The Gnostics and Their Remains, by Charles William King, , at sacred-texts.com
Bellermann in his lucid little treatise, 'Drei Programmen über die Abraxas-gemmen,' * has divided his subject into three parts--the true Abraxas, all of which bear the Pantheos commonly so entitled, whose creation is assigned to Basilides himself; the Abraxaster, or types borrowed from the old religions, but adapted by the Gnostic semi-Christians to the expression of their own new ideas; and Abraxoid, which, though vulgarly accounted Basilidan gems, have no connection at all with Basilides’ own doctrines, but owe their origin entirely to the astrologers of his or anterior times.
The Abraxaster gems, therefore, on account of this priority of their first creation, have by right the first claim to be considered; and this mode of treating the subject possesses the additional advantage of elucidating the sources of many ideas that strike us as so extraordinary in the Gnostic creed.
The strangely heterogeneous mixture of creeds that prevailed over the Roman Empire during the two centuries between the reigns of Trojan and Constantine is exemplified by numerous allusions in the 'Historia Augusta,' equally with their tangible monuments, which are the subject of this inquiry. What vast encouragement (little enough needed, of a truth) must have been given to the talisman-makers by the accession to imperial power of the Syrian priest Heliogabalus! "He used to sacrifice human victims, selecting for the purpose, throughout all Italy, boys of noble birth and conspicuous beauty, having both parents living, in order that both parties might feel the keener anguish. In fact Magicians of every sort attended upon him and practised their arts every day, whilst he gave them every encouragement, and returned thanks to the gods for his having met with their especial favourites, at the same time that he was prying into the entrails of the sacrificed children, and torturing the victims to death, after the rules of his national religion."--(Lampridius.) And yet the same amusing chronicler puts it
down amongst the accomplishments of his model Emperor, Severus Alexander, cousin-german to the monster he has previously portrayed--"that he was a great proficient in Judicial Astrology (mathesis), so that he gave permission to astrologers to profess and teach that science publicly at Rome. He was moreover very well skilled in divination by victims (haruspicina); also an excellent diviner by birds (ornithoscopos), so far as even to surpass the Augurs of Spain and Pannonia." This same "every way accomplished gentleman" (to use the Elizabethan phrase) set up the statues of Abraham and Christ side by side with Orpheus and Alexander in his private chapel (Sacrarium); whilst his mad predecessor had conceived the grand notion of founding one universal syncretistic religion; for having conveyed to Rome his Emesene god (the aerolite), he built for him a temple on the Palatine, whither he transferred the Palladium, Vesta's fire, the Ancilia, the Cybele--in short, whatever object of worship was most sacred to the Romans. Nay, more--he talked of drawing into the same centre the "religions of the Jews and Samaritans and the devotion of the Christians, in order that his deity, Elagabal, might possess the mystery of every other creed."--(Heliogabalus, 3.)
Of the Abraxaster class the figures are for the most part drawn from the ancient iconography of the Egyptian religion; but they were adopted in a more spiritual sense by the newly-arisen sects, holding the doctrines of Christianity strangely amalgamated with the old teachings of the Mysteries. *
Of all these borrowed types the most frequent and most important is the Jackal-headed Anubis (sometimes double-headed, the human being superadded to his own), and bearing the caduceus of Hermes to denote his office of conducting souls, not as of yore through the shades of the lower world, † but along the planetary path to their final rest in the Pleroma. Thus the Gnostic
[paragraph continues] Gospel, "Pistis-Sophia" (§ 20), describing the Saviour after receiving his luminous vestment, inscribed with the Five words of power and with the names of all the Domination to be encountered in his Ascension, makes him come first to the Gate of the firmament, then to the God of the sphere, then to the Sphere of Fate, and lastly to the Twelve great Æons: all which Powers when they beheld their own names written upon his vesture were smitten with fear and began to sing hymns unto him.
