What Does the Hypostasis of the Archons Mean? Gnosticism, the Roman Empire and the Myth of Christ
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after time.
TS Eliot, Burnt Norton from The Four Quartets.
God of the blind
I first came across the Hypostasis of the Archons one rainy day in mid December 2005. I’d been sitting around nursing a hangover all day. It was grey and wet and miserable out there in the world, and I didn’t feel like going out. Later I would be going to watch the Christmas lights turning-on ceremony in our town. Meanwhile I’d been surfing the internet, looking for obscure political and religious texts, mainly about the various sects that exist in the region around Iraq. It’s something I was thinking at the time. Why did the American invade Iraq? Yes, because of the oil, but also – so I thought – because Iraq contains the key to an understanding of the origins of Christianity.
There are several Christian sects in Iraq. There are Chaldean, Assyrian and Syriac communities, who all practice variations on traditional Christian rites. Some of them do so in Aramaic, the language of Jesus himself, plus there are two other religious groups, the Yazidis in the North, and the Mandaeans in the South, who are also clearly from the Judeo-Christian line. This is obviously aside from the two main Islamic sects which make up the majority of the population: the Sunni and the Shi'ites. The Mandaeans are particularly interesting as they are followers of John the Baptist, practicing daily baptism as part of their rite. They are also a Gnostic sect - “Manda” means “knowledge” - which casts a revealing light on the history of Christianity. If John the Baptist was a Gnostic then that must mean that Gnosticism precedes Orthodoxy, something that traditional Christians would be loath to admit.
It was just before I was due to go out that I found the Hypostasis of the Archons. I’m not sure what query I’d put into my search engine to come up with this particular piece of writing. I already knew some of the Gnostic texts, and had been intrigued and fascinated by them for years. I’d never read this one before, but there was something about it which seemed familiar somehow, and which seared into me from the very first words.
Here are the opening lines:
On account of the reality of the authorities, (inspired) by the spirit of the father of truth, the great apostle - referring to the “authorities of the darkness” - told us that “our contest is not against flesh and blood; rather, the authorities of the universe and the spirits of wickedness.” I have sent this (to you) because you inquire about the reality of the authorities.
The reason that it seemed familiar at first is that, in fact, it was familiar, as I later found out. The quote, which is attributed to “the great apostle”, is from a Biblical text, Ephesians 6:12, which in the King James version reads as follows:
For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.
What the Hypostasis of the Archons represents is an interpretation of that text in terms of the Creation Myth of Genesis.
The thing that struck me immediately – and which sent a shiver of recognition through me – was that line: “our contest is not against flesh and blood”. It’s the body he is talking about. This is an explicitly political statement. It is a statement of solidarity for all creatures of flesh and blood, for human beings in all their weakness and fragility, their vulnerability and their susceptibility to pain, and against “the authorities of the universe and the spirits of wickedness” , which, the King James version makes clear, is a specifically political target: “principalities… powers… the rulers of the darkness of this world…. spiritual wickedness in high places ”.
I read the line with a surge of gratitude to St. Paul for his tacit acknowledgement of the body, as a defence of the body against the powers that can control and inhibit the body - the authorities, the archons – which I understood as psychological forces, forces emanating from the invisible realms, but which have a specifically political dimension.
I have to be clear at this point, so there is no confusion later on: to me the terms spiritual and psychological are the same. Spirit is from the Latin and means breath, while Psyche is from the Greek and also means breath. Both words refer to an invisible animating principle in the Universe, which the Hypostasis of the Archons recognises a few lines later in the following terms: “for by starting from the invisible world the visible world was invented ”. For me the really interesting stuff lies at the junction between these two worlds: between the visible and the invisible, between the body and the mind, between the social and the ideological, between what our natural human inclinations would lead us to express in our lives – our creativity, our human kindness - and what is imposed upon us by a system of domination and control. It is this realm, it seems to me, that the Hypostasis of the Archons is concerned with.
I was just getting ready to go out at this point and I printed out the text to take with me, but, before I did, I had time to read the next lines, which are as follows:
Their chief is blind; because of his power and his ignorance and his arrogance he said, with his power, "It is I who am God; there is none apart from me." When he said this, he sinned against the entirety. And this speech got up to incorruptibility; then there was a voice that came forth from incorruptibility, saying, "You are mistaken, Samael" - which is, "god of the blind."
