The Gnostics and Their Remains
In the mid-19th century, eighty years before the chance discovery of a treasure trove of Gnostic manuscripts in a dump in Egypt, C.W. King collected what was known about the Gnostics in this book. At that time there were only three sources of information on Gnosticism: polemics against them by early Christian writers, the Pistis Sophia, and a jumble of confusing images and cryptic inscriptions on Roman-era gems and amulets.
In spite of all of the missing jigsaw pieces, King managed to assemble a picture of the Gnostics which is still cited today as authoritative. Rather than one monolithic group, the Gnostics had very diverse beliefs. Some thought that Jesus was a man, while others thought that he was a God, and some believed that he became a God only after he was baptized. Some believed in a struggle between good and evil, others were non-dualistic. Most had widely-varying intricate systems of intermediaries between the ultimate deity and humanity. On the face of it, this looks polytheistic, but instead was an attempt to solve the problem of how a perfect God could create an imperfect world. Many of these Aeons later became the demons and angels of Medieval and Renaissance magic.
King seeks links to Gnostic symbols and beliefs far afield, from India, to the Templars, Rosicrucians and Illuminati. He discusses Mithra and Serapis worship, and gives many examples of Roman and Greek magical spells and talismans. He discusses the fudged birthdate of Jesus, Masons’ marks, and Simon Magus. The book is a fascinating tour of hidden knowledge.
J. B. Hare, 5/28/2006
THAT nothing upon the subject of Gnosticism should have hitherto been attempted in our language except by Dr. Walsh in his very meagre sketch (long since out of print), seemed to me a sufficient excuse for my undertaking the same task upon a more comprehensive scale, as well as upon different principles. Dr. Walsh’s performance, entitled ‘An Essay on Coins, Medals, and Gems, as illustrating the progress of Christianity in the Early Ages,’ is little more than an abridgment of some popular Church History for the period comprehended within its scope, illustrated from the very scanty store of monuments at his command; whilst his explanations are, like the source supplying them, based upon grounds altogether fallacious, and, even to the beginner, obviously unsatisfactory.
Taking for granted, upon the bare word of their opponents, that the various Teachers of the Gnosis were mere heretics, that is, perverters of the regular (!) Christian doctrine which they had at first embraced as a divine revelation, he, like his guides, did not trouble himself any further to investigate the true origin of their systems, but was content with roughly sketching their most prominent features; whilst in explaining their extant productions, he refers all, however diverse in nature, to the same school, and interprets them according to his own preconceived and baseless views of their character.
On such a plan as this, neither the doctrines nor the monuments they have bequeathed to us in such profusion are susceptible of even a plausible explanation, much less of one capable of satisfying an unprejudiced and inquiring mind. The method, therefore, of treating the subject which I have followed in the present work is to begin by reviewing the great religious systems of the East, flourishing at the time of the promulgation
of Christianity in those regions, with the influence of these systems upon the modes of thought and expression of both the missionaries of the new creed and their opponents; and lastly to establish, upon the testimony of the Apostle to the Gentiles himself, the previous existence of the germs of Gnosticism in the cities that were the scene of his most important labours.
In my sketch of these older systems I have done little more than condense Matter’s admirable introduction to his ‘Histoire Critique du Gnosticisme’; but from that point forward have carried on my investigations according to a theory to which that writer once alludes approvingly, although, from some unaccountable reason, he has neglected to follow it out to its legitimate consequences. Restricting himself to describing in his lucid and elegant style the speculations of the several heresiarchs, and seeking no further back than the Zendavesta and Kabbala for the storehouses whence they all must have drawn their first principles, he falls into the grave error of representing their doctrines as novel, and the pure inventions of the persons that preached them.
