All About Gnosticism and Gnostic Mythology

Written by Daniel Seeker

Jun 26, 2024

Our world is a mistake, everything bodily and material is bad and last but not least the god most people worship is evil. That’s the Gnostic worldview in a very compact nutshell. However that isn’t the whole picture of Gnosticism; there is much more to be said about this tradition and its intriguing history. Gnosticism was one of the many religious-philosophical movement in the West during the first centuries of our era, and the Gnostic doctrines in company with other religious faiths served as competitors and alternatives to what later became the Orthodox Catholic Christianity.

The main tenets of the Gnostic worldview were derived out of the belief that all matter was the creation of an ignorant and imperfect deity, called Ialdaboath, which in turn was made out of a gargantuan cosmic mistake, as is so fascinatingly told in some Gnostic myths. (most notably the Secret Book of John)

According to the Gnostics, this imperfect and ignorant deity (Ialdaboath) was equivalent to the Abrahamic God Yahweh, which one finds in the Old Testament and consequently the same God that is found, though a more lenient version perhaps, in the New Testament and in the Quran.

The spiritual goal of the Gnostic was to gain this knowledge (gnosis) about the nature of the world, its limitations and in doing so begin his/her spiritual ascension into the realm of the Fullness, the abode of the one true perfect God, the Invisible Virgin Spirit.

Gnostic Mythology

Ialdaboath, the God which the Gnostics deemed to be malevolent.

Ialdaboath, the God which the Gnostics deemed to be malevolent.

If one was to summarize the Gnostic worldview, especially the so-called “Setian”, one could say that the essence of it is about humanity’s alienation in an imperfect world. This view on reality was probably arrived by the Gnostics through observing all the horrors and misery that permeated the world around them. It was in particular the material and physical aspect that they rejected. Matter was characterized by decay and disease and this world was considered the culmination of all these bad phenomena. Since the main enemy of the Gnostics was matter, it was inevitable that the creator of the physical universe would assume the same negative role. With that, the Gnostics proclaimed that the deity who created our universe had to be of a lower rank than the true and supreme God. This lower deity they identified with the God of the Old Testament, and now their main spiritual enemy had a familiar face. It was Yahweh as he was called by the Jews or Ialdaboath which the Gnostics called him in some prominent myths and stories, such as in the elaborate cosmological myth “The Apocryphon of John”, which is considered among the most important texts found in Nag Hammadi.

According to this myth, our world and Ialdaboath were created when the eon Sophia or Wisdom, which was one of the last eons or emanations of the One Perfect God, wanted to think on her own. She did this despite and regardless of the supreme god or her opposite pair, as eons came in opposite pairs, a masculine and a feminine. From this action and event, which Sophia strongly regretted, Ialdaboath was created. For the Gnostics, it was thus through a cosmic mistake that the creator of our world and our universe come from.

Sophia, one of the last Eons of the Invisible Virgin Spirit

Sophia, one of the last Eons (emanations) of the Invisible Virgin Spirit according to Gnostic Myth

Just as described earlier, the Gnostic felt that we do not belong to this world, we belong to a more perfect reality. A reality where the true and supreme God, also called “the invisible spirit” or “the deep” is in total stillness and rest in the company of all his eons. It is the so-called fullness or Greek “pleroma”, which is our real home, and this was the Gnostic teachings unique offering of salvation, namely, a spiritual return to a more perfect spiritual reality of light.

Background & History

One of the most striking and interesting aspects of Gnosticism, especially for historians, is how the interpretation of Gnostic doctrine was changed and enriched with a spontaneous finding in northern Egypt. The year was 1945 and it was in the desert sands near the city of Nag Hammadi, where the farmer Mohammed Ali al-Samman found a large number of codixes in a buried and sealed pot. Before the discovery in Nag Hammadi, the majority of knowledge about Gnosticism was derived from the opponents of Gnostic doctrine, i.e. individuals who wrote texts as direct opposition to the Gnostics. Some of these opponents today are called heresiologists, who were religious figures, usually Christians, who stood for a certain faith and actively opposed others whom they considered to be heretical and/or false. A good example in the case of Gnosticism was the influential Christian bishop Irenaeus, which in the year 180 AD. wrote a seminal work titled  ‘Against Heresies’ against different forms of heresies, especially the Gnostic. This work was for a long time the go-to source for the early researchers of Gnosticism, but everything changed in 1945 from the discovery in Nag Hammadi.

Artistic rendition of the Nag Hammadi Codixes

Artistic rendition of the Nag Hammadi Codixes

Gnosticism and its history are thus an excellent example of how the perspective of an influential and important collection of ideas can be transformed with access to more relevant and varied information. Due to the dry Egyptian climate, these ideas and information could be preserved in good condition over a very long period of time.

