In my recent writings and podcasts, I may have overstressed the mythic qualities while understated the experiential aspects of the Gnostics. Sure, myth and experience go talon in talon in the domains of the Esoterica. However, it’s always a pleromic reminder to understand that an essential ethos of the Gnostics was their visionary pedigree that often resulted in psychedelic apocalypses and astral flights to the domains of forgotten gods. As Erik Davis wrote in his book Nomad Codes: “Though not the first cosmic dualists, the Gnostics may have been the first spiritual off-worlders.”
They went out, way out…
This visionary pedigree—an intense quest for cosmic ecstasy—further sets the Gnostics apart from Orthodox Christianity and other faiths (for the most part and with exceptions, of course). Even Gnostic texts that are actually social in theme, like the Apocalypse of Paul, are presented in distant dimensions teaming with Archons and angels.
Much of today’s leading scholarship emphasizes the revelatory thrust of Gnosticism—especially with the more focus on later texts, the 4th century ones that have the emo Sethians interacting with Neoplatonists and abandoning Christianity. One example is Dylan Burns in his book, Apocalypse of the Alien God. The same can be said with David Brakke’s The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity. (Both scholars explain their work in interviews on Aeon Byte Gnostic Radio).
Here is quote from Brakke’s excellent book I feel reminds us of that essential aspect of Gnostic study or theology:
The Gnostics believed that the human intellect could experience gnosis, that is, acquaintance with God, within this mortal life, however fleetingly. They portrayed this experience primarily as an ascent to higher knowledge that was both intellectual and cosmic. Intellectually, the Gnostic could ascend by contemplating increasingly abstract levels of existence, starting by understanding one’s own existence and that of other lower divine beings, advancing to the contemplation of higher aeons…Cosmically, Gnostic texts portray the intellects of human heroes as leaving their bodies and journeying upward through the heavenly realms, guided and instructed by angels or other heavenly beings.
Brakke explains in between Plato’s ideas of higher contemplation and the mystic Jewish notion of astral flights to empyreal realms (as in the Book of Enoch), the unique Gnostic idea of revelatory experience arose.
But why the need? Why arm yourself with the keenness of a philosopher and the magic of a theurgist to visit the thrones of gods and angels? Why not supplicate and wait for divinity to descend like a dove as other mystics practice? This is where we find another unique quality of the Gnostics. As Gary Lachman explained in a recent interview, mystics seek to become one with higher powers, whereas Gnostics/Hermetics seek to deeply understand those higher powers (and often surpass them, always the spiritual children of Prometheus or the Nephilim). As both Bentley Layton and Elaine Pagels have stated, Gnosis is an acquaintance with God, that nexus where the mind of mortal dances intimately with the mind of the godhead.
The visionary pedigree of the Gnostics is essential, but ultimately Gnosis is as Gnosis does. They went out, way out…
The Gnostic visions always concluded with the same, bone-crunching realization. In Introduction to “Gnosticism”, Brown professor Nicola Denzey Lewis grants a concise definition of Gnosis, astutely relating to a key Gnostic Myth, The Matrix. First, she quotes a scene from the film:
Morpheus: Let me tell you why you’re here. You’re here because you know something. What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad. It is this feeling that has brought you to me. Do you know what I’m talking about?
Neo: The Matrix.
Morpheus: Do you want to know what it is?
Morpheus: The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work… when you go to church… when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.
Neo: What truth?
Morpheus: That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else you were born into bondage. Into a prison that you cannot taste or see or touch. A prison for your mind.
Lewis then explains how the Hermetic hierophant/sycophant interaction of Morpheus and Neo relates to Gnosis:
Morpheus’s sentence, “It is the word that been pulled over your eyes to blind your from the truth,” could have come directly from the pages of an ancient Gnostic document. Gnosis is the recognition of that truth: that reality is deception; that we are enslaved in a prison that we cannot smell or taste or touch; and that there exists, apart from this deceptive reality, another place that is our true origin and source. Gnosis, therefore, is the transcendental recognition that one does not belong to this world but instead dwells briefly in it. Like Neo, we also have a responsibility to “wake up” to reality, to save ourselves from the world that has been pulled over our eyes.
This experience and realization are not easy, part of a difficult journey. As Chris Knowles wrote on the Gnostic journey: “Prepare to be taken places you never wanted to go. Gnosis isn’t always a flower—sometimes it’s a sword. Maybe more often than not.”
But anything else would make Gnosticism just another orthodox or heterodox movement, wouldn’t it? The hero’s journey is a bitch. Ready to take that Red Pill and fly?