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The Essence of Gnosticism
By Edward Durand
One of a series of concise books exploring the essential wisdom of various spiritual traditions.
Copyright Edward Durand 2014
About the Author:
Edward Durand is an Irish writer and teacher currently living in France. He has been studying the various wisdom traditions, comparative religion and comparative philosophy for decades. Throughout his twenties and thirties he read books on philosophy and mysticism. He attained a degree in Philosophy at the University of Ulster. After university he also studied Journalism and Parapsychology. He is the author of Tree Poghams: Poems inspired by the wisdom of the ancient Ogham tree alphabet and The Essence of Druidry.
The Essence of Gnosticism
14 Christian Gnosticism
21 Gnostic Groups
43 Gnostic Prayers
46 Gnostic Texts
“I tell you the truth when I say that only when you perceive shadows as shadows, and search the Light, will you perceive the Reality which is God… If you continue to acquire gnosis through me and live by the principles I teach, you will be my true disciples. Then you will learn of Truth, and Truth will set you free“
(Testimony of St. John 8:31-32)
Gnosticism is based on the Greek word Gnosis, which means knowledge. It is higher, revealed, intuitive, experiential knowledge rather than logical, read, heard or inferred knowledge. It is profound wisdom rather than information, knowledge of the divine mysteries, knowledge that transforms us. The light of truth frees us from the darkness of illusion. Gnostics believe that salvation comes from the enlightenment of Gnosis in self-realisation.
Jesus promoted Gnosis in saying “The Truth shall make you free” (1). Gnosticism is a broad term with branches such as Hermetic Gnosticism and Sophian Gnosticism, which have much in common with Christian Gnosticism (or Gnostic Christianity), which is the largest branch. Gnosis is not focused on the material plane but awakening to a higher reality. Not ignoring physical reality but raising awareness to see the higher aspect of it, bridging Heaven and Earth. Apprehension of the light of higher truth raises consciousness to liberate us from the darkness of the world of illusion.
The apprehension of Gnosis is higher truth, an expansion of consciousness to connect with the universe and understand deeper truths with your heart not just the rational side of your brain or the five senses. It is higher insight, spiritually evolving to unite with the mind of God, Christ the Logos the Word of God, and Sophia the embodiment and mother of all Wisdom.
Gnosis is single-mindedness, as Jesus said “If therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light“ (2). Gnosis being a personal experience means Gnosticism is less authoritarian; the truth is apprehended by the individual in their own way. As such the Gnostic groups varied in their beliefs. Gnostics were mystics who believed in esoteric truth revealed directly from Godhead, apprehended though a pure soul focused on spirit.
Gnosis includes self-knowledge as per the famous quote from above the door to the temple of Apollo at Delphi in Greece: “Man, know thyself, and you shall know the universe and the gods” (3). This is echoed in The Book of Thomas by Jesus to Judas Thomas (whom according the book is the twin brother of Jesus): "Examine yourself and understand who you are, how you exist, and how you will come to be." (4)
Gnosis is similar to Theosophy (Theo Sophia - Divine Wisdom) and Jnana Yoga (union through knowledge). Some of the teachings of Jesus weren’t understandable by everyone but by ‘those with ears to hear’, the Gnostics were those with ears to hear, understanding the deeper truths. They weren’t against faith but for them it wasn’t blind. The Gnostic Christians synthesized other esoteric teachings into Christianity, such as Hermeticism, Zoroastrianism, Egyptian and other forms of Gnosis, including Eastern and Pagan elements. The ageless wisdom that transcends traditions can be read in the book of life, for those with eyes to see the light of Truth and ears to hear the Holy Word of Wisdom. Wisdom comes directly from Sophia, without the need for hierarchy.
Some Gnostics subscribed to the view that various parts of the body had soul such as bone-soul and hair-soul. Perhaps this is why many never cut their hair. They used meditation to achieve Gnosis. Teachings can only bring you so far, you have to do it yourself. Gnostic Christianity (esoteric Christianity) has much in common with Sufism (esoteric Islam), Kabbalah (esoteric Judaism), Sikhism (esoteric Hinduism) etc. The deeper, inner mystical traditions of most religions say the same things; it’s just the outer, exoteric churches that differ. Famous Gnostics include Leonardo Da Vinci, William Blake, Carl Jung, Francis Bacon, Jacob Boehme, Rudolf Steiner and various saints.
