Bogomilism was a Christian neo-Gnostic or dualist sect founded in the First Bulgarian Empire by the priest Bogomil during the reign of Tsar Peter I in the 10th century. It most probably arose in what is today the region of Macedonia as a response to the social stratification that occurred with the introduction of feudalism and as a form of political movement and opposition to the Bulgarian state and the church.
The Bogomils called for a return to what they considered to be early spiritual teaching, rejecting the ecclesiastical hierarchy, and their primary political tendencies were resistance to the state and church authorities. This helped the movement spread quickly in the Balkans, gradually expanding throughout the Byzantine Empire and later reaching Kievan Rus’, Bosnia (Bosnian Church), Dalmatia, Serbia, Italy, and France (Cathars).
The Bogomils were dualists or Gnostics in that they believed in a world within the body and a world outside the body. They did not use the Christian cross, nor build churches, as they revered their gifted form and considered their body to be the temple. This gave rise to many forms of practice to cleanse oneself through purging, fasting, celebrating and dancing.
The term Bogomil in free translation means “dear to God”, and is a compound of the Slavic words for “god” (Common Slavic: *bogъ) and “dear” (Common Slavic: *milъ). It may be also a translation of the Greek name Theophilos, literally “dear to God; loved by the gods,” from theos “god” + philos “loved, beloved”. It is difficult to ascertain whether the name was taken from the reputed founder of that movement, the priest Bogomil (Bulgarian: Богомил), or whether he assumed that name after it had been given to the sect itself. The word is an Old Church Slavonic calque of Massaliani, the Syriac name of the sect corresponding to the Greek Euchites. The Bogomils are identified with the Messalians in Slavonic documents from the 13th century.
The members are referred to as Babuni in Church Slavonic documents, which originally meant “superstition; superstitious person” (Common Slavic *babonъ, *babunъ *babona). Toponyms which retain the name include the river Babuna, the mountain Babuna, the Bogomila Waterfall and village Bogomila, all in the region of Azot today in central Republic of Macedonia, suggesting that the movement was very active in the region.
Much of their literature has been lost or destroyed by the contemporary Christian Churches. The earliest description of the Bogomils is in a letter from Patriarch Theophylact of Bulgaria to Tsar Peter of Bulgaria, and the main source of doctrinal information is the work of Euthymius Zigabenus, who says that they believe that God created man’s soul but matter was the invention of Satan, God’s older son, who in seducing Eve lost his creative power. Concerning the Bogomils, something can be gathered from the polemic Against the Newly-Appeared Heresy of the Bogomils written in Slavonic by Cosmas the Priest, a 10th-century Bulgarian official. The old Slavonic lists of forbidden books of the 15th and 16th century also give us a clue to the discovery of this heretical literature and of the means the Bogomils employed to carry on their teachings. Much may also be learned from the doctrines of the numerous variations of Bogomilism which spread in Medieval Kievan Rus’ after the 11th century.