People of the Ibis

Sexual Gnosis in Epiphanius of Salamis


This paper is about sexual gnosticism, and in particular about the sect of the Phibionites which Epiphanius describes in the 26th chapter of his Panarion, Book 1.(1) The subject matter has however yielded a rather poor scholarly crop. The leading study on the Phibionites is still Stephen Benko's article "The Libertine Gnostic Sect of the Phibionites according to Epiphanius" published in 1967.(2) Almost 20 years later, Benko offered a further study of the sect, in a chapter of his book on Early Christianity.(3) Aside from Benko's work, very few scholars have intelligently engaged in the debate. Reasons for such attitude abound. I will here name the two most prominent ones: on the one hand there is paucity of reliable information from Late Antiquity, and on the other hand, modern scholars have fallen prey to their religious, cultural and moral biases. I will return to the former in Section II. Concerning the latter, a brief review of scholarship will prove the point.

Until Benko's contribution, the standard work on so-called "libertine" gnosticism was L. Fendt's Gnostische Mysterien.(4) The book was primarily concerned with gnostic rites. In light of that, it dealt to a large extent with the Phibionites, as proponents of ritual sex. Fendt compared Phibionite worship to Christian ritual and presented the former as an aberration and a perversion of the latter. As he put it, "Die Hauptsache ist bei diesen Phibioniten nicht die Vereinigung von Mann und Weib, sondern der Genuss jener schauerlichen Elemente: auf diesen Genuss zielt alles ab, nicht auf Obszönitäten als solche."(5) Such observation is posited from the angle of 1920 European Christianity, and implies much more about the author's mores than those of the objects of study. In other words, behind the words and the syntax of Fendt(6) lies the assumption that "normal" or "orthodox" or valid religious behavior consists in the union of man and wife, within the bonds of marriage and for procreation's sake. What the Phibionites are doing is perceived as "abnormal" and "unorthodox" and "libertine" because their intent differs from our own.

Hence, in the footsteps of Fendt, scholarship has tended to view the Phibionite sect as an aberration of Christianity, as "libertine" gnostics. Of course, the mere usage of the term "libertine" implies that someone outside the group is defining that group. Indeed, J. Goehring is correct in remarking that

While the term "libertine" derives from the Latin for freedperson, it has come to connote deviation from the accepted sexual mores of a society. One has only to note the synonyms for libertinism given in Roget's Thesaurus (profligacy, dissoluteness, licentiousness, wildness, debauchery, venery, wenching, and whoring) to recognize the modern connotations of the term. This derogatory sense necessarily affects the view of the groups that the term is used to describe.(7)

Unlike Goehring, I will however not use the term, even for convenience' sake, since the Phibionites do not apply the term to themselves. I will instead refer to them as sexual gnostics.

Furthermore, as a result of the implication of deviance, another academic tendency emerged with the increase of interest in gnosticism after the Nag Hammadi discoveries: a certain down-playing of the patristic record. We find traces of that in Rudolf's Gnosis, when he concludes regarding Epiphanius' accusations: "Evidently misrepresentations and vicious slanders are embedded in these descriptions."(8) A thorough study of the sect in its context shows that "evidently" is not as evident as Rudolf would have us believe. It seems that some scholars of gnosticism have gone to greater lengths than necessary to discredit rumors of "deviance" on the part of the gnostics, to rescue them from slanderous patristic accusations, and have preferred to emphasize their asceticism.(9) I am not implying that the testimonies of the Fathers are incontestable, far from it. When one peruses the literary records of their era, one can notice that the accusations brought forth by the heresiologists against the gnostics are comparable to those used by the Romans against the Church.(10) Nevertheless, as in Fendt, I see in that approach a sign of socio-cultural bias.

Since Benko several articles have advanced the study of sexual gnosticism, in a more balanced way. Two academic works and a popular one come to mind. One I have already mentioned, namely J. Goehring's article on the role of women in the Phibionite sect. I will address the question later. The other is by Stephen Gero, entitled "With Walter Bauer on the Tigris: Encratite Orthodoxy and Libertine Heresy in Syro-Mesopotamian Christianity."(11) The third article can be found in the popular Gnosis Magazine,(12) and is perhaps the most understanding and the least dismissive of all the studies of sexual gnosticism.

Having reviewed some of the scholarship on the subject and with a caveat in mind, I will proceed with the analysis of the Phibionite sect accordingly: 1) etymology and origins, 2) theology and liturgy, and 3) mythology and the role of women. I will conclude by trying to sketch an ethic of Phibionitism.


