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The doctrine of salvation by knowledge. This definition, based on the etymology of the word ( gnosis "knowledge", gnostikos , "good at knowing"), is correct as far as it goes, but it gives only one, though perhaps the predominant, characteristic of Gnostic systems of thought. Whereas Judaism and Christianity, and almost all pagan systems, hold that the soul attains its proper end by obedience of mind and will to the Supreme Power, i.e. by faith and works, it is markedly peculiar to Gnosticism that it places the salvation of the soul merely in the possession of a quasi-intuitive knowledge of the mysteries of the universe and of magic formulae indicative of that knowledge. Gnostics were "people who knew ", and their knowledge at once constituted them a superior class of beings, whose present and future status was essentially different from that of those who, for whatever reason, did not know. A more complete and historical definition of Gnosticism would be:

A collective name for a large number of greatly-varying and pantheistic -idealistic sects, which flourished from some time before the Christian Era down to the fifth century, and which, while borrowing the phraseology and some of the tenets of the chief religions of the day, and especially of Christianity, held matter to be a deterioration of spirit, and the whole universe a depravation of the Deity, and taught the ultimate end of all being to be the overcoming of the grossness of matter and the return to the Parent-Spirit, which return they held to be inaugurated and facilitated by the appearance of some God-sent Saviour.

However unsatisfactory this definition may be, the obscurity, multiplicity, and wild confusion of Gnostic systems will hardly allow of another. Many scholars, moreover, would hold that every attempt to give a generic description of Gnostic sects is labour lost.


The beginnings of Gnosticism have long been a matter of controversy and are still largely a subject of research. The more these origins are studied, the farther they seem to recede in the past.

Whereas formerly Gnosticism was considered mostly a corruption of Christianity, it now seems clear that the first traces of Gnostic systems can be discerned some centuries before the Christian Era. Its Eastern origin was already maintained by Gieseler and Neander; F. Ch. Bauer (1831) and Lassen (1858) sought to prove its relation to the religions of India ; Lipsius (1860) pointed to Syria and Phoenicia as its home, and Hilgenfeld (1884) thought it was connected with later Mazdeism. Joel (1880), Weingarten (1881), Koffmane (1881), Anrich (1894), and Wobbermin (1896) sought to account for the rise of Gnosticism by the influence of Greek Platonic philosophy and the Greek mysteries, while Harnack described it as "acute Hellenization of Christianity ".

For the past twenty-five years, however, the trend of scholarship has steadily moved towards proving the pre-Christian Oriental origins of Gnosticism. At the Fifth Congress of Orientalists (Berlin, 1882) Kessler brought out the connection between Gnosis and the Babylonian religion. By this latter name, however, he meant not the original religion of Babylonia, but the syncretistic religion which arose after the conquest of Cyrus. The same idea is brought out in his "Mani" seven years later. In the same year F.W. Brandt published his "Mandiäische Religion". This Mandaean religion is so unmistakably a form of Gnosticism that it seems beyond doubt that Gnosticism existed independent of, and anterior to, Christianity.

In more recent years (1897) Wilhelm Anz pointed out the close similarity between Babylonian astrology and the Gnostic theories of the Hebdomad and Ogdoad. Though in many instances speculations on the Babylonian Astrallehre have gone beyond all sober scholarship, yet in this particular instance the inferences made by Anz seem sound and reliable. Researches in the same direction were continued and instituted on a wider scale by W. Bousset, in 1907, and led to carefully ascertained results. In 1898 the attempt was made by M. Friedländer to trace Gnosticism in pre-Christian Judaism. His opinion that the Rabbinic term Minnim designated not Christians, as was commonly believed, but Antinomian Gnostics, has not found universal acceptance. In fact, E. Schürer brought sufficient proof to show that Minnim is the exact Armaean dialectic equivalent for ethne . Nevertheless Friedländer's essay retains its value in tracing strong antinomian tendencies with Gnostic colouring on Jewish soil.

