The Gnostic Mythos
I’ve been thinking about looking at how the Gnostic mythos is expressed in many contemporary movies. Upon reflection, I realized that despite having written an entire series on Gnosticism, I have never written a post specifically outlining the Gnostic mythos. Some have touched on parts of it; but I’ve never discussed it as a whole. Therefore, I decided to remedy this oversight–hence, the current post.
Of course an expression such as “Gnostic mythos” assumes that there is such a thing as a standardized, “official” Gnostic mythos in the first place. In fact, it has been argued that the term “Gnosticism” itself is problematic at best, and useless at worst. I wouldn’t go as far as that. Nevertheless, it is true that there were a lot of very different groups which are often in modern times lumped together as “Gnostic”, with varying degrees of justification. For the purposes of what I’m going to discuss here, I will specifically look at the mythos of the best-known and most famous Gnostic group, the Sethians. The side benefit of this is that there is evidence, according to scholar David Brakke (which I discussed here) that the Sethians actually used the term “Gnostic” of themselves. I tend to agree with Brakke on this. Thus, by discussing the Sethian mythos, it’s perfectly accurate to describe what I’m doing as discussing the Gnostic mythos.
The Sethian Gnostic mythos is laid out in various texts such as The Apocryphon of John, The Holy Book of the Great Invisible Spirit, The Second Treatise of the Great Seth, and others. Details vary, but there is a broad agreement in Sethian texts on an overall view of cosmogony and cosmology. Point-by-point comparisons and detailed rundowns of these would be far beyond the scope of what I’m doing here, especially since I’m eventually going to use it in discussing pop culture. Instead, I want to give a broad outline of the mythos, hitting the main and most relevant points as I go.
The Gnostic mythos, as is the case with the Christian, Jewish, and Islamic mythoi, begins with God. God is One, and is pure spirit. Though philosophical language is not used–Sethianism preferred to use mythological narratives to convey theological teachings–the God of Gnosticism is essentially conceptualized in terms of classical theism. God is the ground of all being, infinite, eternal, and beyond all human conceptions and categories. Even to say “he”, “she”, or “it” is at most metaphorical, since God is beyond gender. The following lengthy quote from the Apocryphon of John (courtesy of here) very neatly exemplifies the Sethian view of God:
The One rules all. Nothing has authority over it.
It is the God.
It is Father of everything,
The invisible one over everything.
It is uncontaminated
Pure light no eye can bear to look within.
The One is the Invisible Spirit.
It is not right to think of it as a God or as like God.
It is more than just God.
Nothing is above it.
Nothing rules it.
Since everything exists within it
It does not exist within anything.
Since it is not dependent on anything
It is eternal.
It is absolutely complete and so needs nothing.
It is utterly perfect
The One is without boundaries
Nothing exists outside of it to border it
The One cannot be investigated
Nothing exists apart from it to investigate it
The One cannot be measured
Nothing exists external to it to measure it
The One cannot be seen
For no one can envision it
The One is eternal
For it exists forever
The One is inconceivable
For no one can comprehend it
The One is indescribable
For no one can put any words to it.
The One is infinite light
The One is incomprehensible
Perfectly free from corruption.
But superior to such concepts.
Neither physical nor unphysical
Neither immense nor infinitesimal
It is impossible to specify in quantity or quality
For it is beyond knowledge.
The One is not a being among other beings
It is vastly superior
But it is not “superior.”
It is outside of realms of being and time
For whatever is within realms of being was created
And whatever is within time had time allotted to it
The One receives nothing from anything.
It simply apprehends itself in its own perfect light
The One is majestic.
The One is measureless majesty
Chief of all Realms
Producing all realms
[It does not “possess” these things.]
It gives forth light beyond measure, beyond comprehension.
[What can I say?]
His realm is eternal, peaceful, silent, resting, before everything.
He is the head of every realm sustaining each of them through goodness.
