Category Archives: esoterica

The Merging of Opposites in Thunder: Perfect Mind

Thunder: Perfect Mind is not like any other text in the Gnostic corpus.  It was written in the first person, and consists of a seemingly endless list of contradictory self-descriptions:

I am the first and the last.
I am the honored one and the scorned one.
I am the whore and the holy one.
I am the wife and the virgin.
I am the mother and the daughter.

The narrator is female, but she moves beyond female-centric imagery into the abstract:

I am the silence that is incomprehensible
and the idea whose remembrance is frequent.
I am the voice whose sound is manifold
and the word whose appearance is multiple.
I am the utterance of my name.

Some, including Douglas M. Parrott, one of the principal translators, have compared it to the Isis aretalogies used in Egyptian worship.  An aretalogy is a list or catalog of characteristics used to identify a deity.  For example, the most famous of the Isis aretalogies is this one, which seems to be the work of an Isis mystery cult in Thrace.  It doesn’t bear much resemblance to Thunder: Perfect Mind.  The Isis aretalogy addresses Isis in the second person, and it doesn’t have a similar rhythm at all. But the parallels may provide a clue.

Thunder: Perfect Mind does bear a bit more resemblance to the Sophia aretalogy in Proverbs 8:22-36:

Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no springs abounding with water.
Before the mountains had been shaped,
before the hills, I was brought forth—
when he had not yet made earth and fields,
or the world’s first bits of soil. (Proverbs 8:23-26)

The Sophia monologue was written during the Hellenistic period and exemplifies the Wisdom scripture of the Jewish community in Alexandria.  But even this work is very different.  It is essentially a creation story praising Wisdom, telling a coherent narrative, whereas Thunder: Perfect Mind is simply a mind-boggling array of contradictory assertions.

Merging of opposites is a prominent theme in Gnostic scripture.  Consider this famous passage from the Gospel of Thomas:

Jesus said to them, “When you make the two one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, and the above like the below, and when you make the male and the female one and the same, so that the male not be male nor the female female; and when you fashion eyes in the place of an eye, and a hand in place of a hand, and a foot in place of a foot, and a likeness in place of a likeness; then will you enter the kingdom” (Gospel of Thomas 22)

This in turn can be compared to the Emerald Tablet of Hermes, considered one of the foundational writings of alchemy.  Some alchemical writings appear to have been deeply crypto-Gnostic (cf. for example the work of Silberer and Jung), and the alchemical endeavor possibly provided one avenue by which Gnostic ideas were preserved in secret during the years when being in possession of Gnostic writings was a grave offense.

But what purpose could this have served?  Is it simply meant to sound profound while being, simply, nonsense?  Nanna Olsen gave a clue in her conclusion to this essay about Thunder: Perfect Mind:

The text … works to convey meaning not in an informative way, but in a performative one by perpetually deferring, defying, disrupting and destructing meaning, and forcing the reader into insoluble dilemmas, it becomes obvious how the text makes sense.

The key word there is ‘performative.’  The most obvious use of the text is as a ritual script.  Perhaps the goal was invocation, or the literal drawing of divine presence into oneself by prayer and ritual.

Andrew Newberg and Eugene D’Aquilli, in their book Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief, describe an interesting theory based on taking brain images of people having religious experiences.  Ritual, they suggested, induces a state of mystical awe by stimulating both the sympathetic and the parasympathetic faculties in the nervous system.  The sympathetic nervous system prepares the body for “fight or flight” by responding to potential threats; speeding the heart and and exciting the amygdala.  The parasympathetic nervous system responds to calming stimuli by slowing the heartbeat and allowing the body to enter a restful state.  Normally either one or the other is active at a time; only an unsual circumstance can trigger both to be active at the same time. Religious ritual accomplishes this, though. Ritual performance involves rhythm and repetition, which tend to calm one down; but they also present the mind with imagery or mysteries that evoke fear or surprise.  The result is that both nervous systems are triggered at the same time and the result can be a profoundly emotional experience.

Even the title of the text alone suggests this juxtaposition: “thunder” alongside “perfect mind.”  The text is intended to be performed, and gives us great insight into what it must have been like to participate in Gnostic worship.

Guardian Angels in the Gnostic tradition

The idea of guardian spirits or angels was fairly widely known throughout the West during the period of antiquity, though these took many different forms.

