Winter 2001–2002

The Orthodox Origins of Heterodoxy

Or, how what is good becomes evil

Karen Sullivan

In the 1980s and 1990s, rumors spread throughout the United States that Satanists were gathering at night in countless communities to celebrate secret and horrifying rituals. According to the most popular accounts of these meetings, the cultists engaged in indiscriminate and often incestuous couplings, frequently highlighted by the rape and torture of children and young girls. When babies resulted from these unions, the cultists offered them as sacrifices to Satan, eating the victims’ flesh and drinking their blood. Since Augustine, malefactors have been presumed to undertake evil largely for the sake of some apparent good, yet these cultists appeared to undertake evil for the sake of evil itself. The fact that no evidence of Satanic activity in this country was ever produced, aside from the occasional graffitied pentagram in an abandoned house, did not curb belief in a national and even international organization dedicated to the pursuit of such wickedness. As one professional involved in the anti-Satanic movement explained, “Anyone who is a Christian and believes in God must also believe in the existence of Satan. Satanists believe in Satan and work for him, just like people who believe in God work for God.”[1] As the necessary counterpart to the open, visible society where Christians attempt to conform to accepted notions of virtue, the logic of the universe demands that there be a secret, invisible society, where limbs of the devil pursue evil.

Turning to Scripture, one finds what might seem to be a justification for Satanic activity—perhaps not unsurprisingly, given participants’ alleged reliance upon Biblical texts. If Satanists indulge in indiscriminate sexual intercourse, it was Jesus who bade his followers to “love one another” and broke down the social barriers that hindered displays of affection between different groups.[2] If Satanists devour children, it was Jesus who said to his disciples, “Take, eat, this is my body” and “Drink, ... for this is my blood.”[3] No Christian, to my knowledge, has ever seriously argued that Jesus was urging his followers to engage in orgies and cannibalism, but many Christians have feared that others might interpret Christ’s words in such a way. Saint Paul, most importantly, contrasts “carnal” people, who read Scripture literally and obtain from it only the most obvious, superficial meaning, and “spiritual” people, who read this text allegorically and derive a subtler, deeper significance. “The letter kills, but the spirit gives life,” he warns.[4] While Christians tended to perceive themselves as reading in the spiritual and life-giving manner Paul recommends, they have often imagined other people, whether the Satanists of recent years or heretics in the distant past, as reading in the carnal and death- dealing way Paul protests. Just as the perception of a self who pursues good requires belief in an other who pursues evil, the perception of a self who reads Scripture spiritually requires belief in an other who interprets the text materially; if one understands Scripture as describing a mystical love and a mystical union with Christ, an other must view it as depicting a fleshly union and a fleshly incorporation. For centuries, this imagined community of diabolic readers who invert the spiritual goodness of Scripture into a literal wickedness has been located outside mainstream Christianity, yet it was only over the course of the religion’s first thousand years that it ceased to be found within the Church itself.

Late Antique Catechumens
In the second and third centuries of the common era, rumors circulated throughout the Roman Empire that a new religious sect known as “Christians” were practicing secretive and nocturnal rites. Members of this cult were said to gather in banquet rooms illuminated by standing lamps to which dogs were attached. Having aroused their spirits with food and drink, the celebrants tossed morsels of meat to the dogs, so that the animals rushed forward to devour them, overturned the lamps, and extinguished the lights. A prominent Roman citizen by the name of Caecilius Natalis reports, “In the ensuing darkness which favors shamelessness, they unite in whatever revoltingly lustful embraces the hazard of chance will permit,”[5] even with their own mothers or sisters. On other occasions, worshippers were said to persuade an initiate to stab at a pile of dough, unaware that a child lay buried within it. The pledge would then be bonded to the group through his blood-guilt, and celebrants would consume the child’s body, joining “Thyestean” or cannibalistic feasts to their “Oedipal” or incestuous intercourse. If Christians were said to come together in banquets where they engaged in sexual relations with their family members, it appears that it is because they did, in fact, gather for “love feasts [agapae],” where they addressed each other as “brother” and “sister” and exchanged kisses of peace. If they were said to eat human flesh and drink human blood at these meetings, it seems that it is because they did consume the body and blood of Christ as their principal sacrament. The infamous tales about Christians were not without a foundation, however distorted.

