Michael Murphy of Esalen takes a look at Corbin. . .


An End to Ordinary History: Comments on a Philosophical Novel by Michael Murphy

Elizabeth Peña-Velasco

Paper presented at Conference on Henry Corbin, Sorbonne, Paris, 17 December 2005


 Michael Murphy is one of the co-founders of Esalen, an institute established in 1962 in Big Sur on the central coast of California. He describes it as “an educational center for cutting edge work in the human sciences and the sciences promoting human values and human potential. Esalen’s activities include public seminars, invitational conferences and research…, cooperative projects and residential work-scholar programs” (1).

Michael Murphy was intensively active in maintaining exchanges with the Soviets, which went further than exchanges of diplomacy or goodwill. His intention was “to open the way” in a global manner to a new spiritual dimension. This idea was particularly powerful in the Cold War period. The ideological confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union is the specific context in which we must situate the actions and the story of Michael Murphy.

“The internal world is the ultimate frontier” (2), says Michael Murphy, who has dedicated his life to his own spiritual research and explored the paranormal and metanormal capacities of the human being – as he calls them – to transcend mental and physical  limits.

An End to Ordinary History is a novel written in English, inspired in particular by the work of Henry Corbin, Corps Spirituel et Terre Céleste. The novel, published in 1982, is based some events of the Cold War and on investigations undertaken by the governments of each of the two superpowers in areas such as parapsychology in the period from 1972 to 1982, investigations recognized in secret documents made public by the American CIA through the Freedom of Information Act.

Michael Murphy established contacts with certain scientists involved in this research through the Institute of Noetic Sciences and the Stanford Research Institute. These included the director of NASA James Fletcher, the pioneer of space shuttle construction Werner von Braun, the Apollo project astronaut Edgar Mitchell, who said that he had had a mystical experience in space, and the physicist and laser specialist Russell Targ. The latter introduced these parapsychological works into various prestigious scientific publications and even the Soviet Academy of Sciences (3).

As for Michael Murphy, he states that he experienced an encounter with a feminine angel toward the mid-1990s for a period of three months, an encounter that he describes as a vision that was both subjective and objective, but profoundly real and spiritual.


An End to Ordinary History


The novel deals with the meeting of two scientists, one from the United States and the other from the Soviet Union – Darwin Fall and Vladimir Kirov -, each carrying out research for his respective government on “the atomic structure of clairvoyant perception” and “psychokinetic fields”. The Soviet scientist, who is going through his own mystical experiences, realizes that many connections exist between the North American’s work and the teachings of the Sufi association to which he belonged in Samarkand. Needless to say, the atmosphere in the URSS of that era was unfavorable to the development of Sufism. On the one hand, the Soviet authorities were suspicious of anything related to religion and, on the other hand, the conservative Muslims considered that Sufism had negative effects on the life of Islam.

Kirov, the Soviet scientist, incarnates this conflict in himself because his grandfather ‘Alī adrā)+Shirazī (let us note the reference to Mullā S was a Sufi master who had transmitted to him the teachings on the existence of the world of Hūrqalyā in the line of the Neoplatonists of Persia, Suhrawardī and Shaikh Ahmad Ahsā’ī. Then Kirov’s father, an important Soviet ideologist, introduced them into the political system of the URSS. Kirov would attempt to create a synthesis between mystical thought and official scientific thought.

Thus, a passage in the novel mentions Henry Corbin: “Only once,” Kirov said, “have I done military espionage. I was in Paris in 1963 studying parapsychology. A Frenchman was guiding my studies, a scholar of Iranian mysticism and friend of Henry Corbin, who was an expert on Suhrawardī” (4).

Michael Murphy symbolically represents the Orient and the Occident by the cities of Jābalqā et Jābarsā respectively, the two emerald cities that also refer to the two ideological blocs. Murphy indeed considered that a living spiritual heritage persisted in the Oriental bloc. The following is Corbin’s description: “And by virtue of the homology that makes the three worlds symbolize with one another, the world of the Imaginal also presents a division corresponding to the twofold Occident of the physical world; thus Jābarsā and Jābalqā correspond to the terrestrial world of elementary matter, while Hūrqalyā corresponds to the Heavens of the physical world” (5).

The novel also relates the experiences of the astronauts in a Soviet space capsule, a vision of another dimension, of emerald green space and meetings with angels, an event which ends in tragedy when the pilots lose control of the spacecraft before the magnitude of the phenomenon. Likewise, the novel speaks of various parapsychological experiences (psychic espionage, precognition, telepathy, and clairvoyance). All are apparently based on real facts.


Main Ideas in relation to Henry Corbin


It is particularly interesting to consider a work of this type, written by someone from the United States during the Cold War era, and whose conception springs from the mystical universe stated by Corbin.


Certainly, the novel associates mysticism and politics, but this idea belongs exclusively to Michael Murphy in this work, because Henry Corbin never thought in those terms. Nevertheless, the book is not so much concerned with politics as it is a philosophical statement. Nor is it science fiction, which is “imaginative fiction based on postulated scientific discoveries or spectacular environmental changes” (6). Rather, its basis is facts that occurred, and the notion of the Imaginal is of the order of reality; this is a reality proper in which real events take place.

Murphy expresses some of the deep concepts of Corbinian thought in a greatly simplified manner as follows: First, the notion of the Imaginal expressed by the world of Hūrqalyā is the key to the novel and to the inspiration that Michael Murphy finds in Corps Spirituel et Corps Céleste. The Soviet character in the novel, Kirov, on several occasions expresses the necessity of the mundus imaginalis as the place where the visions of the enlightened and the events of the Soul occur. Hūrqalyā is the Celestial Earth, the earth of emerald cities, the world of Resurrection, the interworld where human beings will accomplish their ultimate journey. There is no confusion here with outer space, “our spaceships will not fly there… our bodies, though, when they become vehicles of light, can make the journey” (7). The distinction between the imaginary and the Imaginal seems clear.

Second, although conditioned by his own historical circumstances, Michael Murphy suggests that the Imaginal History of which Henry Corbin speaks surpasses the traditional concept of history. Traditional history is linear and progressive, including the Marxist concept of history as “putting revolutionary ideas into practice, especially the communist idea or the idea of the new state of the world” (8); this history is the one that Michael Murphy calls ordinary.

The Imaginal History of Henry Corbin takes place in Hūrqalyā; this History Michael Murphy calls Extraordinary, and hence the novel’s title, An End to Ordinary History. Like Corbin, Murphy denounces the false dilemma: either history or myth. Indeed, for Corbin, Hūrqalyā is the place neither of history nor of myth in the current sense of these words (9). For Murphy, this Imaginal History represents hope and simultaneously real possibility.

Third, in the novel Hūrqalyā is also the Earth of Resurrection. Murphy picks up the expressions of Shaikh Ahmad Ahsā’ī: Nūr wujūdī dhā’ib, Nūr wujūdī jāmid, Tajdīd al-khalq (10). In other words, “The Spirits are light-being in the fluid state (Nūr wujūdī dhā’ib), while bodies are light-being in the solid state (Nūr wujūdī jāmid). The difference between the two is like the difference between water and snow” (11). The Renewal of Creation (Tajdīd al-khalq) announced by the second sounding of the trumpet by the Angel Seraphiel (Qur’ān 39:68 (12)) is a restoration of all things to their absolute paradisiacal purity, a new cosmic cycle (13). For Murphy, it is simply that “Both souls and bodies are made of the same holy light, and they will become one in the New Creation” (14).

Michael Murphy confers major importance on the earthly body of flesh and reduces the complex concept of the body at the time of the Resurrection according to the Shaikhīe School to the Jasad (body of ordinary elements), which – he says – will become identical to its original person (Jism al-aslī). In this way – continues Murphy – “The body will become the luminous face of the soul, events which can only take place in the Earth of Hūrqalyā” (15).

Fourth, with regard to the vision of the angel, Murphy writes, “Angels are mirrors: What we are looking for is the thing that is looking” (16). The vision of the angel occurs in function of the personal imaginative world. We do not perceive the angel as an object, but according to the exact scope of our consciousness. Murphy could place this idea parallel to the passage in the Acts of Peter which Corbin liked to quote, “I saw him as I was capable of perceiving him”, in reference to the transfiguration of Jesus (17).

In conclusion, An End to Ordinary History is not a Corbinian novel in the philosophical and metaphysical sense proposed by Henry Corbin; however, Michael Murphy considers that the mystical experience is an event of everyday life that his ordinary characters experience.

The interworld of Hūrqalyā is omnipresent, but only the Hūrqalian organ of perception can see and perceive it. Consequently, our ordinary historical perspective can be transformed into an Extraordinary History, the Imaginal History that Henry Corbin has shown us.


Translated by Christine Rhone



1. The Esalen Catalogue (Big Sur, California: Esalen Institute, 2004), p. 88.

2. Jackie Krentzman, “In Murphy’s Kingdom”, Stanford Magazine, http://www.stanfordalumni.org/ news/magazine/1998/janfeb/articles/murphy.html.

3. See Jeff Krippal, “Sex with Angels: Nonlocal Mind and An End to Ordinary History (1983)” (paper presented at the colloquium “Hidden Intercourse: Eros and Sexuality in Western Esotericism”, Esalen, Ca., April 3-8, 2005). Krippal interviewed Murphy and Targ at length to write this essay as part of a history of Esalen called The Enlightenment of the Body: A Nonordinary History of Esalen (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, forthcoming).

4. Michael Murphy, An End to Ordinary History (Los Angeles: J. P. Tarcher, 1982), p. 138.

5. Henry Corbin, Corps Spirituel et Terre Céleste: De l’Iran Mazdéen à l’Iran Shî’ite, 2d ed. (Paris : Buchet Chastel, 1979). Buchet Castel also published the 3d ed. in 2005. The present paper refers to the 3d ed., p. 105 : “Et en vertu de l’homologie qui fait symboliser l’un avec l’autre les trois mondes, le monde de l’Imaginal présente aussi une division correspondant au double Occident du monde physique, c’est ainsi que Jâbarsâ et Jâbalqâ correspondent au monde terrestre de la matière élémentaire, tandis que Hûrqalyâ correspond aux Cieux du monde physique.”

6. See, for example, The Oxford English Dictionary, 2d  ed., s.v. “science fiction.”

7. Murphy, op. cit., p. 133.

8. Encyclopédie Philosophique Universelle, vol. 3: Les Œuvres Philosophiques Dictionnaire, ed. André Jacob (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1992), p. 1970.

9. Corbin, op. cit., see pp. 105-106.

10. Murphy, op. cit., p. 118.

11. Corbin, op. cit., p. 122.

12. “The Trumpet will be sounded, and everyone in the heavens and earth will fall down senseless except those God spares. It will be sounded once again and they will be on their feet, looking on.” The Qur’ān 39-68, trans. M. A. S. Abdel Haleem (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

13. Corbin, op. cit., p. 119.

14. Murphy, op. cit., p. 118.

15. Ibid., pp. 112-113.

16. Ibid., p. 82.

17. “For every one of us, as far he could contain the sight, saw according to his own capacity to see. Now I will explain to you that which has just been read to you. Our Lord wanted to let me see his majesty on the holy mountain. But when, with the sons of Zebedee, I saw the brightness of his light, I fell down as one dead…. And then he gave me his hand and raised me up. When I arose, I saw him again as I was capable of perceiving him.” The Acts of Peter, chap. 20, trans. Christine Rhone, http://www.amiscorbin.org, 2006.


Parzifal says, “bust yer brain!”


This is a simple lesson in Common Sense–enjoy, live, be alive!


A guide to the present situation

By Paul Williams (author of Das Energi)
Copyright 1982

Our purpose here
is to take action
and have an effect on the world.

We have been born
into a moment
of unprecedented danger and opportunity.

Our failure to act
is itself a choice.

There is nowhere to hide
from this awareness.

It is time.

It is time for each one of us
to commit our energy, time, money, attention
to a vision of enduring peace and abundance
to a vision of humanity as a sound mind
in the healthy body of the biosphere
to a vision of a world that works

to a vision of our children’s children
growing up in a world without war
a world committed to the freedom and dignity
of every individual
regardless of race, sex belief or nation
a world committed to clean air, clean food, clean water
for all
a world united in the awareness
that in diversity lies strength
a world more full of love than hatred

It is time for each of us
to vote with our lives
–our daily lives–
for or against
the vision of a more hopeful future.

Our purpose here
is to build a bridge.

The purpose of the bridge
is to span the distance
between our present situation
and our vision of a better world.

The beauty of a bridge is that,
once it is in place,
anyone can walk on it.

A few people can build a bridge
that can be walked on by many.

This is our response
to the dangers that face us:

We will build a bridge of faith
over the great ocean.

Every individual on earth
is welcome
to take part in this work.

It is as individuals, working alone or in groups,
that we will accomplish our goals.

This is the greatest challenge we have ever faced.
We humans are being given the opportunity
to use what we’ve learned.

Hey, I see you, hiding under the rug there.
Come out, my friend, and be of service.  It’s time.

breathe in, breathe out
breathe in hope, breathe out fear
breathe in courage, breathe out despair
the time for action has arrived
breathe in love, breathe out fatigue
breathe in, breathe out
fear keeps going out
there’s never an end to it, but it’s not a problem

there are no problems

keep breathing

I am bringing forth my own energy
I can feel it welling up in me
and pouring out into my work
I can’t say thank you for the gifts fast enough
I can’t stop crying out for more

What a wonderful moment to be alive in!

The momentum achieved
by many different people
in different places
working towards a common goal

is a tremendous source
of encouragement and strength

it allows each of us to approach our individual efforts
with joy and energy and love

and yet that moment always returns
when we are alone with our uncertainties

On the edge of the dream
we face our deepest doubts.

Now that it all is almost real
a terrible fear of success takes hold
and we grab desperately, uncontrollably, for failure.

One last chance to get off easy.

Who among us really wants to save the world,
to be born again into two thousand more years
of struggle?
How much sweeter to be the doomed generation,
floating gently on the errors and villainy of others,
towards some glorious apocalypse now…

Hallelujah!  It’s not my fault —
Bring on the end times!

We hate our enemies
to provide ourselves in advance
with excuses for possible failure

Only when we give up
the comforts of pessimism
the luxury of enemies
the sweetness of helplessness
can we see beyond our own doubts.

I am speaking today of a great possibility
a chance to return to life
a chance to create a world for our children
not worse than the one we have

How dare I be discouraged in the work
by anything so trivial
as the fear of personal failure?

Fear of success and fear of failure
must be pushed aside and replaced
with enthusiasm for the work at hand
every day a new beginning

Let’s go —

There are bridges to build
new maps of consciousness to be delivered
to every planetary address
in every planetary language

We are ironworkers, skywalkers,
stubborn messengers
of light and life.

Oh friends
don’t forget
why we’re here!

The truth is, we have the skills
and we have the courage
if we could only keep our minds
on what we really want.

When you know what you want
all things are possible.

We want many things.
Now is the time to take a look at our priorities.
I can’t believe we want security and comfort
for ourselves
more than we want good health and full lives
for our children.
But our actions don’t always express our priorities.
Not because we’re afraid to admit
that our daily choices of where to commit our energies
will make the difference.

We are afraid to admit
that we could be building bridges
right now.

The truth is, we have everything to gain
and nothing to lose.
The satisfaction of knowing
you are doing your heart’s work
cannot be matched by any other pleasure on earth.
The freedom of total service to a greater good
is exactly what every seeker is searching for.
Maybe what really scares us
is that if we stopped procrastinating
something real might happen.

What is the nature of the work?
I think the first step is to add yourself
to the vision.
Imagine that you have a specific role to play…
and don’t take no for an answer.

breathe in, breathe out

it is time to remember what I already know
it is time to gather the tools I already have
time to walk forward naked in the direction
where my heart’s voice tells me to go
confident that my tools and my knowledge
will be at hand when I need them

breathe in, breathe out
fill my lungs with patience
exhale anxiety and greed

today I take a vow
not to love the world more than myself
not to love myself more than I love the world

I vow to build a bridge
over this gulf of imagination
that pretends to separate
my awareness of my own needs
from my awareness of the needs of the planet

we are one

that means I must serve you
if I wish to please myself

Let us serve as models.

And let us vow
to enjoy our work so much
that the hesitant and the fearful will grow jealous
and drop their chains
and run to join the fun.

How to prevent world catastrophe:

1) Admit that it could happen.
2) Decide that it will not happen
3) Commit your vision and energy to number two
without ever forgetting number one.

To choose to build a bridge
is the essential act of love.


This post is self explanatory. Gnosis often breaks through in the midst of everyday experience as well as structures that have emerged into our culture like Rock Music or Entheogenes.


Loftiness of Rock: The Authentic Popular Mystery-Religion of the Late 20th Century


Acid Rock as 2-level mystery religion. 1

High vs. Low Stonerism.. 2

Rock, the authentic mystery religion of 20th Century. 3

Heavy Rock religion as ongoing conversation among poets. 3

Misguided critique of “seriousness” in Rock. 5

“Seriousness” in Rock and definition of  “modern day  Christianity” 6

Rave Ascension: Youth, Techno Culture and Religion. 7


Acid Rock as 2-level mystery religion

Acid rock is the authentic mystery religion of our time.  One lyrical approach, the non-mystery approach or lesser-mystery approach, is to write lyrics that are obvious allusions to the entheogenic loose- cognition state.  The higher or more extreme mystery approach is to write lyrics that to the uninitiated, appear to be completely unrelated to the entheogenic loose-cognition state, but contain dense subtle allusions to that state for those who are initiated and can recognize the set of allusions and double-entendres.

In this sense, the Rush song “Red Barchetta” is a more sophisticated and has pure mystery lyrics, as opposed to the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High” or Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced?”, which are explicitly about the altered state and thus cannot reveal any hidden meaning as “Red Barchetta” can.  This suggests a distinction between plain “Acid Rock” and “Acid Mystery Rock”.  Rush is the best example of the latter.  The Beatles did some of both; in the Rubber Soul era, their songs claimed to be simply about pop romance, but had a mostly hidden layer of allusions to the altered state.

Another category, of “Acid Baffling Rock” is needed for lyrics that are simply puzzling, strange, arbitrary, and meaningless to the uninitiated, like “Bohemian Rhapsody”, but fully allude to the altered state phenomena such as ego death.  This is the distinction between:

o  Obvious allegory with obvious meaning (Acid Rock).  Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, Eight Miles High, Are You Experienced?

o  Hidden allegory with contradictory surface and hidden meaning (Acid Mystery Rock).  Red Barchetta, Chemistry, Help!

o  Obvious allegory with puzzling meaning (Acid Baffling Rock).  Bohemian Rhapsody.

felix wrote:

>So are you saying that the greater the buildup of literally believing the deliberate lie, the more profound the revelation of the entheogenic experience will be? Both in the Jesus mysteries and in acid rock, such that it will embrace most every aspect of life in which you’ve been tricked into taking things literally, and the transformation will be complete?

That’s not what I meant to assert, but I largely agree with that.  Earliest Christianity may have been predominantly esoteric, experiential, and mythic, rather than exoteric, creedal, and literalist.  In that case, the fictional stories about Jesus and company were taught to candidates only as preliminary stories — same as myths of Demeter.  The intensity of revelation was not due to the intensity of false literalist belief in the Jesus stories, but just due to the great difference between the uninitiated mind and the mind that has experienced loose cognition and the concomitant realm of altered-state experiences and insights about self, personal power, moral agency, and time.

These days, in addition, we have the history-shattering revelation that Jesus is mainly or solely a fictional character — collapsing two millenia of literalist error.  But the main revelation of Christianity is not that literalism is wrong — it’s that our assumed control agency and power to decide or change the future is wrong.

In the LSD-soaked 1970s, it was a moderate revelation to discover altered-state allusions in Rush lyrics, but no great surprise.  In the 1990s, blinded by the history-suppressing sham drug war, we gained an additional degree of astonishment.  Not only did we discover the altered-state allusions in the lyrics of 1970s Rush albums, some young and culturally over-sheltered Rush listeners also were stunned and surprised to consider that Rush may have used LSD — a fact that is anything but a surprise to those who know the cultural context, but comes as a distinctly counterintuitive, taboo, and quasi-paradoxical revelation to the poor propagandized, deceived young students who were subjected to the lies the schools told in the 1990s.  Rush was a heavy rock band in the 70s.

Therefore we should assume they did drugs, on that basis alone, unless we have really good reason to think that, for some reason, they are the only band who didn’t (which would be very much against the trend).  It would be amazing if Rush *didn’t* use LSD in the 70s, being a heavy rock band.  But today’s worse than know-nothing kids have been told the opposite of the truth, they’ve been assaulted with lies upon lies.  They think that Rush is sophisticated and “therefore” didn’t use drugs.

They have been told that down is up and up is down; it’s been hammered into them.  Not only is it a revelation in waiting for them that Rush alludes to mystic phenomena, and that Rush used LSD as well as cannabis, and to a religious degree, but also, that their education about drugs has been a steady diet of lies upon lies.  It is disturbing that everyone considers Rush to be philosophy rock and *therefore* must have shunned drugs.  The opposite is true — the greatest philosophy rock is bound to preach the true mystery religion.

High vs. Low Stonerism

>>You have entirely different ideas compared to ‘tradition’ theorists about what the esoteric core of religion was: drugs, vs, at best, some sort of meditation, contemplation, or Jungian “active imagination”, which you consider mostly a placebo, why it was hidden, why it was lost, who has the secret now (science and stoners).

To a large extent, Science immediately saw the good sense in the entheogen theory, ever since that theory was formulated.  Computer science is strongly entheogen-influenced.  However, this demonstrates the relation between de facto use of entheogens (and entheogen-positive views) on the part of individuals, versus the official stance of fields or industries: don’t expect any official statements on the part of Science or Computer Science that entheogens are of greatest relevance.

It’s not yet the view of Science that religion is essentially entheogen-derived.  That’s a likely conclusion as entheogen scholarship continues.  Consider the various motives Science has to portray religion as entheogen-derived or as not entheogen-derived.

In Stonerism, as in any field or genre, there is both Low Stonerism and High Stonerism.  Ozzy Osbourne and Rush (even more so) are representatives of High Stonerism.  High Times magazine usually caters to Low Stonerism, while Cannabis Culture is more geared toward High Stonerism.  Psychedelic Illuminations, renamed TRP, renamed Trip, is geared toward High Stonerism.

A typical Stonerist move is to deliberately conjoin low and high, per the Ken Kesey/Merry Pranksters approach.  Osbourne’s Diary of a Madman deliberately explores the range, progressing from innocent adolescent “Flying High Again” through the breakdown of control of Little Dolls, the dark night of Tonight and SATO, to a heavy metalesque dark pensive conclusion in “Diary of a Madman” — overshadowed, however, by the real conclusion, Ozzy’s glorification and crucifixion in Christ on the back cover.

Acid-influenced Rock is the authentic initiatory mystery religion of the late modern era, because it combines muse-inspired poetic lyrics, music, gatherings, encoded allusions to mystic-state phenomena, and genuine ‘good wine’ — entheogens on tap, particularly the combination of cannabis and lysergic acid.

The high level of any two fields is closer than the high and low version of a particular field.  Ozzy is in High Stonerism and Mystery Religions are High Religion.  Modern existentialism and Psychology are merely Low Philosophy and Low Psychology.  Therefore Ozzy Osbourne and Mystery Religions, both being High, must be grouped together, separate from typical 20th century Philosophy and Psychology, which are Low.

It’s ironic that the uninformed accept grouping Rush with Mystery Religions, while banishing Ozzy to the lower realms.  Ozzy and Rush are both firmly based in High Art — the acid-rock mystery religion — whatever their relative artistic merits.  Any praise of the religious inspriation of Rush must be granted as well to Ozzy and the other acid-oriented Rock artists, who form a tradition, a genre — they are not at all isolated lone individuals.

Acid-influenced rock lyric allusions are a collectively shared language, consciously spoken among the lyricists and understood, recognized, and respected by a significant portion of the audience.  Similarly, I am not alone in my interpretation of the lyrical allusions; it’s a matter of a group of people who read the lyrics as I do, versus a group that denies the correctness of such a reading — it’s two views, not my own view held in isolation, versus the view held by the rest of the world.

Rock, the authentic mystery religion of 20th Century

Michael wrote:

>>The religious banqueting associations were like small Rock or Punk Rock clubs, against the Prog Rock arena shows of the mass-scale mystery initiations.  Mithraism was like a large network of intimately tiny Rock clubs.

Frank wrote:

>This is a great way to look at it.  It can also be a bit depressing.  If Christianity got to its arena rock phase around the time of Augustine, us gnostic types have barely gotten out of our garage band startup!

The ancient towering powerful Catholic church is largely an illusion; it was but a recent mouse.

Today I found that Erik Davis a similar description in the book TechGnosis:

“… the freak scene would never have spread without technology … Especially the electric guitar. … the rock concert had become the hedonic agora of the counterculture; musicians dove headfirst into the electromagnetic imaginary, transforming … electrical effects like feedback and distortion into ferocious transcendental chaos. … Combined with … light shows and [entheogens originating from the Establishment] … these kundalini-tweaking soundstorms staged electrified Eleusinian mysteries …”  p. 145

TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information

Erik Davis


Currently pages 2-29 are available online here


Rank 70K (popular)


Heavy Rock religion as ongoing conversation among poets

Allusions to acid mystic state phenomena in practice amounted to a kind of ongoing conversation among Rock groups.  Not only must you study an artist’s later song in the light of their earlier songs; you must include the songs (and visual album and concert art) by other previous Rock hierophants as well.

What’s greatly needed is a chronological listing of acid-rock lyrics, starting with Help! by John Lennon, toward finding which acid-alluding song lyrics led in the next year or two to thematic variations from another artist in response.

>>Do you think that the artists not only compose lyrics in an altered mental state, but compose the music itself in an altered state so that the music itself has deeper meaning while tripping?

Examples of music that is composed to allude to the phenomena of the intense mystic altered state is the two symphonic build-ups in Day in the Life by the Beatles, the ascending suspenseful phasing and violins in Cheap Trick: World Turns Round (on Dream Police), and the haunting chords and erratic heartbeat at the end of Cygnus X1.

Poetic music is better than electronica (acid rave), because words convey allusions more complexly than just trippy sounds; words carry meaning that can unfold and blossom in a state-dependent fashion.

I have heard that it is standard practice among Classic Rock lyricists to compose poetry as the ancients did, in the inebriated visionary state.  This only makes sense.

Classic Rock in general, by definition, is written and performed within the psychotomimetic THC plus LSD state of consciousness.  Pot with acid is the standard religion of Heavy Rock; pot with acid is the Heavy Rock religion.  Rush are only differentiated by their higher than average devotion to the Heavy Rock religion.

>>I happened to listen to Rush while tripping on acid.  I was at a friend’s house while listening to Rush and because of the messages I thought I was hearing, I swore up and down for years that either my friend had rigged his stereo and computer equipment or that Rush had encoded their music.  It is amazing to see that others have experienced this.

This unfolding effect is known and deliberately played upon by the Heavy Rock artists and poets.

>>The frequency of the allusions convinces you that that Rush has encoded their music.  Could the frequency of the alleged allusions seem to increase simply because the artist writes more intelligently than another, mediocre, artist?

That is hypothetically possible but pointless and not the case.  All the bands tripped on pot with acid all the time, and like historical mystics, some did a better job of it than others.

>>Is it that Peart encodes and the acid savvy listener decodes, or is it that Peart writes very creatively, with many metaphors, and that this is fodder for an altered mind?

Peart encodes many metaphors deliberately alluding to the phenomena of the pot-with-acid state of cognitive processing.  He is skilled at maximizing this acid encoding/decoding effect richly, in a skill development feedback loop.

>>I remember experiencing the same things watching Star Trek.  Any info on this?

Moving pictures are not my specialty, but there is some interest in the subject of acid mysticism allusions in movies, among other researchers.

>>Very few fans of respective bands know about the double meaning of the lyrics.

That’s uncertain.  Many fans have at least experienced the extended meaning, even if they retain a far hazier grasp than the heavy-tripping poets.

>Even most people familiar with both (i.e., band and acid) would laugh in your face at the mere idea of it.

Evidence so far contradicts that assertion.  Around 2/3 of the people I hear from who are familiar with the bands and with acid heartily agree with the systematization I’ve pulled together.  Around 2/3 who so qualified, agree.  It’s not enough to be somewhat familiar with the albums, or to have tripped just a handful of times.  The more one has tripped and has done so with the albums playing, the more one is likely to agree with the entheogen theory of Heavy Rock lyrics.  The terms ‘Heavy’ and ‘Rock’ function practically as code-words for tripping on acid.

>>It’s obviously not everyone’s favorite hobby to do high-dose trips. The first one you do with a *really* naive mindset regarding what will happen to you. [will blow you away disturbingly?]  Even if you are informed.  On the other hand, this naivety may in some sense be useful/necessary, as it is doubtful that people would embark upon a journey so harsh.

>>Nowadays I’m really rather timid going beyond medium-strength trips. I know that it delivers some of the best moments one can possibly experience but it always comes with the price. I guess here come rituals handy: They provide for a preset occasion to trip and one “just does it” without having to struggle hours about if one really should do it or not.

Poets and hierophants: We trip hard so you don’t have to.

We Will Rock You

Misguided critique of “seriousness” in Rock

>>I hope I don’t discover that Rush is taking their own lyrics way too seriously, but I guess a lot of the art rock bands of the 70’s are guilty of that.

