Due to the influence that Gnosticism has had on popular media and Christianity itself in recent decades, an examination of the basic beliefs of the Gnostic worldview would be helpful.
- In the beginning was nothing but a single consciousness. This primordial awareness had no content, as there was nothing in existence of which to be aware. It existed in a timeless, thoughtless state analogous to the Buddhist experience of Nirvana.
- This consciousness split itself in two. The reasons given are various—desire for companionship, curiosity about itself, or just plain boredom.
- The two minds, one male and one female, interacted creating a pantheon of deities known as aeons, who inhabited a divine realm of light known as the "Pleroma".
- The most distant aeon from the Source, named Sophia (Greek for "wisdom"), fell into error. Some versions say that she tried to emanate a universe without her male counterpart, others say that she tried to take on the mind of the Source in its entirety. Whatever the reason, she fell out of communion with the rest of the aeons and became trapped in the primordial material universe. Some say that Sophia was destroyed and her remnants would become human souls.
- From the matter that solidified out of her divine power, a False God was born, known as the Demiurge or Yaltabaoth, the Gnostic equivalent of Azathoth. The Demiurge then creates the Universe that is isolated from the higher dimensions above.
- The reason why suffering and evil exist in this world is because it is actually governed by this flawed Demiurge who mistakenly believes himself to be the absolute God. This is the deity worshiped by many Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam and others) who are materialistic, vicious and not in possession of true spiritual wisdom. Analogous to Mahabrahma in Hinduism and some forms of Buddhism, who also mistakenly believes himself to be the ultimate authority while the rest of the gods snigger behind his back.
- Human minds and souls are sparks of divine light from the Pleroma, who are trapped in the material universe and who must endeavour to free themselves and their kin from the misery of matter. Some versions say the Demiurge originally created a bunch of soulless apes out of matter, and that Sophia took pity on them and breathed sparks from the Pleroma into them, only to have the sparks become trapped in the material bodies, but also giving the bodies the capacity for intelligence, hence the evolution of humanity. Others say that the sparks were the destroyed remnants of Sophia herself, imprisoned and tortured by the Demiurge. Sometimes also considered a reinterpretation of the story of Genesis, with Sophia herself as the Tree of Knowledge/Prometheus-equivalent (her name implies that role) who gave intelligence and souls to the ignorant animals who then became mankind.
- The Demiurge, and his created servants the Archons, manipulate humanity into violence and misery to feed themselves and further their egotistical projects.
- The Messiah came to Earth to spread the Gospel of the True God, explaining the discrepancy between the Old and New Testaments. Gnostic beliefs about Jesus' nature varied radically. Some believed he was fully divine and his physical form an illusion. Some believed he was a divine being who temporarily inhabited a human shell and was "freed" at death, others say he was the intended counterpart of Sophia who came too late. With the true knowledge of the universe he imparted, others could hope to achieve the same divine state.
- The essential nature of the universe is an illusion, and the essential task of humanity is to both demonstrate love and compassion and strive to escape from materialism. Gnosis is a specialized form of experiential knowledge that comes to a human being when they recognize the universe as being fundamentally similar to a dream, hologram, or illusion.
However, it is important to remember that Gnosticism at no point constituted a monolith. Different groups would hold doctrine that mixed-and-matched or varied from the above list in their own ways. Gnosticism was also highly syncretic, tending to merge with any other religion it came into contact with, creating a new Gnostic sect of that religion or forming a new religion altogether. It was also highly secretive, being practiced mostly by elites who had the leisure time necessary to contemplate its mysteries. Although it is largely extinct today, remnants of it still leave influences. Much of what we know about the Gnostics is fairly fragmentary-few of their original works survive to this day. Furthermore, much of what we have learned about the Gnostics comes from early Christian writings which were often critical of these perceived "heretics."