If Romans misinterpreted Christian behavior as much as they did, it may have been in large part because of what is now known as “the discipline of the secret [disciplina arcani],” which required that the religion’s teachings and practices remain hidden from outsiders. In the Church, a sharp distinction was made not only between Christians and pagans but also between “Believers,” who had received the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and communion; “Hearers,” who were being introduced to the faith; “Catechumens,” who were receiving instruction in its beliefs and rites; and “Candidates,” who were being prepared for baptism. The Church tended to conceal its doctrines and rites from non-Believers, revealing them gradually to newcomers as their apprenticeship in the faith progressed. Only Believers, who were fully initiated into the Church, were allowed to understand its mysteries and to witness their celebration. Yet Christians’ reticence about their practices inspired suspicion among their pagan neighbors. Caecilius, for one, speculates, “Why do they strive with so much effort to keep secret and conceal what the object of their worship is? Is it not because honorable deeds rejoice in publicity, while evil deeds keep in hiding?”[6] The fact that pagans had heard about certain aspects of the Christian rites even as their full nature remained hidden from them encouraged the spread of nefarious rumors.

Despite the possibility of such misinterpretations, Christians were taciturn about their religion, their theologians explained, because initiates needed to be prepared in order to receive its mysteries properly. In Scripture, Jesus Christ reveals himself as the Son of God only to a small group of followers, and, when he addresses an audience beyond these immediate companions, he tends to speak in parables. He preaches to the masses in such a dark manner, he explains, because, “Seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not understand.”[7] Further, he advises, “Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine.”[8] Later Christian authors saw themselves as building upon Jesus’ distinction when they discussed the necessity of remaining silent about their faith. At times, they encouraged secretiveness as a means by which to attract potential converts. St. Augustine writes, “The sacraments of the Believers are not revealed ... in order that they may be much more ardently desired.”[9] At other times, they used secretiveness as a way of retaining novices who might otherwise reject what they were being taught. Cyril of Jerusalem informed Candidates on the eve of their baptism that they must keep silent about the matters they are now learning, for “If a Catechumen hears something divulged by a Believer, it makes the Catechumen delirious, for he does not comprehend what he has learned, so that he thinks nothing of the whole matter, scoffing at what he has been told.”[10] At a time when most converts were still adult pagans, perhaps trained in Hellenistic philosophy and rendered skeptical by its influence, it was necessary that the mysteries of Christianity be withheld until postulants had committed themselves sufficiently to the faith so as not to dismiss its seeming absurdities out of hand. Whether used aggressively, to promote Christianity among the indifferent, or defensively, to protect it from the critical, secretiveness was seen as serving the interests of an expanding institution.

Romans believed that Christians engaged in wicked rites, it was thought, because they were still what Paul terms “carnal” people, who could not yet grasp the spiritual significance of Christian practices. Augustine explains, “If you say to a Catechumen, ‘Dost thou believe in Christ?’ he will answer, ‘I do.’” But if examiners ask the insufficiently informed respondent, “Dost thou eat the Flesh of the Son of Man and drink the Blood of the Son of Man?”, Augustine continues, “He will not know what we mean, for Jesus has not trusted himself to him.”[11] The transition from the carnal world of paganism, where doctrines and rites are taken at face value, to the spiritual world of Christianity, where words and deeds are interpreted for their hidden significance, corresponds to a transition from the ancient mystery cults, where devotees were thought to unite with their deity in physical intercourse and to partake in human sacrifices, to a modern mystery religion, where adherents practice similar rites but in a far more abstract form. Through the long processes of catechesis, Believers taught their initiates not only how to transcend the mortal letter of Scripture in order to attain the vivifying spirit, but also how to transcend the horrifying ancient resonances of Christianity in order to attain its modern specificity. If Christians were secretive, these early theologians insisted, it was not in order to hide an evil from their initiates, as their pagan counterparts in the mystery cults did, but in order to prepare them for the highest good.

Medieval Manicheans
In the early 11th century, long after the Roman Empire had crumbled under the assault of barbarian invasions, the rumors once spread about Christians resurfaced, yet now with a new, heretical target. As far back as the second century, Justin Martyr had deflected the charges of incest and cannibalism made against Christians onto the heretics in their midst. Of such deviant sects, he had written insinuatingly but no less condemningly, “We do not know whether they are guilty of those disgraceful and fabulous deeds, the upsetting of the lamp, promiscuous intercourse, and anthropophagy.”[12] In 1022, a cluster of so-called Manicheans was uncovered in Orléans, and they were found to fulfill the heretical legacy they had inherited. According to Paul of Saint-Père de Chartres, their principal chronicler, these heretics met at night and chanted the names of the devil until a small animal appeared in their midst. At that point, Paul reports, “All the lights were forthwith extinguished and each, with the least possible delay, seized the woman who first came to hand, to abuse her, without thought of sin. Whether it were mother, sister, or nun whom they embrace, they deemed it an act of sanctity and piety to lie with her.”[13] If a child were born as the result of these unions, the celebrants would reassemble, toss the child through an open flame until it died, and collect its ashes, which they used as their Eucharist. Not only are the overall themes of incest and cannibalism resurrected in this narrative, but the details of the lights being extinguished and the sexual partners being randomly selected are preserved intact.

