The esoteric traditions of the West: part IV: Gnosticism

As most articles about the subject, I will start to say that “Gnosis” (say, “no sis” as if your little sister is not allowed to do something) is a Greek word meaning “opinion”, “view”, knowledge”. Most of the time the word is used for deep, ‘direct’ knowledge as in a revelation. However the word “Gnosis” can therefor be used in all times and for every tradition, it is mostly known for a pre-Christian movement that has also existed after the start of our counting of years. It is this movement or tradition that I will speak about in this article.

Nowadays it is mostly recognised that the gnostic movement came forth from the Jewish mystery-tradition a few hundred years BC. This does not fully explain the many different kinds of Gnosticism though. Some seem more aligned with the Egyptian tradition, which of course may give you the idea that I am talking about Hermeticism (see previous article) which may very well be true. Other gnostic traditions seem to be based on ‘hellenised’ Egyptian knowledge; when the Greek conquered Egypt the philosophies crossbreeded and influenced eachother. Also some kind of Gnosticism came forth from the near east, which kind we can call ‘Syrian Gnosticism”. Little was known about the Gnosis until fairly recently.

For about 1600 years the only information came from the enemy, mostly Christian priests and bishops. Most of the time they did their utmost to discredit the heretics, sometimes by quoting their scriptures at length and writing about habbits and rituals. Of course most of this information is very coloured. The most ironic part of the story is that it seems that Jesus of Nazareth seems to have been the impuls for the rise of a great many gnostic schools. In the years 100 to 150 there were several dozyns of them. Some modern Bible investigators claim that the words of Jesus have inspired such schools. In his book “Jesus, a hundred years before Christ”, Alvar Ellegård even defends and tries to prove his thesis that Jesus was actually the “master of justice” of the the apostate Jewish sect of the Essenes and that early Christianity actually came forth from this movement. This isn’t the first time that primal Christianity is called a gnostic movement and also later (as we will see) Gnosticism and Christianity are closely aligned.

Around 1945 two major discoveries where done near the Dead Sea. One of these became known as the “Dead Sea Scrolls”, the other as the “Nag Hammadi Library”. The Deas Sea Scrolls mostly contain pre- Christian Jewish scriptures that are either or not also to be found in the Old Testament. The Nag Hammadi scriptures date from just before to a few hundred years after the birth of Christianity, giving a totally different picture from our usual view of the early days of the worlds greatest religion. The Nag Hammadi scriptures turned out to be Essene writings and they contain old versions of canonical scriptures (scriptures that were taken into the Bible), apocryphical writings (scriptures that did not make it to the Bible), typical gnostic writings, some Hermetic texts and other scriptures. They give a fairly good picture of the life and ideas of the Essene sect and Gnosticism in general.

When Christianity became organised and dogmatised they found that it was time to decide which books are really inspired by God and which are not, so when in 367 AD the first version of ‘the list’ was produced. The possession of other texts became penal. Several investigators think that the monks of a monastry in Nag Hammadi in Egypt wanted to secure their beloved (now apocryphical) texts and hid them in a cave where they were found almost 1600 years later by a shepard that was chasing two of his goats.

Christians actively started to oppress the gnostics (and other ‘heretics’) and Gnosticism went underground and was not really heard off for several hundred years. In the west, that is. A bit more to the east, the prophet Mani had given birth to ‘Manicheism’, the only ‘gnostic religion’ that has been rather big in the middle east for many decades.
The west had to wait until the 11th century for the first gnostic revival. It was mostly Manicheism that inspired different groups of people in their strange convictions, but also further eastern influences came to the west. Italy and southern France were the first regions that were ‘infected’ at large by the new faith. Of course we all know about the Cathars or “good Christians” that were particularly large in number in southern France until pope Innocentius III in 1209 started his crusade against them.

The biggest objection of the Church against the gnostic movement were the fact that they had no permanent priests, everybody could be priest and give his/her own explanation of sacred texts. Women had the same rights as men in most gnostic movements and the gnostics didn’t obey the Church’s authority. Their heretic doctrines were blasphemous and dualistic. It was not God or Jesus that brought enlightenment, but the gnostics themselves and knowledge through learning was more important than dogmatic explanations by the Church. Worst of all was that the gnostics said that the God of the church was a minor, or even evil God who created the earth. So again in the early 13th century, Christianity effectively wiped out the second gnostic boom and other occultist movements, such as those aligned to the Knight Templars.

It took another 400 years before the esoteric tradition from the west reappeared in the form of anonymous scriptures of the shady German ‘brotherhood of the Rosy Cross’. Very active in the beginning and quickly gaining many members in different countries throughout Europe, there was a new rise of interest in the occult. Besides the Rosicrucian movement, birth was given to the Freemason movement, which is less gnostic.

Rosicrucianity and Freemasonry have more or less actively excisted ever since, but the current interest in Gnosticism got the biggest injection after the discovery of the Dead Sea and Nag Hammadi scrolls. Perfectly timed in a time where critical Bible studies became allowed and respected. However it took quite a long while before the texts really became obtainable to the public, Gnosticism is nowadays something that most people have heard off. Serious writers and spokesmen and an enormous flood of publications fill the hunger for “Gnosis” of the people of today, coming to new and healthy insights in Christianity, Gnosticism can impossibly be thought out off our nowadays society.

As you can see, especially the early history of Gnosticism is quite like that of Alchemy and Hermeticism. It seems that Gnosticism was a larger movement though and existing and growing in different parts of the near east. Also it seems that Gnosticism was there before Alexandria and that Hermeticism became the bridge between Alchemy and Gnosticism. The ‘teachings of Hermes’ are often called “the Hermetic Gnosis” which probably says enough. Somehow Hermeticism remained obscure, maybe because Gnosticism managed to remain connected to Christianity inspite of all the problems between the two, and Hermeticism didn’t. As mentioned in the end of the Hermeticism article the renaissance occult revival was a mishmash of traditions and the early Rosicrucians definately built on Alchemy, Hermeticism and Gnosticism as other occultists of the 16th and 17th century did. With Gnosticism it is harder to name particular names. This would mostly concern Christians in times of less oppression, but since Gnosticism seems to be more of a tradition or even doctrine, there are no real gnostic thinkers to be mentioned, just reproductors of the tradition.

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