From New Dawn 106 (Jan-Feb 2008)
Few people in the modern world have heard of the Bogomils, who existed during a seven-century time span in and around Bulgaria. Although almost forgotten, they represent an important movement that should be studied by anyone interested in Gnosticism, spiritual freedom, the Cathars of France (who succeeded them), and the history of religions.
For most of their existence, from the mid 900’s to the late 1400’s CE, the Bogomils sought to restore the earliest and purest form of Christianity. Since their beliefs were considered a threat to the Church they experienced intense persecution.
Their original home was probably in Macedonia and from there they spread throughout the Byzantine Empire, ultimately flourishing in Bulgaria, Serbia, and Bosnia. Their spiritual descendants were the better-known Cathars, so the extent of their influence reached as far as Italy and into southern France.1 Attacked over the centuries with both fire and sword by Catholic and Orthodox Christians, they finally surrendered – but to Islam rather than Christianity.2
Bogomilism was named after its founder, Bogomil, whose name means “friend of God” or “beloved of God.” He was a village priest who lived in the Macedonian mountains during the reign of Peter (927-968), a fact confirmed by two early Bulgarian manuscripts that are still extant.3
The Bogomils’ long history had actually begun in the previous century. When Khan Boris I accepted a Christian baptism in 864, Greek missionaries soon arrived. Christianity spread rapidly, but many resisted and dissent began to spread.
The Byzantine Empire was familiar with large groups of dissenters and usually deported them. As historian Donald M. Nicol explains, “Where heresy was widespread in a district, State officials would come and forcibly remove the population of whole villages to other parts of the Empire, where they would be swamped, or, it was rather hoped, converted by their new neighbours.”4 Instead of deporting recalcitrant Bulgarians, however, the Byzantines chose to resettle a group of Armenian heretics known as Paulicians on the Bulgarian frontier in 872. This was a mistake. Instead of adopting Orthodoxy, the Paulicians spread their Manichaean doctrines, which espoused a dualistic struggle between the forces of good and evil in the cosmos. Their beliefs strongly influenced the formation of the Bogomils and by about 950 Bogomilism had been born.
Rituals and Beliefs
Instead of having priests a group of elders were chosen by lot to lead each Bogomil service. Therefore, all interested believers had the potential to lead. Their meetings were held in any home or structure, or even outside, as they believed that God did not confine Himself to stone buildings designated by humans. The spirit of God, indwelling in every human heart, could be brought anywhere and recognised as such. This was a clear threat to the Church. Its popularity was also a threat. Bogomilism spread rapidly because a portion of the brethren’s earnings went to the poor, the sick, and toward the support of those who travelled and spread the Gospel.
The early Bogomils rejected the Old Testament, relying primarily on the New Testament. The later Byzantine Bogomils accepted the Psalms and the sixteen books of the Prophets. Their version of worship was an effort to exemplify the beliefs of the Primitive Church in its purest form, before Christianity added to it. The Trinity was considered to be an illusion and rejected (overwhelming scriptural evidence shows this is a false doctrine; the concept never appears in the earliest Christian teachings). The cross was considered evil, having been the instrument used to kill Christ. They asked, “If someone killed the king’s son with a piece of wood, do you think the king would regard the weapon as holy?” Using the Sign of the Cross was also rejected; they preferred the Lord’s Prayer because it fails to support or glorify the murder of a spiritual leader.
They rejected beliefs in the Second Coming, the Last Judgment, and the resurrection of the dead. They all relate to the redemption of the material body, and the Bogomils viewed matter as the principle of evil. Like the older Gnostics before them, they believed that the godly “spark” or spirit of man has been trapped in this evil, material world. To be united with God, man must avoid contact with the world of flesh. Therefore the “elect” abstained from sexual intercourse, meat, and wine, a practice that was successfully maintained throughout the greater part of Bogomil history.
While the elect practiced such austerities, they accused the Orthodox clergy of idleness, drinking, and robbery – which in large part was probably true. The Bogomils contended that the Orthodox had forfeited the right to be called Christians because of their behaviour, and saw themselves as the true Christians of the time.
To become a Bogomil required a simple two-part initiation, known as “the Baptism of Christ through the Spirit” in contrast to the Orthodox baptism, which the Bogomils rejected as being of St. John and by water only.5 The candidate was prepared through prayer, fasting, and confession of sins. At the ceremony the presiding authority laid the Gospel of John on the candidate’s head; then they invoked the Holy Spirit and said the Lord’s Prayer together. A probationary period of abstinence from sex, wine, red meats, and food with blood (except for fish) followed. Once completed, the initiate returned for the second part of the process by coming before the assembly. He faced the east, at which point the Gospel of John and the hands of the brethren present were laid on his head and a hymn of thanksgiving was sung. According to at least one scholar, it is possible that an initiate was declared a Bogomil upon completion of the first part, and completing part two moved him up from the rank of “believer” to that of the “perfect” or “chosen.”
