Thursday, August 11, 2022

Part 2 Talisman ... Where Good and Evil Meet ... Chain of the Great Heresy

Graham Hancock and Robert Bauval
Part 3
Where Good and Evil Meet
‘These are they who… fell from Paradise when Lucifer lured them thence, with the lying assurance that whereas God allowed them the good only, the Devil (being false to the core) would let them enjoy both good and evil; and he promised to give them wives whom they would love dearly; and that they should have authority over one another, and that some amongst them should be kings, or emperors, or counts; and that they would learn to hunt birds with birds, and beasts with beasts.’ (A Cathar prayer)

Up till now we have been able to treat the problem of the Cathars as if their heresy existed in isolation. Of course, this was not the case. They posed a massive threat to the Church of Rome on the basis of their success in nearby Occitania and northern Italy. But they were in fact part of a much larger heresy that threatened the entire Christian establishment in Europe – not only the Roman Catholics in the West but also the Orthodox Church of the East based in Constantinople (ancient Byzantium, known today as Istanbul). 

The Catholic/Orthodox schism had been developing for centuries and became official in AD 1054. By that date the former Bishops of Constantinople had already long been in the habit of calling themselves ‘Oecumenical Patriarchs’ – literally ‘Patriarchs of the entire inhabited world’. 2 Since this seemed to challenge the Pope’s own claim to the top job, it was a source of great mutual hostility. Nevertheless, both churches were of one mind on the subject of heresy – which was to be stamped out. 3 And just as Rome faced the heresy of Catharism in the West in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, so too, and for rather longer, the Patriarchate in Constantinople confronted the heresy known as ‘Bogomilism’ in the East, which began its period of expansion some 200 years earlier and survived until the end of the fourteenth century. 

It was called ‘Bogomilism’ after its supposed founder, whose name in Greek was Theophilis and in Slav Bogomil – meaning ‘Beloved of God’. 4 Active in Bulgaria in the first half of the tenth century, this enigmatic individual preached a form of dualism that was identical, in almost every detail, to the creed that would later be introduced into Western Europe as Catharism. Hand The Balkans, tenth to fourteenth centuries. in hand with these spiritual teachings, he is also remembered as the organizer of a political rebellion that gave the persecuted Slav peoples a voice and incited them to withdraw their labour and fealty from their Graecized Bulgar overlords.

Although the Bogomil heresy endured in the East for three centuries longer than Western Catharism, there is little reliable information about Bogomil himself. Not a single contemporary reference to him has come down to us and we know nothing about where or when he was born or died, who his teachers were, or how widely he preached. 6 The earliest surviving report to mention him by name (although it is not the earliest to notice the heresy he started) 7 appears in a book written at some point between AD 977 and 990. 8 The work of a hostile Christian monk named Cosmas, this tract tells us only that ‘In the days of the Orthodox Tsar Peter [AD 927–69] there lived… a priest called Bogomil (Loved of God), who in reality was not loved of God (Bogu ne mil), who was the first to sow heresy in the land of Bulgaria.’ 9 Though it supplies no more information about the man himself, Cosmas’s book was written specifically to denounce the faith that Bogomil had founded. His purpose was to draw the attention of the Orthodox Church to the threat it faced, and to upbraid Church authorities for the lapses that had permitted such a heresy to flourish. 10 

Close to the Sources of Power 
In the years following the death of Tsar Peter in 969 Bogomilism spread rapidly westwards out of Bulgaria into the Balkan principalities of Serbia and Bosnia (where it fared so well that it was frequently the official state religion).  Equally influential in Croatia, Dalmatia and Macedonia, it also extended its grip into the heart of the great city of Constantinople itself, 12 headquarters of the Orthodox Church of the East. The first account of Bogomilism being practised within the walls of Constantinople dates from 1045. It is found in a letter written by the monk Euthymius of Periblepton – who even claimed to have discovered a heretical ‘cell’ in his own monastery. 13 

Cosmas I (1075–81) was the first Emperor of Constantinople to take stern action against the Bogomils. 14 His successor, Alexius I, ‘Comnenus’ (1081–1118), was even more vehement in his attacks on the heresy. At an uncertain date between 1097 and 1104 he ordered the arrest of a known Bogomil named Diblatus, who was tortured for information about key figures in the movement. The trail led to Basil, a renegade monk from Macedonia, now living under cover at a monastery in Constantinople, who was said to have been a Bogomil evangelist for more than forty years. 15 

Next, Comnenus set a trap for Basil. Pretending only to know of him as a respected Orthodox monk, the emperor innocently asked for enlightenment about the Christian faith. Human nature being what it is, Basil could not pass up this apparently golden opportunity and set out to try to convert Comnenus to Bogomilism. A series of meetings followed in which the emperor thoroughly debriefed the unfortunate Basil, getting him to reveal not only the central doctrines of the heresy but also compromising details of its organization and membership in Constantinople. 16 

Basil and his associates were then arrested and contemporary accounts tell us that Comnenus reasoned in person with the Bogomils, trying to win them back to the Orthodox faith. Those who recanted were pardoned and released. Those who would not recant were imprisoned for life. Only Basil, on this occasion, suffered the extreme penalty – so much favoured by heresy-hunters in the West – of being burned to death. His stake was set up in Constantinople’s Hippodrome for the edification of a large crowd. 17 

Surviving records from Constantinople say nothing more about Bogomilism until the 1140s when there are reports of more heresy trials. 18 Then, in 1145, we learn that no less a figure than Cosmas Atticus, Patriarch of the Orthodox Church, has fallen under the spell of a certain Niphon, a Bogomil. When – horror of horrors – the heretic was allowed to take up residence in the Patriarchal palace, other ecclesiastics began to agitate against him. Eventually they took their complaints directly to Emperor Manuel I (himself later rumoured to have had covert ‘Bogomil tendencies’) and in 1147 Cosmas was deposed and Niphon arrested. 19 Still, the episode indicates that by the mid-twelfth century, at about the time that Catharism was first detected in the West, Bogomilism had grown from a minor cult started by an unknown priest into a major religion that could position itself close to the sources of power in the East. 

Papa Nicetas 
This sense of a big faith on the move, taking shape, growing in confidence and building up structure before our eyes is heightened twenty years later in 1167. In that year, seemingly out of the blue, Nicetas, a senior Bogomil bishop from Constantinople, suddenly turned up in the West. He arrived first in Lombardy in northern Italy, where he persuaded the local Cathar bishops to adopt important doctrinal changes and to be ‘reconciled’ at his hands. 20 Then he moved on to the Languedoc. 

The entire Cathar administration of Occitania had gathered to await his presence at the small town of St Felix de Caraman near Toulouse. Under his guidance routine matters such as boundary disputes amongst the existing Cathar Bishoprics were resolved and three new dioceses of Toulouse, Carcassonne and Agen were established. 21 As in Lombardy, however, the primary purpose of Nicetas’s visit seems to have been to urge important doctrinal changes upon the Cathars and to reaffirm what were clearly by this stage well established links between the Cathar and Bogomil churches. 22 Indeed, the immense respect shown to Nicetas, and the fact that he once again ‘reconsoled’ all the perfecti present, tell us very clearly that the relationship between these two churches was that of a senior to a junior, or a father to a son. The Cathars of 1167, in other words, clearly regarded Bogomilism as the ‘home church’ to which they owed their allegiance. 

This conclusion is endorsed by modern historians, who have amassed persuasive evidence that the Catharism of the West was indeed a direct offshoot of Bogomilism. 23 Although northern Italy is closer to Constantinople, the heresy seems to have been brought to northern France and even to Germany first (a report has survived of the trial of a Cathar bishop in Cologne as early as 1143). 24 When it reached the Languedoc, and by what route, is not certain, but it had clearly been present long enough by 1167 for bishoprics to have been established and boundary disputes to have broken out. 

It seems, however, that there must also have been some doctrinal lapse amongst the Western Cathars which the doctrinal changes introduced by ‘Papa’ Nicetas were designed to correct. These brought Catharism into line with his own powerful faction of the Bogomil Church, which believed in the absolute opposition of the ‘two powers’ of Good and Evil. 25 By contrast, there were other Bogomils, and prior to 1167 many Cathars too, whose beliefs compromised this pristine polarity. These so-called ‘mitigated dualists’ contemplated linkages, and even family relationships, between the Good God and the God of Evil, something that absolute dualists were not prepared to do. 

Another objective of Nicetas’s visit was to organize further missionary activity throughout Europe, using Occitania as a bridgehead. There is evidence that delegates left the 1167 Council invigorated and actively anticipating the prospect. 26 

Social Engineering 
In the decades after Nicetas at the close of the twelfth century the Cathar and Bogomil Churches begin to look increasingly as though they are involved in a well-planned and coordinated plot. 27 The purpose of this plot could not have been more revolutionary: to compete with and eventually to overthrow the Church of Rome and the Orthodox Church of the East. The absurd worship of the Evil God who had made this world was to be undermined – not all at once but slowly, city by city, region by region. The true dualist religion of the Cathars and the Bogomils was to be introduced in its place. The fundamental aim of the project was to free the souls of all mankind from the prison of matter and allow them to return to the heavenly realm of the Good God who had made them. Since this would require an attitude towards material things radically different from the dominant interests of the times, it was obvious that permanent changes in the structure of society would also be necessary. 

For us as researchers, this issue was clarified when we discovered that the Cathars in Occitania had involved themselves quite extensively in what we described in the last chapter as ‘meddling with the feudal economic order’. 

It seemed unlikely to be a coincidence when we learned that the Bogomils did exactly the same thing. From the earliest references in the tenth century they are linked with social, economic and political upsets. ‘They teach their followers not to obey their masters,’ warned the monk Cosmas in his exposé of the abominations of this seemingly new heresy, ‘they scorn the rich, they hate the Tsars, they ridicule their superiors, they reproach the boyars, they believe that God looks in horror on those who labour for the Tsar, and advise every serf not to work for his master.’ 28 

Confronted by material like this it is little wonder that many historians have judged Bogomilism to be ‘at base… a social movement, directed against feudal oppression’. 29 Others disagree and argue that we should ‘beware of attributing too much importance to the social anarchism of the Bogomils or of seeing in them Slavonic communists of the Middle Ages’. 30 In our opinion neither view is quite correct. The Bogomils were not early communists – or any such thing – since communism is a wholly materialist ethic concerned only with the material world. Neither were they ‘at base’ a social movement. Exactly like Catharism, the evidence convinces us that the Bogomil religion was first and last a spiritual movement, interested exclusively in the liberation of souls. It was the efficient pursuit of this spiritual objective, rather than any of the normal characteristics of a ‘social movement’, that led the Bogomils inevitably towards revolutionary behaviour in the material world. It inspired a critical attitude towards earthly hierarchies and put a new mood of intelligent rebelliousness into the air. 

The same phenomenon of ‘social engineering’ running alongside dualist heresy was observed in other parts of Europe as well. In Occitania and France we showed in the last chapter how the Cathars busied themselves in the education of a skilled artisan class – notably weavers and others involved in the cloth and paper trades. In this way empowerment of the poor through skills training went hand in hand with the spread of the faith. We were therefore not surprised to learn that researchers in Italy have unearthed proof of significant links there between Catharism and the trade of purse-making. Like weaving, this was an occupation that could provide suitable cover for missionary activities enabling Cathar evangelists to travel incognito, ‘making and selling their wares and at the same time making heretical contacts’. 31 

So, although the dualists professed to hate this world, such strategies show that they did not hesitate to use rather worldly and ‘street-wise’ methods to win converts from the established Christian churches. After travelling amongst the Italian Cathars in the early thirteenth century, Ivo of Narbonne reported that they routinely ‘sent to Paris capable students from nearly all Lombard and some Tuscan cities. There some studied logic, others theology, with the aim of strengthening their own error and overthrowing the Catholic faith.’ 32 Such evidence of calculation and strategy seem less discordant with the Cathars’ ethereal central purpose when we remember that they believed themselves to be locked in an elemental struggle – often literally to the death – for the soul of man. If the Catholic Church were allowed to crush out the light of Catharism for ever, then the soul of man would likewise be lost for ever. With the stakes so high and the enemy so diabolical, any means, fair or foul, were reasonable to bring him down. 

School of Heresy 
Further evidence that Cathars and Bogomils were involved not only in social agitation but in a coordinated ‘plot’ to overthrow established Christianity comes from study of the methods they used to win conversions. The field missionaries of both sects appear to have followed the same procedures in the same order so closely that it is obvious they must have shared the same training. In this, once again, we have the sense of confronting people who were not in any way ethereal but, on the contrary, rather down-to-earth, calculating and strategic. 

They also demonstrated a good basic knowledge of psychology in ensuring that the course of instruction they gave as missionaries began with easily acceptable generalities and moved on only very slowly to reveal the more deeply heretical – and thus conventionally shocking – aspects of their faith. 33 Euthymius Zigabenus, who interrogated the monk Basil in Constantinople while he was awaiting his execution in the Hippodrome, was told that the Bogomils began by instructing their followers in those beliefs and practices which they shared with the Orthodox, ‘preserving the fouler doctrines for later, and entrusting them to the more initiated in impiety as mysteries’. 34 The objective, in other words, was to detach potential converts as far as possible from the beliefs they had been raised in before attempting to substitute the alternative dualist system. 

Another technique used by both Bogomil and Cathar preachers was to capitalize on the commonsense scepticism of ordinary people to demystify elaborate Church rituals – and therefore, by association, the whole religious edifice that lay behind them. The Mass was a favourite target of the Cathars, who asked churchgoers to think very carefully and objectively about each of its details. When they partook of the wafer and the wine of Holy Communion, for instance, how could they possibly imagine – as Catholic priests had taught them – that they were consuming the actual body and blood of Christ? Wasn’t this contrary to reason, if not just plain stupid? All the Catholics that had ever existed had been performing the Mass and guzzling the Holy Communion for hundreds and hundreds of years. If what they had been consuming were really the physical body and blood of Christ then he must have been absolutely enormous – at least the size of a mountain, with veins like rivers – which clearly had not been the case. Moreover, coming at the problem from a different direction, Cathar evangelists would frequently add an unpleasant reminder about digestive processes and their end products. Did decent people who loved God really want to pass his body and blood through their intestines? 35 What kind of religion was it that would require them to participate in such bizarre and frankly cannibalistic practices? So logic, reason and good taste were all against the Church being right about this basic issue long before the time came to introduce more ‘touchy’ Cathar doctrines like the non-physical nature of Christ. 

The next step in the conversion process was often for the missionary to provide concrete examples of how far the Church had strayed from the true path. Favoured object lessons were the notorious sins of the clergy and their extravagant lifestyles. These were then graphically compared to the simple, decent, un-ostentatious lives advocated in the New Testament for Christians. After contemplating the glaring contradictions thus revealed, most right thinking citizens in the audience would have needed little further convincing that there was something rotten in the heart of the Church. 

In a similar way, further still down the road of conversion, the method for introducing the dualist doctrine of the evil nature of material creation was to illustrate it with numerous practical examples that anyone could easily grasp. Earthquakes might be cited, or volcanic eruptions, or lightning-strikes, or snakes, along with many of the other noxious evils that we all know do stalk the material world. 36 As before, New Testament texts would be extensively quoted, this time to show that the true teachings of Christ and his apostles endorsed the dualist rejection of material things. 37 

Malcolm Lambert, a modern scholar with decidedly pro-Catholic sympathies, claims that the heretics usually achieved these effects by dishonest manipulation of the relevant passages which were ‘wrenched out of context’ to reinforce the dualist message. 38 The end result, most efficacious in winning conversions, was that the typical unsophisticated audience for a dualist sermon would be convinced that they had received ‘an exhortation by good men based on the words of the founder of Christianity and of his followers’. 39 

It is little wonder, therefore, that for a long while the Cathars and the Bogomils enjoyed enormous success in their respective spheres of influence. By the end of the twelfth century they had together created what Sir Steven Runciman describes as ‘one great confederate Dualist Church… stretching from the Black Sea to Biscay’. 40 At its core were sixteen bishoprics positioned in areas of influence and high population all the way from Constantinople in the east to Toulouse in the west. 41 Since the heretics had, from the beginning, commanded great influence in the countryside as well as in the cities – and had generally worked from the bottom of society up in their programme of conversions – they entered the thirteenth century occupying an astonishingly strong position in Europe. Not even 250 years had passed since Bogomil himself had first appeared in Bulgaria to preach the doctrine of the Good and the Evil God. Yet in that short time an international infrastructure had been laid down and enough popular support won for medieval dualism to begin to think of itself as an established religion and to proclaim its own ‘universality and supranational unity’ 42 over and against that of the established Church. 

The Portrait of Dorian Gray 
Accepting as all scholars do that Bogomilism was simply ‘Bulgarian Catharism’, 43 or, more accurately, that ‘Catharism was in origin a Western form of Bogomilism’, 44 what were the most important beliefs at the core of this heretical, pan-European religion? 

We’ve seen that a belief in duality was fundamental – that is to say, a belief in two gods, one good, one evil, with the latter depicted as the creator of the earth, of mankind and of all material things. This in turn led the dualists to the conclusion that Christ, as an emanation of the Good God, could not have existed ‘in the flesh’ – which was by definition evil. Likewise, he could neither have been born nor crucified (both of which call for a physical body) – and therefore could not have redeemed our sins by dying on the cross. [The belief in two gods is a belief of death, not Christ dc] 

The reader is also familiar with the notion, again shared in full by the Bogomils and the Cathars, that the Holy Spirit had been brought to earth by the non-physical Christ and transmitted ever since – ‘from Good Man to Good Man’ – through the ritual of the consolamentum and the laying-on of hands. In both branches of the religion the ritual was the same and in both it served as an instrument of initiation at which a sacred Gnosis was acquired that raised the candidate from the class of the neophytes to the class of adepts. 45 [Holy Spirit sent by Christ and The Father dc]

Such beliefs and behaviour, on their own, clearly delineate key differences between mainstream Christianity on the one hand and the Bogomil/Cathar religion on the other. But there are many more – as might be expected given the genuinely Gnostic and essentially non-authoritarian character of the heresy. Like all earlier forms and expressions of Gnosticism it honoured the power of individual revelation over and above established doctrine. The result, part of the life of the religion, was a luxuriant jungle of speculation by both Cathars and Bogomils around their key concerns. These were the origins of evil, the essential goodness and immortality of souls and the cause of their repeated incarnations in human bodies here on wicked planet earth. It was the encouragement given to such individual creativity and freedom of expression that led to the principal schism in the heretical Church – that between so-called ‘absolute’ and ‘moderate’ dualists, which in turn proliferated into numerous smaller subdivisions. These seem to have competed for conversions – ‘although they may have differing and contrary opinions’ 46 – but they also apparently recognized one another and coexisted in a spirit of mutual tolerance. 47 

Despite the state of intellectual anarchy that prevailed amongst the heretics, we thought it was possible to make out certain fundamentals of their religion on which all or most seem to have agreed. When we compared these with the fundamentals of established Christianity it was difficult to avoid the eerie feeling that each was a weirdly distorted reflection of the other. Like Dorian Gray and his portrait in the attic, they were the same but opposites, near but very far apart. 

The Journey of the Soul One matter of great common interest and wildly dissimilar treatment was the origin and ultimate fate of the soul and its relationship to the human body. Established Christian teaching is extremely clear: ‘Each individual soul is a new creation of God, infused into the body destined for it.’ 48 At death the soul is separated from the body, though not permanently, as the two will be reunited at the Second Coming of Christ and the Resurrection of the Dead. Then ‘departed souls will be restored to a bodily life and the saved will enter in this renewed form upon the life of heaven’. 49 Said to be a ‘fundamental element’ of Christian doctrine, it was a dominant view amongst medieval theologians that ‘the resurrection will involve a collection and revivifying of the particles of the dead body’. 50 

Naturally the Cathars and Bogomils did not believe in the resurrection of the body. They regarded it as a truly impractical and actually rather hideous idea. Their interest was exclusively in the soul, which they saw as an immortal, non-physical intelligence that entered the human body at conception and thereafter wore it like a ‘tunic’ 51 until the body died. They pictured the soul as a time traveller on an immense journey towards perfection. Rather than the one-off ‘resurrection’ of billions of mouldering corpses on Judgement Day, their view was that each soul would be reborn many times on earth, in many different bodies – both human and animal 52 – before attaining its goal. Very much as in Buddhism, the objective was to progress to the advanced state of detachment, purity and self-control, obtainable only in human form, 53 that was believed necessary to release the soul for ever from its imprisonment in the world of matter. 

The price was a life, perhaps many lifetimes, of severe asceticism and meditation. Moreover, though austerities were regarded as absolutely necessary, the reader will recall that they were not on their own held to be sufficient to obtain the soul’s release. For that was also required the power of the Holy Spirit transmitted through the laying-on of hands in the consolamentum. 

So, in the dualist scheme of things, the destiny of the soul after death depended on what it had done with its period of physical incarnation just completed. 

• If, through efforts made in this and previous lives, it had been born in the body of a man or a woman who would become a Cathar or Bogomil perfectus, and if the perfectus concerned died in a fully consoled state without having lapsed, then the soul’s term of imprisonment on earth would end. Released from the snares of matter, it could rise back at last to its true home in the furthest and highest heaven – the realm of pure spirit ruled by the God of Good. 

• If, on the other hand, the soul had incarnated in a body that did not have the opportunity to encounter Cathar or Bogomil teachings – and thus to be consoled – then it would be born again in yet another body, and another, and another, until it did, finally, come to ‘the understanding of God’. 54 

A doctrine of Karma is not explicitly spelled out in the fragments of the dualist teachings that have come down to us. Still, it is clear that goodness and personal austerity were thought to be beneficial to the progress of the soul while a lifetime of wickedness and self indulgence would have profoundly negative consequences. Punishments of a ‘Karmic’ nature could take the form of rebirth in particularly ghastly circumstances, or as an idiot, or even as a dumb animal – which, since it could not speak or reason, would only further frustrate the progress of the soul caged within it. 55 

Jehovah (aka the Devil) and the Old Testament 
For Cathars and Bogomils the earth, and all material things in the perceptible universe, were the work of the Evil God. And while they worshipped the God of Good they acknowledged that he existed in an entirely separate dimension and had no direct influence in the Devil’s playground. 

