The Origins of the Toll-House Myth

compiled by Dormition Skete

1. Gnosticism

The toll-house fantasy has its roots in ancient Egypt and the Gnostic heresies that sprang from pagan belief systems. Osiris, we are told, was the great Judge, attended by 42 assessors, which the soul must face once it has separated from the body. It must be examined by each one of them. If the soul successfully passes the tests, it can say, “I am pure” and is transferred to “the sky,” where it enjoys a material paradise, such as was the lot of kings, according to the Pyramid Text. The fate of the unworthy was torture and destruction by the myriad of demons who inhabited the underworld. The wicked soul might be torn to pieces by the 42 terrible judges, burned in furnaces, or drowned in the abyss.1

Likewise, in ancient Greece, “Orphic” mysteries had long taught that the Dionsyian “daemon” within each initiate must ascend back through the celestial spheres through which it had originally fallen into this world, successively shedding each of the encumbering “Titanic” layers it had acquired along the course of that immemorial descent. And this same notion of successive psychic decortications was something of a common mystical conceit. Plotinus, for instance, in offering his interpretation of the ancient mystery religions, treated the disrobing of initiates as symbolic of the removal of those ἱμάτια (garments) that come to envelop the νοῦς when it descends through the heavens and enters this world (Enneads 1.6.7). Mithraism too promised that the saved would rise through the seven planetary heavens and past the hostile powers guarding them. The Sethian treatise Zostrianos depicts these seven spheres as “places of penitential suffering” (NHC VIII.1), as do the Mandaean Diwan Abithur and Left Ginza. For this last tradition, salvation lies in the divine regions of light above the seven martatâs confining us to this world; but for us to attain to that realm we must pass through a succession of “station houses” to be interrogated and tried.

Drawing on these ancient influences, Gnosticism (a dualistic religion that pitted spirit against matter, which was considered intrinsically evil), in any of its Greek, Jewish, or “Christian” sects, had a similar view of the afterlife. As diverse as they were, all Gnostic theologies held a “toll-house” system as a standard principle of their teachings about death. In Gnostic systems, a blend of both Chaldean astrological myths and Egyptian death-rite myths were used to form the arcane doctrines which the Gnostic mystics called “eternal mysteries beyond the tomb.” The soul, in order to achieve beatitude, must endure a demonic trial. In its ascent through the heavenly spheres, it must stand before “revenue collectors” at “places of retention” or “toll booths,” situated somewhere within the planetary system, in the Zodiac plane, celestial levels occupied by “archons” or “cosmocrators” or, indeed, “demons.” Passage through the spheres is guaranteed for the soul that utters “the secret word,” and is baptized or has partaken of some other initiatory rite.2

Gnosticism is particularly characterized by its distorted teaching about good and evil and the physical world. Their system was based on the concept that God has a dual nature, that He is both the principle of good and the principle of evil. In various forms, this concept was expressed not as a single, internally divided God, but as two opposing deities: one good, one evil. The “good deity” created spirit, the “evil deity” created matter. The evil deity lured spirit into this matterspecifically, he lured the naturally immortal, pre-existing soul into the created, material body and imprisoned it there during the lifespan of the human. Overall, this teaching renders Satan an equal and opposite deity with God. This is a necessary element in the aerial toll-house myth, which makes Satan equal with God in the realm of the judgment of the human soul.

Secondly, Gnostic dualism teaches an opposition between soul and body. A “divine emanation,” a Demiurge had created the material world, composed of matter that is inherently and eternally evil. Man was a dualistic creature, consisting of a spiritual soul of divine origin, and a material body which is variously a “trap,” a “prison,” a “weight which makes the soul earthbound,” and even “ineradicably evil.” In every form of Gnostic or Platonistic dualism, there is implicit the ancient Hellenistic myth of the soul coming down to earth from its heavenly abode and being imprisoned in the darkness of the material body. The soul forever longs to escape from its body in order to return to its home. The body, the Gnostics would say, is the tomb of the soul, in which it is imprisoned in the darkness of matter. The Demiurge (the co-equal deity) seeks by all means to prevent the soul from escaping back through the astral spheres to its former heavenly abode. In Gnostic, as in Chaldean cosmology, there are boundaries between the astral spheres, which correspond to the orbits of the astrological planets. Each sphere has a customshouse or toll booth guarded by a ferocious archon (demon) who serves the Demiurge in trying to find some treacherous means to keep the escaped soul from passing through the toll gate into the next astral plane.

The archons are spiritual beings with “subtle bodies,” according to some, or powerful physical bodies, according to others. They are implacable customs officials who extract a toll from each soul that seeks to pass through the customs booths or toll-houses. The journeying soul requires either special passports or special toll tokens to satisfy the archons and pass over the borders of the planetary spheres. If the soul cannot produce these, it is seized and hurled into Hades. In certain cases, the passport might be a specific formula, recited by the soul itself. In other cases, it was a precisely recited formula of a priest. The injunction to the Gnostic priest would be “You must not omit a single word of the formula, for if you do, you bring the soul to great perils.” In still other instances in Gnostic doctrine, the toll tokens were intercessions of others, good works, or simply the correct pronunciation of the name (or names) of the archon. Other Gnostic sects provided amulets, seals, headbands on the body of the deceased and/or magic passwords for the passage of the soul through the aerial toll-houses.

This “dangerous journey of the soul after death” is a classic motif in Gnosticism and the primary focus of The Tale of Elder Basil the New. Traveling through a series of toll stations, variously called “purgatories,” “watchtowers,” “gatehouses,” and “toll booths” (telonia in Greek Gnostic literature; mitarstvo in Slavic literature which follows the Bogomil tradition), is common to all Gnostic literature and cosmology. This myth is especially well developed in the Mandean Gnosticism of Chaldea, where it was syncretized directly from the myth of the astral planes. Unlike Manichaeism, Mandean Gnosticism did not originate in early pseudo-Christian Gnostic sects, but appears to predate them.3 We find the whole scheme of this telonia or aerial toll-houses myth laid out in the famous Nag Hammadi Gnostic Codices from which the fraudulent “Homily of Cyril of Alexandria” was taken.4 Ultimately, it was Bogomilism which slipped the concept into sub-Christian thought in the East Slavic Christian countrieswhere much fruitless labor was bestowed on a vain attempt to Christianize this Gnostic myth.

2. The Bogomils

Before discussing the apocryphal Tale of Elder Basil the New and the fictional story of Theodora’s journey through the toll-houses, we should cover the historical setting of the Byzantine Empire in the 10th century, the time when this text first appeared.

It is surely not a coincidence that a story so laden with Gnosticism and pagan mythology is set in 10th-century Thrace and Constantinople. The tale of Elder Basil “the New” (or “the Younger”) takes place at a time when Gnostic dualism and eschatological fantasy were rampant in the empire, filtering even into some of the best homes in Constantinople and causing both political and theological alarm to Church and state officials alike. During this era, the militant Paulician sect controlled much of Thrace, Massalianism was rampant in the Thracian, Bulgarian, and Macedonian monasteries, and the tidal wave of Bogomilism began crashing heavily against the jetties and bulwarks of the Byzantine Church. The waves rolled westward in the form of the Cathars and Albigensians, but remained centered in Macedonia and Constantinople.

The Bogomils were an anti-hierarchical Gnostic sect and did not use churches. They believed that God created man’s soul but that matter was the invention of Satan, God’s older son. As Orthodoxy solidified its position in the Roman Empire, it began to encounter the various heretical movements which not only caused confusion among the faithful, but contributed to disunity in the empire. During the fourth century in particular, the followers of the ancient heretic Marcion, who had clashed with Apostle John, were forced eastwards, away from the capital. Their heretical teaching of a conflict between spirit and matter, between soul and body, their excessive asceticism, based on a supposed struggle to “liberate the soul from the body,” and many other heresies, were refuted and rooted out by the teachers of the Orthodox Church. In order to preserve their sect intact, the Marcionites began, in the fourth century, to settle in the mountains of Armenia at the eastern end of the Roman Empire. Marcionite communes and villages began to appear in the remote valleys and wild regions of the eastern borderland. Gradually, other Gnostic sects, such as the Vorvoni, came into active contact with the Marcionites. Most dramatic of all these encounters was the arrival of the Paulicians. The Paulicians were an intensely militaristic sect of Manicheans, who claimed to be the direct spiritual descendants of St. Paul and the churches founded by him. During the early 7th C., they began to move out of their stronghold in Armenia (where the sect began) and into the eastern borderlands of Byzantium. A Manichean sect, the Paulicians came into contact with the Marcionites and with various Gnostic sects which produced more systematic metaphysics for all of them. While many of the Marcionites were absorbed into the Paulician movement, many remained. All developed a unique “ascetic theology” (a trademark of Gnosticism) which was not informed and moderated by the theology and patristic sacred tradition of the holy Church. The Massalians were intensely monastic, while the Paulicians had a strong disdain for monasticism, but all shared in common the dualistic metaphysics and anthropology of Gnosticism, and all received an inclination to ancient Chaldean cosmology and eschatology from their Manichean “mother church.”5

All these Gnostic heresies were intensely missionary-minded and often quite militant in proselytizing. The imperial military patrols were always on guard for their missionaries (and in the case of the Paulicians, their spies) along the eastern boundary. The Massalians, who taught that individual prayer was the only way to reach perfection and a sensory vision of the essence of God, were often found in monastic garb; Marcionites might dress as monks even if they were not, but Paulicians dressed in rustic attire, never as monastics. When arrested and interrogated, all of them were capable of giving Orthodox responses, while in themselves considering their answers to be only allegorical (though the more bold of them might refuse to answer at all).6 Compare this with the text at the beginning of The Tale of Elder Basil the New:

A company of imperial magistrates on official business were passing through the mountains of eastern Asia Minor where they chanced upon a certain man wearing the garb of a local village type and wild in appearance as being an inhabitant of the mountains (§2 in the Acta Sanctorum edition). Suspecting this man of being a spy, they leapt from their horses and captured him. They brought him back forcibly to Constantinople. There he was handed over to a Moslem of patrician rank named Samonas, for interrogation.7 This man cruelly tortured him to force him to say who he was, where he was from, and what his name was, but the elder absolutely refused to say a word.

