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Bogomils: The Christian Sect That Believed Satan Was Jesus’ Brother

Bogomils believed that Satan was the brother of Jesus
Slavic Bogomil cult cemetery with the solar crosses in Nea Chalkidona near Thessaloniki, Greece. Credit: Extratall Wikipedia CC BY-SA 4.0

The Bogomils were one of the oldest Christian sects that originated in tenth century Bulgaria and believed that God had two sons, Jesus and Satanael (Satan), the older of the two. Evidence of this forgotten cult can be found in a Bogomil cemetery near Thessaloniki, Greece.

In a free translation in Slavic, Bogomil means “dear to God.” Bogomilism was branded as a heretic cult by the Eastern Orthodox Church and was attributed to Bulgarian heresiarch Bogomil.

The heresy spread among underprivileged Bulgarians such as rural priests, poor farmers, and peasants. The earliest written evidence of the Bogomils can be found in a letter from Patriarch of Constantinople Theophylact to Tsar Peter of Bulgaria.

Soon, the Christian sect spread out throughout Serbia. Its followers were called Bogomils or Babuns after the Babuna Mountain, where Bogomils often resided. It then made its way to the Balkans and the Near East, later reaching Italy, Germany, and France.

By the late 1500s, the Bogomils disappeared after they were persecuted as heretics by both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

Gnosticism and Dualism

Bogomils were dualists and Gnostics. They believed in two creators, the God of Heaven and one of the Earth, Satanael. They also believed that man’s body was created by Satanael and his soul by God.

In other words, Heaven belongs to God and Earth to Satan. They believed that Satan was the eldest son of God and referred to him as Satanael. Bogomils considered the Romans and Church to be representatives of Satan since they ruled the “satanic” earth, the material world. At some point, Satanael was presented to the world as the supreme and absolute God, and the real God sent Jesus to protect man. With the resurrection, Jesus defeated Satanael, who lost his divine power and was renamed Satan.

The early Bogomils rejected the Old Testament. Later, they accepted the Psalms and the sixteen books of the Prophecies. Of the New Testament, they respected the Gospels of John the most. However, they interpreted them differently. They claimed that the life of Christ was symbolic and that there were other “truths,” which were silenced by the Church.

The Bogomils lived ascetic lives, avoiding consumption of meat and wine as well as the killing of animals. However, for society to survive, they had accepted that some would have to work and breed children. This is why they were divided into the “Perfect,” that is, those who lived ascetically whose purpose was to spread their teachings, and the “Faithful,” who could live a simple, everyday life.

The sect did not believe in the symbol of the cross because that was how Jesus was killed. They did not believe in churches and formal ceremonies of established Christianity. Furthermore, they did not favor authority—state or church—and this is the reason they were dubbed early anarchists.

Since Bogomilism promoted a simple, pure, ascetic life, it appealed to the poor and farmers, while it was despised and therefore persecuted by the Church and social elite.

Spread of Bogomilism

The earliest written evidence of the heresy can be found in a warning letter on Bogomilism from Theophylact, the Patriarch of Constantinople, to Tsar Peter of Bulgaria. In addition, a more valid documentation is an aphorism by Bulgarian priest and writer Cosmas the Priest who wrote a treatise against Bogomilism, criticizing the sect.

According to Orthodox scholars, the heresy was obviously influenced by Paulicianism. Byzantine imperial authorities relocated Syrians and Armenians suspected of being  followers of Paulicianism from Asian provinces to Macedonia and Thrace in the Balkans. In their interaction with Bulgarians, Paulicianism morphed to the Bogomil sect.

Byzantinologist Dimitri Obolensky noted that the protest message of the Bogomils was successful because it challenged Byzantine Christianity, “using the moral arguments from the Gospel to advocate for social equality, righteousness and compassion toward the unjustly suffering.”

However, since the Bogomils rallied against the authorities in the name of true Christian values and teachings, they created an anti-authoritarian and anti-feudal movement. Some scholars argue that Bogomilism was a social-political movement of the Middle Ages under a religious “cover.” Besides being hostile to the authorities, they attacked the upper classes, targeting landlords, clergy, and officials, and also preaching disobedience to the state, the aristocracy, and the Church.

Soon, in addition to the stigma of heresy, they were also seen as enemies of the state. The Constantinople Patriarchate urged the Bulgarian Emperor to identify Bogomils as heretics and persuade them to change their beliefs and steer them onto the right path. However, if they persisted in their malevolent ways, the emperor was to execute them in order to stop the spread of their heresy.

Persecution of the Bogomils

The Bogomils attempted to keep a low profile and act humbly in order to appear to be good Christians and proselytize the less fortunate. Although they did not believe in the cult of the cross, in order to protect their graves from being destroyed by the authorities or Orthodox Christians, they used the solar cross, which precedes Christianity, as a direct reference to Manichean Gnosticism.

However, well-read Orthodox priests and monks such as Euthymios Zigabenos wrote entire works against them. These were taken into account by Byzantine emperors who began acting out against the heretics.

Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081-1118) considered the Bogomils primarily responsible for various uprisings in the Byzantine Empire and for allying themselves with enemies of the state as well as the Pechenegs and Normans. He decided to take drastic measures against them.

Under Komnenos’ orders, Bogomils were hunted down and burned at the stake, a policy that was followed by succeeding Byzantine emperors. The ecumenical council at Tarnovo condemned the Bogomils, and, afterwards, they were banished by Bulgarian Tsar Boris.

They then took refuge in Serbia, but their sect was once more condemned by the official church and famous Serbian King Stefan Nemaja, who chased them away and burned all their books that he could get his hands on.

The resilient Bogomil believers moved into Bosnia and Dalmatia, where they continued their preaching, influencing the Bosnian Church, which was later considered heretical by both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Yet, they were eventually chased away in Bosnia as well when the Kingdom of Hungary sent out several crusades against them.

As they moved further west away from the Balkans, the Bogomils felt the constant pressure from the Catholic Church, and many of them converted to Catholicism. Following the Ottoman conquest of Bosnia in 1463, most of them converted to Islam. This was also due to their grudge against the Christian Church.

Today, scant remains of the forgotten cult can be found in a Bogomil cemetery in Nea Chalkidona near Thessaloniki. A closed derelict church dedicated to the Apostles Saint Peter and Saint Paul stands next to a vacant lot overrun by weeds. There, Celtic crosses of various sizes can be seen. Some are broken while others are tilted or stand only as reminders of a violent, ancient era.


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