This Anubis-Hermes appears sometimes waving a palm-branch, to proclaim his victory over the Powers of Evil; or presiding at the psychostasia "weighing of the soul," the scene commonly pictured in the Egyptian Ritual of the Dead. In the latter character he stands here for Christ, the Judge of the quick and the dead; but his successor in mediæval art is the Archangel Michael, who holds the scales. In the old Greek gems Hermes is often represented as bending forward, caduceus in hand, and by its mystic virtue assisting a soul to emerge from the depths of the earth--a strange coincidence in form, probably too in origin, with the mediæval picture of the Saviour lifting souls out of Purgatory. The Zoroastrian Hell, a burning lake of molten metal, into which, on the Judgment-Day, Ahriman with his followers were to be cast, had for object the ultimate purification and restoration to their pristine state of the condemned--a merciful doctrine, held by Origen, and partly allowed by Jerome.
Hermes in this particular character of Psychopompos was made great use of by the Naaseni (Ophites) as the prophetic representative of the Saviour in his grandest office. They interpreted Hermes’ leading souls through darkness into Elysium as Christ's guiding the minds of the enlightened out of Ignorance into Knowledge, in their special sense of the words. As may well be supposed, they descanted largely upon that
peculiar symbol, under which form Hermes, surnamed Cyllenius, was worshipped. Amongst their mystical expositions of the object one curious fact appears, that its popular name was ἀγαθοφόρον, "bringer of good luck," for which cause it was set up at cross-roads, and upon house-tops. But as regards the ancient religion, since it is thus made out that this attribute, later modified into a Pillar, stood for Cyllenius, guide of departed souls (exactly as the same figure, lingam, represents Siva, Lord of the dead in modern Hinduism), the reason becomes obvious why its sculptured representations should have been the earliest form of monument placed over the departed. The monuments secured for the dweller in the grave the perpetual protection of the Guide and Shepherd of souls; a colossal phallus crowns to this day the summit of the oldest tomb, the date of which is historically certain, the tumulus of the Lydia king, Alyattes. The Asiatic colonists carried with them into Italy the same belief in the protective virtues of the symbol; carved in stone it regularly surmounted the door of the sepulchre. One lately came into my possession, inscribed around with the name and patronymic of the deceased Etruscan, whose repose it had so long guarded, SVSES FELVS FENTV, "Suses, son of Phintas."
This double character of Anubis is very curiously expressed by the figure upon a sard belonging to myself, which to the casual observer presents that most orthodox of types, the Good Shepherd, carrying a lamb upon his shoulders, leaning upon his staff, his loins bound with a girdle having long and waving ends. But upon closer examination this so innocent personage resolves himself into the double-headed god of Egypt, the lamb's head doing duty for the jackal's, springing from the same shoulders with that of the man, whilst the floating end of the girdle is turned into the bushy tail of the wolfish beast, and the "latrator Anubis" bursts upon our astonished eyes. This identification of character in Anubis and Christ enables us rightly to understand that drawing, the discovery of which created such a sensation at Rome a few years back, scratched (graffito) roughly on the plaster of a room in a house buried (in ancient times) under the extended buildings of the Palatine.
[paragraph continues] It represents this same jackal-headed man holding in front of him a Latin Cross with his outstretched hands, and standing on a pedestal, in front of his worshipper, who makes the customary form of adoration by raising his hand to his lips, and who has expressed the object of his handiwork by the inscription ΑΛΕΞΑΜΕΝΟC CΕΒΕΤΕ ΘÆΟΝ. In reality the production of some devout, but illiterate Gnostic, it is construed by its present owners * into a shocking heathen blasphemy, and a jibe upon the good Christian Alexamenos, because they mistake the jackal's head for that of an ass, and consequently imagine an intentional caricature of their own Crucifix.