Because the Gnostics had largely died off as a movement during the Middle Ages, there was no one to preserve their texts through reproduction, and many of their texts were lost through time. Until the 1950s, most of what was known about the Gnostic religion as it flourished in ancient times came from the writings of its detractors-such as St. Irenaeus of Lyons, who wrote a five-volume work Against Heresies
in AD 180, explaining what the Gnostics believed and why it conflicted with Christianity. That is, until a remarkable event took place in the Egyptian desert. Two brothers digging for fertilizer in a cave on their way to avenge their father's murder discovered an earthenware jar that contained an ancient book. Before realizing its value, some of the text was used for kindling by the family, but they eventually realized its age and sold it to a collector in Cairo. The manuscripts were split up and traded all over the world. Amazingly, the recovered manuscript contained dozens of books written in Coptic that were still in legible condition. Take a look over here if you'd like to read English translations of the Coptic texts yourself.
- The Gospel of Thomas
- The Gospel of Mary Magdalene
- The Hypostasis of the Archons
- On the Origin of the World
- The Thunder, Perfect Mind
This breed of Gnosticism spread into North Africa and the Middle East within 100 years of Jesus' life. It is heavily influenced by Egyptian polytheism, and provides a structure and hierarchy of the Heavens based on Egyptian theology. Tends to be extremely oppositional to Earthly authority, reflecting contempt for the Roman occupation. This form spread east in subsequent years, giving rise to religions like Mandeanism and Manicheanism. Some of their texts can be found here.
This tradition was deeply influenced by Valentinius, who was a former Bishop of the Marcionites, another offshoot of Christianity. It was a deeply ecumenical school, which preaches universal salvation of all sentient beings. Even the malevolent Demiurge will eventually be rescued from his ignorance, as all things containing the spark of creation are inexorably moving towards redemption. Essentially, the Lighter and Softer
flavor of Gnosticism.
This is a sect that grew out of Gnostic beliefs in France. There are two major theories as to where they came from-the first is that Gnosticism spread into France very early on, the second being that it was brought back by Crusader knights who were influenced by Sufism and other Holy Land mystical faiths. Either way, Cathars became highly influential in southern France and amassed a fair amount of wealth, castles, and prestige. This development eventually came to challenge the Catholic Church, who felt threatened by the purity and poverty vows that many Cathars took. For those who were bugged by how the Catholics didn't burn other similar monasteries and condemn Jesus
' encouragement of such, remember in those days the Catholic Church was exceedingly corrupt and irrational, and the Cathar ascetics were making them look rather bad
. So, the usual campaign of book burning and priest killing was embarked upon with the usual devastating consequences.
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Examples in popular media
Many recent works, especially those of a postmodernist
bent, reflect Gnostic influences (whether unconsciously or intentional). Characteristic, though not always, of the Gnostic worldview are vast (and often contradictory) cosmologies, uncertainty, unreliable narrators, and the value of personal interpretation. Protagonists slowly come to the realization that the world is not quite what it seems—they are privy to secret, inside information about reality. Due to the reliance on personal revelation implicit in Gnosticism, it is not surprising when multiple narratives tell the same story without quite lining up. Reason is presented as but one tool that humans can use to understand the world, but logical reasoning is not the whole truth. Examples may range from containing some elements/influences to outright endorsement/promotion. These include:
Anime and Manga
- Neon Genesis Evangelion mixes Gnosticism with both the Kabbalah (a Jewish Gnostic variant that proposes we are all pieces of Adam Kadmon) and a mystic reinterpretation of the Jewish story of Genesis where Adam's original first wife wasn't Eve, but Lilith, who fell into error (Sophia-equivalent) thus paving the plot for Eve's creation, humanity's acquisition of the Fruit of Knowledge and the resulting Fall of Man from Eden into biological bodies. Some versions say Lilith or Sophia was the Tree of Knowledge or at least gave the Fruit of Knowledge to Eve in the first place (the Retcon of the Serpent as Big Bad Lucifer was due to Word of Dante and Christian "ignorance is bliss" ideology), if you would consider the theory that Sophia gave a part of herself to humans as souls resulting in the evolution of human intelligence.
Rei Ayanami, the soul of Lilith, the original mother of all humanity, is Sophia, and as The Philosopher lives up to that symbolism. Her flawed fragmented daemonic children, the Lilin (humans) are the Demiurge, technological creators capable of cruelty against each other, after all Hell is Other People. The referral to humans with such a daemonic name is likely from a Gnostic influence. The fall of Sophia (Lilith/Rei, who literally fell to Earth) is responsible for the birth of the Demiurge (the evolution of biological life, and the suffering that it has brought), but Sophia's fragments still exist in this world in the form of our souls (humanity as the bearer of the Fruit of Knowledge), and thus it is possible to redeem ourselves from our daemonic existence (human individual bodies and prone to disease, despair and death) and reconcile with her. The central dogma of an Ancient Conspiracy called SEELE is the reunification of Lilith with her lost male counterpart, Adam (analogous to reuniting Sophia with her lost male counterpart), that shall lead to their Messianic Ascension and Universal Salvation from their Original Sin of existence under the Demiurge/Lilin/Human Bodies. In the End of Evangelion, it does happen: Rei absorbs Adam, takes control of Lilith, reawakens, turns into a Giant Naked Rei/Adam Kadmon/Sophia, destroys all human bodies, and merges all souls into a gestalt God-superconsciousness.
Although it is also implied that all the Gnostic and Jewish mystic symbolism were maybe just put there to sound exotic, and SEELE is just a neo-Gnostic Cargo Cult associating a bunch of alien precursors with God.
- Neon Genesis Evangelion does more research than people give it credit for, but the Gnosticism is almost certainly an accident.
- A popular Epileptic Tree about The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is that Haruhi, as the unconsciously cruel and capricious creator of the material universe, is the Demiurge, and in fact, the real unconscious God is the narrator, Kyon. Haruhi aka the Demiurge is either an aspect of his personality, or a convenient person to work his power through. Note his dialogue at the beginning of the series; he once wanted to believe in time travel, aliens, and espers, but has learned to suppress it. Having someone else have god-like powers to create these things allows him denial. Plus, what better way to throw someone off of their own powers to destroy everything than by telling them to keep someone else in check. In Haruhi theology and fandom, "Kyon is God" theories are the equivalent of Gnosticism.
- Fullmetal Alchemist mixes Gnostic elements with Eastern and Jewish Kabbalah influences plus Cosmic Horror Story. It's also subverted, considering how unpleasant it is dealing and facing the Truth.
- Revolutionary Girl Utena heavily references Demian with the themes about breaking out of the world's shell, Demian itself being a work based on Gnosticism. One could also interpret Akio being a 'false prince' to his former self, Dios, the 'real prince', in a similar manner to God and Demiurge in Gnosticism. Though that could just be trying to fit multiple conflicting themes together, but hey, it's that kind of show.
- Serial Experiments Lain. Many characters express a desire to give up their bodily existence and live on in the Wired. Lain herself is it at one point referred to as a "scattered god", possibly refencing Sophia, while Masami Eiri represents the Demiurge - Lain even calls him an "acting god".
- Haibane Renmei
- The Big O
- Texhnolyze: The further into this series you get, the more Gnostic symbolism and saturation shows up, with some of the darker and more paranoid ideas becoming increasingly warped and played with in a highly Mind Screwy manner. For example, the disturbing way in which Doc increasingly mirrors Sophia, or Kano mirrors the demiurge. And then of course, there's Ran.
- Who Kano keeps calling "Theoria" for no obvious reason. Naturally, this is yet another Gnostic concept meaningless to a casual viewer.
- In A Certain Magical Index, some of the magical characters are surprised when they learn of Academy City's ambition to create a Level 6 Esper; it may be a scientific project, but the concept is similar to teachings in Gnosticism.
- Venus Versus Virus
- Dead End by Shohei Manabe
- There are some highly suspicious parallels in Blame! to Gnostic ideology, particularly in the later parts of the series.
