“Altered states of consciousness are the key to magical powers. The necessary state of mind has a name in all traditions. No thoughts. Stopping with the internal dialogue, we go through the tip of the needle, something or nothing, Samadhi or deep subtlety.” ~ Peter Carroll, Liber Null.
Gnosis is described as true and primordial knowledge, different from purely rational or logical knowledge.
It would be knowledge about the functioning of our world in its physical and metaphysical aspects. Gnosis comes from the Greek word gnosis (γνῶσις) “knowledge” meaning direct knowledge about the divine. Gnosis, therefore, differs profoundly from the natural state of thought.
In this state, the mind is not influenced by ordinary concerns, and there, besides indescribable sensations, can arise insights and perceptions that are totally original and uncensored by the sense of sobriety.
Gnosticism, in a broader sense, can be understood as any doctrine in which knowledge (gnosis) is intended. Gnosis would be knowledge about the truth, located in a supra-sensible and metaphysical dimension, which only through very strict methods of physical, mental, and spiritual discipline could be tangible to the human understanding capacities. Throughout history, various currents of thought about the world have produced "Gnostic" readings of reality, even though not all of these can actually be treated as such, in the strict sense.
It was agreed to call Gnostics, in the most specific sense, primitive variations of Judaism and Christianity who believed in sectarian elements of probation, deprivation, isolation and contemplation as ways to free themselves from the shackles of the sensible (false) world to reach the world of truth.
Many Gnostic and heretical currents worked with two views of polarity between good and evil, some with very strict monotheistic views, others with a structure similar to Manichean Biteism, and other more plural currents that contemplate the existence of multiple creator gods.
It is at this point that the figure of the Demiurge, a rationalizing and organizing being, is combined with Christianity, sometimes as a servant or prelate of a greater intangible god, sometimes as an evil rebel who would create a material world to imprison the perfect divine beings created by the supreme.
The Demiurge receives several names in Gnostic currents, such as Samael, Yadabaoth, Sakla and Nebuel. Always seen as a rebellious and temperamental child rebelling against the perfect god (or against Sophia), he would be a cruel being who creates matter and demands that perfect beings worship him as a jealous god. The Old Testament god is often referred to as a Demiurge by anti-Semitic Gnostic currents.
In the Middle East, from 200 BC to year 0, several belief systems had important exchanges with each other that reflected the very exchanges of merchandise and the miscegenation of the people who lived there.
The Jews became familiar with the Assyrian and Babylonian cultures, as well as the Persian, and assimilated much into their beliefs. Persian dualism was largely taken into account, with an infernal structure mimicking the celestial structure, and even with some entities being brought into their belief system. In Tobit's story, for example, Asmodeus (the Persian Aeshma Daeva, or Spirit of Wrath) falls in love with a woman, and in the Talmud he becomes the demon of lust.
Around year 0, the Gnostic ideals of a triune deism based on Father, Son and Holy Spirit were strongly delineated. The latter sometimes represented as Sofia or the Mother, echoing the Egyptian triads (e.g. Isis, Osiris and Horus). Personal salvation would come through individual transcendence, as in Buddhism, or through collective evolution, through the coming of the Messiah. There were several narratives about Jesus in different sects, from 0 to 500 AD. Most of these narratives contradicted the version of the Roman Catholic Church that won the victory, and that is why it was called "apocryphal" or "writing without divine inspiration".
For the Gnostics, the trinity was composed of God the Father, God the Son and God the Mother (wisdom or Sophia). Sophia would be the wife of God, also called Pneuma or Logos.
In Buddhism, the trinity is represented by the Buddha alongside the Dharma (cycles) and the Sangha (community). The term Sophia itself may be a translation of Bodhi, the enlightenment of Buddhism.
Some Gnostic Sects
Various Gnostic sects proliferated in the Middle East, such as the Sabians or Baptists, the Essenes, the Ebionites, and other groups, such as the Pharisees and Sadducees. One of the best known Gnostic groups was that of the Nazarenes, where Jesus came from.
However, it is in Hellenic philosophy that we find for the first time what is perhaps one of the main narratives that explains the idea of gnosis and the intrapersonal aspect of practices: The Allegory of the Cave, recorded by Plato in the seventh book of The Republic. As an indirect heir of the Pythagorean tradition, who had drunk from the rites of the Orphism's mysteries, Plato would describe an organization of the world in which the sensible dimension, which challenges men, is a 'false' version of the real world.
Thus, most of the mystery schools and Gnostic traditions shared a similar root of exploration of reality, albeit through different means. While the mystery rites sought to pull "inaccessible reality" through practices where sensitivity plays a fundamental role in relation to rationality, Gnosticism focused on a much greater rationalization about the body and physiological needs, being often structured as a tradition of enclosure and eremitism.
Some Jewish sects seem to have a paternity associated with the Gnosticism of the first centuries of the Christian era. Even though there is a tendency to treat it as Gnostic, only the plurality of Christian sects invalid for institutionalized Christianity in Rome, other sects and traditions fit into this 'box'.
