Home > Archives > 09 - 2003 > THE RELIGION OF “LIGHT”: Salvation through gnosis
from issue no. 09 - 2003

THE RELIGION OF “LIGHT”: Salvation through gnosis

«Over almost twenty centuries, since the appearance of Christianity, Manichaeism is certainly the most marvelous thing that has been produced on the terrestrial globe in the spiritual history of mankind». This statement made by Simone Weil enables us to understandthe allure still exerted today by the Manichee position that more than others claims to interpret the condition of fallen man along with his desire for salvation

by Massimo Borghesi

A detail from the table L'ascesa all'Empireo, part of the triptych a detail from the table L'ascesa all'Empireo, part of the triptych Visioni dell'Aldilà, 1500-1504, Hieronymus Bosch, Palazzo Ducale, Venezia

A detail from the table L'ascesa all'Empireo, part of the triptych a detail from the table L'ascesa all'Empireo, part of the triptych Visioni dell'Aldilà, 1500-1504, Hieronymus Bosch, Palazzo Ducale, Venezia

The fallen god and existence as evil
«Over almost twenty centuries, since the appearance of Christianity, Manichaeism is certainly the most marvelous thing that has been produced on the terrestrial globe in the spiritual history of mankind»1.
This statement made by Simone Weil enables us to understand the allure still exerted today by the Manichee position that more than others claims to interpret the condition of fallen man along with his desire for salvation. In its cosmic pessimism Manichaeism, as Hans Jonas acutely shows in his studies on Gnosticism2, displays surprising affinities with contemporary nihilism. Prisoner of a perverse world, marked by chaos and destruction, the soul yearns to escape the bodily prison to refind its lost home, the divine kingdom of light opposed to the darkness of matter, from which it originally comes. Man is a “stranger” in the world, an “exiled god” dominated by feelings of rebellion and disgust toward present existence, by longing for what he was, for the lost paradise that Gnosis will enable him to regain. As an ancient fragment puts it: «Born of the Light and of the gods, / behold me in exile and separated from them. / My foes, launching themselves on me/ have borne me among the dead. / May he be blessed and find liberation/ who will free my soul from anguish! / I am a god and born of the gods,/ bright, sparkling, luminous,/ radiant, fragrant and beautiful,/ but now reduced to suffering»3.
The “lost” god, the soul of light, finds itself chained to matter, reduced to the menial condition; the man of sorrows is “crucified” on the earth that is the work of demonic powers. He is the Iesus Patibilis of the Manichaean tradition.
Man suffers because his soul, the divine part in him, is “mixed” with matter which, in Manichaeism as in Gnosticism, is evil. «Matter made the first man blind and deaf, unaware and forlorn, to the point that he knew neither his origin, nor his stock, his divine family. It created the body and the prison; it chained the soul that has lost awareness. – Abominable to me, a captive, are the demons, the she-devils and all witches! – Az [Lust, matter] has firmly bound the soul to the accursed body. He has made it abominable and wicked, full of rage and avid of revenge»4. Mortal existence is an abortion. In Manichaean mythology it is the fruit of a perverse progeny created not by God but from a pair of demons who, after devouring their offspring, couple and give life to the first pair of humans: Adam and Eva. At the origin of human kind there is the double seal of the satanic legacy of cannibalism and sexuality. A seal that perpetuates itself through the act of procreation, with the generation of the living through whom the world, the dark prison, continues. It continues to chain souls, to imprison the “light”. «It follows that sin is above all the result of the inherence of the soul in the “admixture”: Existence – we might say – is sin per se. The soul is not in itself sinful and is not at bottom responsible for sin: it does not succumb to it of its own will but is induced into it by the admixture with the flesh… The only cause of sin is matter, the essence of which consists of evil and the natural, spontaneous expression of which is “lust”»5.
Starting from this dual claim – the soul is innocent, matter is evil – Manichaeism takes the form, in being a «religion of salvation», of another path compared to that affirmed by Christianity. Existence does not become wicked by the consent of free choice but is so in itself. Wickedness that can be expiated only with the purification from the body and through a passage, more or less tortuous, of transmigration of the soul from body to body from the chain of which only the Elect, the “Pure”, are finally loosed. A perspective, this, that one encounters in the Buddhist tradition in which redemption lies in a kind of de-creation, of nullification, of detachment, of withdrawal. If evil lies in the “admixture” of the soul with the body, of light with matter, salvation will be given by division, by withdrawal of one from the other. To save oneself is to separate oneself. Manichaean morality is a negative ethic. «It indeed entails a refusal, a rejection and as it were a negation of the world that oppresses us, of the evil beings that dominate it, which is the condition of slavery and in these aspects can be compared with the attitude of revolt, or even of nihilism, that one finds underlying more than one Gnostic system»6.