This eloquent description of the One would not be out of place in a little-o orthodox statement of Christian belief. From their common starting point of an utterly transcendent God, however, the Gnostic and orthodox accounts quickly diverge.
In the orthodox accounts, God creates the universe–both the physical cosmos we live in and the incorporeal spirits–angels and demons–ex nihilo, that is to say, out of nothingness. Though God is the ground of being, in fact Being itself, and thus is at the core of all things He creates, holding them in existence from instant to instant, they are still in a sense separate from Him. In the Gnostic mythos, God emanates the universe. We’ve discussed the concepts of creation vs. emanation before, here, here, and here. Suffice it to say that whereas in creation, God brings something into being out of nothing, in emanation, He brings things forth from Himself. Everything is, in a sense, a manifestation or reflection of God Himself.
Thus, in the Gnostic mythos, Creation begins when God emanates from His essence other beings–beings that, like Him, are totally spiritual and incorporeal. From their names it is clear that they represent aspects of God or abstract qualities associated with Him. Quoting once more from The Apocryphon of John (from the same site referenced above), my emphasis:
[We would know nothing of the ineffable
And nothing of the immeasurable
Without the help of the one who comes forth
from the One who is the Father.
He alone has informed us.]
The Father is surrounded by light.
He apprehends himself in that light
[which is the pure spring of the water of life
that sustains all realms].
He is conscious of his image everywhere around him,
Perceiving his image in this spring of Spirit
Pouring forth from himself.
He is enamored of the image he sees in the light-water,
The spring of pure light-water enveloping him.
His self-aware thought (ennoia) came into being.
Appearing to him in the effulgence of his light.
She stood before him.
This, then, is the first of the powers, prior to everything.
Arising out of the mind of the Father
The Providence (pronoia) of everything.
She is the initial power
glory of Barbelo
glorious among the realms
glory of revelation
She, Barbelo, asked the virgin Spirit for foreknowledge (prognosis).
The Spirit agreed.
Foreknowledge came forth and stood by Providence
[This one came through the Invisible Virgin Spirit’s Thought.]
Foreknowledge gave glory to the Spirit
And to Barbelo, the Spirit’s perfect power,
For She was the reason that it had come into being.
She, Barbelo, asked the virgin Spirit for Incorruptibility
The Spirit agreed.
Incorruptibility came forth and stood by Thought and Foreknowledge.
The One is referred to for the first time in the text as “Father”. The Father sees the perfect image of himself, who becomes Barbelo–more or less the feminine aspect of the Absolute. More beings “come forth” from God, each representing a concept: Foreknowledge, Providence, Thought, and Incorruptibility.
From this point, the beings emanated from God in turn emanate lesser beings from themselves. This process continues, with more and more emanated beings coming into existence and forming a sort of celestial hierarchy. These spiritual beings are generally referred to as “Aeons”, and are more or less equivalent to the different ranks of angels in orthodox Christianity. The collection of all the Aeons together with God is known as the Pleroma. This term, which we’ve encountered before, means “Fullness”. Since all the Aeons are aspects or fragments of God, they represent the fullness of reality.
Although it is not quite made explicit by the texts, it is strongly implied that each round of creation produces a “lower” level of being which is “farther” from their source in God. I put “lower” and “father” in quotes to make clear that I’m using metaphorical language. A better way to put it might be to say that the earlier emanations such as Barbelo, Providence, Foreknowledge, and so on, are higher and more general manifestations of God’s mind. To put it more crudely, they are bigger “pieces” of God. When they in turn emanate other beings, each of these is a piece of a piece; and each of those in the next round is a piece of a piece of a piece; and so on. One is reminded of the lyrics of the Timbuk3 song “God Made an Angel” (courtesy of here):
God made an angel, He liked what He saw
He made another, but with a tiny flaw
That went unnoticed, so He made some more
Each one less perfect than the one before
“Flaw” might not be the best term for the lower Aeons; but they are definitely less comprehensive, less “complete”, than the higher Aeons. In this is the seed of the cosmic drama about to unfold. Let’s return to the Apocryphon of John:
It happened that the realm (aeon) Wisdom (Sophia)
Of conceptual thought (Epinoia),
Began to think for herself,
She used the thinking (enthymesis)
And the foreknowledge (prognosis)
Of the Invisible Spirit.
