The Heretic Church

Throughout Christian history there were mystical heretical movements that interpreted the Christian story in a different way and even had additional writings to those appearing in the New Testament. In Bulgaria they were popular starting from the 10th century until the 14th century and were called by the general name “Bogomils”. The tradition began very early, perhaps even in the life of Jesus himself, who was considered by some as an enlightened spiritual teacher, who passed the secret knowledge to a closed circle of disciples. Heretic Christian sects rely in general on additional gospels to the known ones, which appeared until the 4th century, such as that of Thomas which begins with the words: “These are the secret words taught by the living Jesus, whoever knows them will not taste death.”

The Heretic Christian mystical movement claimed the possibility of unmediated knowledge of God, which Jesus taught, and was therefore called “Gnostic” (knowledge). It was a natural continuation of mystical currents in Judaism such as the Essenes, the Persian religion, the mysteries of the ancient classical world and the teachings of Hermeticism and Neo-Platonism that prevailed in Egypt and Alexandria in the 1st-3rd centuries AD. Recently, an archive of a Gnostic community in Egypt named Naj Hamdi was discovered, which sheds new light on the scope, depth and distribution of this movement, which for a moment posed a real threat to the primacy of “regular” Christianity.

The Gnostic movement had many esoteric writings in which the basic concept of the belief system are presented and with it the emphasis on the dual division into body and spirit. The terminology can change but this division is at the core of human understanding and experience, right now our body is here, but our thoughts can be elsewhere, hence duality is a basic motif and archetype in life – and also a dialectic process that makes us move.

The Gnostics saw duality as a source of religious knowledge, a true knowledge achieved by an unmediated connection to the truth of things. Knowing means recognizing the way the world is built, and rests on the understanding that the world is a combination of two worlds originating from two opposing forces. The two worlds are the world of matter and the world of spirit, and the two forces are the force of good and the force of evil. The good originates from God and is related to the spirit, the bad originates from Satan and is related to matter.

The Gnostics believed that the spiritual world was created first, as a pure and perfect world that is part of God. Then, as a result of some cosmic accident, the world of matter was born, created by a force that rebelled against God and is opposed to him – that is Satan. Then a reverse process happened: into this evil world, the world of matter, divine power entered through the creation of man. What happened was that the devil tried to create man and was unable to breathe a soul into his nose, so he called for help from God, who breathed a breath of life into his nose and thereby brought light into the world. Only those who know themselves, the Gnostics, succeed in connecting to their soul which originates from the divine light. When the day comes, the material world will be redeemed by that divine power that is within man, and the good powers will return to rule the world that will return to exist in a spiritual state.

The Gnostic teachings appeared in several religions of the world even before the appearance of Christianity. But Christian Gnostics believed that the moment when the good force, the spark of light, intervened again in the world’s actions, was connected with the appearance of Jesus. For them, Jesus is the archetype of the spiritual man, and is therefore called the “Son of Man”. He is the alpha – the beginning and the omega – the end. The appearance of Jesus in the world caused strengthening and liberation of the world of light and good within the kingdoms of darkness, matter and evil. The entry of the nature of Jesus into us occurs at the time of the second birth, when we join the Gnostic Christian community, through the ordination ceremony.

The Gnostic movement developed mainly in Egypt in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. After the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity and the consolidation of Christian dogma by Church conferences in the 4th century, the Gnostic movements were outlawed and the Gnostics were persecuted as heretics. But by then their teachings had enough power to penetrate into the institution of Christian monasticism that appear in Sinai, in the deserts of Syria, as well as in distant places such as Ethiopia and Armenia. So Gnostic ideas were incorporated, under different names, into the developing Christian thought and mysticism.

Various heretic groups continued to exist outside the sphere of influence of the empire and Orthodox Christianity as well as secretly within it, and thus we find the Paulicans in Syria and Armenia in the 7th century AD, Manichaeans in southern Iraq who exist to this day, the “Adoptionists” (who claimed that Jesus was an adopted son of God, and not natural son) in the protectorate of Antioch in the 3rd century AD, and more.

In the Middle Ages, the Gnostic movement and sects reappeared in Christian Europe and won many hearts and minds, especially in two main places: in the Balkans it was the Bogomil movement that started in Bulgaria and Macedonia and finally found a home in Bosnia, and in Europe it was the Cathar movement, which arose from Bogomilism and other sources, and found home in southern France and northern Italy. Both movements were persecuted by the Christian Church and eventually destroyed and disappeared.

