Gnosticism has no shortage of enigmatic heroes (or antiheroes, for Orthodoxy). The Gnostic sagas contain a rich variety of male protagonists that include Simon Magus, Jesus Christ, Saint Paul, Marcus the Magician, Valentinus, Doubting Thomas, and perhaps Judas Iscariot. Yet outside of Mary Magdalene and Sophia, little attention is given to the other Gnostic women leaders that both defined and promoted its holy heresy.
But there is a wealthy tradition of Gnostic women leaders with complementary and equal roles to their masculine counterparts (and sometimes superior roles). Like Mary Magdalene and Sophia, these females are both saviors and saved, virginal and sensual in complex levels, and connected equally with The Eternal Realm and the cosmos itself.
The first part of the article deals with the mythical and supernatural heroines of Gnosticism, while the second installment will focus on the historical and New Testament heroines of Gnosticism.
The earliest Gnostic woman leader would undoubtedly be Eve, also referred to as Zoe (both names meaning ‘life’ in Hebrew and Greek respectively). Unlike The Old Testament, Eve is actually superior to Adam, attested in such texts as The Secret Book of John and On the Origin of the World. She is a direct avatar of Sophia. Eve not only grants true immortality to Adam but instructs him on the truth of the prison called The Garden of Eden. In On the Origin of the World, Adam even admits ‘You shall be called “Mother of the Living”. For it is you who has given me life!’
Eve continually spoils the cruel games and slave-fate of the Creator God. In one grisly scene, she creates a clone of herself that is violently defiled by Jehovah and his angels. The clone gives birth to Cain and Abel, while Adam and the true Eve conceive the first Gnostic and reoccurring savior of humanity—Seth.
Certain Gnostics sects were even said to revere a Gospel of Eve, surviving only in fragmentary quotations in the writings of the Church Father Epiphanius.
What is noteworthy is that Gnosticism seemed to have resurrected the true nature of Eve–the archetypal goddess-image found across many cultures. In Man Made God (pg. 100), Barbara Walker writes:
In northern Babylonia, Eve was known as “The Divine Lady of Eden” or “Goddess of the Tree of Life,” recalling the Hebrew worship of the tree-goddess, Asherah. One of her biblical titles, “Mother of All Living” (Gen 3:20), was a common Middle-Eastern name for the Great Goddess who brought forth all things from her own blood, in the centuries before father gods were envisioned. Biblical writers may have heard about the Goddess’s paradise-garden, called Heden in the sacred literature of Persia. They almost certainly knew of Nin-Eveh, “Holy Lady Eve,” after whom the Assyrians named their capital city. Assyrian scriptures also called her “Mother-Womb,” the Creatress who made the first human beings out of clay, male and female together, as in the first version of the Genesis myth.
Orthodoxy couldn’t completely censor the true identity of Eve. She is baptized as Adam’s ‘helpmate’ (Gen 1:18). The only other place in The Bible where ‘helpmate’ appears is in Psalm 54:4, which David applies to God himself. In other words, ‘helpmate’ is actually a title given to a superior being.
The next major Gnostic woman leader would be Norea. According to The Nature of the Rulers, Norea is the younger sister and wife of Seth. She is also a savior figure who is ‘an assistance for many generations of mankind.’
The name Norea is believed to come from the Hebrew for Na’amah (‘pleasant one’), connecting her to the daughter of the Cainite Lamech and sister of Tubal-Cain (Gen 4:18). The Jewish holy book, The Zohar, vilifies her as a seducer of angels because of her incredible beauty. Other Rabbinical tradition places Norea as the rebellious wife of Noah (John Turner, Nag Hammadi Scriptures, pg. 607).
Norea’s one known feat happens in The Nature of the Rulers. She destroys Noah’s Ark when Jehovah decides to create a deluge because humanity becomes too wise and good. The Creator God attempts to bring her to his cause, but she refuses. When he tries to punish Norea, she is rescued by an angel of The Pleroma called Eleleth. The angel of The Pleroma later instructs Norea that she shall bear many Gnostics who will continue to bring wakefulness to humanity.