One of the major differences between the Bogomils and the Orthodox concerned their views of evil:
The church teaches that God is the source of all perfection and that the whole world, visible and invisible, is His creation. Yet one does not need to be a philosopher to observe that in this world of ours moral and physical evil – suffering, cruelty, decay, death – is abundantly present. How then can God, the Supreme Good, be the cause of suffering and evil? Must He be held responsible for wars, epidemics, the oppression of the poor by the rich?… The Bogomils had an answer which was at least logical and consistent: evil and pain are inherent in this world because this world is the creation of the Evil One.6
History and Persecutions
By 1050 the Bogomils had spread to the Byzantine Empire. Euthymius Zigabenus, a favourite monk of the emperor, returned from a journey and found the heresy had infested his monastery. Euthymius set out to uncover the heresy.
One captured Bogomil, Diblatius, revealed under torture the names of high-ranking Bogomils, including their supreme leader, Basil, who had taught for over 50 years. Basil was approached through underhanded means. The Emperor Alexius and his brother pretended to be interested in converting to Bogomilism. As Basil was questioned in the palace, a secretary hid behind a curtain and took notes, documenting all that was said. When a full confession had been made, Alexius threw back the curtain and arrested him.
Basil’s core followers and twelve main disciples were caught. Many refused to recant, so Alexius announced that all Bogomils would be burnt alive, but had a choice between being burnt on a pyre with a cross or on a pyre without one. Those who chose the cross were released as having proven their orthodoxy. The others were returned to prison, where they were subjected to daily exhortations to convert. Those who persisted in their beliefs stayed imprisoned for life, but, Anna adds, “were amply supplied with food and clothing.”7
Basil was arrested in 1111 and burnt in either 1118 or 1119. A huge pyre was built in the Hippodrome where large crowds attended events. He had the choice of walking to a large wooden cross instead of the fire. Refusing the cross, he was thrown into the fire. Basil’s death ended Bogomil influence in Constantinople.
With all the years of conflict between the Bogomils and the Orthodox Byzantines, it is amazing that there was only one public execution of Bogomils in the Byzantine Empire. As Obolensky observes, “It is to Alexius’s everlasting credit that in his dealings with heretics he used the weapon of persuasion in preference to any other.”8
In the late 1100’s the Bogomils were badly persecuted in Serbia, but Bosnia was a safe haven. The first great ruler in Bosnia was Kulin, the “Great Ban” (ban was the title given to local representatives of the Hungarian kings). His reign, from 1180 to 1204, was known for its prosperity. Bogomilism was hugely prevalent, involving many nobles and landowners. They formed a “Bosnian Church” of their own, headed by a “bishop” and served by a semi-monastic body of devotees who acted as missionaries.9 The biggest surprise was when Kulin himself and the Roman Catholic Bishop of Bosnia became Bogomils, shocking the Roman church. The papacy and the Catholic king of Hungary pressured Kulin to recant (under threat of war), which he did in 1203. In spite of Kulin’s “change of heart,” Bogomilism continued to grow and flourish.
When Kulin died in 1204 the worried Pope appointed a Roman Catholic Ban. A group of missionaries arrived to convert the Bosnians. The result? The Roman Catholic Ban converted to Bogomilism and Bogomil churches spread like wildfire – not only in Bosnia, but in Slavonia, Croatia, Istria, Dalmatia and Carniola. As for the papal missionaries, by 1221 there were no other priests in Bosnia except for Bogomils.
In 1222 Hungary invaded in what was to be the first of at least three crusades against the Bogomils, fashioned after the Albigensian Crusades in France. The Bosnians immediately threw the Roman Catholic Ban out of the country and appointed a Bogomil leader named Ninoslav. The war continued for years as a stalemate. Ninoslav received the same pressure to convert to Catholicism as Kulin did and complied, but the entire country saw through the same façade from before and continued being Bogomils without batting an eye. The warfare smashed up the countryside but whenever the invaders withdrew, the Bogomils went back to their faith, backed by the strength and prosperity of the people.
By the late 1200’s, after more failed attempts, Hungary chose not to invade Bosnia. Frustrated voices in Rome began grumbling that Hungary herself should be the object of a crusade.