Again, there was a surge of recognition as I read these words. I immediately equated the god of the blind both with the God of the Old Testament and with George Bush, then in power in the White House. “His power and his ignorance and his arrogance ” seemed an apt description of the then President of the United States, who at this time had mobilised the world into a vain and futile war to seize the economic assets of Iraq. I knew that, as a Gnostic Text, the Hypostasis of the Archons was written during the years of the Roman Empire, and would have had the Roman Emperor in mind, and I was struck by the similarity of the worlds we inhabited, then and now. I also saw that the God of the Old Testament, who is also clearly being referred to here, represented the ego in psychological terms. "It is I who am God; there is none apart from me."
I folded up the sheets of paper, grabbed my jacket, and went out to meet the world.
I spent the next couple of hours drinking lager and reading the Hypostasis of the Archons. Eventually I went to get an Indian meal with a couple of friends of mine. I was reading the Hypostasis of the Archons in the Indian restaurant too. I kept seeing lines in it which would startle and intrigue me, and would show them to my friends. “Look at this,” I’d say, pointing to some peculiar or evocative line from the text: “What does that mean?”
It seemed like a fantastic mystery to me.
While I was in the Indian restaurant I met an ex-Labour Party man who had supported the war in Iraq, and we had a very public squabble. He said: ““I’m glad we invaded Iraq, to find out that they didn’t have weapons of mass destruction. Otherwise we wouldn’t have known would we?”
I laughed out loud at that. It was such an absurd argument that I felt I had to write it down. Which I did, on the top of the copy of the Hypostasis of the Archons that I had before me. It seemed to me the kind of false reasoning that might have come from the “god of the blind”:
His thoughts became blind. And, having expelled his power - that is, the blasphemy he had spoken - he pursued it down to chaos and the abyss, his mother, at the instigation of Pistis Sophia. And she established each of his offspring in conformity with its power - after the pattern of the realms that are above, for by starting from the invisible world the visible world was invented .
Pistis Sophia: a Christian Goddess
So that was my introduction to the text. The reason I’ve gone into the background to my finding it is that it illustrates the context in which I read it. I was reading it as a political as well as a psychological text. I felt that it had relevance to today’s world. I still do.
The words “Pistis” and “Sophia” mean “Faith” and “Wisdom”. It is the name given by the Gnostics to the female spiritual principle. She is their goddess. It’s a startling fact that this Christian group acknowledged a goddess figure in their pantheon, and that they equated the God of the Old Testament with such negative concepts as blind thought and blasphemy.
It’s clear that Samael IS meant to represent the God of the Old Testament by what follows in the text: a kind of upside-down retelling of the Genesis Creation myth.
As incorruptibility looked down into the region of the waters, her image appeared in the waters; and the authorities of the darkness became enamoured of her. But they could not lay hold of that image, which had appeared to them in the waters, because of their weakness - since beings that merely possess a soul cannot lay hold of those that possess a spirit - for they were from below, while it was from above.
So this has Pistis Sophia with her image appearing as a kind of chimera in the waters, and the archons glimpsing the image and becoming enamoured of her. There is also a clear separation between spirit and soul , what is above and what is below.
This is the first of a number of visionary images that appear throughout the text. The image in the waters acts as inspiration to the archons, who decide to create a model of their own:
The rulers laid plans and said, "Come, let us create a man that will be soil from the earth." They modelled their creature as one wholly of the earth. They had taken some soil from the earth and modelled their man after their body and after the image of God that had appeared to them in the waters. They said, "Come, let us lay hold of it by means of the form that we have modelled, so that it may see its male counterpart [...], and we may seize it with the form that we have modelled" - not understanding the force of God, because of their powerlessness.
This passage is startling for a number of reasons. It is a clear reference to the creation of Adam in Genesis, but the archons are creating their Adam as a trap in order to ensnare the image of God that had appeared to them in the waters. The image of God in this case, is Pistis Sophia, a female figure. That is startling enough in itself. But then we discover that Adam is being created to ensnare the goddess for sexual reasons. This is made clear later in the text. They are sexually enamoured of the image. But it is a false world they are creating. It’s a substitute world, a dead world. No matter how hard Samael blows into Adam’s face, he cannot make it move or give it life. It has soul, but not spirit. It is from below, while the spirit is from above.
And he breathed into his face; and the man came to have a soul (and remained) upon the ground many days. But they could not make him arise because of their powerlessness. Like storm winds they persisted (in blowing), that they might try to capture that image, which had appeared to them in the waters. And they did not know the identity of its power.
Thus we have the image of the ego creating a false world. Samael declares that there will be no other god but him. This is the voice of the ego. It’s like a viral thought-form passing itself down from generation to generation, infecting the human race with its strictures, with its laws and its psychological control. From Father to Son, from Mother to Daughter. From power to powerlessness. From master to slave.