Not a few scholars have laboured to find the source of Gnostic theories on Hellenistic and, specifically, Alexandrian soil. In 1880 Joel sought to prove that the germ of all Gnostic theories was to be found in Plato. Though this may be dismissed as an exaggeration, some Greek influence on the birth, but especially on the growth, of Gnosticism cannot be denied. In Trismegistic literature, as pointed out by Reitzenstein (Poimandres, 1904), we find much that is strangely akin to Gnosticism. Its Egyptian origin was defended by E. Amélineau, in 1887, and illustrated by A. Dietrich, in 1891 (Abraxas Studien) and 1903 (Mithrasliturgie). The relation of Plotinus's philosophy to Gnosticism was brought out by C. Schmidt in 1901. That Alexandrian thought had some share at least in the development of Christian Gnosticism is clear from the fact that the bulk of Gnostic literature which we possess comes to us from Egyptian (Coptic) sources. That this share was not a predominant one is, however, acknowledged by O. Gruppe in his "Griechische Mythologie und Religionsgeschichte" (1902). It is true that the Greek mysteries, as G. Anrich pointed out in 1894, had much in common with esoteric Gnosticism; but there remains the further question, in how far these Greek mysteries, as they are known to us, were the genuine product of Greek thought, and not much rather due to the overpowering influence of Orientalism.

Although the origins of Gnosticism are still largely enveloped in obscurity, so much light has been shed on the problem by the combined labours of many scholars that it is possible to give the following tentative solution: Although Gnosticism may at first sight appear a mere thoughtless syncretism of well nigh all religious systems in antiquity, it has in reality one deep root-principle, which assimilated in every soil what is needed for its life and growth; this principle is philosophical and religious pessimism.

The Gnostics, it is true, borrowed their terminology almost entirely from existing religions, but they only used it to illustrate their great idea of the essential evil of this present existence and the duty to escape it by the help of magic spells and a superhuman Saviour. Whatever they borrowed, this pessimism they did not borrow -- not from Greek thought, which was a joyous acknowledgment of and homage to the beautiful and noble in this world, with a studied disregard of the element of sorrow; not from Egyptian thought, which did not allow its elaborate speculations on retribution and judgment in the netherworld to cast a gloom on this present existence, but considered the universe created or evolved under the presiding wisdom of Thoth; not from Iranian thought, which held to the absolute supremacy of Ahura Mazda and only allowed Ahriman a subordinate share in the creation, or rather counter-creation, of the world; not from Indian Brahminic thought, which was Pantheism pure and simple, or God dwelling in, nay identified with, the universe, rather than the Universe existing as the contradictory of God ; not, lastly, from Semitic thought, for Semitic religions were strangely reticent as to the fate of the soul after death, and saw all practical wisdom in the worship of Baal, or Marduk, or Assur, or Hadad, that they might live long on this earth.

This utter pessimism, bemoaning the existence of the whole universe as a corruption and a calamity, with a feverish craving to be freed from the body of this death and a mad hope that, if we only knew, we could by some mystic words undo the cursed spell of this existence -- this is the foundation of all Gnostic thought. It has the same parent-soil as Buddhism ; but Buddhism is ethical, it endeavours to obtain its end by the extinction of all desire; Gnosticism is pseudo-intellectual, and trusts exclusively to magical knowledge. Moreover, Gnosticism, placed in other historical surroundings, developed from the first on other lines than Buddhism.

When Cyrus entered Babylon in 539 B.C., two great worlds of thought met, and syncretism in religion, as far as we know it, began. Iranian thought began to mix with the ancient civilization of Babylon. The idea of the great struggle between evil and good, ever continuing in this universe, is the parent idea of Mazdeism, or Iranian dualism. This, and the imagined existence of numberless intermediate spirits, angels and devas, are the conviction which overcame the contentedness of Semitism.

On the other hand, the unshakable trust in astrology, the persuasion that the planetary system had a fatalistic influence on this world's affairs, stood its ground on the soil of Chaldea. The greatness of the Seven -- the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, the Sun, Jupiter, and Saturn -- the sacred Hebdomad, symbolized for millenniums by the staged towers of Babylonia, remained undiminished. They ceased, indeed, to be worshiped as deities, but they remained archontes and dynameis , rules and powers whose almost irresistible force was dreaded by man. Practically, they were changed from gods to devas, or evil spirits. The religions of the invaders and of the invaded effected a compromise: the astral faith of Babylon was true, but beyond the Hebodomad was the infinite light in the Ogdoad, and every human soul had to pass the adverse influence of the god or gods of the Hebdomad before it could ascend to the only good God beyond. This ascent of the soul through the planetary spheres to the heaven beyond (an idea not unknown even to ancient Babylonian speculations) began to be conceived as a struggle with adverse powers, and became the first and predominant idea in Gnosticism.

