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SPeur: Gnosticism

To: alt.magick.tyagi,alt.magick,alt.religion.gnostic,alt.christnet,talk.religion.misc
From: (nigris (333))
Subject: SPeur: Gnosticism (LONG)
Date: 3 May 1997 02:37:12 -0700

[from Sans Peur ]
[technical difficulties enforced delay -- apologies for outdatedness]
[slightly rearranged -- 333]

>I've noticed that what is variously called 'Gnosticism' is one of the major
>religious currents (along with Satanism) associated with 'Thelema' aside 
>from the elements fabricated or integrated by the Prophet Crowley.
>an example here is the importance of the Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica 
>(Gnostic Catholic Church) and other Gnostic lineages to the various 
>organizations identified as "OTO" (I make no judgement as to their 
>given this, and since I came across this (admittedly biased) review of
>Gnosticism (from a Coptic Christian source), I'm presenting it for your
>review and critique, should any feel inclined, considering your own 
>comprehension of what Gnosticism means or contains.  thanks.

Anno IVv, Sol 1 deg Taurus, Luna 15 deg Libra
04/21/97 e.v.

93 Tyagi,

Excellent posts.  The best I've seen I think.  Thank you.  I have my 
favorite Gnostic history to contribute below.

93 93/93
Sans Peur

-----------------------------/ cut here /-----------------------------------

A Brief Survey of Gnosticism

by Jeffrey S. Johnson, Fr. IDWAB Thien Tao Oasis


Gnosticism was a unique spiritual and religious system and movement whose 
heyday was duringthe firsttwo centuries of the common era. During this 
period many different schools of Gnostic thoughtflourished.  However, 
there has been considerable scholarly debate over where and when 
Gnosticismproper actually began. If we were to accept the words of the 
early church fathers, such as Irenaeus or Hippolytus, we would conclude 
that Gnosticism was nothing more than a heretical offshoot of 
Christianity.  However, knowing that the early Catholic church would do 
just about anything to clear the way for their new and wondrous 
institution, including, but not limited to, twisting the truth or 
ignoring the plain facts if it
did not favour their position, we can overlook their speculations on this 
matter as more polemical than historical and proceed to a brief 
investigation of the prevalent social, cultural, and religious trends of 
the time period. This should furnish us with a clearer idea about the 
beginnings of Gnosticism. To more thoroughly acheive this end it is 
necessary to backtrack to the Conquest of the East by Alexander the Great 
(334-323 BCE) and the emergence of the culture within which the many and 
wonderful threads of Eastern and Western thought and feeling were to 

As suggested above, the conquest of the East by Alexander would lead to a 
unification of the Eastern (being, in this context, roughly Egypt to the 
borders of India) and the Western (mainly the Greek, or Hellenic, world 
centered around the Aegean Sea) cultures into a common "Hellenistic" 
culture. Alexander's success in this venture was not all due to his 
valour and military prowess: the cultures and the conciousness of the 
people in both the East and the West were prepared, although in radically 
different ways, for such a merging to occur.

The pre-Alexander "Hellenic" world, as oppossed to the post-Alexander 
"Hellenistic" world, was a culture and society that was very much 
reserved for those who were Hellenes by birth. That is, the culture's 
moral and political ideas, as well as ideas about knowledge and life in 
general, were bound up with definite social conditions. Gradually, 
however, Hellenic culture would open up. This opening was made possible 
primarily by the philosophical reflections of various schools of thought 
that appeared on the Greek landscape prior
to Alexander, such as the Cynics, the Sophists and the philosophers 
Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. The main elements contributed by these 
schools were the concepts of rationality, and logic and with these came 
greater awareness that society's laws and customs are conventions. This 
led to different reactions, some, such as the Cynics, suggested that 
because of this humans should move away from social conventions and 
others, such as Socrates, suggested that societal conventions should be 
upheld in the interests of law and order. Regardless of what the 
conflicting opinions on this matter were, the Age of Reason had dawned 
and thus Hellenic culture was heading away from particularism towards a 
more universal conciousness. To further this, the Stoics later advanced 
the notion that freedom is a purely
inner-quality, not dependent on external conditions. This would suggest 
that any man, or woman for that matter, could be free if only they were 
wise and would then open up Hellenic culture to every rational being, 
i.e., every man. It was at this point that the people of the Hellenic 
world began to conceive of themselves as citizens of the cosmos rather 
than solely as citizens of the "Polis" or the state --- thus the term 
"cosmopolitan". This radical shift in a positive, expansive direction on 
the part of the Western world coincided with many changes of a passive, 
receptive nature in the Eastern regions of the world. 