She intended to reveal an image from herself
To do so without the consent of the Spirit,
Who did not approve,
Without the thoughtful assistance of her masculine counterpart,
Who did not approve.
Up until this point, the Aeons have been syzygies (male-female pairs), and at each step in the process of emanation, the pairs have worked in harmony with each other and with the consent of the Spirit in producing further Aeons. Sophia, for reasons that are somewhat mysterious, bucks this pattern. She “thinks for herself”, refusing to ask the permission of her male counterpart or of the Spirit. Unfortunately, this going it alone has disastrous results:
Sophia saw what her desire produced.
It changed into the form of a dragon with a lion’s head
And eyes flashing lightning bolts.
She cast him far from her,
Outside of the realm of the immortal beings
So that they could not see him.
She named him Yaldabaoth.
Yaldabaoth is the chief ruler.
He took great Power (dynamis) from his mother,
Left her, and moved away from his birthplace.
He assumed command,
Created realms for himself
With a brilliant flame that continues to exist even now.
The result of Sophia’s misbegotten attempt to create by herself is–well, misbegotten. The resulting monstrous offspring is referred to as an abortion in some Gnostic texts. It is given various names, but most commonly (as here) “Yaldabaoth”, a name of obscure etymology. In other contexts, this being is known as “Samael”, that is, “Blind God”.
Being ultimately an extension, albeit at several removes, of the Pleroma, Yaldabaoth goes into the family business of creation. Unfortunately, he goes about it in a very different way. Having been created by Sophia without the help of her male counterpart or the permission of God, Yaldabaoth is a sort of funhouse mirror image of an Aeon. Another way to put it, for comic book fans, is that he is a sort of Bizarro Aeon–kind of like one, but imperfect and/or reversed in most ways. The Aeons create harmoniously in mutual accord; Yaldabaoth seizes power from his mother and goes off by himself. When the Aeons create, the imagery used is of light and glory. With Yaldabaoth, the imagery switches to the more sinister “brilliant flames”. In short, Yaldabaoth tries to do the same thing the Aeons have been doing; but his mind is warped, being mired in ignorance and malevolence, and even with the power he has taken from Sophia, he is capable only of crude imitations of the Pleroma, blurry images of which exist in his subconscious.
Thus, Yaldabaoth creates Archons (“rulers”), which are demonic parodies of the Aeons; and he creates a flawed, imperfect material world mimicking the perfect spiritual world of the Pleroma. This imperfect chop-job of a cosmos is sometimes referred to as the Kenoma–“Emptiness”–to contrast it with the Pleroma, or Fullness. In some respects, this part of the Gnostic mythos resembles the Platonic concept of the Demiurge. In Platonic thought, the Demiurge (which literally means “craftsman”) is a lower being created by the One (God) and charged with the creation of the material cosmos. To Plato, the Demiurge is benevolent and does the best he can. The imperfection of the material cosmos is not the Demiurge’s fault, but a result of the instability and imperfection of matter itself. The Gnostic mythos takes over the notion of a lower deity that makes the material cosmos–for which reason Yaldabaoth is often referred to as the Demiurge–but disagrees with Plato in seeing the Demiurge as ignorant at best, malevolent at worst. The general understanding is that the Demiurge creates matter in the first place, and that’s why it is so unstable. In any case, the Demiurge is far from a true craftsman in the Gnostic view.
During this process of creation, Yaldabaoth, in his imperfection and ignorance, believes he is the only god, since he has only blurry awareness of the realms above him. Sethian cosmology thus associates Yaldabaoth with the creator God of the Old Testament, the “jealous god” who says there is no other than he. From the Gnostic perspective, this shows the ignorance and limitation of the Demiurge.
