B U R E A U   O F   P U B L I C   S E C R E T S


There are two “culture clashes” (as anthropologists call them) of great importance in the history of religion. The first was the Persian conquest of Syria, Palestine and Egypt. The second was Alexander’s conquest of Persia. They were not just sterile military conquests but wide and deep fusions of culture. Each was like the mixing of two chemical elements with the resulting effervescence, heat, and emergence of new chemical compounds. Out of the first came Judaism as we know it in the Scriptures. Out of the second came Christianity as we know it in the Christian Scriptures and in the writings of the early Fathers of the Church.

Tremendous energies are often released by the mingling of the right disparate elements — chemical explosions, nuclear fission — the strongest “radio star” in the sky is actually a pair of colliding nebulae. So, likewise, the spiritual and intellectual energies released by those ancient culture clashes are still affecting us today. Not only Judaism and Christianity, but Stoicism, Neo-Platonism, Mahayana Buddhism, the later mystery religions, Mithraism, the worship of Isis, Manichaeism, all emerge from this cultural mixing. Even the old orthodox religions in Greece, Egypt, Syria, Persia and India were profoundly changed.

Religion was uprooted, quite literally. It was lifted from the soil of the strictly local rite and cult and was internationalized and generalized. Once you were born in a place and worshiped the god of the nearby hilltop and the goddess of the spring under it. They may have been called Zeus or Artemis, but as living deities they are bound to a place, their national character remained an unreal creation of the poets. Even in the Orient, the Great Gods — Amun or Marduk, Isis or Ishtar — owed their generalized worship to the fact that they were gods of the Palace Cult or the capital city. In daily life they were fragmented into hundreds of minor Amuns and Marduks and Ishtars and Isises, gods of the village or the field or the neighborhood. It was these local deities the people worshiped, except for the great national or royal ceremonies.

The uprooting of religion came when men were able to come and go freely through vast empires that stretched from one end of the ancient world to the other. Their deities acquired a theology, a gospel, a general myth and a theoretical justification. Such religions produced a propaganda and missionaries. Eventually there were shrines to Persian and Palestinian and Egyptian saviors on the borders of Scotland; religious sculptors and painters who had learned from Praxiteles and Apelles worked in the Gobi Desert and among the recently civilized Japanese.

Out of this immense seedbed or forcing-shed sprouted all the modern orthodoxies. Out of the same soil came heterodoxy. In fact, until this time the notion of heterodoxy could not exist. The famous Aten worship of Ikhnaten was not a heterodoxy — it was simply a different royal cult. The old folk religions had sanctified the seasons of the year and the rites of passage. The new world religions built on this foundation and gave the myths and practices of the cult an ethical content. At first they gave the individual only significance; later they came to offer him salvation; but this salvation was contingent on the cooperation of the worshiper’s will and the assent of his faith. By the time of the first Greek nature philosophers, the world of science and the folk transcendental world had become incompatible. To Socrates, Anaxagoras was impious and crazy in trying to explain the mechanisms of the universe. Heterodoxy came into existence.

It is obvious, is it not, that the propaganda of a foreign or constructed religious cult must be that it will work where the old native faith does not. As against the ancestral faith which is taken on trust but which becomes insufficient to cope with the new facts, the proselytizers of the new religion must guarantee results. Also, the native religion is public by definition. Its rites and myths are an open expression of the entire society and any person who cares to learn the sacred scriptures can understand them. In contrast, the alien religion is occult. It is a secret doctrine because the very knowledge of the doctrine of itself ensures salvation, and so it cannot be left accessible to the untested and uninitiated. The secret doctrine includes the actual scientific knowledge of the time, which is directly assimilated to the myth. Perhaps a better way of saying this is that the myth absorbs all the details of the knowledge of the world. So you have a religion which throughout approximates to magic. Its knowledge and its rites are coercive. The faithful can force the universe to the desired conclusion. Prayers are thought of as being as efficacious as chemical formulas. They are spells.

Of course, magical elements of this sort lie at the very sources of all the religions of the ancient world and reach their greatest development in Babylon and Egypt. Maturing civilization gives the magical formulas of the Book of the Dead a personal and ethical interpretation. But the individual crises of the soul which accompany the dislocations, deracinations, and insecurities of men living in world empires reinstate the securities of the primitive spell, the formula, the coercive rite, the knowledge of presumed absolute fact that ensures salvation.

