The Creation of the World according to the Gnostic Scriptures
The discovery of the Nag Hammadi library in 1945 marked a transition from how religion in Late Antiquity was understood by the modern mind. Indeed, I would go so far as to call it among the greatest discoveries of the 20th Century, along with Heinrich Schliemann’s unearthing of the ancient cities of Troy and Mycenae, once considered by scientific consensus to be mythological.
The 1st to 3rd centuries AD were a time of religious resurgence and upheaval in the ancient Near East. In Rome, the cults of Mithras, Isis and Serapis, once considered to be mere exoticisms, were becoming more widely accepted among the Roman middle and upper classes. Second Temple Judaism had suffered a rift with the crucifixion of Christ and the missionary work of Paul and the Apostles had turned Christianity, a once obscure group of Jewish schismatics, into a messianic force that would eventually become the state religion of the Roman Empire. Among the various mystery cults and apocalyptic movements (of which there were many) that had emerged in this climate, a curious religious movement whose adherents called themselves gnostikoi or “Gnostics” began to emerge around the time of the early 1st century and whose ideas would arguably survive up until the end of the 4th century. The word “Gnostic” is derived from the Greek “gnostikos” which means to know or to be familiar with, usually in a learned or intellectual sense. The professor of ancient Christianity and expert in the field of Gnostic studies, Bentley Layton explains:
“Gnostic scripture describes the salvation of the individual by the Greek word gnosis, and the self-given name “gnostic” sect refers to their ability to obtain gnosis. The meaning of gnosis is easy to grasp. Unlike its odd derivative gnostikos, the word gnosis was an ordinary part of Greek, both in daily life and in religion (including Judaism and Christianity). The basic translation of gnosis is “knowledge” or “(act of) knowing.” But the ancient Greek language could easily differentiate between two kinds of knowledge (a distinction that French, for example, also makes with ease). One kind is propositional knowing— the knowledge that something is the case (“I know that Athens is in Greece”). Greek has several words for this kind of knowing— for example, eidenai (French savoir).” (Layton, 9)
What characterized Gnostic soteriology wasn’t an acceptance of a personal savior (as in Christianity) but the obtainment of secret knowledge through personal acquaintance with the divine. Professor Layton continues:
“The other kind of knowing is personal acquaintance with an object, often a person (“I know Athens well”; I have known Susan for many years”). In Greek the word for this is gignoskein (French connaitre), and in English one can call this kind of knowledge “acquaintance.” The corresponding Greek noun is gnosis. If, for example, two people have been introduced to one another, each one can claim to have gnosis or acquaintance of the other. If one is introduced to god, one has gnosis of god. The ancient gnostics described salvation as a kind of gnosis or acquaintance, and the ultimate object of that acquaintance was nothing less than god.” (Layton, 9)
The origins of Gnosticism are contested by many. Some historians have postulated a pre-Christian origin to the Gnostic movement while others, including Christian detractors such as Irenaeus, Porphyry and Epiphanius, saw Gnosticism as a nothing more than a Christian heresy. Gnosticism seems to have gotten on its feet around the same time as the first primitive Christian groups began to establish churches throughout the Roman Empire. However, Gnosticism differed from mainline proto-orthodox Christianity in a variety of ways. For those suggesting a pre-Christian origin to the Gnostic movement, striking parallels can be drawn between the Gnostic creation myth and Plato’s Timaeus.
In the dialogue, Timaeus explains that the world of Eternal Forms is unchanging and fixed. Our world, the physical, is one where the only thing that is certain is change. Therefore, reasons Timaeus, our world must have been the product of a god or celestial craftsman. This craftsman, known as the Demiurge, is also a recurring motif in all forms of the Gnostic Tradition. However, unlike his Platonic counterpart, the Gnostic demiurge is a very malevolent figure. Again, Bentley Layton explains:
“In Plato’s Timaeus each of the cosmic craftsman’s creations is a copy of some perfect pattern that exists in the spiritual realm. All the copies are as good as they possibly can be, given the resistance of the working material, for the craftsman works to the very best of his ability. But in contrast, Ialdabaoth, the gnostic craftsman of the world— though not exactly a principle of pure evil— is morally ambivalent, for though he loves the good he is fatally flawed by ignorance and self-centeredness. Thus, for example, he recognizes the goodness of the patterns in the spiritual realm and feels a natural attraction toward them; but this attraction is also experienced as an ignorant, selfish, erotic lust to possess the divine, even to rape it. Ialdabaoth and his fellow heavenly “rulers” are possessive and arrogant and try to dominate all human affairs; their desire for domination leads them to create human sexual lust and the bond of destiny (control by the stars), by which they intend to enslave humanity.” (Layton, 16.)
The Demiurge is not the supreme god in the Gnostic mythos. He is merely a creator deity and an inherently flawed one at that. To the Gnostics, the true god would never sully his hands with the dirty act of creating an imperfect and fallen cosmos. This leads us to a stark difference between Christianity and Gnosticism: in Christianity, the world, though fallen, is ultimately seen as inherently good, the product of a just and loving God who takes part in his Creation. To the Gnostics, such an idea is entirely anathema. The material world is irredeemably lost and the creatures and things of this universe made up of flesh, blood and matter are ultimately condemned to death, dissolution and the bondage of having to be reborn countless times inside a weak, corruptible material body. The Godhead, to the Gnostics, was known by many names and epithets: The Parent of the Entirety, the Great Invisible Virgin Spirit, the Ineffable Parent, the Absolute, the One, the Monad.