- Very surprisingly for a shonen manga, but a case could definitely be made for Soul Eaters inclusion in this list, particularly as of the Book chapters.
- Eden: It's an Endless World! draws on Gnosticism to an extent, primarily in character names.
- Mardock Scramble
- Hekikai No AION
- Time Of Eve
- Ghost in the Shell
- Last Exile
- Sol Bianca
- Puella Magi Madoka Magica The Movie: Rebellion has Homura turn into a sort of a mixture of the Demiurge, Mara, and a Paradise Lost-like Lucifer: she becomes corrupted by love and rips Madoka, the proper God of the setting, from her position and takes her power herself, trapping all of the characters in a magical world where their desires have been granted but their true powers and nature suppressed. Notably, this Demiurge is not a piece of the Source, but a servant of it who takes its place in order to protect it.
- Shamanic Princess boils down to an Ontological Mystery which is solved through the revelation that the concepts of good and evil are irrelevant. This knowledge does not really let the heroine overcome the self-centered creator deity that's toying with her. It lets her restore balance and make it easier for everyone to co-exist.
- Current 93 makes continual reference to Gnostic texts.
- Tori Amos references Gnosticism in her album The Beekeeper.
- Arguably some of Tool's songs touch on Gnostic themes, "Parabola" being an example, though Maynard's lyrics are open to a great deal of interpretation.
- Coph Nia actually has a song called "Gnostic Mass", whose lyrics draw heavily on Gnostic beliefs (no surprises there.)
- The Silmarillion should be counted in because of the "spiritual" hierarchy, beginning with Eru, supreme being, creating the Ainur, split in the Valar and the Maiar, then the Elves, and finally Humans. The tale is also gnostic because it states that while the world was created by Eru, the greater Ainur gave it form, and one of them (Melkor), broke out and claimed it for his own, being "the lord of the world". Maybe the linguistic way from Eon to "Ainu" is not that long after all.
- The hints of Gnosticism in Tolkien's works are fairly limited because the author himself was a devout Catholic. However, Natalia Vasilyeva, author of the unauthorized derivative work Black Book of Arda, goes full rock and roll with all the Gnosticism. Here, Eru is obviously Ialdabaoth, the Valar are obviously Archons, and Melkor rebelled because he went outside Eru's little creation and saw the Pleroma there.
- His Dark Materials (the universe is, in a sense, self-aware; the Authority and, later, the Regent are demiurges)
- Naked Lunch
- Anything written by Philip K Dick, who had a keen sense of the existential paranoia implicit in the Gnostic scriptures and a working knowledge of the recently-translated Nag Hammadi codices (and don't forget the I Ching). Particularly of note are VALIS, The Divine Invasion, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, and Radio Free Albemuth. However, perspective readers should be warned about the high Mind Screw content and the possibility of their brain turning to liquid, pouring out of their ears, and reassembling itself in a smiley face twenty-five kilometres over the peak of Kilimanjaro—and no, that's not a highly confusing metaphor for insanity.
- Anything written by Jorge Luis Borges, Carl Jung, William Blake, Umberto Eco and Hermann Hesse, whose novel Demian is what the egg speech in Revolutionary Girl Utena was borrowed from.
- God have mercy on our souls, but Dan Brown has done as much to raise Gnosticism into the public consciousness as the Wachowskis.
- It might be useful to point out that while the Wachowskis have ushered Gnosticism into the public consciousness through the underlying philosophical discussions in their films note , Dan Brown has raised awareness of Gnosticism by flinging the term around so liberally in such a vague and arbitrary manner in his books that it drove most of his readers to look it up on The Other Wiki... where most of them found two things: 1) Gnosticism is incredibly detailed, ancient, and so deep and involving that you can spend days on a Wiki Walk just scratching the surface, and 2) Dan Brown has a very bad habit of Completely Missing the Point when it comes to secular and philosophical ideology.