White Brotherhood Rila 3

White Brotherhood Rila 3

The emergence of the Bogomils in the Balkans

The Bogomils were an Heretic Gnostic sect that combined Christian mysticism with ideas of equality, freedom and fraternity of love, expressing a desire for social and personal reform. They appeared in the Bulgarian Empire at the beginning of the 10th century, spread like wildfire and influenced all of Europe in the following centuries, until they were finally suppressed and destroyed by the Church in the 14th century. The Bogomils influenced the emergence of the Cathar movement in France and their ideas entered Balkan Folklore and the Theosis tradition as it appears on Mount Athos in the 13th century AD, as well as the revivalist movement of the “White Brotherhood” in the 20th century.

The Bogomils rejected anything that did not come from the soul, and claimed inner guidance, a sort of unwritten covenant of the souls with God. The movement began as a synthesis of Paulican, Messalian ideas (Gnostic sects that flourished in Armenia and Asia Minor in the beginning in the 6th century AD), and a desire to reform the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and society. It started by a teacher named “Bogomil” (the meaning of the name: Lover of God) who preached the new gospel starting from 930 CE and gained great popularity. The movement he founded flourished during the heyday of the First Bulgarian Empire, and after the time of Simeon I spread to Byzantium, Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia. It appealed mainly to the exploited and poor peasants and the intellectual elites who were in favor of social equality in the spirit of the Gospel.

Simeon I expanded the Bulgarian Empire at the beginning of the 10th century at the expense of the Byzantine Empire. He settled throughout his kingdom Armenians and Syrians who were expelled from Armenia by the Byzantines due to their Paulician and Messianic faith. The exiles from Armenia and Syria spread their belief in Gnostic ideas in the new land. At the same time, throughout the kingdom, a process of forced conversion of the population, part of which remained pagan, began. The pagan masses opposed the institutionalized Christianity and embraced instead the foreign preachers.

In addition to this, during the time of Tsar Peter (10th century) a process of feudalization began in Bulgaria, which included subordinating the hitherto independent peasants to powerful lords and the Church. The development of large Latifundas (land estates controlled by nobles) led to hostility on the part of the peasants towards the government. Tsar Peter encouraged Byzantine Christianity instead of that of Cyril and Methodius, which resulted in the people moving away from the established Church, the economic difficulty caused rebellions and the Bogomil heresy spread[1].

The Bogomils rejected any form of authority: Church, state, hierarchy. They refused to pay taxes, work as tenant farmer or serve in the army. Because of their belief that the visible world is the creation of evil, they avoided Churches and institutions, rejected any ritual, and promoted only the pure and spiritual, the monastic and the inner.

Initially, this was a movement close in spirit to monasticism, involving disdain for work and reliance on God to provide for their needs. However, over time the perception changed, and from evidence of their community life it can be concluded that they encouraged productive work and participated in it all together. Bogomilism spread among autocratic agricultural communities that took the early Christians as an example of a holy cooperative community.

In places where there were significant Bogomil communities, such as in Plovdiv, they created a democratic organization led by the elders and perfect ones called emissaries. It seems that the Bogomils did not have an overall hierarchical ecclesiastical organization and there was no Bogomil Pope, as some scholars have tended to think. Instead each community had twelve elders who were a kind of supreme council.

The Bogomils believed that God had two sons: the older one was called Satanel and the younger one – Michael. The elder rebelled against his father and became an evil spirit, after his fall he created the heavens and the earth and tried in vain to create a man to serve him, but the attempt was unsuccessful and he had to turn to God for help in the process of breathing life into the body and bringing in the human spirit. Hence, within the world of physical evil there is a spark of divine light associated with the human spirit.

After he was created, man was allowed to work the land on the condition that he subordinates himself to the owner of the land, who is a Satanel. And then the Archangel Michael was sent to the world in order to free men, in the form of the Holy Spirit, and appeared through the figure of Jesus. The Holy Spirit (Michael) entered Jesus in the form of a dove at the time of baptism and he received the power to break the covenant that bound man to Satan and was held on the clay tablet. Jesus defeated Satan and freed his prey from him, but the devil created a new evil spirit to attack the redeemer, and that is the crucifixion and the Orthodox Church.

Bogomils had their own literature in Slavic. The recurring motif in the books is the world as a place of struggle between good and evil. This is a dualistic cosmology that appears in the microcosm – man and in the macrocosm – the universe, and which leads to an internal struggle. The books testify to the connection of the Bogomils to the Slavic Folklore, they adopted the Slavic culture, influenced and were influenced by the folk belief.

According to several versions of the Bogomil books and traditions, Jesus was not born to Mary, but she found him in a cave. He was an illusion of a body and adopted a physical form in order to complete his mission in the world, which is to bind the devil and throw him to the Underworld, leaving to humans Teachings and knowledge through which they can reach salvation.