By way of stark contrast, Christians believe in only one God, depicted as omnipotent and universally good, who created the material world and with it the human body and soul. He also established a spiritual heaven somewhere ‘above’ and outside the material dimension. There the souls of his elect, restored to their bodies, are to be sent on the Day of Judgement while for the remainder of mankind – sinners all – it is well known that God has prepared a suitable hell. 

For mainstream Christians the Books of the Old Testament, just like those of the New Testament, are regarded as inspired texts that form an integral part of their canonical scriptures. 56 Much is made of the continuity between the old ‘Law’, shared with the Synagogue, and the new Law brought by Jesus. Likewise, when Roman Catholics or Orthodox Christians speak of God as the ‘Father’ and Jesus as the ‘Son’, they clearly understand the ‘Father’ to be none other than Yahweh (Jehovah), the God of the Old Testament. Nothing compels us to believe that he has become some completely different or even radically transformed deity. Jesus brings a ‘New Covenant’, certainly, but you don’t have to read the small print to realize that the God Christians go to church to worship today is still Jehovah. [ A real Christian knows if Jesus Father is the God of the old testament.  dc ]

The heretics adopted the same general scenario, but their take on it was radically different. Far from being the object of their worship, Jehovah for them was synonymous with the ‘Devil’, or ‘Satan’, or ‘Lucifer’ – just another of the many names by which the Evil God who had made the material world was known. They judged him by his deeds, which were well known and had always been arbitrary, vengeful, violent and cruel. The Old Testament, in describing these deeds, was simply an extended paean to Jehovah’s unmitigated wickedness and was seen by the Cathars and the Bogomils as an irredeemably evil text – evil through and through – that had been written to flatter this evil deity. To adopt it as Scripture, as the established Christians had done, was to capitulate entirely to the Devil. They therefore exorcised the Old Testament from their lives and would accept no argument based on its authority. 57 They relied instead upon the New Testament, and in some extreme cases on just a few specific Books within the New Testament. 

To this extent, though they were not Christians, theirs was a New Testament religion. However, they also reverenced several other texts, as we shall see later, that were neither known nor accepted by the mainstream Church. 

The Creature of Mud and the Hole in Heaven 
If the basic dualist perception is of the separation and complete incompatibility of the realms of spirit and matter, then how is it possible that souls – though wholly spiritual and the creation of the Good God – could have ended up imprisoned in human bodies created by the Evil God? 

Cathar and Bogomil missionaries had a varied collection of myths at their disposal to help confront such paradoxes and answer questions arising from them in graphic and engaging ways. 58 The myths weren’t ‘dogmas’ or even ‘doctrines’ and it would be foolish to think that they were taken literally. Rather they were storyboards used as teaching devices – the point being for different teachers to bring different listeners in different circumstances to their own independent understanding of the mystery. 

In brief, what the dualist myths tell us is that the paradoxical mixing of good and evil in the heart of the human creature came about after the Evil God Jehovah/Satan had created the material earth as described in the Old Testament. Some of the myths state that he was not satisfied with this achievement so he attempted to create a man, moulding the body out of mud or clay, like a potter 59. But try as he might he was unable to breathe the spirit of life into the body he had made – for the spirit of life is in the gift of the Good God alone. In desperation, therefore: He sent an embassy to the Good Father, and asked Him to send His breath, saying that the man would be shared if he were to be endowed with life… Because God is good, He agreed and breathed into what [Jehovah/Satan] had moulded the breath of life; immediately man became a living soul, splendid in his body and bright with many graces. 60 

A quaint sidelight comes from a vernacular form of the myth, repeated to the Inquisition in Toulouse in 1247. A witness reported having been told by a Cathar how the Devil made the body of the first man, Adam, and God gave it a soul. But then: ‘The man leaped up and said to the Devil, “I do not belong to you”.’ 61 

So we are to envisage an independent-minded creature here, one who is aware of the good within himself and capable of subduing the evil material inclinations of his body. The natural impulse of this ‘living soul’ is to return to the realm of the Good God, yet it cannot do so without purification because it has now been thoroughly contaminated by matter. Worse, far from sharing Adam, as he had promised, it is the intention of the Evil God to monopolize the man, drawing him ever deeper into the realm of this world and causing him to forget his spiritual origins. Eve is suddenly (sometimes confusingly) on the scene, also a living soul, and she and Adam are impelled by the Devil ‘towards that carnal union that finally consummated their position as creatures of matter’. 62 The original gift of Spirit breathed by God into the parents nevertheless is transmitted through the act of reproduction to their descendants, and their souls, now enchained to matter, are reborn again and again on the Devil’s earth. 

Another myth tells a different story to make essentially the same points. In this case the Evil God starts out not so much as a completely separate principle but as an emanation from the Good God – a heavenly being of the type that we might think of as an angel. Like Satan in Christian cosmology his pride, arrogance and avarice corrupt him and he must leave the Good Heaven. In the momentum of his Fall he draws down with him ‘a great crowd of souls who had been created by God and were living close to him in a state of beatitude. It was from this inexhaustible reserve of fallen or captive angels that human souls derived.’ 63 

In other recensions the God of Good and the God of Evil may be portrayed as equal and opposite powers, or the latter may again be a fallen emanation of the former. Having created the material world, the God of Evil lures a host of angels out of Heaven. This he does by promising them ‘possessions, gold, silver and wives, till they fell like rain upon the earth for nine days and nights to be shut up in bodies by Satan’. 64 
Many accounts say that a third of all the angels in Heaven, 65 due to their own ‘weaknesses’, were thus tempted to descend to earth to animate the zombie bodies that the God of Evil had prepared for them. Meanwhile, the God of Good notices the radical decline in the angel population and discovers that the departure of so many has ripped a hole in Heaven. He prevents further losses by jamming his foot in the hole and tells those who have already fallen that they will remain on earth, encased in bodies ‘for the moment and for now’. 66 Through the cycle of reincarnation, harnessed to the sex impulse that ensures an endless supply of new bodies to replace those that wear out, the Devil believes that he has imprisoned the fallen angels in the human race for ever. But the enigmatic words ‘for the moment and for now’ lead us to understand that the God of Good has a plan that will frustrate the Devil and restore the lost souls to heaven. 67 

Christ’s Holographic Mission to the Realm of an Alien God 
Since the dualist perspective makes the God of Good powerful only in the spiritual realm, and the God of Evil powerful only in the material realm, it does not easily provide a mechanism for either to operate on the other’s home turf. Perhaps this is why it takes a very long time – thousands of years we’re told, in all the Cathar and Bogomil cosmologies 68 – for the Good God to implement his plan to frustrate the Devil. 

It is a plan conceived out of compassion for the imprisoned souls of the angelic host – because their life on earth, isolated from the Holy Spirit that had filled them before their fall, is one of ‘unimaginable suffering’. 69 Denied the radiance of the Spirit, and all that is good, they are trapped far from their true home in a dimension to which they do not belong. A Cathar prayer expresses their grief: ‘We are not of this world, and this world is not of us, and we fear lest we meet death in this realm of an alien God.’ 70 

The prayer goes right to the heart of the problem. How is the God of Good to project his spiritual power into the material realm of the God of Evil in order to rescue the souls trapped there? The dualists all gave the same answer to this question – Jesus Christ. But their Christ was a very different figure from Jesus the ‘Son of God’, born a man, later crucified and resurrected from the dead, who was worshipped by Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. The reader will recall that the Cathars and Bogomils believed Christ to have been non-human – an emanation from the Good God who could never have been ‘born’ into evil flesh but who had manifested in our material dimension as a particularly convincing yet ‘nonphysical’ apparition. Indeed, it might even be helpful in explaining what the dualists had in mind here to say that their Christ figure was a sort of avatar – not a created, material being, but an emission or radiation or instrument of the Good ‘sent forth to deal with the created world’. 71 

Christ’s mission was threefold. Firstly, he was to preach a religion, and transmit a gnosis, that would lift the scales from the eyes of mankind and provide high initiates with insight into the meaning of death, the true character of existence and the fate of the soul. 

Secondly, he was to offer instruction as to how humans might best live together through their vast cycle of incarnations in the hell called the earth. In the long-term project of cleansing souls contaminated by matter and preparing them to return to heaven there was no doubt that certain social arrangements and personal commitments were more conducive to the success of the ‘mission’ than others. For example, if humanity could be persuaded to organize itself according to principles of love, non-violence, kindness, frugality, tolerance and mercy, then this would obviously be better for all concerned than hate, bloodshed, cruelty, excess, dogmatism and vengeance. Since the God of Evil sought every opportunity to urge us on to all of the latter – and to every other ugly and wicked impulse of which we are capable – the purpose of the teachings of Jesus was to provide a counterbalance. Though in fact he was a phantasm, the perfect ‘life’ that he would appear to live on earth would also serve as an example to show others the way. 

The third and by far the most important objective of Christ’s holographic mission was to bring down with him from heaven a blazing fragment of the Holy Spirit. For those souls who succeeded in purifying and perfecting themselves on earth it would provide the final necessary burst of sacred energy that would break the bonds of matter and return them to heaven. 72 We might envisage it as a flaming torch, lit from the main fire of the Spirit in heaven and now able to transmit its revivifying flame to souls marooned in the material world below. 

Before his feigned death upon the cross, the Cathars and the Bogomils believed that Jesus had passed custody of this spiritual flame to the Apostles through the laying-on of hands – the original ritual of the consolamentum – and thence to the primitive Church. 

A Short Excursion to Parallel Worlds 
For some years our own long-term research interest has been in religious systems that give special emphasis to the dualisms of ‘heaven–earth’, ‘sky– ground’ and ‘above–below’. We have argued in previous books that such systems were once prominent in the ancient world – most notably amongst the Egyptians. 73 There are, for instance, funerary texts 3500 years old (and older examples of the same type of material could be cited) that instruct the Pharaoh to make a copy on the ground, and gain knowledge – gnosis – of a region of the sky called ‘the hidden circle of the Duat’. 74 He is to do this so that he may become ‘a spirit’ after death and be ‘well-equipped both in heaven and earth, unfailingly and regularly and eternally’. 75 

The source of this passage is the eleventh division of the Book of What is in the Duat (written on the walls of the tomb of Tuthmoses III, 1479–1425 bc). A little later in the same text – in the twelfth division – the Pharaoh is instructed for a second time to make a copy on the ground of the hidden circle of the Duat so that it may ‘act as a magical protector for him, both in heaven and upon earth’. 76 

We have argued that such dualistic sky–ground thinking was a key element in the religion of ancient Egypt for at least 3000 years from the beginning of the Old Kingdom to the time of Christ. And we’ve tried to show how that religion inspired the Pharaohs to undertake great construction projects – the Pyramids of Giza, for example, or the Temples of Karnak and Luxor – which in a variety of different ways sought to ‘copy’ or ‘reconstitute’ the perfection of the heavens in the land of Egypt. 77 

We were therefore intrigued to discover that surviving texts, traditions and inquisitional records from Occitania, Italy and Constantinople contain not only copious illustrations of the well understood ‘spirit–matter’, ‘good–evil’ dualism practised by the Cathars and the Bogomils but also rarer examples of a distinctly ‘ancient Egyptian’ heaven–earth dualism. 

