Although Gnosticism is, on the whole, treated as a phenomenon intimately connected with Christianity, there is evidence that it predates the birth of Jesus in certain heretical Jewish circles. This is unsurprising as Judaism would have been in contact with Babylonian/Persian religious traditions, as well as Hellenic Platonic speculation. Gnosticism certainly gained its first adherents from within the Hellenized Jewish and Jewish-Christian communities, however these would eventually become part of the sphere of Christianity (whether orthodox or heterodox).
Indeed it seems paradoxical, if not downright perverse, to make mention of a Judaic Gnosticism. Gnosticism with its Dualism, distant God in the pleroma, not to mention the Demiurge who creates matter and the habit of turning scripture on its head, seems to be entirely inimical to Judaism with its monotheism and a God who is omnipotent, omnipresent and omnibenevolent. In many respects it is; yet within the mystical system of the Kabbalah there can be seen an attempt to combine strands of Neo-Platonism and Gnosticism with Judaism, albeit with a heavy qualified Dualism.
Theories abound regarding the origins of the Kabbalah. Common to the ancient and medieval world contemporary texts were stated to be of the greatest antiquary, all the better to suggest that it was of divine or prophetic origins. These claims are subject to dispute, though oral transmission undoubtedly has a role to play. Unfortunately such conjecture is unverifiable. What we can be sure of though is that the first great flowering of Kabbalistic literature was in Spain during the 12th Century and 13th Centuries. The political situation of the Iberian peninsula from the time of the Muslim conquest in the 8th Century to the reconquista of 1492 was a time of great flux, however for long period the Jewish population of Spain and Portugal enjoyed prosperity and freedom from persecution by tolerant Muslim and Christian rulers. It was also a time that the Kingdom of Al-Andalus was the centre of the learned world.
The Kabbalah is one of the world’s most complex and richest mystical systems (none-withstanding such recent bastardisations as The Kabbalah Centre) and I couldn’t possibly do its justice in a short post. Instead I will concentrate on a few points that appear to have a significant Gnostic component.
The two concepts of God: the essence of God is infinite, transcendent, unknowable, known as Ein Sof (No End). In contrast there is God that manifests itself to humanity through a series of emanations.
The Sephirot-the ten emanations are attributes of God in which he reveals himself and sustains existence (see the header image showing the Sephirot as the Tree of Life).
Shekhinah-the feminine divine presence, comparable to Sophia in Gnosticism. Often the last of the Sephirot (nearest to matter), referred to as the daughter of God. Shekhinah dwells among the holy but is exiled from her own source. According to the great scholar of Jewish Mysticism, Gershom Scholem, Shekhinah is ‘like the moon reflecting the divine light into the world’.
Sitra Achra-the Other Side, a demonic world of illusion
The Qliphot-the impure metaphorical shells surrounding holiness. To be found in the Sitra Achra, the Qliphot can lead to an self-awareness that is entirely illusory.
The radical notion (but only by some commentators) that evil is the result of an imbalance within the Sephirot.
The importance placed on the esoteric meaning of scripture as opposed to their overt, exoteric meaning.
Life became increasingly difficult for the large Jewish population in Spain by the mid 14th century and when Ferdinard and Isabella completed the reconquista, they announced the Expulsion of all Muslims and Jews. A majority left to Palestine, Italy, Poland and Germany with their books and knowledge. The Kabbalah become known to the learned of Europe who had recently re-discovered Plato and Hermes Tristemegistus (see my post As Above, So Below) and helped advance the Renaissance, though the philosopher-magus interpreted the system in a syncretic fashion, commonly known as Cabala to differentiate it from the Jewish Kabbalah. In Palestine the Kabbalah became of increasing importance within Judaism, but that is beyond the scope of this post.
Gnosticism arose in the 1st Century AD in the crossroads of the Roman Empire and the second most important city, after Rome itself; Alexandria. With a population of around half-a-million inhabitants, it was one of the biggest cities built before the Industrial Revolution. Home of the Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and the Great Library, the largest library of the ancient world, Alexandria was an important centre of Hellenistic culture, the capital of Ptolemaic Egypt, as well as being home to the highest urban population of Jews in the Empire (and therefore the world).
Into this mix was added the emergence of a Jewish breakaway sect, the first Christians. Various other Jewish apocalyptic groups had also sprung up in the aftermath of the Fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Combine all the above with a dash of Persian Zurvanism and you have the ingredients for the syncretic religion of Gnosticism.
Although calling Gnosticism a religion is in itself problematic as a survey of the numerous sects and cults with their bewildering array of competing mythologies and theologies will quickly attest. However there are certain key concepts and figures that re-appear frequently in Gnosticism;
Gnosis (knowledge) could only be gained through direct, revelatory experience
God, being perfect, had no need to create and therefore did not fashion the world. God dwelt in the pleroma (a term borrowed from Plato), where in his overflowing richness he emanated aeons who in turn emanated (in male/female pairs) further aeons, each one a little further away from the pleroma, until we get to Sophia.