In tone of the books used by the Bogomils called “The Story of Adam and Eve” it is told about a contract signed between Adam and Satan, according to which man belongs to Satan until the appearance of the Christian Jesus. The devil is inside man, in his body, already from birth, and he must be removed with the help of asceticism and a life of purity.

Those who led the fight against the forces of evil were the perfect ones, people from among the Bogomils who chose to dedicate their lives to God. The perfects were the chosen ones who saw themselves and were seen by others as the true Christians, the children of the Spirit. They were called Theodocos, God-bearers (a name similar to that of Mary in Orthodox Christianity). The perfects avoided marriage and everything else that pollutes the spirit such as wine and meat (the tree of knowledge is the vine that Satan planted in the Garden of Eden).

According to Oblansky, the Bogomils had great success among the Bulgarian popular monastic movement and monasteries. The characteristics of the monastic movement at that time were very similar to theirs and matched the principles of their faith – denial of this world and constant prayer, reliance on the Holy Scriptures and asceticism. Many of the monks were ignorant and did not distinguish between Orthodox Christianity and Heretic Christianity, they saw the perfects of the Bogomils as exemplary people and their teachings as truth, and for that reason they joined their ranks.

The Bogomils were baptized by consecrating with the hands and not baptizing in water, marriage was not a sacrament, the wine and bread in the Eucharist ceremony did not actually become the flesh and blood of Jesus, but were considered an allegory for the gospels and apostles. They treated the cross, the worship of Icons and saints as idolatry. According to their belief, before the crucifixion, the figure of light of Jesus left his body and passed on. What was crucified is only the physical body, therefore the crucifixion is of no importance. They rejected John the Baptist and some of the books of the Bible and the New Testament. According to their concept, on the Day of Judgment people will be judged by God and not by Jesus.

The Bogomils attached great importance to the prayer “Our Father in Heaven” and would repeat this prayer over and over again. They prayed a fixed number of prayers, four times a day and four times at night, bowing while saying the words “Our Father in Heaven”, without making the sign of the cross. Sunday was a day of prayer and fasting. The prayer was conducted in homes and not in Churches which were considered the abode place of the devil. In addition to this prayer, they probably had additional prayers of their own.

Beyond praying, studying the teachings and striving for a life of purity, they also had secret spiritual practices. A monk from that time named Kosmas describes a practice in which they open the five doors, which are the five senses, and close the physical doors of the houses, achieving in this way concentration in prayer. This reminds us meditations techniques of the East.

The practices of the Bogomils and the worship were also done by women as well, who were equal members, and could become a perfect as the men (in which case they lived celibate lives), the teachers were of both sexes, and even the confession could be between both sexes.

Apparently the last great Bulgarian kings Samuel and his son (in the 11th century) sympathized with the Bogomils (see the chapter on the Trajan Gate), which explains in a different way the brutal struggle between them and the Byzantines. After the conquest of Bulgaria by the Byzantine emperor Basilius II in 1018, many Bulgarian nobles moved to Constantinople and brought the Bogomilian faith with them, where it underwent processes of refinement, deepening and development. From Constantinople it founds its way to other parts of the world, including southern France, Italy, Russia, Serbia and Bosnia, and returned to Bulgaria in its advanced form.

In the 12th century, two main streams of Bogomilism were created in the Balkans. One is the “Dragovics” (named after a village in southern Macedonia) who advocated extreme dualism, according to which Satan is an independent being; And the second is the “Bulgarian” stream continued the tradition of moderate dualism according to which Satan is subordinate to God. Towards the end of the 12th century, the Bogomil movement developed rules and rituals that emphasized the difference between it and Christianity. New communities were founded in Asia Minor, Dalmatia, and Byzantium. Bogomilism grew and became so influential that it posed a threat to the Church establishment and government, leading to a series of new persecutions.

At the beginning of the period of the Second Bulgarian Empire, the Bogomil movement grew stronger and spread, but with the appearance of the tradition of Theosis and Hesychasm of Mount Athos in the 13th century, which are to a large extent a substitute for their mysticism, the strength and attraction of Bogomilism weakened. In the 14th century their numbers dwindled and with the appearance of the Ottomans many of them converted to Islam. There is a claim that the Pomak people in the Rhodope Mountains where once Bogomils and converted to Islam due to this reason, and same goes for the Muslims of Bosnia[2].