- Unfortunately, the "gnosticism" presented by Dan Brown in his books tends towards the polar opposite of actual Gnostic beliefs as expressed in their scriptures. He says they believed Jesus was completely human; Gnostics actually tended to think Jesus was completely god without a trace of the human. Dan also thinks the Gnostics respected women, which, while true of many Gnostic sects, was far from universal; a good number of Gnostics actually tended more towards the Greek idea that women were an inferior form of life incapable of spiritual understanding.
- Some works of Iain Banks slide into this area in varying degrees, of note in The Culture novels are Excession, Look to Windward, and Use of Weapons. In other books, The Algebraist is pulled deeply into Gnostic territory with a dark and snarky bent.
- Pretty much anything by Cormac McCarthy, especially Blood Meridian.
- You have to look pretty hard, but it has increasingly been suggested that Paradise Lost draws on Gnostic theology.
- In a meta example, the literary critic Harold Bloom developed Gnostic theory of artistic influence wherein new generations of poets seek to construct the predecessors as controlling antagonists against whom they can react.
- Daniel Gonzalez's science fiction short-story Sofia is about a parallel universe where Gnosticism and not Christianity became the world’s main religion. He gives a lot of information about Gnostic history, terminology and doctrine.
- Creation Man And The Messiah by poet Henrik Wergeland is by far the most gnostic piece of literature written during the 19th century, telling how higher spirits intervened to ensoul humanity. The spirits are called Eons (or aions) here as well.
- Communities of Gnostics living in the Iberian Mountains play a major role in Harry Harrison's King and Emperor. They consider themselves the keeper of the Holy Grail.
- LOST's mythology and underlying metaphysics were heavily rooted in Gnosticism, but the show never drew any explicit parallels to it except for a brief glimpse of Philip K. Dick's VALIS, which also blended Gnostic spirituality and sci-fi. This came back to bite the writers, as it's kind of necessary to understand the finale, especially the part about personal revelation (i.e. what meaning the characters and the audience bring to events) being more important than authorial dogma (the writers telling everyone what happened and shooting down all but one theory).
- Babylon5 has Delenn of the Minbari, stating that "we are the universe made conscious, splitting itself apart to understand itself." By this and what little else we learn, Minbari religion appears to be similar.
- Mage: The Ascension, and, to a lesser degree, Mage: The Awakening.
- In Dark Alleys from Vajra Enterprises. In Dark Alleys has several philosophies in the history of unpopular ideas section. Animism, Buddhism, Platonism, Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, Descartian Skepticism, Sadism, Marxism, Nihilism, Freudian Psychoanalysis, Surrealism, Existentialism, Jungian Psychology, Punk, Paglian Feminism, and Postmodernism.
- Aquaria is actually somewhat sympathetic to its Demiurge stand-in, Eric—he's desperately trying to recreate his unconditionally-loving mother. Although given that his most successful mimic turns against him, it may have been a fool's errand, and the Pleroma not even as noble as the Gnostics thought...
- Deus Ex: Invisible War
- Final Fantasy VII had the Lifestream, which is the Pleroma in all but name, the Cetra, who represent Gnostics as opposed to the materialistic Judeo-Christian-ish humans, Sephiroth (whose name is from a Jewish Gnostic variant called the Kabbalah) as the demiurge, and Jenova as Sophia in her Alternative Character Interpretation of corrupter and destroyer of the world.
- On the subject of Final Fantasy, Final Fantasy X had a more in-depth depiction of Gnosticism. The Pleroma is Zanarkand, and Sophia's fall from the Pleroma would be the destruction of the city, with Yu Yevon representing Sophia. Sin is the Demiurge: in the same way the Demiurge was created from Sophia's divine power, Sin was created from Yu Yevon's summoning talent. The Farplane also represents the Pleroma; everyone is made from the Pyreflies (divine sparks of light), and their soul returns to the Farplane after death. However, there are exceptions: anyone who died an unclean death, for example, will not stay in the Farplane and must be Sent there again. The Aeons also represent this, communicating with and helping humans from the Pleroma (Zanarkand) and fighting the Demiurge's influence. However, they can also represent Archons; in particular, Bahamut as Sabaoth, because they both turned against their masters in order to try and save humanity. The Yevon religion dislikes the idea that people can be free of Sin, and so they represent Christianity (in case it wasn't obvious enough already). At the end of the game, people are finally free from the influence of Sin, representing enlightenment and freedom from the Demiurge; but here it's a Bittersweet Ending, because this requires peoples' souls to fade away from this existence into another, meaning that The Hero Dies as he was from the Pleroma, the same way that the Aeons were.
