The darkness of this world (7) 1

The Darkness of This World 

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Our Gnostic Age


On May 5, 1818, there was born, in the Prussian city of Trier, one of those rare persons who change the course of history. He did not live to see his prophecies warp the world. He died in 1883, and the first earth-shattering event of which he was an effective cause came thirty-four years after his death: the Russian Communist revolution of 1917.

Karl Marx was the second child and eldest son of a prosperous lawyer. Two years before his birth, his father, Herschel Marx, had taken a step that must have amazed, even outraged, a good many of his Jewish co-religionists in his (overwhelmingly Catholic) home city, which for generations had had its rabbis from the Marx family: he was baptized by the Lutheran church, becoming Heinrich Marx. Protestant Christianity itself did not attract him irresistibly, but he wanted to play a full part as a citizen of (largely Protestant) Prussia. He was a man of reason who admired the products of reason: machines, engines, modernity in general. In 1824, overcoming his wife’s opposition to the move, he had his seven children (an eighth was yet to come) baptized into the recently established Evangelical Church of Prussia, Lutheran and Calvinist.

In his late teens, Karl fell in love with an aristocrat, Jenny von Westphalen, the friend of his older sister, and at about the same time decided to become a great poet. He wrote love poems to Jenny, and hate poems to the world.

The poems are bombastic, full of religio-romantic imagery. Little meaning can be found in them. But they do reveal the character and mentality of their composer. They are emotional, defiant, rebellious, destructive, swaggering, and express above all a hunger for power. Typical is this monologue from a verse drama titled Oulanem, the eponymous hero speaking: “Ha, I must entwine me on the wheel of flame,/ And in Eternity’s ring I’ll dance my frenzy! If aught besides that frenzy could devour,/ I’d leap therein though I must smash a world/ That towered high between myself and it!/ It would be shattered by my long drawn curse,/ and I would fling my arms around cruel Being,/ Embracing me, ‘twould silent pass away,/ Then silent would I sink into the void./ Wholly to sink, not be … oh, this were Life,/ But swept along high on Eternity’s current /To roar out threnodies for the Creator,/ Scorn on the brow! Can Sun burn it away?/ Bound in compulsion’s sway, curse in defiance!/ Let the envenomed eye flash forth destruction –/ Does it hurl off the ponderous worlds that bind?/ …… And we, we Apes of a cold God, still cherish/…… The viper so voluptuously warm,/ That it as Universal Form rears up/ And from its place on high grins down on us! And in our ear, till loathing’s all consumed,/ The weary wave roars onward, ever onward! ”

The young poet cast off the Christian God he had been lightly brought up to believe in, but he clung on to the concept of Satan and the powers of evil. He wrote, in a lyric titled The Fiddler: “Why do I fiddle? Or the wild waves roar?/ That they might pound the rocky shore, / That eye be blinded, that bosom swell, / That Soul’s cry carry down to Hell./ … I plunge, plunge without fail/ My blood-black sabre into your soul. / That art God neither wants nor wists,/ It leaps to the brain from Hell’s black mists/ … Till heart’s bewitched, till senses reel:/ With Satan I have struck my deal./ He chalks the signs, beats time for me,/ I play the death march fast and free.” “

With lines such as these young Karl expected to be recognized as a towering genius who would be listened to by a dumbstruck Europe. He intended through the power of his words to have an effect on history – a dire and destructive effect, apparently, while waves rolled onwards and pounded rocky shores. But his poems were received less favorably than he had confidently anticipated. The editors of periodicals to whom Karl sent a selection for publication returned them without comment. Indeed it seems that only Jenny von Westphalen was moved by them, especially by those dedicated to her. “Jenny! Do I dare avow/That in love we have exchanged our souls,/That as one they throb and glow,/And through their waves one current rolls?

His father would have liked Karl to take up some useful and lucrative career, in engineering perhaps, or science; something that would have involved him in the amazing developments of the age. Reason was pouring out inventions for the improvement of everyday life: gaslight on the streets, steam powered trains and ships, factories with machines that mass-produced goods. But such mundane things were of no interest to the young man of passionate poetic vision. He would never even visit a factory. Heinrich Marx and his son Karl stood on opposite sides of the post-Enlightenment divide between Reason, which fertilized civilization, and Romanticism, which poisoned it. …


The whole of this essay may be found on our Pages, added to the earlier essays under the same title. Access it by clicking on The Darkness of This World under the Pages heading at the top of our margin, and scroll down to 7, The Fiddler and His Proof

Posted under Articles, communism, History, Marxism, Philosophy, Religion general, Socialism by Jillian Becker on Sunday, January 26, 2014

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Mani and Manicheism 8

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

Posted under Articles, Gnosticism, Iran, Mysticism, Religion general by Jillian Becker on Sunday, May 9, 2010

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The father of all heresy 39

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

How a rich ship owner affected Christianity 11

From time to time, for the entertainment of our atheist readers, and also (being lovers of argument) to stimulate the indignation of any believers who may visit our website, we provide notes on a religion.