For example, when Euthymius Zigabenus interrogated the Bogomil evangelist Basil in Constantinople around the year 1100, he was told one of the versions of the ‘fallen angel myths’ often used to explain how souls created by the God of Good had come to be in bodies created by the God of Evil. In this variant both Satan and Jesus are ‘Sons’ – emanations – of the Good God. Satan, the elder ‘Son’, covets the father’s kingdom and rebels against him. The rebellion fails and Satan is expelled from Heaven. Yet through pride and envy he still yearns to possess a realm where he might be God. He therefore creates the earth and ‘a second heaven’ (our emphasis), moulds his zombie humans from mud and water and persuades the Good God to breathe souls into them. 78 The reader knows the rest of the story. 

Another hint of the same kind of thinking comes in reports, collected by the Inquisition, of Cathar teachings concerning ‘the truth of the Upper and Lower Worlds’. 79 Here we read about the God of Good ‘preaching in the sky to his people’, and how he sent Satan down to ‘this world’ and how afterwards Satan desired ‘to have a part of the Lower and Upper possessions, and the Lord did not wish it, and on this account there was war for a long time’. 80 Striking and colourful reference was also made to a Cathar teaching that ‘Oxen… grazed and ploughed the soil and worked on the sky as on the earth’. 81 

Rather than outlining actual ‘beliefs’, it seems to us that such teachings are best understood as simplified illustrations or mental images to assist neophytes in the analysis of difficult concepts. Embedded in all of them is the fundamental dualist idea of two parallel worlds, one all spirit, one all matter, but here visualized in terms of graphic sky–ground metaphors. It was in the same vein that the Cathars would often speak of the ‘earthly earth’ and the ‘heavenly earth’ 82 – the former being our planet, this underworld or hell-world on which human incarnations are served out; the latter to be understood as a parallel celestial or heavenly realm. 83 

There was a text that was held in the highest regard by the heretics. Known as the Vision of Isaiah, it reached the Cathars in the late twelfth century from the Bogomils, being translated in the process from Greek or Old Slavonic into Latin. However, it is believed by scholars to have ‘deep roots in the past, probably finding its origins among the Greek Gnostics towards the end of the first century AD’. 84 In it we read how Isaiah (a prophet generally exempted by the dualists, for reasons that need not detain us here, from their general hatred of the Old Testament) is given a great privilege by the God of Good. He sends an angel from heaven to take the prophet by the hand and lead him on a journey through both the earthly and the celestial realms, crossing the barrier between the two – something that ‘no one who desires to return to the flesh’ has ever before been permitted to do. As they ascend through the heavens they see tremendous battles raging on all sides between the emanations of the God of Evil and the emanations of the God of Good: ‘For just as it is on earth, so also it is in the firmament, because replicas of what are in the firmament are on earth.’ 85 

Rainier Sacconi, a relapsed Cathar perfectus who turned Inquisitor in the mid-twelfth century, reported significant discussion of such ideas amongst his former co-religionists. They believed, he said, that certain of their sacred books had been ‘written in Heaven and brought down to earth’ (our emphasis) by Christ, who entrusted them to the Primitive Church on the completion of his mission. 86 It was to this Primitive Church, ‘which alone could offer true consolation to the souls dwelling in exile’, 87 that the dualists claimed to belong. Through an unbroken chain of consolations, they said, their perfecti had preserved and passed down the flame of the Holy Spirit undimmed from the time of Christ. The only problem was that they had been forced to preserve it in secret because the God of Evil, absolute master of this world, had substituted a false Church for the true one centuries before and endowed it with immense material power. This imposter Church masqueraded as ‘Christian’ but actually served the Devil. 88 By working for its downfall, therefore, the Bogomils and Cathars claimed that they only sought to restore the status quo ante that had prevailed at the time of the Apostles. 

Ancient Legacy or Medieval Invention? 
It sounds like blatant propaganda. Of course, heretics would like us to believe that only their Church was the authentic descendant of the Church of the Apostles. Even if they’d only invented themselves yesterday, why settle for anything less? Surprisingly, however, several leading scholars in this field are convinced that such claims are solidly based and that the Cathar and Bogomil Churches somehow did manage to preserve genuine traditions from the earliest days of Christianity. 

The pro-Catholic scholar Martin Lambert doesn’t want to make too much of it when he admits that: 

By a strange chance the rite of the consolamentum that appears in the thirteenth century texts does seem to have been based on a rite for baptism and on practices connected with the catechumenate [those who were candidates for baptism] much earlier than the contemporary Catholic rites of baptism or ordination.’ 89 

But Steven Runciman points out that this is by no means the only close resemblance. In his view, whether we think them ‘strange’ or not, there are far too many similarities for us to put them all down to ‘chance’: 

The Ritual Feast of the Cathars [which involved a simple breaking-of-bread ceremony] is, if we equate the Perfect with the Early Christian priest, exactly the same as the Early Christian Communion Feast. The Kiss of Peace terminated Early Christian services as it did those of the Cathars… The consolamentum in its two aspects was closely akin to the adult baptism administered by the Early Church to the dying and to the ordination or initiation into its ministry. The very details of the service are similar. In the Early Church [as was the case with a prospective Cathar perfectus] the catechumen was tested by a long and stern probationary period [prior to] his initiation ceremony… The actual ordination was identical, consisting of the laying on of hands and of the Gospel upon the catechumen’s head…90 While polemical churchmen in the Middle Ages denounced the heretics for maintaining a class of the Elect or Perfect they were denouncing an Early Christian practice, and the heretic initiation ceremony that they viewed with so much horror was almost word for word the ceremony with which Early Christians were admitted to the Church. 91 

Such similarity cannot be fortuitous. Obviously the Cathar Church had preserved, only slightly amended to suit its doctrines of the time, the services extant in the Christian Church during the first four centuries of its life. 92 

Runciman notes that everywhere they went – whether it was amongst the oppressed Slav peasants of Bulgaria or amongst the freethinking burghers of Occitania – the heretics were able to exploit preexisting social and economic conditions in order to gain a foothold. But, he concludes, ‘the political impulse was not everything’: ‘Behind it there was a steady spiritual teaching, a definite religion, that developed and declined as most religions do, but that embodied a constant tradition.’ 93 

It is his view that this tradition is in one sense as old as human speculation about the nature of evil in the world – dating back, long before Christianity, to whatever prehistoric age it was when men first asked ‘why God, if there be a God, could permit it?’ 94 From there Runciman is willing to trace the same primordial religion very tentatively into the historical period, seeing elements of it drawn together from ‘Egyptian, Zoroastrian and even Buddhist ideas’. 95 Three centuries after Christ it was likewise notable how: 

Stoics and Neoplatonists each in their own way condemned the world of matter; and Jewish thinkers of Alexandria began to face the problem [of evil], influenced by the emphasis on spirit that they found in the Hermetic lore of Egypt. 96 

Runciman concludes that it was the Gnostics of Alexandria and Syria who were responsible – roughly between the first and fourth centuries AD – for finally gathering together all such lines of thought and applying them to Christianity. 97 Thereafter a series of overlapping heresies could be sketchily made out in the historical record. It was these together, Runciman argues, that had preserved the ‘constant tradition’ from the early Gnostic schools, by way of Manicheism between the third and sixth centuries, eventually to reach the Bogomils in the tenth century. They in their turn transmitted it to Western Europe in the form of Catharism in the twelfth century. 

Hans Soderberg is a second major authority in this field who is satisfied that the religious beliefs and practices of the medieval dualists were connected by ‘an uninterrupted traditional chain’ to the Gnostic religions that had flourished a thousand years earlier. 98 He believes, moreover, that the Cathars merely gave ‘a Christian clothing’ to the even more ancient, indeed virtually universal, myth ‘of the combat between the two powers’. 99 

But other historians are not at all happy about tracing the origins of medieval dualism so far back. 100 Malcolm Lambert thus speaks for many when he tries to place the whole Cathar/Bogomil phenomenon firmly in the context of its times, seeing it primarily as a reaction to specific economic, political and social circumstances. Even he, however, is prepared to admit that Bulgaria (converted to Orthodox Christianity barely a century before Bogomil began teaching) may have provided uncommonly good ground for the heresy because of the possible influence of ‘pre-existing dualist beliefs in the country’. 101 

Listening to Heretics and Heresy-hunters 
Whatever the personal stance of individual scholars may be on the problem of origins, we’ve observed a curious phenomenon in reviewing the literature. Very few of the attempts made to trace the history of ideas behind medieval dualism (whether they support or contradict the idea of an ancient tradition) have been willing to pay serious attention to what the dualists themselves – or their opponents in the Church – had to say on the matter. For example, when heresy hunters in Western Europe referred to the Cathars as ‘Manichees’, it is automatically assumed that they must have been mistaken because Manicheism had been suppressed centuries previously. 

In the East, Theophylact, Patriarch of Constantinople AD 933–56, was one of the first to warn of the stirrings of the heresy that soon become known as Bogomilism (although he did not know of Bogomil by name). Writing to Tsar Peter of Bulgaria, he was just as quick as his counterparts in the West to link the heresy to Manicheism (and also to the pre-existing dualist religion known as Paulicianism, of which we shall hear more in the next chapter). ‘Let the leaders and teachers of this ancient heresy which has newly reappeared be anathema,’ 102 he pronounced firmly at the end of his letter. Yet scholars are reluctant to pursue the possibility that the heresy thus anathematized could have been anywhere near as ‘ancient’ as Theophylact clearly believed. 

The same academic scepticism also inhibits research into the implications of the heretics’ own statements about their origins – all of which have come down to us through the work of the heresy hunters and thus seethe with hostile comments and interpretations. As early as 1143 or 1144, for example, when Catharism was first beginning to be recognized in Western Europe, the monk Everwin of Steinfeld (near Cologne in Germany) wrote a worried letter to Bernard of Clairvaux appealing for his assistance in the struggle against the heretics, ‘who everywhere in almost all churches boil up from the pit of hell as though already their prince were about to be loosed and the day of the Lord were at hand’. 103 Everwin frankly observed that the heresy was gaining ground because of the apparent piety of its missionaries who possessed ‘no house, or lands, or anything of their own, even as Christ had no property nor allowed his disciples the right of possession’. 104 

Equally potent, and apparently extremely convincing, was the heretics’ insistence that theirs was Christ’s original Church – the Primitive Church itself, reawakened after being forced to lie low ‘in Greece and certain other lands… from the time of the martyrs’. 105 Though Evil powers had made every effort to destroy the Church of the Good God, ‘We, and our fathers of apostolic descent, have continued in the grace of Christ and shall so remain until the end of time.’ 106 

Martin Lambert’s comment is that one of the reasons the Cathar perfecti were so convincing was because they: 

honestly thought that they were the only true Christians, that the clergy were the servants of Satan’s Church; and that Cathar teaching presented a stream of pure underground Christianity, often persecuted, but always surviving and reaching back to the days of the apostles. 107 

Whether they were right or not is another matter, but we know what the heretics believed. They believed that their faith was meant to guide the world. This was what was destined. This had been the plan of the Good God to fetch the lost souls back to heaven and he had sent Christ to earth to set it in motion. 

