St. Epiphanius of Cyprus’ Infiltration into the Borborite Gnostic Sect (Bernard Simon)

NOTE: This article is taken from The Essence of the Gnostics, pp. 79-82:

epiphanius

   Epiphanius, Bishop of Salamis, in AD 374-377, formulated the Panarion or ‘Medicine Chest’—which was a stock of ‘Remedies’ to offset the so-called poisons of heresy.  This work is divided into three books, comprising in all seven volumes, that deal with eighty heresies—not all of them Gnostic.  The first twenty heresies are prior to the time of Jesus and the remaining sixty deal with Christian doctrine.

Epiphanius claimed to have secretly joined a Gnostic sect [Borborites], subsequently reporting on its practises which, he claimed, included the sharing of women in sex orgies.  These rites included the practice of coitus interruptus, when semen was collected and offered to the Lord as the body of Christ, as well as the consumption of menstrual blood.  This, interestingly, has overtones of some of the fertility rites practised by pagans.

Apparently this particular sect even believed that Jesus taught these practises, and that he probably took Mary Magdalene to a mountain, removed a woman from his side, had sex with her and then drank his own sperm (with the knowledge we have today, this sounds very much like a crude variation of the creation myths).  It seems that the life of a voyeur ultimately did not appeal to Epiphanius.  He prayed, resisted and ultimately reported the members of the sect to the bishops.  Eighty of them were driven away, leaving only the writings of Epiphanius as a record.  In his reports, which deliberately set out to shock, it is possible to see the sect’s basic attempts to fuse pagan beliefs with only half-understood spiritual teachings, which makes its Gnostic status questionable.

Despite his antagonism, Epiphanius quotes from the Gospel of Eve, a text now lost, which shows Gnostic thought:

I stood upon a high mountain and saw a tall man, and another of short stature, and heard something like the sound of thunder and went nearer in order to hear.  Then he spoke to me and said: I am thou and thou art I, and wherever thou art, there am I and I am sown in all things; and whence thou wilt, thou gatherest me, but when thou gatherest me, then gatherest thyself.

However, the following quote shows Epiphanius’ lack of understanding of the Gnostic concept that there is a part of the Divine in everything:

They say that the same soul is scattered about in animals, beasts, fish, snakes, humans, trees, and products of nature.

In a further reference to ancient pagan fertility rites, semen was ritually spilt on the ground as an offering to Mother Earth in order to ensure bountiful crops.  We must therefore make the assumption that the following ritual was simply a transfer of those rites to ‘the body of Christ’:

   And the pitiful pair, having made love, then proceed to hold up their blasphemy to heaven, the woman and the man taking the secretion from the male into their own hands and standing looking up to heaven.  They hold the impurity in their hands and pray…and say ‘We offer you this gift, the body of Christ.’  And then they consume it, partaking of their shamefulness, and they say : ‘This is the body of Christ and this is the Pascha for which our bodies suffer’…When they fall into a frenzy among themselves, they soil their hands with the shame of their secretion, and rising, with defiled hands pray stark naked, as if through such an action they were able to find a hearing with God.

   Early Gnostics thought that the power of the soul was to be found in sexual body fluids, semen and menses.  Allowing semen to beget children in this world would play into the hands of the evil archon or intermediary god, so the sect would abort the foetus if a woman became pregnant by accident, thus making this entrapment impossible.  This practise is diametrically opposed to the Valentinian idea that sex was to be used to bring spiritual awareness into the world.  One cannot help but feel that Epiphanius deliberately sets out to shock his readers:

If one of them fails to anticipate the emission of the seed from the natural effluence and the woman becomes pregnant, then listen to something even more dreadful which they dare do.  Extracting the foetus at whatever time they choose to do the operation, they take the aborted infant and pound it up in mortar with a pestle, and mixing in honey and pepper and some other spices and sweet oils so as not to become nauseous, all the members of that herd of swine and dogs gather together and each partakes with his finger of the crushed-up child.

Illuminated Manuscript

See:

  1. The Gospel of Philip
  2. Epiphanius Against Heresies 26.8.2f
  3. Epiphanius, Panarion, 26.3.1
  4. Epiphanius, Panarion, 26.9.1

Borborites

According to the Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis (ch. 26), and Theodoret’s Haereticarum Fabularum Compendium, the Borborites or Borborians (Greek: Βορβοριανοί; also Koddians; in Egypt, Phibionites; in other countries, Barbalites, Secundians, Socratites, etc.) were a libertine Gnostic sect, said to be descended from the Nicolaitans. The word “Borborite” comes from the Greek word Βόρβορος, meaning “mud”; thus “Borborites” could be translated as “filthy ones”.

Doctrine

The Borborites possessed certain sacred books, one called Noria (the name they gave to Noah’s wife), a Gospel of Eve, Books of Seth, Revelations of Adam, etc. They used both the Old and New Testament, but did not acknowledge the God of the Old Testament as the supreme deity.

They taught that there were eight heavens, each under a separate archon. In the seventh reigned Sabaoth, creator of heaven and earth, the God of the Jews, represented by some Borborites under the form of an ass or a hog; hence the Jewish prohibition of swine’s flesh. In the eighth heaven reigned Barbelo, the mother of the living; the Father of All, the supreme God; and Jesus Christ. They denied that Christ was born of Mary, or had a real body; and also the resurrection of the body.

The human soul after death wanders through the seven heavens, until it obtains rest with Barbelo. Man possesses a soul in common with plants and beasts. According to Augustine they taught that the soul was derived from the substance of God, and hence could not be polluted by contact with matter.

Sexual sacramentalism

Epiphanius says the Borborites were inspired by Sethianism and had as a distinct feature of their rituals elements of sexual sacramentalism, including smearing of hands with menstrual blood and semen, and consumption of the same as a variant of eucharist. They were also said to extract fetuses from pregnant women and consume them, particularly if the women accidentally became pregnant during related sexual rituals.

Epiphanius claimed to have some first-hand knowledge of the sect, and to have run away from certain Gnostic women who reproached him thus:

We have not been able to save the young man, but rather, have abandoned him to the clutches of the ruler!

—Epiphanius, Panarion, 26, 17.6

Epiphanius later reported the group to the bishops, resulting in the expulsion of around 80 people from the city of Alexandria.

As all these tellings about the Borborites come from their opponents, it is unknown if they are true or exaggerated. Stephen Gero finds them plausible and connected with earlier Gnostic myths.[1]

Barbelo

It is unlikely they would have called themselves Borborites, yet this, their alternative names, and the descriptions of their beliefs, reveals a connection to Barbelo. Some of the Gnostic scriptures have been called “Barbeloite” because of her appearance in them, such as the Apocryphon of John and Trimorphic Protennoia. The last of these seems to have undergone Sethian revision, although similar, fully Sethian texts have their own distinct perspective—maybe suggesting some Sethians were inspired by Barbeloite writings. These writings do not mention any sexual rituals, but neither any moral codes. Trimorphic Protennoia does describe the divine as a sexual being, but being a highly esoteric work leaves much to the imagination. If the Barbelo gnostics were libertines and these are their writings, then the unfriendly account of Epiphanius has to be contrasted with the elegant spiritual writings they produced.

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