Tag Archives: barbelo

Gnostic name wordcloud

I’ve been working on an index of the named figures in Gnostic myth, focusing especially on the Barbelo-Sethian texts – Pistis Sophia, Books of Ieou, the Untitled Apocalypse, and related works in the Nag Hammadi Library.  I was surprised to see how prominent were some of the lesser-known figures of Gnostic myth – such as Youel, “she who belongs to the glories,” and Esephech, “the Child of the Child.”  Both of them are described in several texts (notably Zostrianos) as spirit-instructors.

Sophia is a bit under-represented (I didn’t index every single occurrence of her name) – and the list isn’t necessarily comprehensive – ‘representative’ is probably a more accurate description.

Using Wordle I constructed a word cloud; click the image to see the full-size version.

wordcloud of Gnostic god-names

Mercy and Judgment in Pistis Sophia

Pistis Sophia is a late Gnostic text, typically dated in the 3rd to 4th Century CE.  Largely it is known to us from a Coptic edition in the Askew Codex.  It is long and somewhat impenetrable to casual reading.

Pistis Sophia is an apocalypse telling of both the beginning and the end of the world; and as we find in most texts of that genre it spends no small amount of time describing what will happen to people’s souls after the final judgment.  Like most Gnostic texts, Pistis Sophia describes human souls as being trapped by the Archons in a cycle of reincarnation.  There are some interesting similarities to the Tibetan Buddhist text Bardo Thodol (“Liberation by Hearing in the Liminality”), and also to the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

As in Bardo Thodol, right after death the human soul has a chance to be freed from the cycle of reincarnation.  If the person while alive was baptized, followed the purifications (Pistis Sophia advocated a life of abstinence), and carried out the necessary instructions upon death, they would be well-equipped to grasp that opportunity and rise up “like an arrow” beyond the obstacles of fate and fear.  Also as in Bardo Thodol, the unprepared also had a chance at liberation, but they had to be lucky enough to hear and understand liberatory prayers spoken by someone who had received the proper instruction.

Pistis Sophia, like most Christian apocalyptic texts, proscribes the judgment of souls, but in describing the fate of souls its tone is much more merciful than we encounter in  mainstream Christian scripture.  The details of the fate of souls borrow heavily from Greek and Egyptian notions of the afterlife.

Upon death, the human soul is said to fall into the company of “receivers,” of whom there are several classes having varying levels of friendliness towards the soul.  Those who lead  ethical lives, regardless of their beliefs or instruction in the Gnostic mysteries, fall into the company of friendlier receivers who first “spend three days circling with it in all the creatures of the world” (ch. 103).  They then guide the soul through different regions of the underworld (Amente and Chaos, of Egyptian and Greek myth) where they are judged but do not suffer greatly.  They are made to drink from a cup of forgetfulness, and finally the soul is led back to be born into a new body, and whether they are assigned a good destiny or bad one reflects their conduct in the previous life.

Those who led less ethical lives do not fare as pleasantly.  They are taken up by “retributive” receivers who usher them through the realms of judgment, where they are punished by the Archons according to the wickedness of their actions in life.  A “wise fire” purifies them by burning away the worst parts of them.  (Baptism involving fire was not literally practiced by Gnostics – as far as we know – but they referred to the inner initiatory rituals as “fire baptism” to distinguish them from the water baptism that was open to everyone.) Finally they are brought before Barbelo, the Virgin of Light, who assigns a new fate for them based on their actions in the previous life.

Those who have been initiated in the Gnostic mysteries are said to be able to offer help to the souls of the departed.  They can recite prayers over the corpse in hopes that the spirit will hear it and follow instructions that may help them rise up beyond the spheres of fate that trap the human soul on Earth.  They can also offer prayers to the Virgin of Light on their behalf, so that she will give them a more merciful assignment in the next life.

For a few souls who led especially wicked lives on Earth – or Gnostic initiates who slide back repeatedly into immoral behavior – a particularly terrifying fate awaits.  They are taken to the Outer Darkness – the same Outer Darkness which Jesus described in the Gospels as a “place of wailing and gnashing of teeth.”  Unlike popular depictions of Hell as a place of fire and brimstone, the Outer Darkness is described, like the deepest level of Hell Dante’s Inferno, as a place of terrible, freezing cold.  There, the souls of the wicked will be frozen until the end of the world, at which time they will cease to exist.

There is no eternal suffering in this depiction of Hell.  And redemption is open to even the Archons or demons too, if they should repent.  Several of the Gnostic texts, including Pistis Sophia, Hypostasis of the Archons, and the Secret Book of John, describe a role given to a repentant Archon named Sabaoth.

I mentioned in one of my earlier posts that it is hard to reconcile ancient apocryphal texts proscribing harsh or even infinite punishment for wrongdoers with modern ideas of justice.  Pistis Sophia addresses this problem directly.  The section of the text which deals with judgment ends with Jesus assuring the disciples that the holy Mysteries will be more merciful in their judgment than any human.  Citing examples of cases where people commit many sins “deserving of death” but who are then given mercy by earthly kings or judges, he claims that even more merciful will be the Mysteries.

To illustrate his point, Jesus brings before Peter (in order to test him) a woman who had transgressed three times after repenting and being baptized. He instructs Peter to “perform the mystery which cutteth off the souls from the inheritances of the Light.”  Peter demurs:

When then the Saviour had said this, Peter said: “My Lord, let her yet this time, that we may give her the higher mysteries; and if she is fit, then hast thou let her inherit the Light-kingdom, but if she is not fit, then hast thou [to] cut her off from the Light-kingdom.”

