worldly goods. Poverty is good. You must keep yourself separate from the material world as far as possible. The fewer things you handle the better. You should not build a house to live in. You should not labour more than is necessary. Inactivity is better than activity. The less you move, the less you sin. Even breathing is sinful as it damages the air. You sin when you walk; you even sin when you sleep. All are sinners who live on earth, though with Light trapped in them.

However, you must not kill yourself. To let yourself starve to death would be tantamount to suicide, so either you must make some effort to keep yourself alive, or someone else must do it for you. Clearly, not all the followers of Mani could embrace the extreme that he preached. Those who did were the holiest. They were called the Elect. They lived apart and hardly stirred. Their needs were catered for by a rank of men below them in holiness, called the Hearers, or Soldiers. (St. Augustine was a Hearer for some nine years.) They lived and worked in the world, but care of the Elect was their life’s purpose. The rest of mankind were the Sinners.

At the end of time almost all the Light will have been separated from the Darkness, the remnant of creation will be consumed in a great conflagration, and the universe restored to its original order.

The salvation of Primal Man from the Pit of Darkness is the sign and guarantee of the ultimate salvation of the universe.

Jillian Becker   May 9, 2010

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The father of all heresy 0

Here is another in our occasional series on obscure and lost religions.


Simon Magus was the founder of a 1st century religion, hugely popular in his own day and of considerable importance in the history of religions. The Catholic Church, though it has taken pains to diminish him personally, recognizes him as the innovating first in a long line of Gnostic teachers who established similar and diverse cults, some of which seriously rivaled Christianity throughout its early centuries.

Even according to the Acts of the Apostles (viii.10), a document which might be expected to and does belittle him and his teachings, Simon’s following consisted of the entire population of Samaria, ‘from the least to the greatest’. He persuaded them that he was ‘the power of God which was great’. But Philip, Peter, and John succeeded in converting the same Samarians to Christianity – and then Simon submitted himself for baptism. However, according to other sources, he soon reverted to his old claim that he himself was God.

The testimony we have to Simon’s life and teaching is for the most part from Christian sources. Irenaeus, the Church Father, called Simon ‘the father of all heresy’. For how much of what his Christian denouncers ascribe to Simon they simply dipped into the bran-tub labeled Abominable Gnostic Beliefs and Practices, it’s impossible to say. And despite the Church Father’s conviction that he was an originator of the creed he taught, it is also impossible to say to what extent he was really innovative. He was certainly eclectic, inspired by a variety of theological fragments wherever he found them. Some of his claims were obviously picked up from the Christians, but others that are Christian-like may have pre-dated Christianity. Elements of truth probably adhere to the Christians’ tales, and if stray fragments from other old barrels are added, and guesswork applied to them all with common sense and humdrum regard to known historical fact, a fairly coherent account of Simon and his doctrine can be stitched together.

Simon was born in Gitta, Samaria, about the time of Jesus of Nazareth. He must have left Samaria early in his life or he could hardly have made his fellow-countrymen swallow the story of his celestial origin that he was to bring back with him from abroad. He first became known as a Magus in the large, rich and sophisticated port-city of Alexandria in Egypt, the next most important Greek city after Athens, then under the imperial rule of Rome. To make a reputation there was an achievement to be proud of. Whatever Simon did to entertain his public, he must have done it well. A common repertoire of magical performances was attributed to him: the concoction of philtres and potions; the weaving of spells by incantations; the exhorting of idols and images; levitation; changing water into wine; opening locked doors from a distance; the inducement of demon-borne dreams.

The self-governing city of Alexandria was named after its founder, Alexander the Great, who was buried there. Under the (Greek) Ptolomies who succeeded Alexander as rulers of Egypt, a museum was established which evolved under their patronage into a kind of university; and a library was built which became the greatest in the ancient world, a proof and continuing cause of Alexandria’s intellectual supremacy. The library remained as a pool and fountain of learning for hundreds of years. However, much of its treasure consisted of pagan and Jewish works that were not to the taste of the strengthening Church. Several times Christians partially destroyed it. Eventually Muslims succeeded in burning it to the ground with all that it contained in or around 640 C.E. It was one of the most deplorable acts of vandalism in history. It is because so much was lost in Alexandria that we have huge gaps in our knowledge of the history of ideas, including perhaps the pre-history of Gnosticism. We attribute originality to this or that philosopher because his work survived and so is known to us, but we cannot know everything about his sources, or who his influences and modifiers may have been.

It is likely that wisdom rubbed off on almost everyone who lingered in Alexandria for any length of time. Simon of Gitta apparently acquired some Greek philosophy, perhaps from reading it in the library, or from listening to other people who read it, for he seems to have put it to work when he reinvented himself as a divine incarnation.

His magic art may have been acquired at home. According to some researchers he did not need to travel abroad to acquire it, but was trained by indigenous Samarian magicians and mystics.

The established religion of the Samarians – or ‘Samaritans’ as they are called in the New Testament – was a form of Judaism. Their bible was the five books of Moses. They had their own temple at Gezarim (despised by the Jews for whom the only Temple was the one that stood in Jerusalem until it was destroyed in 70 C.E.); and they worshipped in their own way one God, the God of the Jews, Jehovah.

At some unknown date, Simon, returning from Egypt, erupted into their midst with his art to entertain them and a strange new doctrine to excite them. They would throng about him to watch his performances, and he would preach astonishing things to them.

