A Heresy for the 21st Century: The Original Gnostics

An Image of Yaldabaoth, the Demiurge
An Image of Yaldabaoth, the Demiurge

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 by disobeying 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 through sin (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.


As Above, So Below

Tabula Smaragdina-Matthew Merian 1612
In her post on Hermes (► “Hermes & Writing in Ancient Greece”: “Collaboration with Alan Severs”✍️.-,) the wonderful Aquileana mentions the syncretic figure of Hermes Trismegistus (Hermes the Thrice Great, on account of being the greatest priest, the greatest philosopher and the greatest king). This figure who at various periods has been considered divine, semi-divine or legendary is nowadays shrouded in obscurity yet it once was a name to conjure with. As Aquileana has outlined the Greek-Egyptian deity in her post I will dealing exclusively with the Hermes Trismegistus who was the purported author of the Corpus Hermeticum and the Emerald Tablet.

In 1463 the great Florentine banker, power broker and patron of the arts Cosimo de Medici heard from his agent Leonardo de Pistoia that he had recently acquired the Corpus Hermeticum, part of the treasures rescued before the sack of Constantinople (previously Byzantium and now Istanbul). At 74 Cosimo was an elderly man for the time and he didn’t hesitate in instructing his brilliant scribe Marsilio Ficino to stop translating the Complete Works of Plato and start work on the Corpus immediately so that he could read it before his death. Ficino immediately agreed and only returned to Plato after he had completed translating the Corpus. It may seem amazing to ourselves that such cultivated  and learned men as de Medici and Ficino sidelined Plato, the philosopher whose immeasurable influence upon Western thought has led to the suggestion that the entire history of Western philosophy is merely a footnote to his works, but they were believers in the prisca theologia. Hermes Trismegistus was believed to be of immense antiquary, a contemporary of Moses and was therefore closer to the source of divine inspiration than Plato.

The effect of Ficino’s translation galvanised the nascent humanist Renaissance movement. Hermeticism and Gnosticism share many similarities, however Hermeticism’s emphasis on the inherent divinity of mankind and its descriptions of the soul’s ascent through the heavens make it a fundamentally more optimistic and positive philosophy than the rather austere and ascetic doctrines of Gnosticism and would have held a particular appeal in the hothouse atmosphere of the Renaissance. One of the high watermarks of that giddy epoch,  Pico Della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man, is clearly indebted to Hermetic thought.

The Corpus, was well as influencing astrology, alchemy and magic also spurred the developing field of the natural sciences as has been shown in a series of books by the truly exceptional Renaissance scholar Dame Frances Yates, including Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, The Art of Memory and The Rosicrucian Enlightenment. This spirit of scientific empiricism that Hermeticism had in part engendered caused the eventual demise of the Hermetic Revival. In 1614 the distinguished Swiss philologist Isaac Casaubon published his philological study of the text. The Corpus was not the product of a single author of an antiquary predating Plato and Christ but was actually written by multiple differing authors from Alexandria in the 3rd or 4th Century AD. This revelation would weaken the intellectual appeal of Hermeticism during the 17th Century, although certain esotericists, notably Robert Fludd and Athanasius Kircher kept the faith in the historical veracity of Hermes Trismegistus.

Below is The Emerald Tablet attributed to Hermes Trismegistus in a translation by the scientist and the discoverer of gravity, Sir Isaac Newton. A key text in alchemy it also contains the doctrine of as above, so below, the central tenet of Western Esotericism. I have chosen the Newton translation as it shows how magic and science were once closely allied and not mortal enemies.

The Emerald Tablet

1.) Tis true without error, certain & most true.
2.) That which is below is like that which is above & that which is above is like that which is below to do the miracles of one only thing
3.) And as all things have been & arose from one by the [meditation] of one: so all things have their birth from this one thing by adaptation.
4.) The Sun is its father, the moon its mother, the wind hath carried it in its belly, the earth is its nurse.
5.) The father of all perfection in the whole world is here.
6.) Its force or power is entire if it be converted into earth.
7.) Separate thou the earth from the fire, the subtle from the gross sweetly with great industry.
8.) It ascends from the earth to the heaven & again it descends to the earth & receives the force of things superior & inferior.
9.) By this means you shall have the glory of the whole world
10.) & thereby all obscurity shall fly from you.
11.) Its force is above all force. For it vanquishes every subtle thing & penetrates every solid thing.
12.) So was the world created.
13.) From this are & do come admirable adaptations whereof the means (or process) is here in this. Hence I am called Hermes Trismegist, having the three parts of the philosophy of the whole world
14.) That which I have said of the operation of the Sun is accomplished & ended.



► “Hermes & Writing in Ancient Greece”: “Collaboration with Alan Severs”✍️.-

It was truly an honour to contribute in my small way to this excellent post of Aquileana’s concerning Hermes (and related figures: Thoth, Mercury and Odin) and writing.

⚡️La Audacia de Aquiles⚡️

► “Hermes & Writing in Ancient Greece”: “Collaboration with Alan Severs”✍️:

Statue of Hermes/Mercury. Roman copy. 200 AD.


“Hermes”, by W. B. Richmond. From “The magazine of art” vol. 9, 1886.

♠Divided into three sections, this article revolves around three main themes: Hermes, as The Greek God of Writing and his equivalents in other cultures; Plato´s derogatory ideas of writing, amidst the prevailing Oral Tradition; and how this eventually would change, as writing became a most accepted form, when the Greeks adopted the Phoenician Alphabet.

Greek God Hermes was the equivalent of the egyptian God Thoth, and from both of them resulted a Hybrid God: Hermes Trismegistus.

Hermes´roman counterpart was Mercury

In Norse Mythology, his Homologous figure was Odin.

Hermes and his associated figures are described in the first section.

♠The second section refers to Plato´s dialogue “Phaedrus”,

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