The concept of an eternal, indivisible principle is found throughout the various sacred Traditions of the world. In Greek philosophy, the concept has its origins as far back as Pythagoras. The Monad is not a personal god, like the Trinity of the Christian Tradition, rather the Monad is seen more as an unmoved mover who existed before all times and ages, contemplating its own profoundness. Layton explains:
“First, it is claimed, the first principle is a solitary “intellect,” whose only function is to think and whose only possible object of thought is itself, since it alone exists. But its act of thinking is objectified, and this thinking is the second principle.” (Layton, 15)
In Pythagorean thought, it was believed that the cosmos came into being through the Monad, which begat the Dyad, which then begat the multiplicity. This Second Principle of the Gnostic mythos is known by the curious name “Barbelo” and was considered by Gnostics as the first “perfect forethought” of the Parent of the Entirety. While often described as an androgyne, the Barbelo is often designated by the pronoun “she” indicating a feminine aspect to the Gnostic Second Principle. The Barbelo is not a Dyad proper and is often called by the epithets “Thrice-Male,” the “Triple-Androgynous name,” and the “Three Powers.” The name “Barbelo” is non-Greek and its etymology is subject to speculation, however, Professor Layton proposes an explanation:
“The Second Principle is called by the non-Greek name Barbelo or occasionally Barbero. In antiquity, obscure or occasionally mythic names like Barbelo were sometimes invented ad hoc by theological writers rather than being produced by natural language; in some cases, therefore, ancient theological readers were expected to guess their meaning. Such a process is of course difficult to trace without precise identification of the linguistic milieu in which the text was first published. But if that milieu was Egyptian the name “Barbero or Barbelo” might have called to mind the native words for ‘emission, projectile’ and ‘great.’ Yielding a pseudo-word meaning “the great emission”— an apt description of the Barbelo’s relation to the first principle.” (Layton, 15)
It is important to emphasize that Gnosticism was not a unified movement but one whose practices varied in the numerous regions where they took root. As previously stated, almost all variations of the Gnostic myth followed common themes or motifs that presented a more or less common understanding of a shared cosmology. In writing this paper, I have chosen to draw upon selections from various Nag Hammadi scriptures that delve into the Gnostic creation myth including the Secret Book According to John, The Reality of the Archons, as well as Ptolemy’s version of the Gnostic myth according to St. Irenaeus of Lyon found in his Against Heresies. Because we are dealing with a creation myth and not Gnostic theology proper, I will avoid bringing into discussion the so-called Gnostic “Gospels” such as Phillip, Thomas, Truth and Judas.
Every variation of the Gnostic creation myth begins with nothing in existence save for the divine source, the First Principle or Monad. After timeless eons the Monad emits a Second Principle, the Barbelo, into existence ultimately culminating in the expansion of an entire spiritual universe. The Secret Book of John or the Apocryphon of John is one of the oldest classical Gnostic texts to retain the Gnostic creation myth in its entirety. In the Secret Book, the Apostle John, distraught after Jesus’ death, retreats towards a mountain for contemplation and solitude, meditating on the teachings of his master and coming to terms with his grief. Suddenly, in a flash of bright light, Jesus appears before a bewildered John in a similar vein as Paul in the book of Acts. Jesus calms John’s fears and relates to him the secret story of creation, the hidden version of the story which we find in the book of Genesis. Jesus begins with a description of the nature of the Monad, saying:
“The Monad, since it is a unitary principle of rule, has nothing that presides over it. […] god and parent of the entirety […] presides over […] incorruptibility, existing [in] uncontaminated light, toward which no vision can gaze. This is the invisible spirit. It is not fitting to think of it as divine or as something of the sort, for it is superior to deity; nothing presides over it, nothing has mastery over it; [it does] not [exist] in any state of inferiority, […] exists in it alone. […] because it lacks nothing. For it is utter fullness, without having become defective in anything so that it might be completed by it [it]: rather, it is always utterly perfect in […]. It is unlimited because nothing [exists] prior to it so as to bestow limit upon it; unfathomable, because nothing exists prior to it so as to fathom it; immeasurable, because nothing else has measured it; invisible, because nothing else has seen it; eternal, since it [exists] unto eternity; unnamable, since there is nothing that exists prior to it so as to give it a name to it. It is immeasurable light, which is uncontaminated, holy, and pure; it is ineffable and perfect in incorruptibility: not in perfection, nor in blessedness nor in divinity; rather as being far superior to these.” (2:26-3:22.)
Jesus tells John of the profound, unknowable nature of the Monad before explaining how after incalculable ages, one of the Monad’s thoughts become reified and in the process the Barbelo is emitted from the Monad into the Entirety.
“And its thinking produced something, and the thinking was disclosed, standing [plainly] in its presence in the brilliance of its light. This is this first power, which exists prior to all (others), and which was shown forth out of its thinking, that is the perfect forethought of the entirety. The light of this (thought) […] light, the power of the […] that is the image of the perfect invisible virgin spirit. This is the power, the glory of the Barbelo, the (most) perfect glory among the aeons, the glory of the manifestation, which glorifies the virgin spirit and praises it, for because of the latter it was shown forth. It is the first thinking of the spirits image. It (the Barbelo) became a womb for the entirety, for it was prior to all (others), (being) the mother-father, the first human being, the holy spirit, the thrice-male, the three powers; the thrice-androgynous name; and (was) the most eternal aeon among the invisible.” (4:26-5:6f.)
After the emanation, the Barbelo makes a request to the Monad to be given Prior Acquaintance to which the Monad consents and grants it to the Barbelo. The Barbelo makes a series of requests to be given knowledge of several other Aeons such as Incorruptibility, Eternal Life and Truth. Strangely, the end of the passage claims that this quintet of Aeons make up group of ten. It is important to stress that in Gnosticism that each Aeon is actually a masculine and feminine pairing known as a syzygy. While not heavily stressed in classical Gnosticism, the idea of masculine and feminine couplings which together form a complete Aeon is an important concept in later Valentinian Gnosticism.
The next passage begins with the Monad contemplating the Barbelo which was in the uncontaminated light around its spirit. By the Monad’s gaze, the Barbelo conceives and begets an Aeon of its own, the Self-Originate. As we will later see, the Self-Originate is given a greater deal of importance than the other Aeons which came into existence by the request of the Barbelo. The next passage tells us that the Monad rejoiced at the sight of the Barbelo having brought forth its own “great emission” to which it “anoints” the Self-Originate with its own kindness. Henceforth, the Self-Originate is given another name: “The Anointed”, or Christ.