In 1322, the powerful Subic family was toppled and Stephen Kotromanic, a Bogomil, was elected as ban. He successfully acquired the principality of Hum (later called Herzegovina) in 1326, foiling Serbian and Hungarian attempts and giving Bosnia access to the sea for the first time in its history. Its prosperous farms and mining operations now had a direct sea route for export. This was a hugely successful country, teeming with heretics. It was only a year earlier that the Pope had written to Kotromanic saying, “Knowing that thou art a faithful son of the Church, we therefore charge thee to exterminate the heretics in thy dominions,… their speech crawleth like a crab, and they creep in with humility, but in secret they kill, and are wolves in sheep’s clothing,” etc.
Let’s read this again. Who was, in actuality, the one trying to “kill in secret,” by sending a letter to the king, asking that he “exterminate” his own people? A close study of the papacy and its history will expose almost as much corruption as the mafia. Those familiar with papal history will not find these tactics to be of any great surprise.
The Bulgarian Tsar Boril, who ruled from 1207-1218, detested the Bogomils. He had usurped the throne, having driven the rightful heir, John Asen II, out of the country and into Russia. Anti-heretical laws were issued and carried out in 1211, making these events almost simultaneous with the Crusade against the Cathars in the West. 10 Many heretics were tried and went to prison.
Followers of John Asen II dethroned Boril in 1218 and blinded him, restoring the rightful heir to the throne. Asen, who ruled from 1218-1241, is considered the greatest of all Bulgarian monarchs, and under his reign Bulgarian civilisation reached its peak.
During Boril’s reign the Bogomils had supported the absent Asen, and John never forgot it. They now enjoyed complete protection and freedom under him, suggesting a link between Bulgaria’s greatness and the protection and support of the Bogomils. Pope Gregory IX complained to the king of Hungary (of which Bulgaria was a satellite) about the kind treatment the heretics were receiving. A crusade was attempted in 1235, but failed miserably.
It was no coincidence that under the rule of John Asen II Bulgarian civilisation reached its peak. Bosnia achieved similar greatness while allowing the Bogomils to flourish. These were immensely successful nations that were Gnostic in character and belief. What gives any foreign country or pope the right to dictate what a certain nation’s beliefs should be when they are at the height of their civilisation and quite happy internally?
The Cathar Legacy
Bogomilism entered Russia, but its biggest influence was on the Cathars of southern France. Cathar origins have been traced to Bogomil missionaries who are believed to have passed through the Dalmatian coast and northern Italy to reach France in the tenth and eleventh centuries.11 Most serious researchers consider Catharism a direct legacy of the Bogomils. A lesser camp contends that the Cathars were formed independently by long-established Manichaean schools in France, then connected with the Bogomils at the end of the eleventh century.
According to the late Romanian scholar Ioan Couliano, this difference stems from two distinct Cathar groups that existed, “…one that was simply Bogomil, and another one that preached a radical dualism of intellectual origin, made up of a concoction of Origenism and Manichaeism…. The two types of Catharism may not share common doctrines but they have similar ethics, stemming from Bogomilism.”12 Couliano reveals how this second Cathar group, in his view, also originated in the Balkans.
Bogomilism directly influenced the Cathars by the twelfth century. In his book Aion, C.G. Jung mentions a heretical document that was found in the Archives of the Inquisition at Carcassonne, France. This work, he says, “concerns an alleged revelation which Christ’s favourite disciple John was vouchsafed as he ‘rested in the Lord’s bosom’.” Jung notes that this Latin text contained the Old Bulgarian word osob, which means something like “individuality” or “personality.” He also mentions how the Cathars, like the author of this text (hinting at two distinct persuasions), regarded the Devil as creator of this world and of man.13
Jung’s account clearly resembles Obolensky’s description of the Cathar Secret Book, also known as the Liber Sancti Johannis or the Faux Evangile. It is “…a dialogue between Jesus Christ and His favourite disciple John the Evangelist. At the Last Supper St. John leans on the breast of his Master and questions Him on the origin of the world, the spiritual life, and the end of all things.”14 To the Bogomils, the books of John have always been the most revered. Moreover, on the Carcassonne manuscript the Inquisitors had written, “This is the Secret Book of the Heretics of Concoresso, brought from Bulgaria by Nazarius, their bishop, full of errors.”15
The Cathar Secret Book thus is a Latin translation of a Slavonic work (only parts of which survive in the original) brought to the West by a high-ranking Bogomil named Nazarius. Hence the Bogomils, if not directly responsible for the Cathars’ teachings, at least provided a strong influence on them.
This resemblance extends to similar initiatory prayer ceremonies and a number of doctrines, including an exclusive preference for the Lord’s Prayer, the disavowal of marriage, a rejection of the doctrine of the physical Incarnation, an emphasis on asceticism, opposition to the instituted church, and belief in the Devil as a son of God who is the unjust ruler of this world, and more.