Gnostic sects inundated the Roman provinces of Thrace and Macedonia, and filled Bulgaria by the tenth century also. This followed the mass migrations of Asiatic tribes from across the steppes of central Asia into the black earth region of Northern Ukraine. Driving earlier tribes before them, they had poured into Dacia (modern Romania), spilled out over the Pannonian plains and laced themselves along the Danube. Slavs, Bulgars, Pechenegs, Polovtsi, Avars, and Tartars: pressing one against the other, they set their eyes on the wealth and splendor of Byzantium. Raids turned into battles and battles grew into wars. Hard pressed to defend the vast borders of the state, Emperor Constantine Copronymos initiated a series of tragic, but probably unavoidable, mistakes. In 745 he began deporting troublesome elements from the eastern regions of the empire to the northwestern borders of Thrace. He hoped to form a buffer between the heartland of the empire and the warrior tribes on the Danube and in the Rhodope Mountains of modern Bulgaria. Again in 755-757, because plague had depopulated large areas of Thrace, he deported thousands from Syria and Armenia to his northern flank. The first group were mostly Monophysites, who largely assimilated into the Orthodox population. The second group contained thousands of Pauliciansthose war-loving, militant Gnostics who caused such havoc on the eastern frontier. The choice of Paulicians for the deportation was intentional. They were skilled, well-trained warriors, and it was felt that the deportation would strengthen the western flank militarily, while helping to break up Paulician colonies in the East. Between 778 and 780, Emperor Leo IV added to this number and greatly increased the number of Massalians and, perhaps, remnant Marcionites. From that time, Gnostic dualism was firmly established on the western flank, with Thrace as its center. From the beginning of the 800’s, both the Paulicians and Massalians were proselytizing aggressively in Macedonia and Bulgaria. The Paulicians converted large numbers in towns and villages, while the Massalians captured most of the monasteries.

Massalianism laid the foundation for the larger and more dangerous heresy of Bogomilism, which would penetrate from Cappadocia to France, from Ochrid to Novgorod. Patriarch Theophylact, in his letter to Tsar Peter of Bulgaria (written ca. 954) described Bogomilism as “Manichaeism mixed with Paulicianism.” He also called it “an ancient heresy, newly appeared.” Bogomilism first reared its head in the 800’s, but by the turn of the century it had solidified into a distinct sect, led by a Macedonian priest named Father Bogomil. By 930, the heresy had appeared in the capital city of Constantinople and had become a visible threat. Much of its success, it must be said, is attributable to the corruption and arrogant, aloof clericalism of the Orthodox hierarchy and priests.

From its center in Bulgaria the heresy also spread to southern Russia, Serbia and Bosnia, and then into western Europe, where this eastern dualistic doctrine bore different names: Patarins in Italy, Cathari in Germany and Italy, Poblicans and Albigensians in France.8

By the 940’s, both the Tsar of Bulgaria and Patriarch Theophylact of Constantinople (933-956) found it necessary to deal with the Bogomils.

It was during the tenure of Patriarch Theophylact, and the rising struggle with the Bogomils, that Gregory appears from Thrace, the Gnostic capital of the empire, and gives us his tale about Elder Basil the New, a story so patently Gnostic that it is astounding that it survived in a collection of “Lives of Saints” (from which, by evident oversight, it was translated into a Serbian collection).9

The content of the teaching attributed to “Elder” Basil, and especially the doctrines put forth in Gregory’s highly delusional visions, leave only one logical conclusion: Basil the New and Gregory of Thrace were integral elements of the Gnostic movements clouding Byzantium during this era, and tragically, they have been elevated to the level of a dogmatic writing by certain Neo-Gnostic writers in our own time.

3. The Document

The document entitled The Life of Elder Basil is peculiar in many respects. Perhaps the most ironic aspect of the document, considering the harmful influence that it has had, is the fact that we are left uncertain as to whether the characters depicted in the narrative (apart from the author) ever actually existed. The Elder Basil and Theodora began to be commemorated as saints in the Russian Church solely on the basis of this highly questionable document. This in itself is startling, the more so in light of the fact that the purported “life” was rejected in Byzantine times and considered to be a novel. One may surmise that it worked its way into the Russian collection by a mistake in identity. There is, in fact a Saint Basil the New in the Byzantine synaxariste, but this saint has nothing whatsoever to do with the fantastic Elder Basil of toll-house fame. Considering how much of Dimitry of Rostov’s collection of the Lives is taken from Roman Catholic sources rather than from older Orthodox ones, it is feasible that the tale of Basil the New came into the Russian collection via the Latin Acta Sanctorum. We see in our own time an unwise penchant for accepting into Orthodox collections of lives of saints every Western mystic or purported holy person who happened to live before an evidently magical year of 1054 (the “official” date of the Schism), notwithstanding that the Roman Orthodox Church had been destroyed many centuries before that and replaced with the Franco-Latin pseudo-Church, already divorced from the authentic legacy of sound theology and theologically governed asceticism.

The so-called Life of Elder Basil was actually a platform for its author, Gregory of Thrace, to record his fantastic “visions.” The text of these visions, recorded under the guise of the Life of Elder Basil was written in the middle of the tenth century (the 900’s). The complete text of this document is found in Greek manuscripts of diverse centuries which have now been scattered throughout the libraries of the world. In the 17th century the Greek Life of Elder Basil was published in the Latin Acta Sanctorum (March, Vol. 3), but this text omits Gregory’s claimed vision concerning Theodora’s soul and also the vision concerning the end of the world; it is, therefore, greatly abbreviated. In the 1890’s, however, these omissions were published by the Royal Academy of Sciences of St. Petersburg in the journal “Sbornik Otdeleniia Russkago Iazyka i Slovesnosti,” Volumes 46 and 53. The Greek manuscript of the Synodal collection #249 was employed for this, since it contains the most complete text available. The visions concerning Theodora in this manuscript covers folio pages 66 verso—113 verso (47 folio pages or 94 book pages), and the vision concerning the end of the world covers 147 verso—351 recto (204 folio or 408 book pages). The life ends on folio 378v., so we can see that three quarters of the tale of Basil “the New” consists in nothing but Gregory’s visions.

The most important Greek collections of the lives of saints do not include the life of Basil. The story itself was rejected in Byzantium and neither his existence nor his sainthood were recognized by the Greek Orthodox Church. The primary reasons for the rejection of the biography are the dubious nature of Gregory’s interminable visions (which cast logical doubt on his sanity), and also certain strange actions and words he ascribes to Basil which clearly cast doubt upon the Orthodoxy and sanctity of Basil. There are a great many visions and “revelations” preserved in various Greek manuscripts, but they are so complex, frenzied, and absurd that they can only be rejected by pious Christians; the fact that they have been handed down by manuscript tradition does not ensure their soundness. At the turn of this century the Elder Pachomios of Chios (1840-1905) employed references to Gregory’s vision concerning Theodora’s soul, but it was quickly pointed out to him by Church authorities that this vision is not accepted as valid by the Church; thereafter the elder ceased mentioning the vision.

In the fifteenth century, the complete text of Gregory’s life of Basil was translated into Slavonic and has been preserved in Metropolitan Makary’s Cheti Meneya. This was taken as a basis for the Russian version of the Life, and also Dmitri of Rostov’s Slavonic version, and then placed in the Russian Lives of Saints. As a result, among the Russians this Basil is known as “Saint Basil the New,” and the vision concerning Theodora’s soul is considered valid. The vision concerning the end of the world was not retained (fortunately), even in an abbreviated form. It was simply too fantastic and too full of aberrations for the Russian hagiographers. In the Russian (and St. Dmitri’s Slavonic) version, the vision concerning Theodora has been greatly altered from the Greek original in an attempt to make it less suspicious, less clearly Manichean in nature. Thus the Russian version is not at all consistent with the original (a fact which already negates any veracity and usefulness of the Russian version). For example, although Gregory wishes to assure us that he in true reality was in ecstasy and saw everything of his visions noetically, the Russian version says that it was “a vision of sleep,” i.e., a dream. Further, the entire story about how he finally got to see Theodora is omitted in the Russian, probably because of its excessive and fabulous nature. In the Russian version, the details about the telonia (toll-houses) are greatly abbreviated and also most of her sins are passed over in silence. Where the original Greek says that she had not a single sin of pride (and of vainglory and many others), the Russian says that, for these sins, “we gave a very small quantity of that [gold] which Saint Basil had given, and I was freed,” that is, she had small sins (but nothing serious!). Further, although the Greek is explicit that she never confessed her sins of fornication, the Russian dilutes this, saying, “Because she never sincerely and completely repented before her spiritual father concerning her previous sins and hid much from him....” The entire vision of heaven and the saints and of sinners in hell is omitted. Then, whereas in the Greek Gregory is led to Basil sitting at a dinner table in the “other world,” though Basil is still living, the Russian compilers arbitrarily re-wrote this section (one would like to think they did this because they recognized the delusion of the idea) and discontinue the vision before this point, then re-edit this into a new vision which Gregory supposedly saw after Basil had died, and this becomes the end of the life. However, in the original, this is only one third of the way through the text, and there are many more episodes in the life of Basil before he finally dies. If the unaltered text of this and the other visions had been available to Russian readers, it is doubtful that many would have taken it seriously and the tale would have the same repute as it had in the Byzantine Church.10

It must be remembered that the Russian edition of the “Life” was considerably rewritten and altered, so that it does not always agree or correspond with the original texts. This is an interesting fact to bear in mind if one wishes to take this so-called “Life” seriously. Which version and which set of details does one “take seriously,” the original (which is just too embarrassing) or the sanitized, rewritten, heavily edited version?

