Every good narrative needs a good villain. In their evocative myths, the Gnostics supplied perhaps the best possible villain: The Supreme Being of the material universe and humanity’s very creator. How do you top that? This antagonist was often associated with the wrathful god of the Old Testament and went by many names: Ialdabaoth, Samael, Saklas, Nebro and, of course, the Demiurge. Instead of the iconic Michael McDonald-looking Caucasian, the Gnostics portrayed the Demiurge as a lion-headed dragon.
Much has been written, beyond the Gnostic texts, on the role of the Demiurge, but not much on why he was depicted with the head of a lion.
A Leontomorphic Antagonist
To start, we should understand that presenting supernatural beings with animal features was not uncommon in ancient times. These days we tend to see angels as Abercrombie & Fitch models with silky wings, but in biblical times supernatural entities were often seen as possessing beast aspects. This portrayal did not mean a god or angel was bestial; it meant the being’s personality corresponded to some animal quality (like Isis being represented as a cow or with a bovine face because of her nurturing aspect—at least according to the ancient Egyptians). The name of a character/creature that is partly animal-shaped is called theriomorphic, and the Demiurge specifically is leontomorphic, or lion-formed.
To understand why exactly the Demiurge owned a lion head, however, we must understand that his image goes back farther (and above) than early Christianity and is part of a cultural vibe of ancient times.
The Ancient Egyptian Origins of the Demiurge
In The Thirteenth Apostledas Really Says, April DeConick delves into the astral theology of the Gnostics, specifically the Sethians, which they directly inherited from the ancient Egyptians. She explains that the Demiurge was placed in the 13th heaven, which likely corresponded to the realm of the unique set of stars called the decans. These stars were believed to exist just above the Zodiac constellation and beyond the planets. One decan rose at dawn every ten days. The rising of the decans was utilized by the Egyptians to divide time into hours. They were made to correlate with every ten degrees of the Zodiac once the Egyptian decanal system merged with the Greek zodiacal system in the Hellenistic period.
The gods associated with the decans were believed to be very powerful because they did not stand in stations, unlike the constellations. Moreover, unlike the planets, the decans did not move backwards nor could they be eclipsed by the sun.
Deconick explains in her book:
So important were these stars that some Egyptians singled out a favorite one, a decan who was imagined having a snake’s body and a lion’s face with sun rays radiating from his head. They called this decan “Char-Chnoubis,” or “Chnoubis” for short. This god’s image is eventually taken over by the Gnostics in their depictions of Ialdabaoth. So it appears to me that the origins of the Ialdabaoth god, in part, can be traced to this Egyptian decan connected with the house of Leo. Incredibly, Chnoubis was the thirteenth decan in the Hellenistic logs of the thirty-six. According to our sources, Chnoubis is the thirteenth decan, Ialdabaoth is the thirteenth archon.
The Lion Guardian in Ancient Times
Beyond astrotheology, the lion was considered in ancient times to be a guardian of the underworld or heavenly domains (often these places were one and the same). This is detailed in John Lundwall’s book, Mythos and Cosmos. As he writes:
The astral road was always guarded by always guarded by a ferocious lion. In the ancient world, guardian leonine sphinxes were placed at temples, pyramids, and tombs all across Eurasia.
These lion guardians, like the Archons of the Gnostics, protected metaphysical gates and only allowed access if the traveling soul provided the right password. In the Egyptian Book of the Dead, a lion guardian explains to the astral traveler:
How can you reach the confines of the sky? Indeed you are equipped with the form of Horus, but you do not possess the Nemes Headdress.
In some texts, the dead must wrestle a lion guardian, much like Herakles does with the Nemean Lion in Greek lore. If successful, the lion guardian would even accompany the soul to the next level!
The guardian lion can also be found in the Myth of Attis, Hinduism, and the Mysteries of Mithras, just to name a few. In fact, in Mithraism, the supreme god Aion was depicted as a lion-headed man wrapped by a coiling serpent.
The Gnostics certainly adopted the lion guardian motif of the ancients, though they portrayed this typology as entirely negative.
What the Lion Itself Represents
But did the ancients choose the symbol of a lion as a cosmic gatekeeper? Why not a panther or other predator?
Lundwall explains a prudent reason his book:
The guides to the celestial world are like lions—they rule the plains with speed and intelligence and with their luminescent eyes see through the darkness of night to find their path. What better symbol for the champion of the dark regions of the underworld that the lordly lion?
Furthermore, due to their manes and coloring, lions were often associated with the sun, which in itself means a solar (godly) force.
In Introduction to “Gnosticism”, Nicola Denzey Lewis offers why the Gnostics might have enjoyed the lion symbolism, beyond astrology:
Some scholars noted that the lion in ancient Greek philosophy represented the irrational passions.
Take that, Mufasa!
The Gnostics never viewed the Demiurge in the noble context of the above quote by Lundwall, but closer to the quote by Lewis. To them, the Demiurge was not a gatekeeper but a warden in the prison that was the World of Forms. He was more human than human, and thus much less than a lowly beast. As a deity, he was nothing more than the misshapen offspring of the Aeon Sophia who stole her power and created a poor copy of the Eternal Realm. The astral road was nothing but a labyrinth of tears.
And what about the dragon body?
That is for another decan, perhaps after the next time you provide a password to or wrestle with a lion guardian in your own travels through the labyrinth of tears.