The second great component of Gnostic thought is magic, properly so called, i.e. the power ex opere operato of weird names, sounds, gestures, and actions, as also the mixture of elements to produce effects totally disproportionate to the cause. These magic formulae, which caused laughter and disgust to outsiders, are not a later and accidental corruption, but an essential part of Gnosticism, for they are found in all forms of Christian Gnosticism and likewise in Mandaeism. No Gnosis was essentially complete without the knowledge of the formulae, which, once pronounced, were the undoing of the higher hostile powers. Magic is the original sin of Gnosticism, nor is it difficult to guess whence it is inherited. To a certain extent it formed part of every pagan religion, especially the ancient mysteries, yet the thousands of magic tablets unearthed is Assyria and Babylonia show us where the rankest growth of magic was to be found. Moreover, the terms and names of earliest of Gnosticism bear an unmistakable similarity to Semitic sounds and words.

Gnosticism came early into contact with Judaism, and it betrays a knowledge of the Old Testament, if only to reject it or borrow a few names from it. Considering the strong, well-organized, and highly-cultured Jewish colonies in the Euphrates valley, this early contact with Judaism is perfectly natural. Perhaps the Gnostic idea of a Redeemer is not unconnected with Jewish Messianic hopes. But from the first the Gnostic conception of a Saviour is more superhuman than that of popular Judaism ; their Manda d'Haye , or Soter , is some immediate manifestation of the Deity, a Light-King, an Æon ( Aion ), and an emanation of the good God.

When Gnosticism came in touch with Christianity, which must have happened almost immediately on its appearance, Gnosticism threw herself with strange rapidity into Christian forms of thought, borrowed its nomenclature, acknowledged Jesus as Saviour of the world, simulated its sacraments, pretended to be an esoteric revelation of Christ and His Apostles, flooded the world with apocryphal Gospels, and Acts, and Apocalypses, to substantiate its claim. As Christianity grew within and without the Roman Empire, Gnosticism spread as a fungus at its root, and claimed to be the only true form of Christianity, unfit, indeed, for the vulgar crowd, but set apart for the gifted and the elect. So rank was its poisonous growth that there seemed danger of its stifling Christianity altogether, and the earliest Fathers devoted their energies to uprooting it. Though in reality the spirit of Gnosticism is utterly alien to that of Christianity, it then seemed to the unwary merely a modification or refinement thereof. When domiciled on Greek soil, Gnosticism, slightly changing its barbarous and Seminitic terminology and giving its " emanatons" and"syzygies" Greek names, sounded somewhat like neo-Platonism, thought it was strongly repudiated by Plotinus. In Egypt the national worship left its mark more on Gnostic practice than on its theories.

In dealing with the origins of Gnosticism, one might be tempted to mention Manichaeism, as a number of Gnostic ideas seem to be borrowed from Manichaeism, where they are obviously at home. This, however, would hardly be correct. Manichaeism, as historically connected with Mani, its founder, could not have arisen much earlier than A.D. 250, when Gnosticism was already in rapid decline. Manichaeism, however, in many of its elements dates back far beyond its commonly accepted founder; but then it is a parallel development with the Gnosis, rather than one of its sources. Sometimes Manichaeism is even classed as a form of Gnosticism and styled Parsee Gnosis, as distinguished from Syrian and Egyptian Gnosis. This classification, however, ignores the fact that the two systems, though they have the doctrine of the evil of matter in common, start from different principles, Manichaeism from dualism, while Gnosticism, as an idealistic Pantheism, proceeds from the conception of matter as a gradual deterioration of the Godhead.


Owing to the multiplicity and divergence of Gnostic theories, a detailed exposition in this article would be unsatisfactory and confusing and to acertain extent even misleading, since Gnosticism never possessed a nucleus of stable doctrine, or any sort of depositum fidei round which a number of varied developments and heresies or sects might be grouped; at most it had some leading ideas, which are more or less clearly traceable in different schools. Moreover, a fair idea of Gnostic doctrines can be obtained from the articles on leaders and phases of Gnostic thought (e.g. BASILIDES; VALENTINUS; MARCION; DOCETAE; DEMIURGE). We shall here only indicate some main phases of thought, which can be regarded as keys and which, though not fitting all systems, will unlock most of the mysteries of the Gnosis.

(a) Cosmogony

Gnosticism is thinly disguised Pantheism. In the beginning was the Depth; the Fulness of Being; the Not-Being God; the First Father, the Monad, the Man; the First Source, the unknown God ( Bythos pleroma, ouk on theos, propator, monas, anthropos, proarche, hagnostos theos ), or by whatever other name it might be called. This undefined infinite Something, though it might be addressed by the title of the Good God, was not a personal Being, but, like Tad of Brahma of the Hindus, the "Great Unknown" of modern thought. The Unknown God, however, was in the beginning pure spirituality; matter as yet was not.