A Gnostic-Zoroastrian Christianity
How did the Manichean “worldview”, the vision of Mani who was its founder, come to take shape? To answer this question, which has caused rivers of ink to flow, is today reasonably possible to the extent that the so-called Manichaean Codex of Cologne, discovered in 1969 in Egypt, offers us a reliable biography of Mani dating perhaps from the 5th century. Mani, born in 216 a.d. in northern Babylonia, from 240 began his preaching and it was to take him to India and, on his return, to the court of King Sabuhr I of Persia (240-272), the sovereign who humiliated three Roman emperors (Gordianus III, Phillip the Arab, Valerian), from whom Mani obtained welcome and protection. Thanks to that the Manichaean “Church” was able to develop and spread. Mani sent missionaries to Syria, Egypt, Bactriana, Armenia, Palmyra. «But as for my hope – he was to say – it will go to the West and will go also to the East. And the voice of its message will be heard in all the tongues, and will be announced in all the cities. My Church is superior on this point to the preceding Churches for these preceding Churches were elect in single countries and in single cities. But as for my Church, it will spread in all cities, and my Gospel will reach every country»7.
A universal “Gospel”, that of Mani, that was to lead its founder to a destiny compared by his disciples to that of Christ, to the hostility of the Zoroastrian priests and to imprisonment by King Wahram I (273-277). He was to die under the weight of his chains in 277, at the age of sixty. Thanks to the Code of Cologne we now know of Mani’s upbringing, the period from four to twenty-four spent in a community of Jewish-Christian Baptists who followed the doctrines of a teacher called Elkasai. The discovery of Mani’s coming from this background is of great importance because, as Sfameni Gasparro writes, «it has contributed in decisive fashion to directing research onto the Judeo-Christian dimension of the Manichean phenomenon overall»8. The Mani-Codex of the University of Cologne challenges other lines of interpretation of the genesis of Manichaeism - the “oriental” Buddhistic-Persian ones (F.C.Baur, R.Reitzenstein) – which keep their validity but only in a subordinate way. It, and it is not a marginal consequence, restores full validity to what Augustine has to say on Manichaeism after the strong criticism of his view starting from the work of Isaac de Beausobre, Histoire critique de Manicheé et du Manichéisme Amsterdam 1734-17399.
It enables us, besides, to understand the – at first sight – surprising declaration: «I, Mani, apostle of Jesus Christ»10, as also the numerous others in which Mani declares himself a manifestation of the Paraclete, to the point of identifying himself with the Spirit of Truth and, hence, with the fullness of Revelation. Claims that do not simply arise, as has often been asserted in the past, out of the aim to fit in with Christian circles but rather from the transposition of the Christian doctrine into a manifestly Gnostic register. As A. Böhlig observes: «In his youth and through his precursors Mani naturally came to know various religious currents; his surroundings when young were Judeo-Christian of a Gnostic sort; Persian ideas may have been passed onto him in virtue of his lineage. He encountered the world of Buddhism in eastern Persia and in India during his journeying. Perhaps his profound dualism was influenced by Persian ideas… But the fundamental tendency of the myth, that expresses the central thrust of his belief, is… a Gnostic Christianity that represents in ample perspective the path of the Son of God variously incarnated as creator and redeemer, in the aim of being, through his Gnosis and the consequences arising from it, presented to the Father»11.
This Gnostic Christianity took shape in Mani not only through his belonging to the «tendentially Gnostic Judeo-Christian community of the Elkasaite tradition»12 in Babylonia but also through a radicalization that led him to break away from it. The break centered on the mode of purification. For the community of the Baptists this required a continual daily “baptism” of bodies and foodstuff. For Mani, on the contrary, the only possible purification is obtained by means of Gnosis: «The baptism with which you purify your food serves nothing; this body in fact is impure and was shaped by an impure creation… Purification, then, in respect of what is written, is that which occurs through Gnosis: the separation of the Light from the Dark, of Death from Life, of living Waters from cloudy Waters»13.
Manichaeism came into being thus. It was born as a religion of “separation”, as knowledge (gnosis) of salvation through the distinction between the pure and the impure. Two dogmas are the center of the Manichean cosmos-theology: that of the “Two Principles” and that of the “Three Times”. According to the first, Good and Evil, Light and Darkness, Spirit and Matter, are two opposing and irreducible Substances. A dualism that reveals the echo of Zoroastrianism but also, probably, of Marcion. According to the second dogma the dualism between the two Principles is valid for the beginning and end of the world but not during the “middle” period in which they interweave in a mixture that gives rise to the present condition of existence. Our world is “Mixture”, a blend of good and evil according to a bond that “enchains” the soul to the body and blocks the memory of its divine origin. This “fall” of the soul into the world is no more than a moment in the cosmic struggle among the Realm of Light and the Realm of Matter that witnesses in the beginning “Primeval Man”, embodiment of the Father, fall in prey to the demons who devour his soul. Matter swallows in this way a part of the divine soul: it is the Soul of the world that, held down everywhere - in the plant, in animals, in the human body – groans of its captivity yearning to return to the Realm of Light. If this is the way of it Manichaeism can seem the “religion of salvation” to the extent to which, freeing the soul from its bonds, it enables return to the original duality, to the absolute separation of the two worlds. Salvation is «“regeneration”, “rebirth”, in the sense that consists, for the Spiritual, in “collecting” (syllegein) one’s own luminous and divine substance, in recovering one’s true self, in returning to one’s being and to the primitive place»14. Salvation is in the “collection” of the luminous substance concealed and buried in the body of the world, in the “restoration” of the divine lost, dis-united, in the return to the original duality. In this salvation Jesus, the “divine Nous”, also plays a role. A role that Mani, “apostle of Jesus Christ”, aims to bring to fulfillment.

