Sethianism

A lion-faced deity representing Yaldabaoth, a depiction of the Demiurge in Sethianism.

The Sethians, one of many ancient Gnostic groups, flourished in the Mediterranean region at the time of nascent Christianity. It is probably older than the first Christian churches. Predominantly Judaic in foundation, and strongly influenced by Platonism, Sethianism provided a synthesis of Judaic and Greek thought with its own distinct interpretation of cosmic creation. The group derived its name from veneration of the biblical Seth, third son of Adam and Eve. Sethian creation myths portray him as a divine Incarnation.

Contents

Sethianism influence spread throughout the Mediterranean and into the later systems of the Thomasines, the Basilideans and the Valentinians. In particular, Sethianism influenced the content of some gnostic Christian gospels such as the Gospel of Judas, which offered a radically different view of Jesus' teachings than was common among mainstream Christians.

Historical Background

The Sethians were a Gnostic movement, who claimed to possess secret knowledge that could unlock transcendent understanding. Central to many gnostic beliefs is a dualistic view of the universe. Matter was seen as essentially illusory while spirit is the only true reality. Some scholars, notably Gershom Scholem, profess that Jewish gnosticism predates its Christian counterpart. This can be seen, for example, in the writings of Philo of Alexandria, the revelations of Ezekiel (which produced a vast quantity of later kabbalistic speculation), the apocalyptic sections of the Book of Daniel, and the apocryphal Book of Enoch with its detailed explanations about the angelic world. The latter contributed to gnostic descriptions and names of the archons, aeons, and others.

Mythology

Sethian mythology is centered on events preceding the story of Genesis, offering a radical reinterpretation of the Torah's description of creation. Rather than emphasizing human weakness in breaking God's commandment, Sethians emphasize a crisis of the Divine Fullness, an ignorance of matter, as depicted in stories about Sophia (Wisdom). Thus, Sethianism posits a transcendent hidden invisible God beyond ordinary description, much as Plato, Parmenides), and Philo also posited. It is only possible to say what God is not, and the experience of it remains something, in defiance of rational description. In Sethian mythology this original God went through a series of emanations, during which its essence is seen as spontaneously expanding into many successive 'generations' of paired male and female beings, called 'aeons'. The first of these is the Barbelo, a figure common throughout Sethianism, who is co-actor in the emanations that follow. The aeons that result can be seen as representative of the various attributes of God, themselves indiscernible when not abstracted from their origin. In this sense, the Barbelo and the emanations may be seen as poetic devices allowing an otherwise utterly unknowable God to be discussed in a meaningful way amongst initiates. Collectively, God and the aeons comprise the sum total of the spiritual universe, known as the Pleroma.

At this point, the myth is still only dealing with a spiritual, non-material universe. In some versions of the myth, the Spiritual Aeon Sophia imitates God's actions in performing an emanation of her own, without the prior approval of the other aeons in the Pleroma. This results in a crisis within the Pleroma, leading to the appearance of the Yaldabaoth, termed a 'serpent with a lion's head'. This figure is commonly known as the demiurge. This being is at first hidden by Sophia but subsequently escapes, stealing a portion of divine power from her in the process. Thus the Sethians believe that there is a true god and a false god. The latter is known as the Demiurge, classical Greek for craftsman-creator. According to gnostic tradition, the Demiurge created the world following God's command. However, the malevolent Demiurge, which sometimes goes by the name of Yaldabaoth, then usurped the true god's position.

Using this stolen power, Yaldabaoth creates a material world in imitation of the divine Pleroma. To complete this task, he spawns a group of entities known collectively as Archons, 'petty rulers' and craftsmen of the physical world. Like him, they are commonly depicted as theriomorphic, having the heads of animals. Some texts explicitly identify the Archons with the fallen angels described in the Enoch tradition in Judaic apocrypha. At this point the events of the Sethian narrative begin to cohere with the events of the Book of Genesis, with the demiurge and his archontic cohorts fulfilling the role of the creator. As in Genesis, the demiurge declares himself to be the only god, and that none exist superior to him. However, the audience's knowledge of what has gone before casts this statement, and the nature of the creator itself, is understood in a radically different light.

The demiurge creates Adam, during the process unwittingly transferring the portion of power stolen from Sophia into the first physical human body. He then creates Eve from Adam's rib, in an attempt to isolate and regain the power he has lost. By way of this he attempts to rape Eve who now contains Sophia's divine power. Several texts depict him as failing when Sophia's spirit transplants itself into the Tree of Knowledge. Thereafter, the pair are 'tempted' by the serpent, and eat of the forbidden fruit, thereby once more regaining the power that the demiurge had stolen.