Our first record of a mystery religion of the later type is a fourth-century demotic papyrus, found in an ancient polyglot settlement in the Nile Delta, which must have been something like modern Alexandria. It is written in cursive Egyptian, but the language is Aramaic, the lingua franca of the Persian and Hellenistic Near East. It is a mystery play, a sacred marriage of the goddess Anat and Baal, after Anat has saved her consort from Mut, the god of death. There is also a trinity of couples and behind them all an overgod, Baal Shamain, the Lord of Heaven. These nine deities do not all come from one place, but from Canaan, Babylon, Assyria and the old Sumerian lands. They have been deliberately put together by some unknown “founder,” a connoisseur of Near Eastern religion not unlike our twentieth-century religious window-shoppers. Furthermore, not only does the text handle the Egyptian characters in a most cavalier way, but it is in code. No Egyptian or Aramaic scribe could decipher it without the key. In addition, it is not in ordinary current Aramaic of its day, but in an artificial, pseudo-archaic language, like our bad classical translations in “Biblical prose.” Before this, only the secrets of devination and astrology were written in cryptogram — because they were thought to have the efficacy of scientific procedures. Here we have a foreign cult in an alien land with a secret ritual, its myth is a recently constructed syncretistic fantasy, its rite is guaranteed to work, its deities parallel the scientific picture of the cosmos. We have, as I said, the first of the mystery religions of the later type known to us, and we have the first intimations of Gnosticism. In the next eight hundred years the pattern would change very little, it would only develop.

Gnosticism as such is only a few years older than Christianity but its origins, or at least the origins of its material, are lost in time. Some of this material it shares with Christianity, but Gnosticism is much more conservative, it uses far more of the past. Christianity takes from the past only a central religious drama, Gnosticism retains a whole cosmology and cosmogony.

Let us take one by one the cardinal points of the Gnostic creed and trace them back to their earliest appearance.

Emanationism is contemporary with the beginning of high civilization in Egypt. The “Memphite Theology” is a tractate from the Old Kingdom. In it, Ptah, the deity whom the Egyptians of Memphis considered the eldest of the gods, has emanate from him four couples of gods, male and female, in descending order of being. Ptah thought, spoke, and his word created them. Each god or goddess had no other being than the “heart and tongue of Ptah” and by them all things were made and without them was not anything made that was made. (Ptah himself, incidentally, is represented not with the ordinary body of a man, but as a swaddled mummy with a huge protruding phallus, the combination of life and death.) Earlier still than the Memphite Theology is the Ennead of Heliopolis, where the same four pairs are derived from the creator Atun. This, however, is an ordinary creation myth and does not share with the Memphis tract its remarkable philosophy. The unique idea of emanationism is that the Great God acts only through his emanations.

The war of Good and Evil and the debauching of creation are Babylonian and later Persian ideas. It never seems to have occurred to the Egyptians or the early Semites that there was anything seriously wrong with the world; but Mesopotamian and later Persian religions are haunted by the power of evil. This is an important distinction. The Egyptians were well aware of evil, but they granted it no metaphysical, let alone ontological importance. Isis and Osiris saved men from death. The saviors, the Saoshyanto, of Persian religion save from sin, against which, unaided, man, and all creation with him, could not prevail. We have an abundance of texts which indicate that the Egyptians, like the Quakers, found it relatively easy to be good. Farther east, the Babylonians, then the Persians, and after them the post-exilic Hebrews and then the majority of Christians, seem to have found it difficult indeed.

The Gnostics went still further. Although in Persian religion evil often functions as an autonomous principle, there is no suggestion that creation, matter, or man, is bad as such. This idea, of the intrinsic evil of the world, is the peculiar and distinguishing notion of most of the Gnostic cults.

From Persia comes the concept of the universe as a moral battleground, existence in itself as the struggle of light against darkness. We are familiar with this language in the New Testament and among the Jewish sectaries of the Dead Sea Scrolls. With it, into Gnosticism, came a whole physics and metaphysics of light which was to survive in various forms in Western thought for centuries.

