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The Ophites is a blanket term for numerous gnostic sects in Syria and Egypt about 100 A.D. The common trait was that these sects would give great importance to the serpent. The serpent god is an ancient chthonic deity of knowledge in the Near East, who makes an appearance as the source of forbidden knowledge in Genesis. Christians identified the serpent with Satan, but no such identification is explicit in the texts. However, the honour paid by Ophites to the serpent was particularly offensive to Christians as tending to dishonour the Creator who is set over against the serpent as good against bad. Christians, imprinted with a pious horror of the snake, confused such snake cults with Satanism and branded the believers with heresy (see References).
Serpents are grasped and offered to the believer by the Minoan Mother Goddess in many surviving small cult figures and on engraved seals. The Isis cult also gave great importance to the serpent. The Ophites are believed to be inspired by both.
Central to all of the Ophitic cults was a dualistic theology that separated the world of light from the world of darkness. The spark of generative light that fell upon the waters was honored as Sophia (knowledge) (cf Gnosticism and Manichaeism),
Information about the ophitic sects must be gleaned from what their enemies said of them: Hippolytus (Philosoph. v.), Irenaeus (Against Heresies. i), Origen (Contra Celsum vi. 25 seq.) and Epiphanius of Salamis (Panarion. xxvi.).
- The Naasseners (from hebrew na'asch = snake)
- The Sethians.
- The Mandaeans are considered an ophite religion that has survived.
- The Perates (from the Greek language peras, "to penetrate")
- The Borborites
See also: gnosticism
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