In the text, Gregory tells us nothing about the early life of Elder Basil but begins his narration at the point when certain magistrates on official business are passing through the mountains of eastern Asia Minor and discover a certain man “wearing the garb of a local village type and wild in appearance as being an inhabitant of the mountains” (§2 in the Acta Sanctorum edition). They suspect this man to be a spy (a logical surmise considering the presence of Paulicians in that area and the evident Gnosticism of Basil’s teachings), and they must have had some reason for their suspicions. Leaping from their horses, they captured him and brought him back forcibly to Constantinople. There he is handed over to “a Moslem of patrician rank” named Samonas, for interrogation. This man cruelly tortures him to force him to say who he was, where he was from, and what his name was, but Basil absolutely refuses to say a word. According to the tale, Basil was thrown to wild beasts in the theater (a strange practice for 10th-century Christians in Constantinople), but they did not touch him, and so finally Samonas ordered that he be drowned in the sea by night. He was cast in, but two dolphins miraculously carried him to shore and thereupon his bonds were miraculously unloosed.11 Basil the New then returned to the city where he encountered a man suffering from a high fever, whom he healed. This man, John by name, took him to his house and provided a room for him. Slowly, Basil’s fame now began to grow because of the healings attributed to him and his knowledge of men’s sins and of what is to befall them. He became a well-known fortune teller, in other words. Many people came to him and finally an illustrious man named Constantine, “the former barbarian,” extended an invitation to him to abide in his mansion, and there Basil remained until his death.

While we have no historical confirmation that this Elder Basil actually existed, these details would be consistent with the troubles of the mid-900’s in Constantinople, when Bogomilism and other forms of Gnosticism were infiltrating many of the wealthier homes in the city. Indeed, by the reign of Emperor Manuel I (d. 1148), the Patriarch of Constantinople Cosmas Atticos (1146-47) could be suspected by many of Bogomilismbecause of his sympathy for the convicted Bogomil monk Niphon, Patriarch Cosmas was deposed on these chargesand a council during this reign would convict and depose two other bishops for being Bogomils (see Runciman, pp. 63-93).

According to the Tale, Constantine gave Elder Basil a cell, and an old woman named Theodora looked after his needs. Basil supposedly became quite well known, so that even the emperors ask to see him, and the great men of the city came to him. Gregory does not tell us how long Basil dwelt in Constantinople before his death, but calculating by the historical events mentioned in the story, it must have been about thirty years, and this Basil would have allegedly died in 944. The life does not claim that Basil was a monk, and it is certain that he did not dress like one. It seems more likely that he was a self-styled ascetic, and indeed, there were a number of such men during the mid-centuries of the East Roman (Byzantine) Empire, even as there were during the Russian Empire. In the 900’s and 1000’s, many, if not most, such wandering self-styled elders were Bogomils and Massalians.

As for Gregory of Thrace, what we know about him comes to us from the autobiographical sections of his story of Basil. When Gregory met Basil he was a young man, perhaps in his twenties. He was a land owner of small means who lived in Constantinople and returned to his estates in Thrace from time to time to collect revenues and the profits received from the harvest. While in the capital, he developed an interest in spiritual things and had a spiritual father named Epiphanios, a eunuch and ascetic who dwelt in one of the monasteries of the city. After the death of this man, Gregory heard of the fame of Basil and sought him out. At their meeting, Gregory says, Basil called him by name without having seen him before, and Gregory thereafter became his spiritual child. Under Basil’s direction, Gregory lived a sort of ascetical life but was subject to many temptations and falls, as he himself relates. By supernatural means, Basil rescued him from his temptations and also revealed many things to him in visions. It seems, however, that Gregory did not know Basil very long before the latter’s death, and at the death of Basil our information concerning Gregory comes to an end.

Theodora was a slave woman from birth, as we know from her supposed conversation with Gregory after her death, and was joined by her master (presumably Constantine who later gave shelter to Basil) to a manwithout a church weddingfrom whom she had several children. It seems, however, she led a rather wild life in her youth, despite this fact. In her old age she became very pious and was assigned to look after Basil and attend to his visitors. After serving Basil for some years, she reposed. Then Gregory became consumed with curiosity about the fate of her soul, and disregarding the teachings of the holy fathers, Basil arranged for him to find out about this. Here begins the tale of Gregory’s vision concerning the soul of Theodora. At several points in the life, Theodora is called “amma,” the feminine equivalent of “abba.” This title is used here in the sense of “venerable old lady”; there is no evidence that she ever received monastic tonsure before her death. This is not surprising, since it seems that the Elder Basil himself was not a monk.

It should be noted that in the Greek lists of saints, there is a “St. Basil the New,” but this is not the Basil we are speaking of. The actual St. Basil the New, who also lived in the tenth century, was the brother of St. Paul of Mt. Latros and dwelt in the monastery of St. Elias the Prophet on Mt. Olympus; he became abbot and reposed there in peace. He has been confounded with the fictitious Elder Basil in the life of St. Paul of Mt. Latros. Also, Gregory of Thrace should not be confused with St. Gregory of Decapolis, who lived during the time of the iconoclasts. And this Theodora, if she actually existed at all, is not St. Theodora of Thessaloniki (+ 879).

There is another point which needs to be contemplated seriously. We are not obliged to accept some person as a “saint” just because someone has written a story about them and published it. It is possible for anyone to write a story about anyone they are personally attached to and call the person a saint.

4. Gregory’s Vision of the Soul of Theodora

At the death of Theodora, Gregory is troubled in his mind and wonders to himself, “‘What recompenses has she received in that age (or “world”), those of the right, or those of the left? And has she gained enjoyment of anything on account of her service of the righteous man (Basil) and the tarnished ministration which she blamelessly fulfilled for him each day?’ And turning these things over in my mind, I went to the righteous man, and falling at his precious feet, I entreated him with fervent tears to tell me what has become of her” (f.67v). At first Basil categorically refuses to tell him anything, but at length he addresses Gregory: “Do you truly wish to see Theodora and what state she has received?” When Gregory cries, “Yes,” Basil continues: “You shall truly see her, my child, even as I have asked in prayer” (ibid.).

In complete contradiction to the teachings of the holy fathers that we must not seek visions of the afterlife or the contemplation of things that are too lofty for us to understand, Basil immediately complies with the foolish request of his disciple Gregory. That night, Gregory tells us, while he was going to sleep, a youth appeared to him and instructed him to get up if he wanted to see Theodora. He leapt up and discovered that he had been mystically transported to the door of Basil’s house. The people he encountered there told him that Basil had gone to see Theodora, and so Gregory asked if anyone there could tell him the way. Someone gave him directions and it seemed to him that he was on the way to the church of Vlachernae.

“Suddenly I found myself going up a steep and extremely narrow passageway, and traversing this with great fear and agony [Why?], I came to a gate which was locked very securely. Then I peeked through a hole, seeking to catch sight of someone who could open the gate for me. Within there was a house of extraordinary beauty and glory” (f.68v).

Inside he sees two beautiful women. He attracts the attention of one of them and asks her whose house it is. She answers that it is the house of our father Basil. He asks whether Basil is in, and she replies, “Yes, he has come to visit his children.” Gregory declares that he is also one of Basil’s children and wants to come in, but the woman replies that unless Lady Theodora gives permission, she cannot open the gate.

“But I,” says Gregory, “becoming then more audacious, began to beat violently on the door and boldly to cry out, ‘Open up!’ Theodora, hearing the commotion from within, came up to the gate so as to peek through a hole to spy upon and see who was making the disturbance. For the aforesaid woman whom I called out to so that she would open up, told her that ‘a certain stranger has approached the gate and is bothering me to open up to him’” (f.70r). (Apparently there are slaves in heaven to serve as doorkeepers.) Theodora, seeing that it is Gregory, happily commands that the gate be opened. Then she says to him: “‘Who has brought you to these parts, my sweetest child Gregory, nay, from that vain world to this unwaning day? Have you, indeed, died, having come here and been liberated from the vain cares of that world and having attained to this blessed way of life?’ But I marvelled at these things and was completely unable to understand what she said to me, because I did not think that I was in ecstasy and that I saw all these things noetically, but I thought that I was in a waking state and saw all these things with my physical eyes. And I said to her, ‘My lady amma, I have not died yet, but by the prayer and help of our holy father I have come here, being still in life. I came here on account of you, to see your venerable face and to learn what portion and place you have attained’” (f. 70v).

Firstly, one wonders what this narrow passageway is that Gregory ascends by his own power, unguided. Moreover, what is this house which Gregory sees and which belongs to the Elder Basil? Is this what the Lord meant when He said, “In My Father’s house there are many mansions” (Jn. 14:2)? Here we are taught that Basil has a “house” in the heavenly kingdom which he visits, though he is still alive and living on earth. Contrary to this, St. Isaac the Syrian explains what the “many mansions” promised by the Savior really consist of: “The Savior calls the many mansions of His Father the noetic degrees of those who dwell in that land, I mean the distinctions and differences of the spiritual gifts which they noetically enjoy. For by ‘many mansions’ He spoke not of different places, but of the order of gifts (of grace)” (Homily 56). Furthermore, should we assume that the saints while still living, already have mansions in heaven, from which they can come and go as they please? I suppose the Toll-housers at this point would start protesting, as usually happens when they encounter a contradiction, and would say that it is just a “metaphor.” But let us continue.

Beholding the beautiful garden which is the fruit-bearing labors of the Elder Basil, Gregory says to Theodora, “‘I beseech you, my lady, who planted this garden? I never saw such a thing.’ And she replied to me, ‘And where would you see such a thing, living still in that vain world, and how should you find such gladness? For these things which you see were fashioned noetically by the hand of the Most High. All these things are noetic and incorruptible and we ourselves live here noetically’ (f.112r). But I, being astonished and thunderstruck at these words, namely that we existed (there) noetically and not palpablyfor I supposed that I was there in body, and in a waking state, not noeticallyI tried to feel myself to determine whether that body which I appeared to have was flesh or not, and I wished to grasp one hand with the other, and I felt myself to see if my body had any bones, and I tried to examine all my members; but by the sense of touch I understood myself, that I possessed nothing of this sort. I found that I was like a flame of fire or a sunbeam, and I thought I could take hold of this sunbeam with my hand, but I was completely unable to grasp it. For I could not perceive at all that I touched any of my members, since I was there noetically and not in a waking state” (f.113r). When Gregory finally “comes to himself,” he calls all this a “terrible and wonderful vision” (f.113v). In his view, at least, he was not simply dreaming.12 Also, concerning Gregory’s reference to his being having the sense of a flame or a sunbeam, this is classic Gnosticism. In Gnostic systems, the soul is a “divine spark,” a “flame,” and the substance of light, which comes into its own only after it is “liberated” from the material body. Gnostics conceived the soul as having a “subtle body” of its own. Gregory’s description brings to mind Gnostic fables and the so-called “astral body” which modern day occultists speak about and which is clearly a demonic delusion. It is clear that Gregory of Thrace consistently speaks with Gnostic concepts, and this entire Tale of Basil the New is replete with Gnostic doctrine.

One would like to think that all the strange things thus far encountered by the reader can be explained away by the fact that this is just a dream and in dreams there are many irrational elements (in which case, even a person who was not overly sober and reasonable would immediately dismiss the entire story as mere fantasy). Caution is required here, however, because Gregory is eager to assure us that this is not just a dream, but that it is a revelation of the highest order. He says that he thought he was in a waking state and seeing everything with his bodily eyes, which itself would be superior to a simple dream, but he discovers that he is in “an ecstasy” and he sees everything noetically. At the end of the vision he describes all this with great exactitude so that we should not suppose that he is recording just a dream.

Shortly after meeting with Theodora, Gregory asks her not about her state, as he claimed was his desire to know, but “Tell me, my lady, how did you depart under the compulsion of death, and how did you pass through the evil spirits of the air?” (f.71r). At this point Theodora’s long and famous tale begins.

Theodora begins to narrate how, when she was lying on her deathbed, the ugly hordes of the demons surrounded her, terrifying her with their appearance and cries. Then two handsome youths appeared and rebuked the demons (f.73r). While this is going on, another being arrived, “whose appearance was sometimes like a roaring lion, sometimes like an audacious, barbarian youth, holding in his hands swords, sickles, saws, chisels, skewers, adzes, axes, and many other dreadful instruments of torture, wherewith he brings to pass the common death of all men” (f.74r).

Not surprisingly, this is a perfect description of the way the Mithraic deity Kronos was often portrayed. This is one more piece of clear evidence of Gnostic origins for this story. This being then slowly began to dissect Theodora’s body, cutting off her twenty finger and toe nails, then all her joints, causing her unspeakable pain, then beheading her and finally giving her something extremely bitter to drink (though since her head was already severed from her body, it could not have gone very far), by which her soul was forced from her body (f.74v). It is too bad that Fr. Seraphim Rose did not discuss this part of the story in his book, The Soul After Death. Surely he could have explained how this demonic mutilation is part of the Church’s holy tradition.

Further, one wonders whether this cruel being was a devil or an angel. For St. Andrew of Crete the hour of death is an awesome and holy spectacle where the angels of God are present to fulfill God’s commands. But for Gregory it is a gruesome and hideous spectacle of torture, though Theodora was a pious Christian.

After Theodora’s soul had been wrested from her and the two angels had grasped it, she said, “And I saw my tabernacle lying there dead, without breath, motionless and inactive, and I marveled with great astonishment, perceiving it to be the same as if someone took off his cloak” (f.74v). For Gregory, the body is no more than a cloak which is taken off with great difficulty; after the separation of soul and body, Theodora is still the same Theodora. This is sheer Platonism and nothing more. According to St. Gregory Palamas, “The word ‘man’ is not applied to either soul or body separately, but to both together, since together they have been created in the image of God” (Prosopoppeiae, PG 150:1361C).

Immediately after Theodora gives up her soul and the angels grasp it, the demons surround them, trying to snatch away Theodora’s soul from the angels. She says that after leaving her body the demons attempted to seize her soul from the angels, and thereupon a sort of trial took place. “Those divine youths investigated all my good works” (f.75r), and sorting them out, “they counterbalanced them with my ancient sins, buying off one with another. While they were busy with this, those Ethiopians and blackish demons mightily rose up against me and strove with the radiant angels of God, trying to wrest me from their hands and drag me down into the pit of Hades” (f.76v).

At this point, Theodora and her angels (psychopomps,13 really) are arguing and bargaining with the demons (actually the archons of the astral planes). There is a great matter made of weighing on a scales her bad deeds against her good deeds (much as Thoth did to the souls in pagan Egyptian mythology and the archons did in Mandean Gnosticism). Just as the demons are getting the upper hand, the Elder Basil appears, though he is still living in the flesh. This suddenly changes matters and the whole business of the scale is strangely abandoned before any outcome is reached. The Elder Basil tells the angels, “‘My lords, this soul has been allotted to me, for it ministered much unto me and gave rest to my old age. Therefore I entreated the Lord for it and His goodness gave it to me.’ Taking out from his breast a scarlet purse filled with pure gold, he gave it to the two youths and said to them, ‘Take these and with them buy off this soul when it passes through the toll booths of the air, for by the grace of Christ I am exceedingly rich as regards my soul [!]. I amassed these gold pieces by my own toils and sweat, and I give them to her so that by them you may free her from the spirits of wickedness when she is soon to encounter (her) debts’” (f.76v). Seeing this, the demons are startled and depart howling.

But we shall see greater delusion and falsehood yet in this “Tale of Basil the New.” Let us look ahead and see what the angels do with the money given them by this Basil (quite clearly a teaching of supererogatory merits is being presented here). At the toll-booth (telonion) of anger, Theodora says, “And my champions, those most beloved youths, made a defense concerning these things also and gave to them (i.e., the demons) the gifts that were due, not from my own good deeds, for these were already spent (by the fifth toll-booth), but from the divine gifts which our righteous father Basil had given me; and then we ascended, leaving them...” (f.81v). We must pause to ask: what precisely is “due” to the demons? Are they rewarded by God for their evil and wickedness by being allowed to collect something that baptized Christians now owe to them? Think about it. Moreover, if the entirety of the good deeds of a pious Christian woman are already “spent” by only the fifth toll-house, what hope is there for most Christians to make it through all twenty of these demonic torture stations?

At the toll-booth of wine-bibbing and drunkenness: “And giving them what was due from the rich gifts of my master and our holy father Basil, my good guides and helpers bought off my sins” (f.84v). At the toll-house for gluttony: “Giving them their due, my guides bought off all my sins with the gifts of my master and holy father” (f.92r).

At the toll-house of fornication, where Theodora’s soul gets into real trouble, the demons say, “‘Either forsake this soul and depart, or by good works of equal weight buy off those things which we have brought forth against it.’ Then those holy youths brought forth from the pouch a portion of that which my most holy father and Christ’s servant Basil had given them for the redemption of my soul, and they gave to them a measure equal to the weight of those true charges they had brought against me” (f.97r).

We should remember at this point that all Gnostic cults, whether Marcionism, Montanism, Novatianism, Manichaeism, Bogomilism, or other varieties, have many things in common. Apart from their universal “dualism,” one can also discern in Gnostic writing a conviction that only the most rigid ascetics can have any hope of salvation. Moreover, the idea of personal purification, rather than synergia (i.e., spiritual struggle in cooperation with God’s grace), is also a dominant feature in many Gnostic writings.