That the seeds of the Gnosis were originally of Indian growth, carried so far westward by the influence of that Buddhistic movement which had previously overspread all the East, from Thibet to Ceylon, was the great truth faintly discerned by Matter, but which became evident to me upon acquiring even a slight acquaintance with the chief doctrines of Indian theosophy. To display this in the most incontrovertible manner, the two systems, each in its highest form of development–that of Valentinus, and that of the Nepalese Buddhists–are described and confronted for the sake of establishing their original identity: and throughout these pages innumerable other points of affinity will be found noticed as they present themselves. Actual historical proof of the same fact will also be adduced, establishing the important circumstance (but hitherto entirely unnoticed, or disregarded) that Buddhism had already been planted in the dominions of the Seleucidæ and the Ptolemies at least as early as the times of the generation following the establishment of those dynasties, and was provided for in treaties made between those Grecian princes and the great
[paragraph continues]Hindoo promoter of the religion. In the history of the Church it is most certain that almost every notion that was subsequently denounced as heretical can be traced up to Indian speculative philosophy as its genuine fountain-head: how much that was allowed to pass current for orthodox had really flowed from the same source, it is neither expedient nor decorous now to inquire.
In order to obtain a clear view of the principal forms of Gnosticism, as well as to escape relying upon second-hand information (in this case more than elsewhere untrustworthy), I commenced the collecting materials for the present work by carefully perusing the vast ‘Panarion’ of Epiphanius–a laborious undertaking, but well repaid by the vivid picture he presents of the inner state of society under the Lower Empire, and of the war even at that late period so fiercely waged between Reason and Faith. The ‘Panarion’ is a connected history of the Gnosis in all its developments during the first three centuries–the author quoting Irenæus for the earlier ages; for the later his account is of the highest value, having been derived from personal experience, Epiphanius having in his youth belonged to the Marcosian sect. After his days nothing new sprung up in the field of Religious philosophy, before so diversified with the vigorous and more curious flowers (or weeds) of the Gnosis; the civil now combining with the ecclesiastical power to cut down and root out all such daring and irregular growths of the human mind.
Since the first publication of this treatise I have become acquainted with and minutely studied two authorities of the greatest importance for the true understanding of Gnosticism–the one for its philosophy; the other for its tangible remains. ‘The Refutation of all Heresies,’ of Hippolytus, written two centuries before the ‘Panarion,’ gives a view of the chief schools of the Gnosis, drawn up with the utmost intelligence united with the most charming candour; qualities sadly to seek in the other ecclesiastical historians. The Pistis-Sophia,’ the only Gnostic Gospel preserved, throws a light upon the terminology and machinery of the religion that, before its discovery and publication was perfectly unattainable. Both
these treatises are of recent discovery, and consequently their assistance was lost to the previous historians of Gnosticism. I have therefore availed myself largely of these invaluable resources, which will be found doing good service in almost every section of the present work.
After considering the class of speculations that owed their birth to India, next in importance for her contributions to the opinions, still more to the monuments before us, conies Egypt with her primeval creed, although exhibited in its Romanized and latest phase; and whose productions are too often confounded with the true offspring of the Gnosis. These remains are here discriminated; their distinctive characters are pointed out; and they are arranged under several heads, according as their object was religious or medicinal. In the consideration of these remains, Bellermann’s classification has been chiefly followed; according to which the truly Gnostic are regarded as those only that exhibit the figure of the Pantheus, Abraxas, the actual invention of Basilides, and which gives its name to the class. The second, Abraxoids, includes the types borrowed from different religions by the other Gnostic teachers. The third, Abraxaster, consists of such as in their nature are purely astrological, and intended for talismans; deriving their virtues from the stars. In the first of these classes much space has been devoted to the ingenious creation of the Alexandrine philosopher, the pantheistic image of the supreme Abraxas; whose title has hitherto been improperly applied to monuments some of which are anterior in date to his embodiment in a visible form; whilst others spring from nations entirely unconnected with his worship. Of this eidolon of the personage thereby typified, of the meaning of his name and titles, much information has been collected, and presented here in a connected form for the benefit of those interested in learning what can on safe grounds be established in elucidation of these abtruse questions.
