Or, against Against Heresies.
This is an article about the Gnostics who worshipped the ever-present Good in the fight against Darkness, and also cucumbers. There were no Gnostics who believed in an ever-present Good in the fight against Darkness and also worshipped cucumbers. What did exist was a specific sub-sect of a religion that we might call Gnostic that happened to have polemics written against them in the 5th century using melons, and specifically cucumbers, as a way for Christian writers to attack the “absurdity” of their beliefs. The most known theologian of the Gnostics was the Christian Valentinus, and texts from both Valentinus's time and years after his death shed some light as to why they may have had a reason for venerating the almighty cucumber.
Defining Gnosticism is a hard task, and applying that definition to any specific religion is harder. The term arose around the 1st century AD in certain early Christian and Jewish sects and is derived from the ancient Greek gnosis meaning simply “having knowledge”. The key feature in most, if not all, Gnostic religions is a belief in an ethereal immaterial good and a material physical bad. Knowledge is then taken to be the pathway to good, and we see this in practice with early Gnostics taking an interest in alchemical and hermetical studies as part of religious practice. The early Christian leaders declared Gnostics as heretical, and much of the early texts were lost or destroyed. Looking at the surviving texts it is easy to see why Gnosticism was declared a heresy. The Gnostic Gospel of Judas, reveals to us that before the last supper, Christ visits Judas and explains to him a cosmology of angels made of pure light, who then reveal that Judas must ensure Christ’s death so that he may return to an ephemeral world made of light, recasting Judas from betrayer to ardent follower. More on the “world of light” later, but the key takeaway is that the Gnostics believed in a cosmology detached from the material world and found the highest beings of existence to be made of pure light.
The followers of Valentinus, or Valentinians, had a more concrete explanation for the world. They believed the first primal being was the Bythos (referred to as the Monad in later texts), the Bythos created the Aeons (similar to angels), and through the betrayal of a lowly Aeon, the material world was created. We as humans exist between the material and psychic (spiritual; ephemeral) world and must cast off the shackles of the material world to ascend into the heavens. All these ideas stood very much opposed to the Christian Church leaders at the time, and as the Valentinians died out, this opposition would resurface in various other heretical movements the later Catholic church would put down. If you’re familiar with the phenomenal film The Name of the Rose, (spoilers ahead) you’ll remember the character of Salvatore, played by Ron Pearlman, a heretic who at the end of the film is put to the stake. Salvatore belonged to a group known as the Dulcinians, a heretical sect that furthered this materiality to a point that some scholars contest they’re Christian proto-anarchists, as evidenced by their calls to destroy the feudal system and calls for equality for all people, including gender equality back in the 14th century.
There’s a hypothetical allegory here; the heretics are oppressed, the church heads are oppressors, the heretics are a proletariat calling for an overthrow of the status quo, and the church heads are the bourgeoise maintaining it. I find this overly reductive for one, but before I explain why, I need to make an important aside. The heretics of today and yesterday drew important, real, and cognizant conclusions about the world around and above them. They are and were just as intelligent as we are now. I say this because to reduce them simply to historical arguments about the dialectic between the oppressor and the oppressed, is reductive. We know that the Dulicinians wanted equality, but we don’t know why. It could be for the same reasons I or you want it, or it could be for some theological reason that we can’t eke out of their remaining texts. If we only look at how they mirror recent movements we see a facsimile of them that fails to treat them as the actual humans that they are, humans that deserve to be understood both within their own context but also as intelligent and real people. So, what does this all have to do with cucumbers?
The year is 180AD and you are Iraenus of Smyrna, the Bishop of Lugdunum (better known as Lyon, France). You are writing your seminal text "On the Detection and Overthrow of the So-Called Gnosis" which will come to be known better by its Latin name Adversus Haereses translated to Against Heresies. For hundreds of years after this, your work deriding and attacking the heretical Gnostics will be a major source for future historians. In your work, you describe the Valentinians, and taking cues from other writers you employ a popular polemic against them, the worship of gourds:
This Gourd and Emptiness, since they are one, produced (and yet did not simply produce, so as to be apart from themselves) a fruit, everywhere visible, eatable, and delicious, which fruit-language calls a Cucumber. Along with this Cucumber exists a power of the same essence, which again I call a Melon. These powers, the Gourd, Utter-Emptiness, the Cucumber, and the Melon, brought forth the remaining multitude of the delirious melons of Valentinus.
Your argument then, through the years, is morphed and twisted until it reaches the eyes of me, Morrigan, the writer of this article who hears of the cucumber worshipping Gnostics, who in their belief that light is holy and pure loved the vegetables for their transparent quality. I’ll then go on to repeat this amalgamation of historically inaccurate arguments until I start researching for this article. In fact, the pitch I had for the theme “kaleidoscope” revolved around the idea of an ancient quintessential gnostic holding up the delicious transparent slice of cucumber to the sun, and through the eyes of my imagined gnostic, the cucumber's beautiful incandescentness reminding me of a kaleidoscope.
I’m entrenched in discussing these strawman arguments about the people of history for two very distinct reasons. For one, this kind of straw man ad absurdity arguments are still made today, and two, they’re made about groups that I’m a part of. Queer groups are consistently labelled as being unreasonable; reasonable arguments are taken to logical extremes or not given the proper context, and as a result, similar arguments arise between heretics and queer groups. I also recognize the conflict between my own goals for writing this paper and this larger connective leap. While it's easy for me to take simple examples between the two groups and compare them, I fall into the same trap that others do when they speak for historical peoples. History can’t speak, and we often speak for it, and while I find a poetic similarity between myself and historical gnostics, it would be irresponsible for me to say that we are in any way similar. I do not wish to fall into this trap.