In the meantime, Sophia is distressed to see what is happening, repents, and is stationed at the lowest level of the Pleroma as a sort of guard against the Demiurge and his forces interacting with the Pleroma:
But when [Sophia] realized that that miscarriage
Was so imperfect
She came to realize that her consort had not approved.
She repented and wept furiously.]
All of the divine realms (pleroma) heard her repentant prayer
They sought blessing for her from the Invisible Virgin Spirit.
The Spirit consented.
He poured the Holy Spirit over her
Brought forth from the whole full realm.
[Her consort did not come down to her on his own,
but he came through the whole full realm
to restore her to her original condition.]
She was elevated above her son,
But she was not restored to her own original realm.
She would remain in the ninth sphere until she was fully restored.
From this point, Sophia hatches a plan to foil Yaldabaoth’s plots and restore harmony to the universe. God proclaims the existence of Man. Yaldabaoth hears this, and not knowing where the voice comes from, assumes it’s his own idea. He and the Archons create the first man, each body part being constructed by a different demon. The end result is lifeless, though. Then, the following transpires:
Yaldabaoth’s mother wanted to take back the Power
She had turned over to the Chief Ruler.
She earnestly asked the most merciful,
The Mother-Father of everything,
By His sacred command He sent down the five Lights
In the forms of the principal advisors to Yaldabaoth.
[This led to the removal of Yaldabaoth’s mother’s divine Power from him.]
They told Yaldabaoth:
“Blow some of your Spirit in the man’s face,
Then his body will rise up.”
Yaldabaoth blew some of his Spirit into the man.
That Spirit was the divine Power of his mother.
[He didn’t understand what was happening, for he lived in ignorance.]
His mother’s divine Power left Yaldabaoth
It entered the psychic human body
Modeled on the primordial image.
The human body moved!
It grew powerful!
Yaldabaoth’s demonic forces envied the man.
Through their united efforts he had come into being
They had given their Power to him.
His understanding was far greater than that of those who had created him.
And greater than that of the Chief Ruler himself.
When they realized that he shone with light
And could think better than they could
And was naked of evil,
They took him and cast him down
Into the lowest depths of the material world.
The Demiurge, having been tricked into transferring his mother’s power, which he’d stolen, into the first man, becomes enraged when he sees the man is greater than himself, and banishes him to “the lowest depths of the material world”. Later, he tries to extract the light of Sophia from the man, but fails–the light becomes a second human, the woman Eve.
Thus, the Genesis account of the creation of man and the Garden of Eden is inverted. The Demiurge does not create man in his image, but in the image of the True God of the Pleroma. He puts man in Eden not as a gift but as a punishment, and pretends to be the One True God while keeping man in ignorance. At this point, however, the second phase of Sophia’s plan is implemented:
[Sophia, our sister, came down
So as to regain what she had lost.
Therefore she was called Life.
The Mother of the Living
The one from the Providence of the Authority of Heaven
By her assistance people can achieve perfect knowledge.]
I appeared as an eagle perched on the Tree of Knowledge!
[Which is the Epinoia from the pure Providence of Light.]
In order to teach them
And raise them up from sleep’s depths.
[For the two of them were fallen and aware of their nakedness.
Epinoia appeared as a being full of light
She enlightened their minds.]
Sophia appears on the Tree of Knowledge and teaches Adam and Eve. Thus, instead of knowledge causing the Fall, as in the orthodox account, Adam and Eve gain knowledge of who and what they truly are. For this reason, they are driven out of Eden by the enraged Yaldabaoth. In the Gnostic telling, though, this is a good thing. It is the beginning of the awareness that humans don’t belong here in the Kenoma, but rather in the Pleroma.