Mithraicism, under whose kindly and congenial shelter so much of Occidental Christianity grew up unmolested, is reviewed in its due order, and the causes explained of an alliance at first sight so inexplicable. With this subject are connected the singular resemblance between the ceremonial of the two, and the transfer
of so much that was Mithraic into the practice of the orthodox; and many curious memorials will be found described bearing witness to the reality of this adaptation.
After the Mithraic, the religion of Serapis comes to be considered; a worship which, besides being the last of the Heathen forms to fall before the power of Christianity, had previously contributed, as largely as the Mithraic, to the constitution of the later Gnosticism. It is in truth a great mistake, the confining the name of “Gnostic” (as is commonly done) to the sectaries who, boasting of their “superior lights,” declared that they were the only real Christians (as did the Ophites), and that too in virtue of a creed professedly of their own devising. Such Gnostics indeed were Christians by their own showing, and regarded all who differed from them as heretics: but at the same time they based their arguments upon the tenets of Pagan religions; very far from regarding the latter as the empty fabrications of demons, which was the persuasion of the orthodox. But although they accepted these ancient Ethnic legends, it was only because through the help of their “knowledge” they were enabled to discern the truth enveloped within these seemingly profane traditions. But the followers of Mithras and of Serapis had in reality, and long before them, a Gnosis of their own, communicated in their Mysteries to the initiated few; and they opposed to the predictions of orthodox and Gnostic alike claims and pretensions lofty as their own. The Emperor Hadrian, a most diligent inquirer into things above man’s nature, got himself initiated into one mystery after another; nevertheless we shall find him writing from Alexandria that the worship of Christ and of Serapis was in that city one and the same, and moreover the sole religion of that immense population. Consequently, those initiated into the true secrets of the old religion must have recognised the fact that their deity, whether the Sun or the Soul of the Universe, was nothing but a type of the One, the Saviour recently revealed to them: or else it would appear (which tells equally for our argument) that the new converts, in order to escape persecution, enjoyed their own faith under the covert of the national worship, which was susceptible of a spiritual interpretation quite cognate to their own ideas,
and indeed enshrouding the same. As for the worshippers of Mithras, their whole elaborate system of sacraments and degrees of initiation had no other object than the securing of spiritual enlightenment and spiritual blessings. The foundation being the pure teaching of Zoroaster, its holders were prepared gladly to accept any higher revelation, and to discover that the greater mystery had been foreshadowed in the types and ceremonies of the former one. In this way a man might continue a Mithraicist and yet accept all the doctrines of Christianity, as the priests of that religion in their last days assured the incredulous Augustine.
After thus pointing out the various elements which the Apostles of the Gnosis worked up so ingeniously into one harmonious whole, incorporating therewith so much of the Christian scheme as fitted to the rest, we come prepared to the examination of the Symbols and Terminology by which these ideas were communicated to the members of the sect who had attained to theArcanum; the composite images or sigils “having a voice for the intelligent, which the vulgar crowd heareth not.”
Astrology justly claims for her own a large share of the relics popularly called Gnostic; for Gnosticism, from the beginning, had linked its own speculations to those of the Magians’ national science, and borrowed as a vehicle for its own peculiar ideas the machinery of the latter–its Astral Genii, Decani, and Myriageneses. And this truth was seen by the earliest writers upon Gnosticism, for Hippolytus proves conclusively, at much length, that the system of the Peratae (a branch of the Ophites) was nothing more than a barefaced plagiarism from the rules of Astrology. Under this head I have endeavoured to separate the purely Astrological talismans from those to which the illuminati, their makers, had given a more spiritual sense. “Astrology, not Christ, is the author of their religion,” says Hippolytus of the sects founded by Euphrates and Celbes; and proceeds to give extracts from their writings, held in the highest esteem at the time, which amply bear out his assertion.
Next pour in, a multitudinous swarm, the stones covered over with long strings of bare inscriptions, genuine offspring of the Kabbala, that betray the handiwork of the idol-hating Jewish
dreamers of Alexandria–spells even then ascribed to Solomon, and which secured the favour “Of those demons that are found
In fire, air, flood, or under ground;
Whose power hath a true consent
With planet or with element.”
