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When the Mysteries Died

Ecstasy and Intolerance in the Classical World

The pagan gods, even the gods of the Mysteries, are not jealous of one another. They form an open society.
- Walter Burkert, Ancient Mystery Cults

The thirteen codices discovered in Upper Egypt in December, 1945, have come to be known as the Nag Hammadi Library (NHL), after a village on the west bank of the Nile River. On the same side of the river, about 20 miles south, is the Temple of Hatshepsut, scene of the terrorist massacre of tourists in November, 1997. It is believed that the perpetrators came from the desolate hill country where the rare codices were found. When I visited the region in February 1999 on tour with the Marion Foundation, intense security measures were in effect. I proceeded from Luxor up the river to Dendera, site of the ancient temple of Hathor, in an armed convoy, accompanied by two dozen soldiers with sub-machine guns at the ready.

Strangely, scholars do not refer to the Ptolemaic temple of Hathor at Dendera, located a mere stone's throw from Nag Hammadi. From the roof of the temple you can look over the dramatic bend of the Nile and see right across to the cliffs of Jabal al-Tarif where the codices were hidden. The nearest town to the cave, Hamra Dun, is too small to merit notice, otherwise these long-lost texts would be called the Hamra Dun library. Hamra Dun is the Arabic place name for the older Coptic name Chenoboskian, "refuge of wild geese," and behind that name is another, the Egyptian place name, Sheniset, “the acacias of Seth,” indicating an association with the Gnostic sect calling themselves Sethians.

Egyptian Sunset

The proximity of Dendera to Hamra Dun is remarkable, but as far as I know no scholar has noted it. According to the current consensus, the Nag Hammadi "library" is supposed to have come from the monastery of Pachomius, a retreat of Coptic Christian monks that was located at Tabinnisi on the East bank, as shown on the map. "Its pioneering founder, Pachomius, had set up a rule to unite disparate and solitary people within a community whose practice of strenuous labor involved a strict, almost military discipline." (Tobias Churton, The Gnostics, p. 3. Map also from Churton.) It is presumed that someone from this motley crew threw together the thirteen leather-bound packets, stuffed then in a red clay jar, and hid them in a cave in the hillside. Based on examination of the “cartonnage,” dated letters and accounts contained in the bindings of the codices, experts have determined that the scrolls must have been concealed in the cave between 345 and 348 CE. The date is nicely precise and, perhaps by coincidence, corresponds within a year to the death of the master monk, Pachomius.

Hidden in 345 CE. By whom? Why? For what future purpose? No one knows.

Scholars who propose the Coptic monastery theory to explain the origin of the texts fail to mention that the settlement of Pachomius, established around 300 CE, was a meagre affair compared to the Dendera complex, constructed 500 years older on foundations that date back to 5200 BCE. The Temple of Hathor was a late Ptolemaic construction on an ancient sacred site, Tentyrs, regarded as the birthplace of Isis. If Isis may be considered the equivalent to the Virgin Mary of Christianity, Hathor was the Egyptian Eve. Her rites were prehistoric and indigenous to the lost Sudanese cultures that long predated the Hollywood-style cult of Osiris. Hathor was a wisdom goddess, like the Sophia of the Gnostics. Her cult celebrated ecstasy, healing, and mystical communion with the cosmos.

Perhaps among the "disparate and solitary people" who took refuge at the Pachomian monastery were some Gnostics fleeing persecution or worse. I think it is equally likely, however, that the Coptic codices came from Dendera, or they may have arrived among the monks through some association with diehards of the cult of Hathor and Horus celebrated there.