If someone were to attempt to defend this “life” by saying that “No one in the world would take these things literally, and so there is no danger in Gregory’s teachings,” we would have to reply that there are in fact “Orthodox” people who accept this whole toll-house scheme. Furthermore, the entire Roman Catholic system of merits (Theodora’s good works), supererogatory merits (Basil’s gold), purgatory (the possibility of paying off sins somehow), and juridical atonement (divine justice being appeased) is clearly found here. Moreover, can anyone assure with certainty that those who attempt to present this “life” as an authentic Orthodox Christian document do not accept all this as actual doctrine? If they do not accept the doctrines and teachings of this Manichean document, then why do they continue to advocate it?

Let us, bracing ourselves for yet more blasphemy, continue the narration.

After the Elder Basil gives his purse to the angels, Theodora says, “Lo, once more my master Basil came, bringing to us countless jars filled with pure olive oil; and there were also venerable and handsome youths with him carrying these jars. The righteous man then commanded them and they opened up the jars and poured out the oil, I mean the oil in each one of the jars, upon my head, and I became filled with oil and mercy and spiritual fragrance, and my face was cleansed” (f.77r). The purpose of all this is never explained and it does not come up again in the narration, though we assume it is just another example of the transferring to Theodora of Basil’s supererogatory merits. Hereafter the Elder Basil says to the psychopomps guiding Theodora’s soul, “My lords and fellow servants, when you have completed that which is this soul’s duty (to undergo), store it away in my divine place of rest which the Lord has prepared and made ready (for me)” (f.77v). Remember that Basil had also said in the beginning, “This soul has been allotted to me” (f.76v). Now if this is the case, what was the purpose of Theodora’s passage through the toll-houses and of Basil’s gold being paid out? Since everything has already been decided, is not the rest an absurd spectacle? But if it is not absurd, who is it for?

After the toll-house of remembrance of wrongs, the angels explain to Theodora’s soul how the demons know everything evil that a man has done and also how the toll-houses work. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, they repeat a fable which is common in Mandean Gnosticism and appears in the Nag Hammadi Gnostic Codices. The fable they contain is, in Gregory of Thrace’s retelling: “Do you not know that every Christian has, from the time of his Baptism, his own good angel to guard him and to lead him into every good work and to write down his good deeds all through his life, but parallel to this, by divine permission, an angel of evil goes with him, following him and himself recording all the bad deeds that he performs, so long as he is in this life, all life long? These angels of evil report all misdeeds in detail to the guardians of each gate, so that those who lie in wait to stop and hold each human soul who dies and takes this way of ascent, may drive it off into the abyss of fire and the depth of Hades, where they also have their place, unless the soul has properly repented of what it has done, and with the aid of a guardian angel is able to produce good deeds that clearly measure up and are balanced against the sins and base thoughts displayed by the accusers, and thus the soul will be able to escape their hands. But if it is not found with more, or an equal number of, good points to balance bad deeds, that by them the soul may be bought off, they drag it away violently and mercilessly beat and bind it up and as was said, thrust it down in the abyss of Hades in darkness and the shadow of death until the fearful and inexorable Judgment. So it is that they know all the sins of men in this world” (f.87r-88r).

One does not even need to discuss the heretical concept of salvation being taught in this passage. Clearly it is a doctrine of salvation by good deeds and merits. But where are the concepts of grace, mercy, or forgiveness in the toll-house myth?

Theodora’s soul has difficulty at some toll-houses, like those of anger, slander, foolish speechwhich comprises bawdy songs which she sang and taught to others, licentious walking about, uncontrolled laughter, ribald jestingdrunkenness, gluttony, adultery, and fornication, but at others it is determined that she never sinned throughout her entire life. This is marvelous in itself, but we are even more astonished when we find that these toll-houses include: malice, pride, vainglory (or vanity), love of money, remembrance of wrongs, stealing, and a number of others. Theodora claims that not one sin of remembrance of wrongs was found, but she is clearly seen to remember wrongs even in this narration. She tries to excuse herself from her acts of fornication by saying that young men led her astray, that is, they wronged her, and she also blames God for not having taught her about the toll-houses. But from the other toll-houses we see that she was engaged in singing bawdy songs, ribald jesting, drunkenness, lascivious dancing, and so on. She was no victim of evil men, but quite enjoyed herself. She should, therefore, have had the humility to blame herself here and not others. Furthermore, she never confessed the sins of fornication (f.96v), and the only reason for this can be her pride and vainglory, though she is reputed to be wholly sinless in this respect. In fact, it is doubtful that there has ever lived another human being so holy as Theodora, except our Savior of course, because she never committed a single sin of pride or vainglory. Imagine, a human being without vanity, especially a person whose life was so questionable in many other realms! St. John Chrysostom even suspects that the Theotokos was subject to “superfluous vanity” when she asked that our Savior come out to speak with her (Homily 44 on Matthew).

As for pride, it is the chief human illness which nestles in the very depths of the heart, it is the origin of all the sins and the cause of man’s downfall. For this reason even the greatest saints struggled mightily with this passion, whereas the rest of us are totally submerged in it. St. John of the Ladder says: “Where a fall has overtaken us, there pride has already pitched its tent; because a fall is an indication of pride” (23:4). Is there any man who has never fallen in his life? We already know about Theodora. But Theodora says, “How and of whom could I desire to be proud, being a poor slave woman from birth?” (f.81v). If she is deluded enough to believe this, the demons are not.

From these observations alone we can conclude that Gregory’s tale about the toll-houses is untrue and that either he simply made it up, or he was led astray by some demonic vision. In order to advocate their teachings, Gnostic writers often contrived entire “gospels” and frequently produced whole works and series of works which they falsely attributed to apostles or famous Christian writers and fathers.

Before continuing with Theodora’s story we should take note of something the angels tell her: “But if men knew of these things (the toll-houses), they would strive greatly to be delivered from such dire circumstances, even as some of them actually do and pass unscathed through the toll-houses, though these be very rare and one out of a thousand or ten thousand. But since they do not know about them, they live negligently” (f.85v). Theodora also says that she would not have committed fornication if she had known about the toll-houses. Apart from the doubt this passage casts on the character of God, Who must thus purposely withhold this knowledge, Gregory is teaching something here which is grossly wrong and which our Savior Himself condemned. In the parable about Lazarus and the rich man, the rich man asks Abraham to send back Lazarus to tell his brothers about what he (the rich man) is suffering, “lest they also come into this place of torment.” Abraham answers (in the words of our Savior), “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.” When the rich man objects, “Nay, father Abraham, but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent,” Abraham answers, “If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rose from the dead” (Lk. 16:28-31). Here our Savior is condemning “special revelations” about things not revealed in Scripture, and He says that if a man will not come to repentance by listening to God through the Scriptures, he will not repent by listening to men or to the revelations of demons. But Gregory is full of special revelations and he thinks that this will greatly edify others, contrary to the words of the Savior.

Theodora’s soul finally traverses the toll-houses and passes through the “gates of heaven.” Once within, it is taken to worship the Holy Trinity and then shown around. Here Theodora’s story is similar to many other Gnostic tales about such heavenly visions and has the usual materialistic descriptions. Indeed, this section of the narration follows closely the Massalian document falsely attributed to St. Makarios of Egypt, which states that the soul of a deceased person wanders in familiar places for three days, and that it is then taken to heaven to reverence God, and afterwards taken to Hades to witness the torments of the damned until the fortieth day. For Gregory claims that she was then taken to Hades, and forty days after her death, her soul was taken to Basil’s house. It is difficult to understand how Theodora knew that forty days had passed when, in that place, as she herself says, “the day is unwaning” (f.70v). In any case, what meaning could earthly time have in a “noetic” realm, since time is the measure of the motion of material objects?

At this point, the tale returns to Gregory, and Theodora’s “soul” leads Gregory inside the Elder Basil’s house where he, on a lofty throne (though still alive on earth, mind you), is sitting at table with his departed spiritual children, feasting with them. Gregory falls at his feet and Basil says, “Welcome,” touches him (though Gregory couldn’t touch himself), and tells Theodora’s soul to show him around the house and the gardens (f.110r-111r). Afterwards Gregory “as it were comes to himself” and ponders that awesome and wondrous vision (f. 113v).

5. The Other Visions of Gregory of Thrace

In The Tale of Elder Basil the New, Gregory records two other visions, one occurring immediately before the vision concerning Theodora, and the other somewhat afterwards. We cannot examine these visions in detail because the second is some two hundred folio pages in length, but we will discuss certain passages which further reveal the document to be of Gnostic (likely Bogomil) origin.