One object I have kept steadily in view throughout the whole of this investigation–to show how the productions of the different schools are to be distinguished from each other; and to this particular attention has been given in describing the numerous remains proceeding from the several sources just enumerated, that are collected in the accompanying plates, and thus in some degree to remedy the confusion that reigns at present in the whole department. My predecessor, Matter, busied himself only with the doctrines, making use of the monuments merely in illustration of his remarks; but as my own labours are properly designed to be subsidiary to his invaluable treatise, I refer the reader to him for the more complete elucidation of thephilosophy of Gnosticism, and give my full attention to its archæological side, which he has too cursorily glanced at, and for which nothing has been done of any importance since the publications of Chiflet and Montfaucon.
Last to be considered comes the Gnosis in its final and grandest manifestation, the composite religion of Manes: with its wonderful revival and diffusion over Mediæval Europe; and its supposed connexion with the downfall of the Templars, of which catastrophe the history and causes are here briefly sketched; although to form a satisfactory judgment on the merits of the case is about the hardest problem history can offer. With their scandal and their fate is coupled the most singular phenomenon of modern times–the preservation by their professed descendants, the Freemasons, of so much symbolism that appears to be indisputably Gnostic in its origin. For this, however (unfortunately for the lovers of mystery), a very matter of fact but doubtless sufficient cause can be assigned, and by valid arguments established: when the solution of the enigma irresistibly brings to mind Æsop’s apologue of the “Fox and the Mask,” and his exclamation of disappointment after he had at
last mustered up sufficient courage to examine the interior of the awe-inspiring and venerable head. This section is illustrated by all the information I have been able to glean from different sources upon the curious subject of Masons’ Marks–which, yet existing and in common use amongst our own craftsmen and equally so amongst the Hindoos in daily religious observance, can be traced back through Gothic retention, and Gnostic usage, through old Greek and Etruscan art, to their ultimate source; and which attest more convincingly than anything else what region gave birth to the theosophy making such liberal use of the samesiglæ in Roman times. To assist inquirers into this point I have been careful to give references to all the published lists of these Marks that have come to my knowledge; which same rule I have observed as regards other monographs upon the several various questions discussed in the following pages. In this way the shortcomings of myself can be supplied by those desirous of fuller information: for I am well aware that my own best qualification for attempting an arduous investigation like the present, extending over so many and unconnected branches of learning, lies in a larger practical experience of the monuments themselves, tangible and literary, than was possessed by those who have hitherto attempted it. And as it is a most true adage, “Dans le pays des aveugles le borgne est roi,” there is some probability of my labours proving both novel and interesting to many, who desire to know something authentic upon the much-talked-of but little understood subject of Gnosticism.
Related to this religion by their nature are talismans and amulets in general; for Gnostic symbols and Gnostic formulæ gave their virtue to many of the class: being borrowed either directly from the Gnosis, or from the older creeds out of which the latter was constructed. Their employment, and the notions generating them, have been here described; showing the derivation of many of the mediæval examples from the Gnostic class; and by following out the same principle it has been attempted to find a key to their cabalistic legends, which may fit them better than any hitherto offered by their interpreters–symbols andemblems being with them those conveying the idea of death,
which last indeed has of all others furnished the richest store of such imagery; for thereby the human mind endeavoured to familiarise itself with the thought of mortality, and by embellishing the idea tried to reconcile itself to the inevitable. This being a topic of universal interest, to say nothing of its very important relations to Art, my collections connected therewith have been somewhat extensive, and embrace many particulars neglected by Lessing in his curious essay entitled ‘Wie die Alten den Tod gebildet.’
