Fragments of a Faith Forgotten, by G.R.S. Mead, , at sacred-texts.com
The Source of their Tradition.HIPPOLYTUS says that the mysteries symbolized by the serpent are at the root of all Gnosticism; and though the Church Father himself has not any idea what these mysteries really are, as is amply proved by all his remarks, we agree with him, as we have endeavoured to show above. He then proceeds to treat of the system of the Peratæ, to whom we have already referred, and whose Mysteries (Hippolytus calls them their "blasphemy against Christ") had been kept secret "for many years." We know from other sources that the school was prior to Clement of Alexandria. The system of the Peratæ was based on an analogy with sidereal considerations, and depended on the tradition of the ancient Chaldæan star-cult. In Book iv., Hippolytus has already endeavoured to refute the Chaldæan system of the star-spheres; but though he makes some good points against the vulgar
astrology of the time, he does not affect the mysterious doctrine of the septenary spheres, of which the empirical horoscopists had long lost the secret, and for which they had substituted the physical planets. Hippolytus had the Peratic school especially in mind in his attempted refutation of the art of the astrologers and mathematicians, of which, however, he admits he had no practical knowledge, but space compels us simply to refer the student to the fourth book of his Philosophumena for the outline of astrology which the Church Father presents.
According to the Peratic school, the universe was symbolized by a circle enclosing a triangle. The The Three Worlds. triangle denoted the primal trichotomy into the three or worlds, ingenerable, self-generable, and generable. Thus there were for them three aspects of the Logos, or, from another point of view, three Gods, or three Logoi, or three Minds, or three Men. When the world-process had reached the completion of its devolution, the Saviour descended from the ingenerable world or æon; the type of the Saviour is that of a man perfected, "with a threefold nature, and threefold body, and threefold power, having in himself all [species of] concretions and potentialities from the three divisions of the universe." According to the Pauline phrase; "It pleased Him that in him should dwell all fulness (plērōma) bodily."
It is from the two higher worlds, the ingenerable and self-generable, that the seeds of all kinds of potentialities are sent down into this generable or formal world.
Hippolytus here breaks off, and, after informing
us that the founders of the school were a certain Euphrates (whom Origen calls the founder of those Ophites to whom Celsus referred about 175 A.D.) and Celbes, whom he elsewhere calls Acembes and Ademes, proceeds to tell us something more of the Chaldæan art. He then says that he will quote from a number of Peratic treatises to show that their ideas were similar to those of the Chaldæans.
The Saviour has not only a human but a cosmic task to perform; the cosmic task is to separate the good from the bad among the sidereal powers and influences; the same peculiarity of soteriology is brought into prominence in the Pistis Sophia treatise, to which we shall refer later on. The "wars in heaven" precede the conflict of good and evil on earth.
A Direct Quotation.The treatise from which Hippolytus proceeds to quote is evidently a Gnostic commentary on an old Babylonian or Syrian cosmogonic scripture, which the commentator endeavours to explain in Greek mythological terms. The beginning of this mysterious treatise runs as follows:
"I am the voice of awakening from slumber in the peon (world) of night. Henceforth I begin to strip naked the power that proceed eth from Chaos. It is the power of the abysmal slime, which raiseth up the clay of the imperishable vast moist [principle], the whole might of convulsion of the colour of water, ever moving, supporting the steady, checking the tottering, . . . the faithful steward of the track of the æthers, rejoicing in that which streameth forth from the twelve founts of the Law, the power which
taketh its type from the impress of the power of the invisible waters above."
This power is called Thalassa, evidently the Thalatth (Tiāmat), or World-Mother, of the Babylonians. The twelve sources are also called twelve mouths, or pipes, through which the world-powers pour hissing. It is the power which is surrounded by a dodecagonal pyramid or dodecahedron--a hint which should persuade astrologers to reconsider their "signs of the zodiac."
Hippolytus’ quotations and summary here become very obscure and require a critical treatment which has not yet been accorded them; we are finally told that the matter is taken from a treatise dealing with the formal or generable world, for it is denominated The Proasteioi up to the Æther; that is to say, the hierarchies of powers as far as the æther, which were probably represented diagramatically by a series of concentric circles, a "proasteion" being the space round a city's walls.
