When thinking of the ancient Gnostics, one might hold an image of esoteric Christians steeped in prayer and meditation — spiritually laboring to unify with the Monad. The syncretic meme of Jesus sitting in a lotus position comes to mind, perhaps.
But what if that image isn’t entirely right? What if some Gnostics were deep into the magical arts in ways that shocked other magic users of antiquity?
That seems to be the case with certain Gnostics of the third and fourth centuries AD. Specifically, I’m referring to the group known as the Platonizing Sethians, those who possibly had been rejected or persecuted by the churches to the point they divorced much of their Christianity and embraced Paganism. And these Gnostics angered Neoplatonist philosopher Plotinus while attending his university.
Have to believe we are magic, Olivia
Before delving into the wizardry of the Platonizing Sethians, we should clarify the term “magic.” In an interview with Robert Conner on magic in Christianity, he explained that “religion is magic for the masses, while magic is religion for the individual.” That’s a good point, but when referring to magic, I’m optimizing it to mean tapping into spiritual powers to force a specific material result for a person or small cabal of people. This is a striking difference from the standard “civic-duty-keep-the-universe-running” or “soul-enlightenment” religions of the mainstream Greco-Roman world.
We can mention Aleister Crowley defining magic as being the “Science and Art that provokes Change in conformity with the Will.” Of course, Crowley said that Will possessed the agency to merge with the primordial current of the universe. To affect nature, a practitioner needed to channel Will paired with intention. This ties into the definition Stephen Flowers provides in his seminal Lords of the Left-Hand Path:
Magic can be defined as a methodology by which the configuration of the subjective or objective universe is altered through an act of will originating within the psyche, or the core of the individual subjective universe.
Without overthinking this too much, and then memes being created as a result, let us to the radical magic of the Platonizing Sethians in the days when Christianity was beginning to seduce imperial Rome.
Something wicked this way comes
In Apocalypse of the Alien God, Dylan Burns deeply explores Sethian Gnosticism. In one section, he writes:
The authors of the Sethian treatises were not exactly sorcerers, for they did not hold that, as humans, they were superior to heavenly beings. Instead, several of their texts described how seers would, in the course of the ascent to heaven, be transformed into angels and even acquire supra-angelic authority.
This subtle type of meta-metamorphosis is found in such Nag Hammadi texts as Zostrianos, Allogenes, and Marsanes. Burns explains in our interview that Gnostic magic was likely based on ancient Egyptian sorcery. He also states that magic was widely used in some form or another across the Roman empire. What’s striking, though, is that the Sethians leveraged magic for apotheosis and by conquering the spirit realms and its denizens. Such a stunt was largely not kosher for Christians, Jews, and Pagans of those days.
In Zostrianos, the eponymous protagonist absorbs so much mystic power from his heavenly excursion that he outright becomes an archangel of sorts. He grants a quick speech on his adventure; and the angels themselves are absorbed by his highfaluting Gnosis —for he is now superior to them.
Burns summarizes the reaction of Porphyry, the student of Plotinus, to the Platonizing Sethian witchcraft:
Human beings could not have power over demons or angels or anything else superhuman by virtue of being material beings into which souls have descended. Human beings are less powerful than demons or angels or heroes, less material beings or immaterial beings whose souls had not descended into the world as far.
In other words, this wasn’t your grandmother’s theurgy.
Being higher than the gods didn’t end there. As Burns further explains in our interview, Plotinus claims that the Platonizing Sethians are knee-deep in exorcisms and healing spells that “free themselves from diseases.” The Gnostics are riffing during spell work, making animals sounds, spouting nonsensical barbarous words, and chanting exotic hymns. Burns refers to this as “alphabet mysticism” or “vowel spells” in Apocalypse of the Alien God.
Whatever you may call this sorcery, it’s pissing off Plotinus and more.
You see, these incantations are found in both ancient magical papyri and sections of the Nag Hammadi library. Burns says that the spells “appears to have been used as an amulet, probably a protective spell.”
He then explains the reasons:
We think it must have been used as an amulet because of the way it was folded. In the ancient world if you wanted to ward off a fever from someone, let’s say your mother gets sick and you want her to get better, you would go and find the “witch doctor,” for want of a better word, in your local village. You would then purchase an anti-fever spell from them; they would write it down and fold it up and then put it around something. Then you could go and you could take it home, put it on your mother and ideally the incantation will ward away the fever-inducing demons in your mother’s vicinity.
Again, this wasn’t uncommon in those days. The issue was that the Gnostics contended they had full control of the angel or demon, forcing it down into the magical object. For Plotinus and Porphyry (and probably all Neoplatonists across the empire), that was insane and dangerous thinking. For them too, the essence of these supernatural beings flowed either through a person or objects for the magical effect. There’s no way humans could use speech or objects to coerce the supernatural managers of the universe.
The Platonizing Sethians disagreed, and centuries later occultists would agree with these Gnostics.
Magically rage against the machine
Ancient Gnostic sects utilized various rituals for their prime objective of freedom from the Black Iron Prison – from being involved in Catholic sacraments to sexual rites.
But it seems they shifted in intensity at some point. In The Gnostic New Age, April DeConick explains that the Gnostic rituals in the second century were mainly for initiation and soul healing. Like the mystery schools of their era, they participated in holy dramas and transpersonal therapy rites that instilled wholeness. I write about these spiritual practices in my article The Four Categories of Gnostic Religious Rites.
By the mid-third century, however — coincidentally when the works of Christian heresy hunters are starting to go viral — some Gnostics pivot towards controlling immortals. From the kind sayings of Jesus in the first-century Gospel of Thomas to demons having sex with humans in the third-century Paraphrase of Shem, it’s like a metaphysical Spinal Tap evolution. I mean, it’s no secret from church father shade-throwing that two of the greatest Gnostic archvillains were Simon Magus and Marcus the Magician.
Adding to the evolving Gnostic vibe, there is evidence the Nag Hammadi texts weren’t buried by heroic, free-speech monks in the fourth century but were actually a trove of funerary and necromantic rituals.
Was this shift in tone and praxis fueled by desperation? Rage? Why would they reject Jesus Christ and decide to invade the astral planes?
Who knows? I’ve always felt there is a seething rage behind many later Classic Gnostic texts like The Gospel of Judas or The Apocalypse of Peter. I thought the resentment involved being divine beings cast down from the Pleroma and tied to the bodies of mammals. Maybe the Sethians were just pushed against a wall in a civilization that increasingly scorned them, from the Christian churches to the Pagan universities.
In the end, I’m speculating. Heck and Hekate, I’ve even wondered if it was perhaps a dark and reckless use of magic that ultimately doomed the Gnostics during the rise of Christian Rome — and not their theology.
Maybe I’m wrong. But it must be said that Gnostics across history, regardless of environment or praxis, always had a way of taking things to the extreme. As Burns states in our interview, the Platonizing Sethians were the ultimate spiritual anarchists while Neoplatonists embraced metaphysical Reaganomics with their trickle-down divinity and all.
Going back to DeConick’s book, she puts very well the attitude of the ancient Gnostics:
The real maelstrom of difference in the Gnostic-Catholic debate centers on the nature of humanity, because at the foundation of this debate is transgression itself, whether to be subordinate or insubordinate. The Gnostic Christians value the superiority and natural divinity of humans. They prioritize human need over the needs of the conventional gods and their otherworldly representatives. They understand the human predicament to be forced enslavement to the powers that control this world, both cosmic denizens and human authorities.
Angry or not, the Gnostics were victorious in heavenly places but lost in earthly realms…a stark contrast to most other religions.
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