The following is about Marcion and his doctrine.


There was a time when the followers of Marcion were as numerous as those of the Pauline Christian church, and the importance of his movement is that it had an impact on the direction in which Catholic Christianity was to develop.

Marcion, son of the bishop of Sinope, a Black Sea port in Asia Minor  (modern Anatolia, Turkey), was a very rich owner of ships, a shipping magnate – the Aristotle Onassis, one might say, of his time.

He established himself as a religious leader and theologian circa 142 C.E. in Rome, which remained the centre of eventually widespread Marcosian Christianity, though he himself returned to Asia Minor where he died. Tradition has it that he started off as a Pauline Christian, but then found himself drawn by the Gnostic teachings of Cerdon, one of the many teachers who followed and diverged from Simonian Gnosticism (the teaching of Simon Magus). Cerdon preached – in Rome and elsewhere in the Empire – that the God of the Jews was not the Father of Jesus Christ. But he did not, as many other Gnostics did, anathematise the Jewish God or replace him with an evil Demiurge. While he did not hold Jehovah to be good, he did not go so far as to say that he was evil; the trouble with him was that he was merely just, and Justice was not good enough, being hard and often harsh. He was the Creator of this world, and did not know that far above him was the True Father, unknown and unknowable except by the spark of the Gnosis (the Knowledge) deep within individual souls. Only the True Father was good.

Marcion became convinced that Cerdon was right in the belief that the supreme unknown God was separate and distinct from the ‘known’ Creator and Legislator who was ‘just but not good’. Marcion named this lesser God, the God of the Jews, ‘the Cosmocrator’.

In Marcion’s system there are three planes of the universe: The highest plane or third heaven, home of the Unknown God, who could only be known to mankind after the revelations of Pauline Christianity. This is a point particularly worth noticing as very rarely has St Paul’s teaching been connected with a remote Unknown God, though he did claim that he ‘knew a man in Christ’ who was  ‘caught up to the third heaven’ (II Corinthians 12.2).

Next down was the plane of the Cosmocrator, God of Genesis and the Law, whose ‘visage is like the Devil’s’ – distorted, as it were, by an insatiable appetite for justice.

The lowest plane contains the Earth and its visible heaven, where dwells the (female) Power of Matter – in Greek, Hyle.

In Marcion’s cosmogony, the Cosmocrator creates the World along the lines told in the Book of Genesis, except that he does it in partnership with Hyle. It is she who, when he has fabricated Adam out of dust, breathes a living spirit into him. God, in fear that Adam might worship Hyle, forbids his creature to worship any other gods but himself on pain of death. But Hyle distracts Adam by multiplying gods innumerably about him, and as he cannot recognize which one of them is his Master whom he dare not fail to worship as commanded, has no choice but to worship them all. By this device, Hyle leads Man astray from obedience to the Cosmocrator, and draws him instead to herself. The Cosmocrator, angered by the defection of humankind, punitively thrusts the souls of all men into Hell – indiscriminately, in contradiction to his just character – as soon as their earthly lives come to an end, condemning them to remain there for 29 ages. But the good unknown God, the remote Stranger, sends down his Son, the Christ, to ‘take on the likeness of death’ (ie seem to die as Jesus) in order to descend into Hell, rescue all the souls of men – also indiscriminately – and take them up to the third heaven.

It was because his way to Hell lay downwards through this world, this life, that Christ came to earth. While he sojourned here, he did good. As the Good Stranger’s representative he was instructed to ‘heal lepers, raise the newly dead, and open the eyes of the blind, so that the Lord of Creatures will see thee and bring thee to a Cross. Then, at thy death, descend to Hell and bring them hence.’

When the Cosmocrator, the ‘Lord of Creatures’, realised that this was what was happening at the crucifixion, his wrath was great. ‘He tore his garment, rent in twain the veil of the Temple, and covered the sun with darkness.’ But he was helpless to intervene, and Christ emptied Hell.