Thus, the human story begins. Later in some versions of the myth, Eve is raped by Yaldabaoth, producing demonic beings. Adam’s son by Eve is Seth, the progenitor of true humans who contain within them a spark of the light of Sophia and thus belong truly to the Pleroma. The texts become a bit confusing at this point, but apparently some humans take descent from creations of the Demiruge rather than from Seth, and some humans have an “artificial spirit”. This seems to lead into the concept of different classes of people, the pneumatic (“spiritual”) who will definitely return to the Pleroma after death, the psychic (“of natural soul or life”), and the hylic (“material”) who in effect lack a soul and will cease to exist at death.
Throughout human history, the Demiurge attempts to keep humans ignorant so that they continue to take rebirth in the material realm, where they are subject to him and his minions the Archons. Eventually, the Christ–one of the Aeons–assumes the appearance of human form (he does not take on a material body, since matter is evil) as Jesus Christ. His mission is not to die on the cross to save the world (his crucifixion is in fact an illusion–someone else is crucified in his place, while the real Christ stands to one side laughing) but to impart saving mystic knowledge–gnosis–to the human race as a way of reminding them who they really are and where they’re from. Those capable of receiving that knowledge and acting on it will not return to the material world at death, but will be released into freedom in the Pleroma forever.
From this point, accounts diverge, but in general the Gnostic mythos implies that eventually, when all remnants of the Light have achieved release from the material world, Yaldabaoth and the Archons will be defeated. The material world will dissolve into non-existence. Meanwhile, the Demiurge and his minions will either dissolve with the cosmos, or perhaps will be purified and gain entrance into the Pleroma after appropriate repentance. Everything thenceforward will be perfection and bliss.
To recap this very long post in bullet points:
- The one God is perfect, purely spirit, self-contained, and incomprehensible.
- At some point, He emanates lower beings, Aeons, from Himself.
- These beings in turn harmoniously cooperate to emanate lower beings, forming the Pleroma, the Fullness.
- The lowest emanation, usually (but not always) referred to as Sophia, decide to create by herself and without consent of the rest of the Pleroma.
- The result of this is the Demiurge Yaldabaoth.
- Yaldabaoth steals light from Sophia and created the Archons and the material world, a crude parody of the Aeons and the Pleroma.
- Sophia repents and helps trick Yaldabaoth into creating man and infusing him with the light he’d stolen from Sophia.
- Yaldabaoth tries to punish man and keep him ignorant, but Sophia enlightens him with gnosis.
- The human race perpetuates the Light of the Pleroma, though it does not reside in all individuals.
- Christ comes to bring liberating gnosis to the human race. Those who can receive it will return to the Pleroma.
- At the end of time, the material world will be dissolved, the Demiurge and the Archons will be defeated, and harmony will reign once more.
There are of course many variations on this narrative, and the documents that have survived are not wholly consistent in the details. Had Sethian Gnosticism survived, a “standard” narrative would perhaps have developed. It’s also worth pointing out that given the highly symbolic language used in the texts, it is difficult to determine the extent to which the narratives, which seem quite extravagant and baroque to us, were meant to be taken literally.
What is the significance of all this? For the orthodox, not much. For many of the independent Gnostic revival churches, these scriptures give a way of understanding a world of seemingly unremitting darkness. Beyond these admittedly small Gnostic groups, though, the Gnostic mythos has seeped into much of pop culture since the end of the last century. This is one of the most interesting and little-noted pieces of religious news in modern times. It is not likely, in most cases, that the resulting movies, novels, and other works result from a direct acquaintance with Gnostic scriptures. Rather, many of the concepts are probably “in the air” and are used either consciously or unconsciously. Eventually I want to look at some of these works. In the meantime, I conclude this post, which will be a one-stop shop to which to refer back when I discuss those works in future posts.
Part of the series “Towards a Gnostic Orthodoxy“
Posted on 26/04/2019, in Gnosticism, mythology, religion and tagged Apocryphon of John, cosmogony, demiurge, Gnostic mythos, Gnosticism, mythology, Plato, religion, Secret Book of John, Sethianism, Sophia, Yaldabaoth. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.