At the request of Christ, Intellect is disclosed. Soon after, the Monad wishes to complete the creation of the spiritual universe into which the Aeons and Christ have been generated into. In a verse that curiously sounds reminiscent of the opening of the gospel of John, ¹ we read the following:
“And thinking, wished to make something by the Word (or verbal expression) of the invisible spirit. And its will became deed, and was disclosed along with intellect and the light, and glorified it. And Word (or verbal expression) followed after will. For by the Word, the anointed (Christ) divine self-originate made the entirety (or things).” (Pg. 32. BJn 7:4-10f)
Like in the canonical book of John, God uses the Word to bring forth the creation of the universe. However, it is important to stress that in orthodox Christianity, Christ and the Word of God are synonymous, whereas the Gnostic Christ uses the Word as brought forth by the Monad to complete the creation of the spiritual universe of the Entirety. With the completion of the spiritual universe, all the Aeons glorify the Monad and the Barbelo:
“They stood at rest and glorified the invisible spirit and the Barbelo, for because of the Barbelo that they had come to exist. And the holy spirit perfected the divine self-originate, the offspring of itself and the Barbelo, so as to make the offspring stand at rest before the great invisible virgin spirit. The divine self-originate, the anointed (Christ), who glorified the spirit with a great voice, was shown forth by forethought. And the invisible virgin spirit established the self-originate as true god over the entirety, and subordinated to it (the self-originate) all authority and the truth that was in it (the spirit), so that it might know about the entirety: which is called by a name that is superior to every name, for that name will be uttered to those who are worthy of it.” (7:13-29.)
Going forward, it will be important to differentiate between the divine Self-Originate or “Christ” and the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The Gnostics seemed to subscribe to a Christological view that resembles the early Christian heresy of Docetism, the belief that Christ himself never had a human body and only appeared to possess one. It was generally understood by the Gnostics that the Christ (the offspring of the Monad and the Barbelo) and the historical Jesus were separate persons. The latter only taking on the Christ at his baptism and leaving Jesus’ material body at his crucifixion.
It is from the light that is the Christ that four new beings called the “Luminaries” are brought forth into existence. The Luminaries are angels, or a kind of being like an angel, that preside over their own Aeon with three additional Aeons. The first of these beings is called Harmozel and with him are the Aeons Loveliness, Truth and Form.² The second is called Oroiael and with him are the Aeons Afterthought, Perception and Memory.³ The Third is called Daueithai and with him are the Aeons Intelligence, Love, and Ideal Form.⁴ The Last of Luminaries to spring forth from the Christ is called Eleleth, and with him are the Aeons Perfection, Peace and Wisdom.⁵ Wisdom, or Sophia in Greek, will later play an important role in the creation of the world according to the Gnostic myth.
Together, these twelve Aeons make up the lowest realms in the hierarchy of the spiritual universe. The four Luminaries rule over three Aeons with each realm being dwelling place of an archetype. These four archetypes represent the different kinds of human beings according to Gnostic cosmology. They are (together) the Primordial Man or Ger-Adamas, his offspring the Primordial Seth, the Posterity of Seth, which will make up the souls of Gnostic faithful, and finally the Penitents who will make up the souls of whom, though engendered beings, will wait until the last minute to repent of their sins.
“Then—(deriving) from prior acquaintance and perfect intellect though [disclosure] of the desire of the invisible spirit and the of the self-originate— the perfect human being, the first manifestation and true (person) was “the Geradamas (Ger-Adamas)” by the virgin spirit. And that being was established upon the first eternal realm (aeon) with the self-originate and anointed (Christ), at the first luminary Harmozel, and its powers dwell with it. And the invisible gave to it an invincible intellectual faculty” (8:28-9:4.)
The passage continues with a prayer of Ger-Adamas glorifying the Monad along with the Barbelo before continuing with the establishment of the other archetypes in their respective eternal realms:
“And it established Geradamas’s son Seth upon the second eternal realm, before the second luminary Oroiael. And in the third eternal realm, upon the third luminary Daueithai, the posterity of Seth was established, and also the souls of the holy persons. And in the fourth eternal realm were established the souls of those who were not acquainted with the fullness and did not repent at once, but rather held out for a while and then repented. They came to exist at the fourth luminary Eleleth. These were engendered beings and they glorified the invisible spirit. (9:11-24.)
It could be speculated that the Penitents that occupy the lowest of the eternal realms could also be said to be the souls of non-Gnostic Christians with whom the Gnostic Church most certainly had compete with for followers in those early centuries. A religious movement founded on secret knowledge, the Gnostics would have considered themselves to have had in possession the “fullness” of Christian truth, of which laymen from the primitive Church would need to be initiated into.
The next passages deal with Sophia’s fall from grace and the birth of the Demiurge, Ialdabaoth. In the following, Sophia, wishing to create something apart from the spiritual universe without the consent of the Monad, brings forth the Demiurge, which is neither completely light or complete darkness:
“Now, the wisdom belonging to afterthought, which is an aeon, thought a thought derived from herself, (from) the thinking of the invisible spirit, and (from) prior acquaintance. She wanted to show forth within herself an image, without the spirit’s [will]; and her consort did not consent. And (she wished to do so) without his pondering: for the person of her maleness did not join on the consent; for she had not discovered that being which was in harmony with her. Rather, she pondered without the will of the spirit and without acquaintance with that being which was harmony with her. And she brought forth. And because of the invincible power within her, her thinking did not remain unrealized. And out of her was shown forth an imperfect product, that was different from her manner of appearance, for she had made it without her consort. And compared to the image of its mother it was misshapen, having a different form.” (9:35-10:6.)
Ashamed of her creation, the Demiurge is wrapped in a cloud and placed on a throne far from the light of the spiritual realm. Having stolen a portion of the divine power from his mother, Ialdabaoth moves further away from the light of the spiritual realm. Ialdabaoth is only dimly aware of the spiritual universe to which his mother Sophia belongs and, by using part of her own power, creates as best he can a replica of the hierarchy of Aeons; this act results in the creation of the material universe. The resulting “Aeons” generated from the Demiurge’s power are demonic beings known as Archons or “rulers.” These beings are allotted their own portion of the earthly heavens. Knowing no other parent than Ialdabaoth, they worship him as God. Because Ialdabaoth was so far removed from the light of the spiritual universe and from the Monad itself, he arrogantly proclaims himself to be the true god saying:
“And the ruler is impious, in its madness that is with it. For it said, “It is I who am god, and no other god exists part from me,” for it did not recognize whence its strength had come.” (11:18,19-22f.)
Ialdabaoth and his host of Archons then create for themselves seven greater Archons corresponding to each day of the week. These are Athoth, Eloaio, Asataphaios, Iao, Sabaoth, Adonein and Sabbateon⁶ and together they rule over each of the seven heavens. The names of the Archons vary between local traditions but their importance within Gnostic cosmology remained virtually unchanged throughout the centuries. Although not found in the Secret Book of John, an Archon by the name of Abraxas is sometimes described as being the chief of the seven heavenly rulers. In other traditions, Ialdabaoth himself is described as the leader of these celestial demons, usually by the names Yaldabaoth, Saklas or Samael.
