A Gnostic sect venerating the serpent as a symbol of wisdom and liberation, prominent in the Roman Empire during the 2nd century AD.

The Ophites, derived from the Greek word “ophis” meaning serpent, were a group of several Gnostic sects that flourished in the Roman Empire during the 2nd century AD and persisted for several centuries thereafter. Their beliefs and practices centered around the symbolic significance of the serpent, often regarded as a representation of wisdom and enlightenment.

Origins and Beliefs

The Ophites likely originated in Egypt, influenced by local serpent-worship traditions, and then spread to Syria and Asia Minor. The central theme in Ophite theology was the reinterpretation of the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden, wherein the serpent was not seen as an agent of evil, but rather as a bringer of knowledge and wisdom. This perspective was in stark contrast to mainstream Christian views, which traditionally cast the serpent as a representation of Satan or deceit.

In Ophite cosmogony, creation was seen as a series of emanations from a divine source. They believed in a higher god, distinct from the creator god of the Old Testament, who sought to liberate humanity and impart wisdom. This higher deity was symbolized by the serpent, which they sometimes revered and worshipped. The Ophites held that the serpent’s role in the Genesis story was positive, symbolizing God’s denial of promised wisdom to humanity.

Practices and Sects

The Ophite sects were known for their unique rituals and esoteric knowledge. Some practiced the veneration of the serpent in their religious ceremonies, often incorporating it into their Eucharistic celebrations. The various sects under the Ophite umbrella, such as the Naassenes and Cainites, held differing views and practices, but all shared the core belief in the serpent as a symbol of enlightenment.

One notable aspect of Ophite theology was the Diagram of the Ophites, a tablet depicting their doctrines through figures and words. It was a complex representation of their cosmological and theological beliefs.

Persecution and Decline

The Ophites’ unconventional beliefs often put them at odds with both the Roman authorities and the orthodox Christian Church. They faced persecution, and several laws were enacted against them, notably by Emperor Justinian as late as the 6th century AD. Despite their efforts to survive, the sect gradually declined, partly due to external pressures and internal divisions.