THE PSEUDO-CARPOCRATIAN TRACTATUS CONTRA MUNDUM
A Brief Bibliographical History
The Tractatus Contra Mundum (Tract Against The World) was written in Greek by an unknown Hellenistic author in the year 203AD. This text, which displays powerful Gnostic cosmological features, was falsely attributed by its anonymous author to the notorious heretical teacher, Carpocrates of Alexandria.
However it is true that, on a superficial level, the Tractatus, does invite comparison with some ideas of Carpocrates – given what is known of them from the prejudiced writings of the theologian Irenaeus of Lyon. Many modern commentators, it should be noted, have long recognised that Irenaeus, who fulminated against the Carpocratians for immorality (whilst ridiculing their metaphysics) in his Libros Quinque Adversus Haereses (AD199), was ignorant of the fundamentals of the doctrine of the transmigration of souls and was, therefore, prone to misinterpretation. Furthermore, the Carpocratian ‘libertine gnosis’ is now defined as just one of many manifestation of an antinomian ‘spiritual’ or existential, tendency intrinsic to the human condition; such tendencies are much better understood in our ‘post modern’ epoch than in the third century. Why the anonymous author chose to attribute his or her text to the notorious and much-vilified Carpocrates must remain a mystery.
Perhaps he or she was a schismatic Carpocratian?
Perhaps the author(s) wished to take advantage of a certain aura of controversy surrounding this anathematised heretic?
A partial history of the Tractatus was uncovered in the eighteenth century by the eccentric English antiquarian Barnabas Scarfe. His compendious book Ye Reliques of Olde Norfolke (1749) refers in some detail to a volume called Opus Contra Mundum (The Work Against The World), found in a London book shop on an inhospitable, rainy, autumnal day in 1738. Scholars have since identified this as a copy of the so-called ‘Paris edition’ of 1718, itself an expurgated reprint of a version of the Opus issued in Germany under that incorrect title in the year 1618.
The Opus Contra Mundum, known as an ‘engraved variant’, was an illustrated version of the original Pseudo-Carpocratian text, reproduced, so far as we can tell, with scrupulous faithfulness to the original, but accompanied by an extensive and elaborate, theosophical, Hermetic-Alchemical commentary.
The heavy, macabre engravings illustrating the volume give the impression of some Faustian Grimoire, and, without doubt, it was this magical-hermetic imagery (and the accompanying, convoluted, even opaque, exegesis) that first attracted Scarfe to the volume.
After extensive researches on the continent in the years 1740 to 1741, involving travels in France, Germany and the Balkan countries; after searching numerous dusty and forbidden archives, Scarfe traced the Opus Contra Mundum to its source manuscript. Some experts dispute Scarfe’s theory, but nevertheless we will explain it here, as it is still the only coherent account extant.
Scarfe eventually tracked down, and indeed obtained, a rare copy of the 1599 Eisleben edition of the Tractatus Contra Mundum during a stay in Moldavia in 1741. This was not, of course the first printed edition of the text which, we now know, appeared in Thuringia in 1587. However, the owners of the 1599 version also provided our indefatigable antiquary with a short, printed pamphlet (undated) which contained an account the traditional origin of the work written in a peculiar and outmoded form of scholastic Latin.
Thus Scarfe learned of the Gariannonum Manuscript, copied and illuminated by the Monks of St. Fursa in the year of Our Lord 632. It was this document (transcribed in awe and trepidation from a decaying Latin original) which, despite condemnation by the Holy See, circulated in the ensuing centuries among secret sects of initiates in Central Europe.
Scarfe was in no doubt of the significance of this information, having engaged in antiquarian researches into the origins of Fortress Gariannonum, built by the Romans on the Norfolk coast in AD275 as part of the Litus Saxonicum. In the Post-Roman era Gariannonum was, of course, known as Burgh Castle, but in the seventh century, the ascetic Monks of St Fursa established a monastery within the abandoned walls of this forbidding, ancient fortress. Before the arrival of the Romans the site was, according to local archaeologists, an Iron Age cult centre of the Iceni tribe, the locus of unspeakable rites.
Scarfe’s 1599 copy of the Tractatus Contra Mundum is not present in the archives at Buckden Palace, neither is the strange little pamphlet. We know of his researches only through his voluminous letters, and extensive references in the first edition of Ye Reliques of Olde Norlfolke integrating the tales of the Gariannonum Manuscript with the folklore of his native East Anglia.
Much of this has been summarised by Wlosok in his invaluable Die Philosopische Gnosis aus Pseudo-Carpocrates of 1965.
As a modern scholar, Wlosok was aware of the more complex history of the text. Permitting himself a tone of understandable scepticism with regard to the outdated researches of Barnabas Scarfe, he devotes equal space to an almost-complete Aramaic Version of the Tractatus. This version was unearthed in 1928 by a team of Italian archaeologists excavating the ancient city of Oxyrhynchus, in the Nile Valley south of Cairo.