Anyone who has ever seen a reproduction of one of the pictures from the Egyptian Book of the Dead is familiar with what is known as the Perils of the Soul, the belief that after death the soul passes before the inquisitors of the Underworld and to be saved must know the proper prayer or spell for each god as well as their secret names. By Persian times in Egypt the Ennead of Osiris had come to take the place of the original principal judges of the dead, although the unfortunate soul had to undergo a minor inquisition from dozens of petty deities or demons. Gnosticism equated these inquisitors of the soul with the cosmic powers, the rulers of the spheres of heaven. The Egyptian progress of the soul through the Underworld was changed to the ascent of the soul, led by the descended and now ascending savior, to the empyrean and the bliss of union with the unknown God from whom all creation and creators had emanated. But the magical process by which this ascent is achieved remains the same as in the Egyptian Underworld. The Gnostic soul is saved because it knows the secrets of the heavenly spheres and can give the correct answers.

The Enneads of Heliopolis or Memphis were not equated with the planets and the sun and moon until very late in Egypt. In Babylon, however, similar hierarchies were so identified at an early date. Once Babylonian astrology reached its full development, just before and during the Persian period, this (so to speak) solar-system religion spread over the whole Near East, eventually to influence not only the Greeks and Romans but also the Celts and Teutons.

The descent of the redeemer goddess, Ishtar or Anahit or Isis, long predates the organization of the pantheon into the solar system, but once the two notions are conjoined it is obvious that the cosmos becomes the theater of a tremendous drama. This cosmogony is not to be disdained. A millennium and a half later it was still meaningful to William Blake.

Other elements — serpent worship, erotic mysticism and ritual, the mystic marriage, the slain redeemer god — all these ideas, as it has so often been pointed out, are nearly universal and in most cases precede the coming of the historic populations into the Near East. They are Neolithic or even earlier. So, too, is the strong matriarchal or at least antipatriarchal emphasis of most Gnostic sects.

The gods of Homer and the Greek dramatists and, to a lesser degree, those of the Royal cults of Egypt or Babylon, go their way regardless of man. Gnosticism shares with Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism the concept of creation and redemption as a great drama, focused on man, a drama in which the individual worshiper plays a primary role. Literal dramas of redemption, actual plays, are common throughout the ancient Near East. The Memphite Theology is in fact a play; so is the principal Ras Shamra codex, so is the Aramaic papyrus I mentioned before, so too is one form of the Gilgamesh Epic and of the Descent of Ishtar. Relics of this dramatic form survive in the Song of Songs, Job and Esther. These ancient dramatic performances conditioned the myths they portrayed, and conversely the new dramatic myths provided the framework for the myth as literature and eventually for the Passion of Christ as well as for the drama as a work of art. It is not for nothing that cranks have found in the tragedies of Shakespeare, but especially in The Tempest, the disguised rituals of an occult mystery religion. Dramatic episodes survive in the documents of Gnosticism, especially the famous dance and antiphonal chant in the Acts of John. The ancient ritual dramas before the great empires were social — they were concerned with objective reality, fruitfulness of the fields and the turning of the year. Acting in a great royal play in Memphis or Thebes, the Pharaoh is the god incarnate, but he functions only as the focus of Egyptian society, the nation ceremoniously embraces its bride, the land of Egypt. Gnosticism subjectivized the cosmic drama. Simon Magus is the god incarnate, going from place to place in the Levant like an ordinary man, and his bride, the mystic Helen, is literally a girl redeemed from a brothel. The Gnostic saviors are independent operators, come to save individual sinners without any of the sanctions of organized society.

I have dwelt at length on the origins of the mythological and ritual material of Gnosticism for the simple reason that Gnosticism is the main funnel through which these rites and doctrines reach modern times. The mysterious deity of the Templars or the erotic revels of the witches or the ceremonies of the Masons or Rosicrucians, all are aspects of a special heterodoxy that began with Gnosticism. For better or worse, the Gnostics were the founders of what we call occultism.

Occultism is always a minority religion. Were it to become the religion of an empire, and for long enough, it would become folk, social, public, no longer occult.