With respect to the illustrations of this book, many doubtless will be surprised as well as disappointed at finding them derived entirely from monuments of such small apparent importance as engraved stones; and, thinking this part incomplete on that account, may accuse the author of negligence in not having had recourse to other evidences of a more public character. But the limitation is in truth the necessary result of the nature of the things discussed in this inquiry. Secret Societies, especially the one whose maxim was (as Clemens records) that truly wise one– “Learn to know all, but keep thyself unknown;”
erect no monuments to attract public attention. They deal but in symbols, to be privately circulated amongst their members inpasswords known only to the illuminati; or else they embody their doctrines in mystic drawings, like the Ophite “Diagramma”; or upon papyri long since committed to the flames. The man of taste, but not an antiquary, will certainly exclaim against the rudeness of the drawing in my illustrations; but the truth is that, rude as they look, they in most cases flatter their originals, the extreme barbarism of which it was often found impossible to reproduce with any hope of leaving the meaning recognisable. Be it remembered that “Gratia non habitat, non hoc Cyllenius antro.”
Pallas no longer, as in the earlier ages of the art, guided the engraver’s hand, but Siva and Bhavani (ill-disguised as Hermes and Isis) suggested the designs; or else he was inspired by the Typhonian monsters which imagined the Genii of Astrology. The religion of Fear, under its various manifestations, now
reigned supreme, having banished the beauteous sensuous machinery of the old Greek Nature-worship, into which nothing that was malignant or hideous was ever suffered to intrude. The virtue of the talisman lay in the type it carried; and in its own material substance the manner of the exhibition of the potent sigil was altogether unregarded. One of the most learned men this University has ever produced once remarked to me that the Gnostic theories reminded him of the visions that float through the brain of a madman–not of a fool. Circumstances following gave a melancholy force to this acute and accurate distinction. Let any imaginative person read my extracts from the “Revelation” of Marcus, with all its crazy ingenuity in deducing the nature of the Deity from the properties of numerals; above all, his exemplification of Infinity by the perpetual multiplication of the letters contained in other letters making up a name–he will speedily find his brain begin to whirl, and be reminded of similar phantoms of numerals recurring in endless series, and the equally endless attempts to sum them up in order to obtain repose, that fill the head when suffering from the first approaches of fever before actual delirium pushes memory from her seat. Or, again, when the febrile disturbance of the brain is yet slighter, one will sometimes awake out of a dream with a fleeting sensation of inexpressible happiness arising from the immediate attainment of Omniscience in virtue of something that has just been revealed to him; but too soon he finds that ineffable something has fled for ever, all that is left of it being the faint recollection that it was contained in a numeral. And one of the most striking points in the revelation of the ‘Seherin von Prevorst,’ so religiously recorded by Justinus Kerner (and which proves that all the wondrous narrative was not imposture), is her declaration that she could see the entire history of each year as it closed, with every event, however trifling, clear and distinct before her mind, all comprehended within the form of a single numeral; and her assertion upon these grounds that at the Judgment-Day the whole past life of every man will thus be pictured in a single moment before his mind’s eye.
About half the number of the drawings for these illustrations
were done by myself from the most interesting specimens that came under my notice in the course of several years, so that I am able to vouch for their scrupulous fidelity. Afterwards, when the sudden failure of my sight prevented my carrying on the drawings, the kindness of the then owner of most of the originals came to my assistance and furnished the remainder. Most of them in fact were taken from the large and unpublished set contained in the ancient Praun Cabinet (formed three centuries ago), now unfortunately broken up. The Gnostic stones, however–73 in number–have been since that time purchased for the British Museum, where they will be found conveniently arranged for consultation, in the Egyptian Room, which contains the works in terra-cotta. This my collection of drawings was in truth the occasion of the present work; for after making out a detailed description of each specimen, it became easy to put the mass of materials I had collected for their elucidation into a form available for supporting my explanations by showing the grounds on which they were based: and in this way the work has grown up by gradual accretion to its present dimensions. The theme offers so boundless a variety of interesting subjects for research, one suggesting another in endless succession, that it can only be compared to Marcus’ own exposition of the infinite composition of the Ineffable Name (quoted above), and would alone supply materials for a whole library of distinct treatises upon its various subdivisions.
In those few instances where the better style of the original deserved reproduction by a more artistic hand, I have had recourse to the services of Mr. R. B. Utting, who has executed the woodcuts with a spirit as well as an accuracy that leave nothing to be desired.
(to be continued)
by Charles William King /