The Gnostics and Their Remains, by Charles William King, , at sacred-texts.com
The interpretation of Gnostic legends and the nature of the deity to whom they were addressed have been thus far the subjects of our inquiry: the next step is to search contemporary writers for information as to the special purpose for which the talismans so enriched were originally manufactured. The motive for placing in the coffin of the defunct illuminato these "words of power" graven on scrolls of lead, plates of bronze, the gems we are considering, and doubtless to an infinitely greater extent on more perishable materials, derives much light from the description Epiphanius gives (Hær. xxxvi.) of the ceremony whereby the Heracleonitæ prepared their dying brother for the next world. They sprinkled his head with water mingled with oil and opobalsamum, repeating at the same time the form of words used by the Marcosians in baptism, in order that his Inner Man, thus provided, might escape the vigilance of the Principalities and Powers whose domains he was about to traverse, and mount up unseen by any to the Pleroma from which he had originally descended. Their priests therefore instructed the dying man that as he came before these Powers he was to address them in the following words: "I, the son from the Father, the Father pre-existing but the son in the present time, am come to behold all things both of others and of my own, and things not altogether of others but belonging unto Achamoth (Wisdom), who is feminine and hath created them for herself. But I declare my own origin from the Pre-existing One, and I am going back unto my own from which I have descended." By the virtue of these words he will elude the Powers, and arrive at the Demiurgus in the eighth sphere, whom again he must thus address: "I am a precious vessel, superior to the female power who made thee, inasmuch as thy mother knoweth not her own origin, whereas I know myself, and I know whence I am; and I invoke the Incorruptible Wisdom who is in the father and in the mother of your mother that hath no father,
nay, not even a male consort, but being a female sprung from a female that created thee, though she herself knows not her mother, but believes herself to exist alone. But I invoke the mother." At this address the Demiurgus is struck with confusion (as well he might be), and forced to acknowledge the baseness of his origin: whereupon the inner man of the Gnostic casts off his bondage as well as his own angel, or soul, which remains with the Demiurgus for further use, and ascends still higher into his proper place. For every man is made up of body, soul, and inner man, this last being the more spiritual nature. This same belief was the popular one of the Jews, as appears from Rhoda's exclamation at the unhoped-for reappearance of Peter, whom she supposed already put to death.
The Achamoth here mentioned is the Sephandomad of Zoroaster, the Wisdom of the later Jews--so fully described by the pseudo-Solomon under that title (vii. 25). "She is the Spirit of the virtue of God, the pure emanation of the brightness of the Almighty, the brightness of the eternal Light, the mirror without spot of his majesty, the image of his goodness." "Wisdom hath made her house upon seven pillars." The naked woman, or Venus Anadyomene, so often seen on these gems, is the same idea expressed by the ancient Greek type. One given by Caylus ('Rec. d’Ant.' vi. Pl. 21) explains its destination in terms sufficiently clear, despite their corrupt Byzantine orthography: ΙΑΩ CΑΒΑΩ ΑΔΟΝΑΙ ΗΚΑΙ ΕΛΛΑΞΕΙΩΝ ΤΟϒ ϒΑΡΤΑΡΟϒ CΚΟΤΙΝ, "Jehovah, Sabaoth, Lord, come and deliver me from the darkness of Hell!"
Could the long legends covering so many of these jasper tablets be interpreted, most probably their purport would be found of the same nature with the just-cited Heracleonitan passport for the Pleroma: it were but a natural precaution on his friends’ part to supply the deceased brother with a correct copy of such long-winded involved professions of faith, and which otherwise would be extremely apt to escape his memory; the more especially as being only confided to him by his spiritual guides when he was already at the last gasp.
Of the practice itself, the origin undoubtedly lay in the very ancient Egyptian rule of placing in the mummy cases those
elaborate "Litanies of the Dead" of which so many have come down to our times: * papyrus scrolls containing the prayers to be addressed by the soul to each god whose "gate" it has to traverse on its way to final rest. To prevent mistakes, the portrait of each deity is prefixed to the column of prayers due to him, and this same arrangement is found in the leaden scrolls belonging to the heterogeneous doctrine of the Gnostics.
