Gnosis - Gnosticism

A brief introduction to its History and Meaning

Harvard professor Harold Bloom, in his 1992 book The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post Christian Nation proclaimed that the "self-concealed core of American Religion’ is "Orphic, Gnostic, Millenarian." In a more recent work (1996), Omens of Millennium, he quotes Adeous Huxley as defining Gnosis as the "perennial philosophy that is concerned with the one, divine Reality substantial to the manifold world of things and lives and minds." He then goes on to assert that at the core of Gnosticism is the belief in a radically transcendent God who is not the Creator. "The world we live in imprisons both the transcendent God and the divine spark in human beings. The goal of life is to escape the created order through the knowledge (Greek gnosis) of the deepest self revealed by an alien messenger." (Emphasis added) 1

Gnosis, or knowledge, as understood in Gnostic religious systems, thus does not refer to rational understanding of natural or supernatural reality, but involves an awareness through illumination, intuition, initiation or induced trance that the human spirit is consubstantial with the divine ground of being.

One can find examples of this train of thought in the West as far back as 2nd Century AD denounced in the writings of such orthodox Catholic writers as Justin Martyr, Tertulian, Irenaeus of Lyon, Clement of Alexandria, and Hippolytus of Rome, who until recently, were the primary sources of our knowledge regarding Gnostic beliefs. The following quote regarding their teachings is taken from Hippolytus:

"Abandon the search for God and the creation and other matters of a similar sort… Learn who it is within you who makes everything his own way and says, `My God, my mind, my thought, my soul, my body.’ Learn the sources of sorrow, joy, love hate…If you carefully investigate these matters you will find him [god] in yourself," 2


 Historically the foundations of Gnosticism are clouded in mystery. Ion Couliano, in his The Tree of Gnosis makes the case that Western Gnosticism finds its roots in Orphism. He states that, according to the Orphics who flourished in Greece during, if not prior to, the fourth century BC, there was a time before history when the preternatural giants or Titans rebelled against the gods and murdered and devoured one of them, Dionesius. In revenge of this deicide, Zeus destroyed the rebellious Titans with a thunderbolt and Humankind was born from their ashes. We humans, therefore, have a divine seed within us as we contain the fragments of the (divine) Dionesius swallowed by the Titans that was residual in their ashes. 3 In order to re-establish union with the divine source, Orphic ideology and practice entailed world rejection and devaluation of the body, reincarnation and vegetarianism. There is little doubt that the Orphic mysteries had a strong influence on Plato and later Neoplatonism with its doctrine of metemsomatosis or entrapment of spirit in matter. 4 The Gnostic heresy denounced by the Church Fathers; Ireneus, Justin Martyr and Hippolytus et al, would appear to be, in fact, a curios mix of Jewish scriptures, Talmudic lore, the Christian apostolic tradition, and the Orphic Neoplatonism described above. It has also been suggested that Gnostic religion draws on the Greek concept of hypostatization (personification)of concepts or abstract generative entities which function as archai, or governors of our cosmos. Together these hypostases (personifications) make up the Pleroma„ or fullness of being as opposed to the Kenoma or void. 5

 These speculations have been corroborated by the discovery in 1945 of a series of papyrus texts that had belonged to a flourishing Egyptian Gnostic community dating from the first century AD. The documents, written in Coptic, have since been fully documented and translated into modern languages under the auspices of UNESCO and the Carl Jung Foundation of Zurich. 6 From this original source material it is possible to confirm the fundamental tenets of their beliefs.

 Although there are many variants, the fundamental gnostic mythos, as denounced by the Church Fathers and confirmed by Nag Hammadi texts, is as follows: The Pleroma„ is divided into 30 Aeons„ (personified forces) which live in syzygy„ or paired opposites making up the Ogadoad (eight), the Decad (ten) and Duodecad„ (twelve) uncreated forces of the cosmos which one may call divine. The last Aeon of the Dodecad is Sophia (Wisdom) through whom the created order comes into existence.

