Dualistic religions did not occur in the steady, stable, and trouble-free states. They acquired strength only in places with an inordinate accumulation of suffering and where the darkness was so deeply condensed that the very earthly existence and all benevolent intentions became pointless. Where God and Satan swapped places, it was impossible to understand where the power of one came to an end and where the kingdom of the other began.
In the tenth and eleventh centuries, Bulgaria was exactly such a state. A thriving kingdom, which had been strong and full of ambitions a short while earlier, had fallen into the abyss of unrest and ruin, turned into a gigantic battlefield for predatory and aggressive neighbours: Byzantium, the Magyars, the Kievan Rus’, and the Pechenegs. Many peasants sought salvation in the bordering states; those who remained lived with an exorbitant burden of taxes. Clergy easily made deals with everybody who promised them to preserve their privileges, turning into the antipodes of their own sermons; the richest Bulgarian culture was trampled by the primitive, barbarian peoples. It’s no wonder that the Paulicians’ ideas fell onto very fertile ground. In a short while in Thrace, there formed a religious culture of the underground. It permeated practically all layers of society, all classes, and was openly hostile to the Church formalism. The movement of Bogomils (after the name of its founder, Bogomil), marginal at first, acquired followers among the nobility and at the royal house in a matter of a few decades.
It was a challenge to the Church’s canons, but it also challenged the Heavenly Father himself—merciful, all-forgiving, and protecting—because, in actual fact, it did not protect, forgive, or save. Quite the contrary, He seemed to mock his children with a barefaced pleasure.
The Paulicians’ doctrine, which was primarily dualistic, with the passage of time acquired an increasingly sombre and irreconcilable character among the Bogomils. The colourful hues all but disappeared; there remained only the black and white colours of Manichaeism. At first dichotomy was quite close to the representatives of Marcion and the Paulicians: the elder son of God Satanail was the likeness of the Gnostic demiurge. In ignorance and pride, he created the cope of heaven and the firmament, seduced Eve, and bent Adam to his will. Despotic and headstrong, Satanail held court as he thought fit, cruelly enslaving people, visiting them with all kinds of punishments like the great flood and murderous wars, and foredooming them to pointless and unjust tortures. Like Marcion’s version, he was very much like the Old Testament Creator and was possessed by the passions but still retained the divine origin.
From a certain moment in time, the divine drama reached the level of merciless antagonism of good and evil. Having forgotten about the divine purpose, Satanail turned himself against his Father with his wilfulness; his despotism and madness increasingly threatened the harmony of higher spheres. The punishment for haughtiness came from his younger brother, Mikhail, who came down to earth, bringing Jesus to life. Jesus conquered Satanail, deprived him of divine power and divine origin (defined by the prefix ‘il’), and turned him into the hell spawn—Satan. From now on, the elder son of God was not just blind and autocratic but was possessed by anger and hate for the one who gave birth to him—the Heavenly Father. The fallen angel, in his blindness, tried to take revenge on Jesus, who was deprived of flesh, crucifying him on the cross, and the supreme deity, giving rise to the irreconcilable opposition of two worlds. The main weapon of revenge was the Church with all its institutions, dogmata, rites, symbols, mythology, and establishments. The devil’s tool, it strove for the capture, possession, and submission under the guise of sightlines and sanctity and was permeated with lowly passions and animal desires. These ideas really reflected dramatic changes in the Church with its bigotry, usury, acquisitiveness, and debauchery, extending to the most despicable vices.
The Bogomils did not build any temples. They believed that prayer must come from the depth of the soul as it is a deeply intimate communication between a human being and God and not а mindless choral repetition of pompous sermons by an ignorant crowd gathered by the gilded altars. They did not have prayer establishments. All the gatherings took place in private houses, and ordainment was performed by the whole community, not a bishop appointed from above. Monkhood lost its meaning as all the community members were monks secularly. Like Gnostics, they rejected the theandric nature of Jesus, considering him to be the Holy Spirit in its pure form in the illusive corporeal shell (this is known as Docetism).
The Bogomils also rejected a medieval state with its attributes: royal power, feudal hierarchy, serfdom, taxes, wars of annexation, and violence. They presented the weapons of Satan created for enslaving the human spirit. The ruler of darkness, they taught, owned not only governments and laws but the material world in general, including the human body with its needs, passions, and vulnerability. Only the soul preserved the connection with the celestial world. The only way of overcoming evil was by prayer combined with extreme asceticism.
There could be women among them. Here there was no hint at segregation on the basis of gender. Those imbued with divine spirit—the old, the young, maidens, or elders—had the right to elucidate, persuade, and lead the way.
Oppressed in Bulgaria, Bogomils created their outpost first in Serbia, then in Bosnia and Dalmatia where the epoch of the rule of Bosnian Ban Kulin, which lasted for almost a quarter of a century—from 1180 till 1204—became the most trouble-free for them. The efforts to destroy ‘heretics’ by the Holy See ended in failure. Having united, Bosnian dukes inflicted on Hungarians defeat after defeat, banishing them out the bounds of their kingdom. Their dukedoms retained independence up until the invasion of the Ottoman Turks who displayed relative tolerance for Bogomils. The response for the soft laws established in Bosnia by the Ottomans became the mass conversion of the Patarenes (their Bosnian name) into Islam. But before leaving the forestage of history, they gave new rise to Gnostic ideas, this time in the north of Italy and the south of France in the form of Catharism.
Author of “Gnosticism through the Prism of the Third Millennium: Or between God and the Creator” Available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.