What is Gnosticism?


Gnosticism has seen something of a revival since public imagination was captured (for better or worse) by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran and Nag Hammadi in the 1940’s. For the most part, the Nag Hammadi library is comprised of papyrus manuscripts transcribed around 1500 years agoby a gnostic sect who were based on the Western shores of the Dead Sea. About 1000 pages in all, Coptic translations of older Greek writings, the manuscripts include lost gospels and poems, reflections on various aspects of mysticism, and portions of Plato’s Republic. Deemed heretical, the influence of gnosticism on both orthodox religious practice and on the more hidden or esoteric aspects of even contemporary philosophy and theology has been sorely underrated. If the Church is the sober Bride of Christ, then gnosticism could be described as his colourful soulmate slut- something of an embarrassment to the family, and that’s without mentioning her boisterous illegitimate children.

The word “Gnosticism” is a modern (17th century) construct which scholars now use to refer to a very wide range of groups, traditions, individuals, and so on (e.g. Sethians, Valentinians, Hermetics, Manichaeans, Mandaeans, Naassenes, etc). None of these groups believed the same things, had the same origins, or are even very closely related. But all are often referred to as “gnostic”, and therefore perhaps belong to the artificial category of “Gnosticism”. As such, the answer to the question “what is Gnosticism?” is never a single, straightforward, unified account. (Thanks Matthew) Indeed, wherever we look for a definition of Gnosticism, we meet with a bewildering array of answers- part of the appeal for me of gnosticism is the very diversity, often paradoxical, that it spans. This article however, rather than defining the subject in a concrete way, outlines some of the aspects of gnosticism that particularly tickle my own imagination…………..

Gnostic cosmology speaks of two worlds- the eternal world of the supreme Godhead and the heavenly hierarchy which emanates from him, which is the world of reality and of fullness (pleroma), and the illusory, imperfect world in which we live: the phenomenal world of time and flux. The pleroma is home to the Godhead, or First Principle, who is so far removed from us as to be completely unknowable and entirely outside the scope of thought- so far remote from any ideas we might have about existence that the term does not even apply. Beyond any concepts such as good and evil, the godhead, within gnostic thought, is blissfully unconcerned, even unaware of our existence.

Between the two worlds, dividing the spiritual from the material, lies the ‘horos’ or boundary, a realm of paradox being outside of space and time, and therefore both nowhere and everywhere at once. This boundary is said to be guarded by beings called Archons or Aeons, variously known as ‘the Across-taker (Metagogeus), the Emancipator (Karpistes), the Guide or Leader (Kathegetes), and the Redeemer (Lutrotes)’. Across this cosmic portal there seemingly hangs a great veil, ‘which bears the secret patterns of all things’. It could be said from a gnostic point of view that all the manifestations we experience as ‘reality’ are merely distorted reflections of these original thoughts, as are we ourselves. The horos is protected by great flaming walls, the ‘Ring-Pass-Not’, with only a narrow bridge called ‘the rope of the angels’ providing a way for messengers to travel between the mortal and immortal realms. This mysterious realm of the ‘horos’ is described as being the cross-point (stauros) of the worlds, which Plato described as looking like two circular strips joined together in an ‘X’- it is the soul stuff of the universe. Only through the stauros can souls reach immortality, and without it, the gnostics hold that we are kept ‘in thrall by time, subject to Satan, to fate and to reincarnation. The stauros is the axis of a mighty spiral that reverses the order of the cosmos, and takes man from the emptiness (kenoma) of the lower world, to the fullness (pleroma) of the upper…..from the world of illusion to the world of reality.’

The Aeons, or Archons who guard the comings and goings between the worlds are considered by gnostics to be largely hostile, and working under the evil Demiurge, the malevolent ruler and architect of this world of manifestation. The evil demiurge is associated with both Jehovah of the Old Testament, whom the gnostics held in very low regard, and Satanel or Satan who was once an Archangel but through Pride, fell and became the creator of this world, holding it and us with it, in bondage until the end of time, when our world and the seven lower heavens will be rolled up like a great cosmic scroll. This Satan/Jehovah/Ahriman is sometimes depicted as an ouroboros- as an earth-encircling dragon whose tail is being eternally devoured by its mouth- and this signifies the idea that as Demiurge he created time ‘as a moving image of eternity’- a poor copy or shadow of the world of perfection, which is eternal and timeless. Sin, or evil, in the world is not ascribed in gnostic thinking to the downfall of Adam and Eve, but to the workings of a host of fallen angels, archons, known as the Watchers, who ‘saw and lusted after’ mortal women, begetting children who were the wicked giants in the old testament. The Watchers, led by an angel called Azazel, taught men the secrets of the gods- about war, cosmetics, and the movements of the stars. All of this is related in the gnostic ‘Book of Enoch’.