The Nag Hammadi text; Thunder, Perfect Mind, offers an extraordinary poem spoken in the voice of Sophia as the feminine divine power:

I am the first and the last I am the honored one and the scorned one I am the whore and the holy one I am the wife and the virgin… I am the barren one, and many are her sons I am the silence and the incomprehensible I am the utterance of my own name… 7


 Another text , Trimorphic Protenoia (Tripple-formed primal thought) puts these words in the mouth of Sophia:

"[I] am [Protonoia the] Thought that [dwells] in [the Light] … [She who exists] before the All… I move in every creature… I am the invisible one within the all. "

"I am androgenous. [I am both Mother and] Father, since [I copulate with myself]…and with those who love me… I am the Womb [that gives shape] to the All…I am Me[iroth]ea, the glory of the Mother." 8


A third variant, again from a Nag Hammadi text, the Apocalypse of Adam speaks of the same basic theme:

"..from the nine Muses, one (Sophia) separated away. She came to a high mountain and spent time seated there, so that she desired herself alone in order to become androgynous. She fulfilled her desire, and became pregnant from her desire." 9


The result of Sophia’s frustrated desire or self infatuation, no matter which text one follows, is a male abortive creature, Proarchon (First Ruler) or Demiurge. The Demiurge, unaware of his divine provenance, believes himself to be alone and brings forth from himself emmanations which are Archons (Rulers) like himself, to whom he boasts "I am God and no one exists beside me!" At this point, according to both Irenaeus and The Nag Hammadi Apocryphon of John, Sophia calls out from above and says, "You are wrong, Samael! (God of the blind) and to prove it, stretched forth her finger and introduced light into matter." 10 "It was because he was foolish and ignorant of his mother that he said I am God; there is none beside me." 11

It is obvious from the above, that with all its complicated theogony, the root purpose of all Gnostic argumentation was to establish a maternal source prior to the male Creator God of the Old Testament. In fact, virtually all the Gnostic sects identify the Demiurge with the Hebrew YAHWEH 12 whom some called Ialdabaoth, most likely a corruption of the Aramaic yalda behût "Son of Shame. 13 For the Gnostic, then, the Hebrew God YAHWEH is the miscreant son of the "whore and holy one" Sophia and the personification of Evil, and matter is considered to be the coagulation of the primal anguish, fright, pain and ignorance experienced by Sophia in giving him birth. 14

There are many and varied Gnostic myths regarding the creation of man, however, there is an overall similarity in their presentation. For instance the Nag Hammadi text, On the Origin of the World states:

After the day of rest, Sophia [literally, " wisdom"] sent Zoe [literally, "life"], her daughter, who is called Eve, as an instructor to raise up Adam…When Eve saw Adam cast down, she pitied him and she said "Adam live! Rise up upon the earth!"… When he saw her he said, " you will be called ‘mother of the living,’ because you are the one who gave me life." 15


Another text unearthed at Nag Hamadi, The Hypostasis of the Archons gives a similar account:

"And the spirit endowed Woman came to [Adam] and spoke with him saying, "Arise, Adam." And when he saw her, he said, "It is you who have given me life; you shall be called "Mother of the living" … Then the Female Spiritual principle came in the snake, the Instructor, and taught them, saying, "…you shall not die; for it was out of jealousy that he said this to you. Rather your eyes shall be open, and you shall become like gods, recognizing evil and good."…. And the arrogant ruler cursed the Woman…[and] the snake." 16


Thus, as there is no "Fall from grace" or "Original Sin" for the Gnostic, Jesus is not a redeemer (totally unnecessary) but a spiritual Aeon sent by Sophia to instruct men as to their divine nature. 17 Whereas virtually all the Gnostic traditions accepted the crucifixion event as a historic fact, they deny that the Aeon Jesus suffered death. Some claimed that it was Simon of Cyrene who died on the cross, as in the Second treatise of the Great Seth, 18 while others claimed that Jesus only appeared to die and that those present who were illuminated with the "spiritual eye" saw the real numinous Jesus next to the cross either smiling or laughing. The latter view is related in the Nag Hammadi Apocalypse of Peter:

"Who is this one above the cross who is glad and laughing?… He whom you saw glad and laughing above the cross is the Living Jesus. But he into whose hands and feet they are driving nails is his fleshly part, which is the substitute." 19


 As the real "spiritual" Jesus did not die, belief in the physical resurrection is, for the Gnostic, the "faith of fools." 20 The resurrection, they insisted, was not a unique event in the past, instead it symbolized how Christ’s liberating presence could be experienced spiritually in the present. For example, the Gnostic Apocalypse of Peter recounts how he did not actually see but perceived a vision of the Risen Lord who Proclaimed, "I am the intellectual spirit, filled with radiant light." 21