This source of all being causes to emanate ( proballei ) from itself a number of pure spirit forces. In the different systems these emanations are differently named, classified, and described, but the emanation theory itself is common too all forms of Gnosticism. In the Basilidian Gnosis they are called sonships ( uiotetes ), in Valentinianism they form antithetic pairs or "syzygies" ( syzygoi ); Depth and Silence produce Mind and Truth ; these produce Reason and Life, these again Man and State ( ekklesia ). According to Marcus, they are numbers and sounds.

These are the primary roots of the Æons. With bewildering fertility hierarchies of Æons are thus produced, sometimes to the number of thirty. These Æons belong to the purely ideal, noumenal, intelligible, or supersensible world; they are immaterial, they are hypostatic ideas. Together with the source from which they emanate they form the pleroma .

The transition from the immaterial to the material, from the noumenal to the sensible, is brought about by a flaw, or a passion, or a sin, in one of the Æons. According to Basilides, it is a flaw in the last sonship; according to others it is the passion of the female Æon Sophia; according to others the sin of the Great Archon, or Æon-Creator, of the Universe.

The ultimate end of all Gnosis is metanoia , or repentance, the undoing of the sin of material existence and the return to the Pleroma.

(b) Sophia-Myth

In the greater number of Gnostic systems an important role is played by the Æon Wisdom -- Sophia or Achamoth. In some sense she seems to represent the supreme female principle, as for instance in the Ptolemaic system, in which the mother of the seven heavens is called Achamoth, in the Valentinian system, in which he ano Sophia , the Wisdom above, is distinguished from he kato Sophia , or Achamoth, the former being the female principle of the noumenal world, and in the Archotian system, where we find a "Lightsome Mother" ( he meter he photeine ), and in which beyond the heavens of the Archons is he meter ton panton and likewise in the Barbelognosis, where the female Barbelos is but the counterpart of the Unknown Father, which also occurs amongst the Ophites described by Irenaeus (Adv. Haeres., III, vii, 4).

Moreover, the Eucharistic prayer in the Acts of Thomas (ch. 1) seems addressed to this supreme female principle. W. Bousset's suggestion, that the Gnostic Sophia is nothing else than a disguise for the Dea Syra, the great goddess Istar, or Astarte, seems worthy of consideration. On the other hand, the Æon Sophia usually plays another role; she is he Prouneikos or "the Lustful One", once a virginal goddess, who by her fall from original purity is the cause of this sinful material world.

One of the earliest forms of this myth is found in Simonian Gnosis, in which Simon, the Great Power, finds Helena, who during ten years had been a prostitute in Tyre, but who is Simon's ennoia , or understanding, and whom his followers worshiped under the form of Athena, the goddess of wisdom.

According to Valentinus's system, as described by Hippolytus (Book VI, xxv-xxvi), Sophia is the youngest of the twenty-eight æons. Observing the multitude of æons and the power of begetting them, she hurries back into the depth of the Father, and seeks to emulate him by producing offspring without conjugal intercourse, but only projects an abortion, a formless substance. Upon this she is cast out of Pleroma. According to the Valentinian system as described by Irenaeus (op. cit., I) and Tertullian (Adv. Valent., ix), Sophia conceives a passion for the First Father himself, or rather, under pretext of love she seeks to know him, the Unknowable, and to comprehend his greatness. She should have suffered the consequence of her audacity by ultimate dissolution into the immensity of the Father, but for the Boundary Spirit. According to the Pistis Sophia (ch. xxix) Sophia, daughter of Barbelos, originally dwelt in the highest, or thirteenth heaven, but she is seduced by the demon Authades by means of a ray of light, which she mistook as an emanation from the First Father. Authades thus enticed her into Chaos below the twelve Æons, where she was imprisoned by evil powers.

According to these ideas, matter is the fruit of the sin of Sophia; this, however, was but a Valentinian development; in the older speculations the existence of matter is tacitly presupposed as eternal with the Pleroma, and through her sin Sophia falls from the realm of light into Chaos or realm of darkness.