Criticizing “taking lyrics too seriously” gives a feeling of superioriority, but that’s often a sign of incomprehension of the meaning in lyrics.  Do people really want to limit Rock to the mindless Boogie Rock of the self-titled Rush album, or the Ramones as the ideal scope of Punk thematic materials?

It’s not immediately clear what “taking their own lyrics too seriously” means.  Generally, the most standard single theme or motive of Classic Rock (1960s and 70s Rock from Freakbeat to Psychedelic Rock, Acid Rock, Heavy Rock, Heavy Metal, then Metal) is to reflect the phenomena of the LSD altered state.  Consider Heavy Rock, such as Queen’s song Bohemian Rhapsody or Rush’s song No One at the Bridge.

Punk Rock is “guilty” of the same supposed crime.  For all of its *talk* about offering a “less pretentious and serious” approach to Rock, Punk treated politics every bit as seriously as Classic Rock treated the LSD altered state and its phenomena.

>>Ozzy Osbourne definitely is not guilty of that.

No album takes its lyrics more seriously than Ozzy Osbourne’s album Diary of a Madman.  Similarly, Sabotage is also insanely serious and grandiose.


Listen as well to Osbourne’s song Revelation (Mother Earth):

Mother please forgive them

For they know not what they do

Looking back in history’s books

It seems it’s nothing new

Oh! Let my mother live

Heaven is for heroes

And hell is full of fools

Stupidity, no will to live

They’re breaking God’s own rules

Please let my mother live

Father, of all creation

I think we’re all going wrong

The course they’re taking

Seems to be breaking

And it won’t take too long

Children of the future

Watching empires fall

Madness the cup they drink from

Self destruction the toll

I had a vision, l saw the world burn

And the seas had turned red

The sun had fallen, the final curtain

In the land of the dead

Mother, please show the children

Before it’s too late

To fight each other, there’s no-one winning

We must fight all the hate

Rock doesn’t get any more serious and grandiose and cosmic than that.  So much for “taking their own lyrics … seriously … Ozzy Osbourne definitely is not guilty of that.”

“Seriousness” in Rock and definition of  “modern day  Christianity”

>>I started on this journey by listening to and researching the Beatles who tried to capture the feeling one gets from transcendental meditation and eastern religion in their music.  Of course, the acid experience is a huge part of that experience.

The music of Ozzy and Beatles has much in common — playful taboo crossing and the mystic altered state, mystery-religion, cosmic gnostic footloose profundity, ultimate concerns transcendently freely mixed with British wacky absurd humor.

Metal such as Iron Maiden and Metallica can cover only half the themes or mood of the intense mystic altered state; that genre as an expressive medium is restricted.  Mainstream acid-oriented Rock can cover more ground in exploring the world of the intense mystic altered state, because it does not have to restrict itself to constant heaviness.

Ozzy/Sabbath is ultimately superior to Metallica as an expressive style because Ozzy/Sabbath has always had full room for humor and light beauty, unlike the Metal genre.  Much of the Iron Maiden lyrics seem to have their inspired quality handicapped by a rigid rule of always having to be dark, negative, hardcore.

>>Perhaps my critique of “seriousness” in Rock comes from the technical and academic nature of the posts on this newsgroup.


It doesn’t get any more straightforward than this set of Web pages.  An explanation of allusions to the mystic altered state is potentially as straightforward and explicit than this.  Where can people find a less “technical and academic” explanation of Rock mysticism than this?  The present posting would as well, and as absurdly, be called “technical and academic”.

This discussion group is technical and academic compared to postings saying just “Dude, too much tripping and my soul’s worn thin.”  One step simpler than this discussion group will land you in the public newsgroups.

If you hate academic bluster, you’ll love to hate the existing books that fail to even see the presence of primary religious experiencing in Heavy Rock.  The allusions go right over their heads, so we end up with the familiar combination of sophisticated-sounding blustery explanation, that completely misses the essence, producing a study that pretends to be about certain Rock lyrics, but really ends up being about the ideas embraced by Academia.

I would like to search more of the books about Rock for real insight — not just saying that bands used LSD, not just saying that Lucy… is about LSD, but spelling out the allusions to altered-state phenomena in songs far and wide.  The books I’ve seen have nothing even remotely like that.

Book lists:

Rock as philosophical mystery-religion


Some of these books on Heavy Rock *might* provide insight.  I wouldn’t count on it, but look up “acid”, “mystic”, “lsd”, “psychedelics”, and “drugs” in the indexes.

Rush books (Rock group)


>>I recently dropped out of a Master’s Program, so I am in an anti-academic frame of mind at the moment.  I have more faith in my own intuition and intellectual efforts than in institutional knowledge, much to my own detriment.

Reading today’s quarter-baked scholarship is a necessary evil.  I have to do a major mental transformation to extract value out of most books.

The biggest mistake of so-called “higher education” is modern ignorance of the use of visionary plants throughout human history.  That fault may be laid on academia rather than outside it.

>>I have relied heavily on the works of Joseph Campbell for a roadmap of my journey.

From what I’ve read so far, Campbell seems more insightful than Jung.  The problem is the whole modern Psychology paradigm, which distorts its own field as much as shining light on it.  Both of them are grounded in the era before the late 1960s, and therefore they are almost wholly ignorant of the explanatory solution provided by visionary plants.

Scholarship in psychology and symbols will eventually be divided into before and after the era of the rediscovery of entheogens, which had a turning point around 1972.  By 1972, any scholar of myth-religion-mysticism who was not aware of the entheogen theory of religion is guilty of professional incompetence and inexcusable oblivious ignorance.  Prior to around 1972, theories of myth-religion-mysticism can be excused for ignorance of the entheogen solution to their questions — not so after about 1972.

Jung on Christianity

Murray Stein (Introduction), Carl Gustav Jung


>>Campbell has become popular through his populist approach to mythology and Jungian psychology.  I am trying to reconcile my familiarity with Campbell to “modern day Christianity”, which I define the Christian Church as an institution, which deems salvation is achieved primarily through works rather than faith.

Official Christianity is a system of salvation through works, with a veneer of salvation through faith and regeneration through the Holy Spirit laid on top.  Because the official Church in fact lacks the Holy Spirit, the masses fall back onto striving for salvation through works.

Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor (covers Christian myth-religion, fine content)

Joseph Campbell


Oct. 2001

Rave Ascension: Youth, Techno Culture and Religion

I have written about lyrical allusions to the phenomena of the mystic altered state in various entheogen-inspired rock genres.  This popular entheogen-oriented music tradition began with psychedelic rock, lived on much more strongly than people realize in progressive rock and heavy rock, including Queen, Rush, Metallica, and Slayer, as well as the Grateful Dead, and now lives on in the rave culture.

>From the main Theory Notes section of my site:



>From the Lyrics section of my site:



>From my Amptone site:

http://www.amptone.com/overview.htm — find section: Amp Tone and the Experience of Ego Death (moved to Egodeath site)

We should also check to see what Erik Davis has to say about the intersection of psychedelic rock, rave culture, mysticism, and technology.

>From the Visionary Plants discussion List:

Dr St John is looking for contributions at a post-graduate level, either novel or previously published. Check with him. The Project may be published by Routledge Research.

The deadline is 17th September 2001.

Contact Graham directly at:

g.stjohn at unimelb.edu.au


Call for submissions to a new anthology –

Rave Ascension: Youth, Techno Culture and Religion

To be edited by Graham St John

“…dance parties have transmuted the role that organised religion once had to lift us onto the sacramental and supramental plane”. Such was the thinking of Goa veteran and self-styled ‘trancetheologian’, Ray Castle in a paean to the power of rave in his 1995 communion with Eugene ENRG (aka DJ Krusty): http://music.hyperreal.org/artists/metanet/meld1.html

Despite its diasporic fragmentation and hybridisation throughout the nineties, the dance party rave – involving masses of youth dancing all-night to a syncopated electronic rhythm mixed by DJs – maintains rapturous popularity in the West. Commonly accorded effects ranging from personal ‘healing’ or replenishment, to transformations on social, cultural or political scales, the rave – from clubland, to outdoor doof, to technomadic festival – is a hyper-crucible of contemporary youth spirituality. The question thus arises:

* What is the role of the technocultural rave in the spiritual life of contemporary youth? *

Emerging in London in 1988 and subsequently exported around the world, the rave has proliferated and mutated alongside associated music (electronic) and body (‘ecstasy’) technologies. Throughout the nineties, vast numbers of western youth attached primary significance to raving and post-rave experiences. Regularly regarded by participants as a site of ‘self-transcendence’, a kind of temporary utopia, the rave grew prevalent in the experience of urban youth. With the combined stimulus of electronic musics, psychotropic lighting and chemical alterants, young novices and experienced habitues transcended the mundane in converted warehouses, wilderness areas, beaches, deserts and streets.

Participants and observers have variously reported ‘communion’, ‘telepathy’, ‘trance’ states, ‘ecstasy’ or the ‘sacred’ along with a transcendence of subject, ethnic or gender categories at rave and post-rave events. Producers of rave soundscapes and visual components (from video images to décor) reportedly possess ‘shamanic’ characteristics. Events are often deemed ‘tribal’ celebrations – even ‘corroborees’. And, experienced habitues of dance champion psychedelic ‘sacraments’, sometimes claimed to accelerate the reception of esoteric knowledge.

Yet a torrent of inquiry issues from our initial question. Is the rave a nascent rite de passage – and, if so, what is its telos? What is its level and quality of efficacy? Is it a ritual of communion, a mass ‘return’ to a ‘womb’ which sees co-inhabitants secure in a nutrient rich and numinous pre-separation stage, or an anomic post-partum ‘dead-zone’ catering for ‘escapist’ desires and tragic careers in over-expenditure? An ‘oceanic experience’ or a kind of prolonged youth suicide? Does the rave or post-rave more closely approximate a Church, Disney World™ or a “detention camp for youth” (Reynolds, Energy Flash 424). Has the cyber-chemical-millenarianism which flourished under the roof of the original acid house been domesticated – the rapture contained and smothered in regulated and commodified leisure sites? Or has its technospiritual fervour been smuggled away into furtive temporary autonomous zones where it percolates still?

Calling for submission from scholars of contemporary religion, dance ethnologists, sociologists and other cultural observers, this anthology seeks to answer such questions, and in the process unravel the socio-cultural religious dimensions of rave and rave-derived phenomena. Though various commentators have initiated research on this youth cultural moment, Rave Ascension will be a venue devoted to such research.

Contributors might address one or more of the following themes:

– Rave as New Age religion. Discussion could transpire on rave as manifestation of New Age techno-spirituality. The presence of esotericism – eg gnosticism – in the dance party space, music and mythos – would be a worthy subject of analysis.

– Rave as ritual (communion, rite of passage, potlatch, therapeutic). Subjects of analysis and documentation could include Earthdance described as ‘a global dance party for world peace and healing’; techno-utopian festivals like Burning Man; or outdoor doofs of the ‘Goa Trance’ tradition.

– Rave as TAZ (Temporary Autonomous Zone): Contributors might address the influence of inspired anarcho-mystic Hakim Bey (aka Peter Lamborn Wilson) upon the ‘rave movement’ and techno-art communities.

– Techno-spirituality: Rave’s location in ‘postmodern’ technospiritual developments. Relevant themes for discussion include techno-futurism; and the use of the Internet by ‘cybergnostic’ rave communities.

– Psychedelics and dance: the role of entheogens (Ecstasy), LSD and other chemical alterants in the dance-space. For example, the work of Nicholas Saunders or the nuances and implications of the interfacing of body and cyber technologies – cyberdelics – could be addressed.

– ‘Techno-paganism’: from Fraser Clark’s Shamanarchy to the Drop Bass Network’s interest in Anton LaVey and the Church of Satan.

– Comparisons of the rave experience with the ritual experience of non-western cultures – eg. in relation to similarities in music, repetitive percussive rhythm and/or psychotropic stimuli.

– Electro-primitivism. The appropriation/sampling of the exotic ‘Other’ in rave performances, symbolism/décor and electronic music. Processes and implications.

– Trance: dance, music, visual effects and the trance state. For example, Matthew Fox’s Creation Spirituality and the ‘techno-mass’ would be relevant.

– Techno-shamanism: DJs as ‘engineer-poets’, technicians of ecstasy, or high priests?

– Raving as ‘consumer spirituality’. Is the purported religiosity or social strengthening of raving improved or threatened by the consumer capitalism with which it is implicated?

– Rave as presexual/pregendered paradise – the temporary androgynous zone.

– Raves and Christianity: The fusion of Episcopalian services, vicar V ravey’s Nine O’Clock Service in Sheffield , and Club X organised by Billy Graham’s Youth for Christ are relevant high interest topics.

– Victor Turner: The usefulness of Victor Turner’s processual theory – including ‘spontaneous communitas’, the ‘cultural drama’ and liminoidal ‘play’ – to the study of rave and rave-derived events.

– Michel Maffesoli: rave as exemplary ‘orgiastic’ or ’empathetic’ sociality particular to ‘neo-tribalism’.

– George Bataille: The value of Bataille’s ideas on eroticism and trangression to dance.

– Dance, corporeality and place: the establishment of somatic connectedness to place through dance.

– Technoculture and ecologism: How may ‘rave technologies’ be mobilised to facilitate or mediate consciousness of the natural world? Do dance events possess a role in (re)producing ethical, eco-conscious individuals and communities?

I am open to suggestion on other relevant themes and lines of inquiry.

Routledge Publishers Research have expressed interest in the project. If interested, please submit (email) an abstract of no more than 300 words to Graham St John by Sep 17, 2001. Chapters are requested to be around 7000 words in length.

g.stjohn at unimelb.edu.au

Graham St John is a Visiting Fellow at the School of Anthropology, Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of Melbourne and is the editor of FreeNRG: Notes From the Edge of the Dance Floor, an OzAuthors/Pluto Press co-production available from Sep/Oct 2001


Parzifal says, “rock on”!

Dr. John Turner has many in depth essays–in this one he is exploring Ritual in Gnosticism.


Ritual in Gnosticism



John D. Turner

University Of Nebraska-Lincoln

SBL 1994 Book of Seminar Papers, 136-181

An action divorced from its primary practical context, ritual bears a symbolic or semiotic character. It usually serves to promote group formation and social solidarity and to negotiate understanding among members of the species. Such actions are religious when they signal a turning towards something extra-human or super-human; indeed the very act of turning away from the human context has an eminently social function. Usually this something is described as the sacred, something experienced as powerful, overwhelming, majestic, solemn, enchanting. This experience is portrayed symbolically by the juxtaposition of things threatening and alluring (pain, entrapment, exclusion, death, and sterility on the one hand, and nourishment, liberation, inclusion, life, and sexuality on the other); by gestures of submissiveness alongside displays of power; and by sudden alterations of darkness and light, covering and uncovering, stability and movement, sound and silence. This quasi-language signals and creates situations of anxiety in order to overcome them and leads from isolation and fear of abandonment to the establishment of solidarity and the reinforcement of status. Ritual helps to overcome situations of crisis by replacing the apathy of ordinary everyday experience with focused activity. Although religious ritual borders on magic (in the sense of the non-salvific coercion of a particular outcome apart from divine sanction), particularly when consciously practiced by an individual, its primary character is social and collective, a way of participating in the often traditional framework of social communication, and its strongest motive is the fear of isolation from the greater whole.[1]
Although both Gnostics and Platonists seemed to have sought this sense of integration and well-being primarily through conceptual means–the interpretation of texts and traditions, the use of analogy, argumentation, speculation, and mythical narrative–they also engaged in ritual activity, repeated patterns of behavior, both as individuals and groups.
Gnostics share with Platonists the notion that salvation is the ultimate extrication of the soul or inner person from the bodily realm coupled with an ascent to its point of origin in the divine world. After the example of Plato, many Platonists until the time of Plotinus and Porphyry could use visionary terminology associated with the mystery religions to characterize this ascent, but there is no evidence from this period that it was to be effected by ritual means. After the time of Plotinus, however, many Platonists adopted a form of ritual known as theurgy, in which embodied souls were brought into a sympathetic resonance with the divine Logoi that informed the natural world; divine powers were invoked to enter the phenomenal world in the form of purified souls intended to reveal their divine source in the body and other physical objects, so as to assist the ascent of the practitioner’s soul during this life and as well as its final ascent.[2] In apparent contrast to this late Platonic theurgical ritual, the salvific rites offered in Gnostic sources of the same period continue to appear as symbolic enactments of the more typically Neopythagorean and Plotinian goal of extricating every soul from the physical world altogether, even when one can detect in these sources a quite positive valorization of the psychic and spiritual cosmos.
This paper surveys ritual acts described or alluded to in various Gnostic sources, original and heresiological, and where appropriate, to comment upon their relation to Platonic doctrine and ritual. These will include rites of lustration, investiture, chrismation, the sacral meal, sacral marriage, sexual sacramentalism, ritual verbal performances, and ascensional and contemplative practices in both individual and group endeavor. The paper will concentrate mostly on Sethian and Valentinian sources, adducing other material when appropriate.
The rituals practiced by the Gnostics, most of which they share with–and sometimes derived from–Christians, are the result of transferring rather simple, everyday acts, such as washing, applying salves and balms, changing clothes, eating and sharing a meal, arising upon awakening, and engaging in sexual intercourse, into a symbolic setting and discourse. The main preoccupation of the Gnostics seems to have been the overcoming of an experience of alienation and isolation, and they developed a number of elaborate myths in which they, like other groups, elevated these otherwise rather common acts into rites which had the power to overcome this alienation, and achieve a sense of solidarity and authenticity by realistic enactments of personal transformation and integration into a larger whole. Compared with non-Gnostic Platonists, they subjected a wider range of these ordinary acts to symbolic enactment, no doubt because they inherited many such enactments from other religious movements known to them, such as Judaism, Christianity and the mysteries, or simply because many Gnostics were already adherents of those movements and were merely applying a Gnostic twist to them.
For Gnostics as well as Jews and Christians of various stripes, the loss and recovery of a sense of integration and solidarity–personal, social, and cosmic–were expressed in two basic myths. One was the myth of a vertiginous fall from the heights, in which the human soul, like a bird having lost its wings, had plummeted to earth, loosing direct contact with its native element; its only hope of return was the acquisition of a new set of wings, a task hindered by the beguiling conditions of its new environment, which led to a gradual forgetfulness of its homing instinct. The other basic myth was that of the primal androgyne, the supposed ultimate, bisexual progenitor of all of humanity, who underwent the primeval experience of being sundered in two, into male and female, thus creating an elementary crisis of estrangement and loss of the divine image, and the need to heal this split by the reunion of the two sexes. This myth was extremely widespread. Platonists possessed a version of it in Aristophanes’ famous encomium on Eros in Plato’s Symposium, portraying Zeus’ sundering and weakening of the original humans, creating their urge to reunite.[3] Jews and Christians read Gen 1:26-27 as portraying a masculofeminine Adam, made in the true image of the God who transcended gender altogether, an image which was lost in the fateful division into a separate male and female (Gen 2:21-22). These myths of division and alienation underlie many of the traces of Gnostic ritual known to us, in particular the rites of baptism, investiture, chrismation, and sacral marriage. These rites serve to reverse that alienation: when the soul regains its wings and homing instinct, it is no longer a captive. When the primal image of God is restored, man is no longer divided–not even by the most fundamental division of all, male and female.[4]
Of these four fundamental rites, baptism, though its origins lie in the sphere of repeatable acts of lustration and purification, seems to be an initiatory rite generally practiced only once as the initial break with one’s flawed past and an entrance into a new state of reunification, while the other three seem to be repeatable acts of celebration and intensification of one’s awareness of that reunification. Closely associated with baptism are the act of chrismation and investiture, which early Christian texts often treat as a postlude to baptism; indeed baptism and chrismation were both called “seals,” marking one as reborn and belonging to God. While these rites appear to be unrepeatable acts of initiation, the sacral meal, the eucharist, though often following baptism, was repeatable. The sacral marriage known as the “bridal chamber,” though its origins lie in biblical metaphor, seems to be a peculiarly Gnostic ritual; although it usually had an eschatological reference, it could become repeatable, particularly when enacted as an explicitly sexual sacrament.
Besides these major rituals, Gnostics share with all groups the ritual use of speech, especially prayer formulas (doxologies, aretalogies, petitions, etc.), hymns, aretalogies, recognition formulas, and ecstatic utterances (chants, syllables of power, glossalalia, etc.). Particularly intriguing is the rite of contemplative, visionary ascension; although one tends to think of this as the practice of isolated individuals, it acquired the status of a rite, not only among the devotees of Hermes Trismegistus, but especially among the Sethian Gnostics, probably because it was originally developed in a baptismal context. Other forms of ritual behavior not easily characterized as specific rites may include certain explicit life-styles clearly separating an individual or community from the norm, mostly of an encratitic sort, which include fasting, heremitic withdrawal, celibacy, or the erection of images, statues, and cultic buildings.
Because of its foundational significance for several associated rites and its widespread attestation in Gnostic texts, I begin this survey with the baptismal rite as practiced by various Gnostic groups.


Sethian Baptism

The Sethian gnostic treatises from the Nag Hammadi Library contain not only numerous accounts of visions of the transcendental world and its contents, but also numerous references to baptisms, washings, anointings and sealings, and numerous instances of various prayers, doxologies and hymns mentioning or directed to a rather fixed set of divine beings. Such references generally occur in stanzaic, even hymnic, passages to be found especially in the Gospel of the Egyptians, Apocalypse of Adam, Melchizedek, Zostrianos, Apocryphon of John, and Trimorphic Protennoia. They apparently refer to a sequence of ritual acts involving a kind of baptism, which the texts often designate by the term “the Five Seals.” The Sethian texts providing the most detail about the Five Seals are the Gospel of the Egyptians and the Trimorphic Protennoia, but they do not reveal the precise ritual character of these Five Seals, with the result that the rite must be reconstructed from their rather allusive allusions to it. The texts contain no liturgical rubrics. Baptism is an extremely well-attested rite in the early Christian world, where it and the various symbolic acts that comprise this rite are commonly called “seals.” So the basic puzzle is the meaning of the term “five”: does it refer to a single act performed five times, e.g. a quintuple immersion in contrast to the typically triple immersion of Christian baptism, or does it refer to five ritual acts comprising the rite, or to some mysterious transcendental Pentad of names (Trimorphic Protennoia NHC XIII,1: 49,28-32) or aeons (Apocryphon of John NHC II,1: 6,2-10)?[5] The texts do not tell us. By way of comparison, the normal Christian baptismal rite contained at least four procedures : removal of outer garments and renunciation of the devil, removal of all garments and anointing with oil, baptismal immersion, and reclothing in white garments; often this was supplemented by a fifth, the chrismation.[6]
The Sethian texts are unusual in that, perhaps to a greater degree than is the case with the corpora of other Gnostic groups, they conceive the baptismal rite as a series of visionary experiences resulting in complete enlightenment and therefore total salvation. In spite of the allusions to ritual acts that could indeed be enacted by ordinary human beings, the importance of the rite lay primarily in the spiritual plane, an emphasis characteristic of Christian and probably non-Christian baptizing circles throughout the first century. The Sethian baptismal water was understood to be of a celestial nature, a Living Water identical with light or enlightenment. Although in earlier Sethian treatises this rite is usually said to be “received,” later treatises portray a self-performable contemplative technique that could be enacted either by means of–or independently of–outward ritual actions. Terms that ordinarily refer to ritual acts, such as “baptism,” “immersion,” “disrobing,” “enrobing,” “stripping off,” “putting on,” “sealing,” and the like, also designate acts of mental transformation, conceptual refinement and abstraction from the world of psychic and sensible experience, abstention from previous behavioral dispositions, “unlearning” of older and adoption of new perceptions of self and world, and entrance into a higher state of enlightenment. It is natural to assume that such a mental transformation arose out of the individual experience of actual cultic and ritual praxis of a sort that could be taught and enacted either while participating in the physical setting and associated gestures of the rite or quite apart from them.[7] We do not know whether this rite was a once-for-all initiation, as it appears to be in earlier Sethian treatises, or was administered repeatedly; later treatises witness what seems to be a gradual extraction of the clearly repeatable visionary component from the baptismal setting.
In the earlier Sethian texts which portray the advent of salvation as coincident with the third and final manifestation in this world (the first two occur in primordial times)[8] of the divine mother Barbelo, she confers the gift of salvation in the form of a baptismal rite called the Five Seals. According to the so-called Gospel of the Egyptians, on the third and final descent of the heavenly Seth into the world to save his progeny (“seed”), he is equipped with a Logos-begotten body prepared for him “by the virgin” (the “male virgin” Barbelo), the Providence of the supreme deity, in order to “establish the holy baptism” (a reference to the inaugural baptism of Jesus?) and “put on” Jesus, through whose crucifixion he defeats the powers of the thirteen aeons. According to the Trimorphic Protennoia, Protennoia (Barbelo) descends for the third time as the Logos, confers the Five Seals, and finally puts on Jesus, removes him form the cross, and bears him and her seed aloft into the holy light. Similarly, the Pronoia aretalogy concluding the longer version of the Apocryphon of John (NHC II,1: 30,11-31,25) depicts the figure of Pronoia (Barbelo) as conferring the Five Seals on her third and final descent. The primary actor behind the scenes is the divine Mother Barbelo, who appears to be a higher, unfallen double of Sophia, the divine wisdom. The imagery of water, light, ascent and descent found in the Pronoia hymn and in the Trimorphic Protennoia seems heavily indebted to the Hellenized Jewish wisdom tradition.[9] These two works appear to be old, likely contemporaneous with the Johannine prologue with which they share a common vocabulary and mythological structure, suggesting an early date for these works, perhaps the early second century CE.
The Sethian text most replete with data for the reconstruction of the ritual acts that comprise Sethian baptism is the Gospel of the Egyptians (NHC III,2 and IV,1). In it, this baptism involves the begetting of the saints through invisible secret symbols, the “killing” (Coptic hôtb, IV,2: 75,3-4; III,2: 63,3-12 has hôtp, “reconciliation”) and renunciation of both the world and the “god of the thirteen aeons,” and the invoked (epiklêtoi) presence of certain of holy, ineffable beings along with the light of the Father. Although Seth is said to have appeared in the primeval world to deliver his race from the Archon’s destructive acts (the flood and conflagration), the Mother now sends him for a third time. At his appearance along with certain divine beings or angels who are to guard the incorruptible race until the consummation of the age, the “great men of the great Seth” receive a vision of various spiritual beings whose names occur repeatedly in the baptismal sections of the Sethian treatises.[10]
Evidence of ritual activity abounds in this text. In NHC III, 2: 65,26-66,8 it is said that through the incorruptible man Poimael, those “who are worthy of (the) invocation (epiklêtos), the renunciations (apotaxeis) of the Five Seals[11] in the spring-baptism will know their receivers (paralêmptores) as they are instructed about them.” In III,2 66,9-68,1 there follows a long prayer in which the baptizand praises the Living Water “Yesseus Mazareus Yessedekeus” as the eternal Jesus who truly is, the glorious name that is now upon and within him, granting him immutability and the armor of light. Stretching out his hands while yet folded, the baptizand apparently symbolically portrays the containment of the inner light or the circle of all those who have received enlightenment, and praises the man (Seth?) who raises up the man (Jesus?) in whose name the baptizand will be purified. Having received the incense of life (the Holy Spirit?), the baptizand has mixed it with “water after the model of the archons” (presumably the earthly water of his baptism), now to live with the savior in the peace of the saints.
Here one has a series of references to certain gestures and verbal performances capable of ritual enactment: renunciation, invocation, naming of holy powers, doxological prayer to the living water, receipt of incense, manual gestures, as well as baptismal immersion itself. Whether any of these acts, and if so, which ones, comprise the Five Seals is difficult to tell; certainly renunciation, invocation, and the extension of the arms were frequently part of the baptismal rite in the wider church.[12]Throughout, the use of the passive voice for ritual actions and the use of plural references to the saints begotten “through instruction” suggests a community ritual in which there were initiates and officiants, as well as a tradition of prescribed actions and declarations.
What is more, it may be that the entire Gospel of the Egyptians and not just its conclusion has a ritual or liturgical function. There are five doxologies (IV,2: 59,13-29; III,2: 49,22-50,17; 53,12-54,11; 55,16-56,3; 61,23-62,13) punctuating the completion of various stages of its cosmology, which invoke a fixed set of beings.[12] This doxological inventory has the fixity of a liturgical formula. If the term “Five Seals” originally designated a fivefold or five-stage baptismal procedure, it may be that the Gospel of the Egyptians was read aloud during the administration of each phase of the ritual: after the reading of each of the five sections of the cosmology, the baptizand might have repeated this doxology as a way of affirming the receipt of each of the Five Seals. A similar correlation between baptismal sealings and depictions of the structure and deployment of the transcendent world occurs also in Zostrianos, although there the sealings are clearly given a celestial, rather than earthly, setting.
Furthermore, in both the Gospel of the Egyptians and the Trimorphic Protennoia, the final act of salvation is the descent of Seth in the form of the Logos or of the Logos in the form of Christ, who “puts on,” that is, appears in the form of, Jesus. The salvation of Jesus implied in these two texts certainly reflects Christian influence, but of an extremely polemical sort, since rather than being the savior, Jesus becomes the one saved. In view of this Sethian Christological reinterpretation, one would characterize the present form of these two texts as reacting to rather than merely submitting to Christian influence.
The Apocalypse of Adam contains a dream vision revealed to Adam by three glorious men who narrate a third saving mission conducted by an illuminator whose origin is unknown to the evil powers. Thirteen opinions of his origins are rejected; in reality he comes from a great aeon to enlighten his elect. The illuminator experiences neither birth nor generation, nor does he receive nourishment, glory and power in the beyond and then “come (down) to the water.” The Illuminator is not first born into the world and then baptized in the waters of the Jordan, which the author or redactor regards as polluted and chaotic.[14] Instead, the Illuminator remains above in the light where he resides with the three imperishable illuminators Yesseus, Mazareus, Yessedekeus, the Living Water, and first appears in the world not at his own “birth” or baptism, but at the time he baptizes his “seed,” who receive his name on the water.[15] At some point, angelic beings will bring the truth to the earthly Sethians in a way independent of the written word of the evil creator, a truth that is communicated by a holy baptism through a logos-begotten illuminator who descends to the water during baptism. Thus there is a distinction between the holy baptism with Living Water and a baptism ordained by the creator and practiced by his servants who have polluted the water of life.
Using nomenclature reminiscent of that found in the Apocryphon of John, the Trimorphic Protennoia identifies the initiator and bringer of salvation, conferred on her third descent in the form of the Five Seals, as Protennoia or Barbelo, the First Thought of the Invisible Spirit.[16] At various points throughout the Trimorphic Protennoia, the triple descent of Protennoia and the various forms in which she appears, namely as Voice, Speech and Word, are interpreted by means of concepts which are drawn from the Sethian baptismal terminology: the Voice is said to be the unpolluted spring from which flows Living Water, characterized as radiant light.[17]
Rather than designating a fivefold immersion in the Living Water, the Five Seals are interpreted as a five-stage ritual of ascension, which serves to strip the inner spirit of its chaotic psychic and material garments and reclothe it with shining light. The spirit is invested with the robes of light, enthroned, baptized by Micheus, Michar and Mnesinous in the spring of Living Water, glorified with the Fatherhood, and raptured into the light (perhaps the Four Lights) by the servants of the Four Lights Kamaliel, [..]anen and Samblo (48, 15-35). Clearly the rapture into the light is the equivalent of the baptismal phôtismos spoke of by Justin, Cyril and other patristic authors. The five stages of this ascensional rite do not seem to follow in an intuitively obvious sequence (e.g., in 45, 13-20 one has the following sequence: glorification, enthronement, investiture, baptism and becoming Light). Indeed, since most cults practiced naked baptism, one might expect the order: baptism, investiture, enthronement, glorification and final rapture (see above, note 6).
In the concluding section of the Trimorphic Protennoia, the Five Seals are equated with the “ineffable ordinances of the Father,” taught by Protennoia to her “members,” “the brethren.” The Five Seals are said to be “complete by means of Nous.” Whoever possesses the Five Seals “of these particular names”[18] has stripped away all ignorance and darkness and has put on a shining light, permanently free from ignorance and the power of the hostile archontic forces, and experiencing a mutual indwelling with Protennoia until the time when she gathers all her members into her eternal kingdom. Here the Five Seals are connected with communicable doctrine and the ability to name and experience the presence of certain spiritual beings, a doctrine which entails the stripping away of the ignorance of common perception and the adoption (putting on) of an appropriate way of seeing things. The rite is the dramatization of this process, and the Sethian myth its narratization. The fact that this text refers to the recipients of the baptismal ascent ritual in the first person plural and as “brethren” suggests a (Sethian) community with a well-established tradition of water baptism that has been conceived as a mystery of celestial ascent, and which brings Gnosis (NHC XIII,1: 48,33-34) and total salvation.
In many ways, the Sethian text that most abounds with baptismal imagery is Zostrianos, although the extant remains do not mention the Five Seals, and the imagery has been divorced from any actual water rite. Throughout the first sixty or so pages, it seems that Zostrianos is baptized at least twenty times in the course of his ascent, once at the airy earth (the atmosphere below the moon), seven times in the copies of the aeons (the planetary spheres), once in the Transmigration (paroikêsis, probably the sphere of the fixed stars), and four times in the Repentance (once for each of the Four Lights), for a subtotal of thirteen. At the level of the Self-begotten Ones he is baptized four times by the traditional Sethian baptizers and purifiers, each time standing as an angel upon the level of each of the Four Lights, and again for a fifth time at the level of Autogenes, where he becomes divine and enters the aeon of Barbelo. In a further baptism at the level of the Triple Male Child, he becomes truly existing, and lastly, it seems that he is baptized once again at the level of Protophanes, where he becomes perfect, for a subtotal of seven, and a grand total of some twenty or more baptisms, washings and sealings. Although the fragmentary state of the text precludes certainty on the total number of baptisms or their precise significance, here baptism here has become interpreted as a metaphor for the process by which a visionary becomes assimilated to the being and nature of each level of the transcendent realm to which he ascends.
    Zostrianos portrays a visionary and auditory experience which has no explicit ritual setting. Terms which may once have had a ritual reference now serve only as means to articulate the various stages of a visionary ascent. Celestial baptisms denote stages of increasing spiritual enlightenment, while the earthly experience of the non-spiritual mass of humanity is regarded as a “baptism with death” (NHC VIII,1: 131,2). Perhaps Zostrianos lies at the terminus of a process of development in which a traditional practice of visionary ascent that originally arose in the context of Sethian baptismal practice as it is reflected in the Apocryphon of John, the Trimorphic Protennoia, and the Gospel of the Egyptians was subsequently transformed from an original practice of water baptism into a self-contained and self-performable contemplative practice engaged in either by lone individuals or by groups (as the Three Steles of Seth, NHC VII,5: 126,31-127,22 makes clear). Perhaps it is merely a later expression of an original but alternative trajectory of visionary practices that developed alongside but independently of the Sethian communal water rites. Knowledge of the nature of the Sethian encounter with both Platonism and Christian forms of gnostic Sethianism would certainly help to resolve this puzzle.
As an immersion in water, baptism may also have a negative connotation, especially when it signifies immersion in materiality, symbolized by the chaotic waters underlying the natural cosmos. Gnostics applied this negative connotation to what they considered to be the lower baptism undergone by non-Gnostic Christians. Like the Apocalypse of Adam (NHC V, 5: 84,4-85,30) and Zostrianos (NHC VIII,1: 131,2-5), the Paraphrase of Shem (NHC VII, 1: 30,21-27; 37,19-38,6) speaks also of an impure baptism in a dark water that enslaves, evidently a polemic against ordinary water baptism. The Archontics, whom Epiphanius (Panarion 40.2.6-8) presents as an offshoot of the Sethians, reject completely the baptism and sacraments of the Church as deriving from the inferior law-giver Sabaoth; to shun baptism is to enhance the prospect of acquiring of the gnosis enabling their return to the Mother-Father of the All.