The discovery of this picture clearly illustrates a passage of Tertullian (Apol. xvi.) where he says to his opponents: "Like many others you have dreamed that an Ass's Head is our god. But a now version of our god has lately been made public at Rome, ever since a certain hireling convict of a bullfighter put forth a picture with some such inscription as this, 'the god of the Christians ΟΝΟΚΟΙΗΤΗΣ.' He was depicted thus--with the ears of an ass, and with one of his feet hoofed, holding in his hand a book, and clothed in the toga." An exact description this of the Anubis figured by Matter (Pl. ii. c. No. 1.), save that instead of a book the god carries a caduceus and palm-branch. The same calumny was somewhat later transferred by the Christians themselves to the account of the Gnostics. Not being acquainted with the Egyptian beast, they mistook (perhaps intentionally) the head of the jackal for that of the ass, which in truth it strongly resembles in the rude drawing of our gems. Thus we find, at the close of the fourth century, Epiphanius asserting "that the Gnostic Sabaoth has, according to some, the face of an Ass, according to others; that of a Hog; on which latter account He hath forbidden the Jews to eat swine's flesh." This second notion was a very ancient one, being alluded to by Petronius in 'Judæus licet et porcinum numen adoret." Now Sabaoth being held by the Gnostics as the national god of the Jews, it seems probable that this same confusion of one beast with the other was the real source of
the opinion so prevalent amongst the ancients, and quoted by Tacitus (Hist. v. 4). "The sacred object so zealously guarded from profane eyes within the Sanctuary at Jerusalem was the figure of the wild ass by whose guidance they had relieved their thirst and their distress, Moses having, through the observation of the movements of a troop of these animals, discovered the spring, the waters of which saved his followers from perishing in the desert." This legend was furthermore connected with the belief that the real god of the Jews was Bacchus, for the ass was sacred to the god of wine. For this dedication Pliny finds a singular reason in the fact that the ass was fond of fennel, a deadly poison to all other quadrupeds, but a plant specially consecrated to Bacchus (xxxv. 1). Again, the spurious gospel 'The Genealogy of Mary' assigns for the cause of the death of Zacharias, son of Barachias, that once entering the Temple he beheld standing within the Sanctuary a man with the face of an ass, and when he was rushing out to cry unto the people, Woe unto you! Whom do ye worship? he was smitten with dumbness by the apparition. But afterwards, when he had recovered his speech, and revealed what he had seen unto the Jews, they slew him for a blasphemer. And this they gave as a reason wherefore the High Priest had bells fastened around the hem of his garment, in order that this monstrous deity might by their tinkling be warned of the approach of man, and so have the time to conceal himself. This wild story is preserved by Epiphanius alone, for the original work is entirely lost. It was ascribed to St. Matthew, and was taken for their special textbook by the Collyridians, who got their name from their custom of sacrificing cakes to the Virgin Mary, whom they pretended was also born of a virgin. Faustus, bishop of Riez, cites this same gospel concerning the parentage of Mary. But the apocryphal gospel, 'The Birth of Mary,' still extant, is of a totally different character, being a mere monkish invention of the most orthodox stupidity; and which, coupled with the 'Protevangelion,' became the source of all the mediæval pictures and sculptures that set forth the history of the Madonna.
To the same Egyptian family likewise belongs the boy Harpocrates or Horus (the vernal Sun), having the symbol. of
fecundity monstrously exaggerated and seated upon the lotus, which expressed the same idea by its abundant seeds; and also Perfection because for its flower, fruit, bulb, all exhibit the form of the circle, as Iamblichus observes. Macrobius too remarks that Horus is the Egyptian equivalent for Apollo, who gave his name to the twenty-four hours of day and night: and this acceptation of his character is recorded by the Alexandrian plasma (Vienna Cabinet, I. 39) which identifies him with the Grecian Sun god: ΜΕΓΑC ΩΡΟC ΑΠΟΛΛΩΝ ΑΡΠΟΚΡΑΤΗC ΕϒΙΑΛΑΤΟC ΤΩ ΦΟΡΟϒΝΤΙ. He often appears accompanied by Anubis in the character of his messenger. Again, Horus is seen adored by the kneeling Cynocephalus baboon, the animal consecrated to Luna. This last curious animal also belonged to Thoth, scribe of the gods, and makes a favourite Gnostic device performing his devotions before a pillar covered all over with inscriptions and supporting a triangle, symbol of the Moon whose influence was supposed singularly to affect his constitution. This pillar clearly enough denotes those "Pillars of Hermes," by means of which Iamblichus solved all the questions propounded to him by Porphyrius (Jam. De Mysterieis, II.).