When then Peter had said this, the Saviour knew that Peter was compassionate as he and forgiving. (Pistis Sophia, Chapter 122)

The choice of Peter in this parable is notable, because throughout the Gnostic texts, Peter is depicted as being particularly hot-tempered, misogynistic, and quick to judgment.  Even Peter can not bear to be the one who cuts this woman out of salvation, when faced with actually doing so.   The point is made: God must be even more merciful than Peter.

The Key Is The Mind

When I wrote my last post, my intention was to start a series of posts summarizing the heart of the Gnostic way of looking at the world.  The idea at the heart of Gnosticism is the idea that each of us has a bit of divinity within us.  But this idea alone took various schools in completely different directions, depending on their overall outlook.  Gnosticism defies easy description or the inclination to get to the bottom line.

Another theme common to all of the Gnostic sects focus on the importance of the mind, of thought, and of rationality.  We’ve already discussed metanoia at length – the process of raising up the mind – and many of the aions have names which are some form of the word Nous/Noia, the Greek word for ‘mind’ or ‘thought’.  In the Gnostic creation myth, the first act of the Father is to contemplate.  As described in the Secret Book of John:

His aeon is indestructible, being in a state of tranquility, at rest in silence. … (It is) the one who knows Itself alone in the light-water that surrounds It, which is the spring of living water, the light which is full of purity. In every way It perceived Its own image, seeing It in the pure light-water which surrounds It.

We might here imagine the mind of the Father, a sole Oneness in the cosmos, surrounded by reflective water in all directions, looking out in all directions and seeing only himself.  It’s a bit reminiscent of the spirit of God reflecting in the waters at the beginning of Genesis 1.

And Its thinking become a thing. She appeared. She stood in Its presence in the brilliance of the light; she is the power which is before the All. It is she who appeared, she who is the perfect Pronoia of the All, the light, the likeness of the light, the image of the Invisible, she who is the perfect power, Barbelo, the perfect aeon of the glory.

Pronoia is a Greek word meaning “first thought.”  These events are still occurring within a mind: the Father in perfect stillness and silence, contemplating his reflection in the luminescent water; the first thought being articulated and becoming distinguished from the Father’s prior state of contemplation.

The creation of Barbelo, the First Thought of the Father, parallels the creation of Sophia as depicted in Proverbs 8:21-32: “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago.. … I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight.”

Pronoia acts as the Father’s mouth, speaking forth words as the Father contemplates them and then passes them into her mind.  There is a hint perhaps of sexual parentage here, especially in the image of the Father’s offspring being birthed by Pronoia the Mother as she speaks his words aloud.  The Father and Pronoia exist as a syzygy, a union of two beings into one.

The word given form by being spoken is Logos, from whom, the myth tells us, the rest of the cosmos was given order and form.

In the Valentinian version of the mythos, the prime syzygy is the union of Profundity with Silence; this pair precedes Mind and Truth.  The idea is largely the same; at the root of it all, a mind at rest, in silence, engages in deep reflection.  It is no accident that this also describes the experience of one who performs silent prayer or stillness meditation.  The “little” mind (or microcosmos) of the individual aspiring to union with God is of the same essence as the “big” mind (or macrocosmos) of God, and it is this likeness that makes reunion possible.  And, the Gnostics say, it is the state of silent contemplation in which our individual minds are most like the mind of God, so this is the best state in which to discern truth.

[W]henever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.  Matthew 6:6

In my last post, I mentioned the Valentinian view that the struggle for error vs. truth takes place primarily in the mind.  It was not their position that the mind is all there is, but merely that within is where the most profound change occurs.

A common concern expressed by those who mistrust the mysticism of “looking within” is that it is too easy to be led astray.  If in the middle of a profoundly touching mystical experience one entertains a fanciful notion, it is too easy to find oneself set on a path away from truth.  Indeed, the Gnostics themselves provide us with material enough to caution us in this regard – some of their writings are very bizarre indeed.  But the answer to this is in the notion of logic.  For example, Paul had this to say about the process:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)

The word translated “spiritual” is logike, which can also mean discerning with rationality – literally with logic.  It is almost certain he meant that as a reference to Logos, the principle which brings order to the cosmos and to the mind.  “Logic” is of course a cognate of “Logos.”  The discernment which we embark upon should produce results which are rational and which ring true when we consider them in light of the world around us.  Thus we are warned against letting our mind lead us astray by grounding our insights in rationality and experience.  They should lead us into, not away from, a state of proportion and balance.

The next indication that your mind is healing in the right direction is that your actions are more consistently ethical and compassionate.  Both the Sermon on the Mount and Romans 12, which I quoted above, lead directly from instructions on “logical worship” and “praying in private” to guidelines on ethical behavior.  We find this too in the Gospel of Truth:

Say then in your heart that you are this perfect day and that in you the light which does not fail dwells. Speak concerning the truth to those who seek it and of knowledge to those who, in their error, have committed sin. Make sure-footed those who stumble and stretch forth your hands to the sick. Nourish the hungry and set at ease those who are troubled. … [T]his one, because he is a righteous person, does his works among others. Do the will of the Father, then, for you are from him. For the Father is sweet and his will is good.