Sometimes I miss the old days of The Palm Tree Garden forum. Classic Gnostics groups never held back when it came to internal polemics—as seen in such texts as the Apocalypse of Peter or the Gospel of Judas—the latter possibly written by a breakaway Sethian movement from the eternally-breaking away (and breaking bad) Sethians. The Palm Tree Garden tapped into this argumentative sensibility, and ruling angels feared to tread many of its subforums during a passionate discourse.
A reoccurring argument in the now-deceased forum centered on the subversive aspect of the ancient Gnostics (or lack thereof). Were the Classic Gnostics rebelling against the cosmic and material status quo? Or were they simply a necessary yet uncomfortable stage of the dialogue of Abrahamic religions coalescing over the dying body of Paganism?
I won’t rehash the debates of the Palm Tree Garden, but instead proffer some of the latest arguments for the counterculture essence of ancient Gnosticism. The arguments are based mainly on Introduction to “Gnosticism” by Nicola Denzey Lewis and Apocalypse of the Alien God by Dylan Burns. These two books, I feel, provide some of the latest, purest insights on the Classic Gnostics.
You did what to the Demiurge?
In modern Occultism, the Demiurge evokes the image of a tyrant, babbling god. However, in Greco-Roman and Early Christian times it was quite the opposite. In the Timaeus, Plato describes the Demiurge as a benevolent figure who fashions and shapes the world from the chaos outside the World of Ideas. Later on, Middle Platonism and Neoplatonism would make the Demiurge into the Reason of God (or Logos). The same went with Christendom, and example being Justin Martyr in the 2nd century calling Jesus the “Demiurge of Yahweh.”
The Classic Gnostics would have none of this. A world that housed viruses, natural disasters, the platypus and the ancestors of Nickelback was too much to handle. They radically recast the role of the Demiurge—portraying him as a cosmic buffoon and the supreme godly bully. If changing the essence of a holy and revered being to all faiths in civilization isn’t subversive enough, then you probably draw Mohammed cartoons in your spare time.
Not the Archons, too!
The title “Archons” is pretty sexy for the ultimate antagonists, you have to admit (they even appear in the video game StarCraft). Gnostic gospels depict them as nearly omnipotent, hermaphrodite, beast-faced—as well as angelic thugs with a taste for rape and a hunger for human souls. Worse, even: the Gnostics often presented the Archons as spiritual bureaucrats with the same Kafkaesque efficiency of Comcast or the DMV.
And they happened to have created the universe and humanity, adding a Lovecraftian angle to the plot.
Yet the word Archon simply means “ruler” or “prince.” In religious terms, the Archons were the managing angels of heaven and earth, neutral at best (like the Prince of Persian found in the Book of Daniel) to slightly negative at worst (Paul uses the term Archons in Ephesians 2:2 and Colossians 2:15 to refer to the ruling spirits on their way out as Jesus arrives). In social terms, the Archons were the respected administrators of the Greek and Roman empires.
Thus, the Classic Gnostics’ altering the context of Archons was both political and religious slander. Imagine a Roman judge or Jewish rabbi reading about the Archons in a Gnostic text. It would have gone as well as Icarus and Daedalus using lead wings.
Can you at least leave the rest of the gods alone?
In Pagan, Christian and Jewish traditions, there is nothing wrong with taking astral flights to learn the secrets of life or even commune with higher spiritual agents.
Again, the Classic Gnostics were having none of this. Such Gnostic texts as Zostrianos or Allogenes offer a blueprint where a theurgist not only reaches the divine realms but also draws their heavenly power. The individual is then transformed into a super-god or super-angel.
That takes some Atlas cohones, if you ask me. Only Enoch gets to be Metatron. But to the Gnostic sensibility it just made natural sense. Overtaking the ruling deities was the only logical solution to dealing with the inept Demiurge and his Archons, and it was a fated mission in some ways. In the Apocalypse of Adam, Adam gives Seth the Red Pill when he tells him about his origins before his divine spark was cast in a monkey suit:
And we resembled the great eternal angels, for we were higher than the god who had created us and the powers with him, whom we did not know.
Astral flights by Tibetan magicians, Aleister Crowley, Renaissance Hermetics? Bah! Amateurs playing it safe, I say…
Might as well mess with our sacred texts…
Orthodoxy takes their religious propaganda literally. On the other hand, the learned and lofty draw allegory from sacred texts (as did Plato and Saint Augustine, as examples). Not so with the Classic Gnostics. They didn’t merely practice exegesis, but literally rewrote many of the stories such as those found in the Old Testament. They tossed hallowed Greek gods like Hecate or Eros within their narratives. They continually rebooted scripture and deconstructed plots.
Sure, as with The Secret Book of John, the Classic Gnostics portrayed Jesus saying Moses simply didn’t have his hearing aide in when he went up Mount Sanai (more like Mount Doom, to the Sethians). They filled in many blanks as well. Nonetheless, as seen by the many complaints from Pagan and Christian authorities (like Plotinus and Irenaeus, respectively), the Classic Gnostics were changing what shouldn’t have been changed, sacred and moral stories for the ages.
Today we call this fanfiction or rebooting superhero stories. Fan reaction to the latest Fantastic Four movie or having Greedo shoot Han Solo in Star Wars is surely how Plotinus and Irenaeus must have felt after reading Gnostic texts like Gospel of Judas.
Obviously, the above points are debatable…and that’s the whole point—not merely for the Palm Garden vets, but the ancient Gnostics themselves, as well as their foes. If only we could invite Robert Price and Bart Ehrman to gambol with St. Augustine and Faustus, eh?
I’m sure my argument would have been vehemently challenged at The Palm Tree Garden by various factions (maybe I miss it less than sometimes, then). Nevertheless, they point to the subversive aspect of Gnosticism.
Having said all of this, the Gnostics probably never believed they were really counterculture or rebellious. All Gnosis makes one a fallen angel. Like Price once told me, the Gnostics saw themselves as Christian Bodhisattvas: they had encountered liberating truths and sought to engage the world with them.
Furthermore, any movement that offers or reveals a hitherto missing cornerstone shakes the foundation of the establishment. I remember Stephan Hoeller saying in an online lecture that calling Gnosticism a heresy was academic. After all, Judaism started as a Babylonian heresy, Christianity as a Jewish heresy, and Islam as an Abrahamic heresy (regardless of what their copywriters argued after each religion’s early days).
Clark Emery famously said, “The awakening (i.e., the salvation) of any individual is a cosmic event.”
And as I’ve said on Aeon Byte, “The awakening of any individual is a cosmic rebellion.”
Again, Gnosis makes one a fallen angel.
The Classic Gnostics just had a penchant for falling harder to than most ideologies, historically ending up in the sewers of culture with that “God in the Gutter” Philip K. Dick wrote about in Valis.
For more, check out the video below from the Gnostic Countercultures Conference, where many of today’s august scholars on Gnosticism discuss the subversive aspect of Gnosticism: