The term “Gnosticism” was coined by Henry More (1614-1687), a prominent English philosopher of the 17th century. The much older word “Gnosis” (Greek gnòsis, “knowledge”) refers not to rational, philosophical knowledge, but rather to spiritual revelation.
According to the various sects of Gnosticism, there exists a transcendent, unknowable God who manifests himself, producing a world filled with divine beings known as Aeons. Christ was often identified as one of the created Aeons and plays a role in redeeming fallen humanity. After a series of tragic events within this perfect divine realm (known as the Pleroma), one of the Aeons creates an evil being, the Demiurge. This evil being creates our universe as well as humanity and is identified as the God of the Bible. The true God here intervenes and places within humanity the spark of the divine. Man is therefore a dual being, an immortal soul trapped within a physical body and the universe we live in. Humanity becomes imprisoned in this inferior material realm, and tragically forgets the truth of the divine origins of their soul. The only way their ignorance can be overcome is through Gnosis, the revelation of spiritual knowledge which will lead to the salvation of their soul and eventually guide them back up to the divine realm.
Gnostic Doctrine: God
Common to all forms of Gnostic theology is the concept of the true God as absolutely transcendent, high and above our created universe.
According to Gnostic mythology, this totally transcendent and ineffable God undergoes a process of self-manifestation, producing a hierarchy of beings which emanate out from him. These beings represent different aspects of his character and make up the structure of a perfect, divine realm.
God is often referred to as the Monad (the One) from whom came the Dyad (the Many). This act of the Many coming out of the One was seen as the origin of the divine realm. The divine realm is therefore not created by God, but rather emanated out of God and so all of the resulting substance forms a kind of pantheistic realm.
This cosmic emanation is a cascading process, flowing out from the highest Being and forming the divine realm which is referred to as the Pleroma (“Fullness”). The Pleroma is composed of Aeons, the divine qualities and attributes of God that structure this realm. These Aeons represent the self-realization of the ineffable God, having emanated from him and enabling the Unknown God to become conscious of himself. The Aeons come to act as intermediaries between the true God and humanity.
There have been a number of variations on this Gnostic mythology but they tend to share similar characteristics. According to the theology of the Sethian Gnostics (2nd Century A.D), God’s initial self-manifestation is the Godhead of the Father, the Mother and the Son, who then go about expanding into the divine world of the Pleroma.
At the beginning of the Sethian text, the Apocryphon of John,the Monad is described as “he who exists as God and Father of everything, the invisible One who is above everything, who exists as incorruption, which is in the pure light into which no eye can look. He is the invisible Spirit, of whom it is not right to think of him as a god, or something similar. For he is more than a god, since there is nothing above him, for no one lords it over him. For he does not exist in something inferior to him, since everything exists in him. For it is he who establishes himself. He is eternal, since he does not need anything. For he is total perfection.”
According to the Apocryphon of John,the Monad begins by seeing his reflection in the pure light-water that surrounds him and beholds his image. His first thought then becomes a living entity, called Barbelo, who is the first Aeon and the manifest “image” of God. Although Barbelo is usually referred to in feminine terms, she is actually an androgynous being, sometimes called the “first man.” The Monad then brings forth the properties of Light and Mind from his reflection on Barbelo. Light is often referred to as the only begotten, and is identified with Christ. From Light and Mind then proceed other Aeons, forming the structure the divine realm of the Pleroma (the fullness of God). The Pleroma consists of emanated Aeons which personify different aspects of God, such as Incorruptibility, Eternal Life, Will, and Word. The first Aeons then emanate their own Aeons, which in turn generate other Aeons until the Pleroma is fully developed. These Aeons make up the various levels of a hierarchical structure which culminates with the emanation of the final Aeon, Sophia (who represents Wisdom). Sophia then becomes responsible for causing a rift in the Pleroma, an act which leads to the birth of evil and the creation of the human world.
Gnostic Doctrine: Fall and Creation
According to the account in the Apocryphon of John,the lowest of the Aeons, Sophia, desired to give birth to a being, in the way the Father had given birth to Barbelo. Sophia sought to produce a being in her own image, but did so without the consent of the Father and her male consort.
And because of the invincible power which is in her, her thought did not remain idle, and something came out of her which was imperfect and different from her appearance, because she had created it without her consort. And it was dissimilar to the likeness of its mother, for it has another form. And when she saw (the consequences of) her desire, it changed into a form of a lion-faced serpent. And its eyes were like lightning fires which flash. She cast it away from her, outside that place, that no one of the immortal ones might see it, for she had created it in ignorance. And she surrounded it with a luminous cloud, and she placed a throne in the middle of the cloud that no one might see it.
