Legends of the Fall, Part 2: In the Know
In the last post, I discussed the orthodox Christian story of the Creation of the world and the Fall of Humankind. I want to discuss the Gnostic take on these now.
Since it’s not my purpose to define or discuss Gnosticism as such here, especially when scholars debate even the usefulness of the term, I’m going to leave it to those who are curious about it to go to the linked article or to research it elsewhere (the books of Elaine Pagels and Karen King are good places to start). Let me give just an extremely brief outline of Gnosticism, and then we’ll move on to the mythos.
Gnostic comes from the Greek gnostikos, “knowing”. Gnosticism was a branch of Christianity (at least for our purposes here–there were Jewish and possibly pagan Gnostics as well, though scholars debate these) which, observing the nastiness and evil in the world, concluded that matter–the stuff of which the visible cosmos is made–is evil, and only spirit–of which our souls are made–is good. As such, they were dualists. Combining this insight with the great and oft-noted differences between the portrayal of God in the Old Testament as opposed to the New, Gnostics posited that the wrathful, jealous, punitive God of the Old Testament (henceforth OT) was not, in fact, the true God. This god, known variously as the Demiurge, Samael, Saklas, and Yaldabaoth, among other names, did create the physical world; this merely underscores his evil, since matter is evil.
Meanwhile the True God is the God of love, compassion, and mercy taught by Christ in the New Testament (NT). This God is pure spirit and has nothing whatsoever to do with the material cosmos. For this reason he is often referred to as the Alien God. He created our spirits, not our bodies; and it is to him that we strive, according to the Gnostics, to return by mystic knowledge (gnosis–hence the name “Gnostic”) of our true selves.
Having outlined Gnosticism, let’s look at its creation story. I’ll follow the bullet format of the last post here and in future installments to make parallels and differences clear.
1. God, existing for all eternity, at some point creates incorporeal intelligences by emanating them from himself.
A. This first step in the mythos is similar to the orthodox, and yet has certain subtle but highly significant differences, some implicit.
i. By “God” here, we mean the True God of Spirit, aka the Alien God. Gnosticism posits two gods, as explained above, so we need to be clear on this.
ii. God does not create the intelligences ex nihilo (out of nothing) as in the orthodox account. Rather, He emanates them from Himself. In short, they are parts of His mind or essence that He sends forth from Himself. For the video game generation, it’s somewhat like the relationship between a gamer and his various in-game avatars. A limping analogy, but a start. Thus, the intelligences are in a real way fragments of God.
iii. These intelligences are equivalent to what the orthodox call “angels”, but are usually referred to in Gnostic sources as “Aeons”. This is subtle, but significant. “Angel” is from the Greek angelos, which translates the Hebrew mal’akh, both of which mean “messenger”. “Aeon” means “age” but comes from a root word meaning “life-force” or “existence”. Thus there is a contrast here between orthodox and Gnostic views of the incorporeal intelligences. The orthodox see them in relationship to the world–to which they are messengers of God–whereas the Gnostics see them as the true and eternal living beings.
2. Posterior to their emanation, the Aeons continue the process by emanating further (and lower) Aeons from themselves.
A. Creation by emanation of intelligences is thus an ongoing process, and the Aeons emulate the True God by doing so themselves. The total number of Aeons thus resulting varies in different accounts, but is not germane for our purposes here.
B. Usually the Aeons are seen as being paired off in masculine-feminine syzygies which act together to create other Aeons. The obvious analogy is to begetting and bearing of children, but for reasons we’ll see later, it’s good not to push sexual imagery too far in this context. In any case, the harmonious host of all the Aeons together is known in Gnostic sources as the Pleroma, the “fullness”. While this term is characteristically Gnostic, it is used in orthodox sources, too, at times, e.g. Colossians 2:9.
3. At some point posterior to the Creation (first by God and then by the Aeons), one or more of the Aeons fall away from the love and contemplation of God.
A. This needs to be carefully unpacked. Though this is superficially similar to the orthodox Fall of Lucifer, the differences are quite profound. Usually only the lowest of the Aeons is said to have “fallen”, typically the “female” Aeon known as Sophia (“wisdom”), though other systems have it as a different Aeon.
B. Recall that God emanates the Aeons, who emanate other Aeons. Just as copies of a previous copy become less distinct, the Gnostic view tends to see each successive generation of Aeons as less exalted, less wise, and “farther” from the True God, both in terms of “location” (remember the metaphors–there is no space or time yet) and perfection.
C. The “sin” or “Fall” of the lowest Aeon (which, for convenience, we’ll call “Sophia” here, though it is not always her in each Gnostic mythos, as the Gnostic accounts vary enormously) is not rebellion against God per se, but an act of willful but well-intended ignorance. Recall that wereas God created the Aeons directly, the Aeons acted in pairs to create further. In the Gnostic mythos, Sophia is said to wish to emulate God Himself by creating wihtout her partner (who is sometimes referred to as “Christos”–that is, Christ, but in the cosmic sense). Thus, Sophia does not wish to overthrow God, as Lucifer is said to, but to imitate Him.
