" Always seek mutual consent with one another ... "
They said to him, ' What is the place to which we are going? ' The Lord said, ' Stand in the place you can reach! ' " Mary said, ' Everything established thus is seen. ' The Lord said, ' I have told you that it is the one who can see who reveals. '
The Gnostic Account of the Fall and the Creation of the Material World
The Gnostic concepts of the Pleroma and the Cosmic Man (Anthropos) have already been considered previously. But also of great importance in Hellenistic Gnosticism is the Myth of Sophia. This is repeated in a more or less uniform way throughout most Gnostic cosmogonic works. Basically, it involves an account of Sophia and the way in which she tries to emulate the Absolute by creating a successive Aeon, but fails and produces instead an inferior entity. The following passage is from the Apocryphon of John:
"And...Sophia (Wisdom)...being an Aeon, conceived a Thought from herself with the reflection of the invisible Spirit [the Absolute] and Foreknowledge [one of the higher Aeons, or possibly here referring to the Power of the Absolute; i.e. "Shakti"]. She wanted to bring forth a likeness out of herself without the consent of the [Absolute] Spirit...and without her consort....And because of the invincible power which is in her, her thought did not remain idle and a thing came out of her which was imperfect and different from her appearance, because she had created it without her consort..."
[Apocryphon of John, from the Nag Hammadi Library, James M. Robinson, Ed, pp.103-4 (Harper & Row, 1981, San Franscisco)]
This is classical Gnostic conception of the Fall. The idea of the Fall is a well-known one, especially in the Christian tradition, where it has captured the imagination for centuries. But Gnostic, Manichaean, and Lurianic (Kabbalistic) Cosmologies differ from conventional religious Cosmology in that they holds that the Fall actually proceeded creation, and indeed was the very cause of it. Creation was originally not something planned and carried out in an orderly way by a kind of supernatural architect- scientist called "God", but rather the result of a kind of supernal Fall or Crisis from within the Divine Itself. This idea of the Fall means goes far beyond the Christian myth of Adam and Eve disobeying God. Although this myth is indeed charged with many meanings, it is unable to convey the cosmic significance of what is involved here, for it is limited to the human level.
According to this cosmology then, Sophia ("Wisdom") the youngest and brashest of the emanated divinities (or "Aeons"), tries to emulate the Fore-father, who alone has the true power of Creation, and as a result produces not a genuine creation but an "abortion", which, after a long series of transformations, became the Cosmos and the lower powers which rule it.
It seems strange that an entity called "Wisdom" should be held responsible for an act of folly. The most likely explanation is that these Hellenistic Gnostics were having a dig at the intellectual philosophers: the Platonists, Aristotleans, Stoics, Epicureans, and the rest. These philosophers claimed it was possible through reason alone (or "wisdom"; "Philosophy" means "love of wisdom") to know the Absolute. The Hellenistic Gnostics however said that such perception can only come about through a higher, intuitive, knowing. Here we have the old contrast between the exoteric and the esoteric. It is however very sloppy metaphysics that this valid polemic should be exalted to a cosmic position as an actual emanation of the Godhead. Here we see the real weakness of Hellenistic Gnosticism; the fact that its proponents were for the most part unwilling to distinguish in their cosmological accounts between mundane human affairs and transcendent cosmic processes.
An important Gnostic doctrine is the idea of Syzygies or "Pairs". Even the Aeons or Pleromatic Principles occur in male-female pairs. Emanation, in other words, is almost a sexual process. This was an idea which was developed even further by the Kabbalist Isaac Luria with his idea of Divine Partzufim ("Physiognomies").
So, according to Gnosticism, the Crisis is brought about not through sexuality itself, but through an absence of sexuality; that is, through an absence of balanced polarity, in which only one aspect, rather than both, participates in the creation. (But inconsistently the Gnostics often saw human sex in a negative light, and advocated celibacy, although sometimes the opposite extreme of over-indulgence was encouraged).
And if we replace the above mythological anthropomorphisation with the more abstract polarity of Positive and Negative, or the Tantric Shiva (positive = Consciousness) and Shakti (negative = "power of consciousness"), or Kabbalistic Hesed (positive = boundless mercy and giving) and Gevurah (negative = restriction, severity), we could say that the "Fall" occurs through the activity of the Negative polarity acting on its own. Granted that the Negative polarity is in this case described as a female principle, but all that that proves is the ubiquity of chauvinism even among these esoteric cosmologists. Even the Hellenistic Gnostics themselves, who are so progressive in other ways - for example they considered women to be equal as teachers to men, an idea unheard of in that time and culture [see Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels] - suffered from this disease, at least as far as their mytho-cosmology goes.
