Strange Aeons

About halfway through the twelfth of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin novels, I was surprised to find myself on familiar ground with an episode wherein Captain Aubrey returns to his ship in Shelmerston harbor, The Surprise, to find seven of his best seamen suspended from duty and liable to be charged with mutiny for having painted the name, "Seth", on the ship's side, and for refusing to remove it. Nor will any others of the ship's crew remove it, fearing bad luck.

Lieutenant Davidge, faced with the situation in Aubrey's absence, understands that the men are Sethians, "Oh, a kind of Ranters or Methodies, I believe , sir". Aubrey turns to his friend, Dr. Maturin and his surgeon's mate, Mr. Martin, (an unemployed Anglican pastor), for enlightenment.

Martin replies, "Well, sir, they descend from the Valentinian Gnostics, but the descent is so long, remote and obscure that there would be little point in tracing it. In their present form they are small independent communities with I believe no governing body; but it is difficult to be sure of that, since they were in danger of persecution as heretics for so long that they are naturally reserved; and there is still something of the air of a secret society about them. They believe that Cain and Abel were brought into being by angels, whereas Seth, who, as you will recall, was born after Abel's murder, was the Almighty's direct pure creation, and not only the ancestor of Abraham and all men now living, but the prototype of our Lord. They have the utmost veneration for him, and believe that he watches over Sethians with particular care.

"It is odd that I should never even have heard of them.", says Aubrey, "Do they often go to sea?

"I imagine not.", says Martin, "Most of the few I have come across or heard of live in small scattered groups in remote inland parts of the West Country. They sometimes carve the name Seth on their houses; and they fall into two schools, mutually hostile, the old school that writes the S backwards and the new that writes it as we do. Apart from that and an unwillingness to pay tithes, they have a reputation for holding together and for being honest, sober and reliable, not unlike the Quakers. Yet unlike the Quakers, they have no dislike for warfare... In any event, these people have left the gnosis of Valentinus infinitely far behind: it is quite forgotten. Their holy books are ours. I believe we may certainly call them Christians, though somewhat heterodox on certain points of doctrine."

As far as I can tell, O'Brian's English Sethians are a fabrication. But his tale has a quality that excites my imagination; not exactly Lovecraftian, since the Sethians are not at all sinister, like the Dagon worshippers of Innsmouth; maybe more M. R. Jamesian. In a remote country village, practices survive that have been handed down from remote antiquity. I remember experiencing a similar reverie upon reading Margaret Murray's The Witch Cult in Western Europe long ago, and Thomas Tryon's Harvest Home.

A small sect, ostensibly Christian, now tolerated, but holding only themselves to be, in fact, saved. It put me in mind of the Yezidis, an obscure Kurdish sect of so-called "devil worshippers". I laughed when right after the episode of the Sethians, Captain Aubrey's new cook Adi, turns out to be a Yezidi, astonishing Mr. Martin. Such a wag you are, Patrick O'Brian.

"Honest, sober and reliable, not unlike the Quakers." The description fits my own ancestors, originally Mennonites or Anabaptists from the Rhineland who emigrated to Pennsylvania, "Pennsylvania Dutch". I pictured their plain mid-nineteenth century Baptist meeting house in the hills of Alabama. It is commonly believed by many, though not all Baptists, that they have always existed since the days of the Apostles, persecuted independent communities that never owed allegiance to councils of the Church, but only to the Bible and the Holy Spirit. My father, who has not practiced his childhood faith, nevertheless made this assertion. Even the churches of the Reformation, in their view, are tainted by the fact that they hived off from the Roman Catholic Church. They do not own the name, "Protestant".

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