The same custom yet holds its ground in India, probably its pristine source. Tavernier notices that the Brahmins placed on the breast of the corpse seven pieces of paper, inscribed with the prayers to be uttered by the soul as soon as released from its corporeal envelope by the flames of the funeral pile. †
The gem-talismans that remain in such varied abundance are themselves recognised in the few surviving writings of the Gnostic teachers. The Pistis-Sophia is full of allusions to the Seals and Numbers of the different Æons and the other Powers, ‡ and with the repeated promise of the Saviour to reveal these all unto his hearers; a promise which, unfortunately, is not fulfilled in the book as it has come down to us. Nevertheless the very allusion sufficiently declares the sense in which we are to understand the CΦΡΑΓΙC so frequently to be seen on the talismans. The motive for providing the defunct believer
with a good supply of these imperishable credentials is sufficiently explained by the "Scheme of the Ophites" (published by Origen), which details the prayers to be addressed to the Seven Planetary Powers by the released soul, in its upward flight.
The prayer to Ildabaoth contains this indication: "O principal Spirit of the Pure Intelligence, Perfect Work in the eyes of the Father and of the Son, in presenting unto thee in this seal the sign of Life open the gates closed by thy power unto the world, and freely traverse thy domain."
Again, in saluting Iao (here taken from the Lunar Genius): "Thou that presidest over the Mysteries of the Father and of the Son, who shinest in the night-time, holding the second rank, the first Lord of Death! in presenting thee with this thine own symbol swiftly pass through thy dominions."
To Sabaoth: "Receive me, on beholding this pure symbol against which thy Genius cannot prevail; it is made after the image of the type; it is the body delivered by the Pentad."
To Orai (Venus): "Let me pass, for thou seest the symbol of thy power annihilated by the sign of the Tree of Life." (Is this sign the Cross, as Matter supposes, or the actual tree occasionally to be found on Gnostic gems?) And it must be remembered that the primary meaning of symbolum is the impression of a signet, which makes it more probable that such is the sense in which the word is used in all these passages. It may further be conjectured that in this conversion of the symbolum into a passport to heaven originated the theological use of the word to signify a creed or summary of the articles of Faith.
This same service of talismans in the next world is clearly recognised in the Pistis-Sophia (§ 293), where Mary Magdalene gives this curious version of the business of the tribute-penny: "Thou hast said that the soul giveth an account of itself, and likewise a seal unto all the Rulers that be in the regions of King Adamas, and giveth the account the honour and the glory of all the seals belonging unto them, and also the hymns of the kingdom of Light. This therefore is the word which thou spakest when the stater was brought unto thee, and thou sawest that it
was of silver and likewise of copper. * Thereupon thou didst ask, Whose is this image? and they answered, Of the King. Then when thou sawest that it was of silver and also of copper, thou saidest: Give the part which is the King's unto the King, and the part which is God's unto God. The which meaneth this: After that the soul hath received the Mystery it giveth an account of itself unto all the Rulers and unto the dominion of King Adamas, and also giveth the glory unto those that pertain to the Light. And thy saying that it shone, when thou sawest it, of silver and copper, it is the image and likeness of the soul. The power of the Light which is therein, the same is the fine silver: but the Counterfeit of the Spirit (Conscience) is the material copper."
The grand doctrine of Gnosticism was this: The soul on being released from the body (its prison-house and place of torment) has to pass through the regions of the Seven Powers; which it cannot do unless impregnated beforehand with knowledge: otherwise it is seized upon and swallowed by the dragon-formed Ruler of this world, Satan Ophiomorphus, and voided forth through his tail upon earth again, where it animates a swine or some such beast, and repeats its career once more. But should it be filled with knowledge, it eludes the Seven Powers, and tramples upon the head of Sabaoth ("of whom they say he hath the hair of a woman") and mounts up unto the eighth heaven, the abode of Barbelo, the Universal Mother, and who according to the Pistis-Sophia is the celestial Mother of the Saviour. Epiphanius quotes from the Gospel of Philip another formula, intended to extort a free passage from the same Planetary Genii: "The Lord hath revealed unto me what words the soul must use as it ascendeth up into heaven, and how it must make answer unto each one of the Celestial Virtues. 'I have known myself, I have collected myself from all parts, neither have I begotten sons unto the Ruler of this world, but I have plucked up the roots, and gathered together the scattered members. I know thee who thou art, for I am
one from above.' But if convicted of having left any offspring upon earth, the soul is detained there until it shall have collected all and attracted these into itself."
