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The Gnostic Gallery

A Brief Visual Tour of Evidence for Gnostics and the Mysteries

One of the difficulties we face in getting a clear sense of Gnostics, Pagan religion, and the Mysteries, is the lack of tangible evidence. Most of the original literature of Pagan spirituality was intentionally destroyed, and the rest was eaten by the ravages of time. The Greek dramatist Aeschylus wrote over ninety plays, of which nine have survived intact. This is a good benchmark. About ten percent or less of all Pagan literature survives, and probably less than one-tenth of one percent of Gnostic writings and textual material collected in the libraries attached to the Mystery Schools. (On the Coptic Gnostic texts found in Egypt in 1945, see When the Mysteries Died.)

What of other evidence, such as artifacts and architecture? Consider the Greco-Roman ruins spread across Europe from the western shores of Ireland and Scotland down to the tip of the Iberian peninsula, around the Mediterranean basin and throughout Egypt and the Levant—all this is evidence of Pagan religion and the widespread network of the Mysteries. In many cases, the ruins of classical world are superposed over another layer of evidence: the megalithic constructions of prehistory. The sacred grottos of the Black Virgin, for instance, became the sites for cathedrals and abbeys at Chartres, Glastonbury, and elsewhere. Shamanic religion in Europa was the prehistorical matrix of the Mysteries. This archeological evidence is also spread all across Europe and into the Middle East.

The purpose of this gallery is to display non-textual evidence presenting visual traces of the Mysteries and the Gnostic seers, the telestai, who directed them. In some cases, the evidence points in a general way to Pagan religion, in other instances, it indicates specific aspects of Gnostic practice and Mystery ritual. The value of this evidence lies in its visual impact (short of going to the places depicted), but I have supplied brief comments to describe.

ONE: From Prehistory to Delphi

The religion of nature, reflecting the Pagan sense of life, began with intense immersion in nature. In the wake of the last deglaciation, circa 10,000 BCE, technology was dedicated to ritual arrangement of sacred sites. Pombos Dolmen, Portugal. (Julien Cope, The Megalithic European, p. 424.)

All over Europe, megalithic sites were carefully aligned to the cardinal points, sunrise and sunset, moonrise and moonset, and the wheeling of the stars. Some sites, such as Callanish on the Isle of Lewis in the Hebrides, display an astronomical sophistication that is astonishing. (Photograph by Rod Bull in Time Stands Still.)

The "White Lady" of Tassili n'Ajjer in the mountains of Algeria commemorates a female shaman dancer, typical of the late Paleolithic cultures that preceded the age of the sacred megaliths. Gnosticism derives from archaic practices of shamanism in which women played an equal, if not dominant role. (Rock carving in yellow ochre with white spots in red lines.)

Intimate contact with the "animal powers" was typical of archaic shamanism. Curiously, ancient seers found these powers in the distant skies as well as in the animal kingdom, not to mention the psychic world. Subterranean caves were repositories of animal power, the treasuries of the Goddess. Megalithic sites were devices for monitoring the animating powers of the cosmos. In its late, classical forms, Gnosticism preserved a highly sophisticated knowledge of astronomy, and relegated animal powers to an infra-psychic status.

In England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, many sites are located in remote places of extraordinary beauty. The astronomical alignment of the megalithic circles such as Moel Ty Uchaf in North Wales incorporates the geometry of pentagon and heptagon. The interaction between the site and its setting (earth and sky) generates an undeniable esthetic effect and may spontaneously produce altered states of consciousness. (Photograph by Rod Bull in Time Stands Still.)

Male shaman in out-of-the-body trance, or astral projection. His sleeping form is shown on the right. Eliade emphasized the "archaic techniques of ecstasy," including trance journeys, in Siberian shamanism, but the practice was universal. Gnostics refined the techniques of astral projection, remote viewing, and lucid dreaming —such techniques being the source of much of the cosmological knowledge, including their detection of alien intrusion. Shamans in North Africa previous to 6000 BCE would have participated in the Sarahasian culture that spread across North Africa and through the Nead East into Iran, before the great drought and desertification. (Roundhead rock painting from Aouanrhet, Algeria. In Settegast, Plato Prehistorian, fig. 59)

 

Fantastically constructed underground chambers such as Hal Saflieni (circa 4000 BCE) on the island of Malta were used for initiatory rites of which scholars and archeologists, who consider them to be burial chambers, have no firsthand experience. The shift from shamanic exploits in the hunter/gatherer setting of open nature to subterranean rites indicates (in one aspect) the interiorization of the human psyche, a trend leading eventually to urban organization and human-made cultures totally enclosed upon themselves. (Julian Cope, The Megalithic European, p. 318)

The rise of urban civilization in the Fertile Crescent depended on the theocratic system of empowerment, which became male-dominated over time, especially after 1800 BCE. The Zoroastrian priesthood of the Magi, source of the Gnostic movement, originated around 6000 BCE in northwestern Iran, in the plateau between Lake Urmia and the Caspian Sea (main archeological sites, Yanik Tepe and Hajii Firuz). Map from Mary Settegast, Plato Prehistorian.

