Continuing the overview series… the Gnostic schools pretty much universally believed in the idea of fate or predestination. Some even believed in astrology, the notion that planetary patterns reflect patterns in human lives here on Earth. Here’s the twist, though: they were convinced that fate was evil and that part of our quest for salvation involved learning how to thwart it.
In the Gnostic mythos, fate was part of the trap the archons set for human spirit. From the Secret Book of John:
[T]he Chief Ruler knew that [the human beings, after the Mother awakened their thinking] surpassed him in the excellence of their wisdom. He wanted to restrict their plan for he was ignorant. He did not understand [that] they were wiser than he. He made a plan with his powers. They begot Fate and they bound the gods of heaven and angels and demons and human beings with measures and seasons and times in order to keep them all in its fetter—for it was lord over them all.
The Secret Book of John lists 12 archons, including the chief archon, Yaldabaoth; and further names seven “glories” who were appointed by Yaldabaoth to rule over the heavens, and also over the days of the week.
The seven heavens are of course the orbital spheres of the seven then-known planets. The idea of reading one’s fate in the stars likely came to the middle east by way of Babylon, where it was brought to Egypt by the conquest of the Babylonian Empire. Much of the Western innovation in astronomical research during the period of antiquity took place in Egypt and northern Africa. Claudius Ptolemy, whose famous work the Almagest expounded his famous geocentric system, published his work around the same time as the development of the Gnostic myth about fate and astrology.
With fate seen as a trap set by the archons, the Gnostics sought a way to overcome it. The notion of becoming free of the material fetter became also a myth of cosmic ascension — of rising spiritually through the seven heavens, overcoming each archon one by one and passing on into the next realm. Beyond the seven planetary spheres was one last obstacle, the eighth heaven with its sphere of fixed stars, which included the twelve signs of the zodiac. These too were ruled by the archons. Beyond the eighth heaven was the Empyrian Realm, a realm of light and fire, which was said to be the dwelling place of the Father. In Ptolemy’s myth this was the realm of the Prime Mover, the one responsible for keeping the heavenly bodies in motion.
Astronomical myth played a central role in Christian doctrine from the beginning. Recall, for example, that three kings from east (legend says from Babylon, which is the realm where the first western astrology was developed) followed a star to find the birthplace of Jesus. Throughout his ministry Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of Heaven and his ‘heavenly Father’ (as distinct from his worldly or mundane father). And finally, Jesus was lifted up into heaven to be with his Father.
Cosmic ascension is, therefore, a symbol for union with God that goes back to the very roots of Christian doctrine. It is reminiscent of the ascension of Enoch. Visions of being transported to heaven and shown around abound in Christian mystical literature, Gnostic and otherwise. See for example the Apocalypse of Paul, which purports to describe the vision of heaven Paul was given during his conversion event on the road to Damascus. The endurance of this tradition is demonstrated by the similar visions described by Dante Alighieri in his Paradiso.
At least one sect developed this into an extremely elaborate system of ritual magic recorded in the Books of Ieou (or IAO). This book describes 30 heavenly aeons through which the ascendant must pass, each one governed by three archons, who must be challenged. The ascendant uses a particular sign and grasps a numerical glyph in his or her hand while demonstrating authority over the archons.
When you come out of the body and you reach the first of the aeons, and the archons of that aeon arrive before you, seal yourselves with this seal. Say its name Zozeze — say it one time only. Grasp this pebble with both your hands: 1119. … Say these protective spells also: ‘Retreat Proteth, Persomphon, Chous, archons of the first aeon, for I invoke Eaza Zeozaz Zozeoz.’ Whenever the archons … hear these names, they will be very afraid… and flee leftward to the west while you journey on up. (Ancient Christian Magic, p. 67; translated by Richard Smith)