4. When the lowest Aeon attempts to create without his or her partner, the result is a malformed, twisted, lower being–the aforementioned Samael.
A. As mentioned, this results from Sophia’s foolishness in trying to create alone, without her partner. This is why Samael is deformed, a twisted reflection of what an Aeon should have been. He is often referred to as an “abortion”–in short, a miscarriage that should never have happend. In most accounts, Sophia (or whichever Aeon is said to have “fallen”) repents of her rashness and returns to the Pleroma. In any case, it is at this point that the Gnostic mythos radically diverges from the orthodox, with which it has had strong similarities to this point.
5. Samael, being ignorant, believes himself to be the only god, self-begotten and omnipotent. In reality he is in the polar opposite “location” from the Pleroma (“fullness”), as he is in the Void or Kenoma (“emptiness”). Misbegotten as he is, he nevertheless emulates the Aeonic propensity to create by creating the material cosmos–the one in which we live.
A. Several important things to note here. First, everything Samael is and all power he has is not his, but ultimately derived from the Pleroma. However, in his debased state he is unable to understand or use his powers properly.
B. In most accounts, Samael–who from this point I’ll call the Demiurge, which means literally “public worker” but later came to mean “craftsman”, and as used by Plato and appropriated by Gnostics, “creator”–is assisted in creating the material world by the Archons. “Archon” comes from the Greek for “ruler”. In the Gnostic mythos, the Archons are broadly equivalent to demons in orthodox thought. Gnostic myths are highly varied and creative, and often inconsistent and confusing, and I am certainly not an expert in the field. It seems unclear whether the Archons were produced at the same time as the Demiurge as a result of Sophia’s fall; or whether they were other, very lower echelon Aeons who fell (for whatever reason) into the Kenoma; or if they were created by the Demiurge. In any case, they follow the Demiurge and assist him in making the physical universe.
C. The Demiurge, as we said, is sort of a parody or fun-house mirror distortion of an Aeon. Likewise, his creation, the material cosmos, is a parody or distortion of the Pleroma. Since the Demiurge is ultimately an emanation–though a misbegotton one–the material world isn’t all bad, at least according to some sources, and there is some disagreement as to whether it is completely evil or only severely flawed. In any case, the world we live in is a poor reflection of the Pleroma.
6. At some point during the creation of the physical world, fragments of light or spirit become enmeshed in and intermingled with the matter of the Demiurge’s created world.
A. The explanations for how this occurs are vastly diverse. The two broad categories of theories on this are
i. That since the Demiurge ultimately derived from an Aeon, he (either wittingly or by theft) obtained a fragment of her spiritual power, which he then, wittingly or unwittingly, infused into the cosmos.
ii. Alternately, it is sometimes said that the True God, acting directly or though the Aeons, deliberately injects spirit into the Demiurge’s material world. Over the ages, this will work out a vast cosmic plan that will ultimately lead to the dissolution of the material world and the ultimate rectification of the effects of the Fall, with the Demiurge and the Archons being either reconciled to the Pleroma or dissolved themselves, depending on the source.
7. Some of these “sparks of light” come to reside in the bodies of humans, which are the creation of the Demiurge. Thus we are truly divided beings–we are sparks of light from the Pleroma, emanated by the True God, living in weak, mortal, corruptible bodies made by the Demiurge and his Archons.
8. Thus, unlike the case with the orthodox mythos, there is no Original Sin which causes man to fall; in a sense, from the moment of his creation, man has already fallen, from the Pleroma into the prison of matter.
A. In the Gnostic myths that reference the Eden story (not all do), what orthodox call the “Fall of Man” is the exact opposite. Their souls disoriented from the trip from the freedom and light of the Pleroma to the dark material prison of embodiment in this world, Adam and Eve believe the Demiurge’s false claims that he is the true god who made them. The serpent is seen as being the first Messenger of Light (remember, “Lucifer” means “light bearer”!) who urges the eating of the Tree of Knowledge in order to help humanity. When Adam and Eve eat the fruit, their eyes are opened to the real nature of the Demiurge and realize that the True God is elsewhere. They are cast out not because they have sinned, but in a fit of pique by the Demiurge at being bested in the trial.
B. Henceforth, mankind is subjected to two kinds of evils. The first are those that derive from this world’s gross imperfection. Recall that the Demiurge creates the world as sort of a botched job. The second category are those evils visited upon mankind by the Demiurge and the Archons as a way of keeping humanity ignorant of their true nature as beings of light so that, rather than attaining liberation, they will be born again and again into the material world.
9. And so the whole sorry story of sin and misery that is human history begins.
Whew! That was a long one! Next up: the system of Evagrius Ponticus.
Part of the series Legends of the Fall.