According to Irenaeus, there existed a true and unblemished Christianity, which he derived from Jesus and the success of his apostles. Irenaeus came to represent “Orthodox Catholic Christianity,” and for much of Western history, theologians, historians, and other learned men believed in what Irenaeus preached, but the majority of historians today believe that there was no established official church during these first centuries after Jesus. Early Christianity was instead very diverse and many different Christian groups, including the influential Gnostics, offered their own interpretations of the biblical stories.

The Gnostic Man and the Story of Zostrianos

The most important consequence of the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Codex is that the newly discovered texts gave a face or faces to the previously faceless and condemned Gnostics, although the texts were anonymously written, it was still somewhat solid and evident from the Gnostics themselves. These were direct sources, in addition to being translated from Greek to Coptic, which researchers and other interested parties could read, study and even identify with. As a result, the true voice of the Gnostics was heard, and their worldview was reborn in many ways.

Zostrianos, the philosopher who seeked gnosis (knowledge) about the nature of the universe and God.

Zostrianos, the philosopher who seeked gnosis (knowledge) about the nature of the universe and God.

A clear example of how the true voice of the Gnostics was heard is a Nag Hammadi text that contains a prayer that appears to have represented the prayer said by the dying or those who were in company with the dying. Another example that illustrates the rebirth of Gnostic doctrine is the text “Zostrianos“, which was also found in the Nag Hammadi library. This example is especially relevant because it concretises and illustrates the Gnostic individual and his personal path to salvation. This aspect of Gnosticism would be almost impossible to derive solely from the heresiological filtering of Gnostic teachings.

The story of Zostrianos is an excellent example of a central Gnostic feature, namely syncretism, in which the text traces how the Gnostics tried to combine literary and religious philosophy with Platonic philosophy with the Jewish apocalyptic tradition. Zostrianos is a story about how a human being can get “gnosis” about God and the truth. It is about Zostrianos, an individual who adopts an ascetic lifestyle where he through philosophical study strives towards knowledge of God. Through this philosophical study, he gradually realizes the limitations of matter and its subordinate position of the universe. But even the philosophical method turns out to have its limitations, as Zostrianos ends up in a mental crisis and becomes even suicidal when he fails to gain the knowledge of God that he so desperately seeks. This is all changed and transformed when visited by an “angel of gnosis” who descends down to Zostrianos, this angel then takes him on a mysterious journey through the universe to the “fullness” where all eons are in total harmony. During this cosmological journey he manages to contemplate and see more abstract levels of reality, when he finally arrives at “barbelo” or God’s first eon. Which, according to many Gnostic myths, is the highest a human can contemplate in fullness. But it does not end there for the greedy Zostrianos who finally tries to contemplate “the invisible spirit”, the highest and perfect God, this attempt is consequently dismissed by the rest of the eons as “reckless” and Zostrianos then returns to his earthly reality to process everything that took place.

Zostrianos arriving at the Barbelo

Zostrianos arriving at the Barbelo after a mysterious spiritual journey through the fullness.

From the prayer for the dying and from the story of Zostrianos and in the company of many other living texts from Nag Hammadi, one can easily imagine why the interest and thus the debate increased so significantly around Gnosticism

Quotes & Excerpts

Here are a couple quotes from texts from the discovery in Nag Hammadi, texts that are considered Gnostic (The Gospel of Thomas to some extent)

Be passersby.
Jesus of Nazareth (The Gospel of Thomas – Saying 42)

The Father is surrounded by light.
Secret Book According to John (The Origin of Reality)

Whoever discovers the interpretation of these sayings will not taste death.
Jesus of Nazareth (The Gospel of Thomas – Saying 1)

I am one who is honored, praised, and scornfully despised.
I am peace, and war has come because of me.
I am alien and citizen.
I am the substance and one without substance.
Those unconnected to me are unfamiliar with me,
and those in my substance know me.
Those close to me are ignorant of me,
and those far away have known me.
On the day I am close to you, you are far,
and on the day I am far, I am close to you.
Thunder, Perfect Mind

His self-aware thought (ennoia) came into being.
Appearing to him in the effulgence of his light.
She stood before him.
She is from His image in His light
Perfect in power
Image of the invisible perfect Virgin Spirit.
Secret Book According to John (The Origin of Reality)

It happened that the realm (aeon) Wisdom (Sophia)
Of conceptual thought (Epinoia),
Began to think for herself,
She used the thinking (enthymesis)
And the foreknowledge (prognosis)
Of the Invisible Spirit.
Secret Book According to John (A Crisis that Became the World)

She, Barbelo, asked the virgin Spirit for foreknowledge (prognosis).
The Spirit agreed.
Foreknowledge came forth and stood by Providence
[This one came through the Invisible Virgin Spirit’s Thought.]
Foreknowledge gave glory to the Spirit
And to Barbelo, the Spirit’s perfect power,
For She was the reason that it had come into being.
Secret Book According to John (The Origin of Reality)

Because she had unconquerable Power
Her thought was not unproductive.
Something imperfect came out of her
Different in appearance from her.
Secret Book According to John (A Crisis that Became the World)

