Tag Archives: cosmic ascension

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.

Escaping Fate by Rising Through the Heavens

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)