The father of all heresy 397

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 134

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