The “Savior-Saved”. Salvation of the soul and salvation of God
As for Ugo Bianchi15 also for Henri Charles Puech “Manichaeism is a religion of the Nous”16. The problem of salvation turns, that is, into the problem of knowledge, in the call that the intellect (Nous) makes upon the sleeping soul (psykhe), wrapped in the sleep of matter. This knowledge, anamnesis, recollection of its own origins, memory of the divine home, requires, in order to take place, a message, a divine messenger who embodies, each time, the power of the Light. It is in this perspective that Manichaeism postulates a chain of “Saviors”, of divine envoys who rouse the soul from sleep, who invite mankind to separation, to escape from the world, to the rejection of the demons and of traffic with food and procreation. This chain of “Torches”, “Beacons”, “Enlighteners”, that goes from Adam, Seth, Eno, Enoch, Nicoteus, Noah, Shem, Abraham, to Buddha, Zoroaster, Jesus, Mani, represents, in reality, a single hero. «The characters with manifold names who will intervene in the cosmogony and in soteriology will, for the most part, be fundamentally other than incarnations or successive expressions of this one Entity or the hypostatised functions of the divine activity»17.
This “Activity”, in a circular process that closely resembles that of Hegel, “saving” the sparks of light lost in matter also saves itself. «It is one and the same substance - Light, which is God himself – that is mixed with a Matter transformed into world and into body, and operation to free from the universe and to save this luminous substance in the human organism will consequently be one and the same. In short, everywhere and always, it is God himself who, in part, is swallowed up by the Darkness and frees himself; it is one and the same Entity that, on the cosmological and anthropological level, is the being to save and the being that saves at one and the same time. Here again we find – the figure that Reitzenstein believed to lie at the center of every Gnosticism: the “Savior-Saved”»18.
The Last Supper, Salvador Dalí,1955, National Gallery of Art, Washington