This is how the “spirits of wickedness ” maintain their presence in the world. “Hypostasis of the Archons ” means “The Reality of the Rulers ”. Who can doubt their reality? Witness our world now, a world controlled by violence and war, in which war has become an end in itself, a means of power to those that are in thrall to the archons, who have made themselves into the image of the archons, who have become the representatives of the authorities, the spirits of wickedness in this world. We can see the archons as specific thought-forms which are handed down to us, as the psychopathic creatures in all of us, those who take pleasure in the destruction of others, who cannot relate except through a relationship of power, whose purpose is to take gain from another’s loss.
This is the Roman world, the world that the early Christians were opposing. It is the world of slavery and control. The world of conquest and Empire. The world of sexual violence and sexual power. It is also our world.
The archons imprint their model on us, their dead world. That’s what we see through the eyes of the ego: a dead world. A world of objects, of things, bereft of life, hollow, empty, meaningless. A world ripe only for exploitation. A purely economic world. A world in which some humans have the power of life or death over others, a world where we can go to war for possession of a commodity. A world in which men and women, adults and children are slaughtered for the economic benefit of a few.
The archons also mould the physical world in their image. They create concrete ideological forms, cities, city-centres, huge towering structures which impose upon us, which bear down upon us, to remind us of their presence. And then forms of control, laws, institutions, banks, armies, security forces, prisons, which shape us spiritually and psychologically, making us fit in to their world. We are bent out of shape by it. We are made to submit. It is a political world. They control us by the power of money, by the power that money exerts over our lives.
What also becomes immediately clear from reading this text is that these early Christians are engaged in the process of re-interpreting the myth, of criticising it. They are not content to take the scriptures as “read”, they want to argue with the scriptures. The scriptures are not dead things to them, passed down from God, inviolable, untouchable, but living things to be shaped, re-written, open to change. They are engaged with the myth, in a process of renewal. Thus the myth is a dynamic process to them. It doesn’t exist at some lost time in the distant past, but it is here, now, in front of us, ready to play a part in our lives.
The myth of Christ
Part of that engagement with the myth of Creation involves reincorporating the feminine into it. The feminine is the spirit . It is the spirit which brings life to the man. It descends and comes to dwell within him. Thus the man becomes a living soul. The man is identified with the earth, with the ground, with the soil from which he is made. It is the spirit that enters him that brings him to life. The rulers then cause Adam to fall asleep. The sleep is called “Ignorance”. It is in the state of sleep that they create Eve out of him. The man is split in two. One part of him – Adam – contains the soul , while the other part – Eve – contains the spirit .
This is another startling element within the text. It was one of the things I was pointing out to my friends in the Indian restaurant. Adam is referred to as the soul-endowed man while Eve is referred to as the spirit-endowed woman. Thus we are given an image of complementarity between the sexes, of completion, which is entirely lacking in conventional Christian texts. The high regard that the writer of the book has for women is made clear in the passage where Adam is awakened from his sleep. “It is you who have given me life; ” he says, on seeing her, “you will be called 'mother of the living.' – For it is she who is my mother. It is she who is the physician, and the woman, and she who has given birth.”
It is after this that the sexual element enters in to the equation. The archons see Adam speaking to “his female counterpart ” and become enamoured of her, as they has been enamoured of the spirit in the waters they had seen earlier. They become “agitated with a great agitation ”. They pursue her in order to impregnate her. Then we are given another image of a split world.
And she laughed at them for their witlessness and their blindness; and in their clutches she became a tree, and left before them her shadowy reflection resembling herself; and they defiled it foully. - And they defiled the stamp of her voice, so that by the form they had modelled, together with their (own) image, they made themselves liable to condemnation.
There is a platonic element in this. There is the world of appearances, and the ideal world that underlies it. Eve is raped but her spirit escapes unharmed. We have an image of sexual violence and sexual power that reflects the Roman world, and an image of a spiritual world which is separate from it and which defies it. The spirit laughs at them while the body is being defiled. Thereafter Eve is called the carnal woman. The spiritual element in her has departed.
After this the female spiritual principle returns in the form of the snake. This is the point at which the text most clearly reverses the imagery of the original creation myth. Instead of representing the idea of temptation, the snake here represents the idea of instruction. It advises Eve to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and to ignore the demands of the archons that she refrain from eating. Unlike in the original myth, this eating of the tree is represented in a positive light. “Your eyes shall open and you shall come to be like gods, recognizing evil and good.”