- Galactic Civilizations—its Dark Mithrilar is very similar to the mid-range-in-malignity versions of the Demiurge, with the Dread Lords his archons. Thanks to his xenophobia, he keeps destroying the universe, then traveling back in time to better remake the cosmos in his image--the Human image. Snippets from the main designer's original stories suggest that an overarching theme is going to be this Demiurge's redemption, putting this partly in Valentinian territory.
- The Mother in La-Mulana appears to be a pastiche of Sophia and the Demiurge. Like Sophia, she fell from the perfection of the heavens... although unlike her, she can't seem to get back on her own... and bears great understanding. Like the Demiurge, she created intelligent life expressly for her sake, namely to get her back up there—in a sense, to let her regain her glory. And every time, her children either turn against her, or extinguish themselves. Never mind that the fact that she fell to begin with might mean that re-ascension was impossible from the very beginning—just as, in the more severe forms of Gnosticism, the Demiurge has no ability (or right) to become genuinely divine. Nonetheless, this character is rather sympathetic— just being stuck on Earth is severely agonizing for her. She's not malevolent, but desperate.
- Shin Megami Tensei— pick a game, any game, either from the main series or the Persona spin-offs.
- Silent Hill— even the soundtrack lyrics have a Gnostic undertone. To clarify, Sophia would be Alessa/Heather, the human woman who created God and left it to the world, while the God herself would be the evil Demiurge, worshipped by misguided idiots. The story of God's creation also has Gnostic influences.
- It should be noted that Keiichiro Toyama, creator and writer of the original game, was big on demonology.
- Star Ocean: Till the End of Time. Its Demiurge figure (Lucifer) isn't sympathetic, but for once, the archons are. The whole reason Lucifer created Eternal Sphere was to be able to completely control the 4D cities' populaces. The result is that the archons are agonizingly bored and unfulfilled. Lucifer, on the other hand...
- Xenogears is pretty much a straight retelling of it. A good God (the Zohar) is pulled down from a higher dimension, and creates a woman from one of the sparks of light surrounding it (Elly). The Zohar is then used to create an evil god (Deus), which is followed by a false religion (-Ethos-), and while Deus created the world and rules it, using humans for its own purposes and letting its evil followers do whatever they like, the Zohar is the true, benevolent god.
- Xenoblade—Though to a much lesser extent than its predecessors. The Monad(o) and Yaldabaoth are virtually the only references to it. Unless you look a little deeper, in which case Zanza is the Demiurge, who created the world in his image, with Meyneth serving as his Sophia, while Alvis is the real God, and the Monado represents personal truth/revelation, among other things. It doesn't name-drop as heavily as the previous Xeno-games, but it's just as Gnostic as them.
- The Firstborn, the Big Bad of Clive Barker's Jericho is loosely based on the Demiurge. Rather than being created by Sophia, he is the first creation of God, who didn't come out quite right, to the point that even his creator couldn't love him.
- Without spoiling anything in particular, let's just say that Pathologic definitely has this kind of thing going on.
- Homestuck has Yalbadaoth and Abraxas as characters, taking the roles of Denizens. A few characters' internet handles also namedrop Gnosticism.
- Æon Flux: From the name of the main character, Aeon, to questioning the nature of reality, to an actual appearance by a being known as The Demiurge.
- Surprisingly, as of the movies and season 6, Futurama.
- The Lego Movie
- South Park isn't above moving into Gnostic territory on rare occasions. Rare occasions, mind you.