To make the allusion more certain, these beings are even designated in the spells by their proper name of "Titans." Ficoroni has given in his Formæ No. 4 a mould for casting the reverse of a medalet, of the 3 B size, bearing the Dioscuri facing each other, holding their spears point downwards, in token of amity, in their left hands each a situla. Behind, vertically CΑΒΑΩΤ in two lines: in the exergue ΤΙΤΑΝ, space not admitting the remainder of the title--too well-known besides to require more than such a reminiscence.
Horus is often figured sailing through the heavens in the sacred boat, the Baris steered by two hawks; solar emblems, with sun and moon overhead, and taking the same titles ΙΑΩ, ΑΒΛΑΝΑΘΑΝΑΛΒΑ, &c., as the great Abraxas-god himself, and with reason, the same idea being couched in the two personifications. Horus, as Heliodorus records (Æth. ix. 22), was also applied to the Nile, whose Greek name Νεῖλος also contained the mystic solar number 365; this voyager in the baris is analogous to the Hindoo Neryana, the child floating
in his argah leaf upon the face of the waters having his whole body coloured blue (nila). To complete the resemblance the situla regularly carried from a cord in the hand of Anubis is the very lotah, brass drinking cup, of the modern Brahmins. Those common emblems, the baris and the coiled serpent, have their Gnostic meaning fully explained by a remarkable passage in the Pistis-Sophia (§ 359). "And the disk of the sun was a Great Dragon whose tail was in his mouth, who went up into the Seven Powers on the left hand, being drawn by four Powers having the similitude of white horses. But the going of the Moon was in the shape of a boat, the rudder whereof showed a male and female dragon with two white cows drawing the same, and the figure of a child on the stern guiding the dragons, who drew away the light from the Rulers (the regular synonym in the book for the rebellious Æons, lords of the Zodiac), and in front of the child was the similitude of a cat."
The Regeneration of the "Spiritual Man" occasionally decorates these talismans, being symbolised in the most materialistic manner by the Solar Lion impregnating a naked woman, the recognised emblem of the soul, who, "quadrupedum ritu," submits with joy to the vivifying operation. And the spiritual man thus regenerate is again depicted under the form of a human outline holding up by the neck a huge serpent, both of them entirely filled up with inscribed letters, amongst which the mystic Seven Vowels largely predominate.
Scaliger, however, as cited by Salmasius in the above-quoted work, takes this figure to be the representative of the combined 365 Æons, all whose names are supposed to be condensed within his outline--in short he is the emblem of the Pleroma, and stands for the "Adam-Kadmon" of the Kabbalists, the Primal Man, the Ophite Adamas, after whose image the second Adam was made. Or again, this same combination may have been intended to display the Seven Vowels, with their forty and nine Powers, the virtues whereof are so wondrously exalted by the inspired writer of the Pistis-Sophia (§ 378), whose words are cited in another place. * But as the fact bears directly upon the
sigh before us, it may be mentioned here that the same gospel (358) makes the Saviour open his "Prayer" with the ejaculation, ΑΕΗΙΟϒΩΙΑΩΩΑ ΙΩΙΑ; which, as enveloping the mystic Name of God, were the most obvious spell to be selected to fill up so important a talisman. Neither is it out of place to conclude this inquiry with the notice that the motto of the mediæval House of Hapsburgh was the Latin vowels A.E.I.O.V. These enigmatical letters were interpreted by the arrogance of succeeding generations, puffed up with imperial dignity, into the initials of the prophecy "Austriae est imperare orbi universe." But I more than suspect that the five Latin letters were adopted by some illuminato amongst the ancient Dukes (perhaps acquired during his alchemical studies) as containing the same transcendental virtues with the Gnostic seven of the Greek alphabet.