This "Self-Collection" was only to be effected through the observance of perpetual chastity, or rather (inevitable compromise) the practice of the various unnatural vices that regularly spring from such an article of faith. If however a woman of the congregation should through want of precaution allow herself to become pregnant, the Elders produced abortion, took the fœtus and pounded it up in a mortar along with honey, pepper, and other spices and perfumery. Then this "congregation of swine and dogs" assembled; and every one dipping his finger into the mess, tasted thereof. This they called their Perfect Passover, saying: "We have not been deceived by the Ruler of concupiscence, but have gathered up again the backsliding of our brother." The very plain-spoken Epiphanius gives exact particulars, not to be put into a modern tongue, of the mode in which the faithful observed in one sense their vow of perpetual chastity, without renouncing the joys of Venus. This he illustrates by the singular explanation then current of the ancient myth of Saturn's devouring his own offspring, against which interpretation and the practice thereon founded, even Clemens had found it needful to warn the orthodox two centuries before.
To exemplify the punishment ordained for having done the work of the Demiurgus by leaving offspring upon earth, the Ophites told a wild legend how that Elias himself was turned back from the gates of heaven, although to his own conscience a pure virgin, because a female demon had gathered up of his seed during his sleep, and formed infants therewith, which to his unutterable confusion she then and there produced in testimony of his sin. Hence springs the mediæval notion of the Succubæ, nocturnal temptresses of the continent; although these were supposed to do the work of their father the Devil in a different way, by procuring him the needful supplies for his amours with the witches, to whom he stood in the ex-officio relation of paramour.
All this is in strict accordance with what is found in the
fragments of the "Gospel to the Egyptians"; for Clemens (Stromata iii.) quotes therefrom this dictum of the Saviour's: "When Salome asked the Lord how long shall Death prevail? He answered unto her, So long as ye women do bring forth children. Wherefore she said, Then I have done well in not bearing children, seeing that there is no necessity for generation. To which the Lord answered, Feed upon every herb, but that which hath bitterness, eat thou not. Again when Salome asked when the things should be known concerning which she inquired, the Lord answered, When ye shall not need a covering for your nakedness; when the two shall become one, the male with the female, neither male nor female." It is to these overstrained rules of morality that St. Paul alludes when he expostulates with the Colossians (ii. 20) asking them, "Why are ye subject to ordinances (or rather, make laws for yourselves without any warrant), namely, touch not (women), taste not (flesh), handle not (things unclean)."
From the consideration of the value and use of these Gnostic Symbols in the world to come, we are naturally led to inquire in what manner they were employed by their owners in this. The meaning of the word itself has gone through many transitions. "Symbolism" properly signified the contribution of each member towards the expenses of a Greek drinking-party. For this purpose each pledged his signet-ring to the caterer and afterwards redeemed it by paying his quota of the bill. For this reason Plautus transfers the name of symbolum to the ring itself. The signet being considered the most trustworthy of all credentials, the word came to signify any token serving for the purpose of a credential. For example, Caylus figures (Rec. V. pl. 55), a bronze right-hand, the natural size, inscribed on the palm ΣϒΜΒΟΛΟΝ ΠΡΟΣ ΟϒΕΛΑϒΝΙΟϒΣ, "Credentials to the Velaunii" (a Gallic tribe whose seat was round Antibes). * The wrist at the section is closed, forming a base,
so that the hand could stand upright of itself. A pair of clasped hands, symbol of faith (still called in Italy feae), was the common present from one nation or army to another on making alliance: "Miserat civitas Lingonum veteri instituto dono legionibus dextras hospitii insigne" (Tac. Hist. i. 54). From the nature of the case such presents must have been made in the precious metals, and consequently none have been preserved. This connexion of ideas shows plainly why in ecclesiastical language symbolum stands for a profession of faith, a creed, i.e. gr. "Symbolum Apostolicum." And so by degrees the word degenerated into its present sense of any token denoting an idea, more especially a religious one.
Emblem again has passed through equal vicissitudes. At first, a little silver chasing, intended for letting into plate as an embellishment of the surface--which the term ἔμβλημα neatly expresses--the designs being always mythological, its name remained, after the fashion had expired, to denote any representation of that nature. There is, however, a distinction in the real meaning of emblem and symbol; the former expressing by actual representation, the latter by hieroglyphs, the idea they convey. Thus the emblem of Victory is a winged female holding a palm; the symbol of Victory is the palm by itself.
