The Gnostics

Andrew Phillip Smith

Watkins Publishing; London 2008




Introduction: p. 1-11.


The central tenants of Gnosticism; that we humans are somehow asleep to our lives and the true meaning of reality; yet we can awaken; that there is a higher form of personal religion in comparison with which organized religion is a travesty; and that reality is not what it seems to be, have spread into diverse forms in popular culture.


The themes of Gnosticism come up in pop culture; Phillip Pullmans books, Dan Brown’s Da vinci Code.


Our multicultural, fragmented, and somewhat post-religious world has much in common with the early centuries of the Christian era, when Gnosticism was born and thrived.


Stresses knowing god directly by experience rather than accept as a mater of faith;  knowledge of oneself becomes knowledge of god,  because the deepest part of each individual is akin to god.

Belief in reincarnation.


The godhead, the highest principle, could only be described as what he was not.


Many of the “heritical” forms of early Christianity had Gnostic like elements: Manichaeans, Cathars, Paulicans and Bogomils.  A historical chain links all of these, and the current Mandaeans of Iraq, to the ancient Gnostics.


Other Spiritual systems have similar qualities to them: Advaita Vedanta, Mahayana Buddhism, Kabbalah, Neoplatonism and certain forms of Islamic mysticism.


William Blake came up with his own system, very much like Gnostic.


The story of God: Gnostic mythology.


The Gnostics in all their incarnations (Manachaae, etc) have turned to myth as being the best vehicle for expressing their insights. Their myths drew on the Bible, and in particular Genesis, which they disagreed with,  and Platonism.. They turned the bible on its head.


The Gnostic myth: A fall from the spiritual realm that results in the existence of the ignorant creator God who makes this world, the subsequent plight of humanity, and the attempts of the spiritual world to enable humans to regain their birthright. Basic myth completely fluid and expected to be altered.


Fourth stage of Gnostic myth: includes the redeemers and revealers who brought gnosis to the world to help the trapped seeds of light to escape.


True god looks at himself and aoens or qualities manifest; youngest quality, wisdom,  made a mistake, so the demiurge was created, who thought he was the real god. This is the god of organized Christianity.


Gnostic’s “demiurge” is a concept out of plato, but Plato’s demiurge was a good creator of the world.


Sethians, Valentinans and Others


Ancient Gnostics can be divided into two schools: Sethians and Valentinans.

The  Sethians were more strident; set themselves apart, and developed in-your-face differences between themselves and traditional Christians. The Valentinians  made an attempt to fit into the existing Christian community, and adopted more of the traditional Christian teachings, while interpreting them “esoterically”.


In the Gnostic worldview, there is body (matter) , soul and spirit.



Both  the body and soul are created in the world of the demiurge, and so are  inferior or “fallen”

The soul can be redeemed by the spirit. The Exegesis of the Soul is one of the clearest descriptions of the relationship between body soul and spirit.


The anthropos  is the notion of the ideal perfected human; the perfected spiritual model in the Pleroma.

Humans on earth have this archetype included.


The creator of the world, the ignorant arrogant demiurge is concerned only with maintaining the material world.


Enemies of the Gnostic way of thinking have accused it of being world hating.


Praxis: What Did The Gnostics Actually Do?


No rituals of practice, which facilitates the soul’s reaching out for the spirit, have been handed down, so must be derived from descriptions given in the texts, or from heresyologists. Modern Gnostics have used Zen and other forms of Buddhism, theosophy, Orthodox or Catholic Christianity, the western occult tradition, Gurdjieff’s Fourth Way and Jungianism to interpret Gnosticism.


Repetitive sounds (a form of meditiation)


Sacramental ritual


The Birth of Gnosticism


Gnosticism seems to have arisen spontaneously in a variety of places in the first and second centuries. The seed was platonic tradition, but the soil was recently Hellenized countries of Egypt, Syria, Sa/umeria, and Palestine. It probably originated in Alexandria. Alexandria was cosmopolitan;  Greek, Egyptian and Jewish sections, and all sorts of gods were worshipped. Social disruption; slaughter, deportation and exile; it was no wonder that emerging Gnostics would have questioned the god of this world.


The Hermetic writings are attributed to Hermes Trismegistus. These writings, as the Gnostic,  originated in Alexandria as a result of platonic thought meeting religious thought. The demiurge is good in this teaching.