Ialdabaoth proceeds to create the material universe. It is in these series of passages that the narrative as told in Genesis begins. The resulting cosmos is an imperfect imitation of the pleroma, the spiritual universe. It is then that Sophia begins to move, noticing that a portion of her divine power is missing. The narrative then stops briefly as John inquires what Jesus means by “move.” Jesus then gives to John the true explanation of Genesis 1:1-4, when the “Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” The following passages relate of how Sophia, repenting with tears, is forgiven by the Monad and carried away to the Ninth Aeon until the power stolen from her is restored. It is then that a voice from the spiritual realm roars like thunder throughout the pleroma and the material universe. The voice belongs to Ger-Adamas, but Ialdabaoth, being ignorant of the spiritual realm, believes the voice to have come from its mother. Then, an image or projection of Ger-Adamas’ form shines through the pleroma down to the murky depths of materiality and on the surface of the waters as well. Ialdabaoth, as well as the rest of the Archons, are shaken, dazzled at what this image could be. They then resolve to create Man in the image that they witnessed, as well as their own images⁶ further tying together the text with the Genesis account of creation.⁷
After a lengthy list of Archons forming each individual part of the human body, their attempt to create (or technically, recreate) Man fails. The body of this Adam is complete, to be sure, but he is unable to move, lacking the spark of life. It is then that the Sophia together with the Aeons devise a plan to steal back the power that Ialdabaoth had stolen from her. By convincing the Demiurge to blow his power into Adam’s inanimate body, they hope to retrieve her power:
“Indeed, they said to Ialtabaoth, “Blow some of your spirit into his face and his body will arise.” And Ialtabaoth blew some of its spirit, that is, the power of its mother, upon him. It did not understand, since it existed without acquaintance. And the mother’s power left Altabaoth (i.e. Ialtabaoth) and entered the animate body, which they had labored after the image of the aboriginal existent.” (19:22-27,28f)
Adam is vivified, and once arisen is quickly shown to be much stronger and more intelligent than any of the Archons, even Ialdabaoth himself. In their jealousy, the Archons cast Adam further into the abyssal deeps of materiality. The Barbelo, having pity not so much on Adam as Sophia’s power inside of him, sends a helper, Zoe (i.e. Life) to his aid, teaching him about his descent and how he can ascend to the higher realms once more. Before the Aeons can gain possession of the divine spark in Adam, the Archons develop a plan to entrap Adam in the material realm, by giving him a material body.
“Taking fire, earth, and water, they mixed together with them four fiery winds. And they became forged to one another, and a great disturbance was made. And they brought him into the shadow of death, in order to perform again their act of modeling, out of earth, water, fire, and the spirit that derives from matter— that is, out of the ignorance of darkness, and desire, and their counterfeit sprit. That is the cave of the remodeling of the body in which the brigands clothed the human being, the bond of forgetfulness. And he became a mortal human being. It was he who was the first to descend, and the first to separate. But it was the afterthought of the light within him that was raising his thinking.” (20:25-21:1-14f.)
In one last attempt to prevent the Aeons from recovering the spark of divine power, Ialdabaoth and the Archons spirit away Adam and place him in the Garden of Eden. The Garden, here, is described as a false paradise. Adam has every fruit of the vine to partake of but every seed exposes him to knowledge of every manner of sin, lust, and ignorance. The only fruit Adam is not allowed to partake of, of course, is that of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. It is then that that we return to the conversation between Jesus and John who asks the savior if it was the serpent who taught Adam to eat to which Jesus replies:
“The savior laughed and said, ‘the snake taught them to consume imperfection consisting of the sowing of desire and corruption, so that he (Adam) might become useful to it. And it knew that he was disobedient to it because of the light of the afterthought dwelling within him and making him more upright in his thinking than the first ruler. And it wanted to extract from Adam the power that it had imparted to him. And it caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam’.” (22:11,12-20.)
The next series of passages deal with the creation of Eve who is born from the afterthought of the divine spark in Adam. Having fallen into a deep slumber, Ialdabaoth attempts to draw out the divine spark from his side, modeling a body for it which becomes the form of a female. The attempt fails and Adam awakes and, seeing his own divine reflection in Eve, is brought out of the state of ignorance that he had fallen into during his imprisonment in the Garden:
“Next the afterthought of the light hid within him. And the first ruler wanted to extract it from his side. But the afterthought of the light is incomprehensible: although the darkness was pursuing it, it could not comprehend it. And it (the ruler) extracted a portion of his power from him and performed another act of modeling, in the form of a female, after the image of the afterthought that had been shown forth to it. And into the modeled form of femaleness it brought the portion it had taken from the power of the human being— not ‘his rib’ as Moses said. And he saw the woman beside him. And in that moment the luminous afterthought was shown forth, for it had removed the veil from around his heart; and he became sober out of the drunkenness of the darkness.” (22:28,29-23:8.)
Finally, we come to the expulsion from Paradise. Sophia, as Zoe, descends to earth and enlightens the minds of Adam and Eve. Despite this, both Adam and Eve are too terrified to completely renounce Ialdabaoth and his hosts. Ialdabaoth then expels the couple from the Garden but not before first raping Eve in one last attempt to recover the divine spark:
“And the first ruler saw the female virgin standing with Adam, and saw that the living, luminous afterthought had been shown forth within her. And Aldabaoth became filled with lack of acquaintance. Now, the forethought of the entirety learned of this, and sent certain beings who caught life (Zoe) up out of Eve. And the first ruler defiled her, and begot on her two sons— the first and the second, Eloim and Iaue.” (24:8-15.)