There is a Gnostic hymn book called the Odes of Solomon, the hymns are not often thought to be written by Solomon himself but are considered the first Christian hymnal. They have been put to music quite recently, their original tunes having been lost in the winds of time.
Much information on Gnosticism came from church historians who wanted to discredit them, which led to forced conversion. They focused on the beliefs of some Gnostic groups that differed from theirs, such as dualism, and put their spin on it to brand them as heretics. I will explain dualism with a Gnostic creation myth that comes from some of the Syrian-Egyptian groups, including the books The Hypostasis of the Archons and On the Origin of the World from the Nag Hammadi library found in Egypt in 1945.
There is one God, the Monad - the Pleroma (fullness of God’s power / region of light). Under God there are lesser gods known as Aeons (including Christ - The Word, and His consort Sophia - Wisdom). The Aeons are emanations of God and aspects of God. Sophia is also spoken of as the Divine Mother (the mother aspect of God), this could be because in the book Pistis Sophia (Nag Hammadi and elsewhere), Sophia is the daughter of Pistis Sophia (Pistis means faith).
When Sophia (the Mother) emanated without her consort the Divine Father she created the demiurge. The demiurge is a lesser god who is sometimes depicted as a serpent with the face of a lion. He is called a blind god because he didn’t see the higher levels above him so he thought he was God. He is said to have created us by trapping elements of the Pleroma stolen from Sophia into human bodies. This is likened to the fall. So the Godhead emanated two saviour Aeons, Christ and the Holy Spirit. Jesus embodies Christ and comes to teach us how to achieve Gnosis which will enable us to return to the Pleroma.
The Demiurge is said to have created the material realm (perhaps by lowering the level of consciousness energy, the fall from grace) and his angels (Archons) preside over the material realm and try to prevent souls from leaving. This world is seen as an inferior simulacrum of a higher reality or consciousness. Thus the idea of dualism which many Gnostics believed in was between spirit and inferior matter, and the opposing powers of light and darkness. They sought to transcend (or transmute) inferior matter by elevating their consciousness through the achievement of Gnosis. They understood the physical and spiritual realms as levels of consciousness so it could be seen as only the low level of consciousness that was created by a lesser god.
The account of the lesser god creating us echoes Sumerian creation mythology where Enki and Enlil create our species (some say with genetic engineering). Gnostics wouldn’t identify with their physical bodies but see themselves as a soul created by the Most High, finding its way through the sleep of the physical world to the awakening to the light of the truth that transforms them to light so they can return to the Pleroma. Many Gnostics didn’t seek to escape the physical plane but to make it into the spiritual plane as everything is consciousness.
For many Gnostics the physical world is illusion, only the spiritual world is real, like the matrix in the film The Matrix (where people perceive an illusory world unless they are unplugged from the system) or Plato’s allegory of the cave (where the perceptions of the people are only shadows not reality). Plato’s Republic was found with the Gnostic scriptures at Nag Hammadi and there are some parallels between the works of Plato (and the Neoplatonists) and Gnosticism but the Neoplatonists finally turned against Gnosticism when Plotinus spoke out against it. Some Gnostic groups did admire the writings of Plato and other Greek philosophers such as Pythagoras.
Ironically the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge gave us the ability to fall from grace, now eating the fruit of Gnowledge can bring us back to the garden. Finding the Truth within means we don’t have to depend on anything external. It is a Gnostic belief that Mary Magdalene was an incarnation of Sophia, Wisdom, incarnating with Christ the Logos, as avatars of the Wisdom of the Goddess and the Word of God, to bring us that wisdom that can bring us back.
There are a lot of misunderstandings about Gnosticism. Scholars have been regurgitating a misunderstanding of one teaching as if it were their principal doctrine, and depicting the beliefs of some Gnostic groups as the beliefs of Gnosticism in general. Gnosticism is so broad it encompasses a wide variety of beliefs including meditation, liberty, numerology, spiritual alchemy, reincarnation and enlightenment. They weren’t world haters but world transcenders.
It has been said that Gnostics consider the physical world to be evil, that is not the belief of Gnostics in general, but one or two groups which constitute a very small minority. Matter is Mater, the Mother. Jesus taught an ecological Gnosis. Being in harmony with the universe also means being in harmony with your immediate surroundings, which Gnostics practiced as well as being strong in the ways of Heaven. Thus they are not swayed by dark forces and there is victory of the light over the darkness. Some of these traditions are being reborn today with a renewed interest in them worldwide. They are resurfacing just when Gnosis is needed most. We can connect with the Divine directly and cut out the middle man.