The name Hermes Trismegistus came from a conflation of Egyptian god Thoth and Greek god Hermes.  It is the heart’s gnosis and the  spiritual Nous that can guide humans. Gnosis often plays a role in the Hermetica, but the  focus is on Nous, the concept of the divine Mind. In the first text of the hermetic writings, we find Anthropos, Fate, malign astrological influences, and god the father, Logos. The Corpus Hermeticum was rediscovered at the beginning of the European renaissance.


Hermetic writings were part of the Nag Hammadi library of Gnostic gospels.


During the reign of Constantine the Great’s successor, Theodosius, Gnosticism was forced out of the Roman Empire.


It was perhaps the very lack of dogma and the low degree of organization and political power in Gnostic groups that prevented them from spreading widely.


Light and Darkness: the Manichaeans


The ancient Gnostics, Cathars and Bogomils were all considered by Christians to be Christian heresies; that is, they were thought to have originated in mainstream Christianity but had perverted the teaching of Christ and the church. Even the single branch of Gnostic teaching that truly became a large scale religion; Manichaeanism, was claimed by Christians as a heresy of their own religion. Manichaeanism, founded by Mani, integrated elements of Zoroastranism and Gnosticism.

It bridged the gap between the ancient Gnostics and the “heretical” dualist forms of Christianity like the Paulicans, Bogomils, and Cathars.


The Variety and Transmission of Gnosis


Mystical experience does not necessarily result in  a Gnostic  world view. The Catholic mystics like St John of the Cross or Teresa of Avila found the dogma and theology of Catholic Christianity to be an adequate framework to explain and nurture their spiritual experiences.


We should be careful not to label every mystical, spiritual or esoteric teaching as Gnostic.


Christianity did not loose all of its mystical aspirations when the Gnostic sects were exiled and suppressed. The writings of  the Eastern fathers collected by the Orthodox Church as the Philokalia are a mine of esoteric Christianity.  They practiced allegorical interpretation, were ascetic, used Hesychastic practices like unceasing prayer and breathing techniques, and their principle of theogony, man becoming God, would have appealed to  many Gnostics. But …it was faith that defined the Christian mystic. Dogma was important and the writers of the Philokalia were careful not to overstep the boundaries of acceptable Christian thought and belief.


Neoplatonism is the last stage of the Platonic tradition. Plotinus was the founder, and his philosophy treated the spiritual universe as having separate levels of soul, mind or nous, and the One. The one was the godhead, the highest principle who, as with the Gnostics, could only be described as what he was not.  

Neoplatonism had many overlaps with Gnostic thought, not least in that it stressed the importance of personal spiritual experience.


…the neoplatonists were more part of the establishment than the Gnostics. The Gnostics were related to a church that rejected them,  whereas the Neoplatonists were able to be the transmitters of Platonic philosophy… Neoplatonists and Gnostics were not in accord over many points; Plotinus included a diatribe against the Gnostics in his Enneads.


As Christianity took over the Roman empire, Neoplatonism came to be seen as a last hope for the classical pagan religion. Plotinus’ brand of Neoplatonism was too intellectual to have wide appeal, and it was the later Neoplatonist Iamblichus (250-325 CE) who to some extent popularized Neoplatonism.


Julian the Apostate…who briefly reversed the flow and reinstated paganism as the official religion of the Roman empire, believed that the  philosophy of Iamblichus exceeded that of Plato.


Neoplatonism was banned within Christendom in 529 CE, and the Neoplatonist school in Alexandria and Athens were closed, but …it was revived along with the Hermetic philosophy in the Renaissance.


Advaita Vedanta is the non-dualistic interpretation of the Hindu Vedas. Non dualism means that there is no difference between the soul of the individual human being and the soul of Brahma, the highest divine being. The teachings of Advaita Vedanta [which Deepak Chopra espouses] have some similarities with those of the Gnostics. The material world is Maya, an illusion…


Similarly, in Mahayana Buddhism we find many features in common with Gnosticism…  The scholar Edward Conze has proposed a list of parallels between Gnosticism and Mahayana Buddhism.


The Sufis, the spiritual side of Islam, have long fascinated westereners.

Gnostic influence on Islam seen in Qur’an.


The good Christians: the Cathars


Our historical knowledge of ancient Gnostic groups is sketchy, but we have an excellent range of Gnostic texts. The situation with the Cathars is reversed: The tragic tale of their history is well documented, but we know little of their beliefs. Reincarnation and vegetarianism were among these beliefs. Also known to Catholics as Albigensians, from the town of Albi in the Languedoc, which was first recognized as being a hot bed of Catharism.