There was a split in the Magian Order over the issue of whether initiates should be involved in statecraft and theocratic politics. From Lake Urmia, the politically oriented Magi moved down into Mesopotamia and set up urban theocracies, but the non-political initiates (later called Gnostics) moved westward, toward Catal Huyuk in Turkey, and into the Levant and Egypt where they established the network of Mystery Schools.

Many megalithic circles were constructed in the open for celebration of public and popular rites, contrasted to the more secret initiations performed in dolmens and underground chambers. Chromeleque dos Almendres, Portugal. Julian Cope, The Megalithic European, p. 397).

Map showing dissemination of the Gnostic movement (gold) from the Urmian plateau into Anatolia and Greece, and southward into the Levant, Palestine, and Egypt, contrasted to the Magi who chose to set up and direct theocracies in the urban cultures of the Fertile Crescent (blue).

 

As megalithic sites slowly morphed into temple precincts, the "underworld" (where non-public initiatory rites were performed) remained in close and intimate relation whip with more formal structures. The Cave of Hades at Eleusis. (In Temples and Sanctuaries of Ancient Greece, p. 78)

In all indigenous cultures, sacred sites in nature, and, later, temple sites, were dedicated to the Great Goddess who represented the divinity of the Earth. As an image of the fecundity of nature, she was a "fertility goddess," the residing spirit of the land, giver of grain, mistress of animals. In the cultural perspective, she was the matrix of erotic powers as well as the superhuman force that drove men into conflict when her laws were disrupted. Ugarit Goddess with goats and grain.

The Sumerian God Enki represents the model of the ancient theocrat or male chieftain in the first urban societies. He was responsible for irrigation of the land, sailing, medicine (with his half-sister Ninhursag), and other "arts of civilization." Such theocrats were originally empowered by the goddess cults, but eventually broke away to form a male-only system of social and spiritual authority. Cylinder seal of Enki and attendants.

 

 

From 6000 BCE artifacts from the Halafian culture in northwestern Iran, the geographical matrix of Gnosticism, were distributed as far as Anatolia, Syria, and Greece. Deep in prehistorical times, the organization of the Mystery cells was determined on an 8-16 pattern, clearly preserved at Eleusis and elsewhere. This Halafian dish may have been purely utilitarian, a household commodity, yet it preserves the archetypal pattern associated with entheogenic ritual—proving, perhaps, that the mundane ceremony of eating was based on sacred norms. (Mary Settegast, Plato Prehistorian, Plate 121a)

A thick flat Celtic stone dish (the "Belenus Bowl") resembles the MesoAmerican metote for grinding corn and mixing sacred herbs. A prototype of the Grail, it displays letters around the rim. Ceremonial bowls are among the earliest evidence we have of entheogenic rites in Pagan Europa. but the ritual significance of these artifacts is not evident until a later period when participation in the Mysteries required special utensils.

 

The Goddess Hathor, the Egyptian Eve, was often pictured with an "omega"-style hairdo, representing the internal structure of the female organs of reproduction (fallopian tubes). Here she is pictured with two snakes in her left hand and sacred herbs in her right. Hathor is one of many goddesses associated with childbirth, healing, the preparation of sacred planets, and the serpent power (Kundalini). In prehistoric times before temples were build, naked priestesses of her cult would have prepared entheogenic potions for initiation.

 

 


In the division of labor in prehistory, men undertook animal husbandry and pasturing. (The practice of breeding animals to produce finer or stronger types led to the notion of human eugenics, rigorously applied in selective breeding of the pharoanic family-lines.) When blood-line manipulation merged with theocracy, it affected a deep split between the genders, with all-male domination becoming the norm in urban societies. But in Pagan religion throughout the Near East, the good shepherd Dumuzi was always viewed as subordinate to his consort, the Goddess.

Hermes kriophorus (c. 1800 BC) is an archaic Greek demigod who became identified with the good shepherd in Pagan culture. Later, this figure was coopted by Christianity and attached to the savior. Eventually, it morphs into the figure of Saint Christopher with a child ("the Christ child") on his shoulders.

Anatolian house shrine, reflecting gender balance. Catal Huyuk and other Goddess-oriented cultures in the Near East, may fit the "gylanic" model of Riane Eisler. If so, the balance of genders in these ancient, pre-urban societies may have been a reflection of the egalitarian structure of the Mysteries.

Mary Settegast says that late Paleolithic migrations in the Near East brought the Magi movement deep into Anatolia where it merged with native ecstatic rites to produce Orphism: The religion of the Magi and that later to be known as Orphism became so similar that modern scholars would consider using the one system to interpret the other" (Plato Prehistorian, p. 251) The Orphic Mysteries were hugely observed down into modern times. Orpheus playing his lyre to tame the animals is an archaic representation of the Mesotes. (Domatilla Catacomb, Rome, 3C CE)

The Temple of Apollo at Delphi with the steep rock face of the Phaedriades behind it. Delphi's prime was between the 8th and 5th centuries BCE. It represents a classical Mystery cult center where indigenous shamanism was brought to a fine art.

Gnostic Gallery 2: The Splendor of the Mysteries

 

May 2006. Galleries TWO and THREE in development.
jll
 

 


Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2017 by John Lash.