Woman holding snake before a view of the Egyptian pyramids
The church fathers and other heresy hunters got their frocks in knots when it came to anything smacking of Gnosticism. They leveled an avalanche of polemics against the Gnostics and Gnostic-minded throughout history. One of their main charges was the libertine aspects of Gnostic praxis—specifically in sex rituals involving orgies, consumption of seminal and vaginal fluids, and homosexual partnering. You can find some of these allegedly-licentious practices in my article The Bizarre Sexual Habits of Early Christians.
Scholars widely dismiss these allegations of sexual impropriety as libelous diatribes—similar to what was said for centuries against Pagans, medieval Muslims and Jews, or any other opponent of Orthodox Christianity. Instead, they rely on what the Gnostics themselves wrote in the Nag Hammadi library and other apocrypha, which points to Gnosticism being a movement of prudes and teetotalers with a penchant for rebellious mysticism.
It seems, however, that the accusations of Gnostic sexual rituals might be closer to the truth than slander. It seems that some Gnostic groups (Sethians, Borborites, Carpocratians, Ophites, etc.) did indeed practice forms of “sex magick” in certain parts of the Roman Empire.
The evidence for sexual magical rites in Gnosticism
Both Celsus (second century) and Plotinus (third century) describe in detail the religious practices and cultural habits of both Christians and Gnostics. Both are accurate in their details, essentially providing their own listicles. Just as important, both were known as somewhat proud men who felt no need to lie when comparing any movement to their Pagan superiority.
Lastly, both Celsus and Plotinus assert that certain Gnostic groups embraced sex rituals.
The Rice University Professor April DeConick advocates the idea of Egyptian Gnostics being occupied with sex rituals.The first part of her argument centers on the subtle admissions of church father Epiphanius in his heresy hunting text Panarion.
DeConick’s argument goes like this: Epiphanius admits to being involved with the Gnostic Borborite sect. He’s embedded in their community. He’s very familiar with their texts and practices. One of the Borborite ceremonies involves initiatory sex acts. The underlying thread is that Epiphanius is embarrassed. As DeConick explains:
The initiation didn’t go well for Epiphanius. When it didn’t go well, he went to the Bishop and then turned in these 80 people that were part of this group. There seems to be something real that he’s reporting. He’s explaining why he’s part of this group, but not really one of them.
In short: Methinks Epiphanius doth protest too much.
The second part of DeConick’s argument involves other Egyptian Gnostics, specifically those who disagree with sex rituals of the Borborites and other sectarians. Gnostic Gospels like the Pistis Sophia and the Book of Jeu denounce any form of sexuality in religious practice.
An example is found in the Pistis Sophia, when Thomas says to Jesus:
We have heard that there are some upon the earth who take male semen and female menstrual blood and make a dish of lentils, and eat it, saying: “We believe in Esau and Jacob.” Is this then a seemly thing or not?
At that moment, Jesus was angry with the world and he said to Thomas: “Truly I say that this sin surpasses every sin and every iniquity. Men of this kind will be taken immediately to the outer darkness, and will not be returned again into the sphere.”
One thing is that your enemies make up manure about you, the other is when members of your own team disagree with how you handle your spirituality. DeConick ends her argument saying: “I think we probably have some (Gnostic) groups performing these kinds of sex acts.”
Lastly, Stephan Hoeller explained historically all Gnostics functioned under the surrounding cultural context. For example, in Rome the Valentinians were indistinguishable from other Christians (according to Irenaeus of Lyons, reporting in the 2nd century), while the medieval Cathars in Provence blended in with the Catholic populace (according to many historians and Inquisitors).
Hoeller further explains:
In the Egyptian cultural context, there was a lot of magic including sexual magic at the popular level. No doubt some of that would have crept into or considered in some fashion by Gnostics. So much of the original Gnostic activity went on in Egypt, in Alexandria.
Hoeller admits sexual magic was probably never a major feature of Egyptian Gnostics, but certainly an avenue for a movement that tended to absorb the religions around them and grant them their unique symbolical slant.
Why exactly did Gnostics perform sex rituals?
In the book Gnostic Mysteries of Sex, Tobias Churton explores the sexual ethos of the Gnostics, He says:
Sex is the transmission of Gnosis. The seed (sperma) was the means by which Gnosis is transferred through time. The seed becomes a sacred and sacramental substance which has to be redeemed—they called it the lost sheep—through a Eucharistic rite and brought back to the Pleroma through the being of the Gnostic.
DeConick agrees with this line of thinking, saying:
When you think about what they are practicing makes logical sense for their mythology, for their understanding of their world. If you understand that the spirit or the soul is somehow embedded in the semen, and you understand that procreation is bad because you don’t want the Yahweh god to continue his rule anymore by making babies, how do you get that spirit out? You have to masturbate. That was their sacred ritual: a masturbation practice where they could release the semen and offer it to God.
