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Posts Tagged ‘Gnosticism’

burning of seven(If you would like to catch up or refresh: Part One, Part Two)

Melisandre (Carice Van Houten) is introduced to “Game of Thrones” fans with the burning of the seven.  In the name of the “Lord of Light,” she induces the Lord Stannis (Stephen Dillane) to burn the effigies of the seven gods of Westeros as a symbolic gesture of renunciation.  Again, one is reminded of Christianity; Christian missionaries were known to have orchestrated the destruction of idols.  But given the Gnostic/Manichean character of Melisandre’s religion, could there be something else going on here?

George_R._R._Martin_signing

I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.  First of all, did George R.R. Martin — author of the “Song of Ice and Fire” series on which “Game of Thrones” is based — have Gnosticism or Manichaeism in mind when crafting Melisandre’s character and religion?

This much is for sure: Martin draws heavily from his studies of medieval Europe in crafting the world of Ice and Fire, and he is very much dedicated to authenticity.  So we should ask whether Gnosticism made an appearance in the Middle Ages.

AlbigensiansWell, in fact, it did.  The Cathars and Albigensians managed to gain quite a foothold in Southern Europe between the 12th and 14th centuries.  Like the Red Woman’s religion — and here it is good to remember Davos Seaworth’s (Liam Cunningham) hard words about Melisandre being “a foreigner preaching a foreign religion” — their belief system came from the East, bringing with it the air of something new and exotic.  St. Dominic fought vigorously against this movement during his life; the Dominican Order,* which he founded for just that purpose, thrives to this day.

faith of the sevenThe attitude of the culture to which Albigensianism came toward its native Christianity was, for the most part, very similar to that of the people of Westeros toward their religion (which appears to be a paganized form of medieval Catholicism).  They held to it as a sort of solid cultural possession, but they didn’t believe in it in too profound a manner (that is, in such a way that it would affect their lives).  So if we are surprised at their susceptibility to something novel and exotic…well, we shouldn’t be.

As Gnostics, the Albigensians and Cathars eschewed the material and the idea that God could be present to it, let alone make Hiimself part of it via the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.  Some of them would publicly burn crucifixes in order to make their point…and here we go back to our first inquiry.  The Cathars were as ready to burn crucifixes as were Melisandre’s followers to burn the effigies of the seven.

*

Innocent VHere’s an interesting historical tidbit: Pope Innocent V (1225-1276) was the first priest from the Dominican Order to become Pope.  When he was elected, he brought the trademark white garments of the Dominicans to the papal office.  This started a whole new tradition…Pope_Francis_in_March_2013…and is why the Pope wears white to this very day.  I just thought it was interesting that such a familiar image came about as an indirect result of the phenomenon on which a key “Game of Thrones” character may be based.

Thanks for reading, and let’s keep an eye on that quirky priestess with the fire-kissed hair.

Images from “Game of Thrones” obtained through a Google image search; remaining images from Wikipedia

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MelisandreLet’s recap briefly: In part one, we explored part of Melisandre’s (Carice Van Houten) conversation with Shireen Baratheon (Kerry Ingram), on which occasion she tells the young princess that there are only two gods — the Lord of Light and the Lord of Darkness — rather than seven; it was also demonstrated that this dualistic theism resembles Manichaeism rather than the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Melisandre_ShireenBut the next thing Melisandre says is even more telling.  Shireen goes on to ask if, since there are not seven gods, there are also not seven heavens and seven hells.

Melisandre replies: “There is only one hell, princess: The one we live in.”

GnosticismThis is a defining characteristic of Gnosticism, the wider (and much older) school of thought to which Manichaeism belongs.  Adherents of Gnosticism proposed that the material world (including our physical bodies) was evil and illusory.  In fact, they believed that it was created and governed by a demon, which many of the early Gnostics called the demiurge.  The true, good God and the spiritual life were accessible only to a chosen few.  Ultimately, the salvation of a spiritual elite was a matter of his/her soul escaping from the cage of the body at the moment of death.

melisandre-2If Melisandre’s religion is of the Gnostic variety, her readiness to do evil despite claiming to be a servant of good makes perfect sense.  First of all, her worldview does not define evil in terms of dishonoring Divinity, humanity, or creation.  Instead, it holds that the material world is evil simply by virtue of of being material.  Many of the early Gnostics, in fact, believed that actions almost all of us would agree are flat-out wrong were not wrong or sinful for them, because they were “spiritual men.”

Secondly, if the body is not part of who a person is but a prison from which to escape, then it really doesn’t matter what one does in and with the body (perverse living was well noted among the ancient Gnostics).

In my opinion, the broader Gnostic nature of the “Red Woman’s” religion goes miles further than its specifically Manichean aspect in explaining its (at best) ambiguous character.

I’ll delve a little bit more into this in the next post.  Hope I’ve gotten you sufficiently interested to continue reading 🙂

All “Game of Thrones” images obtained through a Google image search; other image from Wikipedia

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Before I begin, I should make it clear that Easter begins, rather than ends, on Easter Sunday — despite what retailers might have us believe (no offense intended to people in retail).

Gnosticism

There is an ancient religious-philosophical system known as gnosticism.  In a nutshell, gnosticism espouses the following general principles:

1. Matter is evil.  The material world, including our physical bodies, is created and ruled by a demon called the Demiurge.

2. Gnosis (Greek for “knowledge”).  Certain people — a very select few — are selected to be “saved” by becoming spiritual through a hidden, infused knowledge.  When they die, their true inner selvestheir spiritual souls — will break free from the prison of their physical bodies, and they will fly away to a realm of pure spirit.

ManicheansA related school of thought was Manichaeism, which flourished for a little while in the Near East during the early A.D. period.  St. Augustine of Hippo was a member of this school of thought for a little while, before converting to Christianity.

In his great work “Confessions,” Augustine shares an important insight that he gained after his conversion:

(. . .) and with a sounder judgement I held that the higher (I presume that he meant spiritual) things are indeed better than the lower, but that all things together are better than the higher ones alone (“Confessions,” VII:xiv — John K. Ryan translation from Image Books)

What was it about Judeo-Christian revelation that would have led him to that insight?  Well, for one thing, there is the Genesis creation account, which speaks of how God created the material world in all its splendor, climaxing in the creation of mankind…body and soul.

God looked at everything he had made, and he found it very good. (Gen. 1:31)

ResurrectionBut with the Resurrection of Christ, the Son of God, God in the flesh, this point is super-eminently reaffirmed.

With the Resurrection, any form of Gnostic dualism is definitively refuted.

With the Resurrection, God reaffirms the goodness of His creation, and especially of humankind.

With the Resurrection, the value of the human body as part of a person’s identity is radically reaffirmed.

With the Resurrection, the material world (to which the body is necessarily related) is not only– and not to be redundant — reaffirmed in its goodness, but, as Fr. Robert Barron says, “rais(ed) (…) up to a higher pitch.”*

Indeed, the Resurrection is the wellspring of renewal — not just for humanity but for all of creation, created good but damaged by sin.  And in Christ, God has seen fit to make us leaders in this great renewal.

That doesn’t mean that we will be able to build a perfect world here on earth, of course.  But as we prepare for that Final Day when Christ ushers in a new heavens and a new earth (Rev. 21:1), we must strive to spread the truly good and liberating news of the Divine Love and its definitive victory in all we say and do, bringing it to bear upon our everyday affairs and upon the things of this world.

Kind of makes Easter seem more exciting than images of bonnets and baskets, doesn’t it?

Images from Wikipedia

http://www.lentreflections.com/why-easter-matters/

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