Gnosticism embodies a complex of related sects and religious writings that together constituted a major movement in the early centuries of the Christian era. Although the thoughtway of Gnosticism was not exclusively Christian, Gnostic Christianity was a significant competitor with what became the Christian mainstream. The numerous beings with which Gnosticism populated the cosmos and the higher spiritual realms influenced later conceptualizations of angels and demons.
Gnosticism propagated the idea that this world is the product of an evil deity—the Demiurge—who traps human spirits in the prison of the physical world. Our true home is the pleroma, the absolute spirit, to which we should seek to return by rejecting this material world and abstaining from the pleasures of the flesh. Unlike Christianity, in which one is saved by faith, in this school of thought one was saved by proper intellectual insight, or gnosis, which is secret knowledge imparted to Gnostics. Gnosticism in the original sense died out before the Middle Ages, but the term continued to be used to refer to any departure from orthodoxy the Church judged to be too world-denying or that seemed to stress mental insight over faith as the essential mode of salvation.
Two distinct types of entities are associated with Gnosticism:
aeons and archons.
The aeons are the higher spiritual beings who reside in the pleroma. In one common schema—discussed by the anti-
Gnostic Church writer Irenaeus—there were thirty aeons, arranged in fifteen pairs, from Depth and Silence to Theletos (Desire) and Sophia (Wisdom). Sophia, the lowest aeon, desired to know Depth (in some accounts, she desired to know herself). Her unfulfilled desire caused her to give birth to another entity—often called Yaldabaoth—who created our material world. This creation involved the emanation of the seven levels of the classical cosmos.
The archons are the rulers who govern each of these levels and act as guardians preventing the sparks of light (i.e., the divine essence of individual human beings) from returning to the pleroma. Part of the knowledge imparted to the Gnostics is information on how to bypass these archons.
- Layton, Bentley. The Gnostic Scriptures. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1987.
- Robinson, James M., ed. The Nag Hammadi Library. 1977. Reprint. New York:Harper & Row, 1981.
- Turner, Alice K. The History of Hell. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1993.