Hippolytus here again points out the correspondence between astrological symbolism and the teaching of this school of Gnosticism; it is, he says, simply astrology allegorized, or rather we should say cosmogony theologized. These Peratics, or Transcendentalists, derive their name from the following considerations.
They believed that nothing which exists by generation can survive destruction, and thus the The Meaning of the Name. sphere of generation is also the fate-sphere. He then who knows nothing beyond this, is bound to the wheel of fate; but "he who is conversant with the
compulsion of generation [saṁsāra], and the paths through which man has entered into the [generable] world," can proceed through and pass beyond (transcend) destruction. This destruction is the "Water" which is the "generation of men," and which is the element in which the hierarchies of generation hold their sway, and have their being. It is called water because it is of that colour, namely, the lower ether.
The treatise from which Hippolytus quotes, again dives into the depths of mythology, and among other things adduces the Myth of the Going-forth, and its mystical interpretation; finally, the Gnostic commentator explains the opening verses of the proem to the fourth canonical Gospel. Hippolytus, however, is beginning to be baffled by the amazing intricacy of the system, as he tells us, and thus breaks off, and apparently takes up another treatise from which to quote. The new treatise is of an exceedingly mystical character, and seemingly deals with the psychological physiology of the school.
Psychological Physiology.The universe is figured forth as triple: Father, Son, and Matter (Hylē), each of endless potentialities. The Son, the fashioning Logos, stands midway between the immovable Father and moving Matter. At one time He is turned to the Father and receives the powers in His disk (face, or "person"), and then turning casts them into Matter, which is devoid of form; and thus the Matter is moulded and the formal world is produced.
We here see an attempt to graft a higher teaching, of the same nature as the Platonic doctrine of types
and ideas, on to the primitive symbolism of imperfectly observed natural phenomena. The sun is the Father, the moon is the Son, and the earth is Matter. The moon is figured as a serpent, owing to its serpentine path, and its phases are imagined as the turning of its face towards the sun, and again towards the earth. If this is correct, however, the immobility of the sun and the motion of the earth give us reason to believe that the Chaldæans were better acquainted with astronomy than the followers of the far later Hipparcho-Ptolemæic geocentricism. The Gnostic writer has also a correct theory of magnetic and other influences, which he quaintly sets forth. We can, moreover, distinguish three strata of interpretation: (i.) metaphysical and spiritual--the ideal world, the intermediate, and the visible universe; (ii.) the world of generation--with its sun, moon and earth-forces; and (iii.) the analogical psycho-physiological process in man.
The last is thus explained. The brain is the Father, the cerebellum the Son, and the medulla Matter or Hylē. "The cerebellum, by an ineffable and inscrutable process, attracts through the pineal gland the spiritual and life-giving essence from the vaulted chamber [? third ventricle]. And on receiving this, the cerebellum [also] in an ineffable manner imparts the 'ideas,' just as the Son does, to Matter; or, in other words, the seeds and the genera of things produced according to the flesh flow along into the spinal marrow." And, adds Hippolytus, the main secrets of the school depend on a knowledge of these correspondences, but it would be impious for him
to say anything more on the matter--a scruple which is surprising to find in a Church Father, and especially in Hippolytus, who devoted the second and third books of his Refutation to an exposition of the Mysteries.
The Lost Books of Hippolytus.Now it is a curious fact that these two books have been bodily removed from the MS. Did Hippolytus, then, reveal too much of the "plagiarism by anticipation" of the rites and doctrines of the Church, and did those who came after him consider it unwise to keep such evidence on record? For one would have thought that above all things the orthodox Fathers would have delighted in parading the possession of such information before the heathen and heretics, and would have specially preserved these two books from destruction. But indeed it is altogether strange that this, the most important Refutation of all the hæresiological documents which we possess, was made no use of by the successors of Hippolytus. The only MS. known to the western world was brought from Mount Athos in 1842, and its contents (because of the number of direct quotations) have revolutionized our ideas on Gnosticism on many points. Had the two books on the Mysteries been preserved, we might perchance have had our ideas even further revolutionized.