In the centuries preceeding Alexander's conquest, national and local 
beliefs (traditional religions) were gradually being transformed into 
theological systems which later evolved into rational doctrines. These 
changes would fit them for becoming elements of an international exchange 
of ideas. These changes were made possible by the uprooting of local 
cultures. For example, as far back as 597 BCE the Jews were exiled to 
Babylon. This event, while being an extreme hardship on the people, 
actually liberated Judaism from their lot as a Palestinian cult of Yaweh 
and allowed them to forward the concept of monotheism as a world cause, 
thus expanding their scope tremendously. A similiar situation would arise 
for the religion of
the Babylonians in their due season.

Once the state of Babylon was overthrown by Cyrus II of Persia (539 BCE) 
the old-religion was no longer a state cult attached to the political 
center. This would force the Babylonian religion to rest on its spiritual 
contents alone and would lead to its eventual transformation into the 
reasoned system of Astrology. One other such incident I'll mention 
affected, in due course, the Persians. 

Rather than being exiled as the Jews or conquered as the Babylonians, the 
old Persian religion of Mazdaism (commonly known as Zoroastrianism) 
willingly detached itself from its native Iranian soil to be carried 
throughout the East, from Syria to India, by the ruling nation. After the 
fall of the Persian empire to Alexander, Mazdaism would be faced with the 
same advantages and disadvantages of diaspora which was the lot of both 
the Jews and the Babylonians. As in the case of Jewish Monotheism and 
Babylonian Astrological fatalism, which were further developed due to the 
original dispersion of these religions, the
concept of Theological dualism was extracted from Mazdaism. These three 
religious currents were arguably the main spiritual forces that the East 
contributed to the Hellenistic world. Interestingly, it would seem that 
the first "cosmopolitan" civilization known to history was made possible 
by catastrophes overtaking the original units of regional culture.

As can be seen from this rudimentary sketch, the Western world was 
perfectly fitted for the advent of a new cosmopolitan culture where Greek 
ideas and acheivements could be shared with the rest of the world. The 
East, sufficiently uprooted and dispersed, and probably made somewhat 
indifferent by their many conquerors, was reconciled into a passive state 
of acceptance to what the West had to offer. These conditions, more than 
anything, made Alexander's conquests possible and so widely successful.

After Alexander's conquest, the Hellenistic world became, for all 
appearances, a Greek secular culture. The state language was Greek and 
all writings were penned in Greek, utilizing Greek literary devices and 
styles. Different ideas were tolerated and ecouraged, but all were 
presented within a Greek, Hellenistic framework. It would seem at a 
glance that the Oriental influence had been overridden by the Greek 
culture. This was not the case however. The Oriental influence was there 
but was masked in the clothes of Greek language and thought. For 
instance, Astrological fatalism could be masked in the garments of Stoic
cosmology and Theological dualism in the garment of Platonism. These 
currents of Oriental thought would work and develop and evolve 
"underground" as it were, within Greek, Hellenistic culture, utilizing 
the rational and analytical techniques of the Greek philosophers to shape 
their myths and symbols into logical systems of theology and rational 
doctrine until they were able to come to full light about three centuries 
later at the beginning of the Common Era.