We know basically nothing about the Phibionites aside from the testimony of Epiphanius. He wrote his Panarion between 374-378, a massive catalog of heresies, with the hope to rid (Nicaean) Christianity of the cancer which plagued it.(13) He mentions them first in association with the Nicolaitans,(14) but devotes most of the 26th chapter to them. The Phibionites are Egyptian gnostics: "[b]ut in Egypt the same people are known as Stratiotics and Phibionites" (Pan. 26, 3, 7). Although he goes into sufficient details about their system of thought and their practices, to which I will return later, he remains silent about their origins. Some scholars have noted that lacuna, as well as the lack of etymology for the sect's name.(15)

It is my contention that deciphering an etymology for the word Phibionite will offer us a possible origin for the sect. Epiphanius uses the word phibionitai, which does not exist elsewhere as such in Greek. However, Liddell and Scott gives a masculine noun of phibi meaning "name of the Ibis = Hermes Thoth."(16) In Sahidic Coptic, phibi translates as hiboi, ibis (with derivatives), or with the masculine article phiboi.(17) In his Coptic dictionary, Vycichl adds to the linguistic definition that indeed it is "l'oiseau sacré du dieu Thot, hibis."(18)

Hence, at an etymological level, I would connect the word phibionite to the Coptic of ibis, and subsequently, at a religious one, to Thoth, and obviously from Thoth, to Egyptian hermeticism. We know of the definite connection between gnosticism and hermeticism with the presence of texts such as Asclepius in the Nag Hammadi collection. Indeed, we can speak of a hermetic gnosticism.(19) As a matter of fact, the Egyptian Thoth, who in the Hellenistic period comes to be known as Hermes, can be called the gnostic god par excellence: god of writing but also, and perhaps more importantly, god of philosophical and occult sciences.(20) The Egyptian religious ethos is not one of asceticism; we encounter there a rather joyful embrace of creation. The hermetic writings, even in their more austere and gnostic guises reflect that philosophical stance.(21)

However, no scholar has of yet come forth to propose that there may be a sexually-oriented branch of hermeticism, although "the Perfect discourse goes so far as to praise sexual intercourse as not merely a necessity but a pleasure, and an image of God's own creative act."(22) And this is precisely the hermetic text that we have in the Nag Hammadi corpus, a text which call intercourse a mystery and a sacrament,(23)tik\USWTLD80WT80 `:p:: C

1. I am using the English translation of F. Williams, The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis (book 1),in Nag Hammadi Studies, vol. XXXV, ed. J. M. Robinson (Leiden: Brill, 1987). And Migne, P.G., t. 41, for Greek and Latin versions.

2. Vigiliae Christianae 21 (1967) 103-119.

3. "The Charges of Immorality and Cannibalism" in Pagan Rome and the Early Christians (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1986).

4. (Munich: Kaiser, 1922)

5. op. cit., p. 4

6. What the Phibionites seek is not union but (sondern) pleasure!

7. "Libertine or Liberated: Women in the so-called Libertine Gnostic Communities" note #4, p. 330 in Images of the Feminine in Gnosticism, ed. K. King (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988).

8. p. 250 (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1983).

9. An obvious example of such bias (although subtle) can be found in J. Ménard's article "Les Repas 'Sacrés' des Gnostiques" Revue des Sciences Religieuses 55 (1981) 43-51, in which he divides the gnostic sects according to their ritual meals. He differentiates between the obscene meals of some gnostics, including the Phibionites ("les repas obscènes de certain gnostiques"), and the true meals of the ascetic schools, like the tradition of the Gospel of Philip ("le véritable repas sacré des gnostiques").

10. cf. R.M. Grant "Charges of 'Immorality' Against Various Religious Groups in Antiquity" in Studies In Gnosticism and Hellenistic Religions, eds. R. Van Den Broek and M.J. Vermaseren (Leiden: Brill, 1981), pp. 160-70; A. Henrichs "Pagan Ritual and the Alleged Crimes of the Early Christians" in Kyriakon - Festschrift Johannes Quasten, eds. P. Granfield and J.A. Jungmann (Münster: Aschendorff, 1970), vol. 1, pp. 18-35.

11. in Nag Hammadi, Gnosticism and Early Christianity, eds. C.W. Hedrick and R. Hodgson, Jr. (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1986), pp.287-307.

12. C.S. Clifton, "The Seed of Light: Gnosticism and Sacramental Sex" Gnosis Magazine 23 (1992) 28-33.

13. A brief note on Epiphanius by F. Williams (op. cit., p. xi) to understand better the heresiologist's position: "Indoctrinated early with Nicene Christianity, he was a monk practically from childhood. His education, Christian and scriptural rather than classical--and certainly along Nicene lines--would have amply reinforce his childhood training. A particular version of Christianity would have been a part of his identity from the first. It is no surprise that alternate versions appeared as threats--Epiphanius would have termed them "poisonous snakes"--to be guarded against. One such threat came early in the form of a sexually-oriented group which Epiphanius encountered in Egypt (Panarion 26, 17, 4-9) [Phibionites] and identified them as "Gnostics." This episode, which endangered Epiphanius' chastity as well as his faith, may help to explain his particular detestation of anything Gnostic. Returning to Palestine at the age of twenty, Epiphanius founded a monastery at Eleutheropolis [...]."