The first vision supposedly occurs when Gregory has gone to his country estate in Thrace to collect his profits.14 On the way he stops at a house to spend the night. There he finds a belt belonging to the daughter of the owner of the house and decides to keep it, since it is worth two nomismata. The girl looks for it and even asks Gregory if he has seen it, but he denies that he took it, saying to himself, “She has many goods, but I am a poor man; I shall sell it and give its worth to the needy” (§42 in the Acta Sanctorum edition). Continuing his way, the Elder Basil appears to him in a dream and rebukes him for stealing the belt. Gregory denies it, saying, “I did not steal it, I found it” (§43). The Elder Basil continues to rebuke him and also says that he should be careful, lest he fall into a greater temptation. When he arrives at his estates, a certain newly-married woman, Melitine by name, takes a liking to him and tries to seduce him. This woman was the daughter of a powerful witch and caused great evils to whomever resisted her desires, and to her husband if he objected to her behavior. Here we enter into a scenario which is the stuff of sheer fairy tales. Melitine is the name of a mythological demi-goddess/witch who appears in fables and fairy tales in various countries, including early France, with sometimes a variation in the ending of the name. Gregory sees that it would be unwise to get involved with her and finally gets up the courage to castigate her. Thereafter he sees in sleep a black cloud over him and a voice says to him from the cloud, “Take what Melitine has prepared for you” (§46), and immediately he becomes grievously ill. Being in such straits he sees the following vision.

“I saw myself as it were sinking into the earth and I beheld a very deep chasm, the walls of which were very high and faced east and west. Now I was standing on the west wall, but gradually I began to be dragged down while gazing into the dreadful depth of that chasm.... But I saw that there was another world beyond the gorge, a world which earthly tongues cannot describe” (§47).

Gregory then calls upon St. Stephen the First Martyr, for whom he has great reverence. St. Stephen suddenly appears and Gregory asks him to explain the meaning of what he sees. “‘What are these walls, my lord, and what is this deep chasm?’ Answering he said to me: ‘This is the wall of death, and the chasm is that which all men who died must traverse with great effort and difficulty, and then they dwell in that region beyond. The wall on the opposite side is the ascent which leads to the other world. By this ascent the souls of all who have died go up to the summit and by this they behold that world without end, whither all, both great and small, must go to give account for what they have done in their lives.’ Then I said to the saint, ‘And so I, as I see it, my lord, am about to die?’ And he said, ‘Since you have come here, what else do you expect?’” (§47).

Gregory bewails his fate, but then St. Stephen says to him that he will tell him certain words which, when he prays them to the Lord, will deliver him by the aid of St. Stephen.

“And when I asked what were those words by which I could be delivered from this place, the saint ordered me to utter a certain formula (Gk. syntheken, incantation) of most terrible words (in prayer to the Lord) comprising the [names of the] cherubim, the seraphim, and all the heavenly powers,...and turning to the east, I ardently prayed to the Lord all that the first martyr had told me. Then I was again carried down into that terrible chasm from which I was brought up. The saint then again appeared to me and asked, ‘Have you done all that I told you?’ And I said, ‘Yes, saint of God!’ He immediately took my sleeve by his right hand and forcefully dragged me forwards, causing me to go up from whence I descended, that is, to that terrible height on the west wall. And the saint said to me, ‘Behold, how you have been drawn forth from the Hades of death!’” (§48).

Firstly the reader wonders what this chasm of death could possibly be, since Scripture does not teach the existence of any such place. St. Stephen’s explanation does not help very much in clarifying the matter. There are, however, a great many parallels to this in pagan mythology and mystery cults (put water in it, for example, and we have the River Styx). To compound the error, Gregory is delivered from death by a certain magical prayer formula! This is completely pagan. For this reason, the Russian version omits the passage, but it reinforces our evidence that Gregory of Thrace was, like the Elder Basil, a Bogomil, since the recitation of name-formulas is common in Gnostic teaching, as it was in Egyptian paganism. This entire story, and especially the name-formula incantation, is still further proof that this entire tale is sheer Gnosticism, but there is more evidence yet to come.

After being thus delivered, St. Stephen takes Gregory to a certain “courtyard” where there are stored hundreds of stone jars filled with “noetic oil.” St. Stephen explains to Gregory that “these belong to the Elder Basil; with these he anoints sinners and cleanses them from their sins, ‘making them sons of God’” (§49). Here again we see that the Elder Basil somehow possesses the grace of God as his own, and has the ability by anointing someone with his good works (for Gregory earlier establishes that this is what Basil’s oil is) to make them “sons of God.” Then the Elder Basil himself appears, coming forth from the bedchamber, and he and St. Stephen decide to free Gregory completely. They take him to a dark vault. The Elder Basil’s face shines like the sun, and in this light they see an enormous rat, which is the demon that tried to kill Gregory. Then the Elder Basil takes a huge stone and crushes its head and afterwards tells Gregory and St. Stephen to take up rocks and stone the dead rat, which Gregory takes great pleasure in doing. Then Gregory is healed from his illness and soon “the vision ceased, and I came to myself and was greatly astonished in spirit.” He wanted to go and murder Melitine but decided (after some consideration) that it was not the Christian thing to do.

Next up, Gregory’s great vision concerning the Last Judgment and the end of the world is at least a little more coherent than the vision described above. The vision takes place in this manner. One day while he was sitting by himself and contemplating how he could be delivered from his sins, suddenly the thought occurred to him that “the Jewish faith is pious, and they do well by worshipping the Maker of heaven and earth (f.147v).... And how is it that their faith is evil and ours is good?” (f.148v). Thinking this over in his mind, Gregory decides to go see the Elder Basil. On the way he passes by the stadium when the chariot races are just beginning, and he is carried away by the desire to see who is going to be the winner of the races of the “First Day of the Palms,” a special event in the racing season. So he watches the races, thinking to himself that “there is no sin in it, since I did not come here for this reason, but chanced to pass by here” (f.150r). Let us pause for a moment to reflect on the confused and disjointed way in which Gregory reasons, or rationalizes, his every action and deed. It appears as if he has no stable concept or right and wrong and very little control over his thought patterns and actions. Since he is in such a state of moral and even rational confusion, how are we to believe that he is sanctified and purified enough to be receiving revelations of such magnitude from God or any visions at all. Surely such revelations and visions occur only to those who are already glorified and called as prophetsor at least who have a clear grasp of right and wrong and some modicum of self-control.

Following the races, Gregory goes his way to the Elder Basil, who severely rebukes him for thinking that the Jews believe rightly and for going to the chariot races. Basil takes great pains to demonstrate to Gregory that the Jews have departed from true worship, but Gregory continues to have his doubts (remarkable enough for a man who claims to be granted revelations and visions from God), so he, having learned absolutely nothing at all from his “toll-house” vision, entreats the Elder Basil: “I beseech Your Perfection...that also by means of some divine vision I may receive even greater assurance of these things and that thus you may completely heal my feeble mind and those also who like me, the sinner, fall into such evil thoughts and beliefs and may lead us to the light of the truth. And the righteous man said to me, ‘The Lord, my child, will do for you that which is good and profitable; go now rejoicing, and He will fulfill this request of yours’” (f.158r).

At this point, one cannot help but call to mind the words of St. Barsanuphios the Great: “Whenever a sinful person receives a vision, it is evident that it is from the evil demons in order to deceive the wretched soul into perdition. One should never, therefore, give credence to such visions, but be conscious of one’s own sins and his weakness and lead one’s life always in fear and trembling” (Answer 414).

Gregory (and the purveyors of the “Life of Elder Basil the New”) wish us to believe that Gregory, who has just brought his own faith in Christ into question, is receiving revelations and visions in the grace of the Holy Spirit. It is indisputable that he is in a very unstable spiritual state and it is not time for him to be receiving great and terrible revelations about the Judgment and the end of the world, but for him to get a hold on himself and struggle with his passions. The Elder Basil’s readiness to provide him with visions makes one question his spiritual discernment (if, indeed, Basil ever actually existed). Since the holy fathers call discernment the greatest of the spiritual virtues, it is certain that Basil is sorely lacking in this virtue, and so we must once again question the nature of his magic oil and meritorious gold coins.

Nevertheless, this pitiful, deluded tale continues. The same night, a little after midnight, Gregory finishes his prayers and sits down, and he immediately “sees himself in a certain verdant plain” (f.158v). Here his vision begins and the description goes on to folio page 350v, that is 400 book pages! An angel meets him on that plain and they begin to journey upwards through the air and into diverse realms, “in mystic divine vision conjoined with ineffable sweetness and boundless ecstasy we proceeded onwards” (f.160v). In one of these realms they come to a beautiful city. Gregory asks the angel what city it is and the angel explains to him that after the Savior completed the mystery of His incarnate dispensation, after His Ascension and “after the passage of forty days He built this for His holy disciples and apostles, and for the prophets and all who believed in Him through their preaching” (f.165r).

Soon after this, Gregory begins to see the beginning of the end of the world and the Judgment. He sees an awesome angel dressed in white carrying a “tome in his hand which was like fire. In this book was an epistle from the Lord addressed to Satan, whose kingdom, they said, was completed, he having reigned over the face of the earth for three years” (f.168r). The angel proceeds to read this letter to Satan; it commands that Satan together with all his host be surrendered to torments “and to non-being and to depart completely from the world and be forgotten” (f.168v). It is most absurd to think that the Savior would write Satan a letter, like a king to his vassal, and it is contrary to the Church’s teaching that the devil would be consigned to non-being and cease to exist. Gregory, however, is anxious to assure us that he did not make these things up, and he says:

“I shall relate to you terrible and astonishing and really marvelous and strange mysteries; therefore I beseech you, my hearers, to listen to my words with all attention and sobriety and perfect fear of God, for these things are dreadful and unheard of and hard for any human to hear and believe, and so most will not believe them, especially the more simple men. Hence I entreat you, my brethren, let no one be scandalized at what is said and so lose a blessing and a reward. For as one who stood at the dreadful and unerring throne of the dread and just Judge, I have set down in this book with all exactitude that which I saw, truthfully and changing nothing, and I have committed it to you for the general edification of those who read it. Therefore, one must pay attention to what is going to be said” (f.172v).