The main currents of Eastern or Oriental thought that would emerge in 
what was fast becoming a Latin-Roman empire were Hellenistic Judaism and 
Alexandrian Jewish philosophy; Babylonian Astrology and magic; the spread 
of diverse Eastern mystery cults into the Hellenistic-Roman world and 
their evolution into spiritual mystery-religions; the rise of 
Christianity; the Gnostic movements inside and outside the Christian 
framework; and the philosophies of late antiquity, beginning with 
Neo-Pythagoreanism and culminating in Neo-Platonism. Since there were so 
many different thoughts and ideas abounding at this time, none of these 
spiritual movements could help but have syncretistic aspects. For 
example, Alexandrian Judaism was heavily overlaid with Platonic and Stoic 
elements. Christianity too had its syncretistic aspects, incorporating as 
its central theme the cycle of the slain and resurrected God
which had been celebrated by other cultures under many different forms, 
including the mystery cults of Osiris, Orpheus, Dionysus, and Attis, 
etc.1 The Gnostics exemplified the extreme of syncretism, they 
compounded everything, including; Oriental mythologies, Astrological 
doctrines, Iranian theology, elements of the Jewish tradition (whether 
Biblical, Rabbinical or Occult), and Christian salvation eschatology 
ó utilizing Platonic terms and concepts to elucidate their 
doctrines. One thing that all these currents had in common was that they 
were all of a decidedly religious, or spiritual nature. Also, they were
becoming more interested in the concept of salvation, and their ideas 
about God were becoming more and more transcendent, which in turn would 
alter the idea and the goal of salvation. The positing of a radical 
dualism of realms of being was a common feature of the religion of this 
time, whether between God and the world, spirit and matter, soul and 
body, or light and darkness, etc. The author and Historian Hans Jonas in 
his book, The Gnostic Religions, describes the common religion of this 
time period as "a dualistic, transcendent religion of salvation."

This brief historical overview has hopefully given you a clearer idea as 
to the many different threads of thought and idea that were incorporated 
in what was to become known as Gnosticism. From here, I will narrow the 
scope of this essay to cover only those ideas and incidents that involve 
Gnosticism in particular. The Gnostic teachers and philosophers were, 
first and foremost, individualists who produced their own literary and 
speculative works without having to subscribe to any particular set of 
beliefs. This situation, as
you might imagine, led to the formation of many different schools of 
Gnosticism, all with their own particular points of emphasis. This was a 
point of particular friction between Gnostics and the early fathers of 
the Catholic church. Bishop Ireneaus of Lyon castigated the Gnostics, 
sneering that they were capable of producing a new gospel every day. The 
early church had no tolerance of concepts of symbolical or psychological 
truths or of unorthodox speculations about creation, the cosmos, God, 
human origins, or destiny. Taking all of this into consideration, it is 
still possible to identify certain unifying elements within all
the various schools of Gnosticism It is to these common elements that I 
will now direct your attention. 

The first and most obvious connection between the schools of Gnosticism 
was the concept of "Gnosis" or knowledge. Knowledge, according to the 
Gnostics, was the way of salvation. In the Gnostic use of the term, 
knowledge refers to the knowledge of God, rather than a sort of academic 
knowledge as the word was used by the philosophers of that time and of 
our own time. The ultimate goal of Gnosticism, then, was the knowledge 
of, or union with, God, who was conceived as completely transcendent and 
basically unknowable. This knowledge, once attained, transformed the 
knower by making him a partaker in the divine existence. Another main 
tenet that they all held in common was the doctrine of radical dualism, 
ie. deity is completely transmundane and is essentially alien to the 
Universe, the Universe being, as it were, the work of a malevolent and 
incompetent deity.