The BAMBINO--the favourite idol of the women of Rome--bears, in its type and decoration, the most convincing of all testimony as to the real source of the religion in whose pantheon it plays so prominent a part. It is a wooden figure, about two feet high, now passing for the vera effigies of the Infant Jesus; but to any eye acquainted with Indian art, an unmistakable copy of the Infant Buddha. The figure, in almost full relief, stands in front face, with arms crossed on the breast, and holding the lotus flower in the one hand, in the regular attitude of the Hindoo god. But the most striking feature in the design is the shape of the background, which has no prototype in Roman art, but is cut into the so-called "pine-apple"
outline, which invariably accompanies the sacred images of India. On the head is a crown, in the Oriental style, and the close-fitting garment, reaching from neck to ankle, and now passing for the swaddling-clothes of the baby, is profusely studded with precious stones--the offerings of a later time. The very tradition as to its place of manufacture supplies an inkling of the truth; for it is said to be the work of a monk at Jerusalem, and carved out of one of the sacred olive-trees. The pious artist must have been inspired by the sight of the Indian prototype, for the resemblance is far too close to be accidental, if indeed, the whole affair be not another instance of a "christened Jove."
The very nature of things renders it a necessity for the members of every secret society to possess means for mutual recognition that shall escape the observation of the outer world. The partakers of the Eleusinian Mysteries, appear, from certain allusions in the classics, to have been furnished by their sponsors with something of the kind. The refusal to wear a garland at a feast was accepted as the sign of a Mithraic brother. Certain it is that our popular notion about the "Masonic Grip" was equally current as applied to the Gnostics in the times of Epiphanius. "On the arrival of any stranger belonging to the same sect, they have a sign given by the man to the woman, and vice versa. In holding out the hand under pretence of saluting each other, they feel and tickle it in a particular, manner, underneath the palm, and by that means discover whether the new-comer belongs to the same society. Upon this, however poor they may be, they serve up to him a sumptuous feast, with abundance of meats and wine. And after they are well filled the host rises, leaving his wife behind, bidding her, 'Show thy charity unto this our brother,'" &c., carrying out his hospitality to an extent that in our selfish times no one can expect to meet with unless amongst the Esquimaux.
As may well be supposed, these symbola are widely diffused; for Gnosticism was more than co-extensive with the empire of Rome, and long survived her fall. Besides our guns, plates of bronze and lead (and even of gold in the remarkable example
found near Carnarvon), and rude copper medallions, engraved with similar devices, are constantly disinterred from ancient cemeteries, where they had so long protected the repose of their original possessors. Of that rarer class, the medallions, the most interesting known to me, was found in Provence (Praun Cabinet). It shows in intaglio the Abraxas god, for reverse, the triple Hecate, executed with considerable spirit types well illustrating the syncretistic nature of the creed by this union of an ancient and a newly-devised type. The sepulchre of Maria, wife of the most orthodox Honorius, contained, amongst a variety of amniotic figures (or perhaps toys--little animals, mice, &c.), carved in crystal and agate, a gold plate, inscribed with the names of the "Angels of the Presence." On account of the great interest of this discovery, I have inserted a complete translation of Fauno's account, the only description ever penned of the rifling of an imperial tomb. And when Bishop Seffred's coffin (deceased 1159) was opened in Chichester Cathedral, upon his bony finger still lay the episcopal ring, set with an Abraxas jasper, no doubt recommended to him in life and death by the numerous virtues so particularly set forth by Camillus Leonardi. When did the belief in the virtue of these talismans really expire? The Young Pretender, with the superstition inherent in his family, had sought to enlist in his service the mighty Abraxas himself for his ill-starred expedition. In his baggage, captured at Culloden by General Belfort, was found a bloodstone, set in silver as a pendant, engraved with the well-known Pantheus. and for reverse the naked Venus, Achamoth, legend ΑΤΙΤΑ (Figured by Walsh, pl. 7).
Provence is yet a fruitful source of these interesting memorials of the wide-spread theosophy. Gnosticism from the beginning took root and flourished in Southern Gaul, as the elaborate treatise of Irenæus attacking it, as no newly-invented thing, very clearly demonstrates. Its success was probably due to the close affinity of its leading doctrines to the Mithraic and original Druidical systems previously reigning there. Later still, in the middle of the fourth century, a new form of Gnosticism, broached by Piriscllian, Bishop of Avila, who was put to death for his
pains by the British emperor Magnus Maximus. Gibbon's note upon the unlucky heresiarch is so characteristic of his style that I cannot forbear quoting it: "The bishopric of Avila (in Old Castile) is now worth 20,000 ducats a year, and is therefore much less likely to produce the author of a new heresy." That Spain also had, long before Priscillian's preaching, received and warmly embraced that of Basilides, although so far removed from its fountain-head, is apparent from a passage in Jerome's 29th letter to Theodora: "Our friend Licinius, when that most foul heresy of Basilides was raging throughout Spain, and like a pestilence and murrain was devastating all the province between the Pyrenees and the Ocean, held fast the purity of the Christian faith, far from receiving Amargel, Barbelo, Abraxas, Balsamus, the ridiculous Leusiboras, and the other such-like monstrosities."
