Tag Archives: plato

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.

The Gospel of Truth, 1

The Gospel of Truth was written circa 150 CE by a member of the Valentinian school of Gnostic Christianity. The author was probably Valentinus himself, though we do not have a direct attribution. Notable for its clear and beautiful prose, it was widely-read throughout the late second century CE and serves as an excellent starting point for an exploration of classical Gnostic Christianity. I will excerpt from the translation by Robert Grant, published in The Nag Hammadi Library and available to read here at the Gnostic Society Library, though I also recommend the translation by Bentley Layton available in The Gnostic Scriptures.

The gospel of truth is joy to those who have received from the Father of truth the gift of knowing him by the power of the Logos, who has come from the Pleroma and who is in the thought and the mind of the Father; he it is who is called “the Savior,” since that is the name of the work which he must do for the redemption of those who have not known the Father.

When reading a text from the Valentinian school, keep in mind that these authors were fond of looking for ways to express several ideas using the same set of words. They read and wrote scripture according to a technique we might compare to the Jewish approach of pardes – drawing from not just the most direct way of reading the text, but seeking clues that point to mystical or even esoteric ideas.

“The gospel of truth” is not the title of this text, though it is now used as that because the original manuscript did not specify a title. On the most direct level, “the gospel of truth” likely refers to the familiar doctrine of Christianity. But to those reading with a more esoteric frame of mind, this phrase referred more widely to the expression of cosmic truth in any form it may take, of which the Christian gospel was just one form.

“The gospel of truth is joy to those who have received from the Father of truth the gift of knowing him by the power of the Logos” – the most direct way to read this is as a fairly innocuous Christian statement, invoking the Father as the provider of truth by way of the Logos. But there is also an esoteric reading here. The “gift” given to us by the Logos is “knowing [the Father]” – where “knowing” means gnosis, a mystical experience of affinity or closeness with the Father.

The word Logos (from the Greek word for word) has a rich history that predates Christianity and its use here invokes that fuller meaning. It is probably familiar to most readers for its use in the Gospel of John. It was almost certainly the intention of the author of the Gospel of John to incorporate the earlier, pre-Christian meanings of the word into his message. Originally, “Logos” was a name the Stoic philosophers gave to the cosmic mind they believed was responsible for coalescing all that exists into a natural order. To the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, the Stoic Logos was clearly an expression of the power by which the Lord created by speaking, as described in Genesis 1. The opening of the Gospel of John, which paralleled the creation story of Genesis 1, casts the Logos in this way: it “was with God, and was God” at the beginning.

But, for Philo, the Logos expresses another idea: a similarity of essence between the human mind and the Lord’s mind of which it is a reflection. In other words, the human mind and the divine mind are made out of the same “stuff.” This notion is key to understanding the Gnostic philosophy and worldview.

Pleroma is a Greek word which means “fullness” and in this context calls to mind the fullness of the divine presence.  For now we can think of it as the original or genuine cosmic order as conceived in the mind of God – the Platonic realm of Forms.  The concept originates in the dialogs of Plato, which were a source of inspiration for Gnostics of the classical period.  For example, in Phaedo, we find this passage, which compares the “true” heaven and earth to the one in which we live, which may contain many beauties but is still “corrupted and corroded” by comparison:

We live in a hollow of the earth and think we live on the surface, and call the air heaven, …[but] if a man could come to the top of it, and get wings and fly up, he could peep over and look, just as fishes here peep up out of the sea… [so] he could learn and know that that is the true heaven and the true light and the true earth.  For this earth and the stones and all the the places here are corrupted and corroded… so that nothing worth mention grows in the sea, and there is nothing perfect there, one might say, but caves and sand and infinite mud and slime wherever there is any earth, things worth nothing at all as compared with the beauties we have; but again those above as compared with ours would seem to be much superior.  (Phaedo, translated by W. H. D. Rouse, in Great Dialogues of Plato, p. 314)

Thus “the power of the Logos” is not merely the message and acts of Jesus Christ, but all the ways by which we come to gnosis – to a closer awareness of the divine presence. And so the esoteric meaning of this first sentence is that truth, or expression rooted in the genuine cosmic order – in the Pleroma – originates from the Father’s mind and was expressed during the act of creation by speaking words. And, since our minds are akin to the Father’s mind, we can through this affinity become attuned to the Father.

But – if our minds should be by nature ‘attuned’ to the divine wavelength, why aren’t they? I’ll explore this question more deeply in my next post.