The names “Eloim and Iaue” are obviously portmanteaus of Elohim-Yahweh, the Hebrew God of the Old Testament. This is meant to further drive home the association that the God of Judaism is not the true God of the pleroma who sent down Christ. This passage also introduces to us how sexual reproduction entered the world. Ialdabaoth, knowing that he is unable to obtain the divine spark, choses to divide it into many countless bodies, introducing a “counterfeit-spirit” into the human soul that is meant to darken and prevent true humanity from uncovering their own divine sparks. Eloim and Iaue are also given the names Cain and Abel. Adam, too, bears a son of his own, Seth, who goes own to father the Chosen Race of the Gnostics. The passage ends with the oblivion of Adam and Eve. Ialdabaoth, in his defeat, makes the two drink of the water of forgetfulness, so that they would not realize themselves and all that they had learned.⁸ The rest of the Secret Book deals with a conversation between Jesus and John about how one can be saved. For our purposes, the text dealing with creation of the world effectively ends here.
Our next book, the Reality of the Archons or the Hypostasis of the Archons, provides us with a much shorter version of the Gnostic creation myth. Like the Secret Book of John before it, we are provided with a revisionist cosmogony which is supposed to be taken as a “true history” of mankind. The title of the text is taken from the first line where the unknown author is stressing to his audience to trust in the Parent of the Entirety. Interestingly, this book seems to have been written shortly after the time of Paul whom the opening lines indirectly mention, going to so far as to quote Ephesians 6:12.⁹ Thus, we the readers are persuaded to believe that Paul himself was a Gnostic figure who bore the true and uncorrupted teachings of the Christian Tradition. Following the authors introduction for the occasion of the treatise, we are immediately given a repudiation of the Demiurge’s arrogance, who this time is called Samael:
“Their chief is blind, [because of its] power and its lack of acquaintance [and its arrogance] it said, with its [power], ‘It is I who am god; there is none [apart from me].’ When it said this, it sinned against [the entirety]. And this utterance got up to incorruptibility; then there was a voice that came forth from incorruptibility, saying, ‘You are mistaken, Samael— which is, ‘the god of the blind.’ Its thoughts became blind. And, having expelled its power— that is, the blasphemy it had spoken— it pursued it down to chaos and the abyss, its mother, at the instigation of faith wisdom (Pistis Sophia). And she appointed each of its offspring according to its respective power— after the pattern of the eternal realms that are above, for by starting from the invisible domain the visible domain was invented.” (86:20-87:4f)
In the next passage we have an Aeon called Incorruptibility who takes on the role that Ger-Adamas played in the Secret Book of John. Incorruptibility projects its image down upon the surface of the waters and the Archons attempt to seize it but are incapable of doing so due to their corruptible nature. Unable to lay hold of this pleromatic image, they resolve to create a being in its likeness instead:
“As Incorruptibility gazed down into the region of the waters, its image was shown forth in the waters; and the authorities of the darkness became enamored of it. But they could not lay hold of that image, which had been shown forth to them in the waters, because of their weakness— since merely animate beings cannot lay hold of those which are spirit-endowed; for they were from below, while it was from above. […] This is the reason why ‘incorruptibility gazed down into the region (etc.)’: so that, by the parent’s will, it might join the entirety unto the light. The rulers laid plans and said, “Come let us create a human being that will be from the soil from the earth.” (87:11-26f)
Just as in the Secret Book of John, the Archons, having created Adam, are unable to make him arise. Even after they blow some of their stolen power into him, he is only able to crawl on the ground. It is here that a spirit, representing the feminine principle that manifests in Eve, descends from what is called the “Adamantine Realm” and animates him. The word Adamatine here probably holds an esoteric connotation, most likely being a play on the words “Adam” (Hebrew: adamah) meaning earth, and “adamantine” meaning steel:
“Now, all these events came to pass by the will of the parent of the entirety. Afterward, the spirit saw the animate human being upon the ground. And the spirit came forth from the Adamantine Realm; it descended and came to dwell within him, and that human being came to be a living soul. It called his name Adam since he was found moving upon the ground. A voice came forth from the incorruptibility for the assistance of Adam; and the rulers gathered together all the animals of the earth and all the birds of the sky and brought them in to Adam to see what Adam would call them, that he might give a name to each of the birds and all the beasts.” (88:10-19.)
Again, as in the Secret Book of John, the Archons cause a deep sleep to fall over Adam and attempt to retrieve the spiritual element inside him. From his side they craft the body of Eve from whence the spiritual element leaves Adam and enters her body. Adam awakes and eventually the Archons become enamored with Eve and rape her. Before they do so, the spiritual element leaves Eve and passes into a snake who is the serpent found in Genesis, thus preventing the spiritual element from being defiled. It is here that the Reality of the Archons lines up with Genesis. The serpent instructs the now purely animate Eve to eat of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. She does so and offers it to Adam who eats of it as well. They are found out by Ialdabaoth when they proceed to cover up their nakedness and are expelled from the Garden. Eve gives birth to Cain and Abel and, as in Genesis, Abel is later slain by his brother. Eve then gives birth to another son, Seth, and a daughter named Norea.
Norea is not mentioned anywhere in the Bible but in the Gnostic myth she is the wife of Noah. Norea is a very important figure in Gnostic lore and in this version of the myth Norea burns down the ark twice when Noah attempts to bar her entry upon it under the commands of the Demiurge. It is then that the Ialdabaoth and the Archons confront Norea and attempt to rape her like her mother Eve:
“But Norea turned to them and said to them, “It is you who are the rulers of the darkness; you are accursed. And you did not know my mother; instead it was your female counterpart that you knew. For I am not your descendant; rather, it is from the world above that I am come. The arrogant ruler turned, with all its might, [and] its countenance came to be like (a) black […]; it [said] to her recklessly, “You must render service to us, [as did] also your mother Eve; for I have been given […].” But Norea turned, with the might of […] and in a loud voice [she] cried out [to] the holy, the god of the entirety, “Rescue me from the rulers of injustice and save me from their clutches— immediately!” (92:21,22-93:1.)
It is then that the luminary Eleleth appears and frightens away the Demiurge and his Archons. Norea, bewildered, asks the great angel who he is to which Eleleth replies with his identity and the text sequences into a dialogue with Eleleth recounting to Norea her true heritage, being a member of the True Race, and tells her how Ialdabaoth and his minions came to be:
“And the great angel Eleleth, intelligence, spoke to me: “Within limitless eternal realms (aeons) dwells incorruptibly. Wisdom (Sophia), who is called faith (Pistis), wanted to create something, alone without her partner, and her product was a celestial thing. A veil exists between the world above and the realms (aeons) that are below, and a shadow came into being beneath the veil; and that shadow became matter; and that shadow was projected apart. And what she had created became a product in the matter, like an aborted foetus. And it assumed a plastic form molded out of a shadow, and became an arrogant beast resembling a lion.” It was androgynous, as I have already said because it was from matter that it derived.” (94:2-18.)