The Essenes, a radical Jewish community established after the Babylonian captivity, will be one of the first 'Gnostic' groups that much of the traditional literature on the subject will seek to present. These ascetics rescued traditional elements in the Pentateuch, such as the rules of Numbers, to guide community and spiritual practices.
Although the Essenes have similarities with the ultra-Orthodox Jews of modernity (including questions about the importance of the temple in Jerusalem as a center of worship), we have evidence from the Nag Hammadi collections that the Essenes advanced their theology in practices and texts which weren’t recognized neither by Judaism nor by Christianity.
We know the Essenes had severe fasts and very restrictive food, and that their community had practices of contemplation and religious reflection that more closely resemble the asceticism of Buddhism than the monastic forms of Christianity. There is a strong weight of the idea of denying or at least belittling material life, seen as a distraction from the things of the spiritual world, where the truth resides.
The Nazirites are a primitive stream of Judaism that is based on stricter rules noted in Numbers. Being a Nazirite was a 'cradle' vow made by parents as a way of raising and educating exceptional children, whose conception was considered miraculous in the firm and straight path of the divine.
Nahar or nazar derives from two possible origins in Semitic languages, one associated with rivers, the other with the role of judge and political and religious leader. Some assume that Jesus Christ, called the Nazarene, may be an embodiment of a Nazirite leader, since all the elements associated with the tradition are present in it: miraculous conception, baptism in the river's waters, and ascetic and withdrawn life, dedicated to the laws.
John the Baptist is a biblical character constantly associated with the Essenes, even though the contacts between him and Jesus, treated as cousins in the sacred texts, may identify John the Baptist as another possible Nazirite. Batista, however, seems to have attracted to himself a following of loyal followers, to whom he brought purification through water, something that can indicate a tradition of asceticism, focused on not only repudiating material life but converting those linked to it.
Another Gnostic tradition that came into contact with Christianity, much attacked in the texts of Saint Augustine, was Manicheism, developed by Mani. Mani was an Iranian religious leader who believed in the existence of a good god and an evil god, who, like the tradition of Zoroastrianism, fought for control of creation.
Mani believed that Zoroastrianism and Christianity were compatible, which led to religious persecution by both Christian prelates and Zoroastrian magicians. Saint Augustine would eliminate the evil god of Manicheism but would preserve the division between the world of men and the divine world, the second being accessible only through the seven divine virtues.
For Augustine, evil was not something real, but an illusion created by estrangement from God. Therefore, to the extent of humanity's proximity to God and the Good, the illusion would be created that the emptiness of divine absence would be a distinct entity or moral force.
The Cathars are a variety of mystical Christian traditions from the 10th to the 12th centuries, which had a dual worldview, with a malefic Demiurge and a beneficial creator.
The Cathars' goal was to achieve perfection and purity by restricting themselves from material things, being successful in structuring a plural community between Barcelona and Toulouse, forming a triangle between the Hispanic kingdoms, France and the Holy Empire (which included Switzerland, Germany and Italy).
This region would be known as Languedoc, because of the differences between the southern language and northern French (in occitan the word “yes” is “oc”, derived from hoc in Latin, whereas in northern French it was “oui”). The Languedoc community was the target of a crusade promoted by the Pope and the King of France, intending to liquidate the heresy. Much of the Languedoc Cathar record is associated with the Albigensian Crusade and the judgments of Cathar heretics.
The contact of the Jewish vision with the currents of Greek mysteries that privileged the figure of Sofia, and with the teachings of the various gospels attributed to Jesus' followers, seems to have produced an enormous variety of Gnostic mystical currents.
An interesting Gnostic sect that emerged from this mixture are the Marcellins, followers of Marcelina, a leader who had knowledge that would be the legacy of the women who followed Jesus. For them, the process of soul redemption would be necessary for the knowledge of the divine, being necessary that a spirit has several lives until it reaches this state of grace.
The Ebionites are a Jewish and Christian sect that believes that the Torah and the revelation brought by Jesus are restricted to Jews, with Paul of Tarsus being an apostate who would have betrayed this foundation by opening the religion to the Gentiles. Their discussions are situated in the debate between the orthodoxy of Peter (accredited as the first pope) and Paul of Tarsus, the first great articulator of Christianity under the Roman Empire, responsible for the establishment of the 'seven primitive churches'.
Arianism was an early Gnostic/Christian current that denied the Holy Trinity, understanding Father, Son and Holy Spirit as separate and independent beings. For the Arians, “The Christ” was a created being of less substance than the Creator God, eternal and uncreated, which would prevent the two from being the same entity.
Islam also collaborated in the emergence of a 'Gnostic tradition'. Sufism, an Islamic tradition of mysteries and asceticism, would repudiate the Mohammedan orthodoxy, developing its own practices in search of the divine and the truth. Persecuted, many Sufi leaders presented a vision of introspective religiosity, which takes place in the practitioner's internal world more than in the external one, in a particular search for the divine.