All had proceeded as it should until the reign of the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century. Then, at the very moment when Christianity triumphed over multiple competitors to become the state religion of the Roman Empire, the Devil pulled off his most cunning trick. A clique within the Church that insisted on literal interpretation of the Scriptures – rather than the more allegorical approach favoured by Gnostic Christians – seized control and rapidly began to persecute as heretics all those who disagreed with them. Under interrogation the Bogomil evangelist Basil explicitly mentioned the Church Father John Chrysostom (AD 347–407), who is indeed known for his ‘literalist’ views, 108 as a ring-leader of this clique of early heresy hunters. 109 

It was such purges between the fourth and sixth centuries, said the Cathars and the Bogomils, that had forced their true Church underground. Only now, after the sleep of years, was it emerging once more from the shadows. In the tenth century it had seemed no more than the rantings of a lone vegetarian in Bulgaria. By the eleventh it had become a cult that had spread throughout the Balkans and to Constantinople. By the mid-twelfth century it was firmly established in Italy and Occitania and could also claim to have won many followers elsewhere ‘scattered throughout the world’. 110 

Though the scholars have paid scant attention, it seemed to us that what the heretics were claiming was dynamite – not only that their forefathers in the dualist Church were the true descendants of the Apostles, but also that an ancient conspiracy had denied them their rightful role in shaping the destiny of the West. Perhaps even more explosive was the way they clearly saw themselves as part of a long delayed ‘counter-conspiracy’ that had begun in the last fifty years of the first millennium and that had grown steadily, one might almost say remorselessly, in the two centuries that followed. 

As we continued to explore the strange phenomenon of medieval heresy we could not shake off the feeling that something ancient and hidden, with a profound purpose for mankind, had briefly shown its face 1000 years ago, tried to change the world, and failed.

                                    Chain of the Great Heresy

‘In its Manichean form Gnosticism was once a real worldwide religion, i.e. a worldwide and separate Gnostic community or church (ekklesia) with its many thousands and, later on, even millions of adherents; its own leader, bishops and priests; its own canonical scriptures; and even its own very attractive art. Once Manicheism spread from southern Mesopotamia as far as the Atlantic in the West and the Pacific in the Far East. It had its adherents in Egypt, in Roman North Africa, in Spain, Gaul, Italy and the Balkans, and in the end even in the regions on the South China Coast. Its history covers the period from the beginning of the third century to modern times. Even in our century [i.e. the twentieth century] Manicheism was still forbidden by law in Vietnam.’ (Johannes Van Oort, Lecturer in the History of Christianity at the University of Utrecht) 1 

Christianity in the twenty-first century is enshrined in the law of many lands, and even where it is not practised it has worked its way both overtly and subliminally into virtually every sphere of life – marriage patterns, child rearing, education, social and political relationships, ethics, philosophy and so on. Subsumed into Western capitalism, it has also had a huge impact, built up over centuries, on our relationship with the material world. 

Consider the account of Creation given in the Old Testament Book of Genesis (a text that the Church views as inspired and that fundamentalist Christians to this day teach as fact). 2 The creator is Jehovah, whom the Bogomils and Cathars equated with the Devil. In Chapter 1 we read how he makes heaven and earth, night and day, the oceans, dry land, grass, herbs, trees, fruit. To fill the oceans, ‘God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly.’ Land animals come next. Then, on the sixth day, ‘God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.’ Finally, Jehovah invites the first couple to ‘subdue’ the whole earth and gives them ‘dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth’. 3 

This is a code of subjugation and domination, even if it includes some commonsense ‘replenishing’ as well. 4 In the West it set the moral agenda for the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. And even in the secular modern world it continues, through force of ancient habit and in many subtle ways, to underwrite the environmental irresponsibility of the big economies and the vast multinational corporations they have spawned. 

You can see the effects of the Old Testament’s righteous sense of dominion everywhere. The fowl of the air are now battery chickens; many species of those great whales that Jehovah made have been hunted to extinction; fish-stocks in the oceans have never been lower; there is a continent-sized hole in the ozone layer; and the rainforests of the Amazon – the very lungs of the world – are being logged out or burned at a terrifying rate to make way for cattle ranches. Of course, we do not claim that the Christian Church is solely responsible for all this; but neither should its part in the matter be underestimated. Though fewer and fewer Westerners study the scriptures today, or would claim to be much influenced by them, all the structures, wealth and international power inherited from the Age of Discovery and the Industrial Revolution were built up by people who did. 

There are other matters for which the Church and its leaders have been much more completely responsible. In Chapters 6 and 7 we will tell the story of the Albigensian Crusades that destroyed the Cathars in the thirteenth century. No one acquainted with these terrible events could doubt the absolute disregard of the Christian leadership in Europe for the spiritual rights of others or its willingness to use lethal force. The same arrogance and blood-lust also showed themselves in the brutal Crusades between the eleventh and the thirteenth centuries mounted by European Christian armies to recapture the Holy Land. The faith was therefore only running true to type when it continued to be imposed forcefully by Europeans wherever they went during the Age of Discovery – witness the activities of the Jesuits and other missionaries in Africa, Asia and the Americas, from the fifteenth century onwards. Indigenous religions and their cultural treasures were systematically demolished and replaced by Christianity – at incalculable cost to the diversity of human ideas. Where this could not be achieved, notably in the disruptive 1000-year conflict with Islam, massive trauma and lasting damage were inflicted on those societies that would not accept conversion. The suffering, chaos and violence that still continue in the Middle East today result directly from this ancient legacy of pain – and since 11 September 2001 the war has been carried to the West’s own front door. In the eyes of Muslim fundamentalists, contemporary Western geopolitics in the Middle East are a continuation of the Crusades by modern means and so must be resisted to the death. The result is a flashpoint, built on a millennium of hatred, that could yet set the whole world in flames. 

All in all, then, it seems reasonable to conclude that established Christianity has been amongst the great determinative forces of history and that the baleful global conditions we confront in the twenty-first century have much to do with its long-term influence. A moment can be pinpointed when that influence first began to be felt – in the early fourth century AD following the conversion to Christianity of the Roman Emperor Constantine. That was the moment when Christianity first strapped itself to the engine of secular power and (almost immediately, as we shall see) became a persecuting bureaucracy. In its first 300 years, however, it had possessed no unified Church, nor any agreed body of fundamental dogma that it might wish to impose on others, nor the ability to impose it on them. Far from persecuting, Christianity itself had been a despised and persecuted agglomeration of sects with a very wide range of ideas centred around the figure and mission of Christ. 

What Was Smashed? 
The heretical Churches of the Bogomils and the Cathars that flourished for a few brief centuries in the Middle Ages also centred their ideas around the figure and mission of Christ. How does the impact of their thinking compare with the giant presence and powers of the established Christian Church? The question is asked specifically with reference to their influence on the world stage and their overall importance in the history of mankind. 

There are scholars who give what seems to be the obvious answer. They argue that the Bogomil and Cathar movements are best understood as strictly local responses to temporary social and economic circumstances in various parts of Europe between the tenth and the fourteenth centuries. 5 If their view is correct, then to know the whole life story of the heresy we need only examine the immediate conditions surrounding its rise and fall. With no past – and, of course, no future – its place in history would be small and its impact on the development of Western civilization negligible or nonexistent. 

We’ve seen that other scholars, like Hans Soderberg and Sir Steven Runciman, oppose this view, arguing that ‘an uninterrupted traditional chain’ connects the Cathars and the Bogomils to the religion known as Christian Gnosticism that flourished in Egypt and the Middle East a thousand years earlier. If they are correct, then whatever it was that the Church smashed with the Albigensian Crusades in the thirteenth century can hardly be described as a shortlived social movement. If the links in the chain can be traced back 1000 years, then doesn’t the Cathar phenomenon look much more like a bid for power after a millennium of silence by a parallel persecuted religion, secretive, shadowy and as old as established Christianity itself? 

‘That Most Wicked Sect of Obscene Men 
who are Called Paulicians.. .’ 
Working back from the Cathars, for whom there are no unambiguous reports prior to the mid-twelfth century, we come to the Bogomils. They are first heard of in the tenth century and survived in some isolated communities in Eastern Europe until the fifteenth century. Not only did they predate and outlive the Cathars, therefore, but also there is consensus amongst the scholars that Catharism in the West did arise as a direct result of Bogomil missionary activity. 

The next link in the proposed ‘chain of the great heresy’ overlaps in time with the Bogomils in a similar way, and again with a significantly earlier origin. The link is formed by a strange and uniquely warlike dualist sect known as the Paulicians. They co-existed with the Bogomils and are thought to have played a significant part in shaping the ideas of Bogomil himself in the tenth century. 6 

As with most heretical movements, much that we know about them comes from their opponents in the Christian Church. One of these was the monk Peter of Sicily, whose History of the Manicheans who are also called Paulicians contains valuable contemporary information on the sect. Peter learned about them at first hand in 869–70, when Emperor Basil I of Constantinople sent him as an ambassador to the Paulician leader Chrysocheir – who had recently established an independent principality on the Arab–Byzantine frontier.

As we can see from the title of his tract, Peter assumed that the Paulician religion was merely a disguised form of Manichaeism. This is understandable. The Paulicians and the followers of Mani were dualists, exactly like the later Bogomils and Cathars. But the Paulicians’ account of their own origins, which Peter of Sicily also helpfully preserved for us, makes no claim of descent from Mani. Instead, it traces the sect’s beliefs back to a certain Constantine of Mananalis, who had lived in what is now Armenia during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Constans I (641–8). 8 Constantine of Mananalis, in his turn, is said to have been influenced by a mysterious ‘deacon’ who stayed at his home ‘after returning from prison in Syria’ and gave him a number of books including ‘a Gospel Book and a book of the Epistles of St Paul, on which he… based his teaching’.

So clearly there must have been something ‘Christian’ about these Paulicians if the teachings of their founder were based on Christian texts. Indeed, it turns out that Christ was the central figure in their religion but that just like the Cathars and Bogomils they refused utterly to accept that he had ever been born ‘in the flesh’ or that Mary was his mother. 10 Since he did not possess a physical body, how could he have had a mother? Like the Cathars and the Bogomils they believed him to have been a non-physical emanation of the God of Good, an emissary from the spiritual realms. 11 Like the Cathars and the Bogomils they rejected the cross and all the material sacraments of established Christianity, as well as the cults of saints and of icons. 12 Like the Cathars and the Bogomils they entirely rejected the Old Testament and did not accept every part of the New. 13 And again like the Cathars and the Bogomils they claimed that theirs was the only true Church, descended directly from the first Christian communities, and that the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches were imposters. 14 

The supreme leader of the Paulicians, wielding absolute spiritual and secular power, was known as the didaskalos. His followers regarded him, says Peter of Sicily, as ‘the apostle of Christ’. 15 Constantine of Mananalis in the seventh century was revered as the first didaskalos, but all his successors held the same title and each was considered ‘the authoritative teacher of the Christian revelation in his own generation’. 16 

Although we do not know the exact date that Constantine of Mananalis began his ministry, historians generally set it around 655. 17 He acted from the beginning, say historians Janet and Bernard Hamilton, as though he were: 

restoring the true Church that had been founded by Saint Paul… Later didaskaloi followed Constantine’s example and took the names of Paul’s disciples, and also called their churches after places visited by Paul. The implication was that they were restoring the true apostolic Church. 18 

Understandably these heretics referred to themselves simply as ‘Christians’ (again something they have in common with the Bogomils and the Cathars, who likewise called themselves ‘Good Christians’). 19 The name Paulicians apparently had nothing to do with their attachment to Saint Paul but came into general usage long after the sect was formed and was bestowed on them by others. It is most plausibly explained as a derivation from the didaskalos Paul, who led the semi-nomadic sect back to Armenia in the eighth century. 20 

But while the Paulicians thought of themselves as true Christians, the Orthodox Church and the Byzantine Empire thought otherwise. Constantine of Mananalis was eventually executed for heresy on the orders of Emperor Constantine IV (668–85). Historians believe it most likely he was burned at the stake, although the Paulicians themselves put about a story that he was stoned to death. It has been suggested that this was probably ‘to draw a parallel between their first martyr and the first Christian martyr Stephen’. 21 

The second Paulician didaskalos, who took the name Titus, was also executed for heresy, this time definitely by burning. 22 

During the eighth century the Paulicians enjoyed long periods of official tolerance, although John of Otzun, who became Catholicus of Armenia in 717, described them as ‘that most wicked sect of obscene men who are called Paulicians’. 23 What he objected to most was that they scorned the established clergy as ‘idolaters because of their worship of the Cross’. 24 But he does not seem to have had the secular support to do anything about this. 