Some critics have seen Gnosticism as a sort of international secret religion which was scattered all through the Near East in the years just before the Christian Era. They have stressed its Greek, Persian, Babylonian and Egyptian elements and its debt to vulgarized Neo-Platonism and Stoicism, and have tried to dissociate its formation from Judaism and Christianity. I think this is open to question. There is no doubt but that syncretistic cults of all kinds were flourishing in the Near East of those days, but actually we deduce this from Gnosticism, not the other way around. We have very little to substantiate it. There are a few documents, like the Aramaic papyrus from the Delta, but they are synthetic mystery religions, vulgarized Neo-Platonism, magic, Hermeticism, everything but Gnosticism. As a definite entity Gnosticism appears with Simon Magus, Menander and Saturninum, and it appears in an entirely Jewish and Christian context. It is, in fact, generated by the action of Jewish heterodoxy upon the inchoate, formative years of Christianity. Gnosticism has transmitted many ancient ideas to later heretics and occultists, but it received them as transmuted and fused by Jewish eccentric speculation. Most of the elements of all the Gnostic systems can be found somewhere in the vast mass of Jewish Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha.

For instance, I myself have spoken of Kabbalism as Jewish Gnosticism. This is more or less true, but in the fantasies of the Book of Baruch (not the Book of Baruch of the Apocrypha) we have already a fully developed Jewish gnosis contemporary with the very beginnings of the Gnostic cults. The First Principle, the Ayn Soph of the Zohar, is, of all things, called Priapus in Baruch. He generates Elohim and his consort Eden, and they in turn generate twenty-four angelic forces, male and female couples, who together create the world and Adam and Eve. Elohim, believing himself the Lord, ascends to the summit of creation and is united with Priapus. Eden, left behind, becomes jealous and brings sin and death into the world. Then Elohim through his angel Baruch inspires Moses, Heracles and Jesus to lead men up to Priapus by the path Elohim has discovered; men go up not alone but in union with their spouses. The source of evil in the world is temporary, the result of Elohim’s desertion of his bride and the resulting divorce and adultery. Heracles and Moses fail, but Jesus succeeds in teaching the gospel of redemption and himself ascending to God. Where are we? Is Gnosticism Christian Kabbalism? Except for the name of Jesus we are in a completely Jewish world. These are the mysteries of the Zohar and of the Hasidim. The sexual act is the foundation of all existence and its frustration or betrayal or misuse is the source of all evil. The relationship of two specific human individuals is not only reflected in the organization of the cosmos but each, macrocosm and microcosm, affects the other. This is Kabbalism, but is it Gnosticism? Certainly it lacks many of the distinguishing characteristics of Gnosticism: light metaphysics, the perils of the soul, an evil deity, the irredeemable nature of matter; most important, it does not presume to impart a mysterious, secret knowledge with which the member of the cult can coerce reality. Nevertheless, it is out of such a background of Jewish apocalyptic, eschatological and cosmological fantasy, out of the melting pot of religions that was Palestine at the beginning of the Christian era, that Gnosticism arose.

About Gnosticism as such, as it is revealed in the documents which survive to us, it is not necessary to correct George R.S. Mead. Since he gathered his anthology and commented upon it, sixty years of research and new discoveries have gone by, but his picture is still, in its essentials, correct. In recent years we have learned a great deal about one sect of heretical Judaism from the Dead Sea Scrolls, and in the Scrolls we can trace various germinal ideas that the Gnostics were to develop. It was not until 1955 that the Berlin Papyrus, Mead’s Akhmin Codex, was published in its entirety in a critical edition, but Mead’s summary of it is still sound. In 1945 a whole library of Gnostic books was discovered at Nag-Hammadi in Upper Egypt, thirteen volumes, forty-eight treatises, more than seven hundred pages. Unfortunately, economic and political vicissitudes have kept most of these from publication. So far only the Gnostic books which are contained also in the Akhmin Codex of Berlin, the Gospel of Truth and the Gospel of Thomas, have appeared. We know the others only through summaries by Jean Doresse. Our knowledge of Gnosticism has been deepened and enriched, but has not been changed in any fundamental way since Mead wrote. And nobody since has better understood what we know.

Fragments of a Faith Forgotten is a masterpiece of lucid, or as lucid as might be, exposition of an unbelievably complicated and difficult and ambiguous subject. Once in a while Mead’s sympathies for the Gnostics make him a little sentimental, but he never permits his sympathies to destroy his objectivity. After sixty years he is still the most reliable guide to the corpus of Gnosticism that we have.