Christ descended a second time, and appeared in his divine form before the Cosmocrator, and charged him with the shedding of innocent blood, the blood of Jesus. He demanded justice from him ‘for the death I suffered’. Only then did the Lord of Creatures realise the divinity of Jesus and that there was another God above himself who had sent his Son to redeem mankind. When he had fully comprehended this revelation, he supplicated Christ, confessed that he had sinned, but pleaded that he had killed him in the person of Jesus unwittingly, ‘not knowing he was a god’. Wanting to make recompense, he bid Christ ‘take all where thou wilt, until all believe in thee.’ Then Christ decreed that all who believe in him would be saved. To Paul he revealed the conditions and price (ie the blood of Jesus Christ) for mankind’s salvation, and Christ himself sent Paul to preach the redemption. So, Marcion taught, ‘the Good has purchased us with a purchase price from the God of Creatures.’ Therefore the God of Creatures, who was the God of the Law, should no longer be worshipped, his laws no longer obeyed, and the books of his Law, which had been given to his chosen people the Jews, no longer held holy.

There has been much debate as to whether Marcion should be classed as a Gnostic. The only significant difference between his teaching and that of Pauline Christianity, it has been argued by those who disregard or deny the influence of Cerdon, is that Marcion rejected the Law of Moses and the Jewish scriptures in their entirety, whereas the ‘Pauline Church’, against the wishes of Paul himself, adopted the Jewish Bible into its canon as the pre-history of Christianity, and held that the moral law it enshrined remained valid, even though the Jewish faith had been superseded – or ‘fulfilled’ – by the new revelation, only its ritual requirements being no longer in force. As it was the putative author of the Epistles himself who first proclaimed the message that the Law was abolished by the sacrifice of ‘Christ Jesus’, that the Christ had always existed since the beginning and had come to earth to save mankind; and as he sometimes used the same vocabulary, and sounded the same notes of rejection and hope that is found in the Gnostic creeds, it might be nearer the truth to class Paul as a Gnostic, rather than insist that Marcion was not.

It is not implausible to suppose that the Christian Church, beginning with Paul’s innovative ideas, was one among many emerging Gnostic creeds. That it had shed almost every discernible thread of Gnostic theogony, with its layers of heavens full of mystic Powers, by the time it came to assemble its canon for a New Testament towards the end of the 2nd century, was at least partly due to the failed efforts of Marcion to establish a purer Pauline church, according to his interpretation of the message of Paul.

Some distinctly Gnostic passages remain in the Christian canon, such as this from the Epistle to the Ephesians (6:12):

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.

But the Church-approved New Testament revised, diluted,  contradicted, reinterpreted, and to a large extent transformed the Paulinism which Marcion knew and loved, until such exciting and beautiful passages of Gnostic poetry that lie like nuggets of gold in the leaden texts have lost the meaning they once had.

The Catholic Church, carefully developing internal order by means of a structured hierarchical system, made the decision to retain the Jewish scriptures and reaffirm the commandments engraved in the stones of Sinai precisely because its leaders could see in the rival church of Marcion what happened to a new religion if its adherents clung to antinomianism and depended on inspiration alone for continuance. The Marcionite church steadfastly refused to take on a structure, so it could not last. As the centuries of our common era wore on, it gradually dissolved before the eyes and – to the relief of the Catholic Church – lost itself in the opacity of an esoteric mythology, and slowly faded away. In the West it lasted for some three hundred years, longer in the Byzantine empire.

Before it disappeared, it taught the Church a lesson, by means of which it contributed to the history of Catholicism and all the faiths that sprang from it in heresy or rebellion or reformation in later ages. What happened was that Marcion put together a New Testament (Apostolicon). The Church Fathers did not approve of all his choices, but realised that a body of scripture was vitally necessary to the validation and spread of doctrine, and could be as important to the survival of the Church as a constitution. Marcion’s New Testament was not sufficient in itself to keep Marcosianism alive, but Christianity, however well organized and established and governed, found it could not do without the written word. Of course it might very well have come to the same conclusion had Marcion not given it the idea, but it was in reaction to Marcion’s compilation of Christian scriptures that the Church decided to do the same thing. The Church compiled a New Testament after Marcion had done so. There are similarities and differences between the two sets of gospels. What Marcion started the Church built on, and the eventual result was the much redacted New Testament that the ages have inherited.

Jillian Becker  January 2, 2010

Posted under Articles, Christianity, Religion general by Jillian Becker on Saturday, January 2, 2010

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