According to the Gnostics the world was neither created nor governed by 
the most high God. The world, then, was the work of lowly powers, or 
"Archons", which did not know God and actually obstructed the knowledge 
of God by man. As said before, the Gnostics believed that God was 
completely unknowable by natural concepts and that a sort of supernatural 
revelation and illumination was required to come to this knowledge. When 
this awareness was attained, it could then only be expressed in terms of 
negatives. The Buddhist conceptions of "not mind" and "nothing"; the 
Judaic-Quabalistic conceptions of the three veils of negative existence; 
the Taoist conception of the Tao; and, more recently, the researches into 
the Quantum realm of modern physics are all exemplitive of this concept. 
All involve states of mind, or
existence, which are quite nearly impossible to express in terms of 
positive expression, as they deal with realms that seemingly transcend 
normal rational conciousness and modes of thought. This would seem to be 
why the Gnostics and other spiritual movements dealing directly with this 
level of experience so often utilize poetry of the most sublime order, 
where other more "rational" devices would fall short, to elucidate their 
experiences from beyond the veil.

Getting back to the "Archons", it was said that the Universe was their 
domain. The Universe could be compared to a cosmic prison with the Earth 
as its innermost dungeon. The Archons, which were attributed to the seven 
known "planets" (being Luna, Mercury, Venus, Sol, Mars, Jupiter and 
Saturn), collectively ruled over the world like warders of a cosmic 
prison. Through the Archons the world was subjected to what was known as 
"heimarmene" or universal fate. Physically, this refers to the so called 
laws of nature whose restrictions are hard to deny. Psychically, this 
would include the Mosaic law, which the Gnostics felt aimed
at the enslavement rather than the liberation of mankind. In the Gnostic 
cosmology, the Archons actively barred passage of souls that sought to 
ascend after death in order to prevent their escape from the world and 
their return to God. The leader of the Archons was an entity known as the 
"Demiurge", a term borrowed from the "world artificer" in Plato's 
Timaeus. This entity was portrayed with the distorted features of the Old 
Testament God, whom the Gnostics thought of as a lower and even 
counterfeit God. Even though the Gnostics had an almost wholly negative 
conception of the world and man's place therein, it was their intention 
to balance this situation by positing a means of salvation whereby man 
could release himself from the prison of matter and know the most high 
God itself. To take account of this, they developed theories on the 
nature of existence to aid them in understanding the means and results of 
their earthly and spirtual experiences.

Most Gnostics agreed that man was composed of three principal parts: 
Flesh, Soul and Spirit or Pneuma. Man's origins were both mundane, that 
is, of the Archons, and extramundane, that is, of the Divine. The body 
and the soul were thought to be the products of the cosmic powers (the 
Archons or Demiurge).  They were shaped in the image of the divine 
archetypal man and were animated by the psychical forces ofn the Archons. 
These "psychical forces" represented the appetites and passions of the 
"natural man" and each one directly stemmed from and corresponded to one 
of the cosmic spheres or Archons and served to make up man's psyche. It 
was through these, the body and the soul, that man was subjected to the 
tyrannical rule of the Archons and the heimarmene. The third component of 
man, the spirit or pneuma (also called the Divine Spark) was thought to 
be enclosed within the body and the soul and was a portion
of the divine substance which had fallen into the world. In fact, some 
Gnostics believed that the Archons created the world for the express 
purpose of keeping the Divine Spark captive. But overall, they believed 
that the spirit of man was completely unconcious and ignorant of itself 
in its unredeemed state and that its awakening and liberation was only 
effected through direct knowledge of the divine. And it was just this 
question of how man comes to this knowledge that was the main focus of 
their endeavors. To understand their views on this primary fulcrum of 
their belief , we need to consider Gnostic salvation eschatology, which 
is the rationalization of the ultimate goal of their system. 