The Last Supper, Salvador Dalí,1955, National Gallery of Art, Washington

The mythical Entity of the Manichees, the God of Light, is saved to the extent to which “pneumatic” men are saved. «The “Spirituals”, in fact, represent the totality of the luminous substance fallen and scattered in matter, and the retrieval of their true self corresponds, at the same time, to the progressive “reunion” of the “particles” of this substance, of the “members” of that divine person that, regathered in this way, little by little return to unity, to the organic whole they formed at the start. By saving the “pneumatic” the mythical hero saves himself, in the same way that the “pneumatic”, by saving themselves, contribute to the salvation of that being of which they are in essence part. In the end, and according to this account, the Gnostic drama of salvation could be brought down to a single theme: that of the “Savior-Saved”, the divine being whose history goes from decay to a rescue, being able at some moment to take on the figure of the Anthropos, of Man of whom men represent the fragmentation»19.
In the course of the history of the Anthropos, of Primeval Man who is reborn through the reunification of the sparks of light, we also find Jesus Christ. Mani, “apostle of Jesus Christ”, who as Holy Spirit is the fulfillment of the Revelation of the Nous, understands Jesus as the savior who enlightens, who arouses the soul from sleep, as a moment of the Savior-Saved. It is the Crucified who reawakens the soul crucified and mixed with the body. That is why «his Passion does not have salvific value except as fruitful teaching for the human intelligence, and not so much for his character of sacrifice but as example. For Manichaeism, in fact, it is merely apparent. If Jesus had been born of woman, if his body had been identical to ours, that god would have participated in corruptibility; in the filthiness of the flesh, or the latter would have been exempt from sin, which, from a dualist point of view, can only be a contradiction. The reality of the sufferings undergone on the cross would remove any divine character from the Passion: as in Docetist Gnosticism, it is on the contrary because Jesus remained “impassible” that he taught the soul the absolute separation that it must set between body and Nous. Furthermore, the passion of Christ is no more than an illustration of the cosmic crucifixion suffered, according to the myth, by the Iesus Patibilis: it is an historical act that expresses, in winning fashion, the doctrine of the “Savior-Saved”. As Alexander of Licopolis wrote, “in the end the Nous [that it is Jesus] through his crucifixion made known, that it is in a similar way that the divine power is also fixed, crucified to matter”. Thus it is not, as it is for the Christian, in participating Jesus incarnated and crucified that the Manichean will find his salvation, but thanks to the teaching and to the example of a Jesus who adopted a physical guise only to show himself to the world in time and whose mission was, above all, that of rousing and enlightening souls»20.
The Passion of Jesus is an example for all, it is the manifestation of the «Light crucified and mixed with matter, in a cosmic and atemporal passion»21. The Passion of Jesus is the passion of the soul chained to matter. The Soul of the world, «this consubstantial part of God, mixed in all bodies, and curiously connected to the grasses, to the seeds, to the trunks and to the fruits of the trees, this “Living Soul” is often assimilated, in a grandiose symbol, to the figure of the Iesus Patibilis. It is the “pathetic” face of the transcendent Jesus, the painful part that has to be saved of Yso ziwa, Savior in that he is pure light. This cosmic and atemporal Jesus is crucified on matter with which his luminous soul is “mixed”. The whole world is the ‘Cross of light’. It will be more particularly the trees, in which a wide large part of the divine substance is concentrated, that serve as scaffold for Christ: according to the expression of Faustus the Manichee reported by Saint Augustine, Jesus, the Life and Salvation of men, hangs on any wood’ (patibilis Iesus, suspensus ex ligno). The Passion and the Crucifixion of the historical Jesus take on the dimensions of universal and eternal events and offer an exemplary lesson. “We see everywhere”, Faustus says, ‘the mystical fixing of Jesus to his cross (crucis ejus mystica fixio). Through it the wounds of the passion that our soul suffers are manifested»22.
Corpus hypercubus, 1954, Salvador Dalí, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Corpus hypercubus, 1954, Salvador Dalí, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