Valentinian Baptism

The patristic accounts of the Valentinian baptismal practices agree on three basic features of Valentinian baptismal practice.[19] The first is the presence of two separate baptisms among the Valentinians. The “psychics” had access the “normal” Christian one, while the “pneumatics” could gain closer contact with the divine by second rite which Irenaeus and Hippolytus called the “redemption.” Rather than devaluing the standard, psychic baptism, as Irenaeus thinks, both the Nag Hammadi sources and patristic sources, such as Clement of Alexandria’s Excerpta ex Theodoto, demonstrate great concern for the psychics. Secondly, patristic accounts all agree that these rituals were salvific sacraments, and thirdly, they associate baptism (perhaps both baptisms) with the remission of sins. The Excerpta ex Theodoto (76-86) characterize the first, water baptism as a “sealing” done in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, which gives psychic Christians power over sin, allowing them to be reborn, control the impure spirits, and gain entry to the marriage feast in the End Times. Baptism affords access to saving knowledge, as Excerpta ex Theodoto 78 states:

Until baptism, they say, Fate is effective, but after it the astrologers no longer speak the truth. It is not the washing alone that makes us free, but also the knowledge of who we were, what we have we become, where we were, into what place we have we been cast, whither we are hastening, from what we are delivered, what birth is, and what rebirth.

According to Hippolytus, (Refutatio VI,41), Marcus taught that a second washing or baptism, called the “redemption” (apolutrôsis), was available to Christians through him. It normally required special and extensive instructions beforehand, but a bishop could also administer it to those who were on their deathbed. Anyone undergoing the rite of redemption belonged to “the perfect power and inconceivable authority,” and was no longer affected by sin. According to Irenaeus (Haereses I, 21.2), psychic baptism is said to have been inaugurated by John the Baptist with a view to repentance, and instituted by the visible Jesus for the remission of sins. Redemption, on the other hand was brought by Christ descending on Jesus, with a view to perfection; this is another instance of the widespread Gnostic adoption of the traditions about Jesus’ inaugural baptism, in which he sees the heavens opened, and receives both the Spirit and adoption as Son of God. Hippolytus (Refutatio VI, 35.5) attests that the Italian Valentinians considered Jesus’ body to be psychic, but made pneumatic and raised from the dead at his baptism by the Spirit, said to be the Logos of his mother Sophia. As in the Sethian treatises, traditions about the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus at his baptism justify the distinction; indeed Irenaeus speaks of the Valentinian tendency to gather gospel allusions (e.g. Lk 12:50; Mat 20:20) to support the necessity of another baptism. The remission of sins is linked to baptism, and thence to repentance, the psychics, and the ministries of John and the visible Jesus. Redemption, on the other hand, is linked to pneumatics, perfection, and Christ descending on Jesus.
According to the Clement of Alexandria’s Excerpta ex Theodoto (22.1), the male angelic counterparts of Valentinian Christians are themselves baptized through the redemption of the same name which descended to redeem Jesus at his own baptism. These angels are baptized “for the dead,” that is, for the earthly Valentinians, imparting to them the name of the son by which they are enabled to pass through the Limit into the Pleroma. The imposition of hands, apparently in connection with the baptismal rite, confers the angelic redemption, tantamount to being baptized in the same name as was one’s angelic counterpart.
For the Tripartite Tractate (NHC I,5: 127,25), Valentinian baptism is equivalent to the redemption, the second baptism (the baptism “in the fullest sense” as opposed to “the baptism which we previously mentioned”). Redemption occurs when one confesses faith in the names of the Trinity and is equivalent to entering a state of tranquillity, enlightenment and immortality; it is the bridal chamber. It is the ritual which above all others that functioned as the seal of the union between the author’s community and the Father, who grants knowledge of himself in exchange for the believer’s confession of faith.
According to the Gospel of Philip, becoming perfect by acquiring the spiritual resurrection while yet on earth enables Christians to bypass post-mortem suffering in the Middle (mesotês) and proceed directly to the Father and his rest. Such perfection is enabled by no less than five sacraments.[20] In baptism, one strips off the old self and puts on a spiritual body; the chrism confers the Holy Spirit, creating the spiritual or pneumatic person; the eucharist does the same, except using the symbols of bread and a cup of wine mixed with water, probably on a repeated basis. The redemption seems to be an oil rite, perhaps a sort of confession or extreme unction (like the Mandaean Masiqta), or perhaps a post-baptismal chrismation as was customary in the western (but not Syrian) church. The bridal chamber seems to be a proleptic enactment of one’s final entrance into the Pleroma, perhaps symbolized by a ritual kiss (cf. the kiss of peace in the Apostolic Constitutions and the ritual handshake [ku[sinvcircumflex]ta] in the Mandaean Mabuta).
The Gospel of Philip (NHC II,3: 67,28-30) names these five sacraments, evidently in order of importance, although their distinctiveness is often blurred, perhaps because they are understood as being all interdependent. As Meeks observes, it illustrates the tendency of motifs originally connected with baptism to become distinct rituals, as the mythical context of these motifs also becomes more elaborate.[21] Thus, while the receiving of the garment or body of light is still connected with baptism in some of the sayings in the Gospel of Philip (75,21-24, cf. 76,25-30), in others the clothing with light is effected by the chrism (74,12-22) or the bridal chamber (78,5-9). These rites are arranged in an ascending order (69,14-29), e.g. the chrism is superior to the baptism (74,12-13), yet baptism can include redemption (69,25-26), and chrism the eucharist (74,36-75,11), although the supreme rite is the bridal chamber (64,31-70,22).[22] Because of this overlapping, it is really impossible to tell whether these were enacted separately, or in combination.
It seems likely that the first three rites (baptism, chrism, and eucharist, perhaps unrepeatable) were included in same initiation ceremony, while the redemption and bridal chamber constituted a sort of second baptism (cf. 75,1-2), and were capable of repetition. According to Desjardins,[23]

Baptism, reinforced by chrism (the “second baptism” done with olive oil–73,17-18), actually provides immortality. In these two rites, purification occurs visibly through water and invisibly through fire and light (57,22-28). Jesus has purified and perfected the water at baptism (77,7-9) and God has “dyed it” (63,25-30), yet it is still possible for someone to emerge from the water baptism without having received the Holy Spirit 64,22-31). So, “it is fitting to baptize in the two, in the light and the water. Now the light is the chrism” (69,11-13). This dual baptism provides the resurrection (69,25-26) and perfection: “He who has been anointed possesses everything. He possesses the resurrection, the light, the cross, the Holy Spirit; the Father gave him this in the bridal chamber” (74,18-22). In turn, this resurrection requires a spiritual flesh, which the eucharist provides (56,26-57,22; cf. also 75,14-24).

According to 69,14-70,4, just as the Jerusalem temple supposedly consisted of a succession of enclosing chambers, the Holy enclosing the Holy of the Holy which in turn encloses the Holy of the Holies, so also baptism includes the resurrection and the redemption, which latter occurs in the bridal chamber. In turn, this resurrection requires a spiritual flesh, which the eucharist provides (56,26-57,22; cf. 75,14-24).
In agreement with he Gospel of Philip, the liturgical supplements to A Valentinian Exposition (esp. 41,21-38) clearly distinguish a second baptism differing from the ordinary Christian baptism, though it does not describe it. Like the Gospel of Philip, A Valentinian Exposition understands the first baptism as the forgiveness of sins, but whose effect seems to be the same as the “redemption” or second baptism described in patristic sources: it elevates the recipient out of the world into the aeon. In both treatises the first baptism seems to be connected with an anointing and a eucharist, although the significance of the latter seems to be attenuated. In the Gospel of Philip, which seems to refer to the rites of redemption and bridal chamber as a sort of second baptism, the chrism becomes the central part of the baptismal rite, overshadowing the eucharist altogether.
Just the treatise Zostrianos portrays Sethian practice of visionary ascent as a series of baptisms, washings and sealings, the Gospel of Philip (69,4-14) draws an explicit connection not only between vision and baptism, but also vision and the chrism, and further associates both with rebirth and the restoration to the condition of the primal androgyne: “Through the holy spirit we are indeed begotten again, but we are begotten through Christ in the two. We are anointed through the spirit. When we were begotten we were united. None can see himself either in water or in a mirror without light. Nor again can you see in light without water or mirror. For this reason it is fitting to baptize in the two, in the light and the water. Now the light is the chrism.”

Other Testimony concerning Gnostic Baptism

Many other Gnostic groups practiced baptism. According to Irenaeus (Adversus Haereses I, 23.5), Menander’s disciples were baptized into his own name, receiving resurrection in the form of aglessness and physical immortality. According to Clement of Alexandria (Stromateis I, 21.146,1-4), the disciples of Basilides calculated the date of Jesus’ baptism, on which they celebrated on the fifteenth of Tybi (January 6) by spending the previous night in scripture readings; it is possible that this sect witnesses the first known instance of a 365 day lectionary year that began with the Epiphany celebration of Jesus’ baptismal enlightenment (phôtismos) at the Jordan.[24] The Naasenes (Hippolytus, Refutatio V, 7.19 7.40; 9.18) understood baptism as a spiritual birth (“from water and the spirit,” Jn 3:5) and entrance into immortality through Jesus the “true gate” (cf. Jn 10:9); it included washing in “living water” (the water above the firmament) and an anointing from a horn “at the third gate.”[25] The gnostic Justin’s book of Baruch (apud Hippolytus Refutatio V, 27.1-4) distinguishes between the water below the firmament belonging to the evil creation and the springing well of living water above the firmament belonging to the Good one; only pneumatic persons drink of, that is wash in, the latter, while the psychic and material wash in the former. Here the sapiental metaphor of drinking from the water of wisdom is interpreted as baptism,[26] yet one notes again the strong distinction between ordinary Christian baptism and pneumatic baptism as expressed in the dual baptism of the Valentinians and the harsh polemic against water baptism in the Apocalypse of Adam (NHC V,5: 84,4-85,30; cf. Zostrianos, NHC VIII,1: 131,2-5). In the second Book of Jeu (chs. 45-52) one finds a most elaborate baptismal rite that affords entry into the Treasury of Light. In a ritual setting featuring a table set with bread, pitchers of wine and water, herbs, and incense, the disciples of Jesus don linen robes and myrtle crowns to receive a sequence of three baptisms (in living water, fire, and the Holy Spirit) in which they acquire certain ciphers and names as “seals” allowing them to ascend through the aeons. Unfortunately, the manuscript ends before Jesus reveals the great “mystery of the forgiveness of sins” required for ultimate entrance into the Treasury of Light.
Simonian Gnosticism illustrates the central role of the ritual recovery of the androgynous image (here called the undifferentiated “root” power, Hippolytus, Refutatio VI, 18.2, 18.4). The separation and reunion of the male and female elements in mankind underlies the legend of Simon and his consort Helen which was already known before the time of Justin Martyr.[27] The late Apophasis Megale quoted by Hippolytus (Refutatio V, 17.1)suggests that it may have taken the form of a baptismal ritual:

According to Simon, then, that blessed and incorruptible being lies hidden in every being potentially (dunamei), not actually (energeia); that is he who stands, took his stand, and will stand (ho hestôs, stas, stêsomenos): who stands on high in the unbegotten power, who took his stand below in the chaos of waters when he was begotten in an image (eikôn), who will stand on high with the blessed infinite power if he be fully formed (exeikonisthêi). For, he says, there are three that stand, the [un]originate being, who (they say hovers over the water [cf. 6.14.4], is not set in order, the perfect heavenly being who is recreated according to the likeness, who becomes in no respect inferior to the unoriginate power. This is the meaning of their saying, ‘I and thou are one, thou art before me, and I am after thee.’ This, he says, is one power, divided as being above (as infinite) and below (as logos?), self-generating, … its own mother, its own father, its own sister, its own consort, its own daughter, its own son,… unity, the root of all things.

Being (re)-formed in the image, equated with “being begotten” and occurring “in the stream of waters,” suggests a cultic act like baptism, as in Excerpta ex Theodoto 68: “As long as we were children of the female only, as of a dishonorable union, we were incomplete, childish, without understanding, weak, and without form, brought forth like abortions, in short, we were children of the woman (i.e., Sophia). But having been given form (morphôthentas) by the Savior, we are the children of the man (husband) and of the bride-chamber.”[28] In fact, Hippolytus (Refutatio VI, 19.5) says the Simonians called a rite of apparent sexual promiscuity in imitation of Simon (and Helen) “the holy of holies,” the same metaphor used for the rite of the bridal chamber in Gospel of Philip 69,14-70,4. It therefore likely that the Simonians possessed rituals analogous to the Valentinian baptism and bridal chamber, which might account for the report in pseudo-Clement (Homilies 2, 23-24) that Simon was a disciple of John the Baptist.
A striking parallel to the Simonian legend is the myth of the soul’s abuse, transformation, and joining to her heavenly “bridegroom” found in the Nag Hammadi treatise the Exegesis on the Soul, which seems to have Simonian affinities. It regards what seems to be the vehicle of the soul as its womb, surrounding it as a dirty and polluted garment (cf. esp. NHC II,6: 131,13-132,2). The restoration of the soul’s former nature, which it possessed before it had fallen into the body and prostituted itself to the materialistic life, is called the baptism of the soul; the “womb of the soul” is on the outside like male genitals until purified by baptism, when it is “turned inward” to regain the freshness of its former nature.[29]
Among the Sethians, Simonians, and especially the Valentinians, the sacramental means of restoring the androgynous wholeness of the inner person through ritual acts centered on baptism presupposes a cultic community with a strong sense of corporate identity. In other gnostic circles, however, the same quest and its mythical justification could be focused exclusively upon a subjective transformation of consciousness leading away from sect formation and toward a radical isolation of the individual. Within Sethianism, the exclusive concentration on the singular experience of an individual visionary like Allogenes or Zostrianos or Marsanes in the Platonizing Sethian treatises might lend itself to such a development, although the Three Steles of Seth, apart from Seth’s initial praise of his father Geradamas, is explicitly cast in the first person plural as a communal exercise in contemplative ascent.
The trend towards individual isolation is evident in the Gospel of Thomas and in the encratite Christianity of eastern Syria, where most scholars locate the Thomas tradition. The theme of “making the two one” in the Gospel of Thomas likely derives from baptismal liturgies, particularly Syrian ones.[30] But its ideal of “singleness,” expressed in the Coptic oua ouwt or the Greek monachos, signifies celibacy and isolation from society. Indeed, the Hag Hammadi Testimony of Truth (esp. 69,8-24) specifies that true baptism is the renunciation of the world, rather than a the ritual sealing of one entering the faith administered by the (defiled!) fathers of the world: the Son of Man baptized no disciples.

Jesus’ Inaugural Baptism as a Paradigm for Visionary Enlightenment

The baptismal lore of many of the foregoing groups, especially the Sethians and those associated with Valentinus and Basilides, make a good deal out of the traditions of Jesus’ inaugural baptism.[31] Within the NT, visionary experience is connected not only with heavenly ascensions, but also with baptism, especially the inaugural baptism of Jesus; outside the NT, it is also connected with the manifestation of light (e.g., frg. 4 of the Gospel of the Ebionites, Epiphanius, Panarion 30.13.7; Justin, Dialogue with Trypho 88.3 [fire]). The widespread attestation of this phenomenon suggests that the feast of Epiphany originally celebrated the incarnation in context of Jesus’ baptism rather than his virginal birth; unlike the passion, this was an event that could be shared by almost all Christians, including Gnostic Christians.
As we have seen, with its awesome associations with death and rebirth, baptism becomes a principal occasion for visionary experience. A notable instance is the baptismal vision of king Gundaphorus in the Acts of Thomas. According to the Syriac version (20), when the baptismal party enters the bathhouse, Jesus appears, but only his voice was heard “since they had not yet been baptized.” After the initial anointing, the invocation of the Name and the Spirit, and baptism proper, as the participants were emerging from the water, there appeared a luminous youth carrying a blazing torch whose light overpowers the illumination afforded by the many oil lamps illuminating the proceedings. The Greek version (26-27) does not explicitly mention the baptism proper: during the night, before the anointing and baptism of Gundaphorus, the participants received an audition from the Lord, but not a vision “not having received the added sealing of the seal.” When Gundaphorus receives the chrism in oil, Christ, the Holy Spirit, Wisdom and the five rational faculties are invoked, whereupon the Lord appears briefly as a luminous youth with a burning torch. In both versions, upon daybreak, after the candidate was again clothed, the apostle celebrated the eucharist. The Syriac version makes it clear that the occasion was the nocturnal baptism of Gundaphorus, and that the audition came prior to baptism, while the vision of the Lord occurred immediately upon their emergence from the water.[32]


Investiture typically follows upon naked baptism. The metaphor of replacing an old garment with a new one, which occurs repeatedly in Gnostic baptismal contexts, can signify several religious acts: a shift from a life of vice to one of virtue, religious conversion, a change of life-style, and initiation, where it signifies the death and rebirth of the initiate and assimilation of divine power.[33] In baptismal contexts, the garment that is discarded (cf. the “garments of skin,” Gen 3:21) signifies the physical body, while donning the “robe of light” signifies the restoration of the lost Image of God.[34]
The “Paraphrase of Seth,” which Hippolytus (Refutatio V, 19.22) attributes to the Sethians, understands baptism as washing in and drinking from a cup of living, springing water by which the believer, like the savior, puts on the form of a servant, escapes earthy ties and is reclothed with a heavenly garment.
The Trimorphic Protennoia also applies the motif of putting on garments to the savior’s salvific descent. On her third descent as the divine Logos, when Protennoia reveals herself to her members in human likeness (“in their tents,” NHC XIII,1: 47,13-25; cf. Jn 1: 9-4), she makes herself invisible to and unrecognized by all the celestial powers by wearing their “garments” until she reveals herself to her brethren by conferring the Five Seals. Similarly in the Gospel of the Egyptians (NHC III,2: 63,23-64,3), Pronoia causes Seth to establish the holy baptism of the Five Seals through a “logos-begotten” body, Jesus the living one, whom Seth put on. To be compared is the depiction of the descent of the initially unrecognized Logos in Johannine prologue, which may have arisen in a baptismal context.
Likewise, in the Second Treatise of the Great Seth (NHC VII,2: 56,20-59,18), the revealer undergoes an incognito descent (changing his likeness at each cosmic level), his “third baptism in a revealed image,” in which he appears in the form of Jesus in order to defeat the cosmic powers through their ignorant attempt to crucify him. The Docetics (according to Hippolytus, Refutatio VIII, 10.6-8) considered Jesus to have two bodies, his fleshly body acquired through his human parent Mary, and another body, received at his baptism in the Jordan as the type of the former; the former body was nailed to the cross, deceiving the archons and powers, yet his nakedness was covered by his baptismal body, perhaps to be understood as an ethereal garment or subtle body rather like the vehicle (ochêma) of the soul. Even the Gospel of Truth (20,28-28) proclaims that Jesus, although clothed with eternal life, died on the cross, nevertheless stripped himself of the “perishable rags,” put on imperishability, and ascended to heaven, invulnerable to the powers stripped naked by forgetfulness.
Putting on clothes appropriate to the cosmic level one occupies so as to make one invulnerable or invisible to the powers applies not only to the descending revealer, but also to an enlightened being as it ascends into the aeonic world. A fine example is the royal garment sent to the revealer in the “Hymn of the Pearl” (Acts of Thomas 108-113). The new garment is often so luminous and brilliant that it blinds the cosmic powers that oppose the soul’s ascent (Pistis Sophia ch. 59 [p. 74 Schmidt]). According to the Gospel of Philip (58,15-16; 70,5-9; 76,22-28), in the union of the bridal chamber, one sacramentally acquires a garment of light that makes one invisible to the hostile powers; unlike earthly garments, such heavenly garments put on “by water and fire” (baptism and chrism) are better than those who put them on (57, 19-23. In Allogenes (NHC XI,3: 50,10-34; 58,26-37), the metaphor of changing clothes is applied to Allogenes ecstatic removal from the fleshly (and psychic?) garment of ignorance and investiture with a “great power,” enabling him to know things unknown to the multitude and obtain a vision of the Luminaries of the Aeon of Barbelo. A non-Sethian example of stripping and reclothing in the context of an ascent is offered by the Authoritative Teaching (NHC VI,3: 31,24-64,3), where the soul, come to her senses, strips off this world, replacing it with her true garment, her bridal clothing, in which she enters the fold and unites with her true shepherd.
Alongside the metaphor of being invested with a new garment, one sometimes finds the royal image of being crowned. In Zostrianos (NHC VIII,1: 129,12-16; cf. 57,13-24), when Zostrianos descends from the Kalyptos the Protophanes level in the Aeon of Barbelo, he joins “those who are unified” blesses the higher powers, becomes panteleios, is written in glory, sealed, and receives a perfect crown. In chapters 11 and 12 of the untitled text of the Bruce Codex, Setheus, by means of a logos dêmiourgikos (i.e. Christ), sends forth ray-emitting crowns, which are awarded to believers; they are crowned with a seal of glory on the right and a triple-powered fount (pêgê) in their midst. In a non-ritual context, the royal image of investiture, coronation and enthronement occur side-by-side in the Teachings of Silvanus (NHC VII,4: 87,11-13; 89,10-34; 112,10-27), where one is urged to put on the shining robe of wisdom and holy teaching, the crown of Paideia, and sit on the throne of perception; those who contend well will gain dominion, unlike the fools, who are invested with folly, crowned with ignorance and sit on the throne of nescience.


The Sethians

Although the Sethians do not appear to have had a ritual of chrismation, they used the term as a metaphor in two basic contexts. The first is that of the anointing of the third member of the Sethian Trinity of Father, Mother and Son with the “goodness” (chrêstia, a pun on christos and chrisma) of the Father, the Invisible Spirit immediately after his conception by the Mother Barbelo, found in the Apocryphon of John (NHC II,1: 6,23-26 and parallels), the Gospel of the Egyptians (NHC III,2: 44,22-24), and the Trimorphic Protennoia (NHC XIII,1: 37,30-35). This is probably based on an interpretation of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ baptism, when he is established as Son of God. The second occurs in the conclusion of Eleleth’s revelation to Norea, wife-sister of Seth in the Hypostasis of the Archons (NHC II,4: 97,1-5), where it is promised that the Father will send the “true man,” probably Seth, within three generations to anoint the souls of his progeny, the undominated generation, with the unction of eternal life.