Sophia or Wisdom is central to the gnostic theogony, being regarded as the Mother of the Aeons. Sophia as Wisdom was ‘privy to the mysteries of Knowledge of God, and a lover of his works.’

In the gnostic text, ‘The Thunder, Perfect Mind‘ from the Nag Hammadi library, Sophia’s voice cries:

For I am the first and the last. 

I am the honoured one and the scorned one.

I am the whore and the holy one.

I am the wife and the virgin.

I am the mother and the daughter.

I am the barren one

and many are her sons.

Simon Magus (from the Acts of theApostles) believed Sophia to be God’s First Idea, and the Mother of All. It is held that her silent reflection of the Godhead resulted in the birth of the manifest world- the first idea of life and nature. When the Anthropos, the divine archetype of Man, saw this reflection of Sophia in nature, and his own image reflected in it, he fell in love with the image and so descended into heavy matter, trapped in flesh as Adam in the underworld of the demiurge. Sophia, in love with her creation, falls after him becoming man’s companion, wife and mother in Time. Sophia is also equated in Gnostic texts, such as the Gospel of Philip, with Mary Magdalene, of whom it was said that ‘Christ loved her more than all the disciples and used to kiss her often on the mouth.’ Valentian gnostics attribute the cosmos and its inhabitants to an abortion of Sophia’s called ‘Archamoth’. Others say that it was Sophia’s love for the Godhead that led her to attempt creation herself, and that through this act of separation, ‘she gave birth to the monstrous Demiurge and, being ashamed of her deed, wrapped him in a cloud and created a throne for him to be within it. The Demiurge, isolated, did not behold his mother, nor anyone else, and concluded that only he himself existed, being ignorant of the superior levels of reality.’ 

The demiurge, ruler of this world, is basically a demented ego-centric lunatic who lives off the divine spark that all living beings contain, unless they manage to escape through knowledge or gnosis. This divine spark is ours and without it, this world would be one of utter blackness. This spark, part of the divine mind or nous is our immortality and the key to our eternal existence beyond the Horos. Our rebirths through the millennia are attributed to this intrinsic divinity, which needs to be nurtured through secret knowledge to prevent its dissipation. It is believed within gnosticism that Christ, as a symbol, holds a mystical key to the crossing of the Horos, being himself a symbol of the divine cross- the Stauros that links all the worlds- and that as well as his public teachings, he also initiated the disciples with secret teachings which derived from the magic of the Essenes. Some believe that these teachings have been passed from teacher to initiate in an unbroken chain since the dawn of time but disclosing them publicly results in sudden and final death. It is said that the Greek playwright Aeschylus (456 BC) divulged the mysteries of the closely related Eleusian rites in some of his (subsequently destroyed) plays. He met his sudden death shortly afterwards when an eagle dropped a tortoise on his bald head and killed him.


Churton, Tobias, Gnostic Philosophy, Inner Traditions 2005

Hanegraaff, Wouter, Dictionaary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism, Brill 2006

Walker, Benjamin, Gnosticism, Its History and Influence, Aquarian Press 1983

and less significant others…………


6 thoughts on “What is Gnosticism?

  1. Hi Anne, thanks for the post. You need to be careful not to present “Gnosticism” as a unified religion of the ancient world. The word “Gnosticism” is a modern (17th century) construct which scholars now use to refer to a very wide range of groups, traditions, individuals, and so on (e.g. Sethians, Valentinians, Hermetics, Manichaeans, Mandaeans, Naassenes, etc). None of these groups believed the same things, had the same origins, or are even very closely related. But all are often referred to as “gnostic”, and therefore perhaps belong to the artificial category of “Gnosticism”. As such, the answer to the question “what is Gnosticism?” is never a single, straightforward, unified account of the kind you have presented. Sorry to be a pedant, but this is one of the central points of the last 50 years of research on “Gnosticism”. The works of Michael Williams (“Rethinking Gnosticism”, 1996) and Karen King (“What is Gnosticism?”, 2003) are important in this respect, and perhaps don’t belong in the category of “less significant others”. It’s great that you seem to find something of theological/devotional value in such traditions, but hopefully not at the expense of historical accuracy/reality.

    • Yes, you’re quite right Matthew and I have copied and pasted a line from your comment into the text to make sure that everyone knows that! I still think it’s fair though to speak about ‘gnosticism’ as incorporating some particular ideas (if not shared by everybody) just as we can talk of Buddhism or Hermeticism in a general sense, leaving the nitty gritty for academic papers. Thanks again. Anne C

  2. Pingback: Abrahamic Religions: Gnosticism | The Druid Sanctuary
  3. Pingback: Pistis Sophia – Gnostic text

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