05 April 2013

Good Company

Pagan Blog Project - Week Fiveteen - G #2 – Gnostics

What we know about the ancient Gnostics is that we don’t know much. We know that the people who modern people might call Gnostic never called themselves Gnostic. The word Gnostic might have even been used as a slang. (Kind of like how the people who modern people call Pagan never ever called themselves Pagan.)

Plotinus, who is considered by many modern people to be a premier writer of Gnostic source materials, often wrote about the Gnostics as those goofy radicals down the street. "It is NOT as the Gnostics say..." (Kind of like how modern Pagans often write about “those fluff bunnies”, even though two thousand years ago we might all be seen as fluff bunnies.)

In regards to the Gnostics, we don’t know more than we know. But what I’ve learned about the Gnostics is that they’ve always been misunderstood. We don’t know who they are now and no one knew who they were then. Which translates to me that anything can be Gnostic, nothing is Gnostic, nothing is not-Gnostic. (Which works out really great for me.)

We know that the Sethians in Egypt were considered to be the first Gnostics, about 200 years or so before Christianity. These people were a sect of radical Jews who were probably inspired by Mediterranean (Greek) mystery traditions. And these Mediterranean mystery traditions were probably inspired by the Ancient Egyptian mystery traditions, which were inspired by God Only Knows. But whoever the Gnostics were, they went on to inspire Christianity, the Kabbalah, Masons, The Golden Dawn, Wiccans, modern Pagans, comic book artists, rock songs, books, movies, and a continuing cycle of inspired texts and prophets (Dick, Hesse, Moore, Smashing Pumpkins, ELO, etc.)

What I love about the early Gnostics was that they just wrote stuff all the time, and some of it is crazy. I get the impression that if there is was aspect about their current Gnostic myth that they didn’t like, they just wrote their own. So this means as a modern person reading this stuff it seems confusing and contradictory, but contradiction only need to exist in religion if one is looking at religion from a literal point of view. But when looking at religion as something that is organic, changeable, and evolving, the Gnostic myths make perfect sense, especially from a Universalist point of view.  We’re all on a path towards God, we know that each path is different. We’re all just wandering around on a crooked path and at the center is God. 

So who were the Gnostics and what did they do? We don’t really know. But what I like to think is that two thousand years ago, Gnostics, Jews, Pagans, Christians, atheists, agnostics and whoever else got together in comfy backrooms every once in a while. I’d like to think that they were all friends. That they sat and breathed together, wrote stupid stories about talking snakes and laughing gods, chanted, raised energy, talked about God, shared wine and bread, laughed, told jokes, had ecstatic moments, and afterword, in the words of my Bishop, they sat around in joy and said “how cool was that?!”


  1. Please, please, don't read any more Joseph Campbell; it will only leave you more ignorant.

    instead why not try reading Plotinus? you might find out that he was the greatest opponent of the Gnostic. We are also not int he state of ignorance you imagine about Gnostics? What do you think you think it was that I wanted to read so badly that I learned Coptic in Graduate school?

    the only thing that ancient Christians would have done with Jews, Pagans, Gnostic, and atheists if they had got them alone in a room is burn them alive. Where did you get this fantasy of inter-sectarian harmony?

    And if you have any conclusive evidence that Sethians existed in the second century BC, please publish it (I'd recommend the Harvard Theological Review), because nobody else has seen it.

    1. First off, thanks for the comments! I appreciate you taking the time out.

      I'll probably keep reading Joseph Campbell. Sorry. He's just too awesome.

      I've read parts of Plotinus. Admittedly, not a lot. I understand that he was a great opponent to who he called the Gnostics. What I find interesting, however, is that many modern writers, writing on the Gnostics, cite him, and call him Gnostic. (My sources on this would be Freke and Gandy, or http://www.amazon.com/The-Gnostics-Tradition-Scriptures-Influence/dp/1905857780/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1365204962&sr=8-2&keywords=the+gnostics)

      And I'd have to disagree with you about our state of ignorance. Like anything ancient, there's a lot we don't know, and a lot we won't know. That's just the truth about Classical study. I think the fact that there are so many contradictory sources on the Gnostics, as well as the fact that much of what we know of them in preserved by people who hated them, betrays our own modern ignorance.

      Also, super cool you learned Coptic. Not many people have done that.

      And I think you're wrong about "inter-sectarian harmony." In my understanding, these people had way more in common than they had different, and not everyone hates everyone all the time. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe it's a fantasy. But if it can happen now (and it does) it can happen then.

      As far as the Sethians, Wikipedia (bad source, I know) cites them as pre-Christian. They use this article as a source. http://jdt.unl.edu/lithist.html As far as my date as 2nd century, that either came from my Bishop, who has studied this extensively, or, from Freke and Gandy. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Jesus_Mysteries Maybe my citing them as 2nd century is wrong, but they are still pre-Christian.

      Thanks again for your comments!

  2. Also, with regards to the date of the Sethians, A. P. Smith dates them with certainty to the first century, but dates the Apocalypse of Adam (from the Nag Hammadi) to the second century or earlier. Significant for its inclusion of Sethian ideas and lack of Christian elements.

    As for intermingling of people with different religious views, assuming that groups can't get together assumes that everyone in a given group is some kind of extremist. I'm sure there were plenty of bigots in ancient times, but to believe that everyone was bigoted and prejudiced seems silly. Not everyone sees the world in black and white. The Valentinians were famous for blending into orthodox groups, for crying out loud. I didn't really cry out loud, I just like that phrase.

    Plotinus my have opposed gnostics (and in fact he did), but that should underscore the point she was making about the way we as modern people use terms. Most scholars I've read apply the term gnostic to thinkers and groups who focus their practice on gnosis. Plotinus may not have approved or agreed with whomever he was calling gnostic, but he does seem to be talking about gnosis. The very fact that he spends as much time as he does responding to gosticism (as opposed to orthodoxy) suggests to me that he was closer to it, that he had a need to distinguish himself from it or point out what he thought was wrong with it. This would be like a Methodist listing what he thinks is wrong with Anglican belief. He would be delineating himself from a similar (put slightly different) group. He would not need to do the same thing with Islam, for example.

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