Valentinian Chrismation

The relation of the Valentinian chrism to the baptismal rite has been discussed above. The Gospel of Philip (57,22-28; 67,2-9; 69,5-14; 78,1-10; 85,21-86,18) understands the chrism as fire, in the sense of intense light which gives form and beauty. One is begotten again (reborn) by baptism in water and anointing with the chrism through the Holy Spirit as a sort of “baptism” in light. It seems that this is the same light that is kindled in the bridal chamber. The doxology of A Valentinian Exposition (XI, 2A: 40,1-29 refers to the Valentinian rite of anointing, which was performed either before the first baptism or simultaneously with it, enabling the recipient to overcome the power of the devil, who dominates the flesh and struggles against God.
Marcus (Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses 1.21.5) also practiced a rite of unction by pouring ointment or a mixture water and oil of balsam upon the heads of his flock, which had the effect of making one invulnerable to the powers and authorities, allowing the inner man to ascend to the invisible by sloughing off the soul (to be delivered to the Demiurge), and the body (to be left behind on earth). Evidently some Valentinians perform the unction in connection with baptism, while others claim that going to the water is unnecessary. Irenaeus calls this casting away of the chain of the soul the redemption. Epiphanius (Panarion 36.2.4-8) adds that the followers of Heracleon perform this unction upon the dying so that the “inner man” of those who receive it will become invisible to and untouchable by the principalities and authorities on high as they ascend, leaving the body on earth and consigning the soul to the Demiurge. The inner man, a son of the pre-existent Father, appeals to the motherless mother Sophia, the mother of Achamoth, as its source, while the inferior powers and the Demiurge know nothing higher than Achamoth, a female created from a female.


The Valentinian Eucharist

In the Gospel of Philip (NHC II,3: 75,15-24), it is said that the eucharistic cup of water and wine contains the Holy Spirit; to drink it conveys the perfect man; in 53,21-24, the eucharist is identified with the crucified Jesus (who brought bread from heaven, 55,6-15), which may explain why this rite seems underplayed in the Gospel of Philip (e.g., 74,1-2). In the act of baptism, the living water is a body that replaces the body stripped off in the act of pre-baptismal disrobing.
The Valentinian Marcus (Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses I, 13.1-5 ) celebrated a eucharist with a cup mixed with a wine that was understood to be the purple and red blood of Grace and was repeatedly administered in large doses to wealthy women, making them deranged. Moreover, Marcus is said to have proclaimed himself to be this Grace as well as the bridegroom whose luminous seed a woman, as bride, is to receive “in her bridal chamber” in order to enter together with him into the One. Women are induced to acts of prophesy by being allowed to babble nonsense spontaneously, supposedly repaying this gift of prophesy by granting their possessions and bodies to Marcus.

Other Instances of the Eucharist: Ophites, Carpocratians, and Borborites

Epiphanius (Panarion 37.5,6-7) describes a curious ritual meal practiced by the Ophites in which they worship a snake (Irenaeus says they identified the paradisical snake with the Devil!) as a royal source of knowledge by offering it bread:

For they have an actual snake, and keep it in a sort of basket. When it is time for their mysteries they bring it out of the den, spread loaves around on a table, and call the snake to come; and when the den is opened it comes out. And then the snake …crawls onto the table and coils up on the loaves. And this is what they call a perfect sacrifice. And so, someone has told me, not only do they break the loaves the snake has coiled on and distribute them to the recipients, but they each kiss the snake besides … and they offer a hymn to the Father on high-again, as they say, through the snake–and so conclude their mysteries.

Finally, Clement of Alexandria (Stromateis III, 2.10.1) reports that the Carpocratians celebrate an apparently nocturnal common meal that he calls a “love feast,” after which they extinguish the lamps and command the women present to engage in sexual intercourse as a divine duty. Epiphanius reports similar activity on the part of the Borborites, whom he connects with the Sethians (see below on sexual sacramentalism); in particular, he mentions two communal meals of theirs: a eucharist consisting of offering up and consuming menstrual blood and spent semen withheld from intercourse as the blood and body of Christ, and a Passover meal devoted to the consumption of a mangled fetus extracted from any woman who accidentally happens to become pregnant during such sexual exchange (Panarion 26.4.5-5.6).


The metaphor of marriage and the bridal chamber in Gnostic usage can refer both to the experience of spiritual reunification as well as to overtly sexual union. In either case, the underlying myth is that of the recreation of the primal androgyne through the union of male and female, whether that be taken as man and woman, intellect and soul, or the earthly seed and its angelic counterpart. As enlightened beings, the Gnostics generally considered themselves alone capable of understanding the true significance of sexual union, considering the non-Gnostic as worldly and animalistic, experiencing not love, but only lust: “A bridal chamber is not for the animals, nor is it for the slaves, nor for defiled women; but it is for free men and virgins” (Gospel of Philip 69,1-3; cf. Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses I 6.3; Excerpta ex Theodoto 68). While the question of Gnostic sexual practices will be discussed under the heading of sexual sacramentalism, here I want to comment on its use as a metaphor for spiritual unification.[35]
The application of the concept of human marriage to the achievement of unity with a transcendent reality is frequent in classical Judaism, where God is the husband of his bride Israel; the metaphor of marriage also appears in the New Testament, not only where Jesus refers to himself as the bridegroom, but especially in the Pauline corpus (1 Cor 6:15-17, 2 Cor 11:1-2; Eph 5:22-23) as a symbol for the relation of Christ and the Church. Although Christian Gnostics likewise draw on these biblical concepts, uppermost in their minds as well as those of Jewish Gnostics was the notion of the primordial unity of humankind as expressed in Gen 1:26-27, according to which Adam was created as a single masculofeminine being in the image of God.
The primordial sin or fault underlying human existence that had to be overcome was the creator’s ignorant act of separating this originally androgynous into separate male and female persons. In the act of physical union, the offspring was thought to receive the human form from the male, while its physical and emotional essence was provided by the female. The same held for the spiritual world as well; spiritual perfection lay in androgyny, so when a spiritual being such as Sophia undertakes to produce offspring without a male consort, the result is defective, a formless abortion lacking the male element of form. This being the character of her offspring, both her son, creator of the natural world, and his cosmic product are likewise defective. The rectification of the creation depends on introducing into it a potential source of its reunification.
The Sethian myth conceives this to be accomplished when the image of God (Adamas), the original human androgyne, is primordially projected as the archetype upon which the creator unwittingly bases his own human copy. Once he realizes that his androgynous copy is superior to him, he splits it into male and female, but it is too late. In spite of the creator’s attempts to subvert the primal couple, by reuniting themselves they can now recreate their original androgyny, which they do in the birth of Seth, the “other seed.” Like the divine Adamas, he is a true (“triple,” i.e., androgynous) male Child, as is the “immovable race” he engenders.
While a few Gnostic groups such as the late Sethian Borborites sought to replicate this primeval union through non-reproductive sexual union, most, like the earlier Sethians eschewed sexual union, which the they considered to typify the adulterous race of Cain. One might therefore effect a symbolic union on the transcendent plane through ritual means, the Sethians through baptismal ascension, and the Valentinians by an eschatological sacred marriage, the bridal chamber.[36] In the latter act, recourse was had not only to the myth of the primal androgyne and the NT notions of the marriage of Christ and the church, but also to Neo-Pythagorean speculation on the properties of unity.[37]
In the Valentinian view, having abandoned her male consort, Sophia’s ultimate human offspring from Adam and Eve onward, both males and females, were regarded as weak female seed lacking the element of form which could only be restored by an ascent to the Pleroma and marriage with the male angels which the savior had prepared for them. In this way they could eternally enjoy the harmonious syzygetic union experienced by all the undescended aeons there. As in the metaphysics of the Platonic psychology of the individual, every human was a split personality. One’s higher rational, active–and thus masculine–aspect of the self, had been primordially sundered from one’s emotional, passional, receptive, and thus essentially feminine aspect of the self. The natural link with the divine world, the intellect or highest part of the soul was still resident in the transcendent world, although cut off from the soul and body now that formed one’s link with the everyday physical world. The goal of life was therefore to recover this lost unity, which would involve detaching a soul overly enamored of its bodily vehicle from the body, or detaching the rational part of the soul from its irrational and impassioned psychic vehicle, so as to effect its reunion with the higher intelligence.
For the Gnostics who appropriated such views, the reunion of the psyche with one’s intellect was thus tantamount to coming together in an act of marriage, whether enacted through contemplative union, symbolic rites, or actual physical union. The following Valentinian citations make the point clear:

As long as we were children of the female only, as of a dishonorable union, we were incomplete, childish, without understanding, weak, and without form, brought forth like abortions, in short, we were children of the woman. But having been given form by the Savior, we are the children of the man (husband) and of the bride-chamber (Excerpta ex Theodoto 68). If the woman had not separated from the man, she would not die with the man. His separation became the beginning of death. Because of this Christ came to repair the separation which was from the beginning and again unite the two, and to give life to those who died as a result of the separation and unite them. But the woman is united to her husband in the bridal chamber. Indeed those who have united in the bridal chamber will no longer be separated. Thus Eve separated from Adam because it was not in the bridal chamber that she united with him (Gospel of Philip 70,9-22).

In the Exegesis on the Soul (NHC II,6: 132,2-133,9), which seems to have certain Simonian affinities, the restoration of the helpless female soul wallowing apart from her spiritual home in the brothels of materiality is effected by the advent of the marriage of the female soul with her intellectual masculine counterpart, her true husband. The reunification of the irrational, passionate aspect of the soul with her celestial, intellectual component as her true husband and master, from whom physical embodiment has separated her, is interpreted as a reversal of the primordial separation of Eve from Adam in the Garden of Eden: “They will become a single flesh” (Gen 2:24, 3:16; cf. 1 Cor 6:15, 11:1; Eph 5:23). The Testimony of Truth (NHC IX,3: 31,24-32,16; 34,32-35,23), which also seems to have certain Simonian affinities, likewise uses the imagery of the soul as the bride who strips off this world and learns from the evangelists about the inscrutable One, adorning herself for this her true shepherd with her bridal clothing “in beauty of mind,” whereupon:

She found her rising. She came to rest in him who is at rest. She reclined in the bride-chamber. She ate of the banquet for which she had hungered. She partook of the immortal food. She found what she had sought after. She received rest from her labors (NHC IX,3: 35,8-16).

The image of entrance into the bridal chamber and receipt of the new, imperishable wedding robe occurs also in the Second Treatise of the Great Seth (NHC VII,2: 57,7-58,4) as a metaphor for the soul’s receipt of Intellect and entry into the heavens. It is called a “mystery” effected by the revealer’s incognito descent (changing his likeness at each cosmic level), his “third baptism in a revealed image,” to defeat the cosmic powers through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.

The Valentinian Mystery of the Bridal Chamber

Of course, it was the Valentinians who made the most extensive use of the metaphor of marriage as a designation for the eschatological reunion of the Savior Jesus with Sophia and of her spiritual seed with the male angels of the Savior:[38]

When the whole seed is perfected, then, they say, will the mother, Achamoth leave the place of the Middle, enter into the Pleroma, and receive her bridegroom, the Savior, who came into being from all (the aeons), with result that the Savior and Sophia, who is Achamoth, form a pair (syzygy These then are said to be bridegroom and bride, but the bridal chamber is the entire Pleroma. The spiritual beings will divest themselves of their souls and become intelligent spirits, and, without being hindered or seen, they will enter into the Pleroma, and will be bestowed as brides on the angels around the Savior. The Demiurge passes into the place of his mother Sophia, that is, into the Middle. The souls of the righteous will also repose in the place of the Middle, for nothing psychic enters the Pleroma. When this has taken place, then (they assert) the fire that is hidden in the world will blaze forth and burn: when it has consumed all matter it will be consumed with it and pass into non-existence. According to them the Demiurge knew none of these things before the advent of the Savior (Ptolemaeus, apud Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses I, 1.7.1; cf. Excerpta ex Theodoto 63-65).

The Savior and Sophia are interpreted as the bridegroom and bride, and the place of their union is the “bridal chamber,” the divine realm of the Pleroma of spiritual aeons. Thus the Pauline metaphors of the Church as bride and Christ as bridegroom are combined with the story of the fall and restoration of Wisdom, the cosmic soul, and the restoration of the individual psychic beings created by her. As Christians, the Valentinians maintained the Christian rites of baptism, eucharist, and the chrism, but seem to have developed their own ritual enactment of their expected eschatological marriage to their celestial angelic counterparts.
In Adversus Haereses I, 13.1-21.5, Irenaeus describes some of the Valentinian rituals known to him. In so doing he polemically contrasts the disagreement among the Gnostics with the supposed unified practice of his own church. They include a mystic rite with certain invocations designed to effect a spiritual marriage, mirroring the syzygetic union of the pleromatic aeons, in a bridal chamber prepared beforehand. Others perform a water baptism in the name of the Father of All, Truth the Mother of All, and the Christ who descended on Jesus. Some utilize Hebrew invocations of Achamoth to effect redemption as a communion with the pleromatic powers, and others replace this with a “redemption” in which a mixture of oil and water is poured on the head with certain invocations. Some boast an angelic redemption or restitution (apokatastasis) featuring an anointing with balsam oil in the names of Iao (Yahu) and Jesus of Nazareth that frees one’s soul from the powers of this age. Still others, he says, reject all such tangible symbolic acts involving the body or soul which derive from deficiency, claiming that the true redemption occurs only through inner, spiritual man’s knowledge of the ineffable Greatness.
In the Nag Hammadi corpus, the Tripartite Tractate (NHC I,5: 122,12) portrays the Pleroma as the bridal chamber in which the elect spiritual beings will experience ultimate restoration as the bride of the savior, while the “called” psychic humans, the “men of the Church,” will serve as attendants outside the pleroma in the aeon of “images,” until they receive instruction, upon which all will receive the restoration together; in Irenaeus’ account of the Ptolemaic theology (Adversus Haereses I, 7.1), the lower Sophia, Achamoth, enters the Pleroma or bridal chamber as the bride of the Savior, while the spiritual ones put off their souls, enter the Pleroma and unite with the savior’s angels. In the Tripartite Tractate (NHC I,5: 128,30), the bridal chamber is also identified with baptism, as another expression of the agreement and indivisible union of the knower (the Valentinian gnostic) with the known (the Savior).
In the Gospel of Philip, the sacral marriage has multiple symbolic referents. The fundamental mythical motif of the restoration of the broken unity of Adam is still present (NHC II,3: 68,22-26, 70,9-22), but, as in the introductory quote from Irenaeus, the biblical legend is now overshadowed by theogonic myths of the Valentinian school. The sacramental union in the Bridal Chamber has its archetype in the union of the Savior with the previously barren Sophia. According to 71,3-15, the body of Jesus the Savior was produced in the pleromatic bridal chamber from the union of the Father of the All with the “virgin who came down,” presumably the higher Sophia before her fall from the Pleroma; from this origin, it descended to establish this union of bride and bridegroom as the way for his true disciples to enter into his pleromatic rest.[39] This union is perhaps represented on another level by the legends of Christ’s association with Mary Magdalene,[40] and its fulfillment in the eschatological union of the Gnostic’s true self (the female bride, or “seed,” or eikôn) with its corresponding male “angel” as bridegroom (58,10-14; 65,23-25: cf. 78,33-127,5). According to the Gospel of Philip 86,1-18, becoming a son of the bridal chamber is the only means to receive the light. Although in this world it is present only as an image of the truth, this light grants absolute imperturbability throughout the rest of this life as though he were already living in the Pleroma. The theme of restoration of man’s primeval unity is thereby projected onto the macrocosmic plane, where it symbolizes the reintegration of the Pleroma to its precosmic state. The Gospel of Philip (84,14-85,21) represents the bridal chamber or Pleroma, Christ, and the spiritual elect with the imagery of the heavenly temple and high priesthood similar to that found in the NT Letter to the Hebrews (6:19-20; 9:2-5). The reality of the Pleroma, symbolized as the Holy of Holies, has been concealed from those inhabiting the outer courts of the cosmos from the time that the inferior creator fashioned the world, available to those outside only in types and images. But now the veil separating the Holy of holies from the outer courts of the cosmos has been rent, and these outer courts of the temple-like cosmos will be destroyed. Their creator, the demiurge, will not enter the Holy of holies, but will ascend to the Hebdomad below Horos, the lower boundary of the Pleroma. When the outer precincts of the cosmic temple are destroyed, the merely psychic members of the Valentinian community will be saved by the church, symbolized by the ark, while the truly pneumatic members, those belonging to the priesthood, will be able to go through the veil into the Pleroma in the company of the high priest, the Savior.
The actual ritual involved in the sacred marriage of the Valentinians cannot be determined with certainty. Given its eschatological reference, Gaffron considers it to have been the believer’s last sacrament, a “death sacrament” rather like the Mandaean Masiqta.[41]
As one might expect of any mystery rite, the Gospel of Philip (NHC II,3: 82,7-26 makes it clear that the mystery of the bride chamber is reserved for the pneumatic members of the Valentinian community alone. The intercourse of bride and bridegroom is private, pure and undefiled; the pneumatic bride may reveal her true nature only to those who may enter the bridal chamber every day: her father, mother, and the friend and sons of the bridegroom. The Gospel of Philip (69.1-5) specifies that “a bridal chamber is not for the animals, nor is it for the slaves, nor is it for defiled women; but it is for free men and virgins.” Meeks notes the parallel in Gospel of Thomas logion 75: “The monachoi are the [only] ones who will enter the bridal chamber,” but here the bridal chamber seems only a metaphor, rather than a cultic anticipation, of “the kingdom.”[42]
Although no cultic acts are described in the Gospel of Thomas, baptism is presumably presupposed. “Male and female” are to be made “one,” but it is an unequal union, since the female must become male if she is to become a “living spirit” (logion 114).[43] As Meeks notes, the monachos in the Gospel of Thomas is beyond sexuality, “like a little child” (Gos. Thom. 22), whose innocence of sexuality is portrayed in the removal of clothing without shame–like Adam before the Fall (logion 37, cf. logion 21).[44]
The heresiologists, most of whose information about ritual details was likely inferred from reading Gnostic treatises, concluded, sometimes correctly, that the rite of the bride chamber involved physical sex relations.[45] The Gospel of Philip disparages actual cohabitation, even though it is an “image” of the true union “in the Aiôn.”[46] As early as 1959, H.-M. Schenke speculated that the outward symbol of the Valentinian rite of the bridal chamber was the “holy kiss,” on the basis of the Gospel of Philip 59,2-6 (“For it is by a kiss that the perfect conceive and give birth. For this reason we also kiss one another. We receive conception from the grace which is in one another”), and 63,30-64,2 naming Mary Magdalene as Christ’s most beloved disciple, whom he often used to kiss.[47] The popular practice of the wider church tends to confirm that the kiss did have an important place.[48] As Meeks concludes, “whatever the Gnostics did in the marriage sacrament, it clearly distinguished them, in their opinion, from those who were merely baptized and anointed. It was the sacrament of the elite, the teleioi“.[49]


The Simonians and Valentinians

While many gnostic groups of the second and third century advocated and practiced a sexual and dietary encratism approaching a true demonization of sexuality, other groups rejected such as practice as ineffective and deceptive, transforming the moral indifference typical of its libertine opposite, free sexual exchange, into sacred ritual. According to Irenaeus (Adversus Haereses I, 23.4), the Simonians worship images of Simon Magus and Helen, as well as engage in various occult practices, including exorcisms, incantations, philters, and erotic magic. Hippolytus, (Refutatio VI, 19.5) specifies further specifies that this erotic magic took the form of sexual intercourse as a means of experiencing spiritual union. In Adversus Haereses I, 13.1-5, Irenaeus indicates that the Valentinian Marcus interpreted the rite of the bride-chamber in a sexually explicit way, claiming himself to be the Grace whose luminous seed should be deposited “in her bridal chamber” as a way of imitating the pleromatic syzygetic union of male and female aeons, thus entering into the One together with him.

A Sethian Offshoot: the Borborites

According to Epiphanius (Panarion 26.3-12), the later Sethians, whom he calls Borborites, Barbelites, Phibionites, Stratiotici and Coddians, engaged in a thorough-going sexual sacramentalism. Their symbolic actions included a ritual handshake (featuring tickling beneath the palms of joined hands), a love feast in which spouses were exchanged, homosexual intercourse on the part of a special class called Levites, naked prayer featuring the elevation to the 365 Archons (e.g., Iao, Saklas, Seth, Daveithai, Eloaeus, Yaldabaoth, Sabaoth, Barbelo, the Autogenes Christ, and the supreme Autopater) of hands smeared with semen and menstrual blood (apparently symbolizing the elevation of the host and wine commemorating the “passion” of Christ), and consumption of the same as a form of eucharist. If one of the women accidentally conceived, the fetus was extracted and sacramentally consumed to prevent the further dispersal of the divine spirit in another human body.
According to Stephen Gero,[50] “the central, distinguishing feature of the sect, its devotion to the so-called sperma cult, described by [Epiphanius] in vivid detail, can hardly be dismissed as a prurient invention. In the simplest of terms it involved the extraction, collection and solemn, sacramental consecration and consumption of bodily fluids, male and female, which contributed to the further propagation of the human race, and thus to the continued entrapment of the divine substance by the evil archons. In these fluids is concentrated the spiritual element, found scattered in the world, in particular in food-stuffs (including meat!), of which the initiates can and should partake. The mythology proper is a version of the Barbelo-gnostic myth, as known from Irenaeus and the Apocryphon of John.” Although Epiphanius does not say that they called this rather unrestrained ritual sex a “mystery” or rite of the bridal chamber, it seems clear that its intent was the same, effecting a restoration of the lost primordial unity by physical coupling and attempting to reverse the natural course of the propagation of the species.


A large and varied class of ritual expression can be loosely gathered under the head of ritual speech, which can include glossalalia, traditional verbal formulae, spells, oaths, conjuration, invocations, evocations, voces mysticae, sunthêmata, and prayers of various sorts addressed to transcendent powers, good and evil alike.
The Basilideans (Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses I, 24.4) are said to engage in magic, conjuring of the dead, spells, calling up of spirits, and the invocation by name of each of the angelic beings belonging to the 365 heavens: “The person who has learnt these things, and knows all the angels and their origins, becomes invisible and incomprehensible to all the angels and powers.” In his Contra Celsum (VI, 31), Origen describes numerous verbal formulae employed by the Ophites as passwords used by the ascending soul to mollify the hostility of the heavenly rulers blocking their entrance into the divine world. These formulas bear a striking resemblance to the first person self-predicatory recognition formulas attributed to the Gnostic revealer who likewise used them in the course of his own descent and reascent to disarm the hostile cosmic powers. As the ascending soul traverses the spheres of the powers (the solitary king, Yaldabaoth/Saturn, Iao, Sabaoth, Astaphaios, Ailoaios, Horaios), it announces to the respective rulers its special status as purified and freed from the archontic powers, possessing the divine light and life, imbued with the power of the Mother. Thus:

But you, archon Yaldabaoth, to whom power belongs as first and seventh, I go with confidence as a ruling Logos of pure Nous, as a perfect work for the Son and the Father, bearing by the imprint of a stamp the symbol of life, having opened for the world the gate which you had by your aeon closed; as a free man I go past your power. Grace be with me, yes, Father, be it with me (Contra Celsum VI, 31).

Irenaeus (Adversus Haereses I, 21.5) also attributes similar formulas to Valentinians who, in the context of a death-bed anointing are provided with recognition formulas by which they identify themselves to the demiurge as a son of the pre-existent Father who invokes the higher Sophia as the supreme Mother whose power greatly transcends that of the demiurge’s mother, the lower Sophia Achamoth.
The ultimate ancestor of this genre of passwords seems to be found either in the dialogues of Egyptian Book of the Dead, or, more likely, in the Orphic-Bacchic gold leaves inscribed with hexameter instructions to the dead about the path to be followed in the other world, such as this one from Hipponion:

In the house of Hades there is a spring [i.e. Lethe, of forgetfulness] to the right; by it stands a white cypress. Here the souls, descending, are cooled. Do not approach this spring! Further you will find cool water flowing from the lake of recollection. Guardians stand over it who will ask you in their sensible mind why you are wandering through the darkness of corruptible Hades. Answer: “I am a son of the earth and of the starry sky, but I am desiccated with thirst and am perishing; therefore quickly give me cool water flowing from the lake of recollection.” And then the subjects of the Chthonic King (?) will have pity and will give you to drink from the lake of recollection…. And indeed you are going a long, sacred way which also other mystai and bacchoi gloriously walk.

In Gnostic literature, one finds verbal formulae, often in the context of ecstatic prayer and praise, which are clearly intended as syllables of power. Sometimes these syllables are enigmatic abbreviations for articulate utterances, sometimes they have nearly the character of Hindu mantras, as in the chanting of strings of vowels in semi-numerical groupings, where the emphasis seems to lie in the sonority and repetitiveness of the verbal performance. In this regard, the following passage from the Gospel of the Egyptians (NHC III,2: 66,9-68,1) is exemplary:

IH IEUS HW OU HW WUA! Really truly, O Yesseus Mazareus Yessedekeus, O living water, O child of the child, O glorious name, really truly AIWN O WN (i.e., ‘O existing aeon’), IIII HHHH EEEE OOOO UUUU WWWW AAAA{A}, really truly, HI AAAA WWWW, O existing one who sees the aeons! Really truly, AEE HHH IIII UUUUUU WWWWWWW, who is eternally eternal, really truly, IHA AIW, in the heart, who exists, U AEI EIS AEI, EI O EI, EI OS EI (or: Son forever, Thou art what Thou art, Thou art who Thou art)! This great name of thine is upon me, O self-begotten Perfect one, who art not outside me. I see thee, O thou who art visible to everyone. For who will be able to comprehend thee in another tongue? Now that I have known thee, I have mixed myself with the immutable. I have armed myself with an armor of light, I have become light. For the Mother was at that place because of the splendid beauty of grace. Therefore I have stretched out my hands while they were folded. I was shaped in the circle of the riches of the light which is in my bosom, which gives shape to the many begotten ones in the light into which no complaint reaches. I shall declare thy glory truly, for I have comprehended thee, SOU IHS IDE AEIW AEIE OIS, O aeon, aeon, O God of silence! I honor thee completely. Thou art my place of rest, O son HS HS O E, the formless one who exists in the formless ones, who exists, raising up the man in whom thou wilt purify me into thy life, according to thine imperishable name. Therefore the incense of life is in me. I mixed it with water after the model of all archons, in order that I may live with thee in the peace of the saints, thou who existeth really truly for ever.

This presentation of ecstatic prayer is notable in that it mentions the bodily gesture, rather like a Hindu mudra,[51] of extending ones hands in the act of prayer (cf. 3 Mac 2:2; in Odes of Solomon 21, 27, 37, 42 a sign of the crucifixion), indeed while they are folded, forming a circle to symbolize one’s containment of the inner light. The prayer also contains an apparent reference to water baptism, in which ordinary physical water (“in the type of the archons”) is converted into living water by mixing it with the spirit (“incense of life”) possessed by the baptizand; rather than being purified prior to of baptism by invocation of the Spirit or by holy oil, the baptismal water is here purified by the one undergoing baptism, since he has already received the light.
In the Gnostic treatises one finds also extended doxologies in praise of the aeonic powers. In the Sethian treatises, there are the four particularly striking parallel doxologies in Allogenes (XI,3: 53,32-54,37), the Three Steles of Seth (VII,5: 126,5-13), and Zostrianos (VIII,1: 51,6-52,25 and 88,9-25). They recite a traditional list of nomina barbara designating divine beings invoked in the course of the mystical ascent through the Aeon of Barbelo.[52] In fact the entire Three Steles of Seth is essentially an extended doxology in praise of the Sethian Father, Mother, and Son triad, praising the powers and deeds of Autogenes, Barbelo and the supreme Invisible Spirit; it appears to have been composed for use in a community-oriented practice of contemplative ascent.
Aretalogical doxologies also are found in the Hermetic Corpus. In the Nag Hammadi library, the Prayer of Thanksgiving (NHC VI,7), which occurs also in Greek (Papyrus Mimaut) and at the end of the Latin Asclepius, is a combination of petitions with doxological praise , which is concluded by a mutual embrace (aspazesthai, cf. the “kiss of peace) and a communal meal of “sacred food that has no blood in it” (65,3-7). This prayer follows the Hermetic treatise The Discourse on the Eighth and the Ninth, which itself contains the extended prayer of an unnamed initiate to his spiritual father Hermes Trismegistus. Having attained Hebdomad, Hermes guides the initiate towards the Ogdoad and Ennead, where he sees that his guide is Intellect itself and, along with other angels and souls, he sings a hymn of praise to the Father in silence. The prayer seems to be regarded as “spiritual sacrifice” (cf. Rom 12:1), and contains petition, aretalogical doxology, and ecstatic chanting of vowels spoken in the first person plural; it is followed later by a hymn with a similar chant in the first person singular (NHC VI,6: 55,23-61,18). Taken with other Hermetic prayers (Corpus Hermeticum I, 31-32; XIII, 16-20; Asclepius 41), these prayers indicate an established community ritual in which visionary experience is expressed in prayers of praise, thanksgiving and ecstatic formulae, and celebrated in a meal.
There is also the very similar doxological Prayer of the Apostle Paul included in the front of the Jung Codex (NHC I,1).[53] Three of the five supplements A Valentinian Exposition (NHC XI,2a, XI,2d, and XI,2e) are prayers, separated by two short catacheses on the nature of baptism. The first is a pre-baptismal invocation of Christ to anoint baptismal candidates with the power to “trample on the heads of snakes and scorpions and all the power of the Devil” (Lk 10:19; cf. Excerpta ex Theodoto 76); this is very similar to the pre-baptismal practice of exorcising the devil through the acts of anointing with oil and penitence by standing on sackcloth or goatskin.[54] The other two prayers are pre-eucharistic thanksgivings. Although not part of a ritual setting, two other prayers might be mentioned, which are petitions for release form the troubles of this life, one at the conclusion of the Book of Thomas the Contender (NHC II,7: 145,8-16), and James’ prayer for a speedy death at the conclusion of the Second Apocalypse of James (NHC V,3: 62,13-63,29).
The frequent use of nomina barbara, syllables of power, and phrases in languages other than one’s own (cf. the Aramaic baptismal formulae quoted in Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses I, 21.3) is succinctly explained in Corpus Hermeticum XVI,2 (Asclepius to King Ammon):

Expressed in our own native (Egyptian) tongue, the discourse (logos) keeps clear the meaning (nous) of the words (logoi) [at any rate], for its very quality of sound, the very intonation of the Egyptian names, have in themselves the actuality (energeia) of what is said. So as far as you can, O King–and you can do all things–keep this our discourse from translation, in order that such mighty mysteries may not come to the Greeks, and the disdainful speech of Greece with all its looseness and its surface beauty, so to speak, take all the strength out of the solemn and the strong–the energetic speech of Names. The Greeks, O King, have novel words, effecting demonstration only; and thus is the philosophizing of the Greeks–the noise of words. But we do not use words; we rather use sounds filled full with deeds.