The Gnostic doctrine of salvation was determined by extreme dualism. The 
spirit which is enclosed within the soul of man was believed to be just 
as alien to this world as God. The goal of Gnostic striving , then, would 
be the release of the "inner-man" from the world and his return to the 
divine realms of light. To accomplish this, man must know about the 
transmundane God and about himself: his divine origins, his present 
situation, and the nature of the world. As a famous Valentinian formula 
puts it, "What liberates is the knowledge of who we were, what we became; 
where we were, wherinto we have been thrown; whereto we speed, wherefrom 
we are redeemed; what birth is, and what rebirth [is] (Jonas, 45)" 
[brackets mine]. However, being bound in ignorance did not really help 
their odds of realizing all of these things. For this reason, they felt 
that man needed revelation to come to know these things. This could 
either come about through a personal revelatory experience, or could be 
delivered to mankind in whole or in part by a messenger from the world of 
light. This messenger, in order to deliver this information, would have 
to have outwitted the Archons on its descent and pass through the 
celestial spheres undetected. Once the messenger had arrived, the spirit 
of the receiving man would be awakened and the messenger imparted the 
saving knowledge from without. The knowledge received by the person 
illuminated included the whole of Gnostic myth, with all its teachings 
about God, man, and the world. In other words, the individual was 
informed of the essential nature of himself, his relations with the world 
in general, and his relations with God.

On a slightly more practical level, man received the "knowledge of the 
way" or
the soul's way out of the world. The "knowledge of the way" was comprised 
of various sacramental and magical preparations for the soul's future 
ascent to God and the secret names and formulas that forced passage 
through each of the cosmic spheres. This seems to be a similiar concept, 
although the deities are not quite so malevolent as they appear in 
Gnosticism, as that of the Egyptians' 42 Assessors of the Dead which the 
soul must answer to upon death in order to enter the divine realms.

Afterdeath, according to the Gnostics, those who were equipped with this 
Gnosis traveled upwards leaving behind at each sphere the psychical 
"vestments" contributed by it. Once man was free from the dross of the 
Earth, and the grip of the Archons and the Demiurge, he was free to 
re-unite with the Divine. On a larger scale this process was also 
believed to be part of the restoration of the deities own wholeness, 
which in pre-cosmic times had become impaired by losing portions of the 
divine substance. This was the sole reason for the deities involvement 
with the Earth in the first place and why his divine messengers were sent 
to the Earth to aid in the liberation of man. It was thought by the 
Gnostics that once this process
of removing the light from the world was complete the cosmos would come 
to an end.

With our survey of Gnostic eschatology complete we can now turn to the 
pressing question of Gnostic morality.

It has been shown that the Gnostics held the world, with its physical and 
psychical laws, in great contempt.  To review, the world was conceived of 
as a great cosmic prison warded over and brought into existence by 
incompetent and malevolent deities whose sole purpose was the enslavement 
of man and the hinderance in him of all that is holy. This, naturally, 
and as the early church fathers were quick to point out in their numerous 
refutations of Gnostic theory and practice, can be seen as suggesting 
many possibilities for ìimmoralî or ìcriminalî 
behavior. However, the historical record of Gnostic transgression of 
moral law and the perpetration of crimes against humanity is virtually 
non-existent, especially when compared to the records of the Catholic 
church and other opponents of Gnosticism throughout the centuries. We can 
say, generally speaking, that Gnostics felt themselves to be sovereigns 
in the sphere of knowledge and the sphere of action. This was one of the 
main causes of their many conflicts with the early church. The Gnostics 
refused to submit to the authority of the Bishops and any other 
authority, both spiritual and
political, on the grounds that they, having received or attained the 
Gnosis, were in a position to be their own authority in all matters of 
life. The idea of the Pneumatic (as they called themselves) as a 
sovereign in all spheres of endeavor led to the formation of two extremes 
within Gnosticism: the Ascetic and the Libertine. The Ascetic branch 
recognized through Gnosis the degraded nature of the cosmos, and chose to 
reduce contact with the institutions and conventions of the world so as 
to avoid further contamination by it. The Libertine, reasoning from the 
same principles, assumed the priveledge of absolute freedom and
regarded the "Thou shalts" and "Thou shalt nots" promulgated by the false 
God of the Jews and the Christians as just another form of cosmic 
tyranny, imposed on the ignorant masses of mankind by the Archons through 
the medium of the Catholic church and other dogmatic religions. Further, 
they believed that the sanctions attached to such transgressions only 
effected the body and the soul and not the spirit, which, as mentioned 
earlier, was viewed as the only part of man which was truly of the 
divine. This "pneumatic libertinism", more than being simply indifferent 
permission of any act whatsoever, was a method that they believed 
directly contributed to the work of salvation by purposely going against 
the norms of the Demiurge and thus effectively thwarting the designs of 
the Archons. It was these last two
reasons which essentially set them apart from their Ascetic brothers.