Eleleth continues and describes how, in his jealousy and arrogance, Ialdabaoth declares himself to be God:
“Opening its eyes it saw a vast quantity of matter without limit; and it became arrogant, saying ‘It is I who am god, and there is none other apart from me.’ When it said this, it sinned against the entirety. And a voice came forth from above the realm of absolute power, saying, ‘You are mistaken Samael— which is, the god of the blind.’ And it said, ‘If any other thing exists before me, let it be shown to forth to me! And immediately wisdom (Sophia) stretched out her finger and introduced light into mater; and she pursued it down to the region of chaos. And returned up [to] her light; once again in darkness […] matter.” (94:19-33.)
Ialdabaoth then creates the seven Archons which preside over the terrestrial heavens. Unusually, his son Sabaoth rebels against him and is elevated to the seventh heaven where he is implied to have taken over the role as the God of Israel. Ialdabaoth is then cast into Tartarus where his envy of Sabaoth’s elevation engenders the rest of the Archons as well as death. Norea then asks Eleleth if she, too, is a product of matter to which Eleleth assures her that her true home is with the Monad. The text ends with Eleleth promising that Norea’s offspring, the Gnostic race, will be delivered by the coming of the True Man.
Our last work is arguably the most well-known up until the discovery of the Nag Hammadi manuscripts. The only form of Gnosticism that formed a complete cosmology that historians had access to was Valentinus’ creation myth as recorded by his student, Ptolemy. Almost nothing of Ptolemy is known aside from that he was one of Valentinus’ earliest students and lived in Rome. Given that his name and the language that the Valentinian myth was written down in was Greek, it is very likely that Ptolemy himself was a Greek as well. The original Valentinian myth according to Ptolemy is lost to history, however excerpts of it were preserved by Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyon. Most of what we know about Valentinian Gnosticism are preserved in Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, which will serve as the source material for the rest of this essay.
Much of the Valentinian myth parallels the classical Gnostic myth with the notable exceptions that the Valentinian version organizes the spiritual universe into thirty sexually complementary pairings of Aeons called syzygyies. The Monad, held in classical Gnosticism to be an indivisible unitary principle, is itself composed of two Aeons called Bythos (the Deep) and Sige (Silence). Irenaeus explains:
“Within invisible and unnameable heights there was— they say— a preexistent, perfect eternity; this they call also prior source, ancestor, and the deep. And it existed uncontained, invisible, everlasting, and unengendered. Within infinite eternal realms it was in great stillness and rest. And with it coexisted thought, which they also call loveliness and silence.” (Irenaeus, 1.1.1.)
The Deep, or Bythos, engenders Sige, who becomes pregnant and begets the Intellect as well as Truth, its sister and consort:
And eventually the aforementioned deep took thought to emit a source for the entirety. And it deposited this emanation that it had thought to emit like sperm, in the womb of the silence that coexisted with it. And the latter received this sperm, conceived, and brought forth intellect, which was like and equal to the emitter and was the only being that comprehended the magnitude of its parent, and the source of the entirety. And truth was emitted along with it.” (Irenaeus, 1.1.1)
The Intellect (Greek: Nous) shares many similarities with the Barbelo of classical Gnosticism. Firstly, it is the only other being that can grasp the profundity of its parent and secondly, it is the only Aeon from which all the other Aeons come into existence. From the Intellect (and Truth) are begotten the Word (Greek: Logos) and Life. Again, Irenaeus narrates:
“Now, when this only-begotten perceived the ends for which it had been emitted, it emitted the Word and life (Zoe)— a parent of the entirety of beings that were to exist after it and a source and forming of the entire fullness.” (Irenaeus, 1.1.1)
From Logos and Zoe are emitted Anthropos, the archetypal Man, and Ecclesia, the archetypal Church.¹⁰ It is interesting that in this version of the myth that the primordial Man is joined to the heavenly Church as bridegroom and consort. Man, as it would seem, is made for the Church, and the Church, for Man. Together, these eight Aeons make up an ogdoad, which Irenaeus describes as the “root and source of the entirety.”
The Word and Life also emit a decad of ten additional aeons which are listed as the following;
- Deep-sunken and Intercourse
- Unageing and Union
- The Motionless and Mixture
- The Only-begotten and the Blessed. ¹¹
In addition to this decad, Anthropos and Ecclesia emit an additional twelve Aeons which are listed as the following:
- The Intercessor and Faith
- The Fatherly and Hope
- The Motherly and Love
- The Ever-flowing and Blessedness
- The Wished-for and Wisdom (Sophia) ¹²
Like the Barbelo of classical Gnosticism, only the Intellect is truly capable of contemplating its parent, the Bythos-Sige syzygy. All the other Aeons long to contemplate the source of their origin, but it was Sophia who rushes forth to know her origin directly, becoming desirous of the privilege only enjoyed by the Intellect. Irenaeus explains:
“But Wisdom (Sophia)— the very last, most recent aeon of the group of the twelve that had been emitted by the human being and the church— charged forward and experienced passion without the involvement of her consort, the wished-for. The passion originated in the region of intellect and truth; but it collected in this (last aeon), which had been diverted— ostensibly out of love but really out of recklessness— because it had not communicated with the perfect parent as intellect had. The passion consisted of a search for the parent; for— they say— she wanted to comprehend its magnitude. She was unable to, for she had tried to accomplish the impossible. And she became engaged in a very great struggle, owing to the magnitude of the depth, the unsearchability of the parent, and her affection for that (parent.) (Irenaeus, 1.2.2.)