As Socrates says in the Cratylus (439a; 424bc), “names rightly given are the likenesses and images of the things they name.” He who would imitate the essence of things in speech must give them a name; to analyze them, one must “separate” the syllables and letters, “first the vowels, and then the consonants and mutes, into classes according to the traditional distinctions of the learned, also the semivowels, which are neither vowels nor yet mutes, and distinguish into classes the vowels themselves.” Of course, more desirable is a kind of knowledge that grasps reality directly, without names.
The most striking instance of Gnostic texts containing words and symbols of power is the Books of Jeu in the Bruce Codex. Nearly every page portrays tables and lists of divine names, powers and attributes in the form of voces mysticae et barbara intended to be pronounced, as well as numerous graphic images that were perhaps intended to be gazed upon until a trance-like state resulted. The graphic sunthêmata (tokens), appearing as they do on the pages of a codex, seem to presuppose private appropriation on the part of the reader rather than communal recitation, and thus approach the phenomenon of the “reading mystery” (Lesemysterium), a term coined by Reitzenstein to characterize the gradated reading of the Corpus Hermeticum.
Although apparently independent of ritual contexts, the alphabet mysticism and magic scattered throughout the pages of Gnostic literature are to be used as words of power.[55] It consists of mysterious combinations of letters, syllables, the seven vowels and seventeen consonants of the Greek alphabet, and the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet which are arranged in various sequences and patterns (klimata), where each permutation of order is significant, as is the pronouncing of these sounds. Particularly important is the use of names, especially the Tetragrammaton and other Semitic formations such as Sabaoth and Abrasax, names for the daimones of the planetary Hebdomad, as well as a multitude of phtikta onomata and onomata asêma kai barbara, whose significance is hard to ascertain.[56] The primary example of these is of course the Greek magical papyri. Although space and complexity forbids treating these phenomena here, perhaps the most extensive Gnostic examples are Irenaeus’ account (Adversus Haereses I, 13-22) of the alphabetic and numerical speculations of the Valentinian Marcus, and the unfortunately very fragmentary phonological, arithmological, and astral speculations on the shape of the soul in the Sethian treatise Marsanes (NHC X,1).


The Sethian Platonizing Treatises

In the treatises Allogenes, Three Steles of Seth, Zostrianos and Marsanes, salvation is not brought from above to below by divine visitations, but rather occurs through the Gnostic’s contemplative ascent through ever higher levels of the divine realm. Here one finds an exemplary visionary, Allogenes or Marsanes (probably alternative designations for Seth), utilizing a self-performable technique of successive stages of mental detachment from the world of multiplicity, and a corresponding assimilation of the self to the evermore refined levels of being to which one’s contemplation ascends, until one achieves an absolute stasis and cognitive vacancy characteristic of deification. The Three Steles of Seth presupposes a three-stage ascent to the Autogenes, the aeon of Barbelo, and the supreme One. Allogenes depicts a similar three-stage ascent, but begins at the aeon of Barbelo, and adds an ascent through the supra-intelligible levels of the Triple-Powered One of the Invisible Spirit, culminating in a “primary revelation” of the Unknowable One. A similar ascent is portrayed in Zostrianos, except that it has been supplemented by a series of initial stages within the sense-perceptible realm, and each successive stage of ascent after these is associated with a certain baptismal sealings. Marsanes merely comments on certain features of the ascent, which its author claims to have already undergone.
The text that most warrants the treatment of this contemplative ascent as an established ritual is the Three Steles of Seth, in which the aretalogical doxologies of Seth in honor of his father Geradamas, the Aeon of Barbelo, and the ultimate pre-existent One are provided for the use of both individuals and a community: “Whoever remembers these and always glorifies shall be perfect among those who are perfect and impassive beyond all things; for individually and collectively they all praise these: and afterward they shall be silent. And just as it has been ordained for them, they will ascend. After silence, they will descend from the third, they will bless the second, and afterward, the first. The way of ascent is the way of descent” (NHC VII,5: 127, 6-21). In the first Stele, Seth praises his father Geradamas as his intellect, as Autogenes (self-begotten), the “Mirotheid” (Mirothea is the mother of Adamas in the Gospel of the Egyptians, NHC III,2: 49,1-12) who presides over Seth’s “alien” seed, the immovable race; then Seth and Geradamas praise the thrice-masculine aeon Barbelo who came forth to the middle to empower and bestow crowns and perfection upon them. The second Stele is directed by the “perfect individuals” to Barbelo as their three-in-one source, the source of all multiplicity, the projected image (“shadow”) of the “first pre-existent One,” the bestower of divinity, goodness and blessing; the “individuals” petition her to save them by uniting them. The third Stele is directed to the pre-existent One, the only and living Spirit, the Existence, Life and Mind of the All, whom they entreat to present a “command” that they might be saved; at that point, the petitioners recognize that they have been saved, and therefore offer praise and glory. Each stele marks a stage on the contemplative ascent to the One. Just as Seth, spiritual ancestor of the Sethians, praised and joined his father Adamas in the praise of the Mother Barbelo, and of her source, the pre-existent One, so the members of the Sethian community are to follow the same pattern in their own ascent to the aeon of Barbelo and receive the revelation of the Invisible Spirit.
The treatise that most likely contains the key to the ritual origins of the Sethian ascensional rite is Zostrianos, since, as noted above, it marks the various stages of Zostrianos’ visionary ascent with certain baptisms, sealings, washings in various “waters.” It is perhaps also significant that Marsanes (NHC X,1: 2,12-4,24) enumerates the entire sequence of the ontological levels underlying these treatises as thirteen “seals.” Of these texts, it is Allogenes that most clearly portrays the method of this ascent, so it will form the basis of the following exposition, even though it narrates the ascent as that of an individual, and enumerates the levels of ascent slightly differently than the others.
The cosmology of these treatises is tripartite, but belongs to the four-level ontology of Speusippus, the Neopythagoreans and Plotinus, which posits a highest realm beyond even being itself, below which one finds an atemporal, intelligible realm of pure being, followed by a psychic realm, characterized by time and motion, and finally a physical realm at the bottom of the scale. The following summary of the ontology of Allogenes will suffice to indicate the ontological structure of the entire group:
The highest being, corresponding the Plotinian One, is the Unknowable One or Invisible Spirit, characterized by non-being existence, silence and stillness; he is not an existing thing and is completely unknowable (XI,3: 62,23-64,14). Marsanes (X,1: 2,12-23)appears to add yet another level, the “unknown, silent One” beyond even the Invisible Spirit.
The second major level is that of the Aeon of Barbelo, the First Thought of the Invisible Spirit, characterized as a non-discriminating, incorporeal, [timeless] knowledge (XI,3: 51,10-11). The Barbelo Aeon is subdivided into three levels which correspond to aspects of the Plotinian hypostases of Intellect and Soul: 1) the domain of “the authentic existents” (ta ontôs onta, the noêta) presided over by Kalyptos (the Hidden One, a sort of nous noêtos) rather like the Plotinian Intellect; 2) the domain of “those who are unified” (i.e. “exist together,” cf. Ennead IV.1.1: ekei [en tôi nôi] homou men pas mous … homou de pasai psychaiv) presided over by Protophanes (the First Appearing One, a sort of nous theôrêtikos), rather like the Plotinian cosmic Soul; and 3) the domain of the “(perfect) individuals” (perhaps individual souls) presided over by Autogenes (the Self-begotten One, a sort of demiurgic nous dianooumenos) who operates to rectify the realm of Nature, rather like the Plotinian individuated soul.
The third level, Nature, is merely mentioned in passing as a realm whose defects are continually rectified by Autogenes, and appears to hold no interest for the author of Allogenes, although the treatise Marsanes (X,1: 5,23-26) regards this realm as entirely worthy of salvation.
The mediator between the Invisible Spirit and the Aeon of Barbelo is an entity called the Triple-Powered One. This being is mentioned sometimes independently, and sometimes in conjunction with the Invisible Spirit.[57] By a static self-extension, the Invisible Spirit through his Triple-Powered One becomes the Aeon of Barbelo (XI,3: 45,21-30; cf. Zostrianos VIII,1: 76,7-19; 78,10-81,20; Three Steles VII, 5: 121,20-122,8; Marsanes X, 1: 8,18-9,28). Thus the Triple-Powered One is the potency (dunamis) of the Unknown One and/or Invisible Spirit by which he unfolds himself into the world of Being and Intellect. It is said to consist of three modalities or phases: That-which-is (Being or Existence), Vitality, and Mentality (XI,3: 49,26-38)
In Allogenes, the Triple-Powered One is identical with the Invisible Spirit in its Existence-phase, discontinuous with the Invisible Spirit but identical with Barbelo in its Mentality-phase, and in its emanative or Vitality-phase, it is simultaneously continuous and discontinuous with both the Invisible Spirit and Barbelo. Allogenes attributes also to the Unknowable One / Invisible Spirit a similar triad of attributes, but characterizes them as acts rather than qualities or substances: “he exists, lives and knows without mind, life or existence” (61, 32-39).
Bearing in mind that the Aeon of Barbelo is considered to be 1) the “knowledge” or “first thought” of the Invisible Spirit (51, 8-32), that 2) it contains the perfect Mind Protophanes, and 3) contains in its Kalyptos-level the realm of pure being (to ontôs onta), one arrives at an enneadic structure for the metaphysical ontology of Allogenes. At the level of the Invisible Spirit, the Being-Life-Mind triad is present as the pure activity of existing, living, and thinking (expressed as verbal infinitives); on the level of the Triple-Powered One, it is present as a triad of abstract qualities (existence, vitality, mentality), and on the level of the Barbelo Aeon, as a triad of substantial realities: being, life and mind (Kalyptos as Being and Protophanes as Mind, although its life-component is not given a distinct identification).
In reality, all three levels are only separate phases of the unfolding of the Invisible Spirit by means of its Triple-Powered One into the Aeon of Barbelo. Rather than being a triad of principles distributed vertically among different planes of reality, the Existence, Life, Intellect triad is seen as a dynamic three-in-one principle in which each phase of the triad, while containing the other two, is named by the phase of the triad that predominates at each stage of its unfolding. In the accompanying diagram, the underlined term indicates the relative predominance of one of the three modalities. The first phase coincides with the Invisible Spirit and the third phase with the Aeon of Barbelo, in effect giving rise to a median phase in which the Triple-Powered One is discontinuous with both the Invisible Spirit and Barbelo, having a quasi-hypostatic character of its own.

Unknowable One / Invisible Spirit 




Triple-Powered One / Eternal Life 




Barbelo / First Thought 




The Visionary Ascent

Allogenes (XI, 3: 58,26-61,21) tripartitions the contemplative ascent into separate but successive stages in accord with the tripartitioning of its general ontology, since the object of the ascent is to become assimilated with each higher level of being through which one passes. Each stage of the ascent is prefaced by instruction from a revealer. The technique of the initial ascent through the lowest level of the intelligible realm, the Aeon of Barbelo is revealed by the “male virgin” Youel (57,29-58,26). The technique of the culminating ascent through the Triple-Powered One is revealed by the three “luminaries of the Aeon of Barbelo” (58,26-61,22), and is structured in terms of the tripartite nomenclature previously applied to the Triple-Powered One in 49,26-38. The technique of the final union with the Unknowable One, however, cannot be conveyed by a positive descriptive revelation, but only by a “primary revelation of the Unknowable One”; this turns out to be the long negative theology in 61,32-64,36, by which one acquires the saving gift of learned ignorance. On completion of the ascent and revelation, Allogenes’ appropriate response will be to record and safeguard the revelation (68,16-23) and entrust its proclamation to his confidant Messos (68,26-end).

Stage 1: The Ascent through the Aeon of Barbelo

The revealer Youel instructs Allogenes concerning the initial part of the ascent to “the God who truly [pre-exists],” which requires a perfect seeking of the Good within oneself, by which one knows oneself as one who exists with the pre-existent God. According to 50,10-36, the wisdom conveyed by Youel’s initial revelation of the Aeon of Barbelo and of the Triple-Powered One will restore Allogenes to his primordial, unfallen condition. It will invest Allogenes’ “thought” with the power requisite to distinguish between “immeasurable and unknowable” things, the contents of the Barbelo Aeon and the principles beyond it, causing Allogenes to fear that his learning has exceeded normal limits. One notes again the metaphor of putting on a garment.
In 52,7-21, after Youel’s initial revelation of the contents of the Aeon of Barbelo, Allogenes reports that his soul went slack with disturbance. Turning to himself, he sees the light surrounding him and the Good within him and becomes divine, which Youel interprets as a completion of wisdom sufficient to receive a revelation of the Triple-Powered One.
Interpreted in the light of the ontology of the treatise, it seems as if Allogenes has become successively assimilated to the various levels of the Barbelo Aeon: first, to the level of the “individuals” within Autogenes, and second, to the level of “those who are unified” within Protophanes, and third, to “those who truly exist” in Kalyptos.
In her fifth discourse (55,33-57,24), Youel promises Allogenes that, after an incubation period of a “hundred years” (during which he presumably is to engage in self-contemplation, experiencing “a great light and a blessed path,” 57,27-58,7), he will receive a revelation from the “luminaries of the Aeon of Barbelo.” This revelation will convey only so much as is necessary to know without Allogenes forfeiting his own kind. If Allogenes is successful in this, he will receive a conception (ennoia) of the pre-existent One and know himself as one “who exists with the God who truly pre-exists” (56,18-36), which will make him divine and perfect.
At the conclusion of the “hundred years” of preparation, Allogenes reports that he saw Autogenes, the Triple Male, Protophanes, Kalyptos, the Aeon of Barbelo, and the “primal origin of the of the One without origin,” that is, the Triple-Powered One of the Invisible Spirit (57,29-58,26). One should probably understand this as Allogenes’ ascent through the various levels of the Aeon of Barbelo up to and including the lowest aspect (“blessedness” or Mentality) of the Triple-Powered One, which would be identical with the entirety of the Aeon of Barbelo itself. Up to this point, Allogenes still bears his earthly “garment” (58,29-30).
This initial vision culminates with Allogenes’ receipt of a luminous garment by which he is taken up to “a pure place” (58,31), where he transcends (“stands upon”) his knowledge (characterized by blessedness and self-knowledge) of the individual constituents of the Barbelo-Aeon. He is now ready for “holy powers” revealed to him by the “luminaries of the Aeon of Barbelo” to encourage him to “strive for” an even higher knowledge toward which he had already “inclined,” namely “the knowledge of the Universal Ones,” that is, of the Triple-Powered One and the Invisible Spirit (59,2-3).

Stage 2: The Ascent through the Triple-Powered One

The ascent beyond the Aeon of Barbelo to the Unknowable One is first revealed to Allogenes by holy powers (59,4-60,12) and then actually narrated (60,12-61,22) by Allogenes in a way quite similar to the revelation, yielding what amounts to two accounts of the ascent. Having surpassed his active, earthly knowledge and inclining toward the passive knowledge of the Universal Ones (the Triple-Powered One and the Invisible Spirit, 59,2-3), Allogenes attains first the level of blessedness (i.e., Mentality), at which one knows one’s proper self, sees the good in oneself and becomes divine (59,9-13; 60,14-18). Next, as he “seeks himself,” he ascends (anachôrein) to the level of Vitality, characterized by an undivided, eternal, intellectual motion, a supra-eidetic realm, where one achieves partial stability (he stands not firmly but quietly, 59,14-16; 60,19-28). Finally Allogenes achieves the level of Existence, characterized by a completely inactive “stillness” and “standing” (59,19-26; 60,28-37). He is filled with a “primary revelation of the unknowable One” that empowers and permanently strengthens him, enabling him to receive an incognizant knowledge of the unknowable One.
At this point, having assimilated himself to the primal modality of the Triple-Powered One, Allogenes can no longer ascend to any higher level; only in the case that he becomes afraid can he further withdraw, and that only “to the rear because of the activities” (59,34-35; cf. Plotinus, Ennead III,8.9,29-40; VI,9.3,1-13). He must not “seek incomprehensible matters,” but must avoid any further effort lest he dissipate his inactivity and fall away from the passivity, concentratedness, and instantaneousness of the primary revelation to follow (59,26-60,12; cf. 64,14-26; 67,22-38). Allogenes is told be “incognizant” (“ignorant” or “non-knowing”) of the Unknowable One, that is, not to exercise any faculties of the active intellect, lest this activity initiate a movement that would destroy the stability he has achieved. Even to fear this extreme inertness is such a mental activity, and necessitates a withdrawal to a previous level of contemplation. Once he receives the primary revelation, he must therefore “still himself” and remain completely self-concentrated (“do not further dissipate”) and refrain from any exercise of the active intellect, even if it should be a “luminous ennoia,” which might replace and therefore destroy the inactivity conveyed to him by the Unknowable One.[58] In a state of utter passivity, Allogenes receives a “primary revelation of the Unknowable One” (59,28-29; 60,39-61,1) characterized as a cognitively vacant knowledge of the Unknowable One (59,30-32; 60,8-12; 61,1-4). This knowledge can be articulated only by an extensive negative theology (61,32-62,13; supplemented by a more affirmative theology, 62,14-67,20).
The sequence of Allogenes’ mental states therefore moves from relative to permanent stability, and from self-knowledge to mental vacancy: 1) At the level of Mentality, characterized by silent stillness, he “hears” the Blessedness of true self-knowledge. 2) At the level of Vitality, characterized by the eternal circular (“undivided”) motion of the supra-eidetic realm, and still seeking himself, he achieves partial stability. 3) At the level of Existence, characterized by total stability and inactivity, he achieves a complete stability, permanently strengthened by the indwelling of the Triple-Powered One. 4) Allogenes is filled with the “primary revelation of the Unknowable One,” which allows him to know the Unknowable One and his Triple-Powered One insofar as he maintains a state of complete incognizance and mental vacuity.
The sequence of Allogenes’ mental states is also the reverse of the sequence of the dominant phases or ontological modalities in which the Triple Powered One unfolds into the Aeon of Barbelo. His initial state is called Blessedness, a condition associated with a silent (non-discursive?) self-contemplation characteristic of “Mentality,” which designates also the lowest phase of the Triple-Powered One’s three phases of Mentality, Vitality and Existence. He is then instructed to move from this state to a less stable state, that of “Vitality,” which is characterized by an eternal circular motion that still includes a “seeking of oneself.” Then, in order to gain a state of ultimate stability, he is to move on to the level of Existence, the phase in which the Triple-Powered One is identical with the Invisible Spirit, who is absolutely at rest and contains all in total silence and inactivity. In each case, the contemplation of entities on ever higher ontological levels is characterized as a form of the contemplator’s self-knowledge, suggesting that the consciousness of the knowing subject is actually assimilated to the ontological character of the level that one intelligizes at any given point.
    Allogenes thus presents two levels of knowing: One is achievable in the world, and is characterized by the actual vision of what was communicated in the auditory revelations imparted by the emissary-revealer Youel; it suffices to have a vision of each of the beings comprising the Aeon of Barbelo up to and including the lower aspect of the Triple-Powered One. The other is achievable, not in the world, but only after elevation to a pure place, and is to be imparted by an apophatic “primary revelation” from the Luminaries of Barbelo’s Aeon; it enables one to experience directly the realm beyond intellect and even being itself occupied by the upper levels of the Triple-Powered One and the Unknowable One. The first level of knowing is active and discursive, involving knowledge of one’s self as well as the ability to experience one’s assimilation to the various levels comprising the intellectual and psychic realm of the Barbelo Aeon (58,38-59,3; 59,9-16): from individuated soul to unity with the cosmic soul to the intellectual domain of the authentic existents. The second level of knowing is passive; strictly speaking it is not knowledge at all, but culminates in a non-knowing, non-discursive knowledge with no awareness of distinctions, even that between knower and known, an utter vacancy of the cognitive intellect, a “learned ignorance” (59,30-35; 60,5-12; 61,1-4) called a “primary revelation of the Unknowable One” (59,28-29; 60,39-61,1).

Stage 3: The Primary Revelation

The extensive negative theology occupying the last third of Allogenes exhibits a close relationship between the negative ontological (apophatic) predications of the Invisible Spirit and the non-cognitive contemplation of him.[59] It turns out that the primary revelation conveying the ultimate vision of the supreme reality is identical with its object: the Invisible Spirit is the very primary revelation by which he is known (Allogenes 63,9-19). The Invisible Spirit is so unknowable that he is in some sense his own unknowable knowledge, and forms a unity with the ignorance that sees him; in fact he seems to be equated with the state of mental vacancy itself (Allogenes 63,28-64,14). Yet one cannot simply use the equation between the unknowable deity and the primary revelation or incognizant knowledge by which he is known as a way of knowing or speaking about him. To equate him with either knowledge or non-knowledge is to miss the goal of ones’ quest (Allogenes 64:14-36). It is nevertheless clear that Allogenes assumes that it is possible to achieve a consubstantiality between the known, the means of knowledge and the knower: the unknowable deity is united with the ignorance that sees him, which is identical with his own self-knowledge. By implication, he is also united with the non-knowing visionary as well. Thus there is an isomorphism, indeed an identity, between both the epistemic and ontic states of the knower, the known and the means of knowledge at each stage of the ascent.
The prototype of this threefold ascent is found in Plato’s Symposium (210a-212a), in the speech where Socrates recounts the path to the vision of absolute beauty into which he had been initiated by the wise Diotima. The method consists of a three-stage qualitative and quantitative purification or purgation of the soul by a redirection of Eros, the moving force of the soul, away from the lower realm to the higher.[60] The qualitative purgation is a progressive shift of attention from the sensible to the intelligible realm in three levels of knowing, which correspond to three levels of experience: physical beauty, moral beauty and intellectual beauty; these are the objects respectively of the bodily senses, the ethical components of the soul, and the intelligizing, contemplative faculty of the reflective soul. The quantitative purgation is a shift of attention away from individual instances of beauty, to the ideal beauty of all forms, and finally to absolute beauty itself, which then discloses itself as a sudden and immediate intuition. The next higher stage is therefore achieved by a purifying and unifying synthesis of the experience of the lower stage. As in the Symposium, so also in the Republic (532A-B) the final moment of attainment is conceived as a revelation of the supreme form. After long preliminary effort, one’s soul or mind has transcended discursive science, dialectic itself, for an unmediated vision of or direct contact with the object sought. No longer does one “know about” the object things that can be predicated of it, but one actually possesses and is possessed by the object of one’s quest.
In the first four centuries of our era to which the Barbeloite treatises belong, the Platonic tradition regarded metaphysics or theology as the highest of the three stages of enlightenment or spiritual progress.[61] It corresponded to the highest stage of initiation into the mysteries and was in fact called epopteia, the supreme vision of the highest reality, tantamount to assimilating oneself to God insofar as possible (Theaetetus 176B).[62] This traditional Platonic quest is found not only in Plato, but also later in Philo of Alexandria (who however shunned the notion of assimilation to God), Numenius, Valentinus, Albinus (i.e., Alcinous, the viae analogiae, negationis, additionis and eminentiae of Didaskalikos 10.5-6; cf. 28,1-3), Clement of Alexandria (Stromateis V, 11.70.8-71.5), Origen (Contra Celsum VII, 42) and especially Plotinus (Ennead VI,7.36). What is generally common to these visionary ascents is initial purification, usually through some form of instruction involving the use of analogies, negations, and successive abstraction until the contemplative mind has become absorbed in its single object (the One, the Good, the Beautiful, etc.) at which point one “suddenly” sees the ultimate source of all these;[63] here philosophy and intellection give way to ecstasy.


By way of conclusion, it can be seen that the purpose of Gnostic ritual was uniformly salvific, a means to restore the primordial unity of the human person. This process might be conceived on a relatively more biblical basis, as uniting the male and female components of an original androgyne that wrongfully underwent a primeval division. Or, on a more Platonic basis, as the restoration of the soul to the original psychic substance from which its ungrudging maker extracted and incarnated it; its (metaphorically feminine) irrationality acquired from contact with materiality must be subjected to its higher, undescended, rational or intellectual (metaphorically masculine) component. The Gnostics illustrated the original perfection of the soul by the pairing and agreement of the pleromatic aeons, and its degradation is illustrated by the lack of cooperation between male and female at the moment of the inception of the physical cosmos and its creator, which become characterized by victimization and oblivion on the one hand, and by presumption and antagonism on the other. The physical bodies into which the divine substance was thereby incarnated must be stripped away like an old garment and replaced with the luminous garment made of that substance; they must be thoroughly washed away and the inner person immersed in the living water of wisdom, anointed with the fragrance of the divine spirit, and wed with its other but higher self.

Epistomology is an important basis for understanding any mode for knowing–this article explores that within the experience of Islamic Prophethood.


Epistemology of Prophethood in Islam

Al Tawhid Vol 4 #21

Dr. Jalal al-Haqq


Revelation as a medium of information about the content of reality has not been particularly a subject of scholarly interest in Western tradition of philosophy and philosophical theology. Medievalists talked of `revelation’ but they did not mean by it an epistemic activity in which God `spoke’ to a human person: it was rather for them a concrete event in which God `entered’ into a human body. The `Word’ of God (Logos) which, supposedly, was hitherto a transcendent entity was given the form of flesh and blood. This Paulean innovation, as we know, not only made Christianity anomalistic to the long established tradition of prophetic epistemology, of which it otherwise claimed to be a climax, it also seriously restricted the understanding of revelation as a special source of knowledge.


When modernity made its headway in Europe, what it gave rise to were `empiricism’ and `rationalism’; any philosophy which could be called `revelationism’ just did not figure in their scheme of things. The new philosophers, for the very nature of the subject, did not find it worthy of a philosophical scrutiny. For them sense-organs and the intellects were doors to new vistas of possibilities to hitherto untrekked regions of cosmic reality, and any fallback upon the question of revelation might have been considered by them to be an anachronism. The results of logic and experimental sciences appeared to be concrete and credible, while the explanatory theories derived from the Bible were clearly irrational and incongruous with the observed facts. Thus revelation was to them a non-issue and nothing more. This attitude of cool reluctance later developed into utter contempt when in the late nineteenth and the early twentieth century some anthropologists and psychoanalysts reduced it, for different reasons, to a product of human illusion and self deception.


This is however not the case with the Muslim tradition of philosophy and kalam. For the crucial fact that the revelation occupied a central place in the Islamic system of doctrines, and also for reasons of its being a distinguishing feature of Islam’s religious methodology, Muslim scholars took very keen interest in disentangling the various issues connected with it.. Thus we find that a discussion on it started as early as the beginning of Muslim thought itself. This legacy passed through the contributions of philosophers like al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, Ibn Bajjah, Ibn Khaldun, Ibn al-`Arabi, al-Ghazali and others, coming down to the writings of Sayyid Ahmad Khan and Muhammad Iqbal in our own times. [1] The present undertaking is however not a chronological survey of their views on revelation, but an independent personal understanding of it in the perspective of contemporary knowledge with reference, of course, to the earlier understandings of it.


At the outset, it may be clarified that the term revelation in its import is not exactly identical with a somewhat vague but currently very widely used- rubric, namely, `religious experience’. This blanket rubric is applied by contemporary authors on philosophical theology to any cognitive activity which has as its referent some supernatural material. Thus prophetic message of monotheism, Buddha’s discovery of the Four Noble Truths, Ibn al-`Arabi’s and Eckhart’s Pantheism, etc. are all subsumed under a single category of knowledge through religious experience. [2] The Islamic notion of revelation, on the other hand, implies making a distinction between the prophetic mode of acquiring spiritual knowledge and all other modes and means which people of different cultural groups may employ to have access to that domain of reality. The distinction is absolute, and is in respects of nature, content, origins, as well as result and authenticity.