It was not until the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Michael I (811– 13) that the death penalty was reimposed for followers of the Paulician faith. 25 There then followed a period of massive imperial persecution in which, according to the official chroniclers, 100,000 of the heretics were killed 26 – a scale of slaughter fully comparable with the holocaust of the Languedoc Cathars 400 years later. In the 840s, in response to the continuing persecutions, a faction of the Paulicians, including a fighting group 5000 strong, retreated into Arab territories. By the 850s they had established their own independent mini-state based around the fortress city of Tefrice on the Byzantine frontier. It was to the court of the Paulician leader Chrysocheir at Tefrice that Peter of Sicily came on his embassy of 869–70. Two years later Chrysocheir was killed in battle with Byzantine forces and Tefrice finally surrendered in 878. 27 

This was a setback, but certainly not the end of the Paulicians. Around 975 they were still causing enough trouble in the Byzantine Empire for the Church to insist that large numbers of them be deported from the eastern provinces. They were sent to the Balkans, where there was already a long-established Paulician community 28 and where Bogomil had begun to spread his own heresy only a few years previously. The Paulicians almost certainly bequeathed to the Bogomils their belief in the state of opposition of the material and spiritual realms – of the God of Evil and the God of Good. Moreover, the Paulicians identified this very aspect of their belief-system as the chief factor that distinguished them from the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches. They told Peter of Sicily: 

We say the heavenly father is one God who has no power in this world, but who has power in the world to come, and that there is another God who made the world and who has power over the present world. The Romans confess that the heavenly father and the creator of all the world are one and the same God. 29 

This doctrine of the two opposed gods is precisely the position of the Bogomils and the Cathars. And they also shared with the Paulicians a view of the cosmos as a battleground between good and evil with the fate of humanity as its fulcrum. 30 

In other respects, however, there was much less of a resemblance. Most prominently, although they attributed the creation of the world and all material things to the God of Evil, the Paulicians did not practise any form of asceticism, were not vegetarians and placed no special value on chastity and abstinence. They were also men of violence who often found themselves in battle and who were widely recognized by others as formidable warriors. 31 In this sense we might regard them as an entire community of that grade of neophytes whom the Cathars called credentes – Believers – who were free to fight, marry and make love as they wished, to eat and to drink, and generally to live in the world and to affirm it. Consistent with this it seems that the Paulicians did not make use of any initiation ceremony and thus had no class of initiated adepts or ‘Perfect’ as the Cathars and Bogomils did. 32 

The Praying People and the Demon in the Soul 
Although there can be little doubt that the Paulicians were amongst the important influences on the emergence of the Bogomils, the differences between the two religions make it clear that other factors must also have been in play. 

As one of these factors, and the next main link in the chain of transmission, Steven Runciman proposes a sect known as the Messalians (literally the ‘Praying People’). 33 They were Christian Gnostics 34 whose origins can be traced back to the city of Edessa in the mid-fourth century AD and who survived in coherent form until late enough in the seventh century to overlap with Constantine of Mananalis and the first Paulicians. 35 They were said to have been the keepers of a secret tradition and of secret books which Runciman presumes to have been ‘heterodox Gnostic legends’. 36 He argues that the riches of this esoteric literary tradition reached the Bogomils directly from communities of Messalians who survived in the Balkans beyond the seventh century and indeed until as late as the eleventh century. 

Runciman sees Bogomilism as a combination of Paulician and Messalian doctrines – ‘a new Christianity… based on early Christian legend and Eastern Dualism’. 37 Probably the influence of Paulicianism came first: 

but as time went on the new faith developed; the heretics came into touch with the Messalians, who gave them access to all the wealth of the Orientalised Gnostic tradition…38 The Bogomils… largely owed their mythology to these books that medieval Byzantium had inherited from the Christians of the first few centuries, when Christian doctrine was still imperfectly circumscribed and Gnostic tendencies were rife. 39 

Naturally in this contentious field, other scholars dispute that the Messalians ever came into contact with the Bogomils at all – on the grounds that the former had ceased to exist before the latter were founded. According to Bernard Hamilton, Professor Emeritus in Crusading History at the University of Nottingham, it is all a matter of mislabelling: 

There is no evidence that organised Messalianism survived beyond the 7th century, even though the label continued to be used by Byzantine heresiologists to describe excesses in Orthodox monastic practice. There can therefore have been no possibility of contact between the Bogomils and a living Messalian tradition. 40 

Let us acknowledge these opposing points of view. Still, the fact remains that many Orthodox churchmen of the period, highly skilled in exposing heresy, were convinced, like Runciman, that Messalianism was still alive and well in the Balkans as late as the eleventh century – and thus did overlap with Bogomilism. The Bogomils themselves were often mislabelled ‘Messalians’, not, we would suggest, because of ignorance on the part of the heresiologists, but because the Messalian and Bogomil religions were similar in
many ways and do strongly suggest some form of influence of the former on the latter. 

The Messalians placed great emphasis on a ritual initiation that created a class of Elect or Adepts, called the ‘Pneumatics’, directly comparable to the Cathar perfecti. 41 The same term was also used by other sects of Christian Gnostics as early as the first and second centuries for their own initiated spiritual elites. 42 So there’s a sense of the Bogomils standing at one end of the first millennium, the early Christian Gnostics standing at the other, and the Messalians standing roughly in the middle and somehow connected to both ‘ends’. 

Other shared characteristics add to this impression. For instance, like the Bogomils (and their offshoot the Cathars), the Messalians rejected the Old Testament and loathed the Cross. 43 So too did the early Christian Gnostics. 44 The Bogomils and the Messalians regarded the world as an evil creation. So too did the Gnostics. And as part of this outlook, very similar creation stories were also told by all three groups. Indeed the Messalian version is a classic ‘moderate dualist’ myth of the kind the Bogomils and the Cathars favoured in their early days before becoming more absolute in their views. As such, it does not propose polarized divinities of Good and Evil, one the creator of the spiritual and one of the material realm. Instead, the Messalians envisaged the prior existence of a single deity, ‘God the first Principle’, whose domain was entirely spiritual and good and filled with light. He produced two ‘Sons’ – emanations – of whom the elder was Satan and the younger Christ. Pride and envy caused Satan to rebel against the Father and led to his expulsion from the good and spiritual Heaven: 45 ‘The material world was his creation after his Fall and as such was a wicked place.’ 46 

The Messalians, like the Bogomils after them, and the early Christian Gnostics before them, had a theory to explain how our souls had become trapped in matter. Though similar in general principle and outlook, these theories differ significantly from each other in terms of plot and detail. For the Bogomils, as we’ve seen in Chapter 3, the idea was that the souls of fallen angels had been encysted in our bodies, or that we carry within us, always seeking a way back to heaven, the spark of divine life breathed by God into the Devil’s clumsy ‘Adam’ and his progeny. The Messalians, on the other hand, believed that every soul was possessed by a demon which bound it by force to the wicked material world. The only way to eject the demon and gain release for the imprisoned soul was through extreme asceticism sustained over a period of years 47 – a regime very similar to the extensive apprenticeships and mortification of the flesh that Bogomil and Cathar neophytes underwent before they could receive the consolamentum and be elevated to Perfect grade. 

The Messalians also made use of emotional and dramatic prayer (hence their name ‘Praying People’) to help drive out the demons. 48 However, they had just one prayer in their repertoire – the Pater Noster (‘Our Father’), also known as the Lord’s Prayer. 49 Using prayer to drive out demons is not a custom that we find amongst the Bogomils and the Cathars. Nonetheless, like the Messalians, they too, used no other prayer but the Pater Noster. This was because it is the only prayer that the Bible attributes directly to Christ himself. 

Described as a ‘troop of vagabond preachers’, 50 the Messalians first appeared in the territory of the Eastern Roman Empire around AD 350. This was less than forty years after Constantine the Great had extended his official protection to the Christian Church. It was just twenty years after he had forsaken Rome to establish his new capital of Constantinople on the site of the ancient Greek city of Byzantium (modern Istanbul). 

With its principal bishoprics in Rome, Alexandria, Antioch and Constantinople, the recently empowered Catholic Church was by this time flexing its muscles, and in a sense defining itself, by the heresies it persecuted. After winning state sponsorship in AD 312, it had almost immediately taken a strong authoritarian and literalist turn (literalist in the sense of interpreting the Scriptures in the most literal manner possible). This, inevitably, made the rather free-thinking and creative anarchy of the Christian Gnostics, who had previously been allowed to co-exist with the literalists, a target for heresy hunters. In AD 390 the Messalians were condemned and added to the Church’s growing list of banned sects, which, as we will see, already included several other much longer-established Christian Gnostic groups. 51 

Mani, Messenger of Light 
The teachings and philosophy of another sect are also an important part of this jigsaw puzzle. Known as Manicheism after its founder Mani, it was younger than some of the Christian Gnostic movements but a century older than the Messalians. It, too, was viciously persecuted by the Church as a ‘heresy’, rather than as a pagan religion. Yet there is a dispute amongst scholars as to whether Manicheism was Christian in any meaningful sense at all. 52 Certainly it was much less ‘Christian’ than the religion of the Bogomils and the Cathars, and that, as we’ve seen, cannot accurately be described as ‘Christianity’; it was really a completely different faith built up around many of the same New Testament texts and characters. 

Perhaps the confusion comes in because Mani sometimes claimed to be ‘the Apostle of Christ’ 53 (later also one of the titles of the Paulician didaskalou), and because surviving letters sent between communities of Manicheans in North Africa show that they saw themselves as Christians. 54 It is also generally accepted that several of the strong central notions of Christianity, including the idea that there is ‘a redemptive meaning to things’, are found in Manicheism. 55 

On the other hand, there is much in Manicheism that seems to be unmistakably non-Christian. For a start, it was an uncompromisingly dualistic religion in exactly the same way as the religion of the Cathars and Bogomils. It saw the human race, endlessly regenerated by the snare of reproduction, as the creation of an evil god – an idea that we know Christianity rejects. Similarly, Manicheans made little or no use of New Testament texts. They offered worship to the Sun and the Moon as ‘vessels of the Light’ (in this very unlike the Cathars and the Bogomils). And despite sometimes calling himself the ‘Apostle of Christ’, it is notable that Mani also frequently used the broader term ‘Apostle of God’. 56 He meant that he was an emissary or messenger and he placed himself as the successor to Christ at the end of a line of earlier, non-Christian, Apostles. 