Rumi was perhaps one of the most popular among the Sufis. His poetry, dealing with affections, emotional spectrum, daily life, etc., and created a very particular way of seeking Allah in all things, from the most insignificant to the most terribly intangible.
One of the main translations for the term Sufi is pure or purity, which somehow connects in sense with a late Christian Gnostic tradition, the Cathars.
With the institutionalization of Christianity through councils among church leaders, “Gnosticism” also became a term for the unreconciled currents in creating a universal church, which would bring together all currents and traditions of Christianity. Over time, it was replaced by the term "heresy" in defining these rebel currents.
Until the success of the Protestant Reformation, all Christian currents that broke away from the chair of Rome were gradually called heretics, except for the Orthodox patriarchies of the East. African and Levantine versions of Orthodox Christianity were also gradually constrained and limited by the advance of Islam, which would eventually become hegemonic in North Africa and the Middle East.
After the Protestant Reformation, Protestant currents themselves were determined to be heretics by the Catholic Church, and many Catholic practices were understood as "heresies" by Protestants. Witches and Sorceresses were considered heretics by both, and there were lineages that came to bear this term with great pride (such as heretical witchcraft, Stregheria, among other practices).
Around 1600, philosopher Jacob Böhme wrote the book The Three Principles, which was published nearly a hundred years later, after his death.
In this book, Böhme describes how Good and Evil unfold in Time, and argues that this would be the necessary trinity for the Universe to exist. God would be the union of Good and Evil, in the form of the Whole, and when trying to manifest himself, he would always end up generating these two qualities in a third domain, the Universe, governed by Time.
The concept of sin, for Böhme, would be someone sticking to the material world, interpreting the scriptures literally and focusing only on what is tangible. True salvation would be achieved by delving into the scriptures and understanding the metaphysical meaning behind them, using the Bible as a set of metaphors to explain the Cosmos.
Ways to Achieve Gnosis
There are many ways to reach gnosis, and there are also many descriptions of what this mental state of communion with the All would be like. It would be a state of “freedom from the shackles of the material world” so that subtle information can be obtained. This freedom can be momentary (in rituals or magic practices) or perennial (as some gnostic sects tried to achieve).
Just for cataloging purposes, it would be possible to divide gnosis methods into two large groups: excitatory, when there is excitation of one or more senses, achieved through energetic activities; or inhibitory, when there is inhibition of one or more senses through calm and reflexive activities.
There may also be methods that combine excitement with inhibition, such as a yoga practice with quick movements followed by meditation in a Shavasana position. In any case, each person must discover the methods best suited for their magical purposes.
Self-Penance and Deprivation
Self-penance and deprivation are used extensively in the more conservative currents of the Church, and include both the deprivation of something (such as food or sexual intercourse) and active punishment (such as the cilice belt in the thigh or back whipping). Fasting is also a method of deprivation, and in theory, we understand that the body can learn to let go of desire and then connect more easily to the higher and immaterial planes.
The psychotropics, entheogens, and chemognosis methods are used by several native peoples, and require in-depth study so that they are directed to the correct purpose. It is usually required to accompany experienced people who know the secrets of that method.
From the as yet unknown psychotropic drugs contained in the Kykeon used in Eleusis, Greece, to the Peyote ritual described by Castañeda in Mexico, throughout human history examples of chemognosis are known to bring magnificent information about the spiritual realms.
In Brazil, Rape, Sananga, and Ayahuasca are some of the methods used, but there are several other methods using mushrooms, lysergic spores, opium, cannabis, coca leaves, among others distributed all over the world.
Crowley even carried out experiments with some of these methods and noted in his diaries the different physical effects perceived regarding alcohol, ether, hashish, cocaine, opium, morphine, and heroin.
Meditation is the best known method of gnosis, and according to Buddhism, it is the process of achieving detachment.
In meditation, we renounce the complex outer world to reach the serene inner world. This method can be performed standing or walking, with eyes open or closed, with external sounds, chanting mantras or in silence, sitting or lying down, with or without the aid of drums and music.
Again, each person will be able to test the various methods available and find which ones best fit their personal practice.
Uses of Gnosis
There are those who prefer to use specific methods of Gnosis to perform rituals with specific objectives. More active methods can facilitate rituals for disruptive purposes, while more reflective methods can facilitate maintenance-focused rituals, and we can use active methods followed by meditation for both types of ritual.
However, each person must discover their preferred methods and their most advantageous use, and Gnosis achieved by any means can be used for various purposes.
In Gnosis, it is possible to perform astral projections more easily, as well as visualization, oracles, intuition, telepathy, activation and loading of sigils and servers, simple apprehension of knowledge or reflection on concepts.
So, let’s dive into the unconscious and allow the information contained in this layer of the psyche to be better analyzed and directed, as well as the intention to perform some magical intent.
Then, we can have access to the machinery of the world, and learn how to operate it from the inside, changing our manifest reality.
Written together with: Allan Koschdoski and Ghaio Nicodemos.