As just said, the Western encounter with the problem of revelation was from a distorted perspective. Although the culture-world of the West had in it the presence of a Judaic element which meant its being in a way familiar with the revelational epistemology, the effect of Paulean innovation was strong enough to almost neutralize that presence. As is known, historical Christianity originated not from what Jesus taught or was taught (by God) but from the `vision’ that St. Paul is said to have had on his way to Damascus. This means that Christianity as a religious creed was rooted in the subjective experience of a person who was admittedly not a prophet in a traditional Judaic sense. As a historical truth, this proposition has not forced itself into Western consciousness earlier than the early decades of nineteenth century when critical research in Biblical exegesis started, although in a non-doctrinal sense it was a part of Christian theology. But once people took cognizance of it, they could not resist the temptation of developing what were its obvious implications. For one thing, the discovery eviscerated the creed of its authoritative awe. Inasmuch as the dogmas were results of one’s personal experience, they could not be infallible and could not be universalized. The more the subjective factor weighed in consideration, the lesser became the authenticity and authority of the dogma. In later decades the situation took another turn when materialism took hold of the mind of the West. The tendency grew increasingly popular among men of letters to reduce the supernatural into the natural. Naturally the so-called religious experience was also subjected to this treatment and, as a result, the whole mystique of the phenomenon was dismantled. Especially, some psychologists went too far in their criticism and reduced in their view the whole phenomenon into what they called delirium of persons suffering from some psychic diseases. [3]


Muslims, on the other hand, had an entirely different viewpoint from which they approached this problem. Revelation, to them, was a voluntary and purposive Divine self-communication to humankind through the medium of some `chosen’ individuals. God, who is believed to be the Sustainer of His creatures in the material sense of the term, is also believed so in regard to their spiritual needs. The spiritual need of man is nothing but an indispensable urge to live a self-life, which is possible only by relating one’s self to God in a productive and authentic way. But since in themselves the human cognitive faculties are not potent enough to enable him to have a sufficiently comprehensive contact with God, the need of God’s Himself choosing some individual and conveying through him the knowledge about His reality is obvious. A glance at the Old Testament shows how some persons were selected from among the `Children of Israel’ with whom God `spoke’. God’s act of self-revelation to humankind through the elect is what may be taken to be the crux of the epistemology of prophethood in Islam.


As is obvious, by the very nature of it, the prophet’s mode of obtaining Divine gnosis is such as to put a permanent cleavage between itself and other modes of human experience. Whether it is sensory experience or rational or intuitive experience, they are all basically human ways of apprehension of reality subject to enormous handicaps and limitations. Revelation, on the other hand, is a process in which Divinity partakes very actively in its effort of self-expression. While in ordinary human experiences, the subject is the real actor in getting at things, in the latter’s case, he is just a passive recipient (i.e. not an actor but one who is acted upon). This basic character of revelation as something given (not acquired) was affirmed in the speculative interpretation of it that unfolded itself through the history of kalam. There were, however, important differences among thinkers in determining what was exactly the mode of its receiving by the recipient (S). Description of this mode, as inferred from the verses of the Quran and as given in detail in traditions, was such in nature that disagreement was natural to occur. One thing, for example, which created particular difficulty and caused controversy was the problem of understanding those situations in which what was ordinarily considered supernatural was given a naturalistic content. For instance, apart from the mode of revelation to the prophets through dreams, etc., one mode (especially in the case of the Prophet Muhammad [S]) was the Gabriel’s carrying of the message to the Prophet (S) while appearing in a human guise. In such cases, supernatural events meddled with natural events and consequently one person’s understanding of the real nature of the situation differed from that of another. While many people, mainly theologians, thought it unnecessary and undesirable to problematize these situations, for many others a philosophical probe and `a rational explanation’ of them was most necessary.


While repeating that almost all sections of thinking Muslims down the centuries concurred upon the unacquired character of revelation, the interpretational difference among them can be made discernible by broadly dividing them into two groups. The first of these may be said to be the. group of internalists, while the second group may be called externalists. The former, mainly comprising philosophers and philosophically oriented mystics and theologians, understood revelation in terms of a habitus or a faculty which they said God especially created among those whom He predecided to choose as the media for His communications. It was this special internal faculty in the body of a man which enabled him at times to have access to those domains of supernal reality which could not be trekked by the different noetic faculties possessed by the ordinary mortals.


Although a rational philosophical interpretation of revelation was started by al-Farabi, the man who decisively influenced the entire course of subsequent speculative discussion of the subject was the great Ibn Sina. As is now fairly known, these early Muslim philosophers possessed an eclectic acumen which they superbly utilized in making out a creative blend of the materials available to them from different sources and developing an intellectualistic super system that could do justice to both Islamic beliefs and the canons of philosophy.


Thus, Ibn Sina’s interpretation of revelation, as of al-Farabi’s, is intellectualistic. It is a part of and perfectly fits into their general intellectualistic system of cosmology and cosmogony for which they are so famous. Indeed the presence of the Hellenic factor, which blurred the distinction of epistemological events and the ontological ones, is most conspicuous here. The Logos was for Greeks an act of God’s self­ thinking and it became itself an entity to serve as an agency for the realization of God’s creative activity. While Christians deified this Logos by identifying it with their idea of Christ, the Muslim philosophers, too, picked it out as a basic category to explain the problems of the creation of the universe on the one hand and the phenomenon of revelation on the other.


The Logos, called by Muslim philosophers Active Intelligence, was according to them an intermediate reality between God and His creation both in ontological and epistemological sense. It was an agency through which God expressed both His Being and His Knowledge, i.e. Himself, as well as knowledge about Himself. The realm of intellect had two regions, one being the higher, transcendental and Divine and the other, mundane and human. The Active Intelligence lay in the middle, having contact with both the regions.


Now, since a prophet was by definition both human as well as recipient of Divine communications, his place in the scheme of philosophers was between the human intellect and the Active Intelligence. He was the bearer of `aql-e mustafad (Acquired Intellect) which was the perfected state of actual intellect possessed by ordinary human beings in varying degrees.


Ibn Sina points out that in all human beings there is a discernible creative potential, as some of the knowledge possessed by them is not a result of the working of their minds upon the data supplied by the sense perception but a direct endowment of Active Intelligence to the minds. The philosophers, the poets, the artists, and others exhibit this potential in a more explicit manner although at a lesser scale it is found in all men. Now the person in whom this creativity finds its most perfect expression is called `prophet’. He is a human being, but his capacity to obtain knowledge is immense, indeed infinite; in other words, his access to Active Intelligence is quite direct and closest. And since all his knowledge is innately creative, he does not need any external instructor to teach him that knowledge.


The creative potential of a prophet is nothing but a power, extraordinary in his case but ordinary in the case of other people – to arrive at certain knowledge without the help of mental operations which would have been otherwise necessarily required to produce that knowledge. By its very nature, it occurs to the person concerned as something sudden and spontaneous. Explaining Ibn Sina’s position here, Fadl al-Rahman writes: “We know, Avicenna tells us, that people differ in their power of intuition, i.e. hitting at a truth without consciously formulating a syllogism in their minds and therefore without time. Since there are people who are almost devoid of this power, while there are others who possess it, some in greater and others in lesser degree, it follows that there may be a man naturally so gifted that he intuits all things `at a stroke’ or `flares up’ with an intuitive illumination as Avicenna puts it ….” [4]


The doctrine of prophetic revelation being essentially `a natural intuitive power of hitting at truths’ has been echoed in the writings of as late an author as Sayyid Ahmad Khan who speaks of the presence in the constitution of all men of a habitus (malakah) of revelation, being in its most purified and perfected form in the constitution of prophets. He says:


… Prophethood, in reality, is a natural thing. It exists in the prophets by exigency of their nature, as do the other human faculties …. Among the thousands of human habitus sometimes some special habitus is so strong in a certain man on account of this person’s constitution and nature that he is called the imam or prophet of this very kind of habitus. A blacksmith too can be the imam or prophet of his craft. A poet too can be the imam or prophet of his art. A doctor too can be the imam or prophet in his medical art. Yet a person who heals spiritual illnesses and upon whom has been bestowed by God the habitus of teaching and fostering (human) morals in accordance with his nature is called a prophet …. [5]


At another place he writes:


As there are other faculties in man, so, in the same way, there is in him the habitus of revelation. One of the human faculties may be completely wanting in one man whereas it may exist in another. We further see that one and the same faculty is found in different men to different degrees. In one to a very low degree, in another to a higher degree and in a third to a much higher degree. In exactly the same way the habitus of revelation in some people is wanting; some have little, some more, and some very much. [6]


It is clear that the doctrine outlined above is in a very plain sense an internalistic doctrine as it envisages the source of revelation within the constitution of man, not outside it. As such, it stands in open contrast with the literalistic view on a number of points. It goes against the latter position not only for its advocacy of an internal source of revelation but also for its denial of the prophet being in some way special as a bearer of revelation. The internalization and universalization of the capacity to receive and reveal the Divine secrets seems prima facie to vacate from the whole prophetic institution what is essential to it, i.e. its infallibility, its exclusiveness, as well as its authoritative awe. There seems to be nothing left if revelation is a property which is shared by all human beings only with a difference of degree. In what sense, then, is a prophet a `chosen’ individual as insisted upon by the verses of the Quran. Apart from this basic point, there are some other facts which have been traditionally connected with the event of revelation and which the philosophers needed to take into account in order to establish their doctrine. Prominent among these is what may be called the `periodicality’ of revelation. Clearly, if the power `to reveal’ has been an inbuilt characteristic of a prophet, he should have been permanently in the state of revealing things; i.e. whatever a prophet had uttered on any occasion and at any stage of his life should be taken to possess the status of revelation. But, according to traditional belief, this is not the case. Revelations came to the prophets not generally but only occasionally and periodically. While some of the prophets received unexpectedly and without having any particular context, more often than not they were uttered on the impulse of some specific occasion. It often happened that a prophet was faced with a critical situation or a companion made before him a query for which he had no immediate solution and then the Divine guidance came to him relieving him from his puzzle.


There were also certain clear physical signs for the Companions and for the Prophet himself which preceded the advent of revelation and by virtue of which they came to recognize and distinguish the revealed words from the non-revelatory ones. One such sign for the Prophet was that he heard the chime of a bell (called in Arabic silsilat al jaras) which alerted him to be ready to receive the Divine message. Besides, the Prophet invariably went into a state of trance and showed physical tension while receiving the revelation. One proof that the revealed words were different from a prophet’s usual utterances was the fundamental difference of diction and style between the two kinds of discourses. In the case of the Prophet Mohammad (S), his own discourses (preserved in the books of hadith) and the text of Quran (which contains the Divinely revealed words) are distinguishable even for a man who has only elementary familiarity with the Arabic language. Each of these two has its own personal form and style which it consistently follows without anywhere admitting any overlapping. The distinction is indeed so glaring and so irreducible that some theologians have adduced it to prove the claim of Muhammad(S) for receiving Divine communication. For, as they argue, how an illiterate person could so consistently follow in his life two different kinds of style and diction while communicating with his people.


There are several traditions about the Prophet Muhammad(S) which suggest that the receiving of the revelation used to have been a very trying experience for him. Not only that he suffered physical and mental tension, the effects were also transmitted outside his body. It is, for example, related in the Sahih Muslim (one of the supposedly authentic collections of hadith) that once while the Prophet was travelling on a she-camel, revelation came to him. The event was so pressural that the animal could not move further; it was even unable to keep standing on its feet and sat down. It was only when the communication stopped that it stood up and walked. Similarly, in another instance it is recorded that the revelation descended on the Prophet (S) while he was lying, his head being in the lap of `Ali (A). ‘Ali (A) felt as if his legs are going to break, the pain continued till the revelation was over. Besides these specific instances, it was a common phenomenon that whenever the revelation came to the Prophet, his face turned red. His body began trembling and sweating even if it was extremely cold. Such instances of the physical effects on the Prophet while communicating with God suggest rather strongly that the revelation was an externally caused occurrence in which the Prophet participated only unwittingly and passively.


At the last may be considered the anthropomorphically described nature of the angelic agency which is said to bring the message of God to the Prophet. The Archangel Gabriel, who is said to be specially entrusted for this job, has been mentioned in several places in the Quran by different names. In one place God asks the Prophet to say to mankind “… who is an enemy of Gabriel. For he it is who hath revealed (this Scripture) to thy heart by Allah’s leave” (2:97). In another place God again says to the Prophet to tell the people that “The Holy Spirit hath revealed it from thy Lord with Truth, that it may confirm (the faiths of) those who believe” (16:102). In another verse he has been given the name `Spirit of Faith’. “Verily this is a revelation., from the Lord of the worlds. With it came down the Spirit of Faith and Truth” (26:192-3). Similarly, in a yet other verse his position has been quite exalted: “Verily this is the word of a most honourable Messenger, endued with power, with rank before The Lord of the Throne. With authority there (and) faithful to His trust“(81:19-21). These verses of the Quran are confirmed by those traditions in which the angel has even been said to often appear before the Prophet and his Companions in a human form. The point is that if the angelic agency is really taken in its traditional reified meaning the internalistic theory will be harder put to establish its truth.


Before we proceed any further in the discussion of where does the philosophical theory stand against the arguments posed by the externalists’ theory and whether there is any possibility of reconciling the two seemingly conflicting standpoints, it may be worthwhile to consider here a third approach to the problem which, at least in part, bridges the gulf that separates the orthodox position with the philosophers’. This third doctrine, which explains revelation in evolutionary terms, had among its exponents people of no less stature than Rumi, Ibn Miskawayh, Ibn Khaldun, and latterly Shah Wall Allah of Delhi. Since it would not be desirable to go at length in the exposition of all these authors, we may concentrate here upon Ibn Khaldun-who was its most systematic exponent and was at once free from the simplism and literalism of orthodox scholars on the one hand and the speculationism and the muddle-headedness of the philosophers on the other.


Ibn Khaldun’s theory takes into account certain simple truths about the constitution of our physical cosmos on the one hand and about the human psyche on the other. It says, in the first place, that the universe we inhabit displays in its constitution a certain order and harmony so that the various elements in it seem to be connected, concatenated and combined with each other in the relations of cause and effect and their amenability to be transformed from one to another. There is a visible pattern of an ascending order wherein one element is higher than the other element which itself is higher to a third element and so on. From the point of view of their ontic status we can proceed upwardly from earth to water, from water to air and from air to fire, The next upward stage from fire is the realm of spheres which, contrary to the preceding elements, is not visible, but whose existence we can nevertheless infer from the fact of motions and movements of the elements. For the elements, which are dead and motionless in themselves, can move only by some external force which, as Aristotle said, is applied by spiritual things.


Apart from the `world of elements’ there is the `world of creation’ wherein also we see the same order, same harmony and same tendency to move from lower stages to higher ones. The inorganic matter grows into plants which themselves progress to become animals, and animals in turn prepare the ground for the emergence of man. [7]


Ibn Khaldun says that whether it is the world of elements or the world of created things, it is invariably the case that the higher stage in the order is finer and subtler than the preceding one; and the former has always the capacity to influence the latter. Also it helps the latter to evolve and transform itself into a higher form. This implies that while the human soul, being superior to the elements which make up man’s body, can influence the latter, it .is itself susceptible of being influenced by and be transformed into the still higher levels of existence. This higher level is the realm of angels. The soul, as Ibn Khaldun says, “consequently, must be prepared to exchange humanity for angelicality in order actually to become part of the angelic species at certain times in the flash of a moment. This happens after the spiritual essence of the soul has become perfect in actuality …. [8]


The soul, with its upward and downward connections, is able to acquire two diverse kinds of knowledge respective to two different kinds of ontological worlds. In the perspective of its relations with the body it performs perceptive and apperceptive kinds of cognitive functions, but when it approaches the realm of angels it is afforded with the `reflective’, i.e. of the eternal truths about the hidden, unseen reality. This cosmological framework to the problem of revelation in Ibn Khaldun is supplemented when his philosophy takes an about turn and moves to take a peep into the abysses of the human psyche. The soul sharpens its powers of perceiving and thinking progressively as it advances further and further into its own inward regions. The external sense-perceptions lead to inward perceptions which in turn develop successively into the powers of estimation, imagination, and memory and then, lastly, into the power of thinking. It is this last power of thinking that ` causes reflection to be set in motion and leads toward intellection. The soul is constantly moved by it as a result of its constitutional desire to (think. It wants to be free from the grip of power and the human kind of preparedness. It wants to proceed to active intellection by assimilating itself to the highest spiritual group (that of angels) and to get into the first order of spiritualia by perceiving them without the help of bodily organs. Therefore the soul is constantly moving in that direction. It exchanges all humanity and human spirituality for angelicality of the highest stage ….” [9]


After describing in this manner the various levels of the cognitive potential of man, Ibn Khaldun proceeds to divide the souls into three kinds. One kind of soul, possessed by ordinary mortals, is by nature too weak to arrive at the spiritual perceptions, Consequently, it remains tied down with the bodily organs of experiencing, which enable it to acquire, at the best, the powers of imagination, memory and estimation. The second kind of soul, the soul of the mystic, is able to rise above its physical connections to a limited extent and approach the spiritual realm, thanks to its innate preparedness for it. The third kind of soul, which is the privilege of individuals called prophets, is:


by nature suited to exchange humanity altogether, both corporeal and spiritual humanity, for angelicality of the highest stage, so that it may actually become an angel in the flash of a moment, glimpse the highest group within their own stage, and listen to essential speech and Divine address during that moment. (Individuals possessing this kind of soul) are prophets. God implanted and formed in them the natural ability to slough off humanity in that moment which is the state of revelation ….


(The prophets) move in that direction, slough off their humanity, and, once among the highest group (of angels), learn all that may there be learned. They then bring what they have learned back down to the level of the powers of human perception, as this is the way in which it can be transmitted to human beings. At times, this may happen in the form of a noise the prophet hears. It is like indistinct words from which he derives the idea conveyed to him. As soon as the noise has stopped he retains and understands (the idea). At other times, the angel who conveys (the message) to the prophet appears to him in the form of a man who talks to him, and the prophet comprehends what he says. Learning the message from the angel, reverting to the level of human perception, and understanding the message conveyed to him-all this appears to take place in one moment, or rather, in a flash. It does not take place in time, but everything happens simultaneously. Therefore it appears to happen very quickly. For this reason, it is called wahy (revelation), because the root w-h-y has the meaning `to hasten’. [10]


It may be seen that Ibn Khaldun’s theory moves in close pace with the theological position on certain points. There is, in the first place, no reduction of the prophetic soul to the level of ordinary human souls as done by the philosophers. While the latter spoke of all human souls being the same in kind (though differing in their powers of hitting at truth), Ibn Khaldun envisages here a distinct kind of soul in the case of prophets which makes his position more commensurate to the idea of a prophet being `special’ and `chosen’. Secondly Ibn Khaldun’s conception of angels (who bring the Divine message to the prophets) is quite the same as has been the traditional idea. But this is not the case with philosophers who have not only depersonalized the angels but have also de-reified them. Sayyid Ahmad Khan, for- example, is quite emphatic in saying that what in theology we call angel is only the capacity or habitus in the prophet which enables him to know the hidden higher truths and nothing else. And in this, he, clearly, has only followed the position of earlier philosophers like Ibn Sina and others.


But the difference between the two theories cannot be pressed any further. In fact Ibn Khaldun’s theory is basically in the same philosophical tradition of which al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, Ibn al-`Arabi and others were earlier proponents. For, in regard to the fundamental question of the source of revelation, Ibn Khaldun, too, finds it to be in the internal constitution of the prophets. The prophets, he clearly states, a “move towards the angelic stage, sloughing off humanity at will, by virtue of their natural constitution, and not with the help of any acquired faculty or craft.” [11] The prophet, of course, does not learn through ordinary means what he later communicates, but all the same he has to depend upon his own innate and inborn capacity for revelation. In the idea of transfiguration-wherein the prophet is said to exchange his humanity for angelicality-also the movement was from lower to higher, which implied that it was the prophet himself who by virtue of his extra­cognitive powers made contacts with the angelic realm and not vice versa.


Thus, even though the evolutionistic theory accommodates certain elements of the externalistic theory, it basically does not go beyond the internalistic framework of the philosophers. This means that the gulf between the two opposite standpoints survives. In the remaining part we shall attempt to see whether this gulf can be bridged or at least can be narrowed down to any substantial extent.


It would seem quite natural at this stage to take recourse to the verses of the Quran in order to solve this problem. But in spite of the fact that the word wahy and its equivalents find mention in a good number of places in the Book, it is nonetheless not possible to extract from them a clear-cut theory about the matter. The Quran mentions the matter both in the human and nonhuman contexts. While in most of the verses God is the giver of the revelation, there are also places where the transpiration takes place exclusively between the humans or between angels and humans. Similarly, while humans are generally the recipients of it, at places angels, animals and even nonliving things are also said to be among those who enjoy this Divine gift. Prophets, nonprophetic but still morally superior human beings, ordinary mortals, bees and mountains are all said to be receiving this Divine communication occasionally or on a permanent basis. Look at the following verses wherein things other than God are found receiving the revelation.


Then he (Zachariah, the prophet) came forth unto his people from the sanctuary, and signified (awha) to them: Glorify your Lord at break of day and fall of night (19:11).


And it was not (vouchsafed) to any mortal that Allah should speak to him unless (it be) by revelation (wahyan) or from behind a veil, or (that) He sendeth a messenger to reveal (yuhi) what He will by His leave …. (42:51)


Thus have We appointed unto every prophet an adversary-devils of humankind and jinn who inspire (yuhi) in one another plausible discourse through guile …. (6.112)


And in the verses given below, God is the revealer but the recipient of the revelation varies from verse to verse:


Say (O Muhammad, unto mankind): `I warn you only by wahy. But the deaf hear not the call when they are warned.’ (21:45)


Then when they led him (Joseph before his ministry) off, and were of one mind that they should place him in the depth of the well, We inspired (awhayna) in him ….(12:15)


And We inspired (awhayna) the mother of Moses …. (28:7).


And when I inspired (awhaytu) the disciples (of Jesus) …. (5:111)


And thy Lord inspired (awha) the bee, saying choose your habitations in the hills and in the trees and in that which they thatch. (16:68)


Then ordained them seven heavens in two days and inspired (awha) in each heaven its mandate …. (41:12)


When Earth is shaken with her 60nal) earthquake. And Earth yieldeth up her burdens. And man saith: `What aileth her?’ That day she will relate her chronicles. Because thy Lord inspireth (awha) her. (99:1-5)


It is clear that-due to its use in such varied and diverse contexts, the word hardly carries any singular meaning in all these verses except what it literally connotes. We are in any case not able to describe exactly what is actually the nature and character of the revelation-event in the light of the Quran. In Arabic the word wahy, both literally and according to its usage, stands for a certain gesture by someone to someone else which is surreptitious and hidden. It also signifies loosely the stimulation of heart in a sudden and unexpected manner. Revelation comes to the heart of the recipient very swiftly, like a flash of light, so that the subject comes to be aware of the object without the mediation of any formal or technical apparatus such as verbal or written language. It may be seen that except for this common factor the word wahy (in English, revelation or inspiration) carries very different meanings in different cases.


In fact, even if we leave aside those verses wherein other-than-God things communicate, and confine ourselves only to those ones in which God is the cause- of revelation, we will arrive at two different conclusions as following .from two distinct kinds of verses, i.e. one in which the subject is human and the other in which it is non-human or nonliving thing.


For, if we think upon the verse relating to bees, it is clear that in this case the revelation or inspiration means nothing except a natural and inborn capacity in- the insect to live its life as it lives: Similarly when God says that He inspires in each heaven its mandate or that the earth will relate its agony according to its inspiration from God, what is meant is their pursuing the course upon which they have been set by Divinity. This would mean that the revelation is nothing but some built-in capacity or power in the subjects which finds its sporadic or perpetual expression in the behaviour of those subjects.


But a different conclusion will follow if we shift our attention to the cases in which the subjects are humans, whether prophets or non­prophets. For, in such cases, we see that certain critical moments in the life of the subjects are selected for the particular experience. The subject’s enlightenment in no case seems to emerge from any faculty which he or she is carrying from his or her birth. The subject all of a sudden finds solution of the crisis in which he has been entangled and he feels that neither his senses nor his reason has helped him out of that difficulty. Besides, the extraordinary conviction and the sense of authenticity and infallibility which symbiotically emerge with the occurrence of the event also testify that some extrapersonal factor is responsible for its occurrence. For example, when the idea dawned in the heart of Moses’ mother that she should put the child in a basket to be carried away afloat on the river, it was not just her reason or common sense which led her to do it. Had it been so she would never have had the courage to take such a drastic step so unhesitatingly. Her confidence and the absence of any hesitation in her act must have had behind it an absolute trust in what she has been told. As for prophets, evidence supporting the externalistic theory has already been cited in the preceding pages.


Very complex though the problem may be, but still certain issues can be sorted out and their complexity eased by making a closer analytical look at them. It seems that a linguistic scrutiny of the phrases and nuances which the two respective theorists employ may go a long way in bringing close to each other what appear to be poles apart.


It may be noticed in the first place that the internalists too, like the externalists, are quite emphatic in denying the prophetic revelation as something which the prophet acquires by his own effort. Whether Ibn Sina or Ibn Khaldun or Sayyid Ahmad Khan, they all take care to emphasize that whatever a prophet reveals, it has not been imparted to him through any human agency, neither does he learn it by employing his ordinary faculties, which he, like other men, possesses from birth and which develop in the course of the growth of his personality. The capacity to reveal is absolutely independent of his other cognitive powers. While revealing a prophet is completely cut off from his mundane living and is in direct contact with some superior reality-with an angel or the Active Intellect, as that reality is variously called. This is a very important point. For it, by implication, draws a line of cleavage between the experience of the mystic and that of the prophet. A mystic is such not due to some of his inborn faculties which he is privileged to possess and which are denied to other men. The intuitive faculty is universal; only certain persons decide to cultivate it, and, through constant efforts, are able to galvanize it into action, while most of the people ignore it and consequently the capacity to acquire transempirical knowledge remains dormant in them. Every man is a potential mystic; he can rise to these heights if he chooses to. He has to make the decision and then indulge in meditations, concentration and other devout practices. Per contra, a prophet is a prophet by birth; he is a prophet not by his choice or by his effort. He is just made a prophet by destiny. There is a certain fatalism involved in his case which is in direct contrast with the facts of decision, deliberation and endeavour which characterize and are presumed in the mystical experience. Although certain prophets have been reported to be favourably inclined towards meditation, abstinence, seclusion, etc. in their preprophetic lives, at no place any philosopher has dared to suggest that these were in any way responsible for the emergence of the power of revelation in them.


It is true that according to the philosophers both revelation and mystical experience are rooted in man’s intuitive faculty and have the heart as their seat, and it is also true that both convey the message about the transphenomenal world. But the similarity between the two ends there. On the rather more basic question of what really makes possible the occurrence of two kinds of experiences, the answer in two cases is radically different. While a mystic’s communication with the Divine is occasioned purely by his own efforts in which he possibly gets some help from the other side, in the case of prophets the converse is true. Because, in his case, it is Divinity itself which chooses a certain person to receive the message It wants to convey to mankind through him..


The literalist theory is in fact a rational impossibility inasmuch as it involves a bad metaphysics i.e. a kind of anthropomorphism which not even’ traditionalist theologians would otherwise find to be agreeable. When a common man makes such statements as `God sent the message to prophets’, `the prophet received the message from God’, ‘Gabriel brought the message from God’, he tends to think as if there is a Supreme Being, God, who sits in heavens and from among His cohorts orders someone to carry a certain communication to the person-elect, which the carrier in question faithfully obeys by uttering the words in the ears of the person communicated to. Now this is all patently absurd. God is obviously not a localized entity, nor the heavens a world situated in the sky. The angels, too, cannot be anthropomorphized to the extent it is done in the said theory.


God, to be sure, is a universal spiritual presence which is not isolated or apart from the physical world; He is rather the underlying substratum of which the latter is merely a contrived transfiguration. Similarly, the soul, the recipient of the Divine message, is also an elusive, evanescent and non-localized being whose mode of communicating with God must be entirely different from the way of our communication with the outside reality. The spiritual and the material are, functionally, two entirely different realms and require two different modes of conceptualization for their proper comprehension. But since our ideational activity (of which the language is one basic manifestation) is contextually determined only with reference to mundane reality, we need to avoid its application to the spiritual realm as we more often than not unwittingly do. Such words as `giving’, `receiving’, `sending’, `carrying’, etc. have social-environmental origins and make sense only in that region of interaction. Their extension to cover the other region inevitably generates a distorted metaphysics, the example of which we see in the above theory of revelation.


It would then seem that even the externalist theory cannot be sustained in its literalist form; It must subject itself to a non-literal philosophical interpretation in order to survive. The first step in this direction would be to disinvest the doctrine of its anthropomorphic bias. Whatever be the exact mode of contact between God and the prophetic soul, it cannot be in the interlocutory pattern of human communication. This negative, de-anthropomorphized, explanation of revelation would then pave the way for its positively philosophized understanding. God’s revealing His words to prophets must in some sense imply the latter’s ability to establish a communion with God whereby he succeeds in getting knowledge which otherwise would have been denied to him. The event of revelation could be understood, as al-Ghazali has said, in terms of a certain capacity on the part of the prophet to make this kind of communion-a capacity which, of course, is peculiar to him in not being universally distributed. A prophet is a person who, thanks to his absolutely sinless life, is immune from any sort of corruption of his soul, and this fact puts him into the privileged position of sharing a part of God’s knowledge.


The difference between the prophet and the mystic is that while the prophet has an absolutely uncorrupted soul, the mystic, not being completely free from his evil propensities, is able only to make fleeting contact with God. And this results in his knowledge being fragmentary and in being, more often than not, fallible. Such an understanding of the revelatory event will save the externalist doctrine on one hand from the difficulties of its literal interpretation. On the other hand, it will also be able to keep itself away from the trap of internalism in which many people felt when they tried to rationalize the event. The prophet, in the light of this refined externalist doctrine will remain a possible recipient of Divine messages but no determinism will be involved in the whole act, as the ability to receive the revelation is due to his sin-free life. The internalistic theory of Muslim philosophers explained revelation in terms of the prophetic soul making a communion with what they called the Active Intellect, which was a second-order being having spontaneously emanated from God. Now this whole idea of the Active Intellect as the first emanation from God’s Being is Neo-Platonic and which, as al-Ghazali has convincingly shown in his Tahafut al-falasifah, stands neither to reason, nor to experience and is, besides, theologically objectionable and abhorrent. Thus, the internalist theory is by no means a model towards which a rational understanding of the phenomenon of revelation should crave. A non­-anthropomorphic, externalist interpretation would better serve the purpose for reasons of both being reasonable and theologically admissible.