According to Churton, this was another reasons:
It’s the healing of the passions of matter. The Gospel of Philip is clear that death only comes into the world when Eve leaves Adam. There is not death with the Eternal Adam. He’s a heavenly being. Once Adam is divided in the material world—into Adam and Eve—death enters the world. Therefore, to return to the Kingdom of Heaven, to return to eternal life, it was regarded as necessary to pre-symbolize the return of the man and woman as one. Obviously, the most obvious image to practice, to embody, would be sacred sexual acts.
Churton offers another motive for Gnostic sex rituals. It involves the Carpocratians, which Clement of Alexandria censures in his second century work, Against Heresies. Carpocrates, the leader of this Gnostic sect, held a similar belief to Aleister Crowley’s “redemption by sin.” This view contended that the soul was forever condemned by reincarnation; it would only depart the wheel of death and rebirth once it sickened of all earthly delights—like that final hangover that ultimately convinces an alcoholic to seek help. Thus, experiencing earthly delights as soon and intensely as possible was, in a curious way, a method of becoming enlightened or saved. This somewhat Eastern attitude was based on one line from the Gospel of Luke (12:59), where Jesus states: “I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.”
A penny not for your thoughts, it seems, but for your karma…
Additionally, Churton states that when it came to serious crimes like murder, if this it impossible for a follower of Carpocrates to commit it meant he or she had already perpetrated this excess in a past life (no Carpocratian was ever charged with murder, as far as we know).
Churton does claim that Epiphanius is dishonest in one respect: the charge that Gnostics ate aborted fetuses. Cannibalism was a culpable offense in the Roman Empire. And no instances of Fat Bastard Gnostics eating babies ever made the imperial records. ‘Nuff said on that.
Why did the sex rituals never make it to Gnostic gospels?
In his book, Churton argues that early Gnostic writings and church father chronicles are actually filled with spiritual sex. Some illustrations include:
The romantic and sexually charged relationship between Simon Magus and Helen of Tyre (an incarnation of Helen of Troy, arguably history’s most alluring woman).
The metaphorically sensual depictions of Sophia and Barbelo in the Nag Hammadi library and beyond.
Marcus the Magician and his female followers who held equal status.
Valentinus and his school of thought championing of spiritual sex within marriage.
Churton even quotes Elaine Pagels, who said that Valentinus was “the only man in the whole Judeo-Christian tradition who was wholeheartedly for sex and marriage, and explicitly taught the equality and complementarity of the human male and human female.”
What in the orgasm happened to this attitude of being open to spiritual sex?
What is that?
Encratism was a 2nd century theology contending that spiritual growth occurred only with the abstinence of meat, sex, and marriage. (It should be noted that various forms of asceticism were practiced before in Paganism and Judaism). According to Churton, Encratism spread to all forms of Christianity. He writes:
Encratism was not indigenous to Gnosticism, but it clearly became involved with it, leading to great confusion when trying to assess Gnostic philosophy as a whole. My own view, which I state here for the first time, is that Gnostic thought underwent considerable change in the third and fourth centuries when the Encratite position found ingress to congenial Gnostic settings that had already rejected the fleshly Jesus and the physical resurrection. The libido, if you like, departed much of the movement, perhaps leaving Valentinians struggling to make sense of their traditional openness to spiritually transforming romantic love, a struggle arguably evinced in the Gospel of Phillip. Radical Sethians and Simonians, once central, perhaps now moved to the fringes, were isolated by their refusal to abandon the pleasure principle and out of tune with the changing times.
And ergo Sophia and the divine feminine cooled off into the Virgin Mary, while the surviving Gnostic canon was mostly emptied of sex rituals. To be fair, though, no real surviving rituals are found in Gnostic writings—pointing perhaps that Gnosticism was part of the mystery religion vibe of the Greco-Roman milieu that never divulged ceremonies as policy. Or possibly, I as I argue in Why the Nag Hammadi library was Buried, the flight of the soul after death was what concerned the compilers of the Nag Hammadi library, not initiation ceremonies.
In the end, all of these arguments are speculation.Nevertheless, even if more evidence arrives on Gnostic libertinism, that doesn’t mean that a modern practitioner should parachute right into orgiastic praxis; or, as Hoeller mentioned, that the Gnostics ever assumed sexuality a necessary lynchpin to Gnosis. Far from it.
Most religious movements, including Gnosticism, warn against being seduced by material pursuits…and certainly not controlled by them. From the Stoics to the Mormons, being above human passions is believed to be a chief way to experience elevated states of being. Moreover, psychological studies reveal that those who can’t control their emotions tend to want to control others, as they seek constancy in the transience of emotions and a shifting universe. Furthermore, the rulers of this age use our own protean feelings to controls us, divide us.
In other words: control your passions, become free of temporality. Eternity awaits.
As Churton said, sex is the transmission of Gnosis. Sex is perhaps the greatest conduit of information (genetic, emotional, psychic, personal). I would take it a step further than Churton and say sex is Gnosis.
But without the vision, love, and Sophia of higher realms of consciousness, sex ends up being just bungle in the jungle, and that’s not alright for the Gnostic-minded.