Copies of this papyrus, obtained in difficult circumstances, were made by specialists, but most were destroyed by the Nazis and the Italian Fascists during the war years. Fortunately Wlosok gained access to one of the few remaining copies in a private collection in Vienna. This text, translated into elegant and poetic French by Alexandre Rollin, provides new insight into the history of the Pseudo-Carpocratians.
The accretions to this version, which differs in minor but significant details from the Latin version, disclose a more ancient perspective. The author of the commentaries, possibly a high initiate in the movement, claims an extensive lineage for the cosmology and doctrine of the original Tractatus.
We are told that the Alexandrian Pseudo-Carpocratians were known to themselves as Charontes and claimed to be the inheritors of a tradition dating back to the times of the Babylonian Empire, or earlier. To indicate this they also referred to themselves as the ‘Muttabriqu-Saghulhaza’, or simply the ‘Saghulhaza’ meaning, in an ancient pre-Babylonian language, ‘Upholders of Evil’. The term ‘Muttabriqu’ means ‘She Who Erases’. The real significance of this nomenclature is unclear, but the Charontes took pains to dissociate themselves from all other religions, ‘secret’ mysteries and cultic superstitions. These they condemned out of hand as childish illusions and distractions.
The Oxyrhinchus author defines this ancient language as ‘Chaldean’, an obviously fanciful invention. He says that the Saghulhaza were persecuted, and almost exterminated, by an ancient bloodthirsty, tyrannical king called ‘Akurgal’. Wlosok identifies this personage as Akurghal of Lagash who reigned about 2465BC. The extreme antiquity of these events is startling, but Wlosok is not apologetic, noting that the Aramaic initiate depicted a mythic ‘proto-Gnostic’ emanationist (Wlosok’s terms) schema of divine origins, stretching back to the dawn of time and the creation of the cosmos.
In this tradition the ‘gods’ of the Saghulhaza belief system, known as ‘Isua’, ‘Khubilkhu’ or sometimes ‘Tiruru-Geshthu-e’, were born into an epoch of darkness in a ‘time before the stars’. These divine pre-stellar entities perpetuate themselves in ‘our world’ through various modes of metamorphosis or ‘transmigration’. Each trans-aeonic incarnation or re-incarnation, being, in fact, another stage in a cosmic ‘fall’, leading to a progressive diminution of divine potency. To them, and their worshippers, ‘our world’ is an abomination, a degraded sphere of creation inspiring nothing but negation and hatred.
The purpose of Saghulhaza initiation was to bestow insight into the process of transmigration, to assist in a mighty task ‘against’ the nature of ‘our world’ (the hiemarmene, to use a Gnostic term familiar to the Hellenistic Alexandrians). This task is a reversion of the transmigration process; an infinite war against the Light to regain primordial darkness.
The original Carpocratians were denounced for believing that the only way to overcome the power of the angelic hegemony, the hiemarmene, was ‘to commit every deed there is in the world’, including sinful deeds. This liberation could only be accomplished by living through a series of lives or re-incarnations. The Pseudo-Carpocratians assimilated this idea but distorted it almost beyond recognition, attributing the desire for liberation from ‘our world’ to the divine, angelic oppressors themselves.
The need for brevity ensures that only a fragmentary outline of the complex system of the Tractatus Contra Mundum can be described in this note. Interested readers seeking further clarification are referred to Rollin’s lengthy article in Revue d’Assyrologie 25 (1932) entitled ‘Le recit epique des Khubilkhu’. We must discount the pseudo-science of discredited folklorist Vincent Roke, whose idiosyncratic researches into Scarfe’s unreliable observations are rejected by most serious students.
In summary we have recounted the bibliographical history of this curious document. From the lost Greek original, to the 1718 Paris edition based upon the Garionnonum Manuscript transcribed by the Monks of St. Fursa, eventually issued, in a rare printed version, in Thuringia in 1587. We have also described the more recently discovered Aramaic variant, also, in part, a copy of the lost Greek primary text, translated into French in 1930.
What became of the lost original?
Allusions in the Aramaic commentaries (tantalisingly incomplete at this point) infer that fanatics destroyed many Pseudo-Carpocratian texts; this was in the turbulent and dangerous years AD390-391. Zealous Christians, encouraged by Theodosius the Great, attempted to eliminate all traces of heresy and paganism, even burning Alexandria’s precious Sarapeion Library in their successful bid to establish a new religious or theocratic hegemony, throughout the known world.
Many secrets were lost during the terrible events surrounding the destruction of the Sarapeion; it is not inconceivable that diligent archaeologists and historians may yet uncover further clues regarding the identity of the original Pseudo-Carpocrates – but, for the time being, we can only speculate.