A Heresy for the 21st Century: Nobodaddy

The_Ancient_of_Days-William Blake 1794
The_Ancient_of_Days-William Blake 1794

The strange, visionary genius of the English poet and painter William Blake, one of the touchstones here and the feature of a number of posts including The Marriage of Heaven & Hell, Proverbs of Hell, Auguries of Innocence and Tyger Tyger, is of such depth and complexity that it has invited any number of interpretations, including, somewhat improbably in my opinion, becoming a standard bearer for atheistic humanism. That Blake espoused an idiosyncratic, Hermetic form of humanism is beyond dispute, however Blake was deeply religious, albeit in a unorthodox and heretical fashion, and was vehemently opposed to the materialistic atheism that was beginning to emerge during the Enlightenment, a period where quantity began to supplant quality.

Suggestions for possible sources of Blake’s dense and highly personal mythology have ranged from Neo-Platonism to Buddhism and although Gnosticism is mentioned in the melange, it has been sidelined to a degree. However I believe that Gnosticism (of a libertine variety) and Hermeticism are the two major components that formed the basis of Blake’s belief system.

The most notable element of Gnosticism within Blake’s art and thought is the idea of the Demiurge. In a conversation with Crabb Robinson Blake noted concerning the poems of his fellow Romantic William Wordsworth, “The eloquent descriptions of Nature…were conclusive proof of Atheism, for whoever believes in nature, disbelieves in God – for Nature is the work of the devil.” In the magnificent poem Tyger Tyger, the creator of the Tyger is memorably presented as a craftsman and the original meaning of the word Demiurge in Greek is craftsman or artisan.

In Blake’s art and poetry, the Creator, the Ancient of Days, is named Urizen (either Your Reason and/or To Limit from the Greek) or Nobodaddy (Nobody’s Daddy and/ or possibly an anagrammatized riff on Abaddon, the angel of the bottomless pit). Urizen is the representation of abstraction and reason who creates the universe with architectural tools and ensnares humanity in a web of conventional law and morality.  He constrains us in the ‘prison of the senses five‘ and is quite clearly identified with the Old Testament Jehovah and is definitely Satanic. Hence Blake’s anti-clericalism, priests are literally devil worshippers. Prophets, on the other hand, can ignite the divine spark within us, which Blake identifies as Imagination. Imagination allows us to escape from this cage of matter created by Nobodaddy, the Father of Jealousy who farts and belches in darkness and obscurity while enjoying a spot of ‘hanging & drawing & quartering/ Every bit as well as war & slaughtering’.

I sincerely hope that in the preceding posts in the series that I have presented the basic outline of Gnostic thought, though admittedly in my own eccentric way, with many regrettable gaps, omissions and lacuna. So with this information in mind we can proceed to the 20th & 21st Centuries, a time when new discoveries into the origins of Gnosticism and the rapidly changing nature of reality itself saw a remarkable resurgence of the oldest of heresies.

A Heresy for the 21st Century: The Cathars

Dominic Guzmán and the Albigenses, 1480, Pedro Berruguete
Dominic Guzmán and the Albigenses, 1480, Pedro Berruguete

Around the mid 12th Century the Catholic Church reported on the emergence of a new heresy: Catharism. Although Catharism shared many similarities in beliefs and organisational structures that it appears to be a descendant of other Gnostic heretical sects such as the Bogomils, Paulicians and others, all the way back to the Manichaeans in the 3rd Century, it would become for the Catholic Church the Great Heresy.

Although the first reports of Catharism was from Cologne, the heartlands of the heresy was the Languedoc, ruled at the time by  independent Counts. By the early 13th Century adherents of Catharism were said to outnumber Catholics in the region, a development that Pope Innocent III tried to combat by sending missionaries to debate with the leaders of the Cathars, the perfecti. Faced with the embarrassment of educated churchmen out-debated by humble, illiterate weavers (who formed the bulk of the perfecti), the Pope resorted to putting pressure on the Languedoc nobility, However the nobility were sympathetic to the Cathars and defied papal authority. Things came to a head when the Pope sent his legate Pierre de Castelnau to excommunicate Count Raymond VI of Toulouse for his leniency towards the Cathars. Pierre de Castelnau never made it back to Rome as he was murdered after leaving Toulouse. The Pope swiftly declared the Albigensian Crusade to obliterate all traces of the heresy and its adherents.

But before we tackle the brutal crime against humanity that is the Albigensian Crusade and the following Inquisition, lets undertake a brief survey of the beliefs of the Cathars.

  • The Cathars were Dualists. There are Two Principles, the Good God of the New Testament, God of Spirit and Light and there is the Evil God of the Old Testament, the Creator of the World, the God of Matter and Darkness.
  • The Creator of the World is expressly stated as being Satan.
  • Human are gender-less angels of light who have been encased in a material shell.
  • There is no other hell than the hell on earth.
  • The soul is doomed to be re-incarnated in either human or animal form until it can escape back to Heaven by achieving perfection and receiving the one sacrament of the Cathars, the Consolamentium.
  • There were only two levels of Cathar society; Believers and the Perfecti. The Perfecti could be both male or female.
  • Perfecti were vegetarians and also abstained from all diary products because of its tainted nature as a product of procreation.
  • Sexual intercourse, but especially reproductive sex, is to be avoided as it involves further spirits and more light being trapped in the evil realm of matter.
  • They refused to take oaths or pay tithes to the Church.