Every temple in Egypt had its own library, and Dendera was no exception. Sacred texts were kept in special rooms at the inside of the entrance, so that priests could select a text and then proceed to the appropriate part of the temple complex to read or (more likely) recite it. True, there is no explicit indications of Hathor-related material in the NHL, but there are clear astronomical allusions. Dendera was known for its sacred Zodiac, one of the most spectacular artifacts of ancient wisdom to survive intact. Star lore was important to the cult of Hathor, and Gnostics were reputed from the earliest times to have been skilled star-gazers. The 1st century historian Josephus (Jewish Antiquities I, 2.3) reports the long-standing tradition that "the children of Seth were looked upon as being the first teachers of astronomical science." (Plunkett, Calenders and Constellations of the Ancient World, p. 20) Jacques Lacarriere (The Gnostics, p. 31ff.) considers sky-lore to be the original matrix of their knowledge system.

I cannot read Coptic, but with help from some world-class Gnostic scholars at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, I have gotten to the point where I can grope through it. It is an awkward, compounded language with little scope for lofty or complex expression. After a few years with my nose buried in the codices, rather like a pig rooting for truffles, I had the vivid impression that I was looking at a kind of shorthand. Coptic was initially invented by Egyptian priests (Pagans) to preserve the pronounciation of spells written on amulets they sold. It uses a modified version of Greek letters and characters borrowed from Demotic to denote sounds that occur in ancient Egyptian but not in Greek. The result is a stilted idiom that does not lend itself to philosophical expression. It seems to resemble the stenographic shorthand used to record court proceedings.

Not the best medium for preserving the lofty teachings of Gnostic initiates in the sunset moment of Egyptian civilization.

My impression of the the Coptic codices of Nag Hammadi is that they are translations from hurried notes, and, to a large degree, incompetent notes, taken down in Greek by students of the Mysteries — perhaps students attached to the Mystery School complex at Dendera. Greeks had been coming to Egypt to learn science and metaphysics since the days of Pythagoras, around 600 BCE. With the decline and dispersion of Egyptian civilization in the Hellenistic Age, the capacities of the student body may have been less than desirable. Yet the ages-old dissemination of Egyptian wisdom into the Greek mind might also have reached a fever pitch in the first centuries of the Common Era.

Being as it is a work of the Ptolemaic era (323 - 30 BCE), Dendera is often dismissed as too late to enshrine the pure and ancient wisdom of the Egyptians, but who is to say that the end of something cannot be as profound as its beginning? Dendera and other Ptolemaic temples such as the one at Edfu are inscribed with hieroglyphics in an astounding density, as if the last priests who could read and write the arcane texts were intent on getting down everything they could for posterity. In this atmosphere, Greek students could well have been scrambling for every last morsel of knowledge they could get, and writing some pretty scrappy notes on what the professor-priests were telling them.

If the presumed "Greek originals" were classroom notes, not terribly clear in the first place, and then were translated from Greek into Coptic by scribes who hardly understood what they were reading, it would explain the alarmingly chaotic and contradictory nature of these texts. The Nag Hammadi Library is a spiritual treasure of humanity, and it is also a muddled, mangled mess.

Birthplace of Isis

At Luxor, the ancient capital of Upper (southern) Egypt, massive pillars inscribed with precision-cut hieroglyphs line the derelict sanctuaries of the Egyptian gods, crawling with tourists in almost all seasons. The sacred precincts of the old capital radiate a glamour and mystique that competes with Giza. The pyramids west of Cairo stand in mute defiance of human comprehension, but here in the south another splendour casts its spell.

Here a different revelation of the Dynastic dead rises from the earth.

Within a perimeter of twenty miles lies the Valley of the Kings, the site of Tutankhamen’s tomb and others, about forty in number according to Strabo, a Greek historian of the Augustan Era (25 BCE). Half a dozen are accessible to visitors today, and there is much more to enchant the eye and entrance the mind: the magnificent temple of Hatshepsut at Deir al-Bahari, the Ramasseum with its colossus shattered like a Titan who fell to earth, the long mortuary shrines of Seti I and Ramses III, IV, IX, the tombs of many Nobles, the late temple of Ptolemy V at Deir el-Medina, the twin colossi of Memnon. All this lies on the West Bank, while on the East Bank sprawl the majestic grounds of Karnak and the temple of Luxor, called the Book of Genesis in stone by renegade Egyptologist, Schwaller de Lubicz.