The author is Lecturer of Philosophy at Aligarh Muslim University, India.


[1]. It is indeed unfortunate that even Iqbal could not save himself from falling victim to this confusion. Although at times he talks of `the fundamental pscychological differences between the mystic and the prophetic consciousness’ (Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, Lahore, 1971,p. 17) and `the psychological difference between the prophetic and the mystic type of consciousness’ (Ibid., p. 124), his general tendency is to identify religious experience with the experience of the mystic. It seems that in his eyes the real difference between the prophet’s experience and the experience of mystics was not in point of origins, contents or results, but only in point of their respective collective and individualize meaningfulness. Qualitatively the two types of experiences are the. same; only that prophet’s experience is meant for others too, that of mystic is only for his own self. As he says “A prophet may be defined as a type of mystic consciousness in which `unitary experience’ tends to overflow its boundaries and seeks opportunities of redirecting and refashioning the forces of collective life. In his personality the finite centre of life sinks into his own infinite depths only to spring up again, with fresh vigour, to destroy the old, and to disclose the new directions of life.” (Ibid., p.125).


[2]. As an example of this assimilative approach, we may cite a passage from C. G. Jung, who writes: “Creeds are codified and dogmatized forms of religious experience. The contents of experience has become sanctified and usually concealed in a rigid, often elaborate structure …. This is a definite frame, with definite contents, which cannot be coupled with or amplified by Buddhistic or Islamic ideas and emotions. Yet it is unquestionable that not only Buddha or Muhammad or Zarathustra represents religious phenomena, but that Mithras, Attis, Kybele, Mani, Hermes and many exotic cults do as well. The psychologist, inasmuch as he assumes a scientific attitude, has to disregard the claim of every creed to be the unique and eternal truth. He must keep his eye on the human side of the religious problem, in that he is concerned with the original religious experience quite apart from what the creeds have made of it.” (Psychology and Religion, New Heaven, Yale University Press, 1938, pp.6-7) ,


[3]. For a comment on such theories one cannot do better here than quote a passage from the classic work of William James on the subject. He writes: “Medical materialism seems indeed a good appellation for the too simple-minded system of thought which we are considering. Medical materialism finishes up Saint Paul by calling his vision on the road to Damascus a discharging lesion of the occipital cortex, he being an epileptic. It snubs out Saint Teresa as any hysteric, Saint Francis of Assisi as an hereditary degenerate. George Fox’s discontent with the shams of his age, and his pining for spiritual veracity, it treats as a symptom of disordered colon, Carlyle’s organtones of misery it accounts for by a gastro-duodenal catarrh. All such mental overtensions, it says, are, when you come to the bottom of the matter, mere affairs of diathesis (auto-intoxications, most probably, due to the perverted action of various glands which physiology will yet discover)” (The varieties of Religious Experience, London, 1952, pp. 14-15).


[4]. Prophecy in Islam, Rahman F., George Allen & Unwin Ltd. London, 1958, p. 31.


[5]. Sayyid Ahmad Khan’s Tafsir al-Qur’an, tr. C. W. Troll, “Sir Sayyid’s credo” The text translated in Sayyid Ahmad Khan-Reinterpretation of Muslim Theology, Vikas, Delhi, 1978, p. 281.


[6]. Ibid., p. 290.


[7]. It may be remarked here by the way that while an ontology which speaks of the possibility of the one type of existence being transformed into another type has been a common characteristic of all great philosophical traditions-Indian, Greek, and latterly (a derivatively), Muslim-seeing this transformation in an evolutionistic frame of reference is, in all probability, an exclusive Muslim contribution to the history of thought and science. See, for instance, Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddimah, Eng. Tran. (Pantheon Books, New York, 1958), p. 195.


[8]. Ibid., pp. 195-6.


[9]. Ibid., p. 197.


[10]. Ibid., pp.199-200.


[11]. Ibid., p. 199.



parzifal says, “this is not easy to get”

Gnostic Breakthrough (Barakat Amir)


there were alphabets



I – A – U

the sky-goddess

as dove

the star-goddess

as sound

to bring

the three


of birth


death: I – A – U



the Egyptian


3000 years

before Christ: to live


to be intoxicated

to live


to fly




the seasons

begin with


and the final


with end

for to end


to enter

the highest


and most



sound . . .

to bathe

in madness

raging foaming


with the primordial


of fires



to let burn

what wants to be burned: let it



break up break open

let the flame


your rigidified mind

to melt run liquefy fuse

with the flux

divine: heavenly

process —

even to fall

to ashes

and to give



another chance


Parzifal says, “reflection is good!”

Some insights from Henry Corbin who insight (Gnosis) turned on an apprehension of the Imaginary and the Imaginal–an approach to what constitutes Reality!


Mundus Imaginalis,
or the Imaginary and the Imaginal

by Henri Corbin


In offering the two Latin words mundus imaginalis as the title of this discussion, I intend to treat a precise order of reality corresponding to a precise mode of perception, because Latin terminology gives the advantage of providing us with a technical and fixed point of reference, to which we can compare the various more-or-less irresolute equivalents that our modern Western languages suggest to us.

I will make an immediate admission. The choice of these two words was imposed upon me some time ago, because it was impossible for me, in what I had to translate or say, to be satisfied with the word imaginary. This is by no means a criticism addressed to those of us for whom the use of the language constrains recourse to this word, since we are trying together to reevaluate it in a positive sense. Regardless of our efforts, though, we cannot prevent the term imaginary, in current usage that is not deliberate, from being equivalent to signifying unreal, something that is and remains outside of being and existence-in brief, something utopian. I was absolutely obliged to find another term because, for many years, I have been by vocation and profession an interpreter of Arabic and Persian texts, the purposes of which I would certainly have betrayed if I had been entirely and simply content-even with every possible precaution-with the term imaginary. I was absolutely obliged to find another term if I did not want to mislead the Western reader that it is a matter of uprooting long-established habits of thought, in order to awaken him to an order of things, the sense of which it is the mission of our colloquia at the “Society of Symbolism” to rouse.

In other words, if we usually speak of the imaginary as the unreal, the utopian, this must contain the symptom of something. In contrast to this something, we may examine briefly together the order of reality that I designate as mundus imaginalis, and what our theosophers in Islam designate as the “eighth climate”; we will then examine the organ that perceives this reality, namely, the imaginative consciousness, the cognitive Imagination; and finally, we will present several examples, among many others, of course, that suggest to us the topography of these interworlds, as they have been seen by those who actually have been there.

1. “NA-KOJA-ABAD” OR THE “EIGHTH CLIMATE” I have just mentioned the word utopian. It is a strange thing, or a decisive example, that our authors use a term in Persian that seems to be its linguistic calque: Na-kojd-Abad, the “land of No-where.” This, however, is something entirely different from a utopia.

Let us take the very beautiful tales-simultaneously visionary tales and tales of spiritual initiation-composed in Persian by Sohravardi, the young shaykh who, in the twelfth century, was the “reviver of the theosophy of ancient Persia” in Islamic Iran. Each time, the visionary finds himself, at the beginning of the tale, in the presence of a supernatural figure of great beauty, whom the visionary asks who he is and from where he comes. These tales essentially illustrate the experience of the gnostic, lived as the personal history of the Stranger, the captive who aspires to return home.

At the beginning of the tale that Sohravardi entitles “The Crimson Archangel,”1 the captive, who has just escaped the surveillance of his jailers, that is, has temporarily left the world of sensory experience, finds himself in the desert in the presence of a being whom he asks, since he sees in him all the charms of adolescence, “0 Youth! where do you come from?” He receives this reply: “What? I am the first-born of the children of the Creator [in gnostic terms, the Protoktistos, the First-Created] and you call me a youth?” There, in this origin, is the mystery of the crimson color that clothes his appearance: that of a being of pure Light whose splendor the sensory world reduces to the crimson of twilight. “I come from beyond the mountain of Qaf… It is there that you were yourself at the beginning, and it is there that you will return when you are finally rid of your bonds.”

The mountain of Qaf is the cosmic mountain constituted from summit to summit, valley to valley, by the celestial Spheres that are enclosed one inside the other. What, then, is the road that leads out of it? How long is it? “No matter how long you walk,” he is told, “it is at the point of departure that you arrive there again,” like the point of the compass returning to the same place. Does this involve simply leaving oneself in order to attain oneself) Not exactly. Between the two, a great event will have changed everything; the self that is found there is the one that is beyond the mountain of Qaf a superior self, a self “in the second person.” It will have been necessary, like Khezr (or Khadir, the mysterious prophet, the eternal wanderer, Elijah or one like him) to bathe in the Spring of Life. “He who has found the meaning of True Reality has arrived at that Spring. When he emerges from the Spring, he has achieved the Aptitude that makes him like a balm, a drop of which you distill in the hollow of your hand by holding it facing the sun, and which then passes through to the back of your hand. If you are Khezr, you also may pass without difficulty through the mountain of Qaf.

Two other mystical tales give a name to that “beyond the mountain of Qaf and it is this name itself that marks the transformation from cosmic mountain to psychocosmic mountain, that is, the transition of the physical cosmos to what constitutes the first level of the spiritual universe. In the tale entitled “The Rustling of Gabriel’s Wings,” the figure again appears who, in the works of Avicenna, is named Hayy ibn Yaqzan (“the Living, son of the Watchman”) and who, just now, was designated as the Crimson Archangel. The question that must be asked is asked, and the reply is this: “I come from Na-koja-Abad.”2 Finally, in the tale entitled “Vade Mecum of the Faithful in Love” (Mu’nis al-‘oshshaq) which places on stage a cosmogonic triad whose dramatis personae are, respectively, Beauty, Love, and Sadness, Sadness appears to Ya’qab weeping for Joseph in the land of Canaan. To the question, “What horizon did you penetrate to come here?,” the same reply is given: “I come from Na-koja-Abad

Na-koja-Abad is a strange term. It does not occur in any Persian dictionary, and it was coined, as far as I know, by Sohravardi himself, from the resources of the purest Persian language. Literally, as I mentioned a moment ago, it signifies the city, the country or land (abad) of No-where (Na-koja) That is why we are here in the presence of a term that, at first sight, may appear to us as the exact equivalent of the term ou-topia, which, for its part, does not occur in the classical Greek dictionaries, and was coined by Thomas More as an abstract noun to designate the absence of any localization, of any given situs in a space that is discoverable and verifiable by the experience of our senses. Etymologically and literally, it would perhaps be exact to translate Na-koja-Abad by outopia, utopia, and yet with regard to the concept, the intention, and the true meaning, I believe that we would be guilty of mistranslation. It seems to me, therefore, that it is of fundamental importance to try, at least, to determine why this would be a mistranslation.

It is even a matter of indispensable precision, if we want to understand the meaning and the real implication of manifold information concerning the topographies explored in the visionary state, the state intermediate between waking and sleep-information that, for example, among the spiritual individuals of Shi’ite Islam, concerns the “land of the hidden Imam” A matter of precision that, in making us attentive to a differential affecting an entire region of the soul, and thus an entire spiritual culture, would lead us to ask: what conditions make possible that which we ordinarily call a utopia, and consequently the type of utopian man? How and why does it make its appearance? I wonder, in fact, whether the equivalent would be found anywhere in Islamic thought in its traditional form. I do not believe, for example, that when Farabi, in the tenth century, describes the “Perfect City,” or when the Andalusian philosopher Ibn Bajja (Avempace), in the twelfth century, takes up the same theme in his “Regime of the Solitary”3 -I do not believe that either one of them contemplated what we call today a social or political utopia. To understand them in this way would be, I am afraid, to withdraw them from their own presuppositions and perspectives, in order to impose our own, our own dimensions; above all, I am afraid that it would be certain to entail resigning ourselves to confusing the Spiritual City with an imaginary City.

The word Na-koja-Abad does not designate something like unextended being, in the dimensionless state. The Persian word abad certainly signifies a city, a cultivated and peopled land, thus something extended. What Sohravardi means by being “beyond the mountain of Qaf is that he himself, and with him the entire theosophical tradition of Iran, represents the composite of the mystical cities of Jabalqa, Jabarsa, and Hurqalya. Topographically, he states precisely that this region begins “on the convex surface” of the Ninth Sphere, the Sphere of Spheres, or the Sphere that includes the whole of the cosmos. This means that it begins at the exact moment when one leaves the supreme Sphere, which defines all possible orientation in our world (or on this side of the world), the “Sphere” to which the celestial cardinal points refer. It is evident that once this boundary is crossed, the question “where?” (ubi, koja) loses its meaning, at least the meaning in which it is asked in the space of our sensory experience. Thus the name Na-koja-Abad: a place outside of place, a “place” that is not contained in a place, in a topos, that permits a response, with a gesture of the hand, to the question “where?” But when we say, “To depart from the where,” what does this mean?

It surely cannot relate to a change of local position,4 a physical transfer from one place to another place, as though it involved places contained in a single homogeneous space. As is suggested, at the end of Sohravardi’s tale, by the symbol of the drop of balm exposed in the hollow of the hand to the sun, it is a matter of entering, passing into the interior and, in passing into the interior, of finding oneself, paradoxically, outside, or, in the language of our authors, “on the convex surface” of the Ninth Sphere–in other words, “beyond the mountain of Qaf The relationship involved is essentially that of the external, the visible, the exoteric ( Arabic, zahir), and the internal, the invisible, the esoteric (Arabic, batin), or the natural world and the spiritual world. To depart from the where, the category of ubi, is to leave the external or natural appearances that enclose the hidden internal realities, as the almond is hidden beneath the shell. This step is made in order for the Stranger, the gnostic, to return home-or at least to lead to that return.

But an odd thing happens: once this transition is accomplished, it turns out that henceforth this reality, previously internal and hidden, is revealed to be enveloping, surrounding, containing what was first of all external and visible, since by means of interiorization, one has departed from that external reality. Henceforth, it is spiritual reality that envelops, surrounds, contains the reality called material. That is why spiritual reality is not “in the where.” It is the “where” that is in it. Or, rather, it is itself the “where” of all things; it is, therefore, not itself in a place, it does not fall under the question “where?“-the category ubi referring to a place in sensory space. Its place (its abad) in relation to this is Na-koja (No-where), because its ubi in relation to what is in sensory space is an ubique (everywhere). When we have understood this, we have perhaps understood what is essential to follow the topography of visionary experiences, to distinguish their meaning (that is, the signification and the direction simultaneously) and also to distinguish something fundamental, namely, what differentiates the visionary perceptions of our spiritual individuals (Sohravardi and many others) with regard to everything that our modern vocabulary subsumes under the pejorative sense of creations, imaginings, even utopian madness.

But what we must begin to destroy, to the extent that we are able to do so, even at the cost of a struggle resumed every day, is what may be called the “agnostic reflex” in Western man, because he has consented to the divorce between thought and being. How many recent theories tacitly originate in this reflex, thanks to which we hope to escape the other reality before which certain experiences and certain evidence place us-and to escape it, in the case where we secretly submit to its attraction, by giving it all sorts of ingenious explanations, except one: the one that would permit it truly to mean for us, by its existence, what it is! For it to mean that to us, we must, at all events, have available a cosmology of such a kind that the most astounding information of modern science regarding the physical universe remains inferior to it. For, insofar as it is a matter of that sort of information, we remain bound to what is “on this side of the mountain of Qaf What distinguishes the traditional cosmology of the theosophers in Islam, for example, is that its structurewhere the worlds and interworlds “beyond the mountain of Qaf that is, beyond the physical universes, are arranged in levels intelligible only for an existence in which the act of being is in accordance with its presence in those worlds, for reciprocally, it is in accordance with this act of being that these worlds are present to it.5 What dimension, then, must this act of being have in order to be, or to become in the course of its future rebirths, the place of those worlds that are outside the place of our natural space? And, first of all, what are those worlds?

I can only refer here to a few texts. A larger number will be found translated and grouped in the book that I have entitled Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth.6 In his “Book of Conversations,” Sohravardi writes: “When you learn in the treatises of the ancient Sages that there exists a world provided with dimensions and extension, other than the pleroma of Intelligences [that is, a world below that of the pure archangelic Intelligences], and other than the world governed by the Souls of the Spheres [that is, a world which, while having dimension and extension, is other than the world of sensory phenomena, and superior to it, including the sidereal universe, the planets and the “fixed stars”], a world where there are cities whose number it is impossible to count, cities among which our Prophet himself named Jabalqa and Jabarsa, do not hasten to call it a lie, for pilgrims of the spirit may contemplate that world, and they find there everything that is the object of their desire.”7

These few lines refer us to a schema on which all of our mystical theosophers agree, a schema that articulates three universes or, rather, three categories of universe. There is our physical sensory world, which includes both our earthly world (governed by human souls) and the sidereal universe (governed by the Souls of the Spheres); this is the sensory world, the world of phenomena (molk). There is the suprasensory world of the Soul or Angel-Souls, the Malakut, in which there are the mystical cities that we have just named, and which begins “on the convex surface of the Ninth Sphere.” There is the universe of pure archangelic Intelligences. To these three universes correspond three organs of knowledge: the senses, the imagination, and the intellect, a triad to which corresponds the triad of anthropology: body, soul, spirit-a triad that regulates the triple growth of man, extending from this world to the resurrections in the other worlds.

We observe immediately that we are no longer reduced to the dilemma of thought and extension, to the schema of a cosmology and a gnoseology limited to the empirical world and the world of abstract understanding. Between the two is placed an intermediate world, which our authors designate as ‘alam al-mithal, the world of the Image, mundus imaginalis: a world as ontologically real as the world of the senses and the world of the intellect, a world that requires a faculty of perception belonging to it, a faculty that is a cognitive function, a noetic value, as fully real as the faculties of sensory perception or intellectual intuition. This faculty is the imaginative power, the one we must avoid confusing with the imagination that modern man identifies with “fantasy” and that, according to him, produces only the “imaginary.” Here we are, then, simultaneously at the heart of our research and of our problem of terminology.

What is that intermediate universe? It is the one we mentioned a little while ago as being called the “eighth climate.”8 For all of our thinkers, in fact, the world of extension perceptible to the senses includes the seven climates of their traditional geography. But there is still another climate, represented by that world which, however, possesses extension and dimensions, forms and colors, without their being perceptible to the senses, as they are when they are properties of physical bodies. No, these dimensions, shapes, and colors are the proper object of imaginative perception or the “psycho- spiritual senses”; and that world, fully objective and real, where everything existing in the sensory world has its analogue, but not perceptible by the senses, is the world that is designated as the eighth climate. The term is sufficiently eloquent by itself, since it signifies a climate outside of climates, a place outside of place, outside of where (Na-koja-Abad!).

The technical term that designates it in Arabic, ‘alam a mithal, can perhaps also be translated by mundus archetypus, ambiguity is avoided. For it is the same word that serves in Arabic to designate the Platonic Ideas (interpreted by Sohravardi terms of Zoroastrian angelology). However, when the term refers to Platonic Ideas, it is almost always accompanied by this precise qualification: mothol (plural of mithal) aflatuniya nuraniya, the “Platonic archetypes of light.” When the term refers to the world of the eighth climate, it designates technically, on one hand, the Archetype-Images of individual and singular things; in this case, it relates to the eastern region of the eighth climate, the city of Jabalqa, where these images subsist preexistent to and ordered before the sensory world. But on the other hand, the term also relates to the western region, the city of Jabarsa, as being the world or interworld in which are found the Spirits after their presence in the natural terrestrial world and as a world in which subsist the forms of all works accomplished, the forms of our thoughts and our desires, of our presentiments and our behavior.9 It is this composition that constitutes ‘alam al-mithal, the mundus imaginalis.

Technically, again, our thinkers designate it as the world of “Images in suspense” (mothol mo’allaqa). Sohravardi! and his school mean by this a mode of being proper to the realities of that intermediate world, which we designate as Imaginalia.10 The precise nature of this ontological status results from vision any spiritual experiences, on which Sohravardi asks that we rely fully, exactly as we rely in astronomy on the observations of Hipparchus or Ptolemy. It should be acknowledged that forms and shapes in the mundus imaginalis do not subsist in the same manner as empirical realities in the physical world; otherwise anyone could perceive them. It should also be noted that the) cannot subsist in the pure intelligible world, since they have extension and dimension, an “immaterial” materiality, certainly, in relation to that of the sensory world, but, in fact, their own “corporeality” and spatiality (one might think here of the expression used by Henry More, a Cambridge Platonist, spissitudo spiritualis, an expression that has its exact equivalent in the work of Sadra Shirazi, a Persian Platonist). For the same reason, that they could have only our thought as a substratum would be excluded, as it would, at the same time, that they might be unreal, nothing; otherwise, we could not discern them, classify them into hierarchies, or make judgments about them. The existence of this intermediate world, mundus imaginalis, thus appears metaphysically necessary; the cognitive function of the Imagination is ordered to it; it is a world whose ontological level is above the world of the senses and below the pure intelligible world; it is more immaterial than the former and less immaterial than the latter.11 There has always been something of major importance in this for all our mystical theosophers. Upon it depends, for them, both the validity of visionary accounts that perceive and relate “events in Heaven” and the validity of dreams, symbolic rituals, the reality of places formed by intense meditation, the reality of inspired imaginative visions, cosmogonies and theogonies, and thus, in the first place, the truth of the spiritual sense perceived in the imaginative data of prophetic revelations.12

In short, that world is the world of “subtle bodies,” the idea of which proves indispensable if one wishes to describe a link between the pure spirit and the material body. It is this which relates to the designation of their mode of being as “in suspense,” that is, a mode of being such that the Image or Form, since it is itself its own “matter,” is independent of any substratum in which it would be immanent in the manner of an accident.13 This means that it would not subsist as the color black, for example, subsists by means of the black object in which it is immanent, The comparison to which our authors regularly have recourse is the mode of appearance and subsistence of Images “in suspense” in a mirror. The material substance of the mirror, metal or mineral, is not the substance of the image, a substance whose image would be an accident. It is simply the “place of its appearance.” This led to a general theory of epiphanic places and forms (mazhar, plural mazahir) so characteristic of Sohravardi’s Eastern Theosophy.

The active Imagination is the preeminent mirror, the epiphanic place of the Images of the archetypal world; that is why the theory of the mundus imaginalis is bound up with a theory of imaginative knowledge and imaginative function–a function truly central and mediatory, because of the median and mediatory position of the mundus imaginalis. It is a function that permits all the universes to symbolize with one another (or exist in symbolic relationship with one another) and that leads us to represent to ourselves, experimentally, that the same substantial realities assume forms corresponding respectively to each universe (for example, Jabalqa and Jabarsa correspond in the subtle world to the Elements of the physical world, while Hurqalya corresponds there to the Sky). It is the cognitive function of the Imagination that permits the establishment of a rigorous analogical knowledge, escaping the dilemma of current rationalism, which leaves only a choice between the two terms of banal dualism: either “matter” or “spirit,” a dilemma that the “socialization” of consciousness resolves by substituting a choice that is no less fatal: either “history” or “myth.”

This is the sort of dilemma that has never defeated those familiar with the “eighth climate,” the realm of “subtle bodies,” of “spiritual bodies,” threshold of the Malakut or world of the Soul. We understand that when they say that the world of Hurqalya begins “on the convex surface of the supreme Sphere,” they wish to signify symbolically that this world is at the boundary where there is an inversion of the relation of interiority expressed by the preposition in or within, “in the interior of.” Spiritual bodies or spiritual entities are no longer in a world, not even in their world, in the way that a material body is in its place, or is contained in another body. It is their world that is in them. That is why the Theology attributed to Aristotle, the Arabic version of the last three Enneads of Plotinus, which Avicenna annotated and which all of our thinkers read and meditated upon, explains that each spiritual entity is “in the totality of the sphere of its Heaven”; each subsists, certainly, independently of the other, but all are simultaneous and each is within every other one. It would be completely false to picture that other world as an undifferentiated, informal heaven. There is multiplicity, of course, but the relations of spiritual space differ from the relations of space understood under the starry Heaven, as much as the fact of being in a body differs from the fact of being “in the totality of its Heaven.” That is why it can be said that “behind this world there is a Sky, an Earth, an ocean, animals, plants, and celestial men; but every being there is celestial; the spiritual entities there correspond to the human beings there, but no earthly thing is there.”

The most exact formulation of all this, in the theosophical tradition of the West, is found perhaps in Swedenborg. One cannot but be struck by the concordance or convergence of the statements by the great Swedish visionary with those of Sohravardi, Ibn ‘Arabi, or Sadra Shirazi. Swedenborg explains that “all things in heaven appear, just as in the world, to be in place and in space, and yet the angels have no notion or idea of place or space.” This is because “all changes of place in the spiritual world are effected by changes of state in the interiors, which means that change of place is nothing else than change of state…. Those are near each other who are in like states, and those are at a distance who are in unlike states; and spaces in heaven are simply the external conditions corresponding to the internal states. For the same reason the heavens are distinct from each other. . . . When anyone goes from one place to another . . . he arrives more quickly when he eagerly desires it, and less quickly when he does not, the way itself being lengthened and shortened in accordance with the desire…. This I have often seen to my surprise. All this again makes clear how distances, and consequently spaces, are wholly in accord with states of the interiors of angels; and this being so, no notion or idea of space can enter their thought, although there are spaces with them equally as in the world.”14

Such a description is eminently appropriate to Na-koja-Abad and its mysterious Cities. In short, it follows that there is a spiritual place and a corporeal place. The transfer of one to the other is absolutely not effected according to the laws of our homogeneous physical space. In relation to the corporeal place, the spiritual place is a No-where, and for the one who reaches Na-koja-Abad everything occurs inversely to the evident facts of ordinary consciousness, which remains orientated to the interior of our space. For henceforth it is the where, the place, that resides in the soul; it is the corporeal substance that resides in the spiritual substance; it is the soul that encloses and bears the body. This is why it is not possible to say where the spiritual place is situated; it is not situated, it is, rather, that which situates, it is situative. Its ubi is an ubique. Certainly, there may be topographical correspondences between the sensory world and the mundus imaginalis, one symbolizing with the other. However, there is no passage from one to the other without a breach. Many accounts show us this. One sets out; at a given moment, there is a break with the geographical coordinates that can be located on our maps. But the “traveler” is not conscious of the precise moment; he does not realize it, with disquiet or wonder, until later. If he were aware of it, he could change his path at will, or he could indicate it to others. But he can only describe where he was; he cannot show the way to anyone.


We will touch here on the decisive point for which all that precedes has prepared us, namely, the organ that permits penetration into the mundus imaginalis, the migration to the “eighth climate.” What is the organ by means of which that migration occurs-the migration that is the return ab extra ad intra (from the exterior to the interior), the topographical inversion (the intussusception)? It is neither the senses nor the faculties of the physical organism, nor is it the pure intellect, but it is that intermediate power whose function appears as the preeminent mediator: the active Imagination. Let us be very clear when we speak of this. It is the organ that permits the transmutation of internal spiritual states into external states, into vision-events symbolizing with those internal states. It is by means of this transmutation that all progression in spiritual space is accomplished, or, rather, this transmutation is itself what spatializes that space, what causes space, proximity, distance, and remoteness to be there.

A first postulate is that this Imagination is a pure spiritual faculty, independent of the physical organism, and consequently is able to subsist after the disappearance of the latter. Sadra Shirazi, among others, has expressed himself repeatedly on this point with particular forcefulness.15 He says that just as the soul is independent of the physical material body in receiving intelligible things in act, according to its intellective power, the soul is equally independent with regard to its imaginative power and its imaginative operations. In addition, when it is separated from this world, since it continues to have its active Imagination at its service, it can perceive by itself, by its own essence and by that faculty, concrete things whose existence, as it is actualized in its knowledge and in its imagination, constitutes eo ipso the very form of concrete existence of those things (in other words: consciousness and its object are here ontologically inseparable). All these powers are gathered and concentrated in a single faculty, which is the active Imagination. Because it has stopped dispersing itself at the various thresholds that are the five senses of the physical body, and has stopped being solicited by the concerns of the physical body, which is prey to the vicissitudes of the external world, the imaginative perception can finally show its essential superiority over sensory perception.

“All the faculties of the soul,” writes Sadra Shirazi, “have become as though a single faculty, which is the power to configure and typify (taswir and tamthil); its imagination has itself become like a sensory perception of the suprasensory: its imaginative sight is itself like its sensory sight. Similarly, its senses of hearing, smell, taste, and touch-all these imaginative senses-are themselves like sensory faculties, but regulated to the suprasensory. For although externally the sensory faculties are five in number, each having its organ localized in the body, internally, in fact, all of them constitute a single synaisthesis (hiss moshtarik).” The Imagination being therefore like the currus subtilis (in Greek okhema, vehicle, or [in Proclus, Iamblichus, etc.] spiritual body) of the soul, there is an entire physiology of the “subtle body” and thus of the “resurrection body,” which Sadra Shirazi discusses in these contexts. That is why he reproaches even Avicenna for having identified these acts of posthumous imaginative perception with what happens in this life during sleep, for here, and during sleep, the imaginative power is disturbed by the organic operations that occur in the physical body. Much is required for it to enjoy its maximum of perfection and activity, freedom and purity. Otherwise, sleep would be simply an awakening in the other world. This is not the case, as is alluded to in this remark attributed sometimes to the Prophet and sometimes to the First Imam of the Shi’ites: “Humans sleep. It is when they die that they awake.”

