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What is Gnosticism?

This article was written by Llewellyn
posted under Gnosticism

Gnosticism: (from Greek gnosis,” knowledge”) Any of a set of wildly diverse spiritual traditions that emerged in the ancient world around the beginning of the Common Era. Their exact origins are the subject of violent disputes among modern scholars, but Greek mystical traditions, Zoroastrian dualism from Persia, Jewish teachings, and early Christian ideas may all have played some part in generating the Gnostic movement.

Their history is difficult to trace, since Gnosticism was violently opposed by the Christian church. Except for a collection of Gnostic scriptures recovered from Nag Hammadi in Egypt, nearly all the information we now have about Gnosticism thus comes from its bitter enemies. It is clear, though, that Gnostic sects were in existence in much of the Roman world by the second century of the Common Era, flourished in the third and early fourth centuries, and were eliminated or driven underground in the late fourth and fifth centuries.

The core theme uniting all Gnostic teachings is that of gnosis, “knowledge,” which is not a matter of ordinary learning but a personal experience of spiritual truth. The Gnostic is not interested in belief; he or she wants to know, directly and personally, the spiritual realities of the cosmos. Most Gnostic systems combine this stress on personal experience with a harshly dualistic and at least slightly paranoid vision of the universe. In this view, the entire material world is a prison created by evil powers, the archons, to entrap souls from a higher world of light. To be living in a material body in the world is to be trapped in an alien realm, at the mercy of the archons and their terrifying leader—the “blind god” Ialdabaoth, also known as Saklas and Samael, who is also the God of the Old Testament.

Beyond the false world of matter lies the true world, the world of light, ruled by the aeons, who are both beings and realms. The creation of the material world and the archons was considered by many Gnostics to be the result of a mistake by one of the aeons, Sophia (“Wisdom”), who desired to create something on her own, and managed only to give birth to a maimed, blind entity, shaped like a serpent with a lion’s head: Ialdabaoth. Hoping to hide her deed from the other aeons, Sophia cast her creation out of the world of light into the void. In the process, though, sparks of light from the true world entered the void, and when Ialdabaoth fashioned a world out of the substance of the void, the sparks were trapped in it. Ialdabaoth created the other archons; together they made physical bodies as prisons for the sparks of light, and created stars and planets to enmesh the sparks in a merciless net of astrological destiny. In this way the world we know came into being.

The goal of most versions of Gnosticism is to break free of Ialdabaoth’s world and return to the world of light. This escape hatch is not open to all, however. Many Gnostic sources divide human beings into three classes: hylics (from hyle, “matter”) who are robotic creations of the archons, and cannot escape the material world; psychics (from psyche, “mind”) who have the potential to break free from matter and rise to the realm of light, but have to work at it; and pneumatics (from pneuma, “spirit”) who have gnosis as an innate birthright and can count on returning to the world of light. These basic principles seem to have been accepted by most (although not all) Gnostic systems as a common foundation. The structures built on that foundation, however, were fantastically diverse. Some Gnostic traditions were explicitly Christian, and taught that Jesus of Nazareth was an aeon of the world of light who descended into the false world of matter to liberate souls from the clutches of the Archons. Others pointed to Seth, the third son of Adam, as the one who opened the way of escape. Other Gnostics turned the villains of the Bible—Cain, Esau, the inhabitants of Sodom, and so forth—into heroes rebelling against the power of the evil creator.

There were a few Gnostic teachers and traditions that ignored the Bible and the imagery of standard Judeo-Christian thought altogether. Most Gnostic writings, however, kept a focus on these sources, reinterpreting them in various ways. To some extent, Gnosticism functioned as a sort of conspiracy theory of the spiritual realm, treating orthodox ideas as a theological “official account” that had to be seen through in order to get at the truth. Gnostic writers combed through the events of the Book of Genesis, in particular, in much the same way that modern conspiracy buffs pore over details of the Kennedy assassination—and their proposed interpretations varied just as widely.

Gnostic practice was as diverse as Gnostic theory. Magical rites were apparently much practiced; Plotinus, the great Platonist philosopher, criticizes their reliance on charms in his essay Against the Gnostics. A number of the surviving Gnostic scriptures include magical invocations and words of power closely related to those found in the Graeco-Egyptian magical papyri.

There were some Gnostics who argued in favor of a life of asceticism and spiritual discipline, and sex in particular was often roundly condemned, since it created new human bodies in which souls were imprisoned. Others argued that if the god of conventional religion was evil, what he prohibited must be good, and on this basis insisted that every kind of sexual activity was permitted. One middle ground between these positions was to prohibit forms of lovemaking that could lead to pregnancy but to consider anything else fair game.

After its suppression in the Roman world, Gnosticism continued to be taught and practiced in small underground sects in various parts of the Middle East. At least one of these sects, the Mandeans, has survived in southern Iraq to this day. Another, the Bogomils, flourished in the early Middle Ages in what is now Bulgaria, and missionaries from this sect traveled west to Italy and southern France in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, launching the most widely known Gnostic movement in the West, the Cathar heresy.

The Inquisition, formally established in 1239 as a weapon against Catharism, gradually eliminated what was left of the Cathars after the church-sponsored crusade that began in 1208. Gnosticism in the Western world thereafter existed primarily as a footnote in history books until the nineteenth century, when several small Gnostic sects were established in France as part of the early phases of the occult renaissance of that period. Attitudes toward the Gnostics underwent a major change around that time, as part of the Romantic revaluation of outcast traditions and rejected knowledge. Many opponents of established versions of Christianity turned to Gnosticism, either as a polemic weapon or as a framework for new quasi-Christian approaches to spirituality. The Theosophical Society, which spearheaded the alternative spirituality movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, portrayed the Gnostics as enlightened mystics slaughtered by bigoted orthodox fanatics; this portrayal became wide-spread throughout occult circles during the “Theosophical century” from 1875 to 1975. Swiss psychologist Carl Jung (1875–1961) also drew substantially on what was known of Gnosticism in his creation of analytic psychology.

It is worth noting, however, that all speculation and discussion of Gnosticism from the fall of Rome until the early 1970s was based on a handful of sources, nearly all of them written by early Christian clergymen who were far more interested in denouncing the Gnostics than understanding them. In 1945, however, farmers near the village of Nag Hammadi in Egypt came across a buried pottery jar in which were concealed twelve leather-bound volumes of ancient Gnostic scriptures. Scholarly turf wars delayed their publication and translation for more than two decades, but a complete facsimile edition was published in stages between 1972 and 1977, and a one-volume English translation was issued in 1977.

The result has been a great upsurge in interest in Gnosticism, and the rise and spread of a number of Gnostic religious and spiritual organizations. Several alternative branches of Christianity connected with the independent bishops movement have redefined themselves as Gnostic. Few of these recent Gnostics, though, have ventured into the profound dualism of ancient Gnostic thought—which may be just as well.

From Secrets of the Lost Symbol, by John Michael Greer


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