14. "And then the founders of the falsely termed "Knowledge" began their evil growth in the world--I mean the ones called Gnostics and Phibionites, the so-called disciples of Epiphanes, the Stratiotics, the Levitics, Borborites and the rest." (Pan. 25, 2, 1)

15. Rudolf writes: "[m]ore sinister [...] are the other accounts which Epiphanius [...] presents of the gnostics whom he introduces as "Stratiotici" (i.e. "soldier-like, war-like"), Phibionites (meaning unknown) or Borborites (i.e. dirty), and who probably all belong to the large group of Barbelo-gnostics ("Barbeliotes")." (op. cit., p. 247) To that we may add the similar observation by Ménard, "gnostiques du nom de Stratiotiques, c'est-à-dire des soldats, des guerriers, ou par les Borborites, les 'souillés', ou encore par les Phibionites, dont l'étymologie du nom est inconnue [...]" (op. cit., p. 43). Italics, my emphasis.

16. LSJ, s.v. Phibi.

17. cf. W.E. Crum, A Coptic Dictionary (London: Oxford UP 1962), s.v. hiboi.

18. W. Vycichl, Dictionnaire Etymologique de la Langue Copte (Leuven: Peeters, 1983), s.v. hiboi. He also makes the point that "il s'agit bien de l'ibis sacré (Ibis religiosa), oiseau du dieu Thot, différent de l'ibis noir (Plegadis falcinellus)."

19. NHC VI, 8: 65, 15-78, 43, in Nag Hammadi Studies XI, vol. ed. J.M. Robinson (Leiden: Brill, 1979).

20. In his introduction to Hermès en Haute-Egypte, vol. 1 (Quebec: Presses de l'Université Laval, 1978), J.P. Mahé explains: "On sait que Platon mentionne deux fois le dieu Thot [...], sans toutefois l'identifier à Hermès. Pourtant, cette identification paraît aller de soi pour Hérodote, qui appelle Hmnw Hermeo polis et mentionne, à Boubastis, l'existence d'un Hermeo hiron, sans donner d'autre explication à son lecteur. Aussi n'est-il pas surprenant que, dans l'Egypte hellénistique, Hermès hérite non seulement des titres, mais aussi des qualités et activités les plus notoires de son homologue égyptien. Dieu de la lune et du calendrier, Thot était vite devenu le dieu de l'écriture, à qui l'on attribuait la paternité de toutes sortes de livres, entre autres les écrits magiques. [...] De fait, les premiers livres grecs que l'on prête à Hermès Trismégiste dans l'Egypte ptolémaïque sont des livres d'astrologie et de sciences occultes [...]. Mais le savoir de Thot n'était pas limité à ces compétences particuliaires. [...] On lui prêta donc également un enseignement philosophique, à quoi se rattachent les textes qui font l'object de la présente étude. Ces textes se présentent sous forme de dialogues, où Hermès s'entretient familièrement, comme un maître avec ses disciples. On sait que l'un des interlocuteurs privilégiés est Tat, c'est-à-dire Thot, considéré à tort comme différent d'Hermès, et devenu ainsi un personnage distint" (pp. 3-4). See also F. Daumas, " Le Fond Egyptien de l'Hermétisme" in Gnosticisme et Monde Hellénistique, ed. J. Ries (Louvain: Institut Orientaliste, 1982), pp. 3-25.

21. According to G. Fowden, "[t]he Hermetists do not seem to have been austere ascetics, though the demands they made on themselves undoubtedly increased as they advanced towards spiritual perfection. Generally they held that, just as God formed Man and his environment, so Man in turn is obligated to perpetuate his own race. No-one is unhappier, according to C.H. II, than the man who dies childless;" The Egyptian Hermes (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986), p. 107.

22. ibid.

23. Coptic Asclepius, NHC VI, 8: 65, 15-30 reads: "And if you wish to see the reality of this mystery, then you should see the wonderful representation of the intercourse that takes place between the male and the female. For when the semen reaches the climax, it leaps forth. In that moment the female receives the strength of the male; the male for his part receives the strength of the female, while the semen does this. Therefore the mystery of intercourse is performed in secret, in order that the two sexes might not disgrace themselves in front of many who do not experience that reality." Latin Asclepius 21 (in Hermetica, vol. 1, W. Scott, ed. (Boston: Shambhala, 1985), p. 335) reads: "It is le. For when the semen reaches the climax, it leaps forth. In that moment the female receives the strength of the male; the male for his part receives the strength of the female, while the semen does this. Therefore the mystery of intercourse is performed in secret, in order that the two sexes might not disgrace themselves in front of many who do5 Q t+A t+ 

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