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The Gnostic Account of the Fall and the Creation of the Material World



The Archetypal Man Struggle for the Divine Spark


The Gnostic concepts of the Pleroma and the Cosmic Man (Anthropos) have already been considered previously.  But also of great importance in Hellenistic Gnosticism is the Myth of Sophia.  This is repeated in a more or less uniform way throughout most Gnostic cosmogonic works.  Basically, it involves an account of Sophia and the way in which she tries to emulate the Absolute by creating a successive Aeon, but fails and produces instead an inferior entity.  The following passage is from the Apocryphon of John:

"And...Sophia (Wisdom)...being an Aeon, conceived a Thought from herself with the reflection of the invisible Spirit [the Absolute] and Foreknowledge [one of the higher Aeons, or possibly here referring to the Power of the Absolute; i.e. "Shakti"].  She wanted to bring forth a likeness out of herself without the consent of the [Absolute] Spirit...and without her consort....And because of the invincible power which is in her, her thought did not remain idle and a thing came out of her which was imperfect and different from her appearance, because she had created it without her consort..."
[Apocryphon of John, from the Nag Hammadi Library, James M. Robinson, Ed, pp.103-4 (Harper & Row, 1981, San Franscisco)]

This is classical Gnostic conception of the Fall.  The idea of the Fall is a well-known one, especially in the Christian tradition, where it has captured the imagination for centuries.  But Gnostic, Manichaean, and Lurianic (Kabbalistic) Cosmologies differ from conventional religious Cosmology in that they holds that the Fall actually proceeded creation, and indeed was the very cause of it.  Creation was originally not something planned and carried out in an orderly way by a kind of supernatural architect- scientist called "God", but rather the result of a kind of supernal Fall or Crisis from within the Divine Itself.  This idea of the Fall means goes far beyond the Christian myth of Adam and Eve disobeying God.  Although this myth is indeed charged with many meanings, it is unable to convey the cosmic significance of what is involved here, for it is limited to the human level.

According to this cosmology then, Sophia ("Wisdom") the youngest and brashest of the emanated divinities (or "Aeons"), tries to emulate the Fore-father, who alone has the true power of Creation, and as a result produces not a genuine creation but an "abortion", which, after a long series of transformations, became the Cosmos and the lower powers which rule it.

It seems strange that an entity called "Wisdom" should be held responsible for an act of folly.  The most likely explanation is that these Hellenistic Gnostics were having a dig at the intellectual philosophers: the Platonists, Aristotleans, Stoics, Epicureans, and the rest.  These philosophers claimed it was possible through reason alone (or "wisdom"; "Philosophy" means "love of wisdom") to know the Absolute.  The Hellenistic Gnostics however said that such perception can only come about through a higher, intuitive, knowing.  Here we have the old contrast between the exoteric and the esoteric.  It is however very sloppy metaphysics that this valid polemic should be exalted to a cosmic position as an actual emanation of the Godhead.  Here we see the real weakness of Hellenistic Gnosticism; the fact that its proponents were for the most part unwilling to distinguish in their cosmological accounts between mundane human affairs and transcendent cosmic processes.

An important Gnostic doctrine is the idea of Syzygies or "Pairs".  Even the Aeons or Pleromatic Principles occur in male-female pairs.  Emanation, in other words, is almost a sexual process.  This was an idea which was developed even further by the Kabbalist Isaac Luria with his idea of Divine Partzufim ("Physiognomies").

So, according to Gnosticism, the Crisis is brought about not through sexuality itself, but through an absence of sexuality; that is, through an absence of balanced polarity, in which only one aspect, rather than both, participates in the creation.  (But inconsistently the Gnostics often saw human sex in a negative light, and advocated celibacy, although sometimes the opposite extreme of over-indulgence was encouraged).

And if we replace the above mythological anthropomorphisation with the more abstract polarity of Positive and Negative, or the Tantric Shiva (positive = Consciousness) and Shakti (negative = "power of consciousness"), or Kabbalistic Hesed (positive = boundless mercy and giving) and Gevurah (negative = restriction, severity), we could say that the "Fall" occurs through the activity of the Negative polarity acting on its own.  Granted that the Negative polarity is in this case described as a female principle, but all that that proves is the ubiquity of chauvinism even among these esoteric cosmologists.  Even the Hellenistic Gnostics themselves, who are so progressive in other ways - for example they considered women to be equal as teachers to men, an idea unheard of in that time and culture [see Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels] - suffered from this disease, at least as far as their mytho-cosmology goes.

