by Aaron Leitch
When I was asked to write an article for a Christian mysticism digest called Gnostic Cross, I felt it was the perfect opportunity to express my thoughts on the meaning of the term "Gnosticism." As it happens, I consider myself a Gnostic. Yet, I have found the term inadequate for communicating my personal spiritual philosophies, simply because the word itself has been used so often, and for so many different purposes. Therefore, with this article (and perhaps several to follow) I wish to discuss Gnosticism from a historical perspective- to illustrate the impact the faith has had on the entirety of the Western Mystery Tradition.
The Greek word Gnosis indicates "Knowledge" of God; specifically Knowledge in the intimate (or Biblical) sense. Therefore, anyone involved in a study and practice of the Qabalah, Hermeticism, Rosicrucianism, medieval Angel magick, etc is a gnostic in the technical sense- because all of these depend upon personal spiritual revelation and inspiration. Their highest Wisdom can only be received directly from God or His Angels, and each individual is responsible for his own communication therewith.
Yet, the term "Gnostic" is also applied to a certain religion, and its people, born in Egypt around the dawn of the Common Era. This religion was so named because it did, indeed, depend upon personal spiritual revelation- the Gnosis (or Knowledge) of God. Therefore, we can refer to these people both as "gnostic" and as "the Gnostics." (I regularly use the variation in capitalization to distinguish between the technical term and the historical people/faith.)
When we hear the term "ancient Egypt", it tends to bring to mind images of pyramids and sphinxes, pharaohs and tombs, powerful magickians and the Book of the Dead. Stories of the magickal power and wisdom of the Egyptian Priesthoods have long-since embedded themselves in our Western culture. More often than not, Egypt is herself considered the birthplace of Western mysticism and magick.
On the other hand, the people of modern Egypt are predominately Islamic- a faith even younger than Christianity. What, then, became of the wisdom and magick of the ancient Egyptian priesthoods? If we take Western mythology at face value, we must assume that Moses packed it up and took it with himself when he left Egypt. It is supposed to have become the basis for the Qabalah. However, when we take a look at history, it becomes clear that the bulk of what we know as Jewish mysticism actually originated in Babylon during the Hebrew captivity there in 600 BCE (quite some time after Moses did his thing).
The answer lies with the Graeco-Egyptians living after the invasion of Alexander the Great- the Copts. (More often, the name "Coptic" is used to designate the Egyptian language of the time. It consisted of the remnants of the older Egyptian tongue with the written alphabet of the Greeks.) The Copts were the last inheritors of the mysteries of the fallen Egyptian empire. Yet, they were also heavily influenced by the people around them- most specifically the many Jewish mystical communities (such as the Essenes) to be found throughout the Middle East. This combination of Egyptian, Greek, and Jewish influence resulted in the Coptic faith of Gnosticism.
Simply put, Gnosticism is the earliest form of Christianity. The Nag Hammadi texts, discovered in Egypt in 1945, are Coptic texts. These have been called the Gnostic Gospels and the Gnostic Scriptures by modern scholars. These Gnostic manuscripts contain the "secret" teachings of Jesus and the early Christians. They even provide some recognizable text from the later-compiled Scriptures, though given in new and often surprising context.
Even one of the canonical books of the New Testament- the Gospel of John- is primarily of Gnostic origin. In it we can see a heavy Egyptian influence. The book begins with the words:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
The same was in the beginning with God.
All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.
This is a reflection of the Gnostic concept of the Logos ("Word"). The Logos is the Christos ("Anointed One")- the Divine Spirit of Redemption that existed long before the birth of Jesus. It was with God at the very beginning, and was in fact the very Word with which all was created. (See Genesis I: "And God said...") It is self-created, and is equated with both the Consciousness of God and the consciousness within mankind.
The concept descends quite directly from ancient Egyptian views of the God Djehuti (Thoth)- who was Himself the self-created Word of Re. Thoth stood as the redeemer between the human realm and the Divine, often shown in mythology as coming to the rescue of those in need. He was also credited with the creation of all things- as the active creative power of Re. To the later Gnostics, the Christos was a force to which all adepts must aspire. We witness the descent of the Logos into the body of Jesus at his baptism in the Gospel of Mark- and here we see another starkly Egyptian influence:
And straightway coming up out of the water, [John] saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon [Jesus]: And there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.
These lines echo the Egyptian myth of the birth of Osiris, which was accompanied by the Voice of Re from the heavens, proclaiming the birth of His Son and heir. In the Gnostic teaching, Jesus Christ then set out to teach all aspiring adepts how to make their own personal contacts with the Logos. The mysteries of exactly how to do this formed the backbone of Gnostic religion.
Unfortunately, space prohibits further discussion here. In the future, I hope to expand upon this overview- explaining the particular religious beliefs and sacred mythos of the Gnostics, the peculiar relationship that existed between their literature and that of the Jewish people, and the Gnostic influence on the rest of Western spirituality. Until then, I wish you LVX.
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