Obviously the Church saw this as heresy. It involved Christ, but clearly devalued the unique quality of his mission by putting him on a par with the founders of well-known pagan religions. One of Mani’s own surviving statements on the matter, in his Book for King Shahpur (circa AD 250) makes this completely clear: 

From age to age the Apostles of God did not cease to bring here the wisdom and works of the spirit. Thus in one age their coming was into the countries of India through the Apostle that was the Buddha; into another age, into the land of Persia through Zoroaster; into another, into the land of the West through Jesus. After that, in this last age, this revelation came down, and this prophethood arrived through myself, Mani, the Apostle of the true God, into the land of Babel. 57 

In this fragment Buddha, Zoroaster, Jesus and Mani are given as examples, not as a definitive list, of the Apostles of God. In another surviving fragment Mani names two more such messengers: the Greek philosopher Plato (427– 347 bc), and the Greek deity Hermes. 58 In Mani’s time the latter, whom we will meet again in Part II, was generally equated with Thoth, the ancient Egyptian god of wisdom. 

Meetings with the Twin 
Despite the extensive persecution of Manicheism by different regimes in different periods over hundreds of years, some of the details of Mani’s biography, and of his claims to a sacred mission, seem to have come down to us fairly reliably. 

He was born in or about AD 216 in a village called Mardinu to the south of the city of Ctesiphon near Babylon 59 – a location some 32 kilometres south-east of Baghdad in the modern state of Iraq. In Mani’s time Ctesiphon enjoyed great wealth, prominence and political power within the Persian Empire as the winter capital of the king. It had served this function for the Parthian dynasty that ruled the empire from 247 BC until AD 224 (when Mani was about eight years old), and it continued to do so with renewed grandeur under the Sassanian Empire (AD 224–642), which succeeded the Parthians. 

The Sassanians were decidedly national and Persian in character. Their first king, Ardeshir I (AD 224–41), moved rapidly to install the ancient Persian faith of Zoroastrianism as the official religion of the Empire and gave enormous powers to its priesthood, the Magi. As he lived in the neighbourhood of Ctesiphon at this time, therefore, we can be sure that Mani would have been well acquainted with Zoroastrianism – although traditions that he was for some time a Magus himself are unlikely to be true. 60 Since the region was a cultural crossroads of the ancient world, a young man like Mani, deeply interested in spiritual matters, would also have been exposed here to a wide range of other potential influences – amongst them Babylonian astrology, Judaism, Buddhism from India and the philosophy of Greece. 61 

More directly, it is known that Mani was reared amongst an obscure sect of Jewish Christians called the Elchasaitans 62 (considered to have been Gnostics, 63 and linked by some scholars with the Essenes of Dead Sea Scrolls fame). 64 They were mystics and visionaries with strict purity laws and repetitive rituals that Mani rebelled against. But through them he was exposed to an additional vital influence on his thinking – the teachings of the Christian Gnostics. 65 Although later to be persecuted as heresy, these teachings were still in free circulation in the first half of the third century and are generally agreed to have had a great impact on the construction of Mani’s own distinctively Gnostic religion. 66 

Secret texts passed down within the Elchasaitans, or within his own family, may also have played a role. In this respect it is interesting that some accounts present Mani as the adopted son of an elderly widow. The story goes that on her death she entrusted him with a precious legacy of four books of sacred knowledge – from which, critics alleged, he derived many of the teachings that he later claimed as his own. 67 The content of these books was said to have been gathered in Egypt ‘in the time of the apostles’ by a certain Scythian, who had learned ‘the wisdom of the Egyptians’. 68 Scythians dictated the books to his disciple Terebinthus. In due course Terebinthus brought the books to Babylonia and on his death they passed to his own disciple – the widow who would adopt Mani in her old age. 69 

Though legends say that he was a sickly child and lame in one leg, 70 it seems that Mani grew up in prosperous circumstances. 71 Later he would claim that throughout his childhood he had received revelations directly from Ahura Mazda, the ‘Father of the Light’ – the God of Goodness in the Zoroastrian faith. 72 He also experienced strange and disturbing visitations of the type normally treated today with powerful anti-psychotic drugs. In one surviving text (the Cologne Mani-Codex) he tells us how he was: 

guarded by the might of the Light-angels and the exceedingly strong powers, who had a command from Jesus the Splendour for my safekeeping…73 They nourished me with visions and signs which they made known to me, slight and quite brief, as far as I was able. For sometimes like a flash of lightning he came…74 

The being who sometimes came to Mani like a ‘flash of lightning’ was an angel – one he regarded as a manifestation of his own higher identity and referred to variously as his ‘Light-Self’ and as al-Taum, the ‘Twin’. 75 When Mani was twelve years old, the Twin appeared to him in a vision and informed him that he was to be responsible for transmitting a great teaching to mankind. In order to do this, he would have to leave the Elchasaitans at some time in the future. Thereafter, the young Mani lived a quiet and studious life, out of the limelight, gathering knowledge in secret, tutored by divine revelations and by his angel: 

With the greatest possible ingenuity and skill I went about in that Law [of the Elchasaitans], preserving my hope in my heart; no-one perceived who it was that was with me, and I myself revealed nothing to anyone during that great period of time. But neither did I, like them, keep the fleshly custom… I revealed nothing of what happened, or of what will happen, nor what it is that I knew, or what it is that I had received…76

It was probably during this same period of learning that Mani honed the skills as a painter, which traditions say he later used to illustrate his teachings, and acquired the knowledge of astronomy and mathematics for which he would also be renowned. 77 

When Mani reached the age of twenty-four, the Twin appeared to him and announced: ‘The time has now come for thee to manifest thyself publicly and to proclaim thy doctrine aloud.’ 78 Next, says Mani, the Twin ‘delivered, separated and pulled me away from the midst of that Law in which I was reared. In this way he called, chose, drew, and severed me from their midst, drawing me to the divine side.’ 79 He also initiated Mani into a gnosis: 

Concerning me, who I am, and who my inseparable Twin is… And who my Father on high is; or in what way, severed from him, I was sent out according to his purpose; and what sort of commission and counsel he has given me before I clothed myself in this instrument [the body], and before I was led astray in this detestable flesh… Moreover, concerning my soul, which exists as the soul of all the worlds, both what it itself is and how it came to be. Beside these he revealed to me the boundless heights and the unfathomable depths; 80 he revealed mysteries hidden to the world which are not permitted for anyone to see or hear…81 He showed me all. 82 

Mani and the Magi 
It was at this point, around AD 240, that Mani – a sleeper at last awakened – began his preaching mission. 83 What he was preaching was distinctly not Zoroastrianism, and Ardeshir I, champion of the Zoroastrian faith as the official religion of Persia, was still on the throne. Mani seems to have fallen foul of the Magi almost immediately and to have been forced into exile. 84 He travelled to India, by all accounts propagating his teaching with great success there, 85 and returned via the Persian Gulf in 241, the year of Ardeshir death. Somehow Mani managed to convert Firuz, Ardeshir youngest son and, through him, obtained a personal audience with the eldest son Shapur – who shortly afterwards succeeded to the throne as King Shapur I. 86 At the coronation Mani was permitted to come forward to proclaim his own spiritual message – an unprecedented honour. 87 And on either 21 March 242 or 9 April 243 (the date is disputed by historians) Shapuhr issued a letter authorizing Mani to preach as he wished and protecting him throughout the Persian Empire. 88 

Thereafter, freed of all obstructions, Manicheism won converts at a phenomenal rate, causing intense resentment and jealousy amongst the Zoroastrian priesthood. There was a backlash and later in Shapuhr’s reign it seems that the Magi persuaded the king to exile Mani a second time. 89 But in 272, following Shapuhr’s death, Mani returned to Persia and was welcomed by the latest successor to the throne, King Hormuzd, who once again extended royal favour to him. 90 

Hormuzd’s reign lasted barely a year and Bahram I, who succeeded to the throne in 273, was a strong supporter of the old Zoroastrian faith. He reversed the policy of tolerance towards Manicheism and began to persecute its leaders and followers. In 276 his officers arrested Mani at Gundeshapur in southwestern Persia. The self styled Apostle of God was then subjected to four days of Inquisition style interrogation by the Magi, and declared to be zandic – a heretic. A month of imprisonment in heavy chains followed, after which he was flayed alive and then decapitated. His head was impaled on the city gate, from which his skin, stuffed with straw, was also suspended; what remained of his body was thrown to the dogs. 91 

No doubt the level of brutality in his execution was commensurate with the level of the threat that the Magi saw in Mani’s new religion which was everywhere overtaking them. And just as was the case with the destruction of Catharism by the Roman Catholic Church 1000 years later, a determined attempt was also made by the Zoroastrians to wipe out Manicheism completely. 92 

They did not succeed. Before his imprisonment and execution Mani had already sent out his twelve disciples, and hosts of followers, to all the corners of the known world. 93 In addition the continuing persecutions by the Zoroastrian state after 276 prompted a large-scale migration of Manichean communities. Some travelled deep into China – where Mani’s religion would survive in remote enclaves until as late as the sixteenth century. Others infiltrated eastern parts of the Roman Empire, the Roman colonies in North Africa, and eventually all the immense territories under Rome’s control as far west as Britain. 

Though at times violently opposed by Rome (even before its conversion to Christianity) Manicheism won immense popularity throughout the Empire and was particularly well represented in its North African colonies. It was in North Africa that it acquired its most famous acolyte, Augustine – later Saint Augustine of Hippo. Born in AD 354, the son of a pagan father and a Christian mother, he became a Manichean ‘Auditor’ or ‘Hearer’ in AD 377 – equivalent to joining the Cathar class of credentes. He held to the Manichean faith for nine years then abandoned it in 386 and was baptized as a Christian in 387. He returned to North Africa, where he formed a religious community and was appointed Bishop of Hippo in 396. He lived to see the fall of Rome to the Vandals in 410. When he died in 430 Vandal forces had crossed the Mediterranean and were besieging Hippo itself. 94 

Like many converts Augustine zealously detested his former faith. During his long and influential career as one of the great Doctors of the Church he wrote extensively condemning Manicheism and the Manicheans. His anti-Manichean tracts survived the ages and played an important part in shaping the attitudes of medieval Roman Catholics to the Cathar heresy. As we saw in Chapter 2, Catharism was frequently identified in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries as a resurgence of the same Manicheism that Augustine had censured in the fourth century – a conclusion that modern scholars reject. Nevertheless, the Cathar and Manichean religions were, in our view, similar enough in their essentials to make the medieval identification understandable and worth further consideration. 