Jehovah, he proclaimed, was not the supreme God of the universe. He was only a lesser god, though indeed the Creator of this world. But what sort of world was this that he had made? A place of suffering, sin and despair. Now he, Simon, had come down to this earth, appearing as a man, from a realm far above the lowly heaven where Jehovah dwelt. Jehovah was not even aware that anything existed above himself, blindly believing he was the only god, but the truth was that way beyond all imagining, up at an inconceivable height, there was an unknown Primal Father, and He was all good.

Simon warned that he had come to disclose this because the end of the world was near at hand when all would be consumed by fire. The Samarians were doomed unless they followed him, Simon, who alone could save them. The Samarians were impressed. Wanting to be saved, uncountable thousands embraced the new faith.

An inner circle of (reputedly 30) disciples, both men and women, gathered about Simon. To them he revealed the origin of the universe. He taught that the Godhead was a Trinity. There was the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. They were not three different persons, but three equal aspects of the same Being.

He, Simon, who had come among them as a man to teach them these things had made himself known as the Father to the Jews, as the Son to the Christians, and as the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles. As the Son, he had seemed to suffer death and affliction. He prophesied that in his present incarnation as an apparent man named Simon, he would again seem to die in his mortal form, but after three days would rise living in the flesh, and be taken up to the highest heaven.

He taught them how evil had come into existence from the Primary Source, which was entirely good so that nothing evil could come directly from Him. All things began with a Thought of the Godhead. This First Thought of God was named Ennoia, a female principle who was the Mother of all creation, for she brought forth the angels who carried out the work. They were jealous of her powers, and held her captive in the world they made. For thousands of years she was reincarnated to suffer again and again the pains of earthly existence. In one of her lives she had been Helen of Troy. Her latest incarnation was as a Phoenician woman whom he introduced to his followers by the name of Helen, because, he explained, that had been her most famous name in the past. He had come to seek and find her, and would now rescue her from the clutches of the demon-angels who held her captive, free her from the cycle of birth and death, and restore her to her rightful place in the highest heaven.

It is not known what became of Simon. Some said that he died in or near Rome. Two different stories of his end were rumored in mockery. One was that he was giving a performance of one of his magic arts, flying from a tower, when Peter, who was present, prayed that he should drop to the ground, which he did, to his death. In the other he let himself be buried alive for three days, after which, he predicted, he would emerge alive; but when the grave was opened he was found dead.

Christian accounts depict Simon as an immoral poseur who tried to buy the secret of miraculous healing from Peter and John. (Hence the ecclesiastical crime of ‘simony’.) They say that Helen, his consort, was a prostitute from Tyre, and the Samarians, to a man and woman, including the most learned and perceptive, had been taken in by a cheap trickster. He presided, they said, over ritual acts of sexual intercourse in holy orgies. St Epiphanius wrote of him that he made use of semen and menstrual blood in his magic.

Simon predicted that he would be ‘execrated’ because what he preached was strange and hard to believe. His doctrines contradicted the conventional beliefs of the classical world, denounced the God and the Law and the morality of the Jews, and constituted a threatening challenge to Christianity. In other words, he urged total revolt. His was not merely a rival faith, it was a protest against all order, all authority, of men and their gods. It was a revolt against the world. He would open the minds of men, wrest their souls from the chains of guilt and set them free. In his antinomianism, in his spiritual aspirations, in his revolutionary fire, in certain of his beliefs, he seems to some historians of religion to resemble St Paul, a notion that appalls others and has elicited scholarly works stressing the differences between the two men and their teachings, some demonstrating so profound a chasm between them as to render such comparison absurd.

Yet Simon of Gitta must have been an extraordinary man, eloquent and persuasive, whose claim to divinity was not unique in that era. And his doctrine did not die with him. It flowed into a swelling river of Gnosticism. His ideas – original to him or not – were developed by a series of Gnostic teachers, some of them founding sects that lasted for centuries and flourished side by side with the Pauline Church, until Christianity became an orthodoxy with the power to suppress and punish heterodox faiths. Then, along with other heretical cults, the sects that had evolved from the vision of Simon Magus were silenced, their scriptures burnt, and their obstinate believers put to death. We might wonder whether, dangerous nonsense though the beliefs might have been, they were much more dangerous, or much more nonsensical, than others that have been held in the highest esteem and continue to have currency in our time.


Jillian Becker  February 21, 2010


When Simon disappointed the expectations of his Samarian followers by failing to rise from the grave, they became Christians in large numbers, according to Church accounts. No help to keep the sect alive came from Simon’s disciple and successor, Menander, who – although he endorsed much of what his master had taught – made some significant changes of detail.

Menander revealed that Simon was not really the divine saviour; he, Menander himself, was.

Rather than try to persuade the once-bitten Samarians to believe in him as they had believed in Simon, he repaired to Antioch and there gathered a following of his own.

His theogony was a variation of Simon’s. Certainly a First Power emanated a First Thought who in turn emanated the Archons, and those lesser powers created the world.  But contrary to Simon’s assertions, they did have knowledge of the First Power, and rebelled against Him. As a result, death came into the world. However, after many ages, here was Menander descended in human form to save humanity. He offered a baptism ‘into him’ which he guaranteed would provide immediate immunity from decrepitude and death.

These promises were not fulfilled. His baptized flock aged and died, and so his cult disappeared.


Jillian Becker   March 8, 2013

Erotic religion 4

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.)

Epihanes 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

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