Although it’s assumed that Noah constructed a second Ark, Epiphanius claims she burned it down three times (Panarion 26.1.3-9). The Church Father also parallels her story to that of Pyrrha and Deucalion, the husband and wife main characters of the Greek version of The Flood Myth (more evidence she was the less-than submissive spouse of Noah).
The Thought of Norea is a short hymn that, like with Eve, identifies her as an avatar of Sophia who can call upon the powers of The Pleroma to fight Jehovah and his angels.
One of the most enigmatic and poetic depictions of the heroine in Gnosticism appears in Thunder, the Perfect Mind, named after a cryptic figure and composed in the genre of an aretalogy—a self-proclamation in which a goddess presents herself to the world and lists her feats. Thunder, the Perfect Mind is a long discourse where this celestial being publicly states her compassion for humanity, immense power, prophetic visions and encompassing nature. Thunder’s real identity remains an enigma, scholars proposing the speaker perhaps being Isis, Sophia or even Eve herself.
Besides The Gospel of Thomas, Thunder, the Perfect Mind is one of the rare Gnostic writings to have made it to modern popular culture. This Scripture has appeared in the writings of Toni Morrison and Umberto Eco, the plays of Larry Lawson and Levi Lee, an episode of Millennium, the music of the bands Current 93 and Nurse With a Wound, and even a Prada commercial.
The Three Forms of First Thought is also an aretalogy, although the identity of the protagonist is known. The speaker is Barbelo–the incarnate first thought of the Godhead and the supreme feminine divine principle. Besides her self-description, Barbelo recounts how she descended three times into the material world in the appearance of a mortal. The first time she created heavenly abodes for humans who possessed the Divine Spark. The second time she overthrew Jehovah and his angels, as well as rejuvenated The Elect by giving them part of her spirit. The third time she came to gather those who have Gnosis and even rescued Jesus Christ from The Cross. John Turner writes that Barbelo is portrayed as the female answer to The Word found in the prologue of The Gospel of John (Nag Hammadi Scriptures, pg 716).
Beyond the Gnostic writings, the most important figure would be Helen, as portrayed in the Simon Magus myth retold by several Church Fathers. Helen begins as Ennoia (the first thought of the Godhead, similar to Barbelo). During her creation of the universe, she is betrayed by assistant angels craving her power. They kidnap Ennoia and hide her on Earth, cursing her to reincarnate in various forms including Helen of Troy. The Godhead descends to the world in the shape of Simon Magus, also known as The Great Power or Faustus, and searches for her across history. Eventually, he finds Helen inside a brothel in the Phoenician city of Tyre sometime in the First Century.
Their reunion symbolizes the restoration of The Divine to itself, all polarities united through a love affair expressed in the material world. This motif is found throughout many Gnostic stories and is epitomized in much of literature.
Helen’s account is similar to the plot of The Exegesis of the Soul, where the human soul is represented as a feminine character lost in the material world and violated by demonic beings until rescued by a mysterious beloved. Like with the story of Simon Magus, the text alludes to the writings of Homer. This is not surprising, since both mystics and scholars have proposed that The Iliad is truly an allegory of the soul’s departure and return to the Godhead. Helen of Troy in both the Simon Magus myth and The Iliad symbolizes every human’s fallen soul in need of redemption by a higher power instead of suffering in the desires of the material world.
The historical and New Testament heroines of Gnosticism have similar roles as their mythical and supernatural equivalents, although more organic and less surreal. Beyond the characteristics listed at the beginning of the article, both groups complete and balance masculine principles in various ways, including and most importantly defying and rectifying patriarchal societies and their gods.
These themes and more will be revealed in the second article dealing with the historical and New Testament heroines in Gnosticism (as well as some modern ones!).
In the meantime, since the lessons of these champions eternal have not been heeded throughout most of history, it would be wise to listen to the voice of Thunder and thank Life for coursing through the entire universe.
(All mentioned Gnostic Scripture, except for The Gospel of Eve, available in The Nag Hammadi Library.)