White Brotherhood Rila 4

White Brotherhood Rila 4

The White Brotherhood and the Bogomils

According to religious researcher Mircea Eliade, the world view of Bogomilism remained in Southeastern Europe and continued to influence it in two ways: one – through the apocryphal writings attributed to the Bogomil priest Jeremiah, which are still read in certain circles, and the second – through the Folklore tales. For example, a sleepy and tired God appears in the stories in the same way he appears in the Bogomil books. It is a folk interpretation of the hidden God.

In the 20th century, various new age movements began to appear in different parts of the world claiming to be a direct or indirect descendant to early Christian Gnosticism; some declared themselves to be the successors of the Bogomils. In Bulgaria it was the “Brotherhood of the White Brothers” founded by Peter Dunov in the first part of the 20th century. He claimed that his movement and its people continue the spiritual line of the Bogomils, and even that the believers are reincarnated Bogomil souls who were reappeared at this time in order to apply their teachings in a reformed and better way than before.

Dunov provides an interesting account of the appearance of the Bogomils and their faith. According to him, Tsar Simeon the First had three sons: the first is the one who will later become his successor – Tsar Boris, the second is the one who became the founder of the Bulgarian monasticism – Saint Rilsky, and the third is an unknown son named Boyan (Magician) who founded the Bogomil movement. Boyan was the eldest and destined to be king. In order to complete his education, he was sent to the Magnaura Academy in Constantinople, where he met people who came from Persia to meet him, recognizing him as suitable for acceptance of the Secret Doctrine. They educated him in magic and mysticism. When he returned to Bulgaria, he called to the village of Osmar, near the capital Preslav, people from all over the kingdom, and announced the establishment of a movement that would encourage equality, love and brotherhood. His assistant was a high officer in the army called “Bogomil” and the movement was named after him.

According to Dunov, the appearance of the Bogomils (and also the “White Brotherhood”) in Bulgaria is related to the fact that the Bulgarians were the first people in Europe to pray in their own language. The Bulgarians are a cultured and educated people who knew how to challenge Church dogma and criticize it; the apostles Clement and Nahum developed free and profound thought that allowed many of the Bulgarians to accept the Bogomil faith.

Dunov explained that there were three streams of ancient esoteric spiritual Schools, collectively called Bogomils. The first was Hermeticism – it started in Egypt and moved to Thrace through Persia, appeared in the teachings of Orpheus who lived in the Rhodope Mountains, from there it moved to Pythagoras and the School of Plato. These two teachers taught purification of the soul and reincarnation. The second School (stream) was that of the Essenes – who operated in the Judean desert 2,000 years ago. The third stream was the Bogomils in the Balkans. These three branches of Bogomilism stem from ia spiritual center, a council of light beings called the “White Brotherhood” and headed by the Spirit of Christ (the spiritual manifestation of Jesus).

Dunov argued that the mistake of the Bogomils in the Middle Ages was declaring war on evil. If you fight evil, you give it power; therefore there is no need to fight it, the way is to ignore it instead. The “White Brotherhood” movement he founded is actually Bogomils who have returned to this world, but this time they will not be persecuted. They will spread love in the world and know how to accommodate those who oppose them. “The White Brotherhood” continues the tradition founded by Boyan the “Magician”, and according to Dunov: “Whoever wants to learn about the life of the Bogomils, should see the life of our brotherhood.”

Dunov describes an unfamiliar facet of Bogomil life: according to him, they had an underground social network all over Bulgaria, they met in forests and Mountains at night, the perfect lived in caves guarded by young men and went out to spread the word, they lived in communities where work was a value and helping the weak was the norm, the rich worked together with the poor. In addition, they were vegetarians. The ordination in the Holy Spirit of the Bogomils is the movement that is done at the end of the Paneurhythmic Dance of the White Brotherhood, with the hands placed on the head saying the prayer “May the peace of God prevail”.

It should be remembered that Bogomilism appeared against the background of the oppressive feudal society of the Middle Ages, and that the picture Dunov paints is of an ideal society based on equality and mutual support and composed of pure and holy people. Some say that the Bogomil ideas that spread all over Europe, filled the continent with mystical brotherhoods and eventually brought about the Renaissance.


[1] The frustrated tsar wrote to the Byzantine Church asking for advice in dealing with heresy, and received a reply from the scholar and monk Theophlact in 950. In this reply, the beliefs of the Bogomils are detailed, and later the reply became an important document for knowing their teachings

[2] The Bogomils spread to Serbia in the 12th century, but Stefan Namaje, the first king of the historical Namanja dynasty,  persecuted and burned them, and as a result many immigrated to Bosnia, where they made contact with the independent Bosnian Church, which adopted their teachings.