Sophia named the hideous being Yaltabaoth (“Son of Shame”), Saklas (“Fool”), and Samael (“the Blind God”). He is proud and unholy, saying “I am God and there is no other God beside me,” ignorant of his origins. After Sophia casts him out of the Pleroma he created his own world, complete with its own Aeons (represented by angels, the twelve signs of the zodiac and the seven planets). Upon the completion of his creation he declares to his angels “I am a jealous God, there is none except me!” Therefore this monstrous being, known as the Demiurge (“Creator”), the maker of the material world, is identified with the God of the Bible. As a response to the ignorant statement the Demiurge had made about his unique divinity, the true God and his Son manifest to him and his angels in human form, declaring “Man exists and the Son of Man!”
The “Man” represents the true God, and the “Son of Man” represents the first emanation of God. The illuminating presence of the Father-Mother (“Man”) and their Son explain to the Demiurge and his trembling angels the truth about God. But the Demiurge becomes transfixed with the reflection of the heavenly Man in the waters of his creation, turns to his angels, and says: “Come, let us create a man according to the image of God and according to our likeness, that his image may become a light for us.” The Demiurge’s 365 angels then proceed to prepare a body for this being (Adam), but are incapable of bringing life to it. Sophia, full of regret, wanted to find a way to retrieve the power that she had given the Demiurge and so she petitioned the great Father-Mother for help. The true God sent forth the message to the Demiurge that he should “Blow into his [Adam’s] face something of your spirit and his body will arise.” Thus, the Demiurge was deceived into blowing out his Spirit into Adam, which is the divine power of his mother Sophia, and Adam comes to life. After beholding Adam’s superior intelligence and purity, the angels of the Demiurge became jealous of Adam and cast him into the lowest region of all matter in order to imprison him. The Father-Mother, in his mercy, sent one his Aeons, Epinoia (“Thought”) to help Adam. Epinoia was the first Aeon (representing the Life of God) and becomes hidden within Adam. This is then followed by the biblical story of Eden, with the command not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. This prohibition was intended to prevent Adam from discovering that he is actually divine.
Gnostic texts, regardless of their particular version of the creation and fall events, carry a common diagnosis of humanity: the inner self is divine in origin, but the material world and the desires of the flesh have caused him to become ignorant of his true nature. Humanity is not to blame for its fallen state, as the flaws of this world originate in the flaws of its evil creator, the false God of the Bible.
Gnostic Doctrine: Salvation
According to Gnosticism, humanity lives in a constant state of ignorance of their divine origins, and needs to be awoken from its slumber. According to Gnosticism, it is not freedom and forgiveness from sin that is required; rather, it is the bondage of ignorance from which we need to be delivered. The attainment of Gnosis is necessary for our salvation, which is the revelation of our divine origins and the world we live in. The essentials of Gnosis can be taught; however, in order to truly understand and be saved, the spiritual knowledge of the divinity within needs to be awakened by personal revelation.
In the Apocryphon of John,although the Christ-figure offers instruction to John, it is Epinoia (the divine Light of God), who was hidden in Adam by the Father-Mother at creation that needs to be awakened. She is the Savior who restores the person back to his or her fullness (Pleroma) and reveals the truth about one’s divine origins as well as the “way of ascent.” Epinoia is the divine wisdom within all, which, once awakened, will begin to guide the Gnostic in their spiritual ascent until their divine essence is eventually reunited with the Pleroma. This salvation process begins on earth and ends with the death of the body and the transcendence of the spirit out of this evil world, and back into the realm of the Aeons from whence it came. Generally speaking, a negative view of the material world and the body characterize Gnostic teachings, as well as an emphasis on asceticism.
Humans who die without this salvation must endure a process of reincarnation into the prison of the material body until they are saved from their ignorance and into Gnosis.
There is a third category of people, those who once acquired Gnosis but then decided to reject it. Their destiny is to experience eternal torture. For the soul that ascends to the Pleroma, there is the promise of eternal bliss, which is often referred to as Anapausis(“rest, repose”).
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Faivre, Antoine (2010). “Western Esotericism: A Concise History (SUNY series in Western Esoteric Traditions)”
Hanegraaf, Wouter J (2006). “Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism”