From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

(Redirected from Gnostic)
Jump to: navigation, search
It has been suggested that this article be split into multiple articles accessible from a disambiguation page. (Discuss)

Gnosticism is a blanket term for various mystical initiatory religions, sects and knowledge schools, which were most prominent in the first few centuries CE. It is also applied to modern revivals of these groups and, sometimes, by analogy to all religious movements based on secret knowledge gnosis, thus can lead to confusion.

The occult nature of gnostic teaching (as seen from a modern viewpoint) and the fact that much of the material relating to the schools comprising Gnosticism has traditionally come from critiques by orthodox Christians make it difficult to be precise about early Christian gnostic systems. Irenaeus (Adversus Haereses) described several different schools of 2nd century gnosticism in disparaging and often sarcastic detail while contrasting them with Christianity, to their detriment. Nevertheless, most discussion of gnosticism relied heavily on Irenaeus and other heresiologists; in fairness to investigators, this was not by choice, but because of a simple lack of alternative sources.

This state of affairs continued from antiquity through to modern times; in 1945, there was a chance discovery of a cache of 4th-century gnostic texts in Nag Hammadi, Egypt. The texts, which had been sealed inside earthen jars, were discovered by a local man called Mohammed Ali. He at first was afraid to open the jars, as he believed they might contain an evil spirit or djinn, and that opening a jar might release it. When he overcame his fear and returned home with the texts his mother, possessed of a similar fear, burned several of the texts. The remaining manuscripts, now known as the Nag Hammadi library, allowed for the study of apparently gnostic texts at first hand for the first time since the 4th century. The translation of the texts into English was completed in 1977; other modern languages followed. This has immensely clarified more recent discussions of gnosticism in Antiquity, though many would agree that the topic still remains a murky one.

At the same time, modern gnosticism has continued to develop, from origins in the Occultism of the 19th century. Thus "gnosticism" is also applied to many modern sects where only initiates have access to arcana. However, there has always been a great deal of diversity within gnosticism and modern gnostic doctrines sometimes have little to do with ancient gnosticism; the application of the antiquated term to these distinctly modern movements, far from being a clarification of the nature of gnosticism, further occludes its true nature. In fact, it may be argued that the unfortunate vagueness of the term 'gnosticism' allows modern sects - which actually bear little resemblance to ancient gnosticism beyond the superficial - to easily appropriate the term, thereby implying an inheritance of a supposed 'gnostic tradition' in order to add theological and historical weight to their own views.



The word gnosticism comes from the Greek word for knowledge, gnosis (γνώσις), referring to the idea that there is special esoteric knowledge, a key to transcendent understanding, that only a few may possess. This, being one of the few common defining characteristics of systems typically referred to as 'gnostic', makes it an ideal blanket term.

However, the term gnosis refers to a very specialised form of knowledge. Unlike modern English, ancient Greek was capable of discerning between several different forms of knowledge. These different forms may be described in English as being "propositional knowledge" (such as "I know of Wikipedia" or "I know Berlin is in Germany") and knowledge acquired by participation or acquaintance (such as "I know Wikipedia well" or "I know Berlin, having visited").

Gnosis refers to knowledge of the second kind; this should reflect on our understanding of the movements referred to as "gnostic", as being reliant not on knowledge in a general sense, but on knowledge acquired by the individual through participation. In most gnostic systems, the sufficient cause of salvation is often knowledge of the divine, commonly identified with an inward knowing or self-exploration comparable to that encouraged by Plotinus. Thus, a gnostic is one who seeks to know God on an intimate basis, by the pursuit self-knowledge or nurturing of self-awareness; thus gnosis might be argued to be a more intuitive form of knowledge than the term would at first suggest.

Background and Origins of Gnosticism

The ultimate foundational elements of gnosticism are pre-Christian. That said, the exact origins of Gnosticism are a subject of dispute amongst scholars: some think Gnosticism is fundamentally pagan in origin, but has adopted a Christian veneer; others trace its origin to Judaism; yet others think it derives from Jesus, and is a development of his teaching that is arguably as valid as the orthodox one. Others still regard Gnosticism as a religious tradition in itself, the manifestation in related "systems" of a perennial philosophy of which, in some sense, more orthodox religious traditions are the recurring contraries. Most historians, however, agree that a significant influence in the mystical interpretations were influenced by Buddhism. In the end, it is difficult, perhaps impossible to confidently identify a clear origin for Gnosticism, due in part to its commonly syncretistic nature, and due also to the fluid (some might say "confused") relations between religious traditions in antiquity and, indeed, throughout history. Despite these uncertainties, some historical notions concerning gnosticism are widely accepted.

Most scholars accept that orthodox Christianity and its canonical texts do not predate the Gnostic movement, but emerged alongside it, out of some of the same sources. Other scholars contend that Gnosticism emerged in the late first and early second centuries C.E., after the key beliefs and writings of orthodox Christianity were already well-established; this is, on the whole, the less-prevalent view, as is made clear in Bentley Layton's introduction to The Gnostic Scriptures, a translation of the texts found at Nag Hammadi.

Many Gnostic sects were made up of Christians who embraced mystical theories concerning the nature of Jesus or the Christ which was increasingly at variance with the teachings of orthodox Christian faith as it developed. For example, Gnostics generally taught docetism, the belief that Jesus did not have a physical body, but rather his apparent physical body was an illusion, and hence his crucifixion was not bodily.

It seems clear that Gnosticism, at least in some of its theologically more developed formulations, was influenced by Platonism, Neo-Platonism, Stoicism, old Semitic religions, Buddhism, Christianity (and/or influenced the development of more orthodox Christianity) and (at least in the case of Monoimus) Pythagoreanism.

The so-called Gnostic Cross, the circular, harmonic cross as used by several Gnostic sects, notably the Cathars
The so-called Gnostic Cross, the circular, harmonic cross as used by several Gnostic sects, notably the Cathars

There is no universal symbol for the various Gnostic movements, whether ancient or modern. Nor is there, as there is with orthodoxy, a large crystallised body of associated symbology. For example, renaissance paintings depicting the adoration of the Magi, while not orthodox texts in themselves, often support and elucidate an orthodox interpretation of events, such that this view become tacitly upheld by these cultural artefacts. The view of Gnosticism as a heresy by the prevailing orthodox church meant there was no call for the public display or visual exegesis of Gnostic doctrine - indeed, that such activities would be decidedly dangerous while it retained power - nor (until modern times) a wider dissemination of Gnostic views into the public arena. Both of these are obivous prerequisites for the gradual establishment of a visual symbology.

Theology and Cosmology

It is accepted by some historians that there is a significant amount of Buddhist/Hindu influence in Gnostic interpretations of the Bible. The standard tactic of Gnostic texts is to radically reinterpret a well-known text (usually Genesis and its related Biblical books) through the addition of an original prologue. However, this is not to say that gnosticism necessarily post-dates orthodox Christianity or Judaism; rather, the two developed side by side, and ideas often inter-penetrated from one strand to another.

A common point of contention is whether or not the Gnostics believed seriously in the events they chronicled, or whether they were understood to be mere representations of the truth; a mythologised philosophy comprising both a cosmogony and a moral system, rather than a literally factual account of creation. It is difficult to state that one or the other is universally correct; it seems likely that a mixture of the two positions was common.

There follows a summary of the 'Classic' Gnostic myth, as delineated by The Apocryphon of John, one of the principal texts found in the Nag Hammadi Library. Following this is a summary of the Valentinian Gnostic myth, which focuses on the deviations from the Classic myth, from which it is generally held to have derived. This is by no means a complete description of Gnostic cosmologies, which are numerous and highly various in nature. Interested parties are encouraged to refer to external sources, such as the online version of the Nag Hammadi library, or printed translations of that work (see sources below).

The Classic Gnostic Myth

Commonly, the gnostic prologue to Genesis describes an unknown God, very different in nature to the orthdox conception of the divine. The latter conception defines God through a series of positives commonly taken to their superlative degrees: as well as being explicitly male, he is omniscient, omnipotent and truly benevolent. The gnostic conception of God is, by contrast, often defined through a string of negatives: he is immovable, invisible, intangible, ineffable; commonly, "he" is seen as being androgynous, a potent symbol for being, as it were, 'all-containing'. This mode of thinking about God is so important in gnosticism that he is sometimes referred to as "the uncontained"; otherwise he may be referred to as Bythos, the Monad as it is called by Monoimus, or the first Aeon. In essence, gnosticism posits a God that may not be described in any rational sense; it is only possible to say what God isn't, and the experience of it remains something, again, in defiance of rational description.

This original God went through a series of emanations, during which its essence is seen as expanding into many successive "generations" of paired male and female beings, called "aeons". A frequent complaint concerning gnostic texts is the complexity of their narratives and the numerous characters within them. Some gnostic texts posit as many as twenty of these aeons (Valentinius listed thirty-three such pairs). These should be seen as representative of the various attributes of God, themselves indiscernible when not abstracted from their origin. In this sense, the aeons and their emanation are more akin to a poetic device; They allow an otherwise utterly unknowable God to be discussed in a meaningful way amongst initiates. Collectively, God and the aeons comprise the sum total of the spiritual universe, known as the Pleroma.

At this point in the myth the universe was still entirely non-material. The increasing fragmentation of the nature of God into more and more aeons led, eventually, to instability within the primordial universe. This growing problem reached its climax with the appearance of the lowest aeon, called Sophia (Gr. "wisdom"). In several versions, Sophia attempts to surmount the rigid hierarchy of the divine nature, trying to approach close to God himself. (Recall that though the aeons comprise God in his totally, they are nevertheless at the same time individual characters abstracted from him, otherwise we would have the paradoxical situation of God divided into many essences.) In other cases, Sophia imitates God in performing an emanation of her own. In both cases, this intransigence causes a crisis within the Pleroma, leading to the creation of Yaldabaoth, a "serpent with a lion's head" (Apocryphon of John). This figure is commonly known as the Demiurge, after the figure in Plato's Timaeus (Gr. demiurgos - "one who shapes" (typical translation); "Tame Worker / One Who Domesticates" (literal translation)). This being is at first hidden by Sophia, but later escapes, stealing a portion of divine power from her inthe process.

Using this stolen power, Yaldabaoth creates a material world in imitation of the divine Pleroma. To complete this task, he spawns a group of entities known collectively as Archons, "petty rulers" and craftsmen of the physical world. Like him they are commonly depicted as theriomorphic, having the heads of animals. At this point the events of the Gnostic narrative join with the events of Genesis, with the Demiurge and his Archontic cohorts fulfilling the role of the creator. The Demiurge declares himself to be the only god, and that none exist superior to him.

From here the events follow in the familiar fashion. God creates Adam, during the process unwittingly transferring into Adam's body the portion of power stolen from Sophia. He then creates Eve from Adam's rib; the two are tempted by the serpent, and fall. However, the addition of the prologue radically alters the nature of this event; rather than attributing the fall to human weakness, gnostics locate the ultimate cause of the fall in the instability of the divine nature itself. The 'fall' of Adam and Eve thus becomes something of a redemption, and the serpent in the Garden of Eden becomes a heroic, salvific figure rather than an adversary of humanity. Eating the fruit of Knowledge is the first act of human salvation from cruel, oppressive powers.

As may be gleaned from the above, most Gnostics identified the Demiurge with the God of the Old Testament. They rejected the Old Testament and Judaism and sometimes celebrated those who were rejected by the Old Testament God, such as Cain. Some Gnostics were believed to identify the Demiurge with Satan; this perception contributed to the suspicion with which many Christians regarded them.

The Valentinian Gnostic Creation Myth

In the Valentinian Gnostic creation myth, as in the Classical Gnostic myth, the central transgression revolves around the figure of Sophia, who again seeks to surmount the rigids hierarchies of the spiritual universe to attain union with the unknowable One. In one account, she saw a distant light which she took to be the One, but which was in fact a mirror image of herself. Thus, in pursuing it she drifted even farther away from the pleroma.

Sophia's anguish and fear of losing her life, just as she lost the light of the One, caused confusion and longing. This dismay threatened the entire Pleroma, and, in an effort to prevent their spread, a portion of Sophia (called 'Achamoth', Hebrew for 'Wisdom') was split from the original by a divine figure called the Limit and thrust outside the Pleroma. This action should not be understood spatially, but epistemically, as being forced outside the divine presence. The sufferings of this secondary Wisdom caused the emergence of matter (Greek: hyle, ὕλη) and the soul (Greek: psyche, ψυχή) brought into existence through the four classical elements fire, water, earth, and air.

The creation of the lion-faced Demiurge was also a result of this exile (this differs from other Gnostic sources, sometimes referred to as 'Classical Gnosticism', in which the creation of the Demiurge resulted from Sophia trying to emanate on her own, without her male counterpart, in imitation of the Divine). The Demiurge fashioned the physical world from the raw material supplied by Achamoth's distress. However, he remained ignorant both of Achamoth and the high spiritual realities beyond; she nevertheless managed to infuse a spiritual spark, the pneuma, (Greek: πνεῦμα) into the creation of the Demiurge. Thereafter events proceed much as in Genesis with, however, variations too minor to ennumerate here.


Some Gnostics, again in common with such Neoplatonic philosophers as Plotinus, held matter to be evil, but only as a method of depicting its extreme distance from the monadic source of the universe (which is, of course, supremely good). Thus matter is not evil in and of itself, but only in its distance from and its contrast to its monadic source (compare summum bonum). Many Gnostics also made use of ritual; these rituals being the manipulation of material objects in imitation of divine events or occurrences, this presupposes at least the ability of matter to be used for positive effect. Valentinus himself, sometimes deemed the Gnostic teacher par excellence, only referred to matter as an obscuration of the truth; that is, as 'error', not as inherently evil.

However, it should be noted that Gnostics typically present a view of the universe shared by neither Classical Greek philosophy nor in the orthodox Christian tradition. The former typically saw the universe as a cosmos (from the Greek 'kosmos' meaning 'universe' with implications of totalising order and harmony). The earliest usage of the word in this sense is in Heraclitus: 'This kosmos, the same of all, no god or man did create, but it ever was and is and will be: everliving fire, kindling in measures and quenched in measures.' Heraclitus posits a conservation of order that is described in matter: not the retention of identity by material things or even of their individual mass, but rather of a total volume of matter. As one material element is ‘kindled’, another is ‘quenched’; thus the orderly nature of the universe is to be found in the organisation of matter within it. This view of the universe would later develop into the Stoic indentification of the universe with God; this is not to imply that the Stoic saw the universe as an object of worship, but rather as an object of contemplation.

The Christian view may be likened to the Platonic view rather than the Stoic one, in that Christianity typically held the material universe to be only one level of reality, and that beyond it lay an incorporeal universe superior to it. The material universe became theophanic (Gr. 'God-revealing'); a revelation of the benevolence and superiority of the Almighty, made manifest in the orderliness and harmony of material reality; not the most superior of all possible beings, as with the Stoics, but an indicator of God's superiority, and therefore a positive thing. This view remains common today.

The Gnostic view, on the other hand, held materiality to be a flawed creation, or if not flawed at least incomplete. Like Platonics, Neo-Platonics and Christians, they also held the universe to be only the most immediate level of reality; unlike these groups, they did not view the universe as a cosmos, but rather as a flawed process from which the true, spiritual source of beauty is distant. Thus, while the former groups might draw comfort from the harmony and order of matter in its formation as the cosmos, Gnostics typically might not, and thus assess matter as evil. However, such assessments of matter should be viewed only as an expression of a feeling of alienation within the world (‘Man in the Cosmos’, Armstrong, A.H. (ed.), Plotinian and Christian Studies, (London: Variorum, 1979), 7.). Such feeling, it may be observed, is an occasional consequence of the idealization of what to one is not immediately manifest; when what is truly existent – indeed, the realm of the Divine – is located beyond the sensible (a feeling taken to radical extremes in gnostic texts, but also detectable in Plotinus) one cannot help but feel alienated within the empirically observable universe.

Nevertheless, the unsubtle characterisation of matter as simply evil is a trait that is commonly used to define gnostic systems, often by those who seek to detract from them, or by those too reliant on heresiological texts for their understanding of them (the two groups aren't mutually exclusive). This unfair characterisation, amongst others, has been challenged by Michael Allen Williams in his important work Rethinking Gnosticism.

It would be more accurate to characterize the Gnostic relationship with matter as one fraught with ambivalence; their views are an attempt to explain and clarify the divine's relationship with the imperfect universe, and to create a contextual basis for the individual Gnostic's feeling of alienation within the universe.

Gnostic conceptions of humanity

Gnostics typically conceived of individuals as falling into one of three categories, each corresponding to a portion of the tripartite structure of the human individual:

  • hylics (bound to the matter, the principle of ignorance and 'error')
  • psychics (bound to the soul and partly saved from ignorance)
  • pneumatics, free to return to the pleroma if they achieve gnosis and can behold the world of light. The gnostics regarded themselves as members of this group.


Most Gnostics practiced celibacy and asceticism, on the grounds that the pleasures of the flesh induced the subject to remain ignorant of spiritual realities; a few however practiced libertinism, arguing since the body was evil they should defile it, or that since the body was evil it did not matter what was done with it. This led to further distrust, and was an accusation leveled against other groups who did not follow this practice.

It should be noted, however, that evidence exists as to the existence a Valentinian ritual called 'The Bridal Chamber' in which a couple would engage in ritualistic sexual intercourse, both in imitation of and in praise of the true God. Given that a common criticism of Valentinus was his more permissive approach to matters of human sexuality than was deemed acceptable by emergent orthodoxy, it becomes apparent that the notion of gnostic movements wildly oscillating between absolute license and total abstention is an inaccurate one, and that seeking for an easily-summarised, broadly-applicable attitude is in all probability a wasted effort.

Gnostic sects

(Note: It is a matter of controversy if these sects had a real succession of ideas or communion with each other, or if they more or less coincidentally had the same basic doctrine.)

First, the gnostic sects are often divided into an eastern, or Persian school, and a Syrian-Egyptic school. The Persian school has a more definitive division between light and darkness, whereas the Syrian-Egyptic school is more platonist in character. The latter is the one usually associated with Gnosticism, and the one known to include several Christian elements. A group referred to as the Ophites fall in between both of these strains. This method of division has recently been challenged by Michael Allen William's groundbreaking work 'Rethinking Gnosticism', which re-examines the common conception of 'Gnosticism', in an effort to demonstrate the somewhat nebulous nature of the term as a category.

  • Persian Gnostics
    • Mandaeanism which still exists today, but is non-Christian in character.
    • Manichaeism which was an entire religion on its own, but is now extinct.
  • Syrian-Egyptic Gnostics
    • Sethians, who produced many texts.
    • Cerinthus
    • Simon Magus and Marcion of Sinope both had Gnostic tendencies, but they were not completely Gnostics. They both developed a big apprenticeship. Simon Magus' pupil Menander could also be included.
    • The Valentinians under Valentinius, better known as Valentinus (c. 100 - c. 153), developed most of the complex cosmology of Gnosticism. Valentinus was, for a time, the most successful Christian-Gnostic thinker.
    • The Basilidians
    • The Ophites (so-named because they worshipped the serpent of Genesis as the bestower of knowledge).
    • The Cainites (who worshipped Cain, as well as Esau, Korah, and the Sodomites, and believed that indulgence in sin was the key to salvation because since the body is evil, one must defile it.)
    • The Carpocratians
    • The Borborites
    • The Bogomils
    • The Cathars (Cathari, Albigenses or Albigensians).


The Nag Hammadi library codices remain the primary source of a Gnostic world-view.
The Nag Hammadi library codices remain the primary source of a Gnostic world-view.

We have two main historical sources for information on Gnosticism: critiques on Gnosticism by orthodox Christians (i.e. Heresiologies such as those written by Tertullian, Hippolytus, Irenaeus and Epiphanius of Salamis), and the original Gnostic works.

Neither of these two sources is entirely satisfactory. Attacks on Gnosticism by orthodox Christians, hostile as they are, most likely suffer from some degree of bias; and orthodox Christians had a tendency to conflate the many differing groups opposing them. There were considerably more Gnostic scriptures written than orthodox Christian ones, which are hinted at throughout the orthodox scriptures.

Many Gnostic scriptures and other works were written, but until the late 19th and the 20th centuries, none of them were available, except in isolated quotations in the writings of their opponents. Many 19th century scholars devoted considerable effort to collecting the scattered references in the works of opponents and reassembling the Gnostic materials.

Several finds of manuscripts have been made since, most importantly the Nag Hammadi codices. But though we now possess a reasonable collection of Gnostic texts, they are still often difficult to interpret, due to the esoteric nature of Gnostic teaching. We are also faced with difficulties in identifying which teachers or sects authored which texts. The Nag Hammadi Library is available in an English translation and is without doubt the most important collection of source texts for research in Gnosticism. With some basic knowledge of Gnostic concepts, it is not too complicated a read.

Gnostic texts

Note that like everything else about Gnosticism, the identification of a text as Gnostic or not may be controversial, however most Nag Hammadi codices may be assumed to be Gnostic in essence, except for the copy of Plato and the "sayings" Gospel of Thomas.

Notable Gnostics

Roughly in chronological order:

Gnosticism in modern times

Gnosticism has been treated at length by several modern authors, philosophers and psychologists:

  • William Blake, the nineteenth century Romantic poet and artist, was according to some sources well-versed in the doctrines of the Gnostics, and his own personal mythology contains many points of cohesion with several Gnostic myths (for example, the Blakean figure of Urizen bears many resemblances to the Gnostic Demiurge). However, efforts to dub Blake a "Gnostic" have been complicated by the complex nature and extent of Blake's own mythology, and the variety of myths and themes that may be referred to as "Gnostic"; thus, the exact relationship between Blake and the Gnostics remains a point of scholarly contention, though a comparison of the two often reveals intriguing points of cohesion.
  • After a series of visions and archival finds of Cathar-related documents, Jules Doinel "re-established" the Gnostic Church in the modern era. Founded on extant Cathar documents with a heavy influence of Valentinian cosmology, the church, officially established in the autumn 1890 in Paris, France, consisted of modified Cathar rituals as sacraments, a clergy that was both male and female, and a close relationship with several esoteric initiatory orders (see link for more information). The church eventually split into two opposing groups that were later reconciled in the leadership of Joanny Bricaud. Another splinter church with more occult leanings was established by Robert Ambelain around 1957, from which several other schisms have produced a multitude of distantly-related occult-oriented marginal groups.
  • The "traditionalist" René Guénon founded in 1909 the Gnostic review La Gnose. He believed in and throughout his works exposed the idea that modern thought, by its preference to the quantity more than to the quality, is the root of all evil aspects of modernity. The whole scientific enterprise would just be the beheaded relic of a lost Sacred Science. Modern technology and its realizations, worshipped by his contemporaries, would have been just a latter epiphany of the Kali Yuga (alias Dark Age), in a Cyclical Conception of Time.
  • Carl Jung and his associate G. R. S. Mead worked on trying to understand and explain the Gnostic faith from a psychological standpoint. Jung's "analytical psychology" in many ways schematically mirrors ancient Gnostic mythology, particularly those of Valentinus and the "classic" Gnostic doctrine described in most detail in the Apocryphon ("Secret Book") of John. Jung understands the emergance of the Demiurge out of the original, unified monadic source of the spiritual universe by gradual stages to be analogous to (and a symbolic depiction of) the emergence of the ego from the unconscious. However, it is uncertain as to whether the similarities between Jung's psychological teachings and those of the Gnostics are due to their sharing a "perennial philosophy", or whether Jung was unwittingly influenced by the Gnostics in the formation of his theories; Jung's own "Gnostic sermon", the Septem Sermones ad Mortuos, would tend to imply the latter. Uncertain too are Jung's claims that the Gnostics are aware of any psychological meaning behind their myths. On the other hand, what is known is that Jung and his ancient forebears disagreed on the ultimate goal of the individual: whereas the Gnostics clearly sought a return to a supreme, other-worldly Godhead, Jung would see this as analogous to a total identification with the unconscious, a dangerous psychological state.
  • Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, founder of Theosophy enjoyed and wrote extensively on Gnostic ideas.
  • The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche appears to echo Gnostic ideas in his concept of the "eternal return", in which a demon condemns human subjects to live out their lives in endless repeating cycles.
  • The philosopher Hans Jonas wrote extensively on Gnosticism, interpreting it from an existentialist viewpoint.
  • Eric Voegelin identified a number of similarities between ancient Gnosticism and those held by a number of modernist political theories, particularly Communism and Nazism. He identifies the root of the Gnostic impulse as alienation, that is, a sense of disconnectedness with society and a belief that this lack of concord with society is the result of the inherent disorderliness or even evil of the world. This alienation has two effects. The first is the belief that the disorder of the world can be transcended by extraordinary insight, learning, or knowledge, called a Gnostic Speculation by Voegelin. The second is the desire to implement a policy to actualize the speculation, or as Voegelin describes to "Immanentize the Eschaton", to create a sort of heaven on earth within history. The totalitarian impulse is derived from the alienation of the proponents of the policy from the rest of society. This leads to a desire to dominate (libido dominandi) which has its roots not just in the conviction of the imperative of the Gnostic's vision but also in his lack of concord with a large body of his society. As a result, there is very little regard for the welfare of those in society who are impacted by the resulting politics, which ranges from coercive to calamitous (cf. Stalin's nostrum: "You have to crack a few eggs to make an omelet"). This totalitarian impulse in modernism has been noted by Catholic writers, particularly in Henri de Lubac's work "The Drama of Atheist Humanism", which explores the connection between the totalitarian impulses of political Communism, Fascism and Positivism with their philosophical progenitors Hegel, Feuerbach, Marx, Comte and Nietzsche. Indeed, Voegelin acknowledges his debt to this book in creating his seminal essay "Science, Politics, and Gnosticism". The Catholic catechism makes an oblique reference to the desire to "Immanentize the Eschaton" in article 676: The Antichrist's deception already begins to take shape in the world every time the claim is made to realize within history that messianic hope which can only be realized beyond history through the eschatological judgment. The Church has rejected even modified forms of this falsification of the kingdom to come under the name of millenarianism, especially the "intrinsically perverse" political form of a secular messianism. Other Catholic scholars have extended it using vivid imagery created by Abbé Augustin Barruél.
  • Samael Aun Weor commented extensively on the Pistis Sophia in his book The Pistis Sophia Unveiled, and founded International Gnostic Movement, one of the Occultist movements that claimed inheritance from ancient Gnosticism.
  • In the United States there are several gnostic churches with diverse lineages, one of which is the Ecclesia Gnostica, affiliated with an organization for studies of gnosticism named the Gnostic Society, primarily in Los Angeles. The current leader of both organizations is Stephan A. Hoeller who has also written extensively on Gnosticism and the occult.
  • Aleister Crowley's Thelema system is influenced by and bears major features in common with Gnosticism, especially in that adherants work to come to their own direct knowledge of the divine (referred to as the Great Work). There are several Thelemic Gnostic organizations, including Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica as an ecclesiastical body and Ordo Templi Orientis as an initiatory body.
  • Mar Didymos of the Thomasine Church has reinterpreted Gnosticism and the thomasine gospels from an Illuminist viewpoint. The method employed by clergy and initiates of the Thomasine Church involves the use of the scientific method and of critical thinking rather than dogmatism. Mar Didymos stresses the use of scientific theory or the use of a synthesis of well developed and verified hypotheses derived from empirical observation and deductive/indicative reasoning about factual data and tested through experimentation and peer review. This is antithetical in principle and method as compared to all of the existing modern Gnostic churches.
  • Mar Iohannes of the Apostolic Johannite Church is President of the North American College of Gnostic Bishops, a group dedicated not to dogmatic statements, but to working together to promote gnostic growth. The AJC is a bridge-building Church with traditionally-styles Rites, but Gnostic understanding of those Rites. 'Experiential Knowledge' of the Divine is the final arbiter of Gnosis.