Further north on the west bank lies Dendera, site of the temple of Hathor, the Egyptian Eve. The massive sandstone structure nestles in the crook of the Nile where the river slides eastward before turning back at Qena, then flows due west past the southern extremity of a huge out-cropping of rock known as Gebel-al-Tarif. On its eastern slope, the white cliffs are pockmarked by 150 caves used as hideaways by desert mystics for centuries before the Advent. Some caves give access to galleries where pharaonic princes of the Sixth Dynasty (2500 BC) were entombed, but most of them are crude grottoes littered perhaps with a few potsherds. Steep and forbidding, the barren slopes offer no clues or lures.
Nag Hammadi is far off the beaten track of global tourism.

The site lies in a region controlled by the Islamic partisans responsible for the massacre of fifty-four tourists at Hatshepsut’s temple in 1997. No tourist ventures to this desolate hamlet on the usual agenda, or without a strong imagination for a guide. There is nothing to be seen now of the ancient wonder that must have crowned this place, and only the snaking whisper of the desert wind hints at its mystery. Here the secret passageways to be discovered are hidden within the seeker, not the site. Here lies the troubled vortex of invisible ruins.

An Ancient Network

A medieval manual by the fictional tour-guide, Ladâmes the Great, describes the landscape where the Gnostic library was discovered:

    You will see, to the northwest, seven tombs set up on the side of the valley - four together, then two together, than the last by itself. Dig into this last, to the depth of one qamah: you will find the dead body, and beside it all its possessions. You will see also some high watchtowers around this same cemetery on the eastern side. Among these watchtowers there are five great tombs, each with a stone at the head and another stone at the feet, both implanted in the sand. Liff up the headstone and dig...

Ladâmes obviously intended to whet the appetites of seekers after tangible treasures, booty that could be hauled away and sold. When he wrote, around 1200 AD, the intangible treasure of Nag Hammadi had been lost for 800 years. He could have had no inkling of its existence, nor would it have tempted him. It consisted neither of embalmed princes nor their glittering jewels. It comprised no grandiose sanctuaries laid out on sacred proportions and aligned to the circling stars. It was never the object of tomb-raiders in search of quick riches. It was finally discovered, after another 800 years, by a couple of Bedouin peasants looking for a natural manure called sebakh. The find occurred in the first week of December, 1945, but the thirteen codices of flaking papyrus did not come to the attention of scholars who were capable of assessing their significance until summer, 1947.

The precise site is unmarked and unremarkable to the human eye, which tires quickly of the bleached, inhospitable cliffs. They are the scant visible evidence of vast invisible ruins. These books found there are significant not merely for their content, but even more for their symbolic value. The thirteen bundles represent more than the Gnostic wisdom they contain. They are like fragments from the wreckage of an enormous stained-glass dome that pictured the origins of humanity, its place in the cosmos, and the cause for its strange and desperate exile on earth. The colour of the shards is luminous and smoky, like carmelized light. To the mind’s eye they impart a troubling lucidity, a glimpse of bizarre teachings which describe our captivity in a deviated world, a cosmos that happened by mistake.

Ruins, even if they are invisible, must be ruins of something. What was buried at Nag Hammadi were the last traces of an entire visionary world, an enormous feat of imagination that once lived in the minds and hearts of countless people. The value of the vision consisted in its power to illuminate life and to guide humanity. Both the vision and the process of guidance were enshrined in a vast organization, the network of the Mystery Schools in which Gnostics participated as faculty members with special responsibilities. Muddled and fragmentary as it is, the Nag Hammadi library is the primary extant evidence of a lost educational system dedicated to the spiritual guidance of humanity.