Sophia emanated, on her own, the Demiurge, also called Yaldabaoth, Samael (The Blind God), Satanel, etc. The Demiurge was monstrous (frequently portrayed as having the head of a lion and the body of a serpent) and so Sophia hid him away. The Demiurge was unaware of the existence of the God in the pleroma and his emanations including Sophia, and in his blind ignorance and arrogance created the material universe.
Matter is, in a certain sense, illusory and inherently evil.
To help him in his task of creation the Demiurge made the archons to rule the material universe.
God in the pleroma saw the flawed universe that the Demiurge had created and taking pity upon humanity, planted a divine spark inside us, to help us transcend the material world and reach towards the pleroma.
In Christian Gnosticism Jesus is sent by God in the pleroma (certainly not the Demiurge, who wants humanity to remain trapped in his creation) to help achieve gnosis
The identification of the God of the Old Testament with the Demiurge.
Making heroes out of the villains of the Old Testament (and later the New Testament, as per the Gospel of Judas). Hence Eve, with the aid of the serpent, takes the first step towards gnosis bydisobeying the Demiurge and tasting the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
This is only a partial list, each teacher and sect expanded and refined the core concepts. Also the responses and ethical doctrines varied wildly; many Gnostic sects were notably ascetic, refraining from sexual intercourse (especially reproductive sex) and espousing vegetarianism, while other, more libertine Gnostics sects engaged in sexual sacramentalism and a belief in gnosis throughsin (as sin against the Demiurge was actually a virtue).
The 2nd Century AD was the heyday for Gnosticism with many important teachers contributing to its spread beyond Alexandria. However its heterodoxy couldn’t compete against the increasingly organised, centralised and powerful Christian Church that declared it subversive inversion of canonical texts and its identification of Jehovah with an evil Demiurge, heretical. Gnosticism also faced opposition from the schools of Neo-Platonism who attacked the Gnostics wild invention of Byzantine genealogies of emanations, aeons and archons.
By the 4th Century AD it seemed like Gnosticism was little more than a footnote in the history of the Early Church. However it had only gone underground and would erupt later as Catharism, the subject of the next post.
All mirrors are inherently mysterious and magical. The moment when Narcissus looked into the lake and realized that what he saw reflected was at one and the same time the self and an image was the moment of a great divide, a second Fall, but as certain Gnostic sects argued about the temptation of Eve and the expulsion from the Garden of Eden this recognition was a necessary loss of Innocence. It was the first experience of a mediated reality. All was needed was the technical expertise to manufacture mirrors to disseminate this heightened self-awareness to every individual. And from mirrors it was only a matter of time before the camera and then film which led to the media landscape that envelops and dominates our perception today.
Mirrors are mentioned frequently in myth, folk-lore and religion; not to mention in art and literature. In Corinthians Paul says of our knowledge of the divine ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known’. In Vodou, the syncretic religion practised widely in Haiti that combines elements of West African spirit religion, Catholicism and arguably Mesoamerican traditions, the altars of hounfours (temples) are decorated with mirrors as they are conduits that the houngan use to contact the spirit world. Many cultures at many times held the tradition of covering all mirrors in the house when in mourning, this custom persists today in Judaism. In connection with a heresy held by one of the numerous Gnostic sects Borges states ‘Mirrors and copulation are abominable, since they both multiply the numbers of men.’
In libertine fiction mirrors play a large part as they increase the pleasure of the moment and enables the libertine to view the erotic scene which they are actively participating in. In the sparkling sophisticated jewel of a tale Point de lendemain (No Tomorrow) byVivant Denonthe artful heroine describes to her paramour the delights of her chamber with its reflective glass covering every wall, when he enters he is enchanted to find a ‘a vast cage of mirrors’ and then states that, ‘Desires are reproduced through their image’.
One of the most memorable mentions in fairy-tales of the deceptive nature of the looking-glass is the Magic Mirror of the Evil Queen in Snow White, which is a good illustration of William Blake’s quote ‘A truth told with evil intent beats any lie you could invent.’
However for me the supreme moment for the mirror in literature is when Alice steps through to the other side of the looking glass. Ever since the phrase has been used to describe many different and varying experiences; the transfigured absolute reality glimpsed in insanity; the shifting contours of the nightly dreamscape, the heavens and hells of drug use (the John Tenniel illustration was reproduced on LSD blotters in the sixties) the transcendence achieved in sexual ecstasy, and ultimately death, that unknowing inevitable frontier where we hope that the outward appearance will vanish to be replaced for all eternity by our fundamental essence. For although mirrors are just surface and can deceive, distort and warp, they also always reveal something other than just ourselves.