Gnosticism in popular culture

Gnosticism has also seen something of a resurgence in popular culture in recent years.

  • Grant Morrison's comic series The Invisibles draws on Gnostic mythemes, both in terms of overall structure and through occasional direct reference. Morrison's other works, such as Animal Man and The Filth, also possess frequent moments of structural cohesion with Gnostic worldviews, though these make no direct reference.
  • Alan Moore, acclaimed writer of From Hell, Watchmen, V for Vendetta, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Promethea, converted to Gnosticism in the late 1990s. His work, like that of the Gnostics, demonstrates a keen interest with the often-ambivalent relationship between subject and reality, consciousness (especially altered and enlightened states of consciousness) and revolt against constrictive systems of control. In Watchmen, one character who hatches a monstrous plot to save the world might be said to be subscribe to Gnosticism much as Voegelin describes the phenomenon. Promethea explores Gnostic issues even more directly, though the vehicle of Kabbalistic framing devices.
  • Anatole France's novel The Revolt of the Angels (La Revolte des Anges) weaves the story of an unhappy guardian angel and the doctrine of Yaldabaoth, to satiric effect.
  • The authors Umberto Eco, Emile Cioran and Jorge Luis Borges are heavily inspired by gnosticism. In the case of the former, this is particularly evident in two novels: Foucault's Pendulum and Baudolino. In the latter novel, one character describes the Gnostic creation myth at length.
  • Several works of science fiction author Philip K. Dick draw on various gnostic notions, especially his late novel Valis and The Divine Invasion.
  • Robert Charles Wilson's work has gnostic themes to it, particularly overt in his novel Mysterium (1994).
  • Allen Ginsberg uses several Gnostic terms in his poem Plutonian Ode.
  • Harold Bloom explores Gnosticism in his novel The Flight to Lucifer: A Gnostic Fantasy, and, with William Golding, traces Gnosticism in American beliefs in The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation. Another work of Bloom's - Genius, in which he reviews 100 literary figures and identifies their own peculiar genius - makes introductory reference to Gnosticism as "the religion of literature".
  • In her book "Piece By Piece", the musician Tori Amos explores the influences and experiences in her life that have shaped her musical compositions. In the first two chapters she explores the Gnostic belief that Mary Magdalene wrote the 4th Gospel of the apostles, this research would have a profound impact on her 2005 work The Beekeeper.
  • Dan Brown's bestselling novel The Da Vinci Code draws on Gnostic scriptures and modern re-interpretations of those works as well as a pseudohistory of christian faiths along the lines of Holy Blood, Holy Grail'.
  • In her book "The Secret Magdalene", the writer Ki Longfellow explores the birth of gnosticism in her novel treatment of the life of Mary Magdalene, as well as in the life of Jesus - contending that both experienced "gnosis", which is also called "Christ Consciousness" as well as "Enlightenment".
  • Philip Pullman's trilogy His Dark Materials draws heavily on Gnostic themes.
  • Such films as Dark City, Pleasantville, The Matrix, The Truman Show, Twelve Monkeys, Groundhog day, Vanilla Sky and even Toy Story can be compared to Gnosticism because they present the idea that the world we perceive is an illusion created by someone who does not love us, and that the key to unravelling this illusion and perceiving reality (often this perception is concurrent to a "return" to reality) resides in a form of self-knowledge or enlightenment.
  • Gnosticism figures heavily in the Jesus Mysteries Thesis of Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy.
  • The role-playing games Final Fantasy VII and X, Chrono Trigger, Chrono Cross, and Xenogears by Squaresoft as well as the Xenosaga series now in the hands of an ex-Square team known as Monolith Soft contain subtle, if not outright (as in the case of Xenosaga), themes of and references to Gnosticism.
  • The role playing game Kult is also based on Gnostic ideas, as is the MTV animated science fiction television series, Æon Flux.
  • In the Marvel Comics universe, the origins of the Earth are described using Gnostic conventions, specifcally the Demiurge as the creator of the universe, and other ideas. This view of the creation of the Marvel earth was expounded upon in the back-up features of the 1989 Annual issues of their comics, all part of the "Atlantis Attacks" crossover.
  • Some conspiracy theories have Gnostic overtones. (Much due to Eric Voegelin.)
  • In the anime(movie and series) and manga Revolutionary Girl Utena, there are gnostic themes and visual symbolism. Much focus is spent on the dicotomy between light and dark and the interplay between the two. Though at it's heart, it is a passionately post-modern fairy tale. The choice of colors, and drives of the individual characters harkens towards the search for a "true will" much like Aleister Crowley's Thelema beliefs.