The winged goddesses Athor and Sate, representing the Roman Venus and Juno, sometimes are found accompanied with such legends as makes it evident they too had been pressed into the Gnostic service, as representatives of certain amongst the feminine Æons. * But another shape repeatedly presents his monstrosity to our astonished gaze, whose true character almost sets conjecture at defiance, but evidently the offspring of very diverse ideas most strangely commingled. He is an aged man, Priapean, four-winged, with four hands grasping as many sceptres; he has likewise the spreading tail of the vulture and stands in the baris, or upon the coiled serpent, or on a tree-trunk, horizontal, whence project five lopped off branches. Some potent saviour must he be, for he is addressed, like Abraxas himself, by the title ΑΒΛΑΝΑΘΑΝΑΛΒΑ! But the most prominent symbol in the monstrous collocation suggests an explanation of its hidden meaning, supplied by the following
exposition of Justinus, that wildest teacher in all the Gnosis. "For this cause said he unto Eden, Mother, behold thy son! meaning his animal and carnal body. He himself, however, having commended his spirit into the Father's hands, ascended up unto the Good One. Now this Good One is Priapus, He that created before anything existed. On this account he is called Priapus because he first made all things (ἐπριαπόισε). * For this reason is he set up in every temple, being honoured by all Nature, and likewise in the roadways, having the fruits of Autumn hung about him, that is, the fruits of the Creation whereof he is the author, inasmuch as he first made the Creation which before was not."
That very frequent type, a mummy swathed in the coils of a vast serpent, is easily explained as an allusion to the protection in the next world of the ancient agatho-demon, † or the spiritual Naas of the more recent Ophites. The same belief also generated that more graceful allegory, the woman enthroned on the back of the same reptile, like the Atergatis of Phœnicia.
Interesting above the rest for the part it played in mediæval superstition is the Osiris, or old man, with radiated head, a terminal figure always shown in front face with arms crossed on the breast, the true Baphomet of the Templars. Sometimes he is borne aloft upon the heads of four Angels, upon whom two streams pour forth from his sides. This group has been explained as Ormuzd borne up by the Four Elements; although it may possibly refer to the notion the prophet Enoch mentions (xviii. 3) "I also beheld the Four Winds which bear up the earth and the firmament of heaven." The idea in truth has rather an Assyrian than Egyptian cast, for in Assyrian works Athor (Mylitta) often appears pouring out from her extended arms the Waters of Life; and again the Persian female Ized Arduisher is by interpretation "The giver of living water." ‡
A curious specimen of ancient form, borrowed in a more
spiritual sense, is furnished by a pretty sard, found in the Punjab (Major Pearse), engraved with two figures of the Roman Providentia facing each other, in the field between them, the heads of Sol and Luna, and below ΧΑΙΑ, the Hebrew for Life.
The common figure Θ may be explained by Eusebius's description of the Egyptian hieroglyph for the world, as a circle coloured sky-blue and besprinkled with flames, in the centre an extended serpent; the whole being carelessly imitated by the letter Θ in the Diagramma of the Ophites.
An armed man, the Mithraic soldier, one of the figures regularly set up in the mystic Cave of the Solar god, often decorates a talisman, holding a spear tipped with the head of a cock, a mark of honour granted by the Persian kings to distinguished valour (as by Artaxerxes to the Carian who slew Cyrus the Younger); or else grasping a serpent in each hand. A sect that sprung up in Egypt, the Phibionites, took the title "Militant," Στρατιωτικοί. Another figure, the three-headed, three-bodied god, who, standing like Priapus, grasped with one hand the symbols of fecundity, with the other, asps and scorpions, must be the visible embodiment of the Great Τριδύναμεις, who figure so prominently in the celestial hierarchy of the Pistis-Sophia. The Trees sometimes enlisted in the Talismanic corps may find their motive in the "Almond-tree" of the Phrygian Mysteries, in which the Naaseni discovered the name of the Great Creator of All; or else to the "Mystery of the Five Trees," mentioned in that oft-quoted revelation, on whose true nature light is thrown by Justinus' exposition making out
the Trees of Paradise to be the Angels generated between the Demiurgus Elohim and his daughter Eden. *
There is a sigil of this class, that from its frequency must have been considered of peculiar virtue. It represents a fish with immense head and shoulders, but diminutive body, as if seen from above; the reverse of the stone thus inscribed--
One of the three sacred fish of the Nile must figure here; and in this talismanic character passed, with an appropriate mystic interpretation, into the symbolism of the Alexandrine Christians.