The Albigensian Crusade is one of the most violent and blood-stained chapters of all medieval history. It was nothing less than a war of extermination.  The qualms expressed by the Languedoc Knight as to why he didn’t hunt down the heretics more avidly in the following quote were certainly not shared by Northern French Lords eager to seize lands and property, “We cannot. We have been reared in their midst. We have relatives among them and we see them living lives of perfection.”  Nor where they shared by the Arnaud-Amaury, the Cistercian abbot, who on being questioned on how to tell Cathars from Catholics responded, “Kill them all, the Lord will recognise His own”. In the town of  Béziers, the entire population of twenty thousand men, women and children was put to the sword.

Overall around half a million people were massacred. By the time that 200 perfecti were symbolically burnt at the castle of Montsegur in 1244, the Cathars as a force was spent, though it would take the Inquisition around a hundred years to root out the remnants of the Cathars in the Languedoc and Northern Italy.

The Cathars and their heresy were gone, but certainly not forgotten. Their mysteries would become part of the lore of the Occult Revival of the 19th and 20th Centuries.



A Heresy for the 21st Century: The Original Gnostics

An Image of Yaldabaoth, the Demiurge
An Image of Yaldabaoth, the Demiurge

Gnosticism arose in the 1st Century AD in the crossroads of the Roman Empire and the second most important city, after Rome itself; Alexandria. With a population of around half-a-million inhabitants, it was one of the biggest cities built before the Industrial Revolution. Home of the Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and the Great Library, the largest library of the ancient world, Alexandria was an important centre of Hellenistic culture, the capital of Ptolemaic Egypt, as well as being home to the highest urban population of Jews in the Empire (and therefore the world).

Into this mix was added the emergence of a Jewish breakaway sect, the first Christians. Various other Jewish apocalyptic groups had also sprung up in the aftermath of the Fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Combine all the above with a dash of Persian Zurvanism and you have the ingredients for the syncretic religion of Gnosticism.

Although calling Gnosticism a religion is in itself problematic as a survey of the numerous sects and cults with their bewildering array of competing mythologies and theologies will quickly attest. However there are certain key concepts and figures that re-appear frequently in Gnosticism;

  • Gnosis (knowledge) could only be gained through direct, revelatory experience
  • God, being perfect, had no need to create and therefore did not fashion the world. God dwelt in the pleroma (a term borrowed from Plato), where in his overflowing richness he emanated aeons who in turn emanated (in male/female pairs) further aeons, each one a little further away from the pleroma, until we get to Sophia.
  • Sophia emanated, on her own, the Demiurge, also called Yaldabaoth, Samael (The Blind God), Satanel, etc. The Demiurge was monstrous (frequently portrayed as having the head of a lion and the body of a serpent) and so Sophia hid him away. The Demiurge was unaware of the existence of the God in the pleroma and his emanations including Sophia, and in his blind ignorance and arrogance created the material universe.
  • Matter is, in a certain sense, illusory and inherently evil.
  • To help him in his task of creation the Demiurge made the archons to rule the material universe.
  • God in the pleroma saw the flawed universe that the Demiurge had created and taking pity upon humanity, planted a divine spark inside us, to help us transcend the material world and reach towards the pleroma.
  • In Christian Gnosticism Jesus is sent by God in the pleroma (certainly not the Demiurge, who wants humanity to remain trapped in his creation) to help achieve gnosis
  • The identification of the God of the Old Testament with the Demiurge.
  • Making heroes out of the villains of the Old Testament (and later the New Testament, as per the Gospel of Judas). Hence Eve, with the aid of the serpent, takes the first step towards gnosis by disobeying the Demiurge and tasting the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

This is only a partial list, each teacher and sect expanded and refined the core concepts. Also the responses and ethical doctrines varied wildly; many Gnostic sects were notably ascetic, refraining from sexual intercourse (especially reproductive sex) and espousing vegetarianism, while other, more libertine Gnostics sects engaged in sexual sacramentalism and a belief in gnosis through sin (as sin against the Demiurge was actually a virtue).

The 2nd Century AD was the heyday for Gnosticism with many important teachers contributing to its spread beyond Alexandria. However its heterodoxy couldn’t compete against the increasingly organised, centralised and powerful Christian Church that declared it subversive inversion of canonical texts and its identification of Jehovah with an evil Demiurge, heretical. Gnosticism also faced opposition from the schools of Neo-Platonism who attacked the Gnostics wild invention of Byzantine genealogies of emanations, aeons and archons.

By the 4th Century AD it seemed like Gnosticism was little more than a footnote in the history of the Early Church. However it had only gone underground and would erupt later as Catharism, the subject of the next post.