Gnosticism, from the Greek ‘‘Gnosis,’’ meaning ‘‘to know,’’
refers to a number of different groups in the second century
C.E. Roots of the movement are evident in the Christian New
Testament writings of the first century; they drew on various
Pagan, Jewish, and occult ideas current in the Mediterranean
Basin. Some have seen the roots of Gnosticism in the writings
of Apollonius of Tyana and the biblical magician Simon
Magus, mentioned in Acts 89–24. However, the emergence of
gnostic thinking is seen most clearly in passages such as the
opening verses of the Gospel of John, Paul’s epistle to the Collossians
218, and I John 41, where gnostic themes are denounced.
Among some of the Gnostics, a priesthood of the mysteries
existed and these initiated priests practiced magic, astrology,
incantations, exorcisms, the fashioning of charms, talismans,
and amulets, of which many are in museums and special collections.
These priests were viewed as heretics by the church,
which in the second and third century struggled to separate itself
from them. Upon gaining control of the Roman Empire,
Christian leaders periodically suppressed Gnostic groups and
occasionally these movements provided the ideology for revolutionary
Manicheism, a later movement of Gnosticism that emphasized
its dualistic tendencies, was founded by a prophet named
Mani (216–276 C.E.), who was noted for his skill in astrology,
medicines, and magic.
The most notable gnostic teacher was Valentinus, a secondcentury
Alexandrian who moved to Rome around 140 C.E. He
became a teacher in the church of Rome before being expelled
as a heretic. He continued to teach as a rival of the church for
the next two decades. His major literary production was the
Gospel of Truth, known only from quote in Christian polemical
writings until a copy was discovered in the Egyptian desert in
the twentieth century.
Magical and Occult Element in Gnosticism
The Carpocratians, one of the Gnostic sects, seem to have
derived some of their mysteries and rites from Isis worship, and
used theurgic incantations, symbols, and signs. The Ophites
also adapted Egyptian rites, and, as their name indicates, these
included serpent symbolism, an actual serpent being the central
object of their mysteries. Marcos, a disciple of Valentinus,
and founder of the Marcian sect, reportedly celebrated Mass
with two chalices, pouring wine from the larger into a smaller,
and on pronouncing a magical formula, the vessel was filled
with a liquor like blood. Other sects practiced divination and
prophecy by using female somnambules. Some of the sects engaged
in rituals of a sexual nature.
The Gnostic talismans were mostly engraved on gems, the
color and traditional qualities of the jewel being part of its magical
efficacy. They used spells and charms and mystic formulas,
said to ‘‘loose fetters, to cause blindness in one’s enemies, to
procure dreams, to gain favor, to encompass any desire whatsoever.’’
In a Greek Gnostic papyrus the following spell of Agathocles
for producing dreams was found
‘‘Take a cat, black all over, and which has been killed; prepare
a writing tablet, and write the following with a solution of
myrrh, and the dream which thou desirest to be sent, and put
in the mouth of the cat. The text to be transcribed runs ‘Keimi,
Keimi, I am the Great One, in whose mouth rests Mommom,
Thoth, Nauumbre, Karikha, Kenyro, Paarmiathon, the sacred
Ian icê ieu aêoi, who is above the heaven, Amekheumen, Neunana,
Seunana, Ablanathanalba,’ [here follow further names,
then] ‘Put thyself in connection with N.N. in this matter [as to
the substance of the dream named] but if it is necessary then
bring for me N.N. hither by thy power; lord of the whole world,
fiery god, put thyself in connexion with N.N. . . . Hear me, for
I shall speak the great name, Thoth! whom each god honours,
and each demon fears, by whose command every messenger
performs his mission. Thy name answers to the seven (vowels)
a, e, ê, i, o, u, ô, iauoeêaô oueê ôia. I named thy glorious name,
the name for all needs. Put thyself in connection with N.N.,
Hidden One, God, with respect to this name, which Apollobex
also used.’&43’’
The repetitionchanting of various syllables, otherwise apparently
meaningless, was always held to be of great efficacy in
magical rites, either as holding the secret name of the powers
invoked, or of actual power in themselves. A similar practice,
japa yoga, may be found in Hinduism with the repetition of
In Atanasi’s Magic Papyrus, Spell VII directs one to place the
link of a chain upon a leaden plate, and having traced its outline,
to write around the circumference the common Gnostic
legend in Greek characters (reading both ways) continuously.
Within the circle should be written the nature of what was to be
prevented. The operation was called ‘‘The Ring of Hermes.’’
The link was then to be folded up on the leaden plate, and
thrown into the grave of one dead before his time, or else into
a disused well. After the formula was to follow in Greek ‘‘Prevent
thou such and such a person from doing such and such a
thing’’—a proof that the string of epithets all referred to the
same power.
These instances might be multiplied, although much of the
Gnostic teachings were lost as the gnostic lost out in the religious
struggles of the era. Gnosticism was passed on through
the centuries in various groups usually described as heretical
groups such as the Cathars and Bogomils. It reemerged in the
late Middle Ages in alchemy and the kabala. With the rise of
Rosicrucianism and nineteenth-century Theosophy, it became
well established in the emerging pluralistic culture and has enjoyed
a new life in the New Age movement.
Many of the lost gnostic texts were recovered in 1945 in the
accidental discovery of a fourth-century gnostic library in the
Egyptian desert at Nag Hammadi. Many complete copies of
books, such as the Gospel of Truth, previously known only from
a few surviving quotes in other books, were discovered intact.
This discovery has stimulated modern gnostic studies, and one
book, The Gospel of Thomas, a collection of lost sayings attributed
to Jesus, has been adopted as holy writ by several contemporary
gnostic churches.
Doresse, Jean. The Secret Books of the Egyptian Gnostics. London
Hollis and Carter, 1960. Reprint, New York AMS Press,
Hedrick, Charles W., and Robert Hodgson, Jr., eds. Nag
Hammadi, Gnosticism, and Early Christianity. Peabody, Mass.
Hendrickson Publishers, 1986.
Lacarriere, Jacques. The Gnostics. London Peter Owen,
Mead, G. R. S. Fragments of a Faith Forgotten. London, 1931.
Reprint, New York University Books, 1964.
———. Pistis Sophia; A Gnostic Miscellany. London, 1921. Reprint,
New Hyde Park, N.Y. University Books, 1974.
Robinson, James, ed. The Nag Hammadi Library in English.
San Francisco Harper & Row, 1988.
Rudolph, Kurt. Gnosis The Nature and History of Gnosticism.
San Francisco Harper & Row, 1987.