"And when she saw the consequence of her desire, it had changed into a form of a lion-faced serpent. And its eyes were like lightning fires...She cast it away from her, outside that place [the Pleroma], that no one of the immortal ones [the other Aeons] might see it, for she had created it in ignorance....And she called his name Yaltabaoth..."
[The Nag Hammadi Library, James M. Robinson, Ed, pp.104 (Harper & Row, 1981, San Franscisco)]
This is the negative or inferior world-creator. In Gnosticism then, the Cosmos is thus seen as the result of a primordial error or accident; the only true existence being the Pleroma or transcendent order of Divinities. Metaphysically what this means is that, for the Gnostics, the Cosmos is not the result of a supreme God, as is taught by monotheism, but rather the creation of the very lowest and most minor of the emanated divinities, and even then an accidental creation at that.
In the Valentinian system, as in the SethianApocryphon of John, it is Sophia, the youngest of the Aeons, who is responsible for the "Fall". This comes about because Sophia ("Wisdom") tries to know the Fore-Father, although this is impossible for the Aeons that succeeded the first created pair of Mind-Truth. This Sophia myth is pretty standard in Hellenistic Gnosticism, and - as mentioned above - seems to be a dig at philosophers ("lovers of wisdom" who seek to comprehend the Absolute through reason ("wisdom") alone. The Valentinian account introduces a variation in the form of a higher or original Sophia, which remains within the Pleroma, and a lower Sophia, which comes into being outside it.
Sophia's Passion becomes a crisis that upsets the equilibrium of the entire Pleroma, and generates a an "abortion" (i.e. a miscreation), a "formless entity", which is cast into void outside the Pleroma. As a result of this Error, the equilibrium of the Pleroma is disturbed. The Father emanates a new Aeon-pair, Christos- Holy Spirit, which re-establishes the equilibrium of the Pleroma, and to take care of the "formless entity" which had resulted from Sophia's passion.
As a result of the new harmony established by "Christos and Holy Spirit", a new, unpaired Aeon, Jesus, is created, who is the "perfect fruit of the Pleroma", and expresses in his being the attributes of all the other Aeons.
The Christ-Aeon meanwhile shapes the "formless entity" into a new Aeon, called Achamoth (from the Hebrew Hokhmah, "Wisdom"), who becomes a kind of lower Sophia.
Achamoth, realising she is outside the Pleroma and unable to return, experiences emotions such as grief, fear, etc. Jesus then descends from the Pleroma and separates her from these emotions, which then become the substance or primal matter of the Cosmos, i.e. Psyche (Soul/Mind) and Hyle (Matter/Darkness). The material world is thus derived ultimately from a projection of the sufferings of Achamoth. Inasmuch as Achamoth (like Sophia above her, and the Demiurge below her, is in many respects a mythological macrocosmic counterpart of the human ego, she is tormented by the longing for ultimate truth only able to produce a sort of bastard rationalism that has to be "crucified away" before she can be redeemed [E.R.Dodds, Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety, pp.19-20]
Achamoth, the Lower Sophia, then shapes the psyche into a god. As Hans Jonas explains: "He is called "father" of the right-hand things (i.e. the psychical); "artificer" (demiurge) of the left-hand things (i.e. the hylic or material), and "king" of them all, i.e. of all things outside the Pleroma" [Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion, p.190]
The idea of a Demiurge ("Artificer", World-Creator) is a popular concept taken from Plato's Timeus. The Demiurge does not create out of nothing, as the Christian God does (such a concept was ridiculous to the Greeks) but rather shapes the original chaos or matter into form.
This Demiurge in turn creates the seven heavens, each of which is also an angel (here we have the theme of planes or strata of existence with gods or cosmic principles; each plane of existence is at the same time an Intelligence or Being), and finally the physical world. He occupies the position of "the Place of the Middle" beneath the Lower Sophia and above the material world. In another respect the Mother (the Lower Sophia) is in the Middle, above the Demiurge but beneath the Pleroma.
Because the lower heavens, such as the astrological spheres, are the creation of the inferior world-creator, rather than the supreme principle, the Gnostics adopted a very negative and pessimistic approach to astrology. It is not that they disbelieved in it, just the opposite. They saw it as a fatalistic mechanism by which the archons are able to imprison the sparks from on high.
The Battle for the Spiritual Light
In most Gnostic cosmologies, once the heavens are created and all the beings emanated, the dialogue then switches to the battle between Sophia (and the other Aeons) and Yaltabaoth for the spiritual Light that he stole. The story describes how this negative entity - who was the evil god of this world - proceeded to generate further entities, and created man, in a kind of parody of the Genesis account of the creation of Adam. There follows a long drama in which the Spiritual Powers work to free the trapped Light from the grip of the lower powers, the creators and rulers of this inferior world.