At Nag Hammadi the ruins of the Mysteries are only accessible to the eye of imagination, the faculty that built the vision. Their presence may stir the heart with a pang of inexplicable loss, for a great visionary experiment conducted by humanity over millennia was shattered when the Mysteries died. The wisdom reserved in sacred precincts like this desolate hamlet guided countless people over untold centuries. Eventually the teachers and administrators of the Mystery Schools were branded as heretics, hunted down, and killed.

They died not for their sins, but for what they knew.

Today we speak casually of networks which unite physical locations dedicated to a common goal or activity. All the football stadiums in the world form a network dedicated to a single sport. All the biochemical laboratories working to decode the human genome form a single, integrated network. In England the impressive and long-standing structures at Oxford and Cambridge are visible evidence of the network of British universities, encompassing all the campi in the land. The total ensemble of campi is greater than any single unit. A network comprised of visible components is itself invisible.

Within a circle with a radius of thirty-five miles, centered at Luxor, more ruins are concentrated than the sum-total found elsewhere in the entire world. Nag Hammadi lies right on the edge of this awesome periphery. The Egyptian temple-complexes in the Upper and Lower Kingdoms were not the only Mystery Schools of antiquity, but they are likely to have been the most long-standing, well-organized and well-funded, the ivy-league of the Mystery Religions. Because historical evidence of the Mysteries derives almost exclusively from the epoch when they were being eliminated, scholars have fostered the impression that they comprised a few scattered cult-centers, rather than a huge organization encompassing the ancient world.

Yet the architectural remains in Egypt and elsewhere attest to the vast scope of the Mystery Religions. Even the polemics of the Church Fathers who raged against pagan wisdom unwittingly bear testimony to the widespread cross-cultural organization of the Mystery cults. The Philosophumena (c. 230 CE), attributed to Hippolytus, is an encyclopedia that describes Gnostics side by side with Druids, Brahmins and a variety of other exotic religionists. Historians today know that the Druids were endemic to Celtic culture which stretched from the far Western Isles of Scotland and Ireland deep into Asia Minor. Brahmins from India were known in Alexandria, as were Buddhist monks whose peregrinations in Egypt and Palestine are recorded in the annals of King Asoka, founder of the Maurya Dynasty (ruled 255 - 237 BCE). A rock tablet at Girnur in Gujarat declares Asoka’s aim to spread Buddhism through the entire valley of the Nile. C. W. King (Gnostics and Their Remains) notes the close resemblance between Buddhist and Essene disciplines and cites the testimony of the Jewish historian, Josephus, that the Essene cult-centers on the Dead Sea had existed for “thousands of ages” before his time. Gnostic colleges belonged to this huge millennial organization of Asian-born wisdom; nevertheless, “the rule observed by all later historians of Gnosticism is to represent it as a mere spurious offshoot and corruption of Christianity.”

Christian Intolerance

The Mystery Schools were a loose network of eclectic and multi-disciplinary colleges that shared a universal language of esoteric wisdom. Brahmins, Druids, Buddhists, Gnostics, Essenes and many others would have been able to communicate intimately with each other, despite cultural, linguisitic and racial differences. The common ground of the Mysteries was known to have been the Asian cult of the Great Goddess, the Magna Mater. The identity of the Buddhist Prajnaparamita, “Supreme Mother Wisdom,” with Gnostic Sophia has been affirmed by Evens-Wentz, a pioneering scholar of Tibetan Buddhism. Early Gnostic scholar G. R. S. Mead, comparative mythologists Mircea Eliade, Joseph Campbell and Alain Danielou, and Buddhist scholar John Myrdhin Reynolds have developed Buddhist-Gnostic parallels. The teaching of the Gnostic Basilides are practically indistinguishable from treaties on Mahayana philosophy from the school of Nalanda. The great Buddhist scholar and sage, Nagarjuna, was contemporary with the 2nd century Gnostics who came under heavy fire from Christian heresiarchs. In the Second treatise of the Great Seth (NHL VII, 2), a Gnostic teacher speaks frankly of their plight, and the kind of behavior they were facing:

    We were hated and persecuted, not only by those who are simply incapable of understanding us, but also by those who think they are advancing the name of Christ, although they were unknowingly empty, ignorant of who they are, like dumb animals… They persecuted those who have been liberated by me, because they hate them — those who, should they shut their mouth, would weep with futile groaning because they do not know me. Instead, they served two masters, even a multitude. But they will become victorious in everything, in wars and battles, jealous division and wrath… having proclaimed the doctrine of a dead man and lies so as to resemble the freedom and purity of the perfect assembly.

    And so uniting in their doctrine of fear and slavery, mundane needs, and abandoning reverence, being petty and ignorant, they cannot embrace the nobility of truth, for they hate what they are, and love what they are not.

This passage reveals how the early Christian were seen through the eyes of the Gnostics. It contains several important clues to the viewpoint of the persecuted party, the side rarely recorded in historical narrative. The author condemns Christians for their ignorance and their incapacity to embrace “the nobility of truth.” Freedom from ignorance and dedication to truth were the supreme criteria of Gnostic religion. Christians are criticized for serving two masters and pandering to the multitude. In other words, they are hypocrites who seek to rule by numbers. This contrasts deeply with Gnostic elitism. The allusion, “those who, should they shut their mouth,” implies the need to be initiated. “The word mystery (mysterion in Greek) derives from the Greek Verb myein, “to close,” referring to the closing of the lips of the eyes.” “Those who should shut their mouth” are profane outsiders who cannot possibly know what they are attacking.

Nevertheless the persecutors will prevail, the teacher predicts, because they use war and violence to achieve their aims. Significantly, they foment “jealous division and wrath.” In Gnostic idiom, this language refers to the attitude of Jehovah, the wrathful deity, identified by Gnostics as the overlord of the Archons, the alien or ET species that attempts to deviate humanity from its proper course of evolution. Gnostics saw the power of the Archons behind Christian ideology and politics. Although “their doctrine of fear and slavery” is ludicrous, it is effective, because the Archons can exert an insinuating effect on our minds — a kind of malicious, interspecies telepathy, one could say. Compelled by a thinking process distorted by the Archons, early Christian ideologues imitated the Mysteries of the sons of light and passed off lies for truth. The Christian redeemer complex imposes “the doctrine of a dead man” in place of eternal living Gnosis.

In the views of the last generation of Gnostics, converts to Christianity were human beings turned inside out, hating what they are and loving what they are not. To the Gnostic mind, the ultimate hypocrisy is betrayal of the divine intelligence in humanity by adopting an ideology based on error.

The pagan attitude of tolerance pervaded the Mystery Schools, even though the Schools maintained strict criteria for admission, and imposed a vow of secrecy that seems almost never to have been violated. The contrast with Christian evangelism could not be more dramatic. In The Mystery-Religions, S. Angus observes: “In the matter of intolerance Christianity differed from all pagan religions, and surpassed Judaism; in that respect it stood in direct opposition to the spirit of the age.”

Many explanations have been given for why Christianity prevailed over the Mysteries, but it would be remiss not to apply common sense: intolerance usually prevails over tolerance because tolerance, by definition, allows it to do so; or else intolerance will prevail by sheer force, if necessary. The Mysteries did not die of natural causes. They were actively suppressed and, wherever possible, eradicated root and branch.

"The pagan gods are not jealous of each other," Burkert says. No social system is perfect, but pagan philosophy encouraged an open society in which universal spiritual teachings could assume a wide variety of expressions. What position did Gnosticism hold in the open forum of the Mystery Schools? It must have been central and crucial to the entire network in some manner, because Gnostic teachings were the number-one target for eradication by Christian missionaries and ideologists. The word gnosis is Greek, and by far the most convincing evidence for the Mysteries comes from Greco-Roman culture. This has led to the impression that Gnosis was confined to a small cultural and geographic setting in the Middle East and Egypt.