During the Albigensian crusades many Cathars reportedly found refuge in Bosnia. Reniero Sacconi, an Italian Inquisitor, stated that the Church of the Cathari extended from the Black Sea to the Atlantic. The Black Sea flanks the Balkans, where no official Cathar settlements had ever been established. He made this statement at least four years before the Cathar crusades began, so it reflects contact not only in time of need, but out of long-standing spiritual roots.
The Cathars were brutally attacked in the Albigensian crusade starting 1208. By 1244 more than one million Cathars had been slaughtered in France. In 1209, for example, the Catholic bishop of Citeaux ordered the entire population of Beziers, a Cathar city of 20,000, put to death and their city destroyed. A minority of Catholics died because the papal legate ordered his soldiers, who wanted to save them, “Kill them all; God will sort them out.” In the Balkans murders did occur but the mass extermination of entire towns, including women and children, was not considered.
The greatest time in the nations of Bosnia and Bulgaria was when this form of heresy was allowed to thrive, without outside interference. The Languedoc area of southern France, home of the Cathars, was equally prosperous before the Church launched its persecutions. This wealth and success may have been what drew their attention. Most of the nobles were Cathars, upper class children attended Cathar schools, literacy rates were the highest in Europe, citizens were the most educated in France, there was less class distinction, and Christians and Cathars lived peacefully together without considering themselves enemies before the Church cast its hawkish gaze upon them. This successful way of life was virtually the same blueprint, passed down from the Bogomils.
By the fourteenth century Bogomilism was in decline, partly because of what Obolensky calls the “general moral decline of the age,” partly because of the influence of Messalianism.16 The name comes from a Syriac word meaning “those who pray.” Their primary belief was that all are born with an indwelling demon that can be driven out only through prayer (rather than through baptism, as Orthodox Christians believed). For those who had expelled their demons, sin was no longer possible, so many Messalians indulged in sexual excesses that were frowned upon by their Orthodox opponents. They lived in strict poverty, did no manual labor, and women were allowed to teach among them.
The Messalians entered Bulgaria during the eighth and ninth centuries and influenced Bogomilism strongly when it arose. The two sects existed separately up to and during the eleventh, but a fusion began to occur in the following century to the point where the two sects were fused completely together by the fourteenth century. The influence of the Messalians, with their extreme sexual indulgence, caused the Bogomils to lose their strongly puritanical streak.
Hungary finally defeated Bosnia in 1408. 126 of Bosnia’s wealthiest and most influential noblemen were beheaded and thrown into the Bosna River from the rocks of Doboj. Remaining nobles like King Sigismund’s chief Bogomil opponent, Hrvoje, surrendered in early 1409.
As a reward he was allowed to retain his former acquisitions, along with his title of Duke of Split, and he was appointed by Sigismund as his lieutenant in Bosnia. He also received possessions in Hungary, namely Pozega together with its county and its seigneury of Segesd in Somogy.17
This arrangement didn’t last. In 1413 Hrvoje, whose outpost was in southern Bosnia, attacked Herzegovina, a neighbouring Hungarian protectorate. Sigismund immediately confiscated all of Hrvoje’s lands and declared him a rebel. The extensive lands of Hrvoje accepted their direct Hungarian seizure without a fuss, but Hrvoje did not. His protest to Hungarian barons went on deaf ears so Hrvoje, now an outcast, turned to the Turks.
The Turks had made their first invasion into Bosnia in 1386 and from then on continued with raids and invasions. They took a permanent foothold in part of southern Bosnia around 1414, about the same time Hrvoje recruited them. In the winter of 1413-1414 combined forces of Bogomils and Turks took a number of castles back from the Hungarians. A larger merged force then went after the Hungarians. In 1415 they crushed the Hungarian army a few miles from the rocks of Dojob, in the battle of Usora. Most of the Hungarian soldiers were killed; those who survived were ransomed for a huge sum. This one battle devastated Hungary so badly that their influence in the region was reduced to almost nothing, and it took more than a decade for them to successfully return and restore some influence.
Throughout the fifteenth century the Turks continued their expansion. Constantinople fell in 1453, Serbia, which had briefly regained its independence, was retaken in 1459, and a final invasion of Bosnia occurred in 1463. The last Bosnian king, Tomasevic, was the first and last to have been originally crowned with the approval of the Catholic Church. He was beheaded along with many of his supporting nobles in 1463.