She, Barbelo, asked the virgin Spirit for Incorruptibility
The Spirit agreed.
Incorruptibility came forth and stood by Thought and Foreknowledge.
Incorruptibility gave glory to the Invisible Virgin Spirit
And to Barbelo,
For She was the reason that it had come into being.
She asked for everlasting Life.
The Spirit agreed
Everlasting life came forth and they all stood together.
They gave glory to the invisible Spirit
Secret Book According to John (Primary Structures of the Divine Mind)

Jesus said, “If they say to you, ‘Where have you come from?’ say to them, ‘We have come from the light, from the place where the light came into being by itself, established [itself], and appeared in their image.’
If they say to you, ‘Is it you?’ say, ‘We are its children, and we are the chosen of the living Father.’
If they ask you, ‘What is the evidence of your Father in you?’ say to them, ‘It is motion and rest.’”
Jesus of Nazareth (The Gospel of Thomas – Saying 50)

Look then at his words
and all the writings which have been completed.
Give heed then, you hearers
and you also, the angels and those who have been sent,
and you spirits who have arisen from the dead.
For I am the one who alone exists,
and I have no one who will judge me.
For many are the pleasant forms which exist in numerous sins,
and incontinencies,
and disgraceful passions,
and fleeting pleasures,
which (men) embrace until they become sober
and go up to their resting place.
And they will find me there,
and they will live,
and they will not die again.
Thunder, Perfect Mind

Scholarly Quotes on Gnosticism

Here are some scholarly quotes and excerpts I’ve collected to further clarify the complex nature of the Gnostic world-view:

The true face of Gnosticism must remain for the time being a mystery. However, we are quite happy to leave this for others to discover.
Giovanni Filoramo (A History of Gnosticism, 1990)

The history of the early Church was profoundly influenced, between the second and third centuries, by the struggle against the Gnostics
Giovanni Filoramo (A History of Gnosticism, 1990)

The study of Gnosticism is about to enter upon a new phase. Of this we are confidently assured by those who have had opportunity to examine the documents discovered some thirteen years ago at Nag Hammadi, and to say the least the publication not of one or two only but of no less than forty-three hitherto unknown texts cannot but bring a considerable accession to our knowledge.
Giovanni Filoramo (A History of Gnosticism, 1990)

Because of the importance of Jewish and Christian elements in Gnosticism, such early Church Fathers as Irenaeus, Clement, Tertullian and Hippolytus regarded it as a supremely dangerous enemy to Christian faith, and they took great pains to describe it as exactly as possible in order to refute its tenets.
Robert M. Grant (Gnosticism An Anthology, 1961)

In keeping with the Gnostic view of the world and humanity, Gnostic ethics is marked by hostility to the body and striving to escape from the world. In patristic attacks the Gnostics are constantly accused of libertinism and especially of sexual excess and dissipation. This criticism finds no support in the original texts, which point rather to a strongly ascetic lifestyle and which contain sharp attacks on the legalistic morality of the fathers.
The Encylopedia of Christianity (Volume 2, 2001)

According to the Church tradition, the originator of the Gnostic movement was Simon of Gitta, the ’sorcerer’ whom Peter and John encountered at Samaria. There is no reason to doubt that Samaria, with its mixed population, was an early centre of Gnosticism, or that Simon was a historical personage who was prominently connected with som important phase in its development. But the movement as a whole cannot be traced back to the activity of any individual teacher. It manifested itself under so many forms and in localities so widely separate that we can regard it only as the outcome of ideas and tendencies which were involved in the general life of the time. This is acknowledged by the Fathers themselves, who derive the heresies of Simon and his successors from Greek philosophical speculation; and the hypothesis has been accepted, in a modified form, by not a few modern scholars.
James Hastings (Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics Volume VI, 1913)


From being an exclusive study object for church historians and theologians to being a subject for the whole world to take part in, the Gnostic vision after the discovery in Nag Hammadi was opened. Gnosticism and its history teach us in a striking way to strive for a more just and comprehensive understanding of the past and its complexity. Yet another thing which the history of Gnosticism teaches us with is that the opponents account of his/her/their adversary can never be considered fully reliable, even if it is suggested that they are. Irenaeus and the heresiologists did everything in their power to fight the Gnostics and others off-shoot movements of Christianity, although their power was limited, their ideas eventually led to the formation of Christianity that we know today, a Christianity that did not always look this way.

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Daniel Seeker

Daniel Seeker is a wandering dervish, creator of Nirvanic and a lifelong student of the past, present and future. He realized that he was made of immaculate and timeless consciousness when meditating in his hermit cave on the island of Gotland. His writings and his online course are mostly a reflection of that realizaton. Daniel has studied history, philosophy, egyptology and western esotericism at Uppsala Universitet. He’s currently writing his B.A. thesis in history which explores how Buddhist and Hindu texts were first properly translated and introduced to the western world in the late 18th and 19th century.

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    Very interesting, thank you.


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