The Cosmos According to Mani 
One of the notions upon which Manicheism is founded is that there existed from the beginning of time ‘two gods, uncreated and eternal and everlastingly opposed to each other’. 95 One is the God of Evil and Darkness, the other the God of Good and the Light. 96 The realm of Light was the uppermost and was ‘without bounds in height and on each side’. The realm of Darkness lay below it similarly boundless in depth and on each side. 97 For untold ages neither was aware of the other’s existence, but in the bowels of the Darkness was Satan, with his ‘disorderly, anarchical, restless brood’ of demonic powers. 98 There was constant agitation, chaos and turmoil, as in the heart of a black thunderstorm, and at some point the Prince of Darkness rose up through the abyss, perceived the light from the upper world and conceived a hatred for it. Returning to the depths he prepared his forces: ‘Then again springing upwards, he invaded the realms of Light with the intention of there spreading calamity and destruction.’ 99 

Like the later Cathars and Bogomils Mani saw the human body as part of the evil creation within which sparks of the Light had been imprisoned. Like the Cathars and the Bogomils he taught that sexual reproduction and reincarnation are the mechanisms by which the cycle of imprisonment is perpetuated. And also like the Cathars and Bogomils he believed that by abstinence and prayer this imprisoned Light could gradually be released, but that we must pass through many incarnations, and much pain, before that would happen. 100 

Such resemblances to the religion of the medieval dualists become all the clearer when we realize, as Yuri Stoyanov confirms, that Light and Darkness in Manichean cosmology are metaphors for Spirit and Matter. 101 It was the fusion of these two contrary principles, at the beginning of the present cycle of time, which caused the imprisonment and suffering of the soul in the first place. 102 The details of exactly how the imprisonment was achieved – how fragments of the Light came to be trapped in Darkness, how good ended up mixed with evil, how souls were enwrapped in matter – may have more to do with the inspiration of individual storytellers than anything else. We know that this was a tradition that made broad use of colourful symbols, myths and parables as teaching aids. But the point, in the final analysis, is that the medieval dualists of Europe, exactly like the Manicheans of Persia centuries earlier, envisaged Man as a ‘mixed’ creature who must fight a constant war within himself in order to subdue his baser elements, and to perfect and liberate his soul. 

It was to get this point across that the Cathars and Bogomils told stories of angels who had fallen downwards from the pure spiritual realm of heaven to the impure material realm of earth. In the parallel Manichean myth the Prince of Darkness with his demons rushed upwards out of the abyss to attack and destroy the Light. So forceful and impetuous was this onslaught that the Evil One, wielding the malign powers of Smoke, Fire, Wind, Water and Darkness as his weapons, broke through the defences and encroached upon the Light. The Father of Light defended his Realm by evoking a proxy – the ‘Primal Man’ – and arming him with the ‘luminous’ powers of Air, Wind, Light, Water and Fire. Battle was joined, Satan was victorious, the Primal Man lay in a deathlike trance, and elements of the luminous powers that he had been armed with were now engulfed or ‘eaten’ by the forces of darkness. 103 

Next the Father of Light created further emanations or proxies – amongst them the ‘Living Spirit’, identified with the pre-Zoroastrian Iranian god Mithra, and a figure called the ‘Great Architect’. 104 Together they revived and rescued the Primal Man and began the work of recovering for the Light the luminous powers that had been consumed by the forces of Darkness – a task described as saving the ‘Living Soul’ from the ‘burning house’ of matter. 105 

The diabolical counter-attack against the works of the Living Spirit and the Great Architect involved the creation of Adam and Eve ‘to fortify’, as Stoyanov puts it, ‘the imprisonment of the Light elements through the lust and reproduction of the human species’. But the Realm of Light sent a saviour to Adam who made him aware of the Light existing within himself – i.e., his immortal soul – and caused him to rebel against the Evil One who had fashioned his body. Ever since the human race has ‘remained the principal battleground between the forces of Light and Darkness’. 106 

The saviour sent to Adam is called ‘Jesus the Splendour’ in the Manichean texts. 107 As time passes other saviours are sent, each of them to renew the gnosis needed to awaken Man to his true condition. Earlier we listed some of the household names amongst these saviours – Zoroaster, Hermes, Plato, Buddha, Jesus Christ and, last but not least, Mani. Other lists echo the spread of Manicheism in Hebraic cultures and feature Seth, Enoch (like Hermes frequently identified with the ancient Egyptian wisdom god Thoth), Noah, Abraham, and again Mani. 108 Similarly the eastwards expansion of Manicheism is reflected in other formulations that refer to Mani as the Buddha of Light or as a reincarnation of Lao-Tsu, the founder of Taoism. 109 

In all cases and in all lists Mani is extolled as the ‘Seal of the Prophets’. 110 It is he who brings the final message, the final revelation and the final gnosis through which mankind is to complete the great work of freeing the last elements of Light from the prison of Darkness. This work, as described, is almost alchemical in character – an intricate, gradual process of distillation down the ages, incarnation after incarnation, channelling the Light away from the Dark, purifying the soul from its contamination with matter. The dénouement is our realization that the physical earth on which we live was brought into existence as the theatre or laboratory in which this process of endless, painstaking refinement could unfold – and for no other purpose. 111 Finally, using all the Light thus reclaimed, the Great Architect and the Living Spirit, assisted by the souls of the Manichean Elect, are to construct a ‘New Paradise’ and a spiritual earth to replace the dark, leaden husk of the old material creation that will fall away at the completion of the project. 112 

If It Looks Like a Duck, Swims Like a Duck, and 
Quacks Like a Duck… Then It Probably is a Duck... 
Although the Manicheans, Bogomils and Cathars told different stories about the human predicament, we suggest that closer examination shows that they share a deep and abiding theme. At the heart of it all, for every Believer and Perfect, for every Hearer and Elect, was a desire to live in the world in such a way as to minimize spiritual pollution and to improve, strengthen, purify and ultimately (after great struggle) liberate the soul. In all cases this involved accepting and following a system and working within a structure, and these were remarkably the same from the early days of Manicheism in the third century AD to the final crushing of medieval dualism in Europe more than 1000 years later. 

Just like the Bogomil and the Cathar Churches, the Manichean Church was divided into two principal categories. There were the ordinary, the rank and file adherents who could marry, have children, own property, eat meat and drink wine. And there was a small highly committed elite of celibate teetotal vegetarians who lived in personal poverty and renounced all the material pleasures of life. 113 The rank and file were known as the Hearers and the elite as the Elect – concepts identical in all respects to the Believers and Perfect of the medieval dualists. Indeed, amongst the Manicheans the term ‘Perfect’ was used interchangeably with ‘Elect’. 114 

Like the Cathar and Bogomil perfecti the Manichean elect could be men or women and always travelled in adept–disciple pairs. Also like the perfecti, the Elect passed through a strict process of initiation culminating in a ceremony comparable to the consolamentum. Following this initiation they were considered to be ‘full of the light’ and thenceforward must do nothing to contaminate their inner light with the dark of earthly things. 115 For the Manichean Elect that included doing no agricultural work and not even such a simple task as breaking bread. It involved leading a wandering, penniless existence, possessing only ‘food for a day and clothes for the year’, completely dependent upon the charity of the Hearers who, by joining the Manichean Church, took on an obligation to care for the Elect. 116 Although the Cathar and Bogomil perfecti did break bread for themselves, they too led wandering, penniless lives and were dependent on the charity of the Believers, who likewise had a duty to care for them. Moreover, even Bernard Hamilton, though not normally a fan of the ‘continuing tradition’, has to admit that: ‘The Manicheans had required their elect to observe an ascetic rule of life, and their reasons for doing so were identical to those of the Bogomils, springing from a conviction that the material creation was evil.’ 117 

Mani taught that messengers like Zoroaster, Buddha and Jesus – to whose line he also claimed to belong – had been sent to earth out of sympathy for mankind, to remove the clouds of ignorance from our minds, to teach us Truth, and to rescue the Light in us (i.e., our shining souls) from darkness and evil. 118 Again, these are themes that are entirely familiar from the dualism of the Cathars and the Bogomils. 

The reader will recall that the Cathars and Bogomils, believing Jesus to have been a spiritual emanation of the Good God, could not accept that he had ever been born in the flesh and therefore concluded that he must have been an apparition sent down directly from the heavenly realms. The identical idea was voiced by Mani, who preached, centuries earlier, that Jesus was not born of woman but came forth from the Father of Light and descended from heaven in the form of a man aged about thirty. The body in which he appeared was an illusion and so, accordingly, was his crucifixion. 119 In one Manichean text he even appears afterwards to his disciple John, who is grief-stricken at the supposed death of his master, and informs him that the crucifixion was a spectacle, a phantasmagoria, in short a kind of miracle play performed to impress the masses. 120 

Despite their conviction that material life was evil the Cathars, Bogomils and Manicheans all showed great respect for life and opposed causing pain or suffering of any kind to fellow creatures whether human or animal. 121 All believed in reincarnation. 122 All forbade the use of images and worshipped only through prayers and hymns. 123 We know that the Cathars and the Bogomils looked with horror on the Old Testament and regarded its God Jehovah as the Devil. So too did the Manicheans 124 and Mani himself had declared: 

It is the Prince of Darkness who spoke with Moses, the Jews and their priest. Thus the Christians, the Jews, and the Pagans are involved in the same error when they worship this god. For he led them astray in the lusts that he taught them, since he was not the God of Truth. 125 

Connecting the Cathars to the First Century AD Until the early twentieth century scholars were obliged to rely almost exclusively on the works of the persecutors of Manicheism in order to reconstruct the ‘lost’ Manichean religion that those very persecutors had destroyed. But intact ancient Manichean texts discovered in the Far East in the 1920s and in Egypt in the 1970s have added greatly to our store of knowledge. In consequence it is now generally accepted that Christian Gnosticism, hitherto allocated a relatively minor role in the intellectual parentage of Manicheism, may in fact have been the single most decisive influence on Mani’s thinking. H. J. W. Drijvers goes so far as to suggest that even the term ‘Christian Gnosticism’ is misleading: 

It has usually been assumed that the Christian elements in Manichaeism reached Mani through a Gnostic filter… It is rather more in agreement with the historical situation and development during the third century… to assume that Mani and Manichaeism heavily drew upon the whole of Christian tradition and literature extant in that time without any restriction to a supposedly Gnostic strain. 126 

In other words, if Manicheism as it is now understood reveals an overwhelming influence from Gnostic Christianity, then this is likely to be because the Christianity of Mani’s time was in fact overwhelmingly Gnostic – a controversial conclusion that is nevertheless supported by much recent scholarship. In 1945 a great hoard of hitherto unknown Gnostic texts from the early centuries of the Christian era was found at Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt. Since the translation and eventual publication of these texts in 1977 it has become apparent that Christianity’s relationship with Gnosticism goes back to the very beginnings of the Christian cult in the first century AD. Likewise, it is now obvious, and widely accepted, that ‘Christian Gnosticism’ was not some weird offshoot from the ‘mainstream’ of Christianity. On the contrary it was part of the mainstream – perhaps even the major part as we will see in the next chapter. 

And then something happened. From the beginning of the fourth century AD, as it acquired state power, the Church undertook a radical change of direction. The freethinking and sometimes anarchical approach of the Gnostics began to be frowned upon, their allegorical interpretations of the scriptures were dropped in favour of literal ones, and persecutions for heresy began almost immediately. Could it possibly be true, as the Cathars always claimed, that this was the time when the authentic Church of Christianity was forced underground and the impostor Church of Rome was put in its place? And the corollary: could it be true that the authentic Church – persecuted, outlawed, oppressed – had nevertheless somehow managed to survive from the fourth century until its doctrines reappeared again 600 years later with the Bogomils? 

It seems like a long shot. Nonetheless we’ve shown that a viable chain of transmission exists connecting the central ideas behind the Cathar and Bogomil religion to the ideas of Mani in the third century AD. And if the primary influence on Mani was Christian Gnosticism, as the scholars now agree, then it is to the Gnostics we should look for the final links in the chain of the ‘Great Heresy’.

Knowledge of the True Nature of Things

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