It might be desirable to add to what we learn from Mead a few words about the effects of Gnosticism on the evolution of orthodox Christianity. The Synoptic Gospels make of the Incarnation the climax of a historical drama. Paul, and to a lesser degree John, and the author of the Epistle to the Romans, constantly using Gnostic terms, reinterpreted in their own way, make of the Incarnation the climax of a cosmic drama. Gnostic angelology influenced Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite, and through him the whole Catholic and popular mythology of the organization of heaven. Traces of Gnostic cosmology are everywhere in Dante. The peculiar light physics and metaphysics which the Gnostics got from Persia influenced all Scholastic philosophy, and reached its culmination in St. Bonaventura. It reappears again in Jakob Boehme, along with a Gnostic theory of emanations (and who is to say that it does not survive, imperceptible to us, under the surface of the primary assumptions of modern physics?).

As Gnosticism died away in popularity its place was taken by Manichaeism. Out of Manichaeism came Paulicianism, Bogomilism, and out of them both a whole covey of Russian heresies and the famous Cathari of the Albigensian Crusade. In ways that are impossible to trace, much of the mythology of Gnosticism survived, underground, to emerge in the revival of occultism in the seventeenth century.

Finally, what did Gnosticism do for the practicing Gnostic of the first Christian centuries? As long as the Church was without power it was forced to suffer dissent. Some men seem to be naturally heterodox. It is a great psychological consolation to certain kinds of personalities to believe that the official Deity of the Old Testament and the Church is really the Devil. This is not as frivolous as it might sound; it is good for civilization to have Trotskyites around. We have found in our own day that an all-pervading orthodoxy dries up the sources of creativity. Since the official Church was patriarchal and authoritarian, Gnosticism gave expression to those matriarchal and libertarian tendencies which are there, suppressed or not, in all societies.

Furthermore, what the Gnostics projected onto the screen of their profound ignorance as a picture of the universe was in reality a picture of their own minds. Its mythology is a symbolic portrayal, almost a deliberate one, of the forces which operate in the structuring and evolution of the human personality. It is, more than almost any other religious system, because it is of all others, the most invented, the most “made up,” an institutionalized panorama of what Jung has called the Collective Unconscious. The whole Gnostic heresy is a sort of socially therapeutic dream. (This notion, as Jung has pointed out, does not involve any mysterious undersoul shared by all men — it is a collective picture because all men respond to life in much the same way, because they all have the same physiological endowment.)

We can operate upon our minds by the manipulation of symbols if not on the cosmos; Gnosticism was fundamentally a magical theory of life, man, the universe, God, morality. The spirit-matter, good-evil, God-creature, omnipotence-freedom dilemmas posed by Christianity, Gnosticism attempted to solve with a magical doctrine of correspondences in which man and the cosmos reflected each other. As such, it was a step in the history of science as well as in the history of religion. It was a wrong step, but one which still influences thought, not just the Theosophists, but those who think that Heisenberg’s Principle of Indeterminancy is an ontological discovery rather than a mathematical formula. Alchemy was Gnostic through and through, an attempt to achieve both wealth and salvation by parallel manipulation of the microcosm and the macrocosm. But the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead is based on the same principle — an enormously sophisticated Smaragdine Tablet. We can learn nothing about the solar system from Gnosticism and little about good and evil, in the world, but we can learn considerable about ourselves.

Elsewhere I have already said that G.R.S. Mead shares with A.E. Waite the distinction of being the only true scholars who came out of the great welter of occult sects and movements of the end of the last century. In our understanding of Gnosticism we owe to him not only this anthology but also his edition of the Gnostic tractate, the Pistis Sophia. We owe him, too, the only readable translation of the Hermetic literature in English, Thrice-Greatest Hermes. Of our total debt to him one must postpone the reckoning. Enough for the present that, after sixty years, he remains our most trustworthy guide to Gnosticism.



This essay was originally published as an introduction to a new edition of G.R.S. Mead’s Fragments of a Faith Forgotten: The Gnostics (University Books, 1960). It was reprinted in Assays (New Directions, 1961) and World Outside the Window: Selected Essays of Kenneth Rexroth (New Directions, 1987). Copyright 1987. Reproduced by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

[Other Rexroth Essays]




Bureau of Public Secrets, PO Box 1044, Berkeley CA 94701, USA
  www.bopsecrets.org   knabb@bopsecrets.org