For example, the Romans worshipped spirits called the lares, who were ancestor spirits who remained to guard over a family and household.  This entailed protection from harm as well as protection of the family’s hearth and bounty.  The Romans also believed in spirits called genii (sg. genius), who were associated with a particular person, place, or concept, and charged with guarding and protecting the virtue of that which they watched over.  The office of Roman emperor had a genius, as did the entire people of the Roman Empire.

Roman subjects paid a kind of spiritual tax in the requirement to regularly offer a small sacrifice, usually a small pastry or cake, to the genii of the emperor and the Roman Empire. Jews were exempted from making this sacrifice by special treaty, but that dispensation did not apply to Christians.  Refusing to make this sacrifice was the most frequent act for which Christians were condemned during the waves of persecution that sometimes swept through the Empire.

Among the various sects of Judaism, the idea of protective spirits was adopted gradually, though naturally as angels.  Daniel, when sent to the lions’ den, was protected by an angel, though it does not read as if this was an angel permanently appointed to protect him.  In the Book of Enoch are mentioned angels sent to guard over the righteous (and, according to the Epistle of Jude, to execute the Lord’s judgment).  Also, the Book of Enoch describes several archangels whose duties include promotion of justice, especially Michael.

It is this type of guardian angel who appears in Acts 12, in which an angel freed Peter from jail.  When Peter made his way to the house of Mary the mother of John, he knocked at the gate, only to have the apostles think, since it can’t be him (he’s in prison!) maybe it’s his angel.

The Holy Spirit, as a guide and protector to the body of the church, plays a role not unlike the genius of the Empire.  This is also analogous to the Kabbalistic idea of the Keneset Yisrael, the soul of the body of Israel – a spiritual bond connecting the members of the nation together as one body.

The Gnostics also spoke about guardian angels, but their understanding was somewhat different.  An excellent essay, “Joined to an Angel,” describes the role of the guardian angel in the Valentinian scripture and its importance in the Gnostic sacraments – especially the Sacrament of the Bridal Chamber, which was not a marital ceremony between man and woman, but a marriage between the aspirant and their guardian angel, spiritually analogous to the marriage of Christ and Sophia.

In the Valentinian tradition, each person has an angel who is a go-between between them and the divine presence — but the connection is even deeper than that.  The Gospel of Philip describes the union with the guardian angel by way of an analogy:

The forms of evil spirit include male ones and female ones. The males are they which unite with the souls which inhabit a female form, but the females are they which are mingled with those in a male form… And none shall be able to escape them, since they detain him if he does not receive a male power or a female power, the bridegroom and the bride. One receives them from the mirrored bridal chamber. When the wanton women see a male sitting alone, they leap down on him and play with him and defile him. So also the lecherous men, when they see a beautiful woman sitting alone, they persuade her and compel her, wishing to defile her. But if they see the man and his wife sitting beside one another, the female cannot come into the man, nor can the male come into the woman. So if the image and the angel are united with one another, neither can any venture to go into the man or the woman.

The image (eidolon) is a Gnostic term for the material body, and the implication is that the angel is almost like another half of your soul without whom you are incomplete.

This esoteric notion of the guardian angel has its roots (as do many of the Gnostic ideas) in the writings of Plato.  During the classical period, the Greek words for personal angel (daimon) and god (theou) were used somewhat interchangeably.  By the time of Plato a distinction started to appear, which was explicated in this exchange between Socrates and the priestess Diotima in the Symposium:

“What then is Love?” I asked; “Is he mortal?” “No.” “What then?” “As in the former instance, he is neither mortal nor immortal, but in a mean between the two.” “What is he, Diotima?” “He is a great spirit (daimon), and like all spirits he is intermediate between the divine and the mortal.” “And what,” I said, “is his power?” “He interprets,” she replied, “between gods and men, conveying and taking across to the gods the prayers and sacrifices of men, and to men the commands and replies of the gods; he is the mediator who spans the chasm which divides them, and therefore in him all is bound together, and through him the arts of the prophet and the priest, their sacrifices and mysteries and charms, and all, prophecy and incantation, find their way.

A similar notion of the guardian angel persists to this day, which is known in modern occultism because it was developed into a system of theurgic magic by Mathers in his Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage, the central goal of which is called the Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel.  The aspirant, after a period of ritual purification (similar to the ascetic lifestyle advocated by many of the Gnostic sects) is said to attain mastery over many things in this world.  The magical SATOR square, employed therein, was known to ancient magic practitioners, including those of ancient Alexandria.  In many ways, we see, the Western esoteric tradition has remained largely intact over the millennia.