This original dualism, however, was overcome by the predominant spirit of Gnosticism, pantheistic emanationism. The Sophia myth is completely absent from the Basilidian and kindred systems. It is suggested, with great verisimilitude, that the Egyptian myth of Isis was the original source of the Gnostic "lower wisdom". In many systems this Kato Sophia is sharply distinguished from the Higher Wisdom mentioned above; as, for instance, in the magic formula for the dead mentioned by Irenaeus (op. cit., I, xxi, 5), in which the departed has to address the hostile archons thus: "I am a vessel more precious than the female who made you. If your mother ignores the source whence she is, I know myself, and I known whence I am and invoke the incorruptible Sophia, whois in the Father, the mother of your mother, who has neither father nor husband. A man-woman, born from a woman, has made you, not knowing her mother, but thinking herself alone. But I invoke her mother." This agrees with the system minutely described by Irenaeus (op. cit., I, iv-v), where Sophia Achamoth, or Lower Wisdom, the daughter of Higher Wisdom, becomes the mother of the Demiurge ; she being the Ogdoad, her son the Hebdomad, they form a counterpart of the heavenly Ogdoad in the Pleromata. This is evidently a clumsy attempt to fuse into one two systems radically different, the Basilidian and the Valentinian ; the ignorance of the Great Archon, which is the central idea of Basilides, is here transferred to Sophia, and the hybrid system ends in bewildering confusion.

(c) Soteriology

Gnostic salvation is not merely individual redemption of each human soul ; it is a cosmic process. It is the return of all things to what they were before the flaw in the sphere of the Æons brought matter into existence and imprisoned some part of the Divine Light into the evil Hyle ( Hyle ). This setting free of the light sparks is the process of salvation ; when all light shall have left Hyle, it will be burnt up, destroyed, or be a sort of everlasting hell for the Hylicoi.

In Basilidianism it is the Third Filiation that is captive in matter, and is gradually being saved, now that the knowledge of its existence has been brought to the first Archon and then to the Second Archon, to each by his respective Son; and the news has been spread through the Hebdomad by Jesus the son of Mary, who died to redeem the Third Filiation.

In Valentinianism the process is extraordinarily elaborate. When this world has been born from Sophia in consequence of her sin, Nous and Aletheia, two Æons, by command of the Father, produce two new Æons, Christ and the Holy Ghost ; these restore order in the Pleroma, and in consequence all Æons together produce a new Æon, Jesus Logos, Soter, or Christ, whom they offer to the Father. Christ, the Son of Nous and Aletheia, has pity on the abortive substance born of Sophia and gives it essence and form. Whereupon Sophia tries to rise again to the Father, but in vain. Now the Æon Jesus-Soter is sent as second Saviour, he unites himself to the man Jesus, the son of Mary, at his baptism, and becomes the Saviour of men. Man is a creature of the Demiurge, a compound of soul, body, and spirit. His salvation consists in the return of his pneuma or spirit to the Pleroma; or if he be only a Psychicist, not a full Gnostic, his soul ( psyche ) shall return to Achamoth. There is no resurrection of the body . (For further details and differences see VALENTINUS.)

In Marcionism, the most dualistic phase of Gnosticism, salvation consisted in the possession of the knowledge of the Good God and the rejection of the Demiurge. The Good God revealed himself in Jesus and appeared as man in Judea ; to know him, and to become entirely free from the yoke of the World-Creator or God of the Old Testament , is the end of all salvation.

The Gnostic Saviour, therefore, is entirely different from the Christian one. For the Gnostic Saviour does not save. Gnosticism lacks the idea of atonement. There is no sin to be atoned for, except ignorance be that sin. Nor does the Saviour in any sense benefit the human race by vicarious sufferings. Nor, finally, does he immediately and actively affect any individual human soul by the power of grace or draw it to God. He was a teacher, he once brought into the world the truth, which alone can save. As a flame sets naphtha on fire, so the Saviour's light ignites predisposed souls moving down the stream of time. Of a real Saviour who with love human and Divine seeks out sinners to save them, Gnosticism knows nothing.

The Gnostic Saviour has no human nature, he is an æon, not a man; he only seemed a man, as the three Angels who visited Abraham seemed to be men. (For a detailed exposition see DOCETAE.) The Æon Soter is brought into the strangest relation to Sophia: in some systems he is her brother, in others her son, in other again her spouse. He is sometimes identified with Christ, sometimes with Jesus; sometimes Christ and Jesus are the same æon, sometimes they are different; sometimes Christ and the Holy Ghost are identified. Gnosticism did its best to utilize the Christian concept of the Holy Ghost, but never quite succeeded. She made him the Horos, or Methorion Pneuma ( Horos, Metherion Pneuma ), the Boundary-Spirit, the Sweet Odour of the Second Filiation, a companion æon with Christos, etc., etc. In some systems he is entirely left out.

(d) Eschatology

It is the merit of recent scholarship to have proved that Gnostic eschatology, consisting in the soul's struggle with hostile archons in its attempt to reach the Pleroma, is simply the soul's ascent, in Babylonian astrology, through the realms of the seven planets to Anu.

Origen (Contra Celsum, VI, xxxi), referring to the Ophitic system, gives us the names of the seven archons as Jaldabaoth, Jao, Sabaoth, Adonaios, Astaphaios, Ailoaios, and Oraios, and tells us that Jaldabaoth is the planet Saturn. Astraphaios is beyond doubt the planet Venus, as there are gnostic gems with a female figure and the legend ASTAPHE , which name is also used in magic spells as the name of a goddess. In the Mandaean system Adonaios represents the Sun. Moreover, St. Irenæus tells us: "Sanctam Hebdomadem VII stellas, quas dictunt planetas, esse volunt." It is safe, therefore, to take the above seven Gnostic names as designating the seven stars, then considered planets,

  • Jaldabaoth (Child of Chaos? -- Saturn, called "the Lion-faced", leontoeides ) is the outermost, and therefore the chief ruler, and later on the Demiurge par excellence.
  • Jao ( Iao , perhaps from Jahu, Jahveh, but possibly also from the magic cry iao in the mysteries) is Jupiter.
  • Sabaoth (the Old-Testament title -- God of Hosts) was misunderstood; "of hosts" was thought a proper name, hence Jupiter Sabbas ( Jahve Sabaoth ) was Mars.
  • Astaphaios (taken from magic tablets) was Venus.
  • Adonaios (from the Hebrew term for "the Lord", used of God ; Adonis of the Syrians representing the Winter sun in the cosmic tragedy of Tammuz) was the Sun;
  • Ailoaios, or sometimes Ailoein (Elohim, God ), Mercury;
  • Oraios (Jaroah? or light?), the Moon.

In the hellenized form of Gnosticism either all or some of these names are replaced by personified vices. Authadia ( Authades ), or Audacity, is the obvious description of Jaldabaoth, the presumptuous Demiurge, who is lion-faced as the Archon Authadia. Of the Archons Kakia, Zelos, Phthonos, Errinnys, Epithymia, the last obviously represents Venus. The number seven is obtained by placing a proarchon or chief archon at the head. That these names are only a disguise for the Sancta Hebdomas is clear, for Sophia, the mother of them, retains the name of Ogdoas, Octonatio. Occasionally one meets with the Archon Esaldaios , which is evidently the El Shaddai of the Bible , and he is described as the Archon "number four" ( harithmo tetartos ) and must represent the Sun.

In the system of the Gnostics mentioned by Epiphanius we find, as the Seven Archons, Iao, Saklas, Seth, David, Eloiein, Elilaios, and Jaldabaoth (or no. 6 Jaldaboath, no. 7 Sabaoth). Of these, Saklas is the chief demon of Manichaeism ; Elilaios is probably connected with En-lil, the Bel of Nippur, the ancient god of Babylonia. In this, as in several other systems, the traces of the planetary seven have been obscured, but hardly in any have they become totally effaced. What tended most to obliterate the sevenfold distinction was the identification of the God of the Jews, the Lawgiver, with Jaldabaoth and his designation as World-creator, whereas formerly the seven planets together ruled the world. This confusion, however, was suggested by the very fact that at least five of the seven archons bore Old-Testament names for God -- El Shaddai, Adonai, Elohim, Jehovah, Sabaoth.

(e) Doctrine of the Primeval Man

The speculations on Primeval Man ( Protanthropos , Adam ) occupy a prominent place in several Gnostic systems.

According to Irenaeus (I, xxix, 3) the Æon Autogenes emits the true and perfect Anthrôpos, also called Adamas; he has a helpmate, "Perfect Knowledge", and receives an irresistible force, so that all things rest in him. Others say (Irenaeus, I, xxx) there is a blessed and incorruptible and endless light in the power of Bythos; this is the Father of all things who is invoked as the First Man, who, with his Ennœa, emits "the Son of Man", or Euteranthrôpos.

According to Valentinus, Adam was created in the name of Anthrôpos and overawes the demons by the fear of the pre-existent man ( tou proontos anthropou ). In the Valentinian syzygies and in the Marcosian system we meet in the fourth (originally the third) place Anthrôpos and Ecclesia. In the Pistis Sophia the Æon Jeu is called the First Man, he is the overseer of the Light, messenger of the First Precept, and constitutes the forces of the Heimarmene. In the Books of the Jeu this "great Man" is the King of the Light-treasure, he is enthroned above all things and is the goal of all souls. According to the Naassenes, the Protanthropos is the first element; the fundamental being before its differentiation into individuals. "The Son of Man" is the same being after it has been individualized into existing things and thus sunk into matter.

The Gnostic Anthrôpos, therefore, or Adamas , as it is sometimes called, is a cosmogonic element, pure mind as distinct from matter, mind conceived hypostatically as emanating from God and not yet darkened by contact with matter. This mind is considered as the reason of humanity, or humanity itself, as a personified idea, a category without corporeality, the human reason conceived as the World-Soul.