Considering what we now know about what Gnostics taught, it is fair to assume that they worked in the Mystery Schools where they provided special knowledge on deviant and apparitional phenomena. In short, they were masters of noetic sciences and parapsychology. In this sense, they are comparable to sophisticated shamans elsewhere in ancient Europe, as well as in Asia. Buddhists from Nalanda in India and Druids from Wales may have been culturally and geographically separate, but spiritually they would have been involved in parallel activities. Merlin who perhaps lived in the 7th century has exact counterparts in Tibetan sages like Naropa and Milarepa. There is no reason to exclude Gnostics from this picture, and in fact all the evidence on hand points to them playing a role of this kind in the cultural and religious setting of their time.

Gnostics concerned with detecting the influence of the Archons could have conversed openly about magic spells and planetary zones with visiting sages from the far ends of the continent or India. Geographic distances cannot be viewed as divisive, for travel in ancient times was far more common and widespread than has been assumed. Until very recently, it was impossible to infer from historical narrative how the network of the Mystery Schools could have provided the context for cross-cultural dissemination. Gnosticism can no longer be exclusively identified with a few scattered cults in Egypt and Asia Minor. The end of the Mysteries was effectuated far beyond the barren slopes of Nag Hammadi. It involved the collapse of a huge loose-knit organization dedicated to the spiritual guidance of humanity.

Diabolic Religion

About the time the Nag Hammadi manuscripts were buried, St. Augustine of Hippo, one of the founding fathers of the Christian faith, set out the Church’s policy for systematic appropriation of sites and monuments previously occupied by the university system of the Mysteries:

    When temples, idols, groves, etc., are thrown down by permission from the authorities, although our taking part in this work is a clear proof of our not honouring, but rather abhorring, these things, we must nevertheless forbear from appropriating them to our own personal and private use; so that it may be manifest that in overthrowing these we are influenced, not by greed, but by piety. When, however, the spoils of these places are applied to the benefit of the community and devoted to the service of God, they are dealt with in the same manner as the men themselves when they are turned from impiety and sacrilege to the true religion.

This passage shows the other side of the situation described in the Second Treatise of the Great Seth, cited above. Here is history viewed through the eyes of the prevailing party. In a clever twist, Augustine sanctions the act of plundering but absolves those who perpetrate it from any hint of selfish motive, such as envy, jealousy or lust for power. He asserts that “the spoils of these places” are meant to serve God, just as those who created them would do when converted to “the true religion.” To secure the monopoly on God, it was necessary to legitimate the overthrow and appropriation of the pagan wisdom.

To defeat truth, it has to be diabolised. What is “other” must be defeated by co-optation. In this sense, Christianity may be designated an adversarial or diabolic religion — from dia-bolos, thrown (bolos) against (dia) something else. It does not prevail by what it offers, rather by what it overcomes. Christianity is unique in this respect, although this is certainly not the way it would have its uniqueness appreciated by the world at large. From its inception, Christianity exhibited a special capacity for overcoming everything that is other than itself. It defines itself by what it opposes. Unable to tolerate co-existence, it must consume. The history of the Church demonstrates this pattern of totalitarian usurpation. In the Gnostic view typified by the author of the Second Treatise, wrath, divisiveness, imitation (co-optation), and enslavement of the human spirit—obvious features of Christian imperialism— are symptoms of the nefarious effects of the Archons. Of course, humans are capable of this kind of behavior on their own. But they can also realize what they are doing and correct it, thus desisting from harm. When action goes overboard, and extrapolates beyond correction, it is due to Archontic influence. So the Gnostics thought.