226:* Berlin, 1820.
227:* Many of the actual types--the mummified erect Osiris, the reclining Isis, the Nile, the Horus on the lotus-flower, the Anubis, &c.--occur on the contemporary Alexandrian coins; they therefore can only be accounted Gnostic productions when their Hebrew inscriptions certify their authorship.
227:† In the paintings on the mummy-case of Petemenopt (or Ammonius), Osiris the Occidental, invoked in the papyrus ritual inclosed with the corpse, is seen seated on his throne; p. 228 at his side, his wife and sister, Isis. In front stands an altar, loaded with flowers, fruits, and libations. Anubis, recognisable by his jackal's head crowned with the pschent (tall cap), because, like the Hermes of the Greeks, he discharges important functions equally in the supernal and infernal regions (the place of the Four Amenti), presents to his sire the defunct Petemenopt, swathed in his sepulchral bandages, and holding up his hands in the attitude of supplication.
230:* Having been cut from the wall and deposited in the museum of the Collegio Romano.
233:* Goodwin's 'Magic Papyrus,' gives, at the end of a spell (No. 1) terminating in several vowel-combinations, these directions for pronouncing p. 234 each--
"Α, with the mouth opened, rolled about like a wave.
Ο, in a short manner for spiritual threatenings.
Α Ω, unto Earth, Air, Heaven.
Ε, after the fashion of the cynocephalus.
Ο, in the same manner as above said.
Η, with gentleness aspirated.
ϒ, unto the Shepherd (Hermes), as if it were long."
234:* Valentinus made his Æons in pairs, male and female.
235:* That is, the proper symbol of Priapus, either the phallus or the Egyptian Tau.
235:† The ΗΦΕ painted on the mummy cases in that very capacity.
235:‡ At Tarsus (1863) was discovered in company with aurei of Sev. Alexander and Gordian III., a talisman thus described by Longperier "Amulet formed of lapis-lazuli, set p. 236 in a gold frame of rude workmanship, with a ring for suspension. The two faces are engraved in intaglio, and represent an Æon with four wings and bird's tail, holding two spears; and with a Venus and the inscription (not reversed) ΑΡΩΡΙ ΦΡΑCΙC, some letters of which are concealed by the setting. Length, 0.0034; weight, 5.20 grammes (= 95 grs. troy)." The same legend accompanies a Venus Anadyomene upon a large hæmatite (Praun) now in the British Museum. Montfaucon, pl. clxi. has a Venus unveiling inscribed ΑΡΩΡΙ ΟΡΑCΙC, "The Vision of Arori;" and another with ΑΡΡΩΡΙΦ ΙΑCΙC, and on the field CΑΝΤΚΑ for the owner's name. It was under such a form as this that the Supreme Tetrad brought down Truth from Heaven to display her beauty to Marcus as he describes in his 'Revelation' (see p. 218).
237:* An authentic description of the Tree of Knowledge will doubtless be acceptable to my readers. "The Tree of Knowledge also was there, of which if any eats he becomes endowed with great wisdom. It was like a species of the tamarind-tree, bearing fruit which resembled grapes extremely fine; and its fragrance extended to a considerable distance. I exclaimed: 'How beautiful is this tree, and how delightful is its appearance!'"--(Book of Enoch, xxxi. 3-4).