This speculation about the Anthrôpos is completely developed in Manichaeism, where, in fact, it is the basis of the whole system. God, in danger of the power of darkness, creates with the help of the Spirit, the five worlds, the twelve elements, and the Eternal Man, and makes him combat the darkness. But this Man is somehow overcome by evil and swallowed up by darkness. The present universe is in throes to deliver the captive Man from the powers of darkness. In the Clementine Homilies the cosmogonic Anthrôpos is strangely mixed up with the historical figure of the first man, Adam. Adam "was the true prophet, running through all ages, and hastening to rest"; "the Christ, who was from the beginning and is always, who was ever present to every generation in a hidden manner indeed, yet ever present". In fact Adam was, to use Modernist language, the Godhead immanent in the world and ever manifesting itself to the inner consciousness of the elect.

The same idea, somewhat modified, occurs in Hermetic literature, especially the "Poimandres". It is elaborated by Philo, makes an ingenious distinction between the human being created first "after God's image and likeness" and the historic figures of Adam and Eve created afterwards. Adam kat eikona is: "Idea, Genus, Character, belonging to the world, of Understanding, without body, neither male nor female ; he is the Beginning, the Name of God, the Logos, immortal, incorruptible" (De opif. mund., 134-148; De conf. ling.,146). These ideas in Talmudism, Philonism, Gnosticism, and Trismegistic literature, all come from once source, the late Mazdea development of the Gayomarthians, or worshipper of the Super-Man.

(f) The Barbelo

This Gnostic figure, appearing in a number of systems, the Nicolaites, the "Gnostics" of Epiphanius, the Sethians, the system of the "Evangelium Mariae" and that in Irenaeus, I, xxix, 2 sq., remains to a certain extent an enigma. The name barbelo, barbeloth, barthenos has not been explained with certainty. In any case she represents the supreme female principle, is in fact the highest Godhead in its female aspect. Barbelo has most of the functions of the ano Sophia as described above. So prominent was her place amongst some Gnostics that some schools were designated as Barbeliotae, Barbelo worshippers of Barbelognostics. She is probably none other than the Light-Maiden of the Pistis Sophia, the thygater tou photos or simply the Maiden, parthenos . In Epiphanius (Haer., xxvi, 1) and Philastrius (Haer., xxxiii) Parthenos (Barbelos) seems identical with Noria, whoplays a great role as wife either of Noah or of Seth. The suggestion, that Noria is "Maiden", parthenos , Istar, Athena, Wisdom, Sophia, or Archamoth, seems worthy of consideration.


We are not so well informed about the practical and ritual side of Gnosticism as we are about its doctrinal and theoretical side. However, St. Irenæus's account of the Marcosians, Hippolytus's account of the Elcesaites, the liturgical portions of the "Acta Thomae", some passages in the Pseudo-Clementines, and above all Coptic Gnostic and Mandaean literature gives us at least some insight into their liturgical practices.

(a) Baptism

All Gnostic sects possessed this rite in some way; in Mandaeism daily baptism is one of the great practices of the system. The formulae used by Christian Gnostics seem to have varied widely from that enjoyed by Christ. The Marcosians said: "In [ eis ] the name of the unknown Father of all, in [ eis ] the Truth, the Mother of all, in him, who came down on Jesus [ eis ton katelthonta eis Iesoun ]". The Elcesaites said: "In [ en ] the name of the great and highest God and in the name of his Son, the great King". In Irenaeus (I, xxi, 3) we find the formula: "In the name that was hidden from every divinity and lordship and truth, which [name] Jesus the Nazarene has put on in the regions of light" and several other formulae, which were sometimes pronounced in Hebrew or Aramaic. The Mandaeans said: "The name of the Life and the name of the Manda d'Haye is named over thee". In connection with Baptism the Sphragis was of great importance; in what the seal or sign consisted wherewith they were marked is not easy to say. There was also the tradition of a name either by utterance or by handing a tablet with some mystic word on it.

(b) Confirmation

The anointing of the candidate with chrism, or odoriferous ointment, is a Gnostic rite which overshadows the importance of baptism. In the "Acta Thomae", so some scholars maintain, it had completely replaced baptism, and was the sole sacrament of initiation. This however is not yet proven. The Marcosians went so far as to reject Christian baptism and to substitute a mixture of oil and water which they poured over the head of the candidate. By confirmation the Gnostics intended not so much to give the Holy Ghost as to seal the candidates against the attacks of the archons, or to drive them away by the sweet odour which is above all things ( tes uter ta hola euodias ). The balsam was somehow supposed to have flowed from the Tree of Life, and this tree was again mystically connected with the Cross; for the chrism is in the "Acta Thomae" called "the hidden mystery in which the Cross is shown to us".