And this from a man who has just confessed that he could not make up his mind which was correct, Judaism or Christianity. One is simply stupefied at the arrogant presumption of these words. Gregory speaks with greater authority than the prophets and the apostles and all the saints, for nowhere does any of them make such claims. But to make matters worse, when one reads the preposterous things Gregory proceeds to write, one is forced to think that Gregory is totally mad, and makes God out to be utterly senseless. It is very hard to convey in a few words and by a few examples the picture which Gregory paints in 400 pages. We can mention but a few points.

Gregory sees how all men are resurrected, each man differing from another in his aspect, according to the deeds he has committed and according to his belief; a few are radiant, but most possess various shades of darkness. On the foreheads of each man are written his sins. The saved are called by category into the kingdom, and the damned are also grouped in categories, by race and by belief. The countless idolaters are quite perplexed by the goings on and “hearing the name of Christ, they say: ‘Who is this? We are totally ignorant of this name and have never heard it, for we worshipped many gods, ardently and sincerely serving them. If they have raised us up, we have no fear that evil will befall us.... But if this Christ Who is now called God has raised us up, then woe to us, the wretched sinners, for we shall be guilty of all condemnation and torment!’” (f.178r).

We are, therefore, to conclude that God is responsible for their damnation, since He did not inform them about Christ and they served their gods as best they knew; they are actually guiltless and innocent victims of the malice of a heartless deity; but this is completely wrong. God judges and condemns no one, but each receives according to his measure, the measure which a man has prepared for himself in this life. For a man to receive beyond this measure would in fact be a merciless torment to him, even as demons are burned by the grace of God but angels delight in it. Whatever capacity an ignorant idolater has created for himself, accordingly he will receive on that day, and this will be true justice. He will not be punished simply because he was ignorant of Christ, but his own conscience will afflict him for whatever knowing and voluntary evil he may have done, for the apostle clearly says, “For when the nations, who do not have the Law, do by nature the things contained in the Law, they, not possessing the Law, are a law unto themselves, who demonstrate the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also witnessing for them, and their thoughts also either accusing them or excusing them in the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ, according to my Gospel” (Rom. 2:14-16). On that day, a man is self-condemned, and according to the holy fathers, the words “the books shall be opened” mean that a man’s mind will be opened by divine grace to the naked truth of reality, no longer beclouded by the devil’s delusions and by a man’s passions. As the Savior says, “For everyone who doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deed should be reproved.” “This is the judgment” (Jn. 3:20, 19).

Immediately after the cited passage in this “Apocalypse of Gregory of Thrace” relating to the pagans, the Jews are heard to say almost the same as the pagans said: “If it is the God of our fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,...we fear nothing;...but if it is the Son of Mary, woe to us” (f.178v).

Gregory describes endlessly all the different groups of the saved and all the groups of the damned, how each comes before the throne of the Son of God and receives either the kingdom or Gehenna. For the Macedonians, for example, who denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit appears like a dove perched on a magnificent throne (f.275v). (It seems that heretics of all stripes have a penchant for depicting the invisible God.) This blasphemous device would, in fact, probably be a final proof to the Macedonians that they were correct in their belief, for if the Holy Spirit really is of one essence with the Father and the Son in the Holy Trinity, why should He hope to prove this by appearing as a created being that is inferior to man himself. If He were to have appeared like a dove, a species completely differing from the Father and the Son in essence and being, would not the Macedonians be even more convinced in their error?

Among the many condemned to the left hand, Gregory beholds the following assembly come before the Lord’s judgment seat. “Their faces were like men suffering from melancholy, sometimes they were filled with shame and despondency, sometimes they shone, and their hands also were half and half, I mean, dark and light,...and also their feet...and likewise their eyes gazed sometimes in a kindly way, sometimes coarsely. And the Lord looked upon them and saw that they were one half evil and had not attained to the perfect degree of pleasing Him,...and He turned His face away from them and condemned them” (f.266v-267r). How well this fits with the idea of toll-houses, where God is a cold, strict Judge, and only those who are perfected in virtue through personal effort, not grace, have any hope of being saved.

Then the harsh angels of the fire come suddenly upon them and violently drag them to the ocean of fire as they turn their gaze towards the Lord and cry out pitifully, “Spare us, O long-suffering Lord Who forbears with evils; spare us, O compassionate and merciful King!” (f.267r). The Lord, seeing them dragged off to the fire, “seemed sometimes to show compassion, sometimes to be wroth with them, while all the holy angels silently wept over them and though tears flowed from their eyes they did not dare to intercede for them” (f.267v).

Now while God has difficulty here making up His mind and while the angels are too terrified of their Masteror perhaps of Justice, which also seems here superior to Godto speak out, suddenly a beautiful maiden descends “from the highest,” preceded by a suite of angels like a queen. She quickly bows before the Judge and runs off in pursuit of the condemned assembly. She then halts the angels of fire, saying, “As the face of my Father in the heavens lives, and of His only-begotten Son, and by the divine power of His all-holy Spirit, this assembly shall not be punished!” (f.269r). The angels of the fire recognize her as the “first daughter of the King,” that is, almsgiving (or mercifulness) and return the assembly to the Lord’s judgment seat. Then the maiden (almsgiving) embraces the Lord’s feet and says to Him, “My Lord, I know that because of fornication and impurity and every kind of unlawful activity this wretched assembly is guilty of the Gehenna of fire, for they were not converted and did not propitiate by repentance and confession the sovereignty of Thy kingdom. But because of their almsgiving and the abyss of Thy mercy, through me, remit to them their transgressions” (f.269v).

While the assembly is trembling like a leaf, the Lord then gives the following sentence: “On account of your almsgiving I spare you and remove you from the terrible punishment of unquenchable fire; but on account of your fornication and impurity which you did not abandon until your last breath [Is this considered “half evil”?], I shall not lead you into this My beautiful and wondrous city,...nor will you behold My kingdom” (f.270r).

Thereupon he beckons to the angels to prepare a place for them, “a place of rest, but deprived of the necessities of eternal life” (f.270v). Is this other than the teaching of “limbo,” a reintroduction of certain pagan forms of the Hades myth? This is certainly a fabrication already condemned by the Church and it is seen nowhere else except in the writings of Augustine (the fate of unbaptized infants) and in Roman Catholic doctrine.

There are many absurdities in this description, such as the divided state of these men, the helplessness of the Savior before the demands of Justice, and the personification of almsgiving, which somehow acts independently of God to influence Him toward mercy (and thus one may say that she acts in a manner morally superior to God). But worst of all, in order to satisfy Justice, Gregory teaches the existence of some middle realm, some limbo, as we mentioned whither every man will go who has not “attained to the perfect degree of pleasing God,” neither suffering punishment nor enjoying the kingdom, but being at rest, will not possess eternal life. This would include every human being who has ever lived, though, for which man can truly be said to have “attained the perfect degree of pleasing God”?

The climax of all this is the judgment of the Jews, for which reason Gregory had the vision in the first place (since he himself could not make up his mind whether the Jews or the Christians were correcta lack of faith and conviction which, we are supposed to believe, qualified him for a vision and revelation equal to that of Apostle John the Divine). When they are brought to judgment, Christ first rebukes them, saying, “O foolish and blind, senseless and mindless sons of Israel, am I not the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God and God, the King of the ages, the only just Judge, He Who bowed the heavens and came upon earth?... And having become man, I spoke to you in your synagogues,...saying to you, ‘I am the light of the world,’ and, again, ‘I and the Father are one,’ and ‘He that honors not the Son honors not the Father...’” (f.300v).

After this long speech, the Jews begin to cry out after Moses, blaming him since they simply followed his statutes. Then Moses appears and harangues them that they have erred, that Christ is God, that they should worship Him, and about the meaning of the Law, and so on. But the Jews are not satisfied with this and begin to cry out: “O God of our fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, O God of the Law, have mercy and save us from this dire hour, and turn away Thy wrath from us by Thy compassionate mercy; for besides Thee we know no other God, and to no other God have we stretched out our hands” (f.310v).

Suddenly “a terrible lightning blazed and stretched out over the entire face of that earth” (f.310v). The light of this lightning was white as snow and it overshadowed God the Word (Logos) so that Gregory could no longer see Him. Then, “That most radiant cloud which encompassed the Lord was parted a little before the visage of His divine countenance, and lo, we (i.e., Gregory and the angel) saw another throne like unto the throne of judgment, and upon it God the Father rested, like the Ancient of Days, and sat together with His only-begotten Son and Word” (f.311r).

God the Father then speaks to the Jews: “And lo, a voice like the sound of a trumpet...says to that miserable and wretched synagogue (or gathering): ‘Whom else will ye call the God of your fathers and the God of the Law? Is not He My only-begotten Son and Word, Whom I sent to you to save you? But not only did you not receive Him, you unjustly gave Him over to a dishonorable death...’” (f.311v).

