This utter pessimism, bemoaning the existence of the whole universe as a corruption and a calamity, with a feverish craving to be freed from the body of this death and a mad hope that, if we only knew, we could by some mystic words undo the cursed spell of this existence -- this is the foundation of all Gnostic thought.
The second great component of Gnostic thought is magic, properly so called, i.e. the power ex opere operato of weird names, sounds, gestures, and actions, as also the mixture of elements to produce effects totally disproportionate to the cause. These magic formulae, which caused laughter and disgust to outsiders, are not a later and accidental corruption, but an essential part of Gnosticism, for they are found in all forms of Christian Gnosticism and likewise in Mandaeism. No Gnosis was essentially complete without the knowledge of the formulae, which, once pronounced, were the undoing of the higher hostile powers. Magic is the original sin of Gnosticism, nor is it difficult to guess whence it is inherited. To a certain extent it formed part of every pagan religion, especially the ancient mysteries, yet the thousands of magic tablets unearthed is Assyria and Babylonia show us where the rankest growth of magic was to be found. Moreover, the terms and names of earliest of Gnosticism bear an unmistakable similarity to Semitic sounds and words.
But from the first the Gnostic conception of a Saviour is more superhuman than that of popular Judaism; their Manda d'Haye, or Soter, is some immediate manifestation of the Deity, a Light-King, an Æon (Aion), and an emanation of the good God
In different Gnostic systems the hierarchy of Aeons was diversely elaborated. But in all are recognizable a mixture of Platonic, mythological, and Christian elements. There is always the primitive all-perfect Æon, the fountain-head of divinity, and a co-eternal companion Æon. From these emanate a second pair who, in turn, engender others, generally in pairs, or in groups of pairs, in keeping with the Egyptian idea of divine couples. One of these inferior Æons, desiring to know the unknowable, to penetrate the secrets of the primal Æon, brings disorder into the Æon-world, is exiled, and brings forth a very imperfect Æon, who, being unworthy of a place in the Pleroma, brings the divine spark to the nether world. Then follows the creation of the material universe.
Finally, there is evolved the Æon Christ, who is to restore harmony in the Æon-world, and heal the disorder in the material world consequent upon the catastrophe in the ideal order, by giving to man the knowledge which will rescue him from the dominion of matter and evil. The number of Æons varies with different systems, being determined in some by Pythagorean and Platonic ideas on the mystic efficacy of numbers; in others by epochs in, or the duration of, the life of Christ. The Æons were given names, each Gnostic system having its own catalogue, suggested by Christian terminology, and by Oriental, or philosophical and mythological nomenclature. There were nearly as many aeonic hierarchies as there were Gnostic systems, but the most elaborate of these, as far as is known, was that of Valentinus, whose fusion of Christianity and Platonism is so completely described in the refutation of this system by St. Irenæus and Tertullian. (See GNOSTICISM, VALENTINUS, BASILIDES, PTOLEMY.)
Moreover, a fair idea of Gnostic doctrines can be obtained from the articles on leaders and phases of Gnostic thought (e.g. BASILIDES; VALENTINUS; MARCION; DOCETAE; DEMIURGE). We shall here only indicate some main phases of thought, which can be regarded as keys and which, though not fitting all systems, will unlock most of the mysteries of the Gnosis.
This undefined infinite Something, though it might be addressed by the title of the Good God, was not a personal Being, but, like Tad of Brahma of the Hindus, the "Great Unknown" of modern thought. The Unknown God, however, was in the beginning pure spirituality; matter as yet was not.
This source of all being causes to emanate (proballei) from itself a number of pure spirit forces.
The transition from the immaterial to the material, from the noumenal to the sensible, is brought about by a flaw, or a passion, or a sin, in one of the Æons. According to Basilides, it is a flaw in the last sonship; according to others it is the passion of the female Æon Sophia; according to others the sin of the Great Archon, or Æon-Creator, of the Universe.
The ultimate end of all Gnosis is metanoia, or repentance, the undoing of the sin of material existence and the return to the Pleroma.
Æon Sophia usually plays another role; she is he Prouneikos or "the Lustful One", once a virginal goddess, who by her fall from original purity is the cause of this sinful material world.
One of the earliest forms of this myth is found in Simonian Gnosis, in which Simon, the Great Power, finds Helena, who during ten years had been a prostitute in Tyre, but who is Simon's ennoia, or understanding, and whom his followers worshipped under the form of Athena, the goddess of wisdom.
The Great Declaration"; it is evident that we have here the doctrinal opinions of the Simonians as they had developed in the second century. According to these there was a perfect, eternal ungenerated being (fire), that contained an invisible, hidden element and a visible, manifest element; the hidden is concealed in the manifest; the action of both is similar to that of the intelligible and the sensible in Plato. The jealousy of the inferior spirits seems to have forced the "Ennoia" to take female forms and to migrate from one body into another, until Simon Magus, the great power sent forth by the original being, discovered her in Helena and released her. The deliverance was wrought by his being recognized as the highest power of God, the "Standing One". Men are also saved by accepting Simon's doctrine, by recognizing him as the great power of God.