In the same way that in Hegel the kenosis of the Logos becomes the symbol of a universal process: that of the soul “crucified” to matter that yearns for return to the Father. «Universal becoming is thus the taking place of the passion of a God who is the Savior of himself, and the history of mankind is fused with the drama of our passion and of our salvation consubstantially tied to that mythical being and to that mythical process»23.
The divine suffering is our suffering since our soul, the spark of light, is part of the Primeval Man, of the dismembered god, dissolved in myriads of fragments and “buried” in matter. Our soul is «a fragment, a particle, it is a “member”, an organic, substantial portion of God. Still more precisely, the human soul, in that it is passive and mixed with Darkness, is all one with the dynamis pathetike of the Savior, with the Iesus Patibilis, whose cosmic crucifixion it repeats or prolongs»24.
In this absolute identity between God and the soul, his “part”, God saves the soul by rousing it from sleep and it, in its turn, “saves” God by contributing to the “collection” of the luminous substance scattered. A harvest that passes eminently through the “guts” of the Elect who, differently from the simple Auditors, have the power to purge, to “separate” light from matter through the digestive process. The stomach becomes here «the workshop in which the permitted food is sublimated, the digestion separating the two natures mixed in them. His meal is thus a redeeming and has a sacramental value. With the result that Christian heresiologists have at times interpreted it as a eucharistic celebration»25. In it the Elect, he who has renounced labor, begetting, the preparation of food, “accepts” the food prepared for him by the Auditor, cursing the latter for his work but then granting forgiveness. The consumption of the meal can be transfigured into a sanctifying act. «A work of perdition, the business of feeding thus becomes, in the case of the Perfect, holy work, a salutary operation, not only permitted, but, paradoxically, advisable, the performance of what Saint Augustine mocks under the name of “purgation”, of “salvation by means of the tooth, of the belly or the stomach”»26.

Manichaean legacy
Mani’s religion did not end its days over the span of the early centuries of the Christian era. It was, on the contrary, to leave its legacy. This «Ideal of death»27, based on inaction, on contempt for agriculture - that subjects the members of God to torment – for marriage and procreation, for the whole physical world, the radicalization of which entails the annihilation of mankind and the world, was to move through underground passages and enflame the religious imagination. We find it present again, even if we are unable to trace its genealogical tree, in the great heresies of the Middle Ages. In the Paulicianism that arose in 7th century Armenia; in the Bogomilism that arose in 10th century Bulgaria and then spread through the Balkans, Asia Minor and Russia; in the Cathars in 12th century France. In all the dualism of the Principles, the subdivision into “Perfects” and “Believers”, the rejection of the flesh and of sex is present. The “heresy of evil” in this way stood against the Christian vision of original sin, stood, in profound nihilism, against creation which was considered the work of Satan. A bleak pessimism, this, that was to return in some currents of the Reformation and that by no accident was to lead the Calvinist Pierre Bayle, in his Dictionnaire historique et critique of 1697, to reappraise Manichaeism as the only rational alternative to Christianity in the explanation of the problem of evil. A credence destined to find favor more than once within the ambit of modernity, starting in the Romantic period, as the example of Simone Weil, a great admirer of the Cathars, documents. A credence that, even if the issue is neglected by historians and the very scholars of the Manichaean phenomenon, is to be found in surprisingly analogous forms in the Qabbalà of Yitzchàq Luria (1534-1572) that was to have so much influence on modern Jewish, and not only Jewish, thought. Luria’s idea of the “breaking of the vessels” and of the tiqqùn resembles the Manichaean position very closely. The breaking of the vessels, set at the beginning of the cosmic process, recalls the myth of the fall of the “sparks of light” into matter, of the “mixing” of pure and impure, as the tiqqùn does that of the “collecting” of the luminous substance. «All is in exile. The spiritual light of the Shekhina plummets into the dark of the demonic world of evil. The result is the mixing of good and evil that will have to be separated again with the reassumption of the elements of light and with their return to the previous position»28. As Gershom Scholem remarks: «A strange affinity with the fundamental religious ideas of the Manichee is revealed here: an affinity whose obviousness cannot escape the historian of religions. Elements of Gnosticism – absent or negligible in the ancient Qabbalà – and especially the theory of the sparks or particles of scattered light, come to the forefront in this late phase of development of cabbalistic thought. Doubtless in this case it is not a matter of an historical link between Manichaeism and the new school of Safed, but only of a kinship of mind that thus produced similar results and ideas. Nevertheless, and perhaps precisely for that reason, a more detailed study of Luria’s system would be of notable interest for the scholar of Gnosticism also: because that system – both overall and in its details - can be considered a paradigmatic case of a typically Gnostic way of thinking»29. In this way by different routes the vision of Mani, his indissoluble uniting of nihilism and salvation, contempt and asceticism, abomination of the body and deification of soul, continues to be present in the restless depths of modern culture and spirituality. A presence that again today, in a spread of thought threatened by Nothingness and Chaos, surfaces in the idea of a world at war, split between the Forces of Good and Evil, between the Pure and the Impure, between the Light and the Dark.