The Catholic Bernard of Clairvaux was a conflicted man; spiritual but intolerant, strict and austere…but in many ways an enlightened and spiritual man. … Bernard was one of  number of otherwise admirable medieval spiritual figures who  were anti-cathar. … Hildegard von Bingen, the formadible abbess who composed such beautiful music; and Dante, who praised some of the personages … [helped destroy the Cathars]


…the Cathars were not known for great and unique individual artists or thinkers, but for the piety and simplicity of so many of their rank and file.


Cathars vie with ancient Egyptians  and Tibetans as the most popular subjects of past life regression.


The medieval catholic attitude to women was famously oppressive…Bernard of Clairvaux detested the sexual attractiveness of women…complaining “to be always with a woman and not to have intercourse with her is more difficult than to raise the dead”…he was responsible for bolstering the importance of the Virgin Mary cult.


Gervase Tilbury, a Catholic nobleman…When the Archbishop of Rheims…was informed of this, he was appalled. Not by Gervase’s advances toward the innocent girl, but by her refusal to submit herself to him. She was arrested, interrogated, refused to recant and was burnt to death…


The Dominicans’ greatest bequest to civilization was the notorious inquisition, founded in 1229, 20 years after the Albigensian Crusade began.


The crusade that was to finally wipe out the Cathars was triggered in 1208, by the murder of a Cistercian monk… The Albigensian Crusade began in 1209, set in motion by a papal bull from Innocent III… Unlike other crusades, which directed the aggression of Europe outwards, the Albigensian Crusade also known as the Cathar wars, was a fight between the north and south. … it also amounted to a civil war.

When the north finally won, France came into being as a country.


Beziers; ‘the Guernica of the middle ages’; Carcasonne,  Albi, then town after town were taken in siege after siege, slaughter after slaughter.


…For the most part, this crusade had little to do with beliefs or principles of the Cathars, and everything to do with temporal power.


The Last Gnostics: the Mandaeans


most  experts agree that the modern Mandaeans, in Iraq and Iran, derive from an uninterrupted tradition stretching back to at least the second century.




With the help of the inquisition, by the beginning of the fifthteenth century the Cathars were eradicated.


…The protestant Reformation led to an explosion of new sects and churches, and Christianity has never been the same since Luther nailed his 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church in  Wittenberg in 1517.


…almost as soon as the Cathars had been destroyed, Gnosticism made its way back into Europe in the guise of Hermetic literature. …much of the interest in the Hermitica was due to the incorrect view that it preceded both Plato and Christianity.


…the pagan Hermetic literature was easier for Renaissance Christians to accept than Christian Gnostic literature.  … European Christian scholars were used to incorporating pagan ideas into their theology and philosophy…  Aristotle had a huge influence, and there was a revival of Neoplatonism during the Renaissance.


…individuals within European culture who seem Gnostic include ….Paracelsus, Boehme, Swedenburg, Blake, and perhaps Goethe, who makes the Faust legend his own. .the Faust legend includes elements of the Simon Magus legend.


…in Poetry and Truth From My Own Life …Goethe describes his interest in and sympathy with Christian heresies. …his own personal religion included elements from Neoplatonism, hermetical, mystical and cabalistic teachings.


… William Blake is the most qualified of the Romantic poets to be a true Gnostic…There are uncanny resemblances between his “prophetic” poems and the original Gnostic texts… his demiurgic mythical characters are ignorant world creators….in Blake’s time no Gnostic texts had been translated into English.


Edward Gibbon … in his The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire complements the Gnostics.  


In Theosophy…Mme Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine made frequent reference to Gnostic literature. of modern Gnostic churches were connected with Templarism, …and are surprisingly churchy… There are a bewildering number of societies and wide range in beliefs and activities.


 P.E. Ouspensky, a Russian esotericist … sifting through religious, theosophical and occult literature  for spiritual schools that … would be suitable  for westerners fund what he was looking for in G.I Gurdjieff, an Armenian of Greek extraction. … Gurdjieff’s ideas have many Gnostic features. He taught that we are asleep, but that we can wake up, and provides a “Ray of Creation” theology, with levels of creation out of science: The different levels include galaxies, suns and planets. …As with the Manichaeans, souls go to the moon on death….


Phillip Pullman was influenced by Gnosticism and Blake in the writing of His Dark Materials. Dust, related to consciousness, is fundamental to being, and so the Church, worshipping a false god, attempts to suppress knowledge of the dust.