Sophia conceives a passion for the First Father himself, or rather, under pretext of love she seeks to know him, the Unknowable, and to comprehend his greatness. She should have suffered the consequence of her audacity by ultimate dissolution into the immensity of the Father, but for the Boundary Spirit. According to the Pistis Sophia (ch. xxix) Sophia, daughter of Barbelos, originally dwelt in the highest, or thirteenth heaven, but she is seduced by the demon Authades by means of a ray of light, which she mistook as an emanation from the First Father. Authades thus enticed her into Chaos below the twelve Æons, where she was imprisoned by evil powers.
Gnostic salvation is not merely individual redemption of each human soul; it is a cosmic process. It is the return of all things to what they were before the flaw in the sphere of the Æons brought matter into existence and imprisoned some part of the Divine Light into the evil Hyle (Hyle). This setting free of the light sparks is the process of salvation; when all light shall have left Hyle, it will be burnt up, destroyed, or be a sort of everlasting hell for the Hylicoi.In Basilidianism it is the Third Filiation that is captive in matter, and is gradually being saved, now that the knowledge of its existence has been brought to the first Archon and then to the Second Archon, to each by his respective Son; and the news has been spread through the Hebdomad by Jesus the son of Mary, who died to redeem the Third Filiation.
When this world has been born from Sophia in consequence of her sin, Nous and Aletheia, two Æons, by command of the Father, produce two new Æons, Christ and the Holy Ghost; these restore order in the Pleroma, and in consequence all Æons together produce a new Æon, Jesus Logos, Soter, or Christ, whom they offer to the Father. Christ, the Son of Nous and Aletheia, has pity on the abortive substance born of Sophia and gives it essence and form. Whereupon Sophia tries to rise again to the Father, but in vain. Now the Æon Jesus-Soter is sent as second Saviour, he unites himself to the man Jesus, the son of Mary, at his baptism, and becomes the Saviour of men. Man is a creature of the Demiurge, a compound of soul, body, and spirit. His salvation consists in the return of his pneuma or spirit to the Pleroma; or if he be only a Psychicist, not a full Gnostic, his soul (psyche) shall return to Achamoth. There is no resurrection of the body. (For further details and differences see VALENTINUS.)
salvation consisted in the possession of the knowledge of the Good God and the rejection of the Demiurge. The Good God revealed himself in Jesus and appeared as man in Judea; to know him, and to become entirely free from the yoke of the World-Creator or God of the Old Testament, is the end of all salvation.
Gnostic eschatology, consisting in the soul's struggle with hostile archons in its attempt to reach the Pleroma, is simply the soul's ascent, in Babylonian astrology, through the realms of the seven planets to Anu. Origen (Against Celsus VI.31), referring to the Ophitic system, gives us the names of the seven archons as Jaldabaoth, Jao, Sabaoth, Adonaios, Astaphaios, Ailoaios, and Oraios, and tells us that Jaldabaoth is the planet Saturn. Astraphaios is beyond doubt the planet Venus, as there are gnostic gems with a female figure and the legend ASTAPHE, which name is also used in magic spells as the name of a goddess. In the Mandaean system Adonaios represents the Sun. Moreover, St. Irenæus tells us: "Sanctam Hebdomadem VII stellas, quas dictunt planetas, esse volunt." It is safe, therefore, to take the above seven Gnostic names as designating the seven stars, then considered planets,
• Jaldabaoth (Child of Chaos? -- Saturn, called "the Lion-faced", leontoeides) is the outermost, and therefore the chief ruler, and later on the Demiurge par excellence.
• Jao (Iao, perhaps from Jahu, Jahveh, but possibly also from the magic cry iao in the mysteries) is Jupiter.
• Sabaoth (the Old-Testament title -- God of Hosts) was misunderstood; "of hosts" was thought a proper name, hence Jupiter Sabbas (Jahve Sabaoth) was Mars.
• Astaphaios (taken from magic tablets) was Venus.
• Adonaios (from the Hebrew term for "the Lord", used of God; Adonis of the Syrians representing the Winter sun in the cosmic tragedy of Tammuz) was the Sun;
• Ailoaios, or sometimes Ailoein (Elohim, God), Mercury;
• Oraios (Jaroah? or light?), the Moon.
What tended most to obliterate the sevenfold distinction was the identification of the God of the Jews, the Lawgiver, with Jaldabaoth and his designation as World-creator, whereas formerly the seven planets together ruled the world. This confusion, however, was suggested by the very fact that at least five of the seven archons bore Old-Testament names for God -- El Shaddai, Adonai, Elohim, Jehovah, Sabaoth.
God, in danger of the power of darkness, creates with the help of the Spirit, the five worlds, the twelve elements, and the Eternal Man, and makes him combat the darkness. But this Man is somehow overcome by evil and swallowed up by darkness. The present universe is in throes to deliver the captive Man from the powers of darkness.The opposition between the good God and the World-Creator is not eternal or cosmogonic, though there is strong ethical opposition to Jehovah the God of the Jews. He is the last of the seven angels who fashioned this world out of eternally pre-existent matter. The demiurgic angels, attempting to create man, created but a miserable worm, to which the Good God, however, gave the spark of divine life. The rule of the god of the Jews must pass away, for the good God calls us to his own immediate service through Christ his Son. We obey the Supreme Deity by abstaining from flesh meat and marriage, and by leading an ascetic life.worshippers of the serpent as a symbol of wisdom, which the God of the Jews tried to hide from men.