The Four Categories of Gnostic Religious Rites
One of the most impactful releases in Gnostic studies in years is the recent The Gnostic New Age by April DeConick. As Birger Pearson writes, the book is a “paradigm shift in our understanding of religion, breaking new ground in scholarship on Gnosticism.” I certainly agree with Pearson and have found pleromic insights galore in the work.
One of the pleromic insights is April’s cataloging of Gnostic rites. Spiritual praxis in Gnosticism has confounded both scholars and occultists for generations. What religious/magical rituals did the ancient Gnostics practice? The Gnostic New Age comes a long way in answering this question, specifically for second century Gnostics. The whole mechanics of these initiatory ceremonies will likely remain a mystery—due to the censoring pens of orthodoxy and the mystery religion secrecy of the Gnostics—but a veil has been lifted by April’s scholarship.
As a whole, April writes on the reason for these rituals:
Gnostic rites, whatever their form, were meant to be personally therapeutic, to awaken, purge, mature, and integrate the alienated human spirit, the real self, with its transcendent root. The goal was to heal the separation anxiety that had started it all. Usually, divinities from the transcendent world come to earth to assist and teach humans about their predicament and whatever ritual are needed to liberate the spirit.
Carl Jung wrote that the Gnostics were history’s first depth psychologists. It appears the Swiss Magician was very right. Creation was nothing more than the trauma of the Alien/Good God’s mind fragmenting as it gained awareness; Sophia falling from an innocent state as she became curious; and the Demiurge trapped in a nightmare of his own making as he became increasingly egoic. And here we are, much like the three.
To find some healing for even those who practice Gnosticism in modern times, here are the four categories of Gnostic religious/magical rites:
No, this is not about being a Highlander, but it kinda is. Quickening ceremonies concerned no longer being unconscious, or dead as the Gospel of Thomas puts it. As April writes, “The ultimate concern of the Gnostic is to awaken the divine potential in each of us, to bring our permanent, deep self to consciousness.”
Quickening ceremonies were accepting the Red Pill from Morpheus. It was an incubatory, underworld journey where the initiates were alerted to the reality of the fallen world with the “smack of Hermes’s or Christ’s staff.” Regularly, it was a dialogue where the goddess Forethought called out the Gnostic pledgee, as found in a liturgy in The Secret Book of John. She introduced herself and cried for the initiate to awaken from his or her forgetful sleep (her role was probably spoken by the community leader); then the initiate would respond about being alert and sealed five times with holy water.
A Quickening Ceremony is also found in the Sethian Trimorphic Protennoia, where the goddess urges her children to stir and rise from Hades. It was possible that during these ceremonies the initiates were taken physically to underground, grim journeys as a symbol of rising from the dead.
Waking up is one thing, cleansing your spirit from the maggots of materiality is another. Thus, came Catharsis Ceremonies. The initiate needed to have purged the “delusions and passions that have kept the spirit unconscious for so long.”
The newbie Gnostic, then, needed to face all his or her personal demons, one at a time. These personal demons, of course, were ruled by cosmic demons we know as the Archons. The ritual was meant to “strip away everything that had encumbered and enslaved their true selves in the realm of temporality.”
At its core, the spiritual procedure involved the Gnostic rising through lower heavens and star houses to confront each ruling Archon/angel, armed with magical passwords and prayers. As April writes, we find this rite in the Ophite ceremony where devotees would travel through the nocturnal houses of the zodiac—facing a beast-headed Archon who ruled their specific and fated characteristic that kept them bound to earth.
The next step in self-actualization was the Gnostic becoming a self-sustaining divinity. As Jung would say, this was individuation, where a hurt child become a responsible adult. The ritual also included lessons of ethics and morality.
April writes how the Gnostic Justin would personally escort initiates through a brilliant star gate at the top of the heavens. On one side sat the Alien God next to a luminous bath of living water. The initiates would bathe in this light-substance to become truly alive and fully vibrant. In the Sethian practices—far more elaborate—the initiate would rise to the higher heavens, becoming more transfigured with each level ruled by a benign archangel. Water ceremonies were performed at each level as well as long periods of silent contemplation and meditation.
After these three steps, as April explains, the self is ready “to be integrated into its transcendent root, to unify with the Ultimate, to achieve gnosis.”
Integration Ceremonies are found in such texts as Zostrianos, where the Virgin of Light (Barbelo) crowns the mature Gnostic as one with the Godhead; or in the Naassene ceremony where the initiate enters the “house of God as God’s bridegroom.” As Hippolytus wrote in his Refutation, the ritual often involved the soul divorcing the body and venturing into the transcendent realms beyond the cosmos to commune with the Alien God.
In some rites, the initiate became one with the Alien God, while in others it was a promise of integration after death. In the Valentinian sect, it was described as “an erotic embrace of the married couple.” The goal was the same: complete reunification with the Eternal Realm.
What details we know of these ceremonies
As mentioned, the exact details of these rituals will never be known, unless there is a Gnostic Highlander out there with that data. As April writes, there is evidence that the ancient Gnostics utilized these methods (some already mentioned):
- Elaborate plays in private theaters with music and costumes that recreated some important mythic event.
- Baptisms and cleansing sacraments of all sorts.
- Silent contemplation and meditation.
- Ecstatic methods that might have included chanting and entheogens—all to induce out-of-body experiences or visions.
- A whole lotta prayer and theurgy.
- Support groups where the community shared their earthly and unearthly experiences.
It should be noted that the specific components of a ritual depended on the cultural context of the Gnostic lodge. Sexual rites were employed by some Gnostics in Egypt, while a more of a “Lord’s Supper” vibe would have been embraced by Gnostics in Western Europe. What mattered most was gaining the trajectory of the four categories mentioned, as well as being mindful of a false world ruled by lesser gods that impeded connection with the godhead. This flexibility, therefore, makes it easier for those who embrace Gnosticism in modern times. The can clothe the categories in popular spiritual practices like Yoga, church service, or Chaos Magic, to name a few.
What is important is the therapy context that aligns the spirit to the Alien God whose own mind needs therapy. Until more scholarship comes our way, keep reaching beyond the stars.
Listen/Download our interview with April DeConick on The Gnostic New Age