1 S. Weil, Écrits historiques et politiques, Paris 1960.
2 H. Jonas, Gnosis und Spätantiker Geist, Göttingen 1934, vol. I; Id., The Gnostic Religion. The Message of the Alien God and the Beginning of Christianity, Boston 1974.
3 Quoted in: H.C. Puech, Sur le manichéisme et autres essais, Paris 1979.
4 Quoted in: H.C. Puech, op. cit.
5 Op. cit. My italics.
6 Op. cit.
7 Quoted in: H.C. Puech, op. cit.
8 G. Sfameni Gasparro, Introduction to M. Tardieu, Il Manicheismo, Cosenza 1996, p.10.
9 Cf. L. Koenen, Augustine and Manichaeism in Light of the Cologne Mani Codex, in ICS 3 (1978), pp.154-195.
10 La vita di Mani. Il Codice Greco di Colonia, in Il manicheismo, vol. I, Mani e il manicheismo, edited by G. Gnoli, Farigliano (Cn) 2003, p. 77.
11 A. Böhlig, The New Testament and the Concept of Manichaean Myth, in: The New Testament and Gnosis: Essays in Honour of Robert McL. Wilson, by various hands, Edinburgh 1983, p. 104.
12 L. Cirillo, Introduction to La vita di Mani. Il Codice Greco di Colonia, op. cit., p. 27.
13 Op. cit., pp. 87 and 89.
14 H.C. Puech, Sur le manichéisme et autres essais, op. cit., p. 13.
15 U. Bianchi, The Contribution of the Cologne the Mani Codex to the religio-historical Study of Manichaeism, in Acta Iranica, 25, S.II Hommages et Opera Minora X, Papers in Honour of Professor Mary Boyce, vol. I, Leiden 1985, pp. 15-24.
16 H.C. Puech, Sur le manichéisme et autres essais, op. cit.
17 Op. cit.
18 Ibid.
19 Op. cit.
20 Op. cit.
21 G. Gnoli, General Introduction to Il manicheismo, vol. I, Mani e il manicheismo, op. cit., p. XLI.
22 H.C. Puech, Sur le manichéisme et autres essais, op. cit.
23 Op. cit.
24 Op. cit.
25 G. Gnoli, General Introduction to Manicheismo, vol. I, Mani e il manicheismo, op. cit., p. LVI.
26H.C. Puech, Sur le manichéisme et autres essais, op. cit.
27 Op. cit.
28 G. Scholem, Die Jüdische Mystik in ihren Hauptströmungen, 1982.
29 Ibid.

Italiano Español Français Deutsch Português