Co-optation – that is, taking something from its original setting and adapting or distorting it to ends it was not meant to serve -- is an effective adversarial technique often used in legal conflicts. Typically, the prosecution will take an issue or incident presented by the defence and turn it to “damning evidence” against the defendant. In a rape case, for instance, the behaviour or lifestyle of the woman victim, which in no manner invites rape, can be co-opted for the defence of the rapist, so that it looks like “she was asking for it” and only later, after the deed, did she decide to view it as violation. Such matters are rife in the modern world, indeed, we may sicken of hearing about them. Yet it is precisely the tactic of adversarial distortion which defines the Heresy Wars waged by early Christians against the Gnostics, in particular, and the Mystery Schools in general
Gnostic counterintelligence focussed on the deviant powers of the Archons. Inspired by envy, they work through imitation – on this point, Gnostic scriptures are unanimous. This being so, shock-waves must have reverberated through the corridors of the Mystery School temples when the first Christian heresy-hunters accused Gnostics of imitating the Christian sacraments. Justin Martyr (2nd C.), the first recorded representative of the aggressive heresiarchs, accused Gnostics flat-out of stealing from the Bible. A century later Hippolytus claimed that everything to be found in Gnostic writings was plagiarised from ancient sources. Doing so, he unwittingly attested to the long-established pre-Christian roots of Gnosticism, but his comment was not interpreted in that way. It was taken to mean that Christian doctrines, given by God, must have came from before the time of creation, and it is these ancient teachings which the Gnostics imitate. Tertullian, writing around 200 CE, argued that

    The Devil, whose business it is to pervert the truth, mimics the exact circumstances of the Divine Sacraments, in the Mysteries of idols. He himself baptizes some, that is to say, his believers and followers he promises forgiveness of sins from the Sacred Fount, and thereby initiates them into the religion of Mithras: thus he marks on the forehead his own soldiers: there he celebrates the oblation of bread: he brings in the symbol of the Resurrection, and wins the crown with the sword.

This argument achieves two things at once: it establishes the co-optation of Mithraic sacraments in Christian services, and it covers up the deed by asserting that the Devil (often identified as the author of Gnostic teachings) was mimicking Christian rites when he introduced the Mithraic liturgy. Christianity is not hijacking Mithraic religion, as so evidently appears to be the case, it is merely taking back what originally belonged to it! The expropriation identified with high specificity in the case of Mithraism was a general policy applied to the Mystery Schools and even to certain Gnostic teachings, to the extent that Christians had access to them. Armed with Tertullian’s logic, Christianity stole extensively and shamelessly from pagan religions.

The hijacking of pagan religion was so obvious to the people of the time — and not just theologians, but ordinary people of common sense who were familiar with pagan religion — that Tertullian had to spin his argument in a torturous way. He cites the power of imitation as the Devil’s work. In a clever twist, he defends his religion against the Gnostic accusation that Archons, who can only imitate, are working behind the cover of the redeemer ideology. Tertullian offers the fantastic explanation that Satan conjured up the sacraments before Christ had the chance to incarnate and live through the Passion, Crucifixition and Resurrection, thus providing the dramatic precedents upon which the sacraments would be based: thus, “the Devil mimics the exact circumstances of the Divine Sacraments.” This is a Gnostic clue, or at least it would be taken by a Gnostic as a clue, for it alludes to the mimetic influence of the alien powers, “beings of the likeness.”

The fact that early Christian ideologues co-opted pagan sites and rites and renamed them Christian is a tedious cliché in the history of religion. Today, all around the world, Catholic Churches stand on the site of ancient pagan sanctuaries. Chartres cathedral, for instance, is built over a pre-Christian grotto dedicated to the Black Virgin, a version of the Gnostic Sophia. Literally thousands of similar examples could be given, but we are too easily bored...

The ineffable light of Gnosis feeds every candle ever lit in Christian hallows.

A Curse on Learning

History tells us who won the argument set up by Tertullian, but common sense tells us that imitation depends on something genuine that pre-exists it. (“There would be no counterfeit gold if real gold did not exist,” says a Sufi proverb.) It is possible that the root-principles of Mithraism trace back to the 4th millennium BCE, a date supported by archeoastronomical studies using the precession of the equinoxes. Zoroastrian dualism and solar worship, incorporated into Mithraic religion, can be traced to extant Persian records of 2234 BCE, ( Laura Elizabeth Poor, Sanskrit and its Kindred Languages, p. 142), and footnotes attached to the oldest copies of Platonic dialogues indicate that in Plato’s time the antiquity of Zoroaster was thought to extend to 6000 BCE. Zoroastrian teachings and rites preexisted Christianity by untold centuries. So what was being imitated? These ancient models, or the parvenu notions that emerged among Christian converts after 75 CE?

Converts to Christianity in the first five centuries CE were engaged in a campaign of “intellectual cleansing.” Their general target was the pagan intellectuals of that era, many of whom were prominent Gnostics, teachers and trainers linked to the Mystery Schools. Because knowledge and learning were sacred in Gnosticism, books and libraries attached to the Mystery Schools were prime targets for the intellectual holocaust.

Literacy was an issue in the Heresy Wars. Many Christian converts were slaves who could not read or write. Those few converts who could read dedicated themselves to establishing a canon of acceptable texts, i.e., orthodox scriptures. Bizarre as it now seems, they defended orthodoxy against heresy even before the canon was established. Christian fundamentalism, all the way from Oklahoma City to the Vatican, guards Holy Writ as a monopoly on the spiritual birthright of humanity. For countless millions down the ages the Bible has been the only authoritative text of spirituality, but the Gnostics had thousands of sacred texts. Their writings were their richness, a fact which infuriated the early Church Fathers who opposed them.

St. Augustine protested bitterly against the “many and huge books” Gnostics produced, which he compared to food eaten in a dream. As if it were not bad enough that the Gnostics were lucid and prolific writers, they were also “great talkers, in whose mouth is a snare of the Devil, and bird-lime made up of a mixture of the syllables of Thy Name [Lord Jesus]. The fast-talking mystics are relentless because they “repeat ‘Truth’ and ‘Truth,’” as if she were a woman they knew on intimate terms. Well, She was. Gnostics called the wisdom they revered Sophia, a feminine word in Greek, “and so they did repeat her name to me, but she was nowhere amongst them, but they spoke false things, not only concerning Thee who art the Truth in truth, but even concerning the elements of this world of ours, thy creation.”

In the words "even concerning the elements of this world of ours," Augustine certainly alludes to Gnostic teachings about the deviated world-system. By his time, the suggestion that the Creator God could be a monstrous alien had been buried behind a potent taboo.

As the Mystery Schools closed down, Gnostics no longer had a safe environment where they could write, teach, and confer initiation. The preparatory learning and transmission (paradosis) that took place in the Mysteries, as well as the careful and exact knowledge required for continuation of the ages-old training, was disrupted, never again to be restored. (A comparable situation might be the break-up of monastic initiatory learning with the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950.) With the suppression of Gnosis, detection of the Archontic powers operating within Christian mentality became more and more difficult.

What better way to assure the triumph of the Archon-influenced ideology of salvation than to eliminate the accomplished seers who were uniquely capable of detecting and exposing it?

Non-ordinary knowledge, the special brief for Gnostic expertise, has become extremely difficult to acquire since the Mysteries died. Even ordinary knowledge guttered out in the Middle Ages. The open forum of the Mystery Schools had provided ethical and cultural inspiration to the entire surrounding world in antiquity. The Roman orator Cicero attested that “in actual fact we have learned from them the fundamentals of life.” No wonder that their destruction took such a toll on the human spirit. As Christianity rose to power, the classical world turned into a spiritual wasteland. Millennia of learning died on the vine. Wholesale demolition of pagan literature was already well underway in Augustine’s time. A century or two later, when there were no more libraries left to destroy, Europe plunged into the Dark Ages, taking the luminous world of the Mysteries down with it into oblivion.

jll March 2005



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