Many Bogomils welcomed the invasion. Having suffered continual persecution by both the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, “they preferred to be conquered by the Sultan than converted by the Pope.”18 The new rulers encouraged their subjects to convert to Islam; those who did were allowed to retain their land and feudal privileges. Some enjoyed even higher status: serfs who converted to Islam became free peasants. On the other hand, Christians who did not convert became serfs without rights of property or citizenship under Moslem law. As one source puts it, “In Bosnia and Herzegovina Christians were crushed and exploited both by Turks who became landowners and by their own converted upper classes.”19
Who were these converted upper classes? Often they were Bogomil nobles. Retaining their own language, “they displayed the customary zeal of converts and out-Ottomaned the Ottomans in their religious fanaticism,” becoming, at times, “keener in the cause of Islam than the Commander of the Faithful himself.”20 By the end of the fifteenth century the Bogomils had merged into the general Muslim population.
If the Church had made a deal with the Bogomils as had been done with Islam, allowing them spiritual freedom within the Christian fold, things might have been different. Hungary was continually manipulated as an invading force in Bosnia when everyone (Hungarians, Bosnians and Rome) could have fought against the Ottomans rather than fighting against each other. The spread of Islam could have been thwarted or diminished. Rebecca West summed it up well: “Had it not been for the intolerance of the Papacy we would not have had Turkey in Europe for five hundred years.”21
Deunov and Aivanhov
In more recent times we have had two Bulgarian-born mystics, Peter Deunov and his disciple Omraam Mikhael Aivanhov, who claim a spiritual descent from the Bogomils. They cannot be strictly classified as Bogomils, but could have been blood descendants, and their teachings clearly carry on in the same spirit.
Peter Deunov (1864-1944) received a doctorate in theology in America before returning to Bulgaria, where he became a venerated saint. By the time of his death he had over 40,000 followers despite being accused by the Bulgarian clergy of corrupting the people. Deunov’s teachings are still practiced in at least 26 countries worldwide.
Deunov’s student, Omraam Mikhael Aivanhov (1900-1986), left Bulgaria in 1938 to settle in France, but remained a devoted disciple for his entire life. Author Georg Feuerstein states, “Through Peter Deunov, who resuscitated the ancient gnostic heritage of his homeland, Aivanhov was in touch with a powerful lineage going back to the Bogomils of the tenth century A.D. and earlier gnostic schools.”22
Aivanhov shared a similar interpretive style with the Bogomils, looking at the Bible in a deeper, more mystical sense. He spoke of many ancient truths, previously lost, that he felt were expressed in the Scriptures. Feuerstein calls him “a master at the task of interpreting the ancient esoteric lore to his contemporaries who have all but forgotten their own heritage of wisdom.”23
The Bogomils are gone today. Their achievements have never been well known in the West, but remain an important part of Gnostic and religious history, showing us how one group with determination can not only survive, but flourish for hundreds of years in the midst of persecution.
- Dmitri Obolensky, The Byzantine Commonwealth: Eastern Europe, 500-1453 (New York: Praeger, 1971), pp. 125-6.
- Will Durant, The Age of Faith (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1950), p. 769.
- James Hastings, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, vol. 1 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1928), p. 784.
- Donald M. Nicol, Church and Society in the Last Centuries of Byzantium (London: Cambridge University Press, 1979), pp. 101-02.
- Dmitri Obolensky, The Bogomils (London: Cambridge University Press, 1948), p. 215.
- Obolensky, The Byzantine Commonwealth, p. 122.
- Quoted in Obolensky, The Bogomils, p. 203.
- Ibid., p. 205.
- H.C. Darby, R.W. Seton-Watson, et al., A Short History of Yugoslavia (London: Cambridge University Press, 1966), p. 59.
- Obolensky, The Bogomils, p. 234.
- Ioan P. Couliano, The Tree of Gnosis (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), p. 41.
- C.G. Jung, Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self, trans. R.F.C. Hull (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959), pp. 145-48.
- Obolensky, The Bogomils, p. 227.
- Steven Runciman, The Medieval Manichee (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1947), p. 108.
- The Bogomils, p. 264.
- Pal, Engel, The Realm of St. Stephen: A History of Medieval Hungary, 895-1526, trans. by Tamas Palosfalvi, (I.B. Tauris, Hungary, 2001), p. 234.
- Phyllis Auty, Yugoslavia (New York: Walker and Co., 1965), p. 50.
- Darby, Seton-Watson, et al., p. 64.
- Rebecca West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey through Yugoslavia (MacMillan & Co., London, 1942), p. 301.
- Georg Feuerstein, The Mystery of Light: The Life and Teaching of Omraam Mikhael Aivanhov (Sandy, Utah: Passage Press, 1994), ms. p. 318.
- Ibid, p. 334.
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