The Apocryphon of John continues:

"And when she saw the consequence of her desire, it had changed into a form of a lion-faced serpent.  And its eyes were like lightning fires...She cast it away from her, outside that place [the Pleroma], that no one of the immortal ones [the other Aeons] might see it, for she had created it in ignorance....And she called his name Yaltabaoth..."
[The Nag Hammadi Library, James M. Robinson,  Ed, pp.104 (Harper & Row, 1981, San Franscisco)]

This is the negative or inferior world-creator.  In Gnosticism then, the Cosmos is thus seen as the result of a primordial error or accident; the only true existence being the Pleroma or transcendent order of Divinities.  Metaphysically what this means is that, for the Gnostics, the Cosmos is not the result of a supreme God, as is taught by monotheism, but rather the creation of the very lowest and most minor of the emanated divinities, and even then an accidental creation at that.

In the Valentinian system, as in the Sethian Apocryphon of John, it is Sophia, the youngest of the Aeons, who is responsible for the "Fall".  This comes about because Sophia ("Wisdom") tries to know the Fore-Father, although this is impossible for the Aeons that succeeded the first created pair of Mind-Truth.  This Sophia myth is pretty standard in Hellenistic Gnosticism, and - as mentioned above - seems to be a dig at philosophers ("lovers of wisdom" who seek to comprehend the Absolute through reason ("wisdom") alone.  The Valentinian account introduces a variation in the form of a higher or original Sophia, which remains within the Pleroma, and a lower Sophia, which comes into being outside it.

Sophia's Passion becomes a crisis that upsets the equilibrium of the entire Pleroma, and generates a an "abortion" (i.e. a miscreation), a "formless entity", which is cast into void outside the Pleroma.  As a result of this Error, the equilibrium of the Pleroma is disturbed.  The Father emanates a new Aeon-pair, Christos- Holy Spirit, which re-establishes the equilibrium of the Pleroma, and to take care of the "formless entity" which had resulted from Sophia's passion.

As a result of the new harmony established by "Christos and Holy Spirit", a new, unpaired Aeon, Jesus, is created, who is the "perfect fruit of the Pleroma", and expresses in his being the attributes of all the other Aeons.

The Christ-Aeon meanwhile shapes the "formless entity" into a new Aeon, called Achamoth (from the Hebrew Hokhmah, "Wisdom"), who becomes a kind of lower Sophia.

Achamoth, realising she is outside the Pleroma and unable to return, experiences emotions such as grief, fear, etc.  Jesus then descends from the Pleroma and separates her from these emotions, which then become the substance or primal matter of the Cosmos, i.e. Psyche (Soul/Mind) and Hyle (Matter/Darkness).  The material world is thus derived ultimately from a projection of the sufferings of Achamoth.  Inasmuch as Achamoth (like Sophia above her, and the Demiurge below her, is in many respects a mythological macrocosmic counterpart of the human ego, she is tormented by the longing for ultimate truth only able to produce a sort of bastard rationalism that has to be "crucified away" before she can be redeemed [E.R.Dodds, external link Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety, pp.19-20]

Achamoth, the Lower Sophia, then shapes the psyche into a god.  As Hans Jonas explains: "He is called "father" of the right-hand things (i.e. the psychical); "artificer" (demiurge) of the left-hand things (i.e. the hylic or material), and "king" of them all, i.e. of all things outside the Pleroma" [Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion,  p.190]

The idea of a Demiurge ("Artificer", World-Creator) is a popular concept taken from Plato's Timeus.  The Demiurge does not create out of nothing, as the Christian God does (such a concept was ridiculous to the Greeks) but rather shapes the original chaos or matter into form.

This Demiurge in turn creates the seven heavens, each of which is also an angel (here we have the theme of planes or strata of existence with gods or cosmic principles; each plane of existence is at the same time an Intelligence or Being), and finally the physical world.  He occupies the position of "the Place of the Middle" beneath the Lower Sophia and above the material world.  In another respect the Mother (the Lower Sophia) is in the Middle, above the Demiurge but beneath the Pleroma.

Because the lower heavens, such as the astrological spheres, are the creation of the inferior world-creator, rather than the supreme principle, the Gnostics adopted a very negative and pessimistic approach to astrology. It is not that they disbelieved in it, just the opposite. They saw it as a fatalistic mechanism by which the archons are able to imprison the sparks from on high.


Gnosticism as Anti-Religion - The Negative Old Testament God | The Gnostic's pessimistic astrology | Cyclic, Historical, and Dramaturgic Time | The Sethian Gnostics | The Valentinian Cosmology | The Pleroma | The Gnostic Dramaturgy - Creation and Redemption


The Archetypal Man Struggle for the Divine Spark



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