As these rumors of infamous rituals resurfaced, so too did reports of the secretiveness with which these rituals were cloaked. All who were not members of the heretical sect were forbidden access to their ceremonies or even knowledge about them. When the heretics gathered for their rites, Paul informs us, they did so “in a designated house [domo].”[14] A Norman lord by the name of Aréfast, having heard tales about these heretics, traveled undercover to Orleans and presented himself as a putative disciple. After having gained the canons’ trust, “he ... was admitted within the house [domo],” not just an ordinary house of brick or stone, but a “house of errors [domo herroneorum].”[15] Later, when Aréfast had denounced this band to the authorities, it is reported that “Royal officers dragged that most wicked group, all together, from the house [de domo] where they had gathered, and they were brought together to the Church [in aeclesiam] of the Holy Cross in the presence of the king and an assemblage of bishops and clergy.”[16] The heretics were associated with a “house [domus],” a private space controlled by private citizens, into which only carefully selected initiates were allowed admission and from which all others were excluded, while good Catholics were associated with a “church [aeclesia],” a public space, controlled by public authorities, into which crowds were welcomed. Brought from a house to the church, the heretics were brought from a secret, subversive space, where they could perform their iniquities unseen, to an open and authoritative space, where they were subject to the judgment and condemnation of others.

As Catholics withheld knowledge about their religion from initiates until they had already committed themselves to the Church, the heretics remained reticent about their faith. Cyril of Jerusalem, recalling the language of Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans, had compared Candidates to branches from a wild olive tree, which through the process of baptism would be grafted onto a domestic olive tree.[17]Pruned and watered by divine grace, the transplanted shoot stands to become fruitful. Now the heretics inform Aréfast, “‘You are to be treated by us like a tree of the forest which, when transplanted into a garden, is amply supplied with water until it is well rooted in the soil. It is then pruned of thorns and superfluous branches so that, after it is cut off near the ground with a hoe, it may be grafted with a better cutting, which later will bear sweet fruit.’“[18] By speaking of a tree moved from a forest to a garden, the heretics introduce Aréfast to the process of withdrawing from a large religious body into a small religious body and of replacing previous religious beliefs with newer ones, all without having to identify these bodies or these beliefs. They lead him into schism and heresy without letting him recognize where he is heading and, thus, without giving him a chance to turn back. Eventually, the forest from which Aréfast’s tree is to be removed is shown to be not the pagan world, as it was with Cyril, but the Catholic Church; the garden into which this tree is to be transplanted, not the Church, but a heretical sect; the thorns of which this tree is to be shorn, not errors, but truths; and the new cutting onto which it is to be grafted, not truth, but errors. If the heretics employ “similitudes [similitudines],” like that of the tree, in their conversion of Aréfast, it is because this closed trope allows them to determine meaning internally, without reference to an externally-acknowledged truth, just as the closed house of their rituals allows them to determine morality privately, without reference to any publicly acknowledged code of behavior.[19]

If Catholics allege that these Manicheans celebrate nefarious rites, it is, strangely enough, not because they are “carnal,” as their pagan predecessors were reputed to be, but because they are “spiritual,” as their Catholic opponents were normally portrayed to be. At the end of their trial, when their judges have contradicted their errors, the heretics sneer, “You may spin stories in that way to those who have earthly bodies and believe the fictions of carnal men, scribbled on animal skins. To us, however, who have the law written upon the heart by the Holy Spirit (and we recognize nothing but what we have learned from God, Creator of all), in vain you spin out superfluities and things inconsistent with the Divinity.”[20] Those outside their sect, the heretics suggest, are “carnal” men who rely upon external, physical texts, which they themselves have made, while those inside the sect are, in contrast, “spiritual” men, who depend, instead, upon internal spiritual illumination which the Holy Ghost has imparted to them. The metaphorical language of the similitude, which once suggested a spiritual truth destined for those Believers who had progressed beyond the carnal understanding of pagans and Catechumens, now suggests a spiritual truth destined for heretics, who have proceeded beyond the carnal understanding of the orthodox. If once the spiritual transcendence of the material world meant the surpassing of a realm dominated by pagans, now it means the surpassing of a realm ruled by Christians, and, as such, it has come to sound distinctively heretical.