This is the creed of Gnosticism: knowledge. The archons want to keep us in ignorance – in lack of knowledge. What conventional Christianity abhors, Gnosticism embraces.
Finally Adam and Eve are thrown out of the garden.
They threw mankind into great distraction and into a life of toil, so that their mankind might be occupied by worldly affairs, and might not have the opportunity of being devoted to the holy spirit.
This is the meaning of the term blind thought which is used throughout the text: the great distraction which mankind is burdened by and which TS Eliot so aptly described as distracted from distraction by distraction. What better way of describing the life of the ego? An endless cycle of repeated thoughts, of recycled moments, going on inside our heads, by which we are separated from the life outside of us, separated from the very moment in which we exist.
It would be easy enough at this point to continue our reading of the text line by line, but I suspect that this would be a little tedious.
Also the text becomes increasingly garbled as it continues. It’s clear that, in fact, there are two parallel texts, similar in form, but dissimilar in details, which have been stitched together to create this particular version. Thus there are repeated lines later on which makes the text confusing. We are given the story of Cain and Abel, and then of two other children of Adam and Eve: Seth and Norea. Norea appears to represent incorruptibility in this world, a being not created by the archons. She defies the archons and calls to the God of the entirety to protect her from their advances. An angel comes down – Eleleth, sagacity – and begins to explain the allegory.
A veil exists between the world above and the realms that are below; and shadow came into being beneath the veil; and that shadow became matter; and that shadow was projected apart.
Another character is introduced – Zoe the daughter of Sophia, which means “Life” – and more names – Yaldabaoth and Sabaoth - which confuse things even more.
You are left scratching your head at the bewildering complexity of it all.
There continue to be startling moments, however, as when light is introduced into the picture: Sophia stretched forth her finger and introduced light into matter . Once more we see the female spiritual principle taking on the role given to God in the Genesis story.
The end of the story appears to be a continuation of the conversation between the angel Eleleth and Norea in which the nature of the universe is explained.
Norea’s offspring contain the spirit of truth and therefore they exist deathless in the midst of dying mankind.
The point about this text is that it is clearly meant to be interpreted psychologically. It takes a section of the Bible which fundamentalist Christians would insist as literally true, and reads it as allegory. This is an early Christian text – probably dating from around the 3rd century – and yet it seems entirely modern in its outlook. It shows that there was once another form of Christianity on this planet, a more sophisticated form, which doesn’t attempt to bamboozle us with fairy tales.
In fact, you could argue, Gnosticism IS Christianity. It is that form of Christianity that existed before Roman Catholicism was adopted as the ideological wing of the Roman Empire. The Gnostic texts represent true Christianity, a Christianity that is free of the constraints of Empire. It is a deliberate and conscious mythos, a creation, revelling in its own freedom, a challenge to the Empire, not an arm of it. Whereas the early Church fathers would deliberately falsify texts in order to bolster their claims to legitimacy, the Gnostic texts are unashamedly allegorical. You read into them, not out of them. You engage with them and interpret them, just as – you might imagine – you are meant to interpret the story of Jesus himself. For the Gnostic, Jesus, like the creation story, is an allegory. The cross is an allegory. The resurrection is an allegory. The whole gospel tale is one grand allegory you are encouraged to partake in, to engage with, to interpret. Not literal. Allegorical.
Gnosticism treats us as adults rather than children. It is Christianity for grown-ups.
Once you understand this Christianity makes sense. Whereas conventional Christianity asks us to have faith – blind faith - in a series of absurdities which we are to understand as miracles, those same absurdities, when viewed through an allegorical lens, become profound truths to be savoured, to be interpreted, to be understood.
As for what you think the allegory might mean: that's up to you to decide.
The Hypostasis of the Archons: complete text
- The Hypostasis of the Archons -- The Nag Hammadi Library
The Hypostasis of the Archons, from The Nag Hammadi Library. This site includes the entire Nag Hammadi Library, as well as a large collection of other primary Gnostic scriptures and documents.
More Gnostic texts
- Gnostic Society Library: Sources on Gnosticism and Gnosis
A vast collection of materials dealing with Gnosis and Gnosticism, both ancient and modern. The site includes the Gnostic Library, with the complete Nag Hammadi Library and a large collection of other primary Gnostic scriptures and documents.
- Mandaean Scriptures -- The Gnostic Society Library
The Mandaean Scriptures. The site includes the Gnostic Library, with the complete Nag Hammadi Library and a large collection of other primary Gnostic texts.
© 2010 Christopher James Stone