Following the theorizing of the distinct Gnostic apologists as laid out above, Ioan Coulianos, in his The Tree of Gnosis cited above, drew the conclusion that the whole hermeneutic of Gnosis is an "Inverse exegesis" of the Bible starting from Genesis. All started in the Garden where the Serpent and Cain, true representatives of the Pleroma, planted the seed of "revolution" into a world dominated by the laws of the evil Demiurge. Some moving forward to the New Testament name Judas as, "The only one among the apostles to know the truth and fulfill the mystery of treason." 22

Fundamentally, then, Gnosticism is a religious movement that eschews Divine law as presented in the Judeo-Christian tradition, Aristotelian natural law, and hierarchical power structures and authority in general. In its most elemental aspect, Gnosticism replaces the Maleassertive – intellectualauthoritative – conscious- Word (Logos) with a Female – rebellious – intuitive – passionate – unconscious – image (Sophia). The Gnostic adept, therefore, while rejecting outside authority, relies on direct intuitive contact with a supposed immanent androgynous ground of being, via mystical experience and/or, Professor Bloom suggests, revelations by "an alien messenger" who speaks from within.

"The vision of Christ that thou dost see

Is my vision’s deepest enemy

Thine is the friend of all mankind,

Mine speaks in parables to the blind:

Thine loves the same world that my mine hates,

Thy heaven’s doors are my Hell gates…

Both read the Bible day and night,

But thou read’st black where I read white…

Seeing this False Christ, in fury and in passion

I made my voice heard all over the Nation.

William Blake, The Everlasting Gospel

 William Blake, Woman of the Apocalypse In this painting the "woman" dressed in a red heart (not the sun) welcomes the great dragon (serpent) rather than flee from him.


End Notes


1) Harold Bloom, The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post Christian Nation,(New York: Simonand Shuster, 1992). Omens of Millennium: The Gnosis of Angels, Dreams and Resurrection. (New York: Putnam Pub. Group, 1996) Quotes furnished in The New York Times Book Review by Mark C. Taylor. Sunday, Sep. 8, 1996

      2) Hipolytus, REF 8.15.1-2. Refutationis Omnium Haeresium cit. Elaine Pagels The Gnostic Gospels (New York: Vintage Books, 1989) intro. XIX

      3) Ion Couliano The Tree of Gnosis (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1992) p. 57

      4) ibid., p. 108 See also, source references, Plato,Republic VII.514a; Timaeus 30b; 41a-e; 42a; Phaedrus 249e; Plotinus’ Enneads IV.8.2; V.II etc.)

      5) H. S. Wiesner cit. Couliano p. 70

      6)J.M. Robinson, "The Jung Codex: The Rise and Fall of a Monopoly, in Religious Studies Review" 3.1 (January 1997)17-30

      7) Thunder Perfect Mind 13.16-16.25, in NHL 271 –274 cit. Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels p.55

      8)Trimorpfic Protenoia 35.1-24 in NHL 461-462 ibid cit. Pagels 

      9) Apocalypse of Adam 81:2-9 ibid. cit 54

      10) Hypostasis of the Archons 94.21 –95.7 in NHL 158, ibid. cit 58

       11) As quoted By Ireneaus in Adversus Haeresis, I.5.4 , REF 6.33 ibid cit. 57

       12) Carpocrates: Iren.I.25.4 = Hipp.VI32.4; Ophites Iren. I.30; Valentians: Hipp. VI.33; Theodotus:Clem. Exc.. 49.1; Archeontes: Epiph.40.5.1; Docetists: Hipp.IX.6. etc. cit. Couliano p95. 

      13) Mathew Black, An Aramaic Etymology of Ialdaboth?, cit. Couliano p. 96

      14) Irenaeus, I.54 ibid., Couliano p. 77

      15) On the Origen of the World 115.31 –116.8 in NHL 172, cit. Pagels p.30

      16) Hypostasis of the Archons , 89.11-91.1 in NHL 154-155, ibid., Pagels p.31

      17) Acts of John 89 in NT Apocrypha II, 225 ibid., Pagels p. 73  

      18) Second treatise of the Great Seth 56.6-19 in NHL 332, ibid., p. 73

      19) Apocalypse of Peter 81.4-24 in NHL 344, ibid., 72

      20) Origen, Commentarium in I Corinthins, in Journal of Theological Studies 10 (1909) 46-47, ibid., cit. Pagels

      21) Apocalypse of Peter 83.8-10, in NHL 344, ibid., cit. Pagels

      22) Couliano, p. 121


       H.R.A. 2003