Adam and Eve's removal from the Archon's paradise is seen as a step towards freedom from the Archons, and the serpent in the Garden of Eden in some cases becomes a heroic, salvific figure rather than an adversary of humanity or a 'proto-Satan'. Eating the fruit of Knowledge is the first act of human salvation from cruel, oppressive powers.

Texts

Several Gnostic texts contain the Sethian viewpoint, particularly the Apocryphon of John, which describes an unknown God who is defined through negative theology exclusively: he is immovable, invisible, intangible, ineffable. Other Sethian texts include the following works:

Pre-Christian texts:

  • The Apocalypse of Adam

Christian texts:

  • The Apocryphon of John
  • The Thought of Norea
  • The Trimorphic Protennoia
  • The Coptic Gospel of the Egyptians
  • The Gospel of Judas

Later texts:

  • Zostrianos [1]
  • Three Steles of Seth [2]
  • Marsenes

Neo-Sethianism

The classical Sethian doctrine of the first and second centuries C.E. has exerted a pervasive influence upon certain mystics and esotericists, from the British-German group the 'Knights of Seth', who were allegedly established in the 1850s, to the Neo-Sethian Hermeticism expounded by the English artist and theurgist Nigel Jackson in his 2003 work 'Celestial Magic'. These manifestations can be termed Neo-Sethian. The Knights of Seth were a nineteenth century British-German Neo-Sethian group that attempted to resurrect medieval Gnostic and dualistic Christian ideas. While achieving a certain popularity among wealthy young Englishmen in the 1850s, the Knights never gained considerable influence and were by many considered a mere gentlemen's club rather than a religious movement. Apart from a handful of members in Edinburgh and Berlin, the group presently appears to be almost extinct. The group is sometimes referred to by its Latin name Ordo quester Sethiani.

According to the Ordo Equester, Adam's third son Seth was a messiah who could get in touch with the true god and acted as his herald, thwarting the plans of the evil demiurge. The Knights believe that seven prophets will deliver various teachings to humanity. These will then enable men to experience the true, hidden god. This allegedly requires studying different religions and meditation, resulting in a process of recognition (gnosis, Greek language for knowledge).

Notes

  1. Zostrianos, translated by John N. Sieber, gnosis.org. Retrieved October 26, 2008.
  2. The Nag Hamadi Library. Translated by James R. Robinson, online, The Three Steles of Seth. gnosis.org. Retrieved October 26, 2008.

References

  • Hancock, Curtis L. Studies in Neoplatonism: Ancient and Modern, Volume 6, Wallis & Bregman, Eds. SUNY Press, 1991, Chapter: "Negative Theology in Gnosticism and Neoplatonism." ISBN 0791413373
  • Hoeller, Stephan A. Gnosticism - New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowing. Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 2002. ISBN 0835608166
  • Jonas, Hans. Gnosis und spätantiker Geist vol. 2, 1-2. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1998. ISBN 3525531230 (in German)
  • Jonas, Hans.The Gnostic Religion 3rd ed. (original 1963) Boston: Beacon, 2001. ISBN 0807058017.
  • King, Karen L. What is Gnosticism? Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003. ISBN 067401071X
  • Klimkeit, Hans-Joachim. Gnosis on the Silk Road: Gnostic Texts from Central Asia. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993. ISBN 0060645865
  • Layton, Bentley. "Prolegomena to the Study of Ancient Gnosticism" in The Social World of the First Christians: Essays in Honor of Wayne A. Meeks, Edited by L. Michael White and O. Larry Yarbrough. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1995. ISBN 0800625854
  • Longfellow, Ki. The Secret Magdalene: A Novel. Brattleboro, VT: Eio Books, 2005. ISBN 0975925539
  • Pagels, Elaine. The Gnostic Gospels. New York: Vintage Books, 1979. ISBN 0679724532
  • Pagels, Elaine. The Johannine Gospel in Gnostic Exegesis. Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 1989. ISBN 1555403344
  • Stoyanov, Yuri. The Other God. Dualist Religions from Antiquity to the Cathar Heresy. Yale University Press, 2004. ISBN 0300082533
  • Turner, John D. Sethian Gnosticism: A Literary History Retrieved October 19, 2008.
  • Williams, Michael. Rethinking Gnosticism: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996. ISBN 0691011273

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