That Britain had to some extent received the same doctrines, the Carnarvon gold plaque is sufficient evidence. And its existence throws light upon the singular fact mentioned by Matthew Paris, that when Eadred, in collecting building materials for his conventual church, was pulling up the Roman foundations of Verulamium, he came upon a little cupboard, "armariolum," in the thickness of an immense wall containing scrolls in an unknown tongue. At last a very aged monk, Unwona by name, made them out to be written in the ancient British language, and containing invocations to the gods formerly worshipped in the place. But Verulamium was so entirely Roman, as far as its public edifices were concerned, that the use of the native language in any documents accompanying the foundation of a temple is in the highest degree improbable; the regular Gnostic Greek would be equally puzzling to the old Saxon monk, and his explanation was a safe cloak for his ignorance. The late period of the Roman occupation, when Gnosticism most flourished, will account for the preservation of "scrolls" (parchment no doubt) through the few centuries intervening before the abbotship of Eadred.
It is more than probable that such doctrines lurked unnoticed amongst the native Gallo-Romans, during the times of the Arian Gothic kings, and did no more than revive into the
flourishing Manicheism of the Albigenses in the twelfth century. The fact of these sectaries having received the same share of persecution from Catholics as the Waldenses themselves is not alone sufficient to prove them equally good Protestants with the latter; though that is now taken for granted, especially by expounders of the Apocalypse, when hard put to it to find the required "Two Witnesses" against the Scarlet Lady.
Gnosticism has left traces of itself, whether by direct or indirect descent amongst those mysterious sects of the Libanus, the Druses and Anseyrets. As late as Justinian's reign, according to Procopius, no fewer than a million Polytheists, Manicheans and Samaritans (the last also a sect of Gnostics) * were exterminated in Syria alone, during the systematic persecution, so long carried on by this pedantic bigot. As that region soon afterwards fell under the more tolerant Caliphs, who never troubled themselves about the religion of their subjects, provided their tribute were punctually paid, these doctrines may very well have come down in some sort to our days, considering the secluded position of the people holding them, and the tenacity of life possessed by every well-defined system of religious ideas.
331:* "Papyri, it is well known, were frequently kept in readiness, with blank spaces for the names and occupation of the deceased: the papyrus in fact formed part of the regular funeral appliances. They were of three classes, namely Ritual, Books of Transmigrations, and Solar Litanies, or descriptions of the passage of the soul through the earth in the solar boat. These highly curious MSS. contain minute descriptions of all the regions through which the soul was supposed to pass after death."--C. W. Goodwin. A MS. of this kind, written in the fourth century before our era, was found by the Prince of Wales when excavating in Egypt; and has been published with facsimile. But the finest example known is the one preserved in the Soane Museum, hitherto unpublished.
331:† The Lord Taraka, if duly propitiated, will breathe into the dying man's ear a mantra or charm of such power as will secure him a safe passage to heaven.
331:‡ "Then they bring the soul before the Virgin of Light, and it showeth unto the Virgin her own seal, her own form of defence, &c." This very illustrative portion of the teaching of Valentinus is found in the Pistis-Sophia.
333:* A curious remark, pointing clearly to Alexandria as the place where this Gospel was written, its tetradrachmn of imperial times being very base silver indeed.
335:* The best, as well as the moat interesting example of a symbolism extant, is the one figured by Caylus, without any conception of its value (Pl. 87, i.). It is an ivory disk, two inches in diameter, engraved with two fishes, placed side by side, with a palm-branch between them; the reverse is inscribed . The-well known emblems show this p. 336 ticket to have been the pass of some "Brother in Christ Jesus," in the primitive ages of the Church, serving as his introduction to the faithful in whatever part he might require their help.
340:* And the most ancient of all, for they claimed Simon Magus for their founder.