See also



Primary sources

Secondary sources

  • Aland, Barbara (1978) Festschrift für Hans Jonas, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht. ISBN 3-525-58111-4
  • Freke, Timothy and Gandy, Peter (1999) The Hermetica: The Lost Wisdom of the Pharaohs, Tarcher. ISBN 0874779502
  • Freke, Timothy and Gandy, Peter (2002) Jesus and the Lost Goddess : The Secret Teachings of the Original Christians, Three Rivers Press. ISBN 0-00-710071-X
  • Haardt, Robert (1967) Die Gnosis: Wesen und Zeugnisse, Müller (352 pages)
  • Hoeller, Stephan A. (2002) Gnosticism - New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowing. ISBN 0-8356-0816-6 (257 pages)
  • Jonas, Hans Gnosis und spätantiker Geist vol. 2:1-2, Von der Mythologie zur mystischen Philosophie. ISBN 3-525-53841-3
  • King, Karen L. (2003) What is Gnosticism?, Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-01071-X (343 pages)
  • Klimkeit, Hans-Joachim (1993) Gnosis on the Silk Road: Gnostic Texts from Central Asia, Harper, San Francisco. ISBN 0-06-064586-5
  • Layton, Bentley, edited by L. Michael White, O. Larry Yarbrough (1995) Prolegomena to the study of ancient gnosticism (in The Social World of the First Christians: Essays in Honor of Wayne A. Meeks), Fortress Press, Minneapolis. ISBN 0800625854
  • Longfellow, Ki (2005) The Secret Magdalene. ISBN 0-9759255-3-9 (458 pages)
  • Pagels, Elaine (1979) The Gnostic Gospels. ISBN 0679724532 (182 pages)
  • Pagels, Elaine (1989) The Johannine Gospel in Gnostic Exegesis. ISBN 1555403344 (128 pages)
  • Williams,Michael (1996) Rethinking Gnosticism: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category, Princeton University Press. ISBN 0691011273

Audio lectures

  • BC Recordings - Offers an excellent and extensive collecton of downloadable MP3 lecture by Stephan A. Hoeller on Gnosticism.


  • The Naked Truth - Exposing the Deceptions About the Origins of Modern Religions (1995) ASIN: 1568890060

External links

Ancient Gnosticism

Modern Gnosticism

Gnosticism in popular culture

Gnostic blogs

Discussion groups and email lists

Personal tools