Sophia is unable to advance any further towards the parent, her way having been barred by an invisible barrier. Defeated, she turns back but her passions have overwhelmed her and in the process, she becomes engendered with a child, not the Demiurge as in the classical Gnostic myth, but a daughter named Achamoth:
“[…] In attempting the impossible and the incomprehensible, she gave birth to a essence without form, of that nature which a female must give birth to. And when she understood it, first she was grieved because of the imperfection of its origin. Next, she was afraid lest the thing should die. And then she became distraught and uncertain, searching for the cause and searching for the means to hide what had come into being. After being occupied with passions she accepted a turning back: having tried to hasten up to the parent and having, for a while, acted recklessly, she became exhausted. She became a suppliant before the parent; and the other aeons, especially, intellect, joined her entreaty. The essence of matter—they say— had its first source in the aforementioned lack-of-acquaintance, grief, fear, and terror.” (Irenaeus, 1.2.3)
Sophia is purified and redeemed in the presence of the other Aeons, but Achamoth, representing her thinking and passions, is cut away from her and separated from the spiritual universe by an invisible boundary. It is then that Intellect emits another pair of Aeons, the Anointed and the Holy Spirit:
“After it (Achamoth) had been bounded apart outside the fullness of the aeons and its mother had been restored to membership in her own pair, the only-begotten emitted another pair of by the parent’s foresight, for the fixing and establishment of the fullness, lest any of the aeons should experience the same as she had. This consisted of the anointed (Christ) and the holy spirit; by them the aeons were set in order.” (Irenaeus, 1.2.5)
Christ teaches the Aeons about the nature of being in a syzygy as well as the incomprehensibility of Bythos. And, to avoid any future incidents like what had happened with Sophia, he makes all the Aeons equal to one another:
“Moreover, once they had been made equal with one another the holy spirit taught them to give thanks and brought in true repose. And in this way—they say—the aeons were appointed equal form and intention, so that all of them were intellects, all were Words, all were human beings, all were anointed (Christs); while the female ones were likewise all truths, were all lifes (Zoe’s), were all spirits and were all churches. When the entirety had been established for this end and was perfectly at repose, very joyfully it lifted praise unto the ancestor, sharing in much good cheer.” (Irenaeus, 1.2.6)
Rejoicing in their new-found equilibrium, all the Aeons come together and contribute what is best in them to form an entirely new creation. The resulting emanation is the person of Jesus:
“And in response to these good deeds, with a single intention, as the anointed (Christ) and the spirit joined in the consent and their parent joined in the approval, the entire fullness of the aeons—each of the aeons—joined in bringing and contributing the most beautiful and splendid that it had in itself, and interweaving these elements fittingly and uniting them harmoniously, in honor and to the glory of the deep they emitted an emanation that was a kind of utterly perfect beauty and star of fullness, a perfect fruit, Jesus: after his parent he was named also savior, anointed (Christ), and Word; and also entirety, because he is from the entirety. Simultaneously, in honor of it (the entirety) angels of the same ancestry were emitted as bodyguards for him.” (Irenaeus, 1.2.6)
The next part of the text primarily deals with hidden allegories vindicating Gnostic views supposedly found in the passages of the New Testament. Moving on we again turn to Achamoth whom, being cast outside of the light of the Pleroma, finds herself in a place of darkness:
“The following are the events that they say happened outside of the fullness. Once the higher wisdom’s (Sophia’s) thinking, which they call also Achamoth, along with her passion had been bounded apart from the fullness it was—they say—cast forth in a region of shadow and emptiness: and necessarily so, for it had come to be outside the light and the fullness, without form and imageless, like an aborted foetus, because it had not comprehended anything. But the anointed (Christ) took pity on this female being and stretched out along the cross. By his own power he formed (her as) a concrete formation, (formed) not by acquaintance, but rather by essence alone. Once he had done this he hastened back upward, gathering in his power; and left her, so that as she perceived the passion that was hers because of her removal from the fullness she might yearn for the superior realm; (for) she had a fragrance of incorruptibility left in her by the anointed (Christ) and the holy spirit. Accordingly, she is called by two names: wisdom (Sophia) after her father, for her father, is called wisdom; and holy spirit, from the spirit belonging to the anointed (Christ).” (Irenaeus, 1.4.1)
After the Christ gives form to Achamoth, she passionately rushes after him, wishing to comprehend his light. However, because she is a being who has been subjugated to the passions, she cannot enter the boundary that separates the spiritual universe from the darkness outside. Achamoth, in her despair, falls into even greater passions such as grief and fear. Her passions, according to the Valentinian myth, is the origin of matter:
“She—they say—accounts for the genesis and essence of the matter out of which this world came into being. For, the entire soul of the world and the craftsman had its origination in her turning back; other things had their beginning in her fear and grief. Indeed, all moist essences came into being from her tears; luminous ones, from her laughter; and the bodily elements of the world. From her grief and terror. For sometimes—they say—she cried and felt grief because of being left alone in the darkness and emptiness; sometimes she proceeded to thought about the light that had left her, and she relaxed and laughed; sometimes she was afraid; and yet other times she became uncertain and distraught.” (Irenaeus, 1.4.2)
Having gone through every passion, Achamoth again turns towards the light of the pleroma, though still unable to pass the boundary, and supplicates the Christ to return. The Christ, hesitating to descend for a second time, endows the archetypal Jesus with authority to pass between the boundary. Jesus then separates Achamoth’s passions from her, resulting in the creation of three essences: the first, deriving from her passions, is matter. The second, which is mixed with passion, is the animate and the third, being uncontaminated, is the spiritual.¹³ It is out of the animate essence that the Demiurge is formed and the prototypes of the universe are created. The Demiurge then goes on to create the universe out of the material and animate essences:
“Thus they say that he became parent and god of things outside the fullness, being the maker of all things, both animate and material. For he separated the two essences that had been poured together, made bodies out of incorporeal things, and created things both heavenly and earthly. And he became the craftsman of material and animate things, of right and left, of light and heavy, of upward-tending and downward-tending. For he constructed the seven heavens, above which—they say— is the craftsman. For this reason they call him the seventh, and the mother they call the eighth, preserving the count of the primal and first octet of the fullness.” (Irenaeus, 1.5.2)
The Demiurge, while having created this physical universe, only did so through the emission of his mother, Achamoth. In his arrogance he, as is always the case in Gnostic myth, declares himself to be god and that there are no others apart from him. Unusual in this version of the myth, however, is an account the creation of the devil and the demons. In all previous versions of the myth, it was the Demiurge who occupied a place of malevolence usually reserved for Satan. But, as Irenaeus recounts, we have an origin story for forces of darkness:
“From grief—so they teach—the spiritual hosts of wickedness were generated. From this source originated the devil, whom they call the world-ruler; the demons; and all the substance of wickedness having to do with spirits. So they say that the craftsman was an animate offspring of their mother, while the world ruler was a creature of the craftsman. The world-ruler recognized the things that were superior to it because it was a spirit of wickedness. But the craftsman did not recognize these because he was (merely) animate. Their mother is supposed to reside in the supracelestial place, i.e. the midpoint; the craftsman, in the celestial place, i.e. the seventh (heaven); and the world-ruler in our world.” (Irenaeus, 1.5.4)
Once the Demiurge had completed his creation of the world, he turns his attention toward the creation of man, whom he bases on the image of the primordial archetype, Anthropos:
“When he had created the world, he also made the human being consisting of dust—not by taking some of the dry soil of this world, but rather by taking some of the invisible essence, the liquid, flowing (essence) of matter. And into it—they state—he breathed the animate human being. This is the once who came into being “after the image and likeness.” It is the material human being who is “after the image,” for it is near to, though not of the same essence as, god. It is the animate human being who is “after the likeness,” hence its essence is called a spirit of life (Zoe), for it derives from a spiritual emanation.” (Irenaeus, 1.5.5)
They next passage deals with the creation of the earthly Church, as well as a kind of “spiritual human being” which is different from the soul. The “spiritual human being” is also described as a “seed” and this seed bears a striking resemblance to the divine spark found in the earlier versions of the myth:
“Now, their mother Achamoth’s offspring, which she had brought forth by contemplating the angels around the savior, was of the same essence as the mother, i.e. was spiritual. And—they say—the craftsman was unacquainted with it; without his knowing it, this (offspring) was secretly deposited in him, so that it might be sown by him into the soul that comes from him and into this material body; might be carried by these (as it were a pregnant woman), and increase; and might become ready for the reception of the perfect Word. So that by ineffable power and forethought the spiritual human being escape the notice of the craftsman after he had been sown by wisdom (Sophia) into the craftsmans breathe. For just as he had not recognized his mother so he did not recognize her seed; and this (seed)—they say—is the church, and it is an earthly representation (antitype) corresponding to the spiritual church. This latter, they think, is the human being that is within them, so they have their souls from the craftsman, their bodies from dust, their fleshly elements from matter, and the spiritual human being from their mother Achamoth.” (Irenaeus, 1.5.6)
It is interesting that the earthly church is born from Achamoth’s contemplation of the retinue of angels around the heavenly Jesus. Ecclesia (ἐκκλησία), or “Church” in Greek means assembly, and as the “spiritual human being” divides into what would become an assembly of members that make up the Chosen Race, it mirrors the heavenly assembly centered around Jesus as the earthly Gnostic Church would around its own savior.
The rest of Irenaeus’ recounting of the Valentinian myth mostly goes on to deal with ethics, Christology and the destruction of the world and the final salvation of the Gnostics. Also included in his Against Heresies is a refutation of the teachings of Basilides, a religious teacher and commentator on the Gospels, who is also credited with having founded a Gnostic sect that survived some two centuries after his death. Almost nothing of Basilides’ work survives and what little has survived is fragmentary at most. While the tradition established by his contemporary Valentinus was much more popular throughout the Roman Empire, Basilides seems to have had a lasting impact of Egyptian Gnosticism. The Basilidean myth is a much more simplified version of the Valentinian. Irenaeus writes:
“First, by the unengendered parent there was engendered intellect. And from it was engendered verbal expression (Word). From verbal expression, prudence. From prudence, wisdom (Sophia) and power. And out of power together with wisdom (there were engendered) authorities, rulers and angels. These (authorities, rulers, angels) he calls “first” ones. And by them the first heaven was crafted. By an act of emission on their part, other angels came onto being, and they made another haven closely resembling the first one. Then, in turn, by an act of emission on the part of these, there were produced other angels, corresponding to those that were above them, and they stamped a corresponding third heaven. And from the third level of descendants (was produced) a fourth, and thereafter in like manner were made—they say—still other rulers and angels, (up to a total of) 365 heavens. And it is because of them that the years has the quantity of days, corresponding to the number of heavens.” (Irenaeus, 1.24.3)
Also included in the Basilidean version of the Gnostic myth is the same condemnation of matter as evil and the god of the Jews being the chief Archon who crafted the last heaven, the three-hundred and sixty-fifth, to which our world belongs. Christ is also identified with the Intellect who came down from the pleroma to save those who believe in him.¹⁴ However, the Basilideans appeared to have been Docetists, as they seemed to have denied that Christ had a material body, even going to so far as to deny he was even crucified. Instead, recounts Irenaeus, they claim it was Simon of Cyrene, the man who helped Jesus carry his cross, who was made to appear as Jesus and was crucified in his stead, a position that Muslims also share, some 1400 years after Basilides.
Elements of Gnosticism still survive in the religious teachings of the Mandaeans of Iraq, the teachings of Samael Aun Weor and the somewhat erroneously named Gnostic Catholic Church, which is thoroughly Thelemite in practice. Certain passages of the Corpus Hermeticum seem to mirror Gnostic ideas but overall it is rather doubtful that any real access to the Gnostic Tradition survives in the present day, with any lingering influences of Gnostic thought having been wiped out with the destruction of Catharism during the Albigensian Crusade.
Gnosticism, like Christianity which ultimately triumphed over it, is an interesting specimen of thought that emerged out of an age where the established Traditions of the day such as Graeco-Roman paganism and Zoroastrianism could no longer provide adequate answers to the religious and philosophical needs of the peoples of the ancient Mediterranean. Christianity, itself a product of Hellenism and Judaism, found its antagonist in the Gnostic movement which was most likely an attempt to de-Judaize the religion and salvage what parts of Hellenic thought that could be saved and, in doing so, became more world-hating than Christianity ever was. The problem of evil, which Gnosticism dealt with rather bluntly, is still an issue that we still struggle to grapple with in the present day. If we can say anything about the Gnostics, it was that they had one of the most simple and consistent answers to one of the greatest religious and philosophical problems the human race has ever known. And, at least in that regard, they may have been on to something.
Layton, Bentley. The Gnostic Scriptures: a New Translation with Annotations and Introductions. Doubleday, 1987.
- John 1:1-6.
- The Secret Book of John 8:4-7.
- Ibid. 8:8-11.
- Ibid. 8:12-15.
- Ibid. 8:16-19.
- Ibid. 15:1,2-11f.
- Genesis 1:26.
- The Secret Book of John 25:7-14f