A second postulate, evidence for which compels recognition, is that the spiritual Imagination is a cognitive power, an organ of true knowledge. Imaginative perception and imaginative consciousness have their own noetic (cognitive) function and value, in relation to the world that is theirs-the world, we have said, which is the ‘alam al-mithal, mundus imaginalis, the world of the mystical cities such as Hurqalya, where time becomes reversible and where space is a function of desire, because it is only the external aspect of an internal state.

The Imagination is thus firmly balanced between two other cognitive functions: its own world symbolizes with the world to which the two other functions (sensory knowledge and intellective knowledge) respectively correspond. There is accordingly something like a control that keeps the Imagination from wanderings and profligacy, and that permits it to assume its full function: to cause the occurrence, for example, of the events that are related by the visionary tales of Sohravardi and all those of the same kind, because every approach to the eighth climate is made by the imaginative path. It may be said that this is the reason for the extraordinary gravity of mystical epic poems written in Persian (from ‘Attar to jami and to Nur ‘Ali1-Shah), which constantly amplify the same archetypes in new symbols. In order for the Imagination to wander and become profligate, for it to cease fulfilling its function, which is to perceive or generate symbols leading to the internal sense, it is necessary for the mundus imaginalis–the proper domain of the Malakut, the world of the Soul-to disappear. Perhaps it is necessary, in the West, to date the beginning of this decadence at the time when Averroism rejected Avicennian cosmology, with its intermediate angelic hierarchy of the Animae or Angeli caelestes. These Angeli caelestes (a hierarchy below that of the Angeli intellectuales) had the privilege of imaginative power in its pure state. Once the universe of these Souls disappeared, it was the imaginative function as such that was unbalanced and devalued. It is easy to understand, then, the advice given later by Paracelsus, warning against any confusion of the Imaginatio vera, as the alchemists said, with fantasy, “that cornerstone of the mad.”16

This is the reason that we can no longer avoid the problem of terminology. How is it that we do not have in French [or in English] a common and perfectly satisfying term to express the idea of the ‘alam al-mithal? I have proposed the Latin mundus imaginalis for it, because we are obliged to avoid any confusion between what is here the object of imaginative or imaginant perception and what we ordinarily call the imaginary. This is so, because the current attitude is to oppose the real to the imaginary as though to the unreal, the utopian, as it is to confuse symbol with allegory, to confuse the exegesis of the spiritual sense with an allegorical interpretation. Now, every allegorical interpretation is harmless; the allegory is a sheathing, or, rather, a disguising, of something that is already known or knowable otherwise, while the appearance of an Image having the quality of a symbol is a primary phenomenon (Urphanomen), unconditional and irreducible, the appearance of something that cannot manifest itself otherwise to the world where we are.

Neither the tales of Sohravardi, nor the tales which in the Shi’ite tradition tell us of reaching the “land of the Hidden Imam,” are imaginary, unreal, or allegorical, precisely because the eighth climate or the “land of No-where” is not what we commonly call a utopia. It is certainly a world that remains beyond the empirical verification of our sciences. Otherwise, anyone could find access to it and evidence for it. It is a suprasensory world, insofar as it is not perceptible except by the imaginative perception, and insofar as the events that occur in it cannot be experienced except by the imaginative or imaginant consciousness. Let us be certain that we understand, here again, that this is not a matter simply of what the language of our time calls an imagination, but of a vision that is Imaginatio vera. And it is to this Imaginatio vera that we must attribute a noetic or plenary cognitive value. If we are no longer capable of speaking about the imagination except as “fantasy,” if we cannot utilize it or tolerate it except as such, it is perhaps because we have forgotten the norms and the rules and the “axial ordination” that are responsible for the cognitive function of the imaginative power (the function that I have sometimes designated as imaginatory).

For the world into which our witnesses have penetrated-we will meet two or three of those witnesses in the final section of this study-is a perfectly real world, more evident even and more coherent, in its own reality, than the real empirical world perceived by the senses. Its witnesses were afterward perfectly conscious that they had been “elsewhere”; they are not schizorphrenics. It is a matter of a world that is hidden in the act itself of sensory perception, and one that we must find under the apparent objective certainty of that kind of perception. That is why we positively cannot qualify it as imaginary, in the current sense in which the word is taken to mean unreal, nonexistent. Just as the Latin word origo has given us the derivative “original,” I believe that the word imago can give us, along with imaginary, and by regular derivation, the term imaginal. We will thus have the imaginal world be intermediate between the sensory world and the intelligible world. When we encounter the Arabic term jism mithali to designate the “subtle body” that penetrates into the “eighth climate,” or the “resurrection body,” we will be able to translate it literally as imaginal body, but certainly not as imaginary body. Perhaps, then, we will have less difficulty in placing the figures who belong neither to “myth” nor to “history,” and perhaps we will have a sort of password to the path to the “lost continent.”

In order to embolden us on this path, we have to ask ourselves what constitutes our real, the real for us, so that if we leave it, would we have more than the imaginary, utopia? And what is the real for our traditional Eastern thinkers, so that they may have access to the “eighth climate,” to Na-koja-Abad, by leaving the sensory place without leaving the real, or, rather, by having access precisely to the real? This presupposes a scale of being with many more degrees than ours. For let us make no mistake. It is not enough to concede that our predecessors, in the West, had a conception of the Imagination that was too rationalistic and too intellectualized. If we do not have available a cosmology whose schema can include, as does the one that belongs to our traditional philosophers, the plurality of universes in ascensional order, our Imagination will remain unbalanced, its recurrent conjunctions with the will to power will be an endless source of horrors. We will be continually searching for a new discipline of the Imagination, and we will have great difficulty in finding it as long as we persist in seeing in it only a certain way of keeping our distance with regard to what we call the real, and in order to exert an influence on that real. Now, that real appears to us as arbitrarily limited, as soon as we compare it to the real that our traditional theosophers have glimpsed, and that limitation degrades the reality itself. In addition, it is always the word fantasy that appears as an excuse: literary fantasy, for example, or preferably, in the taste and style of the day, social fantasy.

But it is impossible to avoid wondering whether the mundus imaginalis, in the proper meaning of the term, would of necessity be lost and leave room only for the imaginary if something like a secularization of the imaginal into the imaginary were not required for the fantastic, the horrible, the monstrous, the macabre, the miserable, and the absurd to triumph. On the other hand, the art and imagination of Islamic culture in its traditional form are characterized by the hieratic and the serious, by gravity, stylization, and meaning. Neither our utopias, nor our science fiction, nor the sinister “omega point”-nothing of that kind succeeds in leaving this world or attaining Na-koja-Abad. Those who have known the “eighth climate” have not invented utopias, nor is the ultimate thought of Shi’ism a social or political fantasy, but it is an eschatology, because it is an expectation which is, as such, a real Presence here and now in another world, and a testimony to that other world.


We ought here to examine the extensive theory of the witnesses to that other world. We ought to question all those mystics who, in Islam, repeated the visionary experience of the heavenly assumption of the Prophet Muhammad (the mi’raj), which offers more than one feature in common with the account, preserved in an old gnostic book, of the celestial visions of the prophet Isaiah. There, the activity of imaginative perception truly assumes the aspect of a hierognosis, a higher sacral knowledge. But in order to complete our discussion, I will limit myself to describing several features typical of accounts taken from Shi’ite literature, because the world into which it will allow us to penetrate seems, at first sight, still to be our world, while in fact the events take place in the eighth climate-not in the imaginary, but in the imaginal world, that is, the world whose coordinates cannot be plotted on our maps, and where the Twelfth Imam, the “Hidden Imam,” lives a mysterious life surrounded by his companions, who are veiled under the same incognito as the Imam. One of the most typical of these accounts is the tale of a voyage to “the Green Island situated in the White Sea.”

It is impossible to describe here, even in broad terms, what constitutes the essence of Shi’ite Islam in relation to what is appropriately called Sunni orthodoxy. It is necessary, however, that we should have, at least allusively present in mind, the theme that dominates the horizon of the mystical theosophy of Shi’ism, namely, the “eternal prophetic Reality” (Haqiqat mohammadiya) that is designated as “Muhammadan Logos” or “Muhammadan Light” and is composed of fourteen entities of light: the Prophet, his daughter Fatima, and the twelve Imams. This is the pleroma of the “Fourteen Pure Ones,” by means of whose countenance the mystery of an eternal theophany is accomplished from world to world. Shi’ism has thus given Islamic prophetology its metaphysical foundation at the same time that it has given it lmamology as the absolutely necessary complement. This means that the sense of the Divine Revelations is not limited to the letter, to the exoteric that is the cortex and containant, and that was enunciated by the Prophet; the true sense is the hidden internal, the esoteric, what is symbolized by the cortex, and which it is incumbent upon the Imams to reveal to their followers. That is why Shi’ite theosophy eminently possesses the sense of symbols.

Moreover, the closed group or dynasty of the twelve Imams is not a political dynasty in earthly competition with other political dynasties; it projects over them, in a way, as the dynasty of the guardians of the Grail, in our Western traditions, projects over the official hierarchy of the Church. The ephemeral earthly appearance of the twelve Imams concluded with the twelfth, who, as a young child (in A.H. 260/A.D. 873) went into occultation from this world, but whose parousia the Prophet himself announced, the Manifestation at the end of our Aion, when he would reveal the hidden meaning of all Divine Revelations and fill the earth with justice and peace, as it will have been filled until then with violence and tyranny. Present simultaneously in the past and the future, the Twelfth Imam, the Hidden Imam, has been for ten centuries the history itself of Shi’ite consciousness, a history over which, of course, historical criticism loses its rights, for its events, although real, nevertheless do not have the reality of events in our climates, but they have the reality of those in the “eighth climate,” events of the soul which are visions. His occultation occurred at two different times: the minor occultation (260/873) and the major occultation (330/942).17 Since then, the Hidden Imam is in the position of those who were removed from the visible world without crossing the threshold of death: Enoch, Elijah, and Christ himself, according to the teaching of the Qur’an. He is the Imam “hidden from the senses, but present in the heart of his followers,” in the words of the consecrated formula, for he remains the mystical pole [qotb] of this world, the pole of poles, without whose existence the human world could not continue to exist. There is an entire Shi’ite literature about those to whom the Imam has manifested himself, or who have approached him but without seeing him, during the period of the Great Occultation.

Of course, an understanding of these accounts postulates certain premises that our preceding analyses permit us to accept. The first point is that the Imam lives in a mysterious place that is by no means among those that empirical geography can verify; it cannot be situated on our maps. This place “outside of place” nonetheless has its own topography. The second point is that life is not limited to the conditions of our visible material world with its biological laws that we know. There are events in the life of the Hidden Imam-even descriptions of his five sons, who are the governors of mysterious cities. The third point is that in his last letter to his last visible representative, the Imam warned against the imposture of people who would pretend to quote him, to have seen him, in order to lay claim to a public or political role in his name. But the Imam never excluded the fact that he would manifest himself to aid someone in material or moral distress-a lost traveler, for example, or a believer who is in despair.

These manifestations, however, never occur except at the initiative of the Imam; and if he appears most often in the guise of a young man of supernatural beauty, almost always, subject to exception, the person granted the privilege of this vision is only conscious afterward, later, of whom he has seen. A strict incognito covers these manifestations; that is why the religious event here can never be socialized. The same incognito covers the Imam’s companions, that elite of elites composed of young people in his service. They form an esoteric hierarchy of a strictly limited number, which remains permanent by means of substitution from generation to generation. This mystical order of knights, which surrounds the Hidden Imam, is subject to an incognito as strict as that of the knights of the Grail, inasmuch as they do not lead anyone to themselves. But someone who has been led there will have penetrated for a moment into the eighth climate; for a moment he will have been “in the totality of the Heaven of his soul.”

That was indeed the experience of a young Iranian shaykh, ‘Ali ibn Fazel Mazandarani, toward the end of our thirteenth century, an experience recorded in the Account of strange and marvelous things that he contemplated and saw with his own eyes on the Green Island situated in the White Sea. I can only give a broad outline of this account here, without going into the details that guarantee the means and authenticity of its transmission.18 The narrator himself gives a long recital of the years and circumstances of his life preceding the event; we are dealing with a scholarly and spiritual personality who has both feet on the ground. He tells us how he emigrated, how in Damascus he followed the teaching of an Andalusian shaykh, and how he became attached to this shaykh; and when the latter left for Egypt, he together with a few other disciples accompanied him. From Cairo he followed him to Andalusia, where the shaykh had suddenly been called by a letter from his dying father. Our narrator had scarcely arrived in Andalusia when he contracted a fever that lasted for three days. Once recovered, he went into the village and saw a strange group of men who had come from a region near the land of the Berbers, not far from the “peninsula of the Shi’ites.” He is told that the journey takes twenty-five days, with a large desert to cross. He decides to join the group. Up to this point, we are still more or less on the geographical map.

But it is no longer at all certain that we are still on it when our traveler reaches the peninsula of the Shi’ites, a peninsula surrounded by four walls with high massive towers; the outside wall borders the coast of the sea. He asks to be taken to the principal mosque. There, for the first time, he hears, during the muezzin’s call to prayer, resounding from the minaret of the mosque, the Shl’ite invocation asking that “Joy should hasten,” that is, the joy of the future Appearance of the Imam, who is now hidden. In order to understand his emotion and his tears, it is necessary to think of the heinous persecutions, over the course of many centuries and over vast portions of the territory of Islam, that reduced the Shi’ites, the followers of the holy Imams, to a state of secrecy. Recognition among Shi’ites is effected here again in the observation, in a typical manner, of the customs of the “discipline of the arcanum.”

Our pilgrim takes up residence among his own, but he notices in the course of his walks that there is no sown field in the area. Where do the inhabitants obtain their food? He learns that food comes to them from “the Green Island situated in the White Sea,” which is one of the islands belonging to the sons of the Hidden Imam. Twice a year, a flotilla of seven ships brings it to them. That year the first voyage had already taken place; it would be necessary to wait four months until the next voyage.The account describes the pilgrim passing his days, overwhelmed by the kindness of the inhabitants, but in an anguish of expectation, walking tirelessly along the beach, always watching the high sea, toward the west, for the arrival of the ships. We might be tempted to believe that we are on the African coast of the Atlantic and that the Green Island belongs, perhaps, to the Canaries or the “Fortunate Isles.” The details that follow will suffice to undeceive us. Other traditions place the Green Island elsewhere-in the Caspian Sea, for example-as though to indi- cate to us that it has no coordinates in the geography of this world.

Finally, as if according to the law of the “eighth climate” ar- dent desire has shortened space, the seven ships arrive somewhat in advance and make their entry into the port. From the largest of the ships descends a shaykh of noble and commanding appearance,with a handsome face and magnificent clothes. A conversation begins,and our pilgrim realizes with astonishment that the shaykh already knows everything about him, his name and his origin. The shaykh is his Companion, and he tells him that he has come to find him: together they will leave for the Green Island. This episode bears a characteristic feature of the gnostic’sfeeling everywhere and always: he is an exile, separated from his own people, whom he barely remembers, and he has still less an idea of the way that will take him back to them. One day, though, a message arrives from them, as in the “Song of the Pearl” in the Acts of Thomas, as in the “Tale of Western Exile” by Sohravardi. Here, there is something better than a message: it is one of the companions of the Imam in person. Our narrator exclaims movingly: “Upon hearing these words, I was overwhelmed with happiness. Someone remembered me, my name was known to them!” Was his exile at an end? From now on, he is entirely certain that the itinerary cannot be transferred onto our maps.

The crossing lasts sixteen days, after which the ship enters an area where the waters of the sea are completely white; the Green Island is outlined on the horizon. Our pilgrim learns from his Companion that the White Sea forms an uncrossable zone of protection around the island; no ship manned by the enemies of the Imam and his people can venture there without the waves engulfing it. Our travelers land on the Green Island. There is a city at the edge of the sea; seven walls with high towers protect the precincts (this is the preeminent symbolic plan). There are luxuriant vegetation and abundant streams. The buildings are constructed from diaphanous marble. All the inhabitants have beautiful and young faces, and they wear magnificent clothes. Our Iranian shaykh feels his heart fill with joy, and from this point on, throughout the entire second part, his account will take on the rhythm and the meaning of an initiation account, in which we can distinguish three phases. There is an initial series of conversations with a noble personage who is none other than a grandson of the Twelfth Imam (the son of one of his five sons), and who governs the Green Island: Sayyed Shamsoddin These conversations compose a first initiation into the secret of the Hidden Imam; they take place sometimes in the shadow of: mosque and sometimes in the serenity of gardens filled with per fumed trees of all kinds. There follows a visit to a mysterious sanctuary in the heart of the mountain that is the highest pea on the island. Finally, there is a concluding series of conversations of decisive importance with regard to the possibility or in possibility of having a vision of the Imam.

I am giving the briefest possible summary here, and I must pass over in silence the details of scenery depiction and of an intensely animated dramaturgy, in order to note only the central episode. At the summit or at the heart of the mountain, which is in the center of the Green Island, there is a small temple, with a cupola, where one can communicate with the Imam, because it happens that he leaves a personal message there, but no one is permitted to ascend to this temple except Sayyed Shamsoddin and those who are like him. This small temple stands in the shadow of the Tuba tree; now, we know that this is the name of the tree that shades Paradise; it is the Tree of Being. The temple is at the edge of a spring, which, since it gushes at the base of the Tree of Paradise, can only be the Spring of Life. In order to confirm this for us, our pilgrim meets there the incumbent of this temple, in whom we recognize the mysterious prophet Khezr (Khadir). It is there, at the heart of being, in the shade of the Tree and at the edge of the Spring, that the sanctuary is found where the Hidden Imam may be most closely approached. Here we have an entire constellation of easily recognizable archetypal symbols.

We have learned, among other things, that access to the little mystical temple was only permitted to a’ person who, by attainMg the spiritual degree at which the Imam has become his personal internal Guide, has attained a state “similar” to that of the actual descendant of the Imam. This is why the idea of internal conformation is truly at the center of the initiation account, and it is this that permits the pilgrim to learn other secrets of the Green Island: for example, the symbolism of a particularly eloquent ritual.19 In the Shi’ite liturgical calendar, Friday is the weekday especially dedicated to the Twelfth Imam. Moreover, in the lunar calendar, the middle of the month marks the midpoint of the lunar cycle, and the middle of the month of Sha’ban is the anniversary date of the birth of the Twelfth Imam into this world. On a Friday, then, while our Iranian pilgrim is praying in the mosque, he hears a great commotion outside. His initiator, Sayyed, informs him that each time the day of the middle of the month falls on a Friday, the chiefs of the mysterious militia thatsurrounds the Imam assemble in “expectation of joy,” a consecrated term, as we know, which means: in the expectation of the Manifestation of the Imam in this world. Leaving the mosque, he sees a gathering of horsemen from whom a triumphal clamor rises. These are the 313 chiefs of the supernatural order of knights always present incognito in this world, in the service of the Imam. This episode leads us gradually to the final scenes that precede the farewell. Like a leitmotiv, the expression of the desire to see the Imam returns ceaselessly. Our pilgrim will learn that twice in his life he was in the Imams presence: he was lost in the desert and the Imam came to his aid. But as is an almost constant rule, he knew nothing of it then; he learns of it now that he has come to the Green Island. Alas, he must leave this island; the order cannot be rescinded; the ships are waiting, the same one on which he arrived. But even more than for the voyage outward, it is impossible for us to mark out the itinerary that leads from the “eighth climate” to this world. Our traveler obliterates his tracks, but he will keep some material evidence of his sojourn: the pages of notes taken in the course of his conversations with the Imam’s grandson, and the parting gift from the latter at the moment of farewell.

The account of the Green Island allows us an abundant harvest of symbols: (1) It is one of the islands belonging to the son of the Twelfth Imam. (2) It is that island, where the Spring of Life gushes, in the shade of the Tree of Paradise, that ensure the sustenance of the Imams followers who live far away, an that sustenance can only be a “suprasubstantial” food. (3) It situated in the west, as the city of Jabarsa is situated in the we of the mundus imaginalis, and thus it offers a strange analogy with the paradise of the East, the paradise of Amitabha in Pure Land Buddhism; similarly, the figure of the Twelfth Imam suggestive of comparison with Maitreya, the future Buddha; there is also an analogy with Tir-na’n-0g, one of the worlds the Afterlife among the Celts, the land of the West and the forever ever young. (4) Like the domain of the Grail, it is an interworld that is self-sufficient. (5) It is protected against and immune to any attempt from outside. (6) only one who is summoned there can find the way. (7) A mountain rises in the center; we have noted the symbols that it conceals. (8) Like Mont-Salvat, the inviolable Green Island is the place where his followers approach the mystical pole of the world, the Hidden Imam, reigning invisibly over this age- the jewel of the Shi’ite faith.

This tale is completed by others, for, as we have mentioned, nothing has been said until now about the islands under the reign of the truly extraordinary figures who are the five sons of the Hidden Imam (homologues of those whom Shi’ism designates as the “Five Personages of the Mantle”20 and perhaps also of those whom Manichaeism designates as the “Five Sons of the Living Spirit”). An earlier tale21 (it is from the middle of the twelfth century and the narrator is a Christian) provides us with complementary topographical information. Here again it involves travelers who suddenly realize that their ship has entered a completely unknown area. They land at a first island, al Mobaraka, the Blessed City. Certain difficulties, brought about by the presence among them of Sunni Muslims, oblige them to travel farther. But their captain refuses; he is afraid of the unknown region. They have to hire a new crew. In succession, we learn the names of the five islands and the names of those who govern them: al-Zahera, the City Blooming with Flowers; al Ra’yeqa, the Limpid City; al-Safiya, the Serene City, etc. Whoever manages to gain admittance to them enters into joy forever. Five islands, five cities, five sons of the Imam, twelve months to travel through the islands (two months for each of the first four, four months for the fifth), all of these numbers having a symbolic significance. Here, too, the tale turns into an initiation account; all the travelers finally embrace the Shi’ite faith.

As there is no rule without an exception, I will conclude by citing in condensed form a tale illustrating a case of manifestation of the Imam in person.22 The tale is from the tenth century. An Iranian from Hamadan made the pilgrimage to Mecca. On the way back, a day’s journey from Mecca (more than two thousand kilometers from Hamadan), having imprudently gone astray during the night, he loses his companions. In the morning he is wandering alone in the desert and placing his trust in God, Suddenly, he sees a garden that neither he nor anyone else has ever heard of. He enters it. At the door of a pavilion, two young pages dressed in white await him and lead him to a young mar of supernatural beauty. To his fearful and awestruck astonishment, he learns that he is in the presence of the Twelfth Imam The latter speaks to him about his future Appearance and finally addressing him by name, asks him whether he wants to return to his home and family. Certainly, he wants to do so. The Imam signals to one of his pages, who gives the traveler a purse, take him by the hand, and guides him through the gardens. The, walk together until the traveler sees a group of houses, a mosque, and shade trees that seem familiar to him. Smiling, the page asks him: “Do you know this land?” “Near where I live in Hamadan” he replies, “there is a land called Asadabad, which exactly resembles this place.” The page says to him, “But you are in Asadabad. “Amazed, the traveler realizes that he is actually near his home. He turns around; the page is no longer then he is all alone, but he still has in his hand the viaticum that ha been given to him. Did we not say a little while ago that the where, the ubi of the “eighth climate” is an ubique?

I know how many commentaries can be applied to these tale depending upon whether we are metaphysicians, traditionalist or not, or whether we are psychologists. But by way of provisional conclusion, I prefer to limit myself to asking three small questions:

1. We are no longer participants in a traditional culture; we live in a scientific civilization that is extending its control, it said, even to images. It is commonplace today to speak of a “civilization of the image” (thinking of our magazines, cinema, and television). But one wonders whether, like all commonplace this does not conceal a radical misunderstanding, a complete error. For instead of the image being elevated to the level of a world that would be proper to it, instead of it appearing invested with a symbolic function, leading to an internal sense, there is above all a reduction of the image to the level of sensory perception pure and simple, and thus a definitive degradation of the image. Should it not be said, therefore, that the more successful this reduction is, the more the sense of the imaginal is lost, and the more we are condemned to producing only the imaginary?

2. In the second place, all imagery, the scenic perspective of a tale like the voyage to the Green Island, or the sudden encounter with the Imam in an unknown oasis-would all this be possible without the absolutely primary and irreducible, objective, initial fact (Urphanomen) of a world of image-archetypes or image-sources whose origin is nonrational and whose incursion into our world is unforeseeable, but whose postulate compels recognition?

3. In the third place, is it not precisely this postulate of the objectivity of the imaginal world that is suggested to us, or imposed on us, by certain forms or certain symbolic emblems (hermetic, kabbalistic; or mandalas) that have the quality of effecting a magic display of mental images, such that they assume an objective reality?

To indicate in what sense it is possible to have an idea of how to respond to the question concerning the objective reality of supernatural figures and encounters with them, I will simply refer to an extraordinary text, where Villiers de L’Isle-Adam speaks about the face of the inscrutable Messenger with eyes of clay; it “could not be perceived except by the spirit. Creatures experience only influences that arc inherent in the archangelic entity. “Angels,” he writes, “are not, in substance, except in the free sublimity of the absolute Heavens, where reality is unified with the ideal…. They only externalize themselves in the ecstasy they cause and which forms a part of themselves.”23

Those last words, an ecstasy … which forms part of themselves, seem to me to possess a prophetic clarity, for they have the quality of piercing even the granite of doubt, of paralyzing the “agnostic reflex,” in the sense that they break the reciprocal isolation of the consciousness and its object, of thought and being; phenomenology is now an ontology. Undoubtedly, this is the postulate implied in the teaching of our authors concerning the imaginal. For there is no external criterion for the manifestation of the Angel, other than the manifestation itself. The Angel is itself the ekstasis, the “displacement” or the departure from ourselves that is a “change of state” from our state. That is why these words also suggest to us the secret of the supernatural being of the “Hidden Imam” and of his Appearances for the Shi’ite consciousness: the Imam is the ekstasis itself of that consciousness. One who is not in the same spiritual state cannot see him.

This is what Sohravardi alluded to in his tale of “The Crimson Archangel” by the words that we cited at the beginning: “If you are Khezr, you also may pass without difficulty through the mountain of Qaf.”

March 1964



1. See LArcbange empourpre, quinze traitis et ricits mystiques, Documents spirituels 14 (Paris: Fayard, 1976), 6: 201-213. For the entirety of the themes discussed here, see our book En Islam iranien: Aspects spirituels et philosophiques, new ed. (Paris: Gallimard, 1978), vol. 4, bk. 7, “Le Douzieme Imam et la chevalerie spirituelle.”

2. See L’Archange empourpre, 7: 227-239.

3. See our Histoire de la philosophic islamique (Paris: Gallimard, 1964), 1: 222 ff., 317 ff.

4. That is why the representation of the Sphere of Spheres in Peripatetic or Ptolemaic astronomy is only a schematic indication; it continues to be of value even after this astronomy is abandoned. This means that regardless of how “high” rockets or sputniks can reach, there will not be a single step made toward Na-koja-Abad, for the “threshold” will not have been crossed.

5. Regarding this idea of presence, see particularly our introduction to Molla Sadra Shirazi, Le Livre des penetrations metaphysiques (Kitab al-Masha’ir), edition and French translation (Bibliotheque Iranienne, vol. 10), Paris: Adrien-Maisonneuve, 1964, index under this term.

6. See our work Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth: From Mazdean Iran to Shi’ite Iran (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977), especially the texts of the eleven authors translated for the first time, in the second part of the work. The notes here refer to the second French edition, Corps spirituel et Terre celeste: de l’Iran mazdeen a l’ran shi’ite (Paris: Buchet-Chastel, 1979).

7. Corps spirituel, p. 147.

8. For what follows, ibid., pp. 103, 106, 112 ff., 154 ff.

9. Ibid., pp. 156 ff., 190 ff.

10. Ibid., pp. 112 ff., 154 ff.

11. Ibid., p. 155

12. Ibid., p. 112.

13. Ibid., p. 113.

14. Emanuel Swedenborg, Heaven and its Wonders and Hell, trans. J. C. Ager (New York: Swedenborg Foundation, 1900), §§ 191 to 195. Swedenborg returns repeatedly to this doctrine of space and time-for example in the short book Earths in the Universe. If there is not rigorous awareness of this, his visionary experiences will be objected to by a criticism that is as simplistic as it is ineffective, because it confuses spiritual vision of the spiritual world with what relates to the fantasy of science fiction. There is an abyss between the two.

15. See our article “La place de Molla Sadrda Shirazi (ob. 1050/1640) clans la philosophie iranienne,” Studia Islamica (1963), as well as the work cited above, note 5.

16. See our work L’Imagination creatrice dans le souftsme d’Ibn ‘Arabi, 2nd ed. (Paris: Flammarion, 1977), p. 139. (First edition translated as Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969].) Regarding the theory of the Angeli caelestes, see our book Avicenne et le Recit visionnaire, vol. 1, Bibliotheque Iranienne, vol. 4 (Paris: Adrien-Maisonneuve, 1954; 2nd ed., Paris: Berg international, 1982). English translation of the first edition: Avicenna and the Visionary Recital (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1960).

17. For more details, see En Islam iranien, vol. 4, bk. 7; and our Histoire de la philosophic islamique, pp. 101 ff.

18. See En Islam iranien, vol. 4, bk. 7, pp. 346 ff.

19. Ibid., pp. 361-362.

20. Ibid., p. 373.

21. Ibid., § 3, pp. 367 ff.

22. Ibid., § 4, pp. 374 ff.

23. Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, L’Annonciateur (epilogue).


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