In conclusion it can be seen that Gnosticism, as it was in its early 
days, offered the seeker a unique spiritual and religious system by which 
he or she could experience directly the presence of divinity within, 
using techniques and methods not unfamiliar to the seeker of today. 
However, the march of what has come to be known by Thelemites as the Aeon 
of Osiris would soon trample this movement, at least in its most visible 
manifestations, under foot. By the Fourth century of the common era, the 
Gnostics had all but disappeared as organized schools of thought, largely 
due to the persecution they suffered at the hands of ardent Christian 
Bishops and devotees. Yet their influence was to be continually felt, 
although modified to a greater or lesser degree, in the generations of 
seekers and explorers of the depths and heights of human conciousness to 
come. Although ultimately falling prey to the advance of Judeo/Christian, 
or Osirian, doctrines and morality/reality, in many ways they were 
clearly the product of the Osirian age within which they flourished and 
many of their doctrines and beliefs are not compatible with our current 
point of view. However, they did manage to catch a glimpse of some aspect 
of existence and of conciousness that seems to have a broader, and 
perhaps Universal, validity. For their courageous leap into largely 
unchartered waters of human thought and experience, we must remain 
eternally grateful to these early benefactors of light and knowledge, 
"that transmitted the light of Gnosis to us, their successors and their 

Works Cited

Holroyd, Stuart. The Elements of Gnosticism, Element, Inc. Rockport, Ma. 
Jonas, Hans. The Gnostic Religion, Beacon Press, Boston, 1963.
1 Incidentely, this would seem to be nothing more than a dramatization of 
the natural
course of the Sun as it appears from the Earth, in his rising, noonday, 
setting and re-rising again the following morning ,only instead of it 
being conceived as a natural cyclical process, the ignorance of the 
people of these time periods led them to believe that the Sun actually 
suffered a physical death nightly and had to be resurrected every morning 
by priestly machinations. Of course we now enjoy a more accurate 
understanding of our solar system; realizing that the sun neither rises 
nor sets but remains poised in a position of supreme balance in the 
heavens while we revolve around it. 

2 Judging by the wide variety of Gnostic schools of thought I would 
conjecture that in
many respects this is a completely unique and personal religious 
experience, yet is similiar in enough respects with the experiences of 
mystics and sages of all races and climes to be capable of striking a 
sympathetic chord with other individuals who may have had similiar 
illuminations, thus making possible, in the first place, the formation of 
general doctrines and schools of thought. 

3 Of course to students of the Qabbalah, Hermetic, or Thelelmic Magick 
the similarities in
theory should be obvious, although the occultist of today can conceive of 
these names and formulas as simply methods of stimulating the activity of 
unconcious archetypal principles at work in his life or in the world at 
large, in order to generate a desired state of conciousness, which can 
then be experienced directly and understood more fully in the light of 

4 It must be mentioned that absolute belief in the Archons or the 
Demiurge as literally living in the celestial spheres is not a 
pre-requisite to practically utilizing this system, this is one of the 
great aspects of Gnosticsim which makes it immediately accessible to any 
seeker, as Stuart Holroyd wrote it in his book, The Elements of 
Gnosticism , "... [the Gnostics] teachings have a psychological relevance 
and appeal which supercedes any question of their literal truth. No 
Gnostic ever sought to coerce belief, for belief is not the way to 
gnosis. Truth is not manifest and accessible, it is covert and has to be 
sought out. Gnostic literature assists the process of seeking, which is 
simultaneously a process of psychic self-exploration and growth. One does 
not have to believe that the Archons exist in the celestial spheres to 
understand that they exist and work their mischief in ones own psyche (pp 

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