In his essay on “The Uncanny,” Sigmund Freud traces the sensation of the Unheimliche to an encounter with what was once all too Heimliche. “This uncanny is in reality nothing new or foreign, but something familiar and old—established in the mind that has been estranged only by the process of repression,” he writes.[21]It may be that, if the idea of a secret sect given over to incest and cannibalism which seduces initiates by preventing them from realizing what they are entering until it is too late has had such a hold on mainstream Christianity for so many centuries, it is because of some vague recollection that the mainstream Church once occupied the place of this cult.­

  1. Jeffrey S. Victor, Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend (Chicago: Open Court, 1993), p. 99.
  2. John 13: 34 and John 15: 12.
  3. Matthew 26: 26 and Matthew 26: 27-28.
  4. 2 Corinthians 3: 6.
  5. Minucius Felix, Octavius, trans. Rudolph Arbesmann, Emily Joseph Daly, and Edwin A. Quain (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1962; rpt. 1985), pp. 321-401, at pp. 337-38. Minucius Felix, Octavius, ed. Jean Beaujeu, rev. ed. (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1974), pp. 13-14.
  6. Minucius Felix, Octavius, trans. Rudoph Arbesmann et al., p. 338. Minucius Felix, Octavius, ed. Jean Beaujeu, p. 14.
  7. Matthew 13: 13.
  8. Matthew 7: 6.
  9. Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John 55-111, trans. John W. Rettig, Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1990), Tractate 96, p. 197. Augustine, In Iohannis Evangelium Tractatus CXXIV, Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina, vol. 36 (Turnhold: Brepols, 1990), Tractate 96, p. 571.
  10. Cyril of Jerusalem, “Selection from the Catechetical Lectures,” in Cyril of Jerusalem and Nemesius of Esema, trans. William Telfer, Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1955), pp. 64-192, at Chapter 4, p. 89. For the full translation of this work, see The Works of Cyril of Jerusalem, trans. Leo M. McCauley and Anthony A. Stephenson, Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1947-48). Cyril of Jerusalem, Catecheses, in Patrologia Graeca, ed. J.-P. Migne, vol. 33 (Paris: Petit-Montrouge, 1857), cols. 331-1059.
  11. Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John, Tractate 11, Chapter 3, p. 143. Augustine, In Iohannis Evangelium Tractatus CXXIV, Tractate 11, Chapter 3, p. 75.
  12. Justin Martyr, The First Apology, trans. Thomas B. Falls (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1948), p.63. Justin Martyr, Apologia prima pro Christianis, in Patrologia Graeca, vol. 6, cols. 327-441, at col. 369.
  13. “Heresy at Orléans: The Narrative of Paul, A Monk of Chartres,” in Walter L. Wakefield and Austin P. Evans, Heresies of the High Middle Ages: Selected Sources, Translated and Annotated (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969; rpt. 1991), pp. 76-81, at p. 78. Collection des Cartulaires de France, vol. 1, Cartulaire de l’Abbaye de Saint-Père de Chartres, ed. M. Guérard, vol. 1 (Paris: Crapelet, 1840), Chapter 3, pp. 108-15, p. 112.
  14. “Heresy at Orléans,” p. 76. Cartulaire de l’Abbaye, p.112.
  15. “Heresy at Orléans,” p. 77. Cartulaire de l’Abbaye, p. 110.
  16. “Heresy at Orléans,” p. 78. Cartulaire de l’Abbaye, p. 112.
  17. Cyril of Jerusalem, “Selection from the Catechetical Lectures,” p. 89.
  18. “Heresy at Orléans,” p. 77. Cartulaire de l’Abbaye, pp. 110-11.
  19. “Heresy at Orléans,” p. 77. Cartulaire de l’Abbaye, p. 110.
  20. “Heresy at Orléans,” p. 81. Cartulaire de l’Abbaye, p. 114.
  21. Sigmund Freud, “The ‘Uncanny,’” in On Creativity and the Unconscious: Papers on the Psychology of Art, Literature, Love, Religion, ed. Benjamin Nelson (New York: Harper & Row, 1958; rpt. 1965), pp. 122-61, at p. 148.

Karen Sullivan is an associate professor of literature at Bard College. She is the author of The Interrogation of Joan of Arc (University of Minnesota, 1999) and Truth and the Heretic: Crises of Knowledge in Medieval French Literature (University of Chicago, 2005)

If you’ve enjoyed the free articles that we offer on our site, please consider subscribing to our nonprofit magazine. You get twelve online issues and unlimited access to all our archives.