Gregory asks us to believe many strange and heretical things here. He says that he saw God the Father, that he saw Him like the Ancient of Days, and that the Father remonstrates with the Jews in order that they not complain about their condemnation. Gregory does not believe in the words of our Savior, “He that seeth Me, seeth Him that sent Me” (Jn. 12:45) and thinks that the Father has a circumscribable, depictable, and created form, one differing in appearance from the Son’s incarnate form. But since the Father has no created form, He is invisible to created beings. For this reason the Savior says, “Ye have neither heard His voice at any time, nor seen His form” (Jn. 5:37), and again, “Not that any man hath seen the Father, except He that is of God, He hath seen the Father” (Jn. 6:46). Gregory thinks that the Ancient of Days, mentioned in the book of the Prophet Daniel, is the Father, but this is very wrong. The holy fathers, as well as the services of the Church, clearly teach that the Ancient of Days is God the Son. There are endless absurdities in Gregory’s vision, and we have seen enough that it is not worth the time to expose still more of them now.

At the end of the great vision, Christ Himself speaks to Gregory for many pages, giving him messages for the clergy and the leading monastics of Constantinople. (This reminds one of the Roman Catholic “apparitions” containing important messages to be relayed to the Church.) He tells Gregory to record everything he has seen: “My grace will give you strength and knowledge to understand everything you have seen and everything you have heard from Me, and to relate all this to My churches and all My people. Blessed is he who will receive all of this with faith and without inquisitiveness,...but woe to the evil man among them who will not believe these things, for he shall not be among the portion and lot of the saved!” (f.343r).

And this to a man who could not yet make up his mind whether the Jews or Christians were correct! Further, the delusion (prelest) which Gregory thinks is Christ foretells to him that there will be those who doubt and make fun of this vision, but they are self-condemned. Thus, according to Gregory of Thrace, everyone who does not accept his hallucinations (or fabrications) and the outrageous heresies and delusions they teach, will without fail go to hell.

We must leave Gregory of Thrace and his tales and fantasies of Elder Basil the New and Theodora to the Neo-Gnostics and deluded sectarians; they have nothing to say to Orthodox Christians. The late Neo-Gnostic Fr. Seraphim Rose and his disciples have done a tragic disservice to Orthodox Christians everywhere, and to those who are seeking the truth, by ignorantly introducing the toll-house myth as if it constituted Christian doctrine rather than Manichean fantasy, and for advancing the fabulous Tale of Elder Basil the New without discernment or understanding of its contents. It is tragic that this tale entered the Russian collection of Lives of Saints, inherited from Bogomil sources.

We are aware that many holy people have been misled by the toll-house fable, even the great St. John Maximovitch. There is no doubt that they would have utterly rejected this nonsense if they were aware of all the information presented above and the unedited version of this text. It may be true that a form of ill-advised humility kept many from questioning it, and yet many have cautioned readers not to take its toll-house tale in a real or literal sensean injunction clearly ignored by Fr. Seraphim Rose’s more theosophical followers. It is sad that no one, realizing the suspicious nature of the contents of this “life,” researched the original document and the entire story. We hope to have undone some of the harm and tragedy by presenting this survey of this sorrowful document.


Azkoul, Fr. Michael. “The Return of the Tollhouses,” “A Bad Penny: Toll-Houses Again,” and The Toll-House Myth: The Neo-Gnosticism of Fr. Seraphim Rose (Dewdney, B.C.: Synaxis Press, 2005).

Besevliev, V. Bulgarisch-Byzantinische Aufsatze (Variorum Press, London, 1978).

Foerster, W. “Das Wesen der Gnosis,” in Welt als Geschichte. Nr. 15, 1955.

Hart, David B. “Nor Height Nor Depth: On the Toll Houses.”

Krause, M. Essays on the Nag Hammadi Texts (Leiden, 1978).

Nag Hammadi Codices, Facsimile Edition, UNESCO, 1979.

Obolensky, D. The Bogomils (AMS Press, N.Y., 1976).

Puhalo, Lev. The Tale of Elder Basil “the New” and the Theodora Myth: Study of a Gnostic Document, (Dewdney, B.C.: Synaxis Press, 1999).

Rudolph, K. Gnosis: The Nature & History of Gnosticism (Harper, San Francisco, 1987).

Runciman, Steven. The Medieval Manichee: A Study of the Christian Dualist Heresy (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1982).

Spencer, C. The Heretics Feast (Fourth Estate Publishing Co., London, 1994).


1“Soul” in The Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics (vol. II). Ed. by J. Hastings. New York, 1921, p. 753.

2See K. Rudolph, Gnosis, the Nature and History of Gnosticism. Trans. by R.J. Wilson; San Francisco, 1983, p. 68f.

3The early pseudo-Christian Gnostic sects were syncretistic (i.e., Ecumenistic in the modern sense of the word). The Gnosticism we know originated on the fringes of Hellenistic Judaism. Mandaism appears to have originated around the Jewish exile community in Babylon, with a heavy influence from both the Greek (Alexander the Great) and Persian conquerors of that region. Mandaism did, in fact, at some time become a pseudo-Christian sect. Mandaism was a “baptism sect,” and it had a great deal of influence on other Gnostic systems. Because of its baptism rituals it has often been referred to as the “John Christians.” Historically, this sect has also been known as the Nasoreans. It is a primary source of the telonia or “toll-house” myth.

4There was in 7th-century Alexandria a workshop whose sole purpose was to alter the writings of the fathers and heretics, including St. Cyril (See J. Danielou, “L'Apocatastase chez Saint Gregoire de Nysse,” Recherches de science religieuse XXX (1940), 335-336. See St. Anastasius of Sinai, Via Dux, PG 89 289D-292A. Also of interest is the fact that Gnosticism, against which the fathers fought, was born in Egypt.

5The Paulicians eventually excoriated Mani, the 3rd-C. founder of Manichaeism, but they remained to the end Manichean. If the Manichean movement was the mother church of the later Gnostic sects, it should be remembered that Manichaeism grew out of the heresies of Marcion and Bardasanes, and thus it was based in heretical Christianity. Mani was far from the first of the Gnostics to blend Chaldean and Egyptian paganism with Christian teachings. The reader should also bear in mind the phenomenal success of Manichaeism both in its own time, and of Neo-Manichaeism in medieval times. The 19th-C. manifestation of Manichaeism is called “theosophy” (although theosophy in general did not ascribe to the tenets of extreme asceticism).

6This is according to Prebyter Cosmas, in his published sermon, Against the Heretics (cited in The Bogomils), and his book on the same subject published in 990. Anna Comnenos also mentions this fact in her chronicle called The Alexiad.

7“A Moslem of patrician rank...” It is stated in precisely those words in the original of the “Life” of Elder Basil the New.

8A.A. Vasiliev, History of the Byzantine Empire, vol. 2. Milwaukee, 1964, p. 383f.

9Following the chronology in Gregory of Thrace’s autobiography, Basil would have died in 944, that is, during the time when Patriarch Theophylact and Tsar Peter of Bulgaria were struggling with the rising power of Bogomilism and with the Massalian heresy in the Thracian and Bulgarian monasteries, and when Manichean Gnosticism had taken hold in some of the best homes in Constantinople. Considering how pregnant the “Life” of Elder Basil the New is with sheer Gnosticism, this cannot be a mere coincidence.

10It is interesting that even the Latin editors of the Acta Sanctorum thought it unwise to include Gregory’s visions, although there is much in the vision concerning Theodora’s soul which is akin to their doctrines of purgatory and merits. Also, for similar reasons it seems, the Latins made no mention of this in the arguments at the Council of Florence, though it is very likely that they knew of Gregory’s visions from their occupation of Constantinople.

11One is impelled to compare this with the fully historical details of Basil the Bogomil, who was executed in Constantinople in A.D. 1111. According to his followers, when Basil the Bogomil’s cloak was cast into a fire in the stadium, it floated above the flames and was caught away to heaven. When Basil himself was thrown into the fire, so the “Life” goes, he himself was wafted away and did not actually burn. (See The Alexiad of Anna Comnenos, for example. She was an eyewitness to the events and records them in her work.) This Basil Bogomil was not the founder of the sect, which began in the 800’s, but he was considered to be its “pope” not only by the Slavic and Byzantine Bogomils, but by the Cathars and Albigensians of Western Europe.

12It may have been a dream which he, being Gnostic, took quite seriously. On the other hand, it would not have been at all unusual for a Manichean writer (Bogomil, Paulician, or Massalian) to fabricate such a story in order to spread Gnostic doctrine by means of it. Considering the utterly fantastic nature of the rest of the tale, it could also have been a demonic delusion, but we would suggest that the entire tale was fabricated by an ardent Bogomil as a vector for Gnostic doctrine.

13In pagan mythology a psychopomp was a spirit which guided a departed soul through the passageways and labyrinths of the astral planes. In certain mythologies the psychopomp was thought to ward off negative spirits. We use the term here because the teaching being presented by Gregory of Thrace and/or Elder Basil is clearly pagan and not at all Christian, thus one could not properly call the angels seen in this tale anything but the pagan mythological psychopomps. In Mandean Gnosticism, the psychopomps (Theodora’s “angels”) are called “helper spirits.”

14It is worth recalling that Gregory’s actual home is in Thrace and he spends considerable time there. At that time, Manichean Gnosticism was practically a state religion in Thrace.

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