(c) The Eucharist

It is remarkable that so little is known of the Gnostic substitute for the Eucharist. In a number of passages we read of the breaking of the bread, but in what this consisted is not easy to determine. The use of salt in this rite seems to have been important (Clem., Hom. xiv), for we read distinctly how St. Peter broke the bread of the Eucharist and "putting salt thereon, he gave first to the mother and then to us". There is furthermore a great likelihood, though no certainty, that the Eucharist referred to in the "Acta Thomae" was merely a breaking of bread without the use of the cup. This point is strongly controverted, but the contrary can hardly be proven. It is beyond doubt that the Gnostics often substituted water for the wine (Acta Thomae, Baptism of Mygdonia, ch. cxxi). What formula of consecration was used we do not know, but the bread was certainly signed with the Cross. It is to be noted that the Gnostics called the Eucharist by Christian sacrificial terms -- prosphora , "oblation", Thysia (II bk. of Jeû, 45). In the Coptic Books (Pistis Sophia, 142; II Jeû, 45-47) we find a long description of some apparently Eucharistic ceremonies carried out by Jesus Himself. In these fire and incense, two flasks, and also two cups, one with water, the other with wine, and branches of the vine are used. Christ crowns the Apostles with olive wreaths, begs Melchisedech to come and change wine into water for baptism, puts herbs in the Apostles' mouths and hands. Whether these actions in some sense reflect the ritual of Gnosticism, or are only imaginations of the author, cannot be decided. The Gnostics seem also to have used oil sacramentally for the healing of the sick, and even the dead were anointed by them to be rendered safe and invisible in their transit through the realms of the archons.

(d) The Nymphôn

They possessed a special Gnostic sacrament of the bridechamber ( nymphon ) in which, through some symbolical actions, their souls were wedded to their angels in the Pleroma. Details of its rites are not as yet known. Tertullian no doubt alluded to them in the words "Eleusinia fecerunt lenocinia".

(e) The Magic Vowels

An extraordinary prominence is given to the utterance of the vowels: alpha, epsilon, eta, iota, omicron, upsilon, omega . The Saviour and His disciples are supposed in the midst of their sentences to have broken out in an interminable gibberish of only vowels; magic spells have come down to us consisting of vowels by the fourscore; on amulets the seven vowels, repeated according to all sorts of artifices, form a very common inscription. Within the last few years these Gnostic vowels, so long a mystery, have been the object of careful study by Ruelle, Poirée, and Leclercq, and it may be considered proven that each vowel represents one of the seven planets, or archons; that the seven together represent the Universe, but without consonants they represent the Ideal and Infinite not yet imprisoned and limited by matter ; that they represent a musical scale, probably like the Gregorian 1 tone re-re, or d, e, f, g, a, b, c, and many a Gnostic sheet of vowels is in fact a sheet of music. But research on this subject has only just begun. Among the Gnostics the Ophites were particularly fond of representing their cosmogonic speculations by diagrams, circles within circles, squares, and parallel lines, and other mathematical figures combined, with names written within them. How far these sacred diagrams were used as symbols in their liturgy, we do not know.


Gnosticism possessed no central authority for either doctrine or discipline ; considered as a whole it had no organization similar to the vast organization of the Catholic Church. It was but a large conglomeration of sects, of which Marcionism alone attempted in some way to rival the constitution of the Church, and even Marcionism had no unity. No other classification of these sects is possible than that according to their main trend of thought. We can therefore distinguish: (a) Syrian or Semitic ; (b) Hellenistic or Alexandrian; (c) dualistic ; (d) antinomian Gnostics.

(a) The Syrian School

This school represents the oldest phase of Gnosticism, as Western Asia was the birthplace of the movement. Dositheus, Simon Magus, Menander, Cerinthus, Cerdo, Saturninus Justin, the Bardesanites, Sevrians, Ebionites, Encratites, Ophites, Naassenes, the Gnostics of the "Acts of Thomas", the Sethians, the Peratae, the Cainites may be said to belong to this school.

The more fantastic elements and elaborate genealogies and syzygies of æons of the later Gnosis are still absent in these systems. The terminology is some barbarous form of Semitic ; Egypt is the symbolic name for the soul's land of bondage.

The opposition between the good God and the World-Creator is not eternal

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