The existence of an evil God of this world, and the struggle between a it and a good deity recalls the Persian Zoroastrian and Manichaean belief in the universe as the theatre of conflict between Ormazd, the God of Light, and Ahriman, the God of Darkness. But the Gnostic, and also the Christian and Hermetic, doctrines in this regard go further, in that the world is entirely given over to the negative power [Dodds, Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety, p.16].
Various Gnostic sects disagreed as to the exact status of the demiurge. The Valentinians were the mildest; they conceived of him as a being who was not specifically evil but simply ignorant and unaware of any higher possibility. The Simonians spoke of angels who had fallen away from or turned against the transcendent Father. But for most, whether the Christian Gnostic Marcion or the diverse Sethian sects, saw him as the harsh unintelligent God of the Old Testament [Dodds, Ibid].
In the standard Gnostic myth, the Demiurge or Yaltabaoth - whether out of ignorance or active malice - denies the transcendent spiritual Powers of the Pleroma and claims to be the one Supreme God. This is clearly a dig at the Old Testament Deity who seems like a cosmic dictator when he says "you shall have no other Gods before me". But when he does so Sophia's voice comes from heaven a rebuke him: "Man exists and the Son of Man" [Apocryphon of John], together with a vision of this celestial being. "Man" here is not the Celestial Adam but the highest manifest Godhead, the Anthropos, "Son of Man" is actually the Celestial Adam. His son the heavenly Seth would be "the Son of the Son of Man". [Birger A. Pearson, "The Figure of Seth in Gnostic Literature", p.485 (in B. Layton, ed., The Rediscovery of Gnosticism, vol. 2. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1981, 472-504)]
Startled by this Celestial apparition, Yaltabaoth decides the best thing to do would be to make an image of it for himself. Exactly why he decides to do this is never explained; the myth is poetic and very irrational, more like a dream than a metaphysical conception or work of theology. So he creates angels to rule over the world and aid in the creation of man. Man comes to life when Yaltabaoth is tricked into breathing his light-power into him; again, another parody on the Genesis account; this time on God breathing life into Adam. Thus begins a long struggle between the powers of Light (Sophia and the other Aeons) and of Darkness (Yaltabaoth and his minions) for the possession of the divine particles of light in man. The negative powers imprison man in a material body, and also create woman and sexual desire to spread and diffuse the particles of light through procreation, thus making their salvation more difficult.
Finally, from the higher Spiritual regions a Savior, usually (depending on the particular sect) Christ or Seth, is sent down to save humanity by reminding them of their heavenly origin. Only those who possess the saving Gnosis and have lived pure and ascetic lives can return to the realm of Light; others have to reincarnate until they able to acquire Gnosis.
The Gnostic Savior
Unlike Hermeticism and Neoplatonism, which as spiritual philosophies do not depend on a particular "external" religious figure for salvation, Gnosticism, like Christianity, is very much a Divine Savior-orientated belief-system. The difference is that according Christian doctrine the supernatural Savior confers Love but at the same time denies Knowledge and self-effort ("not through works but through faith", etc); while in Gnosticism - whether Christian, Sethian, or some other form - the Savior confers spiritual Knowledge (Gnosis) yet at the same time dose not negate spiritual self-effort. In Gnosticism then, Christ is not a blood-sacrifice figure who has to be tortured and executed to atone for man's guilt and sin, but rather a messenger of saving Knowledge, very much like the Buddha who taught the way to Enlightenment and Nirvana.
And while the Christian religion, being profoundly anti-metaphysical, simply equates Christ with God-Almighty (while further befuddling things with the three-in-one Trinity; Constantines' politically expedient creation at the Council of Nicea), the Gnostic cosmology sees the Savior as simply one emanated Divine Principle among many. As the anonymous author of the The Gospel of the Egyptians explains:
"The incorruptible man Adamas asked for them a son..., in order that he (the son) may become the father of the immovable, incorruptible race, so that through it...the dead aeon (Matter) may raise itself, so it that it may dissolve. And thus there came forth, from above, the power of the great light, the Manifestation. She gave birth to the four great lights..., and the great incorruptible Seth, the son of the incorruptible man Adamas."
[The Gospel of the Egyptians, in Nag Hammadi, p.199]
Even for the Christian Gnostic - e.g. the Valentinian - Christ and Jesus are not only unrelated to the conventional (Pauline) Christian deity, but are actually two separate beings. In the Valentinian cosmogony the Christos never leaves the Pleroma at all, except to shape the formless entity" into the Lower Sophia, while the suffering and Passion of the human Jesus - into whom the Jesus-Aeon descended at his baptism and departed before the crucifixion - was merely a stratagem to fool Death. The human Jesus was the messenger for the Gnosis which makes possible the "information" of incarnate Souls; he had nothing to do with the Pauline idea of original sin, etc.
In other Gnostic teachings, especially those referred to as "Sethian" - such as the The Gospel of the Egyptians, quoted above, it is Seth rather than Christ who is the central Savior figure. The human Seth, who unlike his brothers Cain and Abel possessed the "spirit" or "seed" from above [Birger A. Pearson, "The Figure of Seth in Gnostic Literature", pp.478-483 (in B. Layton, ed., The Rediscovery of Gnosticism, vol. 2. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1981, 472-504), was the progenitor of the Gnostic race. The Jewish-Gnostic Apocalypse of Adam, and the more sophisticated The Gospel of the Egyptians, a "salvation history" of the earthly race of Seth, its origin, its survival of flood and fire, and its salvation through an "Illuminator" or Savior, Seth himself [Ibid, p.489]. Such "salvation history" is derived from Jewish apocryphal sources [p.503].
Seth himself then takes on the form of a Divine, celestial, pre-Creation being, as we have seen. The human Seth is thus an Incarnation, an Avatar to use the very appropriate Indian term, of the "great Seth", the heavenly son of the incorruptible Man, Adamas [p.477]
In The Gospel of the Egyptians, the great Seth passes through three "parousias" (flood, fire, and judgment by the inferior gods of this world) in order to salve his race, "through a Logos-begotten body" which he prepared for himself, finally "putting on" Jesus for that purpose [Nag Hammadi, p.203] [pp.490]. While in another Sethian tractate, it is the eschatological high priest and messianic warrior Melchizedek who takes on the role of Jesus Christ. [Nag Hammadi, p.399; [p.498]
So the basic feature of Sethian Gnosticism is the theology "of Seth as a heavenly redeemer, who can manifest himself in a variety of earthly incarnations, such as Zostrianos, Zoroaster, Melchizedek, Jesus Christ, etc" [Birger A. Pearson, "The Figure of Seth in Gnostic Literature", (in B. Layton, ed., The Rediscovery of Gnosticism, vol. 2. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1981, 472-504), p.498]
Ultimately, Seth's purpose and mission is not only the salvation of the gnostic sparks trapped in matter, but also the spiritual dissolution of the fallen Cosmos. As we have seen ;The Gospel of the Egyptians refers to Seth as "the father of the immovable, incorruptible race", through which "the dead aeon", that is, matter, or darkness, "may raise itself, so it that it may dissolve." [Nag Hammadi, p.199].
Thus Gnosticism differs from some other esoteric cosmologies in that it sees the consummation of the Cosmos in the form of its dissolution into non-being, rather than its transmutation. This is indicative of the very anti-worldly attitude of classical Gnosticism, according to which the entire Cosmos is seen as an error, rather than (as for example in Christianity) something that started out good and was ruined (the Fall), but will eventually be restored to its Divine glory.
The Valentinian Cosmo-dramaturgy for example ends with a collective return back to the Pleroma at the end of time.
"The spirits transformed by knowledge (Gnosis) rest in the middle region...where their Mother the Sophia clothed with them awaits the consummation of the world. Her own final salvation takes place when all the pnuematic (spiritual) elements in the world have been "formed" by knowledge and perfected. Then the spirits, stripped of their souls [= "causal bodies"?], with their Mother enter the Pleroma, which becomes the bridal chamber in which takes place the marriage of Sophia with Jesus and that of the spirits with their bridegrooms, the angels around Jesus."
[Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion, p.196]
It is worth pointing out here that the Valentinians considered Earthly marriage be to the physical form or counterpart of this eschatological heavenly marriage, and developed various rites on the basis of this. These were later incorporated into Catholicism, and thus became the basis of the modern Christian marriage ceremony.
"...With this, the Fullness is restored in its integrity, the original breach finally repaired, the pre-temporal loss [of Light through Sophia's original Passion] retrieved; and matter and soul, the expression of the fall, with their organised system, the world, cease to exist..." [Ibid]
Here we have the theme of an eschatological consummation of the cosmos; a return to the state of pre-creation and/or pre-Fall perfection. This is a common theme that runs with variations throughout Christian, Gnostic, Manichaean, Kabbalistic, and Theosophical thought.
" The Logos-Wisdom is the principle of all Divine and Esoteric Revelations. She has the characteristics of being the indwelling revealer of God. She IS the active principle and the transmitter of all Divine knowledge as well the cosmological cause of all creation. "
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